Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Drew: 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?

Mr. Raynsford: 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.

15 Mar 2004 : Column 72

6.45 pm

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.

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

Mr. Raynsford: 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.

Mr. Hammond: 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?

Mr. Raynsford: Yes.

Mr. Hammond: 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?

Mr. Raynsford: I have already made that absolutely clear and I am happy to do so again. As I have

15 Mar 2004 : Column 73

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.

Mr. Hammond rose—

Mr. Raynsford: 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

15 Mar 2004 : Column 74

prohibits charging for any emergency medical assistance and requires no linkage to NHS arrangements. I commend the Government amendments to the House.

Mr. Hammond: I have sought to protect the interests of 27 million motorists in Britain, but must admit that I have been clearly trumped by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (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.

Mr. Raynsford: 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.

Mr. Hammond: 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 the Member for Wokingham (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.

15 Mar 2004 : Column 75

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

The House divided: Ayes 126, Noes 317.

Next Section

IndexHome Page