GOVERNMENT health chiefs have defended Hampshire ambulance bosses for hiring out their vehicles for private functions.

A Department of Health spokeswoman told the Daily Echo that by law any ambulance trust had the right to rent out their ambulances for private functions.

Our revelation yesterday of the ambulance-for-hire scheme sparked widespread anger among Hampshire's political and union figures who feared the practice may be putting lives at risk by leaving gaps in ambulance provision for emergencies.

But last night a Department of Health spokeswoman said: "NHS ambulance trusts are allowed to allow their ambulances to be stationed at private events so long as the full costs of doing so are recovered from the event organisers and the ambulance is not prevented from responding to an emergency.

"NHS ambulance trusts have, however, received an additional £48.4m over four years from the government to spend on their ambulance fleets and £14m of this extra cash is specifically aimed at improving response times. They are not being underfunded."

As reported in yesterday's Daily Echo, Fareham MP Mark Hoban has vowed to raise the matter - not highlighted until yesterday - in the House of Commons.

A Hampshire Ambulance spokeswoman said last night that the public hiring of ambulances - for £67 an hour subject to availability - was "not news".

She said: "All the money generated from allowing ambulances to be on standby at private events is ploughed back into the NHS.

"GMAS - the Greater Manchester Ambulance Service - were paid to provide NHS ambulance cover for the Commonwealth Games. Hampshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust is also paid to provide ambulances at Southampton Football Club home matches and at other big events like Power in the Park. No one has objected to this practice before.

"This matter will not be raised in the House of Commons once Mr Hoban has the full facts. This is not news. It is something that goes on all over the country."

The controversy comes against the background of Hampshire Ambulance Service failing to meet the government's 75 per cent target for responding to top priority 999 calls within eight minutes. In rural areas the figure was as low as 60 per cent.

Campaigners and unions have accused ambulance chiefs of concentrating on cities such as Southampton and Portsmouth at the expense of rural areas.