Search-and-rescue plans unveiled

Peter Woodman,Pa
Monday 11 July 2011 15:03 BST

Plans to keep search-and-rescue helicopter services going at four key centres were announced by the Government today.

The existing Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) contract is set to expire at bases at Portland in Dorset, Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire and at Shetland and the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said today that the Department for Transport would shortly run a competition to procure an interim service at the bases for a period of up to five years.

He added that this contract would be similar to the arrangements currently in place for the bases.

Today's move follows Mr Hammond's announcement in February this year that the Government was halting a £6 billion procurement programme for search-and-rescue helicopters because the preferred bidder had admitted it had access to commercially sensitive information.

Under the privatisation plans, preferred bidder Soteria would have provided US Sikorsky helicopters to fly search-and-rescue missions from 12 bases, including ones operated by the Royal Navy and the RAF.

The Sikorsky aircraft would replace the Sea King helicopters which the Ministry of Defence plans to withdraw from service in 2016.

Mr Hammond said today that the RAF and Navy operations would continue while consideration was given "to the long-term provision of search-and-rescue helicopter capability".

He said he would announce the Government's long-term intentions later in the year.

Meanwhile, the Government is expected to announce shortly that it is watering down plans for big cutbacks in the coastguard service.

Originally, the Government proposed that the number of coastguard centres be reduced from 18 to eight, with only three remaining open 24 hours a day.

But it is believed that the Government will soon say that 11 coastguard stations will be kept on and that all these remaining stations will be 24-hour operational.

Job losses are expected to be fewer than the 250 originally planned.

The original proposals were criticised in a recent report by the House of Commons Transport Committee, which said that evidence it had received during its inquiry into coastguards had raised "serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed".

Committee chairman Louise Ellman said the coastguard proposals were "seriously flawed" and there was little support for them.

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