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MCA must now repair the damage

COASTGUARD officers say their employers must work hard to repair relations within the service, after a damning report on modernisation plans from the powerful House of Commons transport select committee on Thursday.

The all party committee has described the Maritime & Coastguard Agency’s proposal to close 10 of its 18 coastguard stations, leaving just one 24 hour station covering the whole of Scotland from Aberdeen, as “seriously flawed”.

The MPs have told the government to withdraw their plans, and to reinstate the emergency towing vessel contract due to end in September, warning that to lose the four tugs stationed around the UK coastline was “inviting disaster”.

Shetland coastguard union spokeswoman Alex Dodge said that the committee’s report had “vindicated” the stance they had taken since the consultation began six months ago.

“This has been a very stressful few months and all that’s been achieved is a huge gulf between operational coastguard staff and MCA management at headquarters,” Mrs Dodge said.

“They have shown a complete lack of respect for our work and as a result of this they have lost the trust of those of us working in the coastguard service.”

Lee Coutts, the Shetland Islands Council ferry man who launched and now chairs the Save Our Station campaign, went further and called for the architects of the changes to resign.

“I seriously think that this report is so damning that the management team at the MCA has to be looked at and heads may have to roll,” he said.

The MCA’s plans to streamline the coastguard service by closing stations and halving staffing levels, leaving just three 24 hour and five “daylight only” centres covering the UK, were part of a three pronged attempt to save the government £20 million a year.

The MCA also plan to end the contract with the four emergency tugs brought in after the Braer oil spill and to close the Maritime Incident Response Group that fights fires offshore.

All three proposals have been slammed by the transport committee, who said the government appeared to be more interested in saving money than saving lives.

The committee also said the MCA had “mishandled” the consultation, which had made them appear “arrogant”.

The report says: “It is regrettable that the Department for Transport announced all three sets of maritime proposals with no prior consultation whatsoever and did not consider their combined impact.

“The atmosphere of disquiet and suspicion generated by this consultation process is of the MCA’s own making.”

The committee has called for further consultation, saying the changes are not “time critical”, and called on the government to consider alternative proposals put forward by the coastguard officers themselves.

While welcoming the introduction of a central geographic database, they said that technology could not replace local knowledge and community relationships which were essential in speeding up an emergency response.

Shetland Islands Council vice convener Josie Simpson welcomed the report, which shared the view of the island councils who combined forces to lobby the government on the issue.

“The councils’ unified stance has been successful so far and as we continue to stand together I am sure the government will see sense on this very important issue,” Mr Simpson said.

The Scottish government responded by calling for the coastguard service in Scotland to be devolved to Holyrood.

Rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead said: “The option of devolving coastguard functions should be seriously considered if we are to preserve the current  life-saving service that coastal communities have come to depend on, and which are under threat on current plans.”

Transport secretary Philip Hammond said that he was glad that the transport committee acknowledged the need for the service to be modernised.

The government has already said that the outcome of the consultation would be very different to the original proposals.

 

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