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Tyne Marine Office

Volume 624: debated on Monday 27 March 2017

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

South Shields has a proud maritime history, present, and, I hope, future. The shipping industry is a major employer in South Shields, its contribution to the industrial and social history of the region being well documented. As one seafarer commented to me, South Shields used to be the centre of the universe for the maritime industry.

The Tyne marine office was previously based at Compass House inside the port of Tyne. It provided seafarers and our local area with a range of vital services, including managing and issuing seafarers’ documentation, and conducting oral exams and eye tests. Our surveyors fulfilled the UK’s legal obligation to conduct port state control inspections of foreign-registered vessels working from our ports in the UK, as well as providing a public counter service for advice and complaints from ship owners, seafarers, and members of the public.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s consultation on the future of the Tyne office stated that it would close by September this year, yet it closed on 6 March, with the lease expiring just a week later—a move that was supported by the Government’s maritime growth study. I accept, of course, that some alternative provision has now been made at South Tyneside College for an initial period of five years, but the move has seen a depletion in crucial parts of the service. Not only was the office closed ahead of schedule, but what is in its place does not, quite frankly, fit the bill. The new office will not have on-site surveyors, nor a counter service. The 18 surveyors have been redeployed in the “flexible, customer-focused” way the Government believe to be an essential strand in their plans for maritime growth. The consultation proposed

“to put in place a remote, IT-enabled working regime to minimise any adverse impact. This would be based around our surveyors working remotely, from other suitable MCA or Government locations or from home.”

This is now in practice. However, can the Minister advise me on when the new IT system for remote working will begin to be used by MCA surveyors? It is important that ports and ship owners in the north-east, but also taxpayers, know how much the IT procurement exercise will cost, in order to balance it against the estimated £330,000 total annual savings that the MCA will make from the marine office closures.

The loss of the Tyne marine office has left a 350-mile stretch of UK coastline between Aberdeen and Bridlington with no physical base for MCA surveyors who are required to inspect and, if necessary, detain a diverse range of UK and internationally registered shipping. Its loss has increased the prospect of the private sector carrying out port state control work at ports where an MCA surveyor may not be available at short notice. This was recognised by some local RMT members in the north-east who made their feelings clear to the Government and to the MCA, stating that

“the closure of the Port of Tyne office and opening an office in Bridlington will open the North East coast to be exploited by shipping companies when inspectors are working from home and do not have a centre to coordinate their inspections and monitor shipping movements along the North East coast.”

In November 2013, a Panama-registered ship called the Donald Duckling was detained in the Tyne by MCA surveyors. This cargo vessel of over 46,000 tonnes was found to be unsafe and crewed by 18 Filipino seafarers who had run out of food. The vessel owners then abandoned the ship and the crew, who were stranded on the vessel, without pay and reliant on international freight transport and our brilliant South Shields Mission to Seafarers and assistance from our port of Tyne to survive. The crew had to wait nearly a year before receiving any pay or safe passage home. Moving MCA survey work away from a physical base may compromise response times when a substandard vessel of concern is in the north-east ports, even if only for a relatively short period.

The other change is the loss of counter service. Marine offices traditionally provide that service to cater for matters such as discharge books, training record books, seamen’s cards and other certification, including duplicates of lost certificates. As our marine office covered Berwick to Whitby, this is a loss not just for my constituents but for the whole north-east and parts of Yorkshire. Seafarers now have to travel to Hull or send their documents by post, all at increased cost and risk. Providing the service is an administrative task, and I am led to believe that the same number of administrative staff are to be retained at the college, so I am completely at a loss as to why the service has been removed, especially when the range of certification required to work at sea is extensive and subject to regular updates.

Just this January, the key convention on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping, which sets out basic requirements for all seafarers, was subject to changes, and the MCA is in the process of reforming its fee structure, including for the basic medical certificate, without which a seafarer cannot work at sea. Marine information notice 541, issued by the MCA earlier this month, states that the Hull marine office will offer a number of services previously provided in the Tyne marine office. The Hull office, which was under threat, is to remain open, but that does not take away the fact that the counter office for seafarers in South Shields and in the north-east will be 100 miles down the coast.

The number of seafarers at work or in training in the UK shipping industry is in long-term decline, with records showing that there has been a 60% decline in the number of merchant seafarers over the last 30 years. We are seeing a decline in offshore supply activity in the North sea following the collapse in oil prices, and there is a constant threat, especially for ratings, of being replaced by low-cost crew from overseas. In that context, I cannot see how the loss of the Tyne marine office will encourage my region to recover jobs and skills in this industry. The Government speak of wanting to recruit and train more British seafarers, but surely taking steps such as the closure of this office and the removal of the counter service will have exactly the opposite effect.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the planned merger between South Tyneside College and TyneMet in my borough. With our history of seamanship and engineering excellence, should we not be encouraging young men and women who seek a career at sea, rather than discouraging them?

It will come as no surprise that I agree completely with my right hon. Friend. In an era when our seafaring industry is declining, we should be doing everything we can to encourage growth, so I would like the Minister at least to commit today to restoring the counter service in South Shields.

The seafarer projections review published by the Department for Transport in January forecasts big increases in the demand for seafarers from the UK shipping industry over the next decade. If UK ratings and officers are to fill those jobs, the Government have to go beyond the maritime growth study to tackle the effect of the low-cost crewing model in constituencies such as mine. I understand from the maritime unions that the Government are taking encouraging steps on applying the national minimum wage for seafarers. We need significant reforms such as that, not the closure of marine offices, to revive our traditional seafaring communities.

I am pleased that South Tyneside College will retain responsibility for conducting seafarers’ oral exams, because the Tyne marine office conducted the highest number on the national network. Between 2009 and 2016, it carried out nearly 7,700 seafarer oral exams. The total number of UK seafarers working today is just over 23,000, so a significant number will have been through the marine office in my constituency. I sincerely hope that the Minister will be able to offer some assurances that that service will remain firmly in place in South Shields for the long term.

I am a little confused about why, in all those changes, the office has retained the ensign unit, which carries out services for the large or super-yacht sector. I think all my constituents will agree that South Shields is not an area awash with super-yachts. It is, however, awash with seafarers. Can the Minister explain the rationale for keeping that service but not the much-valued counter service that my constituents wanted us to retain?

It is short-sighted to cut the marine office network, particularly in traditional seafaring centres such as South Shields. Marine offices such as that on the Tyne should be seen as assets in an industrial strategy that strengthens the links between maritime communities and seafaring jobs and skills, particularly for women, who remain poorly represented in the seafarer workforce domestically and internationally. The loss of the Tyne office in my constituency will save the MCA only just over £100,000 per year. Its closure tells my constituents that the Government do not value seafarers in the north-east, and I fear that the long-term effects of these changes will far outweigh the short-term and short-sighted financial gain.

I will not detain the House for long, but I want to put on record the fact that I agree with every word that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) has just said. The UK maritime workforce continues to diminish, and important skills are being lost to the industry. We must never forget that we are a maritime nation. We seek to increase our trade significantly beyond the confines of the European Union, but we are reducing our protective infrastructure for looking after the interests of UK-based seafarers in a growing international market.

The offshore oil and gas industry along the North sea coast has been in the doldrums, and many ships and vessels are tied up in ports along the north-east. Yet we are losing our regulatory capacity to make sure that the people who work on those vessels are the right people and of the right nationality, and that they have the requisite skills and work permits to do so. I find it beyond belief that the Government are taking the measures that my hon. Friend has talked about in this important Adjournment debate. We need to reverse this retrograde step for an industry that needs the Government to act on its behalf rather than abandoning it.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this debate about the closure of the Tyne marine office. The second thing I should do is to offer a bit of an apology, because I am not the maritime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who has responsibility for maritime, is away on important Government business in China. It may well be that I cannot answer all the hon. Lady’s questions in my speech, but I undertake to go through the entire Hansard report of this debate and take the questions back to the Department to ensure that she receives the answers that she seeks. I wanted to clarify that before we went any further.

Before I talk specifically about the recent closure of the Tyne marine office, it might help the House if I set out some background to the decision. The House will recognise our people’s strong connection to the sea and our impressive maritime heritage. The British have always looked beyond our shores and built strong trade links with the rest of the world. Ships and the related maritime industries have historically been crucial to our economic wellbeing, and that remains as true now as it has ever been. We are an island nation, and the UK relies on shipping for 95% of its trade by volume. Maritime industry directly contributes at least £11 billion to the UK economy each year. Those maritime industries are expected to grow significantly in the next decade, and the public needs the assurance that commercial ships visiting our ports, whether or not they are actually registered in the United Kingdom, are operating safely.

I apologise to the initiator of the debate, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) that, although I rushed to get to the Chamber—I actually ran very fast—I was a wee bit late, for which I also apologise to the House. Does the Minister agree that the closure will undoubtedly compromise the ability of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency survey and inspection unit to carry out its duties and that, although it is difficult to quantify, the impact on local seafarers living and working in the area will certainly be adverse, to say the least?

I am not sure I can agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I will come on to discuss that very point later.

Operational safety matters for the sake of the seafarers on ships, and for protecting our cherished and highly prized marine environment. That is why we need a robust, strong and effective ship survey and inspection regime. Within my Department, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is responsible for providing the broad safety regime. In that effort, the agency and its staff are guided by its mission statement:

“Safer lives, safer ships, cleaner seas”.

The ship survey and inspection regime we have established must be capable of ensuring the safety of the shipping industry, while at the same time being supportive of the industry it serves and commercially attuned to what the industry needs. That view is shared by the industry itself, and it was highlighted in the “Maritime Growth Study” report published in September 2015. Lord Mountevans’s report set out a number of recommendations to support the growth of the whole maritime sector. The Government and the industry have been working tirelessly, in unison, since the report’s launch to put into effect its excellent recommendations.

For the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, we have implemented some of the recommendations by separating the UK ship register into a bespoke, commercially focused directorate. We have appointed Doug Barrow, formerly the chief executive of Maritime London, as the new director of the UK ship register. He has been supporting the MCA on a part-time basis since January, and will take up his appointment full-time on 10 April. Mr Barrow brings with him an expert and forensic understanding of the commercial needs of the shipping industry. The MCA’s leadership has also been bolstered by the appointment of its first non-executive chairman. Michael Parker, who will fill that role, brings with him over 40 years of experience and knowledge. He, too, will support the MCA’s greater commercial awareness and responsiveness, which is critical to what I will come on to talk about shortly.

Another transformational change for the agency, which is linked to balancing its role as a regulator with the need for greater commercial responsiveness—this recommendation was at the heart of the “Maritime Growth Study”—is the modernisation of our ship survey and inspection arrangements. Ship survey and inspection is at the heart of the Government’s responsibilities as both a flag state, running a shipping register, and as a port state, with many ships visiting UK ports and harbours daily. Both roles are about balancing safety and the protection of the environment with facilitating legitimate commercial activity and trade.

The safety of shipping, ports and the marine environment is dependent on effective and proportionate regulation, robust technical standards and the comprehensive oversight and inspection of national and international merchant shipping fleets. Effective survey and inspection is key to compliance, and it must be robust if it is to support the level of growth in the maritime sector envisaged by the “Maritime Growth Study”. Overseeing shipping and protecting the marine environment carries a degree of risk that needs to be properly managed. A failure in regulatory governance by those operating ships could—very sadly, as we all know, it sometimes does—result in serious accidents, with damaging consequences for those involved and for our environment.

The MCA carries out its ship survey and inspection regime for the UK through a frontline cadre of some 130 marine surveyors located around the UK. The marine surveyors are experienced seafarers, many of whom are master mariners, chief engineers or qualified naval architects. The frontline marine surveyors are supported by experienced and equally qualified colleagues working in policy, technical and in-house advisory positions, providing oversight and advice, and monitoring technical and professional standards.

Notwithstanding its strong global reputation for competence and its positive influence on worldwide safety standards, the MCA has struggled in recent years to meet its remit and its ability to discharge its statutory obligations for maritime safety. In part, that has been because it has proved difficult to attract qualified marine surveyors in what is a highly competitive marketplace. The marine surveyor cadre has been operating with some 30% vacancies, and has for the past few years found it very difficult to attract and retain high-quality staff.

Recognising the need for change, the agency carried out a comprehensive review of the way in which it delivers its ship survey and inspection obligations. By listening to the needs of customers and the industry, and by considering the Government’s estate strategy and optimising the potential benefits of technology, the MCA has identified a number of areas where improvements can be made. With the support of the trades unions, new terms and conditions have been agreed for the agency’s frontline marine surveyor workforce. The modernised terms are designed to improve availability, deployability and responsiveness to industry and wider demand, while at the same time retaining and attracting new talent to the workforce.

A key element to the new terms and conditions is the concept of remote working, which is made increasingly possible by modern technology. The hon. Lady asked about new IT systems, and I can tell her that they are already in place. Marine surveyors will no longer be required to work from one of the relatively few marine offices around the UK. They can instead work remotely anywhere, serving a much greater proportion of our customers in and around the UK’s ports.

I cannot do so, because I do not have that information with me, but I will find out and write to the hon. Lady.

The key is to build on remote working, which is made possible by modern technology, to provide a more customer-oriented service. With frontline marine surveyors based closer to their customers, the MCA can simply respond quickly to customer needs. That ability is a further direct response to an industry that increasingly needs support at all times of the day. The changes address particular industry concern and call for change. That is the background: a more customer focused and responsive sector driven by technology, and the needs of a sector that we wish to see grow.

That brings me to the specific issue of the closure of the Tyne marine office. As part of the overall package of change, the MCA consulted last year with the public and industry on the new proposed estate footprint. Following the consultation, the agency concluded that there should be nine marine offices across the UK. The proposal to close the Tyne marine office was confirmed. The Tyne marine office has played a key role in maritime safety, alongside others, in the north-east for many years. That point was made by the hon. Lady. It is without question. Its close relationship with local industry and with South Tyneside College has seen over 1,000 seafarers, both new and experienced, visit the marine office every year to sit their seafarer examinations.

Recognising that local need, I can inform the House that the same number of marine surveyors will continue to be located in the Tyne area to meet demand. The Tyne marine office has closed, but the MCA has opened a bespoke examination facility in the area to respond to the needs of the customers and industry. The new examination centre, which has MCA branding, is situated within South Tyneside College. As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, it opened on 13 March 2017. The MCA’s commercial large yacht unit, known as Ensign, will operate from the same examination centre. It might not be a venue for that many super yachts, but it is a venue for expertise within the MCA. That is why the unit was there in the first place. Remote working marine surveyors based in the Tyne area will be able to use the facility as a remote office when required.

The hon. Lady raised concerns about there no longer being a counter service on the Tyne. There is no longer a counter service, but I would highlight that the MCA still has in place service provisions to provide documents, such as discharge books and seamen’s cards, in line with other Government services. Applications for these documents can be made online or via the post. It is worth noting that over the past two years, there have been approximately two visits per week to the Tyne counter. That is in contrast to the 1,200 exams and over 100 port state control inspections per year. The provision of a counter service fails to take into account the direction of technology, the lack of demand and the need to consider providing services in a way required by customers.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. He is being very kind. I am aware of the figure of two people a week going to get papers and documentation, but does the Minister have figures for how many people came into the office for help, advice or discussions about future careers? That service mattered to my constituents and they would want it to be brought back.

I can pick up that point, along with some of the other points raised. The need to have a presence in the area is understood, with the link to, and the base at, South Tyneside College, which will deliver 1,200 oral exams and over 100 port state control inspections a year. It is important to emphasise that the MCA and its excellent marine surveyors have not in any way abandoned the north-east of England. They are still very much there. They are talking about the same number of people providing the same services. They will be supporting their local customers. What we are trying to do is deliver that service in a way that is more responsive to customer need. That is the feedback from industry. We need to make our service more attuned to its needs, so we no longer continue to see maritime decline. They are just working differently and from a different base at the South Tyneside College.

This was the first step in a national restructure intended to secure a robust survey and inspection regime that aims to deliver a more efficient service. It is a service that can meet the needs of customers and industry. It is a modernised service that will help to attract new ships to fly the flag and join the UK ship register. I can assure the House that our modernised ship survey and inspection arrangements will mean that we retain our place as one of the most respected maritime nations in the world.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.