Belfast Telegraph

Coastguards ‘were not gagged’

Shipping Minister’s tetchy exchange with MPs over rescue bases plan

By Sam Lister

Shipping Minister Mike Penning insisted he has “not gagged anybody” during fierce clashes in Westminster over claims Northern Ireland coastguards were banned from giving evidence to an inquiry investigating closure plans.

The man responsible for the reforms also appeared to indicate he was now working towards keeping 10 stations open instead of the eight originally planned, during a grilling by a Commons committee on his proposals. He ruled out devolving power over the Coastguard to Stormont insisting there were “no plans whatsoever” for breaking it up.

Louise Ellman, chairman of the Transport Committee, had raised a number of concerns over claims that coastguards giving evidence to her inquiry would be victimised and was furious when they were eventually barred from appearing.

She pointed out to Mr Penning that at the beginning of the consultation he told Parliament “any member of staff will be able to give evidence”, but then went on to forbid officers from a number of stations, including Bangor, from doing so.

The minister replied he had explained in “great detail in several letters” the reasons for the decision, adding: “They are civil servants and I sought advice right through to Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary) at the top.

“A civil servant’s job is to support the Government of the day.

“I’ve not gagged anybody.”

Ms Ellman told him “you have changed your view”, but he replied: “No I have not changed my view, please do not put words in my mouth.”

As the discussion continued Mr Penning said: “You are shouting me down”, but was told: “Please don’t interrupt. Minister, I asked you to treat this committee with respect. I am chairing this committee and I’ve got an important point.

“Can I have an assurance that members of the Coastguard Service will not be victimised in anyway?”

The accusations continued until Mr Penning finally replied: “You have my assurance”. The proposals to close 10 of the 18 UK stations and turn five of the remaining bases into daytime-only centres has sparked claims that lives will be put at risk.

Under the shake-up Bangor would be downgraded to a 9am-7pm operation or close altogether.

But Mr Penning told the committee: “This wasn’t a done deal. It will be a proper consultation.”

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