The Opposition do not believe that the Government have even begun to make the case for the fundamental governance reforms to the fire and rescue service that would be introduced by clause 6, so we will vote to remove it, and consequential schedule 1, from the Bill.
Clause 6 and schedule 1 contain provisions that allow for a police and crime commissioner to become a fire and rescue authority and, in so doing, effectively assume control of a fire and rescue service. I will have plenty to say in later debates about the lopsided process by which the Government are proposing that these takeovers should happen, and what the governance and scrutiny of the fire and rescue service would look like once the takeovers have gone ahead, but I will take this opportunity to discuss the merits of the proposal in the first place.
I know that that is not the way the Government think things should be done. They have been quite happy to go through a consultation exercise that does not ask stakeholders what they think of the merits of the proposals, and they have completely ignored the recommendation of Sir Ken Knight that these proposals need to be put through a rigorous pilot programme so that we can know whether they are likely to bring about any benefits.
It was not really a consultation, was it? It was stuffed full of leading questions that were not about whether the plans were right or about what should be done, but about how to implement them. The Government have ignored the evidence-based strategy suggested by Sir Ken. Why did the Government not undertake a pilot, as recommended by the Knight review? Why not undertake a proper risk assessment and outline the implications of the plans, alongside those of the budget cuts that are now starting to take effect and affect response times? The Government have acted on the assumption that it is a given that police and crime commissioners will get powers to take over the fire and rescue services. Why is that reasonable? They need to present arguments as to why that is a good idea. In whose interest is it? It is not right simply to propose reforms to a vital public service without producing a detailed set of arguments as to why those reforms are in the best interests of that service and the public.
Government impact assessments always start with the same two questions: “What is the problem under consideration?” and “Why is Government intervention necessary?” Those are two very conservative questions: if there is no evidence that something is not working as well as it should or that there is a problem that needs to be solved, the Government simply do not have reason to act. They should certainly not be legislating for its own sake. If the problem is London, legislate on London.
There is absolutely nothing in the impact assessment identifying tangible problems with the governance of the fire service, nor is there any attempt to explain why the legislation is necessary. The only relevant reason in the impact assessment is the fact that the Conservative manifesto pledged to “develop the role” of police and crime commissioners. Why is that? What did the fire service do to deserve this? It is an extraordinary way to go about the business of government. I am not surprised that civil servants at the Home Office could not come up with any tangible reasons why PCCs need to play a role in the governance of the fire and rescue service; there are plenty of reasons to think it is a bad idea.
I can only imagine that the Home Office lost the argument with the Department of Health. That is the only thing that comes to mind. The Home Office wanted a big takeover for PCCs, but it has failed to do so because the Department of Health said no.
PCCs are a nascent institution. With suitable caution, the Home Affairs Committee has said that it is
“too early to say whether the introduction of police and crime commissioners has been a success.”
If we do not know whether PCCs have been a success in their core duties, why are the Government proposing that they expand their portfolio by adopting fire services? We all hope that the turnout for PCC elections in May is better than the 15% managed the first time round, but before we hand over more powers to PCCs, would it not be better to see whether public support and interest in the institution has improved from such a dismally low level?
The Government may see things differently and want to bolster the powers and budgets of PCCs to help them through their difficult start, but a vital public service such as fire should not be pawned off to save struggling Whitehall inventions. What is next? Stretched NHS ambulance trusts running community volunteering schemes to rekindle the big society?
I am frightened of giving the hon. Gentleman ideas, particularly if he is going to rise to the Front Bench.
We know that the Chancellor is very fond of mayors. I have no problem with them, but they should not be imposed. The coalition Government balloted people, and in nine out of 10 metropolitan areas, people said no. However, the Chancellor likes to get his own way by attaching mayors to combined authorities in exchange for devolved powers. Could he get more mayors by developing the role of PCCs? Is that what this proposal is about? Get PCCs to take over fire and rescue, and what is next? Will it be probation, the ambulance service or some of the free schools? Perhaps I should not give anybody ideas.
We must also question what expertise PCCs are supposed to bring to the management of fire and rescue services that those services do not themselves possess. Most of the present batch of PCCs were selected by their parties before they even knew that PCCs could take control of their fire services, so a candidate’s vision, plans and manifestos for their local fire service cannot have played much role in their political ascent.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that PCCs have as much experience as many members of the fire authorities, who are councillors? I do not see any additional expertise there.
The hon. Lady is mistaken. Councillors play a prominent role on many management committees of fire and rescue services, but they are not the only players. I do not know whether she has met many of them, but they are people who have devoted their time in local government to truly understanding and working on fire issues. They know so much. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience on those panels. When I am in a room with them, I cannot but be impressed by their collective—
I hear the hon. Lady saying that about her own fire and rescue authority. When I get back to my office, I will have a look to see which fire and rescue authority it is and why she has such a view, but in my experience of speaking to people from each political party who have served on fire and rescue service committees, they are highly knowledgeable and committed to the area for which they are responsible. I do not like to denigrate local democracy in that way. We in the Labour party appreciate what our local councillors do, many of them for not much reward at all.
The point that I am making is not that PCCs are bad and fire services are good; it is that in the Bill, the Government are creating unnecessary conflicts with one preferred model: PCC control, the favoured approach. It is not about what works locally, and it should be. If the Government are to turn PCCs into mini-mayors with responsibility for all sorts of policy positions, which I think is their real agenda, they should at least do so openly, so the democratic process can respond to the expanding office.
I genuinely think that the proposals come with significant risks. The most important is that fire, with its much smaller budgets and less media attention than policing, will become an unloved secondary concern of management, a Cinderella service. I have raised that point repeatedly with the Minister, but he has not indicated what he proposes to do to mitigate that risk. I know that he wants to champ on with the Bill, but I would like him to answer that particular point. What will he do to ensure that the fire services taken over by PCCs do not become Cinderella services?
Peter Murphy, the director of the public policy and management research group at Nottingham Business School, has argued that slipping into the status of a Cinderella service would only be a repeat of what happened the last time the fire service had to share an agenda with policing. I shall quote him, because it gets to the point. He said that
“if the current plans are implemented, there is a very strong chance that the fire and rescue services would go back to the ‘benign neglect’ that characterised the service from 1974 to 2001, when the Home Office was last responsible for fire services. Police, civil disobedience, immigration and criminal justice dominated the Home Office agenda, as well as its time and resources.”
If the fire service becomes the lesser partner in a merged service
“the long-term implications will include smaller fire crews with fewer appliances and older equipment arriving at incidents. Prevention and protection work, already significantly falling, will result in fewer school visits and fire alarm checks for the elderly, not to mention the effect on business, as insurance costs rise because of increased risks to buildings and premises.”
What a chilling vision for the future of our fire service.
The Government propose fundamental reforms to a trusted and successful public service. If they want to make such proposals, they should present detailed and evidenced arguments for why that is likely to be in the best interests of the fire service, the public service that deals with fire, flooding, road traffic collisions, industrial disasters and the aftermath of terrorist incidents. Instead, they have sought to avoid that at every opportunity: in their release of an impact assessment that could not even identify a policy goal; in ducking a pilot programme; and in a sham consultation that did not ask real questions. It was a sham.
Given the enormous risks that the Government’s reforms present to the future efficiency and effectiveness of the fire service, the Opposition think it would be irresponsible to support the reforms in their current form. We oppose clause 6, which should not stand part of the Bill. I urge every member of the Committee who thinks that we should be looking out for the very best interests of our public services to do the same.
I quite like some of Sir Ken Knight’s comments, which the shadow Minister quoted extensively. Sir Ken is probably the biggest reason why the measure is in the Bill. I do not know whether the Committee noticed, but the shadow Minister’s argument is almost identical to the one against PCCs taking over the police. It was a Labour party manifesto commitment to abolish PCCs. Labour lost and changed its mind. This measure is a Conservative manifesto commitment, and we will take it through Parliament.
Sir Ken Knight was specific. He said that collaboration between the emergency services across the whole country is patchy and will not begin to change consistently without more joined-up and accountable leadership. The police and crime commissioners are uniquely placed to provide that leadership, which is why we support clause 6.
That is poor from the Minister, really poor indeed. There are serious issues here. If he wants to quote Ken Knight, let us quote Ken Knight. I ask the Minister yet again why he has not conducted the pilot that Ken suggested in his report. Why not do the pilots? My second question is: why now? We have PCC elections in a couple of months’ time, and this is not even in the manifestos of the candidates who are standing in those elections. The public will not be given an opportunity to decide whether they want X running their fire services, as well as their police services. In fact, the PCC candidates have not really been given an opportunity to debate fire services and what they would actually do with them, such as whether they would choose to take the option of putting them under the control of—
It is not an FBU line, and I really, really resent that suggestion. In previous discussions, the Minister and I have managed to be courteous to each other. I urge him not to diminish my political concerns by telling me that they come from someone else. They do not; they come from my being a local councillor for 18 years and my belief that local councillors and local democracy matter. The Minister has done the Committee no favours at all with his very short answers in response to the comments and concerns that my hon. Friends and I have expressed. Perhaps he would like to take some time and do it again.
Like my hon. Friend, I am disappointed that, a powerful case having been made, there should be such a cursory reply. The point was made earlier that PCCs are elected. Yes, they are, but so too are local authority representatives on fire authorities—they are elected, and they are accountable. Why is it that a PCC, with the support of the Home Secretary, could take over responsibility for the fire service against the will of locally elected representatives? That cannot be localism by any description.
I totally and utterly agree with my hon. Friend. I think the Minister has done this Committee a disservice by not answering our questions properly. I urge him to get back on his feet and give us a much more reasonable and considered answer to the points that we have made.
On a point of order, Mr Howarth. This is a habit of the Minister. On Second Reading, he gave a 15-minute—or even less—response to the debate, and we saw that again today. I thought the purpose of Committee was to scrutinise legislation and for the Government to argue their case for the Bill. That is not what we have seen today. I wonder whether you can give some guidance to the Minister. He needs to answer questions or even put a case for his proposals.