Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 540 - 552)

WEDNESDAY 1 JULY 1998

MR JOHN BALLARD, MR CHRIS BREARLEY and MR DAVID ROWLANDS

  540.  In this instance, the Chief Executive is lucky not to be sitting here, Mr Rowlands, and you are unlucky to be sitting here. So let us start again. Has the Chief Executive given specific instructions to the Coastguard——
  (Mr Rowlands)  No.

  541.  To undertake the work that was previously undertaken by the surveying section?
  (Mr Rowlands)  Remember, the original question was why had we merged the two and what would we get out of it, and what I was describing was the potential to use the Coastguard to give you a presence on the coast that you did not have when it was just an MSA responsibility. The Chief Executive has been tasked by Ministers to review the way the newly-merged Agency operates.

  542.  That is part of his five-year strategy.
  (Mr Rowlands)  And to respond certainly by the end of the year; and what he is looking at is ways where potentially the Coastguard does not replace surveyors, they continue to do everything they have already done, but supplements them on a much more day-to-day basis. And that is what he is looking at now and what he will report to Ministers.

Mr Donohoe

  543.  You cannot possibly justify the reduction of surveyors at a time when you indicate that safety is becoming worse; how is it possible for you, at a time when there is a reduction in surveyors, to expect that you are going to improve upon safety?
  (Mr Rowlands)  The question you asked me, though I could not give you the precise figures, was whether there were as many surveyors today as there were some years ago, and the answer is there are not, the numbers have reduced. They have partially, at least, reduced because some of the work that the old Marine Safety Agency used to undertake has been delegated out to classification societies and their surveyors are undertaking it, rather than MSA surveyors. But there has been no recent reduction in the number of surveyors, I was comparing the present position with some years back.

  544.  And, at the same time as this is going on, you are reducing the number of stations?
  (Mr Rowlands)  No decision has been taken to reduce the number of stations.

  545.  But there is a proposal——
  (Mr Rowlands)  There is a proposal, I agree.

  546.  For there to be a fairly substantial reduction in the number of stations that there are?
  (Mr Rowlands)  The present position is that a consultation was undertaken earlier in the year. Ministers are still considering the outcome of that consultation. Those proposals involved the closure of four of the 21 Maritime Rescue Centres and the co-location of two others on the South Coast.

Chairman

  547.  Yes; we might argue with you about the definitions of co-location. But what progress has been made with the implementation of the five-year strategy that was announced last year? Is it now on hold, is it part of this reassessment? Can you give us, when you give us, because I know you are going to give us, another note, are you not, on staff and certainly on the problems of definition?
  (Mr Rowlands)  The present position is that the five-year strategy had two elements, if I can put it simply. The first element was to replace the existing Rescue Centre communication equipment, which is old, 1980s, analogue equipment, with modern digital equipment. It was that change that gives the flexibility, if that is what Ministers so conclude, to reduce the number of stations themselves. It is not effectively possible with the existing communications equipment, because it does not have the flexibility. As I say, no decisions have been taken on station closures following the consultation, the issue is still with Ministers. It does remain the case that the existing analogue kit will need to be replaced with digital equipment, there cannot be any question about that, because it is old technology, the equipment itself is no longer manufactured, the Coastguard has a stock of spares but once it is through that it will not be able to replace failing kit. So that bit of strategy must be undertaken.

  548.  But the implications of some of that, on concentrating in particular areas and leaving large stretches of the coastline covered in a different way, are very real?
  (Mr Rowlands)  It would involve, if there were station closures, switching aerials to flank stations, where the coastguards there would have to monitor those aerials.

  549.  Mr Rowlands, let us not be too clever about it; if you are in the water the fact that people can hear where you are but cannot get to you is of really rather academic interest?
  (Mr Rowlands)  But the Coastguard from the Rescue Centres does not get to anybody because they just stay in the Rescue Centres. It is either the RNLI or the Coastguard helicopters, or military assets, which actually pick people out of the water.

  550.  And, of course, local knowledge is of very great importance in giving that instruction to whichever rescue service it is sent?
  (Mr Rowlands)  The consultation document which was issued earlier in the year suggested that the concept of local knowledge in a Rescue Centre was rather overestimated.

  551.  Yes, but that was a document that needed to be replied to, and I think was replied to in some detail by many people.
  (Mr Rowlands)  Indeed.

  552.  Good. Now then. I really think, gentlemen, you have been very patient, very entertaining. We shall await the next volume of your memoirs with considerable impatience, and I assume that you will be writing to us in some detail?
  (Mr Ballard)  Yes, we will. Thank you.

Chairman:  We are very grateful to you, Mr Ballard. Thank you very much. Doubtless, we shall meet again ere long. Thank you, gentlemen.

  


 
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