14 Jul 2011

Coastguard cuts watered down after protests

The Government has scaled back plans for cuts to the coastguard service, but many centres will still close. One MP whose husband died at sea tells Channel 4 News the plans still leave her “horrified”.

The Government originally planned to cut 10 of the UK’s 18 coastguard centres and 250 jobs, leaving only three stations running round the clock.

But after opposition to the plans – which critics said could cost thousands of lives – Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has pulled back from such dramatic cuts.

The initial proposals were criticised by charities and shipping unions, and in a report by the House of Commons Transport Committee which said it had “serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed”.

In response, Mr Hammond has announced a number of changes to the plans, but insisted the reform was necessary to modernise the service and cut costs.

Coastguard cuts watered down (Robert Windscheffel)

Changes to the coastguard service

Under the new proposals, 10 coastguard centres, rather than eight, will remain open – and all centres will run on a 24-hour basis.

There will be one maritime operations centre in the Southampton and Portsmouth area, as well as eight sub-stations at Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast, Stornoway, Shetland, Aberdeen and Humber.

One small coastguard centre in London will remain open and unaffected by the changes. There will also be a back-up maritime operations centre, which will be equipped but not staffed, at an existing facility in Dover.

Read more: Coastguard cuts threaten lives and Prince William's job

But the stations at Clyde, Forth, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Brixham, Thames and Swansea will all close by 2015.

Mr Hammond told MPs: “Our updated proposals will ensure the safety of seafarers and coastal communities, delivering the modernised and more cost-effective service we need for the 21st century, while also responding to the concerns raised during the consultation process.”

The new plans will now go out to a new consultation, which will end on 6 October.

‘Devastating blow’

But Labour’s Maria Eagle hit back at the plans, describing them as a “devastating blow” and pointing out the new strategy would still see the closure of just under half of Britain’s coastguard facilities.

I fear if we see lives lost in the future it could be attributed to these moves. Sheryll Murray MP

The Government is aiming to shave £7m off the annual £35m coastguard bill, which Mr Hammond said was still possible under the new plans. There will still be job losses, with the number of uniformed coastguards falling from 573 to 436 by 2015.

Sheryll Murray, the Tory MP for South East Cornwall whose husband Neil died in a fishing accident in March, told Channel 4 News she remained “horrified” by the plans.

“I am disappointed by the weight of reliance on IT and that’s from my own experience. When my husband was killed I was told they could not ID his vessel and his transmitter was switched off or broken. But one minute later my son located his vessel on a commercial website.

“I know the coastguard couldn’t have saved my husband but if he hadn’t been located by my son his boat could have steamed out to the Atlantic and broken up, and my husband would never have been found.

“Lots of fishermen’s wives are in this position and I am horrified that after speaking to people at the sharp end they have come back with proposals that are not that much different from the original plans. I fear if we see lives lost in the future it could be attributed to these moves.”