Paul Chapman: These coastguard cuts will put lives in danger

THE Government wants to modernise HM Coastguard. The Minister responsible, Mike Penning, said that this plan would make the Coastguard Service more efficient, would give coastguard officers more job satisfaction and better pay and would save money by cutting the overall budget.

Under the proposals, the UK’s maritime rescue co-ordination will be centralised into two 24-hour stations – one in Southampton and the other in Aberdeen. There will be five supporting sub-stations, including Humber Coastguard in Bridlington, which will be open during daylight hours only.

Ten coastguard co-ordination centres will close and the number of rescue co-ordination staff will be cut by 50 per cent. Outside daylight hours, all search and rescue operations in our area would be co-ordinated from Southampton. Overnight, there will be no coastguard station open on the whole of the east coast of England. Vice Admiral Sir Alan Massey, chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), says that plans to modernise HM Coastguard will not jeopardise lives. How can he possibly know this to be true?

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Sir Alan recently joined the MCA from the Royal Navy and is defending a modernisation plan that he inherited and in which he can have had little input. This planned shake-up of an emergency service has never been trialled or tested.

The Government claims that the loss of 10 coastguard stations, and almost 250 staff, will be off-set by technology. However, there will be no new technology, only upgrades to existing systems. HM Coastguard is currently so confident in our technology that we have notepads and pencils in our drawers and plot all incident positions on paper charts and maps.

The plan came as a shock to serving coastguards and to our union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, as there had been no consultation prior to the announcement. We had been expecting a cost-cutting programme but not these savage cuts.

Serving coastguards are extremely concerned that the proposals will degrade the 24/7 emergency service we provide at the coast. In fact it has yet to be proven that this plan is feasible.

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When questioned, members of MCA senior management, including Sir Alan, have repeatedly been unable to provide any specific details of how these proposals can be made to work safely. Presumably because the plan is only an aspiration and the technicalities and details of how to realise this dream have not yet been considered.

Centralisation will result in the loss of local knowledge and in coastguards co-ordinating rescues in areas they are unfamiliar with. This will require more detailed questioning of the caller and interrogation of databases to identify the location of the person in distress and the nearest rescue units. The subsequent delay could mean that the rescue unit arrives too late to save the casualty. Minutes count when you’re drowning or clinging onto a cliff.

There is no good reason to have daylight-only stations. Those stations that have been spared the axe, but had their hours of operation reduced, appear to have been chosen at random. The relationship between day stations and the 24-hour stations appears very confused and looks likely to generate technical problems.

It has quickly become clear that there is universal opposition to the modernisation plan in its current form. This opposition has been voiced at the public consultation meetings held by the MCA (only one meeting was held in Humber Coastguard’s area of operation – the River Humber to the Scottish Border) and in the petitions signed by members of the public.

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Letters of opposition have been sent to Mike Penning from European unions representing the shipping and fishing industry. They are concerned for the safety of their members who work on vessels which operate in UK waters and want to take part in the consultation process.

Parliament has also expressed opposition. A Parliamentary Select Committee took oral evidence from Sir Alan and subsequently announced that an inquiry would be held giving a deadline of April 26 for the submission of written evidence by interested parties.

A backbench debate in Parliament was postponed at short notice and rescheduled for next Thursday, leading to claims that this would clash with the Budget and there would be no opportunity after the debate to contribute to the consultation process. The consultation period has now been extended by six weeks and the debate has been extended to three hours.

Mike Penning has been quoted as saying that coastguards support this plan and believe that coastguard stations should be closed. This is untrue – we don’t support the plan and don’t believe that there is any justification in closing coastguard stations.

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We are, however, realists and accept that all departments are expected to make financial savings and that cuts will be made. We have no faith in the modernisation proposals as they stand and believe that the modest savings don’t justify the savage cuts proposed. We are concerned that lives will be put at risk unnecessarily.

We would like the MCA to go back to the drawing board and create a new plan in co-operation with serving coastguards who have the knowledge and expertise to make it workable. Let’s hope they see sense.

Paul Chapman is the Public and Commercial Services Union branch secretary for Humber Coastguard.