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Labour pledges radical policies for British shipping

‘I’ve never seen a skint owner,’ says partys shipping spokesman Karl Turner

A FUTURE Labour government would introduce the biggest legislative changes British shipping has seen since John Prescott’s massive shake-up nearly two decades ago, the party’s shipping spokesman Karl Turner has said in an interview.

Pay for seafarers on British flag ships would be equalised regardless of nationality, a move the Chamber of Shipping once branded as a death threat to the Red Ensign, while tonnage tax beneficiaries would be compelled to train ratings.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency may get more resources to beef up Port State Control inspection, and Britain’s capacity to fight fire at sea could be restored to the levels seen under the last Labour government, although Mr Turner would not make firm spending commitments on either point.

And while he expressed regret for the privatisation of Associated British Ports during the Thatcher era, he explicitly ruled out their inclusion on the list of utilities the shadow chancellor John McDonnell wants to take back under state control.

Instead, the ports sector may well benefit from Labour’s plans for massive infrastructure investment, particularly those ports at the sharp end of Brexit.

Shipping lineage

Mr Turner was born and grew up in Hull, the north east England city he now represents in parliament. Unsurprisingly, he claims close family connections to both seafaring and dock work.

Indeed, his father was a bosun, who came ashore in 1973 and spent 30 years as a senior official of the National Union of Seamen.

“It’s fair to say my politics has been shaped by my father’s experience of the trade union movement,” he admitted.

Mr Turner inherited the constituency previously held by Mr Prescott, himself a one-time NUS activist who went on to become deputy prime minister in Tony Blair’s government, and who always threw his substantial political heft behind the shipping industry’s best interests.

It was Mr Prescott who published the Charting a New Course white paper in 1998, paving the way for the tonnage tax and thus giving a major boost to British shipping’s fortunes.

Investment in training

Mr Turner is aware he has “big boots to fill,” as he puts it, and is obviously proud of the legacy. Nevertheless, shipping unions have argued that the undoubted renaissance has not secured a concomitant increase in maritime training and employment. This is something he wants to address as shipping minister.

Originally, tonnage tax beneficiaries had to train one cadet annually for every 15 officers on board their ships. Since 2015, it has been possible to train three ratings per 15 officers instead.

But whatever the theoretical merits of the arrangement, critics insist it is not delivering ratings numbers. Moreover, if a company does not fancy meeting the obligation, it can simply buy its way out.

“It looks great on paper,” he said. “But you have got shipping companies and shipowners who cop a tax write-off of about two billion quid and actually, the obligation of training is not mandatory. We ought to be considering making it mandatory. I understand why — at the time — there was good reason not to force shipowners to put more into training, but it just hasn’t worked.”

On the 2015 statistics, the most recent available, UK seafarer numbers had fallen to just 23,000, with fewer than 9,000 of them ratings. Given that the shipping industry is expanding, Mr Turner described that situation as deplorable.

While mandatory ratings training is a long-standing demand of transport union RMT, today’s incarnation of the old NUS, Mr Turner maintains that introducing it is a matter of common sense, rather than complying with a union wish list.

Reforms to pay

But in another move that will please RMT, he promised to revisit the 2010 Carter Review, commissioned by the last Labour government and quietly shelved under the subsequent coalition administration.

The report recommended that British-flag vessels should pay the same rates to all seafarers, regardless of nationality. As of the year of publication, that would have affected 15,000 foreign seafarers and increased the UK flag pay bill by £259m a year, author Susan Carter herself admitted.

The Chamber of Shipping said at the time that Ms Carter demonstrated “breathtaking ignorance” of industry workings, and that pay equalisation would lead to mass flagging out.

For their part, the unions allege that some foreign ratings are paid far less than the national minimum wage, currently £7.50 an hour for those aged over 25.

“I am not saying we would implement all of what Carter says,” said Mr Turner. “But the differential in pay rates is frankly surprising. I would have to look at that very carefully as the shipping minister and see if we can make it work better for the industry, for seafarers and the economy as well.”

Even so, he is clearly concerned that some seafarers working for British companies in British waters are not getting as much as, say, the lowest-paid workers in hospitality or cleaning.

“I can’t see how the shipowners can possibly build a defence to what is happening,” he argued. “You’ve got a situation whereby Filipino and Portuguese ratings are rapidly replacing British ratings on ferries sailing out of Hull.

“I think it’s scandalous that seafarers from other countries are being taken advantage of in this way. I struggle, I really struggle, to see how it can possibly be justified that you can be paying an AB $4.45 an hour and a British rating about 12 quid.”

He brushes aside the objection that some services could not operate profitably on shoreside wages: “I’m sorry, I’ve never seen a skint shipowner.”

Coastguard assistance  

He also wants to see a boost for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, so that Port State Control can be more effectively enforced. He says UK government austerity measures since 2010 have led to a decline in inspection rates, thanks to reduced resources.

“This is an industry that needs to have safety protection. It would be irresponsible to say anything else. It is a major concern that foreign ships coming into the UK are sometimes sadly not up [necessary] standards. The seafarers are sometimes living in shocking conditions.”

While not directly promising the MCA more cash, the matter will be considered.

It is a similar story when it comes to the maintenance of capacity to fight fires at sea, which was also axed by the coalition, on the grounds that it was pointless paying out millions of pounds a year for something that might never be used.

“We ought to have provision to fight fire at sea. I think it is worrying that we don’t have that provision,” Mr Turner said. But again, he indicates no spending commitments.

Brexit transition

Finally we turn to Brexit. Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald and his advisers are working on Labour’s plans to meet the challenges it will create for British transport as whole.

Shadow chancellor McDonnell is calling for a massive boost to UK infrastructure spending and Mr Turner believes that financial help could be extended to ports that need investment to upgrade ahead of departure from the European Union.

British ports — many of which used to be publicly owned — have been neglected in private hands, he feels, but does not propose adding them to the list of public utilities Labour now wants to return to state control.

“It’s a crying shame that a previous Tory government privatised ports and I think that’s a major problem,” he said. “For the transport team, the biggest priority is to renationalise railways and I would agree with that. It needs to be done and it needs to happen quickly.

“I’m not suggesting we renationalise ports, not even for a second. We are where we are, but we could have done more.”

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