Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Jeremy Wright.)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate all my colleagues from around the country—the whole of the United Kingdom—and from across the House who have turned up for the debate on a Thursday afternoon, which is definitely the graveyard shift. That underlines the huge importance of the issue to all of us and our constituents. I am pleased that we have secured a second debate in Westminster Hall so that hon. Members have the chance to let the Minister know their opinions on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s proposals to reorganise our coastguard service.
I welcome the Minister’s approach to the consultation process. He has listened to the concerns about the MCA’s modernisation proposals and requested alternative proposals from coastguards. He has already visited several coastguard stations and received alternative proposals from coastguards directly. I look forward to welcoming him to Falmouth. I will not repeat what I said during the last debate about Falmouth’s role in international rescue so as to allow more of my colleagues to make their points.
Every coastguard I have spoken to has stated that the service needs modernisation. The question is not whether to modernise, but how. Coastguard officers readily acknowledge the need to reduce the overall number of rescue co-ordination centres and are also ready to accept that reduced staff numbers come with that concept. There is a need to link the coastguard stations together.
However, in all the meetings that I have attended over the past few months, I have been struck by that willingness to change and the understandable disappointment that the small team in the MCA that developed the modernisation proposals did not work closely enough with its front-line coastguard colleagues. I have been surprised and disappointed by the inaccuracies in the consultation document and inconsistencies in answers to questions. Good policy can be made only with sound evidence that is open to public scrutiny. I shall go through some of the inaccuracies in the proposals, and I am sure that other colleagues will provide more.
The MCA’s proposals state that modernisation is urgently needed, as the service was last reviewed 40 years ago. That is not a true reflection and is patently designed to give the impression that the coastguard is archaic and seriously out of date.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Actually, I will not, as so many people want to speak. Sorry, Angus.
The service underwent a major review in the 1990s under Focus for Change. It was heralded at the time as the most detailed and thorough review for decades of the structures, work loads and running of the coastguard service. The coastguard service has experienced continuous technical improvements to advance and upgrade all its information technology and communications systems since then, and such an upgrade is being rolled out even now.
Coastguard officers recognise that modernisation is part of the natural development of the type of work that they carry out and are not averse to change. Historically, coastguard officers have been deeply involved in developing and refining a multitude of systems and programmes, and it is probably fair to say that many of those programmes would not work as they do today without that input.
Much is made in the document of the requirement for national resilience. The MCA proposal cites a scenario whereby both stations in the current pairing might suffer a failure and there is no further back-up. Has that ever happened? The answer is no. The technicians to whom I have spoken cannot envisage a situation in which such an event could occur. The coastguard station in Falmouth suffered a catastrophic failure when it was hit by lightning and was out of service for a period. However, our flank station at Brixham took over services by diverting all telephone lines, and contingency plans were in place to ensure that all international obligations were diverted to international colleagues to enable a normal service to be maintained. It worked, and it was resilient.
The senior coastguard told me that Falmouth suffers from fragile connections. I met with the members of BT senior management who have managed the communication links for the Falmouth coastguard for the past eight years. They said that there was no problem at all and foresaw none in the future.
The document also refers to paired stations being overrun with an increase in work load. Again, there is no evidence to support that. It is agreed that some stations can get very busy at peak times, but no station has ever suffered a loss of service as a result of being overrun. It is reasonable to assume that, for a proposal involving such major change, an extensive trial would have been set up to mimic the maritime operation centre and to establish what work load was expected and how—or, more importantly, whether—it could be managed.
I will carry on so that the right hon. and learned Gentleman can get in to speak later.
The MCA confirms that the only trial that took place was a table-top exercise at the training centre with a handful of invited staff who walked through the scenario and analysed incident data. I am afraid that that does not constitute a valid trial of such an important proposal. At the very least, a valid trial should shadow the work load of multiple coastguard centres on a busy July day, monitoring incidents and all other routine working, to determine accurately whether it can be done and, importantly, how many staff are needed.
The MCA has announced that when the proposal goes ahead, technical trials—this time involving operational coastguards—will be held to see how and whether it can be made to work. Such trials should be conducted before any proposal is announced, not after it has been approved.
Throughout the modernisation proposal document, much emphasis is placed on new or refreshed technology, but it has been confirmed that the technology referred to will be current technology, but refreshed. It is not clear what that means. Technology has a habit of promising much and failing to deliver—look at the debacle of the fire service proposals. Technology also has a habit of haemorrhaging money. The proposed savings from the plan will be wiped out quickly if the technological budget balloons.
The MCA refers to new technology that will allow coastguards to carry out surveillance and long-range monitoring of vessels at sea, helping to prevent maritime incidents from occurring or minimising the impact of such incidents. I agree that we can now monitor ships, flag up those showing a history of mechanical or structural deficiencies and involve the survey branch of the MCA in scrutinising them as they approach our shores. However, it is not correct to imply that such surveillance will prevent incidents around our shores. Ships are fitted with a vast array of navigational and sensory equipment, but they still manage to run aground and collide with each other, break down, catch fire, lose people overboard, injure their crew and sometimes even sink. That risk will remain.
A significant criticism of the proposals is the concern that vital local knowledge will be lost if all operations are centralised. The risk assessment on the proposals states that operational postures will require officers to harvest local knowledge. That is an acknowledgement that local knowledge will be required, but in the MOC it will have to cover a vast area, which will be extremely difficult to achieve.
Coastguard officers around the coast are required to know their area and are examined every two years to ensure that they do. That is laid down in their operational manuals. Each operations room views its area as being under its ownership and makes it its business to have thorough knowledge of it. To lose that knowledge would be a retrograde step and could increase risks.
The MCA proposal states that local knowledge will be provided by volunteers from the Coastguard Rescue Service, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the National Coastwatch Institution. Again, that is misleading. Those organisations can assist with local knowledge after an incident has commenced, but the vital time for local knowledge is when the call is received. That responsibility lies with the officer running the incident and it is needed immediately. Serving officers do that now, and do it well, because of the knowledge that they have built up over many years. They use technology to confirm as required, but it is only a tool, not the primary method of defining the location of an incident.
I welcome the proposals’ recognition of the importance of volunteers. When I first read the proposals, they made a compelling case. As a keen sailor and an MP representing a maritime constituency, I am very much aware of the volunteer Coastguard Rescue Service and the RNLI. I understand that if I were to get into difficulties sailing off the Isles of Scilly, it would be volunteers from the RNLI, or perhaps the Navy with helicopters from Culdrose, who would rescue me. I also know, however, that those volunteers come forward because they feel safe in the knowledge that the rescue missions in which they participate are co-ordinated by professional coastguards in the Falmouth coastguard station. The RNLI’s deafening silence on the proposals speaks volumes.
Only a few people sitting in RNLI headquarters, removed from the reality of rescues around our shores, are talking to the MCA. Those HQ staff might well be saying that they can take on more of the roles undertaken by the coastguards, but it is the volunteer coxswain and crew who risk their lives to rescue people at sea. Are their opinions being listened to? I do not think so.
The situation is similar in other organisations directly involved in our maritime environment, such as the Royal Yachting Association. I expect that it is the HQ staff who are talking to the MCA. They have not consulted with their members. Yacht clubs in my constituency that organise world-class yacht races and Olympic regattas are dismayed with the position that the RYA has taken on the proposals. I urge the Minister to ask both the RNLI and RYA headquarters staff to demonstrate that they have consulted all their members on the proposals, and to ask for copies of those consultations. Although I am not a betting person, I would wager that their responses do not support the MCA’s proposals.
During the debate, I hope that we can persuade the Minister that the best course of action is to accept that he was not given accurate information by the MCA team responsible for the proposals, which have developed over a number of years, and that he should cost and carefully consider reasonable alternative proposals that meet the criteria that he has set out. The safety of people at sea and the protection of our precious marine environment deserve no less.
I am pleased to address this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I shall begin by congratulating the Minister on the fine achievement of uniting the Members from nine parties in the House in opposition to the proposals. It is certainly good to see Members from so many parties present. Many of them represent Northern Ireland and it is welcome that they have crossed the divide on this issue.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Many residents in our communities have welcomed the extension of the consultation period, as have the staff, because it provides an opportunity to suggest alternative proposals.
I have a number of points to make. I had only one minute to speak in the previous debate on this issue, so I warn hon. Members that I will take a bit longer this time. Safety is a big concern, and it came up at the consultation meeting that I attended. It was the Liverpool meeting, but it was held in Southport—about 20 minutes away from the coastguard station—but that did not deter the 250 people who turned up. A vote was taken on the proposals and all 250 people—every single hand went up—opposed the proposals, and that has been repeated throughout the country. Safety is a prime concern for everybody, particularly the question of whether the proposals adequately address the balance between cost and safety. The big issue that comes up again and again—it certainly came up in the Crosby consultation meeting—is that of local knowledge and whether it can be adequately transferred to the new marine operation centres.
My hon. Friend and I come from areas of shifting sands. Does he agree that local knowledge is vital in such areas? It is important to have up-to-date knowledge, but, in my area, we also have the problem of distinguishing Llangennech from Llangennith, and there are many similar instances around the coasts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Does he agree that local knowledge is the key reason why we want to keep a much larger number of stations open?
My hon. Friend makes a vital point. We have exactly the same issue around the coast of Liverpool, where many different locations are known by the same names. Local knowledge is crucial, as she says. It was crucial in the Morecambe bay tragedy, which was called into the Crosby coastguard station. The one life that was saved was saved because of the ability to respond quickly. Although many lives were lost, the coastguard was able to save one life because it was able to get there quickly.
It is important to recognise the difficulty of transferring local knowledge to the two MOCs in Aberdeen and Southampton. Staff in Liverpool have told me that they will not relocate to either Aberdeen or Southampton, and I know that the same is true of many other stations. Moreover, however long the training might take—whether it takes months or several years—replacing the detailed local knowledge and hands-on experience is not the same as theoretical training. The inability to replicate that local knowledge which, for a lot of the staff, has been built up over many decades, is a big enough issue in itself to make the Government rethink their approach.
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about local knowledge. I wonder, however, whether his experience at the meeting that he attended was the same as mine. I attended a meeting to consider the fate of Forth station, which is based in Fife Ness in my constituency. The officials who attended were considerate and went out of their way to attempt to deal with the audience’s questions. On many occasions, however, they simply did not have the information to enable them to deal adequately with the questions. Indeed, I ended up feeling slightly sorry for them. In particular, they had nothing to say about the point raised by the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) about what trials have been carried out in relation to the new proposals. They simply did not have an answer to that question.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point about the importance of carrying out real tests on the robustness of the new system. There is no answer to that, because it is just not possible without running the two systems alongside each other, and I do not see that being proposed, even if it were desirable.
Another concern that staff and unions have is the lack of a risk assessment at the start of the consultation. I know that a risk assessment has been added, but the concern is that it was added late, as an afterthought, and that it is inadequate. I am sure that the Minister will address that. Another point made at length at the Liverpool meeting was the importance not just of local knowledge, but of the relationship between staff and the volunteers who carry out the search and rescue activity, and of knowing which search and rescue team is best placed to carry out any given rescue. They know them all personally, which is something else that will, I suspect, disappear as a result of remote stations.
The Select Committee on Transport held an inquiry, but its findings have yet to be analysed by Government. One of the results of a previous reorganisation was the high-quality new facility at Crosby, which I have visited a couple of times recently, but there has not been an assessment of the results of that reorganisation. Those two gaps have not been addressed by the proposals.
One of the strong themes of the Liverpool meeting was the impact on leisure users, such as people with leisure craft or fishing boats, as well as tourists and other visitors to the coast. Those people do not necessarily have access to the kind of technology that fits well with what is being proposed. Although commercial users would undoubtedly be able to use the new system, the issue of the leisure industry causes great concern not only to the people affected, but to the staff.
On the point about leisure activities in tourist areas, I represent a large tract of the west Wales coastline in Ceredigion. There is a rowing organisation in my constituency that enjoys a close relationship with one of the existing coastguard stations at Milford Haven. When those involved with the rowing organisation go out for their training, the knowledge they are able to give to the coastguards is reciprocated by the local knowledge in the coastguard centre. That organisation is fearful that such local knowledge will be lost. In addition, dialogue between the tourism sector and the coastguards could be lost.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that builds on what others have said. There is also an issue regarding the daytime stations that are being kept. I shall talk briefly about the option of either Belfast or Liverpool in the proposal. The same thing is happening in Scotland, where two stations are being pitted against each other.
It is very nice of the hon. Gentleman to do so for someone who has come across the divide—from the mainland of Northern Ireland—to visit England. Our respective coastguards are unfortunately pitted against each other. We have only one remaining coastguard in Northern Ireland based in my constituency in Bangor, North Down. Will the hon. Gentleman tell hon. Members, particularly the Minister, whether the coastguard in Liverpool would feel confident about looking after all of Northern Ireland, for example, Lough Neagh and Lough Erne—upper and lower—if the unthinkable were to come true? I am sure it will not do so, but in the event that it does and the Minister, who is responsible for shipping, decides in favour of Liverpool and not Bangor—I do not think he will—will Liverpool be able to look after Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her points because it reminds me that, of course, originally Liverpool was excluded from the consultation. That is something that staff at Liverpool noticed. They have great concerns that the late inclusion of Liverpool as one of the options shows the true intentions of the agency.
Just for clarification, Liverpool was not excluded from the consultation; it was just not one of the stations that was proposed for closure. No stations were excluded from the consultation, no matter where they are in the country.
I accept the Minister’s point. I was merely expressing a concern raised by staff. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), staff at Liverpool do not feel equipped to address issues around the coast of Northern Ireland, and I am sure that staff in Belfast would say the same about dealing with issues around Liverpool. There is a very good reason why we have the current network. A lot of staff do not think that the proposals have addressed how the current network will be replaced without compromising safety. That is at the heart of the concerns that are being raised by staff and those who rely on the service.
The proposals were drawn up by former front-line staff who, it is fair to say, do not have recent front-line experience. That is a particular concern. The lack of input from front-line staff during the early stages of the process has caused a lot of disquiet. I know that a consultation is under way but, when things are done in such a way, there is always concern that the consultation is the wrong way round. I shall not accuse the Minister of anything stronger than that at the moment. He will have time to explain the matter.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good case. A good thing that has come out of this particular exercise is that front-line staff in the maritime rescue co-ordination centres have clearly indicated that they believe they can make a positive contribution to the proposals. They recognise that things cannot be preserved in aspic and that there are ways of achieving both efficiencies and improved resilience. However, they also recognise that that cannot necessarily be done through the proposals. In his constituency, are those who are involved in the service engaging with constructive proposals as an alternative way forward to help the Minister to introduce a more acceptable scheme to modernise the service?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In a meeting that I attended with the chief executive and staff at Crosby, staff said to the chief executive that they had in previous years come up with proposals that would lead to a reduction in the number of stations while addressing the issues of how to integrate new technology and maintain safety. However, no one has ever asked them for those proposals. Staff from around the coast are coming up with proposals, which I hope will be considered and taken on board. We should listen to people with front-line experience. That is certainly the direction in which we should go. By the way, I have not heard anybody say that they are against the introduction of new technology, although they do have concerns about the current set of proposals.
The volunteers who work with the Liverpool coastguard fear that their safety will be compromised by the changes and the loss of Liverpool if the proposal goes ahead. That would lead them to consider seriously whether to carry on. If that happened, the impact on search and rescue operations would be extremely serious indeed. I hope that that point is taken on board by the Minister. As I mentioned earlier, there is an issue about volunteers knowing the staff with whom they are working and trusting the judgment of those people who are sending them out on missions. Understandably, that is incredibly important to them and their safety.
Briefly, on the issue of maintaining stations as daylight stations, I have mentioned Morecambe bay. Another serious incident dealt with at Liverpool was the Solway Harvester. Both of those incidents happened at night. They would not be handled—whether by Liverpool or Belfast—from the station; they would be handled remotely. The point made to me by staff is that, if the proposals go ahead, there will be even less local knowledge. Those crucial minutes of delay make a difference to whether lives are saved. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.
On the number of staff, my understanding is that the proposal will lead to job losses of more than 220. We are talking about coastal communities that are already experiencing difficult economic circumstances. The impact on those communities of losing many jobs would be drastic. It would be challenging for people to find alternative employment. Coastguard workers are some of the lowest paid emergency service staff in the country and frequently take second jobs to supplement their wages. It is recognised that technological advances offer some opportunity for rescues to be co-ordinated from a distance. However, I have been told that technology should complement the knowledge of local coastal areas that coastguards possess, not supplant it. The loss of those jobs would threaten that .
A number of constituents have written to me on the matter. Mr Hughes from Crosby says:
“The proposals would see most co-ordination of incidents run from two Maritime Operations Centres—one based in Aberdeen and the other in the Solent area. This will mean a heavy reliance on yet to be designed software and a loss of what is often invaluable local knowledge. We believe technology should be used to complement the knowledge of coastal areas which Coastguard staff on the local stations possess, not replace them. The technology will be unable to cope with the new structure and could result in risks to people’s lives. We have already seen similar schemes with the fire service scrapped due to the fact that the technology would not work.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has experience of those proposals, and no doubt, he will make comparisons when he comes to make his speech.
Another of my constituents wrote to me to raise something that concerns me greatly. He says that the chief coastguard—or some of his senior managers—has stated to staff on some of his visits that
“this afternoon’s debate will only be a few MPs whingeing about their own stations and is nothing to worry about.”
I do not know how other hon. Members feel about that statement.
Would my hon. Friend give way?
I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that the Select Committee, which is about to open an inquiry into this issue, has received similar concerns from coastguards who feel that they may be victimised? The Committee has written to the chief executive of the MCA to seek reassurance that nobody making any form of representation will be victimised.
May I reiterate that any member of staff has the right to give evidence not only to the Select Committee, but to the consultation? The point that I was trying to make is that the accusation is about a senior member of staff. I think that initially the hon. Gentleman said that the chief coastguard had said that, and then he said, “Another member of staff”. If they are going to make that sort of accusation against a senior member of staff—not the person who was making the accusation anonymously—then they must indicate who that was. Was it the chief coastguard, or not? That is the point the hon. Gentleman was trying to make. If it was not the chief coastguard, then he must retract that. We have to have evidence about who the person was who was alleged to have said that, otherwise it is unfair.
As I said earlier, my constituent has indicated that he is concerned that if I give his name, or the name of other members of staff, they will be victimised. They are very concerned about that. Perhaps that is something that the Minister can discuss with me a little later, but I am certainly not going to give names now.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has been very generous in giving way and I think we all applaud him for that. I pay tribute to the Humber coastguard, but this is an important point. We are not asking him to reveal the source of the remark. We are asking who it is who is alleged to have made the remark—not who has told him, but whom we are talking about. Who is the mystery person who has made this outrageous comment? That is what we would like to know—not his source, which he is right to protect, but about whom are we talking.
I think I made it clear earlier that it was a senior manager. I do not have the name with me now, because that is not what my constituent has said to me, so I cannot give hon. Members any more information, but I will talk to the Minister separately if he wants to pursue that.
I am sorry to prolong this point, but in fairness I feel that I should put on the record that the chief executive of the MCA, Sir Alan Massey, and, separately, the chief coastguard, visited Bangor coastguard. They were courteous in the extreme. They listened very patiently and were very positive, and were receptive to the points that were being made by various MPs representing the Democratic Unionist party and the Alliance party. I just have to put it on the record that I did not hear them labelling MPs as “whingeing”.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I am grateful to hon. Members for their interventions on that point, but I am going to move on.
Another of my constituents, Derek Myers, has written to me with his concerns about search and rescue unit selection. His letter quoted the coastguard regulations:
“The unit selected should be able to reach the scene quickly, and should be suitable for at least one, and preferably as many as possible of the tasks of a SAR operation. Evaluating experience is more subjective and means weighing the normal primary duties of the agency furnishing the SAR unit against the specific operation in hand.”
Derek Myers and many others have said that the regulations indicate how important that local knowledge and those relationships are, and I hope that the Minister will address that point.
I appreciate that time has moved on and that other hon. Members want to speak, so I will conclude. I believe that the proposals are flawed. I hope that the Minister will take on board the alternative proposals from members of staff, and that he will consider the real concerns of the staff, as well as the concerns that emerged from the consultation meetings and the consultation process. I hope that he will reconsider the proposals and look at the proposals that maintain the safety to the level that staff are advising. Listening to front-line staff is very important.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I am grateful to you for calling me early in the debate. Regrettably, I have to leave for a previously arranged meeting in my constituency and I will not be able to stay for the winding-up speeches. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and to the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing the debate. I shall begin by paying tribute to the Lowestoft lifeboat, which was founded in 1801.
Earlier this year, the coxswain and crew of the Spirit of Lowestoft were honoured for showing great bravery and for a magnificent team effort in rescuing three crew from a craft stranded on rocks close to Ness Point, Britain’s most easterly point. The rescue took place at night in November 2009 in rough seas and strong winds. Coxswain John Fox received the thanks of the institution inscribed on vellum, while second coxswain Karl Jackson and crew members Ben Arlow, David Brown, Michael Beadle, Jonathan Flynn, Robert Lightfoot and Mark Ross each received a vellum service certificate.
While we debate the future of the coastguard in these comfortable surrounds, we must never forget the debt of thanks and gratitude that we owe to those people who risk their lives at all times of night and day, invariably in the most hazardous weather conditions. We owe it to them to come up with a sustainable, well-resourced and properly integrated coastguard service that is able to handle the demands of the 21st-century sea.
I recognise that there is a need for the service to be reviewed. There is a need to properly integrate the service and to fully utilise the new technology that is now available. I recognise the limitations of the system of pairing stations. There is a need for greater interoperability between stations. I agree with the reasons given in the consultation document for carrying out a review: the seas are becoming congested, ships are larger, the coastline is busier, and we are experiencing more extreme and variable weather conditions. That said, I have concerns, and I would be grateful if the Minister took them on board.
The proposed closure of the Yarmouth and Thames maritime rescue co-ordination centres has created worry and anxiety along the East Anglian coast. As the table in the consultation document shows, they are busy centres. With increased shipping activity envisaged off the East Anglia coast in the next few years, I urge the Minister to scrutinise those closures closely. If they are confirmed, there will be no centres between Dover and the Humber at a time when the seas off East Anglia are getting busier: some 1,000 wind turbines are going to be built, dredging continues, there is renewed activity in the oil and gas sector, and hopefully renewed activity in the fishing industry shortly. Construction work at Sizewell is to come, as well as ship-to-ship oil transfers, and increased shipping movements to and from Felixstowe and Great Yarmouth. There is also more leisure activity on the broads, on the numerous estuaries in Suffolk and Essex, and off the coast. The arrangements for the broads are an issue that is of particular concern to me, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who has other commitments that prevent him from attending this debate. He is particularly concerned about Breydon Water in his constituency.
Given the nature of the broads, which are made up of a network of rivers and waterways and which extend over many miles in Suffolk and Norfolk, as well as the fact that most of the vessels there are leisure craft and that responsibility for policing rests with a number of authorities, there is an added risk, which should be scrutinised fully in any review. I urge the Minister to look at those issues and to consider whether there is a case for an additional centre for the broads and the surrounding area, which would reflect proposals made in the consultation on the Thames.
I would be grateful to the Minister if he confirmed that, in proposing that there should be no stations along the East Anglian coast, Ministers had regard to the fact that any station in the region has the advantage of being close to the helicopter rescue service operating from RAF Wattisham and to the on-ship fire and rescue service provided by the Suffolk fire service, which covers the whole East Anglian coast.
An issue that will be raised time and again in the debate is how the new arrangements will make best use of and fully harness local knowledge, which, in many cases, has been built up over generations. As was said in the briefings that I attended, local knowledge is the putty that we stick in the gaps in the first five minutes of an incident. If it is not there, the outcome can be tragic. People’s main worry is that, without local centres, it will be more difficult for the coastguard to make best use of that local knowledge, which can be invaluable when the service is stretched.
The highest risks occur in the summer, when we often have leisure vessels crewed by people who do not know the area. In such a scenario, local knowledge of a long coast with many inlets can be absolutely critical when it is vital to get to an incident without delay. Whatever new arrangements are confirmed, they must demonstrate that local knowledge will not be thrown overboard, but retained and made better use of.
Some aspects of the proposals are attractive. Those aspects include providing high-quality jobs for coastguards, with job weight and pay reflecting the increased demands that will be placed on people. There is also the strengthening of the leadership and the support provided to volunteer coastguards. It is vital that the reorganisation is properly managed and resourced and that no effort or expense is spared in securing a successful transformation to bring about such improvements.
The Minister has previously given an assurance that the review is not just a cost-cutting exercise, but a genuine effort to restructure and improve the service and that adequate funding has been secured from the Treasury to implement his proposals. I am grateful to him for that. He has also indicated that this is a proper and full consultation, that alternative proposals for the future of the coastguard will be given full and proper consideration and that the current proposals will be amended if it is decided that improvements can be made to them. There is a worry that, in such a scenario, the Treasury might be an obstacle to securing the four-star service that we need. If that happens, I hope that the Department will do all it can to secure the additional funding needed.
My final request is for a service that not only is properly integrated, but works closely and in co-ordination with others to ensure that those on the seas receive the best possible service. The coastguard needs to be integrated with coastguard services in other countries and, from my constituents’ point of view, with those on the other side of the North sea. The UK is already connected to the safe sea net system, but we need to consider whether improvements can be made.
I am aware of the excellent work done by Coastwatch volunteers, including those at Pakefield Coastwatch in my constituency, who form part of the Sea Safety Group. It is vital that such volunteers are fully involved and consulted in the review, that the service provided by them is fully integrated with the new coastguard service and that they are not burdened with additional costs or unnecessary red tape.
I am grateful to you, Mr Crausby, for bearing with me, and I thank you for allowing me to speak early so that I can depart early. I apologise for the fact that I will not be here for the summings-up.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on bringing this matter to the House, and the number of Members present is obviously an indication of the interest in it. Those of us who represent areas where the coastguard is very effective and does a grand job are pleased to be here. We are perhaps a wee bit disappointed that we did not have the opportunity to debate the issue on the Floor of the House, but we are none the less pleased to have the opportunity to debate it here. We are also pleased that the Minister has been able to come along to respond.
The issue is not about mere numbers, but about life-and-death decisions, which affect us all, and that bears repeating. Winston Churchill, who has been one of my great heroes since I was young, said:
“I am easily satisfied with the very best”,
and it is my belief that we should be satisfied only with the very best. However, it is clear from the proposals that we are not being offered anywhere near the best, and we are certainly dissatisfied. The Minister has been at pains to suggest that no decision has been made and that the consultation document is not simply a paper exercise. The response to it has been overwhelming, and we welcome the Minister’s assurance. Indeed, I spoke to him before the debate.
My postbag has been bulging with letters on this issue, as I suspect many Members’ postbags have been. The only issue that beat it was the snow and ice that we had, and then there were the roads. We therefore had the roads and then the coastguard, as well. When I was first contacted by concerned members of the fishing industry along Strangford lough, the Irish coast and the Down coast in my area, I was immediately troubled. I was also contacted by members of local sailing clubs, as well as caravan park owners and residents.
It was apparent that the issue needed attention at all levels. Colleagues in local councils have also been active, as have Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Local groups and others have pledged to raise the issue at the highest level in the House of Commons, where the decision will be made. The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) brought the issue of the Brixham coastguard in her south-west constituency to the Floor of the House. There is UK-wide concern that Government cutbacks in coastguard provision are not simply an issue of people losing their jobs as a result of budgetary constraints, which is hard enough to accept in itself, but will put lives at risk.
With colleagues, I decided to table an early-day motion, and many Members have signed it and other early-day motions. I have taken the opportunity on two occasions to ask the Prime Minister about the coastguard at Bangor. On both occasions, he said that the consultation was ongoing, but we were obviously looking for something a bit more meaty. None the less, I accept that the consultation process is the way that these things are done and that is what we have to move forward on.
We have had total cross-party support on this issue. I give special credit to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who has energetically, forcefully and directly pursued this matter. As a neighbouring, new MP, I was pleased to support her in that campaign.
Those who use the waters around the Northern Ireland coastline need to be certain that they will have a reliable and speedy response from the coastguard if they get into distress or danger. I fear that the prospective closure of Bangor coastguard station will put all that at risk. With up to 1,000 people and a fishing fleet of more than 80 boats relying on the station, it is critical that safety on the seas is not jeopardised by money-saving schemes.
The proposals are not close to the right solution. They suggest that, even if Bangor closes down, there may not be a daytime operation in Belfast. We have been put in direct competition with Liverpool, which I feel quite aggrieved about. The hon. Member for North Down put that perspective very clearly in a question to a previous speaker.
All Belfast operations are based at Bangor coastguard station. However, it is not just the coasts that are the responsibility of the Bangor operation, but the inland waterways of Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. We should not forget that it also has responsibility for the mountain rescue teams for the Sperrins and the Mournes. All those things come within the remit of the coastguard in Northern Ireland.
The energetic MP for North Down rises—it was awfully nice of the hon. Gentleman to call me that. I am sure my good neighbour will acknowledge that this issue has united all the parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein, the Alliance party and the Social Democratic and Labour party. I am sure that he will agree that what makes Northern Ireland, with its one remaining coastguard, strategically different from the rest of the UK is the fact that it shares a land frontier with the Republic of Ireland. The co-operation between the Irish coastguard and the Northern Ireland coastguard is second to none—it is first-rate. I am sure that that point is not lost on the Minister and that he acknowledges it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution, which is very honest.
The hon. Lady and I, with the SDLP and the Alliance party, met some coastguard officials, and the meeting was excellent. I know that the Minister met the First Minister, Peter Robinson, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. We have come a long way in Northern Ireland. We crossed that divide a long time ago, and I want the Minister to know that we have moved on. It is great that we can have an issue that unites us all.
I thank the Minister for that intervention.
To move on slightly, there is also the issue of helicopter taskings in Northern Ireland, which includes the police and ambulance services. This is also a major issue in the Republic of Ireland, where helicopters for air-sea rescue are provided at no charge. The relationship that has been built between the Bangor station and its counterparts in the Republic would not be the same without those interpersonal dynamics. The Minister must agree that if we lost the help and support of the Republic, and the manner in which it is offered at present, that would most certainly result in loss of life. That is my concern.
We are encouraging people to holiday in Northern Ireland to take advantage of the most beautiful scenery the UK has to offer. I will take the opportunity to give a sales pitch for my area. We want people to enjoy the Fermanagh lakes and to make the most of all that the stunning Strangford lough and the north Down coast have to offer, yet we also face telling people that the reality is that if they get into trouble, the rescue will have to be co-ordinated on the mainland before anything is done on the ground. That is another concern that I must express today.
The consultation further proposes that either Liverpool or ourselves cover both regions with 50% fewer staff than Bangor employs now. I pay tribute to the coastguard staff. They do an excellent job, and we are very encouraged by what they do, but how could this be achieved without there being some shortfall in that area of the service? It could mean the extra five minutes between life and death. The matter involves not only the fact that Northern Ireland must have its own service provision, but how we ensure that we have the ability to save lives and to do that better.
I mean no disrespect, but if a distressed child had to ring an operator in Scotland to say that their dad had fallen out of their dinghy near the big rock on the Portaferry road, Newtownards, would the operator know where that was? No, they would not. I could take them there right now, but that is because I know the area. We have that local knowledge. Every Member who has spoken so far has mentioned local knowledge. Could an operator in Scotland give an accurate account of where to send the rescue service? They could not possibly do that because they do not have local knowledge. Ask someone in Bangor coastguard the same question and the answer would be immediate, and so would the response.
Bangor dealt with more than 700 incidents last year, and it is clear that on our seas we need a dedicated service that knows the area and knows best how to organise the rescue. At Bangor station in the past four years, the number of rescues is up, the number of people involved is up and the number of lives saved is up. Unfortunately—it is the nature of life—the number of those who have been injured or lost their lives is also up. This is about extra usage, but it is also about the response from the Bangor station.
People in Northern Ireland waters should not be put at risk by a budget. The wives of fishermen at sea need to have their minds put at ease. They depend on the coastguard system, which they have come to know and trust. It is a system that has saved hundreds of lives and must be retained. What is being offered is not the best, and Northern Ireland Members must keep pushing until the constituencies we represent get what they deserve—the very best coastguard service from a local station with local people and local knowledge. We are unique in Northern Ireland in that the coastguard also helps with mountain rescues, and that specialised service must also continue and be co-ordinated by those who have been doing the job for years and know the intricacies of the system, which saves lives.
There comes a time when we must focus on our own areas, and I would like to do so for a few seconds. As Members of Parliament, the hon. Member for North Down and I are fighting for the right things for all coastguard stations, but I must highlight the bonuses of the station that covers my area of Strangford. The majority of staff there are young and highly qualified. Numerous members of the Bangor station are trainers in different areas, and they provide training not only to the UK mainland, but to the Republic of Ireland. They are excellent staff, who would have to up sticks and relocate to the mainland if the proposals were accepted. Many of those with young families could not do that, and I must speak on their behalf as well.
As I have said on a number of occasions, I continuously fight against the “brain drain” from Northern Ireland—if I may use that terminology, which may not be entirely appropriate for this topic. Our students attend university on the mainland and end up living there or going where the jobs are. The difference here is that losing the high-quality staff we have in Bangor will have a detrimental effect on the coastguard as a whole.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention. I invite him to say something to the Members gathered here today for this important debate about the alternative proposals submitted to the Minister by the coastguard in Bangor. They are very thoughtful and not self-seeking or necessarily confined to Northern Ireland, but address modernisation and building resilience throughout the whole UK. We are part of the UK and we want to play our part.
Nobody can read it.
The Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland were in Northern Ireland on 9 March. The Minister said earlier that that proposal—option B—was a breath of fresh air. I am not misquoting him; those were his words, and we welcome them. That perhaps indicates an understanding and an acceptance that there has to be change. We accept that. We are not in the business of saying that we are against everything all the time. We are trying to be positive in our comments.
We have an alternative and it has been put forward. It is not just a suggestion for Bangor; it is for all—for Swansea, for Humber, for London, for Aberdeen and for Dover. The proposals would help all Members here and all the areas we represent. That is what this is about. I feel that the proposals are very worthy of consideration, which perhaps shows our commitment to finding a solution.
I am conscious that time is flying on, so I will conclude. I stand today and urge the Minister fully to consider the proposals presented to him on 9 March. The proposals outline how every area—from the tip of Scotland to the bottom of Dover, and from the Shetland islands to the Fermanagh lakes—would achieve adequate cover and make the most of the experience of the staff at the major locations. It is my belief, and the sincere belief of many, that the retention of Bangor coastguard is an essential aspect of any proposal. The Minister and his Department should accept that and take it into account in response to the consultation document.
I have a six-point diagram on the proposals. It is a bit like a double Presbyterian sermon, in that a Presbyterian sermon has three points and this has six, and focuses on the strategy, which is cost-effective. That is one of the issues. It also focuses on the structure, which would be more successful through the roll-out and upon completion because it would enable the system to continue. The processes would retain possibilities for the future and on how best to do things. The people involved would have their motivation and good will enhanced, and the staff, who made the proposals and who want to work with the Minister and all of us as elected representatives, would be rewarded. That would mean safer lives, safer ships and cleaner seas.
I stand by the coastguard station in Bangor. I stand by the alternative proposals and urge that every consideration be given, not only to the issues raised here this afternoon, but to the proposals made by the people who know what they are talking about, who co-ordinate rescues every day and who can tell what will work and what will not. I would listen to them, as they co-ordinate rescues at sea; the hon. Member for North Down and I had the opportunity to do that down at Bangor coastguard. I would listen to them, as they seek to co-ordinate a better UK-wide coastguard service. I ask the Minister to do the same.
I was sent here to whinge on behalf of my constituents, and if a senior member of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency predicted that, not only was he right, but he was conferring upon me and upon everyone else here a mark of distinction of which we should be nothing other than proud. I begin with an apology, Mr Crausby. Because I have an urgent matter waiting for me in my office, I will not be able to stay for the full duration of the debate, but I will, as a consequence, confine my remarks as much as I possibly can.
I have already mentioned the meeting that I attended where, as appears to have been the case in Liverpool and elsewhere, there were consideration and good manners but a distinct lack of answers. Local knowledge was the centrepiece of the discussion on that occasion, and it was most interesting that the seafarers were the most sceptical of what was being suggested.
The sea plays an important part in my constituency. It once played an historical part in relation to the fishing industry. That fishing industry is much smaller, perhaps, than it once was, but it operates out of Pittenweem and other harbours, and the coastguard is clearly an important part of the safety network required by that industry.
There is a great deal of leisure sailing on the River Forth. That has also been encouraged in the town of Anstruther, which was formerly a fishing port and is also in my constituency. In addition, the traffic on the Forth is substantial, as the Minister acknowledges by nodding his head.
In 2010, the number of Scottish lifeboat call-outs was 1,012. The 10 stations within Forth coastguard’s responsibility were involved in 373, or approximately 40%. That makes the point about the relationship between the coastguard and the lifeboat, and also the need for lifeboat services because of the intensity of the activity on the sea in and around the area for which Forth is responsible.
The Forth coastguard at Fife Ness has the lowest running costs in Scotland. If one takes out staffing costs, the bill for Forth is £44,662. There is a good reason for that: the coastguard owns the building and therefore does not have to pay rent. If economic advantage is being sought by closing Forth, it would be very much smaller than would be achieved at several other stations.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentions the real estate at Forth, but is that not counter-productive and working against Forth? Had it been tied into an expensive lease agreement, it might remain, as is the case with Aberdeen, which seems to have a 25-year lease that is difficult for the MCA to get out of. Hence, it plans to put a maritime operations centre in Aberdeen.
I am always a bit nervous about the argument that one cannot take a decision on the merits because of the relative cost. My argument is that the decision on the merits properly ought to be to retain the Fife Ness coastguard station, serving the Forth as it does. On the basis of the statistics that I have given, I say respectfully that the case is overwhelming. I invite the Minister to reach the same conclusion.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who referred to a public meeting that the MCA hosted. I attended the meeting in Holyhead, which was a public relations disaster for the MCA. I shall refer to it a little later.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that no answers were given. There were many questions, and many knowledgeable people attended, including ex-seafarers who I worked with when I was in the merchant navy, and retired master mariners with direct experience of working with the coastguard. He makes an important point about those meetings, which I am sure the Minister will have heard. I echo what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing another debate on the subject. However, I would have liked not only a debate on the Floor of the House, but an oral statement from the Minister, so that we could put direct questions to him. He is a reasonable person, and I believe that he would have been making exactly these same arguments had the previous Government made an announcement of such national importance and magnitude when he was in opposition. Discussing the mass closure of some of our coastguard stations is of significant national importance.
The Minister and I have had a brief private conversation about these matters, but I invite him to come to Holyhead in my constituency. I know that he has been to other places, but, as a fair man, he should go to all that face closure. The— [Interruption.] It is not impossible. There are only nine, so it is very possible. I have attended rallies in two or three places in a short period—the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) will vouch for that—so it is possible. However, it is also important, because these are difficult decisions.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency chief executive has been to those places. He has been very courteous, and we have had public meetings, but we have not had answers. It is important for the Minister to have direct contact with the people who work in our coastguard stations around the country so that he can dispel any myth that we are just whingeing Members of Parliament. He would hear people’s opinions first hand.
I asked the Minister to come to the House to make a statement so that we could have that cross-examination. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if the Minister did that at the end of the consultation, when he announces his findings? Will he come to the House and make a statement so that we can have that conversation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; I am sure that the Minister heard what he said. Again, because of the importance of the issue, it would be in the Government’s interest to take questions on the Floor of the House. That would be a strong statement that they are indeed listening to the views of MPs.
The extension is welcome and it provides people with opportunities, but cynics among us, including me, would say that 5 May is an important day. It is a day of big elections in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and many parts of England. I am sure that that was not the intention of the Minister, but cynics will be led to believe that it might have been a circumstance— [Interruption.] I am certainly not the only one. I can give empirical evidence of candidates who were on the lists for north Wales, for instance, who, when the announcement was made, said that the proposals would improve safety—Liberal Democrats and Conservatives were going with the Government line at the time—and that there would be no front-line closures. They received hundreds of e-mails, and, within weeks of receiving them, they were saying, “It’s a disgrace that the coastguard stations are closing.” That should be borne in mind. Cynics would arrive at the conclusion that people have done somersaults because of public pressure.
I am very disappointed with the line that the hon. Gentleman is taking, because there is genuine concern about the matter the length and breadth of the country. For him to turn it into a political football is most disappointing. The point has been well made by several Members that there are significant inaccuracies in the document. On the face of it, that document made a compelling argument. It was not until all of us had an opportunity to read it in detail and consult with our coastguards that the problems came up. I hope that he will refrain from taking that line. This has been an all-party, whole-House debate.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady is upset by some of the truths I have just said. Candidates made statements to coastguards—not to me, but to coastguards—that the proposals were in their long-term interests and that our coastlines would be safer, and then had to retract them because of public pressure. That happens to be a fact, and I am sorry that it upsets her. I am a consensus politician, and I work with people from all parties, but that does not change the fact that the electorate in those areas are cynical about the somersaults done by some of the candidates. However, I shall move on.
Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that the Transport Committee is about to conduct an investigation on this very issue? That follows concerns expressed from all parts of the House and a session that the Committee had with the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in which we put certain questions to him, but were not satisfied with the answers.
Absolutely. That will be my next point, but it does not detract from my first.
My second point is that the proposals from the Government and the MCA should be scrapped. The all-party Transport Committee is inquiring in detail into the workings of the MCA, and that inquiry is a good basis for the beginning of a debate, not the end of a consultation process. Detailed arguments from maritime experts, coastguards and people from coastal communities can be fed into the inquiry, which will be thorough.
I appreciate that. I made it clear that I would not take interventions because, during the first debate, I had a huge amount of time to make the case for Falmouth coastguard. On this occasion, I wanted to ensure that as many hon. Members as possible could make their case and put their concerns.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, on the extension of the consultation period, the Minister has said that if the Select Committee can expedite its work, all its findings will be taken into consideration? Furthermore, he has also said that at the close of the extended consultation there will be an additional period for proposals to be properly communicated, discussed and scrutinised.
I am grateful for that intervention, and I hope that the Minister will indeed respond on the issues that I am raising about the Transport Committee, because they are important. We learned lessons from the 2003-04 inquiry, and we must learn lessons now. I am greatly in favour of the inquiry, and I wrote to the Chair of the Select Committee asking for such an inquiry. Perhaps the hon. Lady and the Minister will confirm that they are willing to wait until they have received the inquiry’s report and the Government’s response before making any decisions. That would be a positive way forward and I hope the Minister will comment on it. It would be not a way out for the Government, but a way forward for the coastguards, which is why we are all here today.
A debate needs the input of local coastguards. I agree with the Minister that coastguards, certainly in my area, have not been restricted in speaking their minds and saying what they think of the proposals. That is to his credit and that of the MCA. On top of the consultation, I have encouraged coastguards to write in, but that does not deter me from believing that these flawed proposals should be put to one side, so that we can have a proper debate, including on the Select Committee’s findings.
I make no apology for referring to local knowledge, as many hon. Members have done. It is essential, and as an ex-seafarer who worked on the coast for some 10 years and was also foreign-going, I know that our coastguard services provide some of the safest coastlines and seas in the world. I am proud of what they do, and I want it to continue and improve. Local knowledge is vital to initial responses, to knowing locations and, in north Wales, to the pronunciation of such locations.
During the first debate, I had a brief opportunity to speak—I say that to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth—and the Minister gave a written response to one of my questions, although it was not adequate. I will provide evidence of why it was not adequate. He said that pronunciation of place names would be sorted out by a new geographic information system, which would include phonetic spellings. I will give an example—empirical evidence—of where that has failed. I am raising the matter to help him.
The incident occurred during the coastguards’ dispute. The MCA said that the circumstances were exceptional, but it highlights the fact that people outside who do not have local knowledge might make errors, which might cost time, and perhaps lives.
The problem is not just phonetics or pronunciation. In Wales and in Scotland—the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is here—there are different languages, which are used to describe the areas where people fish and that tankers run through. Knowledge of the geography of an area is important, but so is understanding the basis of the language.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the issue of language. I wish to refer to the Welsh language and phonetics in relation to place names.
My first example is, fortunately, an empty canoe that was drifting of Morfa Nefyn in Gwynedd, which the coastguard had to spell phonetically as “mor fen evon” and which he wrote down as Morefen Effon. I shall give the Hansard reporters the correct pronunciations because I would not expect them to have that local knowledge, but the serious issue is that outside people would not be able to local Morfa Nefyn. A holidaymaker had failed to look after their canoe, which drifted off, but if the incident had been serious, and if someone had fallen out of it, they might have been lost for ever. I am making a serious point. I am grateful to the Minister for giving me the information, but the proposals would not have been adequate in such a situation and no team could have been tasked for that one.
In another incident at Cemaes in my constituency, in the north of Anglesey, a casualty had fallen down a 20-foot cliff. Like many parts of Wales and of the United Kingdom, we have some great coastal walks. According to the incident log, it took 13 minutes to make a decision, and the Holyhead coastguard was given the task when there was an initial response team located at Cemaes itself. That added to the time taken to respond. Following the request being made by the initial response team and Cemaes being paged, a staggering 48 minutes had passed since the initial call was made.
The terrain was so bad that a helicopter had to be scrambled for safe evacuation, and the irony is that the 22 Squadron search-and-rescue helicopter was just down the road on Anglesey. If there had been local knowledge, the scramble would have happened instantly and the victim’s injuries would have been less serious. My point about time factors is important. When RAF Valley was tasked to go to the incident, it was 68 minutes later.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the problem is not always pronunciation. Sometimes there are problems with the sheer number of locations with the same name and spelling. We have 12 Cod rocks in my area, and someone local wrote to me recently about a serious incident when he was stranded off Cod rock.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I have moved on from pronunciation to actual mistakes.
My third and final example of problems with place names is extremely important. It involves a call to ambulance control about a person in the water at Tywyn in Meirionnydd in Gwynedd, but the Rhyl coastguard team was scrambled and departed to Towyn in Conwy. I hope that the hon. Lady is listening, because she has just intervened on this point. Towyn and Tywyn are 80 miles apart. It was realised that a mistake had been made, but it was some 16 minutes later that the air ambulance picked up the victim. That is serious and those examples are evidence.
The Minister may check that those incidents happened, because they were logged as errors. They are good examples of what might happen if outside areas were involved. In my area, the suggestion is that there might be a hub at Liverpool or Belfast, but they, let alone the marine operation centres at Aberdeen and on the Solent, could certainly not deal with such incidents. It would be impossible to have Welsh or Gaelic speakers in all those locations all the time. Local knowledge is extremely important and I make no apology for describing those incidents to the House.
Holyhead is the busiest seaport on the western seaboard and an extremely important location. It is a long way from Swansea, which would be the only day centre left open in Wales. I say to the Minister that coastal tourism must be factored into the matter, because many people go to the coast for their holidays and they need to know that coastguard stations are manned by people with local experience and local knowledge.
The flawed consultation document of 16 December was vague on leisure activities. Does the Minister have detailed information that was not in the consultation document about the different levels of leisure incident that have taken place? I know that some larger vessels have technical equipment—certainly, they are improving—but we must also consider walkers, sailors, climbers, hikers and people who go out on sea beds and drift away. We need that information, because a growing number of people are visiting our coastlines and they do not have the satellite equipment that is carried by, for example, many larger vessels.
There has also been growth in the number of incidents. The consultation document states that there has been a 25% increase in coastguard incidents off the United Kingdom coastline over the past five years alone. We have a growing industry that will be threatened by the mass closure of coastguard stations.
I understand that in 2009— [Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr Crausby, but I must refer to the MCA, who are smiling as I raise those issues. It is not helpful for coastguard officials to smile during this debate. I am not smiling, and I am sure the Minister would not be happy to see it. I am providing empirical evidence and giving my opinion on behalf of coastguard stations along the coast. I have experience of coastal communities and have worked at sea, so I do not like to see this happening and it is not fair. A degree of arrogance is coming from senior MCA managers towards local knowledge, and that is being echoed by somebody smiling at me while I am making pertinent points in the debate.
I support the upgrade and the modernisation of technology. That needs to happen and in the 21st century we must have more than two stations talking to each other; we need a fully integrated system. I back that idea and the review carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), when he was Minister responsible for shipping, on improving the conditions and wages of coastguards. That needs to be looked at, but it is not necessary to have a mass closure programme to improve the safety of our coastlines.
Even at this eleventh hour, I appeal to the Minister to scrap the proposals, await the Transport Committee report and listen to what people—whether Members of Parliament or members of the public—have been saying. We need a proper debate so that we can improve our coastguard services and have confidence in an improved, 21st-century technology. We must have the safest coastlines so that people can feel safe, whether they ply their trade at sea or use the sea for recreational purposes. I know that the Minister wants that outcome. It is certainly the outcome that I want, but there are better ways of achieving it than having this flawed consultation.
I intend to put a different slant on the debate, and I declare a special interest as the wife of a fisherman. I start by paying tribute to the men and women who man our coastguard stations, the National Coastwatch Institution, the look-out posts, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and everybody else connected with sea safety. It is because of those people that fishermen’s wives such as myself sleep a little better at night than we otherwise would.
My constituency is served by both Brixham and Falmouth coastguard stations. Last year, 1,366 incidents were serviced by Brixham coastguard station, and 2,344 by Falmouth. History seems to be repeating itself. In the early 1990s, I was the secretary of the Plymouth Sea Safety Group. The national Sea Safety Group started the National Coastwatch Institution because the look-out posts around the coast that were manned by the coastguards were withdrawn. That movement started with the opening of Bass Point in west Cornwall, as a result of two fishermen losing their lives. I do not want the same thing to happen again.
Last Saturday, seven 13 and 14-year-olds were stranded by the high tide in my constituency, while eight people were stranded by the tide in other places in Cornwall. Brixham coastguard attended the seven teenagers, while Falmouth coastguard went to help the other eight people. Such individuals do not carry VHF transponders or radios. Mobile telephones are often not within range, so they have no means of communicating or accessing the wonderful equipment with which the two coastguard stations are equipped.
Recreational vessels do not have to comply with the global maritime distress safety system, and although many have digital selective calling included in their VHF radios, meaning that they can press a button rather than broadcasting a mayday call on channel 16, I am concerned about those that do not have the equipment for our coastguard stations to track—kayaks, for example, and the little dinghies that use our coast. Strandings often happen at night. I welcome the consultation and its extension, but when the Minister looks at the responses, I urge him to ensure that he considers replies from those who are not included in the GMDSS and do not have VHF radios with DSC. Other resources include Navtex weather reporting and navigational information, search and rescue equipment such as radar transponders—SARTs—and emergency position indicating radio beacons, or EPIRBs. Those without such things will be most vulnerable after the cutting back of local coastguard stations.
I do not believe that the coast of Devon and Cornwall can be served well by one station alone that operates from Southampton. As has been said, many names of familiar landmarks that can be used to identify a position at sea are often pronounced differently. I believe that just a couple of minutes’ delay in a very cold sea can make the difference between someone surviving or not. Hypothermia can set in, and everybody knows that people do not survive long in cold water.
The sea can be the most beautiful place in which anybody can spend their time, but it can change quickly—believe me, I know after living for 25 years in fear of seeing the sea change overnight or within hours. One thing my experience has taught me is that we must have respect for the sea at all times. If we lose that respect and believe that we can beat the sea, we are finished. While I welcome the extension to the consultation period, when the Minister looks at the responses, I urge him to ensure that he does not lose respect for one of the most dangerous but beautiful elements in the world. If he does, not only will he let down fishermen’s wives such as myself, the wives of sailors and other users of the sea, such as our young people, but he will let down the whole nation.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who I believe knows more about this subject from, among other things, direct experience than anyone else in the House. If people listen to no one else this afternoon, they should listen to the hon. Lady, because of what she says from direct experience of what it is to go to sea, what is involved in safety at sea and in calling out the people who can provide support and assistance for those at sea. What she says about the idea that all those things might be co-ordinated from somewhere in Southampton is something of which I am very aware.
Being the Member for Southampton, Test, I do not think that I fall into the category of Members who come along to the debate to whinge about their particular centre, so perhaps it is particularly important that I say a few words this afternoon because I am not a Member who could be accused of coming along to the debate and whingeing about their centre. As is generally known, although the MCA headquarters is not in my constituency, it is 85 yards away, so it is almost there.
According to the proposals, the Solent will have a brand-spanking-new centre, with 24-hour cover. One might say that that is fair enough: the Solent is one of the most congested areas of sea around our shores, so it should have that centre. However, it is also true, as we have heard, that our seas in general are becoming more congested. The volume of shipping is increasing in many areas. Many more large ships are confined to deeper water in restricted channels. As we have heard, large numbers of offshore renewable energy installations are being developed around our coasts, restricting the areas available to shipping.
Our shipping is getting larger. Today’s ultra-large crude carriers carry up to 500,000 tonnes of oil, some five times the capacity of the Torrey Canyon. The largest container ships—those coming into Southampton —are 1,000 feet long and can carry more than 11,000 containers.
Our coastline is getting busier. The UK has more than 10,500 miles of outstandingly beautiful coastline. Millions of people use our seas, coasts and beaches for an increasingly wide variety of recreational purposes, often in areas that are also used by commercial shipping, as is the case in the Solent.
Weather conditions are becoming more extreme. More frequent and more intense storms have been occurring. That increases the risk to ships. Therefore, there is an increasing requirement for the coastguard to provide navigational advice to mariners in the most congested areas.
As a result of all those factors, the number of incidents to which the coastguard has to respond has been rising—from 16,500 incidents in 2005 to 20,544 in 2010—and it is likely to continue to rise.
I have to make a confession now, Mr Crausby. All the words that I have said since the phrase “our seas are becoming more congested” are not mine; they come from page 12 of the consultation document. Anyone reading those words and then turning the page would expect to see many proposals to strengthen, expand and enhance the coastguard service, for precisely the reasons set out in the consultation document. The problem that we are grappling with is that it is very hard to see how the proposals in the consultation document would bring about that level of enhancement.
It is claimed that the service is being modernised, and I think there is widespread consensus in the Chamber that a lot of modernisation of what the coastguard service does can be undertaken. The problem is that the consultation document is not clear, and therefore the debate is not clear, about whether the proposals are designed to save a large amount of money, in which case the first thing that should have happened at the point of the proposals being made was a series of risk assessments to see whether a safe coastguard service would be retained after their implementation. However, as far as I am aware, no risk assessment, no modelling and no simulation tests have been done as a result of the proposals being made.
Alternatively, if the proposals are indeed modernising proposals to make the service better, an understanding needs to be reached of why the service will be better, and why a service based on two centres, one of which would be Southampton, with the other centres open only during daylight hours, would be better, more modernised and more efficient. In terms of the future for the service in Southampton, yes, it will have 24-hour cover. Nevertheless, it will be a maritime operations centre in addition to anything else it may do. The definition of that maritime operations centre includes, among other things, co-ordinating the whole service, as one of two such centres in the country. As we heard, taking calls and co-ordinating services across a huge expanse of coast is way beyond any experience that centre may have of what such a service would consist of. I wonder about the strain and stress that will come upon those people. Yes, they will have jobs in the centre, and yes, it will be a 24-hour service, but they will be co-ordinating a service on the basis of quite possibly nothing much being on the other end of it. We are talking about circumstances in which people are directing services in a remote part of the country and hoping that they have done a good job and got it right.
It was stated at a recent hearing of the Transport Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), that the proposal was okay because 70% of incidents occur during daylight hours. Another way of putting that is that 30% of incidents occur during night-time. If a centre is co-ordinating a number of other centres that are physically not available during night-time hours, the strain on that centre will be quite considerable.
Sometimes the issue is not the number of incidents. If we have one more Braer, we will have quite a disaster on our hands. Sometimes the magnitude of one incident can almost eclipse every other incident. That is the crux of the matter. We are talking about a maritime insurance policy, but unfortunately it seems to be being cast aside.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about what the service consists of and the problems that it encounters. That suggests to me that the idea that the consultation document is about modernising the coastguard service is only partially correct. Again, that was underlined by the evidence recently given to the Transport Committee by Sir Alan Massey, who made this curious statement:
“For my agency, I am required to find a 22% budget reduction in my programme between now and 31 March 2015. In seeking to find those savings, we have had to put forward a number of savings options. One of them does affect the coastguard modernisation programme.”
As I read it, that means that there was a coastguard modernisation programme and that the proposals for making savings have affected it. That may have been a misstatement, and it may deserve further analysis, but if the proposals are about savings that could affect a modernisation programme as opposed to being about the modernisation programme itself, that should be the basis for discussing the consequential examination of the proposals, and not otherwise.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. Indeed, if that is the basis on which the proposals were made, I believe that a careful examination should be undertaken of the consequences. If it cannot be shown beyond doubt that there will not be a substantial reduction in safety and call-outs, and that there will be a substantial reduction in confusion over place names and so on, the case is seriously flawed.
The consultation document sets out what the savings might be, suggesting that they will be in the region of £130 million over 25 years. That sounds a substantial sum, but it represents savings of less than £5 million a year. Those savings, which are not enormous, will result in substantial and fundamental changes, going from a system of area-by-area coastguard stations to one that has two centres, and daytime-only call-out centres in a reduced number of areas throughout the rest of the country. That, it seems to me, is not a supportable way forward for the future of the coastguard service.
I join other Members in realising that the service needs to be modernised. I understand that we are in difficult financial times, but there has to be a plan B for the service. It should be urgently reviewed as a better way forward. I commend all Members and others who have been involved in looking at what that plan B might be, and I am pleased that a further six weeks’ consultation has been agreed. However, if we do not seriously consider alternative arrangements to what at present is a muddied and uncertain document, we will regret it at our leisure.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby?
It is disappointing that this debate was switched from the main Chamber, as the subject could have been debated on a substantive motion. I find that Governments respond much more positively to substantive motions from time to time. However, I am sure that the Minister will be an exception.
The proposed reconfiguration of Her Majesty’s coastguard is of great concern to my constituents, as it is to those of other hon. Members. Although the consultation document published by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is still open to comment from the public, the agency’s proposals appear severely to undermine the ability of the coastguard service to ensure
“safer lives, safer ships, and cleaner seas”.
Within an evolving maritime environment, I believe that the agency is right to reassess the efficacy of the coastguard service, to ensure that search and rescue teams can perform to the best of their ability. However, I fear that the current proposals, which are aimed at reforming the operating model of the coastguard, could reduce its capability to manage the use of our seas and protect those who live alongside them. I strongly believe that plans to replace the existing 19 centres with nine centres, of which only four will operate on a 24-hour basis, will significantly weaken the ability to conduct search and rescue operations. Plans to establish two nationally networked maritime operations centres would leave just six sub-centres spread thinly around the country’s coast, and most of them would operate only during the day.
The closure of 10 maritime rescue co-ordination centres would have a direct effect on my constituency of Torbay, which is currently protected by the Brixham centre. It provides an invaluable service to mariners and coastal users by receiving incoming distress calls, alerting the appropriate rescue assets and co-ordinating rescue efforts over the 130 miles of coastline of Devon and Cornwall. Under these proposals, the Brixham centre would be closed within two years, and that would have heavy repercussions for constituents and all who come to enjoy the south-west coast.
The most critical threat posed by the centralisation of the coastguard service is the considerable loss of local knowledge. Operators in local centres have a detailed understanding of the requirements of local communities and a strong knowledge of the key features of the local district. Operators in Brixham, as elsewhere in the country, obtain and maintain a high level of local knowledge by walking the coastal terrain, interpreting the topography and learning the tides and coastal hot spots, to understand the associated dangers in the region.
When search and rescue co-ordinators are faced with multiple incidents, as is often the case during the busy summer months in the south-west, it is crucial that distress calls receive prioritisation. Prompt and successful rescue missions are possible only if the operators have a high degree of local knowledge upon which they can make sound assessments. Of course, the proposed maritime operations centres may very well be better connected to larger vessels, where local knowledge is arguably less important.
The vast majority of search and rescue missions involve the leisure industry. This is where local knowledge is vital. Thousands of holidaymakers descend upon the south-west coast during the summer months, and many families make use of small craft and inflatable toys and enjoy our inshore waters, beaches, cliffs and coastal walks. On a recent visit to the Brixham maritime co-ordination centre, I was told by staff that on too many occasions children have been swept out to sea, people have been thrown overboard, swimmers have got into trouble, divers have gone missing, people have got into difficulty on rocks or cliffs and that any number of other life-threatening incidents have happened within the boundaries of my constituency when they had to act. In such instances time is critical; it is essential that operators know exactly where the incident is unfolding to ensure that the correct search and rescue asset is deployed to the correct location.
According to the consultation document, the loss of local knowledge is to be replaced by on-call coastal safety officers and the questionable modernisation of computer-based technology. Additionally, the RNLI and local coastguards will be expected to continue to hold the requisite local knowledge. That will require high-quality volunteer training from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to ensure the integrity of information passed to the maritime operations centres.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about the importance of coastguard volunteers and the RNLI. I declare an interest as a council member of the RNLI. The coastguard volunteers have spoken to me about the local knowledge that senior coastguard officers have of their shift patterns. That is a serious matter, because the officers know not to call them directly on certain days. That local knowledge could be lost if the coastguard stations in the vicinity close and no one knows the individuals or teams in question.
Many hon. Members have made precisely that point, and made it very well indeed.
Assuming that it is delivered, the significant amount of communication between operators and local volunteers needed to confirm that the correct actions are taken will lengthen the process of the search and rescue mission and place lives at risk. The over-reliance of these proposals on upgraded technology is another matter of concern. If new technology is fully integrated, the availability of video mapping and local tidal information covering the entire 11,000 miles of the UK’s coastline will undoubtedly improve existing services. Why can those systems not be installed and integrated within the existing structure? It is essential that the software can determine a unique position when the information is provided by those involved in an emergency. Given the large number of coastal locations with the same or similar name and often without a postcode, it is essential that human knowledge is involved in the process.
Despite constant reference to upgrading software and fully exploiting the capacity of existing technology, I remain unconvinced that a centralised maritime operation centre could effectively manage the large volume of emergency calls that can be expected during busy operation periods. Moreover, fire and rescue control rooms were only required to operate one communications system with their units. However, the mix of communications systems needed to operate search and rescue is far more complex, including very high frequency, medium frequency, satellite, mobile phone and pager systems and landlines. The enormous additional work load of the data processing element of operations officers’ activities has not been fully evaluated.
I will not, because I am trying to stick to the agreed time so that the Minister can make a full speech.
As with air traffic controllers, coastguard operators can only safely control a limited number of search and rescue missions at any one time. Last year, Brixham coastguard dealt with 1,300 incidents and co-ordinated the rescue of 300 people along the south-west coast. The Government accept that the cost of the loss of life is £1.4 million. Multiply that by 300 and we can see that Brixham alone possibly saved £400 million. The entire-cost saving over 10 years of this proposal is £60 million. It is crazy.
During the summer months, it is not unusual for both Falmouth and Brixham simultaneously to co-ordinate 15 to 20 incidents each during a 12-hour shift. Considering the proposed staffing cuts in the new operating model, it is impossible to imagine how two national centres could safely manage such large quantities of calls from across the country. Furthermore, the Department’s own risk assessment recognises that, although the likelihood of mission failure is slightly lower, the effects of a system failure are likely to have a much greater impact on the proposed operating model.
Equally concerning are the consequences that the plans pose to the economy of small coastal communities. That is particularly pertinent in my area, where many of my constituents are employed in tourism, fishing and maritime industries and rely heavily on the invaluable service provided by the operation centre. Of the proposed job losses, 24 will be from Brixham and the surrounding area. As an unemployment hotspot, the area can ill afford to lose a single job.
A parliamentary question that I tabled recently further highlights my concern that recommendations in the consultation document for a two-year transition period do not provide sufficient time for employees to adjust to the reconfiguration. The Minister’s response that a five-year transition period “was not necessary” fails to take account of the substantial impact that the proposals will have on the lives of those currently working in the service. Although career opportunities within the new operating model exist, current staff would be forced to compete for fewer jobs and to relocate.
I understand that the proposals are still open for consultation, and I welcome the Minister’s decision to extend the consultation period. Indeed, I am assured that the enormous public response will serve to broaden debate on coastguard reform, as is appropriate for an issue of such importance.
Given the ongoing nature of the consultation, I am not sure how much detail the Minister can give in response, but I want him to recognise that the link between coastguard operators and the local community is of the utmost importance for maintaining high levels of safety at sea. Equally, will he recognise that the proposals place too much faith in the capacity of untested technology upgrades in the planned operating system?
Ultimately, safety at sea, rather than cost-cutting, should be the priority. The proposals achieve neither. I hope that the Minister will assure me that the Government will reconsider their proposals on wholesale reform and instead conduct a sincere investigation into strengthening the existing structure of Her Majesty’s coastguard.
I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and her colleagues for securing this debate through the Back Bench Business Committee. I also thank Mr Philip Naylor of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for listening to my pleas to include my area in the recent series of public meetings. My area has a coastline of some 200 miles with two ferry companies and a number of fishermen operating out of it, so it has a significant amount of maritime activity. It was good of Mr Naylor and his colleague, Bill McFadyen, to come to the maritime meeting last Thursday.
Before I run through a couple of important issues that were raised today, let me say that my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) is not in the Chamber, although he would have loved to be here. He has made a submission to the consultation, putting the case for retaining the Clyde maritime rescue co-ordination centre. In a document on the planned closure of MRCC Clyde, a shipping industry expert says:
“I honestly believe this is utter madness and will end in disaster.”
The document is first class and worthy of consideration, as is the case made by my hon. Friend.
If I repeat anything that has already been said this afternoon, it is because of its importance and significance. We have heard a great deal about local knowledge today, but local dialect is important, too. We have heard many dialects in this debate. Members who live 300 or 400 miles apart are beginning to understand some of them. It is important that we get this matter right. There are two fundamental issues in the entire process: minimising errors and chasing the clock. When we talk about minimising errors, we are referring to the initial information-gathering processes: the location identification, the casualty incident description, the response required, the assurance of effective communication between the casualty or first informants and the resources and co-ordinators. Minimising errors also relates to work-load distribution and the management of resources.
Chasing the clock is as it sounds. We all recognise that when HM coastguard receives notification of an incident, the problem or the disaster has already taken place. Given that the incident is being reported after the event, action must be taken as quickly as possible. The race against time starts at the exact time of receiving the call. The time difference between call reception and incident commencement can be anything from a few minutes to a matter of hours. Irrespective of the amount of time that has passed, the search and rescue response is already lagging behind.
The remote handling of search and rescue co-ordination from the maritime analysis and operations centre increases the risk of error as a result of the many additional assumptions that the new system would employ in trying to establish area, nature and appropriate response from the initial call. That leads to the insertion of time into the process, which equates to the potential loss of life. It is about that information gathering and handling that information as appropriately and as quickly as possible
The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned the table-top exercise that took place last year. If we proceed with this process, or any other process—I recognise what my hon. Friend the Chair of the Transport Committee had to say on this matter—all the information that goes through that exercise on its own must be what people will identify as being good, decent information. From what I can gather, that table-top exercise did not provide the full information that is required. I make a plea to the Minister: before we process any of this any further, that table-top exercise needs to be handled in real time. I accept that the exercise was based on information that came in about incidents on a specific day in summer 2006, but all that was done was a redistribution of each and every one of those incidents on to a map. There was no real-time activity, which would determine how individual sites might handle those cases as they came in.
I am not in denial—I recognise that this process is about making financial savings. It must be recognised that the process began back in 2007. There was an industrial dispute, and off the back of that dispute there was an agreement between the two parties involved: the management and the unions. I have not come across a single union member who is opposed to change in the process, provided that it delivers a service with which they are comfortable, and which they believe they can deliver to help to save lives. That is their duty; that is what they see as being paramount. So, even if there is little that the Minister can do, I hope that he will go back to that table-top exercise and ask for at least part of it to be conducted in real time. I will say nothing more than that because I want other colleagues to be able to make their contributions to the debate.
Mr Crausby, I will launch straight in. Thank you very much indeed for calling me and I offer my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing this debate. I pay tribute to all those who work in the rescue services, and I welcome the Minister to Westminster Hall today. As a former soldier and firefighter, if anyone knows what we are talking about and can listen to what we are saying it is him.
I have a personal interest in this subject, because one of the 18 centres that we are discussing is in my constituency of South Dorset. It is, of course, the Portland coastguard station and I am instinctively protective of it. It is one of the busiest stations in the country, perhaps 20 times busier than other centres. Anyone who has been down to Portland during the peak summer period will know how busy it is. In fact, hardly a day passes without one seeing the air-sea rescue helicopter in the air after it has been called out for one emergency or another.
I am delighted that the Minister has told me, both privately and in public, that the rescuers—the helicopter crews, the lifeboats and the volunteers—will remain. What I am concerned about is that they will not be co-ordinated by local people. To me, that is the Achilles heel of the new system, and I will say more about it shortly.
We are told that the operation will move to the new “super-centre” at Solent, for lack of another word. First, as I understand it from my local coastguards, it is unlikely that any of them will go there. They are local people who are busy with family commitments, and I can assure people that the journey to Southampton from Portland probably takes about 90 minutes, because the roads in Dorset are appalling.
Secondly, I ask hon. Members to imagine a busy, hot bank holiday on the south coast. Millions of people are enjoying our seas and cliffs. Staff at the new super-centre will be bombarded with minutiae, and there will be many different events running concurrently. Time will be lost as each call is assessed, questions are asked and instructions are sought. Currently, the local watchkeepers in South Dorset and around the country get out of bed and the first thing that they do is to look out of their window. They immediately appreciate what is going on around them. They do not have to look any further to know all about the weather and the wind. If those centres are lost, the ability to co-ordinate local knowledge, so that rescuers can be best targeted and the best resource used, will be lost, which will lead to delay. As I have said, that is the Achilles heel of this proposal.
Thirdly, if we lose that human link in the chain, even with the best will in the world, I do not believe that the super-centres and their staff—not all of whom, of course, will be familiar with the areas that they are covering—will have the knowledge that they should have. There is a great deal of complexity in my part of the world in South Dorset. Like many places, it has quirky names for bays, caves, cliffs, currents and tides. At the moment, coastguard staff walk their area of responsibility and know it intimately. I doubt that that will happen with the new super-centre. Computers will help, and reference has been made to the so-called “rescue by Google”. However, as the Minister and I both know, the best intelligence is “human int.” and the “mark 1 eyeball”, to use a military expression.
Fourthly, and leading on from my last point, technology is not always reliable. Computers tend to break down, and the fewer computers that we have, the bigger the catastrophe when things go wrong. Fifthly, speed is vital. We have heard about that already. One of my constituents, an ambulance dispatcher, summed it up neatly when he explained that it is the “golden hour” that counts on land, while on water it is down to minutes, or, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) said, seconds.
Sixthly—and this is not to be underestimated—the uniformed presence in our constituencies is important. We live in a country that has many problems. The uniformed presence in my constituency adds to the role that staff play, with a ripple effect of seeing those men and women who are highly respected. Many people come into the coastguard station and ask for other things to be done, quite apart from the jobs that the coastguards are doing, which is keeping everyone at sea and along the coast safe. We must not ignore that uniformed presence.
We have all had a good whinge, and I am no exception, but may I offer a solution? We have 18 centres that are fully manned, despite the discrepancies in their work load. One reason is that they are not fully integrated. Surely, surely, surely, we can interlink 18 centres, so that they can be used more flexibly. They would not necessarily be open all the time, but they could be used more flexibly, so that in the summer the emphasis is on the south coast, and in the winter months it is on Scotland and Northern Ireland. I am not saying that there would not be any cover in the summer months, but Members can see what I mean and accept the logic of my proposal.
Under the existing system, if we lose one centre, we are down about 5% of our capacity. Under the new system, and certainly at night with the two new super-centres, we would be down 50% of our capacity. That is a huge difference. May I put two questions to the Minister? First, are the locations that he is considering for these super-centres—the substations that have not been chosen yet—being selected on the basis of cost or of strategic importance? Secondly, will he confirm who will monitor channel 16? As I understand it, that monitoring will cease. I am a sailor, and perhaps many other Members here today are too, and we rely on channel 16.
We know from bitter experience how expensive these things can be when they go wrong. The Minister has told me that the fire service reorganisation does not compare with these measures—I am afraid that I disagree with him—but it cost the taxpayer more than £400 million. I do not think that we can afford that today. Relying on these two super-centres for the whole country, albeit with bells and whistles, appears risky at best and foolhardy at worst. Will they provide the resilience and integrity that we need to cover 11,000 miles of coastline? I and many others do not think that they will. I am afraid that the idea of Aberdeen taking up the slack during a very hot and busy bank holiday weekend, because Southampton or Solent has gone down is pie in the sky.
Finally, I turn to the consultation. I sent one of my representatives to a recent consultation, which sadly I could not attend because I was speaking in the House. As I understand it, the coastguards who attended were told not to go in uniform and not to identify themselves. Personally, I found that a little sinister and threatening in what I thought was a democratic country. I believe that this is an open debate. Does the Minister agree with me that if coastguards want to go to such meetings in uniform they should be allowed to do so?
I come to my final, final point. I believe that we are in grave danger of wrecking one of our finest and proudest organisations. As we have heard, we have already cut it down from hundreds of watchtowers to the 18 centres that we are discussing today. I am grateful for the extended time that I have been given to speak, but will the Minister please, please, please consider this very serious issue? Let us try to hope that the solution that we arrive at leads to our retaining the integrity of a service that we have come to respect and love.
The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) was absolutely right when she opened her speech by saying that we were on the graveyard shift. I almost thought that I would be in the graveyard of the debate, so thank you for calling me, Mr Crausby.
Unfortunately, we are in here because of the machinations of the Backbench Business Committee, and that deserves a few words. We must ensure that more Members lobby the Committee so that we get on to the Floor of the House, as we hope to do, on 28 April—that is a possible window. I urge hon. Members to lobby the Chair and members of that Committee. I was very perturbed when, because of the internal politics of the Committee, the entire day that we were meant to have for this debate was given over to the debate on UN Women. I contributed to that debate, and was told by, shall we say, a senior voice to speak for as long as I could and to take interventions. It is my belief that we could have had our debate on the Floor of the House that day, with all the attendant publicity and spotlight that that would have given us. I know that the Minister would have been welcomed holding our debate on the Floor of the House, and that he, too, was perturbed when it was moved.
As a result of my complaints at the time, I was kindly given an Adjournment debate by Mr Speaker, but I pulled it to allow the Minister to go to Stornoway and Shetland—I am grateful that he did. I am also grateful for the extension, but I am perturbed that we are again in a situation in which we are rushed by time. In the previous debate, I spoke for three minutes and crashed my remarks together as quickly as possible. We are nine parties united on this.
I just want to demonstrate that point. I am the only Member here from the Humber, and I will be unable to speak due to the time available, so no one from the Humber will be able to put forward the case for our particular coastguard. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that the machinations are stifling debate on this important subject.
Absolutely. We want this issue to be considered on a substantive motion on the Floor of the House on 28 April, and with hon. Members’ support, I hope that we will achieve that.
I am delighted that the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), is in the Chamber to hear our proceedings. I can but hope that I will see her and her Committee in Stornoway at some point in the future.
I am the MP for the longest chain of islands in the UK, and my constituency has probably the longest coastline. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) might dispute that, but we are not going to walk every inch to find out whose coastline is longer. However, my constituency’s coastline is certainly disproportionate to its area.
The modernisation proposals coming from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are concerning in the extreme. When the Minister was in Stornoway, he visited the Iolaire memorial. On new year’s day in 1919, 205 men out of a crew of 280 lost their lives when returning from world war one, and that is still a sore and well-remembered point in Lewis.
The reduction of the number of co-ordination centres in the UK from 18 to 10, with only two in Scotland, is the wrong decision. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) asked whether there should have been a statement to the House at the time of that announcement. I asked Mr Speaker for a statement on a point of order, but unfortunately I was not given one. I agree that we should have had something more thorough in the House at that time, so hopefully we will get that later.
The modernisation proposals will result in England having six co-ordination centres, while Scotland will have only two. The current proposal is that the two Scottish centres will be based in the north: one in Aberdeen, for real estate and lease agreement reasons, and one in Stornoway or Shetland. That proposal is unacceptable because both Stornoway and Shetland need centres, given the considerable distance between them. Only one of the two centres will be a 24-hour centre, while the other will be open only during the hours of daylight. When the MCA was in Stornoway, it was asked what hours of daylight might mean—would the centre ever close in summertime, and would it ever open in winter? There was no real answer. There was an answer on the hoof about the times being perhaps 7 am to 7 pm, but no consideration had been given to that very basic point.
Scotland will be left with just two stations to cover 60% of the UK’s coastline, yet the MCA thinks that that is more than adequate. According to its consultation paper, it feels that it could monitor the waters around the UK from one central location, but it has chosen not to pursue that argument. That feeling has been comprehensively destroyed by Members from the nine parties with concerns.
There is concern about the loss of local knowledge. The MCA feels that it can address the issue of local knowledge by using highly detailed maps or GPS technology, but I am referring to local knowledge—we heard about this in relation to Wales—that knows the difference between Marivig and Maaraig in my constituency. As the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) mentioned, the area is predominately Gaelic, and the place names are Gaelic, or Norse but gaelicised in the intervening centuries. The local knowledge to which I am referring allows a co-ordinator to communicate a position to a rescue team down to a specific tree in a specific field, if they are an urban dweller, or down to a specific rock on the coastline, because they know the area so well.
We know that the life-saving helicopters contract has had its problems, and our rescue tugs will have question marks over them as well. I really do not understand how cutting our co-ordination centres and the assets that the coastguard uses to save lives will result in a better coastguard. To be fair, I do not think that the MCA has thought it through either—I have given some examples. I really do feel sorry for the Minister because he has been given a poisoned chalice by the MCA. If he could have looked in a crystal ball and seen how things would pan out, perhaps he would not have accepted that chalice quite so readily, but I will leave it to him to tell us that.
I was the first Member to raise the issues of risk assessments on the Floor of the House. From the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State for Transport told me that a risk assessment had indeed been carried out. However, in a briefing in the House five days later, the chief executive of the MCA, Alan Massey, said that no formal risk assessment had been done. It was distressing to learn that the coastguard was considering the proposals without being able to know whether the basic work had been done to see if they were safe. A risk assessment was eventually published, of course, but who can trust a risk assessment that was done to fit the MCA’s story, which is what I suspect has happened, as opposed to one that leads the process? I do not trust it, and I am sure that many others do not either.
I also want to mention the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Perhaps we could pressurise it to free up its teams—its crews and coxswains—to speak with a freer voice, instead of our just hearing something from the RNLI centrally. In my area alone we have teams in Stornoway, Lochinver, Mallaig, Castlebay, Portree and Kyle, and I would like to hear their opinions, including on a very formal basis. Some of the coxswains and crews tell me that they do not in any way praise the proposals. The RNLI has to empower its crews and enable them, their coxswains and their launch secretaries to enunciate their very real concerns, which are based on their knowledge of the areas in which they work.
The coastguard service needs to be improved and to adapt to the changing conditions at sea. The MCA has said in its consultation that the seas are getting more congested, ships are getting larger and weather patterns are getting worse. Scotland is responsible for 70% of UK fish landings, and we need to ensure that when our mariners go out to sea, their lives are as safe as possible. I reiterate how concerned I am that the proposal has been pushed in some ways by real estate considerations. In addition, the savings are minimal. I think that £120 million will be saved over 25 years, or £4.8 million a year, which is such a small figure that it was not mentioned in the comprehensive spending review.
A letter has come to me from Councillor Dominic Lonsdale of Weymouth and Portland borough council with reference to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. He wrote to Sir Alan Massey:
“The MCA lodged a planning application on 20 May 2010 with Gosport Council for a new MRCC at the Deadalus site.”
The councillor’s contention was that the planning had taken place long before the paper came out following the change of Government. In its first answer to him, the MCA had said that it was going to change the type of building, but he could see from the scale of the work that such serious plans were in hand that there was clearly another agenda. The letter goes on:
“I put it to you that the reply I was given of 9 June 2010 was neither full, honest nor within the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.”
I will certainly pursue that issue further.
I am feeling harassed, because although there are a number of details and issues that need proper time for discussion, we are again not getting that because this debate will be truncated. I am aware that I have spoken for 10 minutes and that other Members wish to speak.
It is disappointing that our debate has been rushed and that we have not had the opportunity to consider a substantive motion on the Floor of the House. There are plans in the air among the coastguards that we would be happy to support in a motion, but a debate needs to be held on the Floor of the House. I hope that that will happen on 28 April. This is about safeguarding our coastguards—the maritime insurance policy around our coasts. That is an important issue, and it should be debated on the Floor of the House of Commons.
I will cut my speech short, as other hon. Members wish to contribute. We are not disputing the need for modernisation. We accept that the technology of Her Majesty’s coastguard is outdated, but the staff are not. I dispute whether we can reduce the number of staff from 491 to 248 without a significant loss of local knowledge.
Detailed local knowledge is important, as is recognised in the fact that coastguard officers take rigorous local knowledge tests on their area of responsibility every two years and must receive an 80% pass mark to continue carrying out their highly professional role. I dispute whether two maritime operation centres could carry out such a role. To illustrate, if a child on a lilo is in difficulty off Blackpool sands, is the maritime operation centre likely to send the rescue effort to the west coast or to my constituency, which has a small cove by that name?
As time is short, I ask the Minister to consider the alternative proposals from Brixham coastguard. When he met Brixham coastguard, he invited its members to propose an alternative. They have discussed it with at least 14 other coastguards, who have endorsed their proposals. Time is short, but I hope that he will agree to consider them in detail.
To summarise the proposals, Brixham coastguard recognises the possibility of reducing the number of stations, but it proposes reducing that number to 14 rather than adopting the current proposals. It disputes the rationale for having two central maritime operation centres, but it understands that it might be necessary to review how duty rosters are managed and to use more of an evidence base to consider the details of call-outs, for example. That would be much more rational.
Brixham coastguard feels that it is possible to improve rostering, reduce staff and rationalise the management of the coastguard. For example, it disputes the need for regional management and suggests that we need only one national management centre for the coastguards. Again, that would generate considerable savings.
A review of technology is essential, but Brixham coastguard suggests that we consider electronic charts. It currently buys its own. Electronic charts are used by the RNLI and shipping, but not by Her Majesty’s coastguard. The current system is outdated.
Brixham coastguard asks the Government to reconsider the replacement of radio equipment. There is a strong feeling in the coastguard that the system has not been adequately piloted. I have heard, for example, that it has been difficult to page rescue teams. I ask the Minister to reconsider and definitely to pilot any new system before it is rolled out.
The Minister knows what issues have arisen with fire and rescue centres, so I will not reiterate them—many Members have already made the point—but I will mention the fiasco of the NHS’s over-reliance on IT. More than £12 billion has been spent on a system that has not been fit for purpose. It is a question not of just throwing money at the problem, but of piloting systems and ensuring that they do the job required of them.
The Brixham proposals ask the Minister to consider an alternative method of linking stations. We all recognise that resilience is an issue within the coastguard, but will he consider extending stations’ areas of responsibility, so that they cover the stations to either side and are linked in triplets? That would increase resilience, rather than having centralised maritime operation centres, about which all Members who have spoken have expressed concern. That way, we can retain local knowledge and improve resilience. We feel that that, as well as considering staff rostering, would be a much better way forward.
I reiterate the strength of feeling nationally. Within my constituency, my local paper, the Herald Express, published an article on the issue and had 6,625 signatures and letters. That shows the strength of local feeling. I am sure that every Member will have seen similar responses in their constituencies. It is a national matter that we hope the Minister will take back to the drawing board and start again with a blank sheet of paper. The coastguards who do the job on the ground feel that they were not consulted and that experts or coastguard officials who had been away from operational responsibilities for some years were involved. I ask him to consider proposals from grass-roots coastguards with multi-centre support.
Given the time available, I will restrict my comments entirely to the coastal community of Pembrokeshire. We are proud of our national park and of the people who look after it; we are proud of the industries that surround Milford Haven; and we are proud of the coastguard that has looked after it for such a long time with such skill and dedication. We are also proud of my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for doing so much work on the topic, although his responsibilities in the Whips Office prevent him from being here.
If I may, I will turn the Minister’s mind back to 15 February 1996, when the Sea Empress went aground off St Ann’s head, spilling 72,000 tonnes of oil into our haven and on to our coastline. I remind him of the 200 km of damage to our coastline and the profound damage to our local community and tourism industry. I also remind him—as though I needed to—that the effect of that disaster is still being felt 15 years later.
Given our pride in our haven and the incidents that have occurred there over the years, there is a feeling of nervousness, which is made worse by the fact that the universal tug service has been withdrawn—some might add, with good reason. We are nervous about threats to the helicopter search and rescue service that has helped us all these years. That nervousness is the context of this debate and the background to the local community’s uprising in the arguments currently raging in west Wales.
There was a rally in Milford Haven last week, to which the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) came. There were 17 political speakers; there are almost as many today. The town band was there, and the mayor came to put the case for the Milford Haven coastguard. A campaign has been run with great reasonableness by the Western Telegraph and the Milford Mercury, and a campaign by Save Milford Haven Coastguard has gathered many signatures.
Reasonable arguments are being put by reasonable people. I will not rehearse the arguments, but I stress the comments made about the Welsh language and flag up the need for healthy scepticism, technology reliability, risk assessments and back-up measures. I remind the Minister that when the 999 service was centralised not so many years ago, if someone rang 999 and asked for an ambulance to come to Newport, Pembrokeshire, it was not unusual for it to go to Newport, Gwent, 140 miles away. People are not particularly happy about that.
Real concerns are being expressed by real people making sensible arguments. History is relevant, especially in Milford Haven. There is confusion about whether the proposal is the MCA’s, the Government’s or, indeed, the last Government’s. The Minister’s visit last week to the Milford Haven area allayed many fears. It was a great success, and I urge him to do it again. Our community recognises the need for reform and changing technology and it recognises financial restraints, but I hope that as a consequence of his visit to Milford Haven, he will recognise that there is an obligation to balance those requirements with the hopes, expectations and fears of the community. They deserve nothing less.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Crausby. If I finish before 5.15, as I think I may, you might have time to indulge another colleague before the Minister gets his 15 minutes.
I congratulate everybody who has participated in the debate. It demonstrates the strength of feeling and concern across the UK about the proposals being consulted on for the future of the coastguard service. I am disappointed that we are debating the issue in Westminster Hall and agree with the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) that a debate in the main Chamber would have been better. I also support the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) that the Minister should make an oral statement when the matter is concluded. I am sure that he would welcome the opportunity to do so, and it would be a good way to allow colleagues to question his conclusions fully.
I thank the Minister for his correspondence on 8 March, which has already been referred to. He gave us more information, further to our previous debate on the issue, and the extension of the consultation allowed the Transport Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), to carry out its investigation and to contribute properly to the consultation. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister about how far he has got on his UK tour and how many more visits he is likely to undertake.
Right hon. and hon. Members have raised various concerns. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) opened the debate and challenged and asked about the validity of some evidence in the documents. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) indicated the strength of feeling among 250 people at his local public meeting and questioned the effect that the cuts would have on the confidence of volunteers if they were implemented. The hon. Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for Torbay (Mr Sanders), for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) raised the issue of local knowledge. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Down (Lady Hermon) showed, again, the united front of, not all Ireland, but Northern Ireland on the proposals for Belfast and asked the Minister to address the alternative strategy.
We heard a right honourable whinge from the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who correctly made the point that we are here to whinge on behalf of our constituents, although “strong representations” might have been a more complimentary way to put it—the word “whingeing” sounds a little derogatory.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made powerful arguments and cited real-life incidents, and the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who has personal knowledge of and family involvement in the fishing industry, made a very strong argument indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) said that, because Southampton will, possibly, have a super-centre, he has no constituency axe to grind, and neither do I, because the London centre is being retained. My hon. Friend, however, asked serious questions about the reduced 24-hour cover throughout the country. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) raised other shipping concerns, such as the ending of the emergency towing vessels contract, which was mentioned by other colleagues during our previous debate.
At this week’s all-party maritime and ports group meeting, we heard from the chief executive of the MCA, Sir Alan Massey, and the chief coastguard, Rod Johnson, who outlined the proposals to the group’s members and other attendees. Questions were raised there, and have been raised here and previously, about the technology and about its being tried and tested.
Hon. Members have referred to the parallels, or not, with the regional fire controls, which we covered extensively in our previous debate. I was the Minister who accepted advice from officials that we should go down that route, but it has not worked out. The Minister and I share fire brigade background, so I know that he is sensitive to the issue. He has followed it closely and is looking at it in relation to the controls under discussion. The relocations, the redundancies and the willingness to transfer or not have been raised, as have the general resilience and robustness of the proposals.
It is important to say, as I did in our previous debate, that the Opposition do not oppose reform, reorganisation and improvement, but we have serious concerns about the proposals and whether they are cutting too far, too fast and too deep. Two super-controls seem to be one too few. If one control goes down, there will be only one left. If they work and the technology and communication equipment is effective, I am not sure whether the country ought not to have three. As I have mentioned, we have seen what has happened with the fire controls.
I am sure that the Minister is more up to date with the proposals. He is nodding and I am sure that he will cover that when he winds up. I have said that the two super-controls seem to be one too few, and the number of day-staffed stations seems too restricted, which several colleagues have commented on. The overall numbers make the proposals look as though they are finance-driven rather than operationally driven. Given the historic pairing of stations, which has been explained to us on a number of occasions, there might have been stronger logic in suggesting that a single station from each pair should be maintained, with three super-stations on top. Obviously, the Minister will assess all the representations and submissions in due course.
The coalition document said that there would be no cuts to the front line. Notwithstanding that this is a reorganisation, what is the coastguard if it is not a front-line service? Many people are saying that these cuts go way too far. It is important to remember, however, that this is a consultation, that it has not concluded and that it is being extended. This is, therefore, a good opportunity to put the Minister under pressure. I have spoken informally to the Minister outside this Chamber and know that he is listening and learning, and other colleagues have said the same. We will look closely at the finished document and his conclusions.
I know, owing to my former ministerial positions, the conflicting pressure that the Minister is and will be under, but at least he knows from Prime Minister’s questions only a few weeks ago that the Prime Minister has expressed some scepticism about the proposals. He said that the Government remain to be convinced by the MCA’s proposals. That is a very reassuring starting point. Every Member who has spoken today and in our previous debate has expressed real concern. I hope that the Minister, in the restricted comments that he will be able to make during his winding-up speech—he has not yet reached the end of the consultation—will give some reassurance that the efforts of the brave men and women of the coastguard service and those who depend on them, as well as those who support them, will not fall on deaf ears and that we will see some changes to improve the proposals, which, at the moment, do not appear to command any support in the House.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for being so diligent in securing the debate and for the tone in which the debate has, in the main, been conducted. I, too, would have liked to have had the debate on the Floor of the House. I do not dispute that argument, and I think that the issue should have that sort of airing. The decision is beyond my pay grade, but I note that the deputy Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), is here to represent his constituents, even though he is not allowed to speak. If the issue could be brought back to the House, that would be right and proper.
This is a really important debate. I will sum up what others have said and my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth will finish off the debate. I pay tribute to all coastguard staff—full-time, part-time and volunteers. More than 3,000 volunteers do it because they love their community and want to serve it, as do so many others throughout the country. I also pay tribute to the RNLI. It is an amazing organisation that looks after not only us in the United Kingdom, but the Republic of Ireland. That is really important. I also pay tribute to what are called private rescue boats, but which are really volunteers. There are hundreds of them. Some of the constituencies represented here today do not have any, and others have so many that it would be impossible to visit all of them in the time available during a Parliament. They are fantastic and are dedicated to, and love, their community.
Nine parties are represented in the debate. I am proud of that. I served in Northern Ireland for many years and never got the parties together, but I have managed to do it now—for a while. Many hon. Members have come to this Chamber on a one-line Whip, when they could have been in their constituencies. Instead, they are here doing what is right and proper, and what I would have been doing if I were a Back Bencher with a seat associated with the coastguard service.
I have listened to all the points made by colleagues, but the most important representations have come from the public and, in particular, from the coastguards themselves. I have heard some disturbing comments today. I do not want to dwell on the matter for too long, but if a member of my staff—they are my staff because I am the Minister responsible for shipping and the MCA works for me—has gone out and said, “Don’t worry about it; they are a bunch of whingers,” I do not want to know who they told; I want to know who said it because, believe me, I will come down on them like a tonne of bricks. Hon. Members who know me will know that that is the case.
It is important that employees of the coastguard feel confident that they can make submissions. Some have put submissions in anonymously and I understand that. However, they really do not need to do it anonymously. As I have gone around the country—I shall touch on some of the meetings I have had—people have been positive.
I am glad that the Minister has said that staff do not have to worry about what happens. I know that I am not the only hon. Member to have experienced this, but I have had more than one representation from a staff member who is very worried about the possibility of—and this is the word they use—recriminations if they take part in the process. I am glad that the Minister has made it clear that that will not be tolerated.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been to the coastguard station at Crosby and the people there did not hold back when they spoke to me. Everybody was in the room. The staff should feel confident that if they wish to do so, they can express their views robustly. By the way, as he may have noticed, I was robust back. That sort of confidence should be out there. The coastguard community is quite small and some people do not have that confidence. If they want to submit anonymous representations, that is understandable. Those representations will be dealt with in exactly the same way as those to which people have put their name.
I shall touch on some of the points raised by hon. Members. In the short time I have, it will not be possible to answer every individual point. However, my officials are here and, if necessary, we will write to hon. Members on individual points. I have a background as a member of the armed forces and, probably more significantly, as a member of the fire service for many years, so saving lives is in my blood. There is no way that this change to the way in which the coastguard operates is going to put lives at risk—far from it. To some extent, I inherited the plans from the previous Administration. Some hon. Members were at the briefing upstairs in, I think, Committee Room 9, when the chief coastguard and chief executive were present. When the chief coastguard was appointed over two years ago, he had the proposals on his desk. At that time, I was not a Minister and this coalition Government were not in place. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), the shadow Minister, knows that the proposals were on his desk and the desks of others for four and a half years-plus.
As I have gone around the country, no one I have met who is in the know has said that there does not need to be dramatic changes to how the MRCC is run. When I was in Crosby, one very senior officer said to me, “Minister, we know it should be nine. We have been saying it should be nine stations for many years.” That was said in front of the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). I asked for the submission that actually said that.
I had a wonderful trip to Bangor in Northern Ireland. It was a trip down memory lane for me in many ways. There was a breath of fresh air at that and other meetings, and in some of the early submissions. I have not looked at them in detail because it is not right and proper for me to do so yet. However, if I am sat in a presentation, it is difficult not to listen to what is being said. The presentation at Bangor looked at having 10 stations—one headquarters, and of the remaining nine stations, about half would be full time and half part time.
There is an acceptance out there that the present 19 stations are an anomaly left over from previous closures. There were closures in the ’80s and in early 2000 and 2001. We are left where we are now. I understand fully the passion of every hon. Member and why communities are coming together and saying, “Don’t close my station. This is very important to us.” We have had more than 1,200 submissions to the consultation. They fall into three groups. One group of people are questioning my parent’s parenthood or my parenthood. Some of those submissions will have to be redacted before we publish, but we will publish every one that has been received.
Some submissions are based purely on individual stations—a bit like what we have heard in the debate. People are saying, “This is our station. We think it should stay and these are the reasons why.” That is fine. However, we have also had a number of submissions saying, “Let’s not just look at our station; let’s look at how we can have a national service.” That is what I heard in Crosby, in Bangor, in Milford Haven and what I know I am going to hear in Falmouth.
I have the honour of looking after the only national emergency service, and I am very proud of its history. However, it is the only national emergency service with no national resilience. There is more resilience in all the other emergency services than the one we are talking about today. That is not acceptable in the 21st century. This is not just about resilience in computers, which we are all a bit sceptical about. I share that scepticism on computers. I was shadow Minister for three and a half years. In the great city we are in now, the ambulance service control centre just across the river looks after 10 million people. People are transferred from a 999 call to that control centre. The operators have hardly asked the caller anything before they know where they are, within reason, and they are looking to see who they can dispatch. We do not have that sort of facility in the coastguard service. That is the sort of thing we need. It is a different sort of service because of the myriad methods of contacting the coastguard emergency service. However, we must have a better, more resilient service.
Will the Minister accept that although the kayaker or the group of young people barbecuing on a beach who need help may be identified by a passer by, there is no means of being able to identify where they are electronically? That is my concern. His system relies not only on electronic ability at the coastguard station, but on—he has just given an example of this—being able to identify where somebody is with a 999 call. People using beaches and people kayaking might not have made the call; somebody else might have done so.
I take the point that my hon. Friend is making. I pay tribute to the family and personal experience of the coastguard and the sea that she has gained over many years. She understands the sea better than anyone else in this Chamber. From my emergency service background—the shadow Minister also has such a background—I know that such a situation occurs in the other emergency services. It is not a be-all and end-all. It is not a case of this being the only method of doing it. I am not saying that at all. Only the other day, I was in Shetland. The communications there go down regularly when we have to send volunteers out—whether it is the BT line, the broadband line or our own communication systems. That happens around the country. I am not saying that if a new system is brought in, it will take away any of that local knowledge. It will augment the current situation as we go forward.
May I touch on what we have today? Many hon. Members and hon. Friends have said that we could leave the service roughly where it is, but we cannot. The coastguard service is telling me that it cannot—from the most junior person on the watch through to the volunteers and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at the top. That organisation does not want to be dragged into the politics of the matter, and I can understand why. However, to use the modern slang, it is also saying to us, “Is the service fit for purpose in the 21st century? No, it is not.”
It is interesting to read about the twinning system—an issue that I raised when I was in Bangor. The arguments that were put to me in Northern Ireland on resilience, the special circumstances and how they liaise with the Republic of Ireland—particularly with regard to helicopters—were very powerful. I thank the Republic and pay tribute to it. We get helicopters for free and we help them in other parts of the coast on other matters. Of course, there is the issue of what happens if communications go down. What happens if a station goes down? Will the Clyde back us up? There is no logic to the idea that all that local knowledge is transferred instantly to the Clyde—it cannot be. I accept that, as we look at different stations around the country, but the present twinning system does not work properly. If we look at where stations are around the country at the moment, they are not set up with a proper regional structure, as we would probably expect them to be. There are some stations that are very close, and some that are very far apart. The Humber station, which was mentioned by two hon. Members, covers 300 miles of moving sands. How on earth could it transfer in a twinning system? How does that work? Where is the resilience there? We need to look at that.
We need to look, as I have said in previous debates, at a service which offers a basic starting salary of £13,500 per year. How would anybody survive on that in some parts of the country? The answer is with more than one job, just like when I was first in the fire services—I am sure that the situation is not dissimilar for firemen today. We have to offer coastguards a salary that is suitable for the 21st century and give them the skills and training, so that they can have a career progression, too. It is very much dead man’s shoes, looking at the age profile. There are very young people and people coming towards the end of their careers, but the middle section is very difficult indeed.
The whole country relies on the coastguard, whether on holiday, in the shipping industry, in their community or where they work. Is this a done deal? No, it is not. Will we come out of the end of this process with a different set of conclusions and a different modernisation programme from when we started? I am sure that we will—I am convinced of it.
I am not going to give way, because I am really restricted on time. I apologise. I am not summing up—I have to hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth.
Is this just about money? Yes, there are savings required, but if this was just about money, it would not be £4.8 million a year. As hon. Members have said, it is a tiny amount of money. Will there be savings throughout the MCA? Yes, at the top and at the bottom. In my own Department, every single member of staff has had to reapply for their own job. That is the sort of situation that we are working under. Did I come into politics to do that? No, of course I did not, but we have to be realistic about the money and the income that we have to work with.
I welcome the Transport Committee’s commitment to its own report. I welcome the fact that the Chair of that Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), has sat through the debate and been part of the debate. I say to her that I will not, under any circumstances—and neither will the Secretary of State—come to any conclusions until her Committee has reported. I promise and I make that commitment. If I can—it is difficult, because bureaucracy is involved—I will try and release to the Committee as much data that I have received, and which has been submitted to us, as I can, particularly the detailed submissions about reconfiguration. I will not release the submissions that are nasty about me, of course. If I can release that data I will do so. If I cannot do that, I might write back to those people who have made submissions and suggest that they send them to the Transport Committee. It is imperative that the Committee see that some of the submissions from the coastguard do not say, “We all should stay open; everything is perfectly fine”. They actually say, as I have alluded to, nine stations or 10 stations. There are others that say there should be more or less.
I think that this is the start of something new in government. Consultation had to start somewhere. I inherited a situation; we started somewhere. We listen. We come out with a service that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. Not everybody is going to be happy, because I have got 19 stations and there is a proposal for 10 closures or nine closures. Clearly, not everybody will be happy. There is, however, a sense in the coastguard service, without any doubt if people are really honest, that we have to move on from where we are now. We have to get away from the disputes that have been going on for so many years, which are divisive, and have a service that has the resilience, the modernisation and the service to the front line, which is being left untouched and will be enhanced.
Finally, channel 16, under international regulations, will be monitored in the stations. That will not be on headphones, but over loudspeakers. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). I should have come back to him on that. On that note—I am sad that I have to cut my comments short, due to procedure—I will hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth. This is a proper consultation. No deal is done. I have visited many stations and have one more to go. I cannot visit all 19—that is not possible. If hon. Members look at the political make-up of the stations that I have visited, that has nothing to do with party politics—it is to do with my job.
On behalf of all hon. Members who have attended this afternoon’s debate, I want to thank the Minister for such a helpful response. I will not take all the credit for today’s debate. I worked with a team of hon. Members, whose names are listed on the Order Paper, to secure the debate. I hope that as many hon. Members who have participated today—particularly those who did not have the opportunity to speak, or who felt under pressure and did not have the full amount of time—will join us on Tuesday to make further representations to the Backbench Business Committee to make sure that we secure more parliamentary time in the main Chamber. Today’s debate has demonstrated the strength of feeling and the range of issues that still need to be explored on this UK-wide issue, which is one of the unique occasions when we can represent all the people of the UK in Parliament.
Had the Minister had more time, I am sure that he would have been able to answer this point, but does the hon. Lady agree that it would be helpful to have a breakdown of incidents, so that we know what kind of incidents the MCA is dealing with? That would be an important appendix to the extended consultation.
Like everyone else, I am reassured by what the Minister has said: saving lives is in his blood; he will now make all the information available to the Transport Committee; no decisions will be made until the Transport Committee has published its findings; and there will be plenty of opportunities between now and then for further representations by coastguards, without fear. That was a very important point. Coastguards are frightened, and I think that there are volunteers in the RNLI and other organisations who are frightened to come forward. They can do so with the absolute guarantee that they have been given by the Minister today.
The hon. Lady congratulated our colleagues, the hon. Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), whose names also appeared on the Order Paper. I want to add to those congratulations.
I wanted to pursue with the Minister the point about the transition period. Whatever the outcome, we want to ensure that safety is not compromised in that period of change. The Minister touched on that in his remarks, but I want to be confident that that point has been taken on board, and that the transfer of local knowledge, and the issues around that, are addressed strongly in whatever system we end up with.
My hon. Friend is right to say that we owe it to the army of people who voluntarily protect life and limb at sea to get this right so that people are confident about going to sea. Does she agree that that is the test on which we should judge these proposals?
That is right. As the Minister began by saying, it is the people of the country, as well as seafarers, who have to feel absolutely sure that, whatever happens when the proposals are introduced, safety is paramount. The transparent way in which all the proposals will be published and scrutinised by the Transport Committee, and the fact that hon. Members will again have the opportunity to examine and debate the proposals in the House, should give people the assurance that they desperately crave at the moment, and give the answers to the questions which remain unanswered.
Question put and agreed to.