THE fight is on to save the Portland helicopter after an influential Parliamentary committee urged a government rethink.
The Transport Select Committee has expressed concerns that consultation was not done before it was announced the life-saving service would be axed.
Portland’s helicopter faces the axe in 2017 under government plans.
In the new twist to the campaign to save the aircraft, the committee has expressed concern that those affected by the changes were not consulted and raising questions about the helicopter procurement.
The development comes after South Dorset MP Richard Drax appeared before the cross party committee at the Houses of Parliament to fight the helicopter’s case on Monday November 5.
The Transport Select Committee has written to the Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin saying it was ‘surprised and disappointed’ by the government’s failure to consult the public about closure of Portland and RAF Boulmer in Northumberland.
The committee is urging the government to consult with the public about the closures following concerns that axing the helicopter could lead to slower response times and increased fatalities in the areas affected.
Committee chairman Louise Ellman MP said: "People rightly expect that the government will listen to their views and concerns, taking them into account before major decisions are reached.
“This has not happened with the planned closure of the helicopter bases at RAF Boulmer and Portland, despite compelling arguments that these closures may cost lives.
“It is not too late for the Government to consult and, if necessary, to change their proposals before the new contract is let."
A number of questions are also posed to the government in the letter including detailed questions about the new contract for the helicopters and procurement, the usage of the Portland helicopter and modelling of the effect on response times of closing the Portland base.
The letter asks for information about the number of times Portland helicopter and Lee-on-Solent helicopter had been tasked at the same time so that it can be gauged ‘how often under the proposed new arrangements it is likely that a helicopter from further afield will be required to attend an incident off the South Coast?’ In continues: “In addition the important role played by these helicopters in supporting other services, such as the air ambulances, does not seem to have been taken into account.”
The letter ends by urging the Secretary of State to ‘listen to the views of people affected by the proposed closures.’ The committee comprises MPs from different parties and is charged with scrutinising the Department for Transport.
MP RICHARD DRAX WELCOMES LETTER
SOUTH Dorset MP Richard Drax welcomed the letter and urged government ministers to come to Dorset to consult with rescuers.
Mr Drax, working together with a team including Dr Ian Mew, submitted a 12-page report to the committee and was asked to give evidence earlier this month.
Mr Drax welcomed the letter, he said: “What’s great is that it is so strong.
“It’s really re-assuring, at last hopefully someone will listen.”
He added: “I think it underlines what we have said all along, an independent group of people has looked at the evidence, as we have, and concluded what we have: that if this helicopter goes people are likely to die.”
Mr Drax will be meeting the Under Secretary of State for Transport Stephen Hammond in the next few weeks and he said he would urge the minister to come down to Dorset and talk to people including the RNLI, coastguards, Coastwatch, the RYA and those involved in shipping.
Mr Drax is now redoubling calls for people to sign up to the epetition to save the helicopter.
He said: “I think the pressure is mounting and the government will have to listen to the fantastic support we have got.
“The more pressure we can impose the more likely we are to get our way.”
Mr Drax thanked everyone who had helped with the report and supported the campaign.
SIGN UP TO EPETITION
CAMPAIGNERS are urging people to sign up to both a paper petition and an epetition to save the helicopter.
If the petition can reach 100,000 signatures then a debate could be triggered in the House of Commons.
So far 13,154 people have signed up to the online petition.
To sign up to the epetition visit http://epetitions. direct.gov.uk/petitions/36619
COASTGUARD SUPPORTERS SAY LETTER IS 'GOOD NEWS'
COASTGUARD supporters have said they hope the government will now listen to the people of Dorset.
MV Freedom volunteer and coastguard campaigner Stella Roper said the letter was ‘good news’ and she hoped government officials would now come to Dorset and see what it was like.
She said: “We need to keep Portland helicopter.”
Miss Roper added that as well as helping sea farers, the helicopter was also used for rescues in flood situations and inland and mountainous terrain.
She said: “Don’t just see it on a screen, come to Dorset, see the helicopter and the rescuers in person.”
Jeff Peaple, whose step-son was rescued by the helicopter last year, said that he didn’t think some people realised the range of rescues the helicopter was involved in.
He said: “I hope the government is starting to think and listen.
He added: “How many deaths is it going to take, if they take it away, to think we are going to miss it.”
TRANSPORT SELECT COMMITTEE
The Transport Select Committee is charged by the House of Commons with scrutinising the Department for Transport.
Its formal remit is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Transport and its associated public bodies.
DEPARTMENT FOR TRANSPORT
THE Department for Transport said: “A modern, faster fleet of helicopters operating from 10 full-time bases will provide a more reliable overall service that still meets the key search and rescue requirements and does not increase the overall risk of loss of life.”
She added: “Independently verified analysis shows that the two bases from which it would be operationally most sensible to remove search and rescue operations would be the daytime-only base of Portland and RAF Boulmer in Northumberland.
“Installing state of the art helicopters at 10 bases around the UK will allow 85 per cent of very high, high and medium risk areas to be reached within half an hour, up from 70 per cent at present, and average incident response times will drop from 23 minutes to 19.”
LETTER FROM TRANSPORT SELECT COMMITTEE
House of Commons 7 Millbank London SW1P 3JA
Tel 020 7219 6263 Fax 020 7219 0909 Email email@example.com
From Mrs Louise Ellman MP, Chair
To Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP
Secretary of State for Transport PR 38
Last week we were briefed by DfT officials on the current search and rescue helicopter procurement project, as well as by Richard Drax MP and Dr Ian Mew, a consultant at Dorset County Hospital, who had written to us about the proposed closure of the SAR helicopter base at Portland.
We have published their submissions to us on this issue.
We were grateful for the briefing from your officials and we acknowledge the difficulties faced by the department in engaging in detailed public scrutiny during the bidding process for the new SAR helicopter contract.
However, we have a number of questions we wish to pursue and concerns to express which we would like you to address as a matter of urgency.
Firstly, could you explain the reasons for the principal differences between the proposed SAR helicopter contract and the contract which was due to be let in 2011 but which was not proceeded with due to alleged irregularities involving one of the contractors?
In particular, why is the proposed contract shorter than previously envisaged; why will there be no military involvement; why was it decided to close two bases; and why were Boulmer and Portland selected for closure?
Could you also explain how it is envisaged that the new contract will operate? In particular, your predecessor told the House in November 2011 that “the services will be capable of delivery by different contractors providing complementary services”: what does this mean in practice?
Could you confirm that the department has relied for its assessment of the service to be provided by SAR helicopters under the new contract on key user requirements agreed in 2001? Could you specify who was involved in establishing those requirements; how the requirements have been reviewed since 2001; what changes have been made to those requirements; and who has been involved in any reviews?
Could you also confirm that in establishing the key user requirements for SAR helicopters the department has not taken into account additional uses to which such helicopters are put, including providing support for air ambulances or inland rescue work?
Were the key user requirements subject to public consultation? Focusing on Portland, your officials offered to provide us with statistics to answer our questions about the different ways in which the SAR helicopter there is tasked.
We would also be grateful if you could provide us with the number of times in the last year in which the Portland and Solent SAR helicopters were tasked simultaneously, so we can gauge how often under the proposed new arrangements it is likely that a helicopter from further afield will be required to attend an incident off the South Coast? In addition, has the department modelled the likely response times under the proposed new arrangements to past incidents to which the Portland SAR helicopter was called out? If so, could you publish the results of such work to provide reassurance that withdrawing the Portland helicopter will not lead to a degradation in service.
Finally, we were both surprised and disappointed to hear that the decisions to withdraw the Portland and Boulmer SAR helicopters were not the subject of prior consultation on these specific proposals. There are understandable concerns that the withdrawal of these bases will lead to slower response times and increased fatalities in the areas affected. In addition, the important role played by these helicopters in supporting other services, such as air ambulances, does not seem to have been taken into account.
In our view, the department's argument that the overall level of service provided by SAR helicopters will improve under the new contract is not sufficient justification for setting aside normal arrangements for good governance.
People rightly expect that their views and concerns will be listened to by Government and taken into account before decisions are reached.
We understand that the final invitation to tender for the SAR helicopter contract has not yet been issued. Before doing so, we urge you to listen to the views of people affected by the proposed closures and to publish your response to the concerns expressed.
Louise Ellman MP Chair of the Committee