By Jason Lewis and Andy Blackmore
The Metropolitan Police has secret spy planes capable of eavesdropping on mobile phone calls from the sky.
The existence of the fleet of planes – each costing at least £3 million to purchase and hundreds of thousands more to operate – has never been publicly disclosed.
The police have being using the planes since at least 1997.
The disclosure of the spending, which is not detailed in official accounts, comes as the police face 20 per cent cuts in their budget, creating fears that hundreds of support staff will lose their jobs and the number of officers reduced.
Despite the cuts the Met’s secret fixed wing aircraft fleet is still flying regular sorties over London from a base at Farnborough airfield, in Hampshire.
The planes have apparently been fitted with secret surveillance equipment capable of intercepting mobile phone calls or eavesdropping on conversations.
They are understood to be similar to surveillance planes available to MI5 which have been used in anti-terrorism operations and were used to help West Midlands Police track suspects connected to a plot to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier.
One of the planes is a Cessna F04, which can carry up to 14 passengers or be fitted with specially integrated patrol mission packs. We have been asked not to disclose full details of the aircraft on security grounds.
The twin engine craft are operated separately from the Met’s Air Support Unit which has three helicopters and flies hundreds of hours a month in support of police operations around the capital at a cost of £3 million a year.
Last week a Metropolitan Police spokesman refused to discuss its use of the fixed wing aircraft but insisted it has gone through a “full” procurement process.
However members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, which scrutinises the force’s spending said they had never been told of the existence of the aircraft.
According to Civil Aviation Authority records, the aircraft is registered to a firm called Nor Leasing.
There is no trace of the firm on any other official record and its business address registered with the CAA is actually a branch of Mail Boxes Etc, which offers a virtual office services and mail forwarding, in Surbiton, south-west London.
Another Cessna was also previously registered to Nor Leasing at the same address and at another service address in Kensington, west London.
In 1997 one of the original individuals listed as “trading as” Nor Leasing was John Carnt who at the time was a senior Metropolitan Police detective.
Superintendent Carnt was the then head of the Serious and Economic Crime Group, which was set up to combat major fraud, money laundering and art and antiques thefts.
The pattern of hidden spending is believed to have been established by Tony Williams, a former assistant finance director at Scotland Yard, who established a secret web of companies for use in specialist undercover operations.
But Mr Williams also used the same techniques to steal millions of pounds from the force to set himself up as a bogus Scottish “laird”. Williams was accused of stealing more than £4 million from Scotland Yard. He was jailed for seven years in 1995.
Metropolitan Police Authority member James Cleverly last night said he was totally unaware that the Met had any fixed wing aircraft.