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Coastguard Service

Volume 529: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Dr McCrea. This is the latest in a long series of debates on the coastguard service and I look forward to debating it again with the Minister.

With the coastguard station, police officers, community support officers and the second fire engine under threat in Crosby, it struck me as odd that the Government had not carried out a risk assessment of the impact of such cuts on public safety. I want to look at the co-ordination between the emergency services and see how police, fire and ambulance services will carry out their duties without coastguard staff, who have immense local knowledge and years of experience. There will also be an impact on the RAF mountain rescue service, the British Transport police and the many volunteers who carry out vital rescue services up and down the country. I plan to look at the ability of other emergency services to support the remaining coastguards to carry out their duties following the cuts to their budgets.

In the spirit of “Have I Got News For You”, I have brought along two guest publications. The Royal Yachting Association’s members’ magazine stated:

“It is clear that changes to the current system are needed to improve the safety of boaters.”

Will the Minister tell us how organisations such as the RYA were involved in drawing up the original plans?

The second guest publication, Firefighter, is probably well known to the Minister because he has a distinguished record in the fire service.

Well, he has served in the fire service.

Firefighter states:

“Voluntarism, good neighbourliness and a desire to perform ‘public service’ have a limited place in the fire and rescue service on safety grounds.”

I raise that comment because cuts in budgets and staffing have led to the expectation that some of the work of the emergency services will have to be delivered by volunteers. The question is whether that is a safe or acceptable risk for the public. It would be helpful to see how the emergency services and public safety will be affected by the planned cuts. Coastguard staff at Crosby work closely with the police, fire, ambulance and search and rescue services.

I have a number of questions for the Minister, some of which he will be able to answer and some of which he may have to refer to his colleagues in other Departments. The proposed changes to the UK-wide service will have a huge knock-on effect and this debate aims to tease out some of the wider issues, many of which have been briefly addressed in our previous debates.

There is a disagreement between the Minister and many coastguard staff and stakeholders about whether an adequate risk assessment was carried out as part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency plans. It would be interesting to hear what assessment was carried out of the impact on other emergency services and on their ability to continue to support the coastguard. I include in that assessment the impact of funding cuts on voluntary organisations, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—an organisation’s ability to raise funds may suffer as a result of the economic climate—and local volunteer services such as the Southport rescue service.

I attended a consultation meeting at which more than 200 people were present, including representatives from the Southport rescue service. Concerns were raised by the shipping industry, the oil and gas sector, search and rescue volunteers and pleasure craft users. Will the Minister tell us how far those sectors were involved in the drawing up of the original plans? It is said that staff were not asked for their views, and that has been repeated right the way through this process and by many hon. Members here today. Could the Minister confirm whether the plans were drawn up by former front-line staff with no recent operational experience? Will he tell us whether the police, fire service, ambulance service and volunteer search and rescue teams were asked for their views before the plans were drawn up?

The lack of front-line involvement in drawing up the proposals is a key flaw and a matter of grave concern for hon. Members here today and the staff and public who rely on the coastguard and other emergency services. It is at the heart of the difficulty that the Government face during this process.

The way in which Ministers pushed ahead with the proposals is similar to the way in which so many other policies are pushed through by the Government—too fast and too soon. They failed to engage with stakeholders and staff and they failed to involve the other emergency services when they drew up the plans. That led to many of the flaws that have been so graphically illustrated during the consultation. It would have been far better to get the proposals right in the first place and not to have the plans systematically dismantled by staff, volunteers, maritime experts, commercial and leisure users and the general public.

Like many other places in the country, the Merseyside fire and rescue service is set to lose its marine service as a result of Government cuts. I would be interested to hear what discussions have taken place between the MCA and the fire service about the work done jointly between coastguards and river and coastal fire and rescue boats, and what the impact of the cuts will be. Has the Minister spoken to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the cuts in the fire service and has he raised concerns about the impact of the cuts on Merseyside and elsewhere in the country?

Did the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government ask the Minister or the Secretary of State for Transport whether the cuts in the fire service would have any effect on the coastguards and what the impact would be on public safety? These questions would have been addressed if the fire service had been asked to help draw up the plans for the coastguard.

Co-ordination between rescue services would have helped to deliver changes without compromising safety. This story appeared in the Liverpool Echo on 5 March:

“Four people had to be rescued from a pilot boat that caught fire on the River Mersey today. The alarm was raised at around 3.10 am that the crew of the Dunlin were drifting in the river after the fire knocked out the engine. The New Brighton RNLI boat was launched to save the people onboard, who were transferred to another pilot boat, the Petrel. Firefighters tackled the blaze on the water before the stricken Dunlin was towed back to the landing stage at the Pierhead. The fire crews finished dampening the smouldering boat down at around 6 am. No-one on the Dunlin was hurt.”

There is praise there for the RNLI and the fire service, but after the cuts, will the RNLI have the contacts to respond? Will the coastguard be able to direct the RNLI or another rescue team to the scene in time?

I welcome you to the Chair, Dr McCrea, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. Does he agree that the whole issue around the coastguard stations has opened a real hornets’ nest in a number of regions? In Northern Ireland, the Bangor station is causing something of a controversy. Does he agree with the First Minister in Northern Ireland when he said that reducing the Bangor station—the only coastguard station in Northern Ireland—to a daytime service would have a significant effect on the levels of service and rescue?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. His example ties in with the concerns that I was expressing about the co-ordination of rescue services and about getting them to the scene in a timely fashion.

That point was illustrated by the example I gave concerning the Dunlin which suggested that a combination of organisations work together to effect speedy rescue services; that all of them are affected by Government plans; and that all of them have raised questions for a variety of Government Ministers. I hope that we will start to get some answers from the Minister today.

The suspicion remains that the reorganisation has been rushed and that the cuts to police, fire, ambulance and voluntary agencies that provide an emergency response have also been rushed. The cuts to all the emergency services are possibly the worst example of cuts that are happening too fast and too soon, as they will undermine the ability of the emergency services to protect the public.

The issue of local knowledge applies to all emergency services. When discussing co-ordination of emergency services, it becomes a critical issue. The loss of Crosby coastguard station would mean that the police and fire services, working with search and rescue volunteers, would be ever more crucial in identifying where incidents take place. The cuts to police, fire and voluntary organisations mean that those organisations will not be in a position to provide a replacement service for the coastguard service. That brings me to another question that I want to put to the Minister—how will that replacement service be provided? I would like an answer to that question.

The Government must now come clean on the estimates that they have made about the increased time that it will take to reach maritime incidents as a result of these closures. If the coastguard at Crosby goes, if the local fire service loses its river service and if the funding for the RNLI and other voluntary rescue services is under pressure, what will happen in incidents such as that involving the Dunlin? How will co-ordination of services happen in future? What assessment was carried out before the proposals were published? Was the RNLI asked to help draw up the plans? Did the Minister ask his ministerial colleagues about the impact of cuts to organisations such as the RNLI and whether the funding of such organisations would be affected by the slow-down in economic growth that has resulted from the Chancellor cutting public spending?

Evidence was given to the Transport Committee the other day by the RNLI, but what evidence is there of any cuts in the RNLI services anywhere in the UK and southern Ireland? If there is no evidence, the hon. Gentleman is scaremongering and frightening communities around the country. There is no evidence at all.

I am glad that the Minister has asked me that question, because it highlights the fact that that was the sort of issue that was not considered when the plans were drawn up. The reason that I raise the issue is—

The Minister can shake his head, scowl and express his dissatisfaction all he wants. However, the reality is that in a downturn—in tough economic times—charitable giving falls. He must know that; I think that everyone in Westminster Hall today must know that. I am interested to know what assessment was made of the impact of the downturn, not only on the RNLI but on all the voluntary organisations that provide emergency services. That is the key question and I had hoped that I had asked it clearly before.

The specific point that the hon. Gentleman is making is that there are likely to be cuts in the service of the RNLI. The RNLI gave evidence to the Transport Committee only the other day and I myself have met local and national representatives of the RNLI on numerous occasions, and there is absolutely no evidence that such cuts will happen. To suggest that they are likely is scaremongering. As I say, I have met the relevant bodies and the Select Committee has taken evidence on this subject, so the hon. Gentleman must not scare the public by saying that there will be cuts to RNLI services.

I do not need lectures from the Minister about what I must and must not do. He should really think through what he is saying before he makes that sort of comment, because I am asking questions about the kind of assessment and analysis that was carried out about the impact of these plans, and about the process that was gone through when the original proposals were drawn up. This issue is of grave concern to many staff, many members of the public and many people who rely on the coastguard. It is about what analysis was done on a range of issues related to the ability of all the emergency services to protect the public. I am asking about that.

I say again that in a downturn—in tough economic times—charitable giving falls. We have already seen evidence of that. I do not know what the situation is with the RNLI. That is why I am asking the Minister about the RNLI. It is a very important question and I would be very worried if the Minister did not consider it so.

I will declare an interest. I am a member of the council of the RNLI, so I know that there really are concerns about charitable giving. Obviously, that issue is separate from the issue of the Government plans. However, the evidence given to the Transport Committee inquiry—this was said very clearly—was that in the consultation about these cuts only about four or five of the hundreds of RNLI stations across the country gave evidence. Privately, many RNLI members are concerned about the level of cuts and the disappearance of local knowledge. That is a fact. If anyone talks to RNLI members, volunteers and full-time crew members, they will find that they are concerned about the impact that these cuts will have on local knowledge and on their operations.

My hon. Friend has addressed some of the wider issues that the Minister raised with me. I had been looking at the issue of funding, and we have heard evidence that there is concern about that issue. The point that I was making was about the way that the Government proposals were drawn up, but my hon. Friend makes a much wider point about the impact of the loss of local knowledge and the concerns that the RNLI has raised about that issue. I think that we will discuss local knowledge in greater depth shortly.

Regarding the wider point about the RNLI, I have long-held reservations about the way that the RNLI has gone about this process of consultation. Local crews have felt that they have not been able to speak out publicly and have had to go through RNLI channels. I know people who work on lifeboats who have plenty of opinions on this subject, but their opinions have not actually been fed through the RNLI. Actually, because of the process that the RNLI has gone through, I would say that the RNLI evidence is incomplete and it could have been stronger if there had been greater input from certain crews in certain areas. I will put it no more strongly than that.

I welcome the points that the hon. Gentleman makes and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

I make the point that this issue is not just about the RNLI; it is about other voluntary rescue services too. I mentioned the Southport coastguard services, members of whom I met at the consultation meeting recently. There are other services in the Crosby area and of course around the UK that carry out these rescue services. They all make similar points about co-ordination and the loss of local knowledge and expertise; they are extremely worried about that loss. In addition, they all make the same point about funding. That is why I am asking about funding—it is an important question. Neither I nor the people I have listened to feel that that has been considered.

I represent the RNLI headquarters; it is in my constituency. I had a meeting a couple of months ago with the chief executive of the RNLI, Paul Boissier. I just want to make it clear that he is an ex-admiral and an ex-commander of a nuclear submarine. The head of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is also an ex-admiral. They talk regularly and there is no holding back of views. The RNLI is in dialogue with the MCA all the time. If there were any general concerns, we would know about them. The RNLI is not holding back. There is a dialogue and a good relationship with the MCA. The RNLI wants the best service possible, so that the people who risk their lives every day can actually get out there and save lives.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It is very important that there is communication at the top of the organisations involved. However, I think that everybody would accept that communication happens at many different levels and one of the main concerns about the way that these proposals have been put forward is the lack of involvement of front-line staff in the process of drawing them up. So, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point about top-level communication and I accept that point, but we also need to look at issues right the way through the organisations involved and around the UK, because the RNLI is not just one organisation in one area with one central structure. It is much more of a devolved organisation than that.

On the point about funding, on Saturday I met my volunteer lifeboat men in Looe who have just raised an enormous amount of money in a very short space of time for the provision of a new vessel. I must make it clear that there may not have been the impact on RNLI fundraising that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. However, there is a lot of concern among the people working at the sharp end that the proposals will adversely impact on their doing their jobs and on marine safety, and that needs to be put on the record as well. The hierarchy might be putting a particular message forward, but that is not what we are hearing at the coal face.

The hon. Lady speaks from tremendous personal experience, and I know that all Members recognise her involvement in the matter and the sadness around the loss of her husband. I pay tribute to her involvement in putting the case for the coastguard. She has made a very good point about the RNLI, and I am pleased to hear the evidence about fundraising—that is very important. The reason for my question is to tease out that sort of information and to look at the wider impact.

I have raised the issue of the impact on the fire service, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has submitted a series of written questions about cuts to the maritime incident response group by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Does the Minister have any further information on that?

Many Members have expressed concerns about how the plans were drawn up. The maritime industry was asked for its views about pleasure craft users and the fishing industry, but was it asked about the impact of the cuts in fire, police and ambulance services and about the loss of the ability to co-ordinate services?

On the police, Merseyside police authority says that it is not recruiting new officers. It expects to lose 480 officers over two years, and its budget for community support officers ends in two years’ time. The Liverpool Echo estimates that up to 800 front-line officers will go over four years, and across England and Wales the figure is 12,000 over two years. Has the Minister discussed with the Home Secretary the impact of such job cuts in the police service? How will police officers replace the relationships they have built up with coastguards, and will police officers be available to cover some of the work done by coastguards and search and rescue volunteers who tell us that they will call it a day because of fears for their own safety without the co-ordination of trusted, local coastguards with years of experience? If the Government perform the U-turn that they should, what will happen to the joint working with police and fire services anyway?

I have asked many questions about co-ordination, about the impact of the MCA plans on police, fire and voluntary emergency services connected to the coastguard, and about the effect of the cuts on the ability of emergency services to support the coastguard, whether or not the Government close most of the coastguard stations. The more I investigate the matter, the clearer it is that this is yet another issue governed by pound signs rather than by efficiency, putting saving money before saving lives. A recent Crosby Herald article stated that the original review had excluded Crosby coastguard station in my constituency. Crosby was hastily reinserted, however, when Ministers were reminded that the work force there were well organised and would almost certainly put up a fight. That is the view of staff and of local people. The suggestion is that the consultation was a sham and that Crosby was going to be closed whatever the outcome. We will clearly see before very much longer whether that is true.

I am sure that the Minister will remind me of his visit to Crosby. He told staff there that the coastguard was like the fire service and that he, as a firefighter, did not need to be told where the fire was. It was pointed out to him that along the coast of north-west England there are many mud and sand banks, but no roads, and creeks and gullies with similar names, and that it could easily take someone who did not know the area many minutes to identify the correct location to which to send search and rescue. A delay of a few minutes could well cost lives.

My questions today suggest that if a coastguard station closes, the lack of local knowledge could become even more critical because of the cuts to other emergency services. The coastguard, the other emergency services and the public all need assurances that the Government’s plans for the coastguard are not one of their many political cuts, and that they will reconsider the proposals. The reality is that the coastguard cuts, along with the cuts to the other emergency services, go too far and too fast. They have not been planned or thought through, and they should be reversed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate. I am pleased that we are looking at the co-ordination role of the coastguard co-ordination stations, which has not always been focused on in other debates, and at their role in overseeing incidents at sea. It is the local coastguards who pull together the emergency services during an incident and who, over many years, have built up relationships with those services. We remove that local relationship at our peril.

I firmly believe, as did my late husband, that there should be modernisation of coastguard equipment to allow, for example, the position of vessels transmitting with the voluntary class B automatic indicator system to be identified easily, but that there should be no cull of marine rescue co-ordination centres. Because of my personal position, I have received representations from concerned sea users all over the country, but it is appropriate for me to concentrate on my own area.

The marine rescue co-ordination centre in Brixham covers my constituency of South East Cornwall, and has built up unique experience from so many incidents over many years. The search and rescue area covered by Brixham stretches from Dodman Point halfway along the south coast of Cornwall to Exmouth in Devon, and it is essential to emphasise something I am sure the Minister will recognise and agree with—that local knowledge of topography saves lives. The care that I was afforded on 25 March by Looe RNLI crew and Brixham and Looe coastguards was beyond anything I could have expected, and I thank all those involved in the emergency services, and indeed the south-west fishing industry, for their kindness.

This past Saturday I spent time with my local RNLI personnel and my local volunteer coastguards, who are all concerned about the Minister’s proposals. They feel that he has not had the opportunity to speak to people who operate at the sharp end, and I would like to invite the Minister to visit Looe—if his busy schedule allows it—to hear for himself their concerns.

Some examples of co-ordinated sea rescues undertaken by Brixham are the Santa Anna, the MV Willy, the MV Kodima, the Ice Prince, the Kukawa and the Bothnia Stone.

Would I be right in saying that Brixham dealt with 1,300 incidents in 2010, saving 300 lives? Its work is absolutely valuable. When we talked about introducing technology, we said that we would move to a paperless society, but we have not, and although technology undoubtedly has a place—we need modernisation—without local knowledge we will not save the numbers of lives that we have done in the past.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I was coming on to the number of incidents. As far as technology goes, it was only last Wednesday that the London ambulance service system failed, and it was recording emergency calls with pen and paper.

The incidents involving MV Willy and MV Kodima both happened off the coast of my own county division, when I sat on Cornwall county council. I witnessed at first hand the superb co-ordination provided by the Brixham marine rescue co-ordination centre, with the marine emergency rescue organisations and the Cornwall fire service and its emergency planning department. I doubt that the Minister has experienced that unique way of working within a coastal fire and rescue service, but I appreciate that he has absolute expertise as far as an inland fire and rescue service is concerned.

I would like to highlight in more detail three incidents in which Brixham MRCC has been involved in co-ordination with other emergency services. The first occurred just before midnight—that is, outside daylight hours—on 13 January 2008 and involved the Torbay and Salcombe RNLI lifeboats, coastguard rescue helicopter India Juliet, HMS Cumberland and several merchant vessels. They proceeded to merchant vessel Ice Prince, with 20 persons on board, 27 miles south-east of Start point after its cargo shifted in heavy weather and it began to list to port. The vessel was abandoned by 12 crewmen, one with a suspected broken leg, and they were airlifted to Portland by helicopter. The remaining eight were rescued by Torbay lifeboat and conveyed to Brixham. A French tug attended the scene, and damage was assessed in daylight.

The second incident occurred on 11 October at 8.38 am and involved a missing person. Brixham took broadcast action and tasked the warship Westminster and coastguard helicopter R106 to assist the French coastguard at Cross Corsen in a mid-channel search for an 80-year-old male reported missing from passenger vessel Balmoral.

Finally, on 10 February this year at 6.43 pm—again, outside daylight hours—Brixham coastguard received a mayday distress call from fishing vessel Amber J reporting that fishing vessel Admiral Blake had collided with MV Boxford approximately 30 miles south of Start point. The Amber J reported that two crewmen from the Admiral Blake had entered the water and only one had been recovered. Salcombe RNLI’s all-weather lifeboat, coastguard rescue helicopter 106 from Portland and Royal Navy helicopter 193 were tasked to search for the missing crewman. After a mayday relay, numerous vessels assisted in the search, along with a rapid rescue craft from the Boxford. After a brief search, the missing crewman was located by the Boxford’s rapid rescue craft, winched aboard the coastguard rescue helicopter and taken to hospital. Rescue helicopter 193 stood by while the Salcombe lifeboat assessed the damage to the Admiral Blake. After the damage was assessed and controlled, the Admiral Blake was towed back to Plymouth, where the Plymouth lifeboat met the vessel and took her into port. That shows essential local partnership working among our local coastguard stations at the moment.

Complicated incidents at Brixham have increased year on year since 1998, when 767 incidents were recorded. In 2002, there were 903 incidents, in 2003 there were 1,025, in 2009 there were 1,324 and last year there were 1,355. Of greater concern is the fact that this year, there have already been 546 incidents, an increase of 90 from the same period last year. I acknowledge that, taken at face value, the number of incidents at Falmouth appears higher, at 971. However, that can be broken down into 233 incidents similar to those that I have just described and another 738 that occurred under the international global maritime distress safety system. Some of those incidents might have been search and rescue, but others would have been passed to the relevant MRC centre to deal with.

I am afraid that I must take issue with the Minister’s comments about Falmouth’s international role during a debate on 2 February this year. He said:

“Falmouth is internationally renowned for its international rescue capabilities. If we have a problem in Falmouth, where does that get picked up? Nowhere.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 320WH.]

He is clearly unaware that Brixham takes over GMDSS when Falmouth suffers an outage, and has taken over the system every Thursday for the past 12 months. Perhaps he will take the opportunity when he speaks to correct the statement that he made in February. It would also be interesting to hear from him whether there have been any incidents in which both stations in a pair have gone down at the same time.

As I am sure the Minister knows, Falmouth was allocated GMDSS due to its proximity to Goonhilly Downs satellite earth station, which has closed. Many incidents are subsequently passed on to other coastal co-ordination stations, and it is unfair of him to include them in the number of incidents dealt with by Falmouth alone.

I am disappointed that the Minister chose to describe Brixham and Falmouth as “ridiculously close” during the Adjournment debate last week. In fact, Brixham and Portland, Milford and Swansea, Thames and Yarmouth, Portland and Solent, and Forth and Aberdeen have fewer road miles between them, and if we measure as the crow flies, we can also include Holyhead and Liverpool on the list. Does he consider those stations to be ridiculously close?

Brixham MRCC is bought and paid for. We now need to cover only the station’s running costs. It contains an operations co-ordination room, an emergency planning room, a coastal safety manager’s office, a sector manager’s office, coastguard rescue equipment for the Berry Head rescue team, a coastguard rescue emergency vehicle, a marine surveyor’s office, a coastguard training office for the region and an aerial site, and it still has space to expand. Brixham has been approached to lease a whole floor to another emergency service for its offices and operation area. If the property is sold, new premises will need to be found and bought for all of the above.

The hon. Lady is making a fantastic speech. It underlines the fact that the more we find out about the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s plans and the more detail emerges, the more concerned I become, as I am sure do other hon. Members, about what the MCA was thinking when it first took its plans to the Minister. I am sure that he would not have started the process if he had known the sort of detail that the hon. Lady has described.

I am absolutely certain that my hon. Friend the Minister has the best intentions, and that he does not intend to make savage cuts to the best rescue service in the world.

Brixham is the busiest fishing port in England. It has the third highest number of leisure vessels registered on CG66, the voluntary safety identification scheme, at 2,200, and that number is increasing daily. It has a search and rescue area and is a popular holiday destination. Brixham has unique expertise in UK search and rescue. Due to its position along the busiest shipping lanes in the world, it has gained unique search and rescue expertise from incidents such as those that I have listed.

I end with a message that I hope the Minister will accept in the spirit in which it is given. He says that we will not end up with the proposal outlined in his consultation document, and I welcome those words. However, he must accept that by issuing a five-year-old proposal that takes massive cuts as a starting point, he has effectively moved the starting line as well as the goalposts. Coastguards all around the coast have told me that their response would have been different if they had not been working with a proposal to cut MRCC numbers and hours so drastically. That is why it is essential that we start with a blank sheet of paper.

No one knows better than I how dangerous the sea is and how important it is to co-ordinate all rescue services locally when an incident occurs at sea. The proposals remind me of 1994, when two fishermen lost their lives off the Cornish coast, below a recently closed coastguard post, and local people decided to open and restore the visual watch. That could not happen once we lose our marine rescue co-ordination centres around the coast, because they are professional. I make a plea to the Minister to think again about the closures. He has used examples of other nations operating with fewer stations, but has failed to mention that in those countries the coastguards operate in different ways, with different responsibilities. Yes, modernise, and yes, have better equipment, but please do not destroy the best coastguard service in the world.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her courage in taking part in this debate. Several Members have indicated that they want to speak and I would like to get as many of them in as possible. However, we have to commence the winding-up speeches at 10.40 at the latest. I am, therefore, in the hands of the Members that I will call.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this debate on such an important topic. My constituency of South Down in Northern Ireland has two fishing ports, so I know just how important the Bangor coastguard station is. I know of the necessity of maintaining a service that has developed a comprehensive knowledge of our seas. It is important that we keep the coastguard station in Bangor to protect those who use the seas around the island of Ireland, and those who use our coastal and inland waterways, including, in the case of Northern Ireland, those who use inland locations and are subject to search and rescue. Many of the people involved and those in other emergency services risk their lives to protect not only those in the fishing industry, but people involved in recreation and tourism.

The Government will announce their decision by 19 July and it is fair to say that the process has been marked by uncertainty for many people throughout Northern Ireland. Such uncertainty must give cause for concern regarding the outcome. The Government now seem to be re-evaluating and rowing back from their initial proposals. It is clear that they underestimated the value of the local knowledge developed over time by our vastly experienced coastguard personnel, and that they were prepared to risk losing this vital asset. I ask the Minister: was that really the purpose of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s proposals, or did it have better thoughts at heart about protecting the service?

It is vital that the Minister and the Government listen to those experts who have spoken up during the consultation and arrive at a decision that safeguards those who use our waters. I and other hon. Members from Northern Ireland believe that there is a duty to protect our coastguard station in Northern Ireland and to ensure that it can operate at full-time capacity. I recently attended a meeting hosted by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) in Bangor, which the Minister, along with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also kindly attended. It was made clear to the Minister, via a range of robustly made proposals by staff, that it was possible to retain the coastguard station in Northern Ireland on a full-time basis by using other measures and means. I and other hon. Members from Northern Ireland would like to hear the Minister’s response to those proposals in advance of the final outcome, because it is particularly important.

The other key point is that the Bangor coastguard station co-ordinates closely with the Irish coastguard. We would, therefore, lose out on that vital resource for protecting all of Ireland’s waterways. I recently had the opportunity to raise the issue with the Taoiseach—the Irish Prime Minister—and it is clear that closing or downgrading the Bangor station would be a great loss not only to the people of Northern Ireland, but to the people of the Irish Republic. Indeed, it is our coastguard that is nominated by the Irish Government to respond in the case of an emergency off the Donegal coast. It cannot be overlooked or ignored that our service operates on a cross-border, north-south basis on the island of Ireland.

Another difficulty in shutting the service and depending on a coastguard station in Liverpool—I use these words with caution, considering the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central—is that the island of Ireland operates with the Ordnance Survey at the point of origin, which is totally incompatible with the English mapping system. That is another reason why we need a full-time coastguard station in Northern Ireland.

All those concerns have been reflected during the consultation process. Indeed, I am reminded of the words of the chairman of the North West mountain rescue team in Northern Ireland, who expressed concern that the closure of the station would adversely affect the relationship between the Northern Ireland coastguard and the Irish Republic.

The hon. Lady has referred to the fact that the Northern Ireland coastguard also covers Donegal, but part of the reciprocation for that is access to the Irish Republic’s search and rescue helicopters. Does she share my concern that a breakdown in those closely maintained relationships on the island of Ireland could cause political difficulties and jeopardise some of that close co-operation?

I thank the hon. Lady for making that important point. I discussed the issue with the Taoiseach last week. He mentioned the need for greater north-south co-operation and made the point that the proposals could jeopardise services and the reciprocal agreement, which is vital for the running of an important maritime rescue service on the island of Ireland.

The chairman of the North West mountain rescue team said:

“The local knowledge and the rapport the NI coastguard have with the Republic’s coastguard means that we get a very effective and efficient service and I would doubt that would happen if that local knowledge disappeared.”

There is no doubt that, if the service disappeared, that would jeopardise that vital north-south arrangement on an inter-governmental basis.

I note the hon. Lady’s words on efficiency but, over and above efficiency, this is a maritime insurance policy. Sometimes, we have to be careful that we are not spoiling the ship for a ha’penny worth of tar. We have to make sure that when something is needed it is there and that we do not dismantle it beforehand. In that respect, it is important that we keep Liverpool, Bangor, Clyde, Stornoway and Shetland. Losing Oban a few years ago has had its own knock-on effects and I am sure that that will come through in the inquiries that are going on at the moment. I reiterate the importance of keeping those stations and the fact that this is an insurance policy over and above efficiency.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that vital intervention. He raises the serious point of co-ordination throughout the British isles. That should be taken on board and given due recognition during the whole consultation process. I hope that the Minister will respond to that particular point in an apt and empathetic way.

In conclusion, the courage of those who devote time to rescue efforts on our shores must not be taken for granted by Government. The Bangor centre is the only full-time station in Northern Ireland and its funding must therefore be protected. As we approach the end of the consultation process—it is one month away—we must end the current state of confusion. I strongly urge the Minister to respond in a helpful way to those officials in the Bangor coastguard station who have suggested strong and compelling proposals to safeguard the service for the people of the island.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate and on giving us another opportunity to demonstrate the strength of feeling there is about the coastguard service.

The Government are, of course, right to consider ways of modernising the coastguard service—they must constantly look at options for improving all their services—but I want to draw their attention to my concerns about the closure of the Clyde coastguard station in Greenock, which is just outside my constituency. The tragic early death of David Cairns means that Greenock does not have a Member of Parliament at the moment, but it is incumbent on hon. Members such as myself and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who secured an Adjournment debate last week, to point out the importance of the Greenock coastguard station to the west of Scotland.

My constituency has many islands and peninsulas, which means its coastline is longer than that of France and that the Clyde coastguard station has a longer coastline than any of the coastguard stations to look after. Islands, peninsulas and sea lochs create a wide variety of currents and sea conditions, which is one reason why local knowledge is very important. The most spectacular area is the giant whirlpool in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. If I may put in a tourist plug, that is well worth going to see. In addition, as my constituency is on the west coast, its coastline is regularly battered by severe storms. All those factors make local knowledge very important.

I also want to stress the importance of local knowledge in differentiating between different places that have the same name. On the islands and the mainland of the west of Scotland, a large number of places are called Tarbert because Tarbert means a narrow neck of land in Gaelic. It would be easy for someone not familiar with that to send the rescue vessel to the wrong place. It is also important to be able to differentiate between, for example, East Loch Tarbert and West Loch Tarbert. They are only a few hundred yards apart as the crow flies, but one is on the Clyde and one is on the Atlantic, so it is very important for someone to know the difference between the two.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned East Loch Tarbert and West Loch Tarbert and said that one is on the Clyde and one is on the Atlantic. I would argue, of course, that one is on the Minch and one is on the Atlantic, but I am talking about the island of Harris.

That is correct. There are plenty of other places called Tarbert, including one called Tarbet without an “r.” It would be very easy to get confused.

Those seas are sailed by a wide variety of different kinds of ships: for example, cargo ships, cruise liners, ferries, fishing boats, naval vessels—both surface and submarine—fish farm support vessels and leisure craft, in which there has been a significant increase. In addition, in the coming years, an increasing number of vessels will support offshore renewable energy installations. Over recent years, there has been a huge increase in the number of leisure craft of all kinds and it is important to remember that most of them are crewed by amateur sailors. If an incident should occur, inexperienced amateur sailors are obviously more of a challenge for coastguard staff to deal with. There are many new marinas around the coast and there will be a vast increase in leisure craft in the years to come.

Clyde station has 41 coastguard rescue teams under its control, and seafarers have received a first-class service from the Clyde coastguard station over many years. Once the Government have had an opportunity to consider the responses to the consultation, I hope that they will recognise the unique challenges posed by the area served by the Clyde coastguard station and that they will keep it open to retain the valuable local knowledge that exists. It is important to point out that, if staff are forced to relocate to Aberdeen, as appears to be the case from the Government’s proposals, that is well over 100 miles away and many staff will not be able to do so, either for family or financial reasons. Valuable local knowledge will therefore be lost.

One positive part of the Government’s proposals is that there will be a significant increase in the number of regular coastguards who will be supporting Coastguard Rescue Service volunteers. It would make sense to spread those regular coastguards across the country to minimise their travel time to where the volunteers are based and to ensure that they have contact with local emergency services. It is important to stress that getting to the remoter parts of Argyll takes a long time even from Greenock. The journey would be even longer if the support staff were travelling from Aberdeen to remote parts of the west coast all the time.

I am aware that the lease for the Clyde station comes to an end in 2012. That appears to be a major consideration in the reasoning behind the Government’s decision to close the station.

Was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was when I mined into the MCA’s proposals and realised that, as he is saying, the lease of Clyde station is coming to an end? When I first spoke to the MCA, it was apparent from the outset that the prime driver for the decision on the Clyde station was real estate and not maritime safety. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Real estate considerations should not be paramount. Safety should be the prime consideration and the fact that the lease is up for renewal should not be a major factor. I am sure that there are plenty of buildings that the Government could secure in the Greenock area if they wanted to continue to have a coastguard station in that area. I hope that the Government will secure further premises.

For all those reasons, the most important of which is local knowledge, I hope that the Government will recognise the importance of the Clyde coastguard station and realise that they do not want to lose its staff’s experience and expertise. I hope that they will reflect on the consultation and will agree to keep the Clyde coastguard station open.

Thank you, Dr McCrea, for calling hon. Members from all four nations to make a contribution this morning. I join you in paying tribute to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for her contribution to the debate and for the courage she has shown not just today but over the year she has been a Member of Parliament. When I have been in the Chair, I have seen her contributions to debates on fishing, coastguard and coastal issues. She brings experience, knowledge and a forthright and honest opinion that we need in such discussions.

This is an important debate. The linking and co-ordination between the coastguard and other emergency services is just as important as the coastguard’s internal co-ordination among the different stations. It is absolutely vital that that happens. I welcome the fact that the Minister has been listening through the long debates we have had since December and that the Government are prepared to pause and to look again at the proposals and the consultations. That is what we were calling for originally, and I think we have achieved that.

If the Minister had taken up my offer of coming to Holyhead station, he would have been very welcome. He could have seen at first hand not just the best practice of that coastguard station, but the co-ordination with other emergency services that takes place. Throughout the process, I have argued that, as a local station, Holyhead is strategically important to the whole of the Welsh coastline and, indeed, the Irish sea. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) talked about the Irish link. That has been very important for Holyhead and RAF Valley. I want to talk about the search and rescue at RAF Valley, which is the headquarters of search and rescue for the whole of the United Kingdom. It moved there from a different part of the country because of the strategic importance of Anglesey to the whole of the United Kingdom—it is equal distance from many places in the north and the south—and also to the west in Ireland. Search and rescue at RAF Valley has been involved in scrambling to some very important rescues and incidents.

It is important and timely that we have this debate in an open and honest manner because although we are all talking about local knowledge and our local stations, we have been mindful—I pay tribute to every Member who has taken part in such debates since December—not to put down other coastguard stations. We have stressed the importance of our own areas and their strategic importance to the whole coastguard family in the United Kingdom.

In the short time available, I just want to give the Minister a few examples—I appreciate that we are rushed for time, otherwise I would have elaborated further—of the strategic importance of Holyhead in terms of search and rescue and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. On the record, I have to say that I speak regularly—on a weekly basis—with members, crews, volunteers and full-time crew members of the RNLI and that, as I indicated, I am a member of the RNLI’s general council. They are concerned that they did not get the opportunity to have their views put openly into the system, but that they were channelled through the RNLI. As I said, and as was pointed out in the evidence session to the Select Committee, only four or five out of 100 RNLI stations took part in the consultation. We have not, therefore, had a true flavour of the opinions of the RNLI.

In Northern Ireland, many of those who work for the coastguard also volunteer for the RNLI, so the loss of personnel would have a direct implication for RNLI services.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Some people volunteer for both, or have members of their family who are in each of the emergency voluntary services. I want to echo the importance of that co-ordination. Time saves lives. Sir Alan Massey, the chief executive of the MCA, has said that there would be some time delay—he has been honest enough to acknowledge that. That could translate into the loss of lives if local knowledge and expertise is gone due to the closure of local stations.

We all want a modernised MCA with improved technology for the 21st century, but that must not be at the expense of closing local stations and losing local knowledge. I have been consistent in making that argument for many years. When my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) was the Minister and was given advice by the MCA, he carefully and rightly ignored it to an extent—not all of it—because this needed to be done properly. We now have an opportunity for a proper and open debate to look at all these issues. The consultation paper and the proposals, which the Government produced jointly with the MCA, did not allow that to happen. We have moved beyond that and we are having a better informed debate. The Government and the Minister can now come to the right decision, which is to retain the best coastguard services we have, retain local knowledge and enhance it with new technology and the best station personnel. They must improve the confidence, morale and abilities of station personnel, but also the co-ordination with the other emergency services, which are facing tough times themselves. As the Minister knows, the future of the search and rescue service has been put on hold and there is uncertainty. That causes great anxiety not just among the search and rescue people within the RAF, the MCA and the Royal Navy, but in the RNLI and other services—the family of search of rescue.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that public expectation and public confidence is critical to the Government’s overall direction of travel?

Absolutely. I echo the point, made by hon. Members in their speeches and interventions, that the coastguard service personnel, volunteers and full-time, and the RNLI are important members of those communities too. They have strong links with other emergency services.

For the benefit of the Minister and the shadow Minister, I would like to highlight the link with the fire service. I recall a ferry adrift in Holyhead which had 1,200 to 1,400 people on board, and which had lost control. The local knowledge of the coastguard got the fire service there immediately. I have taken part in exercises with the fire service. I do not have the time to go into it, but of course the ship’s crew think that they tackle things better and that the firemen just get seasick when they come on board the vessels, and the firemen think that they do things better. The serious point is that there is regular dialogue and liaison between those important services. That could be—I believe would be—lost if we closed local stations and lost local expertise and knowledge. Time saves lives, and I think that the Minister understands that and wants to move forward. I want to work with him, and with other hon. Members, to have those strategic, important coastguard stations enhanced to do the job for the 21st century.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who gave what I know was a difficult, but well-heard speech.

I understand the great concerns that we have heard today. We have had numerous debates and that is why the Government are having a consultation—to hear what people say not only from this House, but local areas. I suspect that at any stage when there has been modernisation or change of the coastguard service, whether 20, 50, 70, or 100 years ago, one might have had similar concerns. The way of the world is that, years ago, we needed a lot more stations than perhaps we need today. With technology, the upskilling of the service and having to move people through a career path, there has to be change. I understand, however, that local knowledge is an issue. Indeed, Sir Alan Massey acknowledged that local knowledge has to be a key concern. I am sure that when the Government look at the consultation, that will be a key point in what they eventually decide to do.

I have really risen to make a plug for the RNLI, which I am glad has already been plugged by a number of hon. Members. It is a phenomenally good organisation with a wonderful ethos. We are very lucky, as a nation, to have an organisation that raises money, as a charity, to provide a vital service that has saved 139,000 lives since 1824. There were concerns about its income. I think that that income is holding up reasonably well, which is partly due to how people feel about the lifeboat service. Even in southern Ireland, the bucket tin collections are holding up well. Given its economic problems, that is a phenomenal tribute.

The lifeboats have had to amend and change, not least because as a nation we had a large merchant navy, fishing fleet and Royal Navy. Many people who now man our lifeboats are landlubbers who have to be trained. Poole has very good training facilities, where people can experience wave machines and go through a simulation of saving at sea. I do not want to say very much more, in order to let the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) speak. The RNLI is a phenomenal organisation. It is very well managed and organised. The fundraising is good, and people’s commitment is tremendous. This is a really dangerous job. There is a memorial outside the headquarters in Poole that lists all the lifeboat men who have died, and I was privileged to be there when that opened. The organisation has a very good outreach to many of the families who have lost loved ones in lifeboat disasters—it keeps in touch. I cannot speak highly enough of RNLI, and I think that all hon. Members appreciate what it does for our nation.

I thank the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) for being so generous in allowing me some time to make a few points. I thank the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing the debate. Rescue co-ordination in Northern Ireland raises particular challenges, and I want to touch on them.

I think that everyone supports the idea of modernisation, but there is concern in Northern Ireland that the loss of the Belfast coastguard station would be a blow not just to the North Down constituency in which it is located, but to Northern Ireland as a whole. The coastguard in Northern Ireland is held in universally high regard, and I think that that has been the case throughout its history. While people often focus on rescue at sea, and that is certainly an issue for Northern Ireland, there is also the matter that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) raised with regard to inland search and rescue, which is also co-ordinated by the Northern Ireland coastguard. It is worth noting that in Northern Ireland, unlike in other parts of the UK, there are only two category 1 responders to emergencies: the Police Service of Northern Ireland and HM coastguard. We are all acutely aware of the significant security pressures faced by the PSNI. It is therefore important that HM coastguard can provide that search and rescue facility at a local level.

The Belfast coastguard station is the only one in the UK with a direct land border with another European state, so it fulfils a unique role in providing liaison and co-ordination with the Irish coastguard. As I said in an earlier intervention, I am concerned that some of the close working relationships, which are not just beneficial to Northern Ireland, would be lost as a result of any changes to and relocation of that co-ordination point.

I do not wish to repeat much of what has been said and I do not have the time to do so. In conclusion, I want to mention the impact on volunteerism in the RNLI. I referred specifically to the fact that people who work for the coastguard also volunteer, as do their families. Given the work of Bregenz house, those local relationships have been hugely important in encouraging people to engage with the RNLI. My concern is that, with dislocation and distance, that link might not be as effective as it has been in the past.

The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) powerfully indicated the importance of local knowledge. I cannot add anything to her comments, so I simply commend her for what she said.

I am aware that the coastguard has produced alternative proposals, and I hope that those address not only the wish for modernisation but the concerns we have raised about the Government proposals. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I trust that he will be able to provide us with additional reassurance that the Government are listening and will respond positively.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding over the debate this morning, Dr McCrea.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on providing us with the opportunity to discuss this important matter again.

It is good to see the Minister in his place, back under pressure, which is where Ministers should be—keeps him honest. I know that he is well regarded by most Members in the House and by the shipping community, and we are also confident that he is doing everything he can to protect the service, given the coalition’s deficit plan.

As I have said before, the Opposition are not here to oppose all the coastguard reforms, nor am I a deficit denier. It is important to say straight away that the global financial crisis happened in every country—it was not a recession made in Britain, but was caused by the banks, and Labour accepts that we should have been tougher on them. Like every other country, though, we need to get the deficit down, which means cuts. We recognise the Government’s position.

However, the Tory-led coalition is creating a vicious circle in our economy because it is cutting too far and too fast. That is our fear about the coastguard proposals: they are too deep and too fast. We certainly disagree with the presentation of options, such as either Stornoway or Shetland, and we are uncomfortable with having to choose between Belfast or Liverpool—to name just two of the main locations. We therefore seek and hope to hear assurances about the future from the Minister.

We have heard from several Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central asked the central question about the role of the other emergency services and their relationship with the coastguard service. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) has more reason to be listened to on this issue than any of us—I am sure that the Minister is listening to her and her constituents. She made the point about local input. There has been huge interest in the consultation exercise, as we have heard from hon. Members. Despite the miles clocked up by the Minister, about which I am sure he will tell us in due course, areas such as Cumbria and the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), would have been pleased to have the opportunity to meet the Minister as well, to express their real concerns about the possible closure of the Liverpool station. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall made her points on local knowledge and the case for Brixham strongly—as ever.

The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) made a powerful case for the station at Bangor and the international implications given its cross-border arrangements. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) mentioned Greenock and, generously, that our departed and much missed friend, David Cairns, championed this matter when in the House representing his town. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned language issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who has spoken knowledgeably on the question on several occasions, again raised the issue of Holyhead. His role in the RNLI council gives him greater insight. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who was generous with his time, and gracious as ever, rightly applauded the RNLI and paid tribute to everyone involved. Given that he is the MP for RNLI headquarters, which I had the pleasure of visiting during my time as shipping Minister, he is the right person to make such comments. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) repeated the concern of her constituents—and more widely—about the future of their station.

I wish to ask about the maritime incident response group, mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central and for Ynys Môn, and about the future of the emergency towing vessel contract in association with the reform of the coastguard services. I submitted some questions to the Minister, but can he furnish more information on top of his answers of 26 April? First, he addressed the maritime incident response group, which was set up to help fight fires on board vessels around Britain’s coast, given the gap in our armoury:

“We are finalising a risk assessment on the review of Maritime Incident Response Group which we hope to publish shortly.”

I wondered if that was likely to be soon. He also said a consultation exercise was going on with the fire and rescue services, and:

“Final decisions on future arrangements will be taken once this consultation is complete.”—[Official Report, 26 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 91W and 92W.]

Has the consultation been completed? Finally on the response group, are discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government complete, given that it has responsibility for Britain’s fire services? What was the outcome of those discussions?

The question of the emergency towing vessel contract still causes concern, which was expressed most powerfully by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) in the February debate because of the Donaldson inquiry and its recommendation about the contract and the £100 million cost.

Last week I happened to be in Torshavn in the Faroe Islands, where the West Nordic Council was meeting—Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, with Denmark present as well. Coastguard safety generally was discussed, but emergency towing vessels were taken especially seriously because of the increase in cruise ships in the north Atlantic, and that applies to the north and the west of Scotland. We should be playing our part internationally—international countries with difficulties were mentioned, Iceland in particular is having them, but it is not cutting back on maritime safety. In fact, Iceland is going in the opposite direction of travel. There is a lesson there for us, as well as for international safety—anyone we know could be on a cruise ship.

The hon. Gentleman speaks knowledgeably on the issue, which I am grateful that he raised, and which the Minister has been considering, so an update on whether the work on the replacement service or arrangements has been finalised would be helpful. Can he say anything further, given the suggestion of some movement in the area?

I am sure that the Minister has seen the Oxford Economics report on “The economic impact of the UK’s Maritime Services Sector”. I was generously supplied with a copy by Mr Doug Barrow of Maritime UK, who is well known and highly regarded in shipping circles. The summary of this authoritative report reminds us that the UK maritime services sector directly creates 227,000 jobs, contributes more than £13 billion to the UK economy and generates £3 billion plus for the UK Exchequer. It also supports considerable activity in other sectors, including direct, indirect and induced impacts supporting more than 500,000 jobs and generating more than £7 billion for the UK Exchequer. Given, in addition, the millions of recreational users of our seas and coasts, we must get the conclusions of the consultation right.

As colleagues have articulated this morning and previously, here in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber, there is much disquiet about the initial Government proposals. The Minister has given us some encouragement in previous appearances here and at the Dispatch Box that the proposals are not set in stone. The coalition’s policy adjustments in recent months—on forests, NHS reforms, sentencing guidelines, school sport partnerships and housing benefit rules, not to mention something we might be hearing today on bins—give some encouragement that the Government will listen to the various contributions from Members and from those outside the House and not proceed with the original proposals.

I congratulate all Members on their efforts. We know that there will be reforms to the coastguard service—of that, there is no doubt—but we will strive to ensure that they are neither too deep nor too fast. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

It is a pleasure, Dr McCrea, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing the debate, although most hon. Members linked it to matters wider than the link between the emergency services and the coastguard service. I pay tribute to their ingenuity in doing so, and I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for bringing her knowledge to the debate. I know how difficult that must have been, and she did so courageously. We may not agree on everything, but I promise that we will remain friends.

The Government set out the consultation process, we extended it, and we are reopening it so that the report of the Select Committee on Transport can be included in our thoughts. We will almost certainly have another consultation process because, as I have said since day one, as has the Secretary of State, what comes out of the process will not be the same as what we went in with, because we are listening. We have said that from day one, and I have said that as I have gone around the country. How that can be deemed a U-turn is strange. We did not say at the start that we would not come out with something different. Perhaps Her Majesty’s Opposition would prefer me to ignore everything that is said in the debates, be rigid, ignore public opinion, and have sham consultation, which is what happened under the previous Administration.

I am conscious that colleagues have, rightly, used most of the time available, and I am also conscious that I may repeat what has been said again and perhaps again and again, but I will not give way because I have about nine minutes left, and I want to cover the issues, especially those that are slightly different from those that arose around the country.

I praise the hon. Member for Sefton Central, because the debate is important, and its title has helped me. I was not aware that there were problems regarding the roles of the Merseyside fire and rescue service and Her Majesty’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency on the Mersey estuary, especially involving mud rescues. That was interesting, but I understand now, and with some impetus from the debate and perhaps a bit of size 10 from me they will be resolved. Clearly, there is duplication in who co-ordinates the service.

May I tell my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall that although I represent a landlocked constituency, I was a member of the fire and rescue service in Essex, and was based at a coastal station for many years? About the third major incident that I went to was a freighter fire. As the shadow Minister, my friend the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—he is my friend—knows, that is one of the most frightening experiences.

We heard that there is often a difference of opinion between the crew of a ship and the firemen about how best to put out a fire. That is not surprising, because firemen have a habit of chucking a huge amount of water at fires—that is what we are trained to do—and if you do that to a fire on a ship, it tends to sink. Such instances have happened around the world. There is a debate about what should be done about fires at sea. It is right that that debate is taking place, and it is happening around the world. The truth of the matter is that it is enormously dangerous to put fire crews on to ships at sea to fight fires, and we must make a decision between lives, cargo, pollution and other issues.

I met Roy Wilsher, the country’s lead fire officer and Chief Fire Officer of Hertfordshire the other day and we discussed where we are with the agreements in place, and where we should be.

As an ex-merchant seaman, but a humble rating, I understand the dangers, as does the Minister from his perspective. My point referred to a master mariner—they must decide whether to abandon ship, or to protect cargo or the environment—who raised directly with me the importance of coastguard stations’ local knowledge. That is why I raised the matter in this debate.

Such concerns were properly raised in the debate, and the shadow Minister raised the issue of fighting fires at sea, which was also important.

Another issue was the future of emergency towing vessels, and negotiations are continuing. We intend to terminate the contract, which costs £10 million a year, in September, and I am fixed in that position, because if I move one iota, the commercial sector and everyone else will say that I have gone soft, but they do not have to cough up the money. The key is where the risk is.

I apologise, but I cannot give way. I am sure that there will be another debate on the subject fairly soon. During the remaining five minutes I will not be able to answer all the points that have been raised, but I will write to every hon. Member about any specific points that they raised, and particularly those issues that do not come within my portfolio.

We have a legal responsibility to co-ordinate the work with other emergency services, and I know that that happened when I was a humble fireman. My previous history was praised, and I was proud to be a fireman but, as when I was in the Army, I did not rise far through the ranks.

Interestingly, although during these debates colleagues have not been saying, “Save my station and close someone else’s,” that is not quite what we have heard from the coastguards themselves in the larger and more detailed submissions that we have received. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to my visit to Bangor. It was a wonderful visit, and it was like groundhog day, because I had not been in the Province since I had served in another way. She rightly said that the proposals on the service’s future nationally, not just on individual stations, were detailed and indicated clearly that no change is not an option, as the coastguards are saying, and that nine or 10 stations is the optimum number. The shadow Minister said that some stations should not close, and it would have been interesting if he had said which ones should close, because that would have been informative, especially as most if not all the proposals were on the table when he was a Minister.

Does the Minister accept that the response from the coastguards about closing one station or another is because he has moved the starting line? I know from my coastguard and others that if he started with a blank sheet of paper, he would not get the same answer. Does he accept that?

I would like to accept that—I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from—but I cannot, because the proposals were on the table before I was the Minister and even before the shadow Minister was the Minister. There has been discussion about the matter and people have buried their heads in the sand for years and years. My hon. Friend asked whether, if we had a blank sheet of paper, the format of coastguard stations around our coastline would be as they are now. No, they would not. We must all accept that.

My hon. Friend asked me to retract what I said about only Falmouth carrying out international rescue. Falmouth is twinned with Brixham, and I fully accept that it picks up when Falmouth goes down, and that regular exercises take place—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend said from a sedentary position that it takes responsibility. Yes, it does, but it also regularly carries out exercises. Falmouth made it clear to me that it is the centre for international rescue. It gave evidence in its submission on the future of the coastguard.

I honestly believe that this is the way that consultation should take place. Political parties may play different games, but we will come out with a national emergency service with the resilience, pay and training infrastructure that it needs and deserves. I hope that everyone understands that the Government and the MCA are acting for the right reasons, and not just to make cuts. The issue was on the table years before cuts were thought about. What we need is a 21st-century service.