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Coastguard expertise warning

COASTGUARDS are losing vital local knowledge amid a botched reorganisation of the emergency service that has damaged morale and safety in Scotland and other parts of the UK.

A report by MPs highlighted a doubling of the vacancy rate at the Coastguard Service in two years, "creating a risk that talent and expertise will haemorrhage" as staff left.

Procedures put in place to ensure knowledge of the coastline did not disappear when the Forth Coastguard station closed in September had not been effective, with the transfer of responsibilities to stations in Aberdeen and Shetland rushed and poorly planned, it was claimed.

The House of Commons Transport Committee said the way reform of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) had been implemented had left staff confused and disillusioned.

Under Government plans, the closure of Forth Coastguard is to be followed by the Clyde, Portland, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Brixham, Thames and Swansea stations. It is envisaged there will be one maritime operations centre (MOC) in the Solent area in Hampshire, with back-up provided by the Dover station in Kent, and eight coastguard stations all open all hours.

The committee's report said there was a "worrying lack of information about what coastguards at the MOC will actually do from day to day".

It added: "Low morale and disillusionment with management were evident in all of the evidence we received from coastguards, and not just from the trades unions. Our main concern is not that the new system is flawed but that the Government has not yet explained properly how it will work. As a result, coastguards are disillusioned and confused.

"Too many coastguards are drifting out of the service, creating a risk that talent and expertise will haemorrhage."

The MPs' report was also critical of Shipping Minister Stephen Hammond who, when appearing before the committee, said people in the coastguard service were happier than the evidence presented to the committee suggested.

Mr Hammond also said he had not actually been to any of the coastguard centres. The report said: "The minister's remark that coastguards were happier than their evidence to us suggested would have had more credibility if he had chosen to visit a coastguard station rather than simply rely on advice from MCA management." Committee chairman Louise Ellman said: "The manner in which changes are being imposed has already damaged the service."

Mr Hammond said: "Our reforms to modernise the Coastguard will deliver a more resilient and effective rescue system.

"We also have some concerns that the committee has given too much weight to anecdotal evidence and too little to the evidential testimony of the MCA and the DfT. We would disagree that we have been complacent and contradictory."

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