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Lifeboats: Ceredigion

Volume 795: debated on Monday 4 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what the impact will be on the coastguard of the RNLI’s decision to downgrade the all-weather lifeboats capacity in New Quay, Ceredigion.

My Lords, the RNLI is an independent organisation that declares its lifeboats available to Her Majesty’s Coastguard. It determines how and where it deploys the resources that it has available. Based on historical incident data and the outputs of the RNLI’s risk-assessed five-year review, we do not anticipate that its decision to replace the all-weather lifeboat with an Atlantic 85 vessel at New Quay will have an impact on HM Coastguard’s capability to co-ordinate search and rescue in Cardigan Bay.

I, too, hesitate to criticise such a respected charity, but the replacement of the all-weather lifeboat with an Atlantic 85 inshore vessel, which cannot be launched in stormy conditions exceeding force 7, leaves a gap of 63 nautical miles in all-weather search and rescue provision. This and the alleged lack of a proper, open consultation with any local stakeholders concerned with sea safety in Cardigan Bay are a matter of grave concern to the local community. Will my noble friend the Minister intervene and ask the RNLI to publish its evidence and perhaps also to review its decision?

My Lords, the RNLI’s decision was underpinned by extensive research of incident reports as well as information gathered in face-to-face meetings and workshops at the lifeboat station both before and after the coast review visits, to ensure that local knowledge and concerns were considered. The decision is a significant investment by the RNLI in the area—which of course we are very grateful for—with new, faster boats at all three RNLI stations. The RNLI view is that that is the optimal combination for future life-saving in the area. It has shared a 30-page extract of the report with the lifeboat operations manager, and I understand that it is in dialogue with a campaign group to ensure it has the appropriate information.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former Lord Lieutenant of the county and my wife is from a long line of New Quay sailors. The Government have paid £3.5 million since 2014 to increase capacity and resilience in rescue, so they cannot wash their hands entirely to the RNLI. Since it is proposed that all-weather lifeboats will be as far away as Pwllheli and Barmouth, will the new inshore lifeboat at New Quay diminish capability? Will there be a gap in safety provision in Cardigan Bay in severe weather?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is right to point out the change in provision. Three 17-knot Mersey class all-weather lifeboats are being replaced with two Shannon lifeboats at Pwllheli and Barmouth and there will be a smaller but faster lifeboat at New Quay. This was based on a risk-based review that looked at the entire area and the RNLI’s decision to replace the all-weather lifeboat was, as I said, underpinned by extensive research. It is convinced that this is the optimal amount of resource for the area.

I declare a personal interest as someone with long-standing family connections in the area and as a supporter of this campaign. The RNLI of course does wonderful work, but I am afraid that in this instance it has been totally lacking in transparency with the people of New Quay about the reasons for its decision. Despite what the Minister said, independent research shows that in severe weather conditions—force 7 in daylight and force 6 by night—it does increase the risk. There is a 70-mile gap, as I understand it, between the nearest all-weather lifeboats and it simply takes that much longer to get there. Should not an organisation such as the RNLI that depends on trust be more open about its decisions and in this instance look again at the increased risk of this decision?

I thank the noble and right reverend Lord for his question. I know of his long-standing interest in the area. The RNLI, as I said, has shared a 30-page extract of the report and is working closely with a campaign group. I understand that the campaign group is made up of passionate people who want to ensure that they have the optimal provision in the area. As I said, along with the replacement new boat, the all-weather lifeboats in the surrounding area will be replaced with much faster ones. There is also a new helicopter base in St Athan, and the new boats, the helicopter and the increase in lifeguarding on the coast will not only maintain but improve life-saving provision in the area.

The RNLI’s decision to move the all-weather facility from New Quay has led to huge public disquiet in the area—an area where people understand the important role fisheries play in providing a livelihood for commercial fishing and angling vessels. They also understand the danger to the fishermen who brave all weathers. What assessment has the noble Baroness made of the importance of the all-weather lifeboat to the safety of fishermen in Cardigan Bay?

My Lords, the RNLI carries out a coastal safety review every five years. It is a very extensive review based on extensive research; it considers all the rescue records and looks at all the reports of launches and incidents carried out by the lifeboat stations. It has concluded that services by the New Quay RNLI all-weather lifeboat could have been carried out safely and effectively by an Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat, supported by the new, faster lifeboats at neighbouring stations if required. I understand that people who have long experience in this area locally are concerned about it. The RNLI continues to have conversations with them and will ensure that they are given the appropriate information.

My Lords, the Minister was asked just now what assessment she had made of the need in the area. She told us what assessment the RNLI had made. She referred to the campaigners as being passionate. We can also say that the RNLI is passionate, because day in and day out volunteers are out there saving people’s lives and collecting and raising the funds to do so. This is a difficult decision that has been made. What engagement do the Government have with the RNLI to ensure that the interests of the public are taken into account, so that the Government can assure themselves that the work it is doing takes public safety into account? That may allay some fears of those who are concerned about this decision, or who may be in a position to provide funding so that they do not have to make this decision.

My Lords, lifeboat provision in the UK is delivered by independent charitable organisations that declare their lifeboats available to Her Majesty’s Coastguard. As I said, we are very grateful for their work. It is the responsibility of the organisations to decide on the specific operational capacity they consider appropriate, but of course the MCA works closely with the RNLI on the coastal review. The noble Baroness was quite right to pay tribute to the scale of volunteers in this area—it is extremely impressive. The Coastguard Rescue Service is made up of approximately 3,500 volunteers; the RNLI has 5,000 volunteer lifeboat crew; and, as the noble Baroness said, there are more than 23,000 volunteer community fundraisers. They all contribute to providing the excellent service on our coasts.