DEFENCE chiefs ‘conspicuously failed’ brave RAF Boulmer search and rescue crews and the communities they protect, north Northumberland MP Sir Alan Beith has told a Parliamentary hearing.
Speaking in a members’ debate on Tuesday, the veteran Berwick Liberal Democrat laid into the private finance initiative (PFI) launched by the previous Labour government to hand over operations to a civilian consortium.
On December 16, the day the £6billion contract was due to be signed off to preferred bidder Soteria, Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond called a halt after irregularities were discovered in the bidding process.
And in February, the PFI was scrapped by the Government amid a full investigation by police and the Ministry of Defence.
It now leaves questions hanging over how to continue search and rescue operations with the RAF’s ageing Sea King helicopters, which were due to be completely retired from service by 2016. Under the PFI, the first state-of-the-art Sikorsky S-92s would have arrived next year, increasing the range and speed at which rescues could be attended.
That won’t now happen, leaving the Sea Kings – which are frequently beset by mechanical problems – to carry out the role for the foreseeable future.
Sir Alan, who called the debate in Westminster Hall, said: “Overall, it is an awful business. We will know fully when the investigations are completed, but it approaches what we could call a scandal.
“Courageous and skilled aircrew have been let down by the inadequacy of the Ministry of Defence procurement process and the way in which it was carried out. The challenge for the Department for Transport is to carry out the task rather better than the MoD, which has conspicuously failed.”
Sir Alan said that what few options remained must now be fully explored, including the possibility of extending the operational life of the existing Sea King fleet or even leasing new helicopters from the private sector on short-term contracts.
But he added that grave concerns over potential cuts to cover provided by bases such as RAF Boulmer, from 24-hour to 12, as well as shared cover between stations hundreds of miles apart, must also be addressed. And in the case of aircrews, their families and communities which relied on the RAF, he said the uncertainties must be resolved sooner rather than later.
He added: “The timescale now is short and demanding.
“Can the Department do it?
“How will it do it and what assurances can the Minister give to those employed in, or dependent on, search and rescue that they will have satisfactory continuity arrangements over a reasonably short time and that a new system will be put in place in which the public can have confidence?”
Responding, transport minister Mike Penning said his department would be leading the review and confirmed that the Secretary of State for Defence had already been in touch with Westland to discuss extending the life of the Sea King up to 2016.
Describing the current situation as a “blank page”, he said: “We are conscious that there are concerns, and we as a Government are concerned. In a perfect world, this would never have happened. But we do not live in a perfect world and, sadly, an anomaly has occurred with the procurement programme that has created real concerns and legal ramifications.
“A huge amount of taxpayers’ money has been expended on the procurement programme and we will be looking to recoup it, as it is not the fault of taxpayers or the Department for Transport.
“To be fair, the MoD, which was criticised earlier, could not have predicted that the persons involved would do what they did. I know that there are concerns about the MoD’s procurement programme—that is for the MoD to address—but the criticism that the MoD is to blame for what happened might not be right. Individuals are responsible, rather than the MoD.”
He added: “ As soon as we know more, we will say more, and we will be as open as we can throughout the procedure. However, at the end of the day, we are where we are. We will sort this mess out and ensure that the public are safe and that air-sea rescue is protected, as we all expect it to be, and cover is provided.”