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The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the principal government body for enforcing ship safety standards, makes a major contribution to the UK’s ship safety record, now one of the best in the world. However, according to a report to Parliament today by Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, the MCA can increase its effectiveness.

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The MCA is one of the world’s leading maritime authorities, with a world-wide reputation for its professionalism. A survey of British ships’ officers, carried out by the NAO as part of its study, showed that a large majority considered the MCA’s surveys and inspections as making a significant contribution towards the safety of UK vessels and of foreign vessels visiting the UK. The Agency also leads most other maritime authorities in prosecuting serious breaches of maritime legislation; and its work has helped to maintain the credibility of the UK’s maritime regulations and presents a real deterrent to unsafe shipping.

However, Sir John pointed out that the MCA could make a greater contribution to ship safety by focusing more of its work where there is the greatest risk:

  • The MCA needs to use a more risk-based approach for setting its UK vessel inspection targets (which it is now implementing for 2001-02) and for selecting individual UK vessels.
  • More of the MCA’s inspections of small UK passenger vessels should be unannounced rather than carried out as part of the vessels’ pre-arranged annual surveys, so that it is more likely to identify serious deficiencies and unsafe operational practices. Currently around half of these inspections are unannounced.
  • Whilst meeting an international requirement to inspect the equivalent of a quarter of visiting foreign ships, the Agency should target more of its inspections on those foreign vessels posing the greatest safety risk. Although it is better than many other maritime authorities in targeting the riskiest foreign vessels, over half of its inspections are of low risk vessels.
  • The MCA should do more of its inspections at remote ports and at weekends. It seldom visits some ports despite their handling large volumes of traffic and it rarely inspects vessels at weekends. This gives vessel operators the opportunity of minimising the chance of their vessels being inspected.

Sir John found that the MCA needs to give more attention to human factors in ship safety, particularly by gathering more first hand intelligence about shortcomings in the management and operation of vessels. Since the 1990s, the MCA has been checking on the operational aspects of vessels and it now applies the International Safety Management (ISM) Code, an international standard to ensure the safe management of large ships. In addition, the Government is to introduce a similar system for all UK passenger vessels from June 2001. However, the Agency cannot demonstrate that enough of its inspection work looks at these factors. The Agency also needs to consider the case for carrying out more inspections at sea rather than in port. Although there are practical difficulties and additional costs associated with inspections at sea, they would bring additional benefits by allowing surveyors to assess more directly the management and operation of vessels.

The MCA also needs to improve the information that it obtains and to make better use of the knowledge at its disposal. Its computer systems should be modernised so that vital information is accessible in all of its marine offices. And the MCA should improve the guidance for its surveyors and ensure that it obtains from UK port authorities the information it needs to target the riskiest vessels.

"The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has a vital job to do in ensuring the high safety standards of UK-registered vessels and an often difficult job in seeking to raise the standards of foreign vessels visiting the UK. My report shows that the Agency generally carries out its role very well, but that there are steps it could take to make its surveys and inspections of vessels more effective."

Sir John Bourn


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