VAT on Air Ambulance Fuel Payments

Part of United Kingdom Borders – in the House of Commons at 5:19 pm on 11th July 2012.

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Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Liberal Democrat, Leeds North West 5:19 pm, 11th July 2012

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Guy Opperman and Hugh Bayley. I am delighted and proud to have my name on this motion and to have signed the early-day motion and been a part of this excellent campaign. I echo their words in congratulating Ken Sharpe and the 150,000 people who have spoken out on this issue and enabled us to have this debate in this place—a clear example of the democratic e-petition process working to allow us to debate the subjects that matter to local people.

There are 18 air ambulance service charities up and down the country. As we have heard, each and every one does work that is not only vital but that can be done only by air ambulances attending emergencies that are difficult, and sometimes impossible, for road ambulances to get to. Speed is vital, too, with lives saved every week of every month of every year by air ambulance staff throughout the country. That would not happen if the air ambulance services were no longer there.

I am incredibly proud to be the MP representing one of our two Yorkshire air ambulances—the one based in my constituency at Leeds Bradford airport. Yorkshire air ambulance was set up back in 2000, with the helicopter introduced at Leeds Bradford airport, and to this day the YAA service has rescued 4,446 people. A second helicopter was added in 2007, and Yorkshire became the first air ambulance service in the UK to operate a dedicated air desk. Having recently added airways communication systems, it is now one of the most developed and highly sophisticated emergency services in the whole country.

Yorkshire air ambulance now operates these two helicopters, which, as the hon. Member for York Central said, serve 5 million people around the Yorkshire area, covering an incredibly diverse landscape of rural and suburban areas, as well as the great cities. But the YAA needs £7,200 every single day to keep both of our helicopters in the air. Last year, it used approximately 170,000 litres of fuel, which cost £5,800 in VAT. It is a simple, stark fact that if the YAA did not have to pay this charge on fuel, it could save a minimum of three extra lives each year. We can extrapolate from that that the number of lives that could be saved around the country by that change would be substantial. This is not just about money.

I would like briefly to mention a constituent of mine. We have already heard about the importance of fundraising for keeping these air ambulances in the air and functional. A lady from Cookridge, Mrs Val Pawsey, has attended shows, fairs and fêtes all around the Yorkshire area with her knitting. She knits all sorts of products—teddies, dolls, dolls’ clothes, babies’ clothes and so forth. To date, she alone has raised £8,500 for the Yorkshire air ambulance as a volunteer by doing this incredible work as she goes round the shows with her husband John. It is difficult to have to tell someone like Val Pawsey that the Government are taking £5,800 a year in VAT from the service for which she is working so incredibly hard, giving her own effort, energy, resources and time to raise money. That is why I sincerely hope we will get a sympathetic response from Ministers today and a commitment properly to look at this issue.

As other hon. Members have said, we need to give enormous credit to all the people involved in the amazing charitable work that provides the funding, but we also need to be clear that millions of pounds are saved for the Government and for us as a society when a service such as this is provided. If the air ambulance service did not provide it, it would have to be provided in another way through the NHS. Surely, therefore, we have a strong case.

People have already mentioned the example of the lifeboats and the complications with EU legislation, and our message is clear: we want Ministers to make the case very strongly in Europe; when things are wrong with European directives we all must say so; and we should say that the EU directive in question clearly needs to be amended. Until it is amended, however, we need Government action; we cannot simply wait and hope that it might be changed. That is why I am very happy to support the motion and to urge the Treasury to find a solution within its own means to the problem.

We have also seen a huge rise in fuel costs over recent years and, indeed, months, and it stretches even further the limited resources that arise from fundraising. That is why it is even more important that the Treasury mitigate the effect by looking at the VAT that is currently charged.

The Treasury can be sympathetic, and has been in the past. I was delighted to support my hon. Friend Tim Farron in his campaign for a VAT refund on the emergency services provided by our wonderful mountain rescue teams, and the air ambulance is another service that carries out a similar and equally important life-saving function. It therefore deserves similar sympathetic treatment.

I hope that Ministers have noted that 150,000 people have so far signed the petition, and have noticed the consensus among Members on both sides who have spoken and campaigned with passion on the issue. We are proud of our air ambulances throughout the country, and we know that the Government are, too. The Treasury, in its response in April to the petition, said that the Government noted

“the valuable role that the air ambulance services play in responding to emergencies.”

We believe that today should be the start of a process whereby they put their money where their mouth is. We believe that there is a solution to the problem, and we look forward to some good news in the Budget next year.