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21 Jan 2009 : Column 236WH—continued


21 Jan 2009 : Column 237WH

There has been a good deal of publicity in the past few weeks about rescues carried out by the Llanberis team on Yr Wyddfa, or Snowdon, on the Pen y Gwryd track. As a result of those efforts about 12 days ago, not only did the team rescue a large number of people, but eight team members were injured after being blown over by the incredibly high winds up there. I am sure that we are all glad to pay tribute to their grit and bravery. All mountain users owe them a debt of gratitude. Those feats of bravery were accomplished in the teeth of the most severe weather conditions. Indeed, they were necessitated partly by the extremes of weather in Snowdonia, or Eryri.

It is no accident that the 1953 Everest expedition trained in Eryri, where the rain and wind, as well as the snow and ice, provide the most testing of conditions. That, I suspect, is one of the reasons why rescues are such a regular feature of life in my constituency, and that is why fatalities unfortunately occur, although they are, thankfully, much less frequent now. Seemingly benign conditions in the valley floors can suddenly turn into driving rain and penetrating wind higher up, and can even prove fatal. That can easily catch out casual walkers, even in summer and even those with proper equipment. Equipment these days is so much better than when I first took to walking, but even with the best equipment, people can be caught out.

I suspect that people caught out are often those who have travelled quite far to reach the mountains and who may be tempted to think, “Well, since I’ve come this far, I might as well take a bit of a chance and go up.” I understand that a substantial portion of mountain rescue call-outs involves people who are lost or stressed, perhaps after a long day out in unfamiliar circumstances. Often they are not in organised groups and, as the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) said, have not given proper information about their intentions. They are often returning home in the late afternoon, perhaps bedraggled and over-tired, often with lower leg injuries. As we all know, coming down is as testing as going up, and possibly more.

What is being done to educate and inform walkers about what precautions they should take? I confess that I do not watch a great deal of television, but I cannot remember the last time I saw public information advertisements or a public information film telling people what care they should take before walking, scrambling or climbing. What public information steps could the Government take?

On the involvement of local people in outdoor activities, the training of others and the eventual provision of new recruits to mountain rescue teams, in the past—at least in our area—many people who participated in mountain activities were not of the area. When I was a student many years ago, I took a day off to walk up Yr Wyddfa—Snowdon—on the interesting Grib Goch route, which some here might know. As I was coming down, the weather was not good and I was very tired, so eventually I turned in to the pub at Nant Peris for a quick pint. [Hon. Members: “Surely not.”] Anyway, in I went, and there was a friend of mine, a fellow student, in the bar. He said to me in Welsh, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’ve just been up Grib Goch, to the summit of Yr Wyddfa.” He looked at me quizzically and said, “What
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do you want to do that for?” He could not understand why anyone would want to climb the mountain as a leisure activity. That is not surprising.

In the past, the mountain has all too often been associated with hard, back-breaking work in the quarry or on the farms, so it is not surprising that local people would not be involved with mountain activities. I do not often come here to the workplace on a Saturday, and in the past, neither would they. However, times have changed, and the mountains offer a great deal of business and employment opportunities as well as leisure activities.

I am glad to say that my local authority, Gwynedd county council, has a strategy to involve, inspire and support local people in getting involved in outdoor activities, receiving training and entering the field professionally. Training opportunities should be improved and better tailored to the needs of people who want to become involved, who are, after all, the potential recruits for mountain rescue teams. I hope that I am not straying too far off the subject, Mr. Hancock.

I have a case in point, the Dringo’r Waliau or Climbing the Walls project, whose report I have here. It provides tailored training for unemployed women over a long period so that they can take mountain qualifications, become employed and eventually become potential recruits for mountain rescue teams. The project is supported by the Rank Foundation with substantial amounts of money, and it is accepted by everyone as a worthwhile project. However, it does not fit into Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus rules for training, as it is tailored to the women’s individual needs and is a slow project spanning four or five years. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider the opportunities for people through projects such as Dringo’r Waliau, because one of the women involved, unfortunately, must now make herself available for work and therefore will probably not be available for training.

I will close with another little story. Some years ago, I had the unforgettable experience of visiting Yosemite valley in California. As we all know, the valley is a wilderness and the park authorities there work very hard to keep it as a wilderness, because of its unique heritage. I walked with the head ranger and he told me that there are very severe restrictions on the use of modern conveniences, such as four-wheel drive vehicles and helicopters. In fact, he said that there are some supporters of Yosemite who hold the view that, if somebody is injured in the valley, they should be brought out on muleback, as they were in the 19th century. Thankfully, we do not go that far in Snowdonia or any of the other national parks throughout Wales and the rest of the UK.

We have highly committed and well equipped mountain rescue teams, but they come at a cost. I am sure that we would all agree, and I hope that the Government also agree, that more support should be given to this very worthwhile service.

10 am

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): It is a privilege to conduct this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate and on the manner in which he and others have outlined both
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the service provided by the many mountain rescue teams in the UK and the difficulties under which that volunteer service operates.

North Wales has some of the most attractive and challenging landscapes in the UK. As a result, it was used to train those involved in the successful 1953 assault on Everest led by John Hunt, who later became Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine. My constituency of Conwy has one of several mountain rescue teams active in that area, the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation, or OVMRO, which is not the easiest of abbreviations to pronounce; it is certainly not as easy as the abbreviation that my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. I challenge hon. Members to try pronouncing OVMRO.

The OVMRO team was founded in 1965, so we beat the team mentioned by my hon. Friend by three years, and it was the first in north Wales to be set up in an organised manner. I was a young councillor then, revelling in the early flush of the Harold Wilson Government, after “13 years of Tory misrule”. So, in 2005, as the Member of Parliament for Conwy, I felt greatly honoured to be invited to the team’s 40th anniversary, which I must acknowledge to be one of the most pleasurable of occasions in my period as MP for the Conwy constituency. I should add that I am also a patron of the support group for the team. Have no doubt: these volunteers are a special breed of citizen. To be with them is to experience something really different. The only comparison that I would offer would be to spend time with another special breed, the slate quarrymen, who were central to my upbringing.

What mountain rescue teams undertake in their rescue work is a mark of respect for those who believe in the value of communing with nature in the mountains. At times, however, that act of communing with nature may offer challenges that some people cannot meet. The members of the teams are not judgmental; they empathise with and recognise the fallibility of the human form. They also respond and do what they can. Mostly, they succeed and help people or rescue them. Of course, sometimes, as we have heard, they fail. However, when that is the case, I believe that they bring to the families of the bereaved the recognition that everything possible was done to save their loved ones.

The mountain rescue teams undertake their activities without financial reward; they are simply volunteers. In England and Wales, they receive very little Government support. Is that right? I think not.

Nevertheless, OVMRO has extended its rescue activities to include water incidents. Those incidents are twofold. First, many of the rivers in the area that the team covers include the most challenging sections of water for canoeists. As we all know, the last decade has seen the team called to an increasing number of incidents involving canoeists. Secondly, in recent years the team has attended a number of flood incidents in the Conwy valley, following heavy rainfall. As a result, it has developed a water response capability, including special clothing, equipment and training, and it is the only team in Wales to do so.

OVMRO responds to the developing interest of the public in challenging outdoor pursuits. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that a Government who seek to develop the good health of the nation across the generations must also recognise that outdoor pursuits can entail risks and that the bodies that enable those
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Government policies to be developed themselves need to be supported. OVMRO is such a body, as are all the mountain rescue teams in the UK.

I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit my constituency, in particular the Ogwen valley. If he comes, he will see mountains such as Tryfan, the Glyderau and the Carneddau. I believe that such landscapes are far removed from the landscapes of his own constituency. However, I am also aware that the Minister spent his early years in Glasgow, within easy reach of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, which is another area of outstanding beauty and, of course, challenge. Therefore, I am confident that he will recognise my argument that those who support people who venture into the mountains themselves deserve support from our Government.

This is not the first time we have raised the issue—far from it. As has been mentioned already, in Wales, the mountain rescue teams benefit from a small grant for equipment that is made by the Welsh Assembly Government and I know that the teams are appreciative of that grant. However, I am told that in Scotland an annual grant of up to £500,000 is made by the Scottish Parliament to the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland and that that money is used to pay some of the costs of running team bases, vehicles and equipment. I understand that in England there is no money forthcoming from central Government for mountain rescue, apart from a very small amount, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East.

The Minister will no doubt be aware of the all-party group on mountain rescue and search teams, of which I am the vice-chair. Officers of that group, including myself, met the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on 14 March 2007 to pursue the matter of funding, which we are discussing this morning. At Prime Minister’s questions, I asked him:

He answered:

As far as I am aware, there have been no further developments since then. I hope that the Minister will be able to offer reassurance that, in the words of the then Prime Minister, this remains a “live issue”. Perhaps he will also be able to offer information about progress.

There is a further issue on which I hope the Minister will be able to provide assurance. He may be aware that Mountain Rescue England and Wales has had concerns about possible charges for the use of radio frequencies. These concerns have been partially allayed—I choose my words carefully, saying they have been “partially allayed”—by Ofcom, which has indicated that there should be no charges. However, I understand that concerns remain that, as Ofcom charges the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the MCA may pass on those charges to mountain rescue teams. Clarification on that matter would be most welcome. There is the potential for an additional burden on that volunteer organisation.


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In deference to the Minister, who may feel that these are sufficient issues to be raised by one Member, and because I am looking at the clock, I will stop now. Thank you, Mr. Hancock.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): That is very good of you, Mrs. Williams. I would be grateful if all Members remembered that we would like to start the wind-ups at around 10.30 am, to give the Minister and the two party spokesmen an opportunity to speak, and that they could keep their comments to about the length of the speech by Mrs. Williams.

10.9 am

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I pay tribute to and thank the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for securing the debate. In doing so, he does an enormous service to the House and, indeed, to mountain rescue teams and all those who rely on their services throughout the country.

My constituency contains a large chunk of the Lake district, the western part of the Yorkshire dales and many other mountainous areas in between that are not so designated but are still incredibly attractive. Those areas contain challenging terrain, not to mention several inland waterways, including Lake Windermere and Lake Coniston, where there is often a need for rescue services. In my constituency, and in those of many hon. Members who are present, mountain rescue is part of the fabric of society. People who are involved in it are also involved in work and other activities, and word is passed on as a consequence. They are very visible. As one drives into Ambleside, for example, one sees on one’s right the headquarters of the Langdale-Ambleside mountain rescue team. It is something that we are all aware of in our part of the world.

Mountain rescue teams across England and Wales have saved a good 20 lives and have aided a further 2,000 people in recent times. Many of those people—possibly the majority—will not have been from the areas that we represent, although we warmly welcome them, but will have been dwellers of more urban constituencies. Therefore, this matter is relevant not only to the minority of rugged parliamentary constituencies, but to the whole country. I reiterate the point that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East has made: if those services had to be replicated by the statutory services, it would cost the Government about £6 million a year to provide them. On a hard, financial level, that is what we owe the mountain and cave rescue services. In reality, of course, we owe them much more.

As we have heard, mountain and cave rescue teams deal with an ever-widening range of emergencies. Rescue in the uplands is a major part of what they do, but they also assist the police in looking for missing, vulnerable people. In my part of the world, searching for evidence after a crime is also a major part of what they do, as are rescues on inland waterways. I joined the Langdale-Ambleside mountain rescue team at Waterhead, at the north end of Windermere, not long ago, as it unveiled its new piece of kit for rescuing people on the lake.

The team is involved in a range of different activities and skills, including giving advice about outdoor events, some of which are challenging. I am grateful not to
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have had to rely on mountain rescue, so far, to be rescued. I am an enthusiastic, although 10th-rate, fell runner, as some hon. Members will know, and I have been grateful for the presence of mountain rescue teams at events to give advice and ensure safety. Last October, I took part in the Coniston trail, the course of which was changed following advice from mountain rescue. Those people know better than anyone else which risks are worth taking and which are not. They are not massively risk averse, and they understand that some people get involved in challenging activities, but they have the expertise to make the call on which risks are worth taking and which are not.

As we have heard, mountain rescue teams are increasingly involved in flood rescue operations and in assisting ambulance services where there is difficulty in accessing patients. I want to make a brief repetition regarding the Grayrigg incident, which happened nearly two years ago in my constituency. Mountain rescue teams were the first on the scene at that tragedy, which was unbelievably bewildering and appalling, and happened without warning in a dark and rural area, to which the nearest village was the best part of half a mile away. People were utterly bewildered, got injured, and there were difficult circumstances. The only people who had the equipment to get there on time and to make a difference were the mountain rescue team. For their troubles, however, the Government take from mountain rescue teams, on average, £143,000 a year in taxes.

Those teams value their independence. To draw an analogy, although not a perfect one, they are comparable to the hospice movement. They want to remain independent, and that is quite right. This is not a call for them to become a statutory service, but it is quite another thing for the Government effectively to fail to provide any support for such an outstanding service.

We have heard that the Scottish Government pay, on average, £400,000 a year in grants to the 26 mountain rescue teams in Scotland, and that the Welsh Assembly Government make a small grant available to the 13 teams in Wales. Many of us have been calling, for some time, on the UK Government to make a serious contribution to our mountain and cave rescue teams, who have been providing essential rescue services across the country for more than 60 years.

Currently, the only way in which the Government assist mountain rescue teams is through the gift aid system, but I give to mountain rescue by chucking coins in the pot when the Kendal mountain rescue team is rattling its bucket outside the birdcage in Kendal, or in the marketplace in Ambleside. Much of its funding is from flag days, tin rattling and the like, and it cannot get gift aid back on that, so that is not much of a concession. It is helpful, but it does not fill the gap that is created. We have a ridiculous situation in which mountain rescue teams are effectively being charged for providing rescue services that they provide free of charge. That is unjustifiable nonsense due to an historical accident. I do not claim that there is malice on the Government’s behalf, but surely it is time that that nonsense was corrected.


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