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21 May 2008 : Column 76WH—continued

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I am greatly concerned about the present position. The evidence is apparent: one only has to look at the required competencies, the stress involved when dealing with extremely distressing situations, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) referred, and the work that staff must deal with daily, and then consider the grades, pay and rewards that they receive, to recognise that they have an extremely strong case for regrading. The dispute is not about pay; it is about grading.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Many years ago when I was a shadow Shipping Minister, the coastguard issue was very important. The hon. Gentleman is talking about intelligence in advanced search and rescue. I want to say through him to the Under-Secretary that it is essential to have a proper pay structure that recognises the detailed and courageous work that our coastguard does, not only in coastal areas, but serving constituencies in the centre of the country.

Andrew George: I am sure that the Under-Secretary heard that comment from a Government Member. I am also sure that he appreciates that there is sympathy for and concern about the issue throughout the House. We all want a resolution to what seems to be an intractable problem. I particularly want him to address that intractability.

There have been several comparability studies. Some have been published, and the unions are aware of some of them. Two were produced in December 2006 and September 2007, but the chief executive of the MCA wishes to talk to the unions only about the three-year plan, which does not address the problem of regrading of watch officers, watch assistants and watch managers, which is the nub of the dispute.

Those who work in the stations are concerned that the reason that the MCA senior executive and management wish to discuss with the union, not regrading, but only the three-year plan is that they do not have the competency or power to negotiate a solution to the problem. Achieving the number of staff required within the existing budget is a challenge for the MCA executive, and there is a sense that the dead hand of the Treasury is lying over that. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland was correct in his response to my intervention. I hope that we are given some evidence today that the Under-Secretary of State and his Department are talking to the Treasury and are seeking the finance required to provide the solution to this particularly intractable dispute.

10 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate and on clearly setting out the issues and the solutions required. My constituency has the privilege of having the longest coastline in the country, so I am obviously concerned about the implications of the present dispute.

People who earn their livelihood at sea—fishermen, those who operate commercial craft or private craft—and leisure users place their lives in the hands of coastguards. Recent one-day strikes led to half the country’s rescue co-ordination centres being closed. Obviously, if the
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dispute is prolonged, it will be difficult to maintain the service. It is important to note that those were the first ever strikes by coastguards, so they are clearly not a militant work force.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman might recall that last year, 20 volunteer coastguard teams withdrew their labour and entered into industrial action in west Wales as a result of another industrial relations dispute involving compensation for my constituent, Brian McFarlane—a volunteer coastguard worker who had been injured on a cliff rescue. Concerns were raised about adequate compensation for coastguards who are injured. Uncertainty was created largely as a result of the attitude and communications of the MCA senior management team. Strictly speaking, therefore, this is not the first example of industrial action by coastguards.

Mr. Reid: My point is that the work force is not militant and that industrial action was only taken as a last resort, after years of negotiations.

Starting salaries for coastguards are extremely low. The basic grade in the operations room is a coastguard watch assistant. That role requires a year of training and assessments and examinations must be passed; however, on entry, coastguard watch assistants receive a basic salary of only £12,500 a year. Last October, the agency had to give them an interim pay rise, but that was to comply with national minimum wage legislation. The pay is extremely poor for the type of work that coastguards do. Theirs is a highly skilled and technical job which, importantly, helps to save lives at sea.

As we have heard, comparisons have been made between coastguards and the other emergency services—police, fire and ambulance. Those comparability studies found that, consistently, control room staff in the other emergency services that do a similar job have higher rates of pay. There is a compelling case for increasing coastguards’ pay to the same level as those who do similar jobs in the other emergency services.

It is patently obvious that if the MCA does not pay its staff a salary that is comparable to what they can earn elsewhere, they will leave. As other hon. Members have pointed out, staff turnover is high. Low salaries are therefore a false economy for the MCA in the long run, because the agency will incur the costs of training and recruiting new staff. That is on top of the problems of low morale caused by the present industrial dispute.

I urge the Minister to intervene in the dispute without further delay and to broker a deal to end it. That deal must not just solve the present dispute, but involve long-term regrading so that the pay of MCA staff is comparable with that of staff in the other emergency services. If that means securing more money from the Treasury, the funds will have to be found. After the dispute has been settled, the Government should have an inquiry into the management of the MCA to find out why there are such poor industrial relations and to ensure that industrial relations are not allowed to deteriorate again.

Coastguards do a vital and skilled job and deserve a fair rate of pay. The Government must broker a deal because the safety of people who use the sea depends upon it.

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10.4 am

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. It is vital that the issue is given a thorough airing in Westminster Hall, and hon. Members from all parties have done exactly that.

I represent Stornoway, which is part of my constituency, and the importance of our coastguard office does not need to be emphasised for my constituents. On many winter days, the radio provides the first news of the morning and bulletins often begin with the words, “Stornoway coastguards say,” or “Stornoway coastguards are dealing with”—of course, that might be in English or Gaelic—showing that my constituents understand the importance of the work of the coastguard; indeed, many of them were surprised to find that coastguards are in their present situation.

While I was listening to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), I was reminded of my experience of listening to the coastguard as a fisherman—whether I was clearing nets or handling creels, work was often interrupted when Channel 67 broadcast the coastguard weather bulletins and other information. Those bulletins were welcome not just for providing a break in the work, but for the vital information that was given and for the fact that there was a reassuring voice.

People are surprised that the pay level of coastguards, who are held in such high esteem, has come to public attention. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about coastguards wanting to see the dispute through, but the coastguard and watch officers have no option but to see it through. Although pay rates have been mentioned, I will talk about them again. After one year of training, the starting salary for a coastguard watch assistant is £12,509. To put that in context, it increased in October 2007 only to meet the minimum wage, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman has been part of the campaign for some time. Does he agree that the worst thing that could happen for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would be for the coastguards to give in at this stage, because the issues would not be tackled in the long term and the problems of low morale and lack of motivation would never be addressed? Those concerned have no option but to continue their dispute.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman puts it well; the coastguards have no option but to continue the dispute. We have talked about there being a high turnover of personnel among coastguards and it will only accelerate unless there is thorough root and branch reform. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the need for that.

As I mentioned earlier, listeners of the local radio have been stunned to hear the details of the low levels of pay that coastguards receive, and people have also been stunned to read about them in the local newspaper. Coastguards are held in high esteem and their work is seen as very important. I and my constituents were dismayed and surprised to find that coastguards are only on the minimum wage.
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Coastguards have not taken the step of strike action lightly. Indeed, the 6 March strike was the first in their 180-year history. The reluctance they felt led to them breaking their strike by trying to ensure that people who were out fishing, those who were engaged in leisure-related activities or anyone who might need coastguard help were not in peril. However, they still tried to make their own distress known and I think they have done so. Their support among hon. Members today shows that their point has been well made.

The Minister will be aware of the rightness of the coastguards’ case. No doubt, he could use budget restrictions as an argument, but I urge him not do so, even though it may be tempting. He must use this debate to show the Treasury some steel because it needs to understand forcefully the problems and injustice that coastguards are facing and the situation they are in—I see the Minister is nodding. One of the Government’s watchwords is social justice, but the social justice shown to coastguard watch officers is not at the highest level.

Andrew George: I am concerned that the response to the pay settlement—the re-grading—is often to add the shift allowance that MCA staff receive to the basic salary. I hope that the Minister does not confuse the picture or deflect us by including the shift allowance, to which people are entitled because they work antisocial hours. We must concentrate on the basic salary for people’s grade, and not confuse the issue by including the shift allowance.

Mr. MacNeil: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a point well made. I am sure that the Minister heard it as well. We all know that the problem lies at the Treasury. The Minister must impress on the Treasury the need to deal with the matter properly. I urge him to stamp his feet if necessary—this is one he should jump in the ditch for.

Strike action was not taken lightly. Coastguard watch assistants, officers and managers have very solid support among MPs. A message should go to the Treasury and to the MCA about the strength of feeling among MPs. We feel that MCA staff should be treated fairly. They have a stressful job that they often have to do in distressing situations, as the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland and for Argyll and Bute said. Their pay grading needs to match that of the other emergency sectors.

The most surprising thing for me when I first got involved in this matter was to see how staff are treated, especially given the job that they do. It is a linchpin job. They may be co-ordinating the RNLI from their stations, they may be co-ordinating helicopters and they are often the interface with the public. The level of pay they receive for that job is shocking.

The other message to the Minister is that the measures we have described need to be taken now. The situation is urgent; it is dire. Coastguards have gone on strike for the first time in 180 years. They cannot give up; as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, this is not a time for string or sticky tape. It is a time for real, solid measures to be taken to ensure that we are not dealing with the matter again next year and that we can have conversations about issues other than the difficulty that people have in working for the coastguard.

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10.11 am

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record my support for coastguard staff in the dispute. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate, which is very important for many parts of the country. From speaking with constituents involved in the dispute, I am aware of the level of support in the MCA for the industrial action. I understand that in the ballot in December, 91 per cent. of those who voted did so for industrial action.

As many hon. Members have said, the problem has not come about overnight. It is a historical problem that has existed for many years in the coastguard service, where the levels of pay do not seem comparable to those in other parts of the public sector when we consider the skills, training and experience required in the posts. I therefore join other hon. Members in saying that we want not only a solution to the current dispute, but for the issue to be examined in the long term. It is not acceptable that emergency staff are having to take industrial action.

Today, I spoke to a constituent who is involved in the dispute. He fully supports the action, but he expressed concerns about the possible risks because there is only a skeleton service on the days when industrial action takes place. No one is more aware than those involved in the coastguard of the potential risks when industrial action takes place in such a service. That highlights the fact that it is an emergency service, and just as we say that members of the police service, the ambulance service and the fire brigade should be paid decently for the service they provide to the community, it is only right that we say that for the coastguard service, too.

I offer the Minister my support in any endeavours that he is making to secure funds from the Treasury. I do not think that the situation is of the Department for Transport’s making. The reasons for the present situation have arisen over many years. We have heard about the poverty pay in the service and the need to increase salaries as a result of the annual increases in the national minimum wage. As a Labour Member, I have to say that the fact that we have the national minimum wage means that at least those increases have been made. However, they highlight the fact that, for various reasons, we have ended up in this situation. I very much hope that attempts are made to get back round the table with the unions in meaningful discussions that will not only provide a solution to the dispute that we are dealing with today, but ensure that we do not have to have similar discussions in years to come.

10.15 am

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this very important debate. I confess that it feels a bit strange to be responding from the Front Bench to my hon. Friend, who used to be my boss in the transport team and probably knows considerably more about all things watery than I do. I pay tribute to the work he has done to try to force the Government into action to deal with the ongoing dispute. As well as securing this debate, he has questioned the Prime Minister, called for a parliamentary statement from the Secretary of State
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and tabled early-day motion 1188 on Maritime and Coastguard Agency strike action, which has been backed by 68 right hon. and hon. Members from no fewer than six political parties.

I also pay tribute to the work done by MCA staff, who save lives daily. I express my appreciation to Paul Smith, the MCA section secretary for the Public and Commercial Services Union, for taking the time to discuss the union’s concerns with me and providing us all with a briefing for the debate. I record my interest as an active member of the PCS all-party group.

I shall touch on a number of issues, many of which have been mentioned. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the contingency arrangements for the strikes that have taken place and what action is planned to deal with any escalation of strike action. There has clearly been some difference of opinion between management and the PCS about the MCA’s ability to cope with the strikes.

In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland regarding contingency arrangements, the Minister referred to the redeployment of “experienced managers”. I would like to hear whether those experienced managers were experienced in the operational duties to which they were redeployed during the strikes. Does the Minister accept that the agency muddled through the one-day strikes, and that staff in Shetland did not strike because they were concerned about the safety implications of staff being away from work?

In the same written answer, the Minister confirmed that the agency would approach contingency planning for any future strike action in the same way. Given that strike action is likely to escalate into a 48-hour strike, I strongly urge him to review that decision, because from the perspective of the PCS, although the agency may have been able to muddle through during a 24-hour strike, it will simply not be able to cope with a 48-hour walkout.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to recruitment and retention in the MCA. When it was first established, the coastguard was a very different organisation. It tended to recruit staff who were just finishing a career at sea in either the merchant navy or the Royal Navy. They came ashore with a pension and saw an opportunity to remain in the industry by taking a job with the coastguard. For many, it was a way of supplementing their pension. Since then, the job has changed out of all recognition, but the pay structure remains stuck in the 1970s. As a result, the MCA has a real problem with recruitment and retention. Yes, people are still coming into the service, but many leave within the first couple of years, fully trained and often going to better-paid jobs in which their experience is better remunerated. Between 2003 and 2007, of 175 new recruits, 41 left within two years and, as my hon. Friend said, of all staff leaving the service between 2003 and 2007, almost 50 per cent. left with less than two years of service.

In answer to another written question from my hon. Friend, the Minister confirmed that more than £1.1 million was spent on recruitment between 2003 and 2007. Some of that money would have been better spent trying to retain fully trained staff.

In the summer of 2006, management and the trade unions agreed during their pay negotiations that
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management would undertake a comparability study, examining pay levels in the agency and those of other emergency services and similar staff. It was understood that the work would delay the 2006 pay discussions, but it was thought essential by unions and management and therefore worth while. The work was undertaken by KIS-Solutions Ltd.

The report was produced on 6 December 2006. However, it was not published or made available except to those involved in the pay negotiations. Its analysis demonstrated that although a range of salary levels is paid to ambulance, fire service and police control room staff, who enjoy varying conditions of service, they have a consistent pay lead over MCA staff who work in operation rooms. In addition, levels of responsibility and accountability vary considerably, with MCA staff having the most involvement in ongoing operations. Management’s response was to dismiss the report, declaring that it was of no value. It proposed a below-inflation pay offer that did not maintain cost of living increases or address the long-standing problem of pay comparability.

Following the appointment of Peter Cardy as the MCA’s chief executive in June 2007, agreement was reached on carrying out a further comparability study. The final draft was broadly agreed by the PCS in September 2007 but it was rejected by Prospect, the other union involved. Joint work highlighted a shortfall in salary for a watch assistant, estimated to be in the region of up to £4,500, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members.

PCS has always been ready to accept benchmarking against the other emergency services, despite the fact that MCA staff maintain control of operations until their completion, quite unlike the police, the fire service and ambulance services. It is true that MCA staff do not handle as many calls as the other emergency services, but they have to make tough decisions about when to call off a search. Such decisions cannot be taken lightly. The agency accepts that pay levels need addressing, but it has failed to come up with a solution.

In December 2007, the unions were informed that management wished to make a pay offer that would cover a four-year period—one that would

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