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If we want people of all ages to do adventurous activities and to challenge their physical and mental boundaries, and if we want to tackle obesity and other problems in today’s society that physical challenges can overcome, we need organisations such as mountain rescue teams that are willing to be there when things go wrong. As hon. Members have pointed out, we also need such teams if an ordinary walk in the mountains goes wrong.

Activities in all parts of the adventure and sport world—from cadet units and scout troops to canoeing—are possible only because of such volunteers. In mountaineering, they not only commit time and energy, but put their lives at risk. We must therefore ensure that those organisations and their volunteers are uppermost in our minds as policy and law makers. We must seek to stave off the law of unintended consequences.

I will give an example directly related to my transport brief. A visit to my local coastguard headquarters in Dover was kindly facilitated by the Minister. I saw a photograph of the local cliff rescue team, which is made up of volunteers, although unlike mountain rescue teams it is led by a paid member of staff. In the photograph, the volunteers were abseiling down a cliff to rescue a young woman who had fallen. Miraculously, her fall had been broken after 120 ft by an illegally dumped fridge. There was a good outcome in that case. However, the insurance for such dangerous work is inadequate. As a consequence, a volunteer coastguard who was seriously injured on a rescue mission on a cliff in Pembrokeshire lost his job and received minimal and only temporary compensation that was lower than half his salary for the period that it was paid. While I cannot comment on the strong cases that have been made on a variety of tax and funding issues, because they are beyond my pay grade, on the narrow area of cliff rescue teams, my Treasury team has agreed to review the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in the context of the other emergency services.

There are considerable parallel problems with insurance for mountain rescue teams. One team told my office:

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I am told that the gold standard of insurance for mountain rescue is the policy in Cumbria, which was achieved with partial funding from the police. That policy has been adopted in north Wales and the Mountain Rescue Association wants it to be adopted nationally. Unlike the pledge that I made on coastguards, I can pledge only to look at that matter.

Although mountain rescue teams feel they have an entitlement to insurance, one member told me:

Insurance is a problem throughout the outdoor, sport and adventure activity fields, and it relates not only to money but to other issues. On a related point, I was particularly concerned by the example given by the hon. Gentleman of police withdrawing responsive driving training from the Bolton mountain rescue team because of fears that the police would be legally liable for the subsequent actions of the team’s members.

Two pledges by my party would help with that problem. First, we would abolish negligence claims in adventure training and sport, allowing only reckless disregard claims with a much higher standard of proof. That issue is on the edge of that pledge, but I will press for it to be considered. That change would return Britain to the legal position until the 1950s and bring us in line with the position in most American states, which have introduced the measure one by one.

Secondly, we have pledged to ask courts to take into account the social value of risky activities and to have judges recognise it when making decisions in civil cases. Mountain rescue certainly is a risky activity. I am not too familiar with the responsive driving case, but I hope that Greater Manchester police would review its decision against such a legal background. Such measures would help a risk-averse society properly to assess and revalue risk, as the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) has mentioned. That could produce better outcomes for those seeking insurance, which has been inflated by a series of court judgments. I hope that such measures would lower the price of insurance.

I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East mention a statutory instrument that will give volunteers a more prominent role under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which I spoke in favour of during its passage through Parliament. The Minister nodded, so I take it that it will soon come forward. There should be greater recognition for a string of voluntary organisations from mountain rescue teams to St. John Ambulance, which are currently undervalued in legislation. We must look again at the way in which the Health and Safety Executive pursues some cases.

I will end as I began, by congratulating the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. It has been an opportunity to praise the work of mountain rescue teams and to draw attention to their concerns.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I am delighted to say that despite being dropped in at the deep end, you did not need the team to rescue you, Mr. Brazier.

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10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I was going to say what a pleasure it is to see you presiding until that little joke, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this debate on the invaluable work of mountain rescue teams in Bolton and throughout the UK. I also congratulate him on securing the unanimity of opinion that has been articulated by all parties this morning.

I, too, pay tribute to the hard work of mountain rescue teams and of all search and rescue volunteers who work in a range of organisations that this country relies on heavily to provide a crucial 24-hour service. As a former professional emergency service worker in the fire service, I feel an instinctive personal solidarity and respect for all such volunteers. Such respect has been articulated by all hon. Members this morning.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining why a Transport Minister is responding to this debate rather than a colleague from the Home Office, the Treasury or any other Department. The provision of search and rescue—SAR—in the UK brings together Departments, Government agencies, the military, emergency services, charities and voluntary organisations such as mountain rescue volunteers. All those organisations contain respected professionals in their fields. The framework within which those organisations operate is overseen by a strategic committee that looks across the piece to achieve an effective and efficient SAR capability for the UK. The committee is chaired by the Department for Transport, because of its responsibility for maritime and civil aeronautical SAR. That is why I am responding to the debate.

The UK search and rescue strategic committee is chaired by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and members are drawn from the key SAR organisations—the people who actually do the job. Mountain Rescue England and Wales and the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland are both actively represented on the group, which is a forum for sharing best practice and resolving practical issues that affect all aspects of UK SAR capability.

Several colleagues asked about advising and educating walkers and organisations, and getting information out to them. Individual organisations have their own information campaigns, but the strategic committee and the operators group have worked hard to find the best way to address the issue. They have set up a UK SAR website, which contains advice for the public and enthusiasts, and the information can be obtained on the Department for Transport website.

My hon. Friend has been unable to find a previous Adjournment debate on this subject in the Official Report, and I am not aware of one either. However, many of the issues that he has raised were considered by the Transport Committee during its consideration in 2005 of UK SAR provision. In that regard, I am happy to report that some progress has been made on at least one of the issues that he raised—the one that I was nodding about during his opening speech.

The Select Committee’s report contained a recommendation that official mountain rescue and lowland search vehicles, which are operated by trained drivers, should be able to use blue lights to reach incidents in the
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same way that RAF mountain rescue teams do. Currently, the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 restrict the use of blue warning beacons for mountain rescue vehicles to those operated by the RAF. However, I am aware that voluntary rescue organisations often provide a similar service to a broader cross-section of the community, and I agree that they, too, should be allowed to benefit from the use of blue warning beacons. I am pleased that the Government therefore propose to extend the permission enjoyed by the RAF to all mountain rescue services. A public consultation on a package of measures, including an amendment to the road vehicle lighting regulations, was held in summer 2008. Among other things, the package included modifications to permit mountain rescue vehicles to use blue lights. We aim to bring that into force by the end of 2009.

Although the Select Committee recommended that the Government should make funding available to mountain rescue and lowland search teams, responsibility for co-ordinating local inland SAR operations in England and Wales lies with local police authorities. Therefore, it is right that any decision on support for local mountain rescue teams should be a matter for the police authority and chief constable concerned.

My hon. Friend asked about the application of vehicle excise duty to mountain rescue teams. That has already been carefully examined by my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, who has responsibility for vehicle excise duty rate policy. She concluded that because tax policy in respect of charities is based on neutrality of treatment, a focused mountain rescue vehicle exemption might appear to favour a specific charitable cause, which would be contrary to the wider principles of Government tax policy. However, I understand that some rescue teams are equipped with ambulances, which are subject to vehicle excise duty exemption. My hon. Friend asked me to consider the waiver or reimbursement of VAT due on mountain rescue equipment, but that is properly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I shall ensure that he receives the relevant extracts from this debate.

My hon. Friend also touched on the difficulties of recruiting volunteers for the mountain rescue service in his area and elsewhere. Volunteering in the UK is a traditional way for communities and individuals to respond to needs in our society and, generally, the retention of search and rescue volunteers is highly impressive—turnover is relatively low.

The strategic committee’s volunteering sub-group is looking at generic issues that affect all SAR volunteers, and mountain and cave rescue teams are actively represented on the group. Recruitment and retention is a major topic of discussion. A publicity DVD that will encourage potential volunteers to come forward and to seek support from their employers is under development.

On payment for rescues, I need to make it clear that, in the UK, the general principle is that search and rescue is provided free of charge to anyone who needs it—other than my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), of course, who commendably raised £1,600. It crossed my mind that the price for a Minister might be slightly higher, and perhaps VAT exempt, but that is a matter for the Treasury. Without breaking protocol, Mr. Hancock, I know that Treasury officials
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are in close proximity and monitoring this debate and that they will take strong messages back to the Treasury in due course.

Tom Levitt: If my hon. Friend is volunteering, I would be happy to put his kind offer to the test.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I used to get paid to take risks, but doing it for fun has never appealed to me. However, I shall speak to my hon. Friend after the debate.

We would not wish anyone in distress to be deterred from seeking assistance because of the cost, particularly as a delay in seeking assistance could further endanger the lives of the individual and the rescuers. Therefore, we have no intention of introducing a charge.

In conclusion, I reiterate the Government’s appreciation of the work of all our SAR operators, including the volunteers, who give much to their local communities and to the wider public through their local knowledge and expertise. They are why the UK has a world-class SAR capability, which the Government remain committed to supporting.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I thank the Minister and everyone who has taken part for their courtesy and good humour, and for allowing everyone to get involved.

As the next Minister and Mr. Robertson are here, we can move straight on to the next debate. As a final courtesy, I ask those Members who are leaving to do so as speedily and quietly as possible.

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10.56 am

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock.

I asked for this debate as the chairman of the all-party group on Nigeria, following our recent visit to Nigeria in December. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister visited the country recently, and I am sure that she will confirm my experience—namely, that the UK is held in high regard in Nigeria and that it has a significant role to play as a partner of the country. My question today is whether we wish to fulfil that role.

Nigeria is an incredibly important country, not just in Africa, where it has great influence and is described as one the UK’s two main partners—the other is South Africa—but on a global level. That importance is manifest in its efforts to tackle climate change, crime and corruption, and its role in providing energy, security and regional stability.

Nigeria is a regional superpower, and its strength and influence are set to increase. It is a prospective economic powerhouse with a huge domestic market. It has a potentially bright future and has been described to me on various occasions as another sleeping giant: it could become another China or India. But that bright future seems elusive, and Nigeria’s path towards it seems precarious. Now is not the time for what some in the Foreign Office have privately described as a drift in our relations.

As I said, there is a great deal of good will towards the UK in Nigeria, but my concern is that without long-term vision and the right kind of support, we will lose the opportunity to be a partner in helping Nigeria to progress. At no time has it been more important to ensure that progress for Nigeria is translated into prosperity for its people.

The UK is a friend of Nigeria, but it needs to be cautious in the advice that it offers and the pressures that it brings in order to deepen the friendship. A friendship is not about blind support. It must involve honest criticism. The fact that reform in Nigeria has slowed down considerably in the past year or so may create drift in the relationship, but it is exactly at such a time that the UK needs to be active and step up its engagement. I want to highlight several areas where that is needed.

The Niger delta is a concern for all of us who watch Nigeria. Our anxiety over it is heightened by the fact that two British workers who were kidnapped in the region last September are still being held hostage. As my hon. Friend will no doubt be aware, low-level conflict has been going on in the Niger delta for years. I am deeply frustrated by the lack of progress in the region. It is difficult to comprehend the horrible polluted and impoverished conditions that so many of its inhabitants live in, despite the vast amount of money that has been received in oil revenue.

I understand that the crisis is complex. A number of actors and grievances are in play. However, none of those things should be used as an excuse for paralysis. I know that the UK is not solely responsible for bringing the crisis to an end—much of the responsibility lies with the Government and people of Nigeria—but it
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could certainly play a strong role if it wanted to. From pressuring companies, to working for international engagement, tools are available to the UK to help to improve the situation.

Being realistic about the UK’s influence should not lead us to underestimate our role with regard to Nigeria or to be pessimistic about ending conflict and alleviating the suffering in the Niger delta. If we are serious about human rights, development, climate change and energy security, we should engage on those issues. What is the UK’s strategy in the Niger delta, and how are the Government working with our United States and European partners to find a solution?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will have seen the recent news about the failure, yet again, of the oil companies to meet the deadline to stop gas flaring in the Niger delta, which was originally set for 2008, then for 2009 and is now set for who knows when. As well as polluting and being a danger to the communities living around them, these flares account for about 14 per cent. of all natural gas flare worldwide. That makes Nigeria the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in Africa, along with South Africa. We should ask whether we are serious about tackling climate change. If we are, what pressure is being brought to bear on global companies and flaring gas in the Niger delta? I remember the Westminster Hall debate on the Niger delta in 2004, in which the then Member of Parliament for Hamilton, South—Bill Tynan—spoke about such problems, but I know of little change for the better in the region since the issue was raised five years ago.

The problem is that the actors in the Niger delta apportion blame rather than take responsibility. The Nigerian Government have to take responsibility and deal with the oil companies, but there seems little encouragement or enthusiasm for them to do so. We have a duty to bring pressure to bear on all parties to help to end the gas flaring and get people talking together.

It is not a simple task. The conflict and danger in the Niger delta, which is awash with arms, are key factors. The people of the Niger delta live in a constant state of insecurity, not only because they have no access to public services and little hope of gainful employment, but because it is an area where arms are readily available to anyone. The UK can help to improve the situation in the Niger delta by taking on the role of mediator, listening to all groups, even those it may not wish to talk with, and bringing disputing parties together to the table to talk.

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): I joined my hon. Friend on a visit to Nigeria recently and was amazed at the opportunities there. Does he agree that, as he rightly said, the issue needs to be tackled not only by the UK but by other Governments as well, and that there are immense opportunities in terms of reducing carbon emissions and human rights? There are also opportunities for the business community in the UK and wider afield, and for the local population, if we can sort out these problems. We have a duty to respond to those matters as well.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend is correct. I thank him for his not inconsiderable help on our previous visit and for his interest in Nigeria. I hope that Members of both Houses will take the opportunity, when it arises, to visit Nigeria and see that for themselves.

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