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Norfolk and Suffolk charities face crisis with rising fuel costs

PUBLISHED: 12:00 17 March 2011

Volunteer drivers from across the country are having money problems because of low fuel payments; Left to right, Mike Smith (volunteer driver), Austin Smallwood (passenger)

Volunteer drivers from across the country are having money problems because of low fuel payments; Left to right, Mike Smith (volunteer driver), Austin Smallwood (passenger)

Archant

Volunteer drivers who provide a vital lifeline for elderly or disabled people to get to hospital and other appointments say they are struggling to keep offering their services because of increasing fuel costs.

At the moment volunteer drivers can claim up to 40p a mile for the first 10,000 miles of using their own cars on charity business before being taxed, the same for employees using their own cars for business purposes.

But the volunteer drivers and charities they help say that is nowhere near enough now fuel prices are rocketing, and many volunteer drivers are having to give up because they cannot afford to subsidise the extra cost themselves.

Charity bosses in Norfolk say it is leading to many of their volunteer drivers leaving, which will leave them in crisis.

The 40p limit, which was set in April 2002, when the average price of petrol was just 79.5p per litre, is laid down by HM Revenue and Customs.

Voluntary Norfolk runs Transport Plus, Norfolk’s largest provider of voluntary transport, with volunteer drivers using their own cars to take people who have no access to other forms of transport to medical, social care and wellbeing appointments.

The scheme is a joint initiative between Voluntary Norfolk, Norfolk County Council and the East of England Ambulance Service. They have 396 drivers, who complete over 200,000 journeys a year.

Drivers are paid the maximum of 40p per mile, by Norfolk County Council, the East of England Ambulance Service or by the passengers they are driving.

Linda Rogers, head of communications and engagement at Voluntary Norfolk, said the increasing fuel prices had already had an impact on them, with eight drivers saying they could no longer volunteer.

She said: “The mileage rate has been in place so long, it is outdated. Our view is that the volunteers and charities should not be out of pocket because of the work they do.

“Something has to be done or there will be serious implications.”

Holt and District Caring Society, a charity which takes patients from the Holt Medical Practice area to and from medical appointments, has around 50 volunteer drivers who make more than 2,000 trips each year.

The area the drivers cover can be anywhere within the area served by Holt Medical practice, which also has two outreach surgeries in Blakeney and Melton Constable.

Volunteers are paid the 40p maximum amount for fuel, from donations made by those using the service and legacies left to the society, but some of their drivers are finding it hard to continue offering their services.

The situation is set to be discussed at the society’s agm at Holt Community Centre on Monday March, 21 at 7.30 pm.

Peter Corran is secretary with the society and is also a volunteer driver with them and estimates in that role, he does around 2, 000 miles per year.

Mr Corran said: “Drivers are very angry about the situation. I know a lot of volunteer drivers are saying the fuel rate is ridiculous. Several people have been quite vocal about it. It is quite clear that we are in serious risk of losing many of our drivers and we cannot afford that.”

Mike Smith, 71, from Holt is one of their drivers and he averages around 5,000 miles a year, he said with the increasing cost he was “on the cusp” of having to give up.

Austin Smallwood, 87 and his wife Joyce, 84, are regularly driven from their home in Holt by drivers from the society.

Mr Smallwood said: “I would be very upset if the service had to go, I do not know how we would get to appointments.”

Last month Mr Lamb, took representatives from various charities and organisations to meet Nick Hurd, minister for civil society to discuss concerns they had.

At the meeting, the issue of fuel costs for charities and volunteers was raised, something Mr Hurd said he would look into, especially with the budget coming up in April.

North Norfolk MP, Norman Lamb said he sympathised with the case being put across by the charities and had raised the concerns of the Holt charity with the financial secretary to the Treasury.

He said: “Public finances are in a dire situation at the moment, but I recognise there is a really good case for helping volunteers more, they do brilliant work, and I have great admiration for the work they do.”

Rodney Marsh, 66, from Gillingham, near Beccles, is a volunteer driver with Beccles and Bungay Area Community Transport, and is paid the 40p maximum amount.

He said: “I just cannot afford to do it any more, especially with the car needing more and more maintenance. I am leaving at the end of the month, which is sad as I have got to know several of the passengers very well.”

Rosemary Fereday, support and development manager for Cromer-based charity About with Friends, which supports people with learning difficulties, said their situation was not exactly the same as many of their volunteer drivers used the charity’s vehicles, but she said the charity had still been hit by the rocketing fuel prices and that would inevitability have an impact in the future.

Phil Goddard, deputy CEO with Sheringham based charity, Break, said they were concerned about rising fuel costs.

He said the Automobile Association suggests that for a petrol car, with a new cost of £16,000 - £20,000 and an annual mileage of 15,000, the cost of running a car is 50p per mile.

For a similar diesel this drops to 47p per mile, which shows the 40p no longer reflects the true cost of running the vehicle, resulting in the employee and volunteer losing out, the effect of which he says is exacerbated in rural North Norfolk.

He said if the revenue and customs office could be persuaded to increase the allowable amount to 50p per mile, and then index link it to motoring costs, it would help organizations such as Break, operating in rural areas.

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