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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 21 May 2008

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Maritime and Coastguard Agency (Industrial Relations)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Bob Blizzard.]

9.30 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I am delighted to have obtained this 90-minute debate, which will centre around a dispute that has been running for some time. It has been one of my frustrations in recent years that it has been difficult to get any discussion at all of industrial relations within the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on the Floor of the House or even on the record.

My frustrations are shared by several right hon. and hon. Members who would have wished to be here today but cannot be for a variety of reasons. I mention in particular the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who has taken a long and active interest in the debate but is not able to be here because of a constituency engagement, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who is the Chairman of the International Development Committee, which is sitting at present. He has registered a substantial interest.

Although it is not a declarable interest in the normal sense, for the sake of completeness I should perhaps place on record that, as far as matters of search and rescue are concerned, I am a member of the national council of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which works closely with the agency. It is also a matter of some family pride that my father was for many years a member of the auxiliary coastguard, which is now a volunteer coastguard, on Islay. He was an active and leading participant in many rescue operations off Islay and several cliff rescues throughout the 1950s and 1960s. When we speak about the coastguard, we tend to speak about the full-time paid members, and that is who I will rightly focus on today, but it is important to remember the contribution to the operation of the volunteers as well.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I apologise that I shall have to leave about 10 minutes before its end. Is not one of the tragedies of this dispute that the volunteer section, which is so incredibly important, is suffering from a complete drop in morale as much as the paid section is, and that a speedy end to the dispute is vital to get the voluntary side back in line?

Mr. Carmichael: My hon. Friend makes that perfectly fair and legitimate point exceptionally well. The damage that is being done by the industrial unrest in the agency significantly affects the paid sector, but I fear that the damage to the cadre of volunteers will be much more significant in the long term. One can resolve difficulties
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in a paid sector by improving pay and conditions, but very different conditions apply when it comes to motivating a volunteer sector.

I am delighted that there is a good turn-out from all parts of the House today. I know that not everybody will be able to stay for the whole of the debate, but their presence is an indication that the issue is growing in political importance. I hope that the Minister will consider that when he argues the case with the Treasury for the flexibility and resources that might allow resolution of the dispute.

It is frustrating that in many ways the coastguard, which is an emergency service, is the forgotten service. Just about every Member of this House must have signed an early-day motion, tabled a parliamentary question or written to the Minister about the need for a marine Bill. I also feel passionately about that issue, but every protection, designation and law that is known to man, beast and lawyer will have absolutely no impact whatsoever if protection from a day-to-day service on the ground is not in place. When an oil tanker is drifting towards rocks, designations are meaningless. That is when the coastguard is needed.

I note from the Library debate pack that it is more than a year since I first raised this issue on the Floor of the House. If the Minister takes no other message from today’s debate, I hope that he will understand that the dispute will not simply go away. There have already been three one-day strikes among the coastguard staff. Morale has plummeted as a consequence and there is an immense feeling of frustration among the operational staff, but, from my contacts with coastguard offices and people who have e-mailed me, and from a recent meeting that I had with Public and Commercial Services Union branch secretaries, I can tell the Minister that there is a greater than ever determination among coastguards to see the dispute through.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the three days of industrial action. Would he agree that the coastguards who decided to take industrial action did so with extremely heavy hearts? I have letters and e-mails from coastguards in my constituency who say that the decision to withdraw their labour was agonising. It was not one that they entered into lightly.

Mr. Carmichael: It was not a decision that they entered into lightly. In fact, every step in the evolution of this debate has been one that the coastguards have said they do not want to take, that they would take any means available to them to avoid. It is a hallmark of the failure to manage the dispute properly that people who are so highly motivated in their work have been pushed into a position where they feel they have no option but to strike.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Would my hon. Friend agree that the danger with the strikes is not only their potential impact on our own coasts but overseas as well? Coastguard stations such as Falmouth in my constituency play a critical role in co-ordinating rescues that could take place anywhere in the world. The impact of the dispute reaches much further than simply our own shores.

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Mr. Carmichael: That is an exceptionally fine point. My hon. Friend will be aware that the shipping in and out of the country that passes Falmouth in her constituency involves ships from all over the world. It is an exceptionally busy shipping area. The work of the Falmouth coastguard station is also of particular importance because it has a role in the co-ordination of anti-terror efforts. Those things could all be put at risk by continuing disputes.

I spoke to one coastguard who is proud of the work that he has done on civil contingency planning. That is something else that will be lost as a result of the dispute within the agency. It is clear that the effects of the dispute will reach far beyond the bounds of the agency itself.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Carmichael: Let me just finish this one point, which I have been trying to make for the past two minutes.

There is clearly an emerging view among the staff that one-day strikes are simply not sufficient. That does not mean that they will give up and go away but that, almost inevitably, there will be two, three or four-day strikes, perhaps over a bank holiday weekend. As a result, I have serious concerns because the agency may not be able to provide proper contingency planning for such an eventuality.

David Taylor: The dispute stretches beyond coastal constituencies because all MPs have constituents who visit and use the coast, and it is important that their safety is secure. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the roots of the dispute go back two years to a comparability study? The unions and management agreed to look at other emergency services and came to a conclusion that the management then cursorily cast aside. People in my constituency would be astonished to learn that what is on offer is a 42-hour week, £12,097 a year, £5.37 an hour—just above the national minimum wage—together with a below-inflation pay offer. No wonder that double whammy has triggered the sort of action and reaction that we have seen and heard so far. The offer is not acceptable.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I shall say more about that later. He has no need to apologise for being part of this debate, although he has a land-locked constituency, because the pattern of sea use these days is no longer confined to coastal and island communities, as would have been the case in previous generations. The sea is increasingly used for leisure, for example, by people who go from land-locked or inland communities to the coast for a day, a week or for weekends, or whatever. That has been a growing sector in sea use in recent years.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have been trying to visit Fifeness coastguard station in my constituency for some time, but I am told that I can visit only in the presence of a senior civil servant. Quite why that is necessary, I am not sure.

May I underline the point that my hon. Friend has made about recreational use and add to it a point about those constituencies in which the fishing industry is based? The reliance that the fishing industry is able to
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place on the coastguard system is fundamental to the success of fishing activity. Any departure from the usual high standards and the 365-day availability is a matter of considerable concern to fishermen.

Mr. Carmichael: My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. Leisure users of the sea can choose to go to sea, whether coastguard cover is withdrawn or reduced. However, fishermen, especially inshore fishermen, who work within exceptionally tight margins cannot choose because the financial imperative will force them to go out to sea.

I suspect that after this debate there might be a queue of senior civil servants wanting to take my right hon. and learned Friend to the Fifeness station but, if there is not, if I were him I would probably just go anyway.

I am concerned that, if we move to two, three or four-day strikes, the contingency planning will be stretched beyond credibility. The contingency planning for a one-day strike has been described to me by a coastguard manager as relying on string and sticky tape. I say to the Minister that string and sticky tape will not last more than 24 hours. I hope that he will be honest and realistic with the House and the general public about what contingency planning arrangements can seriously and properly be made before a longer strike. I hope that such a prospect will prompt the Government to act before the contingency planning is necessary. There can be no doubt, because it is now on the record, that if something goes wrong in the event of a longer strike as a result of insufficient contingency planning and there is loss of life or environmental damage, nobody can say, “We didn’t know. We weren’t warned,” because they have been warned here today.

It is worth reflecting on how we got into this position. There has been a history of low pay in the coastguard. If we go back far enough, historically, people were coming to the coastguard from the Royal Navy after retirement and, as a result of the substantial pension they brought with them, did not need the same level of pay. However, that is no longer the case and has not been so for many years.

Our coastguard performs a highly technical and highly responsible operation. If right hon. and hon. Members have not been in a coastguard operations room I would encourage them to do so at the first available opportunity. In many ways it is a bit like being on the deck of the starship Enterprise. The coastguard is a highly technical, skilled operation, the development of which has been a deliberate policy on the part of the Government, although we have not always found that easy. The closure of Pentland and Oban coastguard stations was part of a rationalisation process that relied heavily on that technical development. However, we must have people who are well-motivated and resourced to make the technology work.

The situation rumbled on, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned, until about 2006, at which point there was a comparability study instituted by the management of the MCA, which instructed KIS Solutions Ltd. That study was never published and its contents and its analysis of the situation are known only to those who were party to the pay negotiations at the time. However, it demonstrated a gap between the coastguards and those working in comparable emergency services. That study was declared
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by the management at the time as being of no value, but no further specification of that was given and, as a result of that declaration, a below-inflation pay increase was imposed and the longer-term issues were not addressed.

In 2007, a new chief executive was appointed. Many of us hoped that that appointment would mark a new beginning in the negotiations and, for some time, it appeared that that would be so. At the instigation of the chief executive a pay benchmarking analysis was undertaken that was finally agreed on in October 2007. That analysis concluded that a coastguard watch assistant was up to £4,500 per annum behind where they ought to be. No figure was agreed for the coastguard watch officers, because the evidence was, in the management’s view—to use their terms—less compelling. Of course, it could be less compelling given the position with regard to the watch assistants. However, there is still plenty of scope for a fairly compelling case to be made.

It is worth putting on the record the figures that we are talking about. A coastguard watch assistant earns between £12,509 and £14,384 a year; a watch officer earns between £14,742 and £18,717 a year; and a coastguard watch manager earns between £19,744 and £25,702 per week—if only! I should, of course, have said “per year”. A watch officer and a watch manager routinely take control of major search and rescue co-ordinations. They also make the decision that the time has come to give up the search, which involves saying to the family of the person who is missing, “We are not going to find your loved one. We are giving up the search.” Right hon. and hon. Members might ask themselves whether they would be prepared to say that to a grieving family who do not know where their loved one is. Would they be prepared to do that for less than £15,000 a year?

We talk about comparability with the fire, police and ambulance services, but the comparability is not exact; in fact, the situation is even more acute for the coastguard. In respect of fire, ambulance or police operations on the ground, that is the point at which the control room gives up. It is different for the coastguard, where the operations room retains control of what is going on on the ground from beginning to end.

I hope that my framing the subject for debate quite widely is not lost on the Minister. I do not want this debate to be just about the dispute: it has to be about how we have got to this situation and what we are going to do in future, once we have got past the dispute.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that the nub of the issue is that this is not a dispute about annual pay, but about a six-year negotiation on regrading? Does he also agree—without wishing to be rude or disparaging to the Under-Secretary of State who will answer this debate—that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members fear that the dead hand of the Treasury lies behind the reason why the MCA, an agency of the Department, is unable to resolve an unfair arrangement?

Mr. Carmichael: I have no doubt that the resolution to this dispute will ultimately come from the Treasury. Equally, I have no doubt that the Minister has the key role in making the case. The benefit of this debate is that he can go to the Treasury and say that the issue is heating up politically and will not go away, so a solution must be found. In the present set-up, morale is on a
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downward spiral, and a large element of false economy is entering the equation. We are investing in training for watch officers particularly, only to see them take the training and then take their skills elsewhere where they can obtain much better remuneration.

In his answer to my recent parliamentary question the Minister said that the cost of staff advertising and recruitment had risen from £59,000 in 1998-99 to £252,000 in the year just ended. I have outstanding questions to the Minister about staff retention, but management has told the unions that between 2003 and 2007, 105 coastguard watch assistants left the agency and 51 of them had less than two years’ experience.

We must look ahead, and at why operational staff in the agency feel so demoralised and undervalued. The Minister may wish to reflect on the message that is sent to operational coastguard staff when the board of the agency does not include a single person with operational experience as a coastguard. When we have got through the present difficult period, we must take a long, hard look at the coastguard, and why we have got where we are. I welcome this debate as the first step in that process.

9.52 am

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I shall make only a brief speech, to emphasise the point that I made in an intervention. During the six years of the negotiations, three grades—those of watch assistant, watch officer and watch manager—have been most relevant to the dispute. Following last autumn’s and this autumn’s increase in the national minimum wage, watch assistants will have to have an increase to bring their pay back above the national minimum wage. They undertake important and responsible work in the watch room, but their pay is just at the point of the national minimum wage, despite their having to go through one year of training. Further training is required for watch officers as they move up the scale.

Julia Goldsworthy: Is it not the case that watch officers and watch assistants will be earning less than administrative officers in the same station? I have constituents who have taken a pay cut to move from being an administrative assistant to the watch side and have done a year’s training simply to have a more interesting job. Is that not asking too much?

Andrew George: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and she has been assiduous in representing the interests of the Falmouth station, which has an important international role not only in counter-terrorism, but in co-ordination of rescues. It has provided an international co-ordinating role in many other parts of the world, and is an important watch station for the MCA.

The third grade, watch managers, are on the executive officer grade of the civil service pay band and are paid at the same level as an administrative manager, but they go through many years of training to achieve that grade and must satisfy more than 140 technical competencies before they are entitled to take on that role. Without wishing to disparage the skills of administrative managers, those technical competencies take watch managers to a level that clearly has no correlation or comparability with administrative managers.

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