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Unanswered questions

HOUSE of Commons transport select committee chairwoman Louise Ellman has said the inquiry into plans to “modernise” the coastguard had been called to resolve “unanswered questions”.

The committee announced on Thursday they intended to open a fresh inquiry into the Maritime & Coastguard Agency’s decision last December to close 10 of its 18 coastguard co-ordinating stations, leaving just three 24 hour operations in Aberdeen, Southampton and Dover.

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The inquiry will also examine the government’s decision to abandon the £10 million a year contract to operate four emergency towing vessels around Britain’s coast and to scrap the Marne Incident Response Group (MIRG) that tackles offshore fires and chemical spillages.

The committee will not report until the summer, delaying the outcome of a consultation on the future of Lerwick, Stornoway, Belfast and Liverpool coastguard stations, which was due to end in late March.

The inquiry was called following a session on 8 February when the transport committee questioned three senior MCA officers, becoming visibly frustrated with the responses they received.

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During the session, chief executive Sir Alan Massey admitted there had been no risk assessment carried out into the coastguard closure plan prior to its announcement in December, nor of the decision to scrap the MIRG.

The MCA only published a risk assessment of the closures last Friday, three days after the transport committee meeting, due to the controversy surrounding the issue.

On Thursday Ms Ellman explained that the inquiry had been called because after questioning the Sir Alan “we felt there were unanswered questions and we wanted to know more”.

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The key issues they would be looking at were the reason behind selecting the stations for closure and whether an adequate risk assessment had been carried out.

“We asked him about all of these things and we felt it was worthy of a further inquiry into all of these things,” she said.

“Our inquiries are based on evidence we receive, so we would like to receive submissions by people who have got information or knowledge about this area so that the committee can consider it. I would urge anybody who has knowledge about this issue to send this written information.”

During the hearing Sir Alan said that the modernisation plans had been in “gestation” for two years, but were activated following the government’s comprehensive spending review which sought 33 per cent cross the board savings on administration costs.

The MCA is expected to save £7.5 million a year, but Sir Alan insisted that despite the closures and savings, his proposals would improve the service by using new communications technology that networked stations more effectively.

He told the committee: “It has taken the impetus of a requirement to find savings that has probably pushed us across the start line in a way that has not happened in previous administrations. So in that sense, and without being in any sense cynical, it is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to modernise.

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“Just on the point of savings, a really important additional observation is that we are not saving everything that we could save from doing this. In fact, part of the package that I have put forward is deliberately configured to allow for a recycling of cash into where it needs to be, which is the remuneration of our coastguards, who, in certain contexts, I think, have been underpaid for a long time for the job that they do. So it is not as if this is driven entirely by savings. This is driven by betterment.”

He was closely questioned on the two crucial questions of local knowledge and communications, only admitting that “there are small, tiny, tiny percentiles of increased unreliability or increased risk, should I say, in Shetland and Stornoway because of the nature of their island location”.

He also insisted that every coastguard station recognised the need for modernisation, though admitted they were not all behind the methods he had chosen.

The inquiry has been widely welcomed, with government minister and northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael urging people in Shetland and Orkney to respond.

Late on Thursday, international environmental group KIMO said they were pleased the inquiry will also look at the emergency tugs and the MIRG as well as the coastguard stations.

KIMO UK spokesman Tom Piper said: “We are delighted that the transport select committee has chosen to open an inquiry into the poorly thought out proposals and the haphazard way in which the government has tried to rush them through; perhaps common sense will now prevail.”

He said the reorganisation was ill thought out and would severely effect the regions abilities to respond to maritime emergencies, that all four tugs must be kept in service to ensure that there are no gaps in the UK’s pollution prevention capabilities and that disbanding the MIRG would be remarkably short sighted as it provides an excellent forum in which maritime and shore side best practice can be improved.

Submissions to the transport select committee can be sent to transev@parliament.uk by 26 April.

A transcript of the 8 February session can be found at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmtran/uc752-i/uc75201.htm

A video of the session can be found at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=7625

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