SOS :Save Our Coastguard Stations: SOS

Swansea Coastguard Station

New Year 2012 was spent on the Gower Peninsula in Wales and was made more special by dropping in to visit the Swansea Coastguard Station. The seemingly, periously perched Station is situated at Tutt Head, Mumbles and is responsible for a large and hazardous operational area, including Marsland Mouth, North Devon/Cornwall Border to River Towy, Camarthen.

To put things in context with the recent Costa Cruise ship disaster off the Italian coast, have a look at the last post (SOS – Save Our Souls – Please!) and thank goodness that it did not happen off our coast now that we no longer have the four special tugs stationed around the coastline – our first line of defence against any potential oil spills.

Swansea Coastguard Station is currently the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre for the area.  It would be the responsibility of the Coastguard to co-ordinate the rescue attempts that we have watched on the TV and web, should this have happened in their geographical area. And what if they are not there?  What is the proposed alternative?

At the moment, Swansea has many more incidents than Holyhead and Milford Haven stations combined!  A frightening statistic made up of boats overturned/in mud, people in water/stranded, surfers and suicides, to name but a few. Why Swansea is so successful in responding to these incidents is the local knowledge the coastguards have from living and working in the area. It is the same with all Coastguards Stations, local knowledge saves lives.

Wall map showing the large area of responsibility in England & Wales for Swansea Coastguard Station

You would not expect an experienced and knowledgable London cabbie to know landmarks in a place one hundred and seventy-five miles away, so why would you put the lives of people in the Swansea area, in the hands of the Southampton Station? No offence meant to the wonderful people stationed there, but equally, Swansea would no more know their way around Southampton landmarks than the Southampton team would in Swansea’s area.

So, for example, when there are two caves with exactly the same name but in totally different locations and people stranded with the tide coming in ~ which do you go to?  Lives count on the decisions made and, if the person responding to the call has no local knowledge of that particular area, then they may possibly choose the empty cave rather than go to where the stranded people are.  And if the ship or person is at sea and they can only say where they are by what they can see ashore, again, only local knowledge can save the day – and the people! Especially when you realise that the strength of the currents can take people and boats quite a few miles in just half an hour!  So the ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) needs to be gauged against the position they will be in, otherwise no-one and nothing will be found.

Not sure how the MCA will be able to achieve the statement on its website;

Our highly trained Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre personnel are ready to respond to emergency calls 24-hours, 365 days a year for the UK coast and surrounding waters. Our primary aim is to reduce incidents through prevention activity, education and improved regulations while maintaining effective enforcement.

Well, they will be able to respond to incidents but not how their vision sees it;

Our vision is to be the best maritime safety organisation in the world, committed to Safer Lives, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas.

At Swansea Coatsguard Station, we met four fantastic team members; all of whom were expert in all things to do with the Coastguard Service and the area of responsibility of Swansea.  It was a privilege to see around the station.

The ‘cave’ is a classic example for the Maritime Minister, Mike Penning, MP for the landlocked Hemel Hempstead constituency, to take notice of.  Would that he would pay more heed to the needs of the people and not the need to balance budgets! The irony of the matter is that Swansea was one of the Stations saved on the first listing, but someone decided to change that for the second listing, even though Swansea met all the original criteria of road and rail links, communication systems and recruitment. Sometimes with civil servants, it really is a question of where has common sense gone! Politics and budgets should bear no part on decisions that may have an affect on our lives, seems morals and standards get left behind.

Working in the travel, tourism and hospitality sector myself, if anything happens to any visitors to our wonderful isle, well, it would be an absolute disaster. Both for the people involved and for the tourism industry as a whole.  Great Britain is so wonderfully unique because it is an island with a mixture of picturesque and dangerous coastlines.  Extremely dangerous around the area of reponsibility for Swansea.  And if the proposed changes do go ahead, then the Milford Haven Coastguard Station would have to take on the responsibility of the Swansea Coastguard Stations, meaning they would have more than twice their current geographical area to look after, and with no extra personnel – not fair on anyone.

Since reading the first news of these ludicrous proposals, I have been privileged to make friends with some wonderful people on Twitter and Facebook who are involved in the campaign to ‘ Save Our Coastguard Stations’.  Two of the best would be Dennis O’Connor and Lou Pooley ~ great ambassadors for the Coastguard Service and very unhappy to have to be campaigning against the proposed cuts within the Maritime Coatdguard Agency.

That it should not be happening is a given – and  yet another example of the damaging and dangerous decisions this  ‘Greenest Government ever’ is making.  The current fad for the phrase ‘Keep calm and carry on’ would be the thing to do but how can you keep silent when you, and so many others, can see the potential problems and disasters these proposals would bring.  Notice the use of the word would, not could, that’s not correct; it is definitely ‘would’.

Have a look at the great new website ‘CoastguardSOS.com‘ – and please make signing the petition to save the Coastguard Stations, the next thing you do after reading this!  Spread the word, make our coast safe for our children and our grandchildren.  Edmunde Burke once said,  ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’ ~ we’re not necessarily talking about evil, but we are talking about the sanctity of life!

So, let’s make sure all these wonderful, dedicated guys and girls are going to be part of the Coastguard for as long as they want to be and for as long as we need them there – which would be never-ending!  What are you waiting for? Sign that petition!

SOS – Save Our Souls – Please!

I wasn’t going to write a post today but I have to in response to an article I read in The Independent – it’s about pollution disasters and the withdrawal of the four tugs that protect this Island of ours.

Since the calamitous oil spill disaster from the tanker Braer in Shetland, in 1993, (a total of 84,700 tonnes of crude oil spilled into the North Sea after the MV Braer ran aground and a total of £45 million was paid out in compensation), we have had four special tugs stationed around the coastline – our first line of defence.  Now the Government has decided not to fund them any more, as of the end of this month.  This flies in the face of advice from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, many MPs, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and the recommendation from Lord Donaldson’s report after the Braer disaster.

In 2008, the consultancy Marico Marine,  produced a report which stated: “The United Kingdom appears to have little option but to continue its involvement in the contracting of emergency towing vessels.”

“Lack of capability within the commercial tug and towage sector (in effect, market failure), European Union obligations and societal expectations (zero tolerance of major marine environmental incidents) combine to dictate the need for this contingent capability.”

It added: “In cost benefit terms, averting one major shipping disaster and environmental incident of the scale of the Prestige [the oil tanker which broke up off the coast of Spain in 2002] would justify a contract price far in excess of that currently being paid until its expiry in 2011 and beyond.”

Apparently, the Maritime Minister, Mike Penning, thinks differently.  The many years of experience of experts, and all the detail reports written, count for nothing against Mike Penning’s fifteen months in the job!  If this move had a positive point anywhere, it may be digestible; but the fact is, it will only save £8 million, a paltry sum compared with any oil disaster that has happened.  So now it is basically fingers crossed that nothing untoward happens!

Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow South, sums it up well,

“It is completely crazy. It is incredibly irresponsible to be without these emergency vessels, even for a day. I sympathise with the need to look after the public purse, but that cannot come before lives and before the environment. This is a very dangerous game the Department for Transport is playing.”

Mike Penning, MP for the landlocked Hemel Hempstead constituency, is also responsible for the potential closure of some of our Coastguard Stations. This is even more irresponsible and unbelievable. Eight of them are threatened, Brixham, Clyde, Forth, Liverpool, Portland, Swansea, Thames and Yarmouth.

Can you imagine the scenario if these were closed? You’re on holiday in the beautiful county of Norfolk and you decide to go for a walk along the cliffs near Yarmouth. The grass is slippery and you stumble and fall off the side of the cliff and are inaccessible to be rescued from the cliff top. When the emergency call is put through to the Coastguard, it will not be a local person with local knowledge who answers the phone, it will be someone in Humber, which is, according to the AA route planner, 197.8 miles away and would take 4 hours and 36 minutes by road.

The person who answers the phone will not have local knowledge of Yarmouth and, as we all know, local knowledge saves lives. That co-ordinator will have to look up where you are saying the incident has happened. Precious seconds, even minutes, are lost ~ and so will lives be. Putting peoples’ lives at risk is indefensible, no amount of penny pinching is worth that. Our Coastguards go out in all weathers, as does the RNLI, putting their own lives at risk to save others. The men and women on the front line of our emergency services are all heroes, every single one.

The new website for The Maritime and Coastguard Agency proudly says on the front page;

Welcome . . . to the new home of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.  Our vision is to be the best maritime safety organisation in the world, committed to Safer Lives, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas.

Our values are Safety, Professionalism, Trust and Respect.

The values are superb and, at the moment, the public has trust and respect for their safety and the professionalism of all Coastguard personnel. As for the vision, how can it be the best maritime safety organisation in the world when eight strategically positioned coastguard stations are potentially to close? It is an oxymoron. And what if the modern day technology goes down ~ how on earth will it be possible to do anything?

There is a national petition against the closures which 15 thousand people signed the first time it was made public. It is new and needs your signature to make those numbers become many thousands. There is not much time left in this consultation period but, if we make enough noise, perhaps it will be heard by the people making decisions and not fall on the deaf ears of the Secretary again.

Please, please, please sign the petition!

Who is Gary McKinnon?

What a momentous day is has been for Gary McKinnon and Janis Sharp.  This afternoon, President Obama, said that the fate of Gary McKinnon will be decided in the UK and not the USA.  A very brave decision for him to make and one, for which, I am sure everybody concerned with the case, will be eternally grateful.  Now it is down to Theresa May, in her role as Foreign Secretary, to come forward with a proposal and decide what will happen.  Fingers, and everything else, crossed!

I wrote the following blog yesterday before this was announced and I’d like to share it, so here it is –

Most of us are aware of the name, Gary McKinnon, but do we know the man?  I have not met Gary, nor his incredible mother, Janis Sharp.  I have supported the case against extradition though and this is my personal take on it.

What I do know is that the British government has Failed (with a capital F)  in protecting and respecting this citizen of this, supposedly, democratic and just isle. 10 years on now and nothing has been resolved. Gary was convinced that UFOs existed and was looking throughout the internet for proof that they did.  During this time, between February 2001 and March 2002, he was able to gain access to United States military and NASA computers.  Gary says he was able to gain access to machines that were set on a default password, meaning that they had no firewalls or cryptic passwords.  Now that to me, who is not a computer geek, seems absolutely ridiculous when they were high security military and NASA computers.  An enormous oversight on the part of the US personnel.  Must have been very embarrassing to them.

Gary has been painted by the United States as an extremely dangerous hacker who caused incalculable damage and shut down their systems for 24 hours.  True, Gary left messages about how easily he got into the computers and notifying them of the danger, and once he even left a message which was critical of US Foreign Policy.  But please, to have open and unsecured computers at that level, quite simply, beggars belief!

In my humble opinion, the US Government should have thanked Gary for alerting them to the glaring omissions in their security systems,  rather than go on a vengeful witch hunt. However the thanks did not come, the witch hunt did – in November 2002, Gary McKinnon was indicted by a federal grand jury in Virginia, with the scenario of Gary being imprisoned for up to 70 years in a US jail!  Look at that date, that was nearly 9 years ago!

In June of 2005, Britain enacted the 2003 Extradition Act and later that year, the US Authorities began extradition proceedings.   What also began in June 2005, was for Gary to live a nightmare.  He became subject to bail conditions including having to sign in at his local police station every evening and to remain at his home address at night. In addition, he was banned from using a computer with access to the Internet.

To say all this has had a detrimental effect on his health is an understatement. In August 2008, Gary McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. It is an autism spectrum disorder, which has been compounded with Gary’s clinical depression.  Gary still cannot use a computer with internet access and is now under the care of a Psychiatrist.

Why our Government of the time ever signed an Extradition Treaty that allowed the US not to need to provide contestable evidence for the extradition of a British subject, goodness only knows. That is not protecting our citizens and it certainly is not a sign of a special relationship.

Whenever I think of this situation, I am taken back to the scene in ‘Love Actually‘ where our Prime Minister discovers moral fibre and strong leadership qualities:-

Press Conference Reporter: Mr. President, has it been a good visit?

The President of the U.S.: Very satisfactory indeed. We got what we came for and our special relationship is still very special.

Press Conference Reporter: Prime Minister?

Prime Minister: I love that word “relationship”. Covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm… Britain. We may be a small country but we’re a great one, too. The country of William Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.

Now, I’m not likening Barack Obama and David Cameron to the characters portrayed; however, if would be a wonderful and welcome surprise for everyone in this isle if our politicians kept their word!  Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were very supportive of Gary McKinnon’s situation, before they came into power, and pledged to review the extradition process to make sure it did not remain all one-sided.

Look at these two quotes and tell me whether or not they have kept their word.

David Cameron – “It should still mean something to be a British citizen – with the full protection of the British Parliament, rather than a British Government trying to send you off to a foreign court”….(July 2009)

Nick Clegg  – If he boards the plane to the U.S., it is almost certain he will never set foot on British soil again, doomed to pass out the rest of his days in shackles on a foreign shore. This is nothing short of a disgrace” ….(August 2009)

And we mustn’t forget Gary’s Mum, Janis Sharp.  Throughout all this she has remained dedicated to fighting for her son not to be extradited, in a dignified and determined manner.

As a Mum, I cannot imagine the pain she has endured and still is enduring.  All the promises, all the raised expectations, and what have they come to?  Janis is scared, and rightly so, that if Gary is extradited he would commit suicide.  How do you try and live a normal life with something like that hanging over you?

She is a courageous woman and I’m proud to be her friend on Twitter.

President Obama is currently here ~ it is the ideal opportunity to sort this matter out, once and for all.  Gary has served a prison term, he has undergone many years of mental torture now ~ he deserves to be a free man :-)

Great? Britain

Winston Churchill was voted as the greatest Briton who ever lived; he must be turning in his grave at some of the decisions this government and its departments have made recently.

We have wonderful forces in this sceptred isle of ours, brave girls and boys who are fighting in appalling conditions for the freedom of this country and the right of other countries to enjoy the same.  And how are they supported?  The wonderful Royal British Legion has been supporting them since 1921, for 90 marvellous years.  Recently there is also the charity called Help4Heroes, which does the same work only with glitz, glamour and lots of publicity. There are many other wonderful charities too, too many to mention.  The support all comes from charities, and from the Government & the Civil Servants, what do they get?  Not a lot at all.

How does this our Ministry of Defence support them?  On Friday, in the Guardian, there was an article about the fact that objectivity could go as the British Forces Broadcasting Services could be contracted out.  Horrendous news, only softened by the fact that those many, many men in grey suits in the big offices of the MOD, always take an incredibly long time to decide anything, so hopefully it may not even happen; as recent stories of the millions of pounds they have wasted on incompleted projects have stated.  They need to look inwards to find costs savings ~ a definite case of too many Chiefs and not enough Indians ~ they sit there in comfortable offices, on very good wages, with a pension that most people don’t even achieve in their annual pay and make all these decisions for the boys and girls on the front line, who face danger and death every day.

I remember as a young girl, we used to go and see my Grandma & Grandad in London, and the Forces Favourites would be on the car radio.  My Dad said that it was founded in North Africa, at the time he was out there in World War II, so there could be some feeling of connection with home.  I hope the MOD makes a correct decision here for a change, although I do not hold out much hope for that happening!

It is taking the same route as the ‘Forest Sell Off’ too. Our trees, our heritage and our future, that this government thought it could just sell and no one would say a word!  Well, lo and behold, they did say a word, in fact many words and thousands signed an on-line petition against the sale. The government changed its stance and called off the sale. Although, from what I can glean, some forests are still being silently sold – bad news.

Currently, there are plans to close a number of the Coastguard Stations. What is the matter with the people who make these decisions?  These brave people go out in all weathers and situations, risking their own lives to save others.  I really would like to see some of the civil servants sitting in their plush offices, out on a lifeboat or on the front line – gaining practical experience of how their cost cutting decisions would impinge on the everyday lives of our heroes!

And then there is Gary McKinnon.  A British subject who has been forced to wait for years to find out what his fate will be.  His ‘crime’ was hacking into American websites to look for information on UFOs.  With all due respect to America, shouldn’t those websites have been far better fire-walled and protected?  It makes sense!  So the US is embarrassed and therefore goes on a witch hunt to get Gary extradited to stand trial over there. What does the government do?  Says virtually nothing and just keeps passing the buck around from one person to another.  Their treatment of a British subject has been nothing short of torture.  I just wish that we could find some of the greatness that this  country used to have and, of which, we all used to be so proud.

Richard Curtis summed the US/GB relationship up perfectly in Love Actually –

Press Conference Reporter: Mr. President, has it been a good visit?
The President: Very satisfactory indeed. We got what we came for, and our special relationship is still very special.
Press Conference Reporter: Prime Minister?
Prime Minister: I love that word “relationship.” Covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship; a relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm… Britain. We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.

I sometimes wish Richard Curtis could write the speeches and make the decisions – I am sure they would be more founded on what is right and decent, rather than on these pathetic cost cutting exercises that we are being subjected to and a pandering to the US.

Naive views they may be, but they are my views and I am exercising my right to state them.