Senator calls for full lifeboat rift inquiry

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Senator Sir Philip Bailhache has lodged proposals to change the terms of reference of a proposed inquiry into the removal of the all-weather lifeboat to include a broader investigation into the relationship breakdown between the charity and Jersey volunteers, following the sacking of coxswain Andy Hibbs in April.

With the States due to debate next month whether they should formally support the Jersey Lifeboat Association, which intends to set up an independent sea rescue service, the Senator has said that the circumstances surrounding last year’s events are still ‘shrouded in a mist of uncertainty’.

And he added that for a ‘fair and sensible judgment’ to be made on whether to support either the JLA or RNLI, the full facts needed to be established.

Tensions between the RNLI and the Jersey volunteer crew came to a head last November when the charity closed the St Helier station and relocated the George Sullivan all-weather lifeboat to Poole. The RNLI is currently training a new replacement crew but the JLA’s campaign to establish an independent lifeboat has also gathered support, including a 7,000-signature petition.

Earlier this month, Guernsey’s Harbourmaster, Captain Chad Murray, was appointed to provide a report on the relationship breakdown before next month’s States debate, but critics have claimed that he is unlikely to be impartial because of his close working relationship with the RNLI and Ports of Jersey.

In response, Senator Sarah Ferguson, a member of the JLA board, lodged a proposition asking for an independent committee of inquiry to investigate the removal of the George Sullivan last year.

Senator Bailhache, who is the External Relations Minister, has lodged an amendment to her proposition, effectively changing the committee’s remit so that it instead investigates the circumstances behind the relationship breakdown and the eventual formation of the JLA.

Outlining his proposals, the Senator said that the uncertainty over what happened last year was ‘highly unsatisfactory’.

‘It is understood that a complaint was made against the former coxswain which led to his suspension by the RNLI,’ he said.

‘That suspension was followed by a walk-out by the crew in support of the coxswain. It is not publicly known exactly what allegation(s) were made against the coxswain, nor by whom they were made.

‘The involvement, if any, of personnel employed by Ports of Jersey Ltd is unclear. It is known that an investigation was undertaken by the RNLI and that a report was later received which led, directly or indirectly, to the reinstatement of the coxswain.

‘The report, which apparently exonerated the coxswain, has been made available only in a heavily redacted form, making it impossible to understand exactly what went wrong. The RNLI asserts that it is prevented by data protection rules, or for some other reason, from releasing the full report.

‘This is highly unsatisfactory, because a knowledge of the cause of the coxswain’s suspension, and of the conduct of all the relevant parties, is the only way in which an informed judgment can be reached as to the merits of each party’s stance.’

He added that the prospect of two all-weather lifeboats operating in Jersey waters was ‘absurd’ and suggested that only one of the two organisations could be formally supported.

‘There is a need only for one [all-weather lifeboat]. Either the aspirations of the newly formed Jersey Lifeboat Association should not be supported, or the RNLI should be requested to assign its local assets and responsibilities to the new association,’ he said.

‘We need to know exactly what happened, and what went wrong, so that a fair and sensible judgment can be made as to what is in the long-term interests of Jersey and her seafarers. My amendment should ensure that all the relevant circumstances are investigated and placed in the public domain.’

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