RNLI Bicentenary — [Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:54 am on 26 March 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 9:54, 26 March 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall on securing it.

The RNLI has been an important institution in the United Kingdom since it was formed 200 years ago. The Suffolk association of lifeboats was formed in the same year, but it wisely handed over its assets and people to the RNLI in 1853. In 1824, boats were set up in Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Lowestoft, which is outside my constituency; a few years later, they were also set up in Thorpeness and Sizewell.

There is no doubt that the institution has been vital in saving lives, but it has also seen people losing their lives in saving others. The devastation that that can have in a community lives on for generations to come and is rightly recognised around the country. I pay huge tribute to all those who have served in the lifetime of stations around the country.

My constituency currently has two stations, in Southwold and Aldeburgh, and is served by the people of Harwich, just across the river in Essex. There is also a National Independent Lifeboat Association member in Felixstowe, which was set up more recently: just over 25 years ago. I know the dedication of the people, who are principally volunteers; they are on call and ready to move. The lifeguards who operate on some of our beaches have been integral in making sure that people are safe in the water. I also commend the RNLI guilds. Every branch and station has one: Aldeburgh’s was set up in 1962 and has been vital to the station’s ongoing operation.

I praised the operatives at Southwold station in 2013, because on 26 May 2013 a small group of the crew who were out on exercise gathered to deploy the single largest ever piece of peacetime recovery: 85 people, in just one event, where a swimming race had gone horribly wrong. Ben Lock and Lucy Clews were the lifeguards there who saw the issue straight away. The crew was mobilised by lifeguard supervisor Dan Tyler, and helmsmen Simon Callaghan, Paul Barker and Rob Kelvey came into action, later supported by Liam Fayle-Parr. It was absolutely astonishing. To date, I do not believe that there has been any other similar peacetime operation, although there may potentially be situations currently off the Sussex and Kent coast. It is right that we recognise the contribution of all these people in Hansard once more. Lives could have been lost.

I commend Simon Hazelgrove and the team today, who continue to operate the lifeboat station. I look forward to inviting them and the people from Aldeburgh to an event here in Parliament—hopefully in May, and if not, in June. At the Aldeburgh lifeboat station, it is slightly more complicated to launch a boat, because the town has a shingle beach, so the whole operation is even bigger. At the moment, they have a Mersey class boat. There is a significant operation, using a tractor and wooden poles to help the boat on and off; in many ways, it is a much bigger operation.

It is tremendous that a town the size of Aldeburgh can muster that sort of activity at pretty short notice. I am conscious that there has been some turbulence recently, but I want to celebrate the good things, including a service that was led by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich earlier this month to commemorate the 200-year anniversary.

Aldeburgh currently has an all-weather boat, the Freddie Cooper, which started operating in 1993, and an inshore boat, the Susan Scott, which has been operating since 2017. I want to turn to that for a sad moment, because a tale needs to be told of the recent leadership, which has been quite shabby. I am worried about aspects of the culture, and I am sad for the people of Aldeburgh, who themselves are sad about what has happened. We all know that change can be difficult, but one of the things the RNLI needs to understand as it looks ahead to the next 200 years is that it relies on the good will of the local communities, never mind the huge amount of work that goes into supporting it nationally. It needs to reflect on how it should do things differently when dealing with local communities, and I am not the only Member of Parliament affected in that respect.

One of the comments that really brought this issue to mind was made by somebody involved, who talked about an appalling betrayal of a community that has been nothing but supportive, as well as disgraceful management of the situation by RNLI headquarters, which raises concerns about the culture of the charity. By and large, the RNLI has been absolutely amazing, but it does need to learn from this sad situation.

Change was happening and a review was being undertaken. That meant that Aldeburgh would no longer have an all-weather lifeboat; instead, it would have a rigid inflatable craft, or RIB, as they are called. That was of concern to the local community, because it had been used to having an all-weather lifeboat. Unlike in Southwold, its boats had not been deployed as part of the Dunkirk operation, but they had been deployed during peacetime and wartime, and the crews recognised the local seas.

In terms of money, legacies had been left in the RNLI’s accounts to support it. It was indicated that these were restricted funds specifically to replace the all-weather lifeboat. The funds were in the RNLI’s accounts, and then all of a sudden the decision was made—with some internal consultation—that that would not happen. There was upset and uproar and, as a local Member of Parliament, I was asked to raise the issue with the RNLI. To my surprise, it refused to meet. I was somewhat shocked by that. As an elected representative, I am conscious that this issue has nothing to do with Government or with politics. Of course, the RNLI benefits from things such as tax relief in its fundraising, but that was not my reason for wanting to raise this issue. I wanted to do it because I am a member of the community, and the community felt shut out.