Documents to download

Who is responsible for maritime policy in the UK?

Reserved powers

In general, civilian maritime transport policy is reserved to the UK Parliament, and is managed by the UK Government where there is a need for consistent provision across the UK. UK-wide maritime transport policy is managed by the Department for Transport (DfT).

The main legislation which provides for UK shipping, including ship registration, safety, pollution and liability applies UK-wide, along with the relevant provisions relating to navigation (lighthouses), salvage and wrecks, and security. These incorporate international commitments entered into by the UK Government for the whole of the United Kingdom.

The Home Office and Border Force also have UK-wide cross-departmental duties affecting maritime policy, notably in the immigration and customs checks carried out at UK ports by Border Force.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), an executive agency of the DfT, manages the coastal search and rescue emergency service for the entire UK. It also carries out the UK’s ‘Port State’ functions, to implement and enforce the UK’s obligations under international treaties such as Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). The MCA also maintains the register of UK-flagged ships.

Marine environment

Environmental matters are devolved so in England, the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and its agencies – notably the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) – have responsibility for protecting the marine environment, which can also affect shipping and ports.The devolved equivalents are the Marine Scotland Directorate, the Welsh Government Marine and Fisheries division and the Department of Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland.


Ports policy is devolved. However, in Great Britain, the main ports legislation pre-dates Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements and has not been changed since. The GB devolved administrations now manage ports policy in the respective nations but largely follow the same processes. Management of ports is carried out under the Harbours Act 1964 in Great Britain, and the Harbours Act (Northern Ireland) 1970, in Northern Ireland.

Ports around the UK are managed by Statutory Harbour Authorities (SHAs) who are the local legal entities with powers to manage a harbour area. These powers vary depending on the size and type of the port, but usually include charging fees for vessels, maintaining harbour infrastructure and, in some cases, dredging the waters in their area.

In England, the Marine Management Organisation manages changes to the powers of SHAs in England, or the creation of new ports. In Scotland, this function is carried out by Transport Scotland.In Wales, this is carried out by the Welsh Government, and in Northern Ireland it is done by the Department for Infrastructure.


Across the UK and the Republic of Ireland, lighthouses are maintained by three General Lighthouse Authorities (GLAs):

  • Trinity House (which provides marine navigation aids for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar)
  • Northern Lighthouses (for Scotland and the Isle of Man)
  • Irish Lights (for Northern Ireland and Ireland)

The DfT co-ordinates the GLAs’ functions, which are mostly funded by ‘light dues’ – fees paid by the shipping industry. The provision of lighthouses delivers on the UK’s and Ireland’s responsibilities under the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) 1974.

Maritime Statistics

The DfT regularly compiles and publishes a range of Maritime and shipping statistics, which relate to the whole of the UK.

Maritime UK

Maritime UK is the ‘umbrella body’ for the industry and acts as a key intermediary for engagement with the Government. Its members are: Belfast Maritime Consortium, British Marine, British Ports Association, CLIA UK & Ireland, Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, Maritime London, Maritime UK South West, Mersey Maritime, Nautilus International, Port Skills and Safety, Shipping Innovation, Society of Maritime Industries, Solent LEP, The Baltic Exchange, The Seafarers’ Charity, The Workboat Association, Trinity House, UK Chamber of Shipping and the UK Major Ports Group.

Other topics addressed in this paper

This paper also answers FAQs on the following topics:

Responsibilities and strategy

Devolution, departments, and agencies with maritime policy responsibilities; Maritime 2050.


Statutory harbour authorities; harbour directions; port closures, Freeports.


UK-flagged ships, tonnage tax; international treaties; decarbonisation; shipping lanes.


Passenger rights; passenger ship safety.

Seafarers’ rights

National minimum wage, redundancies, unfair dismissal.

More resources are available on the Transport page of the Commons Library website.

Documents to download

Related posts