I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of lifeboat services to search and rescue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful to my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for granting me this debate, and of course to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who did the legwork on the application to secure it.
It is worth giving some context at the debate’s start. Search and rescue provision in the UK is delivered through an amalgam of Government Departments, emergency services and various SAR charities and voluntary organisations. UK SAR is arranged through the UK SAR Strategic Committee, an interdepartmental body chaired by the Department for Transport, hence our being joined by a DFT Minister and his shadow. His Majesty’s Coastguard provides a response and co-ordination service for air and sea-based SAR in the UK. HM Coastguard has existed since 1822, and of course celebrated its bicentenary last year. The coastguard co-ordinates air and sea-based SAR through its nine operation centres around the UK. They are in Shetland, Aberdeen, Humber, Dover, Fareham, Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast and Stornoway. In addition, the London coastguard, which is co-located with the Port of London authority, looks after SAR on the River Thames. HM Coastguard has its national maritime operations centre in Fareham in Hampshire.
Lifeboats are not the only part of SAR at sea; many organisations, including the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, commercial vessels in the vicinity of an incident and HM Coastguard’s helicopters, play their part, but in this debate, I will focus on the lifeboat service. The classic image of the lifeboat service is one of heroism, and of its crews fighting through rough seas to save lives. The courage of those involved, and their commitment to saving those in peril on the sea, are the anchor that holds the crew together during a rescue mission while, in the words of the famous hymn,
“the breakers roar and the reef is near”.
No debate such as this should pass without mention of how that legendary bravery was demonstrated on 19 December 1981, when the Penlee lifeboat headed out into atrocious conditions to try to save the lives of eight people in peril. Tragically, all eight lifeboat crew were lost that night. It was the last time the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lost a whole crew in one incident—a record that I am sure we hope will stand for many years to come.
It is of course the RNLI that most people will think of when they hear a reference to lifeboats. It was founded as the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck in 1824. In 1854, it changed its name to what we know it as today. Its main base is in Poole, Dorset. It has 238 lifeboat stations, and an active fleet of 431 lifeboats, which range from large, all-weather lifeboats to smaller inshore vessels.
The impact of the RNLI’s work cannot be overestimated. Its operations have saved over 143,900 lives since 1824, and it is not just men who have been the heroes: Grace Darling became one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated heroines when, on 7 September 1838, she risked her life to rescue the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire. Today, around 95% of the RNLI team are volunteers; they are around 5,600 crew members, 3,700 shore crew, including station management, 82 lifeguards, and 23,000 fundraisers. The scale of the RNLI’s contribution to search and rescue is immense. In 2021 alone, there were 8,868 lifeboat launches, 84 of which were in at least force 8 conditions, and 1,022 crew assemblies—a total of 9,890 taskings. That resulted in 12,903 people being aided, and 296 lives being saved.
The RNLI’s work is about not just reacting when things go wrong, but reducing the need for search and rescue by educating and advising on dangers. RNLI water safety teams reached more than 27 million people in 2021 with essential messaging, undoubtedly saving more lives and keeping families together.
We should bear in mind that lifeboat services are not just about the RNLI—a subject that is close to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. In addition to the RNLI, a number of voluntary organisations provide independent lifeboats for the purpose of saving lives on the water. There are more than 50 independent lifeboat organisations around the UK, and independent lifeboats operate in coastal areas—for example, the Hope Cove lifeboat in south Devon—and on inland waters, rivers and lakes, while some organisations operate independent lifeboats alongside other search and rescue services, such as mud rescue. The majority of those independent lifeboats are equipped, maintained and operated in accordance with the rescue boat code.
Independent lifeboat organisations vary greatly in size, crew numbers, rescue numbers and types of rescue boat used. Crews range from the 12 crew members at Port William Inshore Rescue Service in Dumfries and Galloway to the around 260 crew members at Community Rescue Service, which operates across Northern Ireland; and call-outs range from the five call-outs in 2021 for the Sea Palling independent lifeboat in Norfolk to more than 120 for the Hamble lifeboat in Hampshire. The rescue boats involved range from small RIBs—rigid inflatable boats—to large all-weather lifeboats, which are comparable to the boats that many people associate with the RNLI.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and I thank him for doing so. He is making important points about independent lifeboats, but also about the support services. We have independent lifeboats at Freshwater, Sandown and Shanklin in the Isle of Wight, which do wonderful work, on top of the RNLI stations at Bembridge, Cowes and Yarmouth. Not only that, but our inshore lifeboat centre in East Cowes keeps half the nation’s fleet of RNLI boats in good condition. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to those services?
I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend list the amazing support that the Isle of Wight provides. It does not just save lives and help those in peril on the sea around the Island—as he knows, some of those waters famously present obstacles and risks to passing shipping, and it is worth paying tribute to the many Islanders over the years who have put their life at risk trying to save those in peril near the Island—but makes a wider contribution to the service. As he says, lifeboat services are not just about the team who go out on the boat; they are about the support network that enables the lifeboat teams to go out. It is great to be able to pay it the tribute that he just did.
Independent lifeboats are not a new invention, and the first independent lifeboat station was formed in Formby, Lancashire, in 1776. Although many independent lifeboat stations were RNLI stations when they were established, others have been set up in response to specific incidents. For example—I see colleagues from Northern Ireland in the Chamber—Foyle Search and Rescue was set up by local people in 1993 in response to the alarmingly high number of drownings in the River Foyle, 30 in 18 months. It has since adopted a role in suicide prevention and supporting families in the city more widely. That shows the diversity in the types of work that such organisations can take on, and the contribution that such services can make.
It is right that we remember the contribution that those organisations make, and how their work is supported by the National Independent Lifeboat Association, a new charity founded last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. All independent lifeboats in Great Britain and Northern Ireland were invited to join the association, and it has 30 members from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey.
During my preparations for the debate, it was made clear to me that the RNLI is proud of its independence and the fact that it can operate free from requirements of the type that Government funding would bring. I was advised of that in the knowledge that such debates can sometimes involve the subject of whether the service offered by the RNLI should be publicly funded, rather than our having the current funding arrangements, which are based on voluntary giving.
It might seem strange to some, but this service is not lobbying for Government funding. That position recalls the fact that, a decade ago, a former Prime Minister described his vision of creating a big society—a concept in which individuals come together to tackle an issue or make a difference, rather than the state setting up structures to intervene that might often be less effective or efficient. There are often debates about how that concept can be defined in real life, but in many ways lifeboat services reflect that idea, from the crews who volunteer their time to train, and who are ready to answer the call of duty, to fundraising teams in communities who raise the resources needed to support operations, to the many community members who do their bit by simply dropping a few coins into a collection box when they buy a pint, visit the local shop or walk past one of the many collection boxes across coastal communities. Also included are people who, when thinking about the legacy they want to leave, tell their solicitor to include the lifeboat service in their will. This shows how society comes together to help others in need, and to provide a unique service that we can all benefit from, but hope never to need.
Those who regularly hear me speak know that I will not miss an opportunity to highlight the work being done in south Devon, and I will start with the Torbay RNLI lifeboat station. It was established in Brixham in 1866 and has occupied the same premises since 1872. It was established after a fleet of merchant ships were caught in hurricane-strength winds in Torbay in January 1866, causing the loss of about 40 ships and nearly 100 lives. Today, the lifeboat station has 35 crew members, including those who are shore-based. The station operates two lifeboats that reflect the diversity of the rescues that the station may be called on to perform: a Severn class all-weather lifeboat and a D-class inshore lifeboat. The crew members are volunteers who mostly have day jobs.
In 2022, Torbay RNLI lifeboat station responded to 111 shouts. The station is supported by the Torbay Lifeboat Fundraisers, who work throughout the year to raise the funds needed to support the lifeboat. The group has over 200 volunteer members, and it organises a range of events and activities to raise money. I thank everyone in Torbay who supports them; the crew would not be ready to save lives without their contribution.
I pay tribute to the team at the National Coastwatch Institution in Torbay, who also play a part in search and rescue operations in south Devon. NCI watchkeepers, who are volunteers, provide eyes and ears along the coast, monitoring radio channels and providing a listening watch in poor visibility. When people get into trouble, NCI watchkeepers can alert His Majesty’s Coastguard and direct the appropriate rescue teams, including lifeboats, to the casualty. The NCI station at Torbay is one of over 50 such stations located around England and Wales. Located at Daddyhole plain, it is the first purpose-built NCI watch station. In January 2012, the station was given declared facility status, meaning that the station was not only fully operational, but fully recognised in search and rescue operations as having the same status as RNLI lifeboat stations. That shows the benefit of partnerships between organisations that save lives.
Lifeboats are as vital to search and rescue operations today as they were in the era when horses drew the boat to the launching point and the crew pulled on the oars against the high sea to reach a vessel in distress. Direct funding is not sought, but I am interested to learn from the Minister how he sees the future for our lifeboats, and on a couple of other points.
First, some independent lifeboats are not fully declared HM Coastguard rescue facilities, often because of the complex process that must be undertaken to become such a facility. Does the Minister see an opportunity to simplify the process, without compromising standards? Secondly, independent lifeboats are not represented on the UK SAR operators group, but hope to join the group later this year. Will he provide an update on that? Finally, how does he see the work of lifeboats and their contribution to search and rescue fitting into wider efforts to improve safety at sea?
The debate is a good opportunity to highlight the contribution of lifeboat services to UK search and rescue. As we speak, crews across the UK stand ready to answer the call to save those in peril; they are ready to face whatever dangers that may bring. They are some of the best of our nation, and I end with a simple message to them: thank you.
There appear to be eight people seeking to catch my eye. I want to get to the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.30 am, so there are 45 minutes to be divided by eight speakers. I will not introduce a formal time limit at this stage, but please could people be mindful of others, and stick to about five minutes? If necessary, I will introduce a time limit. I call Jamie Stone.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on a characteristically erudite and well-informed speech. I first want to mention the RNLI in my constituency. I have sailed out on the Thurso lifeboat—and did not sink it. The waters in the north of Scotland are treacherous, and subject to very strong tides, changeable winds and fog. My grandfather, alas, put his warship HMS Goldfinch on the rocks in 1915 in a very thick fog, and was not given command of a destroyer again. That proves how treacherous the waters are.
The work that the lifeboat crews undertake is varied. The hon. Member for Torbay touched on some of the big, dramatic stuff, but we have little stuff as well. For instance, in August the Wick lifeboat—the Wick station was put there in 1848—was called out to rescue a lady on a paddleboard. She had sailed out from the beach at Reiss, north of Wick, and, thank goodness, was rescued. It was a small rescue, but so important to the family, and to the people of Caithness.
More locally, we have the East Sutherland Rescue Association, which I have often spoken about to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). It is crewed by volunteers and is based at Dornoch in the Dornoch firth. It was founded in 1981 to cover a lack of facilities to rescue people, and it uses Dornoch or Embo beaches. It was called out not long ago to rescue some sheep off the village of Nigg, which got stranded as the tide rose. That might seem semi-laughable, but would a crofter or a farmer want to see their animals slowly drown? No, I do not think so. That shows how much the crews do for the local area.
I want to praise Lord Cadogan, who has given substantial amounts of money to the East Sutherland Rescue Association. He owns land in Sutherland and, out of the goodness of his heart, has seen to it that it is adequately financed and was able to build a new facility, so that it could maintain and launch its boats. I want to put that on the record in Hansard, because I am grateful to him, as is the whole community. I have touched on the treacherous waters of the north of Scotland, and the splendid work done by the RNLI and its volunteers, and how close it is to all our hearts. The hon. Member for Torbay thanked them, and I thank them, too. They do fantastic work.
Thinking ahead, as global warming carries on, and as the ice pack in the Arctic gets thinner and retreats, the north-east route from Europe, round the top of Norway and along the north coast of Russia, to markets in the far east, which we can use in the summer months, becomes more and more important. Scapa Flow is in the constituency of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). Before the first world war, Scapa Flow was set up as a natural anchorage for the grand fleet, so that it could defend the United Kingdom. I believe that there is scope for Scapa Flow to once again feature as a shelter anchorage for vessels about to undertake the long journey over the north of the continents of Europe and Asia.
My point is this: in future we will need lifeboat services just as much as we need them today. They are here for a very long time to come—here for keeps. Man can do many things, but man cannot alter the weather and or change dangerous circumstances, so this is a blatant plug. Lifeboat services have long done a great job. They are doing a great job now, and there is a great future for them. We must support them and back them to the hilt.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate, and I thank him for the opportunity to highlight the invaluable contribution of the volunteer crews of Conwy and Llandudno RNLI lifeboat stations in my constituency of Aberconwy.
We have become accustomed to seeing on the news images of lifeboat crews along the channel coast bringing asylum seekers and refugees safely ashore. Given that they volunteer their time to fulfil the RNLI’s mission of saving lives at sea, it is right that these crews are commended for their service and courage. However, as a supporter of the RNLI, I share the concern of the crew I have spoken to that the constant images from the channel overshadow the huge range of search and rescue call-outs or “shouts”, as they are known to the crews, with which lifeboat volunteers are tasked. These include rescuing paddleboarders and swimmers in distress, searching for divers, assisting broken-down vessels and undertaking lengthy searches, sometimes lasting days, for missing boats. Maintaining the operational capability to safely conduct the myriad requirements involves lengthy and intensive training, not just for the crews at sea but for the shore crews, whose service is indispensable to lifeboat operations.
The professionalism and commitment of our lifeboat crews was exemplified in January 2021, when the crews from Conwy and Llandudno joined the search for the Nicola Faith, a fishing vessel that was lost with all hands, and which had set sail from Conwy. For over 48 hours, the crew of Llandudno’s all-weather Shannon-class lifeboat, the Williams F Yates, searched hundreds of square miles, often in freezing conditions. The entire station was mobilised in support of the search, with boat crews swapping once the inevitable fatigue set in and the lifeboat needed to be refuelled ashore. The crewmen and women were nearly all volunteers, with many of them forgoing paid work. The whole community rallied in support, with members of the public bringing cakes and other refreshments to the station to keep up morale.
Tragically, the Nicola Faith could not be located, but the search for its crew demonstrated another key point: lifeboat stations are the focus of a team effort that involves communities, fundraising committees, shore crew, the boat crew and their families. The work of the shore crews, and the intense training they undertake, is often overlooked but it is indispensable to lifeboat operations. No lifeboat launch, whether of a D-class inshore lifeboat or an all-weather lifeboat, would be possible without a highly trained shore crew, often working in adverse conditions. When Shannon lifeboats are launched from a launch-and-recovery system, a team of between eight and 12 people is required to launch and recover the boat safely.
I want to recognise the enormous sense of pride that volunteers have in their commitment to saving lives at sea. In fact, just before Christmas, Conwy lifeboat station’s volunteer crew member Paddy Byrnes was recognised for 30 years of service. There are also four men—Keith Charlton, Nigel Forest, Robin Holden and David Roberts—who recently reached an impressive 40 years of service at Llandudno station, and four more are approaching this milestone. I would like to congratulate those crewmen and thank them for their decades of invaluable and selfless service—a tremendous achievement that should not go unnoticed.
As the hon. Member is congratulating his own local personnel, will he join me in congratulating the management team, the fundraisers and all those associated with the Portrush lifeboat station, which celebrates 100 years next year? In the same year, the RNLI will celebrate 200 years. This is an excellent achievement by many lifeboat associations across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and I completely endorse what he says. In fact, I would like to recognise the work of the fundraising committee chairman in my own constituency, who has persevered in the work, despite facing personal challenges.
Finally, it is vital that we extend our appreciation to the families of lifeboat crews. As mentioned, crew members can spend significant time away from their families when training and attending “shouts”. When their pagers sound on stormy nights—in the winter, in the dark—it is difficult to appreciate the apprehension felt by loved ones who remain ashore about the safety of the crew members at sea. Without the support of families and loved ones, lifeboat stations simply could not operate. To the families of the crews of Llandudno and Conwy lifeboat stations, thank you.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for chairing the debate and for giving me a chance to participate. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for setting the scene so well, and hon. Members for contributing to the debate.
Lifeboats and their services are imperative for safety in coastal communities, which is the key issue for me. The hon. Member for Torbay represents a coastal area that is similar to my constituency of Strangford, and we follow each other in debates more often than not—either him before me or me before him. The neighbouring constituency of North Down also has coastal areas with lifeboats, and people rely on the local stations.
It is great to be here to give them the praise they truly deserve and to thank them for their work and efforts.
Thousands of people along the coastline of Northern Ireland depend on the services of the RNLI for their protection and safety. During the summer, thousands of families and young people partake in coastal sports such as sailing, surfing and pier jumping. I used to do that myself off Ballywalter harbour, although that is not a very wise thing to do—always ensure the tide is in or there is big trouble. In addition, people go out in canoes and boats to fish, including from the fishing village of Portavogie. There are caravan parks at Millisle and my home village of Ballywalter, where I was brought up. They lie very close to where I live on the edge of Strangford lough. I am aware of the sheer number of water sports undertaken in this area.
The RNLI charity provides a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. Across the entire UK, there are 238 lifeboat stations, 46 of them in Northern Ireland. There are also 240 lifeguard units on beaches, which gives an idea of the magnitude of the issue. I found this figure incredible: since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews have saved more than 142,700 lives. That is an enormous figure.
We are fortunate to have a lifeboat station in Portaferry in my constituency, and I visited the station just before the summer. Portaferry is one of seven RNLI lifeboat stations operating a lifeboat funded by viewers of the BBC TV programme “Blue Peter”. Some of us can cast our minds back to that, although others cannot go back that far. The station was established due to increased pleasure boating in Strangford lough, after Cloughey lifeboat station closed. Most recently, in November, the Portaferry lifeboat station came to the aid of two kayakers who got into difficulty near St Patrick’s rock in Strangford lough, and who faced weather conditions of wind force 8 to 10. Since the station opened in 1980, there have been 850 launches, rescuing 600 people and saving the lives of 100 people. That is just my lifeboat station in Portaferry. Thank you to all lifeboat crews, past and present, for their commitment.
Last year, I attended the parliamentary launch of the National Independent Lifeboat Association. I think the hon. Member for Torbay sponsored that event. It is important to pay thanks to those independent lifeguards and life-saving organisations who risk their lives in dangerous seas to help save others.
Does the hon. Gentleman, like me, welcome the representation provided by the National Independent Lifeboat Association for smaller lifeboat operators, which might otherwise be overlooked?
I certainly do. We have all said how much we appreciate that. The hon. Member for Torbay said that in his introduction. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) will recognise the independent ones in his contribution. I am thinking of the Foyle rescue team, about which we have spoken. We understand the commitment that those volunteers give. When I visited Portaferry before the summer, I was greatly impressed by their commitment and by the fact that they were there every time they were needed.
There are 46 independent lifeboat organisations that operate along the coastline and on inland waterways across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Those independent lifeboats are run primarily, if not entirely, by volunteers, and funded by local donations. The invaluable service they provide has saved the lives of so many and, in conjunction with the RNLI, they continue with those dedicated efforts day in and day out to save people. They are an asset to our communities. We would be completely lost without them, and many lives would sadly be lost as well. I am not the only who was moved by adverts on TV for RNLI showing a lady leave her house over Christmas to go and save people. We see how important these crews are when we recognise what they do.
To conclude, there are many ways in which we can support institutions such as the RNLI. It is possible to become a volunteer or a member, and even train to become assistance personnel. There are many things that people can do, including fundraising and donating money to ensure the RNLI staff have the best equipment available to fulfil their duties and be able to perform with the correct number of staff.
I sincerely thank the RNLI Portaferry team for all their dedication and work in my constituency. I also thank the lifeboat teams across Northern Ireland and the whole of the UK for the work they do, as our coastal communities would literally be lost without them. I live in a coastal community and understand what it means to have the RNLI, and I thank them very much.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing today’s important debate. The constituency that I represent, Moray, is proud and privileged to have both an RNLI facility at Buckie and an independent lifeboat support, the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, at Findhorn. I shall touch on both in today’s debate.
Let me begin, as others have, by paying tribute to the remarkable work of our search and rescue services in Scotland. As others have said, across our British coastline, the RNLI and its army of volunteers have served our great nation since 1824. It is a charity that is close to my heart and the hearts of many of my constituents in Moray. Being mainly staffed by volunteers, the RNLI relies heavily on the good will of British people to fund its rescue services. Thanks to the efforts and generosity of people across the country, there are over 230 operational lifeboat stations, which respond on average to 24 call-outs every day. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that support has saved over 143,000 lives since the RNLI’s inception.
Does the hon. Member agree that one of the best ways we can demonstrate our support is, as he is doing, to maximise and highlight the issue, including in the local media, and to supply all independent and RNLI lifeboats with the best possible equipment for saving lives?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. There is a very good publicity system around the RNLI in Buckie. In fact, the sub-editor of the local paper is a member of the RNLI at Buckie, which always gets good front-page coverage in the Banffshire Advertiser and other papers. The point on equipment is well made, and the Minister will have heard it.
The coastal communities that I represent across Moray simply could not imagine not having the support of the brave men and women who dedicate their lives to rescuing those in peril at sea. The RNLI and our independent lifeboats across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom deserve our full support, and it is vital and fitting that we have a platform in Parliament today to give them that recognition.
The hon. Member’s constituency faces mine across the Moray firth, which is named after his constituency, but it really should be named after mine—but that is not the point. In an emergency, it is a fact that the lifeboats in the hon. Member’s constituency can, if necessary, go out in the Moray firth and help out the communities in my constituency. I highlight the inter- connected nature of the service all over Scotland and the United Kingdom.
I agree with almost everything the hon. Gentleman said, but calling it the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross firth, rather than the Moray firth, might be a bit long-winded for some—but his points are absolutely right.
Let me focus on Moray and Buckie. Lifeboats have been launching into the waters of the Moray firth from Buckie for over 145 years, and crews and volunteers there have rightly been honoured with numerous awards. I have mentioned the late, great Adam Robertson in this Chamber in the past. He was a Moray Council employee with whom I worked closely in my time as a Moray councillor, but he dedicated his voluntary work throughout his life to RNLI Buckie, and his family has continued that trend since his sad death. Most recently, Anne Scott, RNLI Buckie’s lifeboat operations manager, received a special award that recognised her 20 years of professional service. Anne retired from the RNLI in 2021, and immediately after retirement became a volunteer. That shows the dedication of those who support our lifeboat services. It is absolutely right that Anne was given that award. When Anne received the award, RNLI Buckie’s Davie Grant said:
“We call Anne the lady who launches”
because she “hits the big button” as the lifeboats speed out to save people. Pillars such as Anne and Adam demonstrate not only the timeless contribution of the RNLI to rescue services and the support given by those volunteers, but the overwhelming contribution of lifeboat services to our local coastal communities.
Let me quickly move on to independent lifeboat services. Last year, I was honoured and delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) in his launch of the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which is a new charity that will assist the UK’s independent lifeboats in ensuring the preservation of life on the water. I am proud that one of its founding members is the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, which is in my constituency. Based at Findhorn, it is, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, one of 46 established independent lifeboat services manned by unpaid volunteers, and does not receive any funding from the RNLI. First formed in July 2005, it is a proud recipient of the Queen’s award for voluntary service and does outstanding work from its base at Findhorn.
At the launch, MIRO’s chairman, John Low, said:
“We are a small organisation working locally with larger organisations, such as UK Coastguard, RNLI, police and fire services, to provide vital lifesaving services. It makes sense to join the new National Independent Lifeboat Association to collaborate and share practice with colleagues in similar small organisations around the country. We also hope that in the future there will be financial benefits such as accessing funding and services such as insurance and training.”
Those are important, which is why MIRO and others have joined the collaborative approach suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. It is right that we have the opportunity in Parliament today to highlight that and, as others have done, to thank both those in the RNLI and our independent lifeboat services for the amazing work they do, day in, day out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted to take part in this debate for the second year in a row. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend and neighbour, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for securing this debate. We are of one heart and one mind when it comes to our coastline and making sure that we protect all those who are on the coastline or at sea, as well as supporting and promoting the important work that our UK search and rescue organisations do across the country.
I am always surprised that we call this a debate, because it is not really a debate. It is a moment for us to congratulate, recognise and thank those who put themselves in harm’s way to save others, to look after them and to promote the important work that, across the country, is often overlooked. I declare my interest, as I am the founder of the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which many Members have kindly mentioned.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work in setting up the charity. I wish to inform him that my own independent lifeboat association in Ferryside will be joining the organisation soon. I also take the opportunity to thank it for all the work they undertake in the Carmarthen bay area.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is particularly welcome news that his independent lifeboat is joining the organisation. As has been said, there are more than 50 independent lifeboat stations and 30 have joined the association. We would like it to be a full complement, so that every independent lifeboat station across the country has the recognition that it needs. Hon. Members across the Chamber have made a point about the important work of the RNLI. It is essential that we recognise the important apolitical nature of the RNLI and the fact that it does not ask for Government funding. The hundreds of RNLI lifeboat stations do fantastic work by raising their own money and through bequests, as well as by working with volunteers, who do an extraordinary job. The tales of their heroism are what make many of our coastal communities aware of the work of those lifeboat stations, which are part of the fabric of our community.
We are aware of the scale of UK search and rescue, which covers 2 million square miles of air, land and sea of and brings together multiple Government Departments. It brings together air ambulances, the National Coastwatch Institution, the RNLI and NILA. In my constituency, I am fortunate to have Torbay RNLI station, which is based in Brixham, Dart RNLI, which is in Dartmouth, and Salcombe RNLI which, unsurprisingly, is in Salcombe. The three stations cover more than 80 miles of coastline and have saved countless lives over the years.
The RNLI’s fantastic model has worked since 1824, saving an estimated 143,000 lives. Its work is unbelievably essential and, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, it will only increase over the coming years. We need to ensure that that model is recognised, supported and promoted wherever we go. We also have to be extremely clear that volunteers often work day jobs as well and that their employers need to be thanked for allowing them to take on the work.
I came to the position of founder of NILA because I have an independent lifeboat station in my constituency, in Hope Cove. Far from trying to compete with the RNLI, it works in co-operation with it; they work together to help people in danger at sea. It became clear to me that many of the independent lifeboat stations were not getting the attention or awareness that other UK search and rescue organisations to which people were donating were attracting, and that we should try and do something to promote them.
The result was that we formed NILA by contacting the 50 independent lifeboat stations and having a conversation about how we could secure greater recognition for their work and ensure that we were not taking away any funding abilities from them. Each independent lifeboat station is still self-funded, but we are able to ensure that they have access to the rescue boat code, the Department for Transport, the Home Office if necessary, best practices, and training procedures; they can also buy equipment collectively if necessary.
The whole purpose was not to hurt or harm those services, but to make their operations easier. I am really pleased to say that, since we had the idea, we have managed to create it. We have had the association registered with the Charity Commission. It has been in regular conversations with the Department for Transport, which has given it recognition. It has a chairman, Neil Dalton, and a vice chairman, Sean McCarry. The secretary is Wayne Monks and the treasurer is David Harvey. Together, they are creating the management structure that is going to be able to deliver for the independent lifeboat stations, not just now, but in future years, and to protect those independent lifeboat stations that do such fantastic work.
I will explain what we are asking for and what we would like to hear from the Minister. The first thing we ask for, as has been mentioned, is recognition through the rescue boat code. We understand that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is going through the process of reviewing the rescue boat code, so we would like to ask whether it can engage with independent lifeboats to ensure that, when the rescue boat code is revamped and rewritten, that is done so in conjunction with independent lifeboats and that they are using it to make sure it is most effective.
Secondly, we would like some clarification over VAT relief and fuel duty. I know that there is guidance out there. It is not simple; it needs to be simplified for the RNLI and independent lifeboats. The third thing is official recognition for NILA. We are waiting—the application has gone in through UK search and rescue. I would be grateful for an update on how quickly that will happen. The fourth point—I have got two more points and then I will sit down—is about support for the campaign to promote independent lifeboats and raise public awareness. There is continued support from MCA for NILA to join UKSAR’s operators group. Lastly, I call for the reintroduction of the rescue boat grant fund, which is specifically for the independents. A £5 million fund was launched. It finished in 2020. That fund was essential in helping those independent lifeboats. It was not a huge amount of money, but it made all the difference to those independent lifeboat stations.
I will end with this. We are very lucky across our coastal communities and in our inshore areas. We owe those people a debt of gratitude and of thanks. I hope we can hold an annual event in Parliament to promote the work of the RNLI and NILA.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this terribly important debate.
One of the first things I did when I moved to my constituency of Clacton many years ago was to join the local lifeboat service at Walton-on-the-Naze as a volunteer. I had this theory—probably a mistaken one—that, as a keen yachtsman and a user of water all my life, it would be nice to see friends when I got into trouble.
There is no doubt in this Chamber that the contribution of the RNLI is great, and the people at Clacton and Walton-on-the-Naze lifeboat stations are an amazing bunch of people, who deserve all the support we can give them. However, sadly, a young man named Sujal Sahu lost his life in Clacton this summer when visiting my constituency. The RNLI was brilliant in its efforts and it must not be let down. The service in Walton-on-the-Naze, in my patch, is reducing at the moment; the boat is being changed. The resources are being spread out across the constituency, but the service needs further support to help prevent loss of life.
That brings me to my main point, which is about prevention. As an avid yachtsman—I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on water safety—it is abundantly clear that we must educate people on the dangers of water. There are two piers in my constituency: Clacton pier and Walton pier. Near these obstructions on the beach are sand scoops—areas where the tidal current rushes past faster. People who come to the coast and do not know about coastal dangers can walk into such areas and find themselves, on a wonderful, hot summer’s day, suddenly in a very dangerous situation indeed; the sand beneath their feet has gone, the tide is running, and if they do not know how to swim or how to behave in water, they are at incredible risk.
In the summer, I held a water safety event—I invited schools to the beach so that pupils could learn how to behave safely around potentially dangerous water—but the issue prevails all year round; we heard about the recent sad case in Solihull. If we truly wish to support those who get into danger around water, we must support water safety education.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing the debate, not least because it gives me the opportunity to wax lyrical about my constituency, and its proud record of supporting the search and rescue services. My constituency is right on the border with Titchfield, where the search and rescue HQ, which he mentioned earlier, is located. The helicopters take off from my very own Gosport constituency—at Daedalus, where the Maritime and Coastguard Agency does a lot of its training.
Today I will talk specifically about the wonderful Gosport and Fareham Inshore Rescue Service—an independent lifeboat and inshore rescue service that was founded in 1969, so has been around for a really long time. It is a declared facility to the UK coastguard, providing emergency lifeboat cover to the eastern Solent and Portsmouth harbour. Those who know the area will know that that is an incredibly busy stretch of water—certainly the busiest on the south coast, if not one of the busiest in the UK. There are Navy vessels coming out of Portsmouth, cruise ships and freighters coming out of Southampton, a significant number of yachts, personal water craft, dinghies, and a whole range of stand up paddle boarders and kite surfers; it is pretty crowded out there in the summer months. GAFIRS provides an essential service to civilian safety, and I simply cannot stress its value enough.
GAFIRS responded to 135 incidents in 2022, making the year its busiest in 12 years and third busiest in the last 29. In those 135 incidents, it assisted 171 people, eight of whom were “life at risk”, including marine emergencies and first aid assistance on shore. Of the incidents, 126 were HM Coastguard taskings.
GAFIRS is managed and delivered solely by a tremendous team of volunteers. We have heard all about the incredible volunteers that support the service and make it flourish. Our volunteers are of a variety of ages and come from a whole swathe of professions. They operate 24/7, 365 days a year. To put that in context, 61 of the coastguard incidents in 2022 were weekend duty day taskings, with the crew on standby at the station or afloat on patrol, but 65 were out-of-hour pager callouts—33 daytime, 14 evening and 18 night-time. Volunteers are giving their time, day and night, often at unsociable or typically non-working hours. Of course, it is a commitment not just by the volunteers, but by their families, who should not be forgotten, as they support these great sacrifices.
Like all the other independent lifeboat services, GAFIRS relies solely on donations and receives no Government funding at all, which is why I could be found in the sea on new year’s day, alongside hundreds of my constituents in fancy dress. I was not in fancy dress myself, but my youngest son was dressed as a 6-foot tall banana and could easily be seen from any drone; he is a shy, retiring soul! GAFIRS is remarkable and very well valued by local people, which is why people are prepared to go into the sea on new year’s day dressed in a variety of different costumes.
My hon. Friend speaks passionately about the work of the inshore volunteer lifeboat services. Does she agree that inland lifeboat services such as the Severn Area Rescue Association—which works incredibly hard at times of flooding along the River Severn, as far as Bewdley and Stourport—do just as good a job with just as many personal sacrifices in terms of time and effort as any others?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The water gives us so much enjoyment and pleasure but can be a dangerous place. There are challenges up and down the country, inland and at sea, that volunteers rise to every single day.
The response time of GAFIRS is incredible. For all 135 incidents, the average time from being alerted to being in attendance or standing down was just over 16 minutes. The volunteers are, quite simply, local heroes; lives would be lost without them. They do not only respond to a variety of incidents; my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) spoke about the importance of training people to understand the dangers, and our volunteers actively promote water safety. In 2022, they provided 29 sea safety education talks to 1,194 local children and 100 teachers and leaders.
Before I sit down, I want to take the opportunity to thank the National Coastwatch Institution, which operates out of Fort Blockhouse and Lee-on-the-Solent. It provides eyes along the coast and is an invaluable service to local people. I am extraordinarily proud to have it and GAFIRS in my community, and I want to put on the record my enormous thanks and gratitude to them for everything they do.
It is a privilege to take part in this debate, and our thanks are due to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for making that possible.
We all come to an awareness of volunteer lifeboat crews in different ways. In my case, it was as a schoolboy growing up in Swansea. I remember in the 1950s visiting the Mumbles lifeboat and noting its unusual name. It was called the William Gammon, and it was in later years that I learned the reason for that. It was named after a particularly heroic coxswain of a previous lifeboat—a man who had been awarded a bronze and a gold medal for incredibly brave rescues in 1941 and 1944, but lost his life, together with seven colleagues in his crew, in the great disaster of 23 April 1947, when a former Liberty ship, the SS Samtampa, broke up off Sker Point off the coast of south Wales.
I remember going to the reference library on a research project and looking at the South Wales Evening Post report of that disaster. The headline—I think I am right in rendering it—said: “One terrible tragedy after another in the channel”. It showed the upturned lifeboat and the wrecked ship. That image has never left me. It is a tradition of which everybody who volunteers to serve in lifeboats is all too aware.
In those days, one had to go back to the newspapers to try to relive the experiences and heroism of the lifeboat crews, but today we have modern media. If colleagues on both sides of the Chamber take away only one thought from my brief contribution, it should be this: I urge them to go online and have a look at a BBC documentary called “Cruel Sea”. They can find it on YouTube. It was made in 2006 to mark the 25th anniversary of another disaster—the loss of the Penlee lifeboat. It is a quite extraordinary piece of television; they will never forget it, and I advise them to have a box of Kleenex tissues by their side. I have seen it several times, and I always find it hard to maintain my composure.
The documentary is about the way in which that crew and its coxswain, the late Trevelyan Richards, went out to try to rescue eight people on a vessel, the Union Star, whose engines had failed and was drifting toward the rocks. It contains the actual recordings of the messages that went back from the Penlee lifeboat to the command station, which tried to communicate with the boat. At one point—this was watched by a helicopter crew who were powerless to intervene but saw everything—the crew had managed to get four of the eight people off the ship. The waves were 60 foot high. The Penlee lifeboat was lifted up and actually came down on the deck of the ship it was trying to save the crew from, before being washed off. The crew went back one last time to try to get the last four people, and at that point they were lost.
The thought that remains with me is the calmness of the voice of Trevelyan Richards in moments of extreme peril, right up to the point at which the radio goes silent and we just hear the command station calling, “Penlee lifeboat, Penlee lifeboat, come in.” Of course, it never could. It is an unforgettable programme. It is a great tradition that, to this day, comes down to independent lifeboats such as Solent Rescue, which operates from Lepe in my constituency, and to RNLI stations such as RNLI Calshot. It operates with a 112-foot tower at Calshot Spit, with the aid of the National Coastwatch Institution, spotting the people who get into difficulties in the Solent. Frankly, these are the finest people we will ever know. I do not think I can say anything further than that.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for bringing forward this important debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee, of which I am a former Member, along with you, Mr Davies, and the hon. Member for Torbay.
The hon. Member for Torbay started the debate extremely powerfully with a lot of good points. There will be a huge amount of consensus, which is unusual, particularly from the SNP in this place. I will detail that particularly when I get to the speech made by the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). The hon. Member for Torbay rightly said that search and rescue is carried out by a number of governmental and independent organisations and agencies. He also mentioned the Penlee lifeboat, which lost all eight of its crew in 1981. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) has just powerfully described that incident, and I will come to that when I sum up his contribution. The hon. Member for Torbay mentioned that there were nearly 10,000 taskings last year, and made an important point about preventive work through education and training. He rightly highlighted the excellent work of his own local lifeboat in Torbay.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was absolutely right to mention how treacherous the waters can be off the north-west coast of Scotland. He also made what may appear to be a lighter point about the sheep rescue and how important it would have been to the crofter—and no doubt to the sheep themselves. That put me in mind of another rescue; I think it was the Skye lifeboat that helped to refloat some stranded dolphins last summer. It is not just humans that the RNLI supports.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) made many better points than he made in the independence debate just weeks ago. I did not catch their names, but he made a good point about four volunteers who have served for 40 years with the lifeboat service. I add my thanks and gratitude. That makes the wider point that many who serve in the RNLI have done so for a long time, and that must be recognised. He also mentioned the Nicola Faith tragedy, in which three lives were sadly lost.
It would not be a Westminster Hall debate without the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He mentioned coastal activities, including sailing and surfing. The one I was interested in was pier jumping. He confessed that he partook in that activity himself. It is not clear whether that was last week or some time ago, so we are unsure whether his pier-jumping speedos have been retired. Now that I have loaded up that image, I will come to the hon. Member for Moray. It is very rare—in fact, probably unique—that I agree with every word that he said.
I should probably sit down at that, yes. I will not put that on my leaflets, obviously.
The hon. Member for Moray brought up the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which I very much support. That leads me on nicely to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). I thank him for his work in setting up that organisation. He was right to say that this debate is essentially a moment of consensus when we can thank all those who volunteer and put their lives at risk on our behalf to save those in distress at sea. He also made the point that they do it all by raising their own money. I add my thanks and gratitude to all those who fundraise for, and donate to, the RNLI, making possible all its excellent work, which we have all spoken about.
That brings me on to the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), who said he was a proud yachtsman and talked about how he shared water safety training with a local school. He, too, reiterated the vital importance of such training for youngsters in school at all ages. As he said, one only has to reflect on the tragedy in Solihull in recent weeks to realise that we must do more in that regard.
The hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) spoke about the impact on the volunteers—the risk they take and the unsocial hours—but also about the impact on the families, which is something we do not always mention, so that was a very welcome point. She also mentioned her new year’s day dip. Rather her than me.
The last speaker, whose constituency I have forgotten—
Of course; I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reminder. He spoke about the Mumbles lifeboat. I visited Mumbles on a rugby tour over 20 years ago, when a number of us had to be rescued that night—albeit thankfully from the Mumbles mile and not, it must be said, at sea.
The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned—quite rightly and powerfully, as I said earlier—the Penlee disaster. We should all go online and watch “Cruel Sea”, the documentary he highlighted, which I was unaware of. I will certainly go away and look at it, and I thank him for telling us about it. Hopefully it is on iPlayer.
So it is there for all of us. In the spirit of consensus, I would like to pay particular tribute to lifeboat services in the south of England at this moment, amidst the record small boat crossings. I will not repeat all the statistics that the hon. Member for Torbay helpfully set out at the start, but the numbers are simply huge. Obviously, there are 238 lifeboat stations and 240 lifeguard units. As has been said, the RNLI was founded nearly 200 years ago, and in that time it has saved nearly 143,000 lives. In 2021, it saved 296 people. An average of 35 people are helped every day by RNLI crews.
I want to highlight a couple of people, if I may, who were decorated in the King’s new year’s honours list. An MBE was awarded to Dupre Strutt, a mechanic at the RNLI Kirkwall lifeboat station and a retired area lifesaving manager for Scotland. Dupre was part of the fabric of Kirkwall lifeboat station and had followed in his father’s footsteps, having grown up in the station. Since joining in 1983, Dupre has given 39 years of service to the RNLI, during which time he has been directly involved in over 300 rescues, saving over 60 lives.
Similarly, a volunteer mechanic and lifeboat operations manager at Kirkcudbright lifeboat station, William “John” Collins, has been awarded at a BEM for his dedication to the RNLI and the community in the town. He joined the station in 1991 as a mechanic, a role in which he continues to this day, alongside his duties as LOM. Outside of the RNLI, John is employed as the local school bus driver. During the pandemic, he extended that role to deliver essential food supplies around the area.
Of course, Scotland, with its long coastline and 790 islands, has a long tradition of life on the seas and, of course, facing the dangers that can be inherent in that, whether that is winter storms off the Atlantic, fishing boats in distress or leisure craft running into trouble, often with inexperienced people at the helm. Scotland is absolutely indebted to the RNLI, so if I may, and so that I do not miss any out, I will list the stations. They are, from the south-west: Portpatrick, Stranraer, Girvan, Troon, Largs—I will give the list to Hansard, so do not worry if I rush through it—Arran, Campbeltown, Tighnabruaich, Helensburgh, Islay, Oban, Tobermory, Mallaig, Barra, Kyle of Lochalsh, Portree, Leverburgh, Stornoway, Lochinver, Thurso, Wick, Longhope, Stromness, Kirkwall, Aith, Lerwick, Invergordon, Kessock, Buckie, Macduff, Fraserburgh, Peterhead, Aberdeen, Stonehaven, Montrose, Arbroath, Broughty Ferry, Anstruther, Kinghorn, Queensferry, North Berwick, Dunbar and Eyemouth—and I nearly mentioned Berwick-upon-Tweed, but that is only half-Scottish, so I shall leave it out.
We are also indebted to the independent and inshore rescue services, including at Dornoch, as well as the Glasgow Humane Society, Loch Lomond, Nith and the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, which I am delighted the hon. Member for Moray mentioned. Obviously, a lot of assistance, or co-ordination, goes to the RNLI through the Coastguard Agency. The coastguard is also 200 years old.
I want to make one point as I conclude, although I do not want to stray too far from consensus. I want to talk about the channel, but briefly, as I appreciate that my speaking time is nearly up. Last year, a record 45,000 people succeeded in crossing the channel, and we know there have been tragedies and a huge number of rescues there. We have always called for and maintained that there should be a safe and legal route so that the coastguard and the RNLI are not put in the position of having each day to save lives in the busiest shipping lane in the world.
Some of the rhetoric deployed has been deplorable, and Nigel Farage compared the work of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and of the RNLI to
“a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs”.
On the back of that, the RNLI received the most donations in its history in response to a single event—more than £200,000.
We can all castigate such rhetoric, which is deployed by some, but I want to finish on a note of consensus. I say thank you to all who are involved in the RNLI and those who co-ordinate our search and rescue services. In particular, I pay tribute to all those who sadly lost their lives in attempting to rescue others on our behalf.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who represents a beautiful part of the world, for his excellent speech. My researcher indicated that 52 awards for gallantry have gone to the hon. Gentleman’s RNLI station alone.
I shall be following the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who advocated for the National Independent Lifeboat Association, and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), in that we are not really having a debate, because there is consensus. The only note of division I think I heard was in the intervention from the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). Perhaps we need a separate debate on what we call that firth; the name Inverness strait might help to sort this out. [Interruption.] I see I have caused complete division across the Chamber.
Next year, it will be 200 years since William Hillary’s vision of saving souls at sea became a reality, and on 19 December 2022 the Minister and I were at the Dispatch Box for the Second Reading of the Seafarers’ Wages Bill. Today, we have heard the story of the Penlee lifeboat disaster, which was eloquently told by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), and on 19 December, the 41st anniversary of the disaster, we were able to have recorded in Hansard our thanks to the crews who went out that night in 1981.
The RNLI was formed to save souls at sea and the institution’s priorities were
“the preservation of human life…assistance to vessels in distress…the preservation of vessels and property…the prevention of plunder and depredations in case of shipwreck…succour and support of those persons who may be rescued…the bestowing of suitable rewards on those who rescue the lives of others”.
I want the debate to recognise those people as well and to be an acknowledgement of those who risk their lives to save those in peril on the sea.
As shadow maritime Minister, I know only too well the sacrifices made by our seafarers, which we saw during the pandemic. However, professional seafarers are not the only people our lifeboats serve to protect. We have seen the small boats in the English channel, which, as has been mentioned, is the busiest shipping lane in the world. We have seen children, women, families and individuals being plucked from the seas by the RNLI and others, and we have heard testimony from those who are tasked by the coastguard to perform their rescue missions without prejudice and without judgment.
There is nobody who is illegal. If people are in peril on the sea, we rescue them—no ifs, no buts. I thank those people for their service and for their determination to save everyone and anyone who gets into difficulty around UK and Irish shores. This is such a vital lifesaving service—so selfless—that, as has been mentioned, it is almost unbelievable that the RNLI receives no money from Government and is funded primarily by donations.
My best man was rescued from a cliff by the RNLI, when he was a child and on holiday. We have been friends for 30 years, and he has fundraised for the RNLI all his life, even being in a landlocked constituency. Imagine how the course of my life might have changed, had that rescue gone wrong, so I, too, pay personal tribute to the RNLI.
As I was preparing this speech last night, I noticed that at 6 pm lifeboats were launched from Hartlepool and Ramsgate. At 9.40 pm there was an incident that led to Tynemouth launching a rescue mission, with another one launching from Falmouth at 11 pm. Remarkable bravery takes place every day and every night. Since 1824 the RNLI has saved almost 143,000 lives. I go back to the original mission statement of Sir William Hillary, when he conceived the idea of the RNLI. I should add that the use of the word “men” is of its time, and not reflective of the nature of the RNLI, who for generations have had women launching lifeboats and working alongside crew to ensure that boats could set sail efficiently and speedily. More recently, they have crewed the boats and acted as shore crew. Now, the RNLI has more than 300 women crew and a third of their lifeguards are female, preventing accidents before they happen with good safety advice and keen stewardship of the shore.
Sir William said that at the heart of this institution would be
“a large body of men…in constant readiness to risk their own lives for the preservation of those whom they have never known or seen, perhaps of another nation, merely because they are fellow creatures in extreme peril.”
Every lifeboat volunteer—whether they be a fundraiser, a coxswain or at the helm— exemplifies that mission statement, and I would like to thank them for their service and their contribution to search and rescue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The words just quoted by the Opposition Front-Bencher, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), were very moving. I thank him for his contribution, and all hon. Members for theirs; in particular, I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for bringing this debate to the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who has done so much work on this issue, which is extremely important. The debate highlights the role of our dedicated lifeboat services, which seek to rescue any persons in distress or difficulty around the coast of the United Kingdom.
It is good to reflect a little on the Penlee lifeboat disaster, which the Opposition Front-Bencher brought up, and which we both mentioned on the 41st anniversary of the death of those men, just a few weeks ago.
During these challenging times, it is extremely important that we continue to support our lifesaving services, and recognise their contribution to search and rescue across the United Kingdom search and rescue region. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes for his dedication to the subject, and for his sterling efforts over the last few years to establish an association for independent lifeboats—those that operate at sea and inland—across the United Kingdom. As a result of hon. Members’ actions, for the first time, our independent lifeboats have the opportunity to form an association, which will support their operations. The contribution of our voluntary search and rescue services is often not considered until they are called into action to save lives, so I am grateful to hon. Members for raising the subject today. The point made by several hon. Members, about whether this type of debate could take place regularly, was particularly interesting.
I thank all those who fundraise for and support these charitable organisations in the way that hon. Members have described. That fundraising is absolutely vital; millions of pounds are raised every year. We have heard stories from many hon. Members about the impact of the RNLI on their families or their own life. I pay tribute to my great-uncle, John Clough, who left his entire estate to the RNLI when he passed away a few years ago. I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to the volunteers in our maritime search and rescue services, who have continued to provide lifesaving operations, often in the most challenging of conditions. I especially thank our brave volunteers in independent lifeboats, as well as those who volunteer for the RNLI and His Majesty’s Coastguard, who risk their life to save others at sea and around our coastline. The UK has one of the best water safety records in the world in large part because of their personal commitment and skill. As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, the need for search and rescue will always be there, and we need ensure search and rescue services are maintained. The conditions in which teams deploy are often challenging and potentially life-threatening, as hon. Members can imagine. I know all Members of the House will join me in thanking those who put themselves on the line.
Our volunteer lifeboat services have a long and proud history, spanning 200 years, of contributing to the safety of lives at sea, and their volunteer ethos is a cherished cornerstone of British society. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) made a fantastic speech highlighting the understated heroism of those who put themselves on the line. The United Kingdom is also proud to have approximately 40 independent lifeboats that continue to provide life-saving services around the clock; they support our emergency services and protect the environment.
In 2022, HM Coastguard was proud to celebrate its 200th anniversary with events across the country. Our 3,500 volunteer coastguard rescue officers are proud to maintain a tradition of voluntary life-saving services, and to continue their traditional role in local communities across the country, as we heard from many Members today. It has been great to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and for Moray (Douglas Ross), and from the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and many others about their local lifeboat services, or other lifeboat services that they wanted to recognise.
Our esteemed RNLI is recognised the world over for its service, and for its contribution to life saving and to search and rescue operations. However, as we have heard, we are fortunate to also have a large number of independent operators who are not part of the RNLI. Those operators provide vital life-saving services both at sea and in inland waters, as many hon. Members highlighted, and face significant challenges in maintaining their operations. Through the dedication and actions of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, the new National Independent Lifeboat Association has been formed. The NILA was formally launched at the emergency services show in September last year, and its intention is to support independent lifeboats and provide a cohesive voice for smaller organisations that continue to support search and rescue around the clock. I welcome the development, as do the Government, of the association; it will recognise the contribution of independent lifeboats, and provide ongoing support to charities—an important point mentioned by my hon. Friend.
I have not only the RNLI but two independent lifeboats in my beautiful constituency, one at Pett Level and one in Hastings. Does the Minister agree that independent lifeboats, along with the RNLI, provide an invaluable service to our local communities and save thousands of lives every year, and that it is important to highlight the challenges they face, including with funding, public awareness and long-term support?
I could not agree more. I will come on to some of the ways the Government are trying to help independent lifeboats.
The coastguard has been working alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes to support and guide the development of the NILA, to enable independent lifeboats to apply to be represented on the UK search and operators group. That would enable those small, dedicated charities to contribute to discussions on shaping the future of our maritime and rescue services, which is vital.
I mentioned the East Sutherland Rescue Association. Clearly, my constituency is in a part of the United Kingdom that is far away, which means we can feel a little bit left out, but the new body is a brilliant way of making such associations feel that they are part of a much bigger whole.
I quite agree. It was great to hear from the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr about how remote parts of the United Kingdom, such as Carmarthen Bay—although that is not as remote as parts of Caithness, where some of my family lived for many years—need to have a voice in a central organisation. The NILA is so important in bringing those voices together into a single voice, and recognising their broader contribution. I urge all independent lifeboat operators to join the association. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for his support for the association, which has increased recognition of the role and dedication of independent search and rescue operators.
Our independent lifeboats and lifeguards, who are not part of the RNLI, continue to provide support to search and rescue operators around the coast and on our inland rivers, lochs and lakes, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), for Torbay, for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage), and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier). My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) made a particularly important point about water safety, and I thank him for his vital work on that. It is a major issue. Through the National Water Safety Forum and our partners, we reach millions of people a year with advertising and information campaigns. It is particularly important that we continue to do that as drowning is, sadly, still a major cause of death, especially among young people. The UK is proud to continue to support World Drowning Prevention Day, and to promote the selfless work of lifesavers across the UK and the world to prevent drowning and push further prevention strategies.
Our independent lifeboats are often not recognised, but they are run by dedicated volunteers and provide vital emergency services and lifesaving capability. They offer assistance to any person who may be in difficulty around our beautiful coast and countryside. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay made the important point that these charitable organisations rely on community organisation and voluntary support, which is at the core of a lot of what they offer. As mentioned, independent lifeboats operate across England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey, and are dedicated to the appropriate tasking authority, which may ask for assistance in life-critical operations. Independent lifeboats, in common with all our search and rescue operations, are responding to an increasing number of call-outs, particularly following the pandemic, because members of the public have been holidaying in the UK and taking part in more adventurous leisure activities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned, support from the Department is very much there, and I urge him to write to the Secretary of State inviting him to come and see some of the independent operators.
I turn to a couple of the questions that have been raised. On VAT, fuel duty and the rescue grant fund, I will happily write to the Treasury about this issue, and I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes to do so as well. My office will write to him when we have a response from the Treasury. It is an issue that I know hon. Members are keenly aware of, but we will require further support to get to where we want to be.
Regarding recognition of His Majesty’s Coastguard rescue facilities, independent lifeboats operating at sea and in a coastal environment are required to meet the standards laid down in the rescue boat code, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned, in order to meet the appropriate construction and safety standards. However, I am pleased that, following feedback from independent operators, the RNLI and key stakeholders, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is undertaking a review of the code to modernise and simplify the requirements, which will assist our dedicated volunteers in continuing to support search and rescue operations. The MCA hopes to complete the review of the code in the early part of this year.
A presentation was held on the membership of the UK SAR in October 2022. Now that the NILA is fully established, membership applications would be welcomed, although I cannot confirm anything at this stage, as hon. Members will be aware. In some cases, independent lifeboats offer specialist skills that would support rescue and prevention activities, both in our cities and in remote inland locations, as hon. Members mentioned. Those operators continue to provide lifesaving operations during these particularly difficult times, saving hundreds of lives annually. I ask the House to join me in thanking them for their continued support for search and rescue services across the length and breadth of the UK.
I am very proud to have responded to the debate on behalf of the Minister responsible for maritime search and rescue, and I hope to have the privilege of meeting some of our wonderful volunteers and dedicated teams, who continue to rise to the challenge of providing lifesaving services, whatever the circumstances and whoever needs them. I finish by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay for raising this important subject, and all hon. Members who have taken part in a very worthwhile debate highlighting the vital search and rescue services.
It has been a very welcome debate, and it has been great to hear so many contributions, and so many tributes paid to volunteers, who are the backbone of lifeboat services. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) and the Minister for their contributions, and it is a rare occasion when we see the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) completely agreeing with each other.
This has been a good chance to pay tribute to those working in lifeboat services and remember their heroism. As I said in my speech, in the words of that great hymn,
“when the breakers roar and the reef is near”,
the lifeboat services go in and do their duty.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the contribution of lifeboat services to search and rescue.