HC Deb 21 March 1991 vol 188 cc508-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boswell.]

10 pm

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

It is almost eight years since I made my maiden spech on the controversial subject of coastguard reorganisation—and at that time the Chamber was as full as it is now, that also being an Adjournment debate.

The debate that I am now initiating is about the review which the Government plan to put in hand into the whole question of the sectoral organisation of Her Majesty's coastguard, and particularly the auxiliary coastguard service. I made my maiden speech against the background of the Penlee disaster and, of course, the Penlee lifeboat was based in my constituency. After that disaster there was considerable concern about the reorganisation of the coastguard service in the south-west and especially in Cornwall.

In my maiden speech I asked for certain assurances, particularly about the retention of regular manning of the three remaining look-outs manned by auxiliaries in my constituency. The manning arrangements for those look-outs are unique because they are the only ones in the country that are regularly manned. The three look-outs are at Gwenap head, which is near Land's End and is manned for 24 hours a day every day of the year, the Lizard, which is manned for 12 hours a day, and St. Ives, which is manned for six to eight hours a day.

In reply to that debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell), who was then the Minister for Shipping and Public Transport, assured me that I would be given prior warning of any change that was contemplated in the manning arrangements of those look-outs. In accordance with that pledge, my hon. Friend the present Minister for Shipping, who I am glad to say will reply to this debate, wrote to me on 23 January saying that there was now a possibility that regular manning would be stopped at those three look-out stations. He told me that a few days later he would announce in a written answer that there had been an internal review into the auxiliary coastguard station and that there was a question mark over the future of the three look-out stations.

I informed my hon. Friend right away of my total opposition to the possible abolition of regular manning at those stations. I base my argument for their retention on the simple fact that by any yardstick my constituency is remarkably exposed and has a very dangerous coastline. That fact is emphasised by another fact, that there are five major deep sea lifeboats—not rubber duck lifeboats—in my constituency. That is far more than in any other constituency in Britain. This all stems from the geographical position of the constituency, which juts out into the Atlantic and takes in the Isles of Scilly, Iand's End, the Lizard and quite a large slice of the north coast of Cornwall.

As a result of the warning that the Minister kindly gave me, in accordance with the pledge, I was able to alert local people and others to the threat hanging over these three look-outs, and to the fact that a review was in progress. A few days later that review was announced in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) in what can only be described as a rather bland reply, in which the Minister said that he had deposited in the Library an eight-page summary of the internal review document.

I would not quarrel with parts of the document. I am not arguing that it was not necessary to hold such a review. From time to time in any organisation it makes sense to see how it is working. I am, however, certainly arguing against one of its recommendations—about the three look-outs I have mentioned—and I certainly want to ask questions about the way in which the review has been and is being conducted.

Because I drew local attention to the situation, I received many letters, as did my hon. Friend the Minister, and as did the regional controller of the coastguard, Commander David Eliot. I pay tribute to him; he has a job to do and I do not mean in any way to criticise him.

I have had letters from honorary secretaries of lifeboats in my constituency. I have received many letters from the sea fish industry committee of the county council, from fishermen, from the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation and from the South West Hand Liners Association. Fishermen are extremely worried about the proposals for the look-outs and about the review in general.

I have also had letters from all the councils involved—from, for instance, St. Ives town council, which was aghast at suggestions that the busy holiday town of St. Ives might lose its look-out, which keeps a weather eye on what is happening at sea and on what is happening to the holiday beaches of the town. There have been four fatalities in St. Ives this year alone. The holiday industry there is dismayed by the prospect of anything happening to the look-out or of its hours being reduced.

Others are also worried about the operation. As the weeks have gone by other hon. Members have become aware of it, I suspect partly because of representations from the auxiliary coastguards to the effect that such a move was afoot. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) in his place. I hope that he wil be able to catch the Chair's eye later to voice the concerns of his constituency.

I am convinced that if I had not been granted my previous Adjournment debate or been given my pledge some years ago, much of this would have happened without people knowing it. I am sorry to say that even now we do not know the full details of what is being contemplated. In a series of written questions I asked the Minister if he would place in the Library a copy of the full document of the internal review. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will change his mind tonight and will make that document available to hon. Members in the Library.

I hope that, once the regional controllers put forward their detailed proposals on how to implement the review—that is the task that they have been given—hon. Members and others will be told exactly what is being proposed. I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend the Minister felt that he could not agree to that. He said, perfectly reasonably, that it is not usual for the advice of civil servants or officials to be made public and I understand that. However, my plea tonight is that he will change the Government's attitude toward the conduct of the review that he hopes to implement within a couple of months.

People must be told exactly what the Government have in mind. I do not mean simply the proposals in the intial document but what will be proposed by the regional controllers, what my hon. Friend the Minister decides as a result of those proposals, and what will happen to the structure of the auxiliary coastguard service. Some 4,400 auxiliaries, who are dedicated volunteers, are now stationed around the coastline of the United Kingdom. I do not know—my hon. Friend the Minister says that he does not know either—how many will be in place once the review has been implemented. I am sure that their number will be reduced, and I suspect that the reduction could be considerable.

According to the summary document, the review recommends that the deployment of auxiliaries should be changed. It rightly says that the present disposition is largely based on historical factors. In many areas, the position has probably changed but it is being suggested that, instead of companies of auxiliaries placed with some frequency around the coastline, a fast response team of two or four men would go out and assess emergencies. There would also be a back-up team that could be called out for serious emergencies. I suspect that there may be a very long coastline between one back-up team and the next, and that it may take some time to summon sufficient response to serious emergencies.

It is the job of regional controllers to make detailed proposals, and it is imperative that all interested and concerned organisations should know exactly what is being proposed before my hon. Friend the Minister makes his final decision. In statements earlier today, other Ministers said that they had consulted widely on matters of great importance to the country's future. I hope that there will be wide consultation on this matter so that people can give their expert judgment on the suggestions.

People should be consulted not just because it makes good sense but because my hon. Friend the Minister knows perfectly well that past reorganisation of the coastguard service has been highly emotive and controversial. I do not need to remind him, for example, of the recent controversy over the closure of the Hartland coastguard station. I am desperately afraid that, unless he adopts an open approach on this issue, people will be, and may have good grounds for being, suspicious about it. Therefore, it is in everyone's best interests for my hon. Friend the Minister to adopt the open approach that I am advocating tonight.

The auxiliaries are dedicated volunteers who are paid little money but care desperately and passionately about the service that they provide. They are in a difficult position because they rightly feel that they cannot speak out. It is to their credit that they have not gone rushing off to the papers to spread scare stories; they are highly responsible men and women. I have contacts with them and I know how responsible they are and how some of them feel about what might be in the air.

I do not think it is fair on the auxiliaries or their officers, particularly the regional controllers, to be the subject of unfair criticism over the review. Therefore, I plead with my hon. Friend the Minister to hide nothing and, once he has received the advice and recommendations of the regional controllers and made up his mind on how the review should be implemented, will tell not just Members of Parliament, but the public, certainly those who feel strongly about this issue, who should know exactly what is being proposed. My hon. Friend the Minister has been kind enough to offer me, and no doubt other hon. Members, meetings to discuss the matter. I do not want us to be presented with a fait accompli through a written answer.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened carefully, and I hope, with confidence, that he will heed what I have said tonight. I believe that I am speaking for many people, many hon. Members and, more importantly, for all those people around the coastline who regard the coastguard service as an absolute necessity and believe that any changes made to its organisation and structure should be approached with the greatest care and completed in a totally open manner.

10.17 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

I thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) for giving me the opportunity to speak now and for raising the issue in the House, having won the opportunity to debate it. It is an important issue that, ultimately, boils down to life saving. I heartily endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman has said tonight and about which he has been campaigning for some time.

I have some direct experience of the situation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency because I was present and summoned the rescue services to a drowning on the other side of St. Ives bay some years ago when I was 16. The person was taken out of the water alive but, sadly, died later in hospital. That incident gave me a direct appreciation of exactly what goes on in such circumstances.

The essential point being put tonight relates to the three look-out posts. They are not in my constituency and I can simply support what the hon. Gentleman said. More generally, the debate deals with the nature of the review that is taking place. My concern relates partly to my constituency but also to national issues. It is not so long since the awful situation in north Devon raised considerable concern. People are worried whenever there is perceived to be a threat to the local service and the local knowledge that it provides in emergencies.

The case in the Mevagissey district which hit the headlines was precisely the same as that just described, but nothing was made public officially. Information began to come out in dribs and drabs about what was to be proposed. First, we were told that the look-out post would go. I now understand that it will remain at Mevagissey, but with a 50 per cent. cut in manning levels on that section of coast and a 50 per cent. extension of the area of coast to be covered. That naturally makes the coastguards concerned about the question of rapid response, particularly given their current aim for a 20-minute response time. They are now told that the target will be 30 minutes. I understand that Ministers hope to even up as well as down, so that the 30-minute response time will apply everywhere. Currently, it does not exist in every area, but naturally in a district where the response time is estimated to be 20 minutes an increase in that time is a matter of considerable concern.

I hope that the Minister will respond to the point that the hon. Member for St. Ives made that any proposals should be made openly so that people know what is going on and can express their concerns locally before finding out that an announcement has been made.

10.19 pm
The Minister for Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

First and foremost, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) on securing this Adjournment debate. I am aware of the deep feelings in his constituency about the coastguard service and of his great interest in the service.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Penlee lifeboat disaster, which had a tremendous effect on the nation and lives in its mind. In the few minutes remaining, I should like to answer as many points as possible that my hon. Friend made.

I was surprised by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) saying that information leaked out in dribs and drabs. The review was carried out, and when I released it to the trade unions I felt it right to answer a question in the House and place a summary of the recommendations in the Library. I thought that the summary went some way to answering some of the points, but I will deal with the specific point that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives made.

Before discussing the review's findings, it may be helpful to explain what the sector organisation is and how it relates to the rest of the coastguard service.

The primary function of the coastguard is to provide a maritime search and rescue co-ordination service by maintaining 24-hour radio distress and 999 emergency telephone watch at 21 centres around the United Kingdom. From those stations, the majority of emergency incidents are co-ordinated, using whatever rescue resources are available to the coastguard from a variety of sources. That is an important point. That aspect of the coastguard's role is not covered in the review.

The sector and auxiliary organisation represents another arm of the service that provides on-the-spot coastal support to operational centres, with about 100 full-time sector officers supported, as my hon. Friend said, by 4,500 auxiliary coastguard volunteers. That aspect of the service was under review.

The auxiliary coastguards are volunteers, but normally they are called out for only a few hours each month for exercises or training. They provide an ever-ready band of enthusiastic men and women who unstintingly give their time to assist the regular coastguard service. Although they are only one component of the United Kingdom's search and rescue organisation, they remain a valuable asset in providing an essential coastal response and local knowledge. I join my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives in paying tribute to their unstinting and important work for our coastguard service.

The sector and auxiliary organisation was set up following the reorganisation of the coastguard, as recommended by the Lavers report of 1974. The number of sectors and the size and location of auxiliary companies, which were established mainly to man breeches buoy rescue equipment, undoubtedly met the requirements of the day, but the situation on the coastline has changed in the intervening years. There has been a marked decrease in the number of vessels that, formerly, were wrecked around our coasts, but an increase in the number of leisure-related incidents involving holidaymakers and pleasure craft. The requirement to rescue stranded mariners by breeches buoy has been replaced by the greater availability of all-weather helicopters and fast lifeboats. In some cases, it must be accepted that the disposition, size and coverage provided by the coastguard coastal sector organisation is based on historical rather than current requirements.

I therefore consider that the review is timely and will give an opportunity to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of the coastguard's response in meeting current requirements. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said, there were several aspects of the review with which no one would argue, such as setting out the role of the coastguard and trying to achieve more regular response times.

The review is wide ranging in its scope. It considers the coastguard's coastal commitments, responsiveness, the sector organisation, the sector officer's tasks, the coastguard auxiliary service, transport, both ashore and afloat, equipment including communications equipment, training requirements, and associated administrative functions and methodology.

The coastal commitments of the coastguard have evolved over the years. Currently, they consist of an amalgam of statutory duties, non-statutory duties, habitual and traditional tasks. The role and objectives of the service need to be clarified and widely promulgated. Accordingly, the review addresses those issues.

Future requirements for manpower and equipment cannot be determined without target performance standards. The time from call-out to achieving a presence on scene depends on a variety of factors, including local geography, population density, potential for incidents and their frequency and the availability of other emergency resources. It will be appreciated that some of those factors are not necessarily quantifiable. I shall therefore be looking for a result that is realistic and practical. The review recommends certain response criteria which will provide a base line for assessing whether coverage is satisfactory in each area around the coastline.

Our coastline varies and different responses are needed. At some times of the year, a tremendous number of holidaymakers visit St. Ives and at other times of the year it is not so busy. We must get the balance right. I accept the importance of this issue to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives and of the hon. Member for Truro.

The local knowledge of sector officers, coupled with their operational availability and expertise, is an essential part of the coastal response and will continue to be so. The review examines their job description and draws attention to the fact that, although some officers are fully stretched, others could accept a greater range of tasks with no detriment to the service. This is therefore one of the matters that regional controllers will assess.

Auxiliary coastguards form a vital part of the coastguard service. Auxiliary coastguards, both men and women, undertake a wide variety of tasks on a voluntary basis to serve the local community and the mariner at large. Some auxiliaries are trained to work as radio operators in operation centres, but with the demise of the breeches buoy, the majority are now organised into teams trained in cliff and mud rescue techniques and shoreline searches and trained to provide vital intelligence as well as providing on-the-spot co-ordination when necessary. In some cases, the size and location of these teams is still based on historical, rather than current, requirements, so regional controllers are now examining where coverage needs to be improved to meet the response criteria and, conversely, where savings could be made.

The important issue of look-outs worries my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives. The Lavers report concluded that a visual distress watch was not cost-effective, with only a very small percentage of incidents observed directly by coastguards from fixed look-outs. Since the end of the 1970s most of those look-outs have been phased out and the coastguard has maintained radio distress watch at its operations centres, the remainder of reports being received from the 999 emergency telephone system.

However, in casualty risk situations and in special circumstances, some form of visual watch may still be necessary. Rather than rely upon fixed look-outs with restricted areas of visibility, this need can perhaps best be satisfied by the use of fast response vehicles with appropriate radio communications and rescue equipment able to travel quickly to those parts of the coastline which a fixed look-out is unable to cover. The review therefore recommends reconsideration of the case for retaining the three fixed look-outs.

The review also considers whether the payment of out-of-pocket expenses to auxiliaries can be improved and simplified. It is also appreciated that there is need for auxiliary coastguards to be recognised by the public at large while performing their essential duties. An examination of the uniform requirements is therefore to be undertaken.

The review is a consultation document. No decision has been taken. I have insisted on full consultation at local level with interested parties before recommendations to implement the review are made. This process is under way nationwide. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives feels that there has been some secrecy. There should not have been any secrecy and I would deeply regret it if that had occurred. I intended to make the review as widely available as possible, which is why I published the summary.

Since the review was published in January, my officials have received a large number of contributions, most of which have been constructive. Understandably, many people wish to be assured that there will be no reduction in the coastguard's ability to provide an adequate response to emergencies along our coastline. It is also pleasing to note that, in general, the review has been welcomed by the coastguard service as a whole, which sees it as providing a sensible framework on which to build for the future.

I look forward to receiving the advice of coastguard regional controllers—through the Chief Coastguard—on how the review findings may be applied to their particular region. I have already agreed to meet my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives and other hon. Members before I make a decision, which will probably be in June.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives asked me to put a full copy of the review in the Library. I did not do so in the first place because it went into a lot of technical detail. Following my hon. Friend's strenuous representations, I shall certainly place a full copy in the Library.

I know that the House reaffirms its support for our coastguard system. We must all ask ourselves how to provide the best service and the best coastal rescue system for our entire coastline. There is a lot of it. It varies and different responses are needed in different areas. I hope that, with the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives and other hon. Members, we will get it right so that we have the best possible coastguard service, meeting the needs of all the constituencies along our coastline and of all those constituents who use our coast and may need to use our coastguard service.

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.