HC Deb 24 March 2004 vol 419 cc870-1
5. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

What discussions he has had regarding the provision of air ambulance services in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [162546]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig)

I regularly meet the Assembly Minister for Health and Social Services to discuss a range of issues.

Air ambulance services have been provided in Wales since March 2001. Since 1 December 2003 the service has increased its coverage across the whole of Wales to seven days a week.

Hywel Williams

Should not this vital life-saving and successful service he publicly funded, as is the case in Scotland, or does the Minister agree with the Health Minister in Cardiff, Jane Hutt, who told me in a letter that we should be following the regions of England and depending on charitable giving".

Mr. Touhig

I am aware of the correspondence that the hon. Gentleman has had with my colleague, the Assembly Health Minister, in Cardiff, but the Scottish ambulance service includes the provision of aeroplanes and helicopters and is centrally funded, as he says; and it has been built up over the last 40 years, recognising the need of island populations that have no health services and where air transport is the only way to get to hospital. It is estimated that some 75 per cent. of all air ambulance missions in Scotland involve patients being air-lifted from islands off the Scottish mainland. The same situation does not apply in Wales.

As for the operation of the air ambulance service, I could not put it better than the hon. Gentleman did in a recent press release when he said: The air ambulance has been a tremendous success and I pay tribute to the efforts of all those concerned in its operation.

Lembit Őpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

But would the Minister not accept that there is great rurality in Wales and it is sometimes difficult to get people to hospital in time to save their lives. Had it existed, the air ambulance would probably have been able to save the life of Councillor Hugh Taylor from Welshpool, who died a few years ago. Would he be willing at least to discuss the prospect of greater financial support from the Government to ensure that people do not die simply as a result of lack of access to fast transport to hospital?

Mr. Touhig

In March 2003, the Assembly announced the provision of £100,000 for the cost of air ambulance staff in Wales in 2003–04, and funding for future years will also come from the national health service. My colleague, the Assembly Minister in Cardiff, has made clear how she will take the issue forward.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

I pay tribute to the work of the air ambulance, which must come as a great relief to those who are in pain on mountainsides in Wales and other rural areas. Can the Minister examine the point that charitable money is available only to fund the air ambulance and not paramedics? People like to give money to charity, and the point needs a great deal of attention.

Mr. Touhig

I note the hon. Gentleman's point, but I understand that paramedics are a matter for the Assembly.