Are safety checks due for a comeback?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche
ShipInsight

30 March 2017


An aspect of the many possible outcomes of Brexit that is currently causing some concern is the likely impact of the re-introduction of customs controls. Many believe that this will create huge queues at ports and will be an administrative nightmare. For others who can recall what used to happen before the transformation of the EEC in to the EU in 1992 and even before that, these fears seem unfounded. It is true that in the 1970s, 80s and 90s there was much less movement of goods by ro-ro services than there may be today but that must be weighed against the fact that there were also no electronic communications and documents could not be sent in advance of goods to obtain customs clearances. For goods that move by less expeditious means including containers on feeder services, there is a generation of freight forwarding clerks who could tell how relatively simple it was to deliver documents by hand to customs offices and return an hour or so later to collect the approved clearances. There is an even younger generation who will say how that is better done by electronic means and they no longer even have to leave their desks. They do that today for goods from outside the EU but were doing it also last century for EU goods before all customs formalities were scrapped. What is not mentioned but which is more worrying is that as customs controls on goods have been dropped so too have some of the safety checks on vessels. Not that long ago, the check on a ship’s safety status was cursory but thorough in that the port agent needed to produce SOLAS safety certificates before a vessel was permitted to sail. Today – in the UK at least – that apparently no longer happens and it is sufficient for an agent to declare on behalf of the ship that the documents are valid. At some point in the future, the IMO’s maritime single window concept may see a global database of ship’s documents established that can be interrogated for expired documentation, but that is a very long way from reality today. A PSC inspection may throw up a non-compliant document from time to time but that is down to chance as only a small number of ships are ever inspected. As with many things it is difficult to prove that the certificate check ever prevented a marine casualty and it is certain that some ships that are unsafe do have valid documents but if rogue operators are allowed to trade freely without any checks at all, the chances of an incident occurring must increase. It could well be that a return to customs clearance of goods may someday prevent a tragic accident at sea.