Storms show need for rethink on emergency service changes – Carmichael

24 Jan 2024

Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael has today highlighted the impact of recent winter storms in calling for a rethink across government on policies which risk reducing emergency resilience. Speaking during an Urgent Question in Parliament Mr Carmichael praised the work of road staff, engineers and others for their work during Storms Henk, Isha and Jocelyn in recent days, and questioned government plans to withdraw the copper wire telecommunications network and proposals to quadruple coastguard helicopter response times.

Speaking in the House, Mr Carmichael said:

“Even by the standards of what we are accustomed to in the Northern Isles, the last week has been exceptionally disruptive. I associate myself with the previous expressions of gratitude to the road staff, electricity engineers and others who have gone about their jobs, and to those who are responding even though it is not part of their job. The response of farmers, who just get on with clearing the snow with a bucket on the front of their tractor, has been phenomenal.

“Is this not a moment to pause and reflect that some of the changes proposed in other parts of Government could weaken our resilience? The switch-off of the copper wire network for telephones and the proposed increase in the response time of the search and rescue helicopter provided by the coastguard from 15 minutes to 60 minutes will leave us in a worse position if they are allowed to happen. Can the Cabinet Office do something to ensure that they are not?”

Responding for the government, Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart MP said:

“I have landed at Tingwall airport in a storm in the summer, and that was frightening enough. One can only imagine what it has felt like [in Orkney and Shetland] over the past week or so. My sympathies are with the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

“To his point about general resilience, the Government are trying to take a whole-system approach to understand exactly how we can work with emergency responders and those who are responsible for our national infrastructure. We are making progress, but there are always areas in which we can do more work.”

Reacting after the exchange, Mr Carmichael said:

“The government seems to make plans to cut emergency services in the summer before repenting rapidly in the winter. If only someone could have warned them ahead of time.

“This “whole system” approach that the minister describes would be a fine thing if it were to ever happen. Too often that big picture thinking on storms and other disruption falls short in London and Edinburgh. They simply do not have the expertise or personal stake in services that people in the Highlands and Islands do.

“Farmers and other local workers took the lead in clearing snow from roads and helping vulnerable  people in the isles last week – they could teach ministers in Whitehall a thing or two. It is past time that officials took their lead from our communities rather than the other way around.”

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