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My Lords, the framework document for 2005-06 is similar to that for the previous year, but that does not mean that it does not raise significant questions, which I believe it is appropriate that the Minister should address. It is for this reason that I have prayed against the statutory instrument.
The first matter may not be one of complete surprise to the Minister as it relates to the continuation of the principle of regionalism within the organisation of the service. The electorate, as the Minister will recall, resoundingly rejected the possibility of having elected regional assemblies, where it was tested. My understanding is that the Government have to all intents and purposes come to the conclusion that regional assemblies are a dead duck. It is an important matter in terms of the fire and rescue service, since authorities have been led to believe that they had no choice but to set up regional management boards. Indeed, they were instructed to do so, well before the legislation was in place, with the threat of the Government using their statutory powers to impose such structures if they did not. Now the 2005-06 framework suggests that combining fire and rescue authorities might be achieved at a sub-regional level.
That immediately begs two questions. First, why are the Government continuing to demand a regional structure when the new wording would at least suggest that regional management boards are not now a requirement? Secondly, would it not be a sensible conclusion to reach that sub-regional structures could be constituted from local authority partnerships and/or clusters, and that regional management boards should be developed only on a voluntary basis? Will the Government be advising local authorities of this new position to enable them to revise the fire and rescue service management into smaller divisions, if they so wish?
There are two further matters that arise from the regional organisation, which appear later in the framework, which I can and will address now. The fire and rescue authorities are obliged, within this structure, to co-operate with other,
"emergency services, local authorities and front line responders at a local level".
What is the logic of expecting a local service to be organised regionally in order to work with,
"front line responders at a local level", and with local authorities to which the service is already happily linked?
The framework calls for greater co-operation with police and ambulance services, but these are local services, so what is the benefit of having regional management boards running this service which is, by definition, a local service?
Why are regional management boards being instructed to draw up human resources strategies, when this should be conducted at a local level? It is clear that there will be considerable displacement of staff from control rooms, but it is anticipated that they will be absorbed into, or have the situation managed by, local authorities. Why is a regional HR strategy required?
I will address the situation regarding the FiReControl project; that is, the regional control rooms. The 2004-05 framework said that a finance working group had been set up to make recommendations on funding issues associated with the project by September 2004. The Minister will know that it did not report until November, and then there were highly restricted details on finance. How will authorities be expected to respond to this report, and the outline business case, in the light of the sparsity of information, and in a significantly reduced time-scale?
It is apparent, at paragraph 2.14, that more information has been given to the chairmen of the regional management boards, and they have been consulted on the full outline business case. The fire and rescue authorities have been consulted on the outline business case but with some commercially sensitive information excluded. How are the full boards to make decisions on financial matters when the business case will not be published until mid-2005?
I have already put down some Questions on the Firelink project. As we know, the contract signing has been delayed. Will the Minister confirm that either in the absence of such a contract, or one being signed imminently, there will be no call on fire and rescue authorities to make any contributions in this financial year, since they would now be under very short notice for their financial planning? It would also be a good opportunity here to record the considerable concerns of local government about the speed and secretiveness of the Firelink project, particularly as local government are already committed to the responsibility for bringing the computer system in within the Government's time-scale, and, presumably at its negotiated costs.
There are still some big issues around with regard to the new fire and rescue service. I have at least raised some of them here, and I hope that the Minister will answer them tonight, or if unable to deal with them all, give a written reply.