Westminster accused of ‘misleading’ over privatisation of search and rescue services

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  By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP’s defence spokesperson Angus Robertson MP has slammed the privatisation of military helicopter search and rescue services as ‘misguided’ and accused the Department of Transport of ‘misleading’ him about the changes in Scotland.

It was announced on Tuesday that the service is to be privatised with the Bristow Group winning a 10-year £1.6bn contract to run the service from 2015, ending 70 years of search and rescue from the RAF and Royal Navy.

At present the RAF operates search and rescue services from RAF Lossiemouth in Moray and the Royal Navy from HMS Gannet in Ayrshire.

The £1.6bn contract with the Bristow Group will see 22 new helicopters operating from bases on call 24 hours a day, the UK Government says.

Bristow will base two Sikorsky S92s at Stornoway and another two Sumburgh, with a further six based in Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports.  Two Agusta Westland AW189s will operate from Prestwick, and another two at Lee on Solent.  New bases which will be established at airports at St Athan in south Wales, Inverness and Manston, Kent.

Fears have been raised that the new helicopters have a smaller carrying capacity than the Sea-Kings used by the RAF, which may potentially cause problems should a large number of people have to be evacuated from sea.  Search and rescue personnel are reportedly “very apprehensive” about the effects of privatisation.

Mike Imlach, managing director of Bristow, said: “The award of this contract is a great success for Bristow Helicopters Ltd and a huge endorsement of our reputation for excellence in search and rescue.

“In Scotland we will be operating from existing bases at Sumburgh and Stornoway and new facilities at Inverness and Prestwick.”

He added: “We will be introducing new, hi-tech helicopters to the UK, equipped with the latest search and rescue technology, resulting in unprecedented levels and quality of SAR coverage across the country. The existing expertise and local SAR knowledge is immensely valuable and we will ensure that this is not lost.”

However the privatisation was condemned by Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, who said:

“We are deeply concerned that the privatisation of search and rescue, tied in with a programme of cuts including the loss of helicopter and Coastguard capacity, will have a seriously detrimental impact on these life-or-death services in British waters.

“The Government have not produced a shred of evidence that safety is paramount and this looks to us like another privatisation policy driven by both ideology and the central demand to cut budgets. The bottom line for us is that those cuts could cost lives and put our members directly at risk.”

Commenting, Westminster SNP Leader and Defence spokesman Angus Robertson MP said:

“The privatisation of military helicopter search and rescue services is misguided. It will end the role of military aircrew from these life-saving flights which is a bad move. The public has come to trust and value the military search and rescue service and this privatisation is wrong.

“Additionally, the Department of Transport misled me about changes to helicopter flights which currently operate from RAF Lossiemouth. As the constituency MP I was told by a UK Government Minister that the only change was to be in provider and with new helicopters. It turns out I was misled, and the operations will in fact end completely.

“Lossiemouth is home to ‘D’ Flight 202 Squadron whose yellow Sea King helicopters have saved scores of lives. I am very sorry that they will not be allowed to continue to provide their much appreciated services.

“This is just the latest UK Government announcement which diminishes the defence footprint in Scotland. Only this week the UK Government announced the closure of RAF Prestwick and a u-turn on the basing of fast jets which will now operate in Norfolk rather than Moray as promised.

“Westminster cannot be trusted to make the correct defence and security decisions for Scotland which is why we need to vote ‘Yes’ in the 2014 independence referendum.”

The decision follows yesterday’s shock announcement by the UK Ministry of Defence, of its intention to renege on a previous commitment to station the RAF’s newest aircraft at the Morayshire base.

The ministry had originally promised to base up to 150 Joint Strike aircraft at Lossiemouth.  However the MoD has now said that the aircraft will instead be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk even though defence experts had previously judged Lossiemouth to be the optimal site.