Her Majesty's Coastguard provides an essential emergency service around the shores of the United Kingdom. The workload of the Coastguard has increased significantly over the past decade, as our coastlines have become busier and our seas more congested. Both the number of incidents to which the Coastguard has responded, and the number of deaths involved in such incidents, increased by more than 70% between 2000 and 2009. In December 2010 the Department for Transport launched a consultation into proposals, from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), to modernise the Coastguard. The MCA proposes a significant reorganisation of the structure of the Coastguard, reducing the 18 Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres currently based around the UK coast down to three centres open on a 24-hour basis, and five other centres operating only during 'daylight hours'. Ten existing regional MRCCs would close.
This came in the wake of two other Government announcements with implications for maritime safety. As part of the Spending Review in October 2010, the Government announced it would not renew the existing contract for the UK's four emergency towing vessels (ETVs). A review of the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG), a national fire-fighting-at-sea capability, part-funded by the MCA, was also announced.
This Report examines these three separate, yet inter-related, proposals. Taken together, we consider the proposed changes to the co-ordination of the Coastguard and the potential loss of the ETVs and the MIRG to represent a significant restructuring of the country's marine search and rescue and accident and pollution prevention capabilities. It is therefore regrettable the Department for Transport announced all three sets of proposals with no prior consultation whatsoever and did not consider their combined impact.
We cannot support the MCA's proposals on the future of the Coastguard in their current form. The evidence we have received raises serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed. Our main concern about safety is the loss of local knowledge, or 'situational awareness', amongst coastguard officers that will inevitably occur under the proposals. Rationalising the number of MRCCs so drastically, in our view, will reduce the quality and rate of exchange of information, particularly at key points when information must be passed swiftly in order to save lives. We are not convinced by the MCA's assertions that technology can, at present, adequately compensate for the loss of this knowledge. We are also concerned that the proposals risk placing too great a burden of responsibility on volunteer coastguards and pay insufficient attention towards the safety of leisure craft, small fishing vessels and the like (as opposed to the commercial shipping industry), and we have doubts about the statistics used by the MCA to justify its proposals to close several stations at night-time. We are not convinced that the concept of daylight-hour stations should be proceeded with in any future re-organisation of the Coastguard.
The strength of opposition against the modernisation proposals we have encountered is such that, if, as the Minister has said, this is a genuine consultation, the proposals cannot be given approval in their current form. The Government should withdraw its proposals and consult on revised plans that address the key issues we have identified: the implications of the potential loss of local knowledge for both safety and volunteering, and the application of upgraded technology. The Government should also demonstrate that the alternative proposals put forward by coastguards have been properly considered when revising its plans for the future of the Coastguard.
We strongly condemn the decision to withdraw funding for Emergency Towing Vessels. The decision, which was made against the findings of an independent risk assessment, is unwise and short-sighted. It is, quite literally, inviting disaster. Our evidence strongly suggests that there is no suitable commercial alternative available to the ETVs. We urge the Government to reverse the decision to terminate the provision of ETVs through the MCA.
We recognise, however, that there is a strong case for finding other sources of income to help cover the costs of ETVs. We note that the Government is brokering discussions with the ETV working group in pursuit of a solution to this problem. It would be unacceptable for the UK shoreline to lie unprotected if no agreement has been reached by 30 September. In such a scenario, the Government should make exceptional provision by extending the ETV contract over the winter, giving the ETV working group a further six months in which to resolve the issue.
We oppose ceasing central funding to the MIRG, which we believe has played an important role in tackling fires at sea in the few years since its inception. Our evidence suggests that while ships' crews have some training their skills do not match the expertise of the MIRG. It is equally clear that without MCA funding, the MIRG will cease to operate. Local fire services cannot and should not be expected to support a national strategy. We recommend that the Government adopt a rationalised MIRG model which is better calibrated to the risk and more cost-effective than the present arrangement.