HC Deb 13 February 1996 vol 271 cc917-24

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

10.16 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the subject of the coastguard service this evening, and I am particularly delighted with the choice of Minister to reply—the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris). That allows me to pay tribute to the Minister's erudition, wit and courtesy—which we will sadly miss when the hon. Gentleman leaves the House—and to say how much I anticipate with joy the description of the coastline of the Minister's constituency that he will no doubt give when he replies.

The coastguard service is a serious subject, but it has not received much attention in the House in recent years. This is the first debate on the service in many years—in particular, the first since the publication of the Transport Select Committee's report on the future of the coastguard service that was published on 7 December 1994. I know that other hon. Members with coastal constituencies and those who are fellow officers of the all-party coastal group feel that this important issue should have been given Government time, but we welcome this opportunity. I am pleased that a number of my hon. Friends are present, as well as hon. Members of other parties.

The Select Committee's report concluded with this important analysis: The evidence we have received suggests that the operational personnel and equipment of the Coastguard are thinly stretched at present. The agency is dealing with many more incidents than in 1986, with fewer staff, and may recently have relied too much on the use of overtime and auxiliary coastguards to maintain service levels. We therefore welcome the fact that the Government has rejected the option of requiring the agency to produce efficiency savings of 20 per cent. Given the financial pressures under which the agency is presently operating, we are concerned that its present target of achieving a 6.4 per cent. saving in the next 18 months might adversely affect the provision of coastguard services. In view of the haste with which the agency was obliged to agree to the target, it may not in fact be possible for its management to find sufficient economies in non-operational elements of the budget to achieve such savings without compromising the effectiveness of the service. We are reaching the end of the period to which that conclusion relates, so this is a fitting moment to take stock.

I pay tribute to the dedication, professionalism and sheer guts of those who serve in the Coastguard Agency throughout the country. There are nearly 500 full-timers and 3,700 auxiliaries. They have been, and still are, demoralised by five years of non-stop reorganisation. In 210 BC, the Roman General Petronius said: I was to learn in later life that we tend to meet any new situation by re-organising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation". That is precisely the impact that these continual reorganising proposals have had on this dedicated team of men and women.

The current review is not the first in recent memory. The so-called Laver review, which was completed in 1978, recommended an increase in staff to more than 700. In 1987, cuts were imposed, resulting in the closure of more rescue sub-centres. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of centres was reduced from 28 to 21. Recently, the following centres have closed: Wick, Peterhead, Tees, Shoreham, Ramsey in the Isle of Man, Land's End and Hartland Point on my constituency border.

On 3 December 1991, the then Minister announced the latest comprehensive reorganisation, following a year-long review. There were elaborate plans to redesignate the auxiliary stations—some would be initial response teams, and some would be back-up teams. This caused confusion and consternation. The name games have played a major part in the confusion of recent years, including the curious suggestion that watch monitors be appointed—that seems more relevant to the classroom than to the serious occupation of watching the coast. This has contributed to the feeling that the service is unloved and misunderstood.

On 9 May 1994, the then Secretary of State announced that he had set the service a 20 per cent. economy target, to be achieved over a two-year period by 1 April 1996. The chief executive anticipated the closure of seven rescue centres, and the loss of one third of the full-time jobs. As part of the Transport Select Committee exercise to which I have referred, Ministers subsequently back-tracked. The abrupt U-turn meant that the full implications were not, and are still not, apparent—they have not come out into the open, which is one of the reasons for continuing concern.

Savings of some £1.4 million or £1.5 million by the end of next month are still being sought, but their manpower implications have not been fully explained to those most concerned. I know that my colleagues front Scotland, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), will confirm that morale is low.

One officer has written the following to me: After almost 30 years as a regular officer and 5 years as an auxiliary, I more than most can see just how the service if falling apart…recent decisions in the Coastguard service leave staff astounded, disenchanted and with morale at an all-time low". Hon. Members may recall that the timing of this debate was announced only last Thursday. The fact that all this information has reached me so speedily suggests that many people share our concerns.

Another officer has written: Rumours were flying around that discussion had taken place, or even agreements reached, about a range of issues … it appears that these rumours may have emanated from some senior managers". That is no way to conduct an effective, constructive negotiation or to improve confidence in the service.

As in any organisation, there is room for savings, and there may be waste in particular areas. If so, it should be identified and eradicated. For example, there seems to be widespread criticism of the vehicle policy of the service in relation to initial costs, replacement and running expenses. The rationale should surely be the improvement of the efficiency of the service, not a dogmatic and arbitrary cost-cutting exercise to a predetermined monetary target.

Between 1986 and 1994, the total number of incidents dealt with by the coastguard service almost doubled, from 5,300 to 10,470; the number of persons assisted increased from 8,960 to 17,400; and, thankfully, the number of fatalities decreased from 286 to 272. That in itself is a tribute to the quality of the service. With much less manpower and a reduced budget in real terms, it is already achieving a great deal more.

The gales of the past few days around the west country coasts, and especially in my constituency, are a salutary reminder of what we owe to those who dedicate their lives to safety at sea. The current collapse in morale, following months of secret cost-cutting schemes, is surely too high a price to pay if it results in reduced standards and obstacles to high quality recruitment.

We are already hearing reports of distress signals being missed. I have a dossier referring to reports from regular coastguards of information that they have passed on to their superiors about missed mayday calls and missed urgent transmissions on the new 2182 medium frequency. There are renewed fears of inadequate manual watch—the cover in known danger spots around west country cliffs and secluded coves. Our coastal seafarers are expressing their concern; just when their numbers are increasing, inshore surveillance is being reduced.

In recent weeks—particularly since the announcement of this debate—I have received expressions of frustration, anxiety and dismay from members of the service. They are dismayed, because the future is still so shrouded in official mist. The coastguards simply cannot understand why the bureaucrats, safe behind their desks, are being so slow and so secretive.

Why cannot we have the full picture now? Surely dogmatic insistence on a budget cut across the board—still rumoured to be a reduction of at least £1.5 million to be achieved by the end of March—is quite wrong for a service in which safety must be paramount. Saving lives must take precedence over saving money, if only because, in the long term, driving volunteers out of the coastguard service will cost huge sums to reverse.

Tonight is an opportunity for the Minister to reassure the coastguards and all who depend on them and represent them that the current review will not be allowed to weaken the service. We need to be confident that this review will not be penny wise, pound foolish.

10.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Steve Norris)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for his kind words when introducing the debate. It is often said that a compliment from a colleague on the other side of the House is the kiss of death for a parliamentary career, but as mine has already received that self-inflicted wound, I shall accept the hon. Gentleman's kind words in the spirit in which they were intended. I can assure him that Epping Forest—when I last looked—had no coastline; but that no more diminishes my interest in the subject than if I were translated to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and were required to attend to matters there.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The staff of the coastguard service, regulars and volunteers, provide a vital maritime rescue service around our seas and coasts. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we in the Department, and my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, hold the coastguard in the highest possible regard.

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have incorporated the coastguard in the Coastguard Agency. We have put it on a sound footing; we have given it some clear objectives; and we have provided it with the resources it needs to undertake its tasks.

I should like to say a word about the changes proposed to the service, which are expected to improve the already high level of service being delivered. I stress that the changes are supported by the chief executive of the Coastguard Agency and the chief coastguard—I have spoken to them both today, and they underlined the point.

The sea is vital to our economy, and it provides many opportunities for us all to enjoy our coast line in a variety of recreational pursuits. But as the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), who takes a close interest in these matters, and many other hon. Members here tonight know all too well, the sea is also unpredictable and dangerous. When problems arise, we turn to the coastguard service to provide a quick and effective response to any maritime emergency. It is a coastguard service that is recognised as the most modern in Europe, equipped as it is with state-of-the-art communications equipment, sophisticated helicopters and coastal response teams manned by auxiliary guards, who are volunteers prepared to turn out at any time in any conditions to carry out rescues or searches along the 10,500 miles of our coastline.

The House will recall the recent civil emergency on the Shetland islands, and I acknowledge the presence of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who is an assiduous attender to these debates. He will know of the recent civil emergency over the Christmas and new year period. The local coastguards and the coastguard helicopter played a key role in maintaining vital communication links.

The helicopter carried out 23 urgent medical and other evacuations. It undoubtedly saved a number of lives. Coastguard officers maintained a fully operational rescue centre on Shetland, despite the appalling weather and the travel difficulties. Many of them spent the festive period away from their families simply to ensure that vital emergency services were maintained.

Many other examples of dedication and professionalism could be cited, and it is the unique mixture of highly trained professional coastguards, high-technology equipment and competent and well-trained volunteers that provides a first-class search and rescue organisation of which we can be proud.

The men and women of the modern coastguard service can also be proud of the vital maritime services they provide. During 1995, they dealt with a total of 12,220 incidents, involving more than 19,000 people—a 17 per cent. increase on the previous year. Those figures hide many dramatic rescues and, sadly, tragedies, but more than 98 per cent. of the incidents were brought to a successful conclusion, in the sense that they managed to avoid any loss of live. It is that record of achievement and success that we are committed to maintaining, but at the same time ensuring that the vital maritime emergency service is delivered as cost-effectively as possible.

I make no apology to the hon. Member for North Cornwall for asserting straight away that no organisation these days can afford to stand still. He is quite right to say that HM Coastguard completed a "coastal review" in 1991, which looked at the role, functions and numbers of sector officers around the coast. The implementation of that review took some four years, and has only recently been completed. More recently, the Coastguard Agency looked at the tasks, numbers and grades of staff at its headquarters.

It was then the turn of uniformed coastguards at rescue centres. The number of incidents dealt with by rescue centres, as the hon. Gentleman said, has increased remorselessly over the years. My figures are broadly comparable with his. There were just under 6,000 in 1985. There were more than 12,000 last year. New technology has been introduced, in particular the action data automation system—ADAS.

The organisation has to adapt. The amount of overtime having to be worked by coastguard watch officers was increasing, and it was becoming harder to find auxiliaries with the time and skills necessary to provide us with the consistent and reliable backup that the service needed. It was decided to take a fundamental look at how the operational staffing of the 21 rescue centres could best be provided and organised.

That review, as the hon. Gentleman knows, became known as "Focus for Change". It was tasked straightforwardly to determine the best use of staff at the 21 rescue centres by more flexible shift working and to ensure that the staffing levels reflected the loading at individual centres. The current arrangement is that there is a basic standard complement, irrespective of the rescue centre's work load.

At the outset, it was fully appreciated that any such review had to take into account the special nature of the coastguard work if it was to achieve any credibility with the uniformed staff. Because of that, the review team was made up of three experienced coastguard officers of different grades in addition to the three Department of Transport staff inspectors.

The team visited all 21 rescue centres. Its members are said to have interviewed in the process 80 per cent. of watch-keeping officers and about 25 per cent. of watch-keeping auxiliaries. Many of the review's findings stemmed from that staff input, and ensured that the "Focus for Change" document was about the most thorough review of the structure, workloads and running of the coastguard service that we have ever seen.

The brief of the review team was to recommend the optimum staffing solution to meet the operational requirement. I should make it clear to the House that the team was given no instructions to meet any financial targets.

The proposals were made for each rescue centre's complement, tailored to meet the work that it had to do. In no instance is it recommended that fewer than three qualified watchkeepers should be on watch. A flexible working pattern was evolved to ensure that the right number of people would be on watch at any time. The proposals will markedly reduce staff shortages at critical periods, and hence overtime. They will make the local use of manpower more efficient in a variety of other ways.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Norris

I shall continue for the moment.

The main thrust of the review was to recommend the restructuring of the uniformed staff. It was concluded that, first, it was becoming more difficult to find reliable voluntary auxiliaries who were trained, proficient and familiar with the technical environment of the modern operations room. The review recommended the appointment of permanent coastguard watch assistants to replace the part-time voluntary service currently provided in operations rooms by auxiliary coastguards.

It was concluded, secondly, that the person in charge of a watch should have the rank, training and experience to take most key decisions without referring to a superior. He or she should also be part of the local management team. The review recommends the new grade of watch leader to fill that post.

Thirdly, it was found that coastguard officers in the management team of each district are too occupied with routine administrative work. The review recommended that they should have permanent administrative support, which would allow reductions in management. There was a variety of other recommendations, which are under review.

Throughout "Focus for Change", there has been full consultation with the staff and their trade unions. Copies of the report have been made available to all staff, who have been invited to submit their comments. It is proposed that recruitment for the two new grades should start in April.

Overall—I stress this against the background of the hon. Gentleman's remarks—the review requires an increase in employed staff. It means introducing 154 watch assistants, offset by a decrease in 51 watch officers and phasing out the use of auxiliaries in operations rooms. There will be a requirement for new higher grade watch leaders to replace the 84 senior watch officers. With proper administrative support at each centre, and taking into account the extra responsibility that the watch leaders have taken on, 21 fewer station officers will be required.

Bearing in mind all the figures, the review provides an increase of 82 in the uniformed staff of the coastguard service. To underline the fact that the review is about making the best of available resources, the effect is expected to be neutral in terms of paybill costs. The savings that are rightly demanded of the service in operational terms will be made on overtime, and on a reduction in the payments to auxiliary coastguards who formerly worked in operations rooms.

We have given repeated assurances about the future of the coastguard service, in the sense that efficiency savings can be achieved without compromising safety at sea and along the shoreline. That is something—

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Norris

Of course.

Mr. Harris

We have reached an important stage in the debate. There have been many allegations or suggestions about cuts facing the coastguard service. Is my hon. Friend able to give a categorical assurance that, especially in the south-west, there has been no reduction in the service provided by the coastguards, and there has been no cut in the Coastguard Agency's budget?

Mr. Norris

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the agency's budget for 1996£97 has been set at £25.1 million. Additional temporary funding to implement the "Focus for Change" strategy has also been provided. The budget will enable the agency to continue to provide its main functions in terms of search-and-rescue co-ordination, counter-pollution, and sea safety education at the same high professional level as before while continuing the drive to eliminate unnecessary work, waste and inefficiency.

I can say specifically that no rescue centres will be closed and no staff will be made redundant. I repeat the remarks of the chief coastguard and the head of the agency: that the efficiency savings will not compromise safety at sea or along the shoreline.

The House should appreciate that it is perfectly possible to deliver efficiency savings—to deliver more efficient ways of doing the jobs that the service is tasked to perform—without compromising safety, provided that that is the objective that is set.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall is a serious observer of these matters. He mentioned the monitoring of distress signals and referred to the 2182 kHz frequency band now employed. All coastguard watch officers are trained in radiotelephony skills and distress communication procedures to a syllabus that is approved by British Telecom Maritime Radio Services. I checked the matter only today, when I discussed it with the chief coastguard. Neither I nor he is aware of any missed distress messages.

If the hon. Gentleman has details, I should be genuinely grateful to him—I do not say this as a challenge, but as an invitation to share the data—if he would let me know what that evidence is. My noble Friend in another place will be happy to investigate.

Our conclusion is that the 2182 kHz service monitoring is working well. That work being undertaken in-house—ironically, avoiding a dog-leg in the translation of information that previously went through a third party before it was received to be acted on by the Coastguard Agency—has made a saving to the service per annum of about £500,000 in running costs, without compromising efficiency.

Mr. Allen

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving way, and I compliment the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on his choice of subject for debate.

Is the Minister personally reassured about the levels of skill and training of watch assistants who will replace the coastguard auxiliaries? We have heard some reports that those people will be trained to a lower level of skill than the auxiliary coastguards. If he cannot answer that now, it might be helpful if he wrote to the hon. Member for North Cornwall.

Mr. Norris

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Because of the lack of time available to us this evening, I will write to the hon. Member for North Cornwall to set out the background of the present position.

He is right to focus on the fact that we have changed the nature of the watch service in terms of both rank and responsibilities. It requires us to concentrate the attention of the skilled personnel on what they are essentially paid for, while, for example, administrative work and work that can be undertaken by people who are less well qualified can be happily done in a safe environment. I understand that the chief coastguard remains content with the training level that is to be provided. I have had his personal assurance that he is determined that at no stage should the quality of the service's output be compromised by any lack of training in any part of the service.

It is important that hon. Members from all parties should be given the opportunity to express legitimate concerns about the service—it is right that that should be possible. We have heard from hon. Members from all three principal parties in the House. They are evidence of the fact that the interest here is a non-party political interest in a service of which, I think, we are all extremely proud.

The overwhelming evidence suggests that, although, with the greatest respect, it will always be possible to find one or two members in an organisation of this size who may express dissatisfaction, we have been able to deliver what the chief executive has frequently committed himself to: a more efficient service, able to deliver the better value for money that any Government have a right to demand of any public service, while at the same time ensuring that safety standards are not compromised.

I have discussed with the chief executive the whole issue of search and rescue, auxiliary coastguards and fixed-watch lookouts. I understand that all those issues are of concern to hon. Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, who has been particularly anxious about fixed-watch lookouts in the south-west. I hope that, over time, the efforts that the agency is currently making will assure his constituents that a more than adequate service is being provided.

As I said at the outset, our coastguard service is widely respected in Europe as the best in Europe. It is arguably the best in the world. The service that the agency and its staff provide is first-class. I know that hon. Members in all parties will wish to join me in complimenting them on that service.

Mr. Harris

My hon. Friend mentioned the fixed watch, which is indeed a particular concern of mine. I made my maiden speech on the subject. Now that the coastguard has been withdrawn from fixed watches, will my hon. Friend, and my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, examine the possibility of closer co-operation between the voluntary sector—the Sea Safety Group and the National Coastwatch Institution, of which I am a trustee—and Her Majesty's Coastguard?

Mr. Norris

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance, but I hope he will accept that the Coastguard Agency is content that the service that it provides is fully compatible with the needs of seafarers of both kinds, both professional and recreational. My hon. Friend may be assured—

The motion having been made after 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 accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock