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Marine Operations (Weymouth)

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Scott, for calling me to speak. It is a privilege to be here in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship. I also thank the Minister for being here today; it is a privilege and an honour to see him here too.

Last week, the people of South Dorset delivered a petition to No. 10. “Save Our Lifesavers” was signed by 22,000 people, signalling their overwhelming concern about the regrettable decision to close Portland coastguard station. No other subject has galvanised such a reaction in my constituency in recent years. I would be very interested to hear whether the Minister has encountered such commitment from the Solent area, which I believe is the area favoured for the new MOC, or marine operations centre.

South Dorset is bounded on 180° by the ocean. That water forms an indelible part of our history, culture and everyday experience. Fishermen, divers, sailors, mariners, water skiers, day-boaters, cliff-walkers, birdwatchers, rock climbers—we all share that coastline, and as anyone who knows the sea will testify, it must be treated with respect. On land, as the emergency services will confirm, the “golden hour” is critical in the rescue of casualties; in the water, that period is down to seconds.

Our coastguard station is one of the busiest in the country. Currently, it is one of 18 coastguard stations tasked with protecting our waters, but after the Olympics it is due to close, with staff being offered posts at the new MOC, which might be at Solent. That new MOC, supported by nine 24-hour sub-centres, will undertake all the essential tasks of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency around our 11,000 nautical miles of coastline. Does the Minister accept that that will leave huge gaps in our defences?

For South Dorset, the loss of accumulated years of expertise, knowledge and good will is nothing short of catastrophic. However, in the face of a deeply regrettable and seemingly irreversible decision, we are determined to move on. We are nothing if not resilient.

The MCA has stated:

“There is no existing Coastguard facility on the south coast suitable for conversion into a MOC.”

I disagree. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a significant proposal from Weymouth and Portland borough council that the new MOC should be located in South Dorset. He has already seen that submission; indeed, I see that it is on his desk now. In addition, I have handed him a newspaper, which I also see he has with him, that has been lovingly put together by the supporters of the petition, who feel so strongly about the issue.

South Dorset has the infrastructure, the expertise and the will to make that proposal viable and cost-effective. I will start by discussing infrastructure. The MCA proposal refers to the advantages of locating any MOC close to a large existing maritime sector. Weymouth and Portland has one of the largest maritime sectors in the country. As a former naval base, Portland’s deep-water port provides many built-in advantages. It is the closest point in the western channel to the main shipping lanes and is already in constant use as a busy commercial port. It has harbour revision order approval for significant expansion. Plans for further major marine-based operations, including ship repairing and refuelling, and servicing of the proposed giant wind farm off the Isle of Wight, are under way.

Five potential sites are identified in that bid and details of them are attached to the report in the appendices. Three sites are in suitable existing buildings that are available immediately, saving on new build costs. As the Minister knows, the Solent MOC will require an entirely new build and in these austere times I say to him that surely there are savings to be made by locating in an existing building rather than having to build a new facility.

We—South Dorset—have a magnificent former flag officers’ sea-training building, which was specifically designed as a command and control centre. The Minister can see details of that building at appendix 3. It would need only refurbishment. It sits in the harbour, providing easy access to the open sea, berths, and cliffs for training and operations. Other potential MOC sites include the former defence research agency at Southwell business park on Portland, which I know he knows well, and Pullman Court in Dorchester. South Dorset has good roads, twice-hourly rail services to London, four airports within a 90-minute drive and ferry services to the continent. In addition, our recently enhanced broadband and communication links, which are part of South Dorset’s Olympic legacy, can carry the MCA’s new integrated and networked service.

Secondly, we have the expertise. There is a strong local skills base in marine engineering, dating from Portland’s recent history as an operational naval base. A MOC sited in the area would tap into a rich vein of maritime knowledge and experience. The harbour at Portland is already home to the search and rescue helicopter that would enhance any MOC. Also, we already host the full complement of RNLI rescue services: the Severn class offshore lifeboat, the Atlantic inshore lifeboat, rescue craft and beach lifeguards. Furthermore, RNLI headquarters is nearby in Poole.

Portland port has existing relations with the Royal Navy, the Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Marines, special forces, the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and many other organisations, and the National Sailing Academy is based in the port at Osprey quay. In addition to the Olympics, which take place next year, Portland holds world-class sailing regattas, which boost the use of our waters.

Thirdly, we have the will. Dorset is dedicated to saving its lifesavers, as the petition and all the love and attention that have gone into the newspaper that the Minister has received demonstrate. Our proposal to site the new MOC in South Dorset has the unqualified backing of all Dorset MPs, including the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin). Bournemouth and Poole unitary authorities, Dorset police, Dorset fire and rescue service, Dorset county council and the Environment Agency all support the proposal too. Weymouth and Portland borough council, the author of the proposal, aims to develop the area as a centre for marine excellence, which is an aim entirely aligned with MCA objectives. In addition, the area can offer more affordable housing than Hampshire, good schools and an enviable quality of life, and the borough council has undertaken to provide dedicated staff to assist with relocation.

I have already mentioned the petition that was given to No. 10 Downing street. The community has spoken loudly and clearly about a cause that is dear to its heart. I believe that the merits of the proposal—the infrastructure, the expertise and the will that already exist in South Dorset—deserve serious consideration and I ask the Minister to assure me that he will consider it. Can he give us any hope that he will do so?

Finally, I want to touch once more on the decision-making process that has brought us to this point. Wherever the southern MOC is sited, we are told that the professional coastguards at Portland will all be offered jobs there. Although that is good news, the ability of those coastguards to report daily on the winds, tides and other conditions that are currently outside their windows will be lost. The coves, caves and cliffs that locals know so intimately will be reduced to a grid reference on a computer screen. Some cynics call that process “rescue by Google” and I fear that it will not be adequate.

On a busy summer’s day, the calls will come in thick and fast. The minutiae involved in every rescue—the sheer volume of detail—could be overwhelming to an operator who is unfamiliar with the area. Inevitably, if delays occur rescues will take longer. I will not stand here and say that lives will be endangered, because I have no proof of that; it would be rash of me to say so. Inevitably, however, if rescues take longer and someone is in the sea, where seconds count, one can see that the consequence of that could be—I stress, could be—that someone who might have been rescued more quickly may possibly die.

We are told that the hardened communications within the operations supercentre will increase resilience and flexibility in a disaster, but are we not in danger of relying too heavily on the miracle of modern technology? We all know that technology breaks down; the NHS supercomputer is an acknowledged failure. The disastrous reorganisation—I know that the Minister is waiting for this line, and he was vociferously opposed—of the fire and rescue service, of which he was a member, which was shelved at a cost of £500 million, uncomfortably mirrors, in my view and that of many others, the plans for the coastguard.

We are responsible for 1,250,000 nautical square miles of water around our coastline, yet we are seriously considering halving the number of stations. Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole Local Resilience Forum is gravely concerned that we are spreading responsibilities too thinly.

As a former soldier, the Minister knows only too well the importance of local co-ordination, and to explain it I shall use a Northern Ireland scenario with which he is familiar. He, like me, served in the Household Division, and knows that a company needs a company headquarters, a battalion a battalion headquarters and a division a divisional headquarters. If the divisional headquarters is cluttered by information from the patrols on the ground—the platoons, of which there are many—communication will be blocked by unnecessary minutiae.

I want to emphasise the importance of local co-ordination, with which the Minister is so familiar, because it is absolutely vital. No officer commanding the regiments that the Minister and I served in would say, “Get rid of company headquarters. We’ll just have battalion headquarters,” because all the intimate detail at company headquarters is not necessarily passed to battalion unless or until it is necessary to call in more reserves or assets to deal with situations on the ground. Local people know their platoons—in this case, local watchkeepers know their area—and they make a difference. We have to accept that we are losing our station, but we urge the Minister to site the new MOC in Weymouth or Portland.

The MCA is a highly respected service that has evolved over 200 years to suit our island needs, so why reinvent the wheel? Technology is not necessarily the answer. I suspect that this has a lot to do with money, but money, or the lack of it, is not always the reason or the solution. The sea is unforgiving—the Minister and I know that, and the watchkeepers and the people who rescue know it—but the electorate will be more so. I most humbly urge the Minister to reopen the consultation and think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. When we entered the House in 2005 neither of us would have dreamt that I would be standing here as the Minister and you would be in the Chair.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on initiating the debate. He served gallantly in the Coldstream Guards when I was a humble guardsman in the Grenadiers. I was moved by his question about whether we would get rid of the company headquarters. As a humble guardsman who never commanded a section let alone anything else, I can say yes, we would have done so many a time, because at my level we never understood what was going on.

Let me touch briefly on how we reached the current position, where we are in the consultation process and the decisions we have taken. I pay tribute to the community of South Dorset. I know that part of the world well, having spent most of my holidays as a young child on the beaches of Durdle Door. I dive at Lulworth now, although it is a bit too cold for me as I get older, and South Dorset is still one of the most beautiful parts of this great nation.

The community coming together to fight for what they believe in is what community spirit is all about. In the scrapbook that my hon. Friend gave me—I use “scrapbook” in its traditional sense; I do not mean that it was not a good thing to produce—I see so many press cuttings of rescues and lives being saved, and we are going to enhance and invest in that volunteer part of the coastguard. The RNLI, whose college in Poole I visited recently, does amazing work, all funded by people’s gratitude to the institution. The RNLI covers the whole of the island of Ireland and is the only organisation in the Republic that has “Royal” in its name. I have met three transport Ministers for southern Ireland, and they have paid tribute to the RNLI’s work.

When I inherited this position nearly 16 months ago, there was a set of plans on my desk for a reorganisation of coastguard co-ordination centres. It had been around for years. It was there when the chief coastguard, Mr Rod Johnson, arrived, and he had been in post for nearly two years. I understand why the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) is not here—it is a half-hour debate and I have debated the subject many times with him—but he freely admits that the proposals had been discussed. Members of the coastguard had, believe it or not, been in industrial dispute for years over pay and other issues. Their starting pay of about £13,500 is unacceptable for someone in an emergency service, and that was one of the things we looked at.

I had a choice: start from scratch or say, “We’ll go with a consultation but I promise the public and Members that we will come out with a set of proposals showing that we’ve listened and that the service will be different from the one we went in with.” I think that everyone accepts that the proposals the Secretary of State announced to the House in the summer were radically different, but contained the principle of resilience in the system that had not been present until then. Many people say to me, “Minister, this is just about saving money,” but we are investing huge amounts in the system to address the fact that we have a national emergency service with no national resilience.

When my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset and I served in the armed forces, the one thing we all relied on was resilience. When I was on the borders in Northern Ireland, I would be told on the system, “We will get someone.” I appreciate that there have been problems with communications over the years. When Bowman first came in for the military, there was a lot of concern about resilience, and when I visited an exercise as a new MP, I was told that Bowman stood for “better off with map and Nokia”, but it has developed a lot and I have seen it in use in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We needed to say to the public, “Let’s be honest with you.” We all have huge respect for the work of the professional staff and volunteers—predominantly they are volunteers—in Her Majesty’s coastguard. I pay tribute also to other lifeboat crews. Many lifeboats, particularly on the south coast, are not RNLI ones, and it would be improper of me to omit them from the praise.

In the responses to the first consultation, people were saying, “We know you’re going to have this new resilience and a new national co-ordination centre, but there will be a massive loss of local knowledge.” However, in the local coastguard stations I visited, some people said, “Save us; don’t look at any modernisation,” but others said, “We think there should be about eight, nine or 10 coastguard stations, not 18.” A good half dozen of the submissions, including from Belfast and Falmouth, were about how we could have a proper national resilient service. So I thought, “If the coastguards are telling me that they accept that 18 isn’t necessarily the way forward, and that eight or nine is, how would it work?” Then it became obvious that a pairing system had been in place within the coastguard for several years, for resilience purposes. Because the coastguard could not have national resilience, it created a pairing system in which one station would cover for another if it was short of staff, if communications went down or in the event of repairs or conversions. When I was at Swansea the other day to meet the coastguard, the station was completely switched off, and Milford Haven covered the whole area.

Bearing in mind that we have only 10 minutes left, we all understand where we are in the history. The issue now is whether the Minister can offer any light on whether he will move the new MOC from the favoured location in Solent to us. Our place has the history and environment to support such a centre. We also have buildings ready to go, which will save much money. That is what my constituents are looking for guidance on.

I apologise, but I was answering the questions that my hon. Friend raised about local knowledge, resilience and so on. I have 10 minutes, and I assure him that I can answer his question.

We decided that we would change to a pairing system in which one of the pairs would be dropped, the two extremities—the Western Isles and Shetland, which were never paired before—would stay in 24-hour operation and we would drop one of the MOC national headquarters, because in the end, I could not condone how much two would have cost. We went to a second consultation on four specific points: whether Swansea or Milford Haven would close, whether Liverpool or Holyhead would close, whether the Western Isles and Shetland should run 24 hours and whether there should be one or two MOCs. That consultation has just finished.

I have listened carefully to the points that my hon. Friend has made—in his position as a Back Bencher, I would do exactly the same—but if I stood here today and said that I was willing to reconsider, I would have to reopen the whole consultation process, because this topic was not part of the consultation. To make that decision, I would have to consider several things. We said in the original consultation that we would like the MOC to be in the Portsmouth-Southampton area, for logical reasons. The MCA has a large footprint in that part of the country, particularly in Gosport at Daedalus and at its own headquarters. From a cost perspective, there was an obvious logic to building a new MOC headquarters on existing Department for Transport facilities, which is why we chose that model.

It would be difficult for me to change my mind in light of what I received from the people of Weymouth and my hon. Friend during the second consultation. I would have to change my decisions after not only the first but the second consultation and then reopen the consultation process on the MOC. I could not do that. It would not be cost-effective given the efficiencies that we need, particularly as we already have a large estate footprint available.

I am happy to be here to represent the Government and say where we are. I hope that I have answered most of my hon. Friend’s questions. Although I understand that he is, rightly, representing his constituents—I am also pleased to see the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) here; as another Minister, he will understand—I cannot give that light at the end of the rainbow and open up the whole process all over again for a further consultation. The reasons why we came to our previous conclusions still exist. All the premises in the Weymouth area to which my hon. Friend refers are premises that we do not own. Other Departments might, but we do not, and we would have to do an analysis.

MCA headquarters are in the area where we propose to build. We might put the MOC within that building so as not to expand our empire, which I am trying desperately to avoid. We may be able to facilitate that. The Daedalus site in Gosport is huge, and the Department for Transport uses little of it; it already operates on a helicopter basis, and we own it.

I know this is difficult. I am the bearer of bad news. As a Minister, I always try to be as positive and helpful as I can with colleagues across the House, but I do not want to give my hon. Friend and his constituents the feeling that it is possible that we might change our minds and reopen the consultation on where the MOC will go, mostly because that was not part of the second consultation in the first place. The decision where to put the MOC was based on the first consultation; the only relevant decision in the second was whether to have one MOC or two.

I know that that will disappoint my hon. Friend and his constituents, but I reiterate that the issue of local knowledge in people who rescue was addressed many years ago in adaptations to the pairing system. Some stations have been down for months while work was being done on them, and the other stations have coped. However, what they could never do, to go back to an earlier point, was be controlled centrally by division or brigade headquarters—or even regimental; the numbers are not huge—and provide the sort of pay, training and promotion prospects that we would all like for anybody working within our constituencies.

Part of this is about money—there is no argument about that; I have had to make considerable savings in the Department—but actually, it is about resilience. The ex-Second Sea Lord is the chief executive. He has served his country all his life. The chief coastguard has been in the coastguard for most of his working life. They would not be sitting with me discussing the plan if we thought that there was a danger. There is a danger in leaving things as they are. We will phase in the changes. We are not going to wake up one morning to find it has all been switched off and closed. We will ensure that the IT and the communications systems in particular work before we phase out.

Understandably, staff members are leaving the MCA at the moment, particularly at the stations earmarked for closure. I cannot blame them. They are quality people; other jobs are becoming available, and they are taking them. However, I cannot recruit new people to those coastguard stations knowing full well that I am going to close them. We will look carefully at manning levels, but some stations might close slightly earlier than predicted, simply because we cannot man them.

I hear the Minister’s argument. Clearly, my constituents and I do not agree, but we are listening to him. It is his decision, and he is saying that there is absolutely no chance. If that is the case in black and white—“Forget it”—it would be useful to hear that. Also, can he give any reassurance that our rescue helicopter on Portland will be there for the foreseeable future and is not under threat?

I cannot say anything about the helicopters because, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, a criminal investigation of the procurement process is ongoing. At the moment, we do not know where our helicopters are likely to be. The Ministry of Defence has decided to withdraw, so it will be a civilian matter run through the Department for Transport and the MCA.

I did not want to be this brutal and straightforward, but I must. Where to put the MCA in the south was not part of the second consultation. That decision has been made. It will be in the Solent area. Although I respect enormously the work done by the community for the second consultation, I am afraid that that matter was not part of the second consultation, and sadly, I am not willing to reopen the consultation.

Before I call the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) to introduce the next debate, I remind hon. Members that unless they have put in to speak in a half-hour debate, only the lead Member and the Minister will be able to speak.