South Dorset MP Fears He's Been Gagged
9:00am 19th February 2013
(Updated 11:38am 19th February 2013)
Our MP who's fighting to keep the Portland Coastguard Helicopter believes he's been 'gagged' by government officials.
Richard Drax has told Wessex FM an official from the Maritime Coastgaurd Agency has revealed that the Transport Minister is preventing his questions being answered.
Mr Drax is upset he can't tackle the minister on what he sees are incorrect flying time figures which are biased against Portland.
He's now written to Transport Secretary Stephen Hammond, to ask him to confirm that he has asked officials within the Marine Coastguard Agency (MCA) not to speak to him.
In a hard-hitting letter Drax, who has campaigned to keep the Portland helicopter since its 2017 closure was first announced two years ago, wrote,
"I recently requested a meeting with Mr Massey, to be told you have ordered him not to see me. Is this true? I enclose an email from Mr Massey, which indicates it is."
"I find it quite extraordinary that an MP should be prevented from speaking to anyone on behalf of his constituents."
"I would ask you to withdraw this order and allow me to talk to a vital link in the chain, before a disastrous decision is made."
Drax went on to refute several points in the Minister's most recent letter to him.
The MP was particularly angry over a claim by the Minister that, if Portland was closed, the average flying time from alternate bases to reach incidents would be 21 minutes.
"This simply cannot be factually correct," wrote Drax, pointing out that on the second page of his letter, Mr Hammond had admitted that the flying time from Culdrose, an alternate base in Cornwall, was 48 minutes. Drax added that flying time from Lea on Solent - the other alternate base - was 30 minutes, saying,
"So where did you get the 21 minutes from? It's just not possible, however 'modern' the aircraft."
Drax also took issue with a table the Minister had used, which showed that helicopters from Portland were tasked concurrently with those of what the Minister called its 'two nearest neighbours' on only five occasions in three years.
"Interestingly, you exclude Culdrose and include Chivenor to reach this figure," wrote Drax. "The latter has never been mentioned as one of the two alternatives before (Lee on Solent being the other base) and I suspect this is because using Chivenor reduces concurrent taskings considerably."
Drax also attacked the Minister's continued insistence that consultants had tested and supported the DfT's modelling of the SAR proposals.
"Your next point is that you have followed the advice of the Atkins' report that aircraft should be "equitably distributed around the UK," he wrote.
"That would make sense if the 'incidents' occurred equitably around the UK, but of course they don't. Twenty five per cent of them happen along our stretch of the south coast. So, logic would dictate that more aircraft should be located there."
Drax signed off, asking the Minister to think again, saying,
"I hope you will reflect upon my letter and come to the same conclusion as everyone else."
"This is positively Orwellian," says Drax. "We were told that anyone involved with the Portland Search and Rescue service who opposed the last helicopter reorganisation were 'warned off'. We told the Transport Select Committee that it could happen. Now we are seeing it for ourselves."