Plans to privatise the UK’s search and rescue helicopter service have been put on hold after a police investigation was launched into alleged irregularities in the bidding process.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced that the £6 billion procurement programme to replace the RAF’s Sea King fleet was being halted because the preferred bidder has admitted it had access to commercially sensitive information.
Ministry of Defence police are now investigating how the information came to be in the possession of CHC Helicopter, a member of the Soteria consortium.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said that the debacle raised questions over the movement of staff between the MoD and private companies.
“What it will raise once again is the nature of the relationship of the people who work for the MoD and commercial organisations,” Sir Menzies told BBC Radio Scotland.
Under the privatisation plans, Soteria would have provided US Sikorsky helicopters to fly search and rescue missions from 12 bases around the UK currently operated by the Royal Navy, RAF and coastguards.
The scheme sparked controversy, with Prince William – who has been serving as a Sea King pilot at RAF Valley on Anglesey – understood to have voiced his concern to Prime Minister David Cameron when they met in Zurich as part of England’s 2018 World Cup bid in December.
Ministers are now considering the potential options for maintaining cover until new longer term arrangements can be put in place, with speculation that they may go for an upgrade of serving Sea Kings.
Maritime and Coastguard Agency chief executive Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Massey said the development would have no immediate impact on the service, though he expressed concern about future rescue capabilities.
“I am completely satisfied with the service our search and rescue helicopters provide at the moment,” he told MPs on the Commons Transport Committee. “I have no concerns today. If you ask me how things are going to be in 2016 it might be different.”