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Dyfed Powys Police Helicopter

Volume 596: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of the Dyfed Powys police helicopter.

I welcome the Minister to his place and congratulate him on his appointment following the general election.

To give an opportunity for the Chamber to clear, so that I can hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, I should say that I have been reappointed rather than appointed. I was in this role before the election. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Crausby.

The helicopter is a prominent and vital asset for policing the communities of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Powys. That can, of course, be said about any police helicopter, but Dyfed Powys is a special place—geographically, it has the largest police force in Wales and England. The landscape is dominated by some of the most stunning mountainous terrain in these isles. Dyfed Powys covers about half of Wales and serves a population of about half a million. It has unique policing challenges, and the helicopter is a vital tool in policing operations. It is used for surveillance, vehicle pursuits, gathering intelligence and evidence, and aerial photography. It is also used to search for missing people, suspects and vehicles. It transports specialist teams around the police force area and is used for casualty evacuation.

The police helicopter has been prominent in our communities for many years. Indeed, Dyfed Powys was the first place in the UK to operate a police helicopter. The reason for my debate today is that, under current plans from the National Police Air Service, our dedicated helicopter will be lost from 1 January next year and our state-of-the-art helicopter base, which recently opened at a cost of millions of pounds, will be closed. As the Minister will be aware, NPAS is the result of the Police (Collaboration: Specified Function) Order 2012, which provides for police air support in England and Wales forces to be exercised in accordance with a single police collaboration agreement. A crucial point is that the order is a Wales and England measure, as policing is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland. If policing were devolved in Wales, as my party advocates, it is highly unlikely that we would be having this argument.

The order does not dictate the number of aircraft or bases to be used by the new NPAS service, and that cuts to the fundamental reason for today’s debate. In 2010, 31 helicopters were used in policing operations around Wales and England, from 29 bases. In 2011, 30 helicopters were operating from 28 bases. After consultation with police authorities and chief constables, NPAS’s business plan was amended to recommend a delivery model of 23 aircraft, plus three spare, from 23 bases. In November 2014, NPAS announced that it would operate 25 aircraft from 22 bases. Crucially, in its prepared communication briefing last November—which I am not completely sure was meant for the public to see—NPAS said that its 22-base model was the right one to deliver the operational capability needed for the public. Just three months on, it announced that it would be operating 19 helicopters and four fixed-wing aircraft from just 15 bases.

The creation of NPAS and the model that it intends to introduce next year will mean the number of active bases in Wales and England being halved, and the number of helicopters being reduced by almost 40%. I would particularly welcome the Minister’s comments on the merits of the current 15-base model, given that NPAS itself previously said that a 22-base model was the right one for the public.

Maps of proposed future coverage accompanied the recent NPAS announcement about reducing the number of bases. They show great swathes of the Dyfed Powys force area that will be reachable only after a minimum of 30 minutes’ travel time from bases at St Athan or Bristol. It does not take a detective to work out that extended travel times will significantly diminish safety and the service available to my constituents.

The proposal flies in the face of one of NPAS’s main objectives: to reach 97% of the population within 20 minutes. To add insult to injury, NPAS proposes one fixed-wing aircraft to serve the whole of Wales in addition to the west midlands and the south-west of England. That is completely at odds with the findings of the fixed-wing aircraft trial that took place in Dyfed Powys in May 2012, which concluded that such an aircraft had few positive features when operating in the Dyfed Powys terrain, and that it spent 80% of its time manoeuvring and only 20% locating lost or injured individuals. The main drawback cited was its inability to land and hover.

The crew at the Pembrey base is not made up just of pilots. It is also made up of trained police officers who often, metaphorically speaking, swap their aviation hats for their police hats when they land the helicopter, to help catch criminals, find lost persons or assist the injured. Such tasks would be impossible without our dedicated service for the force. The various maps produced by NPAS imply that a fixed-wing aircraft will be based in Llandeilo in my constituency; on that basis, estimates are made of average flying times to the rest of Wales. What the maps do not show is that that fixed-wing aircraft will be based in the midlands. For the maps to be accurate, the aircraft would have to be circling Llandeilo constantly; it would have to be refuelled in mid-air when required, before being dispatched, which is plainly ridiculous. The arguments being put forward by NPAS to justify its new enhanced coverage are purely hypothetical and deeply misleading.

The aim of NPAS, of course, is to centralise police air support services to cover the whole of Wales and England. Police forces that sign up to NPAS hand over their assets for the promise of increased coverage and reduced costs, as the Minister will no doubt argue. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. NPAS has been tasked with finding efficiency savings of 37%—23% in 2012 and now a further 14%. It is simply unable to deliver what it promised to individual police forces when they signed up. The assurance of a more efficient and effective service with increased coverage is undeliverable. Indeed, the opposite is happening. A simple internet search will tell the Minister of the concerns that police commissioners and the public throughout Wales and England are raising about the lack of cover that their forces have been witnessing since joining NPAS.

We are told in Dyfed Powys that we will enjoy 24-hour coverage under NPAS, in contrast to the present 12 hours a day. I understand that on only 13 occasions has a helicopter been needed in Dyfed Powys outside the usual operating times over the past four years. That averages just three times a year, with support always available from neighbouring forces. That is a voluntary air support service, so to speak. There is minimal demand for a 24-hour service in Dyfed Powys and the seemingly undeliverable promise of such coverage cannot make up for the loss of our local dedicated service.

The deal between NPAS and Dyfed Powys police announced by our police commissioner in November set out how Dyfed Powys police would pay about £890,000 a year to join NPAS, instead of paying about £1.1 million a year to run and maintain our own dedicated helicopter. The intention to restructure a service to save money is honourable, but it cannot happen if that service is diminished.

Maps produced by aircraft pilots who actually operate police helicopters suggest that air support for priority calls in my area of Dyfed Powys would be completely non-existent within a 20-minute timescale. Not only is that is at odds with what NPAS promises, but there is a strong argument to suggest that instead of Dyfed Powys saving about £200,000 by joining NPAS, it will pay about £900,000 a year for little or no emergency coverage. That is without considering the state-of-the-art Pembrey helicopter base opened only a few years ago, at a cost of £1.2 million to the public purse, with a planning condition permitting its sole use as a police helicopter base. Its closure would be a colossal waste of public money.

The most notable and emotive recent uses of our police helicopter were the searches for little April Jones, who was abducted from outside her Machynlleth home, and for young Cameron Comey, who fell in the River Towy in Carmarthen three months ago and is, tragically, still missing. Additionally, although the air ambulance had been called out to Monmouth, our police helicopter was first on the scene at Cilyrychen quarry, Llandybie, to rescue Luke Somerfield and transport him to Morriston Hospital. That is without mentioning the countless times when the helicopter has been called out in recent weeks to assist in surveillance, or its arrival first on the scene to assist a little girl who was sinking in quicksand at Llansteffan beach. It is impossible for me to list all the incidents in which the Dyfed Powys police helicopter has been involved, but I can say that the prompt response of our local helicopter crew gives innocent young children a fighting chance, and criminals fewer chances.

The police and crime commissioner for Dyfed Powys has been heavily involved in NPAS, and has served as the police commissioner representative for the south-west region on the NPAS strategic board. A freedom of information request was made to obtain the minutes of those meetings. Those minutes left many people in Dyfed Powys saddened, as they showed that their local police commissioner has sat on his hands and is allowing the Pembrey base to close.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I represent Ceredigion, which is part of the 4,188 miles covered by that invaluable service. The hon. Gentleman spoke of his disappointment and puzzlement, but does he share my bewilderment at the fact that in November we were given clear, unequivocal assurances that the service would remain intact, yet several months later it is in doubt again? That undermines the process and, as the hon. Gentleman said, sadly brings into question the commitment of our police commissioner.

I will get to that point later in my speech. As a Member of Parliament representing Ceredigion, the hon. Gentleman knows that the police helicopter from Pembrey can get to his constituency within 20 minutes. Based on NPAS’s current models, it is unlikely that when the service is closed the helicopter will be able to get to Ceredigion in that time. He is right to raise that important point.

Despite the announcement in November that Dyfed Powys would join NPAS and would retain our helicopter and base, the minutes state that when the new proposals were presented the commissioner, Mr Christopher Salmon was “reluctant to oppose” the removal of our helicopter from service. The commissioner wrote in one of my local newspapers last week that he was powerless to stop the loss of our helicopter. His words were a far cry from his pledges to the electorate. His second election pledge in 2012, which was still live on his website this morning, states that he will

“Fight to save Dyfed Powys police helicopter so police can reach all areas”.

Mr Salmon did not pledge to save general helicopter coverage. He did not say he will get the best deal for the area, as he appears to be saying now in the press. He said he will fight to save the Dyfed Powys helicopter.

The commissioner has broken his promise to the people with his reluctance to oppose the NPAS model, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said. I would like to take this opportunity to put on the record my deep disappointment in Mr Salmon because of his abject failure and apparent unwillingness to stand up for the best interests of the residents of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Powys. If the commissioner feels powerless, perhaps it is time for him to leave his job.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene on this hugely important issue for my constituency. Does he agree that the key issue is to have an efficient helicopter service? We know how important that is. Parts of my constituency are almost five hours away from Pembrey by road, and perhaps an hour and a half away from Hawarden. When looking at the whole service, we need an efficient helicopter service that serves the whole of Dyfed Powys and is not confined to an administrative boundary. There are a lot of other issues, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will address that fundamental principle.

It is precisely because of efficiency that I am raising this issue. If I thought the NPAS proposals would lead to enhanced coverage for my constituents, I would happily support them. The reality is that the NPAS proposals will lead to a second-rate service, compared with the dedicated helicopter service we have at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the concerns he is expressing, with which many of us want to be associated, are also those of Dyfed Powys police authority, which is concerned that there will be a diminished service.

That is a valid point, which is why the campaign being run in west Wales by the Carmarthen Journal, the South Wales Guardian, the Llanelli Star and many other local papers is gaining such traction in our local communities.

The Minister and the Home Secretary would be well advised to read the minutes of the NPAS strategic board meeting of 19 February and satisfy themselves that the decision to operate a 15-base model is not open to judicial review. One chief constable on the board states that it was

“virtually impossible to have effective consultations with Forces in a region 4 days before a meeting”.

The chief constable stated that it was

“highly problematic to accept an operating model without an understanding of the costs and savings distribution.”

The minutes state that the approved 15-base model

“had not gone to National Chiefs Counsel.”

Even the Dyfed Powys police commissioner, although reluctant to oppose the new model, acknowledged that the agreement he had previously signed with NPAS had changed without his knowing. On the face of it, it seems that the process followed to approve the 15-base model is on extremely shaky ground.

The weekend before Dissolution, the Teesside Gazette reported that the Home Secretary had ordered a review of the NPAS decision to remove a police helicopter from Teesside and relocate it to Newcastle. Having seen the story, I wrote to the Home Secretary on the morning of Dissolution outlining the strong case for a review of the decision to close the Pembrey base.

One of my first letters in this Parliament was to the Home Secretary to request a meeting to discuss this issue in more detail, and once again to press the urgent need for her intervention in this matter. I am disappointed that I have not received a response to the first letter. I have received a response from the Minister to my second letter, which arrived in my constituency office yesterday, but I am disappointed that the Minister will not meet to discuss this issue.

The residents of Dyfed Powys have been failed by their police commissioner and ill-served by NPAS. If the Home Secretary is not prepared to order a review, as she has done in the north of England, it will be seen, quite rightly, as the residents of mid and west Wales being ignored by the Government. To satisfy my constituents, the Minister must say that the Home Office will initiate a review of the NPAS proposals for Wales, and Dyfed Powys in particular.

The Dyfed Powys police helicopter has undertaken incredible work in our community and has been at the centre of operations—some of them heartbreaking—across the force area. The reduced NPAS model appears to be focused on more densely populated areas; as far as it is concerned, it seems, the rural communities of mid and west of my country look deserted. Going ahead with the current plans would send a strong message to Wales that our communities are an afterthought. If one police force needs a dedicated helicopter service, it is the one that serves the largest and most rural population in Wales and England. The value of our dedicated helicopter service is immeasurable.

In closing, I would like to quote from a piece by a former police officer and best-selling author, Mike Pannett, who said of NPAS:

“Cutting police helicopters is a charter for criminals and real worry for police on the ground that search for vulnerable missing persons on a daily basis. Criminals will act with impunity outside of the helicopter coverage and escape into the night and the lives of the missing and vulnerable will be lost where every minute counts.”

I implore the Minister and Home Secretary to intervene and ensure that Dyfed Powys maintains its base at Pembrey. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

I am very grateful indeed to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) for allowing me to make a short contribution. I congratulate him on securing a debate of huge importance. This is a long-standing issue, and he went through the record of the changes. I was closely involved in a debate about fixed-wing aircraft, which are entirely unsuitable for rural areas such as the whole of rural Wales—not just Dyfed Powys.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, because helicopters are important not only for police and security work but for the health service. Wales Air Ambulance has become a crucial part of service delivery in rural Wales. This issue is therefore really important, and I am looking forward to the Minister’s response.

As I said in an intervention—I did not know whether I would get the chance to speak—Dyfed Powys is a huge area. For example, it would take almost five hours to get from Pembrey to Llangynog, a village I represent, if one remained within the speed limit, and from Hawarden it would take perhaps an hour and a half. Clearly, it is not the same in every part of Dyfed Powys. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that any new system will serve the whole of Dyfed Powys. I am concerned that the helicopter service is limited to a geographical area defined by an administrative boundary, not by the ease with which the helicopter service can deliver services to the people who need them.

There are advantages to the new system. It will be a 24-hour service, and it will be cheaper. One cannot discount the importance of cheapness for the police service. If one is spending money on a helicopter service, there is clearly less money to spend on the visible presence of policemen on the beat, which we all want to see. This is therefore not a straightforward issue.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on behalf of everybody who represents Dyfed Powys, and everybody who lives in the south and the north of that huge area. We all know that the issue is important, and we are all looking forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, in my first debate after being reconfirmed as Minister with responsibility for the police—and now for crime, too, including organised crime. I am at both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice—buy one, get one free, apparently. On a serious note, it works very well being the Minister both for the police and criminal justice.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this debate. If I were the MP for his constituency, I would probably call for a debate on this subject as well; I hope he understands exactly where I am coming from on that point. However, I am not an expert or a police officer—I do not believe there is one in this Chamber, unlike in the old days, when there would have been one—so I take my advice from the frontline.

I will try to address some of the issues raised, but if hon. Members do not mind, I will not address the personal attacks on the police and crime commissioner. I do not think they were appropriate for this Chamber, when we are trying to work together. The PCC is duly elected; when the next elections come, perhaps the party political stuff will start—who knows? At the moment, however, I am sure that he is trying to do the best job he can for the people he represents, as we all are in this Chamber.

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. As someone who represents a very rural constituency in the Dyfed Powys area, I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) for securing the debate, because it is absolutely vital that we discuss this issue.

Will the Minister comment on just how hard our police and crime commissioner has worked to get benefits out of this system? I understand that the helicopter broke down—the gearbox had to be replaced—and was off-air for three weeks, during which we did not have any cover in Dyfed Powys. Under this new system, we would have cover constantly. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr spoke of criminals escaping into the night, but said that we would have 24-hour cover under the new system, whereas there had been just 12-hour cover, so if anything, we will have a better system and larger coverage.

My hon. Friend has been reading my speech—or perhaps he wrote it for me. He is absolutely right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) said in his intervention and short speech, we need to get away from the constabulary boundaries—the old, artificial boundaries—as NPAS has done. The truth is that the helicopter was offline extensively; it was not available 24 hours a day. There will be facilities now; there will be more cover. The North Wales, Birmingham, South Wales and Avon and Somerset forces will all be providing cover, so with this new scheme, we have broken away from saying, “This is ours. You can’t have it, and if you do, it’s going to cost you a small fortune.” The police have bought into that, and it is a really important thing to have done.

There are obvious and understandable concerns. I remember when I did a review of the coastguard and everybody said to me, “This is a very dangerous situation”, but just because we had things in a certain way, it did not mean that that was right. The changes that we made to the coastguard stations have worked, not least—interestingly enough—because we get more cover at times than we had before.

It is not for a Police Minister or a Member of Parliament to tell the police their operational duties or how they should run their forces. We can only dream of having the sort of expertise that they have.

I will give way, but I am conscious that because of the interventions that have been allowed, I will be cut off in a moment, and I want to try to respond to what has been said. Before I give way, I say to hon. Members that if I do not answer all the points raised, because of the time restrictions, I will write to them. I will meet the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, too; there is some logic to doing that once we have had the debate, rather than before.

I thank the Minister for giving way and for agreeing to meet; that will be welcomed in the communities that I represent. If it is not the role of Government Ministers to intervene in strategic decisions by NPAS, why has the review been held of the situation in north-east England?

I will be perfectly honest: I have not had an opportunity to look at that, but I will find out and write. I am not in exactly the same role as I was before—I was responsible for this, but I had no opportunity to look at it. The Minister in the previous debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), was brutally honest, and anybody who knows me knows that I am brutally honest as well. If I do not know the answer, I will get back to people. There will be a review. It was due to be 12 months from when the scheme started, and it started slightly late. I will check and write to the hon. and right hon. Members here today, but my assumption is that it should be 12 months from when it started, so if it started after Christmas, that is when it will be.

The key to this is flexibility. As the Police Minister, I know the value of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. We should not undermine the value of fixed-wing aircraft. I was a Minister with responsibility for counter-terrorism in the Northern Ireland Office; I have to be slightly careful about how I say we use fixed-wing aircraft, but they are enormously useful in policing in particular parts of this great country of ours. We must not underestimate the fact that if there is 24-hour cover, there is the facility to fly anywhere. That is greater than having something on the tarmac at any base at any one time, but not being able to use it.

The police commissioners and chiefs bought into the scheme, and I think they were right to do so. I have looked at the plan that the hon. Gentleman alluded to, and I am comfortable with the situation. I have been judicially reviewed before, when I did not expect to be, but there we are. I am comfortable with the decision that has been made. I did not hear representations that caused me concern about that meeting. However, we never know what is in the post in the morning.

We have to be really careful and look at the big picture, which is what my role involves as Police Minister for England and Wales—for the greatest police forces, I believe, in the world. I say that day in, day out. They are let down occasionally by some individuals, but in general, we have by far the best police in the world. We police in a way that most other countries would love to, but do not. I am particularly referring to the fact that we do not have universally armed police.

The role of NPAS is strategic throughout. When it looked at the issue, it was particularly considering how to cover the gaps, for example when there is engine failure, as has been alluded to, or when we did not have 24-hour cover. Of course, it also looked at the costs. It is obvious that we are responsible for spending taxpayers’ money; we are sent here to monitor and be careful about how taxpayers’ money is spent. The police forces looked at the issue and said, “There could be this model”; then they looked at it again and changed the model. I fully accept that there was a change of model, which is why there will be a review.

We must all sit back, and, as emotive and difficult as it is, say, “This is what will happen. Let’s see how it works.” This is what the police are comfortable with, in relation to the myriad different roles that the helicopters have. They do everything from rescues—even though other facilities can be called on in this part of the world and in other parts of the country—to tackling organised crime and, in particular, cannabis growing. Hon. Members may not yet have had an opportunity to see some of the videos available from heat-seeking cameras, which help us to know exactly who is doing what in properties where cannabis is being grown.

Helicopters are vital for these things, but we all know that they are very expensive, so we must ensure that we use them in the best way. If fixed-wing aircraft are suitable, they should be used. As I said, we must not underestimate the capabilities of fixed-wing aircraft. However, a helicopter moves at great speed. Many of the assumptions are based on the idea that the helicopter would not already be airborne, but it might be airborne; it could have been on an exercise, or be coming back from another operation. The speed at which it could get to different parts of the country would therefore be much quicker.

Clearly, we need to keep the matter under review, and NPAS has agreed to do that. I fully understand individuals’ concerns, but if we want the police to do the job that we are asking them to do, we must listen to the police when they tell us what they need and then react to that. This has been an important debate. I am pleased that other hon. Members have had the opportunity to attend, if not participate. Half-hour debates are always difficult—so difficult that I have managed to gain myself an extra minute by congratulating those who have intervened.

The key is not boundaries; it is not individual constituencies or police authorities. Actually, the police authorities have gone; police and crime commissioners are in place; it was a slip of the tongue to refer to police authorities. It is a good thing that PCCs are in place. We await the elections next year, when I hope the turnout will be much better than it was before. They will coincide with local elections in many parts of the country. People will be able to see what the PCCs are doing for them in their communities. Hopefully, we can leave the politics out of that for a couple more years.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.