With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 184, in
clause 28, page 12, line 18, leave out subsection (2).
Amendment No. 103, in
clause 28, page 12, line 19, leave out from 'considers' to end of line 21 and insert
'necessary for the protection of public safety and the effective discharge of functions conferred on fire and rescue authorities under section 9.'.
Amendment No. 185, in
clause 28, page 12, line 25, leave out subsection (3)(b).
Amendment No. 186, in
clause 28, page 12, line 30, leave out subsection (4)(b).
Well, that is a very interesting observation and it should not necessarily be taken as a light-hearted comment. One question to explore is the basis upon which the ODPM will charge for those services: either it will be purely cost recovery, or something more will be involved. The provisions have the potential to erode the autonomy of the fire and rescue authorities. The 1947 Act does not require fire authorities to use equipment; the Secretary of State can act as the central procurement agent, but there are no powers to require authorities to use and pay for such equipment.
Our debate will give the Under-Secretary the opportunity to reassure us that use of the powers in the clause will not result in disaster. As is often the case, the powers are drafted extremely widely. Our job is to consider what is in the Bill. It is interesting to hear Ministers say that it does not do this, or it does not erode autonomy, but in a lucid moment the Under-Secretary might agree that it is capable of extreme erosion of the autonomy of the fire and rescue services—[Interruption.] Well, it is capable of that. His job this morning is to reassure us that he has no intention of using it in that way, and I hope that he will be able to do so.
I am sure that the Under-Secretary will refer to resilience—much of our debate has been conducted in those terms. He will tell us that expensive equipment may need to be bought but that it is likely to be used very rarely or, if we are lucky, never. I do not disagree with the concept of central procurement, holding and maintenance of such equipment. The hon. Gentleman indicated that not only the capital cost, but the cost of maintaining and running the equipment for dealing with such new risks is likely to be financed by the ODPM. Concerns about charging do not arise in relation to such equipment. To some extent, I accept the Minister of State's comments about the charity commissioners. The ODPM will procure equipment, make it available and not recover its cost.
Concern arises when we come to the provisions in the clause that allow the Secretary of State to charge for the use of the equipment that he provides. The Under-Secretary might tell us that he has no intention of providing any equipment for which a charge will be made. I shall return to the details of that—I suspect that we shall find that we are talking about control rooms and radio equipment more than anything else. The Under-Secretary must accept that we are considering a clause that makes it possible for the Secretary of State to own the entire fleet of fire appliances, for example, and to require fire authorities to use his fire appliances at a charge determined by him. That is possible under the Bill, so we need to know just how far the Secretary of State intends to go in using his powers to become, in effect, the provider of equipment and services for all the nominally independent fire and rescue services throughout the country.
Amendment No. 102 is designed to focus the Secretary of State's mind on his stated public safety agenda. The clause constrains him to central procurement and provision of equipment only when that is in the interest of
''promoting . . . economy, efficiency and effectiveness''.
The amendment would substitute a reference to public safety. That would cover the circumstances in which the Secretary of State needs to provide equipment to deal with the threat of an unconventional terrorist attack, for example, because it would clearly be in the interest of public safety to have such equipment purchased and made available. It is not obvious to me that the provision of routine fire appliances, purchased by the Secretary of State and made available to authorities who are required to use them, is in the interest of public safety. The Secretary of State may think that it is in the interest of economy, efficiency and effectiveness for him to decide everything, but that is a matter of judgment.
We now come to the nub of whether the service is to be a local service, or a nationally or regionally dictated one. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give careful consideration to the suggestion that the test for the Secretary of State entering into such a scheme should be that it promotes public safety, rather than just economy, efficiency and effectiveness. The power that the Secretary of State will have under the clause is a major intervention in the autonomy of authorities. It can be justified on the grounds of public safety, but it is the authority's council tax payers, not the Secretary of State, who should be driving the agenda of efficiency and effectiveness. We are talking about saving money rather than saving lives.
It would be different if the Secretary of State did not have the power to require authorities to use the equipment and require them to pay for it, presumably at charges that he will set. If the provisions simply replicate the 1947 Act powers allowing the Secretary of State to procure equipment using his aggregating capability to give economies of scale, and then to offer that equipment to fire authorities that want to take advantage of his purchasing power, that would be absolutely unexceptional. However, we have to consider the at least theoretical scenario of the Secretary of State in one of his more Delboy-ish moments going out and buying a job lot of equipment that he finds no one wants, which he requires local authorities to use.
Phil Hope indicated dissent.
The Under-Secretary shakes his head, but he will be aware that fire and rescue authorities have different requirements in relation to fire appliances, for example. That has been the subject of some discussion. The Secretary of State might think that he has the perfect specification for a fire appliance and might choose to impose a uniform specification for equipment by central purchasing and requiring the use of centrally purchased equipment by fire authorities. If that is intended—I hope it is not—we need to know that. The Committee will take a very
different view of proposals by the Secretary of State to purchase equipment, of which he will bear the cost, for use in abnormal and exceptional circumstances. That is quite different from any intention to go into the routine procurement business in order to impose uniformity in all fire services. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to those comments.
Amendment No. 103 repeats the same intentions in relation to subsection (2) of the clause, substituting reference to public safety and giving symmetry with clause 29, which specifically allows the exercise of powers only in the interests of public safety. Amendment No. 103 adds another ground on which the Secretary of State can act: the effective discharge of the functions conferred on an authority under clause 9. The Secretary of State will confer functions under the clause in relation to dealing with the anti-terrorist response. It will give Ministers an opportunity to confirm that organisations will be established—subsection (2) allows the establishment and maintenance of organisations—and forced upon fire and rescue authorities only where that is in the interests of public safety, or where they are related to the response to unconventional threats. In other words, it will give Ministers the opportunity to reinforce the general tone that the more extreme powers would give. By extreme, I mean simply that they are powers that could erode the local autonomy of fire and rescue authorities. If the Minister is able to confirm that the powers will be used only in respect of equipment for dealing with non-conventional risks and threats and that organisations will be established and maintained only to deal with that area, in which we all accept that central Government has a legitimate and key role, the Committee would be much more relaxed about this part of the clause.
The Liberal Democrats' amendment No. 184, which is the substantive amendment in their group, takes a different approach. The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) would retain without any qualification the powers under subsection (1) to provide and maintain equipment, but would remove altogether the powers under subsection (2) to establish organisations. I am not sure what the intention is, so I shall not comment further on those amendments until we have heard from the hon. Gentleman.
I hope that the Under-Secretary will accept the spirit in which amendments Nos. 102 and 103 were tabled. I hope and half expect that I will be reassured by what he has to tell the Committee.
On the question of our amendments leaving the other parts of the clause unamended, I might be able to help the hon. Gentleman. Having seen his amendments, we were happy to listen to his comments about them and then decide whether we would support them. From what he has said, I am happy to support his amendments. His points are extremely valid.
I am concerned that the Secretary of State is taking on a vast number of powers in the clause. It is almost as if he will sit on his own Tracy Island and set up his own British international rescue organisation with his
own equipment. The clause would not actually preclude that: he can buy what equipment he wants, from what organisation he wants, and force the authorities to use his organisation or some other organisation that he sets up and equips to undertake a task discussed in another part of the Bill. If the powers were clearly related to resilience, we would be far happier, but they are not. One reason for supporting the Conservative amendment is that it ties the measure into clause 9, which is particularly important.
This is almost a Henry VIII clause. The Secretary of State is giving himself the ability to do whatever he likes, whenever he likes, in establishing an organisation. It is extremely bad practice to allow a Secretary of State such wide powers. The Under-Secretary must say clearly what organisations he thinks would be established and when and why they would be established. If he has an understanding of what the organisations are, why are they not referred to in the Bill? Why does the Bill give the Secretary of State such broad scope? He could have powers in respect of resilience in other Bills and other places.
Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that if the Secretary of State has in mind, for example, the creation of a separate organisation to run the radiocommunications system for the fire service and to operate control rooms, that would be a further removal of management responsibilities and powers from individual fire and rescue authorities, and would likely lead still more quickly to the demise of independent fire and rescue authorities?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. It is quite feasible that the Secretary of State will seek to establish an organisation for the running and maintenance of radio equipment. As the hon. Gentleman said, that would remove from fire and rescue authorities some of the authority that they presently have. That would take power away from the grass roots. The Under-Secretary keeps talking about locality and about giving power back to localities, but in the clause he gives the Secretary of State powers to take that power away.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) referred to the 1947 Act and to the ability to procure equipment that is then available to the authorities. That is an exceedingly good thing. The fire authorities have told me on several occasions that they would welcome its being done more often. They particularly mentioned uniform—[Interruption.]
The authorities have mentioned clothing to me. With women now coming into the service, some authorities have difficulty in purchasing clothing suitable for female firefighters at a reasonable cost. Therefore, the ministerial use of procurement would be welcome, but not this broad power that the Minister is giving himself. Perhaps the
Under-Secretary will enlighten us as to which organisations he intends to establish.
First, let me restate the effect of the amendments. Amendment No. 102 would allow the Secretary of State to provide only such equipment, facilities and services as are necessary for the protection of public safety.
Amendment No. 184 would remove the Secretary of State's ability to establish or maintain an organisation that could promote the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of fire and rescue authorities. Amendment No. 103 would allow the Secretary of State to establish or maintain such an organisation only where necessary for the protection of public safety and the effective discharge of the new duties under clause 9. Amendment No. 185 would prevent fire and rescue authorities from being charged for any equipment, facilities or services provided by such an organisation.
Lastly, amendment No. 186 would prevent the Secretary of State from requiring a fire and rescue authority to use specified services.
Just to set the record straight, I think that the Under-Secretary slightly misrepresented amendment No. 185. It is not for me to defend Liberal Democrat amendments, but my understanding is that it is simply consequential on amendment No. 184. It removes the power to charge for services simply because that is a necessary corollary of removing the power to provide services.
Yes, and when we come to amendment No. 104 in the next group we shall consider other issues relating to charging that the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise. However, I want to respond to the points made so far about charging.
Unlike many of the other clauses that we have discussed, the clause is not about the way in which the fire and rescue service discharges its functions, but it ensures that the Secretary of State can provide the tools to enable the service to carry out its job effectively. Therefore, it is not appropriate to specify public safety as a requirement. The need to ensure that the service was properly equipped led us to implement the new dimension programme, which provides fire and rescue authorities with equipment such as incident response units. That will enable them to ensure public safety by carrying out mass decontamination in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.
However, we must take into account the overall economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the fire and rescue service, particularly as that has an impact on local council tax payers. I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge oppose measures to promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness at a time when his Front-Bench colleagues are publishing various targets for the vast amount of savings they intend to make by imposing swingeing cuts of some £15 billion on the civil service. The two arguments appear to be in conflict.
I may have missed something, but perhaps the Under-Secretary can explain which bits of
the civil service will be cut as a result of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness that would be secured through these measures.
I am simply intrigued in general terms. The Government are taking measures to ensure that there is economy, efficiency and effectiveness; those on the Conservative Front Bench claim that vast savings can be made, but do not support any measures that might achieve them.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Bain review concluded that procurement was an area where significant improvements could be achieved if authorities pooled requirements and expertise. The other recommendations included the amalgamation of control rooms, outsourcing or collaboration over vehicle maintenance and rationalisation of management and support costs. The review suggested that savings of about £42 million over three years could be achieved. The provisions are not an erosion of the autonomy of fire and rescue services; they are about good practice and common sense.
The current procurement of equipment and services specific to the service is often inefficient owing to the small scale on which they are carried out. Fire and rescue authorities can collaborate to develop standard specifications, reduce specialist administration costs and place bulk orders. That potential has been significantly underexploited despite efforts over the past decade to achieve improvements, and it has led to important equipment such as breathing apparatus not being standardised across the service. As well as the cost implications, there are problems of interoperability, so it is no longer acceptable to continue in that vein.
One option is to establish a single organisation responsible for providing fire and rescue service-specific equipment and services. We are working with the service and the Local Government Association to establish what that would involve and how best it could be done.
I do not wish to invoke the hon. Gentleman's regional paranoia again, but we are planning to rationalise existing control rooms to create regional control rooms, which is the appropriate level for reasons of governance, resilience, intra-service working, and economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Without establishing a new organisation we could not deliver that commitment, because it involves more than the simple provision of equipment. Again, this is not a conspiracy; it is common sense.
I can give some reassurance to the hon. Member for Teignbridge by saying that we do not intend to procure centrally every item of equipment required by the fire and rescue service. Procurement of goods and services that are not specific to the service will be local or, to ensure economies of scale through bulk ordering and reducing bureaucracy, regional. We are supporting the LGA in establishing regional centres of excellence in procurement to improve practices. Yesterday at Eland House I announced the local authorities that would act as host centres for the
regional centres of excellence, which will promote better procurement in local government throughout the country.
Some things are better procured on a national basis or to a common standard and specification. They include the new dimension search and rescue vehicles and the new nationwide radio system known as Firelink. National procurement of the system will increase resilience and interoperability within the service and with other emergency services. Similarly, the provision of a standard call handling and mobilisation system for the regional control rooms will also deliver benefits.
As I have already mentioned, it is important for interoperability and firefighter safety to ensure equipment such as breathing apparatus is standardised. It will ensure that every firefighter is trained to use the same equipment and carry out their job safely and effectively no matter where they are asked to go. Without interoperability it would be difficult for them to participate in reinforcement schemes or operate across boundaries in emergencies. We must require the use of such equipment when the Government have purchased it because we must ensure resilience and interoperability.
The Under-Secretary has jumped from issue to issue. Will he acknowledge the distinction between interoperability, which concerns public safety, and saving money by procurement through a single route—of uniforms, for example? Can he not see that those are different orders of activity? He makes a case that is difficult to attack in terms of interoperability for reasons of public safety and the health and safety of firefighters, but it is a different and more questionable case when the only issue is the apparent, or supposed, economies.
I simply cannot agree with the point that is being made. As far as I am concerned, interoperability—the ability to purchase and standardise equipment such as breathing apparatus—is both effective and efficient. We should take—as we are taking—the ability to work with the service and the LGA to create an organisation that will be able to procure centrally. That will both provide the equipment needed for safety and interoperability, and be a more efficient use of the fire and rescue resources available.
As for charging, the Government have no plans to charge. However, if we are making assets available for new dimension use, which could also be used for other purposes, it may be necessary to charge in those circumstances.
I take your guidance, Sir Nicholas. I want to address the points about charging, but if we are to do so under amendment No. 104, I will leave my remarks until we get to it. I do not want to leave the fears of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge unresolved.
It is our view that a great deal can be done, through both regional and national procurement, to ensure that there is greater efficiency, effectiveness and economy in the fire and rescue service. The service has a great deal of expertise concerning the equipment necessary to carry out its job effectively, and, of course, it will be directly involved at an early stage of any procurement exercise. That has already been the case with the new dimension programme and the Firelink radio communications system project. It will be the case with the control room project as well.
I hope that now that I have explained why we wish to do this, why the amendments are unnecessary and why it is important that we support the Secretary of State's ability to work with the fire and rescue service to procure specific fire and rescue equipment and services, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
I will take it as read that the Under-Secretary will deal with the charging issues when we come to that debate, so I will not refer to that subject again now.
I find it somewhat surprising that the Under-Secretary is not prepared to make the distinction between public safety and effectiveness and efficiency, although I accept that the amendment may be overly simplistic. However, there is an important point. When the Under-Secretary talks about procuring equipment for new dimension work, nobody can disagree with his intention. When he talks about standardising breathing apparatus so that firefighters from one authority can reinforce those from another at a scene outside their area and be familiar with back-up equipment that may be in use there, nobody can disagree with his logic.
However, whether an organisation promoted by central Government is the best way to deliver that solution may be a different question. When we talk about economy in procurement, I have much graver concerns about whether the Government are going down the right route. Let us be blunt: the track record of Government procurement is not a noble one. If one talks to people in the private sector who are focused on Government procurement programmes—anything to do with IT in any of its forms is the usual first example, but it goes beyond that—one finds that historically, central Government has not been a great procurer. That is not a party political point.
Frankly, saying, ''Don't worry about local procurement, chaps. Here is the man from the ODPM, who will show you how to do it'', does not cut any ice with many in local government who feel that they have better procurement practices than central Government, or many in the private sector who think that their procurement practices go some way further in delivering the goods than even local government practices. I shall not bore the Committee by trying off the top of my head to list the catalogue of disasters, but billions of pounds have been written off since this Government came to power. This is not a party political point—it has happened before—but in this case billions have been written off in abandoned
procurement projects, particularly IT projects, in the past seven years.
I am very concerned about the Firelink project, for example, and the idea that one system will be rolled out across the whole country. That is great if the one system happens to be the right one, but it is like choosing a rifle. If one chooses the wrong rifle, rolls it out and equips the entire Army with it but then finds that it does not work in the sand, one is in serious trouble.
Worse than that, once the base of competitive suppliers of equipment or services has been eroded by picking one champion, as has been done in defence procurement, we become extremely vulnerable to the capabilities of that single champion. Instead of a universe of competing suppliers, each trying to make their product or service that much more attractive, economical and efficient for the user, one is left, some way down the line, without competitive pressure in the marketplace.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I totally agree with my hon. Friend's comments, but there is a further point about flexibility. The Devon fire and rescue service is looking at ways of financing future acquisition of extended ladders for vehicles. It might do that through some financing package, which would suit its specific requirements, rather than buying them from some central body or fund. Perhaps the measure is intended to reduce the flexibility of independent fire services.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Under-Secretary implied during his speech that any resistance to central procurement was an abdication of our responsibility to ensure economy in public spending. Nothing could be further from the truth. The debate is about from where one believes the pressure for economy and efficiency in the delivery of local services should come. I believe that it should come from council tax payers.
There may be another debate to be had about the effectiveness of local government democratic institutions in holding local government accountable for the economy with which it spends council tax payers' money, but, frankly, having seen the Government in action, I have little faith in central Government as the means of delivering the best efficiency and economy for council tax payers. That is partly because of the track record of Government procurement and partly because I am not convinced by central Government's approach, which is to do things on a grand scale. That might superficially yield some savings, but, looking at the system overall, and given the additional tiers of bureaucracy and additional elements of reporting and lines of communication involved, I do not believe that it actually produces the savings that are sometimes suggested.
I want to pick up on what the hon. Gentleman said about defence. As a former member of the Defence Committee, I would say that competition for procurement is very strong, but in a globalised framework. There are issues about
protecting British industry and ensuring that it remains competitive, but there is globalisation.
Yesterday, I visited Land Registry, a Government agency, which has just produced an IT project, on time and on budget, to computerise the registration of all property in the UK. It can be done, and it can be contrasted with local government housing benefit, where there were problems in some areas regarding the contracting out of the relevant IT to the private sector. That created all sorts of problems for council tax payers. It is not quite as simple a picture as the hon. Gentleman would like to paint.
I hope that I did not paint too simple a picture. The record speaks for itself. The very fact that the Land Registry project is being hailed as a triumph points, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge, to the fact that the great majority of central Government IT projects have not come in on time and on budget. Indeed, off the top of my head I cannot think of another one. Some eventually come in hugely over budget and never perform with the benefits and results that were anticipated. Some are abandoned after hundreds of millions of pounds, or in one recent case, more than £1 billion, have been invested. We must tread extremely warily.
If I wanted to be aggressive about this I would ask the Minister what on earth makes him think he is qualified to determine the best equipment to be installed nationally for the fire service's radio system. Why do Ministers believe that they have the answer to these very complicated problems? Does the Minister not recognise the danger that standardising on a single system, UK-wide, results in a degree of vulnerability?
Let me fast forward a little. Let us assume that, of the various technologies being tendered for the Firelink system, the Tetra proposal is accepted and installed across the country. You will be aware, Sir Nicholas, that many people have very grave concerns about the health implications of the microwave radiation from the Tetra mast. I make no comment about that at all, because I do not know enough about it, but I do know that there is a body of concern. Supposing that, some way down the line, irrefutable medical evidence were to become available, and that the system that had been selected had serious adverse health consequences. We would be left with one system, installed by ODPM diktat across all fire authorities in the country, and we would be in an impossible situation. I am wary of single-source procuring and single-technology solutions, unless we are talking about technologies that are so well established that they hardly any longer qualify for the term ''technology''.
Is not the issue in this procurement the importance, for civil contingency, of producing something that is fully interoperable between the blue light services and the armed forces? Is it not more to the point that if there were a disaster, and the blue light services and armed forces responding to it were unable to communicate properly, the Government would be asked why they had not taken
action to procure something that would allow them to talk to each other?
I do not claim to be sufficiently up to speed on the technology as to know whether it is necessary to procure a single system, rather than to have a standard for interoperability between separately procured systems—perhaps the hon. Gentleman is. I would be surprised if the only way to ensure interoperability was to have a single system, centrally procured by the ODPM, and set up, as now appears to be the Minister's intention, by an independent agency sponsored by central Government. There are considerable concerns about that.
I acknowledge that the amendments, in one sense, do not go far enough to address the concerns that we are talking about and, in another sense, may slightly miss their target. The point of tabling them was to have this debate. This is an issue to which we will want to return, to look a little more carefully at how this procurement is to be done. The Minister is probably not going to speak again, but I anticipate that, if he did, he would tell us that although the ODPM or the Secretary of State will nominally procure this equipment, it will be done by a committee of the great and the good in the fire and rescue service world. I hope that he will tell us that, and that the Deputy Prime Minister will not, on a wet Tuesday evening, decide which is the best system to procure. Obviously, there will be a wider consultation basis, but that cannot deal with a situation in which there are genuine differences of view between autonomous bodies answerable to their local taxpayers about the right way to go.
As I said earlier, when key issues of overriding public safety are involved, I understand the argument for the Secretary of State making the hard decision on which of the two or three competing systems should be imposed. However, when the issue is not public safety but economy of procurement, it is much more questionable whether the Secretary of State should have or use that power.
We agree with virtually every word said by the Minister, but, unfortunately, what he said is not in the Bill. The powers that it grants far exceed what he said, and I and my party cannot accept that. The Secretary of State could, without referring back to the House, set up organisations to run a radio system or whatever other system he wants. To my mind, that is wrong.
I do not have quite as many fears as the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge on standardisation, although I understand his points. There are times when one contractor is necessary because of copyright that may be part of the system and because standardisation is necessary to achieve interoperability. However, the ability to standardise exists for a whole range of equipment, despite the fact that that is unnecessary; it is necessary only to set regulation to say what the standard should be—whether the screw goes one way or the other. It is necessary only to define that; the authorities can then be allowed to decide what screws to buy rather than
being given the choice about what direction they should turn in.
I see the possibility in the clause for mass purchasing of some equipment, but central Government do not have a good record on mass purchasing. Fire service surplus stores could spring up all over the country, much as we used to have Army surplus stores, to get rid of equipment that was purchased but cannot be used because too much was bought. I am not being serious, but I want to make the point that equipment and money must not be wasted because central Government are not particularly good at purchasing.
I cannot accept the provision, having heard what the Minister said, and I want to press amendments Nos. 184, 185 and 186.
Amendment proposed: No. 184, in
clause 28, page 12, line 18, leave out subsection (2).—[Richard Younger-Ross.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 1, Noes 8.
I think that I can reassure you, Sir Nicholas. When multiple groups of amendments are tabled to one clause, some of the wider issues tend to be debated under the first group, so I am sure that we will be able to make much more rapid progress.
Amendment No. 104 deals with the Secretary of State's power to charge. Under the Bill, the Secretary of State will be able to require authorities to use equipment, facilities and services provided by him or by an organisation created and maintained by him. He
will be able to require authorities to pay for the use of that equipment. We have already heard from the Under-Secretary that it is unlikely that charges will routinely be made when the equipment is for resilience purposes—the unconventional part of the fire and rescue authority's functions. We are happy with that. The Committee should consider not that, but other equipment and services, including the overall radio and control room facilities that might be provided by the Secretary of State or an organisation that he has created.
The purpose of amendment No. 104 is to flush out some of the Deputy Prime Minister's intentions on charging. Other than equipment for use in new dimension work, the key areas in which the Under-Secretary has confirmed that the Government intend to provide equipment, facilities and services centrally, either directly or through an organisation established by them, are the communications network and control room equipment. The latter area probably largely overlaps with the former.
I have not understood from what has been said so far whether it is intended to charge fire authorities for the use of communications equipment supplied under the arrangements. I imagine that, although such equipment will have a new dimension role, it will also be used routinely in dealing with calls about cats stuck in trees, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to relate to the highest questions of public safety. I imagine that the ODPM intends to charge fire and rescue authorities for the use of those equipment services.
Several questions arise from that. How will charges be set? Will they be set on a cost-recovery basis, as fire and rescue authorities will be limited to doing when charging others for services under clause 19? What about the overheads of the organisations created? We are all aware of the tendency of central Government organisations to carry a large bureaucratic overhead. We are also all aware of the history of central Government technology procurement programmes running significantly over budget. The equipment that we are discussing is not strictly IT, but I guess that the radio system will have a large IT element to it.
If there is to be a charging regime based on full-cost recovery, I fear that we shall have one person in command of the procurement process in the driving seat—the Secretary of State who has said, ''Don't worry, chaps, I can do it for you better and cheaper''—recovering whatever it costs him from the authorities that are not invited but required to use it. That is a serious concern, and it raises issues about the basis of calculation of cost recovery—the ODPM overhead involved. I would be very interested in what the Under-Secretary can tell us about the intended charging regime. Fire authorities will have to think about that during their own budgeting processes.
Amendment No. 105 is probing in nature. It would insert at the end of subsection (3)(b) the words ''under subsection (2)''. Perhaps I was naive, but on first reading the Bill I assumed that organisations established or maintained by the Secretary of State for which charges may be imposed on fire authorities under subsection (3)(b) would in every case be those
established under subsection (2). However, the Bill does not say that. If it is the Under-Secretary's intention that the scope of subsection (3)(b) is limited to organisations established and maintained under subsection (2), let that be included in the Bill. If the Under-Secretary does not want that included in the Bill because he has other organisations in mind—
Phil Hope indicated dissent.
The Under-Secretary shakes his head, but other organisations are already established, such as the Fire Service College. I wonder whether he intends that charges would be levied under subsection (3)(b) in respect of organisations other than those established under subsection (2). Perhaps he would clarify whether that is the case and either accept the amendment or tell us why it is unnecessary.
Amendment No. 104 would require the Secretary of State to make an order every time he wanted to charge for the use of equipment or services provided. I remember sitting in this Committee Room to debate a statutory instrument and the hon. Gentleman berating me for wasting parliamentary time on bringing people together to discuss the allocation of community fire safety moneys to fire and rescue authorities. I was roundly berated for dragging parliamentarians into the Room to do so. I therefore cannot believe that he wants to drag parliamentarians into a statutory instrument Committee every time we want to charge for the use of equipment or services provided by the Secretary of State. That is the implication of his amendment.
If I recall the incident in question, my concern was that the Committee was sitting to consider a grant that amounted in one case to £4,000—considerably less than the cost of the paperwork supporting the Committee. In this case my understanding is—the Under-Secretary will correct me if I am wrong—that there would be a regime for charging. It would not be a question of a separate order each time a bill was sent to a fire authority; it would be a regime that would determine the basis on which charges were made.
Under section 22 of the Fire Services Act 1947, the Secretary of State can make equipment available to fire and rescue authorities to purchase. There was never any suggestion that that price should be set by order. To do so would be unnecessarily bureaucratic. To pick up on the hon. Gentleman's point, if the Secretary of State instituted a monthly charge for the provision of a service, a new order would be required every time the charge was varied. That does not seem a very good use of parliamentary time.
The Minister refers to the 1947 Act. There is no need to address the problem in that Act because it does not give the Secretary of State the power to require a fire authority to buy from him. The Bill does, which is why we need some scrutiny of the charging process. I entirely dispute the assertion that the amendment would require a separate order every month. If a charging regime required fire authorities to
pay on the basis of full-cost reimbursement for equipment provided, the matter would be covered and a Committee would not be required to sit every month, as the Under-Secretary suggested.
The hon. Gentleman and I will have to agree to disagree on whether his amendment would bureaucratically clutter parliamentary time—were we foolishly to support it.
We have no intention of charging for any of the equipment that we have committed to providing for resilience purposes, as I think the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged. The Government are funding the procurement of the Firelink radio system and have no intention of charging the fire and rescue service for it. Similarly, we have funded the purchase of new dimension equipment to the tune of £188 million, and authorities will not be expected to bear the cost of its use for new dimension purposes. However, the Secretary of State may need to charge for new services that he provides in future, and the Bill obliges him to consult before doing so.
A number of examples have been raised in debate on this clause and previously. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we do not intend to procure goods and services centrally for the fire and rescue service and then charge for them. He cited the example of fire engines. We have no intention of procuring fire engines for the service and then charging for them. Instead, we are working with the service to improve procurement of specialist equipment and to deliver better value for money and higher standards. We are working with the service, not in opposition to it.
I repeat that we do not have any plans to charge, but if assets that we made available for new dimension work were then used for other purposes, we might need to charge in the event of excessive wear and tear on the equipment.
I understand the point about equipment, which the Under-Secretary has made before, but will he clarify it in relation to the communications network?
I was coming to that. I just wanted to emphasise that we shall keep our position under review, but our intention is as I have stated.
Were we to consider charging for communications equipment, we would have to discuss the matter in depth with the fire and rescue services. We have no plans to charge for the provision of the Firelink system, and we have made a ministerial commitment on that. Therefore, there is no question of full-cost recovery in those circumstances. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.
A moment ago the Under-Secretary used the words ''excessive wear and tear''. Would the charge be based on the cost of the additional excessive wear and tear or would full-cost recovery relate to the purchase of the equipment as well?
If I may illustrate the point, perhaps we can get beyond it. If a fire and rescue authority uses some new dimension equipment—for example, high-volume pumping equipment—for a non-emergency
such as pumping out a village pond, it could be charged for that use. As we know from previous discussions, the fire service can charge for the use of such equipment in a non-emergency. I do not want to revisit the charging debate, but I hope that that illustrates that there will be common sense in the system.
Clearly, scrutiny is a concern in amendment No. 104, but scrutiny is implicit in subsections (4) and (5). Fire and rescue services will be required to use and maintain equipment and there will be an order and a requirement on the Secretary of State to consult. Therefore, the system contains sufficient safeguards to make it unnecessary to lay an order in the House—notwithstanding all the arguments about how bureaucratic it may be. The clause contains the reassurance that there will be proper consultation and that we have no plans to charge for the provision of the communications equipment, so there is no question of full-cost recovery. We want to discuss all the measures in depth with the fire and rescue services to ensure that the regime is sensible and that the charging of equipment makes sense to the Government and the authorities.
The intention behind amendment No. 105 is implicit in the clause, in that charges may be imposed in relation to subsection (2). It is therefore not necessary to include such a provision in the Bill.
I do not believe that the effect of the amendment is implicit in the clause, but the Under-Secretary has read into the record that that is the way in which the clause will be applied. That was extremely helpful and renders the question of whether the amendment is implicit in the clause somewhat academic. I am grateful to him for that.
As expected, I am reassured by what the Under-Secretary said. One problem of very broad drafting of Bills is that we have to work to the exasperation of Ministers. We are obliged to look for the most extreme possible use of the very wide powers that Ministers are being given and then, in order to reassure ourselves, use debates in Committees to persuade them to constrain their future use of such powers. I am glad that the Under-Secretary has confirmed that the Government's intention is strictly limited to the acquisition and provision of specialist equipment and that, in the interests of standardisation or procurement efficiency, they will not procure standard equipment such as routine fire appliances for issue to fire authorities.
I am also grateful for the confirmation that there is no intention to charge for the communications system. The Under-Secretary has very cunningly worked out how to defuse resistance among fire authorities to their having a communications system imposed on them. I am sure that some of the initial reaction will melt away when they find out that it will cost nothing, because something that is offered for nothing is usually more attractive to the recipient. I am grateful for the clarification given and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.