HC Deb 17 March 1999 vol 327 cc1058-79

[Relevant document: The Sixth Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1998–99, on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (HC 31).]

11 am

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The work of a Select Committee is at its best when it is able to inquire, in considerable detail, into a problem that is not only vital to this country, but needs careful elucidation. In 1994, the Select Committee on Transport looked at the work of the coastguard service and made a number of recommendations, which it suggested should be looked at closely by the Government. It said that it believed that the coastguard service at that time would benefit from a period of stability. Unfortunately, the service immediately instigated a review of how it worked and produced a five-year strategy.

As a result of considerable worries about both closures and changes, the new Transport Sub-Committee then decided that it was more than time that it looked at what had happened in the interim and what was going to happen in the immediate future. We are deeply disturbed about some of what we found, not least because the service is absolutely vital.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency is a co-ordinating service, responsible for many emergency services. It not only co-ordinates the work of people such as lifeguards and other emergency services, but plays a direct role itself. Through its local knowledge and its ability to respond rapidly and efficiently, it saves lives and constitutes an essential way of safeguarding the lives of our people.

Although as a nation we own fewer and fewer ships, an increasing number of people are going to sea in little boats. Some 90 per cent. of coastguard calls are to just-on-the-coast or just-off-the-coast incidents, and those are largely—apart from the occasional hoax call—from people who have gone to sea for recreational and leisure purposes.

The Committee's report is very important and I should like to go through some of the conclusions. We have said that we are concerned about the state of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The merger of the two previous agencies was supposed to save money on administrative functions. Anybody would say that that was sensible. Indeed, if more agencies cut some of their top administrators and spent the money on the people who actually do the work at the sharp end, they might find a tremendous improvement in the quality of their services. However, we saw no clear evidence that the merger had resulted in improved safety. Indeed, the Committee was extremely concerned about some of the evidence given to us by the agency. Let me take our concerns in a sensible order.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency seemed to believe that it would be able to concentrate more services in fewer stations and still provide the same level of care. It discounted the need for local knowledge and said that, in effect, coastguards no longer had a visual role—in spite of the lady who rang up a coastguard station and said, "Can you see me?" Coastguards no longer have a window out of which they can see boats from the shore. What they need is high-quality communications. We not only understood that, but supported it.

Clearly, it is the combination of the local knowledge of the auxiliaries who give their time for small sums, many of them working long extra hours that are unpaid, and the professional work of the coastguards that produces such good results. It is important to protect that mix.

The Committee was told that the agency had asked for reassessment and reorganisation. I looked—in a personal capacity, and not as Committee Chairman—at the places selected for closure because I wanted to find out whether there was a common denominator. The only one that I could find—I hope that this was not correct—was that the stations marked out for closure were those furthest away from the offices of the sector in charge. I hope that that is not the rationale, because it would make nonsense of sensible decisions and show that we are not talking about soundly based organisational decisions.

The Committee decided, however, that it would not only take evidence from everyone concerned—from those who work in the service and those who use the service—but ask why aspects such as local knowledge were so important. I ask the House to address the evidence that we took from, for example, the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. It instanced a particular case in which a canoeist went adrift off the north-west coast of Scotland. It was only because of the local Oban coastguard's knowledge of the strange tidal configurations that the helicopter was able to go in darkness to the correct point and pluck the canoeist out of the water.

We took evidence from the Cruising Association and from people who were professionally involved at sea. They all said that it was the combination of local knowledge and the ability to respond quickly that saved lives. That is the point that we want to emphasise time and again.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

May I congratulate the hon. Lady on chairing the Committee that came up with this excellent and sensible report? I wonder whether she gets the same impression as I do—that the only motivation for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency proposing this set of closures and mergers was that the proposal was so ridiculous that it expected the Minister to reject it? It could then go to the Minister and say, "By the way, we cannot make the savings that you ask us to make." Is that not the only logical conclusion?

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is some logic in the conclusion. If I thought that such Machiavellian intelligence was involved in those decisions, I might feel a bit happier than I do.

What actually happened was that a consultation was launched even while the House of Commons was asking for the whole organisation to be kept stable for a while to see how it worked. That consultation was not terribly impressive. It did not give the impression of wanting to know the opinions of people concerned or of wanting to know what the staff felt about how the system could be improved. Mr. Maurice Storey, who gave evidence to the Committee, sent out an e-mail when two of his coastguard officers dared to bring their views to the public and described them as "miscreants". As industrial relations go, that is not terribly impressive. We asked him about it, but received no clear or satisfying response.

Thus, we were worried about all aspects of the consultation exercise. We accepted that new communications technology was needed. No one suggested that the service should not move on, but there were considerable doubts about the system being suggested. Indeed, after the Committee hearing had been broadcast on one of the television channels, I was approached by somebody with evidence about a similar service, which had been put in for the Cambridgeshire police and had occasioned considerable difficulty, to the extent that it slowed down responses to emergency calls. I therefore trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will not simply say that the Committee was taking a luddite view in saying that the agency should not have new telephones or new communications systems. That is not the case, but we remain extremely worried about the system being suggested for the changeover. While I was in one operations room, I heard the sort of incident about which I had been warned by the coastguards. Some systems will override others simply because they are more powerful. All those aspects were not satisfactorily discussed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency when it gave us evidence.

I have said that local knowledge is fundamental. When we look at the closure programme, we realise why so many people are worried. Let us take Liverpool coastguard station; I make no excuse for mentioning a coastguard station in my region because it was one that I had the opportunity to visit. If it is closed, its work will be covered from Holyhead, which is already the seventh busiest coastguard station. It will cover a stretch almost halfway into Scotland.

Although they will take more and more work, those coastguards may be able to deal with problems highly efficiently. However, no one can pretend that they will have the detailed knowledge of the Liverpool area, of the Morecambe bay area, or of the developments that are taking place there both in industry and in leisure, or that we can discount the fact that Blackpool, which is in the Liverpool coastguard station area, is one of the largest tourist towns in the United Kingdom. It is important that we realise that we are talking about not a minor problem, but something of major importance to the working of the coastguard service which can have an immediate and direct impact.

The Committee was not impressed by the arguments. It did not believe even that the money to be saved by the closures could be justified in any way. We did not believe that, in terms of the overall budget, the savings were significant, or that there was any sensible reason to suggest that they had been forced on the agency by changes in work loads.

I would have liked to go into some aspects of the report in greater detail, but I see that many hon. Members want to speak. The suggestion that the coastguard service, particularly coastguard watch officers, can be used to do the work of marine surveyors is not intelligent and will lead to considerable difficulty. I hope that other hon. Members will make it clear why that is so.

The Prime Minister wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) on the matter and said at Prime Minister's Question Time that the plan would go ahead because of the amount of money involved and because of changes in the service. Those arguments will not wash any more. Simply repeating the same mantra over and again is not the way in which to deal with the House of Commons.

It seemed to the Select Committee that the agency had gone through an exercise that was fairly artificial. It had not carried it out properly. It certainly was not justified in closing the stations and sub-stations that it looked at. It could not demonstrate that the work of coastguard services would be improved by the closure programme. Indeed, it was clear that the opposite would happen.

If all those things are true—the argument about technology is almost a side issue, because all the emergency agencies have to improve their technology; that is not in dispute—Ministers have a responsibility to do something. A previous Government introduced the closure programme, not the present Government. We do not have to do everything that the previous Government decided to do. They may have tried to justify the plan, but the Committee does not believe that it is justified.

I do not think that Ministers in the previous Government asked for the plan to be introduced; it was generated by the Chief Coastguard. Therefore, we do not believe that there will be any loss of face if the Government say, "All right. We have looked at the plan again. We think that it is not a good idea. We will not go ahead with it. We do not believe that it can be justified."

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's generosity of spirit towards us in the debate. I was Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Scottish Office when the proposals first emerged. I can assure her that Ministers were by no means convinced that they were the right way forward. I make no bones about the fact that we did not think the pre-election period would be a sensible time to conduct a debate about the proposals—someone said that we might lose more seats in Scotland. In all sincerity, we can approach the matter in a non-partisan way. In that respect, I fully share her sentiments.

Mrs. Dunwoody

That is a useful confirmation of what worried me. The Government do not need to feel that they have to defend anything. It was a suggestion that was put forward; it was looked at; it cannot be justified. It is not particularly intelligent; it does not improve safety; it does not save money. Why we are going ahead with it? Why do we not just say that it was a mistake? People do make mistakes—even in government, impossible though it may seem.

The Government should for once have sufficient ability to say, "All right. It is wrong." They should hold their hands up and say that it is not their intention to go ahead with the reorganisation and closure programme. It is not necessary and it will not contribute to the future happiness of the people of the United Kingdom. I say only one more thing to the Minister. She should say with Voltaire: I am very fond of truth, but not at all of martyrdom.

11.16 am
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Transport Sub-Committee on producing a robust report and on the way in which the Chairman has introduced it. Those of us who have constituencies where stations are under threat of closure particularly welcome both the report and the early opportunity that the debate provides to discuss it.

What struck us most about the report was that it appeared to echo the concerns and underline the arguments that many of us who oppose the closures have been advancing all along. We advanced them in a debate in the Chamber on 26 November 1997, and my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) put them to the Minister and officials from the Coastguard Agency at a meeting in December 1997. Those concerns were reflected in the many responses to the so-called consultation document. Having examined the arguments and come to conclusions, the Committee's report gives great weight to the case for maintaining the present structure of 21 co-ordinating centres.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and the Committee about the apparent lack of proper consultation during the whole exercise. The Committee was unhappy with all aspects of the exercise, and I reached the same conclusion. I got the clear impression that there was never really any intention to consult. It was only because of the furore that was created, not least in the debate in November 1997, that, at the last moment, a consultation document was put together.

My clear impression of the document was that it was issued more to justify a decision that had already been taken than to examine properly all the different options. The lack of consultation was instanced by my constituent Dr. Jonathan Wills in a submission to the Committee. He sits on the Shetland sub-committee of the Northern Ireland and Scotland district marine safety committee. Shetland coastguard station was to inherit responsibilities from Pentland, yet no one ever discussed the matter with or consulted the committee, which was set up by the Government to examine issues of shipping and maritime safety.

The original timetable in the document was for the Coastguard Agency, as it then was, to receive, analyse and assess all responses and to report to the Minister within one week. After protest, the time span of the consultation was extended, but other aspects of the document show a lack of genuine consultation. It said, for example, that there would be no reduction in the lifeboat service. No one had ever suggested that there would be. For that matter, the service is not the responsibility of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

When analysing the work load of different stations, the document used the loaded term "false alarms". I think that the phrase "false alarms" is intended to make people believe that the service is a waste of time and money. The term is not used by the agency itself, however. A written answer from the Minister uses the proper expression "assistance not rendered". That could refer to, for instance, a fire on a fishing vessel that was put out by the time the emergency services arrived. No one in their right mind would consider that to be a false alarm.

In the case of Pentland, "false alarms" involved seven helicopter call-outs, 12 lifeboat launches and 37 call-outs of rescue teams. It turned out that assistance was not required, but those were potential emergencies. Account must be taken of so-called false alarms, as well as occasions on which services have been rendered, if we are to see the full picture of the responsibilities and work load of a station.

The consultation document suggested that, to be properly effective, a coastal station would have to deal with two or three incidents each day. Where in the world did that come from? In a written answer on 18 February 1998, the Minister told me that in 1996, only five co-ordinating centres in the United Kingdom would have met that criterion, and only six in 1997. The implication is that many employees lack experience, which I do not believe.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman not taken by the strange dichotomy whereby it is decided that the Scottish coastguard stations should be closed because they are not busy enough and that, because the two busiest stations, Portland and Solent, are so busy, they ought to be located in the same building? Is it not odd that the same report should contain both those arguments?

Mr. Wallace

We should also take into account what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said about Liverpool—which is already a very busy station—transferring some of its functions to Holyhead, which I believe is the seventh busiest station in the United Kingdom. As the hon. Lady said, there is not much logic in that.

I find it rather suspicious that there appears to be one closure or co-location in each of the regional areas. It may be just coincidence, but some of us need to be persuaded of that.

The results of the consultation seem to have been largely ignored. Of those who expressed a view on the Pentland closure, 84 per cent. were against it; 79 per cent. opposed the closure of Oban, 71 per cent. opposed the closure of Tyne Tees and 88 per cent. opposed that of Liverpool. I believe that only 8 per cent. of respondents supported the collocation of Portland and Solent. Despite that overwhelming opposition, however, the proposals went ahead. The only alteration related to timing: the closures of Pentland and Oban were delayed by a year, to 2000.

I do not believe that any member of the Committee—or, indeed, any hon. Member—has denied that there is a constant need for improvement and upgrading of technology. What has never been established is why that should require closures. There does not seem to be any link, except, perhaps, one related to cost. The 1998 National Audit Office report stated: Financial savings generated by the proposed reduction in the number of co-ordinating centres would be used to fund the introduction of new communications technology. Proposals should not be cost-driven when health and safety at sea are involved. In any case, as the Committee pointed out, the cost is very small, and the position could be reversed at no real additional expense. Surely the answer is to link all 21 centres to the new technology, rather than proceeding with the closures.

Local knowledge is another important factor. The consultation document referred to what it described as an apparent disbenefit. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned the example given by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, and those of us who represent areas in the north of Scotland know that the same names crop up in different parts of the country. Sandwick is an example: goodness knows how many Sandwicks there are in Shetland, Orkney and the north-west. According to the consultation document, however, what is required is a "general familiarity". Justifying the use of that term, it referred to a report on staff inspection of marine divisions in 1978–79—blithely ignoring the coastguard search and rescue operational, planning and procedures manual, which states that "thorough local knowledge" is required.

It is not simply a question of knowing headlands, tides and place names, although that is important. Local knowledge also means regular face to face contact with the other emergency services … well established contacts with the fishing industry and other marine users; having a recognised presence in the community, and bringing a coastguard perspective to … local issues. Both in the report and in meetings that I have had with the Minister, the importance of coastguards' getting rid of the bunker mentality and getting out into the community has been stressed. Either the former chief executive of the Coastguard Agency or the Chief Coastguard—I cannot remember which—regretted that there had been so few opportunities recently for coastguards to get out and about, and that accident prevention had not been given the profile that it deserved. In stations such as Pentland, however, there is good practice: coastguards are getting out into the community, and there are good working relationships with the other emergency services. But what is the response? In the name of improvement, a station that could provide a good example is being closed.

There is considerable scepticism in the coastguard service. At a time when resources are under restraint, it is not possible for coastguards to travel more widely along the coast, even in the quieter months.

There is a big problem with morale. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the 1994 Select Committee report called for a period of organisational stability, but that did not happen. In April 1997, the former chief executive of the agency sought to reassure me that Pentland station would not be closed, but it was closed six months later.

Those who serve as coastguards will have been buoyed up by the detail in which the hon. Lady's Committee has examined the issue, and the conclusions that it has reached. If our system is to be credible, when a House of Commons Committee has examined all the arguments and has reached so unequivocal a conclusion, the Minister concerned should give that conclusion full consideration. Let me tell this Minister that she will not lose face if she backs down. We shall be delighted; I assure her that we shall not rub her nose in it.

This is not a question of sentiment. I believe that the objective of securing a good, efficient coastguard service would be enhanced by our maintaining the present network of 21 co-ordinating centres, not least because of the importance of local knowledge. I believe that the service would be impaired by the closures, and I therefore ask the Minister—especially in view of the fact that Pentland and Oban are scheduled to close in less than 18 months—to end the uncertainty, and tell us that those and the other stations will remain open.

11.28 am
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

As a member of the Transport Sub-Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak. I shall be brief, because I know that a number of my hon. Friends with constituency interests also wish to speak; but I want to make a number of points.

Having been a member of the Committee under the last Administration, and having been party to its full examination of the coastguard service—which reached similar conclusions to those reached on this occasion— I do not want it to be thought that I am a hypocrite, and have changed my mind just because I am now a member of the party that is in government. I want the Minister to give closer attention to this issue, to heed what is said both this morning and in the report and to exercise more common sense than has been exercised so far. I believe that the Committee has made the case, and has made it very well.

I want to reinforce what has been said about two matters. Local knowledge has been mentioned. In preparing our report, we took evidence from a number of sources, including two former Chief Coastguards. We were told: 'Local knowledge' is vital to the officers controlling an incident especially in the first few minutes. No computer can replace knowledge and instinct. A computer simply provides facts for use. Local knowledge often saves vital time in effecting a rescue. The suggestion that an officer on receipt of a distress call or 999 call should consult a database or telephone for advice from Section Managers or coastal auxiliaries is totally unacceptable. Two previous Chief Coastguards gave us that information, which most precisely explains the importance of local knowledge.

Only those who have local knowledge, especially in my own constituency, are able to understand peculiar local tides. The tide at the bar of the mouth of my part of the River Irvine, for example, could take any one of five possible directions. On many occasions, people get into difficulty on the river, and the only ones who are able to save the situation are those with local knowledge of the tides. Local knowledge is so important.

The report also deals with the presumed savings to be made by closing stations. If it is correct that closures will create savings of £500,000, that is but a mere pittance in overall Government expenditure. A possible consequence of the Department's desire to save £500,000 is loss of life. I should not like to have that on my conscience, and I imagine that my hon. Friend the Minister shares that feeling.

Last week, in his Budget statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor dealt with the need to support Customs and Excise in combating smuggling and more closely safeguarding our borders. When we consider allocating resources to achieve that objective, we should appreciate the importance of local knowledge. I should, therefore, think that—in the light of the stations' value in stopping the smuggling of goods—Transport Ministers will have the Chancellor's support when reconsidering the value of the savings to be made by making closures.

I ask Ministers to reconsider the matter, and to give the House a positive reply.

11.33 am
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

Like everyone else, I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on securing this debate, and congratulate the Transport Sub-Committee on its excellent report. I should also like to express my appreciation, and that of the people of Oban, for the effort that the hon. Lady made in visiting the town. I should stress that she visited in a personal capacity, not as the Committee Chairman. She spoke with many of those working in search and rescue, and with many who could, at any time, be the subject of such a rescue. Her initiative was greatly welcomed and lifted spirits, as everyone felt that, at last, someone was listening. I should add that Oban is not the easiest place to get to from London. She made a sterling effort.

I do not want, in the short time available to me, to rehearse all the arguments against closure of the Oban coastguard station. The Minister knows the arguments well enough—particularly those on the increase in maritime activity along the lengthy Argyll coastline, and the dangerous waters round all the islands and many sea lochs. Involved now in the area are ferries, fishing trawlers, yachts and year-round diving. Salmon fishing is intruding ever more into the sea. Liners are coming to dock in Oban bay, as are bulk carriers from the Glen Sanda quarry. It is a very busy area, and all parts of it require a co-ordinated rescue service. It is inconceivable that the Oban coastguard station might no longer be there to give that service.

Hon. Members have mentioned the work done by coastguard station personnel. In Oban, they have fostered and developed an excellent relationship with the other emergency services—they know one another, and they trust one another's knowledge and expertise. There are seven lifeboat stations in the area—at Oban, Portree, Mallaig, Kyle, Tobermory, Barra and Islay—and the Oban lifeboat is one of the busiest in the whole country. Last year, it recorded more than 100 call-outs, whereas the coastguard station itself recorded a 22 per cent. increase in operational work.

It is a treacherous and often very stormy part of the country, and the situation is likely to get worse. In a letter to the Committee, the North Argyll Development Agency said: Global warming, meteorologists inform us, is responsible for the deeper areas of low pressure which sweep across the Atlantic and most are hitting the West Coast of Scotland. Rainfall is greater and wind speeds are higher. Forecasters say they will get progressively worse and this means increased levels of danger at sea. The Coastguard agency is going to need all its present resources and more in the future, not less. I can vouch for that. This has been one of the stormiest winters that we have had in the west, certainly for over 20 years. Moreover, as the North Argyll Development Agency said, it will get worse.

I should like to highlight two specific points, which have already been highlighted today by other hon. Members. Time and again, the report returns to the matter of local knowledge: it is invaluable. It is invaluable in deciding what resources to deploy and, most importantly, where to deploy them—particularly in an area such as the west coast of Scotland, which is similar to the area of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) in having Gaelic place names scattered throughout the many islands and indented coastline. We have been told that the similarity of the names often leads to confusion.

As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, the overwhelming majority of incidents dealt with by rescue co-ordination centres are either on the coast or just offshore, exactly where local knowledge is so valuable. We all accept that, whereas local knowledge is not the only source of information for coastguards, it is, as the report said, a fundamental tool in watch officers' armouries.

Although new technology is very welcome and necessary, I am concerned that too much reliance has been placed on it. I have a map—which hon. Members probably cannot see—showing all the current communication black spots, which are shown in yellow. There are very many such spots, and there is no evidence that new technology will overcome them.

I also have a note from Seawork International, a company of marine consultants and contractors, on bad weather communication failures. It states: Power sources for Telecommunications, Radio microwave links, and landlines are notoriously prone to failure on the West Coast, and due to the mountainous terrain, and sparse population, their swift repair is usually impossible. They regularly fail when the Winds and weather are at their worst, in other words, exactly when the Coastguards are likely to need them most! It is not at all clear who—other than the Minister, her officials and the hierarchy in the agency itself—is in favour of the strategy. Those who believe that it is wrong can be counted in their thousands. They include experienced seafarers and mariners from throughout the United Kingdom. I have letters to substantiate that claim.

My constituents are dismayed. They knew that they had the support of Labour in opposition, led by the now Deputy Prime Minister. They thought that the Labour party would continue that support in government. In the light of the report, I hope that the Minister will reconsider the closure programme, particularly the closure of the Oban coastguard station.

11.40 am
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I extend my thanks to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee for undertaking the inquiry. My constituency contains the Crosby coastguard station, which was signalled for closure in the Government's recommendations. The people at the station did not anticipate such a great response from the community. We have recently submitted a petition with 53,000 signatures to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It was not organised by the staff of the Crosby coastguard station, but came as confetti through the door one day, the result of a voluntary reaction from the people of Merseyside, who intuitively understood the value of the coastguard service and did not want it to be amalgamated or removed.

Since then, many of my colleagues from Merseyside and I have written countless letters on the closure programme, questioning the need for it. I am grateful to them for their support. We have received very little positive response other than a repetition of the mantra of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. However, that has not stopped us. We were delighted when the Select Committee decided to undertake an inquiry, because we felt that it would provide an impartial, objective review of the arguments. I made it known to those who supported the retention of the Crosby station that we should accept the recommendations of the Committee. If the Committee felt that the closures were necessary and that there was no argument against them, we would concede. We recognised the value of the Committee's contribution and decided to uphold its recommendations.

It was with mixed feelings that I saw that the recommendations came out so resoundingly in our favour, calling for the retention of all the coastguard stations. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will concede that there have been oversights, omissions, misunderstandings and a lack of appreciation of many of the points that have been raised this morning, and accept that we should retain the coastguard stations that are considered imperative for safety not just by us, but by hundreds of thousands of seafarers, sea users and coastal shore users.

The arguments for the closure of the Crosby coastguard station included the suggestion that staff would be more effectively used by being stationed at Holyhead. It was envisaged that during quiet periods they would be required to carry out accident prevention and district liaison work. Figures quoted in the five-year strategy group document reviewing the work load for Liverpool appeared to show that Liverpool was not as busy as Holyhead and that the variety of incidents dealt with at Liverpool was not as great. The variety of incidents was stated as being an important factor in the training of officers.

It was also said that the Liverpool building was too old to be adapted for the new technology and that it could not be adapted for the expected increase in the number of staff required to cover the proposed new district. Local knowledge was alleged to be less important with the advent of new technology and it was said that that technology would mean that fewer, not more, marine rescue sub-centres would be required to monitor distress frequencies.

There are many valid, coherent arguments against those reasons for closure. The proposal to base the staff at the new enlarged district at Holyhead is not an effective use of taxpayers' money. Holyhead is at the end of the district. With the greatest respect to hon. Members from that area, it is at the end of a large cul de sac. The notion of staff going into the community and liaising with the other services, who are 60 miles away, is nonsense. That would not be an effective use of the services of coastguard agents.

The figures for incidents quoted on page 20 of the consultative document are seriously misleading. Other hon. Members have already pointed out that they do not accurately reflect the work load at Liverpool. The total figures quoted for Liverpool do not include hoax calls and false alarms. That is a serious omission. The same criteria have not been applied to the figures for other stations. We cannot compare like with like.

It is implied that hoax and false calls need no co-ordinating action. That is not true. At the outset of such incidents, life is believed to be at risk. Many such incidents require extensive co-ordination. Hoax calls often necessitate more work due to their nature: details of incidents are misleading and confused and investigations need to be conducted to find out who the culprits are. A call is regarded as a false alarm when resources are deployed but no assistance is rendered, such as when a large-scale search is conducted for an overdue boat that subsequently returns safely.

It has also been stated that there is a greater variety of incidents at Holyhead, giving officers wider experience and more job satisfaction. That is not true, as an examination of the real statistics shows. The argument that the building is too old to be adapted does not stand examination. We are not talking about a derelict building in the middle of a sand dune. It is a 16-year-old, single-storey building. We have no reason to believe that there would be any serious opposition to plans to extend it to take on board new technology.

I warmly support the comments made about local knowledge. I do not want to repeat the arguments, but local knowledge is vital. It is farcical to suggest that it can be replaced or dealt with by a computer or that it is possible to ring around when there is an emergency. Anyone working in an emergency needs expertise at hand. If local knowledge is so irrelevant, why is there an examination for it? It is one of the requirements. Does the move to a more amalgamated service come with an assumption that the local knowledge that can be retained by an individual can be stretched and stretched? I question the ability of an ordinary human being to retain the amount of information that the people at Holyhead will be expected to retain. It is not possible without compromising safety.

The current radio technology is analogue. As an engineer, I am pleased that it is going to be replaced by more modern technology. That will allow considerable savings in the cost of private wires, which will carry signals from the aerials to the MCS. However, the true benefits of a digital system will not be realised until a great majority of the seafaring public also have digital equipment, which is prohibitively expensive. I understand that it costs £2,000. It could be many years before the benefits of the system are realised to all. Those who call on the maritime rescue and co-ordination service do not necessarily have a radio. The new digital system will make no difference to those in dinghies, sailors, sailboarders, swimmers and walkers—90 per cent. of those who currently access the service. The new technology has yet to be tested. I believe that no provision has been made to ensure that an adequate safety system will be in place to protect the owners of small boats, leisure sailors and fishermen. There is no guarantee that we shall meet the specified safety standards.

There is a continued significant expansion in the Liverpool basin of North sea work, with the erection of new platforms, and of the number of people using the area.

The new development scheme includes new leisure facilities and water sports centres, and the number of visitors to the area will rise. The area already has a number of marinas, diving schools, yacht clubs and windsurfing clubs. It is unlikely that the new digital technology will be of benefit to the majority of people using the area for those activities. It is therefore important that the MRCS remains in the centre of this busy area, where the staff—with their local knowledge—are best placed to be of greater service to the community that they serve.

The analysis of the proposed closure states that, in the present circumstances, it would be wrong to close the Liverpool station. Liverpool is situated in a major port and city—with all the infrastructure that that entails—and is ideally situated for liaison with other emergency services and planners. To transfer its responsibilities to Holyhead would not be cost-effective. Holyhead is at one end of the proposed new district, and liaison with other emergency services in the event of a major incident would be, at best, difficult and, in some cases, totally impractical. Staff visiting the district would have greater distances to cover, with all the expense and the loss of expertise at the station that that would entail.

The new digital technology—which we welcome—merely replaces the present analogue system. There is no evidence for the premise that stations can be closed as a result of its installation. No risk assessment has been undertaken of what will happen to those stations when the technology is introduced. The new technology cannot replace the local knowledge of watch officers. The newly enlarged Holyhead district will be the busiest in the UK, and one of the largest, with approximately 1,000 miles of coastline; every nuance of which, I understand, is supposed to be retained by watch officers. Overseeing such a large district will mean a loss of knowledge and, as the number of incidents rise, stress on staff will increase.

No satisfactory explanation has been given for why the Liverpool station has been chosen for closure; or for why three stations are to remain in Wales, but not one on the west coast of England. The arguments for the closure of the Liverpool station do not stand close examination.

The Committee has recommended that all 21 maritime rescue co-ordination centres and sub-centres be retained, and that the new communications technology—which is so necessary—be installed in all of them. I would support that recommendation, as would the 53,000 people who signed that petition in the north-west. We understand the value of Crosby coastguard station, and we urge the Minister to reconsider the decision and allow us to keep all our coastguard stations open.

11.53 am
Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, not least because Tyne-Tees coastguard station—due for closure—is in my constituency. I am grateful for the work of the Select Committee, and I welcome the broad conclusions in its report.

I wish to refer to two matters that have been covered in detail this morning: first, the importance of local knowledge in local stations; and, secondly, whether "Focus For Change" and the consultation exercise has given the agency a more stable future. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee which produced a report last year on the new agency in which we expressed similar reservations about the loss of local knowledge.

I welcome the new investment in the integrated coastguard communication system—I am not a luddite in terms of new technology. I welcome also the assurances, and reassurances, that coastal rescue resources will remain in place. I wish to put on record my appreciation of the work of the coastguard, the helicopter crews and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which celebrates its 175th anniversary this month.

The longer the discussion on the future of the agencies concerned went on, the more concern emerged about the loss of local knowledge. Watch officers are tested on their local knowledge, and a previous Chief Coastguard has warned us not to underestimate the importance of local knowledge. We are told, apparently, that thinking that a watch officer can retain detailed local knowledge is somehow misleading; that 1 square nautical mile of sea is much like any other. We are reassured that, in any case, local rescue resources will retain local knowledge. It is dangerous to assume that watch officers are simply there to answer telephones. That ignores their vital role in co-ordinating rescues, which are much more likely to take place along the coast—in some instances, coast that they know very well—than in open sea. Last year, Tyne-Tees dealt with 442 incidents inshore, and only 18 offshore. Alarm calls are often made by infrequent visitors to the coast, and are often made in the heat of an emergency.

It is important for local coastguards to be able to recognise local place names, to be familiar with the local vessels using that stretch of the coast and to be able to tell the difference between a description of Beacon Point in Newbiggin and Beacon Point in Seaham. The report states that local knowledge is a fundamental tool in Watch Officers' armouries". Concern at the loss of local knowledge has been expressed not only by the Committee, but by the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association, various fire and civil defence authorities and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations—including my own fishermen in North Shields. The Committee used the word "catastrophic" to describe the possible effect of the loss of local knowledge. That is a strong term for a report to use, and I hope that the Minister takes note of it.

It is important to address the concerns in the report about how the Maritime and Coastguard Agency managed to get into this position in the first place. I have the highest regard for my hon. Friend the Minister, but I must remind her that we inherited the review, and the recommendations—they are not binding on the Government. Throughout the process, there has been criticism about how the review and the consultation have been handled.

The Public and Commercial Services Union complained that the agency denied having a plan for station closures. When my local fishermen contacted me in the summer of 1997, they had heard rumours that Tyne-Tees was going to close. I contacted the agency, and I was reassured about the future of the station. Imagine how I felt in November 1997 when the announcement was made that the station was, after all, to close.

There is a strong suspicion that the agency has been dragged into the consultation process which followed the announcement, and that the consultation was really about how and when the closures would take place—not about whether or not they would take place. Despite two reports from major Committees, I am still not sure how stations were actually chosen for closure. We are led to believe that it had something to do with incidents—putting aside the fact that an oil tanker adrift of the Northumberland coast counts as one incident, as does a lone fisherman cut off by the tide.

The year chosen by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency was 1996, which just happened to be a year when incidents appeared to be falling. Last year, Tyne-Tees had its busiest year since 1995, and there is no sign—although I would hope that this is the case—that incidents are tailing off. That has resulted in the loss of an important station at Tyne-Tees, which serves nine river estuaries—where most incidents take place.

There are 6,000 annual movements into the Tyne, and the numbers are rising. There are 12,000 annual movements into the Tees—most of which are tankers entering the biggest industrial chemical complex in Europe; yet we are to lose the station. Is it any wonder that local people are left wondering whether this has been a meaningful consultation exercise at all? Is it any surprise that the Committee says that it is unhappy with all aspects of the consultation exercise"? We are told that stations do not need to close to pay for the new technology, but why can we not retain local stations and local knowledge at the same time? Why, for once, cannot new technology enhance a local service, and not simply replace it?

If my hon. Friend the Minister is looking to save money, she should consider the number of incidents caused by recreational craft not looked after properly by their owners. Why do I have to have MOT, tax and insurance as a car owner, when I doubt whether those would be required if I owned a boat? If local boat owners want to make a contribution to the local coastguard service, we should encourage that.

In the meantime, I share the Committee's concerns and I hope that all the centres can be retained. My hon. Friend is aware of the strong feeling on the issue: 61,000 people in my region petitioned the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to ask it to think again, and I would be failing in my responsibility if I did not highlight their concern in the House.

12 noon

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Last summer, representatives from the coastguard station at Lee-on-the-Solent came to see me and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) to express a series of concerns about the review then under way. They put the case for the continuation of their centre and the Portland centre as separate entities. They were concerned that the proposal to conjoin the centres would lead, in the not-too-distant future, to one super-centre, and that the principle of effective coastguard operation on the south coast would be undermined.

I was deeply concerned, but I did not want to engage in special pleading, as I recognised that a national review was under way. I was delighted that the Select Committee decided to undertake an inquiry and, like many other hon. Members, I eagerly awaited its report. No one has dissented from the view that the Committee took a long, hard and careful look at the overall picture and concluded that there was not a case for closure, because the projected savings did not outweigh the problems that might be caused.

I felt vindicated, as what would have been special pleading on my part was shown to be part of a wider picture. That wider picture is encapsulated by the proposal to conjoin the Solent and Portland centres, which would effectively mean that along the south coast of England—by far the busiest recreational and commercial stretch of the United Kingdom coast—we would have, between Lyme Regis in the west and Eastbourne in the east, only one centre to respond. There would technically be two centres, but in effect only one.

The two centres were first and third in terms of the number of incidents in both 1996 and 1997, accounting for about 20 per cent. of all incidents recorded by all the coastguard stations in the United Kingdom. The argument that the stations can be conjoined because they are not busy is not borne out by the figures. Studies on the importance of ports and the future of leisure in the south-east of England show that the waters will inevitably become busier still.

I was pleased that, after consultation, the conjoining was put off until after 2003, but that is merely a pause. The Committee has done a good job for the House and for all who are concerned that their lives should not be put in peril when they go to sea. The review and the closures will not necessarily have that outcome, and my hon. Friend the Minister has emphasised the benefits from investment in new technology, but I cannot believe that technology alone could overcome the consequences of the watch officers having to look after new stretches of coast.

I ask the Government to reconsider and to examine carefully the Committee's conclusions and the views that have been expressed today, with virtual unanimity, about the future of the agency.

12.6 pm

Mr. Joe Benton (Bootle)

I congratulate the Select Committee on its report, if for no other reason than that it totally vindicates the stance that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and I have taken. She rightly said that we have expressed the fears of the maritime interests on Merseyside. What consultations have been held with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and the shipowners of Merseyside?

A snippet of information that my hon. Friend the Minister may like to consider is that the latest indications are that the heavy commercial traffic through the port of Liverpool and Merseyside will increase in this year alone by about 40 per cent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, we are not asking for a climbdown, but we want the Government to put to rest the accusations coming from maritime expertise in Merseyside that they have made an arrogant decision that flies in the face of all the best advice.

In a former life, if I may put it that way, I had close associations with maritime work, and I retain contacts at every level. I am in touch with captains of supertankers, with shipowners and with ordinary seamen, but I have not come across one person who has defended the proposed closures in any way. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, in the interests of good maritime sense, to reconsider the proposals. Let us have proper consultation with maritime expertise and not merely pander to the wishes of vested interests that, for one reason or another, support the disastrous closure of stations all around the coast.

I beg my hon. Friend to listen to the pleas of all those who have spoken today. Not one voice has spoken in favour of the closures, and I appeal to her to take that into consideration.

12.8 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

I support the detailed points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and for Bootle (Mr. Benton) on why the Liverpool station at Crosby should be retained. I find it absolutely incredible that, at a time when port trade, ferry services and the use of leisure craft are expanding, we should even consider closing a station where local knowledge has proved so invaluable in saving lives.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the important issue of accountability. When the previous Government set up executive agencies, they tried to dissociate the decisions of those agencies from elected Government. I am glad that this Government have changed that situation and we now have to convince the Minister who is responsible for what happens.

Is my hon. Friend the Minister satisfied, after listening to all the contributions and seeing the evidence received—including the evidence from the Select Committee—that proper consultation has been carried out and proper consideration given to the detailed knowledge and expertise that has been included in the submissions? My hon. Friend is responsible and accountable for what happens. If she is not satisfied that the agency has discharged its duties carefully, with the interests of public safety paramount, I ask her to reconsider. This vital issue involves public safety and human lives, and the retention of expertise and local knowledge, as well as new technology. In the light of this debate and the mountains of expert evidence that have been submitted, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider.

12.11 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on her report. I hope that it is not too controversial to say that her Select Committee works very well. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has received no leaks from her Committee. She runs a tight ship and this is an excellent report which pulls no punches. We have had an excellent debate, although it may be a bit churlish for the official Opposition to say that it was a good debate when not a single hon. Member, from any party, supported the Government's position.

I speak also for my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms), for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), who have spoken in previous debates on this subject, and others who share the concerns about the situation. The hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) mentioned the importance of local knowledge, and that is included in a recommendation in the report. He mentioned the existence of a number of Sandwicks and Sand Wicks in his constituency, and there are several Tarberts in the constituency of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). The hon. and learned Gentleman rightly pointed out the importance of people in the application of local knowledge, and it is the people, mostly volunteers, who put their lives at risk when things go wrong.

The hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) said that he did not want to be a hypocrite, and I am sure there is no danger of that, but I am reminded of a campaign about 10 years ago with people unfurling banners in front of the House of Commons which read, "Don't sink the coastguard". The Deputy Prime Minister—the Minister for coral reefs—was at the forefront of that campaign and it is not unfair to ask him to be consistent on the issue.

The constituency of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute contains some of the most dangerous tidal waters in the northern hemisphere, and I have personal experience of those stretches of water. She spoke of the huge increase in demand for Maritime and Coastguard Agency services and the communications black spots in that area. She asked who was in favour of the changes, which is a question that many other hon. Members posed. The hon. Members for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) both questioned the situation in Liverpool, and I have received similar representations. Questions were asked about the meaningfulness of the consultation exercise, by the hon. Members for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) and for Bootle (Mr. Benton).

There are several key questions for the Minister. Are the proposals part of a strategy to rely more heavily on volunteers from whom the state is withdrawing its commitment? Who has made representations in favour of the proposals? What is the view of the Scottish Office? It is distressing that no Scottish Office Minister is present, when we are discussing an issue of such importance to Scotland. The tradition that Ministers support each other on important issues for which they have shared responsibilities seems to have died a death under this Government.

How much money will the exercise save and is it worth it? The most important question is whether the Minister will listen and make safety her primary concern. We paid the penalty for not listening at the general election: we will listen now and ensure that safety will be the paramount concern. I urge the Minister to think again about the proposals. That is what everyone who has spoken in the debate wants to hear and, in the interests of Back Benchers whose occasion this is, I shall end my remarks so that the Minister has plenty of time to reply to the points that have been raised.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I add my thanks to those already presented to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), as Chairman of the Transport Committee, for the work that she and every member of the Committee have put into the report on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. As is usual, the Government's response to the report will be made within the next month. I congratulate the Committee, which is probably the hardest working of all the Select Committees.

The Government will respond to the report in due course, but I shall respond directly to the contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House this morning. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said that party politics should not be involved, but he then proceeded to attempt, in his short contribution, to make empty party political points. All the other contributions this morning have treated the issue with the gravitas that it warrants.

I am the daughter of a fishing family and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister began his working life as a seaman. It is inconceivable that this Government would contemplate for 30 seconds any strategy that would increase the risks and dangers to those who live and work on the sea. No other considerations will influence our approach to the issue.

The contributions from the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe), for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), for Bootle (Mr. Benton) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) have contained recurring themes. As well as justifiable constituency concerns, it has emerged from the debate that the coastguard is regarded by the entire population of this United Kingdom as a service that deserves the highest possible respect and is immensely valued. It has a special and particular place in the hearts and minds of all the people of our maritime nations. Therefore, I trust that I can, in this comparatively short contribution, put to rest some of the fears that have been expressed on both sides of the House, including the possible loss of local knowledge; the misperception that the five-year strategy is a cost-cutting exercise; the fear that the new equipment is so technologically difficult that it will be hard for coastguards to operate it; and the belief that the new equipment does not have a safe track record.

I shall deal first with whether the change is a cost-cutting exercise. That is not the case. We propose massive capital investment in the five-year strategy. The Government's clear commitment is to ensure that a search and rescue service regarded as the best in the world should maintain its primacy.

There will be a massive capital investment programme, and the £500,000 mentioned by several hon. Members relates to the savings arrived at by combining the two services into the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and locating them in one headquarters. There has been no reduction in investment either on the coast or in the proposed strategy. The combined budget for the new Maritime and Coastguard Agency before the merger was £88.8 million; this year, it is £92.1 million, and is expected to rise.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Jackson

No, I am sorry, but I have too little time.

Concerns have been expressed that the strategy will lead to a reduction in coastguard numbers. Again, that is not the case. We expect an increase in the number of coastguards by July, because the agency is taking over radio services that have until now been the responsibility of BT. That will lead to an increase of 42 new coastguards, taking the total to 600.

There has also been confusion over watch assistants. In the past, watch assistants were often volunteers, and—I mean no criticism of them—they were not necessarily reliable. Coastguard watch assistants are no longer volunteers; they are trained, they form part of the coastguard service and they are properly paid for the vital duties that they perform.

Proposed new equipment will be bench tested at Highcliffe training centre for at least two months, and the equipment will be mocked up as if it were in an operations room. It is not true that such equipment would be put into place on the stroke of midnight on a particular date. It would be installed at relevant co-ordinating centres and, only when it was clearly doing the job for which it was created, would the switch from the existing equipment take place. Obviously, all relevant coastguards will be trained. This is the third time that there has been a change of equipment, and the present equipment, which is vital for receiving and disseminating information, is coming to the end of its shelf life.

There are two central issues, and I shall deal first with the second. As several hon. Members said, during this debate not a word has been raised in support of the five-year strategy, and they would be interested to know who has supported it. The report last year by the National Audit Office into civil search and rescue said: The number of centres could be reduced without adversely affecting search and rescue operations, and positive benefits in allowing more flexible and effective use of staff. In response to our consultation, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution said: We have been fully supportive of the rationale behind the closure of the four MRSCs. It added: We fully appreciate that the availability of new digital communications technology will allow a reduction in the existing number of Rescue Centres required, without affecting the radio coverage. As time is running short, I will send a list of other supporters to the hon. Members who have spoken today.

I should spend the bulk of my time dealing with an issue that rightly concerned every hon. Member who has spoken—what they perceive to be a deleterious loss of local knowledge as a result of the proposed five-year strategy. The informed speeches that I have heard this morning lead me to believe that all Members in the Chamber are aware that each co-ordinating centre deals with a large area of coastline. They average 500 miles and they are typically responsible for many thousands of square sea miles. I visited Holyhead recently and spoke to a coastguard whose most recent rescue co-ordinating duty had been for a vessel in danger off Argentina. That gives some idea of how valuable the coastguard is, not only to vessels in immediate sight of our shores, but to those around the world.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby obliquely said, it would be inconceivable for any person or team of people to retain an absolutely detailed knowledge of such lengths of coastline and areas of sea. Such knowledge is not exclusively held in the brains of the remarkable human beings who are our coastguards. Their undoubted knowledge is supplemented by computer databases and the equally valuable local knowledge of people who carry out the rescues, such as the RNLI, the helicopter services and the other emergency services. Radio direction-finding equipment is of tremendous benefit in providing a positional fix, especially for calls by radio or telephone, which are the overwhelming source of search and rescue calls to co-ordination centres.

There must be, and always will be, a programme of familiarisation wherever the coastguard centre or the co-ordination centre is sited. We are talking about a national service. Each coastguard is a member of that national service, and coastguards expect to move around the country to ensure that the ability of rescue services to protect and save life at sea is fully national.

Part and parcel of that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, is the ability proposed in the five-year strategy for coastguards to take part in the vital work of preventing accidents. My hon. Friend mentioned the vast increase in the number of recreational craft around our shores, a point also noted by other hon. Members. Education on prevention of accidents used mostly to be concentrated around our coastline, but the coastguard must now move further inland because people pulled by the sea are going ever-greater distances in the attempt to enjoy such recreational activities both within our shores and around our coastline. Far too frequently, people engage in activities on the sea with little or no knowledge of how dangerous they can be if one is not practised or not educated in the dangers.

There will be no compulsory redundancies. We do not expect to lose any coastguards. I have mentioned the need to increase coastguard numbers when the agency takes over radio marine safety information from BT. The coastguard will deal with weather reports and navigational hazards and will give medical advice. It will be linked to hospitals in Aberdeen and Gosport, and that service will begin on 1 July.

The overriding issue is the maintenance of what is widely recognised as the best search and rescue service in the world. The overall efficiency and effectiveness of the coastguard service can be improved without compromising safety. I have given a personal commitment to ensuring that the search and rescue service retains its primacy. I have been concerned by some remarks on consultation, and should point out that we did consult, and will—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. We must now turn to the next debate.