RNLI Bicentenary — [Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:29 am on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:29, 26 March 2024

It is great.

In Southport cemetery, just outside my constituency, there is a monument to the 27 lives lost in the Mexico disaster, which happened almost 140 years ago. The rescue remains the worst loss of crew in a single incident in the history of the RNLI, and was viewed as a national disaster across Victorian Britain. The Mexico, a huge wooden ship, left Liverpool on 5 December 1866, bound for Ecuador. She was caught in a violent gale, and amid heavy seas she ran aground on the perilous sandbanks of the Ribble estuary. The rescue effort saw the biggest loss of crew in a single incident in the history of the RNLI, leaving 16 widows and 50 children without their fathers in Southport and St Anne’s. It was a stark reminder then of the real risks such brave people undertook, and it is a reminder today of the dangers every time they are called into action.

The RNLI’s work is not just about reacting when things go wrong; it plays a huge part in keeping our communities safe and reducing the need for search and rescue. That is done in a variety of ways, including street stalls and classroom visits to educate and advise on the dangers of water. In 2021, the RNLI’s water safety teams reached more than 27 million people with essential messaging, which undoubtedly saves more lives and keeps families together. Those services are vital. There are 238 lifeboat stations up and down the land and an active fleet of 431 lifeboats, ranging from large, all-weather lifeboats to smaller inshore vessels. We cannot overstate the impact and importance of the RNLI’s work.

The RNLI will go to the aid of anyone in trouble at sea, as the lifesaving charity has for 200 years. It does so without judgment or preference. In south-east England, it is currently engaged in a significant level of work in the channel, as a result of the large number of people crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in small, overcrowded, unsafe boats. All too often, those crossings end with disastrous, fatal consequences. The RNLI launched to rescue 290 times in the English channel in 2022. That was 3% of all RNLI lifeboat launches that year.

The stories of desperate people crossing the English channel to reach the UK often dominate news and social media. Of course, we cannot know the experiences, backgrounds and personal stories of every person trying to arrive in this way, but it is clear that many of them intend to, and do, claim asylum here. Labour will crack down on criminal smuggler gangs by introducing stronger powers for the UK’s National Crime Agency to restrict the movement of those suspected of involvement in people smuggling. We will set up a new cross-border police unit with officers based in the UK and across Europe to tackle gangs, because if we want to reduce the number of people in need of rescue in the channel, it must make sense to cut the supply of boats by the criminal gangs. Our plans will reduce the numbers of people making the desperately dangerous crossing of the channel in small boats.

RNLI crews are asked by His Majesty’s coastguard to assist anyone who is in trouble on or in the water in the UK. They will go to the aid of anyone in danger when asked to do so, as they have been doing for 200 years, without asking who they are or where they come from. They respond in extremely demanding search-and-rescue environments with continued dedication and commitment. In any rescue, their priority is to ensure that casualties are treated with skill, care, dignity and respect and are brought to safety as quickly as possible. RNLI crews then pass over responsibility for those rescued to the most appropriate agency. That might be the ambulance service, the police or Border Force.

It was fantastic to see lifeboats on the River Mersey near my own constituency to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the RNLI. We should be incredibly proud of the crews, who continue to respond selflessly to their pagers day or night simply to help others. I pay tribute to them all here today, and also to everyone who plays a part in fundraising—rattling buckets or making donations—for this vital, life-saving charity.