I am grateful for this opportunity to help clear up the confusion and misapprehension that have surrounded the proposals of East Sussex fire authority for staffing changes at Battle fire station in my constituency.
The proposals were put to the fire authority by the chief fire officer in early February and met with approval from a clear majority of the members. Arrangements were then made for the normal statutory process of consultation. The proposals, which have not been opposed by the Fire Brigades Union and are actively welcomed by Battle's retained firefighters, do not call for any cut in the number of appliances at Battle or any reduction in fire cover and will actively strengthen road traffic accident emergency response throughout East Sussex. Nevertheless, they have been the subject of a persistent, ill-informed, alarmist campaign of protest which has wrongly implied that the fire station will be closed, creating needless doubts and insecurity in the minds of anxious local residents.
Before I describe the proposed changes and ask the House to consider what lies behind the muddled—if not downright misleading—protest campaign that has been organised, mainly by a local paper, I should like to pay tribute to the fire service nationally. The 50,000 whole-time uniformed staff, control room personnel, retained firefighters and the officers in every brigade perform a most demanding job with professionalism and courage. Together, they ensure that high standards of fire cover are always met. They embrace new technology where it can help operations, improve training competence whenever possible and do their utmost to enhance fire safety in the workplace and at home. As well as attending and dealing with fires, Britain's whole-time and retained firemen and women regularly undertake vital rescue work at the scene of road traffic accidents and other emergencies.
Four years ago, I had the responsibility for fire and emergency plans that the Minister has today. I congratulate him on having taken over those responsibilities. I feel sure that he and other right hon. and hon. Members agree that the fire service deserves our unreserved respect and admiration. The East Sussex fire authority, most ably chaired by Councillor Bill Clements, a retired police superintendent from Bexhill, covers East Sussex, Brighton and Hove. Like other fire authorities, it faces the constant challenge of the local authority spending constraints that the retiring chief inspector, Sir Bryan Collins, referred to in his report last year. No doubt his successor, Mr. Meldrum, with whom I also worked when he ran the West Midlands brigade, will be mindful of the same pressures, which this Government, like the previous one, have kept in place.
Although East Sussex fire authority spends 11 per cent. above the amount allocated by central Government and there is no cost-cutting imperative in the proposals, it needs constantly to strive for more efficient and effective deployment of the more than 400 whole-time and more than 300 retained firefighters at its 24 stations. Twelve of those stations are staffed entirely by retained firefighters, six in large towns, such as Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings, are staffed by whole time, and the other six are day-crewed by whole time for the Monday to Friday day shift, with the remainder of the week covered by the retained.
On 5 February, the chief fire officer for East Sussex, Alan McCormack, submitted proposals to the authority to redeploy, without any loss of jobs, the nine whole-time firemen at Battle to other larger day-crewed stations in order to fill four retirement vacancies and to facilitate a better balanced four-by-four duty roster at Lewes, Bexhill, Newhaven, Crowborough and Uckfield. He proposed to add more recruits to the 13 retained firemen in Battle in order to provide a fully staffed team there, consisting entirely of retained firemen. He also undertook that Battle would keep its two existing appliances—fire engines to the layman—which is strictly one more than is required by Her Majesty's inspectors' standard of fire cover for the town and surrounding area. He further recommended that he be allowed to purchase the latest cutting and separating equipment for emergency road traffic accidents to be fitted to appliances at each of the 24 stations in the brigade.
The last recommendation was a huge step forward in road traffic accident support because, until then, only three of the stations had had such an operational service unit—one being Battle. With only three OSUs in the whole county, that has meant that the one at Battle has been in constant demand to respond to accidents outside the Battle area, thus depleting local cover for Battle whenever that one appliance has been on call further afield.
To summarise, the chief officer wants a set of emergency cutting and separating equipment at every station and a better working balance for the day crews in five larger towns, with Battle resuming its former wholly retained status. Pivotal to the last condition will be the ability to recruit extra retained staff at Battle, but one new firefighter has already been signed up, and the fire authority says that it has other volunteers ready to apply.
Having previously done the Minister's job, I never underestimate the problems nationally of retaining the retained, but in Battle today, the senior retained firefighter, Mr. Mike Dawes, is confident that the fire authority will not find it difficult to sign up additional recruits to the full complement of 18. If, for any reason, that assumption is wrong, the whole proposal will be undermined.
Whatever happens, there is no question of seeking any modification of existing standards of fire cover in the Battle area in terms of response times. As the House will know, the fire authority has a statutory obligation under the Fire Services Act 1947 to provide the fire cover laid down by Her Majesty's inspectors. In Battle, that means a response time of eight to 10 minutes in the centre of town, which represents 3 per cent. of the 12,000 hectares covered by the fire station, and 20 minutes in the rest of the area.
Until the early 1980s, Battle fire station operated under those same standards of fire cover with an entirely retained strength. At that point, flagging recruitment of the retained, which was by then a national problem, led to the introduction of 13 whole-time firefighters at Battle. That number was reduced to six in 1983, when more retained firefighters came forward, but increased to nine in 1988, along with 13 retained firefighters who continued to work on the station.
All the nine whole-time staff now in Battle have given loyal service to the local community and deserve praise and thanks for what they and their 13 retained colleagues have done. Five of the whole-time officers have been in the town for more than two years, but four others were transferred, for one reason or another, from other parts of the country only relatively recently when vacancies occurred. All of them have worked conscientiously, although it has to be said that they have encouraged the disapproval of their union by working out of hours for extra money. They have done that by signing up on-call as retained staff out of their normal weekday shift hours. The FBU has posted a notice at the fire station warning its members that the practice contravenes union policy.
The level of call-outs during the Monday to Friday day shift from 9 am to 1 pm and 2 pm to 5 pm, staffed by the whole time, has fallen noticeably. In the first 12 weeks of this year, during the day shift, Battle fire station has responded to just one local FDR 1—which, as the Minister will know, is a fire reportable to the Home Office—four FDR 3s, or minor fires, two road traffic accidents and seven activated fire alarms where there was no fire. I understand that, on the same shift, there were eight other calls outside the Battle area. It is, of course, true that that pattern could change at any time, but, for the first three months of 1998, there has been little activity in the daytime on weekdays. Most of the fire calls in Battle have in fact occurred when the retained are on duty.
Significantly, FBU officials have indicated that they will not contest the chief officer's proposals that Battle returns to wholly retained status. Having chaired the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council at the Home Office, I am acquainted with and have much respect for the FBU leadership. The operational sense of the better balanced four-by-four roster at other larger day-crewed stations appears to have been accepted by the whole brigade, but the union has rightly insisted on close scrutiny of the terms of transfer for each of the nine whole time in Battle who will be moving to other stations in the county. Management has fully complied with that.
Each of the nine whole time have been able to discuss their personal circumstances with Mr. Short, a senior officer from the Hastings division. I understand that eight of them have been offered acceptable posts elsewhere in East Sussex. The remaining one has made three applications to join the London fire brigade, but has not yet been successful. Where, then, is the gripe? With the experts more at less at one over the broad principle of the changes, what are the objections and why have they arisen?
In February, a number of constituents in Battle expressed their concern to me that the fire station was about to close. That view rapidly gained momentum among local residents, fearful that they would no longer be protected against the risk of fire. That false alarm arose from a "Save Battle Fire Station" campaign, launched by the Observer in Battle, one of two or three local newspapers sold in the town but published in St. Leonards on Sea.
Posters proclaiming "SOS—Save Battle Fire Station", depicting a fire engine over the newspaper's logo were distributed to local shops and pubs. The poster message was not "Save Our Nine Whole-Time Firemen From Transfer" or "Don't Allow Battle Fire Station to Revert Entirely to Retained Staffing", but simply, "Save Our Station". It is little wonder that many casual observers quickly assumed that the station was about to close. The newspaper now vehemently denies that its reporters ever mentioned closure, but successive editions were sprayed with the misleading poster illustration, and, on 13 February, it quoted on its front page a Liberal Democrat county councillor from Eastbourne saying:
The chief issue here is the ultimate closure of Battle fire station".
On page five of the same edition, it quoted a local Liberal Democrat county councillor wrongly implying that Battle would lose cutting and separating equipment for road accidents.
My own explanatory press release was selectively used, and the editorial barrage that followed was acrimonious, but accuracy, distorted material and the public's right to know is for the Press Complaints Commission to monitor. What matters in this debate is that the editor collected 600 signatures from about 500 worried households for the SOS campaign, and a Robertsbridge resident organised a petition in the shops displaying the poster, which attracted several thousand signatures.
After consultations with the fire authority and the chief officer, I wrote to all the campaign signatories, as well as to the chamber of commerce and to other residents who had expressed fear and anxiety. The posters promptly disappeared from practically all the shops, but widespread uncertainty about fire cover and the ability of retained firemen to do as good a job as whole time continued to be fuelled by the on-going local press speculation.
At the public consultation meeting on 26 March in Battle, Councillor Clements set out the fire authority's proposals very clearly in his opening addresses. Not including the uniform fire brigade personnel, there were—perhaps—180 people present, which is equivalent to about 1.5 per cent. of the fire station area population. It was important that people could air their concerns as the legislation provides. Those who spoke included Liberal Democrat councillors, representatives of Battle town council and a fireman from the London fire brigade, as well as trade union activists from the Royal Mail and the ambulance service, one resident of Robertsbridge and two other residents from Battle.
Following the speeches, there was general acceptance from those in the hall that the fire station was not about to close, but doubts were stridently repeated about the ability of retained personnel to provide as prompt a response as the whole time and, therefore, to ensure equivalent safety. Questions were raised about the comparative lack of training and firefighting experience of retained staff, and other doubts were voiced about the prospect of finding more recruits for the retained in the face of the hostility over the fire station that had recently been engendered.
After the meeting, representatives of the retained told me that they felt badly bruised by the lack of confidence in them that was implicit in the sometimes rowdy and querulous meeting. Although the chief fire officer did his best, he was unable to assuage the overwhelming feeling in the hall that retained firefighters could not fully match the training and performance of their whole-time colleagues. However, the retained now assure me that they are determined to fulfil the fire authority's plans and staff the station on their own, as they did for generations before 1980. They say that further recruits have been identified, and that there is a spirit of determination that these firefighting residents of Battle, who volunteer for such courageous duties, can and will do an excellent job.
The retained represent a lively cross-section of the Battle community. Mike Dawes has lived in the town all his life and runs a garden machinery service centre. His colleagues include a local auctioneer and valuer, two carpenters, a fork-lift truck driver, a picture shop owner, a plumbing and heating engineer, the manager of the local supermarket, two workers at the nearby gypsum mine, the manager of the local engineering company, a foundry worker, a garden maintenance contractor and one person between jobs.
These people bring a variety of important technical skills to the firefighting task. Together, they are the very strength of Battle's close-knit community. They take enormous pride in their work and the public rumpus created by the local newspaper's irresponsible and misleading campaign has only served to reinforce their resolve. However, it would be encouraging to Battle's own retained firefighters—and the local community as a whole—if the Minister could provide the House with an assurance this evening that the 15,000 retained firefighters across this country are fully trained and perform their tasks with the greatest competence, dedication, skill and bravery, and that they can be relied upon without question. It is helpful that the Home Office brochure "Opportunities as Retained Firefighters" emphasises that
the training is excellent and really gives you confidence.
I am equally sure that the Minister's comments about unchanged standards of fire cover in what the fire authority is proposing for Battle—as well as his views about the value of 24 appliances across East Sussex having cutting and separating gear, and the benefits, too, in the five larger towns of a balanced day-crewed system—will be carefully heeded.
Before I conclude, I should draw the attention of the House to the latest attempt by the Battle Observer to add fuel to its "Save Battle Fire Station" campaign, which looks increasingly as if it is driven by the need to sell newspapers, regardless of the fears of readers. On 17 April, the paper ran a story under the headline "U-Turn over fire station", claiming that I had reversed the position I adopted over the fire station in 1995—when I defended the continued presence of the whole-time staff—and that my views had changed for no apparent reason.
As the fire authority will confirm, there is a world of difference between what the chief fire officer is proposing now and what was in contemplation in 1995—although even then I had to issue a press release, dousing the rumours that Battle fire station was about to close.
First, in 1995, one option considered was to reduce the number of appliances at Battle from two to one. There is now a firm undertaking to keep two appliances there. Secondly, in 1995, there was no sign of fresh recruits for the retained. Now, one has already signed up, and other local people have asked for application forms. Thirdly, in 1995 there was no proposal to equip all 24 stations with cutting and separating equipment.
Fourthly, in 1995, relations between the whole time and retained at Battle were amicable—as they had been for several years previously—but, in the recent past, tensions have grown. This is largely because of the publicity campaign by the Battle Observer. The retained have told me that they are no longer talking to their whole-time colleagues, which is a great pity and no way to run a fire station where the retained have always been in a majority anyway.
Fifthly, in 1995, there was no plan to redeploy the whole time to secure, useful jobs elsewhere in East Sussex. Sixthly, in 1995 the FBU's disapproval of the whole time working overtime as retained was not as formal and as explicit as it is now. Seventhly, since 1995, there has been a marked fall-off in fire calls on the day shift, such that, recently, one of the whole-time staff was admonished for using his spare time from duty rather too enterprisingly by cleaning windows at nearby buildings.
In contrast to the uncertainty that existed in 1995 about the fire authority's best way forward, the current proposals will ensure that fire cover in Battle is fully safeguarded. I know just how much this matters to local residents because my family lives in Battle. The proposals also allow for more efficient fire protection in several other towns, including Bexhill in my constituency, and they will enable a very significant advance in the response to road traffic accident emergencies throughout East Sussex.
To conclude, I do not expect the Minister to anticipate the formal decision of the fire authority—to be taken on 13 May—or the subsequent recommendation of Her Majesty's inspector to the Secretary of State under section 19 of the Fire Services Act. However, I can tell the House that Councillor Clements has advised me that the Conservative and Labour majority on the fire authority support the chief officer's plans. In the meanwhile, I hope that the Minister will agree that, while full public consultation and debate should always be encouraged, misleading publicity that allows local residents to assume that if a fire station needs to be saved, it is otherwise likely to close—when, in fact, nothing of the sort is contemplated—is to be deplored.
I shall always defend the right of the media, or any individual, to express differing points of view about a given subject. The House will agree that it would be a dull world if we all thought the same about everything. However, that is a far cry from a publicity campaign that fails to convey the detailed arguments about proposals designed to protect people's safety. There is disturbing evidence that the campaign has caused widespread fear and anxiety, particularly among the elderly. That is why I have been determined to present a balanced and detailed case for the proposed changes to allay the doubts and uncertainty felt by local residents.
I could have sidestepped the debate, saying it was a local authority matter. However, when my constituents express alarm, I never consider it a waste of time to put them fully in the picture. They can be absolutely confident that the retained staff in Battle will successfully maintain the proud tradition of firefighting at Battle fire station.
I must congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) on initiating this debate on Battle fire station. I am keenly aware of the sensitivities which inevitably surround any proposals to change the arrangements for providing fire cover. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of the concerns he wanted to express in the debate.
We have good reason to be proud of the fire service in this country. The hon. Gentleman—as a former occupant of this post—will agree that it is a real privilege to work with a service which is so highly regarded. He made particular reference to the retained service and to the training of retained firefighters. I would like to pay tribute to retained firefighters, who perform a vital and cost-effective role in providing fire cover, particularly in the more rural areas.
The retained service does an excellent job. However, there is evidence of recruitment and retention difficulties in some parts of the country. It sounds as if a stable crew is stationed at Battle. In view of the importance of this matter, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council for England and Wales—which I chair, and which the hon. Gentleman has chaired in the past—asked Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services, Mr. Meldrum, to consider the position in detail and he will report back in due course. Training is vital to the provision of an effective fire service. All firefighters—both whole time and retained—spend a proportion of their time in training.
The Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council has recently produced a framework document, entitled "Training for Competence", which shifts the emphasis of training from inputs to outcomes. It is based on national standards of competence which will for the first time, enable the training provided to all members of the fire service to be assessed against these standards. I hope that that is some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman. It is recognised that for the retained service, there are particular issues which will need to be addressed, but there is a commitment to ensure that the retained service remains well trained.
"fire brigades continue to attend a high percentage of calls within attendance standards and improved their average between 1993–94 and 1996–97."
Overall, the service met recommended response times on 95 per cent. of occasions. East Sussex fire brigade managed a highly creditable 97 per cent.
The Government will build on this solid foundation, and we shall do so in close and effective partnership with fire service interests, fire authorities, trade unions, chief fire officers and other interested bodies. However, ensuring an efficient and effective fire service is not achieved by just standing still. Local authorities must have a weather eye to the principles of best value and look at standards of fire cover, fire safety and the structure and organisation of every service. Fire service interests are being fully consulted about options, and in June, we shall hold a seminar in partnership with the Local Government Association on "Working Together for Best Value".
In respect of the duties of fire authorities, the hon. Gentleman knows that statutory responsibility for providing an efficient fire service rests with the local fire authority, which, for Battle fire station, is the East Sussex combined fire authority. The fire authority must keep its fire cover provision under review, deploy its resources efficiently and set its budget at a level that allows it to discharge its statutory responsibilities.
The fire service legislation provides safeguards to ensure that statutory responsibilities continue to be met. Section 19(4) of the Fire Services Act 1947, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, requires that a fire authority cannot reduce the numbers of fire stations, appliances and firefighting posts without the express consent of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has a specific role in considering section 19 applications.
My right hon. Friend grants approval only if he is satisfied, first, that the proposals have been sufficiently widely publicised and are sufficiently detailed and that there is adequate time for any interested party to make representations; secondly, that the representations have been considered by the fire authority; and, thirdly, on the advice of Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, that national standards of fire cover will be maintained.
There is no statutory right of consultation, but the guidance makes it clear that the Home Secretary considers it to be desirable that there should be appropriate consultation and that he would take into account representations that are made directly to him.
East Sussex fire authority has been consulting on a proposal to change the status of Battle fire station from day-crewed to retained. Such a change would require my right hon. Friend's approval. The authority has yet to decide whether to make a section 19 application. The hon. Gentleman explained the circumstances of the matter. If an application is made, my right hon. Friend will give careful consideration to it and to representations that he receives. He will take advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate on implications for fire cover.
Levels of fire cover are determined locally and rest on four main standards of service, according to the risk category of the area, and assume for each category that a predetermined number of firefighting appliances must attend within a certain time. The standards are not only nationally recommended, but nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which is constituted under the 1947 Act. They were extensively reviewed in 1985, and all concerned know where they stand on the minimum level of service that should be delivered.
In 1995, the Audit Commission recommended another review of fire cover, but recognised that no fundamental change should be considered without careful research. A review of the standards is being taken forward by a joint committee of the Fire Brigades Advisory Councils for England and Wales and for Scotland. Its draft report will be discussed at forthcoming meetings of the advisory councils.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned budgets. The standard spending assessment in England for 1998–99 increased by £61.6 million, or 5 per cent. The settlements were 4.4 per cent. last year, and 1.5 per cent. and 0 per cent. in the previous two years. While the problems of funding that we have inherited cannot be resolved overnight, this settlement has recognised and responded to the fire service's concerns. The fire standard spending assessment for East Sussex for 1998–99 has been increased by £1.1 million—6.2 per cent.—compared with 1997–98. That compares with increases of 5 per cent. last year, and of 2.6 per cent. and 1.7 per cent. in the previous two years.
Until a section 19 application is received from the fire authority, any Government comment on possible changes to fire cover at Battle fire station would be premature. Nevertheless, I repeat my assurance that in the event of a section 19 application, we would give careful consideration to any representations. The hon. Gentleman's observations would of course be taken into account. We shall reflect carefully on the issues before a decision is arrived at.