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Maritime and Coastguard Agency (Industrial Relations)

Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Bob Blizzard.]

I am delighted to have obtained this 90-minute debate, which will centre around a dispute that has been running for some time. It has been one of my frustrations in recent years that it has been difficult to get any discussion at all of industrial relations within the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on the Floor of the House or even on the record.

My frustrations are shared by several right hon. and hon. Members who would have wished to be here today but cannot be for a variety of reasons. I mention in particular the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who has taken a long and active interest in the debate but is not able to be here because of a constituency engagement, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who is the Chairman of the International Development Committee, which is sitting at present. He has registered a substantial interest.

Although it is not a declarable interest in the normal sense, for the sake of completeness I should perhaps place on record that, as far as matters of search and rescue are concerned, I am a member of the national council of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which works closely with the agency. It is also a matter of some family pride that my father was for many years a member of the auxiliary coastguard, which is now a volunteer coastguard, on Islay. He was an active and leading participant in many rescue operations off Islay and several cliff rescues throughout the 1950s and 1960s. When we speak about the coastguard, we tend to speak about the full-time paid members, and that is who I will rightly focus on today, but it is important to remember the contribution to the operation of the volunteers as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I apologise that I shall have to leave about 10 minutes before its end. Is not one of the tragedies of this dispute that the volunteer section, which is so incredibly important, is suffering from a complete drop in morale as much as the paid section is, and that a speedy end to the dispute is vital to get the voluntary side back in line?

My hon. Friend makes that perfectly fair and legitimate point exceptionally well. The damage that is being done by the industrial unrest in the agency significantly affects the paid sector, but I fear that the damage to the cadre of volunteers will be much more significant in the long term. One can resolve difficulties in a paid sector by improving pay and conditions, but very different conditions apply when it comes to motivating a volunteer sector.

I am delighted that there is a good turn-out from all parts of the House today. I know that not everybody will be able to stay for the whole of the debate, but their presence is an indication that the issue is growing in political importance. I hope that the Minister will consider that when he argues the case with the Treasury for the flexibility and resources that might allow resolution of the dispute.

It is frustrating that in many ways the coastguard, which is an emergency service, is the forgotten service. Just about every Member of this House must have signed an early-day motion, tabled a parliamentary question or written to the Minister about the need for a marine Bill. I also feel passionately about that issue, but every protection, designation and law that is known to man, beast and lawyer will have absolutely no impact whatsoever if protection from a day-to-day service on the ground is not in place. When an oil tanker is drifting towards rocks, designations are meaningless. That is when the coastguard is needed.

I note from the Library debate pack that it is more than a year since I first raised this issue on the Floor of the House. If the Minister takes no other message from today’s debate, I hope that he will understand that the dispute will not simply go away. There have already been three one-day strikes among the coastguard staff. Morale has plummeted as a consequence and there is an immense feeling of frustration among the operational staff, but, from my contacts with coastguard offices and people who have e-mailed me, and from a recent meeting that I had with Public and Commercial Services Union branch secretaries, I can tell the Minister that there is a greater than ever determination among coastguards to see the dispute through.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the three days of industrial action. Would he agree that the coastguards who decided to take industrial action did so with extremely heavy hearts? I have letters and e-mails from coastguards in my constituency who say that the decision to withdraw their labour was agonising. It was not one that they entered into lightly.

It was not a decision that they entered into lightly. In fact, every step in the evolution of this debate has been one that the coastguards have said they do not want to take, that they would take any means available to them to avoid. It is a hallmark of the failure to manage the dispute properly that people who are so highly motivated in their work have been pushed into a position where they feel they have no option but to strike.

Would my hon. Friend agree that the danger with the strikes is not only their potential impact on our own coasts but overseas as well? Coastguard stations such as Falmouth in my constituency play a critical role in co-ordinating rescues that could take place anywhere in the world. The impact of the dispute reaches much further than simply our own shores.

That is an exceptionally fine point. My hon. Friend will be aware that the shipping in and out of the country that passes Falmouth in her constituency involves ships from all over the world. It is an exceptionally busy shipping area. The work of the Falmouth coastguard station is also of particular importance because it has a role in the co-ordination of anti-terror efforts. Those things could all be put at risk by continuing disputes.

I spoke to one coastguard who is proud of the work that he has done on civil contingency planning. That is something else that will be lost as a result of the dispute within the agency. It is clear that the effects of the dispute will reach far beyond the bounds of the agency itself.

Let me just finish this one point, which I have been trying to make for the past two minutes.

There is clearly an emerging view among the staff that one-day strikes are simply not sufficient. That does not mean that they will give up and go away but that, almost inevitably, there will be two, three or four-day strikes, perhaps over a bank holiday weekend. As a result, I have serious concerns because the agency may not be able to provide proper contingency planning for such an eventuality.

The dispute stretches beyond coastal constituencies because all MPs have constituents who visit and use the coast, and it is important that their safety is secure. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the roots of the dispute go back two years to a comparability study? The unions and management agreed to look at other emergency services and came to a conclusion that the management then cursorily cast aside. People in my constituency would be astonished to learn that what is on offer is a 42-hour week, £12,097 a year, £5.37 an hour—just above the national minimum wage—together with a below-inflation pay offer. No wonder that double whammy has triggered the sort of action and reaction that we have seen and heard so far. The offer is not acceptable.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I shall say more about that later. He has no need to apologise for being part of this debate, although he has a land-locked constituency, because the pattern of sea use these days is no longer confined to coastal and island communities, as would have been the case in previous generations. The sea is increasingly used for leisure, for example, by people who go from land-locked or inland communities to the coast for a day, a week or for weekends, or whatever. That has been a growing sector in sea use in recent years.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have been trying to visit Fifeness coastguard station in my constituency for some time, but I am told that I can visit only in the presence of a senior civil servant. Quite why that is necessary, I am not sure.

May I underline the point that my hon. Friend has made about recreational use and add to it a point about those constituencies in which the fishing industry is based? The reliance that the fishing industry is able to place on the coastguard system is fundamental to the success of fishing activity. Any departure from the usual high standards and the 365-day availability is a matter of considerable concern to fishermen.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. Leisure users of the sea can choose to go to sea, whether coastguard cover is withdrawn or reduced. However, fishermen, especially inshore fishermen, who work within exceptionally tight margins cannot choose because the financial imperative will force them to go out to sea.

I suspect that after this debate there might be a queue of senior civil servants wanting to take my right hon. and learned Friend to the Fifeness station but, if there is not, if I were him I would probably just go anyway.

I am concerned that, if we move to two, three or four-day strikes, the contingency planning will be stretched beyond credibility. The contingency planning for a one-day strike has been described to me by a coastguard manager as relying on string and sticky tape. I say to the Minister that string and sticky tape will not last more than 24 hours. I hope that he will be honest and realistic with the House and the general public about what contingency planning arrangements can seriously and properly be made before a longer strike. I hope that such a prospect will prompt the Government to act before the contingency planning is necessary. There can be no doubt, because it is now on the record, that if something goes wrong in the event of a longer strike as a result of insufficient contingency planning and there is loss of life or environmental damage, nobody can say, “We didn’t know. We weren’t warned,” because they have been warned here today.

It is worth reflecting on how we got into this position. There has been a history of low pay in the coastguard. If we go back far enough, historically, people were coming to the coastguard from the Royal Navy after retirement and, as a result of the substantial pension they brought with them, did not need the same level of pay. However, that is no longer the case and has not been so for many years.

Our coastguard performs a highly technical and highly responsible operation. If right hon. and hon. Members have not been in a coastguard operations room I would encourage them to do so at the first available opportunity. In many ways it is a bit like being on the deck of the starship Enterprise. The coastguard is a highly technical, skilled operation, the development of which has been a deliberate policy on the part of the Government, although we have not always found that easy. The closure of Pentland and Oban coastguard stations was part of a rationalisation process that relied heavily on that technical development. However, we must have people who are well-motivated and resourced to make the technology work.

The situation rumbled on, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned, until about 2006, at which point there was a comparability study instituted by the management of the MCA, which instructed KIS Solutions Ltd. That study was never published and its contents and its analysis of the situation are known only to those who were party to the pay negotiations at the time. However, it demonstrated a gap between the coastguards and those working in comparable emergency services. That study was declared by the management at the time as being of no value, but no further specification of that was given and, as a result of that declaration, a below-inflation pay increase was imposed and the longer-term issues were not addressed.

In 2007, a new chief executive was appointed. Many of us hoped that that appointment would mark a new beginning in the negotiations and, for some time, it appeared that that would be so. At the instigation of the chief executive a pay benchmarking analysis was undertaken that was finally agreed on in October 2007. That analysis concluded that a coastguard watch assistant was up to £4,500 per annum behind where they ought to be. No figure was agreed for the coastguard watch officers, because the evidence was, in the management’s view—to use their terms—less compelling. Of course, it could be less compelling given the position with regard to the watch assistants. However, there is still plenty of scope for a fairly compelling case to be made.

It is worth putting on the record the figures that we are talking about. A coastguard watch assistant earns between £12,509 and £14,384 a year; a watch officer earns between £14,742 and £18,717 a year; and a coastguard watch manager earns between £19,744 and £25,702 per week—if only! I should, of course, have said “per year”. A watch officer and a watch manager routinely take control of major search and rescue co-ordinations. They also make the decision that the time has come to give up the search, which involves saying to the family of the person who is missing, “We are not going to find your loved one. We are giving up the search.” Right hon. and hon. Members might ask themselves whether they would be prepared to say that to a grieving family who do not know where their loved one is. Would they be prepared to do that for less than £15,000 a year?

We talk about comparability with the fire, police and ambulance services, but the comparability is not exact; in fact, the situation is even more acute for the coastguard. In respect of fire, ambulance or police operations on the ground, that is the point at which the control room gives up. It is different for the coastguard, where the operations room retains control of what is going on on the ground from beginning to end.

I hope that my framing the subject for debate quite widely is not lost on the Minister. I do not want this debate to be just about the dispute: it has to be about how we have got to this situation and what we are going to do in future, once we have got past the dispute.

On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that the nub of the issue is that this is not a dispute about annual pay, but about a six-year negotiation on regrading? Does he also agree—without wishing to be rude or disparaging to the Under-Secretary of State who will answer this debate—that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members fear that the dead hand of the Treasury lies behind the reason why the MCA, an agency of the Department, is unable to resolve an unfair arrangement?

I have no doubt that the resolution to this dispute will ultimately come from the Treasury. Equally, I have no doubt that the Minister has the key role in making the case. The benefit of this debate is that he can go to the Treasury and say that the issue is heating up politically and will not go away, so a solution must be found. In the present set-up, morale is on a downward spiral, and a large element of false economy is entering the equation. We are investing in training for watch officers particularly, only to see them take the training and then take their skills elsewhere where they can obtain much better remuneration.

In his answer to my recent parliamentary question the Minister said that the cost of staff advertising and recruitment had risen from £59,000 in 1998-99 to £252,000 in the year just ended. I have outstanding questions to the Minister about staff retention, but management has told the unions that between 2003 and 2007, 105 coastguard watch assistants left the agency and 51 of them had less than two years’ experience.

We must look ahead, and at why operational staff in the agency feel so demoralised and undervalued. The Minister may wish to reflect on the message that is sent to operational coastguard staff when the board of the agency does not include a single person with operational experience as a coastguard. When we have got through the present difficult period, we must take a long, hard look at the coastguard, and why we have got where we are. I welcome this debate as the first step in that process.

I shall make only a brief speech, to emphasise the point that I made in an intervention. During the six years of the negotiations, three grades—those of watch assistant, watch officer and watch manager—have been most relevant to the dispute. Following last autumn’s and this autumn’s increase in the national minimum wage, watch assistants will have to have an increase to bring their pay back above the national minimum wage. They undertake important and responsible work in the watch room, but their pay is just at the point of the national minimum wage, despite their having to go through one year of training. Further training is required for watch officers as they move up the scale.

Is it not the case that watch officers and watch assistants will be earning less than administrative officers in the same station? I have constituents who have taken a pay cut to move from being an administrative assistant to the watch side and have done a year’s training simply to have a more interesting job. Is that not asking too much?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and she has been assiduous in representing the interests of the Falmouth station, which has an important international role not only in counter-terrorism, but in co-ordination of rescues. It has provided an international co-ordinating role in many other parts of the world, and is an important watch station for the MCA.

The third grade, watch managers, are on the executive officer grade of the civil service pay band and are paid at the same level as an administrative manager, but they go through many years of training to achieve that grade and must satisfy more than 140 technical competencies before they are entitled to take on that role. Without wishing to disparage the skills of administrative managers, those technical competencies take watch managers to a level that clearly has no correlation or comparability with administrative managers.

I am greatly concerned about the present position. The evidence is apparent: one only has to look at the required competencies, the stress involved when dealing with extremely distressing situations, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) referred, and the work that staff must deal with daily, and then consider the grades, pay and rewards that they receive, to recognise that they have an extremely strong case for regrading. The dispute is not about pay; it is about grading.

Many years ago when I was a shadow Shipping Minister, the coastguard issue was very important. The hon. Gentleman is talking about intelligence in advanced search and rescue. I want to say through him to the Under-Secretary that it is essential to have a proper pay structure that recognises the detailed and courageous work that our coastguard does, not only in coastal areas, but serving constituencies in the centre of the country.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary heard that comment from a Government Member. I am also sure that he appreciates that there is sympathy for and concern about the issue throughout the House. We all want a resolution to what seems to be an intractable problem. I particularly want him to address that intractability.

There have been several comparability studies. Some have been published, and the unions are aware of some of them. Two were produced in December 2006 and September 2007, but the chief executive of the MCA wishes to talk to the unions only about the three-year plan, which does not address the problem of regrading of watch officers, watch assistants and watch managers, which is the nub of the dispute.

Those who work in the stations are concerned that the reason that the MCA senior executive and management wish to discuss with the union, not regrading, but only the three-year plan is that they do not have the competency or power to negotiate a solution to the problem. Achieving the number of staff required within the existing budget is a challenge for the MCA executive, and there is a sense that the dead hand of the Treasury is lying over that. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland was correct in his response to my intervention. I hope that we are given some evidence today that the Under-Secretary of State and his Department are talking to the Treasury and are seeking the finance required to provide the solution to this particularly intractable dispute.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate and on clearly setting out the issues and the solutions required. My constituency has the privilege of having the longest coastline in the country, so I am obviously concerned about the implications of the present dispute.

People who earn their livelihood at sea—fishermen, those who operate commercial craft or private craft—and leisure users place their lives in the hands of coastguards. Recent one-day strikes led to half the country’s rescue co-ordination centres being closed. Obviously, if the dispute is prolonged, it will be difficult to maintain the service. It is important to note that those were the first ever strikes by coastguards, so they are clearly not a militant work force.

The hon. Gentleman might recall that last year, 20 volunteer coastguard teams withdrew their labour and entered into industrial action in west Wales as a result of another industrial relations dispute involving compensation for my constituent, Brian McFarlane—a volunteer coastguard worker who had been injured on a cliff rescue. Concerns were raised about adequate compensation for coastguards who are injured. Uncertainty was created largely as a result of the attitude and communications of the MCA senior management team. Strictly speaking, therefore, this is not the first example of industrial action by coastguards.

My point is that the work force is not militant and that industrial action was only taken as a last resort, after years of negotiations.

Starting salaries for coastguards are extremely low. The basic grade in the operations room is a coastguard watch assistant. That role requires a year of training and assessments and examinations must be passed; however, on entry, coastguard watch assistants receive a basic salary of only £12,500 a year. Last October, the agency had to give them an interim pay rise, but that was to comply with national minimum wage legislation. The pay is extremely poor for the type of work that coastguards do. Theirs is a highly skilled and technical job which, importantly, helps to save lives at sea.

As we have heard, comparisons have been made between coastguards and the other emergency services—police, fire and ambulance. Those comparability studies found that, consistently, control room staff in the other emergency services that do a similar job have higher rates of pay. There is a compelling case for increasing coastguards’ pay to the same level as those who do similar jobs in the other emergency services.

It is patently obvious that if the MCA does not pay its staff a salary that is comparable to what they can earn elsewhere, they will leave. As other hon. Members have pointed out, staff turnover is high. Low salaries are therefore a false economy for the MCA in the long run, because the agency will incur the costs of training and recruiting new staff. That is on top of the problems of low morale caused by the present industrial dispute.

I urge the Minister to intervene in the dispute without further delay and to broker a deal to end it. That deal must not just solve the present dispute, but involve long-term regrading so that the pay of MCA staff is comparable with that of staff in the other emergency services. If that means securing more money from the Treasury, the funds will have to be found. After the dispute has been settled, the Government should have an inquiry into the management of the MCA to find out why there are such poor industrial relations and to ensure that industrial relations are not allowed to deteriorate again.

Coastguards do a vital and skilled job and deserve a fair rate of pay. The Government must broker a deal because the safety of people who use the sea depends upon it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. It is vital that the issue is given a thorough airing in Westminster Hall, and hon. Members from all parties have done exactly that.

I represent Stornoway, which is part of my constituency, and the importance of our coastguard office does not need to be emphasised for my constituents. On many winter days, the radio provides the first news of the morning and bulletins often begin with the words, “Stornoway coastguards say,” or “Stornoway coastguards are dealing with”—of course, that might be in English or Gaelic—showing that my constituents understand the importance of the work of the coastguard; indeed, many of them were surprised to find that coastguards are in their present situation.

While I was listening to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), I was reminded of my experience of listening to the coastguard as a fisherman—whether I was clearing nets or handling creels, work was often interrupted when Channel 67 broadcast the coastguard weather bulletins and other information. Those bulletins were welcome not just for providing a break in the work, but for the vital information that was given and for the fact that there was a reassuring voice.

People are surprised that the pay level of coastguards, who are held in such high esteem, has come to public attention. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about coastguards wanting to see the dispute through, but the coastguard and watch officers have no option but to see it through. Although pay rates have been mentioned, I will talk about them again. After one year of training, the starting salary for a coastguard watch assistant is £12,509. To put that in context, it increased in October 2007 only to meet the minimum wage, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said.

The hon. Gentleman has been part of the campaign for some time. Does he agree that the worst thing that could happen for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would be for the coastguards to give in at this stage, because the issues would not be tackled in the long term and the problems of low morale and lack of motivation would never be addressed? Those concerned have no option but to continue their dispute.

The hon. Gentleman puts it well; the coastguards have no option but to continue the dispute. We have talked about there being a high turnover of personnel among coastguards and it will only accelerate unless there is thorough root and branch reform. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the need for that.

As I mentioned earlier, listeners of the local radio have been stunned to hear the details of the low levels of pay that coastguards receive, and people have also been stunned to read about them in the local newspaper. Coastguards are held in high esteem and their work is seen as very important. I and my constituents were dismayed and surprised to find that coastguards are only on the minimum wage.

Coastguards have not taken the step of strike action lightly. Indeed, the 6 March strike was the first in their 180-year history. The reluctance they felt led to them breaking their strike by trying to ensure that people who were out fishing, those who were engaged in leisure-related activities or anyone who might need coastguard help were not in peril. However, they still tried to make their own distress known and I think they have done so. Their support among hon. Members today shows that their point has been well made.

The Minister will be aware of the rightness of the coastguards’ case. No doubt, he could use budget restrictions as an argument, but I urge him not do so, even though it may be tempting. He must use this debate to show the Treasury some steel because it needs to understand forcefully the problems and injustice that coastguards are facing and the situation they are in—I see the Minister is nodding. One of the Government’s watchwords is social justice, but the social justice shown to coastguard watch officers is not at the highest level.

I am concerned that the response to the pay settlement—the re-grading—is often to add the shift allowance that MCA staff receive to the basic salary. I hope that the Minister does not confuse the picture or deflect us by including the shift allowance, to which people are entitled because they work antisocial hours. We must concentrate on the basic salary for people’s grade, and not confuse the issue by including the shift allowance.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a point well made. I am sure that the Minister heard it as well. We all know that the problem lies at the Treasury. The Minister must impress on the Treasury the need to deal with the matter properly. I urge him to stamp his feet if necessary—this is one he should jump in the ditch for.

Strike action was not taken lightly. Coastguard watch assistants, officers and managers have very solid support among MPs. A message should go to the Treasury and to the MCA about the strength of feeling among MPs. We feel that MCA staff should be treated fairly. They have a stressful job that they often have to do in distressing situations, as the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland and for Argyll and Bute said. Their pay grading needs to match that of the other emergency sectors.

The most surprising thing for me when I first got involved in this matter was to see how staff are treated, especially given the job that they do. It is a linchpin job. They may be co-ordinating the RNLI from their stations, they may be co-ordinating helicopters and they are often the interface with the public. The level of pay they receive for that job is shocking.

The other message to the Minister is that the measures we have described need to be taken now. The situation is urgent; it is dire. Coastguards have gone on strike for the first time in 180 years. They cannot give up; as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, this is not a time for string or sticky tape. It is a time for real, solid measures to be taken to ensure that we are not dealing with the matter again next year and that we can have conversations about issues other than the difficulty that people have in working for the coastguard.

I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record my support for coastguard staff in the dispute. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate, which is very important for many parts of the country. From speaking with constituents involved in the dispute, I am aware of the level of support in the MCA for the industrial action. I understand that in the ballot in December, 91 per cent. of those who voted did so for industrial action.

As many hon. Members have said, the problem has not come about overnight. It is a historical problem that has existed for many years in the coastguard service, where the levels of pay do not seem comparable to those in other parts of the public sector when we consider the skills, training and experience required in the posts. I therefore join other hon. Members in saying that we want not only a solution to the current dispute, but for the issue to be examined in the long term. It is not acceptable that emergency staff are having to take industrial action.

Today, I spoke to a constituent who is involved in the dispute. He fully supports the action, but he expressed concerns about the possible risks because there is only a skeleton service on the days when industrial action takes place. No one is more aware than those involved in the coastguard of the potential risks when industrial action takes place in such a service. That highlights the fact that it is an emergency service, and just as we say that members of the police service, the ambulance service and the fire brigade should be paid decently for the service they provide to the community, it is only right that we say that for the coastguard service, too.

I offer the Minister my support in any endeavours that he is making to secure funds from the Treasury. I do not think that the situation is of the Department for Transport’s making. The reasons for the present situation have arisen over many years. We have heard about the poverty pay in the service and the need to increase salaries as a result of the annual increases in the national minimum wage. As a Labour Member, I have to say that the fact that we have the national minimum wage means that at least those increases have been made. However, they highlight the fact that, for various reasons, we have ended up in this situation. I very much hope that attempts are made to get back round the table with the unions in meaningful discussions that will not only provide a solution to the dispute that we are dealing with today, but ensure that we do not have to have similar discussions in years to come.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this very important debate. I confess that it feels a bit strange to be responding from the Front Bench to my hon. Friend, who used to be my boss in the transport team and probably knows considerably more about all things watery than I do. I pay tribute to the work he has done to try to force the Government into action to deal with the ongoing dispute. As well as securing this debate, he has questioned the Prime Minister, called for a parliamentary statement from the Secretary of State and tabled early-day motion 1188 on Maritime and Coastguard Agency strike action, which has been backed by 68 right hon. and hon. Members from no fewer than six political parties.

I also pay tribute to the work done by MCA staff, who save lives daily. I express my appreciation to Paul Smith, the MCA section secretary for the Public and Commercial Services Union, for taking the time to discuss the union’s concerns with me and providing us all with a briefing for the debate. I record my interest as an active member of the PCS all-party group.

I shall touch on a number of issues, many of which have been mentioned. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the contingency arrangements for the strikes that have taken place and what action is planned to deal with any escalation of strike action. There has clearly been some difference of opinion between management and the PCS about the MCA’s ability to cope with the strikes.

In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland regarding contingency arrangements, the Minister referred to the redeployment of “experienced managers”. I would like to hear whether those experienced managers were experienced in the operational duties to which they were redeployed during the strikes. Does the Minister accept that the agency muddled through the one-day strikes, and that staff in Shetland did not strike because they were concerned about the safety implications of staff being away from work?

In the same written answer, the Minister confirmed that the agency would approach contingency planning for any future strike action in the same way. Given that strike action is likely to escalate into a 48-hour strike, I strongly urge him to review that decision, because from the perspective of the PCS, although the agency may have been able to muddle through during a 24-hour strike, it will simply not be able to cope with a 48-hour walkout.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to recruitment and retention in the MCA. When it was first established, the coastguard was a very different organisation. It tended to recruit staff who were just finishing a career at sea in either the merchant navy or the Royal Navy. They came ashore with a pension and saw an opportunity to remain in the industry by taking a job with the coastguard. For many, it was a way of supplementing their pension. Since then, the job has changed out of all recognition, but the pay structure remains stuck in the 1970s. As a result, the MCA has a real problem with recruitment and retention. Yes, people are still coming into the service, but many leave within the first couple of years, fully trained and often going to better-paid jobs in which their experience is better remunerated. Between 2003 and 2007, of 175 new recruits, 41 left within two years and, as my hon. Friend said, of all staff leaving the service between 2003 and 2007, almost 50 per cent. left with less than two years of service.

In answer to another written question from my hon. Friend, the Minister confirmed that more than £1.1 million was spent on recruitment between 2003 and 2007. Some of that money would have been better spent trying to retain fully trained staff.

In the summer of 2006, management and the trade unions agreed during their pay negotiations that management would undertake a comparability study, examining pay levels in the agency and those of other emergency services and similar staff. It was understood that the work would delay the 2006 pay discussions, but it was thought essential by unions and management and therefore worth while. The work was undertaken by KIS-Solutions Ltd.

The report was produced on 6 December 2006. However, it was not published or made available except to those involved in the pay negotiations. Its analysis demonstrated that although a range of salary levels is paid to ambulance, fire service and police control room staff, who enjoy varying conditions of service, they have a consistent pay lead over MCA staff who work in operation rooms. In addition, levels of responsibility and accountability vary considerably, with MCA staff having the most involvement in ongoing operations. Management’s response was to dismiss the report, declaring that it was of no value. It proposed a below-inflation pay offer that did not maintain cost of living increases or address the long-standing problem of pay comparability.

Following the appointment of Peter Cardy as the MCA’s chief executive in June 2007, agreement was reached on carrying out a further comparability study. The final draft was broadly agreed by the PCS in September 2007 but it was rejected by Prospect, the other union involved. Joint work highlighted a shortfall in salary for a watch assistant, estimated to be in the region of up to £4,500, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members.

PCS has always been ready to accept benchmarking against the other emergency services, despite the fact that MCA staff maintain control of operations until their completion, quite unlike the police, the fire service and ambulance services. It is true that MCA staff do not handle as many calls as the other emergency services, but they have to make tough decisions about when to call off a search. Such decisions cannot be taken lightly. The agency accepts that pay levels need addressing, but it has failed to come up with a solution.

In December 2007, the unions were informed that management wished to make a pay offer that would cover a four-year period—one that would

“go a long way to addressing concerns over pay levels”.

However, it was never made because permission to make the offer was withdrawn.

The real sticking point is the Government’s current drive to keep down public sector pay awards. In January Peter Cardy said:

“Anything that we might want to do is constrained by public sector pay policy. So even if we had the money…We would not be in a position to pay more than the Treasury will allow us to pay.”

That merely confirmed what the Minister said in a letter to Paul Smith of PCS in November:

“You are aware of the Prime Minister’s and the Chancellor’s position on public sector pay, which applies as much to the MCA as it does to the rest of the Department and the Civil Service more generally. It is clear that the MCA will need to operate within the context of that wider pay policy and the need to control public spending.”

That is a smokescreen. The dispute is not about an annual pay award, although public sector workers are understandably concerned at receiving pay increases much lower than the increased cost of living. No; it is about long-standing pay levels that fall significantly behind comparable workers in the other emergency services.

I suspect that most people would be shocked to hear that some workers will get a pay rise in October simply to avoid falling below the new minimum wage. That is not acceptable. The Minister is a reasonable man. We need to hear from him that the Government accept that the dispute is not about this year’s pay award. It is about fairness, and ensuring that staff are paid a salary that reflects their high level of responsibility and is comparable to workers in other emergency services. We would like the Government to commit themselves to resolving the dispute. We would like the Minister to agree to a binding, independent review of pay for staff in the MCA.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on calling this debate. The topic is important and, as a number of hon. Members have said, proper discussion of it by the House is long overdue.

Before getting down to the serious matter of pay, I wish to pick out three points that featured in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The first is that the Government have been warned about contingency planning and the problems that may arise if things go wrong during a two-day or three-day strike. Secondly, because of the MCA’s structure, those in its top tier are, in a sense, professionally divorced. I do not attack any individual, but the top tier managers come from a different pool from those who work at the sharp end. That is a point for further thinking. Thirdly, I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that we must not lose sight of the position of the many thousands of volunteers in the MCA, of which he said his father was a distinguished member. I shall return to that subject later.

The coastguards have become the forgotten emergency service. Although 95 per cent. of all goods by weight imported into this country come by sea, few of us make more than a short ferry trip in a vessel. I bow to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) and his fishing experience. I have in my constituency a small group of fishermen who play an important part in the community. Day by day and week by week, we all see the activities of the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance service, but it is all too easy to forget the essential work of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Almost everything that arrives in our shops or appears on our plates that has been imported has come by sea. The MCA is the glue that holds the whole thing together in the United Kingdom. It regulates our position as a flag state and as a port state; it inspects all British ships and keeps an eye on foreign-flagged ships entering UK harbours. However, our debate has focused on its most vital work, which is co-ordinating rescues. The 1,250 staff of the MCA answered more than 21,000 distress calls last year, with almost 50,000 seafarers potentially at risk.

When I visited my local coastguard headquarters in Dover—the visit was kindly facilitated by the Minister, who took some trouble to overcome the various complications mentioned by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell)—I was struck by one image: a photograph of a group of volunteers, led by a full-time coastguard professional, abseiling down a cliff to rescue a young woman who had fallen over the edge. Normally, those who fall over the cliff do not survive. Miraculously, her fall was broken at 120 ft by a fridge that had been illegally dumped. If the House will forgive my levity on such a serious subject, it gives a new meaning to recycling! That case reminds us, of course, that MCA staff do not save only people out at sea.

The storms earlier this year, in which we saw three large ships founder, should help to focus all our minds on the dangers still inherent in the seafarer’s life. According to the MCA’s report, of the more than 1,400 ships registered in the UK, an average of 150 are involved in a maritime incident of some kind each year. To add a footnote to that, the bishop who is the head of the Apostleship of the Sea, in a moving speech in the Speaker’s apartments two or three years ago, reminded us that although a spillage of oil invariably gets national and international headlines for days on end, the deaths of mariners at sea frequently only make the smallest entry in the media. The coastguard is of course involved in both situations.

Coastguards must co-ordinate a bewildering number of different bodies when they answer a call, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, military search and rescue teams—there are plans for all rather than some of the helicopters involved to be operated by MCA by 2012—mountain and cave rescue teams for incidents on cliffs, and ambulance and fire crews. Kent Fire and Rescue Service is often involved in offshore work. In addition, coastguards have their own search and rescue teams on the coastline. The men and women of the MCA deserve our praise and admiration.

When visiting the Dover headquarters, I was mightily impressed with the way in which the people there, who are experts on the sea, used every kind of modern technology. The dual-tracking system, based on satellite tracking and radar, gives the lie to the idea of the old sea dog gazing through a telescope, although they also had a nice pair of high-powered binoculars—the mark 1 eyeball is always there as a back-up. We must accept that those people have been treated shabbily.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. At the beginning of his speech, he warned of the consequences of a two or three-day pay dispute. I should tell the Minister that anything that arises from the dispute could be really bad news for the Government. The PCS is looking for only £3 million to resolve the dispute, which seems like a small amount when we consider that the Treasury found £2.6 billion at the stroke of a pen last week.

I shall respond directly to the hon. Gentleman’s point toward the end of my speech.

Because of below-inflation pay increases, some staff have found that their salaries have slipped to minimum wage levels, as hon. Members pointed out. Police officers and firefighters have a starting salary of around £20,000, but coastguards start on little more than £12,000. The salaries for watch officers and watch managers are also very low when compared with similar positions in other emergency services. Inflation is soaring, so a pay rise of only 2.5 per cent. has understandably infuriated some of the most dedicated and professional men and women in the public service.

That has brought about the first three strikes in professional coastguard history—the Government should not be proud of that record—and has led to the haemorrhaging of staff. The latter has been referred to a number of times and I do not wish to repeat the detailed figures provided by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), but I echo the point that was made by a number of hon. Members on the increase in training and advertising budgets, which is money wasted. To clarify, money spent on training is not wasted per se—training is essential—but it is if it relates to unnecessary levels of turnover.

That is not the only area where the coastguard is being let down. Last year, volunteer coastguards went out on their first strike because the Government refused to give them proper insurance for their work. As a consequence, one coastguard who was seriously injured on a rescue mission up a cliff in Pembrokeshire—the injury was so serious that it cost him his job—did not get compensation worth even half his old salary, and that payment was only temporary. Coastguards rely on volunteers for a range of activities, but particularly for cliff rescue. Men and women are prepared to spend their leisure time training so that they can be on stand-by night and day to launch a rescue mission. The treatment of those volunteers is no way to keep their good will; they could easily vote with their feet and do something else in their spare time.

The management of the voluntary sector is another challenge for the MCA to face. My father was a coastguard auxiliary in an area that he knew intimately because he had worked there as a shepherd with other shepherds. However, there are no shepherds left in that area—the ground is largely unknown to the next generation, who do not know the cliff paths to the shoreline, for example. That range of local, highly detailed expertise will be lost.

The hon. Gentleman has put a point of considerable significance on the record. I shall not comment further because he made it so well.

Two groups of strikes—three days of professional action and a single volunteer strike—have taken place in a sector that has never before taken industrial action, which is an indictment of the Government’s approach to the coastguards. We know what has caused the problem: it is not the lack of an energetic Minister in post—the Minister knows that I have the highest personal admiration for him—but that the public finances are in a terrible mess. The official excuse used by the Government to justify the situation is that they need to keep pay increases down generally to fight inflation. However, inflation is running at 4 per cent. on the retail prices index, so offering only a 2.5 per increase means that the salaries of those men and women is reduced.

The sad truth is that we cannot make reasonable pay increases in some parts of the public sector because there is not enough money in the kitty. Borrowing figures for this year have risen exponentially. In March 2006, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer predicted that Government borrowing would be £25 billion in 2008-09, but within a year it had almost doubled to £40 billion. When the current Chancellor introduced his first Budget, borrowing was £43 billion, and by the second, emergency Budget, it had crossed the £45 billion mark.

The Government have run out of money and any incoming Government would be in the same situation—neck deep in debt. Because of the deteriorating state of the public finances, nobody is in a position to make a firm promise at the next election to raise coastguards’ salaries to a given figure. However, I can tell the House that I have had a fruitful discussion, given the extreme circumstances, with the Conservatives’ Treasury team, and I have their approval to say that if our party is elected, we will review the MCA’s position in the context of comparison with the other emergency services.

I am pleased to hear talk of a review, but have the Conservative Treasury team made any substantial promise of money? That is the nub of the issue.

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. By agreeing to a review in the context of the other public emergency services, and knowing that the MCA’s position is different, the Treasury team have made a considerable concession. Clearly, no party or Government would give a blank cheque to a review and guarantee that any proposals will be implemented in full; they must first see what comes up in the review. Not because the sums involved are large—the hon. Gentleman and others have pointed out that they are small—but because of the precedent that any measure could set for other sectors, the transport and Treasury teams have agreed to hold a review in the context of the other emergency services.

That Her Majesty’s coastguards, both professional and volunteer, have felt compelled to go out on strike should be a source of considerable shame for the Government. The Minister knows that I do not blame him personally—the blame for our disintegrating economy lies a lot further up the ministerial pay scale—but he should apologise to the brave men and women who guard our coasts and take the responsibility of co-ordinating not only rescue operations, but the routine work beforehand. They deserve our gratitude, so it is sad to see them voting with their feet.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton.

Let me say how much the Government—and I personally—value the excellent work done by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The MCA is a complex UK-wide organisation with a world-class reputation. Its coastguards are renowned for providing an outstanding maritime emergency response and search-and-rescue service. Its marine surveyors are well respected throughout the industry for their professionalism and experience. All permanent MCA staff, supported by 3,500 volunteers, make a major contribution to the UK’s international high standing in matters of maritime safety, security and environmental protection. It is therefore particularly disappointing that the agency finds itself in the midst of protracted industrial action.

I hope that I will be able to clear up at least some of the misunderstandings that have inevitably grown up around the facts of this case. As hon. Members know, the public sector pay envelope is tight. In that respect, I acknowledge the statement made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and the commitment that he has from his shadow team. MCA staff are public sector employees, and their pay awards must be consistent with the Government’s public sector pay policy.

We are making the case that the coastguards’ pay levels are an historical exception. If the Minister could find the £3 million in his departmental budget—the roads budget, by contrast, is about £13 billion—would the Treasury allow him to pay it to the coastguards?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will return to the way forward later. If he will let me, however, I first want to lay out the position.

Under the 2007 pay deal, which was imposed in March 2008, MCA staff received an average increase of 3.8 per cent., with some individuals receiving just over 7 per cent. In addition, some staff received a non-consolidated pay bonus, while most staff received an element of performance-related pay. At the current rates of pay, as colleagues have said, a coastguard watch assistant—the most junior grade in the coastguard—who works only day shifts will earn between £12,509 and £14,384. However, most CWAs work a range of shifts and are therefore also entitled to a 25 per cent. shift allowance. Typically, staff at that level who work a range of shifts earn about £16,500 per annum, which rises to a maximum of almost £18,000. A coastguard watch officer with a couple of years’ experience who works a range of shifts will earn between £20,000 and £23,400. Of course, there are other benefits, including membership of the principal civil service pension scheme, with its range of guaranteed benefits for individual members and their dependants, as well as six weeks’ annual leave.

Much has been made of the comparison between the pay of MCA staff and staff in other organisations, but such comparisons are largely unhelpful because, in many ways, the MCA is a unique organisation. On closer examination, there are often significant differences between the roles and responsibilities of staff holding similar positions in apparently comparable organisations. One example is the number of emergency calls received.

Several hon. Members have suggested that contingency planning was put together with string and sticky tape, to quote the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, but I can assure him that the arrangements have worked well. If there are longer disruptions, appropriate contingency arrangements will obviously have to be put in place.

I want to take the Minister back to something that he said 30 seconds or a minute ago about comparability. He seems to be moving away from saying that the work of the coastguards is comparable to that of other emergency services. Can he confirm that that is not the case? To my mind, there is a strong case for saying that there is comparability; indeed, if that were not the case, it is difficult to understand why MCA management would have undertaken so many exercises to establish where that comparability put its staff.

My point was that it is not as straightforward as saying that there is a simple comparison between the different organisations. For example, the coastguard receives about 23,000 emergency calls per annum, as one or two colleagues said. However, the fire service receives 690,000 calls, the ambulance service receives 2.7 million and the police receive 5.7 million. That is the scale of the calls involved.

I am sure that the Minister does not want to mislead hon. Members, but the MCA is a much smaller organisation than the others that he mentioned. Surely, he should quote the statistics per employee, not the global statistics.

I fully accept that. All that I was saying is that it is not that easy to draw direct, automatic, parallel comparisons—there are differences in scale.

I hope that the Minister does not try simply to pass over this issue. I entirely agree that the level at which pay should be set across the whole public sector is an entirely separate issue; the nub of the issues before us is comparability and regrading. Is he saying that, having looked at the report, he is content that the administrative assistant, administrative officer and executive officer gradings given to watch assistants, watch officers and watch managers are appropriate to those jobs?

What I am setting out, as I will explain in more detail in a moment, is what we believe is the way forward in terms of the skills and roles of coastguards.

In only one case did direct comparisons and comparators, as well as studies involving job roles in other emergency services, find a fair job match. In another case, there was a good job match between CWAs and firefighters in the most junior grades. There are therefore difficulties with those comparators, although I recognise that they have been put forward very strongly by the unions.

The numerical comparisons that the Minister makes are dangerous and spurious. We could look at the police force and say that rural policemen—certainly on some of the Hebridean islands in my constituency—are scrabbling around to look for cases, when cases are landing on people’s doorsteps in central London. Numerical comparisons are therefore in no way instructive. MPs and the PCS are saying that the value of the service far outweighs anything suggested by spurious numerical comparisons. If we do look at numerical comparisons, however, we should look at the number of cases per head. The MCA has 700 employees, but other organisations have vastly more.

I hear exactly what the hon. Gentleman says. The only point that I was making was that the comparators are not directly parallel or as simple as they might seem. However, I do not completely eliminate them as legitimate issues for unions and staff to put forward when seeking to show that certain issues should be addressed.

Does the Minister accept that one could argue that the coastguards have more responsibility than call centre workers in other emergency services because they deal with the emergency from the start to the finish, rather than just taking the initial call and passing it on?

Similar situations arise in other services—I would not classify them. I know that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to refer to call centre workers and that he was in fact talking about emergency call handlers with a very sophisticated role to perform. I recognise the duty that they perform in dealing with an incident from start to finish, which can be a very protracted process. However, that also happens in other emergency services, although perhaps not to the same degree.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the fact that there was no coastguard on the board of the MCA. The MCA’s executive board fully understands and appreciates what coastguards do. It includes a wealth of experience in the maritime sector, including as search and rescue practitioners, in some cases, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) wanted an assurance that we are engaging with the Treasury. I assure him from my limited experience as an Under-Secretary that every Department in Government engages with the Treasury at every opportunity, just as every agency within the Department for Transport engages with Ministers to seek the best level of resourcing that it can get. Government Departments do that with the Treasury and the Treasury does it with the taxpayer. The climate at present is one in which taxpayers say they are being soaked too much. We may argue about priorities but even the Liberal Democrat leader said yesterday that we must cut taxes, and that involves priorities. I shall perhaps return to the issue of the direction of priorities, but as to the assurance that I have been giving that every Department engages with the Treasury, Government policy is well documented. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) made a similar point.

I fully understand and appreciate what the Minister says about his engagement with the Treasury. I understand and appreciate, too, the way in which public sector pay awards are debated across the board—which is, I am sure, the nature of the Minister’s discussions. However, may I be reassured that the Department and the Minister have the freedom to engage in and resolve issues of regrading and comparability without recourse to the Treasury?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall return to that point later in my remarks. I can tell him, in response to a question that was also asked by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, that the average increase for staff in post in 2008-09 will be in the region of 3.75 per cent., as compared with less than 3.5 per cent. for 2007-08. The MCA can target higher than average increases at specialists, and elsewhere where there are greater than average recruitment problems. Any changes to the MCA’s recruitment and retention data since the submission of the 2007-08 remit in January will be taken into account in this year’s remit by the Treasury.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) questioned the capability of managers to provide contingency cover during disputes. Many of the managers who provided support on strike days have practical experience of search and rescue techniques and practices. The hon. Member for Canterbury raised the question of the drop in morale, and the importance to the service of compensation. Volunteers are very important to the Department and to the MCA. We have carried out a review of their work and are working with them to implement the outcome of that review. For example, we have started to carry out further health checks, to ensure that volunteers carry out their duties with the minimum risk to their personal health. The MCA is now reviewing compensation arrangements and expects to make an announcement in due course.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington kindly said that I am a reasonable man, and suggested that I needed to do more with the Treasury. I think I can safely say that I am the only former emergency service worker present who has been on strike over pay against a Labour Government. I remember my own dispute and the nine weeks that we spent on strike, so my question is where we go from here. I have heard at first hand about the frustration and dissatisfaction that many staff feel about the pay structure. I probably should declare that I have family in the service, but I shall not say more, because it would be very unfair on my mum’s cousin if I said who and where he is. The trade unions have made their members’ views very clear, directly to me, and through the fact that many staff supported the recent strike action, which was the first in the history of the agency.

The chief executive and senior management of the agency are taking a long hard look at what can be done within the existing MCA pay structure to improve the situation for the most junior grades. For example, the review of CWA posts has resulted in some junior staff being regraded as watch officers, with a consequent uplift in pay. In addition, I understand that there have been discussions on a new pay structure, specifically for vessel traffic service operators. That does not change the fact that the public sector pay envelope is very tight and will remain so for the foreseeable future. We want people to be paid appropriately, particularly when taking on new tasks or increasing their work load, but that must be within the Government’s public sector framework. That means that management, staff, trade unions and Government need to be more inventive in using the resources that are available within the framework. For the MCA it means thinking long and hard about the work that it does, how it might need to be done differently in the future, and how the agency might need to be organised to do it more effectively.

Challenges are also being posed by new developments in the industry as a whole. There is no doubt that the maritime sector is changing. The increasing size of commercial vessels, developments in offshore renewable energy and the growth in recreational use of the sea all bring new challenges for the agency, in managing the sea safely for commercial and leisure users alike, and in new pressures on the specialists who make up the agency’s staff.

I do not think that any of us would really take issue with what the Minister says about the need for long-term reform. That is understood by the operational staff. However, we should have been having this conversation three or four years ago. Now morale in the agency is already through the floor. I want to hear from the Minister what he will do about changing that. Jam tomorrow just does not cut it any more.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and have heard it from the unions. I understand the pressure that hon. Members, staff and the unions feel, and I acknowledge it. I shall try to explain where I think we shall go from here in my last few comments.

A broader remit and a more sophisticated use of available technologies will also lead to a demand for new skills and work practices. Those in turn will inevitably require a new pay structure. The MCA senior management have already made a start. There has been a fundamental reorganisation of the agency’s headquarters staffing structure, bringing together all its customer-facing parts. To improve the strategic leadership focus of the agency the chief executive is reducing the number of directors from five to three. To take things further to the point at which new pay structures might be developed, the current industrial action needs to be replaced by a willingness on both sides to talk about the future and the positive challenges that it could bring the agency. There are, I am sorry to say, no quick fixes available. The MCA management and unions need to sit around a table to discuss the relationship between pay and the future work of the agency. It would be very disappointing if maritime safety and the UK’s reputation as a well respected maritime administration were to suffer because of an inability to find a solution to the current dispute. It would be in no one’s interest for that to happen.

We had a comparability study in 2006, and we have the pay benchmarking analysis from 2007. People have been around the table and done the work, but the situation still gets worse.

I again acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman who secured the debate says. I must repeat that for this year the settlement has been imposed. We are interested in considering, as we have been discussing with other areas of the public sector, multi-year deals. For next year that is probably not practicable, because of where we are in the negotiating cycle with the Treasury for next year’s remit. We must get to grips with what we are putting into the Treasury, which means that the MCA and unions must work out exactly where they are going.

This year’s pay settlement was imposed, and so was last year’s, and so, I think, was the one for 2006. Is that how we are going to solve this?

Sadly, if we are unable to reach agreement on pay settlements, imposition is clearly the only way in which we can get the money that is available into people’s pockets, despite the dissatisfaction that individuals feel, because of the nature of pay dealings. I am not happy about the situation; neither, clearly, are hon. Members, nor the staff and unions. The management of the MCA are not happy either. They need to work out the demands for this year, and the new structures and skills, and make the bid for the upskilling of staff.