Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 10:20 GMT
MPs slam coastguard closures
Coastguards' work has doubled since 1987, the MPs say
Plans to overhaul the UK's coastguard system have been attacked by a cross-party group of MPs, who are concerned that lives will be put in danger by moves to cut the number of stations around the British coast.
The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee said that the government's proposals to close coastguard rescue coordination centres could have a "very serious impact" and should be scrapped.
Four of the 21 centres - at Liverpool, Oban in Argyllshire, Pentland in Orkney, and Tyne - would be shut down under the plans. Two other centres - at Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire and Portland in Dorset - would merge to create a new centre.
Coastguards have said that the changes, due to come into force by March 2002, would put lives at risk.
The service says better digital radio communication technology means it can safely cover 10,500 miles of coastline using just 17 stations.
'Serious impact' on service
The MPs insist that local knowledge is "fundamental" to coastguards, helping them respond quickly to incidents at sea and therefore saving lives.
"We are concerned that the closure programme, by requiring Watch Officers to cover more lengthy stretches of coastline, threatens to dilute local knowledge to such an extent that its value will be reduced, with a potentially very serious impact on the performance of the Coastguard service," the MPs said in their report.
They argue that the planned closures would save only £500,000 and stopping them would be "inexpensive".
The cross-party MPs recommended that all the 21 centres should stay open and that the new communications technology should be installed in each of them.
The MPs, who declared themselves "extremely worried" at the government's plans, warned that Watch Officers in remaining stations might be overloaded with work, particularly in the event of a major incident.
They called for the Coastguard Agency and the Marine Safety Agency to be re-established as separate entities, after merging last April to form the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). Each should review services in consultation with staff and seafarers.
"In doing so, the agencies and the government should remember that the best way of protecting seafarers, vessels and the general public is not necessarily the cheapest way, but the way which prevents pollution, ensures that ships do not get into difficulties in the first place, and above all saves lives."
The committee of MPs was "unhappy" that MCA staff felt inhibited about speaking out and called for open debate to be encouraged in future.
They were also "unhappy" that both the Coastguard Agency and its successor had made "no serious attempt" to consult about the strategy.
Coastguards' workload has increased steadily, according to the report.
In 1987 they were involved in 5,563 incidents compared with 11,667 in 1997 - a rise of 110%. And in 1997 they helped 16,884 people compared with 8,867 in 1987, an increase of 90%.
But over the same period, the number of lives lost remained constant, at about 250 a year, and the cost of dealing with each incident fell.