With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government’s final decisions about coastguard modernisation in the light of responses received to the second round of consultation, which ended on 6 October 2011.
I should first like to remind the House that the plans for coastguard modernisation announced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond) in his statement on 14 July, following the first round of consultation, are not about altering the arrangements for front-line rescue services around our coasts. Rescue activities will continue to be carried out as they are today by the 3,500 community volunteers in the Coastguard Rescue Service; the lifeboats operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution; independent lifeboats operated by volunteer groups; and our search and rescue helicopters. The bravery and commitment shown by those providing front-line services have served this country well and will continue to do so.
The plans we have announced specifically include an increase in the number of regular coastguard officers who provide operational leadership to support the 3,500 volunteers in the Coastguard Rescue Service, whom I mentioned. These plans therefore reflect the importance we attach to continuing the delivery of a first-class local rescue service directly serving citizens and recreational mariners.
The decision announced on 14 July, and the further details I am announcing today, are about modernising the coastguard co-ordination function only. Modernisation is needed to address the limited resilience of current rescue co-ordination arrangements, which have changed little since the removal of the visual watch in the 1970s. Modernisation will provide the operational resilience needed; distribute work more effectively and efficiently around coastguard centres; make the most of the professional skills of our regular coastguards with levels of reward that match their responsibilities; and deliver improved support and co-ordination for our Coastguard Rescue Service and our search and rescue partners.
The original proposals, which we consulted on last December, had been discussed and developed over several years by the previous Government. We said at the outset that we would have a genuine consultation and that we expected the outcome of the process to be improved and more resilient plans.
We made it clear in July that we had listened to the views expressed in the first consultation. As a result, we announced that, in implementing a nationally networked system, we would retain more coastguard centres than originally proposed; keep all these centres operating 24/7; and retain more regular coastguard jobs. These plans will keep open at least one of each of the paired coastguard centres. Operational pairs have experience and knowledge in managing incidents across their shared geographical areas. Keeping at least one centre from each pair will therefore ensure that that experience and local knowledge is retained. In addition, as we explained in July, the operational costs of retaining the 10 centres overall plus a small centre in London will be offset by operating only one national maritime operations centre—MOC—with an unmanned back-up in Dover, rather than the two that were previously planned.
The second consultation exercise, which is what this statement is about, invited views on four specific issues: the retention of both the centres at Stornoway and Shetland and their operation on a 24/7 basis; the change to a single maritime operations centre with an unmanned back-up in Dover; the retention of Holyhead rather than its paired centre at Liverpool; and the retention of Milford Haven rather than its paired centre at Swansea.
The second consultation closed on 6 October. I should like again to thank all those who engaged in the process, including those in the service, members of the public and Members from both sides of the House. All responses were read and examined by an independent team, which has helped to develop the modernisation proposals. I am making its report on the issues identified in the consultation available today on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency website, and it will be available in the Library of the House.
Let me now turn to the specific questions we posed in the second consultation. The support for keeping open both the centres at Stornoway and on Shetland was overwhelming, so I can confirm that we will keep them both open on a 24/7 basis.
On the move to a single maritime centre, concerns were expressed about having both an unmanned centre and its back-up in the south, when they should be geographically separated, and about the possible reduction in capabilities at Aberdeen to co-ordinate oil or gas incidents if there was not to be a second main centre in Aberdeen. However, we continue to believe that with more centres remaining open on a 24/7 basis, there is sufficient cover not to need a second nationally networked system. Consequently, there will be one network in the south.
We also believe that the back-up at Dover is sufficiently distant from the maritime operations centre in the Portsmouth-Southampton area—I shall return to that later—to provide the necessary resilience while minimising costs. However, we will retain additional specialist staff in Aberdeen to maintain the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s close links with the oil and gas sector. Those jobs will remain.
On the choice of Holyhead rather than Liverpool, representations were received stressing the scale and proximity of maritime and tourist activities at both locations; questioning the importance of the Welsh language considerations highlighted in the first consultation; and concerning the running-cost advantages and higher disposal costs for Liverpool. We considered the responses carefully, but as we made clear in July, we have identified no operational or financial reasons for preferring one location to the other. In particular there are no significant differences in running costs.
In the light of comments in the first consultation, it is also our view that familiarity with Welsh place names, rather than speaking Welsh, must be an important consideration supporting the retention of Holyhead. As a result, I have concluded that Holyhead should form part of the nationally networked system and that the co-ordination function at Liverpool will close. We plan to maintain a marine office, coastguard rescue team, coastal operational hub and a radio mast at the Liverpool site.
Representations were also received about the proximity, particularly of maritime activities, at Milford Haven and Swansea. The representations concerned the perceived risks of having a centre so close to liquefied natural gas terminals at Milford Haven; better transport links in Swansea; and the wider potential recruitment pool in the Swansea area. I must reiterate, however, that within the nationally networked system, which will co-ordinate incidents in this area, there are no operational reasons for choosing one or other of these sites. Similarly, as was explained in July, we are satisfied that there are no considerations that favour either location.
In addition, we have not recently experienced any recruitment problems at Milford Haven. As a result, I have concluded that it remains right that the choice of Milford Haven as the site for a continuing coastguard co-ordination centre should reflect the Department for Transport’s continuing substantial levels of employment in Swansea. This means that we will no longer have a coastguard co-ordination function at Swansea, but we plan that the building will remain in use as a coastal operations hub for the volunteer rescue teams. It will be at that site.
Having reached these decisions, I am today publishing a short summary document that sets out a clear blueprint for the operation of the nationally networked coastguard co-ordination service comprising a single national operations centre in the Portsmouth area—again, I shall return to that—a back-up national operations centre at Dover; and centres at the MCA sites at Humber, Aberdeen, Shetland, Stornoway, Belfast, Holyhead, Milford Haven and Falmouth. This blueprint also sets out the previously announced provisional timetable for the closure of the other existing co-ordination centres before 31 March 2015. The centre at Solent will be replaced by the new maritime operations centre. This timetable remains our best estimate of when these centres will close, although clearly it will need to be kept under review to match operational requirements.
The document also explains—and I stress this point—the strong commitment to the coastguard presence that will be retained at the existing MCA sites at Liverpool, Swansea and the Thames, even after the co-ordination centre function ends. There will be a similarly strong presence in the Clyde area, but not at the existing site.
Finally, I would like to say something about the location of the new national maritime operations centre. With the full support of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I am pleased to inform the House that the maritime operations centre will be housed in the vacant fire control centre building in Fareham—the significance of that with a former fireman standing here will be obvious. The building’s existing facilities mean that the maritime operations centre can be established quickly, allowing for an extensive programme of tests and trials to prove and refine the new concept of operations for maritime rescue co-ordination. Those tests and trials will be an important element in addressing the understandable concerns from many professional coastguards about the operation of the new system and will ensure no reduction in capabilities in the transition period. The choice of Fareham also makes best use of the Government’s existing estate and minimises up-front costs, offering best value for money.
I understand, of course, that the closure of some existing co-ordination centres and the loss of some coastguard jobs will come as a disappointment to those directly affected. However, the decisions that I have announced today will deliver the modernised, nationally networked and fully resilient coastguard service that we require for the future, while also reducing costs. Critically, these decisions will enable us better to support our coastguard volunteers and the front-line rescue capabilities on which the public and mariners depend. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for an advance copy of his statement. I would expect no less a courtesy from a former fellow fireman, but it is especially generous coming from someone who served with the Essex brigade to someone from London. I apologise to the Minister and to you, Mr Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the shadow Secretary of State, is not present. She has pursued the issue vigorously, as have the shadow Secretary of State for Education and the shadow Leader of the House. She is particularly frustrated at being unable to be here today, especially as her own station is to close.
I also thank the Minister for making today’s statement, ending the prolonged concern and uncertainty in coastguard communities. These exercises take time, and I know that the Minister made a considerable personal effort in travelling to various parts of the country to meet and engage with staff and others. That is to his credit. He will also have listened to the respected chief executive of the MCA, Sir Alan Massey, and the highly regarded chief coastguard, Rod Johnson. I, too, would like to take this opportunity to express our support for them and the entire coastguard service, which so professionally co-ordinates the first-class search and rescue capability around our coast.
As a member of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, as former shipping Minister and now as shadow shipping Minister, I, like the Minister, am proud to wear the red ensign badge, in solidarity with and respect for British shipping in all its aspects. I have no doubt that the Minister has done his best within the limits set by the Treasury and his departmental budget; but equally, I have no doubt that these proposals are at least partly driven by financial constraints. He knows the concerns out there about shipping safety owing to the loss of Nimrods, the ending of the emergency towing vessel contract and the outstanding review of the air-sea search and rescue service. The Select Committee on Transport, under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), echoed that concern when it said:
“The evidence…raises serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed.”
In that case the Government were right to look again and amend their original proposals.
I would be grateful if the Minister responded to a few questions. In the original plan he envisaged two operational centres, we assumed for resilience. Can he reassure the House that the non-staffed back-up will be able to do the job if the main centre crashes? Can he also say how quickly it would be up and running under such circumstances? Can he tell us how many coastguards will remain in full-time employment after this modernisation programme? I think he said that there would be more, but I assume that that is against the original consultation document, not the present establishment. Part of our review in government was about addressing low pay among coastguards historically, compared with similar staff, with similar duties, in the other emergency services. Given that remaining staff will be undertaking more work with more responsibilities and that we anticipate they will need to be upskilled, will this modernisation address that historic anomaly? My last question is when we can expect a statement on the future of the air-sea search and rescue service.
In conclusion, we welcome the Minister’s acceptance of the need to keep both Shetland and Stornoway, and we are relieved that the Department proposes 24/7 cover at all the remaining stations. His decision to retain one of each pair of twinned stations is an acknowledgement that the question of local knowledge weighed heavily on him and his officials. I am sure he will understand, however, that in a number of communities out there now, there will be real disappointment and even anger today. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers.
I thank my friend for his comments: we agree on most things, but occasionally disagree; perhaps we will disagree a little bit today. Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s four specific questions.
In the original proposal, which we inherited from the previous Administration, two MOCs were required, not least because the majority of the stations would have gone part time. They are no longer going part time; they are 24/7, so the resilience within the system, which is not there today, will give us the communications resilience that we need. If we need to move into the unmanned MOC we will do so. We looked at this carefully and found that in 99.9% of cases we would not have to do this, even if the MOC went down initially, because the other stations will pick it up, and we are moving towards the Dover MOC.
Pay is a real issue: £13,500 as a basic salary for someone working in the emergency services is a disgrace. I know that the shadow Minister looked at this carefully when he was in my position, which is why the original proposals were on his former desk and on the desk of the Minister before him and the one before that. We have done something about it so that we have pay, conditions and promotion opportunities for the people who serve so well.
In the original proposals I inherited, coastguard staffing levels would have gone down to 244. Under the proposals I have announced today, the staffing level will be 314. The shadow Minister will have to wait for the Secretary of State to make her announcement on search and rescue helicopters.
The Prime Minister told this House on 30 March:
“We want to make changes only if they improve coastguard support that people in fishing communities and elsewhere get…If that is not the case, we will obviously have to reconsider reforms”.—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 336.]
If, as many sea users at all levels from rear admirals to professional yachtsmen believe, the trial of a new control centre demonstrates the loss of local knowledge to be an added danger to any sea user, will the Minister reconsider his plans for closing any coastguard co-ordination centres, as the Prime Minister has already mentioned?
I thank my hon. Friend for her important question. One point in having Fareham open so early is that we will be able to trial the new system early, which will mean that no centres will close before the robustness of the system is demonstrated. Should there be any blips in the system, I can assure my hon. Friend that no station will close until we have the level of resilience that we do not have today.
The Minister’s proposals mean a cut in staffing levels covering the Clyde area of 56% in comparison with a UK average cut of 33%. I see nothing in the statement that changes that. Why does the Minister think that the Clyde, which is the busiest area for call-out, should have a disproportionately higher cut in staffing?
I am sorry if I misled the hon. Lady, but Clyde will close as a co-ordination centre. It is already paired with Belfast. Belfast regularly covers the resilience and has the local knowledge that is necessary. That is why we took the decision to keep one of every pair open. I understand that it is sad for the hon. Lady, but there will be coastguards working in the Clyde area, although it will not be a co-ordination centre.
Whilst welcoming the sensible concessions made, not least with regard to the west coast, the Minches and the northern waters—I have to say that the earlier suggestions flew in the face of all common sense—I ask the Minister whether he will none the less accept that there is a considerable element of gamble here. Given the warnings from the seafarers and the emergency services, who have done this job successfully for generations, about what might occur, will the Minister at least confirm from the Dispatch Box today that if circumstances merit it, he would be willing to reopen this entire recasting and go back to the drawing board?
I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s views, but we took this action because the original proposals were flawed. They were not my proposals; they were the last Government’s proposals.
The point of introducing the resilience that does not currently exist is to end the scaremongering about safety. Safety standards are not good today, but they will be good from now on because of that resilience. In most of the coastguard stations that I visited around the country, including stations in Scotland, I was told, “We know that we have to cut the number of stations to nine or 10.”
I recognise that significant changes have been made since the Government’s original proposals, but what work has been done to ensure that, notwithstanding the scale of the closures, local knowledge will be retained so that lives can be safeguarded?
I fully respect the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, whose report helped me to decide how to proceed. The point of keeping one centre in a pair which regularly covers the topography of the other centre’s area is to retain the local knowledge about which so many of those who were consulted expressed concern. I know that there will be disappointment in some parts of the country, but the resilience to which I have referred is more important. We need a 21st-century coastguard.
My constituents will be very disappointed that the new maritime operations centre will not be based at the Daedalus site. Can the Minister assure us that the hugely experienced coastguards who will lose their jobs at Lee-on-Solent will be helped to find work at the new Fareham site?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. When possible we need to retain the experience that we have at the co-ordination centres, particularly the one at the Solent, and we have no intention of making compulsory redundancies there. There will be more job offers at the new MOC, and I hope that as many people as possible transfer to it.
I thank the Minister for letting me see his statement in advance, and for the communication in which he has engaged with my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).
We now know that two out of five Scottish coastguard stations will close, and that we have only an interim contract on the emergency tugs. The Government have announced the scrapping of the entire fleet of fixed-wing long-range search and rescue aircraft, and the future of the air rescue co-ordination centre at Kinloss is still uncertain. Is this not the time to devolve those powers to the Scottish Parliament so that they can be taken seriously?
I thank the Minister for his statement, and pay tribute to the great personal effort that I know he has put into visiting every affected coastguard station to ensure that consultation was both open-ended and reasoned. Can he none the less reassure me that when one of a pair of co-ordination centres closes, there will be a structure in place to ensure that local knowledge is transferred between staff and we do not see a sudden cliff-edge changeover?
The closures are planned for March 2015, so there will be no cliff edge. I repeat that, having studied the results of the consultation extremely carefully, we decided to adopt the pair-based system because the current local knowledge of the topography would be retained. When I visited Swansea—and I expect that a Swansea Member will ask a question shortly—the station was closed while I was meeting the staff, and Milford Haven took over the local knowledge. That sort of thing is happening regularly, and it will introduce more resilience to the system.
I welcome the Minister’s recognition of the unique position of the Aberdeen station and its links with the oil and gas industry. However, although he has accepted that there needs to be a back-up MOC—which was not included in the plans announced last September—I understand that it is to be a part-time empty station in Dover. The Aberdeen station, which was included in the original December proposals, is fully manned, and could act immediately with a full staff complement in an emergency. What assurances can the Minister give about the security of the system in such circumstances?
The Aberdeen station is not fully manned as a MOC today. It is a co-ordination centre. Under the previous proposals, if we had taken out the second MOC there would have been 23 staff in Scotland, whereas 69 will be working for me at the co-ordination centres in Scotland. We considered carefully whether we would need a second MOC if we kept the twin stations open 24/7, and decided that, with the twin stations open and a nationally resilient communications system, we did not need a full-time second MOC.
May I thank my hon. Friend for this difficult statement and for the sensitive way in which he has approached these very difficult decisions? Can he confirm that he is, in effect, announcing the closure of the coastguard centre at Walton-on-the-Naze today? Will he understand how much of a disappointment that is to local people, and to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell), who have made representations to him on this matter? How can we ensure that the local knowledge of the locally employed people there is somehow included in the new arrangements, not least in respect of their job opportunities, even if they wish to continue to live locally?
My hon. Friend knows that I have listened very carefully to the consultation, and to delegations from across the House and across the country. Yes, his local station will close, but the station that covers it on a regular basis will stay open, the local knowledge will still be there and, wherever possible, those staff will be transferred to the new stations.
I warmly welcome the confirmation in today’s statement that Northern Ireland’s only coastguard centre will be remaining open in Bangor in my constituency. I am very pleased to put on the record the fact that the Minister listened very carefully to all the political voices raised right across the board in Northern Ireland in support of retaining that coastguard centre. Before he agrees to come back to Bangor at my invitation—we would love to have him back, with the good news—will he kindly confirm that he has sought and obtained reassurances from the Irish Government about the continued availability of Irish helicopters, deployed from Sligo and paid for by the Irish Government, to assist the Northern Ireland coastguard so ably, as they have done in the past?
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind comments. It appears that I was, with my proposals, the only politician in many years to manage to unite all the political parties in Northern Ireland. To be fair, I looked very carefully at where the centre should be; Belfast covered the Clyde, the Clyde covered Belfast and the decision to keep the centre in Belfast was taken for resilience purposes. I have now met two Transport Secretaries from the Republic of Ireland and I understand that they have no plans to remove the excellent service they give us. We will share that service as our new search and rescue helicopter is introduced too.
Does my hon. Friend understand the degree of disappointment that there will be in my constituency that the opportunity of the second consultation has not been taken to provide a reprieve for the station at Fife Ness? Furthermore, is he aware that fishermen, yachtsmen and all the seafarers who use the firth of Forth believe that his decision is profoundly mistaken?
I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend if I have not been able to make the announcement that he wanted me to make today, but this consultation was not about Fife—that matter was dealt with in the first consultation and it was finished when the previous Secretary of State made his statements to this House. Although there are concerns, our current system has a national emergency service without any national resilience. That cannot be acceptable and I was not willing to sit, as the Minister, and let that carry on.
Will the Minister tell us exactly how much money he will be saving by closing Swansea coastguard station, given that there will be a continued presence at that building? How does that compare with the money he would have saved had he chosen to close the centre at Milford Haven instead?
As I said in my statement, there is almost no difference in the cost savings—the cost is in staff. May I say to the hon. Lady that under the proposals that I inherited only one out of the three centres in Wales would have stayed open and there would have been 10 staff in Wales, whereas there are 46 with my announcement today?
I know that the Minister will appreciate, because we have sent many submissions to him that Portland coastguard should remain open, how devastated my constituents are that this decision has been made. Will he reassure me and my constituents that if the trial at Fareham does not meet expectations, reopening the Portland centre will be at the top of the agenda?
I thank my hon. Friend for reiterating the importance to his constituents of Portland. However, I am sure that he would join me in saying that the front-line emergency personnel—the volunteers—are the most important people here and their resilience and ability to do their job is the most important thing. We will be able to enhance their training and enhance the pay in our coastguard co-ordination centres. Not in a million years could I have been able to afford to build the facility in Fareham. It was folly of the previous Government to do so and I will utilise that building to its best abilities.
I remind the Minister that the two issues that will anger people about the decision on Crosby are those to do with local knowledge of the north-west coast of England and the west of Scotland, which will now be lost, and those to do with the proposal put forward by the staff to host the maritime operations centre at a significant saving. He said in answer to an earlier question that he was not looking at new plans in the second consultation, but would it not have been a good idea for the Government to have done so and to have considered the good ideas coming forward from staff, such as those proposed at Crosby?
On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, the consultation was quite specific about whether we should have one MOC or two MOCs. The second proposal was for a MOC in Aberdeen and I needed to say that we were not going to do that if we were to have the money to keep the other stations open and that we would have the resilience without it. Even though the facilities at Swansea are good, they are nothing compared with the fire control centre I have taken over in Fareham, and I invite any hon. Members to visit that facility. The communications and build quality are second-to-none. As I have said, I could never have afforded to build it so the deal that I have done with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is absolutely brilliant. As the hon. Gentleman knows, when I was at Crosby—on my very first visit—the full-time coastguards told me that having the existing 18 centres was wrong and they suggested there should be nine. I am sorry that Crosby is not one of them.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on producing a well-balanced package under difficult circumstances? In particular, I welcome the promises on reward for our underpaid coastguards. I join him, too, in welcoming the huge contribution made by volunteers, including Whitstable RNLI. When he makes proposals on search and rescue helicopters, will he look closely at the hybrid arrangements in north America, through which the armed forces reserves offer a very cost-effective approach?
Some of what my hon. Friend has just asked for is above my pay grade and even comes under a completely different Department. The Secretary of State is sitting next to me and I am sure that she has heard the message loud and clear.
May I also reiterate—I hope I mentioned it in my statement—my complete admiration for the volunteers, whether they are in the volunteer lifeboats of the RNLI or the 3,500 plus volunteers who go out on a regular basis and put their lives at risk for us?
It will come as no surprise to the Minister that, as the Member for Inverclyde, where the Clyde coastguard is situated, I am deeply disappointed with today’s announcement, which comes on the back of 800 new engagements in the consultation process, tens of thousands of signatures sent to the Prime Minister in support of retaining the Clyde coastguard and numerous letters from organisations to the Minister. How does the Minister intend to assure people on the west coast of Scotland that safety is paramount and that the loss of the Clyde coastguard station will not mean that the area off the coast of the west of Scotland will be a no-shipping zone?
I know that it is difficult, but hon. Members should be careful about the emotive language that they use. When the Clyde co-ordination centre is not operational for whatever reason, its pair does the job on a regular basis. That happens and it happens around the country. That was why we went to this system and that was part of the submission. If the hon. Gentleman is disappointed by what I have said today, I must say to him that the previous Government’s proposals, which were on my desk when I arrived, were 10 times worse.
There will be great disappointment across south Devon at the announcement of the closure of the Brixham control centre. I know that the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), if she were able to be in the Chamber today, would share my concern. Can the Minister guarantee that there will continue to be a coastguard presence, if not the control centre, in the Torbay area? Will he consider the possibility of bringing other coastguard activities, such as the training of control centre and rescue staff and even volunteers, into the Torbay area to build on the reputation that the coastguard service has built up over decades?
There is acceptance that the quality of Her Majesty’s coastguard is world-renowned. I was at the International Maritime Organisation’s assembly yesterday morning and the leader of the American coastguard was talking to me about that particular point. The proposals we have finished with today will allow us to have more money for full-time staff to train the volunteers, more equipment and a professional career and pay structure that we would all be happy with, rather than the structure we have today.
Surely, the most perverse aspect of today’s statement is the proposed closure of Swansea. What justification do the Government give for this? They want to expand the DFT’s economic footprint in west Wales. What is the impact of that? Perhaps the Minister could explain why a so-called employment measure will take jobs away from an area of higher unemployment to protect them in an area of lower unemployment. And how on earth can he justify leaving the Bristol channel, which is one of the most dangerous waters around our country, without a 24-hour coastguard station?
On the first of the two substantive points that the hon. Gentleman raises, the Department and the Secretary of State are responsible for in excess of 5,000 DFT staff in the Swansea area. The economic effect on the small number of staff at Milford Haven is disproportionately beneficial to them compared with what would be the case at Swansea. That is what we have said both in the statement and all the way through. On the second point, when I was at Swansea attending a meeting with the staff, the station was switched off and Milford Haven was covering the very dangerous areas to which the hon. Gentleman refers. If that had not been safe, I am sure the coastguard would not have turned the station off.
I very much welcome the reassurance that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) that the safety of people on our seas will be paramount in all his considerations as the proposals are developed. Will he give me further reassurance that the front-line coastguards at the co-ordination centres that will remain will be given the opportunity to work alongside the coastguards developing the new processes and procedures in the MOCs so that we will truly have the resilient and first-class service that I know he aspires to achieve?
A shocking thing that I found when I took over this job and visited co-ordination centres around the country was the complete lack of co-ordination. The pairs were linked but apart from that there was no national resilience at all. The whole point of doing this is to give us a 21st-century emergency service with that level of communication and skills. Training will be paramount. That will be done not only in the MOCs but across the co-ordination centres because they will be picking up calls from other areas just as the MOCs will be.
Will the Minister clarify the position of the Clyde station given that the lease of the premises is coming to an end at the end of next year? Is that when it will close? This is of great concern given that the maritime operations centre will not be in place then, so there will be no national resilience, and that Belfast is a far smaller station than the Clyde station at the moment. Does he understand the massive concern that we are leading to a situation in which there will be very little cover on the Clyde and far fewer resources than now?
It will not be the case that there will be little cover on the Clyde because that station is paired and the pairing will cover it no matter what. That happens today and has been the case for many years. There is no drawback at all to the front-line emergency services carrying out the rescues. Indeed, the exact opposite is the case—I am enhancing them, I am going to have more paid staff training them and there will be more safety and more cover. I am very aware that the lease on the station is running out, which is why I said in my statement that we will keep a strong footprint in the Clyde area—but it will not be at the existing station.
May I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) complimenting the Minister on his accessibility during this exercise? Will he assure us that the reduced number of MOCs, with their extended geographic catchments, will give the same quality and level of support as they previously have to our voluntary search and rescue services, which provide such a strong service on our inland waterways?
I am very aware of the unique geographical situation and size of Northern Ireland’s inland waterways. That is one of the reasons why I gave careful consideration to the question of whether it should be Belfast or Liverpool, and why we kept Belfast. The other reason was the unique situation of a border with another EU member state. Also, Belfast has shown time and again its ability to cover for the Clyde so that the pairing system works.
I commend the Minister for the comprehensive and sympathetic way in which he has gone about his further consultation. I acknowledge that one of the paired stations will remain open on a 24/7 basis, but I am concerned that on the east coast it is not the one at Yarmouth, but the one on Humberside. My concern focuses on the broads and the myriad internal waterways. Concern has been expressed to me by the Broads Authority and the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association that local knowledge cannot be provided from the Humberside. Will my hon. Friend consider a station operated on a seasonal basis, much the same as for the Thames, to deal with that area?
I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. If I went down that avenue, I would open up a Pandora’s box and my Secretary of State would shoot me. I have holidayed nearly every year for the past 30 years on the Norfolk broads, especially across Breydon water. I understand the concerns, but I think the cover will be resilient enough. I hope people from Yarmouth transfer to the Humber. The new career and pay structures will make it much more worth while than was ever the case in the past, but I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns.
The rescue facilities in the Liverpool area will be enhanced. We will utilise the buildings that we have so that we do not rent new buildings for the sake of it. We will have more trainers, more enhanced staff, and the volunteers will provide a much better service for the public to rely on.
Although my Milton Keynes South constituency is probably as far from any part of the UK coastline as it is possible to be, I take a close interest in these matters as a member of the Transport Committee. I congratulate the Minister on balancing so many competing priorities and representations so objectively and fairly, but can he confirm to me that he is still reversing a key flaw in the original proposals, which was for only daylight operations at some stations?
That is one of the key aspects that we examined to see where resilience would come from. As we looked at the possibility of not having a second full-time MOC, the only way to provide resilience was for all the remaining stations to be open 24/7. That is why they will all be operational 24 hours, not just with daylight manning.
Pursuant to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts), and given the diversity of risks in Liverpool bay, ranging from the myriad estuaries to complex offshore facilities, is the Minister satisfied that the co-ordination facilities in the Liverpool bay area will be adequate? I share his view about national resilience. Will he look very carefully to make sure that what he is delivering meets what he says?
As an ex-firefighter, I would never in a million years propose something that I did not feel would have the resilience, the technology, the skills and the local topography to allow it to take place. The volunteers in the Liverpool area, particular in the area that I visited, have unbelievable skills, which will be enhanced, not hindered.
Although there will be huge disappointment in Great Yarmouth at the loss of our coastguard station, we note the Minister’s earlier comments about the job opportunities, the local knowledge and the resilience that could be improved with the Humber pair being kept. We are grateful for his recent visit to Great Yarmouth to visit the Caister independent lifeboat. Will he confirm that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will continue to work as closely with independent lifeboats such as those at Caister and Hemsby as it does with the excellent Royal National Lifeboat Institution?
One of the great things about having the RNLI is that it is a brand known worldwide and a fantastic facility. However, little is known in this country about the volunteer lifeboats. There are huge numbers, including the one that I visited and went out to sea on at Caister recently, where the crew desperately tried to make me seasick, unsuccessfully. I can assure the House that not only will the facility be as good as it is now, but it will be better.
I am sure that the Minister will recognise the bitter disappointment of those in my locality who campaigned so hard to retain both the Liverpool and Clyde facilities, which serve 200 miles of coastline. The Scottish Government Transport Minister failed to recognise the significance of Liverpool to the Solway coast, but did the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Under-Secretary of State make any representations to him about retaining the Clyde facility?
The Scotland Office was fully informed of the proposal. I phoned the Minister yesterday to tell him, and I did the same for the Wales Office. This is a national emergency service, so the House and the Government are fully responsible for it. I understand the concerns, but we must reiterate that at the moment we do not have a national resilience service. If two of these pairs go down, there is no way that we can provide the cover necessary in a 21st-century service. This should have been done years ago, as I know the hon. Gentleman will admit.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that these days in a co-ordination centre binoculars are not the usual piece of equipment used to survey what is going on at sea. The electronic equipment that we use is highly technical and works very well. In times of high need, we will be able to move that around the network so that other less important jobs that are already flowing through can be taken on by other stations or the MOC while new emergencies that are coming on board, with the local knowledge that is so desperately needed, can be facilitated.
May I join the Minister and the shadow Minister in paying tribute to the search and rescue family, including volunteers of coastguard services, for the excellent work that they do in protecting our coastline and coastal waters? May I also thank the Minister for reiterating the strategic importance of Holyhead and invite him to visit it, because he did not have a chance to do so during the consultation period? Will he assure the House that there will be constructive dialogue between management and the work force, including the unions, on this modernisation programme, so that they are fully involved and their ideas and local skills are used to make up this resilience that he talks about? Will he also assure the House that people will be told of redundancy and of any displacement that there will throughout the United Kingdom in plenty of time?
I have been working with the Public and Commercial Services union since day one when I became the Minister. I met its representatives very early on. They have been desperate for this issue to be resolved once and for all. They know the service needs to be modernised and that there had to be closures. They knew that all the way through, and I have discussed that with them fully. They were part of the group that looked at the proposals and the consultation documents that came in. We will work closely with the unions and the non-unionised members of staff, so that we ensure that whatever happens they know. I do not think that there will be any redundancies in Holyhead, but, overall, we will do our level best to make sure that it is natural wastage and that we keep the skills within the service.
I welcome the use of the vacant fire control centre at Fareham. It gives us a chance to recoup some of the half a billion spent on the fire control centres scrapped last year and described by the Public Accounts Committee as flawed from the outset. Will the Minister assure me that the coastguard modernisation process will not suffer the same problems that led to the disaster with the fire control centres? In particular, how will the link between the maritime operations centre and the coastguard stations work in practice?
Rather than just using the radio, the new centre has unbelievable communication. The state-of-the-art technology has been put into that building at huge cost to the taxpayer, and it is a real shame that I cannot use all the buildings around the country and can only use the one.
The Minister in his statement when considering the pros and cons of Milford Haven and Swansea said that “there are no operational reasons for choosing one of these sites rather than the other”, and that the building in Swansea will remain operational. He said that Swansea was switched off in a planned way to enable Milford Haven to take over, but will he accept that on a number of occasions Milford Haven has closed down in an unplanned way, that Swansea is the second busiest coastguard, that the protest involved hundreds of thousands of people compared with a much smaller protest from Milford Haven, and that people locally will rightly see this as a cynical political, rather than operational, move that will affect the risk to Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Devon?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment. I went to Swansea and, after the driver drove through the picket, went back to speak with everyone on the picket line as well as all the staff. I fully admit that there was a planned shutdown during my visit, just as there was a planned shutdown while the refurbishment took place at Swansea, when Milford covered it for weeks and weeks. I am sorry that he was not fully informed about the number of closures that took place in the past. He is absolutely right that sometimes stations go down without warning, which is why we need a national resilience system, which we do not have today. That is the most important thing.
The Minister specifically mentioned the importance of the links between the gas and oil sectors in Aberdeen. He will be aware that that is equally important in the Humber, an area where there is likely to be a rapid expansion in the energy sector in coming years. Will he assure me that he is fully satisfied that the expansion will be fully catered for and that it will be kept under regular review?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I think that he would accept that there is a structural difference between the oil and gas sector and offshore wind. We are working much more closely with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed, than ever before. Under the previous Administration decisions were made and the Department for Transport was then told much later. We will work together closely and address any risks as needed.
I thank the Minister for his statement and associate myself with the kind comments of the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan). The Minister came over to Northern Ireland, listened and clearly delivered, and we are thankful that the Northern Ireland coastguard will be part of the strategy for the whole of the United Kingdom. He indicated that the Northern Ireland coastguard will be responsible not only for Northern Ireland, but for the Clyde. What staff and resources will be made available to the Northern Ireland coastguard to deliver a full and better service?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Bangor co-ordination centre already covers the Clyde on a regular basis. We will ensure that it is fully staffed, that staff have the right pay and conditions, which we will negotiate with the trade unions and those who are not in the trade unions and—I reiterate—that we have the sort of resilience that the service deserves.