RNLI Bicentenary — [Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:37 am on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:37, 26 March 2024

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work that the RNLI does not just coastally, but inland, as he says. I know that the remit of the RNLI has expanded over time.

The RNLI has launched more than 380,000 times in the past two centuries, showing amazing dedication and commitment. Last year alone, RNLI lifeboats launched more than 9,000 times in one year, aiding more than 10,500 people and saving 269 lives. In addition, RNLI lifeguards carried out almost 3 million preventive actions and attended more than 14,000 incidents, aiding 20,000 people and saving another 86 lives. It is testament to the commitment and skills of the RNLI and our lifeboat volunteers that the UK has one of the finest lifeboat services in the world, which continues to uphold the finest traditions and values of the RNLI as proudly today as it did 200 years ago.

I will briefly remind the House of the history of the RNLI and its contributions to our society, which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes touched on. The founder of the RNLI, Sir William Hillary, was so appalled by the loss of life at sea that he set about creating an institution dedicated to the preservation of human life from shipwreck. He initially went to the Government to appeal for support, but the Government of the day, in their wisdom—or lack of it—said no. He was forced to go to other supporters and philanthropists and managed rapidly to get support, which helped to launch the institution we see today. It is notable that all the fundraising over the past 200 years, which reached a record last year, is really a consequence of that initial Government decision to say no. The RNLI might have ended up a very different organisation if the initial Government decision had been different.

It was the drive and dedication of Sir William that led to the institution that we know today. He laid out 12 resolutions that formed the foundation of the RNLI and that still stand firm today, remaining part of the RNLI charter 200 years on. The RNLI has grown extraordinarily over the past 200 years. It now has an income of more than £200 million, more than 2,000 staff and more than 30,000 volunteers. I pay tribute to the visionary founders of the RNLI for their leadership and support over the years. The continuing dedication of the RNLI to saving lives at sea and its volunteer ethos remains a cherished cornerstone of British society.

I put on record our tribute to the brave volunteers of the RNLI who risk their own lives to save others at sea and around our coastline. It is in large part due to their personal commitment and skill that the UK has one of the best records for water safety in the world. I also pay tribute to the families of our search and rescue volunteers. They are often forgotten, but without their never-ending support, our volunteer services would not be able to continue their vital life-saving operations.

I pay particular tribute, as other hon. Members present have, to the brave RNLI volunteers who have lost their lives while trying to save others over the past 200 years: more than 600 volunteers have lost their lives, and 2,500 medals have been awarded for bravery. I know many Members will be aware of the tragic loss of lifeboat volunteers from their constituencies over the past two centuries—we have heard various examples of that this morning. The loss of every RNLI volunteer is keenly felt across a local community, impacting friends and family. Local memorials remain a reminder of the sacrifices of the RNLI crews who have been lost. As part of this bicentenary anniversary, local services and events are planned to commemorate RNLI volunteers throughout its illustrious history.

I will turn to some of the comments that have been made in what has been a very moving debate this morning. We have heard many extraordinary stories of tragedy and heroism, among various other issues that have been raised. I was touched by the story of the Traveller, raised by Margaret Greenwood, where eight out of 10 people died. The hon. Lady spoke movingly of the impact on the local community of Hoylake. My hon. Friend Kevin Foster paid tribute to the wider work that the RNLI does, particularly with safety and support in the community. He mentioned that when he goes on his Boxing day walks, it is good to see the boats out there.

The landlocked hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) asked whether the RNLI could help out with inland rescue. While search and rescue is the responsibility of the police, he makes a valid point, and I completely understand the importance of trying to learn lessons from the RNLI to help to improve search and rescue inland. He made a point about local people in boats and boatyards, and whether they can be called on to help, and I will absolutely take that away to see if anything can be done to improve that.

Jim Shannon paid tribute to the work of the RNLI in Northern Ireland, where it has 10 lifeboat stations. He raised a question about Government support, which makes up only 1% of its total funding, and questioned that. The RNLI is obviously independent of Government—very proudly so; if Government funding increased, there might be a risk that it would end up being more Government-controlled.

His Majesty’s Coastguard, some representatives of which are here now, works closely with the RNLI; calls come through to the coastguard and it works out whether it needs a helicopter, which is run by the coastguard, or whether the case should be handed over to the RNLI. I understand that that relationship works very well. The RNLI is very proudly independent of Government: it does not take instructions from Government and it decides its own operations, and I would not want to compromise that.

I pay tribute to the stepmother of my hon. Friend Duncan Baker and her work for the RNLI. My hon. Friend also mentioned the extraordinary case of Henry Blogg, who was involved in saving 873 lives over 53 years—a quite extraordinary achievement. I was sad to learn what is happening to his ship, the Bailey. That is fundamentally an issue for the local authorities in my hon. Friend’s area, but if he wants my support in any way I will be happy to do what I can to help save the Bailey.

My hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie talked about the fundraising achievements of the RNLI in her constituency and in particular the Anglesey aluminium chimney demolition, which raised over £10,000 in one go. It must have been fun pressing that button and seeing it go down!

Chris Stephens and the shadow Minister, Bill Esterson, paid tribute to the RNLI, but also raised the issue of migrants in the channel. I put on the record that my position and that of the Government is exactly the same: the RNLI cannot ask people whether they have a visa before deciding to rescue them, and it is absolutely right that it rescues everyone who needs rescuing. That is very much the Government’s position.

My right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, whose contribution added a slightly different tone to the conversation, has been in dispute with the RNLI over the allocation of resources and a bequest. I am told by the RNLI that the chief executive and the regional lifeboat manager have responded to my right hon. Friend’s questions directly on a number of occasions, and that the Charity Commission has responded to her complaints about the use of bequests but has advised that it is satisfied with how the RNLI has handled the legacy funding.

My right hon. Friend did recognise that the RNLI is, as I said earlier, independent from Government. This is not a dispute that the Government can get involved in. The RNLI is independent: it decides the distribution of its assets. I am advised that the RNLI generally does a really good job at working out the best allocations of assets to make sure that it is most effective at lifesaving, and it would be inappropriate for me as a Minister or for the Government to intervene to influence the independent decisions of the charity.