Dan Byles (North Warwickshire, Conservative)
I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about this important subject and I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to give up some of my time at the end of my speech to three of my hon. Friends who care deeply about this subject and how it impacts on their constituents. I would like to make it clear that, as the debate is about retained firefighters, I will limit my comments to that part of the fire and rescue services, but that should not be seen as a snub to our brave and dedicated whole-time firefighters. I believe that the retained system complements the whole-time system and that each needs the other, but a debate on whole-time firefighters is for another occasion. Retained firefighters are sometimes known as on-call firefighters or the retained duty system, which I may refer to as the RDS.
In many ways, this debate is about much more than the role of retained firefighters. It is about communities, volunteering and service to family, neighbourhoods and country. Retained firefighters are paid volunteers who spend up to 120 hours a week on call from home or work. The majority fulfil that impressive commitment in addition to a paid day job; it is not the sort of thing that anyone does for money. These are local people who care about their neighbourhoods and who want to play a role in keeping them safe.
The concept of volunteer service is a noble one that extends across many areas of national life and it should be cherished. It predates the big society, but I dare say that it complements it nicely in the spirit of Edmund Burke's little platoons. It is about the Territorial Army soldier giving up his weekends and summer holidays to train alongside the Regular Army, taking time out from his job to deploy on operations to serve his country and all too often giving his life in the process. It is about the police special finishing her day job on a Friday evening and instead of going out with friends, putting on a police uniform and going out on patrol with her local police, helping to keep her neighbourhood safe. And it is about the retained firefighter dedicating his life to the bleeper and standing ready to respond within five minutes of a call-out, day or night. Once that bleeper goes off and the RDS crew mobilises at the fire station, they are firefighters. They wear the same uniform, use the same equipment and vehicles and attend the same incidents as their whole-time colleagues. The fire service could not function in its current form without them.
Looking at the origins of the fire service in the UK, it could be said that the entire fire and rescue service developed from an early version of the retained service. Prior to the great fire of London in 1666, firefighting was done in a haphazard way at local parish level. It was principally carried out by townsfolk working together to extinguish fires within their communities. After 1666, local fire services started to become more organised, but it was not until the 1800s that more formal fire brigades began to evolve. Even then, some remained volunteer brigades, while others were private organisations formed by property insurers.
The first national legislation was not seen until 1938, when first the auxiliary fire service and then the national fire service were formed. After world war two, the national fire service was taken over by local county authorities, so that in 1948 there were 148 county council and county borough-run fire brigades. Today across the UK we have 63 brigades, and with the exception of London almost all of them include RDS personnel.
The RDS system is not perfect and much can be done to improve it. Issues surrounding training, concerns over the EU working time directive and difficulties with recruitment and retention remain. Following the 2003 White Paper, "Our Fire and Rescue Service", a review of the retained system was commissioned. The report of that review, which was published in 2005, made 51 specific recommendations aimed at improving the effectiveness of the RDS, but it is worth noting that it opened with the words:
"The retained duty system is a valued, vital element of the modern fire and rescue service".
Although the previous Government were perhaps a little slow in starting to implement the recommendations, the picture has clearly improved in recent years with, for example, a reduction in vacancies in RDS posts from 20% in 2003-4 to 13% in 2008-9. There is more work to do, however, and those recommendations from the 2005 review that remain outstanding should be looked at in detail by the coalition Government.
This debate is about the retained fire service in general, but it is well known in the House that I and my fellow Warwickshire MPs have a number of concerns that relate to changes in the provision of fire and rescue services in Warwickshire in particular. In my own constituency, the fire station in the town of Bedworth has faced the uncertainty of potential closure for many months. We have only recently learned the details of options that the county council will consider next week. Many people in Bedworth will be relieved and delighted that it appears that Bedworth fire station will now remain open, but other fire stations in Warwickshire have not been so fortunate.
From what we know, it appears that Bedworth fire station will be manned in future exclusively by RDS personnel, so the decision is timely and relevant to this debate. I recognise that many people in Bedworth will remain concerned about what could be seen as a reduction in the station's capacity. I confess to holding mixed views. I would have preferred the station to have remained as it was, but I also recognise that the hard work, the campaigning and the clear message that local people in Bedworth sent to the chief fire officer have resulted in probably the best compromise that we could have hoped for.
The worst possible outcome for us-one that looked like a very real possibility for a long time-would have been for Bedworth to lose our fire station all together. It looks as though we will end up with a compromise: Bedworth fire station staying open, but as a retained station. In doing so, it will join the 54% of all fire stations in the UK that are manned solely by RDS firefighters. It is therefore with mixed feelings that I declare my delight that people power seems to have won the day and Bedworth will continue to have our own fire station. That is a testament to the hard work and campaigning of so many local people, including those in the Fire Brigades Union and the Retained Firefighters Union, the friends and family of local firefighters and many others. I am proud to have played a role in helping to save Bedworth station.
I am making quicker progress than I expected-perhaps one or two other hon. Members may wish to speak for a little longer than two minutes-but before I conclude, I will say that I am not a big fan of lists of statistics; but sometimes, even in this place, a few facts can be helpful to a debate, so I hope the House will indulge me. About one third of the 42,000 firefighters in England are retained firefighters, but even that statistic masks just how much we rely on these volunteers. Retained firefighters are responsible for operating 60% of all fire engines in England. Because they are more prevalent in rural areas, RDS firefighters provide emergency cover for a staggering 90% of the UK's land mass. Some 54% of fire stations in the UK are manned solely by RDS firefighters, and at any one time in England, there are more retained firefighters on call and providing emergency cover than full-time firefighters. It is clear that we rely on our retained firefighters in a way that few casual observers of our emergency services would realise, but they can continue to support us only if we continue to support them.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon, Conservative)
We have heard a most eloquent speech from my hon. Friend Dan Byles about retained firefighters and their importance to their communities and to the fire service itself. He is fortunate in having some certainty about Bedworth fire station; unfortunately, I cannot report the same to the House from Stratford-on-Avon.
Our chief fire officer has had the difficult task of drawing up proposals for improving Warwickshire's fire and rescue service. He took on the role from his predecessor after a difficult period involving a consultation process that I think Warwickshire Members would agree was flawed. That process did a lot of damage to the community's confidence in the fire service and in a decision-making process that could lead to such unfortunate events.
The county council will discuss and evaluate three options for Warwickshire on Friday, two of which are extremely negative for us in Stratford-on-Avon. I will not dwell too long on those, but I shall speak about the third option, which is positive in the sense that we would retain Bidford and Studley fire stations.
Let me say a few words about the response of retained firefighters and the local community to the consultation on improving Warwickshire's fire services. The way in which they have reacted has been exemplary. They have not been a barrier to change and improvement; indeed, their approach has been proactive, and when they were asked to step up to the mark, they did so by putting forward a credible set of proposals. Those proposals have made their way into option C, which involves retaining Bidford and Studley fire stations, and perhaps into option B, which would retain Bidford although, unfortunately, we would lose Studley.
I am worried that the chief fire officer has heavily skewed the process due to his announcement in his report that he prefers the option under which we would lose those retained fire stations and their good fire personnel. He has stated that
"All three models will improve the level of resources available in Warwickshire for community fire safety, dealing with small fires, road traffic incidents and incidents of flooding",
so I am slightly concerned and puzzled about why he would choose option A, given that option C would certainly be a credible approach.
I am aware that other Members wish to speak, but before I conclude, I wish to make a point about the idea that we need to improve fire safety. Many members of the public erroneously believe that their safety depends primarily on the proximity of a fire station.
Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth, Conservative)
I agree with my hon. Friend's comment about fire safety. Norfolk county council's fire review is examining saving money as well as improving the service, but consideration is being given to spending more on management in Great Yarmouth yet losing 14 retained firemen. At this time, does he agree that we should all do our best in our communities to put pressure on local authorities so that they do not spend money on management and instead do the logical thing of keeping in place front-line services such as retained firemen?
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon, Conservative)
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which I hope will be taken on board not only in Great Yarmouth, but in Warwickshire when the deliberations take place on Friday.
The chief fire officer says that there will be
"a significant increase in community fire safety"
if option A is chosen, implying that having a single fire station and closing the retained fire station would mean that we would get more fire safety education in the community. I believe the opposite is true: that the closer that human beings are to their community, the more trusted their opinion will be and the more trust the community will have in improving fire safety, which is the drive for the fire service to get fire alarms into homes and prevent fires rather than react to them.
I hope that on Friday the county council will evaluate the proposals before them. I have made telephone calls today to all the cabinet, as well as writing to them personally, to say that they should look at all the options very carefully. They have promised me that they will do so and that they will look in great detail at option C and B. I implore them to do the right thing and make sure that we retain our stations in Stratford-on-Avon, whose staff are crucial to the community. That would send a positive message that we have listened to the wishes of the community and it would build a strong bridge with the local communities of Bidford and Studley.
Marcus Jones (Nuneaton, Conservative)
I will try to be brief as we are short on time. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dan Byles on securing this important debate. The House should honour and value the role of retained firefighters, and I want to cite a specific and local example of the superb work that they do, which occurred in the Delamere road area in Bedworth in my hon. Friend's constituency.
To set the scene, on a Saturday lunchtime in December 2008, a local community was engulfed in a severe flood within minutes. To their credit, the retained firefighters from Bedworth fire station, which I am glad is still very much in the thoughts of Warwickshire country council and Warwickshire fire service, reacted superbly. They attended within several minutes and carried out a diligent professional operation, which helped the residents of that area who were under pressure at that time, some of whose lives were at risk, not to mention the risk to property. They were helped through the first few hours of that crisis by Warwickshire fire service and the retained firefighters from Bedworth.
I mainly wanted to mention the dedication and service that our retained firefighters provide to our communities, in which the Government should support them, particularly with regard to training and ensuring that they have the right equipment, not only to keep the retained firefighters motivated, but to maintain public confidence in the excellent service that they provide.
Chris White (Warwick and Leamington, Conservative)
My hon. Friend Dan Byles is correct to highlight the key role of retained firefighters throughout the country. I am fortunate to have in my constituency a station staffed by retained firefighters. Sadly it is under threat, as are many other stations throughout Warwickshire.
At a time when we anticipate large-scale cuts to the public sector, something that the fire service is preparing for, it would be short-sighted to reduce the number of retained firefighters, yet that is exactly what has been proposed in my constituency. Retained firefighters combine high-quality service with flexibility, and as we seek to keep a lean and effective fire service, they are essential. How can it be right, at a time when we have an admitted skills shortage and ever-growing demands on our fire service, to get rid of these vital individuals who not only help to protect the public but do so with considerable savings to the taxpayer?
Having had the pleasure, as I am sure many hon. Members have, of meeting and talking to retained firefighters, I am proud of the work that they do. We often bandy around the words "civic duty", but retained firefighters embody the very essence of that term. Being community-minded, they potentially risk their lives to protect ours.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth, Conservative)
I very much appreciate my hon. Friend giving way and congratulate my hon. Friend Dan Byles on securing the debate. If it were not for retained fire officers in Cornwall, we would not have an effective fire service. If the citizens of Cornwall are to have a fire service, retained officers are essential. I hope that the Minister will address the points that my hon. Friends have made about the impact of the EU working time directive. It is a constant threat to retained firefighters, because it will impede them in delivering the vital service that they provide for Cornwall and throughout the country.
Chris White (Warwick and Leamington, Conservative)
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. To add to that, what sort of example are we setting if we so easily ignore the contribution of our retained firefighters? I hope that this debate will encourage fire services and local authorities throughout the country to recognise the value of retained firefighters and ensure that they continue to have a long-term future.
Bob Neill (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Bromley and Chislehurst, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dan Byles on securing it, on the elegant way in which he put his case and on his generosity in allowing several other hon. Members to participate. His recital of the history of the fire service reminded me of my own rather lengthy association with the organisation, although I do not go back quite as far as some of the reforms that my hon. Friend mentioned-despite rumours to the contrary.
I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the fire service. I fully appreciate just how vital the retained duty system is to the effectiveness of emergency cover in many parts of the country, particularly in protecting our small towns and rural communities and providing a crucial element of the national resilience arrangements. Retained duty system firefighters, as my hon. Friends have said, make up more than 30% of the fire and rescue service's operational personnel and provide crews to something like 54% of all fire stations in England.
As I said in my speech to the UK fire and rescue conference in Harrogate at the end of last month, the vital and significant contribution of the retained duty system provides an excellent example of how localism and the big society are already embedded within parts of the fire service, and I welcome that recognition from my hon. Friends.
I can confirm that the Government greatly value the contribution of firefighters employed on the retained duty system. They are the backbone of many services, and in some cases they form more than 70% of the operational work force. I had the pleasure of making that point directly to the national officers of the Retained Firefighters Union when I met them as an early priority after my appointment.
Throughout the country, retained firefighters undertake a range of roles, responding to emergencies of all kinds, such as heathland fires, floods, ship fires and chemical spills. Many are also involved in the delivery of community fire safety advice, and others take part in the co-responding programme as first responders to medical emergencies, such as heart attacks. They bring great flexibility and value for money to our system. As active members of their community, retained duty crews provide an excellent demonstration of the effectiveness of the localist approach to service delivery, and I agree that they are dedicated and highly motivated men and women who do an excellent job for their communities.
In some parts of the country, the system has been affected by long-standing recruitment and retention difficulties, but I hope that a number of measures that are now available will help to support the fire and rescue service in overcoming those challenges. We have to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to what can be quite complex local issues, particularly given the changes to the organisation of rural life, the social change in areas served by the retained duty system and the competing pressures on busy people's time. However, that has led to the development of initiatives such as an employers' information toolkit for fire and rescue services to use in establishing and building links with businesses in their community, and an employers' recognition scheme designed to be run locally by fire and rescue services to acknowledge the contribution by employers in their area who release staff for retained duties.
We are undertaking an extensive survey of the retained duty system, looking at how the nature of the retained role may have changed in recent years; how demographic changes may be impacting on that, as with the economic situation; how the service is addressing recruitment and retention, and managing those pressures; and how the RDS work force are trained, developed and utilised. That survey will deliver vital evidence that will inform discussions by fire and rescue authorities on issues affecting this valued sector of the work force; so, too, will the proposed strategic review of the fire service that I announced at the Harrogate conference. I hope that we will use the opportunity of the survey and the review to encourage fire and rescue authorities to make more imaginative use of the resource of retained duty fire fighter.
It is necessary to say a few words about the economic background with which the service has to deal. The Budget of
That is the key point. The aim should still be to ensure excellent service delivery. Efficiency is about working more effectively, using less public money to deliver as good, or better, public services. That means that despite reductions in spending, there should not be a visible reduction in service, nor a reduction in performance. There will be difficult decisions to make, but the fire and rescue service has a track record of delivery, and I am sure that it will step up to the mark to deal with this.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, and my other hon. Friends, referred to the position in Warwickshire, and I understand why they did so. I note in passing that present in his place, and keeping me company on the Treasury Bench, is my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright, whose position does not permit him to take part in the debate but who takes an active interest in this matter as a Warwickshire Member of Parliament.
I have spoken at length about the overall position of the retained duty system. Of course, my hon. Friends have referred to the proposals in Warwickshire and the possible closure of some fire stations that forms part of those proposals. As they will recall, the implications of the changes set out in Warwickshire fire and rescue authority's improvement plan were debated in Westminster Hall on
However, as I explained in the earlier debate, it would be inappropriate for Ministers to comment on the specific proposals that have been put forward and consulted on by Warwickshire fire and rescue authority. The principle of local determination of local solutions for local circumstances means that it would not be appropriate for me to seek to influence the decisions that the authority will be faced with on
I close by saying that earlier today I was at Winchester cathedral, representing Her Majesty's Government at a memorial service for two brave firefighters who died on duty in Southampton. They were full-time firefighters, but the risks run by firefighters draw no distinction between those who are full time and those who are retained, and there have been tragic deaths among retained firefighters in recent times as well. All of them-every one-are brave and courageous men and women doing their best for this country, and they deserve our support.
House adjourned without Question put (