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Essential priorities to protect and grow UK trade and shipping

To preserve the benefits and ease of existing UK–EU trade, which allows the free flow of exports and imports.

Within the European Single Market, all tariffs, taxes and inspections on goods – whether for fiscal, health, trading standards or statistical purposes – are applied at the point of origin or at the point of sale, rather than at the point where the goods crossed a frontier between two countries. Controls on goods and the vehicles carrying them, moving between the UK and its immediate neighbours, were discontinued on 1 January 1993, improving logistical efficiencies and delivering enormous socio-economic benefits for UK businesses and consumers.

The removal of customs controls stimulated huge growth in trade between the UK and its EU neighbours, with goods being carried by ferries, container ships, general cargo and bulk carriers. The number of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) carried on high-volume, short sea ferry routes through Dover grew by 150% between 1992 (the last year of customs controls) and 2015, to 2.5 million. This represents 17% of the UK’s current international trade in goods and is worth around £120bn annually. A further 1.48 million HGVs each year are now carried through the Channel Tunnel, which had not opened in 1992, but which now complements the ferry routes – and, like them, is predicated on no customs controls and rapid transit times. 

The UK and Ireland are a special case, with the UK providing a vital land bridge for Ireland’s trade to EU markets. On these routes, volumes have grown even more steeply, especially on high-volume routes servicing Dublin; the number of HGVs through Holyhead grew by 627% and those through Liverpool by 273%.

This growth was only made possible by the removal of customs controls. At each of the ports that have experienced the strongest growth, new berths have been added – enabling them to handle larger ships – but the areas of the terminals where the traffic is processed have remained largely unchanged. The huge increase in port capacity is almost entirely due to the fact that lorries do not have to stop and await permission from customs before embarking on a ship or leaving the port and proceeding inland. Instead, they can drive straight though the terminal. Significantly, the growth at terminals handling unaccompanied trailers – which, typically, have longer dwell times in ports, so the removal of customs controls had less impact – has increased by a more modest 16.4% between 1992 and 2015, to 732,000.

The maintenance of current trade volume is critically dependent on traffic continuing to pass through ports freely. Every year, £120bn worth of goods is transported on ferries to and from Dover alone, and the reimposition of significant customs checks and controls will have a profoundly negative effect on the ferry sector – and on the UK’s ability to trade with the European continent. 

So it is imperative that Britain’s representatives treat the maintenance of unimpeded trade through UK ferry ports as non-negotiable.

To facilitate the growth of UK trade with the wider world and to position UK shipping as the prime carrier of international trade in new global markets.


UK shipping is a service provider to the UK’s industry and manufacturing sectors, and the country’s global trade has grown impressively. The number of containers shipped through UK ports – directly to places outside the EU, or indirectly via feeder vessels for transshipment on the continent or to other EU destinations – grew by 110% between 1992 and 2015, to 5.59 million containers; 48% of all traffic travelled between UK and non-EU ports. The UK share of international liner cargoes is typically only about 20% on large vessels arriving in northern Europe from the Far East, and shipping lines’ routes, processes and systems are again predicated on serving the UK as a seamless part of the larger European market.  

Global trade is the driver of shipping growth and UK shipping must be positioned to take advantage of new and emerging market opportunities in the future, and to retain its existing market share in Europe.

The UK Chamber had called for a new commission to develop trade deals, so welcomes the creation of the Department for International Trade with this express purpose. New free trade agreements (FTAs) should include access to ‘maritime services’ and, in general, target:

  • major economies with which the EU has negotiations pending but no agreement concluded – for example, Canada, India and Brazil
  • other major economies, outside current EU agreements, with which the UK would want to establish or re-establish trading links – for example, Australia and New Zealand
  • emerging economies with which the UK, given greater agility, is now able to conclude bi-lateral agreements more rapidly than it could when negotiating EU multilateral ones.

To create a simple and straightforward visa regime that enables UK shipping companies to compete in world markets.


All shipping companies, in the UK and overseas, rely on people with seafaring experience for technical and managerial roles ashore. So, too, do many businesses in the wider maritime sector; indeed, the skill and expertise of such personnel is a key point of competitive advantage. The UK shipping industry invests heavily in training seafarers. In 2014/2015, there were nearly 2,000 cadets in training with UK shipping companies, almost double the number a decade previously. Many of these individuals can be expected, later in their careers – and after serving at sea for some years – to move on to employment ashore with UK shipping companies. Others will doubtless be employed overseas, because UK-trained seafarers are highly regarded internationally.

Seafaring is a global profession, so the pool of people with seafaring experience is also global. To be competitive, UK shipping companies need to be able to draw on talented and experienced personnel worldwide, just as their competitors in overseas shipping centres – such as Singapore and Dubai – can. At the moment, the awkward, slow and unpredictable UK visa regime makes it excessively difficult for UK shipping companies to recruit personnel from outside Europe, or even to bring in existing personnel from their overseas offices. To some extent, these difficulties are mitigated by the ability to draw skilled personnel from European countries. However, several shipping companies have already relocated skilled marine roles away from the UK, and others have deliberately not located skilled marine functions in their UK offices, because of the visa regime.

For the UK to remain to a global maritime centre, in which shipping companies and other businesses can prosper and grow, and which attracts inward investment from overseas shipping firms, it needs to introduce a visa regime comparable with those in competitor jurisdictions. It needs to facilitate, rather than obstruct, the transfer of skilled personnel around global shipping companies’ offices, and it needs to help UK-based companies to source personnel on the basis of expertise and talent, rather than their nationality. The visa process needs to be simple, straightforward, predictable and stable; above all, it needs to inspire confidence among shipping companies that it is designed to support their business.

Visas are of similar importance to the UK’s world leading maritime education sector.  Officer training in the UK entails college-based study for either a Foundation Degree or an HND, interspersed with time at sea onboard ship, invariably outside UK waters. Hence the training lasts a minimum of three years, although the college phases account for less than two years.

The current rules of Tier 4 of the Points-Based System ensure that visas are only available for sub-degree courses which run for two years or less.  As a result, many officer trainees from overseas are being prevented from studying in the UK.

Overseas students make up 40% of the overall student body for those programmes affected, paying £7m per annum directly in fees. Without these overseas students, there will be fewer courses available to British students as they would no longer be viable.  The risk that overseas students would breach their conditions of entry to the UK is very low - there is a much greater incentive for them to return home and obtain employment as ships' officers.

The problem would be resolved if the validity of the visa for these sandwich scheme maritime programmes was measured over the duration of the college time only; students could then stay within their 24 month limit because the remaining time is spent at sea outside the UK.

To ensure that tourist and business visitors to Britain are welcomed with a simple, quick and effective system for entry into the UK, and that UK citizens returning home are processed quickly at border controls.


International travel to and from the UK continues to grow. While much of this growth has been in aviation, around 21 million passengers a year travel between the UK and neighbouring countries by ferry, and cruise travel has increased very significantly. The number of passengers beginning and ending a cruise at a UK port has almost doubled over the past decade, to two million last year. Over the same period, the number of passengers visiting UK ports on day calls as part of a cruise grew by 170%, topping one million for the first time in 2015.

Such visitors bring considerable value to the UK. Every cruise passenger who comes ashore is estimated to be worth £85 to the local economy, and families and tour groups arriving by ferry for a holiday in the UK will clearly contribute substantially during the course of their stay. Similarly, holidays and short breaks to neighbouring countries – in particular to France, Belgium, Holland and Ireland – are a well-established and much-loved feature of the UK travel scene, whether for family holidays, school trips, shopping excursions, skiing breaks or sports tournaments. This travel, however, is mostly discretionary; potential passengers can easily be deterred from going – or from travelling to the UK – by requirements for tourist visas or by hostile and disagreeable border controls; and competition from neighbouring countries for cruise-ship calls is particularly strong.

Tourism within Europe depends absolutely on the ability of passengers to travel when they wish to do so, free from any requirement to obtain a visa in advance. At the moment, this freedom is guaranteed – for Britons travelling to Europe and for Europeans travelling to the UK – by the EU Treaty. Those rights are now in doubt, with the prospect that the Treaty may no longer apply, and an alternative legal framework will be required. To provide reassurance to would-be passengers – and to enable travel businesses to plan, bearing in mind that cruise itineraries are typically scheduled at least two years in advance – the UK Government should affirm that Europeans will continue to be welcome to travel to Britain and will not need to obtain a visa (or equivalent authorisation) in advance. It should also seek reciprocal assurances in respect of Britons travelling to neighbouring countries.