Firefighters: Health Screening

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons on 10th June 2019.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on health screening for firefighters.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

The health and wellbeing of firefighters is of huge concern to the Home Office and to the sector leaders we are working with to support further progress in this area. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the responsibility of individual fire and rescue authorities, as employers, to ensure that health screening suitable for the risks faced is available to their firefighters.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

The stress facing our firefighters has grown considerably under this Government. We have fewer of them, and many have been replaced by retained firefighters, including in Cleveland. As we have heard, they face some of the most difficult circumstances. Does the Minister recognise the impact of those circumstances and stressors on the mental and physical health of firefighters? Will he tell me what the Government are going to do to fund health services properly for firemen?

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

I fully understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Firefighters are exposed to major risks and highly traumatic situations, as well as to contaminants and toxic agents, so it is even more important that local fire authorities have appropriate strategies in place and that they are properly resourced and, critically, inspected and assessed by independent inspectors, which is what we have introduced. In relation to resources, I come back to the main point that a spending review is imminent, and it will provide an opportunity to ensure that the fire service continues to have the resources it needs to do its job and support its people.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Conservative, Corby

Some of the things that those in our brave emergency services—whether in the police, the fire service or the ambulance service—are tasked with dealing with are truly horrific and have long-lasting impacts, particularly on family life. What work is being done to ensure that those in our emergency services are always able to access the very best mental health care?

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. There is a growing awareness and culture in the leadership across the police and fire services about the importance of the welfare and wellbeing agenda. That is why we have supported the first-ever national wellbeing service, which is being developed and rolled out across that system, and why we continue to engage with the fire chiefs in order to be absolutely sure that, on top of the money we have provided for the blue-light services and for mental health support, we are doing everything we can to ensure that those on the frontline of our response to emergencies are properly supported and that the old culture of “stay strong” can be challenged when it needs to be, because of the trauma that our first responders are often exposed to.

Photo of Karen Lee Karen Lee Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Fire)

Two years on from Grenfell, firefighters and members of the community still have not been screened for fire-related toxic contamination. Speaking as a former nurse and the mother of a young woman who died of cancer, I find that genuinely unacceptable. Given the dangerous carcinogens that have been found in the area surrounding the building, the Government’s inaction displays a reckless disregard for people’s health, and I hope that the Minister is not going to pass the buck here. I should like to ask him to commit to undertaking a wide review of cancer rates among firefighters, and to consider implementing a national fire service cancer screening strategy. This is just too important for him not to.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

I have a lot of sympathy for what the hon. Lady is saying. In relation to the Grenfell firefighters, that is something that I will of course take up with the London fire brigade. On the broader point, she is absolutely right to say that firefighters are exposed to contaminants and toxic agents. Exposure will vary, but I am sure she will be aware that past research has not shown an increase in risk. However, this is a source of concern to us, and the fire chiefs have recently commissioned research from the University of Brighton. We will need to wait for that to conclude before agreeing the next steps in relation to the kind of comprehensive universal screening service that she has mentioned.