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Coastguard Service

Volume 961: debated on Monday 22 January 1979

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Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Bates.]

10.18 pm

I am grateful to you Mr. Speaker, for arranging such a smooth transition from national affairs, which arouse a great deal of heat, to an important national matter which is less well known. If there is one body of men—one set of public employees—on whom public attention has not been focused today, it is the members of Her Majesty's coastguard service. The coastguard service is a vital part of lifesaving at sea and along the coastline, and its record in this task is one of which it is justifiably proud. The coastguard, in the seagoing communities of my constituency and other constituencies, is a respected figure. The constant presence of a trained man with seagoing experience who can alert rescue services gives both fishermen and pleasure boat owners considerable reassurance.

As the Minister knows, the calls made on the coastguard service have increased considerably in recent years, particularly because of the expansion of pleasure boating and major new concerns, such as oil pollution. Yet the coastguard service is now engaged on a major reorganisation which began last September and which has received remarkably little attention from Parliament or the press.

So far as I have been able to establish, with the help of the Library, there has been no parliamentary discussion of the coastguard service, and certainly no debate devoted to it, in the past decade, except references which may have arisen in wider discussion on oil pollution and such matters, and virtually no press publicity has been attached to the reorganisation of the service, except that which has appeared in Government publications such as Trade and Industry and the magazine "Coastguard".

I am sure the Minister would be the first to concede that this is a major reorganisation on which the service is engaged and that we should welcome an opportunity to discuss it in the House of Commons. As I understand it, the Department of Trade sees reorganisation as the appropriate way to take advantage of recent developments in radio telecommunications, on which the coastguard service has spent a great deal of money. Having improved radio communications and provided for distress calls on radio to be relayed direct from aerials along the coast to new rescue headquarters, it is concluded that the best thing to do is to centralise its experienced staff at these headquarters.

The chief coastguard, writing in "Coastguard", said:
"The regular staffing of the regional headquarters designated as Maritime Rescue Co-ordinating Centres will be augmented, with a consequent reduction of existing, constantly manned stations."
I underline the words
"a consequent reduction of existing, constantly manned stations".
In other words, men will be taken from the shore stations, where constant watch has hitherto been maintained, and put into centres which have the ponderous and easily forgettable title of maritime rescue co-ordinating centres. It is to these centres that men will be drawn from the more familiar location of the lookouts in coastguard stations along our coastline.

To relate this to my own constituency, stations such as Berwick and Amble, which have had two full-time coastguards, will be reduced to one or, perhaps, eventually none, and Seahouses, which at present has four, will be reduced to two. I remind the Minister that we have already lost regular coastguard stations in the same area—at Holy Island and Newtonby-the-Sea—in recent years. Auxiliaries will be recruited to fill the gaps, but the watch will no longer be a constant one. It will depend on estimates of the weather conditions and likely activity at sea whether a visual watch is maintained.

As news of this change has seeped through to the fishing and boating communities it has beeen received, at least in my area, with some dismay. To begin with, many fishermen feel aggrieved at the limited consultation that has taken place. Although one section of the fishing industry had news of it, the Northumberland Fishermen's Federation had virtually no prior notice of the meeting held at Seahouses on 19th December last. In view of that, and the fact that it was the first time for many days that inshore boats were able to put to sea, it is not surprising that that meeting was attended by only one fishermen, who himself went away dissatisfied.

Since then, a well-attended annual general meeting of the Northumberland Fishermen's Federation has confirmed the concern which I found to be widespread. I shall try to summarise the objections raised from this and other quarters. First, those who work in the North Sea know how treacherous it is. They have more confidence in a trained man on the spot, who can see the local conditions, than they have in any distant centre. Return to harbour at Seahouses, Amble and Berwick is notoriously difficult in some conditions, and the coastguard on lookout on the spot can see what is happening and advise whether return is feasible. I know men who believe that their lives have been saved by following advice not to put in at their home port but to seek a safer access further down the coast.

They have been very much struck by the references that they have seen and heard, in such discussions as there have been, about the supposed "wastefulness" of using trained men as pairs of eyes looking over the sea. That view is deeply resented and, indeed, challenged by many fishermen. An official of the Northumberland Fishermen's Federation pointed out that to argue that trained men keeping their eyes on the sea was in some way wasteful is the equivalent of saying that there is no value in having an officer on the bridge when a ship is at sea and that one might as well steer it entirely by radar. We have seen the dangers that arise from that.

There is much scepticism about the idea that it is wasteful or unnecessary to have trained men keeping a visual watch at sea. The visual watch is particularly relevant in some circumstances, for example, in an area such as Amble, where small boating has increased enormously. It is important in Berwick for another reason. A large holiday camp on the clifftop holds many thousands of people in the summer months and there is a great danger of cliff accidents, of accidents to children on the seashore and of inflatable craft drifting out to sea. All these indidents could be readily seen by a lookout on watch.

The man on watch can do many other things as well, including reporting the passage of yachts and pleasure vessels that have been at sea for some time, as well as advising on harbour conditions.

There is also a deep suspicion about the feasibility of calling out rescue services, such as the lifeboat, by remote control. When the call arises from a distress flare, there is far more likelihood that a coastguard on watch will see it and respond than there is if it is seen by a member of the public, who is often confused about the meaning of flares. In addition, some people who see distress flares assume that the coastguard or someone in authority will see them and that they therefore do not have to take any action. If the coastguard sees a flare, he can take action more quickly than can a remote centre, and even if we are talking about only seconds or minutes, they can cost lives when a rescue operation has to be launched quickly.

The coastguard on the spot can make practical decisions about what sort of help is needed. In Seahouses the coastguard fires the lifeboat maroon himself, whereas under the new system the rescue centre will have to telephone the lifeboat secretary, who will have to make arrangements to have a maroon fired—a much slower process.

The new system depends, to a large extent, on the use of auxiliary coastguards—spare-time men. They are described rather unflatteringly and unfairly in an internal memo which has been shown to me as "casual labour". Where are these men to be found? It may be much easier on the South Coast. I have been told that there are parts of the country where it is not difficult to recruit people with experience of the sea as auxiliary coastguards, but that is not the case in Northumberland.

Every other service makes extensive use of the limted number of people who work locally, who can undertake and complete a training programme and who are readily available. The first call on men with those abilities is the lifeboat. Another important call is by that part of the auxiliary coastguard that provides the rescue teams.

We have been very fortunate in this respect in my constituency. Thanks to one or two local firms which have made available not just one of their employees but several, and sometimes equipment as well, we have been able to maintain the shore-based auxiliary coastguard rescue teams, with Land Rovers, from local men.

As well as those groups, various other community services are making increasing calls on those who can manage to do such additional jobs. For example, the fire service is attempting in my constituency to turn over the whole fire operation at night to part-time firemen. We are resisting that, but if the plan went ahead it would be another massive call on an already stretched supply of available men. The special constabulary, part-time ambulance men, the Territorial Army and the Royal Observer Corps all recruit from the small reserve of people who can readily be put on standby or called in to watch. These men come from communities of 12,000, 5,000 and even less than 2,000, and in such areas there are not that many such men available. There is already enormous difficulty in getting them.

If we can get the men, which I beg leave to doubt, is the Minister satisfied that training is available to enable them all to deal with the sophisticated equipment and procedures which are fundamental to the reorganisation? How long will it take to bring about that state of readiness? The documents that the Department has put out on the subject speak of increased complexity of search and rescue. I find among those involved—fishermen, boatmen, lifeboatmen and the voluntary rescue services—a feeling that this complexity makes it even more important to have a fully trained man on the spot.

I also find that the reorganisation is proving demoralising to many members of the coastguard service in various parts of the country. They view with some cynicism what they see as an increase in headquarters and regional staffing at the expense of the coastal stations. Traditionally, the coastguard service has been run with a small headquarters complement. The latest figures show that that complement is growing rapidly.

They also note that all the top jobs in the service still seem to go to directentrant naval officers and very rarely indeed to men who have trained fully as coastguards and have been promoted through the service. They fear that promotion possibilities will be much more limited now that the old pattern of a station officer in charge at each station is disappearing.

There are some interesting comments from the former chief coastguard, who has himself accepted a reposting, in a recent issue of "Coastguard". They are telling comments about the problem of recruitment of trained staff. He said:
"Unfortunately there are many who apply thinking of coastguard Service as simply 'a job'. What is needed is people whose dedication and enthusiasm will produce that paragon known as a 'good coastguard'. He is always recognisable by what is done, rather than by what is said. His or her qualities are always difficult to define, but instantly recognisable by other coastguards. The sad thing is that some good coastguards are leaving—attracted away by the bait of better pay."
I think that anyone who has had anything to do with the sea and the coastguard service will not find it difficult to recognise the "good coastguard", but the worry of some of the older coastguards is that we shall not get men of this kind into the reorganised service and that the much wider dedication which the service has traditionally demanded will simply not be fostered and encouraged in the reorganised service. I think that it is very sad to see that measure of concern and demoralisation amongst some coastguards.

No one is asking the chief coastguard or the Department of Trade to abandon that part of their policy which involves improving radio telecommunications and extending co-ordination between rescue services and the services involved in combating pollution. We are all too aware of the need to do those things. What people are saying, and saying with some feeling on the basis of experience, is "Do not underestimate or abandon the man on the spot, the trained professional on watch." It is quite possible to reconsider the watch-keeping aspects of the scheme, particularly as it affects stretches of difficult and dangerous coastline. This part of the reorganisation is proceeding on the basis of retirement—"natural wastage" is the rather unpleasant euphemism that is now used—and the opportunity is there to reconsider future manning levels at stations such as the three I have mentioned.

I hope that in the light of the experience of fishermen and lifeboatmen, in the light of the acknowledged recruitment problems for auxiliaries, and in the light of the known difficulties of the stretch of coast I have described, the Minister will do precisely that. I do not expect him tonight to come up with major revisions of policy, but I expect him to show some signs that he is prepared to be flexible in the way reorganisation develops and to look again at the experience of men who know the sea and who say clearly that the man on the spot is vital.

10.34 p.m.

Matters relating to safety of life at sea, in particular the role of the Coastguard in co-ordinating marine rescue services off our coast, are certainly of the highest importance, and all too often they are taken far too much for granted. I am very glad indeed, therefore, that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has raised the topic of the rorganisation of the coastguard service and the problems which necessarily arise with change.

I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing my admiration for the way in which the Coastguard—regular and auxiliary coastguards alike—performs its task, often involving very long hours in the most arduous conditions. I believe this to be a widely held view, based on the many letters of appreciation that I receive from members of the public and from Ministers of foreign Governments whose national vessels have encountered difficulties around our coast and have needed the help of the Coastguard.

I say that even against the background of a personal experience when I visited the coastguard station at Beachy Head. It was generously suggested to me that I might be dropped over the cliff in order that the coastguards could establish to my satisfaction the effectiveness of their rescue procedures. But I declined that generous offer.

The changes are important, as they are meant to be. The way of life of those who have been used to the Coastguard as it exists must be adapted. That form of adaptation is sometimes very difficult. New ideas often meet with a good deal of opposition, until they are seen to be working. We are at the very earliest stages of change.

The criticisms that the hon. Gentleman has voiced tonight are criticisms that have come to my notice from wherever the changing conditions are likely to make themselves felt around our coasts. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman, like other hon. Members, has chosen to debate the topic, so that I have the opportunity of dealing with these important matters.

The Coastguard has a long history of service to seafarers and to those who use the sea for pleasure and recreational activities. Regrettably, the popular image of the Coastguard has changed little over the years, but times have changed and the Coastguard necessarily must adapt to the sort of changing requirements of which I have spoken in general terms. In order to make the maximum possible use of modern technological developments in areas such as radio communications and radar surveillance, the Coastguard is re-equipping and reorganizing, as it is bound to do. We are obliged to make the best use of the available resources. That means change.

However, this is not totally new. The Coastguard has been gradually changits face over a number of years. An added momentum was given at the beginning of this decade with the initial development of the sophisticated Channel navigation information service, which is regarded the world over as being the model to be followed by all other countries. But we have not concentrated on the CNIS to the detriment of communications elsewhere around the coast. The VHF listening watch out to sea has been greatly extended and there is a comprehensive radio link between all stations and also to all other search and rescue agencies, thereby enabling a quick response to incidents wherever they may occur.

But it was also necessary to look at the basic organisation of the Coastguard to ensure that the structure was capable of dealing with its expanding role in the community. On top of its traditional search and rescue role, the Coastguard is being asked to deal with a number of other important matters. I have already mentioned the CNIS, and to this can be added reporting and monitoring systems for vessels carrying dangerous cargoes and a substantial participation in antipollution measures, both of which have received a good deal of public attention over recent weeks.

When the plans for the reorganisation of the Coastguard were announced in 1975, this was in the knowledge that they had been prepared with the best possible professional advice.

Briefly, we are concentrating the highly trained regular Coastguard manpower of 620 officers where it is most needed to provide an effective and efficient service. The country has been divided into six maritime search and rescue regions, each having a maritime rescue co-ordination centre with oversight of all search and rescue operations and co-operation in pollution incidents. Within each region there are a number of marine rescue sub-centres—22 in all. These are the places where we are concentrating our major effort. They are manned and equipped to respond to any call for assistance at any time by day or night.

Supporting these centres and providing the very important contact with local people on the coast there will continue to be regular coastguards, each in charge of sectors containing a number of auxiliary coastguard stations. It is probably at this level that there has been the most public criticism of the reorganisation. I think that this was one of the most substantial points argued by the hon. Gentleman. This concerns the constantly manned stations where traditionally the coastguard has maintained a 24-hour visual watch from a fixed lookout.

However, if we are to provide the required manpower at the rescue centres and sub-centres, we need to look elsewhere in the structure to find those manpower resources. I believe it right closely to consider whether in this day and age a 24-hour visual watch on the present scale can be justified. This is why in particular we have been considering the future role of the stations at Seahouses and Amble mentioned by the hon. Member this evening.

Our records over the past few years indicate that only a very small proportion, under 5 per cent., of the total incidents which come to the attention of the Coastguard are in fact reported solely as a result of visual watch. The Coastguard's main source of information is the public itself for incidents in coastal and inshore waters. That has been the case for a long time. Also, an ever-increasing number of vessels, including fishing boats and pleasure craft, are being equipped with VHF radio, enabling direct communication with the Coastguard.

I am of the view that continuous watch from fixed lookouts should be discontinued, unless this is operationally necessary for reasons other than search and rescue. An example is in the Dover Strait, where there are added CNIS duties.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I had given a great deal of care to the examination of this point. I have instructed my Coastguard officials to ensure that where there are strong local doubts and anxieties they should do their best to resolve them by attendance on the spot. If the hon. Gentleman says—and I accept what he says unreservedly—that the intended consultation which took place on 20 December was ineffective because inadequate notice was given, I shall arrange for a further consultation to take place. That kind of communication is essential if we are to allay doubts, fears and anxieties.

Will the Minister clear up two points? In the reorganisation, will he recognise the importance of continuing co-ordination and co-operation between the Coastguard as reorganised and the RNLI, as evidenced in the new combined operations room at Poole? Will he confirm that the Government in no way intend to diminish the role of the all-volunteer RNLI? Secondly, does he agree that there is an urgent need to develop some form of radar identification or so-called electronic number plates in crowded conditions, such as the Dover Straits, and indeed along the whole British coastline?

I was about to deal with the hon. and gallant Gentleman's point. I am pleased to join him in praising the activities of the voluntary bodies, such as the RNLI, and there are a number of others. I include the local authorities, police and the public. I am sure that I have left out of the list the many others who give the most important support to the Coastguard, and long may that continue.

As for the other point mentioned by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, I think that it does not arise out of this Adjournment debate, but I shall look into the matter and drop him a line about it. I wish to get on because I have a good deal more to say in answering the debate.

The changes that we propose will not take effect overnight; they will be brought in gradually. We try to consult fully with the local community. We want to see a service provided locally that is consistent with the needs of that community. Nor are we advocating the abandonment of all watchkeeping at the stations in question. We fully recognise that particular circumstances will demand varying periods of watch. We have special regard for the needs of communities where there are high concentrations of pleasure craft. We have a proper regard for the needs of local fishermen. I assure the hon. Gentleman that these considerations and other local factors will be given full weight at Seahouses and Amble.

The important element is flexibility at the local level, and this is what the new structure gives. However, I believe that decisions on reduced watchkeeping hours must be made locally by the coastguard, who is best equipped to assess the local casualty risk at any time. In many cases, visual watch will in future be kept by part-time auxiliary coastgards under the control of regular staff. Auxiliary staff now number 9,000 and they are playing a vital part in the service.

It is probably inevitable that we shall not satisfy everybody in implementing the changes. But there is not the wholesale depletion in morale that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. There is local concern when a reduced role is proposed for a station in that area.

But ultimately the Government are responsible for the service as a whole around the coast and need to keep under continuous review the allocation of resources between particular areas.

I believe that we now have a Coastguard organisation which will bring out the best in the undoubted professional skills of all the people involved and, above all, its sheer enthusiasm to get on with the job.

Local fishermen have expressed their anxieties about the new system. Coastguards locally will closely involve themselves in the communities that they cover, and that includes the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Our records show that during 1977–78, out of 10 incidents handled by Seahouses, only one distress flare was sighted by the coastguard watch. That is not a criticism of the coastguard. But it is a fact that bears out the stories that there are around the coast. We shall be making alternative arrangements for launching lifeboat maroons at Scahouses. This matter is under close examination.

The hon. Gentleman referred to difficulties in recruiting coastguards, but on a national scale that does not give rise to a great deal of anxiety. We seem to be attracting people with the right experience. Referring to the hon. Member's own local difficulty, we do have a problem with Seahouses. There is difficulty, particularly during the high season of the summer holidays. I gather that there are not problems elsewhere in the hon. Member's constituency. If I am wrong, no doubt he will write and tell me. Our intention is to try to make up any staffing deficiencies in Seahouses with auxiliaries from the other local stations on both sides of Seahouses, without causing undue difficulties at those stations.

The hon. Member referred to special problems associated with holidaymakers, such as cliff incidents. Perhaps there is a particular problem at Berwick. Auxiliary rescue companies will still be maintained in the area to cover shoreline and cliff incidents, and the ability of the coastguard to deal with these special problems will in no way be impaired.

A regular officer will also be based at Berwick.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.