RNLI and Independent Lifeboats: Covid-19 — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:23 am on 13th October 2020.

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[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade) 2:30 pm, 13th October 2020

Before we begin, I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practice, to support social distancing. Please sanitise the microphones using the cleaning materials provided before you use them. Respect the one-way system in the Chamber. That means going in one door, and walking this way, and leaving by the other door. Members can speak only from the horseshoe. There is no requirement to stay after speaking, although Members may wish to do so. In an oversubscribed debate, if there are Members waiting to speak in what used to be the Public Gallery, please make way for them after you have spoken. I think that that covers it. Finally, this is quite a busy debate, with 10 or 11 additional Members down to speak. If Members stick to four minutes each, everyone will be called.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 2:31 pm, 13th October 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of the RNLI and independent lifeboats after the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I thank you for being here. Across the United Kingdom, there are 60 independent lifeboat stations and 238 Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat stations, covering more than 19,000 miles of our coastline. Each of those stations protects and serves coastal communities and those who choose to visit our spectacular coastline. Any Member of Parliament who is fortunate enough to represent a coastal community has become well accustomed to the sight of lifeboat crews on training exercises or responding to an emergency call-out. We should all be aware of the important work that the RNLI and our independent lifeboats do, and comprehend how incredibly difficult 2020 has been for that frontline emergency service. There can be no more emotive sight than witnessing the launching of a lifeboat with its crew of volunteers responding at speed from their day jobs, and heading at pace to an emergency situation of almost unknown proportions. A single call from the coastguard operations centre puts into action months and years of training. Crews are mustered, boats are launched in record time, and victims are reached at eye-watering speed. That rapid response system, delivered by volunteers who are on call 24/7, 365 days of the year, is supported by a comprehensive lifesaving network of stations covering the whole United Kingdom.

The purpose of the debate is to recognise the challenges that covid-19 has placed before independent lifeboats and the RNLI, but also to celebrate the important and extraordinary work done by our lifeboat crews across the country. I have a number of suggestions for the Government, and for Members of Parliament, and I hope that we shall be able to build on today’s debate to give further support, and act to ensure that our lifesaving coastal coverage is never compromised.

I should probably start by highlighting the differences between the RNLI and our independent lifeboats. As we all know, the RNLI is a long-standing organisation founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary. Its establishment has led to the saving of more than 143,000 lives, the creation of an international arm that seeks to prevent drowning, and the setting up of 238 lifeboat stations comprising 445 lifeboats, including 164 all-weather lifeboats, 274 inshore lifeboats, and seven hovercraft. According to its latest statistics, in 2020, up to July, the RNLI had launched its lifeboat crews 3,143 times—equivalent to 16 times a day—saved 95 lives and assisted 584 people at sea.

Remarkably, those results come at absolutely no cost to the taxpayer. The RNLI, as a charitable body, is reliant on donations from members of the public, and generous legacies. In 2019, it raised £52.4 million through donations, and £126.5 million through legacies, while it has an expenditure of £181.5 million. However, the RNLI expects a 20% decline in annual income by the end of 2020. As a result of covid, fundraising activities have been restricted. RNLI shops have been closed, and the legacies that make a significant proportion of its budget are expected to decline. Alongside that, there has been a significant fall in expenditure—17%—with the temporary closure of the RNLI college, and reduced lifeguard cover on beaches because of a shorter season. Thirty per cent. of RNLI staff have been put on furlough or other wage subsidy schemes, and there has been a halt to building development, and a pause in boat construction. The RNLI has, as an organisation, been able to build up healthy reserves over the years.    While it is fiercely independent without Government funding, I would like to make it clear that the purpose of this debate is not to change any part of the RNLI’s funding structure. My concern is not the provision of the services that the RNLI is able to roll out this year, but what will be the impact of 2020 in 2021, and what lessons we have learned from this period over 2020. Expenditure will have to rise again, as training, infrastructure development and new equipment purchases cannot be put off indefinitely. Ensuring that the RNLI continues to benefit from strong public support will be essential in maintaining those services.

The Government can play their part. By bringing the RNLI into the fold and upgrading the channels of communication, we can improve its ability to respond rapidly to situations. I propose that the RNLI be included in the fold with the four paid emergency services regarding the level of information and communication it receives. That information and communication must come before policy implementation. An example over the summer could not be more clearcut: the RNLI came under sustained attack by the media for not being able to provide 100% lifeguard coverage on our beaches. The Government were at fault, because they failed to give significant advance warning to the RNLI about changes to lockdown measures. The RNLI was not at fault, and responded in an extraordinary way. Fortunately for all of us, its response ensured that 177 beaches had lifeguard coverage: a remarkable achievement that shows not only the RNLI’s resilience but its flexibility in responding at times of crisis.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

My hon. Friend is making a most excellent speech, and will know that my home coastal community of Eastbourne has one of the oldest and busiest stations in the United Kingdom. Does he share my dismay that, when the RNLI was challenged over the summer period in maintaining that secure presence on the beaches and out at sea, it came in for criticism for picking up those who had become stranded or distressed in small boats? The RNLI has a policy of preservation of life at sea. We would want it to be recognised as the hero that it is, and in no way come in for any public criticism for its work in that area.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

My hon. Friend says it better than I could, and I will only say that I wholeheartedly agree with her. Perhaps in the near future I can come on a visit to her lifeboat station. Excluding an emergency service from information that is likely to increase the demand on its services is not only inexplicable, it is dangerous to members of the British public. Before I come on to independent lifeboats, it is particularly welcome to hear that the RNLI recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. After hundreds of years of working together, that official step formally affirms the collective aspiration to save lives at sea, and emphasises the dedication and determination to provide the UK and its people with another century of coastal coverage.

This year has seen an incredible rise in domestic tourism. My own constituency has never felt better. The town of Salcombe in my constituency saw a turnover of 35,000 people per week, and the figure for Dartmouth was only slightly lower. The dramatic increase in coastline visitors undoubtedly heaps pressure and demand on our independent lifeboats and the RNLI. The whole House will agree with me that they have responded in a manner that is a credit to their professionalism, training and structure. Our independent lifeboats are derived from the RNLI and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. As the RNLI and the MCA have changed their structures, communities have often stepped forward and maintained their lifeboat stations and crews as independent, self-funding entities. My own constituency is home to the Hope Cove Life Boat, one of the UK’s 60 independent lifeboats. I joined it this summer to discuss the impact of covid on its operations, and committed to holding a Westminster Hall debate. I am delighted to be able to deliver on that promise. That said, I am now acutely aware of the challenges faced by our independent lifeboats: the lack of recognition for lifeboats independent from the RNLI, organisational issues, lower levels of funding with the phasing-out of the Government’s grant scheme and, of course, the impact of covid. I will address each of those points. Identity is key, and identity challenges are just that: challenging. Our independent lifeboats have great difficulty stepping out of the shadow of the RNLI. More often than not, those who donate to the RNLI think they are contributing to all lifeboat stations across the United Kingdom. This is not the case. Today’s debate is, I hope, the first in many steps in helping to raise awareness about our independent lifeboat stations and to inform members of the public about the difference between independent lifeboats and the RNLI.

My hon. Friend Mims Davies held an event in Parliament a few years ago that was attended by many members of the independent lifeboat community. I understand that at that meeting proposals for an independent lifeboat association were raised. I would like to build on this idea, but rather than create another bureaucratic body that ties down hard-working volunteers, I would respectfully ask that each Member of Parliament whose constituency is home to an independent lifeboat meets me and other representatives from independent lifeboats, to discuss how we might ably and effectively embolden the voice of our independent lifeboats.

Such an association might initially just record the data of each station from the operating expense to the capital expense cost, from budget submission to call-out information and response times. From there, the information could be collated, documented and centralised, to create a clearer picture of the work done by our incredible independent lifeboats.

That association—which, for brevity’s sake, we shall call the ILA—would create an informal organisational structure around independent lifeboats and help to ensure that their voice is heard by the UK Government and members of the public. We could go one step further and encourage the nomination of a representative from one of the 60 independent lifeboats, so as to be able to educate, inform and engage members of the public and Members of Parliament. Such a representation could then represent all independent lifeboats on the UK search and rescue body, rather than the current system where the representation of independent lifeboats is made through the RNLI. I hope everyone is keeping up with this.

I hope the Minister will consider supporting these proposals. I am conscious of the time and I know that a number of hon. Members want to contribute to this debate. I have two quick final points. First, we have all recognised that fundraising efforts have been significantly curtailed due to covid-19, and for small, independent lifeboats fundraising is a lifeline, year on year. Coupled with the expensive cost of personal protective equipment, which has to be more durable at sea, they have suffered huge impacts on their budgets.

I wrote to the Minister on this matter over the summer, with a great deal of support from hon. Members attending this debate. I thank him for his response. The letter raised my concern around PPE costs for independent lifeboats and the RNLI. The RNLI is not calling for any form of reimbursement, but many of the independent lifeboat stations are. I ask the Minister to look again at that letter and to set up a fund that can be made available to independent lifeboat stations, so that they can recoup their costs around PPE. A temporary fund would not only be a significant step in the right direction but would be widely welcomed.

Secondly, the rescue boat grant scheme was set up in 2014 as a five-year scheme of £5 million. The last phase of bidding ended last year. If my information is correct—or my spies are correct—I understand there is a possibility that the scheme could be reintroduced. I hope the Minister will recognise, given the attendance today, that our lifeboat stations are of significant importance to many hon. Members, and reintroducing that rescue boat grant scheme would be welcomed on both sides of the House and across the country. Groups such as the Severn Area Rescue Association have told me that another five years of that grant would provide the breathing space for independent lifeboats to recover from 2020 and plan long into the future.

Of course, the work of independent lifeboat stations and the RNLI would not be possible without the extraordinary help of the National Coastwatch Institution. With 57 stations and over 2,500 watchkeepers, it works intimately with lifeboat stations to maintain a watchful eye across our coastline. If any Member of Parliament finds themselves walking along the south west coastal path, as I did this summer, I urge them to visit Prawle Point Coastguard station. Not only will they be greeted by a magnificent view, but they will see the extraordinary work done by the NCI. I hope that any decision made today and in the future will consider how integral these networks are and why we need to maintain them.

I have spoken at length about the value of the RNLI and our independent lifeboats. I hope the Minister will recognise the necessity of ensuring clear channels of communication with the RNLI and to bring it into the fold with the four other paid emergency services. As for the independent lifeboats, there is a great deal of work that we can do as Members of Parliament. The Government should support our steps to create this new ILA, renew the rescue boat grant scheme and, of course, cover the costs of PPE.

As one Twitter user said to me in response to Parliament’s digital engagement on this topic, we should always support those who risk their lives to save others. I am in awe of the volunteers who brave the harshest elements to rescue those who find themselves in trouble at sea. These key-sector workers need our support, our applause and our commitment. I hope this will be the first of many debates, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

Before we continue the debate, I will say two things. First, if Sally-Ann Hart wants to take a seat in the horseshoe, she is more than welcome. Secondly, 11 Members are due to speak before the summing up, which will begin at 3.30 pm, so if everyone could speak for just shy of four minutes, everything will be perfect.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport) 2:46 pm, 13th October 2020

I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on securing this debate. We are all probably going to agree; this is fairly uncontroversial. However, I will highlight a number of points.

In Northern Ireland, every bit of politics is local. We have the largest inland waterway in the United Kingdom, Lough Neagh, and Lough Neagh Rescue, an independent lifeboat service, which does a fantastic job. We also have Foyle Search and Rescue and Lagan Search and Rescue, both of which are independent. We really do rely heavily upon them. My hon. Friend Jim Shannon would usually be here, so it would be remiss of me not to mention something relating to Strangford on his behalf: we also have Portaferry lifeboat station, an RNLI service that does a fantastic job.

This year has been extremely difficult. Many of the events that would have been organised to raise funds for these services, including on-street collections, could not take place. Their finances are critical at the present time. Some of them really are finding it difficult to respond. I put on the record my thanks to those who have donated and have made a sacrifice for them. Mention has been made of a 20% reduction within the RNLI, but some of the independents are seeing an even greater reduction in the funding that they have been able to get. These men and women put their lives at risk to respond; when everybody else wants to get inside the house, they go out to sea. The Northern Ireland fishing industry regularly requires the use of the lifeboat service and puts on the record its thanks to those who put their lives on the line to save fishermen.

We deal with what I call our 999 response in very different ways. People lift the phone whenever they have a fire and they know that the fire service will respond with no thought about what is happening—they know that the fire service will be there. We should put the RNLI and those independents on the same platform as the fire service. Let us be truthful: they respond to the need to save life. An island nation surrounded by sea, this summer has been probably very typical of what is happening. Many people did not go away but bought pieces of equipment, whether a bodyboard or surfboard, jet skis or whatever, and used our own local resources rather than going abroad. Unfortunately, many of those people came into difficulties, and the coastguard, the RNLI and our independent life services were the people they called upon to help. On many occasions, they have not been able to recover somebody and have had to go back the next day, giving of their time voluntarily to do so.

I support totally what has been put forward here this afternoon, and I hope that we can achieve some sustainable future funding for our emergency services at sea.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne 2:50 pm, 13th October 2020

As I said earlier in an intervention, Eastbourne has one of the oldest lifeboat stations in the United Kingdom. In fact, it was established in 1822, and the very first boat was donated by the MP “Mad Jack”. So began its story, and over the last 200 years, 700 lives have been saved by the local lifeboat. As I am sure other Members will also say, those saved include holidaymakers, visitors and would-be paddlers, kayakers and sailors. Sadly, our RNLI station in Eastbourne also performs a service that is perhaps unique to our area—recovery at the foot of Beachy Head. What our crew experience is truly challenging, and their bravery and fortitude are quite incredible.

Indeed, the Eastbourne crewmen must be made of something extraordinary, because each year their service to our town and its visitors is celebrated by the Salvation Army. The relationship between the two might seem curious, but it extends back many years in our local history, to a time when brave crewmen stepped up to support the bandsmen, who were under attack by local people for having the temerity to play their music on a Sunday. Ever since, that relationship has been remembered, and the gratitude the whole town feels for our crewmen is expressed by the Salvation Army in the very important services that take place. On those occasions, we hear of the lives saved, the rescue attempts made and the generosity of local people.

However, many of my constituents and those of other Members will be surprised that 94% of the service provided by the RNLI is powered by the public, and in all sorts of ways. That is something that we would not want to change or challenge, because there is something truly of value in that giving, over and above pounds and pence. It says, “We support you, we value you and we have regard for the work you do.” The RNLI crews are high-profile and vital.

Although lockdown meant that the seas were quieter than before, it was still generally business as usual. In the aftermath, the issues around being covid-secure have been hugely challenging. However, that challenge has been met. I therefore support my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall in his championing of those who save lives at sea, and I put on record my own gratitude and that of everyone in my town for the work of the Eastbourne RNLI.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr 2:54 pm, 13th October 2020

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Hosie. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on securing this debate and on the positive suggestions he put forward.

Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is a largely landlocked constituency, apart from one small enclave along the lower Tywi and Gwendraeth estuaries, encompassing the villages of Ferryside and Llansaint. It is an area of outstanding beauty. I used to visit it often as a child; my parents used to take me to the other side of the Tywi, to Llansteffan. Every time I go down to that part of the world, it takes my breath away.

Ferryside is an incredibly close-knit community, and at the heart of the community is the independent lifeboat, which has served the Tywi, Taff and Gwendraeth estuaries, and Carmarthen bay, since 1835. At the start, until the inter-war period, the lifeboat’s main area of business was commercial shipping associated with the port of Carmarthen. Captains would say that entering the bay area—and leaving it—was by far the most treacherous part of the journey.

Today, the Ferryside lifeboat is an integral part of the Saint John Cymru marine division, and call-outs relate mostly to leisure activity in the area. In May 2019, I had the pleasure of launching the new Llansteffan ferry, and I am proud to say that it is probably the safest ferry journey in the British isles, because of the lifeboat in Ferryside.

Carmarthen bay is of course part of the Bristol channel, which has the second largest tidal rise and fall in the world. That gives an indication of the challenging environment that the crew operate in and of the dangers that they face. The lifeboat offers a 24/7 service and is wholly manned by local people working closely with the coastguard. Considering that it is a voluntary service, it is absolutely incredible that their average launch time is only eight minutes.

I have had the honour and privilege of working with the team since my election, and I am always impressed by the dedication and commitment of everybody involved with the lifeboat. Soon after getting elected in 2010, I was offered the opportunity to experience a trip on the new lifeboat. It was a perfectly calm day, so I had absolutely no anxiety when I was donning my kit and taking my place on the boat. It was not long, however, before the water got very choppy out in the bay, and we were speeding among white horses in a new boat powered by two Suzuki 90 hp engines.

Exhilarating would certainly be one word to explain the experience, but on looking at my pale complexion, I think the crew decided quickly to return to the safer and calmer waters of the Tywi river and to head upstream, which was a much more pleasurable experience. The benign—or relatively benign—conditions that day gave me an indication and appreciation of the dangers faced by the lifeboat crew, who not only race towards danger in far worse conditions, but perform search-and-rescue operations in extremely hostile environments.

As the lifeboat is independent, the crew are wholly reliant on their own funding activity. One of the consequences of the pandemic, as has been mentioned in the debate, has been the reduced income faced by search-and-rescue operations. Last year, the lifeboat in Ferryside raised more than £110,000, mostly as a result of substantial grants from the Charities Aid Foundation and the Department for Transport. The lifeboat was also able to raise substantial sums from local fundraising activity. So far this year, I am informed, they have been able to raise only £3,000.

The incredible fall in income is clearly not sustainable. My key ask of the British Government in this debate is that they recognise the importance of the rescue boat grant fund, under which they have successfully issued about £6 million to lifeboats such as Ferryside since the scheme was set up in 2014. It is regrettable that there has been no grant for this financial year. Were the Minister to get to his feet to say that the grant would be available next year, I am sure that that would go a long way to bringing a smile to all our great lifeboats across the British isles.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray 2:58 pm, 13th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I, too, commend Anthony Mangnall for securing this debate and for the way in which he constructed his opening remarks, and I think his views will be shared across the Chamber.

Like many other Members, I represent a coastal community and a constituency where people have for generations gone to sea for work, secure in the knowledge that, should anything ever happen to them, they would be supported by independent lifeboats or the RNLI. For close to 200 years, crews have gone out and put their lives at risk to protect and save others who come into unfortunate situations.

RNLI Buckie in my constituency is a station that I have visited on many occasions in my time as an elected representative. I will use today’s debate, if I may, to make some remarks about Adam Robertson, who died suddenly just days before his 70th birthday. Adam was an integral part of the Buckie RNLI station and its operations for more than 30 years. As with many RNLI or independent lifeboat volunteers, Adam’s professional life was not at sea, but on the land. For 30 years, he had a career in building control with Moray Council. When I was a councillor for a decade, I often met Adam in the corridors of council headquarters. We would stop to have a blether, and he was always well informed, but also generous with his time. He was someone I respected a lot.

Adam initially became involved with the RNLI at Buckie when he helped to organise its annual gala days as part of its fundraising efforts. He rose through the ranks to become responsible for ensuring that the Buckie lifeboat was always ready to go to sea and for arranging ambulance support on land when it was required. He was a genuine stalwart of the RNLI and the local community for decades. He was also an officer with the Boys’ Brigade, and for many years he helped to organise the annual fireworks display in Portgordon, which draws thousands of people to the coastal village every year. As a councillor, an MSP and an MP, I always helped with the stewarding at Portgordon fireworks, and every year Adam was there to do the security briefing to ensure that everyone knew where they had to go and what they had to do. He did that in a purposeful and powerful, but always respectful, manner. Although we will not be having Portgordon fireworks this year, when we meet again we will remember Adam and all the help he gave that organisation and many others throughout his near 70 years.

Adam’s wife said:

“He was a family man who would do anything for anyone, his love for the community was exactly the same.”

That is what the RNLI and our independent lifeboats are all about at heart. Groups like the Buckie lifeboat team are filled with community volunteers who sacrifice their time to help others. We thank them for their dedication and the work that they do.

I also want to mention the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, based at Findhorn, which is an independent lifeboat organisation that does so much. We are indebted in Moray for the work that our independent lifeboat and the RNLI do day in, day out. They work both at sea and on land, educating our young people about the dangers and the safety that they need to bear in mind. Their community work right the way through our towns and villages is something that we all respect and congratulate them on, and it is something we can all get behind.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for giving us this opportunity to pay tribute to our independent lifeboats and the RNLI and for allowing me to put on record my thanks to and admiration of Adam Robertson for everything he did for Buckie RNLI for more than 30 years.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

Given that a few speakers on the call list are not here, I am pleased to say that the remaining speakers can now take five minutes.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Conservative, Eastleigh 3:02 pm, 13th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to speak in a debate secured by my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall, who is a doughty champion for his constituency, as we have seen this afternoon. I welcome this debate.

I want briefly to raise awareness of Hamble independent lifeboat station in my constituency. Like lifeboat stations in all coastal constituencies, it provides a vital service to constituents. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. It is based on the river Hamble, which has some of the most difficult navigational circumstances, due to the tides and channels. It serves a major yachting area and the entrance of the UK’s busiest waterway—Southampton Water and the Solent.

In 2019, the RNLI saved 220 lives and aided an average of 26 people a day. My local crew aided people in 100 incidents last year. On average, Hamble has three times more lifeboat launches than any other lifeboat station in the UK. We saw the good work that it does in August when, unfortunately, Emily Lewis, who was 15 years old, suffered a tragic boating accident in the Solent. Our heartfelt condolences should be sent to her family.

I pay tribute to the work that independent lifeboat stations and the RNLI do across the UK voluntarily on behalf of our communities and residents. I want to make two brief points—you will be glad to hear, Mr Hosie, that I will not take up the full five minutes. It is concerning that, in the current pandemic, independent lifeboat stations are facing a triple whammy of difficulty. As hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have mentioned, fundraising efforts have been hampered by the pandemic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, the RNLI has seen a 20% reduction in its income, but independent lifeboat stations have seen much more of a reduction than the RNLI. Hamble lifeboat station is no different: its fundraising efforts for most of 2020 have been completely hampered, and its income has reduced.

That has been exacerbated by the Government’s stopping of the inshore grant and by a lack of clarity about the rescue boat grant fund, which they have been asked to continue and reintroduce next year. The amount of money given to independent lifeboat stations across the country was not enough to help them cope with the impact of the pandemic on their operations. Operations have had to continue during the past year, but with generally reduced income. With the same number of incidents happening on the Solent and across the UK, the RNLI and independent lifeboat stations have had to deal with an awful lot. The Government have rightly put their hands in their pockets to help the emergency services, but more needs to be done to assist independent lifeboat stations across the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned PPE. It is not desirable that the associated costs—especially high at the beginning of the pandemic—have not been covered by the Government. I therefore have two main asks. First, will the Minister work with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to come to an arrangement whereby equipment can be provided by local authorities, but claimed back as an additional cost due to covid, as we have seen in other areas of the UK, where local authorities can reclaim from central Government any extra expenditure they have faced owing to the pandemic? Will the Minister, as other hon. Members have asked, also accept that the grant my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned needs to be reintroduced?

On both sides of the House today we have heard examples of how lifeboat stations work tirelessly for our communities and our residents on a voluntary basis. Given what we have heard and what we will hear across the House, the time has come to reward such selflessness and bravery with a little more help as we face the pandemic going forward.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 3:06 pm, 13th October 2020

I welcome the debate secured by my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall. Earlier this summer, two young boys were caught out by the surf on the coast of Hastings. They were carried several hundred metres out to sea, and one of them could not swim. It could easily have turned into a tragedy if not for two brave young men who were on lifeguard duty that day: Oliver Veness and James Blything. They acted swiftly, got the boys back to shore and saved their lives. Oliver’s and James’s actions were nothing short of heroic.

In our everyday lives, such heroism might be rare, but, for those serving in the RNLI, heroism is an everyday occurrence. This past year, it is estimated that almost 8,000 lives have been saved by RNLI boats and lifeguards. Likewise, it is important to pay tribute to independent lifeboats. Recently I visited the crew and volunteers at the Pett Level independent rescue boat, where the brave men and women risk their lives to save those in distress at sea in the Pett area. They rely completely on fundraising and donations to support their rescue efforts, and they rely on volunteers to man their boats. That vital utility is provided to residents at no cost because of the generosity of the public and the bravery of volunteers.

The RNLI and independent boats have kept the British public safe for centuries, and now they need our help. As with many charities, the coronavirus pandemic has hampered their ability to fundraise, and they have struggled to gain access to Government grants. These British institutions need easier access to different kinds of support in order to—no pun intended—stay afloat. However, that support cannot come at the cost of their independence. I am a strong believer that decision making should be in the hands of the most qualified, and the most qualified people to make decisions about rescue at sea are the people who have been doing it for almost 200 years.

Accessing Government funding might risk decision calls being made from Whitehall rather than locally, and that would be a loss not just for the lifeboats, but for the people of this country. Any support the Government provide to the lifeboat services must protect the independence of the crews, who are in the business of saving lives.

If someone is in distress at sea, someone will come to save them no matter their background, income or station in life. The fact that that person will often be a volunteer is further testament to the heroic spirit that has pushed forward the lifeboats for centuries and represents some of the best of this country. We need to protect this institution from not just the financial hardship wrought by the pandemic, but any force that wishes to challenge its independence. At the very least, we owe those heroes that. For those reasons, I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes is putting forward today.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar 3:10 pm, 13th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, in my first speech in Westminster Hall. I thank my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall for securing this debate and for making his case so eloquently. It is a useful opportunity for us all to pay tribute to our local lifeboat stations, including my local RNLI station in Redcar, which does such an amazing job in the most difficult of circumstances. I also wish to extend my congratulations to Redcar’s Bob O’Neill, who today has received his 50 years’ service award from the RNLI—an incredible achievement.

As has been said, there is no doubt that fundraising has been completely curtailed this year. The annual Redcar lifeboat fundraising day usually raises about £4,000. This year, just £600 was raised through a virtual event held online. I commend Redcar RNLI for that £600, because it is not easy to raise money online only. That was an incredible achievement. However, it does not take a mathematician to realise that £600 is a long way from £4,000. On top of that, a lot of fundraising comes through the Redcar lifeboat ladies guild, and, unfortunately, most of the women in the guild are in the vulnerable category and have been shielding throughout the pandemic, so they have also been unable to raise money as they usually would.

The annual cost of running my local lifeboat station, which goes up and down depending on the number of shouts, is in the order of £50,000, excluding any out-of-the-ordinary maintenance that might have to be done to some of the equipment. We can, therefore, begin to see the problems that may arise if the lifeboat station is unable to fundraise in its usual way.

Nationally, the RNLI faces a predicted shortfall of between £20 million and £45 million this year. That is unsustainable for any organisation, not least a charity such as the RNLI. I want to be clear that I do not support any form of nationalisation of the RNLI, and I am glad that no one else present does, either. It is in troubled waters, and in those circumstances we do not need a new captain; we need a lifeboat. That is what I think we should be aiming to provide: a helping hand at this difficult time, whether requested or not. Personnel at the Redcar lifeboat station tell me that they are incredibly proud of their history as a charity that is funded by the community to support the community. Last week marked a birthday celebration, it being 218 years since the first launch of a lifeboat in Redcar. The Redcar lifeboats predate the RNLI by about 20 years and we are home to the oldest lifeboat in the UK, the Zetland, which successfully completed its first rescue in December 1802, saving 15 souls.

We are incredibly proud of the Redcar lifeboats. As I have said, the cost of running our station is in the order of £50,000, which goes up and down depending on the number of shouts. The lifeboat station personnel tell me that during the period of lockdown until now has been their busiest summer on record. This is attributed to the fact that this year was the year of the staycation—the UKation—where more and more people are staying at home and enjoying the sun on the beaches in the UK rather than abroad.

Another, much more harrowing aspect is the mental health crisis we face. A growing number of people are choosing to end their lives at sea due to mental ill health. We need to have an honest conversation—perhaps not in this debate—about the obvious link between the mental health crisis and covid-19. We need to be realistic about the risks to mental health of lockdown, in the same way as we are realistic about the risks to physical health of allowing the virus to spread. That, however, is for another debate.

To finish, I would like to say a big thank you to the Redcar lifeboat station for the tireless dedication of its volunteers, who have gone through all the same personal difficulties as the rest of us, arguably more so as a result of seeing the effects of potential loss of life at sea. Each one of those volunteers gets the shout and they respond without hesitation. No matter what they are going through at that particular time, they put themselves at risk to serve others. They deserve our thanks, they deserve our praise, and most of all they deserve our support.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 3:14 pm, 13th October 2020

I will not take up too much time. I am just going to thank the many lifeboat crews we have on the Island and then reiterate some of the concerns, which I am sure the Minister is listening to. I congratulate him on his reasonably new role, which is incredibly well deserved.

The Island is in part defined by our coastline. Indeed, the south-west of the Isle of Wight was a centre for shipwrecks. There were nearly 50 shipwrecks from the late 18th century until the early 20th century, so we were something of a ship graveyard. Many ships sank off the south-west of the Isle of Wight, sadly leading to loss of life, and lifeboats were developed on the south-west of the Island from the 1840s and 1850s onwards to address the situation. A great-great-uncle was the coxswain of the Brooke lifeboat well over a century ago, and I am very proud of that connection to the lifeboats.

For the work they have done this summer, I thank Sandown & Shanklin Independent Lifeboat and Freshwater Independent Lifeboat; the RNLI lifeboats in Cowes, Yarmouth and Bembridge; the coastguard rescue teams in Needles, Bembridge and Ventnor; and Ryde Inshore Rescue. There is a common-sense theme: a lot of people are engaged in helping sailors, swimmers and others who get into trouble at sea, and we on the Island are very grateful to them. Feedback from Sandown & Shanklin Independent Lifeboat indicates that it was one of the busiest summers on record—possibly the busiest, as many people flocked to the beaches from June onwards. People got out and about while the covid pandemic was at its height, and the Island was absolutely packed from August onwards. That meant that many people were out on the water and the lifeboats were busier than ever.

Combined with that busier-than-ever period, significant fundraising has been impossible this year, so I hope very much that the Minister will take on board what I and other right hon. and hon. Members have said about the need to provide some slight additional support. That could mean reintroducing the rescue boat grant fund, which was an exceptionally good idea brought in by a previous Government in 2014. Is there any way in which we can bring that back into being, or at least provide funding for the protective equipment that both the independent and the RNLI lifeboats have had to buy? Most of the independent lifeboats in my constituency have funding for the year ahead, but, depending on what happens next year, they might start to get nervous about their cash flow and their ability to raise funds in order to continue doing the incredibly important work to which we have all paid tribute.

The Island is at the centre of global sailing and it has many beaches. We know of the vulnerabilities faced by people at sea, and everyone involved in rescuing them is very important to my constituency.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 3:18 pm, 13th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I thank my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall for having brought such an important debate to Westminster Hall. Much like everybody else, I will begin by paying tribute to the volunteers, and particularly to the six lifeboat stations in my constituency: the RNLI crews at Wells, Sheringham, Cromer and Happisburgh, and the independent lifeboat stations in the picturesque villages of Mundesley and Sea Palling. My coastline—as most MPs will realise, because they visited my constituency for their summer recess—is a stunning 50 miles, with six blue flag beaches. To myself, who grew up there, it is the best coastline in the country—[Interruption.] We can be controversial, occasionally.

The year 2020 has been very challenging. Tried and tested lifesaving procedures have had to be adapted to take account of covid-19, and additional personal protective equipment has been required. Life-changing decisions have had to be made about whether the risks of administering CPR outweigh the risks to the crew, and personnel have had to engage in time-consuming cleansing and disinfecting routines for all equipment. There has also, as we have heard, been a rise in demand for services this year. Although a staycation culture has provided a welcome boost to the local economy, it has also meant vast increases in numbers of visitors to the coast, and a much higher number of incidents to respond to. All of this is happening in a climate where the break in regular training regimes has risked skill fade—the gradual loss of the highly practised and rehearsed mechanisms that lifeboat crews put into operation every time they launch—and at a time when traditional methods of fundraising, through shop events, normal events and face-to-face appeals, have reduced greatly, or even stopped entirely.

Carrying a pager 24/7 is a heavy responsibility and a great imposition on the everyday lives of our volunteers. That they continue to give so much of themselves, in spite of these challenges, is inspirational. They deserve all the support that we can give them.

As we have heard, the RNLI faces a shortfall in funding of about £20 million this year. Independent lifeboat stations typically have operating costs of about £30,000 to £40,000 and are in a similarly precarious position. In considering how we might help, we need to bear in mind that the RNLI and independent stations have traditionally resisted asking for or accepting Government funding. For instance, the RNLI has been self-sufficient for the entirety of its 196-year history.

Although there have been huge technological and technical advances in life saving, the business of saving lives at sea is much the same as it always was. Lifeboat organisations are cautious about accepting money from Government because they do not want their work to be influenced or adversely affected by external changes in policy, politics or funding that might put their vital work at risk. Put simply, they want the freedom to do what they do best, in the way that they know best—and it is the best. Britain’s lifeboat crews lead the world and, increasingly, are responsible for training lifesaving operations and organisations in other countries.

If we are to provide meaningful forms of financial support, we must first establish the strong principle that there are no strings attached to it and that the Government will not seek, as we have heard time and again today, to influence those organisations. We must also consider not just lifeboats, but all voluntary lifesaving organisations around the country that are in similar positions to the RNLI and independent lifeboat stations. What about mountain rescue teams, dog search and rescue, and drone piloting groups assisting with coastal and inland search? All those organisations have had to bear the additional cost of PPE, cleaning fluids and equipment, which have been a necessary part of lifesaving during covid-19. None would have been able to anticipate these costs, or build them into its fundraising plans for 2020.

Some kind of grant fund—possibly, as we have heard, the rescue boat fund—to reimburse those costs would be fair and reasonable, but only if it is open to all voluntary lifesaving organisations, recognising the fact that it is not only lifeboat crews that have had to incur this kind of expenditure.

In conclusion, we owe all our life savers an immense debt of gratitude. Not only do they save lives at sea and elsewhere, but they do so at enormous personal cost.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:23 pm, 13th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. Like everybody else, I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on bringing forward this debate. We call it a debate, but it is not a debate in its truest sense, because everyone here agrees on the good work that is done by the RNLI and the independent lifeboat stations.

Not for the first time, I am a bit of an oddity speaking in this debate. I am the only one who has spoken so far who does not have a coastal community, so I cannot refer to a local station that I have visited or with which I have close links. It is, however, a testament to the work of these organisations and their importance to their local communities that so many MPs have wanted to pay tribute to them and stick up for them.

A common theme of the debate has been to point out that lifeboat stations are manned by volunteers. They are the ones who put their lives at risk when others are in danger. Clearly, as Paul Girvan said, they go to sea in conditions that make us want to shelter in our houses away from the weather. I want to put on the record my own testament to the work that these guys do.

Another common theme is fundraising and the impact that covid has had on those activities that cannot now go ahead. For the RNLI, that will leave a shortfall of up to £45 million. We have also heard that it is much harder for independents to undergo their fundraising activities. I hope that the Minister was listening. Another issue is the additional cost of PPE associated with covid. If the Government could do something about that, there would be a lot of happy MPs in this Chamber.

The hon. Member for Totnes set out the case well. Even at the outset, he spoke about the emotive sight of the launch of a lifeboat, because we know what is at stake for the crew and the people being rescued. The fact is that these people are on call 24/7, 365 days a year. The bare statistics about the RNLI show that 143,000 lives have been saved over the years. What better testament could be paid? The hon. Gentleman highlighted the organisation’s expenditure of £181.5 million, which shows how much it has to rely on volunteers to raise that money and how significant a shortfall can be. We are talking about a shortfall of up to £45 million, which is a huge percentage. I reiterate my plea to the Government to do something.

The hon. Gentleman had another key ask about bringing these organisations into the fold, in terms of communications and emergency services. That is a valid point. We all know the stories of what happened when the covid restrictions were lifted. Many hon. Members have spoken about the fact that people flocked to the beaches in huge numbers, which put a strain on the RNLI in terms of lifeguards and manual stations, and on getting the PPE in time. It is important that cognisance is taken of that.

It was good that the hon. Gentleman set out the problems of independent stations as well. The bare fact is that, unfortunately, they tend to live in the shadow of the RNLI in terms of fundraising. People sometimes mix up where their donations have gone and do not realise that the independent stations have to be funded separately. I hope the Minister will take that on board.

We heard from the hon. Member for South Antrim. As a wee aside, he is the only Member with the same name of a lifeboat station. A town in Scotland has a lifeboat station that has been there for 140 years, and it shares his surname. He highlighted that Northern Ireland has the largest inland body of water, at Lough Neagh, which is also reliant on volunteers to do the important work of rescuing people.

Caroline Ansell said that she has one of the oldest lifeboat stations and that the original boat was donated by an MP. I think she was throwing down the gauntlet to youse guys in the Chamber. As I have a landlocked constituency, I do not feel the same pressure as everyone else.

Jonathan Edwards spoke about Ferryside independent lifeboat. He highlighted the fact that the average launch time is eight minutes, which illustrates how vital the work these guys do—the training, the preparation and getting out to sea in that time—is for saving lives. It was also interesting to hear him talk about taking a boat trip in what he thought were benign conditions, but which made him seasick and he had to turn around. That is a salutary lesson about the actual conditions in which these guys go out to sea.

Douglas Ross paid personal tribute to Adam Robertson, illustrating how organisations can rely and depend on certain key individuals. Someone who donated 30 years to Buckie RNLI certainly deserves to have that tribute paid to him. Obviously, my best wishes go to his family. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the work of the Moray independent inshore organisation. It is important to acknowledge that these organisations also do education and preventive work. Ideally, people would never have to be rescued, but we never quite get there, so education is certainly important.

That brings me back to another important thing that the hon. Member for Eastbourne said. She spoke about having to deal with trauma of Beachy Head. We are discussing saving lives, but these crews also have to deal with the trauma of recovering dead bodies. What they have to deal with can lead to mental health pressures and trauma, so that is another reason to pay tribute to them.

Paul Holmes paid tribute to Hamble station, which is having its 50th anniversary. He highlighted the effect on fundraising locally and the need for the Government to reconsider on the rescue boat fund, which other hon. Members also suggested, so I hope that the Minister will say something positive about that grant fund in summing up the debate.

We heard from Sally-Ann Hart, who paid tribute to Oliver and James, lifeguards who, crucially, saved two young boys who had got into difficulties. Again, that type of personal story is testament to the importance of what these guys do. Funding has become critical, and we heard the first pun of the day—stay afloat. Fortunately, Jacob Young was hot on her heels with a pun about troubled waters. But again, these things illustrate the fact that funding is so important. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted his local station having the busiest summer on record. A recurring theme has been that staycations and local tourism are putting additional pressures on these volunteer organisations.

We heard from Bob Seely. There are several crews on the Island. They were too many for me to list; I could not write them down fast enough, but again, that is indicative of island life and the level of tourism on the Isle of Wight. Again, the plea was about fundraising. That was repeated by Duncan Baker, who spoke at the end of the Back-Bench speeches and paid tribute to his six local stations. I did notice a wee bit of groaning around the room when he started to go over the top and brag about having the best coastline and how every MP will have visited his constituency. For the record, I have not visited his constituency, but I will bear it in mind as a recommendation.

As I said, this has been a debate in which everybody pretty much agrees on the importance of what these organisations do. I repeat the calls from other hon. Members for the Government to try to help out with funding, particularly for PPE issues.

To finish, I want to mention a wee story that I have picked up on. It is of a woman who has been described as a “fundraising phenomenon” for the RNLI and has been recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours. Audrey Wood, whom I do not know, from Newmachar in Aberdeenshire, was recently given a British Empire Medal after raising more than £235,000 for lifeboat stations across the north-east of Scotland following the death of her son. Sadly, Stuart “Woody” Wood was one of 16 men who died in the Flight 85N helicopter tragedy in 2009. Aberdeen RNLI’s D-class inshore lifeboat has been named “Buoy Woody – 85N” in his memory. Mrs Wood has described her fundraising efforts as

“a distraction therapy for us in this lifelong grieving journey of losing our only son”.

That brings things together in a circular way. This is somebody who, in the face of adversity and tragedy, has decided to go out and do good work for the community and try to prevent that tragedy from happening to somebody else, so I pay tribute to her. I pay tribute to all the fundraisers who work for the RNLI and independent stations. And of course I pay a massive tribute to the volunteers who staff these vital rescue craft.

Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:33 pm, 13th October 2020

We should form a website after this—CoastalCommunitiesRUs.com. Being a Mancunian, I can say that we do not have a beach; that is the one thing that we do not have in Manchester, so I will not compete on the territory of Duncan Baker about who here today has the best beach. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and it is great to be back in Westminster Hall. I agree with Anthony Mangnall that this is an opportunity to celebrate the work of the RNLI and independent lifeboat associations, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. What was really good was the powerful personal testimonies of people in the room today. I will point out just a few of them.

Douglas Ross referred to Adam and a lifetime’s dedication of work to the RNLI. He is a stalwart of the community. I bet Members know Adams in coastal communities up and down our land, and we could not do without them. Paul Holmes talked about the very sad death of Emily Lewis. May I say, on behalf of the Opposition Front Bench, that we send our condolences to the family?

I join Sally-Ann Hart in paying tribute to Oliver and James, who saved two young boys out at sea. I think she referred to there being heroism every day, and that is true. I congratulate Jacob Young on his first Westminster Hall speech, and Bob on the 50 years of his life that he has given to the RNLI. Alan Brown spoke about Stuart “Woody” Wood. It is great that the boat was named after him.

The RNLI is an institution indelibly ingrained on the psyche of the British nation, and we give thanks to all the souls who down the years have risked their lives to keep those of us in peril on the sea safe. Those brave men and women are on standby 24 hours a day, every day of the year, launching in minutes, as Jonathan Edwards said, with the equipment, skills and expertise that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the last 200 years. I pay tribute not just to the RNLI but to the independent lifeboat stations as well, as many Members have done.

The coronavirus pandemic has not prevented the operation of the continuous maritime and coastal search and rescue service that the RNLI and many independent lifeboat stations provide to HM Coastguard and to people in and around British waters. As has been pointed out, it is of great credit to the voluntary crews that they have maintained that provision even in the midst of a national lockdown this spring. Since the inception of voluntary lifeboats in the 18th century and the subsequent foundation of the RNLI in 1824, voluntary crews, and those they have rescued, have relied on voluntary donations to keep them going, as the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye said.

Many of us—even the landlubbers such as myself, the Minister and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, who are far from the sea—are touched by the courageous actions of boat crews, although I can point out that, unlike the constituencies of the two Members I mentioned, Manchester has a ship canal, built by Daniel Adamson in 1890, and therefore has access to the Atlantic. I point that out on every occasion. In a testament to the positive impact of lifeboat crews, one of my best friends was rescued by the RNLI on a cliff as a youngster, and five decades later he is still raising money for it, even though he is a constituent of mine.

The RNLI’s 248 lifeboat stations aided more than 9,000 people last year, saving 220 lives. That is more than four lives saved every week. Lifeboat crews depend on well maintained rescue craft, equipment and facilities. Regular training is also essential. Those costs add up. Personal equipment costs £2,500 per crew member. Lifeboats vary from £50,000 to up to £2.2 million. Even an inshore rescue boat costs more than £10,000. According to the RNLI, it cost it more than £181 million to operate last year, with 94% of its income coming from donations. The RNLI tells us that this year it has received reduced income—an outlook reflected across much of the charity sector during the virus and the national lockdown.

Despite the lowered income, lifeboat crews have continued to provide an around-the-clock service throughout the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this summer may have been one of the busiest for British lifeboat crews. That is probably linked to the greater number of “staycations” as was mentioned by Paul Girvan and others—particularly as the country came out of lockdown. On top of that increased demand, the RNLI has spent an additional £1.3 million this year on the PPE required to follow public health guidance and maintain safety for crews, as mentioned by Caroline Ansell. Steve, my parliamentary assistant, who is a former mountain rescue operative, asked me to mention the skill of the work, particularly at Beachy Head, where it is necessary to rescue people from the cliffs. It is time-consuming work, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned.

The RNLI has made it clear that it has not sought financial support for the additional costs of the pandemic. Nor has it sought wider Government funding. I nevertheless ask the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure that that truly vital service remains effective. I will end with one simple request to the Minister. Will he review voluntary lifeboat funding and ensure that those courageous crews can continue their lifesaving operations?

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:39 pm, 13th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hosie. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall on securing this debate. Mike Kane is quite right: it is very good to be back in Westminster Hall. Like him, I will not attempt to find a local coastal link to my constituency, given that it is landlocked—I would be pushing my luck with the River Thames, although I note that the RNLI has a station on the River Thames at this end of the river. This is an extremely important issue, which highlights the impact that covid-19 has had on all our frontline services.

I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the brave people, often volunteers, who risk their lives to save others. The RNLI is an incredible organisation. Since its foundation in 1824, its lifeboats have saved over 143,000 lives—143,000—an astonishing number that is worth repeating and celebrating. That the phrase “worse things happen at sea” has entered our national lexicon is not surprising. It is thanks to those brave individuals that the lists of those lost at sea are not far longer. Those individuals include people such as Adam Robertson from Buckie RNLI, mentioned by my hon. Friend Douglas Ross, who said that they sacrifice their time to help others. He is absolutely right. My hon. Friend Caroline Ansell said that she would like to see these people recognised as the heroes that they are. I agree, and I do so now.

The challenge of saving lives at sea cannot be overestimated. Alan Brown rightly said that they go into conditions from which the rest of us wish to shelter. He is quite right. Their decision to do so often comes at great personal cost. Hon. Members may be familiar with the story of the Penlee disaster, which I have always found particularly moving. The lifeboat Solomon Browne went to the aid of the vessel Union Star when it suffered engine failure in heavy seas. Both vessels were lost with all hands—16 people, including the eight volunteers of the lifeboat crew.

Many people are also surprised to learn that there are many independent lifeboats. There are 60 inshore teams around our coasts, such as the Hamble lifeboat, which my hon. Friend Paul Holmes mentioned, which has had its 50th anniversary, and the Sandown and Shanklin lifeboat, which my hon. Friend Bob Seely mentioned. These teams have proud histories, stretching back in some cases even further than the RNLI itself. As a result of the very powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes today, the star of independent lifeboats will shine all the brighter at the end of this debate.

Together, independent lifeboats have been launched over 23,000 times—not since last year, but just since the start of the covid-19 pandemic: 23,000 situations where lives have been at risk and were saved. Today there will undoubtedly be more. One example of an independent lifeboat charity is Hope Cove in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Hope Cove has had a lifeboat protecting the waters around Bigbury Bay since 1878, with brave local teams serving their community over many generations. Only this year, since covid-19 reached our shores, the current crew from Hope Cove has responded to no less than 23 incidents in its area, including responding to seven incidents over the late spring bank holiday where multiple persons were assisted. The crew were continuing that longstanding and proud tradition for the community they protect.

It is in large part due to the personal commitment and skill of these teams that the UK has one of the best records for water safety in the world. The founder of the RNLI, Sir William Hillary, once said:

“With courage, nothing is impossible.”

These brave individuals continue to personify the British tradition of altruism and selflessness in the face of adversity. I know that all hon. Members will join me in offering our heartfelt gratitude for their service to the nation. That they have all found a way to continue operating with the additional impact, strain and implications of coivd-19 only further increases my admiration.

The impact of the pandemic cannot be overestimated. The Government have responded with an unprecedented £330 billion of financial measures to support businesses of all kinds across all parts of our United Kingdom, including the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme. Our charities are playing a crucial role in the national fight against covid-19, backed by an army of volunteers, who continue to deliver these vital key services. As hon. Members have highlighted today, the search and rescue sector has been particularly hard hit during the pandemic. Operational costs have increased, while at the same time fundraising opportunities have declined. In common with many other charities, search and rescue organisations have reduced income this year, and they will need to address and assess their operational capabilities and outputs, as our country recovers from this global crisis.

I recognise that easing lockdown measures and restrictions earlier this year also resulted in significant spikes in the number of operations, as the public flocked to the coast in places such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, as he quite rightly said. The increase in staycations has also increased pressure on our search and rescue charities, as people have chosen to holiday in the UK in places such as—but not exclusively—North Norfolk. They have also undertaken more adventurous activities outside. My hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart quite rightly pointed out the very moving story of Oliver Veness and James Blything, who saved lives this year. My hon. Friend Jacob Young also made a significant point about the impact on people suffering from poor mental health. That is a factor that we should consider as well, because these charities assist those people too.

We have already initiated discussions with search and rescue charities to understand the impacts on their operations, as part of the recovery from covid-19, and we have provided assistance where we can. For instance, Her Majesty’s Coastguard, which has a close relationship with the RNLI and independent lifeboats in any event, has increased the support it provides through its search and rescue aircraft, to reduce the burden on charities such as air ambulances, and it has provided additional assistance to other emergency services.

We continue to assess the impact of the pandemic on the provision of search and rescue services. As part of this process, we have considered alternative options to provide a service to anyone who may need help. For example, HM Coastguard has instigated additional safety patrols through its coastguard rescue service, which has its own volunteers, to ensure that assistance can be provided more swiftly in high-risk areas. It has also introduced additional patrol activity, by using its helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to increase its visibility and reduce response times.

Recent formal agreements with the RNLI and Surf Life Saving Great Britain will also ensure even closer working relationships, and enable vital information about beach activities to be passed to HM Coastguard, to further improve mission planning, asset availability and asset usage. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes quite rightly made a point about information sharing. We are dealing, of course, with unprecedented circumstances, but I know that the lessons that need to be learned will be learned.

Let me turn to the additional costs of operating under pandemic conditions. I entirely recognise that all search and rescue charities have been required to assess their operations and PPE needs, and to decide how best to support their services. In some cases, as my hon. Friend so powerfully outlined, this has involved significant additional costs outside of normal operational requirements. Through the UK Search and Rescue Medical Group, we have provided advice and guidance, which is publicly available on gov.uk, to balance the provision of PPE against the risks to both rescuers and those being rescued. That guidance does not set any requirements on search and rescue services. Operational decisions, such as requirements for specific PPE or deciding whether to accept a launch request, always ultimately rest with the individual charity.

If a lifeboat charity is advised that it is unable to respond in these unprecedented times, HM Coastguard will entirely respect that decision and seek to request alternative assets. However, in recognition of the importance of the charity sector to the delivery of these frontline services, the Government announced £750 million of new funding in April this year. That announcement was accompanied by new guidance, which provided best practice advice and assistance on how services could be provided safely.

My Department has also recently provided significant financial support to the search and rescue sector, as we have heard from a number of hon. Members. The rescue boat grant fund has provided nearly £6 million of funding over the past six years to assist charities of all kinds with the purchase of large capital items and everything down to and including PPE. Grants have bought nearly 100 new rescue boats and other craft, many more launch vehicles and trailers, and thousands of items of equipment, including PPE items.

A number of Members, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and Jonathan Edwards, have asked that the importance of that fund be recognised, and I can say today that the future of the fund is part of the wider review of Government spending that is currently under way. The fund was complemented with a further £4 million, which was made available to search and rescue charities to provide funding for the training of their volunteers. Those combined funding measures available to charities during the Government’s unprecedented financial package of covid-19 response measures have left the sector in a much stronger position to weather the current storm. We will of course continue to work in partnership with the RNLI and independent rescue boat charities to ensure that the impact of the pandemic on our search and rescue services can be mitigated as far as possible.

I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for raising this important issue and for providing the opportunity for us to debate the additional challenges that covid-19 has introduced for lifeboats. As my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes and for Hastings and Rye, and Paul Girvan have all pointed out, when we are in trouble at sea, those services will be there for us, and the House has made it clear today that it will be there for them.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 3:50 pm, 13th October 2020

I do not need long to sum up, because every single word uttered by Members in this Chamber today shows the strength of feeling that we all have for the RNLI and our independent lifeboats.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is extremely reassuring to hear about the coverage from Her Majesty’s coastguard, and extremely gratifying to know that lessons will be learned and that information sharing can be developed with regards to the RNLI and how it functions alongside the emergency services.

Many of us were aware of the £750 million available for the charities. I hope that we might be able to find something tailored more specifically for the lifeboats, on the basis of the complaints that came through. It is fair to say that these are no ordinary charities; they are part of our emergency services, one way or another, and they have to have a special position as a result.

With regard to the rescue boat grant fund, I am glad that it is under review. I have a willing group of volunteers in this Chamber to push on that and to make the case to the Minister and to the Chancellor—I certainly have form on doing that.

One of the most important parts of our RNLI and independent lifeboats is the volunteers. By standing up today to speak about the need to support those vital lifeboat stations across the country, and their crews, I hope that we have the opportunity to encourage more volunteers in the years to come.

Given the words of all Members, this debate has been a wonderful opportunity to say how much we appreciate what those volunteers do for us. I heard Members calling them heroes, and telling us about them braving the elements and doing the things that none of us would do—they were undeniably right. With work on this in future, we can create a network for a steady flow of volunteers to come through to support such sectors.

I should add that two Members were unable to attend the debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Mrs Elphicke)—and Deal—and for East Devon (Simon Jupp). They send their apologies. They have been strong advocates in their respective communities, and I will work with them as part of the group.

As I said at the beginning, the idea of what we can do for our independent lifeboats is to create an independent lifeboat association, and that is something that we as Members of Parliament should lead on. We should not take up the time of volunteers, but engage in creating that structure so that they can come to us. We can help in the formation of such an association. In the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, “I’ve got a little list”, and it has all of our names on it. I will contact Members individually about what we can do to ensure that we build this structure.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the future of the RNLI and independent lifeboats after the covid-19 outbreak.

Sitting suspended.