MPs attack ‘flawed’ proposals to close 10 coastguard centres

GOVERNMENT proposals to cut the number of coastguard centres are seriously flawed and should be scrapped, according to an influential group of MPs.

An influential Commons committee says that safety would be put at risk if the Government went ahead with the plan to close 10 of the current 18 coastguard stations and leave only three open around the clock.

There is little support for such a “drastic” reduction in the number of centres, according to the Transport Select Committee which rejects Government claims that technology can replace the local knowledge which would be lost through closures.

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Ministers have already accepted that the plans will have to change – suggesting that one or two extra centres could stay open – but today’s report will add to pressure for them to start all over again with fresh plans rather than simply introducing minor changes.

“We accept there is a need for some modernisation, but the Government’s proposals for the future of the coastguard service are seriously flawed,” said committee chairman Louise Ellman.

“We found little support for the current proposals and we have no confidence that, under these proposals, the coastguard will in future be able to respond to emergencies at sea as well as they do now, let alone in a more effective way.

“A drastic reduction in the number of rescue co-ordination centres will result in a loss of local knowledge amongst coastguard officers who are responsible for taking calls from people and vessels in distress. The committee is not convinced by the Government’s claim that technology can, at present, replace such local knowledge.”

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The coastguard plans have been highly controversial despite widespread acceptance of the need for the current service to be reformed. Under the initial plans, the Bridlington centre would operate from 9am until 7pm rather than around the-clock, while the three 24-hour centres would be at Aberdeen, the Southampton/Portsmouth area and Dover.

But Ms Ellman said: “While there is a case for reducing the total number of rescue co-ordination centres, any future reorganisation of the coastguard should be based on 24-hour centres, as they are now, and not on stations open only during daylight hours, as the Government proposes.”

As well as raising concern over the centre closures, the committee also said the decision to withdraw funding for emergency towing vessels – large tugs that intercept disabled ships to prevent pollution – was “unwise and short-sighted” and was “inviting disaster”.

Ms Ellman also expressed her disappointment that shipping minister Mike Penning had “instructed regular coastguards not to give evidence to the committee”.

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The national maritime secretary of the RMT transport union, Steve Todd, said: “The committee quite rightly exposes the dangers to the UK coastline posed by the very damaging cutbacks and closures to coastguard centres.”

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond welcomed the report, adding: “Earlier this year, we proposed a possible solution to deliver that modernisation and both the Shipping Minister and the head of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have travelled across the country to listen to representations from coastguards, seafarers and coastal communities.

“We have received a large number of high quality responses from those directly affected by the proposals and, as we have signalled already, we will take account of these when we publish our final proposals later this summer.”

He went on: “The original proposals do not compromise safety and include increased resources for frontline rescue services. Reform will improve resilience in the system through improvements to IT and create better career opportunities for staff, as well as better pay and conditions.”

The Minister added: “I am confident that through this genuine consultation process we will deliver the right solution to make our coastguard service fit for the 21st century.”