I begin by paying tribute to Buckinghamshire Council, which has been working fabulously during this coronavirus crisis. The crisis has pushed MPs and the council together like never before, and that has only served to increase my admiration for its hard work, innovative spirit and creativity. I am, therefore, pleased to see the Government’s proposals to make sure that councils are reimbursed for their lost income. That is a major factor for our council.
I also want to pay tribute to our local fire services. I could easily spend the time available praising the innovative work of our fire officers and local management. The way in which they have risen to the challenge of changing times has been an inspiration, and I am tremendously impressed by the professionalism of our firefighters whenever I meet them.
The particular issue that I want to air today with the House and the Minister is the problem of finance for our firefighters. In the 2020 inspection report, Bucks Fire and Rescue Service was graded as “requires improvement”. One might ask why that has happened, but the report says that
“in one sense, it is highly efficient: it has an innovative deployment model which, if better funded, would be a cost-effective way of keeping people safe.”
The reason that efficiency has been graded as “requires improvement” is stated clearly:
“This is fundamentally because it does not have enough money and people.”
The report concludes by saying of Bucks fire service:
“Overall, we would like to see improvements in the year ahead, but without increased funding, it is difficult to see where progress can be made.”
I am confident that Ministers will feel that they have heard all of this before, but the reality is that Buckinghamshire fire services are in this position because of the outstanding calibre of their managers, who have been parsimonious with public money. In 2013-14, when they could have taken an increase of £5 a year in council tax, they did not take the money because it was not needed at the time. They were the only fire and rescue service not to exercise that option. They were trying to do the right thing, and at the time it was noted that they might need flexibility in future years. Now, as we see in the inspection report, that time has come.
I ask Ministers to work with colleagues in other Departments, including the Treasury and the Home Office, to make possible an increase in the precept for our fire services. I listened to the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as he talked about safety and fairness, but my goodness don’t we know in this Parliament that fire safety is one of the fundamental jobs and duties of the state. We need to make sure, since it has nowhere else to go, that Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service enjoys increased funding. That is an absolute imperative. In High Wycombe, we need to refurbish our fire station, but we have limited ability to do that locally because of the need to convert revenue into capital spending.
In the past, I have written to several Ministers about this problem, and I rather fear, particularly having worked in government myself, that this problem is now trapped between the three Departments that I mentioned. I suspect what is needed is a multilateral meeting between someone at the Treasury, someone in MHCLG and someone in the Home Office, and I will continue to press Ministers to get their heads together on this subject. We are not going to go away, and we cannot possibly allow our local fire service to be underfunded, and for that reason I say to the House and to Ministers that we are going to keep pressing this issue.
I do not like being here today saying we need £5 a year on a band D property for fire safety, but that is less than 10p a week extra to make sure that we are properly funding our fire services. What I say to Ministers is this: imagine a situation arising where it turns out we do not have enough engines and staff when there is a major need for them. I am not willing to look back with hindsight and say I did nothing. Indeed, today I am saying to Ministers that we need to act, and very soon.
I have written to Ministers. I have pleaded with Ministers. I know that Ministers have been very busy indeed, diligently working on other priorities. I am saying to them today: please prioritise the funding of Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes fire service by putting heads together and getting that extra precept in place.
I finish by thanking Ministers, the Secretary of State and the Treasury for what they are doing overall on council tax. I am extremely pleased that our new unitary in Buckinghamshire is working so well, and in the context of just being formed through the coronavirus crisis. I am very grateful to Martin Tett, the leader of the council, to Rachael Shimmin, the chief executive and to all the officers, the council members and the council cabinet for all the work they are doing to carry our community through this crisis. It has been a real privilege working with them, and I am looking forward to doing so in the future.