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13 May 2008 : Column 384WH—continued

13 May 2008 : Column 385WH

As we heard, the aircraft are equipped with proper kit. A serious operation is run from the two sites. Each aircraft has a Nightsun searchlight, a daylight video camera, a thermal imaging camera, which we heard about, digital still cameras and a stretcher. The aircraft are used for crime scene searches, suspect vehicle pursuits, missing person searches, casualty evacuation and surveillance when the two proud teams in the north-east play derby matches. I understand the Solicitor-General made those points in her capacity as a local Member of Parliament, particularly in that regard.

As we heard, the authorities are considering the future of the service, in particular whether the two helicopters should be reduced to one. The review concluded that there should be one. I understand that it was carried out by officers from Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland, and that the recommendation was an operational one. I would be grateful to the Minister if she clarified whether it was an operational recommendation that one helicopter could provide an adequate service across the three areas. Clearly, that question is at the heart of this debate. The hon. Member for Stockton, North passionately described in forensic detail and with some logic that going to one helicopter would not make operational sense, but it would be useful to get the nitty-gritty on what the police operational side said. I am sure that the Minister and her officials took the trouble to find out in advance of this debate what the answer to that question is.

In short, I would be interested to hear in the Minister’s winding-up speech whether any knock-down arguments of cost or operational effectiveness meet some of the powerful questions posed by the hon. Member for Stockton, North. I shall make a strange confession for a politician: I do not yet know the answers to that question.

We heard that the talks between the three authorities resulted in a failure to agree on a common position and that the Northumbria police authority gave formal notice to withdraw from the consortium with effect from April 2009. I understand that the consortium members have decided to continue formal negotiations, irrespective of that notice, and to try to reach agreement.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments against grounding one of the helicopters, although I believe that those arguments, which we have not yet heard enough about, need to be put on the record. Northumbria police have argued that crime, particularly vehicle-related crime, has changed in recent years. They seem to be saying that the helicopters were particularly effective at tackling vehicle-related crime in the past, but that changes in policing techniques mean that there are different ways for officers on the ground to deal with incidents such as car pursuits, for which a helicopter might traditionally have been used.

The north-east air support unit costs nearly £3.5 million a year. Questions have been asked about the number of daily flying hours and the amount of time spent on stand-by. Those arguments seem to come from Northumbria, which has calculated that about 50 per cent. of the tasks undertaken by NEASU involve maximising existing resources, rather than reflecting the risk-assessed and proportionate use of the helicopter. The argument is that the money could be used more efficiently.

As I said earlier, collaboration in the north-east raises questions about the kind of collaboration the Home
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Office should be driving. My sense is that, if we are to close the gap, particularly in protective services—level 2 services—we need faster, better and deeper collaboration, but not at a regional level, following the boundaries of Government offices for the regions. There are plenty of arguments for collaborative agreements between forces that fall slightly outside those regional lines. However, there should be more collaboration, and there is a logical follow-on from that.

In a nutshell, it is not immediately obvious to me that a Home Office Minister should be intervening to decide whether a part of the country should have one helicopter or two. The best answer for the people of the north-west and the three force areas and beyond may be to have two helicopters. I do not know the answer, but my feeling is that accountability for essentially operational decisions on what is the best crime-fighting set of tools—in this case, air support—related to their cost compared with alternatives such as efficiency savings in one part of the budget can be moved across—

Frank Cook: I want to supplement the hon. Gentleman’s line of argument. On the Home Office’s attitude and the points about intervention, London has police cells that are specially equipped and provided for the detention of terrorists, and Glasgow has similar provision. There is such provision in only one other place in the United Kingdom—on Teesside. Another factor, which I have not raised, is that aerial cover may prove necessary. We are trying to provide for every eventuality in that regard.

Mr. Ruffley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that interesting point, to which I hope the Minister will respond. It is not one that I have pondered.

This debate is hugely important and illustrates a national question with particular reference to the north-east air support unit, and the hon. Gentleman has done us a great service. On the specific question whether there should be one or two helicopters, I look forward to the Minister’s reply. It seems to me that operational decisions should have more to do with local police authorities, however they are configured. My party believes that there should be more than an indirectly elected police authority. We believe that there should be directly elected lay police commissioners who should be able to make judgments on the best mix between what police forces do and whether there should be lead police force for activity X or activity Y. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, and look forward to the Minister’s comments.

12.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this debate, and on his eloquent exposition of the detailed case for retaining two helicopters in the north-east. As many hon. Members know, he is a strong advocate for policing in Cleveland and was one of the most effective Members in lobbying on the merging of forces. His successful track record lies before him, and perhaps he will be successful on this issue. He asked me whether I could press the forces to change their mind, but I think he has already done that eloquently. I shall come to the Home Office’s role, but it is worth going into why aircraft need two pilots, and I shall give a little more detail in addition to what my hon. Friend has said.

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Two EC135 aircraft are based in the north-east, and notice has been given to Cleveland police by the Northumbria and Durham forces that they want to withdraw from that informal consortium arrangement—they do not have a legal agreement—on 31 March next year. One concern that my hon. Friend raised is that at that point the sole remaining aircraft would move from Durham Tees Valley airport to Newcastle airport. He explained clearly the geographical problems that he and his constituents might have with that move.

The reason for withdrawing the aircraft is ostensibly because of changes in Civil Aviation Authority requirements for air transport. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that some of the decisions he talked about are matters for police authorities and forces to determine, so I shall go into the balance of Home Office and police relations.

Police helicopter operations in the United Kingdom have been useful and important in key operational policing. My hon. Friend referred to the work on targeting particular criminal activity and to the important issue of cannabis farms. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a statement about cannabis to the House on 7 May. It is a top priority for the Home Office to tackle not just cannabis use, but its supply. As my hon. Friend rightly said, airborne policing is important in identifying cannabis farms and tackling them. The matter has been raised on the Floor of the House. Perhaps we shall see some change in practice, but let us hope not.

As my hon. Friend said, the resource is well used in Cleveland and is important, but it is worth explaining the background. Following a number of helicopter accidents involving controlled flight at night, the Civil Aviation Authority amended the air navigation order to increase compliancy requirements for public transport at night. It stipulated that to fly at night the aircraft had to have two pilots with appropriate instruments, or be fitted with a functioning autopilot providing at least height and heading hold to keep it in a particular position.

Due to the composition of the police fleet, and the nature of its task and training, that was a big challenge for the police to meet within the right time, so an exemption was granted so that they could continue to operate under the old rules. However, in 2006 events caught up with them and the Civil Aviation Authority, in consultation with the Home Office because of the implications for the police, decided to remove the exemption and to bring aircraft owned and run by the police into line with other public transport operations. The target date for compliance is significant—31 March 2010, about a year after the proposed withdrawal of the aircraft in the north-east.

The Civil Aviation Authority informed all police forces of the intention to amend the air navigation order. Currently, police aircraft covering 16 forces are affected. Two aircraft, shared by five forces, have already been replaced with compliant types and five of the remaining six are in the course of changing. The one remaining aircraft where there is a difficulty is the one operated by the north-east consortium, which my hon. Friend has identified and which is the subject of this debate.

It is important that standards are harmonised for police helicopters so that the same equipment and crew requirements apply as to other public transport. I do not believe that any hon. Member in the Chamber
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would gainsay the positive benefits in improving safety. However, we are seeing unintended consequences of that in the north-east. Of the other police helicopter operators likely to be affected by the legislative change, about three quarters are already compliant with the equipment requirement.

I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the existence of a national strategy underpinning police air operations, which dates back to January 1993. I first became aware of the issue when I was alerted to a discussion about whether the Home Office would fund the new aircraft or changes to aircraft needed as a result of the change. I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing about how the Home Office works with forces to procure and provide aircraft.

Perhaps I should explain on the record that the Government allocate specific capital funding of £5 million a year to support aviation. Under the 1993 strategy, the Home Office contributes 40 per cent. and the police authority contributes 60 per cent. That strategy was developed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Home Office and the then Association of County Councils.

As hon. Members have rightly said, since 1993 there have been significant changes in policing and air operations. They included the need to provide value for money without the loss of operational performance, the need for a clear link between expenditure and performance delivery—we would all no doubt agree with that—and the change in capability as a result of the air navigation order that I have outlined.

The strategy has served us well, but it has been in place for 14 years. If we compare 1993 with now, at that time only 16 forces nationally had any form of air support. Today, 39 forces—we have 43, of course, in England and Wales—have direct access to aircraft, and 34 helicopters and 4 fixed-wing planes are available to the police nationally. The initial process to update the strategy began in 2003 but lost impetus and stalled because of the proposals to merge certain police forces in 2006. It is clear that there is a real variance in the way air support is delivered locally and regionally. Across air support units and consortiums there are widely differing performance indicators and approaches, including in relation to operating hours, system capabilities and supply agreements. That is one of the issues with which I have been involved as one of the Ministers responsible for procurement in the Home Office.

In the Home Office, we believe that such variance leads to a piecemeal approach that does not take into account the necessary economies of scale or provide the best service. There is no clear structure for the current organisation of police air support units. They are primarily based on individual forces, and as we have heard eloquently from all hon. Members, air support for just one force may miss the point about how it can be used because the types of crime that can be tackled do not respect bureaucratic borders. Such a method of organising air cover is clearly not the most efficient.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, in the form of the ACPO air operations working group, is, therefore, undertaking a fundamental review of police air operations in England and Wales. The group is working with the National Policing Improvement Agency and the police service to provide a better framework for the consistent
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development and procurement of police air support over the next 10 years and to provide greater air capability to enhance the protective services across England and Wales that my hon. Friend outlined. As part of the review, ACPO will establish what the forces and the public need air support to deliver and what the policing priorities are. The recommendations will flow from that.

Returning to the Teesside question, the decision to change how air support is delivered in the north-east is made by the local police authorities and the forces concerned; it is not the role of the Home Office to direct operational priorities. However, hon. Members have raised the issue of police funding and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) suggested that funding is tight for the police. It is worth reminding hon. Members that in the last settlement—this year’s settlement—we set floors for grants so no authorities lost out. The Government have invested a great deal of money in policing during the past 10 years. In fact, in the settlement last year, for 2010-11, there was 2.7 per cent. over the 2009-10 settlement, which is £9.7 billion. It is not in any respect fair to say that the Government have not put money into the police. The Government grant for the police will have increased by more than 60 per cent.—more than £3.7 billion—between 1997-98 and 2010-11.

On helicopters and air cover, the Civil Aviation Authority, which is in contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, recognises that there needs to be a degree of flexibility regarding achieving compliance with the air navigation order. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North might be interested to know that I am advised that it would be prepared to consider individual representations for short-term alleviations to allow new equipment to be procured. Under the timetable for the procurement of helicopters, it takes about 18 months from procurement to delivery to provide a new helicopter. Fully worked-up bids for the next round of Home Office funding of £5 million in total for the England and Wales pot need to be in by December this year.

Frank Cook: Can I ask the Minister to repeat the last 30 seconds of what she has just said in a loud voice that can be heard throughout the country and will carry as far as Northumbria?

Meg Hillier: Happily, we have the excellent services of the Hansard reporters whose skills, together with those of my hon. Friend, who is a champion for Teesside, and of our friends in the press—honourable or not—will no doubt ensure that this will be heard.

As I said, fully worked-up bids for the £5 million pot of money need to be in by December this year. That allocation will be made available in April next year. The changes in the air navigation rules mean that much of the money available in the budget so far is already tied up with other affected forces. However, the Home Office is prepared to look flexibly at the issue of the one remaining helicopter—although I make no firm promises. Clearly, there must be a worked-up bid and it must be operationally achievable. Cleveland police must be prepared to pay their share into the pot, too.

I have mentioned that the operational requirements of the police are dominant. However, the national strategy for air cover recommends that target attendance time is
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15 minutes for major urban areas. Clearly, there are differences in target times, but if my hon. Friend would like me to send him more detail about that part of the strategy or on the strategy as a whole, I am happy to do so.

On the brass tacks of funding, I have mentioned the £5 million pot available. A new aircraft at today’s prices would be about £4.6 million, which is the top figure—although perhaps my hon. Friend has a chief constable who is a good negotiator. Trading in the aircraft—if my hon. Friend’s suggestion of selling a helicopter and buying one was taken up by his chief constable—would net around £1 million. I am not a second-hand car or helicopter sales person so I rely on other expertise in that matter, but that is the ballpark figure. If there was a total 40 per cent. capital grant, £1.4 million would be available from the Home Office. If it was funded at that figure or anything up to that, it would leave at the minimum a remainder of £2.2 million to be split three ways if the aircraft was bought by the consortium or funded by Cleveland police, if they were to go it alone.

Earlier, I said that it would take 18 months to deliver an aircraft. I should correct that figure as it can take between 18 and 24 months, and up to two years in some cases. That is why the flexibility of the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority is important.

I shall briefly mention the issue raised by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife about merging forces. I wish to make it clear that merging forces is off the agenda at the moment. However, Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s independent review of policing, which was published only in February, recommended that if forces wanted to join together voluntarily, the Home Office should assist them to do so. It is a matter of a bottom-up, rather than a top-down approach. That is the current position.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about charitable funding. The police use only one helicopter that has any form of charitable funding and that is in Wiltshire and Sussex. That is because the Wiltshire and Sussex police helicopter is also the air ambulance, so it is a combined facility. I want to make it clear that there is no routine charitable funding of police helicopters.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) rightly mentioned the balance between local and central Government decision making. I have made the Government’s position clear on that. It is important to let chief constables and police authorities make the appropriate operational decisions. Clearly, the Home Office has an overarching role, particularly through the National Policing Improvement Agency, which has just been set up. The agency is an important body and will ensure that the 43 forces do not take a too divergent an approach to operational delivery. I agree—I am happy when we can agree across the Chamber—that every pound of public money saved is a pound that can be spent elsewhere. Clearly, efficiencies are important because they allow for further investment in the Home Office’s important top priority of tackling crime.

Thank you, Mr. Cummings, for chairing the debate. I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North that there may be some leeway. Clearly, it is not a matter for the Home Office to direct, but I am sure that with the information he has obtained and his passion for the issue, he may be able to have a useful conversation with his chief constable.

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