Transport Select Committee takes the pants off Dad’s Army coastguard modernisation plans

Yeoman Bontrup on fire at Glensanda

This is something of an ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ moment. What is to follow is a parliamentary select committee’s view of what could be a fully qualified and long running episode of Dad’s Army.

This is where we see the maritime and marine environmental safety of the nation in the hands – or rather slipping through the fingers – of a collection of ignorant but highly ranked ministers and professional camp followers whose lack of organisational ability and capacity to confuse is somewhere between the brusque bluffing of Captain Mainwaring and the eternal optimism of the gently demented Private Godfrey.

Reading the evidence and conclusions of the report, Sir Alan Massey CEO of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency [MCA] is in the Mainwaring role, with answers of his being described in the report as ‘complacent and lacking in detail’.

The hapless current Shipping Minister, Stephen Hammond MP, morphs all too easily into Private Godfrey, with the report noting caustically that: ‘The Minister’s remark that coastguards were happier than their evidence to us suggested would have had more credibility if he had chosen to visit a coastguard station rather than simply rely on advice from MCA management.’

The scenario

The wholesale revision of maritime safety and rescue coordination for the entire UK now revolves around a new system with under half of the former number of coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres [MRCCs].

At the heart of this reduced nationwide system – and the report notes that ‘Clyde and Forth seem to have been earmarked for early closure for financial reasons’ – is a single Maritime Operations Centre [MOC] based at Fareham in the Solent area on the south coast of England.

No one has been able to detail to the Select Committee the specific operations of this MOC but it is supposed to add ‘resilience’ to the system no one can describe either.

The report says: ‘…neither he [the MCA's Sir Alan Massey] nor the Minister [Stephen Hammond] was able to explain what the MOC, with its 96 staff, would add to existing arrangements at times when a major incident was not occurring.’ [It is of note that the staff of 96 proposed for the MOC is no less than 22% of the entire planned establishment of the revised service - 436. That means a full establishment, 22% of whose mainstream functions no one is able to detail. Does that not look genuinely ripe for cost cutting?]

The single known purpose for the MOC is to coordinate the response to major incidents that would be  beyond the capacity of the MRCCs – although quite how it will coordinate such incidents is again beyond the powers of the Minister or Sir Alan Massey to describe to the committee.

The MOC will not be in operation before 2015 but even the promise of its  awesome capability – whatever that may be – is enough for existing coastguard stations to be closed before then anyway – like Forth [closed in September 2012] and Clyde [due to shut on 18th December 2012]; followed by Solent, Portland, Yarmouth and Brixham [due to go before the end of 2014].

Indeed, the fully Ruritanian possibility is that, should there be any further delay in the coming onstream of the mighty MOC,  every single one of the nine condemned Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centres will have closed before it goes live. Liverpool, Thames and Swansea are down for the chop by the end of 2015.

This scenario is not at all outlandish, with the report noting that: ‘Finding experienced staff willing to
transfer to the new MOC in Fareham may prove particularly difficult.’

Quite how the retained eight Rescue Coordination Centres will operate without the MOC and with the progressive loss of nine Rescue Coordination Centre, in a service with reduced staffs and greater responsibilities, will be quickly seen in the first major maritime incident which, over a period of three years to 2015, cannot be ruled out.

One of the Select Committee’s concluding recommendations amounts to sending the government back to school to provide and test the evidence for what they plan.

They say: ‘We recommend that the Government urgently address this concern, starting by including in its reply to this report a range of scenarios typically faced by coastguards across the UK and how MOC and MRCC coastguards will be expected to work together to address them in future.’

And the committee has noted that there appears to be no plan for staff at the MOC to have any local knowledge at all, even though they will coordinate the responses to major incidents anywhere in the UK, in a situation where MRCCs may work in daytime hours only.

The blind following the blind – but there’ll be a database… sometime

Serving coastguard officers – whose numbers have already fallen – have no idea how the new system is to work. No one has told them. Yet it is in operation already with Forth Coastguard now closed and Clyde due to close in days.

The reason why no one has told them how the new system works is because the leaders themselves don’t know and have been unable to enlighten the Select Committee.

The MCA and the Department for Transport intend to replace local knowledge embodied in the experienced coastguard officers [of which, on the indications, they will now have very few] with a ‘database that allows multiple names to be applied to any coastal feature or place in order that local as well as Gaelic or Welsh names are available for search.’

So what exactly does an uninformed non-Gaelic-speaking coastguard officer type into the search engine on this database to target the location of an incident – having heard a Gaelic named reference point spoken on VHF or a mobile phone by a mariner in trouble who is not themselves a Gaelic speaker?

You really could not make this up.

But the MCA’s Sir Alan Massey is particularly fond of this solution and scornful of the value of actual knowledge. He said to the committee: ‘What does one gain from doing it? I don’t know.’

The Select Committee report puts the position succinctly: ‘Over the next three years, when several MRCCs close, there is a clear risk that local knowledge will be lost. Either local knowledge is a requirement for the role of coastguard in an MRCC or it is not, as Sir Alan Massey suggested.’

The contradictions come between Sir Alan Massey’s genuine dismissal of the value of local knowledge – alongside the repetition to the committee of the ways in which coastguard officers in the new system [whatever it is] will be assisted to acquire this unnecessary local knowledge.

However, as the report notes, ‘Shetland coastguards say that they have been left to pick up local knowledge from their colleagues in Aberdeen without any structured process and in their own time. The chief executive of the MCA has questioned the need for coastguards to have local knowledge at all.’

The report concludes that there is real risk of loss of local knowledge the committee clearly sees as unacceptable: ‘We recommend that any work to develop and foster local knowledge should be organised by MCA management, properly scheduled, and remunerated, not left to coastguards to organise themselves when they are off duty. ‘ [This being the Dad's Army plan.]

The wider context

The current plans not only establish for at least three years an essentially rudderless Maritime Rescue Coordination service but they do so in the context of a single Emergency Towing Vessel [ETV] based in the Northern Isles.

This is on contracted on one year contracts only until 2015 and replaces the two former ETV’s [based in The Minches and the Fair Isle Channel] which the government has refused to continue to fund and for which it has been unable to find any alternative commercial service.

ETVs were introduced in 1994 ‘on the recommendation of Lord Donaldson following a review of pollution from merchant shipping. Their core work was to intercept disabled ships, bring them under control and tow them to safety.’

Quite how a single ETV based in the Northern Isles will get to a disabled ship in The Minches in time to prevent an environmental disaster is in the lap of the Gods rather than in the Exchequer.

The report’s recommendations here are that: ‘… the Government clarify by spring 2014 the ETV arrangements it will have in place in Scottish waters from 2015; and confirm whether or not it is in discussions with the Scottish Government to devolve ETV provision. We also recommend that the Government explain how an ETV stationed in the northern isles can effectively serve the west coast, including by providing estimates of journey different sea and weather conditions.’

We  note that when the self-discharging bulk carrier, Yeoman Bontrup, went on fire at Glensanda Quarry in Argyll [photo, top] on 2nd July 2010, in the most serious incident possible, it took the then Stornoway-based ETV, Anglian Sovereign, seven hours to get down to her – and that was at its considerable speed. The substantial additional time it would have taken the ETV to come down from the Northern Isles would probably have seen her sink at her berth. Well loaded when she went on fire, had she sunk there the entire superquarry would have been finished. The site and its loading jetty can be approached only by sea. There is no land access for haulage – or for firefighting.

And talking of fire fighting at sea, the security of this Dad’s Army plan for the safety of Britain’s mariners, leisure sailors, watersports enthusiasts, marine and shoreline environments has been further compromised by the absolute removal – in December 2011 and on cost grounds – of the former MIRG. This was the ‘Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG), a partnership between the MCA and the Fire and Rescue Service formed in 2006 to respond to incidents at sea for which fire-fighting, chemical hazard and/or rescue teams are required.’

The report notes that: ‘As with ETVs, witnesses remain unreconciled to the loss of MIRG’; and says: ‘We remain of the view that the decision to end funding of MIRG was short-sighted.’

It concludes: ‘We recommend that the Government explain why the Flaminia case would not have been dealt with better had a state-contracted ETV and MIRG capability been available.’

The incident referred to here is from 14th July 2012 when the MSC Flaminia, a container ship, reported that the crew on board had been forced to abandon their ship after an explosion and subsequent fire in a cargo hold mid Atlantic. 24 of the3 25 crew were eventually rescued in scenes of fiercely burning and collapsing containers. Rescue helicopters did not have the endurance required to attend an incident of this nature because the Flaminia was approximately 1,000 miles from land, midway between the UK and Canada.

After the fire was eventually brought under control and the ship taken under tow, European maritime authorities were slow in granting approval for her to enter territorial waters but, on 22nd August, permission was granted for the German flagged ship to be towed into German waters and enter a port of refuge. She arrived at Wilhelmshaven on 9th September 2012

The endgame?

The committee, in its conclusions, says: ‘We were concerned that comments by Sir Alan Massey about the small number of coastguard stations in other countries – 1 in Norway, 3 in Canada – reflect a view in Government that there should be more MRCC closures in the foreseeable future. We call on the Government to rule this out and confirm that the new arrangements for the Coastguard Service are intended to last for a generation.’


Read the report for yourself – it is well written and compelling. This is the copy we were given yesterday, overprinted [but perfectly legible] as embargoed from any kind of publication until 00.01 on Tuesday 10th December: Coastguard – Embargoed full report.

It is worth noting that this is the second report and from the second hearing on this matter by the Transport Select Committee, who by now are well informed on this issue and have indicated that they will return to it to review implementation.

Read also the parallel article here containing the press release from the Transport Select Committee on the publication of its report today, 11th December 2012; and the response to the report from the National Coastguard SOS Campaign.

Sir Alan Massey was once skipper of HMS Campbeltown, a Type 22 Broadsword class frigate, decommissioned on 30th June 2011.

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8 Responses to Transport Select Committee takes the pants off Dad’s Army coastguard modernisation plans

  1. Every time I read/hear more about what’s being done to coastguard the more puzzled I get why they might really be following the current path other than attempting to save cash as it will end up costing more in long run … no proper assessment/consideration appears to have been included as to what butchering current system in a country with such a long coastline will produce …. who will take blame when a major incident occurs? will they have to deploy navy resources to fill gaps?

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    • who will take blame when a major incident occurs?
      No-one; ‘lessons will be learned’, assurances will be given and the guilty parties will be moved sideways/offered a nice golden goodbye/given a seat in the Lords.

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  2. Pingback: Argyll News: Transport Select Committee on its report on UK coastguard situation – and National Coastguard SOS Campaign response | For Argyll

  3. There seems to be no sense to these plans at all, other than saving money. This will not happen as the consequences of further closures will cost more in the end.

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  4. The stunning inadequacies of this new management (or should I say mismanagement) plan, coupled with the likelihood that any maritime emergency in the UK is more likely to happen in Scottish waters than elsewhere due to the very challenging nature of our coastline, makes the Scottish government’s lack of interest in this issue reprehensible. Whether devolved or reserved, this matter should have attracted their full attention and vociferous objections. It hasn’t.

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    • ‘..the Scottish government’s lack of interest’ – I hope that there isn’t a cynical ‘do nothing’ attitude in Holyrood to this potential calamity in the belief that it will help sway public opinion against Westminster rule.

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      • Apart from the potential disaster, the practical consequences of this proposed ‘system’ bequeathes a political situation where an independent Scotland would see:
        its western coastline [formerly under Clyde Coastguard - to close finally on 18th December] from the Mull of Galloway to Ardnamurchan controlled by the UK from Belfast;
        the southern part of its eastern coastline [formerly under the now closed Forth Coastguard] controlled by the UK from the north west of England;
        and no major incident coordination whatsoever.
        The current plan sees one single Maritime Operations Centre [which will not anyway be in operation until 2-15 at the earliest] take on this role for the entire UK – based at Fareham in the Solent on the south coast of England.
        Bizarrely, the Scottish Government acquiesced in this arrangement, offering nothing but token gestural opposition to the closure of Forth and Clyde coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres.
        This might be read as indicating that they themselves do not actually anticipate a ‘Yes’ vote in October 2014.
        No responsible government would have let the infrastructure and knowledge base for its maritime safety and environmental protection capability go the wall four years in advance of possible independent status.

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