New Clause 5 — Regional Management Structures

Part of Fire and Rescue Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 15th March 2004.

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Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government) 8:30 pm, 15th March 2004

I think that the hon. Gentleman is right, and I will certainly check it. The wording is quite technical, so I will write to him about the point.

Government amendments Nos. 9 to 11 also fulfil a promise that I made in Committee to reflect further on the circumstances in which holding an inquiry might not be possible or appropriate. The amendments apply to existing combination schemes—that is, schemes made under the Fire Services Act 1947. I have already outlined our approach towards new schemes and to their future variation or revocation.

As with Government amendments Nos. 7 and 8, an inquiry will now be the norm. The only exceptions—I trust that they are not now contentious—are an exemption for public safety, an exemption in situations where those affected by the Secretary of State's proposals are happy with them, and an exemption where the variation or revocation is simply a consequence of a wider local or regional government boundary change. I trust that hon. Members will welcome our steps to accommodate the wishes of the Standing Committee, and I commend the amendments to the House.

Before I conclude, I should like to deal with some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Teignbridge and by my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew).

The hon. Member for Teignbridge asked about local knowledge and the operation of a control room. He posed an interesting example of controllers talking to a young child and trying to identify the location of a call. I have to tell him that the arrangements being put in place to procure a new communications or call system for operation by the fire service—to be operated through regional control centres—will use the latest modern technology, which has the capacity to pinpoint very precisely the location from where a call has been made. That obviates the need for a lengthy process of having to talk through the problem of location.

It is fundamental to have the best modern technology, which makes it possible to identify the location of the call and then to direct and guide the fire and rescue service to that particular location. I have seen some of the best new systems being introduced, so I am well aware of the scope for improving the effectiveness of the service through the introduction of new technology.

On the notion that new clause 5 is not particularly objectionable because it requires only a review, I have to say that it does not require only a review. When linked with amendment No. 3, it would block any move to a region other than those that satisfy the conclusions of the review proposed by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. It is not simply a benign and ideal Liberal Democrat debating chamber opportunity for endless discussion about optimal regional boundaries—and if it were, it would, as we all know, rarely, if ever, lead to conclusions.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for Gloucester made important points about regional control rooms and the possible implications for Gloucester. I recognise the achievement in creating the tri-service centre in Gloucester, which my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio visited recently—he told me how impressed he was by what he saw. I have been invited to visit it, and I have indicated that I will be happy to when a convenient moment becomes available in my busy diary because I want to see more of the good work that is being done there.

I am also well aware of the anxieties in Gloucester about the implications of a move towards regional control rooms. I say to my hon. Friends that there is no reason why a move to regional control rooms would threaten the continued operation of the Gloucester centre. In the first place, Gloucester will be open to bid as a location for the regional control room. No decisions have been taken on an appropriate location, and I am sure that my hon. Friends will make a persuasive case on the merits of Gloucester.