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Full Steam Ahead? - But for the long haul

6 min read

The Shadow Shipping Minister marks London International Shipping Week, especially the 145,000 people employed in the sector and the £5.6 billion it contributes to UK GDP.  

As Shadow Shipping Minister I and my colleagues in the Labour Party are delighted to welcome and support this week’s celebrations of London International Shipping Week. This initiative draws attention to an absolutely crucial aspect of our trade and economic activities, in a realm in which Britain truly leads the world. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on the contribution made by all those who reinforce our historic reputation as a great maritime trading nation, working in freight and in commercial travel, on shore and at sea. But we also need to ask; how do we build the sort of 21st century industry that will capitalise on that history and enable us to compete with as well as reap the rewards of trade from today’s new emerging maritime and economic superpowers?

British maritime businesses ship over 500 million tonnes of freight per year, employ 145,000 people, and contribute £5.6 billion to UK GDP and £581 million in taxes to the Exchequer. As BBC journalist Rose George’s recent book emphasises, up to 90% of the goods we all consume have reached us over water - which is why the work of our merchant ships and Navy were so critical to the UK’s survival in two world wars.

The Government has tied in this year’s Shipping Week with the final results of the Maritime Growth Study which Ministers commissioned, led by Lord Mountevans. The working party for the study has come up with a raft of proposals on how to strengthen leadership both from industry and Government to create a strong, skilled fleet and promote this to the rest of the world. There is much to welcome in the Growth Study, especially its focus on a long-term strategic approach. But it is now essential to collate the expertise and energies of everyone who works in our shipping world behind these initiatives.

I wrote to the Chair of the Maritime Growth Study earlier this year to express some concerns about expanding the makeup of the Board undertaking the review. Where was the representation for the trade unionists and other employees whose members are the captains, engineers and service staff who drive our shipping fleets? Why were there no women from the maritime sector on that Board, who could bring a personal perspective to widening the contribution women can make in shipping? And where was the direct link with the colleges who work with the industry training and equipping young people for the seafarers’ jobs of tomorrow? Carrying forward the Growth Study needs a much more permanent involvement with these groups to build on the stakeholder workshops the study did carry out with them.

As a previous Shadow Skills Minister I welcome the Study’s recognition of how critical they are to future success. The SMaRT direct funding that Government provides for training to shipping firms is relatively modest - £15m - but will be valuable in improving both skills and productivity. But it was cut significantly after 2010 and has only now been returned to its level under the last Labour government. Another great success of the pre-2010 Labour Government was John Prescott’s ‘Tonnage’ tax break for maritime training, but the monitoring of this has been patchy and coverage now extends to only 50% of seafarers. Government-backed Apprenticeship numbers are disappointingly low so it is crucial that their new Trailblazer Apprenticeships programme both simplifies and prioritises apprentices’ important role in the maritime area.

Last year I brought together a broad range of stakeholders in roundtable discussions including port, shipping, union, training college and board representatives plus colleagues from other shadow teams. The feedback gained from these discussions underlined the need to, for example, improve quality and transferability in training, especially for ratings, and to take advantage of the new short-sea, coastal and off-shore opportunities for work, particularly in renewables. Excellent colleges like Fleetwood Nautical College on my constituency doorstep do exactly that, as I have seen personally, training maritime students from across the world, including the booming market in South East Asia. Yet as the Transport Select Committee highlighted with their 2014 report on maritime strategy, here in the UK we are facing a skills gap of 5,000 fewer deck and engineering officers than needed by 2020, and Government has been slow to respond to this.

If the UK is to carry through the suggested changes in the Growth Study Report, including a vigorous attempt to market our maritime offer internationally, it requires not micro-management but powerful co-ordination and encouragement from Government to ensure common endeavour involves everyone in the industry and works at all levels, not just top-down. Skills are an essential element in that process but expanding and utilising skills has to be combined with a productivity and infrastructure step-change and it is crucial that these are all linked.

We’ve seen big new developments in the last two years like the £1.5 billion London Gateway port, the deepening of freight berths at Southampton to rank with the best in the world and a £300m container terminal at the Port of Liverpool. But as James Cooper, Associated British Ports Chief Executive, said this week, one of Government’s main priorities must be to ‘deliver a long-term commitment to investing in road and rail links to ports, fully recognising their vital strategic importance.’

As I have said for some time, both Ministers and the range of Local Enterprise Partnerships in those areas who are now getting increasing sums of money devolved from central Government, must play their part in funding this and generating the jobs and opportunities for local people that come in its wake. That should be top of the agenda at the Ministerial Working Group on Maritime Growth that the Transport Secretary has pledged to chair by the end of 2015.

And there is one more thing that needs to be done. The recommendations of the Maritime Growth Study and the support needed from Government for it are, to turn an apposite phrase, the sprat to catch a mackerel, for both the industry’s and the country’s success. They must not be undermined by Treasury cuts in George Osborne’s Spending Review. We do not want a toothless Maritime Powerhouse any more than a toothless Northern one.

Gordon Marsden is Shadow Shipping Minister and MP for Blackpool South

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