Coastguard shortage blamed for increase in deaths at sea

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A shortage of coastguards could be behind a rise of more than a quarter in the number of people who have lost their lives round Britain's coasts, a committee of MPs said yesterday. More than 300 people died in 2002, a 28.1 per cent increase since 1998. There was a 17.3 per cent increase in accidents.

A shortage of coastguards could be behind a rise of more than a quarter in the number of people who have lost their lives round Britain's coasts, a committee of MPs said yesterday. More than 300 people died in 2002, a 28.1 per cent increase since 1998. There was a 17.3 per cent increase in accidents.

The House of Commons Transport Select Committee said staffing levels at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) were unacceptable. Although the MCA chief executive, Captain Stephen Bligh, had claimed understaffing did not affect safety, the MPs said they were unconvinced. The agency had been "entirely complacent" about understaffing and "failed to conduct timely research" into the rise in deaths and accidents, the committee report said.

In 2002, the Coastguard agency responded to 2,700 incidents involving individuals and nearly 5,000 with boats. More than 250 people were cut off by the tide, 200 were trapped on cliffs and 53 got stuck in mud. Coastguards helped rescue more than 150 swimmers and 39 people who were swept into the sea. One fatal accident in which a search-and-rescue helicopter went to the wrong place might have been caused by understaffing and inexperience. A father and his two sons died after the boating accident on Loch Ryan, in western Scotland in July 2003.

The agency had not made a full assessment of closures of rescue co-ordination centres at Pentland on the north coast of Scotland, Oban in western Scotland and Tyne Tees in north-east England and it was unaccept-able to contemplate further closures, the report said.

A third of rescue and co-ordination centres were staffed at or below minimum levels. "It is unacceptable that, month after month, nearly a third of all watches are operating at or below minimum levels."

On the rise in deaths around the coasts, the committee said Captain Bligh "could give no convincing explanation for the increases". Until he recognised the problems, there was "no case" for considering an extension of the agency's remit into other areas, the report said. The committee chairwoman, Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, said: "The individuals who work at the MCA are dedicated to saving lives, by watching our coasts and improving the standards of vessels. Their leaders need to focus on these tasks."

She added: "The agency has failed to live up to these standards. We would have more confidence in the chief executive's ability to change this if he had managed to identify problems he needs to solve."

An MCA spokesman said today the rise in swimming, beach and cliff incidents was because of more people in coastal leisure activities.

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