RNLI Bicentenary — [Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:22 am on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration) 10:22, 26 March 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Harris. I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on securing the debate. It is always good to have some of these debates before recess. I wish all hon. Members, Clerks and everyone else a very good Easter when it comes.

When we mention the emergency services, most people would picture a vehicle used to protect people and save lives—an ambulance, a police car or a fire engine, say. That is what people see on a daily basis in urban communities such as mine. They might not immediately think of that fourth essential vehicle, the lifeboat.

The Glasgow South West constituency is on the south bank of the Clyde. Travelling downstream from there, we have the lifeboat stations of Helensburgh, in the Firth of Clyde, and then others at Largs and Troon on the Clyde coast. People from Glasgow South West have been going “doon the watter” for most of the time that the RNLI has existed, and many will have benefited greatly from its rescue service in that time. For those staying in the city and not making that exotic journey to the Costa Clyde, there has often been the temptation to spend time near the River Clyde itself—an activity that can be quite hazardous. For that reason, the Glasgow Humane Society has long had a base upstream at Glasgow Green from which it performs lifesaving services in the Clyde and other local waterways.

For 40 years, and until only recently, the Glasgow Humane Society was operated by Ben Parsonage, and then by his son, Dr George Parsonage MBE, who pulled thousands from the Clyde, saving many lives. But the society has a much longer history than that: it is the oldest practical lifesaving organisation in the world, having been founded in 1790. Countless Glaswegians have since owed their lives to the officers, volunteers and directors. Admittedly, the society’s remit is local to the Glasgow area, but looking further afield, RNLI lifeboats in Scotland have launched 45,853 times, saving 11,878 lives. That means that over a quarter of all rescues in Scotland have resulted in a life saved.

Looking even further afield across these islands, a term most appropriate in this context, Members will know that the RNLI is reckoned to have saved a total of 146,277 lives. As a proportion of the population, the number of lives saved in Scotland is particularly high. This might not be a great surprise to those who have crossed the Minch or the Pentland Firth during a howling gale, or crossed to any other of Scotland’s 790 islands in weather that we would call, “A good day for a washin’,” or “A good drying day.”

It is easy, as I have done, to make light of the dangers of such journeys, but there is a much more serious edge to it. In defining bravery, a common example is ordinary people running away from burning buildings while firefighters run into them. It is the same with lifeboat crews, who choose to launch and enter the tempest while others would be rushing for safe havens. What makes this behaviour even more remarkable is that those carrying out such feats of bravery are volunteers— all 32,000 of them. They do not expect a high-salary professional career; they do this out of principle and compassion.

That compassion is obvious, but let us look more closely at the principle of who the RNLI seeks to rescue. It is often said, half-jokingly, that in the United States of America, a hospital or ambulance will first check someone’s bank balance before checking their pulse. Fortunately, that is not the current policy in our national health service. In a similar vein, Mark Dowie, the chief executive of RNLI, has said:

“Right from the get-go in 1824, we said that the lifeboat service would rescue whoever needed our help wherever they are.”

“Whoever” and “wherever” therefore includes rescuing migrants in the English channel. Because of that humane work, disappointingly, Nigel Farage and others have described the RNLI as a “taxi service” for illegal migration. Let me make it clear that my colleagues and I utterly disassociate ourselves from such views.