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'(1) The Secretary of State shall within 12 months of the coming into force of any part of this Act:
(a) commission an independent study to establish the optimum geographical areas within England for the organisation of fire and rescue services; and
(b) commission an independent study of the impact of any existing regional management structures on:
(i) operational effectiveness of fire and rescue services, and
(ii) cost-effectiveness of fire and rescue services, and
(iii) management capability of fire and rescue authorities.
(2) Upon receipt of the reports of the studies referred to in subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall cause those reports to be published.'.—[Mr. Hammond.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
'(1) Where a scheme made under section 2 provides for members of a combined fire and rescue authority to be appointed by the Secretary of State the provisions of this section shall apply.
(2) Before making an appointment to a combined fire and rescue authority the Secretary of State shall invite each of the existing authorities with power to appoint members to the combined fire and rescue authority to submit to him a list of nominees for consideration for appointment by the Secretary of State.
(3) The Secretary of State shall appoint from the lists of nominees received those persons who appear to him to be best qualified to serve as members of the combined fire and rescue authority unless there are an insufficient number of persons on the lists appearing to the Secretary of State to be suitable for appointment.
(4) If the Secretary of State considers that there are an insufficient number of suitable persons on the lists to make all the necessary appointments he shall advise each of the existing authorities of his reasons for considering each of their unsuccessful nominees as unsuitable for appointment and shall indicate the qualities, experience and other relevant factors required for appointment by the Secretary of State in the particular case.
(5) Each of the existing authorities shall then be invited to submit a further list of nominees fulfilling the criteria set down in accordance with subsection (4) by the Secretary of State.
(6) Upon receipt of the further lists referred to in subsection (5) the Secretary of State shall appoint from the lists those persons who appear to him to be best qualified to serve as members of the combined fire and rescue authority.
(7) If there are insufficient numbers of persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be suitably qualified for appointment on the lists submitted, the Secretary of State may appoint such other persons as he considers suitable to fill any remaining vacancy.
(8) On the occurrance of any casual vacancy for membership of a fire and rescue authority which falls under the terms of the scheme to be filled by an appointment by the Secretary of State the procedure set out in subsections (2) to (7) shall apply.'.
Amendment No. 21, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, after 'Act', insert
'that one or more fire and rescue authorities are failing to discharge their duties and this Act and'.
Amendment No. 14, in page 2, line 16, leave out from 'area' to end of line 18.
Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 17, leave out from 'constitutes' to end of line 18 and insert
'an area identified by the study published by the Secretary of State in accordance with section [regional management structures] as an optimum geographical area for the organisation of fire and rescue services.'.
Amendment No. 22, in page 2, line 18, at end insert—
(c) that a draft scheme has been submitted to him by two or more existing authorities and 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.'.
Government amendments Nos. 7 and 8.
Amendment No. 23, in clause 3, page 3, line 40, leave out 'half' and insert 'one third'.
Government amendments Nos. 9 to 11.
This wide-ranging group of amendments deals with combined fire authorities and much more besides. New clause 5 is drawn widely and touches on all fire authorities in England with the exception of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. It addresses the compulsory and arbitrary regionalisation of fire and rescue services on the basis of the existing regional development agency or Government office regions. The Select Committee looked at the Government's proposals on regionalisation and said in paragraph 81 of its report:
"The draft Framework emphasises the importance of local solutions to local needs, and highlights that there is no national blueprint. Yet Fire Services and Authorities appear to have no choice about adopting a regional approach."
We have always accepted that there is a case for harvesting the efficiencies of co-operation by doing certain things at supra-brigade level, but that must be a bottom-up process that starts with individual fire authorities collaborating together, not a top-down process in which the Secretary of State directs fire authorities to work in certain ways. It must be driven, not by the Secretary of State's demands but by the accountability of fire and rescue authorities to local taxpayers and by their best-value obligations. That is already happening, but not necessarily on the geographical boundaries that Ministers seek.
We accept the case for common procurement to ensure interoperability and the need to co-ordinate the response to non-conventional threats at a higher level than that of the individual brigade. None of those arguments, however, points to the Government-dictated organisation of fire and rescue services along the geographical lines of Government office regions. Fire and rescue services are a local government function and, under modernisation, are charged with becoming more of a community service. They must be managed and run closer to, not further away, from the local community that they serve. We must never forget that even in the environment in which, sadly, we now find ourselves, at least 90 per cent. of a fire and rescue authority's work will continue to be performing community-based traditional roles as well as the new, important role of fire prevention and education.
The Government have not produced a shred of evidence to establish the benefit to public safety of choosing the structure of existing Government office regions as the basis for imposing regional management boards, the use of those regions as the basis for the combined fire authorities of the future or, indeed, the reduction of the 49 existing control rooms to just nine in England. The Select Committee report, with which the Minister will be familiar, makes that clear at paragraph 79, which states:
"The key argument in the White Paper for a regional approach appears to be cost efficiency".
It goes on to say at paragraph 80:
"The White Paper does not explain how a regional approach would improve public safety, and help Government achieve its Service Delivery Agreement targets. Nor does it provide evidence that a regional approach would reduce bureaucratic overheads."
We need convincing evidence that the regions chosen by the Government are the optimum regions for fire and rescue purposes and will not merely reduce costs but meet the Government's avowed criterion of improving public safety.
The report on control rooms does not look at the possibility of any other configuration of those rooms. If a control room can handle adequately the entire south-east of England, with a population of 8 million, why has the Minister not considered combining the north-east region with Yorkshire and the Humber to create a region with a population of about 7.5 million? The Government have not explained why is it right and appropriate to have one control room in the north-east region with a population of 2.5 million spread over 8,000 sq km, and one control room in the south-east region with a population of 8 million spread over 19,500 sq km?
Resilience, which the Minister often talks about, will be achieved by common equipment and operating standards. The reduction of 49 control rooms to nine is about saving costs. There is nothing wrong with saving costs—I am not suggesting for a moment that that is not a good objective—but it is not the Secretary of State's role to deal with such matters in a locally based, locally accountable service. He should deal with resilience, but economy of operation should be dealt with under the best-value arrangements and through the accountability of democratically elected fire and rescue authorities to their local electorates. The truth is that the Deputy Prime Minister has been scratching around to try to find some powers for his pet regional tier to counter the repeated accusation that it is a hollow promise or empty box. The fire and rescue services are being regionalised by stealth through the regional management boards, the inevitable withering of the management capability of individual fire and rescue authorities and by the regional fire authorities that the Secretary of State will impose on any region that elects to have a regional assembly in a referendum. Incidentally, that demonstrates the untruth of the Government's repeated statement that any extra powers given to elected regional assemblies will be handed down from central Government, not drawn up from local government. Those extra powers will clearly come from a diminution of local government power and responsibility.
It is not appropriate to organise a vital, front-line emergency service around the political whim of a politician. We will never accept that public safety should be subordinated to the Government's regional agenda through the imposition of a sub-optimal regional structure. I emphasise again that we object not to the introduction of a supra-brigade level for certain purposes but to the transparently political use of existing Government office regions—[Interruption.] The Minister says that it is a lot of nonsense, but he has not produced a shred of evidence to support the argument that those are the optimum regions for the operational delivery of fire and rescue services.
I repeatedly told the hon. Gentleman in Committee—I am surprised that he did not hear—that in each of the Government office regions we have regional resilience forums, which ensure that we have the best possible resilience to cope with terrorist threats and other emergencies. How can he possibly suggest that it does not make strong operational sense to align the boundaries of the fire and rescue services' work in that regard with those of the regional resilience forums?
What the Minister is seeking to do is reorganise the work of fire and rescue authorities, 90 per cent.-plus of which will be carrying out the community-based role that they have to perform along Government office region lines. He has never sought to evaluate—I stand to be corrected if he can produce some evidence, but I have never seen it—the most appropriate geographical arrangements for the delivery of a supra-brigade level.
If the hon. Gentleman had read the White Paper, he would know that we spelled out very clearly a definition of what responsibilities needed to be discharged at a national level, a regional level and a local level, including the community fire safety work. That underpins our proposals.
That is very interesting, but it does not answer the accusation that the regions that have been selected for political purposes are self-evidently not the most appropriate ones for the delivery of fire and rescue services.
If the Minister wishes to intervene again, perhaps he will explain why the most appropriate unit for organisation of the fire and rescue service in the north-east has a population of 2.5 million spread over 8,000 sq km, while in the south-west, it is a unit with a geographical extent of 23,000 sq km, and in the south-east, it is a unit with a population of 8 million.
I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that it is because it is essential for operational needs that there is clear contiguity between the regional resilience forums and the fire and rescue service. That is very much about public safety. Will he now please withdraw the entirely unjustified allegation that this is a political arrangement? It is not such an arrangement because it is about public safety and the best arrangements that we can make to guarantee us against the risk of terrorism and other serious incidents.
I do not remember the Minister rushing to the Dispatch Box to withdraw the inappropriate accusation that he made against me earlier in the debate, and I did not press the point at the time. I shall not withdraw my concern that one of the driving forces for the Government in taking this route and using the organisational units is that that approach fits extremely well with another important political initiative by the Department—the promotion of the regional structure in Britain.
If the Minister were to commission from Mott MacDonald or whoever else an independent report of the sort suggested by new clause 5, asking what the optimal sub-national organisation of England would be—we are now talking only about England—for operational fire and rescue purposes, it is theoretically possible that the answer would be a structure of 8,000 sq km in the north-east and 23,000 sq km in the south-west, with 2.5 million people in the north-east and 8 million people in the south-east. However, I very much doubt that that would happen, as it flies in the face of all intuition and logic. In the absence of such a report, I am deeply sceptical. That is why new clause 5 seeks to require that an independent study be carried out on the optimal organisational units for fire and rescue purposes. If those units are the Government office regions, fine, but I am prepared to bet that an independent report would find otherwise.
The new clause would also require an independent study to be carried out on the impact of the existing regional structure. That will be a structure of regional management boards and any regional combined fire authorities that the Minister has created at the time when the study is conducted. That is the best that we can do within the structure of the Bill, as the regional management boards are not created by the provisions, but are part of the national framework document.
If the proposed reports were carried out, they would show whether there is a better way of organising supra-brigade level activity and whether the Government office regions structure is really a cost-effective way of organising fire and rescue services, as well as what impact it is having on fire and rescue authority management capability, which appears likely inevitably to wither as a result of the transfer of responsibilities up to regional management boards.
That process would be entirely objective. If the Minister is confident that the best interests of public safety are served by the Government office regions and that they are the best and most appropriate units of organisation, he has nothing to fear in accepting the new clause and commissioning an independent report, so that we can all see some independent underpinning of the Government's position and some basis for his repeated assertion, which flies in the face of intuition, that this structure of organisation has not been adopted because it ties in with the ODPM's other agenda of regional government. The public would then be able to see for themselves whether the structure is designed primarily to enhance public safety rather than to advance the Deputy Prime Minister's regional agenda.
Amendments Nos. 3 and 14 address another frankly outrageous or preposterous—I shall put it that way, as that is the Minister's favourite word—provision: clause 2(2)(b). That provision allows the Secretary of State to create new combined fire and rescue authorities if efficiency, effectiveness and economy demand that he does so. That is fine, but it is not the case if the combined fire and rescue authority that he wishes to create is one whose boundaries coincide with those of a regional development agency region. In that case, he does not have to demonstrate that creating the authority will be in the interests of efficiency, effectiveness and economy; he can proceed with no hurdles and no best value criteria to be met. That seems a scandalous misuse of public responsibility, and amendment No. 3 would allow a combined fire authority for a region to be created without hurdles only if it was for a region identified in the report that would be required under new clause 5 as an optimum region—a region that, by definition, is the most appropriate one for the delivery of fire and rescue services.
If the Government reject new clause 5, amendment No. 14 offers an alternative route, as it seeks to delete all together the special treatment for a regional combined fire authority and to make all new combined fire authorities subject to the criteria set out in clause 2(2)(a).
New clause 9 addresses a different issue. It seeks to limit one of the extraordinary powers of the Secretary of State under the Bill. The power to create a combined fire and rescue authority mirrors the power under the 1947 Act to create a combined fire authority, but the power to appoint 50 per cent. of the members of that authority, minus one, is new. While protesting that fire and rescue remain a local service, the Government are not only grafting on a regional structure, but displaying their usual centralising instinct by taking draconian powers to appoint the members. Deployment of the power will fundamentally alter the nature of democratic accountability in these local services. If the Secretary of State can deploy the power to appoint 49 per cent. of members, the political balance in a combined fire authority, which might be an elected regional assembly area fire authority, will always be capable of being overturned by the Secretary of State's appointments. That seems a step too far in what is still supposed to be a democratically accountable service.
The Secretary of State will say that he needs the power to appoint as a reserve power in case fire and rescue authorities do not nominate people of what he considers high enough calibre.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that, on Second Reading, my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett, the Chairman of the Select Committee, whose work the hon. Gentleman so frequently quotes, made very early the point that the calibre of members appointed to fire and rescue authorities was not always of the highest. Does he recognise that there may be some truth in that, and that if there is a problem, it is appropriate to think about how the calibre of fire authorities could be enhanced?
The Minister puts his point in very reasonable terms, and if he listens, he will see that I recognise the possibility of his needing the reserve power. That does not alter the preposterousness of suggesting that whenever the electorate choose badly Ministers can intervene. Where will it end? If people choose duff councillors, does he want to be able to intervene and replace them? That is the clear implication. What about duff MPs? Those are not unknown. Does he want to intervene and appoint new Members of Parliament?
The Minister quoted the Select Committee Chairman on Second Reading and in Committee and said that he thought there was a problem, and I aired those concerns at the recent LGA fire conference—they did not go down very well with the local government members there.
New clause 9 sets out a procedure to ensure that any Secretary of State appointment is only a last resort, when no appropriate nominees are offered by the appointing authority. We may have an objection in principle to such a power of appointment, but the new clause is drafted in a spirit of compromise, recognising the argument that reserve powers may be needed. Combined fire authority members are appointed by the authorities that would be fire authorities if not for the existence of the combined fire authority. Under the new clause, in circumstances in which the scheme gives the Secretary of State powers to appoint, he has to exercise them by taking names from lists submitted to him by those underlying authorities. Furthermore, if he does not believe that there are sufficient suitable people on the list, he can specify reasons for rejecting any of the nominees and ask the authorities to submit a further list, reflecting criteria that he has set down in his rejection.
I honestly do not think that I could have been more accommodating in wording new clause 9. Only if the second set of lists that the Secretary of State receives from the appointing authorities contains insufficient numbers of what he believes to be suitable candidates can he use the reserve power to appoint someone who is not on a list. That introduces some objectivity, local input and transparency to the process, because he has to account for his rejections. As rejection can be made only on grounds of suitability, there is scope for a challenge to his decisions.
The Minister is no doubt preparing a defence that this is all impossibly complex and will take too long, but there is a good analogy with the arrangements in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, under which the Secretary of State selects a shortlist from a longlist submitted to him by local bodies, and then refers that shortlist back to the police authority to make the final appointment: a three-stage process that has not proved impossibly cumbersome but ensures proper interaction between the powers of the Secretary of State and the important role of local stakeholders.
The Minister has made it clear that if an elected regional assembly is set up in any region, he will appoint a combined fire authority for that region. I understood him to intend that it would be members of the elected regional assembly who would effectively make up the combined fire authority, but clause 3(3)(a) refers only to
"the appointment of members by the existing authorities"— that is, the existing fire and rescue authorities as defined in clause 1—
"or by the Secretary of State".
There is no reference to elected regional assemblies having the power to appoint. Will he clarify the mechanics? I hope that the idea is not that the Secretary of State will simply make the appointments on some informal consultation.
Government amendments Nos. 7 to 11 give effect to a concession that the Minister made in Committee. They impose a requirement for an inquiry prior to the creation of a new combined fire authority or the variation or revocation of an existing authority established under the 1947 Act, except where the underlying authorities are all in agreement, or the combined authority is created as a result of local government reorganisation, or the Minister considers that the need for reorganisation is urgent.
Of course we accept that things can be urgent and that circumstances can change quickly, but it is difficult to envisage a situation in which public safety would require a management restructuring without delay. The Secretary of State has many powers under the Bill to intervene in an emergency or where an authority is failing. He can direct them to do or not do things, to share equipment and to take responsibility for each other's functions. It is almost inconceivable that in a real emergency the solution would be to alter the management structure and change the shape of the authority. That cannot be done overnight, and frankly a new fire authority cannot be instantly effective just because a Minister says that it should be.
Does the Minister have examples that support the need for that final exemption from the requirement for a public inquiry? I should say, however, not to be churlish, that this concession is worth noting as one of the few positive changes that the Government have been prepared to accept, and we are grateful for what we consider a significant additional protection.
Amendment No. 21 would introduce a test of failure by a fire and rescue authority before the Secretary of State can create a combined authority. With the exception of the circumstances of local government reorganisation, which is a pretty big exception, I agree with what Richard Younger-Ross is seeking to do through that amendment. I also agree that there is no such requirement in the Bill. However, the amendment does not address the fact that most if not all combined authorities to date have been created as a result of local government reorganisation, which clearly should be recognised.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there is a difference between failing in discharging statutory functions and the Secretary of State perceiving that there may be additional things that could be done differently or something that he does not like about how the authority operates. It is a difference of degree, and intervention by the Secretary of State is appropriate in the one case but not in the other. I therefore have a great deal of sympathy with amendment No. 21.
Amendment No. 22 sets out the voluntary route to a combined fire authority. Let me put a difficult case to the hon. Member for Teignbridge. If an elected regional assembly were established in any of the English regions, some fire authorities in the region might try to create a combined authority as an alternative to a regional combined fire and rescue authority. How would the hon. Gentleman respond to such an initiative? Would he support it in the interests of localism or abandon Liberal Democrat principles of many years to support the party's more recent desire to snuggle up to the Government as they promote their regional agenda? Does he support local authorities' right to retain their independence if they choose to do that? Amendment No. 22 could be used to achieve that.
I hope that amendment No. 23 is not an attempt at compromise. If it is wrong for the Secretary of State to appoint half the members of an authority, it is wrong for the Secretary of State to appoint a third. Since I am feeling charitable, I shall interpret amendment No. 23 as being complementary to and not a substitute for new clause 9 so that when all its safety-net provisions were accepted, the hon. Gentleman would still like the Secretary of State to be limited to appointing a third of the members of a new combined fire authority. I hope that that interpretation is correct. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will reassure hon. Members about that.
First, let me emphasise that Liberal Democrats have a clear commitment to the regions. That is why we tabled an amendment in Committee to give broader powers to an elected regional assembly. We would give the powers for fire services to such an assembly. The Bill makes such provision for Wales but, sadly, the Government and Conservative Members decided to reject a measure to devolve power from the centre to the regions in England. As Mr. Hammond pointed out earlier, there is a tendency to take powers up to regional level rather than from the top down.
We could not support the amendment that the hon. Gentleman tabled in Committee partly because it would have given each region a responsibility for preparing a national framework.
It dealt with a regional framework, but there may have been glitches in the parliamentary language. The hon. Gentleman was always quick to point out that the Government have far more resources to spend on drafting than Conservative Members do. I never complained in Committee about our lack of resources or the Short money that the Conservative party receives to help it. I simply stress that it is important that powers come downwards and do not necessarily go upwards.
In the context of new clause 5, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made some extremely good points about existing boundaries. The points that the Minister made in his interventions were not especially strong. Existing boundaries were established for entirely different purposes. Their use for constructing regional assemblies is a mistake. I shall not repeat previous arguments about the great variety of area sizes and populations.
When preparing for the Bill, I visited several fire authorities. One of the control centres emphasised to me why a single control room for a region the size of the south-west would be inappropriate. In one control room, a tape was played of a small boy who dialled 999 to say that he could smell smoke. His mother was asleep upstairs on the bed with the baby.
The controller asked the child where he lived. He could give the house name and the street name, but not the name of the town. The controller spent approximately 15 minutes talking matters through with the child. When the child named his school, the control room was able eventually to determine where the town was. It would be far harder for a single regional control room to work out such detail—not street names or the location of the chippie, as we discussed in Committee, but basic knowledge about where schools are—and thus identify the location of the incident. In the case that I mentioned, the child, the mother and the baby were all saved. I am not sure that that would have happened if there had been a regional control room.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as I have had to be absent from the Chamber for a little while, for which I apologise.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. When I visited the Devon fire rescue services centre, which he has visited often, I was impressed by its ability not only to locate a fire but to determine the equipment that was required to deal with it. For example, a specific number of vehicles and personnel would be sent to a burning timber yard. Of course, information is held on a computer, but local knowledge is also built up over many years. Anything that undermines that will disadvantage both the service and local people.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point well and I do not need to add to it. Conservative Members and Liberal Democrat Members accept that there does not necessarily have to be one control room to one authority, as currently happens. We accept that there might be some efficiency savings in combining some control rooms. However, the boundaries that the Government propose are fundamentally flawed. The Minister argued that there is currently a resilient regional network. That is a strong argument, but, if it is so strong, why will not he allow it to be tested? New clause 5 calls for a review—it states not that the boundaries should be changed but that they should be reviewed. If the review found that the Minister was correct, we would have to say, "Fair enough." However, he insists on forcing through inappropriate boundaries.
Let us consider amendments Nos. 21, 22 and 23. I thank the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge for his broad support and I shall answer his questions. The Bill causes concern to the general public and especially those in the fire services because it states that
"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".
People outside the Chamber may read into the phrase,
"greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness" simply economy savings. Those conditions are not strong enough to force authorities to combine. An authority should be forced to combine only if it is negligent or failing. Amendment No. 21 would ensure that authorities that function well could continue to provide the service that the public require. Only if they are failing will the Minister be able to cast them aside and force them to combine.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge about reorganisation. In my haste to redraft clause 2, I assumed that, under clause 22, a combined authority would follow a voluntary request, as long as there had been a reorganisation. Perhaps something should have been added, but I think that clause 22 would cover the situation.
Clause 23 is complementary to new clause 9 rather than being an alternative. I think that new clause 9 has failings, but they are minor and not worth discussing in detail. The principles are broadly right.
The proposal in amendment No. 23 for "one third" rather than "half" is intended simply to limit the Secretary of State's powers. Let us suppose that he has decided to combine the authorities, and to appoint up to 49 per cent. of members. How easy would it be for those so appointed to find one person elected from the authorities to take their side? I suspect that it would not be very difficult—and if they could do it, in effect the Government would control the committee. Reducing the Secretary of State's say to a third would allow the Government to have a say, but would prevent them from controlling the authority. Local authorities must be trusted; if we cannot trust them, there is no point in having them. Democracy relies on that trust.
As for Government amendments 7 to 11, I too am thankful that there was something on which the Government were prepared to concede, and I am glad that it was a Liberal Democrat amendment, supported by the Conservatives. I am not sure whether they proposed the same amendment and it went in after ours, or whether they added their names to ours, but the fact remains that the need for change was accepted in principle.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made a very good point about the meaning of the word "urgent". I need to do some things urgently, but some things need to be done more urgently than others. The definition of the word "urgent" is like a piece of elastic. The Minister must tell us in what circumstances he would need an urgent management arrangement. Management reorganisation, by its very nature, takes time. I am not certain that urgency is required in this case. We will not be churlish, though. We are thankful for the concessions that have been made, although they may be small pickings.
I am going to be parochial, and talk about control rooms or call centres rather than the more general subject of regionalisation. Although the Bill does not refer to control rooms in depth, they are a constituency issue.
In some ways, Gloucestershire has been penalised for being somewhat ahead of the game. Not so many years ago, the thinking tended towards tri-service rather than regional arrangements. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know how difficult it was to get an arrangement up and running in Gloucestershire involving three services in one building, control rooms working together, and a level of integration that has not been achieved elsewhere in the country. I gather that as recently as last week there was an attempt to integrate the three services in Wiltshire, but so far it has not proved possible to integrate the fire service with the other two. In our case, members of the fire service said that the arrangement could prove difficult and dangerous, and there was even talk of loss of lives. I am pleased to say, however, that at local level all three services have been pragmatic enough not just to do this but to make it work, in a £6 million centre.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the threat of a loss of lives, but let us talk about loss of money for a moment. As far as he is aware, has anyone told the authorities in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire how they will cover their financial exposure to the tri-service control centres that they have set up, at the Deputy Prime Minister's exhortation, when the regional control rooms go ahead?
The hon. Gentleman is getting very excited. I shall deal with his point shortly.
It would be helpful to know whether the Minister can give Gloucestershire certain assurances, not least an assurance that the £6 million tri-centre building and its facilities will survive.
In Gloucestershire, the extent of integration has gone beyond call centres. We now have a tri-service workshop. The three services work together to ensure that their equipment, machinery and vehicles are worked on not by the same set of engineers but under the same roof. Much can be learnt from that model. We do not want the region to lose it. As the Minister knows, the services have also set up a "blue skies group", which thinks through problems and does what it can to bring about even more integration. I hope that before any decisions are made about regional control centres the Minister will visit that centre, and take a good look at it.
I am trying to be pragmatic, as Richard Younger-Ross has been, especially in Committee. I note that, whether deliberately or otherwise, he proposes in amendment No. 22 the insertion of paragraph (c) in clause 2 in addition to paragraphs (a) and (b) rather than their replacement by it. In other words, he is creating circumstances in which a more regional or consolidated structure would exist. That is certainly pragmatic.
If a regional structure is adopted for call centres and control rooms, I do not think there is a better example of best practice in the south-west than what we have managed to achieve in our tri-service centre. I should be interested to hear the Minister's view on our chances of ensuring that it remains in Gloucestershire and that the three services can continue to learn from the three levels of integration. I think that Gloucestershire is an ideal location, given the way in which they have worked together and made things happen.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Dhanda that there is no better place in which to continue the experiment than the Gloucester tri-service centre.
Let me repeat what I said on Second Reading. In many respects this has been seen as the most controversial part of the Bill. Although we had our differences in Committee and although there have been disagreements about emphasis, there has been a good deal of consensus. It is about evolving change, and the same is true outside of this place. Both management and those working in the service have to a large extent agreed on the best way to make progress.
However, this issue gives rise to some controversy, and I reiterate what I said on Second Reading. I have no fear about the way in which regional management boards would operate, in terms of the degree of strategic thinking and the need, in these days of terrorism and counter-terrorism, to consider how best we can operate and deploy our forces, but if we are talking about the making of decisions at a local level, the provision is not appropriate. Given the Gloucestershire experience—as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, the same attempt is being made elsewhere with varying degrees of success—it is somewhat short-sighted to throw everything away, in the hope that we can improve delivery by assuming that the regional structure is the only structure. There are all manner of problems in the south-west, but they are not just a south-west phenomenon; they are likely to arise elsewhere in the country. The strategic direction is right, but operational delivery, including the most important elements of call centre work, should remain as local as possible. We need also to consider how to improve the relationship between the three emergency services.
We must also consider the system of accountability. I make no apology for saying again that if we are to do the job properly, we must begin by considering the three emergency services with a blank sheet of paper. What is the best form of accountability? If the Opposition are arguing that accountability is best fulfilled through a modified police authority system, they can count me out because it does not work. We have too many authorities and in many respects we have the worst of all worlds. People are appointed as part of their county councillor functions, and magistrates are appointed through a system that anyone outside the political classes would find difficult to explain. Such authorities do not consist of happy people, and if Gloucestershire is anything to go by, the rate of inflation of police expenditure is far greater than that of any other authorities.
All systems have their flaws, but is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a police authority-style approach would work better if the Secretary of State simply appointed members, rather than receiving a long list from the local area and sending back a shortlist for local appointment?
What I am saying is that the proposed system—be it the Government's version or the Opposition's—is deeply flawed and is antagonising local people. The previous Conservative Government thought that they were being clever in taking the police out of local authorities' remits, but that decision has rebounded, in that there seems now to be a total lack of accountability to the wider populous.
We have an opportunity to consider how to deal with the three emergency services. If the Gloucestershire trust is anything to go by, we should consider the dilemma of the ambulance service. The Gloucestershire trust is the smallest trust. It is undermanned and underfinanced and regarded as very vulnerable. I urge the Government to consider carefully the arrangement between the three services in the context of our strategic direction. It will not help if we simply assume that fire authorities will deliver better services, while allowing the other two emergency services to drift in the wind. That is not acceptable. It will not constitute good delivery or build good relationships, and it will lead to greater confusion.
This has been an interesting debate on an even more interesting group of new clauses and amendments, which deal with combined fire and rescue authorities.
In order to understand part of the overall intention of new clause 5, which was tabled by Mr. Hammond, it must be read in conjunction with amendment No. 3. It seeks to turn the clock back on the modernisation agenda, and to delay the action that both the Bain report and the White Paper argued were long overdue. I shall deal separately with two strands of the argument, the first of which is the impact of new clause 5(1)(a) in conjunction with amendment No. 3. The overall effect would be simple. First, it would remove clause 2(2)(b), which allows fire and rescue authorities to be combined so that their boundaries align with those of the English regions, and replace it with a requirement that within 12 months of any part of the Bill being enacted, an independent study be commissioned into the "optimum geographical areas" for organisation of the fire and rescue service.
The Minister is surely wrong about that. All that amendment No. 3 does is to remove the exemption for CFAs that constitute a region coterminous with regional development agency regions, in order to satisfy the criteria under clause 2(2)(a). If the Minister is proposing a CFA for an RDA region and it meets the criteria under clause 2(2)(a), he has no difficulty.
My understanding is that amendment No. 3 would substitute the concept of a region as constituted for the purposes of regional development agencies legislation—in other words, a region as defined in terms of Government office regions—with a body that has emerged from the hon. Gentleman's review of the optimum geographical areas. If I am incorrect in that assumption I shall withdraw my remark, but that is my understanding of the affect of his amendment, and I shall proceed on that basis, assuming that he concurs.
There are a number of things wrong with the proposal, the most important of which is that it appears to take little account of the explanation and assurances that I gave to the hon. Gentleman in Committee. During those discussions, I made it clear that the only circumstances in which I envisaged using the provisions of clause 2(2)(b) were ones involving public safety, in which the fire and rescue authorities had failed successfully to work together to ensure resilience. The obvious example of that is a failure to agree on the siting of, or the operational arrangements necessary for the introduction of, a regional control room.
The context is important, because contrary to the claims made by the Opposition in Committee, we do not have an agenda of regionalisation through the back door. What we do have is an agenda of civil resilience, to ensure that the fire and rescue service is equipped to meet the challenges posed by the new dimensions of the terrorist threat and environmental disasters. To meet these challenges, the service must be closely integrated into the work of the regional resilience teams, which are based in the Government offices for the regions. These teams, in their turn, operate on a regional basis because it is a key principle within emergency planning that response structures should mirror emergency planning structures.
I should tell Richard Younger-Ross that it is preposterous—to use the word that the former has used a lot today—to suggest that there should be separate regional structures for the fire and rescue service and for the regional resilience arrangements. That could not work. It would be neither effective nor sensible, and it would not give us the protection that we need.
We could no doubt debate at length whether the Government office boundaries established by the previous Administration, which underpin the whole infrastructure, were the right ones.
The Minister says that it would be preposterous not to organise the fire and rescue services on the same geographical basis as the resilience structure. According to that logic, will we have regional police management boards and regional health service management boards?
No, the logic is that in terms of the geographical arrangement for the discharge of the responsibilities of the fire and rescue service, it is absurd to suggest another regional alignment that is entirely separate from the existing one. That would create confusion rather than coterminosity. I accept entirely that police authorities do not operate on that basis at the moment, but they are closely engaged in the regional resilience arrangements, and are putting arrangements in place to ensure that they can discharge their regional resilience responsibilities. As I have said, those are organised through the Government regional offices on the basis of the existing administrative regions—which, incidentally, were introduced by the Conservatives when they were in government.
"a compromise that fitted most of the Departments that then had regional organisations".—[Hansard, 26 January 2004; Vol. 417, c. 92.]
If we had time, an independent study such as that which the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge suggests in new clause 5 might be an interesting activity in which to engage although, as he knows only too well, boundary debates tend to be long drawn out, fractious and unproductive. It is usually the Liberal Democrats who suggest such arrangements, which are a recipe for constant talk and debate, and no action. That is the key to why the hon. Gentleman has tabled the new clause. He wants long, protracted talk and delay, with no action, to avoid anything ever happening, because he is obsessed with the view that we are somehow committed to imposing regions by the back door, which is all part of some kind of European plot.
I am stunned that the Minister has gone off at a tangent on a completely different subject. I was rising simply to ask him whether he would be good enough to acknowledge that the Government office regions were created for an entirely different purpose, and that no one ever asked whether they would be the most appropriate unit for the delivery of an operational fire and rescue service.
As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, the Government office regions were established by the previous Government on the basis—as I have quoted his right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal as recognising—that they were a compromise that fitted most of the Departments that then had regional organisations. Since then, they have developed considerably. They have taken on new functions, and new institutions have been created, such as regional development agencies, that follow the same regional boundaries. We are seeing a consolidation of arrangements within those regional structures and, most importantly, regional resilience is being organised on that basis. We have had the regional resilience forums for almost a year now. They are based in the Government offices, and it would be wholly counterproductive now to suggest alternative boundaries for one element—one emergency service—with an important contribution to make to that overall resilience.
I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and then to the hon. Member for Teignbridge.
The Minister says that we are seeing a consolidation of regional functions within those regional boundaries. A moment ago he denied that any regionalisation by stealth was taking place, but we see that consolidation as being precisely such regionalisation by stealth.
The hon. Gentleman must not confuse two matters. He will recognise that there has been administrative regionalisation, which his party, when in government, introduced on a substantial scale and which this Government have consolidated. A separate issue is the introduction of elected regional assemblies to allow a democratic—
I have already said that we introduced regional development agencies, which consolidated the arrangements operating on a regional basis that the Conservative party set up. The Conservatives seem absolutely hellbent on disowning their own legacy, the things they thought appropriate when in power. That is an interesting insight, but I tell the hon. Gentleman once again that there is no agenda to impose elected regional assemblies by stealth. If people vote for them, there will be elected regional assemblies; if they do not, there will not be. What a marked contrast that is—
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman at the moment, because I have already said that I will give way to the hon. Member for Teignbridge. I shall give way to him later, but I just want to make this point. As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge would do well to remember, his party did not give people any choice. It abolished regional tiers of government such as the Greater London council and some county councils, giving people absolutely no say. This Government are giving people choice. If they vote in favour of the regional assemblies, that will be their choice, and it is quite right that we should honour it.
I shall not get drawn into the regional assembly argument at the moment. The Minister mentioned delay, and said that he opposed the Conservative new clause 5 and amendment No. 3 because they would cause a delay in forming combined fire authorities. Is there something that the Minister needs to tell us? If he is talking of a delay, that must mean that he is thinking of combining fire authorities now. Is that the case, and which fire authorities is he thinking of combining?
The hon. Gentleman has got that wrong. I have already made it quite clear that the only circumstances in which we would use the clause 2(2)(b) powers—I said this about 10 minutes ago—would be in the interest of public safety where there had been a failure to put in place adequate arrangements to ensure regional resilience. That is an issue of public safety, and in those circumstances, we clearly could not delay while there was a long-drawn-out debate about the optimal regional boundaries. There would be an overriding priority to provide effective arrangements to ensure that the resilience that we have been talking about was in place. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that.
I am sorry, but the Minister has mentioned delay. New clause 5 calls for a review of the boundaries within 12 months. The Minister appears to be saying that he can envisage a circumstance in which the resilience is deemed not to be in place and, within 12 months, he will therefore be forcing a combination of authorities.
No, I am afraid to say that the hon. Gentleman is getting more confused. We have said clearly that we will use the powers in clause 2(2)(b) only in the interests of public safety where there has been a failure to put in place arrangements that guarantee resilience. Those are the only circumstances in which we will use those powers, and if we have to use them, it is important that we should do so reasonably swiftly. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that. The amendment and new clause, however, would essentially mean that no progress could be taken until the body that was carrying out the independent review had not only been set up but had reported. As the new clause allows only that that would be set up within 12 months of the Bill's receiving Royal Assent, there could be years of delay during which there were inadequate public safety arrangements in a particular region. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman is seriously advocating that we should tolerate that position.
I am grateful, and I shall try to be quick. The Minister is entirely right in saying that people will be consulted democratically on whether they want regional assemblies, and I do not take issue with that. However, he does not say whether, if people vote against having elected regional assemblies, the Government will give them the option of disbanding the existing unelected regional assemblies. Will he assure us that, should people not vote for elected regional assemblies, there will be an option of doing away with the unelected regional assemblies?
That question is very wide of what we are debating tonight, and I think that you would call me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I moved into that territory. We have already made it quite clear that we will follow the views of the electorate on elected regional assemblies and that there will not be an assembly if the electorate vote against it. There will then be a continuation of the status quo.
The Minister has been very generous in giving way. Given that he has been prepared to state categorically that he will use the powers in clause 2(2)(b) only in the event of a failure of regional resilience, how has he been able to give an unequivocal undertaking that if an elected regional assembly is created in any region, he will create a combined fire authority for that region? He cannot know in advance that the hurdle set by clause 2(2)(a) will be cleared.
No, but as I was intending to say to the hon. Gentleman later, the power to create a regional fire and rescue authority in the event of an elected regional assembly coming into existence will be provided in the relevant legislation—in the elected regional assemblies Bill. He will recall that in just the same way, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority—LFEPA—was established under the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which created the Greater London authority. That is the appropriate way of establishing such bodies, but it would not happen under these powers.
I hope that that puts the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest. I realise that he is living in a realm of paranoia because of the word "region" and the effect that it has on his party, but I assure him that there is clear logic behind our proposals, and that they fit together consistently.
It is not paranoia; it is just a concern about the propriety of the Government giving unequivocal commitments that they will do something that, on the Minister's own admission, they do not even have the power to do. They are depending on some future legislation to give them that power.
As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, we have published a White Paper and given a commitment to publish draft legislation, which we hope to do in July this year. There will also be a vote in a referendum at some subsequent date, probably in October. That, of course, is dependent on good progress being made with the other matters that have to be dealt with before the referendums can take place.
We have strayed far from the provisions of the Bill, and I would like to come back to the matters in hand. I have given assurances about the use of clause 2(2)(b); they are on the record. If we need to act on grounds of public safety, it will by definition be something that has to be done quickly, so I cannot accept the constraint that subsection (1)(a) and amendment No. 3 would place on the ability of the Secretary of State to take urgent action to protect the public.
Subsection (1)(b) has a rather different objective from subsection (1)(a). It seeks again to require the Secretary of State to commission an independent study, but this time into the success of regional management boards—including, if I read the intent of the hon. Gentleman correctly, any negative impact on the management capability of individual authorities of having some of their functions pooled at regional level. Here, I can reassure him that we are thinking along similar lines.
Of course any responsible Government will want to assess and evaluate the impact of their policies, including those required under the fire and rescue national framework. But the independent evaluation that the hon. Gentleman suggests need not await a study commissioned
"within 12 months of the coming into force of any part of this Act".
That role has already been given to the independent Audit Commission, which has agreed to take on the task. Indeed, it has already published, on
As the hon. Gentleman would expect, value for money will of course be to the fore, but the commission also specifically plans to assess the effectiveness of the work undertaken through regional management boards and to report on the management capability of individual fire and rescue authorities. It plans, in other words, to address the very issues about which he expressed concern, and it plans to address them sooner rather than, as the amendment envisages, later. Additionally, we are required by clause 24 to report periodically to Parliament on the delivery of the national framework, which of course includes regional collaboration. There will therefore be every opportunity for Parliament to keep a close watch on this matter. Because they are on the one hand damaging, and on the other unnecessary, I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman not to press his new clause and the linked amendment to a vote.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are committed to report on the national framework and to lay it before Parliament. Indeed, any significant amendments to it will be laid before Parliament as well. It will of course be open to Parliament to decide how, or if, it wishes to take these matters up and to scrutinise them. I have no doubt that the Select Committee may wish to consider some of the issues involved; it has shown a keen interest in them. Indeed, it will also be open to Opposition parties to seek debates on relevant matters if they choose to do so.
Turning to new clause 9, also tabled by the hon. Gentleman, we find a solution in search of a problem. It sets out in elaborate detail a process for the appointment of members of fire and rescue authorities when the Secretary of State chooses to exercise the power in clause 3(3)(a). I am not going to dwell too long on the detail of that process, although I point out in passing that it could involve no fewer than six distinct stages, and that at its heart is a transparent attempt to create a stand-off between individual fire and rescue authorities and the Secretary of State over who should form their number.
Instead, I shall focus on the substance. The issue of Secretary of State appointments was debated in Committee, although, as I recall, debate was curtailed when the hon. Gentleman moved rather swiftly to a vote. I acknowledged then that there were concerns, but I emphasised that the motivation was not to enhance central control but to improve the delivery of a vital public service. Clause 3(4) makes it clear that Secretary of State appointees—if they are made—will be a numerical minority, and will not be allowed to take part in votes on precepting. Only elected members will be able to make decisions about how resources are allocated.
When appointment is considered necessary, however, those elected members will make decisions with the benefit of expertise that they themselves may not possess. I was frank and honest in Committee that, when combination is undertaken to tackle failing authorities it could well, in our view, be contradictory and counter-productive to restrict appointments to existing authority members. When capacity is needed to deliver improvements and modernisation, clause 3 could be used to bring into the new authorities the wider experience and expertise—be it managerial, financial or professional—that the existing authorities may lack. But to guarantee that the experts will be chosen for their ability, these will be open, advertised appointments made in accordance with the principles of public life that underpin the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Thus they will be made on merit, with openness and transparency and with full regard to equal opportunities. But in line with the seventh principle, they will also be proportional; they will not involve the endless to-ing and fro-ing advocated in new clause 9.
Given all those safeguards, it should be clear to the House that we will use the power carefully and responsibly—if ever we come to use it. I must once again stress that we have these powers available only for circumstances in which there may be a failing authority and it is necessary to achieve a combination to tackle the problems relating to it, and when sufficient expertise is not otherwise available.
The Minister describes this as a reserved power, but does he envisage that power being built into the scheme for the CFA, so that, if there were to be a 49 per cent. Secretary of State appointment, it would be within the scheme rather than applying only in specified circumstances—for example, when the CFA has demonstrated a failure such as that of which the Minister speaks?
As I have already made very clear, these are reserve powers that we would use only in certain rather limited circumstances. It is certainly not our intention to put a scheme in place that would provide for such arrangements to be made according to a prearranged plan. As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, we have set maximum limits on the number of appointees. That does not mean that we would appoint that number of people, however. In certain cases, it might be appropriate to make only a very small number of appointments—if, for example, there were a serious weakness in terms of financial expertise or expertise in another area of responsibility regarded as very important. That would, however, be judged on a case-by-case basis. So far as the elected regional assemblies are concerned, arrangements for the appointment of the members of the regional fire authority will be contained in the legislation that brings the assemblies into existence.
Amendment No. 14 repeats one that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge tabled in Committee and was rejected. Indeed it repeats something that he earlier tried to achieve through new clause 5 and its linked amendment No. 3. Amendment No. 14 seeks to remove the current clause 2(2)(b), which allows fire and rescue authorities to be combined so that their boundaries are aligned with those of the English regions. As I said earlier, in tabling it again, the hon. Gentleman appears to have taken little account of the explanation and assurances that I gave him during our exchanges in Committee. I made it clear that the only circumstances in which I envisaged using the provisions of clause 2(2)(b) were ones of public safety.
I apologise to the Minister. When I intervened on him earlier to make a point about amendment No. 3, I was of course referring to amendment No. 14. I had got myself confused between the two. Given what he has just said, can he envisage any circumstances in which he could not do what he has just described under the powers granted to him in clause 2(2)(a)? Surely, in circumstances in which public safety required a CFA to be created urgently, it would be in the interests of greater efficiency and effectiveness, if not economy, to use those powers. Is it not the truth that clause 2(2)(b) is simply redundant?
No, it is not. It is available only in limited circumstances, but it is very important because one can envisage circumstances in which existing fire and rescue authorities were operating with a reasonable degree of economy, efficiency and effectiveness but had failed to come together on the resilience issues in a way that ensured an effective arrangement at regional level to provide the resilience that we are seeking. In those circumstances, it would be necessary for us to act in the interests of public safety.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned public safety issues, and I have just highlighted some of those. An example that I have often cited, which any Secretary of State would need to take very seriously indeed, would be a failure to agree on the siting of or operational arrangements for regional control rooms. I emphasise again that this is not a cavalier provision and that my assurances about its use are on the parliamentary record. On the basis of those assurances, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his proposal.
Amendment No. 21, tabled by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, is designed to limit the use of clause 2(2)(a)—but, strikingly, not the use of clause 2(2)(b), about which he appears to have less concern—to circumstances in which one or more of the authorities concerned are failing to discharge their duties. Clause 2 as currently drafted provides the Secretary of State with the power to combine existing fire and rescue authorities into a larger single authority in the interests of greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness. In doing so, it accepts that the work of the fire and rescue service—work to which I have paid tribute on many occasions—must be performed effectively, but acknowledges that it must also be performed as economically and efficiently as possible. It is the council tax payer who funds a significant proportion of the cost of the service; it is the general taxpayer, through central Government, who funds the rest.
It is perfectly possible—indeed, independent studies confirm it—that we might have an excellent, responsive service at a local level costing significantly more than an equally excellent and responsive service elsewhere. If combination can maintain that quality at a lower cost to the taxpayer, freeing up moneys to be reinvested in fire prevention work and the promotion of community fire safety, I doubt that many in the House would wish to prevent it, but amendment No. 21 would. It says that there must first be a failing authority—one not performing its legal duties—before a larger unit can be created.
The case for combination, may be based not on failure, but on the proven ability of larger authorities to rise to the challenge of delivering the best service for the lowest cost. The Secretary of State still needs to make that efficiency case, not least at the inquiry that we will now be holding in response to the hon. Gentleman's persuasive arguments in Committee to the effect that an inquiry should be mandatory. On his restrictive and counter-productive amendment, however, we are not persuaded, and I ask him to withdraw it.
Amendment No. 22, also proposed by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, appears to be the product of a misunderstanding. The Bill as currently drafted allows the Secretary of State under clause 2(2)(a) to make a combination order on the grounds of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Such an order may, among other things, give effect to a draft scheme submitted by the existing authorities themselves under clause 2(3)(a). Amendment No. 22 would duplicate the meaning of those provisions read in tandem, and add nothing further. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.
Amendment No. 23 was tabled by the hon. Member for Teignbridge in Committee, but circumstances prevented us from debating it. Had we done so, I hope that I would have persuaded him that it amounts simply to an arbitrary and artificial restriction on the Secretary of State's ability to appoint the necessary expertise in situations where combination has been undertaken to tackle failing authorities.
Clause 3(4) already makes it clear that Secretary of State appointees to combined fire and rescue authorities will be a numerical minority, and clause 3(5) that they will not be allowed to take part in votes on precepting. As I have already said, Secretary of State nominees will be appointed only after open advertisement and in accordance with the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. They will also be appointed solely on merit.
With all those safeguards, amendment No. 23 really does tilt at windmills. Ensuring that Secretary of State appointees are in a minority maintains the democratic principle that local representatives should have the final say in matters of disagreement. Restricting them to one third presupposes that our objective is to have as many as possible when, in fact, our intention is to have only as many as necessary. We no more wish to appoint 49 per cent. than 10 per cent. Rather we wish to ensure that combined authorities have the skills and expertise that they need to deliver a modernised and cost-effective service. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
I now move on to Government amendments Nos. 7 to 11. Government amendments Nos. 7 and 8 fulfil a promise made in Committee. I said then that I would further consider an amendment from the hon. Member for Teignbridge that would have made an inquiry mandatory in every case where the Secretary of Sate proposes to create a combined fire and rescue authority or to vary or revoke a scheme creating one.
I explained that we were sympathetic to the underlying purpose of the amendment, and confirmed that it was our intention in normal circumstances to hold an inquiry, as well as carrying out the specific consultation required under clause 2(5). I also explained, however, that there might be circumstances in which the needs of public safety meant that we could not await the outcome of a potentially lengthy inquiry before taking action.
The example that I gave—and have repeated today—was fire and rescue authorities failing successfully to work together to meet the demands of civil resilience by establishing a regional control room. I therefore undertook to find a form of words that embodied the spirit of the amendment while ensuring that the needs of public safety remained paramount. That is what we have tabled today. As well as an exemption for public safety, it exempts from a mandatory inquiry situations in which those affected by the Secretary of State's proposals are happy with them and those where the combination, variation or revocation is simply a consequence of a wider local or regional government boundary change. In all other cases, an inquiry will now be the norm. I hope that hon. Members will welcome the steps that we have taken to accommodate the wishes of the Standing Committee.
Something registered an alarm bell there. The Minister spoke of what would happen as a result of a local or regional government boundary changes. My interpretation was that the Government amendment referred to local government boundary changes undertaken under the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003 rather than to the regional boundary changes themselves. I had interpreted the provision as meaning that things could proceed where there was a change in local government boundaries—nothing to do with regions.
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.
I am answering the points made by my hon. Friends.
If it were decided to locate the regional control room elsewhere—no doubt conflicting proposals will be advanced by other hon. Members, some of whom have not been in the Chamber for very long, and certainly not as long as my hon. Friends who have sat through the whole debate—only 10 per cent. of the existing tri-service centre's work load is fire-related, and 90 per cent. of it is not, and it is therefore questionable whether such a decision would threaten the continued operation of the Gloucester centre. However, we want to discuss the issue in detail with all concerned because I understand the anxieties.
Will the Minister give an undertaking this evening on behalf of the Government that, if there is any cost involved in moving the fire element of the tri-service centre away from Gloucester, the council tax payers of Gloucestershire will not have to bear it?
I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman, whom we missed in Committee because he was frequently absent. I am glad to see him this evening on this brief appearance after several hours of debate. I assure him that cost-effectiveness is one of the main considerations, and we will certainly examine the financial implications, including the potential savings that will come from the establishment of a regional control centre, for all authorities involved before final decisions are taken. I assure him that the issues will be examined impartially.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked about accountability. One existing fire and rescue authority in England, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, is already constituted on regional lines, and it was created under the Greater London Authority Act 1999. It is thoroughly accountable, and, interestingly, it includes not only directly elected members of the Greater London authority but representatives from London boroughs. It is an interesting example of achieving a proper framework of accountability within the regional structure.
With those comments, I hope that the House will agree that the Government amendments should be endorsed, and I ask the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge to withdraw his amendment.
I could say a great deal, but I must speak against the backdrop of the Minister's filibuster. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the failure of the annunciator system allowed him to go on for rather longer than he wanted to.
The Minister has not attempted to make a case for the existing Government offices for the regions being the optimum basis for the organisation of our fire and rescue services. All we have heard from him is the ludicrous charge that because we introduced Government offices for the regions in the first place, it is somehow our fault. In view of the time, I do not intend to use any more of it up, but simply urge my hon. Friends to support new clause 5 in the Lobby.