Implementation of the Government's modernisation programme risks damaging the coastguard. Confusion about the role of the new national Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) and mixed messages about local knowledge and coastguard station closures has undermined staff morale across the service and caused an alarming vacancy rate amongst skilled staff, warns the Transport Committee in a review of the government's reform programme for the Coastguard which found that coastguards are "disillusioned and confused".
Launching the review or reforms across the coastguard, Louise Ellman MP, Chair of Transport Committee said:
"The manner in which changes are being imposed has already damaged the service and it is a great concern that the vacancy rate for skilled staff has doubled since 2010.
Regrettably, the previous shipping minister was ambiguous about the timing of coastguard closures and this has dented staff morale across the service.
There is a worrying lack of information about what coastguards at the MOC will actually do from day to day or how these new staff will work with local coastguards.
The MCA's stance in respect of the local knowledge which coastguards in co-ordination centres must have is also confusing and contradictory. In a response that the Committee described as "complacent and lacking in detail", Sir Alan Massey, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, suggested that local knowledge is not a requirement. The MCA needs to set out its strategy for staff training and articulate its vision of why coastguards in MRCCs need to gain and retain local knowledge. MCA management must schedule and remunerate staff to pursue this expertise, not leave them to organise themselves when they are off duty."
The Committee also expresses concern about arrangements for Emergency Towing Vessels and plans for fire fighting at sea now that the Maritime Incident Response group has been withdrawn.
The committee also calls for the Government to provide statistics on the age profile and length of service of coastguards at each Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) and to set out its strategy for retaining experienced coastguards, particularly in terms of recruitment to positions based at the Maritime Operations Center (MOC).
Chair of the Committee, Louise Ellman added,
"The programme of coastguard closures, the change in provision of emergency towing vessels and inadequate arrangements for fire fighting at sea are causing unrest and concern. The government must rule out further closures and ensure that its reforms do not undermine safety and make proper use of local knowledge when applicable."
The Transport Committee (TSC) published a report in June 2011 (PDF 1.84 MB)
criticising the Government's original proposals to modernise the Coastguard Service. This also condemned the Government's decision to withdraw funding for emergency towing vessels, which helped protect the UK's coastline from pollution from merchant shipping, and for a nautical fire-fighting initiative (the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG).
Ministers accepted the central recommendations on reform of the Coastguard Service, withdrawing their original proposals, bringing forward new ones, and consulting on them. Changes to emergency towing vessels and MIRG went ahead largely as planned, although the Government was unable to find a commercial alternative to a state-backed emergency towing vessel in the seas north of Scotland.
Opposition to the Government's reforms has continued, focused in particular on defending coastguard stations which are scheduled to close. A year on the Committee has held a follow up inquiry looking at how the Government is implementing its revised reforms, taking oral evidence from coastguard trade unions, from the new shipping minister, Stephen Hammond MP, and from the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Massey KCB CBE.
The Scottish Affairs Committee also took oral evidence recently on the future of the Coastguard Service in Scotland. Echoing many concerns already identified by TSC, their report concluded the Government "has clearly failed so far to carry public opinion on the proposed changes" and must do more to explain the rationale for station closures.
TSC is also investigating procurement of a new, unified search and rescue helicopter service, which will entail the closure of helicopter bases at RAF Boulmer and Portland. It wrote earlier this month to the Secretary of State for Transport asking further questions about this procurement and to express disappointment at the Government's decision not to undertake a public consultation about the closures. The Committee may return to this issue when it receives the minister's reply.