Hunt announces funds for police to use drones as ‘first responders’ | Emergency services

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Drones will be increasingly used as “first responders” when the public report incidents to emergency services, under plans announced by the chancellor in the spring budget on Wednesday.

Jeremy Hunt told MPs £230m would be set aside for police to spend on “time- and money-saving technology” such as unmanned flying vehicles and video technology.

The hope is that drones will provide accurate information on the potential scale of an incident reported by a member of the public who has called 999.

Civil liberties organisations are expected to question the increased use of drones in the law and order arena. In the US, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has flagged concerns that they could be used to target poor and marginalised communities.

Plans for trials where drones will be used as first responders at the scene of emergencies were announced by police chiefs in November, with the first tests to be carried out in Norfolk, under a scheme named Project Eagle X.

Further trials are planned for the Thames Valley and Hampshire police forces. If testing is successful, the devices will be stationed on buildings and dispatched to crime and accident scenes, where they will be operated remotely.

Norfolk already has limited access to helicopters flown by the National Police Air Service. At present, their forces use about 400 drones; however, these cannot be flown out of the operator’s line of sight.

Plans are in place to amend those rules to allow police operators to fly the craft beyond their line of sight, with initial trials taking place later this year in areas with closed-off airspace.

Alan Pughsley, who worked on a Home Office-commissioned national review of policing productivity, said technological advances could help with tasks including redacting documents for use in court and rapid video response, where officers speak to victims of domestic abuse via video call instead of attending in person.

Pughsley said: “We’re pleased the work of our independent team has highlighted the huge time savings that could be achieved through better use of technology; time that could be spent attending more burglaries, more cases of domestic abuse, more incidents of antisocial behaviour.

“The policing productivity review has found that technology can enable the acceleration of existing tasks … and provide less resource-intensive ways of delivering services.

“Around 97% of today’s science and technology investment in policing is spent on maintaining existing systems. There is a balance to be struck between ensuring these tools are fit for purpose and making the most of new innovations.

“Policing cannot afford to fall behind in this area, which is why today’s funding announcement is so important.”

The money for drones is part of a boost for police technology spending announced by the chancellor, but falls short of the extra funding chief constables believe is vital to deliver a “stable service”.

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Police chiefs had complained they had no earmarked budget to buy new technology and were left struggling to find the money from their existing squeezed budgets. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) estimates that police funding is £3bn below where it needs to be.

Gavin Stephens, chair of the NPCC, told the Guardian in January that policing was still weathering damage from austerity.

“The reason that we haven’t fully recovered is because when you look at the underlying financial resilience, it’s difficult.

“[There has been] a £1bn increase in borrowing, because we don’t get any capital grant to invest in our infrastructure; a £1bn reduction in reserves; and £1.2bn still to make up in savings. Those savings are predominantly going to come from police staff colleagues. So a £3.2bn cash deficit. That’s what would get us a stable service today.”

The chancellor also said that £170m would be used to fund “non-court resolution, reduce reoffending and digitise the court process”.

He pledged a further £75m to roll out violence reduction units and hotspot policing across the country.

Hunt said the spending review would prioritise schemes that would make annual savings within the next five years equal to the total cost of the measure.