Prince hails flood heroes – who have to pay VAT on their gear

Mountain rescue teams hope Cockermouth disaster will persuade Government to give them tax breaks
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The Independent Online

The Prince of Wales yesterday paid tribute to emergency services for their rescue efforts during the Cumbrian flood. He praised the "Cumbrian spirit" as he met members of the mountain rescue service, police, fire and rescue service, the ambulance service, the RNLI, the RAF, and the RSPCA during the visit to Cockermouth, the town at the heart of the flooding.

During the visit, which also included a private meeting with the family of PC Bill Barker, 44, who died in the floods, 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," he said.

"I cannot tell you how proud I am to come up here and experience the fantastic way in which the British respond to a disaster. Everyone is helping together," he said, adding that it was important to get the message across that Cumbria and the Lake District was "open for business".

He visited a number of shops that were continuing to trade after being relocated from their flood-hit premises to a temporary arcade within the town's Auction House. He learned at first hand the details of the rescue and clean-up operations launched after the town centre was flooded following a "biblical downpour" which saw more than 12 inches of rainfall in 24 hours.

Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team leader Mike Park described how almost 450 unpaid mountain rescue service members from across Cumbria helped people to flee their homes and businesses as waters rapidly rose. The Prince also met Cockermouth hospital workers and other emergency service workers.

Mountain rescue teams are hoping that praise for their efforts will result in the Government reversing a decision to refuse them tax breaks for vital life-saving kit. The rescue teams have been fighting over VAT and excise duty which they say is costing them almost £150,000 per year, seized by the Government from public donations.

Rescuers must pay tax on items of kit such as boots, clothing, waterproofs, rescue equipment, such as ropes and other climbing accessories, buildings, extensions lighting and flares.

Rescue teams say they have had equipment lost or ruined in the floods and replacing it will attract tax payments. The Government rebuts appeals that they should be able to claim back VAT and be immune from excise duty on petrol, as is the case with their lifeboat colleagues.

"While those guys are out saving lives they are working shoulder to shoulder with emergency services and others who are either publicly funded or exempt from the taxes the rescuers have to pay," said Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

Mr Farron said: "The rescue teams save the Government in excess of £6m per year by providing a free emergency service, it appears the Government is prepared to take all and give nothing in return." He said most donations came from collection boxes and "tin rattling" which did not fall within the tax-exempt gift aid guidelines.

Experts argue the presence of such expert and highly trained rescuers was a major factor in the comparatively low loss of life. Rescue teams in Wales and Scotland get grants from the devolved governments. Only English rescue teams do not receive official funding.