MPs totally reject Coastguard cut plans

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Government plans to decimate the Coastguard have been utterly condemned by the influential cross-party Transport Committee today (Thursday).

The MPs who have scrutinised the proposals have now called on the Government to withdraw its controversial proposals to modernise the Coastguard Service and go back to the drawing board.

Launching their damning report, Transport Committee Chair Louise Ellman said: “We accept there is a need for some modernisation, but the Government’s proposals for the future of the Coastguard Service are seriously flawed.

“We found little support for the current proposals and we have no confidence that, under these proposals, the Coastguard will in future be able to respond to emergencies at sea as well as they do now, let alone in a more effective way.”

“A drastic reduction in the number of rescue co-ordination centres will result in a loss of local knowledge amongst 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.”

Ms Ellman, who presided when the Transport Select Committee took evidence in Stornoway recently, hit out that any future reorganisation should be on the basis of 24 hour centres, not part-time daylight hours as currently proposed.

And there was a further body blow to the reformers as the Transport Committee also strongly blasted the Government’s cost-cutting decision to withdraw funding for the four Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) stationed around the UK coast — large tugs that intercept disabled ships to prevent environmental pollution disasters.

“We found no evidence that a suitable commercial alternative for these tugs exists. The Government’s decision to withdraw funding for the ETVs is unwise and short-sighted - quite literally, it is inviting disaster,” said Ms Ellman.

The Transport Committee also criticises proposals to completely remove government funding for the Maritime Incident Response group (MIRG), a national fire-fighting-at-sea capability. Ministers should instead adopt a slimmed-down MIRG which is more cost-effective than the present arrangement.

Lastly, the committee records its disappointment that Mike Penning MP, Minister for Shipping, instructed regular coastguards not to give oral evidence to the Committee on the basis that they were junior civil servants. “The minister should have shown more faith in the professionalism of the coastguards and stuck by his original commitment to the House [of Commons] to let them give evidence to the Committee,” added the Transport Committee chair.

Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MSP, Alasdair Allan, has welcomed the ‘hard hitting’ report, commenting: “Today’s report from the Transport Select Committee pulls no punches, which is hardly surprising. When the committee took evidence in Stornoway the hostility of virtually all its members towards proposals to centralise coastguard services was obvious. I have not often seen a parliamentary committee produce such a comprehensive demolition of a Government’s arguments. The UK Government have simply got it wrong in their proposals, and this report is vivid evidence of that.

“Despite efforts by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to gag coastguards and prevent them from giving evidence – something which the committee itself criticised - a very clear view emerged; cutting back the number of coastguard centres to only one full-time and one part-time would certainly be a bad thing for safety at sea. The committee uses unambiguous phrases like ‘no confidence’ in its report when it describes the MCA’s planned cut-backs.”

The UK Government had now to say whether it accepted the findings of this committee, which includes amongst its number both Tory and Lib-Dem members.

Safety First Spokesman & Nautilus International Representative, Martin Collins, said: “This report has backed up our concerns about the current proposals and outlines a way forward for the future of the Coastguard. The Transport Committee has recognised that we are professionals and we want to be able to deliver the best possible service to all seafarers, coastal users and partner emergency services.

“The MCA and the Government have our responses and proposals, they now have the Transport Committees report. It is down to them to use these and come up with a workable proposal for the future of the UK’s national maritime search & rescue service.”

Mrs Alex Dodge, Shetland Coastguard PCS Union Branch Chairperson, stated: “Ms Ellman’s Committee’s report is scathing. It highlights the unprofessional manner in which this whole embarrassing process has been conducted by the MCA management. Publication of this very thorough report provides the opportunity for the Westminster Government to take cognizance of its findings and with humility start putting humanity first. The Government can take encouragement from the willingness of the Coastguard staff and others to start afresh in a constructive manner for the long term benefit of mariners, coastal users and our environment.”

Leader of the Comhairle and Chair of the Outer Hebrides Coastguard Task Group, Angus Campbell, added: “This Report, from a highly respected and influential Parliamentary Committee, is a devastating critique of the UK Government and the Martime and Coastguard Agency’s proposals for the modernisation of the coastguard service. The Comhairle and our partners in the Outer Hebrides Coastguard Taskgroup have consistently argued that the Governments proposal’s are seriously flawed - this is a position now unequivocably shared by the Transport Committee. I particularly welcome the acknowledgement by the Transport Committee that invaluable local knowledge will be lost; that technology cannot replace that local knowledge and that any future configuration of the service should be based around 24-hour stations. This is the position that our Taskgroup has strongly advocated over the consultation period.

“I strongly agree with the Committee Chairwoman that the proposals to remove the Emergency Towing vehicle (ETV) are “unwise and short-sighted” and that their removal is “inviting disaster”. In light of this Report I therefore call on the UK Government to fully reinstate the ETV contract in the North and West of Scotland. I take the view that continuing with the termination of the ETV contract in September would be reckless in the extreme.

“In light of this Report from the Transport Committee, Ministers must now abandon these modernisation proposals and issue new proposals for further consultation. In that regard the positive alternative proposals developed by Outer Hebrides Coastguard Taskgroup may offer a potential way forward. I intend writing to the Minister commending these proposals to him and pressing the case for the immediate reinstatement of the ETV contract.”