New Clause 11 — Repeal of Section 2A of Local Government Act 1986
Local Government Bill — [2nd Allotted Day]
Mr Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
I would certainly not be opposed to a risk-based assessment producing savings if that is what a risk-based assessment produced. Before implementing the risk-based assessment programme, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said that the settlement must be self-financing through modernisation. I suggest that they are defining modernisation as a reduction in real resources available to the fire service. In a moment, I shall invite the Minister to disabuse the hypothetical cynic of the view that he may take of this whole process.
The fear is that politically unpopular cuts in service that are dictated from the centre will have to be implemented by local politicians. If that hypothetical cynic were to read the draft guidance on how the locally produced integrated risk management plans are to be developed, his fears would not be allayed. We are told in the guidance that the Government will helpfully provide guidance notes that fire authorities
"will wish to take into account in the development of integrated risk management plans."
Moreover, the Government will make available Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate to advise fire authorities, so as to ensure the
"implementation of a consistent approach."
Indeed, paragraph 2.7 says that Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate
"on behalf of Government, should also be consulted on the draft integrated risk management plan."
The draft guidance gives what can only be described as some not very subtle steers on this locally based programme of risk assessment. Paragraph 3.5.6 says:
"The policies needed to deliver some improvements could relate to the terms and conditions on which staff are employed as well as to operational matters. How those could be brought into effect is outside the ambit of this guidance. Even if it is currently unclear how or when these could be effected, it is still important to identify them where they are an essential component of delivering improvements to the community."
Paragraph 3.5.8 says:
"Before deciding on the emergency response standards to set, you"—
the fire authorities—
"will first need to consider whether there are any categories of calls, or circumstances, in which an attendance would be deemed to be inappropriate."
In paragraph 3.6.1, fire authorities are told that they will wish to
"consider the appliances and crews you will need to deliver your goals, policies and standards. The properties currently used to house them, i.e. the fire stations, do not in themselves contribute to the emergency response provision ... Fire authorities may wish to consider using other opportunities to meet these needs, particularly in view of the greater flexibility likely to be adopted in some areas".
It goes on to say rather controversially:
"The provision of fire stations in every locality to accommodate appliances that may only be in the area for a few hours would clearly be wasteful."
My cynic would see that as an example of prejudging the review that the guidance is supposed to set up. Paragraph 3.6.2 tells local fire authorities:
"You may also wish to consider whether some special services might be provided on a re-chargeable basis."
All that may be true, and fire authorities may indeed wish to consider these matters, but setting them out in the guidance suggests to some people that the Government have prejudged the likely outcome of these reviews.
In paragraph 3.6.2, the document says categorically that fire authorities should
"only make changes where it is clear that the overall net effect will be to improve community safety."
That is flatly contradicted in paragraph 3.2 of the second draft guidance notes, which talks about the public being most interested in those aspects that impinge directly on the service provided to them. It says:
"This will include those instances when proposed changes will improve the service provided as well as when the reverse occurs, e.g. when resources are redeployed from one location to another".
That clearly presumes that not all the changes will be in accordance with the exhortation in paragraph 3.6.2 that authorities should make changes only when it is clear that the overall net effect will be to improve community safety.
The reality for fire authorities, as they embark on this process, is, first, that central Government controls the funding; secondly, that central Government have shown themselves determined to set the parameters for any settlement to this dispute; thirdly, that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have both said that any settlement has to be self-financing; and fourthly, that the understandable conclusion of many observers is that there is a presumption that these integrated risk management plans must call for fewer resources. It would be understandable if an observer were concerned about the transfer to local fire authorities of the power to implement this modernisation, which is likely to be politically painful and controversial if the overall real resources deployed are to be cut.
The facts are these. A 16 per cent. pay increase by July 2004 was recently offered, presumably with the approval of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I know that officials from the ODPM monitor the negotiations closely. That will not be paid for by staff reductions over that period, especially given the pledge of no redundancies. All the Government have offered the fire service employers is a £30 million transitional funding loan that will be clawed back out of future funding allocations, thus requiring an even greater ultimate reduction in the level of real resource.
The Government have been silent on allocation issues. The cost of a settlement of this dispute will have an impact on all fire brigades, but the scope for savings through the modernisation programme and the implementation of risk-based management plans will be largely concentrated in the metropolitan and urban area brigades.
I have five simple questions to put to the Minister in order to assess the genuineness of this process. Are the Government budgeting for the service to cost more or less in total after the introduction of the integrated risk management plans? Will the resource requirements of any properly developed integrated risk management plan be reflected in the formula grant for the local authority that implements it? I hope that this is not the case, but if the Government's proposal merely replaces a national dispute over modernisation and pay with local disputes over specific proposals for resource redeployment, will the Government underwrite the cost of military fire cover for authorities involved in individual disputes? During the national dispute, the Government have met that cost. Indubitably, none of the fire authorities could have afforded to fund the military cover that has been provided if they had been forced to meet that out of their own budgets. It is difficult to see how the Minister expects fire service employers to be able to negotiate appropriately at a local level if the Government will not back them with Government-supported military cover if a dispute unfortunately occurs.
Will there be a robust regime for measuring the performance of brigades under integrated risk management plans, and how will it work, given that there will no longer be standard performance indicators and therefore no immediate comparability between brigades? If so, will the Government commit themselves to achieving some testing targets for reduction in fire deaths? If they really believe that these risk management plans will deliver greater community safety, can they reassure the public by setting testing targets to show that they have genuine faith in the process on which they have embarked? Otherwise, the watching public may prove to be as cynical as my hypothetical observer.
Conservative Members will support modernisation and the integrated risk management plans if they are genuinely about improvements to the service, but when the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister said that the settlement had to be self-financing through modernisation, they undermined the case for genuine modernisation. Eighty-five per cent. of the cost of the fire service consists of wages and salaries. That gives rise to a genuine fear that more pay equals fewer jobs and fewer appliances in fire stations. The fear is that the Government have prejudged the review that they are setting in progress. There are real concerns that integrated risk management programmes will not be risk based, but will be driven by cuts in the real resources available as higher pay is financed by lower manpower and fewer appliances. In those circumstances, the local consultation to which the Minister has committed the Government would be a charade. We are well disposed to genuine modernisation, but the Minister must seek to dispel our concerns.