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Fire (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:30 am on 18th November 2004.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 9:30 am, 18th November 2004

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1960, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the general principles of the Fire (Scotland) Bill be agreed to, and two amendments to the motion.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I am delighted to open the debate on the general principles of the Fire (Scotland) Bill on behalf of the Executive. Our partnership agreement gave a commitment to introduce new fire legislation. The bill forms an important part of the Executive's strategy to modernise the fire and rescue service to meet local needs, to increase local decision making and to develop the work force, all with the aim of contributing to a safer Scotland.

Our main priority is to save more lives and to reduce injuries from fire. The bill will help us to achieve that by placing a greater emphasis on fire safety. The number of domestic fire deaths in Scotland, which in 2002 had reduced to 62, is one of the lowest on record but, frankly, it is still too high—proportionately, the figure for Scotland is higher than that for any other part of the United Kingdom. We can and must do better.

The single largest cause of domestic fire deaths is smoking in the home—perhaps in bed or in association with the consumption of alcohol—so the key to making further progress lies in increased and improved fire prevention measures. That is why the bill makes community fire safety a statutory function of fire and rescue authorities. As well as recognising the fire and rescue service's traditional role of firefighting, the bill acknowledges the service's extended role in dealing with road traffic accidents, for example, and in responding to the greater threats that environmental disasters such as flooding and the increased threat of terrorism pose.

The bill underpins our wider strategy for fire and rescue services in Scotland. Our aim is to provide improved fire safety for communities throughout Scotland through the introduction of integrated risk management plans that tailor each service's action to the risks and needs of its area. The publication of a national framework will set out the Executive's priorities for the fire and rescue service and how we will work with the service to ensure that the modernisation agenda is delivered effectively.

The work force will receive a range of improvements. As well as significant increases in pay, considerable resources have been committed to a new integrated personal development system, which will meet the development needs of all fire and rescue service staff from point of entry to retirement. There will also be a new approach to recruitment, appointments and promotion. We believe that all those improvements and initiatives will mean that fire and rescue services in Scotland are even better placed to make our communities safer.

The bill is the culmination of more than two years of formal consultation, which began in April 2002 with the publication of our first consultation paper, "The Scottish Fire Service of the Future". The paper sought views on a wide range of proposals that were aimed at improving the service and at making the best use of its resources. Its many recommendations received considerable support. The process continued with the publication just over a year ago, on 1 October 2003, of "The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service: Proposals for Legislation". Those proposals were subsequently debated in the Parliament on 8 October 2003.

I am grateful to the Justice 2 Committee and its staff for their careful consideration of the bill and for producing a comprehensive and clear report. I am pleased that the committee has endorsed the principles of the bill and that, in general, the bill and its policy intentions were welcomed by the people who gave evidence. It is particularly encouraging that both the committee and its witnesses were content with the Executive's approach on the provision of a statutory underpinning for the principal functions of the fire and rescue service. The bill provides a flexible means of adding to those functions to reflect change over time. It is good to have some consensus about the way forward in a key public emergency service.

I welcome the constructive recommendations that the committee made. I will of course write to the committee shortly, to respond to its report and to indicate what amendments the Executive intends to lodge at stage 2. There is no doubt that stage 2 will provide an opportunity to examine the issues in more detail and we will continue to listen carefully to members of the committee and to stakeholders.

I turn to some of the main observations that were made in the committee's report. First, I will deal with the comments on the role of chief fire officers. When I gave evidence to the committee, I made it clear that the fire and rescue service is a local authority service that will continue to be managed locally. I believe that the bill strikes the right balance between local and ministerial powers. However, I am happy to reflect further on what the committee and others have said about the need to clarify in the bill the chief fire officers' responsibilities and their relationship with, and accountability to, the fire and rescue authority or the joint fire and rescue board. The committee also asked whether the bill needs to clarify the role of the senior fire officer in relation to the control of incidents involving fires. We will consider that, too.

I note that some committee members had concerns about the power to amalgamate fire and rescue authorities being used to reduce the number of such authorities in Scotland. However, I remind members that the power in question is not new, as it has been carried forward, in a slightly modified form, from the Fire Services Act 1947.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Some of members' unease might be to do with the possibility of that power being used to reduce the number of fire control rooms around Scotland, a proposal to which a number of chief fire officers have expressed their opposition. I represent a predominantly rural area, the vast geography of which is under the control of Tayside fire brigade. Can the minister tell me how the interests and concerns of people who live in rural and disparate communities will be addressed by the Executive's apparent appetite for reducing the number of fire control rooms in Scotland?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I will deal with the issue of fire control rooms in a minute; if I may, I will stick to amalgamation.

The power to amalgamate fire authorities has existed since the passing of the 1947 act and it will continue in a modified form. All that we are doing in the bill is confirming that ministers will take any decision to amalgamate rather than authorising or approving it. We think that we should take such significant decisions, although fire authorities will still have the opportunity to put forward proposals for amalgamation if they feel that that is appropriate.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

Does the minister understand that the unease that is shared by members of different parties and by many people outside the Parliament concerns the fact that it appears on the surface that ministers are taking on a power that will allow them to initiate such changes rather than to respond to demands for change from within the service? The concern is that a situation will arise in which, rather than responding to a consensus for change that will improve the service, ministers will be able to rule by diktat on amalgamation.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

There is no intention to rule by diktat. Any action that the Executive took on any such issues would follow thorough consultation and full discussion. We have no proposals to change the number of fire and rescue authorities. I would expect full consultation to take place on such matters, including any proposals that local boards made. Full consultation would be necessary not only in the area concerned, but nationally, because any such change would have wider ramifications.

I am encouraged that the Justice 2 Committee considers that the proposed powers are appropriate. I reassure the committee that, if any amalgamations are proposed in the future, there will be clear and comprehensive consultation with all the interested parties. Furthermore, we will lodge an amendment that will change the parliamentary procedure for the necessary order so that it will be subject to the affirmative procedure rather than the negative procedure. That will mean that the Parliament will have the opportunity to comment on relevant matters. I hope that that provides the reassurance that members seek, addresses the point that the committee's convener and others have raised and demonstrates our commitment to the Parliament's scrutiny role.

John Swinney mentioned control rooms. That issue has raised a great deal of interest and concern. We note the comments in the committee's report and its invitation to consider carefully the concerns that have been expressed and to address them specifically in a further round of consultation. That is exactly what we intend to do.

I also note the points that John Swinney made about the worries in rural areas and the concerns that others expressed about the financial calculations that were used and the basis of those calculations, as well as concerns about response times and other matters. When I gave evidence to the committee, the consultation period on the consultant's report had only just ended. We received 20 formal responses to the consultation on the report, primarily from the fire authorities, other areas of local government, the trade unions and staff associations. Although two thirds of the responses expressed a desire for no change, a third—including three fire authorities, which represent 23 of the 32 local authorities—were in favour of rationalisation to three control rooms.

However, we take on board the criticisms that have been made and the concerns that have been expressed and we will consider the matter further. Our intention is to do further work to address the issues that have been raised in the responses and the criticisms of the financial aspects of the consultant's report. As the committee recommended, we will have further discussions with the stakeholders in the coming period.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

There has been a great deal of interest in, and some controversy about, the discussion on the future number of control rooms. I accept some of the assurances that the minister has given, but would he be willing to consider coming back to the Parliament at an appropriate time to discuss the matter separately and more fully?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I would be happy to do that. It is my intention that, after we have reflected on the comments that have been made and done further work on the calculations, we will come back to the Parliament through the appropriate mechanism to notify members of the conclusions that we have drawn from that work.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

The minister mentioned that 23 of the 32 local authorities came down on the side of having three control rooms. The question that Mott MacDonald asked was whether there should be three control rooms or one but, if the question had been whether there should be eight, three or one, there might have been a different response. Does the minister acknowledge that the responses were determined by the question that was asked in the first place?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

No, I do not, because a number of the responses argued for the status quo. The issue now is whether we are prepared to do further work and give the matter further consideration. We are doing that and we will come back to the Parliament on the question. The issue is important and we need to balance local concerns against the case for improved delivery, improved resilience and the significant investment that is required on the new United Kingdom-wide radio communications system for the fire service.

I note what the committee said about the merits of making the water supplier responsible for maintaining water hydrants. We recently consulted on the principles that should underpin water charges and the investment levels that will be required in the water industry for the next eight years. We want to find a solution, but we must ensure that it is consistent with the principles that have been set out. I will therefore discuss the matter with the Minister for Environment and Rural Development and his deputy, who have responsibility for water, and I will let the committee know the outcome as soon as possible.

The fire safety duties that relate to places where people work are also important. The removal of multiple and overlapping fire safety provisions and their replacement with a single fire safety regime based on risk reduction will reduce the burden on businesses and allow more efficient and effective enforcement. As the committee acknowledges, there are a number of complex technical legal issues in part 3 of the bill. Since I gave evidence to the committee, my officials have met the Fire Brigades Union Scotland to discuss those matters and to offer explanations and clarification where they were required. I hope that that dialogue will continue once the draft regulations are available.

I am concerned that we have perhaps not sufficiently clearly explained to the committee our policy that the fire and rescue authority should be the main enforcing authority for fire safety issues and how that affects properties that are subject to houses in multiple occupation licensing or to registration by the Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care. I assure the committee that the multi-agency approach will stay intact. For example, HMO properties currently receive a visit from a fire officer; that will continue. The fire officer feeds the outcome of the visit into the HMO licensing process as a whole; that, too, will continue. The process and the interaction will look and feel the same. The only difference will be that, on fire safety—and on fire safety only—the fire and rescue authority will be the enforcing authority. It will have the final say on what is acceptable to secure people's safety in the event of a fire. It is right and proper that the professionals should have that duty and power and I am confident that the public at large and those responsible for the licensing schemes will welcome that approach.

We need to ensure that information and education on the new fire safety regime are available in appropriate forms and at the appropriate time for those who need it. We are considering options for publicity and information. For reasons of time, I will skip over that, but I assure members that we believe that the money will be available and we will continue to consider the matter.

I will touch on a couple of other issues that the committee raised. The first is firefighting at sea. I confirm that we will amend the bill to provide for the necessary duties and powers to enable participation in the sea of change project. Secondly, on assaults on firefighters, I am aware that stage 2 consideration of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill begins next week and that provisions in that bill will protect those acting in that capacity. We will lodge the necessary amendments to meet our commitment to protect all fire and rescue service personnel while they are on duty.

I indicated earlier that the consultation process associated with the bill is still on-going. We recently shared our first draft of the national framework with the committee and key stakeholders as part of a pre-consultation exercise. Once we have considered their responses, we will issue a full consultation draft to all stakeholders.

At the beginning of next month we will issue three consultation papers. The first will cover charging. I confirm that it will make it clear that fire and rescue authorities will continue to be able to recover full costs for services that they provide for other organisations, such as training. Secondly, we will consult on our additional functions order under section 10 of the bill. Thirdly, we will consult on a replacement body for the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which the bill will abolish—a move that, I note, the committee supports. The consultation period will last for three months in line with good-practice guidance and we hope that that—together with a first draft of the fire safety regulations, which should be available for stage 2—will contribute to the scrutiny process and provide further clarity and reassurance.

I hope that what I have said will give reassurance on some of the issues that I have addressed and that we have gone some way towards addressing the concerns of the Opposition parties that have lodged amendments to the Executive motion. We will return to many of the issues at stage 2, but it is important that the Parliament should endorse the need for the bill. The bill replaces legislation that is, in some cases, more than 50 years old and it represents a clear opportunity to help to create a modern and efficient fire and rescue service that can meet the challenges of the 21st century. For that reason, I commend the bill to the Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Fire (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 9:47 am, 18th November 2004

I thank the minister for his clarification of many points and for the tenor and tone of his speech. The fire service has served Scotland and her communities well over years past and present. I refer not only to the front-line firefighters, but to the backroom staff, because the success of the service is the sum of its parts. Disputes with management, Executive and Government have not deflected them from providing an excellent emergency service to one and all. They have changed with the times and adapted to new requirements. From an increased work load in vehicular accidents to a more varied work load involving chemicals, the nature and extent of the calls on their service have changed and increased, but, without fail, the fire service has addressed the safety of individuals and the security of communities.

The main purpose of the bill, as detailed in the policy memorandum, is ostensibly

"to deliver a modernised Fire and Rescue Service that responds to the particular demands of the 21st Century and contributes to building a 'Safer Scotland'."

It is clear that times have changed and that the society in which we live has evolved, but, to its credit, so has the fire service that has served us well throughout the years. There is an adage that the minister and the Executive might care to bear in mind: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Reference is made to the need for national resilience. That can be viewed as weasel words. We need to adapt to changing times, but, although it is essential that we address the problems of global terrorism, that requirement must not be used to deliver Executive-desired change under the guise of the defence of freedom when, ofttimes, that is not the case. Our emergency services have coped admirably with incidents as major and varied as those at Lockerbie and Piper Alpha. Of course they need to prepare for other atrocities and tragedies, but that must not be an excuse to railroad through unwanted changes without proper discussion and debate.

The first policy objective of the bill is

"to define the role of the modern Fire and Rescue Service", but that is an evolving concept. If the role has changed and adapted since the 1940s and 1950s, will it not, as the minister said, do likewise in the 21st century? If the service coped back then, why should it not cope with future developments?

The second objective is to ensure that the fire and rescue service has clearer national and local priorities and objectives. Who could disagree with that sentiment? However, if that is the case, why are we seeking to undermine the statutory basis that enables priorities and objectives to be discussed and debated rather than simply to be set according to the whim and fancy of a minister—I do not mean to imply anything about the current minister; I am thinking of some future minister—and to be the subject of diktat?

The third objective is to improve the protection offered to communities. We agree with that aim. However, in what way is it an improvement to reduce the input of communities and potentially to centralise the service? That proposal causes concern to members from all parties, not just the Opposition parties.

The fourth objective is to revise fire safety legislation. Clearly, there is unanimity on that and we support the Executive in that regard. Preventing fires from starting in the first place is as important a role and remit as putting them out. Ensuring that actions and steps are taken by responsible parties is part of that work.

We accept that, in a democracy, it is the right of the Executive to legislate. However, it remains the duty of the Opposition to challenge the intentions and the fine print of legislation. We are only at stage 1—and, of course, we have the benefit of being able to see a published bill—but I appreciate the fact that the minister has today further clarified matters, particularly with regard to the use of the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure for statutory instruments. However, even with the affirmative procedure, the difficulty is that we are left in a take-it-or-leave-it situation. We will find that, although the instrument contains points that are valid and welcome, the Parliament will be able only to say no to the entire instrument; we will not be able to delete particular parts. That is the difficulty that we have with the minister's concession, welcome though it is.

We cannot prevent the Executive from using its majority to force through its will. However, we can ensure that errors are pointed out and mistakes and pitfalls are avoided. Clearly, many provisions in the bill are perfectly acceptable, not only to the committee but to the Fire Brigades Union. Whether the implementation of such beneficial proposals required a bill to be drafted is open to debate, but the Executive has chosen to deal with the issues in that fashion. However, we are opposed to particular provisions, which we are flagging up at this juncture. We hope that the Executive will reflect on our concerns and ensure that the gains provided are not offset by losses.

We have three main areas of concern. The first is the proposed abolition of the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which is a statutory body that has worked well—it has adapted to changed times and has delivered to meet them. Replacing the council with a non-statutory body undermines the ethos of the organisation. The body might need to be improved and adapted and we can change its name and even some of its structures—the need for such changes is open to debate, as even the FBU accepts. What is not acceptable and what we will challenge is the decision to move the body to a non-statutory basis, which undermines not just its integrity, but its authority.

Secondly, we are concerned about the fact that, in conjunction with making the SCFBAC a non-statutory body, the bill will enhance ministerial powers. Ministers are entitled to govern; we accept that that is part of living in a democracy. However, in areas such as the one that we are discussing, in which we have operated as a community and with co-operation between all partners, action must not be taken by ministerial fiat or Executive whim. Certainly, no minister should be able to bind his successors. That is our fundamental difficulty with the direction in which the Executive is moving.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I hope that Mr MacAskill recognises that, as I explained to the committee, only one of the powers that he refers to—that of emergency direction—is exercisable by ministerial direction. The remainder are all exercisable by order and, as such, would be subject to full consultation and, more important, full parliamentary scrutiny.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I accept that and welcome the tenor of the minister's words. However, the devil is in the detail and we must ask further questions about the use of ministerial direction. The Executive argues that it is unlikely that such powers would be used. If so, why is it legislating for them? If the Executive does not intend to use them, why have them? Of course, if we remove the democratic forums that previously provided a chamber for debate, we increase the likelihood that we will act by direction rather than after discussion.

If the powers are unlikely to be used, perhaps the minister could tell us the circumstances in which the Executive envisages that they might be used. Moreover, if they are to be exceptional, that should be made clear and the times at and issues on which the Executive would intervene should be specified. If there is no hidden agenda, the Executive should make that clear, detail the situations in which ministerial edict might have reign and let the Parliament decide whether that edict should run.

Our third concern relates to the number of fire control rooms. That issue has been a matter of great concern, as we have heard, and others in my party will comment on it at length. However, it is important that we remember that we are talking about not only a national fire brigade but a local fire service. Part of the strength of that service is that it is for the community and, fundamentally, from the community.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Kenny MacAskill has indicated that others in his party will comment on the issue of fire control rooms at some length, but I must point out that the bill is not about fire control rooms—there is much more to it. Indeed, I remind him that, if local authorities want to change the number of fire control rooms, they can do so even before the bill is passed.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

The minister's words are factually correct, but many members of the public and many members in this chamber—not just those in my party—are concerned about the direction in which we are heading with regard to fire control rooms. The bill concerns fire control rooms. The question whether the actions that we are discussing could be taken at the moment or after the bill is passed must be addressed.

A central strength of the fire service is local knowledge. Centralisation—reducing the number of fire control centres—will reduce local knowledge and undermine the local service. It is ironic that one of the drivers for the bill is the troubled times in which we live, which are exemplified by the tragedy of 9/11. However, the lesson that New York city learned led it to increase, not decrease, the number of fire control centres. It is clear to me that, if that is good enough for New York, it is good enough for New Lanark.

There are also concerns, not least to the FBU, about the consequences of the changes in respect of industrial action. The Executive sought at the Justice 2 Committee to address the union's fears. However, it would be useful if the minister could confirm the position for the record. If those fears are allayed, our doubts on that issue will be assuaged to some extent.

Clearly, changes can be made to improve the fire service, but that has always been the case. Is legislation necessary and, if so, does it require to be of the magnitude of this bill? Those are matters that the Executive must consider anew. If it is committed to pressing on, it must at least address the three key points that I have outlined: we require a statutory body in the service; we must not act on ministerial whim or fancy; and there must be no reduction in the number of fire control rooms without proper local debate, discussion and agreement.

I move amendment S2M-1960.2, to insert at end,

"but, in so doing, recognises that the Fire Service has served Scotland and its communities well and has done so with firefighters, management, employers and local authorities working in partnership and therefore expresses concern about the proposed abolition of the Scottish Central Fire Brigade Advisory Council and its replacement with a non-statutory body, in conjunction with increased ministerial powers allowing for Scottish Executive action without a forum for proper debate and discussion, at a time when there is concern over the retention of control rooms and other aspects of the service."

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative 9:58 am, 18th November 2004

I take this opportunity to thank my fellow committee members, the clerks to the Justice 2 Committee and the witnesses who gave evidence during the stage 1 process. The committee has played a useful scrutiny role and, from the minister's comments, I think that he has understood that there is no acrimony around the bill and that there has been a genuine attempt to be constructive. However, as Mr MacAskill said, we have an obligation to test and probe when there is legitimate doubt about the Executive's ultimate intentions.

The Fire (Scotland) Bill is an important piece of legislation. Our fire service is professional and dedicated and I know that I am not alone in the chamber in being in a position to say that I have had occasion to rely on that professionalism and dedication. I pay tribute to the men and women throughout Scotland who demonstrate those qualities day in and day out.

In 2004, it is fitting that we should review the legislative framework as, in effect, that was last done in 1947. Since then, times have changed. We are in a different environment and there are new duties, challenges and threats, not the least of which is the unwelcome emergence of global terrorism. The Parliament owes it to the men and women of the Scottish fire service to scrutinise the bill carefully. We also owe it to the Scottish people to ensure that the legislation is clear and sufficient to meet the complexities of today's world.

Much of the new strategy and framework will be set out in the national framework document. Although my committee has seen a draft of that paper, it is private and consultation is to follow. It might have been more satisfactory if the production of the document had been accelerated so that the committee could have fully considered the framework at stage 1. Similarly, the bill depends heavily on secondary legislation and further consultations in relation to control rooms, the firelink project, integrated risk management plans, fire safety regulations, charging and the new advisory structure. Therefore, it is difficult to get a comprehensive or complete view of what the legislation will be like in practice. I simply ask whether that is fair to everyone who will be affected by it. Perhaps it is not. The lesson is that if what has been proposed is worth doing—and it is—more detail at the drafting stage and less haste might be beneficial.

Before dealing with my amendment, I will acknowledge what is positive in the bill. Part 1 contains a clear restatement of the structure of the fire and rescue service, which is clarifying and helpful, and part 2 gives a helpful redefinition of the principal functions of the service. The Executive's intention to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to include offshore firefighting is sensible and welcome. Nowadays, the provisions for emergency direction are—unhappily—necessary and the minister has sought to reassure the committee that they are last-resort powers. We accept that reassurance. The consolidation of fire safety legislation in part 3 is certainly complex and technical, but it is also welcome, as it represents a helpful attempt to codify the law and to achieve a degree of consistency throughout the United Kingdom. I would certainly underline the committee's caveats on aspects of all those provisions, but I welcome the minister's comments on chief fire officers and senior fire officers, for example.

As for my amendment, I supported the general principles of the bill in committee for the reasons to which I have referred, but I revert to the issue of clarity. The bill will be a powerful and influential measure. That is particularly demonstrated by the creation of a range of ministerial powers. In his evidence, the minister sought to reassure the committee that the exercise of those powers would be highly unusual. I do not impugn his integrity or doubt the sincerity of his remarks—indeed, he repeated them this morning—but I believe that legislation must stand clearly on its own merits.

Let me deal first with the powers that are contained in part 1, in particular the ministerial power to amalgamate fire boards. By any construction, that is a potentially centralising measure, the possible consequence of which could be to reduce the number of boards and brigades. Whatever the nuances in debates about the current situation and what is being proposed, the bill will change existing law. That the pendulum should swing in favour of the Executive is causing unease in Opposition parties.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I am baffled and would welcome further discussion with Annabel Goldie about exactly how the situation would change. The power has existed since 1947. All we are doing is recognising that, when matters come to ministers for approval, we are, in effect, taking the decision. What we are proposing and the draftsmen have suggested is simply a tidying-up measure that explicitly says that the reality is that ministers are not simply approving but taking the decision. If we are making a decision, we should be seen to take that responsibility. The bill simply clarifies something that has, in a sense, always been the case.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

That is the nub of the disagreement between us. My reading of the bill is that it will provide for a ministerial power that could be instigated by the ministerial presence, as distinct from voluntary proposals coming from the authorities with the decision being whether to give those proposals ministerial countenance. That is the nub of the difficulty.

If the Executive's intention is to reduce the number of brigades, that is a new and separate debate and the Executive cannot by stealth deliver that outcome—if that is what the Executive intends, it must be stated in the bill. If the Executive ever intends to bring forward such proposals, it must do so through primary legislation. I know that the minister made a minor concession this morning by allowing that subordinate legislation proposing any change would be subject to the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure. That is an advance, but it is not enough.

That is why I have lodged my amendment. We need clarity. If the Executive will not support my amendment, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that there is an intention to reduce the current number of boards. As I said, that is not acceptable unless there is a bill before the Parliament for that purpose. If the Executive does not support my amendment, my party will find it difficult—indeed, I think that it will find it impossible—to support the bill at this stage.

I move amendment S2M-1960.1, to insert at end:

"but, in so doing, seeks assurances from the Scottish Executive that the ministerial powers in part 1 of the Bill will not be used to amalgamate existing fire boards in Scotland."

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 10:05 am, 18th November 2004

I, too, welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on the stage 1 report on the Fire (Scotland) Bill.

A considerable amount of evidence was given to the committee and I thank all the main players in the fire service for giving up their time to come to the committee. They certainly all agreed that the existing legislation—the 1947 act—needed to be brought up to date. In its policy memorandum, the Executive states that the 1947 legislation is still mostly perfectly adequate, but that it

"would do little to progress the modernisation agenda."

I believe that the new bill will achieve what the Executive wants, which is to bring the fire and rescue service up to date and to allow it to modernise. No organisation can stand still, and the public expect a modern and efficient fire and rescue service to deliver in a modern society.

Of course, much of the detail of the new framework will be set out in secondary legislation, which has already been referred to, and in a new national framework. There is still considerable consultation to be had, as there has been during the passage of the bill so far. Like Annabel Goldie, I think that it might have been better if that consultation had been at a more complete stage by now. It would then have been easier for the committee to reach more robust conclusions on various parts of the bill—for example, on the national framework, charging and the new advisory structure.

The Chief Fire Officers Association and the Fire Brigades Union expressed concern about control and lines of responsibility. The minister has said something about that already, but I hope that he will do a little more to clarify the exact position.

In considering the overall provisions of the bill, there was real disagreement in the committee only on the future structure of the fire service. I stress that the bill will make no changes to the current structure of the fire services. Some written and oral evidence gave rise to the concern that part 1 of the bill puts the power to amalgamate fire boards into the hands of the minister. Members have already discussed that matter. In evidence, Ian Snedden said:

"the bill's provisions would allow amalgamation orders to provide for a smaller number of larger joint boards. However, in essence, that part of the bill restates the current arrangements. The current boards are set up through such amalgamation orders."—[Official Report, Justice 2 Committee, 9 September 2004; c 918.]

Therefore, any proposals for amalgamation currently have to be approved by ministers.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

If that is the member's understanding of the situation, will he confirm that that is what section 2(1) says?

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

That is my interpretation of it. There was considerable discussion of the matter in the committee, and we must take a view. That is my view of the bill as it stands.

Section 1 has a robust statement on whom the minister must consult before amalgamation. Apart from Annabel Goldie and Stewart Maxwell, the committee was content with the power but sought assurance that

"the consultation will be comprehensive and transparent and will include all interested parties."

The concern about the section revolves around the number of fire control rooms and whether a reduction would lead to fewer brigades. That is by no means certain. I know that any reduction in local accountability would be contested by all parties in the fire service and would be hotly contested by MSPs.

The Mott MacDonald review concluded that a reduction in control rooms would be advantageous. However, the question is, from eight to what? Members of the committee noted that having one control room was feasible—we had evidence of that—but we all thought that that was not desirable.

I turn to two other areas of the bill: charging and the water supply. I have always believed that fire brigades should charge, when appropriate, and the minister has made reference to that today. It is important that brigades can charge and recover costs for such things as the training and services that they provide to businesses and others. The Finance Committee was concerned about the loss of income from fire certificates and in our report we have asked for any loss of income to be compensated for.

It seems that all bills have to have at least one area that causes some amusement during the taking of evidence. In this case, it was all about water hydrants. The Chief Fire Officers Association enlightened us all by telling us that fire hydrants are used on only a few occasions, and the evidence to the committee was that the responsibility for the seldom-used hydrants should be passed to the water authority. I am sure that the water authority will not like that, but there is merit in that suggestion. I note what the minister has said on the subject already and I invite him to reflect on the evidence that we have been given.

I want briefly to refer to HMOs. As a councillor, I worked on the regulatory committee of the City of Edinburgh Council for several years, and I always felt that it was right to approach HMOs in a multi-agency way, whereby everybody was able to have an input and reports were received from everybody who was involved. It was often the fire officer who led that discussion. I still think that that is the way forward.

I conclude with a question on which there was some discussion in the committee. When is a police officer not a police officer, and if someone is disguised as a firefighter, should he not be charged for impersonation, as he would be if he was impersonating a police officer? I look forward to the minister clarifying that small but important issue.

I am confident in and content with the Fire (Scotland) Bill at stage 1 and I recommend that the Parliament agree to its general principles.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour 10:12 am, 18th November 2004

The fire and rescue services—especially the local brigades—are held in high regard by the people of Scotland. The area that I represent has only one full-time fire brigade but dozens of local retained or voluntary groups. I thank the minister for the transitional funding that is being made available to address the modernisation of the fire service in the Highlands and Islands.

Nobody will disagree that we also need to modernise the legislation governing the fire service, which dates back to 1947. The bill is a mechanism for making the fire and rescue service responsive to modern needs and for delivering, through a national framework, our national and local priorities. The bill therefore needs to be read in conjunction with the national framework, which is being consulted on contemporaneously with the bill. It was helpful for the Justice 2 Committee to have sight of the framework during the stage 1 consultation although, as Annabel Goldie said, we would have liked to have seen it a wee bit sooner.

Although the policy intentions of the bill were generally welcomed, the Chief Fire Officers Association, the Fire Brigades Union and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities felt that there was a lack of clarity—which the minister has recognised—about when the Executive would exercise powers of direction, what the responsibilities of chief officers would be and how local democratic control would be exercised. Lines of responsibility need to be made clearer, especially regarding who would be in overall operational control in a major fire situation as envisaged in section 11. Although, as the minister has said, section 11 orders would be used rarely, there must be certainty about roles and responsibilities. I am glad to have the assurances that the minister gave in his opening speech.

We recognise that nothing in the bill changes the structures of the fire service. However, the bill lays down how amalgamations of brigades would be decided. Because of the current consultation on the Mott MacDonald report "The Future of Fire Service Control Rooms in Scotland", there has been a perception that the number of brigades will be cut, especially if the number of control rooms is cut. That is not in the bill, but I would be glad to hear the minister give assurances on the matter. I would also like him to give an assurance that if, in the future, there are proposals to amalgamate brigades, there will be wide-ranging consultation, such as he has mentioned, of all parties who might be affected. At the moment, the list of parties to be consulted does not include the recognised trade unions, and I wonder whether the minister has a comment to make on that.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Maureen Macmillan's point relates to an issue that was also raised by Kenny MacAskill. Section 45 clearly states that any negotiating body should include representatives of employees. I have no doubt whatever that that would include trade unions. The difficulty with amending the bill to include a reference to recognised trade unions is what the definition of "recognised trade unions" would be. Defining that would cause other complexities. I am happy to give the assurance that, as far as I am concerned, representatives of employees should and would include trade unions.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

I am glad of that assurance, as I hope that others will be.

The Mott MacDonald report has, as the minister knows, caused anxiety in most brigade areas. I ask the minister to consider not just the cost savings but the impact of any changes on communities and the complex nature of the work that is carried out in the control rooms. I am glad of his assurance that there will be further consultation. I recently visited the fire service control room in Inverness and was impressed by the sophistication of the logistics that are involved in deploying rescue vehicles, not to mention the way in which continuous communication is maintained with the firefighters and members of the public who are involved or even trapped in a fire situation. We must recognise that control rooms are not just call centres but carry out a great deal of sophisticated work.

In its evidence to the Justice 2 Committee, the FBU raised concerns about the interpretation of definitions of employer-employed relationships and the complexity of the drafting that would be needed to ensure that the bill married with UK legislation on fire safety. The FBU and the Scottish Trades Union Congress also expressed concern about a possible interpretation of section 67, which they felt could mean curtailing workers' rights. The Executive has written to the committee, addressing those concerns and affirming that section 67 does not bear the interpretation that is feared by the trade union movement. However, it is obviously an instance of lawyers eyeballing one another. I urge the Executive to meet the trade unions to discuss the matter further and, if any way can be found to clarify the language that is used in the bill to their mutual satisfaction, to lodge amendments at stage 2.

Two seemingly minor points caused a great deal of discussion, one of which has been raised already. First, could off-duty policemen act as volunteer firefighters? There is a ban on that at the moment and the bill continues that ban. It is an anomaly that an off-duty policeman can be a volunteer in a mountain rescue team or on a lifeboat but cannot turn out for a small, rural fire brigade. It is doubtful that allowing that would make much difference to recruitment figures—we received conflicting evidence on that—but some of the small brigades are having difficulty in attracting personnel. Will the minister examine the matter and consider whether the decision to allow an off-duty policeman to volunteer for the local fire brigade could be decided on a case-by-case basis, with the application being made to the appropriate police authority, rather than it being written into law that that can never happen.

Secondly, there is a point of irritation over who should pay for the upkeep of fire hydrants. At present, that is the fire service's responsibility, but it wishes that it was not. It wants the responsibility to be transferred to Scottish Water, although that could have financial implications for water customers. In evidence taking on the Water Services etc (Scotland) Bill, I was told that the vandalism of fire hydrants costs the fire service £1 million a year. It is no wonder that neither the fire service nor Scottish Water wants to foot that bill. Does the Executive take that £1 million cost into account in funding the fire and rescue service? The issue seems to be one of antisocial behaviour and I urge the Executive to consider how it might be dealt with through the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004.

Although this is a time of uncertainty for the fire and rescue service, with some rural brigades in the north awaiting their fate under the integrated risk management plans, I am confident that the bill will give us the modern fire service that we need for the 21st century.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 10:20 am, 18th November 2004

I know that my colleagues will elaborate on this point, but listening to what the minister had to say about the reduction in the number of control rooms, I should draw his attention to paragraph 31 of the Justice 2 Committee's report on the bill. The report quotes his comment that

"fire boards representing 23 of the 32 local authorities in Scotland have suggested that we should consider having three control rooms".

As Shona Robison has pointed out, that statement is misleading; the detail is all in the question, not in the answer. Only three fire authorities have indicated that, in the event of any reduction, they would prefer the number of control rooms to be reduced to three. COSLA

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Will the member tell us how many local authorities are represented by those three brigades?

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I was just about to say that the three fire brigades or authorities that indicated that three control rooms would be their preferred option represent 23 local authorities. If the minister will let me finish this time, I will also point out that COSLA, which represents all local authorities, has stated that the majority of council leaders are opposed to any reduction, including the leaders of the authorities served by the three brigades that the minister mentioned.

Paragraph 23 of the report states:

"the Minister advised that the immediate driver behind the proposal to reduce the number of control rooms" was funding. So it is all about money. The Scottish National Party acknowledges that funding is important but believes that it should not compromise people's safety and ultimately their lives. I ask the minister to consider that point as well.

Before I move on, I want to make it clear that my rural colleagues will consider the important issue of the geography of those areas, so I will not dwell on that in my speech. However, although I accept what the minister said on that matter, I should point out that people in those areas are very concerned about the reorganisation of the fire boards. If that reorganisation goes ahead, it might lead to an increase in injuries and deaths. In response to Bill Butler, the minister said that the matter will come before Parliament, and I look forward to hearing what the minister has to say on that.

On the issue of employment, Maureen Macmillan mentioned that one area of concern was section 45, which basically refers to the rights of trade unions. Maureen said that she accepted the minister's explanation, but I cannot take any comfort from his comments. For example, he said that, although the phrase "recognised trade unions" did not present any difficulties for him, he could not include it in the bill. I would have thought that, given his previous life, the minister, of all people, would recognise trade unions and I ask him to explain why he cannot use that term.

Section 45 gives ministers the power to establish a "statutory negotiating body" that will be made up of representatives of employers and employees. Why can it not mention trade unions? I ask the minister to reconsider the matter; after all, we know that it is usually trade unions that represent employees—it is similar to Mike Pringle's point in his speech that a policeman is a policeman is a policeman. I cannot see where the difficulty lies. In any case, the rights of trade unions are enshrined in the European convention on human rights and I believe that they must be given legitimacy in the bill. If that does not happen, the unions and I will regard such an approach as an absolute farce.

Maureen Macmillan also raised concerns about the bill's approach to fire safety duties and industrial action. Although the report makes it clear that the minister has given assurances on this matter, I seek clarification on section 67. A civil offence is already set out in section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which stipulates the requirements of those who take part in lawful industrial action. However, section 67(2) of the bill would make it a criminal offence for individuals to take part in lawful industrial action. I emphasise the word "individuals", because it does not matter whether we are talking about firefighters, fire control operators or any other individual who is deemed to have a responsibility for fire safety in their workplace. Again, I know that the report says that the minister has already given assurances on this issue, but I seek his assurances about the intention behind section 67(2) and ask him to clarify categorically either through an intervention or in his summing-up that he does not intend to make it a criminal offence for a person to strike.

I thank the members of my party for giving me this opportunity to speak this morning. I am not a member of the Justice 2 Committee, but I have certainly read the report and the other evidence. Strathclyde fire brigade is one of the biggest brigades in the country—indeed, it is one of the three fire authorities that the minister said were in favour of reducing the number of control rooms to three. However, that brigade and the members of the FBU are very concerned about all their colleagues throughout Scotland and would urge the minister and the Parliament to examine carefully the bill's contentious bits and pieces such as the reduction in the number of control rooms and aspects that relate to trade unions and industrial action. I cannot support the whole bill without examining those issues.

I could highlight the many and varied incidents in which the men and women in the fire brigades have given their all—members have already mentioned Lockerbie and the Maryhill tragedy—but I will not dwell on individual actions. All I will say is that those people would not be telling us that there is something wrong with the bill and that we should look at it properly if there were no reason to do so. I am asking the Parliament not to simply take on board the minister's assurances. That said, if he can give us some assurances on the questions that I have raised, that might go some way towards allowing the SNP to support the bill.

Photo of Colin Fox Colin Fox SSP 10:26 am, 18th November 2004

Two years ago today, the first national fire strike in 25 years began. I was on the picket line at Liberton fire station in Edinburgh. Little did I realise that I would mark the second anniversary of that dispute standing here in the Scottish Parliament, debating plans for a radical reorganisation of the fire service. I want first to pay tribute to the firefighters whom I met. Those men and women, who provide an outstanding service to the people of this country and across Britain, stood up for their rights to have a decent wage and dignity in employment. I would like to think that it was the support that the Scottish Socialist Party showed them in their hour of need that persuaded so many of them, their families and their friends to put their faith in this party at the 2003 elections.

I believe that the national fire strike is a driver for the bill, because it represents a complete sea-change in the Executive's attitude to the fire service. It places us in an entirely different direction from the pathfinder report and the Executive's own document, "The Scottish Fire Service of The Future", which was published in 2002. Instead, the bill is an amalgam of the much-criticised Bain report and the report that was issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister immediately after the strike.

What happened to the proposed investments in decentralisation that were set out in the highly respected pathfinder report? What happened to the plans that were laid out in the previous Executive document? The delayed and long- awaited draft of the national framework, which runs in tandem with the bill, makes interesting reading. For a start, it proposes cuts and a further centralisation of powers. It says that

"fire and rescue authorities primarily provide local service" and local democracy and are

"accountable to ... communities", but—and here is the rub—change has to be made. The implication is that there will be a lessening in primary provision, local democracy and community control. Furthermore, it counterposes improved services to communities with

"efficiencies linked to the best value agenda".

Local authority and public sector workers across the country know that that is new Labour-speak for cuts.

Perhaps when he sums up, the minister might also tell us whom he means when he says in the pre-consultation draft of the national framework that the service is not to be

"a fiefdom for particular stakeholders".

Who are these chiefs? Whose fiefdom is he talking about?

The Scottish Socialist Party will support the general principle of modernising the fire service, provided that it improves the service to the public. Although we will support the bill today, we believe that it is in need of radical amendment at a later stage. We look forward with keen interest to the outcome of the consultation.

The minister touched on the issue of the control rooms in his opening speech. Many other members who have spoken have highlighted that that plan is one of the serious concerns that I and the other members of the Justice 2 Committee have about the bill. It is the most obviously contentious issue in the bill. The key question is whether the plan represents a better service to the public. To my mind the overwhelming body of evidence that was presented to the committee favoured eight control rooms, one in each fire area. There was unanimity among the employers in the shape of COSLA, the employees in the shape of the FBU and the managers' organisations that the plan represents a diminution of the service to the public, because it means that there will be fewer staff and a poorer service. Fewer people handling the calls means a poorer service, a slower call-handling rate, a longer response time and, consequently, an increased risk to the public of injury and death.

The minister accepted at the committee that amalgamation would mean that there were fewer control room staff. Much was made by Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services for Scotland—who seems to be the sole supporter of option 1—of the Strathclyde experience, where five control rooms had previously been merged into one. He failed to mention that, unfortunately, Strathclyde is consistently bottom of the table in Scotland on response times and is the slowest of all the Scottish fire brigades. The chief inspector also talked about the need for the fire service's response time to be brought into line with that of the other emergency services. The fire brigade is rightly proud of the fact that it has the fastest response time of any of our emergency services. The changes will impinge on that proud record.

It was suggested to the committee that the plan is needed because for reasons of national resilience—the fear that there might be a need to respond to terrorist attacks and so on—it is preferable to have fewer, but bigger, control rooms. Yet 9/11 was surely the ultimate test of anyone's national resilience and the New York fire department's response was to move in precisely the opposite direction from that which the minister suggests today—it moved from one fire control room to five. Brigades can work together without amalgamation. The Lockerbie disaster was the biggest test of national resilience that the fire service has dealt with in Scotland. That disaster was faced by the smallest brigade in Britain, which was given great credit and awards for the way in which it responded. As Kenny MacAskill said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. As far as I am concerned, the evidence is that the amalgamations will lead to a poorer service and will compromise community safety.

I found the evidence offered to us on the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council curious and somehow suspicious. The body has been in existence for 55 years, yet neither the minister nor the chief inspector of fire services could provide evidence that it had produced a single piece of work of any value in all those years of meetings. It is suggested that the council will be replaced with something dynamic. We do not know what that will be, but it will not be statutory and the minister need not attend. Again, that is a step back from the current situation.

That brings me to the meetings that the minister will attend. There is a clear centralising emphasis in the bill. The bill includes extra powers for the minister, but those are for unspecified purposes. Will he agree to list in the bill the specific categories under which those powers can be used appropriately? Can he assure the Parliament that those powers will not be used to outlaw a future national fire strike, as was much talked about during the 2002 dispute?

At this stage the bill does not get the balance right between the powers of the minister to direct and the powers of the local professionals to manage the service. This is a centralising bill.

Local democracy and decision making are further compromised.

I reiterate that the Scottish Socialist Party will support the general principles of the bill in its attempt to modernise the service and update the legislation, but we intend to lodge amendments later in its progress through Parliament.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour 10:34 am, 18th November 2004

As a new member of the Justice 2 Committee, I did not have the opportunity to take part in any of the evidence sessions, but I nevertheless welcome the opportunity to make a number of general observations about the stage 1 report on the bill.

The committee found that a general welcome had been extended to the principal objective of the bill: the delivery of modernised fire and rescue services that respond to the particular demands of 21st century Scotland. There was general agreement that the current legislation required to be updated to mirror the breadth of the role of the modern fire service, which now has multifarious functions, and to deliver a clear framework of responsibility for fire safety. The Executive should be given credit for recognising that the current legislation that governs the fire service, which dates back to 1947, does not and cannot possibly take proper account of the evolution of the fire service over more than half a century.

Of course, the primary purpose of the fire service is still to tackle fires, but the bill seeks to reflect properly the variety of roles that the fire service now carries out, in particular fire prevention, attending road traffic accidents and undertaking other rescue work.

The FBU's submission to the Justice 2 Committee welcomes

"The inclusion in Sections 7 & 9 of Fire Safety Duties and Road Traffic Accidents as a Statutory Obligation".

The FBU is correct in its assertion that

"These functions have been carried out for many years by Firefighters and it is right & proper that they are finally acknowledged and enshrined in statute."

The inclusion of road traffic accidents as a statutory obligation is a welcome recognition that the number of calls to assist with the rescue of people from wreckage and to protect people from harm from the spillage of hazardous substances has increased dramatically. It is right and fitting that a relevant authority will now be statutorily obliged to make provision for rescuing persons from road traffic accidents and for dealing with the aftermath of such accidents.

Despite the general welcome afforded to the policy intentions of the bill, especially the commonsense reforms to which I have referred, specific concerns have been expressed. Some witnesses also expressed broad concerns about the overall approach taken in the bill. I will touch on a few of those concerns.

First, the balance between central, strategic direction and local accountability, the extent of ministerial powers and the clarity of the provisions on fire service governance were questioned. Among other things, the CFOA wants to see in statute a direct line of reporting responsibility from the firemaster to the fire authority, as pertains in the Fire Services Act 1947. The FBU, along with COSLA, has expressed concern that the proposed legislation does not set out explicitly enough the local democratic and operational control that is seen, rightly, as being central to an effective fire service.

Those are crucial concerns, and I was glad to see that the minister, when attempting to reassure the committee, stressed that

"the fire and rescue service will remain a local government service and that its day-to-day operation and management will take place at local level."—[Official Report, Justice 2 Committee, 28 September 2004; c 1057.]

I also note that he was confident that the firemaster's role could be made clear through either contractual arrangements or a fire board's standing orders, given that the board is the accountable body for the fire service. I was pleased that the minister offered further clarification this morning and reiterated his assurances on those matters, in particular on the CFOA's position. That is to be welcomed.

Many members have spoken about the number of control rooms, which is perhaps one of the more contentious issues and has generated a great deal of interest, not to say controversy. Although the proposal does not require legislation, it appears to be seen by some as an important part of the modernisation programme. Many witnesses, though not all, did not accept that a case for change had been made. A concern expressed by the CFOA, for example, was that the consultant's report is flawed in that it overstates the scope for savings. Other concerns centred on resilience and the potential loss of local knowledge.

I know that the Executive has not yet reached a conclusion, and I note that the minister has reiterated that there will be further consultation with all interested parties before a final decision is made. That is very welcome. I hope that the minister will take careful note of the committee's view that a single control room would be absolutely "undesirable", to quote the report.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I heard what the member said about having a single control room, but what is his view on the prospect of having three control rooms?

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

As I remember from the report, which I am sure Bruce Crawford has read, we were not definitive about that; we wanted to hear what the minister said. I note that the minister will, as the committee suggested,

"consider carefully the concerns raised" and

"address them specifically in the further round of consultation."

Again, that is vital and necessary.

I welcome, as I hope everyone here does, the minister's assurance, given in response to an earlier question of mine, that he will consider coming back to Parliament to discuss the number of control rooms at an appropriate time. I think that his words were "through the appropriate mechanism". I view that as the kind of positive assurance that the committee wanted to hear, as I hope all members do.

Notwithstanding some of the concerns to which I have alluded, to which other members have referred and which were expressed in the stage 1 report, the overall policy intention of the bill is both timely and appropriate. I hope that, as the bill progresses, concerns will be met and doubts answered. On that basis, I commend the general principles of the Fire (Scotland) Bill to the chamber.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative 10:42 am, 18th November 2004

One thing is clear from the debate today and that is that the bill is generally welcomed. Although I am not a member of the Justice 2 Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Fire (Scotland) Bill.

It is clear that many people want to talk about the proposed reduction in the number of control rooms from eight to three or one, yet that is not part of the bill. Nonetheless, I, too, feel that it is important to reinforce the committee's misgivings on that matter and to draw to the attention of the committee and the minister petition PE765 by Jim Malone, which urged the Scottish Executive

"to ensure the retention of the current 8 control rooms in Scotland."

In evidence to the Public Petitions Committee, the firefighters were certainly not happy about the content and tone of and the level of understanding in the Mott MacDonald report and they commented, in particular, on the importance of local knowledge in the control rooms.

Significantly, the petitioners highlighted how crucial quick response times are and how, when individuals are under stress, local dialects emerge that staff in a single control room might not quickly or readily understand. For example, I doubt whether many people in the west of Scotland readily understand the Doric or Gaelic, and vital seconds could be lost in establishing local names and routes to villages in the north-east or north-west if one control centre existed, say, in the west of Scotland.

In addition, the Fire Brigades Union submission pointed out that the largest control room in Scotland currently has the slowest response time, the clear inference being that as control rooms get larger, response times get longer.

As has been mentioned, the FBU's advice that, following the 9/11 tragedy in New York, that city's fire department increased its number of control rooms from one to five, is significant. In all that, the clear message is, as Kenny MacAskill and Colin Fox said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

From the firemen's perspective, their response times are faster than those of the police or the ambulance service. I sympathise with their desire to stop ministerial cost cutting, which, in their view and mine, can lead only to a reduction in response times and fire service delivery.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

John Scott talks about cost cutting. Will he tell me when, since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, we have cut the budget to the fire services? Has the budget increased? In which instances and where, specifically, has the budget been cut?

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

It is my belief that the driver behind the reduction in the number of control rooms is a cost-cutting exercise that I do not welcome.

On the proposed abolition of the present fire certification regime, as members are aware, fire authorities currently carry out inspections and issue prescriptive requirements to ensure the delivery of adequate standards before granting a fire certificate. Presently, the fire certification process applies only to designated premises, for example factories, offices, shops, railway premises, hotels and boarding houses, and only when more than a certain number of people are employed there.

As I understand it, the new proposals will greatly extend the types and number of premises that are subject to fire certification, with only single private dwellings being exempt. That is perfectly laudable, but as the size of the certification task grows, the move towards self-certification gives me ground for concern. A self-compliance regime similar to that employed for health and safety legislation, wherein a "responsible person" would be obliged to ensure that fire certification standards are met, is fraught with pitfalls. Indeed, it might be a road to disaster. If the Executive intends to go down the self-compliance route, it must be aware of its dangers. Industry, businesses and society at large will need to be made much more aware of their responsibilities, and I have the greatest reservations about anyone other than trained fire officers being able to deliver that service.

It is worth noting that when the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997—which were based on self-compliance—were introduced, there was a dangerous lack of awareness among those who suddenly had responsibility for compliance. If ministers are determined to go down the self-compliance route, they will need to mount a significant campaign to make responsible people aware of their duties and obligations under the new legislation. In fairness to the minister, he undertook to do that this morning.

It is unclear how enforcement will be carried out under a self-compliance regime. That area needs significant further clarification.

A further and final point is the power to charge for attending incidents following the inappropriate activation of a fire alarm system. In South Ayrshire, crews responded to 520 automatic fire alarms in 2003-04. In this financial year, those crews have already responded to 305 such inappropriate activation calls. Those incidents account for more than 20 per cent of call-outs in the Strathclyde area and have apparently replaced malicious calls as the most common type of false alarm.

It is obvious that attending such calls is a significant drain on brigade resources and that it reduces available fire cover elsewhere. It appears that many of those incidents are avoidable, and we have only to consider the example of this Parliament building to understand and be aware of the cost of unnecessary call-outs. A financial penalty or charge for repeat offenders would at least allow brigades to recover some of their costs.

I do not suggest that where genuine concerns and alarms have resulted in calling out the fire brigade to what subsequently proves to be a false alarm, fire brigades should charge. However, where inappropriate calls are repeatedly made that could and should have been avoided, I agree with the principle of charging.

Although I have not spoken to the amendment in Annabel Goldie's name, I nonetheless urge members to consider it carefully and to give it their full support.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 10:48 am, 18th November 2004

We all know that we live in a fast-changing world, and even organisations such as the FBU are realistic enough to realise that change in the fire service is inevitable.

In its briefing of MSPs, the FBU said that it welcomes the renewal of the legislation that governs fire services in Scotland. I welcome it, too, given that it is more than half a century since we had legislation that focused on this area.

I will concentrate most of what I say on control rooms. The FBU argues strongly and coherently that reducing the present number of fire control rooms from eight to one, two or three would be a huge mistake. I am glad that the minister said that he would bring the matter back to Parliament. He has sought to give us assurances, but given that the matter was given such prominence in the Executive's policy memorandum, he cannot be surprised by the alarm, which, it strikes me, signals a degree of nervousness about the issue.

I am not surprised that that is the case. Genuine concerns about a hidden agenda will remain until the minister states unequivocally that he does not accept the central thrust of the Mott MacDonald report. I hope that the commitment to give the matter further consideration is not simply a mechanism for parking the issue until after the general election. That would be disgraceful.

The proposal to reduce drastically the number of fire control rooms alarms me not only as an MSP but as an ordinary member of the public who one day—God forbid—might have to rely on firefighters to rescue me, my family or my home. The Executive-commissioned Mott MacDonald report, which has been widely mentioned, concludes that Scotland would be well served by a reduction in the number of fire control rooms. However, the report has fatal flaws and does not represent the robust examination of the situation on the ground that is a prerequisite if safe conclusions and recommendations are to be made. The evidence that I have gathered from my visits to the Fife fire and rescue service control centre and from written material leads me to believe passionately that the Executive must listen much more to the experiences of operators on the ground and much less to its consultants.

The Mott MacDonald proposals do not take proper account of the local knowledge of fire operators, which includes knowledge of dialects and of local and informal place names. Local knowledge can mean the difference between a fire crew getting to a road traffic accident or a fire in time to save lives and people's lives being lost. I visited the fire control room in Thornton in Fife and spoke to Margaret, one of the control room operators, who told me that an appliance had gone to investigate an incident in Whimbrel Place in Dunfermline. I am pretty familiar with Dunfermline, but I did not know where Whimbrel Place was. Margaret did not have to look at her computer screen to be able to tell me that the street is close to a cinema and alongside the motorway. There are thousands of little pieces of vital information in every operator's head, which save seconds and, ultimately, lives. Technology can never fill the gap that is left when someone like Margaret is lost.

There is a vital issue of public confidence. A person who reports an incident needs to know that the operator understands the area about which the caller is talking. If an operator gives the impression of having no idea where an incident is located, the caller will inevitably become frustrated or angry, particularly if they are at the scene of a road accident or major fire. If we go down the road of having one, two or three control rooms for Scotland, local knowledge and public confidence will be lost and there will inevitably be a much greater risk of lives being lost. We should also remember that there are many regional accents in Scotland and consider what misunderstandings might mean in lives lost.

However, regional accents are not the nub of the Mott MacDonald report; the report is about identifying savings. A significant health warning should be attached to such savings. The report fundamentally fails to grasp what really goes on in fire control rooms outside what are regarded as core duties. Page 21 of the report lists only six non-core activities that are carried out by control room staff, and those will not disappear if the control room vanishes. That demonstrates the level of ignorance about what goes on in control rooms. I know that the minister has seen the Fife control room's evidence—it is on the Executive's website. That submission lists 21 non-core duties that fire control room staff perform. Many of those duties must be carried out 24/7, so the proposed savings are, at best, illusory.

If local fire control rooms close, who will carry out the administration, monitoring, staffing, training, maintenance, health and safety and statistical recording tasks that control room staff currently undertake? The Fife fire control room's submission says:

"Whilst it might appear that Best Value could be achieved by merging Fire Controls ... this would totally ignore many of the core functions of a Fire Control ... and misunderstand the back up and support roles which are vital to the operation of an effective and efficient Fire and Rescue Service."

Change can be essential and can lead to improvement, but change for change's sake is never good.

Will the minister give an assurance on the specific nature of the further consideration that he will give to the issue and on what the consultation process will involve? What will the timescale be? Will the consultation take place before the general election? Will the outcome of the consultation be the subject of a full debate in Parliament, so that all members can take part in the decision? I want to understand much better what the minister meant when he said that he would come back to the Parliament "through the appropriate mechanism".

I ask the minister not to go down the road that I have described. That would be a bad, bad idea.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat 10:55 am, 18th November 2004

Like other members, I welcome the intent of the Fire (Scotland) Bill. It makes sense to revisit legislation that was passed 50 years ago to ensure that it meets modern demands.

Other members have mentioned fears about the future of fire control rooms. I am particularly concerned about the future of the fire control centre in Inverness. As members know, the Highlands and Islands fire brigade already covers a vast geographical area, which is managed by a joint board, the members of which are drawn from the northern isles of Shetland and the Orkneys, the western isles, the small isles of the inner Hebrides and the entire Highland region. That area is larger than Wales, so the service has a huge responsibility. Control centre staff have good local knowledge, which is vital if they are to establish the location of fires and other emergencies. Local knowledge and the comprehension of local dialects are necessary for the safe operation of a fire control centre—that is as true for the Highlands as it is for every other part of Scotland. Therefore, I caution the Executive about trying to cut back control centres too much. A reduction in the number of centres might save money in rates and repairs and maintenance, but a single mistake caused by a breakdown in communication could well cost lives.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I take the point that John Farquhar Munro makes very seriously and I give him an assurance that anything that we do in relation to any aspect of the service will be about improving efficiency and saving lives. Nothing will be done that would jeopardise lives.

It is unfortunate that control rooms are dominating the debate, because there are many aspects of the bill that should properly be considered.

There seems to be a contradiction in what John Farquhar Munro and Bruce Crawford have said, which I would be interested in teasing out. I recognise the valuable contribution that the Inverness control room makes and I have received representations from John Farquhar Munro and other members who represent the area. John Farquhar Munro says that the control room covers an area the size of Wales and should be retained because of the local knowledge of staff. However, Bruce Crawford suggests that local knowledge would be lost if a centre were to be moved 10 or 50 miles down the road. He would not countenance a control room of the nature that John Farquhar Munro defends. The members seem to have completely different views about what area is consistent with local knowledge. When we consult on the matter, I would value further clarification on that.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

As that intervention took up one minute and 23 seconds, I will give Mr Munro more time.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

I thank the minister for his qualification. Many views are represented in the Parliament and we must accommodate them all.

At the very least, the number of control rooms should be the same as is the case for the Scottish Ambulance Service, which has three control centres, one of which is located in Inverness.

Our good friend Annabel Goldie raised another concern at the committee. The committee's report claims that a reduction in the number of call centres could lead to a similar reduction in the number of brigades. I very much hope that the Executive is not considering that, because the public reaction would be similar to the recent reaction to proposals to amalgamate our Scottish regiments.

The modernisation of the fire services is to be welcomed, but I am concerned that changes in the overall structure of the services will be used as an excuse to make root-and-branch changes at local level—in particular, to make fundamental changes to the structure of the volunteer fire services in the Highlands. Those small units have been under threat for some years—especially since 2002, when they faced closure because of health and safety concerns resulting from their lack of breathing apparatus and other equipment. Units have already been prevented from attending road accidents because they are not classified as mobile units. Given the national pressure to centralise public services, I fear that the bill might be used by the Highlands and Islands fire brigade and others to close such units.

In my constituency, there is pressure to close some auxiliary fire units—in particular, the unit at Strathpeffer. That is causing a lot of concern. If it happened, the closure would be a waste of a valuable community resource. The loss would never be replaced by the fire services integrated risk management proposals. In simple terms, those proposals mean getting rid of the auxiliary fire units and then asking people not to start fires or create emergencies in their communities—a different concept altogether.

Although I welcome the Fire (Scotland) Bill in general, a few issues of contention need to be resolved before the bill is passed. If we are to retain the fire services that we currently enjoy and appreciate—it has been classed as the A team of the emergency services—we will have to pay particular attention to the decision on call centres.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 11:02 am, 18th November 2004

It is clear that the overriding priority of the bill is to improve fire safety and to improve prevention of fires. That is welcome when we remember that Scotland has the highest number of fatal and non-fatal casualties per head of population in the United Kingdom.

As has been mentioned, the existing legislation dates back to 1947, but the fire service has not stood still—it has evolved and kept pace with change. It is clear that the duties that the service carries out now go well beyond simply putting out fires. It is therefore appropriate that, more than 50 years on, that fact be given statutory underpinning and recognition.

In the time that is available to me, I want to pick out a few points. I welcome the minister's comments about fire control rooms. Although the matter is not contained in the bill, the committee and Parliament today have noted concerns from brigades, local authorities and trade unions that a reduction in the number of control rooms would not only be undesirable but might have an impact on safety. The test is to decide what is appropriate and what, ultimately, will improve or contribute to improving fire safety. Further discussions with stakeholders will be essential if we are to come to the right solutions. I am therefore pleased that the minister is committed to doing more work on that.

I welcome sections 7 to 10 of the bill, which set out the principal functions of the fire service, including not only firefighting but promotion of fire safety. The flexibility to add to those functions as and when required will be helpful because I do not think that any of us want to wait another 50 years to recognise what the service is doing today. We all know that resources and priorities are largely determined by legislative requirements.

We heard evidence that urban search and rescue and offshore firefighting should have been included in the bill. I confess to a particular interest as I represent a constituency on the west coast of Scotland that has substantial coastal areas. The offshore firefighting situation has long been problematic. The 1947 act does not allow fire authorities to act outside their immediate coastal areas and because local authorities have not been empowered to act at sea, it has been difficult to obtain a clear definition of where each authority's area ends. The UK sea of change project seeks to address that situation. We hope that all offshore firefighting capabilities within the Scottish fire and rescue service can be defined by April of next year. It would be helpful if that could be done in the bill and I welcome the minister's commitment to lodge an amendment at stage 2.

However, I ask the minister to reflect further on urban search and rescue. The Chief Fire Officers Association and others have emphasised the need for urban search and rescue to be specified in the bill because of the increasing significance of new dimensions work, such as dealing with terrorist attacks. Provision must be made so that existing fire services can make the changes to equipment and training that will be needed to meet the new requirements in urban search and rescue.

I want to talk about the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. At the committee, there was broad consensus that the advisory council should be replaced. Wherever people stood on the matter—whether they thought that the advisory council was a very good thing or a very bad thing—they offered the committee suggestions on alternative structures and models. That suggested to me that there exists an acceptance that the advisory council is perhaps past its sell-by date.

Although I agree that structures should not be defined in the bill—we need flexibility to respond to evolving situations—it would be helpful for ministers to enshrine in principle some kind of advisory body without specifying its form. I ask ministers to reflect further on that. The Justice 2 Committee believed it to be essential that the Executive at the very least consult on the nature of the replacement before the bill completes its passage.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I agree absolutely with Jackie Baillie, but will she will go one step further and agree with me that the new advisory council—in whatever form it takes—must have a statutory underpinning, which is what will give it the authority to do the job that it will need to do?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I listened carefully to what Stewart Maxwell just said, and to Kenny MacAskill's opening comments. The position that they have taken is not the one that Mr Maxwell adopted in committee. I am therefore interested to hear that Mr Maxwell takes that position now. If he considers point 90 in the committee's report, which contains our recommendation on the issue, he will see that the Scottish National Party offered no dissent.

The FBU and the STUC expressed substantial concerns about part 3 of the bill; specifically, section 65, which deals with the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, and section 67, which deals with offences and penalties. Their concerns are based on the fact that the sections might be used against a firefighter who was taking legitimate industrial action. Other committee members touched on those concerns. I and—I suspect—most committee members would have real problems if the genuine concerns that have been expressed to us were not fully addressed. The minister has already provided detailed assurance, but Maureen Macmillan was absolutely right to say that the issue is about lawyers eyeballing each other over accurate interpretation of particular phrases in legislation. Dialogue must continue until we have a shared understanding. Otherwise, the alternative and less helpful route will involve amendments at stage 2.

I want to make passing reference to Colin Fox. His leadership speech was a tour de force; no one here could doubt his commitment to the fire service. However, it is a shame that he failed to attend many of the committee meetings at which the detailed work was done to represent the interests of the people who work in the fire service. I look forward to his "radical" amendments and hope that he realises the need to come to committee to speak to them.

Photo of Colin Fox Colin Fox SSP

Can Jackie Baillie tell the chamber precisely how many meetings I missed during stage 1 of the bill? Is it not the case that, although I was unable to attend the meetings at which the draft report was discussed, I participated fully in scrutiny of the bill and in evidence taking? I am sure that the rest of the committee will agree that that is the case. Does Jackie Baillie agree?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

The member protests too much. Again, I say to him that I look forward to his "radical" amendments. I trust that he will appear in Parliament to speak to them.

I join colleagues in paying tribute to the men and women in our fire service who often risk their lives to save ours. The bill recognises what they do each and every day on our behalf in our communities. I commend to Parliament the general principles of the Fire (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP 11:11 am, 18th November 2004

Although I am not a member of the committee that considered the bill, I want to address certain issues that I think are worthy of consideration.

Fire prevention is of paramount importance. Many senior citizens have taken advantage of the fire service and rest more safely in their homes having received reassurances and advice on fire safety. I, too, am suspicious that the bill may be motivated somewhat by retribution after our firemen were forced to take industrial action to try to establish a fairer living wage. A hidden agenda is not acceptable.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

The comment that John Swinburne has just made is absurd. He talks about the bill's introduction being in retribution for action that was taken. The bill was consulted on and, indeed, the process started before any industrial action took place. Leaving aside that issue, the bill has been welcomed this morning by every party of every colour, including the Scottish Socialist Party. Everyone recognises the need to advance the bill. Although we might differ on some of the fine detail; it is absurd to try to categorise the bill as John Swinburne has done.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP

I hear what the minister is saying. No doubt the outcome of the bill will underline what he has said. I welcome that. As I said, such a hidden agenda is not acceptable at all.

As many speakers said, we have a fire service of which we can all be justifiably proud. Countless lives are saved from fires and motor accidents. Our firemen can and do lay their lives on the line without question and that aspect of their service must never be understated.

As someone whose life has been plagued, and sometimes blighted, by the efficiency experts, time-study professionals and number-crunchers whose combined efforts failed to halt the decimation of industrial Scotland, I feel nothing but suspicion whenever I am faced with allegations that increased efficiencies can be made in one area or another. Many of the aforementioned experts and number-crunchers moved quickly from the private to the public sector, after which industrial Scotland virtually ground to a halt. They descended en masse on our health service and our other public services. The adoption of many of their recommendations has led to countless cost-saving exercises, which have been carried out at the behest of the aforementioned experts. Despite all that, our health service struggles to keep its head above water and, at the same time, the aforementioned experts and number-crunchers' empire continues to grow.

The fire service is now under siege from those experts. I am proud of the record of our fire service, which has moved with the times and has delivered a degree of protection to the public that is praiseworthy and admirable. If the object of the bill is to cut costs by increasing efficiencies, I suggest humbly that the greatest saving could be made by removing the efficiency experts, time-study professionals and number-crunchers. That would allow the fire service experts to modernise and continue to deliver an excellent service.

In the interests of efficiency, I will avoid going over ground that has been discussed and debated this morning. I will settle for having made this brief offering.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 11:15 am, 18th November 2004

As a loyal member of Amicus, I find myself in the same trade union as four of the members who are sitting on the Labour benches. As a loyal trade unionist, I thought that I should start with a quotation from the Fire Brigades Union's response to the consultation. It is a quotation with which I suspect there will be universal agreement. The FBU said that it is clearly

"on record and ... is clear that the only societal tolerable rate for all fire deaths that is acceptable to the inhabitants of Scotland is zero".

Whatever else we might disagree about in the debate today, or in the subsequent debates at stages 2 and 3, I am confident that we all want an effective fire service in Scotland that protects public safety and takes responsibility for communities.

My contribution to the debate will be made in a slightly different vein to that which speakers before me have taken. The bill that is before us today has some worrying aspects; they run across measures that the Executive has previously sought to implement and for which it has gained support from the Scottish National Party benches. I speak specifically about the power of well-being. The phrase is, of course, shorthand for saying that we expect more of our councils: we expect them to take more responsibility for what they do for their communities. The expectation that they will do so is reinforced by the steps that are being taken to provide councillors with better support and to give them the opportunity to professionalise. There is a real danger that, if many of the proposals in the bill are brought into force, they will diminish the role of local government in its ability to provide the kind of services that we all wish to see delivered effectively throughout Scotland.

The minister's role in this—as per the roles of ministers who are responsible for other areas that the Executive seeks to promote and has promoted in the past—is to consider whether we are using the opportunity that the bill gives us to re-empower and reinvigorate local government, or using it to say, "We do not trust you. We need to take charge." I will illustrate my concern with one tiny example that came before the Communities Committee, and which was related to a piece of secondary legislation to fix new rates for planning. Why not let councils do that? In the case of the bill, as in the case of the planning instrument, the Executive is placing duties and responsibilities on councils in a uniform way. That is neither consistent with good local democracy nor with the need to trust that the electorate will take account of the successes and failures of its local councils.

I turn to specific responses that the Executive received to its consultation. The Highlands and Islands fire board commented on control rooms—a subject that many members have referred to this morning. The board

"considers the retention of Control in Highland and Islands to be essential ... The Board would urge that the additional specialisms of our control room staff, and the special needs of our diverse communities, are all taken into account."

Another comment that Highlands and Islands fire board made touched on the centralising tendencies of the bill and in particular on the common fire services agency. It expressed considerable scepticism about the benefit of central procurement in respect of intermediate technology, procurement, finance and human resources. All of those are matters that the white paper identified as topics for the common fire services agency; the Highlands and Islands fire board thinks otherwise.

Grampian fire board, which is responsible for the area that I have the privilege to represent, said:

"The Board is not persuaded of the need to take general reserve powers of direction with respect to national service delivery and national resilience ... The Board has, it believes a strong record of supporting the Executive in developing on its national fire priorities. It sees no justification in developing statutory powers to formalise this situation."

Quite properly, Grampian fire board welcomed some aspects of the proposals, but it touched on an important issue when it discussed the role of commercial call centres, which load on to the fire service in Grampian a large number of calls that result from alarms, 95 per cent of which turn out to be spurious. There is a message in that about the disconnection among the people who deal with calls in the commercial sector and effects on the delivery of a public service. That disconnection illustrates the more general point about the difficulties that would exist if we were to disconnected control rooms from communities.

I want to give the minister a test on locality and localisation, which I think might appeal to John Farquhar Munro, who raised the subject. If all the members of a particular control room have read The Press and Journal in the morning, they will know what is going on in their communities, because that is the national paper that delivers local news par excellence. If a call comes in from Turriff about an incident in the swimming pool there, how much more effectively will the control room operators respond if they are aware that they must take into account the 30,000 people who are in the park immediately next door for a pipe band contest? Local knowledge is a moving phenomenon; it is not static and cannot be captured forever in a database.

The FBU raised other points. It appears that, yet again, the Executive has decided to take powers to the centre while claiming to improve local accountability and democracy. Section 14 is on training. One point on which national intervention might be really useful is in setting training standards and qualifications which, with local diversity of implementation, would allow fire and rescue workers to work consistently throughout Scotland.

I am happy to support my colleague Kenny MacAskill's amendment.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 11:22 am, 18th November 2004

I welcome the opportunity to speak in what is obviously an evolving debate on the future of the fire and rescue services in Scotland. I echo colleagues' tributes to the men and women who work in the services. As I am not a member of the Justice 2 Committee, I hope that members will understand if I make any mistakes in recalling the views of that committee.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the attempt to modernise the legislation that governs fire and rescue services, which is—as we have heard—grounded in the 1940s. Life for the services has moved on a great deal since then. We have had a long period of consultation, but as Annabel Goldie and Mike Pringle said, much consultation continues, which makes it difficult for the committee to scrutinise the bill properly. The committee does not know exactly what the national framework, the charging regime or the fire safety regulations will be. I tend to welcome consultation, but it is difficult when we have a moving target in front of us.

The bill will rightly expand the statutory duties of fire and rescue services to take into account their wider role, which includes dealing with road traffic accidents and flooding. We are all aware that our fire services, alongside their partners in the police forces and others, are in the front line of any response that we might make to terrorism. Kenny MacAskill made the good point that we should not use that as an excuse to railroad through changes. I agree totally, but we can say clearly that the changes will not have been railroaded through and that a great deal of discussion has taken place. In fact, as I said, it is partly because of the on-going discussion that we lack some clarity on the proposals, as yet.

Maureen Macmillan and others echoed the Justice 2 Committee's concern about the lack of clarity on the key powers of direction and lines of responsibility. The bill will give the minister a greater number of powers—about 27—including the ability to take decisions when major incidents occur. We need clarity about who would be in overall charge in such situations and we must bear it in mind that the Chief Fire Officers Association, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the FBU expressed concern that there should be three clear levels of responsibility: strategic direction from the minister; governance through the fire and rescue authorities; and management through the firemasters. I welcome the minister's intention to keep fire and rescue services as local authority services and his intention to reflect further on the issues.

Two key issues are, first, the minister's power to amalgamate brigades and, secondly—although it is not in the bill—the number of control rooms. Members from all parties are concerned about the impact that a reduction from eight control rooms would have on response times and quality of service.

On the first issue, the minister tells us that the power to amalgamate brigades is not a new one, but the key point is whether ministers currently have the power to initiate such action, rather than simply to respond to a request from local boards. I welcome the minister's statements that there are no plans to reduce the number of brigades, that he has no intention to rule by diktat and that any proposal for amalgamation would be open to full consultation. However, the debate has shown that members of all parties are concerned about the issue, so I hope that the minister will clarify the matter by answering my question. I welcome the minister's commitment to amend the bill so that orders to introduce amalgamations must be considered under the affirmative procedure, which would give Parliament a further chance to scrutinise such matters.

The second issue—the potential reduction in the number of control rooms—has led to the greatest number of comments and concerns and I welcome the minister's decision to consult further on it. As he said, the key point for us all must be public safety, not funding. However, it is notable that the Finance Committee—that august body that was recently recognised at an awards ceremony—highlighted concerns about the financial aspects of the Mott MacDonald report.

Bruce Crawford made an interesting and salient point about the importance of the 21 non-core duties that were not covered properly in the report. John Farquhar Munro suggested having three control rooms that are linked to ambulance control rooms. Work must be done on how we can maximise the potential for efficiencies, not just in funding, but in services, by considering police, ambulance and fire services in a more joined-up way.

Stewart Stevenson, in his own inimitable way, mentioned the importance of local knowledge by talking about swimming pools and pipe bands. I agree that local knowledge cannot always be replaced by technology, whether we are talking about the Lothians, Fife or the Highlands.

SNP members and others mentioned the proposed abolition of the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which is a snappy title. If the Executive is going to abolish it, I hope that it comes up with a better name for the replacement. The Scottish Executive says that it wants a dynamic replacement, but that it will not be statutory and that it will be enhanced by the absence of the minister. I find that difficult to believe. How could the new body be dynamic without the minister's attendance? More important, how can the minister keep in touch with views and news from key stakeholders if he does not attend advisory meetings, however they might be constituted in the future?

The Liberal Democrats welcome the bill and its shift towards a greater emphasis on prevention through the creation of a new duty on fire and rescue authorities to promote fire safety. As I said, a number of issues still need to be consulted on and resolved, but we all agree that we need modernised fire and rescue services that are fit for the 21st century. The Liberal Democrats believe that the bill will contribute to that, but it is important that we progress in partnership with the key stakeholders, and with public safety as our priority.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative 11:28 am, 18th November 2004

The debate has been good and wide ranging and there is consensus on the general principles of the bill. The Scottish Conservatives welcome the bill and support the aim of updating legislation to allow for the delivery of modernised fire and rescue services. I say at the outset that the fire and rescue services do superb work that is often highly dangerous. Bill Butler made the point extremely well that it is important that the role and wide-ranging functions that the services carry out are recognised and fully supported through the bill.

We welcome the way in which local decision making will be promoted within the context of a national strategy. The Conservatives also support the new power that will enable ministers to give direction to authorities in emergencies. That will ensure that any potential emergency will be covered, given how diverse such situations can be. However, we are—with Maureen Macmillan and other members—looking for further consideration by the Executive of the question of the divide between local and ministerial responsibilities; for example, consideration of who would be in overall command and control in a situation involving a major fire. The minister's commitment in section 11 to consider that again is welcome. We look forward to the outcome of further Executive consultation, which will facilitate clearer assessment of the details generally, including the full cost implications, which are currently very sketchy.

I turn to control rooms, which were mentioned by Sandra White, John Farquhar Munro, Colin Fox, Kenny MacAskill and my colleague John Scott. We support the request by the Justice 2 Committee for the minister—notwithstanding the savings that could result from the economies of scale that would be achieved by merging, for example, eight control rooms into a single unit—to consider the concerns that have been expressed about control rooms and to return to the subject in the next round of consultation.

The Executive has acknowledged that a public awareness campaign will be necessary to raise awareness of the legislation and to increase compliance. I urge the minister to include in that campaign more work to raise awareness of fire prevention. With incidents of fire raising showing a marked increase—72 per cent since 1999—and with Scotland having the highest number of fatal and non-fatal casualties per million population, there is still clearly much more work to be done in that area. Furthermore, the Executive's plan to ban smoking in enclosed public places could have the effect that more people will drink and smoke at home, resulting in a possible increase in the number of potential accidents in the home involving fires. Figures from the 2002-03 report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services for Scotland indicate that the greatest cause of house fires is misuse and careless disposal of smoking materials.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the member have any evidence from California, New York and Dublin that suggests that bans on smoking in public places result in more smoking in the home?

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative

It is self-evident that that will be the result because people will no longer be able to smoke in pubs and clubs. Given that, I ask the minister to consider the possible implications of the smoking ban, and to take account of those implications in any proposed public awareness campaign, such as any campaigns that advocate the installation of fire alarms and, crucially, the requirement to check alarms regularly.

Finally, as has already been said, we have one major concern; namely, the bill's provision of ministerial powers that would allow ministers to reduce the number of fire brigades in Scotland without primary legislation. Although I welcome the minister's shift to a commitment that that will be done by instruments that would be subject the affirmative procedure as opposed to the negative procedure, it still does not go far enough, hence the Conservatives' reasoned amendment, which we urge the minister to support in order to reassure Parliament that the powers that are set out in part 1 of the bill will not be used to amalgamate the existing fire brigades.

It was interesting to note that there was a kind of divide within the Executive parties, with Bill Butler, John Farquhar Munro and Jackie Baillie all expressing concern about control rooms but, apparently, expressing no concern about the section 2 powers. We hope that the Executive will take cognisance of our concern and ensure that that power is not used unless primary legislation is introduced to allow the issue to be fully discussed. I have much pleasure in supporting the Conservatives' amendment.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 11:34 am, 18th November 2004

Like many others, I welcome the minister's comment that he will reflect on the issues raised by committee members, other members and people outwith the chamber, on the various problems in the detail of the bill and on the fact that many of the consultations that would have helped the Justice 2 Committee to finalise its report in more detail have either not yet been completed or have not yet been carried out. The earlier comments referring to that are welcome.

The SNP has no argument with the Executive about the importance given to fire safety in the bill; we certainly support that. It is long past the time when the legislation should have been updated; it is welcome that the Parliament is coming to the point at which that will be done. It is welcome that we are giving fire safety the importance that it deserves, but it is extremely important that we now bring road traffic accidents and other duties of the fire service within the scope of legislation. That has been an anomaly since 1947.

I turn to Jackie Baillie's comments on what I said at the Justice 2 Committee in relation to the replacement for the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. Paragraph 90 of the committee's stage 1 report says:

"The committee supports the abolition of the Council but expresses concern that no replacement has yet been proposed by the Minister."

I agree. The report goes on to say:

"The Committee welcomes the Executive's intention to consult shortly on the replacement structure and encourages the Executive to ensure that the results of this consultation are known before the Bill's passage is complete."

I have no problem with that. Why would I dissent from that particular paragraph? It is entirely misleading to suggest that I did not comment on that in the committee. I made it clear that I thought that any replacement body should be statutory. I am sure that members who were present will remember that that is what I said.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Is it also not indeed the case that the member could have reflected that very point in paragraph 90? The fact that he did not dissent from it is not really a defence.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I do not have to defend my position. The committee's position was that, apart from favouring the abolition of the current council, it took no view on a replacement for the council; therefore, it is clear in the report that that is acceptable. I accepted that at the time, in the spirit of working together with colleagues on the committee. Jackie Baillie's attempt to say that I said something else in committee is nothing more than a cheap shot.

On Margaret Mitchell's point about the smoking ban, and to answer Mike Rumbles's point, Margaret will find, if she considers the evidence, that there has been no increase in fires in the home where smoking bans have been introduced; in fact, the level of smoking in the home goes down where there is a smoking ban. The evidence from Australia is clear on that point.

The issue of control rooms is central. The minister said earlier that control rooms are not specifically mentioned in the bill. There is no paragraph in the bill that says that there will be a cut in the number of control rooms or that anything else will happen to control rooms, but it seems clear from the debate today that members understand that the process that is going on will probably result in a cut in the number of control rooms. The choice of Mott MacDonald as consultant loaded the dice from the start. Given that it recommended a reduction in the number of control rooms in England, there was virtually no chance that it would come up with the opposite conclusion for Scotland—it would have looked ridiculous had it done so. The outcome of its report was inevitable.

As other members have said, Mott MacDonald's report is flawed. The Finance Committee has pointed out that it was not convinced by the claimed potential savings, and neither am I. The committee discovered that the figures are based on a reduction in the number of control rooms in Scotland from eight to one. I understand that that idea is supported by virtually nobody. It is very unlikely—in fact impossible—that those savings could be achieved. The report is based on the number of incidents that are reported to control rooms, but that is misleading, as it should have been based on the number of calls. I am sure that nobody is trying to suggest that some calls should not be answered. Operators must answer all calls; they can ignore none. If an incident occurs and it has one call, one call is answered. If an incident has 100 calls, 100 calls are answered. The report is flawed in that area. It has been evidenced, today and in previous Executive statements, that the drive to reduce the number of control rooms in Scotland is for financial reasons, and not for the purpose of service efficiency or to improve the service to the general public. Cutting the number of control rooms will not make a single person in Scotland safer, but it may make some people a lot less safe.

The minister stated in his evidence to the committee that there is little support for the retention of eight control rooms in Scotland and that 23 of the 32 local authorities support the number of control rooms being reduced to three. I am sorry to say that such twisting of statistics gets politics and politicians a bad name. The fact is that only three fire authorities support a reduction to three control rooms, while five authorities oppose the idea. It is interesting to note that the three authorities that support the idea are those that are earmarked to keep their control rooms. As Sandra White and many others said, it is dishonest to count all 12 local authorities that lie within the Strathclyde fire brigade area as in favour of a cut just because the fire authority is in favour of it. COSLA states clearly that the majority of council leaders, including council leaders in the Strathclyde area, oppose any reduction. Agreement between the FBU, the Chief Fire Officers Association and COSLA is a pretty rare event, yet on this issue they speak with a single, clear voice and ministers, the Executive and the Parliament should listen to them.

It is clear that if we reduce the number of control rooms, we reduce the robustness and resilience of fire cover—other members have already covered that. A single control room is extremely vulnerable. It is better to have three than one, but that is not as good as eight. We have all witnessed on the evening news—virtually every night, unfortunately—co-ordinated, multiple and simultaneous attacks by terrorists. Why would we make it easier for them by reducing the number of control rooms from the current eight? New York realised its vulnerability after September 11 and I understand that it has decided to increase the number of control rooms in order to create a more robust system. New York is moving in the opposite direction to us and is increasing its ability to survive an attack by having multiple control rooms. Based on its experience, it is increasing the number of control rooms from one to five to build greater robustness into its ability to protect citizens in the event of another attack. We need to pay attention to the lessons that New York has learned.

One of the many problems that Mott MacDonald has ignored is the fact that there will be a loss of local knowledge if we centralise control rooms— many members covered that point. There will be increased problems with local names, slang terms, pronounced local accents and even Gaelic place names. Those problems will slow down response times and will not provide greater security to the public. To give a personal example, about two years ago I was in a remote part of Scotland for the first time in my life. My car broke down and I phoned a national breakdown service whose call centre is located in the south of England. Its staff had no idea where I was and I could not tell them. I knew the rough geographical area but I did not know the name of the road or any local landmarks. I had no way to tell them exactly how to pinpoint my location so that a breakdown vehicle could attend. In the end I was passed through to a local office in the area, which asked me questions such as, "Did you pass Jimmy's caravan park? Are you anywhere near the river? Can you see a hill from where you are?" The staff pinpointed exactly where I was using not maps, but local knowledge. A breakdown vehicle was dispatched and it was there within the hour. That is the kind of local knowledge that individuals in control rooms hold in their heads, as Bruce Crawford ably pointed out.

Paragraph 32 of the committee's report was the subject of much comment in the press at the weekend. It is clear that the Executive has been attempting to spin the idea that the committee supports a cut in the number of control rooms. That is nothing more than an attempt at news manipulation and it bears no relation to the truth. Paragraph 32 is neutral on the appropriate number of control rooms in Scotland as the committee thought that it did not have enough evidence to take a view on the issue. The only exception to that is that the committee completely rejected the lone opinion of Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services for Scotland that Scotland could have a single control room. The report is silent on whether there should be eight control rooms or fewer.

The logic that is used to reject a single control room applies equally to any cuts to the current eight control rooms: the same problems would occur to a greater or lesser extent. Although the committee was unable to take a view on the issue based on the evidence that it received, I have 10 years' experience of working in the fire service and more than 2 years' experience of working in the largest control room in Scotland, in Johnstone. From that experience, I can tell the Parliament that one size does not fit all. It is necessary to keep the eight control rooms that we have in Scotland, because of geography, efficiency of service, robustness of service and the ability to provide cover and back-up in the event of a major disaster or terrorist attack, and in the interest of serving and safeguarding public safety. No case has been made for a reduction in that number.

I turn to part 1 of the bill, which includes the power for ministers to restructure the fire service as they see fit. I and Annabel Goldie dissented from part of the report because we were concerned about the scope of that power. It seems clear to me that the only reason for a minister to have it is so that they can cut the number of brigades in Scotland; it is unlikely that the minister will use it to increase the number of brigades. The reason why that argument holds good is that there is an unbroken connection between the debate about the number of control rooms in Scotland and the debate about the number of brigades. If the Executive cuts the number of control rooms, it will come along afterwards and say that it is inconsistent and inefficient to have three control rooms and eight brigades and that it is forced to bring them into line for reasons of service efficiency and clarity in the chain of command. The decision to amalgamate brigades will be made on the back of a cut in the number of control rooms and will not be based on the merits of a proposal for fewer brigades. It is a back-door way to cut the number of brigades in Scotland. The power that the bill gives ministers is part of that process, and that is why I dissented from paragraph 21 of the committee's report. That paragraph was supported only by the Labour and Liberal Democrat members of the committee; the other three parties did not support the power.

The minister said earlier that there is no difference from what we have at the moment, but there is a big difference. The power gives the ability to initiate changes. More important, the loss of the advisory council—a statutory body that acts as a buffer and advises ministers—will mean an enormous change. The SNP amendment expresses concern about the proposal to remove the statutory standing of any body that replaces the SCFBAC. I appreciate the Executive's argument that the council is too big and unwieldy and I do not have any great concern about restructuring it, changing the number of members, changing its name and making it more efficient, but the Executive has failed to make a convincing argument for changing its statutory standing. If the replacement body is to have any authority, it should be statutory and I urge the minister to reconsider the matter.

A number of members mentioned the transfer of responsibility for the maintenance of hydrants from fire brigades to Scottish Water. It is a nonsense that Scottish Water is responsible for everything up to the bottom of the hydrant pit and that brigades are responsible thereafter. If the minister wants to do away with unwieldy and bureaucratic systems, here is a chance to do just that. More often than not hydrant faults are identified by Scottish Water employees, who report them to the brigades, who go out and inspect the hydrant, then write a report about the problem and do the necessary internal paperwork for it to be repaired. That paperwork goes to various people for approval until it eventually goes to a purchasing officer who issues an order for Scottish Water to repair the hydrant. That is a circular process, not a dynamic system. It is an unnecessary and wasteful paper exercise. By transferring responsibility to Scottish Water we would achieve efficiency savings and hydrants would be repaired more speedily.

We should have a modern and efficient fire service in Scotland, but the Executive cannot use that as an excuse to try to save money by providing the people of Scotland with a poorer service. Our aim must be to improve the service and not to cut it. We have a number of reservations about the detail of the bill and I hope that the Executive will take our concerns on board. In conclusion, I urge members to support our amendment, which expresses that concern.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 11:48 am, 18th November 2004

This has been a good debate. It was dominated by one or two issues, but members touched on a vast range of issues that need due consideration. I assure members that although I might not touch on all those points in my reply, I will look carefully at the individual points that were made.

I say at the outset that I thought that John Scott had a cheek. He has now beetled off, with his brass neck, but for him to tell us that the bill is a cost-cutting exercise—that comes from a Tory who supported cuts in public services for years—is the height of hypocrisy. He accuses us of trying to make cuts in the fire service. We have put more money into pay, pensions, modernisation, improvements in emergency equipment and into the Highlands and Islands, but John Scott sees that as cost cutting. If the Tories ever get back into power—God help us—we will know all about cost cutting and cuts in public services.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

In defence of the hapless Mr Scott, I will say that he tried to make it clear that he was suspicious of the bill's implications in terms of actions that are driven by cost cuts. He did not refer to past events.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I ask members to forgive me if I am suspicious of the implications for public services of the return of a Tory Government.

I will touch on control rooms, but I will not go into much detail, because I covered them in my first speech and in some interventions. I listened carefully to the points that were made and I have given the assurance that we will carefully consider the provisions. Several valid points have been made. We need to consider whether the cost calculations are robust and to examine the locality issues that have been raised. We must consider whether problems occurred when we reduced the number of fire control rooms from 13 to eight.

We need to examine the issues that Bruce Crawford raised, counterposed with the points that John Farquhar Munro made about the need for local knowledge. We need to reflect on what Stewart Maxwell said about being lost in the wilds of Scotland. Incidentally, if he tells us which rescue service was responsible for bringing him back to us, we can avoid joining it.

Several valid points have been made and we will take them into account. I assure members that nothing that would impact on public safety will be done.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

No. I will move on, because I am pressed for time.

Various speakers touched on the number of brigades and said that the agenda was to move on quickly from control rooms to brigades. That is far from the truth. We have no plans to change the number of brigades. Annabel Goldie talked about the Tories' suspicions of our intention in taking the power. Even if the entire bill were rejected—never mind just parts of it—if the position remains as it is, the Executive has the power to change the number of brigades if it so desires. Rejecting the bill would make not one iota of difference to whether we could act as Annabel Goldie suggests. She implies the existence of another agenda when it does not exist. Current powers allow change at the behest of fire authorities, but also allow ministers to act. All that we will do is refine the wording in the legislation.

Maureen Macmillan, Colin Fox and several other speakers talked about industrial action being made unlawful. I am happy to put it on the record that the Executive has no intention of making industrial action unlawful by introducing the bill. That interpretation of section 67 is incorrect. Nothing that we are doing will provide any opportunity for powers to be used in the suggested way. That is not our intention and would not have our support. What has been suggested is not what the section says. I hope that that assurance removes some doubts. The bill will not make industrial action unlawful.

I hope that I have dealt with trade union recognition. If we need to examine more matters, I am willing to assure speakers that I will reconsider whether there is anything that we can do to make the position absolutely clear. Our intention is that trade unions will represent employees and we are not undermining trade unions' right to do that.

Kenny MacAskill and others talked about emergency powers. In the circumstances, the best that I can do is to repeat the assurances that I gave the Justice 2 Committee. I was asked in what circumstances emergency powers would be used and I said:

"It would be hard to specify all the situations where the powers under" section 11

"could readily be invoked. If we were able to foresee precisely everything that might happen, we could easily just spell it out in an exhaustive list. Part of the problem in dealing with emergencies is that it is often the unforeseeable and unexpected that causes the problem. In those situations of unexpected emergency, we need to be able to respond. There could be natural catastrophes that no one could ever have imagined, or there could be terrorist incidents ... I would therefore hesitate before giving a precise definition of those circumstances, other than to say that the situation would be one to which the response would be beyond the normal activities of any of our brigades or ... agencies."—[Official Report, Justice 2 Committee, 28 September 2004; c 1062.]

That sums up where we still stand.

Several comments were made about whether the replacement advisory council should be statutory or non-statutory. In general, everyone agrees that the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council does not work, is inappropriate and must change. I am not persuaded that determining in the bill what the advisory committee should be, what it should do, how it should operate and whom it should involve is appropriate. Questions also arise. If the advisory committee advises the minister, should that minister chair it? We want to engage with the widest range of stakeholders and we intend to exclude no one. We want an effective and efficient body that has a purpose and will make a difference. I take into account all the points that have been made, but I remain unconvinced that provisions should be in the bill. However, I will give that further thought.

Stewart Stevenson talked about local procurement and questioned why we have chosen the route that we have. One problem that we sometimes face is that local procurement results in different equipment levels, different standards and different specifications. Increasingly, we must rely on co-operation—the Stockline Plastics disaster in Glasgow showed that. When we must bring people from different areas together, the job is made easier if equipment and specifications are consistent. Those are the reasons for our position, which also enables us to consider developing specialist teams more effectively for disasters such as that which I mentioned.

Colin Fox suggested that we had abandoned much of the pathfinder work, but we have not discarded it. We have encompassed many elements of it in the integrated risk management plans. His suggestion was wrong.

I acknowledge and will reflect on what many speakers said about charging for services, particularly when repeat, malicious or inappropriate calls are made. Complex issues are involved, but the points were well made.

On hydrants, I have undertaken to discuss with my ministerial colleagues who are responsible for water services whether more appropriate action can be taken, but we must recognise that however we proceed there will be a cost to the public sector, whether that relates to those who are responsible for water services or those who are responsible for fire services. We need to work out where appropriate responsibility lies.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

In that case I will not take the intervention. Unfortunately, the member spoke and left the chamber. I will not indulge him by picking up a spurious point when he has returned late.

I will examine what Jackie Baillie said about non-fire emergencies and what Mike Pringle said about the loss of income from certification. A small loss might occur, but brigades will be freed up to do other work more effectively and efficiently. That will counterbalance any small loss.

The debate has been good and many points were well made. There is a spirit of consensus. We all want to make progress and to ensure that whatever legislation is passed is fit for purpose and serves best the people whom we represent. Scotland will be a safer place for having proper legislation.

We also seek to ensure that the fire services that we deliver are equipped for the 21st century. We recognise the valuable work that is done by the men and women who work in all aspects of the fire service and do a fantastic job. We need to bring the legislation up to speed to ensure that that continues.