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Report: Government’s plans for future shape of the Coastguard Service

23 June 2011

The Government should withdraw its controversial proposals to modernise the Coastguard Service, says the influential cross-party Transport Committee.

Serious concerns were raised that the safety of people at sea, on cliffs and beaches will be jeopardised if the proposals proceed in their current form. Ministers must issue revised proposals for further consultation.

Chair's comments

Launching the report, Transport Committee Chair Louise Ellman said: 

"We accept there is a need for some modernisation, but the Government’s proposals for the future of the Coastguard Service are seriously flawed.

We found little support for the current proposals and we have no confidence that, under these proposals, the Coastguard will in future be able to respond to emergencies at sea as well as they do now, let alone in a more effective way.

A drastic reduction in the number of rescue co-ordination centres will result in a loss of local knowledge amongst coastguard officers who are responsible for taking calls from people and vessels in distress. The committee is not convinced by the Government's claim that technology can, at present, replace such local knowledge. 

Whilst there is a case for reducing the total number of rescue co-ordination centres, any future reorganisation of the Coastguard should be based on 24-hour centres, as they are now, and not on stations open only during daylight hours, as the Government proposes."

The committee also strongly condemns the Government's cost-cutting decision to withdraw funding for the four Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) stationed around the UK coast—large tugs that intercept disabled ships to prevent environmental pollution disasters.

"We found no evidence that a suitable commercial alternative for these tugs exists. The Government's decision to withdraw funding for the ETVs is unwise and short-sighted - quite literally, it is inviting disaster," says Louise Ellman.

The Transport Committee also criticises proposals to completely remove government funding for the Maritime Incident Response group (MIRG), a national fire-fighting-at-sea capability. Ministers should instead adopt a slimmed-down MIRG which is more cost-effective than the present arrangement.

Lastly, the committee records its disappointment that Mike Penning MP, Minister for Shipping, instructed regular coastguards not to give oral evidence to the committee on the basis that they were junior civil servants.

"The minister should have shown more faith in the professionalism of the coastguards and stuck by his original commitment to the House [of Commons] to let them give evidence to the Committee," adds Louise Ellman.

Louise Ellman will present the Report on the floor of the House of Commons on Thursday 23 June (after business questions and any statements).  


The structure of Her Majesty's Coastguard is currently based on 18 Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs) around the UK, which are grouped into nine pairs: Aberdeen; Belfast; Brixham; Clyde; Falmouth; Forth; Holyhead; Humber; Liverpool; Milford Haven; Portland; Solent; Shetland; Stornoway; Swansea; Thames; Yarmouth.

Coastguard staff in the MRCCs provide a 24-hour service to mariners and coastal users by receiving incoming distress calls and tasking appropriate resources to their rescue. The rescue unit personnel are often volunteer coastguards.

Under current proposals the Maritime & Coastguard Agency - the Government agency responsible for maritime response - plans to close ten of these centres and to leave three that remain open on a 24-hour basis and five that will operate in "daylight" hours only. Under these arrangements two Maritime Operations Centres (MOCs) will be equipped to manage all incidents wherever they might occur. These would be located at Aberdeen and the Southampton/Portsmouth area. In addition, a 24-hour centre will operate at Dover looking over the Channel traffic separation scheme. The five sub-centres to operate during daylight hours will be located at Falmouth, Humber and Swansea, Belfast or Liverpool and Shetland or Stornoway.

The Minister expects to make a final decision before the summer but has said he would not do so until the committee published its findings.

As part of its inquiry, the committee visited coastguard centres at Falmouth, Clyde and Stornoway on 17–19 May.

Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) were first introduced into service in 1994 on the recommendation of Lord Donaldson whose report into the prevention of pollution from merchant shipping followed the Braer and Sea Empress tanker disasters. Four such tugs are currently stationed in the Dover Straits, the south west approaches, the Minches and the Fair Isle Channel.

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