MPs reject Government’s plans for future shape of the Coastguard Service

The Government should withdraw its controversial proposals to modernise the Coastguard Service, says the influential cross-party Transport Committee yesterday.

Last month The Galloway Gazette highlighted the concerns of local voluntary coastguards who called the plans “a backward step”. The planned closure of the Clyde and Liverpool coastguards centres would mean the shores of Galloway being covered by Belfast during the day and Aberdeen at night.

In a statement, the Transport Select Committee said: “Serious concerns were raised that the safety of people at sea, on cliffs and beaches will be jeopardised if the proposals proceed in their current form. Ministers must issue revised proposals for further consultation.”

Launching the report, Transport Committee Chair Louise Ellman said: “We accept there is a need for some modernisation, but the Government’s proposals for the future of the Coastguard Service are seriously flawed.

“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.”

“Whilst 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”.

The Committee also strongly condemns the Government’s cost-cutting decision to withdraw funding for the four Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) stationed around the UK coast—large tugs that intercept disabled ships to prevent environmental pollution disasters.

“We found no evidence that a suitable commercial alternative for these tugs exists. The Government’s decision to withdraw funding for the ETVs is unwise and short-sighted - quite literally, it is inviting disaster,” says Louise Ellman.

The Transport Committee also criticises proposals to completely remove government funding for the Maritime Incident Response group (MIRG), a national fire-fighting-at-sea capability. Ministers should instead adopt a slimmed-down MIRG which is more cost-effective than the present arrangement.

Lastly, the committee records its disappointment that Mike Penning MP, Minister for Shipping, 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,” adds Louise Ellman.

Isle of Whithorn volunteer coastguard Shaun McGuire said: “From a volunteers perspective I am glad that the Transport Select Committee have backed up our views on the proposals. The main priority should have been the safety of folks using the sea and the coastline and it was obvious that was not the Government’s first consideration.

“So I am pleased that the Select committee have agreed with us.”