Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. Is the reduction reasonable in terms of the reduction in the workload?
  (Mr Foster) The workload has changed but I would not say there has been a reduction per se. A lot of these changes began before we became a Highways Agency so a lot of what we are talking about is pre-1994 when we were created an Executive Agency. Since that time there has been any number of different initiatives. There has been the New Deal for Trunk Roads, there has now been the Ten-Year Plan. There has always been a constant change in emphasis where new skills have been required and the workload has increased.

Mr O'Brien

  101. On the issue of congestion on motorways, does the same thing apply, that it goes out to private operators?
  (Mr Foster) Traditionally the management of the network was not undertaken by the Highways Agency. We were actually given a new role following the Transport White Paper in 1998 to develop our role as a network operator. We have actually been trying to bring in those skills in terms of how we manage the network.

  102. On the question of reducing congestion, is this done by private contractors or is it done in-house?
  (Mr Foster) The ideas and initiatives are developed in-house and then the work is put out.

  103. You have the skilled labour to do that?
  (Mr Foster) Yes, we believe so.

Dr Ladyman

  104. May I ask some questions along the same lines about the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, about staffing levels in that Agency?
  (Mr Clempson) Staffing levels within the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are inadequate at the moment but we are, under consultation with the main directors in the headquarters, looking at a staffing review. We have actually managed to get them to look at the position of minimum staffing levels and recommended staffing levels depending on the work loading. The minimum level would be one which would not be fallen below. However, since the last Transport Select Committee inquiry, we have certainly had a better interchange with the senior directors within the Agency on the trade union side but it is still failing quite badly at the district and regional levels.


  105. Why?
  (Mr Clempson) The fact is that at a recent meeting at the regional headquarters in Aberdeen—and I cite Aberdeen because I do have the proof of it here—the comment was made by one of the regional managers that this staffing exercise was purely to keep the trade unions happy. They would decide the staffing levels within the region. That was actually followed through at another district meeting. I have a letter here from a person who wishes to remain anonymous because he does not want his name getting out and you still have the problems with the management regime. Headquarters themselves have taken a report into the death of John Harrison into account and they are now looking at giving everybody qualified management training recognised by outside bodies. We welcome that as a trade union and think it is a long overdue step. However, we are still finding that there are problems with getting information upwards and downwards. There is a block, mainly at the regional levels, where the regional management teams turn round and say they will decide what is going to be done and it is not going to be down to the members or to the employees themselves who basically have a better knowledge of operational requirements. The last thing we did was discuss with John Astbury, the Chief Coastguard, and he agreed, that everybody in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would be consulted on staffing levels, recommended optimum staffing levels for all Coastguard stations around the country. However, as far as we have been able to find out, there has only been consultation which we consider to be consultation at Solent, at Stornaway and Clyde. In all the rest of the districts there was no consultation whatsoever.

  106. Three out of how many stations?
  (Mr Clempson) Seventeen stations.

Dr Ladyman

  107. The staffing shortfalls you are talking about are not vacant posts for which they cannot recruit, it is very much a management decision of what the staffing level is to be that you think is short of the actual optimum requirement.
  (Mr Clempson) Yes. The fact is that in 1996 or 1994 the watch levels were agreed under Focus for Change and I have a copy of it here. On the night of Tuesday/Wednesday 2/3 January 2000 Aberdeen had one watch manager, one watch officer and three Coastguard Watch Assistants (CWA) all under training. Shetland had one watch manager, one watch officer, one CWA and one CWA under training. Forth had one watch manager and one watch officer. Tyne Tees had one watch officer, one CWA. Humber had one watch manager, one watch officer, one CWA and one CWA under training. Yarmouth, which is a main rescue coordinating centre, had one watch officer and two CWAs. Thames had two watch officers and two CWAs. Bear in mind that since that Focus for Change took place, additional workloading has been passed on to the Coastguard Agency: the maritime information and safety broadcasts; with the demise of BT coastal radio stations the Coastguard stations are the only ones who listen to 2182; there is also the problem with channel 16.


  108. Could you explain the significance of 2182?
  (Mr Clempson) It is an international maritime distress frequency. If a ship, a yacht or whatever gets into distress outside, say, 200 miles of the UK coast, he can call on what they call a medium frequency but it is long range one, for assistance from the Coastguard. The Coastguards within the UK are the only organisation which monitors 2182 fulltime. If you have staff shortages, what it means is you have to divide your staffing levels and decide which is going to be the most important. Are you going to accept a VHF distress call, or an MF distress call, or are you going to listen to a 999 call or are you going to give weather forecasts. You have to make a choice of whether you do the work or whether you just put something on the back burner and hope nothing goes wrong. Basically that is what is happening. I have 20 staff shortage reports here covering the middle of December.

  109. Could you leave that with us? We should have some pity on those taking a record and not expect them to take it entirely in one go.
  (Mr Clempson) Yes.

Dr Ladyman

  110. If those are shortages beneath the optimal figure, then you are suggesting that there is a very clear safety risk.
  (Mr Clempson) Yes, there is. The Agency turn round and say they will do a risk assessment. A risk assessment is a legal document. At the moment we are in correspondence with the Agency about the requirement to have training for risk assessments. A risk assessment is to look at a certain action or a certain course of events and ask how you can prevent something going wrong, the best reasonable way. It has to be suitable and sufficient. What is happening is that people are deciding that they cannot get anybody else in so the three will have to manage, or the two will have to manage. When you take into account that staff require some meal breaks, they have comfort breaks, need to go to the toilet, need to make a cup of coffee or refreshments, anything like that—and it has been suggested by one of our regional managers that meal breaks for staff be limited to ten minutes at a time—that really is a bit of a nonsense.


  111. In a twelve-hour day.
  (Mr Clempson) In a twelve-hour watch; so they can take ten minute breaks. They know that the staff are so short and overtime is available but people are so fed up with working the overtime that it is more and more difficult to get people to do it. What we really need are proper staffing levels, coming down from headquarters, the trade unions, saying this is what we need to do. At the moment we are in the process of dealing with those sorts of negotiations. The fact is that whatever we try to do at headquarters and trade union side is being stymied at regional levels.

Dr Ladyman

  112. What about sickness levels? How do they compare with others?
  (Mr Clempson) I can actually give you the sickness levels for the staff. Total sick absence was 11,161; average sick absence level per person is 8.33. That is certainly the highest as far as I am aware.


  113. What does 8.33 mean?
  (Mr Clempson) The average sick absence level per employee is 8.33 days per year, which according to the Head of Personnel is certainly the highest within the DETR group.

Dr Ladyman

  114. That is the highest within all the agencies.
  (Mr Clempson) The highest of all the agencies. I do not know the reason for the sick absences. From my own personal experience a lot of it is work related due to stress or due to the nature of the job because it does give you a lot of pressure at times. We have actually managed to persuade the Agency to go ahead with a stress survey.

  115. You have identified these staff shortages, you have tried to consult on them within the Agency without success.
  (Mr Clempson) Yes.

  116. Have you attempted going over the Agency's head to Ministers or to the DETR itself?
  (Mr Clempson) No, the fact being that we are still in negotiations with our main headquarters, with the Chief Coastguard and Chief Executive and we are hopeful that we shall get something.

  117. What I am trying to get at is that we do not know whether Ministers and the Department are aware of these problems and the Agency is fobbing them off and telling them it is all right, or whether—
  (Mr Clempson) We certainly have not taken the matter above the Agency at the moment. A note from a meeting with ourselves on 14 November is that they have agreed to the third draft of the proposed watchkeeping levels, which would include a minimum recommended level, which was the trade union side recommendation. John Astbury was concerned to hear the claims that some staff had not been asked to contribute to development of the draft and levels proposed which was an essential part of the consultation process. He would raise this issue with the regional management and ensure that the message was reiterated and that local managers must communicate and consult with their staff on such issues. After the draft we went out again and actually put a memo out to all members saying that there would be consultations, there would be meetings, it was important they attend because the problem of staffing levels was so important that it needed to be organised once and for all. However, only three stations that I am aware of actually carried out full consultation as had been agreed with the Chief Coastguard. The rest were told what they were going to have.

Mr Donohoe

  118. You raised a point earlier about breaks. That breaches employment law.
  (Mr Clempson) Yes, it does and we actually told the regional inspector concerned of the fact that if he tried it we would certainly take him to an industrial tribunal.

  119. So he has not done it then.
  (Mr Clempson) No, but they do not like to back down.

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