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RAF Search and Rescue

Volume 498: debated on Monday 2 November 2009

4. What his plans are for the future of RAF search and rescue bases in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (296684)

The Government remain committed to 24/7 search and rescue cover across the UK. I have recently instructed planned crew reductions to be reversed to ensure that the first-class service that the RAF provides can continue to be sustained. We are aiming for the changes to be in place by early summer 2010. In the meantime, to avoid excessive strain on the force and to manage resources better, a programme of planned, rotating and temporary night closures will be necessary while we train the additional crews. The harmonised search and rescue helicopter service will continue to be provided from 12 UK bases.

I welcome the Minister’s decision to reverse a mistaken earlier decision to cut the number of crews. Given the number of occasions on which RAF Boulmer’s search and rescue has been put out of action, because of either 12-hour operation or failures, will he give considerable attention to the need to maintain full 24-hour cover wherever possible, and can he tell us what implications that has for the privatisation contract?

We intend to continue with the PFI project for search and rescue, which will provide an effective way forward. A decision was taken last year that we could operate on the basis of 24 crews. As soon as it became clear to me that that was not possible, I immediately instructed that we move back up to 28 crews, which I know the right hon. Gentleman welcomed. I also know that he and a number of other Members have particular concerns about the issue. It is extremely complicated, but as I said to him when we spoke on Friday, I shall be more than happy in the next week to arrange a meeting to discuss it.

How many search and rescue aircraft are operationally available today, and what is the shortfall in the number of pilots required?

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figure immediately following questions. The original decision was to move from 28 crews down to 24. We are at 26 crews today, but I have reversed that decision and we will go back up to 28. However, even where there is an ad hoc closure at one of the bases, we meet our response times by providing search and rescue from a neighbouring base.

I welcome what the Minister said about the short-term measures that he is taking, but will he clarify the situation post-2012? Is it still his intention that three of the 12 bases will run on a 12-hour basis, not on a 24-hour basis? There is grave concern in the south-west, where people simply cannot understand why, if three bases are to run on a 12-hour basis, two of them—Portland and Chivenor—should run contiguously, leaving Culdrose to cover the Atlantic, the English channel, the Bristol channel, the south-west peninsula and Wales.

The answer is yes. We still intend to operate three of the bases on a 12-hour basis post-2012. We have been able to reach that conclusion because since we started the process, the industry solutions available have meant faster helicopters and faster response times. However, as I said earlier, I recognise the detailed concern about the issue, and I will include the hon. Gentleman in the meeting that I shall organise very shortly.