The House of Commons Transport Select Committee this week convened a second hearing into the UK Government’s plans to ‘modernise’ the Coastguard service by closing ten coastguard stations – including both of Scotland’s central belt stations at Forth and Clyde – and replace them with a call centre in Hampshire.
In this renewed expression of concern at the safety of the plans, Scotland’s voice has, again, been disgracefully mute.
We remain angrily bewildered by a government aiming to take Scotland into independence which has nevertheless sat on its hands while the UK government demolishes the infrastructure of Scotland’s coastguard service, replacing it with a call centre in Hampshire.
Is this another keepsie to be added to the list of continuing dependencies of the proposed ‘independent’ Scotland?
To ceremonial control through the head of state, fiscal control through the Bank of England, political control through Brussels, defence control through NATO, this SNP government is adding the ceding of control of our coasts to a call centre on the south coast of England?
In negative terms at least, it has to be said that they are consistent.
Ministerial ignorance and disregard
In yet more evidence of lack of knowledge and regard on the part of the Westminster government, it emerged at a hearing of the Transport Select Committee this week that new Shipping Minister, Stephen Hammond MP, has made no effort to acquaint himself with the Coastguard service.
The committee was, for the second time, investigating the security of the government’s plan to modernise the Coastguard service. Under questioning, Mr Hammond admitted that he has not met any coastguard officers nor has he visited a single coastguard station.
Yet he now presides over a plan which has recently closed down Forth Coastguard prematurely and in breach of safety assurances given by government; and which plans to close nine more nine Coastguard rescue coordination centres – at Clyde, Brixham, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Swansea, Thames and Portland.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the safety of the government plan – in which the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been typically compliant – is insecure and is, on the evidence, not even a priority.
The Forth betrayal
The evidence shows that Forth Coastguard, the first to be axed, was closed in short order despite assurances from the previous Shipping Minister; Mike Penning MP, that no stations would close until the replacement centralised call centre had been fully tested for robustness.
The new centralised call centre at Fareham in Hampshire stands empty, un-staffed and is not planned to be operational before 2014 at the earliest.
But Forth Coastguard is gone and Clyde Coastguard is due to follow by the end of the year.
Speaking on behalf of the National Coastguard SOS Campaign, Dennis O’Connor insists that ‘specific assurances were given to members of the House of Commons and these assurances have not been honoured by the DfT or MCA.
‘Forth Coastguard was closed despite the new system being nowhere near operational and coordination duties have passed to Aberdeen Coastguard who are suffering significant staff shortages.
‘Now we have a situation where officers who are not fully aware of vital local knowledge of this additional area of responsibility are having to assume coordination duties somewhat blindly, whilst being short staffed. This is wholly unacceptable’.
‘The Transport Select Committee also expressed concerns to the Minister that the station closure programme had begun without the promised testing of the controversial call centre in Fareham.
‘It is clear that the Transport Select Committee (TSC) have grave concerns about the plan by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Department for Transport (DfT) to close stations.
‘This is the second such inquiry the TSC have conducted and it was obvious from Ministerial responses that, whilst there may well be plenty of determination to close stations, there appears to be very little ability to formulate and implement a plan which is both credible and safe.’
The Transport Select Committee hearing
Those giving evidence to this second Transport committee hearing included representatives of the PCS and Nautilus Unions, who were heard first, before the questioning of UK Shipping Minister, Stephen Hammond and Maritime & Coastguard Agency CEO, Sir Alan Massey.
Despite public and professional maritime concerns, the Minister insisted that the modernisation plans are safe. From his admitted lack of knowledge and understanding of the service, it is hard to know quite where such confidence is seated.
Following a call by the TSC for fresh evidence of concerns, a total of 28 submissions have been received, including evidence from the National Coastguard SOS Campaign group. All submissions are being considered by members of the committee before their announcement on the future of HM Coastguard which is expected in a matter of weeks.
Campaigners insist that the closure plans remain ‘dangerously flawed’. The evidence appears to support this view and concerns are mounting at the apparent indifference of the Shipping Minister and the MCA chief towards public safety and the future of the service.
Mr O’Connor says: ‘The first announcement of station closure plans was made almost two years ago and despite this, there appears to be no direction by senior MCA staff or Government Ministers and no sense of urgency to address very valid concerns of Coastguard officers and campaigners.
‘Judging from their inability to answer simple questions, the MCA do not appear to know exactly how to implement their plan or if it will be workable and safe.
‘We cannot allow the MCA and DfT to bumble along blindly whilst experienced Coastguard officers are being put under impossible stresses as a result of uncertain futures.’
Campaigners are outraged by Mr Hammond’s apparent disregard for the service and question his ability – from his severely limited information base – to oversee such important and widespread changes which will ultimately affect the safety of coast users across the UK.
The general public feel safe with the Coastguard service.
They do not feel safe with the prospect of a call centre on the south coast taking the place of no fewer than ten coastguard stations around the country – or with responsibility for their particular sea area held by stations a long way away and with sea areas of their own to deal with as well. And why should they?
Note: The photograph at the top was taken during the Flare Friday Flotilla demonstration at Greenock in support of Clyde Coastguard’s campaign to remain in service. The photograph illustrates the range of simultaneous uses of coastal waters kept safe by the coastguard service.