By Jonathan Isaby
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Tuesday this week saw a debate in Westminster Hall initiated by a Labour MP on the future of the coastguard service. The first speech from a Conservative MP came from Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall and her contribution was all the more poignant because her husband, a fisherman, was killed in an accident a sea just three months ago.
She took the opportunity in this week's debate to make a plea to the transport minister, Mike Penning, not to close local marine rescue co-ordination centres (MRCCs):
"I am pleased that we are looking at the co-ordination role of the coastguard co-ordination stations, which has not always been focused on in other debates, and at their role in overseeing incidents at sea. It is the local coastguards who pull together the emergency services during an incident and who, over many years, have built up relationships with those services. We remove that local relationship at our peril.
"I firmly believe, as did my late husband, that there should be modernisation of coastguard equipment to allow, for example, the position of vessels transmitting with the voluntary class B automatic indicator system to be identified easily, but that there should be no cull of marine rescue co-ordination centres. Because of my personal position, I have received representations from concerned sea users all over the country, but it is appropriate for me to concentrate on my own area.
"The marine rescue co-ordination centre in Brixham covers my constituency of South East Cornwall, and has built up unique experience from so many incidents over many years. The search and rescue area covered by Brixham stretches from Dodman Point halfway along the south coast of Cornwall to Exmouth in Devon, and it is essential to emphasise something I am sure the Minister will recognise and agree with— that local knowledge of topography saves lives. The care that I was afforded on 25 March by Looe RNLI crew and Brixham and Looe coastguards was beyond anything I could have expected, and I thank all those involved in the emergency services, and indeed the south-west fishing industry, for their kindness.
"This past Saturday I spent time with my local RNLI personnel and my local volunteer coastguards, who are all concerned about the Minister’s proposals. They feel that he has not had the opportunity to speak to people who operate at the sharp end, and I would like to invite the Minister to visit Looe — if his busy schedule allows it — to hear for himself their concerns."
"Brixham MRCC is bought and paid for. We now need to cover only the station’s running costs. It contains an operations co-ordination room, an emergency planning room, a coastal safety manager’s office, a sector manager’s office, coastguard rescue equipment for the Berry Head rescue team, a coastguard rescue emergency vehicle, a marine surveyor’s office, a coastguard training office for the region and an aerial site, and it still has space to expand. Brixham has been approached to lease a whole floor to another emergency service for its offices and operation area. If the property is sold, new premises will need to be found and bought for all of the above."
"I end with a message that I hope the Minister will accept in the spirit in which it is given. He says that we will not end up with the proposal outlined in his consultation document, and I welcome those words. However, he must accept that by issuing a five-year-old proposal that takes massive cuts as a starting point, he has effectively moved the starting line as well as the goalposts. Coastguards all around the coast have told me that their response would have been different if they had not been working with a proposal to cut MRCC numbers and hours so drastically. That is why it is essential that we start with a blank sheet of paper.
"No one knows better than I how dangerous the sea is and how important it is to co-ordinate all rescue services locally when an incident occurs at sea. The proposals remind me of 1994, when two fishermen lost their lives off the Cornish coast, below a recently closed coastguard post, and local people decided to open and restore the visual watch. That could not happen once we lose our marine rescue co-ordination centres around the coast, because they are professional. I make a plea to the Minister to think again about the closures. He has used examples of other nations operating with fewer stations, but has failed to mention that in those countries the coastguards operate in different ways, with different responsibilities. Yes, modernise, and yes, have better equipment, but please do not destroy the best coastguard service in the world."
In responding to the debate, the minister, Mike Penning, said:
"The Government set out the consultation process, we extended it, and we are reopening it so that the report of the Select Committee on Transport could be included in our thoughts. We will almost certainly have another consultation process because, as I have said since day one, as has the Secretary of State, what comes out of the process will not be the same as what we went in with, because we are listening. We have said that from day one, and I have said that as I have gone around the country. How that can be deemed a U-turn is strange. We did not say at the start that we would not come out with something different."
"My hon. Friend asked whether, if we had a blank sheet of paper, the format of coastguard stations around our coastline would be as they are now. No, they would not. We must all accept that."
"Political parties may play different games, but we will come out with a national emergency service with the resilience, pay and training infrastructure that it needs and deserves. I hope that everyone understands that the Government and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are acting for the right reasons, and not just to make cuts. The issue was on the table years before cuts were thought about. What we need is a 21st-century service."