Page last updated at 17:26 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 18:26 UK

Air ambulance claims 'pie in the sky'

By Kevin Magee
BBC Northern Ireland business correspondent

Air ambulance - generic
The Northern Ireland Air Ambulance has not yet secured a helicopter

The Belfast-based Alpha 5 air ambulance charity encountered turbulence after it was revealed that 90% of donations in its first year went on wages and overheads.

Now it has emerged that the charity, which wants to launch an air ambulance in Northern Ireland, was asked to stop collecting money in England before it launched its major fundraising drive here.

Alpha 5's actions and some of the claims it has made have caused alarm within the body that oversees air ambulance charities in England and Wales.

The Air Ambulance Association has described some of Alpha 5's early claims as "pie in the sky".

Peter Aldrick, chairman of the Association of Air Ambulances, said: "We don't generally raise money in each other's patches.

"Most of the air ambulance charities are fairly sound financially, but we do rely on public donations and if someone else comes in purporting to be an air ambulance covering the whole of the UK it is going to have an impact on the fundraising.

To say you are going to have a helicopter that can provide medical recovery and search and rescue operations throughout the whole of the UK is, frankly, pie in the sky
Peter Aldrick
Association of Air Ambulances

Mr Aldrick said his predecessor asked them to stop.

In December 2006, the charity sent a letter to a supermarket chain asking for permission to raise funds in its car parks.

Alpha 5 described itself as a "search and rescue helicopter service" that would be able to "deal with a major incident anywhere in the UK and Ireland" - a claim the association said did not add up.

Mr Aldrick said: "To say you are going to have a helicopter that can provide medical recovery and search and rescue operations throughout the whole of the UK is, frankly, pie in the sky."

'Full uniform'

The letter seeking the permission to collect outside a major store also said "Alpha 5 has pilots in your area" who "would very much like to collect for the charity in your store".

It added, "our aircrew will be in full uniform". At the time the letter was written, the charity did not - and still does not - have a helicopter.

The letter also gave the address of the charity as: "Alpha 5 Headquarters, Belfast City Airport."

We asked Belfast City Airport to check its records, but it could not find any evidence that the charity had been headquartered there.

In a statement it said: "The Alpha 5 ambulance charity never had an office, PO Box or any premises at Belfast City Airport."

The charity said that three years ago, they "had every expectation that the organisation would be based at Belfast City Airport" and that its registered office is in Belfast.

The Air Ambulances' representative body wrote to Alpha 5 saying it was "somewhat surprised to see that you are collecting in southern England, where there are existing air ambulance charities, for a proposed air ambulance in Belfast".

'Alarmed'

It added that it was becoming "rather alarmed at (some of) the claims made".

Alpha 5 said it "collected donations in London and these amounted to less than £4,000; but this was more than three years ago.

"Since then, we have been bowled over by the generosity of people from across Ireland."

We asked the Alpha 5 charity if it could give us a copy of its 2006-07 accounts, but so far it has declined.

Previously the BBC revealed that 90% of the funds raised in its first full year from 2007-08 was spent on wages, administration and other overheads.

One family in south Armagh asked the charity to return £65,000 that was collected on behalf of their dead son returned to them, but so far the charity has refused to return the money.

Overheads

Some more figures have come to light. In its first year the charity collected almost £194,000. Of this, £175,000 was spent on wages and costs.

Last year, it's thought £477,000 was collected, with £399,000 going on wages and overheads.

That's a total of £671,000 which has been collected, £574,000 of which has gone on wages and administration costs and outgoings.

The charity has already pointed out that in its early years of operation it would expect high start-up costs and that's true of any charity or business.

Over the past two years, 86% of all the money going to the charity has been spent on wages and administration.

Costs

So how does this figure compares with other air ambulance charities?

According to Peter Aldrick, "when you start up an air ambulance inevitably you are going to have a have much higher costs to start with.

"Most air ambulances publish their annual reports and in a settled-down state after you have been running for a few years, most air ambulances indicate that 80% of the money they raise goes to support the helicopter. So it would be around 20%," he said.

Last week, one of those behind the charity, Mark Sellers, who was referred to as the chief executive and the aviation director, resigned. We asked the charity for an interview to discuss some of these issues but they declined.

The charity says it aims to have an air ambulance operational by November.

It has said the service will operate under the remit of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, but no agreement with the ambulance service is in place.



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