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13 May 2008 : Column 372WH—continued

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North East Air Support Unit (Teesside)

10.59 am

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): This is the second time that I have had the pleasure and privilege of speaking in this Chamber under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I hope that this time will be just as happy as the previous occasion. It is the first time that I have been able to make a submission to the Minister, whom I congratulate on having attained that office. I wish her well in the conduct of her duties.

On 29 November 2005, I initiated a debate in this Chamber on police service restructuring. I was later informed that it was the best-attended debate that this Chamber had ever seen; as I understand it, attendance has never been bettered since. It seems a shame, therefore, that there are only four of us in such splendid isolation today. To my mind, the topic is every bit as important as police service restructuring. In view of what I shall say later, it might be best for me to set out the climate of that debate. The argument concerned whether we should merge the police forces of Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland into one force. It was suggested at the time that the force should be under the leadership of the chief constable of Northumbria, Mr. Craik. The arguments were widespread, because similar proposals were being put throughout the United Kingdom, and it was widely felt that consultation had not been broad or deep enough.

The subject for debate today may be related to that, but it is probably my bad mind thinking that there is a connection. I shall concentrate on a specific aspect of policing: air support. Let me lay out the scene as it is at present. From 1994, the Durham, Cleveland and Northumbria police services were part of a consortium sharing one aircraft, which was held in Northumbria. It was a high-winged monoplane, an Islander—not a Highlander—whose call sign was GPASF, and it was commonly known as Sierra Foxtrot. However, in 1999, it was replaced with a new EC135T1, a blue and yellow helicopter, whose registration number was GNESV and which was commonly called Sierra Victor, although its radio call sign is I99.

A second helicopter purchased on 4 April 2005 is based at the Durham Tees Valley airport. It is an EC135T2, its registration is GNEAU and it is referred to as Alpha Uniform, but its call sign is I55, as opposed to I99. I ask that special attention be paid to the date: 4 April 2005 was about five months before my debate on the restructuring of the police force.

It was felt by Durham, Cleveland and Northumbria police services that the second helicopter was necessary. However, the two models of helicopter are different; I55, the one based at Durham Tees Valley airport, has an autopilot, but I99, situated on Tyneside, does not. As a result, starting in 2010, the I99 will not be able to fly at night without a second pilot, so it will be much more costly to operate. The vehicles normally operate with a jockey—that is, a pilot—and two police constables, though it has been suggested that one of the constables should be replaced by a police community support officer. The helicopters are used by the Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland police forces, as well as those of Cumbria and North Yorkshire, which pay for the use of the vehicles when they need them.

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The units provide state of the art support to officers from all the Durham area commands, to other local emergency services and organisations such as ambulance trusts, fire services and the like. They are both equipped with a Nightsun searchlight, a daylight video camera, a thermal imaging camera, digital still cameras and a stretcher. They are used for crime scene searches, suspect vehicle pursuits, missing person searches and casualty evacuations. From April 2007 to January 2008, the air support unit in Cleveland undertook 1,371 tasks in the Cleveland area, including crime scene searches, vehicle pursuits, missing person searches, casualty evacuations and search and rescue operations. During the same period, the unit was involved in incidents leading to 295 arrests in the force area, and recovered property worth more than £191,000.

It is opportune to mention at this stage that during their flights, the helicopters frequently see indications of cannabis being grown. That surprised me, so I would expect you to be surprised too, Mrs Humble. Apparently, growing cannabis requires a fair amount of heat and light, which the thermal imaging cameras on the helicopters pick up, as it stands out like a beacon. The helicopters regularly find indications of where characters are carrying on their nefarious trade.

Why should I be concerned about the two helicopters? I have with me copies of some letters. I remind the Chamber that the second helicopter was purchased on 4 April 2005. At the same time, the Islander—the fixed-wing plane, affectionately called the “plank” because its wing looks very much like a plank—was disposed of. The second helicopter was then obtained, funded by the consortium of the three police forces, which now owns the two helicopters.

On 28 March, however, Northumbria police authority gave 12 months’ formal notice of termination of the agreement to pay for the helicopters. The notice started on the final day of March, so the agreement will terminate in 2009. Three days later, Durham police authority issued formal notification that it, too, was withdrawing from the consortium. Durham and Northumbria have decided to withdraw from the arrangement, and are suggesting that as a result of their withdrawal one of the helicopters be disposed of, leaving only one. Which one is to be disposed of? It would appear to be the one without the autopilot, because come 2010 it would need two pilots to fly it at night. There is a certain amount of fiscal common sense in that. I suggest getting a helicopter with an autopilot to save on manning costs, but that is not what they are disposed to do.

Who says that the police authorities should take that approach? There are a number of advocates. Durham police authority chairman, Peter Thompson, who I understand is not a policeman, said:

He argued that current use cannot justify investment in a new aircraft, so it will reduce to one helicopter. He continued:

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Both helicopters are available 24 hours a day and cost about £3.5 million a year to run—I can provide specifics if necessary—but Mr. Thompson says that the authority cannot afford them both.

The Durham assistant chief constable, Michael Banks, said that although the helicopters were a good idea when they were first brought in, policing and crimes have changed. When they were first brought in? I remind Members of the date I mentioned earlier—4 April 2005. The second helicopter was purchased only three years ago last month. He says that

that the

and that the

but with only one aircraft.

Apparently, the decision to use just one helicopter had been made in the best interests of people’s safety after considering how best to spend public funds to support policing. After three years! We will look at that record shortly and consider just how valid those comments are. That view is also advocated by Chief Superintendent Neil McKay of Northumbria police, who has been leading the argument to reduce to one aircraft—I shall refer to him again before I conclude. They are the people suggesting that two aircraft are too many and that one has to go.

A number of people disagree with that view, including the Solicitor-General, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), who appealed to the forces to reconsider. Furthermore, the chairman of Cleveland police authority, Dave McLuckie, has spoken out vehemently on the issue. We should bear it in mind that the area normally to be covered includes 145 miles of coastline, much of it deeply ravined with valleys, and that more than 80 per cent. of the 3,500 square miles to be covered consists of rough moorland, hillside and rural areas. He makes a very valid point:

If the single aircraft were to be based at Teesside, rather than Tyneside, it would take it more than half an hour to get to Berwick-upon-Tweed. The whole thing is fraught with a lack of logic and has not been thought through properly.

One would expect that view from the chairman of Cleveland police authority, because he is anticipating losing his aircraft from the Durham Tees Valley airport. However, the Berwick borough councillor, Geoff O’Connell, of Belford, said:

I think that we can all agree with that—

If we have only one aircraft, it can be based only in one area at a time, so there will be an argument over where it
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should be based anyway. Another person to disagree was, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who said:

I wonder why he made that point. On 28 February, when the matter was being discussed, representatives of the Northumbria and Durham police forces, having met to consider the proposals, abandoned the exchanges and walked out, for no other reason than that they thought the talks should be conducted in secret and that the public should not be made aware of what was under consideration. Such a standard of practice seems rather strange and masonic for the 21st century. It is hardly justified.

It is right, of course, that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham should take them to task. He took me to task time and time again, in this place, over the police service and restructuring, trying to destabilise my statements—he cannot be present today because he is at a meeting of the Select Committee on Defence. Heaven knows what he might have said about what I am saying today, although of course I disagree entirely with the proposal and I shall explain why.

Part of my disagreement relates to incidents such as those that I am about to describe. On 3 April, a woman of 73, who was in poor health, went missing from the Castle Eden walkway near Stockton. It is a fairly easy walkway, but she had become separated from her husband. The Teesside-based helicopter was summoned and its crew saw the woman walking westbound on the A689. The helicopter was able to land in a nearby field and she was taken to safety. Although she had fallen over several times, she was safely returned to her home. As the chief constable of the police authority said, that example showed how useful the helicopter is in delivering a vital service to members of the public. On that occasion, it quickly helped to reunite a vulnerable missing lady with her husband and prevented her from coming to harm.

On 22 February 2008, the police helicopter helped to scour the River Tees in Stockton after reports came in that a man might have jumped from the Millennium footbridge. On 11 February 2008, the police helicopter airlifted a lorry driver to James Cook university hospital following an accident near the A689 in which 20 tonnes of potatoes spilled on to the road. The helicopter could not do anything about the potatoes, but the crew got the lorry driver to safety.

On 8 February 2008, the police helicopter helped the RAF Sea King helicopter to search the beach at Seaton Carew after reports came in of a man walking into the sea dressed only in boxer shorts. On 28 December 2007, the police helicopter worked with the lifeboat crew to rescue a man who was stranded on rocks off the coast at Redcar. In December 2007, the police helicopter located a group of walkers on the moors who had got lost in the mist. In October, the police helicopter swooped on a Redcar housing estate after reports came in of a man brandishing a samurai sword.

Examples of how the helicopters have been able to assist go on and on. There was an incident in which a young coastguard was dismissed from his job for rescuing a young girl who was lost on the cliffs at night, just below Redcar. The helicopter was able to hover above and shine its floodlight—its Nightsun—which enabled
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the man to go down and bring back the girl safely. Because he undertook the exercise without the required webbing and lines, he lost his job, even though the girl’s life was saved. In the view of the rescuers, there was no doubt at all that she would have perished if that action had not been taken when it was.

During the floods in Pickering and Malton, about which we have heard so much, people were in serious trouble. The Sea Kings were rescuing people who were in imminent danger of drowning. The police helicopter was able to hover above them and point out where they needed to go to rescue the next group of people. It can work in conjunction with the Sea Kings and the voluntary-funded air ambulance.

Over the past year, stolen goods worth more than £910,000 have been recovered—a 62 per cent. increase on last year. The units were called out nearly 6,000 times in the year, with the helicopters sharing an average of 16 call-outs a day—also a new record. Unit officers attribute the increase in usage to greater understanding among ground forces of how useful air support can be at the scene of an incident.

In the north-east, there has been a 29 per cent. increase in missing person searches, with 832 made in the past year. The unit also made 862 arrests and completed 60 search and rescue operations. Sergeant Dave Clarke, who works for the unit, believes that the most effective use of the aircraft is in high-speed pursuit of stolen vehicles, with 443 call-outs during the year. However, that is with two helicopters. How on earth will the police manage with only one?

It is true to say that twocking—taking without owners’ consent—has almost disappeared. Youngsters now realise that if they decide to twock, they will be detected and apprehended. However, that is when two helicopters are being used. What will happen if the number is reduced to one? It means that the helicopter can be based only in one area, on one field. Will it be based on Tyneside, with a periodic visit up to the Scottish border and Berwick? God knows how long it will take to get down to Robin Hood’s bay in North Yorkshire. Will it be based in Teesside, with a long haul up to Berwick and a substantial haul to Robin Hood’s bay? How will one helicopter maintain the records that have already been established by two? It seems impossible that it will be able to do so. In fact, it is impossible.

I referred earlier to Chief Superintendent Neil McKay, who has been one of the leading proponents of removing one of the helicopters. I find it amazing that he can back such a plan, given that he was the officer in charge of the recent derby football match between Newcastle and the Maccums—Sunderland. The derby matches are usually painted with elements of disorder because what cannot be counted as victorious on the pitch is regularly redressed in the streets in an improper fashion. Chief Superintendent McKay was in charge of police control on that day. I wonder how he would have managed with one helicopter. On the day he needed two and called on them, yet he thinks that they should be reduced to one. Frankly, I have to question his logic, as I had to do with the Home Secretary on 29 November 2005 regarding the reorganisation.

All in, we are faced with a most illogical, insupportable set of proposals based on a need to save money. The police say that the current system is not operational, although it looks fairly operational to me, and it seems
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to me that they will never be able to conduct their duties properly with only one helicopter.

I should have mentioned earlier another opponent of the proposals: a Durham county councillor—even though Durham is in favour of them—by the name of John Shuttleworth, whom I have never met. He represents rural Weardale, and he said:

Some 80 per cent. of the area is rural. He continued:

That is just one more of the opinions against the idea of withdrawing one helicopter.

On what basis is the reduction suggested? I remind the House that Peter Thompson, the chairman of Durham police authority, said that the money could be used in other ways. Well, let us see just how much the helicopter service costs. Cleveland police authority makes a contribution of £706,615, which amounts to 0.6 per cent. of its budget. Just over half of 1 per cent. of its budget is spent on the service. Durham police authority spends £705,633 on it. Again, that is 0.6 per cent. of its budget. Northumbria police authority spends £1,862,151, which is 0.69 per cent. of its budget. The police authorities are spending minimal elements of their budget on the service, which is doing so much good in executing arrests, following car pursuits, rescuing people and assisting the military in trying to help us. They want to save on the cost of one person in a night-flying helicopter.

I turn to Policing Today, which is a police magazine. Bernard Hogan-Howe, the chief constable of Merseyside police, makes the following point:

It represents 1 to 2 per cent. of budgets, but Cleveland and Durham pay only half of 1 per cent. and Northumbria just slightly more. Across the country, it is 1 to 2 per cent.—two or three times more than those three forces in the north-east pay. The article continues:

The coastline of the three police areas is more than 145 miles long, with deep ravines and great inlets, so it would take an hour for the helicopter to get from one end to the other. Presumably, it would take half that time to fly from the middle of the coastline to the end. One helicopter will have an awful lot—I nearly swore there—to do to provide any cover at all. Had there been only one helicopter previously, there would presumably have been only half the achievements. The whole thing seems quite preposterous.

Hogan-Howe also made the following point:

there are normally arrangements in hand across the country

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