‘The Fire and Rescue Services in England shall make provision to lead and co-ordinate the emergency service response to—
(a) rescuing people trapped, or likely to become trapped, by water; and
(b) protecting them from serious harm, in the event of serious flooding in its area.”—(Lyn Brown.)
This new clause would make the Fire and Rescue Service in England statutorily responsible for leading the emergency services response to flooding
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
‘(8) For the purposes of this Bill, when considering whether a collaboration agreement would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of one or more emergency services that shall include the effectiveness and efficiency with which the emergency service is able to meet its duties under the mental health care concordant.”
This amendment would explicitly enable a collaboration agreement to cover duties placed on emergency services by the mental health care concordant.
Amendment 3, page 6, line 3, leave out Clause 6.
This amendment, along with amendment 4, would prevent Police and Crime Commissioners from taking over the functions of Fire and Rescue Authorities.
Amendment 5, page 11, line 1, leave out Clause 8.
This amendment would prevent combined authority mayors from combing their fire and rescue service and police force under a single employer.
This amendment, along with amendment 3, would prevent Police and Crime Commissioners from taking over the functions of Fire and Rescue Authorities.
Amendment 2, in schedule 1, page 145, line 16, at end insert—
“4AA Power to change title of police and crime commissioner
(1) This section applies if the Secretary of State makes an order under section 4A.
(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument change the title of a police and crime commissioner appointed as a fire and rescue authority.”
This would enable the Secretary of State to change the name of police and crime commissioners to reflect their new additional responsibility for the fire service. The Secretary of State would have the power to make such a direction in secondary legislation at some point in the future.
Amendment 20, page 145, line 16, at end insert—
‘(7) No order can be made under this section until the Secretary of State has conducted a review assessing the funding required by the fire and rescue service to secure the minimum level of cover needed to secure public safety and maintain fire resilience.
(8) The review carried out under section (7) must assess the impact of the level of cover on—
(a) fire related fatalities;
(b) non-fatal fire related casualties;
(c) the number of dwelling fires and other fires;
(d) the number of incidents responded to, and
(e) the strength and speed of response to incidents.”
This amendment would require the Home Secretary to conduct a review on the level of funding the FRS requires in order to secure public safety before she may make allows police and crime commissioner to be a fire and rescue authority.
Amendment 6, page 157, line 33, at end insert—
‘(4) An order under section 4A, whether modified or not by the Secretary of State, may only be made with either: consent of all of the relevant local authorities and relevant fire and rescue authority, or a majority vote by local people through referendum.”
This amendment would ensure that a PCC can only take over a Fire and Rescue Service with the approval of local people or their local representatives.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We oppose the Government’s proposals to allow police and crime commissioners to take over fire and rescue services, and amendments 3, 4 and 5 would delete the provisions in the Bill that would enable them to do so. We have also tabled amendments to mitigate the risks if the Government’s proposals are enacted.
Amendment 6 would ensure that a PCC could take over a fire and rescue service only with local support expressed either by elected councillors, with the unanimous agreement of all the local authorities affected, or directly through a referendum. Amendment 20 would require the Home Secretary to review the level of funding the fire service needed to secure public safety. New clause 20 would give fire services in England a statutory responsibility to deal with flooding. The Minister said in Committee that he was minded to consider that particular provision. He has not jumped to his feet to say he wants to take it as a Government new clause, but I live in hope.
When the Minister responds, I hope he will set out what benefits he believes PCCs will bring to the fire and rescue service. What skills and expertise do they have that our fire and rescue authorities do not? How will they help the fire service to cope with the new challenges it faces when dealing with major incidents such as flooding and terrorist attacks? What indication is there that the governance of the fire service is broken or substandard and needs replacing? The Government have not even begun to answer these questions or to make a case for the reforms.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the reason that the governance of the fire service needs to be changed is that very few of our constituents would know the name of every person on the local authority fire panel? Given her involvement with the Bill, could she herself name every person on her local authority fire panel?
My fire service is provided through the Greater London Authority, and I know that should I want to talk to anybody about London’s fire service, I could talk to those elected GLA Members—and I do know their names—or to the Mayor. When people in my local authority want to have an impact on a local service, they tend to approach their local councillors, which I think is not a bad route, but the reforms would change that. People would not be able to go to their town hall to talk about services that have an impact on them. [Interruption.] James Berry heckles me gently in a low voice and says, “They would be elected.” I know that Newham might be unusual but its councillors are elected too, and certainly the councillors at the GLA are elected.
But they are not elected to a specific responsibility, as PCCs are. People who vote for PCCs know they can hold them to account specifically for policing, and that will now be extended to the fire service.
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the turnout last time for PCC elections was dismal. I hope it will be significantly better this time, but when I was on the doorsteps last year, in parts of the country other than my own little patch in London I did not find that people knew who their PCC was. I say gently to him that our constituents do not know that when they go to the polls next week they will be electing a PCC who might be taking over their fire service. The Bill will not have been enacted by then.
I think that the timing and, as I will explain, the way we have done this has been wrong. The consultation preceding the Bill did not seek the views of experts and specialists on the substance of the proposals. It set out how a PCC could assume control of a fire and rescue service and then asked consultees what they thought of the process. It did not ask them what they thought of the proposals themselves, and it did not ask whether the proposals would increase public safety or lead to better governance.
It is not in the impact assessment—that very thin impact assessment, which I am sure that the Members who sat on the Bill Committee will have read—but the Knight review of the future of the fire service recommended that PCC takeovers be attempted only if a rigorous pilot could identify tangible and “clearly set out benefits”. The Government chose to ignore this key recommendation and are instead proceeding before any evidence has been gathered about the likely benefits, costs and threats to the plan. It is utterly reckless. The impact assessment is threadbare. The only rationale offered for this intervention is the Government’s belief that there needs to be greater collaboration between emergency services. No one thinks otherwise, but the Government have not provided any justification of why it is more likely to occur under PCCs or any analysis of the current barriers to collaboration. It is policy without evidence or clear rationale.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend is saying. She knows—and surely the Government know—how much co-operation already goes on. It does not have to be prescribed in this top-down way; it works organically and it works really well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is really good collaboration now between all parts of our public services—between fire and police, fire and ambulance, and fire, ambulance and police—and I understand the Government’s wanting to move that agenda further and encourage more collaboration, but this bit of the Bill does not do it. As I will explain, I believe it will in fact deter some boundary and border merges, which would be a massive problem.
The Government’s cavalier approach to this public service upheaval is completely indefensible, given the significant risks that the proposals represent to the fire and rescue service. PCCs are still a nascent institution. The Home Affairs Select Committee has said:
“It is too early to say whether the introduction of police and crime commissioners has been a success.”
We do not know whether they have succeeded in their core duties, so why are the Government proposing to expand their portfolios by giving them control of the fire service too? I think the Government want to bolster the powers and budgets of PCCs to help them through their difficult inception and that the proposals are a step towards PCCs becoming mini mayors. A vital public service, such as fire, should not be pawned off to save struggling Whitehall inventions or to overturn a public vote against the creation of a mayor. Unlike mayors in combined authorities, the PCCs will be completely free from the democratic scrutiny provided by local government, and the creation of the extended office will not have been approved by local people.
The most serious risk, however, is that fire, with its much smaller budgets and less media attention than policing, will become an unloved, secondary concern of its new management—a Cinderella service. I have raised this point repeatedly with the Minister in Committee and in other debates, but he has not indicated what he might do to mitigate the risk. I am not the only one who thinks this: Peter Murphy, the director of public policy research at Nottingham Business School, has argued that if the fire service were to slip into the status of a Cinderella service, it would only repeat what happened the last time fire had to share an agenda with policing. I will quote him in full, because it gets to the heart of the matter:
“If the proposals ore implemented, there is a very strong chance that the fire and rescue services would go back to the ‘benign neglect’ that characterised the service from 1974 to 2001 when the Home Office was last responsible for fire services. Police, civil disobedience, immigration and criminal justice dominated the Home Office agenda, as well as its time and resources. If the fire service becomes the lesser partner in a merged service, the long-term implications will include smaller fire crews with fewer appliances and older equipment arriving at incidents. Prevention and protection work, already significantly falling”— he is so right about that—
“will result in fewer school visits and fire alarm checks for the elderly”.
What a chilling vision for the future of our fire service!
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points. Does she agree that this proposal, combined with the 17% cut that we have already seen in the service across the country, could lead to a risky situation, particularly for many vulnerable households?
I listened carefully to the quotations, and I would be chilled if any part of what was said were factually true. If there were an attempt to combine the emergency services, fire and police, we would have moved to one funding stream. I categorically ruled that out, so this sort of scaremongering—not from the shadow Minister but from others—is flawed. There is a separate funding stream in the precept for the police. The only bit that is going to be amalgamated, should the PCCs be like the Metro Mayors in this respect, would relate to the back office and the administrative side.
But should a PCC take over the fire service, we would have a person in charge whose main attention was on policing and all that policing involved. The media focus much more on policing than they do on the fire service. The fire service will be secondary. Although the Minister rightly says—I do not doubt him—that the two funding streams will be different, I do not know how long that will last, and in truth, neither does he, because things move on. We had police and crime commissioners under the last Government; this Government are now proposing police, crime and fire commissioners. What will happen in a couple of years’ time? I do not know. There might be accounting efficiencies in order to save costs, and the budgets might well be merged. I do not think that these proposals make any sense.
A further risk is that these proposals will make mergers of fire services more difficult, which would be a real setback, as inter-fire mergers increase resilience and achieve significant savings. The 2007 merger of the Devon and Somerset fire services was supposed to deliver £3 million of savings in the first five years. It actually bettered that target by £600,000.
The Minister will know that Martyn Underhill, the Independent PCC for Dorset—I am trying to keep this politically neutral—has said that he has no interest in running the fire service. Why? It is because Dorset and Wiltshire fire service has undergone a merger that proposes to bring significant savings and increase the resilience in that area. He does not want to interfere with the process, and he is really wary about his office having responsibility for Wiltshire. I admire this decision, made by Commissioner Underhill, but how many potential mergers of fire services will not even be considered as a result of PCC takeovers and the need for coterminosity? I remind the Minister that until a few months ago, this Government trumpeted mergers as a key to the future of the fire service; yet they are now, sadly, going to slip off the agenda.
I know that the Minister has little sympathy with the particular argument I am about to make, but I am a brave soul. A large proportion of the work carried out by the fire service is preventive. There is a danger that these proposals will make this preventive work a little more difficult. It is a humanitarian service. We need to be honest: the police service is not a humanitarian service. The two services are seen differently by some communities, and these proposals could make the fire service’s preventive work more difficult.
There are some people who would not welcome a policeman into their home without a warrant. Police officers turning up at the door can be a scary experience. Firefighters go into people’s homes and work spaces, and check that smoke alarms and electrical appliances are safe. They fit sprinklers and even look for worrying signs that might concern other services, such as the NHS and council care services. This preventive work is not an add-on to the fire service’s work; it is at the core of what it does—keeping people safe, so that they do not have to be rescued further down the line.
I do not quite understand—perhaps I do, but I do not think it is fair—why the shadow Minister is conflating operational work that the police do with operational work that the fire service does. Of course, a lot of work is done together, particularly at road traffic collisions, but there is nothing in the Bill that would conflate the two in the way that the shadow Minister suggests.
First, they will not be equal partners, because we are talking about a big service and a small service. Secondly, in the minds of some of our communities, the police and the fire service will become one and the same. They will have one boss, and there will be an anxiety that someone coming through the door to fix a smoke alarm might have a different agenda.
In London, the service is run by a Mayor and elected councillors. It is not run by an individual whose other job is to be the police commissioner. I think there is a difference, and I believe that our communities will think there is a difference. We cannot prescribe how people think and what they worry about, but this concern has been raised with me.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that her comments could be interpreted by the police as quite insulting? They do a lot of preventive and humanitarian work. As she knows, the hon. Lady’s submission comes right out of the Fire Brigades Union’s consultation document, which I also thought was quite insulting to the great work that our police officers do in the very areas that she highlighted.
The police I meet on my doorsteps and streets are dead pragmatic souls. They understand the sensitivities that some communities have: they treat some of my refugee communities with extraordinary sensitivity to overcome the natural barrier that is there. What I am saying to the hon. Gentleman is that there is a natural barrier. That is no slur on our police force; our police force are an enforcement agency, and not really a humanitarian service. The police are there to implement the law. Let us move on.
The Minister is not passing over a service that does not have some difficulties. The fire and rescue service has been subject to a cumulative cash cut of £236 million or 12.5% since 2010—and, of course, there is more to come. [Interruption.] Is the Government Whip trying to engage me? Does he want to intervene? It seems not, okay. I just thought I would give him a chance.
I believe that what one of my colleagues was trying to say from a sedentary position is that we should not wash over the debacle and the huge costs of the regional fire control centres that the previous Labour Administration forced on the fire service. [Interruption.]
Is that right? When I was a Whip, I was taught that I should be seen and not heard. I am sure that Stephen Barclay did not want to intervene on me at all. The issue of regional fire control centres has been well thrashed out in this Chamber. There were a myriad of reasons why they did not work, and I accept that they did not.
Let us return to what the Government have been doing. Here we are in 2016, and it feels as though they have been here forever. The fire and rescue service has been subject to a cumulative cash cut of £236 million, or 12.5%, since 2010, and, of course, there is more to come. We know from the local government funding settlement that fire and rescue services are expected to cut spending by a further £135 million by the end of the Parliament. A stretched service will be squeezed even further.
As a result of these cuts, 7,600 firefighters have already been lost, and the Government have repeatedly ignored warnings that the cuts may be putting services at risk. Their proposals will not protect a single firefighter’s job, or put a single firefighter back in service. I have been told by fire chiefs that their services will “not be viable” under the Government’s proposed spending plans, and I am sure that they have told the Minister exactly the same thing.
The National Audit Office has calculated that there was a 30% reduction in the amount of time spent on home fire checks and audits over the last Parliament. That is a huge reduction. The NAO has said that the Government have “no idea” of the impact of that on public safety. It has also said that, as the Government refuse to model the risk of cuts, they may only know that a service has been cut too long after the fact—that is, after public safety and the lives of the public have been put at risk.
I was not surprised, although I was dismayed, by the latest English fire statistics, which cover the period between April and September 2015. They show that there were 139 fire-related fatalities during that time, 31 more than occurred during the same period in 2014. There were 1,685 non-fatal fire casualties that resulted in hospital treatment, a 10% increase on 2014. Fire and rescue services attended about 93,200 fires, 7% more than in 2014.
The Government have cut the fire service, cut firefighters, and overseen a massive reduction in the amount of preventive work undertaken. I know that we are talking about a spike over just a couple of quarters, but there are statistical signs that the service may be feeling the awful effects of the cuts that have been made. So what do the Government do? Do they stop the cuts while they undertake a proper risk assessment? Do they begin to develop minimum standards for the number of stations and firefighters, and for preventive work? No. The Government want to pass on the responsibility to police and crime commissioners, who have had to deal with similar cuts in police budgets, and who have lost 12,000 front-line police officers. They are not even assessing the level of funding that PCCs would need to maintain resilience and keep the public safe.
This is a good line. By passing the buck without the bucks, the Government could be asking PCCs, who will be new to the fire service and its complexity, to undertake further potentially dangerous cuts. The PCCs will not know what the risks are, because the Government refuse to model them. That is why we tabled amendment 20, which would require the Home Secretary to carry out an assessment of the level of funding that fire services need to keep the public safe.
Our fire and rescue authorities are trusted experts on the fire service. The councillors who serve on them often have years of experience, and have gained a genuinely deep knowledge and judgment from overseeing the strategic direction of fire services in their areas. Given the trust and respect that local fire authorities have, allowing PCCs to take over a fire and rescue service without their support poses the clear risk that employees, and the public, will perceive newly empowered PCCs as an unwelcome central imposition. Our amendment 6 would ensure that a PCC who does take over a fire and rescue service can do so only with the approval of the locally elected representatives on the relevant councils, or, alternatively, of local people through a referendum.
The Government are presenting their “reforms” as part of a “localist” agenda, but what sort of localism allows the Secretary of State to impose her will against local objections? I guess it is the same sort of localism that is driving the forced academisation of schools. It is a localism that portrays an utter distrust of, and contempt for, local Government and elected councillors. If the Government do not trust local authorities—and it seems clear that they do not—perhaps they will be pleased that our amendment allows the decision to go directly to the people via a referendum. I presume that they do trust the electorate.
The hon. Lady has raised the interesting issue of a local referendum. I wonder whether she can tell the House—so that we can consider her amendment properly—what the cost of such a referendum would be for each fire and rescue authority, and also who would pay. She has expressed concern about the removal of budgets from fire and rescue authorities. Perhaps if they were the ones who paid, more firefighters would be removed from the front line.
The referendum would take place on the same day as any local council election. We would not want an election to be prohibited by costs. As for where the costs should lie, I think that they should lie with the Government, because, after all, it is they who have proposed these changes. If the hon. Gentleman wants someone else to pay, perhaps it should be the Government’s arm, the PCCs. As he has rightly pointed out, their budgets are larger than those of any fire authority.
One of the joys of being in opposition is that we have to do our own work ourselves; we do not have a phalanx of willing employees to do it for us. Once the House had passed the amendment, I would need to rely on the Government and their civil servants to help us to work out the cost. If the cost became prohibitive, I could suggest that the Government drop this silly idea altogether, and save loads of money.
I have sat patiently while, on a number of occasions, the hon. Lady has referred to elected councillors being elected to fire authorities. Can she clarify, for the edification of the House and the public, that no elected councillors are elected to the fire authority in London—which covers her constituency—or, indeed, to the vast majority of fire authorities in the country?
I wonder what kind of interaction Conservative Members have with their local councillors, but I can only imagine that it ain’t good, because every time I raise this issue, anxiety is expressed about the genuine nature of locally elected members.
I can only say that I have a much better relationship not only with Newham councillors, but with GLA councillors. They are elected. They face the electorate. They are elected to a body which then places them on another body that is responsible for fire, just as they are given responsibilities for social services, education, leisure services, and so forth. It is the same process. I support democracy and I support my democratically elected councillors, who are doing a jolly good job in very difficult times to keep services going. Conservative Members should not denigrate their local councillors quite so much.
I assume that this is entirely my mistake; I probably did not make my question clear enough, and I take full responsibility for that. I will have another crack at this. Can the hon. Lady name any local councillor or London Assembly member who has been elected by the people of Newham to sit on the fire authority?
In London, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the people of Newham elect a GLA councillor and the GLA councillors then determine which parts of the work they will undertake for the GLA. I do not see that that is a problem. The same thing happens in Newham. When we elect 60 Labour councillors—and zero councillors from any other party—we then give them jobs looking after social services, education, recreation and so on. I can tell the hon. Gentleman the name of the councillor who has the fire remit in my council. He is Councillor Bryan Collier and he is a wonderful bloke. He has been doing the job for decades and he has lots of knowledge.
Speaking as someone who was a councillor until this time last month, I bow to no one in my appreciation of the importance of local government. However, the shadow Minister demonstrates a strange understanding of democracy given that she seems to prefer the patronage of local council group leaders to the direct mandate involved in being elected on to a body by voters.
I am bemused by the contempt that Conservative Members are showing for local councils. I hope for the hon. Gentleman’s own sake that he does not have a Tory-led local authority waiting for him when he goes back home on Thursday. Frankly, if I were a member of his council, I would be sitting on his doorstep waiting to have a word, because that is really not on. [Interruption.] Oh, really? That is such a shock! The chuntering from the Government Back Benches is outrageous. I don’t even know where I got to in my speech.
If the Government do not trust local authorities—and it seems clear that they do not—perhaps they will be pleased to accept our amendment, which would allow the decision on whether to place PCCs in control of fire services to go directly to the electorate. The Government’s reforms are fundamentally about the transfer of power from the collective democratic representation of local councils to a single individual, and the creation of mini-mayors across England. The Minister knows this to be true, and he knows there is no democratic mandate for it—none at all. If he accepted our amendments, he could right that wrong and ensure that each local community could decide for itself what was in the best interests of its fire and rescue service. That would be a real localism agenda.
New clause 20 would give fire services in England a statutory responsibility to deal with flooding, as is already the case for their Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts. In December, much of the north of England was devastated by flooding. Many homes were flooded, bridges connecting communities were washed away, major roads were blocked and, in Lancaster, a sub-station was flooded leaving tens of thousands of homes without power. In December alone, firefighters responded to more than 1,400 flood incidents across the north-west, and on Boxing day, 1,000 people were rescued in Greater Manchester. The work of our firefighters was brilliant during those difficult days. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would agree on that, if on nothing else.
However, fire services have expressed concern that they were not properly equipped to deal with that situation and that they lacked basic kit such as boats and dry suits. Frankly, that is not good enough. I believe that this stems from the fact that it is unclear who holds the primary responsibility for responding to floods.
When flooding is not formally the responsibility of any service, it will not be given the priority it deserves in budgeting and planning. If we are going to continue to ask fire services to deal with major incidents such as flooding, we should say so in this place so that proper provision can be made and they can prepare comprehensively for incidents. Stories of volunteers and the Army mucking in might be heart-warming, but that is simply no substitute for a properly organised and funded rescue service.
Before I finish, I would like to touch on the issue of privatisation. The Minister gave us categorical assurances that there would be no changes or movement in that regard, and that is why we have tabled no amendments on privatisation. I am going to hold the Minister to his word, but I am sure that those in the other place will want to do a bit of digging to ensure that I am right and he is right, and that there can be no privatisation of our fire services under this legislation.
I would like to speak to amendment 2, which is in my name and those of several right hon. and hon. Members across the House. Part 1 of the Bill sets out the measures to encourage greater collaboration between emergency services, a topic that I have spoken about several times in the House. Clauses 6 and 7 will give police and crime commissioners the opportunity to extend their responsibilities to include fire and rescue services. I have been calling for that extension for some time now, and I secured a Westminster Hall debate on the topic last year. As I said on Second Reading, I welcome the inclusion of those clauses in the Bill.
The introduction of police and crime commissioners in 2012 created greater transparency and democratic accountability in policing, with PCCs replacing unelected and unaccountable police authorities. Extending the responsibilities of PCCs to include fire and rescue authorities will mirror those benefits. As we have been hearing, fire and rescue authorities are made up of elected councillors, but they are not directly accountable to the public for those specific roles, as they are appointed to those positions. As I have said before, that is very different from, and should not be confused with, democratic accountability.
The introduction of directly elected PCCs means that the public can scrutinise their performance, precept and priorities, and exercise their approval—or, indeed, disapproval—at the ballot box. The public will get their chance to decide on the performance of the first tranche of PCCs in a couple of weeks’ time, on
Does my hon. Friend agree that, far from overlooking the attributes of our firefighters, it would be an advantage to local communities if highly trusted, experienced firefighters were given the opportunity to extend their preventive remit to areas such as crime prevention advice as well as fire prevention advice?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. This is about collaboration, and prevention extends across our emergency services.
Amendment 2 is designed to provide the public with greater clarification on the role of the police and crime commissioner. If a PCC does take on the responsibility for fire and rescue services, it is important that the public are clear that the individual is responsible for both the police service and the fire and rescue service. I have called for the title change in the House before, and it will help to address some concerns raised on Second Reading, in Committee and earlier that the change represents a police takeover.
The services will remain operationally distinct under the legislation and the precepts will be distinct, too. To be clear, there is no suggestion that police officers will be fighting fires or that firefighters will be arresting criminals. The legislation simply reforms the governance of the two services and ensures that one democratically accountable individual has responsibility for them both. Although the Bill is designed to be flexible and does not mandate PCCs to take on responsibility for fire and rescue services, which will happen only when a case is made locally, there is a need to ensure that the new title is nationally recognised. That is why amendment 2 would give the Secretary of State the power to make the title change in secondary legislation at some future point.
The danger of leaving the decision in the hands of the PCCs who have taken on extended responsibilities is that we could find a patchwork of different titles being used across the country, which would create real confusion for the public at future elections. To continue to increase the profile of these nationwide roles and the elections, we need to ensure clarity in the title. The amendment does not state what the title should be, leaving that decision in the hands of the Secretary of State. Many different titles could be used—I have mentioned several in previous debates—but I am sure that the Secretary of State would want to consult to ensure that the title is appropriate, clear and not misleading in any way. That would also give various organisations and individuals the opportunity to make their representations.
The amendment is meant to be probing and might not be made to the Bill at this stage, but when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, it would be helpful if he could provide clarity about the discussions he has had with the Department regarding the title change and about his views and intentions as the Bill continues to progress through the House.
I rise to support new clause 20 in particular. I declare an interest as chair of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. Giving fire and rescue services a statutory responsibility for leading the emergency services in response to flooding is something on which we have had meeting after meeting over the years with DEFRA Ministers, who have all said that they supported it, and with Ministers from different Departments. It goes so far, but then it stops. There is clearly a Treasury argument here somewhere, but I feel strongly about the matter. There has been an increase in floods over recent years, and we have seen how our fire and rescue services have responded. What is happening seems wrong when we rely on them.
Let us look at the data from last year. Thirty-four fire and rescue services provided assistance in the worst-affected areas. Data collected by the FBU, which does a good job in getting it, from individual fire and rescue services found that firefighters responded to at least 1,400 flood incidents across north-west England and 450 incidents in Yorkshire. As we saw on our television screens, with politicians lining up to thank them and say how brave they had been and how wonderful they were, firefighters rescued people from a wide range of hazardous situations, evacuating people in advance of coming floods and making various other emergency interventions. It seems strange that we give our firefighters great praise for doing something that we and local people automatically expect them to do, yet we do not make their leading of the emergency services a statutory responsibility. I can only assume that the Government do not want to spend what might be some extra resources on ensuring that firemen and firewomen and all the rescue services are properly equipped.
We have seen terrible examples of when firemen and women have not had the right safety or protective equipment and have had to do things without the correct clothing, with things running out in some areas. They still did those things, but that is wrong and I genuinely do not understand the situation. I am sure that the Minister supported the proposal at one time. Many Ministers have supported it, but when they get into a position in which they actually have to make the decision or are allowed to get involved in it, they seem to change their mind. I hope the Minister will respond to that and that we will get the opportunity to support the change in a vote today.
I now turn briefly to the other issues. I share the position of the shadow Front-Bench team on police and crime commissioners. There is no public appetite for change. Wherever I have been around the country, no one has been clamouring for reform of how we govern our fire services or for any responsibility to be transferred to PCCs. I have not heard any evidence today—we may hear it from the Minister, but I doubt it—that there is a problem with the current governance arrangements. No one has convinced me that the change would deliver an emergency service that is more economic, efficient and effective or would help to improve public safety. We all want co-ordination, and I welcome that co-operation and co-ordination have gone further in some parts of the country than in others. As my hon. Friend Lyn Brown said from the Front Bench, we want to see more of that, but we do not need to bring it in this top-down, totally anti-democratic way.
I am not at all ashamed to say that I believe that firefighters and police officers perform different roles. That does not mean that we do not value equally the roles of both, but they perform different roles and have different remits. A police officer is seen as a legal person and someone who is there to uphold the law. A fireman or firewoman, or anyone involved in the rescue services, is seen very differently. Having a single employer will begin to confuse that in the public mind. The preventive work that firefighters do and the way that they are trusted, implicitly and completely, by the public could well be jeopardised if the changes go through.
The Bill and this change would do nothing at all to invest in fire and rescue services’ resources. I have already mentioned the work that goes into responding to large-scale flooding incidents and providing emergency medical response. The Government should focus on putting extra resources into initiatives that will actually lead to the changes and co-ordination happening.
I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that this is frankly more about saving money than improving the service. She probably noticed that the burden has been shifted on to local authorities, with the 2% increase. Eventually, the entire burden for fire and police will be shifted on to local authorities. Then we will have a situation of profligate spending—we have been here before—and local authorities will get capped.
Absolutely; there is no doubt this is a cost-cutting exercise. I accept that these days everybody has to have constraints on the public purse, as far as is possible, but there are ways of doing that and this bureaucratic way seems to have been brought in by people who have had the idea for a long time and now have seen an opportunity to push it forward. The Government should not be pursuing these almost ideological ways of trying to save money. They should be looking at ways of improving our emergency services and ensuring that they co-ordinate well together. It would be wrong to transfer this responsibility to a PCC. We have a valuable, popular fire service that has the confidence of the public, and we should be very wary of making those changes, which I think will have a really detrimental effect on not only how the public see the service, but on its effectiveness out there in the country. I hope we will be able to make some changes to this proposal and that when Members get the opportunity they will vote to put a stop to something that is very wrong indeed.
I am obliged to you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I apologise if I leapt to my feet rather more quickly than colleagues had anticipated. I am keen to speak in this debate, having served on the Bill Committee and, for a number of years, as chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. I feel that I speak with a fair degree of authority on the implications of different governance models, because the LFEPA had to go through the process of making substantial changes to the London fire brigade and I saw at first hand the widespread misunderstanding of the governance arrangements, both of the London fire brigade, through the London fire authority and to the Mayor, and more widely and nationally.
I like clarity; it is a cornerstone of democracy that people can follow the golden thread from the decisions they make at the ballot box, through to the people who make the decisions about the provision of their public services and, ultimately, on to the delivery of those services. This is important, because when things go right in the delivery of those services, people should know who to reward at the ballot box. Perhaps more importantly, if things do not go well, voters should know who they can punish at the ballot box. That is a cornerstone of the democratic model, to which I am sure we all subscribe.
Previously, when we had police authorities, there was a break in that golden thread, because people did not know who ran their police force. They were probably aware of where the police headquarters were, although I am being generous when I say that. I suspect that in many parts of the country people might have had a vague idea that the police headquarters would be in the big town—the county town. People in my constituency are aware that the police headquarters were in Chelmsford, but I would be surprised if many were able to name their chief constable and absolutely amazed if any were able to name the local councillors who sat on the police authority.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in that my mailbox is full of matters such as housing. However, the mail on policing and fire is more about anxiety at the level of cuts since 2010. I would like a reassurance that all this meddling on governance is not going to lead to further service reductions in terms of our crucial bobbies on the beat, firefighters who turn up on time and all the rest of the expectations that the community rightly has of our emergency services.
I intend to deal a little later in my speech with some of the financial benefits that come with greater collaboration and co-working in the back office. If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I will return to that point.
I wish to bring my hon. Friend back to his point about how people may know the name of their chief constable but would not know who was on their former police authority. Does he agree that one real benefit of a PCC is that people will know not only the name of their chief constable, but also of their PCC? In addition, they will be involved in setting the priorities for policing in their own area. In the forthcoming PCC elections in Lancashire, one of our top priorities, which we are out there campaigning on—with success, we hope—is tackling rural crime, which is hugely important to the towns and villages around Rossendale and Darwen. The PCC election has given us the opportunity to say, “Tackle cybercrime and speeding, but also prioritise rural crime” and, thus, get people really involved with their own policing.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which goes to the heart of the fundamental change in the relationship between people in the local community and the police force that represents it. It gives those people an opportunity periodically—once every four years, or indeed sooner. We have seen an example of where the priorities and the actions of a PCC have fallen below the level of legitimate expectation. That person was then forced to stand down and a PCC by-election took place, which really focused the minds of the people in South Yorkshire about what the role of their PCC should be. That requirement for PCCs to hold themselves to account before the electors goes to the heart of the success of the PCC model, and it is important to expand that success to the fire and rescue service.
Catherine West spoke about cuts, but Cheshire’s PCC has been very successful at putting more officers on to the frontline. He is collaborating with his local fire and rescue service, and there will be co-location in the police headquarters in Winsford. That is an example of where co-operation is delivering more for less very effectively, and in a way that is protecting people in Cheshire, particularly in my constituency.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which reinforces one of my beliefs. We hear a lot of talk in this Chamber about what people want, but all the evidence I have received, including from the extensive research carried out during the changes we made to the London fire brigade in my former role as the chair of the LFEPA, shows that what people really want is certainty. That goes to a point Opposition Members have made about people having quality public provision when they need it, where they need it. We should subordinate structures to the delivery of that agenda. I also believe that the changes proposed by the Government go a long way towards protecting those structures.
My view is that we judge people by what they say. I know that there will be indignation from Labour Members, but as we have seen when the Labour party was in government the quality of the delivery of public services is not always totally interwoven with the budgets allocated to them. Indeed, there are massive opportunities to get more for less, and surely that should be the acme of performance.
May I say to Julian Knight who has just taken his place in this Chamber that, frankly, this has been a better debate than that? His unreasonable slur on the Opposition is about our stance on the police services rather than on the fire services. It would be really good if he read the Whips’ report more carefully before he intervenes next time.
May I say to James Cleverly, to whom I have been listening, that his points are interesting and have some validity, but London is rather different from areas outside London? Over decades, London has got used to having a single seat of government—even though there was an interregnum when the Greater London Council was disbanded. The reality is that when our constituents do not know where to go to complain about a service or to bring up an issue, they end up at the door of our town halls. It does not matter whether we are talking about Newham or Newcastle, that is where they go.
Just before we proceed, may I say with great respect to the hon. Lady that, although she has many points to make which the House should hear, interventions must be short.
London’s exceptionalism is often held up as the reason why things that happen in London cannot possibly happen elsewhere. I have to say that, having served in office both in London and in Essex, I do not subscribe to that view. There are many things that national Government can learn from what a Conservative administration has done in London. I will go even further and say that London could learn plenty of things from other parts of the country, including from my wonderful county of Essex.
The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting arguments, but the problem that we have in the west midlands—if we leave the Mayor and his authority to one side—is the frequency of change in the local superintendents. They change and the public do not really get to know them. In the past, before the Layfield report and the major reorganisations of the 1970s, people were able to identify who was in charge of the local police force and knew exactly who to go to. That is the problem that we have in the west midlands.
That is a fair point. I have had a number of people talk to me about the speed with which police officers move through posts, so I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman.
Let me drag myself kicking and screaming back to the point that I was trying to make, because I have inadvertently found myself speaking more about policing than about fire and rescue services. I think it is legitimate, because what we have seen in London is a very clear line of accountability. Londoners may not be able to identify their nearest—I do not use the word “local” here—fire authority member. Lyn Brown mentioned the local councillor on Newham council who has responsibility for fire and safety, but that councillor does not sit on the London fire authority. In fact, the reason I asked her specific questions is that I know who sits on the London fire authority—I am probably one of the few people in this Chamber or elsewhere who does—and I know that no one from the London borough of Newham, either elected or appointed, is on that authority. When the people of Newham want to cast judgment on the delivery of fire services in that borough, the only person they can either reward or punish at the ballot box is the Mayor of London, who, we should remind ourselves, is also the police and crime commissioner for London.
I want to address the hon. Lady’s point about the fire service being starved of resources so that we can support what she feels is the higher-profile policing service. After the changes that the London fire authority made, the Mayor of London, who is the budget holder for both the police and fire authorities, made a commitment to protecting the London fire budget irrespective of the budgetary award from central Government. He was able to do so, because he could flex his budgets over the two areas. Far from starving resources from fire and rescue to give to policing, he was able to protect fire and rescue by dipping into his broader budget. Therefore, I fundamentally disagree with this idea that a police and crime commissioner who has responsibility for both policing and fire services would automatically and obviously rob Peter to pay Paul. That view is reinforced by the fact—the Minister has stated this from the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions—that the budget lines are separate.
Before I conclude, I will touch on the concerns that were raised by the shadow Front-Bench team about the single employer model. There are many instances where the employer has very different types of employee in terms of public sector delivery. No one confuses civil servants at the Ministry of Defence with members of the Special Air Service. Ultimately, both are employed by the same organisation; there is no confusion in the minds of the public there. Indeed, in the fire and rescue service and the police force, we have both uniformed and non-uniformed members of staff. The police service has warranted officers, police community support officers and non-uniformed civilian staff, and they are all under the same employer and there is no public confusion about the different roles. The idea that, somehow, the British public are too dim-witted, or too slow on the uptake, to be able to tell the difference between a copper and a firefighter is an argument that is so bereft of power that it should be disregarded.
The British people deserve to know who to punish or to reward at the ballot box in relation to fire and rescue, because, like policing, it is a vital public service. I have no doubt that, next week, we will see a much greater engagement and turnout in the police and crime commissioner elections than we have seen previously because people now understand in more detail what they are voting for. They have seen where the police and crime commissioners have done well, as highlighted in Cheshire by my hon. Friend Antoinette Sandbach, and where they have done less well, and the PCCs will be held to account at the ballot box. When it comes to the delivery of fire and rescue provision, the British people deserve just as much a say as they do in policing, so I am happy to support the Government’s position, and I call on the House to reject the new clause put forward in the name of the shadow Minister.
Having spoken on Second Reading and served on the Bill Committee, it is a real pleasure to be here on Report. Initially, I want to address my comments to new clause 20, which was proposed by the Opposition. The aim of the new clause, which is to give fire and rescue services the lead in flooding, is good. However, I disagree with the new clause overall, and I will go on to say why I do not think it is necessary.
I was selected as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Rossendale and Darwen in 2007. On
Like many other areas in the north-west of England, we have been subject to severe floods over the past 10 years, no more so than on Boxing day when we had what the Environment Agency called a once-in-75-years flood, having had a once-in-25-years flood a few years previously. Having been working closely with the residents of Irwell Vale who are still out of their homes four months on from the flood, I know the huge impact that flooding has and the huge family disruption it can cause.
One thing that was fantastic to see on Boxing day—the one ray of sunshine on what was a miserable day for so many—was the amazing response not just of our fire and rescue service but of our police force, and in areas of Lancashire such as the Ribble Valley and South Ribble the Army came out. Apparently, as the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is indicating from a sedentary position, the Army came out in Wyre too. Local people helped: people from all over my constituency volunteered to help with the clean-up. That I why I am not sure that placing a statutory duty on fire and rescue services always to take the lead in a flooding situation would work.
When I speak to members of the fire and rescue service in my constituency, it is clear that they do not need the Government to pass a law to tell them that they are responsible for flood recovery, flooding help and the prevention of loss of life. But knowing my own situation in Rossendale and Darwen, I could almost imagine a situation where the police would turn up first. Environment Agency officers, or in some cases the armed forces, might turn up first and feel unable to take immediate action because the fire service was not there to take the lead.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case from personal experience. Does he agree that flexibility is crucial? That is what he is describing. Surely if someone has the skills and the wherewithal to tackle the situation and they are on the scene, they should be allowed to do so without fear of legal recourse.
My hon. Friend makes my point very clearly. People should try to prevent flooding or loss of life only when it is safe for them to do so and when they believe that they have the capacity to deal with the situation—for example, members of the armed forces or police officers, who are extremely brave, or the Environment Agency or the water board. The clause would put an unnecessary straitjacket on the response to floods in Lancashire. Although I support much of what it seeks to achieve, putting that in primary legislation is probably a step too far.
As an update, I can tell the House that the people of Rossendale are well served. We have the impending visit of the Minister with responsibility for floods, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is coming to Irwell Vale on
There is no drought in Lancashire, but if the hon. Gentleman wants me to come to Coventry to do the rain dance, I am more than happy to do so if it is required.
Amendment 2 in the name of my hon. Friend Amanda Milling has been signed by right hon. and hon. Members across the House. Having been involved in the Bill since Second Reading, it is clear to me and probably to everyone who has spoken on the Bill or served on the Committee that the recognition accorded to police and crime commissioners is at an all-time high. We first went to the polls on a wet November evening in my constituency to elect a police and crime commissioner. When I went knocking on people’s doors and saying, “This is an important national election. You must come out and vote”, I was met with blank faces. People did not know what the office had been created for and they did not understand what police and crime commissioners would do.
Everyone who heard the evidence session on the Bill, with some excellent contributions from police and crime commissioners all over the country, would say that that has now changed. I may fundamentally disagree with much of the evidence given by Vera Baird to the Committee, but I have heard of her. I listen to Radio 4 in the morning and I often hear her, usually beating up the Government. She is raising the profile of police and crime commissioners, as are police and crime commissioners across the country.
The general public like the idea of having one individual whom they can hold accountable for the performance of their local police service. The old police panel was remote. It was appointed and was therefore unaccountable. I compare that to the situation today with my local PCC. He has taken road shows all around Lancashire, going out there and talking to people about what they would like policing priorities to be over the next four years. I am slightly sceptical about his new-found fondness for going out and meeting the public. It seems like a last-ditch attempt to be re-elected. I hope that Andy Pratt, the Conservative candidate, who has 30 years’ service as a police officer, will win in Lancashire so that, like many other areas of the country, including Cheshire and Staffordshire, we can have our PCC all year round, not just every four years at elections.
If a member of the public has a problem, are they no longer allowed to go to the police chief? Do they have to go to the police and crime commissioner, or are there two centres? Can people write to the chief of police and say, “I’m really worried about this”, or are they expected to go to the police and crime commissioner?
There is nothing precluding people from writing to their local chief constable. As chief constables are primarily responsible for the operational work of their local police force, if the query related to an operational matter, I would recommend that people wrote to their chief constable. People like to raise matters with the police and crime commissioner as well, but that is one democratically accountable, known individual who can put pressure on the chief constable on their behalf. I am sure the chief constable would be happy to hear from someone living somewhere in Lancashire, but he might be quicker to reply to their letter if the police and crime commissioner had his foot on the chief constable’s throat about the issue—[Interruption.] Indeed, or the MP. Many people do come and see me.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I have a couple of observations. First, I was not happy with the politicisation of the police force. It was wrong that we should have Labour or anyone else as PCCs. That worries me. Secondly, does my hon. Friend agree that there is potential for conflict between the PCC and the chief constable? In some cases the PCC is a former policeman, but PCCs may have no experience of the police, yet have the power to appoint and sack someone who may have 35 years’ experience. I am not happy with that, either.
On the politicisation of the police force, that may have been driven by low turn-out. Even though the Labour party opposed the office of police and crime commissioner in its last manifesto, I note that it is standing a candidate in every division. At the last election there were many independent candidates standing as police and crime commissioners. At the evidence session of the Bill, we had the independent police and crime commissioner for North Wales, Mr Roddick, come to give evidence. He was excellent. If I lived in North Wales, I would probably vote for such an excellent individual with a fantastic vision for policing. If he were a Conservative, I would definitely vote for him. Many independents have been successful.
The hon. Gentleman says that we need the highest possible turnout. Of course, historically turnout at police and crime commissioner elections has been low. Does he therefore share our surprise that the Home Office has committed to spend the grand total of £2,700 on advertising for this year’s PCC elections?
I have a lot of respect for the shadow Minister, but I think it is slightly disingenuous to say that the turnout was low, because it was the first ever such election, it was held in November and it was not coterminous with other elections. Given the interest in the local elections in all our constituencies, I think that the turnout will be slightly higher. With regard to the £2,700, I am surprised that the Home Office has spent so much. I do not think there should be any state funding for political parties or elections, so he will not find me lobbying the Home Office to spend more.
Let me return to the point made by my hon. Friend Richard Drax about politicisation of the police. Support for our police and crime commissioners has grown, including for excellent independent police and crime commissioners. In Lancashire we have a police and crime commissioner who I think is very much at the beck and call of the chief constable. Although there needs to be a close working relationship between the two, I think that the police and crime commissioner often needs to be a critical friend, because he is not there to fight only for the interests of the police and police officers, as important as that is; he should be there to fight for, and put forward the voices of, people across Lancashire who want an improved policing service.
As I said in an intervention, one of the things I would like our police and crime commissioner to prioritise after the May elections, whoever he may be and whichever political party he may be from, is rural crime. That is driven not by Preston, Blackburn or Blackpool, the major conurbations in the county, but by villages such as Tockholes, Hoddlesden, Weir, Cowpe and Waterfoot in my constituency, where rural crime has a major impact on people’s lives. I hope that whoever wins the election is listening to this debate and will prioritise that. I think that can be the role of a police and crime commissioner: not to push the police’s agenda, but to push the people’s agenda in the area they represent.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is absolutely the point of a police and crime commissioner: to represent the public? In doing so, they can look at things differently. For instance, the police and crime commissioner in Staffordshire has demonstrated innovation and is looking at ways in which the police can use technology to do the admin while out and about on our streets, rather than having to sit behind a desk.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Let me mention one of the best examples I know of a police and crime commissioner taking a different approach. I met the police and crime commissioner for Cumbria shortly after he was elected. He had previously been headmaster of a Lancashire school. He said, “Do you know that there is no rape crisis centre in Cumbria? That is absolutely disgraceful for a police area of this size.” He took some of his PCC budget that was meant to be spent on administration and set up a rape crisis centre. I think that shows just how police and crime commissioners who really care about their areas—it is nothing to do with politics—can make a huge different to policing. When he was elected he said, “This is one of the things that I am going to change, because it is a disgrace that Cumbria does not have one.” In fact, he changed that within 18 months of the election. As a result of such actions, the recognition and popularity of police and crime commissioners has grown, and I believe that the same will happen with police and fire commissioners.
We all have immense respect for police officers and fire officers, but we accept that they do very different jobs. The public often see them working together and co-operating—for example, at the scene of an accident—but the idea of those two separate services having a common leadership will take longer for the public to understand. That is why I believe amendment 2 is absolutely necessary to improve an otherwise excellent Bill.
Everyone will have their own idea about the name that the Secretary of State should give to a police and crime commissioner who takes on responsibility for fire, should this amendment be made—whether fire and crime, or policing and crime and fire—but we probably all agree that it is imperative that we preserve a nationally recognised brand for the office. One of the successes of the police and crime commissioners is that this time, second time around, it is a national election with a recognised office. It might not be discussed in the Dog and Duck in Erdington or in Rossendale and Darwen, but people will talk about PCCs and the work they do, especially as they take on new responsibilities. It is quite centrist to say, “The Secretary of State shall direct a PCC about what he or she may be called in future,” but I think that a nationally recognised label will reflect the national nature of the legislation.
I also note that the Secretary of State would have the power at some point in the future to come up with the name of a police and crime commissioner who had also taken on responsibility for fire. I hope that the Secretary of State and her officials would have a detailed consultation with the fire service to find out what would be an acceptable name, because I share the concern, which has been expressed across the House, about police services and fire services having a different nature. The fire service does not want to be brought into police work, and I am sure that the police do not want to be brought into the fire service. I think that they are needlessly nervous, but having a long consultation period with the fire service would give them comfort.
I think that our fire services probably perceive the Bill as bringing the biggest change and the biggest risk. I think that the change and the risk are minimal, but that is how they perceive it. As with all change, I think it is in fact the fear of change, rather than the change itself, that is concerning them. If the proposal is accepted, it is absolutely essential that the new name for a police and crime commissioner with the added responsibility of a fire commissioner keeps front and centre the operational independence of both our fire services and our police services. Nobody is suggesting that the day after the Bill receives Royal Assent a police officer will be sent out with a bucket and told to quench a fire, or that a fire officer would ever be expected to go out and feel the collar of a local criminal; they must retain their operational independence.
In short, I think that this proposal gives the Secretary of State the power to make a clear name change to ensure that at the next national elections people will understand that they are voting for a combined role of police and crime commissioner and fire commissioner. However, that title must cement in their minds the fact that although those roles have a combined leadership, they remain absolutely separate and their operational independence is protected under the Bill.
It is surprising what inspiration one can get when sitting in this place. I am delighted to speak to this group of amendments, and I do so in the very good hope that I can curry favour with my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and that they will give me everything I want when we come to discuss the next group of amendments. I therefore hope that they listen very carefully to what I have to say.
I think that this is an excellent clause, because it is enabling but not prescriptive. It enables fire and rescue authorities to be taken over by PCCs, but it does not compel them to be. That is where I take issue with the Opposition provisions. I have huge respect for fire and rescue authorities, which do a fantastic job. In my area of Gloucester, the authority is under the control of the county council, and—this is why I am pleased the clause is enabling not prescriptive—I would not want it to be transferred to the PCC, who is an independent and who is not doing a particularly good job. That is why the clause is excellent: it deals with everything on a case-by-case basis.
Having said that, I must mention my experience of having the Fire Service College in my constituency. The college provides major training for the fire service and does some amazing blue-light collaborative training involving the fire, police and ambulance services. As my hon. Friend Jake Berry said, it is essential that those services work as collaboratively as possible in an emergency. The services in Gloucestershire are coterminous and relatively small, compared with some of the larger, urban authorities, and the chain of command works incredibly well, with each service knowing exactly what it is supposed to do in any given circumstances. It is essential, particularly with more sophisticated and frequent emergencies—whether flooding or, regrettably, things such as terrorism—that the blue-light services work closely together.
Training for such events could be improved. Resilience training for all three blue-light services, working together in emergencies, could be improved. If, God forbid, they are ever really tested in a big emergency—particularly one that takes place at multiple locations—they will need their training and collaboration to be of the highest order. That is where some of the mergers of fire and rescue authorities and PCCs could help.
Having said that, my area is looking at an ever-increasing fire and rescue service operating under the county council. It is not just operational efficiency that I am looking forward to from the Government’s proposals, but administrative efficiency. Let me give the example of Cirencester—the biggest town in my constituency. The fire station there was formerly operated by professional firefighters; it is now moving towards retained firefighters, and there will not be quite so many of them. The premises is vast, and it is maintained at public expense, but the police could usefully use it for their authority too.
We therefore begin to get the idea, which should be pushed more and more, that our precious public resources can be better utilised—in the case of property, if more than one public authority occupies it at once. However, that requires a different mindset from authorities. The police are used to having their police station, and the fire services are used to having their fire station, and hitherto, in some cases, the two have never felt it appropriate to mix. We can achieve significant efficiencies by merging the two, particularly when it comes to property.
I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that, when we go out and talk to our constituents, we see that they really care about the people out on the street and the front line. We cannot measure a service by how many buildings it occupies in our town. Is my hon. Friend aware of the shared fire and rescue training and police training in Northern Ireland, which has saved tens of millions of pounds? That shows that, where co-operation is done right, and the police and the fire service maintain their independence, significant savings can be made.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because that gives me the opportunity yet again to praise what the Fire Service College is doing in Moreton-in-Marsh. It is a large establishment on about 600 acres. It is on an old airfield, and it includes a runway used as a practice motorway on which motorway pile-ups can be simulated using real scrapped cars, so that the police, fire and ambulance services can then train in a big joint exercise. The college has offices they set on fire, and the police, fire and ambulance services can use that to train. It also has a ship it can set on fire. It has all sorts of huge facilities.
In case my hon. Friend misunderstands, let me say that they do these quite sophisticated training exercises using a model ship, a model aircraft and an actual office block. This is a really good example of how collaborative training should be run. We should do much more of that, and we need much more of it to involve resilience, so that we can train people for the really sophisticated emergencies we face.
The Cotswolds have suffered considerably as a result of flooding in recent years. When we have had flooding, it has been distressing to see people taken out of their houses and sometimes evacuated, and to see their belongings completely wrecked. I must praise the emergency services hugely, because they are always there in the middle of the night and in the most difficult circumstances—often cold and wet—trying to deal with very demoralised and unhappy people.
We should act more collaboratively, but we should pay a great tribute to the emergency services, because they do a hugely good and dedicated job on behalf of all of us.
May I praise, as I did in Committee, the tone of the debate and the measured way in which it has been taken forward, even though we will obviously disagree on certain issues?
Thirty years ago, I wrote a paper on better collaboration between the emergency services, covering the ambulance, fire and police services. I was wrong, because it should have included the coastguard—as a former shipping Minister, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Let me say at the outset that I have much sympathy with some aspects of the provisions that have been tabled today. We may be able to look at some of them again and to bring back proposals in the Lords. However, I fundamentally disagree with others, because they would rip the heart out of the Bill—I am looking at the shadow Minister, Lyn Brown, who knows exactly what I mean.
Let me also say that I am enormously proud to be the first police and fire Minister, and that role is perhaps an indication of how seriously the Government take some of the concerns the fire service and the shadow fire Minister have. I actually gave up huge swathes of my policing portfolio, including responsibility for the National Crime Agency and organised crime, to other Ministers, so that I could take on this portfolio. The work has taken up a huge amount of my time—that is not just because of this Bill—because I have been on an enormously steep learning curve from when I was a fireman all those years ago. The job has changed, although some of the semantics and language have not. Some things have changed enormously fast, but some have not changed as fast as we would perhaps all like.
Because we have a fantastic fire service, there has been a decrease of 17% in fire-related fatalities and of 50% in reported fires over the past 10 years. I am concerned about the correlation between those two figures, and I have asked my officials to look at that. As the shadow Minister said, there is an increase at the moment. We should not take one year as an example, and there may be, very sadly, some one-off events. I vividly remember, as roads Minister, going to the terrible fire on the M5 following a road traffic collision where many people survived the RTC, got out of their vehicles, and sadly lost their lives to fire.
Members of the fire service, the police and the ambulance service are amazing creatures. We often send them in one direction while we go in the other direction. The group of people who work in the fire service and in our other emergency services are a special breed. Many of them are ex-armed forces due to some of the training that we give in our armed forces. Sadly, not as many are coming through as there were in my time: I left the Army and went straight into Essex fire and rescue services. I applied to the Metropolitan police and the London fire service. I got accepted into both, but Essex offered me a flat. If the Met had offered me a flat, I probably would not be standing here now and would have retired a couple of years ago.
Friends of mine who are serving in the armed forces are finding it increasingly difficult to move into the police or the fire service. Could the Minister help in any way, because the training that the armed forces give to my friends is so important and should be utilised to make our police and fire services even better than they already are?
This issue has been very close to my heart for some time. For instance, we have a real issue coming down the line with a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers, and yet some 40% of the armed forces leave with an HGV licence, as I did.
Many fire services around the country have not been recruiting recently, although I understand that some have started to recruit now, but the police are most certainly recruiting. The Metropolitan police have brought in the right policy of making sure that people serving in the police force in London can represent their community, so they come from the community they live in. When the commissioner first proposed this and said that it was the right thing to do, I said, “Be very careful, because you would have excluded me from joining the Met. Although I grew up in Edmonton, you would have said that I’d been away for five years and so would not be allowed to join the police force.”
The rule has been changed, and, quite rightly, the police force in London will now allow someone to join even if they have been in the armed forces for some time. This is a very important area, especially as the police are now recruiting extensively. Only the other day, I took the passing out parade at Hendon, with over 200 officers. I think that in excess of 2,000 officers are coming through training in London imminently.
Perhaps because of my background in the military and in the fire service, I understand that neither organisation likes change. I listened to the arguments made earlier about why there was opposition to PCCs possibly taking control of the fire service in a managerial way, in the same way as they took over from the police authorities. It is almost an identical argument that says, “What experience do they have? Surely it’s better that we let the councillors who have sat on the committee for 20 years, with all that experience, do it.”
The introduction of PCCs was fundamentally opposed by Her Majesty’s Opposition—I understand why—who had it in their manifesto to abolish them. They did not win the election for many reasons, not least because people such as Vera Baird and Paddy Tipping are excellent PCCs in their parts of the world. Vera Baird has absolutely transformed victim support in her part of the world, as have many others. I know the candidates up there will say, “You shouldn’t name names”, but actually we should give praise where it is due. There have been good independents. I want Conservative PCCs to win in every single seat, but we have to be pragmatic, and if others are elected, then let us make sure that we can work together.
My hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart touched on the concerns about whether PCCs have the necessary experience. Some PCCs do have lots of experience within the police force, but that is not necessarily relevant. When the Prime Minister appointed me as shipping Minister, I said, “You do realise, Prime Minister, that my constituency is the furthest away from the sea in the whole country?” He said, “Yes, but you should question whether the way things have always been done is the right way.”
I use the example of armed guards on ships. When I arrived at the Department for Transport, we were having massive problems with Somali pirates. I simply said, “Why hasn’t the Royal Navy been able to do that job with the Marines—no navy in the whole world is more capable—and so allow people to protect their property?” So we convinced other countries and the International Maritime Organisation that we should allow that. I did not look at that from the perspective of a shipping person; I looked at it as an outside individual who was trying to say, “Let these people have an opportunity to do that.” That idea had been looked at by people who were much more experienced than I was in shipping, and it had been rejected on more than one occasion because it was not possible. I came in from the outside and said that it was possible.
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. I think that he misunderstood me: I was not saying that a PCC should or should not be a police officer. Some are, and some are not. I was saying that I had concerns about the powers that they have to appoint and sack police officers, who may have had 25 or 30 years’ experience. I think that that role should be left to the Home Office and the Home Secretary.
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. That is a bit of a different issue, and not part of what we are talking about. There is a disciplinary process to go through, which is now, quite rightly, transparent as a result of other measures in the Bill.
Amendments 3 to 6, tabled by Her Majesty’s Opposition, would decimate the PCCs’ role. I know exactly why the shadow Minister has tabled them, because we had a very similar debate in Committee. The shadow Minister knows full well that I will not accept them, and if she presses them to a Division, we will attempt to vote them down.
In principle, we completely agree with my hon. Friend Amanda Milling on amendment 2. We need to do some work around it to ensure that it encapsulates titles other than the PCC, and we can work together on it before the Bill goes to the Lords. In the Lords, we will introduce a Government amendment that will be very similar to amendment 2 but will be drafted in such a way as to make sure that no consequential issues arise.
If I had had the clearance today, I would have supported amendment 2, but there are issues on which I need to get clarification. We will introduce in the Lords basically what my hon. Friend is asking for, because it is important that the public understand exactly what they have got. Of course, the Bill will receive Royal Assent long after the elections. Some PCCs have, quite rightly, put in their manifestos now what they would like to see, but there is an issue about whether the title should include police, fire and rescue.
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to deal with a point that I raised about the clause. Will he confirm that, before the Secretary of State makes a direction under secondary legislation, as envisaged by the clause, there will be wide consultation? Will he confirm that the Government will consult widely with the fire and rescue service, in particular, given the concerns that it has raised about maintaining not only its operational independence, but an element of independence in the eyes of the public?
That is exactly what will be proposed. This is not one size fits all, and it will not be imposed, in that we would like an agreement locally. Clearly, that may not be possible in some parts of the country. Then it will be for the PCC to put a business case to the Home Secretary, and then we will go out to independent review when the consultation takes place. Fundamentally, we are not trying to interfere with operational firefighting and the operational police; this is more to do with dealing with administrative costs to save the moneys that we all know could be saved.
In Lancashire, for example, I met the chief constable and the PCC, and they told me that they were going to use some of the reserves to build a new police station in Blackpool. I said, “Fantastic news. I wondered what you were going to use the allocated reserves for. But you have had a conversation with the fire service as well, haven’t you? You cannot put a fire station into a police station, because the big red trucks do not fit in the foyer, but you most certainly can put a police station in a fire station.”
To come back to my specific point about the clause, my question is: if this or a similar clause comes forward in the Lords, will there be wide consultation, especially with the fire service, before the Secretary of State gives direction about the national title to be used by police and crime commissioners? I would be grateful if the Minister could answer that question.
It is vital that we get the title right and that there is a national title for those taking on those responsibilities. At the same time, there will be consultation not only with the FBU and the other unions and with the chief fire officers and their association, but with the chief constables and the Police Federation. The title will be with us for a long time. When I first joined the fire service—I think it was the fire service, not the fire and rescue service, at the time—I was, sadly, a fireman; I say that because in my time we did not have fire ladies. We were not called firefighters then. I think it is sad that that change did not happen many years earlier.
I want to touch on the issue of flooding. I was so impressed by our firefighters and ambulance crews, and by the local communities, volunteers, local authorities and police in areas where flooding took place. Flooding is becoming more and more a part of the fire and rescue service’s work. However, that is not new. There is a lovely place on the edge of Epping forest called Theydon Bois—it is in Essex, but quite close to east London, where the shadow Minister resides—where flash floods were a regular occurrence, and we used to go there. As a full-time firefighter, I regularly used to go there.
In Committee, I said that I would keep an open mind about the need to change the title to reflect areas of responsibility. In my opinion, this has nothing to do with money. Normally, I agree with nearly everything that Kate Hoey says, but on this occasion, I do not. Her constituency is only partially affected by the Bill, because the Mayor has now taken over direct responsibility for the fire service in London—that had been called for for some considerable time—so I am not surprised that PCCs are not at the forefront of conversations when she knocks on constituents’ doors in her part of the world.
There are real benefits to come from the collaboration that can take place. I am not saying that no collaboration is now taking place, but much more can be done. In particular, there is more work to do with ambulance services, especially with the triage units on blue light vehicles. I will soon have the honour and the privilege to go to America to pay my respects at the site of 9/11 in New York. No policing and fire Minister has yet done that, which I think is a sad indictment. One of the main reasons why I want to go to New York is to look at its firehouses, as they are called. Another reason is the fact that paramedics are carried in the back of fire appliances, which we need to consider very carefully in this country.
I have enormous sympathy with what my right hon. Friend is saying. It is absolutely clear that we need closer collaboration. However, in Gloucestershire, we do not at the moment want the fire and rescue service to be put under the control of the PCC, so will he give us an assurance that it will not be forced to do so against its wishes?
I cannot do so because that is not part of the Bill. The Bill provides for agreements where they can be made. Where no agreement can be reached, as will happen in many areas, the PCC can make a business case to the Home Secretary, if the PCC decides to do so; frankly, if there is so much opposition in Gloucestershire, the PCC might see the writing on the wall and decide not to do so. The business case will then go out to independent review, and only then will the Home Secretary make a decision.
I am enormously keen not to make this a one-size-fits-all provision. However, there has to be a backstop provision in case no one can reach an agreement and no one can move forward. In a perfect world, we would not be in a situation where we had to make it a statutory requirement to collaborate, but, frankly, collaboration in some parts of the country is not of the standard we would expect in the 21st century. We therefore need measures to take forward such collaboration.
Finally, amendment 21 is about the concordat. I have talked about that, and other bits and bobs, particularly with Mr Jones. I do not think it would be good to put that on a statutory footing—in other words, to make that law. The concordat seems to be working really well, so let us see how that evolves with these agreements. The shadow Minister did not refer to that, but it is relevant. We spoke about it in Committee and I will keep a really close eye on how the concordat works, but I do not think that at this early stage putting that into law is the answer .
I hope that I have alleviated the concerns of my hon. Friends. I hope, although I do not expect, that the Opposition have listened to the assurances that I have given, not only here but in Committee.
Clearly, close collaboration is important not only for efficiency, but for the delivery of effective prevention work. Can my right hon. Friend give additional assurances that the revenue streams of fire services such as that in the west midlands will be protected, including for commercial activities?
I have given categorical assurances in Committee and here that there will be two funding streams and that they will not be combined. Even so, whether it is a mayoral system or a PCC system, I would expect there to be better collaboration on how that money is spent. With that in mind, I hope that none of the amendments, none of which were tabled by the Government, will be pressed.
Two hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day.)
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (