Gavin Newlands – 2023 Speech on Lifeboat Services – Search and Rescue

The speech made by Gavin Newlands, the SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 10 January 2023.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for bringing forward this important debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee, of which I am a former Member, along with you, Mr Davies, and the hon. Member for Torbay.

The hon. Member for Torbay started the debate extremely powerfully with a lot of good points. There will be a huge amount of consensus, which is unusual, particularly from the SNP in this place. I will detail that particularly when I get to the speech made by the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). The hon. Member for Torbay rightly said that search and rescue is carried out by a number of governmental and independent organisations and agencies. He also mentioned the Penlee lifeboat, which lost all eight of its crew in 1981. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) has just powerfully described that incident, and I will come to that when I sum up his contribution. The hon. Member for Torbay mentioned that there were nearly 10,000 taskings last year, and made an important point about preventive work through education and training. He rightly highlighted the excellent work of his own local lifeboat in Torbay.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was absolutely right to mention how treacherous the waters can be off the north-west coast of Scotland. He also made what may appear to be a lighter point about the sheep rescue and how important it would have been to the crofter—and no doubt to the sheep themselves. That put me in mind of another rescue; I think it was the Skye lifeboat that helped to refloat some stranded dolphins last summer. It is not just humans that the RNLI supports.

The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) made many better points than he made in the independence debate just weeks ago. I did not catch their names, but he made a good point about four volunteers who have served for 40 years with the lifeboat service. I add my thanks and gratitude. That makes the wider point that many who serve in the RNLI have done so for a long time, and that must be recognised. He also mentioned the Nicola Faith tragedy, in which three lives were sadly lost.

It would not be a Westminster Hall debate without the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He mentioned coastal activities, including sailing and surfing. The one I was interested in was pier jumping. He confessed that he partook in that activity himself. It is not clear whether that was last week or some time ago, so we are unsure whether his pier-jumping speedos have been retired. Now that I have loaded up that image, I will come to the hon. Member for Moray. It is very rare—in fact, probably unique—that I agree with every word that he said.

Jim Shannon

I think the hon. Gentleman can finish now.

Gavin Newlands

I should probably sit down at that, yes. I will not put that on my leaflets, obviously.

The hon. Member for Moray brought up the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which I very much support. That leads me on nicely to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). I thank him for his work in setting up that organisation. He was right to say that this debate is essentially a moment of consensus when we can thank all those who volunteer and put their lives at risk on our behalf to save those in distress at sea. He also made the point that they do it all by raising their own money. I add my thanks and gratitude to all those who fundraise for, and donate to, the RNLI, making possible all its excellent work, which we have all spoken about.

That brings me on to the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), who said he was a proud yachtsman and talked about how he shared water safety training with a local school. He, too, reiterated the vital importance of such training for youngsters in school at all ages. As he said, one only has to reflect on the tragedy in Solihull in recent weeks to realise that we must do more in that regard.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) spoke about the impact on the volunteers—the risk they take and the unsocial hours—but also about the impact on the families, which is something we do not always mention, so that was a very welcome point. She also mentioned her new year’s day dip. Rather her than me.

The last speaker, whose constituency I have forgotten—

Sir Julian Lewis

New Forest East.

Gavin Newlands

Of course; I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reminder. He spoke about the Mumbles lifeboat. I visited Mumbles on a rugby tour over 20 years ago, when a number of us had to be rescued that night—albeit thankfully from the Mumbles mile and not, it must be said, at sea.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned—quite rightly and powerfully, as I said earlier—the Penlee disaster. We should all go online and watch “Cruel Sea”, the documentary he highlighted, which I was unaware of. I will certainly go away and look at it, and I thank him for telling us about it. Hopefully it is on iPlayer.

Sir Julian Lewis

It is on YouTube.

Gavin Newlands

So it is there for all of us. In the spirit of consensus, I would like to pay particular tribute to lifeboat services in the south of England at this moment, amidst the record small boat crossings. I will not repeat all the statistics that the hon. Member for Torbay helpfully set out at the start, but the numbers are simply huge. Obviously, there are 238 lifeboat stations and 240 lifeguard units. As has been said, the RNLI was founded nearly 200 years ago, and in that time it has saved nearly 143,000 lives. In 2021, it saved 296 people. An average of 35 people are helped every day by RNLI crews.

I want to highlight a couple of people, if I may, who were decorated in the King’s new year’s honours list. An MBE was awarded to Dupre Strutt, a mechanic at the RNLI Kirkwall lifeboat station and a retired area lifesaving manager for Scotland. Dupre was part of the fabric of Kirkwall lifeboat station and had followed in his father’s footsteps, having grown up in the station. Since joining in 1983, Dupre has given 39 years of service to the RNLI, during which time he has been directly involved in over 300 rescues, saving over 60 lives.

Similarly, a volunteer mechanic and lifeboat operations manager at Kirkcudbright lifeboat station, William “John” Collins, has been awarded at a BEM for his dedication to the RNLI and the community in the town. He joined the station in 1991 as a mechanic, a role in which he continues to this day, alongside his duties as LOM. Outside of the RNLI, John is employed as the local school bus driver. During the pandemic, he extended that role to deliver essential food supplies around the area.

Of course, Scotland, with its long coastline and 790 islands, has a long tradition of life on the seas and, of course, facing the dangers that can be inherent in that, whether that is winter storms off the Atlantic, fishing boats in distress or leisure craft running into trouble, often with inexperienced people at the helm. Scotland is absolutely indebted to the RNLI, so if I may, and so that I do not miss any out, I will list the stations. They are, from the south-west: Portpatrick, Stranraer, Girvan, Troon, Largs—I will give the list to Hansard, so do not worry if I rush through it—Arran, Campbeltown, Tighnabruaich, Helensburgh, Islay, Oban, Tobermory, Mallaig, Barra, Kyle of Lochalsh, Portree, Leverburgh, Stornoway, Lochinver, Thurso, Wick, Longhope, Stromness, Kirkwall, Aith, Lerwick, Invergordon, Kessock, Buckie, Macduff, Fraserburgh, Peterhead, Aberdeen, Stonehaven, Montrose, Arbroath, Broughty Ferry, Anstruther, Kinghorn, Queensferry, North Berwick, Dunbar and Eyemouth—and I nearly mentioned Berwick-upon-Tweed, but that is only half-Scottish, so I shall leave it out.

We are also indebted to the independent and inshore rescue services, including at Dornoch, as well as the Glasgow Humane Society, Loch Lomond, Nith and the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, which I am delighted the hon. Member for Moray mentioned. Obviously, a lot of assistance, or co-ordination, goes to the RNLI through the Coastguard Agency. The coastguard is also 200 years old.

I want to make one point as I conclude, although I do not want to stray too far from consensus. I want to talk about the channel, but briefly, as I appreciate that my speaking time is nearly up. Last year, a record 45,000 people succeeded in crossing the channel, and we know there have been tragedies and a huge number of rescues there. We have always called for and maintained that there should be a safe and legal route so that the coastguard and the RNLI are not put in the position of having each day to save lives in the busiest shipping lane in the world.

Some of the rhetoric deployed has been deplorable, and Nigel Farage compared the work of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and of the RNLI to

“a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs”.

On the back of that, the RNLI received the most donations in its history in response to a single event—more than £200,000.

We can all castigate such rhetoric, which is deployed by some, but I want to finish on a note of consensus. I say thank you to all who are involved in the RNLI and those who co-ordinate our search and rescue services. In particular, I pay tribute to all those who sadly lost their lives in attempting to rescue others on our behalf.