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Raising the standard

Changes in the UK Ship Register

Michael Parker, Non-Executive Chairman of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, explains how the MCA is boosting the reputation of the Red Ensign

Two years ago, during the second biannual London International Shipping Week in September 2015, the UK government published the report of the Maritime Growth Study. The study was led by Lord Mountevans and was a masterpiece in collaborative working between industry and government. It was a wide-ranging study that examined all aspects of the marine and maritime sectors and made far-reaching recommendations for change.

Too often, studies, reviews and reports are greeted with a triumphant fanfare, only then to find themselves gathering dust on a metaphorical shelf somewhere. Not so with the Maritime Growth Study of 2015. Both government and industry leaders must be congratulated for taking its recommendations seriously and putting real drive and impetus into practical implementation.

A significant part of the study and its recommendations dealt with the changes the shipping industry wanted to see in the way the UK Ship Register was operated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). The UK flag (the Red Ensign) has a great history, but any organisation that has been in existence for 182 years needs to change from time to time, and the Maritime Growth Study was unequivocal in recommending that we had reached one of those moments.

It is to the great credit of the MCA that it was open to the idea of change and was so willing to relish the opportunities that change presented.

A challenge for the MCA

The Red Duster once signalled membership of the world’s greatest merchant fleet

The Red Duster once signalled membership of the world’s greatest merchant fleet. Photo: MCA

The MCA already appreciated that it had a crucial and pivotal role to play in supporting and facilitating trade. A vibrant and economically successful shipping industry is central to that objective. As a safety regulator, the MCA also recognised the need to reassure the public that the ships at our ports and off our coasts, and those flying the Red Ensign anywhere in the world, are operating safely.

The challenge for the MCA was to secure safety but to be commercially savvy and develop more of an empathy with and understanding of the business needs of the shipping industry. The agency appreciated that it needed to work ever more closely with the industry it regulated to support it, enabling shipping to comply with safety rules.

Appointing me as a non-executive chairman with industry experience was part and parcel of that commitment to driving change. I joined the MCA in January 2017 to support Sir Alan Massey and his excellent team in the transformational journey they had already started in response to the Maritime Growth Study. Together we have achieved a great deal, and there is more on the horizon.

Building the team

The Civil Service can have a reputation for being slow to innovate and for hiding behind rules that prevent what feels like logical and straightforward change. There were suggestions within the Maritime Growth Study itself that the MCA may only be able to be more commercially responsive under an operating model that took it out of the perceived bureaucracy and shackles of the civil service.

In practice, however, the excellent civil servants I have come across in both the Department for Transport and the MCA have shown determined courage and imagination to implement real changes within existing operating structures. They have challenged received wisdom, recognised risks and seized opportunities.

We have recruited commercial expertise in the form of a new director of the UK Ship Register – Doug Barrow has joined us with over 30 years’ experience and knowledge about what makes the shipping world tick. He has steadily built a team around him of skilled people committed to attracting new customers to the joys of the Red Ensign and making sure that our existing customer base stays loyal. That has resulted in sustained month-on-month growth in the size of the UK Ship Register. Tonnage has grown by 11.4% since the publication of the Maritime Growth Study and now exceeds 16 million tons. The average age of the fleet is also declining, and it is now below the target set two years ago.

Further reforms

There are other examples of reforms where the Whitehall machinery has shown itself to be willing to take managed risks and to move at a much faster pace than I expected. One was the agreement to and development of a new UK Ship Register website, for which the Government Digital Service has given us permission to sit outside the gov.uk platform because they understood the commercial imperatives driving the UK Ship Register transformation. We have also had agreement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s team for alternative approaches to packaging how the MCA charges ship owners fees for its services.

Before too long, we will be launching our online ship registration service – WAVES. Our customers will be able to register their vessels and make changes in real time, all in the electronic world without having to rely on the traditional postal service. This is going to be a real game-changer for our customers and the MCA’s staff, increasing efficiency and speed. Similarly, the MCA is investing both money and time in the development of online seafarer documentation and medical approval systems, which we expect to have up and running during 2019.

A resource for UK-registered ships

The MCA’s headquarters in Southampton

The MCA’s headquarters in Southampton. Photo: MCA

Attracting ships to the UK Ship Register is one challenge, but making sure that they get excellent customer service when they want it is quite another. In a highly competitive market for skills and talent, the MCA has struggled for many years to fill its marine surveyor posts. With significant vacancies, it proved difficult to meet customer demand for the services of these skilled experts with a solid professional background as master mariners, chief engineers or naval architects.

Thanks to considerable effort in the Department for Transport and the MCA and the full cooperation of ministers and civil servants in the Treasury, much more competitive pay rates, coupled with modernised and flexible working patterns, terms and conditions have been put in place. This has delivered a marine surveyor workforce that is genuinely available to support UK-registered ships at any time of the day or night. We have also placed a resource in Singapore so that UK-registered ships needing services in that part of the world have what they need readily available. Demonstrating even more flexibility on our part, it is even possible for ship owners and operators with ships with the right risk profile to opt to have their ships surveyed not by the MCA but by formally approved recognised organisations such as classification societies.

Achieving the right balance

The MCA’s expert marine surveyors are supported by customer account managers and client technical managers to ensure we provide prompt and efficient responses on a consistent basis. That word ‘consistent’ is important, because it has been one of the regular criticisms in the past that ship owners and operators would get different responses and approaches to the same questions and issues from different MCA marine offices. The MCA is working hard to get the balance right between flexibility, pragmatism and consistency.

In summary, there has been tremendous progress in the last couple of years and I expect even more progress as we approach the end of this decade. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, the shipping industry, which has always been truly international in its organisation and outlook, can give other sectors confidence about the opportunities ahead. The UK flag, as epitomised by the Red Ensign and the UK Ship Register, has a bright future, with government and industry working together to make it a success story that continues to raise the standard.

Michael Parker became the first non executive chairman of the MCA in January 2017, after a long and distinguished career in commercial shipping.