The Coastguard, Emergency Towing Vessels and the Maritime Incident Response Group - Treasury Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 433-459)

Q433 Chair: Good afternoon, gentlemen. I apologise for keeping you waiting, but I think you have been listening to the previous session and I am sure you will forgive us in the circumstances. Perhaps you would give your names and the organisations you represent for our records.

Robert Paterson: My name is Robert Paterson. I am Health and Safety Director with Oil and Gas UK. Our member companies are organisations that explore or produce oil and gas in the North Sea.

Tom Piper: I am Tom Piper. I work for KIMO UK. I represent local authorities on marine pollution matters.

Angus Campbell: I am Angus Campbell, Leader of Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar. Just so you are sure of the language, that is the Western Isles Council. I am also Chairman of the coastguard group for the Outer Hebrides. Perhaps I may thank you on behalf of the highlands and islands for bringing this matter to this part of the world. We are very appreciative of that.

Cllr Foxley: I am Michael Foxley, Leader of the Highland Council. Like Angus, on behalf of the council we are very pleased that you have come up to hear first hand the information. It is also relevant to this inquiry that since the late 1980s I co-chaired the tanker traffic in the Minches working group. We were seriously concerned about the passage of hazardous cargoes and vessels through the Minches, so we are looking at things like pilotage, ETVs prior to the Braer and Donaldson, compulsory shipping lanes, etc. That was the work of the working group.

Cllr Wills: I am Jonathan Wills. I am an independent councillor on Shetland Islands Council for the port of Lerwick. I am also a member of the MCA's Shetland marine safety sub­committee in my capacity as a commercial tourist boat operator. I spent 20 years as a local journalist covering hundreds of coastguard incidents.

Q434 Chair: Councillor Campbell, in the written evidence you have given us you describe the combination of proposals that have been put in front of us as "dangerously reckless". Why is that your view?

Cllr Campbell: That was not a term used lightly; it was used because we did an awful lot of work and research into the effect of the proposals as they would impact on this area. It is undoubted that, if you look at the withdrawal of the coastguard alone, that will increase the risk to these islands, added to the other proposals that are happening at the same time: the unilateral withdrawal of the ETV, the withdrawal of the fire rescue group without any consultation, and the fact that the Nimrods, which are part of safety here, have already gone. The question that we asked the MCA and the civil servants who came up here the first time was: what risk assessment had been made of the cumulative effect of all these things. There was a deafening silence in the room. They looked at each other and eventually we got the answer that risk underpinned a lot of the work they did anyway. But we believe as a group that there was no work to look at the risk assessment of the cumulative effect of all these things, far less a risk assessment being done properly and in a logical way on the effect of the Coastguard Service moving to the new model that they showed. Therefore, it was not used lightly. Along with our colleagues in Shetland, we also commissioned a respected commercial company to do a marine risk assessment of the proposals. It is not us as politicians saying this; we are saying it on the basis of professional evidence and logic.

Q435 Chair: What was the result of the risk assessment that you commissioned?

Cllr Campbell: It showed quite clearly that the risk was increasing greatly, that the aspects that had been talked about in terms of the usage and type of incidents had not been looked at, and that the cumulative effect of that was to put our communities in great danger.

Q436 Iain Stewart: Cllr Campbell, I read the council's recent evidence. You note in paragraph 1.7: "From discussion with senior MCA officials it would appear that proposals are driven by a mix of internal MCA issues such as resolving industrial relations; resolving lease issues arising from particular stations and as a matter for the MCA to realise value from particular saleable assets." Could you expand on that, please?

Cllr Campbell: We asked several questions, first why some stations and not others had been picked. One of the reasons given to us was that they were tied into commercial leases and they were not able to get out of them without a certain cost. They also said they had other properties that they felt could realise a value fairly easily if they went on the market. For us that is not a reason for choosing whether you have a safe system in place to protect mariners and the environment. Those were direct answers to questions that we put to MCA and the civil servants who were up here. We feel that it is being driven by the wrong reasons. Another aspect that we looked at, for instance, was enhancement of the capacity within the station here. It is there already; there is no extra cost. The running costs of the station in the Outer Hebrides are a lot less than they are elsewhere. To base decisions for safety and the marine environment on these sorts of issues raised alarm bells with us as a community and as a group. That is one reason we asked a professional company to look into what was behind that.

Q437 Iain Stewart: I also read with interest your alternative model for locations around the United Kingdom. It is very similar to a proposal we received on our visit to Falmouth yesterday. I am just wondering whether that is a happy coincidence. The plans are not identical but very similar. Have you collaborated with them at all, or have you reached similar conclusions in effect?

Cllr Campbell: As a group we have had no contact with Falmouth. What we have done as a group is coordinate very much with local coastguards, but also across the highlands and islands as local authorities and as groups we have worked very closely together. We were concerned at the beginning when there was talk of an and/or situation; that is, Shetland or Stornoway. I think that was a red herring to distract us. Even the winner would end up with a false dawn because it would not provide the service we need. We tried to work professionally and coherently across the highlands and islands to come up with good answers, but to my knowledge we have had no contact with Falmouth as a group.

Cllr Wills: To follow up Angus's point, we are not defending a local interest; it is not either a Stornoway or Lerwick/Shetland interest but a national interest. What is at risk is a national interest out there. We have heard about the oil and fishing industries and the tourist industry. This is not a small local issue at all; and it is not between Stornoway and Shetland, because it is physically impossible to do without either station. The distance between the southern end of the Stornoway area to the northern end of the Shetland area is longer than the distance from London to Aberdeen. And from Stornoway to Lerwick is further than London to Newcastle. This is very much a national issue.

I would like to comment in the same context on the idea of daylight operation. It is nearly June. Shetland is 60 degrees north; it is the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland. There are 19 hours of daylight a day at present, plus five hours of civil twilight; it is never dark. In six months' time there will be six hours of official daylight and 18 hours of darkness. How will you staff that? My argument is that this is not competent. This is a wonderful opportunity to get a good new scheme for the coastguards. It is completely incompetent. What they are doing is taking down, degrading and dismantling key components of a system that works at present. To do that is to abdicate Government's central responsibilities to preserve public safety and the environment, not just in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles and the Highland region but the whole nation. I am sorry; I get quite carried away by these things.

Chair: You are here to tell us your views. That is why we are here to listen to you.

Q438 Julian Sturdy: I want to touch on the ETVs, emergency towing vehicles. We have heard this morning about the fact that there would be no option for commercial tugs in the area to take on any of the work that the emergency towing vehicles do at the moment. That seems to be more the case here than in Falmouth. I put a question to Mr Paterson and Mr Piper. Given your expertise in health and safety and the environment, what impact will taking this vessel away have on the area?

Robert Paterson: For a start, my member companies do not operate tankers, so I have no particular maritime experience to answer your question. It was an area about which we did have concern. We looked at the consultative document and saw that these vessels had not been properly considered. A number of other things had not been properly considered: the Nimrods, which have already been mentioned; the closure of the Moray air bases; and the SAR helicopter procurement exercise. All these things have never been factored in. We are very concerned that this consultative document does not take into account a number of key issues that ought to have been built into this process.

Tom Piper: I think that if an ETV was removed and was not able to intervene, from the point of view of pollution many businesses from tourism to fisheries—all that sort of thing—would be destroyed in a moment and there would be a big environmental disaster. An ETV is designed to intervene. The economies in this part of the world rely on that sort of industry. We do not have big IT businesses and what have you. The serious money in this part of the world comes from tourism, fisheries and that sort of thing.

Q439 Julian Sturdy: Do you say it is vital not only from an environmental but economic point of view as a matter of security? I put that question to everyone.

Chair: Cllr Foxley, what is your view?

Cllr Foxley: I wonder whether you would allow me to respond to that question by providing literally some colour to the ETV argument. I have some colour photographs. Perhaps you would allow me to pass them to the Committee so I can talk to them.[1]

Q440 Chair: You can pass them but they are not in our record.

Cllr Foxley: You can leave them behind.

Q441 Chair: We will keep them, but could you talk about them as well?

Cllr Foxley: Absolutely. Perhaps Jonathan would pass them to the clerk. We are concerned about the potential for serious incidents involving tanker traffic within the Minches in particular. We were doing a lot of campaigning work prior to Donaldson finally achieving that. I do not want to go through the whole of the file but use three incidents that have occurred in the last eight months to prove why ETVs are critical and it is essential that they stay. They are all fairly close to where I live and work from on the west coast. The first involved a boat called the Yeoman Bontrup at Glensanda, just down the loch from me. It is spectacularly on fire in the berthage at that deep-water port. It is the biggest super-quarry in Britain, which used to be run by Foster Yeoman. The fire was put out by the Anglian Sovereign, which had unique fire-fighting capacity to do that. Had the fire not been put out it would have sunk at the berth. If that had happened, according to the previous managing director of the company, which exports 7 million tonnes of granite a year, it would have put that super-quarry out of operation for three months, with major economic implications for the country. That follows on from what Jonathan said about the national interest. Nobody else could have put out that fire within two days' steaming time, had they been available in the North Sea.

  The second incident to which I want to add a bit of colour, and this was referred to earlier by the lady from the coastguard, involved the Red Duchess. I was a councillor for Rum for a long time. It is knee-deep in nature conservation designations and special areas of conservation. It has at least nine SSSIs. As she described very adequately, the Red Duchess was prevented from ending up on Rum by the Mallaig lifeboat and then towed off by the Anglian Prince. It would have had serious environmental consequences for Rum had she hit the shore.

  The third incident, which is on the second dog-eared page of the photo file, which I am sure you will have read about in the national press, involved the sadly named HMS Astute, which went aground off Kyle. The relevance of that incident, which was quite spectacular, is that since then we have discovered that the Ministry of Defence was not involved in a risk assessment of the removal of the ETVs in terms of the exercises that they regularly carry out on the west coast. Indeed, an exercise is currently under way to the west of Shetland. There are major bases, as you know—a torpedo range in Kyle and also Faslane. Those are three incidents just in the last eight months that show the vital importance of that ETV.

  My colleagues and I have now been at two meetings arranged by the Marine Coastguard Agency, one in Edinburgh two months ago and one in Greenock just last week. Everybody in the room representing UK shipping, local authorities and salvage tugs, have agreed two things: first, that the ETVs are essential. The second thing they have agreed unanimously, with the exception of the MCA senior management reps present—they keep talking about the perception of risk despite these photographs—is that there is no commercial alternative. The nearest alternative is at least a day to a day and a half's sailing time away, if they are available and they are not close to the Norwegian coast and they are not already involved in a commercial contract.

Q442 Chair: Who was it that agreed that at the meeting you referred to? Who decided that it could not be done in any other way?

Cllr Foxley: I can provide a list to the clerk. We had workshops involving representatives. The one last week in Greenock involved representatives from throughout the UK: shipping and tug interests; salvage interests; insurance interests, as well as local authority interest, in this case both from England and Scotland. Nobody in the workshops in the room thought there were commercial alternatives available.

Cllr Wills: Perhaps I may refer you to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's own document of November 2008, which I have here, entitled "Emergency Towing vessels: Assessment of Requirements". It says specifically, "There is no commercially available emergency rescue service." It makes all the points for keeping an ETV. The only thing that has changed since then is that it looks as though the cost of renewing the contract is a lot more than they thought, but none of the parameters in the argument has changed. I am sure you have a copy of this, but if not you are welcome to mine.

Cllr Foxley: To add to that briefly, the argument that the MCA proposed for an alternative was use of the harbour tugs, but these are small tugs working usually in very good conditions in harbours with a 40-tonne bollard pull. The ETVs have up to 170-tonne bollard pull, so the vessels involved at Glensanda and off Rum had the requirements to survive extreme weather conditions, force 7 in the case of the incident off Rum, and also serious bollard pull. That alternative is not available. To my surprise, looking at the entire west coast of the UK this is the only one; it is not in Merseyside, Bristol or the Clyde.

Cllr Wills: In that context, my council is the port authority for Sullom Voe oil terminal. We also own the tug company. Our tugs are brand new and state of the art, but they do not have ocean towage capability. It is not just bollard pull, which as Michael says is part of it, but how much and what kind of wire you can store in the big drum on the back. Our tugs are not set up for ocean towing bridles of maybe a mile or half a mile long; they are set up to tow tankers in port, and they are very good for that job. They are not multi-purpose tugs, unlike an ETV.

Q443 Julian Sturdy: One last follow-up question on that. Thank you, that is very informative. You talk about bollard pull and the power of the tug and the lack of power in other areas that will be needed. I do not know whether you can answer this question. Are commercial tankers and cargo vessels getting larger? Is that happening with the new vessels coming on stream?

Cllr Wills: I can answer that. The trend is for tankers to become slightly smaller. We no longer have many of the super-max tankers; they are mostly what are called panamax vessels of about 100,000 tonnes. The product tankers, as distinct from crude tankers, are tending to get bigger. The vessels that are really getting bigger are cruise ships and container ships, for example the Napoli, which again was saved by an ETV off the south coast of England.

Cllr Campbell: To follow through on that, in the last week there was an incident involving the cruise ship Opera, which had 900-odd people aboard and was saved only because of the availability of a tug. At the time the Astute went aground, as a local authority we did a desktop exercise to see where the nearest tug would have been. That was in Aberdeen, which was nearly a day's steaming away. If that had been a cruise ship sitting with 1,000 people aboard, do we not have a responsibility for some safety mechanism to deal with that situation? As everyone said, the number of cruise ships is increasing greatly. The numbers quoted were for those coming into port, but there is an awful lot of cruise ships travelling up and down the Minch to other destinations. That responsibility lies there, I think, and we have to look at that.

Tom Piper: The justification we received from the DfT for removing the ETVs focused solely on the amount of oil they may have prevented from being spilled. In the principles set out by Lord Donaldson's report, it is not there just for oil; it is there for all sorts of non­toxic pollution, which, although it may not destroy whole ecosystems, would cost millions to tidy up. There are also fire-fighting capabilities and cruise liners. So, the only justification that has not been properly risk assessed, and certainly not consulted on, is just a couple of pages about how much oil spillage may have been prevented. It is a much wider issue than just oil.

Q444 Paul Maynard: We have already heard today about how the nature of the economy has changed in recent years. It is now 17 years since the Braer accident. Can you say how the economy has changed even in those 17 years, and if a similar accident occurred now, would the impact on the economy be the same as the Brayer or potentially more damaging? I am trying to get some quantitative idea.

Tom Piper: I do not think you can relate it directly to the economy. If you look at the history of incidents involving oil spills in particular, some cost tens of millions to tidy up; some cost in excess of—

Q445 Paul Maynard: I am thinking in terms of the economy though. Perhaps I may ask the council leaders. Are you now more dependent upon agriculture or tourism?

Cllr Campbell: The aquaculture sector has continued to grow in size. It is a very important part of the rural economy of these islands. Marine and environmental tourism has grown greatly over the last few years. With that we have had more evident designations. For instance, in Kilda we have a double world heritage site. We have talked about the cruise ships, which add to the economy; that is apparent in itself. Even this week you have seen announcements about marine technology and where renewables are going. An increasing amount of work that will take place both in the Minch and off the west coasts of the Hebrides and the Shetlands will inevitably bring much more traffic to that area. It is inevitable because we have the best resource; it is inevitable because if the country wants to meets its renewable targets, it has to start accessing that. All these economic factors will bring increased activity and so increased risk, all of which makes the case for having the proper coastguard and tug coverage.

Q446 Paul Maynard: And the preventative justification for ETVs will therefore increase?

Cllr Campbell: Absolutely in my mind.

Cllr Foxley: Without repeating what Angus has said, on tourism the British Waterways Board is very actively marketing the Caledonian canal. There is now a very substantial number of yachts coming across from Scandinavia in particular. People also go sea kayaking. I would like to expand on the point you made about renewables. The seas are becoming much more congested and there is less sea room for manoeuvre. So far 47 gigawatts of marine renewables have been approved in the three rounds in Scottish territorial waters. Those are approvals of offshore wind. It will change with time but, based on 5 megawatts, that is almost 10,000 offshore wind turbines off the coast. Tidal schemes have already been granted in the more sheltered parts of the Pentland Firth, if I may put it that way, and also near Glenelg. I should have said earlier that the leader of Orkney Islands Council is unable to be here, but this is joint action. The Highlands and Islands meet regularly every three to four weeks; there is a coordinated view on all of this. In terms of marine renewables, one of the potential funding streams to maintain ETVs is from the Crown Estate. That is not just because they gain £5 million a year from aquaculture and fish farming in the Highlands and Islands; that is because they will accrue substantial revenues from offshore renewables. To protect their income streams and safeguard their own interests, they should contribute to maintaining these ETVs.

Cllr Wills: I wrote a book about the Braer, so I will not deive you with my opinion on it. Just briefly, Mr Maynard's question specifically mentioned the Braer. She was carrying twice as much oil as the Exxon Valdez and she lost twice as much as that vessel. It was a different kind of oil; it was very light. Had it been typical North Sea heavier crude it would have been catastrophic in January. If something like that happened in the sea bird breeding season you can forget bringing BBC television crews up to film the gannets. Nobody would be interested in coming for years. It would be a complete economic disaster for tourism, seafood and so on. All the evidence of what happens after oil disasters, from Torrey Canyon, through Amoco Cadiz, Sea Empress and the Braer and everything else, is that you get massive damage to industries that rely on a pristine environment, tourism and the seafood industry, and also just the reputation of an area, which is damaged for a very long time. We have also learnt that compensation is late, grudging and always inadequate. Of course, if you have a blowout west of here, which is why we are having the exercise, there is no legally enforceable insurance cover or compensation agreement.

Q447 Mr Leech: I should like to return briefly to ETVs. I do not think anyone has suggested to us that there is a commercially viable alternative in Scotland. Is the reason why there is no commercially viable alternative the existence of the ETVs, or is it simply because it is just not commercially viable?

Cllr Foxley: I think it was in February that the shipping Minister himself thought there was a commercial alternative. JP Knight will not be staying in station after the end of September when the current contract ends. They are already marketing that ETV. One of the things about which we have very serious concerns is that we wish to see the current contract extended until we can find the finding streams to maintain that ETV on station. So, the company currently running it, JP Knight, is marketing it and will be removing it towards the end of September. The other companies with similar equipment see no financial benefits in remaining in these waters. The analogy is to leave your house uninsured. As I said earlier, we ran this campaign for years because we were concerned. We got part of the result with the ETV; we got other things like shipping lanes etc, etc. Most of us feel that sooner or later there will be a major catastrophic incident. Whether it be salmon farming, coastal tourism, bird life and wildlife on the west coast, for all these factors we will pay a very heavy price for the removal of the ETVs.

Q448 Mr Leech: My next question is specifically to the councillors. Do you see this ending up as a financial burden on local authorities? Cllr Wills, I think you said that Shetland Council had responsibility for the port and harbours.

Cllr Wills: We are the port authority for Sullom Voe. We also own the towage company. Take the example of the Braer. Our council had very large costs in clean up. We were the first responder—there was nobody else there—with the help of the local coastguards.

Q449 Chair: What did it cost you?

Cllr Wills: I do not know the figures, but I know we did not get back all the money. It was millions; it was a very significant part of our budget. We never got it all back. I could get that figure for you from our director of finance.

Q450 Mr Leech: If the ETV was no longer there, would the local authority take the view that it had to have something available that would be big enough to deal with deeper water tows?

Cllr Wills: Obviously, we will send our tugs if we have to. They are nothing like as good as an ETV because they are not designed for the job. We would have to do something to try to protect our waters.

Q451 Mr Leech: What I am trying to establish is whether or not as a council you would take the view that you need a more substantial tug to be able to deal with deeper waters and heavier ships that have to be towed?

Cllr Wills: We certainly would require that, but we do not have any means of paying for it; we have no income stream. That is why this essential means of public protection—safety of life and protection of the environment and the economy—is a Government responsibility. Coastguard Dodge made a very interesting reference to the Norwegian experience. They have multi-purpose ETVs, which are involved in fishery protection, customs, anti-drug smuggling and environmental protection and monitoring. All these functions could be performed without disrupting the work of an ETV and would provide income streams, but instead of looking at the whole thing, the MCA has looked at this mad proposal—that is all I can call it—to remove an ETV that took us years to get with lots of arguing. It was not recommended by Donaldson for the Fair Isle Channel. It took another disaster and the loss of a life in the Green Lily incident on 19 November 1997 on the island where I live [Bressay] to get us our ETV. It is very much valued; it is very useful and is an essential insurance policy, as Michael said. We cannot believe this madness. You would not leave the Dover Strait without that protection. What on earth is going on? Why us? [2]

Cllr Foxley: I think our response would be that we had not planned to buy and run a tug. But what have done is to put in a lot of energy in terms of going to meetings and discussing with officials where the funding should come from other than a direct grant from the UK Government. The UK Government has a very big responsibility in this matter, as does the MCA. They need to continue to manage the contract. The salvage from rescued vessels could be increased from 15% to 50%. Tankers and hazardous cargo, which are escorted through the Minches, could be charged for example. There is a flip argument—we are to have a meeting about this next Friday—as to whether funding comes from the general lighthouse fund, which is there for aids to navigation. Currently, that is in surplus to the tune of £50 million, on top of the £60 million reserve that it requires. We feel that is a very useful source of funding. I have covered the issue about the Crown Estate and offshore renewables. There is work by both the UK Government and the Scottish Government that could be done by these ETVs, whether it is things like border issues, MOD, hydrographic surveys or work for Marine Scotland. The four local authorities are leading a UK-wide group—they have made me interim chair—but I want to make sure that the MCA is locked into this, because we are not going to take on all these responsibilities. We are pursuing where these additional funding streams could come from so we can give a package to you and the Minister and say that we need to keep the ETVs. Give us a bit more time to put these funding streams sustainably in place so they make sense.

Q452 Chair: How much time would you need? Do you think that you could realistically come up with alternative funding?

Cllr Foxley: I am certain that we can come up with additional funding streams; there are four or five routes, and that is in our evidence. I think we need an extension of six to nine months to carry out those discussions. We need to stop JP Knight marketing the current tugs and removing them from station, so we need that leeway right through to the winter to put this package in place.

Q453 Chair: Mr Paterson, are you of the same view about the tugs? If the state withdrew, do you think the private sector would step in?

Robert Paterson: As I said, my member companies do not operate tankers, so we do not have to think about whether we need these emergency towing vessels to stop any tankers running aground. I have no remit in that particular area that I can offer you.

Cllr Campbell: We strongly believe that there are other ways of funding the tug but we need time. What we cannot do is take it away in September and have no service at all. Part of the working group of which we are members is to ask in the first instance to be given time to work on that. Different streams of funding have been identified. I am very concerned that the responsibility, which belongs to Westminster, will be transferred by sleight of hand to a local authority that then has to choose to spend money it should be spending on services for its people on protecting the UK Government from a risk of loss of life or large-scale pollution. We are willing to be a very active partner in finding a solution, and there are already indications of that, but we need time to work that through. Michael alluded to where that money could come from. It really is not our fault that the MCA have got themselves into a contract that is very badly set up at the moment. They have to get that sorted out for next time.

Q454 Mr Leech: Could the tugs be relocated and reduced in number without unduly increasing the risk to the environment and human life?

Cllr Foxley: The quick answer to that is no. Some people initially thought that but when we looked at the steaming times involved and the risks in terms of where they are currently stationed and the increased traffic, it was just spreading it too thin.

Cllr Wills: I entirely agree. That idea was in the report in 2008. That is one of the things that has changed. Traffic appeared to be decreasing. Traffic is now increasing. There is also a lot of relatively sub-standard tanker tonnage coming from the big ports in the Russian White Sea and the Baltic to some extent and going past Orkney, Shetland and the western isles. It is not monitored.[3] Sometimes we do not know where the ships are or their quality. That is the big risk area. They are not coming to good ports like the Firth of Forth or Sullom Voe; they are going to God knows where.

Q455 Chair: Is this a growing trend?

Cllr Wills: It is a growing trend. There is a very large increase in Russian export of oil in tankers that may or may not be subject to the same high standards that you have in Forth ports, Flotta in Orkney and Sullom Voe in Shetland.

Q456 Julie Hilling: I want to go back to the discussion on the station closure and its effect on local economies, particularly staff in the gas and oil industry. What is your opinion of station closures or their consolidation into two big ones? What effect do you think that may have on your industry? For the others, what effect does that have on local economies?

Robert Paterson: In our reading of the consultative document we did not recognise the current weaknesses that were claimed. What we have is an organisation that works with us and has many strengths, particularly where it is local to our operations like Aberdeen, Great Yarmouth and so on. We have built up a whole range of collaboration, not least because there is a legal requirement on us in the regulations that came after Piper Alpha to consult with the coastguard. We value enormously those local relations because they enable us to work closely with the coastguard in that area, develop exercises and try to make sure that, if an emergency did happen offshore, everybody would be familiar with the process of ensuring that does not escalate and is controlled as quickly as possible. So, our local knowledge need is really about the installations local to a particular coastguard station rather than knowledge of, say, the coast.

Q457 Julie Hilling: Do you think there would be a problem if that was concentrated in a big centre that has a little desk that says "we're oil and gas" or whatever it may be?

Robert Paterson: As you are aware, the centre of the oil and gas industry is Aberdeen. So, having a major centre in Aberdeen seems initially very attractive, because that would give strength, depth and so on, but we also value the local centres, particularly Shetland, Great Yarmouth, Humberside, Liverpool and so on, because of their proximity to the industry. There are two energy officers in Aberdeen who have particular in-depth knowledge of the oil industry that enables MCA to be much more effective in organising itself because of their deeper knowledge of the industry. They act as a resource for all the other centres around the UK. So, having a big centre in Aberdeen is obviously very appealing to us in the oil industry because it is co-located with our major companies.

Cllr Wills: On a much smaller scale, I am in the tour boat business. Like other tour boat operators in Shetland, I have to carry insurance. My insurers are very happy that every time I leave port I radio the coastguard station. I speak to Alex, Bob and their colleagues twice a day when I am not here. I tell them where I am going, when I am coming back and how many passengers I have. That is a routine passage report for every trip. It is a condition of my insurance that I do it. Because I have done that for nearly 20 years and have not had an incident, I get a lower insurance premium, which helps my business. It helps to keep down fares because insurance is a big cost.

It is also a great comfort to me to know that I have an automatic [DSC] system.[4] If I lift a flap and press the squawk button, it will tell them where I am. Okay, a marine operations centre in Aberdeen, Singapore or Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands could pick up that signal, but what happens in Lerwick is that they would know what sort of place it was; they would know if I was under the big seabird cliff not to send a helicopter, because 20,000 gannets and a Sikorsky S-92 do not mix; it is a fatal combination. They would have to send a lifeboat. They would also need to know, as they do, where I would make for if the boat was holed and I needed to beach her. There are not many beaches around where I go; it would be on a rock shelf. They must have all that local knowledge.

It is not just local knowledge; it is personal acquaintance. There are dozens of people like me around Shetland and various industries going out in relatively small boats, many carrying passengers, who, together with their insurers, have the confidence that the people at that coastguard station know what they are talking about. I am licensed to drown only 12 people, but I have not yet and it is partly because of the good cover I get from the coastguards. That is a really important thing for my passengers as well.

Q458 Julie Hilling: Does anyone else have a comment about the wider economic argument for the coastguard stations? Maybe it is about insurance, or are there other elements that add to your concern?

Cllr Campbell: The whole economic argument ties into the fact that we feel the service is best delivered by having a local station, given the risk that the changes are putting on our economy. If you put it in context, the economy of the Outer Hebrides is fighting very hard to reverse the decline. A lot of what we are doing is based on having good seafood, tourism and environmental tourism and getting new activities. If you have one accident, that blackens all of that and years of work will go down the drain. Given the fragile state of the economy in the Outer Hebrides, if that happens there might not be any coming back from it, so it is very important from an economic point of view that we make sure we cover that risk and stop it happening.

Cllr Foxley: To follow up Jonathan's point, I worked as a GP on the west coast for over 30 years. As to the emergency services, you need to know each other's strengths and weaknesses. There is local knowledge, understanding and teamwork between the command centre within the coastguard station, the local coastguard units and the topography there. The other element—which is part of the modernisation—is that all of the councils in the highlands and islands are determined to retain local services. We do not want to see fire or police centralised so it becomes a Scottish Government issue. What we are working on here is how those services can work much more closely together. We had a series of meetings to see how police, fire and rescue services, and the ambulance service in particular, which is centralised, can work more closely together and with the coastguard units. What we are talking about currently in Highland Council is looking at an initial emergency responder who has generic abilities, because in many of our smaller remote rural island communities we are running out of man- and womanpower to keep these teams going within individual units. We are looking at that and will be making presentations to the new Scottish Government about this matter. That is a way to retain people in the rural communities and, as Angus said, to maintain all the economic factors that go with it.

Robert Paterson: I said that we liked the Aberdeen centre, but the key point for us is that offshore emergencies do not happen very often, but when they do they can be quite protracted. One of the things we would fear is the process of handing things over from a centre like Shetland to Aberdeen and back again, because that is when you lose information and things start to go wrong. That interface is something that would cause us particular concerns.

Cllr Wills: In that context, there was a question about this raised at the public meeting that the MCA held in Lerwick. A member of the audience said to an MCA official that if you looked at the chart—I have given the Committee a copy—Shetland was nearer the centre of the oil fields and the fishing grounds and cruise liner grounds, so why not move your MOC, marine operations centre, to Lerwick. The answer from a very senior MCA official was that communications were not reliable enough.

Q459 Chair: On that note, we would like to thank you very much for coming to answer our questions.

Cllr Campbell: I would like to thank you on behalf of all of us here at the table and the communities of the highlands and islands.

1   Available in the Parliamentary Archives Back

2   An important point that I should have made about the ETVs but forgot is this: The Minister's assumption that the ETVs are solely for salvage purposes is mistaken. The primary purposes are to save life (e.g. by preventing strandings and assisting with firefighting) and to safeguard the environment. Salvage is a subordinate consideration. The MCA's own report in 2008 (referred to above) makes this very plain. Back

3   For the sake of clarity, I should have explained that the Automated Identification System (AIS) now fitted on almost all large ships relies on line-of-sight VHF links, so there will be tankers passing west of Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides that are out of AIS range but are still potentially major environmental hazards if they break down (or break up) and drift shorewards. Back

4   DSC = Digital Selective Calling. This I ought also to have explained. The DSC facility links my emergency radio transmitter to my GPS unit and thus automatically gives the Coastguards my latitude and longitude if I press the distress button. However, many small craft do not have this system. And most incidents on the Shetland coast involve small vessels close inshore. Back

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