§ 11.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)
I am pleased to have the opportunity of raising the question of the future of the air/sea rescue service. When one considers that about 1,200 people each year drown around our coasts and many hundreds more are rescued by helicopter from cliffs and other places where they are trapped, it is not surprising that this subject attracts the interest of many right hon. and hon. Members.
I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State is to reply, because nine days ago I led a deputation to see him on behalf of a Round Table in my constituency which has campaigned on this issue and which has attracted the support of some 50 local councils. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough not only to give us a courteous reception but also to say that he understood the problem and that it would receive his close attention. I hope that in this debate we may be able to bring that close attention—which is always a welcome Ministerial expression of intent—to a positive declaration of the action that the Government are prepared to take.
Basically, the position is that if a coastal area has the good fortune to have a Service station which has attached to it a helicopter unit, that unit is available for civilian rescue work. There is no doubt that this is greatly appreciated in the areas in question. Indeed in my own constituency some 124 calls were made on the helicopter service at R.A.F. Chivenor this year and there were 97 rescues. The rescues involve swimmers in difficulties, people who go out to sea in small boats, people on cliffs, people who need lifting to hospital, people who may be ill on an island and have to be rescued, and so on. There is no question about the valuable work done by these units.
In 1973 this R.A.F. station is to close. The question that arises is: what happens 612 then? This is not a parochial question because this R.A.F. station services not only South Wales but much of Devon and Cornwall. The suggestion is that the helicopter unit should be moved to Brawdy in South Wales, which would involve about 40 minutes' delay per day to reach the West Country which it at present serves. Whether or not we should have a national policy for air/sea rescue is a wider issue. There have been two cases in which Service stations have closed and the Government have acted. The first was the R.A.F. station at Manston where the helicopter unit was withdrawn, and the Government have retained a civilian firm for an experimental period of 18 months to carry out rescue operations.
With some of my constituents, I visited the Manston R.A.F. station a fortnight ago and saw this civilian helicopter service in action working closely with the Coastguard. While we were there the helicopter was out on two occasions. The first time, alas, the crew arrived to find that three people had drowned and it was their task to recover the bodies. On other occasions they have rescued people who, had the service not existed, clearly would have drowned. There is no doubt that it is hoped in the area that the experiment will continue.
Likewise in Aberdeen a substitute civilian service has been provided by B.E.A. I see in the Chamber the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) who may be able to tell the House how this is working. Many suggesstions about the service have been made. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) has suggested that when Service stations close a back-up service should be provided by an Air Reserve of the Royal Air Force, and he has produced a valuable pamphlet on this subject. This should be an extension of the service provided by the coastguard.
Last Thursday my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) tabled a Question on this matter, and when I tackled the Prime Minister about this he said that he was:prepared to examine whether we now need some broader-based permanent civilian organisation which can then gradually expand to take over the responsibilities which are being relinquished by the Royal Air Force. This does not alter the fact that the Department of 613 Trade and Industry is giving urgent consideration to cases of which it is aware such as Chivenor."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th November, 1971 Vol. 826, c. 1533.]All I ask tonight is that the Government, which are aware of the problem and recognise the importance of having a proper air/sea rescue service round our coasts, should give urgent consideration to this matter since certain areas are not now served by Service units. Others will lose the Service units which they at present enjoy.
The Department of Trade and Industry is involved because the coastguard comes within its responsibility. The Ministry of Defence is involved because at present it carries out these responsibilities in certain parts of the country. The Home Office is involved because inland rescue comes under its responsibility. Instead of having a two-year delay between the phasing out of the R.A.F. helicopter unit and the introduction of the civilian service, as we had at Manston, the Government should have a plan so that some form of air/sea rescue may move in immediately R.A.F. stations close.
I would like, therefore, either an interdepartmental inquiry between the Ministries involved or an independent one-man commission or committee to report to the Government. There is no question about the importance of the matter. I know that the Government realise the importance of it, and if this debate has the effect of prodding them along a little faster towards solving the problem and producing a firm and concerted policy, it will have been useful.
§ 11.31 p.m.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)
I am grateful for this opportunity to put forward proposals for a multi-purpose air reserve which would provide emergency services for the civilian community at large, comprehending, among other roles, air/sea rescue. I am not going to be dogmatic or stipulate any particular equipment for this reserve; that is for the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence to work out between them. It has been proved over the past few years during which the National Air Guard has been in existence that a body of volunteer pilots is available and is prepared to devote time, equipment, training and experience to 614 providing assistance to the civilian community. Among their other roles, these pilots fulfil such tasks as casualty evacuation, search, rescue and assistance to medical services.
The Government must decide that this is an opportunity to establish on a national basis such an Air Reserve. It would be founded on the main centres of population and in the coastal regions, to which the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) referred. The areas most in need are Ulster—I would like to see one established in the area of Belfast—and South Wales, because Brawdy will be too far at the extremity of that coast. If a unit were established in South Wales, it could serve Chivenor in the way that Chivenor serves South Wales. Another could be sited probably at Exeter or Bristol but that is for the staff to decide. Another would be in the Kent area if the civil experiment at Manston proves a failure. At present, at Warton in the North-West, a helicopter service is operated by the B.A.C. flight test centre, and another unit could be sited in South-Western Scotland in the Glasgow region. A centre could also be placed on that large stretch of the coast between Acklinglon in Northumberland and Leconfield in Yorkshire.
The men exist to do the work, and it would require but a small capital outlay. It needs imagination, foresight and drive from the Ministry of Defence, assisted by the Department of Trade and Industry.
§ 11.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) on raising this subject and thank him for his courtesy in allowing others to speak briefly.
We have a civilian air/sea rescue station at Dyce with B.E.A. helicopters, which is working extremely well. I believe its scope could be much extended, possibly with the helicopters linked to the Aberdeen mountain rescue team. I give the example of that appalling tragedy in the Cairngorms last week. The Aberdeen rescue team left Aberdeen at four o'clock in the morning. It took 21-hours in the prevailing weather conditions to reach Braemar, and it was not until nine o'clock that, with police co-operation, they reached the search area. The whole operation took almost five 615 hours, but it could take one hour with a helicopter and if the activities were linked. I do not need to emphasise the difference between one hour and five in an operation of that kind. In winter all search operations are nearly always hampered, particularly in my part of the world, by the weather.
It would be possible to link helicopters at Prestwick with the Glencoe rescue team. It is not just a local and parochial matter, though I use a parochial example.
Helicopters could obviate weather difficulties. They would simplify the transportation of heavy equipment. When people got to the search area, they would be less fatigued because they would not have been involved in a long journey by road, and they would have got there faster.
Such a system could be extended to rail disasters, to coastal search and rescue, and to travellers stranded on roads in blizzards. Mountain rescue teams are trained to cope with all these eventualities.
I do not suggest that every minor hazard should be conducted to the sound of the beat of the rotors of B.E.A. helicopters, but in each case a decision could be taken with the police, the Coastguard, the team leader of the rescue party and the pilot himself whether to use a helicopter.
This would be a logical extension of the excellent service which my hon. Friend has helped to institute, and, if he is agreeable, perhaps he could convene a meeting of the relevant authorities to see whether we can work out a suitable system in which all these activities could be linked. If he indicates that he is agreeable, I shall write to him with more details after this debate.
§ 11.36 p.m.
§ Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)
Although I disagreed strongly with what the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) said earlier today, I agreed wholeheartedly with what he said in opening this short debate. Obviously, he improves as the day goes on.
The right hon. Gentleman seems to have pinned his faith on helicopters. 616 However, I believe that the really important point is communications. The radio hook-up is all important. If we think of communications as the pudding, the plums to be put in the pudding are: first, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, an independent service; then Service helicopters, if and when available; the school rescue teams which have been mentioned; and all sorts of other splendid volunteer organisations. They must be tied together by communications.
Only one of the Services, or possibly a combined Services team, can provide the communications. I hope that my hon. Friend can assure us that the Services will be able to provide the communications, with the nuts and bolts—the aircraft, the helicopters and the boats—being provided from a conglomeration of voluntary services.
§ 11.38 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Much of the cost of an operation of this kind is involved in overheads which do not necessarily depend on the number of helicopters operated from a station. It should be possible to combine the function of operational bases of a service of this kind, though not the helicopters doing the actual rescues, with helicopter patrols for our fishery protection services. At the moment they are grossly inadequate, and they need expanding so that they exist not just theoretically but practically as well.
We could use the same bases in many cases, though not the same aircraft and personnel since they cannot do both jobs, for a much more intensified fishery protection service for our coastline and also for air/sea rescue operations, the evacuation of casualties, and all the other eventualities which have been discussed. Such a system might turn out to be an economy in the sense of spreading the overheads. I ask my hon. Friend not to comment on this suggestion but to bear it in mind when formulating the policy on this which must be formed.
We should not select any specific pinpoints for bases from which to operate the service simply because, historically, Service units have been based there. Bases should be chosen where we can get the best coverage. For example, Chivenor has many things to be said for it but, as the excellent document produced 617 by the Ilfracombe Round Table shows, it is highly marginal for covering, for instance, the necessities of Land's End. Therefore, what we want is a really adequate cover rather than an attempt to defend any particular location as the origin point of such a service. If we can achieve this with an open mind, I think we shall get the structure that we need right throughout the United Kingdom.
§ 11.41 p.m.
§ Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)
While one accepts that the argument is on the basis of air/sea rescue, the sea aspect has been under-portrayed. It should be stressed that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is providing around our coasts a 25-hour a day, 365-days-a-year service which is well beyond what is required of it. If one is to talk in terms of safety on the South Cornwall, North Cornwall and Devonshire coasts, this could be adequately covered by the Royal Naval air station at Culdrose as part of its helicopter pilot training service.
§ 11.42 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Anthony Grant)
This has been a most valuable debate, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) for introducing it. I have listened carefully to everything that has been said, and I have been impressed by the various points put forward. There is nothing like a half-hour Adjournment debate for concentrating the mind. I cannot answer all the points in detail but they have all been noted carefully. However, I can outline what the Government are doing at present about air/sea rescue.
Until comparatively recently, all the air/sea rescue effort in this country was provided by aircraft of the R.A.F. and the Royal Navy. The provision of an effective air/sea rescue service is of great importance to the Services. A great deal of military flying, some of it training and some of it in the nature of the peace-time operations about which the House has often heard—maritime reconnaissance around our coasts and the protection of our air space—takes place over the sea and calls for the exercise of the highest professional skills. This flying is carried on throughout the year, often when sea conditions are bad and the sea temperature is very low. Accidents are few but 618 the possibility of them is inevitably always with us.
The lives of valuable and highly skilled aircrews, who are operating in the line of duty, may depend at any time upon the quickest possible response by the rescue service, very often in circumstances in which the only hope of rescue is by a helicopter. It is fundamental that Service crews should be able to put their full confidence in the ability of their own search and rescue service to go to their assistance if required.
Therefore, the machines are primarily for military needs, but, subject to these needs, they are made available for civil search and rescue operations. The service, as is recognised by many hon. Members, is extremely effective.
But the Ministry of Defence would be failing in its duty to the crews of Service aircraft if it did not deploy its search and rescue organisation where it can best support the large and unceasing programme of military flying in the sea areas around our coasts. Inevitably, the areas in which this military flying takes place do not coincide with the main areas of civilian marine activity.
Thus, because of the military requirements, the R.A.F. helicopter at Manston had to be withdrawn, and the Government, as recognised by the right hon. Gentleman, set up a civilian helicopter service operated by Bristow Helicopters Limited under the control of Her Majesty's Coastguard. This has done splendid work and in the five months from June, when it started to operate, to the end of October it has flown 83 sorties, rescued 20 people and brought ashore one body.
On 1st November this year the Government arranged for another civilian helicopter service to be set up. This is to give helicopter coverage well out in the North Sea, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) will recognise, beyond the range of R.A.F. single-engine helicopters, and this is done by B.E.A. helicopters from their base at Aberdeen. The normal use of these helicopters is in connection with the North Sea drilling rigs, but, should they be needed for search and rescue work, they will be made available. Both these civilian operations are designed to fill gaps in military helicopter cover. The Government keep under constant review 619 the relation between the needs of air/sea rescue and the cover provided by the military itself.
One problem area, as the right hon. Member for Devon, North has mentioned, is in Devon when the R.A.F. helicopter detachment there withdraws. Indeed, as I told the right hon. Gentleman when he brought a deputation to see me on this matter last week—it was an extremely able deputation, and I was very impressed with the work done by the Round Tablers—and as I have told my hon. Friends the Members for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills), Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and Honiton (Mr. Emery), my Department, in consultation with the Ministry of Defence, has for some time been examining the problems for marine search and rescue which this will cause. I am not able to announce a great Government initiative tonight and I cannot say at this stage what the results of these dicussions will be, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman quite firmly and positively that the Government accept that adequate helicopter coverage is necessary for an efficient marine search and rescue organisation.
On the broader aspect, although the subject of this debate is air/sea rescue, the wider use of helicopters for inland as well as sea emergencies has been mentioned, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South with his experience in Scotland. This opens a very wide area indeed, but, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Prime Minister told the House last week that the Government are prepared to examine whether we now need some broader-based permanent civilian organisation gradually to take over the responsibilities as they are being relinquished by the R.A.F. The Government, particularly my Department in conjunction with others, are certainly studying this matter. The study of helicopters must be made in conjunction with other search and rescue facilities. I was glad that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) pointed this out in his short speech.
The R.N.L.I. with its lifeboats and inshore rescue boats and, indeed, all other organisations, including ships at sea which play a very important part in this emer- 620 gency activity, are all involved in the vital and often hazardous work of sea rescue. They work under the general co-ordination of the Coastguard, which is the responsibility of my Department. The House should know that the service consists of 550 regular coastguards, backed by no fewer than 7,000 auxiliaries who do magnificent and dangerous work. If the work which all these organisations do, and, indeed, the service and advice which the coastguards render to people, were better known, through better publicity, I believe that more lives would be saved. It is all too rarely understood by the public that they do not need to go to the sea in ships, get into trouble and then invoke the help of the coastguards or the R.N.L.I. All they have to do is to pick up a telephone, make a call and they can get advice about conditions. This is one aspect of the work of the coastguards.
The work of the various rescue organisations is vital, and I should like to pay tribute to them because I have had the opportunity of seeing their work at first hand. It is remarkable how much work they do for very little reward, and in dangerous and hazardous circumstances.
The coastguards do a remarkable job of co-ordinating the various services, such as the R.N.L.I. and those of the R.A.F., but nothing is so perfect that it cannot be improved, and it is in that context that the Government are prepared to look carefully for a properly based organisation to deal with all aspects of rescue, be it inland or at sea. This may well take time, as such considerations involve a considerable study. We shall be prepared to consider any suggestions and recommendations that are made, and what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South and by other hon. Members will be carefully considered.
I conclude by expressing my gratitude to the right hon. Member for Devon, North for raising this subject, and to all the services which work so well in this matter. The Government understand the problems, sympathise with the views which have been expressed, and are considering this matter with great care.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.