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Coastguard marred by low morale

The transport select committee's follow up report.

LOW morale, disillusionment and an alarming vacancy rate among skilled staff is undermining the efficiency of the restructured coastguard service.

In a damning follow-up report, out this morning (Tuesday), the UK parliament’s transport select committee said the manner in which the coalition government had imposed its controversial modernisation plans was damaging the service.

But northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael, the deputy chief whip of the coalition, said the restructuring had been necessary to free up money to give coastguard officers a better pay deal.

Following an outcry two years ago in response to UK government plans to close half of all coastguard stations, including Shetland, a revised proposal that saved the local station but led to the closure of the Forth and Clyde coastguard stations has now been implemented.

The number of emergency towing vessels has been reduced to one, stationed in the north of Scotland, and the offshore fire fighting capability has been withdrawn.

In Shetland, the select committee report highlights, fewer watch officers are now looking after an area extended as far south as Brora, while communication links with the Scottish mainland remain vulnerable. The promised cable link has not been provided yet.

Overall, Shetland and other coastguard stations continue to lose local knowledge and are often operating in difficult conditions with too few staff.

The report further said that:

  • it is unclear what role the new national Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) will play in relation to the work currently undertaken by Maritime Response Coordination Centres (MRCCs);
  • the vacancy rate in the Coastguard Service has doubled in two years and s presently stands at 15 per cent;
  • there have been mixed messages about the timing of station closures;
  • there is a clear risk that local knowledge will be lost; the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s stance in respect of the local knowledge it expects coastguards to have is confusing and contradictory
  • issues remain with communication links, particularly in relation to Shetland MRCC.

Giving evidence at the enquiry on 22 October this year, local union branch chair woman Alex Dodge told the committee: “Effectively we only have 12.5 fully qualified Operational Coastguards, not including the Rescue Co-Ordination Centre Manager (RCCM) who as well as his normal daily duties carries out on-call duties as the Duty Operations Manager …

“What this means in practice is that due to sickness, absence, leave, courses etc., often the manning level per watch can be below the risk-assessed level (which may be different at each station) with below minimum levels of qualified staff on watch …

“The staff are having to work greatly increased amounts of overtime and opportunities for experience elsewhere through secondments etc are seriously diminished.”

On Monday she added that the committee report vindicated the local community in its strong opposition to any changes to the highly regarded local coastguard service.

And she said that despite earlier promises a better salary structure for coastguard watch officers was only progressing slowly.

At present fully qualified watch officers in Shetland earn around £24,000 a year, including extras for shift work as well as an island allowance.

“In order to attract and to retain high quality staff we need proper remuneration for the professional job we carry out and for the responsibility we have,” she warned.

Dodge continued saying: “We are a dedicated bunch of professionals. The reason behind this whole campaign has always been the safety of people at sea and around the coasts. It really is more than a job.”

Local MP Alistair Carmichael said the issue of low pay was being addressed.

“The problem of low morale in the coastguard service is by no means a new one. It is something I have been pressing for improvements on for many years now.

“The restructuring programme is one which will allow money to be freed up which should enable the terms and conditions of coastguard staff to significantly improve.

“I have already discussed the issue of filling vacancies in the Shetland station with the MCA’s chief executive Sir Alan Massey. I have suggested to him that he should be pursuing a vigorous local recruitment campaign.

“His response was positive and I hope that when he is in a position to act on that he will do so. Obviously, for this to open it requires agreement between the management and the unions on the staff restructuring,” he said.

Select committee chair Louise Ellman MP said: “The programme of coastguard closures, the change in provision of emergency towing vessels and inadequate arrangements for fire fighting at sea are causing unrest and concern. 

“The government must rule out further closures and ensure that its reforms do not undermine safety and make proper use of local knowledge when applicable.”

The committee is now calling on the government to provide statistics on the age profile and length of service of coastguards at each MRCC, and to set out its strategy for retaining experienced coastguards, particularly in terms of recruitment to positions based at the MOC.