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Government should invest in maritime tech, cleaner fuels and workforce, Transport Committee says

20 March 2023

The Transport Committee publishes a report on the Government’s Maritime 2050 strategy, and calls for investment in new technology, cleaner fuels and workforce training so that the UK’s sector can compete with the world.

This sometimes-overlooked “Cinderella” sector is vital to the UK economy. Approximately 95 per cent of goods by weight come to the UK by ship, and the Department for Business and Trade predicts maritime cargo volumes will triple by 2050. The UK’s sector employs 185,000 people throughout the four nations and contributes £40 billion a year to the economy. 

The cross-party Committee’s new report critiques the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Maritime 2050 strategy, published in 2019. It was praised at the time for taking a decades-long view, which is critical when vessels and infrastructure vary between countries and are built with lifespans of 30 years. However, the strategy has since been criticised for lacking distinction between aspirations and actions to be taken. The Committee makes a number of recommendations on how to help both the sector and ministers achieve the strategy’s aims.

Chair's comments 

Transport Committee Chair Iain Stewart said:

“All the evidence we received about the UK’s maritime sector has shown it is resilient, entrepreneurial, and used to working independently from government. Nonetheless, there is an array of things government should do to support the sector and help it achieve its ambitions to decarbonise and remain a positive force on the world stage and for the UK economy. We commend the Government for being forward thinking in developing the Maritime 2050 strategy, but clarity and focus are needed to refine its muddle of 184 recommendations.  

The sector will need sustained support to overcome the challenge of radically cutting carbon emissions. We urge ministers to bring forward the promised Clean Maritime Plan, which will give industry the certainty it needs to invest in technology, new vessels, infrastructure and low-carbon shore power. Without it, we will fall behind other countries and miss our net zero targets. 

People make the maritime sector. Many will be supportive of the Government’s plans to enforce the UK minimum wage equivalent for seafarers who frequently work here, albeit on ships registered abroad, but this will not be sufficient to ensure proper treatment of seafarers. We urge the Government to bring forward its promised welfare charter as soon as possible and make it mandatory for UK operators. 

And while enforcing fairer wages should help repair the sector’s reputation after the shocking practices seen by P&O Ferries, we heard a lot needs to be done to raise the sector’s profile as a career option among young people, women and those from diverse backgrounds. More attention should also be paid to a problem seen in many sectors – skilling up older workers who may otherwise be left behind by the pace of technological changes. Autonomous vessels, for example, also require new regulation to clarify the skills that are needed.”

The National Oceanography Centre’s Associate Director of NOC Innovations comments

The National Oceanography Centre’s (NOC) Associate Director of NOC Innovations, Huw Gullick, said: 

“The UK, and the Solent region in particular, is a world leader in maritime autonomy. The sector has benefited in the past from an absence of regulation in testing and scaling up new technologies. But to now take the industry forward, we need the regulation to catch up and the Committee is right to push the government on this. We have the right technology, and scale can only now be achieved with the regulation that supports this fast-moving sector. The UK can harness first mover advantage to drive autonomy to the next exciting stage in the ocean space.” 

Decarbonise the maritime sector 

The Government aspires for the UK to become a world leader in zero emission shipping, and to revitalise ports and coastal communities by investing in technology, in turn making the UK more competitive. But industry sees the Government’s net zero emissions target as its biggest challenge. 

DfT has said it is working on a follow up to its 2019 Clean Maritime Plan, with aspirations that by 2025 all new vessels ordered for use in UK waters will have zero-emission propulsion capability, and that the UK will be in the process of building clean maritime clusters. These will be focused on innovation and infrastructure associated with zero emission propulsion technologies. 

The Government itself recognised in its first Clean Maritime Plan that "the market may benefit from further policy certainty." The Committee therefore calls on DfT to bring forward the refreshed Clean Maritime Plan without further delay. 

The Committee also argues for long term investments in scaling up mature technologies that will help the sector reach net zero, as R&D funding can only take innovation so far. 

State investment is needed – over and above the match funding ministers promised in February 2023 – to bolster shoreside electrical power supplies, ‘shore power’. Ports themselves are commercial entities that are often unable to take on risks of high capital costs. 

Invest in people

Experts told the Committee of an ageing workforce that struggles to recruit and retain younger workers or those from diverse backgrounds. Less than 4% of seafarers are women. 

The rate of technological change has created a necessity for older workers to learn new skills. Martyn Gray of Nautilus International said: "Innovation and education have to move at the same pace, otherwise the whole sector will fall down." 

The report says DfT should review training funding in the maritime sector to establish if there are barriers to access and how the system can be improved. This should include an assessment of the potential costs and benefits of providing fully funded training places for both officers and ratings to attract new workers. 

The Committee also heard of a lack of education about careers in the sector, and misconceptions that the majority of roles would entail working at sea. 

The Committee welcomes the Seafarers’ Wages Bill but considers it alone will not be sufficient to ensure proper treatment of seafarers. The Government must bring forward its promised Seafarers’ Welfare Charter as soon as possible, and make it mandatory for UK operators. 

Enable ‘smart shipping’ 

Autonomous ships that use sensors to help them navigate or to assist crew are widely seen as the cargo vehicles of the future. This ‘smart shipping’ would allow a vessel to sail more efficiently, thereby reducing costs and boosting competitiveness. 

The Committee was told by the National Oceanography Centre that challenges with recruitment have resulted from a "lack of defined quality standards [regulation] for autonomy”, which has led to “a lack of easily identifiable and transferable skills". 

The 2022 Queen's Speech stated that the Government would "introduce new laws that safely enable […] remotely operated vehicles and vessels." The Committee was then informed in December that new legislation had been shelved. The necessary reforms must be legislated for at the earliest opportunity so that a major commercial opportunity for UK innovators – at the forefront to date – is not lost. 

DfT should publish the outcome of its consultation on maritime autonomy and remote operations as soon as possible so the sector has a clear understanding of the regulatory framework it will be operating within. DfT should also establish the promised Centre for Smart Shipping as soon as possible, empowering it to work with the sector to enable innovation to prosper. 

Ports shouldn’t be ‘Swiss army knife’

Following the outcry over P&O Ferries’ sacking of nearly 800 seafarers in March 2022, the Government announced plans to enforce the UK national minimum wage equivalent for all workers on ships that use UK ports 120 times a year or more. 

The Seafarers Wages Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, would place the burden of enforcing this on individual harbours and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. For the ports sector to be effective and competitive it is important that the Government department and agencies they work with have a good understanding of their role and competencies. 

DfT should clarify across government the role of ports authorities and protect them from inappropriate enforcement burdens. Ports authorities cannot be used as the Government's 'Swiss army knife' to undertake an ever greater variety of tasks without appropriate resourcing and expertise. 

Strategy is too ‘muddled’

Witnesses told the Committee that the Maritime 2050 strategy contains so many recommendations that it appears to lack clear priorities and focus. More distinction is needed between which of its 184 recommendations are specific actions and which are aspirations. 

DfT should have dialogue with industry to streamline and prioritise the strategy’s recommendations, and set out targets for each, so that it becomes a more useful tool for tracking progress and accountability. 

Grow the ship register

The Government should set concrete targets for how it will grow the UK Ship Register, after it shrank by a third between 2009 and 2021. It is currently the 24th largest in the world, measured by tonnage.

Having more ships registered with the UK makes the country more influential in terms of setting standards for safety and workers’ welfare. 

The Committee praises the Government for creating the UK Shipping Concierge Service in 2021, which provides bespoke financial guidance and support for firms wishing to register in the UK. 

Level up coastal areas 

Coastal towns and cities could be levelled up if the Government continues to develop new ‘regional maritime clusters’, which are concentrations of firms and institutions around ports. The purpose of clusters is to “maintain and enhance the attractiveness of the UK's regional maritime offer”.  

The Committee argues that coastal shipping and inland waterways were overlooked in Maritime 2050, and should be supported by a review of the funding streams available to promote modal shift. This part of the sector should also be seen as an area of growth for domestic seafaring jobs.

Further information

Image: Unsplash-David-Knox