RNLI Bicentenary — [Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:05 am on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:05, 26 March 2024

I will focus on the title and subject matter of the debate because that is important—it is why we are all here. Like others, I always want to speak on the tremendous work carried out by the RNLI, and this is an opportunity to highlight that wonderful work right across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—I always say that, because it is important for me to remember the Union and where we all are, and I have used that terminology on every occasion since I came here in 2010.

As we are all aware, the RNLI has reached the inspirational milestone of 200 years of service to the community. Hailing from a constituency with a huge peninsula, with Strangford lough on one side and the Irish sea on the other, I am reminded of a poem I learned when I was very young—“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”—because we are surrounded by seawater on both sides. That perhaps illustrates the importance of this emergency service and what it does not only in Strangford but for all of us who live on the Ards peninsula.

I was amazed to learn this month that volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved an incredible 146,277 lives during the RNLI’s two centuries of lifesaving. If we needed any illustration of the RNLI’s importance, that is it: all those people—146,277 is a significant number.

The lifeboats at the charity’s 10 lifeboat stations in Northern Ireland have launched 9,472 times, with their volunteers saving 1,535 lives and coming to the aid of thousands more. There is so much that they have done and so much more that they can do. Since the introduction of lifeguards to Northern Ireland in 2011, the RNLI’s seasonal teams based along the Causeway coast—represented by my hon. Friend Mr Campbell—and in County Down have responded to 2,894 incidents and come to the aid of 3,461 people, 47 of whom were lives saved. That is what this about: the lives saved and the commitments given.

The RNLI website states:

“Two centuries have seen vast developments in the lifeboats and kit used by the charity’s lifesavers—from the early oar-powered vessels to today’s technology-packed boats, which are now built in-house by the charity;
and from the rudimentary cork lifejackets of the 1850s to the full protective kit each crew member is now issued with. The RNLI’s lifesaving reach and remit has also developed over the course of 200 years…It designs and builds its own lifeboats and runs domestic and international water safety programmes”—

I think the hon. Member for Totnes referred to that in his introduction.

Today, of the 238 lifeboat stations across Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 10 operate out of Northern Ireland, including one in Portaferry, in my constituency of Strangford. I have visited that station on a number of occasions and I have a very good relationship with volunteers there. One of its stalwarts is Philip Johnston, who is one of the main leaders and organisers of the RNLI in Portaferry—he has just retired, and we thank him for all his service over those years. There are two other stations, on the boundary of Bangor and Donaghadee, in the constituency of North Down, which is, again, an illustration of the RNLI’s importance in the area that we represent.

Although much has changed in 200 years, two things have remained the same: the charity’s dependence on volunteers, who give their time and commitment to save others, and the voluntary contributions from the public, which have funded the service for the past two centuries. That is another illustration of what the RNLI means.

I was delighted that the local mayor of Ards and North Down in part of my constituency—the very capable Jennifer Gilmour, who just happens to be one of my party colleagues—has selected the RNLI as one of her charities and has carried out various fundraising activities. For many of her constituents and mine, the RNLI is a vital service. Indeed, there are questions as to whether it should be brought into the realms of the emergency services so that it can afford pay and have grants towards equipment. It is sad that the RNLI really is the last emergency service, yet the Government pay less than 1% of its funding. I believe that the service deserves more than that.

That is not a criticism—that is not what I do in debates—but maybe the Minister can give us some idea as to what the Government are able to do for the RNLI financially. I understand the desire to keep the functioning of the RNLI free from Government interference and the red tape that comes with that. However, I do not believe that a round of applause from people in this House is enough, as it seemed to be for the NHS—something we all did every week with real sincerity.

I close by giving my sincerest thanks and appreciation to all the past and present volunteers who have given up their time and who have sacrificed their lives. Margaret Greenwood referred to a lifeboat that went to sea and came back with eight of the 10 crew lost. The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned a boat of 15 crew, 13 of whom died and only two of whom came back. That gives an idea of the sacrifice. These volunteers give up time with their loved ones at family events, and give up paid working hours, to use their skills and expertise to save lives and help people to be as safe as possible on an untameable sea. I thank them for all they have done. Their communities could not operate without their valued service.

We celebrate the RNLI as a body and the volunteers as its hands and feet. The RNLI has done much for us, and it will do more. Let us support it and do the best we can for it in this place.