Angry response voiced at Seawork over proposed new MCA Workboat Code 3

The proposed MCAs Workboat Code 3 has drawn angry responses
The proposed MCAs Workboat Code 3 has drawn angry responses

Anger erupted and spilled over at the MCAs handling of the Workboat Code 3 consultation process at the Seawork conference. Accusations were made that the MCA (Maritime & Coastguard Agency) is not communicating new coding regulations that could have disastrous consequences for small workboats.

There was standing room only at the UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Authority 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 before the presentation and nothing draws the crowds more than a regulatory update that could threaten significantly increased operator costs.

As part of the MCA’s system for designing new regulations, although not a statutory component, the process 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 and were far from smooth. Kerrie Forster, CEO of the UK’s trade body, the Workboat Association, who was a member of the working group, recalls it as a substantial breakdown of the group as multiple key members left the process in protest concerning the direction the MCA was taking the new regulations in, particularly the plans for applying the new regulations to vessels already operating under older codes.

Kerrie Forster said, “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.

“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 he 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 all took place 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. The Workboat Association 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 3 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 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 Workboat Association suggests that this is miles short of the mark with the overall fleet cost projected 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 the Workboat Association is due to some significant omissions on the MCA’s part.

One simplified example Kerrie cited is that the new code in some cases may stipulate a larger size and weight for the vessel’s main anchor. The Workboat Association says that the MCA has just calculated the price of an anchor for such an upgrade, but the Workboat Association 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 Assessment made and publicly shared, otherwise parliamentarians and the public are being falsely informed, to make their judgement.
2) The new draft should be shared for further comment publicly or back to the Technical Working Group 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,” said Kerrie.

“Taking a workboat from the Brown Code up to Workboat Code 3 presents a seriously steep hill for some vessel owners and operators to climb,” said Ben Sutcliffe-Davis, chairman of certifying authority YDSA.

He continued, “The MCA has calculated upgrade costs primarily from Workboat Code 2 to 3, but this actually represents the minority of the fleet. Where the 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, but to no avail. In short, the CAs could see the MCA was drowning and had offered to help.

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. He asked, “Is this lack of communication the new normal for the MCA?”

The microphone returned to Kerrie Forster for what became an impactful summing up of the industry’s issues with the code, and before revealing what he said it’s important to consider WA’s past relationship with the MCA. The Workboat Association originated in 1994 as a representative of industry to formulate the original Workboat Code, the Brown Code. Since then the Workboat Association has been a key global ambassador of the UK flag and the Workboat Code.

The Workboat Association 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 Workboat Association’s remit was to offer advice to its members concerning flagging and coding.

For the first time in its history, the Workboat Association 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 Workboat Association 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 to contemplate.

Instagram Posts from the IIMS @iimsmarine