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21 Jan 2009 : Column 242WH—continued

The charges incurred by mountain rescue include paying vehicle excise duty on essential 4x4s for reaching stricken climbers, and paying VAT on essential equipment such as ropes, climbing gear, clothing and boots. Given the varying terrain in which team members work, they need three or four pairs of boots and a variety of
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different clothing and waterproofs, bearing in mind the vast range of weather conditions in which people work between ground level and up to 3,000 ft. As we have heard, vital life-saving communication equipment is not always exempt from taxation. Teams also have to pay, out of voluntary donations, for national personal accident insurance policies for team members. Even lighting and flares, which are essential to rescue operations, can be subject to VAT.

The 56 teams in England and Wales paid at least £75,000 in tax last year alone for the items that I have listed, but when one adds one-off equipment such as vehicles and specialist clothing, the sum is more like £200,000 in a year. Is not it outrageous that we expect a charity that is run by immensely skilled and dedicated volunteers to pay for the privilege of saving lives? I think of the irony of the Kendal mountain rescue team being situated on Busher walk in Kendal, cheek by jowl with the ambulance and fire services and the police—those three statutory services do not have to pay such taxes, while the mountain rescue team does. Mountain rescue’s maritime equivalent—the lifeboat services—are rightly exempt.

On VAT, Treasury Ministers have indicated their sympathy in the past, including the previous Treasury Minister, now the Minister for Local Government, the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), and the current Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle). The right hon. Member for Wentworth indicated, in a letter to me in 2006, that the Treasury was on the verge of committing to help out, at least with vehicle taxation, which is well within the Government’s powers, but no action has been taken. I confess to being a little frustrated about that.

The Government have allowed themselves to get bogged down in EU rules, saying that there are restrictions to prevent them from waiving VAT rules and other taxes. However, where there is a will, there is a way. I have been working with mountain rescue in England and Wales, and we have approached the Commission to establish what leeway the Government have. I pay tribute to Stewart Hulse from mountain rescue in my constituency—another MBE—who has been leading the way in that matter. In response to our inquiries, Commissioner Kovács’s office has shown that matters are not so clear-cut, because our mountain rescue operation is unique in Europe, which means that there is scope for the Government to make exemptions on VAT. The UK has the only mountain rescue service, in England, that is not statutory, and the only one that does not charge for its services in some way. The Commissioner’s response, which I am happy to share with the Minister, reveals that there is about to be a review of VAT. I request that the Minister intervenes and calls on the Commissioner to allow an exemption.

I request that the Minister supports the bid, through the Commission, to seek an exemption to allow mountain rescue a fair deal—I know that I have to wind up, and I apologise—because that would be pushing an open door. The change would cost the Government only £200,000, which would be a drop in the ocean to them, but would be a massive vote of confidence in our mountain rescue services. That would make sure that we have a service that is committed to saving and rescuing people in the years to come.

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Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I do not think that you were pushing an open door there, Tim; you were pushing your luck.

10.20 am

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I, too, will be brief. In July 2007, I was up in the Peak district hills between Mam Tor and Rushup Edge. I was near the top of a large slope and found myself incapacitated. I was trapped in a gully from where I could see the valley laid out before me, and during the hours that followed, 24 members of Buxton mountain rescue team were mobilised. They set up communication headquarters and catering, and I could see them scouring the valley with their dogs. They were looking in an expert way for clues and using their knowledge to establish where I might be hidden. When they eventually found me, I was given a thorough medical check-up, counselled by people who knew what they were doing and taken out on a stretcher. Fortunately for me, I was a volunteer victim. I had no injuries and I had offered my services for a training session for Buxton mountain rescue team. Fortunately for them, my efforts that morning raised £1,600 in sponsorship and I recommend that every hon. Member in the Chamber follows that example.

However, £1,600 is a drop in the ocean. The Buxton mountain rescue team alone costs £34,500 a year to operate, and along with the team based in Edale, which is next door, it is one of the busiest mountain rescue teams in the country. That is not surprising. The Peak district has 22 million visitors a year and if only a small proportion of them get into trouble on the hills, teams might still be called out several hundred times. The teams are made up of a group of incredibly dedicated and skilful volunteers, and my experience showed that many different types of skills have to be used and co-ordinated. When I was rescued, it was an unearthly hour on a Sunday morning, but sometimes rescues are at night and in poor weather conditions. Even in the Peak district, people sometimes have to deal with death as part of their voluntary activity or help those who are perhaps experiencing the death of a loved one up on the hills—whether from an accident, a heart attack or whatever.

Mountain rescue teams do not just need our respect; they should be shown that respect with a much more generous funding regime. As I hinted in my intervention, those services are being squeezed, and that is not just for taxation reasons, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said. In the words of Ian Hurst, the chairman of the Buxton mountain rescue team:

At such a time, we need to redouble our efforts to try to meet some of the demands that other colleagues have made this morning.

I do not want to go into much more detail, apart from to say to the Minister that over the years, I have tabled many parliamentary questions on the subject of
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mountain rescue. Some of those have gone to the Home Office; some have gone to the Department for Communities and Local Government; and some to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I do not remember tabling any questions for the Department for Transport, but it might well be that I did. Local authorities, police authorities and others are supportive. However, we cannot rely on local authorities because the Peak district, for example, falls under four different Government regions. There is no single region that can take responsibility for the mountain rescue at that level. With all due respect to my Front-Bench colleague, I would like a Minister to have mountain and cave rescue specifically as part of the ministerial remit. I do not care in which Department the Minister is, but it would be nice to know that we had one champion on these issues in the Government.

My colleagues have made powerful points about funding specifically and generally. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for securing the debate, and I thank him for doing so. I shall let my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) finish the round.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Mr. Levitt. I am disappointed; I thought you were worth a lot more than £1,600.

10.24 am

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): It is fair to say that with the current opinion polls, the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) is probably worth considerably more than £1,600 to the Labour party.

I shall make a brief contribution because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has said, there are few occasions when we get the opportunity to discuss mountain rescue teams in the House. Although some of the issues raised are very much to do with the situation in England and Wales, there are some generic issues that I would like to mention.

My constituency is Stirling and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) said, we have the Loch Lomond and Trossachs national park, the Ochil hills and the Campsie fells, which border my constituency. Within my constituency we have what I would call the lower highland ranges, stretching from Callander to Tyndrum, before we move into the higher mountains of the highland regions. I am sure that the Minister is aware of some of those areas, given where he grew up.

It is fair to say that it is not just Stirling folk who climb the hills in the area; it attracts people from all over the country. Indeed, many mountaineers and hill walkers from Scotland travel to other parts of the United Kingdom to walk hills, which is why it is important that we have a UK perspective on the issue. Hill walking and mountaineering is seen as part of the mainstream of activity in Scotland, so much so that the BBC on a Saturday morning in Scotland issues a weather forecast specifically targeted at hill walkers and mountaineers. I do not know whether that is replicated in other parts of the country—[Interruption.] I see that colleagues from Wales are saying that it is.

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We should not lose sight of the fact that mountain rescue teams are made up of volunteers. They safeguard their independence and want to continue to provide the support that is necessary for what is a massive tourist attraction, in my constituency and in other parts of the country.

On safety, it is interesting to note that, in Scotland, research has shown that two thirds of those involved in mountain incidents are experienced climbers and walkers. It is not people who are feckless on the mountains who need to be rescued; it is people who know what they are doing. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) said—he represents the area that takes in Snowdonia—people need to know what they are doing, but if the weather breaks and comes in during difficult circumstances, even the most experienced people can get into difficulty.

I offer my support to colleagues in other parts of the country, because we need to recognise that mountain rescue is part of our emergency services. Although those involved want to maintain their independence, there is a need for elements of core support, and they should not have to raise funds for the specialist equipment that they need. I hope to visit some of my mountain rescue teams from central Scotland in the near future, including the one based at Killin, which covers many of the most difficult and challenging climbs in my constituency.

In making this brief contribution, I hope that the Minister will consider funding in Scotland and whether it is an appropriate model for other parts of the United Kingdom. Although the administration of these funding mechanisms is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government and to the Scottish Executive, there is general interest across the UK in making our mountains and hills as safe as possible. We can do that by continuing to support those volunteers who give their time and effort and are prepared to put their lives on the line for other people. We should not undervalue that commitment.

10.30 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for securing it on a very important subject, as other hon. Members have said. Frankly, the spotlight is not shone on it often enough. Hon. Members who visited my constituency in the 2005 by-election, when I was first elected, will know that there are not many mountains in Cheadle. I am not giving away any secrets by saying that, but, of course, the significance of this debate reaches far beyond those of us who live in areas that do have mountains or active mountain rescue teams, because it is quite possible that any of my constituents might need to call on the assistance of a mountain rescue team when they visit other parts of the United Kingdom.

Tom Levitt: I believe that residents of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are active in mountain rescue teams in the Peak District.

Mark Hunter: Indeed they are, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention.

I am not the first person to point out that the work of mountain rescue teams is not restricted to mountains and hills; they also provide assistance to anyone lost or injured on moorland, fells, or even open countryside.
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Their services are requested and given in a wide variety of emergencies that are not limited to mountain climbing but include searches for missing children, lost walkers, people who are suddenly taken ill and motorists lost in snowstorms—all kinds of scenarios. In fact, the mountain rescue teams, along with the lowland search and rescue teams, actively serve vast chunks of the United Kingdom, and we should recognise that fact.

During the west country flooding in the summer of 2007, its mountain rescue team helped to recover more than 800 people in north Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, with volunteers working 14-hour shifts. I am told that that was the highest recorded number of persons assisted or lives saved at any one incident in the history of mountain rescue in England and Wales. That example alone shows how important the work of the mountain rescue teams is throughout the country, how closely they work together with the police and other emergency services and how much danger those brave individuals are regularly exposed to. I, like others, pay tribute to the brave and dedicated men and women who invest so much time and energy—often risking personal injury and facing hardship and all kinds of hazards—in providing that very valuable service and in serving the communities as they do.

Mountain rescue teams, like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, all work as volunteers and have to balance their work with the teams with the need to earn money and support their families. Therefore, it is also appropriate to pay tribute to the families of people involved in mountain rescue teams, who have to put up with the constant strain of knowing that their loved ones are in danger, and who, as the teams run a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service, all too often lose out on quality time together as a family.

In the current economic environment, many charities are finding it hard to cope financially, and many teams face dramatically reduced funding because of the downturn in voluntary donations. Mountain Rescue England and Wales says that contributions are down 60 per cent. year on year, which is a worrying trend. The teams themselves cost significant amounts of money to operate. Members need to be trained not only in the latest first aid and emergency medical treatments, but in search techniques, off-road driving, work with search and rescue dogs, and many other facets. The specialist equipment that they need is also expensive. For example, a collapsible stretcher can cost about £2,500, modified 4x4 vehicles do not come cheap, and boots and clothing—all such equipment—is costly. This means that mountain rescue teams, run as they are on voluntary contributions, have large and ongoing expenditure. As we have heard, a team can cost up to £50,000 a year to operate successfully.

The 26 mountain rescue teams in Scotland receive upwards of £400,000 a year towards their costs, and the Welsh Assembly contributes £13,000 to rescue teams in Wales. But, as has been said, the rescue teams in England receive little or no help towards their expenditure. All hon. Members have said that the Government ought to do more to support this vital search and rescue service. Mountain Rescue England and Wales estimates that it would cost the Government £6 million a year to run.

The teams do not ask for all their running costs to be covered, only for certain tax exemptions to be met so that the equipment that is vital to them if they are to fulfil their search and rescue role is made more affordable.
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Currently, only some of their vehicles—those that can officially be classed as ambulances—are exempt from vehicle excise duty. The rest of their vehicles, carrying men, women and equipment, are not exempt. Making all vehicles exempt, as is the case with the RNLI, would cost the Treasury only a small amount of money, and the teams could then use it to replace or update other equipment, or for other training needs. Perhaps the Minister will refer to that.

The teams also seek a VAT exemption for their equipment, clothing and other vital purchases. Other emergency and health services do not have to pay VAT on their purchases, but mountain rescue services do, and that is unfair and, frankly, unsustainable. Again, the amount of money is relatively small. In 2007, Mountain Rescue England and Wales carried out a VAT survey and discovered that £75,000 was paid in VAT that year. These charities fulfil an important role as emergency and rescue services. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have considered making mountain rescue equipment purchases exempt from VAT and whether, considering the small cost, they will commit to take action?

Mountain rescue teams throughout the UK provide a emergency service for their communities, whether it is for towns and villages facing snow storms or floods, or for individuals lost on mountains or in remote places. They work with, and support the work of, the police, ambulance and other emergency services, and often venture into places where it would be impossible for ambulances to go. These volunteer teams give much more than just their time, and they fully deserve our support. I very much hope that the Minister will assure the House that they have the Government’s support, too.

10.37 am

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on obtaining the debate. We have had some excellent contributions, starting with his own. It is a good opportunity not only to pay tribute to a group of volunteers who give of their time freely and, occasionally, risk their lives so that others can enjoy the natural wonders of some of the more interesting parts of this beautiful country in a variety of weathers, but to put across some genuine concerns. The contribution of volunteers in the field of adventure, in particular, is all too often taken for granted.

As well as being the shadow Minister selected at relatively short notice to respond to the debate, I happened to be the sponsor of a private Member’s Bill on the promotion of volunteering, which was aimed specifically at limiting the effects of the compensation culture on adventure and sport volunteers. As a result of the Bill, I am co-founder of the all-party adventure and recreation in society group, so I shall take the liberty of inviting to our next meeting everyone who has contributed to this debate.

My experience of training for the Territorial SAS on the Brecon Beacons left me with huge respect for anybody who operates in such terrain. We have heard a lot about other terrains and, indeed, about several other parts of
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the country, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and many organisations in the adventure and sport fields face similar dilemmas, many of which have evolved from risk aversion, the compensation culture, insurance problems and Government policy, the unintended but inadvertent consequences of which have been unhelpful.

My party is firmly committed to reintroducing structured risk-taking and adventure to the lives of young people. There are few activities more adventurous and challenging than those listed by the hon. Gentleman as ones that his mountain rescue service supports, from canoeing to rock climbing. Cave rescue has also been mentioned.

In September, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said that

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