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North East Air Support Unit (Teesside)

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2008

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.

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:

“The fact is that purely based on operational need there is only a requirement for one helicopter.”

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

“There will be no detrimental effect to the people and communities of County Durham and Darlington by the switch to one helicopter. There will be savings and that money can be invested in front line operational policing.”

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

“the operational needs of Durham Constabulary can be met by one aircraft”,

that the

“shared use of one helicopter, on call 24 hours a day, will meet our demands without any significant detrimental impact”,

and that the

“air unit still has a vital role to play”—

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:

“A helicopter called out from Newcastle could take half an hour to get to south Cleveland, to places like Loftus and Brotton, by which time it would be too late in the vast majority of incidents.”

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:

“The police helicopter has proved an invaluable tool,”—

I think that we can all agree with that—

“not only in catching criminals but in crime prevention work, and it should not be lost. I would be extremely concerned if the nearest one to us was based at Durham Tees Valley.”

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 should be based anyway. Another person to disagree was, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who said:

“If Durham is going to lose its helicopter, there needs to be a public debate and some justification as to why it is being taken away. No decision should be taken behind closed doors.”

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 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 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:

“If one of these helicopters is withdrawn, then it is the rural areas which will suffer as usual.”

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

“Police helicopters don’t only help to catch criminals, they also can help save lives. And with ambulance cover in remote areas already under review, helicopters are needed more than ever before.”

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:

“Although only representing 1-2 per cent. of force budgets, air support is one of the largest discrete items in our budgets.”

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:

“Typically, a helicopter can fly 140 miles in an hour and stay on station for one hour.”

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:

“When an aircraft is down for maintenance or repair”,

there are normally arrangements in hand across the country

“to provide reserve aircraft to neighbouring forces.”

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 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

“which force made the best operational case to be prioritised to receive 50 per cent. of capital funding”.

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

“which force could afford the other 50 per cent. of capital costs and the cash to run the aircraft for every succeeding year.”

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:

“We need to keep the best of what we have developed”

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,

“between April 2007 and January 2008 the tasks undertaken in the Cleveland area rose by 11.6 per cent compared to the previous 12 months, while in both Durham and Northumbria they fell by about 5 per cent...the Teesside-based helicopter has flown 13 mercy missions at night, airlifting injured people to hospital since early January this year.”

And this is only the beginning of May. Furthermore:

“Of those flights, five involved casualties with serious injuries and whose lives may well have been saved by speedy airlifts to hospital.

The Northumberland-based helicopter has undertaken four medical flights, with one serious injury, in the same period.”

So they are both performing good work: it is just that we cannot predict when and where we will need them. 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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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—

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.

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.

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.

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 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 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.

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?

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 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.