Why does Police Scotland refuse to engage with the UK Civil Air Patrol?




Up until the formation of Police Scotland (PS) in April 2013, the UK Civil Air Patrol (UKCAP) had legal Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with 4 out of the 8 extant legacy forces: Fife Constabulary, Grampian Police, Northern Constabulary and Tayside Police. These four forces covered around 62% of the total area of Scotland.  The MoUs detailed how the police forces might engage with the UKCAP. They indemnified the forces involved of any responsibility for UKCAP’s airborne activity but also recognised the important role that UKCAP volunteer crews played in an airborne search and support role, especially in remote and rural areas. MoUs also covered other important issues such as communication, activation procedures, capability and insurance to ensure an optimal and effective working relationship. These MoUs were all terminated by Police Scotland within a few weeks of its formation.  


A number of reasons have subsequently been provided by PS relating to why the MoUs were terminated, both through written correspondence and at meetings held with senior Police Scotland staff. The main reasons, along with the UKCAPS response to them are as follows: 


1.       “Police Scotland no longer needs an MoU with the UKCAP as the combined force helicopter is now available to all legacy force areas at no cost”. 


Prior to the formation of Police Scotland, the Strathclyde Police helicopter spent most of its time in the Strathclyde police area and was only loaned to other forces at their request and expense. PS identified that the single combined force helicopter was now available to all legacy force areas without the significant financial costs cross-charged previously. PS believed that it was these costs that had been the main barrier to helicopter use by legacy forces outside Strathclyde. 


A single police helicopter with an endurance of 90 minutes and cruise speed of circa 130kts could never provide true national cover for all roles, even if the financial barrier to wider use was removed. This is primarily because transit times and the need for multiple re-fuelling and crew stops add unrealistic delay and logistical complexity. For example, a one hour search in the Inverness area would require a 45 min transit from Glasgow, 1 hour search flight, 45 min return flight and at least 2 refuelling stops before the helicopter regained operational status for other roles.  This would require circa 4 hours in total during which the aircraft would otherwise be unavailable. This, in order to undertake a 1 hour search at a total estimated cost in excess of £12,000. 


There is no cross-over between PS and CAP aircraft roles.  The highly specialised PS helicopter and crew is best used for tasks not coverable by the CAP whilst the CAP is best suited to roles for which the PS helicopter could not reasonably be employed on cost considerations alone. There is a completely separate role group for each air asset.  The UKCAP poses no competition whatsoever to PS air support and CAP activity is in any case and by the very nature of its volunteer basis, restricted to very occasional use.


2.      “The law forbids Police Scotland from working with the UKCAP”. 


In 2015 the UKCAP undertook consultations with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and with cross-party political support appealed for a change in the law.  A change was promulgated in the 2016 Air Navigation Order (ANO) - which regulates all civil flying operations in the UK - and this change now allows the CAP to operate in conjunction with police forces based on a ‘permission’ given by the CAA. Gaining a CAA ‘permission’ is perfectly feasible but involves PS cooperation, currently refused.  


3.       “It is too risky for Police Scotland to engage with the UKCAP as it would be held legally responsible (and possibly sued) as a consequence of the UKCAP’s actions or omissions.  


PS has identified that a key element of concern lies with the issue of ‘tasking’ an aircraft or flight. PS argue that any information passed by it to the CAP in any form, would constitute ‘tasking’. This would mean that PS retained legal responsibility for the flight that could not otherwise be devolved. 


The UKCAP maintains that the relationship between PS and the CAP would be no different to the relationship between PS and any other third sector organisation, e.g. mountain rescue teams, cave rescue teams, search dogs, 4 x 4 organisations, etc. What is possible for other organisations must be possible for the CAP.  The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) operates with the CAP and some police forces in England operate with the CAP via requests for assistance made through Local Resilience Forums (LRFs). In Scotland, the equivalent body to the LRF is the Local Resilience Partnership and there is no practical reason for not having a similar arrangement.  LRPs or perhaps central government could bear any legal responsibility for CAP ops in exactly the same way as they do for all other voluntary involvement in resilience matters.  Legal responsibility could be removed from PS.


All UKCAP flights are private and under the complete control of the CAP trustees and aircraft captains. There can be no contract with PS, no commercial aspect to CAP operations and no mutuality of obligation.  All of that is expressly forbidden by the ANO. PS cannot, therefore, legally ‘task’ the CAP in any way. PS may only request assistance which may be provided by the CAP at its own discretion.  The consequences of any such ‘tasking’, feared by PS, are therefore cannot arise and so the issue is a non-sequitur.


PS likely doubts CAP capability and availability. CAP capability has improved greatly in recent years and has been effectively demonstrated. Availability will always be limited but valuable nevertheless if the resource is used efficiently, particularly in cases where the routine alternative would be zero air support.  


The UKCAP has no interest in police activity. The sole reason the CAP requires a relationship with PS is because PS has a statutory role in the co-ordination of missing person searches on land and this requires that CAP activity should be co-ordinated so as to be as effective and safe as possible. 


Finally, PS should formally consider the risks associated with not using the CAP.  It’s obligations under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act require it to do all that it can to save lives and prevent damage to property.  Wilful failure to use a proven and available resource to save life and property could realistically leave PS open to prosecution and/or being sued.    


4.        “Any formal relationship with the UKCAP would require Police Scotland to have sight of/supervise CAP aircraft and crews and it simply doesn’t have the capacity or expertise to do this”.  


Supervising aircraft and crews in terms of qualification, licensing, training and maintenance is the responsibility of the UKCAA and not the police. If pilots hold valid licences and their aircraft have a current Certificate of Airworthiness or Permit to Fly then both aircraft and crew fully comply with UK regulation and are legally fit to fly any CAP supervised mission. The CAP will assign appropriate crews to particular missions. PS is not required to directly supervise RNLI crews and craft with which they cooperate and for which supervision PS has neither the capacity nor expertise.  Why should such supervision be necessary for CAP operations?    


5.       “To be able to add real value, any relationship between Police Scotland and the UKCAP would require PS to share information. This would not be possible in many instances and would therefore render the voluntary airborne search role futile”. 


PS has made it clear that it is unable to share all of the data available to it that may help the UKCAP plan a sortie - either as a result of on-going criminal investigations (where criminality or some other offence may be an element of the search) and/or due to privacy laws. PS notes that searches are often closely scrutinised by review bodies in relation to the release of private information or information that could in some way affect a future criminal case. However, it also recognises that this issue could be appropriately addressed through an effective MoU. 


The only information invariably required by the CAP is information that is held within the public domain or that concerns coordination with other assets. If any search case possibly involved criminal activity, the CAP (which operates in a purely humanitarian role) would choose not to be involved.  The nature of flying ops means that physical contact between PS and the CAP would be minimal and there is little or no requirement for vetting.   


Primary search information required by the UKCAP is restricted to a description of what is lost, where it may be and where CAP efforts would be best concentrated in the context of everything else that is planned/other available resources. Many CAP search operations are based on recovery after a person is judged to be most likely deceased. There is no confliction with police (or any other) manned air assets in this role as none will take it. Searching for live missing persons by the CAP would always be restricted to cases where the alternative was no air support at all.  


Unlike most other volunteer search assets, there is no likelihood of the UKCAP in any way damaging or compromising evidence from the air.  


UKCAP crews donate their time and aircraft completely free of charge, meaning that volunteer air support comes at no cost to the public purse.  Whilst UKCAP has never presented itself as an alternative to a professional airborne asset, it is a highly credible tool for protracted searches or other operations where lives are not at immediate risk. 


What does the CAP want?


The UKCAP would like PS to engage in formulating a CAA permission to cooperate.  This would be an arms-length cooperation involving an agreed method of requesting assistance from the CAP, a simple brief comprising information already released into the public domain, PS points of contact for the operation and active coordination with other operational assets.  Finally, an agreed form of reporting is necessary. None of that should present any serious difficulty. 


It’s the community that bears the brunt and suffers the loss of poor cooperation between PS and the UKCAP.


Where are we now? 


The UKCAP continues to fly in support of communities. As well as missing person searches it supports a range of environmental monitoring, photographic reconnaissance, wildlife rescue and event support roles. It is happy to be contacted by anyone who may benefit from some form of humanitarian air support and will consider all requests, although it is not always able to assist. 


PS has acknowledged that the UKCAP is doing nothing illegal and that it will not prevent it from operating. Successful results by the CAP have been treated with acclaim by the police. At an operational and human level, the CAP believes that PS is sympathetic to its aims and accepts that the organisation is strongly motivated by a desire to support communities. This is evident from meetings, the many formal and informal contacts the CAP continues to enjoy with active and former police officers and from the core of extremely experienced former senior police officers who now have active roles within the UKCAP.  Unfortunately, at a strategic and formal level, PS continues to refuse engagement in any form.  


Although the CAP is still involved in missing person searches and related activity, this is always as a consequence of requests from other agencies, next of kin, friends & family members - or due to CAP monitoring of social media reports. It also means that the CAP routinely does not have the basic information required to mount an effective search. Critically, it means that the CAP is unable to assist during the early phases of a search operation when other air assets are not immediately available and when the chance of saving life may be at its highest. 


In summary, the UKCAP believes that the reasons presented by Police Scotland for not cooperating are without basis in fact and the CAP has tried to explain it’s rationale for this in simple terms here. The CAP also believes that any perceived preventative issues can be overcome through dialogue, common sense and a commitment by both parties.