Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Coastguard reform plan branded a ‘shambles’

Reform of the UK’s Coastguard Service that could leave Northern Ireland without a rescue base must be abandoned, the Government has been warned.

Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle branded the plans a “shambles” and told ministers it was increasingly clear they were “ill-thought-out” and would leave the coastline a more dangerous place.

Consultation on the proposals, which would either close or downgrade the Bangor base, ended on Thursday, but the Government has indicated it will not make a decision over whether to push ahead until summer.

The shake-up would leave just two 24-hour operational centres — at Aberdeen and in the Southampton/Portsmouth area — handling emergency calls for the entire UK with a back-up round the clock operation at Dover.

During Commons transport questions Ms Eagle pressed Secretary of State Philip Hammond, demanding: “Given that it is increasingly clear that the policy is a shambles, why does he not just abandon the ill-thought-through proposals, which will leave our coastline a more dangerous place?” But Mr Hammond dismissed the accusations as “opportunism”, pointing out it was the previous administration that originally made the proposals for the maritime rescue agency.

He held out hope that the plans could change to protect more Coastguard locations saying that some “very sensible” representations had been made as part of the consultation.

The number of Coastguard staff are also set to be slashed by more than a third from nearly 600, leading to concerns over loss of local knowledge that could hamper rescue operations.

Mr Hammond said: “What a wonderful piece of opportunism.

“Of course, the previous administration originally made the proposals to modernise the Coastguard. We have listened carefully to the representations, and some very sensible representations have been made about how the reconfiguration might be managed to protect more of the local location of services.

“Once the consultation is closed, we will publish a summary of the findings and make our response to it.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has already pledged to rethink the plans if they threatened safety at sea.

The Government only wanted to make the changes to the Coastguard agency if it led to frontline improvements he insisted.

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