Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Weekend Read: My campaign to help local Air Ambulance charities

People often forget that Air Ambulances are charities and not funded by the state. They are one of the wonders of British life.
For us in the North, The Great North Air Ambulance (GNAA) is incredibly important to Northumberland. It is the fourth emergency service.

The GNAA covers an area of 8,000 square miles. The helicopters can be anywhere in the region within fifteen minutes and this quick response provides those in need with specialist trauma doctors and paramedics. No medical response unit can match this reaction time on the ground and cover such a large area. Air Ambulances quite simply save lives. I have seen this as a jockey, as an MP and as a hiker - when I did the Pennine Way the service was called out several times - the picture is of me going over the high emptiness of High Cup Nick on the Cumbrian Border.

Yet, the GNAA is funded entirely through charitable donations. Each mission costs £2,500, because of fuel costs, medicine and other equipment. The Service responds to hundreds of call-outs a month and to satisfy this demand it requires about £4m a year in fundraising. This huge running cost is often a testing target to raiseand the GNAA is not alone. I am the chair of the All Party Group in parliamanet in support of Air Ambulances. There are many Air Ambulance charities across the UK, each one having to raise millions of pounds themselves so they can help reach patients quicker.

One clear way to ease this financial burden is to stop Air Ambulances paying VAT on fuel. Each year the GNAA, for example, pays £120,000 a year on fuel. Of this total, 20% is VAT. If stopped, the GNAA would save £24,000 – equivalent to 10 life saving missions.

Lifeboats do not pay VAT on fuel and, ever since becoming an MP, I have campaigned to fix this contradiction. Back in 2012 I led a debate where I argued that there was no difference between a lifeboat and a helicopter.
The transcript of the debate is here
After two years of hard campaigning by the GNAA and the Air Ambulance Association, The Chancellor, George Osborne in his recent Budget announced that Air Ambulances would no longerhave to pay VAT on their fuel. This was excellent news! It will have a huge impact upon the many Air Ambulance Charities across the country, but most of all here in the North East.
Two weeks ago, during Prime Minister’s Questions, I raised this issue and thanked the PM and the Chancellor for seeing the case for change and supporting the GNAA and others. 
In 2012, 150,000 people petitioned this House to stop charitable air ambulances having to pay VAT on fuel. May I thank the Prime Minister for his actions in the 2014 Budget which will mean that more missions are flown and more lives are saved. Does he agree that this is possible only because we are using the LIBOR fines for good purposes and because we have a long-term economic plan?

The Prime Minister replied, “My honourable. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to him because he is the founder and chair of the all-party group on air ambulances. He has campaigned tirelessly on this issue, and he led a debate in the House in 2012. I am delighted about the result that was achieved in the Budget. As he says, it will lead to an expansion of the service. He is also right that you can only make these decisions if you look after the nation’s resources, control public spending, and get the deficit down—in short, if you have a long-term economic plan.

But despite this excellent result the GNAA still needs support. There will always be a need for further fundraising and support from local volunteers. This VAT exemption does not mean the financial burden is lifted. More money is needed every year to help keep this life saving service in the air. What it does mean, however, is that money that would have otherwise been spent on fuel tax can now be used to buy more medicine and pay for more missions.

This is great news for the people of Hexham and Tynedale and I am delighted to have played my part in making this happen. I congratulate the GNAA and Air Ambulances across the UK and will continue to support them for as long as I am an MP. But as you consider your charitable donations this summer - please think of the GNAA.