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Coastguard Modernisation

Volume 531: debated on Thursday 14 July 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government’s intentions for taking forward the process of coastguard modernisation in the light of responses received to the consultation that ended on 5 May 2011.

The key drivers behind the modernisation proposals are the need to address the limited resilience of current arrangements, distribute more effectively the work load experienced by different coastguard stations and provide enhanced opportunities for coastguard officers to develop professional skills, with pay levels reflecting enhanced responsibilities. There is also a need to contribute to the wider deficit reduction agenda.

The consultation set out proposals to create a nationally networked coastguard system with two maritime operations centres—one in the Southampton/Portsmouth area and one in Aberdeen—together with a 24-hour centre at Dover and five daytime-only centres. In addition to delivering greater resilience and better career progression, the proposals identified ways of managing costs while still delivering high levels of service to seafarers and the public. The proposals also set out our commitment to increase by 32 the number of regular uniformed coastguards deployed to support the front-line volunteer coastguard.

These drivers for change and our strategic objectives in this exercise remain unaltered, but throughout the consultation process. I have been clear that we are willing to listen to the views of the public, coastguard staff and other interested parties on the best way to deliver the outcomes we need to achieve. More than 1,800 responses were received, including many from serving coastguards. Of the total, 27 submissions suggested specific alternative solutions, all with a reduced number of stations but with differing concepts of operations. We are very grateful to all those who responded to the consultation and to the Transport Select Committee for also looking at the issues. This has been a model consultation, with many serious and thoughtful responses recognising the need to deliver the overall objectives but proposing alternative ways of doing so.

A number of common themes emerged from the consultation responses: first, widespread acceptance, as illustrated by all the alternative solutions put forward, that change is necessary; secondly, concerns about the potential loss of local knowledge and local contacts with volunteer coastguards and other search and rescue partners; and, thirdly, concerns over how the detailed concept of operations for the MOCs and sub-centres would work in practice, particularly how a handover between a daytime centre and a 24/7 MOC would work in practice. A review of all the consultation responses has been produced under the leadership of a non-executive director of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, involving a number of serving coastguard officers and members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, and has been placed in the Library of the House. A formal response from the Government to the report of the Transport Select Committee will be provided separately.

In the light of the consultation responses, the Government have now concluded that it remains right to continue with the proposals for a nationally networked system with the introduction of one MOC capable of managing incidents anywhere and ensuring optimum distribution of work load across the system. Establishing one MOC, rather than the two previously proposed, allows us to address concerns over local knowledge and the robustness of the future concept of operations by retaining one of each of the current paired stations, with the retained centres operating as part of the nationally networked system 24 hours a day rather than during the daytime only. Staff in each of the current pair of stations are already familiar with, and frequently experience, managing incidents in an adjacent area.

We have also decided that the Northern Ireland coastguard station at Bangor should be retained because of the specific requirement to manage the civil contingency arrangements unique to Northern Ireland and the relationship with search and rescue partners in the Irish Republic with whom we co-ordinate closely in air sea rescues in the waters around the island of Ireland. In the light of the decision to retain one station from each pair and concerns raised about Welsh language communication, it has been decided to retain the Holyhead station, rather than the one at Liverpool. In response to concerns expressed over the resilience of infrastructure and communication links within the Scottish islands and between the islands and the Scottish mainland, we have decided to retain coastguard centres in both Stornoway and Shetland. A further review of the potential costs of vacating the existing sites in Swansea and Milford Haven has shown that there are no financial or operational reasons to favour either location, and in view of my Department’s already substantial levels of employment in Swansea, we have decided to retain the coastguard centre at Milford Haven rather than at Swansea.

In summary, subject to consultation on the changes to the previously announced approach, we will now proceed with the creation of a modernised coastguard service providing a nationally networked system comprising: one maritime operations centre in the Southampton-Portsmouth area with a disaster recovery back-up facility at the Dover station, which will retain its responsibilities for the Channel Navigation Information Service and will also serve as a sub-centre; and a further eight sub-centres, all operated on a 24-hour basis, located at Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast, Stornoway, Shetland, Aberdeen and Humber. The stations at Clyde, Forth, Portland, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Brixham, Thames and Swansea will close progressively over the period between 2012 and 2014-15. The station at Solent will be replaced by a new maritime operations centre in the Portsmouth-Southampton area. The small London station is unaffected by these proposals.

These revised proposals will deliver the modernisation required, and they are capable of delivering the same level of savings in the longer term as our previous proposals. They are right for the future of the coastguard service. I recognise, of course, that they will none the less represent a huge disappointment to those hon. Members whose constituencies are affected by the proposed closures.

The additional costs generated by retaining a total of 10 centres overall, plus London, all operating on a 24-hour basis, and the higher coastguard numbers that will be needed to do so, will be offset by operating only one maritime operations centre, in the Southampton-Portsmouth area, with a back-up centre, equipped but not staffed, at Dover. By moving to more efficient watch patterns, we will still be able to offer higher pay across the service to reflect higher levels of responsibility, while ensuring that costs overall remain within our planned funding for the coastguard as a whole.

The changes to the original consultation proposal that I have announced today will be the subject of a further period of consultation. This will run for 12 weeks from today, ending on 6 October 2011. Specifically, this includes the decision to retain Holyhead rather than Liverpool; the choice of Milford Haven rather than Swansea; the decision to retain stations at Shetland and Stornoway; and the decision to operate a single maritime operations centre, rather than two. These changes to our original proposals will deliver the modernised and more cost-effective service that we need for the 21st century, while also responding to the genuine concerns raised during the consultation process. I therefore commend them to the House.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement today, and for giving me early sight of it. I also thank him for coming to the House today; this is the first time that a Minister has made a statement at the Dispatch Box on this issue at any stage of this process. I must also tell him, however, that it was wholly inappropriate for him to brief The Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Mirror at the weekend, both of which reported a “senior Government source” as confirming the changes to the proposals. He has clearly given even more detailed information on the fate of specific stations to regional newspapers and broadcasters for use this morning. Does he not understand that it is outrageous that our brave local coastguards should be hearing about their future through anonymous briefings to the press from Department for Transport officials? This is not the way to treat those who work to make our coastline a safer place. The Secretary of State should not have sought to spin such an important announcement in advance in the way that he chose to do.

The changes that the Secretary of State has announced today are a partial victory for the tireless campaigning of coastguards up and down the country. They are the people who best know the level of provision needed to keep our coastline safe. It has been an honour to meet and hear from so many of them over the past few months and to see at first hand their dedication. The campaign that they have fought has been based entirely on their concern for the safety of the communities that they serve, and today’s changes are a tribute to their commitment and tenacity.

It is incredible to think that the Secretary of State believed that the majority of our coastguard stations should not provide round-the-clock cover. It is right that he has abandoned those plans and recognised the need for stations to operate 24 hours a day, and I commend him for doing so. However, today’s announcement will result in the loss of just under half of all of Britain’s coastguard stations. That will be a devastating blow to the stations that he proposes to close, to the coastguards, to their families and to the communities that they serve and in which they are held with such respect.

These closures are driven entirely by the Government’s decision to cut the transport budget too far and too fast. It is incredible that the Secretary of State’s statement today focused almost entirely on issues of cost, rather than on the safety considerations that should have driven this review from the start.

The chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency was very clear when he appeared before the Transport Select Committee on 8 February this year. He said that he had been

“required to find 22% budget reduction in my programme between now and 31 March 2015”.

He went on to say that the closure of coastguard stations was

“part of an overall strategy to bring my....expenditure into line with the budget provision I have been given now for the comprehensive spending review.”

These reforms are about cutting budgets, not about improving the safety of Britain’s coastline.

All along, the proposals have been ill thought out, careless and rushed. It was quite clear that Ministers had already decided exactly which stations were to close when the original consultation was published. The leaked early draft of the consultation that I was sent showed clearly that the public were to be asked for their views not on alternative options but on a decision that had clearly already been made in the Department. Only just before publication did Ministers decide to put in the choices between Liverpool and Belfast and between Shetland and Stornoway, making it clear that this was done for no other reason than to give the impression of a consultation when it was nothing of the sort.

Most incredible of all is the fact that no risk assessment was published alongside the proposals. The Select Committee found that

“by failing to publish a risk assessment of the current plans or an impact assessment of the previous round of closures until prompted, the MCA management has badly miscalculated. It has mishandled the consultation and made it appear opaque rather than clear and open-minded.”

It is clear that, had it not been for the campaign fought up and down the country, and the impressive expert work of the Transport Select Committee—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for her chairmanship of that Committee—Ministers would have implemented these spending review-driven closures.

Throughout this process, there has been a failure by the Secretary of State adequately to ensure joined-up government with the Ministry of Defence, or even within his own Department, on the cumulative impact of the planned cuts. The coastguard station closures are compounded by the separate decision by his Department to end funding for emergency towing vessels. Let us not forget that they were a recommendation of Lord Donaldson’s inquiry into the Braer disaster. The Select Committee report found:

“The decision to cease the MCA’s provision of the Emergency Towing Vessels, which was made without consultation and against the findings of an independent risk assessment, is unwise and short-sighted. It is, quite literally, inviting disaster”.

The Secretary of State failed to consider the cumulative impact of the cuts being proposed by the MOD, not least the loss of the Nimrods and Sea King helicopters. The chief executive of the MCA told the Select Committee:

“It is fair to say that with the demise of the Nimrod we do not have the extent of search and rescue top cover that we had before.”

As a result of its own cuts, the MOD will be without maritime surveillance capability after 2015, leaving a massive capacity gap that will only compound the impact of the Secretary of State’s decision to close nearly half Britain’s coastguard stations.

May I ask the Secretary of State to tell the House exactly how many jobs will be lost as a result of the closures that he has confirmed today? What is the grade and post breakdown for the jobs that will be lost? What estimate has been made of the cost of redundancy payments? Will he agree to carry out and publish a new detailed risk assessment of the revised proposals, so that it can be considered before the period of consultation begins? It is difficult to see how a genuine consultation can take place without such an assessment being carried out first. Will he also ensure that this new risk assessment is carried out jointly with the MOD? It is essential that we have joined-up government when it comes to the safety of our coastline. Will he commit to coming back to the House in person, following this further period of consultation, rather than briefing any further changes to the media—out of respect for our coastguards, if for no other reason?

The excellent report of the Transport Select Committee into these closures concluded:

“The evidence we have received raises serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed”.

The confirmation that certain stations will remain open and the decision to retain 24-hour cover will be welcomed, but the revised set of proposals that the Secretary of State has set out today will not provide the reassurance that the public need and expect. The communities served by the stations that are to close in Clyde, Forth, Portland, Yarmouth, Brixham, Thames and Swansea, and my own local station in Liverpool, will be devastated at the loss of their local coastguard. The reality is that coastguards have seen their work loads increase in recent years, as our shipping lanes have become busier and they are called out to deal with more incidents. How can the answer be fewer operating bases? Improving the interoperability between the existing centres is surely possible without a reduction in the number of coastguard stations, with the loss of local expertise that this will entail. Axing one out of each paired station will lead to a considerable loss of local knowledge; it is incomprehensible that staff based in Belfast will have the same local knowledge about Liverpool bay as the existing local coastguards.

What the right hon. Gentleman must do now is not have a consultation on the changes announced today, but have a full new consultation on the entire set of proposals, following a fresh risk assessment and covering all of the proposals across government, including from the Ministry of Defence, that impact on the future safety of our coastline.

I do not remember the hon. Lady being quite so sanctimonious about briefing during the years that she was in government. She says that this is a victory for people who have protested up and down the country. I will tell her what it is: it is a victory for common sense and a victory for the consultation process. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), the shipping Minister, has been around coastguard stations up and down the country and received delegations from every coastguard station and every major seafaring community in the country and talked to them about their specific concerns. Working with the professional team at the coastguard agency, we have woven those concerns into the revised proposal that I have presented today.

The hon. Lady says that she cannot believe that the original proposals I presented included the loss of round-the-clock cover. That is a little strange, because the proposals I presented were those that my hon. Friend the shipping Minister found on his desk when he inherited the post in May 2010. The Labour party had failed to present those proposals publicly for fear of dealing with the fallout.

I recognise, of course, that the loss of a significant number of local stations is a blow to the communities that host them, but it is absolutely wrong for the hon. Lady to say that this process is driven only by the need to save costs, although there clearly is a need to save costs in the light of the chronic fiscal situation that we inherited from Labour. The fact is that the current structure of the coastguard does not reflect the technology or the concept of operations current today. We have to reinforce the ability to share work around the system, to deal with fluctuations in work load and variations in work load between different parts of our coastline.

I can tell the hon. Lady that risk assessments have been published and, in answer to her specific question, a further risk assessment relating to these proposals will be published. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tells me that he thinks that will be done within the next week.

I am somewhat bemused by the hon. Lady’s foray into the area of Sea Kings and Nimrods since we are talking here specifically about the coastguard control centres. I would be happy to talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but I do not believe that he wishes to make any further input into this process.

The hon. Lady asked me specifically about the total job losses. The total number of uniformed coastguards will, as a result of these proposals, fall from 573 at present to 436 once the transformation is completed by 2014-15. That includes coastguards based in the operational centres, coastguards deployed to support the front-line volunteer coastguard and a small number at Maritime and Coastguard Agency headquarters. I cannot provide an exact breakdown of the grades of the jobs that will be lost, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady and place a copy of my letter in the Library in the usual way. I am also quite happy to confirm that I will make a further statement, either written or oral, once the consultation process is over.

If the hon. Lady had looked a little more closely at what we are proposing, she would understand that we have responded very effectively to the central thrust of the responses that we have received, which was about the loss of local knowledge and concerns about handing over from daytime operations to the 24-hour marine operation centre. The retention of one centre from each pair does answer the local knowledge question, and the example the hon. Lady gave, relating to her own constituency, is ill informed since Liverpool is actually paired with Holyhead, which will now be retained. She will find that the coastguards at Holyhead routinely deal with operations in Liverpool bay and have a working local knowledge of conditions in the bay.

I believe that these proposals are a robust solution to deliver a future coastguard service that will be resilient, effective and affordable into the 21st century.

I did not hear an awful lot about safety in the Secretary of State’s statement, but I did hear an awful lot about cost. Will my right hon. Friend please tell me why he has not already published the risk assessment relating to the proposals? A Minister told the House about three weeks ago in an Adjournment debate that there would be full consultation on the new proposals, so will my right hon. Friend explain why that Minister did not say then that the consultation would relate only to the adjustments? Will he reconsider and consult the experts—the coastguards themselves who work at the front line of every co-ordination centre around the coast—about these proposals and take on board what they have to say?

I understand my hon. Friend’s specific local concerns; she has campaigned extremely hard on behalf of her local community and its concerns. Of course safety is paramount. This whole process is about making the coastguard service more resilient and more effective, and creating a proper career structure that will attract and retain the quality of people we need in a service that, frankly, has not had a good experience of industrial relations and personnel issues over the last few years. My hon. Friend says I should consult the experts; that is precisely what we have done. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has been around the country, talking to coastguards and has received countless delegations here, tapping into their expert knowledge. The proposals I have announced reflect that very useful input that they have made.

Will the Secretary of State comment on two points along the same lines as questions already asked? First, with the announcement that the coastguard station on the Clyde in Greenock in my constituency is to close, I must ask the Minister whether he feels that safety has been compromised, especially on the west coast of Scotland, which is a particularly challenging coastline with demanding waters and a big increase in shipping in the area. Is safety on the west coast of Scotland being compromised? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the number of job losses in my constituency that will result from the closure of this station?

On the safety issue, the hon. Gentleman will know that the proposal in the original consultation was also to close the station in the Clyde—and that position still stands. This questioning of whether the closure of local stations will compromise safety betrays, I think, a failure to understand how the coastguard works and operates. What is really important is that the part of the service that receives calls and directs front-line rescue operations is effectively networked together. At the moment, we have what I consider in the 21st century to be a frankly shocking situation whereby each coastguard station is able to communicate and share work with only one other coastguard station. If there is a surge of work on the west coast, for example, due to a particular weather pattern, it is impossible at the moment for that work load to be shared with stations on the south coast, the east coast or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is to deliver that resilience that these proposals have been brought forward. The professionals who have evaluated them and who advise us are quite clear that this will enhance the resilience of the system and thus the safety of seafarers and coastal communities around the UK. I am quite happy to write to the hon. Gentleman specifically on the job loss issues relating to his constituency.

Order. A great many Members wish to contribute. If questions and answers are shorter, most of them will, I hope, be able to.

My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I am disappointed that Great Yarmouth will not retain a station. However, I have supported the modernisation programme from the outset. The good news is that our twin station at Humber will now be open for 24 hours, so local knowledge will be retained, but I should appreciate some information about the number of job losses at Great Yarmouth. I know that the station is already slightly under-resourced, but if vacancies arise at the Humber station will Great Yarmouth staff have an opportunity to relocate and take their knowledge there?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has dealt with the issue. We certainly hope that it will be possible to transfer staff from some of the stations that are closing to some of those that are remaining open. I can tell my hon. Friend that 25 full-time equivalent posts will be lost at Great Yarmouth; I can also save the taxpayer a stamp by telling the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) that 31 such posts will be lost at the Clyde station.

The news that Crosby coastguard is to close comes as a bitter blow to staff and to the public in my constituency and much further afield. Other Members have said the same about the closures of their own coastguard stations.

Many will view this as a cut too far, which poses a risk to public safety. Crosby has a number of experienced and outstanding staff who have key relationships with search and rescue staff, police officers and firefighters. They want to make the most of new technology, but they want to do so by using the existing network rather than through large, remotely located operations in Southampton and Aberdeen. In retaining the 24/7 stations that he has mentioned, the Minister has presumably accepted that new technology is most effective when combined with existing local knowledge and relationships, so why has he not allowed that to obtain at Crosby and the other stations that are set to close? Is the truth that this move has been driven by the Treasury?

The hon. Gentleman talks of “using the existing network”, but, as I have just explained, there are no existing networks except between the paired stations. He talks of the local knowledge at Crosby, and asks why we have not applied the principle of retaining it there. We have: we are retaining the station at Holyhead, which is paired with Crosby and routinely operates in tandem with it, using the same areas of local knowledge around the north Wales coast and Liverpool bay area which both stations cover.

My right hon. Friend predicted huge disappointment, and in that respect at least I can agree with him. The proposed closure of Forth in my constituency will be received with profound disappointment, not least because of the unsatisfactory nature of the public meeting held by the MCA in Anstruther in February. Is my right hon. Friend aware that Aberdeen, which he proposes to retain, is the most expensive station in the United Kingdom—that excludes staff costs—while Forth has the lowest running costs in the UK? Is he also aware that in 2010, 40% of lifeboat launches in Scotland took place within Forth’s area of responsibility?

The Forth station offers value for money, and is increasingly busy because of the increase in leisure and commercial traffic in and around the River Forth. Why on earth should it be a candidate for closure?

As my right hon. and learned Friend will appreciate, given that we have decided to retain one station from each pairing in order to respond to the concerns about local knowledge, there will inevitably be a series of questions such as his from Members representing the station in each pair that has not been selected for retention. A multi-criterian approach was adopted to the decisions about which station in each pair should be retained. I should be happy to explain to my right hon. and learned Friend the detailed logic behind the decision in this case.

There is widespread concern at the prospect of the closure of coastguard stations, especially among the many people who use pleasure vessels and fishing vessels. Their concern matters as much as that of those in the commercial sector. I welcome the Government’s acceptance, in full, of the Select Committee’s recommendation of 24-hour cover in all stations, and their acceptance of the strong point made by the Committee about the significance of local knowledge. However, I must ask the Secretary of State whether he considers it credible that eight local closures will enable local knowledge and local team working to save the maximum number of lives.

First, let me restate my gratitude to the Select Committee for the time and trouble that it took over the inquiry. The hon. Lady will know, because she heard the evidence herself, that people who are closely involved with the service do indeed accept the need for change. As for local knowledge, it is precisely because the point about its importance was made so powerfully that we decided to look again at the original pairings of stations and see how the network could be organised around the retention of one station in each pair. Because of the way in which the pairs work, people working in either one of a pair of centres have full local knowledge of the entire coastline covered by both. We have addressed the concern expressed about local knowledge, while still building the resilience that the network needs for the 21st century.

I welcome the news that there will still be a station in the Solent area, which, after all, is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. May I encourage the Secretary of State to consider also retaining the new command centre in the Lee-on-the-Solent area, where it is currently located? Not only does it benefit from the experience and local knowledge that, as we have learnt, is so important, and also from an ideal location between Portsmouth and Southampton, but the MCA already owns a big site at Daedalus, where there is a runway, so its retention makes good financial sense.

The Daedalus site is certainly one of the sites being considered by the agency as a possible location for the marine operations centre, which will provide 96 jobs, but no final decision has yet been made.

While I obviously have sympathy for Clyde and Forth, I am, of course, over the moon for Stornoway and Shetland. This has been a good campaign for my constituents in Stornoway. Praise to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, and praise to Shetland Isles council; praise also to the shipping Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who visited, listened and genuinely consulted, and has the respect of many in the islands. The decision took account of distance as well as local knowledge. Can the Secretary of State reassure us that this is now a settled situation, and that we can look forward to a period of stability at the coastguard operation centres in both Stornoway and Shetland?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I also thank him on behalf of my hon. Friend the shipping Minister. It is nice to receive an acknowledgment of some of the effort that goes into getting some of these things right.

Of course the proposals are subject to the consultation that I have announced, but we envisage this as a settled situation that deals with the long-running question of how we can modernise the coastguard not just to make it technically resilient, but to create a career structure and, indeed, a pay structure that will solve the deep-rooted and long-running industrial relations problems that have existed in the service.

I thank my right hon. Friend and his ministerial team for listening to the representations that I, and others, have made about the Humber coastguard. While this is clearly good news for my constituents who are employed in Bridlington, is not the overriding issue the need to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the whole service? As the Humber station is in effect being asked to take on more responsibility, what will be the ultimate effect on staffing levels? Will they be increased rather than decreased?

What my right hon. Friend must take into account is that there will be a marine operations centre in the Portsmouth-Southampton area, with 96 staff operating 24/7. That will provide a great deal of back-up for all the operations in the country. At Humber there will be a loss of six full-time equivalent posts. The station, like all the other stations and sub-stations that are remaining open 24/7, will operate with a total of 23 staff and will work in networked tandem, 24/7, with the marine operations centre on the south coast.

The Secretary of State has completely failed to justify his decision to close Swansea and keep Milford Haven open. That makes absolutely no sense, certainly in maritime and coastal safety terms; it may make sense in terms of narrow party political advantage. Swansea is better strategically placed than Milford Haven and deals with twice as many incidents. Swansea also has a history of liaising with different police services across south Wales and south-west England, while Milford Haven has only ever dealt with Dyfed Powys. The MCA’s original proposals recognised that if we had to get rid of one of the pair, Swansea was the one to retain. What is now proposed is a huge mistake. The consultation should not be about something that is settled; it should be a real consultation where we can make the case for Swansea.

As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) a few moments ago, I recognise that in the case of every pair there is likely to be some internecine warfare over which of them is to be selected. The hon. Gentleman says the original recommendation was to close Milford Haven and retain Swansea. That was based on an understanding within the agency then about onerous obligations in respect of the site and buildings at Swansea. It has subsequently become clear that they do not impose as great a financial cost as was first thought, and the view within the agency now is that there are no operational or financial considerations that dictate that the choice should be either Swansea or Milford Haven. The hon. Gentleman has completely failed to recognise that my Department already employs more than 5,000 full-time equivalent staff in and around Swansea. I am not sure whether we employ any staff in Milford Haven at present, but if we do the numbers will be very small. I believe that in these circumstances, and with no financial or operational drivers, the right decision is to distribute the employment opportunities as equitably as possible.

When the Government brought forward the original proposals, I greatly appreciated that they clearly said they were not a done deal. There has genuinely been a huge change from those original proposals, as the Government have listened to what coastguards such as mine in Falmouth have told them. However, it is clear from the contributions of my hon. Friends that there are still considerable concerns. Therefore, may I have a reassurance from the Government that over this 12-week period they will properly listen and take into account any further concerns that are raised about these proposals?

The consultation is about the parts of this proposal that differ from the previous proposal that is already being consulted on, so we will not receive further responses to the original consultation proposals, but we are open to responses to the changes in the four areas I outlined in my statement.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and the hard work he has clearly done. I also want to put on record my thanks to my colleague, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who along with me fought a strong campaign on behalf of the people of North Down and Strangford. I pay tribute, too, to the staff who have worked hard as well, and been very supportive. I should add that the shipping Minister was very courteous and helpful. He came over to Northern Ireland, and to Bangor, to see exactly what needed to be done and to hear the views of the people and explain the options.

The decision that has been made reinforces the position of Bangor and its status as a 24/7 station. It was a 24/7 station before this consultation process, but there was a proposal to downgrade it to a daytime station. The current proposal, however, is to maintain it as a 24/7 station, for which we are thankful to everyone involved. I am grateful to the Minister for what he has done.

In the penultimate paragraph of the statement, the Secretary of State refers to the consultative process that will take place. He does not specifically mention Bangor, however. Can I take it that in respect of the process outlined today the position of Bangor is secure? If that is the case, we will be very happy to welcome the shipping Minister and the Secretary of State to the Bangor station in the near future.

I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that we consider that the issue of the potential closure of the station at Bangor was addressed in the previous consultation and there is no need for further consultation on that. I acknowledge the local issues he raised, but I should say that the decision to keep Bangor was made primarily on the basis of the national importance of having a station that could deal with the specific civil contingency issues in Northern Ireland and the very important relationships with the Irish Republic in search and rescue.

I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on his announcement today, which is most welcome in relation to Holyhead. May I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for his leadership of what was a strong cross-party campaign? Does the Secretary of State agree that the waters around north Wales will be safer as a result of this announcement because of the retention of local knowledge in Holyhead, not least the ability to recognise Welsh language place names?

I am glad that there was that outbreak of cross-party consensus. My hon. Friend is right that the concerns about Welsh language competence, and particularly recognition of Welsh place names, was one of the factors that determined the ultimate decision.

Choosing to close one of each pair is more like a party game—or “The Apprentice”—than any rationale for designing a service. I do not want either Milford Haven or Swansea to close, but given what my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Martin Caton) said about Swansea’s expertise in covering the whole of the Bristol channel and north Devon and the volume of its work compared with that of Milford Haven, am I to understand from the Secretary of State’s comments that he has made his decision not on who is best qualified and most experienced to do the job, but on what alternative employment is available, and is that really a rationale for providing the best service to the public?

If the hon. Lady had listened more carefully, she would have understood that there is no difference between Swansea and Milford Haven in terms of operational, technical or financial considerations. The professional advice we received was that either of those centres could provide the service required. Before the hon. Lady gets on her high horse about this, she should remember that the proposal my hon. Friend the shipping Minister inherited from the previous Administration when coming into office in May 2010 would have provided a single coastguard station in the whole of Wales. What we are proposing today gives Wales two coastguard stations and a very effective solution to protect the safety of Welsh coastal communities and seafarers.

The shipping Minister should be applauded for the fact that the consultation process has led to the remaining stations being a 24-hour operation. That was very important, but can the Secretary of State clarify how these stations will operate alongside the proposed single maritime operations centre and can he assure me that this will not lead to any scaling down of operations at the remaining centres?

We have already set out how the local stations will operate, with 23 full-time equivalent staff. They will be permanently networked with the marine operations centre, which will have 96 staff in total, so that each centre will deal with a core base load of work, but will easily be able to transfer overload work via the marine operations centre, either to be handled at that centre or to be transmitted on to another centre elsewhere in the UK that is experiencing low work load at the time. This will be a genuinely national networked solution.

I am obviously very pleased that there will still be a coastguard station at Aberdeen, but I am deeply disappointed that it has been downgraded from a marine operations centre to I do not know what status. Aberdeen is a crucial location because of the North sea oil and gas industry. My disappointment is mitigated somewhat because we have managed to keep the stations in Shetland and Stornoway, which is one positive measure. The station in Aberdeen has been gearing up for its new status, and there has been investment in new technology. What are the jobs implications of the fact that its status has been downgraded?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and I appreciate the measured way in which he has presented it. He will, perhaps, have to discuss the decision that has been made with my hon. Friend the shipping Minister. It is only by deciding to go for a single marine operations centre that we have been able to provide the resources to allow 24/7 operations to continue at eight other sub-centres around the country, and to deliver the result that reflects the consultation responses we received and the recommendations of the Select Committee on Transport in respect of local knowledge. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, Aberdeen currently has 31 staff. As a result of these proposals, it will lose eight full-time equivalent posts, operating like all the other sub-centres 24/7 with 23 full-time equivalent staff.

Twenty-five staff are employed at the Brixham maritime co-ordination rescue centre. I pay tribute to their dedication. Can the Secretary of State reassure those staff that they will be treated fairly when applying for jobs either at Falmouth or at the maritime operations centre? That is a real concern and will be essential to retaining local knowledge. I am concerned at the suggestion that those staff will not have an opportunity to contribute to the further consultation, because neither I nor anyone else in south Devon can understand how safety can be preserved with the closure of that maritime operations centre.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the measured way in which she makes her point. First, her constituents, like anybody else, will of course be able to respond to the consultation, but the consultation itself is limited to the issues that represent changes from the previous consultation. The coastguards employed at Brixham are civil servants. They will be entitled to be considered for deployment elsewhere in the civil service. Wherever possible—and where they are willing—we will look specifically to secure their knowledge and experience by redeploying them to other stations that will remain open. This process will take place over a number of years; it is not going to happen overnight. If at the end of that process there are people remaining who cannot be accommodated elsewhere in the service, they will be offered voluntary redundancy terms. We hope that it will not be necessary to make compulsory redundancies, and any that are made will be made only as a last resort.

There will be considerable anger in Liverpool at the Secretary of State’s announcement today. Can he tell the House how many jobs will be lost in Merseyside as a result of this decision, and what account, if any, he has taken of the concerns expressed by the Merseyside fire service about the implications for safety at sea?

We have taken account of all concerns that have been expressed to us through the consultation process. The hon. Gentleman will know that under the previous proposals, the Liverpool centre would have been reduced to 10 posts; therefore, today’s announcement that it will close represents a net loss of 10 further jobs. He should also know—as he indeed does know—that my hon. Friend the shipping Minister has bent over backwards to try to accommodate the aspirations of Liverpool city council to change the status of the cruise liner terminal in Liverpool in a way that will create jobs and enhance the status of the city.

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and I take some assurance from the fact that we are keeping the 24-hour service on Humberside. When it comes to harnessing local knowledge, my concern relates to leisure and tourism. Norfolk has a long coast, with remote beaches and currents that change, and Suffolk and Essex have plenty of estuaries. We are about to embark on the holiday season. I would be grateful for an assurance that it will be possible to transfer that detailed local knowledge to Humberside.

The Humber station already covers the coastline of Norfolk and part of Suffolk, and the people working there will have the experience and knowledge that my hon. Friend talks of. I would like to take this opportunity to remind hon. Members that part of the proposal involves reinforcing professional coastguard support for the volunteer coastguard operation. An additional net total of 32 uniformed officers will be deployed in direct support of the volunteer coastguard, further reinforcing the resilience and effectiveness of the service.

When the Minister was proposing two marine operations centres, he proposed to have 96 staff at the Solent centre. Now that he is proposing one marine operations centre, he is still proposing to have 96 staff at the Solent centre. Does he envisage the service being half as good nationally or the staff working twice as hard?

Neither. The point about reducing the proposal to a single marine operations centre is that resources that are not deployed in the other centre will remain deployed in local stations around the country, which is the thrust of most of the representations that we received—that we should seek to protect and maintain local knowledge deployed in local stations. Resilience in the event of disaster will be provided by a ghost facility at Dover, which would allow the marine operations centre in the Southampton-Portsmouth area to be transferred en masse to Dover in the event of any catastrophe befalling the Southampton-Portsmouth area.

I warmly welcome the news that, subject to the consultation, Milford Haven will remain open. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the work of the Save Milford Haven Coastguard group, the Western Telegraph and the Milford and West Wales Mercury, and my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on the measured way in which they put the case for our area and the wider Welsh community? Can he assure me that during the consultation, the unique nature of Milford as an energy hub for the whole of the UK will be taken into account?

I am happy to congratulate all those who have taken part in the process for the measured way in which, on the whole, they have done so. As he has travelled round the country, my hon. Friend the shipping Minister has found that behind what can sometimes be the public rhetoric, well thought through, well argued and sensibly considered proposals and cases have been put to him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has asked me about the status of Milford Haven as a major port. I have said before—I will repeat it—that the professional advice that we have received is that either Milford Haven or Swansea could have delivered the requirement in south Wales from a technical, operational and financial point of view. Ultimately, we made the decision to come down on the side of Milford Haven in the interests of equity.

First, I pay tribute to all the volunteers, coastguards and full-time search and rescue crews operating helicopters and lifeboats around our coastline. I welcome the retention of the Holyhead station, which is based not only on the importance of the Welsh language, as has been noted, but on the links with 22 Squadron at RAF Valley. The Secretary of State mentioned a nationally networked system, as well as consultation. When that is set up, will he ensure that there is internal consultation of individual front-line coastguards, so that they can contribute to the best and safest network, one that is fit for the 21st century?

Well, well, what a surprise! Faced with the choice, a Tory Minister decides to close a facility in Liverpool. I genuinely do not believe for a moment that the closure of the Liverpool coastguard station was agreed for any reason other than political expediency. If it was not, why was Liverpool left out of the original consultation document? The Minister cannot justify his decision. He has just mentioned that Liverpool may well get a cruise liner turnaround facility that will increase traffic along our corridors, but he has taken the easy political way out. He should reconsider his decision, based on the information that he has just presented—that Liverpool could indeed get a cruise liner turnaround facility.

Perhaps I am guilty of making a rod for my own back, Mr Deputy Speaker. I mentioned the cruise liner turnaround facility simply to demonstrate that my hon. Friend the shipping Minister is leaving no stone unturned in trying to help the maritime community around Liverpool, but the decision has been properly made, after a full assessment. The station at Holyhead will provide proper cover for the maritime areas that were previously covered by Crosby. To suggest that there is some kind of party political advantage—[Hon. Members: “Shameful!”] Frankly, it is not just shameful; it is also illiterate. The hon. Gentleman should look at the map.

I welcome the retention of both Stornoway and Shetland on a 24-hour basis, which is a big improvement on the original proposals. However, the closure of the Clyde station leaves a huge area of sea between Bangor and Stornoway without any station, as can be seen from the illustrative map. As I said in the Westminster Hall debate, that coastline presents unique challenges. So far, we have had a genuine consultation. I think that the Clyde coastguard station should be kept. Will the Secretary of State agree to receive representations on that in the coming consultation?

No. I have made it clear that that will be outside the scope of the coming consultation. My hon. Friend said that the Clyde station covers a “huge area of sea”. I understand that it is difficult to get out of that mode of thinking, but that is not the way to think about a networked 21st-century coastguard service. Belfast has been twinned with Clyde. The station in Belfast has the working local knowledge of the huge area of sea that has previously been covered by the Clyde station, and the arrangements that we have put in place are resilient and will serve us well for the 21st century.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I am a member of the Select Committee on Transport, so I know that he has clearly listened to many of the concerns that were identified, particularly on daylight-only operating. When we spoke to coastguards as part of our inquiry we were very struck by their willingness to modernise the service. May I invite him to say a little more about how the new maritime operations centre will harness new technology to augment the safety that the existing stations provide?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to the Committee for the work that it did. I suspect that he may get the prize for being the Member with the constituency furthest from the coast who has contributed to this discussion today. I would be happy to talk to him offline, but I sense that Mr Deputy Speaker would not encourage me to explain in detail the technical features of the new maritime operations centre.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the new Welsh Government about the proposal to aim the axe at Swansea rather than Milford Haven? Has he received any representations from new Welsh Ministers?

I welcome the improvements to the original proposals that were floating around for some years. I particularly welcome not only the switch to 24-hour cover, which is essential, and the increase in the number of stations from that originally proposed, but the opportunity to improve coastguards’ pay. Morale in the coastguard service has been very poor, and under the previous Government strikes took place—a very rare thing in this service. Ultimately, the purpose of this whole system is not about providing jobs, but about public safety. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that public safety will be preserved or improved by the modernisation and changes that he proposes?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment, and I can give him that reassurance. I can assure him further that the result we have come to and announced today is based on the input of professionals, who understand the needs of the system and the safety issues at stake. As he rightly says, not only the communications resilience and the IT resilience, but, above all, the improvement in morale that will be delivered by lancing the boil of the long-running industrial relations problem that has been festering in this service for many, many years will hugely improve the way in which the service is delivered and the safety it affords to our communities.

Given what the Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) about the loss of jobs under the new plans at the Aberdeen centre, it is hard to see that there will be any opportunity for workers from the Forth coastguard station to be redeployed to Aberdeen. Therefore, there is a real risk that their local knowledge will be lost. Does the Secretary of State really expect us to believe that two stations on the entire east coast mainland of Scotland and England, at Aberdeen and Humber, will be able to provide the same kind of local knowledge that we have at the moment?

I am sorry to be repetitious, Mr Deputy Speaker, but those stations will be working fully networked with the marine operations centre at Southampton, which itself will have a much bigger complement of staff, and much better equipment and communications technology, 24/7. It will deliver the level of resilience and safety that we require.

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I understand why he made the statement that he did, but there is a degree of turnover going on within coastguard stations now, and we expect that, even in areas where the natural twin will not be recruiting additional staff, there will be opportunities for the redeployment of many, if not all, of the staff over the next three or four years.

The Secretary of State said that he had listened to the consultations. All the coastguard stations said that they should remain open, reluctantly accepted that there should be change and also said that there should be more than 10 stations, so it seems to me that they were not particularly heard. I am disappointed that he is limiting the next bit of the consultation to the few points he has listed. Will he reconsider that decision, particularly if safety issues are raised?

No, I am afraid not, as a very extensive consultation has taken place. It lasted for 20 weeks, which is much longer than the Government’s normal standard for consultation. We have responded in detail—the response is in the Library today—to that consultation process. The further consultation is simply about the changes that we have proposed since that document was published.

I am extremely grateful for your generosity in calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker, given that my Public Bill Committee duties meant that I could not be here earlier. The Minister may recall that I tabled a written question on the number of vacancies for watch officers at Fife Ness station, and I was alarmed to hear the number given. On Saturday, I will be at the Dunbar lifeboat day, celebrating, with the local community, the bravery, service and sacrifice of the Dunbar crew. I want to be able to reassure them that this decision was not taken before the end of the consultation and that Fife Ness was not being wound down. Did the Minister visit Fife Ness during the consultation?

The hon. Lady makes the important point that the uncertainty that this process has inevitably introduced has led, in some cases, to recruitment difficulties; there are unfilled posts within the coastguard service as we speak. Our hope is that the signals we are sending today on certainty, better pay, better conditions, better career progression and improved industrial relations will make it possible for the coastguard service to man up to the level it needs to be at to implement these changes and keep our coasts safe for the future.