RNLI Bicentenary — [Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall am 9:30 am ar 26 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Ceidwadwyr, Totnes 9:30, 26 Mawrth 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the bicentenary of the RNLI.

It is my honour and privilege to open and close today’s debate on the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and to recognise its history, praise its work, celebrate and thank its volunteers. I want to put on the record the fact that this House understands, appreciates and values that magnificent, long-standing organisation.

Throughout 2024, across the country, communities will come together to mark the extraordinary 200 years of the RNLI. On 4 March, 1,800 crew of the RNLI assembled in Westminster Abbey for a service of thanksgiving. In May the month becomes mayday month, and 18 and 19 May will see a series of community activities, including a lifeboat festival in Poole and 25 July is World Drowning Prevention Day. On 1 August “one moment, one crew” encourages RNLI volunteers to celebrate in their communities. On 10 October, on the anniversary of the first ever street collection held in Manchester, the birth of the most successful fundraising campaign ever seen will be celebrated. There is also the 200 Voices podcast on the RNLI website, where we can listen to 200 people explain how the RNLI has impacted their lives. I strongly recommend it.

From its humble beginnings to the modern-day integrated network of volunteers, fundraisers and supporters criss-crossing the country, the RNLI is not just an emergency service, but a Great British brand that exhibits the very best of our spirit. It was on the Isle of Man in 1824 that Sir William Hillary proposed the concept of an organisation to save lives at sea. With an average 1,800 shipwrecks a year, Sir William proposed the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck. Despite numerous rejections, including being pushed back by the Navy and Ministers of the day, he appealed to the philanthropic organisations of the time, which, with alacrity, took up the cause, and on 4 March 1824 they held a meeting in the City of London Tavern, officially forming and ratifying the institution—possibly the best idea ever to come out of a pub.

With royal patronage granted and the name changed in 1854 to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Sir William’s vision was undoubtedly recognised, although whether he would have imagined that the RNLI would have 238 stations, operate 440 lifeboats, provide lifeguards for 200 beaches and be responsible for rescuing some 146,000 people over its history, it is impossible to know. However, that ambition and determination created an organisation from which we all benefit and whose charter still stands the test of time, declaring that the RNLI

“will assist in saving life from Shipwreck” and be

“supported by Annual Subscriptions and Donations, and other Contributions to its Funds”.

Today the RNLI holds legendary status. Those of us who have grown up in coastal communities or who are fortunate to represent one have long been moved by the tales of epic heroism in which volunteers—members of the community—have put their lives on the line for others. That includes the sinking of the Mexico in the Ribble estuary in 1886; the White Star Line’s SS Suevic, shipwrecked off the Lizard in Cornwall in 1907, where the RNLI managed to rescue all 456 passengers, including 70 babies, over 16 hours in an oar-powered boat; the RNLI’s support in the Dunkirk evacuation, where over 100,000 soldiers were said to have been saved by RNLI boats; to Henry Freeman and his innovative cork lifejacket; the iconic Henry Blogg; the heroism of Grace Darling in the 1838 crisis in Forfarshire; and Margaret Armstrong, who helped every single launch of the Cresswell lifeboat, saving lives for over 50 years until her death in 1928. The RNLI has without prejudice always come to the aid of those in danger on the sea, such as the enemy during the first and second world wars, merchant sailors in peril, holidaymakers who are caught out, or refugees crossing the channel.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On the diversity of the problems that the RNLI faces, including holidaymakers, Portrush in my constituency has an RNLI boat, and the crew and volunteers do excellent work, sometimes in treacherous waters off the north coast of Northern Ireland and the east coast of Scotland. Will he join me, as I know he will, in commending them and in ensuring that the wider public support is as great as it can be for all our RNLI crews and volunteers to maximise the return and to save even more lives in future?

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Ceidwadwyr, Totnes

I thank the hon. Member for making that point. Especially in high-tourism areas and where there has been a dramatic experience post pandemic, the RNLI has seen more shouts—more call-outs to rescue holidaymakers—so it is essential that right across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we support our RNLI crews, volunteers and fundraising efforts, and strengthen their hand in what they do.

The remit of the RNLI is simple: to help anyone in danger on the sea. The tales of events and individuals throughout the RNLI’s history not only inspire the next generation of volunteers, but help to explain why so many families across the country have served the RNLI throughout its existence. In doing so, those volunteers have provided a magnificent, quiet heroism and public service to their communities, country and fellow human beings.

The volunteer power of the RNLI is all the more remarkable when we consider that for almost the first 90 years, the lifeboats of the RNLI were powered by nothing other than the strength of man, and launched by hand and horsepower. The steady evolution of the RNLI has resulted in a modern and up-to-date fleet that has replaced oar power with engine power. The ability to upgrade the fleet and provide new equipment, however, has been brought about only by the generosity of the British public and by businesses.

The RNLI has always been independent of Government and will always remain so. As a result, it relies on the support of donors to meet the costs of lifesaving activities. As we politicians look on in envy, the RNLI has perfected the art of fundraising and has set exacting standards to develop long-standing relationships with supporters and to ensure financial stability. The figures speak for themselves: the RNLI raised £177.4 million in 2022 and £181.7 million in 2021. Along with the public fundraising, generous bequests have included, bizarrely, a set of gold teeth and two vintage Ferraris.

Regardless of what is donated, it all helps to ensure that the RNLI is able to respond to shouts anywhere along our coastline and to help those in danger with the most up-to-date equipment and facilities. We should consider the fact that in 2023, up to July, the RNLI had launched its lifeboats 9,192 times, the equivalent of 16 times a day; saved 269 lives; and assisted 10,734 people at sea—a remarkable number and giving remarkable significance to its work.

It is extraordinary to see businesses playing a role in the fundraising efforts. The Baltic Exchange, for example, has for more than 150 years supported the lifeboat based in Salcombe in South Devon, hence the subtle name of The Baltic Exchange III. Such fundraising efforts have allowed the RNLI to focus on what it does best and, perhaps most importantly, have ensured that the RNLI is immune from political interference and can be truly independent.

Just as the equipment and machinery have modernised so, too, have the provision and scale of what the RNLI offers. Starting originally with lifeboats and lifeboat stations, the RNLI now runs a safety-at-sea initiative with its Float to Live campaign, as well as providing lifeguards on 240 UK beaches. In 2023, those lifeguards carried out almost 3 million preventive actions, as well as attending some 14,000 incidents, helping 19,979 people and saving 86 lives. Its international arm is focused on making drowning prevention a priority worldwide and reducing the staggering 235,000 deaths a year caused by drowning.

The RNLI has been a key supporter of the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which I founded two years ago to represent the 54 independent lifeboat stations of the United Kingdom. Its steady progress to help both at home and abroad is in part why the RNLI is such a well-loved institution and why it carries the support and confidence of the British public and, I hope I can safely say, of this House.

The purpose of this debate is to recognise the RNLI as a national organisation and to celebrate its work across the country, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the RNLI stations in South Devon. Torbay RNLI lifeboat station, based in Brixham, was established in 1866 and has been busily protecting our channel waters ever since. I was pleased to attend a service of thanksgiving organised by the Fishermen’s Mission earlier this year, to reflect on its work protecting those at sea, and salute its volunteers, who have attended thousands of shouts since 1866, rescued thousands of people and saved countless lives.

The Salcombe RNLI lifeboat was established in 1869 and is tragically remembered for one of the worst lifeboat disasters in the RNLI’s history. In 1916, the returning lifeboat capsized on the Salcombe bar and 13 of the 15-man crew drowned, devastating the town and the close-knit community. Memorial headstones either side of the mouth of the estuary recall and mark that tragedy.

The Dart RNLI, established in 1878 but closed shortly after, was reopened in 2007. The reopening was fortuitous, as last year alone it had 46 shouts and aided 51 people in difficulty. It is currently fundraising for a new boathouse, which I expect to be greeted with the same level of generosity as that often received by the RNLI.

Those three lifeboat stations are a necessity to coastal living. Their crews and support staff number well over 100 volunteers, and they have battled against some of the most ferocious storms to save those at sea, as well as dealt with thousands of visitors who flock to our beaches each and every year. The people of south Devon owe them an enormous amount, and we do not for a single second forget their courage and bravery in volunteering for the RNLI.

I would like to thank the crew of RNLI lifeboat stations across the country. They are all part of a rich heritage in which they put others before themselves. They put themselves in harm’s way to rescue those in need, and too often friends, families and fellow volunteers pay the price. The 800 names on the RNLI memorial in Poole serve as a reminder of the dangers they face, but also the hope that must be felt by any individual in danger when they see the colours of the RNLI racing towards them. Sir William Hillary said:

“With courage, nothing is impossible.”

I would like to finish by paying tribute to the outgoing chief executive, Mark Dowie, who finishes his five-year term in June. Mark has been an extraordinary leader of the RNLI over the past five years. He has had to deal with covid, channel crossings, rising inflation, increase in demand, and even unfair and inaccurate political comments. He has risen above all those, and leaves the RNLI in an even stronger place, with his name alongside those pioneering, innovative founders and fundraisers who have made the RNLI what it is today.

Today we mark and celebrate in Parliament the 200 years of the RNLI. I pray for calm seas and fair winds, and that it will continue to perform its masterful brave work for the next two centuries.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Llafur, Wirral West 9:43, 26 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on securing this important debate.

This year marks the bicentenary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, an extraordinary organisation that could not operate without the outstanding bravery and courage of those involved. RNLI lifeboat crews launched more than 9,000 times in 2022, aiding 16,476 people and saving 389 lives. RNLI crews, the vast majority of whom are volunteers, put their lives at risk to save others. They do so at all hours of the day and night, often setting out on very rough seas. Many families have been involved with the RNLI for decades, with expertise handed down through the generations. As has been said, being involved in a lifeboat station is a way of life.

I am honoured to represent a constituency with two RNLI lifeboat stations: one at Hoylake and one at West Kirby. Crews are prepared to go out in all weathers to rescue people, whether they are in yachts, dinghies, canoes or large commercial vessels or have been caught by the tide when walking out to the Hilbre islands. There is a long tradition of courage in west Wirral, of which local people are rightly proud. The first lifeboat station in Hoylake was founded in 1803, before the RNLI was established in 1824. Those early lifeboats were dragged into the sea by horses, their effectiveness reliant on the strength of the crews at the oars.

Tragedy struck in 1810, when eight men of a crew of 10 were drowned as they tried to assist the ship Traveller. The disaster struck the entire local community. A report cited in Nicholas Leach’s excellent book “Hoylake and West Kirby Lifeboats: An Illustrated History” describes the aftermath:

“The bodies were found the same day, and carried to their respective homes, where a scene of misery was witnessed which defies all power of expression. The deceased were all near neighbours, and lived in a small village called the Hoose, near Hoylake...these brave fellows were the flower of the Hoylake fishermen, and had always displayed the greatest promptitude and alacrity in assisting vessels in distress;
nor could England boast a set of braver men...They have left large families totally unprovided for”.

To mark the bicentenary of the disaster, a memorial to those lost was unveiled outside the RNLI lifeboat house in Hoylake in December 2010, and due respect was afforded by today’s lifeboat crews, members of the local community and descendants of those who lost their lives in 1810.

Thankfully, things have come a long way since those perilous days. In 2014, a new 13-metre Shannon lifeboat was stationed at Hoylake, where it remains today. It is a state-of-the-art vessel, with every conceivable safety feature. The smaller West Kirby inshore lifeboats were introduced in the 1960s. The roll call of brave men and women who serve at Hoylake and West Kirby is a source of great pride to the local community. Without them, there would be no rescue service for people who get into difficulty at sea and on the estuary. Fundraising is crucial to the RNLI, and it is unsurprising that local people are so keen to support it. It is vital that that support continues, because less than 1% of RNLI income comes from Government.

The stories of rescues are heroic indeed. I have had the great privilege of hearing at first hand from John Curry, chair of the Hoylake and West Kirby RNLI management group, about some of these rescues. One powerful image stays firmly in my mind: a hand reaching out from the waves. It is an image of a drowning man, woman or child, in the very last moments while rescue is still possible. The intense bravery and dedication of the RNLI volunteers, who will put themselves at risk to reach out and grasp such a hand before it sinks beneath the waves, deserve all our thanks and tributes.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Ceidwadwyr, Torbay 9:47, 26 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour Anthony Mangnall on securing this debate, and I thank my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it.

It is very apt to be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the RNLI, given the role that it plays for communities in south Devon. The Torbay RNLI has been operating since 1866, serving commercial merchantman traffic and keeping holidaymakers and those visiting the south coast safe. The organisation has been at the heart of the community since then; it is based on volunteering and on funding and support from the community.

It is easy to see why the RNLI is such a loved institution when we hear the stories of its members’ heroism. In Torbay we have Keith Bower, who I think is one of only three living holders of the RNLI gold medal for conspicuous gallantry. Other Members have already referred to those crew members who sadly lost their lives, but there have been many occasions on which volunteers will have absolutely pushed to the limits what they could do to save someone in distress. It is right that we pay tribute and remember them. It was great to see Keith at the heart of the recent service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, in recognition of the role that so many play, in extreme conditions, to try to save the lives of people they will probably never have met. They go out of their way to bring them home safe, for them and their families.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and I have an interesting debate about the Torbay RNLI, because the station on land is in Brixham, which is part of his constituency, but the boat is moored in the waters of Brixham harbour, which—due to the anomalies in how Torbay runs its harbour authority—is part of mine. But the RNLI is loved across the bay. At the event on 4 March, the fleet was out and being saluted by so many people on land, as well as those on the waters who rely on and are reassured by its constant presence.

It is worth noting that the RNLI Torbay lifeboat fundraising team are the ones helping to sustain the crew at the front. We have a song written by Roger Smith to commemorate and celebrate the 200th anniversary; there is also a whole network that exists throughout the year and raises vital funds to support the team we see out on the water.

It is also worth noting how the RNLI supports the wider work of the community. We think immediately of emergency call-outs when someone is in distress and a lifeboat is called out to identify them and bring them back to safety, but a range of other things can happen. There is always a moment for reflection when I am about to do the Boxing day walk into the sea at Paignton sands and I see the lifeboat pull up beforehand; the RNLI effectively provides a safety boat. It is a slightly thought-provoking moment: I sit there thinking, “Is this the best decision I’ve ever made?” as I am about to walk into freezing cold water, with the lifeboat pulling up to keep us safe. It shows what the RNLI does for the wider community: it is not just about emergencies, but about providing the safety and support that such events need. That allows thousands of pounds to be raised for other charities and for fundraising in the community, as well as being an opportunity to get rather cold on Boxing day, if that helps to shake off anything from the day before.

In its 200-year history, the RNLI has been supported by other institutions that contribute towards its efforts and share its goals. It is well worth mentioning the National Coastwatch Institution Torbay and its station up at Daddyhole plain, which works closely with RNLI Torbay. They are both committed to exactly the same purpose of keeping those who use the waters around our bay safe.

The RNLI is an institution that has been well loved and well supported for 200 years. It shows the best of our communities and ensures that they are safe even in the most perilous of conditions. It has had a successful 200 years in which it has gone from strength to strength. I see no reason why it will not go on to further success over the next 200 years, with many thousands more lives saved.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (AI and Intellectual Property) 9:51, 26 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on his excellent and stirring speech about the service of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution across this country. I pay tribute to the RNLI: it is a wonderful service, and today’s speeches have been inspiring.

I am here to say thank you on behalf of an inland community and to raise a related point about water safety. The RNLI has given 200 years of service to this country, and it is a privilege to speak in this debate. I will pick up on some hugely important points that the hon. Member made about the RNLI’s expansion into taking over beach safety and about its international and education work.

The RNLI already covers estuaries of major rivers. I represent a town further upstream, beyond the tidal reach of the Thames: the tidal section goes as far as Teddington, and Reading is some way from there. However, every year we have tragedies when people fall in the river and, in some cases, need to be rescued. The police are the rescuing authority, but I have been approached by a number of residents, particularly boat owners, small business owners and others based by the river, who potentially have access to rescue craft. They want to learn more about the experience of the RNLI and about how inland waterways could be made safer by assisting the police in rescue, with trained personnel who are used to driving boats in river situations.

In fact, one of my residents was awarded a medal by Thames Valley police for doing exactly that last year: at very short notice, he jumped into his boat and rescued somebody who had fallen into the river. The gentleman concerned was quite severely injured; he had struggled and was no longer able to swim. He was floating downstream in the centre of the river, some way from the bank, and if it had not been for that resident the incident could have been much worse.

I address my points to the Minister. Is it possible to look into the RNLI’s experience with inland waterways and see what we can learn as a country? We must not only thank the RNLI for its outstanding work in saving lives at sea, which has been spoken about beautifully today—we all share a great sense of gratitude to this wonderful institution—but see what can be learned from the collective endeavour about which the hon. Member for Totnes spoke so effectively and clearly in his inspiring speech. I pose that question to the Minister to see what might be done to further assist to local police forces: they are the rescuing authority in inland waterways, but they are often under enormous pressure, and police boats may take some time to get to an emergency.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal 9:54, 26 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall on securing it.

The RNLI has been an important institution in the United Kingdom since it was formed 200 years ago. The Suffolk association of lifeboats was formed in the same year, but it wisely handed over its assets and people to the RNLI in 1853. In 1824, boats were set up in Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Lowestoft, which is outside my constituency; a few years later, they were also set up in Thorpeness and Sizewell.

There is no doubt that the institution has been vital in saving lives, but it has also seen people losing their lives in saving others. The devastation that that can have in a community lives on for generations to come and is rightly recognised around the country. I pay huge tribute to all those who have served in the lifetime of stations around the country.

My constituency currently has two stations, in Southwold and Aldeburgh, and is served by the people of Harwich, just across the river in Essex. There is also a National Independent Lifeboat Association member in Felixstowe, which was set up more recently: just over 25 years ago. I know the dedication of the people, who are principally volunteers; they are on call and ready to move. The lifeguards who operate on some of our beaches have been integral in making sure that people are safe in the water. I also commend the RNLI guilds. Every branch and station has one: Aldeburgh’s was set up in 1962 and has been vital to the station’s ongoing operation.

I praised the operatives at Southwold station in 2013, because on 26 May 2013 a small group of the crew who were out on exercise gathered to deploy the single largest ever piece of peacetime recovery: 85 people, in just one event, where a swimming race had gone horribly wrong. Ben Lock and Lucy Clews were the lifeguards there who saw the issue straight away. The crew was mobilised by lifeguard supervisor Dan Tyler, and helmsmen Simon Callaghan, Paul Barker and Rob Kelvey came into action, later supported by Liam Fayle-Parr. It was absolutely astonishing. To date, I do not believe that there has been any other similar peacetime operation, although there may potentially be situations currently off the Sussex and Kent coast. It is right that we recognise the contribution of all these people in Hansard once more. Lives could have been lost.

I commend Simon Hazelgrove and the team today, who continue to operate the lifeboat station. I look forward to inviting them and the people from Aldeburgh to an event here in Parliament—hopefully in May, and if not, in June. At the Aldeburgh lifeboat station, it is slightly more complicated to launch a boat, because the town has a shingle beach, so the whole operation is even bigger. At the moment, they have a Mersey class boat. There is a significant operation, using a tractor and wooden poles to help the boat on and off; in many ways, it is a much bigger operation.

It is tremendous that a town the size of Aldeburgh can muster that sort of activity at pretty short notice. I am conscious that there has been some turbulence recently, but I want to celebrate the good things, including a service that was led by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich earlier this month to commemorate the 200-year anniversary.

Aldeburgh currently has an all-weather boat, the Freddie Cooper, which started operating in 1993, and an inshore boat, the Susan Scott, which has been operating since 2017. I want to turn to that for a sad moment, because a tale needs to be told of the recent leadership, which has been quite shabby. I am worried about aspects of the culture, and I am sad for the people of Aldeburgh, who themselves are sad about what has happened. We all know that change can be difficult, but one of the things the RNLI needs to understand as it looks ahead to the next 200 years is that it relies on the good will of the local communities, never mind the huge amount of work that goes into supporting it nationally. It needs to reflect on how it should do things differently when dealing with local communities, and I am not the only Member of Parliament affected in that respect.

One of the comments that really brought this issue to mind was made by somebody involved, who talked about an appalling betrayal of a community that has been nothing but supportive, as well as disgraceful management of the situation by RNLI headquarters, which raises concerns about the culture of the charity. By and large, the RNLI has been absolutely amazing, but it does need to learn from this sad situation.

Change was happening and a review was being undertaken. That meant that Aldeburgh would no longer have an all-weather lifeboat; instead, it would have a rigid inflatable craft, or RIB, as they are called. That was of concern to the local community, because it had been used to having an all-weather lifeboat. Unlike in Southwold, its boats had not been deployed as part of the Dunkirk operation, but they had been deployed during peacetime and wartime, and the crews recognised the local seas.

In terms of money, legacies had been left in the RNLI’s accounts to support it. It was indicated that these were restricted funds specifically to replace the all-weather lifeboat. The funds were in the RNLI’s accounts, and then all of a sudden the decision was made—with some internal consultation—that that would not happen. There was upset and uproar and, as a local Member of Parliament, I was asked to raise the issue with the RNLI. To my surprise, it refused to meet. I was somewhat shocked by that. As an elected representative, I am conscious that this issue has nothing to do with Government or with politics. Of course, the RNLI benefits from things such as tax relief in its fundraising, but that was not my reason for wanting to raise this issue. I wanted to do it because I am a member of the community, and the community felt shut out.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal

I will not give way yet, no. Eventually, following correspondence back and forth, it was only because I knew one of the trustees that I was able to get a phone call with the then chief executive. They insisted that the call could take place only if it was private and the details were not shared. I was prepared to take the call under those conditions, because it turned out that the chief executive had already been to the station. I turned up the day after the chief executive’s visit. Not all the volunteers had been informed that the chief executive was visiting. It turns out that that was part of a tour, which was proudly advertised, with photographs and similar in other stations on the tour, including the one at Southwold, but there was radio silence when it came to Aldeburgh.

I kept my part of the bargain; I did record the phone call, because I do not have the best memory, but I too had assumed that the conversation would be private. I was therefore sad to learn just last week that the chief executive in fact recorded the call and played it to another Member of Parliament. I am not going to say who they are—I do not need to embarrass them or the chief executive—but I am telling the story because I am concerned about the culture. Indeed, the chair of the trustees offered to meet me at some point, but then seemed to withdraw the meeting—certainly, we have not been able to find a time to do it.

None of this has been received well in the local community. Not all the volunteers were informed. I attended a subsequent meeting with Aldeburgh Town Council, and a member of the local leadership later complained to the council that I had been there, although I am not sure why—perhaps because I was concerned about the culture there. However, I have chosen not to reveal to the community some of the things that were said at that meeting, because that would embarrass the RNLI, and I do not seek to do that. It would also really upset the volunteers who go out, or are on stand-by to go out, on that boat every day. However, at the same time, people are wondering where the money has gone, and we can see in the RNLI’s accounts that the cost of wages, salaries and similar was £83.3 million in 2020 but is now £102.3 million.

As I say, this is a sad moment for me, and I have gone to the Charity Commission and similar. I really wish the RNLI success in the next 200 years, but it will need the strong support of its communities, and sadly some of those volunteer crew have now stepped away. I wish them and all the stations around the country well, but let us make sure that the RNLI is strengthened, and way to do that going forward is transparency, rather than secrecy.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:05, 26 Mawrth 2024

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Harris. I commend Anthony Mangnall on setting the scene so well and focusing on the bicentenary of the RNLI—[Interruption.]

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Llafur, Dwyrain Abertawe

Order. Can I ask Members not to have private conversations while others are speaking?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I will focus on the title and subject matter of the debate because that is important—it is why we are all here. Like others, I always want to speak on the tremendous work carried out by the RNLI, and this is an opportunity to highlight that wonderful work right across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—I always say that, because it is important for me to remember the Union and where we all are, and I have used that terminology on every occasion since I came here in 2010.

As we are all aware, the RNLI has reached the inspirational milestone of 200 years of service to the community. Hailing from a constituency with a huge peninsula, with Strangford lough on one side and the Irish sea on the other, I am reminded of a poem I learned when I was very young—“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”—because we are surrounded by seawater on both sides. That perhaps illustrates the importance of this emergency service and what it does not only in Strangford but for all of us who live on the Ards peninsula.

I was amazed to learn this month that volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved an incredible 146,277 lives during the RNLI’s two centuries of lifesaving. If we needed any illustration of the RNLI’s importance, that is it: all those people—146,277 is a significant number.

The lifeboats at the charity’s 10 lifeboat stations in Northern Ireland have launched 9,472 times, with their volunteers saving 1,535 lives and coming to the aid of thousands more. There is so much that they have done and so much more that they can do. Since the introduction of lifeguards to Northern Ireland in 2011, the RNLI’s seasonal teams based along the Causeway coast—represented by my hon. Friend Mr Campbell—and in County Down have responded to 2,894 incidents and come to the aid of 3,461 people, 47 of whom were lives saved. That is what this about: the lives saved and the commitments given.

The RNLI website states:

“Two centuries have seen vast developments in the lifeboats and kit used by the charity’s lifesavers—from the early oar-powered vessels to today’s technology-packed boats, which are now built in-house by the charity;
and from the rudimentary cork lifejackets of the 1850s to the full protective kit each crew member is now issued with. The RNLI’s lifesaving reach and remit has also developed over the course of 200 years…It designs and builds its own lifeboats and runs domestic and international water safety programmes”—

I think the hon. Member for Totnes referred to that in his introduction.

Today, of the 238 lifeboat stations across Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 10 operate out of Northern Ireland, including one in Portaferry, in my constituency of Strangford. I have visited that station on a number of occasions and I have a very good relationship with volunteers there. One of its stalwarts is Philip Johnston, who is one of the main leaders and organisers of the RNLI in Portaferry—he has just retired, and we thank him for all his service over those years. There are two other stations, on the boundary of Bangor and Donaghadee, in the constituency of North Down, which is, again, an illustration of the RNLI’s importance in the area that we represent.

Although much has changed in 200 years, two things have remained the same: the charity’s dependence on volunteers, who give their time and commitment to save others, and the voluntary contributions from the public, which have funded the service for the past two centuries. That is another illustration of what the RNLI means.

I was delighted that the local mayor of Ards and North Down in part of my constituency—the very capable Jennifer Gilmour, who just happens to be one of my party colleagues—has selected the RNLI as one of her charities and has carried out various fundraising activities. For many of her constituents and mine, the RNLI is a vital service. Indeed, there are questions as to whether it should be brought into the realms of the emergency services so that it can afford pay and have grants towards equipment. It is sad that the RNLI really is the last emergency service, yet the Government pay less than 1% of its funding. I believe that the service deserves more than that.

That is not a criticism—that is not what I do in debates—but maybe the Minister can give us some idea as to what the Government are able to do for the RNLI financially. I understand the desire to keep the functioning of the RNLI free from Government interference and the red tape that comes with that. However, I do not believe that a round of applause from people in this House is enough, as it seemed to be for the NHS—something we all did every week with real sincerity.

I close by giving my sincerest thanks and appreciation to all the past and present volunteers who have given up their time and who have sacrificed their lives. Margaret Greenwood referred to a lifeboat that went to sea and came back with eight of the 10 crew lost. The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned a boat of 15 crew, 13 of whom died and only two of whom came back. That gives an idea of the sacrifice. These volunteers give up time with their loved ones at family events, and give up paid working hours, to use their skills and expertise to save lives and help people to be as safe as possible on an untameable sea. I thank them for all they have done. Their communities could not operate without their valued service.

We celebrate the RNLI as a body and the volunteers as its hands and feet. The RNLI has done much for us, and it will do more. Let us support it and do the best we can for it in this place.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Ceidwadwyr, North Norfolk 10:11, 26 Mawrth 2024

I thank my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall for securing this important debate. First, I will pay my own tribute to the incredible work that the RNLI does. Since its establishment in 1824 its volunteers have consistently demonstrated immense courage, rescuing untold numbers of lives. We honour them today and over the course of the next year for the bicentenary celebrations, and we remember the 144,000 people who have been saved by their work.

The RNLI obviously holds particular importance in my constituency of North Norfolk, given the abundance of coastal communities. I represent 52 miles of glorious coastline. Whether it is the influx of tourists over the summer or the regular beach enthusiasts and dog walkers all year round, I know that my coast in North Norfolk is consistently bustling with activity. As such, the RNLI plays an incredibly important role in ensuring the safety and welfare of everybody who comes to use the North Norfolk coast.

We cannot talk about the RNLI without mentioning the significance of Henry Blogg, the most decorated lifeboatman in RNLI history. He served on Cromer’s lifeboats and, alongside his crew, saved 873 lives and made 387 rescues over a length of service of 53 years. His ancestors are still living in and well connected to the Cromer community. Henry’s story shines a light on the importance the RNLI holds in our local communities.

I would like the Minister to pay particular attention to what I shall say next, as it has been in the local newspapers a great deal, particularly yesterday. I am sad to say that I wish the story had not broken in the way it did, because it has caused a great deal of concern in the local area. One of the vessels that Blogg served on was the Bailey. The Bailey sits in Cromer, in the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum. There are reports that the building has some water ingress. The Bailey is a priceless artefact in the history of the RNLI and priceless to the people of Cromer. I put it on the record that the Bailey belongs to Cromer; it belongs to the people of Cromer and it must stay in Cromer. I know that behind the scenes the RNLI and the local district council are working together to try and put the building right and get the remedial works salvaged, so that the Bailey can remain in place. I will do everything I can behind the scenes to help that to happen, and I want to reassure the people of Cromer, and more widely around North Norfolk, that we are absolutely driven to achieve that. If I need the Minister’s help and support on that, I know he is a good man and that he will give it.

We have already mentioned the RNLI chief executive, Mark Dowie; when I have raised this matter with him, he has picked up the telephone within minutes. He knows how important the Bailey is as one of the most famous vessels in RNLI history, and what it means to the people of Cromer. To reiterate, we will do everything we can to make sure that that priceless artefact is looked after properly in the place where its home should be.

I cannot mention every single lifeboat up and down my coast because that would take far too long, but we are incredibly well served; Wells, Sheringham, Cromer, Mundesley and Happisburgh all have a provision. I know that list seems like a picture postcard of “Book your trip to north Norfolk this summer”.

In the last year, Wells has had a new £2.5 million, 42-foot Duke of Edinburgh delivered, and I was privileged enough to see it brought out of its also brand-new multimillion-pound boathouse just last year. It is phenomenal, and it is now operational. Sheringham needs absolutely no introduction. Already this year we have had the now world-famous Sheringham Shantymen sing to us at a wonderful gala dinner, raising money for the RNLI station there; they do incredible amounts around my community. Furthermore, there is of course Cromer, which I will not mention again. All of those places are synonymous with lifeboat history.

To finish, we have talked a lot about the RNLI crews and the amazing work they do, but I just want to mention the people who are often the unsung heroes—rather gloriously not referred to as the admin staff behind the scenes. They are not necessarily the backbone going out on the vessels, but they are the people who make the whole organisation tick. If we did not have those people rattling buckets on the high streets and running the RNLI shops, the entire organisation would not function. I therefore pay tribute to all of the volunteers; not just those on the vessels, but those behind the scenes as well. They are absolutely just as important as the heroic men and women who risk their lives to save other people’s lives. I would not get away without saying that, because my stepmother works in one of those businesses.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Ceidwadwyr, Ynys Môn 10:17, 26 Mawrth 2024

Bore da, Mrs Harris. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall on securing this important debate on the bicentenary of the RNLI.

My island constituency of Yns Môn has seen lives lost at sea for centuries, and many of our lifeboat stations began life as private community initiatives in response to such events. Improvements in technology have now superseded those smaller lifeboat operations in communities like Penmon, Cemlyn, Rhoscolyn, Cemaes, Bull bay and Rhosneigr.

During the 19th and 20th centuries there were 13 RNLI lifeboats on Anglesey. There are now four lifeboat stations—two with all-weather lifeboats at Moelfre and Holyhead, and two with inshore boats at Trearddur and Beaumaris. Between them, those four stations have given over 500 years of service and their brave volunteers have been awarded more than 100 RNLI medals for gallantry. Those volunteers include the late Moelfre coxswain, Richard Evans BEM. Dick served for 50 years and was involved in the saving of over 250 lives. He is only one of five men to be awarded the RNLI gold medal twice—the highest accolade awarded by the institution and the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for bravery at sea.

Most recently in 2022 the crew of the Trearddur bay lifeboat received medals for the rescue of a female surfer during gale-force 9 winds on 20 May 2021. Helmsman Lee Duncan received a silver medal, with Dafydd Griffiths, Leigh McCann and Michael Doran being awarded bronze medals for a rescue in a 50 mph storm, described as

“one of the finest acts of selflessness and courage of recent times”.

Earlier this year in the Holyhead RNLI station, full-time coxswain Tony Price announced his retirement from the role, although he will continue as a volunteer. In his time Tony has dealt with significant incidents, including saving the Christopher Pearce lifeboat when the Holyhead marina was destroyed in Storm Emma. Tony comes from a family with a long history of volunteering for the RNLI.

Just last week, the strong ties between the lifeboats and our community were clearly demonstrated when the demolition of the old Anglesey Aluminium chimney raised more than £10,000 for the Holyhead RNLI. The 120 metre high chimney, which dominated the landscape for 50 years, has been cleared to make way for Stena’s Prosperity Parc, a key part of the new Anglesey freeport. In just seven days, more than 900 tickets were purchased in the prize draw to press the demolition button. All the proceeds have gone to the Holyhead RNLI in memory of local lifeboatman Iwan Williams, who sadly passed away last year. Geraint Williams, who was originally from Aberffraw, won the winning ticket.

Last year, Anglesey singing sensation Ren Gill visited Beaumaris lifeboat station after raising more than £15,000 for the local RNLI in recognition of its work searching for his best friend Joe, to whom he dedicated his album “Freckled Angels”. This year, to celebrate the bicentenary, Holyhead Lifeboat is proud to be handing the 200-year commemorative baton on to Cemaes bay harbourmaster Dafydd Williams aboard the 1907 rowing and sailing lifeboat the Charles Henry Ashley. Dafydd will then hand the baton over to the Moelfre crew. Then, on 20 April, the Beaumaris RNLI will host a celebration black tie event at Canolfan Beaumaris, with music from Seindorf Beaumaris Band and Suspects and food provided by Gate House Catering.

I will close by saying that the RNLI is part of our island’s DNA. From Graham Drinkwater, who laid the foundations for Trearddur bay lifeboat station, to its chairman, Jack Abbott, who was awarded a Royal Humane Society testimonial for using his skills to rescue and resuscitate a drowning man in 2001, just weeks after undergoing open heart surgery, there are too many heroic events to relate and too many past and present RNLI volunteers on Anglesey to name here. To people like Osian Roberts and Arwel Owen, who man the lifeboats, to Phil Hen, with his brilliant photos, and Shirley Rogerson, who tirelessly fundraises, diolch yn fawr to you all and those like you across the United Kingdom for the over 146,000 lives you have saved over the past 200 years.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration) 10:22, 26 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Harris. I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on securing the debate. It is always good to have some of these debates before recess. I wish all hon. Members, Clerks and everyone else a very good Easter when it comes.

When we mention the emergency services, most people would picture a vehicle used to protect people and save lives—an ambulance, a police car or a fire engine, say. That is what people see on a daily basis in urban communities such as mine. They might not immediately think of that fourth essential vehicle, the lifeboat.

The Glasgow South West constituency is on the south bank of the Clyde. Travelling downstream from there, we have the lifeboat stations of Helensburgh, in the Firth of Clyde, and then others at Largs and Troon on the Clyde coast. People from Glasgow South West have been going “doon the watter” for most of the time that the RNLI has existed, and many will have benefited greatly from its rescue service in that time. For those staying in the city and not making that exotic journey to the Costa Clyde, there has often been the temptation to spend time near the River Clyde itself—an activity that can be quite hazardous. For that reason, the Glasgow Humane Society has long had a base upstream at Glasgow Green from which it performs lifesaving services in the Clyde and other local waterways.

For 40 years, and until only recently, the Glasgow Humane Society was operated by Ben Parsonage, and then by his son, Dr George Parsonage MBE, who pulled thousands from the Clyde, saving many lives. But the society has a much longer history than that: it is the oldest practical lifesaving organisation in the world, having been founded in 1790. Countless Glaswegians have since owed their lives to the officers, volunteers and directors. Admittedly, the society’s remit is local to the Glasgow area, but looking further afield, RNLI lifeboats in Scotland have launched 45,853 times, saving 11,878 lives. That means that over a quarter of all rescues in Scotland have resulted in a life saved.

Looking even further afield across these islands, a term most appropriate in this context, Members will know that the RNLI is reckoned to have saved a total of 146,277 lives. As a proportion of the population, the number of lives saved in Scotland is particularly high. This might not be a great surprise to those who have crossed the Minch or the Pentland Firth during a howling gale, or crossed to any other of Scotland’s 790 islands in weather that we would call, “A good day for a washin’,” or “A good drying day.”

It is easy, as I have done, to make light of the dangers of such journeys, but there is a much more serious edge to it. In defining bravery, a common example is ordinary people running away from burning buildings while firefighters run into them. It is the same with lifeboat crews, who choose to launch and enter the tempest while others would be rushing for safe havens. What makes this behaviour even more remarkable is that those carrying out such feats of bravery are volunteers— all 32,000 of them. They do not expect a high-salary professional career; they do this out of principle and compassion.

That compassion is obvious, but let us look more closely at the principle of who the RNLI seeks to rescue. It is often said, half-jokingly, that in the United States of America, a hospital or ambulance will first check someone’s bank balance before checking their pulse. Fortunately, that is not the current policy in our national health service. In a similar vein, Mark Dowie, the chief executive of RNLI, has said:

“Right from the get-go in 1824, we said that the lifeboat service would rescue whoever needed our help wherever they are.”

“Whoever” and “wherever” therefore includes rescuing migrants in the English channel. Because of that humane work, disappointingly, Nigel Farage and others have described the RNLI as a “taxi service” for illegal migration. Let me make it clear that my colleagues and I utterly disassociate ourselves from such views.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

The hon. Gentleman is, I think, principally referring to the RNLI lifeboats at Dungeness and Littlestone, both in my constituency. There is a strong community support for the excellent work they have done, from rescuing British servicemen at Dunkirk in 1940 to the work they do today in the channel, keeping people safe whoever they are.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to mention Dunkirk, as other hon. Members have. We should agree with Mark Dowie when he says:

“The day that the RNLI turns round to the coastguard and says: ‘I’m awfully sorry, can you tell me where these people are from?’ before they respond, that’s the end as far as I’m concerned.”

We should all associate ourselves with the chief executive’s words. It is therefore very heartening that following these smears and attempts to undermine it, the RNLI found itself on course for the highest annual fundraising total in its near 200-year history.

Much has changed here over the centuries. Both the smaller Glasgow Humane Society and the larger RNLI have added the roles of being advisory and educational bodies. Progressing from its original purpose in 1824 of aiding ships in distress around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, the RNLI now identifies swimmers, paddleboarders, fishing crews, and small boats in the channel as making up the bulk of callouts today. As the RNLI puts it:

“We were all about lifeboats and we’re now about life saving.”

We in Scotland have a strong working relationship with the RNLI, which provides joint safety training alongside the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Police Scotland. We have a drowning prevention strategy, which aims to reduce accidental drowning fatalities by 50% by 2026. Co-operation between the bodies, including the RNLI, is vital to achieving this. Unsurprisingly, the steering group of Water Safety Scotland consists of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Police Scotland and the RNLI. We in Scotland take this opportunity to thank the RNLI for the vital public service it carries out, and we wish it well for the future and the next 200 years.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:29, 26 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Harris, and a happy Easter to everybody. I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on securing this debate, and thank all Members who have spoken about the brilliant work the RNLI and its volunteers do around our coasts. I make a special reference to the stepmother of Duncan Baker for her volunteering.

I associate myself strongly with the comments from Chris Stephens about the importance of rescuing everybody at sea, in particular people on small boats in the English channel. My hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood reminded us of just how dangerous it was 200 years ago and less, and how many gave their lives to rescue others. My hon. Friend Matt Rodda talked about the importance of water safety on inland waterways. Those are important additions to the debate.

The RNLI mission statement says it all. The RNLI is committed to and focused on the purpose for which it was created 200 years ago: to save lives at sea. Founded in 1824 as the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck, it was 30 years later, in 1854, that it was officially named the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—the RNLI, as we all know it today.

We all think of it as the fourth emergency service, after the police, fire and ambulance services, so it is remarkable that 97% of its frontline staff are volunteers and that it is funded by charitable donations. As a charity independent of Government, its volunteer lifesavers give their time for free, but they need training, well-maintained equipment, lifeboats and shore facilities, and part of the donations received fund those things. Almost 6,000 volunteer lifeboat crew members are stationed around the UK and Ireland, and they are ready, when the call is received, to spring into action to save the lives of those in danger at sea.

Since its launch, the RNLI has saved the lives of 4,356 people across the north-west and 146,000 people across the UK and Ireland. It works tirelessly in my constituency: in 2022 alone it saved five lives, responded to nearly 200 incidents and aided 1,000 people across the boroughs of Sefton and Wirral. I am proud to say that Crosby beach, which is in my constituency, is the only British beach that is patrolled by the RNLI all year round.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is great.

In Southport cemetery, just outside my constituency, there is a monument to the 27 lives lost in the Mexico disaster, which happened almost 140 years ago. The rescue remains the worst loss of crew in a single incident in the history of the RNLI, and was viewed as a national disaster across Victorian Britain. The Mexico, a huge wooden ship, left Liverpool on 5 December 1866, bound for Ecuador. She was caught in a violent gale, and amid heavy seas she ran aground on the perilous sandbanks of the Ribble estuary. The rescue effort saw the biggest loss of crew in a single incident in the history of the RNLI, leaving 16 widows and 50 children without their fathers in Southport and St Anne’s. It was a stark reminder then of the real risks such brave people undertook, and it is a reminder today of the dangers every time they are called into action.

The RNLI’s work is not just about reacting when things go wrong; it plays a huge part in keeping our communities safe and reducing the need for search and rescue. That is done in a variety of ways, including street stalls and classroom visits to educate and advise on the dangers of water. In 2021, the RNLI’s water safety teams reached more than 27 million people with essential messaging, which undoubtedly saves more lives and keeps families together. Those services are vital. There are 238 lifeboat stations up and down the land and an active fleet of 431 lifeboats, ranging from large, all-weather lifeboats to smaller inshore vessels. We cannot overstate the impact and importance of the RNLI’s work.

The RNLI will go to the aid of anyone in trouble at sea, as the lifesaving charity has for 200 years. It does so without judgment or preference. In south-east England, it is currently engaged in a significant level of work in the channel, as a result of the large number of people crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in small, overcrowded, unsafe boats. All too often, those crossings end with disastrous, fatal consequences. The RNLI launched to rescue 290 times in the English channel in 2022. That was 3% of all RNLI lifeboat launches that year.

The stories of desperate people crossing the English channel to reach the UK often dominate news and social media. Of course, we cannot know the experiences, backgrounds and personal stories of every person trying to arrive in this way, but it is clear that many of them intend to, and do, claim asylum here. Labour will crack down on criminal smuggler gangs by introducing stronger powers for the UK’s National Crime Agency to restrict the movement of those suspected of involvement in people smuggling. We will set up a new cross-border police unit with officers based in the UK and across Europe to tackle gangs, because if we want to reduce the number of people in need of rescue in the channel, it must make sense to cut the supply of boats by the criminal gangs. Our plans will reduce the numbers of people making the desperately dangerous crossing of the channel in small boats.

RNLI crews are asked by His Majesty’s coastguard to assist anyone who is in trouble on or in the water in the UK. They will go to the aid of anyone in danger when asked to do so, as they have been doing for 200 years, without asking who they are or where they come from. They respond in extremely demanding search-and-rescue environments with continued dedication and commitment. In any rescue, their priority is to ensure that casualties are treated with skill, care, dignity and respect and are brought to safety as quickly as possible. RNLI crews then pass over responsibility for those rescued to the most appropriate agency. That might be the ambulance service, the police or Border Force.

It was fantastic to see lifeboats on the River Mersey near my own constituency to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the RNLI. We should be incredibly proud of the crews, who continue to respond selflessly to their pagers day or night simply to help others. I pay tribute to them all here today, and also to everyone who plays a part in fundraising—rattling buckets or making donations—for this vital, life-saving charity.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:37, 26 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris, and I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall on securing this very moving and important debate. He spoke very eloquently of the work that the RNLI has done over the centuries. I know he has been a long-term champion of the RNLI and has dedicated a lot of his time in Parliament to supporting and helping it. I enjoyed many elements of his speech, including the gold teeth and the vintage Ferraris that have been donated, but most importantly the tales of tragedy and heroism that he mentioned, particularly the tale of the Salcombe lifeboats in which 13 out of 15 died. That is absolutely devastating.

I am very pleased to see so many contributions from across the entire United Kingdom. I notice that we have contributions from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and from the south coast to the north coast of England. We even had a contribution from inland, which just shows how important the RNLI is to everyone across the UK—I say that as somebody who also represents a landlocked constituency.

I am delighted to be able to offer the Government’s congratulations to the RNLI on the momentous occasion of its 200th anniversary. I am sure that Members from across the House will want to join me in thanking the RNLI, its volunteers, fundraisers and supporters for their amazing contribution to the saving of lives over the past two centuries. Through the courageous and dedicated actions of RNLI volunteers, more than 144,000 lives have been saved over the past 200 years. That works out as 700 lives per year—almost exactly two lives for every single day of the past 200 years. That really is quite a phenomenal achievement.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Does the Minister agree that we should also be thankful for the on-land volunteers who support the RNLI, including Judith Richardson in my constituency, who has given more than 50 years’ service? She was one of the last of the “lady launchers” who, until 1977, used to help to drag the boat physically out to the sea.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work that the RNLI does not just coastally, but inland, as he says. I know that the remit of the RNLI has expanded over time.

The RNLI has launched more than 380,000 times in the past two centuries, showing amazing dedication and commitment. Last year alone, RNLI lifeboats launched more than 9,000 times in one year, aiding more than 10,500 people and saving 269 lives. In addition, RNLI lifeguards carried out almost 3 million preventive actions and attended more than 14,000 incidents, aiding 20,000 people and saving another 86 lives. It is testament to the commitment and skills of the RNLI and our lifeboat volunteers that the UK has one of the finest lifeboat services in the world, which continues to uphold the finest traditions and values of the RNLI as proudly today as it did 200 years ago.

I will briefly remind the House of the history of the RNLI and its contributions to our society, which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes touched on. The founder of the RNLI, Sir William Hillary, was so appalled by the loss of life at sea that he set about creating an institution dedicated to the preservation of human life from shipwreck. He initially went to the Government to appeal for support, but the Government of the day, in their wisdom—or lack of it—said no. He was forced to go to other supporters and philanthropists and managed rapidly to get support, which helped to launch the institution we see today. It is notable that all the fundraising over the past 200 years, which reached a record last year, is really a consequence of that initial Government decision to say no. The RNLI might have ended up a very different organisation if the initial Government decision had been different.

It was the drive and dedication of Sir William that led to the institution that we know today. He laid out 12 resolutions that formed the foundation of the RNLI and that still stand firm today, remaining part of the RNLI charter 200 years on. The RNLI has grown extraordinarily over the past 200 years. It now has an income of more than £200 million, more than 2,000 staff and more than 30,000 volunteers. I pay tribute to the visionary founders of the RNLI for their leadership and support over the years. The continuing dedication of the RNLI to saving lives at sea and its volunteer ethos remains a cherished cornerstone of British society.

I put on record our tribute to the brave volunteers of the RNLI who risk their own lives to save others at sea and around our coastline. It is in large part due to their personal commitment and skill that the UK has one of the best records for water safety in the world. I also pay tribute to the families of our search and rescue volunteers. They are often forgotten, but without their never-ending support, our volunteer services would not be able to continue their vital life-saving operations.

I pay particular tribute, as other hon. Members present have, to the brave RNLI volunteers who have lost their lives while trying to save others over the past 200 years: more than 600 volunteers have lost their lives, and 2,500 medals have been awarded for bravery. I know many Members will be aware of the tragic loss of lifeboat volunteers from their constituencies over the past two centuries—we have heard various examples of that this morning. The loss of every RNLI volunteer is keenly felt across a local community, impacting friends and family. Local memorials remain a reminder of the sacrifices of the RNLI crews who have been lost. As part of this bicentenary anniversary, local services and events are planned to commemorate RNLI volunteers throughout its illustrious history.

I will turn to some of the comments that have been made in what has been a very moving debate this morning. We have heard many extraordinary stories of tragedy and heroism, among various other issues that have been raised. I was touched by the story of the Traveller, raised by Margaret Greenwood, where eight out of 10 people died. The hon. Lady spoke movingly of the impact on the local community of Hoylake. My hon. Friend Kevin Foster paid tribute to the wider work that the RNLI does, particularly with safety and support in the community. He mentioned that when he goes on his Boxing day walks, it is good to see the boats out there.

The landlocked hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) asked whether the RNLI could help out with inland rescue. While search and rescue is the responsibility of the police, he makes a valid point, and I completely understand the importance of trying to learn lessons from the RNLI to help to improve search and rescue inland. He made a point about local people in boats and boatyards, and whether they can be called on to help, and I will absolutely take that away to see if anything can be done to improve that.

Jim Shannon paid tribute to the work of the RNLI in Northern Ireland, where it has 10 lifeboat stations. He raised a question about Government support, which makes up only 1% of its total funding, and questioned that. The RNLI is obviously independent of Government—very proudly so; if Government funding increased, there might be a risk that it would end up being more Government-controlled.

His Majesty’s Coastguard, some representatives of which are here now, works closely with the RNLI; calls come through to the coastguard and it works out whether it needs a helicopter, which is run by the coastguard, or whether the case should be handed over to the RNLI. I understand that that relationship works very well. The RNLI is very proudly independent of Government: it does not take instructions from Government and it decides its own operations, and I would not want to compromise that.

I pay tribute to the stepmother of my hon. Friend Duncan Baker and her work for the RNLI. My hon. Friend also mentioned the extraordinary case of Henry Blogg, who was involved in saving 873 lives over 53 years—a quite extraordinary achievement. I was sad to learn what is happening to his ship, the Bailey. That is fundamentally an issue for the local authorities in my hon. Friend’s area, but if he wants my support in any way I will be happy to do what I can to help save the Bailey.

My hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie talked about the fundraising achievements of the RNLI in her constituency and in particular the Anglesey aluminium chimney demolition, which raised over £10,000 in one go. It must have been fun pressing that button and seeing it go down!

Chris Stephens and the shadow Minister, Bill Esterson, paid tribute to the RNLI, but also raised the issue of migrants in the channel. I put on the record that my position and that of the Government is exactly the same: the RNLI cannot ask people whether they have a visa before deciding to rescue them, and it is absolutely right that it rescues everyone who needs rescuing. That is very much the Government’s position.

My right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, whose contribution added a slightly different tone to the conversation, has been in dispute with the RNLI over the allocation of resources and a bequest. I am told by the RNLI that the chief executive and the regional lifeboat manager have responded to my right hon. Friend’s questions directly on a number of occasions, and that the Charity Commission has responded to her complaints about the use of bequests but has advised that it is satisfied with how the RNLI has handled the legacy funding.

My right hon. Friend did recognise that the RNLI is, as I said earlier, independent from Government. This is not a dispute that the Government can get involved in. The RNLI is independent: it decides the distribution of its assets. I am advised that the RNLI generally does a really good job at working out the best allocations of assets to make sure that it is most effective at lifesaving, and it would be inappropriate for me as a Minister or for the Government to intervene to influence the independent decisions of the charity.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal

I have not asked the Government to intervene. I appreciate the extraordinary work that the RNLI does, as I highlighted in my contribution. There was a particular recent incident that I thought needed to be raised. Frankly, before anybody seeks to insult me about representing my constituents, they should remind themselves they are insulting those constituents. I am not asking in any way for the Government to intervene— I never have. It is right that the RNLI continues to be a thriving institution after 200 years; I wish it at least 200 years more.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My right hon. Friend has made her point well; we agree about the issue of independence.

In conclusion, as we have heard, the RNLI’s achievements over the past 200 years have been absolutely exceptional. Since its foundation in 1824, not a single year has passed without outstanding rescues and courageous and selfless acts. Advancements in life-saving assets and innovation to support its lifesavers through busy summers, wild winters, wars and pandemics have been at the core of everything that the RNLI has achieved. I invite Members to join me in thanking the RNLI for its support and dedication over the past 200 years. I wish it well as it seeks to inspire and engage a new generation of supporters, volunteers and fundraisers, and as it works towards securing life-saving services for the next 200 years.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Ceidwadwyr, Totnes 10:49, 26 Mawrth 2024

If for no other reason, we can all rest easy: by frequently referencing the great work done by the stepmother of my hon. Friend Duncan Baker, we have made his Sunday family gatherings that much easier.

In this tremendous debate, we have celebrated the magnificence of the RNLI’s 200 years and the extraordinary work it has done across the country. If you had been speaking in this debate, Mrs Harris, I know that you would have mentioned the fantastic work done by Mumbles lifeboat station in Swansea. I am pleased to put that on the record.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for North Norfolk and for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), the hon. Members for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), and my hon. Friend the Minister for their extraordinarily kind words about an organisation that deserves far greater recognition and all the support we can give it for the next 200 years.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Llafur, Dwyrain Abertawe

I add my congratulations to the stepmother of Duncan Baker.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the bicentenary of the RNLI.

Sitting suspended.