Transport Select Committee on its report on UK coastguard situation – and National Coastguard SOS Campaign response

In issuing its report today [11th December] on the Department for Transport’s plans to modernise the coastguard service, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, in its press release, headlines what it has to say as: ‘Implementation of the Government’s modernisation programme risks damaging the coastguard.’

The committee’s introductory statement

Confusion about the role of the new national Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) and mixed messages about local knowledge and coastguard station closures has undermined staff morale across the service and caused an alarming vacancy rate amongst skilled staff, warns the Transport Committee in a review of the government’s reform programme for the Coastguard which found that coastguards are “disillusioned and confused”.

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 it is a great concern that the vacancy rate for skilled staff has doubled since 2010.

“Regrettably, the previous shipping minister was ambiguous about the timing of coastguard closures and this has dented staff morale across the service.

“There is a worrying lack of information about what coastguards at the MOC will actually do from day to day or how these new staff will work with local coastguards.

“The MCA’s stance in respect of the local knowledge which coastguards in co-ordination centres must have is also confusing and contradictory.  In a response that the Committee described as “complacent and lacking in detail”,  Sir Alan Massey, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, suggested that local knowledge is not a requirement. The MCA needs to set out its strategy for staff training and articulate its vision of why coastguards in MRCCs need to gain and retain local knowledge. MCA management must schedule and remunerate staff to pursue this expertise, not leave them to organise themselves when they are off duty.”

The Committee also expresses concern about arrangements for Emergency Towing Vessels and plans for fire fighting at sea now that the Maritime Incident Response Group has been withdrawn.

The committee also calls for the Government to provide statistics on the age profile and length of service of coastguards at each MRCC and to set out its strategy for retaining experienced coastguards, particularly in terms of recruitment to positions based at the MOC.

Chair of the Committee, Louise Ellman added, “The programme of coastguard closures, the change in provision of emergency towing vessels and inadequate arrangements for fire fighting at sea are causing unrest and concern.  The government must rule out further closures and ensure that its reforms do not undermine safety and make proper use of local knowledge when applicable.”

Background Information

The Transport Committee published a report in June 2011 criticising the Government’s original proposals to modernise the Coastguard Service. This also condemned the Government’s decision to withdraw funding for emergency towing vessels, which helped protect the UK’s coastline from pollution from merchant shipping, and for a nautical fire-fighting initiative (the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG).

Ministers accepted the central recommendations on reform of the Coastguard Service, withdrawing their original proposals, bringing forward new ones, and consulting on them. Changes to emergency towing vessels and MIRG went ahead largely as planned, although the Government was unable to find a commercial alternative to a state-backed emergency towing vessel in the seas north of Scotland.

Opposition to the Government’s reforms has continued, focused in particular on defending coastguard stations which are scheduled to close. A year on the Committee has held a follow up inquiry looking at how the Government is implementing its revised reforms, taking oral evidence  from coastguard trade unions, from the new shipping minister, Stephen Hammond MP, and from the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Massey KCB CBE.

The Scottish Affairs Committee also took oral evidence recently on the future of the Coastguard Service in Scotland. Echoing many concerns already identified by TSC, their report [hyperlinked] concluded  the Government “has clearly failed so far to carry public opinion on the proposed changes” and must do more to explain the rationale for station closures.

TSC is also investigating procurement of a new, unified search and rescue helicopter service, which will entail the closure of helicopter bases at RAF Boulmer and Portland. It wrote earlier this month to the Secretary of State for Transport asking further questions about this procurement and to express disappointment at the Government’s decision not to undertake a public consultation about the closures.  The Committee may return to this issue when it receives the minister’s reply.

Response to the report from the National Coastguard SOS Campaign

Coastguard campaigners have expressed delight as the Government are told “rule out further closures and ensure that its reforms do not undermine safety”.

National Coastguard SOS Campaigners say it’s too soon for Champagne corks to be popped but are delighted that the influential Transport Select Committee (TSC) has told the Government today that they must “rule out further closures and ensure that its reforms do not undermine safety”. Responding to the publishing of a TSC report into Government plans to axe UK Coastguard rescue coordination centres at Brixham, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Clyde, Swansea, Portland and Thames the group say that the document  vindicates their continued opposition to the plan.

Launching the review of reforms across the Coastguard, Louise Ellman MP, Chair of the Transport Committee said “ the manner in which changes are being imposed has already damaged the service and it’s of great concern that the vacancy rate for skilled staff has doubled since 2010”.

Speaking on behalf of the Coastguard campaign group, Dennis O’Connor welcomed the strongly worded document and said: “We have been campaigning for two years against these plans which will increase risks to those who use the UK coast for commercial or leisure purposes and are delighted that the TSC recognise that concerns about the implementation and management of the closure plan falls far below what could be regarded as an acceptable standard”.

“We have insisted that the closure plan should be transparent and credible and it is evident from the report that the TSC remain concerned about the ambiguity of the plans, this is wholly unacceptable and indicates that the plan has been thrown together without sufficient thought towards safety, operational capability or to implementation”

The Committee states that “The MCA’s stance in respect of the local knowledge which coastguards in co-ordination centres must have is also confusing and contradictory.  In a response that the Committee described as “complacent and lacking in detail”,  Sir Alan Massey, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, suggested that local knowledge is not a requirement. The MCA needs to set out its strategy for staff training and articulate its vision of why coastguards in MRCCs need to gain and retain local knowledge. MCA management must schedule and remunerate staff to pursue this expertise, not leave them to organise themselves when they are off duty.”

Campaigners insist that the loss of essential local knowledge as a result of station closures remains one of the campaigns most important issues. Mr. O’Connor said: “Little has been done to address adequately the obvious damage to operational capability that would occur with the drain of experienced officers.

“They are leaving the service and with them years of experience and local knowledge is also disappearing. Despite being warned of this by Coastguard officers, maritime stakeholders and Coastguard campaigners, the importance of this seems to have escaped successive Shipping Ministers and senior MCA officials”.

The committee also calls for the Government to provide statistics on the age profile and length of service of coastguards at each MRCC and to set out its strategy for retaining experienced coastguards, particularly in terms of recruitment to positions based at the MOC.

Mr. O’Connor underlines the importance of this statement by explaining that: “There is nothing to suggest that the MCA have addressed the significant numbers of staff leaving the service or the apparent lack of interest in any taking up positions at the MOC.

“Even if the MCA were to be successful in recruiting new staff to remaining stations and to the MOC, it is likely that this will come at a significant financial cost and would serve only to undermine the operational experience and quality of Coastguard officers at those centres.”

Despite the damning report, Dennis O’Connor insists that the Coastguard SOS campaign is not over until a formal announcement is made by Ministers. “We believe that this should happen immediately but our immediate fears are with the staff of Clyde Coastguard which has effectively been closed for the past month although the official closure date remains 18th December.

“We echo the recommendations of the Committee and call upon the Prime Minister to stop the closure plan with immediate effect and return full operational status to Clyde Coastguard so that their officers may resume their role of ensuring safety on the West coast of Scotland”

Note: For Argyll’s analysis of the picture distilled from the Transport Select Committee’s report is here:  Transport Select Committee takes the pants off Dad’s Army coastguard modernisation plans.

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One Response to Transport Select Committee on its report on UK coastguard situation – and National Coastguard SOS Campaign response

  1. Pingback: Argyll News: Transport Select Committee takes the pants off Dad’s Army coastguard modernisation plans | For Argyll

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