“Widespread unrest” over Coastguard plans

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Transport ministers are realising that their plans for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) are flawed because of the “widespread unrest” they are causing across the country, the Transport Select Committee chair, Louise Ellman has said.

Speaking at the end of the committee evidence gathering session in Stornoway, Ms Ellman was of the opinion that no decision has yet been taken. But if the government was preparing the ground for a U-turn, they clearly had to have alternative plans in place.

This and many of the points that had been raised during their morning hearing upstairs in the Caladh Inn would be form the basis of a significant amount of the questioning to be directed at Shipping Minister, Mike Penning and MCA chief executive, Sir Alan Massey when they appear before the Select Committee next Tuesday in the House of Commons.

Earlier on Thursday there had been speculation that a U-turn announcement on the Coastguard plans was imminent following reports in two London-based nationals.

But in a phone call to Isles MP, Angus MacNeil before the Transport Select Committee hearing, the shipping minister made it clear no decisions had been made yet.

After hearing the evidence from a panel of four Coastguard union reps from Shetland and Stornoway, and from The Highland Council, Oil and Gas UK, KIMO UK, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Shetland Islands Council, Transport Select Committee chair, Ms Ellman underlined the importance of taking evidence in areas where the proposals would be most keenly felt if implemented.

She said: “I thought it was very important because we got to hear from a cross-section of people who are coastguards, from the local authorities and from industry and they all had the same message of being very concerned about the safety and operational point of view. It was good to have the benefit of their experience.”

Meanwhile, the SNP welcomed the reports that the UK Government is to step-back from some planned closures of Coastguard Stations.

The Transport Select Committee heard directly from Coastguards from Stornoway and Shetland that services could be devolved like other emergency services and could provide as good or better service by integrating with other devolved emergency services.

Mr MacNeil, who has been a leading campaigner against the closure threat, said:

“Reports that the UK Government is backing down over Coastguard would be welcome if true. These cuts were irresponsible from the start, ill-thought out and failed to even hold a proper risk assessment.

“As the Transport Select Committee have heard directly from coastguard staff in Stornoway from both Stornoway and Shetland, it makes much more sense for Coastguard services to be transferred to Scotland and integrated with the other devolved emergency services.

“It is scandalous that the UK Government tried to sneak out the consultation in the first place especially as it emerged that the front line staff, the experts, knew nothing until it was in the public domain. MPs were given precious little opportunity to scrutinise the proposals.”

He pointed out that with ever increasing activity on Scotland’s seas - through oil and gas, offshore renewables, fishing, tourism and cruise ships at times carrying over a thousand passengers – there are real concerns over the UK Government’s ability to manage the Coastguard service.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has also welcomed the rethink reports, saying: “I welcome the rethink by the

Government; our current cover is at a minimum given the UK’s long coast line and I believe it is imperative that the Stornoway and Shetland Stations, which have proved so effective over the

years, remains open. Their local knowledge of the coastline is priceless.”

Earlier, Comhairle Leader, Angus Campbell put forward the Outer Hebrides Coastguard Task Group’s alternative proposals to the Select Committee.

Mr Campbell, who is also Chair of the Outer Hebrides Coastguard Task Group, said: “The cumulative impact of the proposed modernisation; the withdrawal of the Emergency Towing Vessel; the withdrawal of the Maritime Incident Response group; the withdrawal of Nimrod and the continuing uncertainty around the helicopter rescue service create unacceptable risk.

“All of these issues would be challenging in their own right and would require careful planning and implementation. Implementing these elements simultaneously represents bad strategic planning and in the view of the Comhairle can only be described as dangerously reckless.”

Mr Campbell praised the Coastguards present at the meeting, saying: “The Coastguards gave a very professional case as to why the MCA proposals are wrong, basing their opposition on sound evidence. I would also thank the representatives from Shetland and Highland who also made very strong cases against the MCA plans which seriously increase the dangers for maritime users and the environment.”