Previous Section Index Home Page

13 May 2008 : Column 378WH—continued

But if the helicopter is down at Tyneside, where will the reserve aircraft come from? At the moment, forces can box and cox with their maintenance. One of their arguments is that they fly only seven hours a day. I suppose that if they were flying 24 hours a day, there
13 May 2008 : Column 379WH
would be a real danger. The helicopters have to have downtime so that they can be maintained and looked after. Do we complain that a fire engine is out of its garage for only seven hours a day? Is that a basis for complaint? Does the logic appeal to us in any way? It certainly does not appeal to me.

Furthermore, Hogan-Howe went on to say that the increase in the number of aircraft available to the police services was funded by Home Office capital grants and based on two principles. I apologise for my slowness in reading this, but the print is very small and my eyesight is geriatric. He said that the first principle was

Capital funding of 50 per cent. is available to any police force that can justify it. The second principle was

So there is an answer. Durham and Northumbria seem to think that if the aircraft required a second jockey to enable it to fly at night, they could readily get funding from the Home Office to provide that alternative. They think that they could put on a sub, take the other one off and send him to hospital.

Hogan-Howe went on to say:

and improve on it. Would we be improving on it by disposing of half the resources? The whole suggestion is quite preposterous, it really is. I suggest to the Minister in all humility, if I can summon it, that before Northumbria and Durham make bigger fools of themselves than they have already, she persuade them sometime before 2010 to sell I99.

It is a good vehicle—there is nothing wrong with it—with some excellent equipment and it has been functional. I suggest that they sell I99, the one without autopilot, and buy another one identical to I55, which has autopilot; then, we could have total cover throughout.

There is an important piece of information that I must mention. There has been a reduction in efficacy in Tyneside, whereas there has been an improvement and an increase in efficacy in Cleveland. In Cleveland in the past 12 months, there has been an increase of some 11 per cent. in the effective use of the Tees-based vehicle, but there has been a 5 per cent. reduction in Northumbria. However, that does not justify cutting the whole resource in half. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

[John Cummings in the Chair]

According to my information,

And this is only the beginning of May. Furthermore:

So they are both performing good work: it is just that we cannot predict when and where we will need them.
13 May 2008 : Column 380WH
But that is why they are so useful; that is their whole purpose. It is wrong to suggest that we should cut our resource when it is more necessary than ever, as is borne out by Hogan-Howe’s statements in Policing Today. The case is obvious to me. I do not have any special intelligence to work this out. It is hardly brain surgery.

I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the advice that I am offering. One of the helicopters should be sold in time—it does not have to be done tonight—but in the meantime the police authorities should be asked to reconsider their official notice on terminating an agreement, because the co-operation that followed the arguments about whether the relevant forces should merge has been effective. Cleveland contributed to the consortium, even though it was in serious financial difficulty because of a number of necessary inquiries that proved expensive. Nevertheless, Cleveland police authority saw the wisdom of pursuing the acquisition of a second helicopter in 2005. Three years and one month later, what can be the justification—what has happened in respect of policing need?—for the other authorities saying, “We can now cut the resource in half”?

Was the acquisition of the second helicopter part of the tactic of merging and creating a police empire? I have to pose that question, because it is bound to occur to anybody with half an eye. It does not make sense. We need to retain the cover. The people in the north-east deserve it.

I am disappointed that no other hon. Members are here to make the case, which is obvious. I hope that the Minister can exert her influence on the police in Durham and Northumbria and they withdraw from their course of action. Cleveland made a sacrifice in helping to form the consortium. If Durham and Newcastle withdraw, who can blame Cleveland? It cannot support one helicopter on its own, so why should it contribute when others are dropping them in the cart?

It is a pretty sad situation. I hope that the Minister can redeem it.

11.46 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, especially following such a forensic, comprehensive exposition of the case over three quarters of an hour. I understand why no other hon. Members turned up this morning; even had they done so, I do not think that they would have had an opportunity to contribute to the debate, such was the comprehensive nature of the exposition by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook). There was a certain amount of style and composure in the hon. Gentleman’s presentation, which other hon. Members will find difficult to follow.

I should like to follow up on some of the hon. Gentleman’s observations and rehearse some of the key factors. There are three police authorities in hand, and it is 130 miles from one end of the region to the other, from Berwick down to Staithes. Some 750,000 people live in the central conurbation of Middlesbrough, Stockton, Hartlepool, Darlington and Redcar and, crucially, the petrochemical industry is concentrated in that area, which also contains a nuclear power station. Northumberland is a massive geographical area, with Newcastle, its largest city, at the foot of the region. The two helicopters cost £3.5 million to run and, as has been
13 May 2008 : Column 381WH
mentioned, only one of them is operational for seven hours out of a possible 48 man-hours a day. The police classify only 5 per cent. of that use as critical.

The police have said in numerous statements that crime and the methods of crime detection and prevention have changed. I was fortunate enough to participate recently in an event at the Scottish police driver training centre in my constituency and was impressed by the new techniques that it has developed to detect and control cars during chases. The police are well-trained and able to cope with dangerous situations. Therefore, helicopters are no longer required in such circumstances. We have to recognise that sometimes things change slowly and at other times they change a wee bit faster. It is difficult to believe that things have changed that dramatically since 2005, but this issue has been recognised for some time.

There is no getting away from the fact that this matter has been divisive. A well-run consortium, involving three police authorities, has been riven apart. Effectively, the consensus approach that would have been adopted prior to this occasion has been replaced by out-voting or withdrawal from the consortium. I assume that the situation has caused divisions among the police officers, who are arguing against each other about the needs of their police authorities at a time when we need them to co-operate to tackle crime. It is undesirable and unacceptable that the situation has got to this stage.

The situation also makes the Government’s previous desire to have merged police authorities even more difficult to achieve; if police authorities lose trust in one another in such circumstances, it will be even harder to bring them together in some formal arrangement.

I do not want to get into a position of arguing where the helicopter should be based, if there is only going to be one helicopter. That is far too invidious a position to put ourselves in. That decision is ultimately a local one that must be made in the short term.

Frank Cook: Perhaps I never made my view on that point sufficiently clear. I am not arguing for one helicopter; I am arguing for two. If we are reduced to having only one helicopter, wherever it is placed, the situation will be inadequate. There should not be a choice; the only option should be to obtain a replacement helicopter.

Willie Rennie: I heard what the hon. Gentleman said in his contribution. However, the fact of the matter is that councillors from different parts of the region are arguing against one another, because they have conceded that there will be only one helicopter. That situation is extremely unfortunate, especially when we need all the councils, police authorities and the police themselves to work together. It has been a very difficult period, which I hope we can emerge from, and I will make some suggestions about how we can do so.

I suppose that it is little surprise that we are in this circumstance when police authorities are facing increasing financial pressure. The comprehensive spending review was not as lucrative on this occasion as in the past, so it is no surprise that police authorities are looking to make savings wherever possible.

The fire service has adopted a new approach of integrated risk management, whereby it examines all service provision across the board, so that it can make an assessment and a comparison between the different
13 May 2008 : Column 382WH
types of provision available. It has made some very difficult decisions that are extremely unpopular, not only with local people in some areas but with the members of the fire service itself. However, that integrated approach is how we need to look at this situation, so that we compare one sort of service provision with another and do not go for a gold-plated service in one area and an inadequate service in another. Nevertheless, adopting that approach will pose some difficult questions.

If we look at helicopters versus ground forces, we would say that helicopters are perhaps relatively expensive per head. They are premium items that have a small number of big successes; their presence is fleeting but dramatic. By contrast, officers on the beat are ever-present—at least, we hope so. Perhaps they are not as ever-present as they should be, but they are more ever-present than a helicopter would be. They have a larger number of smaller successes and that must be recognised; we need to balance the two, helicopters and officers on the ground. However, this is not an either/or situation; it is a matter of ensuring that there is appropriate provision. The helicopters provide a service that simply cannot be delivered by other forms or other tools of service provision.

Ministers are very good at promoting positive initiatives locally and working with police authorities to share in their success. However, a very important principle seems to come into play when difficult decisions are made, when Ministers say, “We believe in local decision making. We can’t have Government Ministers interfering every other day. That’s why we have police authorities and chief constables.” But this is an instance where ministerial direction and governmental support would be beneficial, because we need to develop best practice across the country, rather than the haphazard approach that seems to have been inflicted on the local region of the hon. Member for Stockton, North.

On a couple of occasions, the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the chief constable of Merseyside police, Mr. Bernard Hogan-Howe. Hon. Members may have read an article by Mr. Hogan-Howe in Policing Today, in which he set out the case for a more structured and co-ordinated arrangement to ensure that a countrywide system could be established to extract maximum cover at a cost-effective price. He also envisaged cross-police authority co-ordination, rather than the helicopters working only within one authority area or within an area covered by a consortium of authorities.

The hon. Gentleman laughs, and I think that I understand why. There is co-operation across borders just now, such that the Cumbria and North Yorkshire police authorities pay on a pay-as-you-go basis. However, I am not sure whether that is a common feature throughout the United Kingdom. Certainly, in my part of the world—in Fife—we have no helicopters. I do not know what extra support is provided for Fife when helicopter cover is required, but the system seems to be rather haphazard just now and perhaps a more co-ordinated approach could be provided.

I am not sure what that co-ordinated approach would mean for the hon. Gentleman’s region. We would need to see the detail of how that approach would work out, and perhaps there is a need for two helicopters. However, I am not sure whether there has been a UK-wide study to establish what the appropriate helicopter provision is for each part of the country.

13 May 2008 : Column 383WH

Frank Cook: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, in agreement with Mr. Hogan-Howe. In fact, the two helicopters are serving not three county services but five, because when North Yorkshire or Cumbria require a helicopter, those authorities simply rent it in. So the helicopter has to cover a substantial area.

Willie Rennie: Perhaps Cumbria and North Yorkshire have got a very good deal. If they only use a pay-as-you-go service, perhaps they are getting quite a good bargain in the process.

Traditionally, helicopters have been used for surveillance, but they have developed further capability over the years. Reference has been made to the identification of cannabis farms. To try to tackle the drug problem in our communities by carrying out infrared searches is a very interesting use of helicopters.

The chief constable, Mr. Hogan-Howe, also made some important points about cross-service co-operation. For example, there could be greater utilisation of resources for the air ambulance, search and rescue teams and the fire service. Again, reference was made earlier to the air ambulance. When I used to live down in the south-west, in Cornwall, people were very passionate about the air ambulance and raised thousands of pounds every year to support that service. However, it always seemed to me that that was a rather haphazard approach to service provision. I am not saying that the state should always provide every bit of service support; there is a role for charity and other financial donations at times. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we are leaving an awful lot of the system to chance.

There are hurdles to progressing towards a more structured approach. The possible increase in cost may be a factor to consider, and the removal of a certain amount of autonomy from each police authority must also be taken into consideration.

There is also the lack of interoperability. As a defence spokesman, I know that it is really important that US forces and British forces can communicate and utilise the full potential of their resources in times of difficulty. So interoperability between the different helicopters and different equipment is absolutely essential.

There will be competing demands from different regions. There will always be a feeling that perhaps Northumbria, Cleveland or Cornwall is missing out on a UK-wide—or rather an England and Wales-wide—service. So there will be tensions and hurdles to overcome to develop a more comprehensive service.

However, I strongly believe that the approach that I have outlined is the way forward and that the Government and the Minister should provide some guidance and support. This should be not top-down provision, but provision in partnership with the police authorities and local councils, so that a bottom-up need or dependency is created. Therefore, I hope that the Association of Chief Police Officers follows the advice of Mr. Bernard Hogan-Howe and starts some kind of discussion. Such discussions might be under way already, but we are not aware of them.

What does all this mean for the north-east? It may sound as though I have gone off-track in talking about the rest of the country, rather than the north-east. However, there are important consequences for the north-east from the adoption of a more comprehensive
13 May 2008 : Column 384WH
approach. Potentially, we have about two years in which to try to catch up with this issue, so that we have a system in place that allows the whole of the north-east region to get the service that it needs and deserves.

I hope that the Minister, having heard my short contribution this morning, will consider kick-starting some discussions between the police authorities and ACPO, to ensure that we have a more comprehensive system in place. The need for that system is quite urgent; we need it so that the people of the north-east can be confident that they have the service in place that they require and deserve. I hope that the Minister will consider that point.

11.59 am

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I have two reasons for congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this debate. First, we heard him speak passionately in defence of his constituents and, more broadly, the people of the north-east. Secondly, he raises an issue that goes to the very heart of the reform of the police service and, indeed, police authorities. In short, what is the balance to be between prescription from Home Office Ministers in London and the accountability of local police authorities in the north-east and other regions? This debate goes to the very heart of that national question. I will listen with interest to the Minister’s comments, but I want to take some time in what has been a detailed debate to give some indication of what Her Majesty’s Opposition think is the answer to that question.

The north-east forces of Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria have a reasonably good history of effective collaboration, of which the issue that we are discussing is a classic example. I hope that the disagreements that we heard about from the hon. Member for Stockton, North do not sour future collaborative arrangements in other areas in the north-east, because effective collaboration is important if households in the north-east are to get the effective law and order services that they need.

Effective collaboration was one of the key drivers in some of the excellent ratings that those three forces received in the police performance assessment framework for efficiency savings. They and the police authorities that supported their work should be congratulated on delivering those good ratings. Whatever people think about PPAF, if the framework can demonstrate that collaboration works well for certain forces, the Opposition are keen to see it continue. Why? Because effective collaboration can deliver efficiency savings. That does not mean that we want cuts in the police budget—far from it—but making efficiency saving in one part of the budget frees up resources for transfer to other areas of police priority. I am sure that the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government would not disagree with that point. Where the official Opposition disagree with Ministers is on whether enough has been done from the centre to promote more effective collaboration.

In the north-east, the three forces and authorities in question formed a consortium in 1995 that collaboratively provides air support services for their force areas. We heard from the hon. Member for Stockton, North that such services go beyond the three force areas. Other forces are able to access the helicopters.

Next Section Index Home Page