Coastguard cutbacks putting lives at risk


  By Anne-Marie O’Donnell
Cuts to UK coastguard cover has left staffing levels squeezed and could be putting lives at risk, figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request have revealed.
The figures, obtained by campaign group Coastguard SOS, showed that Belfast had the biggest understaffing problem in the UK despite now having the responsibility for Scotland’s west coast following cuts to coastguard services.

The Clyde coastguard closed in December 2012 amid widespread concerns that a series of planned closures across the UK would put lives at risk. Ahead of its closure, Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee published a report warning of a “major gap in knowledge” in covering areas left vulnerable among the remaining coastguard services.

However, despite last ditch attempts to save the emergency service, the closure went ahead.  Commenting on the latest development, West of Scotland MSP Stuart McMillan said:  “These latest figures make worrying reading, and demonstrate the utter folly of Westminster’s decision to axe the coastguard centre on the Clyde.

“Closing the vital centre on the Clyde and losing valuable local knowledge was bad enough, but for the replacement service in Belfast to be dangerously understaffed is completely unacceptable and puts lives at risk.”

He added:  “Scotland’s coastguard services are poorly served by Westminster, and it is no wonder that experts are calling for responsibility in this area to be held by the Scottish Government.  Independence will make sure Scotland has the power to properly protect our coasts, rather than putting lives at risk for the sake of a false economy.”

In November 2012, Mr McMillan wrote to the UK government transport secretary to raise questions over the ability of the Belfast-based coastguard service to reach people in trouble in an adequate time frame after the death of a young kayaker at Loch Fyne.

According to the latest figures, Belfast was understaffed 57 per cent of the time throughout 2013, meaning that 35 shifts out of an average of 61 a month did not have enough numbers to be able to respond speedily to emergencies.

Other coastguard centres significantly understaffed included Aberdeen, the Thames, Dover and Liverpool. In Aberdeen, shifts were understaffed 40 per cent of the time during 2013.

Dennis O’Connor of Coastguard SOS – who earlier this month called for coastguard powers to be passed to the Scottish government instead of being dealt with by Westminster – called on the government to be transparent with the public over the problem.

“We are frankly appalled at the latest understaffing figures,” he said. “MPs and the public have continually been fobbed off with spin on this issue which should be of the gravest concern to everyone.”

The Clyde coastguard was one of eight centres axed under Westminster cuts, leading to a loss of 159 jobs. The UK government originally planned to cut the number of 24-hour coastguard centres from 18 to three but was forced to reconsider after a public outcry.