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Transport Committee Report (Coastguard)

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

I beg to move,

That this House notes the publication of the Sixth Report from the Transport Select Committee on The Coastguard, Emergency Towing Vessels and the Maritime Incident Response Group, HC 948.

I am delighted to present the Transport Committee’s report on the Floor of the House, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me this opportunity. It is an encouraging development for the House and I hope that it will continue to be utilised for other key Select Committee reports.

This report warrants being presented here today because there has been so much interest across the House and from many members of the public about the future of the coastguard service. It is fair to say that the overwhelming view of Members, from all parties and regardless of whether their constituency happens to include a coastguard centre, has been deep concern about the proposals.

The report looks at the three areas addressed by the Government: first, the plans for the drastic closure of coastguard co-ordination centres; secondly, the withdrawal of the Government’s funding for emergency towing vehicles; and, thirdly, the removal of Government funding for the specialist firefighting service at sea. We received a great deal of written evidence from serving and volunteer coastguards, all of which was critical of the Government’s proposals, and most of which was highly critical. Unfortunately, most coastguards were prohibited by the Government from giving oral evidence to the Committee; we criticise that decision in our report. However, we were able to visit the coastguard centres at Falmouth, Clyde and Stornoway, and I am sure that my colleagues on the Committee agree that those visits proved invaluable in learning about the operation of the centres at first hand and enabling us to speak to serving and volunteer coastguards about their concerns, although those were informal discussions rather than official evidence.

I congratulate the Committee and my hon. Friend as its Chair on an excellent report. I think the Government will take notice of it, because they said they would wait for the report and act on its conclusions. Does my hon. Friend agree that had coastguards across the United Kingdom had an opportunity for input into the future of the service, MPs’ debates would have had a different tone? More important, are not the proposals a way forward for the Government, not a way out, and must they not include input from all coastguards?

We were extremely critical of how the proposals were put together, excluding any opportunity for input from serving coastguards.

Our report is unanimous. We recognise that modernisation of the coastguard is desirable. We see the coastguard as an essential emergency service, whose work load is increasing, and any proposals to restructure the service must not be made in haste.

Does the hon. Lady agree that willingness to listen and change policy is a sign of strength, as the Prime Minister asserted at this week’s press conference? My regional paper emphasised that point today in an article which concluded that the consequences would be counted in lives lost.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Our concern is about the saving of lives. The Government have indeed stated that they are listening; the test will in part be their reaction to our report.

The Committee cannot support the Government’s proposals for the future of the coastguard in their current form, and we call on the Government to withdraw them. The evidence that we received raised serious concerns that safety would be jeopardised if the proposals proceeded. That is why we call on the Government to withdraw them and issue revised plans that address the points that we have raised. Those proposals should be substantially different from those that have been offered, and they should be subject to a further short period of consultation.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her report. One of the most devastating of her recommendations was:

“It appears to us that the current proposals pay more attention to the MCA’s statutory obligations towards the commercial shipping industry and far less to its obligations towards leisure craft and small boat users. Accidents involving commercial vessels represent only a small proportion of all those that the Coastguard manage.”

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point; we noted that although the proposals appeared to address the commercial shipping sector to some degree, they seemed to ignore smaller vessels and the fishing industry. We were extremely concerned about that omission.

I congratulate the hon. Lady and the Committee on an excellent report that raises a number of alarming concerns about both coastguards and emergency towing vessels, about which I am particularly worried and which she describes as “inviting disaster”. Given that the proposals were started under the previous Government and have taken a while to reach this stage under the current Government, does she agree that the Government should take their time to work out proper proposals? They do not have to rush into things.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I will talk about emergency towing vehicles shortly; I accept his point that decisions about human life should not be made in haste.

Our major concern is about safety and the loss of local knowledge, or “situational awareness”, among coastguard officers which will inevitably occur under the proposals. Reducing the number of full-time maritime rescue co-ordination centres so drastically, from 18 to three, with five centres operating in daytime only, and completely closing 10 centres, would reduce the quality and rate of exchange of information, particularly at critical points when it must be passed swiftly to save lives.

I thank our Chairman for giving way. Does she agree that regardless of how many coastguard stations we end up with, it is vital that existing stations are open 24 hours a day to ensure operational continuity when there is an incident?

The hon. Gentleman played an important part in producing the report and, like the Committee, I agree that 24-hour stations should be the way forward. The Committee expresses serious concerns about the concept of daylight-only stations. The proposals assume that technology can replace local knowledge, but we were not convinced and think that that puts lives at risk. To refer again to his comments, we are not convinced that the proposal for daylight-only stations should be proceeded with.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend and her Committee on their excellent report. I have visited the Solent coastguard station, which would be the radio centre for most of the country under the proposals, and it was clear that it would be difficult to achieve local knowledge on the basis of those radio arrangements. Does my hon. Friend agree that even the stations that will be saved under the proposals face inadequate operating arrangements, particularly in terms of local knowledge and radio communication?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. The concern about local knowledge or, perhaps more broadly, situational knowledge cannot be emphasised enough. Our concern in that respect relates not only to the coastguard officers themselves, but to the volunteer coastguard. When we conducted our inquiry, particularly when we visited the coastguard stations, we were struck by the amount of teamworking, which is essential. We were concerned that the proposals would endanger that teamworking. To refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I stress again the importance of considering the safety of leisure craft and small fishing vessels, as well as the commercial sector, and we felt that that part of shipping was omitted from consideration in producing the proposals.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is the Chair of the Committee. I, too, gained a great deal from visiting the three stations—Falmouth, Greenock and Stornoway—and what struck me particularly was the willingness of the serving officers there to adapt and move forward. They do not necessarily wish to keep the status quo, but they want to be properly involved and to tap into their vast experience in shaping a sensible way forward.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He played an active part in drafting our proposals, and I certainly agree with what he says. Indeed, our Committee is asking the Government not just to withdraw their current proposals, but to introduce alternatives and, in doing so, to consider the alternative proposals that have been submitted by coastguard officers across the country.

I should like to refer now to the proposals on the withdrawal of funding for emergency towing vessels—the tugs that are there to prevent major pollution incidents. That decision for change was made against the findings of an independent risk assessment, and we consider it unwise and short-sighted; it is quite literally inviting disaster. Our evidence strongly suggests that no suitable commercial alternative exists to replace the current arrangements. We urge the Government to reverse their decision to terminate the provision of emergency towing vehicles by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, although we welcome efforts to find alternative sources of funding to help to fund such procedures.

The third part of the Government’s proposals concerns the withdrawal of Government financial support for the firefighting service at sea—the maritime incident response group, which is funded by the Government and firefighting authorities. We are extremely concerned that the Government have withdrawn their funding from that service and appear to expect the local fire and rescue authorities to fund it themselves. It is a national firefighting service, and we consider it unreasonable to expect the local fire services to fund it, particularly at this time of financial constraint. Our concern is that, if the burden was put entirely on the local fire and rescue authorities, that excellent service would cease to exist. The service is extremely important; not only is it to do with firefighting, but it is deals with chemical hazards. I ask the Government to remember how important that is and what the consequences of withdrawing the service could be.

Taken together, the proposed changes to the coastguard service, with the drastic closure of coastguard co-ordination centres and the possible loss of emergency towing vehicles and the maritime incident response group, represent a significant restructuring of the country’s marine search and rescue and accident and pollution prevention capabilities. It is deeply regrettable that the Department for Transport announced all three sets of proposals with no prior consultation whatsoever and did not consider their combined impact on safety. Although this cross-party Committee recognises the pressure on the Government to make financial savings and the need to modernise and use new technology, we simply cannot support proposals that reduce maritime safety in that way.

Does my hon. Friend agree that any future proposal should be made in an oral statement to the House, so that Members on both sides have an opportunity to ask questions on that initial statement?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. New proposals should enable the widest possible consultation, including the involvement of hon. Members.

I call on the Government to withdraw their proposals and to produce alternatives that address the concerns that we have identified. I present the report to the House.

Question put and agreed to.