I welcome the Minister to her post, although I notice that she failed to answer the question—that is a great start to her ministerial career.
The Minister has made positive comments during her visits to fire stations throughout the country. The Government commissioned the Williams review on the impact of medical retirements for firefighters aged between 50 and 60, and especially the impact on women. Do the Government accept the need for minimum fitness standards?
There need to be minimum fitness standards. That is a priority for me, and it is key to bringing the dispute to an end, so we need to consider carefully how firefighters who wish to maintain operational roles can be appropriately supported to maintain their fitness standards. I have asked the chief fire and rescue adviser to chair a working group to examine these issues in detail, and I expect that group to meet later this month. I also requested, and have had, a meeting with the FBU women’s committee regarding its concerns about fitness.
As the number of fires has gone down, firefighters’ roles have changed. For example, Cheshire fire and rescue works with the Prince’s Trust to support young people into work, and it is fitting fire alarms in old people’s homes and working to reduce antisocial behaviour. Is it not right that as the role of firefighters expands, we look at their terms and conditions to ensure that there are the right skills in fire services so that they can move forward?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some of the best ideas for developing roles in the fire service have come from firefighters themselves, and they are at the head of the queue of people who want to remove the obstacles to change and reform. I am pleased that the review has already received a very large number of replies to the consultation, and some great ideas have emerged from that.
I welcome the Minister to her position. I hope that she will bring a bit of common sense and rationality to this long dispute over pensions, but does she not agree that morale is very low among all those working in fire and rescue services across the country, not just because of pensions, but because of the age issue that has already been mentioned and the reductions in numbers in front-line fire services? We have to recognise that there is support for these men and women across the country.
I thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome. I take issue with her claim that morale is low. I have made going out and seeing firefighters and chiefs a priority in the short time I have been in office—in fact, just this weekend, I was up with the west midlands service. I asked them about morale and was told that morale is good. Clearly, everyone will benefit from the dispute being brought to a close, but actually morale is good and we need to keep it good, to keep firefighters engaged with the reforms the service needs.
I welcome the Minister to her place and thank her for visiting my constituency on Saturday. We had what I think were constructive discussions with local firefighters, as well as celebrating the launch of the Haden Cross community fire station. Does she agree that the new fire station is a splendid example of a station that will serve the people of Halesowen and Rowley Regis and allow firefighters to do an effective job for my community?
I was pleased to be part of that wonderful community event. It is a fantastic new facility, not just supplying state-of-the-art services to the fire and rescue services and as a base for other blue light services, but available for use by the local community as well. I had a wonderful day and I look forward very much to going back and doing more with that fire service.
I too welcome the Minister to her post. The Government’s dispute with firefighters has now been ongoing for 1,091 days and there have been 31 strikes. Can she explain why her predecessor and colleague failed to bring the dispute to an end and what she will now do differently?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. Resolving the dispute is a key priority for the Government. I have some advantages that my predecessor did not have: when he entered office, we did not have the Williams report, the Knight review and other such reports that enable me and others to make evidence-based judgments. Everyone wants the dispute to be resolved. We are now in a position to have constructive talks, and we have been doing so with the FBU; and we have further meetings in the diary—we meet next after the trades union conference. I am optimistic that the dispute will be resolved soon.