That Seanad Éireann:
- the Department of Transport is responsible for maritime and aeronautical search and rescue services policy in Ireland;
- the Department of Transport is responsible for ensuring that a National Search and Rescue Plan is established and fit for purpose;
- search and rescue policy is implemented by the Irish Coast Guard as the Maritime Search and Rescue Coordinator and by the Irish Aviation Authority as the aeronautical Search and Rescue Coordinator;
- a Government decision was taken on 27th July, 2021 to commence the formal procurement process for the next Irish Coast Guard: Search and Rescue Aviation Project for Ireland in line with EU procurement law governing the European Union (Award of Public Authority Contracts) Regulations 2019 (Statutory Instrument No. 284/2016);
- the Government decision was based on a detailed appraisal and business case prepared by KPMG, with the assistance of Frazer-Nash Consultancy, for the Department of Transport;
- on 22nd December, 2021, the Government commenced the first stage of the tender process by releasing a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) and Response document;
- on 23rd and 24th December, 2021, following queries from the market, several addendums to the PQQ were published;
- the PQQ states that the minimum requirement is three helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft on standby for Coast Guard aviation tasking;
- the number of bases and their location are not specified in the PQQ - instead it states that proposals will be reviewed on their merits and ability to respond in a timely manner, thereby placing the onus on the tendering company to configure the base structure for the national search and rescue provision;
expresses its concern that:
- there is an inherent contradiction in paragraph 1.6 of the PQQ which, while including a provision to potentially issue a separate contract for fixed-wing as an ‘administrative’measure, the stated intent is to ultimately select just one proposal to provide the whole service, thereby effectively precluding the Irish Air Corps from providing any part of the next search and rescue service contract;
- the failure of the Department of Transport to clearly state its strategic requirements may result in legal action from a failed tendering entity and also lead to the closure of at least one of the current bases;
- the Department of Transport fails to recognise the Report of Economic and Financial Evaluation Unit which agrees that a four-base structure including Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo is optimal for Ireland;
- there is also no evidence, as recommended by the Economic and Financial Evaluation Unit, that the appraisal process for the next search and rescue contract has been significantly improved or that a full value-for-money analysis of the existing contract has been carried out;
- the completed acquisition by CHC Group LLC of Offshore Helicopter Services UK Ltd., Offshore Services Australasia Pty Ltd., and Offshore Helicopter Services Denmark A/S (previously part of Babcock International plc’s corporate group), may reduce the number of companies eligible to tender for the next Irish Search and Rescue and may limit competitiveness in tendering;
- despite the Frazer-Nash Consultancy Report 2019 on the operation of Irish National Search and Rescue identifying several weaknesses and proposing thirteen specific actions, just four have been completed and published to date;
- the Service Level Agreements with the Department of Defence for the provision of fixed-wing Search and Rescue top cover on an ‘as available’ basis was a serious flaw in the last Search and Rescue arrangement as it did not require or guarantee the 24/7/365 capability required by the Irish Coast Guard;
- not having a 24/7 manned helicopter base in Waterford would result in extended travel times for helicopter transfers, further reducing treatment options and outcomes for south east patients, as the present Waterford based R117 service is used as an emergency helicopter patient transfer vehicle for acute heart attack treatment at Cork University Hospital from University Hospital Waterford (UHW) when the UHW Cath lab is closed 129 hours each week;
and calls on the Government to:
- suspend the PQQ and tender process pending full implementation of the recommendations made by the:
- Economic and Financial Evaluation Unit,
- Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General,
- Report on the fatal crash of Helicopter R116,
- Frazer-Nash Consultancy Review of the Irish National Search and Rescue Framework;
- fill the vacancy for an aviation expert in the Irish Coast Guard as a matter of urgency;
- lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a copy of the business case for the Irish Coast Guard, Search and Rescue Aviation Project;
- lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a copy of the submission made by the Air Corps on the fixed-wing part of the search and rescue contract and the rationale for its rejection by Department of Transport;
- lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a copy of the submission made by the Air Corps to provide for one helicopter base for Search and Rescue, the critique of the submission by Aerossurance Ltd., and the rebuttal made by the Air Corps; and
- fully evaluate the expertise of aviation consultants Aerossurance Ltd., which in 2017 was a one-person operation trading for just three years with no staff member who was a Search and Rescue pilot and/or had worked in a Search and Rescue environment.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House.
I know that in coming here today, she will have been briefed and received directions from her departmental officials, and will have been provided with a pre-prepared speech to attempt to rebut anything I say. It is vitally important that she listens very carefully to my every word. If she believes there is any part of what I say that she cannot personally defend, I advise her to throw away the speech, stop the tender process for the next search and rescue, SAR, helicopter service and order an immediate review.
This is my second motion on the helicopter SAR contract since the start of the Government. My first was in May 2021, and outlined the serious flaws, weaknesses, omissions and absences of best practice in the awarding and management of the current SAR contract. My concerns were based on the serious findings of several reports, not least Rescue 116.
We are now in a new year and at the start of a new SAR tender process. Not only has everything I called for during my first motion fallen on deaf ears, but the Department of Transport is proceeding once again with what can best be described as wilful ignorance. In her speech on the final report into the Rescue 116 air accident, the Minister of State stated that the main conclusion of the air accident investigation unit, AAIU, was that it was "an organisational accident". We know from the report that a contributory cause of the tragedy was confusion at the State level regarding responsibility for the oversight of SAR operations in Ireland and that this included the Department of Transport.
Ultimately, the AAIU concluded that neither the Department of Transport nor the Coast Guard had aviation expertise available within their resources and lacked the capacity to remain an intelligent customer. Regarding contracted helicopter operations that we are auditing, this is a damning conclusion and goes to the heart of the competence within the Department, the same Department that is advising the Minister of State today.
In turning to the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency for solutions, the Department found a template of total civil commercial control which could be easily copied without scrutiny for use in Ireland. It beggars belief that the existing competencies within the Defence Forces Air Corps were not rigorously explored before adopting the British commercial model, including seeking further advice from UK consultants Frazer-Nash which at the time was a wholly owned subsidiary of Babcock, a commercial SAR company and likely bidder for the current competition.
Despite asking for it on numerous occasions, I have yet to see the Department's evaluation of the expertise of aviation consultants Aerossurance which, in 2017, was a one-person operation, trading for just three years with no staff member who was an SAR rescue pilot or had worked in an SAR environment. We are now in a situation whereby a single British commercial perspective on the provision of SAR has taken root. This placing of all our eggs in one basket is fundamentally flawed as it fails to recognise that SAR is best delivered through the co-operation of professional, voluntary and public service efforts. It also offers better value for money to the taxpayer.
Multiple providers of SAR is the answer, and the Irish Air Corps had the skills and know-how to operate one SAR base. This would not only provide value for money, but would also provide a secure backup for all bases. The idea caught on and in November 2020 the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, supported the idea of a role for the Air Corps in the new SAR service, a position that was endorsed by the Taoiseach.
The Air Corps made a submission to provide one base on the east coast, which was critiqued by Aerossurance limited. I have already pointed out in this House that the company is a one-man operation and that the man is question is not qualified to undertake SAR missions.