Fire Service College

– in the House of Commons at 10:26 pm on 26 February 1992.

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Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon 10:26, 26 February 1992

I beg to move, That the draft Fire Service College Trading Fund Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 11th February, be approved. The Fire Service college is the central training institution of the British fire service. It is time that it moved on and became a trading fund.

A little history first. The college is a Home Office establishment and, for many years, was mainly financed from the Home Office vote with all fire brigades' staff training being provided free of charge. Two years ago, an agreement was reached with the local authority associations whereby the cost of meeting that training would be met by charges levied by the college with the additional burden on fire authorities being funded through the revenue support grant—initially by top-slicing. The college is scheduled to become an executive agency under the Government's "next steps" programme on 1 April 1992 and full direct charging will be introduced on that date. Thereafter, the college's expenditure will be fully financed by receipts from its customers. If the House approves the order, the college will be the first "next steps" agency to operate as a trading fund from the outset.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway , Ryedale

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, when he talks about trading receipts, he has it in mind that the Fire Service college will be able to attract custom from the private sector? Big industrial plants, for example, would then be able to have their fire services trained by the Fire Service college. There is an important point for the North Yorkshire fire service and for many others. Would that reduce the charge for our local authority fire services?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I agree with my hon. Friend. If the trading fund is set up, the charges levied on the private sector would be such that the charges levied at present on fire authorities will be reduced. The public sector will benefit substantially from the net effects of the order.

Photo of Mr Allen McKay Mr Allen McKay , Barnsley West and Penistone

If the private sector has its fire officers trained at Moreton-in-Marsh, given that the college is at full capacity now, the training of fire service officers will have to be curtailed to make room for private services.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

There is no possibility of that. I envisage that about three quarters of the work of the trading fund "next steps" agency, if the House should approve it, will be involved in training local authorities. Some local authorities are already telling us that they intend to make other training arrangements with new freedoms.

The earlier financial arrangements meant that the college had, in effect, a monopoly in the supply of fire officer training. The introduction of direct charges means that brigades are free to look to any training provider. Although direct competition in the range of courses is limited by the high cost of providing a fully equipped fireground—the college's fireground is, in the proper sense of the word, unique—the college certainly faces competition in future for part of its curriculum. Perhaps I may give a few examples.

The Civil Aviation Authority training school at Teesside, the offshore fire training centre at Montrose, and the Petroleum Training Federation already have particular niches in certain bits of the market. Many college courses are classroom-based. They do not make use of the panoply of firegrounds facilities and they may be capable of being provided by other training institutes. I also understand on advice that some fire authorities which maintain facilities for technical and recruit training are considering whether it would be more cost-effective to expand their own facilities rather than send their people to Moreton-inMarsh. That is a perfectly proper thing for a fire authority to choose to do.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

Could not it be said that the existing college has the facilities of all fire services throughout the country because they sent their officers there to be trained? Do we take it from what the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said that we are witnessing the privatisation of the training of officers and, therefore, the first step to the privatisation of the fire services? That would leave many communities vulnerable because of the Government's cuts in local government services. Is this not the first step to privatisation?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) raised two separate points about vulnerability. Under the charge of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the fire services inspectorate ensures that a proper level of fire cover is maintained in all parts of the kingdom. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, we are not seeing the first steps to privatisation. Hon. Members know what the Government are like—we do not mess about; if we thought that it was right to privatise, we would privatise straight away.

At the moment, the move to a trading fund and a "next steps" agency status will enable enormous benefits in fire service training. In particular, 450 commercial companies wish to pay the full cost—a substantial sum indeed—for student weeks of fire training, which means that the sums charged to fire authorities will be substantially reduced. That is a bargain to the public sector. By the time I have explained that matter, I should be very surprised if any hon. Members would think of voting against this important order.

The order is fully consistent with the principles underlying the White Paper "Competing for Quality". The college always has provided and intends to continue to provide a highly professional training service, and I pay tribute to those in the fire service training college for what they do. The college is first-rate and it has a worldwide reputation. The establishment of a trading fund will provide the college with greater financial flexibilities, in particular enabling it to react much more quickly to changing demand from those who want to use its services.

I now refer to the order itself. Articles 1 and 2 state that the college will become a trading fund on 1 April, to coincide with the start of the financial year. The college, as I am sure that the House knows, is established under section 23 of the Fire Services Act 1947, under which the Secretary of State may establish and maintain a central training institution for providing courses of instruction in matters relating to fire services. We propose that all the operations of the college should be financed through the trading fund.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn , Newport West

Does the Minister accept that this will be about the 58th "next steps" agency? Will it be any more accountable directly to Members of Parliament than any of the other 57? Questions tabled about agencies never see the light of day in Hansard or any other publication that is readily available to Members. Will the Minister guarantee that, when Members table questions, ministerial responsibility will be accepted for the college and that answers to those questions will appear in Hansard?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

Day-to-day responsibility for the agency, as for other agencies, will reside in the chief executive designate, who will deal with normal operational matters. Broader policy matters are, of course, for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and Lord Ferrers, who has ministerial responsibility for the matter.

Article 3 provides that any loans issued to the trading fund will be made from the Home Office vote, while article 4(1) and the schedule establish the assets and liabilities which will be appropriated to the trading fund on 1 April.

Article 4(2) provides the percentage of the net assets appropriated to the fund to be financed by public dividend capital. As the House knows, that is the public sector equivalent of share capital in a company or an equity stake in a business.

Article 5 provides that the maximum amount of loan which may be issued to the fund shall be set at £15 million. That relates to new loans that may be needed after 1 April 1992. That is set at such a level as to ensure that in a period of about four years the House will have an opportunity to debate whether the loan needs to be examined and increased. That means that the House will be able to debate the future of the college as a trading fund. Perhaps at that stage privatisation issues may emerge.

I should also tell the House about the pricing policy that the college proposes to adopt. For some years the college has provided training, albeit on a small scale, for private sector companies such as those in the chemicals and petroleum industries, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) referred. The college has been established and maintained for many years by public funds. It has a large staff of professional firefighters of great expertise seconded from brigades. Therefore, it is right and proper that the charges made to the private sector should take account of that public investment. Course fees for that sector will be set above full cost. In other words, the private sector will be charged more than the full cost per student week at a level which the market will bear.

Conversely, the college will aim in its strategy to charge the statutory fire authorities prices which are substantially below full cost. Thus the fire authorities will benefit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale highlighted, from the new arrangements. Those fees will be below full cost but income from other customers will allow the college to meet its overall financial objectives. That is a very good deal for the public sector.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

The Minister says that there will be a substantial take-up of places by the private sector. One can imagine that in the first years that take-up will be substantial. But if it is not maintained at a substantial level and there is a fall-off—for example, if recessionary conditions continue and the private sector is unable to take up those places—under the Minister's arrangements the fire authorities would inevitably find themselves having to pay a great deal more than the sums that he has in mind.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I do not believe that that would be so. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the trading difficulties that face several companies in the private sector which need to train firefighters at this time. If at this point in the economic cycle we have 450 outstanding applications, I doubt that in two or three years there will be sufficient capacity. The hon. Gentleman's worry might well be in the other direction.

By next year the private sector may well be charged —these are not exact figures—about £1,100 a week for the average course whereas the public sector would be charged about £600 a week. That is a substantial difference and a bargain for the public sector. That is why we have introduced the order.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

Of course. I am glad to see a Member from Lancashire rising, to join the Yorkshire Members.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

Can the Minister tell that I come from Lancashire by my accent?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I shall make no racist remarks.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

He should not make any sizeist ones either.

The Minister is trying to paint a rosy picture of a bargain for local authorities. Is it not the truth that the £595 per week student course—if that is the exact figure is an increase from £219 per week on the previous year? For my local authority that means an immediate increase of £330,000, none of which has been taken into account in terms of next year's standard spending assessment. That is a huge hike in costs for local authority fire services.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

That is why there is a 16 per cent. increase in provision for fire authorities in the current year and why next year there will be a further 8·4 per cent. increase in provision—representing a substantial increase above inflation—and increases in pay for firefighters. As I am sure the House knows, although training is important, the amount of money devoted to it by fire authorities is a small part of their overall budget.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn , Newport West

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I should not mind making a spot of progress but I shall give way because the hon. Gentleman has a nice smile.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn , Newport West

I am sure that the increases that the Minister mentioned are genuine, but will he look at a recent parliamentary answer which established that one of the unexpected effects of recession is a great increase in fires, especially those started by owners who are about to go into receivership, and who have set fire to their factories?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

The reports are partly speculative. We will have to study a run of figures for several years to find out if what has happened in the past year or 18 months represents the trend to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Perhaps I could return to my speech. Subject to the draft order being approved, the Treasury proposes to lay a minute before the House setting out the financial objective for the college—which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has set—which will be to make an average real rate of return in the next three years of not less than 6·5 per cent. on capital employed, on the basis of reasonable prospects for the future. The college certainly forecasts that it will be able to achieve that.

In response to earlier concerns about provision of training for the public sector, let me say that about 80 per cent. of the 1992–93 target figure for United Kingdom fire service student weeks has already been confirmed. That means that bookings by the majority of fire authorities have been accepted and are already in place. That represents an investment by authorities of about £9 million, ranging from smaller authorities spending perhaps £60,000 on training to the larger authorities spending about £300,000 per year. There is also great interest from the commercial and international sectors by reason of the college's exceptional facilities. It is late at night, but it is worthwhile recording the facilities at Moreton-in-Marsh. There is a full-scale replica shopping mall, industrial buildings, a chemical plant, a stretch of motorway, and aircraft, ship and railway complexes, providing for realistic hot fire training in the wide range of environments which firefighters may sometimes encounter. That is why 450 companies are queuing up to join in the training there, to spend money and to reduce the burden on the chargepayer and the taxpayer.

Before laying the draft order, we placed in the Libraries of both Houses, in accordance with sections 1 and 6 of the Government Trading Funds Act 1973, a report on the consultations conducted about trading fund status for the fire service college. As the report shows, no concerns about trading fund status were expressed to us by any person. At present the staff of the fire authorities account for about 90 per cent. of college places. Although the level of courses that that figure implies is set to rise, we expect the proportion of courses dedicated to fire brigade staff to remain substantial. Government support to the college will continue at its present high level, as it will to the United Kingdom fire service.

The fire service college has done a good job to date. Its capacity to do so in the future will be enhanced should this order be approved tonight. The flexibility that trading fund status will give is important. It is a classic example of obtaining better value for money for the taxpayer and for the community charge payer. A vote against the order is a vote in favour of charging our fire authorities higher prices for training, thereby costing the chargepayer and the taxpayer more. I commend the order to the House.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:44, 26 February 1992

The way in which the Minister ran through his speech without any real feeling for the difficulties faced by the fire services was quite breathtaking. Anyone who speaks to senior fire service officers and men and women in the service at all levels and in all parts of the country will find that the service is heading for disarray and disorder. The story is everywhere the same, and the order is at the heart of the concern. Lack of morale, uncertainty, bitterness and fear for the future all centre on the order.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. This is not the occasion for a general debate on fire services. It is a narrow debate on the funding of the college.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I know that it is a narrow debate, and the whole of my speech will focus on that.

The Minister was complacent about the background to the order and, as a brief preface to my speech, I must make known the genuine concern in the fire service and the fact that the order is at the centre of that concern. The proposed status of the service is at the heart of the problems it faces.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

One of our worries about the privatisation of the training college is that it will cost fire authorities more. That will lead to a reduction in the number of personnel or in equipment, thus reducing fire cover for many communities. Morale in the service is reducing, because people know that the order will reduce the services and resources of fire authorities. That has an impact on the morale of men in the force.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) puts his finger on the precise problem. What happens to the college and to the nature of training will affect the service that can be provided by fire authorities, which to date have provided a service that is second to none.

The order increases the problems faced by the fire service in maintaining the security of people all over Britain. We have evidence of the concern of specific authorities not far from your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that concern focuses on the training college.

The Opposition oppose the order, and we are not alone in opposing the move to agency status. Whatever the Minister says, we know that the Fire Brigades Union, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the National Association of Fire Officers are opposed to the move, and the Association of County Councils disagree with the decision on agency status. The Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists is worried about the order. All those organisations fear that agency status and direct charging for courses will lead to a reduction in the training that fire authorities can afford. That will mean a reduction in the high standards of firefighting that Britain enjoys, and we shall face the risk that the college will not be financially viable.

The Minister, as ever, painted a rosy picture of a move to agency status followed in three years by privatisation. He was quite candid about that. Many fire authorities are already under considerable financial pressure because of inadequate standard spending assessments. For example, SSAs take no account of non-fire emergency rescue services. That relates to people locked in or out of premises or trapped in lifts. Those of us who have a motorway through our constituency know about the enormous—[Interruption.] With typical arrogance, the Minister turns up his nose and screws up his eyes as if he does not want to hear the truth. The truth about the order is that all the services are under threat. The Minister said that a stretch of motorway has been built at the college. One of the training courses in the college is for the non-fire emergency. Those emergencies account for 77 per cent. of the growth in the calls on the fire service.

The growth in fire emergencies is about 7 per cent. per annum; for non-fire emergencies, the growth is 77 per cent. The SSA takes no account of those emergencies. That is what lies behind the whole problem with the college. It provides the training to get people out of wrecked cars and the worst sort of situations, as well as the more familiar incidents of people locked in premises, flooded premises and cats up trees. Those services represent 39·4 per cent. of emergency services provided, for example, by the London fire brigade. It represents a 71 per cent. increase since 1985–86.

In addition, the SSAs make insufficient allowance for the cost of fire service pensions. I will not go into that tonight, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I would be out of order, but it must be said that those pensions have to be paid for out of revenue. It is a rapidly rising cost as a proportion of revenue budgets.

The order, which provides for direct funding of the college, puts even greater pressure on budgets. Indeed, this financial year, two major fire authorities were unable to send anyone to the college. What sort of country do we live in when two major fire authorities can no longer send their officers to the premier training centre in the country'? That is a severe condemnation—

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

As a matter of fact, the college has undertaken, and will continue to undertake, to meet all training demands made by local authority fire brigades before accepting applications from the commercial sector.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That does not solve the problem if a fire authority cannot afford to send the officers.

Her Majesty's inspector of fire services expressed his concern about brigades being unable to send officers to train on those excellent courses. Perhaps the Minister will intervene yet again to say why the inspector is concerned. If the Government, the Home Secretary and his team are not concerned, why is the inspector concerned that the ability to send men and women on those courses will be lost?

The problem from this April onwards will be far more dire. Instead of phasing in direct charging over three years, the Government have rushed into full direct charging and have abolished top slicing. That means that, this April, fire authorities will have to pay the full cost of training their fire fighters at the college. Many authorities simply do not have the money to pay for the training that they need. It is nothing short of a scandal. Our authorities are having to make choices between cuts in training and cuts in other budget areas.

It is not often that I pray in aid Buckinghamshire, but I understand that that authority is proposing to close four retained fire stations—not because they are unnecessary, not because they do not provide good cover for some of the surburban areas that are becoming increasingly a problem to service in prompt time, but because the authority can save £90,000 and so pay for its staff to go to the college. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that point about Buckinghamshire.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

Does that have anything to do with the order?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It has everything to do with it. The Minister does not need your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During his 20-minute speech, he mentioned privatisation, the kitchen sink, his pet dog, the smiles on the faces of my hon. Friends, and everything else—but he was not called to order. Now the right hon. Gentleman seeks the protection of the Chair, as he usually does, because he is frightened of a good debate.

Only the day before yesterday, the Minister fled from a television studio, frightened to enter into debate with Opposition Members because his boss, the Home Secretary, had sent out an edict saying that Government Ministers must not appear with shadow Ministers.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. Let us return to the debate on the order.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister fled from the television studios. I want to debate this order on television, before a wider audience—but the right hon. Gentleman has been forbidden to appear because he will get a drubbing, as he gets a drubbing over law and order and everything else. The Minister is frightened to go into a television studio with me—terrified.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. Let us return to the order, please.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

In a democracy, we should be able to debate such matters with Ministers on television, without them running away.

My own county is spending £250,000 on training, although it estimates the cost of its training needs at £500,000, and has been advised by the college that it should spend £750,000. Councillor Laurence Conlan, chairman of West Yorkshire fire authority, is extremely concerned that it cannot meet the desired training standards. Is it not a condemnation of the order that the chairman of a leading fire authority such as West Yorkshire is deeply concerned that neither he nor the authority are fulfilling their obligations because of the effects of the Home Office decision on fire service training? The consequences of implementing the order will be even more dire.

The detrimental effect of the move to training fund status can be judged by a written answer that I recently received from the Minister. I asked: how many student places have been confirmed for (a) local authority financed brigades and (b) industrial and overseas courses at the fire service college for the year beginning April 1992". Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is not interested in my question or the answer that he gave. Because they are not mentioned in his brief, he will not intervene. Instead, another little piece of paper will come from the Box. The Minister replied: Three thousand, three hundred and forty-eight places covering 13,019 student weeks have so far been confirmed for local authority fire brigades for the year from 1 April 1992. One hundred and sixty-nine places covering 263 student weeks have been confirmed for the industrial and overseas sectors"—[Official Report, 11 February 1992; Vol. 203, c. 439.] On that basis, it is highly unlikely that the college will reach its income targets and be at all viable in its first year as a training fund. That serious situation was totally covered up and disguised by the Minister's remarks this evening. My remarks are based on the right hon. Gentleman's written answer, which was presumably prepared by civil servants and is correct. The Minister knows that there is a severe problem in funding the college on the basis that he introduced tonight.

The IPMS estimates that the total income from courses so far booked will be £7·969 million, but it is estimated that the college needs an income of £ 17·4 million. There may be some late bookings, but it is unlikely that the number of student weeks needed on which the college is operating this year will be achieved. This year, 19,000 to 20,000 student weeks are booked.

The college hoped to make more money by offering courses overseas and for other non-fire work, but they have not materialised in sufficient numbers. In any event, if the college looks overseas and to industrial needs, it will gradually move away from its key role as a provider of national fire service training.

There are additional problems in this brave new world of privatisation, which puts the market before public safety. Some authorities are telling their firefighters that, if they move to a different authority within three years of attending a training course, they will have to pay back the cost of their training. Can you imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what the order will do to the mobility of trained personnel? What if teachers, or members of any other profession, had to repay the costs of their training before they could move? This is a recipe for disaster—for the decimation of a public service.

It is absurd. A well-trained fire officer is what we have always considered him to be: a national asset, wherever he —or she—is stationed. The move to trading fund status is short-sighted. As usual with the Government, it displays more concern for the ideology of political dogma than for the safety of the public.[Interruption.] It is about time the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) read a few books. I can tell him that, in a few weeks, he will have a damn sight more time to do so. He will have many quiet hours on the Opposition Back Benches in which to read them—piles of them. We shall send a few books to educate him, although it is probably too late. We might even send him to the fire service college for training, if he could obtain the entrance qualifications.

As I was saying, the move to trading fund status is short-sighted, and displays more concern for political dogma than for the safety of our public. That is typical of what Opposition Members have come to expect from the Government. The fire service college has always been seen as a national asset. What is wrong with one of the best fire colleges in the world providing training for overseas forces? Indeed, why should it not offer the same service to the private sector? We do not disagree with that. What we oppose is the proposal to destroy its very base—to move it into the private sector, and endanger its future and its ability to remain as a centre.

This centre has offered high-quality training to our fire brigades. Now all that is to be jeopardised in pursuit of a market approach that will leave some brigades with inadequately trained staff, and may force the college to close. We are making a fuss about the order because this is a question of public safety. It is a question of whether the country can provide a proper response to the numerous fires that still occur, and—tragically—kill people, usually in the residential sector. The service to residential areas needs constantly to be improved; it does not need to be watered down. We have to get machines, men and women to those fires to save young lives every year, to try to lower the number of desperate casualties. The order will undermine the ability of our public service to do that.

Photo of Mr John Wheeler Mr John Wheeler , Westminster North

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting to the public that, as a result of the order, the 54 fire brigades in England and Wales will not provide the same standard of service. Are not those brigades inspected by Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services to ensure that their very high standards are maintained? There is no question of any diminution in standards of fire cover or excellence.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am sorry that especially the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs has got it wrong. If he did his homework and a little more reading of Her Majesty's inspectors' reports instead of getting the Clerks to read them, he would find that time and time again they have expressed their concern about declining standards in individual forces throughout the country. They have expressed concern about the enormous backlog in the checking of safety standards in, for example, health premises.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

No. Time is short and a number of my hon. Friends want to speak in this important debate. Yet again, the hon. Gentleman shows his ignorance of these matters.

We believe that public safety should be the paramount consideration. This is an ill-considered move by the Government. Its implementation is being botched. We intend to reverse it as soon as we form the Government in a few weeks' time. After the election, we shall restore the college to its former position as a national asset. We shall provide all fire brigades with the training they need to keep the public safe and secure. That we pledge, and we shall do it in a few short weeks.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway , Ryedale 11:06, 26 February 1992

I do not intend to detain the House for long, having largely covered the point that I wanted to make when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State kindly allowed me to intervene during his speech. However, having listened to what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) had to say about fire service standards, I hope that you will find that a few comments by me are in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I may refute some of his allegations.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) is here. We discussed this matter privately in the Select Committee on Home Affairs when considering what issues the Committee ought to investigate. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is regrettable that during the lifetime of this Parliament we have not had the opportunity thoroughly to investigate the fire service. We did the next best thing. We invited Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services, Sir Reginald Doyle, to come before the Committee and give evidence.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield has just made two allegations. First, he said that the chief inspector of fire services was unhappy about the standard of the service. On 27 November the chief inspector told the Committee that there had been 31 applications to the Home Secretary to reduce brigade establishments because review of the fire cover, based on the 1985 fire cover standards, had proved that there was substantial over-provision. That is precisely what happened in north Yorkshire and in my own constituency.

If the hon. Gentleman reads the Select Committee's report he will find that I raised the matter with Her Majesty's chief inspector and that what was considered to be over-provision in terms of Home Office standards of cover was not regarded as over-provision by the general public. Therefore, the expected reduction in cover in north Yorkshire was postponed, although I am pleased to be able to tell my right hon. Friend that we have gone ahead with the improvements that were also recommended. The whole process has led to a strengthening, not to a reduction, of the fire cover in north Yorkshire.

The hon. Gentleman also made a specific allegation about inspections for the purpose of granting fire certificates.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. This is a long way from the order which is before the House. I can understand the hon. Gentleman's position. It is one thing for an hon. Member, by way of illustration, to quote a remark, and quite another for another hon. Member to seek to expand that into a general debate about matters other than those before the House.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway , Ryedale

I did say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with the permission of yourself and of the House.

The number of outstanding inspections has reduced over the past year from 3,041 to 1,823. The blame for the number still outstanding rests squarely on the inability to recruit inspectors in the London area. That is a problem across the whole public sector in London.

I do not believe that what the House is being asked to approve is unique. I was not a Member in 1968—I had not left school much before then—but if I remember correctly, in 1968 the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), when Postmaster-General, made the Post Office into a trading fund. So we are not being asked to consider a new proposal.

I am a great enthusiast of the "next steps" agency programme. The Select Committee on Home Affairs considered the forensic science service, the passport office and the immigration service and "next steps" agency status was very attractive.[Interruption.] It is all very well Opposition Members barracking, but from my discussions with some Opposition Members who are not in their places tonight but who came to the House in 1987, as I did, I think that they are beginning to see some of the benefits of "next steps" agencies. In the unlikely event of the Labour party forming the next Government, I suspect that the recent programme of "next steps" agencies would be continued.

Three matters are crucial to the consideration of the order. The first is whether, by this process, there will be any reduction in the training of fire service personnel employed by the public sector. My right hon. Friend gave an assurance about that, but I ask him to go further. When he replies, will he give the House an assurance that if there is evidence of difficulty he will not hesitate to come back to the House, or consider the matter with the chief fire inspector, who did not raise it with us—

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I am happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend now. I have already said that in three or four years it will be necessary to consider the loan provisions. That will provide an opportunity for a proper debate in the House again about the future. If at that stage right hon. and hon. Gentlemen want to raise issues concerned with adequacy or inadequacy, privatisation or state ownership, they can be considered then.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway , Ryedale

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I do not think that the House could have expected any more categorical assurance than that.

Accountability was also raised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield. That is precisely the role of Her Majesty's chief inspector. When Sir Reginald Doyle appeared before the Select Committee in December I think that all members of the Committee, from both sides of the House, were greatly reassured by the way in which he gave his evidence and the way in which he has carried out his task. I do not think that the House needs constantly to ask questions about matters which are already the subject of close scrutiny by a chief inspector, whether in the fire service or in the police service. Hon. Members have been making a meal of that point.

The trading fund will receive money from both the public and private sectors. The public sector is getting something of a bargain from this arrangement. Because of the high level of expertise involved in the training of fire personnel, I can understand why industries, particularly those involved in industrial processes where there is a risk of fire, want to have their personnel properly trained at the establishment at Moreton-in-Marsh. My right hon. Friend the Minister suggested that 450 commercial companies are queuing up to take advantage of the facility and to pay over the odds. Perhaps my right hon. Friend can confirm that that provides an opportunity for expansion of the fire training college, not a contraction, which is what the hon. Member for Huddersfield seemed to suggest. As I have said, the public sector is being charged below full cost and that will be a bargain for the state purse.

As a Yorkshire man, I can understand why other hon. Members representing the West Yorkshire service are concerned about funding problems that may arise in the immediate future because of other factors such as standing spending assessments. We saw difficulties last year with the West Yorkshire constabulary. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary considered that and a number of us made representations about it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North said, there is a question of priorities.

We are dealing with a principle that can provide for the better training of fire personnel in both public and private sectors. Those personnel will be trained at a reasonable cost to the state purse and there will be an expansion of training. The House is being asked to approve a medium to long-term opportunity. Although there may be some genuine difficulties that my right hon. Friend the Minister and my noble Friend Lord Ferrers in another place may wish to address, the principle of what we are being asked to approve is compelling.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford 11:17, 26 February 1992

I shall be brief as other hon. Members wish to contribute. I accept your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about the order being narrow, and I shall attempt to abide by your wishes. I am sure that you will appreciate that an order such as this affects the budgets of local fire authorities.

My fire authority in West Yorkshire will be in some difficulty as a result of the order. We are all aware that, before 1991, attendance was free. The only costs falling to the fire authorities were travel, out-of-pocket expenses and temporary promotion to cover for the absence of staff involved. The charge for attendance in 1991–92 was £219 per student week, representing about one third of the full cost. The charge for West Yorkshire in 1992–93, assuming normal usage, would be £595 per student week. The only way to gain a reduction would be for West Yorkshire to commit itself over a three-year period and to take up many more course weeks than it needs.

The number of student weeks required for 1992–93, given no budgetary restrictions, is 840, at an approximate cost of £500,000. Due to budget constraints, West Yorkshire can afford only 378 weeks, at a total cost of £225,000. If those figures are correct, West Yorkshire will lack 422 weeks training. Some serious cuts have been made to enable the authority to provide that insufficient training. On 21 February, the council agreed to cut £833,000 from next year's firefighting budget to escape poll tax capping. More than £54 million is needed to enable the service to stand still in 1992–93, but the Government have limited spending to £52·1 million.

The county fire authority will use £1·3 million from balances to offset the shortfall but will still be forced to make cuts totalling £833,000. Savings of £533,000 will be made by a further 12-month freeze on recruitment and of £280,000 by reducing attendances at the national fire service college. The West Yorkshire force has vacancies for 133 firefighters, and because of the budgets proposed for 1992–93, they will increase by a further 90.

As the Minister will be aware, the Fire Services Act 1947 requires a fire authority to provide the services for its area of such a fire brigade and such equipment as may be necessary to meet efficiently all normal requirements and the efficient training of the members of the fire brigade. The service has a statutory obligation to train its members. West Yorkshire fire authority is unable to do that for 1992–93.

Despite its severe budget restraints, and recognising that it must conduct some training, the force has had to forgo some other activities. It appears that Pontefract fire authority has made the serious decision to withdraw emergency services from Pontefract fire station to enable it to send officers to the training school.

Emergency services in Pontefract are directly at the crossroads of the M62, the A 1 and major collieries and chemical plants. Special services are required to deal with major accidents and calamities. We are risking people's lives to enable the authority to work within its budgets. If that continues, it will be unable to use its equipment and fire officers will not be trained to fulfil their duties.

The order will cause the West Yorkshire fire service serious problems. I hope that the Minister will have second thoughts and will recognise the points that I have made.

Photo of Mr John Wheeler Mr John Wheeler , Westminster North 11:23, 26 February 1992

I intervene briefly, having been stimulated to do so by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), who made a point about the shortage of funds in his fire brigade area. In evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the chief inspector of fire services, Sir Reginald Doyle, said: And yet we are still losing millions of pounds because there has not been proper management of staffing at Bank Holidays. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the availability of resources in his fire brigade area, before the brigade cuts training or closes a vital service, he should ask about bank holiday working. Then he should ask further questions about sick leave. If he probes deeply enough, he will discover that the money about which he is so concerned can be recovered through an improvement in the management of the sick leave arrangements. There would then be no need for his brigade to cut training at the fire service college.

The order is entirely pragmatic. It will be in the best interests of the fire service in England and Wales. It will improve training arrangements and offer many opportunities for the fire service in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield 11:25, 26 February 1992

As we debate this order, a fire service somewhere in the country will be fighting a fire, and it will depend on the training, skill and expertise of the firefighter, the person in charge of the tender and the station officer whether they and the person they are trying to save will get out alive and without serious injury. That is why the college was originally set up in the 1960s under the Fire Services Act 1947.

Paragraph 1(a) of the order proposes a major change in the way in which the organisation will be funded. In the 1960s, the Holroyd committee reported to the House on the formation of a national centre of training excellence for the fire service. Under the 1947 Act, the House determined—through the Home Secretary of the day—to set up such a centre. It was set up to provide open and free opportunities for people to receive the necessary training to enable them to carry out effectively their responsibilities to other members of the service and to the community. It was the final piece of the jigsaw in the setting up of a training facility to enhance a truly national, professional fire service, disciplined and dedicated to the provision of fire safety facilities in the United Kingdom.

The order sets back 30 years of commitment to the provision of a national centre of excellence, based on the concept of all brigades being involved in training to agreed standards and of the knowledge and expertise of all brigades being brought together so that training standards would improve and initiatives taken in research and development for the better use of fire service facilities and the production of new machinery and techniques. The order changes that dramatically, with the introduction of the charging principle.

The Minister tried to give the impression that there has been no opposition to the proposals, but he told only half the story. When the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council met to consider the proposals, the unanimous view was that the proposals were unacceptable and, in the long term, a bad move for the management of the fire service in the United Kingdom. It was believed that they would undermine the very concept of the national training curriculum. The professional advice given to the Government has been unanimously opposed to the proposals, but the Minister implied that there had been no opposition to training fund status. That is only part of the tale. Advisers have opposed the proposals because of the principle of direct charging.

In 1991–92, my own authority—the Greater Manchester fire service—purchased 884 student weeks. It is the second largest fire authority in Europe. The price of a week was £219 per student. By 1992–93, the cost per student week will have risen to £595. The Minister has already confirmed that. That all amounts to £330,000 in additional costs not allowed for by a corresponding increase in the SSA.

The Guardian of 25 February included an article by the paper's labour correspondent, who had this to say about the problems affecting fire authorities because of direct charging: Last week, the Association of County Councils considered problems that have arisen within the Fire Service since arrangements were changed to require brigades to pay the Fire Service College directly for training their employees. Some Fire authorities have been demanding repayment of officers' training costs when they moved to another authority. The ACC personnel sub-committee recommended that Fire authorities be told to keep to the spirit of the Purple Book agreement and recoup training costs only from officers leaving the Service. Extending repayment provisions to officers moving within the Fire Service could inhibit movement and `could also make officers reluctant to go on training courses'. The major problems being created for brigades throughout the country are clearly evident from that.

After more than 30 years of cross-party acceptance of the idea of a national training scheme based at the national college, where personnel can improve their professionalism, these proposals seem nonsense. The college is acknowledged to be the best in the world, and the courses for officers and for junior officers are recognised as the premier courses of their kind.

To ensure the continuing quality of senior officers in the fire brigades in years to come, it is vital that, by means of this college, we maintain a throughput of brigade staff from all the fire brigades in the country. Hence the idea of free access: it meant that skilled personnel developing a professional approach to the management of our fire services continually passed through the college. That is the very principle that the Government are attacking.

I want to ask the Minister of State some questions; I hope that he will get out his pen and think about them. From article 2, it is clear that the Secretary of State will consult the chief executive designate about the control and running of the college. Following the appointment of the chief executive, will future appointments be made from among officers working in local authority brigades? Will the commandant of the college continue to be someone involved in the running of the fire services in Britain, or will he be brought in from outside the service?

Will the resources identified in article 1(a) for 1992–93 for the costs of going to the college be ring-fenced by the Department to ensure that the money will be used to send people to the college? What proportion of the standard spending assessment does the Home Office intend to commit to training places at the college?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the make-up of those who will serve on the advisory body? Will he ensure that representatives of local authority associations serve on it; and that the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and the Fire Brigades Union serve on it? Will he guarantee that they will continue to serve once the agency is set up after 1 April? It is important that the Minister assure us that the board will be made up of those serving in the fire service and of the trade unions.

Photo of Mr Allen McKay Mr Allen McKay , Barnsley West and Penistone 11:35, 26 February 1992

I might have had more sympathy with some of the Minister's views if I had believed that he was intent on providing a service of better quality. Instead, the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) talked only about value for money. During my time in the fire service, it was value for life that mattered, not value for money. Life was the essential ingredient, and Moreton-in-Marsh college has provided value for life. The training scheme was based on the premise that saving life was the predominant factor.

By setting up a trading fund, it is clear that the Minister is concerned more with financial considerations than with saving life. That is something that I cannot and will not accept, and I hope that we shall vote against this measure.

Moreton-in-Marsh has provided training and expertise for fire officers in the United Kingdom and throughout the world, as well as for those in the three fighting services. The college has enabled every fire-fighting establishment to provide its fire officers with a first-class training. As a result, the United Kingdom has, without doubt, the finest firefighting service in the world. It also has the finest fire officers in the world.

Those who have received training at Moreton-in-Marsh have taken the results of their training elsewhere. To my knowledge, the benefits of the training have been enjoyed at Bannyroyd at Huddersfield and at the fire station where I worked.

Against that background, the Minister is intent on making finance the predominant factor. He is wrong. A trading fund has to make a profit. The right hon. Gentleman talks about about outside people, but who has trained those people? They were trained by the fire officers at Moreton-in-Marsh, and then they went into industry. It seems that they will replace the training personnel at Moreton-in-Marsh. There are 470 applicants, but are there 470 vacancies?

Has the Minister talked to the Fire Brigades Union and the National Association of Fire Officers? We have not heard of any consultation of that sort, but the members of those organisations are at the sharp end. Those bodies provide the people who train at Moreton-in-Marsh and who enjoy the benefit of that training. We have heard nothing about the National Association of Fire Officers, or the Fire Brigades Union. Instead, we have had a financial statement.

The Minister has done a disservice to the fire service, the armed services and fire services throughout the world whose personnel have been trained at Moreton-in-Marsh. Those officers have shared their experiences and expertise.

For two years, the fire brigade of South Yorkshire has not been able to send any fire officers to Moreton-inMarsh because of the current financial arrangements. If officers cannot be sent to the college now, how will it be possible to send them when we have a trading establishment? If the college is not making a profit now and it is not possible to send officers to it for training, how will it ever be possible to send them to an establishment that is obliged to make a profit? The standard spending assessment of the South Yorkshire authority does not help matters.

The rate capping of the fire service has meant a cut in fire services. They are now 83 personnel undermanned. The staff are using machines which have been used for far longer than they should have been, and they are now using equipment that should have been replaced. Worst of all, they do not have the services and have not been able to send fire officers for training. The lack of training will filter down throughout the establishment, and the fire service will deteriorate.

The Government took on responsibility for the fire services, and the culmination of their responsibility is the fact that they are doing away with training. For what? It is to provide training facilities for which private industry will pay, as the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said, through the nose or over the odds.

What negotiations has the Minister had with the Fire Brigades Union, the fire officers association, and the establishment at Moreton-in-Marsh on what the effects will be? What will the order mean for the fire service establishment and what effect will the order have on the morale of the training service?

The Minister's actions mean deterioration purely and simply for money. The order is not the beginning of the privatisation of the fire service—there is a long way to go. Local authorities will be unable to train staff at Moreton-in-Marsh. The Government cannot bring themselves to close that centre, so they have had to consider a way of putting private money into it, by setting up the trading fund. The money is a loan. The loan must be paid back, but by whom? The Minister must answer that question. He will be proved wrong.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth 11:41, 26 February 1992

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay). Hon. Members heard him mention that he has had considerable experience in the fire service. His Yorkshire colleagues know very well that, in particular over the past few difficult years for the South Yorkshire fire service, my hon. Friend has given particularly signal and splendid service. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to my parliamentary neighbour, because he commands not only the respect of the House but the respect and affection of his Yorkshire colleagues, not least for his splendid work over the past two or three years in seeking to defend our area from the ravaging policies that the Government have inflicted upon it.

I was going to ask a series of questions, but they have all been asked. Therefore, I shall not detain the House for long, because the Minister has much to answer. It has already been made clear that we have the best fire service and the best fire training facilities in the world. The Minister looks very satisfied, but there is no cause for satisfaction in seeking to change that which is very good.

I have an example of the difference between the fire service of Britain and those of other so-called advanced countries. A few years ago, I saw in Europe—I shall not mention the area—a fire emergency. I timed it. It took 23 minutes for the appliance to go out. The Government Whip, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick),represents a Sheffield constituency for the time being. He will know that in our area—

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

The hon. Gentleman was a candidate and was truly thrashed.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

I brought the majority down by a figure sufficient to unseat the Member of Parliament at the next election. I do not want to involve myself in an exchange of that nature.

There are industrial establishments in our area where dangerous materials are placed. Just after the incident that I described in Europe, there was a dangerous fire in what was then my constituency. There was no difficulty at all, because the South Yorkshire fire service was in attendance at an astonishing speed, with all the equipment and skills that it needed to deal with the fire.

The fire was so dangerous that a national newspaper rang up and said, "Is it true that you have had a fire near these dangerous materials?" The fire service said yes. The newspaper said, "How many were killed?" The fire service said, "None." It said, "How many people were badly burned?" The fire service said, "None." So, of course, nothing appeared in the newspaper. The fact remains that no one was killed or hurt. That achievement was possible because of the training that the senior officers of that force had received at Moreton-in-Marsh. They will not now receive that training in sufficient numbers.

Last year the Government trod on dangerous ground when they denied an adequate standard spending assessment to South Yorkshire and placed the authority and those responsible for fire services in our area in real difficulty. The authority had anguished meetings at which it strove to work out how it could meet the standards that the financial arrangements prevented it from meeting.

There is another point. I shall finish on it to leave the Minister time to reply to the many questions that have been put to him. Not far from my home there is a toxic waste plant. Several hon. Members know that I have raised the matter of the plant many times. I live not far from it. I do not live as close to it as some of my constituents, who have cause for daily anxiety.

A few months ago, there was a fire at the plant. It was during the latter part of the last recess, and I was in my garden. I immediately got into my car and drove to the plant. I was at the scene within two minutes. I wondered how long I would have to wait before the South Yorkshire fire service arrived. I live only a mile away, and was there within two minutes. The fire service followed me down the road. It came with not merely the fire appliance but the decontamination unit which has to be present if there is a fire at that establishment, where there is poisonous and dangerous carcinogenic waste.

I went to the plant knowing that officers in the force were trained to meet the ever more complex challenges which face the fire service. We should understand that, every day, new materials are invented which present mankind with new dangers and complexities. Every day there are new procedures and new anxieties. The Minister may smirk, but would anyone have expected the disaster at King's Cross? Would anyone have expected that carcinogenic chemicals would be deposited and left for three years at the site in my constituency?

If the fire service is not properly skilled to know how to deal with and respond to new materials and challenges, there is public risk. The fundamental obligation of any Government is to ensure public safety and public order. We know how much the Government have failed in public order. Their dangerous and dogmatic approach to this matter illustrates the clear and obvious fact that, no matter what words of support are received from the hon. Gentlemen behind the Minister, the fact remains that this step is a dangerous one. It is not in accordance with the advice of people in the provincial fire services. It is a dangerous step, which is being pursued purely because of the Government's attachment to private greed and public dogma.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon 11:43, 26 February 1992

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate.

Among all the speeches made by Opposition Members, I listened with the greatest care to that made by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay), who has signified his intention to lay down the burden of representing that constituency shortly. He spoke with the authority of someone who has served in the fire service. I respect him for that, and I listened carefully to what he had to say. I can assure him that nothing in the plans for the fire services college will lead to any diminution in training. Otherwise, the Government and Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services would not have countenanced the changes that have been proposed. I found the hon. Gentleman's speech rational, but sometimes new developments come along which perhaps were not around when the hon. Gentleman was training to be a fireman.

The speech of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was much less rational. I cannot understand what comes over the hon. Gentleman. In Committee he is a hard-hitting, well-briefed debater, but if one puts him near the Dispatch Box, something seems to happen. It happened yesterday, the day before and this evening. His colour changes, veins begin to throb and eyes begin to bulge. I understand that Walworth road has purchased a video, to be used for training purposes, of the explosion that the hon. Gentleman set off during the final stages of the bail statement. I regret that Dr. Jekyll upstairs is replaced by Mr. Hyde down here.

I repeat that the college has undertaken to meet all the demands of local authority fire brigades for training, before accepting applications from the commercial sector. That also answers the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy).

The hon. Members for Huddersfield and for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) mentioned consultation.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I must try to answer the debate in the few minutes that I have left.

I understand that the hon. Member for Makerfield has spoken on those issues at some length in Committee. On consultation, while at an earlier stage the hon. Gentleman is right that a number of the bodies concerned did not like the idea of moving to a trading fund, as the idea has been examined closely, they have been persuaded—so much so that the Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Fire Brigades Union and the National Association of Fire Officers and other fire interests were fully consulted about the trading fund proposal and not one raised an objection to the order being made.

The Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council for England and Wales was mentioned. It is correct that it opposed the introduction of direct charging, but once that was introduced in 1991–92, it raised no objections to the college becoming a trading fund, to give it greater flexibility, which it undoubtedly needs.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

How much time did the Minister spend in Moreton-in-Marsh consulting and listening to views and when did he last go there?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

My right hon. and noble Friend Earl Ferrers in the other place is ministerially responsible for the issues and has carried out consultations on the matters. He has made it clear that, if the AMA and other organisations wish to come to see him to discuss standards at any stage, they will be welcome.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield is gesticulating. You can see the temperature rising, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We can all see the signs coming. I invite him to get to his feet if he wants to intervene again in my speech. He made a serious mistake in attributing to Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services the statement that he objected to the setting up of the trading fund. I have it on the highest authority that the chief inspector supported the move to agency status and to the trading fund.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

When the hon. Gentleman has a look at Hansard tomorrow, he will see that he attributed objections to the inspector of constabulary.

I shall give him the opportunity to intervene to make it quite clear that he does not attribute that to the inspector of fire services.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister of State is misinterpreting what I said. I said that Her Majesty's inspector had a whole catalogue of concerns and worries about the current state of the fire service. He will check in Hansard and find that that is true. I am only sad that he and his colleague, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), used my remarks to launch an attack on the fire service and on the police service—on their sickness record and their public holiday working period.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

We shall look carefully at the record and listen to the tapes, and if Hansard records that which I believe the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, I hope that he will write to Her Majesty's inspector to withdraw his assertion, because it is a serious matter.

The demand for college places is already good. There are firm bookings for more than 18,000 student weeks in the 1992–93 course, and that augurs well for the success of the trading fund in the first year, despite what the hon. Member for Huddersfield said.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about Buckinghamshire. The Buckinghamshire fire authority has already booked 153 student weeks for 1992–93, which is a satisfactory level.

The chief executive post will be filled after open competition when it next becomes vacant. Home Office Ministers will naturally ensure that fire service needs are fully taken into account when determining levels of public expenditure. That is why there was a 16 per cent. increase this year and why there will be an 8·4 per cent. increase next year.

The order is a classic example of obtaining better value for money for the taxpayer and the community charge payer. A vote against it is a vote in favour of charging fire authorities higher prices for training. Those who vote against the order will lay extra burdens on local fire authorities. I commend this excellent and far-reaching measure to the House.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 80, Noes 68.

Division No. 102][11.56 pm
AYES
Alexander, RichardDavis, David (Boothferry)
Amess, DavidFavell, Tony
Arbuthnot, JamesForman, Nigel
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Beggs, RoyGregory, Conal
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Blackburn, Dr John G.Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Bowis, JohnHarris, David
Brazier, JulianHawkins, Christopher
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterHayward, Robert
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)Hind, Kenneth
Burt, AlistairHowarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Carrington, MatthewHunter, Andrew
Carttiss, MichaelIrvine, Michael
Cash, WilliamJack, Michael
Chapman, SydneyJones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Chope, ChristopherKing, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Kirkhope, Timothy
Couchman, JamesKnight, Greg (Derby North)
Currie, Mrs EdwinaLester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)Lightbown, David
Lord, MichaelStewart, Andy (Sherwood)
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnSummerson, Hugo
McNair-Wilson, Sir MichaelTaylor, Ian (Esher)
Mans, KeithTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Mawhinney, Dr BrianThompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir PatrickThurnham, Peter
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)Waller, Gary
Neubert, Sir MichaelWardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Nicholls, PatrickWells, Bowen
Norris, SteveWheeler, Sir John
Paice, JamesWiddecombe, Ann
Patten, Rt Hon JohnWilkinson, John
Ross, William (Londonderry E)Winterton, Mrs Ann
Shaw, David (Dover)Winterton, Nicholas
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)Wood, Timothy
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)Tellers for the Ayes:
Stern, MichaelMr. Tim Boswell and
Stevens, LewisMr. Irvine Patrick.
NOES
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Barron, KevinJones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Battle, JohnKilfoyle, Peter
Benton, JosephLeadbitter, Ted
Boyes, RolandLivsey, Richard
Bradley, KeithLloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Callaghan, JimMcAvoy, Thomas
Campbell-Savours, D. N.McCartney, Ian
Clelland, DavidMcMaster, Gordon
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Mahon, Mrs Alice
Cook, Robin (Livingston)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Corbett, RobinMeale, Alan
Cryer, BobMichael, Alun
Cunliffe, LawrenceMorgan, Rhodri
Cunningham, Dr JohnO'Brien, William
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)O'Hara, Edward
Dixon, DonPowell, Ray (Ogmore)
Dunnachie, JimmyPrimarolo, Dawn
Edwards, HuwQuin, Ms Joyce
Enright, DerekRooney, Terence
Evans, John (St Helens N)Sheerman, Barry
Flynn, PaulSkinner, Dennis
Foster, DerekSmith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Foulkes, GeorgeStott, Roger
Godman, Dr Norman A.Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Golding, Mrs LlinWarden, Gareth (Gower)
Graham, ThomasWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Wilson, Brian
Hardy, PeterWinnick, David
Haynes, FrankWise, Mrs Audrey
Henderson, DougWray, Jimmy
Hinchliffe, David
Hoyle, DougTellers for the Noes:
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Mr. Eric Illsley and
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Mr. Allen McKay.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,That the draft Fire Service College Trading Fund Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 1lth February, be approved.