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Minister wants ‘facts not fl annel’

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Meeting the minister: Dennis O’Connor & Graham Warlow

Meeting the minister: Dennis O’Connor & Graham Warlow

ON MONDAY (Nov 17) representatives of the national Coastguard SOS campaign group met UK Shipping Minister John Hayes in Westminster to discuss the controversial plan to close half of the UK’s maritime rescue coordination centres (MRCC’s). Local campaigners Dennis O’Connor and Graham Warlow made the trip to the Houses of Parliament, where they were joined by colleague Lynne Gray for the high-level meeting.

After the meeting we spoke with Coastguard SOS co-ordinator Dennis O’Connor, who expressed his gratitude to local MP’s Simon Hart and Stephen Crabb, who met the group in July along with local AM’s Paul Davies and Angela Burns: “Simon Hart has been so important in helping arrange our meeting with the Minister. He has taken a keen interest in our efforts. He knows, while we are proud of our efforts to ensure Milford Haven Coastguard Station remains operational, that this is a national issue that affects people’s lives and safety on a huge scale.”

Dennis explained that the meeting was ‘an opportunity for the campaign group to relay continued safety fears and discuss the way in-which the closure programme has been handled by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA)’. Following the closure of stations at Forth, Clyde, Yarmouth, Solent, Portland and Brixham the meeting also presented the opportunity for the campaign group to ensure that the Minister, who has only been in post since the last cabinet reshuffl e, was given the opportunity to receive information that otherwise would not be given to him by the MCA or Department for Transport (DfT).

“We took the opportunity to provide Mr Hayes with an overview of how the service has suffered since the closure programme was announced four years ago,” said Mr O’Connor. “It’s unlikely that certain information would readily be disseminated by the departments who are answerable to him. There are always two sides to a story and we were of the firm opinion that as the Minister is now responsible for maritime affairs then he should be fully appraised in order to be able to manage his portfolio effectively.”

Representatives of the MCA and DfT were also present at the meeting and during a frank discussion the Minister gave assurances of his intent to carry out an indepth analysis of the closure programme, specifically the effects that the closure of stations has had so far. “Mr Hayes made it perfectly clear that he wanted all of the facts not fl annel from the MCA and DfT and we are pleased that he has underlined this” said Mr O’Connor. “We made it clear to the Minister that we feel strongly that neither the MCA or DfT could be relied upon to present balanced information to him and asked that information gathering be carried out independently of those organisations to ensure that he can take a balanced view of the process.

This would include receiving submissions from all stakeholders.” “It was evident that Mr Hayes appreciates that people have genuine concerns about the closure programme which need to be addressed. As with the campaign group, coastal safety is also his priority and he intends to ensure that the management of the closure programme is being conducted in an appropriate way which does not affect or undermine safety in any way.”

Concerns about the way the closure programme is being handled have increased since a recent freedom of information request revealed that the understaffing at stations across the UK has increased dramatically. Aberdeen Coastguard reached a peak of 97% understaffing during this year and Dover 92% other stations at Humber reached 83% and Swansea were up to 80% understaffed.

In September the MCA’s centralised centre at Fareham opened despite almost half of the staff being recent recruits with no search and rescue coordination experience. The continuing loss of experienced Coastguard offi cers has taken its toll on the service. During the meeting with the Minister, Keith Oliver, the MCA’s Head of Maritime Operations claimed that ‘there are no inexperienced officers at the Fareham centre and understaffing is not an issue because “a higher calibre of staff had now been recruited to replace those who have left the service’.

Campaigners insist that the statement by Mr Oliver is an obvious example of how the MCA are prepared to dismiss the value of its officers and the concerns of the wider public: Quite how the MCA can defend the loss of experienced Coastguards by stating that their replacements, despite having no SAR experience, are “experienced” and of a “higher calibre” is beyond comprehension” said Mr O’Connor.

“The new recruits just do not have the training, skills or service experience of those who have left therefore it is shameful for the MCA to make this statement when clearly the facts confl ict sharply with statements being made by the MCA about safety being their priority. You cannot replace years of experience overnight and it seems to suggest an element of ensuring that new staff, irrespective of their lack of experience, are being favoured because of their compliance within the future Coastguard set-up.

The statement by Mr Oliver also underlines concerns that this is not a transparent process. We welcome the decision by the Minister to take a fresh look at the closure programme. This will offer some reassurance that concerns are being addressed and it will force the MCA and DfT to fi nally admit that there have been failings in the way the process has been handled. The MCA has failed to offer any evidence to suggest that the process is safe or workable and without compelling evidence they should never have been allowed to proceed. We hope that the Minister will concur with previous concerns raised by the Transport Select Committee and fi nally emergency measures will be taken to ensure that the service is stabilised.”

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Education

Delight as foundation phase learners return to class

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PEMBROKESHIRE Headteachers have reported very positive returns to school for Foundation Phase Learners.

All Foundation Phase Learners returned to schools on Monday, March 1st and attendance has been reported at almost 90% since.

The Council’s Director for Education, Steven Richards-Downes, said: “A wide range of council services have worked together to ensure that Foundation Phase pupils have been able to return
safely to school.

“I am particularly grateful to all school staff and families for ensure that learning is now available for our youngest learners face to face.”

Headteachers remarked how schools have filled with smiles and laughter following the safe and phased return of Foundation Phase learners.

Cora O’Brien, Headteacher at Waldo Williams School in Haverfordwest emphasised how quickly learners have settled back in to a routine.

“It has been an absolute joy to hear their laughter in the playground and to observe their love of learning face to face once again. I thank everybody in the Waldo Williams School
community for working so hard to ensure that the transition went smoothly.”

Vicky Hart-Griffiths, Headteacher of Ysgol Hafan y Mor in Tenby, said: “It has been wonderful to welcome all our Foundation Phase learners back to school. They are thriving, being amongst
friends and back to a school routine.  

“All the pupils have spoken about how happy they are to have returned and it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome them back and we can’t wait until we have all our pupils back in school.

“The school feels alive again and there’s a positive buzz and laughter once again echoing throughout the school.”

Gareth Lewis, Headteacher at Broad Haven CP School said children had returned “with real enthusiasm, and have been very keen to meet up with their friends.”

Mr Lewis added: “Our parents have been very supportive and positive about the return, and those with older children are very much looking forward to a wider return to schooling.”

Mr Richards-Downes said plans were now turning to more learners returning to schools in the near future.

“We are looking to the next phases of the re-opening of schools on the 15th of March as long as the government guidelines allow.”

Further details will be released in due course.

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Pembrokeshire County Council: This week’s Leader’s coronavirus update

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL Leader, Councillor David Simpson, has provided a further coronavirus update for Friday, 5th March as follows:

‘Welcome everyone to my weekly update.

“It is with rather a heavy heart that I tell you that it’s almost 12 months since my first statement on the coronavirus pandemic.

“On 9th March 2020, I addressed our Cabinet meeting with the following words:

“Further to the news yesterday that two people in Pembrokeshire had tested as positive for the Covid 19 virus, I am sure you will join me in wishing them both a speedy and full recovery.

“I can reassure you that our services will continue as usual, and all our employees can continue to attend to their work, appointments, schools and services as they normally would.

“We should all help protect ourselves and our communities by following Public Health Wales advice, particularly around washing hands and using a tissue for symptoms associated with cold and flu and then safely disposing of it.

“I am grateful to the co-operation and hard work of all of our staff and we will provide further updates and information when we have them.

“In the meantime I can confirm that detailed planning arrangements, both internally, with partner agencies and through the Dyfed Powys Local Resilience Forum, are well underway to ensure that the Council and Pembrokeshire are as well placed as possible for whatever challenges we may face. Thank you.”

“I am sure you will join me while I take a moment now to remember all those people in Pembrokeshire and further afield, who, very sadly, passed away since I made that announcement.

“I continue to be incredibly grateful, as I’m sure you are, to everyone who is helping to beat this pandemic, working so very hard now for over a year.

“We are fortunate now to be in a position where the vaccine programme is protecting older members of our community and starting to roll out among one of the biggest groups – the over 65s and those with underlying health conditions.

“This time next week (12th March) the Welsh Government will have notified us of their plans for the next three weeks.

“In the meantime, we remain in Alert Level 4 and the stay at home message continues to be more important than ever as we reach the threshold of better times.

“I wish you all a good weekend and thank you once again to the vast majority of wonderful Pembrokeshire residents who are doing the right thing and waiting patiently at home for restrictions to lift.

“We do really appreciate your efforts and determination to help bring this pandemic to an end.”

 

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Sergeant Hillier ‘died doing the job he loved’, says his heartbroken father

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THE ARMY SERGEANT who died after being injured in a live firing exercise, has been named locally.

The incident occurred at Castlemartin Training Area, and led to the death of Sgt Gavin Hillier, who was in the Welsh Guards.

In a post on social media, his father wrote: “Absolutely devastated to be writing this post, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

“At 3.45am this morning I received a phone call that will forever change my life. My eldest son Gavin Mark Hillier was in a fatal accident yesterday in the army (the job he loved).

“Sleep tight & rest in peace son. I’m so proud of you. Goodnight and god bless, love your heartbroken dad.”

An Army spokesperson said: “It is with great sadness we can confirm the death of a soldier on March 4.

“Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this tragic time.

“The circumstances surrounding this death are being investigated and it would be inappropriate to comment any further.”

It is understood that Sergeant Hillier, who served as part of the Welsh Guards’ motor transport platoon, was due to be deployed to Iraq and had previously been awarded a Long Service and Good Conduct medal by Prince Charles, the regiment’s Colonel in Chief, in 2019.

The tragic incident is the latest in a number of accidents at Castlemartin.

In 2017, The Herald reported that two soldiers died in a tank explosion, which a coroner ruled was due to a design flaw.

The following year, an Army captain was jailed in July 2018 after a 21-year-old soldier was killed by a stray bullet during an exercise at the range in 2012.

An investigation has been launched into the death of a soldier at Castlemartin RAC Range following a military exercise.

Police were called to the site at just before 10.45pm on March 4.

Sadly, a man was pronounced dead shortly after. Our thoughts are with his family, who have been informed of the incident and are being supported by specialist officers.

An investigation is underway led by Dyfed-Powys Police. Officers are liaising with the Health and Safety Executive and MoD.

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