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21 May 2008 : Column 83WH—continued

However, it was never made because permission to make the offer was withdrawn.

The real sticking point is the Government’s current drive to keep down public sector pay awards. In January Peter Cardy said:

That merely confirmed what the Minister said in a letter to Paul Smith of PCS in November:

That is a smokescreen. The dispute is not about an annual pay award, although public sector workers are understandably concerned at receiving pay increases much lower than the increased cost of living. No; it is
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about long-standing pay levels that fall significantly behind comparable workers in the other emergency services.

I suspect that most people would be shocked to hear that some workers will get a pay rise in October simply to avoid falling below the new minimum wage. That is not acceptable. The Minister is a reasonable man. We need to hear from him that the Government accept that the dispute is not about this year’s pay award. It is about fairness, and ensuring that staff are paid a salary that reflects their high level of responsibility and is comparable to workers in other emergency services. We would like the Government to commit themselves to resolving the dispute. We would like the Minister to agree to a binding, independent review of pay for staff in the MCA.

10.24 am

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on calling this debate. The topic is important and, as a number of hon. Members have said, proper discussion of it by the House is long overdue.

Before getting down to the serious matter of pay, I wish to pick out three points that featured in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The first is that the Government have been warned about contingency planning and the problems that may arise if things go wrong during a two-day or three-day strike. Secondly, because of the MCA’s structure, those in its top tier are, in a sense, professionally divorced. I do not attack any individual, but the top tier managers come from a different pool from those who work at the sharp end. That is a point for further thinking. Thirdly, I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that we must not lose sight of the position of the many thousands of volunteers in the MCA, of which he said his father was a distinguished member. I shall return to that subject later.

The coastguards have become the forgotten emergency service. Although 95 per cent. of all goods by weight imported into this country come by sea, few of us make more than a short ferry trip in a vessel. I bow to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) and his fishing experience. I have in my constituency a small group of fishermen who play an important part in the community. Day by day and week by week, we all see the activities of the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance service, but it is all too easy to forget the essential work of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Almost everything that arrives in our shops or appears on our plates that has been imported has come by sea. The MCA is the glue that holds the whole thing together in the United Kingdom. It regulates our position as a flag state and as a port state; it inspects all British ships and keeps an eye on foreign-flagged ships entering UK harbours. However, our debate has focused on its most vital work, which is co-ordinating rescues. The 1,250 staff of the MCA answered more than 21,000 distress calls last year, with almost 50,000 seafarers potentially at risk.

When I visited my local coastguard headquarters in Dover—the visit was kindly facilitated by the Minister, who took some trouble to overcome the various complications mentioned by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell)—I
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was struck by one image: a photograph of a group of volunteers, led by a full-time coastguard professional, abseiling down a cliff to rescue a young woman who had fallen over the edge. Normally, those who fall over the cliff do not survive. Miraculously, her fall was broken at 120 ft by a fridge that had been illegally dumped. If the House will forgive my levity on such a serious subject, it gives a new meaning to recycling! That case reminds us, of course, that MCA staff do not save only people out at sea.

The storms earlier this year, in which we saw three large ships founder, should help to focus all our minds on the dangers still inherent in the seafarer’s life. According to the MCA’s report, of the more than 1,400 ships registered in the UK, an average of 150 are involved in a maritime incident of some kind each year. To add a footnote to that, the bishop who is the head of the Apostleship of the Sea, in a moving speech in the Speaker’s apartments two or three years ago, reminded us that although a spillage of oil invariably gets national and international headlines for days on end, the deaths of mariners at sea frequently only make the smallest entry in the media. The coastguard is of course involved in both situations.

Coastguards must co-ordinate a bewildering number of different bodies when they answer a call, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, military search and rescue teams—there are plans for all rather than some of the helicopters involved to be operated by MCA by 2012—mountain and cave rescue teams for incidents on cliffs, and ambulance and fire crews. Kent Fire and Rescue Service is often involved in offshore work. In addition, coastguards have their own search and rescue teams on the coastline. The men and women of the MCA deserve our praise and admiration.

When visiting the Dover headquarters, I was mightily impressed with the way in which the people there, who are experts on the sea, used every kind of modern technology. The dual-tracking system, based on satellite tracking and radar, gives the lie to the idea of the old sea dog gazing through a telescope, although they also had a nice pair of high-powered binoculars—the mark 1 eyeball is always there as a back-up. We must accept that those people have been treated shabbily.

Mr. MacNeil: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. At the beginning of his speech, he warned of the consequences of a two or three-day pay dispute. I should tell the Minister that anything that arises from the dispute could be really bad news for the Government. The PCS is looking for only £3 million to resolve the dispute, which seems like a small amount when we consider that the Treasury found £2.6 billion at the stroke of a pen last week.

Mr. Brazier: I shall respond directly to the hon. Gentleman’s point toward the end of my speech.

Because of below-inflation pay increases, some staff have found that their salaries have slipped to minimum wage levels, as hon. Members pointed out. Police officers and firefighters have a starting salary of around £20,000, but coastguards start on little more than £12,000. The salaries for watch officers and watch managers are also very low when compared with similar positions in other
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emergency services. Inflation is soaring, so a pay rise of only 2.5 per cent. has understandably infuriated some of the most dedicated and professional men and women in the public service.

That has brought about the first three strikes in professional coastguard history—the Government should not be proud of that record—and has led to the haemorrhaging of staff. The latter has been referred to a number of times and I do not wish to repeat the detailed figures provided by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), but I echo the point that was made by a number of hon. Members on the increase in training and advertising budgets, which is money wasted. To clarify, money spent on training is not wasted per se—training is essential—but it is if it relates to unnecessary levels of turnover.

That is not the only area where the coastguard is being let down. Last year, volunteer coastguards went out on their first strike because the Government refused to give them proper insurance for their work. As a consequence, one coastguard who was seriously injured on a rescue mission up a cliff in Pembrokeshire—the injury was so serious that it cost him his job—did not get compensation worth even half his old salary, and that payment was only temporary. Coastguards rely on volunteers for a range of activities, but particularly for cliff rescue. Men and women are prepared to spend their leisure time training so that they can be on stand-by night and day to launch a rescue mission. The treatment of those volunteers is no way to keep their good will; they could easily vote with their feet and do something else in their spare time.

Mr. Carmichael: The management of the voluntary sector is another challenge for the MCA to face. My father was a coastguard auxiliary in an area that he knew intimately because he had worked there as a shepherd with other shepherds. However, there are no shepherds left in that area—the ground is largely unknown to the next generation, who do not know the cliff paths to the shoreline, for example. That range of local, highly detailed expertise will be lost.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman has put a point of considerable significance on the record. I shall not comment further because he made it so well.

Two groups of strikes—three days of professional action and a single volunteer strike—have taken place in a sector that has never before taken industrial action, which is an indictment of the Government’s approach to the coastguards. We know what has caused the problem: it is not the lack of an energetic Minister in post—the Minister knows that I have the highest personal admiration for him—but that the public finances are in a terrible mess. The official excuse used by the Government to justify the situation is that they need to keep pay increases down generally to fight inflation. However, inflation is running at 4 per cent. on the retail prices index, so offering only a 2.5 per increase means that the salaries of those men and women is reduced.

The sad truth is that we cannot make reasonable pay increases in some parts of the public sector because there is not enough money in the kitty. Borrowing figures for this year have risen exponentially. In March 2006, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer predicted that Government borrowing would be £25 billion in
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2008-09, but within a year it had almost doubled to £40 billion. When the current Chancellor introduced his first Budget, borrowing was £43 billion, and by the second, emergency Budget, it had crossed the £45 billion mark.

The Government have run out of money and any incoming Government would be in the same situation—neck deep in debt. Because of the deteriorating state of the public finances, nobody is in a position to make a firm promise at the next election to raise coastguards’ salaries to a given figure. However, I can tell the House that I have had a fruitful discussion, given the extreme circumstances, with the Conservatives’ Treasury team, and I have their approval to say that if our party is elected, we will review the MCA’s position in the context of comparison with the other emergency services.

Mr. MacNeil: I am pleased to hear talk of a review, but have the Conservative Treasury team made any substantial promise of money? That is the nub of the issue.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. By agreeing to a review in the context of the other public emergency services, and knowing that the MCA’s position is different, the Treasury team have made a considerable concession. Clearly, no party or Government would give a blank cheque to a review and guarantee that any proposals will be implemented in full; they must first see what comes up in the review. Not because the sums involved are large—the hon. Gentleman and others have pointed out that they are small—but because of the precedent that any measure could set for other sectors, the transport and Treasury teams have agreed to hold a review in the context of the other emergency services.

That Her Majesty’s coastguards, both professional and volunteer, have felt compelled to go out on strike should be a source of considerable shame for the Government. The Minister knows that I do not blame him personally—the blame for our disintegrating economy lies a lot further up the ministerial pay scale—but he should apologise to the brave men and women who guard our coasts and take the responsibility of co-ordinating not only rescue operations, but the routine work beforehand. They deserve our gratitude, so it is sad to see them voting with their feet.

10.39 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton.

Let me say how much the Government—and I personally—value the excellent work done by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The MCA is a complex UK-wide organisation with a world-class reputation. Its coastguards are renowned for providing an outstanding maritime emergency response and search-and-rescue service. Its marine surveyors are well respected throughout the industry for their professionalism and experience. All permanent MCA staff, supported by 3,500 volunteers, make a major contribution to the UK’s international high standing in matters of maritime safety, security
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and environmental protection. It is therefore particularly disappointing that the agency finds itself in the midst of protracted industrial action.

I hope that I will be able to clear up at least some of the misunderstandings that have inevitably grown up around the facts of this case. As hon. Members know, the public sector pay envelope is tight. In that respect, I acknowledge the statement made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and the commitment that he has from his shadow team. MCA staff are public sector employees, and their pay awards must be consistent with the Government’s public sector pay policy.

Mr. MacNeil: We are making the case that the coastguards’ pay levels are an historical exception. If the Minister could find the £3 million in his departmental budget—the roads budget, by contrast, is about £13 billion—would the Treasury allow him to pay it to the coastguards?

Jim Fitzpatrick: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will return to the way forward later. If he will let me, however, I first want to lay out the position.

Under the 2007 pay deal, which was imposed in March 2008, MCA staff received an average increase of 3.8 per cent., with some individuals receiving just over 7 per cent. In addition, some staff received a non-consolidated pay bonus, while most staff received an element of performance-related pay. At the current rates of pay, as colleagues have said, a coastguard watch assistant—the most junior grade in the coastguard—who works only day shifts will earn between £12,509 and £14,384. However, most CWAs work a range of shifts and are therefore also entitled to a 25 per cent. shift allowance. Typically, staff at that level who work a range of shifts earn about £16,500 per annum, which rises to a maximum of almost £18,000. A coastguard watch officer with a couple of years’ experience who works a range of shifts will earn between £20,000 and £23,400. Of course, there are other benefits, including membership of the principal civil service pension scheme, with its range of guaranteed benefits for individual members and their dependants, as well as six weeks’ annual leave.

Much has been made of the comparison between the pay of MCA staff and staff in other organisations, but such comparisons are largely unhelpful because, in many ways, the MCA is a unique organisation. On closer examination, there are often significant differences between the roles and responsibilities of staff holding similar positions in apparently comparable organisations. One example is the number of emergency calls received.

Several hon. Members have suggested that contingency planning was put together with string and sticky tape, to quote the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, but I can assure him that the arrangements have worked well. If there are longer disruptions, appropriate contingency arrangements will obviously have to be put in place.

Mr. Carmichael: I want to take the Minister back to something that he said 30 seconds or a minute ago about comparability. He seems to be moving away from saying that the work of the coastguards is comparable to that of other emergency services. Can he confirm that that is not the case? To my mind, there is a strong case for saying that there is comparability; indeed, if that were not the case, it is difficult to understand why
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MCA management would have undertaken so many exercises to establish where that comparability put its staff.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My point was that it is not as straightforward as saying that there is a simple comparison between the different organisations. For example, the coastguard receives about 23,000 emergency calls per annum, as one or two colleagues said. However, the fire service receives 690,000 calls, the ambulance service receives 2.7 million and the police receive 5.7 million. That is the scale of the calls involved.

Mr. Brazier: I am sure that the Minister does not want to mislead hon. Members, but the MCA is a much smaller organisation than the others that he mentioned. Surely, he should quote the statistics per employee, not the global statistics.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I fully accept that. All that I was saying is that it is not that easy to draw direct, automatic, parallel comparisons—there are differences in scale.

Andrew George: I hope that the Minister does not try simply to pass over this issue. I entirely agree that the level at which pay should be set across the whole public sector is an entirely separate issue; the nub of the issues before us is comparability and regrading. Is he saying that, having looked at the report, he is content that the administrative assistant, administrative officer and executive officer gradings given to watch assistants, watch officers and watch managers are appropriate to those jobs?

Jim Fitzpatrick: What I am setting out, as I will explain in more detail in a moment, is what we believe is the way forward in terms of the skills and roles of coastguards.

In only one case did direct comparisons and comparators, as well as studies involving job roles in other emergency services, find a fair job match. In another case, there was a good job match between CWAs and firefighters in the most junior grades. There are therefore difficulties with those comparators, although I recognise that they have been put forward very strongly by the unions.

Mr. MacNeil: The numerical comparisons that the Minister makes are dangerous and spurious. We could look at the police force and say that rural policemen—certainly on some of the Hebridean islands in my constituency—are scrabbling around to look for cases, when cases are landing on people’s doorsteps in central London. Numerical comparisons are therefore in no way instructive. MPs and the PCS are saying that the value of the service far outweighs anything suggested by spurious numerical comparisons. If we do look at numerical comparisons, however, we should look at the number of cases per head. The MCA has 700 employees, but other organisations have vastly more.

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