[Mr Mike Hancock in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock. I am pleased to have secured this debate, which is on a subject I believe to be of great concern to coastal communities and seafarers alike. I sought the debate so that the House could discuss the changes proposed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to reorganise our coastguard service.
I welcome the recognition given in the proposals to the importance of a volunteer coastguard service. I recognise the importance of improving incomes and career structures for the coastguards; doing so will resolve years of industrial action. However, I am deeply concerned about some aspects of the proposed changes.
I am sure that all Members here today share my pride in the work of the coastguards in our communities. As a nation, we are reliant on the sea for trade and commerce. Our economy depends on a well-managed maritime environment; 95% of all UK trade is shipped to and from the rest of the globe.
Shipping is the UK’s primary means of transport not only for commerce; we also depend on shipping to meet our energy requirements. As much as 80% of the world’s liquid fuel energy resources is transported by sea. If even a single tanker carrying liquefied natural gas were to fail to reach our shores, the lights in UK homes and factories would go out within a week. In short, our security and prosperity are almost entirely dependent on a well-managed maritime environment, and the coastguards provide an essential service in enabling that to happen.
It is not only large commercial shipping that uses our seas. Consider for a moment our fishing industry, which is important to many coastal communities, and the pleasure craft used by tourists and water-sport enthusiasts alike. I know that many constituencies benefit from the tourism industry, and I am well aware of the role that it plays for my constituents in Cornwall, with more than £1.6 billion being spent by visitors each year. All of that could be jeopardised by a single oil tanker losing control or being damaged in bad weather. Only an effective coastguard service could prevent that from happening or minimise the impact of such events.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She mentions the possibility of an incident happening that could devastate her constituency. Does she not agree that she may be looking through the wrong end of the telescope at the proposals of the Government and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? It is about cost savings; it is not an insurance policy for the communities she mentions.
On the question of the cost savings, does my hon. Friend not agree that a comparison needs to be made with the previous Government’s proposal to regionalise fire service control rooms, which is costing the country well over £400 million, and rising? If we contrast that with the Government’s current proposal, such modernisation is likely to cost, rather than save, the Government money.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I think it best to leave it to the Minister to answer that question, as he has experience of the impact of regionalisation of the fire service.
I reassure the House that every coastguard I have spoken to has said that the service needs modernisation. The maritime environment is changing fast in many ways. Commercial ships are getting bigger and are less manoeuvrable, and we have more drilling rigs and offshore installations such as wind farms, not to mention the growth in privately owned pleasure craft. The shipping lanes around our shores are more congested and our climate is changing, with more unpredictable and volatile weather. The result is that the seas are becoming more hazardous. Many more people are participating in water sports of all kinds, and millions visit our coastline. They all need a modern coastguard service.
I congratulate the hon. Lady most sincerely on securing this debate. In Northern Ireland we have an unusual, indeed unique, set of circumstances. The one remaining coastguard is based at Bangor in my constituency. As well as looking after maritime emergencies, it is responsible for inland stretches of water, including the huge area of Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. It is also the only officially designated coastguard in the UK nominated by the Irish Government to act in the event of an emergency off the Donegal coast.
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution.
I am reassured by the commitment given by the chief executive of the MCA, Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Massey. He said that he will evaluate what people have to say, including what is said here today. I appreciate the fact that he is able to be here to listen to our debate. He said that
“all those with an interest in what we do and how we do it will take this opportunity”
to be part of the consultation process. I am reassured by that, and his presence here today underlines that commitment.
I shall make a little more progress before giving way again.
The MCA has developed its proposals over a number of years. The previous Government ducked the question of modernisation because they feared a backlash of public opinion. Having reviewed the proposals and discussed them with the coastguards at the Falmouth marine rescue and co-ordination centre, I am disappointed that significant areas of work undertaken at Falmouth for the nation have been missed from the consultation documents. It is particularly disappointing that none of the architects of the plans visited or discussed ideas for modernisation with the front-line team at Falmouth before the proposals were published. Had they done so, we could have had a better set of proposals.
We are very proud of the international rescue centre at Falmouth. It sits below the castle built by Henry VIII to protect the entrance to the Carrick roads, the third largest natural harbour in the world and the most westerly safe haven for ships. It is the Atlantic gateway to England. The port of Falmouth currently handles more than 4,000 shipping movements a year, and the Fal estuary has room for more than 10,000 leisure craft. As a result of European Union air quality directives, ships crossing the Atlantic have to bunker in Falmouth.
Falmouth coastguard station is responsible for search and rescue services for more than 450 miles of coastline and 660,000 square miles of the north Atlantic. It has the largest rescue area of any UK coastguard station, and it clearly has huge responsibility for safety at sea. Not surprisingly, given its location, Falmouth co-ordinates international rescues at sea, as well on the coastline.
Falmouth is the one point of contact for British ships anywhere in the world. In short, when a distress signal is sent, it goes to Falmouth. Falmouth is listening, and Falmouth takes action. Falmouth is also the UK co-ordinator of the global maritime distress and safety system, which assists vessels in distress. That includes the emergency position indicating radio beacon, which identifies stricken vessels anywhere in the world and co-ordinates the search directly or relays the information to the relevant authority.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Falmouth is a pivotal station, and not having the skills that are available there would be a great loss to the nation. I doubt whether the skills of that station could be replicated elsewhere. Local staff have emphasised to me that the consultation was about one proposal, and that no alternatives were put forward. Many of the staff, who were not consulted at all, believe that alternatives should be considered, including those put forward by staff at Falmouth and at other look-out stations.
When I come to that point, I will make a suggestion that I hope will be carefully considered.
The Falmouth coastguard carries out a long list of specialist functions, which, following his recent visit, Sir Alan Massey is now aware of and will be able to take into consideration in the consultation process. It is one of three specialist centres, along with Aberdeen, which is responsible for the North sea oil platforms and drilling rigs, and the Solent, which handles the English channel. As would be expected, both those centres maintain a 24-hour watch, but Falmouth is to be downgraded to daylight operations. Such inconsistency must be addressed.
I should like to make some progress. I appreciated the meeting that I had with Sir Alan Massey and his team yesterday to listen to their rationale for their proposals for Falmouth. They were generous with their time, but I remain unconvinced of their case. I agree that there is a lack of resilience in the current system and the pairing arrangement. I agree that if Falmouth was hit by lightning, as I was told yesterday it has been on a few occasions, there would be a problem. I also agree that networking all the stations around the UK will enable a greater flexibility in managing resources and improve the skills of coastguards in other UK stations. Moreover, it would enable better management of peaks in demand on the service. It is a good idea to share the expertise and international relationships that the Falmouth coastguard has developed with other UK coastguards to ensure a resilient service.
I will give way in a moment. Nevertheless, Falmouth should continue with its 24-hour cover as the leading international rescue centre, and it will be backed up by the network of coastguards in the rest of the UK. That would address the stated aims of the proposals by improving resilience and creating a more flexible service that is able to cope with the anticipated growth in demand and peaks and troughs of demand in the service. It simply does not make sense and is a waste of money to develop a new centre and recruit and train staff in Southampton, in order to replicate what is recognised to work so well in Falmouth.
Falmouth’s reputation for international search and rescue is world renowned, and its expertise has been built up over many years. The monitoring and rescue work carried out by Falmouth coastguard is not, as has been suggested, a UK humanitarian gesture; it is absolutely a legal requirement of the UK Government.
In the past two years, Falmouth coastguard station has handled 7,356 incidents, of which 4,590 were specifically search-and-rescue missions. That makes Falmouth the busiest station in the whole UK for search and rescue. Out of those incidents, a third took place at night, between 8 o’clock in the evening and 8 o’clock in the morning. Under the current proposals, that is when the station would be closed.
I have noted from the graphs provided by the MCA’s consultation document that Falmouth, compared with all other coastguard stations, does not have as much variation in its work load from month to month, and nor does the work load disappear at night, as the MCA argues. In other words, while the MCA is correct in its assertion that coastguard stations are generally busier during the day and during the summer months, Falmouth is almost unique in being busy at any hour of the day throughout the entire year. The argument that the station does not have to be manned during night hours due to a lack of work and seasonal variations does not hold water.
Order. I remind Members that 12 Members want to take part in the debate. Interventions must be short and to the point otherwise Members will be very disappointed. If the intervention is really necessary, fine. If not, I urge Members to be respectful of other Members who want to speak in this debate.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend is saying about her concerns with regard to Falmouth. If Brixham, my coastguard station, goes, Falmouth and Southampton, which is 200 miles away, will have to cope with something like 1,500 incidents, if last year’s figures are typical.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. The Falmouth coastguards have developed effective working relationships with other services in the area, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the RNAS Culdrose where the search and rescue helicopters are based, Falmouth harbour commissioner for the co-ordination of tug boats to guide and protect larger vessels, maritime fire services and the emergency ship repairer, A&P Falmouth. Remember that any vessel coming in from the Atlantic, large or small and in distress, will rely on Falmouth for assistance. That includes the volunteers of the Mission to Seafarers, which takes distressed mariners under its wing. Such close working relationships have been cultivated over decades.
The Falmouth station has achieved many positive outcomes. Take, for instance, the Fryderyk Chopin, a Polish ship carrying 36 teenagers, or the MSC Napoli, which was holed during a storm and forced to beach in Lyme bay. Were it not for the constant reassurance and effective search and rescue co-ordination provided by the Falmouth station, the outcomes of those recent incidents would have been very different. I might add that both those high profile incidents, which took place in the glare of the world’s media, occurred at night, and that is precisely when the MCA wishes the station to be closed.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on making such a powerful case. Another recent high profile incident was the running aground of a nuclear submarine off the west coast of Scotland. Clyde coastguard agency, which is based in my constituency, has, in addition to all the commercial pressure she mentions, the responsibility of being the home of our nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed deterrent. Her constituency is outraged at Falmouth’s being downgraded, but in my constituency, there is a proposal to close the coastguard station. Does she not, therefore, accept the point made by the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) that there is a need to consider alternatives and not adopt this one-size-fits-all approach?
That is just the sort of point that I was hoping that hon. Members from all parties could make to the Minister today.
The MCA’s headquarters has not sent any formal training programme or competence framework to Falmouth. Instead, staff from the Falmouth station have used their own initiative to manage and adapt these functions and to tailor them to suit the needs of the mariners under their care. Years of dedication and experience have allowed the officers to develop and modify policies accordingly. Allowing these men and women to work out their own practices, rather than adhering to centrally controlled diktats has meant that Falmouth has developed best practice not only in the UK but across the globe. International partners will often look to Falmouth to see how they can better manage and co-ordinate their waters. It is not uncommon to visit the Falmouth station and find international delegations there learning how the station operates. When they want to see how the UK coastguard system works, they do not go to the MCA headquarters in Southampton; they go straight to Falmouth. A south American country’s coastguards are instructed, “When in doubt, call the Falmouth coastguards.”
The hon. Lady talks about the local knowledge of the Falmouth coastguards, but that is something that can be lost across the entirety of our coastline. My constituency includes Rathlin island, the only inhabited island off the coast of Northern Ireland. If the skills of the coastguards there are lost, it will mean the loss of many more lives around our coast. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. Does she not agree that the proposals to pass co-ordination on to a yet-to-be-developed IT system and software system pose genuine concerns for the future protection of lives on our coast?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am very sceptical about the capabilities of some of the technology that is being advanced, and I will discuss that later. Even the MCA headquarters appreciates the best practice that has been worked out in Falmouth. It has published its work in the coastguard operations bulletin, which is a testament to its inventiveness, ingenuity and ability to solve problems quickly and efficiently.
Handing over the research and rescue co-ordination for such a large area to another marine operations centre will inevitably lead to a loss of efficiency, which will affect the outcomes of some incidents. Coastguards have expressed to me their grave concerns about the loss of local knowledge and the impact that that will have on the co-ordination of local coastal rescue.
I understand that, on his recent visit to Falmouth, Sir Alan Massey stated that the process of identifying the particular location of someone in distress and requiring urgent assistance will be longer than it is now, with a possible 10 minutes added to emergency response times.
I will not interrupt my hon. Friend for too long, but the assertion that the response time will be increased by 10 minutes is wrong. I do not know where that information comes from. The response time is five minutes now and it will be five minutes in future—that is important.
I am sure that everybody listening to this debate greatly appreciates that intervention and the reassurance given by my hon. Friend the Minister, because, as he knows from his experience in the fire service, minutes of delay in an emergency cost lives. That is a very welcome confirmation from the Minister, because that sort of delay—
Order. I ask Members to be a bit more careful and respectful of the other Members who want to speak. I want to get as many people in to speak as possible. The hon. Lady has now been speaking for 20 minutes and it will be difficult to get many Members in if the winding-up speeches start 20 minutes before the end of the debate. So please respect that.
Thank you, Mr Hancock.
Yesterday the MCA team told me that the location of someone calling 999 for assistance using either a land-line or a mobile phone could be identified by whichever coastguard answers the phone in any part of the UK, by using the latest technology. However, I remain sceptical of such claims and I worry about an ever-growing reliance on technology. How resilient are those networks?
During the same conversation with the MCA team yesterday, I was slightly reassured by the fact that the MCA proposals include the plan to test rigorously and evaluate each step of the new system before proceeding to the next stage. Those “gateways” acknowledge that the proposals will need real-life testing before implementation. Much more needs to be done to demonstrate the veracity of the claims made for the technology as well as the impact on response times. As the Minister knows, minutes of delay cost lives.
Although I have had only a short time to raise a few issues with the Minister today, I hope that he can reassure the people of Cornwall that he values the work of the Falmouth coastguard and, furthermore, that the views of the Falmouth coastguard and those of the Falmouth harbour commissioners, harbourmasters and mariners alike, who all have a great deal of experience of dealing with the coastguard service and who are all deeply concerned by the downgrading of the Falmouth coastguard station, are fully taken into account by the MCA consultation review team. Coastguards have publicly expressed grave concerns about the impact of the current proposals on safety and, quite understandably, there is a great deal of public opposition to the proposals to downgrade the Falmouth station and the other stations about which we have heard from Members today.
As I draw my remarks to a close, I want to reiterate one simple important point. All the aims of modernisation, which will provide a resilient 21st century coastguard service, of which the UK can continue to be proud, can be delivered with Falmouth’s coastguard remaining the jewel in the crown of the MCA, as the world-leading international marine and rescue centre.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Hancock. I will try to adhere to your request to keep contributions brief to enable other hon. Members to speak, because a considerable number of hon. Members are interested in this debate.
Of course, the announcement about the coastguard was made not in an oral statement to Parliament but by way of a written statement, and this is hon. Members’ first opportunity to debate the issue. One of the things that I will be asking the Minister for today is that we do not just have this Adjournment debate and that hon. Members have a fuller opportunity to debate this issue, because there are serious concerns about the implications of these proposals for the coastguard service, if they go ahead.
I speak as someone who represents a coastal constituency. Indeed, a considerable number of my constituents work in the coastguard service. My experience—I believe that others have also experienced this—is that the coastguard service has been treated differently from other emergency services for many years, not least regarding pay. Many hon. Members will be aware that coastguard officers often earn only in the region of £13,500 per year, despite the fact that they have not only responsible positions but positions that require a great deal of expertise developed over many years.
The proposals that we are discussing today will probably lead to more than 200 coastguard officers losing their jobs. In many areas of the country, particularly in Clyde, it is unlikely that any officers losing their jobs will be relocated within the coastguard service. The coastguard service at Greenock is in an area of high unemployment and deprivation. The reality is that the relocation schemes that are available to civil servants will not make relocation for individuals—for example, to Aberdeen, which is an area of high cost, or to the south of England—a reasonable prospect. Indeed, I have constituents who are in that position. They know that if they lose their job at Clyde when the coastguard station there closes—if that closure is allowed to go ahead—other opportunities will not be available.
I have been in another Committee, which is why I was not here earlier. This issue is important to my constituents and to the constituents of many hon. Members who are here in Westminster Hall today. Of course, my concern is particularly about the Forth coastguard station, which is on the other side of Scotland to my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Forth station is also proposed for closure. There is also a sub-centre that covers my constituency’s shoreline.
In the firth of Forth, we have three major oil and liquid gas terminals. We also have a new bridge and a number of anchorages, and a new wind farm is being built. Does my hon. Friend agree that the firth of Forth is another area where safety means that closure should not go ahead and that having one coastguard station for the whole of Scotland is not acceptable?
It is far from clear what criteria have been used to develop these proposals. I hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he will address that issue. It has been suggested that the Clyde coastguard station has been proposed as one of the stations that will close, because its lease is due to expire in the next few months and it is therefore cheaper to close that particular station than, for example, the station in Aberdeen, where the costs of closure would be extensive.
The hon. Lady has made an important point. The principles that are pushing this process are not the principles that should be pushing it. The considerations are not marine considerations, but real estate considerations. The Aberdeen situation is particularly interesting, because the MCA has problems with the leases on the Aberdeen building. In addition, the MCA has not considered the high turnover of staff in Aberdeen in comparison with other stations.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman has made some powerful points.
People who have not visited a coastguard station might be surprised to learn about the role of coastguards. The reality is that the way in which a station operates is that the operative who takes an emergency call usually stays in charge of that incident throughout the whole process, which hopefully leads to the person who called being rescued. That operative has to liaise with a range of other agencies, and they have to call on their own experience as a coastguard and on the knowledge that they have developed of the terrain in which they are operating. In the west of Scotland in particular, there is a huge amount of concern that if there is only one coastguard station in Scotland, much of the expertise and local knowledge that individuals have developed over many years would be lost.
The Clyde coastguard station’s area of responsibility is the largest coastguard area in the UK, and the station has 41 coastguard rescue teams under its control. There are 26 ferry operations to island communities in the area, including to Arran and Cumbrae in my own constituency, as well as a number of other ferry operations to other islands off the west coast of Scotland. If we include the sea lochs, which are part of the terrain in the area, there are 1,900 miles of coastline. I have always been told by those who work in the coastguard service that a huge amount of local knowledge acquired over many years is essential for the role of coastguard.
A similar point has been made to me by the staff at Crosby coastguard station in my constituency, which is listed as “Liverpool”. They say that in Liverpool bay and throughout the Irish sea there are many creeks, gullies, mudbanks and sandbanks. That local knowledge, from many decades of experience, is vital in shortening the time taken to get search and rescue to the right place.
My hon. Friend has made an incredibly important point. In the west coast of Scotland coastguard area, there are, I think, eight Tarbets, so when someone on a leisure craft phones the coastguards and tries to describe where they are, expertise and local knowledge are required to assist the distressed vessel.
The proposals seem to be based on the view that it will be possible for much of the slack to be taken up, and much of the work to be undertaken, by volunteers, who form a huge part of the coastguard service. Coastguards rely on their local knowledge to assist people in difficulties, but more than that they have to rely on the coastguard rescue teams, and it is surely wrong for more pressure to be put on those teams. As we develop the service, we should try to ensure that we do not have to rely on individuals who have work commitments of their own, and that we do not put them in a position in which they might be pressurised and get involved in incidents, because it is not possible for the paid structure to provide the service. The way in which we operate our coastguard system in this country is perhaps a cheap way of doing so, in that we rely on volunteers.
There are particular concerns about the west of Scotland, both because of the terrain and, increasingly, because of the number of vessels—including leisure vessels—with the extension of marinas and of sailing on that coast. Will the Minister indicate the criteria that have been used to come forward with the proposals? Given the great concern among hon. Members, will he ensure that there are further opportunities to debate these issues?
I shall do away with the niceties, apart from congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this exceptionally important debate. However, I will say something else that is a bit of a nicety—I do not want to suggest that the Minister is in any way committed to increasing risk for the people of this nation. He and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) both served in the fire service, and they are absolutely committed to the safety of one and all in a far stronger way than I have ever been.
I welcome several of the proposals and believe that change is required. I recognise that changes in technology and the evolving nature of our seas mean that the status quo is not always necessary. I was surprised to discover, as a result of the consultation, that most of our coastguard stations are linked only to each other, and particularly that Thames and Yarmouth are not linked. Those are the two coastguard stations that cover my constituency, with the Yarmouth centre covering down to about Southwold, and the Thames centre at Walton-on-the-Naze coming up the other way. I welcome changes that mean that coastguard centres will be working together, regardless of numbers. I also welcome the changes that will enhance the volunteer side, and I understand that aspects of pay might be being looked at, so that we can invest in the people who remain in the coastguard service.
I want to point out a few issues that relate to my constituency and to try to get some clarity from the Minister. The consultation document discusses how the seas are becoming more congested and how ships are getting larger. It talks about oil carriers, a busier coastline and extreme weather conditions that lead to increased coastal flooding. All those issues apply fully and squarely to my constituency, where we have the largest container port in the country at Felixstowe and, as of April 2011, the only area within inshore coastal waters where ship-to-ship oil transfers are allowed. I recognise that 70% of incidents involve leisure vessels—a high proportion of activities up and down the coast, and in and out of the creeks and estuaries, are leisure based—in addition to incidents in the shipping lanes around Felixstowe.
I am interested to understand how the decisions about which centres should remain open were made. Yarmouth and Thames both respond to a large number of incidents, of which there are more than in Dover. Dover also has responsibility for the Dover strait and the Channel Navigation Information Service. I would have thought that the number of incidents handled by each centre would have come into the review, but I do not see how that has been addressed. On a broader point about the Border Agency, I would have thought that the coastguard service would be one of the links in trying to ensure that we have safer borders. In the consultation, there is a focus on allowing senior managers to free up time to have such a relationship with other partners. The police are specifically mentioned, and I assume that that relates not only to people’s safety but to crime and other such activities.
The narrative from my constituents includes the assumption that the closure of the coastguard centres means that there will be no full-time paid coastguards delivering the service. It would be helpful if the Minister were to clarify whether in areas where coastguard centres are to be closed, we will rely solely on volunteers. If that is the case, I will be genuinely concerned. I share the coastguard at Lowestoft, and its branch at Southwold, with my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and the teams there are about 60% full. Southwold has five vacancies and Lowestoft seven, which means that we have only three people on the Southwold team.
The consultation document also mentions some of the roles that the coastguard will have in the future—vessel traffic monitoring, for example. It talks about how automatic identification systems provide
“precise real time data up to about 30 miles from the coast”,
which is welcome, but it also states:
“In the coming years the development of Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) will mean that ships can be tracked over much longer distances”.
It would be interesting to understand the time scale for that, and how it will fit into the role of vessel traffic monitoring. There is also the creation of counter-pollution officer roles, which all seem to be based in Southampton, and an understanding of some of the risk assessments undertaken would help us to see which parts of the country are perceived to have the greatest pollution challenges.
I come back to ship-to-ship transfers. I do not seek to use the debate to open up that issue, but when it was mentioned, Yarmouth coastguard agency was identified as the monitoring body.
I will finish here, Mr Hancock.
I appreciate that. I was one of the hon. Members who submitted a letter requesting to speak before the debate.
I would be grateful if the Minister were to clarify whether the response to incidents will be solely from volunteers, so that instead of having to resort to freedom of information requests we could provide more detailed information, by centre, on timing and number of incidents. I would also be grateful if he were to refer to the monitoring of ship-to-ship transfers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate.
My constituency of South Down in Northern Ireland plays host to two of the three fishing ports in Northern Ireland, and as a community we share a long, proud and sometimes difficult history of fishing and seafaring.
Over the years, my constituency has seen its share of tragedies and miraculous rescues at sea. Each time—whether it has been to bring family members’ bodies home from the sea or to undertake those miraculous rescues—we have looked to our coastguard, which has always performed an amazing service.
In Northern Ireland, the Bangor coastguard station, which is located in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), faces possible closure. There is a proposal to transfer its operational role to another station, perhaps in Liverpool or Aberdeen, many miles away. Hon. Members will be aware that opposition to the consultation proposals is mounting, and I hope that the Minister will allay many of the concerns that have been raised.
Let me tell hon. Members, and particularly the Minister, that it is rare for any subject to unite all the parties in Northern Ireland. We are talking about saving the one remaining coastguard in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the United Kingdom that risks losing its coastguard service. I extended an invitation to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a joint visit to the station, and I am delighted to say that both accepted it warmly. The First Minister is from the Democratic Unionist party, the Deputy First Minister is from Sinn Fein and the hon. Lady is a member of the Social Democratic and Labour party, so this issue has united all parties. I hope that the Minister remembers that.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is indeed correct.
The Northern Ireland coastguard service at Bangor provides a vital service to the fisheries and tourism sectors right from Lough Foyle to Carlingford lough. Axing such a service will put at risk not only livelihoods, but lives. The Government must not take for granted the courage of those who devote time to rescue efforts on our shores. Funding must be protected.
We must remember that the coastguard protects not only the coast, but, as the hon. Member for North Down has said, Lough Neagh, Lough Erne, inland fisheries and inland lakes. It also provides an inland mountain rescue service for the Mornes and the Sperrins, and it is the point of contact for all helicopter operations in Northern Ireland.
The current proposals will leave Northern Ireland without a full-time coastguard station. This front-line emergency service has saved countless lives since its establishment. In the past year alone, the Northern Ireland team has dealt with more than 700 incidents. For me, my constituents and all my colleagues in Northern Ireland, saving lives is paramount.
The document that has gone out to consultation proposes that the Belfast Lough station, which is based at Bangor, might become a part-time station or that it might close, in which case our nearest coastguard would be the part-time station in Liverpool. The nearest full-time station would be at Aberdeen, on the east coast of Scotland. Co-operation is certainly important. Our co-ordination with Scotland and the south of Ireland has been invaluable in saving lives in previous rescue missions. I support north-south co-operation.
What an opportune time to get an intervention. In 1989, I was involved in an attempt to rescue two drowning children off the coast of Northern Ireland. They had been holidaying there, but, unfortunately, one of them died. However, if it had not been for the co-ordination that the hon. Lady has mentioned, there would have been a double tragedy. It is essential that people recognise and get to grips with the fact that Northern Ireland will be naked to the ravages of the sea if we do not properly protect our coastguard.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Co-ordination and co-operation are vital, particularly on the island of Ireland. Closing the coastguard station in Northern Ireland is foolhardy, because there is a need for both coastguard services on the island of Ireland to work together and to co-operate.
The chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Sir Alan Massey, has indicated that the closures can be offset by the introduction of new technologies, such as Google Earth. Although I support the introduction of such measures, which can help to save lives, they must supplement, rather than replace, existing provisions. Nothing can replace local knowledge of the waterways or, in the case of Northern Ireland, the mountainous regions. That knowledge has been built up by generations of people living in the local communities.
I represent the Liverpool coastguard station, so let me express a degree of solidarity across the Irish sea. The staff at Liverpool recognise exactly the points that the hon. Lady and other Northern Ireland Members have made about the dangers of Liverpool trying to look after Northern Ireland. They do not feel equipped to do so, and although they welcome new technology, they also recognise that local knowledge and experience are critical. They do not want to stay open at the expense of Belfast, because they want both stations to stay open.
It is important to emphasise for the historical record that, in 1994, the then chief coastguard, Commander Derek Ancona, told the Select Committee on Transport that the importance of local knowledge should not be underestimated, and that point needs to be taken on board.
I am heartened to hear that Liverpool and Belfast are not accepting the framework that the MCA has given them to set them at each other’s throats. We have had the same situation between Stornoway and Shetland, and we are not accepting that, too. We in the Western Isles believe that Shetland should stay open 250 miles away because it is needed for the safety of mariners there. Stornoway should stay open as well. I am pleased that our message to the MCA is the same.
Thank you, Mr Hancock. I will do so.
Previous attempts by Governments to implement large-scale technological developments have frequently encountered delays and cost overruns. We must ensure that we do not lose our existing resources and that we do not rely on the hope that needs can be met by using new technologies alone. Indeed, the same technology on which the coastguard is meant to depend has just been discarded by the UK’s fire and rescue service, because it cannot rely on it. We risk people’s safety becoming dependent on information technology that has not yet been implemented and which has not even been designed. Let us have new technology by all means, but we should supplement it with local knowledge.
Finally, I hope that the Minister will see fit to ensure that the proposal for the Belfast coastguard station at Bangor is abandoned. I hope that the message goes home to him and the Department that Northern Ireland needs to retain its services. My colleagues in Northern Ireland and I represent all the Northern Ireland constituencies, and we wholeheartedly oppose any attempt to remove those services.
I will make every effort to show atypical restraint in my remarks. I give notice to all colleagues that I will not give way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this absolutely key debate. The number of people here shows the concern that is shared across the House and the country, as well as across all parties. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on tabling her early-day motion, which I was pleased to sign.
I grew up by the sea in Cornwall. My great-granddad made his livelihood as a fisherman. My constituency’s north coast is protected by services from Brixham, while its south coast is protected by services from Falmouth, so there is every danger that we will suffer a double whammy. My intention is to press the Minister for assurances that that will not happen, and that he will always put the safety of those who use the sea before any other consideration.
I do not think that any hon. Members doubt the importance of the sea for trade, our food supply, leisure and our ability to come and go from these islands and explore the rest of the world. The people who protect our safety and ensure that we can benefit from all that the sea, and sea lanes, provide are the coastguards. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth said, in a well-argued and passionate speech, Falmouth is already a centre of excellence for what it does; it is the place the rest of the world looks to to learn how to do such things. It concerns me greatly that the Government choose, outside of anything mentioned in the coalition agreement, to consider the reforms.
I shall be brief, to give other hon. Members the chance to speak. I want some reassurance from the Minister that the consultation is a real one, that the outcome has not been prejudged and that he will listen to all the bodies that are responding to the consultation. I want his assurance that the Government are exploring all other options to make the necessary revenue savings without reducing front-line services, and that at all times the safety of those who use the sea will come before any other considerations. Other hon. Members have noted that we are of course dealing with the need to modernise the service and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said, improve resilience, adapt to modern technologies and face a new century in a different way; but we must remember that we are an island nation and need the sea. It behoves us in this House to protect those who use it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate. I raised the issue of the need for a Government debate on the matter with the Leader of the House, because of its importance and the timing of the announcement a few days before Christmas. I want to praise coastguard workers, volunteers and officers, and to thank the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, among other organisations; I am a member of its council. Search and rescue is another important part of the mix, and we need proper co-ordination.
I have limited time—and will respect your judgment, Mr Hancock—and will concentrate on local knowledge and the Welsh dimension of that, which there has not yet been the opportunity to discuss, as well as previous inquiries by the Select Committee on Transport into the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Those are important. I agree with what has been said about local knowledge. It cannot be managed by a centre far away. The response time and co-ordination are essential, and require local knowledge, which cannot be transferred from one part of the country to another.
The current process has more to do with centralisation than modernisation. I support devolution and real localism, and what is happening goes against that by centralising services in the most northern and southern parts of the United Kingdom, rather than having them dispersed in different areas. I think there is an element of cost driving the process for the Government. I am sad to say that, but I think it has the potential to lead to loss of life. I see the badge that the Minister is wearing; I served in the merchant navy for more than 17 years and I have some knowledge of the sea, having worked on it, and representing an island constituency, so I do not make those statements lightly: I believe them. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) who, when he was the Minister, did not duck the issue but dealt with it and listened. He had representations from all sides of the House when there was the potential for closures in the past, but he did not feel he should move forward with the speed and haste that is being adopted now.
I am not going to take any interventions. I apologise, but I know that some hon. Members have made two or three interventions, whereas I only have a short time and did not make any.
There is a Welsh dimension to the issue. Swansea would be the only coastguard left under the proposals. That is a long way from Holyhead in my constituency in the north-west, which is strategically important in the Irish sea. I pay tribute to all those hon. Members from the west coast of Scotland and, indeed, Northern Ireland and the north-west of England who have spoken. We should not be pitting coastal communities against each other. We are talking about the safety of the British coastline and we need strategically important coastguard stations in that strategic overview. That could be compromised.
There is also a Welsh language issue, to do with local knowledge and the identification of places. Incidents have occurred in other emergency organisations that have been centralised, and I should like the Minister to look into the matter. The fire service, ambulances and police in north-west Wales have gone to the wrong location because either they cannot pronounce the place name or they have mixed it up with another location of the same name. That is a question of lives, and it is far too important to deal with it by saving costs and centralising, putting the service at risk and exposing it even further.
Finally, in 2003-04 the Transport Committee looked into the future of the MCA and closures in Oban, Tyne and somewhere else—it escapes me. The Committee concluded that there was a need for a proper safety impact study, and I do not believe—there is no clarity about it—that that has been carried out, years down the line. It would be a crying shame to rush into a new closure programme when the safety impact studies have not even been done on the previous recommendations of the Transport Committee. Holyhead is strategically important. There is a Welsh dimension to the question. The Minister had the courtesy to phone me up about the matter. I said that I would raise it. Under the time constraints of this debate no hon. Member can do their area justice. We need a debate in Government time and I urge the Minister to suspend the consultation and proposals until the issues have been properly dealt with and seriously given the consideration they deserve.
I want to talk about Brixham maritime rescue co-ordination centre and its importance. Last year it co-ordinated more than 1,300 search and rescue incidents, assisting more than 1,900 people and saving more than 350 lives; 78% of those incidents were inshore or shoreline. Those are the incidents that need local knowledge, as I think all hon. Members would agree.
Local knowledge is an extremely important point from a west country perspective. I wonder where someone in Solent would direct services if a call came in that someone was in difficulties off Blackpool beach. We have a Blackpool beach, just as Lancashire does.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course, we have the equivalent of 22 full-time and highly skilled watch-keepers. I know that the Minister pointed out that local knowledge will not be lost because the individuals can be relocated—to Falmouth, in the case of my area. However, unfortunately Falmouth is also drastically cutting staff under the proposals, so I suspect that the highly skilled staff at Brixham will find that very difficult. I suggest that their important local knowledge would be in danger of being lost. The point about local knowledge is that Devon, for example, had 25.2 million visitors last year—bringing in £2 billion to the local economy—and those individuals have no local knowledge. I have been told by a coastguard that very often a distress call will come in from people who do not know where they are. They might know that they are in Devon but they will not know they are on Blackpool beach, for example. They have no local knowledge and are often very distressed. The highly skilled individuals dealing with them on the phone must cope with that, to find out where they are.
The other issue is IT. My experience of IT in the NHS, for example, is that we had a £12.7 billion project, which was very disappointing, over-budget and highly overrated. We have also seen what the fire service experienced, which I shall not talk about much as it is the Minister’s area of great expertise. My understanding is that it cost £423 million and the Taunton regional fire centre has not opened. The air traffic control system went £150 million over budget and was much delayed. I would say, to coin a phrase, “Over-budget, overrated, over time and over here.”
One of the primary drivers—in fact the primary one, to go by page 16 of the consultation document—is so-called limited resilience. As the document recognises, coastguard stations are paired. There is no suggestion that the resilience has failed. Yet we are not told anywhere in the document how resilience is improved under the proposals.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I agree. Currently, we have paired coastguard stations, which are directly linked by cable as part of an existing BT cable network. In addition, the stations are linked by point-to-point communications on a so-called BT kilostream unique to the coastguard—a kind of private radio network used by VHF radios. However, I find it hard to understand why it is so difficult to piggyback on existing cable networks to network all stations. I am dubious of the argument that it would be immensely expensive. I suggest that it is possible to network all existing stations at less cost than has been stated. It has also been stated that coastguard radio equipment is 12 years old and needs upgrading, and that it cannot be installed in existing coastguard stations, but the vast majority of calls are made by phone.
Brixham has been disadvantaged by the costings. In the year the costings were made, Brixham received a brand-new roof and an upgrade to its generator, which means that the building will now be fully fit for purpose for the next century. Given that its ongoing running costs will be considerably lower, it seems a shame that those renovations have been taken into consideration.
Like the coastguard stations in many colleagues’ constituencies, Brixham also performs other functions. For example, the marine surveyors, which are vital to the Brixham trawler, are based there. Brixham also houses cliff rescue equipment, a rescue vehicle and a radio station. I hope the Minister will take that into consideration.
As many Members have said, we do not want one station to be pitted against another. We call on the Minister and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to review the proposals thoroughly and hold a debate on the Floor of the House.
Thank you, Mr Hancock. I will dispense with the normal formalities to allow other people to speak.
In the past week, the coastguard at Stornoway has dealt with a French fishing boat on Rum, rescuing 14 people aboard, and a Tornado aircraft in the water off Rubha Reidh near Gairloch. Submarines have grabbed the headlines. Sometimes it is not about the number but the seriousness of incidents. We have had only one Braer, but that was serious. If Lord Donaldson were alive today, I wonder what he would say about the proposals. I hope that the Government have approached the co-authors of the Donaldson report to ask them exactly what they think of the proposals.
Nearly all this week in the Hebrides, we have had force 6 to 7 gales. On Thursday night, we are expecting storm 10. A person has to be there to appreciate exactly what that involves. In cold, calm London—I refer, of course, to the weather—it is difficult to do so; it is necessary to be in the locality. We need coastguard stations in the locality.
The weather primarily affects maritime safety, which is where I expected the consultation to start. Unfortunately, I discovered through various consultations and briefings from the MCA that the proposals are driven not by maritime safety but by real estate considerations, lease deals and hangovers from old industrial disputes within the MCA. The MCA management has desired to do it for some time. Safety and risk have been way down the pecking order, coming in a distant and shabby last to all the other considerations. I find that absolutely amazing and appalling.
I find it even more amazing that a risk assessment was not carried out specifically on the consultations. I am now hearing that a risk assessment will be carried out after the consultations, to make up for what has been done. Who can trust a risk assessment done after a consultation? We will be suspicious of any risk assessment from the MCA that is done to dovetail with MCA proposals. I am shocked, as are many other people. When we had a meeting, all the Stornoway coastguard workers were shocked that no risk assessment had been done.
Leaving Scotland with only one coastguard station in Aberdeen, where staff turnover is high, is also worrying. We need Shetland and Stornoway. They are 250 miles apart. Stornoway covers about 50,000 square miles at the moment; I do not think that it needs more.
As I said, no risk assessment has been done. No evidence is available on the impact of the reforms. The councils in the Hebrides and Shetland have commissioned their own research into exactly what they will mean. We feel that the proposals are technically flawed, and there are serious doubts about the reliability of the communications technology on which they rest.
The proposed reforms are also being touted as an efficiency saving, but I argue that the potential gains are minimal. It is estimated that just over £120 million will be saved over the next 25 years, or about £4.8 million a year. To put it in perspective, that is such a small part of the Department for Transport budget that it was not even included in its comprehensive spending review figures. It is absolutely astonishing what is going on.
I am aware of the time, so I will come to an end fairly quickly. To give a wee illustration, if someone in distress is using their radio and the ship is at Miavaig or Meavaig, but they only say it once, where is that ship in distress? That is what we are talking about. Ultimately, we are considering not efficiency but a marine insurance policy. I have not even mentioned the tugs that we are losing on the west coast of Scotland. There are huge questions connected with the plans. They are ill conceived, ill thought out and ill advised. The Government should go back to the drawing board and make absolutely sure that we are not compromising safety or our insurance policy in the maritime arena.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing this debate. I will précis quickly what I was going to say. I pay tribute to the crew of the Lowestoft lifeboat, who received awards last week for the great bravery that they showed during a storm in 2009.
The coastguard needs to be reviewed. I have five concerns. The first relates specifically to the East Anglian coast and the proposed closure of the Yarmouth and Thames maritime centres. I am concerned about increased activity off the East Anglian coast, including the building of 1,000 wind turbines, continued dredging, renewed activity in the oil and gas sector and forthcoming construction work at Sizewell, as well as ship-to-ship transfers, increased shipping movement from Felixstowe and Yarmouth and more leisure activity on the broads, in the estuaries and along the coast. The current system has the advantage of close co-ordination with the helicopter rescue service at RAF Wattisham and the ship service provided by Suffolk fire service. I therefore ask the Minister to review closely whether it is appropriate to close both stations.
My second point, which has already been made during this debate, is the importance of harnessing and retaining local knowledge. Members have spoken eloquently about it. I could speak about it as well, but the point has been well made.
Thirdly, I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that the review is a genuine effort to restructure and improve the service and that adequate Treasury funding has been secured to implement the proposals. It is vital that reorganisation is properly managed and resourced and that no effort or expense is spared to secure a successful transformation.
Fourthly, I understand that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution will make a single representation. I do not know what the RNLI’s thoughts are, but I urge the Minister to give them full consideration, as the RNLI will play a vital role in implementing any change.
Finally, I have a slightly unusual request concerning flares, which must be disposed of safely if unused. I am advised that in East Anglia at present, the nearest disposal station is the Thames coastguard. If that is closed, will East Anglian seafarers have to travel to Dover or Humberside? If so, will the Minister consider the provision of a closer and more accessible disposal station?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this debate. I tried to secure it twice myself, so I am glad that somebody was successful. She mentioned Sir Alan Massey’s remarks about the time delay. In an interview with BBC South West, he confirmed that there would be a time delay. Will the Minister address that apparent anomaly between Sir Alan’s interview and what the hon. Lady said?
In his letter to me, the Minister said:
“You will be aware of the increasing levels of activity taking place on the coastline and waters of the UK.”
Many of the staff at Crosby coastguard station have highlighted the irony of that statement, given the apparent reduction in the number of coastguard stations.
In the brief time that I have left, I will describe a couple of key issues raised with me. On consultation, staff tell me that the ideas that they have brought up in the past have never been taken on board. They were concerned that the people who drew up the proposals lacked recent front-line experience, and they were very concerned that Liverpool coastguard station was not included in the original draft consultation document and that it was earmarked for closure. Belfast would have survived and Liverpool was added only in the final version, which tells us a lot about the intention. The expectation is that Liverpool’s closure is a done deal.
I will now allow the Front-Bench spokesmen to address the points that have been made. I urge the Minister to look at the issue again, go back to the drawing board and use recent front-line experience to come up with a set of proposals that, as well as using modern technology, recognise the vast experience and importance of local knowledge.
Thank you, Mr Hancock. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. The last time I saw you, you were posing with an inflatable elephant, so you are in a much more dignified position now, and I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. I will try not to speak for a full 10 minutes in order to allow the Minister the opportunity to take a few interventions and respond to the points that have been made.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this important debate, and all those who have contributed by way of speeches or interventions. As has been mentioned, the number of MPs present indicates the importance of this debate. It is good to see the Minister present. He had an important engagement at Transport questions last week, during which I raised the issue under discussion. The Secretary of State responded to my question, the context of which was the cancellation of Nimrods; the ending of the emergency towing vessels’ contract; coastguards being made redundant; the closure of coastguard stations, and air-sea rescue being sold off. All those proposals are serious and significant. Individually, every one of them has national significance; collectively, they raise serious concerns about maritime safety. My question last week was whether the Department acknowledged that. I would be grateful to hear whether the Minister recognises that concern. I thought that the Secretary of State’s response was slightly ungracious, but that is a matter for him.
As the shadow Minister with responsibility for shipping, I have been lobbied, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), on the question of the Walney coastguard. I have also been contacted by colleagues from the Western Isles, Brixham and elsewhere. I cannot imagine the pressure that the Minister might be under, given that he has to make the decision. It is entirely understandable that colleagues have today been engaged in special pleading for their local coastguard station or geographical area.
The MCA’s 2010 annual report reported an increase in coastal deaths in 2008-09. More people are holidaying in the UK—I believe it is called a staycation—and the current economic conditions mean that such activity is likely to increase, which, aligned with the possibility of more tourists and visitors coming to Britain, means that there will be even greater risks. One of the questions being asked—most recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)—is whether the MCA has undertaken a risk assessment of the proposals. The consultation document mentions an equality impact assessment, but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether I am correct in thinking that the impact, or risk, assessment will follow the conclusion of the consultation.
Parallels have been drawn between the proposals and the previous Government’s plans for regional fire controls. The Minister and I share a little history: I was in the fire service, then he joined the fire service; I got elected to Parliament, then he got elected to Parliament; I was the Minister with responsibility for shipping, then he was the Minister with responsibility for shipping.
I am—not was—the Minister with responsibility for shipping.
My apologies. The hon. Gentleman is the Minister with responsibility for shipping, which is a very good place to be. He is doing a good job and I know that the shipping industry acknowledges that and respects him for his involvement, even though he has been in the position for less than a year. I am tempted to ask him whether he will make the same mistake as me on fire controls. That contract has been cancelled due to a number of issues. Does he, like several colleagues present, recognise a parallel between that and the proposals under discussion?
It is proposed that staff numbers will fall from 491 to 248. There is an historic question of underpayment of coastguards. Historically, many coastguards were recruited from former members of the Royal Navy or the merchant navy. They came with pensions and were able to be paid a little less than the going rate—certainly less than the other emergency services. That tradition has, of course, been outlived. It was one of the issues with which I grappled as a Minister and, I think, managed to solve with the support of the MCA and Department for Transport officials, whose service I commend—there are many excellent people in both organisations. We managed to persuade the Treasury that that issue needed to be looked at, and I would be interested to hear what discussions the Minister has had with the Treasury about it.
How many of those who lose their jobs does the Department estimate will receive compulsory redundancies? The savings are estimated to be £120 million over 25 years, as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—or the Western Isles as the rest of us like to call it—said. The Lord Donaldson inquiry into the Braer disaster recommended an emergency towing vessel for Stornoway. It is suggested that, if that contract is abandoned, it would take 18 hours for a privately contracted vessel to arrive. That one incident involving the Braer cost £100 million, which will wipe out 25 years of savings if the Government proceed with their proposals. Does the Minister acknowledge the connection between emergency towing vessels and the coastguard proposals?
Much is made of volunteers and volunteering. We have a proud tradition in the UK, as do other countries, in that regard. However, as we have seen only today with the noble Lord Wei’s decision to cut his hours at the Cabinet Office from three to two days, volunteers can face problems in giving a commitment due to the pressures on family and business life.
We all acknowledge the need for deficit reduction after the global banking crisis. The real concern is that the Department seems to be going too far, too fast and too deep with these cuts, and the consultation, with which the Minister is encouraging everybody to get involved, will demonstrate whether that is the case.
In conclusion, shipping is pretty much invisible to most people, but it is absolutely critical to the UK, as has been articulated by many colleagues this afternoon. It generally does its job quietly and efficiently, which is to the huge credit of everybody involved in an industry that serves us so well. Safety for those involved and for the millions of recreational seafarers, citizens and visitors who enjoy our coastline is paramount. The proposals are causing serious concern among that whole community. As others have said, I am certain that we will return to the issue time and again, with more debates and more questions, in the months ahead. I look forward to hearing from the Minister to allow that debate to begin.
Before I call the Minister, it would be remiss of me not to apologise to those who did not get an opportunity to speak, and not to thank those who showed courtesy and played their part in making this a worthwhile debate. I hope that the debate’s message is not lost on the Minister or the usual channels: Members of this House expect and require a further debate on the issue sometime in the near future because, as has been demonstrated, it touches so many of them.
Thank you, Mr Hancock. It is a pleasure to speak as the Minister with responsibility for shipping under your chairmanship. Like the shadow Minister, I come from an emergency service background, so I am exceptionally proud of my position. The issue is not devolved, and we should be very proud of the fact that there are people throughout this great country of ours who wish to serve their community. I shall try to touch upon as many points as possible in the very short time available to me. I want to state from the outset how proud I am of the emergency services that serve under me, whether they be the coastguard—my volunteers and my full-time staff—or the other emergency services that work with us, namely the RNLI and the hundreds of volunteers who work in other boats, crews and rescue services that, while they may not be generally well known, are well known in their communities.
It is way above my pay grade to decide whether there will be a debate on the Floor of the House, but I will speak to my Whips about it. Of course, we have a new wonderful system, under which we can go to the Backbench Business Committee. Thursdays are also available for exactly this sort of debate. That hint might be taken up by some of our colleagues. It will be very difficult to do the debate justice in the short time we have had together. If I do not answer each individual point, my officials are listening and I will write to colleagues. If hon. Members want a meeting about any specific points, that option is available. My officials, including the coastguards who are represented here today and are listening, will be available to hon. Members.
I thank colleagues who took time yesterday to come to the Back-Bench meeting that we had upstairs. For some colleagues, it was a busy time in Parliament, but I think those who attended the meeting felt that it was useful to have face-to-face conversations, and not just with me. It was a cross-party meeting. Interestingly, not as many colleagues attended as are here today, but I can understand that. We will arrange some further meetings.
The consultation is progressing. I stress that, at this point, we have not made a decision. That is why it is a consultation and I am pursuing people to take part in it. There is no opportunity for no change at all. All the union representatives to whom I have spoken around the country accept that. Only the other day, when I was at a coastguard station, one of the senior officials said after discussions, “Well, we think it should be nine.”
I will make some progress and, if there is time, I will take interventions. However, there have been a lot of interventions during the debate and I think my hon. Friend—I call him that because I know him very well—has done very well at getting in. Colleagues might want to listen to the Minister a bit now.
Interestingly enough, I do not know what those nine stations are. I hope—the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) was present when it was said in his constituency and I met the coastguards there—that some proposals are made to us. Proposals in some shape or form, not dissimilar to those we have been discussing, have been on the table for a considerable time—before I became the Minister; when the shadow Minister had the role. The chief coastguard has been in the role for two years. He said to Back Benchers yesterday that the proposal was on the table when he arrived two years ago.
The debate is about: where, how many, resilience and how we take this into the 21st century. As much as there is expertise in, passion for, dedication to and, in some cases, love for the coastguard service, it is not a 21st century service. If we try to say, “It’s okay. We could each individually save our coastguard station,” we are not doing the service justice. We have to make progress.
There is a debate about the matter, and when I first looked at the list, there was certainly a discussion on which stations would close, which would go to part-time working and which would be made into larger hub stations—the national resilience stations. The hon. Member for Sefton Central is absolutely right: Liverpool was listed for closure. I apologise, if it is not technically Liverpool, but it is Liverpool on the paper. I said, “No. It is a very balanced argument between Belfast and Liverpool.” We will look at that matter.
No, I will not give way because I did not do so before. I looked again at Scotland, where there was a similar situation. We looked at the document and inserted the other stations, so that we could balance the two that I mentioned.
Let me discuss what we are proposing and what we have got now. I have heard some passionate contributions from hon. Members who represent areas from all over the country. What is great about having this post is that the subject with which I deal is not devolved; it is about the United Kingdom, complete and in its entirety. It is about the protection of the fleet, of people on holiday and of communities, whether people are visiting the community or not. Let us consider what we have today. I shall use one classic example and look at Belfast, which is the only station in Northern Ireland. That station is paired with Clyde. If Belfast—Bangor station—goes down, where is all that knowledge and information, which is mostly stored in people’s heads, not on paper? It is lost. If we have a power cut or resilience problems, the station that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) represents is paired with Clyde. After listening to the hon. Lady’s arguments, with the best will in the world, Clyde does not have that knowledge. Why? Because that knowledge is trapped in Belfast and in Northern Ireland. The same applies to Falmouth, Brixham and the Humber.
No, I will not. I have listened to the debate. To be fair, hon. Members asked for a debate and I need to respond to it. As we go around the country, each station is paired with another one. However, there is not a transfer of knowledge. Falmouth is internationally renowned for its international rescue capabilities. If we have a problem in Falmouth, where does that get picked up? Nowhere.
The case that we heard earlier, which was brilliantly made on behalf of Falmouth, referred to the fact that it is the centre of excellence. That is the place with all the knowledge, all the information, all the expertise and skill. It is not duplicated identically across stations.
I gave way previously because I specifically referred to Falmouth. If we are to go forward, we have to be honest with our constituents about what is going on. Let me just touch on some of the points and some of the things I have heard on the airwaves and read in the paper.
There will be no reduction in the cover provided to rescue people. The service provided by those fantastic almost completely voluntary people who give up their time to go out will be enhanced and invested in. That service will not under any circumstances be touched. We will invest and go forward. They know that. We worked with the unions very early on and we talked to them all the way through. It is wrong—really wrong—to use emotive language and say that people would die if these changes take place because there is no evidence for that. I listened to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) earlier talking about such things. I have been at incidents where people have died. I have gone in and done everything possible, like the people in the crew that was mentioned. We do not know whether that crew would have got there any quicker under a new or existing system. What I will do—this has been touched on several times in the past few minutes—is publish the risk assessment next week; not at the end of the consultation, but next week. That will mean that everyone, including hon. Members’ constituents, can look at it. I have been accused of not publishing it and not acting. It will be published next week and it can be part of the consultation as we go forward.
The hon. Gentleman will have to bear with me because I have two minutes left.
We should not sit back and, on behalf of our constituents, say that we think all stations can stay open and that everything is fine. I know that the previous Government looked at the matter because it was on the table when I was appointed. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—I call him my hon. Friend because we have been friends for many years—has been sensible and this has been quite a sensible debate. What worries me is that, when hon. Members go home, they will say to their local papers tonight—I have seen such things in the papers that land on my desk in the morning—that lives are at risk and are going to be lost. The headlines will be : “Cuts to your service,” “Cuts to the frontline,” “Cuts to this.” That is not going to happen. There will be job losses. Some will be voluntary and some will be compulsory.
On a point of order, Mr Hancock. The Minister has made reference to the unions agreeing with his proposals in some form. I would not wish him to mislead the House. I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union group in Parliament. That group represents 500 members who will be affected. The unions have not supported these proposals and will not accept 220 jobs being cut, which they believe will put lives at risk.
This is a very healthy debate. I have worked with the unions and sat down with them. They know that there needs to be change and they also know that there will be job losses. That was discussed before I became the Minister and since. A trade union dispute has gone on that has affected these wonderful volunteers for years. That has to stop.
I agree, Mr Hancock, that the matter needs further debate. My closing comments are these. The consultation is open. The matter is not actually decided. I will be in Belfast the week after next. I will be in Scotland. I should have been in Stornoway last week, but I could not go. I will do my best to go around, and my officials will be at the public meetings—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I am delighted to say that we can start in advance of 4.15 as most of the participants in the debate are in the room. It is a unique occasion to have a Liberal Democrat in the Chair, a Liberal Democrat as the Minister replying and a Liberal Democrat Member opening the debate. It must be a first.