I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this extremely important matter, which has exercised the House for some time. I have raised it on several occasions, and it is time that we looked in detail at what the future holds for the search and rescue service, on which we all depend.
The search and rescue service covers 1.25 million nautical miles of sea and 10,000 nautical miles of coastline, as well as the entire land area of the United Kingdom. It is a joint service, which is operated by the RAF, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and Her Majesty’s coastguard. It uses more than 40 helicopters from 12 bases around the UK.
HM coastguard uses Westland AW139s and Sikorsky S-92s, which are under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The RAF and the Royal Navy use Sea Kings. The Sea King has four crew members—the pilot, the co-pilot, the winchman and the radar operator, who is also the winch operator. There are two versions of the Sea King: the Mk 3, which entered service in 1977, and the Mk 3A, which is slightly newer. The age of the aircraft has been causing significant technical problems, and they require constant maintenance to keep flying—a point to which I will return.
The RAF bases are RAF Boulmer, which is the headquarters of A flight and 202 Squadron; RAF Lossiemouth, on the Moray firth; RAF Valley in Anglesey, where Prince William is based; Leconfield, near Hull; Chivenor, in Devon; and Wattisham, in Suffolk. The Royal Navy bases are Culdrose in Cornwall and Prestwick in the west of Scotland. HM coastguard operates from Lee on Solent, Portland, Stornoway and Sumburgh in the Shetland islands.
The RAF has just celebrated 70 years of involvement in the search and rescue service. It has 16 Sea King Mk 3 and 3A helicopters in service, which are divided between 22 Squadron and 202 Squadron. Each squadron maintains a 15-minute readiness state during daylight hours and a 45-minute readiness state during the hours of darkness. 22 Squadron operates out of Chivenor, Wattisham and Valley, while 202 Squadron operates out of Boulmer, Lossiemouth and Leconfield. The training unit operates out of RAF Valley with three Griffin HT1 helicopters.
In Boulmer, which is in my constituency, the RAF search and rescue service is a source of enormous local pride and satisfaction. It is hugely respected and very involved in the local community, and the RAF helicopter is often to be seen not only engaged in operations or training, but supporting local community events. That, of course, is good public relations for the RAF and adds to its excellent reputation in my area. Indeed, such activities are such a prominent feature of the RAF’s work that they tend to distract attention from the fact that the vast majority of the work done at RAF Boulmer is in the very different field of monitoring and guarding our skies and training people. None the less, it is the familiar yellow helicopters going about their rescue and training work that enjoy the greatest and most immediate public awareness.
Under the previous Labour Government, a private finance initiative contract proposal was developed under the name of search and rescue harmonisation. Commonality of function between the MCA and Ministry of Defence helicopter forces, and similar time frames for the potential introduction of new aircraft fleets, led Ministers in the MOD and the Department for Transport in May 2006 to announce a cross-Government approach to the acquisition of a harmonised UK SAR helicopter service. A joint project team from the two Departments was tasked with running the project, which was essentially a Labour privatisation project. I say that not as a criticism, but simply to set out the context, because if this Government contemplate privatising anything, the Opposition tend to say that they would never consider such a thing. However, the previous Government did devise a privatisation project, and that was because they thought that such a project was essential to ensure that new helicopters could be provided relatively quickly to replace the Sea Kings. The total project contracts were worth £6 billion.
During discussions on the project, a number of concerns arose and were subject to quite a lot of public discussion. What aircraft would be used to replace the Sea King? How long would it take to get them into service? Which personnel would be required to operate the new service? Would they be drawn from the military, civilian life or a mixture of the two? If there were to be a mixture of military and civilian personnel, how would that work in practice, given that the civilians would be covered by the European working time directive, while the military personnel would not? That has already caused issues at the coastguard-operated bases in the Hebrides and the Shetlands. Consideration would also need to be given to the equalisation of pay and other conditions.
What training would air crew receive? At the moment, there is a fairly heavy dependence on experienced personnel with RAF training moving into other areas of search and rescue and other helicopter services. Of course, it is true that RAF training is heavily drawn on in aviation more widely. Furthermore, what arrangements would be provided for SAR cover in the Falkland islands under the SAR helicopter scheme? SAR in the south Atlantic is currently provided by the RAF, using the same crews who man our stations in the UK. That is done on a six to seven-week rolling rotation, with two crews of four personnel based in the Falklands at any one time. A normal feature of a career spent in a search and rescue aircrew will therefore be time spent in the Falklands.
Where do the prospects of a new helicopter with faster flying speeds and a longer range leave the existing basing pattern? What changes would be feasible under SAR? Linked to that, would 24-hour cover be provided by each base? An early answer to that question made it clear that there were proposals to reduce the cover at a number of bases to 12 hours, after which time the area for which the base was responsible would be covered by the base in the adjoining area. That raised great concern. In the Lake district, for example, rescue operations are often mounted by the RAF Boulmer helicopter, and there was particular concern that the area could not easily be served from other bases. Those bases would, like Boulmer, have extensive responsibilities for the North sea and the east coast, and their helicopters could easily be on a rescue operation and be unable to respond. Bases would be covering two huge areas—their own area and the neighbouring area—so there was a lot of concern about the idea of 12-hour operation. Following a number of meetings with Ministers and others, it was decided that RAF Boulmer would continue to provide 24-hour cover, at least until new helicopters with greater range and the ability to reach other areas at greater speed were introduced.
In the course of the project, bidders were identified, although some did not stay the course until the end. On 9 February 2010, the Soteria consortium was identified as the preferred bidder. The consortium was made up of CHC Helicopter, which is the largest global supplier of civilian helicopter services and the current provider of the MCA’s interim SAR service; the Royal Bank of Scotland, as a PFI equity investor; Thales UK, the well known defence contractor, which has been involved in a number of PFI and partnership projects; and Sikorsky, which has long experience in the design and manufacture of military and commercial helicopters.
The consortium proposed a fleet of 24 Sikorsky S-92 aircraft, with a top speed of 190 mph and a cruising speed of 167 mph. The S-92 would have been fitted with an internal fuel tank, increasing the aircraft’s flying radius to 310 statute miles. The aircraft would also have been fitted with the latest high-speed twin hoist, providing for the possibility of single-hoist failure. It would also have had a 300-foot hoist cable and a lift capacity of up to 600 lb at 350 feet per minute. It is hard to envisage being raised on a winch at 350 feet per minute, but such things are necessary in certain situations—for example, on the moving deck of a ship in rough seas. The aircraft cabin would be fitted out to allow paramedic medical care to be administered to a casualty. The ramp at the rear of the aircraft would provide access for loading and unloading stretchers, incubators and medical equipment and access for rescue teams and their equipment. The other major bidding consortium went under the name of AirKnight, but two further consortia pulled out at a relatively early stage in the process.
At some stage—I must confess I now forget when it was—responsibility for the future operation was transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the Department for Transport, which is why the Minister with whom I deal with all sorts of other transport issues is replying to the debate. All that I have described of course preceded the dramatic events of the suspension of the SAR-H scheme and its subsequent abandonment. The first stage of that was just part of the process of the incoming Government reviewing the spending commitments left to them by the previous Government. In June the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced that the Government had identified several projects, some of which were dropped, while others were to be reviewed. SAR was one of the reviewed projects.
I understand that on average over the past five years there have been between 80 and 120 mountain rescues in the United Kingdom. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that such rescues could adequately be carried out using non-military personnel and equipment, in a way similar to what happens in France and the United States; or should they remain in the hands of the military?
Some of the rescues are done in that way even now. Not all SAR services are provided by military crew, but a high degree of training is required, and there must be consistent co-operation with local organisations such as mountain rescue teams. That depends on consistent good working relations. The military operators such as RAF Boulmer and 202 Squadron have done that particularly well. In general I think that most people feel more confidence about military crew, because they know the high standards of training that are involved. However, it is quite an expensive way to provide the service, and other options probably should be considered. Some of the training and experience that the military has, and some of its operational practices, would need to be transferred if there were any wider civilianisation of the service. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that as a matter of concern.
The review announced by the Chief Secretary was about cost-effectiveness, against the background of a huge deficiency in defence capital programme funding. It was not about the issues that finally brought down the contract. Indeed, Ministers were on the point of announcing the final decision on the contract. Various other things had been going on, however. There were rumours that as part of the comprehensive spending review the Government had proposed that the project should be rewritten, so that an entirely civilian work force would operate the service, rather than a mixture of civilian and military personnel. Of course, if the Government had done that, it would have created a big saving, because it would have taken about 66 higher-paid military personnel out of the project, and probably created up to an additional £100 million over the lifetime of the project in personnel costs for the contractor. It also sidestepped the problem of some personnel being subject to European working time directive rules, while others were not. That issue was rumbling in the background.
On 16 December a dramatic announcement was made—I think that it was the very day on which we were to have heard the final decision about the contractor. The Secretary of State for Defence announced that information had come to light about the preferred bid in the search and rescue competition, which required clarification. The preferred bidder had informed the Government of irregularities in the conduct of the bid team, which had only recently come to light. The irregularities included access by one of the consortium members, CHC Helicopter, to commercially sensitive information about the joint Ministry of Defence and Department for Transport project team’s evaluations of industry bids, and evidence that a former member of that project team had assisted the consortium in its bid preparation, contrary to explicit assurances given to the project team at the time.
I believe that a considerable time previously a letter went to the Ministry of Defence warning it of potential irregularities of that nature. One of the matters that I hope is being investigated is why that warning was not heeded. Of course many other matters are being investigated as well, not just by the Ministry of Defence but by the police. A former member of the MOD team, subsequently employed in the industry, is, I believe, the subject of investigation. I do not know to what extent others are as well.
On that basis, we were told that
“the Government have sufficient information to enable them to conclude that the irregularities that have been identified were such that it would not be appropriate to proceed with either the preferred bid or with the current procurement process.”
The statement continued:
“The Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence will now consider the potential procurement options to meet future requirements for search and rescue helicopters in the United Kingdom, including options to maintain continuity of search and rescue helicopter cover until new longer-term arrangements can be put in place.
We will make a further announcement once a way forward has been agreed.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 17WS.]
That brings me to the focus of today’s debate, which is what progress has been made in reaching those decisions and when we are likely to get a proper announcement about it. Other factors could be at work. There is the potential for legal action involving contractors. An unsuccessful contractor might want to pursue the successful one over bid costs incurred. There might be legal action between the Government and a contractor. The Minister may be inhibited in what he can say about that, but it could be going on at the same time.
What will happen next? The Sea Kings were due to be withdrawn by 2016 or 2017. They are ageing and they continue to need substantial levels of maintenance to keep them operating. Those of us who keep in close touch with the search and rescue service know that there are many occasions when the Sea Kings are not available to fly. I have seen that for myself. I was flying in a Sea King that returned to base because the radio system failed. The other aircraft was on land having returned from necessary maintenance work, and was not yet tested and available to take over. At that point therefore neither was available. There have been moments when no helicopter has been available at Leconfield, Lossiemouth or Boulmer at the same time. That clearly is a situation we cannot allow to continue.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing an extremely important debate. I urge him to keep an open mind about whether a life extension to Sea King could be a short and medium-term option. Is he aware that in the United States, Germany and India the Sea King fleets, which are all older than ours, are having their lives extended, and that on the whole Sea King availability recently has been quite good?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend who, from his constituency, knows well the work of Westland in that area. I have an open mind about whether a major refit of at least some of the Sea Kings could be carried out. It is one of the options to be considered. However, we cannot simply go on as we are with relatively short-term maintenance of the Sea Kings.
The personnel who work in search and rescue with the RAF and the Royal Navy are also in limbo. That is also true of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency personnel, although they already have a contract; but it expires within the year, I think, so they too are in a state of uncertainty. The Government need to get a grip on the situation and some people need to know pretty soon, for their careers, what will happen. Are they likely to have a future in search and rescue, whether on the military side or as contractors’ employees? What will happen?
We also need to bear in mind some of the warnings given during the contract process. My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), to whom I am sure the Minister will want to listen, as he is now the Government Deputy Chief Whip, said in February 2010:
“It is essential that this contract…is better negotiated and has fewer loopholes than the interim contract we had for the last few years”—
the MCA contract. He said that the contract must protect against situations like the one that arose in 2008. The back-up helicopter based at Sumburgh was off-station for a whole week, but the Department for Transport and the MCA were powerless to do anything about it. He also wanted to see the new service rooted properly in the communities that it serves rather than being dependent on a stream of temporary pilots and support officers constantly being shipped in and out.
What are the options? What are the Government considering? First are the short-term immediate continuity arrangements. The RAF will carry on, as it always does. It has the resilience and determination to cope in situations, whether created by Governments or world events, that would challenge many other organisations, and I have every confidence in its ability to do so. However, we need answers on how long it will be before a new scheme replaces the present arrangements. Personnel have careers to plan, and MCA helicopters are contracted only until next year. As I said earlier, the Sea Kings are now extremely difficult to keep airworthy. How long will this situation continue? What level of refit of the Sea King is possible? Would a major upgrade of the Sea King be a short-term option, or would it be too expensive? Should it therefore be considered as a longer-term measure?
What is being considered in the longer term? There are obviously several options. One is to retender a version of the contract. The Government clearly ruled out retendering the contract in its present form when they made their announcement, so they have obviously given it some consideration. There are several reasons why retendering is not the answer. There were too many flaws in the original contract, some of which I referred to earlier; once it became impossible to continue it, the questions that had arisen while it was being considered then needed to be considered again. At that stage in the contract process, it may have been too late to resolve those questions, but when the matter was reopened they needed to be reconsidered.
Another reason why it would have been difficult to retender was that experience has shown that the procurement process is not up to the job. To go back to the same process and risk another failure was not something that the Government could properly have done. We have seen many other weaknesses in the defence procurement process, which has led many to lack confidence in it.
In some respects the previous contract was not cost-effective, which is why it was under review. The reason why the Government did not stop it as a result of the Chief Secretary’s review, but were about to announce that it would go ahead, was that the contract had gone too far to be stopped and the gap would be undesirably long if the process had to be started again. However, events have now forced us into that very gap. The Government concluded during the cost review that it would be unwise to have such a gap, but they now have one. That puts a particular responsibility on Ministers to tell us how they intend to deal with a situation that they felt obliged to avoid until dropping the contract became inevitable because of the irregularities that were found. Simply retendering does not seem to be a proper option.
Another alternative would be to lease helicopters for use by existing RAF, Royal Navy and MCA-based crews. There are various options, but even in the short term it may be necessary to have short leasing contracts. What else is the MCA to do when its existing contract expires? What can the RAF do if it is found that a major refit of the Sea Kings will be too expensive to be considered as a short-term measure? Will aircraft have to be leased? The option of leasing of helicopters is clearly on the table, but will there be a new form of contract, involving both leasing aircraft and crew, with some of the features of the previous contract but rather better developed?
There is significant private sector interest in providing helicopters to the oil industry, the police and other services where they are essential. The market is not devoid of other operators, but as we heard earlier, the service requires a particularly high level of skill and training and it has to serve a wide range of functions. Rescues take place at sea, in dangerous coastal areas, in mountains, in fog—conditions that would defy many traditional commercial operators. It would be a pretty demanding contract, and the public are entitled to know that it will be carried out by people with the skills and equipment to do so.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. The Government have inherited a difficult situation, and I agree with what he says about the importance of introducing some certainty.
Many people in my constituency work at RNAS Culdrose, which plays an important role in our community. We are proud of its role in search and rescue, as it works closely with Falmouth coastguard. The Sea King helicopters provide what I would call a more inshore rescue service, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we must not lose sight of the important role of the Nimrod, and the necessity to have some replacement for the much more distant sea rescues, which are also part of the search and rescue service?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. She obviously has similar experiences to mine in working with the RAF locally and being very aware that its work is respected by the community.
My hon. Friend spoke also about the Nimrod. That is a big problem for the Ministry of Defence, and it illustrates similarities to the subject of our debate, not least because it has been dragging on for a long time and we still do not have a proper solution. However, it is probably beyond the scope of today’s debate—and, I believe, beyond the responsibilities of the Minister answering it—but my hon. Friend was right to flag it up.
Much has been said in public recently about the relationship between the RAF and the coastguard. I simply make this comment. If its relationship with the coastguard were dependent on where the major control centres were situated, we would have got into difficulties years ago, when our major control centre moved from Tynemouth to Humberside. What makes the relationship work well is not only that the control centres operate efficiently, as they should, but that the RAF develops good close personal relationships with the coastguards—mostly volunteers in coastal communities up and down our coastline—as it does also with the lifeboat service. The building of those relationships, and therefore the desirability of having crew in place for reasonable periods, is essential to the success of the service.
I emphasise a few more points that I believe the Minister needs to consider. What about 24-hour cover? It raised great concern when the idea that two or even three search and rescue areas—a single area is huge—could be treated as one for 12 hours of the 24 became part of the proposal, and even more concern when it was suggested that it could be done with existing aircraft before the new contract came into being.
That concern remains. People want to know that there is 24-hour cover on no larger a scale than the existing areas, because if a neighbouring area is already on operational duty and carrying out a rescue, there will be no search and rescue helicopter within a reasonably manageable distance for 24 hours of the day. We need an answer on that. We also need clarification on what is going to happen to the Falklands support operation if the RAF is no longer to be involved in SAR there. We need to know about the potential impact of legal action, and whether it is likely to cause delay to the key decisions that are now being taken. I hope not.
Overall, it is an awful business. We will know fully when the investigations are completed, but it approaches what we could call a scandal. Courageous and skilled aircrew have been let down by the inadequacy of the Ministry of Defence procurement process and the way in which it was carried out. The challenge for the Department for Transport is to carry out the task rather better than the MOD, which has conspicuously failed. The time scale now is short and demanding. Can the Department do it? How will it do it, and what assurances can the Minister give to those employed in, or dependent on, search and rescue that they will have satisfactory continuity arrangements over a reasonably short time and that a new system will be put in place in which the public can have confidence?
I am extremely grateful for being called to speak, and I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this important debate. He will be delighted to hear that I will speak relatively briefly.
In Cumbria, we rely heavily on search and rescue teams, particularly those at RAF Boulmer, which is our local base. They provide essential back-up to our mountain rescue teams in Ambleside, Langdale and Kendal and, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, to our search and rescue teams at Flookburgh on Morecambe bay. The mountain rescue teams across Cumbria rely on RAF Boulmer, and they regard it as essential to their work, which is voluntary in nature but professional in standard.
On behalf of the mountain rescue teams and the search and rescue teams in Cumbria, and south Cumbria in particular, I want to say how much we value the professionalism of the staff at RAF Boulmer and indeed of all of those involved in search and rescue. We value their responsiveness, their 24-hour cover and the fact that they work so well with our mountain rescue teams.
When the new contract, which has recently been cancelled, was first suggested, many of us across the country objected. There were objections in Cumbria largely because it would have made Boulmer a half-time base. We would only have obtained 12-hour cover, which is extremely dangerous. My right hon. Friend rightly referred to that towards the end of his speech. It is dangerous not to have 24-hour cover. My mountain rescue volunteer friends say that a typical time for a person to go missing, or to be reported missing, on the fells, in the Lake District or on the Yorkshire dales is when it gets dark. That is the time at which a person is deemed missing—the time that they have not returned home—and the emergency is activated. It is very dangerous for that critical time to be the point at which the source of the rescue craft moves further away. Reducing cover would also mean a reduction in responsiveness; there will be longer times from the call-out to the scrambling of the craft and its arrival in the Lake district. We are also deeply concerned about the reduction in capacity that the contract would bring. My right hon. Friend rightly talked about the possibility of a craft being occupied in one region when it is supposed to be serving another.
About 14 months ago, we had some dreadful flooding in Cumbria, particularly in the west of the county. There is no doubt that had the contract been in place then, there would have been insufficient air cover to rescue people from dangerous situations. Therefore, the contract that has been cancelled could have been dangerous in a number of areas. None the less, the cancellation is a matter of deep concern for those whose careers depend on an outcome to this process, for all those who work with the search and rescue teams, and for all of us because of what it means for the probity and efficacy of the process. Moreover, we were all terribly concerned about the irregularities that were uncovered.
Having said that, those of us who had deep concerns about the contract cannot help but think that we now have an opportunity to re-examine the situation. The Government have the chance to think again, but, as my right hon. Friend said, they should not do so for too long. A whole range of options exist. The Government might want to consider whether it is entirely wise to go down the private finance initiative route again. They might also consider the wisdom of refitting the Sea Kings, which was suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws). That could be done with great operational effectiveness and would be relatively cost-effective, giving certainty and a medium-term future for all those involved.
Whatever the Government decide, they must do it relatively quickly to give us confidence and a sense of long-term stability, and ensure that it is in the interests of maximising safety across the country, particularly across Cumbria, the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales. The Lakes are England’s most mountainous region. It seemed barmy, therefore, to exercise a contract that would move the airborne rescue further away.
I urge the Minister to make a decision relatively quickly, maintain 24-hour cover from Boulmer and ensure that whatever decision is taken from this point on provides maximum support for mountain rescue teams and search and rescue teams on the ground and in the water and in the interests of all those people who may find themselves in peril on the fells.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Gray. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this important and timely debate. Given that this whole policy began under the previous Administration, the right hon. Gentleman cautioned me about the scope of my remarks. I fully acknowledge that, so my remarks will be relatively brief.
Let me begin by adding my tribute, and a tribute from the Opposition, to the air sea rescue service and all those involved in search and rescue across the country. The Minister and I are former fire fighters, so we were part of that industry in a very big way, and we recognise the conspicuous role that these brave men and women play in all aspects of search and rescue across the country.
It would have been better if the Minister had opened this debate, because we could all have commented on what he said. The right hon. Gentleman could have stood up and just said, “What’s happening, Minister?” What we want to find out is where we go from here. There is a lot of interest and concern about that across the country, not least from the Palace. A few months ago, we heard in Prime Minister’s questions that there had been royal lobbying on the matter. I suspect that the Minister’s speech has been proofread not only by the lawyers but by officials at No.10 who will want to make sure that he is careful in his responses to us today.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed outlined the history of this matter very effectively and explained why it is so important. The questions originally were about the split command structure and the fact that although this process is led by the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence has an important role to play. That is why there is duality and why the Minister, who is a Transport Minister, is in the driving seat. However, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force all make contributions. There are other issues: the life expectancy of helicopters; European regulations and terms of employment, and the PFI replacement programme for helicopters. All those factors have made it very complicated to try to unlock and disentangle the sector. With information emerging about irregularities in the tendering of the contract, the Government had no option but to stop the tendering process and review it. As the right hon. Gentleman logically said, we need answers as quickly as possible about where we go now.
The questions that I would have asked have already been asked. They included questions about the durability of the existing helicopter fleet—for example, how long that fleet will last and whether it will last until the new arrangements are put in place. The issue of 24-hour cover was raised by the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who both spoke before me. There have also been questions in recent months about the use of armed forces pilots as part of the pilot provision for the search and rescue service, given that we must ensure that we have enough pilots for front-line services in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) also asked about the life expectancy of the Sea Kings and the upgrades that might happen.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate. I was unavoidably detained in Committee.
My hon. Friend has made a point about pilots. It is absolutely essential that there is clarity about that issue, because what we are seeing now is that RAF pilots, who have completed three quarters of their training and nearly finished it, are being withdrawn from service. The search and rescue service really needs the continuity that RAF bases, such as RAF Valley in my own constituency, provide. Those bases have an intake of pilots, who go elsewhere before coming back. The search and rescue service needs to know that the pilots at those bases will graduate. Does my hon. Friend agree that clarity about that issue must be provided now?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue of military pilots being used as part of the air-sea rescue service has been raised in recent months and that the loss of such pilots might impact on the ability of the MOD to perform front-line duties.
It is to the great credit of the control and management arrangements of the air-sea rescue service that although there are so many organisations involved—the RAF, the Royal Navy and the MCA—the service has worked so well. Obviously what we all want to see is whatever arrangements are put in place in future working equally well. However, given that the Government have been stopped in their tracks because of the irregularities in the tendering arrangements, questions are being asked by right hon. and hon. Members about where we go from here. Those questions are about how the Government intend to proceed in providing the service, including the new tendering arrangements, the use of the existing fleet, the potential upgrades and how long it might take the Minister and his colleagues to resolve these issues. Those are very big questions, but I know that the Minister has all the answers, as he usually has, and we are all waiting with bated breath to hear what they are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, for the first time as a Minister of the Crown.
First, I want to say that a leak has taken place. It must have taken place last night, because the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has read out my summary of events, with great clarity and great accuracy. I praise him for his knowledge of the issues that he has raised in Westminster Hall today.
Having secured this debate, the right hon. Gentleman might have thought that there would be a few more Members here for it. The amount of correspondence that I have had on this issue is not reflected in the number of Back Benchers who are in Westminster Hall today. I hope that those who are not here will read the report in Hansard later, so that we can get some better knowledge out there around the country about what is happening.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), was quite right to say that I am somewhat tied by “legal eagles”. There are some things that I can talk about today and clearly there are some things that I cannot talk about. I will be as open and honest as possible, as I always am. As Members can imagine, there are officials from the Ministry of Defence who are keeping a very close eye on me as I stand here, as well as my own officials.
We are discussing a really serious issue today. I am not particularly happy about the position that I am in. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and other right hon. and hon. Members have said, we inherited the position that we are in and literally on the eve of our announcement information was brought forward that meant that the whole procurement process and the awarding of the contracts had to be halted. Indeed, they were not only halted but we had enough information at that time, as the police were brought in, to know that that procurement process and the awarding of the contracts would cease.
So, wherever I can be, I will be as open as I can, but I hope that Members will understand that I am speaking under legal constraints and I do not want to jeopardise any possible legal action or police inquiry by what I say during this debate.
Quite correctly, right hon. and hon. Members have paid tribute, and I join them in paying tribute, to the men and women who have served in the air-sea rescue service in the many roles that they have played in the many years—nearly 70 in total—that they have carried out this service on behalf of the British public.
What is interesting is that the public have a perception about who is flying those funny-coloured helicopters that have the word “Coastguard” written on their side. When I first became a Minister, I assumed that the crews involved were all military crews and I think that a lot of people make that assumption. They assume that when they are on the beach, or on the moorlands and lakelands of this country, or when they are waiting to be rescued from a cliff, that those pilots, navigators and loading guys in the back are military personnel. However, let us be perfectly honest. We know that many of them are not military personnel and that for some 27 years four of the bases—four of the air-sea rescue facilities—have been run under contract by the private sector. Have there been huge numbers of complaints about the ability, skill, dedication, commitment or professionalism of those private sector crews? To be truthful, no, there have not been—not at all. So, although I understand the concerns of areas where there are military bases, we must not undermine the work of the civilian crews who have done fantastic work for many years.
I acknowledge the concerns that exist about some of the contracts—not being responsible for them, I can say that. The contracts were there, we inherited them and we have moved forward with them.
There are obvious and understandable concerns about the future. However, the awarding of these contracts has been delayed for some time. I myself would probably have flown in some of these Sea King helicopters when I was in the armed forces and I joined as a boy soldier in 1974. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was in Sea Kings rather too often. I was also in Wessex helicopters. The Wessex is long gone, but Sea Kings are still fulfilling a fantastic role, here in the UK and on operations abroad. I have been lucky enough to be in Sea Kings on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan on my visits to those countries. We must pay tribute to the work that is being done by our armed forces, particularly because as we speak today they are doing a lot of work in the middle east as well as in Afghanistan.
To be polite, the Sea King is a very old lady. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, there are two versions. However, the older version—the 1977 version—is not a modern aircraft. It has nowhere near the sort of lift, capacity or range that modern helicopters offer. I am aware that other countries have looked seriously at their Sea Kings and upgraded them. Very often, they have done so for cost reasons as well as for other reasons, because if the life of a Sea King can be extended the difficult decisions that we have been trying to make can be avoided.
So, as we look at what we have inherited, we must look at what will happen in the short term—that is, now—because of what has happened with these contracts. We must consider how we can continue to have the cover available and my Department is doing that jointly with the MOD and the MCA. However, we must also look forward to consider what will come in to replace the existing service.
Perhaps I can say now that there will be no demise in cover at all in the short term or in the long term. We will look very carefully at the existing contracts—both the civilian contracts and the MOD contracts—and there will be provision of service while we look for a long-term solution. So I hope that I can alleviate any concerns that exist among the constituents of right hon. or hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, or among the armed forces or in the MCA. We will ensure that we get this right. In the short term, we will ensure that there is cover and that the Sea Kings are available and operational.
I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was as honest as I was going to have to be about the Sea Kings’ current availability. They are very often off the run. I have been surprised by a couple of incidents that I have been involved in in my short time as Minister, when I have had to say, “Guarantee to me who is available.” Sometimes the Sea Kings are not there, but that is not because of a lack of will or because people are not professional in maintaining them, it is just because they are very old ladies. They need a lot of TLC, and sometimes we just cannot physically get them up there. Their range is restricted, compared with the civilian Bristows, especially the new ones we would like to bring in, and so there are big issues about who covers. Very often, as I am sure Members are aware, the civilian crews cover in areas where the military cannot, simply because they have the range. We will very consciously ensure our commitment to mountain rescue and sea rescue, and also cliff rescue, which has not been covered today. The skill involved in cliff rescue, with the down draughts, is unbelievable. In the short term, we will commit to those areas, and we are working very closely with the MOD.
In the long term—not too long a term, I hope, but we must get it right—we have a plain sheet of paper, and I hope that hon. Members appreciate that. We can say, “What do we need for air-sea rescue, to go forward in the 21st century?” The MOD will continue to be involved in the negotiations, deciding for itself to what extent; it is not for me as a Department for Transport Minister, even with my military background, to make decisions on behalf of the MOD. It is absolutely crucial that, because of the concerns that have been raised both today and in the press in the past few weeks, we come forward with proposals—although I am sure not everyone will be happy with them—for a service that is there to do the job and to provide the skills that we all want. There has, I think, been some misinformation in the press, which is understandable because not everyone realises how service air-sea rescue is already provided.
When the first review was under way and the consultation was taking place, it was difficult to deal with the different cultures in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport. When the DFT and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency decided that we would consult on the local provision for the civilian stations, the culture was pretty much one of open politics but, with no disrespect or criticism, the MOD culture was much less open in its engagement with local MPs. If the Minister is looking to consult again, right hon. and hon. Members would obviously look for every assurance that the consultation or the exercise would be as open as possible, and as accessible as possible for Members, so that they could contribute to it.
The shadow Minister is very knowledgeable in this area because he was around in the Department at the time, so I pay tribute to his knowledge of the problems that occurred during the consultation. It will always be difficult, because some of the stations are operational and so an operational capacity need has to be addressed as well as the secondary use, which is the air-sea rescue.
If my right hon. Friend will bear with me, I want to answer on this point and will then gladly give way—we have plenty of time, to say the least.
The procurement will now be Department for Transport led, with MOD involvement. I say this in the presence of listening ears from the MOD: we certainly will be as open and honest as we can, and will provide as much access as possible both to colleagues throughout the House, and to local communities, because it is important that they feel part of what is going on. We are all about trying to do the right thing and developing a service that we can all be continually proud of—we are very proud of the current service, but we know that there are issues. I assure Members that we will do as much as possible as we lead on this in the new procurement programme, which is why I say that we have a plain piece of paper. We can learn from mistakes and from a lot of the issues that the shadow Minister has mentioned, but we will not necessarily take on everything. We have a blank piece of paper, and can ask, “What’s best for us?”
It would be helpful to know what machinery has been set up to make the decision, or to prepare the ground for Ministers ultimately making it. That cannot be a state secret. Is there a joint project board between the two Departments, or a working party? What stage is it at, and what mechanisms are in place for making this important proposal?
As my right hon. Friend will realise, we are at a very early stage, not least because there are legal issues—he mentioned them in his speech—which are very difficult and technical. The police are fully involved and there is a full inquiry going on, so I am very restricted in how far I can go down that line. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that others may decide to take action in the civil courts, and it is entirely down to them to decide that. We have to ensure that the existing contract is not affected in any shape or form by the private finance initiative contract. It is completely separate, but it has been lumped in with the existing one, certainly in the media. That contract is close to its end time, and we have to negotiate best value for the taxpayer as well as ensuring that we have the service provision. At this stage, I am not in a position to say, “This is the mechanism that we’re going to go forward with,” but we will announce it as soon as possible. This will be led by the Department for Transport, and that decision has been made.
The PFI contract went way beyond the existing spending review period, and so we do not know how quickly we can get this going. It is crucial that we get it right, so that we do not get anywhere near this position ever again. The PFI was signed off for this spending review period, but it went way beyond it, as I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware. The key is that the interim measures, which must be in place, are what it says on the tin—“interim”—and that we then have a proper contract. We have not just gone to another re-bid, we have said, “Whoa, let’s look at this another way.” That will take longer than if we just said, “Okay, there’s a few mistakes here. Someone’s been naughty, and we’ll do it this way.” That would be the quick option, but it is right to say, “Let’s put this completely on hold and look fundamentally at the contract.”
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
I would like to press the Minister a little further. It would be helpful to know whether there is one process, or two separate processes, with a team of people from the two Departments assessing the viability of the existing arrangements and what has to be done to keep them going for the time being, and a separate team considering the future options.
There are two separate processes, which is why, when I began my speech, I stated that there is what we need to do now and what we need to do in the future. I have just been passed a note with some information that I did not know, which is that the Secretary of State for Defence has already been in contact with AgustaWestland—last month—to see if we could engage with the company to consider how to extend the life of the Sea Kings beyond 2016. That is because of the interim short-term situation, and how we go forward. It was mentioned earlier that perhaps the most cost-effective way of doing that would be a major refit, taking us a long way forward, or we could do a shorter-term refit. Two separate projects have to take place, although I am not saying that the same people will or will not be on the working groups. The key is to get on with this now, so that we have the provision in place and can then go forward.
As to when the announcement was made and the reason why it was not made to the House first, it was, obviously a significant market announcement, which is why it had to be made to the stock exchange at 7 am. I am always passionate in the belief that things should be announced to the House, and I have done so myself on many occasions, but an announcement involving such a large private finance initiative had market significance, which is why it needed to be made, and was made, at 7 am.
I know the Falklands rather well. Sadly, several of my friends are there in war graves. Luckily or unluckily, when the Falklands war began, I was with the Grenadiers on spearhead, who were not deployed, but my friends in the Welsh and Scots Guards were. As my right hon. Friend knows, one of my closest friends is Simon Weston, who was disfigured and scarred while he was there and has done much work for charity since he came back. The Falklands is not affected by the PFI. The MOD will continue to provide air-sea rescue in the Falklands and will decide its future. It was never part of existing search and rescue helicopter procurement. There are still a lot of MOD and service personnel in the Falklands. I have flown in a Sea King down there in recent years, although not during my time in the armed forces.
We have mentioned the effects of service personnel and knowing what they are doing. Service personnel work on tours of duty. The original time scales involved in the PFI meant that they would have been beyond their tour of duty—the Prince would have been away from Wales, serving in whatever other duties Her Majesty had in mind for him—long before the changes took place. The MOD will, obviously, continue with its own tour of duty process. That is a matter for the MOD, not for me as a Transport Minister. As we enter the interim period with cover, I am sure that tours of duty will be addressed in many ways.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who has left the Chamber, mentioned the interim contract for the coastguard. The existing MCA contract is not interim; civilians have been doing that work for many years. We need to find out what the interim contract is now, but the existing contracts are not interim. We can also learn a lot from the concerns about the MCA contract as we go forward. There are concerns involving the working time directive; I assure hon. Members that it is one of the pains of my life as a Minister. In the past couple of days, I signed off on a document exempting the military from certain things such as driving time, tachographs and so on. At the same time, the MOD manages brilliantly to provide cover within existing restraints. All of that will be part of the documents as we go forward with the concerns.
I do not want to pontificate for another half-hour, as there is not much more that I can say. We are conscious that there are concerns, and we as a Government are concerned. In a perfect world, this would never have happened. But we do not live in a perfect world and, sadly, an anomaly has occurred with the procurement programme that has created real concerns and legal ramifications. A huge amount of taxpayers’ money has been expended on the procurement programme, and we will be looking to recoup it, as it is not the fault of taxpayers or the Department for Transport. To be fair, the MOD, which was criticised earlier, could not have predicted that the persons involved would do what they did. I know that there are concerns about the MOD’s procurement programme—that is for the MOD to address—but the criticism that the MOD is to blame for what happen might not be right. Individuals are responsible, rather than the MOD.
The Minister was right to pay tribute to those who maintain Sea Kings. Maintenance crews must be considered as well. They are concerned that under the PFI contract, many of them will not be retrained for any new helicopters procured. Will the Minister assure me, on his blank piece of paper, that that will be considered and that, in the interim, those highly skilled people working on air bases, including RAF Valley in my constituency, will have the opportunity to retrain for any new craft?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those assurances, as I am not an MOD Minister, but the MOD will have heard those concerns, and I will ask someone there to write to him about them. It is clearly not in my portfolio to deal with armed forces staff. I, too, pay tribute to maintenance crews, which I have always found to be unsung heroes when I have visited the military around the world. When I visited Helmand last year, I saw that they worked astonishing hours to keep Chinooks, in particular, in the air. We should all realise that it is not just the helicopter pilots—the gung-ho guys—who do all the work; often, it is the ground crew that get them up in the skies to start with.
Sharing knowledge and working together with other emergency services, particularly in the voluntary sector, is crucial—whatever will happen in the future—as is happening now on the four civilianised bases. I must admit that many of the crew members whom I have met are ex-military; I do not think that I have met a single search and rescue helicopter pilot who is not. We have a wonderful training programme for them, but it is crucial that training and working-together exercises continue in the short and long term.
I am conscious of what hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), said about distance. It will always be an issue. We go out to sea some distances now to incidents, as in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), but interestingly, civilian aircraft—the ones that we have now, let alone the ones that we were considering procuring—can go much further and cover greater distances.
Of course, they can do only one job at a time. The shadow Minister and I are both ex-firemen. I did operations with air-sea rescue on the Thames estuary when I was in the fire service. When we were tied up there, we were tied up. When something is tied up, I am concerned to know whether we will have cover from the other bases, especially if the Sea Kings are vulnerable, as we know they are at times.
I do not want to drag out this debate for the sake of it. I am disappointed, as I am sure is my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, that more Members are not here for this 1.5 hour debate. As soon as we know more, we will say more, and we will be as open as we can throughout the procedure. However, at the end of the day, we are where we are. We will sort this mess out and ensure that the public are safe and that air-sea rescue is protected, as we all expect it to be, and cover is provided.
I thank the hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. There are, obviously, other hon. Members whom it would have been useful to have present to represent other areas. I am particularly grateful for the support shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for the work of RAF Boulmer in his constituency, of which air-sea rescue is a significant part. We have also heard interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), in whose constituency is located basic training for all RAF search and rescue pilots, a fact of which people might not have been widely aware until a royal prince became one of the aircrew there. Their interventions have been helpful.
In concluding, I will focus on what the Minister could and could not do today. Clearly, Ministers cannot comment on what has happened in any detail while investigations are taking place, and legal action—not just legal action arising directly from the investigations but civil legal action—is a possibility. He said that he had a blank piece of paper, but I remind him that it cannot stay blank for long, particularly in respect of the continuity arrangements, and that he does not have a blank chequebook with which to make extremely expensive temporary arrangements that might prejudice what is done in the long term. That is why I am so concerned to establish that there is a clear process at work. I am not sure whether we are entirely clear about that yet. The long-term alternatives have to be looked at in some detail, and I assume that a joint working party is doing that at the moment.
On the continuity arrangements, the centre of gravity has shifted back to the Ministry of Defence, which must affect the way this is being done. The Minister has a more direct responsibility for what is happening in relation to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency—it has a contract that will expire shortly—but the dependence on the continuing RAF and naval provision shifts the centre of gravity of the immediate decision-making process back towards the MOD.
It has never been clear whether the Department for Transport has become a purchasing Department with the relationship of a purchaser with the MOD that says, “This is what we want, even in the short term. How can you provide it for us?” or whether this is a traditional joint departmental process with a degree of fuzziness about who is really in charge. We cannot afford that in situations such as this, so I will continue to press Ministers in both the DFT and MOD to be clearer about how decisions will be taken in both the short and long term, and how the relationship between the two Departments can be operated in a way that ensures that decisions are made quickly on the things that have to be decided quickly. It is bad enough trying to get decisions out of the MOD alone, but when two Departments are involved, unless there is some sort of purchaser-provider split between the two, there is too much uncertainty about how decisions are taken. I am not even sure how confident the Minister is that we have a real grip on the issue and an effective process in operation.
The situation inherited by the Government is difficult, but difficult situations call for resolute action and I want to be sure that there is a process that can do that. Will the Minister, when he reflects upon this debate, write to me, in a letter that can be published, an explanation of the process? It would be helpful.
I think that I have already said that. I am sure that there will be other debates on this subject—although I cannot predict what Mr Speaker will or will not select for debate—but we will do that in writing as things develop. I am conscious of two things. First, we have to make sure that we get it right. Secondly, at the end of the day, this was not the fault of the taxpayer so it is crucial that, wherever possible, the taxpayer will not pay for it. As we progress, I will be open and we will write, correspond and give as much information as possible. The MOD has a procurement skill that the DFT does not in this area, so we need to work closely together and we will continue to do so. It will be led by the Department for Transport.
I am sure that the Minister will do that. It was implicit in my request, and it is desirable and necessary. In conclusion, I say to the Minister that he should not—quite clearly, he is not now going to—wait until the two Departments come up with their final plan before he keeps us informed. We need to know soon about the processes and the decisions being made about continuity arrangements—in a way that is as helpful as possible to those who have to operate the system—as well as about the processes in relation to devising an effective longer-term solution.
To revert to a point I made earlier, I believe that when the Government decided to announce that they were going ahead with the contract, they must have concluded that a period of delay, even with a contract that was not entirely to their satisfaction, was too much of a price to pay. That price now has to be paid, because it is clear that the contract cannot go ahead due to some of the things that went on during the procurement process. We are, therefore, paying a price in terms of certainty and decisions that ought not to be further delayed. I want to make sure that we have a process capable of dealing with that.
Before I call the debate to a close, may I take this opportunity to say that it is not normal in a debate such as this for people to respond after a Minister has spoken to conclude it? As there was time, I made due allowance for that, but I do not want a precedent to be set. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will remember that.