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Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team

Volume 796: debated on Thursday 28 February 2019

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the contribution to public safety made by the Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team, and of the work carried out by search and rescue services more generally.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce a debate on the contribution to public safety made by Dartmoor Search and Rescue and Mountain Rescue England and Wales. I draw the House’s attention to my entries in the register, particularly the fact that I have the honour to be patron of the Tavistock team of the Dartmoor Search and Rescue group, which was the first team formed on Dartmoor and celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. I am always careful to take a compass and mobile telephone with me on my frequent walks on Dartmoor. It would be extremely embarrassing if Dartmoor Search and Rescue was called out to find and rescue its patron.

I am very grateful to the Minister, who kindly came down to Tavistock last Saturday to meet me and other members of the Tavistock team to be briefed on the work done by our team and other members of Mountain Rescue England and Wales. I am grateful to Mike France, chairman and senior executive officer of Mountain Rescue England and Wales, for assisting me in preparing for this debate. Next year he will have served 50 years in mountain rescue. His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge is the patron of Mountain Rescue England and Wales and has had some years’ front-line experience in this field.

Mountain Rescue England and Wales is the umbrella organisation for some 48 teams throughout the two countries, organised into two Welsh regions and seven English ones. It has associated organisations: Cave Rescue—I remind the House of the heroic and successful contribution that members of Cave Rescue made in Thailand last year—Mountain Rescue Search Dogs, as most teams have search-dog sections, and two Royal Air Force units. Approximately 3,500 trained volunteers in England and Wales are available for deployment. I am also grateful to Mr Rhodri Davey, chairman of the Tavistock team, for his time last Saturday and for assisting me in preparing for this debate. He has served in mountain rescue for 20 years.

I do not recall a previous debate on these matters, and it is time that we as a House, and the Government, had an opportunity to express our profound gratitude to all the volunteers—all of them unpaid—who serve in mountain rescue throughout England and Wales and the UK, and their partners and families. We as a society owe them a debt of honour, and Parliament and the Government must ensure that they have the necessary resources for their operators to enable them to work safely and effectively. Only the best equipment and training will do. Volunteers and others spend a great deal of time fundraising, and the public generally are supportive, but more is needed as the demand increases.

2018 was one of the busiest years on record for many teams. It was not long ago when the busy teams in England and Wales were recording double-figure call-outs per year. In recent years, these numbers have increased to over 100 call-outs per year. In 2018, one team recorded 212 call-outs. Mountain rescue volunteers drop what they are doing and go into the mountains or moorlands to help someone in difficulty, over and over again. Many of these call-outs are genuine accidents, but some could be avoided with better planning.

I would like to express my gratitude, and I am sure the gratitude of the whole House, to the employers of the many volunteers. People volunteer from all different backgrounds and there is a system of selection to ensure that only those who are suitable can join. It is an egalitarian system, where people are accepted from diverse professions, trades, businesses and all walks of life.

In addition to mountain rescue work, volunteers assist in the following events—and this list is not exclusive: local and major flooding; looking for missing persons in urban as well as rural areas; and giving safety cover at fell races and mountain bike events. The list increases almost annually and the equipment requirements to cover these different jobs add to the cost the teams have to bear. The personnel in Mountain Rescue England and Wales save the country millions of pounds. If we did not have our volunteers, the Armed Forces, the police, the ambulance service and the fire service would all have to be deployed, and these services are stretched as it is.

I put it to the Minister that voluntary rescue services are sustainable and they will continue to offer a free service to the people they rescue. This is part of the ethos and culture of mountain rescue and the people who work in it. Rightly and admirably, they believe that mountain rescue is a free service to their fellow walkers and climbers, regardless of how they got into their predicament. The service is also free to the public if the police, ambulance service or, for that matter, fire service ask for their assistance.

Mountain rescue teams will continue improving their training standards and this includes specialist areas such as dog-handling and medical assistance. Volunteers today are very skilled technically, and this is in addition to their great hill-craft knowledge. Information technology in mountain rescue has changed much in the last few years and has assisted immensely with many rescues. Mountain Rescue England and Wales and the teams work closely with the police, the fire service and the ambulance service, and their relationships with local resilience forums and other organisations, including UK Search and Rescue, have been more strongly co-ordinated and greatly improved. This is down to the efforts of all the volunteers and particularly Mountain Rescue England and Wales, which liaises regularly with the first responders and other organisations.

In 2018, Mountain Rescue England and Wales hosted a meeting with Mountain Rescue Scotland and Mountain Rescue Ireland. They discussed matters formally as Mountain Rescue UK, and had open and frank discussions about their tasks and other matters, including United Kingdom search and rescue. Mountain Rescue England and Wales also had meetings with Lowland Rescue and cave rescue organisations last year. The point is that a great deal of information, experience and expertise is exchanged. This will, again, improve the effectiveness and co-ordination of all the organisations to which I have referred.

Recently, after some lobbying of the Government, the teams have been able to apply for a VAT refund on purchased rescue equipment. Presumably, this is a form of zero rating. Mountain Rescue England and Wales and the teams hope to be able to obtain vehicle excise duty refunds on front-line blue-light vehicles. In addition, they can apply for funding for training through a grant from the Libor fines. Unfortunately, this money will run out in approximately two years’ time.

The money for training has been of immense assistance in upping the effectiveness of the teams throughout England and Wales. As I said earlier, it is only fair for the volunteers to have the best training and the best equipment available. I hope that the Minister will be able to liaise with the Treasury and authorise a Treasury official to come to speak to Mountain Rescue England and Wales, because in approximately two years’ time it will need about £400,000 a year to be able to continue the high standards of training to which every volunteer should be entitled.

Mountain rescue is an essential service and the Government should recognise this by giving tangible support. Mountain Rescue England and Wales has significant overheads, including finance, legal and insurance expenses. The cost of insurance is approximately £256,000 a year, and generous contributions have been made to mountain rescue by GO Outdoors and the JD Foundation. As explained earlier, the demands on the teams increase annually, and it is imperative that the Government and the Treasury understand that, in order to save the Treasury millions of pounds per year, some hundreds of thousands of pounds annually are required to assist.

Mountain Rescue England and Wales is a great organisation with wonderful people working for it and in the teams. Team members will visit schools, scouts and many other youth and adult organisations to explain their role and other matters, particularly the respect that should be paid to the mountains and moors. On Dartmoor, for instance, when the mist comes down, even the most experienced and knowledgeable person is in danger. When the rain is pouring down, a small river can become a deadly torrent. It is in these dangerous circumstances, by day and by night and over long periods of time, that the volunteers in the teams give their time and risk their lives.

The whole House, I am sure, will join me in expressing the gratitude of all of us to Mountain Rescue England and Wales and to all the members of the teams, their partners and their families for their dedication, courage, stamina, altruism and wholehearted commitment.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate him on the excellent work he does as patron of the Tavistock team of Dartmoor Search and Rescue.

My first experience of Dartmoor goes back to the spring of 1966 when, as a young Army officer cadet on our final training exercise, I spent a fortnight on the moor and experienced it at its most severe—snow, rain, fog and bitter cold. A year later, two young officer cadets ran into trouble on Dartmoor. A rescue effort was attempted but difficult terrain and impending darkness, coupled with technical mishaps and human error, ultimately led to failure and the two young cadets, sadly, lost their lives.

As a result of that tragedy, the Dartmoor Rescue Group was founded, and I pay tribute to it for its wonderful work. Its members head off into the wind, the rain and the snow to help, among others, lost school groups, injured walkers, missing children and people with dementia. I have grown to respect their work. They are real lifesavers, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said, everybody involved is an unpaid volunteer.

My sister lives close to Dartmoor and I know only too well that Dartmoor’s tors, valleys, rivers and forests can be forbidding and dangerous places, especially in bad weather and after dark. Search and rescue operations can be difficult, and at times dangerous, to both rescuers and those being rescued. As the noble Lord said, teams spend a great deal of time and effort training in a wide range of appropriate skills.

One of the main problems they experience is a lack of awareness by the public of the quickly changing weather conditions of Dartmoor. It is easy to get lost if you are not familiar with the moorland and its conditions. Stories are legion of people setting off in totally inappropriate clothing and footwear. The Dartmoor search and rescue team does a very good job in educating schools, scouts and other community groups. However, most of the problems arise with tourists unaware of the potentially treacherous conditions.

Does my noble friend believe that more can be done to warn the visiting public of the huge risks they run by setting off on to the moor unprepared, potentially risking their own and other people’s lives? The Army, and Armed Forces generally, have learned lessons since the earlier deaths. Their professionalism means that they no longer lose young officer cadets or any other service men or women.

I have one further question for my noble friend. I apologise for not giving her warning, and would be very happy to receive a letter. I understand that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is trialling drones to help casualties at sea. The RNLI put out an open call to the drone industry back in November, asking companies to look at ways that drones could be integrated into its systems. Does my noble friend believe that drones and their technologies could also help search and rescue capabilities more generally?

My Lords, I am grateful to be allowed to speak in the gap. I would not like this debate to pass without mentioning the Kent Search and Rescue organisation. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, would be happy to agree that this fits into the wider remit of the debate. It is a lowland rescue organisation. I am grateful to him for having brought this important subject to the House.

I declare an interest as patron of the Kent Search and Rescue organisation. My noble friend Lord Evans of Weardale regrets that he cannot be here—he is its chairman. KSAR is a vibrant and healthy volunteer organisation, which is performing a valuable service for the county on land and water. It is well established and pretty well equipped through its fundraising efforts, with a strong group of volunteers whose numbers continue to grow. It is well organised and bent on having the highest professional standards. It is busy—its aim is to be ready 24/7, 365 days a year. It has had a gusting 1,000 callouts over its time; 200 in the last three years. There is no doubt about the valuable service it provides for its community. Sadly, people going missing is far too prevalent, and that situation seems to be getting worse. I know that what it does is highly prized by the police, fire service and coastguards, with whom it has first-class working relationships. To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, the police in Kent admit that this group saves them millions of pounds a year by doing jobs that they simply cannot afford, in terms of capacity or cost.

I pay tribute to the Kent Search and Rescue volunteers, and all volunteers on such activities. I am only too aware, as the past chairman of the RNLI, of how important volunteering is in this area of lifesaving, and how valuable that is to the country at large. I am sure the House would want to pay tribute to such organisations and agree that they deserve wholehearted support and thanks, right across the country, for all the good work they do. By the way, to answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, we are using drones, as is the RNLI. I am most grateful for the opportunity to mention lowland rescue, which of course complements the work done by the excellent mountain rescue organisations.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for securing this debate. As he said in his speech, he has strong personal links to the Dartmoor Search and Rescue team, as patron of the Tavistock group, and is thus able to speak with considerable authority and first-hand experience about the role it plays and the work it does in contributing to public safety.

The Dartmoor rescue group comprises four teams and is sponsored by a number of organisations, including Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue, Devon and Cornwall Police and, interestingly, Dartmoor Brewery—whether it provides sustenance before, during or after missions is not entirely clear. The four teams are based in Ashburton, Okehampton, Tavistock and Plymouth. I do not want to digress too much, but movement between those locations would be improved for the group if the railway line between Okehampton and Plymouth was fully reopened.

The Dartmoor rescue group covers the 365 square miles of Dartmoor and beyond, and also works with the Cornwall and Exmoor teams. Group members are all volunteers, as has been said, but they are professionally trained in searching, navigation, casualty care, search dog handling and swift water rescues. The group started in 1968 and last year celebrated its 50th anniversary, when, among other activities, civic leaders throughout Devon joined members of the group for a special celebration. The group is affiliated to the Mountain Rescue Council.

The Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the devolved Administrations are responsible for ensuring the quality of preparedness for civil emergencies at the local government level and across central government. Within this, the police services are responsible for ensuring the response and co-ordination of land search and rescue, and the Cabinet Office is responsible for the framework for UK civil protection in accordance with the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, an Act I remember well since I made my maiden speech at its Second Reading—a maiden speech that had been forgotten even before I had finished delivering it. The tasking of adequate resources to respond to civil aeronautical and maritime search and rescue is the responsibility of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency through Her Majesty’s coastguard. However, search and rescue in this country relies on volunteers and voluntary organisations to save lives at sea and on land.

Such volunteers—I believe the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, gave the figure 3,500—give significant amounts of their time without payment and put their own safety, or indeed lives, at risk. By definition, search and rescue can involve going out in appalling conditions at the drop of a hat, in tough and dangerous terrain, at any time of the day or night, on any day of the year, in any season and for an unknown length of time to save those—to give two examples—who have been caught out by a sudden change in weather conditions and are inadequately prepared or to rescue those who have, either literally or metaphorically, got themselves in a hole and who may be lost, injured or vulnerable.

There were only nine days in 2017 without a mountain rescue call-out in England and Wales. On mountain rescue, the total number of operational hours was just under 100,000, or the equivalent of more than 50 people working full-time hours for a year. In 2017, 20% of incidents were more than four hours in duration and 5% took more than eight hours to complete.

In recent months, there have been a series of television programmes on the work of the lifeboat service, which showed in detail the variety of operations that service embraces and the calculated risks the volunteers undertake to rescue those in difficulty—all too often a difficulty that has arisen from stupidity or thoughtlessness rather than from bad luck or an unforeseen development.

For mountain rescue teams, the summer holidays are the busiest time, though at times of heavy snowfall I understand the teams can be asked to support local agencies by transporting medical staff to work and to patient visits.

The majority of voluntary search and rescue organisations are registered charities which rely heavily on donations and fundraising. During working hours, effective search and rescue response also relies on the willingness of employers to release employees who are search and rescue volunteers.

In the light of comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, could the Minister say whether the level of financial support from donations and fundraising activities continues to be sufficient to maintain and train effective search and rescue services—including equipment—throughout the country, and whether sufficient volunteers continue to come forward to staff these vital, life-saving operations? Have changes in the nature of employment made it more or less difficult for people in employment to get time off to be search and rescue volunteers during working hours?

I have never personally had to require the services of search and rescue, even though in my younger years I was a keen and regular walker. My wife and I first met over 45 years ago doing the Dales Way walk from Ilkley to Windermere, a walk we decided to repeat in 2017 before we got too old to do it again. From doing walks like that, one can appreciate how easy it is for something to go seriously wrong in challenging conditions. To know that help would be available from search and rescue volunteers is a source of considerable comfort.

I endorse the tributes paid by the noble Lords, Lord Burnett and Lord Astor of Hever, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, to all those search and rescue volunteers who unflinchingly and unfailingly turn out to help and save the lives of so many, at not inconsiderable risk to themselves.

I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, on securing this important short debate about the arrangements for search and rescue services both in the local area of Dartmoor and more widely across the UK. I also add my personal thanks to the noble Lord, and to the team of Rhodri Davey, Andy Barton and Paul Hudson, who gave me such a warm welcome and interesting visit last weekend to the Tavistock search and rescue centre.

First, Her Majesty’s Government pay tribute to all our search and rescue teams across the UK, and commend the important contribution that our dedicated search and rescue volunteers and full-time services make to the UK as a whole in rescuing and assisting the many thousands of people who get into difficulty in our wonderful mountains, lowlands, caves and around the beautiful coasts, cliffs and seas of the UK.

The UK is very fortunate to have around 170,000 dedicated search and rescue volunteers who, without expectation of reward, risk their lives daily to assist any person who is in need.

Our search and rescue services are recognised around the world, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett—we can all remember with pride the contribution made by UK cave rescue volunteers to the Thai cave incident in June and July last year, which resulted in the rescue of 12 schoolboys and their teacher in very difficult circumstances, with the world watching their every move.

This rescue embodies the spirit of all the UK search and rescue services, which are always prepared to go the extra mile to help those in need and to save life. We are indeed lucky to have search and rescue volunteer services that include the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Her Majesty’s Coastguard Rescue Service, plus 60 independent lifeboats, all of which readily respond to distress and emergency calls around our coasts and seas, often battling horrendous conditions and the worst that our weather can throw at them.

Our maritime volunteer services attend more than 20,000 incidents a year, rescuing and assisting in excess of 30,000 people. Tragically, some have paid the ultimate price for this self-sacrifice, as the tragedy of the RNLI Penlee lifeboat “Solomon Browne”, which was lost with all hands in 1981, showed. This House pays tribute to the selfless bravery of her volunteer crew.

Inland we have mountain, lowland and cave rescue teams that provide the backbone of inland search and rescue services within the UK. The contribution to public safety by all our search and rescue services, including Dartmoor Search and Rescue, is considerable. My visit to Tavistock brought home clearly the different ways in which these teams contribute to their communities and to our nation’s safety. As my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever said, the Dartmoor team, like many others, was founded on the back of tragedy.

So there is the tangible contribution, with volunteers from Mountain Rescue England and Wales responding to just under 2,500 callouts, with almost 100,000 volunteering hours providing assistance to public safety. In the last few weeks, rescues have included lowering a pilot 1,300 feet when his glider crashed in a snowstorm, rescuing sheep from a rock face in Cumbria, and going out with armed police to assist when a wild camping trip, combined with recreational drugs, went a bit too wild and the participants needed rescuing.

We are lucky to have 27 mountain rescue teams in Scotland and 15 in Northern Ireland, which attended more than 700 callouts in 2017 and assisted about 600 people, giving a further 22,000 hours of their time to assist those in need.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, mentioned our lowland rescue teams. There are 35 of them and in the last year they contributed 60,000 volunteer hours and responded to just over 1,200 incidents. Often the assistance they provide is to locate vulnerable and elderly people affected by mental health and dementia. This is a critical and much-valued service. As I also mentioned, the 15 cave rescue teams in the UK provide a specialist service to assist lost and missing cavers and members of the public, both within the UK and further afield.

The contribution of our search and rescue services to public safety continues to be outstanding, with over 445,000 hours of volunteer time being committed annually to help people in need. But, as well as the tangible contributions, there are less tangible ones: from the commitment of the volunteers, which all noble Lords mentioned, to the support of their families and—as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser—of their employers, to the involvement of their communities, particularly in fundraising. Judging by the strength of the friendships and trust between team members that I witnessed in Tavistock, this is an invaluable asset.

But this commitment is not without a price. The mental health charity Mind has provided mental health support for search and rescue volunteers for four years in England and Wales through the Blue Light programme. Mind research has shown—perhaps this is not surprising—that first responders, emergency services staff and volunteers are more likely to experience a mental health problem than the general workforce but less likely to take time off work as a result. I declare my interest as a former trustee of the Royal Foundation. The foundation is working in partnership with Mind to explore ways to provide some sponsorship of the Blue Light programme and to make available a 24/7 helpline specifically for the search and rescue community.

The noble Lords, Lord Burnett and Lord Rosser, mentioned funding, and in particular the future of Libor funding. The UK search and rescue Libor training partnership is looking at opportunities to use some of the remaining funding to enhance longer-term fundraising opportunities, and the Government are keeping this under close review. I cannot promise the noble Lord a meeting with the Treasury but I will undertake to make sure that details of this debate are shared with it.

My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever asked about the role of drones and technology in enhancing our response. Both Her Majesty’s Coastguard and the RNLI are working together to consider the role of drones to increase the efficiency of search and rescue, obviously to save more lives but also to reduce risk to volunteers. Trials are being considered at the moment. However, I reassure more technophobic noble Lords that search and rescue dogs are still absolutely crucial.

I hope I have covered the questions raised by noble Lords. I spotted only one inaccuracy in your Lordships’ comments, which came from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser: I find it impossible to believe that his maiden speech was anything other than very memorable.

It has been a great pleasure to respond for the Government in this important debate and to recognise not only the terrific work of Dartmoor Search and Rescue but all our search and rescue services and their combined contribution to public safety. I am sure that the House will want to join me in paying tribute to all of them and their volunteers for their courage and skills to save lives in whatever environment.