Coastguard closure `could lose lives'

JOHN PRESCOTT'S campaign to silence critics suffered a set-back when he was attacked for closing three coastguard centres. Unions told the Deputy Prime Minister that shutting the Tyne Tees centre, at Tynemouth, the Oban centre, in west Scotland, and Pentland, north Scotland, would "lose lives". The announcement followed his acceptance of all the recommendations in a report by Lord Donaldson, former master of the rolls .

The Oban and Pentland centres will close by autumn 2000, when Stornoway and Clyde will take over Oban incidents. Incidents handled by Pentland will go to Shetland and Aberdeen. This will leave a total of 18 stations around the country.

Mr Prescott said there would be no overall reduction in jobs and no compulsory job losses, because staff were being offered options, including relocation packages. The Liverpool centre, also at risk, has been spared and plans to merge centres at Portland, in Dorset, and Solent, in Hampshire, have been dropped.

Graham Watt, national officer of the coastguard union, said: "The Government are taking a risk that time will prove them right and we only hope they are right, because if they are not, people's lives will be lost."

The three centres had been threatened with closure since 1997 but the Government was advised against it earlier this year by the Transport Select Committee.

Ministers also agreed to reconsider their future, together with the merger plan, after union and local opposition.

Mr Prescott also announced the introduction of a digital communications system for Scottish coastguards and said the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would look at the possibility of providing a fourth emergency tug for the north of Scotland.

Ray Michie, Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute, said: "The ... words of support that John Prescott gave to the coastguard network in opposition now appear very hollow. This government has chosen to ignore not only myself, the union, and the people of the west coast who know the value of their coastguard services. They are so arrogant they have chosen to ignore a report written by a committee dominated by its own backbenchers. It is quite outrageous."

Mr Prescott said Lord Donaldson had recommended the Liverpool centre should be retained because of its busy workload and the area's potential for pollution incidents. Portland and Solent were in busy areas and needed to stay separate. Twenty-one people work at Oban, while there are 16 at Pentland and 21 at Tyne Tees.

Michael Ancram, the Tory chairman, accused Mr Prescott of breaking promises made in opposition.

"This must be an embarrassing announcement for John Prescott to have to make as, in 1989, when in opposition, he pledged that there would be a `fully staffed' service when Labour was in government."

Earlier, Mr Prescott announced measures "to put British shipping back on the world maritime map", including a more friendly regime allowing British-registered ships to be taxed on a tonnage basis which will be introduced in next year's Finance Bill.

Business, page 17