New Clause 5 — Regional Management Structures

Part of Fire and Rescue Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 15th March 2004.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 7:15 pm, 15th March 2004

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.