The following blog has been submitted for inclusion by a serving Coastguard Officer despite Ministers issuing a gagging order last year. The Coastguard SOS campaign team is determined to report the truth and reality of the plans to close 50% of UK Coastguard rescue coordination centres and therefore feels that it is appropriate that the views of serving officers should be made public in order to counter the one sided argument put forward by Ministers. It is not pretty but the business of HM Coastguard very rarely is. These are personal words as they were received but the identity will remain anonymous in order to protect the Coastguard.
From the horse’s mouth
“The importance of our seas has not changed in two centuries. Shipping remains vital to our economy with 95% of our trade by weight carried by sea. But the way that we use our seas and shores has changed, presenting new problems and challenges.
Our seas are becoming more congested. The volume of shipping is increasing in many areas. Large numbers of Offshore Renewable Energy Installations are being developed around our coasts restricting the areas available to shipping.
Our coastline is getting busier. The UK has more than 20,000 miles of outstandingly beautiful coastline. Today millions of people use our seas, coasts and beaches for an increasingly wide variety of recreational purposes, often in areas that are also well used by commercial shipping” UK Shipping Minister; Mike Penning MP. Nov 2011
When the Shipping Minister, Mike Penning MP, rose in Parliament on 22nd November 2011 to deliver his speech on “Coastguard Modernisation”, nobody was prepared for what was announced. Within two minutes of him starting to speak, or more accurately mumble and not even look up once from his notes, it was blatantly obvious to one and all that the decisions taken were Political and definitely not Operational. The fact that politicians had been meddling in things was plain for all to see and hear. Indeed, Sir Alan Massey when given a copy of the announcement, prior to it being delivered in the House, requested Mr Penning three times to clarify that he intended to close Liverpool MRCC and keep Holyhead MRCC open. It was not what the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) had been expecting and caused them to rapidly rethink their strategy for the future of the Coastguard Service.
When the first consultation closed, the Lib Dem Party Whip Mr Alistair Carmichael MP, marched into David Cameron’s office, banged the table and stated “I and the party will not support this plan unless you instruct the Shipping Minister to keep both Shetland and Stornoway stations open!” Guess what happened. The same thing happened when the Conservative Party Whip did the same and demanded that Milford Haven be kept open at the expense of Swansea. The complete and utter nonsense about DVLA in Swansea was just a smoke screen to hide the truth. Similarly, Albert Owen MP played the Welsh Language card and familiarity with Welsh place names with Mr Penning and lo Holyhead remained open at the expense of Liverpool. The whole Coastguard Service found the Welsh Language excuse to be laughable at best but also realised there was nothing they could do about it. The International language of the sea is English, however once you sail into waters around Wales it apparently changes to Welsh! After all, someone on holiday from the Midlands would not have a familiarity with Welsh place names and therefore totally negates that argument. With the stroke of a pen, the Minister without thinking operationally, had consigned the entire west coast of mainland England and Scotland to have no Coastguard station at all between Holyhead in North Wales and Aberdeen on the East coast of Scotland. A completely insane and reprehensible decision which he will regret making and which is still being fought to this day.
The Minister stated in his announcement that he was “Modernising” H.M. Coastguard, so let us look at what he means by that. “Modernisation is needed to address the limited resilience of current rescue co-ordination arrangements which have changed little since the removal of the visual watch in the 1970’s” The Minister was indeed badly briefed when he made this statement. H.M. Coastguard has undergone many reorganisations and equipment upgrades since 1970, indeed the latest upgrade occurred in 2011 under the RER Project. This enabled any MRCC in the country to connect to two stations to the North of it and two stations to the South of it and take over their functions totally. In effect, the one thing that the Minister was demanding “Resilience” was already in place and functioning. Why was he not informed of this or did he ignore it completely? There is no new updated equipment being fitted to the MOC or MRCC’s, it will be exactly the same equipment that they use now and which has served them so well for so many years. All that has changed is that the software has been upgraded but the functionality and limitations remain.
Despite submissions from serving Coastguard Officers, Merchant Shipping Companies, Offshore Oil, Gas and Renewable Energy companies and a host of leisure organisations, the Minister ignored the submissions made and forged ahead with his plan. Stating that this was a genuine consultation and that all submissions were considered from whatever source was rather disingenuous of the Minister and proved that he wasn’t listening. He and his political colleagues had already made their minds up and to hell with the consequences. The plan in its current form makes no sense operationally and is foolhardy, if not downright dangerous to say the least. It is widely felt, amongst the professional Coastguard Officers that should this plan remain in its current state then lives will be lost. Such is the strength of feeling regarding the “Future of the Coastguard Plan” that as of today’s date (08th March 2012), H.M. Coastguard is 110 qualified coastguard officers down on the National complement with more leaving on a daily basis. The backup Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) at Dover, which also controls the Channel Navigational Information System (CNIS) and the Harwich Sunk VTS is down 11 officers.
The reasons officers have given for leaving the MCA, when asked by their peers, are given below and in no particular order of priority :
1. Fearful of the way the service is heading and don’t wish to be associated with it in the future.
2. Unable to or have no wish to relocate to the MOC in Fareham as it would be too costly to do so. Even a 10% rise in salary would give the majority of officers an extra £1700 per annum before tax. This is hardly enough to cover the huge differential in the cost of living.
3. Believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that the Chief Coastguard intends to run the whole thing from Fareham and close every CG station in the country.
4. Believe that the MCA is becoming over reliant on technology and the system will fail catastrophically taking everything with it. Despite genuine concerns raised by officers, they are not being listened to and therefore feel undervalued, of no consequence and just a number.
5. Have absolutely no wish whatsoever to be associated with the Future Coastguard project as we do not consider it safe nor operationally viable.
6. Totally fed up with the “Jobs for the Boys” culture that is rife in MCA Headquarters. Posts are being created on a daily basis and filled by cronies of Senior Managers. They are not being advertised so that officers on the coast, who may have the skills being asked for and are under threat, do not have a chance under “Fair and Open competition to apply.”
7. We had an excellent relationship between the Ops Room and the Sector Managers/Teams on the coast. Now a huge wedge has been driven between the two disciplines and we are not even allowed to talk to them anymore. They feel isolated and so do we.
8. There has been little or no leadership nor direction shown by Senior Coastguard Officers for a long time now. They have seemed content to sit in the “Ivory Tower”, build their empires and issue edicts without fully understanding what they are demanding. It was extremely rare, maybe one a year, to receive a visit from a Senior Manager to their teams on the coast.
9. Sir Alan Massey is a breath of fresh air however he has come too late for me to stay. If he could change the plan then maybe I would consider it but I can’t take the chance.
These are genuine reasons given by officers with a genuine concern for the future. However, the MCA is rapidly losing staff, not only from the stations closing, but even more worryingly, increasingly from stations that have been informed that they are remaining open! Operational Managers in the MRCC’s can see the dangers but HQ Senior Managers don’t seem to care. It is unclear how much, if anything the Minister is being told regarding this or whether he is being kept in the dark. There appears to be an ostrich like mentality prevalent amongst the HQ Senior Managers that staff will move to the MOC regardless. The only person fearful of the “People Factor” is Sir Alan Massey himself, who has expressed that concern from the very beginning. It is now becoming apparent that the penny is beginning to drop regarding staff but it is too late. The floodgates are open and qualified staff is either being poached by the Private Sector or actively seeking out alternative employment. I have yet to hear of one officer who is willing to move to Fareham from any MRCC and that includes the south coast stations. To say that the morale in H.M. Coastguard is at an all time low would be an understatement, it is rock bottom and although MRCC managers are doing their best to maintain staff morale it is a losing battle. As stated above, experienced staff is being lost at an alarming rate and indeed some MRCC’s are running watches with unqualified staff and severely undermanned but that will never reach the ears of the Minister!
The Minister when answering questions from colleagues in the House on completion of his statement, set great store by the fact that “Pairing activities occur regularly between stations all the time”. This statement is in fact not true and pairing does not happen regularly. Again the minister has either been badly briefed, not told the truth or even worse misled the House on purpose. If it was the case and stations did pair regularly, then why has MCA Headquarters Operations Staff felt the need to produce an Operational Note to order, not request but order, stations to conduct pairing activities on a regular basis. Is this a rearguard action as so much of this plan appears to be?
The whole plan appears to be based on the wishes of a few politicians in power and not based on the Operational need of the United Kingdom and the general public. H.M. Coastguard is 190 years old and was formed to serve the needs of the International Mariner and the general public when they get into trouble and require assistance. It is not a political football that can be kicked whichever way suits at the time just to save a few coppers. Following through with the entire plan will save every taxpayer in the country £0.01 per annum. Do you think that they will miss that, I certainly don’t but I do think that they will play merry hell with the powers that be if there is nobody there to co-ordinate their rescue when they are in trouble and lives are lost.
The management and staff in MRCC Belfast and MRCC Stornoway are already ringing the alarm bells in respect of the way that the size of their areas of responsibility will increase with the closure of MRCC Clyde. Belfast, who incidentally has the smallest area of responsibility in the UK, are worried because Clyde normally cover for them and backs them up, contrary to what the Minister announced in the House, but now they are going to have to cope with at least a 250% increase in their incident level and they are openly stating that they will not cope and are fearful.
Similarly, Stornoway who will take on the other half of Clyde’s’ area are making noises too. This will be the acid test of the system as Clyde must close this year due to the lease expiring. After the Donaldson report stated that “no MRCC should be given an area bigger than they can handle”, why is the MCA and the Govt totally ignoring it and forging ahead with this insanity? The money saved will be minimal if anything at all. In fact the MCA are going to the Treasury to ask for upwards of £10M to commence the savings. How can borrowing money be a saving or am I missing something?
Some observations :
1. After submissions were made to the Transport Select Committee during the consultation period by serving Coastguard Officers, certain Senior Managers in MCA Headquarters have made it very clear that they did not approve of this and have made the lives and career progression of those officers, one Senior Operational Officer in the Northwest in particular, very difficult indeed. This was despite assurances being given to the Chair of the TSC by the Minister that this would not occur.
2. Posts within the MCA are not being advertised under fair and open competition but being given to cronies of Senior Officers as a reward for getting “onboard” during the consultation process. Indeed, it is common knowledge throughout the service that the recently appointed “Head of Counter Pollution” in the MCA was given the interview questions and expected answers prior to his interview. Even worse, the person who gave him the information was an old friend and on the interview board!
3. The MOC, which is a Fire Control Centre is currently a money pit and has recently had to be fireproofed after HSE declared it unsafe and a fire trap! Despite what the Minister said in his statement in November, the lease has still not been signed and is not expected to be signed until April 2012. In fact, all staff who has visited the MOC is all reporting that there is a huge amount of repair work going on which is being dressed up as “Snagging!” The main talking point however is the coffee machine which cost £20K.
4. The MCA Press Office have been instructed to play down any and all incidents reported to them for wider distribution. This particularly applies to those stations earmarked for closure as they should not be seen to be valuable.
5. Partners in the Civil Resilience Community, especially those with coastal boundaries, are becoming increasingly alarmed at the lack of engagement of H.M. Coastguard in Local Resilience Fora. This is on direct instructions from MCA HQ and stems from a total lack of knowledge regarding these matters by Senior Officers. Local MRCC managers recognise the importance of LRF’s and are continuing to engage with them when possible.
6. A statement was made by a very Senior Manager to the media on the south coast that the MCA would soon be recruiting 60 call handlers to work in the MOC. I could have sworn that the Minister stated that the MOC would not be a call centre!
7. The HS2 Project was costed, at today’s rates, at £62 Billion. Adding £2M to the annual MCA budget would fund a decent salary increase for the staff. Bring the current industrial action (ongoing for four years) to an end and still achieve station closures. Forth/Clyde and Yarmouth have to close due their leases expiring which would leave fifteen stations. It’s a win/win for the Government but apparently not an option they wish to consider.
Things in the country, indeed around the world are changing rapidly and the plan announced by the minister should be dynamic and able to move with and respond to those events. Although not local to the area but having read so much about it in the media lately, let me take Liverpool as an example. Peel Ports are building a new river berth to accommodate Post Panamax ships which will increase ship sizes and cargoes. Liverpool City Council has won the right for cruises to start and finish in the city which will drastically increase the liner and passenger traffic in the district. Offshore Renewable Energy is becoming big business and Liverpool, more specifically Cammel Lairds Shipyard, is earmarked to become the hub for this business. New Oil and Gas production wells are being drilled in Liverpool Bay and Morecambe Bay with a new static production platform to be constructed and located in Liverpool Bay. The floating Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Terminal will be located off Fleetwood in Lancashire and will see one giant LNG Tanker per week visiting to discharge cargo. Blackpool receives upwards of 13M visitors a year with the English Lake District close behind with 8.5M visitors. These are all things that increase quite substantially the risk to life in the area that Liverpool MRCC covers, yet it has all been discarded on a whim. It may be worthy for the Shipping Minister to note that MRCC Liverpool has had a sizeable chunk of North Wales within its boundary for many years and has had no trouble in recognising, pronouncing or spelling Welsh Place Names! I am sure that the same could be said for other stations under threat around the country, but unless the Shipping Minister receives a good dose of common sense and changes his mind then H.M. Government may well find themselves in the dock charged with Corporate Manslaughter when people start to die as a result of this insane plan.