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Cabinet (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 18th November 2004.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 18th November 2004

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Scottish Executive's Cabinet. (S2F-1204)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

At next week's meeting of the Scottish Cabinet we will discuss our progress towards building a better Scotland.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

This morning the Parliament debated the Fire (Scotland) Bill. One issue that was discussed but on which the Parliament will not be given the chance to vote is the proposal that the Government is considering to cut the number of emergency fire control rooms in Scotland from eight to three, or possibly to just two or one. The First Minister will be aware that the proposal is opposed by a range of experts, who fear that it could result in fire engines taking longer to get to fires and that lives could be lost. This morning, the Deputy Minister for Justice indicated that the Executive would reflect further on those concerns. Given the views that have already been expressed, will the First Minister take this opportunity to go one step further and rule out the centralisation of yet another vital public service?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As we promised, the Executive will consider the responses to the consultation that we established. We will also consider the expert report that we commissioned, which made the recommendation that Ms Sturgeon has outlined. When we have considered the responses and the report in full, we will make a decision and announce it to Parliament.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The expert report to which the First Minister refers was produced by a group that had already recommended centralisation south of the border, so it could hardly be expected to contradict itself north of the border. The Executive has said that before taking a decision it wants to listen to and consult the key stakeholders in the fire service. However, those people have already made their views well known. The majority of fire authorities are opposed to the proposal. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which is made up of the fire service employers, says that the proposal represents centralisation. The chief fire officers—those who manage the fire service—say that it is seriously flawed. The firefighters—those in the front line—say that the loss of local knowledge from local control rooms will result in longer response times, more injuries and more deaths.

If those who run, manage and work in the fire service say that it is wrong to cut the number of control rooms, what on earth makes the First Minister think that he may know better? Why will he not listen to the voices of the experts, stop prevaricating and say no now to cuts and centralisation?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Because it is important that we have the best possible fire service for Scotland. That is why this morning we debated a bill that will modernise fire services in Scotland and ensure that the Scottish fire service is focused on prevention of fire, life rather than property and the best use of resources. For precisely that reason, we need constantly to consider how to ensure the most efficient use of resources and the best possible use of the staff and technology in our fire service. That is precisely what we will do in relation to control rooms, just as we would in relation to the other aspects of the fire service that have received such large increases in additional resources in recent years.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

It is interesting that, although the experts have made their views abundantly clear, today the First Minister has not offered a single good reason why cutting the number of control rooms should even be on the Scottish Executive's agenda. Could that be explained by the fact that for the First Minister the proposal has nothing to do with improvements in the fire service? In reality, it is all about cutting costs and helping him to meet his efficiency savings target.

I suggest to the First Minister that if he really wants to cut costs he should start by putting his own house in order. While he is contemplating cuts in the fire service, the Executive's office overheads budget—the budget for parties and paper-clips—has gone up by more than £10 million in the past year alone. That is more than three times the amount that he is trying to save by cutting the number of fire control rooms. Why does he not do something about the waste and inefficiency in the Government and, while doing so, say a clear, unequivocal no to cuts in the fire service that would compromise public safety and put lives at risk?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I understand that Miss Sturgeon's point about paper-clips is completely untrue. I will be happy to ensure that she receives a written statement on that in due course.

I make it clear that the investment that we are putting into fire services in Scotland has increased by 40 per cent in the years since devolution. That represents about £70 million of additional investment. The challenge for good government in Scotland is to ensure that that additional money is best used on the front line to prevent fires, to secure and save lives and to ensure that our fire services are as efficient and effective as possible.

The Scottish National Party has consistently opposed the process of modernising our fire services, just as it has opposed every reform that would improve public services in Scotland, because it is not prepared to make the hard decisions that release resources for improvements in front-line services. We see the SNP's true colours week after week. As we proceed to modernise and reform our fire services, just as we should modernise and reform our services in education, health and other areas, we will ensure that resources are increased and redirected to, not taken away from, front-line services to save lives and to maintain the good-quality and efficient fire service that Scotland has had, but will have to an even greater extent in the future.