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Isles of Scilly: Helicopter Services

Volume 740: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure a lifeline passenger service to the Isles of Scilly following the closure of the helicopter service on 1 November 2012.

My Lords, the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, which operates the ferry and fixed-wing services, has already announced plans to increase those services to meet some of the passenger demand following the closure of the helicopter service. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr Norman Baker, has recently met, and is due to meet again, delegations including the Isles of Scilly Council to discuss transportation to and from the Isles of Scilly.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply because it marks some progress, even if the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company is now a monopoly supplier of transport services. Is he aware that during the five months between now and the beginning of next April, there will be only a small fixed-wing service of aeroplanes that are susceptible to wind and fog— for example, the service did not run yesterday? If the evidence of last winter is taken into account, the service would not run for 22 days over five months. With a population of around 2,000 people earning the fourth lowest wages in the UK and a reliance on tourism, those who use the aeroplane service have to pay £140 return. Does the noble Earl agree that in Scotland, most of the islands have both air and ferry services as lifeline services, and the fare for the equivalent distance is £25 return? Will the Government now look at a lifeline service for the Scilly Isles so as to take this forward and make the service comparable with that in Scotland?

My Lords, the noble Lord used the word “monopoly”, which implies that there can be only one operator. It is a free market and other operators can come in. We need to see how the market develops. The noble Lord also talked about the “lifeline”, which is a term generally used to describe vital transport connections between mainland and island communities. However, it carries no formal or legal status. The Government recognise that many people regard maritime passenger and freight services to the Isles of Scilly as a lifeline, and that is why we have said that we are committed to ensuring that these continue.

My Lords, are the Government aware that the cost of transport to the Isles of Scilly is four times more expensive than that from the mainland to the Scottish islands over an equivalent distance? As a result, businesses and the tourist industry in the Scilly Isles are suffering badly and are in rapid decline when compared with those industries in the Scottish islands. The total absence of a ferry service, as already mentioned, between November and March means that running a business or even leading a normal life is becoming a pretty precarious enterprise in the Scilly Isles.

My Lords, I have read carefully the report produced by the Council of the Isles of Scilly comparing transport services to the islands with those of Scotland. It is a well written report, but I would point out that the situation in Scotland is different because it involves much more complicated and wide-ranging services that cannot be operated on a commercial basis. At the moment, the service to the Isles of Scilly is operated on a commercial basis.

Perhaps I might ask the Minister whether the air ambulance service will operate in that area when the ordinary air service ceases.

As ever, my noble friend asks a very good question. There is an air ambulance service that can deal with medical emergencies. In addition, there is the search and rescue service from the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose.

My Lords, following up the point made by my noble friend Lady Trumpington about medical services, these are very important because one of the key issues that has been identified is that fixed-wing services cannot substitute for the helicopter service in terms of speed or indeed handling individuals. I understand that the cost of RNAS Culdrose offering that service is £14,000 per return trip. What provision will be made over this winter for medical emergencies, not just for individuals but for medical supplies and blood samples, so that the islands are not isolated in this key way?

My Lords, the problem we face is that we have lost the helicopter service to the Isles of Scilly for the time being. I understand that the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, which operates a fixed-wing air service, has now made arrangements with the local primary care trust to take over some of the transportation of patients and medical supplies, including blood products and samples, which were previously carried by helicopter, having secured the appropriate CAA licences. Noble Lords will recall that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, identified that there were only a few days in the year when helicopter services could go to the Isles of Scilly but fixed-wing aircraft could not.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company also operates two cargo vessels, one of which sails three times a week during the winter, and which carries a few passengers?

The noble Lord is correct. However, we must also understand that the problems of transport services to the Isles of Scilly make for increased costs for the people living on the islands, so we need a solution that is not too expensive but which meets the needs of the people on the islands.

My Lords, I was pleased to hear that the Minister has read the comparative study produced by the Council of the Isles of Scilly, which demonstrates very clearly—and factually—just how poorly the Isles of Scilly compare with the islands of Scotland. The Minister has just said that they are different. They are different because we recognise in Scotland that these services are not commercially viable and therefore the Government pay, but the Isles of Scilly is a commercial arrangement. Will the Minister consider changing the designation for the Isles of Scilly to give them the same status as that of the islands of Scotland?

My Lords, we could make a public service obligation if the market failed. The market has not yet failed. In addition, there would have to be a competitive bidding process. We do not want to interfere at this point because we want to see whether there will be a commercial solution to the problem.

My Lords, the Minister has given some encouraging news about the increase in services, but he will appreciate that the House is still greatly exercised about communication with the Scilly Isles, particularly during winter. If we find that the Scilly Isles are effectively cut off for a number of days in winter, I hope that the Minister will return to this issue and take some action.

My Lords, I assure the House that my honourable friend Mr Norman Baker takes these matters very seriously and is on the case.