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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 21 January 2009

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Mountain Rescue Teams

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)

9.30 am

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to begin this debate under your leadership, Mr. Hancock. I expect that those who expressed surprise when I steered the Marine Safety Bill through in the 2002-03 Session will be equally surprised by the title of this debate. However, those who are not familiar with Bolton probably do not know that we have the west Pennine moors on our doorstep. It is an area of exceptional beauty and a recreation area for many of my constituents. Quite a bit of the area is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is unable to be with us today because he is serving on a Select Committee. I have checked the records and cannot find a previous Adjournment debate on this subject, so this might be a first.

When I submitted this debate for consideration, the Government were not sure—at least according to the Vote Office—who would make a response. I am very pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) in his seat this morning, and he is very welcome. Some issues related to this subject cross a number of Departments. For example, the Home Office is responsible for some emergency services, especially the police, whom I shall mention quite a bit.

The Bolton mountain rescue team—I will call it the MRT from now on—is one of the finest in the country. I pay tribute today to the hard work of its volunteers and of all mountain rescue volunteers throughout the four parts of the United Kingdom. Bolton MRT has been ably led since March 1989 by Garry Rhodes, who was awarded an MBE last year for his mountain rescue work by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham palace.

Bolton MRT was founded in 1968, so it is now in its 40th-anniversary year, and mountain rescue celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. Some 56 mountain rescue teams operate under a central council in England and Wales, of which 11 are located in the Lake district. Although Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own teams and regional bodies, there is dialogue across the United Kingdom. Mountain rescue teams get called out to help with large-scale rescues and searches, especially in mountainous areas. For example, teams from as far away as the Peak district went to assist recovery at the Lockerbie disaster.

Since the emergence of the Search and Rescue Dog Association, the Bolton team is not called out as it used to be to large searches in north Wales and the Lake district. Its bread and butter work involves evacuating casualties from difficult-to-access or remote situations, and searching for missing people in urban, rural and moorland locations, which often have tragic endings.
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Occasionally, it is involved in body recovery work, too. It regularly works with the Blackpool-based north-west air ambulance helicopter, particularly when its operation is restricted or proscribed in situations such as low visibility, snow or darkness, or when it is unavailable.

Although most of the casualties that Bolton MRT deals with, especially in rural settings, suffer from relatively minor injuries, such as sprains or broken limbs, it often has to deal with more serious incidents involving mountain bikers, hang gliders, parapenters, off-road motor cyclists and other off-road vehicles, horse riders, aircraft, helicopters, hot air balloons and falls from heights.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): May I add cave exploration to the hon. Gentleman’s list? In my constituency, which straddles the Pennine dales of Yorkshire, the Cave Rescue Organisation, which is based in Clapham, does what its name suggests as well as the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association, which is a more classical organisation. Both are very important, and I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

Dr. Iddon: I am aware that cave rescue is part of some mountain rescue teams’ work.

Bolton MRT also assists during bad weather. For example, it rescues motorists from snow drifts, and it provides standby rescue cover at fell races, sponsored walks, mountain bike races, orienteering events and moorland fires. It has a comprehensive training schedule and is included in predetermining attendance at rescue incidents involving the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service along with the Oldham team. It is the only service in Greater Manchester capable of bringing down from tower cranes workmen who have collapsed or injured themselves, or rescuing people from other high structures such as pylons, high-rise buildings and even bridges.

Bolton MRT regularly searches alongside and within still and swift water areas, and all its members are adequately trained for such work and equipped with lifejackets. Within its membership is a cadre of well-qualified kayakers, canoeists and divers who are used in such searches and body recoveries. Since its formation in 1968, the organisation has become busier and busier as its reputation has spread. It has attended well over 100 incidents a year since 2003. In fact, 2003 was its busiest year, with a record 206 incidents attended.

Bolton MRT works very closely with the North West ambulance service. Ambulances have soft suspensions and cannot access victims on rough ground or go along farm tracks or moorland mountain roads. The MRT is equipped with stretchers that can be used to carry victims long distances over rough ground, unlike the ambulance service, which is not so well equipped. Despite the excellent relationship that Bolton MRT has with the statutory emergency services of Greater Manchester and the county of Lancashire, there are some problems regarding its operations, which I hope that the Minister will take away for consideration and action.

While MRTs are effectively category 1 responders, they are not classified as such under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to debriefings following major emergencies or planning for future emergencies. They use blue lights in attending emergencies, but the legislation is not clear on the legality of that use.

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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is an example, which goes back a long way before the 2004 Act, of volunteers consistently getting a lower priority and a lower place at the table than paid professionals?

Dr. Iddon: Yes, I agree with that statement.

The Mines Rescue Service, coastguards, bomb disposal and RAF mountain rescue teams are all named services for the use of blue lights and sirens. However, I understand that a statutory instrument will be brought before the House in April this year to correct the anomaly, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that today.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Since the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the RAF mountain rescue service, may I tell him that I worked with such a team way back in the 1960s? I have worked on mountain and cave rescue both in and out of the RAF. The whole point is that people should go down caves and use our mountains more, but they should do so responsibly. They should always go properly equipped and dressed, and they should always leave decent instructions as to what their intentions are, which makes things safer for everyone.

Dr. Iddon: Indeed. I agree with that. Bolton MRT does an enormous amount of work trying to educate young and old people alike on that very point.

When I last met leaders of Bolton MRT, it had 45 volunteer members, of whom 15 are classed as response drivers, who have been trained in high-speed, blue-light and siren driving by the Greater Manchester police and assessed during at least two emergencies on blue light and siren response by a Bolton MRT member who worked for many years as a police traffic inspector. Unfortunately, GMP has now withdrawn this training as it considers that it may be legally liable for the actions of Bolton MRT members who have attended its courses.

High-speed training courses are available commercially, but at a cost of £800 per driver. They require the volunteer to take four or five days off work with a consequent loss of earnings. It is not clear whether such courses meet all the requirements of the current legislation. To increase its profile, promote safety in the hills and raise money, members of the Bolton MRT give many lectures to a variety of organisations, which are attended by people of all ages, and they organise a lot of fundraising events. In addition, they attend a weekly evening training session and frequent weekend training events. A considerable commitment is required from MRT members, which makes recruitment and retention difficult. In the past, volunteers have been recruited from the uniformed youth services, such as the Sea Cadets, and the scouts and guides movements, but there are falling numbers in those services, which is an added problem.

Bolton MRT has the benefit of insurance provided by GMP and the Lancashire constabulary, but there are inconsistencies in the provisions and administrative burdens for all concerned. It would make sense for the Government to consider blanket insurance cover for MRTs in England and Wales, if not the United Kingdom, but the situation is better in Scotland.

On financing, Mountain Rescue England and Wales, which estimates that MRTs save the Government £6 million a year by providing a free emergency service, receives only £33,000 annually. That money comes from the
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NHS, but little of it can be handed down to individual MRTs. Bolton MRT is fortunate that it is provided, free of charge, with an excellent headquarters and garage by the North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust and with further garage facilities by the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service.

Bolton MRT has four Land Rovers, which are manned when it is snowing heavily in case local ambulances cannot reach some of the addresses to which they are called out, and three trailers, which provide a control room, a catering resource and equipment transport. Each Land Rover needs replacing approximately every 10 years. GMP helps Bolton MRT to replace its vehicles through their fleet purchasing scheme, which results in quite a saving, but the bulk of the vehicles’ costs must be raised from big funding schemes, such as the lottery.

In lieu of its fuel expenses, Bolton MRT receives £1,000 from GMP. I understand that in Scotland, St. John Ambulance supplies one vehicle to each MRT. If the Government decide to go ahead with their new Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency banding scheme, and unless exemption is given to all rescue services, including MRTs, there will be additional costs to the service.

GMP has taken responsibility for the provision of most of Bolton and Oldham MRTs’ radio equipment, which needs replacing at approximately 10-year intervals at a cost today of about £25,000. Yesterday, I was pleased to receive an e-mail from Ofcom that informed me that it has no plans to impose charges on MRTs for the use of their radio channels, nor do the Government plan to change the funding structures that support the sector.

Bolton MRT has calculated that it saves the police between £2,000 and £3,000 for each search call-out, which are mostly for children or vulnerable adults in urban areas. That is estimated to save GMP £1.2 million in a decade. The running costs of Bolton MRT are, roughly, £20,000 to £25,000 per annum, which is partly covered by small and large donations, often from people who have been rescued, and sometimes from bequests. The cost of weather-proof clothing alone is £15,000. Members of Bolton MRT actually pay a £100 membership fee, which I found astonishing, and they often contribute to the cost of their own uniform clothing. They receive no imbursement for the fuel that they use in their own vehicles when on MRT duties.

When MRTs purchase equipment, they pay VAT. Will the Minister please consider the possibility of waiving VAT for rescue services? There have been discussions on that between Mountain Rescue England and Wales and the Treasury—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has been involved in those negotiations, and I am sure he will tell us about them.

In Wales, each MRT is provided with basic equipment. In Scotland, the importance of MRTs in attracting tourists to the country has been recognised, and each MRT receives a grant of £22,000, which is distributed through local police forces. There are therefore regional variations in how MRTs work and how they are funded. Mountain Rescue England and Wales holds the view that it should be granted central funding for distribution to individual MRTs, but that view is not held in all quarters of the movement. MRTs would welcome relief from the burden of fundraising, but the approach needs
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to be adapted to local circumstances, because, as has been mentioned, some undertake cave rescues, for example. MRTs value their autonomy, because their training and equipment requirements need to be adapted to local needs. Other well known rescue organisations, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, operate nationally from a centrally organised headquarters.

There is also discussion within the MRT movement about its role and that of the national bodies. Obviously, in a mountainous area, an MRT’s primary role is to rescue people who get into difficulty in the mountains. However, even in mountainous areas, MRTs are routinely deployed to other incidents. For example, MRTs, mainly from the Lake district, played a major role at the scene of the Grayrigg derailment in command and control, in marshalling, landing and loading helicopters, in stretcher handling and even in searching for the casualties over quite a wide area, sometimes in the dark. Because of the failure of the normal telecommunications system, Lake district MRTs provided a 999 radio network for days after the Carlisle floods, and MRTs have been involved in dealing with flooding in Sheffield, Gloucester and Boscastle.

There is also discussion among the general public about who should pay for rescues. Should those who engage in dangerous sports or activities be forbidden from taking part without adequate insurance that would cover them not only in case of injury or, worse, death, but in the event that they need rescuing? However, most MRT call-outs involve people whose activities are not regarded as dangerous—they are ordinary people who go out on the fells or moors for a walk.

I hope that the debate has highlighted the excellent and necessary work that MRT volunteers carry out—it is of great benefit to many communities throughout Great Britain. We thank them for their courage and dedication and for the time that they devote to mountain rescue.

I am sure that the debate will demonstrate that the Minister has many questions to answer. If we are to continue to have MRTs, we need to consider proper funding. We need to protect MRT volunteers from prosecution and to ensure that they are properly insured and covered by the appropriate legislation. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other hon. Members.

9.47 am

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this important debate? It is particularly timely in respect of events in my constituency, because we have had a number of incidents. About 12 days ago, not only were people rescued off a mountain, but a number of the team were injured in the process—I will return to that in a moment.

My constituency covers large parts of Snowdonia, or Eryri as I call it, including a large part of Snowdon, or Yr Wyddfa, including the summit itself, a distinction that I share with the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams). It also includes a long sea coast from the Menai strait and around the Llyn peninsula. As such, the area provides unrivalled opportunities for outdoor activities of all kinds within a small geographical area. However, therefore we have frequent accidents and emergencies. Thankfully, we also have frequent
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rescues, because Llanberis MRT is located in my constituency. Many of the team are constituents of mine, and some of my constituents are members of the Ogwen team in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

As has been said, MRTs perform a vital life-saving role. I say that with gratitude, because I am a walker—unfortunately, alas, not as frequent a walker as I was before I was elected. The mountain rescue team in my constituency, as elsewhere, works closely with helicopters, based in RAF Valley—I am glad that the headquarters was moved to Valley recently, by the way—and has a great deal of expertise, gained over many years of rescue work in the mountains. There is also a great deal of expertise in Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor, where injured people are regularly treated.

Although mountain rescue teams are voluntary, they deserve support from the public and, to an extent, public support, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East pointed out earlier. I say “to an extent” because one of the most striking things about mountain rescue teams is their voluntary nature. They comprise people with a fundamental and passionate love of the mountains and a commitment to helping their fellow walkers and climbers. The voluntary nature of mountain rescue teams means that they are not only of the community but in it, which can only help in their work recruiting new members. I am certain that that should not be compromised by too much public intervention in their funding, but they need and deserve public support, perhaps supplementary public support, so that their energies are not unduly diverted to the secondary task of fundraising to pay for over-burdensome duties and taxes.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right that fundraising is an important way for teams to connect with their communities, but are his mountain rescue teams finding, as those in the Peak district are, that in the current economic climate, both corporate and personal donations are harder to get hold of in the same quantity? The fall in interest rates means that income on savings is falling as well, putting an extra stretch on team resources.

Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. It is a dilemma facing so much volunteer activity. Clearly something needs to be done. My first question to the Minister is the one already posed: what consideration is being given to making financial concessions to mountain rescue teams? It seems wrong to me—and, I am sure, to other hon. Members—that the state should cream off a substantial amount of their hard-won funds in taxes and duties. Surely a way could be found to reduce VAT rates. I know that European regulations allow for a reduction to 5 per cent. Some goods, such as children’s clothes, are rated at zero, but 5 per cent. VAT would be a good reduced rate on vital equipment. Fuel duty, which has been mentioned, could also be reduced.

On Monday, I had the pleasure of meeting the Welsh Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, who told me that the Welsh Assembly Government make a small grant to mountain rescue teams in Wales. We should be thankful for that, but we also know that the Scottish Government make a somewhat more substantial grant to mountain rescue teams in Scotland, recognising not only their humanitarian contribution but their vital contribution to safety in the mountains and to the eventual economic good of mountainous regions.

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