I thank the Minister for his correspondence on 8 March, which has already been referred to. He gave us more information, further to our previous debate on the issue, and the extension of the consultation allowed

24 Mar 2011 : Column 375WH

the Transport Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), to carry out its investigation and to contribute properly to the consultation. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister about how far he has got on his UK tour and how many more visits he is likely to undertake.

Right hon. and hon. Members have raised various concerns. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) opened the debate and challenged and asked about the validity of some evidence in the documents. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) indicated the strength of feeling among 250 people at his local public meeting and questioned the effect that the cuts would have on the confidence of volunteers if they were implemented. The hon. Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for Torbay (Mr Sanders), for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) raised the issue of local knowledge. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Down (Lady Hermon) showed, again, the united front of, not all Ireland, but Northern Ireland on the proposals for Belfast and asked the Minister to address the alternative strategy.

We heard a right honourable whinge from the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who correctly made the point that we are here to whinge on behalf of our constituents, although “strong representations” might have been a more complimentary way to put it—the word “whingeing” sounds a little derogatory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made powerful arguments and cited real-life incidents, and the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who has personal knowledge of and family involvement in the fishing industry, made a very strong argument indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) said that, because Southampton will, possibly, have a super-centre, he has no constituency axe to grind, and neither do I, because the London centre is being retained. My hon. Friend, however, asked serious questions about the reduced 24-hour cover throughout the country. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) raised other shipping concerns, such as the ending of the emergency towing vessels contract, which was mentioned by other colleagues during our previous debate.

At this week’s all-party maritime and ports group meeting, we heard from the chief executive of the MCA, Sir Alan Massey, and the chief coastguard, Rod Johnson, who outlined the proposals to the group’s members and other attendees. Questions were raised there, and have been raised here and previously, about the technology and about its being tried and tested.

Hon. Members have referred to the parallels, or not, with the regional fire controls, which we covered extensively in our previous debate. I was the Minister who accepted advice from officials that we should go down that route, but it has not worked out. The Minister and I share fire brigade background, so I know that he is sensitive to the issue. He has followed it closely and is looking at it in relation to the controls under discussion. The relocations, the redundancies and the willingness to transfer or not have been raised, as have the general resilience and robustness of the proposals.

24 Mar 2011 : Column 376WH

It is important to say, as I did in our previous debate, that the Opposition do not oppose reform, reorganisation and improvement, but we have serious concerns about the proposals and whether they are cutting too far, too fast and too deep. Two super-controls seem to be one too few. If one control goes down, there will be only one left. If they work and the technology and communication equipment is effective, I am not sure whether the country ought not to have three. As I have mentioned, we have seen what has happened with the fire controls.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned cuts. Is he aware of any cuts in the upper echelons of the MCA?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am sure that the Minister is more up to date with the proposals. He is nodding and I am sure that he will cover that when he winds up. I have said that the two super-controls seem to be one too few, and the number of day-staffed stations seems too restricted, which several colleagues have commented on. The overall numbers make the proposals look as though they are finance-driven rather than operationally driven. Given the historic pairing of stations, which has been explained to us on a number of occasions, there might have been stronger logic in suggesting that a single station from each pair should be maintained, with three super-stations on top. Obviously, the Minister will assess all the representations and submissions in due course.

The coalition document said that there would be no cuts to the front line. Notwithstanding that this is a reorganisation, what is the coastguard if it is not a front-line service? Many people are saying that these cuts go way too far. It is important to remember, however, that this is a consultation, that it has not concluded and that it is being extended. This is, therefore, a good opportunity to put the Minister under pressure. I have spoken informally to the Minister outside this Chamber and know that he is listening and learning, and other colleagues have said the same. We will look closely at the finished document and his conclusions.

I know, owing to my former ministerial positions, the conflicting pressure that the Minister is and will be under, but at least he knows from Prime Minister’s questions only a few weeks ago that the Prime Minister has expressed some scepticism about the proposals. He said that the Government remain to be convinced by the MCA’s proposals. That is a very reassuring starting point. Every Member who has spoken today and in our previous debate has expressed real concern. I hope that the Minister, in the restricted comments that he will be able to make during his winding-up speech—he has not yet reached the end of the consultation—will give some reassurance that the efforts of the brave men and women of the coastguard service and those who depend on them, as well as those who support them, will not fall on deaf ears and that we will see some changes to improve the proposals, which, at the moment, do not appear to command any support in the House.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that there is no time for any other hon. Member to speak, because we need to give the Minister adequate time to respond and the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth needs to wind up at the end.

24 Mar 2011 : Column 377WH

5.7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for being so diligent in securing the debate and for the tone in which the debate has, in the main, been conducted. I, too, would have liked to have had the debate on the Floor of the House. I do not dispute that argument, and I think that the issue should have that sort of airing. The decision is beyond my pay grade, but I note that the deputy Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), is here to represent his constituents, even though he is not allowed to speak. If the issue could be brought back to the House, that would be right and proper.

This is a really important debate. I will sum up what others have said and my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth will finish off the debate. I pay tribute to all coastguard staff—full-time, part-time and volunteers. More than 3,000 volunteers do it because they love their community and want to serve it, as do so many others throughout the country. I also pay tribute to the RNLI. It is an amazing organisation that looks after not only us in the United Kingdom, but the Republic of Ireland. That is really important. I also pay tribute to what are called private rescue boats, but which are really volunteers. There are hundreds of them. Some of the constituencies represented here today do not have any, and others have so many that it would be impossible to visit all of them in the time available during a Parliament. They are fantastic and are dedicated to, and love, their community.

Nine parties are represented in the debate. I am proud of that. I served in Northern Ireland for many years and never got the parties together, but I have managed to do it now—for a while. Many hon. Members have come to this Chamber on a one-line Whip, when they could have been in their constituencies. Instead, they are here doing what is right and proper, and what I would have been doing if I were a Back Bencher with a seat associated with the coastguard service.

I have listened to all the points made by colleagues, but the most important representations have come from the public and, in particular, from the coastguards themselves. I have heard some disturbing comments today. I do not want to dwell on the matter for too long, but if a member of my staff—they are my staff because I am the Minister responsible for shipping and the MCA works for me—has gone out and said, “Don’t worry about it; they are a bunch of whingers,” I do not want to know who they told; I want to know who said it because, believe me, I will come down on them like a tonne of bricks. Hon. Members who know me will know that that is the case.

It is important that employees of the coastguard feel confident that they can make submissions. Some have put submissions in anonymously and I understand that. However, they really do not need to do it anonymously. As I have gone around the country—I shall touch on some of the meetings I have had—people have been positive.

Bill Esterson: I am glad that the Minister has said that staff do not have to worry about what happens. I know that I am not the only hon. Member to have experienced this, but I have had more than one

24 Mar 2011 : Column 378WH

representation from a staff member who is very worried about the possibility of—and this is the word they use—recriminations if they take part in the process. I am glad that the Minister has made it clear that that will not be tolerated.

Mike Penning: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been to the coastguard station at Crosby and the people there did not hold back when they spoke to me. Everybody was in the room. The staff should feel confident that if they wish to do so, they can express their views robustly. By the way, as he may have noticed, I was robust back. That sort of confidence should be out there. The coastguard community is quite small and some people do not have that confidence. If they want to submit anonymous representations, that is understandable. Those representations will be dealt with in exactly the same way as those to which people have put their name.

I shall touch on some of the points raised by hon. Members. In the short time I have, it will not be possible to answer every individual point. However, my officials are here and, if necessary, we will write to hon. Members on individual points. I have a background as a member of the armed forces and, probably more significantly, as a member of the fire service for many years, so saving lives is in my blood. There is no way that this change to the way in which the coastguard operates is going to put lives at risk—far from it. To some extent, I inherited the plans from the previous Administration. Some hon. Members were at the briefing upstairs in, I think, Committee Room 9, when the chief coastguard and chief executive were present. When the chief coastguard was appointed over two years ago, he had the proposals on his desk. At that time, I was not a Minister and this coalition Government were not in place. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), the shadow Minister, knows that the proposals were on his desk and the desks of others for four and a half years-plus.

As I have gone around the country, no one I have met who is in the know has said that there does not need to be dramatic changes to how the MRCC is run. When I was in Crosby, one very senior officer said to me, “Minister, we know it should be nine. We have been saying it should be nine stations for many years.” That was said in front of the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). I asked for the submission that actually said that.

I had a wonderful trip to Bangor in Northern Ireland. It was a trip down memory lane for me in many ways. There was a breath of fresh air at that and other meetings, and in some of the early submissions. I have not looked at them in detail because it is not right and proper for me to do so yet. However, if I am sat in a presentation, it is difficult not to listen to what is being said. The presentation at Bangor looked at having 10 stations—one headquarters, and of the remaining nine stations, about half would be full time and half part time.

There is an acceptance out there that the present 19 stations are an anomaly left over from previous closures. There were closures in the ’80s and in early 2000 and 2001. We are left where we are now. I understand fully the passion of every hon. Member and why communities are coming together and saying, “Don’t close my station. This is very important to us.” We have had more than 1,200 submissions to the consultation. They fall into

24 Mar 2011 : Column 379WH

three groups. One group of people are questioning my parent’s parenthood or my parenthood. Some of those submissions will have to be redacted before we publish, but we will publish every one that has been received.

Some submissions are based purely on individual stations—a bit like what we have heard in the debate. People are saying, “This is our station. We think it should stay and these are the reasons why.” That is fine. However, we have also had a number of submissions saying, “Let’s not just look at our station; let’s look at how we can have a national service.” That is what I heard in Crosby, in Bangor, in Milford Haven and what I know I am going to hear in Falmouth.

I have the honour of looking after the only national emergency service, and I am very proud of its history. However, it is the only national emergency service with no national resilience. There is more resilience in all the other emergency services than the one we are talking about today. That is not acceptable in the 21st century. This is not just about resilience in computers, which we are all a bit sceptical about. I share that scepticism on computers. I was shadow Minister for three and a half years. In the great city we are in now, the ambulance service control centre just across the river looks after 10 million people. People are transferred from a 999 call to that control centre. The operators have hardly asked the caller anything before they know where they are, within reason, and they are looking to see who they can dispatch. We do not have that sort of facility in the coastguard service. That is the sort of thing we need. It is a different sort of service because of the myriad methods of contacting the coastguard emergency service. However, we must have a better, more resilient service.

Sheryll Murray: Will the Minister accept that although the kayaker or the group of young people barbecuing on a beach who need help may be identified by a passer by, there is no means of being able to identify where they are electronically? That is my concern. His system relies not only on electronic ability at the coastguard station, but on—he has just given an example of this—being able to identify where somebody is with a 999 call. People using beaches and people kayaking might not have made the call; somebody else might have done so.

Mike Penning: I take the point that my hon. Friend is making. I pay tribute to the family and personal experience of the coastguard and the sea that she has gained over many years. She understands the sea better than anyone else in this Chamber. From my emergency service background—the shadow Minister also has such a background—I know that such a situation occurs in the other emergency services. It is not a be-all and end-all. It is not a case of this being the only method of doing it. I am not saying that at all. Only the other day, I was in Shetland. The communications there go down regularly when we have to send volunteers out—whether it is the BT line, the broadband line or our own communication systems. That happens around the country. I am not saying that if a new system is brought in, it will take away any of that local knowledge. It will augment the current situation as we go forward.

May I touch on what we have today? Many hon. Members and hon. Friends have said that we could leave the service roughly where it is, but we cannot. The coastguard service is telling me that it cannot—from the

24 Mar 2011 : Column 380WH

most junior person on the watch through to the volunteers and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at the top. That organisation does not want to be dragged into the politics of the matter, and I can understand why. However, to use the modern slang, it is also saying to us, “Is the service fit for purpose in the 21st century? No, it is not.”

It is interesting to read about the twinning system—an issue that I raised when I was in Bangor. The arguments that were put to me in Northern Ireland on resilience, the special circumstances and how they liaise with the Republic of Ireland—particularly with regard to helicopters—were very powerful. I thank the Republic and pay tribute to it. We get helicopters for free and we help them in other parts of the coast on other matters. Of course, there is the issue of what happens if communications go down. What happens if a station goes down? Will the Clyde back us up? There is no logic to the idea that all that local knowledge is transferred instantly to the Clyde—it cannot be. I accept that, as we look at different stations around the country, but the present twinning system does not work properly. If we look at where stations are around the country at the moment, they are not set up with a proper regional structure, as we would probably expect them to be. There are some stations that are very close, and some that are very far apart. The Humber station, which was mentioned by two hon. Members, covers 300 miles of moving sands. How on earth could it transfer in a twinning system? How does that work? Where is the resilience there? We need to look at that.

We need to look, as I have said in previous debates, at a service which offers a basic starting salary of £13,500 per year. How would anybody survive on that in some parts of the country? The answer is with more than one job, just like when I was first in the fire services—I am sure that the situation is not dissimilar for firemen today. We have to offer coastguards a salary that is suitable for the 21st century and give them the skills and training, so that they can have a career progression, too. It is very much dead man’s shoes, looking at the age profile. There are very young people and people coming towards the end of their careers, but the middle section is very difficult indeed.

The whole country relies on the coastguard, whether on holiday, in the shipping industry, in their community or where they work. Is this a done deal? No, it is not. Will we come out of the end of this process with a different set of conclusions and a different modernisation programme from when we started? I am sure that we will—I am convinced of it.

Mr Russell Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I am not going to give way, because I am really restricted on time. I apologise. I am not summing up—I have to hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth.

Is this just about money? Yes, there are savings required, but if this was just about money, it would not be £4.8 million a year. As hon. Members have said, it is a tiny amount of money. Will there be savings throughout the MCA? Yes, at the top and at the bottom. In my own Department, every single member of staff has had to reapply for their own job. That is the sort of situation that we are working under. Did I come into politics to

24 Mar 2011 : Column 381WH

do that? No, of course I did not, but we have to be realistic about the money and the income that we have to work with.

I welcome the Transport Committee’s commitment to its own report. I welcome the fact that the Chair of that Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), has sat through the debate and been part of the debate. I say to her that I will not, under any circumstances—and neither will the Secretary of State—come to any conclusions until her Committee has reported. I promise and I make that commitment. If I can—it is difficult, because bureaucracy is involved—I will try and release to the Committee as much data that I have received, and which has been submitted to us, as I can, particularly the detailed submissions about reconfiguration. I will not release the submissions that are nasty about me, of course. If I can release that data I will do so. If I cannot do that, I might write back to those people who have made submissions and suggest that they send them to the Transport Committee. It is imperative that the Committee see that some of the submissions from the coastguard do not say, “We all should stay open; everything is perfectly fine”. They actually say, as I have alluded to, nine stations or 10 stations. There are others that say there should be more or less.

I think that this is the start of something new in government. Consultation had to start somewhere. I inherited a situation; we started somewhere. We listen. We come out with a service that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. Not everybody is going to be happy, because I have got 19 stations and there is a proposal for 10 closures or nine closures. Clearly, not everybody will be happy. There is, however, a sense in the coastguard service, without any doubt if people are really honest, that we have to move on from where we are now. We have to get away from the disputes that have been going on for so many years, which are divisive, and have a service that has the resilience, the modernisation and the service to the front line, which is being left untouched and will be enhanced.

Finally, channel 16, under international regulations, will be monitored in the stations. That will not be on headphones, but over loudspeakers. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). I should have come back to him on that. On that note—I am sad that I have to cut my comments short, due to procedure—I will hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth. This is a proper consultation. No deal is done. I have visited many stations and have one more to go. I cannot visit all 19—that is not possible. If hon. Members look at the political make-up of the stations that I have visited, that has nothing to do with party politics—it is to do with my job.

5.25 pm

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): On behalf of all hon. Members who have attended this afternoon’s debate, I want to thank the Minister for such a helpful response. I will not take all the credit for today’s debate. I worked with a team of hon. Members, whose names are listed on the Order Paper, to secure the debate. I hope that as many hon. Members who have participated

24 Mar 2011 : Column 382WH

today—particularly those who did not have the opportunity to speak, or who felt under pressure and did not have the full amount of time—will join us on Tuesday to make further representations to the Backbench Business Committee to make sure that we secure more parliamentary time in the main Chamber. Today’s debate has demonstrated the strength of feeling and the range of issues that still need to be explored on this UK-wide issue, which is one of the unique occasions when we can represent all the people of the UK in Parliament.

Albert Owen: Had the Minister had more time, I am sure that he would have been able to answer this point, but does the hon. Lady agree that it would be helpful to have a breakdown of incidents, so that we know what kind of incidents the MCA is dealing with? That would be an important appendix to the extended consultation.

Sarah Newton: I will pass that question straight on to the Minister to answer.

Mike Penning: I will publish all the information we have.

Sarah Newton: Like everyone else, I am reassured by what the Minister has said: saving lives is in his blood; he will now make all the information available to the Transport Committee; no decisions will be made until the Transport Committee has published its findings; and there will be plenty of opportunities between now and then for further representations by coastguards, without fear. That was a very important point. Coastguards are frightened, and I think that there are volunteers in the RNLI and other organisations who are frightened to come forward. They can do so with the absolute guarantee that they have been given by the Minister today.

Mr Russell Brown: As the Minister would not allow me to intervene, may I, through the hon. Lady, ask if the table-top exercise will be undertaken again, but in real time to give a real indication of how that might develop on the day?

Sarah Newton: I am sure that the Minister has heard that. I had better let other hon. Members intervene.

Bill Esterson: The hon. Lady congratulated our colleagues, the hon. Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), whose names also appeared on the Order Paper. I want to add to those congratulations.

I wanted to pursue with the Minister the point about the transition period. Whatever the outcome, we want to ensure that safety is not compromised in that period of change. The Minister touched on that in his remarks, but I want to be confident that that point has been taken on board, and that the transfer of local knowledge, and the issues around that, are addressed strongly in whatever system we end up with.

Sarah Newton: I am sure we all agree that safety has to be the paramount consideration.

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): My hon. Friend is right to say that we owe it to the army of people who voluntarily protect life and limb at sea to

24 Mar 2011 : Column 383WH

get this right so that people are confident about going to sea. Does she agree that that is the test on which we should judge these proposals?

Sarah Newton: That is right. As the Minister began by saying, it is the people of the country, as well as seafarers, who have to feel absolutely sure that, whatever happens when the proposals are introduced, safety is paramount. The transparent way in which all the proposals will be published and scrutinised by the Transport

24 Mar 2011 : Column 384WH

Committee, and the fact that hon. Members will again have the opportunity to examine and debate the proposals in the House, should give people the assurance that they desperately crave at the moment, and give the answers to the questions which remain unanswered.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

Sitting adjourned.