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Concern over plans to privatise national coastguard service

The UK Government was last night accused of putting lives at risk as expectations grow that it will announce the closure of more than half of Britain’s coastguard centres and the privatisation of the nation’s search-and-rescue helicopter service in a bid to cut costs.

The Department for Transport -- facing spending cuts of 15% over four years -- is due to propose reducing coastguard stations from 19 to eight and only three will operate around the clock. The move could see 250 jobs lost and save £7.5 million a year.

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In another cost-saving exercise, Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, is expected to press ahead with plans to privatise the search-and-rescue helicopter fleet, operated by the RAF and Royal Navy together with civilian helicopters through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

In February, it was announced the preferred private bidder was the Soteria Consortium, whose members include CHC, a Canadian helicopter operator, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Public Private Partnership contract is worth £7 billion and will run from 2012 for 25 years.

In June, with the contract still unsigned, the process was halted as the new Coalition Government reviewed costs.

In Scotland, the Soteria bid is to provide a search-and-rescue service from 12 bases using modern Sikorsky helicopters to replace the ageing Sea Kings -- in which Prince William has worked -- with one base at Glasgow Airport.

Current bases are at Stornoway, Sumburgh near Lerwick, RAF Lossiemouth and HMS Gannet at Prestwick Airport.

The Transport Department refused to be drawn on the coastguard and search-and- rescue changes last night.

It said: “The department is still considering the options for modernising the strategy and a decision will be made in due course.”

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, confirmed Mr Hammond would set out details over the next few days but stressed the Government’s main aim was to “use our resources wisely so we reduce waste”.

Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster -- whose Moray constituency is home to the Nimrod maritime reconnaissance fleet and a mountain rescue team at RAF Kinloss as well as the UK Air Rescue Co-ordination Centre and Search and Rescue Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth -- urged ministers to “step back, even at the eleventh hour” on privatisation.

He said: “The Government is putting lives at risk on sea and land by their cuts to the coastguard and privatisation plan for search-and-rescue services.

“It would be extreme folly to withdraw military aircrews and privatise search-and-rescue cover in addition to the massive capability gap that has already been created by the decision to axe the Nimrod fleet.”

Ann McKechin, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, also expressed fears.

She said: “There will be real concern in the remote areas whether they are going to have adequate services and whether there will be the capacity to deal with any major incident.”

The Public and Commercial Services Union added: “It’s essential that coastguards are properly resourced.”

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