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Mountain Rescue

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they are giving to the mountain rescue service.

My Lords, support for mountain rescue teams is a matter for the police authority and chief constable concerned as they have responsibility for co-ordinating inland search and rescue operations. Between them, police forces contribute almost £100,000 annually in direct support and additional amounts by way of support in kind. However, in recognition of the Mountain Rescue Council’s concerns, I am pleased to say that my ministerial colleague in the Department for Transport, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the honourable Member for Gillingham, has offered to facilitate a meeting with my noble friend, interested parties and relevant government departments.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that very positive Answer and I look forward to such a meeting. Is he aware that during the recent floods in Cumbria the mountain rescue services were among the first on the scene and they did a fantastic job? They rescued perhaps up to 200 people and worked non-stop for many hours. Indeed, in the present climate difficulties they are working all over the country to help people who are isolated in the snow or in their vehicles. In the light of all that, does he agree that some additional support for these hard-pressed teams, who have had to replace much of their equipment for the reasons I have just stated, would be very welcome and would recognise the enormous contribution that they make not only in times of difficulty, such as the floods, but day in and day out for those of us who enjoy walking in the mountains?

It is for exactly the reasons that my noble friend expresses that we believe that this is the right time to have the meeting to which I referred in my first Answer. Certainly with the weather as it is, this is an appropriate time to pay the warmest possible tribute to the 3,500 volunteers who not only give their time to the mountain rescue service for free but also pay for the clothing and gear that they need to do this really important job. My noble friend referred to the mountain rescue teams in Cumbria. They played a very important part in the recent floods, particularly those from Patterdale and Keswick, who worked on search-related tasks co-ordinated by the Cumbrian police.

My Lords, will the noble Lord join me in highly commending RAF Valley at Anglesey for the superb support that it provides for the mountain rescue services in Snowdonia and for the many lives that it has helped to save over the past few years?

My Lords, I am delighted to do that. As the noble Lord may be aware, the patron of the mountain rescue service, Prince William, will shortly be serving at Valley, and his involvement in the mountain rescue service is hugely appreciated.

My Lords, I should declare that I am president of the Dartmoor search and rescue group, a post that I am extremely proud to hold. I am sure that the Minister will want to join me in paying tribute to the courage, commitment and dedication of the volunteers in that group and all the other volunteers up and down the country. They raise their own funds. Surely they should not be penalised by having to pay value added tax on the equipment that they have to buy.

I echo entirely what the noble Lord has said about the role of the mountain rescue service on Dartmoor and indeed in all other parts of the country. He referred to VAT, which is a rather more difficult and controversial issue. I am afraid that it is not possible for the British Government unilaterally to change the bodies that are covered by VAT because that would require approval from the European Union. There are other ways in which we can help the mountain rescue service other than going down the VAT route.

My Lords, as a former member of the Upper Wharfedale cave and fell rescue team and, dare I say, as an active caver this year, I thank the Minister for his earlier Answer in relation to the meeting that is to be held shortly. Is it time for budgeting to be included in the emergency services’ budgets for the rescue teams around the country?

One feels a little inadequate replying to such distinguished participants in mountain rescue and other rescue services. The caving teams are very important too. The question of funding will be on the agenda for the meeting to which I referred. The right reverend Prelate is right to say that the rescue services do not just do mountain rescue; they now cover flood relief and searching for missing people as well. Their new slogan is “More than just mountains”, and that is certainly true.

Does my noble friend accept that while we all pay unlimited tribute to the courage and dedication of the mountain rescue teams, the message is that they are volunteers? That is a message to the country as a whole about what can be achieved by that kind of spirit. We must never take it for granted. Does he therefore agree that, in forthcoming meetings with Ministers, sensitive and appropriate ways should be found to support them in every way? Does he also agree that there is a responsibility on the public as a whole not to abuse that spirit of voluntary commitment by behaving irresponsibly on mountains or elsewhere?

My noble friend is correct. The importance of volunteers in so many areas of our national life cannot be underestimated, and perhaps the mountain rescue service is one of the best examples. I was speaking to the chairman of a branch of the mountain rescue service in the Black Mountains yesterday, and he made it clear to me that they are not at all interested in monetary reward for themselves; they do it out of a commitment to public service because they have a love of mountains, and they are mountaineers who want to help other mountaineers.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Group on Mountain Rescue, and I congratulate the Government on holding the meeting referred to by the Minister in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I would like to draw to the Minister’s attention the fact that the Scottish Administration are substantially more generous to the mountain rescue services than are the Government south of the border. I urge him to put that issue firmly on the agenda for discussion at that meeting.

My Lords, I suspect it will not need me to put that on the agenda and that the mountain rescue service and my noble friend will ensure that it is covered. The funding of the mountain rescue service in Scotland is a devolved matter, and the decision that the Scottish authorities take to support it is a matter entirely for them. My noble friend on the Front Bench whispered to me that they have more mountains in Scotland than we do in England, so it is obviously a more relevant service in that part of the country.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the rescue dogs do a wonderful job too? They sometimes find people on mountains and in the snow when people cannot.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely correct. The role of dogs in rescue in all sorts of situations, particularly in the snow, is obviously of crucial value.