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Helicopter Search and Rescue Service

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future design of the helicopter search and rescue service.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I welcome the Minister to his new position. I know that this topic is not within his brief, but sits with his colleague in the other place, but I also know that he is a diligent Minister and will no doubt have full command of the facts for us today.

Dr Huq, if you were to stop anyone in Shetland and ask them what they thought of Oscar Charlie, you would get an almost universally positive response. If you were to test that in an opinion poll, Oscar Charlie would get the sort of approval ratings that I, you, the Minister and even the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) would bite a hand off for. It is our good fortune, then, that Oscar Charlie is not a politician, but the search and rescue helicopter based at Sumburgh airport in Shetland.

Oscar Charlie was the call sign originally, but then became the name by which the helicopter service is known. The original Oscar Charlie was actually taken out of service in 2007, but in 2013 the operator of the service, Bristow, bowing to the inevitable, renamed the current helicopter Oscar Charlie—I know that because I officiated at the naming ceremony.

I say all that to illustrate that, for people in the northern isles, the helicopter search and rescue service is not somehow detached from us; it is not an anonymous service. It is a service that we value massively, and it is every bit as much of a blue light service for us as the police, fire or ambulance services are for other communities.

When Shetland has needed the service, Oscar Charlie has been there. In 1993, at the grounding of the Braer, Oscar Charlie was in the thick of it. In 1997, at the loss of the Green Lily, which led to the tragic loss of Bill Deacon, the winchman on Oscar Charlie, it was absolutely central to the rescue effort. Just a few weeks ago, when the Stena Spey drilling rig in the North sea broke free during Storm Babet, it was Oscar Charlie that came to the rescue. It is also an invaluable support for air ambulance services in the northern isles. When the air ambulance proper is not able to serve us, Oscar Charlie and the search and rescue service step in.

News of a proposed change to the way in which the service is delivered has caused enormous concern in the local community. The change came to light on 5 October this year when a whistleblower delivered two pages of a document prepared by Bristow, headed “UKSAR2G”. It is from a memorandum issued to all UK SAR personnel dated 20 September 2023. I only have pages 1 and 2, but according to the document itself, it runs to seven pages. I have asked Bristow for a copy of the memo, but it says, no, it cannot give it to us and that it has to come from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I asked the MCA, and it said, “No, no, it is Bristow’s document, so it has to come from them.” So my first ask of the Minister is, can we please have this document put into the public domain? I know it is not his to control either, but I suspect he has a bit more influence than I do.

It is worth reading into the record what the document says about the new generation of the search and rescue service. Page 1 says:

“The UKSAR2G system is designed to deliver greater capability at a lower price”—

it is the “lower price” thing that concerns many people—

“than today’s Aerial Surveillance and Verification (ASv) and UKSAR contracts. The Rotary element will consist of: 12 bases, two more than the existing service provision...Create two new seasonal bases (Nevis and Lakes) to cover areas of high-density SAR activity”—

I am guessing that that would be for mountain rescue—and have

“18 aircraft: 9 AW189, 3 S-92, 6 AW139.”

It is on page 2 of the memorandum that we see the news that most concerns people in my constituency: it is anticipated that, under the new service, the readiness state for the helicopter based at Sumburgh, which is currently 15 minutes, is to be increased at the end of 2026 to 60 minutes. That is a significant increase in the readiness state.

Those who work in the sector and who know what they are talking about, including some who have worked in it and retired, tell me without any overstatement that this change could put lives at risk. That is why this issue must be dealt with properly; we cannot just rely on people making decisions about which the community has no prior knowledge and on which there is no meaningful consultation, and then find ourselves left without the service when we most need it.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward. He rightly said that His Majesty’s Coastguard provides 24-hour maritime and coastal search and rescue across the United Kingdom. His Majesty’s Coastguard has helicopter bases in every part of the United Kingdom apart from Northern Ireland. Although I support the right hon. Gentleman in what he is calling for, given the concerns he has raised about the waiting times, does he agree that consideration should also be given to funding a helicopter base in Northern Ireland, to ensure that there is protection from potential mountain and water incidents back home? I support him, but I also seek his support.

I think we can make a mutual support case here. As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, and it is grounded in the understanding that where communities need this service and local industries rely on it—I know from my work in the main Chamber that the hon. Gentleman has a significant fishing and maritime presence in his constituency—everybody should be given the assistance they require and nobody should be left behind.

I say again that we can only have this discussion because we now know what is being planned. If the hon. Gentleman and others were invited in to help to shape the service—bringing in the fishing industry in his constituency and other maritime interests—all these concerns could be put out and would not have to be dealt with in this way.

When I saw the proposed change, my immediate question was, where is the risk assessment? I thought that for one particular reason. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has some form in this regard. Three times in the last 13 years, it has tried to take away the emergency towing vessel stationed in my constituency. The most recent time it tried, it was asked, “Where is the risk assessment?” It turned out that no risk assessment had been done. Eventually, time was taken and the MCA had a proper independent risk assessment done, and its conclusion was that it was not an acceptable risk to remove the emergency towing vessel, which remains there to this day. Will the Minister find out from the MCA whether a risk assessment has been done? If one has been done, will it be published? If one has not been done, will he ensure that one is?

I have raised this matter at business questions and in correspondence with Ministers. I received a reply from the former Minister, Baroness Vere, on 31 October. She said:

“I have spoken with officials at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency…who confirm that the transition to the new Search and Rescue Second Generation contract…takes place over a period of two years with Inverness being the first base to go live in October 2024 and Sumburgh the final base to transition on 1 January 2027.”

It should not have been a long phone call, because the Department issued a press release to that effect on 21 July last year. That does, however, contradict the Bristow memo, which says that Stornoway will be the final base to transition, on 1 January 2027—I think Sumburgh is due to transition at the end of November 2026. Again, it would be enormously helpful if the Minister could clarify that when he replies.

Baroness Vere goes on to say:

“With regards the proposed changes to the readiness state at Sumburgh, internal information from our contractor Bristow was released in error and subsequently a redaction has been issued.”

I confess: the words are all identifiably English, but I have no idea what that sentence actually means. First, the information was not released in error. It was released, quite deliberately, by a whistleblower. It was not released by Bristow; and what

“a redaction has been issued”

is supposed to mean is anybody’s guess. It would be useful if the Minister explained what the Government’s position currently is with regard to this information, and if he could ensure that it is put into the public domain.

Baroness Vere concludes:

“The MCA is at the first stage of assessing any proposed changes, and discussions with the contractor are ongoing.”

The contract has been signed; why these discussions were not held before the contract was signed is anybody’s guess. It does not look like something that would particularly impress the Public Accounts Committee. On 10 November, I met in Shetland—in relation to other stuff—the Scotland director of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. He confirmed that the issue was being looked at again, and that it could be reopened if necessary. This is a novel approach to contract negotiation but, frankly, if at the end of the day we get to a place where my constituents, and other coastal and island communities, have the service that they need and deserve, I am not going to make too many complaints about how we got there. So has that review been carried out and who will be making the final decision?

Briefly, there are a few issues of wider concern about the contract. It is difficult, at present, to understand exactly which helicopters are going to be in service under the new contract. The Bristow memo that I have referred to speaks—on page 2, part 3, in relation to training—of a transition from the AW189, which is currently in use, to the AW139. There are also three Sikorsky helicopters—S-92s. It is believed in the industry that they are likely to be withdrawn from service; Sikorsky has apparently closed the facility that currently produces them.

It looks to me, and this is the understanding of many who currently work in the service, as if, under this new and improved contract—and there are improvements: mountain rescue is an obvious one—we are going to be relying on one type of helicopter. The service’s current resilience is due to there being more than one type of helicopter. If we are indeed going to be left with one type of helicopter, then there needs to be a plan B. We all know that occasionally accidents happen, and unforeseen design issues arise with helicopters or aeroplanes. When that happens, they are all grounded. If at some future stage—and we hope this never happens—there were to be a grounding of the AW139, and that was the only helicopter in use, where would our entire nationwide search and rescue service be left? Where is the resilience? Where is the plan B? If we were able to have an open and outward-looking consultation in the first place, we might know the answer.

The issue is not just that what is proposed is bad and dangerous—we know that—but the way in which it has been handled. If I could ask one thing of the Minister, it would be that when he goes back to his ministerial colleague who does have responsibility for this, he starts with a blank sheet of paper and says, “This has not been handled well. It is too important to be done badly, so let us have another go—and this time, let us get it right.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and congratulate him on bringing this issue before the House. It is genuinely important to his community in Shetland, which I was pleased and honoured to visit in the summer. I know Sumburgh well, because I was fogged in there for some considerable time. I got to know his constituency from going all the way to the Sullom Voe terminal to support the jobs there and, in my previous job, from visiting the jobcentre in Lerwick. I also met the amazing Shetland Community Bike Project, which the right hon. Gentleman and I both support; the lady who runs it in such an amazing way is Caroline Adamson.

Parking that to one side, for rural or coastal communities such as the right hon. Gentleman’s—likewise, my constituency in Northumberland is one of the largest in England—it matters tremendously to have air ambulance or search and rescue available. That principle is totally accepted. As he rightly identified, I am not the Minister who deals with this particular matter, which was previously dealt with by the noble Baroness Vere, but the responsibility has passed to my new Lords colleague, who will doubtless be in contact with the right hon. Gentleman on an ongoing basis.

I put on the record my thanks to my local air ambulances, and that I have raised money for them. They are a vital organisation: the Great North Air Ambulance in my part of the world is very special and I have fundraised for it. The air ambulances in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency are also exceptionally good; I know of them and have met people from them in the past.

We need to pay tribute to the amazing work done by our search and rescue services. They continue to provide a superb response, saving lives across the country, often in the most difficult circumstances. As the right hon. Gentleman so eloquently detailed, search and rescue has clearly done great work through Storms Babet, Ciarán and Debi, over the past few years. In particular, there was the incident when helicopters from Sumburgh and Humberside, along with an oil and gas helicopter, successfully rescued 45 workers from the Stena Spey on 21 October.

I want to address some of the points made in the letter of 31 October and on the ongoing situation raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. For the first part, I correct the date given in the letter of 31 October: it is not 1 January 2027, but 1 October 2026. Secondly, like him, I find interesting the comment about what a redaction of a leak is, but the blunt truth is that that is not a document that the MCA has or has seen. More particularly and importantly, it is an internal Bristow document at, I suspect, an early stage of the particular processes that we are not aware of.

It is important to understand the degree of funding here. For the first part, Government funding to the MCA has gone up over the past few years and also this is a £1.2 billion investment into search and rescue on an ongoing basis. I will set out a little of that. The Department for Transport has made huge efforts to ensure that we have a robust national network of search and rescue aircraft, with the capacity to meet the operational challenges faced by His Majesty’s Coastguard throughout the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned with Shetland, but I will give a brief overview.

An agile fleet of aircraft is not restricted to specific operational areas, but can instead be deployed across the country and it can surge according to demand. That is not simply helicopters, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly outlined; there are huge numbers of additional support, which can be provided. The award of the UK second-generation search and rescue aviation programme to the incumbent, Bristow Helicopters, was announced in July 2022. That is a further £1.6 billion investment in maintaining and enhancing our search and rescue aviation fleet for the next 10 years.

No bases are being closed in any way whatever. All the existing bases will continue to provide a 24-hour search and rescue service, as they do today. They will be supplemented by two new seasonal bases to provide enhanced support to northern England, Scotland and the coastal areas during the busy summer months from April to September.

It is always a delight to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place; we have crossed swords in an amicable way on many occasions in the past. He asked about this issue in relation to Northern Ireland. At the present stage, his community is covered by Caernarfon and Prestwick, and there is ongoing support across there. Obviously, he has his own situation—

I welcome the Minister’s understanding of that, but the point I tried to make in my intervention is that Northern Ireland needs its own. The issue is all about time whenever these things happen, and we need the response in a shorter time that what is offered. I am grateful for the response, but I suspect that it is not adequate for Northern Ireland as a whole with its population of 1.95 million.

The point is fairly made. My noble Friend in the Lords will answer him in writing and I am sure will very happily meet and discuss that with the hon. Gentleman on an ongoing basis. There is cover from a multitude of bases on an ongoing basis, and what we are dealing with here is obviously in respect of search and rescue over and above any air ambulances that operate locally.

To return to the points raised, there is also the use of fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, with fixed-wing bases being established at Newquay and Prestwick. These aircraft, which are equipped with state-of-the-art maritime search technology, are crucial in supporting search and rescue operations across the United Kingdom. There is also the introduction of the King Air B350 extended range, with which HM Coastguard will have the ability to deploy assets to the extremity of the UK search and rescue region in the mid-Atlantic. It also uses a number of technological innovations in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles and a novel communication called OneLink.

Turning to the service provision in Scotland, I want to address the key point raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland in respect of the situation going from 15 to 60 minutes. That was supposed to be the situation going forward, but I can confirm that the Department for Transport has been informed by His Majesty’s Coastguard that it has begun an analysis of the SAR incident data compiled after the UKSAR2G procurement commenced. That work has begun and is ongoing, and obviously the results will be conveyed in the future to all Members who are particular concerned by it—the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), who have raised this particular point in correspondence.

The analysis is in recognition of the fact that the UKSAR2G procurement was undertaken at a time of considerable societal and economic upheaval during the pandemic, and that may have had a lasting impact on demand for the service. There is no doubt, if one looks at the statistics—and I have the statistics—that on occasions, over the last few years, the numbers have clearly been potentially lower than they may be going forward.

In fact, the briefing given to me by the Shetland Fishermen’s Association this morning said that there had been something in the region of 180-plus call-outs of the Sumburgh-based Shetland helicopter—over what period that is, I do not know. But the issue is not just about the number of call-outs; it is about the fact that, because of where we are, we are that much further removed from other opportunities for rescue services. Also, we do get some of the worst weather in country—and not just in the form that the Minister has experienced.

I completely accept that August is the best time to visit the Shetland Isles in many respects, notwithstanding the fact that I was fogged in. The right hon. Gentleman’s point is fairly made—the further north we go, the further the weather impacts.

I want to assure the House and the right hon. Gentleman that the UKSAR2G contract terms allow for a review of any area of the service against changes in demand, technical developments or innovations, which will be done periodically. The point is that that would have been done in any event. Should the analysis in this instance indicate that amendments to the new service are required in light of changes to the demand profile, then the Department for Transport can pursue those via the appropriate contractual mechanisms and approval processes.

The review will be undertaken at the end of this year going into next year, at which time we will be happy to share the outcome with hon. Members. It will take many months, so it will not happen in the short term. I make the simple point that there will be no change to this service, in any event, for many years to come; as the title of the right hon. Gentleman’s debate on the Order Paper suggests, we are talking about the future provision. I can advise that all four current helicopter bases in Scotland will remain open, with additional fixed-wing capabilities and a seasonal base in north-west Scotland to provide additional enhancements on an ongoing basis.

The right hon. Gentleman raised other, particular points. I have answered in relation to the date and the redaction. With regard to the change in aircraft type due to take place on 1 October 2026, it is clearly the case that the introduction of the Leonardo AW189 provides a high-endurance and world-leading capability. It is proven in the search and rescue environment under our existing service. It is also comparable to the current Sikorsky S-92 —operating at both Sumburgh and Stornoway—in terms of range and speed. It is unquestionably the case that there was appropriate due diligence before it was made the helicopter of choice on an ongoing basis.

I do not believe I can add much more, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the organisation concerned will go away and work out what documentation it is able to disclose that is not sensitive to contractual matters—those, he will understand, one cannot disclose. But this is a publicly funded service, provided for all of us taxpayers and paid for by the taxpayer, and it is right and proper that there should be proper publication of all matters in relation to that. Ultimately, that will be a matter for sign-off by my noble Friend Lord Davies of Gower, the Minister who has overall control of this, but I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will disclose whatever we are able to in the circumstances. I thank him for bringing forward the debate. I take the matter very seriously and I fully understand the concerns he has raised. I commend this debate to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.