RNLI and Independent Lifeboatsl

In this post I’ld like to explain how I came to embark on my largest project so far, raising awareness of the large number of lifeboats that are not part of the RNLI but provide the same service saving lives not only at sea but also on rivers and lakes such as the Ouse, Severn and Clyde, Loch Lomond and Lough Neagh. Unlike the RNLI they have no central funding and rely almost entirely on the support of their local communities, with an occasional government grant. It took a year of research but I believe the list I’ve compiled, combined with an interactive map made by St bAbs Lifeboat, constitutes the most comprehensive resource available. You can find links to both in my pinned tweet.
I’d already been supporting emergency services, including HM Coastguard and RNLI, before I became aware of the dispute between RNLI and their New Brighton crew which you can read about it here https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/new-brighton-lifeboat-frequently-unavailable-14260519 I’ve since learned that this wasn’t the first such incident, nor would it be the last! What follows is some correspondence I had with RNLI. The first is my response to Paul BoissierRNLI Chief Executive who refers to this Daily Mail article, which I hadn’t read at the time. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5719757/Britains-heroic-lifeboat-volunteers-drowning-sea-political-correctness.html
The Daily Mail is not noted for fair & balanced reporting, but I’m quite capable of making my own judgement & independently come to a similar conclusion before I read the article. You’ve had similar incidents with 6 lifeboats to my knowledge: Moelfre, Cleethorpes, New Brighton, St Helier, Scarborough & Whitby. If, as DM says, there were 6 in 18mths, that would mean 2 more that I don’t know about. I’ve followed the last 4 disputes quite closely & believe they’re due to bureaucratic management & PC correctness gone mad! “Ah but it’s only a few!” you say. That’s not good enough! These are dedicated & experienced volunteers willing to drop everything to save lives at sea. If a coxswain with an MBE for over 30yrs makes an error of judgement, there are surely other disciplinary that could be applied short of dismissal? And to describe two novelty mugs as “hard core graphic pornography” is frankly ludicrous!
I see little evidence of your professed respect for volunteers & any “bullying seems to come from management. You’re losing other experienced crew in addition to those you’ve dismissed, as others quit in solidarity with their mates. At New Brighton you had to bring in crew from outside the area who needed to be accommodated & lacked local knowledge. I’m aware of several donors who have said that they’re cancelling their direct debits, so it’s no time for complacency regarding fundraising however much you have in reserves.
I close with this quote from Ben Lake MP regarding the Ceredigion Lifeboat Campaign:
“Any charity depends on the goodwill and faith of the public and the way in which they have handled the whole process does not paint the RNLI in a good light. I fear it could cause lasting damage to the reputation of the RNLI in west Wales.”
I suggest you cease making excuses & focus on re-establishing goodwill with both volunteers & public, or it won’t only be in west Wales that you suffer a loss of reputation!

The response I received, though far from satisfactory, did actually address the issues I raised.
Dear Mr Coulson,
Thank you for your email. I am sorry if you have found the newsletter unhelpful. We do, of course, appreciate that you are capable of making your own judgement, but the newsletter was sent to supporters in response to receiving a high number of queries. Lots of people have found it helpful to understand our side of the story, which has been greatly mis-represented by the media. I am sorry if this does not apply to you, but I hope this email can answer some of your concerns.

The six incidents that you refer to in your email are all of a very different nature. With some, we have been able to come out and speak publically about some of the specifics. However, others have had to remain of a confidential nature, which does not always help our side of the story, but is necessary out of respect for the people involved, or for legal reasons. I do know which of the remaining two you refer to. It is more than likely that the Daily Mail are mistaken, as they were on many points.

I note your frustration at the RNLI’s treatment of volunteers, so I’d firstly like to take this opportunity to say that we absolutely recognise the years of dedication and the skill involved in becoming a crew member, helm or Coxswain. We fully understand and respect the close bond and camaraderie of our crew and other volunteers and that friendly banter is a key part of this.  However, with regard to the mugs at Whitby for example, I can assure you that this really is not ‘political correctness gone mad’, as some media articles have suggested. We hold the bravery of our volunteer lifeboat crews in the highest esteem, and this is not a decision that has been taken lightly under any circumstances. But I’m afraid the mugs did carry explicit, hard-core pornographic images that would offend most people and they have been severely played down in the media in order to try and discredit the RNLI. In fact, the papers would not even consider printing the actual images due to their explicit nature.

At Scarborough, the Coxswain led an unofficial exercise in which he took Scarborough’s Shannon class lifeboat to sea with untrained passengers on board and without enough qualified crew members. From the investigation evidence, it is also clear that the untrained passengers on board were given operational control of the lifeboat in poor weather conditions and strong, near gale-force, winds. The lack of a full crew also meant the lifeboat was not available for rescue duties and the Coastguard – who coordinate rescues at sea – was not informed that the lifeboat was ‘off service.’ If the lifeboat was required for rescue, it would first have had to return to the lifeboat station, disembark the passengers, and pick up qualified crew, delaying the rescue launch considerably and potentially risking lives. This was not a simple administrative oversight – crew, passengers, the lifeboat and the RNLI were all placed in a vulnerable position as a result of the Coxswain’s actions. This series of serious breaches ultimately put lives at risk and no contingency plan was in place in case of an emergency call.

Bullying and harassment has played a part in some of the recent incidents at the RNLI, and whilst I cannot give you any specific examples for the reasons stated above, what I can say is this; many of the public supports the RNLI for 2 really important reasons.  Firstly because of the selfless courage of our volunteers who do so much to save peoples’ lives on the water. I personally feel humbled by this, just as I suspect everyone would. The second reason is because the RNLI has for the last 190 years upheld the sort of values and behaviours that represent the very best in British life – decency, respect for others and a desire to help other people in distress.  Those values are timeless and without them we would be nothing. So when we learn about any form bullying or intimidation happening at our stations, we have no choice but to act. We do this to look after the interests of the many people who come into contact with the RNLI every day, including the people that we rescue from the sea. This is not a witch-hunt or political correctness running wild. It is an organisation recognising that even courageous volunteers need to behave in a particular way to maintain the trust of the ordinary, decent folk of this country on whose support we depend.

With all of these things, I’d like to assure you that we do have a robust and fair procedure in place to deal with any incidents that arise.  In the vast majority of cases, we would solve any issues locally, at the station in the first instance. People are people and we all get things wrong from time to time. However, it is very rare that a full investigation and standing down has to take place.  I would be disappointed for you to make the assumption that no rehabilitation opportunities are, or were, offered to people who get things wrong. This is standard practice, but they are only useful if they have an effect on the individuals concerned. If not, we have to look for other sanctions.

A also note your comments about Cardigan Bay and I am sorry that you are unhappy about this also. We continually review the effectiveness of the lifeboat cover provided from our lifeboat stations throughout the UK and Ireland. This process is not new to the RNLI, and over our long history, we have been following a process that involves the necessary consultation with the principle stakeholders, taking into account RNLI and open-source data, so that an evaluation of coverage against the RNLI’s Concept of Operations and Strategic Performance Standards can be made. This process was followed in the case of Cardigan Bay Coast Review. The results and recommendations of that review were then scrutinised by our Chief Executive and his directors before being presented to the RNLI’s Operations Committee for advice and comment. The Chairman and some members of that committee had visited all of the Cardigan Bay lifeboat stations well before the decision was made, in order to hear and discuss the views of the lifeboat stations as a part of the consultation process.
The review concluded that the lifesaving requirements of the whole area could be met more efficiently by reconfiguring New Quay Lifeboat Station to operate a B class Atlantic 85 lifeboat along with retaining its D class lifeboat. It was decided that this reconfiguration should take place once new 25 knot Shannon class lifeboats are on service at Barmouth and Pwllheli. These Shannon class lifeboats are considerably faster and far more capable than the Mersey class lifeboats. We are very grateful to our lifesavers throughout Ceredigion, whether they fundraise or crew our lifeboats, and we particularly respect the team at New Quay, as they face a transition which not all of them agree with. The RNLI will be supporting them through this, as we have done with others that have been through a re-configuration or closure in the past.

Finally, I’d like to add that the RNLI is never complacent when it comes to fundraising. We value our fundraisers and donors greatly. Our reserves are put aside on the advice of the Charity Commission that, to be a responsible charity, we have to have enough in the bank to ensure that if all fundraising stopped today we could keep running our crucial service for between 6-12 months. We provide an essential emergency service so it is imperative that we have enough reserves to continue our rescue service whatever happens. We also have to ensure we have enough surplus funds for planned capital expenditure over the next few years – the ongoing upgrade of our aging fleet and the provision of new lifeboat stations in some locations.

Thank you for your support of the RNLI and I hope you have found this update useful.
With kind regards,

I continue to support the Ceredigion Lifeboat campaign although they’ve chosen to continue to work with RNLI, despite their intransigence, rather than go independent as I suggested. I know it took Jersey Lifeboat Association a year or more to become fully operational so it’s not an option to be left until all else has failed, but it’s their decision.

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