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Maritime Apprenticeships

Volume 574: debated on Friday 24 January 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to have secured this debate, which I asked for after Dan Henderson, a constituent and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers local representative at Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, visited one of my constituency surgeries. He highlighted CalMac’s positive work in my constituency, such as the apprenticeship scheme that it is now running after two years of very hard work by the RMT, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Scottish Union Learning, Skills Development Scotland, the Maritime Skills Alliance and CalMac. I am a member of the RMT parliamentary group, which is perhaps partly why Dan Henderson came to my surgery. I thank the RMT, particularly Dan Crimes at its head office, for the briefing it has provided for this debate.

The work of unions such as the RMT with CalMac resulted in CalMac successfully offering 10 apprenticeships, including to two of my constituents who are aspiring seafarers. The 10 places were hugely oversubscribed, with over 1,000 applications received, testifying to the high level of interest in these opportunities, particularly among young unemployed people in Scotland. This exposes the myth that is often peddled in the shipping industry that no one in the UK wishes to go to sea as a rating any more.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. She is drawing attention to an extremely good example of how co-operation between employers and trade union representatives can achieve these goals.

Yes, we should pay tribute to all who were involved in the process.

CalMac must be congratulated on leading the way in taking on the 10 trainee ratings. I hope that this is the first of many new intakes into the industry in Scotland. The 10 apprenticeships started with a course at South Tyneside college last October. CalMac has committed itself to training 10 ratings through the Scottish apprenticeship route in the year to 2015-16 and to recruiting 45 officer cadets during the same period. CalMac has invested over £7 million in seafarers’ training in the six years to 2012-13, and that must bode well for it when the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service contract is re-tendered, which we expect to happen in 2016. The Scottish Government claim that EU law obliges them to re-tender these lifeline ferry services. That is of particular concern in my constituency, where we have five harbours with ferry services—Ardrossan, Brodick, Lochranza, Largs and Cumbrae—and where CalMac operates lifeline passenger and freight ferry services for island communities to and from the mainland.

One of the problems that CalMac and other companies have had is that none of the six Scottish colleges named as partners in the modern apprenticeship framework was able to offer maritime occupations training in Scotland. Indeed, they were unable to offer anything, despite being named by the Scottish Government as the appropriate providers. Therefore, South Tyneside college, which is not a named provider, is offering training for the apprenticeships, which are designed and accredited in Scotland. Even after extensive representations about this issue, the only colleges that the Scottish Government say can give accreditation are Orkney and Shetland. Anyone who knows the part of the world that I represent will appreciate that those colleges are a very long way from my constituency and, indeed, a very long way from where a lot of people in Scotland live.

The UK Government could usefully engage with the Scottish Government over this. The Maritime Skills Alliance, although it sets the standards, is not formally recognised as the sector skills council for the maritime industry in Scotland. The recommendation of the Richard review commissioned by the UK Government was to abolish the frameworks for apprenticeships in individual industries, and it is believed that this is causing problems regarding the adoption of a collaborative approach between the two Administrations. I ask the Minister to try to see how to improve the relationship with the Scottish Government to ensure that we achieve results.

The public sector is clearly leading the way in training the next generation of seafarers, because CalMac is a public service company, while the private sector has a sorry tale to tell. However, these public sector apprenticeships in Scotland took far too long to achieve—and of course, if I may say so, they are a drop in the ocean. They will not make the contribution to recruiting the next generation of seafarers to the industry that is needed if we are to avoid witnessing the catastrophic collapse of the UK maritime skills base that was forecast in the SMarT—support for maritime training—review of 2011.

Delay and difficulty have been features of obtaining any maritime apprenticeships in England. The number of maritime ratings apprenticeships being taken up throughout the UK is extremely low. The Merchant Navy Training Board estimates that a maximum of 12 deck and nine engineering apprentices would enter the industry each year as a result of new apprenticeships. It estimates that in 2012-13 there were about 20 ratings apprentices and no officer apprentices, which is extremely disappointing, given that the apprenticeships were launched in Parliament in June 2011. The total number of trainee ratings for the whole of the UK is believed to be about 30, although such data are not collected by the Government.

To put those figures in context, in 2012-13 there were 25,700 apprentices in Scotland and nearly 860,000 in England. One step the Government could easily take is to start including the number of trainee ratings in the annual seafarer statistics produced by the Department for Transport at the end of January.

The seafarer statistics show that in 2012 there were 2,160 officer cadets, which is significantly less than the estimated 3,900—or 1,300 per year—that are needed. The RMT and Nautilus unions are united in their concern about the future of maritime skills, the falling number of UK ratings and officers, and the ageing demographic of seafarers.

The most significant development in UK shipping in recent years was, of course, the previous Labour Government’s introduction of tonnage tax, which led to a significant increase in the number of UK-registered ships. Yet, despite that growth in the number of ships and, indeed, jobs, as well as the mandatory requirement to provide training for officer cadets, there has been a decline in UK seafarer numbers and the position of ratings is particularly desperate. The number of jobs on qualifying ships nearly doubled, but only a couple of hundred of those jobs went to UK ratings.

The main reason for that, of course, is the exclusion of seafarers from employment and equality laws and, in particular, the application of minimum wage legislation. Stena Line—the biggest employer of UK seafarers—is systematically undercut by low-cost operators in the Irish sea who crew their vessels as cheaply as possible by using loopholes in UK law to recruit Estonians and other non-UK seafarers, paying them below the minimum wage.

Stena is abiding by the minimum wage legislation, and in a recent meeting with the RMT and Nautilus it cited that as a cause of its higher crewing costs. It is now threatening to adopt the crewing practices of its low-cost competitors. Essentially, the Government need to apply their own guidance on paying the minimum wage to seafarers or face a catastrophic further loss of UK seafarer jobs and further damage to the UK maritime skills base.

To illustrate the problem, Irish Ferries operates passenger services that pay seafarers wages as low as $4 per hour. Crews live on ships for the entirety of the four-month contract, with no shore leave. The routes are from Dublin to Holyhead and Rosslare to Pembroke, and the crews are largely Estonian. Sea Truck operates freight services and also pays below the minimum wage at a rate of $6.06 per hour. P&O ferries, which operates near the area I represent, provides services from Larne to Cairnryan, Larne to Troon and Dublin to Liverpool, and they also pay $6.06 per hour in crewing costs. It is vital that the Minister works with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that the problem is addressed as a matter of urgency.

To return to apprenticeships, I understand that BIS met the Maritime Skills Alliance earlier this year about the apprenticeship trailblazer opportunity, which will supersede all existing apprenticeships in England, and I understand that there were discussions about apprenticeships for ratings. Will the Minister update the House on his Department’s role in those discussions?

UK Government policy is to increase the number of UK seafarers through maritime apprenticeships. At present, as I have shown, such apprenticeships are practically non-existent. How does the Minister intend to address that? Will he outline the resources and funding that the Government are providing to address such challenges, as the response from the private sector has so far been pitiful? The apprenticeships with CalMac, which I have mentioned, very much came from the public sector.

What is the Minister doing to address the unfair competition, which I have outlined, that CalMac, Stena and others that employ UK seafarers—paying them the minimum wage or above—face from those that undercut pay and conditions and pay less than the minimum wage? What is he doing to address the legal loophole that enables that to happen?

The issues that I have raised present challenges for not just the UK Government, but the Scottish Government, the devolved Administrations and the Irish Government. What discussions are taking place with them about the issues, and if none are taking place, will the UK Government now start to discuss the issues that affect us all?

Finally, these matters affect many hon. Members’ constituencies in which seafarers were traditionally employed. Will the Minister meet me and any other interested Members to discuss what more can be done to address the significant challenges we face in providing the next generation of UK seafarers with a clear, affordable and supported route into the maritime industry?

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this important debate, which gives us a useful opportunity to discuss the issues. I was pleased to hear her examples of how unions and employers are working together in the common interest.

I should draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare an interest as a shipowner. I hasten to add that we only ever employ British crew members on the MV Coronia.

As an island nation, we have a long maritime tradition—from our Royal Navy and our historic maritime universities to the many museums that record our maritime history—but shipping is not just part of our past; it is a vibrant and dynamic part of our present and our future. It is worth up to £14 billion a year to our economy, and it is steadily growing, despite increasing competition from abroad. The maritime sector provides employment for about 250,000 people; 95% of goods by volume entering and leaving this country are handled by our ports; and London remains the largest maritime centre for professional, business and financial services in the world. The maritime industry is vital to many areas of the UK, not least Scotland, as the hon. Lady is well aware, and my own county of Yorkshire—indeed, shipbuilding still happens in Whitby, the home of Captain Cook, in my constituency—both of which have contributed to the success of our shipping industry. In fact, gross tonnage has more than trebled on the UK shipping register in the past decade.

If the sector is to carry on thriving and to build on its position as a global maritime leader, it needs to attract a new generation of seafarers. Historically, there has been a decline in the number of UK seafarers, as the hon. Lady said, so the Government have made it a priority to train seafarers to the highest standards to help reverse that decline. Maritime training is of particular importance to the Government. There will be a substantive item about it at the next ministerial maritime round table on 31 March 2014.

We are committed to support for the maritime training programme to attract talented and skilled individuals into the industry. The scheme, which has a budget of more than £15 million a year, played a key role in doubling officer numbers between 1998 and 2011. We work closely with the Merchant Navy Training Board, the Maritime Training Trust, the Maritime Educational Foundation and other maritime bodies. We are currently working with the Merchant Navy Training Board to consider how maritime apprenticeships and the support for maritime training programme are aligned.

We are equally committed to the UK’s tonnage tax regime, which requires each shipping company to recruit and train one officer trainee each year for every 15 officer posts in its fleet. That was the first scheme to build in a training commitment, and to pump fresh blood into the sector each year. In addition, employers must consider employment and training opportunities for ratings.

In an excellent example of industry in the round working together, the UK Chamber of Shipping, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and Nautilus International put forward a proposal earlier this week that would allow ratings to be included formally in the training option as part of meeting the tonnage tax minimum training obligation. That proposal is currently being given serious consideration by Ministers. Tonnage tax has been particularly successful in creating a competitive environment for shipping in the UK and bringing new investment to this country. It recognises the industry’s need for certainty on taxation to help businesses plan for the future.

We also support apprenticeships and are training a new generation of ambitious people to become the skilled and dedicated seafarers and professionals of the future. To boost further seafarer numbers, we have extended the availability of apprenticeships for maritime occupations. Apprenticeships are an excellent entry point for young people interested in a maritime career, giving them the chance to develop and practise their skills by working alongside experienced mariners. They also provide the opportunity to gain valuable qualifications to set youngsters up for their future career.

In my constituency, the Whitby fishing school offers a range of innovative training courses, including an apprenticeship programme for the next generation of fishermen and women. I am pleased that apprenticeships are once again becoming an integral part of the maritime training offer.

In England, maritime apprenticeships are available at intermediate and advanced levels. They cover a range of specialisations within the sector, including engineers, deck hands, and officers of the watch in the Merchant Navy. Launched in 2012, the new apprenticeship framework was developed for the sector by the Maritime Skills Alliance and issued by Skills for Logistics. In its first year, it resulted in 30 new apprenticeships for ratings, and that figure is set to grow steadily over the next few years, helping to address some of the current skills shortages in the sector. Similar apprenticeships are available in Scotland and Wales.

I understand that there has been a specific issue with the maritime apprenticeship programme in Scotland, where there were difficulties matching apprenticeships to training providers. Eventually, as we have heard, alternative provisions had to be found on Tyneside. Skills responsibilities, including apprenticeships, are devolved to Scotland, and do not fall under the remit of the Departments for Transport or for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, I have made some inquiries and understand that the sector is working hard north of the border to resolve any issues so that the problem does not arise again.

In England, developing a framework that met the rigorous requirements of our apprenticeship legislation was quite a challenge and we had to work hard with the sector to ensure that the framework complied with the specialised nature of maritime regulations, employment and training. Legislation requires that apprentices are employed, but many trainees in the maritime sector are treated differently from other apprentices. For example, rather than being employees, share fishermen take a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the catch.

Under the requirements of the convention on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping for seafarers, trainee maritime cadets must be counted as supernumerary and therefore cannot be employed. Nevertheless, apprenticeship legislation allows exceptions to that employment requirement in specific circumstances, which are called alternative completion conditions. Those conditions are set out in secondary legislation and any additions must be debated in both Houses. Exceptions are allowed only after thorough consideration. Officials worked closely with the maritime sector to ensure that specific jobs were able to benefit from that exception.

The first set of alternative completion condition regulations came into force in May 2012 and included occupations within the sea fishing industry. The regulations were amended following a second round of debates last July to include apprenticeships within the Merchant Navy. A robust case for inclusion was made, and it was agreed unanimously for both levels. However, the need for regulations meant there was a delay between the publication of the framework and Merchant Navy apprentices being able to register and begin their training.

We have also been working to make sure that training meets the needs of maritime employers. The entrepreneur Doug Richard conducted a review of the entire apprenticeship system in England in 2013. He found that current apprenticeships do not always meet employer needs or expectations. As a result, we are changing the way that schemes are developed, assessed and funded. In future, employers will have a bigger role in developing and assessing new apprenticeship standards, which means that the industry will have greater scope to develop programmes that meet its specific needs.

The hon. Lady mentioned offshore employees and the specific issue facing CalMac, Stena and others when employers undercut pay and conditions. Of course, the primary problem to which attention has been drawn is the national minimum wage legislation. Although employees can bring an employment tribunal-type case, seafarers may fear dismissal in those cases. I know that the unions involved have written to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and copied the letter to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who has responsibility for shipping. We all await the response to that letter with interest.

In conclusion, one of the key strengths of UK shipping is its people. If we want to maintain our position as a global maritime leader, we need to recruit a new generation of people who can take the industry forward. Today’s apprentices are tomorrow’s leaders. That is why we are so committed to maritime training and to making high-quality apprenticeships available in a wide range of skilled jobs. That is why we will continue to work with the industry to increase the number of youngsters choosing a shipping career.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.