Jonathan holds Parliamentary debate on police helicopter

Today, Tuesday 9th June 2015, Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards lead a Parliamentary debate on saving the Dyfed Powys police helicopter.  You can read or watch his opening speech here:

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC):

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.

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning):

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.]

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair):

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly, please?

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 Jonathan Edwards:

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.

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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.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD):

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.

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Jonathan Edwards:

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.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con):

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.

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Jonathan Edwards:

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.

Mr Mark Williams:

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.

Jonathan Edwards:

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 if the residents of mid and west Wales are 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.


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