The National Coastguard SOS campaign and Stuart McMillan, West Scotland MSP, are amongst those who have expressed their anger at yesterday’s closure of Clyde Coastguard.
The coastguard campaigners have challenged the Chief Executive of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), Sir Alan Massey, to produce evidence to support his claims that lives will not be put at risk as a result of Government plans to close Coastguard rescue coordination centres.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday morning, Dennis O’Connor from the National Coastguard SOS Campaign group said that statements made by Sir Alan are misleading: ‘Sir Alan is wrong to make these statements because until the replacement system of operation is in place he does not have the proof that lives will not be risked by the closure plans.
‘The centralised call centre in Fareham which the Government want to replace 50% of UK Coastguard stations will not be operational until 2015 according to a recent press release by the MCA (although even this contrasts with Sir Alan who has stated that 2014 is the intended operational date).
‘Campaigners insist that no assurances on safety should be given my Sir Alan or the UK Shipping Minister; Stephen Hammond MP, until the new system has been fully trialled and tested.
‘It’s a misguided smokescreen designed as damage limitation’.
The Transport Select Committee’s ambiguity
Earlier this month the Transport Select Committee published the report from their second inquiry into the plans to close stations and Sir Alan Massey and Stephen Hammond MP were criticised for poor management of the plans.
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’.
This last statement by Ms Ellman has, unfortunately for both sides, proved ambiguous.
The campaigners had assumed it meant that the Transport Select Committee was asking for all coastguard station closures to stop forthwith – and were hoping to see a reprieve for Clyde.
Sir Alan Massey told us yesterday that his reading of Ms Ellman’s statement was that the Committee were instructing him that there were to be no more rounds of closure after the current programme was completed.
The remark by Louise Ellman followed her express concern that the Department for Transport and the MCA might later require closures beyond those already planned. This sequence creates a reasonable foundation for Sir Alan’s interpretation, convenient though it is.
We have all to come to terms with the fact that democracy is often substantially more apparent than real.
Select Committee’s, where they are examining matters pertaining to sitting governments, tend not to be a nuisance. Even where they get concerned and obstructive, they rarely choose to offer impediment.
By sounding muscular over hypothetical future closures but not over those already in train, the Transport Select Committee and its Chair scored some pretty cheap points on the popularity score – because hose hoping to save stations form closure heard what they wanted to hear.
People who want to be clear generally achieve it. Politicians learn early that their default position should be ambiguity. And this was just such.
The report’s analysis was an honest reflection of the evidence received. It fudged the finale.
Dennis O’Connor says: ‘The Minister has ignored legitimate concerns of Select Committees and advice from maritime experts; and so it is impossible for us not to see his continued stance as hostile. He is undermining the democratic process and in doing so rendering the role and responsibility of those Committees as worthless’.
On reflection, we feel that the Transport Select Committee has done this itself, by trying to have it both ways
The Scottish conundrum
Scotland has had two stations close, despite a fully tested replacement system not being in place – while no further stations have been closed elsewhere in the UK.
In time others at Swansea, Liverpool, Brixham, Yarmouth, Portland and Thames will follow but the campaign group insist that the Scottish Government should be asking urgent questions about why the waters around Scotland have been singled out as a test bed for these plans.
That too is the familiar form. Remember the poll tax.
However, the situation is not that the Scottish Government should now be asking questions it must have asked ask at the outset and been satisfied.
The questions that require to be asked are of the Scottish Government and are rather more searching.
It did nothing to stop Forth and Clyde closing. It made a few ritual squeals in letters to UK ministers – transmitted to the Scottish media, the real intended audience. These were for Scottish publicity purposes only. There was no serious political opposition to the plan. The evidence of success where the Scottish Government did object shows that, had they really opposed the closure of Forth and Clyde, they would not have been overridden.
There are only two interpretations of this apparent complicity:
- The Scottish Government’s attention was elsewhere – fixed on October 2014 and the independence referendum.
- It agreed with the plan and with the modernising operational logic behind it.
If the root cause of their passivity was agreement with the plan, the Government was dishonourable not to be upfront with the Scottish people.This is an intelligent electorate that will accept tough decision when the reasoning is clear.
An SNP MSP’s position
SNP MSP for West Scotland, Stuart McMillan – who had aligned himself with Clyde coastguard in the effort to save it - has accused the UK government of creating an ‘unforgiveable threat’ to the users of Scotland’s complex Clyde Coastguard sea area, with that station shut and responsibility handed over to Belfast and Stornoway stations.
Mr McMillan says: ‘This is totally shameful. The UK government are prioritising saving money ahead of saving lives. The Tory Lib Dem philosophy of putting profit over people represents an unforgivable threat to the area and everyone who uses the Firth of Clyde.
‘The Firth of Clyde is one of the busiest and strategically most important waterways in the UK.
‘It is a part of Scotland that is loved by tourists and locals and has some of the best sailing waters in the world. Over 2.5million people travel on passenger ferry journeys every year.
‘The river remains an important corridor for trading vessels and fishing boats alike. And until such time as we achieve an independent Scotland and get rid of Trident, the Clyde also houses the UK’s nuclear weapons.
‘The UK government clearly think it’s a good idea to have no coastguard service located in an area with such a high concentration of activity. Everyone else knows it deeply wrong.
‘To do away with a committed and efficient coastguard service with expert local knowledge leaves a void that could not be filled by already stretched centres in Belfast and Stornoway, excellent though these facilities are.’
The problem here is that Mr McMillan either knows he is letting his own party’s administration off the hook – or he too has been gulled.
His response, while genuinely angry, seeks to make separatist political capital out of the closure of Clyde while asking none of the questions that require to be asked of the Scottish Government about its essential complicity in what has been done.
This is nothing to do with Scotland not having the devolved powers for the coastguard service.
Make no mistake about it, The Scottish Government, had it wished, could absolutely have stopped the closures of Forth and Clyde – as they stopped the cutting of the two Emergency Service Vessels [ETV] stationed on the north western and northern coasts – one has been retained until 2015; and saved both Stornoway and Shetland coastguard stations.
They had no devolved powers in this – but succeeded by engaged argument, not by empty letters for local publicity. They know well exactly what to do when they mean business – and when they do, the evidence is that attention is paid.
They could have done the same for the two central belt stations but did not.
Our position is that the evidence indicates that they understood and agreed with the logic of the loss of Forth and Clyde but chose not to share this understanding with their electorate in the effort to gain political capital in the independence referendum to come. This is pretty grubby.