New Clause 5 — Regional Management Structures

Part of Fire and Rescue Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 15th March 2004.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 7:30 pm, 15th March 2004

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.