Coastguard Service debate
14th June 2011
Mike Penning responds to a debate on the coastguard service.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure, Dr McCrea, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing the debate, although most hon. Members linked it to matters wider than the link between the emergency services and the coastguard service. I pay tribute to their ingenuity in doing so, and I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for bringing her knowledge to the debate. I know how difficult that must have been, and she did so courageously. We may not agree on everything, but I promise that we will remain friends.
The Government set out the consultation process, we extended it, and we are reopening it so that the report of the Select Committee on Transport could be included in our thoughts. We will almost certainly have another consultation process because, as I have said since day one, as has the Secretary of State, what comes out of the process will not be the same as what we went in with, because we are listening. We have said that from day one, and I have said that as I have gone around the country. How that can be deemed a U-turn is strange. We did not say at the start that we would not come out with something different. Perhaps Her Majesty’s Opposition would prefer me to ignore everything that is said in the debates, be rigid, ignore public opinion, and have sham consultation, which is what happened under the previous Administration.
Mr MacNeil: Will the Minister give way?
Mike Penning: I am conscious that colleagues have, rightly, used most of the time available, and I am also conscious that I may repeat what has been said again and perhaps again and again, but I will not give way because I have about nine minutes left, and I want to cover the issues, especially those that are slightly different from those that arose around the country.
I praise the hon. Member for Sefton Central, because the debate is important, and its title has helped me. I was not aware that there were problems regarding the roles of the Merseyside fire and rescue service and Her Majesty’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency on the Mersey estuary, especially involving mud rescues. That was interesting, but I understand now, and with some impetus from the debate and perhaps a bit of size 10 from me they will be resolved. Clearly, there is duplication in who co-ordinates the service.
May I tell my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall that although I represent a landlocked constituency, I was a member of the fire and rescue service in Essex, and was based at a coastal station for many years? About the third major incident that I went to was a freighter fire. As the shadow Minister, my friend the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—he is my friend—knows, that is one of the most frightening experiences.
We heard that there is often a difference of opinion between the crew of a ship and the firemen about how best to put out a fire. That is not surprising, because firemen have a habit of chucking a huge amount of water at fires—that is what we are trained to do—and if you do that to a fire on a ship, it tends to sink. Such instances have happened around the world. There is a debate about what should be done about fires at sea. It is right that that debate is taking place, and it is happening around the world. The truth of the matter is that it is enormously dangerous to put fire crews on to ships at sea to fight fires, and we must make a decision between lives, cargo, pollution and other issues.
I met Roy Wilsher, the country’s lead fire officer and Chief Fire Officer of Hertfordshire the other day and we discussed where we are with the agreements in place, and where we should be.
Albert Owen: As an ex-merchant seaman, but a humble rating, I understand the dangers, as does the Minister from his perspective. My point referred to a master mariner—they must decide whether to abandon ship, or to protect cargo or the environment—who raised directly with me the importance of coastguard stations’ local knowledge. That is why I raised the matter in this debate.
Mike Penning: Such concerns were properly raised in the debate, and the shadow Minister raised the issue of fighting fires at sea, which was also important.
Another issue was the future of emergency towing vessels, and negotiations are continuing. We intend to terminate the contract, which costs £10 million a year, in September, and I am fixed in that position, because if I move one iota, the commercial sector and everyone else will say that I have gone soft, but they do not have to cough up the money. The key is where the risk is.
Mr MacNeil: Will the Minister give way?
Mike Penning: I apologise, but I cannot give way. I am sure that there will be another debate on the subject fairly soon. During the remaining five minutes I will not be able to answer all the points that have been raised, but I will write to every hon. Member about any specific points that they raised, and particularly those issues that do not come within my portfolio.
We have a legal responsibility to co-ordinate the work with other emergency services, and I know that that happened when I was a humble fireman. My previous history was praised, and I was proud to be a fireman but, as when I was in the Army, I did not rise far through the ranks.
Interestingly, although during these debates colleagues have not been saying, “Save my station and close someone else’s,” that is not quite what we have heard from the coastguards themselves in the larger and more detailed submissions that we have received. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to my visit to Bangor. It was a wonderful visit, and it was like groundhog day, because I had not been in the Province since I had served in another way. She rightly said that the proposals on the service’s future nationally, not just on individual stations, were detailed and indicated clearly that no change is not an option, as the coastguards are saying, and that nine or 10 stations is the optimum number. The shadow Minister said that some stations should not close, and it would have been interesting if he had said which ones should close, because that would have been informative, especially as most if not all the proposals were on the table when he was a Minister.
Sheryll Murray: Does the Minister accept that the response from the coastguards about closing one station or another is because he has moved the starting line? I know from my coastguard and others that if he started with a blank sheet of paper, he would not get the same answer. Does he accept that?
Mike Penning: I would like to accept that—I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from—but I cannot, because the proposals were on the table before I was the Minister and even before the shadow Minister was the Minister. There has been discussion about the matter and people have buried their heads in the sand for years and years. My hon. Friend asked whether, if we had a blank sheet of paper, the format of coastguard stations around our coastline would be as they are now. No, they would not. We must all accept that.
My hon. Friend asked me to retract what I said about only Falmouth carrying out international rescue. Falmouth is twinned with Brixham, and I fully accept that it picks up when Falmouth goes down, and that regular exercises take place—[ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend said from a sedentary position that it takes responsibility. Yes, it does, but it also regularly carries out exercises. Falmouth made it clear to me that it is the centre for international rescue. It gave evidence in its submission on the future of the coastguard.
I honestly believe that this is the way that consultation should take place. Political parties may play different games, but we will come out with a national emergency service with the resilience, pay and training infrastructure that it needs and deserves. I hope that everyone understands that the Government and the MCA are acting for the right reasons, and not just to make cuts. The issue was on the table years before cuts were thought about. What we need is a 21st-century service.