Lives will be lost if the coalition government fails to abandon its “seriously flawed” proposals to modernise the coastguard service, according to a scathing report published today by MPs on the cross-party House of Commons transport committee.
The six Conservative and Liberal Democrat and five Labour MPs demolish plans by ministers to close 10 of the country’s Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres, including either Shetland or Stornoway, and reduce to three the number operating on a 24-hour basis, with the remaining five functioning during “daylight hours” only.
Their main concerns are the impact on rescue operations of loss of local knowledge, or what is described in the jargon as “situational awareness”, and the inadequacies of current technology to compensate for fewer stations.
“The evidence we have received raises serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed,” the MPs say. “Rationalising the number of MRCCs so drastically, in our view, will reduce the quality and rate of exchange of information, particularly at key points when information must be passed swiftly in order to save lives.
“We are not convinced by the [Maritime Coastguard Agency’s] assertions that technology can, at present, adequately compensate for the loss of this knowledge. We are also concerned that the proposals place too great a burden of responsibility on volunteer coastguards and pay insufficient attention towards the safety of leisure craft, small fishing vessels and the like (as opposed to the commercial shipping industry), and we have doubts about the statistics used by the MCA to justify its proposals to close several stations at night-time. We are not convinced that the concept of daylight-hour stations should be proceeded with in any future re-organisation of the Coastguard.”
The MPs also strongly condemn the withdrawal of government funding for the four emergency towing vessels or ETVs situated at strategic points around the UK coastline, including Shetland – committee chairwoman Louise Ellman said this was “quite literally … inviting disaster” – and a review of the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) set up to deal with fires at sea.
If the government cannot secure alternative source of funding for ETVs before the current contracts expire at the end of September, the MPs suggest, it should extend funding for a further six months.
The MPs’ strongest language is reserved for the MCA and the consultation exercise it has carried out on its proposals for the coastguard.
“By failing to involve serving coastguard officers, unions, volunteers, stakeholders or the devolved administrations in the drafting of the current proposals for the future of the Coastguard, and by failing to publish a risk assessment of the current plans or an impact assessment of the previous round of closures until prompted, the MCA management has badly miscalculated.
“It has mishandled the consultation and made it appear opaque rather than clear and open-minded. It has appeared arrogant, and reluctant to open itself to proper scrutiny in the process. The atmosphere of disquiet and suspicion generated by this consultation process is of the MCA’s own making.”
By contrast, the MPs were impressed by the quality and comprehensiveness of the alternative plans put forward by coastguards across the country, including one from Shetland and Stornoway. They said they expected the government properly to consider these when revising its own plans.
The committee also recorded its disappointment that shipping minister Mike Penning instructed regular coastguards not to give oral evidence to the committee on the basis that they were junior civil servants. “The minister should have shown more faith in the professionalism of the coastguards and stuck by his original commitment to the House [of Commons] to let them give evidence to the committee,” said Ms Ellman.