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UK maritime sector needs training, technology and new fuels, says Transport Committee

UK Parliament Transport Committee Chair Iain Stewart
The UK Maritime 2050 strategy is muddled and needs clearer focus, according to a report from the UK House of Commons Transport Committee.

The strategy was released in 2019 and looked ahead at priorities for the UK maritime sector, setting out 184 recommendations to support the industry’s development. Since its publication, the strategy has been criticised for being “too muddled” with not enough clarity as to which recommendations are aspirational and which are specific actions.

“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,” said the committee.

The review of the strategy comes as UK maritime cargo volumes are expected to triple by 2050; maritime trade is estimated to account for 95% of UK imports by volume.

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 report’s focus is on the need for investment in new technologies, new fuels, and better recruitment, training, and retention to strengthen the workforce.

Uptake of zero emissions technologies will require long-term investments beyond R&D funding, said the committee, to enable scaling up of mature technologies to reach net zero. The committee specifically said that state investment is needed to boost shore power supplies, over and above promised matched funding.

“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,” said Stewart.

The committee heard from experts within the industry that the workforce was ageing, and the sector struggled to recruit and retain young talent. For the existing workforce, technological change necessitates training to learn new skills. The report recommends that the Department for Transport (DfT) carry out a review of training funding, including assessing the costs and benefits of providing fully funded training places for officers and ratings.

Martyn Gray, executive officer at Nautilus International told the committee: "Innovation and education have to move at the same pace, otherwise the whole sector will fall down." 

Stewart said: “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 report also warns against treating ports as “swiss army knives”, as the proposed The Seafarers Wages Bill would make individual harbours responsible for enforcement of the bill, alongside the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

“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,” said the committee.

The full report from the Transport Committee is available on the UK Government website.