Anger at MCA consultation process spills over at conference - with accusations that the MCA is not communicating over coding that could have disastrous consequences for small workboats.
There was standing room only at the UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Authority (MCA) Workboat Code 3 update presentation at Seawork as the Workboat Association teetered close to expressing a vote of no confidence in the UK’s statutory body.
Something of a showdown with industry stakeholder groups was widely predicted and nothing draws the crowds more than a regulatory update that could threaten significant operator costs.
As part of the MCA’s system for designing new regulations, although we learned not actually a statutory component of it, the body includes a Technical Working Group in the early stages of the consultation process, to ensure that the regulations are realistic and workable for the people who ultimately will need to code and operate vessels under them.
Opinions vary as to precisely what happened with this working group in 2022, but things clearly did not go well. Kerrie Forster, CEO of the UK’s trade body the Workboat Association, who was a member of the group, recalls it as a substantial breakdown of the group as multiple key members left the process in protest concerning the direction that the MCA was taking the new regulations in, particularly the plans for applying the new regulations to vessels already operating under older codes.
“I have to report to the wider industry that many original members of the working group stopped attending throughout the process, due to the disagreement with the process,” he said. “And the draft was delivered by a small skeleton group of industry and small commercial vessel experts together with the MCA Codes team.”
The MCA’s Code Vessel Lead, Rob Taylor, remembers it slightly differently, citing the unexpected length of the process and some members’ dissatisfaction that it was taking place via remote conferencing, but did corroborate the fact that a number of members left the process leaving the working group ’a little thinner’ than the MCA would have liked.
This was all in the second half of 2022, and was further underlined by a huge response from the industry to the MCA’s online consultation, with MCA responses to these queries, it is claimed, often resulting in disappointing holding replies and scant information that some commentators suggested indicated that the MCA was struggling under workload issues. WA has stated that the public consultation of Workboat Code 3 received one of (if not the) largest feedback from any UK domestic maritime legislation to date.
The MCA is certainly in an unenviable position and responding to unexpectedly massive volumes of feedback clearly isn’t coming at a good time for them. Both the Workboat Code update and their other current significant body of work, an update to the SCV (Small Commercial Vessel) code, are un-shuntable statutory pieces of work that have fallen concurrently at the MCA’s feet.
The MCA’s Rob Taylor presented some tweaks to the process, and another minor extension to timelines to a conference room bursting at the seams.
As is often the case at a good conference, the presentation was all of the expected party-line fodder, with the real meat in the sandwich coming in the shape of the questions that followed.
Kerrie Forster began the questions with a long and pre-prepared set of questions/statement citing the Workboat Association’s (WA) issues, and was followed up by several experts, particularly from Certifying Authorities who also believed their issues with Workboat Code 3 are not being adequately addressed.
Of the several issues expressed by these industry stakeholders, a major one is the lack of clarity on how workboats operating under earlier codes such as Brown Code can meet the updated code without, in certain cases, prohibitively expensive structural work. If this is the case, part of the issue was that this was not being adequately communicated to the industry.
The MCA has estimated the cost of changes to existing vessels to meet the new code at £800,000 for the entire UK workboat fleet, but the WA suggests that this is miles short of the mark with the overall fleet cost as upwards of £1 billion. Kerrie Forster even predicts that a single vessel requiring structural work such as repositioned and additional bulkheads or lined tanks could attract a bill north of the MCA’s mooted £800k- for a single vessel. The massive discrepancy, as explained by WA, is due to some significant omissions on the MCA’s part.
One simplified example Kerrie cites is that the new code in some cases may stipulate a larger size and weight for the vessel’s main anchor. WA says that the MCA has just calculated the price of an anchor for such an upgrade, but the WA has factored in the potential cost of engineering consultancy, reconfiguring chain sizing, windlass capability, anchor locker enlargement, time in dry dock, ie, the total cost of ‘a heavier anchor’.
If these are the sort of errors that have been made this is a major attack on the MCA’s credibility from a key industry body, as it suggests a fundamental lack of practical knowledge within the MCA of how workboats are built, refitted and operated.
Kerrie’s statement posed the following asks:
1) There needs to be a correct Demin Amis Assessment made and publicly shared, otherwise parliamentarians and public are being knowledgably, falsely informed, to make their judgement.
2) The new draft should be shared for further comment publicly or back to the TWG to steer the direction of the content, following the first round, and unexpectedly large feedback from the public consultation.
3) The final draft needs to be shared with industry before becoming law, to allow industry time to react to the incoming changes
Until these changes are made, for the first time since our origination, we do not stand behind the UK flag and new workboat code as it currently stands.
“Taking a workboat from Brown Code up to Workboat Code 3 presents a seriously steep hill for some vessel owners and operators to climb,” said Ben Sutcliffe, chairman of certifying authority YDSA.
“The MCA has calculated upgrade costs primarily from Workboat Code 2 to 3, but this actually represents the minority of the fleet. Where Brown Code consisted of 70-odd pages, workboat Code 3 is over 200 pages. It’s also littered with more complex and daunting language and double negatives that almost look designed to trip up or confuse the unwary operator.”
The MCA was quick to counter that there is a grace period, so that vessels could continue to operate under their existing coding until it runs out, but ultimately vessels being recoded after the end of December 2023 would need to meet the new system of regulation.
Stuart Gladwell, CEO of SCMS, another certifying authority, asked why the MCA had not engaged the certifying authorities (CAs) more closely in the process. According to Gladwell, the CAs had more specific detailed sector knowledge concerning key aspects that the new framework seeks to address, such as un-crewed operations and future fuels, and had seen the MCA was struggling in some areas and had offered to take on some of the work, to no avail. In short, the CAs could see the MCA was drowning, had offered to help, but to no avail.
Gladwell also expressed his concerns about the lack of communication concerning his organisation’s specific queries to the MCA concerning Workboat Code 3. He had two outstanding issues that were timing out fast and potentially going to attract cost to rectify that the MCA was not responding on. One has been outstanding for several months, and relates to regulations that are coming in fairly imminently. Gladwell concluded with a rather pointed question that dangled in the air for a few moments: “Is this lack of communication the new normal for the MCA?”
The mic returned to Kerrie Forster for what became an impactful summing up of the industry’s issues with the code, and before we look at what he said it’s important to consider WA’s past relationship with the MCA.
The WA originated in 1994, as a representative of industry to formulate the original Workboat Code, Brown Code. Since then the WA has been a key global ambassador of the UK flag and the Workboat Code.
WA has been on numerous MCA working groups since and is a powerful industry body. Not only did Forster “beg” the MCA to recommence the consultation process from scratch with more complete stakeholder engagement, he also reminded the MCA and the audience that part of the WA’s remit was to offer advice to its members concerning flagging and coding.
For the first time in its history, WA was not only having to consider whether it should continue to sit on MCA working groups, but also whether to even continue advising its membership to code vessels under the UK flag state. While it wasn’t quite an official WA statement of no confidence in the MCA, it was just about as close to this bombshell as you could get and clearly suggests some stormy waters ahead for UK workboat industry.