Coastguard Services (St. Ives)

– in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 29th July 1983.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wakeham.]

Photo of Mr David Harris Mr David Harris , St Ives 2:30 pm, 29th July 1983

I am doubly grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate as it enables me to make my maiden speech on the last possible opportunity before the long recess and gives me the chance of raising an issue that is of great importance and concern to my constituency.

First, I pay tribute to my predecessor as Member of Parliament for St. Ives, Sir John Nott. He served the constituency and the country with great distinction for 16 years and he and Lady Nott are held in the highest regard in the constituency. I am delighted, as everybody is, that they are continuing to live in St. Ives.

I know that it is customary for new Members making their maiden speech to overegg the pudding in describing the beauties and characteristics of their constituencies. However, representing St. Ives as I now do, there is no need for me to do that. After all, St. Ives is known and loved by many holidaymakers. Looking around the Chamber, I suspect that some of our colleagues have already headed for that constituency or other parts of Cornwall.

The constituency is very much dependent on the tourist trade. It is well known for the Isles of Scilly, for landmarks such as Land's End, for small businesses, farms and fishing ports. No doubt, right now, it presents an idyllic picture to those on holiday there. However, we have only to think back to the Penlee disaster to realise how that picture can change with dramatic effect. On that night, a hurricane force gale swept along the Cornish coast, with terrible results.

The exposed nature of the coastline and the intensity of shipping, both local and international, around it make my constituency worthy of special consideration for emergency services. My plea to my hon. Friend today is that he should give us special consideration in the provision of emergency services both in regard to coastguards and the Land's End coastal radio stations.

I shall deal first with the coastguards. Just before the Penlee disaster, a major reorganisation of the coastguard services in the south-west came into effect. As a result, the new rescue co-ordination centre at Falmouth came into full operation, the previous coastguard substation at Land's End lost its earlier role, and control was transferred to Falmouth.

Let me make it clear that I am in no way knocking the Falmouth co-ordination centre or the dedicated staff who man it. My object today is to try to focus attention on the continuing role of the three coastguard stations that remain in my constituency — St. Ives, Gwennap Head, or Land's End as it is more popularly known, and the Lizard. Following that reorganisation, these are now manned by auxiliary coastguards, who are volunteers who deserve our thanks and support.

In the light of the Penlee inquiry I am asking for a sensible, calm review now that the inquiry is over of the exact relationship between the Falmouth maritime rescue co-ordination centre and the three coastguard stations manned basically be auxiliaries in my constituency. Those coastguard stations have a vital role to play, because of the exposed geographical position. I hope that there will be a review to ensure that they get the resources—which are important — and the authority — which is equally important—to enable them to continue to fulfil that role. As the Minister knows, there has been considerable concern about the matter in our part of the world.

If the Minister agrees to a review, I urge him to involve the informed local interests. Those will, of course, include the Royal National Life-boat Institution. Incidentally, to underline the dangers of that coast, there are no fewer than four lifeboat stations in my constituency. Of course, other informed local interests would need to be involved.

The other linked subject that I want to mention is the future of the Land's End coastal radio station. For many years that station has played a crucial role in providing an emergency and safety service, not only for local boats, but for the international traffic that moves up and down the western approaches. It is an area of heavy shipping, both local and international.

Under the reorganisation proposals of British Telecom International, coastal radio stations in this country were to be put on remote control, and the system was to be centralised on two centres for the whole country. That has caused alarm, certainly in my part of the world. Land's End radio station is probably the best known of all the coastal radio stations. It is highly respected by the lifeboatmen, local fishermen and the international shipping lines which pass up and down the channel.

My plea, of which I am completely convinced, is that the Land's End coastal radio station must continue on a manned basis to provide the distress radio watch, which is funded by my hon. Friend's Department. I have visited the station, I have met the men who man it, heard their reasonable views, and admired the responsible way in which they put forward their case. I have also consulted the lifeboat coxswains in the area, the fishermen and the local council. As a result, I am convinced that the station must continue on a manned basis.

I ask my hon. Friend to look into this matter. I hope that he can find the money to enable the distress watch to continue at Land's End on a 24-hour basis, despite what might happen to the commercial side of the station. It is the emergency side of the station that concerns me primarily.

Those are my pleas today. I appreciate that they involve complex matters, and that time does not allow me or the House to go into them in greater detail at this stage. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to meet me and perhaps other interested bodies to explore these matters further. If he could do that, I should be extremely grateful.

I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the other hon. Members who are here today. I thank you and them for your indulgence in this my maiden speech, and I am grateful to have had this opportunity to raise these important issues.

Photo of Mr David Mitchell Mr David Mitchell , North West Hampshire 2:40 pm, 29th July 1983

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) on his maiden speech, which he has made after 19 years of watching the House from the Press Gallery as a political correspondent and after four years as a Member of the European Parliament. I think that I express the view of all hon. Members who are present in congratulating him on the clarity and fluency with which he introduced the subject and on the way in which he paid tribute so genuinely to his predecessor. I know that he will have found an echoing note in many when he described the beauties of his constituency, with which many of us are familiar.

My hon. Friend is also to be congratulated on the service that he has done for his constituency and the public by referring to the work of the coastguards. It is right that he should do so not only because of his constituency interests, but because it is holiday time and many hon. Members are preparing to leave for their holidays. Indeed, looking at the Benches, I think that some have already left. It is well that they should know that the coastguards are watchful and ready to help. I am glad that my hon. Friend praised the work of the coastguards and I agree with and endorse his remarks.

I shall deal first with the coastguard service in the St. Ives constituency. The coastguard, understandably, is usually thought of in local terms. My hon. Friend has asked me to review the relationship between the three stations in his constituency and the Falmouth rescue centre which is responsible for them and for 23 others in the south west. The service is organised on a national basis and its operation must be looked at in that context. I am sure that my hon. Friend will allow me to set it in that context at the beginning of my reply.

Until the mid-1970s, the regular coastguards were scattered in small numbers at about 150 stations round the United Kingdom coast. They maintained a routine, localised radio and visual watch, generally during daylight hours only, but that was neither efficient nor cost-effective. That is because a visual watch is necessarily limited by physical conditions. Darkness, mist and lines of vision are the most obvious constraints. There is evidence, too, that it is difficult for anybody to maintain full alertness for long periods. On the other hand, experience shows that the public and vessels at sea can be relied on to report a high proportion of all the incidents that occur and which are seen by the coastguards on watch.

Against that background, a fundamental reorganisation was put in hand in 1978 and is now virtually complete. Four fifths of the coastguards' regular resources have now been concentrated in 26 rescue centres. I must make it clear that that has not resulted in a reduction in the number of coastguards. It was a matter of deciding on the most efficient way of making use of modern facilities in their work. Each of those rescue centres is responsible for the co-ordination of maritime search and rescue over an extensive sea area. On average, each rescue centre is responsible for about 80 miles of coast, although those in the far north tend to have much more and those in the south rather less, reflecting the pattern of shipping activity round the coasts.

The rescue centres do not keep a visual watch unless circumstances in the immediate vicinity make it sensible to do so, but they maintain a 24-hour vhf radio watch over their sea area through an effective radio coverage system. That is now being supplemented by direction-finding equipment and the coastguards are linked to the 999 system. Therefore, the centres can deal swiftly with incidents as soon as they are reported, calling on the lifeboats of the RNLI, the helicopters of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and such other services as may be needed.

As was always expected, in nine cases, out of 10 reports of incidents come from the ever-watchful public, using the 999 system. I take this opportunity of reminding the many people who are now going on holiday that that is the quickest and most effective way to summon assistance if they see someone in distress. In addition, there is direct radio from vessels in distress or others which observe them. Any responsible person who goes out to sea in a boat—I mean out to sea—no matter how small, should regard it as essential to carry a radio in addition to flares and safety equipment. VHF radio is no longer a luxury. It costs only a tiny fraction of the price of a boat—somewhat less than a colour television—and could make all the difference between life and death to those who are alone at sea when trouble blows up.

The coastguard reorganisation entailed the transfer of the great bulk of the responsibility for the maintenance of the visual watch from the regulars to the 9,000 or so auxiliary coastguards, 2,000 of whom are unpaid volunteers. I pay tribute to them and to the work that they do as well as to the public, who bring incidents to the attention of the service.

The auxiliaries are an admirable body of volunteers with considerable local knowledge. Some of them work in the rescue centres, supplementing the regulars, but the majority are organised in teams that work under the surveillance of regular officers, each responsible for a group of three or four such units within a section.

The principal work of those teams, apart from cliff and coastline rescues, is to mount a visual watch when circumstances make it justifiable, for example, when bad weather is forecast or when there are a large number of amateur sailors at risk in the immediate vicinity. The three stations in the St. Ives constituency fall into this category. The duties that fall to them are carried out most efficiently and enthusiastically and in the best traditions of the coastguard service. I am sure that that standard will he maintained.

The need for routine visual watch at those stations is kept under continual review. It is now no longer maintained along the United Kingdom coast except at Margate and Portland Bill, where we expect it to be reduced to the normal standard by the end of the year, and the three stations in the St. Ives constituency—at the Lizard, Gwennap Head and St. Ives itself. There are no present plans to change the number of hours watch involved at those stations. I can repeat the assurance given by my right hon. and noble Friend when he was Secretary of State for Trade and had ministerial responsibility for the coastguard, that prior notice will be given of any change that is contemplated in the existing watch arrangements.

With regard to the authority exercised by those stations, the coastguard's operations rest on the principle that co-ordination of search and rescue can be conducted most effectively and efficiently only by concentrating the bulk of regular coastguard resources into the rescue centres.

Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend by explaining that. If there is one man on duty at the old-fashioned type of coastguard lookout station, not backed up by the concentration of people that we now have at the other stations such as Falmouth, he has to cope with the vigil watch, radio communication and people who come to the station to say that they are worried or that an incident has blown up. He cannot do everything at once as effectively as a team of three people on full-time duty, which is the arrangement in most of the stations in which there is a concentration of personnel.

Each of the centres has responsibility for a stretch of coast and the task is roughly of the same weight in each case, although Falmouth has special duties in relation to satellite information. It would be a retrograde step to reverse those arrangements, and I am satisfied that it would be quite wrong to make any change in the present relationship between Falmouth and the stations for which it has responsibility. I have every confidence in the ability of the Falmouth centre to operate with full effectiveness and efficiency.

I refer now to the Penlee inquiry, which took place after that unhappy and disastrous incident. In reaching the conclusion to which I referred I have had close regard to the findings of the court of inquiry into the loss of the Penlee lifeboat and the Union Star.

The court sat for 29 days. It spent a substantial part of that time examining allegations about the conduct of individual coastguards and in hearing evidence on coastguard organisation. The court's finding was that all proper steps were taken by those concerned, and no blame was placed on any person or organisation. I see no reason to entertain any misgivings about those conclusions.

I fully appreciate that witnesses at the inquiry expressed great concern about the conduct of the coastguard's operations and about the transfer of the maritime rescue co-ordination responsibility from the centre at Gwennap Head to the newly built centre at Falmouth shortly before the disaster, but the court found that this transfer of responsibility did not affect the outcome. The court pointed to the desirability of improving liaison and procedures between the coastguard and the lifeboat authorities — a review of these arrangements is well advanced — but made no criticism of the coastguard organisation.

Photo of Mr David Harris Mr David Harris , St Ives

I fully accept what my hon. Friend says about the court's findings—I intended to mention them myself — but the court stressed the need to improve liaison between the coastguard service and local agencies such as the lifeboats. On that aspect, I seriously ask my hon. Friend to conduct a review of the relationship between the coastguard co-ordination centre at Falmouth and the three important local stations.

Photo of Mr David Mitchell Mr David Mitchell , North West Hampshire

I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. A review of those arrangements is well advanced. The coastguards have been in touch and have explained the issues as they see them to the Royal National Life-boat Institution and we are expecting progress very shortly.

My officials have acted with urgency on all the other recommendations that the court made in its report. On the loss of the Union Star, the court was unable to ascribe a definite cause for the introduction of water into the fuel system. But it thought that the least improbable explanation was that the water had entered through the vent pipes and into the fuel tanks, thereby disabling the vessel.

My officials are in contact with the shipping classification societies in the first instance with a view to seeking amendment to their rules. We shall seek subsequently to amend the legislation to ensure that vent pipes are located clear of places likely to retain water on the deck, and we shall initiate action to achieve international agreement to similar corrective measures.

The court recommended that distress call procedures should be reviewed and we are considering how best this can be implemented internationally.

The problem of securing salvage assistance needs wide consultation with the shipping industry and with organisations representing owners of small craft. We are looking, too, at improved arrangements for securing contacts with ships' owners. My hon. Friend will appreciate the importance of that.

I know that there has been a good deal of public concern at the idea, mentioned in the Rayner report on the coastguard's use of resources published earlier this year, of charging people who have been rescued. I take this opportunity to say that I have firmly decided that any such action would be unacceptable.

My hon. Friend sought an assurance that the Land's End coast radio station would continue on a manned basis. The station is owned and operated by British Telecom and is one of a network of 11 such stations which BT maintains to provide a commercial and distress and safety service for ships around the coasts of the United Kingdom. BT is currently incurring a substantial financial loss on this network and is looking into ways of redressing the situation and improving the finances of its maritime services generally. It has prepared a number of proposals, each of which involves a degree of centralisation and provides for the introduction of remote control facilities.

BT provides the distress and safety service for my Department on an agency basis and is therefore consulting us closely. Its proposals are not yet fully developed and further consultation will take place. My hon. Friend has urged that a locally manned service is essential for emergency services. That is not a matter within my control, but the Department's objective will be to ensure that current safety standards are satisfactorily maintained, that there is no fall in performance or reliability and that the radio distress watch is provided in the most efficient and economical manner. We shall be seeking clear assurances on all these points before agreeing to any changes. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be relieved to have that assurance.

Under the present arrangements, Land's End Radio provides a watch on the international distress medium frequencies for radiotelephony and radiotelegraphy. These provide coverage up to 150 miles from the coast, whereas the vhf watch maintained by Her Majesty's coastguard is effective up to about 40 miles out and is particularly intended to give satisfactory inshore coverage and to take account of the effects of coastline topography on radio transmissions. The primary role of the BT operators in emergency situations is to maintain contact with the vessel in distress and to relay the distress messages and traffic to and from the coastguard, which is responsible for co-ordinating the search and rescue services. It is important that changes to the BT network, which will not be fully effective before 1986, should take full account of the respective roles of the two organisations and ensure that there is full liaison between them. However, I have no reason to think that satisfactory arrangements cannot be made or that mariners will not continue to enjoy a service of the standard to which they have long been accustomed.

I hope that what I have said has given my hon. Friend the assurance that he requires. If, on reading the record, he feels that there is any aspect of the subject that he would like to discuss with me personally, I assure him that my door is open and that I shall be happy to do so.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. Before I adjourn the House, may I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) on his maiden speech and wish him and the whole House a very good summer recess. May I also bid farewell to Sir Charles Gordon, our distinguished Clerk, on this, his last day at the Table of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o'clock till Monday 24 October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 25 July.