Campaigners say democratic process at risk as Coastguard closures set to continue

Following the issue of the highly critical and evidenced report from the Transport Select Committee and the inexplicable  absence of response from the Scottish Government, the process of ‘modernisation’ of HM Coastguard will see the closure of Clyde Coastguard on Tuesday 18th January.

Forth has already closed – back in September.

The National Coastguard SOS campaign has issued the following statement to the media in advance of the closure of the Clyde Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, based at Greenock.

The National Coastguard SOS Campaign statement

In an act of open defiance which campaigners argue undermines the democracy and integrity of UK Parliamentary Select Committees, the UK Shipping Minister; Stephen Hammond MP looks set to allow the closure of another Scottish Coastguard rescue coordination centre this week.

Following the closure of Forth Coastguard station in September, Clyde Coastguard has, in effect already been closed for the past month, after the Government ordered that coordination duties be passed to Coastguards at Belfast ahead of the “official” closure date of 18th December.

This has been allowed to happen despite strong opposition to the move from the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Transport Select Committee (TSC) who, just last week, published a report in which Mr Hammond and the Chief Executive of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), Sir Alan Massey, were criticised for the handling of the station closure programme.

Launching the review or reforms across the coastguard, Louise Ellman MP, Chair of Transport Committee said, ” The manner in which changes are being imposed has already damaged the service” and “the government must rule out further closures and ensure that its reforms do not undermine safety”.

Campaigners are fighting against the closure of Coastguard rescue coordination centres at Clyde, Portland, Liverpool, Brixham, Yarmouth, Swansea and Thames – in favour of a centralised call centre based in Fareham, Hampshire.

Dennis O’Connor from the National Coastguard SOS Campaign Group, urged the Minister to address the concerns of both Select Committees and abandon the controversial closure plans immediately, saying: “The Minister must understand that if ignores legitimate concerns of Select Committees and advice from maritime experts, any move to close further stations will be seen as hostile and the whole democratic process will be seen as worthless”.

The TSC report highlighted the level of concern amongst campaigners, Coastguard Officers and MP’s about the poor management of the plan and campaigners say that “despite the rhetoric, it’s very apparent that the MCA and Department for Transport are not in a position to offer assurances on the safety of the plan simply because they are not in a position to be able to carry out even the most basic of operational tests at the Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) – which is not due to open until 2014 at the earliest”.

The timing of the station closures is something which the TSC report highlighted as concerning and the former UK Shipping Minister, Mike Penning MP, was also criticised as having been “ambiguous about the timing of Coastguard closures” which has led to disillusionment among serving Coastguard officers resulting in a worryingly high volume of staff leaving the service.

However, Mr O’Connor argues that there was no ambiguity in Penning’s statement when he assured fellow Members of Parliament that: “One point in having Fareham open so early is that we will be able to trial the new system early, which will mean that no centres will close before the robustness of the system is demonstrated”.

That “assurance” has been proven to be false argues Mr O’Connor,  “The closure programme has already begun and Government Ministers remain content to allow further station closures to go ahead despite there being no tested and trialled system being in place which is supposed to make HM Coastguard fit for the 21st Century”.

Campaigners argue that the service is in crisis as a result of lack of direction and mismanagement of the closure plan.

This led to Forth Coastguard being closed early because they did not have sufficient staff to be able to undertake watch duties.

Every station is understaffed and there is an alarming vacancy rate for skilled Coastguard officers.

Mr O’Connor argues that “the MCA will struggle to combat a growing tide of people leaving the service and so scenarios such as that at Forth will be replicated at other stations around the UK. The situation is unacceptable because unbearable pressures are being put onto remaining officers to carry additional workloads and at some stage the system is likely to fail, possibly with catastrophic consequences”.

Despite objections, it seems that HM Coastguard will continue to sink further into crisis unless the Secretary of State for Transport gets a controlling grip on his department.

Campaigners say that from the beginning, too many instances of mismanagement have occurred and this totally discredits Government’s plans.

They are also concerned at the costs that have been incurred so far by the taxpayer without any credible move towards a modernised Coastguard service.

Daily Gems

For Argyll has been publishing a series of Daily Gems, drawn from the material in the Transport Select Commitee Report. These highlight everything from the Dads’ Army calibre of the new plans and, crucially, the organisation of their implementation, to the details of core capabilities like communications which appear to be subject to frequent breakdown and supported  by the cheapest package possible from BT.

This package allows for no weekend and holiday fault repair – these, of course, being just the times when water-based accidents, often life threatening, occur. You couldn’t make it up.

One section of the Transport Select Committee Report is too long to be a Daily Gem, although it fully qualifies as such.

It is the record of the oral evidence given to the committee by the Shipping Minister, Stephen Hammond and the CEO of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency [MCA], Sir Alan Massey.

We commend a quick scan of this section to our readers [it is the second 'Examination of Witnesses' here in the section on Oral Evidence, after the end of the report itself: Coastguard - Embargoed full report.

What you will see there is the most comical possible situation where a Shipping Minister, who clearly knows nothing of account about the area of his responsibility or about the specifics of the issue in question of coastguard service reorganisation, time after time has to ask the MCA's Sir Alan Massey to help him out.

Ignorant he may be, but this is the Minister who is actually forcing these genuinely unable plans into implementation, three years before the single item that is intended to pull them together - the Maritime Operations Centre [MOC] at Fareham in Hampshire – will be in working operation.

This disgraces democracy and it undermines any notion that what we are experiencing at the moment is competent government.

We will never understand why the Scottish Government has made no serious attempt to fight the imposition of this hopelessly unready plan, especially as this leaves Scotland:

  • with its coastal protection centrally controlled from Hampshire – but not controlled centrally at all until 2015, when the Fareham facility should be open;
  • without its two central belt ports’ coastguard stations of Forth and Clyde;
  • with not the previous two but only one Emergency Towing Vessel on the north and north west coasts to protect endangered shipping and to defend against environmental disaster;
  • owing its west coast maritime rescue service to Belfast in Northern Ireland, for the sea area from  the Mull of Galloway, out to Tiree and over to the westernmost point of the UK mainland at Ardnamurchan;
  • and owing its south east coast service to the North of England.

So much for independence.

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