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10.24 am

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): I want to be constructive and I shall raise three points. I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for enabling this debate to take place. Portsmouth is the major conurbation next to Gosport and it is a centre of maritime activity.

The first of my three points concerns what is already happening and raising the profile of the coastguard service. All hon. Members who have spoken have done that constructively, so the profile of the job is being raised. Secondly, I must flag up the danger of any loss of coastguard service, particularly helicopter search and rescue, in the Gosport-Portsmouth area. Thirdly, I want to ensure that the trade unions who represent the staff--a large number of staff in the service are in unions--are fully consulted about the procedures necessary for redundancy, as the strategy for the five-year development plan evolves. It is no good merely consulting them afterwards. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that that will be done.

As everyone who has spoken has already raised the profile of the service and I want to cut my speech short, I shall go straight to my second point, which concerns raising the Portsmouth profile. There are 25 deaths from drowning in the Solent each year, which is 10 per cent. of all deaths through drowning around our coasts. Although the Solent appears to be placid--it is in the south and people use lilos--it is a dangerous place. Our helicopter services are scrambled 1,000 times a year and are extremely busy. The helicopters can get to people in distress in the Solent in about two minutes from Lee-on-the-Solent. If the service is moved anywhere else, the distance and time will be critical for life saving.

Portsmouth, as most hon. Members know--my hon. Friend the Minister was there recently--is a very busy place and it will get busier. As far as we are concerned,

26 Nov 1997 : Column 900

it is the centre of the Navy--I apologise to people in other areas, but it is the heart of the Navy. We also have a major international ferry port and an enormous number of yachting activities, with Cowes and all the rest. Our millennium scheme will increase the number, because it concentrates on maritime activity. Whenever anything happens on the sea, whether it is Britannia coming back or ships leaving to go to war, an enormous number of people go on the water to see the activities and to participate, increasing the potential for and the danger of accidents.

The debate in 1996 was rather stunted. Portsmouth city council raised the ogre of losing the services. We had a battle on our hands, but we eventually won, only to realise that that ogre might be raised once more because of this strategy. We have to raise the flag against it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that those points will be taken into consideration when decisions on the strategy are eventually taken.

I am still trying to live down my past of being an eternal opposition person, a great shop steward in Parliament, and of attacking the Front Benchers--my usual tactic of attacking management. I have grown up since then and I am trying to be constructive. I hope that the urgency of getting the agency and the people who are drawing up the strategy to amend and change it will be realised. We must modify it in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Now we are in government, we must have a different attitude. We must get our Ministers to modify what the agency would have done under the previous Administration, which was much harder and tougher. Moving to agency status was one way of sorting things out--in a way we did not want them sorted out. I hope that, with an intelligent and sympathetic Minister, we will now get a better response.

Thirdly, I was impressed when I met trade union representatives today. I have been outside before with people waving banners and expressing anger, perhaps even wanting to kill people in here, but this morning people showed serious concern rather than anger. They are responsible and want to participate constructively.

The unions do not appear to have been drawn into the strategy so far; they should be, because they are the people on the ground with the knowledge, and they represent the people to whom Scottish Members referred today. Redundancies can be achieved, with proper consultation, without too much pain, by going through the proper channels. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will regard those as constructive points.

10.30 am

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) mistakes his role: he is a constituency Member and must fight whomever is in government. The previous Government wanted to take away my helicopter at Portland; I fought them every step of the way and we now have a five-year commitment to that helicopter. We can fight for our beliefs, regardless of party.

Untruths have been told in press releases, suggesting that the change is not a cut in manpower. The previous Government decided to close coast watch stations, and in my constituency volunteers have replaced the guards whom they removed. People are being paid £3 an hour to

26 Nov 1997 : Column 901

do the work in control centres. That was the previous strategy, and we are now told that 200 people are to replace the 90-odd in the four stations that are to close. We are not being told the truth about what is happening with the two stations that are to be collocated.

The Minister said in Committee that she was baffled by my question about merging the two coastguard stations at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent. Her press statement two days later said:

She should apologise for misleading me, because I spent the weekend telling the press that they were wrong, because she had assured me that the merger was not going ahead.

We tend to hear about the glamorous side of the Coastguard--rescues and so on--but I have been amazed by the volume of paper that I have received from trade unionists and people working in the system. In response to a survey, someone wrote:

that is certainly what is going on here--

    "liberal interpretation of policy and guidelines at Regional level and lack of public awareness. Is lets face it, always going to be the subject of stress and a deterioration of general health."

The response goes on to get even worse, but I will not delay the House.

Let us consider directly what is happening at the stations at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent. It would be madness for the Government to collocate them on a single site if there were not some savings to be made in staff. Is it right to reduce the number of staff? There are about 600 coastguards and towards 100 people are to be removed. That sounds like a lot of people, but a 24-hour watch, seven days a week, comes to 168 hours. Dividing that by the 42 hours means four people for every post, and there has to be another person to cover holidays and sickness, and probably another for training. That means about 100 people on duty at any one time, and those people have to monitor all the channels.

There are more and more ways for people to communicate with the Coastguard in a much better way. In the Navy, radio watch is kept with one person to one circuit; in the Coastguard in the past, it was one person to two circuits; now we are moving towards one person monitoring seven or eight circuits. That, frankly, cannot be right.

I am astounded by Ministers saying that it is all to do with bad buildings at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent; that is absolute nonsense. A whole naval air station is to close in the next couple of years. If the Government want the coastguards to move into a fully equipped and perfect new purpose-built building from their wonderful listed building by Weymouth harbour, that is fine; but it is nonsense for the Minister to go on television, as she did this weekend, and say that there are no job implications in merging two 25-man or 26-man stations.

People have complete disbelief in what their managers are saying and doing. We need to have meetings with Ministers and with the heads of the Coastguard. It was

26 Nov 1997 : Column 902

very nice of them to send us colour photographs of themselves--we can put them up on banners and decry what they are doing--but we need assurances that they will hold consultations and change their mind. There is no money to be saved in those moves, but there are certainly lives to be lost.

10.35 am

Mr. Joe Benton (Bootle): I speak on behalf of the many Merseyside Members and, more importantly, the staff employed at the coastguard station at Crosby, Liverpool, as well as the concerned general public on Merseyside.

I could not agree more with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about the new technology, which has not yet been put into practice. I do not intend what I say to be a criticism of the Minister or of former Ministers.

As recently as last Friday, at the request of the staff at the Crosby station, I went to discuss the problem with them. On the instruction of senior management, I was not allowed on the premises, which rather upset me. The background seems to be shrouded in mystery and secrecy; it is not open enough.

I spoke to people with genuine knowledge of the maritime situation in Merseyside, in the port of Liverpool, who have been skilled for many years in rescue and safety operations, which they have carried out with great success. They cannot understand why a station at the gateway to the Atlantic and the western world is to be closed, when all the indications are that there will be increased maritime traffic over the next few years. They are completely puzzled by the decision to transfer the station to Holyhead.

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