HC Deb 26 January 1988 vol 126 cc156-8
5. Mr. Nellist

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement concerning the future of the RAF air/sea rescue service.

Mr. Freeman

As I told the House on 28 October last year, my Department has been studying proposals from Bristow Helicopters Ltd., under which the military search and rescue service in the United Kingdom would be put out to civilian contract. We have also been reviewing the deployment of Royal Navy and Royal Air Force helicopters, to ensure that we are deploying these assets as efficiently as possible and providing satisfactory levels of search and rescue coverage around our coastline —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot have exchanges of this kind across the Chamber.

Mr. Freeman

These are very detailed and complex studies and I am not yet able to tell the House the outcome. I hope to be able to do so shortly.

Mr. Nellist

Is the Minister aware of the widespread opposition that there would be around the coast of this country if this stupid proposal to privatise air and sea rescue services were more widely known? An injured climber or seafarer in distress knows that an RAF pilot will continue to search until he is found and will not have one eye on the fuel gauge to count the cost. Ought not the issue of saving lives to be excluded from consideration of whether there is a profit in it for the potential private concern, such as Bristow?

Mr. Freeman

The proposal was put to us by Bristow; it was not sought by the Ministry of Defence. We have an obligation to the taxpayer to examine the proposal seriously. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Bristow runs two search and rescue facilities in the north of Scotland, and they operate safely, effectively and efficiently.

Mr. Harris

While rejecting completely the tone and attitude taken by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), may I nevertheless express my scepticism about any privatisation of the air and sea rescue service for the south-west? In my constituency we have RNAS Culdrose, the biggest helicopter base in western Europe. It seems nonsense to privatise the service in that area while that facility remains there.

Mr. Freeman

Perhaps I could remind my hon. Friend that while military search and rescue helicopters are primarily to serve military need, they also provide about 90 per cent. of the call-outs for civilian rescue. However, my responsibility, and that of my right hon. Friend and other Ministers, is to ensure first and foremost that our military assets are deployed correctly, and we shall judge Bristow's proposal against that background.

Mr. Heffer

Is it not clear that taxpayers are not arguing for any change? This is merely an ideological aberration on the part of the Conservative Front Bench. Is it not time that the Government put the interests of the mass of the people before the profits of a few who are their friends?

Mr. Freeman

No, this is not an ideological aberration on the Front Bench. We are carrying out our duty to the House and to taxpayers in examining an unsolicited proposal from Bristow Helicopters in order to establish whether civilian and military search and rescue can be conducted more cheaply.

We are well aware of the great value of the military search and rescue helicopters in terms of training, and of the excellent service that they perform indirectly for the civilian community. We shall not lose sight of those valuable contributions.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the grave concern in Pembrokeshire that RAF Brawdy may lose its search and rescue detachment, which would leave a large part of the coast denuded of instant cover? Will he also bear in mind that any private operator might be subjected to strike action, which service discipline, of course, precludes?

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend's last point is certainly right— that is a risk with any private contractor—but as I said last October in the defence debate, besides the Bristow proposal, we are also studying the redeployment of our military search and rescue facilities to ensure that we have the best possible cover around our coastline. I can assure my hon. Friend that any changes in our military deployment — if, indeed, they take place — will ensure that the interests of his constituents, like those of all other hon. Members, will be properly looked after.

Mr. Rogers

Does the Minister accept that cost and competence cannot be the only factors to be taken into account when arriving at a decision? Is it not a fact that air-sea rescue is a military service, that it has a war role, that it is important in service training, and that rescuing civilians is simply a bonus that the services provide for the taxpayer? Does he further accept that if the Government decide to privatise air-sea rescue they will be sacrificing the long-term interests of the services for short-term expediency?

Mr. Freeman

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. The military search and rescue service provided around this country, in conjunction with Bristow in two places in the north of Scotland, is a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Transport. In any changes we make, whether in the contractorisation route or the deployment route, we shall work closely with the Department of Transport.

Mr. Churchill

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the excellent search and rescue service provided by Royal Air Force helicopters to civilians represents excellent and important training for the services? Will he also confirm that he will not accept any unnecessary duplication that may arise if we were to go ahead with a scheme for privatisation while it is still incumbent on the RAF to maintain a capability of its own?

Mr. Freeman

I agree with my hon. Friend. At base, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force helicopters, in the search and rescue capacity, have to provide a military service. The training that the pilots and aircrew receive was valuable in the Falklands conflict.