Local Government Bill
Lord Rooker (Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; Labour)
My Lords, I remember using the term "parallel worlds" in response to a particular amendment, but I think that the 11 hours in Grand Committee on the Fire Services Bill was actually a parallel world. It was certainly another world to that which I have been used to since I have been in this House. I think that I can satisfy the noble Baroness about the apparent conflict. I have been giving the matter more thought anyway.
Clause 120 removes the requirement for fire authorities to seek the Secretary of State's approval before making a reduction, no matter how minor, in the number of fire-fighting posts or before the closure of a fire station or, indeed, the withdrawal of a fire appliance. The Bain review recommended that Section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 be amended or repealed as soon as possible to remove obstacles to introduce new and more flexible fire cover arrangements. The Government fully support this view and I believe there is a degree of political consensus that, in a modern fire service, operational decisions of this kind should be taken locally.
Noble Lords have expressed concern at a perceived conflict between the greater operational flexibility that the repeal of Section 19 will give fire brigades and the powers of direction on the use or disposal of property contained in the Fire Services Bill. We do not believe that there will be any such conflict. As I said during our debate in Grand Committee on the Fire Services Bill, the Government consider it prudent to take these powers to deal with particular circumstances if they arise, but we hope that they will never need to be used. It is our avowed desire that the Fire Services Bill is never operated during the two years that it will lie on the statute book.
The powers in the Fire Services Bill are concerned only with the recent dispute and its immediate aftermath. They would allow the Secretary of State to ensure that fire authority assets—paid for by the public—are available to those providing emergency fire cover in the event of further strikes. The powers would also allow the Secretary of State to ensure that some limited modernisation of the service could take place if it was being blocked, but I repeat that it is our strong preference for us not to have to use these powers. Noble Lords will of course be aware that the powers will lapse after two years after enactment of the Fire Services Bill; the sunset clause is quite unambiguous. By contrast, the introduction of integrated risk management planning, the repeal of Section 19 of the 1947 Act and the proposals set out in the White Paper are all measures for the longer term.
The move to integrated risk management in the UK fire service is a very positive step forward. It puts the emphasis firmly on outputs and outcomes in terms of lives saved and injuries prevented, accelerates the move from intervention to prevention and is more responsive to locally identified risks and needs. By delaying the repeal of Section 19, a repeal which enjoyed cross-party support in the other place, this amendment would deny fire authorities the flexibility they need to introduce a risk-based approach to the provision of fire cover. I cannot see the reason for that. The potential consequences of doing so and thus continuing with the existing inflexible and overly centralised fire cover arrangements are, I believe, self-evident. It is ludicrous beyond belief that at present the moving of appliances between fire stations has to be agreed by the Secretary of State. The current operating system is incredibly detailed and anachronistic.
The guidance on the introduction of integrated risk management planning, which I hope noble Lords have had an opportunity to consider since Committee, makes clear our continuing expectation that it is essential for local communities to be consulted about significant changes in fire cover. Fire authorities also have a general duty under best value legislation to consult about the way in which they exercise their functions.
There are a number of safeguards in place to ensure consistency of approach without inhibiting local flexibility and decision making. Integrated risk management plans will be drawn up within a framework of national guidance and fire authorities will be expected to maintain current fire cover arrangements until they have produced an integrated risk management plan and consulted local communities on any changes proposed. The performance of fire brigades in providing effective and efficient fire cover will continue to be monitored.
I hope that those explanations set the context. However, we have three elements to consider here. We have, first, the Fire Services Bill, a measure directly related to the dispute which has just ended but which has not been finally and completely settled because of all the dates that have to be met under the agreement. To that extent we now enjoy peace and tranquillity, but there is still work to be done as a direct result of the signed agreement. So the Fire Services Bill has been designed to cover that.
Secondly, we have a clause in the Bill before the House which seeks to abolish Section 19, as recommended by the Bain review and which we want to implement straightaway. Thirdly, in the meantime, the Government have produced their long-term considered response to Bain in the form of the White Paper, which obviously indicates that in the future there will be a major piece of legislation. All three elements can be taken together or separately.
In September we shall consider on Report the Fire Services Bill. I understand that tickets are being offered at a hot rate based on the performance of the parallel universe in the Grand Committee proceedings. However, noble Lords need to bear in mind the crucial point that the Government hope that the Bill will never be operated. It is our hope that it will lie on the statute book and never actually be used. Given that, it is easy to contemplate the abolition of Section 19, the introduction of integrated risk management plans and, it is hoped, a better life for fire service personnel and better performance for the public.
With those explanations, I hope that the noble Baroness will be content to withdraw her amendment. Bearing in mind that this is the last occasion on which I shall speak at this stage of the Bill, I want to put on the record a different but related matter. If I did not do so, I would be rightly chastised.
Before we conclude our proceedings on Report, it is right to tell noble Lords that the Statement on education funding to be made in the next hour or two will include a proposal relevant to this Bill, involving a minor amendment to education legislation. Obviously I cannot pre-empt the Statement being made now in the other place, but it is only right to alert noble Lords to the amendment. I shall write to noble Lords on both Front Benches shortly—or, it is hoped, immediately—to explain the proposals in detail. A government amendment to this Bill will be brought forward at Third Reading in September. However, it is only right that I mention this now because reference will be made to this Bill in the forthcoming education Statement to be made shortly.