WILTSHIRE'S shared police helicopter and air ambulance has been praised by a Government minister.

Meg Hillier, an Under Secretary of State at the Home Office, told a debate in Parliament that joint ambulance and police helicopters should be a model of service considered throughout the country.

She was speaking during a debate brought by Salisbury MP Robert Key because of concerns that Wiltshire Police will be unable to afford to keep the helicopter flying if the Great Western Ambulance Service (GWAS) pulls out of the air ambulance/helicopter partnership.

Wiltshire Police want to sign up for a further five years when the lease comes up for renewal in December but GWAS only wants to commit to one or two years while it carries out a review of air ambulance cover in Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.

However Brian Moore, Wiltshire's Chief Constable, has said that a timescale of less than five years was no good and he would not be not be able to find the money to fund the gap left by the loss of the air ambulance, which is funded entirely by public donations.

Wiltshire's helicopter is one of only two in England to be shared between the police and ambulance services. This also means it can fly at night while dedicated air ambulances cannot, under Civil Aviation Authority rules.

Mr Key told the Parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on June 4 that the camera equipment contract on Wiltshire Police's helicopter was due to expire and initial quotations to replace the equipment stand at £800,000 and a short term extension was "economically unviable."

Ms Hillier said the joint helicopter reflected that Wiltshire "has been one of the most forward thinking police authorities."

She added: "We should consider that model for the future. There are clearly financial benefits to linking services which enables the air ambulance to operate at night because of the capacity of the police helicopter and the equipment therein.

"What is going on in Wiltshire is an example of what we should be looking at for the 21st century. Wiltshire is setting the agenda. The service is an example of far sighted, good practice."

She agreed with Devizes MP Michael Ancram that police helicopters were beneficial for pursuing speeding motorcyclists.

North Wiltshire MP James Gray asked Ms Hillier to pledge the Government's support for the continued use of the Wiltshire police helicopter However she said the Home Office could not intervene in Wiltshire and that it was up to the police and ambulance service to continue discussions.

The Association of Chief Police Officers is about to carry out a review of police air operations in England and Wales which will provide a framework for the next ten years.