The shipping minister today defended a decision to bar MCA staff from giving evidence to an inquiry into station closures during a frosty meeting at Westminster.
Lerwick employees were initially refused the right to address members of the House of Commons transport select committee during their evidence-gathering session in Stornoway last week.
Following an outcry they were eventually permitted entry as PCS union representatives, but not as coastguard officers.
The row led to terse exchanges today between select committee members and shipping minister Mike Penning.
Chairwoman Louise Ellman highlighted a statement made by Mr Penning on 24th March, in which he said every member of staff has the right to give evidence to the select committee.
She challenged him: “You said staff should feel confident in expressing their views robustly. After that you barred coastguard officers from giving oral evidence to this committee. Why did you change from that position?”
Mr Penning said he had received advice, following his March statement, suggesting staff had a conflict of interest in fighting for the retention of stations.
“I could not allow them to give oral evidence to this committee under the advice I was given. They [staff] are civil servants. And a civil servant’s job is to support the government of the day,” he said.
“They were in a position that they would be asked if they supported the government of the day. I could not, under the advice I was given, allow them to give oral evidence before this committee.”
Mr Penning, who at one stage insisted he was unable to answer questions after being “shouted down” by Ms Ellman, said coastguard officers “can and should” have taken part in the consultation process – although Ms Ellman protested the consultation was not the same as the transport select committee inquiry.
Mr Penning said he had explained his position in many letters to the committee which had fallen into the hands of the national press.
He offered assurances that staff who had submitted evidence would not be “victimised” as a result of their input into the investigation and consultation exercise.
Mr Penning also defended the consultation, referring to its extension and involvement of union officials to help come to a sound arrangement for the MCA’s future.
He dismissed claims by Ms Ellman the consultation was “left wanting” and that staff should have been involved in drawing up the proposals from the outset.
“From the outset, and at every station I have visited, we have said categorically this is not a done deal. We will come out with different proposals at the end based on the consultation and the report from this committee.”
He dismissed reports, including one in The Shetland Times, that the Lerwick station had been saved from the axe. Shetland Times editor Paul Riddell said today the paper stood 100 per cent behind its “very well-sourced” story.
Mr Penning said: “Consultations … have taken place extensively over the years before I was a minister, and there has been an engagement ongoing throughout. The proposal we will get at the end of this process will be very different from the one we started out with.”
Asked if any decisions had yet been made he said: “No, for two reasons – one, the review body, which is made up of serving coastguards, is still looking at the evidence that has been submitted, and secondly, because no decision will be made until after this committee reports its findings.”
Mr Penning was giving evidence alongside MCA chief executive Sir Alan Massey and director of maritime services, Philip Naylor.
PCS member Alex Dodge, who was in Stornoway with her colleague Bob Skinley, said: “It was good to see Ms Ellman tackle Mr Penning on the subject of us giving evidence.”
She also put forward “situational awareness” as a better phrase to use than “local knowledge” when fighting for the retention of stations.
“Situational awareness better describes it because we know what the weather’s like, what the people are like, and that is what we should concentrate on. It’s not just that there are hills and voes.”