|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The amendment addresses the charging regime. I am worried that, if we leave the Bill unamended and do not listen to the common sense of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, we could have a Minister who authorises charges in the awful circumstances that I described.
The Minister will also argue that he aims to charge insurance companies rather than the victims of the accidents. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge explained that the people most likely to get into accidents are those who steal cars or drive without proper licences and insurance, and they will not be covered by the proposal. That is grossly unfair, especially if the innocent victim of such an accident is on the road legally and has insurance. Would the innocent victim's insurance company end up paying for that accident and would his no-claims bonus disappear?
Mr. Hammond: Equally bad is the Government's plan to extend the levy that insurers have to pay to meet the costs of uninsured drivers to cover this scheme, imposing a still greater burden on law-abiding drivers. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will contemplate that.
The Minister will know of the proposals before the European Union, which will doubtless come into effect, that will force up the price of insurance for younger women and middle-aged men, who have better driving records than others, in the false name of equality. He is asking us to approve another proposal that will sandbag and increase insurance costs for all motorists on top of the dangerous legislation that is about to come into effect that will tackle two groups that, on average tend, to drive rather better than otherssomething that should be reflected in their premiums. I hope that he understands just how badly motorists will view a further major increase in their premium cost, which will be a direct result of the Bill if he is foolish enough to reject my hon. Friend's excellent amendment.
Motorists have had enough of this Government. They have been sandbagged, taxed and treated extremely badly by them. This is yet another measure in that campaign. If the Minister wishes to win the votes of motorists at the election, he should back off tonight and support my hon. Friend.
John McDonnell: I take up where my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) left off and seek clarity on the document circulated by my right hon. Friend the Minister. The letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), the co-Chairman of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, includes the consultation paper on secondary legislation. Item 8 of the annexe on page 13 deals with a critical issue that will cause consternation across the country. It could make or break a Government, let alone an individual Minister. It is the issue of cats up trees.
John McDonnell: Indeed. When does the cat become disposable? What happens when we cannot identify who has called the fire brigade? What if there is no owner or keeper? Does the onus fall on the person who made the emergency call-out for that fire service?
Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an important point. What if the cat did not need or want rescuing? The cat may not be able to explain that to the fire brigade in attendance. The owner might be traced later and he could take exception to paying to rescue a cat that was perfectly happy up a tree.
John McDonnell: The proposal clearly contradicts the new line of policy of choice developed at the Labour party spring conference over the weekend and completely contradicts the policies pursued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. We need clarity on the matter. It is one of the anomalies on charging policy that will cause consternation and political reaction across the land.
Mr. Raynsford: I shall try to bring us back to a calm environment after the flights of fantasy of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who took us into a distant land. I noted his kind remarks about my position. I am grateful for them. On the day that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has, for whatever reason, sadly resigned from the shadow Cabinet, taking a great chunk of expertise, skill and decency from that body, I suspect a touch of frustration on the part of the right hon. Member for Wokingham that he has not been offered a promotion as part of the consequent reshuffle. He must feel very unloved by his party.
Amendment No. 2 would remove the prohibition on charging for extinguishing fires and protecting life and property in the event of fire. The Fire Services Act 1947 prohibits fire authorities from charging for their response to fires. We have sought to continue such a prohibition in clause 19(2). To do otherwise would be to extend significantly the scope of the charging arrangements. I am sure that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) intends that his amendment should be read with new clause 4, in which he seeks to extend the range of services for which a charge cannot be levied.
New clause 4 would extend the restrictions on the services for which a charge might be made. Subsection (1)(a) replicates the restriction that the Government included in the Bill when it was introduced. However,
The new clause would not cover the circumstances that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) mentioned relating to animal welfare. We debated those in Committee, but the amendments do not cover that subject. We propose to make no change to existing arrangements under which some fire and rescue authorities make charges for animal rescue. We do not think that it is right to make arbitrary changes without full consultation and discussion. I assure him that we are essentially preserving the status quo.
With the passage of time, from the position that existed under the 1947 Act, the fire and rescue service has acquired a great deal of experience and skill in dealing with the effects of road traffic accidents, even though there has been no obligation on the service to render rescue assistance. We have introduced a new duty for the service to respond to such incidents in clause 8, recognising the reality and putting on a proper statutory footing the responsibilities of the fire and rescue service.
At the same time, we have recognised that fire authorities already have a power to charge for dealing with the non-fire assistance rendered at such an incident, although to the best of our knowledge they have not made use of it. The order-making provision in clause 19 will allow us to ensure that there is no move towards charging for road traffic accidents or other incidents without further detailed consultation, while preserving the principle of being able to charge for such incidents if it is appropriate. That is entirely consistent with my explanation that we are simply preserving the status quo.
It is pure scaremongering on the part of the Opposition to imply that we intend to sting motorists. We have no such intention. As I have emphasised, we are simply preserving the status quo. What we will not do is rule out any arrangements similar to those operated by ambulance trusts to recover some costs in some circumstancesgenerally, of course, from insurers. That policy might come forward as a result of further consideration. We certainly would not want to rule it out if there were strong, sensible reasons for adopting it. We have no plans to do so; it is not part of our agenda, but we will not rule out arrangements that might command support in the wider fire community.
I am not clear why the Opposition believe that, in all cases, including those where there is clear fault, the cost of dealing with such incidents should always be borne by the taxpayer rather than the responsible party. That is a recipe for increasing the costs to be met by council tax payers. People thinking about factors behind rising council tax will draw conclusions from the Opposition's stance on the issue. Conservatives Members may complain about council tax levels, but in trying to make it impossible for fire and rescue services to recover the costs of certain incidents, some of which I shall explore in a moment, they are essentially proposing the transfer of costs in some circumstances from the polluters, insurers or parties responsible for those costs to the general taxpayer. I should not have thought that such a principle would be easy for Conservatives to defend in the wider debate about keeping down council tax. I look forward to engaging with them in that debate.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge may claim that we are proposing changes that could result in considerable increases in insurance premiums for 27 million motorists, but I must tell him, as I did in Committee, that Transport 2000 has estimated that the impact on the average premium of arrangements to mirror those operated by the NHS would be around £3 a year. He is really wide of the mark in scaremongering on that.
The recent Select Committee report on the fire service noted the potential for authorities to recover from compensators the costs of dealing with traffic accidents in a manner similar to that in the NHS. We believe that further work is needed on how any such scheme might operate for the fire and rescue service, and on the impact that it would have on authorities, the insurance industry and the public. Those further investigations should be conducted before any proposal is made, let alone introduced. In the light of that, we do not think that it would be appropriate to close off the possibility of charging, as countenanced in new clause 4. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) the reassurance that he is seeking. We certainly have no plans to extend charging for services delivered by fire and rescue authorities, but we are aware that some authorities currently levy charges for certain activities and we are certainly not going to cut off those options arbitrarily, as the new clause proposes.
We are equally aware that some fire and rescue authorities have given thought to when they might wish to charge for various activities. The independent report on the fire servicethe Bain reportgave some impetus to that thinking. Any such proposal should be very carefully evaluated from an operational and a financial point of view, and we should consider taking it forward only if its introduction could be carried through without in any way compromising public safety. Public safety will always remain our absolute priority and the overriding consideration. Nevertheless, we certainly would not want to close off options entirely.