New Clause 4 — Limitation on Power to Authorise Charging

Fire and Rescue Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 15th March 2004.

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'(1) An order under section 19 may not authorise a fire and rescue authority to charge for:

(a) extinguishing fires or protecting life and property in the event of fires; or

(b) rescuing people in the event of road traffic accidents or protecting people from serious harm in the event of road traffic accidents; or

(c) discharging any function relating to emergencies conferred on it by the Secretary of State under section 9.

(2) An order under section 19 may authorise a fire and rescue authority to charge for the provision of emergency medical assistance only in circumstances where a National Health Service Ambulance Trust is authorised to charge for such provision.'.—[Mr. Hammond.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment No. 12.

Amendment No. 2, in clause 19, page 9, line 10, leave out subsection (2).

Government amendment No. 13.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The new clause deals with the scope of the power of the Secretary of State to authorise charging under clause 19. The current regime, under the 1947 Act, confers only one statutory function on fire authorities—that of extinguishing fires and protecting life and property in the event of fire—and prohibits charging for the discharge of that activity, but by omission it allows charging for all other areas of fire service activity. The practice is that few authorities charge for emergency work. I shall focus in this short debate on road traffic accidents.

We should not confuse this issue with the power that exists, and could specifically be granted to fire and rescue authorities under the Bill, to charge for non-emergency functions, such as the use of equipment and manpower, or the establishment of the authority to carry out everyday functions such as pumping water out of a basement or filling a swimming pool. Those are useful functions, but they are not central to the emergency role of the service.

An essential part of the purpose of the Bill is to put road traffic accidents and other emergency work—for example, chemical and nuclear decontamination in the event of a terrorist attack, or rescue from floodwater—at the heart of what the fire and rescue services do. All those roles will have the same essential statutory basis as the current requirement to extinguish fires and protect life and property in the event of fire. The Minister has argued repeatedly—somewhat disingenuously—that because the Bill has a continuing prohibition on charging for fire-related activities, it reflects the 1947 Act. However, as I see it, that Act bans charging for the statutory function of the fire authority. There is only one statutory function at present. To retain the status quo, we would need to extend that ban on charging to all statutory functions, including attending at road traffic accidents and other emergencies. New clause 4 does not go that far. It does not suggest that the ban on charging should extend to the statutory functions of fire prevention and fire education work under clause 6. It simply suggests a prohibition on charging for the emergency statutory functions of the fire and rescue authorities under clauses 7, 8 and 9.

On the one hand, the Bill extends a clear additional statutory function, but on the other it seeks to keep open the ability to charge for the discharge of that function in an emergency. That is not an acceptable proposition, and it is not what our constituents expect us to legislate for. The Bill also provides for the charging of third parties, which is a thinly disguised reference to insurers. Charging motor insurers would represent another stealth tax on the Government's favourite victim, the motorist. What about the uninsured—the millions of people who drive on our roads every day without insurance? They are an increasing problem. Would they pay? How would the Government collect charges from people who do not have an insurer to pay up on their behalf, when they cannot collect two thirds of the fines imposed by courts on similar people? Will not this be simply another example of an additional charge or tax on the law-abiding, insured majority, while the public purse continues to support the antisocial minority?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Is my hon. Friend worried that if a fire authority was particularly keen to recoup its costs in the way that he describes, there might be an argument about payment before someone received the service that they deserved in an emergency situation?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point, but it is not a question of "might". At least one fire authority—the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority—is keen to charge in that way and has made it clear that it would like powers to charge for road traffic accident rescue work. Another practical problem might arise if fire authorities were allowed to charge for attending road traffic accidents. What if someone were involved in a road traffic accident and was trapped in his vehicle but physically uninjured? Such a person might tell the fire brigade, which has raced to the scene with lights flashing and sirens blaring, that he does not want to be cut out of his car and receive a bill for £250. He would rather wait while his friendly local mechanic or a chap he knows from down the pub, whom he has just phoned on his mobile phone, comes along to cut him out. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but it is central to our relationship with the emergency services that it never crosses our minds to ask whether we will be charged for the services delivered. When we pick up the phone and dial 999 because we see smoke, we do not wonder first whether there will be a charge for calling the fire brigade.

I am against charging for emergency services that are part of a statutory function, although I am not necessarily against charging for non-emergency work. I am also against discriminating against the law-abiding majority by limiting charging to those with insurers able to pay. That is the Government's idea of the way to make such charges a painless tax. I made the same point when I was health spokesman in 1998 during the passage of the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999. I sought an assurance in Committee on behalf of motorists, but all I got was a lecture from the Minister about bad landlords causing people to be trapped in lifts. Any hon. Members who have offices in Portcullis House will know that it has the eight lifts most likely to break down nearby, but they are not maintained by someone whom I would regard as a particularly bad landlord. I hope that the Minister will deal with motorists involved in road traffic accidents, instead of trying to refocus the discussion on people trapped in lifts.

Amendment No. 2 would leave out clause 19(2), which prevents charging for extinguishing fires, and replace it with new clause 4, which would prevent charging for fires, road traffic accidents and any emergency functions conferred on fire and rescue authorities by clause 19. That is an enabling clause that will give the Secretary of State power to confer functions by statutory instrument. We have the benefit of the Secretary of State's preliminary thinking, in the form of a draft statutory instrument that was circulated in Committee. To broaden the House's understanding of what is involved in clause 19 functions, the draft statutory instrument includes chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents; search and rescue in cases in which there is a serious threat that one or more persons has been trapped in the area as a result of a landslide or the collapse of a building; major flooding; and major rail, water and air accidents. It would be unthinkable to charge people for interventions in such emergencies, so why on earth cannot the Government rule out doing so?

Subsection (2) of new clause 4 addresses a different issue: charging for emergency medical assistance. The background to the provision is the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999, which authorises charging, via insurers, for the costs of national health service treatment provided after a road traffic accident. Our position during the progress of that measure was—as it remains—that we resist unfair discrimination against the motorist, who should not be seen as a soft target simply because, if he is a law-abiding individual, he will generally have insurance.

A programme is currently under way to promote co-response and, indeed, first response by fire and rescue authorities, whereby if a fire and rescue authority is the first on the scene of an incident, it will increasingly—I shall come to that point later—be able to deliver emergency medical assistance. Furthermore, especially in rural areas, fire services could in future be the first responder to other types of medical emergency—for example, cardiac arrests—if the fire station was significantly nearer to the patient than the nearest ambulance station. We simply cannot have a situation in which people pay according to whether the fire engine or the ambulance gets there first. That would be outrageous and our proposal attempts to deal with it.

The Minister has obviously understood our concern, which we debated in Committee, and I am delighted that he responded with Government amendment No. 12, especially subsection (2A), which bans all charging for emergency medical assistance by fire authorities. However, I find myself in the curious position of having to tell him that I think he has given too much. We risk the opposite scenario, in which the victim lying at the roadside would no longer have to listen to the ambulance approaching from one side and the fire engine approaching from the other, hoping that the ambulance got there first so that he would not be charged by the fire service. As a result of amendment No. 12, he could be hoping that the fire engine got there first, because under the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999, if the ambulance arrived first, he might be charged by the NHS.

I anticipate the Minister's defence to my objection. A patient treated at the scene by a fire brigade will not always be taken away in an ambulance to an NHS hospital. Often, people at the roadside with minor injuries decline, for all sorts of reasons, to get into an ambulance and go to hospital; a plaster is stuck on the injury and they go off about their business. However, I hope that the Minister can give us a pragmatic answer to avoid creating a new injustice in resolving the one that we identified in the Standing Committee.

Amendment No. 12 limits the prohibition on charging for fires, so that fire authorities will be able to charge for fires under the sea—that is, in tunnels—or fires and rescues at sea. Can the Minister give us some information about that proposal? I understand that, at present, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has lead responsibility for rescue from fires at sea, which includes extinguishing them. What is the current practice on charging? From discussions with the Kent and Medway Towns fire authority, I know that the current interpretation of the 1947 Act is that it prevents charging for work carried out in relation to fires in the channel tunnel. None the less, there is an elaborate mechanism to allow the Kent and Medway combined authority to extract a substantial annual sum from the operators of the channel tunnel for providing cover for the tunnel. It would be useful if the Minister would clarify what the situation will be for the channel tunnel and other subsea structures, as well as how the amendment will affect rescue at sea? Government amendment No. 13 makes amendment No. 12 consistent with other parts of the Bill, by making it clear that references to "sea" are not restricted to sea within the territorial limits of the United Kingdom.

I cannot believe that the British public want charges for emergency responses from our fire and rescue services. If we introduce charges for the attendance of the fire service at a major road accident, what will come next? Will we charge for the police to go to the scene of a burglary? Will we charge for cutting people out of a train wreck or plane crash, or for decontaminating them after a terrorist attack? I do not think so. That cannot be what the Government have in mind. So what is their refusal to limit the scope of charging all about? It is clear that it is about a desire to double charge motorists and to make them pay for a service for which they pay already through their council tax. I have asked the Minister once, and I ask him again, for a categorical undertaking that, if the Government will not accept our new clause, Britain's 27 million motorists and their insurers will not be charged by the fire and rescue services for emergency attendance at road traffic accidents. Anything less than such an undertaking will leave Britain's motorists in no doubt about what the Government have in mind for them: yet another stealth tax on law-abiding, insured drivers.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud 6:15 pm, 15th March 2004

Some of us on the Labour Benches thoroughly concur with some of what Mr. Hammond has said, so we look forward to our right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government allaying our worst fears about what could happen. Of course, there is always the difficulty that we worry more about what might happen rather than what is likely to happen. In Standing Committee, we probably spent more time on clause 19 than on any other part of the Bill, although there was only one Division, despite the fact that several amendments were discussed.

The problem for some of us is that the consultation paper is somewhat opaque. Some of us do not understand all the nuances of every last dot and comma of the Bill, and the consultation paper should have gone some way towards clarifying how the charging policy would work in practice. I may be alone, but I am not much the wiser about that, so I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to assuage our fears about several things.

We are concerned that the proposals would make the current ad hoc arrangements worse. Currently, some fire and rescue authorities can make a charge if they feel that a person's behaviour has resulted in gratuitous waste of their time and resources. However, we need some explanation of the proposals. Given that all three emergency services spend most of their time actually dealing with emergencies, I am not clear how there can be a process that settles in advance whether an incident is such that a charge should be levied on a motorist or a person who has the misfortune to be stuck in a lift. The proposals are a recipe for disaster unless we can lay the ghost of those fears and ensure that charges would not lead to problems in the future. I hope that my right hon. Friend will lay the ghosts completely so that we can move on. Charging must be put in its proper context—as a very small part of a much more important piece of legislation.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

I support much of what Mr. Hammond has said, but I disagree with what he said about new clause 4—we disagreed on that in Committee. He has a great future in a Treasury team because he has the ability to double count figures in the same way in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer does whenever there is an announcement on new Government spending—that is not meant as a compliment.

The hon. Gentleman talks about double charging as if there will be two sets of charges, but that is blatantly not the case. If there is a system of charging in specific instances, the running costs of the relevant authority are reduced. If those costs are reduced, the charge to the taxpayer is thus reduced—the taxpayer does not pay in that instance. Double charging would occur only if the money raised disappeared or were wasted, and I do not believe that that will be the case.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell me how far the Liberal Democrats extend that thinking? Will they introduce charging throughout such areas as the national health service and the education sector?

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

No. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman hypothesised that there would be a great roll-out of a programme through which the Government would charge for this, that and the other, but that is not the case. In the case of road traffic accidents, one can say that someone is to blame, so charges can be recovered from whoever is at fault. There was no one who could be said to be at fault or to blame in the other cases that he mentioned. He cited an aeroplane crash, but it would be difficult to determine with whom the fault lay in such a case. If terrorists blew up a plane, it would be almost impossible to recoup costs from those individuals. However, in the specific case of a road traffic accident, it is more than possible to recoup costs.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Is the hon. Gentleman thus saying that if people smoke too much against advice, they should have to pay for their lung cancer treatment?

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

I am not saying that, but as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, people who smoke too much sometimes find it difficult to get certain forms of treatment because doctors are reluctant to treat them.

We are considering a specific case in which someone is at fault. I understood that when the Conservative party was in power, it accepted the established principle that ambulances have always been able to charge for attending a road traffic accident. It is not unreasonable to extend the call-out charge for attending an RTA to firefighters. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge seems to be trying to create a new category of people whom he can support, and he seems to be creating a new category of victims.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

Yes, all of a sudden there is a concept that motorists are victims. Motorists sometimes do get a raw deal, and most of them feel that they are victims if they get parking or speeding tickets. However, it is not unreasonable for the person who was at fault for a road traffic accident to be expected to pay a charge for an emergency service to attend.

I accept several of the concerns that Mr. Drew raised. If a charging regime is to exist, we must be clear about what it is. Will the Minister define the limits of such a regime so that the fears—the irrational fears, I hope—that a great charging regime will suddenly exist can be laid to rest?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

What does the hon. Gentleman propose to do about the increasingly large number of motorists who do not have insurance? The way in which the Government word the provisions suggests that they envisage avoiding that difficult problem by levying charges only on insurers, thus letting uninsured motorists—those who are breaking the law—get away scot-free.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

I accept that that is a valid point. Uninsured people should be expected to pay the charges, but a problem would arise if they were not able to afford them. We need a new system to stop people driving without insurance. I would need to talk to our transport spokesman to find out what our exact policy is on that, but other systems, such as displaying evidence of insurance in car windscreens, might be a way of dealing with the problem. It is of course wrong for people not to be insured and to get away with it, but that is not what we are debating. The hon. Gentleman cites the example of people escaping payment, but that argument is rather like saying that as some people avoid paying tax, we should not pay tax. That argument is nonsense, and I think that the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I support new clause 4, for which my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond argued his case powerfully. I was shocked when I read the Bill and realised that it would enable the Minister or his successors to authorise charges for rescuing people caught up in terrible accidents. The mind boggles as to how that might take place. Is the Minister seriously suggesting that when the fire service arrived on the scene, there would have to be negotiation with victims on how they would pay? Would they have to show a credit card or carry cash, or would they be allowed to defer payment? Would they be able to argue over the price? Would they get a quote in advance, or would they have to pay whatever bill was sent to them and their insurers after the rescue?

My hon. Friend made a powerful point in response to an intervention that I made. I was thinking of a poor victim who desperately needed to be rescued from his or her vehicle and perhaps needed to be taken to the local hospital. Such victims would be in no condition to think through such matters and would agree to any charge that might be made thereafter. However, my hon. Friend cited the even more difficult case of a person who needed to get out of his or her vehicle, but was in no immediate pain or danger. Such people might well want to shop around and use a mobile phone to find out whether a private sector contractor could arrive in a reasonable time and do the job more cheaply. The fire service would presumably have to give them a quote, so the whole situation would become laughable.

I speak as someone who wants less government, lower taxes, far fewer quangos, officials and regulations, and far less intervention in daily life than currently exists under the Government. However, there must be a core of public services that we, the taxpayers, get free in return for our massive taxes. If I had to set out a shortlist—it would be a much shorter list than that which the Government produce for us against our will—of things that should be supplied free at the point of use and paid for by the enormous tax revenues that are collected, the service that we are discussing would be high up the list. I would want good defence, criminal justice and emergency services that worked when we were in need of emergency service provision. I cannot believe that a Labour Government, who raise so much money from us all and mug the motorist every day with their massive fuel taxes, licence fees, hidden taxation on motoring and congestion charges, can have the audacity to come to the House with the measure and to take it through Committee without understanding just how much people will hate the proposal and how wrong people would think it to have to pay a fee at the point of accidents such as those that I described. I am delighted that Mr. Drew speaks up for good, honest Labour Back Benchers who are as shocked as I am to see the Minister coming before the House, without any shame on his face, to demand payment in such dreadful circumstances.

When the Minister responds to the debate, he may well argue that he does not wish to impose charges on all people in the dreadful circumstances that I described. Of course, he could point out that, under the Bill, he would have to authorise a charge before one could be imposed, but I am worried about not only the Minister, but his possible successor before the election. I am not sure who that might be if he is replaced in a reshuffle. I think that he should be promoted to the Cabinet, but he is far too competent for that. We know that competence is not valued in gaining promotion to this Government, so he may be moved sideways. The next Minister—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make his remarks germane to the amendment rather than to people's promotion prospects.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 6:30 pm, 15th March 2004

I stand suitably corrected, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The amendment addresses the charging regime. I am worried that, if we leave the Bill unamended and do not listen to the common sense of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, we could have a Minister who authorises charges in the awful circumstances that I described.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

How can the right hon. Gentleman justify his statements, given that his party's policies resulted in charging people for eye and dental check-ups?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

All parties have gone along with that policy, and this Government have gone further than the previous Government in privatising dentistry. I am sure that Madam Deputy Speaker would regard that as way wide of the amendment, which relates to the idea that a Minister could impose charges in the difficult circumstances that we are discussing.

The Minister will also argue that he aims to charge insurance companies rather than the victims of the accidents. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge explained that the people most likely to get into accidents are those who steal cars or drive without proper licences and insurance, and they will not be covered by the proposal. That is grossly unfair, especially if the innocent victim of such an accident is on the road legally and has insurance. Would the innocent victim's insurance company end up paying for that accident and would his no-claims bonus disappear?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Equally bad is the Government's plan to extend the levy that insurers have to pay to meet the costs of uninsured drivers to cover this scheme, imposing a still greater burden on law-abiding drivers. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will contemplate that.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

My hon. Friend is right. I was about to say that the burden will undoubtedly fall, as it always does, on the law-abiding decent motorist, who will pay the bill one way or another.

The Minister will know of the proposals before the European Union, which will doubtless come into effect, that will force up the price of insurance for younger women and middle-aged men, who have better driving records than others, in the false name of equality. He is asking us to approve another proposal that will sandbag and increase insurance costs for all motorists on top of the dangerous legislation that is about to come into effect that will tackle two groups that, on average tend, to drive rather better than others—something that should be reflected in their premiums. I hope that he understands just how badly motorists will view a further major increase in their premium cost, which will be a direct result of the Bill if he is foolish enough to reject my hon. Friend's excellent amendment.

Motorists have had enough of this Government. They have been sandbagged, taxed and treated extremely badly by them. This is yet another measure in that campaign. If the Minister wishes to win the votes of motorists at the election, he should back off tonight and support my hon. Friend.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I take up where my hon. Friend Mr. Drew left off and seek clarity on the document circulated by my right hon. Friend the Minister. The letter to my hon. Friend Mr. O'Hara, the co-Chairman of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, includes the consultation paper on secondary legislation. Item 8 of the annexe on page 13 deals with a critical issue that will cause consternation across the country. It could make or break a Government, let alone an individual Minister. It is the issue of cats up trees.

On the rescue of animals, it is current practice in the majority of authorities for the rescue of animals to be effected free of charge. Item 8 states:

"Current practice in the majority of authorities that do charge for animal rescues" is that

"some draw a distinction between domestic animals and livestock but as this is not universal practice we do not propose to include such a distinction in the Order."

So the person to be charged is the owner or keeper of the animal concerned. That introduces a charging policy for fire brigades that, altruistically and with clear commitment to animal rights and good husbandry, turn up to remove a cat from a tree. What happens if the cat does not have a collar? Do we impound the cat? If we impound it, at what point does it become dispensable—

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Indeed. When does the cat become disposable? What happens when we cannot identify who has called the fire brigade? What if there is no owner or keeper? Does the onus fall on the person who made the emergency call-out for that fire service?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an important point. What if the cat did not need or want rescuing? The cat may not be able to explain that to the fire brigade in attendance. The owner might be traced later and he could take exception to paying to rescue a cat that was perfectly happy up a tree.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

The proposal clearly contradicts the new line of policy of choice developed at the Labour party spring conference over the weekend and completely contradicts the policies pursued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. We need clarity on the matter. It is one of the anomalies on charging policy that will cause consternation and political reaction across the land.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

I shall try to bring us back to a calm environment after the flights of fantasy of Mr. Redwood, who took us into a distant land. I noted his kind remarks about my position. I am grateful for them. On the day that Mr. Curry has, for whatever reason, sadly resigned from the shadow Cabinet, taking a great chunk of expertise, skill and decency from that body, I suspect a touch of frustration on the part of the right hon. Member for Wokingham that he has not been offered a promotion as part of the consequent reshuffle. He must feel very unloved by his party.

Amendment No. 2 would remove the prohibition on charging for extinguishing fires and protecting life and property in the event of fire. The Fire Services Act 1947 prohibits fire authorities from charging for their response to fires. We have sought to continue such a prohibition in clause 19(2). To do otherwise would be to extend significantly the scope of the charging arrangements. I am sure that Mr. Hammond intends that his amendment should be read with new clause 4, in which he seeks to extend the range of services for which a charge cannot be levied.

New clause 4 would extend the restrictions on the services for which a charge might be made. Subsection (1)(a) replicates the restriction that the Government included in the Bill when it was introduced. However, subsections (1)(b) and (1)(c) would also apply to road traffic accidents at which there was no incidence of fire and to a variety of other emergency situations.

The new clause would not cover the circumstances that my hon. Friend John McDonnell mentioned relating to animal welfare. We debated those in Committee, but the amendments do not cover that subject. We propose to make no change to existing arrangements under which some fire and rescue authorities make charges for animal rescue. We do not think that it is right to make arbitrary changes without full consultation and discussion. I assure him that we are essentially preserving the status quo.

With the passage of time, from the position that existed under the 1947 Act, the fire and rescue service has acquired a great deal of experience and skill in dealing with the effects of road traffic accidents, even though there has been no obligation on the service to render rescue assistance. We have introduced a new duty for the service to respond to such incidents in clause 8, recognising the reality and putting on a proper statutory footing the responsibilities of the fire and rescue service.

At the same time, we have recognised that fire authorities already have a power to charge for dealing with the non-fire assistance rendered at such an incident, although to the best of our knowledge they have not made use of it. The order-making provision in clause 19 will allow us to ensure that there is no move towards charging for road traffic accidents or other incidents without further detailed consultation, while preserving the principle of being able to charge for such incidents if it is appropriate. That is entirely consistent with my explanation that we are simply preserving the status quo.

It is pure scaremongering on the part of the Opposition to imply that we intend to sting motorists. We have no such intention. As I have emphasised, we are simply preserving the status quo. What we will not do is rule out any arrangements similar to those operated by ambulance trusts to recover some costs in some circumstances—generally, of course, from insurers. That policy might come forward as a result of further consideration. We certainly would not want to rule it out if there were strong, sensible reasons for adopting it. We have no plans to do so; it is not part of our agenda, but we will not rule out arrangements that might command support in the wider fire community.

I am not clear why the Opposition believe that, in all cases, including those where there is clear fault, the cost of dealing with such incidents should always be borne by the taxpayer rather than the responsible party. That is a recipe for increasing the costs to be met by council tax payers. People thinking about factors behind rising council tax will draw conclusions from the Opposition's stance on the issue. Conservatives Members may complain about council tax levels, but in trying to make it impossible for fire and rescue services to recover the costs of certain incidents, some of which I shall explore in a moment, they are essentially proposing the transfer of costs in some circumstances from the polluters, insurers or parties responsible for those costs to the general taxpayer. I should not have thought that such a principle would be easy for Conservatives to defend in the wider debate about keeping down council tax. I look forward to engaging with them in that debate.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge may claim that we are proposing changes that could result in considerable increases in insurance premiums for 27 million motorists, but I must tell him, as I did in Committee, that Transport 2000 has estimated that the impact on the average premium of arrangements to mirror those operated by the NHS would be around £3 a year. He is really wide of the mark in scaremongering on that.

The recent Select Committee report on the fire service noted the potential for authorities to recover from compensators the costs of dealing with traffic accidents in a manner similar to that in the NHS. We believe that further work is needed on how any such scheme might operate for the fire and rescue service, and on the impact that it would have on authorities, the insurance industry and the public. Those further investigations should be conducted before any proposal is made, let alone introduced. In the light of that, we do not think that it would be appropriate to close off the possibility of charging, as countenanced in new clause 4. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend Mr. Drew the reassurance that he is seeking. We certainly have no plans to extend charging for services delivered by fire and rescue authorities, but we are aware that some authorities currently levy charges for certain activities and we are certainly not going to cut off those options arbitrarily, as the new clause proposes.

We are equally aware that some fire and rescue authorities have given thought to when they might wish to charge for various activities. The independent report on the fire service—the Bain report—gave some impetus to that thinking. Any such proposal should be very carefully evaluated from an operational and a financial point of view, and we should consider taking it forward only if its introduction could be carried through without in any way compromising public safety. Public safety will always remain our absolute priority and the overriding consideration. Nevertheless, we certainly would not want to close off options entirely.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I am largely reassured, but let me give the Minister one example of how we could get into difficulty. On nice summer afternoons, at the many fêtes and bazaars that we all attend and open, there is often a fire engine, which is usually popular with children. We will surely never get into the realms of charging for the presence of such appliances, which is often the most effective education about the fire service. That is the danger if we consider charging for things that are not deemed emergencies. Will my right hon. Friend clarify that?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

I am sure that we would want fire and rescue authorities to continue precisely such activities free of charge for public education purposes, but my hon. Friend will know that fire and rescue services might be asked to provide water-pumping facilities for some commercial activity, for which it is entirely reasonable to recover a charge. We would not want to rule that out. If authorities are not promoting public safety but providing a useful ancillary service, recovering costs would be entirely proper and reasonable.

I put it to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that the range of incidents that may fall within the provisions of clause 9 is not confined simply to the new terrorist threat. It can include major incidents of flooding or damage caused by accidental or negligent discharge by a company of a large volume of harmful chemicals. New clause (1)(c) would exclude such incidents from the scope of charging. Is it right that a major commercial undertaking that is responsible for massive pollution and consequent disruption should escape any possibility of being charged for the work of the fire and rescue service in dealing with such an incident? What message would such a prohibition on cost recovery give to potential polluters and to council tax payers? Is the hon. Gentleman so confident that, as he said, it is unthinkable for charges to be levied in such circumstances? If so, would the Opposition spokesman for environmental protection agree?

The hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Wokingham asked about the possibility of charging in an emergency. There is absolutely no intention of charging to extract payment before taking emergency action to save life or prevent serious harm. On the possibility raised by the hon. Gentleman that, owing to the Government amendment, a road traffic accident victim would hope that the fire service would attend first, neither the fire and rescue service nor the ambulance service charges for medical assistance. The ambulance service charges for conveyance to hospital. That is its appropriate role, and not one for the fire and rescue service.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 6:45 pm, 15th March 2004

Will the Minister write that assurance into the Bill so that all can see that authorities will never charge in such circumstances?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

That assurance has been given on the Floor of the House and previously, and will remain the case. The right hon. Gentleman knows, as he referred to it, that the Bill contains powers under which the Secretary of State must authorise any extension of charging, so if there were any question of varying from that principle, we would be open immediately to scrutiny of whether we were upholding it.

I understand that Conservative Members may fear that every person unfortunate enough to suffer a tidal surge may find themselves confronted with a bill for pumping out, but in many cases such people will have building and contents insurance. If it is felt appropriate to charge for such activity, clause 19(3) might be used to allow authorities to recover from insurers the costs of responding to flooding incidents.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The Minister is talking about pumping out. Is he giving a categorical assurance that the powers will never be used to levy a charge for rescuing people from flooded buildings?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Will the Minister give a similar categorical assurance that the provisions will never be used to levy a charge for rescuing people from cars after a road accident?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

I have already made that absolutely clear and I am happy to do so again. As I have repeatedly said, all that we are doing is preserving the status quo under which, as the hon. Gentleman knows because he has studied the matter carefully, the 1947 Act, which prohibits charges, applies only to the extinguishment of fires. As he rightly pointed out, there is scope for charging for other services. In general, fire and rescue authorities have not levied charges—some have for certain activities—and we are not intending to cut across those arrangements. We are implementing a framework that will ensure that, if there are to be charges for any service, they should be determined by the Secretary of State and subject to the Secretary of State's agreement by order, which can be considered by this House. That is the proper and necessary safeguard.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me and to listen. It has always been our intention that there should be no question of charging for rescuing people from road traffic accidents or, indeed, from life-threatening situations, including flooding.

New clause 4(2) is designed to ensure that fire and rescue authorities are not empowered to charge for providing emergency medical assistance where there is no corresponding power for an NHS ambulance trust to impose such a charge. I agree with the sentiment behind the provision. In Committee, I offered to table an amendment to that effect if the hon. Gentleman would accept that there were situations in which it was right for fire authorities to levy charges. He declined my offer. I think that he is wrong, but I have tabled the amendment none the less and in terms that offer greater reassurance to the public than would his own, which I ask him to withdraw.

Government amendments Nos. 12 and 13 correct an omission from the Bill. The 1947 Act was amended, with effect from September 2003, to allow fire and rescue authorities to charge for firefighting activities at sea. The power of an authority to respond to such a request for assistance had been introduced under the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Act 1997. The 1947 Act as originally enacted did not allow for a charge to be made for any firefighting purpose, but nor did it enable an authority to use its resources to assist in dealing with a fire offshore. There was considerable concern among salvage operators that such a power should exist and they and marine insurers were content to bear the cost. It is not surprising that they should prefer to pay for a service that an authority was not obliged to provide than risk the total loss of a vessel. It is right that the Bill should contain a similar provision and that the cost of such an intervention should not be expected to fall on the budget of an authority as a normal expense.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge mentioned the channel tunnel. As I pointed out in Committee, the tunnel is in the happy position of being notionally part of Kent for firefighting purposes—it is not treated as a place under the sea. The Government amendment makes no change to that conceptually difficult position.

Government amendment No. 12 also fulfils an offer made in Committee and goes further than the amendment tabled there by the hon. Gentleman. It prohibits charging for any emergency medical assistance and requires no linkage to NHS arrangements. I commend the Government amendments to the House.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I have sought to protect the interests of 27 million motorists in Britain, but must admit that I have been clearly trumped by John McDonnell defending the interests of animal lovers in Britain. God knows how many millions of those there are—certainly more than there are motorists.

I am not entirely clear about what the Minister just said. I sought a commitment that the powers under clause 19 would never be used to authorise charging for the discharge in an emergency of any of the statutory functions of a fire and rescue authority, and I thought that the right hon. Gentleman confirmed that in the last few minutes of his speech. If he can now confirm that he will never, in any circumstances, use clause 19 to authorise charging in an emergency for the discharge of any of the statutory functions of a fire and rescue authority, I shall be happy to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

No, I cannot do so. As I clearly explained, we can envisage emergencies, such as pollution incidents, arising in circumstances in which we believe it would be entirely appropriate to charge. My point, which I repeat, is that we do not in any circumstances envisage fire and rescue services failing to take action to rescue someone in an emergency, such as road traffic accident or flooding, simply because a charging regime has been introduced. That is unthinkable. The services will rescue people immediately—that will be their primary priority. If there were a charging regime, that would come into effect afterward, but it would certainly not affect the decision on whether to effect a rescue.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The Minister has clearly been called to order by voices off. That is not what he said a few minutes ago, when I understood him to have given us the reassurance that we sought—that there would never be charges for emergency intervention. If he is saying only that the services will not ask for a credit card before carrying out the rescue, that is wholly inadequate.

On behalf of this country's 27 million motorists and all those who live in low-lying areas and have to worry about flooding, we seek an assurance that they will not be charged for the discharge in an emergency of the statutory functions of fire and rescue authorities. The Minister told my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood that it is difficult to square our insistence that emergency services be provided free with concerns about increasing council tax. I say to him that I suspect that most of our constituents would put emergency response in such situations very high on the list of things that they feel should be provided free of charge by a public service.

The Opposition believe that it is fundamentally wrong to introduce any possibility of charging for emergency response in the discharge of a statutory function. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the new clause and to protect motorists throughout the country.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 126, Noes 317.

Division number 87 Fire and Rescue Services Bill — New Clause 4 — Limitation on Power to Authorise Charging

Aye: 126 MPs

No: 317 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.