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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-525)

Q460 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen, and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. I would like to start by asking each of you, please, if you could give your name and the organisation that you are representing. It helps us for our records. Can I start at the end here? Michael Vlasto: Michael Vlasto, Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Brian George: Brian George, Chairman of PCS Liverpool Branch. Graham Warlow: I am Graham Warlow, PCS Chairman of Milford Haven branch.

Q461 Chair: Thank you very much. Let me start by asking you whether you think that the Coastguard needs to be modernised. Brian George: Any organisation needs modernisation; otherwise we would all still be sitting here with quill and pen in front of us. We all need to modernise. But that modernisation must be safe, in our business in particular. Our general view of the modernisation proposals is that they are unsafe. They appear to fragment the service and introduce dog legs in various places. If I could try and simplify it, UK SAR arrangements are very direct at the moment. If a person gets into trouble, a team at the MRCC takes the information from that person, asks them what the problem is, where they are and how many people there are. Then that same team uses that information and formulates a plan. The same team tasks the relevant units. The same team continues to receive information from those units and from other sources and the same team talks to the casualty throughout. It is very direct. Some of the units go to the scene, effect the rescue and bring them back. These proposals seem to fragment everything and introduce dog legs in various places. For example, even in the MOC itself there are tiers of different stages of co-ordinator.

Q462 Chair: Do you think that there is a case for modernisation even if you do not agree with the proposals that are being put forward? Brian George: Yes, we do need to modernise. As I say, all organisations need to modernise.

Q463 Chair: What direction would you like to see that go in?

Brian George: Closing coastguard stations is not modernising. We need to make sure that modernisation focuses on the casualty and public safety. It is our job to look after the public—the sea user—for whatever reason. They may be using the sea to earn a living or it may be a leisure use. It makes no difference. But whatever modernisation is, it should focus on that and not so much on technology and what technology is available. Technology will assist us but it is not the be-all and end-all. We can all argue about technology until we are blue in the face, but, in essence, when somebody needs rescuing it is people that help people when they are in trouble, not technology. Technology just assists.

Q464 Chair: Were you consulted when these proposals were being drawn up? Brian George: No. There is a rumour that a watch manager or a watch officer was involved in the consultation process originally, but, as I say, I cannot find any more information out about that. It was just a rumour.

Q465 Chair: Mr Warlow, what is your viewpoint? Graham Warlow: I would agree with Brian. I think the Coastguard needs modernising. I do not think that we expected a complete slashing of the work force by half to achieve that modernisation. What I think generally we would see is that we would be able to take on additional work through modernisation, as well as updating technology, giving us state-of-the-art technology in the operations room. Certainly there is room to take on additional work, additional co­ordination of maybe inland search and rescue, mountain rescue, or even flood response. There is scope for us to modernise and alter our work practices, I think.

Q466 Chair: Were you consulted as well? Graham Warlow: No, I was not, and I do not believe that anybody else in the Milford Haven branch was.

Q467 Chair: Mr Vlasto, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is somewhat of a mystery to us in relation to this inquiry. You are obviously deeply involved at the sharp end of rescue. In the sometimes informal discussions members of the Committee have had with volunteers we have picked up a great deal of concern about the planned changes. Yet the RNLI has not submitted any written evidence. You did not submit it originally. We asked you for some and you still did not submit any. We find the silence or reticence a bit of a mystery. Can you enlighten us? Michael Vlasto: Chairman, certainly. We did respond to the consultation document, the MCA—

Q468 Chair: This is the Select Committee inquiry to which we asked you to respond. Michael Vlasto: As far as I am aware, certainly at headquarters we have not been asked to present written evidence. We said we would come and give oral evidence, but I am not aware of a request for written evidence.[1]

Q469 Chair: I think you were asked, but why did you not submit written evidence, whether you were or you were not asked? This is a Select Committee inquiry into a vitally important and very contentious issue. Your organisation clearly has a lot of experience of it and it is surprising to us that you did not submit anything. Michael Vlasto: 10 years ago I attended a previous Select Committee and, again, that was oral evidence that we submitted. We were not asked to submit written evidence. On this occasion the evidence that we have provided—the consultation response to the MCA document—is all we have provided to date.

Q470 Chair: Do you think that modernisation is required and do you like the proposals as they have come forward? Michael Vlasto: Continuous improvement is essential in any organisation and particularly so for those involved in saving lives. We certainly agree, and the feedback we are getting is that there is general agreement that modernisation is appropriate for the Coastguard. It is about the scale of that modernisation, the balance and resilience that results from this, local knowledge, and obviously the capability of those with whom we, the RNLI, interface in terms of getting lifeboats and lifeguards into the water to save lives at sea.

Q471 Chair: Were you consulted about these proposals? Michael Vlasto: We have a very close relationship at all levels with the Coastguard. We were not consulted formally. There was some discussion. We knew some proposals were being put together but very much in the broadest sense.

Q472 Chair: Were you consulted about the specific proposals being put forward? Michael Vlasto: No, we were not, Chairman.

Q473 Mr Leech: Mr George, at the beginning you said that when an incident takes place there is an ongoing dialogue between the coastguard station and the people that are doing the rescue. We visited three different coastguard stations last week and there were a small number of people within the operation at any one time. During an incident would you expect all the people who were working within that environment to be involved in a single incident if it was perhaps an incident that went across a number of hours? Brian George: Yes. All the staff would be involved.

Q474 Mr Leech: What do you think would be the impact of an incident like that being dealt with by one of the MOCs where there may be a very large number of people working in the same environment? Would that have any impact on the way that incident was handled because a lot more people might end up being involved in the process? Brian George: Yes. It would have an impact—a negative impact in fact. In the proposals in an MOC, there would be two levels of operator: operator 1 and operator 2. That immediately introduces another decision­making process somewhere along the line, that is, if operator 1 takes a call, on whether it should be passed up to a higher being, if you like, or whether it should be maintained at that particular level. So there is that, which can create a dog leg, as I said earlier. If you introduce into the mix input from sector managers who may become involved in the actual co­ordination process or more involved in the co­ordination process, that creates another dog leg as well. There are several places where information can become corrupted and even lost.

Q475 Mr Leech: So you would say then that an incident being dealt with by a small team of coastguards is a more effective way of handling a particular incident. Brian George: Yes.

Q476 Mr Leech: One of the other things that came across very strongly in the evidence that we heard last week during our visits was concern about the potential for a changeover from a local coastguard station that was open in daylight hours being transferred over to an MOC after hours. Do you see there being a problem with the potential for that changeover period where it may go from being dealt with by a local station to the MOC? Brian George: Yes, I can see that for the same reason. It is another dog leg. It is a place where information can become corrupted and even lost. We understand that the satellite stations or daylight stations would be open not necessarily 9 to 5, but the times that they would be open would vary according to figures that are being collated, which always seem to focus on the start of incidents. You must remember that incidents very often go over a long period. But when you have some satellite stations open some of the time and other satellite stations open for some of the other time, then there is going to be potential for confusion and trouble because of that.

Q477 Chair: Mr Warlow, did you want to add to that? Graham Warlow: Yes, certainly. The handover is quite a crucial stage in an incident. Generally it will be quite a comprehensive handover for certain incidents. It can take quite a while. The coastguard would invariably stay on well after his watch had finished to make sure that all the information that had been received had been passed on to his oncoming watch. If you were handing over an incident from a day station to an MOC, if any information was forgotten, these people have probably gone off home, so I do think that is probably a problem.

Q478 Chair: Mr Vlasto, what would the impact of this be on volunteers? Michael Vlasto: We have had assurances from the chief executive of the MCA and his team that, with regard to the impact of any changes that take place on the initiation and co­ordination of search and rescue, which are the bits that impact on the RNLI, there will not be any adverse impact on those.

Q479 Chair: But, Mr Vlasto, we are not here just to hear assurances that have been given. The purpose of these meetings is to examine the veracity of such assurances. In your view and in the view of the volunteers, what would the impact of these changes be on the volunteers and their ability to play such a vital role? Michael Vlasto: Providing the volunteers get given clear information as to where an incident is taking place, if that information is available, the lifeboats will launch and the lifeguards will do their job.

Q480 Chair: But it is "providing", is it not, because we have spoken to volunteers? What was said to us very clearly was that they were concerned that these changes, closures of stations and changeovers, could result in more onus being put on them in terms of local knowledge and local information. This could cause a difficulty for them. That was said to us by quite a number of volunteers to whom we have spoken. Michael Vlasto: The resting place of true local knowledge has always been with our volunteers and it is something they are particularly proud of because we have lifeboat stations every 20 to 25 miles around the coast and they have very detailed local knowledge of their areas.

Q481 Chair: That is not a substitute for what is in the co­ordination centre, is it, at the point of dispatch and deciding what is required? Michael Vlasto: No, it is not. How the system works at the moment is that calls come in and there is sufficient local knowledge in the MRCCs to task an appropriate lifeboat, a helicopter, or whatever.

Chair: The issue is the significance of change or the impact of change, but perhaps other members might want to pursue that further.

Q482 Iain Stewart: I would like to turn to the opening comments of Mr George and Mr Warlow. You both said that there can and should be some modernisation. You clearly think that the MCA's proposals go too far in the reduction of the number of stations. But we have had alternative proposals during our inquiry from other coastguard stations that there could be some rationalisation. Would you agree with that? Brian George: Yes, there can be some rationalisation. But, as we have both said and as you said, the proposals on the table go too far too quickly. There is no substitution for having sufficient 24-hour emergency cover around our coasts. How we modernise that is a matter for discussion with experienced people on the team to decide the best way forward to make the best use of what technology is available with that in mind. As I said at the beginning, the whole exercise must be focused on the casualty and the safety of the public. We feel that these proposals on the table do not do that.

Q483 Iain Stewart: In the alternative proposals we have had there are some differences in detail, but most of them centre round the possibility that about 12 stations could operate around the country with suitable interconnection. Does that figure sound about right to you? Brian George: Yes. 12 to 14 stations is a possibility, but, as I say, it needs a team of experienced people to look at it carefully again to decide the number of stations that would be required and their locations.

Q484 Iain Stewart: If I can add to that question in terms of resilience of the current arrangements, do you think that the current system for resilience of interoperability is sufficient or does that need modernising as well? Brian George: It is actually being modernised as we speak. There is a radio replacement exercise going on at the moment, which means that our resilience is improved. Again, we cannot see how going down to two MOCs and having daylight stations increases the resilience above that.

Q485 Iain Stewart: Mr Warlow, do you concur with that? Graham Warlow: I would, again, agree with Brian. The consultation set out a rationale to improve resilience. In our current arrangement we have nine pairs of stations and it sets out that a problem could affect both stations in a given pair. Yet, the modernisation proposals suggest that we go down to one pair, which improves resilience. I do not necessarily agree that the future concept or proposals would improve resilience. As Brian said, there is an upgrade project at the moment which allows rescue centres to link into their two flanked stations either side, which has obviously improved resilience again. But, clearly, there is an argument to network all stations within the UK, to give follow­up interoperability.

Q486 Julian Sturdy: Can I just ask Mr Vlasto from the RNLI's point of view? I want to go into it a bit further about the local knowledge. Last week, when we were up in the station at Clyde and Stornoway, we were told about the issues with quite considerable areas that suffer black spots and lack of radio contact within that. How important is the local knowledge within the RNLI to look at and cover those black spots? Do you think the local knowledge that you have in those individual stations would overcome any lack of local knowledge that would be put in place by the MOCs? Michael Vlasto: Are you talking about communications black spots?

Julian Sturdy: Yes, communications black spots, sorry. Michael Vlasto: Yes. There are some, not many, black spots. Often where the lifeboat cannot speak directly to the MRCC, the sector manager or a coastguard in a Land Rover will go out and act as a link on the top of a cliff because it is to do with the radio shadow, and often if a lifeboat is tight in under a cliff it does not make the link. But, in general terms, that is not a major issue for us. As far as local knowledge is concerned, as I mentioned earlier, local knowledge is absolutely paramount for a lifeboat crew. Lifeboats get taken into places no sane mariner would go because other people have either got things wrong or got themselves stuck and the lifeboat has to go in and give its best endeavours. So local knowledge is very important. The link between the lifeboat station's local knowledge, back through the CRS teams, the local coastguards, who have significant local knowledge, and how that gets back into an MRCC is important. But it degrades as you get back towards the centre, obviously.

Q487 Julian Sturdy: In areas like that, on the west coast of Scotland, where there are some quite challenging coastlines and there are the black spots, if you put the control centre under an MOC at Aberdeen, do you think the lack of local knowledge would cause real problems then for your crews? Michael Vlasto: I do not think it would cause real problems. We have been through this before in the 1980s and 2000 and 2001, when Oban and Pentland were closed down, and the local knowledge issue came up. There should be a transfer wherever the centre is. I accept that one centre might not be enough, but, wherever the focus is, it will be important that some arrangement is made to transfer the existing local knowledge that exists in Stornoway or Shetland, to wherever it is going to end up. But in the past it has worked and has been transferred. There is a limit to how much you can transfer.

Q488 Julian Sturdy: My final question is this. Do you think that knowledge can be transferred or do you think over a period of time you lose that knowledge, i.e. it degrades because you cannot recruit the people into, say, for example, Aberdeen with the knowledge from Stornoway or the Shetlands? Michael Vlasto: Local knowledge experience is developed over a period of time. As I have said, in previous changes to the coastguard structure, there has been a period of time while this transfer takes place and then it gets built up again. Also, modern technology, some of the equipment and some of the information systems available to people now, which certainly were not available in the 1970s when I joined the RNLI, will make it easier to have more local knowledge in the centre. But there is some work to be done on that, undoubtedly.

Q489 Chair: Mr Vlasto, what kind of consultation did you conduct with your members on this issue? Michael Vlasto: I wrote to all the lifeboat stations and explained as far as the consultation process was concerned that there would be a formal response from the RNLI, as you would expect. However, and it has been mentioned elsewhere, there has been absolutely no attempt whatsoever to gag lifeboat stations. The whole principle of trying to gag volunteers just does not work.

Q490 Chair: But what kind of consultation took place, because the things that you are saying to us now appear rather complacent compared with what we were told when we actually spoke to volunteers ourselves? They told us that they were discouraged from making any representations themselves because they were told this was going to be done centrally. They spoke to us in great detail about the teamwork they have with the coastguard centres and their great concerns about that being broken up. But none of that seems to be reflected in what you are saying. So I was wondering what kind of consultation you had with the people who are actually doing the work on a day­to­day basis. Michael Vlasto: Chairman, as I have mentioned, we wrote to all the lifeboat stations, we explained the access to the consultation document so they all had access to it, and we said, if they had any particular points they wanted to make, they should let us have them and we would either include them in our submission or we would discuss them with the coastguard if they were particularly local issues and give them feedback. That has happened.

Q491 Chair: You have spoken about the problems that were dealt with by previous closures, but do you not think the proposals this time are on an entirely different scale? This is proposing to close down more than half of the existing centres—significantly more than half when you look at the change to daylight hours for some of them and complete closure for others. Do you not think there is a step change here? Michael Vlasto: I do think there is a step change, but the RNLI does not feel that it is our business to tell a Government agency how they should rearrange their business.

Chair: You are saying something quite significant there. This is not about you telling the Government what to do or otherwise. We are conducting an inquiry into the Government's proposals and it is essential that we know what the views of people working in those critical emergency services are from their operational experience. It would be vital for us to know the views of your members from their day­to­day experience. As I said at the beginning, we are concerned that we did not receive any written evidence from you at all. We did go and talk to individual volunteers ourselves and we got a very clear message from them which is not being replicated today. We find it a little odd.

Q492 Paul Maynard: Could I keep trying to prise Mr Vlasto open a little further? How many of your lifeboat stations responded to your consultation? Michael Vlasto: Five.

Q493 Paul Maynard: Out of? Michael Vlasto: 201 in the United Kingdom.

Q494 Paul Maynard: What interpretation did you draw from that response rate? Michael Vlasto: Probably that they were comfortable that the response that was being submitted centrally would be appropriate.

Q495 Paul Maynard: How would you characterise the five responses you did receive? Michael Vlasto: Very varied. One involved language from some Welsh lifeboat stations. Others from Northern Ireland raised issues about the close links they have with Belfast. They were locally connected rather than generic responses.

Q496 Paul Maynard: How would you respond to the suggestion that a consultation by a major national organisation such as yourself which has had a response rate of only 2.5%, if I calculate correctly, is perhaps not a terribly well run consultation and therefore you have not elucidated the views of your members adequately to make a serious contribution to the MCA consultation? Michael Vlasto: That is a point of view. The information was made available in a very open way. There has been a lot of discussion out on the coast. I spent a lot of time going around lifeboat stations talking to our people. We explained that we did not feel it was the RNLI's business to tell the MCA how they should reorganise. We said to the stations that we had had the reassurances from the chief executive of the MCA that any changes that took place would not reduce the efficacy of the initiation and co­ordination of search and rescue, which is the link between us and the MCA. That reassurance is what our lifeboat crews really want to know, and that has been given. On that basis they were happy with the circumstances that were pertaining at the time.

Q497 Paul Maynard: I am very pleased to hear that you are so easily reassured. When we were in Clyde, we heard about the impact of the closure of the Oban co­ordination centre a little over 10 years ago. One of the points that was made to us was that, while it is difficult to pinpoint precise incidents where the outcome was worse as a consequence of the closure, one long­term impact has been a diminution in the quality of the local knowledge and the local links between the co­ordination centre and individual lifeboats, both inshore and offshore. Do you think it credible that an MOC based in Aberdeen would be able, for example, to man the relevant site visits for personnel to each and every one of your lifeboat stations around the coast of Scotland? Michael Vlasto: It would certainly be significantly more difficult.

Q498 Paul Maynard: Do you not think that that would result therefore in a diminution of local knowledge and situational awareness? Michael Vlasto: That rather depends on what happens with the CRS. The day­to­day link with a lifeboat station tends to be through the auxiliary, the coastguard rescue service, and that works well. We also have regular meetings between coastguard managers and our lifeboat operations managers and coxswains. They take place on a regular basis, so if there are issues they can all get round a table and talk to each other.

Q499 Paul Maynard: That is quite a significant statement you have just made. Could I just pick up on it please? You gave the impression that you placed the responsibility for good local links upon the volunteer coastguard rescue service and that they are somehow the key link between yourselves and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Is that correct? Michael Vlasto: No, it is not correct. They are part of the chain between the lifeboat station and the MRCC, the MOC—

Q500 Paul Maynard: But if we were to adopt the MCA's proposals and we were to have one single MOC, you are saying that the responsibility for ensuring the local visits took place with enhanced local knowledge would lie with the volunteer coastguard rescue service. Is that correct? Michael Vlasto: My understanding is that the local volunteer coastguard rescue service is going to have a full-time coastguard overall manager in an area.

Q501 Paul Maynard: Do you not think that that would place greater burdens on the existing volunteers then? Michael Vlasto: No, because I do not see the way volunteer lifeboat crews and volunteer coastguards interface with each other on a regular basis changing. I do not actually see it as an increased burden, providing there are links back to the MRCC.

Q502 Paul Maynard: Can I ask one final question, please? Could you just comment on your relationship with the National Coastwatch Institution and whether you regard them as an adequate repository of local knowledge? Michael Vlasto: I have limited knowledge of the NCI. We obviously work mainly with Her Majesty's Coastguard. There are outposts of the NCI around the coast and we have a very cordial relationship with them. We do not have communication links with them, but we certainly value their contribution and their input which goes through the MCA and the Coastguard rather than through us.

Q503 Jim Dobbin: You, Chairman, and Mr Maynard have referred to the previous closures of 2000 and 2001. As a new member of this Committee I want just to be clear in my own mind about how that affected the organisations. Specifically, I would quite like to direct this question to Mr George and Mr Warlow to give me your views about what possibly may happen with these new closures, based on your experience of the previous ones.

Chair: Mr George, what do you think the impact of these proposals would be? Brian George: The impact of the previous closure was quite significant, particularly with regard to local knowledge. A lot of local knowledge was lost. It was very different from these proposals. At that time there were a limited number of coastguard stations that had closed. Some of the staff did transfer to other coastguard stations, so some of the local knowledge went with them. In this case, if you are going to close up to half the coastguard stations, then it is significantly more and a lot more local knowledge and local know­how will disappear. The process has already started. A lot of coastguards are starting to look for other employment or thinking about other employment because they are not going to move halfway across the country. They cannot move halfway across the country. So a lot of that local knowledge will go. If you close a coastguard station, you not only close the link with that bit of coast but with the local communities from whence a lot of our local knowledge comes. As I say, if we are going to close half of them now, then a significant amount of knowledge and know­how is going to disappear. Graham Warlow: Under the new proposals we will lose an element of local knowledge from the rescue co­ordination centres. I can speak for Milford certainly. 25% of the staff based at Milford are also either coast rescue service volunteers or volunteers from local lifeboat stations. They bring quite a rich mix into the operations room. Moving to a centralised system in either Aberdeen or Southampton, that will not have that element of volunteer local knowledge it has also brought into the ops room. I cannot see that that would migrate at all.

Q504 Mr Harris: Mr Vlasto, you said twice now that you do not see it as your job to tell the Maritime and Coastguards Agency how to organise the Department. Has anyone asked you to offer your instructions on how to organise it? I presume you are talking about the consultation on the written proposals. Did you or did you not submit a response? Michael Vlasto: Yes.

Q505 Mr Harris: I just want to clarify your unusual choice of language when you said you do not see it as your responsibility to tell the MCA how to do its job, but nevertheless you did submit your response to the consultation. Is that right? Michael Vlasto: We did. Our expertise is in running a lifeboat service: a lifesaving service in terms of lifeboats, lifeguards and we do quite a lot in the way of prevention as well. We rely on the MCA—the Coastguard—to initiate and co­ordinate the assets we have. The RNLI provides the maritime part of meeting the State's responsibility under international conventions.

Q506 Mr Harris: In your response to the Government consultation then, did you simply say, "We have no views on this reorganisation. We will just do our job"? Is that essentially what you said? Michael Vlasto: No, we did not. There were some areas where, obviously, it was appropriate. But as far as the detail was concerned of how many MRCCs there should be, whether it should be two MOCs, and resilience, we did comment that, if Dover was remaining open for 24 hours to do the CNIS work, perhaps making that a third MOC was worthy of consideration. But we did not make any more detailed geographical comment, apart from a mention of Belfast. Because we provide the lifeboat cover in the Republic of Ireland as well and there is a very close liaison between the Irish coastguard MRCC in Dublin and Belfast MRCC, we obviously had an interest in maintaining a coastguard presence in Northern Ireland. [2]

Q507 Mr Harris: I have not seen your response but would it be correct to say that your response from the RNLI to the consultation was, on the whole, positive and supportive of these proposals, or would it be completely agnostic? Michael Vlasto: They were agnostic to a point. From the reassurances that we had had from the chief executive of the MCA, as far as the impact on the RNLI was concerned, we certainly felt and said in that document that there was more work to be done. But we certainly did not feel that it was going to be impossible to work with what was proposed.

Q508 Mr Harris: Is that view representative of your volunteers as well? If your volunteers are sitting at home watching this on television, they will have listened to what you said this morning and say, "Yes, I fully subscribe to that." Michael Vlasto: Some will probably agree with me and some will not. It will depend on the geography and how close some of the stations are to existing MRCCs. Obviously some stations have a much closer relationship.

Q509 Mr Harris: What I am getting at is this. Is the submission from the RNLI representative of the management of RNLI and yourself or is it representative of the whole organisation? Michael Vlasto: It was put together by management, having consulted or given the opportunity to our lifeboat stations to put their feedback in.

Q510 Mr Harris: That is where the 2.5% response comes. When it came to this inquiry—and I think there was a bit of confusion at the start of your evidence about how this relates to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency consultation, which is of course entirely separate—you chose not to submit evidence to this Committee, but were your volunteers on the ground given an opportunity to respond to our request for evidence to this inquiry? Michael Vlasto: I was not aware that our lifeboat stations or our volunteers had been asked to give evidence to this inquiry.

Q511 Mr Harris: No, but presumably you were. Did you give an instruction for your volunteers to be made aware of this inquiry or to volunteer information to this inquiry if the centre did not want to submit any? Michael Vlasto: They are aware and had the opportunity, yes.

Q512 Mr Harris: You wrote to them. Michael Vlasto: Yes.

Mr Harris: I am not sure, Chair, if we have had any evidence from the volunteers.

Q513 Chair: We have spoken to volunteers when we were in Scotland. We made a point of talking to volunteers and we did receive a very clear response, which is rather different from the one we have got. Mr Vlasto, I just want to clarify something. You referred a number of times to reassurances you were given by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. At what stage in the proceedings were those reassurances given to you? Was it before the proposals were announced or during the consultation? When was it and who gave those assurances to you? Michael Vlasto: It was probably a couple of months ago, and it was a discussion initially between my chief executive and the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Q514 Chair: What kind of meeting was that? Was that after the publication of the proposals? Michael Vlasto: Yes, it would have been.

Q515 Chair: Was it a private discussion? Was it minuted anywhere? Was the nature of the reassurances written anywhere? Michael Vlasto: No, it was a discussion. It was a one­to­one meeting.

Q516 Chair: Based on a discussion of about two months ago, which is not recorded, you felt it was not for you to comment about the proposals. Michael Vlasto: No. We have a very close relationship with the Coastguard, at many different levels. Certainly our chief executive was of the view, which I totally support, that the line we have taken with regard to the response to the consultation document is an appropriate one.

Q517 Chair: I am asking you about the nature of the reassurances you were given. From what you are saying to me, you have a close relationship with the MCA. Your chief executive had an apparently private discussion that was not recorded anywhere which gave certain reassurances, the detail of which we do not know about. On the basis of that you felt you should not criticise the proposals. Michael Vlasto: That is correct.

Q518 Mr Harris: Chair, can I just ask a final supplementary of Mr Vlasto? You were given these reassurances. Presumably you expressed reservations because you are not given reassurances unless they are in response to reservations. What were the reservations you expressed; and was it to the Minister or was it to the chief executive of the agency? Michael Vlasto: Our reservations are contained in our response to the consultation. There are quite a few points made in there that more work needs to be done on the detail of the number of MRCCs, issues around the potential for some of them only operating for daylight hours, the fact that we welcomed the increase in manpower for the CRS, and that vital link between stations and the auxiliary coastguard. It was those sorts of issues.

Q519 Mr Harris: Welcoming an increase in manpower is not really a reservation, though, is it? Michael Vlasto: Well, it was, sorry—

Q520 Mr Harris: But you were given reassurance on that anyway. Michael Vlasto: It was part of our overall response. Graham Warlow: Excuse me, I do not think I answered Mr Dobbin's question properly, really. You asked about the impact of the previous closures. I know that there was an incident off the west coast of Scotland. I do not have the full details and I think it involved a fishing vessel called Aquila. You would have to maybe hunt that one down. As far as a lot of local knowledge going into the new system is concerned, I think the PCS have conducted a survey and only about 12% of coastguards have expressed an interest or a willingness probably to move to these new centres. Undoubtedly, there will be a loss of local knowledge. I am sorry to have to go back to that one.

Q521 Mr Leech: I would like to go back briefly to the issue of the coastguard volunteers. We have had a certain amount of evidence to suggest that, when there have been previous coastguard closures, some of the volunteers have fallen away. Do you agree that there have been issues about volunteer coastguards giving up being volunteer coastguards when they have lost their coastguard station? Do you see that as being a potential problem in areas where coastguard stations are being proposed for closure now? Brian George: Most definitely. We see it now. It is a constant battle for the sector managers to retain volunteers. Judging from the uproar when these proposals were first put on the table from the coastal rescue service, from the volunteers, I would say it will have quite a significant effect. A lot of people feel they are being let down and they do not want to have anything—

Q522 Mr Leech: What is it about the link between the coastguard station and those volunteer coastguards that keeps those volunteer coastguards on board that perhaps will not keep those volunteer coastguards on board if they are dealing with the MOC? Brian George: One of the things is the constant interaction between the volunteers and the MRCC. We talk to them all the time. It is not only as far as local knowledge and effecting rescues is concerned. There are a lot of other issues. Education is one thing: schools programmes, liaison visits or visits to the coastguard station or coastal rescue stations by local communities, schools and that sort of thing. There is a lot of work that goes on in the background between us and the stations.

Q523 Mr Leech: If you lost even a small number of volunteers from a particular area, would that result in there being serious gaps in provision of support on the ground? Brian George: It would initially, yes. It would result in exactly that.

Q524 Julie Hilling: One of the things that we heard when we were in Stornoway was to do with the reporting in of boats to the coastguard stations or to the centres. "I am going from A to B today and I will be fishing around wherever." But they also said that, particularly for the Orkney fishermen, there was a big reduction in reporting when coastguard stations closed. How important is it to have that reporting in, particularly of the small boats, because obviously the large boats have their electronic signals but the smaller boats will not? How important is that reporting in and how important is that in terms of effecting rescues if something goes wrong? Brian George: Being from Liverpool, I cannot speak for that particular area, but, generally, it is very important that we maintain it. The reporting in of yachts, boats and small fishing vessels is a voluntary thing. They do not have to do it, but obviously we encourage it. We then have that information. If somebody goes missing, we have already got the information to hand. We haven't got to go hunting round for it. So it is very important. If that is reduced because they feel that the coastguard station has gone or the local community or the leisure industry, yachtsmen, fishermen and so on feel that the co­ordination centre has become remote from that area, then they may feel that reporting in is not worth it and therefore we may see a reduction as before. Graham Warlow: I agree with Brian. It is very important. Certainly if we were to receive a report of an overdue vessel, there is a significant amount of work involved in investigating where one may have gone to and where it left from. Those traffic reports or transit reports are very important to us and we do encourage any small vessel to pass them into us. If our station was to leave, maybe there would be a case where people would not bother. However, the aerial structure would still be in place so they can still call in. So I cannot really say.

Q525 Julie Hilling: You have not experienced a reduction where there have been closures. As I say, we have received evidence to say there had been a reduction. Brian George: There is no evidence of that. As I say, coming from Liverpool, we were not affected, although, initially, we were because we were threatened with closure then, again. But we did not close and I have not been involved in that process, so I cannot really say.

Chair: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for coming and answering our questions.

1   See ev 175 Back

2   See ev 175 Back

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Prepared 23 June 2011