Clause 4 - Combined authorities under the
Fire and Rescue Services Bill
Mr Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
I beg to move amendment No. 21, in
clause 4, page 4, line 14, after 'must', insert—
'(a) obtain the agreement of the fire and rescue authority constituted under the scheme or (in the case of an order to revoke the scheme) the agreement of all the authorities which would, apart from the scheme, be fire and rescue authorities under section 1 for any part of the area covered by the authority constituted under the scheme; and
Mr Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield, Conservative)
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 8, in
clause 4, page 4, line 19, at end insert—
'(d) all local authorities within or including the area of the fire and rescue authorities affected.'.
Amendment No. 22, in
clause 4, page 4, line 21, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.
Amendment No. 23, in
clause 4, page 4, line 21, at end add
'and shall only make the proposed order if the inquiry concludes that making the order is in the interests of greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the fire and rescue services concerned.'.
Mr Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
Clause 4, which has already been referred to during our discussions on clause 2, carries into the new legislative structure the CFAs that have already been created under the 1947 Act. Many were created relatively recently as a result of the creation of unitary authorities, and of the need for new fire authorities to embrace the former counties and those new unitary authorities. The clause will allow the status quo to exist, which is an odd but necessary situation.
During our proceedings on Tuesday, the Minister undertook to try to obtain figures for how many existing CFAs were created at the instigation of the relevant local authorities, and whether any had been imposed by the Secretary of State against the authorities' wishes. I suspect that the overwhelming majority were created as a result of local government reorganisation, and that it was envisaged from the outset of the process that the fire authority would be reconfigured. I also suspect that there have been no examples of the Secretary of State creating a CFA as a stand-alone action, which is one of the reasons for our
concern about the way those powers appear to be underlined in the Bill.
Amendment No. 21 seeks to limit the Secretary of State's power to amend or revoke an existing scheme. The aim of the clause is to carry forward the existing CFAs into the new framework. The amendment would mean that the Secretary of State could vary the scheme only with the agreement of the authority or revoke it only with the agreement of what I refer to as the underlying authorities—the clause 1 authorities—which would be the fire and rescue authorities if the combined authority were to be wound up. That is an important defence of the localist principle. These bodies are rooted in their communities. Although they are CFAs and are not directly accountable to the electorate of an area, they are indirectly accountable through the constituent local authorities that make up the body.
Amendment No. 22 provides that where the Secretary of State intends to make an order to vary or wind up a scheme, there shall be an inquiry. Amendment No. 23 provides that the order shall proceed only if the inquiry concludes that the change that is being proposed, or the revocation, is in the interests of greater efficiency, effectiveness and economy. Notwithstanding our earlier semantic debate, I understand that to be an all-embracing phrase encompassing everything that a fire and rescue authority should appropriately be pursuing. The Minister of State seems to want to have his cake and eat it on this one: having said that public safety is outside the definition, he now says that public safety is embraced by the concept of effectiveness.
These are important amendments. They would allow the existing CFAs to be carried forward, and they would allow any sensible variations to the scheme where everyone agreed that they were necessary. But they would also introduce the safeguard of an inquiry, with an objective test for that inquiry, if changes were to be made or a scheme was to be revoked. I hope that the Under-Secretary will see the constructive intention behind the amendments, and that he can tell us how the Government foresee the powers in the clause being used.
Amendment No. 8 in the name of Liberal Democrat Members requires yet more consultation. We do not disagree with the sentiment, but our experience is that consultation written formally into a Bill is unlikely to be any more effective than the informal consultation that Ministers will be required to carry out anyway. Although the clause is generally innocuous, the unfettered power of the Secretary of State to vary or revoke a scheme is a centralising power. I do not say that it is a new power, but in the spirit of wanting to decentralise power to the fire authorities we suggest that it needs to be curbed. That is the intention of the amendments.
Mr Richard Younger-Ross (Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions; Teignbridge, Liberal Democrat)
I will be brief, as we rehearsed these arguments on Tuesday. We said that we would not press our amendment, so I will not waste the Committee's time repeating arguments that have already been advanced.
Mr Phil Hope (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; Corby, Labour/Co-operative)
It is Hope, Sir Nicholas. This is my first opportunity to speak in this Committee and I am pleased to be serving under your Chairmanship. I hope that we can make good progress.
As Opposition Members said, we can deal with these amendments relatively quickly. Their objectives are similar to those of amendments that we debated in our second sitting and to which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State ably responded. From my reading of the proceedings, it appeared that there was a discussion about humble pie and the pronunciation of ''Teignbridge''.
The purpose of the clause is straightforward: to ensure that combined fire and rescue authorities created under the 1947 Act remain in existence following the Act's repeal and that the requirements of clause 2 for consultation on proposed boundary changes also apply to those authorities.
Amendment No. 21, tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), is similar to his earlier amendment No. 10 to clause 2. It would turn a requirement for consultation, which we welcome and to which we are wholly committed, into a right for an individual authority to exercise a veto over changes that are in the wider public interest. The hon. Gentleman described it as an important defence of the localist principle, which is a new one on me. I am not sure what it is but I am always interested in Opposition Members' new principles. The hon. Gentleman made his point at the previous sitting, and the Committee divided on the question. We disagreed with the proposal then and we cannot accept it now. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will seek to withdraw the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman also asked how many CFAs had been created by local government and how many imposed by the Secretary of State. As he knows, the then Secretary of State imposed all of them, as he did the local government changes. At that time, local government had no say whatever in its reorganisation. What we propose for elected regional assemblies is that people will vote in a referendum on whether they want reorganisation—
Mr. Hammond rose—
Phil Hope: I wish that I had not said that.
Mr. Hammond: What I wanted to establish was whether the Secretary of State had used his powers under the 1947 Act—other than in the context of a local government reorganisation to maintain the status quo—to create a CFA which, in practice, was something other than what had existed before.
Phil Hope: I think that we have responded to that point. The answer is no, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said that he would not divide the Committee on amendment No. 8, which is similar to the earlier amendments Nos. 5 and 6 to clause 2. The proposal would specify a category of consultee beyond fire and rescue authorities. We do not want to list in the Bill everyone who is to be consulted, as
52 organisations are listed as formal consultees in annexe E to the draft national framework and they cannot all be mentioned in the Bill. Equally, the inclusion of some organisations but not others would mean that those not listed might fear that they would not be consulted, which would be unfortunate as we are committed to the widest possible involvement of all affected stakeholders, including local authorities.
Amendment No. 22, tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, is similar to amendment No. 2 to clause 2, which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State undertook to consider further. We are keen to find a form of words that reflects our commitment to hold an inquiry whenever possible, but still allows us to move swiftly when public safety demands urgent action, without awaiting the outcome of a potentially long, drawn-out procedure. On the basis that such a form of words will also be incorporated in clause 4, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 23 is similar to amendment No. 13 to clause 2, which was discussed at an earlier sitting. It would prescribe the grounds on which an inquiry might reach its conclusions and restrict those grounds to certain parts of the Bill. I suspect that it is aimed at restricting the Secretary of State's power to combine authorities on a regional basis on the grounds of public safety.
Mr. Hammond: Will the Under-Secretary clarify a point that I raised earlier? Does the term ''effectiveness'' in the discharge of an authority's functions embrace the concept of public safety? That is crucial. In some clauses, public safety is defined separately from effectiveness, efficiency and economy. Others mention only effectiveness, efficiency and economy, presumably because it is believed, as the Minister of State suggested on Tuesday, that they embrace the concept of public safety.
Phil Hope: The Committee has discussed that point. It is difficult to see how ''effectiveness'' would not cover public safety, but there may be circumstances in which it may mean more than public safety, so we need to keep a failsafe option. The Minister of State made it clear earlier this week that we might need to have such an option available to address situations such as those in which fire and rescue authorities, working through a regional management board, were unable successfully to achieve a key objective, such as establishing a regional control room or other functions required at regional level.
Mr. Hammond: That is economy.
Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman describes that as economy, but it may not be. We need to ensure that we have that option available to us, and I emphasise again that it is a failsafe. It would ensure that, were those situations to occur, we would be able to react to them. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Hammond: The Under-Secretary is pushing at an open door. As he rightly says, the amendments seek to address an issue that we have already debated. The
Minister of State has agreed to examine at least one aspect of it, and I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for indicating that that will also involve clause 4. However, we will want to return to the question of the objective tests.
The question of whether effectiveness embraces public safety is important, because there appears to be an asymmetry in the Bill. As the Under-Secretary knows, in other clauses public safety is specified separately. I shall think about that matter before the Report stage. I suspect—I have started to develop a sense for such things—that the issue of whether effectiveness embraces public safety, or whether public safety should be specified separately, might interest our noble Friends on both sides of the other place, as it is exactly the sort of issue that they tend to see as of great importance.
It seems to me that the most sensible thing to do now is seek to withdraw the amendment, assuming that Ministers will return to the question of inquiries on Report, rather than during Lords consideration. We will then be able to re-examine the question whether the scope of an inquiry should be defined in any way and whether Ministers should be constrained in how they proceed, depending on the outcome of the inquiry. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: I apologise to the Under-Secretary for getting his name wrong. The only excuse that I have dreamed up is that I used the first letter of his Christian name instead of the first letter of his surname. I will not get it wrong again, and I apologise without reservation.Clause 5Powers of combined fire and rescue authorities