Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has secured a parliamentary debate on the future of the UK’s coastguard helicopter services, this Wednesday 22 November. The debate follows revelations about the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s plans to quadruple the emergency response time for the helicopter service based at Sumburgh in Shetland, from 15 minutes to 60.
The MCA previously “clarified” that the current “readiness” state of 15 minutes is due to remain in place until at least October 2026 — but “discussions relating to readiness states beyond this date are ongoing.” Following further meetings, however, it has emerged that the MCA has already signed a new contract for the future of the Sumburgh service.
Other concerns have been raised that the new service will only run one type of helicopter, raising issues with resilience should a model be grounded. Mr Carmichael has called on the MCA and the Department for Transport to release the full documents relating to the proposals.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Mr Carmichael said:
“Reports that there were discussions under way in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to cut back on the helicopter provision from Sumburgh were bad enough. It has now emerged, however, that the “discussions” are effectively already over – as a contract was signed months ago.
“Apparently the MCA’s intention is to start negotiating terms after signing the contract. Anyone who has ever had to reopen a contract may question what sort of leverage the agency thinks it will have in this situation. Call me old fashioned but I have always thought that it was best to hold local consultations and impact assessments before you make a decision, rather than after.
“If this is the state of play in Shetland then it raises the question of what is currently being agreed by for the rest of the country. This week’s debate will be a chance to challenge what is happening to our emergency services, and protect safety at sea for coastal and island communities. The answers from the minister will have to be better than we have had so far.”