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Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): Does my hon. Friend agree that, by closing the Liverpool station and assigning to Holyhead an additional 700 miles of coastal waters, covering increasing traffic and complex waters in Liverpool, we may be leaving users of the sea and coast in increased danger?

Mr. Benton: My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is the view that has been expressed from all maritime quarters on Merseyside.

I referred to the secrecy, or alleged secrecy, because there is no doubt that the experts on the ground have been complaining for a long time--even when the Isle of Man station was closed, putting an additional burden on the Crosby coastal station--about the complete lack of consultation.

I think that there is a genuine case for reconsidering the situation, and perhaps the entire service. I am making an appeal for a serious look at the situation that may prevail on Merseyside.

I do not want to be a voice of doom; I am certainly not a Luddite. I predict, however, that the voice of unease which is registering itself will swell in volume between now and 2000. I beg the Minister, on behalf of Merseyside Members of Parliament and of all the maritime interests on Merseyside, to think again. If she does, we shall co-operate with her.

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10.39 am

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on securing the debate and raising a subject of great concern to Members of all parties. It is a most important subject, on which my hon. Friend spoke knowledgeably and powerfully. It is of concern not just to his constituents but to the nation at large.

I am glad to begin by joining in the tributes that have been paid this morning to the courage and commitment of the Coastguard. Especially in our thoughts at the moment are Mr. Deacon and his family.

Several speakers have made clear the depth and breadth of the anxieties felt about the Government's proposals. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) made an eloquent contribution; the very fact that she is still here is a fine example of her stamina after that all-night sitting in Committee. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) began rather dangerously by claiming that it was Conservative Members who had switched their views on the matter. She made no reference to the much more dramatic switch in roles by the Deputy Prime Minister, who used to be a campaigner for, and defender of, the Coastguard but who appears in those roles no longer.

The hon. Lady went on to ask a number of questions about policy which I hope that the Minister will answer. So, too, did the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who asked some very disturbing questions. That made it all the more regrettable that, apparently owing to some mishap in the Minister's office, the hon. and learned Gentleman was unable to meet the Minister to discuss the issue. That seems dangerously close to a breach of the usual courtesies extended by Ministers to hon. Members--

Mr. Wallace indicated dissent.

Mr. Yeo: Well, I hope at least that the private office will take note of what appears to have been a breakdown in communications.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) has raised understandable anxieties. He referred to the Minister's response to him in a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation on 12 November, when the Minister accused him of scaremongering. It was only a matter of days before the anxieties expressed by my hon. Friend turned out to be rather well founded. Indeed, it looks as though my hon. Friend's comments were a good deal nearer the truth than were the Minister's. I therefore hope that the Minister will have the grace and honesty to admit that she was mistaken when accusing my hon. Friend of scaremongering; and that she will take this opportunity to withdraw her accusation.

Dr. Fox: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that no Scottish Office Minister is present at this debate, which is of major importance to Scotland? Under the Conservative Government, a Scottish Office Minister would at least have attended as a sign of courtesy and of Scotland's interest.

Mr. Yeo: That is an important point. I have no doubt that the previous Government would have ensured that

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a Scottish Office Minister was present to hear the views of the House--but this Government's lack of interest in the views of the House is a point to which I shall return.

The hon. Members for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) and for Bootle (Mr. Benton) also expressed their concerns. It is clear that the Minister has not persuaded her Back Benchers of the merits of this proposal. Not a single Member in the House this morning has spoken or even intervened in support of what the Government propose to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport rightly identified two key aspects: first, the substance of the proposed changes to the Coastguard; secondly, the manner in which those changes have been announced to Parliament. As to the changes, the Opposition's view remains the same as it was when we were in government--that safety should be the paramount consideration at all times, and that nothing must be done that could conceivably jeopardise it. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is also the Government's view.

If changes are to be made, they must be made with the aim of strengthening the Coastguard. Nothing should be done that puts the current coastguard cover for emergencies at risk. The Minister must realise that the way that the Government's policy has been dragged out into public view has understandably raised anxieties that she must now allay. Many people fear that the proposed changes may indeed put lives at risk.

Conservative Members of course recognise that changes must take place. The Coastguard cannot and should not stand still. It is only right that the latest technology should be used. The Coastguard will inevitably be different in the 21st century from what it has been in the 20th, but that difference must be in how it operates, not in its effectiveness. Of course we welcome the prospect of new investment, but the decision must not be a smokescreen behind which operations are quietly cut, staff are sacked, experience and training are wasted and effectiveness is reduced.

The House will need to be convinced that the Government's proposals guarantee the necessary protection in the future, and that safety is not being compromised in a hasty bid to cut costs for some other purpose.

The sad truth is that we are learning week after week that this is a Government who cannot be trusted to keep their word. We heard it in the July Budget, with the introduction of the £5 billion smash-and-grab raid on pension funds. We heard it earlier in the summer with the introduction of tuition fees, and with their broken promises on waiting lists and class sizes. The list of broken promises grows week by week but--even by the standards of this untrustworthy Government, whose contempt for Parliament is their most notable characteristic--the manner in which this decision has been announced was absolutely disgraceful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport set out the day-by-day sequence of events which amounts to nothing more than a sequence of evasions. Will the Minister explain this morning her role at each stage of this sorry saga, from 7 October, when the incomplete Coastguard information pack was sent to the printers, to 14 November, when the truth finally emerged? If she does not have time to set out the detail in this debate,

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will she write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of her letter in the Library? Above all, will she explain why she made no statement to the House of Commons at any stage in the process? Was that because she was afraid, because she did not know what was going on or because she--like so many other Ministers--simply does not care about the House of Commons?

On the day we have learned that the amount of taxpayers' money being swallowed up by the salaries of political advisers to Ministers has risen by 44 per cent. since 1 May, we might ask Ministers whether they are getting value for money from all those advisers.

Perhaps the Minister simply hoped to hide behind the Chief Coastguard in this matter. The use of the Chief Coastguard to make a politically sensitive and controversial announcement of policy is extremely dubious. Did the Minister authorise that procedure herself, or was the decision taken by the Secretary of State? Why was this method of announcement chosen? I believe that Madam Speaker herself has expressed concern about how the House has been treated over this issue.

The picture that emerges suggests that here is a Minister who is not on top of the policy for which she is responsible, who is fearful of engaging in debate, who knows that she has something to hide. This morning's debate is an opportunity for her to dispel that impression.

For a Government who boast of their willingness to make hard choices, this fumbling over a vital national service smacks of both incompetence and weakness. Will the Minister now--very belatedly--give the House a full, honest and clear account of her actions and of the Government's policy?

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): In common with the whole House, I wish to associate myself with the tributes paid to Mr. Deacon, the helicopter winchman who gave his life in saving 10 lives from the Green Lily, and to the coxswain and crew of the Lerwick lifeboat, who, without hesitation--as is general throughout that great search and rescue service--risked their own lives to save those in danger on the sea.

I say to the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) that, far from being dragged to the House this morning, I welcome the opportunity offered by his Adjournment debate to reiterate the facts inherent in the five-year strategy that was announced and to lay the misinformation, disinformation, rumour and speculation that have been fuelled, in my opinion, from both within the Chamber and without. To all hon. Members who have participated in this important debate, I say that, if I do not answer all their individual questions this morning, I shall most certainly respond by letter.

The contribution from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) does not, in my view, warrant any sort of detailed response. That he, as a member of a former Government who subjected the Coastguard agency to a biannual roundabout of confusion and to constant pressure to maintain services, while reducing the levels of Government funding, should speak as he did is little short of disgraceful.

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To touch briefly on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton), who was denied access to his local coastguard station, I say to him and all hon. Members that that was a gross mistake and it will not occur again--indeed, we would encourage all hon. Members on both sides of the House to visit their local coastguard stations.

What has emerged from the debate is that there is genuine confusion among many hon. Members as to what the five-year strategy contains. As we have stated, it is a multi-million pound investment in new digital technology: it is not in any way a method of reducing the human element, which is as vital as technology to the Coastguard service.

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