I have delayed writing this because I am at a loss to comprehend how the government is completely deaf to the real concerns and evidence given against the proposed cuts in our Coastguard Service. Most of the post will refer to the  meeting of 22.10.2012, but I also want to get up to date with other events.  The views in this post are those of the author.

HOC TRANSPORT COMMITTEE Monday 22 October 2012

Wilson Room
Meeting started on Monday 22 October at 4.11pm. Ended at 5.59pm

The Coastguard, Emergency Towing Vessels and the Maritime Incident Response Group: follow up
Witnesses

  1. Steve Quinn, President, Coastguard Section, Brian George, Liverpool Branch Representative, and Alex Dodge, Shetland Branch Chair, PCS, and Allan Graveson, Senior National Secretary, Nautilus
  2. Stephen Hammond MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport, Vice Admiral Sir Alan Massey KCB CBE, Chief Executive, Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Members of the Transport Select Committee are: Mrs Louise Ellman (Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool Riverside) (Chair); Steve Baker (Conservative, Wycombe); Jim Dobbin (Labour/Co-operative, Heywood and Middleton); Julie Hilling (Labour, Bolton West); Kwasi Kwarteng (Conservative, Spelthorne); Mr John Leech (Liberal Democrat, Manchester Withington); Karen Lumley (Conservative, Redditch); Karl McCartney (Conservative, Lincoln); Lucy Powell (Manchester Central); Iain Stewart (Conservative, Milton Keynes South); Graham Stringer (Labour, Blackley and Broughton).

As you can see from the times above, the meeting lasted for just over one and three quarters hours.

In a concurrent investigation, Ireland has undergone a thorough probe and report into its Coastguard service and the proposal of a new centralised base in Dublin.  Last week it was announced by Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Transport, that Coastguard centres at Malin Head, Valentia and Dublin will remain open.

“Through the utilisation of the most modern communications and IT infrastructure across a single national Coast Guard network, I will be proposing that the three centres will be more closely aligned and integrated,” he said.

“Therefore the current structure of three Coast Guard centres in Dublin, Malin and Valentia will continue to provide their current service but will be required to deliver new efficiencies in how these services are provided.”

Supporters for retention of the three stations claimed local knowledge during search and rescue missions would be lost if staff were forced to operate out of a centralised base in Dublin.

Joe McHugh, Fine Gael TD for Donegal North East, said the decision was a victory for common sense.

Here, the Commons Select Committee for Transport is due to publish the findings of its second inquiry next Tuesday; we wait in hope.  But whatever the recommendations are, it doesn’t mean things will change.  The government gave absolute assurances that no coastguard station would be closed until the new operation centre was up and running.  We have already seen these promises broken with the premature closures of Forth and Clyde.  Strangely, both these Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres (MRCCs) were also closed before the appointed dates that were given ahead of the new system being in place.

The British Isles, the clue is in the name, has a long and very proud maritime heritage.  We are surrounded by water and consequently the vast majority of our trade is via the sea.  Oh my goodness, as I’m writing this, there is a report coming in of a collision between two ships, near to Holland.  The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes there is, we need the full complement of our MRCCs in order to be able to comprehensively cover in the event of accidents and emergencies.

We have a very rugged coastline in places, where it is hellishly dangerous when the sea is rough. Literally, thousands of lives have been saved by our Coastguard and now is not the time to shirk our duty of care.

To get back to the meeting on 22nd October; Louise Ellman, MP, chaired the meeting. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with her at Portcullis House, she is a lady of knowledge and integrity.

I think it is evident within the first fifteen minutes that the views of Allan Graveson are not the same as those of his fellow witnesses.  I doubt very much they are the views of his members either.  I’ve met and spoken with a good number of people working in different MRCCs and I have not met one who agrees with the modernisation proposals (as they are) or who would be happy with just 11 coastguard stations!  Such a ridiculous statement to make.

When the discussion got round to the retention of staff and, consequently, local knowledge; it would appear the the coastguard service is going to lose the majority of its workers.  A large number of Coastguards are looking elsewhere for work and, in Liverpool alone, four very experienced coastguards have been lost in the last four months.

Another startling fact is that 15% of coastguard positions are currently vacant.  When Forth was closed there was a complement of 12 staff; just 2 transferred to Aberdeen, and ten left the service.  When the early closure of Forth happened, it was open one day and closed the next.  All four urged the government to stop and reconsider the very serious concerns. Louise Ellman then thanked them for their time and after an hour, they left and in came Stephen Hammond, the new Shipping Minister, and Sir Alan Massey, head of the MCA.

Stephen Hammond started by reading out a statement. He said that the command centre would be operational by April 2014.   Louise Ellman then stated that the statement he had just read out, contrasted starkly with what had just been heard from the four people from the PCS and Nautilus. Mr Hammond said there had been disagreements with some people actually involved and went to state that his predecessor, Mike Penning had meet with them in July 2010 and July 2012, so there had been extensive communication with them throughout the whole period. One meeting in 2010 and then waiting two years before having a second one, could never pass for extensive.  It beggars belief that he believes what he says to be plausible.  He then tried to  pass the answering over to Sir Alan Massey, but was thwarted by another question concerning the assurances that no closures would happen before a robust system was in place. Stephen Hammond said this had happened and that they were going ahead with the timetable as before.  Now, we know that to be untrue as Forth closed early, and Clyde effectively closed last month.  And no, he hasn’t visited any MRCCs or spoken with any Coastguards. And no, he didn’t know what the MOC (Maritime Operations Centre) was nor how it was meant to improve upon the current system.  He is completely certain that everything in the process is fine as he has discussed with civil servants and Sir Alan Massey.  NB Not one person who would be within the operational teams has been asked anything by him.  

Sir Alan Massey was asked how the MOC would help when up and running.  He said, If you had a large incident off the south west coast which was too big for Falmouth to deal with, you’d be able to bring in help from Shetland or Humber.  WHAT????? Methinks that would take more than the extra ten minutes he has already stated may be added on to the response times.  If you google ‘how long does it take to drown?’ you will see it’s about four minutes.  You can drown twice over within the ten minutes extra response time and as for waiting for them to get down from Shetland …… I’m not even going to go there!  When it was pointed out that the other views (from actual people in the service) they had heard differed from what these two were now saying, the response was, well they’re wrong.  By this time Mr Hammond seemed to be losing some of his patience and getting rather belligerent about the fact that the statement he made was being questioned.  He also stated that he believed the staff to be happy when asked about the contrary evidence – not sure the Coastguards would share his beliefs there, in fact, not one of the people I have spoken to, do!

As to local knowledge, by the end of this process, 159 staff with local knowledge will have left.  And no, there is not a 15% vacancy rate, there is only 13.8% and this hardly affects anything – hmmmmmm!

And so it went on.  The steering group was very knowledgeable, asking vital questions that demonstrated their concern for maritime safety.  Too often, Sir Alan Massey’s answers seemed to be “trust me I’m an expert” while Stephen Hammond replied that he had asked Massey and been told it was okay, so that was that.  In fact, Hammond demonstrated clearly, his complete ignorance of operational matters and, after claiming he had spoken to staff and gained their assurance that they were happy with the proposals, had to admit that he had not visited a single MRCC and the staff he had spoken to were in fact civil servants within the Department of Transport and Sir Alan Massey.  Oh dear!

Written by Lynne Gray

2 Comments

  1. Excellent Lynne. Very well written and the absolute truth! The Minister is certainly at odds with Operational Staff and needs to “get into the field!” It is apparent that SAM is being selectively briefed by his team which to me is not only despicable but inherently dangerous! Let us see if the esteemed members of the TSC share our hopes and concerns.

  2. I respect your campaign but this statement shows ignorance of the FCG or disingenuousness, “WHAT????? Methinks that would take more than the extra ten minutes”

    The backup would not be a physical transfer of personnel. The country is to be split into about 38 sectors. Each sector can be electronically ‘seen’ and operated from any MRCC or from the MOC. It will take seconds to ‘remove’ the sectors not involved in distress working from a MRCC leaving the one sector where the major incident is taking place. Also, operators in the MOC or elsewhere could be doing the search planning, fielding the press or any amount of periferal tasks, leaving the incident MRCC to get on with the actual SAR.

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