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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Rescue services to be privatised
RAF Sea King
The RAF carries out rescues using Sea King helicopters
RAF and Navy search and rescue services are to be partly privatised despite political opposition, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed.

The Joint Search and Rescue Helicopter (SAR-H) project will proceed as a Private Finance Initiative.

The Scottish National Party had warned that replacing the services could hit standards and lead to job losses.

But the MoD insisted the new set-up would be just as effective and deliver better value for the taxpayer.

The (SAR-H) project will go forward as a joint MoD and Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) PFI project.

The fact remains that the helicopters will need replacing over the next decade
Lord Drayson
Procurement Minister

Decisions regarding helicopters, basing and contact duration have yet to be taken, the MoD said.

Helicopter cover is co-ordinated from RAF Kinloss in Moray and it is provided by the RAF at Lossiemouth in Moray, and by the Royal Navy at Prestwick, Ayrshire.

At present services are operated from 12 bases around the UK by helicopters run by the RAF, Royal Navy and the MCA.

RAF Boulmer in Northumberland also covers much of south and east Scotland.

'First-class service'

Canadian-based CHC Helicopters has already been awarded the contract to run MCA operations from 2007-2012, including at Sumburgh in the Shetland Islands and Stornoway in the Western Isles.

Ministers said there would still be "a high proportion" of military air crew alongside civilian fliers under the new system, which they said would last well into the 21st Century.

Procurement Minister Lord Drayson said they would bring together the three strands of current search and rescue teams - the Navy, the RAF and the coastguard service - into one harmonised service.

He said: "We recognise that the current UK SAR Helicopter providers deliver a first-class service.

"However, the fact remains that the helicopters will need replacing over the next decade."

This is a vital service and I don't think it is the kind of thing that the private sector should be involved in
Angus Robertson
SNP MP

The SNP warned against replacing military expertise.

SNP MP for Moray Angus Robertson, whose constituency includes Lossiemouth, has put down a Commons motion demanding the plans are scrapped.

He said the privatisation of a lifeline service such as search and rescue was wrong.

"This is a cost-cutting exercise by the MoD who are cash-strapped as a result of military overstretch around the world.

"This is a vital service and I don't think it is the kind of thing that the private sector should be involved in.

"It is correct for military air crews to continue to operate the new helicopter fleet but concerns will remain about the privatisation arrangements, and the government should publish the contracts in full."


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Watch reaction to the announcement



SEE ALSO:
Search and rescue change concern
17 Apr 06 |  Scotland
Helicopter service facing change
11 Apr 06 |  Scotland
New 100m coastguard helicopters
13 Dec 05 |  Dorset


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