Government claims that technology can replace local knowledge in coastguard centres is not convincing, a report by MPs says.
Under Government proposals the number of coastguard centres open 24 hours a day will be reduced from 18 to three. The three 24-hour centres would be at Aberdeen, the Southampton/Portsmouth area and Dover. There would be five sub-centres open during daylight hours - at Swansea, Falmouth in Cornwall, Bridlington in East Yorkshire, Belfast or Liverpool, and Stornoway or Shetland. Shipping Minister Mike Penning has said the proposals are “not set in stone”.
The House of Commons Transport Committee said the evidence it had received during its inquiry raised “serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed”. Launching the report the committee’s chairman Louise Ellman said the committee accepted there was a need for modernisation, but the coastguard proposals were “seriously flawed”, and there was little support for them.
She also said: “A drastic reduction in the number of rescue co-ordination centres will result in a loss of local knowledge among coastguard officers who are responsible for taking calls from people and vessels in distress. The committee is not convinced by the Government’s claim that technology can, at present, replace such local knowledge.”
While there was a case for reducing the total number of rescue co-ordination centres, any “future reorganisation of the coastguard should be based on 24-hour centres, as they are now, and not on stations open only during daylight hours, as the Government proposes,” Ellman said.
The committee also said the decision to withdraw funding for emergency towing vessels - large tugs that intercept disabled ships to prevent pollution - was “unwise and short-sighted” and was “inviting disaster”.
Ellman also expressed her disappointment that Penning had “instructed regular coastguards not to give evidence to the committee”.
The committee said ministers must issue revised proposals for further consultation.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said: “I welcome the committee’s recognition that the coastguard service is in urgent need of modernisation.
“Earlier this year, we proposed a possible solution to deliver that modernisation and both the Shipping Minister and the head of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have travelled across the country to listen to representations from coastguards, seafarers and coastal communities.
“We have received a large number of high-quality responses from those directly affected by the proposals and, as we have signalled already, we will take account of these when we publish our final proposals later this summer.”
Hammond went on: “The original proposals do not compromise safety and include increased resources for frontline rescue services. Reform will improve resilience in the system through improvements to IT and create better career opportunities for staff, as well as better pay and conditions.”
Steve Todd, national maritime secretary of the RMT transport union, said: “The committee quite rightly exposes the dangers to the UK coastline posed by the very damaging cutbacks and closures to coastguard centres.
“Also the report rightly recognises that the Government is reckless in proposing to completely axe the Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) and the fire rescue cover provided by the Maritime Incident Report Group.”
Public and Commercial Services Union general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “This report could not be any clearer - the Government got it wrong and needs to start again from scratch with the full involvement of staff.
“It’s totally unacceptable that the issues - which are often, by definition, matters of life and death - have been treated in such a high-handed manner by ministers and management.”