I beg to move amendment 174, in schedule 1, page 113, line 12, leave out “or” and insert “and”.
This amendment ensures that when the Secretary of State decides whether to allow the Fire and Rescue Service to come under control of PCCs she must do so in the interest of “economy, efficiency and effectiveness” and “in the interest of public safety”.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 181, in schedule 1, page 122, line 10, at end insert—
“with the cost of obtaining such information to be met by the police and crime commissioner.”
This amendment would require the police and crime commissioner to pay the costs the fire and rescue authority incurs in providing the police and crime commissioner with the information needed to prepare a proposal to transfer governance to the police and crime commissioner.
Amendment 172, in schedule 1, page 122, line 22, leave out sub-paragraph (a) and insert—
“(a) consult each relevant fire and rescue authority,
(ab) any local authority all or part of whose area forms part of the fire and rescue authority area, and
(ac) the relevant workforces.”
This amendment will make it a statutory obligation for the local authority Fire and Rescue Authority, and relevant workforces, to be consulted before being taken over by a PCC.
Amendment 170, in schedule 1, page 122, line 25, leave out “make arrangements to seek the views of” and insert “consult comprehensively with”.
This amendment would require a police and crime commissioner to consult local residents about the proposal to transfer governance of the fire and rescue service to the police and crime commissioner.
Amendment 171, in schedule 1, page 122, line 26, leave out “commissioner’s police” and insert “fire and rescue authority”.
This amendment would mean that police and crime commissioners need only seek the views of people living in the affected fire and rescue authority rather than across the whole of the police force area.
Amendment 180, in schedule 1, page 122, line 43, after “proposal”, insert “from an independent panel of experts chosen by the relevant police and crime commissioner and local authorities,”.
This amendment would guarantee the independence of panels tasked with assessing takeover proposals submitted by a PCC.
Amendment 173, schedule 1, page 123, line 17, at end insert—
“(4) An order under section 4A, where modified or not by the Secretary of State, may only be made with the consent of the relevant local authority, relevant fire and rescue authority and relevant police and crime commissioner.”
This amendment makes it a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to get the consent of the PCC, Fire and Rescue Authority, and local authority, before making an order.
Amendment 177, in schedule 1, page 123, line 17, at end insert—
“(4) Before submitting a section 4A proposal to the Secretary of State, a relevant police and crime commissioner must make arrangements to hold a referendum.
(5) The persons entitled to vote in the referendum are those who, on the day of the referendum—
(a) would be entitled to vote as electors at an election for the relevant police and crime commissioner, and
(b) are registered in the register of local government electors at an address that is within a relevant fire authority area.
(6) The referendum is to be held on—
(a) a suitable date corresponding to the regular electoral cycle, or
(b) if there are no elections scheduled within the next 365 days, such other date as the Secretary of State may specify by order.
(7) The police and crime commissioner must inform the Secretary of State of the result of the referendum.
(8) The Secretary of State may only grant an order if—
(a) the proposal was approved by a majority of persons voting in the referendum, and
(b) the turnout for the referendum is greater than 25 per cent of those eligible to vote.
(9) A police and crime commissioner may not hold another referendum within the period of ten years.”
This amendment would ensure that a PCC can only take over a Fire and Rescue Service with the approval of local people.
Amendment 178, in schedule 1, page 123, line 17, at end insert—
“(4) An order under section 4A, where modified or not by the Secretary of State, may only be made with either: consent of the relevant local authority and relevant fire and rescue authority, or a majority vote by local people through referendum.”
This amendment would ensure that a PCC can only take over a Fire and Rescue Service with the approval of local people or their local representatives.
We have indeed failed yet again to hear a case from the Minister as to why this massive change to how our public services are run is to happen. I really am disappointed that the Minister did not take the opportunity in the previous debate to give us some decent reasons. But there are none—simply because of one obscure line in the Conservative party manifesto, the Government want to boost the role of PCCs. That is a really poor reason.
However, if the Government intend to go down that path and the reforms are to happen, the Bill could be strengthened if the Government accepted the amendments. They would make significant changes to the process by which a PCC can take over, and to the structures of accountability and scrutiny that they face once they have taken charge of the local fire service.
Amendment 174 would ensure that the Secretary of State could approve a takeover only if it was in the best interests of public safety and efficiency. The schedule currently requires it to be in the best interests of only one or the other. Amendment 181 would require a police and crime commissioner to pay the costs incurred by a fire and rescue authority in preparing information for a takeover bid.
Amendments 170, 171 and 172 all deal with the consultation process. Amendment 170 would require full consideration of people’s views. Amendment 171 would restrict the scope of the consultation to residents who are served by the relevant fire and rescue service. Amendment 172 would make workers and fire and rescue authorities statutory consultees. Amendment 180 would ensure that the panel the Home Secretary used to guide her through a business case was genuinely independent.
Amendments 173, 177 and 178 all deal with who must consent before a takeover can be approved. Amendment 173 would require the consent of local authorities, and amendment 177 would require local people to approve a takeover by a referendum. We have offered a compromise in amendment 178, which would require the approval of either the local authority or the local people. Either way, there must be local consent through a referendum or through the locally elected representatives.
I have outlined a lot of issues, but then again, there are a lot of problems with the Government’s proposals. I shall start with amendment 174 and the grounds on which the Home Secretary is to make her decisions, before I address the process. The amendment would ensure that the Secretary of State does not allow PCCs to take over control of a fire and rescue service unless it is in the interests of public safety. I tabled it because, as currently drafted, the Bill states that when the Secretary of State decides whether to allow a fire and rescue service to come under the control of a PCC, she must do so
“in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness…or…in the interests of public safety”.
The amendment is small, but its impact would be substantial. It would prevent the Secretary of State from making her decision on whether to allow a fire and rescue service to come under the control of a PCC solely in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, to ensure that it is also in the interests of public safety. Who could possibly object to that? As the Minister is in one of his collaborative moods, I expect that he will accept the amendment with gusto, because he will want to ensure that the interests of public safety are truly served.
I know I have made these arguments before, but it is really important to make our arguments as we go through the Bill, so I shall do so again, albeit briefly. The decision to allow PCCs to take over fire and rescue services must not be allowed to become a trade-off between economy, efficiency and effectiveness on the one hand and the interests of public safety on the other. If PCCs are to take over fire and rescue services, the interests of public safety should be paramount. There should be no other interest—certainly not the Conservative party manifesto.
Under the existing proposals, if the takeover is in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, that is enough to satisfy the Secretary of State’s requirements. That is simply not good enough for the fire service, and it is certainly not good enough for the general public. I am glad to see that the Government have recognised that consideration must be given to both efficiency and effectiveness, but I am concerned that they have once again misunderstood the meaning of efficiency. I reiterate that Sir Ken Knight stated:
“Efficiency does not just mean doing the same for less, nor is it just about one-off cashable savings. It is an entire approach to service delivery, achieving the best possible service for the public.”
I would hope all of us in this room can agree on that.
A fire service that is achieving the best possible service for the public is one that mitigates risk to the public and has a rigorous integrated risk management programme. It is able to reduce the occurrence and risk of fire, it attends quickly, saves and protects at road traffic accidents and can respond to major incidents of flooding or terrorism, and it safeguards public safety.
In short, if the takeover is efficient it necessarily has to be in the interest of public safety; so the way that the Government have drafted the Bill causes me concern. I would be delighted if the Minister told me right now that it is a drafting mistake, but perhaps he will instead explain the situation in which he envisages that a PCC takeover of a fire and rescue authority would be in the interest of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, but not in the interest of public safety. If he can point to one example, why does he think it would be a good idea to give the Secretary of State the power to force the takeover on the service?
I look forward to listening to what the Minister has to say, and I hope he will give the Committee what it needs—a proper Government response, explaining the reasons for what they are doing in the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are arguing that local people should have a say in electing a police and crime commissioner, while at the same time they are giving the Secretary of State powers to impose on an area a set of arrangements in which local people would have no say at all? It is another example of the Government looking both ways—they talk about devolution, but now they are talking about centralisation.
That is absolutely right. It is not a localist agenda at all.
Amendment 181 would require a police and crime commissioner to pay the costs incurred by a fire and rescue authority in preparing information for a takeover bid. The Bill places a statutory duty on the PCC and fire and rescue authority to work together in the preparation of a takeover proposal, although not as equal partners. The process is to be led by PCCs, and the fire and rescue authorities will merely be duty-bound to co-operate. The amendment is intended to clarify who will pay the costs of preparing the proposal.
Ensuring that proposals are put together to the desired standard when putting forward the case for PCC takeover of fire and rescue authorities will of course take time, and providing the information needed to prepare a proposal will inevitably carry a cost. The costs include everything from staffing and research costs to stationery and paperwork. Paragraph 2 of proposed new schedule A1, which schedule 1 would add to the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, sets out that a fire and rescue authority must provide information and documentation at a PCC’s request. That makes it clear that the application process could easily prove very costly to a fire and rescue authority.
The schedule places duties on fire and rescue authorities, but gives them no powers in return. For example, while a fire and rescue authority must co-operate with a PCC and provide him or her with documentation and support, the fire and rescue authority is given no corresponding powers whatever in return. I find that quite astonishing. Fire and rescue authorities have a legal responsibility to oversee the strategic direction and policy of their local fire service. How can they possibly carry out that duty if they are not even allowed to ask for documentation on staffing, finance and plans from the person who plans to take over the fire and rescue service?
In response to the Government’s proposed process, amendment 181 would place responsibility on the PCC to pay the costs incurred in producing a takeover proposal. There are two good reasons for that. First, as the PCC is actively seeking to take over responsibility for the fire and rescue authority, it is fair that those costs fall on them. Secondly, PCCs have larger budgets than fire and rescue authorities. They are therefore presumably better staffed and better able to absorb costs. If PCCs are not to be responsible for the costs, the Government need to work out how they will fund what could be a fairly costly process, especially when our fire and rescue services are under the cosh from spending cuts.
I know that this issue will be considered later, because the Government have tabled amendments on it, but if we are to get a full idea of efficiency, one of the tricky areas is unpicking fire authorities’ budgets. To give an example, in Northumberland one PCC covers two fire authorities. One, Tyne and Wear, raises its fire budget by precept and the other is part of the county council. Does my hon. Friend recognise that unpicking those budgets will be a hugely expensive exercise?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why East and West Sussex fire authorities failed to merge when both wanted to do so—it was impossible to unpick one of their budgets, and the Government were demanding back £2 million of the local authority’s money. That completely floored the opportunity to do something that both fire and rescue authorities wanted. They could not do it because it was too expensive.
The other point I would make to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right, is that many of the fire and rescue services that are integrated within a local authority structure have already found back-office cost savings. Their emergency services departments are fully integrated into the fire service. If fire services are dragged out and given to the PCC, that will have a massive cost for many of those local authorities, which will find themselves short in the pocket, just like in the case of the East and West Sussex merger.
Perhaps more presciently, being given responsibility to pay the costs of any takeover may stop police and crime commissioners from using the risk of cost escalation as a means of coercing fire and rescue authorities to support their takeover bid. The Government’s proposal is a recipe for hostile takeovers. We can imagine a situation arising under the Bill where a PCC requests that a fire and rescue authority produce a constantly escalating amount of information and documentation. As it does so, costs will spiral for the fire and rescue authority, possibly to saturation point. There may come a time when the fire and rescue authority decides it is no longer viable to continue paying such costs simply for the creation of a proposal and agrees to a takeover in order to stop haemorrhaging funds. The Government have been worried about the use of freedom of information requests as a deliberate tactic to burden public institutions, so they should be receptive to my argument and the picture I am painting.
Amendment 181 would take away PCCs’ ability to abuse their power, but it would also take away any fire and rescue authority’s suspicion that that might be happening. That would not only avoid PCCs coercing fire and rescue authorities but make fire and rescue authorities more receptive to working together with PCCs in putting together proposals. It would help to mitigate any conflict of interest. If the Minister is truly interested in collaboration between our emergency services—frankly, I doubt it—he ought to support it.
The amendment would solve two problems. It would clear up the ambiguity around who will pay for costs incurred in putting together proposals and help to mitigate the potential for hostile takeovers by PCCs when the fire and rescue authority—
On a point of order, Mr Howarth. This part of the Bill is too important to rush, so I propose to the Government that we take this afternoon to deal properly with legitimate concerns. I also ask that the Minister gives a considered response this afternoon to the powerful points that the shadow Fire Minister is making.
The timing of debate on this part of the Bill is a matter for the usual channels. I am sure that the Opposition Whip will make that point to his opposite number, but that is a matter for them. Whether the Minister chooses to speak is a matter for him, not for the Chair, but I am sure he has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said.