With permission Mr Speaker I wish to make a statement on the government’s intentions on taking forward the process of coastguard modernisation in the light of responses received to the consultation that ended on 5 May 2011.
The key drivers behind the modernisation proposals are the need to address the limited resilience of current arrangements, distribute more effectively the workload experienced by different coastguard stations, and provide enhanced opportunities for coastguard officers to develop professional skills, with pay levels reflecting enhanced responsibilities. There is also a need to contribute to the wider deficit reduction agenda.
The consultation set out proposals to create a nationally networked coastguard system with 2 maritime operations centres - 1 in the Southampton and Portsmouth area and 1 in Aberdeen - together with a 24 hour centre at Dover and 5 daytime only centres. In addition to delivering greater resilience and better career progression, the proposals identified ways of managing costs while still delivering high levels of service to seafarers and the public. It also set out our commitment to increase by 32 the number of regular coastguards to strengthen the frontline volunteer coastguard.
Mr Speaker, these drivers for change remain. Our strategic objectives in this exercise remain unaltered. But throughout the consultation process I have been clear that we were willing to listen to views of the public, coastguard staff and other interested parties on the best way to deliver the outcomes we need to achieve. Over 1,800 responses were received, including many from serving coastguards. Of the total, 27 submissions suggested specific alternative solutions, all with a reduced number of stations but with differing concepts of operations. We are very grateful to all of those who responded to the consultation and to the Transport Select Committee for also looking at the issues. I can say, Mr Speaker, that this has been a model of consultation, with many serious and thoughtful responses recognising the need to deliver the overall objectives, but proposing alternative ways of doing so.
There were a number of common themes that emerged from the consultation responses. These were:
- first, widespread acceptance, as illustrated by all the alternative solutions that were put forward, that change is necessary
- secondly, concerns about the potential loss of local knowledge and local contacts with volunteer coastguards and other search and rescue partners
- third, concerns over how the detailed concept of operations for the maritime operation centres and sub-centres would work in practice, particularly how a handover between a day time centre and a 24/7 maritime operations centre would work in practice
A review of all the consultation responses has been produced under the leadership of a non-executive director of the MCA, involving a number of serving coastguard officers and members of the PCS union. This has been placed in the library of the House. A formal response from the government to the report of the Transport Select Committee will be provided separately.
In the light of the consultation responses, the government has now concluded as follows:
- that it remains right to continue with the proposals for a nationally networked system with the introduction of 1 maritime operations centre capable of managing incidents anywhere and ensuring optimum distribution of workload across the system
- establishing 1 maritime operations centre, rather than the 2 previously proposed allows us to address concerns over local knowledge and the robustness of the future concept of operations by retaining one of each of the current paired stations, with the retained centres operating as part of the nationally networked system 24 hours a day rather than during daytime only - staff in each of the current pair of stations are already familiar with, and frequently experience, management of incidents in an adjacent area
- we have also decided that the Northern Ireland Coastguard centre at Bangor should be retained because of the specific requirement to manage the civil contingency arrangements unique to Northern Ireland and the relationship with search and rescue partners in the Irish Republic with whom we coordinate closely in air sea rescues in the waters around the island of Ireland
- in light of the decision to retain one station from each pair, and concerns about Welsh language communication, it has been decided to retain the Holyhead station, rather than the one at Liverpool
- in response to concerns expressed over the resilience of infrastructure and communication links within the Scottish Islands and with the Scottish mainland, we have decided to retain coastguard centres in both Stornoway and Shetland
- that in the light of a further review of the potential costs of vacating the existing sites in Swansea and Milford Haven, which has shown that there are no financial reasons to favour either location, and in view of my department’s already very substantial levels of employment in Swansea, we have decided that we should retain the coastguard centre at Milford Haven rather than the centre at Swansea
In summary, subject to consultation on the changes to the previously announced approach, we will now proceed with the creation of a modernised coastguard service providing a nationally networked system comprising:
- one maritime operations centre in the Southampton and Portsmouth area with a disaster recovery back-up facility at the Dover station, which will retain its responsibilities for the Channel Navigation Information Service and will also serve as a sub-centre
- a further 8 sub-centres, all operated on a 24 hour basis, located at Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast, Stornoway, Shetland, Aberdeen and Humber
The stations at Clyde, Forth, Portland, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Brixham, Thames and Swansea will close progressively over the period 2012 to 2014/2015. The station at Solent will be replaced by a new maritime operations centre in the Portsmouth and Southampton area and the small station at London is unaffected by these proposals.
These revised proposals will deliver the modernisation required and are capable of delivering the same level of savings in the longer term as our previous proposals. They are right for the future of the coastguard service. I recognise, of course, that they will nonetheless represent a huge disappointment to honourable members whose constituencies are affected by the proposed closures.
The additional costs generated by retaining a total of ten centres overall (plus London), all operating on a 24 hour basis, and the higher coastguard numbers that will be needed to do so, will be offset by operating only one maritime operations centre in the Southampton and Portsmouth area, with a back-up centre, equipped but not staffed, at Dover. By moving to more efficient watch patterns we will still be able to offer higher pay across the service to reflect higher levels of responsibility, while ensuring that costs overall remain within our planned funding for the coastguard as a whole.
The changes to the original consultation proposal that I have announced today (14 July 2011) will be the subject of a further period of consultation. This will run for 12 weeks from today (14 July 2011), ending on 6 October 2011. Specifically, this includes the decision to retain Holyhead rather than Liverpool; the choice of Milford Haven rather than Swansea; the decision to retain stations at Shetland and Stornoway; and the decision to operate a single maritime operations centre, rather than 2.
These changes to our original proposals will deliver the modernised and more cost effective service we need for the 21st century while also responding to the genuine concerns raised during the consultation process and I commend them to the House.