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Transport Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 647
Taken before the Transport Committee
on Monday 22 October 2012
Mrs Louise Ellman (Chair)
Mr John Leech
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Steve Quinn, MCA Section President, PCS, Brian George, Liverpool Branch Representative, PCS, Alex Dodge, Shetland Branch Chair, PCS, and Allan Graveson, Senior National Secretary, Nautilus, gave evidence.
Q1Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. I am very pleased to see all of you. I know that some of you have had a very difficult journey, but you have overcome all obstacles and got here. Could I ask you, please, to give us your names and the organisations you represent, just to help our records?
Allan Graveson: My name is Allan Graveson. I am senior national secretary with Nautilus International.
Brian George: I am Brian George, PCS branch chairman of Liverpool coastguard.
Steve Quinn: I am Steve Quinn, the PCS SEC president.
Alex Dodge: I am Alex Dodge, branch chairperson of the Shetland branch.
Q2Chair: The reorganisation of the coastguard has a long history. This Committee conducted an inquiry last year to look at the concerns expressed, and the proposals were then revised, but from the correspondence we have received clearly there are ongoing concerns. Could you tell us what your major concerns are at the moment and how you see things now?
Brian George: One of our main concerns is the safety of the public. The MCA management has recently said that safety is their number one priority-but only recently. There are hundreds of thousands of people who rely on our coastline and coast for their livelihoods, not to mention the millions of visitors who use it for leisure purposes. None of them deserves to be treated like this. At a recent meeting, a senior MCA official was asked what happens to those people other than the professional organisations that use our coastline. There was a shrug of the shoulders and they said, "We have no actual duty of care over the leisure industry." That is hardly the attitude, I would have thought, whether or not we have a duty of care. To say there is no duty of care isn’t the way forward.
Q3Chair: Could you tell us who made that statement?
Brian George: I am not sure. It was at an SEC meeting. I don’t know who was there at the time, but it was a senior MCA official.
Q4Chair: Mr Quinn, would you like to add to that?
Steve Quinn: My main concern is that, despite being given assurances to the contrary, we were told that no station would close until the national Maritime Operations Centre was up and running and also until we had a system in place that was at least as robust as, if not better than, we have now.
Forth coastguard closed on 28 September. The problems that we had then and the associated risks when Forth was open are still there, but now we have three or four fewer people on watch at any given time to cover that same area of risk. That is coupled with the fact that for a lot of the staff at Aberdeen there are no structured means by which they can visit Forth’s area to gain local knowledge, which is now lost, because everybody, bar two members of staff who were at Forth, have now left the service. The staff have had the ability to travel to the previous area of Forth, to look round it and get local knowledge, but only off their own bat. No structured methodology has been put in place for them to try to learn the local knowledge that has now been lost with Forth closing.
Q5Chair: Ms Dodge, could you tell us your concerns?
Alex Dodge: To add to that, with Forth closing, our area has been extended down into what was Aberdeen’s area-to Brora-and we have taken over the north coast of Scotland. We have had no structured local knowledge visits. On top of that, we have a kind of dial-in type of connection of the aerials with Aberdeen, which is not helping at all. Because of that, two desks are not usable except for pure radio work, and the connection is not stable. Since the beginning of October until Saturday morning, when I came off watch, that connection has failed nine times. That is not good enough if we are in the middle of a mayday, on an aerial source like Ben Tongue or Durness, which we cannot hear from any other aerial.
Q6Chair: Mr Graveson, we were given an assurance that no stations would close until the new system had been tested, but that doesn’t appear to have been honoured. Have you heard of any explanation as to why that is?
Allan Graveson: May I, first, Chair, beg your indulgence and say that we have concern about the lack of safety in depth? That ties in with the station position. We have lost the maritime surveillance aircraft. The renewal of the rescue helicopters is long overdue. It is a miracle and testament to the people flying them and maintaining them that they are still running. We have lost the emergency towing vessels, in which case in parts of the United Kingdom it is not a question of a market solution; there is no market, particularly for the north and west of Scotland. We have lost the maritime incident response group that gives support to merchant shipping.
Looking to the stations themselves, which drive all this, we are receiving assurances that there will be no closures until the new equipment and technology has been put in place. A wonderful facility has been obtained from the fire services to be used at Fareham, but we are closing stations before that facility has been equipped and is up and running and other stations have been brought up to an equally high standard. We have concerns about safety in depth and the closure of stations, which is far too premature until we have a fully operational national coordination centre.
Q7Chair: Have you been given any explanation for the change in policy and the decision to go ahead with closures before the new centre is operational?
Allan Graveson: No explanation whatsoever has been given to us. We can only make the presumption that they are looking at costs in the immediate future. Clearly, there will be a significant gap until the stations are fully equipped and the new national centre is fully open. It is extremely dangerous.
I may be at variance with some of my colleagues in saying that, as an organisation, we are quite happy with 11 stations: five in England, three in Scotland, two in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. Given the geographical nature of these islands, the weather conditions and language, and bearing in mind the principles of devolution, we are quite happy with 11 stations. We think that is right and proper, but they have to be supported by a national coordination centre that is fully equipped with properly trained staff of high calibre. We are also looking at the calibre of staff, who will be significantly improved through training, and, accordingly, at their remuneration.
Q8Iain Stewart: You have referred to the closure of Forth and the connection problems with the communication system. Have there been any incidents at sea in that period when your ability to respond has been impaired in some way?
Alex Dodge: I have not been at the station much because I have been away on a course, but a couple of weeks ago we had an incident off Cape Wrath. Fortunately, the loss in connection occurred when the fishing vessel being towed by the lifeboat was closer to Orkney. If we had lost that connection during communications earlier in the day, we would not have been able to talk to them. That has happened. It has impinged slightly on an incident, so far not seriously, but there is potential for something like that to happen.
Q9Iain Stewart: I understand the potential. I am just wondering whether, in the period since Forth has closed, there has been an incident.
Steve Quinn: It has only been three weeks. I think we have been quite fortunate that it hasn’t at the moment.
Alex Dodge: But we are heading for winter.
Q10Mr Leech: That was the kind of question I was going to ask myself. From what Mr Graveson says, the emergency towing vehicles are no longer available. Have there been any circumstances in which other arrangements have had to be made instead of using the emergency towing vehicles that would have been available in the past?
Allan Graveson: There is the documented case of the MSC Flaminia, where the market did eventually respond after deaths on board and the potential loss of that vessel. That is certainly one incident. By the nature of transport, particularly shipping, time comes into the equation. It is not like road traffic accidents. When you are dealing with shipping and aviation, they tend to be potentially large incidents. I appreciate that there are the leisure, coastal and fishing sectors, but for shipping there is a major ferry disaster about every 18.5 years and a major fire every five years. If you don’t get the frequency, it is impossible to say in that time, but the MSC Flaminia is a very good example of an incident. The market did respond eventually. There were no MIRGs that could be put out on to that ship. A seafarer on that ship died, and eventually Germany took the vessel. That was potentially an extremely serious incident. You must remember that the United Kingdom has responsibility for a huge rescue area that extends halfway out across the Atlantic. It is not only cargo on the high seas but an increasing number of passenger ships, so time is a factor.
Q11Mr Leech: Are you suggesting that this fatality might have been avoided if the emergency towing vessels had been available?
Allan Graveson: We await the full report. I think that if the MIRGs had been available, subsequently the fire could have been brought under control sooner, the vessel might not have needed to be abandoned, and it could potentially have been limited, but we need a full inquiry. We must not prejudge this. We do need to have a full inquiry into that, and I have no doubt that Germany will conduct a thorough inquiry.
Q12Mr Leech: We were told categorically that there would be a market solution to the removal of the emergency towing vehicles. We were also told quite categorically by the opponents of their removal that in some parts of the area there was no market solution. Has any progress been made in having a market solution available across the whole of the UK?
Allan Graveson: No, there hasn’t. I have no doubt that a market solution would be available in the southern North sea. If you are to cut transport by 21% to 27%, you could probably live with it, but when you are cutting your emergency towing response by 100% you will die. The market will not solve everything, because ultimately you can get market failure. I attended meetings in Edinburgh where there was profound concern in Scotland. They know the potential dangers to their economy of a ship foundering on their coastline. The economic loss can be enormous. There is no market solution to the north and west of Scotland and equally to the Western Approaches, although, there, France has had to step in and reposition its towing vessels.
Q13Chair: Mr George, we are told by PCS Liverpool that the staff remain none the wiser about how the new system will work. Is that correct? When would staff have to be given information on the new arrangements to make the new system safe?
Brian George: We would like to find out as much about it as we can as soon as possible. We still fail to understand how the new system will work. We have had no information about it. There is rumour and speculation that originally the MOC would take a lot of the weight from various places round the country, but that now seems to have changed. Again, there is rumour and speculation that the MRSCs-the sub-centres-will do most of the rescue coordination, with the MOC backing them up, but we don’t know; we are still not getting any information. We seem to be left out of the loop, even as far as our coordination role with the Isle of Man is concerned. We were the liaison station for the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man has a new marine operations centre that we deal with on a daily basis. We know the pitfalls and problems of dog-legging and that sort of thing, but no one has asked us about it, or we have not been included in any negotiations with the Isle of Man at all.
Q14Chair: Would you be prepared to work with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to make these changes, even though you are obviously opposed to what they want to do?
Brian George: Yes, if they just tell us exactly how it is going to work. The suspicion at the moment is that they don’t know. Sir Alan Massey said previously that it is like sending a new ship to war. First, it has a work-up. You don’t know exactly how it will work until the team has put it all together. Then you send it to war. If you take that analogy, we are already at war. You can’t do a work-up while you are at war, if you like; it doesn’t work, but nobody has been anywhere near us to ask us or talk to us about it.
Q15Chair: I want to go back to the practical implications of closing the existing centres before the new system is operational. Could you tell us what the implications have been for Shetland, because there have been closures before the new system has been put into operation? What has it meant in practical terms?
Alex Dodge: In practical terms, it has meant that we have to work over a larger area about which we have no local knowledge with fewer staff. As of tomorrow, we will have 17.5 full-time members of staff. It is difficult when we have so little good local knowledge of the area we have to work in. I mentioned earlier that we had a jury-rigged connection with Aberdeen to try to get the aerials working. Currently, we have 11 channel 16 aerials to monitor. Trying to learn who our CRT teams are and deal with them, work with the lifeboat people, and find our feet in an area that we know very little about is difficult.
Q16Chair: The whole issue of local knowledge or situation awareness seems to be at the centre of the concerns. The MCA think that is not an issue. Can you tell us in your experience what the problems are and what the difficulties with the agency’s interpretation of local knowledge are?
Alex Dodge: Local knowledge is not just knowing the name of an area or where it is; it is being able to know which is the nearest team to send; knowing the team you are going to send; knowing the terrain you are dealing with; what lifeboat you are going to send; what the weather will be like and what the harbour will be like. It is not just knowing what a place is called and where it is; it is so much more. Having this knowledge enables you to make decisions far quicker, rather than us having to hunt around, looking up names and wondering if this or that is the best one. In our business we have to make very quick decisions; otherwise, people lose their lives. In many cases we have minutes in which to make those decisions.
Q17Chair: The Maritime and Coastguard Agency have explained how they are trying to capture databases to deal with the issue of local knowledge. Are they doing that correctly, or do you think that is the wrong way to go about it?
Alex Dodge: The only database I am aware of in which they are trying to capture this information is an Ordnance Survey project called FINTAN. I am actually part of it. It is trying to get vernacular and local place names on the OS maps. It is really nice to have these local names, but having a name is not just local knowledge; local knowledge is so much more than just knowing the names of places.
Q18Julie Hilling: To be clear as to what you are saying about closures and handover of information, is there a process where the stations are working together? How is it actually happening? Is there just one closing and then another area is supposed to take over the responsibilities?
Alex Dodge: A bit of information has passed between ourselves and colleagues in Aberdeen. If we are not certain about something, we can phone them up and ask them, but that is as far as the passing of information goes. We have had no solid, on-the-ground look at things where you go and talk to people.
Q19Julie Hilling: As to future closures, is there a programme in places you know of that will be about joint working for a period of time before closure? How is that handover going to happen? I know there is a question about whether they should close, but clearly the Ministry has decided that they will close. What is that process going to be?
Steve Quinn: There has been no definitive word given to the officers in the stations to say, "This is how we are going to do it." There are a number of working parties in place to work out how we are going to get from where we are now to where the MCA wish to be. It is worth saying that the PCS finally called off its industrial action after six years, just a couple of weeks ago. After six years of industrial action we have not furthered our cause very much, but to allow our members the best possible opportunity to transit from where they are now to the new system-hopefully, there will be better paid and more secure jobs in the future-that’s why we called off the industrial action.
You asked, Madam Chair, whether we would be prepared to work with the MCA. That is a perfect example of how we are prepared to work with the MCA. We said we will call off the industrial action-actually, we have suspended it-so that our members and all the staff can work through the process to get into the new system and work in the new jobs.
That said, on a practical basis, before they closed Forth on 28 September, if Forth, Aberdeen and Shetland had all been fully staffed, working with the risk assessment tool in place at that time, there would have been 13 officers on watch at any given time. Now that Forth has closed, we will have eight or possibly nine officers on watch to cover the same area and the same risk-in actual fact, an increased risk, because the people with the local knowledge down at Forth have now gone, bar two, and the people at Aberdeen are trying to play catch-up to get that local knowledge, while our colleagues in Shetland are playing catch-up to get local knowledge of the area that has been moved from Aberdeen to Shetland’s area. There are moves afoot and people are trying their best, but as far as I am aware, no document has been produced saying, "This is the road map; this is how we are going from A to B." That has not materialised.
Q20Julie Hilling: The Department for Transport have said: "A major objective has been a smooth transition…and better paid careers available within the future coastguard. Our discussions with the unions on the staffing roles and responsibilities have been constructive and helpful." It all sounds very rosy from what they are saying. Is that your experience?
Steve Quinn: There are a number of working parties in place to look at shift patterns in the future. The job descriptions and role profiles for the new posts have now been agreed upon. They have not been issued yet; the staff don’t know what they are, but they have been agreed upon. Working parties are trying to transit through that, and the staff will work with the MCA to try to move us forward, but I answered the same question last time I sat in front of you. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.
Q21Chair: Mr Graveson, when you spoke to us before, you said that you basically agreed with the new structure.
Allan Graveson: Yes.
Q22Chair: Do you share the concerns about the process or lack of process involved now, particularly in relation to local knowledge, given that you think the basic objectives are the correct ones?
Allan Graveson: I do have some concerns. We have to be realistic and accept some cuts in the situation we are in. We all have to be realistic. We also have to bear in mind how other countries manage this. I didn’t use the words "local knowledge"; I said "regional knowledge". That is very important, particularly in Scotland and Wales with language issues, and also the prevailing weather conditions in these islands. I would have liked to see much more constructive dialogue.
I will bow to my PCS colleagues here and say that our people have been employed mainly in what are called the higher-profile areas of Dover, Falmouth and so on. We have people there and they are very willing to cooperate-absolutely willing to co-operate-but we are trying to close stations before we have got the new regime in place, and that is where it is fundamentally failing. We wouldn’t do this in the fire service, ambulance service or indeed the police forces in this country; we would not close control rooms before we had new ones up and running with the new technology and equipment. There needs to be constructive dialogue here with what is the fourth emergency service, where there is the potential for loss of life on a scale you will not find anywhere else.
Q23Iain Stewart: In your opinion, how long would it take for someone in Shetland, for example, to acquire local or regional knowledge of another station? What period of time are we looking at? Is it a couple of weeks or a couple of months?
Alex Dodge: It depends on what things you want to do.
Q24Iain Stewart: To be able to cover the area with the same degree of proficiency as the previous station.
Alex Dodge: I would say at least a year before you could get to know people. The problem is that it depends on how you go about it. Can you go away and make an intensive visit, or are you just going to pop up and down? It is trying to fit these things in with things like watch-keeping and normal family life as well. It could take anything up to a year.
Steve Quinn: I know that some of my colleagues in Aberdeen are planning a visit to what previously had been Forth’s patch as soon as they can. It may not be at the end of this month but the beginning of next month.
To continue what Alex said, they are being encouraged to make these visits, but there is no structured format to them. They are having to do it in their four days off. They work a full round of watches and they have to make these visits in their four-day rest period. They have been told that there are no overtime payments available to do it; they will have to take time off in lieu, which just means that the problem of people getting leave and having enough staff on station to take leave gets pushed further down the line. It doesn’t actually solve the problem.
Q25Julie Hilling: To follow up that point, when people move between stations anyway, because clearly staff will be relocated, how long is it before they are operating a desk, if that is the right terminology for it?
Steve Quinn: It is down to the individual concerned, bearing in mind that, if an officer moves from one station to another, there is only one person who doesn’t have that knowledge. He can be tutored and mentored by everybody else who is on watch with him, and he can be guided for a period of time until that individual is up and running. What we are talking about now are wholesale areas of local knowledge no longer being available.
Q26Julie Hilling: I understand that, but, surely, it is not a year before that person would be deemed to be confident to be the sort of person who is dealing with a situation on the front line.
Alex Dodge: You don’t work as an individual; you work as part of a team. If it is just one individual who moves into a new station, as Steve said, that person will be surrounded by other members of staff, who will mentor them and be able to point them in the right direction and help with decision making, whereas when you have a whole ops room full of people who don’t know the area it is a different matter.
Q27Mr Leech: All the way through this process I have been very confused about the relationship between the Maritime Operations Centre and the individual coastguard offices. Are you clear as to exactly how the roles will change in your individual stations once the MOC opens?
Alex Dodge: No.
Steve Quinn: No.
Q28Mr Leech: Has there been any attempt by anybody to explain how the role will change?
Steve Quinn: No. If I can expand that a little bit, as I said a moment ago, the new role profiles and job descriptions have been agreed. They have not been issued to the staff yet, because basically, as I am sure you are aware, everybody is potentially out of a job. They are going to have to reapply for these jobs at the newer grade; so at the moment they don’t know what the new jobs will entail. As a consequence, they don’t really know how they will fit into that system; they don’t even know what shift patterns they will be working; they don’t know exactly what roles they will take on when they go for promotion. We have asked the question many times: will this MOC take in all the search and rescue incidents and farm them out, or will the people working at the other stations be responsible for their area of responsibility but that area of responsibility can move? So the short answer to your question is no.
Q29Mr Leech: Do we know when the MOC is due to open?
Steve Quinn: I believe it is in 2014.
Q30Mr Leech: Is work ongoing to take on staff working in the Maritime Operations Centre?
Brian George: Not that I know of.
Steve Quinn: The MCA are looking to start recruiting existing staff into the new roles in the new year.
Q31Chair: Mr George, were you trying to come in?
Brian George: They can start the process of trying to get experienced officers to go to the MOC, if I can put it like that, but it is like going from here to there when you don’t know where "there" is and you don’t know how the system works. If we knew that, it might ease some people’s worries, and they may even-I doubt it-get some experienced officers to work at the MOC.
Q32Mr Leech: Has there been any approach to any of your members by the MCA to recruit people into the MOC?
Alex Dodge: No.
Steve Quinn: No. As I understand it, the system to recruit and promote people into the new roles is due to start in the new year.
Q33Chair: Can I just be clear what your answers are? There was a general "no". I don’t know if that was from everybody. Is everyone saying no? So that is a "no", unless somebody says anything different.
Allan Graveson: I know one or two individuals-younger members obviously looking to their future-who have said they would be quite happy to transfer and go to work at the MOC, but of course there is a degree of uncertainty in the period to 2014. We really are dragging things out. If this could be effected as soon as possible and in a timely manner so that people can receive the proper training, we would probably save money, but there seems to be no thought whatsoever in this. The older people are very concerned about their future employment, particularly if they are in their mid to late 50s. The younger people have said they are quite happy to go there but they are getting no information.
Q34Mr Leech: In the original consultation process I questioned whether or not, effectively, the maritime operations centres would be glorified call centres. I still don’t see how they are going to be anything other than glorified call centres. Am I being very naive or just overly-concerned about what the role of the MOC will be?
Brian George: No. That is exactly the point. It would appear that the MOC will become something of a call centre. The system that they want to work is different from the one we have at the moment where we have coordinators. We get a bit fed up with various Ministers saying that it is only the coordinators who are going. We don’t like to be thought of as "only the coordinators"; it belittles our role. The coordination centres are very important, and the new system, whatever it is, will be different from the role we have at the moment. We just cannot see how a new system, whatever it is, will work, other than the MOC becoming a glorified call centre.
Steve Quinn: I don’t disagree with anything Brian says. As I understand it, to answer your question, I think the MOC will be a hybrid of both. It will have responsibility for search and rescue within its own area, so it will be an operational search and rescue centre on the one side, but we don’t know whether they will take in emergency calls for the whole of the UK and pass them out to other stations, in which case half of it is then a call-handling centre. It could be both.
Allan Graveson: We are trying to provide a facility for leisure, fishing and commercial shipping. I think it is a question of degree of magnitude here. Certainly, when we are looking to beach rescue or coastal fishing, local regional knowledge is important, but when we are moving out into the deep sea and to the waters around our coast-incidentally, the channel is the busiest in the world-we need much greater capacity to be able to bring more resources to bear in such situations. We are in reality responsible for waters halfway across the Atlantic.
Q35Kwasi Kwarteng: The picture you paint is one of utter confusion and a lot of risk. If what you say is right, presumably there will be a huge disaster at some point once this has been implemented. Would you like to talk a bit more about that? You are prophesying doom, and, as far as I can see, there are no redeeming features in any of these proposals. I want to test that proposition. I am presuming that you want to see the status quo; you don’t want to see any change at all. That is my question.
Chair: Mr George, could you perhaps clarify what you want to see being done?
Brian George: We would like to see anything that improves the coastguard service and makes our response quicker. These proposals don’t make it any quicker. In fact, Sir Alan Massey said it was likely to increase response time by up to 10 minutes, but they deem this to be an acceptable risk. I beg to differ; that is not an acceptable risk. You cannot modernise something and make it worse.
Q36Kwasi Kwarteng: They could give all the information they could on how it would work, but that is not your issue. Your issue is that you think this plan is fundamentally more risky-riskier-than what we have now. Is that the issue?
Brian George: That is the issue, yes. From the information we have about it, it is far more risky. To try to simplify it, if I am in trouble in the water, on a cliff or wherever, I want the person on the end of my distress call-I don’t care how it is made, whether it is by flapping my arms up and down or by some electronic gizmo or other-to sort it out. I do not want him to have a discussion about it with an MOC somewhere else, creating dog legs all over the place; I do not want him to have to get a sector manager out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning to be involved in the coordination of it. This is before we have launched the lifeboats or anything like that. I want that person to sort it out, and that is what we do at the moment. If we get any sort of distress call, we sort it out. This creates dog legs all over the place. That will increase response time, and that is one of our main concerns.
Q37Kwasi Kwarteng: So essentially we are moving from a very good system, as far as you are concerned, to one that has more risk.
Brian George: I think so. Obviously, it can be improved. If we can find a way of improving it to decrease response time and make it even more efficient, then good; we are all for it, but this does not appear to do that.
Alex Dodge: At the beginning of this whole sorry process Sir Alan Massey made the statement in a radio interview that we were not a very efficient service. I have to say we are a very effective service. We were staffed by some very loyal people in the coastguard. That loyalty has already gone; we no longer have that. We also rely heavily on volunteers, whether it is from the coastguard rescue service, the RNLI or other lifeboat services. We are going to rely more and more on search and rescue at sea on the cheap, as we are dealing with people like me, who are on the front line of search and rescue. People have the idea in their heads that we just sit there and answer telephone and radio calls. We are at the front line of all this and are being cheapened; we are losing our desire to put the best into our jobs.
Q38Kwasi Kwarteng: But do you think efficiency should be a consideration in the provision of this service?
Alex Dodge: When it comes to people’s lives it should be effective. We should get the job done as quickly as possible-
Q39Kwasi Kwarteng: You will understand that there is a tension between effectiveness and efficiency. To be really effective, we could double the number of stations.
Alex Dodge: We could indeed.
Q40Kwasi Kwarteng: We could do that, and that would be very effective. It would not necessarily be very efficient or something that we could afford. You can see that there is a tension there.
Alex Dodge: Yes.
Q41Kwasi Kwarteng: So you would accept that efficiency is something that should be a consideration.
Alex Dodge: It could be a consideration, but when you hear that the whole process will save £7.4 million a year net, is it worth it?
Q42Chair: Mr Graveson, do you want to comment on this?
Allan Graveson: You can get efficiency and effectiveness, but you have to invest in the people and the technology. For example, if you remove the maritime surveillance aircraft, yes, you can use drones perhaps-technology. We can use image telemetry; we can use a great deal to give us information on the coastline that we currently do not have, but we have to invest in the people and technology and do it up front. Then you will get savings in future years, but you cannot cut now and just hope that by good will you can manage and get by. That is not the way to do it. We can get efficiency and effectiveness, but it needs investment in people and technology.
Q43Chair: I want to ask further about communications technology. Do you need a step change in the communications systems rather than an upgrade of the existing systems? This seems to be one of the contentious points. The agency is saying that communication systems will be upgraded to make this new system work. Does it look like that to you?
Steve Quinn: I answered the same question last time I sat in front of you. We do not know what systems are available. We are not communications experts. The system we have got and the one that I understand we will have come 2014 is one and the same. At the moment, it is BT telephone lines to and from remote radio sites on hilltops. That is subject to the foibles of any BT hard-wired system. They can and do go down quite often. We work around them, but BT telephone lines can be broken and cut. At the minute, with regard to the system we have now and the one we will have in the future, with enhanced databases, the communications network, as I understand it, will be the same, and it has its limitations.
Q44Chair: We are told that two coastguard stations cannot share the same aerial site. If that is correct, what problems does it cause?
Steve Quinn: I have raised this issue on a number of occasions. This goes back to the fact that we do not yet know how the system is going to work in future, but the laws of physics cannot be changed. If station A is getting very busy and is overwhelmed with search and rescue work, the MCA line on it is that they will move the boundaries of that station so that the next one along, or a station on the other side of the country, can take some responsibility, leaving the busy station to concentrate on what it is doing. That is fine in theory, but if that station is busy and is using those VHF aerials to communicate with people in distress and search and rescue assets, while that station is using those aerials they cannot be used by anybody else; they can be used only by one operator at a time. Theoretically, you can move the boundaries around to shed workload, but if the aerials are being used by the station that is busy, nobody else can use them; that is the bottom line.
Q45Chair: Ms Dodge, what are the vulnerabilities in the communication systems between you and other stations?
Alex Dodge: A strike of lightning can knock out an exchange. It did that to us a couple of years ago. It knocked out a whole exchange for a good couple of weeks and we had no communications. It is as simple as that. Bad weather is one of our main problems. As for technology, computers fail. We rely on computers an awful lot. It just takes a computer to fail or a server to drop out and we have problems.
Brian George: Talking about vulnerability in the system, we had a situation in Liverpool a little while ago where our ordinary telephone lines became intermittent and people could not get through. The 999 system was all right, but the ordinary telephone lines were intermittent and then disappeared altogether. They came back and were intermittent again. During this process it was determined that it was a BT fault. We got in touch with BT, who said they were not able to fix it because we were not paying enough. Apparently we did not have the right system in place to do this; it would have only cost about £200 to £300 to do it. A request was sent up the line to various levels, right to the very top, as far as I am led to believe. Everybody passed the buck and said, "No, we are not authorising that. We can’t authorise that", and so it went on. We were told to monitor it and they would sort it out. This happened over a weekend and we were only paying for the system to be sorted out between Monday and Friday apparently. That sort of thing can happen. If the structure is not in place properly and you are not paying the right money, then it can all fall apart.
Q46Chair: There is a lot of reliance in the proposed new system on retaining the expertise of staff, even if they are moving to another location. What are your views on how many existing coastguard staff will remain in the system, even if they are in another place? Mr George, what is your view about the situation in Liverpool? How many staff are likely to remain in the service?
Brian George: At the moment probably one or two people have expressed an interest in maybe staying with the coastguard. A lot of other experienced people are simply looking for other jobs. We have lost four very experienced coastguards in the last four months. If the new system was all it was cracked up to be, the jobs paid properly and it was all going to be wonderful, surely they would stay. I think that is echoed around the coast. From those I talk to round the coast, most people are looking for other jobs.
Q47Chair: Does anyone else want to comment on that or have any other views?
Alex Dodge: At the very beginning of this I said that people are not going to move very quickly because, quite often, especially if they are in relationships, the other half of the relationship probably has quite a good job. That has to be taken into account. If they have families, they will be at a good school; they have a house. All of it has to be taken into consideration. Quite often, people do not want to take the risk of moving to goodness knows what within the coastguard, at whatever level of pay they are going to give us. They stay in the area they know and look for a job within that area, because now is not the time to try to sell a house and move.
Allan Graveson: I also believe that you need a blend or a mixture of people to operate both efficiently and effectively. You need people with maritime skills as well to be recruited into the coastguard. It is vitally important to have that blend of people, and you need people with maritime skills to deal certainly with the major issues as and when they arise.
Q48Chair: PCS say that 15% of all operational coastguard posts are vacant. Is that an accurate figure?
Steve Quinn: As far as I am aware, that is still an accurate figure. To go back to the previous point, when the Forth closed, out of a staff of 12 or 14 full-time officers, two have come to Aberdeen and the rest have all left the service. When Clyde becomes non-operational in November and closes in December, my understanding is that between two and four have expressed interest in coming to Aberdeen, two or three have expressed an interest in going to Belfast, and nobody has expressed an interest in going to Stornoway. That pool of local knowledge, which will be divided between Stornoway and Belfast, at best will rest with two or three people moving to Belfast and none moving to Stornoway.
Q49Chair: We are about to question the new Minister with responsibility for shipping and Sir Alan Massey. What is the most important thing that you think they should be doing now?
Steve Quinn: I think they should stop and think about it. We have closed Forth now. If there was a structured plan to closing it, it was never revealed to the staff. It was open one day and next day it was closed. We were given assurances that we would have the correct numbers of qualified staff in place to take up the slack when these stations closed. That is not happening. It has not happened at Forth; it looks like it is not going to happen in Clyde either. We are not against change; we have never been against change. As I said earlier, we are prepared to work with the MCA to move through this process, but at the moment it is being done on an ad hoc basis, and is somewhat forced upon the MCA. In fairness, I will admit that, but the staff are not being taken with them. Forth has closed and Clyde is about to close, and the staff are not being taken with them in any structured format.
Q50Chair: Does anyone want to make any different point?
Allan Graveson: If you are making an effective change like this, everybody in business knows how you must do it. You can do it right or wrong. Here, you have to spend money up front to do this properly and engage with your people. Be very clear and precise on what your endgame is and what you wish to achieve. Allocate your resources to do it, use them wisely and get there, but you need to invest in the people. They are the most important asset you have, together with technology, but you have to be prepared to buy the best. It will save you money in the long run.
Brian George: I would agree with what both colleagues have said. They must slow down. The Minister should put a stop to it to begin with and just think about what they are doing and not go galloping ahead closing stations all over the place without first having a proper structure in place. When they have the system that they want to work, ask them to tell us what it is, and then everybody will be a lot happier. In the case of Liverpool, the decision to close the coastguard station at Liverpool is quite shocking in itself. Liverpool, with all its facilities, could help. We do not want them to close a different station and keep Liverpool open; they should keep Liverpool coastguard station open.
Q51Chair: I am looking for just one main point, but they all hang together.
Brian George: There you go. There is your point: keep it open.
Q52Chair: Ms Dodge, do you have any key point to put to the Minister?
Alex Dodge: We have been concentrating, quite rightly, on professional coastguards in coastguard stations, but as a warning, there is a massive problem brewing within the coastguard rescue service as well. There are many there who have seen what is ahead. They are being relied on for local knowledge and will take on more responsibility, and more paperwork will be taken on. A lot of very experienced people there are saying, "No more. I’m not going to take any more; I am walking away from this." People who have dedicated their lives to the communities feel that, with the pressure on them now, they cannot take any more. This is going to be a huge problem in the future.
Steve Quinn: You will no doubt be told by the chief executive and new Minister that, in the new scheme, coastguards will have better remunerated jobs and a better future. That, to some extent, is true, but to put that in context, when we started to take industrial action six years ago over low pay, we were the lowest paid of all the emergency services. Even when staff get these new jobs, which they have to apply for, and get promoted, to put that in context, the coastguard will still be the lowest paid staff of any emergency service. So we have moved on but we have not moved up.
Chair: That is a suitable point on which to finish this session. Thank you very much, all of you, for coming and giving evidence.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Stephen Hammond MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport, and Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Massey KCB CBE, Chief Executive, Maritime and Coastguard Agency, gave evidence.
Q53Chair: Good afternoon, gentlemen, and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. I extend a special welcome to Mr Hammond. We hope this is the first of many visits to the Committee in your new capacity and we congratulate you on your position.
Minister, you are new in this position. Has the situation in the coastguard service been flagged up to you as a matter for concern-one where you should perhaps call for a pause and have a look at the situation itself?
Stephen Hammond: With your permission, Mrs Ellman, I would like to make an opening statement, which I think has been agreed with your officials. If that statement does not cover the question, I will answer it.
As the Committee knows, safety is very much this Government’s top priority. Delivery on search and rescue does not change under the modernisation plan. It is the coordination arrangements that will change. Your Committee’s helpful report in June 2011 highlighted a number of concerns about our original proposals for modernisation, which were published in December 2010. The Government considered that report and other representations before moving to the second round of public consultation in July 2011, and then announcing final decisions about the number and location of coastguard coordination centres in November 2011. As part of that consultation process the MCA received 27 sets of alternative proposals. Without exception, those alternative proposals accepted the need for change and fewer coastguard coordination centres, ranging in number between six and 15, compared with the 19 we started out with.
The blueprint, which we confirmed last November, kept at least one centre open from every existing pair of centres, addressing head-on the concerns raised by this Committee and others about the perceived lack and loss of local knowledge. We also moved away from the original concept of some centres only opening during the day, and all the remaining 11 centres will operate 24 hours. In short, the Government agreed to keep open more centres and retain more coastguards, with only 159 posts being lost nationally.
Since last November the MCA have been working tirelessly on the practical implementation of the modernisation plan, involving the staff and the PCS union at every step. Her Majesty’s Coastguard now occupies the new Maritime Operations Centre in Fareham, and arrangements are being made to have that facility operational by April 2014.
On 28 September the Forth centre closed. Two coastguard officers have been redeployed to the centre at Aberdeen. The centre manager has joined the MCA’s training team. Another coastguard officer is working locally but for the MCA’s headquarters team, and one administrator has joined the MCA marine office in Leith. All other staff have decided to leave the service.
The transfer of Forth’s area of responsibility to the Aberdeen centre has been successful. The Stornoway, Belfast and Clyde centres are working together to exchange information and knowledge. Throughout November the Clyde centre’s current area will be managed by officers at Belfast centre, with their Clyde colleagues shadowing the operations in case there is any need to step in. That experience will give us the assurance we need in readiness to exit the Clyde centre by the end of December.
Working very closely with the PCS union, the MCA have now completed the detailed work to grade the new roles and responsibilities. In short, that means the jobs in the new structures will be at least one civil service grade higher than the roles that currently exist. The PCS union has consequently suspended its industrial action short of a strike, which has been in place since May 2007.
Let me reiterate that the safety of our citizens is the Government’s highest priority. We are committed to ensuring that nothing we do in this changed programme will compromise that principle, put seafarers or the public at greater risk, or reduce the quality of service that HM Coastguard so proudly provide.
Q54Chair: Thank you, Minister. The contents of your statement contrast starkly with the information we have just heard from the PCS union, which you named, and people working in the service. They consider that they have not been involved sufficiently; they are extremely concerned not just about what you are trying to achieve but process. Why do you think that should be? You have just given us a statement implying that everything is proceeding in an orderly fashion and people are broadly content. That is in stark contrast to what we have just been hearing. Why should that be?
Stephen Hammond: I would like to offer two potential explanations for that, and perhaps I will ask Sir Alan to give you greater detail of the meetings that have taken place. It seems to me that any organisational change is always unsettling for members of staff who are directly affected. I think it was accepted in the evidence we gave to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee that there has been a differential approach from people directly and the national unions. If you look outside the public consultation process and indeed within it, there have been a significant number of meetings with the MCA and unions throughout the whole process. My predecessor, Mr Penning, met them in July 2010 and 2012, so there has been extensive consultation throughout the whole period. If your Committee would appreciate it, perhaps Sir Alan can detail in much greater depth what the MCA and PCS have done.
Q55Chair: Maybe he can do that in response to specific questions from members. Your predecessor did give a commitment to the House on 22 November last that no centres will close before the robustness of the system was demonstrated. That has not been honoured. Why is that?
Stephen Hammond: We are keeping to the original timetable that we set out last November. My predecessor also ensured that there would be no reconfiguring of the service in any way unless it could be proved to be resilient and robust.
Q56Chair: That has not happened, Mr Hammond. The point is that the House was given that commitment because, despite the changes the Department made in response to our initial report-I acknowledge that some significant changes were made-there were still concerns about safety from widespread sections of the House. In response to that, the specific commitment was given by your predecessor. Despite that, it has not been honoured. The Forth has closed; the Clyde centre is due to close; Brixham and Yarmouth are due to close before the new centre is due to be operational. Why has that commitment not been honoured? Is it something you would look at now, if you haven’t been aware of it before?
Stephen Hammond: I am aware of it, but I am convinced that we have kept to the timetable he set out. When he gave that assurance, he also gave the assurance that it would not happen if there was not resilience and robustness in the system, as I understand it. The operational pairing that has gone on, the transfer of knowledge and the exercises that have happened between November 2011 and 2012 have proved that the closures that have happened have occurred without incident and according to the planned timetable.
Q57Kwasi Kwarteng: Congratulations on your appointment, Minister. I am very pleased to see you here. Obviously, as a new Minister I am sure you have got to grips with your Department. As someone coming new into this, what assurances do you have that the new system will be robust and safe?
Stephen Hammond: I am sure your Committee is aware that within 18 days of being appointed I had to give evidence to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. Therefore, I made sure that I had had two briefings of some length and detail with both the chief executive and my officials at the back.
Q58Kwasi Kwarteng: Have you visited any of these coastguard stations?
Stephen Hammond: I have not visited the coastguards. I have visited the Marine Accident Investigation Bureau.
Q59Kwasi Kwarteng: Let me ask the question again. Apart from the briefings given to you by civil servants, what assurances do you have that this new system will be robust?
Stephen Hammond: If you are asking whether I have personally visited someone or spoken to-
Q60Kwasi Kwarteng: I have already asked you that.
Stephen Hammond: I know you have. Have I personally visited any on the ground or spoken to people in those centres? I cannot say that I have, because that would be wrong. However, I have spoken to the chief executive of the service and also our officials. I am sure in my own mind that the procedures they are putting in place are both resilient and would do nothing to counter the statement I made about safety.
Q61Kwasi Kwarteng: Do you have any plans to make these visits, or are you sufficiently satisfied that the thing will be robust from your office?
Stephen Hammond: You can be clear that my diary is full of visits going forward. Of course I will be visiting them, and I am happy to make the date of my next visit available to you.
Q62Mr Leech: You said that no centres would close until there was confidence that the remaining service was going to be resilient. If that is the case, what will the MOC add when it opens in 2014?
Stephen Hammond: Sorry?
Mr Leech: When the Maritime Operations Centre opens, what difference will it make to the service as it stands at the moment? The previous set of witnesses was unable to tell us what was going to change after 2014 when it opened.
Stephen Hammond: I can tell you the high level and I will ask Sir Alan to give you the exact details of the various ways in which the communication system between the various coordination centres will take place. It will be the centre of national coordination; it will provide a strategic framework for coordination. It will be able to oversee national emergencies as well. In terms of the day-to-day changes, perhaps Sir Alan would like to comment.
Q63Mr Leech: Before Sir Alan comes in, what would happen if there was a national emergency now?
Stephen Hammond: There is a system at the moment. It would be coordinated by each individual coordination centre.
Q64Mr Leech: That suggests that, if the system works at the moment and a national emergency arises, there are whatever national emergency procedures are in place. I want to get to the bottom of what difference the Maritime Operations Centre will make.
Stephen Hammond: At the moment, as I understand it, the difference in terms of one of the systems is that it is progressive in the way the back-up works, whereas this will be able to coordinate resources from across the United Kingdom. Moreover, it will be able to coordinate with each centre simultaneously, rather than on a progressive basis.
Q65Mr Leech: On the ground, at the different coastguard centres, what differences will they see post-2014? I assume that Sir Alan would be better qualified to answer a question about the day-to-day running of those centres.
Stephen Hammond: If you are happy for Sir Alan to answer that one, I think he should.
Q66Chair: Sir Alan, could you tell us exactly what will happen?
Sir Alan Massey: Perhaps I may put the wider context first. We are going from a very dispersed and diffuse organisation of 19 stations that are very loosely connected to each other and operate as fighting pairs, as I think we have explained previously. We are now in a transition phase from that scenario, which is not terribly efficient, does not make the best use of manpower and does not allow us to shed or shift workload according to the situations of highest needs. We have to move from that into our vision, which is one of a centrally controlled national network in which all information will be exchanged and accessible to every coastguard on watch at a time.
The advantages of that are self-evident. If you have a Titanic incident off the south- west and something awful off the north-east but the rest of the stations are not engaged-and they tend not to be engaged for most of the time-in future we will be able to use the resources in all of the stations according to need. So, for example, if something happens off the south-west coast and it overpowers the competence and capacity of, say, Falmouth, you could bring to bear the capacity of workers in Shetland, for argument’s sake, Humber or whatever. You can also shed unnecessary workload from a station that is busy doing something really important such that another station can pick that up. At the moment we have no capability to do that and no oversight.
Q67Mr Leech: That is a reasonable explanation, but isn’t that a justification for not closing stations until that Maritime Operations Centre is up and running?
Sir Alan Massey: No, not necessarily. What the Minister undertook to do was not to close a station until he was satisfied that there was robustness and at least as much, if not more, resilience. We have approached this transition in a sectoral way.
Q68Chair: Sir Alan, that is not happening. I agree that it is the Minister who has to answer that, but it has not happened. Mr Hammond has just said that he is satisfied in his head. I think the words he used were, "It is measured in my own mind that there is resilience", but "measured in my own mind" is hardly an assessment, is it?
Stephen Hammond: I think it was the evidence presented. I do not think I said "measured in my own mind". I don’t think it is fair to say that that point about robustness and resilience has not been proven. There may have been a different view expressed to you.
Q69Kwasi Kwarteng: How has it been proven?
Sir Alan Massey: First, shall we start in the north-east with Forth, which closed on 28 September to have its duties taken over by Aberdeen? We approached this on a sectoral basis. We took Shetland into account as well, so it is the north-east quadrant. We have strengthened the links between Aberdeen and Shetland; we have shifted aerials so that Shetland has more of Aberdeen’s patch and Aberdeen has more capacity to deal with the Forth patch to the south. Aberdeen and Forth were already umbilically linked as a pair-in fact uniquely so because all the communications and data infrastructure for Forth sits in Aberdeen already. On many occasions in the past Aberdeen has demonstrated the capability of taking over Forth’s area of operation with no problems whatsoever. If you take 24 days in August this year, between the 4th and the 28th, on no fewer than 18 occasions Aberdeen either took, or was invited to stand by to take, the whole of Forth’s area to deal with operations that Forth felt was beyond its capacity. This is completely routine.
What we have done to bolster that north-east quadrant is put in additional dialup capability between Shetland and Aberdeen and flank stations like Humber, Yarmouth, Stornoway and Belfast. That then gives added resilience. That is exactly what the Minister spoke of.
Q70Chair: Sir Alan, can I say that Shetland has told us that the MCA have not fulfilled their undertakings to provide coastguards with ample opportunity to visit and familiarise themselves with the new areas of responsibility? We have heard directly from Shetland today that the process you are describing has not taken place. How do we equate those things?
Sir Alan Massey: There will be a difference of view.
Q71Chair: But these are facts, aren’t they?
Stephen Hammond: No; it is a view, surely.
Sir Alan Massey: I can be quite honest that in closing Forth we have already based our confidence on the fact that for those two stations, because of their particular umbilical linkage and the number of times on which they substitute for each other, the local knowledge is pretty much a given. We have put much more effort in the north-west quadrant. We are now talking about Belfast, Stornoway and Clyde. Stornoway has never been linked with anybody properly but is now being invited to develop a hard link with Belfast to share Clyde’s residual area when Clyde closes. We have a very structured way of transferring knowledge and building robustness in both operational and people capacity terms.
Q72Kwasi Kwarteng: You have given a very clear indication of where you think the strength of your new system lies. As you say, there are different views with regard to the people who actually work in the service. I appreciate the fact that any system of change is going to have some resistance, but what is and what should be concerning to the Committee is the level of morale within the service.
There are two things. There is an issue with the safety provision once the new scheme has been implemented, and there is also a sense, which I find very worrying, that people on the ground do not know what you are trying to achieve. This seems to be broadly a political problem, in the sense that you have not won people over; you have not won hearts and minds. Going forward, this is something that people who are interested in this area, which is of vital importance, will be very concerned about. What are you doing to try to redress that?
Stephen Hammond: Can I just put on the record exactly what has happened? In the period between November 2009 and 2010 PCS officials and staff met nine times to conduct joint workshops on the proposed modernisation programme. Mr Penning, my predecessor, met the PCS on two occasions. The MCA and PCS continued to have ongoing meetings through the whole process at all levels. PCS representatives have been meeting twice monthly since the November announcement. The CEO of the MCA, Sir Alan, signed a pre-redundancy agreement with the PCS in May 2012, and the MCA and the unions are now working together to develop the associated pay, terms and conditions and training for all the new coastguard roles. As I said earlier, on 8 November the PCS announced their decision to suspend their six years of actions short of a strike.
Q73Kwasi Kwarteng: Was this 8 November last year?
Stephen Hammond: No; 8 October this year.
Q74Kwasi Kwarteng: You said "November".
Stephen Hammond: I apologise-8 October this year. That sounds to me like a pretty heavy process of formal engagement. There was, as I mentioned in my speech, an opportunity for everybody to get involved in the second round of consultations. There were 27 submissions, of which the majority were from people currently in the coastguard service. Let us be clear: undoubtedly people at individual stations will be disappointed and unhappy, because any type of organisational change is always unsettling for members of staff, but I do not think it is fair to say on that evidence that there has been no consultation.
Q75Kwasi Kwarteng: I have never said that; the word "consultation" has never issued from my lips. What I am talking about is what I see today. I am not talking about the past; I am not talking about the number of times Mr Penning saw the PCS. As of today, there seems to be some uncertainty, and you still have a job, if I may say so, in trying to win hearts and minds. I want to know what you are going to do about that going forward. I am not interested in what happened when your predecessor was the Under-Secretary.
Stephen Hammond: We have to reassure people about safety in a hearts-and-minds exercise. There has been, since I took office, a reaffirmation of what we are doing in terms of safety. There has been engagement on social networks as well with members of the coastguard directly who wish to communicate what has been happening from the MCA, so there is an ongoing process to engage people.
Q76Kwasi Kwarteng: It seems odd to me, referring to an earlier answer, that, given the level of disquiet, for want of a better phrase, you have not been to a station.
Stephen Hammond: Mr Kwarteng, perhaps the level of disquiet being expressed to your Committee is being expressed less by the people themselves than formally through the union process.
Q77Kwasi Kwarteng: So people are happier than we have been led to believe.
Stephen Hammond: You may wish to draw that conclusion.
Q78Chair: Is it your view, Minister, that people are happier than the evidence given to us suggests?
Stephen Hammond: All I can say is that I have-yes, that is my view.
Q79Graham Stringer: In terms of the reorganisation, can you tell us in terms of the response times whether the new system will be the same as the old one, inferior to it or better?
Sir Alan Massey: In my judgment, the response time will be of an order extremely similar to that which we are enjoying today. It would have to be a hypothetical incident of some sort whereby what we are doing now would in some way disturb that response. I am on record as having said that, under certain circumstances, you might have to endure something like a 10-minute delay because of issues, maybe, of gaining very detailed knowledge of a particular location where in the past a station would have been but now won’t be there. That was speculative on my part. My judgment at the moment is that it would be indiscernible.
Q80Graham Stringer: I don’t quite understand how you put "indiscernible" with the judgment of 10 minutes. Certainly, the first point of agreement we have had between yourself and the unions is that there might be a 10-minute delay. I would be grateful if you could expand on that point. Is it going to be the same, or is there going to be a 10-minute delay?
Sir Alan Massey: I just can’t tell you, Mr Stringer, what the actual situation will be. The scenarios are so wildly variable. The 10 minutes came from a notion that perhaps in future, rather than an operator absolutely knowing the location of "Bere spit" 20 miles down the road, he might have to telephone somebody to find out.
Q81Graham Stringer: That takes us to the point of local knowledge, doesn’t it? You said earlier, when talking about Shetland, that it was a question of view about giving them an ample opportunity to visit and familiarise themselves with their new area of responsibility. It is not a question of view, is it? It is a matter of fact. Have they been able to do that?
Sir Alan Massey: Do you mean the Shetland staff?
Q82Graham Stringer: Yes. The statement was made that those staying and having responsibility for areas of which they previously did not have knowledge were told that they were going to be able to visit and familiarise themselves with the new area. Have those visits taken place?
Sir Alan Massey: To my knowledge, the opportunity has definitely been given. I will have to check as to whether people have been there.
Q83Graham Stringer: Opportunity and views are not the same as whether they have been or not been. It was a commitment given. Have they or haven’t they?
Sir Alan Massey: I will have to get back to you, Mr Stringer. What I can say is that over Belfast, Clyde and Stornoway-1
Q84Graham Stringer: Can I say that I find your answer particularly unsatisfactory? We are dealing with matters of safety and something that has been the subject of a report from this Committee and other Committees of the House of Commons. You do not know whether a commitment has been given, but you are happy and content to talk about the attitude of staff there. It is surprising.
Sir Alan Massey: I will find that out and report back to the
Committee on it, but one has to see this in perspective as well. What does one gain from doing it? I don’t know. It is not a sine qua non of developing the system.
Q85Graham Stringer: I have no idea either what you gain from it. All I know is that it was a commitment given. Presumably, if it was a commitment given, it was something worth doing.
Sir Alan Massey: We have certainly done it on the north-west quadrant. We are doing it right now.
Q86Graham Stringer: But we are talking about Shetland, which was specifically where the commitment was given about.
Sir Alan Massey: I don’t know. Okay, I did not give a specific commitment to Shetland. Shetland has taken six aerials from Aberdeen, which gives them the north coast of Scotland and part, if not all, of the Orkneys. I cannot tell you to what extent they have taken the opportunity to go and visit and share local knowledge. What I can say is that the area where we have taken a very distinct interest, because of Stornoway’s particular position there, is in making sure that knowledge transfer is happening in a very systematic way.
Q87Graham Stringer: Minister, this is the first time I have had the opportunity of congratulating you on your appointment. To follow up Mr Kwarteng’s questions, you have relied in your answers very heavily on the advice given to you by officials. I do not think it is saying anything unexpected to say that officials at the Department for Transport at the moment have not got a particularly good record over the last six weeks or so for being accurate with their advice. Can you tell us what efforts you have made to check the validity of that advice?
Stephen Hammond: First, you refer to one particular part of the Department. As you know, that is undergoing an inquiry. I think it is unfair to blame or cast aspersions on the quality and professionalism of the whole Department. Equally-
Q88Graham Stringer: What I am saying is that it would be sensible, would it not, to be careful?
Stephen Hammond: If you would let me finish, equally, it is important that Ministers do not just take advice. Therefore, I have had the opportunity to question the chief executive of the coastguard quite heavily, so I have not just taken a briefing from officials. I have spoken to Sir Alan on several occasions on these particular matters. As to the point he was making to you about Stornoway, it is also true that there are people from Clyde sitting behind people in Belfast; so around the country those visits are taking place.
Q89Graham Stringer: We are talking about local knowledge being very important and the lack of it potentially leading to extra time being taken to provide a service to somebody in need. What has been the attrition rate? How many people with local knowledge have left, or are about to leave, the service?
Sir Alan Massey: If we make the assumption that everybody has some local knowledge, out of my watch-keeping staff in maritime rescue coordination centres, by the end of this process 159 will have left.
Q90Chair: At the moment what is the position? We are told there is a 15% vacancy rate. Is that true?
Sir Alan Massey: 13.8%.
Q91Chair: Do you think that is satisfactory?
Sir Alan Massey: No; I have never said that is satisfactory. That is what we have at the moment. We have a very vigorous recruiting campaign in place to try to make up for that. At the moment 13.8% translates to an average staff at an MRCC of 26, so that takes about 3.5 people out of that, which is manageable, but the issue becomes far less one of vacancies. It becomes an issue of illness, absence and that sort of issue on top. I am not comfortable with 13.8%, which is why we are recruiting.
Q92Iain Stewart: Mr Stringer has already covered some of the questions I wanted to ask. I would like us to look further at the practicalities of the transfer of local knowledge from a station that is closing to the station that is taking it over. Our previous witnesses said that it is not just a technical process of acquiring new maps and charts, but it would take up to a year fully to understand the intricacies of the terrain and what would be the best response to an incident in a particular part of the coastline. Is that figure of up to a year, one that you would recognise in terms of transferring full knowledge?
Sir Alan Massey: No. I just do not believe that you can put any credible quantity on this very slippery issue of local knowledge. Perhaps in context, it is quite interesting to note that part of the evidence submitted to this Committee was from one of my coastguards, who, when he joined the service, had 300 coastguard stations around the UK. That reduced to 28 in the 1970s, and we are now seeking to reduce it to 11. In each of those cases exactly the same sort of discussions could have taken place. There is no way of quantifying it. You take a sensible degree of risk; you do the best you can.
All I would say is that we closed three stations-Pentland, Oban and Tyne-around the turn of 2000. We know that coastguard folklore is quite strong. What I will say is that there is not one shred of evidence to suggest that those closures led to any loss of life, any failure to carry out rescues, or any failure of the quality of service. Funnily enough, what we did at the turn of the millennium with those three stations is what we are doing now-best efforts to transfer local knowledge, to get people to understand, to speak to local operations managers for the lifeboats and speak to sector managers and volunteers to try to transfer knowledge-but it is just not quantifiable.
Q93Iain Stewart: I understand it is possible to have the same proficiency of service with a smaller number of stations; I understand that, but it is a transitional process, making sure that you carry people with you and that knowledge is transferred over. On the evidence that we have heard, that is not happening. As a consequence of today, will you at least go away and revisit that process and have another look at how you can achieve better acceptance of the process?
Sir Alan Massey: Those who gave evidence are making very respectable points. I cannot gainsay the fact that local knowledge is an issue. It is an issue that led to our adoption of a less radical blueprint for the future coastguard, but we are making best efforts. I think what we are doing is reasonable. We are reviewing our risks all the time. That is what we do as a dynamic organisation. We are also using technology. We have a very advanced database now in place. I accept that technology is not the complete answer, but we have got to look at this holistically. The people who are joining our organisation now deal with databases in a way that I simply don’t. That is where we have got to go in the future, and the fact that we have not gone at that pace with technology accounts for the fact that we still have 19 stations. Norway has one; Canada, with six times our coastline, has three. Pretty much every other nation, apart from employment-creating nations, has radically changed its coastguard because it recognises the power of technology and the capacity of individuals to deal with it over and above local knowledge.
Q94Kwasi Kwarteng: I do not think the Committee has an issue with the evolution of the service in the way you have described. The problem we have is with the fact that the people working on the ground do not seem to have that much confidence in what you are doing. When Mr Stringer referred to the officials at the Department for Transport in that elusive way, we are talking about this very point. There is a suspicion that this is something that has been driven by the centre and by a policy of cuts, which I accept, or that savings have to be made, and there is not sufficient engagement with what is going on on the ground. The evolution itself is not the problem; it is the way in which it is being done. Clearly, there is a problem with trying to win hearts and minds and win people over. I want to get some more comfort, if you like, first, that you realise there is a problem, and, secondly, to understand what you are going to do to solve it.
Stephen Hammond: In terms of the problem you have just outlined, if we go back to the closure of Forth and you look at the fact that there were no compulsory redundancies, there was an engagement process the whole way through with people there. If, Mr Kwarteng, you are clearly not satisfied with what has gone on and you clearly perceive there to be a major problem, I will go back and undertake to review across the country where the engagement is taking place and write to the Chairman of the Committee.
Q95Kwasi Kwarteng: We can only see what we see and hear what we hear in this Committee. I am just relaying to you my impression of what we have seen and heard. You said to me earlier that people out there are much happier than the people giving us evidence.
Stephen Hammond: What I said is that it is unsurprising that people associated with specific stations are unhappy, but if you look at how the organisation has engaged, and is continuing to engage, with its staff and the unions, I am suggesting that perhaps the situation is not quite as drastic as you are portraying. But I am giving you the undertaking that after today I will go back, personally review it and write to the Chairman of the Committee.2
Chair: Minister, it is good that you have given such an undertaking. Clearly, at the end of our sessions we will produce a report and give our views, but it is of some concern that there is such a disparity between what I call the official version of events, where everything is smooth and basically agreed, and what we are actually hearing. The Committee will have to battle with that.
Q96Julie Hilling: Can I just check one thing as well? You talked about the comparison with other countries and the number of coastguard stations they have and so on, but am I correct in saying you said earlier that we have got the busiest shipping lanes in the world around the UK?
Chair: Who would like to answer that one?
Stephen Hammond: I do not think either of us has said that.
Sir Alan Massey: It is true.
Stephen Hammond: It is true. I do not think I ever said it today.
Q97Julie Hilling: So, when we are comparing internationally, we have to take into account that we have got the busiest shipping lanes around compared with the number of coastguard stations. Is that true?
Sir Alan Massey: Yes, but a classic example is that the busiest area is the Dover strait. Our friends across the water have far fewer stations than we do-the French, for example-and they share exactly the same waters, so the penny has dropped about technology for them.
Q98Julie Hilling: Can I follow up just a little bit around technology? We have heard already from Shetland that their radio signals, telephones, or whatever-their communication signals-are not good at the moment. What is happening in terms of that upgrade of communication across? It was all part of this new world, but it seems to me that we are closing down some of the old world before we have got the technology for the new world. Where are you up to with the technology that means people will be able to communicate with each other?
Sir Alan Massey: In terms of Shetland, there is definitely a vulnerability in the fixed link that connects mainland Scotland with Shetland, which is why BT are about to invest millions in a fibre optic link on the seabed. But it was as a result of our going out to Shetland and Stornoway and getting right to the bottom of these issues that we decided in the end, because of the relative vulnerability of their communications trunks to the mainland, that those two islands should retain their coastguard stations so that, if they lose the link, at least you have a headquarters that can coordinate incidents around those areas.
In terms of what we are doing, I spoke about the extra dial-up links that Shetland now has. Shetland, as well as talking to Aberdeen, is able to be helped by flank stations to the left, so effectively Belfast and Stornoway when necessary, and also down to Aberdeen and then Yarmouth and Humber. They have got a lot more resilience built in. If, for example, they lose some capability or become overwhelmed, then others can help in a way they were not able to do in the past.
We have increased to four the number of 999 calls that can be taken concurrently in Shetland, again to build up their resilience for exactly this scenario, and on the west coast and north-west we have upgraded the integrated coastguard communication system-ICCS-such that there are better operator displays and capacity to show more radio transmissions on the screen. Again, they have got extra dial-up links to flank stations, so Liverpool and Holyhead can now dial in, if necessary, to Belfast or Stornoway when Clyde closes. We have done quite a bit of work even in advance of the overall MOC national network to make sure that we have got robustness and resilience so that we do not take risk when we close stations. That has been behind it.
Q99Julie Hilling: Categorically, that is all in place now.
Sir Alan Massey: It is. As I understand it, the last upgrades have been done. We have been spending every Monday and Thursday of this month with Clyde going quiet, and have been allowing Belfast and Stornoway to run operations there, just to make sure that works and people grow local knowledge. From 20 November to 18 December Clyde will go completely quiet, with its watch manned up but not doing anything-just monitoring what is going on-with Belfast and Stornoway taking over the area, as they will in the future. That is pretty robust testing and trialling. If we get any problems we will sort them out, but the expectation is that by the end of December it will be safe to close Clyde because we will have built the resilience and tested it.
Q100Julie Hilling: I know there have been quite a lot of questions about staff. One of the witness statements we got in was saying: "As yet there is no information on options for staff. Nearly two years into the programme there is no information on relocation or assessment for roles suitable for staff. There has been no attempt to retain experienced staff. There appears to be no plan to encourage staff to stay" with the service.
You have already said that there is now a 13.8% vacancy of staff, but you are also saying that the service is more resilient at the moment. I struggle to see how it can be the case that it is more resilient. What are you doing to prevent the flight of staff with the knowledge, which was something that we certainly raised in our first inquiry? We were concerned about knowledge going, and what we are being told is that that knowledge is going. What are you doing to retain that and inform staff now-because you have said you have agreed new structures-to enable them to stay within the service? How are you making sure that you will have a staff going forward?
Sir Alan Massey: That is very clear.
Stephen Hammond: As I said in my statement, there has been a complete reassessment and regrading of the whole structure. Therefore, the whole structure should mean that, because of the new arrangements, these are likely to be potentially more rewarding jobs with additional responsibilities. Therefore, the detailed work to grade the new roles is, I understand, now complete, and everybody is looking to be at a civil service grade higher than the previous roles to reflect that. At one level it is accepting that this is not just asking staff to move across; it is accepting there are new roles and responsibilities. There has been quite detailed work in combination and consultation with the unions to ensure that the new grades it offers reflect those responsibilities.
Sir Alan Massey: If I may just go back to the question of morale, which I think lies at the root of this, I would be the first to agree that morale could be better in the service. The Minister has already explained that, against the background of change, people are going to be unsettled and in many cases disaffected, particularly if their own station is closing and they have no option to move, for whatever reason.
The biggest concern that I and they have had, I believe, is the sheer uncertainty that has been over their heads for almost two years since we announced that change would happen. It has taken us up to this point, for reasons which are totally explicable but nevertheless frustrating, to be able to agree a job evaluation system within the civil service constraints on which we can now go public. It has taken a lot of hard work by a lot of very hard-working people, and the unions, to get us to this state, where we have been able to announce, "Yes, by and large, the jobs you will apply for in the future coastguard will take you probably one grade higher than you would have been." We are therefore now living up to the promise that was made, including by Ministers, to improve pay and conditions as well as infrastructure, because in my view, unless you have a motivated and dedicated work force that has come with you, all the tea and infrastructure in China is not going to help you unless those things are joined up.
Q101Chair: What we are hearing is that people are leaving the service and taking their expertise with them for better paid jobs. Are you aware of that? Doesn’t that give you some concern?
Sir Alan Massey: Yes, Madam Chair, very much so, which is why we have been so eager to get to the stage where we can finally say, "This is what the pay structure will broadly look like." We have now got to work very closely with the union to talk about the allowances, shift hours and all the rest of it, but fundamentally we have crossed a huge Rubicon here. It is clearly for that reason that the PCS union has seen fit to suspend its industrial action, because we have now not only talked about it but delivered something.
Q102Julie Hilling: So do all staff now know what their terms and conditions are? For my information-because I have no idea what civil service pay rates are-what does that actually mean in terms of basic pay and where they were and where they will now be?
Sir Alan Massey: The lowest pay grade is administrative assistant.
Q103Chair: Could you perhaps send us that information?
Sir Alan Massey: Yes.
Chair: We would like to know that.
Q104Julie Hilling: Do all the staff now know that this is the situation? You have already closed a station. They are all closing. People are making decisions about their future. Do they now know what their future could be?
Sir Alan Massey: They certainly know in terms of basic pay what the rates will be for the jobs that they will apply for. Of course, because we are downsizing, there is not 100% guarantee of jobs for everybody, but they know that situation. What they do not yet know in truth is what the shift allowances and relocation packages will be and all of those slightly more detailed issues that we still have to thrash out with the PCS.
Q105Chair: But isn’t the issue here that people are leaving and taking their expertise with them?
Sir Alan Massey: Yes.
Q106Chair: The retention of that expertise was a basic part of the case that you put to us before. I do not detect any sense of urgency from you about addressing this.
Sir Alan Massey: There is a huge sense of urgency. It is just that process has been so difficult.
Q107Kwasi Kwarteng: On a related point, to paraphrase your words, you said a cloud of uncertainty was hanging over it for the last two years. Do you think that was necessary, looking back?
Sir Alan Massey: Looking back, it was unavoidable. It is regrettable. People will take bad news and good news on the chin, but uncertainty really eats away at people’s will to work for you. I am completely sold on that. It has been frustrating. We have put lots of dates roughly in the sand to say this is going to happen but we have been delayed.
Q108Kwasi Kwarteng: Would I be right in suggesting that the uncertainty led to the high level of 13.8% that you mentioned? Do you think it was connected with that?
Sir Alan Massey: I think it is inevitable that there is some connection. If you know that jobs are being lost and potentially yours as well, and see a fleeting opportunity for something going by, even though it is not something you necessarily want to do for life, the temptation is to grab it. We have got evidence of that at places like-
Q109Kwasi Kwarteng: To repeat the Chair’s question in a different way, what are you going to do about it? The attrition rate and uncertainty is a serious problem. Sitting where we are today, what can we do immediately to make this situation better?
Stephen Hammond: As Sir Alan has said, there is now some certainty. With all the ongoing closures, there will be a certainty of the new roles going forward. There is a process of negotiation, which I am clear is ongoing-it is not stop, start-on shift allowances and conditions. As Sir Alan has said, anyone now who is in a centre that will close will know what their basic rate will be.
Q110Kwasi Kwarteng: When will they know? That is fair game. At what point do you think this situation will be resolved?
Stephen Hammond: They know now what their basic rate will be for the job they are applying for, and, as and when the negotiations are concluded with the unions, they will know what the shift allowances and other arrangements are.
Q111Kwasi Kwarteng: Do you have in mind a time frame as to when you think all this will be resolved in terms of the cloud of uncertainty you described that prevailed?
Sir Alan Massey: Yes, I do, and I am ever hopeful that this will be clear before the end of the year.
Q112Mr Leech: Can I ask the Minister how the vacancy rates compare with other agencies related to the Department for Transport?
Stephen Hammond: Mr Leech, I will have to write to you on that question. I simply don’t have that information.
Q113Mr Leech: Perhaps Sir Alan would know the difference between the vacancy rate now and before the proposed change in the service.
Sir Alan Massey: What I can give you is a comparative turnover rate, if that is helpful, between 2010 and 2011.
Q114Mr Leech: I am just interested to know what the vacancy rate was before the whole process started compared with the vacancy rate now.
Stephen Hammond: I will make sure that is included in my answer to you.3
Q115Mr Leech: Can I move on to one other area? Since the contract on ETVs ended at the end of last year, what provision is now available for emergency towing vessels?
Stephen Hammond: It is for the shipping industry to make its own arrangements for towage and salvage using the commercial tug market. These arrangements are working well in the Dover strait and the Southwest Approaches. Scotland Office Ministers have led discussions exploring additional arrangements for the waters around the Northern and Western Isles, and the Government have agreed to continue the provision of a single emergency tug stationed in Orkney to provide capability in those areas.
Q116Mr Leech: Am I right in thinking that that is in place until 2015?
Stephen Hammond: You are.
Q117Mr Leech: It was suggested as part of the original consultation that there would not be a commercial alternative in parts of Scotland. If there is still no commercial alternative by 2015, will that contract remain in place?
Stephen Hammond: There would be a discussion at the time to see whether a commercial alternative was in place, and there is potential for the Secretary of State to negotiate with his counterparties in Scotland and us at that stage.
Q118Mr Leech: Since the end of the MIRG, what provision is there for support from fire services to help deal with fires on board ships?
Stephen Hammond: As you are probably aware, the service was fairly rarely used, but there is a continuing evaluation by the fire and rescue strategic resilience board about their consideration of fire-fighting capabilities on ships. Every ship has its own fire-fighting capability as a necessity. There is provision, if necessary, for rescue services, particularly Kent fire and rescue, to make their fire-fighting at sea resources available as and when they might be required.
Q119Mr Leech: Our previous witnesses suggested that there had been one case in recent times-forgive me, I can’t remember the name of the vessel-where, had there been a MIRG available, the situation may have had a different outcome and there may possibly not have been a fatality. Is that your understanding of that particular incident?
Sir Alan Massey: I don’t know which incident you are referring to, Mr Leech.
Q120Chair: Are you aware of any problem of that nature where there was a fatality? It is not yet confirmed exactly whether that could have been avoided or not.
Sir Alan Massey: I am aware of three fatalities on board a ship called MV Flaminia, which caught fire off the Southwest Approaches this July, three months ago.
Stephen Hammond: It was 700 nautical miles out at sea, and it was brought in by a commercial tug and taken to Germany.
Sir Alan Massey: It was beyond helicopter range.
Stephen Hammond: Is that the case you are referring to?
Q121Mr Leech: I cannot actually remember the name of the vessel.
Stephen Hammond: The Flaminia is quite a different case from that.
Q122Chair: There was also an incident with a laden cargo vessel called Flinterspirit. Do you know about that one?
Sir Alan Massey: Yes; that was up in the north-west.
Q123Chair: Is that something that causes you any concern?
Sir Alan Massey: No.
Q124Chair: You have mentioned dealings with fire authorities. Minister, when we looked at the specialist group to deal with fires we did not accept that the existing system wasn’t doing any work, but that is another issue. But you are now talking to the Chief Fire Officers Association, so you accept that you do in fact need additional support outside the specialist crews trained to deal with fire-fighting. It is chemicals as well as fires; it’s not just fires.
Stephen Hammond: Indeed. The Chief Fire Officers Association members and their individual fire rescue authorities liaise, if necessary. If they think that the capability on board a ship is not adequate and an incident required it, that capability is still available.
Q125Chair: So you are in discussion with them about it.
Stephen Hammond: My understanding is that that discussion is still ongoing.
Sir Alan Massey: We are still in discussion with the Chief Fire Officers Association basically to understand what it is that they might wish to offer from their own resources so that we can take that into account when we deal with an incident.
Q126Chair: Can you tell us if the Government are still trying to find a commercial replacement for the ETV in the far north of Scotland?
Stephen Hammond: Yes, that is my understanding, which I think was Mr Leech’s question.
Q127Chair: Are you still seeking to do that?
Stephen Hammond: Yes. The Government have agreed to fund the ETV for Scotland until March 2015. Thereafter, we would hope that the normal commercial arrangements would be in place.
Q128Chair: Are you actively trying to achieve that? Is this a hope or something you are trying to achieve?
Stephen Hammond: The Government are trying to achieve it.
Q129Chair: You are working on that. Sir Alan, does the agency have a duty of care for leisure craft?
Sir Alan Massey: Under a couple of conventions we do have a statutory duty to save life at sea, and I don’t think it differentiates between leisure and commercial craft.
Q130Chair: So you would be concerned as much about leisure craft as commercial craft.
Sir Alan Massey: Absolutely; we do not make any differentiation.
Chair: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for coming and answering our questions.
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