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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 526-629)

Q526 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen, and welcome to the Select Committee. Minister, on 24 March you told Parliament during the course of a debate on proposals to close half the coastguard centres that any member of staff has "the right" to give evidence to the Select Committee. You then continued to say that the staff should feel confident that, if they wish to do so, they can express their views robustly. Mike Penning: Yes.

Q527 Chair: Yet, after that, you forbade coastguard officers from giving oral evidence to this Committee. Why did you change this information without any explanation or apology? Mike Penning: I have explained, in great detail, Madam Chairman, to you.

Q528 Chair: Minister, you made a clear statement to Parliament on 24 March and you then gave a different decision. Mike Penning: You asked me why I had not explained—

Q529 Chair: Why the change? Mike Penning: You asked me why I had not explained and I explained to you in great detail, in several letters, and you replied in letters asking me again. Many of those letters, Madam Chairman, that you sent to me were in the domain of the press before I had them as well, before I could respond to them. That is a point I would like to put to the Committee as well. The situation is quite clear. I said quite rightly—and I kept to that all the way through—that coastguards can and should give evidence to the consultation that has taken place, which has now closed and—

Q530 Chair: To the Select Committee, you said in Parliament. Mike Penning: Madam, if you would let me finish—

Q531 Chair: Minister, I want you to reply to the specific point, not general comment. You made a specific statement to Parliament that any member of staff could give evidence to the Select Committee. Mike Penning: And they can.

Q532 Chair: That is separate to the consultation. Mike Penning: They can and they have.

Q533 Chair: You forbade them from giving formal oral evidence. Mike Penning: They are civil servants, Madam Chairman, and I took senior advice from the Cabinet Office right the way through up to Gus O'Donnell at the top. The advice that I was given is that I had bent over backwards to give access to the Committee and that any member of the coastguard that was not on duty, not in uniform, could give evidence to the Committee when they went round the country or in written evidence. They are civil servants. A civil servant's job is to support the Government of the day. They would be in a position where they would be asked whether they were supporting the Government of the day or not if they gave oral evidence, and the advice from the Cabinet Office was that I could not allow that to happen. I have not gagged anybody—and I stress "not gagged anybody"—and any member of the coastguard that wanted, and you have had access to any coastguard station in the country that you wanted to go to, can give evidence to you. I could not, under the advice I was given, allow them to give oral evidence before this Committee.

Q534 Chair: So the statement you made on 24 March was incorrect, although given— Mike Penning: I do not remember saying the word "oral" in the evidence to you.

Q535 Chair: The statement was "give evidence to the Select Committee". Mike Penning: And they have been allowed to give evidence.

Q536 Chair: But you told them they could not come and give oral evidence here today. Mike Penning: Correct, on the advice I was given. That is a fact and I stand by that.

Q537 Chair: You have changed your view from— Mike Penning: No, I have not changed my view, Madam Chairman. Don't put words into my mouth. Please do not put words into my mouth.

Q538 Chair: Minister, I am going back to what is in Hansard and in what you said to a debate in Parliament, at which I was present, which is there on Hansard for everybody to see. Mike Penning: You can shout me down, Madam Chairman, but I have a right to answer.

Q539 Chair: Minister, would you please not interrupt me when I am speaking? Mike Penning: Then don't interrupt me when I am trying to answer.

Q540 Chair: Minister, I ask you to treat this Committee with respect. Mike Penning: I am.

Q541 Chair: I am chairing this Committee. I am putting an important point to you and it may well be that your answer is that you gave that statement in good faith and on further reflection decided that you had to qualify it. That is how I have tried to look at this in terms of thinking of the position you might be in. But you must not cut across what I am saying. I am pointing that out to you. You said "evidence to the Select Committee". That did not turn out to be the case, although it is correct that we were able to speak to people. On that point, I would like to pick up a point which I have put to you in writing which I have not had a response to— Mike Penning: Can I put on the record that you have not allowed me to answer the question?

Q542 Chair: Can I have an assurance that members of the Coastguard Service who did speak to us informally, as it was stated they were allowed to do, would not be victimised in any way in any reorganisation that might take place? Mike Penning: I find the comment that they would be victimised disappointing.

Q543 Chair: I am asking you for an assurance they won't be. Mike Penning: Madam Chairman, if you cut across me every time, I can't answer your question.

Q544 Chair: Minister, I would ask you— Mike Penning: It is your choice.

Q545 Chair:—to respect the Select Committee you are now appearing in front of. I am asking you: can I please have an assurance that any member of staff who spoke to this Committee informally will not be victimised? I am asking you this today, because I have asked for that assurance in writing and I have not had a reply to that specific point. That is why I am asking you— Mike Penning: That is probably because it was leaked to the press before it was sent to me. You have my assurance, Madam Chairman.

Q546 Chair: Thank you. Would you agree that the consultation that took place was very much wanting? Virtually everybody we have spoken to during the course of this inquiry—people who work operationally in the service—tells us they were not consulted when the proposals were being put together. Do you think the consultation could have been handled better? Mike Penning: No, I do not. The consultation was for an extended period to start. There were meetings with the PCS union before we announced the consultation. I then extended the consultation to give more time for the very detailed types of submissions it was obvious were going to be coming in, particularly after I had visited Bangor, where they had a very detailed submission and they were asking for extra time for other stations. So we extended that. We have now extended the consultation, which has now closed, to allow it to open so that this Committee's submission and its report can be taken in the consultation. So I do not think in any way it has been flawed. Actually, we have bent over backwards to be as open and to allow as many people to be part of the consultation as possible.

Q547 Chair: Do you think it would have been better if people working operationally in the service had been able to contribute to the proposals as they were being developed, before they were finalised? Mike Penning: Madam Chairman, these proposals have been on the table long before I became a Minister and long before the coalition Government came into formation. Two years ago, when the now Chief Coastguard, Mr Rod Johnson, came in, they were provided to him like this on the table. Previous Ministers know that proposals very similar to this were on the table. When Sir Alan Massey came into post, they were there as well. Consultations have taken place extensively with the unions over the years before I was the Minister and there has been engagement going through. What is really interesting about the consultation, and I said this right from the outset, is that this was not a done deal, it would be a proper consultation, which is why I have extended it now twice, to allow serving coastguards to put in proper submissions as to the future of the Coastguard. Actually, can I commend, in front of the Committee, the quality of some of those submissions, which really do look at the future of the Coastguard, rather than being insular about just protecting a station in one particular place?

Q548 Chair: There was some speculation in the press last week about where these proposals might be at and whether they were going to be changed or withdrawn. Could you give the Committee a statement on how you see the position? Mike Penning: To reiterate what I have just said, from the outset and at every station I visited—and I know Sir Alan has visited every station as well—we have said categorically this is not a done deal. What we end up with at the end of this process will not be what we started with; otherwise what is the point of having a sham of a consultation, because that is what it would be? So we will come out with different proposals, I am sure, at the end, based on the consultation and the evidence that we have submitted and, of course, the report from this Committee. But that is what a consultation should be. If you are consulting, then do not ignore the consultees. Do the consultation in the correct way and then come to the conclusion as to what we think, as the Government, is the best way forward.

Q549 Chair: Have any decisions been made at this point? Mike Penning: I am sorry?

Q550 Chair: Have any decisions been made at this point? Mike Penning: No, for two reasons. First, the review body, and I am sure we could discuss who is actually on that, which is all serving coastguards, operational coastguards, is still looking at the consultation evidence that has been submitted. Of course, no decision will be made until after this Committee reports and we open up the consultation for that submission to come in.

Q551 Iain Stewart: Before we move on to the specifics of the proposals, I would just like to ask a couple of questions about the statistics that are used in the consultation document. We heard quite clear evidence when we visited coastguard stations and from the written evidence we have received that the statistics used do not present a complete picture in so far as a single incident is recorded without giving any due weight as to the length or the complexity of the case. Would you care to comment on that? Philip Naylor: Obviously, incidents are of varying types and varying durations. It is accurate to say that, for example, an incident that is being managed or handled in Scotland will tend to be of much longer duration. In many ways that is because of the geography. However, if we take a classic incident in Scotland, it generally begins in the sense that the alert is raised, the coastguards decide what they are going to do about it, they task the assets to the scene, and in some cases there can then be quite a long wait until the assets get there. Once they are on the scene, there is obviously some further activity to do with co­ordinating the actual business of the search and the rescue. Then there is, again, another dormant period until the assets return with the survivors. While it might be accurate to say that an incident, for example, in Scotland might remain open for a number of hours, in fact the absolute level of activity is concentrated into, typically, three quite short bursts. In terms of the overall workload, the duration of such an incident is not an accurate reflection of the amount of work that would go into it.

Q552 Iain Stewart: The concern expressed has been that the proposals for rationalisation are based on the number of incidents without there having been given due weight as to the total workload that those incidents cover. Philip Naylor: In overall terms, as I recall, the average duration of an incident, whether it is a very long incident or a much shorter incident, is about 1 hour and 20 minutes. In terms of the average workload, many of them being very much shorter than that and some of them being longer, albeit with these, if you, like three comparatively short and contained bursts, the proposals do reflect the amount of work that needs to go into the business of searching for and rescuing people at sea.

Q553 Iain Stewart: There is also a concern that the sample has been based on a peak time period in the south coast which is not typical of the work load that would happen in other centres around the country. Philip Naylor: As I recall, the sample that we used was a national picture, albeit the national picture for the busiest day that we could find on record. Then in some of the work we have done we have added incidents to those to provide, if you like, a worst case scenario. Then we have added quite a significant margin to that both for growth and to deal with the unexpected. It does represent a national picture.

Q554 Iain Stewart: One final question if I may, Chair. In terms of night­time incidents do you accept that those, by their very nature, are likely to be longer lasting in their duration and complexity? Philip Naylor: I do not think there is anything to say or suggest that a night­time incident would be longer either in its duration or its complexity.

Q555 Iain Stewart: That conflicts with what we have heard in evidence round the country. Philip Naylor: It might be fair to say that there are fewer short incidents during the night because there are fewer of the types of incidents that you would normally expect to see in relation to beach activity or in relation to some of the recreational sector with dinghies or water users near inshore, for example. The night­time activity will reflect many fewer incidents of that type, but, in terms of whether a corresponding incident at night or during the day is going to be significantly different, we would not accept that, type for type.

Q556 Julie Hilling: I want to go back to coastguards not being allowed to give evidence because, as a relatively new member of this House and of this Committee, I thought the Select Committee's role was to investigate the effect of Government policy or proposals. I want to ask you the question whether this is, potentially, a dangerous path to go down. Are you, Minister, saying that any Select Committee should be able to talk to a job centre worker or a highway patrol or all of those people who are at the bottom of the civil service? Are you saying that no Select Committee should be able to take evidence from any of those people to ensure that the policy that the Government is proposing or has in place is effective and is not causing any difficulty? Mike Penning: I understand the frustration. I sat on a Select Committee for many years myself. I understand the frustration, but that is the code if you are a civil servant, and many of the people you have just described are not civil servants They are in a public service, which is a different thing and thus not subject to the Civil Service Code. If you are a civil servant, then it is your role to support a Government and a Minister that you work under. That is the protocol and it has been around a lot. This was heavily debated when an inquiry into Westland took place and that ruling was made then. That is the rule. I have not gagged. I have allowed evidence to be given. I have allowed the unions to be here and give evidence, I have certainly allowed people off duty to do it. But what they cannot do, in uniform or as a spokesman for the MCA or the Coastguard, is give evidence. That was the advice that I took and it was right to the very top.

Q557 Julie Hilling: What are you scared of, Minister? Mike Penning: I am not scared of anything.

Q558 Julie Hilling: It seems to me that you must be scared that those coastguards may be giving evidence that you are not happy about, because you are talking about people who are low paid, who work often in remote locations, so they are not people who are part of the London civil service. They are people who are working on the ground. I just do not understand. I am not disappointed or frustrated. I am outraged that you are not allowing them to give evidence. Mike Penning: If you continue the point, then I will be outraged as well. I am not frightened of anything. I have served in the emergency services myself. I would not expect a fireman to come before a Select Committee, and we would have not done so. The unions would have come and the officers that are in charge of the Fire Service would. No coastguard has been gagged at all. The rule is quite simple. As civil servants, they are not, at that level, allowed to come and give evidence. That is something that the Committee Chairman, I am sure, would like to take up with the House authorities and with the Cabinet Office, but that is the ruling. How I can be accused of being scared, when we have given complete access to any coastguard station in the country and to speak to any member of staff, I find actually quite fascinating, because you have had more access as a Committee than any Committee that I have served on at any time.

Chair: I really don't want to pursue this further here. I have said what I have to say here and there are other places for it. But the issue was the difference between the commitment you gave to Parliament and then what subsequently happened. Although it is correct that we have spoken to a very wide range of people, the conversation with a lot of those coastguards we have spoken to has been off the record, which is not the same as giving evidence to the Select Committee. But I think enough of this issue for today, and we will return to it elsewhere.

Q559 Mr Leech: Minister, you have just reminded the Committee that you used to be a serving firefighter. So you are aware of the importance of having firefighters on standby for emergencies. We have taken a lot of evidence from people in relation to the emergency towing vessels and the decision to remove those. Do you not think that we are taking a great risk by removing these emergency towing vessels that can avoid environmental or human disasters? Mike Penning: In a perfect world, if we were not in the financial situation that this country is in, we would not have had to announce in the CSR that we were not going to renew the contract for emergency towing vessels in September. We are saving round about £3.8 million per tug and last year the four tugs went out to eight operational jobs. They were called out eight times. One of the tugs is slightly subsidised with a deal we have with the French. But, if we had not made that announcement, the discussions that my officials are in now with local authorities and the private sector as to how that facility should be paid for and facilitated by those that are, if you wish, creating the risk would never have taken place.

Q560 Paul Maynard: Could I ask why there was no consultation in relation to the removal of the emergency towing vessels? Mike Penning: Can I just correct myself? It is £2.8 million and not £3.8 million per tug. Because it was an announcement within the CSR and CSR announcements are not preannounced, thus there could not have been a consultation before CSR announced it.

Q561 Mr Leech: Can I ask Sir Alan whether the MCA was consulted over the decision to remove the emergency towing vehicles? Sir Alan Massey: Yes.

Q562 Mr Leech: Do you have any concerns about the impact of those emergency towing vessels not being available? Sir Alan Massey: My concern is focused on whether we can find a way to maintain the service. We have never denied that there is a risk. We have never denied that a towage service is a helpful way of mitigating that risk. Mr Naylor, on my behalf, has been negotiating hard with local authorities, tug providers and brokers and other interested parties to see how we can provide for this towage capacity in the future. We do not know the outcome of that yet, but I know that the tug companies, for example, are very closely engaged because they see a need for it.

Q563 Mr Leech: Would the Minister and the MCA accept that there is a lot of evidence from people that we have certainly spoken to and I am sure that have spoken to you that there are certain parts of the UK, particularly the west coast and north coast of Scotland, where there is just simply not a commercial alternative to the emergency towing vessels? Mike Penning: I would argue that, if we do not actually say we have a strong position, we are going to withdraw. I know there are discussions out there with any commercial sector or with any local authority. Those negotiations are taking place. The interesting thing—I visited both Stornoway and Shetland and discussed this with the local people there—is that, very often, the tugs that are available there are not available because they are away on other activities. The way that the contract works with these tugs is a really interesting thing. I am sure everybody probably saw on TV, and you probably heard, when the coastguard tug responded to HMS Astute when she was on the rocks, the word "Coastguard" written across the side of it. She was not a coastguard tug at that time. She had been privately contracted to the MoD. What we had done as taxpayers is to pay for her to be on standby at huge cost to the taxpayers and then immediately they have privately contracted it out. That is what happens nearly all the time. Very often, the tug will stand by literally next to perhaps a vessel that has had its engines disabled or is drifting, while a private contracted tug comes in alongside, and we have picked up all the cost with no benefits to it at all. The contract itself is very flawed and I think everybody accepts that.

Q564 Mr Leech: Would you accept, though, Minister, that, rather than just scrapping the emergency towing vessels, there is the potential for ensuring that the way that those emergency towing vessels are funded could be done in a different way so that there was not such an enormous cost to the taxpayer but the vessels were there for those occasions when they were absolutely required? Mike Penning: There are discussions now taking place to do with that, particularly on the south coast. In Shetland and the Western Isles I understand the concerns there. But they also undertake activities up there which perhaps, as a taxpayer-funded tug, they should not be doing. For instance, they escort through the Minches free of charge, and I think that is one of the negotiations that will be taking place as to whether or not as a Government we continue to allow ships to go through the Minches, who should pay for the towing and protection if it is done, or whether or not we stop going through there, because that would take a huge problem and role away for the tugs. But, as I say, they do many other things and they are not available all the time. We need to make sure that the industry that has put this risk in place—it is not the taxpayer that puts this in place; it is actually the industry—picks up the tab for this rather than the taxpayer.

Q565 Mr Leech: The contract comes to an end in September. If there was a disaster next winter during bad seas, how long do you think it would be before newspapers were calling for you to resign and for Sir Alan to resign if there was an environmental disaster along the lines of certain disasters that we have had in the past? Mike Penning: If we are led by newspaper headlines, then we are not doing our job in the first place. We have to look at the risk and what is right for the taxpayer to fund. It is, in my opinion, wrong that the taxpayer continues to pick up the tab, which was not what Donaldson was describing. He did not necessarily say that the taxpayer should pick up this huge burden which we pick up every year on this. Interestingly, the French on the south coast have responded and they have now moved their ETV to Calais to cover that section of the Channel as well.

Q566 Chair: We did hear overwhelming concern about the plans to change the system for the emergency towing vessels. If a solution is not found by September, would you consider extending the current contract? Mike Penning: No. It is really important that the industries out there see that the Government are determined and that we have to come to a conclusion. If I extend it, then they will drift away from the negotiations. You are doing the negotiations, Mr Naylor. It is for you to disagree with me if you wish, but I think they will drift away if we moved our position, because we are picking up the bill at the moment and they do not want to pick up the bill. So we have to negotiate a way that they pick up the responsibility and the bills.

Q567 Julian Sturdy: Minister and Sir Alan, I believe you have visited a number of coastguard stations during the consultation period. Could you just set out how many and where you have been during this process? Mike Penning: I will set out mine. You have visited all of them, haven't you? Sir Alan Massey: I have been to all 19 and some of them two of three times now. I have made a point during the consultation period of putting the management point of view across to them and to listen to what they have had to say. I have not seen every coastguard because of course they are on a watch-keeping system, but I have seen at least two watches in every location that I have been to.

Q568 Julian Sturdy: But you have been to all 19 stations. Sir Alan Massey: I have been to every single one, yes. Mike Penning: From my point of view, the first one I visited was what everybody calls Liverpool, which is Crosby; Bangor; Western Isles; Shetland; Falmouth; Brixham;[3] and Milford Haven—quite a few.

Q569 Julian Sturdy: It has been quite an extensive process that you have undertaken. Mike Penning: I made it a point that I visited all of the countries: so Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, and to the farthest reaches as well. It was the easy option to go for the nearest ones but I did not. You have visited Shetland yourself. It is not the easiest place at times to get to, especially coming from the Western Isles as I had to do.

Q570 Julian Sturdy: Just on that, how important was the issue of local knowledge expressed to you during those visits? Mike Penning: It was expressed at every station and in probably nearly every submission as well. They had felt that their local knowledge to their particular local area was not transferrable, even though in some places with the sheer size of the area they covered that local knowledge will have had to have been diminished, and they understood that, but actually it has been put there. But, of course, when we then get into the depth of the conversation, for instance, to do with the pairing or the twinning of the coastguard stations, that is where that local knowledge starts to fall apart because, for instance, Bangor, commonly called Belfast, is twinned with the Clyde and it is just impossible. That was put to me when I was in Northern Ireland. The Clyde could not know that and vice versa. That is also where some of the resilience, which is one of the greatest concerns with all of this, was falling down. Sir Alan Massey: I had a slightly more nuanced response. Initially, people would say that local knowledge is irreplaceable and "The way we do it is the only way to do it." But, after discussions and after leading them through our thinking on this, particularly in relation to using systems a little more systematically, I had more than a handful of coastguards saying, "Yes, you know, that is a good point, and, by the way, when we, for example, take over the responsibilities for our twinned or our paired station, we fall back on more systematic approaches because that which is stored in our memory is no longer adequate, even though we have the responsibility." So there is an acceptance amongst those who give it some thought that there are different ways of doing it, although we have never diminished the importance of local knowledge to a certain degree. That has always been the case. It is very interesting to read Lord Donaldson's report on the closures that took place at the turn of the Millennium. Three stations were closed. He put some very strong arguments against local knowledge being held in people's minds and that this needs to be better used across databases using modern geographic information systems because it is just too unreliable to leave it in people's heads.

Q571 Chair: What does "more than a handful" mean? You said that, after you had spoken to them, more than a handful, you thought— Sir Alan Massey: I would say that at half the stations, in discussions with maybe four or five people, you would see the body language and you would have discussions afterwards.

Q572 Chair: So it was the body language of about—

Sir Alan Massey: It was quite clear that they would say, "Look, we get the local knowledge thing, but this is what I am really interested in", and then we would go on to a different subject. I do not have actual statistics, Madam Chair, but you know as I do that in conversation you can see the lights going on. That is what was happening.

Q573 Julian Sturdy: Given the extent of the visits that you have undertaken, do you feel in relation to the proposals that you are consulting on that there is an issue over the loss of local knowledge and do you think that has to be counted in some form?

Mike Penning: The really interesting thing, and I have not looked at every one, is that there were three sorts of submission to the consultation when we visited and subsequently in writing in some cases. One group of people questioned my parenthood and said I am a nasty, horrible man and I should be sacked tomorrow morning. There is a degree of that. Then there is, "Protect us" and that is all around the local "just our station". Then there were some really, really detailed submissions that some of them were presenting. The visual and written submission that I got at Bangor was so detailed, even though they did not have the fiscal modelling that they would have needed to do it, and the Falmouth one, which you have probably had sight of as well, all came back down to, "We know we need to change. We know we need stations to close."

They all come down to around nine to 10 stations staying open full time and there is then a discussion about how many MOCs there should be. Should it be one or two? I did topography when I was a fireman myself and did my local knowledge, but that knocks that bit away because, if they are saying to me, as operational coastguard stations, "We see the future of the coastguard MRCs at nine to 10 stations", and the average is around 10 that they have submitted, that tells you they accept that, while they are not happy with the submission now, their outcomes are not that dissimilar to what we have said and the local knowledge goes with it, if you wish, if they go down to 10. So they seem to have accepted that.

Q574 Julian Sturdy: The impression I got, certainly from the Falmouth proposal, was that they believe by going down to 10 they can still keep a base of the local knowledge there and they fear that if they go further then it will be lost for good. Mike Penning: I think you are right. The submissions basically say, if you look at our twins or our pairs, the Falmouth one basically takes the pairs out. Bangor is not that dissimilar. What they feel is they keep some of the local knowledge because they have kept their station and they will have the knowledge from the paired station coming across. The only thing I would say about that on that particular point is that a lot of the verbal and oral evidence to do with how much knowledge there was of their twin did come down to technical abilities and equipment and technology rather than what is stored in the head, because that is where you have it from your own stations.

Q575 Paul Maynard: I share your assessment of the quality of the submissions we have seen and a general agreement that there is a need both to reform the system and perhaps to reduce the number of stations, and you rightly identify that between eight and 10 is perceived to be the optimum figure. What would appear to be key to me, though, is to assess what the impact of any closures will be, not just on the local knowledge of the coastguards who work in the coastguard co­ordination centre, but on the wider network of volunteers and the wider network also of lifeboats, for example, the Coastwatch and so on and so forth. That is why it is particularly important that we consider in some detail the supplementary evidence 10c that you supplied to us in April regarding the assessment of the closures of Pentland, Oban and Tyne stations 10 years ago, because they very clearly make the statement that there was no obvious damage done to the level of service provision. I just want to try and analyse that a little closer because it does give me some cause for concern. The impact assessment would appear to be wholly quantitative rather than qualitative. Would you agree with that? Mike Penning: It is based on a set of assumptions, Mr Maynard; you are absolutely right. We have to look at the evidence as to what happened when the previous set of closures took place. It is quite arbitrary as well if you look at the way the stations are spaced around the UK. There is no geographical logic to where they are. It was just who fought the hardest in that part of the world, and the Minister at the time bit the bullet and just left it as it is. So you are right. Are there people saying to us from the voluntary sector that they are worried about the proposals? Yes, they are. But they are also saying to me that, because we are going to enhance the voluntary rescue side of the service, they are looking forward to that enhancement as well. These proposals are part of a package of proposals to enhance the pay, the qualifications and all the volunteer rescue teams that we rely on so much, which I would not say are untouched because we are going to enhance them going forward. But the evidence we are basing it on is that we expect the volunteers to do what they do now, which is a fantastic job volunteering.

Q576 Paul Maynard: Paragraph 7.13 of the impact assessment is the only qualitative piece of evidence that is supplied. That is also the only piece of evidence which is critical of the impact of the closure of these stations. It relates to anecdotal evidence regarding the perceptions of the lifeboats at Sunderland and Cullercoats that they would be downgraded compared to another lifeboat when they were called out. When we visited Clyde, we heard from the station there that, when Oban was closed, despite that being 10 years ago, they have felt that there has been almost a permanent decline in the quality of the local knowledge, the local interaction, the situational awareness—which is a phrase I prefer to local knowledge—for the area that they inherited from Oban, compared to the area that they were always in charge of. What work have you done or are you intending to do to ensure that these qualitative concerns, which seem to struggle to make their way to the surface in your impact assessments, are done for any set of future changes that you may or may not propose? Sir Alan Massey: I completely empathise with what you are saying and I can see the issues. I can understand your point. The problem with this, because we have considered it, is that at this stage it would be, at best, speculative. We were able to draw those qualitative assessments on the basis of 10 years' knowledge of what has happened in the Oban, Tyne and Pentland areas since they have closed. It is unsurprising to me that there would be some suspicion and concern among other communities, be they lifeboat men, beach users or whatever else, at the perceived lack now of coastguard cover in places. You would expect that. I can only speculate in projecting ahead as to what that would mean in hard terms for what is effectively what I am trying to do, which is to provide a search and rescue service in quantitative and qualitative terms to the public. I can see your point. I would find it very difficult at this stage to commission any sort of work that would give me a meaningful answer. But, as part of the review process, beyond whatever decision is made, I will certainly have to take these things into account and see what we have to build back, if necessary, to cater for it.

Q577 Paul Maynard: I am trying to understand how much effort was put into the qualitative research for the impact assessment. For example, paragraph 7.15 states: "There were no incidents of volunteer coastguards seeking to resign their membership because of the station closure programme." By reading that, if I am applying a degree of academic rigour to that statement, that would imply that you were doing an exit survey of all volunteer coastguards who left the service, to understand their reason for leaving the service. Is that correct? Sir Alan Massey: Yes. That reflects our knowledge that nobody in those areas opted to leave the volunteer coastguard service quoting the reason that those stations have closed.

Q578 Paul Maynard: Everybody gets a survey and they have to tick a box. Sir Alan Massey: No. To my knowledge, that sort of scientific research was not done. The knowledge of these coastguard teams, how they work and interact, and the folklore that goes with them is extremely well understood by our people on the ground. We would know very quickly if a team is starting to haemorrhage people because of a reason or not. In fact, there have been cases in the past where we have had particularly disaffected teams losing members for specific reasons. We instantly know that because our sector managers tell the coastal safety managers, who tell us. We have a pretty good network of understanding. We do not have, or at least we did not then, I am sure, have formal tick box forms, but you get the message very clearly about why people are leaving. Mike Penning: I have left two emergency services, one by choice and one by not. When I left the army they did not ask me why I was leaving. I bought myself out and off I went.

Q579 Paul Maynard: It is superficially a comforting statement to read in an impact assessment. I wanted to investigate how robust a statement it was. On paragraph 6, where you are talking about the consultations you received, the Minister has already categorised them as being very fully worked-up responses, possibly without costings. But, also, I have seen paragraph 6 with reference to separating out the large number of clear "protests", as they are referred to. Can you confirm to me whether you are considering those perhaps more simplistic statements of opposition as somehow less important than the fully worked-up responses? Mike Penning: It is obviously for me to answer this, Madam Chairman. We will publish all of them. Every single one of them will be published online and every one of them is valued. However, some of them, when you read them, are one page of A4 and they are quite abusive, and so, naturally enough, they do not get quite the sort of time that other more detailed responses will. You are absolutely right to say—and this is one of the things that we have offered help with as we go forward on some of the submissions—that it has been very difficult particularly for groups of coastguards to put together the fiscal modelling because they just do not have that sort of information. Even the ones which are referring just to individual stations staying open have been quite detailed. But the size and commitment to rigour within some of the larger submissions—there are about 20 quite detailed submissions about the future of the coastguard nationally, which is what this consultation is about of course—has been, to me, one of the best things about this consultation. I accept there will be contradictions about this, but this is the way consultations should be done going forward. We have to accept we are going to be accused of doing U­turns and bits and bobs and whatever. But, if we believe in doing consultations, you have to accept that sometimes people are going to put ideas to you that you are going to change your mind on.

Q580 Paul Maynard: Would you not agree, therefore, that it might have been preferable to have had those 20 excellent submissions before you launched the initial proposal rather than after you had launched the initial proposal? Mike Penning: I think you have to start with something. Those proposals, as I say, had been around within the Coastguard for an awful long time. I know it is difficult and this is not being party political, because I have accused a lot of consultations before of just being smokescreens, just going through the process and they are going to be ignored. We have said all the way through this that we would not do that with these. We started with something which certainly was not perfect, and we know that, and we will come out with something which I feel will take the Coastguard through the 21st century and on.

Q581 Chair: Are you willing, Minister, to change your mind on basic parts of the proposals if you feel the information you have warrants it? Mike Penning: Nothing is set in stone, Madam Chairman.

Q582 Chair: Nothing at all is. Mike Penning: Nothing. Can I just add? Nothing is, but staying where we are, with the present size where we are, that is not an option. But the consultation as we submitted it is not set in stone is what I meant. The present footprint as it is now has to change.

Q583 Mr Harris: I want to welcome what the Minister said about this being a genuine consultation. I take him at his word and I think that is a very good template for other Departments to emulate in their own consultations. Sir Alan, not so much, because I get the distinct impression that you have decided what the right way forward is. I am going to quote some of your language back at you because you give the impression that it is just a bit tiresome dealing with people who are not as clever as you. You said, when you were talking about the local knowledge debate, that when you explained you position: "There is agreement among those who give it some thought." Taking that description, "among those who give it some thought", are they a minority in the Coastguard or are they a majority—the ones who give it some thought? Before you answer, there is another quote. You said that, when you explain your position, you "see the lights going on". It must be a remarkable experience to see someone being really stupid and then suddenly, once you explain your position, the lights go on and they understand what you are talking about. Can you understand why some people in the Coastguard Agency are not entirely enthused about your vision of the future? Sir Alan Massey: I do not recognise myself in your description there.

Q584 Mr Harris: You can read the excerpt from Hansard. Sir Alan Massey: That is fine. The point about those who give it some thought and seeing the lights go on relates to the conversations I have had in 19 different coastguard stations and, in fact, many more, whereby when one sits down and is prepared to take the flak with the work force and lead them through every bit of one's thinking, putting it in the broader context, it is quite surprising. The body language and the eyes tell you that they are starting to see your point of view. I am not saying that necessarily our point of view is 100% right and we are omniscient. I am the last person in the world to do that. But we have thought through and we have evidence based what I think is a very workable scheme for bringing the Coastguard Service into the 21st century. My job is to bring my work force with me and I have to say I have had considerable success in human interaction with people, explaining why it is we are doing particular things, listening to their points, taking away a good deal of learning and thereby benefiting the whole process. I really do not recognise your accusation.

Q585 Mr Harris: It is important what the Minister has said—that this is a genuine consultation. It is always dangerous to talk about hypotheticals, but it could well be that he will conclude as the Minister, as the person making these decisions, that your template that went out for consultation is so flawed that large parts of it cannot be implemented. In those circumstances are you expecting to have a conversation with the Minister and see the lights go on on his face? Mike Penning: It would have to be a long conversation, wouldn't it? Sir Alan Massey: I think perhaps we ought to move off that particular point. I do not discern the question there. Mike Penning: Mr Harris, let me use slightly different language. One of the first stations I went to was Crosby in Liverpool. There was a picket on the outside, we went through and I went back down to the picket, much to their surprise, and spoke to them and said, "I understand and I respect what you are doing." It was quite a difficult meeting, there was a lot of anger and there were a lot of things thrown around. Then we calmed down and we started to talk. Just before the end, a very senior member of the staff there said to me, "Minister, for God's sake, we have been talking about nine stations for years. Why won't they listen to us?" If you want an analogy of the lights coming on, the lights came on with me then because I was talking about eight, basically. They immediately said to me, "We have been talking about nine and in the larger conversations we are between nine and 10." It is breaking through the initial understandable concerns about individual stations and then saying, "Okay, but is this perfect now? Is this working now?" "No." Then the conversation will start. As it happened I said, "Can you give me the nine?" We did not get the nine from them and I do not know whether in the submissions they have come through. But clearly there had been discussions for some very considerable time within the Coastguard, which I was told about at that meeting. That is why it was so useful for me going round and, I know, for Sir Alan as well.

Q586 Chair: Minister, perhaps you had better clarify what you are saying on the record here. You are not suggesting, or are you, that from your conversations at Crosby Liverpool station there was an acceptance of your specific proposals? Mike Penning: No. The proposals are there and the consultation was out at that stage, but it was said in public, and there were plenty of people in the room. Sir Alan, I think, was there and Mr Naylor was there as well. A senior member of the Coastguard said to me, after we had had these quite heated discussions, etcetera, "We have been talking about the fact that there should be nine stations for years."

Q587 Chair: Was that nine full-time stations? Mike Penning: He did not quantify that. He just said nine stations.

Q588 Chair: It is important for the record it is clear what is said because we have received written evidence from Crosby and we have also had evidence from representatives— Mike Penning: This person may be part of that or may not.

Chair: It appears to us that there is strong opposition there to the proposals for change. I just think we should be clear what is on the record and what happened.

Q589 Mr Harris: We will set that aside for the time being. But, Sir Alan, I want to come back to a subject that we talked about last time you appeared in front of the Committee, which is Gaelic, which I think, if you remember, you inadvertently described as a dialect the last time you were here and you withdrew that. I accept that. Obviously, Gaelic is a native language in the Western Isles. It is not a foreign language; it is a native language. Apparently, a new paragraph was inserted into your own consultation document suggesting that a factor is that English is a second language and that the Coastguard, in common with other emergency services, is addressing through training in terms of learning the Gaelic language. That is not really happening, though, is it, because there is not a single person in the Coastguard who is learning Gaelic as a second language if they are not already a native speaker?

Sir Alan Massey: No.

Q590 Mr Harris: Is that not one perfect example of local knowledge that is absolutely guaranteed to be lost under this reorganisation? Sir Alan Massey: The training relates to training in questioning techniques. If you get a complete language barrier, then that is an issue, and that is clearly an issue. But the training we refer to is the way that we train people to respond to 999 calls and VHF transmissions such that they can try to localise the position and ascertain the nature of a particular incident of distress. To my knowledge, and I am pretty sure that is the case, we do not train people in Gaelic.

Q591 Mr Harris: But you accept then, if an emergency call comes through from a native Gaelic speaker, expecting perhaps to speak to another native Gaelic speaker, there is going to be an issue there if the person taking the call is not a native Gaelic speaker? Sir Alan Massey: Yes, there could be an issue there if a native Gaelic speaker was unable to communicate with, basically, an English language rescue service.

Q592 Mr Harris: Or indeed if they spoke in the English language. I have spoken to Angus MacNeil, the member for Na h­Eileanan an Iar, and, frankly, some of the place names that he talks about are befuddling at best, and I am from Scotland. Even place names can sound very similar and the point I am making is that there could be some confusion. You accept that. Sir Alan Massey: There can always be confusion, but the whole point of the training is to try to knock out as many variables as could be caused by misunderstanding.

Q593 Mr Harris: You do not think there is any risk of local knowledge being lost there or you do not think local knowledge lost there is a problem. Sir Alan Massey: Local knowledge being totally lost anywhere would be a massive problem. It is a question of how you capture, store, assess and share and distribute that local knowledge. That is what we are trying to grapple with, with this new concept. Philip Naylor: I wonder if I could just add this in relation to a national emergency service. In fact, it is the only national emergency service in which we recruit our coastguards nationally and a coastguard from anywhere in the country could be posted to any coastguard station anywhere else in the country. The whole issue of languages other than English, which, after all, is the international language of the sea, is not a requirement for coastguards.

Q594 Mr Harris: No, indeed it is not. You are saying that there would be no issue with interpretation, understanding of local knowledge and local language. That would not be an issue because coastguards are already recruited nationally and are posted to Stornoway. Philip Naylor: I probably would not go that far, to be frank, because coastguards themselves, when they are dealing, for example, with a ship trading internationally, might be dealing with people on the ship who speak very little or no English. Nevertheless, through their experience as a coastguard and their techniques in questioning people as to their location, the nature of their difficulty and the nature of the assistance that they require, good coastguards will always be able to put together a competent rescue to deal with it, regardless of the ability of the person to communicate—

Mr Harris: As long as they go to the right place. Philip Naylor:—either in terms of their language or in terms of how good the communications are, because, after all, over wireless, the communications may not be perfect.

Q595 Mr Harris: One other subject, Madam Chair. On emergency towing vessels, Minister, you said quite expressly now that you cannot, as a Government, guarantee that these vessels will be available unless the commercial sector comes in and starts funding them. I hear what you are saying about Lord Donaldson's conclusions. I did not know that he had not recommended that they be funded by the Government and I will have to revisit that particular report, but is it not the case that Lord Donaldson, whatever preferred mechanism for funding he wanted, certainly recommended that those vessels be available, whoever funds them? You are now talking about a scenario which, one way or another, could result in those vessels not being available. Is that correct? It goes entirely against what Donaldson recommended. Mike Penning: What I know is very important here is that we have to look at risk based on cost and who picks the cost up, and whether it is right and proper for the British taxpayer to pick up that cost continually or whether or not those who create the risk should do so. Until we made this announcement, those that were creating the risk had not under any circumstances said that they would come to the table and start talking to us. They are now, and I was party to negotiations, not only in the Western Isles but also in Shetland, around local communities, and local authorities are seeing the differences now. Whether it is right and proper that we still escort through the Minches, what type of contract will go forward, who will pick up the bill on that and whether or not they will continue to do surveying and other such work is part of the negotiations which are still taking place. I know it must be frustrating for the Committee, but if I reveal my hand too much I will go straight back to where we started and I am not willing to do that.

Q596 Mr Harris: I am going to be cheeky, Minister, and I am going to suggest—and you do not have to answer this—that you are playing a game of poker. I do not think you personally would tolerate a situation where those emergency towing vessels did not exist, whoever was paying for them, but you need to say a particular thing at the moment to get the commercial people round the table. Mike Penning: I will cease that contract in September.

Q597 Mr Harris: Yes, I knew you were going to say that. Just one very brief question. Did coastguards know that they were civil servants before we started this inquiry? Philip Naylor: Yes, they do. As you can imagine, joining the Coastguard involves a fairly extensive and very detailed induction and training programme. Then, annually, as part of the civil service attitudes and behaviours questionnaire, the whole subject of the Civil Service Code and awareness of the individual employees of the Civil Service Code is measured. We very often go back to our employers and remind them about the existence and the duties that they have under the terms of the Civil Service Code.

Q598 Mr Harris: But Highways Agency patrol officers are not. Mike Penning: Highways Agency patrol officers are not civil servants. [4]

Mr Harris: It is odd, to say the least.

Mike Penning: I know it is, and I fully accept the anomaly. It frustrates the Committee, and that might be one—

Mr Harris: Maybe if we have an inquiry that involves the Highways Agency they will suddenly be redesignated as civil servants here.

Chair: That is an interesting conversation.

Q599 Iain Stewart: Thank you, Chair. Mr Harris has rather pre-empted my question on ETVs. I want to pick up on one specific point about the ETVs and it relates to the evidence we received from the Western Isles Council. They made the point that we should not look at the four ETVs as the same because the two northern ones are in a very different category. For the two southern ones, there is quite possibly a market-based solution but that might not apply to the two northern ones. Would you consider in your negotiations that you do not have a blanket solution to it but you actually split it up in a geographic way? Mike Penning: I reiterate what I said to Mr Harris. I am not willing to change my hand. I will stick, using the analogy from earlier on, because we have to. We have to come out of this. This is a hugely expensive project. In hindsight, whoever signed that contract, where you take all the risk and then the tug operators take all the profit is a really worrying example of how Government contracts can go very wrong.

Q600 Iain Stewart: I am reassured that you are aware of that potential difference. Mike Penning: I certainly am.

Q601 Iain Stewart: It is a good example to lead on to a broader question I have. We have received proposals that the Scottish MCA should actually be devolved to Holyrood, and I asked, when we took evidence in Stornoway, if there were any practical or logistical reasons why that should not happen and the coastguards said there was not. I do not want to open this up into a broader constitutional debate, but, from your perspective and the MCA's perspective, what are the practical and logistical advantages of retaining a unitary UK-wide system? Mike Penning: I have the honour of being a Minister of the Crown where most of my portfolio is a national United Kingdom portfolio. This is a national emergency service and the Government have not looked at, and have no intention of looking at, breaking that up under the devolution settlements. It is important, I think, that the brand, the Coastguard, is seen as a national organisation and should go forward as one. It is world-renowned as the Coastguard for the United Kingdom and should be so.

Q602 Iain Stewart: If I could maybe ask the question the other way round, what would you see are the dangers of fragmenting it? Mike Penning: It is up to my colleagues to speak as well if they wish, but I think, if you break up something which is world-renowned as a national organisation, there is an obvious risk of fragmentation and quality. For me, it is the same sort of question as to whether you say, "Would you break up the British Army?" The British Army is a national organisation and world-renowned, and so is the Coastguard. I think it is really important that it is. I do not in any way say I am surprised that the devolved Parliament in Scotland is pushing for it, especially since the elections in Scotland. But I think I speak—I do speak—on behalf of the Government and we have no plans whatsoever to break up the Coastguard. Sir Alan Massey: Just at an operational level there are merits to be had in having a common training standard, common techniques, procedures, even down to quite mundane things like common uniform and economies of scale that go with that. But as a national organisation it has proved itself, it is of a size to allow for reasonable movement as between the various parts of the UK so that career progression can be enhanced on the basis of a broad experience, and so I can see a lot of operational reasons for maintaining it as it is.

Q603 Julie Hilling: Can I explore a little bit of the 21st century Coastguard that you talked about before? One question is on the responses at the coastguard stations that you visited or have received. Was their coastguard station always the one that would stay open? Mike Penning: Yes.

Q604 Julie Hilling: One thing that was good was that they did not all sit back and go, "We are all right", and not worry about the others. Mike Penning: Some have, to be fair. But if you look at the larger national resilience submissions, turkeys don't vote for Christmas and I fully understand that. They have kept their station as part of the nine or 10 they are proposing. Most of those have proposed one national control centre rather than the proposals in the consultations, which is two, but most of them have gone to one and then their station plus nine or their station plus eight.

Q605 Julie Hilling: Presumably they are then saying that their local knowledge is really important, but the local knowledge and experience less important. Mike Penning: I am sure you have seen this. Not all of them but most of them have looked along themselves and the pair. In other words, they are twinned and they are losing their twin. If you look at Falmouth, their proposal is that Brixham should close. The two exceptions to that, of course, are the Western Isles and Shetland, which are not twinned now, and so they do not have an opposite one to close within the submissions. So that is slightly different. It is interesting in other parts of the world. Australia, for example, only has one MRCC, Spain has one, Norway has two, and France has seven. As radical as our proposals are, they are not as radical as what other countries have already done, and Australia has a bit more coastline than we have. But they do it with one. None of the proposals take it anywhere near to those levels, actually not even to a seven, but we do start from eight upwards and then we stop at 10.

Q606 Julie Hilling: Minister, would you accept that, certainly, what the coastguards have said to us is that, "If some have to close, then we would propose this"? You gave the impression before that people were saying, "Yes, actually we should go down to this number." The people that spoke to us were more saying, "It should not go down, but if it has got to go down then this is the very least that we can survive with." Would you accept that that is— Mike Penning: I do not think that is across the board. You are right that if you speak to some people you do get that feeling. I have also had submissions and conversations where they fully accept that the status quo is not sustainable, and they have done for some considerable time. These emergency services have been in dispute for many, many years. If you look at the starting pay of something like £13,500 for some of them, it is what I would call from the army "dead man's shoes". It is very difficult very often to get promoted and to get qualifications and go up through the ranks because of the way the shift systems work and the fact that there are so many stations. As I alluded to earlier on, you could be recruited in one part of the country and end up being posted to another, which is a huge upheaval. I fully accept that, with the closures that we are proposing, there will be that sort of upheaval as well. But it is not just, "If we have to do it, this is the best option for us." There is a bit of that, but I have been very impressed with the submissions where people are saying, "We know we can't carry on like this". If you scratch the surface, that is there with most people.

Q607 Julie Hilling: When you say, "We know we can't carry on like this", is that about finance from the Government, though, as opposed to the job that they are doing on the ground? Mike Penning: From day one I have been very worried, especially coming from a military background and the Fire Service, about the resilience within the service. When I was in the Western Isles, they talked to me about how they are cut off completely. They have volunteers going up to the wireless mast on the top of the hill. The resilience within the communications and the resilience within the service is not 21st century. It has not been for some considerable time and has to be addressed.

Q608 Julie Hilling: In your proposals then, and we have not picked up any of this, are you proposing that there will be more radio masts for these dead spots, etcetera? What are your proposals for improving technology? Mike Penning: I have said since day one there has to be a national resilience and that is in the proposals. The radio masts will always remain because we rely on that quite a lot. But with regard to our comms systems, for instance, when I was in the Western Isles their land link line had been down for two weeks last time when I was there. They were saying they had a real problem. There is a technical issue to do with the resilience within the service which no other emergency service has in the same way that this has.

Q609 Julie Hilling: Are you solving that technical issue, because that was not the evidence that we were receiving from people? What they seem to be saying is, "We already have the technology in place, and to close stations now would remove any new technology that was being proposed." There did not seem to be any indication of new technology that would improve communications across the piece.

Chair: Is there actually going to be new technology? This was a very strong recurring theme that we had when we spoke to people. Sir Alan Massey: We have stressed all along that at the moment we are already setting in train a programme which is putting the best available technology in our generation of equipment into all of the stations on a progressive basis. What will change into the future is that we will be linking the stations together in a way that has never been attempted in the past. It is not terribly difficult to do this but it is reasonably expensive. The aim at the end of that is that any station can listen to any aerial and, therefore, if you lose the station, then others can jump in to take over in an emergency situation or, indeed, you can distribute work load in any way that you want to, driven by a Maritime Operations Centre at the heart saying, "Aberdeen, you go down; you go training today. Somebody else will take your aerials. You have a technical fault there at Liverpool, so somebody else, Dover, you can take that sector." We cannot do that at the moment but this hard wiring will allow you to do just that. At the moment, for example, if I lost Falmouth because of lightning strikes, which has happened twice, and if I lost Brixham as well, with which it is paired, it would be extraordinarily difficult for us to maintain any sensible cover over the south-west. We could. We could do it with volunteers at radio masts using mobile phones, but it would be a very second rate or third rate capability. We are looking for a first rate resilience that will allow us properly to operate a national service.

Q610 Chair: We have had representations, too, about leisure craft, and it was said to us that leisure craft would not have access to the kind of technology that would be required. Is that correct, and is there any change of policy required in relation to the service given to leisure craft? Sir Alan Massey: No, absolutely not.

Q611 Chair: Mr Naylor, could you answer that because we heard that point made very strongly on many occasions? Philip Naylor: Our ability to hear the people that currently call us will be unchanged. Anybody that can currently contact us on a leisure craft or by telephoning us nationally will be able to do the same in the future as they do now.

Q612 Julie Hilling: What about those who currently cannot contact you because of the problems with masts, etcetera? Will they then be able to contact you? Philip Naylor: I think perhaps what you are referring to is areas where our aerial coverage might be patchy or weak.

Q613 Julie Hilling: And no mobile phone coverage either. Philip Naylor: And no mobile phone coverage. Mobile phone coverage is rightly a matter for mobile phone providers. They are continually modifying their areas of coverage, and so, too, is our organisation continually monitoring the coverage that we have with our aerials to listen to radio calls that we receive. We have 156 aerials, I believe it is, at the moment, which give us a national coverage. Generally speaking, that provides us with a very high level of coverage around the entire coast of the UK. There are occasionally the odd spots where coverage is not the greatest, but by and large we work to resolve those in various ways.

Q614 Julie Hilling: I do not wish to be rude, but the question really is, as a result of these changes, will there be greater coverage for those areas that currently cannot communicate? Philip Naylor: The plans foresee that the coverage will remain as it is now, but as things evolve, as demand arises, then we make changes to our aerial coverage. We make the changes now and we will continue to make those changes in the future. Mike Penning: This is very important because we are the only emergency service at the moment that does not use Airwave. Interestingly enough, the coverage Airwave, which is loosely based on the O2 network—and I have to be slightly careful because Airwave has its headquarters in my constituency so I am not going to deride them in any way—has allowed the emergency services to talk and bring us together for the first time. It never happened in my time when I was there. But they come to us very often. Very often other emergency services come to us when Airwave is not working, particularly on the coast, so that we can talk through our radios. Even though it is not perfect, and we accept that, the coverage we have is probably the best, and we will probably look to be using Airwave to speak later on to the other emergency services because it is important that we do so. The spots where they cannot pick up they rely on us, interestingly enough.

Q615 Julie Hilling: Minister, one of the things about local knowledge that came in from the coastguards was that it was also about that difficulty with communication, that ability to use other ways, the fact that you may only get a fragment of a call that you can then place because of local knowledge. But can I just ask another question on the 24 hours? You have indicated that you will be listening to what people have said and will be changing the proposals going forward in some way, which is of course welcome. But are you still talking, therefore, about daytime-only centres or are you considering those remaining centres to be 24-hour?

Mike Penning: What I have said and would reiterate is that the status quo now is not an option, but the proposals going for option are not fixed in stone. I do not want to reveal my hand too much because a lot of this has yet to be decided. The submissions are there and are being assessed now by the panel. Of course, the Committee have not yet submitted their conclusions to me and it would be improper to the Committee to indicate what I am likely to do before I receive your submissions because, otherwise, there is no need to reopen the consultation. I will just be, frankly, ignoring the Committee's conclusions. I think that would be wrong.

Q616 Mr Leech: My question follows on very neatly from that. I want to know what the logic or the reasoning behind proposing non-24-hour stations was. Mike Penning: I will do the logic part and these guys will do the operational part. When I first went into the Fire Service in Essex, most of the stations were whole-time, 24- hour, the same crew on whether it was day or night, or part­time stations. It became obvious not in all areas but in certain areas that the amount of work load at night was so low that, cost- effectively, it was not worth the risk of having those manned 24 hours a day. So they moved to whole-time retained and what they call day manning; you are operational fully there during the day. You will see that around the country today. Only Manchester and London do not have those sorts of operations. That is not exactly the same as what we are looking for, but we are saying that during the night there is a completely different work load at some stations, not all, compared to others. That is one of the reasons why we looked at the daytime. That just gives you a concept as to what I have experienced before I came into this role, and essentially that is where we are now.

Q617 Chair: Sir Alan, what about daylight hour stations, because there is a lot of concern expressed to us about this, including questions about the definition of daytime stations and what it actually means? Sir Alan Massey: Yes. If one takes the hard logic of our thinking to its conclusion, one ends up with a single maritime operation centre, as other nations have, somewhere in the middle of the UK. We always thought that was the wrong answer. We thought you needed at least two, if not three, of those to give you inbuilt resilience. But we also looked very hard at the historical incidence of search and rescue activity, which, as I think we have seen from the diagrams, shows a very marked peak during daylight hours. 70% of all activity happens between 9 o'clock in the morning and 7 o'clock at night. Taking a pragmatic balance between seeking efficiency, trying to build resilience and also being credible, we thought the best answer was to populate the national system with daylight hour stations to cope with that daylight peak in demand. There is a certain logic to it; there is a persuasive argument there for the public. It gives you the opportunity for a strategic lay-down and it also allows your emergency service to interact in a sensible way with other emergency providers in the locality, be it a region or a city or whatever. That was the thinking behind it. I can understand people's concerns about the lack of 24/7 cover, but the whole theme behind this is that, if you do it correctly, if you link yourselves up correctly and you train your people correctly, you can run this from national centres of the sort we have proposed.

Q618 Mr Leech: Would you accept, though, with regard to what the definition of an incident is, that there may be fewer incidents at night, but the actual amount of work for the coastguard station on a particular incident at night—and the evidence that we have had is it certainly seems to be the case—will require an awful lot more work by those particular coastguards? We took evidence last week that told us that there were some incidents that last a number of days but they are still classed as one incident. Those statistics may be quite misleading about the level of work load in the evenings because the incidents are more complicated. Philip Naylor: Madam Chair, perhaps I can answer that question. It is an accurate point to make to say that, generally speaking, incidents at night will be of longer duration than incidents during daylight. One of the reasons for that probably is that it is dark. But it is, also, because they tend not to be, as I mentioned previously to Mr Stewart, the type of incident that you would have, for example on a beach, a beach-type incident, which tends to be an alert where there are lots of people around, generally there is a very rapid response from a large number of people and the incident tends to be dealt with quite quickly. However, two points are worth bearing in mind. The first one is that, even though the incidents might be of longer duration, there are many fewer of them. When you look at the statistics for incidents at night, there really are very, very few of them. Secondly, many fewer of them, even though it is fair to say they tend to be of longer duration, tend to be typified by this type of event where we will find out what the problem is, we will decide what the response is going to be, assets will be tasked to the scene and then there tends to be a lull. Sometimes, if you take an incident off the coast of Scotland, that lull might be 12 hours; it might be six or seven hours. While the assets get to the scene, a helicopter can sometimes take over an hour, an hour and a half, to get to an incident off Scotland. Nothing is really happening in that time. Then everything arrives on scene, there is another peak of activity, as I have said, the job is dealt with on the scene and then the assets return. Again, there is another lull. It is inaccurate to say that, just because the incidents at night tend to take longer, they tend to require much more input. Even though there are many fewer incidents at night, we have still made provision by a very large margin within the proposals for the number of people that you would need to deal with the very worst possible example of the number of incidents you would need to deal with at night—a huge margin.

Q619 Mr Leech: Would you accept, though, that the statistics about what is classed as an incident are very, very misleading because some incidents at some coastguard stations are very, very minor and trivial in terms of the amount of input required by a coastguard, yet some of the more complicated incidents, many of which would take place in perhaps the more dangerous waters around the coastline, particularly in Scotland, are just still classed as one incident regardless of how much work is put in? It is very difficult to justify saying there is hardly any work going on at this coastguard station or there is very little work going on at night, because you are simply just classing one incident the same regardless of whether it is— Mike Penning: It is the nature of an emergency service. If you looked at my station and asked how many shouts you went on last night, you went out on four shouts. All fire stations around the country are looked at based on the amount of shouts—the amount of jobs—they do, and the Coastguard operates similarly. But, and this is exactly the problem, we used to go to bin fires quite a lot, sadly. That still takes up the same person on the end of the phone taking the 999 call, the same person sending the assets out there and a crew attending. It is the same. If you have a big job on, interestingly enough, once it starts, it tends to flow. We were talking quite extensively to the fire we had off of Falmouth on a factory ship. But, remember, those other smaller jobs, those trivial jobs, still come in. What was worrying me in particular to do with how our assets were working is that if you have the south coast, which has a lot of leisure activity in the summer and a lot of beach activity, as I say, you still have those calls coming in and it takes up a huge amount of time. But, interestingly enough, from my experience—and I think this is what Mr Naylor was alluding to—a big job is a big job, and you get on and do it. The rest of the stuff comes through as well. But they are called jobs. It is just the nature of the emergency services, what they do and what they call them.

Q620 Mr Leech: What is proposed for the international calls from around the world that currently come into Falmouth, because what might be daylight hours in England is not daylight hours in other parts of the world? What will happen to that? Will that go to one of the MOCs? Mike Penning: That is one of the things we have looked at very carefully because, at the moment, I know Falmouth quite rightly are very proud of their international reputation. Falmouth were asked to do this role when it first came up and they do it fantastically well. But, as Sir Alan indicated earlier on, Falmouth have been hit twice by lightning strikes in the last few years. I have no one else that can pick up that role at the moment—no one. That is where the big issue is.

Q621 Julian Sturdy: Can I just come in on the larger issues that occur? Take, for example, Falmouth. You are right to say that the tourism activity there would generate a lot of different issues ongoing. But, under the proposals, if you get a large incident arising during the daylight hours, would the Falmouth coastguard station see that through if it runs into the evening hours? Sir Alan Massey: Yes. There is absolutely no question that we would do exactly as we do at the moment. Where there is an incident ongoing that is engaging a particular station in an intense way, we would not let them change watch; we would not try and take the incident off them. We would let that go to a logical position at which you could safely hand it off. It is the same in any service.

Q622 Julian Sturdy: They would not see it through to conclusion then, necessarily. Mike Penning: They don't now. Sir Alan Massey: Not necessarily. Julian Sturdy: There would be a handover. Mike Penning: What all emergency services do is they take it to a logical position where a proper handover takes place. It is like A&E.

Chair: So there would be a handover. Mike Penning: Yes, of course.

Q623 Julian Sturdy: Just on that point, just to clarify, they would take it to its normal logical conclusion. If that took it to 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning— Mike Penning: No. That is not how any emergency service operates, whether it be your A&E department or whatever. If we were on a job, then there would normally be an hour given to the new crew coming on duty to come out, a handover to take place and you would come back and then the control centres that operate do exactly the same.

Q624 Julian Sturdy: I understand that currently there would be a handover from the change in shift. I am using Falmouth as an example but it should be the case anywhere. There is a handover from a change of shift in Falmouth. What I am trying to get at here is, if, say, under the current proposals under daylight hours Falmouth would close at 7 o'clock, if that incident had run over that until 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock but it had not got to its natural conclusion where you would normally hand it over, would they stay with that or would they hand over at 7 o'clock? Sir Alan Massey: This will be very much horses for courses, to be honest. We are talking about protracted incidents now because, if it is short, you see it to its end. If it is one that is likely to be protracted, taking Mr Naylor's analogy there, in this incident the helicopter is tasked, we know the location of the casualty, the helicopter is en route, and there is a natural lull in activity. That could be a point at which you hand off safely to a Maritime Operations Centre or to another station, bearing in mind of course under our model the Maritime Operations Centre would already know exactly what is going on. Mike Penning: It wouldn't be in isolation. It would be monitored all the way through. Sir Alan Massey: It would be totally aware and, of course, we will be sharing each other's data systems on which all of these incidents are being logged and tracked. While I understand the issue, I do not see a problem with it because they are already trained to do it this way. It is absolutely common across all emergency services I have ever dealt with and I do not see it being a difficulty at all. It is totally organic.

Q625 Julian Sturdy: There will be flexibility within that as well. Sir Alan Massey: Yes. We would have to negotiate clearly with our work force and with the unions exactly what the length of rope one has there to play with, but, in principle, I am absolutely certain that the natural professionalism of the coastguards would not allow them to simply say, "End of shift", tools down and off.

Julian Sturdy: There has been some concern expressed, certainly when we have been out there talking and taking evidence, that the handover in the middle of an incident would cause some problems.

Q626 Chair: Who takes the decision about when the handover should take place? Sir Alan Massey: Under our model that would be the Maritime Operations Centre.

Chair: They would decide. Mike Penning: They would be monitoring this all the way through, Madam Chair.

Q627 Iain Stewart: I have just one very short question. There was some confusion when we took evidence about what you meant by daylight hours. Is it a fixed 12-hour cycle or, in the case of Shetland, daylight in the peak of the summer and in the peak of the winter? Mike Penning: We have to be pragmatic. I was not there at that time of the year, but there is no night sometimes in the Western Isles and the Shetlands and vice versa. Of course, we would have to look at a cut-off point, whether it is 7 o'clock or whatever it would be. We are quite pragmatic about that. But the big issue with doing the daylight hours is not in the north. It is in the south, particularly with the leisure and tourism side of it. In other words, it is the cliffs and the beaches and all those sorts of issues. We have to take a pragmatic look at what daylight means and when the shift patterns would be. 7 o'clock has been put to me as a time, which seems fairly logical. But, just to go back to your last point, all the emergency services have within their contractual obligations that if they are on a job—and it is the same for the handovers—they will stay until they get relieved. Nobody leaves a job in any of the emergency services, as I understand it. It just will not happen.

Q628 Chair: I have one further point on firefighting. One of the proposals—I think you have already done it—is to remove funding, as I understand it, from the Maritime Incident Response Group, the specialist firefighting service. We have had a lot of concern expressed about that. Are you proposing to revisit that? We were told that the current service could not operate if all funding was removed. It was also suggested that it could operate perhaps in a different way but not without funding. Mike Penning: We are discussing this at the moment. I had a very good meeting the other day with Chief Fire Officer Roy Wilsher, who happens to be my fire officer in Hertfordshire, the furthest away from the sea anywhere in the country. Everybody understands, with the cost implications that we have and the nature of it being used, and it is not being used to its full capacity in any shape or form, that we are looking at that as we go forward. We have to look very carefully at what our obligation is. Is it the job in the 21st century for firefighters to attempt to put out fires deep at sea? Frankly, they do not do that, Madam. Crews on ships are trained to fight fires. Invariably, they will leave a fire and use the onboard equipment that is automatic to contain it, and then they will wait until they come into port. We very rarely fight fires at sea these days. What we do, and we have continued to offer, is take qualified people out to the incident at sea and assess what is going on. But it is an enormously dangerous thing to do. We are looking very carefully at how that is done and what happens when we bring them into port. One of the first fires I ever went to was on a freighter in Tilbury docks and it is a very frightening experience to fight, let alone fighting it at sea. We are going to keep the expertise, but even the Fire Service have indicated to me that they know the present model needs to be looked at very carefully, which is what we are doing.

Q629 Chair: So you are discussing other ways of dealing with this. Mike Penning: Yes, we are.

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


3   To note-while the Minister has visited Brixham Coastguard station this was not actually during the consultation period. Back

4   See ev 176 Back


 
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