I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill is important and historic. It is the first substantive legislation concerning the operation of the fire and rescue service in more than 50 years. The Fire Services Act 1947, which it replaces, encapsulated immediate post-war thinking on the role of the fire service and set in place a framework that lasted for a substantial time. It placed a strong emphasis on rapid and effective responses to fires, for which the fire service has justifiably earned a very good reputation.
Firefighters are rightly held in high esteem for their professionalism and bravery. The service has historically performed to a very high standard in responding to and dealing with fires. Despite that success, too many lives continue to be lost, with around 350 deaths and more than 11,000 injuries estimated in dwelling fires in 2002. It is the vulnerable in society who are most likely to be affected: people aged 80 or over are six times more likely to die in a house fire than those aged between 30 and 59.
As the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions pointed out in its recent report on the subject, which we warmly welcome, in 50 per cent. of cases involving fatalities, the victims were dead before the fire service was called. There could be no more telling illustration of the importance of focusing the service on the prevention of fire, which is one of the main themes of the Bill.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that not a single life has been lost in a domestic fire in this country, or elsewhere as far as records show, in a building fitted with sprinklers? Is not that the real answer?
I will be dealing with the question of sprinklers later. The effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of sprinklers is a complex matter that has been the subject of detailed research. I shall refer to that.
The greater focus on prevention was one of the key recommendations of the independent review of the fire service led by Sir George Bain. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that the Bain report, which was discussed extensively in the House and more widely a year ago, was a thorough piece of work that did not pull its punches. I believe that we owe a real debt to Sir George and his two colleagues, Sir Michael Lyons and Sir Anthony Young. They reminded us that despite many previous reports advocating reform, the fire service had been very slow to change. As the Select Committee has pointed out, a number of far-reaching reviews—seven in the past 30 years—have been left to gather dust on the shelf.
The Bain report made it clear that the time for action was overdue and that there was a heavy responsibility on all involved with the fire and rescue service not only to recognise the need for modernisation but to ensure that this time it happened. Fire and rescue authorities, chief fire officers, managers, staff and the Government were all under the spotlight. The Bain report recommended more strategic direction and engagement by the Government. It made a persuasive case for greater collaboration and joint working between fire and rescue authorities to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the service. It proposed giving managers the clear responsibility and the tools to make and carry through decisions that they are best placed to make. Bain held out the prospect and the opportunity of a more rewarding and diverse career for firefighters.
The uniformed fire and rescue service has for too long been seen as overwhelmingly white and male, even in areas with large ethnic minority populations. The challenge to the service is to become more representative of the communities that it serves.
It would help to put out fires, because sensitivity to the position of a number of ethnic minorities is crucial to fire safety. If people have cooking practices that are potentially dangerous and they are told by people who understand those practices how they can change them, they will be much more likely to respond than they would be to others who do not understand such factors. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, who is normally thoughtful and sensitive on these issues, uncharacteristically made a superficial remark on a rather important issue.
We took the recommendations of the Bain report extremely seriously. Last June we published our response in a White Paper entitled "Our Fire and Rescue Service". The White Paper accepted the broad thrust of the recommendations and committed the Government to implementing the reforms. I am pleased to be able to report that we are making good progress in taking the reforms forward. The first draft fire and rescue national framework was issued for consultation on
The Minister is running through the timeline for those various documents. Will he tell us what has happened to the discipline regulations that were apparently to be published in December?
That is a valid point. We are making progress on many issues, and the speed of progress over the past year is, to many people, remarkable. Quite recently I was talking to some local authority representatives who expressed concern about the speed of progress and asked whether we could slow down and reduce the pressure for change. I say to the hon. Gentleman, as the Select Committee said, that there is a major agenda that needs to be carried forward with energy. In the past, important proposals for change did not necessarily receive the priority and the sense of energy that they deserved. I give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that we shall be carrying the programme forward. However, he will know that it is an extremely large agenda and that there is a great deal to be done.
We are considering a Bill that represents the next stage in modernising the fire and rescue service so that it is better able to save lives and create safer communities. Part 1 deals with the definition of fire and rescue authorities and their structure. It also updates existing powers set out in the 1947 Act that provide for the voluntary and compulsory combination of fire and rescue authorities. Those powers are necessary to underpin the greater collaboration and co-operation between fire and rescue authorities that the Bain report concluded was vital to the effective organisation and delivery of key functions.
As the Opposition appear to be obsessed with the view that the Government are likely to use these powers to impose regionalisation on the fire and rescue service in all parts of the country, it is right that I should put the record straight. The Government are not proposing to regionalise the fire and rescue service, except in regions where voters choose to have an elected regional assembly.
Elsewhere, existing fire and rescue authorities will continue to be responsible for the service.
I find that very reassuring, except that in the same written answer to me the right hon. Gentleman went on to say that areas that would not have a regional assembly
"would develop robust regional management arrangements to deliver the functions which are most efficiently and effectively performed at regional level".
He referred to
"the benefits of the regional approach" and wanted
"standardisation and pooling of resources and expertise".—[Hansard, 15 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 862W.]
Is that not regionalisation under another name?
The right hon. Gentleman is jumping the gun. I was about to go on to say that greater efficiency and capacity within the service to plan and respond to major national emergencies is critical. Terrorism is obviously very much in our minds. That is why we are rolling out the new dimension programme to ensure that the fire and rescue service is properly equipped and trained to deal with the level and scale of potential threats for which we must be prepared. That requires a regional response. Robust planning and preparation is equally important to deal with other potential emergencies, and also requires region-wide co-operation.
There is real scope for significant efficiency gains in, for example, training and procurement, as well as in the operation of control rooms. That is why we are expecting all fire and rescue authorities other than London, which is already organised on a region-wide basis, to work together to establish regional management boards. I look forward to the report on progress, which the Local Government Association is co-ordinating. We hope that through voluntary co-operation, regional management boards will tackle the issues that must be addressed at a regional level. The powers in the Bill provide an important reserve to be used only should regional management boards fail to deliver.
The Minister's last remark might help me. He suggests that regional management boards will deal with co-ordination and will not become authorities. In the "Draft Fire and Rescue National Framework" published last December, the Government say that they will ask for a report on progress in each region towards
"If insufficient progress has been made, the Government will consider the use of its statutory powers to combine Fire and Rescue Authorities and impose regional management structures."
The Minister, in his usual way, is being emollient, but the draft framework does not sound very emollient to us.
I am not sure how the passage that the hon. Gentleman read out differs from what I was saying. We hope that there will be progress, which the Local Government Association is co-ordinating, and that through voluntary co-operation, regional management boards will be up and running to tackle the issues that must be dealt with on a regional basis. But if that fails to happen, we could not stand by if there was a lack of adequate organisation to ensure effective response to the threat of terrorism or other emergencies involving regional co-ordination. That is why we have reserve powers to use in the event of a failure of the voluntary co-ordination arrangements. We are encouraging voluntary arrangements. We want to see them succeed and I hope they will.
I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. In the document, he imposes a deadline of
As a classic Liberal Democrat, the hon. Gentleman will argue the case for slowing down on one occasion, and for speed on the next. He knows that there has been enormous pressure—understandable pressure—for us to move quickly. He is well aware of the extent to which the fire service failed over 20 years or more to move forward, despite many well-intentioned reports advocating change. He knows very well that there is strong impetus for change and an expectation that change will be taken forward urgently. He is also well aware that when we are dealing with terrorist threats, there is no justification for delay.
We take all this seriously. We have set tight but realistic timetables. We expect everyone, ourselves included, to work to tight timetables, and we will do so, but as I said, our emphasis is on voluntary co-operation. The powers are to be used only in the event of that voluntary co-operation not succeeding.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's reassurance about where the regional element fits in. He knows that we have a successful tri-service emergency call centre in Gloucestershire, with police and the ambulance service. Can he put it on record and assure me that that, too, is a way in which voluntary co-operation can bring efficiency savings and make the most of working on a county basis, notwithstanding the fact that strategically, there are benefits in co-operating regionally?
I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that both the Gloucestershire and the Wiltshire joint control rooms have demonstrated the benefits of cross-service co-operation, and that was taken fully into account by our consultants, Mott MacDonald, when they reviewed progress with control rooms. Their report's conclusions, which we made public just before Christmas, made it clear that they see the future in terms of combined fire authority control rooms on a regional basis, and that obviously poses significant challenges to areas that have moved towards joint service control rooms.
We have said on the record, and I repeat, that we do not intend to disrupt existing arrangements unnecessarily, but we must move forward in a co-ordinated way if we are to combine two developments that must work together. The first is the procurement of the new Firelink radio communications system, which is necessary to ensure interoperability between all the emergency services and all the fire services, and we are commissioning that at the moment. There is clear advantage in making that go hand in hand with the move towards regional control rooms for the fire service. That is why we have set out our prospectus as to how we move forward, and we are currently consulting on that. It has been considered by the practitioners forum, among others, and we will have more to say about that in the future. But I assure my hon. Friend that we are well aware of the significant implications that he has raised this evening.
I spent quite a lot of today talking to the Norfolk fire service, which is concerned about the challenges of the regionalisation of its control room functions, which will obviously lead to a great deal of disruption and many job losses. I do not understand how the Minister can say that that will not be regionalisation, and that there will not be any disruption, yet the control rooms will be combined. Will he comment on that?
Let me repeat what I said earlier. In regions that do not vote for elected regional assemblies, existing fire and rescue authorities will remain the responsible authorities; we do not propose to change that structure. However, because of the need to ensure effective regional co-ordination on certain functions, including anti-terrorist work, prevention of and response to major emergencies, the benefits of joint procurement and training, and the benefits of joint control rooms, we will require those authorities to work together through regional management boards. That is the framework that I have described.
The benefits of joint control rooms were spelt out in enormous detail by the Bain and Mott MacDonald reports, and one has only to look at the considerable benefits of a more cost-effective response, as well as the benefits of incorporating the latest technology, which will be invaluable when it comes to dealing with emergencies, to understand the clear case for a move towards regional control rooms. That is what we have set out, and that is what we are consulting on. We believe that it is the right way forward, but obviously we will take account of any concerns voiced by the hon. Gentleman's local service in Norfolk, or any other service.
The Minister characterised the Conservative party's position as "obsessed by regionalisation". Having explained exactly what regionalisation will mean, will he give a pledge today that in no circumstances in any of the referendums that take place later this year will the notional advantages of regionalisation of the fire board for emergency control be cited as one of the main reasons why people should vote in favour of the regions?
When I talked about the Conservative party being obsessed by regionalisation, I was thinking partly of the question that the hon. Gentleman tabled—and which I have just answered, although he may not have seen the answer yet—which asked what discussions I have had with the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority about proposals for regionalising the fire service. I had to point out to him in my reply that the service in London is already regionalised. That is an indication of just how obsessed the Conservative party appears to be with the issue.
The Bill says that in Wales, counties will be covered by the county fire and rescue service and county boroughs will be covered by the county borough fire and rescue service. We have already been regionalised, so we are a little bit ahead of that. Indeed, the fire service that serves our area is the Mid and West Wales county fire service.
The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point. As he will know, the Bill effects the devolution of responsibility to the Welsh Assembly Government—I hope that he welcomes that—and in future it will be entirely a matter for Wales to determine the appropriate structures.
The point that was raised by Mr. Drew is also a matter of great concern to my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown. The authorities in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire invested considerable sums of money in tri-service or bi-service control rooms following the Deputy Prime Minister's exhortations to do so. Wiltshire has a 10-year commitment to its new control room. Can the Minister give those authorities an undertaking that when the new regional control room arrangements kick in in 2007 he will indemnify them against any ongoing costs that they incurred because the clear steer that was given by the Deputy Prime Minister turned out to be quite different from Government policy?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises the need to take stock in light of the changed circumstances that have developed since September 11. One major development was the need to go for effective interoperability in communications systems, which led us to suspend the previous procurement arrangements for communications systems for the fire service. The new Firelink system, which is being fully funded and procured by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, is critical to a framework of new regional control rooms. We have made it clear that we will be prepared to support financially some of the costs of the move towards regional control rooms. As there will be significant savings for fire authorities, it is necessary to consider both sides of the equation in determining the appropriate level of support, but we have not been neglectful of the potential cost implications.
We have been focusing on the south-west region, which is the size of Denmark. The proposal for a single regional control room should be carefully scrutinised. What analysis has the Department undertaken on the resilience to attack of such a control room? Is there some merit in having two control rooms in a region, to ensure that there is a back-up facility in the event of one suffering an infrastructure attack such as cyber-terrorism?
As my hon. Friend may be aware, the current arrangements in most fire authority areas usually involve the need for back-up facilities. However, the Mott MacDonald report, on which our proposals are based, demonstrated the real benefits of the new arrangements involving interoperability, with the Firelink system applying universally throughout the country and new regional control rooms being able to provide back-up facilities for other regions in the event of any failure. That is one of the potential advantages and benefits. I recommend that my hon. Friend have a close look at the Mott MacDonald report, which is very persuasive on that matter.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hammond referred to the tri-service centre at Quedgeley. Gloucestershire is on the edge of three regions. If—God forbid—there were a serious terrorist attack in Gloucestershire, how would the Minister's regional approach work, and how would the regional centres co-ordinate with the other emergency services, as Gloucestershire and Wiltshire are doing so admirably at present?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the guidance that we have prepared on this issue, he will find that the whole question of potential resilience and the safety of premises used for regional control rooms is a fundamental consideration. We are very conscious of that issue. As I said to my hon. Friend Jim Knight, there will be back-up systems to guarantee effective resilience and support in the event of a disaster occurring to any one control room.
Part 2 is at the heart of the new legislative framework. It puts in place an up-to-date statement of the powers and duties of fire and rescue authorities. Clearly, fighting fires is and will remain a key part of what the fire and rescue service does. The Bill acknowledges that, together with other responsibilities, such as dealing with road traffic accidents, which are now a mainstream activity for all fire and rescue authorities but were not envisaged when the 1947 Act was passed.
The new framework also gives effect to our objective of helping to save more lives and protecting the public through more effective prevention. It creates a new duty for fire and rescue authorities to promote fire safety, which is crucial if we are to prevent fires in the first place. Hon. Members will know about the excellent work that several authorities have undertaken to raise fire safety awareness. For example, the number of accidental dwelling fires in Cheshire fell by 10 per cent. in 2002 following a home fire risk assessment initiative by Cheshire fire service that was targeted at vulnerable members of the community.
Merseyside fire service has carried out 160,000 home fire risk assessments and fitted 250,000 smoke alarms since 1999. Deaths nearly halved, from 20 to 11 by 2002. Merseyside has also introduced innovative arrangements to help promote fire safety among the minority ethnic population in the community. However, nationally, the performance is varied and there is genuine scope for doing much more. By creating the new duty, all fire and rescue authorities will have to make fire prevention a central part of their planning and we are confident that that will help to save more lives.
Prevention works. Smoke alarm ownership has increased from 9 per cent. to 76 per cent. in the past 20 years. We estimate that 80 lives a year are being saved as a result. However, we need to build on that success and focus our efforts on the remaining 24 per cent. of households, typically those most vulnerable to fire, which still do not have a working smoke alarm. If 100 per cent. of households were covered, we could halve fire deaths in the home, saving around 150 lives a year. That is a telling figure, about which we should all know.
The Minister is making an extremely good and responsible point about smoke alarms. However, will he comment on the fact that in Devon false alarms caused by automatic fire detection apparatus have been steadily increasing? Devon fire service is expected to have attended 5,000 such calls in 2001—a rate of 125 per 1,000 non-domestic properties. That is below the national average. Although the Minister is right to encourage people to have smoke alarms, what can he do to reduce the number of callouts through malfunctioning?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The figures that he cited from Devon are repeated throughout the country. Some startling figures from Derbyshire implied that something like 97 per cent. of responses to automatic callouts are false alarms or not serious fire incidents. That is disturbing, and the practitioners forum, which we have established to enable experts and relevant practitioners to examine such issues and advise us, is currently undertaking a review to help to inform the decisions of individual fire authorities on how to respond under their integrated risk management plans. There is a range of views on how best to respond and it is right that practitioners should properly and thoroughly evaluate the matter before we give detailed advice. Mr. Swire is right to raise the matter; there is scope for making genuine progress.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the number of false alarms through smoke detectors in domestic properties is low? The problem that has been highlighted relates to commercial and industrial properties and should not discourage anyone from fitting a smoke alarm in a domestic property. It is fantastic value for money.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who rightly reminds me of the distinction between domestic and commercial alarms. If there is a malfunction in a domestic alarm, it simply means that the individual has got out of the house or had an opportunity to check whether there is anything wrong. The problem with the automated fire alarm is that it summons a fire engine because it rings automatically in the fire station. Malfunctioning in that case has much more serious consequences. As my hon. Friend said, the majority of domestic smoke alarms function properly. They are lifesavers and by getting into the approximately one quarter of homes that remain without properly functioning smoke alarms, we can take an enormous step forward in reducing the lives lost and injuries caused by fire.
We recognise that sprinklers have a part to play in fire safety, and we agree with the Select Committee that their installation in certain dwellings whose occupants are considered the most vulnerable warrants further consideration. We will do this as part of the current review of part B of the building regulations that deal with fire safety, which is being overseen by the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend Phil Hope, who has responsibility for fire safety. We are also playing our part to help authorities to deliver the new preventive approach, and I am delighted to inform the House that we will be announcing tomorrow the outcome of the arson control forum implementation fund. We plan to use the fund, totalling more than £9.3 million over three years, for local arson prevention initiatives throughout England and Wales.
"we have not given, and we do not intend to give, general guidance on installing sprinklers in new schools. The building regulations do not require it and we do not intend to change them."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 7 January 2004; Vol. 656, c. 168.].
How is the dialogue going between my right hon. Friend's Department and the Department for Education and Skills?
I should like to take the Minister back to what he was saying, before he gave way to Jim Knight, about the arson reduction forum. Will he confirm that the £3 million will be spent in pursuit of a target for the reduction of arson incidents that has been reduced from the Government's original 30 per cent. to 10 per cent?
First, we are talking about £9.3 million, not £3 million. Secondly, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the original target was set before the huge increase in the number of abandoned vehicles, which is the main factor behind the rise in the number of arson incidents. That increase was the product of the collapse of the scrap metal market and, because of it, the number of arson incidents has increased dramatically because abandoned cars provide an easy target for people who might be tempted, for whatever reason, to cause mischief. In the light of that, we looked carefully at what was feasible, not least because of the impact that the forthcoming end-of-life vehicle directive will have. Taking account of that, we have now set a challenging new target in order to reduce the number of fires. The original target envisaged a substantial reduction of arson incidents by now, whereas, in the intervening period, there has been exponential growth.
As I made clear to the Select Committee, which quite reasonably asked me questions on this matter, any responsible Government will look at changing circumstances and respond in a sensible and pragmatic way. There is no point in holding on to targets that have turned out not to be achievable, because that simply demoralises people when they fail to implement them. We must look at why the target could not be met—as I have explained, that was to do with the problem of abandoned vehicles—and ensure that policies are in place to deal with the problems. We must then set a new target that takes into account the changing environment. In this case, the new target will be demanding, because it will seek to drive down the number of arson events. That is what we are doing.
Would not a responsible Government have revisited the ridiculous concept whereby this Government, alone among all others, have decided that, instead of the industry being responsible under the end-of-life vehicle legislation over the next seven years, the last owner of the motor car must take responsibility? The poorest and least able people will therefore be tempted, over the next seven years, to abandon their vehicles. Is not the Minister really the victim of a silly decision by his own Government?
I shall not be tempted by the right hon. Gentleman to move into a territory that is far from my personal responsibility. I would remind him, however, that there are wider implications involved here, and that imposing such an obligation on the UK motor vehicle industry, which has gone through some very difficult times, could have proved catastrophic for the future of the remaining indigenous car producers in this country. The right hon. Gentleman might not choose to take account of those wider issues, but the Government certainly do.
I have already mentioned the vital role of the fire and rescue service in ensuring national resilience in the face of major emergencies. The Civil Contingencies Bill provides the overall framework for the Government's response. This Bill will ensure that the fire and rescue service makes an effective contribution to that response. We have already committed £188 million to provide the fire and rescue service with the capability to respond to terrorist incidents. We are also committed to funding the new communication system, known as Firelink, which I have already described, to ensure interoperability with other emergency services.
The Bill will provide clear statutory cover for this new role. It will allow the Government to set out, by order, how fire and rescue authorities should plan and respond to particular incidents: for example, deployment of mass decontamination equipment. I am sure that the House will recognise, however, that we cannot be certain that all possible threats have been identified and provided for in advance. The Bill therefore provides powers for the Secretary of State to direct fire and rescue authorities as to how to respond to particular emergencies that may emerge in the future. The Bill also provides fire and rescue authorities with the flexibility to respond to other incidents that are not defined as core functions but in relation to which they judge such a response necessary to protect life and the environment. Some may emerge, for example, in the preparation of their integrated risk management plans.
Part 2 of the Bill also provides powers to ensure the effective discharge of functions by fire and rescue authorities. Those include power to enter into arrangements for mutual assistance, also known as reinforcement schemes. The Bill will provide fire and rescue authorities with the power to work in partnership with a range of other bodies to discharge their functions. For example, some authorities may contract with local authorities, schools or other agencies or providers to help promote fire safety in their area. Others might choose to explore the contribution that alternative providers could make in the aftermath of road traffic accidents, for example in dealing with non-hazardous spills.
On collaboration with other bodies, that between the fire authority and the police in Devon in forming an arson taskforce has been extremely successful, and has seen arson reduced by 15 per cent. The fear is that because it is funded by competitive bid, that good work might not continue. What assurances can the Minister give to Devon and other authorities that have seen a reduction in arson because of such joint working?
One of the purposes of competitive bids is to encourage all authorities to look to improve their performance and to be more ambitious. We have an expanding budget for support for initiatives, however, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that good, well constructed and worthwhile projects are likely to be supported. At present, I cannot say more on the specific example that he gives.
Ultimately, these are matters for fire and rescue authorities, but the Bill will allow flexibility in terms of service delivery where it is appropriate. Firefighting, however, requires particular specialist training and expertise, and the Bill restricts delegation for extinguishing fires to those who are properly qualified such as other fire and rescue authorities and airport fire services.
Part 2 also provides the power to charge for services. Fire and rescue authorities already have the right to charge for discretionary services under the Fire Services Act 1947. There is some debate about how such powers might best be used in the future, partly prompted by the Bain report. In developing the new legislative structure, therefore, we decided to make clear what a fire and rescue authority can and cannot charge for. We will do that by order, which in the first instance will confirm our White Paper commitment to maintain the status quo. Any proposals to extend charging will be subject to further consultation. Hon. Members will, I hope, note that the Bill prevents a fire and rescue authority from charging for fighting fires.
Part 3 of the Bill covers the administration, supervision and infrastructure of the fire and rescue service. On
In most instances, it will be for fire and rescue authorities to determine how best to deliver the requirements of the national framework. We need reserve powers to intervene, however, if a fire and rescue authority is failing to act in accordance with the national framework, as that may impact on national strategies to deliver essential emergency response services. The Bill provides a power to intervene in such circumstances where existing powers within the best value regime would not apply.
No, it is not, but I put it to the hon. Gentleman that he must be aware that, given the kind of circumstances that we have to deal with and make provision for, it would be grossly irresponsible if the Government were not to have the power to intervene in extreme circumstances if an authority was failing to meet responsibilities that are fundamental to the safety of that area's population or, indeed, to wider resilience across the country. It is the action of a responsible Government to have these reserve powers. We hope that they will not need to be used, but they will be there just in case.
Does the Minister not already effectively have the power to intervene in a failing authority under the provisions of the Local Government Acts?
The Secretary of State has powers under the best value regime, but I was pointing out in response to Mr. Davey that the powers that we are considering could be used in extreme circumstances of national emergency, where the justification for intervention would be a failure to deliver not best value, but something that was, in fact, fundamental to national resilience. So it is necessary to have these additional powers, although we could still use the best value powers in other circumstances.
Equally, we need to ensure that crucial public assets and facilities can be used, for example, during a period of industrial action where official fire and rescue cover is insufficient to meet local risks and ensure public safety. Therefore the Bill will replicate the powers under section 1(1)(b) of the Fire Services Act 2003, to direct fire and rescue authorities on the use and disposal of their assets and facilities. When we introduced that Act, which we agreed would be time limited, we made it clear that we would introduce longer-term arrangements as part of this more substantive legislation. However, I should make it quite clear that other powers in the 2003 Act that empower the Secretary of State to impose a settlement are not being re-enacted. They will end, as envisaged, two years after the legislation came into effect.
The recent pay dispute and subsequent industrial action highlighted the weaknesses of the existing fire service national joint council. Indeed, the need for change was accepted by both the Fire Brigades Union and the employers in the June 2003 pay agreement, which included an agreement to review existing NJC arrangements. The White Paper made it clear that the review must deliver more effective negotiating machinery that recognises the changing roles and structure of the service and is more inclusive of the representatives of all fire and rescue service staff. Part 4 will give the Secretary of State powers to establish negotiating bodies. However, I should make it clear that, as with other reserve powers, we do not intend to make use of them if a satisfactory outcome is achieved as a result of the current discussions through the NJC machinery.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House a little more about how clauses 31 and 32 will be implemented, given that we will have a new negotiating body, but it is still not exactly clear what the regulations will be and what guidance he will be giving in respect of those regulations? I should have thought that we would not want to end up with some kind of unique industrial relations monster, whereby negotiated agreements might not be proper because the Government might have a veto through the regulations and the guidance that he proposes to introduce. Will he give us some reassurance about how that might work?
Many commentators felt that the current arrangements were probably a unique industrial relations monster that needed change. That view was widely shared on all sides, which is why Bain recommended a clearer, more straightforward and more inclusive negotiating framework; why our White Paper endorsed that; and why we have put these reserve powers—I stress that they are reserve powers—in the Bill. In the meantime, both parties to the existing agreement in the NJC undertook to renegotiate the framework in the NJC. They are currently in discussion, so the position that we have adopted is that we will wait and see what proposals they make. If those proposals meet the criteria spelled out in Bain and the White Paper, we are likely to be more than happy for them to be brought into force and for us not to use our reserve powers. If we have to use our reserve powers, we will obviously consult more widely before doing so, and any details can be made public at that point.
The Bill also allows the Secretary of State to issue guidance to any negotiating body established voluntarily or by powers under the Bill, to which that body must have regard. The Government have a legitimate interest in the outcome of pay negotiations in terms of their impact on wider public sector pay policy and the operation of the fire and rescue service. The lack of clarity about the Government's legitimate concerns in such negotiations under current arrangements became all too clear during last winter's industrial dispute. By issuing our requirements in advance of negotiations, employers and employee representatives can seek agreement in full knowledge of the Government's expectations.
Part 4 of the Bill also makes provision in respect of pensions. Existing provisions under the 1947 Act are carried forward, but with two important changes. The first recognises the importance of a more diverse work force, with women as well as men serving as firefighters; secondly, there is scope for changes to deal with some of the difficulties that fire and rescue authorities face in meeting the cost of pensions.
Part 5 of the Bill replicates existing provisions to ensure the effective supply of water for the purpose of fighting fires.
Part 6 deals with supplementary powers. In particular, it gives firefighters powers to do whatever they believe is necessary and reasonable in dealing with a fire, road traffic accident or other emergency. For example, a firefighter might need to gain entry to premises or a vehicle, or to prevent a member of the public from entering an area for their own safety. The Bill also includes powers to obtain information and to investigate the cause of a fire.
The Bill abolishes the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. Bain concluded that the CFBAC was failing to provide the strategic advice that Ministers require. He recommended a new structure to bring clarity to the roles and responsibilities of stakeholder groups. We have made good progress in establishing the new structure. The practitioners forum and the business and community safety forum are both up and running and bring together respectively the "providers" and the "users" of the service.
I hope to announce shortly the membership of the high-level group, which I will chair, to be known as the fire and rescue service sounding board. Hon. Members will note that the Secretary of State is required to consult on the exercise of his order and regulation-making powers under the Bill, including those matters for which the CFBAC acted as statutory consultee in the past.
Part 6 also replicates the existing offence of giving a false alarm of a fire and creates a power for the Secretary of State to make payments to advisory bodies. It also includes a provision to repeal the Fire Services Act 1947, along with other consequential matters.
Part 7 deals with general and miscellaneous matters. In particular, it devolves the fire and rescue service in Wales to the National Assembly for Wales and provides for pre-Royal Assent consultation for the purposes of making orders and regulations under the Bill.
"reference to the Secretary of State" will be substituted by
"a reference to the National Assembly for Wales".
The Secretary of State is also mentioned in respect of pensions, but I thought that they would remain a reserved and thus non-devolved matter. Will the Minister clarify whether that is the case?
It is our intention entirely to devolve responsibility for the fire and rescue service to the Welsh Assembly Government.
The challenges of the 21st century require a modern fire and rescue service that is better able to protect the public and save more lives. It should be a service that places greater emphasis on preventing fires and takes greater account of today's risks in deploying its resources. It should also be a service that is working closely with local communities to identify and eliminate risks, particularly those affecting the most vulnerable. It should be a more efficient service where fire and rescue authorities work together to underpin national resilience and to support each other in facing a range of challenges. The White Paper set out the Government's vision for a fire and rescue service—a vision that has been widely welcomed and endorsed, most recently by the Select Committee. The Fire and Rescue Services Bill is crucial in delivering that vision, and I commend it to the House.
I beg to move,
That this House
declines to give a Second Reading to the Fire and Rescue Services Bill because the Bill is granting to the Secretary of State too many powers to intervene which is against the thrust of the Government's stated approach to modernisation of the Fire and Rescue Service and will undermine local accountability;
because the approach to introducing new regional structures for the fire service is based on the boundaries of the Government Offices for the Regions, most of which are inappropriate for this purpose and are not sufficiently accountable in the absence of elected regional assemblies;
and because some key measures to promote fire prevention, particularly requirements for greater use of sprinklers, are not strong enough or are absent in the Bill.
As the Minister said, the Bill is the final part of a package of measures making up the Government's response to the agenda set out in Sir George Bain's report, published in December 2002. Given the existence of a string of reports dating back 20 years, the catalyst for action at this time was clearly the damaging fire dispute that rumbled on through 2002 and into 2003. Happily that dispute has been resolved, with the apparent acceptance by all sides of the agenda for change in the fire service for which Bain has called.
As the Minister pointed out, the pace of change is challenging. Some of the most significant elements of that agenda are already well advanced: integrated risk management plans are being developed, and the national fire and rescue framework has been published in draft form and is out for consultation. Tight timetables apply to both. Primary legislation to update the statutory framework in which fire and rescue services operate—which has changed very little since the Fire Services Act 1947—was always anticipated and was welcomed by Conservative Members, but this Bill goes much further.
The 2002 pay claim by the Fire Brigades Union was seized on by the Government as an opportunity to force through radical change in the focus and ethos of our fire and rescue services. The Government repeatedly set out their case that abandoning prescriptive response standards and placing greater emphasis on the community fire safety role would enhance public safety, while generating enough savings to finance a reasonable pay settlement for firefighters. The Government's key claim was that modernisation would reduce the number of accidental fire deaths in the home, and would save money that could finance the pay settlement by focusing on prevention and improved fire safety and by tailoring the deployment of firefighting capacity better to reflect risk to human life.
I am afraid that the Government's claim that the modernisation programme is primarily about saving lives is shot to pieces by their own downgrading of their public service agreement target for accidental fire death reduction. In their 2000 spending review, the Government committed themselves to reducing the number of such deaths in the home by 20 per cent., from a baseline of the average between 1994 and 1999, and to achieving that by
While the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was immersed in a frenzy of activity last summer—with the integrated risk management plans, the preparation of the Bill and the drafting of the national framework prior to consultation, all in the name of reducing the number of accidental fire deaths—Ministers were quietly abandoning their agreed targets. They have now effectively admitted that the end result of the modernisation programme—the national framework, the integrated risk management plans and the Bill—will be the slipping from 2004 to 2010 of the date for the achievement of the 20 per cent. reduction. According to my calculation, that means that the Government's new target will be met this year with 10 per cent. more deaths than under the old target. That is unacceptable from a Government who claim to put community safety at the top of the agenda.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's criticism of the targets, but he could attack either of two sets of targets—the original ones, or the new ones. What is really criminal is this: the original targets were so badly conceived and badly thought out that it was clear that the service lacked the risk management analysis that would have provided good targets. Surely the hon. Gentleman should concentrate on the fact that the targets of the past were guesses plucked out of the air, rather than being based on—for instance—the demographic figures that the Select Committee obtained from the Minister.
I understand that the original target was agreed in the spending review of 2000. I suspect that the Treasury would reject the notion that it was parcelling out money to Departments on the basis of targets plucked out of thin air. I think that the time to raise that objection was during the spending round.
Would targets not be much more credible if they were set for a date on which the present Minister was likely to be in power? Has my hon. Friend noticed that for environmental and fire targets alike, dates are constantly set so far forward that it is unlikely that the present Ministers would be in their posts, even if their Government were to continue? The real sin is for Ministers to set targets that they will never have to meet, but that someone else will.
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. One cannot help but notice that the original target date is a mere 10 weeks away. Although the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire has been one of the most enduring members of the Government—he has remained in the same place since 1997—I suspect that even he does not expect to be in his post in 2010. [Interruption.] I hope, for his sake, that he will not be in the same post in 2010.
One is tempted to ask why the Government have changed the target date. Helpfully, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Phil Hope, answered that question in a Standing Committee debate in October 2003, when he said:
He went on to assert that the new target was more realistic. It is a pity that the Government did not think of that when the targets were set during the spending review, but at least the Under-Secretary came clean. When the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire gave evidence to the Select Committee, he allowed his customary intellectual rigour to desert him momentarily—if I may say so—by trying to argue that pushing the date back from 2004 to 2010 did not represent a relaxation of the target.
Let me be absolutely clear. We support the objectives of maintaining optimum effectiveness and efficiency in our fire and rescue services and ensuring that they are able to deliver their traditional role to the community and deal with the heightened risk of terrorism while focusing on prevention at the same time. We support the abolition of a prescriptive national response standard and the introduction of local flexibility to match the deployment of resources to locally identified risks. We support the ending of anachronistic working practices, discipline procedures and career paths. We positively welcome the recognition of the wide-ranging role of the service by the creation of new statutory duties on fire and rescue authorities to perform the many essential rescue and support tasks that they have carried out in practice for many years, over and above their obligations under the 1947 Act. We emphasised our support for those measures throughout the fire dispute, and I do so again today. Throughout that period, however, the Government expressed their intention to reduce national prescription and thus allow more local control and flexibility.
The Bill will grant sweeping powers to the Secretary of State not only to set output targets, but to dictate how they must be achieved. It gives powers to merge existing authorities to create new combined fire authorities and to appoint members to those authorities for the first time. It gives powers to impose negotiating bodies on employers and employees in the fire service and then to give those bodies guidance that they will be obliged to follow. It gives powers to acquire, own and operate equipment and to provide services, and to require the supposedly independent fire and rescue authorities to use that equipment and purchase those services from the Secretary of State on the terms that he dictates. It gives powers to give a fire authority responsibility in the geographical area of another authority, whether the second authority agrees or not. It also gives powers to intervene in the micro-management of an authority and to order it, as Mr. Davey pointed out, to do or not do any specified thing. It even gives powers to the Secretary of State, which I am told that no Secretary of State has enjoyed since the end of the second world war, to intervene in the management of a specific fire or incident and to deploy his judgment over that of the professional senior fire officer on the scene.
Critically, the Bill also gives the Secretary of State the power to impose the national fire and rescue framework. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister drew up the document and although the Bill will give it statutory status, it will not be subject to any scrutiny by Parliament. The document lays down in considerable detail a prescriptive framework that covers every aspect of the organisation, management, operation and indeed ethos of our supposedly locally accountable fire and rescue authorities. The authorities will be required to follow the framework, and the Secretary of State will report periodically on the extent to which they are doing that.
Crucially, the comprehensive performance assessment audits of fire service authorities will take into account the extent to which they adhere to the Secretary of State's agenda, as set out in the framework.
All that sits extremely uncomfortably with the Government's stated objective of decentralisation to create a primarily community-based service. It is odd, indeed, that alongside the welcome abolition of national response standards, they are introducing a regime that will allow them to control directly from Whitehall the organisation, structure, employment practices, collaboration arrangements, procurement, training and human resources policies of every fire and rescue authority in the land, and even to take direct control of a specific fire or incident. To many Opposition Members, that looks like a step backwards, not forwards.
The Government's rhetoric during the dispute was of local empowerment, flexibility in delivery and the withdrawal of Whitehall from the running of fire services. Somewhere along the line, those good ministerial intentions gave way to a more familiar Whitehall instinct: to manage a wholesale reorganisation of the fire service in structure, role and ethos from the Deputy Prime Minister's Office.
Even more alarming is the importation into the fire service debate of the flawed concept of the English regions. It seems that the Deputy Prime Minister believes that joined-up government means propping up one policy area by compromising another. To be frank, so long as his obsession with his regional agenda manifests itself in him running around the country publicly denouncing his Labour parliamentary colleagues as "liars" and privately infuriating the Treasury and his Scottish colleagues by telling anyone who will listen that the creation of elected regional assemblies will be a catalyst for the scrapping of the Barnett formula, the only damage he is doing is to the Labour party and the campaign to flog his regional white elephants to an already sceptical public.
Had the hon. Gentleman been at the meeting in Manchester, of which he gave a somewhat misleading description, he would have heard the only contribution on the fire service coming from someone who announced himself as a former firefighter from Merseyside, who warmly congratulated the Government on proposing the regionalisation of the fire service if an elected regional assembly is voted for in the referendum. Had the hon. Gentleman been there, he might have taken a different position.
I suspect that if I strayed into a debate on the Barnett formula, you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps when we have an opportunity to debate again—as I am sure we will—elected regional assemblies and what the Deputy Prime Minister has been telling audiences up and down the country in private at least, we can explore that matter in more detail.
Will my hon. Friend also think about the remarkable fact that when the Mott MacDonald report looked into the regionalisation of the fire service, it surprisingly enough landed on the position that it just happened to be true that the natural way to organise it into regions was to follow those regions that we already had? Is he surprised that regions that were created for quite different reasons—I was part of their creation—turn out to be exactly the regions that are suitable for the reorganisation of the fire service?
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I shall address in a moment. If he looks carefully at the Mott MacDonald report, he will see that nowhere does it claim that the existing regions with Government offices are operationally the most appropriate regions for the organisation of fire and rescue service. It limits its claim to suggesting that speed of implementation, administrative convenience and financing considerations would be facilitated by using those existing regions.
I suggest to my right hon. Friend that any consultant who makes his living from delivering reports to the ODPM would not need very well tuned antennae to realise that, if he is asked to report on the optimal configuration of any service, deciding that nine English regions is indeed the optimum might be likely to favour him for further work.
Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried away on such flights of fantasy, may I put two points to him? First, the Mott MacDonald report indicated that an optimal solution for cost-effectiveness might have been just three super-regions, but there were obvious concerns about whether that was a sensible way forward. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the Civil Contingencies Bill and the question of regional resilience planning on the basis of the regions as created for Government offices by Mr. Gummer. There is an obvious logic in the fire service relating to other emergency planning for other reasons. Consistency is clearly advantageous.
The Minister is right: consistency is advantageous, but whether consistently applying the wrong boundaries is right, I am not sure. The Mott MacDonald report considered only three options. I shall leave it to Andrew Bennett to underscore the Select Committee's conclusion that—I think that I am right in saying—although the financial case for nine regional control rooms may have been made, there has been no attempt to make a service delivery case for that configuration, which further undermines the Government's claim that modernisation is about saving lives and delivering a service rather than simply saving money.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, by mirroring the so-called regions on which the Minister is so keen, in the south-west we will end up with a lack of clarification on delivery? After all, it is a region stretching from the Isles of Scilly to Mickleton in Gloucestershire, which is nearer to Gretna Green than to Penzance, with different requirements in the conurbations of Gloucester and Swindon from those in the more remote areas of Devon and Cornwall and a further mix of areas that have a high percentage of retained firefighters, such as Devon, and those that do not.
My hon. Friend is right; I take his point. It is questionable whether a single control room can effectively provide a service across 23,000 sq km, which is what the south-west region, the largest in England, comprises. I suspect that people living at one end of that hugely extended geographical region feel that they have been deprived of their local fire and rescue services.
The hon. Gentleman will know, as Mr. Clifton-Brown is sitting next to him, that we have an alternative model in Gloucestershire that has considerable merit. However, one problem with it is that there are three different forms of accountability: the fire service is in local government control, the police have their own authority and the ambulance service has its own trust. How could that model be made more accountable by bringing those services together?
Although I dared to level a criticism at the Mott MacDonald report, I am not about to suggest that in the space of a few minutes I can review all the options and come up with the best solution. However, there is a question mark over the process that has been undertaken. Effectively, the Mott MacDonald report considered only a very limited range of options. The key question that needs to be in our minds as we consider this matter is that posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal: has anybody demonstrated that the Government office regions are the optimal configuration for delivering our fire and rescue services in future?
I was making a slightly light-hearted remark to the effect that I really do not mind the Deputy Prime Minister charging around the country obsessing about the English regions if all he achieves is to damage the campaign in favour of them and to damage the Labour party. But when that obsession spills over into a matter as important as our fire and rescue services and the safety of our communities, the Deputy Prime Minister's antics are no longer a laughing matter.
That is not to say that the Opposition do not recognise the arguments in favour of collaboration between fire brigades and the case for some areas of activity, especially those relating to anti-terrorism response, to be handled at a higher level than the individual fire and rescue authority. I say to the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire that that is virtually self-evident: it makes perfect sense from an operation viewpoint. Had the Government taken what I suggest is the obvious and natural route of imposing statutory duties on independent local fire and rescue authorities to deliver services and to do so efficiently, effectively and economically, and then provided encouragement and support for those fire and rescue authorities to collaborate voluntarily in the combinations that were most effective and most appropriate to their individual local circumstances, they would have had our support—but they did not. Instead, the Government have made the huge and unsubstantiated leap to the politically convenient conclusion that the organisation of fire services should be based on the existing English Government office regions, without producing a shred of evidence to support that conclusion.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but has he spoken with the Conservative spokesman on homeland security, Patrick Mercer, who seems to think that the Government have been very tardy in responding?
I have indeed spoken with my hon. Friend. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the key point to emerge from the discussion is not whether a higher level of organisation is needed for certain purposes, particularly anti-terrorism response, but whether the unit of organisation that the Government have chosen is the appropriate one or an arbitrary one for that purpose.
In fact, judging by the material that the Government have produced and the Select Committee's review of it, the rationale, such as it is, for regionalisation appears to lie mostly in the financial savings that the ODPM believes can be generated by regionalising control rooms. That view is based on the Mott MacDonald report, which considered only three options. No serious attempt has been made to review the geographical boundaries that are most appropriate, nor have I noticed a flicker of recognition of the absurdity of a system that will deliver one control room for 2.5 million people spread over 8,500 sq km in the north-east region, and one control room for 8 million people spread over 19,000 sq km in the south-east. Effectiveness in delivery of a critical public service on which the safety of the community depends is being subordinated to the political agenda of the Deputy Prime Minister, who insists on seeing a regional solution to every problem.
The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire has made it clear that if any of the English regions choose in a referendum to have an elected regional assembly, he will establish a regional fire authority for that region using his powers under the Bill to create a combined fire and rescue authority for a Government office region without the normal requirement, set out in clause 2, that any amalgamation of fire and rescue authorities must be shown to be in
"the interests of greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness".
Any combination of authorities must meet that requirement unless it is a combination into an authority that covers a Government office region, in which case, there are no hurdles to be cleared and no defining criteria.
The Deputy Prime Minister is not going to chance his agenda to the vagaries of a referendum. Regionalisation by stealth is already upon us in the fire service as in planning, housing, learning and skills and apparently now the police. He has imposed on fire and rescue authorities across the country a regional management board structure which was initially billed as a light touch strategic planning unit helping to ensure an adequate scale of response to the new terrorist threat, but which, it has become clear, will quickly usurp the real freedoms and independence of local fire authorities. The Minister will be empowered to direct different authorities within a region to specialise in different fields. He will be able to direct them to operate beyond their own boundaries and to allow another fire and rescue authority within theirs.
The regional management boards will take over procurement, training, human resources and other senior management functions. Inevitably, the existing brigade structure will wither, and we predict that it will only be a matter of time before the Secretary of State uses the powers that he is taking in the Bill to create fully integrated regional fire authorities. As elsewhere in the Government's regional agenda, the Government are taking powers and accountability away from local people, and are moving them upwards to a more remote, less accountable tier of regional government. The Minister has effectively admitted that if authorities escape that fate, it will only be because they are deemed to have moved so far in the direction of regionalisation on a voluntary basis through compliance with his national framework that the final step of formal amalgamation has become irrelevant.
The Minister will find that as integrated risk management plans will probably produce requirements for the redeployment of appliances and fire station closures, local communities—already sceptical about modernisation, which they think is a euphemism for cuts—will be less willing to accept decisions that are made further away. The Government are fundamentally confused about what they are seeking to achieve.
Well, they want a community-focused, civilianised service operating at local level and emphasising improved fire prevention and community safety—which, as the Select Committee notes, will require close liaison with other local services and will be best provided and managed at local level—while at the same time they appear, quite understandably, to want a more military-style, heavyweight response to potential terrorist threats, including high-capability, specialist mobile teams for urban search and rescue, decontamination and similar work. Such units have to work on a wider basis than that provided by a fire authority, and we accept that that is sensible. However, that aspect of fire and rescue services work, vital as it is, will only ever account for a tiny percentage of their role. The Government appear to have abandoned the local structure and local control that would be the optimum for the large majority of the new services' work, which will be community-focused, and instead have chosen to subject them to a regional structure in the name of anti-terrorist resilience, based on regional boundaries that are irrelevant and largely inappropriate to their operational needs.
In many ways, the hon. Gentleman is underselling his argument. The draft national framework deals not just with anti-terrorist activities but with issues such as training, control rooms, procurement, personnel and human resources and specialist services such as fire prevention.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I mentioned those issues a moment ago. Conservative and, indeed, Liberal Democrat Members are extremely familiar with the nature of the assurances that have been given by the Government in their seven years in office. The Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box, introducing a Bill that includes sweeping powers of intervention and huge centralising measures. He says that the Government are never going to use them— they are simply reserve powers that they need for a rainy day. The truth is that, we just do not trust them to use those powers only in the limited areas that the Minister has tried to suggest to the House. When we read the supporting documents, it becomes clear, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly said, that the regionalisation of the service extends far beyond anti-terrorist activities.
Is it not the case that the things that the hon. Member Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) mentioned are things in relation to which an economy of scale could be achieved? That would be welcomed by council tax payers, who are now being given separately itemised precepts for fire authorities. Operational decisions, by contrast, can be perfectly adequately organised on a divisional basis by divisional commanders within a regional structure.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right. If the structure of fire brigades is emaciated following the withdrawal of functions to the regional tier, the brigades themselves may wither, and the case for merging them will become unstoppable. I suspect that that is the Minister's medium-term intention.
The savings would be more credible if the Government could give any details of them. However, they have said specifically that they could not give details of the savings, either in personnel or in overheads. Surely this is a chimera.
My right hon. Friend is right. I do not want to misquote the Select Committee, but either the main body of the report or one of the evidence statements draws attention to the history of projected savings, and the fact that they are less than those originally predicted at the time that the amalgamation of local government units takes place.
The structure proposed by the Government may save a bit of money on control rooms, but the evidence is disputed—[Interruption.] Yes, it is disputed. If the Minister reads the evidence in the Select Committee report, he will see that commentators with first-hand knowledge of such matters dispute the savings to be made. There will be huge transitional costs and there will be many redundancies in the discrete control rooms that have to be shut down.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's paranoia and his general view of regionalism, but on the specific issue of the costs of control rooms, the figures have all been spelt out. I must tell Mr. Gummer that the figures have been made available to the public. They show that the average cost of handling a call in London is £18, but it is £168 on the Isle of Wight, so it is simply not credible to say that there is no scope for savings.
If that is the Minister's attitude, he will want to do something about policing services in rural areas. Of course, we accept that unit costs of activities will be higher in areas where populations are sparse or isolated. However, the Mott MacDonald report did not include a careful analysis of the transitional costs, such as the cost of closing down existing control rooms and making their staff redundant, which are needed to achieve the proposed long-term savings. We cannot expect staff in the existing control room in Cumbria to go down to Manchester every day to work in the new regional control room—substantial redundancies and relocation will be involved. Whatever the structure imposed by the Minister achieves in relation to anti-terrorist work—I make no comment on that—it clearly will not support or enhance in any way the delivery of community-based fire and safety roles, which the Government have put at the heart of the function of modern fire and rescue services.
Beyond the overarching questions of structure, control and accountability which are at the core of the Bill, there are other issues that call for further explanation by the Under-Secretary in his winding-up speech. The catalyst for the whole process was the industrial dispute in 2002–03. The Bill's provisions on industrial relations, Ministers' reserve powers and the way in which they intend to use them are crucial. Clause 31 gives the Secretary of State the power by regulation to create one or more negotiating bodies for the fire services. Only contracts negotiated by a body thus constituted would be enforceable under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Clause 32 gives the Secretary of State the power to issue those negotiating bodies with guidance to which they must have regard in their deliberations. In other words, he sets up the negotiating bodies, then tells them what to do.
The draft national framework makes it clear that contingency planning cannot be based on the assumption that military support on the scale provided in the winter of 2002–03 would be available again in the case of a national strike. Given the current overstretch of the armed forces, the further cuts looming on the horizon, and the possible privatisation of the RAF specialist fire and rescue capability under the airfields support services private finance initiative, we must assume that only limited military support would be available to maintain public safety in a future industrial dispute.
Ensuring the safety of the public must be the Government's principal concern in this matter, and it must also be the House's principal concern as we scrutinise the Government's proposals. If the Government cannot guarantee military back-up to ensure public safety in the case of a national strike, they must demonstrate how they will use the powers that they are granting to themselves to eliminate the risk to public safety posed by strike action in the fire and rescue services of a type and nature that would place public safety at risk.
If the Bill reaches Committee, we will want to understand in detail how the Minister envisages using the powers in clauses 31 and 32. The powers are clearly not reserved powers because he has already said that he regards the prospect of voluntary agreement between the parties on new negotiating machinery as remote. If, as Conservative Members suspect, he intends to use those powers to fragment and control the negotiating process to ensure that negotiations with middle management, which we might previously have thought of as the senior operational ranks, are conducted separately from negotiations with rank and file firefighters, he may be able to convince us that he has a robust plan for ensuring that cover would remain available at an acceptable level to ensure public safety during any reasonably foreseeable future dispute. If we get there, I look forward to having that debate with him.
It is probably unwise to take the House's decision for granted.
The Minister told the House that he was incorporating into the Bill all the provisions, bar the one that allowed him to impose pay and conditions, of the Fire Services Act 2003, and those provisions form clause 29. I hope that he is slightly uncomfortable about incorporating wholesale powers to direct the use and disposal of equipment and premises on a permanent basis. At the time, the Minister told the House that those provisions were short-term, backstop measures strictly related to the immediate prospect of renewed industrial unrest in the service. [Interruption.] If, as I did only a couple of hours ago, the Minister consults the record, he will find that that is what he said.
We also need the Minister to clarify the Government's approach to local negotiation of conditions, which has traditionally occurred within the fire service. Clause 32 appears to rule out local negotiations on pay—for example, London weighting—and conditions of work. If that is so, he is contemplating a wholesale further erosion of the independence of individual fire and rescue authorities. Perhaps the Under-Secretary who is responsible for fire safety can clarify that point in his winding-up speech.
There is considerable concern about clause 19, which provides for a charging regime. Under the 1947 Act, fire authorities have been able to charge for duties other than their statutory duties—that is to say for everything that they do except for extinguishing fires. It is, however, very rare that fire authorities levy a charge for extracting accident victims from the wreckage of their cars. The Bill extends the statutory duties of fire and rescue authorities to include road accident attendance, yet the prohibition on charging for fire attendance has conspicuously not been extended to cover the new statutory duty in relation to road accidents. The power to charge for a statutory function is directly at odds with the general exclusion of such charges in the Local Government Act 2003. [Interruption.] The Minister is mumbling that he said in his speech that there would be no change to the status quo, which is that fire authorities are not allowed to charge for their statutory functions.
If the hon. Gentleman checks the record, he will see that I made it clear in my speech that any changes to the status quo would be made only after consultation. I gave that clear undertaking and hope that he will accept it.
I am not sure whether "after consultation" satisfies me. The Minister knows that I am a reasonable person and his reassurances usually satisfy me, but not that one.
I ask the Under-Secretary to give a categorical commitment in his winding-up speech that the Government will not allow charging for road accident extraction. There is a fear that as part of the agenda of extracting savings from modernisation—I have read the Bain report and noted Bain's enthusiasm for charging as a source of revenue—the Government have a hidden agenda to transfer on to the motorist through higher insurance premiums the cost of road accident rescue work by charging for it.
The Minister has clearly given himself the power to do that under the Bill. Unless we receive that assurance from the Under-Secretary in his winding-up speech, he will cause alarm to England's 27 million hard-pressed motorists, who have come to expect that they will be treated as nothing more or less than this Government's milch cow.
I cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with that. As he knows from reading the Select Committee report, I made it absolutely clear in my evidence—the Committee clearly endorsed this view—that we were being cautious about that whole area. It is one of the few areas of the Bain report that we had not wholeheartedly welcomed, because we could see real risks of the possibility of charging leading in some cases to perverse outcomes. That is why we have adopted an extremely careful, pragmatic approach, and said, "No change to the status quo without careful consideration."
I am grateful to the Minister for that, but I do not think I heard the categorical commitment that I seek, which is that the Government will not allow charging for road accident extraction.
I thank my hon. Friend for at least trying to extract a commitment from the Minister, and I share with his concerns about charging. However, will he go into detail as to the support that there might be among Conservative Members for certain aspects of charging? I am thinking in particular of the London fire brigade, which, as has rightly been pointed out, would have an important part to play in relation to civil contingency matters. There may be important training that the fire brigade can carry out for which it is currently prohibited from charging. That would obviously give great benefit, not just to fire brigade funding, but, more importantly, to the community at large.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, because the other side of the coin is that fire authorities are allowed to charge—some do so—for consultancy services that they provide, quite properly, to large businesses, designers of commercial premises and so on. They set their charges for that. Under the regime in the Bill, the charges that they can make for such non-emergency work will be limited to cost recovery, taking one year with another. So, there is an issue and I know that the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority in particular considers that it has a marketable brand in fire consultancy, which it would like to be able to exploit. That matter will probably be considered further in Committee.
The Bill provides, as now, for the appointment of fire service inspectors. There has been much debate, during the dispute and since, about the role of the fire service inspectorate. It would be helpful if the Minister fleshed out for the House the Government's current intentions, which are not discernible from the Bill. [Interruption.] I asked the Minister specifically for his current intentions. The White Paper is seven months old.
The Minister has made clear his intentions to use the powers under clause 28 to impose a uniform communications system on all fire authorities. Will he confirm that the Firelink system that he proposes is based on the TETRA—terrestrial trunked radio—technology, which has run into huge public resistance over the siting of masts for the police system? If so, does he have any concerns about the vulnerability that comes from imposing such a controversial system— [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, and I am grateful to him for that clarification. Perhaps there will be some elaboration in the winding-up speech.
On pensions, the Bill largely replicates the current provisions while enabling the introduction of a funded scheme. The Minister knows that the pension crisis is probably the single greatest threat to the financial stability of fire and rescue services—at least a quarter of the budget of large fire authorities will be going on pensions within the next couple of years. Will he tell the House what thinking lies behind the pensions provisions, and what plans the Government have to defuse that time bomb, which is ticking under the service?
A significant number of provisions re-enact provisions of the 1947 Act. Is the Minister entirely satisfied that an opportunity is not being missed to update those provisions to deal with 21st century challenges? For example, clause 47 re-enacts the provisions with regard to false alarms of fire, but does not extend them to deal with false alarms in respect of other types of emergency with which the fire and rescue services will now deal as statutory obligations.
Similarly, in relation to powers of entry, I note that the Bill does not give firefighters the power, which they tell me they need, to break into premises to prevent the outbreak of fire where that is imminent. The provisions in clause 36 prohibiting the employment of police seem—perhaps this is accidental—to exclude the possibility of a fire authority entering into contractual arrangements with a local police force to discharge some or all of its road traffic accident duties, although it would be able to enter into such an arrangement with a private sector provider.
All those areas can be further scrutinised and amended, but the regionalised structure, operating within a prescriptive framework dictated by the Secretary of State, which the Government are proposing, cannot. The bureaucratic regional management boards; enforced amalgamation of functions between authorities; the imposition of regional control rooms with huge transitional costs, even where authorities have responded to the Deputy Prime Minister's exhortations and already established joint control rooms; and the Secretary of State's ability effectively to control—through the powers in the Bill and through the mechanism of the comprehensive performance assessment audit procedure requiring conformity with the national framework—every last detail of the operation, management and even the ethos of a fire and rescue service are not susceptible to refinement or amendment. They go to the heart of the Government's approach to the challenge of creating a 21st century fire service.
In our view, the Government's approach is entirely wrong. Instead of reinforcing the existing authorities, as well as encouraging genuine and voluntary collaboration between them in the discharge of their functions so that the existing structures could respond appropriately and flexibly to the new statutory duties and challenges being imposed on them, the Government have chosen to embark on a wholesale reorganisation of the service—exactly the kind of restructuring that Bain explicitly cautioned against. [Interruption.] Yes he did.
At the same time, the Government have downgraded targets for reducing both accidental fire deaths and deliberate fires, and introduced the red herring of English regional politics to the equation. We will be left with a fire service contorted into a shape dictated by the Deputy Prime Minister's agenda for the English regions and convulsed by structural and organisational change when it should be focusing on an operational response to the new challenges of defending public safety that the Bill places squarely on it.
By the Government's own admission, all that change and upheaval will deliver more, not fewer, accidental fire deaths over the next six years as they backtrack on the targets that were already in place. The objective of creating an efficient fire and rescue service that can deal effectively with traditional and new threats, as well as community fire safety and prevention, is sound. In the Bill, however, and in the other parts of the package, it has become distorted to the point of destruction by the centralising instinct of the Whitehall machine and by the Deputy Prime Minister's regionalising instinct.
I therefore urge the House to support the reasoned amendment standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and to send the Government back to the drawing board to produce a new Bill that is focused on the needs of our local communities and shorn of the Whitehall control and the regional dogma that pervade this one.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate—but having listened to Mr. Hammond for 51 minutes, I must say that I am rather disappointed that he did not have more to say about what he would do were he in office. In particular, a few remarks about looking at the fire service and trying to achieve a consensus that would last at least a few years would have been far better than all that carping.
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman's comments on the targets. He seems to assume—this is a mistake that I would often accuse the Government of making—that once a target is set it is achieved. The key thing about cutting the number of deaths in the next few years is not the target but the reality, so I stress to him that if we have a target that cannot be achieved, it is better to be honest about that than to hope that some miracle will occur to allow us to reach it.
I welcome the Bill, which is well designed and will serve the country well. I also welcome the Government's commitment to a modern fire service.
When the Select Committee's inquiry took place, I was impressed by the fact that a great deal of evidence came in that was supportive of what the Government were doing in broad terms, but questioned some of the detail. I believe that the Select Committee's report is a useful document, and I place on record my thanks to our two advisers, Jeremy Beech and Tony Taig, for the help that they gave us. I thank all those who submitted evidence to the Committee and all those who allowed us to subject them to questioning. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister, who greatly enlightened our final sittings on the Bill.
We must recognise that the fire service has a good record. It has considerably reduced the number of deaths and injuries as a result of fire. I accept that there are a few blips, including arson, particularly in schools, where we have not done as well as we should. However, we must recognise the dedication of those who work in the service and the fact that they have done extremely well. We have only to make the comparison between the number of lives that are lost because of fires—about 350 to 380 a year—and the 10 times that number that are lost on the roads, to recognise that we have achieved a great deal.
None the less, we cannot be satisfied with the present level of deaths, serious injuries or the loss of property as a result of fires. If we are to go forward, we must move from an emergency service into a service that is involved in prevention. All the emphasis in recent years has been placed on trying to get fire engines to fires a bit more quickly, but it is clear that in almost every incident, that would not make that much difference. With a kitchen fire—a chip pan fire, for example—the key factor is how quickly somebody telephones the fire brigade rather than trying to deal with the incident themselves. On the whole, the problem highlighted to members of the Select Committee was that almost half of those who die as a result of fire are dead before anyone contacts the fire station or the control room. It is the people who would be in that group whom we must try to rescue, and the only way to do that is to move successfully into the introduction of prevention measures.
All the evidence showed that sprinklers can play an important part, especially in schools, although some open-plan designs and other factors must be considered. Sprinklers are particularly important in accommodation for the vulnerable, including the elderly and those with learning difficulties or mental health problems. Another factor is the still significant number of elderly people who smoke in bed. If lighted cigarettes get on to bedding, there is little chance that the fire brigade will be able to do anything—but if there is a smoke alarm that sounds within the building, and a sprinkler system is in place, there is a chance that something can be done. I argue strongly that building regulations should be reviewed quickly so that sprinklers are installed in far more of the buildings that accommodate such people. Those who are responsible for housing associations that provide accommodation for the elderly should examine the idea of putting sprinklers into existing properties.
Would the hon. Gentleman add houses that are in multiple occupation to his list of buildings that should have regulations about sprinklers?
Yes, I would include those premises in my list. I am assured that it is becoming increasingly possible to retro-fit sprinklers into some buildings. I understand that there is slight hesitation on the part of the industry, because at the moment, I believe, we have the amazing achievement that there has not been a fatality in any building where a sprinkler has been in place. However, that is because most sprinklers are in industrial buildings, and there is a slight worry that if they were installed in more difficult buildings the record might not be so good. Perhaps we should give them a different name. The idea that fires can be damped down by the use of a sprinkler system seems to be an extremely good one.
The hon. Gentleman will know that in addition to sprinkler systems there are misting systems, which are easy to retro-fit in places such as care homes.
I accept that. I do not claim to be an expert; I claim only that I have read and listened to a great deal of evidence on these issues.
It is prevention that is important. We heard good evidence from Merseyside and from authorities elsewhere about getting wired smoke alarms into place, and installing battery-powered alarms where wired ones cannot be placed. We must ensure that in some dwellings 10-year batteries are used, and are fitted in such a way that an enterprising seven-year-old, with the use of a ladder, cannot remove the battery to use it to power a Christmas toy, or anything else.
It is clear that we need to put work into those areas. There was a strong plea to the Select Committee from the fire officer for Cornwall, Mr. Howell, who drew attention to the danger of candles. He said that many people wanted to use candles in domestic situations but did not take into account the problems of draughts, curtains and flimsy material. It is important that the prevention message is put across. Merseyside has one of the best records in that respect, and it appears that it has rather more money at its disposal than some other fire authorities. It is important that support be given. A great deal of the money that is provided appears to be allocated on the basis of what was given the previous year and the year before that. Money is provided on the basis of the existence of docks and other industries, without modern circumstances being taken into account. We must examine the formulae for the allocation of money.
In addition to prevention we must take account of new problems and introduce imaginative solutions. The end-use directive on cars is turning out to be a farce. It will cost a lot of money if people burn cars. It would be a much more imaginative approach if some fire authorities and local authorities were to provide a small sum to encourage car owners to take their vehicles to a place where they could be disposed of properly. To pay a small sum to someone to bring in the vehicle will be much cheaper than sending a fire engine to deal with a fire. Even if the car is not burnt out, it will eventually be necessary to haul it off the embankment or wherever somebody has pushed it to get rid of it. We need an imaginative approach.
I was disappointed when Conservative Members questioned the need to get people from the ethnic minorities into the fire service. Their presence will be important in some areas if we are to get prevention measures to work, because people from ethnic minorities can explain problems in terms that will be acceptable to others in those communities. In the course of a different inquiry, into social cohesion, the Select Committee went to Oldham. We were worried about some things, but we were impressed by the way in which the local fire service had recruited people from the ethnic communities, who were able to do much more of the talking to people from their own communities.
It is important also to get many more women into the fire service, especially in the prevention role. I know of someone who was resistant to the fitting of a smoke alarm in their hall because it spoiled the decor. I suspect that someone with a little more sensitivity than some men have when it comes to decor might have had a better chance of persuading that individual to have the smoke alarm fitted. This is a dangerous area, but I suggest that a more balanced work force within the fire service would work better.
I do not know why the Government are so slow to get rid of the archaic disciplinary procedures, which everybody thinks are crazy. They must go, and I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate, he will tell us when that will happen.
I am disappointed that we have not heard more about the retained service. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] It is all very well for the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, Mr. Hammond, to agree, but I hardly remember him mentioning the retained service. When people employed as firefighters are not fighting fires, which is most of the time, they can undertake prevention measures, but the difficulty for the retained service is that when its members are not fighting fires, they are at their workplace. When the Minister appeared before the Select Committee, he pointed out that they could introduce an ethos of fire prevention into those workplaces, but the retained service requires further consideration.
We must give greater recognition to employers with such a public-spirited attitude that they will let their employees have time off to act as retained firemen. We should also recognise the considerable role played in the retained service by many self-employed people who give up their time. More consideration must be given to how we turn the retained service into both an emergency service and a prevention service.
I am sorry that I did not have time to mention every single aspect, but will the hon. Gentleman underline the fact that there is a 20 per cent. shortfall in the number of retained firefighters? Unless that shortfall is addressed it will be impossible to deliver the modernisation programme, certainly in rural areas.
I accept that point.
The next issue is rather delicate. It touches on some of the changes that are needed in the fire authorities—that is, in the people who serve on those authorities. With the abolition of bodies such as the Greater Manchester authority, we ended up with fire bodies for a whole metropolitan area. They were, in a sense, second-hand authorities. We put this point to Jeremy Beecham of the Local Government Association. The trouble has been that in many of those areas—this includes the proposals that the Tories put forward for some of the joint boards where they introduced new unitary authorities—it is not the most dynamic councillors who join the fire authority. A leader of a council looks round and knows that he wants key people in education, social services and so on, and in order to keep the political boat sailing, he thinks, "So-and so has to go somewhere. Let's send him to the fire authority."
I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to get away with that. As both a former member of Essex county council and a former member of Essex fire authority, I claim to be in some small way dynamic. He must understand that every county councillor performs several roles, and would not serve exclusively on one committee or authority.
I thought the hon. Lady was on the county council when the council was the fire authority—in other words, the fire authority was a main committee of the county council. In my view, we get good fire authorities in that situation, and because they are part of the county council, they get the support of the other officers of the county council as well. The arrangement works well. I am concerned about the situation that has developed in quite a few places where unitary authorities were removed from those counties and a joint board was established, with some members from the county council and some from the unitary authority. I am also worried about the situation in the metropolitan areas, with a certain number of people coming from each of the councils.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for supporting the retention of the county councils, which is implicit in his comments about county council structures. Which does he think is the better system—the present system, where there is some democratic accountability with elected members, or the system proposed in the Bill, where the Secretary of State has power to appoint almost half—49 per cent.—of the members?
In the three northern regions, the best solution would be for the elected regional assembly to be responsible for the fire service. That would be a first-class way of taking matters forward. My plea to those who appoint people to fire authorities is to make sure that they send some of the most able people. It is a significant challenge to the country to get the fire service working well.
On pensions, the Government must sort out the issues quickly. The present situation is a legacy of fire authorities that thought it was easier to pension people off than face difficult decisions, and now the bill is coming in.
I am not confident that the Audit Commission has the matter sorted out, either. We must introduce more urgency into that process.
As for the regional agenda, control rooms can work perfectly well in that framework, provided we get the new technology so that if someone phones in to report a fire, they do not have to say where it is—that information will come up on the screen, because the cell system that operates with mobile phones makes it possible to identify where every phone call comes from. That is fundamental to making the regional control rooms work.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I would not want him to be misleading, although I accept that he is not doing that deliberately. Where I live, which is a very rural part of Gloucestershire, my phone comes up with three different exchanges on different days of the week, so how would the fire authority be directed to the fire in such a case? The system might work in an urban setting, but it will not work very well in a rural setting.
Has my hon. Friend considered joint control rooms for the fire and ambulance services? How would that work in an area such as the west midlands? From time to time such ideas have been bandied about.
I have listened to the arguments about joint control, but the fire service has convinced me of the benefits of a separate fire service control.
On charging, some difficult questions need to be asked. The suggestion from the Opposition that the motorist would pay is a red herring. Serious questions arise with regard to animals; in some situations the fire service has difficulty dealing with them. It is easy to get a cat down from the tree for an elderly lady without charge, but if it is a matter of getting a prize bull out of a slurry pit—I cannot think of anything much worse than trying to do that—and significant expense might be involved, the question arises whether it would be preferable to shoot the bull humanely. There are issues that need careful consideration.
I hope that the Minister will reply. I do not expect him to get into the slurry pit, but I expect a reply.
I welcome the Bill. Some improvements could be made in Committee, but it is high time we had a fire service that is both efficient in emergencies, as the service is today, and highly efficient in preventing fires.
The House is doubly grateful to Andrew Bennett, first for the balanced report that his Select Committee has produced—I hope that he does not see too much of my speech as based on some of his Committee's analysis—but also for taking on in a frank and brave way the fact that some councillors, not necessarily on the types of authority about which he was specifically talking, may not be of the same calibre as other councillors. His mailbag may cause him to regret making that statement, but it has a kernel of truth, and those with some honesty will recognise that.
I shall spend most of my speech criticising the Bill, and the Minister would not expect it to be otherwise; after all, we are the constructive and effective Opposition. But I want to put it on record that we broadly welcome the overall thrust of the ideas behind the Bill—the need to modernise the fire and rescue service—a point made by Mr. Hammond. I think the Minister will admit that throughout the recent dispute, we gave the Government broad support and agreed with the Bain review that certain measures needed to be introduced urgently; they had been put off by previous Governments for far too long. To the extent that the Bill meets that agenda, it is welcome, particularly the emphasis on fire prevention, which I think has broad support. Updating the Fire Services Act 1947 is vital, as is modernising work practices, and putting the saving of lives at the forefront of our policy has to be right. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made much of the change in the target. I think the Government feel some embarrassment about that, and perhaps the Minister could have regretted the fact that the Government got the target wrong more publicly in the first place, but the hon. Gentleman went rather too far in his analysis, suggesting that the Government would downplay the objective of saving lives. The fact that the Bill has that at its forefront gives the lie to that rather cheap analysis.
The problem with much of the Bill is that it goes against the Government's stated aims. The Government, in a number of their documents, most recently in the "Draft Fire and Rescue National Framework 2004/05", stress the importance of developing local solutions for local needs. The document sometimes uses great rhetorical language—that one size will not fit all; that there is no national blueprint, and so on. The thinking behind the integrated risk management plans, at the centre of the work, is that local discretion and flexibility are key. But when one starts to look at the details of the Bill, one sees the sticky fingers of the Secretary of State all over it, in clause after clause.
The Minister will try to defend that by saying that those are reserve powers, but I have never seen so many reserve powers in a Bill. When we debated other Bills, such as the Greater London Authority Bill, the Government took the same approach, as they did on the local government finance regime and capping. But these reserve powers tend to be used rather too frequently. The Minister suggests that the Government do not want to use them very often, but some of the nods and winks that one gets from reading the draft framework suggest that the Government may be looking to use some of the reserve powers rather more quickly than they have on previous occasions, and that is a major concern.
The other concern is on the approach to regionalisation. The Minister is well aware that Liberal Democrats have a different attitude to regionalisation from Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen. We have no problem with the idea of elected regional assemblies; we support them, and we have argued that the Government should go faster and deeper. But there is a huge problem with the way in which the Bill approaches regionalisation, as set out in the Conservative's amendment and in ours, and that is that it uses completely the wrong boundaries. That was debated earlier: the boundaries for the Government offices for the regions were not designed for this purpose, and that is a major problem. Moreover, although the Bill puts fire prevention at the top of its list, in some of the measures that are required to promote fire prevention the Government are being rather slow, and I shall come to the issue of sprinklers later.
I shall now deal in more detail with the regional aspect. The Government's intention on regionalisation is not clear from the documents. The Minister tried to clear this up in his opening remarks, but, if anything, he has left some of us more confused. There do not appear to be any real principles in either the draft framework or the White Paper on how that move should go. The Minister seems to be suggesting that the Secretary of State—again—will decide whether the local fire authorities are doing the job that the Government want, and if not they will regionalise. That is not a principle. That is not some sort of criterion that we can look at objectively and say, "Okay, we understand what would happen and how the move would develop." It is far too random. We do not know at what speed it will develop, so there is a degree of uncertainty, and that is not good for planning or for developing the integrated risk management plans which are so important and which have cross-party support. It is not clear how the regionalisation will happen in those areas that will not have a referendum on elected regional assemblies.
When it comes down to the details, it is unclear how the regional management boards that are described in a little more detail in the draft framework will relate to local authorities. Yes, they have the six tasks that are set out in the draft framework, but how they will relate to the local fire and rescue authorities is not clear. The Government need to say much more on that, because if we are to have true accountability, we need to understand where the buck stops. Will it stop with the regional management board over the next few years, or with the local fire and rescue authority? After all, it is the local fire and rescue authority that will be setting the council tax precept, so our voters will want clarity on that. Will the regional management board be able to demand resources from the local fire and rescue authorities in its areas and force up the council tax in certain areas, with no accountability to the people in that area? So far, we do not know the answers to the key questions, and the Government must be a little clearer.
When the regional management board goes about deciding something like the regional control centre, how will the decision be taken? If one local fire and rescue authority says, "Hey, regional management board, we would like it in our area," and another says it would like it in its area, what criteria will apply? Will the Minister give a clear indication when he replies that that decision will be taken on the basis of the Government's published criteria, not by some political process that is not transparent? We need to be clear how such decisions will be taken.
Our fundamental problem with the Government's approach to regionalisation is that it appears that they are prepared to see the development of regional fire and rescue authorities in the absence of elected regional assemblies. We have no problem with regional fire and rescue authorities where there are elected regional assemblies. There is a lot of sense in that. The key thing though is that there be democratic accountability for the decisions; for the way in which taxes are levied to pay for the services. In many ways it could improve quality, transparency and efficiency. We accept that part of the Government's agenda. But we are worried that the Secretary of State will be able to come to the House with an order for those areas that do not have elected regional assemblies and say, "I want combined fire and rescue authorities on a regional basis," and then set up another regional quango.
Has the hon. Gentleman thought that those areas most likely to vote for an elected assembly are those where the region itself is most sensible and most clearly correlates to local feeling, and those regions that are least likely to be a sensible unit are those that will be least likely to vote for a democratic system? In that circumstance, will not the Deputy Prime Minister be forcing on the most inconvenient area a non-democratically controlled system simply because he has got the region wrong?
The right hon. Gentleman anticipates my argument. My concern throughout our debates on the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill was that the Government are accepting the boundaries that the right hon. Gentleman's Government produced for completely different reasons. I know that the Minister is worried that regions outside the three northern regions—for example, the west midlands, the south-west and the south-east—are unlikely to vote for a regional assembly because their boundaries are so bizarre and reflect no regional identity or community that could conceive of itself as a region.
If the Secretary of State imposes fire and rescue authorities on regions defined by the current boundaries, and boundary reviews are carried out for those regions—as will be necessary if there are ever to be elected regional assemblies, because on the current boundaries many of them will never vote for them—a huge waste of public money might be involved. For example, regional control rooms could be set up to serve all the millions of people who live in the south-east. In future, people may look at that region and say, "This won't work—no one is going to vote for an elected regional assembly for the south-east, so we need to break it up into two regions." The response will be, "Hold on—we've got this new all-singing, all-dancing, expensive fire control room, so maybe we won't redesign the regional boundaries." Giving the Secretary of State the power to impose regional fire authorities in certain regions might prejudice a future regional boundary review, which would be completely wrong and would go against democratic reforms of the sort that the Government say they want to introduce.
I put three considerations to the hon. Gentleman. First, he chose several regions to illustrate his thesis that, on the current boundaries, people in regions other than the northern regions will not be attracted to vote for assemblies. Does he not recognise that the eastern region—East Anglia—has a real sense of cohesion, although the evidence from our soundings suggests that at the moment it has little appetite for an elected regional assembly?
Secondly, we have obviously made it clear that we are committed to establishing a regional framework only where there is a vote in favour of an elected regional assembly. The reserve powers are to ensure effective regional co-ordination on matters such as anti-terrorism preparation that have to be dealt with if the voluntary regional management boards do not deliver.
Thirdly, I know that the Liberal Democrats would love to throw everything up in the air and begin to reconsider all the boundaries, but will the hon. Gentleman tell the House how it is possible to proceed quickly, as he urges, to establish the new arrangements for the fire and rescue service, while opening up an inevitably protracted and difficult discussion about boundaries, which, whenever it has happened in the past, has resulted in years of utterly fruitless debate?
The Minister accuses Liberal Democrats of trying to have it both ways. That is not so. We have no argument with the Government's quickly putting in place tough measures to deal with the terrorist threat, but as I told the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, their proposals on regionalisation in the absence of an elected regional assembly go much further than that. There is nothing wrong with regional management boards considering the terrorist threat and ensuring proper co-ordination is in place quickly, but we do not support the Government in going much further than that. Our position is entirely consistent.
The Minister keeps saying that the provisions on regional management boards and regionalisation outside areas that have a referendum are simply anti-terrorist measures, but it does not say that in the Bill or in the draft national framework. In fact, as I suggested to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, the Government are saying that if local fire and rescue authorities do not proceed very quickly—within the next quarter—along the Government's lines, these measures, which go way beyond terrorism, will be imposed. Either the Minister has not read his own draft national framework or he is not being completely transparent with the House.
The eastern region contains both Caister-By-Sea in Norfolk and Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire. How can there be, as the Minister suggests, connections of any kind between, for example, Luton and Trimley St. Mary in my constituency? That shows just how remote from reality he is. I do not think that he has been to the eastern region at all. Most people there would find it inconceivable to be lumped together in that way. After all, it only exists because there is nowhere else to put Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
I am not sure that there is nowhere else to put Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, but I agree that the eastern region is not the same as East Anglia. That is what the Government are trying to pretend, but the more they try, the more they dig themselves into a hole. [Interruption.] The Minister suggests from a sedentary position that I should stop digging, but I am afraid that the Government have a lot of questions to answer, and if they do not, it is they who will be in a hole.
What does the Minister intend for combined fire authorities this year? Clause 2 gives him many new powers to create those authorities, but requires them to have their own budgets, separate from those of local councils, and they will have to build up reserves in order to operate separate financial accounts. As far as I am aware, he has not clarified, in this House or elsewhere, the potential impact on council tax rises and the position that the Government will take in respect of capping. As he knows, fire authorities are already under severe pressure as a result of the impact of pension rises and wage rises, and requiring combined fire authorities to build up reserves could lead to large council tax increases. He suggested that the new reserve requirements could be phased in, but will he cap authorities if, in trying to meet his requirements, they annoy him in relation to council tax?
The hon. Gentleman is probably not aware that on Friday I wrote to all fire and rescue authorities—they will probably have received that letter by now—to provide helpful advice on issues such as reserves and revenue contributions towards new dimension work, about which authorities have felt uncertainties that might lead them to take an unnecessarily cautious view of the need for provisions in their budgets. I hope that once he has seen that letter he will realise that we are dealing with the matter. We expect fire and rescue authorities, like other authorities, to budget prudently and not to impose unreasonable council tax increases.
The Minister is right—I was not aware of his letter. Will he make arrangements for it to be placed in the Library? It is germane to the debate on Thursday week about the local government finance settlement.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned transitional funding. Some of us have been unhappy with the Government's approach to giving help to those areas that are trying to modernise.
The Minister knows that during the debates at the time of the dispute, Liberal Democrat Members kept raising that issue. We argued that some areas where modernisation had already happened, especially rural areas that rely mainly on retained firefighters, could not generate the same sort of savings as many urban authorities. Yet the Government are not managing their transitional funding to give extra protection to those fire authorities. Instead, they use the current allocation in the revenue support grant, which is clearly inappropriate. The Minister will say that that is under review, but it will affect authorities this year.
That does not make it right. Some authorities will be under severe financial pressure. The Government knew that because we warned them time and again, but they have done nothing about it.
Here we go again. The Liberal Democrats argue both that we must act quickly to get money to fire authorities—we intend to do that—and that they want a new formula to take account of the variations. We have discussed that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, with the LGA, and it was accepted that there could be no agreement on an alternative formula in the immediate future. The priority was therefore to ensure that the interim or transitional payment was made to fire authorities early in the coming financial year so that they could have it at the earliest opportunity. That is another example of the way in which one cannot have it both ways: one must either act swiftly or have endless debate and talking shops, which the Liberal Democrats love, and no action. We believe that it is right to take action.
I am afraid that the Minister has outlined exactly what the Government are doing. The issue has been debated for more than a year. The Government have had time to deal with it, but they are not bothered. They keep telling local fire authorities to hurry up and setting them artificial deadlines, but they cannot get their act together. The House will therefore hold the Minister to account about the matter, which is causing genuine problems on the ground.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend might tempt the Minister to go further on the subject of the transitional arrangements. The calculation in Devon is that the agreed 16 per cent. pay rise translates into a 20 per cent. increase because of the number of retained officers. How is an authority meant to resolve that?
I cannot answer that question because the Government have not given us the figures and the flexibility to do so. I am afraid that my hon. Friend must tell his constituents that the Government have again let Devon down because they have not been able to deal with an issue that we brought to their attention. I raised the matter when the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement on the White Paper on
"The Government will consider proposals for changes to the formula in the light of the working group's conclusions. Any changes to the formula would come into effect for 2005/06 at the earliest."
The changed formula will not be ready this year; it might be ready next year, if we are lucky. The Government are dragging their feet while requiring the local fire and rescue authorities to get a move on. It is one rule for the authorities and another for the Government. The Government, not the Liberal Democrats, are trying to have it two ways.
Let us consider the retained firefighters, who will suffer from some of the problems that I have mentioned, such as the transitional arrangements and the new financial regime for combined fire authorities. They tend to be the problems that affect rural areas, whose forces may suffer in the next year or two. I am disappointed that the Bill does not strengthen the role of the retained firefighters; indeed, it is hardly mentioned. We must remember that retained firefighters provide 60 per cent. of the fire cover in this country.
As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, we do not have a shortfall of full-time firefighters—it was 0.06 per cent. when I last examined the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy figures. People are queueing up to become full-time firefighters, but there is a 20 per cent. vacancy rate for retained firefighters. One would believe that the Government had already dealt with that urgent issue and produced action plans that were included in the Bill. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the Minister mentions the improvement of the pay settlement.
I have a letter from Derek Chadbon, general secretary of the Retained Firefighters Union. It states that although the implementation of the pay settlement may be beneficial to some retained firefighters, others are having their pay cut. The 7 per cent. increase has not been effected because the Government are awaiting some modernisation. That means that other elements of pay have been changed. If the Minister has examined the matter, he knows that the formula is complex. Derek Chadbon tells me that for some retained firefighters the new deal of which the Minister is so proud will mean a reduction of 10.45 per cent. in pay. The Government should be worried about that problem, but it appears nowhere on the agenda and the Minister did not mention it.
The Minister and the Government must pay much greater attention to the needs and demands of retained firefighters, who should be at the heart of modernising the fire service in many parts of the country.
I am interested to know what the hon. Gentleman proposes including in the Bill to deal with the matter. Does he believe that legislation is the answer to everything? I acknowledge that the Minister did not say much about retained firefighters in his opening remarks, but he was introducing a Bill. What legislation should the Government pass to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman identifies?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Select Committee report, one of whose seven proposals for dealing with retained firefighters' problems requires legislation—namely, entitlement to paid leave. Existing legislation provides for that for councillors, magistrates and school governors but not retained firefighters. The Government could introduce that if they chose.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the potential cut in pay for retained firefighters. Does he know that that is largely due to the extent of activity in retained fire stations? Some smaller, less busy fire stations will have a pay rise but some of the busier fire stations, especially one in Newton Abbot, which is one of the busiest retained fire stations in the country, will experience an effective cut.
My hon. Friend may be right, but the pay formula for retained firefighters is so complicated, despite the reforms, that I should not like to give him a categorical assurance that he is correct. Given his expertise, he is probably right.
The Government could examine other matters to do with retained firefighters. Again, I refer the Minister to the Select Committee report, to which I hope the Government will respond urgently. The Committee states that, although a review will take place—notably at the end rather than the beginning, when it should happen, of the process—it will not report until the summer. The usual delays will occur. The Committee proposes seven ideas that the Government could implement now before the review reports.
The seven proposals are uncontroversial. One proposes a national recruitment campaign, along the lines of that for the Territorial Army and other reserve forces. Another suggests faster processing of applications. It can apparently take more than eight weeks for an applicant to secure a medical appointment. Another proposes leading by example—the Government and the public sector could encourage staff to undertake such roles. A review of jobseeker's allowance guidelines is also suggested. I have already mentioned entitlement to paid leave. The Committee also proposes incentives to fulfil fire prevention targets in the retained firefighters' compensation package. The Government could therefore do several things now in the Bill and without legislation. I am disappointed that the Government have not gone further on the matter, which is central to the modernisation of much of our fire service.
I shall comment briefly on part 2, which deals with functions. I want to make several points that may appear minor but which are important.
One of the very good aspects of this part of the Bill is that it introduces a role for fire authorities to promote fire safety in their area, which is to be welcomed. Part 2 also confirms the role of fire and rescue authorities in respect of road traffic accidents, but there is no provision for their having a preventive role in that regard. Does the Minister think that they could take on such a role jointly with another authority? Perhaps they could link up with the highways authorities, for example. Will the Minister tell us why that has not been proposed? I am merely asking the question—this is not necessarily a criticism of the Government—and the Minister might well have a proper answer to it.
In regard to the wider comments that I made earlier, I am concerned that the Secretary of State can give many directions to any and every fire and rescue authority, yet the Bill does not make clear whether any resources will be provided in relation to those directions. We can envisage a situation in which the Secretary of State is telling the authorities to do this, that and the other, all of it having to be paid for by the local council tax payer. We need to understand how resources will follow those directions, if that is to happen at all.
An omission from part 2 that surprises me is that there is nothing about the potential for developing the co-responder role. Such a provision could fit into parts of this part of the Bill, but they do not refer to the matter specifically. In the debates that we had before the publication of the White Paper—and, indeed, even within the White Paper itself—there was general agreement that the co-responder role ought to be developed and that it should be made obligatory for fire and rescue authorities to train their staff for such a role. I was disturbed to see that that had not specifically been included in part 2.
In regard to the Select Committee report and the comments made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, the other real omission is of provisions relating to sprinklers and misting systems. I know that the Government are undertaking research into this, and that the Minister talked about the review of the building regulations that is going on. I also know that he is minded to make some moves in this area. When he gave evidence to the Select Committee, he was eloquent on the matter, saying that, in regard to reduced insurance premiums, it was possible to envisage a payback on the installation costs of sprinklers within as little as five years. It is pretty clear, therefore, that their installation represents a sensible move.
I am therefore surprised that there is nothing about that matter in the Bill. The Minister may say that the Government will look at the cost-benefit analysis and technical details and report on them, but I believe that the House should use the Bill to ensure that there is a requirement on the Government to introduce regulations in due course. Yes, they can specify the detail of, but we want to ensure that they are forced to act. Parliament should place a duty on the Minister to come to the House in due course with regulations relating to sprinklers. We do not want this to be up to the review or the Whitehall Department; we want it to be done within a specified timetable, so that the Government do not escape their responsibility. They must come to the House and provide that important fire prevention measure.
There are many other things in the Bill that I could talk about, including the Government's failure to introduce the hoped-for removal of the disciplinary proceedings or the reform—even the tearing up—of the "grey book". Also, the pension provisions in the Bill are pretty broad; it is not clear what the Government are going to do about pensions. We have seen last July's consultation paper, but there is no timetable attached to the provisions. Pensions are fundamental to budgets and to reform, and the Government need to say a lot more than they did in the national framework document, which was simply that they were reviewing the financial arrangements for funding firefighters' pensions. That was very helpful last December, but this issue has been around for a long time and it is fundamental to the budgets—[Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge says, pensions represent 25 per cent. of the budget of most fire authorities. Even though the Government's modernisation agenda has reached this stage, we still do not know what their real thinking is on this issue.
A noble objective underlies the Bill. It is to modernise and reform the fire service, at long last, with the saving of lives at the forefront of that aim. We will therefore not oppose the Bill tonight. However, because of our concerns about centralisation and the approach to regionalisation, among other things, we shall not be able to vote for it if there is a Division. We shall support the reasoned amendment tabled by the Conservatives, although it is not as good as the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats and other colleagues. None the less, it makes some valid points, and we look forward to joining the Conservatives in the Lobby tonight and to working with them to improve the Bill in Committee.
Given this week's parliamentary timetable, I suppose that the debate on this Bill is the relative calm before the storm. If we had been asked to predict that 18 months ago, however, we would have expected it to be part of the storm. That demonstrates how the debate has now moved on to the practical reform and modernisation of the fire service. The Bill has been welcomed across the Chamber, and I welcome it because it sets out a coherent basis for the future of the fire service. We have been arguing for that for some years.
All I want to do at this stage is to pose a number of questions about some elements of the Bill, many of which have already been mentioned. Clauses 1 to 4 relate to the proposed structure of the fire and rescue authorities. My understanding from what the Minister has said is that we shall, as far as possible, abide by the principles of subsidiarity and decentralisation, and that that will match up with the proposals for regional government, which have had broad support from many parties in the House. However, the Bill goes slightly beyond the view expressed by the Minister in regard to intervention when no regional assembly structure exists, and not just in relation to imposing solutions to tackle terrorism. Clause 2(2)(a) states that if
"it appears to the Secretary of State that for the purposes of this Act, in the interests of greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness, there should be a single fire and rescue authority for the combined area", he will have the power to impose such an authority. That is not just a reserve power; he will have quite a strong power. I recognise that that might be necessary at some stage, but such a power should be linked as clearly as possible to directly elected members sitting on the boards.
I share the anxieties of my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett, who expressed reservations about indirectly elected members and appointed members, and about—how can I put this diplomatically?—the quality of the interest that they would display in their engagement. We have experienced that in the past, particularly in relation to joint boards after the abolition of strategic or regional authorities. I cite our own example of the Greater London Authority. Many good members served on the joint boards relating to the services that were devolved to the authority, but there were also many who were there under sufferance, often because—let me put it as diplomatically as this—there was nowhere else for them to be placed. We should reassert the concepts of subsidiarity, devolution and what we now describe as localism, linked to direct elections.
Clauses 1 to 4 also deal with the process of consultation. When there are objections, there is the potential for a public inquiry. I would suggest that, when the Standing Committee meets to consider the Bill, it might be better to include a requirement for such an inquiry, rather than simply the potential for one. In those circumstances, the inquiry might well obtain greater support overall.
Part 2 deals with the new thrust of the service towards prevention rather than just reaction. We all welcome the recognition of the new practices, and the existing best practice that has been followed by many fire authorities around the country. Many hon. Members have drawn attention to the need for enhanced investment in prevention. I shall return to the issue of sprinklers because it has been mentioned so often. My own example is that, when the Yarl's Wood fire took place, the Government acknowledged the importance of installing sprinkler and misting systems in certain institutions. Within 48 hours of the Yarl's Wood fire, the Harmondsworth detention centre in my constituency was required to install sprinkler systems.
I gained from that requirement an understanding of the Government's commitment to and appreciation of the importance and significance of the safety benefits of sprinkler systems. Given that it was acknowledged in that small instance, I agree with Members on both sides of the House about the importance of introducing new building regulations. Improving public investment in sprinkler systems will be critical to the future prevention role of fire services.
It has been pointed out that the additional investment in prevention promised by the Government over the coming three years amounts solely to £5 million per annum—[Interruption.] Does the Minister want to comment on that?
That figure of £5 million has, I think, been circulated by the Fire Brigades Union, and it is simply inaccurate. We have a £43 million budget for fire prevention, including the work of the arson control forum. I announced in my speech that £9 million of allocations are due to be made tomorrow on arson control alone. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that the actual allocation is much greater than £5 million.
What would be helpful for all Members, as we progress further in this debate, would be a note from the Minister on the breakdown of that money. How much of it is genuinely additional, where will it be invested, and how effective does he think it will be? That would clarify a number of questions.
With regard to road accidents, clause 7 recognises the work that is undertaken by many of our fire authorities. In my constituency, our fire station is located next to the M4, near to the M25 and the A40. Much of its time will be spent on RTAs—road traffic accidents. In that regard, the Bill provides an opportunity to bring forward measures that are part of the Government's overall programme for addressing road safety generally. Rather than waiting any longer, an opportunity to include such measures in the Bill might be provided in Committee. With further, rapid consultation, perhaps across parties, in the next week or two, amendments could be brought forward to assist in that. I am sure that the firefighters will have proposals at hand with which to advise the Minister.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to make that statement. Clearly, that would provide a new direction in which the fire service could be actively engaged. Those who have the onerous responsibility of prising people out of cars and dealing with the deaths associated with road traffic accidents have many suggestions about how progress can be made on the road safety agenda that the Government have started to implement.
In addition, I am not averse to examining how some costs of road traffic accidents could be borne by measures that impact on motor insurance. The health service imposes charges on those involved in road traffic accidents, which contribute to the direct cost of such accidents. A financial incentive that not only reduced accidents but perhaps increased income, which could be spent on the prevention of road accidents, would be worth examining.
Under clauses 9 to 12 the Secretary of State takes powers to respond to particular emergencies: again, the example of terrorist attack is given, which is completely understandable. Are there problems, however, with the existing collaborative arrangements and the joint planning that is already undertaken? If so, can those be drawn out so that we can have a wider debate on the matter to understand the rationale for this change? My understanding at present is that the collaborative arrangements that have been established—untested, gladly—have largely proved satisfactory.
Clauses 16 and 17 relate to the discharge of functions by others and the ability to enter into contractual arrangements with others to provide specific services. I am grateful that the Minister has clarified for the record that that does not relate to privatisation. There is no intent to remove services from the public sector—firefighter functions can only be delegated to another fire and rescue authority within the terms of this legislation. There may be questions, however, when absolute clarity is needed on the range of functions that we so define, to ensure that they cannot be contracted out and cannot in any way be construed as services with the potential to be privatised.
Clause 17 gives the Secretary of State powers of intervention to require contracts to be entered into for certain services. Why does the Bill include that requirement? If the Secretary of State is to take such powers, there must—if we are abiding by the principles of subsidiarity under this Bill—be a firm justification. Clause 19 contains the reassurance that the Government are not widening the existing powers for charging, but, as I said, a wider debate than that is necessary, particularly in relation to road safety. The Local Government Association, however, has pointed out in its briefings that there seems to be some conflict with the Local Government Act 2003, which gives local authorities more flexibility. That issue needs to be addressed, because there is some overall confusion.
Clause 21 is the key reference to the fire and rescue service framework and its introduction. Many people across the fire service welcome the opportunity that that provides to debate that framework because such debate is encouraging and democratic. However, concerns have been expressed—some were addressed in the Select Committee report—about the rush to implement new procedures without their being piloted. The Select Committee advised that there should at least be some public education to raise the level of debate and to overcome any misgivings about, for example, the effect of a potential reduction in the speed and numbers of firefighters sent in response to 999 calls; possible cuts in vital rescue and fire control equipment; plans to reduce responses to automatic fire alarms; and cutting down on responses to automatic fire alarms, not just in office blocks but in flats where people live.
The key question for all Members is how we monitor the implementation of the framework by individual fire authorities. Clearly, elements of the Bill give power to the Secretary of State to intervene if a fire service authority is failing, but more information on what criteria will trigger the Secretary of State's intervention in a failing authority would be useful. More importantly, the Secretary of State has a duty under the Bill to report back to Parliament on the framework. It would be helpful to have further information on how that report will be undertaken. Will it be a published report that will be debated on the Floor of the House, whereby actions can be determined by Parliament to overcome any weaknesses or problems that are identified during the implementation of the framework?
Again, clause 28 deals with the organisation of facilities and the Secretary of State's powers to provide services directly, and it relates to what is described as civil resilience. I should like clarity on how the Secretary of State will use that power. When will it be used? What is the definition of the grounds on which it will be used? Is it linked in some way to the Civil Contingencies Bill and, if so, how? What are the different gradations of anxiety or concern that will trigger the Secretary of State's implementation of that power?
With regard to clauses 31 and 32, on the new negotiating bodies, the Minister told us—he can intervene if I have got this wrong—that consultations are now taking place on establishing the new negotiating structure. Fine. Under the Bill, we propose that a new structure will be established. However, the Secretary of State will retain the opportunity—the power—to set out guidance and advise the negotiators, but I am not sure on what: the parameters of the discussion, or the desired outcome?
As I made clear in my speech, there was a lack of clarity during the dispute last winter, about the Government's position in relation to the line taken by both parties. We believe that it is right that the Government should have a mechanism, not to dominate, but to express our perspective on, matters that have a considerable impact on both the service's effectiveness and costs. The provision is intended to allow that involvement in the process.
May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that that intention could be more directly defined in the legislation? The current drafting could lead to a suspicion—we are not suspicious people—that defining the parameters and providing guidance may well enable the Government to determine the result of those negotiations. My right hon. Friend shakes his head, so we have a negative on the parliamentary record. I am grateful to him for that. Not being a suspicious person, I accept that assurance—others may not. He has told us that the legislation will soon lapse that enables the Secretary of State to impose a settlement on negotiations, but issuing guidance and setting the parameters of negotiations comes very close to the Government becoming directly involved in those negotiations and dangerously close to a power of imposition. That is why exceptional clarity would be welcome in the Bill.
On clause 33, on pensions, all hon. Members have pointed to the urgency of the need to resolve the financial situation in respect of fire service pensions. Some 15 years ago, I was involved in the same conversation in pressing on central Government the need for them to take action on the pensions crisis that was developing in the London fire brigade. I do not support the contention of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish that the pensions crisis has resulted in some practices evolving in the fire services. It has been argued that those in the fire services have not managed their service sufficiently well, that they have let too many people go early and that they have paid out too much in pensions as a result.
The reality is that, for many years, fire authorities have been pressing the Government for intervention to assist them with their funding crisis. They have been caught between a rock and hard place. When they have looked for Government support, they have been denied it; when they have been forced to consider increasing council tax precepts, they have been threatened and, indeed, capped in some instances. We all need to address that long-term problem. I am pleased that the Government are considering that, but they need to do so with a sense of urgency and without undermining the conditions of existing pensioners or those of existing employees entitled to the pension. We have safeguarded their position, and I would not want the benefits of a future scheme to be undermined.
Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the problems with changing pension arrangements is that we live in a world where those people who go into the fire service will not necessarily have a whole career in front of them? Unlike the police force, where some additional help seems to be provided for people who cannot complete anything like their full term, such people in the fire service are particularly vulnerable to changes in any future pension provision. More particularly, they gain no real benefit from staying in the service for any great period of time. So we have to ensure that those in that group are protected.
In the past, we have acknowledged that certain services are provided by public servants who put themselves in jeopardy and who have a different working life from others. For that reason, we have designed pension schemes to accommodate their needs and, in return, to ensure that we can recruit and retain those people with the best qualifications who are dedicated to providing that service. Any fire service pension scheme must recognise, as all hon. Members have done time after time, the dedication of the firefighters who provide us with that excellent service and the jeopardy in which they put themselves every day. For that reason, we need to ensure that their pension scheme is protected and that it recognises their working life, which is different from that of many of us who do not work in that physical and physically threatening environment.
My final point relates to funding issues. I repeat the concerns that have been expressed in debating either the dispute or the reform of the service. I do not believe that the funding that will be required to modernise the fire service can come from off-setting savings elsewhere. That is why the Government have provided for some transitional costs. I am concerned that we need to monitor those transitional costs closely over the coming period. My understanding is that the demands that we are placing on the service cannot be met wholly from the savings that can be achieved.
I place the onus on the Minister: if necessary, we will require a regular report to the House on whether the implementation of the new framework and structure is being successfully implemented. If costs are a problem and the transitional costs do not accommodate all that we want to achieve in the modernisation process that we have now signed up to, we should, if necessary, debate that on the Floor of the House, and I am convinced that the Minister would find cross-party support in any fight or battle with his Treasury colleagues.
I refer the House to my declaration of interests.
I have another declaration to make: the older people become, the more liable they are to be endangered by fire, and I represent the constituency with the oldest age group in England, so I have a particular interest in that respect. What is more, I will soon be old enough to represent them effectively.
The truth is that, if the Bill were presented as a business plan for the future of an important national company, every shareholder and director would have serious questions to ask about the information on the basis which they were supposed to act. It grieves me to have to suggest that to the Minister, who, in always sitting through debates, is an admirable and most polite Minister. I believe that he genuinely wants to hear what others have to say. However, I hope that he will not mind if I do not spend much time saying what is good about the Bill, except to say that there is a necessity for such legislation. He is right that the Government and previous Governments of both parties did not approach the matter early enough, so we have to be reticent in our criticism. He is also right to suggest that we need to make radical changes.
My problem is that the facts by which the particular changes are promoted do not stand up. That is why I tabled a number of questions to the Minister. I have to say, however, that he took refuge in one of the oldest of all ministerial tricks. What often happens when a Minister is faced with perhaps a dozen and a half questions, none of which he can answer adequately, is that, instead of answering them one by one, they are grouped together and a generally inadequate answer to the general series of questions is given. The Minister therefore avoids being pinned down on any one particular question.
It is important for the House to understand how that is fundamental to our whole debate. I wanted to know what the savings were.
I am certainly aware that the right hon. Gentleman used the same technique, but I would have thought that he was now clever enough to realise that he should have trickled his questions in one at a time.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but the number of days between the point at which I had to table the questions and today's debate were not sufficient for the trickling process to take place. I therefore asked a range of questions, which were not, I thought, unreasonable. For example, I asked what financial benefits the Minister expected would accrue to the Treasury, to Suffolk county council, to taxpayers and to council tax payers in Suffolk from his plans to regionalise the fire service. What was the answer? Deep in the series of comments, answer came there almost none. The answer provided said:
"It is not possible to provide a meaningful breakdown of the respective benefits these savings will bring to central Government, individual citizens and localities, but all will benefit from a reduction in the £6.63 billion annual cost of fire to the economy in England and Wales."
I did not need to be told that we would benefit if there were a reduction. I wanted to know whether there would, in fact, be a reduction and whether the Government would—for many of the reasons mentioned already by right hon. and hon. Members—say what benefits would be accrued. We all know that there would be costs, but I wanted to know whether the benefits would be directed to those who would carry such costs.
The Minister knows full well what happens in the Government. Just as after the last war, any bit of land over which there was an argument was taken over by the Soviet Union on the basis that it provided an easy answer, so in the Government, the Treasury takes any bit of money that is lying around. We know that. I gave the Minister the opportunity of saying—I mentioned the Treasury—that it was all going there, but he could not even tell me that. What business, shareholder or director would agree to a considerable change in the structure and mechanisms for payments and the way of running the staff of any organisation, without knowing something about the figures? I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman has disobliged me by failing to provide the figures, so I cannot say to my constituents that, despite their concerns, they would benefit from paying less. Because the Minister cannot tell me the savings, I shall have to tell my constituents that I suspect that they will have to pay more. That is usually true when Governments will not reveal the precise amount of savings.
What did the Minister say? On several occasions, he said that we must "move forward". The difficulty is that moving forward suggests that one knows the direction in which one is going, but the Minister does not seem to know that. Let us consider his views on the eastern region, which he considers to be a homogeneous and easily identified region with a strong sense of self-identification. I was surprised. I asked him what discussions he had had with the county council, the district councils, the Suffolk fire service and the Suffolk police service and wondered how he had reached his interesting conclusion. The truth is that he did not have any discussions at all. He has not discussed the matter with any of those bodies. I understand from my friends in Norfolk that the same is true there—no discussion with anyone.
I have spent much of the morning talking to the Norfolk fire service and the Government have made no effort whatever to ascertain the views or comments of the people at the sharp end—the people on the ground.
It is even worse. The Minister has not talked to the county or the district council, yet the county council is in his pocket. It is a Labour-driven county council. One would have thought that a word or two was appropriate there: we could understand leaving Norfolk out—it has happily gone back to Conservative control, as will Suffolk at the next election—but the right hon. Gentleman might have talked to his friends—but not a word. I understand that Ipswich district council has had no discussions; indeed the Minister has not talked to anyone. He has not even talked to the Fire Brigades Union in either county, or the Retained Firefighters Union. He has not done much talking or, indeed, listening, which worries me considerably.
Will the right hon. Gentleman now give the House the benefit of the full answer that I gave him, which made it clear that the representative of the fire authority in Suffolk attended a meeting, to which I invited all fire authorities in December to discuss those very issues?
I did not think that the Minister wanted to be reminded of that part of the answer. When asked whether he had had detailed discussions with all those people, I discovered that
"all aspects of fire modernisation are discussed when we meet interested parties from time-to-time in the course of our Ministerial duties"— over tea, perhaps, when there is an opportunity to have a word or two to the hand-picked ticket-holding people who attend such meetings. However, the Minister continues:
"The Chief Fire Officer for Suffolk"— not the district councils, the Fire Brigades Union or the Retained Firefighters Union— just the one person—did not have an interview with the Minister, but he was lucky enough to attend
"the Fire and Rescue Service seminar on
We do not hear whether the chief fire officer had any discussions; all we hear is that he had to sit down and listen to the decisions that had already been taken and are now before the House. The date,
In other words, before discussing it with the regions, he has concluded that the decisions are so common to everyone that it does not matter whether those involved are in Cumbria or Essex: it will still work. One size fits all.
Very well, he is not trying to force it, but he is taking powers to do everything, and to make other people do his will in respect of every item. If he were the only Minister in this Government doing that, I would be less worried; but whenever an issue is presented to the House, the Government's answer is to centralise it, because the man in Whitehall knows best.
When the Government get into a mess with the health service, what do they do? They centralise it, put more power into the Minister's hands, take power away from the localities, ensure that everyone does what the Minister thinks should be done. When the Government experience difficulty with education, what happens? The Department lays down yet more regulations and targets, and gives yet more teachers yet more forms to fill in. Now the Government are doing the same with the fire service. We are going to tell everyone exactly what to do unless everyone voluntarily does exactly what we want beforehand—although the Minister will not tell people exactly what the Government want until it is discovered that they have not done it. Then they will be told to do it, and to do it before a date in May.
The Minister is very interesting on this. He is usually so genuine about these matters. Now he is asking everyone else to hurry up, but when it comes to the issue on which we all agree that he promised to be quick—the disciplinary issue—he admits that he has not met his own target. Indeed, he has not met it in respect of two crucial issues—discipline and a reduction in the number of deaths from fire. Why is that? I will tell you why, Mr. Deputy Speaker: it is more difficult than he imagined. He will not understand that the same is true of the people whom he is telling to do things: their task, too, will be much more difficult than he imagines.
I ask the Minister to think again. I ask him to explain the position to my constituents in Orford, on the edge of Suffolk. They have their own fire station, and have a good relationship with those who work there. They need to feel confident that a system that serves the people of Luton with equal care has been subject to a sensible division. They need to believe something that I do not understand.
I think the Minister will find that rather difficult. They are asking themselves what is the region to which he has accorded these powers. It is, in fact, a region established by the last Government to make it easier to administer national priorities through a regional office. That was a compromise that fitted most of the Departments that then had regional organisations, but it did not happen to fit the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which had a different regional organisation. That was partly because it was quite difficult to exert MAFF's individual, direct influence in distant areas, not least the far south-west. I remember keeping open an office down in Truro simply because it would have been very difficult to deal with it as other Departments dealt with other regions.
I do not think that the Minister has thought fully about whether the specified regions are the right ones, if the service is to be regionalised. It is surely not logical for him to say that because they are the regions that he has decided to use in another context, it is convenient to use them in this context. I am not even sure whether he has thought this through in the context of terrorism and similar civil issues. In any event, it does not strike me as sensible to say that what has been decided in that context should apply to the fire service.
We must ask whether Mott MacDonald has been sold a pup. I suspect that it has been told to produce something that merely meets a series of financial requirements. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond, who suggested that it was difficult for a consultant not to know what the Deputy Prime Minister wanted. The Deputy Prime Minister wants better reasons for regionalisation than he already has. He must find something for the regional offices to do; he must find a reason for the regions. We know why that is. First, he is politically and personally committed, for reasons that he has never found it easy to explain. Secondly, this is the only way in which the Government can surmount the difficulty in which they have landed themselves with a half-thought-out devolution proposal.
We must ask ourselves whether these regions fit the provision of fire services. I do not think that the Government have argued their case for any one of them, and I believe that we can argue the case against most of them. It does not fit the south-west, it does not fit the south-east, it does not fit the eastern region, it does not fit the west midlands, it does not fit the east midlands, and most of us would say that it does not fit the other regions either; but it is just possible that someone might support it there.
In those circumstances, why are the Government shoehorning the whole nation into a system for which they know no one will vote? That certainly applies to at least three quarters of it. Otherwise they would already have announced referendums—but they have announced them only in areas where they think they have a hope of winning. They know that they have no hope of winning anywhere else, so what are they doing? They are removing democratic control from people, partly to encourage them to vote for a different form of democratic control because that is what they want.
My right hon. Friend represents a very rural part of the eastern region, while I represent a very rural part of the south-west. Has he thought of the danger posed to those in rural areas? It is more expensive to provide a fire and rescue service there, simply because of the distances that fire tenders and officers must travel to deal with the odd incident.
I have tried to concentrate on a fundamental fact that the Government should be proving to us, rather than our proving it to them—that these regions in these forms represent a sensible solution. I do not think that the Government have even tried to do that. They have simply assumed first that regionalisation will save money—and, as I have pointed out, they will not tell me what money and from whom—and secondly that it will be more efficient. They assume that the regions are the right regions, but they have not been able to argue that case either.
I have a positive dislike of the regional system, for a series of practical reasons. First, regions are bound to be dominated by their urban centres. There will be less concern about rural areas. Secondly, there will be no democratic control over the regions and they will, by their nature, set priorities. If they do not get together to set them properly, the Government will come along and say "Do it". Of course they will then set the priorities, which will be seen through the same urban eyes that enable the Minister to believe that Rickmansworth has anything in common with King's Lynn. It is that urban view that is such a mark of this Government, and so offensive to those of us who live in the countryside.
There is also a small practical matter. We assume that all this will work well, because we will all use modern technology.
I heard somebody suggest to the Minister that the system would work beautifully because it would be clear where people were ringing from as the number of their mobile or local telephone would be shown on the system. I hope that that will work, because the system will not have a fail-safe mechanism. At present, if the machine does not show up the number, our local control centre knows that there are two Tuddenhams, two Harlestons, two Cloptons, an Aldborough and an Alborough in pretty close proximity.
The Minister thinks that technology is perfect and that everything always goes absolutely right, so there will be no difficulties at all. I just wonder about that, as do my constituents—that is the important thing. We need to have confidence in, and connection with, the system. The Minister has not given us confidence because he has given us neither the relevant figures nor an argument for the structure that he proposes.
In one moment.
The Minister is not giving us a connection with the system because he tells the people of Suffolk that if they do not vote for a regionally elected authority—they do not even have the chance to do that at the moment, because he knows that they would not vote for it—they must understand that the regional management organisation will tie their local fire authority hand and foot. If it does not, the Minister will come along and tell it to do so, because that is the purpose of the proposal. He will not allow an authority to do anything that it wants to do if that does not fit in with his scheme for the region; he has told us that, and he will take powers to achieve it. I believe that he is being honest when he says that he wants to make the system efficient—but he, and not Suffolk, will make the decisions.
I have listened patiently to the right hon. Gentleman for a long time. He is usually a thoughtful contributor to debates, so it is unusual that he is building a completely preposterous case on the basis of his total failure to analyse the Government's proposals. For the record, there is no proposal whatever to regionalise the fire and rescue service in the eastern region. There is a proposal to establish a regional management board to deal with the elements of the fire service that are best handled on a regional basis. He knows that there are detailed figures on control rooms in the Mott MacDonald report. He accepted that there was some sense in the anti-terrorist provisions, but he may not have accepted that we have strong evidence showing that there will be real benefits if we
"integrate common and specialist services", such as fire investigation,
"introduce regional personnel and human resource functions . . . develop a regional approach to training" and introduce regional procurement. Those items are listed in the "Draft Fire and Rescue National Framework 2004/05" as the work that in our view, is best organised regionally. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will now accept that all his local service delivery—fire stations and so forth—will remain local, and the responsibility of his local fire authority.
But the Minister gives himself away. First he says to Suffolk, "Training will be regional, because we do it better that way." Secondly he says, "Personnel will be regional, because we do it better that way." Thirdly he says, "The way you operate together won't be a choice you make; it'll be decided by us, and it will be done regionally." Each of those aspects develops a robust arrangement of regional management. It is not truthful—if I may put it as bluntly as that—for the Minister to say that he is not regionalising the fire and rescue service, yet then to list a series of aspects of the service that he is regionalising. He can say that he is not regionalising all the service or taking everything away, but he is still removing from localities a series of important decisions that until now, they have made. The case for that removal has not been proven. The fact is that the Minister will be able to interfere every time that he decides that something should be added to the regional list. That is why the proposal is wrong.
I wish that the situation were as good as the right hon. Gentleman suggests—I am afraid that it is even worse. As I said before, the draft national framework says:
"If insufficient progress has been made, the Government will consider the use of its statutory powers to combine Fire and Rescue Authorities".
The Government will not create a special regional fire authority with a specific number of powers and leave a local fire and rescue authority, but will combine the authorities. Their plan, as shown in clause 2 of the Bill and the national framework, is to regionalise.
I always remember a Member of the House who complained that I described her views as in favour of "killing babies" when she was really in favour of "terminating pregnancies"; she thought that if one changed the words, everything was okay. The Minister is doing a similar thing. He thinks that because he is not saying at the moment that Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire shall have a regional system and no local fire services, he is not regionalising. That is disingenuous, because he is taking away from each area a series of their present powers and telling them that if he does not like the result, he can amalgamate services under the Bill. Is he taking the power to amalgamate because he has no intention of amalgamation, or because he has every intention of amalgamation? Is he doing that because he will amalgamate on a whim? The only factor for deciding whether an amalgamation will take place is whether he thinks that a service does not otherwise meet requirements. He, not the locality or the elected authority, will decide. What will matter is not what my constituents think, but what the Minister thinks.
The Minister is taking a series of powers that in any other circumstances would be considered to be draconian. If he does not intend to use any of those powers, why does he not say, "I'm not going to take them"? If he takes them he must intend to use them, so he must intend to say to local fire services, "You have significantly reduced powers under the Bill. What's more, if we don't like the way you use those powers, we can amalgamate you—and the only proof that we will have to show is the fact that we, as Ministers, think that you need to be amalgamated." Although that is not regionalisation at once, the regionalisation of many powers will issue a threat to local fire services that they will lose the rest of their powers unless they do what the Minister says. Therefore, the services would be regionalised in fact, because they would have to obey what the Minister said through the regional management structure.
When the Minister intervened on my right hon. Friend to say that there would not be an East Anglia regional fire authority, he was careful to say that there would be a regional management board. It is inconceivable that the board will not threaten to use the powers that the Secretary of State will have. Clause 22(2) says:
"For the purpose of securing that the authority acts in accordance with the Framework the Secretary of State may by order require the authority . . . to do something; . . . to stop doing something" or
"not do something."
If that is not an extreme power for the Secretary of State, I do not know what is.
My hon. Friend has got it absolutely right. The truth is that the Minister would have been more helpful to the House if he had said, "We're going to have this regionalisation, and we're not going to fiddle about," and then told us what he was going to do. Instead, he is creating circumstances in which he may set up regionalisation, and half doing that, then making sure that everyone knows that he will wholly do it if they do not do precisely what he says. That is the same thing as doing it. This is a serious matter. The Bill will remove another level of local competence and decision making, and take away the local connection between paying the rates and running the services.
I shall finish with three short points. [Interruption.] The Minister does not like hearing this, because Conservative Members have shown that he has failed to explain the basis on which his whole policy stands to the satisfaction of any sane and reasonable person. First, I return to his explanation of an aspect of the Bill that reveals his problem. He explained that he had been unable to meet his target on fires because of the large increase in the number of burnt-out motor cars, which was caused by the large increase in abandoned vehicles.
Rather than do something about that increase in abandoned vehicles, however, he decides to change the target—[Interruption.] There is a perfectly simple way to do something about the increase. It was suggested by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, who made it clear that there are ways to tackle the problem.
Once again, the Government, faced with the realities of their policies, will not put into operation the mechanisms by which those policies will be achieved. Last year we failed to meet the European targets for the packaging directive. The Government could have done that, but they failed to do so because they would not take action. This year, we yet again face a failure to meet a large number of our environmental targets because the Government will not take the necessary measures. In the case of abandoned vehicles, the Minister excuses his failure not by saying that he was unable to convince his colleagues in the Government that they should have done what other Governments in Europe did, but by saying that although it is terribly sad that there are many more abandoned vehicles, it has nothing to do with them.
What has changed? People have discovered that they are responsible for getting rid of their old vehicles and that the Government caved in to the pressures of the motor industry by failing to do one of the two things open to them to do. First, they could have told the polluter to pay by insisting that the industry paid the cost of the final resting place of the vehicles it produced. Secondly, if the industry could not afford to do that, the Government could have paid the cost themselves. Instead, they landed the cost on the poorest in the country by telling those who have a clapped-out motor car, which they need in the countryside to get to work, and can afford nothing else, that they should pay for getting rid of the vehicle. Then the Government are surprised when the vehicle is burnt out and abandoned, so pushing up the cost of the fire service.
Instead of solving the problem, the Government put off the target. They cannot meet the target, but instead of going solving the problem, they change the target. That is a universal element of this Government. They put the targets up and, when they do not meet them, they change the targets rather than their policy.
My second point is about retained firefighters. As I understand it, the Minister has not talked to any local retained fire service in the country about the subject. That is not true just in the east of England, but in the rest of the country as well. Yet we in the countryside rely on those people for our fire protection. It is a disgrace that he spoke so little about the retained fire service and that he has done so little to negotiate and discuss with it about how it sees the fire service continuing. The Minister has a 20 per cent. shortfall. It will be more than that if he continues to ignore the retained fire service as he has done during the changeover.
Thirdly, the measure is another example of the attack on the county councils. It is yet another way of removing from them democratic control over their policies and programmes. It is building up to the moment, which will come, when the Government say, "We don't need the county councils any longer because they don't deal with planning." They tried to stop their planning role in the House of Lords by getting rid of the county councils' consultative role in such matters. They had to give way on that, but they are slowly, in every single Act, trying to get rid of county councils.
If we vote for a regional assembly we will not have county councils. If we do not vote for regional assemblies, our county councils will lose their powers, so we may as well not have them. [Interruption.] That is the Government's policy. Education will be directed from the centre, as will the fire service and the police—[Interuption.]
Order. I cannot have a running commentary from the Government Front-Bench spokesmen. It is extending speeches that are already going on quite a long time. We are averaging more than 26 minutes for Back-Bench speeches, which is severely curtailing the opportunities for other hon. Members to participate.
Lastly, therefore, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I remind the Government that they risk the vengeance of rural communities by their constant refusal to listen to them, to talk to them, to hear what they say, to support their county councils and to give them the opportunity to make their decisions for themselves locally. That is what the Government are doing. That vengeance will be wreaked on them first in the district councils, such as they are, this year, and, secondly, in the county councils, such as they are, next year. When the new Conservative county council in Suffolk comes into power, it will refuse to do what the Minister wants it to do if it is bad for Suffolk. He will then have to use his powers and show what his Government are really about—the regionalisation of the fire service. It is only a pity that the House was not told that at the beginning.
I am delighted to participate in the debate and intend to talk about what is actually in the Bill, although I could talk at great length about how loyal I am, on most occasions, to Gloucestershire county council, being a former member of it.
I have four lines of inquiry to pursue, but I shall do so at no great length because many of my points have been already been raised. The first is that I largely welcome what is in the Bill; the second is to question some parts of it; the third is to consider things of possible concern; and the fourth is to qualify some aspects of how the Bill may work in practice.
In welcoming the Bill, I believe it is clear to anyone—hopefully even those who will vote against it—that, unlike the Fire Services Act 2003, which was vested in an immediate dispute, some form of fire legislation is long overdue. We have had a number of White Papers. One did not see the light of day, which saddened some of us because it set the trend for moving the fire service away from being largely a reactive service to one that did much more preventive or—dare I say it?—proactive work. Firefighters in Gloucestershire are as one in welcoming that move. They want to talk to people in schools and old people's homes. They want to work with other parts of local government, whether that be on crime and safety or an element of criminal justice, and with other forms of the public service. For too long, they have felt excluded and somewhat in a box, which meant that they were restricted in what they could offer.
I am not saying that that would be a slightly easier job. It requires different skills of the sort possessed by people who are now attracted into the fire service. I am not talking pejoratively about those people who served in former generations of firefighters, but about a new breed of firefighters that is joining the service. There are more women and more people from the ethnic minorities, and more people are doing shorter periods of service. All those people are affecting the nature of the provision of that service. One way they would like to do that is to go out and talk to people, and to work in a partnership with them. That links directly to the integrated risk management plans. Unless firefighters are able to go out and talk to people, and to put in place something with communal attitude that allows them to pull together, the plans will merely be words on bits of paper rather than meaningful forms of action.
So I very much welcome the Bill. The Government are to be congratulated on introducing the legislation.
In an intervention, the hon. Gentleman—my parliamentary neighbour—spoke of the great success of the tri-service agreement at Quedgeley. He is thus acknowledging the great popularity and success of our Gloucestershire fire service. Does he think that the people of Stroud would welcome its transformation into a south-western regional fire service?
I will pick up exactly that point when I turn to my second line of inquiry. As somebody who is a bit of a regionalist, I have no problem with the setting of regional strategies. It has much to commend it because of all the problems with boundaries. We have a particular problem in Gloucestershire because although we are in the south-west, we are adjacent to the south-east and the west midlands, and we are not a million miles from Wales. We are always in a dilemma about whom we would work with most closely. I do not have a problem as long as there are cross-regional strategic discussions about guidelines on the sort of things that need to happen at a level where it would be impossible for one brigade to operate. There are several sensitive locations in our county. GCHQ is one, and there are a number of nuclear power stations. They all require additional co-operation across brigades. Nobody wants to mention it, but if there were an incident, we would need not only people from different fire brigades but all manner of services from different parts of different regions. I take that as read.
I am concerned that the proposals could be taken as a step on a slippery slope to delivery of service at a regional level. The tri-service model to which the hon. Gentleman referred is a good one. Like him, I have visited the call centre on several occasions, and it seems to be bedding down well. I hope that we can genuinely consider the advantages that it provides for the locality before we rush to take firefighters to a more distant call centre in Bristol, Exeter or even further west. All that would cause me considerable concern. I therefore hope that there is full monitoring of the tri-service emergency call centre in Gloucestershire—and of the one in Wiltshire—before we do anything dramatic.
As my hon. Friend John McDonnell pointed out, one criticism of the firefighters has been about the lack of piloting before deciding to go towards the centralisation of the call centres. Questions need to be asked about that. Although we have received some assurances that the proposals are not about regionalisation of service delivery, we need further such assurances.
Another possible concern has been alleviated by the good approach taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister. Could the Bill have been seen as revenge for a very long and nasty dispute, which could have resulted in further curtailment of firefighters' ability to take action and a heavy-handed laying down of their role? Nobody in this day and age can be anything but aware of the need for greater co-ordination. We must recognise that individual brigades, let alone individual services, cannot be immune from other pressures—whether that is the threat of terrorism, massive flooding or something like foot and mouth. All such incidents require changes in the way in which the services operate—today, let alone in the future.
The concern was that we could have had a much more centrally directed force, which would tell people who worked for it exactly what their role would be. I did not want that, because I think that there is benefit in engaging the local community. We should particularly bear in mind how firefighters have served this country well. I do not like the idea of rewarding public servants—even when we disagree with them in a dispute—by taking away the means by which they want to represent themselves and their ability to do their jobs effectively. I am pleased that we have not gone down such a route; things could have been a lot worse. We must recognise that there are sensitivities about the fire service. One does not have to be paranoid to realise that it was worried that a big stick would be waved over its head. Let us hope that all that has been cleared and that, as I said at the outset, firefighters—just like all those I have talked to—can get on with what they want to do.
On the issue of qualification, what is missing? The question of sprinkler systems has been well covered by other hon. Members. We need to pull together in a detailed format the demands that we are placing on firefighters when they go out and try to prevent unnecessary fires and accidents. My hon. Friend Mr. Clapham mentioned how they could be proactive in work with road traffic accidents, and so on.
There is also the issue of maintaining services in rural areas. We have considered, somewhat sceptically, the decline in the ability to provide an effective service at a rural level. There has been much criticism—certainly from the Opposition—that what has been proposed either ignores the real problems or could make matters worse. It would be helpful if we identified the biggest single problem with retained stations: getting people to serve in them. The main reason for that is the change in the nature of people's working lives. Allied to the geography, that has resulted in very few people living and working in a place where they can respond to calls in the amount of time necessary to remain in a retained force. We must try to do something about that.
We could extend the numbers dramatically so that there were always times at which people were available. We could pay retained firefighters a greater retainer so that they could be available when they would otherwise have to work in order not to lose money. All those things come down to cost and will be difficult to pull together. I therefore welcome the review, which I hope will come up with some genuine suggestions on how we can enhance the role of the retained service.
We must also try to improve relations between retained and full-time services, because they are not good enough. I know that many FBU members serve at retained stations, and that is to be welcomed, but relationships are still very poor. Often, retained and full-time service representatives are not ready to sit on the same negotiating bodies. Their pension arrangements, which I have dealt with, are very different too.
What the hon. Gentleman is saying about why it is difficult to have retained fire officers in rural areas is exactly right. Is not the logic of his comments that we require full-time fire stations in rural areas and retained officers and stations in more urban and suburban areas?
That is a neat suggestion, but I am not sure how the full-time firefighters in Stroud would like the idea of being replaced completely by their retained colleagues, although there is a retained firefighters pump at that station.
My hon. Friend makes good points about retained firefighters and the problems in rural areas arising from people living and working in different places. Does he agree that that underlines the importance of an approach based on fire safety and risk management? In some rural villages in my constituency there are high concentrations of second homes and many of the residents commute out, so the villages have very few people in them during the day, with the result that at night, when the retained firefighters come home, the risk is different. In addition, installing sprinklers in thatched buildings, which have been the subject of some serious fires in Dorset, would be a positive step to take when the Government review building regulations.
All those are laudable aims, which I hope will play a part in the review.
When taking the service forward, we have to address key issues. We cannot afford to alienate full-time members of the service by pretending that their job can be done in a very different way, but nor can we offend members of the retained service, because they are vital. The staff of several stations in my constituency could never be replaced by full-time firefighters. The only alternative to retained firefighters would be to close the stations and try to patrol their area from the larger town, some distance away. That is not what any of us want to happen. We have to get out there and recruit, and we can do that by acknowledging that the nature of the work has changed and giving people more incentive to join.
Overall, the Bill is welcome, although I have no doubt that some criticisms will be levelled in Committee at the way in which some elements of it will work. We might want the Government to take some additional matters into consideration even before they receive the results of their review—for example, provisions relating to sprinklers and how to establish building regulations and use legislative means to ensure that difficult issues are not ignored. Too many people have already lost their lives to fires.
I have the honour to be joint-chairman, with Mr. Clapham, of the all-party fire safety group. I may be biased, but I think that it is a splendid all-party group: our meetings are extremely well attended and the contributions are well informed. The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire would have addressed our seminar today, had it not been for the difficulty in doing that and addressing the House at the same time.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond and my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer said about regionalisation. The House is well aware of the Opposition's view on that matter. Communities faced with the threatened closure of the local fire station are greatly concerned that there will not be proper consultation because of regionalisation. I was greatly concerned to hear one chief fire officer say today, "People are not as afraid of fire as they are of crime." I think that there is something in that comment, and I hope to touch on that during my speech.
During my time as a Member of Parliament, my admiration for the fire services has grown, for poignant reasons. When campaigning in the '80s, I went into a garden where a constituent who was well known in the area was on fire—I know it sounds incredible, but he had fallen into a bowl of paraffin. Most of us would not be prepared for such a sight and I probably did not react in the best possible way—if one is not used to such things, one goes into a state of shock, much as one wants to help. Although I did get help and the fire brigade was summoned, the man had 95 per cent. burns and I attended his funeral the day after I was re-elected. My admiration for the way in which the fire service dealt with that tragedy will live with me for ever more.
In another terrible tragedy that occurred in the '80s in my then constituency, firefighters attended an incident at one of our schools in which four youngsters locked themselves into a hut in the playground and were burned alive. How the fire officers coped with that tragedy, I do not know. I suspect that my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson was on Essex county council at the time of another incident. We ran a campaign to put smoke detectors in a challenging housing estate but unfortunately, the batteries were removed from one of the detectors and a whole family was wiped out.
When I moved to my present constituency, I took part, perhaps naively, in a march to save our local fire station in Leigh. On that march, I was assaulted. One fire officer allowed my assailant to escape, but another caught the assailant and he was duly dealt with. To the Under-Secretary of State, Phil Hope, who is to reply to the debate, I say that I much regret the bad publicity and bad reputation that some of our firefighters accrued during the dispute, because I have the highest regard for the wonderful work that they do.
During our seminar, the view was expressed that the best way to eliminate fire death, injury and damage is by preventing fires breaking out in the first place—no one could doubt that—and that any attempt to improve fire safety must target resources. I—a Conservative Member of Parliament referring to the Fire Brigades Union—am anxious to be assured that the Government's motives are not dominated by the desire to achieve cuts in costs. If emergency fire cover is to be more flexible and more focused on safeguarding lives in future, we must be confident that the fire protection measures in our buildings are up to scratch. Jim Knight feels very strongly about sprinklers, and I share his concern, but he will know that our American guest speaker told those attending our seminar today that 16 per cent. of sprinklers in the city of Boston, I believe, do not work properly. Wonderful though sprinklers can be, they must be properly serviced.
The seminar also arrived at the view that sensible fire safety design was essential and that there should be appropriate product specification.
That would also mean ensuring that fire protection is installed correctly and maintained in good working order—I have already mentioned the problem of batteries being removed from smoke detectors. A mature framework is needed in which active and passive fire protection systems can work in concert instead of being in competition with one another, as they are at the moment.
I do not want to condemn the Bill, as it includes some good provisions. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has convinced me of the merits of our reasoned amendment. I accept that the primary aim of the Bill is to reduce fire deaths and injuries, of which there are respectively about 600 and 16,500 a year. The House will applaud the introduction of a new statutory duty requiring the fire and rescue services to do more to prevent fires in the first place in addition to being prepared to extinguish them. The services have done their job magnificently in the past, but increasingly they need to look at ways of tackling 21st-century fire risks. Their effectiveness and public safety are likely to be enhanced by fire safety education, fire prevention schemes and local partnerships. Such activity is at the heart of community fire safety. The other main planks of the reform agenda are sensible. For instance, it is reasonable to allow a fire authority to vary levels of emergency response at different times of the day according to the fire risks posed.
We have heard a great deal about what fire officers have said about the Bill. I am delighted that Mr. David Turner, chief fire officer for Essex, is leading a national fire chiefs group to co-ordinate the response to the Bill. It would be a lengthy undertaking to compare the Bill with the Fire Services Act 1947, but fire officers are concerned about who would be in charge when two different brigades attend a fire, as happens from time to time. Chief fire officers hoped that there would be flexible provisions allowing for the generation of income from, for example, training courses for the public. However, provisions in the 1947 Act will still apply.
Concerns were also voiced in the parliamentary seminar about houses in multiple occupation. The definition of an HMO in the Housing Bill is intricate. The old definition in section 345 of the Housing Act 1985 and the case law arising from it are notorious for their complexity. The new definition is a gallant attempt at improvement, but I wonder how well it will work in practice. There was also concern about the details of training, but I accept that they will be announced in the autumn. Section 30 of the 1947 Act states that the senior fire officer present at a fire is in charge, and can direct resources accordingly. The all-party group on fire safety, however, believes that the Bill does not state who would now be in charge of directing available resources.
There was also concern that people were getting on a bandwagon, with many individuals offering to conduct fire safety risk assessments. People attending the seminar felt strongly that only qualified staff should be allowed to undertake registration and accreditation. I shall certainly support the reasoned amendment. The Bill is well intentioned, but I have great concerns about regionalisation. I repeat that the general public are afraid of crime, so I hope to goodness that in future they will be extremely afraid of the threat of fire.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests as a director of the Fire Protection Association and chair of the fire protection council. I am also a patron of the National Fire Sprinkler Network and, as a fellow officer of the all-party group on fire safety, it is a pleasure to follow Mr. Amess.
I very much welcome the Bill. If it had not been for 9/11, the ensuing civil contingencies and the strike, it might not have been introduced and it would have been difficult to secure parliamentary time to discuss the issues that it covers. However, it is overdue for many other reasons as a replacement for the Fire Services Act 1947. It is fitting that we are finally putting into statutory form the duty of fire and rescue services to undertake fire safety functions, attend road traffic accidents and perform other emergency tasks that we expect them to perform but which they have been undertaking on a discretionary basis.
It is, however, important that the Bill is more than an update of the 1947 Act, and, equally, that it should be more than a reaction to both 9/11 and the fire dispute. Modernisation of fire and rescue services should be genuine, and the emphasis on fire safety and prevention is a welcome modernisation that all hon. Members should support.
The Bill is straightforward, but I shall address two issues. The first, regionalisation, has been discussed at great length by some Members this evening. I reject the alarmism of the Opposition parties about centralisation, which is appropriate given the changing nature of both the threat to this country and civil contingency requirements—the Secretary of State should have reserve powers to direct our emergency services as appropriate. It is important that the House keeps a watchful eye on how those powers are used, so it is appropriate that the Bill says that the Secretary of State should regularly report to the House. I remain comfortable with those powers given the context of the debate and Government policy on, for example, integrated risk management planning, which is all about taking a much more localised view of risk and what response is appropriate from the fire and rescue services.
I support regionalisation in principle. I was a strong and passionate advocate of regional government in the Committee examining the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003. Many of the members of that Committee have popped up in this debate, such as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire and the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). They were the front-line stars of that debate, and it was with some regret that I heard some of the same arguments being regurgitated over and over again this afternoon.
I support regionalisation in principle because it provides greater flexibility of response to major attacks, which we must be prepared for, and allows flexible planned responses across fire authority areas. The population is strung out around the edge of my county, Dorset, which is thinly populated in the middle. It is therefore appropriate that we have strong relationships with Somerset and Wiltshire, which border Dorset. It is equally true that we need a strong relationship with Hampshire, which is not in the south-west region, and I welcome the provisions that require fire and rescue services to develop their relationships with other authorities. The Bill does not specify that an iron curtain will fall around each region, and it is clear that relationships should extend across borders where that is appropriate.
The House should acknowledge the economies of scale that are achievable through regionalisation. I am sure that the level of council tax concerns every hon. Member, and we all get our ears bent about it by our constituents. In many constituencies, the precept for fire authorities will be identified separately for the first time this year, and I am sure that our constituents expect us to do what we can to achieve economies of scale through policies such as regionalisation to decrease precepts. There have already been discussions about regional procurement in the south-west, and it is appropriate that they should take place in a strategic context, which is possible only through a regional management board structure.
Given the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for a south-west regional fire authority, does he think that his constituents in South Dorset would pay a higher or lower precept if their fire authority remained as Dorset fire authority rather than becoming part of a south-west regional fire authority?
That is clearly a key question. I suspect that the cost may rise as the new system is implemented, but I am confident—otherwise I would not stand up and advocate it—that there would be significant savings over the medium and long terms. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have seen the table in the Select Committee report listing the different costs of regional control rooms. My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the contrast between the unit cost of £18 in the London control room and some £136 in the Isle of Wight. We must examine possible savings very carefully and go forward on that basis.
I shall voice some of my concerns about regional control rooms shortly, but, over the medium and long term, I think that we can look forward to savings.
I have concerns about the implementation of regionalisation, and especially the introduction of regional control rooms. I have spoken to the control staff who operate the Dorset control room and to members of the Fire Brigades Union about their concerns in Dorset. Following my discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister, I have been able to alleviate many of their anxieties, but there was considerable concern about the loss of local knowledge through the introduction of regional control rooms. As I understand it, the new software that is coming on stream, combined with the European directive on mobile telecommunications networks, means that it will be possible to pinpoint highly accurately where a call is coming from, even if it is coming from a mobile phone. I was concerned that only a cell would be identified, but I have been reassured by my right hon. Friend the Minister that that will not be so.
That leads me to concern about how the software is implemented. Dorset introduced extremely up-to-date software for its control room and it took it three years to iron out all the problems in that software. Given the importance of the reliability of that software, I ask my right hon. Friend to give us some reassurance on how that reliability will be tested and how the software will be implemented to ensure, given the tight time frame, that the operation can be carried out reliably.
I am concerned also about integrated risk management plans. We must ensure that a regional control room can account for the mosaic of such plans that will make up the region. We must also ensure that the software, the operators or however the response is co-ordinated in that control room can account for different approaches, and certainly operate across borders of fire authorities even if such authorities have not been formed.
I have in mind especially automated fire alarms, which have become a significant problem, given the number of false alarms which are causing a real drain on fire authorities. In Oxfordshire, Somerset and elsewhere there is discussion about not responding to automated fire alarms, which I find a most disturbing prospect. If we have different authorities within a region sharing a regional control room, each with a different policy on, for example, automated fire alarms, there is potential for some confusion. That is one area in which I would like to see the Government be more prescriptive about what policy is required. It convinces me that we should accelerate the process that leads towards regional fire authorities, much against the wishes of the Conservative party.
I have heard from the fire authority in my area that it, too, has concern about automatic fire alarms. I have also heard talk about non-response. The authority's proposal is that there should be a £250 charge for repeat offences. That is not for the first time or the second time, but when a call is made three or four times. At least the authority could recoup some of its cost for call-out.
I, too, have heard the notion of charging for attendance. One of the groups that works with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and reports to my right hon. Friend the Minister has a task-and-finish group that is considering automated fire alarms. It is chaired by Ken Knight, the commissioner for fire and emergency planning, London fire brigade. I have had discussions with him about the approach that should be taken.
Much can be learned from the issue of burglar alarms. The police had a problem with many false alarms some years ago. The burglar alarm industry got together with the police authorities and chief constables to agree to a protocol and a resolution of the problem. That involves the regular maintenance of burglar alarms and an agreement whereby the police will attend the premises as long as the alarm is regularly maintained by an accredited maintenance engineer.
Something similar could be worked out for automated fire alarms.
The hon. Gentleman should not forget that one of the main offenders in respect of false alarms from AFAs is the national health service. Some people say it is all down to nurses making toast. That can be overplayed, but there are simple ways of dealing with the problem—first, by checking the siting of the smoke alarm and making sure it is not located too close to a toaster, and secondly, by replacing the smoke alarm with a heat detector-based alarm system, so that instead of the smoke activating the alarm, the heat caused by a fire would activate it, in the same way as a sprinkler works.
That leads me neatly to the next issue on which I wanted to comment, and one that has not been touched on at all, I am happy to say: water supply. That may not seem a contentious issue. I am pleased to see that among the responsibilities of water companies is the responsibility to provide a water supply, to provide it at nil cost for emergencies, to provide it through fire hydrants and to provide it at adequate pressure. I know my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of a problem concerning water supply for sprinklers. In some areas there is insufficient pressure in the water system to allow the sprinkler system to work effectively. That is a major stumbling block to spreading the use of sprinklers, with the fire death savings that could be made as a result.
As has been said, no one has ever died in this country in a fire in a building with a sprinkler system that has been properly maintained. I listened carefully to Mr. Amess, but as long as such a system is properly maintained, it is more than 99 per cent. reliable. We should grasp any opportunity that the Bill provides to make sure that fire sprinklers work properly and safely.
Some two and a half years ago I convened a meeting between members of the National Fire Sprinkler Network and Water UK to facilitate a discussion about the problems of pressure in the water supply. We thought we had reached an agreement but, sadly, Water UK seems to have backed off from that agreement because of concerns about people taking water supply illegally out of a sprinkler system to avoid paying the bill from their water meter, and all sorts of spurious reasons which, to me, do not stack up, given that when a sprinkler is activated, a loud noise alarm goes off outside the house. If someone wanted to fill their kettle from their fire sprinkler, they would not do so at risk of a loud noise and a light going on outside. I ask the Government to speak to the water industry, see whether a voluntary agreement is imminent, and if not, take powers in the Bill to ensure that the supply of water for sprinklers can be arranged.
In summary—I would like to allow others to contribute to the debate; I do not want to hog the limelight, as others may have done—I welcome the Bill. I will make every effort to ease its progress, as I am asked to do, but I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Phil Hope, would respond to the points that I have raised.
The Bill, as the Minister said, devolves substantial powers to the National Assembly for Wales. I intend this week to vote against one Bill that devolves powers to Wales. To do so twice would be a little churlish for a nationalist party, so we shall support the proposals on Second Reading.
It is interesting to note that the Fire Brigades Union in Wales is an enthusiastic advocate of the Bill. It has been writing to Welsh MPs urging us to support the Bill. I have not seen the FBU recently acting as cheerleaders for the Government, but it welcomes the proposals—in large part, I think, because with devolution, there will at least be a shield from any regressive proposals that may emanate from Westminster in future. We welcome the devolution aspect of the Bill.
But for Wales, devolution does not end at Cardiff bay. It has to work right down into local government. It would be a matter for the National Assembly, but I would not want to see the creation of an all-Wales national fire and rescue service. The three combined fire authorities in Wales, created by the previous Conservative Government under local government reorganisation, do not have the same connection with the localities that they serve that the previous county-based fire authorities had, and in saying that, I echo some of the comments made by other hon. Members.
Having observed the debate and as a keen supporter of elected regional government in England, I believe that one of the dangers is that elected regional assemblies will be seen as the basis for the attrition of the powers of local government; that rather than decentralising from Whitehall they will arrogate to themselves the powers that exist at local level. One reason why we succeeded in Wales, although by a narrow margin, in winning the referendum was that we allayed precisely those fears among local government networks that an elected, convincing assembly in Wales would not be a Trojan horse to deprive local government of its powers.
It is interesting, listening to the debate in England, that the Bill eliminates one of the tensions that exists within new Labour. The tension between the desire to decentralise and promote local innovation and flexibility on the one hand and on the other a desire to push through modernisation of public services, sometimes impatiently, through recentralising power, was well presented by Mr. Hammond. That tension is right at the heart of the Bill.
There is a new currency to the debate, because we are told that the new localism—to use that new shiny phrase—will be the theme of the Government's third term. We have had a speech from the Home Secretary, a pamphlet from the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, and in the last few days, speeches from the right hon. Members for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) and for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) on the new localism. There is clearly a consensus that there is a strong case for devolution in the case of fire and rescue services. A fire authority that is accountable to its local community and has the power and resources to respond to local concerns is, in theory at least, likely to be more responsive than a fire service that is driven by central diktat.
We have seen in the debate and in last year's measures, that there is an unresolved tension in Government policy. Last year, albeit with the sound and fury of the fire dispute in the background, we had the Fire Services Act 2003, which, for a period, centralised powers in terms of conditions and gave wide-ranging powers in relation to the use or disposal of property that are carried forward in this Bill. On the one hand we had a centralising measure; on the other hand, in the Local Government Act 2003, we repealed a provision of the Fire Services Act 1947 that required fire authorities to have the permission of the Secretary of State to close a fire station or to reduce the number of full-time firefighters.
We saw that tension last year, we see it in the Bill and we have heard it in the debate tonight. The real question that needs to be answered is whether these measures will create a fire service that is more or less responsive to local need. Some of the reserve powers that the Minister has claimed will be used only in extremis are drafted very broadly, as has been said. Clause 22 allows the Secretary of State to require the authority to do something, to stop doing something or not to do something. That is certainly a first for me.
I have never seen a clause drafted that widely. Perhaps the Minister can tell me what is the difference between stopping doing something and not doing something. The clause goes on to refer to the "economy, efficiency and effectiveness" of the fire and rescue authorities. Apparently, fire authorities could be required to close stations or to vary the numbers of staff in particular stations. Those are micro-level decisions about operational effectiveness. Other broad, centralising provisions include compelling a fire authority to use particular equipment and services, then making it pay for the privilege.
Regionalisation has led to widespread concern not only in the Fire Brigades Union, but in the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, which states that more research is needed on regionalisation and argues that there is a lack of focus and detail as regards the timing of any future regionalisation, which deserves more scrutiny and clarity. That was echoed by the Local Government Association. I fear that this is another kneejerk response to a complex problem. Restructuring is always a popular solution in government because formal structures are among the few things that politicians have direct control over and can change. Restructuring and institutional change is often presented as a straightforward solution to a complex problem, but we saw the problems that it created in Wales during the creation of the 22 new local health boards. The Haskins review of the rural agencies in England gave the same kind of simplistic response.
Institutional restructuring is often a recipe for more organisational chaos or inertia: it seldom illustrates the real causes of poor performance. Public services are much better improved through incremental, adaptive change through interactive processes that directly involve practitioners, professionals and service users in shaping the end result, but the Government's proposals for the fire service were ill thought out and rushed through with little opportunity for practitioners to be involved in the process. That was partly because the FBU was alienated by Bain, which it saw as a fait accompli. As a result, one of the main institutional bodies in the fire service was not involved with the review that is the basis of the Government's proposals. Now, the FBU is asking the Government if, instead of rushing through these proposals, they will allow local pilots to take place to evaluate the results of different solutions more effectively and to establish best practice more incrementally.
On pay and pensions, will the Minister confirm that it is intended fully to devolve the pay negotiation and pension elements of the Bill to the National Assembly for Wales? That would allow the Welsh Assembly Government to create under the Bill a separate negotiating body in Wales.
That would be a departure from current practice. I am sure that the FBU in Wales would welcome it; my party certainly does. However, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is the intention.
On behalf of my colleagues in the Scottish National party, I want to draw attention to a few provisions on pay and pensions that affect Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that in clauses 33 to 35, which refer to the "Secretary of State", the provisions are devolved to the Scottish Executive? The Bill does not make that clear.
The Secretary of State is required to report annually to Parliament on the national framework. Will the Minister confirm that the National Assembly for Wales will not be required to report to this place and that the debate on the Welsh national framework will happen where it should—in the Assembly?
I declare my interests, although I am not sure how they are relevant to the debate.
It is a pleasure to follow Adam Price who speaks a great deal of sense. Although he is a nationalist, I am sure that he is also a Tory at heart because he shares many of our ideals. He was right to mention a perverse contradiction in Government policy. They promote localism, yet there is often a desire and a drive for increasing centralisation. In the context of the Bill, the Minister has spoken of trying to centralise pay bargaining, yet in the health service, he is trying to move in the opposite direction.
We have had a good debate, which gives me a chance to pay tribute to the Norfolk fire service. It does a superb job of serving the local community and its professionalism and commitment is unsurpassed. I have visited King's Lynn fire station on several occasions and I am always impressed by the professionalism of the men in Norfolk's fire service. We must not forget the retained service, because there are several retained fire stations in west Norfolk, including Terrington St. Clement, Great Massingham and the Dersingham-Sandringham station. There is an esprit de corps and camaraderie that one must witness to understand it fully.
Many retained firefighters are former military men and women. They might take umbrage at some of the Minister's remarks about the fire service not being representative of society as a whole and his belief that we should embrace an agenda of inclusiveness and diversity. I do not especially want the fire service to be representative of society as a whole; I want it to sort out fires, save lives and rescue people from car accidents. My constituents want the same. They do not want the fire service to be used for social engineering and political correctness. Of course, it would be a good idea to get more blacks, Asians and women into the fire service, but surely what we need are dedicated and committed people. They will not be representative of society as a whole because the service is uniformed and people join it for special reasons: because they want to be part of a service that is dedicated and committed to the local community. Many will be former military people, and if we begin talking about quotas or going on about the diversity agenda, it will simply undermine morale in the fire service.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to recruiting firemen—retained or otherwise—is that they should fit in with the existing fire team so that they do not present a threat when they deal with fires? Any other consideration of gender or political correctness must be thrown out of the window.
I agree. If people have to deal with an appalling motor smash, for example on a motorway, and work as a team in the most impossible conditions, surely selection must be on merit alone.
There is a fire service college at Moreton-in-Marsh and I have seen at first hand that when fire officers approach a difficult fire, in smoke-filled premises, with appalling visibility, each fire officer relies on the other absolutely for his life and to save lives. Recruitment must therefore be done on merit so that the best and most suitable person for the job is appointed.
That is my philosophy and that of the Opposition. Unfortunately, however, it is not the philosophy of the Government, who are obsessed with social engineering and political correctness.
No, I must press on because other hon. Members want to speak. The hon. Gentleman has already spoken for a long time.
There are some plus points in the Bill. There is a need for change and for more emphasis on prevention, as the Bain report outlined. Furthermore, I entirely accept that terrorism does not respect county boundaries. I am pleased to see in the Bill the emphasis on smoke alarms. I did not know the statistics until the Minister pointed out that 24 per cent. of households do not have such alarms, and that, if they did, 150 more lives would be saved. That is of interest to me because I represent an ageing community, and elderly people are more vulnerable to house fires than younger people. Having smoke alarms fitted is absolutely vital. I was not a Member of Parliament when the former hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside, Michael Colvin, and his wife were tragically killed when their house in Hampshire burned down, but I understand that that could have been prevented if a smoke alarm had been fitted. I think that that incident brought home to everyone in the House the crucial need to have these devices fitted.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hammond made a very good speech, in which he flagged up a number of important points. I hope that the Under-Secretary, Phil Hope will comment on them when he winds up the debate. My hon. Friend mentioned the overstretch in the armed forces and the fact that the green goddesses are to be decommissioned in the near future. He also referred to the privatisation of the airfield support services through a private finance initiative scheme. He asked whether the military would be able to provide the necessary support to the Government if we had another dispute on the same scale as that of last winter, in the light of the changes that are to take place. I hope that the Minister will address that question.
The Bill gives rise to other grave concerns. It is a centralising measure, under which the Government are going to grasp huge extra powers in relation to appointments and procurement, giving rise, as the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr pointed out, to an authority having the power to go into another authority's area, even though there might be a disagreement on the ground over whether it should be allowed in. The power will also be created to intervene in the management of a specific incident. The powers will be more far-reaching than those that were in place during world war two. The Bill contains a substantial centralising agenda, second only to its agenda of regionalisation. The sub-plot underlying the entire Bill is the move to regional structures.
I also want to say something about control rooms. There has not been proper consultation on this matter. I have spoken on the telephone this morning to the assistant chief fire officer of the Norfolk fire service, as well as to a number of other fire officers. They were being very tactful and careful in what they were saying to me, but it was perfectly obvious that there had not been proper consultation. In Norfolk, 22 people work in the control room. The Minister said that there would be no disruption to such work, but that is nonsense. We are talking about 22 very hard-working men and women—professional fire officers—who are probably going to lose their jobs and who are very worried about their future. Of course that is a blow to morale.
Other significant problems will arise from the Bill. My right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer pointed out the challenge presented by multiple place names. A number of villages in Norfolk have very similar names to villages elsewhere in East Anglia—Aldborough, Hanworth and Grimston, for example. Local knowledge is therefore going to be very important. As the assistant chief fire officer pointed out to me, members of staff in the control room often start their career working on the appliances. They go to fires and get to know the communities intimately. They understand the challenges presented by particular villages, streets, trading estates or factories where there might be a fire risk.
Those are the people who end up in the control room. I submit that that local knowledge is vital in providing the professionalism and response that is needed.
No, there are many other Members who want to speak.
I do not see how regional control rooms can replicate that local knowledge. We have heard the Minister talk about modern technology, but I am not yet convinced that modern technology will be any substitute for the local, intimate knowledge that such people have. What we are seeing is creeping regionalisation: first, in the control rooms; then in fire safety, risk procedures, training and procurement. It is ironic that just as integrated risk management planning is being introduced, and just as fire authorities are leaping free from one part of central control and being able to put in place local plans to fit that local agenda, they must embrace the regional agenda. All the progress being made in terms of advancing the local agenda will be subsumed under regionalisation.
I therefore believe strongly that what we are seeing is an agenda to regionalise fire services. If we look at the White Paper "Our Fire and Rescue Service" we see that that must be the case, because the Government make it absolutely clear that they are talking about proposed UK fire authorities and regional management boards. I agree that some areas, such as anti-terrorism, contamination and airport security, require a greater degree of co-operation. What I suggest, however, is that we have a framework in which we keep in place the local structures but try to build critical mass in some areas of expertise. In that way, expertise can be shared across counties, as is already the case in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and with several bi-service and tri-service projects. We must try to encourage local initiative, local pride and the ability to adapt to local needs, not an over-prescriptive approach.
If we go down the regionalised route, we will see the end of local democracy in the county councils as we know it. We will see the end, for example, of Norfolk and Suffolk county councils. We will see much more power concentrated in the region, which will mean more bureaucracy, more cost, and less control given to local people. Ultimately, although the Government are rightly determined to save more lives, regionalisation is not the best way to go about it. That is why I shall support my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition's amendment.
I shall make my speech much briefer than I had planned, in the hope that others will be able to speak.
I want to comment on the Fire Services Act 2003 and its impact on the current situation. This Bill comes hot on the heels of that Act, which was passed as a result of the industrial dispute about pay. The result of that dispute was a pay award of 16 per cent. over three years, financed by savings. We should bear that phrase "financed by savings" in mind. Four per cent. was paid immediately, and 7 per cent. was promised last November. In fact, only 3.5 per cent. of that has been paid so far, and firefighters to whom I have spoken recently have no idea whatever when the rest of the pay award will be received.
The Act also gave the Secretary of State powers over the conditions of service of fire brigade members, powers over the use or disposal of property—fire engines and fire stations—and unprecedented powers of intervention. It gave firefighters little or no more than a rise in line with that of blue-collar workers, excluding overtime, which they could have expected without a strike. The firefighters did not come out of it well at all. The aftermath of the strike, and what was seen by most firefighters as a highly unsatisfactory outcome, left morale at a low ebb. It is essential that this Bill be dealt with sensitively, and do nothing to harm the fragile process of restoring that morale, which is essential to the efficient operation of the fire service.
Before the strike there were 40 applicants for every job, of which only four were suitable. If morale is not restored, the fire service could go the same way as teaching, the police service and nursing, with a gradual diminishing of the number of people who wish to pursue those careers.
The Minister and Andrew Bennett have referred to the need for more ethnic recruitment and for more women to go into the fire service. I know from my service on the Essex fire authority that there are some ethnic, cultural and religious groups to whom the fire service is not an attractive job; it does not appeal to them at all, partly because it involves getting dirty. I should like to make a plea that if there are to be more women in the fire service, they must be recruited to the same standard as everyone else. To sacrifice high standards on the altar of political correctness would be most inadvisable, because it is essential that every qualified firefighter have the appropriate strength and ability to do the job. Firefighers work in very close-knit groups—the watches—and each relies on the others in life-endangering situations. If one member of a watch did not have sufficient grip strength, for example, and could not hold on to someone in an emergency, the possible outcome is easy to understand. For that reason, the fire service needs a recruitment policy that is open to anyone who can meet those standards, and whether applicants are of a certain gender or ethnic group should be irrelevant; it is attracting recruits of the right quality that is important.
The Local Government Association—a body with which I do not always see eye to eye—has stated that collaboration should be voluntary, not compulsory, that fire authorities must be able to maintain control of local services and that the additional costs of regional arrangements need to be considered, as they will be borne across the whole fire modernisation programme. The arguments against regionalisation have been well rehearsed in the debate, so I will not add to them now, but I should like to ask about the relatively new additional responsibility for fire services: dealing with terrorist threats. One has only to recall the role of the New York fire department in dealing with the terrorist attacks on the twin towers to know how important that is, and there is a clear need for strategic planning in unprecedented emergencies such as that. For that reason alone, I can understand the benefits of regionalisation, but not for the whole spectrum of duties that fire services undertake.
I should like to ask the Minister to throw some light on the cost of new dimension training—for example, for massive decontamination incidents, where firefighters could be on continuous duty for days at a time. That will have considerable cost complications. Where will the funding for such specialist training come from?
Part 3 has caused most alarm to serving firefighters in relation to setting up the national framework, the draft of which was published on
Firefighting is not just a job; it is not done solely for the money. There are many easier ways of earning an equivalent income without involvement in life-endangering situations. During the last strike, which caused considerable hardship to those taking part, it was clear that firefighters felt that the Government, if not the general public, undervalued them. The whole exercise was hugely damaging to internal relations in the fire service and the public it serves. The changes proposed in the Bill—they will become law because the Government have a large majority—must be consulted on in a genuine and meaningful way. I hope that any objections will be given a fair hearing and that amendments will be considered, so that the good will among serving firefighters, which was holed below the waterline last year, can continue its tentative recovery.
No one can seriously be against the modernisation, rationalisation and restructuring of the fire service, when nothing has been done to it since the Fire Services Act 1947, and we now live in a very different world to that in which we—or at least, some of us—found ourselves in that year. The threat of global terrorism is relatively new to us. Some hon. Members pointed out in the debate on the Civil Contingencies Bill last week that not enough had been done about that, so how can the same people stand in their places tonight and fail to say that something should be done quickly about that problem by means of this Bill, too?
The Bain report suggested that we were talking about a new approach by the fire services to reduce the number of fires and save more lives. As far as it goes, that is good, and the whole House would support it. I do not have time to pray in aid the comments made about the Bain report and the White Paper, but they do not entirely support everything that appears in the Bill.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear—he and I have discussed it across the Chamber many times before, and no doubt will again—that my main concerns are centred on regionalisation and its impact on a rural community such as the one where I live in Devon. I agree with my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson that a rational case can be made for regional control of some sort in respect of a national emergency. However, in respect of the day-to-day running of fire services throughout the country, I see no need to use the fire services to fulfil part of the Deputy Prime Minister's dream of carving the country up into nine administrative regions.
People, particularly people in the west country, are concerned that all the talk of rationalisation and regionalisation is a cover to make up for the vast amounts of money that the Government have had to pay out as a result of the fire dispute last year. I am particularly concerned about something that the Minister said about the question of accountability, which other Labour Members also spoke about this afternoon. Local accountability is something that people in remote areas are particularly keen on. I do not subscribe to the view that taking firefighters—in Devon's case, retained firefighters—away from their local communities and having one large administrative centre covering an area from the Isles of Scilly to Gloucester does not involve some loss.
I spent some time recently at the headquarters of the Devon fire and rescue service, met chief fire officer Paul Young and his excellent team, and saw at first hand how the operations room works. I saw how they could pinpoint the location of a fire within seconds. No village name needed repeating, because the drivers knew exactly where the village was. They also had the mechanisms to tell the drivers exactly what sort of fire it was. While I was in the control room, a fire broke out in a timber yard, so they knew what vehicles and equipment to dispatch to it. There might have been inflammable liquid or some sort of ammunition there. The retained firemen had that sort of local knowledge.
I question whether such knowledge could be preserved if the area covered by the firemen were extended.
It is feared that more than 160 fire service jobs could be lost. According to the Western Morning News last week, when challenged about the issue a spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said:
"We are encouraging fire authorities to redeploy staff into other roles. We want to emphasise fire prevention, educating more vulnerable people in the community into the dangers of fire, and how to prevent them happening."
The spokesman was also quoted as saying—this is rather more worrying—that
"local knowledge was no longer relevant to the job".
"The world is not that local any more and the technology exists to find callers even if they don't give their position."
I question whether that is true in an area such as Devon, where there is rural population sparsity. I also agree with the county council network of chief fire officers, which states:
"Simply stating that a Fire Authority which has fewer than 700 people is inefficient without supplying any argument to support this, verges finely between simplistic and arrogant. We can easily furnish evidence that smaller Authorities, many of which are linked to County Councils, outperform much larger fire brigades, frequently at a lower expense."
The Minister will know of the good work done by the Devon fire authority, and what it has achieved so far. The total number of fires is decreasing, with an expected year-end result of 55.2 per 10,000 of population. That is a decrease of 9 per cent. on 1999–2000, and is well below the national average in that year. The number of primary fires—those involving damage to property—is also decreasing. The number of accidental dwelling fires is falling, and the number of malicious false alarm calls has steadily decreased. All those are good stories from a fire authority that knows the county in which it operates.
There is a feeling in our part of the world that we are always at the losing end. We have a feeling that, unfairly, too many of our post offices are being closed. We have a feeling that our pubs are closing, even if they are not closing in great numbers. We have a feeling that our magistrates courts are closing, and that we have lost local connections as a result. Now we are being told that we may lose the local accountability of our fire service, which is to go to a wider region. That, too, is questionable.
Devon fire and rescue service claims that the
"reality of savings in rural communities is doubtful".
Additional complications are involved in the delivery of a modernisation agenda in an authority like Devon, as a significant number of retained firefighters operate there. Nothing in the Bill so far deals with such concerns.
Another result of the Bill will be—as we have heard—a far greater concentration of power in the hands of the Secretary of State. There is a contradiction here. While arguing that they are providing more accountability as part of their regional and localised programmes and ceding power to the new regional assemblies, the Government are taking power back to the centre, giving the Secretary of State powers that he has never enjoyed hitherto.
There is a further point, about the budgets. I understand that on Friday the Minister sent a letter to the fire authorities, saying that he envisaged budget increases in single low figures in the next financial year. The Devon fire authority thinks that he meant about 5 per cent., but has endorsed a 16 per cent. pay deal over a period of about 18 months. Where does that leave us in Devon? We are left with a pretty stark choice. A spending increase of 5 per cent. would already result in significant cuts, and the authority is convinced that the Government may intervene to cap any increase in excess of that.
In fairness to the Minister, I must say that the Bill contains much that is good, but it raises many questions that it does not answer.
That will be the job of those of us who serve on the Committee. I support the reasoned amendment because I believe that the Bill does not go far enough or explain enough as it stands—and I look forward to the opportunity of going through it clause by clause at a later date.
I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister for being slightly late for the beginning of the debate. I was delayed by a small incident which, luckily enough, did not require the fire and rescue services. In the two minutes or so that I have available, I wish to touch on two issues: devolution; and the way in which fire services and ambulances may act as co-responders, especially in rural areas that feel vulnerable in the event of an emergency.
We support the aspects of devolution and the processes for that in the Bill. I feel that the parliamentary draftsmen have found an elegant way to achieve that—there are several ways in which it can be done—because clause 59 says that a reference to the National Assembly for Wales should be inserted in the Bill where a reference to the Secretary of State is made in parts 1 to 6. However, part 4 relates to pay and conditions and will set up pay negotiating bodies. I had the impression that such matters would remain reserved, so I wonder whether clause 59 should refer to parts 1 to 3, 5 and 6. Perhaps the Minister will reply on that matter.
I can best express my next point by referring to an incident that happened in Knighton, which is a remote rural part of my constituency. A gentleman collapsed on the pavement one night but was able to ring the emergency services. However, local general practitioners now provide no out-of-hours cover and the out-of-hours service operates from 20 or 30 miles away. Additionally, the local ambulance service was attending to another person in Hereford, which is 30 miles away, so there was no one to attend to the gentleman who could perhaps have saved his life. However, retained firemen were on standby in Knighton at the time, so if there had been a system of better understanding between the ambulance service and the fire and rescue service—especially one that covered defibrillators—the gentleman's life could have been saved. I hope that the regulations in the Bill will allow the National Assembly for Wales and the Secretary of State in England to find a solution to the problems that are faced especially by rural areas that feel vulnerable to such emergencies because they are without the cover of fire and rescue services or ambulances.
I support the Bill, which will probably do more good for the fire and rescue services in Wales than for those in England.
I am delighted to be able to wind up this important debate. I join my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer, my hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and other hon. Members who paid tribute to their local fire services and the bravery and heroism of our firefighters throughout the country—we all owe them a debt of gratitude.
There is much to welcome in the Bill. Many of the speeches in our good, hearty and well informed debate have paid tribute to the principle behind the Bill: to modernise the fire service in the wake of the Bain report of December 2002 and the fire strike of last year. There is clearly a need to enact more permanent legislation than the Fire Services Act 2003. We especially welcome the standardisation of communications, the provisions on pensions and the provisions on water supplies. We give a qualified welcome to the powers of entry in an emergency, because they should not be used in a draconian manner. We welcome the provisions on fire alarms and the pre-commencement consultation, provided that that is genuine.
We can welcome the Bill's principle and various bits of its detail. However, I shall start with a question from Professor Ann R. Everton, who is a professor of law at the university of Central Lancashire and one of the most knowledgeable people in the country on fire law.
She starts by saying:
"Can so enormous a programme of reform ever be effectively pursued? More particularly, can it ever be effectively pursued at the rate at which it is currently being driven?"
The Bill has been produced in an enormous amount of haste, without proper consultation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk told us how neither of their fire services was consulted on this huge change. If we are to introduce such a change, it is remiss of the Government not to consult the knowledgeable and longstanding chiefs of those important fire brigades properly.
We would all say "Amen" to the prospect of reducing the 300 deaths a year and the 11,000 injuries that the Minister mentioned. That must be an overriding objective.
I was coming to the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to him and his Select Committee report. He will be interested to know that I will quote it because it makes interesting reading.
In a minute. First, I want to welcome some of what the hon. Gentleman had to say. On the composition and recruitment of the fire service, it is important to recruit as many retained firefighters as possible, especially in rural areas. His report makes useful recommendations on that. Much has been said about the make-up of those whom we recruit. In my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, I said—backed up, I think, by my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson—that it is important to have the most suitable person for the job. I accept that in some areas of the country that will involve different ethnic groups.
Although I would encourage the recruitment of women, having seen the job that firemen do in detail at the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh, I know how difficult and physically arduous it is. Trying to lift a hydraulic opener, which opens a vehicle's roof and windows to get people out of a car, is physically arduous. Going into a smoke-filled room and carrying out people who may be unconscious is difficult and arduous. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster was right to say that we need to recruit women and men on the same basis.
If the hon. Gentleman has read our report carefully, he will know that people have been proposing changes to, and the modernisation of, the fire service for more than 30 years, and nothing has happened. It is surprising that he now complains that change is being done in haste.
It is clear from talking to a number of experts that the change has been done in haste. There have been many reports, studies and one thing and another, but they have not been implemented wisely. There is still plenty of scope to amend the Bill. There will be plenty of discussions in Committee to see how we can improve it. It is a bit like the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, however, because it has been introduced in haste.
The hon. Gentleman did the House a great service in his report. To back up my argument that the Bill is being implemented in haste, the report says that the national framework, which the Government talk about, was implemented in far too much haste. In addition, the Government promised the £30 million supplement for the pay award more than a year ago, but it was only introduced in December. They promised the disciplinary regulations in December—the so-called grey book—but we still have not seen them. We would have been interested to see some of the secondary legislation that goes with the Bill, but there has been little of that. Those are good examples of how the Bill has been implemented in haste.
There is a great deal of centralisation in the Bill. A cursory look at it reveals just how very centralising it is. Clause 10 concerns
"Directions relating to particular fires and emergences"; clause 13 is entitled "Reinforcement schemes"; clause 17 is on
"Directions as to arrangements under section 16"; clause 22 is headed
Although I quoted clause 22 in an intervention, I shall do so again. Anybody who doubts that this is a centralising Bill need only look at clause 22; it is the best example of the legislation's centralising nature. It states:
"For the purpose of securing that the authority acts in accordance with the Framework the Secretary of State may by order require the authority— then we have these three marvellous conditions—
(a) to do something;
(b) to stop doing something;
(c) not to do something."
I wonder sometimes why we pay parliamentary draftsmen huge salaries. Many of us could have drafted a better clause. Effectively, the clause states that the onerous framework can be implemented at the whim of a Secretary of State. Under clause 23, that will be tested by the best value regime.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal raised the issue of regionalisation in his very powerful speech. I shall not be able to go through it in detail because it was quite long, and time is limited. We know that it is the Government's intention that there should be nine national fire centres by 2007. I thought that the Minister was dissembling to my right hon. Friend, who asked whether there were powers in the Bill to create an eastern region fire service, resulting in his Suffolk fire service ceasing to exist. The Minister said that the Government have no intention of doing that but that there will be a regional management board. If that is not dissembling, I do not know what is. Such a board will threaten my right hon. Friend's Suffolk fire station.
I represent the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh. Clause 30 states that a central training institution may be established. Will the Minister confirm that that institution will be the Fire Service College in my constituency? I shall be seeking—I wish that he would listen to what I have to say—an Adjournment debate on the college because things are not going very well there. There has been no permanent chief executive for the past year, and the college is likely to make a loss for the second year running. It cannot continue while running at a loss. Since the last chief executive prematurely retired, before which the college made a profit, things have not been going well. I should like the Minister's assurance that—perhaps in a separate debate—we will be able to examine those matters in greater detail.
The tension between localism and regionalism was expertly expounded by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. Under a county council structure, fire services are democratically accountable locally and they know the rural areas that they cover. Many hon. Members have quoted the figures on page 32 of the Select Committee report. If one examines them carefully, one sees that the column starts with London, where of course costs are likely to be low, and ends with the whole of the Isle of Wight, where of course costs are likely to be higher. Costs rise as one goes down the table because the areas are more rural. People like their local structures and fire services.
What a waste of the £3.6 billion that has been spent on a tri-service call centre in Gloucestershire, given that it is to be altered or abolished. [Interruption.] If the Minister, who is chuntering, is to abolish or alter that centre, will he find the funds for a regional call centre?
The Government's dream is regionalisation—everything has to be regionalised: housing, planning and now the fire service—regionalisation, so that people can sit in an office many miles away, not understanding the problems in the local area. Will that make a better service? I doubt it. Professor Everton is right to say that we should make haste slowly. I urge the Government to consider carefully what they are doing. If they do not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster said, we will turn an excellent service into one that is far more difficult to operate, as has happened to many of the other public services that have had legislation visited on them by this Government. I say to the Government in the Latin, "Festina lente"—make haste slowly.
I shall endeavour to deal with the points raised in this important and good debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. Before responding to some of them, I will remind the House why a new approach to a modern fire and rescue service is required.
Despite the high standards of performance of our fire service and the dedication and bravery of our firefighters in responding to fires, too many lives are still being lost, especially among the most vulnerable in our society. Although raising awareness of fire safety has made a difference, 357 deaths and 11,000 injuries occurred in 2002 alone.
The independent review of the fire service led by Sir George Bain called for a new risk-based and preventive approach. We responded to that report with our White Paper "Our Fire and Rescue Service", which was published last summer and which set out our vision of a modern fire and rescue service—a service that will save more lives and create safer communities; that is proactive in preventing fires and other risks alongside performing its traditional firefighting role; that is committed to change and will adapt to changing circumstances, such as the new threat from terrorism; that is well managed and effective with institutions that support its role and purpose; and that supports the Government's wider social agenda.
The report of the Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett broadly welcomed the Bill and its reforms. Despite some reservations, during today's debate a broad consensus supporting the thrust of the Bill has been expressed on both sides of the House. It is a shame that Opposition Members do not feel that they can vote for the Bill as well as speak in support of it in the Chamber.
One of the first and major accusations that the Opposition have levelled is that the Bill is too centralist. It will put our new national fire framework on to a statutory footing: that responds directly to Sir George Bain's observation that for too long successive Governments had not provided the service with the correct strategic direction. That is precisely the point that we have tried to address. The national framework represents a contract between the Government and the service, for the first time setting out our requirements, what authorities should do to meet those requirements and the support with which we shall provide them. At the start of the debate, Mr. Hammond asked when we would introduce the new discipline regulations—a small but crucial point. That was one of the undertakings in the national framework. We shall publish the regulations in early spring—on target.
The national framework focuses strongly on working in partnership. We are anxious to hear the views of all concerned on the draft framework as we proceed with the consultation process. Let me be clear: the framework is not about being prescriptive or dictating to authorities how they should run their service. It is neither centralist nor interventionist.
Mr. Davey complained about the powers that can be used to intervene if that is needed. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire emphasised that those would be reserve powers, to be used as and when needed. It is important that public authorities meet the expectations set out in the framework, because failure to do so might have an impact on national strategies to deliver essential emergency response services. The Bill therefore rightly includes provisions that allow for such intervention where authorities are clearly failing, but I assure the House that those intervention powers are very much a last resort. We are working with local authorities to ensure that we can overcome any barriers to meeting the expectations, and of course we will have regard to the intervention protocol that we agreed with the Local Government Association when considering how best to address poor performance.
A second theme embraced by Opposition Members is the fact that the Bill would lead to major regionalisation. That appears to be their new bête noire or paranoia. It used to be Europe—mention that and everyone would jump up like puppets on a string. Now the word "regionalisation" has exactly the same impact. I was pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for South Dorset (Jim Knight) supported an appropriate level of regionalisation for the fire services, as indeed did Angela Watkinson in some of her remarks. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, Mr. Gummer, the hon. Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), as well as Mr. Clifton-Brown, were against the concept of regionalisation. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton sat on the fence—the Liberal Democrats are very much in favour of a regional approach to policy, but they decide not to support it when it matters.
To make it clear, we are not regionalising the service, except in areas where voters themselves choose to have an elected regional assembly. The Opposition oppose the referendums, and are no doubt campaigning against those regional bodies. We have spelt out very clearly—I refer Opposition Members to page 31 of the White Paper—that there are national, regional and local functions and responsibilities to be delivered by the fire services at different levels. The hon. Member for Cotswold said that regional management boards were a form of regionalisation. We said that they were not—they would be introduced in areas that do not have elected regional assemblies. He called that dissembling, but it is not, because in the national framework we spell out in words of one syllable the functions of regional management boards. My right hon. Friend intervened on him to make that point, yet still he said that there would be regionalisation in areas, even though that is clearly not the case.
The hon. Gentleman sets great store by the regional management boards, but the Secretary of State has reserve power to elect 49 per cent. of the members of those boards. If the hon. Gentleman genuinely wants those boards to work properly and democratically, why are they not properly elected full stop?
The hon. Gentleman appears to be saying that if they were directly elected he would support them, which sounds like a bid for an elected regional assembly in the south-west. If he wishes to campaign on those grounds, I urge him to travel to Newcastle, Manchester and Yorkshire to press his case.
The Minister has carefully ignored the principal point made by most Members who spoke about regional management boards. It is simply not appropriate for the boundaries governing the organisation of the fire and rescue services to be the same as the boundaries of the Government offices for the regions. He has not addressed that point at all.
I was going to come to that. I find it entertaining that Opposition Members, who have lost the argument about whether we should have a regional structure and what should happen afterwards, should divert the argument into a big debate about boundaries. The Liberal Democrats usually pursue such causes. If in doubt, we have been told, we should have a review and kick the problem into the long grass. On the one hand, we are told to get on with the job, but on the other to hold a review to stop that. We simply will not accept such advice.The Bill also makes provision, as Mr. Williams pointed out, for the devolution of fire services to the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Executive, which is an important step in the right direction. The hon. Gentleman is right that fire services in Wales will be much better off as a result of devolution to the Welsh authorities.
The unacceptability of regional control rooms was a subsection of the Opposition's argument on regionalisation. Those control rooms were introduced as a result of the Bain review, which was followed up by the Mott MacDonald review. They made it quite clear that the cost of regional control rooms and their efficiency and effectiveness far outweighed the drawbacks that Opposition Members talked about. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud made an important point about shared and tri-service control rooms, particularly in his constituency and region. I accept those difficulties, but the concept of national resilience against the threat of global terrorism, which the hon. Member for East Devon discussed, was not identified as a priority when the proposal for shared control rooms was introduced. We need to make sure that we get benefits from regional control rooms, and we want to incorporate best practice.
Again, I refer to the draft fire and rescue national framework, in which we say:
"The Government accepts the conclusions of the research done by Mott MacDonald that improvements in control room efficiency should be achieved by amalgamating fire control rooms".
However, we go on to say that we will
"seek to build on the lessons of the three existing shared control rooms and integrate them as far as possible into the new system."
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset also raised a concern about regional control rooms, and his particular point is whether we will have the necessary technology. I assure him that the Government will support and fund the development of those regional control rooms to ensure that they have the most modern communications technology. The regional management boards in those areas will develop common procedures to deal with the issues that he discussed.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk claimed that local knowledge is an important feature of their local control rooms, but we expect global positioning systems and other uses of new technology to deal directly with the problems that they have identified.
Resilience is a key function of regional work for the fire service. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington raised the question of when we might intervene if the quality of service were not sufficient. It would not be practical to put a definitive list of emergencies in the Bill, and if we were to do so we could run the risk of not covering all possible threats. By taking a power to create new duties by order, we retain the ability to respond to changing events. On that issue, the hon. Member for Upminster made a point about cost. I assure her that the Government are meeting in full the cost of equipment for the new dimension of fighting terrorism and that every firefighter will receive basic training to operate that equipment. We are investing some £188 million over the next two years to achieve that outcome.
Prevention was the issue that caused hon. Members most concern, and I am pleased to say that every hon. Member spoke in favour of the measures to promote fire safety. My hon. Friend Mr. Amess, who gave some good examples of the tragedies that can occur when we fail to prevent fires, emphasised that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the importance of education in schools and work with young people. Those hon. Members were right to make these points.
Some hon. Members raised particular issues about sprinklers. We recognise that sprinklers have a part to play in fire safety, but we have undertaken extensive research on the effectiveness of residential sprinklers, which indicates that sprinklers are not cost-effective for universal installation in residential dwellings. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset said that that would not be the right direction to move in, but that we might want to target the use of sprinklers where people are most vulnerable, such as homes for children and for the elderly. Houses in multiple occupation, which carry a high risk, were also mentioned.
I regret that, in the time available, I cannot cover all the points about pensions, although I must say to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire that pensions are a reserved matter. The Welsh Assembly will be able to make regulations, but it will not be able to influence primary legislation.
In conclusion, a year ago the independent review of the fire service set out a challenging agenda to create a modern fire and rescue service, and the White Paper "Our Fire and Rescue Service" responded to that challenge. It sets out the Government's vision for a service that is better able to meet the challenges of the 21st century and recognises the service's current role in dealing with incidents such as road traffic accidents alongside its traditional firefighting role.
The Bill will ensure that the service plays an effective part in national and regional resilience to terrorism and other serious emergencies, and it will put fire prevention and safety at the heart of the fire and rescue service. The Bill will create a service that helps to save more lives by protecting the public and creating safer communities. That is why it should get a Second Reading, and I commend it to the House.