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4 Jun 2008 : Column 303WH—continued

She also said that the funding, which includes a 40 per cent. contribution by the Home Office, was agreed with the Association of County Councils many years ago.

I should be grateful if the Minister could please update us on the Association of Chief Police Officers’ review of police air operations in England and Wales. We know that the group is working with the National Policing Improvement Agency and with the police, and I hope that they are on to Wiltshire’s case, because it is very important to our constituents. The ACPO review will establish what the forces and the public need, which is air support, and what the policing priorities are. Recommendations will flow from that, but will the Minister tell us when we will get them?

I understand that there might be some short-term financial alleviation to allow equipment to be procured. That might be relevant for the Wiltshire police helicopter, which needs new equipment worth some £800,000. There is a round of Home Office funding worth £5 million, but the lid to that particular pot will be closed at the end of December. How will that help the Wiltshire situation?

What is unique about the Wiltshire police helicopter is the fact that it has joint funding, with charitable funding for the air ambulance side. That is hugely important. I find myself quite torn. It is very important for the community to feel that they are stakeholders in this project. The air ambulance belongs to the people of Wiltshire; they have raised the money. The £1.3 million in the kitty of the charitable trust is Wiltshire money and we hope that the air ambulance will continue to be used in Wiltshire. There is tremendous commitment to the service from our constituents. It is feared that if the air ambulance side of the operation comes to an end, the police helicopter will no longer be viable and will have to cease its service by the end of the year, which would be tragic.

Therefore, while I welcome the charitable contributions to the air ambulance side, I do not think that it is the right solution. No doubt the reviews will consider that matter. It is not right in this day and age to be wondering whether we can afford a police helicopter. Police helicopters and air ambulances are not a luxury, and they are no longer a novelty. They were 10 years ago. In the 19th century, the police constable and village bobby would
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not have shared their pedal cycle with the district nurse; in the 21st century, the police helicopter should not have to be shared between the crime busters and the trauma clinicians on whom we all rely.

This significant issue has not been aired publicly in a satisfactory way. Far too much is going on behind closed doors. The lips of all the employees involved are sealed. There is suspicion among the ambulance crews because they feel that the air ambulance does not go out when it should. However, that is for perfectly sound operational reasons based on the professionalism and experience of the air support unit located in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes. That problem will get worse and run into the buffers unless the Minister can help us. She cannot solve the problems of the air ambulance as such, but I hope that it will concentrate her mind to know that if we do not crack this problem, and if her colleagues in the Department of Health do not rap someone over the knuckles, we will lose a very important component of policing in Wiltshire.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am sorry to intrude into my hon. Friend’s debate. Gloucestershire shares the ambulance helicopter with Wiltshire but has no police helicopter. Does he not agree that a comprehensive solution needs to be found to benefit the three counties—Wiltshire, Avon and Gloucestershire—involved in the air ambulance?

Robert Key: From my hon. Friend’s point of view, he is entirely right. From Wiltshire’s point of view, he is entirely wrong. We should not have such a problem. In the 21st century, we should have a comprehensive national approach. The national health service, for which the Minister is not responsible, should not need to approach charities to fund air ambulances when they are proving so cost-effective. The clinicians and consultants of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight helicopter service are adamant that air ambulances should be part of standard national health service provision. We need a national plan for that and for the police helicopter. I hope that the Minister will tell us that one is coming soon so that we can reassure our constituents.

This is an all-party matter. The Labour Members representing Swindon are as keen and as worried about this as we are. I hope that we can find some resolution because this problem will escalate if we do not deal with it quickly. I am sure that the Minister, with her swiftly acquired expertise, will be able to address the problem in a way that will allay the fears of our constituents, many of whom have benefited from the air ambulance and the police helicopter.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing this debate.

The point about the interest in the service has been well made both by the presence of four other hon. Members and by the support of others who were not able to be here today. I recognise the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised about the future funding arrangements of the combined police and air ambulance
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operation. The unit provides police air support and helicopter emergency medical services to the people of Wiltshire. Significantly, the helicopter has been provided under a private finance initiative and is based at the Devizes headquarters of the Wiltshire constabulary. The PFI contract has been going for a long time. By working with its local ambulance service and co-locating some of its services, Wiltshire has been one of the most forward thinking police authorities. Perhaps other parts of the country could learn from such an operation. The contract has been running for nearly 10 years and is due for renewal from December this year.

Contract negotiations are ongoing. The Great Western ambulance service has asked for an extension to the contract while it carries out a review of the area’s clinical need for helicopter services. I understand that the police are pressing for a further five-year contract. As the hon. Gentleman said, the two parties are still in negotiation over that point.

As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, there are limits to the Home Office’s reach in such areas. As he quite helpfully pointed out, I do not have responsibility for the national health service; I have plenty of other things on my plate. There are important issues about the autonomy of local police and ambulance authorities. It is not the role of the Home Office to direct, at a close local level, individual operational decisions. It is for Wiltshire constabulary, the police authority, neighbouring police forces and the air ambulance charities to determine their own operational needs. It is important to recognise that the Government do not run everything from Whitehall. We do not have any locus in this area and neither do the Department of Health or the National Policing Improvement Agency, for which I have some responsibility.

From the Home Office perspective, police helicopter operations are very important. They have been used to target criminal activity and have improved safety on dangerous vehicle pursuits. In this instance, in which the aircraft is shared, we have seen benefits to the public, which is what we all, as Members of Parliament, are most interested in. The vital role of delivering emergency care to people across south-west England has proved an effective and faster way of getting people to hospital and supporting inter-hospital transfers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the amount of money that has been raised by the public. Clearly, the service has had enormous support from the public. People have been dipping into their pockets to pay for it. They also support the work that has been done by the medical and trauma teams. I am grateful for the work done by both the police and the helicopter emergency medical service, which is carried out on a 24/7 basis. The teams work long hours, which is very impressive.

It was interesting and instructive to learn—from the review that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—that Wiltshire and Sussex are the only two counties with a joint operation. We should consider that model for the future. In a moment, I will touch on what is happening with the review, as the hon. Gentleman asked. There are clearly financial benefits to linking services, which enables the air ambulance to operate at night because of the capacity of the police helicopter and the equipment therein.

The current national air support strategy for the police has served police services since 1993, but there
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has been no meaningful review for 14 years. It is a mark of the differences and changes over the years that in 1993 only 16 forces nationally had any form of air support, but today 39 of 43 forces have direct access to aircraft, with 34 helicopters and four fixed-wing planes available to the police nationally, although procured on the basis of local demands and resources.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the funding provided by the Home Office, in the funding round that we are approaching at the moment, with a capital pot of £5 million available for part-funding the capital purchase of helicopters. Because the Wiltshire helicopter was purchased under a private finance initiative arrangement, the aircraft belongs to Police Aviation Services, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We cannot put Home Office investment into an asset that belongs to that organisation rather than the police. That limits the opportunities to look at that pot of money.

Robert Key: Is that fund applicable to equipment in the helicopter that is purchased specially for the use of the air ambulance service and the police service?

Meg Hillier: I think not, because of the ownership of the helicopter, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman in detail and clarify the matter. Perhaps we can have a dialogue about exactly which bits of equipment he is talking about to ensure that we get things straight. I would not want to commit myself on the technical detail of bits of equipment that I do not know anything about.

What is going on in Wiltshire is an example of what we should be looking at for the 21st century. Wiltshire is setting the agenda. The work being done by the Association of Chief Police Officers in its air operations working group and the fundamental review, which the hon. Gentleman talked about and which I mentioned on 13 April in respect of police air operations in England and Wales, will provide a framework for what we envisage and hope for in the next 10 years and will be updatable as necessary. We are making progress on that.

The draft report is currently with Chief Constable Hogan-Howe and the first meeting to discuss it will be tomorrow morning at about 9 am, so I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman exactly where we are with that, because we are a day ahead of ourselves—if only we had had this debate tomorrow afternoon. The aim is that the chief officers council will see the proposals in or around July, although I cannot predict a precise time. I am happy to keep in contact with the hon. Gentleman and ensure that he is made aware of progress.

The review will consider all issues to do with where a helicopter is based and co-operation options. It will be down to ACPO to finalise the detail. I hope that it will note good practice where it works, take those lessons and apply them more widely. That is a matter for the review. Whatever the recommendations of the review, decisions need to be made locally, as an operational matter, between the local force and air ambulance service.

I am sure that hon. Members agree that the Home Office’s and the Government’s commitment to policing is demonstrated by the fact that we have increased the police grant by more than 60 per cent., or £3.7 billion, between 1997 and 2010-11. Funding is allocated chiefly through the police formula grant to allow police forces
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and authorities the flexibility to determine their local priorities, which we have already mentioned.

The ACPO air operations working group provides national co-ordination and support to police air operations and the review will be helpful in that respect. Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe, who is leading the review and leads on police air operations overall, is able to lend the group’s support to any forces to overcome any difficulties. If the hon. Gentleman has not already made contact with Chief Constable Hogan-Howe, he may wish to do so to see if he can use his weight, along with my words today, in support of a solution to the issue.

The hon. Gentleman has used his influence effectively and no one in Wiltshire can be in any doubt about his commitment, and the commitment of the public, to the joint service. There is an opportunity for him to contact Chief Constable Hogan-Howe. I will make sure that I answer the point about funding issues in writing and I will also keep him up to date on progress on the review programme, so that—I hope—by July we will have the results.

Mr. Ancram: One aspect of the use of the helicopter that should be put on the record is that the A4, which is in my constituency, is a straight road and is good for speeding motorcycles—if I can put it that way. Motorcycles often go at speeds that are impossible to police by car and the police helicopter has been an effective way of policing them. If the helicopter goes, it could be very damaging.

Meg Hillier: The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important point. The issue of police chases and how the helicopter can help to prevent accidents is important. I cannot quote the figures off the top of my head, but the statistics for motorcycle safety are immense. When a police car chases somebody on a motorcycle, the temptation to go faster is no doubt huge. I, and the Home Office, see the benefit of police helicopters.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I had not intended to intervene, but we have some time left so I hope the Minister does not mind me doing so. I have listened carefully to the technicalities of what she has so far discussed and, as far as I am aware, she has not reiterated the fundamental importance of a police helicopter for the county of Wiltshire, which is a large rural county with access problems caused by road structures. In light of the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), will she take this opportunity to reiterate to the House that the Government believe it is important that we in the county of Wiltshire—
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and the county of Wiltshire alone—should have the use of a police helicopter for the foreseeable future?

Meg Hillier: I am aware that in different local areas there have been discussions about the benefits of sharing helicopters across areas. I recognise that Wiltshire’s size and the fact that it is a largely rural area means that it would certainly benefit from a helicopter, but it is up to the local police authorities and chief constables to determine local needs. As I have said, the public in Wiltshire clearly support the project—not just in principle but in financial terms.

Mr. Gray: I quite understand that the Minister is saying it is a matter for the chief constable. If the chief constable of Wiltshire were to conclude that it is clear that we must have a police helicopter for Wiltshire alone and that the helicopter should not be used outside the borders of the county of Wiltshire, would Her Majesty’s Government support the chief constable in that conclusion?

Meg Hillier: It would be open to the chief constable, as it is already, to fund the helicopter, to apply at different times to the Home Office for support if a new helicopter needed to be procured at any point and to apply for a share of the capital funding that the Home Office puts into new helicopter equipment. However, it would still be a matter for police authorities and chief constables locally to determine whether it might sometimes be beneficial to stray slightly over the Wiltshire border and engage in joint work across two police authority areas. That would be a matter for local determination.

There seems to be a well established tradition in Wiltshire that there is not just a long-established police helicopter, but long-established and far-sighted co-operation between services, which has served the people of Wiltshire well. That record speaks for itself. It is important that we allow local policing priorities to determine the matter. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would object if I were to come in from the Home Office and direct local police authorities and chief constables to do something that he might interpret as not so beneficial to his area. It is important that local chief constables and police authorities make those decisions. I have no doubt that hon. Members in the Chamber and elsewhere will use their influence to shape those decisions, as this debate has effectively done.

The service is an example of far-sighted, good practice. There are issues under negotiation that are not the direct locus of the Home Office or the Department of Health. Points on the matter have been well made and anyone involved in the discussions will be clear about the support of hon. Members for the continuance of co-operation between the health emergency helicopter and the police helicopter.

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Shrewsbury Sixth-form College

4.29 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): This is a subject that I feel passionately about. The college is a major centre for learning in my constituency, and during the next 15 minutes I have a tremendous opportunity to share some of our experiences of co-location with the Minister and to ask for clarification on certain elements of Government policy.

I start by stating my admiration for the teachers, lecturers and staff of the sixth-form college, who do a tremendous job—I am always in awe of what they achieve. The Minister will know of the tremendous results of the college’s pupils. That is primarily down to the professionalism and hard work not only of the teaching staff but of the assistants, management and everyone involved. That is not the problem.

There is no doubt that sixth-form colleges need investment. I was taken around the sixth-form college by Mr. Robert Bland, one of the governors, and I was shown the dilapidated state of some of the rooms. I have no doubt that both colleges in Shrewsbury—the sixth-form college and Shrewsbury college of art and technology—need significant investment.

Funding comes from the Learning and Skills Council. The LSC will allow a community such as mine to apply for funding for only one project at a time, and there is no alternative to that. In our case, the principals have decided to go ahead with a co-location proposal to scrap the Shrewsbury sixth-form college in the town centre and co-locate that college with another—Shrewsbury college of art and technology—in London road.

That is the proposal, and the LSC has told our community that it can have £30 million if we co-locate both colleges on London road, which the principals of both colleges want. However, there is no alternative for the community; there is no alternative for me; there is no alternative for the council; and there is no alternative for the thousands of my constituents who object to co-location in London road, which is in a highly residential area of Shrewsbury.

If the proposal does not secure planning permission, the governing bodies will have to go back to the drawing board. It is much better always to have a back-up plan when trying to secure such an investment, rather than putting all one’s eggs in one basket—co-location or nothing—and then having to go back to the drawing board and start discussions all over again.

I disagree with co-location on London road, because it is a highly residential part of the community and it will pull the students away from the town centre, where they have become an integral part of its life and character. My hair is going grey as a result of the controversy; over the last year, I have had to grapple with this issue more than any other. There is huge dissatisfaction among the teachers at the sixth-form college, who are not convinced by the educational case for co-location.

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