§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Clelland.]9.34 am
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
I am, indeed, fortunate—and grateful—to have a chance this morning to raise in the House the issue of the future of the coastguard service. The coastguard service is the fourth of the main emergency services, along with the fire brigade, the ambulance service and the police. The service is osf a significant size, with 430 full-time officers and 3,100 volunteers grouped in 370 rescue companies, specialising in search techniques and cliff rescue.
Many constituencies have cause to be grateful to the coastguard service, not least my constituency of Gosport. I have a range of interests in the coastguard service. I have a coastguard station at Lee-on-the-Solent and a coastguard helicopter similarly located. I am a member of the management committee of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. In my constituency, we have a rescue service called GAFIRS, which is an acronym for the Gosport and Fareham inshore rescue service, and I maintain contact, as disclosed in the Register of Members' Interests, with Bristow Helicopters, which operates the helicopter service in Lee-on-the-Solent.
The coastguard service is international. From Aberdeen, the coastguard service monitors the northern North sea oil and gasfields, with all the problems and difficulties that occasionally occur there. At Yarmouth, the service has a station that monitors the southern North sea oil and gasfields. At Dover, a station operates the channel navigation information service and at Falmouth, the service has a worldwide liaison centre with an international search and rescue station, which maintains contact around the world. It may not be generally known that when the Achille Lauro caught fire off Somalia in east Africa, the rescue of those on board was co-ordinated from Falmouth and Stavanger in Norway. The coastguard service is a major international business.
Those who are engaged in the coastguard service tend to be modest; they may be under-recognised. That is emphasised by the tragic case of the Green Lily, which was lost off the east coast of Shetland last week. A journalist who observed the scene told of the rescue from a helicopter, when a winchman was lowered to rescue the crew. He said that the winchman was, indeed, a hero who had rescued the crew in terrifying conditions. He wrote:The wind was so strong it was hard to stand up. Sheets of blinding salt spray constantly burst over the cliffs … the helicopter wobbled noticeably just as the ship did a violent roll 888 from side to side. I thought the rotors were going to hit the masts … The winchman was a hero. The conditions were terrifying, particularly after the ship hit the rocks. But he stayed on board until he'd made sure everyone else were safe. He really did give his life for those crewmen.
The winchman was William Deacon. His son, Alan Deacon, later commented:People need to understand what job my Dad and others like him do. It is not fully appreciated or rewarded. They go to rescues irrespective of adverse weather conditions and their own personal safety. There may be 14 or so men risking their lives to save just one person.He went on to complain about press intrusion. I hope that the family will not feel that it is an intrusion when I say that the House and the country stand in awe of such courage and dedication. We thank the coastguard service for providing 24-hour cover regardless of risk, discomfort and inconvenience. That 24-hour cover means that the service is ready now, it will be ready on Christmas day and it will be ready in filthy weather on February nights off the rocky coasts of Scotland, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight.
The service cannot stand still. Communications have improved. The coastguard service is moving from an analogue to a digital communications system. I recognise that change is inevitable in a dynamic service. We must also acknowledge the situation in other countries Canada has three coastguard stations, in Halifax, Victoria and Trenton; there are only three coastguard stations on the east coast of the United States of America; Norway manages its service with two coastguard stations; Germany has one and France has six. We have 21. Change may be appropriate, but the question is what change should be made and how it should be controlled and managed.
The five-year strategy put forward by the Government on 17 November was badly mishandled from start to finish. I have tabled parliamentary questions and ascertained the facts and the chronology of what happened. On 7 October, a Coastguard information pack—a black and gold publication containing loose-leaf sheets—went to the printers minus two question and answer sheets on station closures. On 15 October, the information pack order was complete. On 20 October it was released to the press. Not surprisingly, at about that time speculation began about the future of the Coastguard and possible changes to be made by the Government.
On 3 November, I tabled priority questions about coastguard provision in the Solent spithead area. At about that time, hon. Members representing Scottish seats sought a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), to ask about the future of the service. It is a matter of record in Hansard that the Minister said:It is not within my knowledge that meetings have been requested."—[Official Report, 17 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 80.]I do not know how a request from hon. Members can fail to be received by a Minister, but that is not my concern.
On 6 November, the Minister replied to my question, saying that the chief executive of the Coastguard would write to me. That detailed letter, dated 5 November, simply listed the current coastguard provision on the south coast. It gave no hint of any change. I wrote back on 8 November, asking the chief executive of the Coastguard for an assurance that there was no current intention to make changes. I did not receive a reply until 20 November, after the changes had been announced.
889 Even more dramatically, on Wednesday 12 November my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) asked the Minister a question in the Standing Committee considering the Draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Maritime Differential Correction Systems) Order 1997. He said:Can she tell us, therefore, why her Department is considering turning the two coastguard stations at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent into one?The Minister replied:I am bemused by the question. … The question that he has just posed is, however, empty speculation. … There is no foundation for what he said and he must be aware that speculation in the press has raised justifiable concern. His question merely fans the flames of scaremongering."—[Official Report, Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 12 November 1997; c. 8–10.]
I have ascertained from parliamentary questions that on Friday 14 November—two days later—the two-page supplement to the five-year strategy document was printed by the Department and added to the information packs. On 12 November, we were told that there was no foundation for any allegation that the Department might be considering merging or collocating the two stations. Hon. Members always tell the truth in the House—and Ministers certainly do—so what the Minister said is obviously true. It means that she had not even considered putting the two stations together on 12 November. By 14 November, not only had Ministers decided to do that; they had printed the document saying that the stations would be collocated. What an exciting day 13 November was in Whitehall. Not only did Humphrey the cat go missing from 10 Downing street, but the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which had never considered putting the two coastguard stations together, suddenly decided to do so and printed the announcement the following day.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
The Minister has told the world on television that the words that we all complain of do not mean what we all know they mean. When a Minister gets it so wrong, the first thing that she or he should do is say sorry to the House. Then perhaps we can move on to the substantive issues.
§ Mr. Viggers
I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that that word will be included in the Minister's speech. We are dealing with an appalling saga, in which the facts speak for themselves.
However, that is not the most important point in the debate. The coastguard service is more important than Government bungling. We must consider what change is appropriate. The Select Committee on Transport considered the service in 1994–95. It came to the conclusion that coastguard facilities and services were thinly stretched. The report pointed out that between 1986 and 1993, the number of responses undertaken by the Coastguard had risen 80 per cent., from 5,300 to 9,610, and that the number of rescues in that period had gone up 91 per cent., from 8,960 to 17,110. That stretching of facilities was thought to be mainly due to the increase in pleasure boat use—yachting and motor boats. That is not diminishing, and may well be increasing, so the stretching of facilities will also increase.
890 Will there be more or fewer coastguards as a result of the five-year strategic review? The Minister's letter of 17 November, when the statement on the future of the service was eventually dragged out of her, says that there will be more coastguards than there were a decade ago. That is a selective use of facts. The truth is that the number of coastguard officers will be reduced by 78. That is recognised by the Chief Coastguard, Mr. Astbury. On 17 November, he said:We hope the staff reductions will bring savings which will contribute to—or even completely offset—the cost of this new investment in communication systems.The Chief Coastguard states that there will be reductions in personnel expenditure, which may pay for equipment.
What will be the effects of putting the two stations of Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent on the same site? The justification is stated to be that the Portland station is in a grade 2 listed building, making it difficult to carry out the necessary changes to ensure that the station has the facilities that are now required, and that the Lee-on-the-Solent station is in a former large house on the sea, in what was formerly HMS Daedalus. It is suggested that collocating the two stations in new premises will result in greater efficiency.
The Government are riding two horses. They are saying that there will be collocation, not merger, but also that there will be some possibility of using staff from one station in the other. In other words, there will be a brick wall in the middle of the large building, with the Portland station on one side and the Lee-on-the-Solent station on the other, but there will be an opportunity for staff to go from one side to the other.
I am absolutely certain that it is not intended to continue the present staffing level in the longer term. At Lee-on-the-Solent, there is one district controller, one deputy district controller, one operations manager, four watch managers, 12 watch officers and eight coastguard watch assistants. At Portland, there is one district controller, one deputy district controller, four watch managers, 10 watch officers and eight coastguard watch assistants.
One does not have to be a partner of McKinsey management consultants to know that, if the two stations are collocated, there is no intention of having in the longer term two district controllers, two deputy district controllers, and so on. One does not need to be an expert to know that collocating is obviously intended to save money by reducing staff. That is self-evident.
As to where the collocation should be, Poole has been mentioned—although that may just be because the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is based there. Southampton has also been mentioned. The coastguards to whom I have talked say that it is most important that the coastguard stations are located where those working can see and sense the elements. They feel that, if they are in a tower block, they cannot have the same feel for rescue services.
It will be very difficult to maintain the proper age profile in the coastguard service if there are no redundancies and the reduction of 78 posts is achieved entirely by natural wastage. Maintaining a good age profile at a time of redundancy is a major problem for any firm, any of the armed forces or for the coastguard service. The Government should be looking at the salary structure and pay and conditions of coastguards. I wonder how many hon. Members would believe that a watch 891 assistant, who works a 42-hour week gross—a 35-hour week net with rest periods—is paid £6,984 a year. It is not surprising that one coastguard station has had a staff turnover at that grade of 50 per cent. in one year. I very much hope that the Government will comment on the pay and conditions of the coastguards and give an assurance that their service will be properly recognised by their pay and conditions.
I should like to put some questions to the Minister, who I am pleased is in her place. Why did not she make a statement in the House on the future of the coastguard service? It is a fine and important service, and I should have thought that it merited a statement at the Dispatch Box. That would have reflected the importance that the Government place on the Coastguard and given hon. Members an opportunity to ask Ministers questions— instead of having to drag one Minister here this morning or table written questions.
Is the five-year strategy a genuine five-year plan for the Coastguard, or is it merely the bit that has been pulled out of the Minister and the Government so far? It is, I am afraid, an open secret that the National Audit Office has carried out a study of the coastguard service, which has not so far been published. The study apparently says that the cost of maintaining multiple coastguard stations is rather high. Therefore, the Government may well be very shortly faced with an NAO report that recommends further changes to the coastguard service. How confident can anyone be that the five-year strategy as announced so far is in fact the true five-year strategy? Is there a hidden agenda of further changes?
What will the Minister do about pay and conditions of coastguards, to ensure better staff retention? What consultation procedures are proposed? The Chief Coastguard said in his press conference that the four stations—two in Scotland, and Tyne Tees and Liverpool—will definitely close "no matter what". What is the point of having a consultation procedure? Is there to be one at all? We are told that the consultation procedure that preceded the five-year strategy was an internal matter only. Is there to be any external discussion? Will the coastguard service, the Government or the Minister take any notice of anything that anybody says?
Will the Minister reconfirm that the helicopters at Lee-on-the-Solent and Portland will remain there despite the fact that the coastguard stations are to be collocated? If she reconfirms that, will she also reconfirm that, this being Wednesday, she will not on Friday publish a statement that says that the Government are to change their mind again?
I take considerable pride in having attracted the coastguard station to Lee-on-the-Solent in my constituency. I suggested to the Chief Coastguard some years ago that the location of HMS Daedalus, as it then was, should be examined as appropriate for coastguard services. It is perfectly located in the centre of the south coast; it is at the centre of the busiest shipping and yachting area in the United Kingdom. If a rebuild of the Lee-on-the-Solent and Portland coastguard stations is required, there is land available at Lee-on-the-Solent which would be perfect for collocated premises if the Government wished to proceed in such a manner.
892 I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I know that a number of hon. Members want to speak, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.
§ Madam Speaker
The hon. Member is correct; a number of hon. Members wish to speak. I therefore remind hon. Members to restrict their speeches, so that everyone may contribute to the debate. I call Mrs. Ray Michie. She chaired a Standing Committee on behalf of the House from yesterday until almost 5 o'clock this morning, and I think that she deserves to be called now.
§ Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)
Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this most important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on having secured it. He has spelt out his concerns about the Government's proposals on the future of the coastguard services. I am sure that, if he catches your eye, Madam Speaker, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will highlight the consequences of the closure of the station in his constituency and describe the dangerous waters surrounding it.
I, too, pay my tribute and that of my constituents— who greatly value their coastguards—to the emergency services that were involved in the rescue of the crew of the Green Lily. It was with a deep sense of shock that we heard of the tragic loss of life of Winchman Bill Deacon after he had helped to save the lives of the 10 crew. He displayed the most incredible bravery, and our deepest sympathy goes out to his grieving family and friends.
The Government's proposal to close the Oban coastguard station in my constituency has come as a great blow to the town of Oban and the whole of Argyll. It plays a key role in maritime safety on an extensive coast and its many islands, and is pivotal in its co-ordinating role in search and rescue, which can involve lifeboats—it covers seven lifeboat stations—the police and mountain rescue. It has built up a wealth of local knowledge, expertise and skills, overseeing an area that is well known for treacherous tides, stormy conditions and sudden changes in weather. The rescue services know each other, trust each other, work as a team and have confidence in and depend on the coastguards in many a dangerous situation at sea.
There has been a huge increase in maritime traffic in recent years, with a large number of pleasure craft encouraged to the area by the local enterprise company and the marketing group, Sail Scotland, as such traffic contributes considerably to the local economy. There has been an expansion in inshore fishing. Large numbers of divers visit the area all year round, and ferries constantly ply between islands and the mainland.
At the same time, three of the four customs offices in the Argyll-Lochaber area are being closed, with a reduction of 22 to 26 staff. Although the coastguards are not involved in anti-smuggling activities, we know that they can be called on for help by customs officers when they are chasing drug dealers on the high seas, where safety is paramount. The Minister will no doubt tell us that significant investment will be made in communications, but all the sophisticated technology 893 in the world cannot take the place of local knowledge. I will believe that when I see it. The area in which I live has many black spots and is unable to get television channels. Mobile phones do not work, and even my pager does not work when I am on the islands.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
The hon. Lady has put her finger on the real issue, which is local knowledge and the loss of it, if staff are cut. Does she remember, as I do, the last time that the banner, "Don't sink the coastguard", was unfurled outside the House of Commons some eight years ago? Exactly the same argument was made about technology versus staff and local knowledge. The person most vociferous was the then Labour spokesman, now the Deputy Prime Minister. Does the hon. Lady share my regret that his attitudes and, no doubt, those of his junior Minister, have undergone such a transformation in the past eight years?
§ Mrs. Michie
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes a pertinent point. I remember that time, and I am only sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here for the debate today.
At the Oban coastguard station, 23 jobs will go. The Minister probably thinks that that is not many, but it is a serious loss to a town such as Oban. We shall be told that the coastguards will be offered early retirement, redundancy packages and relocation. However, many of the coastguards in Oban do not want to relocate, especially those with children at school and husbands and wives at work.
I have received many telephone calls, petitions and letters on the subject, and I shall give the House a flavour of them. One of the great worries is the confusion about place names. Many Gaelic names up the west coast of Scotland are replicated in several areas and on the islands. I have known confusion to occur when fire brigades have been called out. On one occasion, the fire brigade thought that it had to go to the Isle of Jura when it was needed at a place called Duror on mainland.
I received a letter from the Caledonian Boat Owners Association, which stated:Many of our members regularly sail the waters around Oban and find the service provided as being very reassuring and extremely efficient … It is very comforting to know that our leisure activities are being so effectively monitored"—by the Oban coastguard station. Another letter reads:I am horrified at the idea of closing Oban C. G. as I know from long personal experience how vital it is that the coastguards involved in any incident have detailed local knowledge.
If the last coastguard station in Argyll goes, local people will feel a loss of confidence, that their defences are down and that they are left vulnerable. Can the Minister confirm that the coastguards face a funding crisis and that, in order to fund new technology—in which we still have little faith—stations have to be closed and real people lost to the area? I know that Argyll and Bute council has invited her to visit and see for herself. She would be very welcome, and I hope that she will accept that offer and rethink the closure. We need our coastguard station in Oban.
§ 10.3 am
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I grateful to the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for raising the subject this morning, because it is very important. When the Transport Select Committee in the previous Parliament chose to investigate the coastguard service, it was because we regarded it as an urgent and important subject. My hon. Friend the Minister may feel that there are not many coastguards in Crewe; nevertheless, we are aware of the need for such an emergency service.
I am a little irritated that Opposition Members seem to have chosen to suggest that decisions on the coastguard service were taken only by the present Government. If I have a criticism of the present Government and the Minister, it is that the decisions were taken in 1996 and, apparently, we felt that the reorganisation was so advanced that we could do little to change it. Indeed, when we chased the matter with Ministers in the previous Government, we received astonishingly little support from hon. Members from other parties. I am delighted that they have now changed their attitude.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
I do not wish to get into an argument with the hon. Lady about who supported whom, but David Harris and I did much work on the issue. I am sure that she will agree that the increase of 200 people who we are told have been added to the coastguard stations is, in fact, a decrease in the number of people doing the same job. People are being taken from the coast watch stations to the control stations, and we are now told that that justifies another cut of nearly 100 people.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I long ago learned to be suspicious of agencies that gave me assurances that the changes that they were introducing would not necessarily damage the personnel. Things have a nasty habit of turning out very differently.
I believe the Chief Coastguard, Mr. Astbury, the head of the coastguard service, when he writes in his five-year strategy:I should also like to emphasise … that the strategy announced is my vision … for the Service into the 21st century based upon sound operational principles".The difficulty is that someone has to create a balance between good back-up services, high-quality equipment and the use of individual people. Coastguards are people. The fundamental issue this morning is that the coastguard service can have the best information in the world, provided by the best equipment, but it will not do its job unless it has people to interpret the information and to go out and change the situation at sea.
The four stations listed for closure are a case in point. Every one is near an exceptionally dangerous stretch of water or one that has other added problems. For example, the fishing fleet in Peterhead will be affected by the closure. Liverpool has to deal with Morecambe bay, the gasfield, and some of the most dangerous mudflats in the world. All those factors impinge on the safety of ordinary people. For example, the enormous growth in leisure sailing in my lifetime has created something new. Many more people now put their lives at risk, some with astonishing irresponsibility, for which the coastguards cannot be held responsible. However, unless we intend to stand by and let people drown themselves, we must be capable of saving them.
895 If I have a criticism of my hon. Friend the Minister this morning, it is minute but real. Faced with the difficulties caused by underfunding—the coastguard service is underfunded—the Government should have been a little more brutal and made it clear that what happened arose because the previous Government created a free-standing agency but did not give it the money and back-up to do an efficient job. That should have been said more loudly at the same time as the Government said that they intended to change the situation. The reality is that, whatever the words used, the five-year strategy will mean that many people at the sharp end will go. We shall lose coastguards, and although the auxiliaries do a sterling job, many of them are carrying responsibilities that some of us would like transferred back to people at a different level.
There is a worry about whether the reliance on high-quality equipment may occasionally overcome the commonsense need for straightforward, ordinary traditional equipment. I have a letter from a gentleman at Lochinver Transport, who himself served as an auxiliary coastguard for many years, setting out in considerable detail what happened when he reported to Stornowaya boat with a single occupant setting off a distress Orange Smoke Flare near Scourie village in North West Sutherland …very close to rocks, and with only minutes to go before darkness".The letter sets out a series of circumstances that, happily, turned out reasonably. Obviously, the boat got away. The point that that letter raises is that reliance on the helicopter was such that apparently there were considerable gaps between the original report, the arrival of the helicopter and the calling out of the local lifeboat.
Those are all worrying circumstances. I do not expect the Minister to answer all the questions today, but that example shows an increasing reliance on high-tech equipment to do a job that is sometimes better done by individual coastguards using much more traditional equipment.
I have considerable reservations about the combination of some of the stations and the reliance on high-tech equipment in that process. One operator listening to several channels may have a problem if a boat has high-powered equipment capable of drowning out lower-level signals. That is not a comfortable position, and could put enormous pressure on the operator, who might feel that he or she was missing individual calls. All those problems inevitably arise when fewer people do the job at a much greater stretch.
I do not want to take too much time, because I know many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall finish by stressing my belief that the provision of emergency services is, in the final analysis, a responsibility not only of the House of Commons and of Parliament in general but of every one of us.
Emergency service personnel put their lives on the line daily, many for miserable rates of pay. Some are prepared to go on doing that, provided that they see a clear statement of a future in which their service is properly funded, they are properly appreciated and there is not so much reliance on re-equipment and changing the numbers.
Auxiliaries do not replace full-time coastguards. Full timers work very long shifts in a particular way, three at a time, and if any pressure is put on the arrangements by sickness, holidays or any movement, the station will be tightly stretched. When we talk about the number of people involved in the service, we must be aware of that.
896 We must know that those people work under constant pressure hour after hour. They may have long periods of boredom, but when they are required to take decisions they are required to take them immediately, and people's lives depend on those decisions. They must not make mistakes. That means that we must give them the back-up to do the job, in the form not only of high-quality equipment—although certainly that is essential—but of people. Coastguards must know that they have enough colleagues, enough equipment and enough money to run the service properly.
The previous Government were not prepared to provide that. They set up the independent agency because they thought that they could then cut the coastguard service without anybody noticing, and say, "We are just modernising the whole thing." We were not taken in by that then, and we shall not be taken in by it now.
I know that we do not need to drag my hon. Friend the Minister to the House of Commons. She comes skipping in here like a 21-year-old, which might be unlovable if she were not such a fantastically good Minister. None the less, I must tell her one thing we inherited a mess and we must sort it out. That may not be possible today, or even tomorrow, but we need the hope that we shall not go along with all the batty ideas that were left to us—all the incompetence, the corner-cutting and the idiocies which were left behind. I know what she has to deal with, and I rely on her to deal with it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House again that we have little time and that several hon. Members want to speak. Unless contributions are very brief, many will be disappointed.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on obtaining this important debate, and I join him and other hon. Members who have spoken in paying tribute to the crew of the helicopter that rescued men from the Green Lily last week off my constituency— in particular to the winchman, William Deacon, who sacrificed his own life in saving the lives of others.
I do not want to concentrate too much on the general strategy underlying the proposals that have been made; I shall concentrate instead on the issue as it affects my constituency. As has already been explained, Pentland coastguard station is to close by the end of 1999 if the strategy goes through.
The hon. Member for Gosport talked about the way in which the issue has been handled. I happened to know, because of a report in The Herald on 29 October, that there were suspicions that the Pentland and Oban stations were to close, so I telephoned the chief executive of the agency, who said that he could not comment because a report was already with Ministers awaiting a decision. If the decision was made on 13 October, the report must have been lying on desks for some time.
I accept what the Minister says about not having been aware of the letter sent to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie)— although I wish that, when my secretary telephoned to arrange 897 a meeting, her officials had said that they could not find the letter. Only at the fourth time of asking for a meeting was it requested that a copy be faxed through. However, that is water under the bridge and we are now dealing with the real situation.
Far more important is the letter that the chief executive of the Coastguard agency sent me on 8 April. I had written to him because of press speculation that Pentland coastguard station was under threat, and he replied:The Focus for Change review made a number of recommendations for the restructuring of the service, but closure of stations was not one of the options considered …Therefore, I am able to confirm therefore that there are no proposals to close Pentland coastguard station, neither is the station being downgraded, but will continue to function in its present form.I hope I have been able to reassure regarding the future of the Pentland station".
That letter begged a series of questions, and I hope that the Minister can answer them today. What has happened since 8 April? There has been no major breakthrough in telecommunications. We are told that the strategy is underpinned by investment in telecommunications, but there have been no new developments capable of changing things.
The Minister sent a letter to Members affected, saying:The strategy … builds upon the concepts introduced over the past 18 months following the Focus for Change review".Yet we know, because the chief executive of the Coastguard agency told me, that that review did not involve station closures. So why does the strategy involve station closures?
When was the decision made that at least some stations would close? When did that idea first enter the agenda? When, specifically, was it decided that Pentland should be one of the stations to close? That is important, because the staff at Pentland, after suffering years of speculation and uncertainty about their future, saw a copy the letter sent to me on 8 April and were reassured. They took the reassurance that Mr. Harris offered, but it has now been proved that that reassurance was worthless.
When a public servant offers such reassurance in April and overturns it in October, the public—not least those employed in the coastguard service—require a full and detailed explanation, and I hope the Minister can give us part of one today.
When there was some restructuring in senior management, watch managers were appointed at all but the four stations now due for closure—Pentland, Oban, Tyne Tees and Liverpool. There was a suspicion even then that there was an agenda for closure, and that has now been proved right.
Another problem is the lack of any consultation with those employed in the service— at the cliff-top, as it were. It seems to have been a desk job. Certainly, the police in my constituency were dismayed that there was no consultation with them, because they have formed valued links with the coastguard. They value the fact that they can go into the coastguard station. This is an erosion of the protective services around our coasts, which cannot give us any confidence.
At Pentland, there are 11 mobile grade officers and six coastguard watch assistants. The hon. Member for Gosport gave the annual earnings. I am told that a 898 coastguard watch assistant is paid £3.11 an hour. I shall be interested to know what happens to the budget of the agency when the national minimum wage is introduced. That is a ridiculously low amount for a responsible job. The six assistants at the Pentland station were recruited locally earlier this year. I think that most, or even all six, are local people, who will not be disposed to uprooting their families and moving. On Monday—one week after the Minister made her announcement—some of them were sitting the final part of their exams to become qualified coastguard watch assistants. They were sitting the exams, knowing that their jobs were about to be axed.
The important point is that we will lose a lot of local knowledge. The Coastguard agency says that local knowledge is important and that it will not be lost. The deputy regional controller of the Coastguard for the north-east of Scotland, talking to my local newspaper The Orcadian said:Local knowledge is a very important part of coastguard work, but to say it is lost would not be true. That local knowledge is being maintained by Shetland and Aberdeen. Aberdeen has regional responsibility for the whole area anyway and their level of knowledge is pretty good anyway. It would be a case of enhancing local knowledge. That is not a concern".Local knowledge comes about only by being there.
§ Mr. Wallace
Yes, by being local. We are talking about an area with lots of islands, headlands and exceptional tidal conditions. If people move from Pentland to Aberdeen or Shetland, they will carry that local knowledge with them, but it will be a diminishing asset because there will be no one there to renew it in years to come.
§ Mr. Wallace
If I do not give way, I can finish my speech more quickly and the hon. Gentleman may have a chance to speak.
Local knowledge will be lost, which is serious. On 18 October 1994, the Select Committee on Transport, to which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred, took evidence from the previous Chief Coastguard, Commander Ancona. In response to a question from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), he said:local knowledge should not be under-estimated; hence my comment that I feel the number of rescue centres we have at the moment meets the requirement, and any reduction might well have an effect on the service we provide.The former Chief Coastguard, with all his experience, thought that a reduction in the then number of coastguard stations, which included Pentland, Oban, Tyne Tees, Liverpool, Portland and Solent,might well have an effect on the service we provide.That is the concern that other hon. Members and I are expressing.
Inshore fishermen regularly telephone the coastguard to tell them where they are going and to ask for weather forecasts. I do not believe that they will telephone a stranger in Lerwick or Aberdeen when, for many years, they have had that close connection with the local coastguard station.
899 I have never yet been given any explanation of why Pentland has been singled out. What are the criteria? I tabled a question to the Minister last week and received a fairly lengthy answer, but it did not say why Pentkland had been chosen. Is it the number of incidents? I accept that we do not have the same number of incidents involving people lying on lilos and floating out to sea. The coastguard does an important job in rescuing them. However, last week alone a Faroese fishing vessel, the Saeborg, got into distress off Orkney and required the attention of the Pentland coastguard, as did the Minoan Bay, with 24 crew, for about 40 hours when it was in distress in the waters off Orkney. Those will go down as two incidents, but they were very demanding incidents. Had Pentland been closed and the Lerwick station been dealing with those incidents, it would have been doing so when the Green Lily got into difficulty.
For all the telecommunications in the world, one still needs people to operate telecommunications systems. We are saying that the people must have local knowledge and must not be overstretched. It is clear from the Minister's letter that the Government are looking for job savings and I do not believe that we can adequately substitute telecommunications for people. Of course, telecommunications are important and we want the best, but they are only as good as the people operating them and that is our concern about the proposals. I hope that they are not non-negotiable, as the Chief Coastguard said, because a serious mistake will be made if those stations close.
§ Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)
I want to be constructive and I shall raise three points. I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for enabling this debate to take place. Portsmouth is the major conurbation next to Gosport and it is a centre of maritime activity.
The first of my three points concerns what is already happening and raising the profile of the coastguard service. All hon. Members who have spoken have done that constructively, so the profile of the job is being raised. Secondly, I must flag up the danger of any loss of coastguard service, particularly helicopter search and rescue, in the Gosport-Portsmouth area. Thirdly, I want to ensure that the trade unions who represent the staff—a large number of staff in the service are in unions—are fully consulted about the procedures necessary for redundancy, as the strategy for the five-year development plan evolves. It is no good merely consulting them afterwards. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that that will be done.
As everyone who has spoken has already raised the profile of the service and I want to cut my speech short, I shall go straight to my second point, which concerns raising the Portsmouth profile. There are 25 deaths from drowning in the Solent each year, which is 10 per cent. of all deaths through drowning around our coasts. Although the Solent appears to be placid—it is in the south and people use lilos—it is a dangerous place. Our helicopter services are scrambled 1,000 times a year and are extremely busy. The helicopters can get to people in distress in the Solent in about two minutes from Lee-on-the-Solent. If the service is moved anywhere else, the distance and time will be critical for life saving.
Portsmouth, as most hon. Members know—my hon. Friend the Minister was there recently—is a very busy place and it will get busier. As far as we are concerned, 900 it is the centre of the Navy—I apologise to people in other areas, but it is the heart of the Navy. We also have a major international ferry port and an enormous number of yachting activities, with Cowes and all the rest. Our millennium scheme will increase the number, because it concentrates on maritime activity. Whenever anything happens on the sea, whether it is Britannia coming back or ships leaving to go to war, an enormous number of people go on the water to see the activities and to participate, increasing the potential for and the danger of accidents.
The debate in 1996 was rather stunted. Portsmouth city council raised the ogre of losing the services. We had a battle on our hands, but we eventually won, only to realise that that ogre might be raised once more because of this strategy. We have to raise the flag against it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that those points will be taken into consideration when decisions on the strategy are eventually taken.
I am still trying to live down my past of being an eternal opposition person, a great shop steward in Parliament, and of attacking the Front Benchers— my usual tactic of attacking management. I have grown up since then and I am trying to be constructive. I hope that the urgency of getting the agency and the people who are drawing up the strategy to amend and change it will be realised. We must modify it in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Now we are in government, we must have a different attitude. We must get our Ministers to modify what the agency would have done under the previous Administration, which was much harder and tougher. Moving to agency status was one way of sorting things out—in a way we did not want them sorted out. I hope that, with an intelligent and sympathetic Minister, we will now get a better response.
Thirdly, I was impressed when I met trade union representatives today. I have been outside before with people waving banners and expressing anger, perhaps even wanting to kill people in here, but this morning people showed serious concern rather than anger. They are responsible and want to participate constructively.
The unions do not appear to have been drawn into the strategy so far; they should be, because they are the people on the ground with the knowledge, and they represent the people to whom Scottish Members referred today. Redundancies can be achieved, with proper consultation, without too much pain, by going through the proper channels. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will regard those as constructive points.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) mistakes his role he is a constituency Member and must fight whomever is in government. The previous Government wanted to take away my helicopter at Portland; I fought them every step of the way and we now have a five-year commitment to that helicopter. We can fight for our beliefs, regardless of party.
Untruths have been told in press releases, suggesting that the change is not a cut in manpower. The previous Government decided to close coast watch stations, and in my constituency volunteers have replaced the guards whom they removed. People are being paid £3 an hour to 901 do the work in control centres. That was the previous strategy, and we are now told that 200 people are to replace the 90-odd in the four stations that are to close. We are not being told the truth about what is happening with the two stations that are to be collocated.
The Minister said in Committee that she was baffled by my question about merging the two coastguard stations at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent. Her press statement two days later said:The two stations to be combined are Solent and Portland".She should apologise for misleading me, because I spent the weekend telling the press that they were wrong, because she had assured me that the merger was not going ahead.
We tend to hear about the glamorous side of the Coastguard—rescues and so on—but I have been amazed by the volume of paper that I have received from trade unionists and people working in the system. In response to a survey, someone wrote:Anyone who works for an organisation that is on the whole poorly paid, under equipped, understaffed and undermined through a combination of short term savings measures, crisis management, withholding and massaging statistics"—that is certainly what is going on here—liberal interpretation of policy and guidelines at Regional level and lack of public awareness. Is lets face it, always going to be the subject of stress and a deterioration of general health.The response goes on to get even worse, but I will not delay the House.
Let us consider directly what is happening at the stations at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent. It would be madness for the Government to collocate them on a single site if there were not some savings to be made in staff. Is it right to reduce the number of staff? There are about 600 coastguards and towards 100 people are to be removed. That sounds like a lot of people, but a 24-hour watch, seven days a week, comes to 168 hours. Dividing that by the 42 hours means four people for every post, and there has to be another person to cover holidays and sickness, and probably another for training. That means about 100 people on duty at any one time, and those people have to monitor all the channels.
There are more and more ways for people to communicate with the Coastguard in a much better way. In the Navy, radio watch is kept with one person to one circuit; in the Coastguard in the past, it was one person to two circuits; now we are moving towards one person monitoring seven or eight circuits. That, frankly, cannot be right.
I am astounded by Ministers saying that it is all to do with bad buildings at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent; that is absolute nonsense. A whole naval air station is to close in the next couple of years. If the Government want the coastguards to move into a fully equipped and perfect new purpose-built building from their wonderful listed building by Weymouth harbour, that is fine; but it is nonsense for the Minister to go on television, as she did this weekend, and say that there are no job implications in merging two 25-man or 26-man stations.
People have complete disbelief in what their managers are saying and doing. We need to have meetings with Ministers and with the heads of the Coastguard. It was 902 very nice of them to send us colour photographs of themselves— we can put them up on banners and decry what they are doing— but we need assurances that they will hold consultations and change their mind. There is no money to be saved in those moves, but there are certainly lives to be lost.
§ Mr. Joe Benton (Bootle)
I speak on behalf of the many Merseyside Members and, more importantly, the staff employed at the coastguard station at Crosby, Liverpool, as well as the concerned general public on Merseyside.
I could not agree more with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about the new technology, which has not yet been put into practice. I do not intend what I say to be a criticism of the Minister or of former Ministers.
As recently as last Friday, at the request of the staff at the Crosby station, I went to discuss the problem with them. On the instruction of senior management, I was not allowed on the premises, which rather upset me. The background seems to be shrouded in mystery and secrecy; it is not open enough.
I spoke to people with genuine knowledge of the maritime situation in Merseyside, in the port of Liverpool, who have been skilled for many years in rescue and safety operations, which they have carried out with great success. They cannot understand why a station at the gateway to the Atlantic and the western world is to be closed, when all the indications are that there will be increased maritime traffic over the next few years. They are completely puzzled by the decision to transfer the station to Holyhead.
§ Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, by closing the Liverpool station and assigning to Holyhead an additional 700 miles of coastal waters, covering increasing traffic and complex waters in Liverpool, we may be leaving users of the sea and coast in increased danger?
§ Mr. Benton
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is the view that has been expressed from all maritime quarters on Merseyside.
I referred to the secrecy, or alleged secrecy, because there is no doubt that the experts on the ground have been complaining for a long time—even when the Isle of Man station was closed, putting an additional burden on the Crosby coastal station—about the complete lack of consultation.
I think that there is a genuine case for reconsidering the situation, and perhaps the entire service. I am making an appeal for a serious look at the situation that may prevail on Merseyside.
I do not want to be a voice of doom; I am certainly not a Luddite. I predict, however, that the voice of unease which is registering itself will swell in volume between now and 2000.I beg the Minister, on behalf of Merseyside Members of Parliament and of all the maritime interests on Merseyside, to think again. If she does, we shall co-operate with her.
§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on securing the debate and raising a subject of great concern to Members of all parties. It is a most important subject, on which my hon. Friend spoke knowledgeably and powerfully. It is of concern not just to his constituents but to the nation at large.
I am glad to begin by joining in the tributes that have been paid this morning to the courage and commitment of the Coastguard. Especially in our thoughts at the moment are and his family.
Several speakers have made clear the depth and breadth of the anxieties felt about the Government's proposals. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) made an eloquent contribution; the very fact that she is still here is a fine example of her stamina after that all-night sitting in Committee. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) began rather dangerously by claiming that it was Conservative Members who had switched their views on the matter. She made no reference to the much more dramatic switch in roles by the Deputy Prime Minister, who used to be a campaigner for, and defender of, the Coastguard but who appears in those roles no longer.
The hon. Lady went on to ask a number of questions about policy which I hope that the Minister will answer. So, too, did the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who asked some very disturbing questions. That made it all the more regrettable that, apparently owing to some mishap in the Minister's office, the hon. and learned Gentleman was unable to meet the Minister to discuss the issue. That seems dangerously close to a breach of the usual courtesies extended by Ministers to hon. Members—
§ Mr. Yeo
Well, I hope at least that the private office will take note of what appears to have been a breakdown in communications.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) has raised understandable anxieties. He referred to the Minister's response to him in a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation on 12 November, when the Minister accused him of scaremongering. It was only a matter of days before the anxieties expressed by my hon. Friend turned out to be rather well founded. Indeed, it looks as though my hon. Friend's comments were a good deal nearer the truth than were the Minister's. I therefore hope that the Minister will have the grace and honesty to admit that she was mistaken when accusing my hon. Friend of scaremongering; and that she will take this opportunity to withdraw her accusation.
§ Dr. Fox
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that no Scottish Office Minister is present at this debate, which is of major importance to Scotland? Under the Conservative Government, a Scottish Office Minister would at least have attended as a sign of courtesy and of Scotland's interest.
§ Mr. Yeo
That is an important point. I have no doubt that the previous Government would have ensured that 904 a Scottish Office Minister was present to hear the views of the House—but this Government's lack of interest in the views of the House is a point to which I shall return.
The hon. Members for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) and for Bootle (Mr. Benton) also expressed their concerns. It is clear that the Minister has not persuaded her Back Benchers of the merits of this proposal. Not a single Member in the House this morning has spoken or even intervened in support of what the Government propose to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport rightly identified two key aspects: first, the substance of the proposed changes to the Coastguard; secondly, the manner in which those changes have been announced to Parliament. As to the changes, the Opposition's view remains the same as it was when we were in government—that safety should be the paramount consideration at all times, and that nothing must be done that could conceivably jeopardise it. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is also the Government's view.
If changes are to be made, they must be made with the aim of strengthening the Coastguard. Nothing should be done that puts the current coastguard cover for emergencies at risk. The Minister must realise that the way that the Government's policy has been dragged out into public view has understandably raised anxieties that she must now allay. Many people fear that the proposed changes may indeed put lives at risk.
Conservative Members of course recognise that changes must take place. The Coastguard cannot and should not stand still. It is only right that the latest technology should be used. The Coastguard will inevitably be different in the 21st century from what it has been in the 20th, but that difference must be in how it operates, not in its effectiveness. Of course we welcome the prospect of new investment, but the decision must not be a smokescreen behind which operations are quietly cut, staff are sacked, experience and training are wasted and effectiveness is reduced.
The House will need to be convinced that the Government's proposals guarantee the necessary protection in the future, and that safety is not being compromised in a hasty bid to cut costs for some other purpose.
The sad truth is that we are learning week after week that this is a Government who cannot be trusted to keep their word. We heard it in the July Budget, with the introduction of the £5 billion smash-and-grab raid on pension funds. We heard it earlier in the summer with the introduction of tuition fees, and with their broken promises on waiting lists and class sizes. The list of broken promises grows week by week but—even by the standards of this untrustworthy Government, whose contempt for Parliament is their most notable characteristic—the manner in which this decision has been announced was absolutely disgraceful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport set out the day-by-day sequence of events which amounts to nothing more than a sequence of evasions. Will the Minister explain this morning her role at each stage of this sorry saga, from 7 October, when the incomplete Coastguard information pack was sent to the printers, to 14 November, when the truth finally emerged? If she does not have time to set out the detail in this debate, 905 will she write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of her letter in the Library? Above all, will she explain why she made no statement to the House of Commons at any stage in the process? Was that because she was afraid, because she did not know what was going on or because she— like so many other Ministers—simply does not care about the House of Commons?
On the day we have learned that the amount of taxpayers' money being swallowed up by the salaries of political advisers to Ministers has risen by 44 per cent. since 1 May, we might ask Ministers whether they are getting value for money from all those advisers.
Perhaps the Minister simply hoped to hide behind the Chief Coastguard in this matter. The use of the Chief Coastguard to make a politically sensitive and controversial announcement of policy is extremely dubious. Did the Minister authorise that procedure herself, or was the decision taken by the Secretary of State? Why was this method of announcement chosen? I believe that Madam Speaker herself has expressed concern about how the House has been treated over this issue.
The picture that emerges suggests that here is a Minister who is not on top of the policy for which she is responsible, who is fearful of engaging in debate, who knows that she has something to hide. This morning's debate is an opportunity for her to dispel that impression.
For a Government who boast of their willingness to make hard choices, this fumbling over a vital national service smacks of both incompetence and weakness. Will the Minister now—very belatedly—give the House a full, honest and clear account of her actions and of the Government's policy?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)
In common with the whole House, I wish to associate myself with the tributes paid to Mr. Deacon, the helicopter winchman who gave his life in saving 10 lives from the Green Lily, and to the coxswain and crew of the Lerwick lifeboat, who, without hesitation—as is general throughout that great search and rescue service—risked their own lives to save those in danger on the sea.
I say to the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) that, far from being dragged to the House this morning, I welcome the opportunity offered by his Adjournment debate to reiterate the facts inherent in the five-year strategy that was announced and to lay the misinformation, disinformation, rumour and speculation that have been fuelled, in my opinion, from both within the Chamber and without. To all hon. Members who have participated in this important debate, I say that, if I do not answer all their individual questions this morning, I shall most certainly respond by letter.
The contribution from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) does not, in my view, warrant any sort of detailed response. That he, as a member of a former Government who subjected the Coastguard agency to a biannual roundabout of confusion and to constant pressure to maintain services, while reducing the levels of Government funding, should speak as he did is little short of disgraceful.
906 To touch briefly on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton), who was denied access to his local coastguard station, I say to him and all hon. Members that that was a gross mistake and it will not occur again—indeed, we would encourage all hon. Members on both sides of the House to visit their local coastguard stations.
What has emerged from the debate is that there is genuine confusion among many hon. Members as to what the five-year strategy contains. As we have stated, it is a multi-million pound investment in new digital technology: it is not in any way a method of reducing the human element, which is as vital as technology to the Coastguard service.
§ Ms Jackson
The Coastguard's communication service is currently based on analogue technology. That equipment is extremely difficult to maintain and is outliving its usefulness. It will inevitably have to be replaced and it will be replaced by new digital technology.
Another point raised by all hon. Members who have spoken is that they fear a lack of local knowledge. That point was especially highlighted by my hon. Friends in respect of the proposed closure of the co-ordination centre at Liverpool. I would point out to all hon. Members that the Coastguard is responsible for 10,000 miles of the United Kingdom's coastline and 1.25 million square miles of sea. Local knowledge is furnished to the co-ordination sub-centres by auxiliaries on our coasts—3,000 in all. There will be no reduction in the number of auxiliary coastguards, in watch commanders and helicopter services or in co-ordination and facilitation between our Coastguard and other search and rescue services such as the lifeboats.
§ Ms Jackson
No— I regret that I do not have time to give way.
Let us return to the example of the coastline that is monitored by the Liverpool sub-centre. It stretches from Queensferry in north Wales to the Mull of Galloway. It is clearly absurd to presuppose that officers within the co-ordination sub-centre could have intimate knowledge of every mile of that coastline, or of the seas that break upon it. There will be no reduction in any local knowledge: the front-line coastline services will remain the same.
On the issue of staff reduction, there has again been much misinformation. It has been estimated that, during the process of the five-year strategy, there will be staff reductions of 78 in number—I repeat, 78. After consultation with all those involved, we believe that that number will be achieved by natural wastage, early retirement and early severance. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made the valid point that the best technological equipment in the world is useless if the staff who use and maintain it are not highly trained and professional. Part of the five-year 907 strategy is to ensure that Coastguard staff maintain and improve on their already extremely high rates of professional competence.
§ Ms Jackson
It is my interpretation that they do not believe it because there has been a campaign, from both inside and outside the House, of misinformation and disinformation.
§ Ms Jackson
No, I shall not give way. I do not make that allegation in respect of all hon. Members.
§ Mr. Salmond
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The campaign to which the Minister refers is led by those self-same staff. The Minister is not permitted to mislead the House in such a grotesque manner.
§ Ms Jackson
I made no allegations whatsoever about Coastguard staff and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) yet again shows that, whatever the subject of the debate, he is more concerned with making empty party political points than with concentrating on the important issues being discussed.
§ Mr. Wallace
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister said that there had been misinformation from inside the House and that is a serious allegation with which to take a scattergun approach. Which hon. Members does she accuse of misinforming the House?
§ Ms Jackson
I shall come to the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) later in my speech and I shall be precise in making my allegations.
The other important aspect of the five-year strategy is that it will allow highly trained professional staff greater job satisfaction. There will also be greater opportunities to expand on accident prevention activities—a point raised by hon. Members on both sides. The issue of consultation was raised by several hon. Members and I assure the House that a process of consultation will be undertaken. The coastguard service is dependent on teamwork. The element of trust is vital to speed and efficiency, both in receiving information from vessels and individuals in distress and in disseminating that information from co-ordination centres to the front-line services on our coastline which undertake rescue attempts.
The hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland said that I had opted for a scattergun approach in my allegations that there has been misinformation. The most precise example of that misinformation is previous statements and the speech made today by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) on the issue 908 of the co-ordination centres in Solent. There is a major difference between merging—which implies reducing— and collocation of the two centres.
§ Ms Jackson
I admit that the word "merging", was used not by the hon. Member for South Dorset but by the hon. Member for Gosport. The central issue is that the two sub-centres will need to be relocated. The buildings that they inhabit are not suitable, either for the personnel who work within them or for the new technology that is to be introduced.
The hon. Member for South Dorset averred that that relocation was a cost-cutting exercise and that costs would be cut by reducing the staff currently engaged at the two busiest sub-centres in the whole of our search and rescue service. Nothing could be further from the truth. If there is money to be saved, it will be saved on the bills of maintaining two buildings which, I repeat, do not provide an adequate environment for staff or for the equipment that will be housed in them. It makes good sense to rehouse the two sub-centres; I repeat that they will remain two sub-centres in one building.
The relocation has yet to be decided on. That issue will be part of the consultation process. There is already close co-operation—and integration—between the two sub-centres. They are responsible for co-ordinating rescues for 20 per cent. of United Kingdom search and rescue operations.
I apologise to all hon. Members for the fact that I have not had time to answer all their questions this morning. That so many hon. Members wished to participate in the debate emphasises the importance—
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think the Minister has read the words that are already on the record of the House, of the debate in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and we have given the hon. Lady the opportunity to withdraw what was a very serious misleading of the House. I have just been accused, as a Member of the House, of misleading the House in drawing attention to the inconsistencies—the incorrect information that is there. The hon. Lady has accused me of—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman is continuing the debate. The Chair is not responsible for ministerial replies.
§ Dr. Fox
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you can give us some guidance. When the Government seek to make major changes to funding for the police or the fire or ambulance services, it is customary for the Minister to make a statement in the House and yet on this occasion it has taken an 909 Adjournment debate to drag the Minister, kicking and screaming, to the House to demonstrate her incompetence. I wonder what the guidelines are for making statements on the emergency services.
§ Ms Jackson
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Here we have another example of wilful misinformation emanating from the Opposition. No one had to drag me into the Chamber. I neither kicked nor screamed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich pointed out, I skipped into the Chamber—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. This is a continuation of the debate. The way in which ministerial statements are made is not a matter for the Chair, and I suggest that we move on to the next debate, out of which we are taking valuable time.