12 Sep 2011 : Column 860

Business without Debate

delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing O rder No. 118(6),

Environmental Protection

That the draft Storage of Carbon Dioxide (Access to Infrastructure) Regulations 2011, which were laid before this House on 20 June, be approved.—( Miss Chloe Smith.)

Question agreed to.


Spring Gardens Care Home

10.12 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD) rose—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. May I appeal to Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording the same courtesy to the hon. Gentleman that they would want to be extended to them in similar circumstances?

Greg Mulholland: Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I present a petition on behalf of the Friends of Spring Gardens campaign group, a group in my constituency formed by families, friends and supporters of residents facing the loss of their care home as a result of a raft of care home closures across the city by Leeds city council.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Leeds,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that Leeds City Council should act now to stop the closure of Spring Gardens care home in Otley; notes that the home is the only council-run care home in the Otley catchment area; also notes that most of the residents are in their 80s and 90s and the closure of the home would severely disrupt their lives.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to encourage Leeds City Council to take the necessary steps to stop the closure of Spring Gardens care home.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Swansea Coastguard

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

10.14 pm

Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): In April, together with five other south Wales MPs, I responded to the original coastguard reform consultation exercise, “Protecting our Seas and Shores in the 21st Century”. In that response we expressed our reservations about the whole approach being proposed and the absence of alternative options. We argued that the proposals were so seriously and dangerously flawed that they should be withdrawn to allow proper consideration of a new plan, built on the skills and expertise of our coastguard, that properly rewards them for their work and provides them with adequate equipment and systems to deliver a service fit for the 21st century. That remains my position. I believe strongly that, in Wales, Holyhead, Milford Haven and Swansea should all be kept open as 24-hour coastguard stations.

However, I will not use my time this evening to repeat arguments made in that consultation process and in earlier, more general debates about coastguard reform in this House. Instead, I want to concentrate on the case for the retention of Swansea maritime rescue co-ordination centre, which is based in Mumbles in my constituency. The Swansea centre is by far the busiest on the Welsh coast and, indeed, one of the busiest in the country, dealing with more incidents every year than Holyhead and Milford Haven put together. It is responsible for the whole coast from Carmarthen in west Wales to Gloucester in England and down the Bristol channel on the English side as far as the Cornish border. In doing so, it liaises with six police forces and a large number of other professional and voluntary emergency services. It has a range of expertise and a track record that is second to none. It also provides the base for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s regional business unit, which deals with accounts, surveys and so forth.

In the original consultation document on the reform plans, it was proposed to retain Swansea coastguard, albeit on a daylight hours basis, and close Milford Haven. Then, in July, the Secretary of State for Transport reversed that recommendation in his statement on coastguard modernisation. I do not know whether the Minister has any idea of the alarm and outrage that have been aroused in the Swansea area and spread around the south Wales coast and down the other side of the Bristol channel as a result of the statement.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the highest concentrations of incidents are on the Gower and north Devon coasts, it is positively perverse to consider closing Swansea, which is the busiest station with the more detailed knowledge of the greater area?

Martin Caton: I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

People who know the coast and the waters covered by the Swansea centre cannot believe that the Government are proposing that there should be no coastguard station anywhere on the Bristol channel. These people know how dangerous a place the channel can be. It has the second highest tidal range anywhere in the world, which

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is potentially a fantastic resource for power generation, but also a source of increased risk to people on the sea and the coast. They have seen the increase in shipping traffic in recent years and, even more so, the massive growth in coast and marine leisure activities in the area, which has put more and more demands on our coastguard, but demands that the Swansea station has always been able to respond to.

There is a massive campaign, centred in Swansea, but involving people around the Bristol channel. It is cross-party, involving Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Plaid Cymru supporters, and many more people of no political affiliation. A “Save Swansea Coastguard” petition has so far attracted more than 100,000 signatures, and I understand that the number of individual responses to the new consultation on the changed recommendation that call for Swansea to be saved will be at least in the hundreds. Today, that campaign brought its message to the House via the River Thames.

In a letter to me on 16 December 2010, the Minister wrote:

“On the basis of an evaluation of the existing sites and the facilities available at them, it is proposed that three of the proposed sub-centres be located at Falmouth, Humber and Swansea.”

This evaluation was on the basis of a location assessment document that provided the criteria for comparing the existing stations. We can only hope that this was a comprehensive piece of work, because it was the basis for deciding which network of centres could best deliver the service on which this country’s marine and coastal safety depends.

I was therefore surprised that the Secretary of State, in announcing the changed proposal, felt able to say:

“In the light of a further review of the potential costs of vacating the existing sites in Swansea and Milford Haven which has shown that there are no financial reasons to favour either location”,

and then go on to say,

“we should retain the coastguard centre at Milford Haven rather than the centre at Swansea.”

I think that that is wrong. The Swansea centre is a freehold building with a long-term ground lease, providing long-term security of tenure. There is virtually no rent. The Milford Haven site is rented at something like £25,000 a year.

Both the Secretary of State and the Minister for Shipping have also maintained that, from an operational point of view, Milford and Swansea are level pegging, but in fact Milford and Swansea have never been equivalent in operational capacity—if an objective judgment is made. One way to make one is to employ the very location impact assessment criteria used by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to choose the best sites for the future coastguard network.

I am grateful to have received from the MCA a copy of the document setting out those criteria. When we study it, we find that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to believe that it was used at all in deciding between Swansea and Milford. One important factor that the MCA highlights is the need to make best use of the agency’s existing property portfolio. It states:

“This is particularly the case where there are other MCA functions currently co-located with an MRCC”.

Swansea shares its centre with the MCA regional business unit and a radio site.

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Another criterion to be employed, according to the MCA, is population. It states:

“Sub-centres would most sensibly be located in areas with a reasonably large population and pool of job seekers to facilitate future recruitment”,

and that is significant when considering Milford and Swansea, because in recent years the agency has found it difficult to recruit in Pembrokeshire. In fact, of the past six coastguards appointed to Milford Haven, only two have been from Pembrokeshire; the rest came from other parts of Wales, including Swansea. In addition, the location impact document states that

“it makes sense to have the sub-centres evenly spread.”

Switching from Swansea to Milford, however, makes them less evenly spread.

Finally, the agency states that

“the broad co-location of a co-ordination centre with the volunteers of the coastguard rescue service, other search and rescue partners and local regional resilience fora is a factor in the overall assessment of preferred sub-centre locations”.

Again, Swansea is the better site—even more so because so many Swansea coastguards are also volunteer rescue officers.

So, using the MCA’s own location assessment document, we find that Swansea outscores Milford on just about every criterion. Swansea is by far the better location, but a sensible location assessment process should look at other factors: the quality of communication links by road, rail and air; the comparison of facilities and space at the centres; the comparison of broadband links at the centres; and hotel space availability in case of major incident. Again, Swansea proves the better option by a long way.

I hope that in responding the Minister will be able to tell me whether those MCA criteria, and the other factors that I have suggested, were used in deciding between Swansea and Milford. He should be able to do so, because we know that the decision was made by Ministers, not by the MCA.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend aware of the considerable concern of Swansea’s inward investors, not just in tourism but in industries such as wind farms, shipping and ferries, about the risk of removing Swansea? Given the growth of those industries, the value of those investments completely dwarfs the cost savings that the Minister is trying to engineer.

Martin Caton: My hon. Friend makes a very valid point.

As I was saying, this was a ministerial decision. Sir Alan Massey, the chief executive of the agency, told us so when he came to Swansea. He said:

“Ministers have made this judgement based on employment and that's way above my pay grade!”

But that is not exactly what Ministers have done, is it? If Milford and Swansea had been exactly equal, and I believe I have demonstrated that they are clearly not, I suppose that it would have been reasonable to have taken into account comparative unemployment in the two catchment areas. If Ministers had done that, they would have established that unemployment in the Swansea area is worse than in the Milford area, but that is not

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what they did. Perversely, Ministers decided to look at how many Department for Transport jobs there are in each location.

Mrs Siân C. James (Swansea East) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the suggestion that there might be too many Department for Transport jobs in Swansea. One implication in the Government’s proposal document was that there would be ample opportunity for coastguard employment in other areas, such as in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

Martin Caton: My hon. Friend has a close association with the DVLA, and I know that she knows there is no overlap between its work and that of the coastguard.

So, the Government say that Milford Haven should have the coastguard. What nonsense. Any logical method of deciding the best sites for operational effectiveness appears to have been abandoned and replaced with that strange new criterion, which can only be described as arbitrary at best.

In responding, can the Minister please inform the House whether, when he and the Secretary of State decided to recommend closure of Swansea and retention of Milford Haven, they took into account the quality of road, rail and air communication; available population for recruitment purposes; the fact that Swansea is larger, more flexible, rent free and has a much better broadband link; the fact that the MCA regional business unit is co-located with the MRCC and a radio site in Swansea; and the fact that MRCC Milford Haven is close to a number of sites relating to COMAH—the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999?

If the Minister’s answer to those questions is yes, that prompts the biggest question of all: in that case, how on earth could he and the Secretary of State have come to the recommendation that they did? I am sure that there will be much speculation about that in the weeks and months ahead, but I will not go down that road this evening. Rather, I appeal to the Minister to look at all these factors now and after the consultation period ends, take them all into account and give them their due weight. Maritime and coastal safety demands that we have the best network of maritime resource co-ordination centres that we can achieve, and logic demands that that includes Swansea.

10.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to respond to this debate, and a pleasure, at this time of night, to see so many hon. Members in the House to listen to a debate about a very serious subject that the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton) knows I take very seriously within my portfolio. Earlier, I apologised to him personally for the fact that my office had not informed him that I would be in his constituency last Tuesday—an error for which I take full responsibility.

When I took up this wonderful ministerial position following the general election and my appointment by the Prime Minister I found many documents on my desk, one of which was about the modernisation of the coastguard. It is not traditional to have a shadow spokesman present in such debates, but the current shadow Minister was the Minister with my portfolio

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when the original consultation proposals were put on the table. The situation that I inherited in this part of the world was that there were three MRCCs. I have to emphasise to the public that these are co-ordination centres, not the places where the people who physically carry out the rescues are based. I think there has been some confusion about that around the country. The volunteers are certainly not touched by this; in fact, their roles will be enhanced and there will be more equipment and more people to facilitate the work that they do.

I inherited the situation that we would go from having three co-ordination centres in Wales to having one. Nobody disputed that at any time when I went round to each of the coastguard centres. Everybody knew that the coastguard needed to be modernised. That had been the subject of dispute for many years, with huge disruption to a national emergency service. As the hon. Gentleman said, we therefore made the decision to go with the original proposals and we went out to consultation on that basis.

I have said from the outset in all the debates, publicly and in the meetings I have had with hon. Members from various parts of the House and in places that I visited around the country, that we would come out of the consultation with a different set of proposals, because otherwise there would have been no point in having the consultation—it would have been a sham. We have experienced sham consultations in this House over the years—I certainly did as a Back Bencher—and I would not allow that to happen. I was absolutely adamant that we would go out and listen and ensure that we came out of the listening process with a 21st-century emergency service that had a resilience it did not have when we went in, and that we would look carefully at the concerns of the public and, probably more importantly, the coastguard—the experts who are there doing the job day in, day out—about the future requirements.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I want to draw the Minister’s attention to my constituency, where we have Brean, which is a holiday destination, Berrow, and Burnham-on-Sea. Burnham-on-Sea is unique—it has peculiar tides and very swift and difficult changes on the mudflats, where any number of people and vehicles will become stranded over the summer. I have visited the volunteers who make up the local crews for Burnham-on-Sea coastguard and the Burnham area rescue boat. They have such a hard job to do, and they are very alarmed, as are local people, about the closure of Swansea, which would leave us in Somerset looking to Milford Haven, which is 60 miles to the west.

Mike Penning: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. If she bears with me, I will address those concerns as part of my response to the hon. Member for Gower. More importantly, the concerns were addressed to me only on Tuesday when I was in Swansea, and I will come on to that.

As I was saying, we were determined to come out of the consultation having listened to the concerns of the public, Members of this House and, importantly, the coastguard. When I went around the country, the first station that I went to was Liverpool. Just as on Tuesday,

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there was a picket. I pay tribute to the picket that happened in Swansea when I was there. As it was described in the press, it was a silent picket. The people were unbelievably generous to me. When I went down to them after I had driven in to explain the process to them, they listened intently and thanked me for coming. That is the response that I have had all around the country.

Martin Caton: My feedback from the Minister’s visit has been very positive. People felt that he was really listening to them. He has just said that meaningful consultation is important. I hope that he will really listen to what the people told him in Swansea, to what I and my colleagues have said tonight and to the submissions that we will all make to the consultation.

Mike Penning: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As I said to the local journalists, I would not have been there if I was not willing to listen. Having done the first consultation in the way that we did, I would not have gone through this part of the consultation, with the Secretary of State’s permission, if I was not willing to listen, because there would have been absolutely no point.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Will the Minister tell me whether, in the consultation process, any of the voluntary coastguards along the south Wales coast, the north Devon coast and the north Somerset coast have said that they—those who do the job on the ground—feel that Swansea should be closed and that Milford Haven would be more relevant and appropriate? My Porthcawl coastguards are not saying that.

Mike Penning: I will continue to take interventions and am happy to do so all night if colleagues want to intervene, but it will affect how much I can speak and whether I can respond positively to all the comments, which I hope to do. I will answer this intervention. The consultation does not finish until 6 October, so it would be wrong and improper for me to comment on any of the submissions until then. Just as in the first consultation, all the submissions will be published online so that everybody has access to them. That is only right and proper. That is not always the case with consultations that are done around the country, but we said that we would do that and we did it with the initial consultation. The second part is different from the first consultation because it is restricted, which I will come on to, but people will know exactly what the emergency rescue crews are saying and what others are saying.

One of the first things that was said to me in Liverpool was that people had been arguing about this for years and that they knew they had to modernise. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which was involved in the negotiations long before I became the Minister, said that there were issues to do with pay, retention—which I know has been alluded to—and recruitment. One can see why there are problems with recruitment in some areas, considering that the basic starting salary is about £13,500 a year. That makes it hard to recruit good- quality people. As much as we rely on people’s determination to serve their community, they have to pay their mortgages and bills. We said that we would

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look at that. Right at the end of the meeting in Liverpool, one of the senior coastguards stood up and said to me, “We said years ago that there should be nine stations.”

Most of those who responded to the first consultation did not question me about an individual station. They did not say that I was a nasty, horrible person, that I should not be doing this job or that I was only acting for party political reasons. If people look at the changes around the country, they will see that there are no partisan politics involved at all. If anybody wants to raise that point now, they may do so. There is a smirk on the face of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). If she wants to show me anywhere in the country where I have used party politics, I will give way to her.

Mrs Moon: The Minister gives me the opportunity to respond, but I must tell him that there is a certain cynicism in south Wales that a party political decision has been made in relation to the choice between Swansea and Milford Haven.

Mike Penning: I thank the hon. Lady for her honesty, but she should take a look at what I did around the country. The Western Isles is a Scottish National party constituency; Holyhead is in, I believe, a Labour constituency; and I have shut Brixham in the west country, which is in a Conservative area. I have taken huge amounts of flack, but people should look around the country before throwing those sorts of accusations at me. I knew the hon. Lady was alluding to those with her smirk, which is why I gave way. I have not taken that approach in any shape or form. If I had done so, why am I looking at Holyhead in the way that I am? The Labour Government were going to close two and leave one in Wales, but I will definitely come out of this procedure with two in Wales, no matter what happens.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC) rose—

Mike Penning: I am not going to give way, because I have exactly five minutes left. I wanted that answer out, because I saw the hon. Lady’s smirk.

Martin Caton rose—

Mike Penning: The smirk was not from the hon. Gentleman, and that accusation was not put to me at Swansea at any time when I was there. I was praised at Swansea—they said that all the way through, I had handled the matter in a non-party political way. That is the way I will continue to handle it.

Martin Caton: The Minister has spent most of his time speaking of the original consultation exercise. I have put many questions to him this evening, and as he says, he has only five minutes to respond. Can we get on to the latest consultation exercise and the points that I have made in this debate?

Mike Penning rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. For the avoidance of doubt, there are eight minutes remaining.

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Mike Penning: We have eight minutes left, and I have taken many interventions. We would have been a lot further on had I not done so, but that would not have been fair to hon. Members.

The hon. Gentleman has made many points, and I will answer as many of them as I can. Many of them were made in the consultation process. Although I am unable to answer all the points today, when the consultation is over we will respond. All the points that the hon. Gentleman has made tonight will be part of the consultation.

I was trying to build a picture of the coastguard around the country and of the people who actually do the job. I have said to myself, and to Sir Alan Massey, the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and to my chief coastguard as we have gone around the country, that the Government know that 18 is not the figure that should remain and that the figure should be around about eight or nine. That was put to us in submissions from around the country. In Belfast, it was put to me that there should be eight. I asked the Belfast coastguard, which works very closely with the Swansea coastguard co-ordination centre, why it had chosen in its submission to keep Swansea and not Milford Haven. Everybody who was there will know that Belfast said that its submission was based on the cost of closing Swansea compared with the cost of closing Milford Haven.

To answer one of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, I came back to London and asked for those costs to be analysed. I felt that if we were going to do this right around the country—hon. Members should remember that we had not come to our full conclusions on which stations should stay open and which should close, and whether or not that would mean having part-time, “day manning” stations, or 24-hour stations—I needed to make sure in my own mind, for when I stand before the House and others, that the MCA’s early cost analysis on the choice of Swansea or Milford Haven was right. When the figures came back, I was told that that analysis was not right. I was told that if we were to come out of Swansea completely, it would be a very close fiscal decision between Swansea and Milford Haven.

We then completed the process, Mr Deputy Speaker—

Geraint Davies: You’ve been demoted, Mr Speaker.

Mike Penning: Sorry, Mr Speaker. We have known each other for many years, and I am sure you will not take offence. Oh, dear.

We looked at the main concerns, which included 24-hour stations and local knowledge. In the Secretary of State’s statement, we accepted those two points. We felt that leaving the station open as what I, as an ex-fireman, would call a “day manning” station was not right and we had to come up with a formula that would allow us to come down to the numbers that we needed to come down to while having the national resilience that we were looking for and a maritime operations centre or headquarters that could feed out in major incidents. So we made two decisions. The first was to come down to the key 24-hour stations and to have one MOC, not two, which actually will give us enough money to keep stations open 24 hours a day.

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The second decision was obvious. It was obvious to me when we were doing the work that, if we were worried about topography, as I call it, being an ex-fireman, and local knowledge, which was the general concern, we ought to look at the pairs—or the twins or whatever we want to call them—which cover for each other regularly. That is how they have been structured. We did not have national resilience, which is why the coastguard co-ordination centres were paired off. They covered for each other. Some were paired off quite arbitrarily. For instance, Belfast was paired with the Clyde. But they did it and it worked. We decided that, if those were the criteria for pairing, we would take one of the pairs away. They are in the consultation now because initially the proposals did not include Swansea. However, having decided to move one of the pairs, logically we had to consult on Swansea and Milford Haven, as well as Liverpool and Holyhead—Liverpool was in the consultation with Belfast and the plan had been to close Holyhead—the 24-hour centre in northern Scotland and the Western Isles and the single MOC. That was the basis of the consultation now.

Jonathan Edwards rose—

Mike Penning: No, I am not going to give way because I have time issues.

On Milford or Swansea, I have listened carefully to hon. Members’ points, particularly on local knowledge, the skills, the amount of work that the centres cover and so on. I can tell the hon. Member for Gower that, when I was there on Tuesday, the Swansea centre was closed. The co-ordination centre was closed—Milford was covering Swansea that day.

Several hon. Members rose

Mike Penning: No, I am not going to give way. I have given way quite a bit.

Martin Caton: Had there been an emergency, Swansea would have taken it on because pairing does not work.

Mike Penning: No. From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman says that pairing does not work. He is wrong. It was not open. It was covered by Milford

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It was covered by Milford. That is a fact. No one can argue with that. Had there been an emergency, Milford would have covered it, just as the pairs have covered for each other around the country.


He says, “No, no,” from a sedentary position. I understand his concerns. If I was in his position, I would probably be fighting the same way, but this has to be based on evidence, and the evidence is that these two stations co-ordinate more and work closer together than any other two in the country. That is why Swansea switched off on Tuesday, when I was there, and Milford took control.

Hon. Members have talked about the concerns of constituents around the county, but on that day Milford had control. That is a fact. No one can take that away. Whether or not there was a crisis—[Interruption.] Look, I am an ex-firefighter. If a control centre is open, it is open. If there are appliances, there are appliances. The cover on Tuesday was from Milford, as has been the case on many occasions. I will let the hon. Member for Gower know when that has happened previously.

Martin Caton indicated dissent.

Mike Penning: I was there. I saw it. Sadly, he did not. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) was there. She knows. It is a fact. [Interruption.] It is not rubbish—it is a fact. Sitting there and talking about an emergency service in such a way and just saying “Rubbish” is ludicrous. I know about this. I have visited all these people. Milford covered and does cover on a regular basis. The pairing system works. It is one of the reasons why even the Opposition Front-Bench team have looked at our proposals, which are a million times better than the proposals that they had. Instead of sitting there and saying silly things from a sedentary position, Members should have a proper debate. That is what I have tried to have all the way through. We should try not to be partisan; we should try to be honest about what is available now.

On Tuesday, as on many other occasions, Milford covered while we held the meetings. If Milford goes down, Swansea covers, and vice versa. We are looking at—

10.44 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).