VAT on Air Ambulance Fuel Payments

Part of United Kingdom Borders – in the House of Commons at 4:42 pm on 11th July 2012.

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Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham 4:42 pm, 11th July 2012

I beg to move,

That this House
supports wholeheartedly the work and actions of the Air Ambulance Service nationally, and all the individual crew members and staff, who provide an outstanding service to people up and down the UK;
notes that the Air Ambulance Service is a charitable organisation, funded by donations given by the general public, and without any direct funding from Government;
further notes that the Air Ambulance Service has saved successive governments millions of pounds;
notes that the Air Ambulance Service provides an emergency service similar to the Lifeboat Service, and that the Lifeboat Service has been excluded from the EU VAT Directive on fuel costs since 1977, whereas the Air Ambulance Service has been required to pay for VAT on fuel;
notes that successive governments have failed to provide a rebate or exemption to the Air Ambulance Service for this VAT;
calls on the Government to conduct an urgent review of this situation;
and further calls on the Government, in the next 12 months, to consider providing for grants to the Air Ambulance Service commensurate to the sums incurred by the Air Ambulance Service for the VAT on the fuel they purchase, and to publish the outcome of that review within this timescale.

This is a cross-party debate arriving from an e-petition that has approximately 150,000 signatures and is supported by many Members up and down the land. The reality is that our support for the air ambulances and the e-petition derives from a constituent of my co-sponsor of the motion, Hugh Bayley, to whom I give my thanks. The constituent is Mr Ken Sharpe. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for its support and Mr Speaker for finding time for it to be heard.

On 1 August the eyes of the world will be on London for the Olympics. For months I have been rigorously training my body to be at the peak of physical perfection. But I shall not be lining up against Usain Bolt. I shall be in the sleepy village of Edale, in north Derbyshire, where I, Paul Blomfield and other hikers will be about to commence a 280-mile hike along the greatest walk in the world, the Pennine way. I shall not be walking for a gold medal. My goal is not gold, but hard cash to support the Great North air ambulance service, which is of course the finest of all the air ambulance organisations. Others may be cheering on Jessica Ennis and sipping the corporate champagne, but this ageing, fattening ex-jockey will be existing on a prime diet of beer and flapjacks as I wearily trudge my way north to Northumberland. Usain Bolt has nothing to fear.

This debate is supported not only by the e-petition, but by a petition run by my local paper, the Hexham Courant. Other newspapers up and down the land have also done a great deal to raise the profile of this debate. It is a cross-party debate, giving the Treasury a fantastic opportunity, over the next 12 months, to consider all the information to do with air ambulances, how they are funded and how VAT applies to their fuel, and to come back with a possible solution after the Budget next year.

What is certain is that the issue derives from Europe, an issue that may have been occupying some of our minds these past few months. When our illustrious forebears took us into Europe—purely, as we all understood, for economic reasons—there was a requirement to sign up to the EU VAT directive, which covers UK VAT legislation. In 1977, the lifeboat service was exempted from the VAT on marine diesel. However, as the air ambulance did not exist at the time, it was not exempted and has subsequently been required to pay VAT on fuel costs. We are in this situation today because of that anomaly. As we have learned since the Budget in March, the Government are keen to clear up VAT anomalies.

We Back Benchers are often asked by Whips to believe many outlandish things—that the European Union always makes sensible decisions or that we will one day win a penalty shoot-out or have a Wimbledon singles winner. Today I will ask the House to accept one basic principle: that there is no real difference between a lifeboat and a helicopter. The lifeboat services are exempt from the VAT exclusion but the air ambulance charities are not—but they are both, I suggest, providers of life-saving emergency services that deserve all our support and all the exemptions made available for their vital work so that they may continue.

My constituency is the second biggest in the country; it has schools with catchment areas almost the size of the M25. It has rough, rural country, often without roads. In the west of Northumberland, our nearest hospital is well over an hour away; sometimes the four-wheeled ambulance struggles to be with us within an hour, if at all.

When I was a thinner and better jockey, I met many other jockeys who had struggled after a fall when they needed to be airlifted to hospital. People frequently have to be supported and airlifted to safety from the A1. The issue is not just a rural issue, but one that affects cities and towns just as much, when there is a lack of access or urgent transfers are required.