RNLI Bicentenary — [Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 9:30, 26 March 2024

I thank the hon. Member for making that point. Especially in high-tourism areas and where there has been a dramatic experience post pandemic, the RNLI has seen more shouts—more call-outs to rescue holidaymakers—so it is essential that right across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we support our RNLI crews, volunteers and fundraising efforts, and strengthen their hand in what they do.

The remit of the RNLI is simple: to help anyone in danger on the sea. The tales of events and individuals throughout the RNLI’s history not only inspire the next generation of volunteers, but help to explain why so many families across the country have served the RNLI throughout its existence. In doing so, those volunteers have provided a magnificent, quiet heroism and public service to their communities, country and fellow human beings.

The volunteer power of the RNLI is all the more remarkable when we consider that for almost the first 90 years, the lifeboats of the RNLI were powered by nothing other than the strength of man, and launched by hand and horsepower. The steady evolution of the RNLI has resulted in a modern and up-to-date fleet that has replaced oar power with engine power. The ability to upgrade the fleet and provide new equipment, however, has been brought about only by the generosity of the British public and by businesses.

The RNLI has always been independent of Government and will always remain so. As a result, it relies on the support of donors to meet the costs of lifesaving activities. As we politicians look on in envy, the RNLI has perfected the art of fundraising and has set exacting standards to develop long-standing relationships with supporters and to ensure financial stability. The figures speak for themselves: the RNLI raised £177.4 million in 2022 and £181.7 million in 2021. Along with the public fundraising, generous bequests have included, bizarrely, a set of gold teeth and two vintage Ferraris.

Regardless of what is donated, it all helps to ensure that the RNLI is able to respond to shouts anywhere along our coastline and to help those in danger with the most up-to-date equipment and facilities. We should consider the fact that in 2023, up to July, the RNLI had launched its lifeboats 9,192 times, the equivalent of 16 times a day; saved 269 lives; and assisted 10,734 people at sea—a remarkable number and giving remarkable significance to its work.

It is extraordinary to see businesses playing a role in the fundraising efforts. The Baltic Exchange, for example, has for more than 150 years supported the lifeboat based in Salcombe in South Devon, hence the subtle name of The Baltic Exchange III. Such fundraising efforts have allowed the RNLI to focus on what it does best and, perhaps most importantly, have ensured that the RNLI is immune from political interference and can be truly independent.

Just as the equipment and machinery have modernised so, too, have the provision and scale of what the RNLI offers. Starting originally with lifeboats and lifeboat stations, the RNLI now runs a safety-at-sea initiative with its Float to Live campaign, as well as providing lifeguards on 240 UK beaches. In 2023, those lifeguards carried out almost 3 million preventive actions, as well as attending some 14,000 incidents, helping 19,979 people and saving 86 lives. Its international arm is focused on making drowning prevention a priority worldwide and reducing the staggering 235,000 deaths a year caused by drowning.

The RNLI has been a key supporter of the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which I founded two years ago to represent the 54 independent lifeboat stations of the United Kingdom. Its steady progress to help both at home and abroad is in part why the RNLI is such a well-loved institution and why it carries the support and confidence of the British public and, I hope I can safely say, of this House.

The purpose of this debate is to recognise the RNLI as a national organisation and to celebrate its work across the country, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the RNLI stations in South Devon. Torbay RNLI lifeboat station, based in Brixham, was established in 1866 and has been busily protecting our channel waters ever since. I was pleased to attend a service of thanksgiving organised by the Fishermen’s Mission earlier this year, to reflect on its work protecting those at sea, and salute its volunteers, who have attended thousands of shouts since 1866, rescued thousands of people and saved countless lives.

The Salcombe RNLI lifeboat was established in 1869 and is tragically remembered for one of the worst lifeboat disasters in the RNLI’s history. In 1916, the returning lifeboat capsized on the Salcombe bar and 13 of the 15-man crew drowned, devastating the town and the close-knit community. Memorial headstones either side of the mouth of the estuary recall and mark that tragedy.

The Dart RNLI, established in 1878 but closed shortly after, was reopened in 2007. The reopening was fortuitous, as last year alone it had 46 shouts and aided 51 people in difficulty. It is currently fundraising for a new boathouse, which I expect to be greeted with the same level of generosity as that often received by the RNLI.

Those three lifeboat stations are a necessity to coastal living. Their crews and support staff number well over 100 volunteers, and they have battled against some of the most ferocious storms to save those at sea, as well as dealt with thousands of visitors who flock to our beaches each and every year. The people of south Devon owe them an enormous amount, and we do not for a single second forget their courage and bravery in volunteering for the RNLI.

I would like to thank the crew of RNLI lifeboat stations across the country. They are all part of a rich heritage in which they put others before themselves. They put themselves in harm’s way to rescue those in need, and too often friends, families and fellow volunteers pay the price. The 800 names on the RNLI memorial in Poole serve as a reminder of the dangers they face, but also the hope that must be felt by any individual in danger when they see the colours of the RNLI racing towards them. Sir William Hillary said:

“With courage, nothing is impossible.”

I would like to finish by paying tribute to the outgoing chief executive, Mark Dowie, who finishes his five-year term in June. Mark has been an extraordinary leader of the RNLI over the past five years. He has had to deal with covid, channel crossings, rising inflation, increase in demand, and even unfair and inaccurate political comments. He has risen above all those, and leaves the RNLI in an even stronger place, with his name alongside those pioneering, innovative founders and fundraisers who have made the RNLI what it is today.

Today we mark and celebrate in Parliament the 200 years of the RNLI. I pray for calm seas and fair winds, and that it will continue to perform its masterful brave work for the next two centuries.