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Coastguards leave in ‘alarming’ numbers over changes

By Vivienne Russell | 11 December 2012

Plans to halve the number of UK coastguard stations have led to plummeting staff morale and an ‘alarming’ vacancy rate, MPs said today.

The government is establishing what it says will be a more resilient, national network of coastguard stations. A single Maritime Operations Centre, based in the Solent strait in Hampshire, will co-ordinate responses to major incidents, assisted by eight Maritime Response Co-ordination Centres. This will mean the closure of eight current stations and the loss of 160 coastguard staff.

In a report examining the plans, the Commons transport select committee found mixed messages about the changes. Specifically, there was confusion about the role of the Maritime Operations Centre, coastguard station closures and whether local knowledge would be retained. Coastguards were ‘disillusioned and confused’, the MPs said.

Committee chair Louise Ellman said it was of ‘great concern’ that the vacancy rate for skilled coastguard staff had doubled since 2010. Lack of information from Whitehall had dented staff morale, she added.

‘There is a worrying lack of information about what coastguards at the MOC will actually do from day to day or how these new staff will work with local coastguards,’ Ellman said.

‘The Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s stance in respect of the local knowledge which coastguards in co-ordination centres must have is also confusing and contradictory… The MCA needs to set out its strategy for staff training and articulate its vision of why coastguards in Maritime Response Co-ordination Centres need to gain and retain local knowledge.’

Furthermore, the current changes should ‘last for a generation’, the committee said, and any further reductions in the service be ruled out.

The report also expressed concerns about the loss of the Maritime Incident Response Group, which deployed emergency towing vessels and tackled fires at sea. Worries about how these services would continue were also contributing to unrest and concern, Ellman said.

Today’s report is a follow-up to one published in June 2011. That criticised the original proposals to reduce the number of coastguard stations to five, open only during daylight hours and overseen by two Maritime Operations Centres, in the Solent and Aberdeen. This prompted a government rethink and fresh proposals were subsequently put out to consultation.

Commenting on today’s report, the Public and Commercial Service union endorsed the MPs findings. General secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘It is simply staggering that even at this stage the government has so obviously failed to explain its plans to staff, the public, coastal users or MPs.’

He echoed the committee’s call for any further coastguard station closures to be ruled out.

Responding to the report, the DfT denied its intentions were contradictory or unclear. Shipping minister Stephen Hammond said his predecessor and the MCA ‘were and have always been clear in their ambitions and statements’.

He added: ‘Safety remains our top priority. Our reforms to modernise the coastguard will deliver a more resilient, and effective rescue system, with faster response times, benefiting all parts of the UK.

‘The issues raised in the report have been addressed throughout the two consultations and in our evidence to the select committee. We have been frank and open in our responses on these and will continue to be so.

‘We also have some concerns that the committee has given too much weight to anecdotal evidence and too little to the evidential testimony of the MCA and the DfT.’

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