HC Deb 24 November 1992 vol 214 cc726-7
4. Mr. Ainger

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions his Department has had with the Helicopter Coverage Group since October 1986.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

The group has met twice since October 1986, in February and June 1987. My Department was represented on both occasions.

Mr. Ainger

Will the Minister accept that in the 1986 report on helicopter coverage minimum criteria were set for response times as well as for the number of search and rescue helicopters and the number of search and rescue bases? Does he accept that his announcement on 21 October, to close Brawdy, Coltishall, Leuchars and Manston, means that there is a reduction in the number of search and rescue helicopters available, a reduction in the number of search and rescue bases and an increase in response times? Will he ask the Helicopter Coverage Group to re-examine its announcement of 21 October and make a recommendation?

Mr. Hamilton

No; that will not be necessary because, although it is clear that the announced changes mean that there will be a reduction in the number of helicopters, there will be no reduction in the civil criteria which we were asked to meet by the Helicopter Coverage Group. We are abiding by those criteria, which mean that helicopters will be able to get to any incident within 40 nautical miles of the coast within an hour during daylight hours. Those are the criteria that were laid down, and we are maintaining them.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's argument is about the criteria. If we were to have double the number of helicopter bases, I have no doubt that we could shorten the time to half an hour. But the criteria laid down is 40 nautical miles, and we are abiding by that.

Mr. Ian Bruce

My right hon. Friend will know that the current proposals being examined by the Ministry of Defence to move flag officer sea training will have implications for the placing of two Sea King helicopters on constant alert during daylight hours at Portland. When those helicopters are based at Plymouth rather than Portland, what will happen to the 100 or so people a year who are rescued by the facility?

Mr. Hamilton

As I have already said, we are fulfilling the civil criteria on coverage around the whole coast. We are continuing to meet the criteria with the changes that we have made. Therefore, as with any of the rescues that were carried out from Portland, I do not believe that there will be any risk that rescues from Plymouth will not be covered by the existing civil criteria.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

If the helicopters referred to in the question are to play their full part in NATO's rapid response force, they will need a landing platform helicopter vessel from which to fly. Why are the Government so tardy about making an announcement on the procurement of that landing platform helicopter? The Public Accounts Committee has already condemned the Minister's Department for not bringing its procurement programme into line with the needs of its major suppliers. When will the Minister address that issue and make an announcement about the procurement of the LPH?

Mr. Hamilton

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the LPH has nothing to do with search and rescue helicopters, which are covered by the Helicopter Coverage Group. If the hon. Gentleman is asking about the order for the LPH, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has already explained that we have called for tenders. We expect to be able to make a decision shortly.

Mr. Bill Walker

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the popularity of the search and rescue unit at Leuchars in Fife, especially among the four regional councils that are affected by the rescues. The majority of the rescues that are carried out are civilian rescues and it seems odd that those councils were unwilling to meet my right hon. and learned Friend to discuss ways for them to find finance to retain that popular search and rescue unit.

Mr. Hamilton

As we made clear in the document, RAF Lossiemouth gives adequate cover under the civil requirements for search and rescue which cover the Leuchars area. If any local authority regards it as a good way of spending charge payers' money to pay for the civil requirements, it is more than entitled to do so.