The Lake District’s mountain rescue teams, praised by Prince Charles last Friday for their response during the unprecedented Cumbrian floods, face major costs to replace gear and vehicles damaged while rescuing victims of the deluge.
And in a double whammy, they will have to pay VAT to the Government for the equipment which will further deplete their charity funds. Their colleagues from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, with whom they operated shoulder to shoulder during the five days dealing with the emergency, are exempt from the tax.
Local MP Tim Farron has tabled a parliamentary Early Day Motion calling for the Government to exempt mountain rescue teams from paying VAT on their rescue equipment. His motion, which currently bears five signatures, also praises the men and women of the volunteer mountain rescue teams.
Mr Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has supported for some time the campaign to get VAT relief for the teams. The Government says its hands are tied by European rules.
The MP’s motion, which so far has garnered support from two Labour members, one Conservative and one Independent MP, says: “This House pays tribute to the outstanding work done by mountain rescue teams during the recent floods in Cumbria; acknowledges the dedication and skills of mountain rescue volunteers; is appalled that mountain rescue teams have to pay value added tax and vehicle excise duty on life-saving equipment; notes that these taxes cost the volunteer mountain rescue teams up to £200,000 a year.”
It continues: “[It] further notes that other emergency services do not have to pay taxes on equivalent equipment; is concerned that the Government has not yet announced an intention to exempt mountain rescue teams from these taxes despite indications from the European Commission that the UK could well be permitted to do so; and calls on the Government to announce such an exemption immediately.”
Today, rescue team leaders revealed their anger at having to pay the Government tax on equipment lost, damaged and left unusable while joining police, fire and rescue military personnel during the emergency.
Richard Longman, of Mountain Rescue England & Wales, said: “It is time for HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] to stop hiding behind legislation and platitudes and to show that they really do appreciate the work that is done by mountain rescue, not only during flooding but on a daily basis on the mountains of the UK.
“It was an interesting experience to be part of the frontline response to the Cumbria flooding, working shoulder to shoulder with the statutory emergency services and the RNLI in the knowledge the replacement of that all the equipment that we lost would cost us 17.5 per cent on top of the purchase price with all that excess, having been donated by the British public, being taken by the Treasury.
“MREW has been attempting for two years to persuade HMG to provide VAT exemption on all rescue equipment purchased by mountain rescue teams in the UK. The responses we have received from various Treasury ministers and officials have consistently quoted the existing Gift Aid provision available to all charities and the inability of HMG to provide any further VAT exemption because of European legislation.
“There is an extensive list of VAT exemptions authorised by the European Commission in ‘Council Directive 2006/112/EC Title IX Exemptions’ but although ‘the supply, modification, repair and maintenance of vessels used for rescue or assistance at sea and the equipment incorporated or used therein’ are specifically given exemption the equipment used by land rescue services is not mentioned and therefore exemption is not given.
“Laszlo Kovacs, the Commissioner for Taxation and Customs Union at the EC has stated that there is no reason why HMG should not refund the VAT levied on rescue equipment but HMG have consistently refused to do so.”
The chairman of the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association Richard Warren echoed his colleague’s comments. He said: “The mountain rescue teams within the Lake District supported by mountain rescue teams from the surrounding areas responded immediately and magnificently to the call from the Cumbria police emergency response, gold command centre at Penrith when the flood waters arrived at Keswick, Cockermouth and elsewhere across the county.
“The downside was that following some pretty challenging rescue operations over the five days where many were involved, there was significant damage to, and loss of, the specialised swiftwater rescue equipment, clothing and rescue vehicles.
“This will need to be replaced on a very early timescale from the charity funds which will become severely depleted. VAT is something that teams reluctantly have to pay when they purchase equipment and it is dearly hoped that something can now be done to help rectify this unjust expense.
“Fortunately we have much support from around the country and Richard Longman, our LDSAMRA treasurer has been working extremely hard over a number of years, alongside other mountain rescue representatives to get this anomaly sorted.”
Speaking in Keswick during his morale-boosting visit to talk victims and to those involved in their rescue, Prince Charles said: “I have always been a large admirer of the Cumbrian spirit. What has been so incredible is people’s resilience to the horrors. Everywhere I have been I have heard praise for the emergency services, especially for the mountain rescue team.”
The prince’s son Prince William is patron of Mountain Rescue England & Wales and is training to be an RAF search-and-rescue helicopter pilot.
In June this year, Downing Street rejected an online petition pleading for exemption for mountain rescue teams. The reply to the petitioners said: “Our VAT agreements with our European partners, signed by successive governments, mean that it is not now possible to extend the scope of the zero rates available to charities beyond those permitted by EU VAT legislation.”
The petition, which attracted support from 6,536 people, had called on the Prime Minister ‘to give VAT exemptions to the mountain rescue Service on all of their spending’.
A Government spokesperson today said: “EU rules on VAT allow us to keep our existing zero rates on certain items, but they do not allow us to extend them or introduce new ones. It is therefore not possible to introduce a new zero rate for mountain rescue equipment.
“There are a number of special VAT reliefs for charities, which the mountain rescue teams can benefit. For example, they are able to buy zero-rated special telecommunications, aural, visual, light enhancing or heat detecting equipment.
“Additionally, charities providing rescue or first-aid services are also able to purchase medicines, medical equipment – including first aid kits, splints and stretchers, ambulances free from VAT, that mountain rescue charities are able to benefit from.”
The Scottish Government provides MRTs north of the border with £300,000 of funding each year, while the Welsh Assembly Government makes a small grant to teams in its jurisdiction.