McMillan expresses concerns on Coastguard issue

Inverclyde’s SNP MSP, Stuart McMillan, has today (31st May) commented on reports in the Press and Journal newspaper, reporting that a Freedom of Information request has shown that Stornoway and Belfast Coastguard Centres are left regularly short staffed.

For Argyll actually reported on this matter some time ago, in connection with a worrying state of affairs at Belfast Coastguard.

There are have long been, as the Press & Journal recounts, reports of ‘all time low morale’, increasingly high workloads and the possibility of industrial action by the coastguard staff.

This is germane to Inverclyde, to Argyll and the Isles, to Lochaber, to west and north west Scotland and to Northern Ireland.

Belfast and Stornoway Coastguard together cover a coastline from the Mull of Galloway though the Irish Sea coasts of western Scotland and Northern Ireland; the North Channel and the Atlantic coast of Northern Ireland; all the Scottish mainland coast and sea lochs north from the Mull of Galloway, including the Firth of Clyde; all of the Inner and Outer Hebridean islands to Cape Wrath, including The Minches;  and the inshore waters of the Caledonian Canal as far as Fort Augustus.

Stornoway Coastguard also watch over the Northwest of Scotland and the Northeastern Atlantic Ocean.

The two stations cover this entire area between them – and we are now on the brink of the busiest sailing and watersports season of the year.

Stuart McMillan says: ‘This is a highly significant report which reveals the complete failure of the UK government to manage responsibly the vital coastguard services in the North Sea and across the Clyde coastal area.

Campaigners – including myself and MSPs across Scotland – warned that last year’s closure of centres in Clyde and Forth signalled the start of the dismantling of a vital emergency service, but the UK government continued regardless, promising upgrades of remaining centres that have clearly failed to materialise.

‘As we enter the holiday season and better weather there is no doubt Clyde’s coastal waters will have increased traffic which will be controlled at a co-ordination centre many miles away by Belfast.

‘This news report, once again, highlights the ludicrous and ill-thought out decision to close coastguard stations throughout Scotland, including Clyde MRCC.’

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15 Responses to McMillan expresses concerns on Coastguard issue

  1. Disgusting UK government coastguard cuts just to save money on paper with total disregard for safety & likely higher taxpayer costs if big accidents happen … crazy stuff for a vital service … after a possible yes vote I’d like to see a combined military/civilian solution covering Scottish coastline otherwise we’ll end up with the horrific prospect of a distant call centre alike setup with difficulty even getting many place names understood!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. The problem lies fair and square with the MCA ( Maritime and Coastguard Agency) a government quango, set up by the Bliar government, that is not fit for purpose.

    I have walked through the corridors of their headquarters in Southampton, Spring Place – Spring Palace to those in the know – and listened to the Master Mariners who run the place (i.e. failed ships captains – people with the paper qualifications, but who can’t stand being at sea and captaining actual ships) saying that their aim is to get rid of all the small commercial boats around the coast, thus making it easier and cheaper to fulfil the nations international obligations to provide a comprehensive maritime search and rescue organisation around the UK coasts. In reality paying lip service to those obligations.

    HM Coastguard has been a well respected service for mariners for more than a hundred years. The MCA’s failed seafarers have, in almost no time, demolished the pride and integrity of a service steeped in history. Even a ‘Royal’ was prompted to ask why the ‘HM’ had been erased from its title. There was no answer. The arrogance of those who inhabit Spring Palace knows no bounds.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

    • Mr Tony Gill by his own account has insightful information to impart. Mainly that the Coastguard’s qualified Mariners and I quote “are failed ships captains – people with the paper qualifications, but who can’t stand being at sea and captaining actual ships”. I highlight this just to indicate the absurdity of his post – this said in the year we honour the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic – and men who’s deeds and sacrifice would put many to shame Mr Gill. An attack on any Merchant Navy Officer’s hard won qualification and their abilities to command is scurrilous and spreading scandalous claims with the intention of damaging reputations is unwarranted. For a more balanced view of the industry’s take on the CoastGuard go to Nautilus International (THE Professional Organisation representing almost 23,000 Shipmasters, Officers, cadets and ratings and other maritime professional staff working both afloat and ashore – including MCA employees) site—Coastguard-Agency
      Nautilus senior national secretary Allan Graveson recently criticised the tone and substance of the recent Government’s response by the Shipping Minister Mr Stephen Hammond to the House of Commons Transport Committe. “We all know what a “light touch” regulatory environment can produce – in addition to any financial losses to a port or region, there is the very significant possibility of substantial loss of life and damage to the maritime environmental.” Nautilus International Telegraph June 2013. Staffing falls short at key MRCCs – Belfast and Stornoway – In March staffing was below risk-assessed levels at 54 occasions out of 62 shifts at Belfast and and 16 occasions out of 62 shifts at Stornoway – Nautilus International Telegraph June 2013. This news report, once again, highlights the political ill-thought out, cost cutting, decision to close coastguard stations without a viable plan “A” in place. Furthermore, there are shore based Master Mariners working within the industry to change this Government’s “light touch” shipping policies for the benefit of all.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  3. Mr Beaton. I am an ex Merchant Navy navigating officer. Do not compare the real seafaring men who served so bravely during the war, or those who manned our British Merchant Fleet in the middle part of last century, before it vanished, with the sort of people I was alluding to stalking the halls of Spring Palace. They are very, very different.

    HM Coastguard used to be manned to a large extent by ex Merchant Navy officers. Ex Royal Navy mariners as well. The service was proud and its officers too, knowing they were reassuring colleagues still at sea.

    The MCA decided ‘bearded old fogies’ should no longer be the ‘face’ of the New Coastguard – too old fashioned. (Never mind their experience and knowledge of the sea, ships and seafarers) They weren’t the image the new ‘progressive’ modern ‘agency’ wanted.

    So, uniforms turned plastic. Proper hats were replaced by baseball caps. ‘HM’ was removed from ‘HM Coastguard’ and people with no seagoing experience were recruited. (They can be trained to do the job, I know, but can they ever think like an experienced seafarer?). It was a deliberate marginalisation of a once proud service. I felt and saw the results for myself.

    I swelled with pride when, a long time ago, I stood on the bridge of a cargo ship as she was manoeuvred clear of docks that are now the car park of the SECC, and we set off on a voyage of adventure. Throughout my seagoing career, on deep sea ships and then on small craft teaching people the ways of the sea, I have felt my work worthwhile as a member of an island nation. When I came ashore I was proud to volunteer and serve in HM Coastguard helping to keep seafarers safe and coordinate their rescue in circumstances that, but for fortune, I may have been in myself.

    All my colleages felt that same pride in their work and service.

    Then came the MCA.

    Now, a great, dedicated and proud service has been demoralised and almost demolished by an upstart government quango which, to my mind, has shown itself not fit for purpose.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

    • Well that’s some rant, what’s your alternative?

      What Master, or any OOW is going to leave a job travelling around the world, earning well upward of 25k a year, to sit in an ops room earning less than 18k after tax? and even then all they will get is a fixed term 2 year contract.

      Unemployment is at an all time low, yet they are having to advertise again after the most recent national recruitment campaign was unsuccesful, that isn’t people who have been in ‘the agency’ for any length of time feeling upset at HQ or management, it’s people looking at the job desription/specification, and then weighing that up against the pay, it doesn’t add up.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. The shipping industry both domestically  and internationally is highly regulated. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, MCA  in the UK by and large licences commercial, fishing and large pleasure boats. We in the UK do not have to have to hold a licence to  enjoy recreational boating – for boaters excluding the canals – its very much get a boat and go boating and lots more of us do. The MCA has little wriggle room in terms of  international legislation,  it has been known to drag it’s feet, but it does comply. So when it comes to budget reduction, of 15% by 2015 enforce by the Treasury, the MCA has chosen the Coastguards to take a  sizeable  hit. At the same time the MCA has chosen (forced?) to reorganise the Coastguard, introducing modern communications, reducing the number of stations and de-skilling. It’s clear from Industry and Government, and Parliamentary report this reorganisation has not been successful – indeed a bit of a cock-up, but why?
    The UK’s commercial fleet (approximately 1,500 vessels) is far flung, the majority of vessels never enter UK territorial waters. The vast numbers of ships within our coastal zone are EU or foreign owned, managed or manned. Technology, now allows remote monitoring of vessels. Even world wide distress message handling is contracted out to a private satellite and communications company – London based Inmarsat. The commercial sector is always keen to have its dues pegged – if your a UK company you will be lobbying for a reduction in dues and “light touch” regulation, and they appear to be successful at convincing the Minister of their case – e.g Marine Navigation Act 2013. So for commercial traffic the local Coastguard with the Mark1 eyeball has become increasingly superfluous – communication can be done through a central location with a few outlying stations. Yes, Commercial ships do become causalities, and I will come back to that.
    The UK has a quirky way in dealing with casualties at sea – much is historical – and centres round the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) – a not for profit, volunteer manned, paid by public and private donations and fiercely independent from the State. Often as not it’s the first to be called out by the Coastguard to a casualty – even if just being required to stand by. So the Coastguard has one tool in it’s toolbox it doesn’t need to pay. Another tool is the Air Sea Rescue, mainly funded through the defence budget but one of the major components to be outsourced by 2015 and targeted to be upgraded and save money – an oxymoron to be sure. Eventually, by 2015 the MCA will have the primary tools of a rescue service supplied by the State, private and volunteer sectors.
    The tools in our sea rescue service are both its strength and weakness. The strengths are that we have people who will do things above and beyond the call of duty both in the Military and RNLI . The weakness is that our Coastguards are totally reliant on this devolved system – more so than most other countries which have an integrated aircraft and boat sections to call on – state run services, funded by commercial shipping and to an extent through levies from the registration and licensing of pleasure boats and boaters. Perhaps this Government is taking a less charitable view – the commercial sector want “light touch” and fewer dues and the pleasure sector don’t pay anyway – perhaps if we want the rolls royce of an AA of the seas we may want to pay for it – but that’s another argument all together.
    It is this dichotomy that the Coastguard has to manage. Commercial shipping is much safer, with fewer casualties, fishing casualties are down too, and who would have thought Felixstow being the major North Sea port, yet pleasure boating is calling on more resources, simply because of the growing number of boats involved from stranding through to not enough electrical power to: sail; motor; let go an anchor; from unbelievably comical to the truly tragic – each one needing a professional response and more often than not this is falling on the shoulders of the RNLI – the volunteer sector – it’s charter definition means that it will always but always attempt a rescue – and for free , how good is that?
    *So how will all this affect the RNLI? In truth the manner in which rescues are co-ordinated by the Coastguard has changed little over the past forty years. Currently, operations are coordinated from 19 dispersed centres with no network of national integration. This is inefficient and there is very limited resilience in the event of high demand or technical problems. Broadly they welcome the plans, which should create a resilient and nationally networked system of Coastguard coordination centres, enabling lifeboats and lifeguards to respond to emergencies at least as fast and effectively as they do today if not more so. In particular the plans to provide better leadership and some additional resource to the Coastguard Rescue Service around the coast are a major step forward. *From a submission to the select committee by the RNLI – Transport Committee Written evidence from the RNLI (CFU 21)
    What has emerged, that prior to the reorganisation the Coastguard was already on its way to being a shambles – even today Belfast still has no direct communication system with Aberdeen for example, so there was already no integration let alone resilience in its communication structure. The rush to save money has simply exposed its short comings – both in previous funding, training and management capabilities.
    So with the Coastguard’s structure in taters what could be done as a quick fix. Well it could be devolved from the MCA, they’ve made such a hash of it – it could always be embed in the Scottish Police Force SPF– call it the Marine division – even HM Coastguard if you want. The SPF now has a national structure to deal with most things, adding the Coastguard’s brief and liaising with the RNLI would be a piece of cake. Whiff of this from Scotland may well get things moving down south in the Westminster village.
    But harking back to the “good old days” or making management out as cretins is not going to change the Senior Coastguard’s or any Minister’s mindset, that’s for sure. You need to build a case for change.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Hugely useful contribution to this debate – highlighting the tension between the extremes of protectionism of the status quo and of brute ‘modernising’ to cut costs.
      The possible embedding of a coastguard service in the police force structure is an interesting suggestion. Would it also fit with the unitary fire and rescue service?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • I’m a pleasure sector boater and I can assure you that the RNLI has many payers from this sector. you only need to walk around any marina car park or around the boats to see how many RNLI members pennants and stickers abound.
      I’ve never seen a breakdown of the figures, but I also think many bequests come from the pleasure boating sector.
      I know there will be those who do not contribute but that will never change. Volunteered service and monetary goodwill has given us a rescue service that is second to none. Let’s keep it well away from the empire wreckers of the state.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, established in the United Kingdom in 1824, demonstrates how successful a voluntary organization can be. It is entirely self-financing, raising funds from membership subscriptions, charity trading, donations and legacies.

        The RNLI has established a network of 223 lifeboat stations around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. It maintain a fleet of around 300 lifeboats with a further 135 relief boats in reserve. Lifeboats are built to the most exacting standards, so that they can remain afloat in even the roughest seas with 15-metre waves and 7-metre swells. They are fitted with leading-edge navigation and rescue equipment.

        Apart from one full-time mechanic, all lifeboat crews are comprised entirely of volunteers. There are around 4300 volunteer crew members, most of them are men but some are women.

        It costs the RNLI about £90 million to run the lifeboat service, which it does very efficiently: out of every £1 spent, over 80 pence is channelled directly into the running, maintenance and replacement of lifeboats; 17 pence is spent on fundraising and a modest 3 pence on administration. Any annual surpluses are put into a reserve fund.

        Other countries have also established lifeboat services run as charities, operated by volunteers and independent of government. For example, the lifeboat service in the Netherlands was established in the same year as the RNLI. Other countries with volunteer lifeboat crews include Finland, France and South Africa. In many countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, a volunteer lifeboat service supports the government-funded coastguard.

        Since it was established in 1824, the RNLI has saved over 133,500 lives. Lifeboats respond to distress calls, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It offers a search and rescue service up to 50 miles off the coasts of the British Isles. Each year it saves well over one thousand lives. Over half are people who have got into difficulties on yachts and other pleasure boats, but a significant proportion are merchant seamen and fishermen.

        The RNLI has shown that an efficient, world-class lifeboat service can be operated by a volunteer-based organization. It is one of Britain’s leading charities, attracting more voluntary financial support than almost any other body. Over 200,000 people are members, grouped into 1,500 fundraising branches. They are happy to give their time and energy to raise money for something in which they believe.

        The RNLI zealously guards its independence and receives no money from government sources. The organization stresses that by maintaining its independence from state support, it is not subject to the vagaries of government policy or budgetary constraints. By raising its own money, it feels it can better respond to seafarers’ needs. As the RNLI points out: “The management of the Institution has stability and continuity which could well be lost if were subject to the whims of politicians and government funding.”

        The volunteers come from all walks of life – for instance, the Filey lifeboat in North Yorkshire has a crew of twenty made up of fishermen, paramedics, policemen, teachers, joiners, plumbers, oil-rig workers and even a deli-owner. A spirit of voluntary commitment pervades the whole organization and is undoubtedly its distinguishing characteristic. Such volunteers would be less likely to give their time if the service were government financed and controlled. As Andrew Freemantle, the charity’s director points out: “The RNLI’s volunteers embody many of the qualities that we are looking for in society today: dedication, compassion and courage.”

        Statistics from the Adam Smith Institute

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    • Many observers see the new system as only a political compromise and predict we’ll end up with one central control room and hundreds of small rescue centres around the coasts, consisting of individual officers each contributing local knowledge, liaising with the local lifeboat and beach lifeguards, and taking charge of a group of rescue volunteers. Dennis O’Connor, of lobby group Coastguard SOS points out that most of the incidents involve people who have fallen down cliffs, got stuck in mud, or been cut off by the tide at vague locations phoned in by walkers or holidaymakers, and he is right to be concerned about the loss of local knowledge. Finally we should not forget the presence of the National Coastwatch Institute, who use deserted coastguard stations as coastal lookouts, performing a volunteer service. They are at
      The move to a centralized system is a logical continuation of the process that began when coast guards moved out of their cliff top huts and into rescue co-ordination centers.

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      • Hamish, the National Coastwatch Institute’s use of redundant coastguard lookouts is an excellent initiative, but doesn’t seem to apply to Scotland; understandable in the sparsely populated west and north of the country, but surely surprising elsewhere?

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

        • Yes Robert – odd that nothing North of the Border has been reserected as a local lookout – maybe some buildings are unsuitable – but I have no idea why? “Duwn safth”, they appear to able to gain certification from the MCA as a volunteer coastguard organisation, as such are integrated into the Coastguard national network with quite a lot of kit, but I have only picked this up from their website. Maybe when it’s quiet ForArgyll will question why it’s not a UK wide thing or is it British as defined by Home Secretary Theresa May?

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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