New Clause 5 — Regional Management Structures

Part of Fire and Rescue Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 15th March 2004.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions 7:45 pm, 15th March 2004

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.