James was seconding a motion from Nautilus highlighting the dangers of deregulation and staff shortages in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which regulates the shipping industry.
The MCA’s director of maritime safety and standards said earlier this year that current pay rates are about 30-50% lower than the UK market rate for people with the necessary maritime skills and experience. A recruitment campaign only produced enough successful candidates to replace the turnover.
The situation is being made worse by new employment contracts for surveyors that will reduce overtime rates and out-of-hours payments.
Although existing arrangements will be protected until June 2015 and MCA is trying to improve surveyors’ pay, there is little indication that the Treasury is prepared to provide the necessary funding.
“If there is no long-term resolution to pay, and in particular, out-of-hours payments, the MCA may well find itself unable to discharge its responsibilities under European Union directives to inspect ‘at risk’ vessels.
“This could result in large fines being levied against the UK government by the EU,” Tom added.
Nautilus reminded delegates of the 1987 Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in which 190 passengers and crew lost their lives.
The disaster resulted in a lengthy inquiry and sweeping changes to the way in which roll-on, roll-off ferries are designed, built and operated.
But the MCA has just consulted on plans to abolish four regulations introduced in response to the Herald inquiry – including a requirement for lockers containing emergency escape equipment to be installed on the decks of ships.
“Britannia rules the waves? Not these days. It’s more a case of Britannia waives the rules,” said Mike Jess.
Jess said the MCA was facing a double whammy of budget cutbacks and political pressure to bend to the demands of shipowners. The agency itself is expressing concerns about its ability to uphold standards.
An internal MCA paper revealed that the agency’s problem in recruiting and retaining skilled maritime professionals means that it will soon lack the capabilities to properly enforce standards on domestic ships and to fulfill European ship inspection requirements.
Within five to 10 years, the UK will have lost the capability to support a fleet of internationally trading ships.
“What an awful admission from an island nation that still relies on ships and seafarers for more than 95% of its international trade,” Jess said.
“Even worse are the agency’s attempts to do away with what it terms ‘gold-plated’ regulatory requirements for British ships and to take us down to international minimum levels.
“The world doesn’t need another shoddy, shady flag of convenience – there are too many of them already. We need a ship register that continues to uphold the long and proud traditions of the red ensign – a quality flag that is determined to attract operators who do want to run their ships to the highest possible standards.
“The sea is a dangerous place and deserves the utmost respect. High safety standards for ships and seafarers shouldn’t be seen as red tape, but as a vital safety net that must be maintained,” Jess concluded.
Delegates backed the motion which:
- reaffirmed the TUC’s opposition to the spending cuts imposed on the MCA
- called for TUC support for unions resisting attempts to delegate further MCA work to outside bodies and the agency’s declared strategy of moving to minimum international standards.