'Issue' Forces Freeze on Rescue Changes; No Details Given about What's Behind Switch Being Put on Hold

Article excerpt

Byline: William Green

THE future of RAF Boulmer in Northumberland remains unclear after the Government postponed an announcement about a private company taking over the operation of search and rescue helicopters.

The delay came after fears were raised that the around-the-clock service at RAF Boulmer will be halved and its long-term future thrown into doubt, with far fewer search and rescue helicopters in operation.

A French-United States consortium is the preferred bidder for the helicopters and would take over the responsibility from the RAF.

The contract is believed to be worth around pounds 7bn and would see Sea King helicopters - as flown at present by Prince William, stationed at Anglesey in North Wales - replaced by American Sikorskys.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said yesterday that the preferred bidder "had become aware of a possible issue in connection with its bid".

He added that the matter needed to be clarified, and that he and Defence Secretary Liam Fox would make a statement to the House of Commons as soon as they were able to provide further information.

The search and rescue service is currently provided by the RAF and the Royal Navy, as well as by civilian helicopters from the Coastguard.

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith said: "We were expecting an announcement on this contract, which the previous Government set up and negotiated, but this has not materialised.

"It is not at all clear what issue has arisen and how the outcome could be affected."

The Liberal Democrat MP is now making inquiries with ministers about the possible timescale for a further announcement. …