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Fire and Rescue Services (National Framework) (England) Order 2004

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 24th January 2005.

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Photo of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Labour 6:45 pm, 24th January 2005

My Lords, I am conscious of the hour and of the urgency of other business that this House has to consider. Therefore, I wish to speak very briefly in putting some rather important points to my noble friend on the Front Bench.

The noble Baroness will excuse me if I say that, so far, I think that the Minister just needs to enter a plea of "no case to answer" so far as concerns annulling this order. This is a very important order and I want to ask some questions about the booklet which lay behind it: The Fire and Rescue Service National Framework. I take it that the copy with which I have been provided is the same booklet referred to in the order.

I was unable to attend the House for much of the period in which one might have discussed this matter, but I think I am right in saying that there has been no debate specifically on that central document since its publication. The booklet—or, at least, my copy— came out at about the same time as, or just a day or so after, the Third Reading in this House of the big Fire and Rescue Services Bill in July.

That booklet insists that the new national framework must be brought in, and, indeed, in previous debates the case has been made that some such framework is needed. But it states that it must be brought in in partnership between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the fire authorities. It states that they must work in "partnership where appropriate". I want to put to my noble friend one or two points of that kind. He may not wish to speak on them at length this evening but he may be able to deal with them in the future if it is not appropriate to do so now.

For example, there will be a new consultation in summer 2005-06. I want to ask what consultations there have been, and indeed will be, with all the stakeholders. The document refers a number of times to all the stakeholders involved in the new national framework. Therefore, I ask my noble friend whether, either today or on another suitable occasion, the Government will tell us what consultation has been, or will be, held with the trade unions representing the firefighters, who have the primary task of carrying out what will be an enormous extension of their functions under this booklet, the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 and, of course, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which is probably more important. The House will know that that Act covers an enormous area, far beyond problems of terrorism, to cover any threat of serious damage to any place or to human welfare, including illness, health, homelessness, disruption to supplies or communication or transport or disruption even of plant life in Britain. These provisions impose an enormous extension of firefighters' duties, as the booklet makes very clear. I am glad to refer to the much wider training that will be required of everyone in the fire and rescue services in this regard.

The workers involved are among the stakeholders in these important changes. The booklet admirably insists that we must have more women and more ethnic minority firefighters, but it says little about consultation with organisations which will represent the firefighters of tomorrow. It states categorically that the new regionalisation of fire control functions, for which a case has been made previously, will need "fewer staff". Indeed, that will be a delicate operation. Many think that it is surprising, in the light of the enormous extension of functions, that the service will be called upon to exercise such a reduction. Can my noble friend say anything about the expected size of the firefighting force under the document?

Firefighters do not largely figure in the booklet, except that their greatly increased duties of co-operation, as the noble Baroness rightly said, with all other emergency services, and the increased training to meet those duties, are fairly set out. But the booklet refers to "recent industrial action"—recent in 2004—where the Secretary of State will, under the new statutes, continue to have,

"the power to direct the use of fire and rescue facilities and assets", which will constitute,

"new and more effective arrangements", in the face of such industrial action.

I do not wish, either here or on any future occasion, to reopen old wounds on this subject. But the Government's position in previous debates was that the Secretary of State's new statutory powers would not affect the law as it stood on rights of industrial action. That is not what the booklet says.

Consultation on that and all other matters that affect the workforce is important—for example, in respect of the new discipline code which must be introduced. While one must welcome the intention to introduce a new law based on ACAS principles, firefighters will lose a previous right of appeal to the Secretary of State on dismissal. Consultation on aspects of appeal against dismissal, as much as what the new booklet raises regarding the new pension scheme, must, surely, be a matter for extensive consultation, including with the organisations that represent those concerned.

There is much more to be said on this matter, especially regarding the regulatory impact assessment. I am sure my noble friend will agree that it is vital that these extensive and important changes should be the subject of consultation with the workforce, from fire officers to firefighters and their unions. That is critical. There is much concern on the matter, but it may be that my noble friend can allay such concerns. I hope that he may say something about, or refer on some future occasion to, consultation with the trade unions, either when he replies or, as time is limited today, to a source where we can find details of what has happened and what is planned in that regard.