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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House again that we have little time and that several hon. Members want to speak. Unless contributions are very brief, many will be disappointed.

10.14 am

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on obtaining this important debate, and I join him and other hon. Members who have spoken in paying tribute to the crew of the helicopter that rescued men from the Green Lily last week off my constituency--in particular to the winchman, William Deacon, who sacrificed his own life in saving the lives of others.

I do not want to concentrate too much on the general strategy underlying the proposals that have been made; I shall concentrate instead on the issue as it affects my constituency. As has already been explained, Pentland coastguard station is to close by the end of 1999 if the strategy goes through.

The hon. Member for Gosport talked about the way in which the issue has been handled. I happened to know, because of a report in The Herald on 29 October, that there were suspicions that the Pentland and Oban stations were to close, so I telephoned the chief executive of the agency, who said that he could not comment because a report was already with Ministers awaiting a decision. If the decision was made on 13 October, the report must have been lying on desks for some time.

I accept what the Minister says about not having been aware of the letter sent to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie)--although I wish that, when my secretary telephoned to arrange

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a meeting, her officials had said that they could not find the letter. Only at the fourth time of asking for a meeting was it requested that a copy be faxed through. However, that is water under the bridge and we are now dealing with the real situation.

Far more important is the letter that the chief executive of the Coastguard agency sent me on 8 April. I had written to him because of press speculation that Pentland coastguard station was under threat, and he replied:

That letter begged a series of questions, and I hope that the Minister can answer them today. What has happened since 8 April? There has been no major breakthrough in telecommunications. We are told that the strategy is underpinned by investment in telecommunications, but there have been no new developments capable of changing things.

The Minister sent a letter to Members affected, saying:

Yet we know, because the chief executive of the Coastguard agency told me, that that review did not involve station closures. So why does the strategy involve station closures?

When was the decision made that at least some stations would close? When did that idea first enter the agenda? When, specifically, was it decided that Pentland should be one of the stations to close? That is important, because the staff at Pentland, after suffering years of speculation and uncertainty about their future, saw a copy the letter sent to me on 8 April and were reassured. They took the reassurance that Mr. Harris offered, but it has now been proved that that reassurance was worthless.

When a public servant offers such reassurance in April and overturns it in October, the public--not least those employed in the coastguard service--require a full and detailed explanation, and I hope the Minister can give us part of one today.

When there was some restructuring in senior management, watch managers were appointed at all but the four stations now due for closure--Pentland, Oban, Tyne Tees and Liverpool. There was a suspicion even then that there was an agenda for closure, and that has now been proved right.

Another problem is the lack of any consultation with those employed in the service--at the cliff-top, as it were. It seems to have been a desk job. Certainly, the police in my constituency were dismayed that there was no consultation with them, because they have formed valued links with the coastguard. They value the fact that they can go into the coastguard station. This is an erosion of the protective services around our coasts, which cannot give us any confidence.

At Pentland, there are 11 mobile grade officers and six coastguard watch assistants. The hon. Member for Gosport gave the annual earnings. I am told that a

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coastguard watch assistant is paid £3.11 an hour. I shall be interested to know what happens to the budget of the agency when the national minimum wage is introduced. That is a ridiculously low amount for a responsible job. The six assistants at the Pentland station were recruited locally earlier this year. I think that most, or even all six, are local people, who will not be disposed to uprooting their families and moving. On Monday--one week after the Minister made her announcement--some of them were sitting the final part of their exams to become qualified coastguard watch assistants. They were sitting the exams, knowing that their jobs were about to be axed.

The important point is that we will lose a lot of local knowledge. The Coastguard agency says that local knowledge is important and that it will not be lost. The deputy regional controller of the Coastguard for the north-east of Scotland, talking to my local newspaper The Orcadian said:

Local knowledge comes about only by being there.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): By being local.

Mr. Wallace: Yes, by being local. We are talking about an area with lots of islands, headlands and exceptional tidal conditions. If people move from Pentland to Aberdeen or Shetland, they will carry that local knowledge with them, but it will be a diminishing asset because there will be no one there to renew it in years to come.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wallace: If I do not give way, I can finish my speech more quickly and the hon. Gentleman may have a chance to speak.

Local knowledge will be lost, which is serious. On 18 October 1994, the Select Committee on Transport, to which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred, took evidence from the previous Chief Coastguard, Commander Ancona. In response to a question from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), he said:

The former Chief Coastguard, with all his experience, thought that a reduction in the then number of coastguard stations, which included Pentland, Oban, Tyne Tees, Liverpool, Portland and Solent,

    "might well have an effect on the service we provide."

That is the concern that other hon. Members and I are expressing.

Inshore fishermen regularly telephone the coastguard to tell them where they are going and to ask for weather forecasts. I do not believe that they will telephone a stranger in Lerwick or Aberdeen when, for many years, they have had that close connection with the local coastguard station.

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I have never yet been given any explanation of why Pentland has been singled out. What are the criteria? I tabled a question to the Minister last week and received a fairly lengthy answer, but it did not say why Pentland had been chosen. Is it the number of incidents? I accept that we do not have the same number of incidents involving people lying on lilos and floating out to sea. The coastguard does an important job in rescuing them. However, last week alone a Faroese fishing vessel, the Saeborg, got into distress off Orkney and required the attention of the Pentland coastguard, as did the Minoan Bay, with 24 crew, for about 40 hours when it was in distress in the waters off Orkney. Those will go down as two incidents, but they were very demanding incidents. Had Pentland been closed and the Lerwick station been dealing with those incidents, it would have been doing so when the Green Lily got into difficulty.

For all the telecommunications in the world, one still needs people to operate telecommunications systems. We are saying that the people must have local knowledge and must not be overstretched. It is clear from the Minister's letter that the Government are looking for job savings and I do not believe that we can adequately substitute telecommunications for people. Of course, telecommunications are important and we want the best, but they are only as good as the people operating them and that is our concern about the proposals. I hope that they are not non-negotiable, as the Chief Coastguard said, because a serious mistake will be made if those stations close.

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