As the Liverpool coastguard centre closes today (16th January) and its operations move to Holyhead, new Parliamentary Questions from Gordon in his role as Labour’s Shadow Maritime Minister, have revealed continued understaffing and loss of experienced staff at the affected centres.
Not only are Ministers continuing with the existing closure programme in spite of similar trends at centres around the country, the evidence suggests the Department is now proposing to change the criteria for measuring safety levels.
Gordon said: “Besides the dangerous and increasing understaffing, it’s been confirmed to me that not a single coastguard has transferred from Liverpool to Holyhead. That’s likely to mean an invaluable knowledge of the local coastline has been lost. Meanwhile Holyhead now has to deal with a huge swathe of the English and Scottish west coast.
“If the programme of changes to the Coastguard is not fit for purpose, Government should be addressing this urgently and not allow the facts to be obscured. Liverpool and Holyhead are a particular source of concern because of the size of the areas they oversee, but they are typical of other areas across the country now chronically short of experienced staff. This is alongside continuing concerns as to whether the new Maritime Operations Centre at Fareham will be effective when it takes over the national network in September.”
Parliamentary Questions put by Gordon and answered this Monday (12th January) reveal that understaffing at the Liverpool centre continued to increase in its last full month of operations. In December 2014, 252 hours were staffed below risk-assessed levels, a third of all shifts. This compared to 180 hours in December 2013.
Questions will also be raised whether Holyhead is undergoing its own understaffing crisis at this time of transition. In June 2014 Holyhead had 204 hours of understaffed shifts, compared to 120 hours a year earlier.
However, because Ministers are now ceasing to publish figures on monthly understaffing at individual coastguard centres figures for Holyhead in December 2014 have not been made available. As a result the readiness of the centre to inherit Liverpool’s work cannot be assessed.
One DfT reply to Gordon also suggests officials may be considering redefining the risk-assessed minimum level of staffing. This could mean a drop in recorded understaffing figures despite no increase in coastguards working at the centres.
Dennis O’Connor, who coordinates the national campaign group Coastguard SOS, said: “We are deeply concerned that the closure of Liverpool Coastguard will take place this week despite the Maritime & Coastguard Agency offering no proof that lives will not be put at risk.
"Experienced Coastguard officers have been replaced by less qualified recruits who have neither the experience or local knowledge required to carry out effective search and rescue coordination without the risk of response times increasing.
"We are gravely concerned about the ability of the MCA to ensure that staff at Holyhead Coastguard will be fully supported whilst coordinating rescues up as far as South West Scotland.”
Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS union which represents Coastguard staff, said: “We remain opposed to the government's closure programme.
"Since it was announced the MCA has haemorrhaged staff and the agency is having to take on new recruits because too many experienced coastguard workers have left - something we warned would happen.
"Decades of knowledge about our coastlines, which in an emergency can mean the difference between life and death, are being lost, and ministers seem staggeringly complacent about the reliability of the technology as a replacement.”
Challenging the Government on the current situation Gordon added: “The Maritime Minister John Hayes promised campaigners after meeting with them that he would seek a full review of the progress of the programme. He now needs to come good on this and urgently. Confidence in the safety of our coastlines and those at sea, and in the MCA’s capacity to deliver this, demands as much.”