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Local Government

– in the House of Commons at 2:03 pm on 5th May 2020.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire The Minister of State, Home Department

I beg to move,

That the draft Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020, which was laid before this House on 9 March, be approved.

The purpose of this order is to improve the delivery of public services in Greater Manchester by driving greater collaboration and bolstering the accountability of how those functions are exercised. The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 allows, in certain areas of the UK, the devolution of a number of municipal functions. In 2017, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) Order conferred responsibility for the management of the Greater Manchester fire and rescue authority on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Fire and rescue services therefore came under the authority of the directly elected Greater Manchester Mayor, and arrangements were introduced to oversee the operational discharge of functions, with the scrutiny of fire and rescue functions being added to the remit of the corporate issues and reform overview and scrutiny committee.

In 2017, police and crime commissioner functions were transferred to the Mayor, and the role of deputy Mayor for policing and crime was established. The exercise of police and crime commissioner functions is scrutinised by the police and crime panel. Devolution of the exercise of fire functions to the Mayor, in parallel with the devolution of the police and crime commissioner functions, has provided for greater direct accountability of both functions under one individual, and has allowed opportunities for strategic and joined-up thinking in the blue light sector in Greater Manchester.

In July 2018, the Mayor of Greater Manchester wrote to the Home Secretary to request further changes to the governance arrangements for fire and rescue functions within the GMCA. He sought authority to delegate the exercise of the majority of those functions to the deputy Mayor for policing and crime, and to amend the scrutiny functions of the existing police and crime panel to include scrutiny of fire and rescue functions. The then Home Secretary approved the Mayor’s request in September 2018.

The order before the House today gives effect to the Mayor’s request by amending the 2017 order. It brings the exercise of police and fire functions closer together by allowing for the exercise of all delegable fire and rescue functions by the deputy Mayor for crime and policing. Some non-delegable functions—namely, those listed under article 6 of the 2017 order—remain the sole responsibility of the Mayor. These include the hiring and firing of the chief fire officer, signing off the local risk plan, and approving the annual declaration of compliance with the fire and rescue national framework.

To ensure that there are appropriate scrutiny arrangements of the exercise of delegated functions, the order also extends the remit of the Greater Manchester police and crime panel to include scrutiny of the exercise of fire and rescue functions, whether they are exercised by the Mayor or by the deputy Mayor for policing and crime. To reflect its wider role, the panel will become known as the police, fire and crime panel. The order will provide a clearer line of sight for the exercise of fire and rescue functions, with delegable functions being exercised by the deputy Mayor for policing and crime rather than by a committee. This will make it clearer to the public who is responsible for which decisions and bring further clarity to the governance process. It will also ensure that police and fire matters are scrutinised in the round by extending the role of the police and crime panel.

This brings similar scrutiny arrangements to fire as already exist for policing. Crucially, by bringing together oversight of policing and fire under the Deputy Mayor for policing and crime, it will also help to maximise the opportunities for innovative collaboration, foster the sharing of best practice, and ensure that strategic risks are reviewed across both services. The Kerslake report on the tragic Manchester Arena attack emphasised the need for greater collaboration between fire services and other public bodies. This order takes important steps to do just that.

Finally, I want to comment on the fantastic collaboration efforts taking place in Greater Manchester as part of the response to the covid-19 pandemic. I thank the incredible fire and policing personnel for everything they are doing in Greater Manchester and beyond. They have stepped up to volunteer to assist and protect their communities. It is right that we recognise the critical role they are playing in supporting the country’s response to covid-19, and I pay tribute to them for the difference they are making at this time of need. They are a credit to themselves and to the services they work within.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:10 pm, 5th May 2020

We are living through extraordinary times. Covid-19 has dealt a great blow to our country—its health, its economy and its way of life—and we are mourning the loved ones we have lost. But in the midst of this crisis, we have seen countless acts of extraordinary resilience and bravery.

As usual, as the Minister just said, the fire service has been front and centre in this battle, answering our calls for help, driving ambulances, delivering personal protective equipment, helping to distribute food and even, I hear, delivering babies. The fire service is the most trusted of all our emergency services because it is always there when we need it, so it would not be right to begin this debate without paying tribute to the work of our firefighters across the UK. Yesterday was Firefighters Memorial Day. The minute’s silence at midday was a moment to reflect on the more than 2,300 UK firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Each one of those tragic lives lost paints a stark picture of the realities faced by firefighters. They risk their lives every day to ensure the safety of each and every one of us.

We are here to debate the draft Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020. The Labour party supports the order. It is nearly two years since the Greater Manchester Combined Authority asked to bring responsibility of fire and rescue services into the hands of the deputy mayor for policing and crime, with no particular reason for the delay, as far as I can see, and there is precedent elsewhere in England for this model.

This relatively straightforward order represents the gentle evolution of devolution. As Donald Dewar said at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, devolution is not an end, but a “means to greater ends.” We should be constantly open to change, to better serve our local populations.

The order allows the Mayor to make arrangements for fire and rescue functions to be exercised by the deputy mayor for policing and crime, and amends the remit of the Greater Manchester police and crime panel to include scrutiny of the exercise of those fire and rescue functions in addition to their existing remit of police and crime commissioner functions. That allows the Greater Manchester police and crime panel to scrutinise the delivery of all the main functions of the deputy mayor for policing, fire and crime.

The order will build on the success of devolution that we have already seen in Greater Manchester. Under Andy Burnham, we have seen real action to tackle rough sleeping, real support for young people and the biggest investment in cycling and walking outside London. Devolution enables good local, joined-up and effective policy making.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend the efforts of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, his deputy mayor and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority for their recent work on fire and rescue services. Following the tragic fire at Grenfell, where 72 people lost their lives, they set up the Greater Manchester high-rise taskforce, chaired by Salford City Mayor Paul Dennett, to provide fire safety reassurance. They carried out proactive inspections of all high-rise residential premises to ensure that all buildings comply with fire safety regulations.

Greater Manchester has 78 high-rise buildings that have had to adapt interim safety measures because of serious fire safety deficiencies and slow Government action to support remediation. In late February, I watched Andy Burnham, City Mayor Dennett and other civic leaders and MPs from across the country join residents caught up in the cladding crisis at a rally on Parliament Square, calling for urgent action from the Government in the Budget. The Government listened, and the Chancellor announced the £1 billion building safety fund for the removal of dangerous cladding of all forms from high-rise buildings.

With thousands of leaseholders across the country still living in buildings wrapped in unsafe cladding, the focus must now be on completing remediation works as quickly as possible. We only need to briefly read the accounts of the Manchester Cladiators to know the dire situations they face on a daily basis.

From blocks like Imperial Point in Salford Quays to Albion Works in central Manchester, the stories are painfully similar: lives put on hold as residents are trapped in unsafe buildings, unable to sell their properties, and living in constant emotional and financial distress. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments from last week’s Fire Safety Bill, but we know that there is much more to be done by the Government and that we must move faster. I press the Minister again to provide an update on the progress of the review and the costs that residents are incurring while paying for waking watches. Is this review looking into the whole costs of interim fire safety measures?

As the Fire Brigades Union said yesterday, each time a firefighter dies at work, we need to understand what led to their death and what could have been done to prevent it. Yesterday we remembered the 2,300 firefighters who have died in service, but we must never accept their loss as inevitable. It is our duty to learn from every firefighter death and to fight for the improvements to operational practices that could save lives into the future. But that job has been immeasurably harder over the last decade, as we have seen brutal funding cuts.

After a decade of austerity, we have 11,000 fewer fire- fighters, so when fires sadly do occur, fire engines may answer the call without enough firefighters to tackle the blaze. That is not only dangerous for the public, but potentially deadly for firefighters too. We could not debate this order without considering the heavy hand of 10 years of cuts to our fire services in Greater Manchester and across the country. The landscape of complexity post Grenfell, with the enormous fire risk of so many buildings across the country, compounds an already difficult situation. Given the extent of the crisis in recent years and the number of individuals who live in unsafe buildings, we need a strong fire service to be ready to deal with what can perhaps be described as a ticking time bomb for as long as the cladding remains in place. Central Government funding for fire and rescue services in Greater Manchester has been decimated over the past decade; it has fallen by almost a third from £75.2 million in 2010 to £52.9 million now. Across the UK, between 2010 and 2016, the Government cut central funding to fire and rescue services by 28% in real terms, followed by a further cut of 15% by 2020. These cuts have led to a cut of 20% in the number of firefighters.

When a Grenfell Tower resident first called 999 just before 1 am on 14 June 2017, it was five minutes before a fire engine was at the scene and 13 minutes before the first firefighters entered the building. Equally, it was only a matter of minutes after the first call was made that fire services were on the scene of the fire at the student accommodation in Bolton in November last year. Clearly, when operating on such fine margins as the hazard of fire presents, fire services rely on rapid turnaround to be effective. It is shocking, then, to see that fire response times across Greater Manchester since 2010 have risen from seven minutes and 14 seconds to seven minutes and 20 seconds, with a rise of over 40 seconds across England. It may seem like only a matter of seconds, but with the fine margins that exist in fire and rescue situations, a rise in fire response times is unacceptable.

But this is no damning indictment of the fire service across central Manchester or anywhere else. No—it is far more a wrong that stems from a decade of successive Conservative Governments’ neglect of fire and rescue services. While funding has been cut, the number of firefighters across Greater Manchester has fallen by 29% since 2010—down from 1,923, to 1,368 in 2019. The number of operational appliances has fallen by 14% over the same period. The Mayor and deputy Mayor in Greater Manchester, and their teams, are doing their best in these circumstances—namely, with their pledge to bring in 108 new firefighters—but, despite their best efforts, there remains a gaping hole left by increasingly scarce central Government funds.

On Friday, we will celebrate VE day, marking the end of world war two. In the first 22 nights of air raids during the blitz, firefighters fought nearly 10,000 fires. According to Winston Churchill, the fire service

“were a grand lot and their work must never be forgotten.”

Well, the Opposition—and I am sure the Government—agree. With such extensive cuts across the past decade in provisions for fire and rescue services, and with a far more precarious environment facing those services in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, will the Minister tell us when the Government are going to begin to make fire and rescue services in Greater Manchester and across the rest of the country a priority? With firefighters risking their lives to save our lives, the bare minimum they can expect is a properly funded service. After a decade of cuts and a covid crisis where our firefighters have gone above and beyond, we must now see real change.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

There will now be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. I hope that those who are contributing have a timing device available to them.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:20 pm, 5th May 2020

I am very pleased to follow our excellent shadow Minister, and to be able to contribute briefly to today’s debate on this statutory instrument. First, I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I rent my constituency premises from the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, and I am proud to do so. As we have heard, yesterday was International Firefighters’ Memorial Day, so I would like to begin by adding my tribute to the bravery of all our firefighters, past and present. As the shadow Minister said, firefighters have played a vital part in keeping people safe during the coronavirus crisis, but they also put their lives on the line all year round, and we are all grateful to them.

Although this is a piece of legislation with limited scope, it is a motion that will prove important for the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and, perhaps more importantly, for the public it works so hard to protect. Good strategic oversight and governance of our emergency services is a key way of ensuring the safety of our communities and the effectiveness of our fire and rescue service in Manchester. It is essential that we have the best possible framework in place, along with proper funding, to ensure that the fire and rescue service is run as effectively as possible. We need the best possible means to hold to account those who manage the service, which is why I am supporting this legislation today.

In early 2018, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority carried out a review of its governance arrangements in the light of the first 12 months of the Mayor’s term of office. As part of that, it undertook a review of the fire and rescue function, and it was important that that review included consideration of the issues identified in the Kerslake report, particularly in relation to the co-ordination and communication between the emergency services following the Manchester Arena bombing. It is important that we learn the lessons of that tragic incident.

That report made recommendations for the improvement of co-operation between the fire service and other emergency services. The GMCA agreed that it would be clearer and more transparent, and that it would provide more accountable leadership for the fire functions, if the Mayor were able to delegate those functions to the deputy Mayor for policing and crime, and for the scrutiny functions to sit with the police and crime panel, which would then become the police, fire and crime panel. This statutory instrument does those two things, and I am pleased to support it on that basis.

This is an expansion of the scrutiny panel’s duties that I know the police and crime panel has been keen to achieve, not for its own sake but because it is keen to ensure real integration in how the services are run, and effective scrutiny of that integrated working. This will mean that there are clear lines of accountability to our excellent deputy Mayor. Allowing the Mayor to delegate fire and rescue functions to the deputy Mayor will enable her to accelerate the pace of change and to ensure that collaboration is implemented more effectively and that strategic risks are reviewed across both services. The changes will also provide a single point of contact for the public and ensure quicker decision making at the appropriate level, while ensuring delivery of the duty to collaborate. They will allow informed and rounded arrangements for prevention and a more co-ordinated response to manage the terror threat. As a result, I am confident that we can look forward to increased collaboration between the fire service and other emergency services, enabling them to act more efficiently and effectively in the services that they provide to the people of Greater Manchester. The issue is particularly important in the current context. The need for properly integrated services, maximising the efficiency of working between our blue light services, comes at a time when both the police and the fire and rescue authority in Greater Manchester are under huge pressure.

Ten years of austerity has hit the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service hard. Since 2010, it has seen more than £20 million per year removed from its budget. As we have heard, over that period the Government grant to the fire and rescue service has reduced from approximately £75 million to about £53 million—a decrease of almost 30%. On the ground, that means that the services have had to lose 16 fire engines since 2010, dropping from 66 to 50, a 24% reduction. According to figures from the FBU, it means that Greater Manchester lost 624 firefighters between 2010 and 2019.

All that has happened at a time when Greater Manchester’s population is increasing; there was an increase of over 150,000 during the same period. At the same time, the built environment is becoming more complex and the fire service is facing additional pressures. Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Greater Manchester formed the high-rise taskforce to try to prevent anything like that from happening in our region. As we have heard, it has been carrying out proactive inspections of all the high-rise blocks to ensure that fire safety regulations are being complied with and that people feel safe in their homes. But Greater Manchester still has 78 buildings that have adopted interim measures because of significant fire safety deficiencies. Making all those buildings safe is now an urgent task.

That is all happening now, and it is hard enough without coronavirus. But the impact of the current coronavirus crisis on local authority budgets will inevitably take its toll. We know that the 10 Greater Manchester authorities are forecasting £424 million of lost income as well as £169 million in extra costs as a result of coronavirus. Although the £170 million of funding announced by the Government is, of course, welcome, there are no Government commitments yet to fully reimburse the authorities for that lost income. Without that money, we may well have to see further cuts to our blue light services. There will inevitably be a significant negative impact on council tax collection, which poses a risk to the police and fire budgets in future years, with collection fund deficits and implications around calculating the tax base.

In the short term, the Government really need to commit to fully reimbursing local authorities for their losses due to coronavirus. Local authorities are already struggling after years of being the hardest hit part of the public sector, and they simply cannot afford to be hit again. Longer term, when we are on the other side of the coronavirus crisis, I hope we will see the Government make an honest assessment of the levels of funding for Greater Manchester fire and rescue service and the police, and increased central funding to keep our people safe.

In this context, of course, it will take more than efficient governance to enable the fire and rescue service to continue keeping people safe—it will take proper investment in our blue light services as well. But effective and efficient governance is important, and enabling the high-level strategic overview and accountability to be integrated will help deliver efficiency and accountability to our service. On that basis, I welcome the legislation today as crucial to help improve our work and the work of the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, and ultimately keep our communities in Greater Manchester safe.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Conservative, Bolton West 2:27 pm, 5th May 2020

First, I pay tribute to all the blue light services that serve us so well, year in, year out—particularly during this difficult time of the covid-19 crisis. I also pay tribute to Greater Manchester fire services, particularly those who went to the fire at the University of Bolton last year, and did such a good job in saving lives and protecting property.

I welcome the decision to bring forward this positive change, which brings the governance and scrutiny of the fire services in line with those of policing. That is to be welcomed. The Minister referenced the importance of a clear line of sight, and therefore scrutiny and accountability, of leadership when it comes to delivering on these services. Currently, that is also the responsibility of the Mayor; obviously, the deputy Mayor is taking that responsibility for policing at the moment, and she will have the additional responsibility for fire services as well.

We in Greater Manchester are in a difficult position. London has the Greater London Authority—a body of people who can publicly scrutinise and challenge the Mayor of London. It can publicly hold him to account over his decisions, good or bad.

In Greater Manchester, however, we do not have that. The responsibility to hold the Mayor and the combined authority to account sits between Westminster politicians, councillors and borough leaders. At the moment, that is not an effective system. I value the move we are debating today, but a question needs to be raised about the overall transparency and scrutiny of the Mayor of Greater Manchester. I am not suggesting that we ought to have a Greater London Authority-type Assembly, but we do need an effective mechanism to challenge the Mayor, and the decisions that he and his team make. To put that in a particular context, there have been major failings in the iOPS computer system, which is used by frontline police officers day in, day out. Those failings have created major problems for frontline police, putting them and people across Greater Manchester in danger, but there has been no mechanism for the Mayor and his Deputy to be held directly to account in public. This is a good change, but further changes are required.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Labour, Denton and Reddish 2:31 pm, 5th May 2020

It is a pleasure to contribute to this important debate, not least because I have been a firm supporter of devolution in Greater Manchester, and indeed across England, for a considerable time.

First, I want to welcome the Minister of State to his place back in the Government. He has been in the Home Office since 13 February, but this is my first opportunity to welcome him back to the Government Front Bench. Of course, we used to spar across the Dispatch Box when he was the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. I know that, like me, he believes firmly in devolution, which is why I think there is a degree of consensus about the need for this important measure for Greater Manchester today. I also want to welcome my hon. Friend Sarah Jones to her new role as the shadow Home Office Minister. I look forward to working alongside her from the Back Benches.

A day after International Firefighters Day, I want to pay tribute to all those dedicated firefighters, and other Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service staff, who work so hard week in, week out to keep people across Greater Manchester, the 10 boroughs that make up our county, safe. Along with so many other public services, they are doing an amazing job of keeping residents safe during the current coronavirus outbreak. They deserve wider acknowledgement for their tremendous work.

In turning to the substance of the statutory instrument before us today, it is important to keep in mind that, as my hon. Friend Jeff Smith said, the origins of the measures lie in the Manchester Arena terrorist attack of 2017, one of the darkest days for Greater Manchester that I can remember in my 45 years of living here. As we know, the Kerslake report into the attack, which Mayor Andy Burnham commissioned, highlighted the importance of the fire and rescue service working more closely with other emergency services, in particular Greater Manchester police. I have always believed that one of the values of devolution is to prevent the disjointed system that has developed over a number of years and allow the more rounded, joined up delivery of public services.

I believe that the changes in the statutory instrument will help with that. They will give the deputy Mayor for policing and crime, Baroness Hughes of Stretford, a distinguished former Member of this House, the powers to ensure that that collaboration is at the heart of the relationship between our police and fire services. The changes—I disagree with Chris Green—will improve the transparency and accountability of the management of both fire and police services in Greater Manchester by transforming the police and crime panel into the police, fire and crime panel. They will also provide an invaluable and important scrutiny function, which will improve the governance in our area.

It is right that the management of our fire and rescue service receives the same level of scrutiny as that of our police, but the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service is used to working in challenging circumstances, and not just when fighting fires. I firmly believe in devolution, but it should never be used by Ministers to shield themselves from decisions taken in this House. As we have heard, since the Minister’s party entered government we have seen funding cuts to the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service of more than £20 million a year, and these cuts have real consequences. Unfortunately, in Greater Manchester they have meant reduced services and lost jobs. As we have heard, Greater Manchester was served by 66 fire engines, but today the figure is just 50, which represents a reduction of almost a quarter of the fleet.

The challenges facing our fire services have not diminished in the past decade. On the contrary, Greater Manchester’s fire service deals with all sorts of emergencies and crises, not the least of which has been the largest English wildfire in living memory, on the moors above Stalybridge, in the neighbouring constituency to mine, last year, and the huge blaze at The Cube student accommodation in Bolton, which the hon. Member for Bolton West mentioned. I do not believe that anybody taking part in this debate or listening at home will be happy that our fire service has been cut so severely, but services cannot continue to be provided at the same level when the Government reduce its budgets in the way they have.

Our councils, along with our emergency services, have really stepped up to help deal with the challenge of covid-19—they are on the frontline. So I was concerned to see the Communities Secretary appear to backtrack on compensating councils for all the additional expense of dealing with the crisis. That has to be undone; the promise to spend “whatever it takes”, with Government covering the costs, should be honoured.

In conclusion, I am very proud of our fire and rescue service in Greater Manchester, which does a fantastic job in incredibly difficult circumstances. In this period of Conservative Government, it has dealt with some of the more challenging emergencies, and it has risen to the challenge every single time, despite its funding being reduced. I say to the Minister that we cannot, and should not, try to keep our communities safe on the cheap. This statutory instrument is a good step in the right direction to improving accountability, transparency and, importantly, collaboration with other emergency services. Now let us give our firefighters the support they need—financial support, from Government.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Labour, Stockport 2:38 pm, 5th May 2020

As it was the fourth annual Firefighters Memorial Day yesterday, I wish to pay tribute to the life-saving work of all those who are part of our fire service and put their lives on the line for all of us on a daily basis. I also wish to thank Mayor Andy Burnham and the deputy mayor for the important work they have done on fire safety. It is now almost three years since the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, where 72 people lost their lives due to a combination of dangerous cladding and inadequate fire safety strategy. Despite the ongoing inquiry and the steps many councils have taken to improve fire safety, Greater Manchester continues to have 78 high-rise buildings that have had to adopt interim safety measures because of serious fire safety deficiencies and the Government’s failure to act quickly enough, more than 1,000 days since the Grenfell tragedy. With people rightly concerned about the situation, many have taken matters into their own hands, by organising to demand immediate action by the Government. For example, the Manchester Cladiators are a group of residents who formed last year to represent those in Greater Manchester who have been impacted by the cladding scandal, including by having the flammable aluminium composite material cladding that was used on Grenfell Tower. They have been campaigning tirelessly to make their voice heard amid continuing Government delays and indecision, and I take this opportunity to applaud them for the work they have done to keep this issue at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

As for the Government, there is a reason they have been slow to act. Quite simply, it comes down to a decade of austerity. They have ravaged central funding to fire and rescue services across the UK. For example, between 2010 and 2016 alone, the Conservative Government slashed funding by 28% in real terms, and that was compounded by a further cut of 15% by 2020. That has had a crippling effect, resulting in 11,000 fewer fire service personnel, reducing the fire service’s capacity by a staggering 20% and putting people’s lives in further jeopardy. In Greater Manchester alone, in the past five years critical funding has fallen by more than 15%. In cash terms, that amounts to a cut of about £10 million that our service has had to absorb. Since 2010, there has been a one-third reduction.

It is not just reducing bureaucracy and red tape that is cutting the firefighters who battle blazes and save lives on a daily basis. In Greater Manchester, there are now 29% fewer firefighters, combined with a 14% reduction in life-saving fire equipment. The picture is truly bleak. Is it any wonder, therefore, that in 2018 the UK faced the highest number of fire-related fatalities in almost a decade, which directly correlated with the increasing cuts that the fire service has faced? Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has attempted to mitigate that by committing to the recruitment of 108 firefighters, but even that only goes part of the way to redressing the balance and does not bring the levels up to what they were in 2010. In addition, central Government cuts have left Greater Manchester Combined Authority facing a situation where there is no escaping the fact that response times will be longer, putting more lives at risk.

At a time like this, we need to make sure that the past decade of austerity is reversed. It is completely unacceptable that in 2020, residents continue to live in housing that cannot protect them, while their fire services continue to face cuts that put them further at risk. The situation needs to be urgently addressed. As we have seen with the coronavirus crisis, underfunding key services leaves them vulnerable and ill equipped to handle further challenges. I call on the Government to do all they can immediately to reverse the year-on-year cuts, to provide adequate funding so that our fire service is fit for purpose and to ensure that all housing, including high-rise towers, is safe to live in.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire The Minister of State, Home Department 2:42 pm, 5th May 2020

With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will respond to the debate. I appreciate the comments and contributions of Members from all parts of the House on the order and the broad support it has secured through all the contributions we have heard. It is right that so many people underlined the huge contribution, the service and the sacrifice that firefighters provide in Greater Manchester and across the country day in, day out, especially in the context of international Firefighters Memorial Day.

It is also worth again underlining the contribution that firefighters have made in the covid response. In Greater Manchester, more than 500 serving and retired fire service personnel are volunteering to assist the wider covid-19 response. That ranges from supporting wider frontline staff with the provision of PPE through to patient transfers and support for some of the most vulnerable. I take this opportunity to again thank Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service staff for the incredible work they are doing across the area and the difference that that is making.

A number of the contributions focused on the issue of funding, and I should highlight that overall fire and rescue authorities will receive around £2.3 billion in 2020-21. Fire and rescue services received an additional £20 million in the Budget, which will enable them to increase fire inspection and enforcement capability and to build capacity to respond precisely to the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s findings. In 2020-21 Greater Manchester Combined Authority has a core spending power of £98.7 million, an increase of £2.9 million, or 3.1%, on 2019-20. Greater Manchester fire and rescue authority also held £42 million in total useable reserves when it transferred to the governance of the mayoral combined authority in 2017.

I also want to respond to the challenges and issues that have been highlighted on some of the real pressures arising from the current coronavirus pandemic. The Government have provided over £3.2 billion to local authorities to support their response to the pandemic; £1.6 billion was paid at the end of March, with a further £1.6 billion to be provided shortly, of which fire and rescue services will receive a 3% share.

Stand-alone fire and rescue authorities, including Greater Manchester fire, received £6.5 million of the £1.6 billion provided in March and will receive a further £28.5 million share of the additional £1.6 billion announced this month. County councils or unitary authorities with fire responsibilities have also received a share of the fire element of the £1.6 billion, but they will receive this as part of the wider allocation, reflecting the totality of their responsibilities. In addition, the Home Office has secured £6 million for a fire covid-19 contingency fund to support fire and rescue authorities that incur significant costs as a result of taking on additional duties during the coronavirus outbreak. We are working through the detail of how this will operate and are consulting the sector on it.

I turn now to points made in the contributions to the debate, first by Jeff Smith and Andrew Gwynne, who I wish well in his new role on the Back Benches. I know that he will be a firm champion for his constituents, and although we did not always agree in our often robust exchanges, I wish him well. They highlighted the Lord Kerslake review, and this order is important in taking that forward. Lord Kerslake’s report into the tragic Manchester Arena attack emphasised the need for greater collaboration between the fire service and other public bodies. The review demonstrated the benefits of investing in collaborative partnership and emergency planning, and by bringing together the oversight of both fire and police services, this order will help to maximise the opportunities for innovative collaboration between policing and fire, and ensure that best practice is shared.

The hon. Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) highlighted the issue of combustible cladding, and after London, Manchester has the most buildings affected by unsafe cladding. We do understand the concerns of many leaseholders and building owners over the costs of remediation of this cladding. As we have heard, Greater Manchester has taken a proactive approach. It has established a high-rise taskforce to co-ordinate work across the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and all boroughs in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. In practice the taskforce is led by the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

I want to highlight that nationally, we have made available in the Budget £1 billion to fund the removal of unsafe non-aluminium composite material cladding in 2020-21. This is in addition to the £600 million already made available to ensure the remediation of unsafe ACM cladding, but this Government funding does not absolve building owners of responsibility to ensure their buildings are safe. As I highlighted in the debate on the Fire Safety Bill last week, we want to underline the fact that remediation work can and should continue where it is safe to do, despite the current restrictions and challenges that we face. Building owners should consider all routes to meet costs, protecting leaseholders where they can, for example through warranties and recovering costs from contractors for incorrect or poor work. Colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have been driving forward this work and will continue to do so.

In the context of the governance issues and some of the comments of my hon. Friend Chris Green, today’s order will provide a clearer line of sight for the exercise of fire and rescue functions. It will make it clear to the public who was responsible for which decisions and help them to understand the Government’s process. Importantly, it will also help to ensure that collaboration is implemented more efficiently and effectively by bringing those functions together, but that does not dilute the accountability of the Mayor, who remains subject to the scrutiny of the police and crime panel and is ultimately responsible for the functions. The panel has the power to scrutinise the Mayor. For instance, it may require the Mayor to attend a meeting, at reasonable notice, to answer any questions that appear to the panel to be necessary for it to be able to carry out its duties. Ultimately, too, it is the Mayor who remains accountable at the ballot box for both the actions that he has taken and the actions of the deputy Mayor for policing and crime.

Today’s order confirms the request of the democratically elected Mayor of Greater Manchester as part of the devolution of powers and serves to clarify and improve governance arrangements for fire and rescue services in that great city. I firmly believe that the order serves the interests of the people of Greater Manchester. I welcome the support for the order, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020, which was laid before this House on 9 March, be approved.

Sitting suspended (Order, this day.)