New Clause 5 — Regional Management Structures

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

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.