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7 Jun 2006 : Column 141WH—continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.59 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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