It is a real privilege to speak in today’s debate, and I too pay tribute to my hon. Friend Guy Opperman and my close constituency neighbour, Hugh Bayley, who alongside others have secured this important debate.
Whenever there is a debate in this place about our emergency services and personnel, it is humbling to think of the sheer number of lives that have been saved because of the dedication, bravery and professionalism of our firefighters, police officers, NHS nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers. But the emergency service family extends far further than we often appreciate. From our lifeboats and coastguards to countless voluntary agencies, our society is underpinned by the dedication of so many committed public servants.
In this debate, however, we are rightly focused on an area of the emergency services that plays a vital yet, sadly, under-acknowledged role in saving lives each and every day. According to the Association of Air Ambulances, an emergency air ambulance takes off every 10 minutes in the UK, collectively undertaking more than 19,000 missions in a year and serving 177 accident and emergency departments.
Today’s debate is focused on the VAT on fuel that several air ambulance charities are required to pay as a result of owning and operating their own aircraft. The e-petition that prompted this debate attracted, as many Members have said, about 150,000 signatures, and it calls on the Government to exempt the air ambulance service from paying VAT.
I will discuss that request later in my speech, but first let me join the hon. Member for York Central and my hon. Friend Greg Mulholland in praising the work of Yorkshire’s own local air ambulance service. It flies seven days a week, providing a life-saving, rapid service for 5 million people across Yorkshire. It is also an independent charity which, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, must generate £7,200 a day—some £2.65 million a year—to keep our air ambulance operational. I think that the public will be as astonished as I was to learn that it has to find such an amount.
The need to raise awareness of the charitable status of the air ambulance service is undeniable. Its real strength lies in its ability to work throughout our county’s vast and challenging landscape, from densely populated urban centres to the rural and almost wild countryside in parts of north Yorkshire. It ensures that anyone in trouble can be reached and transferred to life-saving health centres within minutes. Without such provision, some people would die of their injuries and health complications. Let me put it simply: I truly believe that the Yorkshire air ambulance saves lives every single day.
The hon. Member for York Central has already given a famous example of the superb work of the service in action, but that is well worth mentioning again. I refer to the devastating accident involving the “Top Gear” presenter Richard Hammond in 2006. That almost fatal accident occurred in Elvington airfield, which is in my constituency. Mr Hammond was driving a dragster car while filming “Top Gear” when the vehicle crashed at terrific speed. I am sure that many Members recall seeing the sickening footage of the crash on the news at the time. The injuries sustained by Mr Hammond were life-threatening and required immediate medical attention. Like so many other individuals over the years, he received initial treatment followed by an immediate transfer to hospital. The speed of the transfer was crucial, and because of the work of the Yorkshire ambulance which flew to his rescue, Richard Hammond’s life was saved.
That high-profile case reflects the cases of many individuals who are saved every day by the air ambulance service. It brings to life the importance of the service and its work, and we should bear such examples in mind when considering the financial demands that threaten the sustainability of the service.
Many Members have touched on the technicalities of whether, and how, the Government can return VAT payments or make exemptions in the future, so I shall keep my remarks about the motion itself brief. First, there is an issue of fairness. At present, only charities that own their helicopters are required to pay VAT on fuel. The result of the status quo is clear: the more money is swallowed up in VAT payments to the Treasury, the less there will be to keep air ambulances operational and ready to respond to emergencies as and when they are needed.
Secondly, when considering cost, we must take into account the millions of pounds that the air ambulance service as a whole has saved successive Governments. A number of Members have already mentioned that. Any decision that we make should take into consideration the amount that the charity saves the Government by running the service at its own cost, funded by public donations. What would we do if these charities could no longer afford to operate? My hon. Friend Stuart Andrew made a telling intervention on this point. Would the Government pay directly for an air ambulance service? Would they have to purchase all the helicopters and equipment? Or would such a service simply not exist?
Thirdly, comparisons to other services must be made. The life boat service has already been mentioned. I appreciate that Ministers have said that under EU law we cannot extend the scope of existing zero rates or introduce new ones, but perhaps this is the sort of nonsense that should be tackled in any forthcoming EU renegotiation. Regardless of one’s position on European matters, it is simply ridiculous that this elected, sovereign House lacks the power to decide such matters because of European red tape.
Naturally, I understand that the Government cannot do everything and that many requests are made for financial exemptions and tax cuts in many areas, but I believe that our air ambulance service is being unfairly targeted. It is told by countless politicians that its dedicated work is essential, but it is then told to make do with an unfair and expensive deal for paying VAT on fuel. We must make up our minds. If we are truly to back the service, let us fight for it in Europe and at home, and let us prioritise its financial needs higher up the agenda. I very much support the part of the motion urging the Government to review the matter in depth over the next few months. In the light of the work of the air ambulance service across the country, that is the least we could agree to tonight.