HC Deb 27 October 1992 vol 212 cc986-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

11.20 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I am grateful for the chance to raise during this short debate a matter which causes considerable anxiety to me and to my constituents —the provision of civilian search and rescue services covering the North Foreland and Dover strait.

I should make it plain that the airfield at Manston, known jointly as RAF Manston and Kent international airport, to which I shall refer, lies mainly in the constituency of my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). My hon. Friend the Minister will understand that my hon. Friend's position as a Minister of State bars him by parliamentary convention from raising the issue on the Adjournment. But he is in his place on the Bench tonight and I hope that I shall speak for us both and for his constituents too.

The anxieties that I shall voice are echoed by my hon. Friends the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)—who represents the coastal town of Whitstable with its fishing fleet—and for Faversham (Mr. Moate)—who has the major port of Sheerness in his care. I am also aware of the anxieties expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), who is with us tonight.

The Dover strait, the North Foreland and the Goodwin sands, together with the north Kent approaches to the Medway and the Thames estuary, constitute the busiest and one of the most hazardous sea lanes in the world. A mariner friend of mine has described the almost continuous cross-channel, small craft traffic as like children running backwards and forwards across a motorway. That mix of pleasure traffic, ferry traffic—about 200 crossings a day—and commercial shipping travelling to and from the great seaports of northern Europe is a series of accidents waiting to happen.

Added to the cocktail of potential disaster are the many holidaymakers who, throughout the season, find themselves in trouble on sailboards, airbeds, rubber dinghies and the like. Much of the rescue has been met, and will continue to be met, by the extraordinarily courageous volunteer work of the crews of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the now modern lifeboats which it mans for both inshore and deep-sea purposes.

There is another need which can be met only by the search and rescue helicopter service. For example, the Royal Air Force search and rescue team from Manston airfield was first on the scene when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized. Civilians are alive today who owe their lives to the speed of that response. The search and rescue service from Manston has flown Kent county's firefighters to ships burning in the channel to remove casualties and fly them direct to Thanet district hospital and to put in fire-fighting teams in time to prevent small fires from turning into disasters.

Kent county fire service has about 100 officers who are trained specifically to fight fires at sea. In recent years, those men have attended many incidents on board ships in the waters off the North Foreland and the Dover strait.

According to the Kent fire brigade offshore operations team manual, those incidents began back in May 1965 when The Pakistani Freighter Yousef Baksh was on fire and in danger of sinking. She was beached in Sandwich Bay. Reconnaissance was carried out by Kent Fire Brigade Officers using a helicopter from Manston who also provided transport for firefighters. In the years that followed, major fire incidents attended with helicopter support include the Birkland, the Skyron, the Seafreight Freeway, the European Trader, the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Sally Star ferry and in June this year, the Bow Cedar. The fire service has also worked with the helicopter service to provide cliff rescues—an average of four a month during the summer—and now has equipment stores at Manston that include breathing apparatus, water and foam fire fighting equipment, rescue kit, and lighting and damage control supplies. There is also a fire service Manston liaison officer.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the fishermen off Hastings and Rye and the sailors in those waters are looking forward to enjoying the same sort of service, with a speedy response at the same amount of search time and the back up service that they are used to. I hope that my hon. Friend will make those points.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. We cannot have one intervention on another. The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) must respond to the first intervention before allowing another.

Mr. Gale

I appreciate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye. I could not agree more with every point that she made, and I shall elaborate on some of those in a moment.

Mr. Shaw

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Many of our constituents obtain work on, and enjoy the use of ferries between Dover and Calais. Is it not vital that the Minister assures us that there will be no compromising of safety standards, and that the efficiency of the rescue service will be maintained?

Mr. Gale

Both my hon. Friends are entirely correct, and have reinforced the points that I shall make tonight.

It has been the combination of airborne and water-borne rescue services that has, in the past, proved so successful and is so much appreciated by our constituents. Let me briefly review the history of helicopter search and rescue in east Kent. In the early days—in 1961—the RAF flew a single Whirlwind helicopter from Manston. In 1969, the RAF service was replaced by the civilian firm, Bristow, acting under contract for the coastguard service. The civilian service operated by Bristow, using mainly ex-RAF personnel, won the company the coastguard rescue shield in 1972.

Shortly afterwards, the RAF reinstated Wessex helicopters to meet a perceived military aviation need at Manston and it may not surprise hon. Members to hear that there was a public outcry at the loss of the award-winning civilian service. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South—then Thanet, East—has been good enough to remind me that he instigated an Adjournment debate, of which this one is almost the mirror image, to protest at the withdrawal of the Bristow contract.

During that debate, my hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force had said in a letter that there was no direct service requirement to locate a helicopter at Manston". Concluding his speech, my hon. Friend said prophetically: there is above all the fear that these RAF helicopters will again be withdrawn … as they were in 1969 … Therefore, in the interests of all the yachtsmen, swimmers, and shipping traffic of the Channel I urge the Minister to reconsider his decision and to leave the excellent helicopter service in the situation where it now is". Replying, the then Under-Secretary of State for Trade was unable to give an undertaking that there would not come a time when the RAF service would be withdrawn but said that in that unlikely event it would provide us with sufficient notice to enable a satisfactory alternative service to be put into operation".—[Official Report. 23 July 1974; Vol. 877, c. 1523–29.] The decision was taken, the RAF replaced Bristow and in 1988 the Wessex helicopters were replaced with Sea Kings.

Over that period of 30 years, the helicopter search and rescue service has responded to over 3,000 calls, and since the advent of serious rescue flying over the sea, the Dover strait and the North Foreland have not been without swift helicopter cover. On this basis, and remembering the comments of the Under-Secretary in 1974 concerning the need for sufficient notice to be given to provide adequate alternative cover, my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South and I first made representations to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces who has, with the Secretary of State for Defence, listened courteously to our opinions and carried out a thorough review of the military need in the area. It has, sadly, become clear that the military need is greater to the north, serving the air stations of East Anglia, and to the west, where there is a concentration of military and, particularly, naval, flying, than in the Dover strait area.

In the past year, there have been three military callouts from RAF Manston. Two of those were airlifts—which means the evacuation of personnel on compassionate grounds—and one was recalled. None involved searches. In the previous four years, the pattern was not dissimilar. In 1991, military callouts involved one medical rescue, one medical evacuation, one airlift, two searches and two not required or false alarms. In 1990, there were fewer military callouts and only one search, one search in 1989, two searches in 1988 and no military searches in 1987.

Given the enhanced range of the Sea King helicopter, its night flying capacity and load-carrying ability, coupled with the sophisticated survival equipment carried by military personnel, it is clear that the decision to relocate the military search and rescue flights to cover faster the areas of greatest military need was inevitable.

My hon. Friends will join me in paying tribute to the courage and determination shown by the RAF search and rescue service. Many of the pilots and crews are our personal friends. We have grown accustomed to them—perhaps even taken them for granted—and we are relieved to know that the sight of the familiar yellow and green helicopters will not be lost to the north Kent coast, either on patrol from Wattisham or for the many ceremonial purposes at which their company has been enormously appreciated and enjoyed. It is comforting to know that, from their new base, they will be only 40 minutes flying time away.

While 40 minutes is not great duration for a military flier equipped to survive in a winter sea for some hours, and while it is well within the one-hour response time laid down in civilian regulatory requirements it is, as we know, far too long for the child swept out to sea on a Li-Lo or the winter sailboarder who, albeit experienced and well-equipped, has suffered injury. Forty minutes is also time for a fire to take hold, to burn fiercely and to take lives. In an extra 20 minutes flying time, some of those rescued from the Herald of Free Enterprise would not today be alive. The extra delay may, I fear, cost lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South and I visited my noble Friend Lord Caithness, who has responsibility for the coastguard service, some weeks ago to raise this issue and to express our firm belief that the RAF service must be replaced by a civilian helicopter service designed and equipped to meet a civilian need.

Consider the figures again. In 1987, there were 117 civilian callouts from Manston involving 45 searches, 25 medical rescues, three medical evacuations and seven flights providing top cover for other rescue services. In 1988, the civilian callout number rose to 144 with 38 searches, 20 rescues and 24 medical evacuations. In 1989 there was another increase, with 157 civilian calls, 35 searches and 23 medical rescues. In 1990, there were 175 callouts for civilian purposes, involving 52 searches, 16 medical evacuations and 26 rescues. In 1991, there were 141 callouts involving 42 searches, 28 medical rescues and 13 ordinary rescues. So far this year, there have been 127 callouts, 40 searches and 18 medical rescues.

The figures speak for themselves. While the military need has fallen and can be well met from the new deployment of resources, the civilian need shows no sign of decreasing. I believe—I have to say it—that the combination of lifeboat and RAF search and rescue services from Wattisham will, on occasion, be insufficient to meet our needs. I cannot believe that the Minister is prepared to risk the life of one child or one sailor for the sake of providing, once again, civilian helicopter cover from Manston. The facilities are there and have recently been modernised. The precedent is there: civilian helicopters have flown from Manston for the coastguard service in the past and are currently flying from Lee-on-Solent. Above all, the need is there.

Earlier this evening, on TV South, my noble Friend Lord Caithness said that of some 900 incidents attended this year, 127 had involved the use of a helicopter. I am sure that, on reflection, Lord Caithness would not wish to suggest that in some way those 127 incidents did not matter—of course they mattered—or that for those 127 incidents the helicopters, and not other services, was needed to save lives.

I do not want to have to rise in this House to ask any Minister to answer a private notice question following an avoidable death off the North Foreland or in the channel arising from the failure to provide civilian search and rescue services from Manston. However, I know with an awesome certainty that, unless my hon. Friend the Minister and his noble Friend offer a positive response, the likelihood of my having to do so will be very great. I urge my hon. Friend to take this case away and analyse it carefully. No decisions concerning civilian provision have yet been made. No political colours have been nailed to the mast and no reputations are on the line. My hon. Friend and my noble Friend will earn many people's gratitude if they provide at Manston the civilian services available from Lee-on-Solent. In all conscience, they can do no less.

11.34 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) on having secured this debate on such an important subject. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement in his place, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I appreciate the importance which they all attach to the debate, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) are also concerned.

The United Kingdom is very fortunate indeed to have a large and highly capable military helicopter fleet dedicated to search and rescue and which will, I am confident, continue to give good coverage around the whole of our coastline. Those helicopters are, however, provided by the Ministry of Defence to meet a military requirement and, although they are an invaluable asset, they are just one of a range of search and rescue resources available within the United Kingdom. My hon. Friends will doubtless know of the announcement made last week by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. Copies of the open government document entitled "The Future Provision of Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Helicopters" are in the Library.

The Department of Transport is responsible for civil maritime and aeronautical search and rescue and, through Her Majesty's Coastguard, it meets the United Kingdom's obligations to provide an adequate level of SAR services for persons in distress within the United Kingdom's search and rescue region. We have at our disposal an armoury of SAR assets, which includes RAF, naval and coastguard helicopters, all-weather and fast inshore lifeboats of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and Coastguard response teams. SAR capability must be assessed taking all those available assets into account, not just helicopters. It is the job of the coastguard, as co-ordinator of search and rescue, to call on the best assets available to deal with any particular incident.

There is no international obligation to provide a civil helicopter rescue service. This country is the only one in Europe to have dedicated SAR helicopters positioned to meet national coverage criteria. These criteria were established in 1986 by the helicopter coverage group of the United Kingdom SAR committee, which recommended that helicopters should be deployed so that points 40 nautical miles from the coast can be reached within one hour by day, and those at 100 nautical miles from the coast can be reached within two hours by night or in bad weather. Those response times include an allowance for scrambling times of 15 minutes by day and 45 minutes at night. I am advised that, in practice, helicopters are regularly scrambled within three minutes, so there is a large allowance within that formal limit of one hour.

The recent review to which I referred and the announcement that flowed from it are a matter for the Ministry of Defence. My hon. Friend, as PPS to the Minister responsible, is in an interesting position. With his customary assiduity, he will be well aware of the contents. As he said, the number of RAF helicopters was determined by the military requirement. The effects on the provision of civil SAR were taken into account by the Ministry of Defence in the new dispositions of those helicopters to satisfy the civil requirement. The Department of Transport was consulted and my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping was satisfied that the rationalisation of helicopter deployment met the helicopter coverage group criteria for civil SAR —except for those very small additional areas marked on annex C of the open government document. lit also maintained adequate response times around the whole coast. Changes to the basing structure meant that on some parts of the coast the response times would be reduced. At other places they would be increased, but they will still be within the agreed criteria. I know that my hon. Friends are seeking that assurance.

It was decided that the criteria in south-east England could be met by a helicopter flight at Wattisham in Suffolk. That means that for certain areas around the Kent coast and in the English channel which are currently covered from RAF Manston there will be increased helicopter transit times. But we are satisfied that the Sea Kings at Wattisham will be available to respond to incidents in these areas within the response times recommended by the coverage group.

I can also appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye. The response time in her constituency by the Manston helicopter now would be about 30 minutes. In future, helicopters from either Lee on Solent or Wattisham will take 15 to 25 minutes longer, depending on the precise location of the casualty. But I stress that this is still within the one-hour daytime criterion. I have to acknowledge that there is a small area in mid-channel, south of the Dover strait, which is outside the one-hour daytime criterion. But because, as I have said, helicopters are almost always airborne well within the 15-minute standby time, in this area too the rescue helicopter would be on station well within the hour.

The North Foreland and Dover strait—of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover—are extremely well served by lifeboats, with fast inshore boats stationed at Whitstable, Margate, Ramsgate and Walmer, and large all-weather boats at Margate, Ramsgate and Dover. Further to the west, in or adjacent to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye, there are lifeboats at Dungeness, Rye, Hastings and Eastbourne. As most incidents occur within two to three miles of the coast—my hon. Friend referred to people who drift out to sea on small craft—they will continue to be effectively resolved, as always, using a mix of national SAR assets, including these lifeboats and the helicopters from Wattisham and Lee on Solent. In the Dover coastguard district there are also 10 auxiliary coastguard response teams which are trained and equipped to locate and rescue casualties on the shore or on cliffs. There are similar teams around the whole coastline.

It should be noted that, during 1991, the Manston aircraft was tasked by HM Coastguard on 127 occasions. My hon. Friend said that Lord Caithness used that very statistic. Only about 10 per cent. of those were actual rescues—13 in all. The balance included search operations, the lifting of injured people from ships, medical transfers between hospitals and so on. So although helicopters are an important asset, they are not the only SAR resource available. The total number of incidents in the Dover region over the same period was 876, of which the vast majority—more than 700—were dealt with without recourse to helicopters.

In the rare event of an incident occurring in the middle of the Dover strait or near the median line, or of a major incident elsewhere in the Dover region, the most suitable assets will be used, whether national or requested from adjacent foreign search and rescue regions. This is in line with accepted SAR practice with other European authorities. The recent incident when a fire disabled the French ferry Quiberon served to demonstrate the effectiveness of cross-border liaison arrangements. Even though the vessel was in French waters, the Ministry of Defence brought a great number of aircraft to readiness. But occasions on which we would need to call upon the French authorities or the Belgians to provide a helicopter to deal with a casualty in our waters would be very rare. I am advised that none of the incidents dealt with by the Manston helicopter last year would have needed the Belgian helicopter had the Manston one not been available. On the basis of past records, it is not expected that the removal of the Manston helicopter will increase the load on any other resources, including Belgian or French resources, for example.

For the future, I am pleased to see the progress made by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in developing its next generation of fast-afloat lifeboats and welcome its stated intention to give priority to the early allocation of these new fast boats in the areas affected by the change in helicopter deployment. The first of three of these boats for Kent should be on station within a few months of the departure of the Manston helicopter.

It has been suggested that an extra helicopter—effectively, a coastguard helicopter—should be put at Manston, like the one at Lee-on-Solent. Our judgment is that it would be difficult to justify that allocation with the limited search and rescue benefits that it would bring. We have considered but rejected alternative arrangements to enhance cover by diverting helicopters from existing bases and having them travel to and from Manston each day. The relocation of the coastguard helicopter from its present base at Solent to a point further east would denude the night cover from the west of the Solent, as the Royal Navy helicopter at Portland does not have full night or all weather capability. The present base is best to maintain coverage of the south coast and mid channel under the 1986 criteria, even after the removal of the Manston helicopter.

Although there will undoubtedly be a change in the make-up of search and rescue resources available to respond to incidents off the Kent coast and in the Dover strait, we have and will maintain a versatile and highly professional search and rescue capability both in those areas and around the entire coast of the United Kingdom. I well understand the concern that has been expressed extremely forcefully this evening. My hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury and for Hastings and Rye have emphasised that concern. I could never predict what might happen on individual occasions or in individual incidents, but I know that my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State, Lord Caithness, when considering the adequacy of the alternatives, was clear that, as far as was reasonably possible, the criteria that we are required to refer to would be adhered to.

Mr. David Shaw

Is my hon. Friend able to give us an assurance that he will keep the decision carefully monitored and under review, and therefore ensure that we can feel confident about the future security of the rescue service?

Mr. Norris

I shall ensure that the position is kept under close review. I shall draw the attention of my noble Friend the Minister of State to this debate tomorrow morning. I know that he will be extremely interested in the outcome of it.

I make two final points. The first one is obvious, but it is worth making. It is that the first line of defence against disaster at sea must always be mariners themselves. The sensible user of the sea will always attend first and foremost to his own safety. He will know his own limitations and those of his craft. He will ensure that the vessel is seaworthy and well equipped and that its engine is in good order. He will listen to the weather forecast and have appropriate safety equipment on board, including life jackets and life rafts. Every time a helicopter or a lifeboat is launched on a rescue mission, the crews are risking their lives. The number of rescue missions could certainly be reduced if seagoers acted sensibly and prudently.

Finally, I know that the House would not wish to conclude a debate on search and rescue without paying tribute to the tireless efforts of the RNLI to provide for these islands a first-class lifeboat service, using both fast inshore and rugged all-weather boats offshore. As we all know, the institution is financed entirely by donations. We know also that the lifeboat crews are all volunteers. The organisation's sheer professionalism and its crews' high standards of seamanship are legendary, and I salute them. With these lifeboats, with the various helicopters and with the coastguard service, we have a potent and highly successful rescue service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.