Police Scotland cancel plans for £3m “snooper plane”


POLICE Scotland have scrapped plans to buy a controversial aircraft costing up to £3m and capable of surveillance.

The force has confirmed it has now dropped plans for a fixed-wing aircraft to provide services that were to include “intelligence gathering” and “aerial imagery”.

Documents produced by the Scottish Police Authority show they wanted the aircraft to be fitted with a daylight and thermal imaging video system, digital video recording system and a vehicle location system.

Similar fixed-wing aircraft have been used by police and security services south of the border and in Northern Ireland for everything from spotting drivers using mobile phones to hunting terror suspects.

Before the cancellation of plans was announced civil liberties groups attacked the plan, which they described as a “new snooper spy plane”.

Taxpayers’ groups and the Scottish Tories also questioned whether the aircraft would deliver value for money.

GMP's surveillance plane (credit: Adrian Pingstone)
GMP’s surveillance plane (credit: Adrian Pingstone)


Contacted about the plan on Wednesday, Police Scotland initially said they were “progressing the contract”. Yesterday (Thu) the force claimed this was the response to a different question and insisted there were no plans to buy a fixed-wing aircraft.

A spokesman said: “There will be no plane. We have no plans to use fixed wing aircraft in any capacity as part of our air support service.”

It would have been the first time police in Scotland had equipped themselves with a fixed-wing aircraft, which provides greater speed, distance and all-weather performance than a helicopter.

The intention to tender notice was posted by the Scottish Police Authority in March.

It stated: “The service provider would be required to supply a suitable fixed wing aircraft for the exclusive use of Police Scotland together with pilotage, full maintenance and repair services, full landing and ground facilities.

“The fixed wing aircraft would be available to be deployed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”

In the contract police bosses also outlined a new plan to operate the new plane in the north of Scotland, whilst limiting their helicopter to the central belt.

The contract says the plane was was be used for “intelligence gathering” and “public safety” and that it should be quieter than the current police helicopter whilst also being able to cover more ground.

And the new plane was to be fitted with a daylight and thermal image video system; vehicle tracking system and high-spec cameras.

The contract gave no specification for the model of plane to be bought, but it did cite the “Britten Norman Islander” as a potentially suitable model.

Up until this summer a very similar model – the “Britten Norman Defender” – was used by Greater Manchester Police (GMP).

It was kitted out with a camera capable of seeing over 40 miles and was billed at a cost of £3m to the taxpayer.

And London’s Metropolitan Police Service also have a fleet of spy planes fitted with similar surveillance gear, also costing £3m each.

Before the plan was ditched, Pol Clementsmith, Scotland Officer with the Open Rights Group – a surveillance and privacy rights campaign group – warned: “Aerial surveillance can be extremely intrusive and should only be used to tackle serious crime.

“Police Scotland need to be upfront about any plans they might have to buy a new snooper spy plane, how they plan to use it and whether the cost is justified – especially given the cuts we have seen to public services across Scotland.”

And Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell, also speaking before the U-turn was revealed, said: “Police Scotland already has a helicopter.

“There would have to be very good reasons why at a time of scarce resources, it was necessary to purchase an airplane.

“At the very least a full cost and benefit analysis must be made, together with reasons to justify this expenditure.”

And Eben Wilson, head of Taxpayer’s Scotland, speaking before the announcement, warned: “It is absolutely essential that the accounting for the full costs and benefits of this plane are made completely transparent.

“Taxpayers need to be assured that we obtain value for money for the high costs involved.”