The United Kingdom is fortunate to have strong and effective front-line search and rescue capabilities, many of which are provided by volunteers, including some 3,500 volunteer coastguards carrying out coastal rescues, the lifeboats operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the volunteer mountain rescue teams. I would like to pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of these volunteers who provide a long-standing example of the contribution that individuals can make to the society in which they live.
Our front-line search and rescue services could not, however, function effectively and save the lives that they do without effective arrangements to identify and manage incidents, including directing the best placed and most suitable rescue assets to the scene. These arrangements are provided through our regular coastguard officers who also:
- monitor ship movements around our coasts
- provide information and services to seafarers and recreational water users
- operate vessel traffic monitoring schemes in some locations, including the English Channel
- contribute to counter-pollution activities in our waters
- support our volunteer coastguard force
They are currently located in 18 maritime rescue co-ordination centres around the UK.
The coastguard has a long and distinguished history. But in common with all public services it cannot stand still. Our seas are becoming busier with larger ships and increasing numbers of offshore renewable energy platforms, making key areas of our seas more congested. There are also increasing numbers of people using our beaches, coastlines and seas for leisure activities.
The current organisation of the coastguard - which dates back some 40 years - is not well placed to respond to these challenges. The lack of national coordination between the centres can result in limited resilience and an uneven distribution of the workload, especially during busy periods.
The latest technologies offer opportunities to address these issues and to modernise the coastguard enabling it to deliver a more integrated and improved level of service, at lower cost, with better-rewarded staff taking on increased responsibilities and with enhanced career opportunities.
With these objectives in mind, I am today (16 December 2010) launching a 14 week consultation about the modernisation of the coastguard service. The consultation document, which is available in the libraries of the House and on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency website, sets out proposals to:
- establish 2 nationally networked maritime operations centres, located at Aberdeen and the Southampton and Portsmouth area, capable of managing maritime incidents wherever and whenever they occur and with improved information systems, together with a 24 hour centre at Dover looking over the busy channel traffic separation scheme
- provide for 5 other sub-centres, fully integrated into the national network around the coast and operating during daylight hours - on the basis of an evaluation of the existing sites and the facilities available at them, it is proposed 3 of these should be located at Falmouth, Humber and Swansea; we also require sub-centres at either Belfast or Liverpool and either Stornoway or Shetland, the case for selection between these locations is more marginal - we are therefore inviting comments and information about factors that should influence the choice of sites for these 2 sub-centres
- provide high quality and demanding jobs for our coastguards, with the job weight and pay reflecting the increased demands placed upon them in line with civil service pay guidelines
- strengthen the leadership and support provided to our volunteer coastguards in the Coastguard Rescue Service
- improve present levels of service to the public while reducing costs
The proposals do not affect the small centre operated by the coastguard alongside the Port of London Authority on the Thames in London.
These changes will strengthen the coastguard service by dealing with potential points of weakness in current structures and adding resilience throughout the system while also maintaining strong regional links and enhancing front-line rescue services through the volunteer coastguard.