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


Conclusions and recommendations


Introduction

1.  We welcome the Minister's decision to extend the consultation on the modernisation of the Coastguard until after this Committee has reported. It is encouraging that the Department for Transport recognises that proper parliamentary scrutiny can improve the quality of ministerial decision-making. For something as important as the reorganisation of the Coastguard—where lives are potentially at risk—it is imperative that any proposals are thoroughly scrutinised before implementation. (Paragraph 4)

2.  We were extremely disappointed that the Minister invoked rules which normally relate to senior civil servants to stop us from taking oral evidence from some of the serving and volunteer coastguards who had sent us written evidence. Regular coastguards have unique operational expertise and we wanted to hear their views on the record. The Minister's action was justified on the basis that "a formal public hearing, in the full glare of the media spotlight, risks encouraging individuals to express personal views in a way that may be at odds with their personal obligations under their terms and conditions of employment". In our view, the Minister should have shown more faith in the professionalism of the coastguards and stuck by his original commitment to the House to let them give evidence to the Committee. (Paragraph 7)

Consultation on the future of HM Coastguard

3.  We recommend that any revised proposals on the future of the Coastguard should be subject to a further short period of consultation. Decisions with such significant implications for maritime safety should not be made in haste. We do not consider this decision to be sufficiently time-critical to prevent further consultation on what we expect to be substantially revised proposals from those initially put forward. (Paragraph 15)

4.  We have been impressed with the quality and comprehensiveness of the alternative proposals put forward by coastguards across the country. The willingness of coastguards to engage thoughtfully and constructively with both the consultation process and our inquiry is welcomed. We expect the Government to demonstrate that the alternative proposals put forward by coastguards have been properly considered when revising its own plans for the future of the Coastguard. (Paragraph 16)

5.  By failing to involve serving coastguard officers, unions, volunteers, stakeholders or the devolved administrations in the drafting of the current proposals for the future of the Coastguard, and by failing to publish a risk assessment of the current plans or an impact assessment of the previous round of closures until prompted, the MCA management has badly miscalculated. It has mishandled the consultation and made it appear opaque rather than clear and open-minded. It has appeared arrogant, and reluctant to open itself to proper scrutiny in the process. The atmosphere of disquiet and suspicion generated by this consultation process is of the MCA's own making. (Paragraph 19)

6.  The strength of opposition against the 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. Decisions on the future of the Coastguard must acknowledge and draw on the wealth of expertise of frontline officers as well as others whose contributions could and should have strengthened the original consultation document. (Paragraph 20)

7.  A geographic information system available to all watch-keepers across the UK network would be desirable, but we are not convinced that a database could replace the local knowledge of those coastguards who live and work in the communities in which they serve. The variety of place names, colloquialisms and local anomalies of the UK coast appear to us well nigh impossible to collate. We have serious concerns that insufficient local knowledge held by coastguards based in an MOC, perhaps hundreds of miles from an incident, will, in some cases, lead to the loss of crucial seconds and minutes during a rescue attempt. (Paragraph 25)

8.  It is clear from our inquiry that 'local knowledge' has a much broader meaning than simply possessing knowledge of local coastlines, topography and geographical features. It also encompasses a Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre's (MRCC) intimate community ties, relationship with local emergency services and detailed knowledge of the appropriate voluntary teams to task to an incident. The current proposals would mean that operations room staff would largely lose situational awareness of this kind. We have not been persuaded that this loss would not diminish the speed and effectiveness of the Coastguard's response to some emergencies. (Paragraph 26)

9.  We conclude that the MCA's current restructuring proposals, by significantly reducing the number of operations centres, risk placing too great a burden of responsibility on volunteers. It would be unreasonable to draw too heavily on volunteer coastguards for the kind of local knowledge that is currently held by operations room staff, but which would be largely lost under these proposals. There is a risk that excessive demands could diminish the willingness of people to volunteer as a rescue coastguard. (Paragraph 29)

10.  We also conclude that the current proposals to close MRCCs have not adequately taken into consideration the role of the coastguard station as a recruiter and trainer of the network of local voluntary teams. The MCA should set out how this important function of the current MRCC structure will be maintained following any reorganisation. (Paragraph 30)

11.  We are concerned that the MCA proposals regarding station closures and opening hours may be based on statistics that do not tell the whole story. The published figures show neither the seriousness nor duration of incidents. Any decision that is based on aggregated statistics may also fail to address regional differences. Robust empirical evidence should be the starting-point for any proposed restructure of an emergency service such as HM Coastguard. For the revised proposals to have greater integrity, we recommend that the MCA publish data for the number of staff hours per incident, disaggregated by region. (Paragraph 34)

12.  The period of hand over between the sub-centre and MOC has been identified as a potential weakness in the MCA's proposals. If the MCA remains committed to the concept of daylight hour-only stations, it must demonstrate how the handover could be achieved safely. (Paragraph 37)

13.  It appears to us that the current proposals pay more attention to the MCA's statutory obligations towards the commercial shipping industry and far less to its obligations towards leisure craft and small boat users. Accidents involving commercial vessels represent only a small proportion of all those that the Coastguard manage. Revised proposals must show how the level of protection afforded to leisure users, small fishing vessels and the like will not be reduced as a result of any reorganisation of the Coastguard. (Paragraph 40)

14.  The MCA's proposals rely heavily on the use of upgraded technology in the operations rooms. In its revised proposals, the MCA must be much clearer about the nature and benefits of technology being proposed and how it differs from the existing technology that is installed in the current MRCCs. (Paragraph 41)

15.  The MCA has not satisfactorily explained why creating interoperability across more of the current centres is not a better way of increasing resilience in the current system than the wholesale change it has put forward. We recommend that its future revised proposals demonstrate how improvements in interoperability will add to the improvements already being made with the updating of the Integrated Coastguard Communication System. (Paragraph 43)

16.  The MCA's current proposals to modernise the Coastguard, as they stand, do not provide reassurance that the ability of the Coastguard to respond to emergencies at sea will be maintained at current levels, let alone improved. The evidence we have received raises serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if the proposals proceed in their current form. We welcome the Minister's assurances that the final proposals will be substantially different to those that were consulted on. (Paragraph 44)

17.  Our main concern about safety is the loss of local knowledge amongst coastguard officers that will inevitably occur under these 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 needs to be passed swiftly in order to save lives. We are not satisfied that this issue has been adequately addressed in the MCA's proposals. (Paragraph 45)

18.  In particular, we are not convinced that the concept of daylight-hour stations should be proceeded with. Whilst there is general acceptance that there is scope to rationalise the number of MRCCs, there is a strong case for any future re-organisation of the Coastguard to be based on 24-hour centres in order to provide swift and expert assistance to people on local coastlines and in local waters, whatever the time of day. (Paragraph 46)

19.  The Government should withdraw its modernisation proposals for the Coastguard and consult on revised plans that satisfactorily address the key issues we have identified. (Paragraph 47)

Emergency towing vessels

20.  The decision to cease the MCA's provision of the Emergency Towing Vessels, which was made without consultation and against the findings of an independent risk assessment, is unwise and short-sighted. It is, quite literally, inviting disaster. We are not convinced that anything has happened since Lord Donaldson's report to lead to the conclusion that ETVs are no longer required. On the contrary, we have heard of several occasions on which the intervention of an ETV has averted a major incident. ETVs represent a prudent, and seemingly cost-effective, insurance policy for the British taxpayer. It would take just one major accident and any savings that had been made by the decision to cease the contract would be wiped out in a stroke. We urge the Government to reverse its decision to terminate the provision of ETVs through the MCA. (Paragraph 58)

21.  Our evidence strongly suggests that there is no suitable commercial alternative to the Emergency Towing Vessels. A harbour tug has neither the ocean towage capacity nor the bollard pull that an ETV possesses. Unless the Government can provide a persuasive case that such capacity exists in appropriate form and at appropriate locations, it should recognise that the solution it has proposed is unviable and potentially reckless. (Paragraph 62)

22.  The Government is the guarantor of last resort for the protection of our marine and shoreline environment, and for the lives of those in peril on our seas. That duty, we conclude, would be best discharged by responsibility for the provision of Emergency Towing Vessels resting with the state. However, we recognise that there is a strong case for finding other sources of income to help cover their costs. We note that the Government is brokering discussions with the ETV working group in pursuit of a solution to this problem. But the indications we have received are that these discussions may take some time. 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. (Paragraph 65)

Maritime Incident Response Group

23.  Though the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) has been involved in only seven incidents, its intervention has been significant. 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. The operations of the MIRG are a matter of national resilience and responsibility to fund them should not be left to the local taxpayer. We are concerned that, as with the Emergency Towing Vessels, the Government has again taken a decision driven by the impetus to reduce expenditure that runs against an independent risk assessment. 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. (Paragraph 77)

Conclusion

24.  It is regrettable that the Department for Transport announced all three sets of maritime proposals with no prior consultation whatsoever and did not consider their combined impact. (Paragraph 79)




 
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Prepared 23 June 2011