Clause 15 - Arrangements with other employers offire-fighters

Fire and Rescue Services Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 24th February 2004.

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Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 38, in

clause 15, page 8, line 6, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 39, in

clause 15, page 8, line 7, at end insert—

'(2A) A fire and rescue authority may enter into arrangements with any person for securing provision of assistance for the discharge by the authority of a function conferred on it under sections 6, 8, 9 or 11'.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Clause 15 deals with the situation where fire authorities want to make arrangements between other private sector, or third party, providers of support whom they may wish to use in certain circumstances. It allows for the equivalent of reinforcement schemes, which are a mutual aid arrangement between fire authorities, on a one-way commercial basis, with third-party employers of fire fighters.

This is a perfectly sensible arrangement. The obvious case that springs to mind is that of employers of private fire brigades. I think that I am right in saying that British Airports Authority has the fourth-largest fire service in the United Kingdom, measured in terms of manpower and equipment. Although it is spread across a very large area, it is quite a significant resource that could be used as back-up in certain types of emergency.

There are other employers of private fire brigades: large commercial undertakings might have fire equipment on their premises that could be brought into service in a particular type of emergency. We are absolutely at one with the purposes of the clause. This is another provision brought forward from 1947, and it gives fire authorities a statutory basis—a proper basis—on which to engage in commercial arrangements with outside bodies.

We now need to look at this in the light of the other changes that we have made to the environment in which fire authorities operate and to their functions that. Subsection (1) allows the fire and rescue authority to

''enter into arrangements with a person who employs fire-fighters . . . for the purpose of the discharge by the authority of a function conferred on it under section 7, 8 or 9.''

Clause 7 confers firefighting functions on a fire authority; clause 8 confers road traffic accident functions on a fire authority; and clause 9 deals with other emergencies, which can be anything specified by the Secretary of State. We have already had the benefit of the draft order, so we know that it will include such things as dealing with the response to terrorist attack, major flooding incidents, inshore rescue and perhaps rescue further out at sea, as has previously been seen. However, those are not firefighting functions.

The purpose of amendment No. 37 is to challenge the restriction of powers under subsection (1) to arrangements with employers of firefighters. There is no obvious reason why only an employer of firefighters should be contracted to render assistance to a fire authority in relation, for example, to road traffic accidents. Let me give an example. It might be perfectly logical for fire authorities to have stand-by arrangements with operators of heavy lifting equipment, such as large, heavy cranes that can be brought on to the motorway to remove wreckage or, in the case of a building collapsing, the kind of equipment that can be used to jack up and support structural elements of the building.

I know that in some cases the Government intend that the fire and rescue services will have access to a pool of such equipment that will be purchased and, I assume, maintained centrally by a designated authority on behalf of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. That is fine but, by definition, those will always be centrally pooled resources. It is perfectly logical, particularly in more sparsely populated areas of the country, that fire and rescue authorities may wish to enter into arrangements to bring in assistance—I heard the Minister muttering ''clause 16'', from a sedentary position—not to delegate the discharge of their functions to another person, but to contract with another person to assist them in the discharge of their functions. I take that to be a very different thing.

The best and most obvious example is the use of heavy lifting equipment. Why is it necessary for a fire authority to contract for the supply of locally available heavy lifting equipment or hydraulic jacks, and for experts in their use, only if the contractor employs firefighters? That has been brought forward from the 1947 Act, and a time when the only statutory function that we were dealing with was firefighting and the requirement that the person in question employed firefighters would be wholly logical and consistent with the structure of the Act. Now that we have introduced other statutory functions, we must revisit that. Amendment No. 37 is designed to remove the reference to clauses 8 and 9 from subsection (1) so that the restriction on making such arrangements only with employers of firefighters would relate only to firefighting functions.

Amendment No. 39 would introduce a new subsection that gives fire and rescue authorities broader powers to enter into arrangements relating to their functions under clause 6—the fire safety promotion clause, which is not mentioned in clause 15. Clause 8 refers to road traffic accidents, clause 9 refers to emergencies as defined by the Secretary of State and clause 11 deals with discretionary services and the power to respond to other eventualities. In relation to those functions, fire authorities could enter into arrangements on a commercial basis with any third parties that they found appropriate.

The Under-Secretary needs to explain why there is no reference to clause 6 in clause 15. There are statutory duties on a fire authority for fire safety, and

it is perfectly conceivable that authorities will want to contract out—for example, for the fitting of smoke detectors—to a third-party contractor on a commercial basis. I do not see where that power is stipulated.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The Under-Secretary says again that the power is in clause 16, but that contains the power to delegate the discharge of a function. That is quite different from securing the provision of assistance, which will always be alongside the principal discharge of the function by the fire authority. The delegation to another person of the discharge of a specific function under clause 16 is a different action—it must be, or there would be no point in having both clause 15 and clause 16. If there is a technical explanation, I look forward to hearing it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes the amendments in the spirit in which they have been tabled, and will address the issue arising from the change in the core function of fire and rescue authorities.

Amendment No. 38 would delete subsection (2), which explicitly prevents the entering into of such an arrangement with another fire and rescue authority. I can see where such an idea would come from in the climate of 1947; mutual reinforcement is seen as good, and arm's-length, commercial-type transaction as bad. However, we have moved on since then, and it must be possible for the Under-Secretary to envisage mutual reinforcement schemes as appropriate in some cases, while in others there could be an arrangement that is more on a one-way, arm's-length basis with an authority that will specialise in road traffic accident rescue.

Let us consider the Manchester example again. Might it not be sensible, logical and economical for Cheshire fire authority to decide that it wants to contract with Greater Manchester fire authority to deal with road traffic accidents on the M62, which stretches beyond Greater Manchester into Cheshire? That would be a perfectly logical arrangement; it ought be something that fire authorities, discharging their functions efficiently, could decide to do. Fire authority A might decide to contract for a sum of money with fire authority B to provide cover on a defined stretch of motorway. Perhaps that would be a stretch to which there was no easy access for one authority, but which was easily accessible for an adjoining fire authority.

In the present mixed-economy climate, in which the Under-Secretary recognises that commercial arrangements and arms-length, one-way, for-cash transactions can be as valid as mutual assistance arrangements, I see no reason to exclude an arms-length arrangement with another fire authority. It must be for each individual authority to decide what is best for its circumstances in each case. We should not constrain them.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

I will be brief, as I am sure that the Under-Secretary has a lot to say on the amendments. I would hate to do his work for him; he gets paid more than I.

I am slightly puzzled by the amendments, which would rewrite a clause; they could be called wrecking amendments. Clause 15 relates to arrangements with other employers of firefighters; that is clear. Clause 16 covers all those other matters. How is it that all of a sudden we wish to take apart the arrangements with other firefighters and open up to other potential contractors? That seems an unnecessary complication of the clause.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. Clause 16 also covers firefighting duties. At the end of subsection (1) it specifically refers to

''a function conferred on the first authority under any of sections 6 to 9 and 11.''

That would include the firefighting functions under clause 7. It would be wrong to see clause 16 as dealing with functions other than firefighting.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

I did not say that that was the case; my point was to do with arrangements. Clause 16 allows arrangements with other contractors; clause 15 allows arrangements with other firefighters. That is clear. I cannot see the logic in taking apart a clause, only to repeat it almost in the following clause. The logic of that totally defeats me.

Had the hon. Gentleman said that he wanted the powers under clause 11 to be extended to clause 15, I would have followed his logic. I cannot see the logic of extending clause 6—which relates to fire safety matters—to other fire authorities. One would assume that BAA fire services would cover that for airports. I cannot see the logic of firefighters at Heathrow airport all of a sudden going out to schools. That would not be within their remit and would be far better done by those in the community.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Amendments Nos. 37 to 39 would allow fire and rescue authorities to enter into arrangements with any body, including other fire and rescue authorities, to secure assistance for their duties under clauses 6, 8, 9 and 11. However, the amendments would keep the restriction that only an employer of firefighters can assist in firefighting duties.

Clause 15, to which the amendments relate, should be read with clause 13, which provides for reinforcement schemes. The intention of clause 15 is to give fire and rescue authorities the flexibility to complement their reinforcement schemes. Clause 13 ensures that core duties that require an emergency response, such as fighting fires and dealing with road traffic accidents and emergencies designated under clause 9, are discharged effectively, regardless of geographical boundaries or authorities. Clause 15 allows arrangements for firefighters not employed by fire and rescue authorities to be deployed to assist with such incidents. As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has explained, one example would be a firefighter who is employed in commercial airports and by the Ministry of Defence.

Amendment No. 38 is unnecessary. It deletes clause 15(2), which ensures that there is no overlap between clause 13, relating to mutual assistance between fire and rescue authorities, and clause 15, relating to arrangements between fire and rescue authorities and other employers of firefighters. The point is that the arrangements between fire authorities that the hon. Gentleman described would be exercised under clause 13.

It may be helpful to explain that in the Fire Services Act 1947 mutual reinforcement schemes between fire and rescue authorities and between a fire and rescue authority and another employer of firefighters were elided together in one clause. Clauses 13 and 15 separate those out to clarify the powers of mutual reinforcement schemes between fire and rescue authorities and between a fire and rescue authority and another employer of firefighters.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Is the Under-Secretary saying that it will be possible for one fire and rescue authority to enter into an arrangement with another that is not a mutual reinforcing scheme, but a scheme under which fire and rescue authority B contracts to provide assistance for money to fire and rescue authority A?

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

The nature of reinforcement schemes is covered by provisions in clause 13. The hon. Gentleman described a theoretical example of a scheme between Cheshire and Manchester. He has an obsession with Cheshire and Manchester.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

By separating the two provisions to make clear the various powers, duties and directions under clauses 13 and 15, we are clarifying what is possible. The kind of arrangements that the hon. Gentleman described would be a reinforcement scheme under clause 13. It is for the two authorities to decide and discuss how that scheme would work—subject to the directions under clause 14 if one of them did not agree with it, which we debated earlier.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

To be absolutely clear on that matter, as the Under-Secretary has avoided use of the word ''money'', is he saying that under clause 13 a scheme could be put in place in which the assistance was not mutual but one-way and paid for by money from the first authority? Is that possible?

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

The nature of the reinforcement scheme would be a matter for the local authorities involved.

There is confusion in the hon. Gentleman's mind about what clause 16 may or may not cover. Amendment No. 38 is unnecessary because those arrangements are covered by clause 13. Amendment No. 37 is unhelpful because by removing references to clauses 8 and 9—that deal with road traffic accidents and emergencies designated by order respectively—it would remove the symmetry between clauses 13 and 15. That would mean that arrangements made under

those clauses would be unable to compliment each other so successfully. The essence of the two clauses is that they mirror one another.

Amendment No. 39 extends the scope of clause 15 so that arrangements for assistance can be made with any person for a wider range of fire and rescue authority functions. That is confusing because it breaks the link with reinforcement schemes under clause 13, and then muddies the waters of the relationship with clause 16. We will come to clause 16 later, but it may help hon. Members if I point out the differences between clauses 15 and 16.

Under clause 15, a fire and rescue authority is securing help to discharge its own functions—for example, when an airport fire service is sent to assist with a fire outside the airport. Under clause 16, a fire and rescue authority's functions are discharged by another. The point of that delegation is that it can be ''to any extent'', as line 16 of page 8 states. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's concerns about whether a fire risk authority could enter into arrangements with organisations other than those employing firefighters are covered by clause 16.

Clauses 13 and 15, taken together with clause 16, provide a set of practical and effective powers for fire and rescue authorities that ensure that they can make appropriate and flexible arrangements for delivering all the services that the public expect. I make the hon. Gentleman an offer. I have asked officials for the details to be spelled out in an easy-to-read table. Clauses 13, 15 and 16 refer to different relationships between fire authorities, and between fire authorities and other employers and other bodies. What applies to each is different because of the way in which we have framed the legislation. If it assists the hon. Gentleman, I shall have that laid out in a helpful table, which I shall give to him this afternoon if a copy can be produced by then.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 10:30 am, 24th February 2004

I suppose I should be grateful to the Under-Secretary for his offer, although having spent the entire recess week studying the clauses, I am not sure that I am terribly flattered by the suggestion that a helpful table provided by his officials will be necessary. He will have heard of the campaign for plain English. If it really requires a table to be provided by officials to enable reasonably engaged and well-educated Members of Parliament to understand the provisions, there is a problem.

In my experience, parliamentary draftsmen are careful with language, even if I do not always like it. Clause 15 refers specifically to

''securing the provision by that person of assistance''.

Clause 16 refers to entering into arrangements

''for the discharge to any extent by that other authority or person of a function''.

I consider that it is not accidental that different language has been used in the two clauses, but that they convey something significantly different. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the degree of delegation of the arrangement is similar under clauses 15 and 16. That is not how I understood the position.

It is important that we understand not only the scope of the parties that may enter into arrangements under clauses 15 and 16, but the quality and nature of those arrangements.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I have already spelled out the difference between clauses 15 and 16 and the ability under clause 16 for fire and rescue authorities to enter into arrangements with others who are not employers of other firefighters. It is important that clause 15 spells out the conditions under which there can be arrangements between fire and rescue authorities and other employers of firefighters. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment because it would affirm examples of ongoing ineffective practice that we do not wish to be continued.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I have a couple of points to make. It seems that fire is still being treated differently from the other now to be core functions of fire and rescue authorities, such as dealing with road traffic accidents and other emergencies, fire safety and prevention. I thought that one of the objectives of the Bill was to broaden the role of fire and rescue authorities and make it clear that they had the other functions on an equal status. I am not sure why arrangements with other employers of firefighters should be treated differently, as the Under-Secretary suggests.

I did not hear the hon. Gentleman reply specifically to my question—perhaps he imagined that a response was implicit in his answer. I wanted to know whether an arrangement made under clause 13 allows a one-way relationship when the assistance is provided in one direction and money flows in the other direction. It is not clear that the term ''mutual reinforcement'' embraces the concept of a one-way relationship when no assistance, but simply a payment of money, is provided from authority A to authority B. If he cannot confirm that his concept of mutuality involves assistance being provided in one direction only, that will certainly explain one of the issues that are at the root of the debate.

In his response, the Under-Secretary said that amendment No. 38 would break the symmetry between clauses 15 and 13. He then went on to observe, correctly, that amendment No. 39 would restore that link. Amendments Nos. 38 and 39 would simply separate the arrangements for procuring assistance to deal with firefighting functions under clause 7, limiting them to arrangements with employers of firefighters, and deal under a new subsection with the arrangements for procuring assistance to cover functions under clauses 8 and 9—and, indeed, clauses 6 and 11. I therefore do not agree at all that the amendments break any link between clauses 13 and 15 in their entirety. Of course, if the Under-Secretary chooses to consider only amendment No. 38 and ignore amendment No. 39, he will think what he said he thought; however, the group of amendments is not intended to break that link.

I am frankly surprised that the amendments appear to have been dismissed not merely because some technical deficiency or superfluity, as I was expecting—I have become accustomed to that. The Under-Secretary appears to suggest that the amendments strike a blow to the architecture of the Bill, but that was not what we had in mind—in fact, we genuinely thought that there was an error in the structure of clause 15(1), because it is difficult to understand the logic of restricting the arrangements to employers of firefighters when the arrangements might be targeted on entirely different fire authority functions.

The Under-Secretary has made his point and we have listened to what he said. It is a complicated issue. With the benefit of his helpful table, I shall ponder the matters before the Report stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.