MOD Search and Rescue Services

– in Westminster Hall at 4:27 pm on 7th June 2006.

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Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives 4:27 pm, 7th June 2006

I am delighted to have secured this important debate, given the joint announcement on 9 May by the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence of the proposal to move forward with the part-privatisation, as I interpret it, of the search and rescue helicopter service provided variously by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency through private providers, by the Ministry of Defence through a branch of the RAF and by the Royal Navy. In my constituency, in which the Royal Navy air station Culdrose is based, there is, as I am sure the Minister will understand, a significant sensitivity about the impact that the proposal will have not only on the base, but on those who have enjoyed the safety and security of knowing that such an excellent search and rescue service is available. Indeed, it is a vital service. The capability of the Ministry of Defence both on land and at sea provides significant reassurance to mariners and to those who have enjoyed the benefits of the search and rescue service and whose life has been saved by it.

In a written answer to questions that I asked the Minister about the future of the 771 Squadron at Culdrose, he stated:

"In contributing to Search and Rescue (SAR) in the coastal waters of the south west extending 200 miles out to sea, 771 Squadron of the Royal Navy was scrambled 211 times last year and rescued 154 people."—[Hansard, 10 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 293W.]

The importance of the service is known to many, and certainly from my consultations prior to this debate with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the National Coastwatch Institution, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and many other voluntary organisations, I know that there is widespread recognition of its significance and importance. I am sure that, when considering any change to any service, the Minister will be quite used to the expression—I think it is American—"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That phrase will surely be ringing in his ears when he considers what changes are appropriate to such an important service and the potentially detrimental impact if any decision is wrong. Those are the issues on which I seek reassurances from him today.

The 771 Squadron at Culdrose provides two Sea King Mk 5 aircraft, which are primarily located on site, although sometimes the aircraft on duty can be taken up to five hours' flying time away from the base. A back-up aircraft is therefore needed. In providing the important search and rescue service—going as far out as 200 miles off the west coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, as mentioned in the written answer that I quoted—the squadron needs a greater capacity than one aircraft with a back-up.

As the Minister is also aware, the service fulfils an important maritime anti-terrorism function, to which he referred in his letter to me on 26 May this year:

"Additionally, the new UK SAR-H will not undertake the counter-terrorism role currently undertaken by 771 squadron. This is a military role, the continued requirement for which will be assessed in due course."

Both he and the Minister of State, Department for Transport, have written to me about the new opportunity to bring the service together, but I am concerned, as I am sure many others are, about the possible break-up of the service and the potential for it to be salami-sliced, instead of brought together as a more harmonised service. If the maritime counter-terrorism role is taken away from the search and rescue capability, that is another service that the Ministry of Defence will need to consider how best to provide.

In my area, as I believe in many others, the search and rescue service also doubles up as the night-time air ambulance. The air ambulance in my constituency, which is very much appreciated and is supported largely through voluntary contributions from the local community, can fly only during daylight hours. The service can be provided out of hours because 771 Squadron backs it up, providing an excellent service itself.

The search and rescue service also provides a medevac service. For example, my constituents on the Isles of Scilly are 30 miles out to the sea and cannot get to the main acute hospital at Treliske, in Truro, very quickly. They are sometimes evacuated from the isles when there is an emergency and that service is very much appreciated. The search and rescue service also provides other medevac services in other situations and a casevac service—in other words, a service for casualties, for instance in road traffic accidents. Where the air ambulance cannot get in, the 771 Squadron search and rescue service will come in and provide an important service.

The search and rescue service also provides important support in major incidents, with its standby helicopter and its back-up helicopter. However, if there were a major incident, more helicopters would be required than those two. For instance, on 16 August 2004 there was catastrophically heavy rainfall in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Rogerson, particularly in the Boscastle area. Many people know the name of Boscastle because it has been etched on their memories from that day, when 50 or more cars were washed away from the village and out to sea. Many buildings were also washed away, because of the torrential rain and flooding that hit the village. Some 91 people were saved by the helicopter services, with three helicopters from RAF Culdrose and three from RAF Chivenor. If we simply have a search and rescue service but we do not have the capability, training and back-up of the military service, we will not have the capacity to provide that level of flexibility and respond to such catastrophic major incidents, for which we clearly need to ensure that the service is available.

There are other important dimensions to the service. The significance of the training for military pilots, crew and divers is often overlooked. Surely it is better for them to have real-life experience, rather than simulation exercises. If pilots, crew and divers are to be engaged in combat situations or combat search and rescue, it is surely far better for them to have had the opportunity of experiencing those real-life situations rather than—I should like the Minister to clarify how firm the Government's plans are on this—finding themselves taken away from the many civilian situations to which they are currently scrambled.

There is also the question of the tests necessary for the capability of future aircraft. In a letter of 15 June 2005, written in answer to questions from me, the Minister said:

"With regard to the training concerns you raise, whilst it is true that 771 squadron currently conduct residual Sea King training for Sea Kings Mks 5/6 and 7, the planned withdrawal of these aircraft types, in the years 2014 and 2018 respectively, means by definition that the requirement for this training will diminish and eventually disappear. That said, whatever optimum method is ultimately identified for the provision of future SAR coverage, this will of course encompass full delivery of the necessary training for the aircraft types involved."

The problem, however, as I indicated in a letter to which the Minister replied on 1 June, is that all the evidence seems to suggest the Merlins that have been brought into base to replace the Sea Kings have neither the capability nor the flexibility to perform the search and rescue function, despite costing £104 million an airframe. The question remains: what aircraft will be used to perform those important functions, despite all the expense and investment going into the Merlin project?

The Sea Kings have been excellent workhorses, for the Royal Navy in particular, and they have been much appreciated at Culdrose since they were first brought into commission in the 1960s. They are being phased out in coming years, but the Ministry must surely consider what aircraft will replace them before it engages in such an exercise and considers the part privatisation of the service. How will those aircraft be provided and can we be sure that they will be sufficiently tested and proven capable of providing such a service?

I have mentioned combat search and rescue. I am sure that the Minister will also have reflected on the experience that civilian search and rescue can provide for personnel who are then engaged in combat search and rescue. My noble Friend Lord Garden tabled a written question about what plans the Government had for

"development of combat search and rescue capabilities."

Lord Drayson answered:

"The UK is developing a combat recovery operations capability, of which combat search and rescue is a subset. This will be achieved through the utilisation of existing support helicopter assets from within Joint Helicopter Command."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 17 May 2006; Vol. 682, c. WA35.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

During the break I found a quote from the Minister of State, Department for Transport, which I failed to lay my hands on earlier. The quote is from a letter dated 5 June 2006, in which he responds to a letter of mine. He says:

"The decision to proceed to this next stage, however, gives an opportunity to bring together the current Search and Rescue helicopter providers into one harmonised service under a single contract providing the taxpayer with a service that is better value for money whilst remaining as effective as the current one...Indeed newer airframes, optimised training opportunities and greater harmonisation between the providers, will enhance the service."

He goes on to say something that has been repeated in a number of responses and statements from both the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence: that the new service will

"continue to use a high proportion of military aircrew alongside civilian aircrew".

Certain questions arise from this type of situation. In his letter to me of 15 June 2005, the Minister now present said that in incidents such as that at Boscastle, which I mentioned earlier,

"the military will always be able to be called upon to support the Civilian Emergency Services".

That raises questions about how the military can provide such support after the only airframe left in the service is the Merlin, which has shown itself not to be capable of providing such a service.

In relation to the points made by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, in his letter of 5 June, I would like to know how a more harmonised service will be provided if the maritime and counter-terrorism service is being taken away from the search and rescue service. We still do not know how a service including the air ambulance, medevac, casevac and other functions provided by 711 Squadron—I can talk only about that service, but this no doubt applies to many other MOD-based services—that are not part of the core search and rescue function can be said to be part of a harmonised service if they are not included in the cost-benefit analysis of the proposal brought forward by both Departments.

In order properly to inform those who are most concerned about this—many Members from across the country will be concerned about this—both Departments must give us more information on costs and savings, and on how they will underpin the maritime, counter-terrorism, medical air ambulance, RTA and other roles for which the search and rescue service currently provides services.

In cases in which civilian services are provided by Bristows, such as in the Solent, for example, how often have such services failed to respond because of unserviceable aircrafts? What proportion of jobs have they failed to attend for which the MOD has provided back-up? I understand that that has happened on a number of occasions. How will the training that I mentioned earlier be provided, especially given that it is important that the civilian function provided by the MOD provides that essential real-life experience for the combat search and rescue situation? How will it perform its combat search and rescue? Which aircraft will be used if the Sea King is coming out of commission in total by 2018? What will be put in its place, and on the basis of what training and experience will that combat search and rescue service be provided? How will the Government—I suppose it will have to be done across Government—deal with major incidents such as those that I mentioned? How will they scramble those aircraft and make sure that the service is a harmonised service of the type that the Minister envisioned in his letter to me? What preparation and training will be given? Which aircraft will perform those duties?

I am sure that the Minister understands that the future of the 711 Squadron is close to my heart and those of my constituents. It is interesting that in his letter to me of 26 May 2006, he says:

"No decisions have yet been taken on the future bases for this service. The PFI process will identify any gaps and risks, and only after full consideration of all these will decisions be taken."

From that, I presume that he is saying that there is potential for the present search and rescue services to be moved off-base in future. He says that the military crew should be used, but there is no guarantee or surety in his response, given that it is unclear which bases the services will operate from and whether many, if any, of the services will be based on MOD sites such as RNAS Culdrose. I hope that the Minister will take on board my concerns, and appreciate that I want to engage constructively with him on this matter. I look forward to hearing his response.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence 4:59 pm, 7th June 2006

I congratulate Andrew George on securing this debate and on providing me with the chance to speak on an unquestionably important issue. From his opening and closing comments, I know that he shares my appreciation of the excellent search and rescue helicopter service provided by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy under the Ministry of Defence, and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency under the Department for Transport. I hope that he accepts that it is our intention to maintain the current high standard of service. I want to touch on how that has been approached.

The hon. Gentleman correctly referred to the written ministerial statement laid before the House on 9 May by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, which said that the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport are moving forward together to ensure that we continue to have an excellent service. That is a very positive step and we were able to announce it jointly.

It may be helpful if I were to set out the background to that recent statement. The organisation of search and rescue in the United Kingdom is an amalgam of separate Departments, the emergency services and other organisations, all of which play a vital part. The Ministry of Defence and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency together provide a 24-hour military and civil search and rescue helicopter service.

We cover the United Kingdom search and rescue region from 12 bases around the United Kingdom. Currently, the service is provided by the RAF from six bases—at Boulmer, Chivenor, Leconfield, Lossiemouth, Valley and Wattisham—and by the Royal Navy from two bases, which are at Culdrose and Prestwick, using Sea King helicopters. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency service is provided from its four bases, which are at Lee-on-Solent, Portland, Stornoway and Sumburgh, through a contractor, as it has been for many years. That is re-competed for regularly, approximately every five years.

Over the next decade, the Ministry of Defence search and rescue Sea Kings, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, have given us good service since the 1970s, will come to the end of their useful life. I sense that he wanted them to continue in some shape or form, but they will come to the end of their useful life. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency service contract will also come up for renewal in 2012. It was therefore essential for us to decide the best way to ensure the continuation of that important service well into the future and to work together even more closely. We needed to ensure that the best possible service was delivered, while ensuring that it demonstrated value for money. That was the overriding priority.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. As the Sea Kings are going out of service, they will not be available, so we need to replace them. Therefore, it is right, at this point, to consider what will replace them and what the replacement will do. He began to allude to that.

As a result of that, a joint Ministry of Defence and Maritime and Coastguard Agency procurement team was set up under an inter-departmental steering group to assess options. Over the past three years, a rigorous joint assessment has been carried out. It concluded that we should move to a harmonised service, and that a service under the private finance initiative has the best potential to deliver the capability we need at maximum value for money.

The decision is very much in line with the plan outlined in the defence industrial strategy, which states that the majority of search and rescue helicopters in the UK currently are provided by the RAF and the Royal Navy. The remainder are provided by civilian helicopters under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It is planned to replace that capability with a single contract that retains a proportion of military aircrews to enable operational readiness of deployed search and rescue crews in the middle of the next decade. I understood that the hon. Gentleman's party supported the DIS. I suggest that he perhaps reads what we set out and his party supported in the construct of that document.

The next stage is what do we do now that we have set out that definition, and we are moving forward to the joint search and rescue helicopter project as a competition under the private finance initiative. The decision to proceed to that next stage provides the opportunity to bring together the current search and rescue helicopter provision.

We intend to provide a service that is at least as effective as the current one. We also anticipate additional benefits from the flexibility that harmonisation brings, from the improved capability and sustainability that modern aircraft and technology will deliver, and from military and civilian aircrew being trained to the same high standard. We believe that that will enhance the service and provide an excellent service that offers value for money for the taxpayer.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I am grateful for the Minister's reassuring comments. Will he address the question of which aircraft he believes will perform this function? Will he reassure me that the additional roles that Ministry of Defence search and rescue services provide with regard to the air ambulance and so on will be contained in the contract proposed?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I was moving on to the process. Hopefully, the hon. Gentleman understands that it will be a thorough process. We do not enter such a process by being prescriptive. We must see what is out there and what the options are. We must test the range of opportunities that exist. I shall explain how that is approached, and hopefully that will deal with some, if not all, of his points.

The competition is being carried out in accordance with the European Union procurement regulations and was launched through a notice in the European Union journal on 12 May. It will benefit from the new European Union competitive dialogue procedure, which has been designed to deal with PFI projects. The process, in partnership with industry, promotes full evaluation of customer requirements and industry responses prior to selecting a preferred bidder. We will use it to establish a robust contract with industry and to ensure that we deliver an excellent service for the taxpayer. The first step will be to ensure that companies wishing to take part in the competition have the appropriate capability. That will be done by thorough assessment of their pre-qualification questionnaires later this year.

The hon. Gentleman asked me which aircraft will be involved and how things will be delivered. Is he therefore asking me not to go through a procurement process, and not to have rigorous examination and to be definitive before we see what the market has available and how things should be delivered? Given his strong European credentials, there seems to be a contradiction. We should ensure best value for money for the taxpayer.

There has been some speculation about the implications of that decision for the standard of service. I shall provide reassurance on the issue and bring out two key points. First, the Ministry of Defence and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will continue jointly to manage and task the service. In particular, the search and rescue tasking, which is currently carried out by the aeronautical rescue co-ordination centre at Kinloss and the appropriate maritime rescue co-ordination centres, will continue to be jointly managed.

Secondly, the principle that the service will be no less effective than the current one will underpin the detailed requirement specification against which the competition will be conducted and performance will be measured. Key performance indicators will be set to ensure that all aspects of the service are met.

As with the current service, military crews will play a key part in the future delivery of the search and rescue helicopter service. This is not, as some have said, privatisation. People should not set hares running, because there is no evidence for the assertion. People should not raise it, because what has been said will not happen at the end of the process. We will ensure that a high proportion of aircrew from the RAF and Royal Navy will continue to form part of the future service. We will continue to develop and maintain those valuable search and rescue skills in the military. That is in line with current policy, which seeks to transfer search and rescue skills to our deployable military helicopter fleets. There is an essential defence role in all that we do, and we have no intention of moving away from that, because we need the skill capability for all the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and for some others.

I shall address three other areas where I am aware that there has been considerable interest: the specific aircraft, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned; basing arrangements; and contract duration for the future service. The very nature of a service provision competition places the incentive on industry to propose the optimum means of delivering the service. That will include consideration of many issues, such as basing, operational capability, safety and the ability of airframes and crew to cover simultaneous incidents. The specific parameters will be established through the competition, and all aircraft proposed by industry will be rigorously assessed to ensure that they are capable of delivering the level of service we require. Only once that process is completed will any decisions be made.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Merlin helicopters. He is right in saying that although those based at Culdrose are not designed for search and rescue purposes, they are used by other nations in a search and rescue role. It is for providers to decide whether they want an adapted airframe for that purpose. The hon. Gentleman seems to be writing off the Merlin, but that is not desirable given the importance of the airframe, so let us see whether it can be adapted for that use and whether it can meet our rigorous testing, against which it would be measured.

Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in the Royal Navy air station at Culdrose. The future use of Culdrose as a search and rescue base will be fully assessed during the competitive phase. He set out various reasons why it should be retained and I assure him that all those factors will be taken into account. We are not setting out to close stations; we want to see how best we can continue to deliver where there is demand.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the maritime and counter-terrorism role of 771 Squadron, which will be unaffected by the future helicopter search and rescue plans. The maritime counter-terrorism role of the squadron, which is based at RNAS Culdrose, will be transferred to an alternative, equally capable military unit in due course and where it is best placed. I am sure that he recognises that. The squadron needs to remain at Culdrose because its function is UK-wide, so let us see where it is required.

Another issue that must be addressed is the duration of the contract, which will be established following dialogue with industry during the competition phase. The duration must provide a solid assurance of the future search and rescue service and is likely to relate to the potential lifespan of the new aircraft. It is anticipated that that will result in a duration of between 20 and 30 years, so when a determination has been made it will be for two or three decades, which is significant. It will depend on the airframes and other component parts selected. None of that has been fixed and will be subject to full and proper evaluation.

Our plans for the future are of course relevant to the wider search and rescue community. There is no question about that and we shall continue to keep the UK search and rescue strategic committee and its operators group informed. They are a key aspect of delivery and monitoring because they bring together Departments, emergency services, charities and voluntary organisations that contribute to search and rescue in the United Kingdom. The wider public will be able to keep abreast of progress through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's website. The process will be integrated. As each stage is reached, it will be defined and set out—

It being thirteen minutes past Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.