Lifeboat anger over radio fee plan

Angry lifeboat supporters say they may have to raise another £260,000 a year under plans to make them pay for using life-saving radio airwaves.Communications regulator Ofcom is looking at introducing fees for ship and air radio users to bring them in line with other licence-holders.

Angry lifeboat supporters say they may have to raise another £260,000 a year under plans to make them pay for using life-saving radio airwaves.

Communications regulator Ofcom is looking at introducing fees for ship and air radio users to bring them in line with other licence-holders.

But the RNLI says the move could be a major drain on hard-earned cash gathered in volunteers' collecting tins across the nation.

And the burden of new fees could be even more crippling for smaller independently-run stations operated on shoe-string budgets around the coast.

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Ofcom says a planned 50pc discount means the RNLI may only have to pay about £100,000, and that the fee is essential to ensure effective use of the commercially-valuable airwave “spectrum”.

But lobbyists for Britain's fleet of lifeboats which provide a vital service through public donations are asking why seafaring lifesavers have to pay anything at all.

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North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said it was “crazy to expect a charity running the fourth emergency service to have to pay for the use of this system.”

He would be contacting Ofcom over the “outrageous” suggestion and calling for a 100pc discount.

Yarmouth MP Tony Wright said it would be unfair to charge any charity life-saving service, taking away money, for no extra benefit, which could be used on buying equipment.

And Waveney MP Bob Blizzard said it sounded like “meddling bureaucracy”, adding the RNLI cherished its independence from government funding, but the state could do its bit to help by exempting the charity from the charge.

An Ofcom spokesman said other users of the airwaves, from television broadcasters to taxis, paid to use parts of the spectrum, which was a “valuable and sought-after” finite resource and needed to be used effectively.

But the maritime and aeronautical sectors did not, so it was planned to bring them into line with the rest, under Administered Incentive Pricing (AIP). The biggest impact would be on ports and airports.

No specific figures were floated in the report currently out to public consultation, except that it would mean adding another 15p per tonne of shipped freight, and 3.9p for each air passenger flight.

There was no intention to affect safety, added the spokesman, and any fees would not start until 2010 to allow time for people to adjust funding.

Management of the spectrum airwaves was the sole responsibility of Ofcom, though it had been in discussions with the Department of Transport, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency over this issue.

“We recognise lifeboats are in a different position,” she added, and the question of a discount for charities was part of the consultation which was due to end in the middle of the month.

Ofcom declined to explain why that could not be 100pc instead of 50pc, with the spokesman saying: “At this stage we're not ruling anything in or ruling anything out. We're simply seeking views.”

RNLI operations staff officer "Peter Bradley said that without a discount the fees would have a disastrous impact on fund-raising.

“We would have to find an extra £260,000 a year. That's a lot of money when you think in terms of lifeboat days and little old ladies collecting pound coins. We could buy several inshore lifeboats for the same amount.

"The government rely on us to provide this search and rescue service, at a cost of £124m a year, but they want to charge us for the pleasure of doing it.”

Charities could end up having to raise millions of pounds to hand to the government, and organisations such as the RNLI and coastguard should not have to pay for safety radio channels.

"We should not have to pay at all. We should be given a 100 per cent discount. We will be writing to our supporters this week to encourage them to respond to the Ofcom consultation,” said Mr Bradley.

"All the communications that are used for humanitarian search and rescue should be zero rated.”

In Norfolk, the chairman of Caister's independent boat also felt it was wrong for life-saving charity money to be channelled to licence fees.

“It costs us £120,000 a year to run this lifeboat station,” said Paul Garrod at the busy privately-run station. “The last thing we want to do is to dish it out for radio licences.”

Although the size of any charges were unknown “any fee is too much,” he added. “I don't see why they have to charge us at all.”

And Mundesley independent lifeboat treasurer Bob Francis said the station's running costs, which ran into thousands of pounds had to be raised locally, such events, donations and its own charity shop - and any extra fees would eat into their budget.

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