The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has defended itself against reports of understaffing following a number of closures

The chairman of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee has told MBM that she is concerned about understaffing at coastguard stations across the UK.

Louise Ellman, MP for Liverpool Riverside, also expressed doubts about the effectiveness of plans for a National Maritime Operations Centre, which is due to open in Fareham, Hampshire at the end of the summer.

The NMOC, which has been in development for three years and is currently six months behind schedule, aims to centralise local knowledge relating to coastal rescue operations.

But Mrs Ellman told us that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency should be vigilant to ensure that its high standards do not drop following this transition.

“I am concerned about whether the changes will maintain the very high safety levels that operate at the moment,” the Labour MP said.

“There are problems with understaffing of the coastguard. The MCA has always said that local knowledge can be stored and used anywhere, but I doubt whether that is that case.

“That might be true in some situations, but I doubt if that could happen completely.
Improved technology can do a great deal but it can’t replace the human factor.”

More closures to come?

Since the Coalition came to power in 2010, three Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres have been closed in Forth, Clyde and Great Yarmouth, despite promises to the contrary from Mike Penning, the former shipping minister.

Six further MRCCs could be closed before the end of next year, with local knowledge due to be shared through the NMOC.

However, the MCA insists that these changes will bring about a more efficient service in the long run.

A spokesperson for the agency said: “Safety is our top priority and the new coastguard structure will improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of coordinating search and rescue around the whole of the UK.

“The public will notice no reduction in the service; 999 calls and distress broadcasts will be dealt with and search and rescue missions coordinated as they are now.

“There will be no reduction in front line rescue resources, with the availability of coastguard rescue teams, lifeboats, rescue helicopters and other rescue assets unaffected.”

Problem pairings

In the meantime, the MCA is using “established pairing arrangements”, which connect each centre to at least one other to provide support during the current “reduced staffing levels”.

However, this comes as little comfort to Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, who saw her constituency’s rescue centre at Clyde close in 2011.

“It seems that many of the decisions taken as part of the government’s ‘modernisation’ process appear to have been taken on cost grounds,” she told MBM.

“The decision to close MRCC Clyde, for example, appears to have been taken because the lease on its premises was due to come to an end. This is despite Clyde, at the time, being one of the busiest coastguard centres in the United Kingdom.”

Ms Clark adds that last year’s plan for the Clyde area to be covered by MRCC Belfast was “completely unacceptable” due to 73% understaffing.

 

Whilst the recent pairing of Belfast with Stornoway has seen an improvement, the Labour MP is still concerned by the loss of “vital local knowledge”, adding:

“I have been informed by constituents that there have been instances since Clyde’s closure where coastguard staff have not known where small islands were located.”

With the onset of the summer boating season leading to increased pressure on the MCA’s resources, these problems seem likely to worsen over the coming months.

A full list of more than 100 volunteering opportunities across the UK is available on the MCA’s website.