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6.15 pm

I cannot believe that the British public want charges for emergency responses from our fire and rescue services. If we introduce charges for the attendance of the fire service at a major road accident, what will come next? Will we charge for the police to go to the scene of a burglary? Will we charge for cutting people out of a train wreck or plane crash, or for decontaminating them after a terrorist attack? I do not think so. That cannot be what the Government have in mind. So what is their refusal to limit the scope of charging all about? It is clear that it is about a desire to double charge motorists and to make them pay for a service for which they pay already through their council tax. I have asked the Minister once, and I ask him again, for a categorical undertaking that, if the Government will not accept our new clause, Britain's 27 million motorists and their insurers will not be charged by the fire and rescue services for emergency attendance at road traffic accidents. Anything less than such an undertaking will leave Britain's motorists in no doubt about what the Government have in mind for them: yet another stealth tax on law-abiding, insured drivers.

Mr. Drew: Some of us on the Labour Benches thoroughly concur with some of what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has said, so we look forward to our right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government allaying our worst fears about what could happen. Of course, there is always the difficulty that we worry more about what might happen rather than what is likely to happen. In Standing Committee, we probably spent more time on clause 19 than on any other part of the Bill, although there was only one Division, despite the fact that several amendments were discussed.

The problem for some of us is that the consultation paper is somewhat opaque. Some of us do not understand all the nuances of every last dot and comma of the Bill, and the consultation paper should have gone some way towards clarifying how the charging policy would work in practice. I may be alone, but I am not much the wiser about that, so I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to assuage our fears about several things.

We are concerned that the proposals would make the current ad hoc arrangements worse. Currently, some fire and rescue authorities can make a charge if they feel that a person's behaviour has resulted in gratuitous waste of their time and resources. However, we need some explanation of the proposals. Given that all three emergency services spend most of their time actually dealing with emergencies, I am not clear how there can be a process that settles in advance whether an incident is such that a charge should be levied on a motorist or a person who has the misfortune to be stuck in a lift. The proposals are a recipe for disaster unless we can lay the ghost of those fears and ensure that charges would not lead to problems in the future. I hope that my right hon. Friend will lay the ghosts completely so that we can

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move on. Charging must be put in its proper context—as a very small part of a much more important piece of legislation.

Richard Younger-Ross: I support much of what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has said, but I disagree with what he said about new clause 4—we disagreed on that in Committee. He has a great future in a Treasury team because he has the ability to double count figures in the same way in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer does whenever there is an announcement on new Government spending—that is not meant as a compliment.

The hon. Gentleman talks about double charging as if there will be two sets of charges, but that is blatantly not the case. If there is a system of charging in specific instances, the running costs of the relevant authority are reduced. If those costs are reduced, the charge to the taxpayer is thus reduced—the taxpayer does not pay in that instance. Double charging would occur only if the money raised disappeared or were wasted, and I do not believe that that will be the case.

Mr. Hammond: Will the hon. Gentleman tell me how far the Liberal Democrats extend that thinking? Will they introduce charging throughout such areas as the national health service and the education sector?

Richard Younger-Ross: No. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman hypothesised that there would be a great roll-out of a programme through which the Government would charge for this, that and the other, but that is not the case. In the case of road traffic accidents, one can say that someone is to blame, so charges can be recovered from whoever is at fault. There was no one who could be said to be at fault or to blame in the other cases that he mentioned. He cited an aeroplane crash, but it would be difficult to determine with whom the fault lay in such a case. If terrorists blew up a plane, it would be almost impossible to recoup costs from those individuals. However, in the specific case of a road traffic accident, it is more than possible to recoup costs.

Mr. Redwood: Is the hon. Gentleman thus saying that if people smoke too much against advice, they should have to pay for their lung cancer treatment?

Richard Younger-Ross: I am not saying that, but as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, people who smoke too much sometimes find it difficult to get certain forms of treatment because doctors are reluctant to treat them.

We are considering a specific case in which someone is at fault. I understood that when the Conservative party was in power, it accepted the established principle that ambulances have always been able to charge for attending a road traffic accident. It is not unreasonable to extend the call-out charge for attending an RTA to firefighters. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge seems to be trying to create a new category of people whom he can support, and he seems to be creating a new category of victims.

Mr. Hammond: Motorists—27 million of them.

Richard Younger-Ross: Yes, all of a sudden there is a concept that motorists are victims. Motorists sometimes

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do get a raw deal, and most of them feel that they are victims if they get parking or speeding tickets. However, it is not unreasonable for the person who was at fault for a road traffic accident to be expected to pay a charge for an emergency service to attend.

I accept several of the concerns that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) raised. If a charging regime is to exist, we must be clear about what it is. Will the Minister define the limits of such a regime so that the fears—the irrational fears, I hope—that a great charging regime will suddenly exist can be laid to rest?

Mr. Hammond: What does the hon. Gentleman propose to do about the increasingly large number of motorists who do not have insurance? The way in which the Government word the provisions suggests that they envisage avoiding that difficult problem by levying charges only on insurers, thus letting uninsured motorists—those who are breaking the law—get away scot-free.

Richard Younger-Ross: I accept that that is a valid point. Uninsured people should be expected to pay the charges, but a problem would arise if they were not able to afford them. We need a new system to stop people driving without insurance. I would need to talk to our transport spokesman to find out what our exact policy is on that, but other systems, such as displaying evidence of insurance in car windscreens, might be a way of dealing with the problem. It is of course wrong for people not to be insured and to get away with it, but that is not what we are debating. The hon. Gentleman cites the example of people escaping payment, but that argument is rather like saying that as some people avoid paying tax, we should not pay tax. That argument is nonsense, and I think that the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Mr. Redwood: I support new clause 4, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) argued his case powerfully. I was shocked when I read the Bill and realised that it would enable the Minister or his successors to authorise charges for rescuing people caught up in terrible accidents. The mind boggles as to how that might take place. Is the Minister seriously suggesting that when the fire service arrived on the scene, there would have to be negotiation with victims on how they would pay? Would they have to show a credit card or carry cash, or would they be allowed to defer payment? Would they be able to argue over the price? Would they get a quote in advance, or would they have to pay whatever bill was sent to them and their insurers after the rescue?

My hon. Friend made a powerful point in response to an intervention that I made. I was thinking of a poor victim who desperately needed to be rescued from his or her vehicle and perhaps needed to be taken to the local hospital. Such victims would be in no condition to think through such matters and would agree to any charge that might be made thereafter. However, my hon. Friend cited the even more difficult case of a person who needed to get out of his or her vehicle, but was in no immediate pain or danger. Such people might well want to shop around and use a mobile phone to find out whether a private sector contractor could arrive in a reasonable time and do the job more cheaply. The fire service would presumably have to give them a quote, so the whole situation would become laughable.

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I speak as someone who wants less government, lower taxes, far fewer quangos, officials and regulations, and far less intervention in daily life than currently exists under the Government. However, there must be a core of public services that we, the taxpayers, get free in return for our massive taxes. If I had to set out a shortlist—it would be a much shorter list than that which the Government produce for us against our will—of things that should be supplied free at the point of use and paid for by the enormous tax revenues that are collected, the service that we are discussing would be high up the list. I would want good defence, criminal justice and emergency services that worked when we were in need of emergency service provision. I cannot believe that a Labour Government, who raise so much money from us all and mug the motorist every day with their massive fuel taxes, licence fees, hidden taxation on motoring and congestion charges, can have the audacity to come to the House with the measure and to take it through Committee without understanding just how much people will hate the proposal and how wrong people would think it to have to pay a fee at the point of accidents such as those that I described. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) speaks up for good, honest Labour Back Benchers who are as shocked as I am to see the Minister coming before the House, without any shame on his face, to demand payment in such dreadful circumstances.

When the Minister responds to the debate, he may well argue that he does not wish to impose charges on all people in the dreadful circumstances that I described. Of course, he could point out that, under the Bill, he would have to authorise a charge before one could be imposed, but I am worried about not only the Minister, but his possible successor before the election. I am not sure who that might be if he is replaced in a reshuffle. I think that he should be promoted to the Cabinet, but he is far too competent for that. We know that competence is not valued in gaining promotion to this Government, so he may be moved sideways. The next Minister—

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