I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the proposed new integrated risk management plan for Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. Judging by the attendance of right hon. and hon. Friends from Tyne and Wear and neighbouring constituencies, this debate demonstrates the importance of a good fire service, which is essential to our lives, our communities and the industries and services that we rely on.
I am grateful both to our chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, and to the chair of Tyne and Wear fire authority, Councillor Barry Curran, for taking time to meet MPs in recent weeks to discuss the new integrated risk management plan, and for being so candid when answering our questions. I have no criticism of our fire and rescue service under our fire chief; it has done its very best to provide a high level of service to our communities in the last eight years, despite the massive Government cuts to its budget. Nor have I any criticism of our hardworking councillors who serve on the fire authority and are managing their way through particularly tough times for local government.
As a member of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, I am more than aware of all the problems that cuts to resources have caused, and I have nothing but praise for the commitment and dedication of each of our firefighters, to whom we owe a great debt for keeping us all safe, day in, day out. Over the past few years, they have worked diligently throughout a succession of cuts to services and staffing, as well as having to suffer an erosion of their own terms and conditions.
I am grateful to see that the policing and fire Minister is here, and I hope that he will be open minded as I talk about funding cuts to our fire service. I politely ask that, for the next hour and a half, the Minister puts to the back of his mind his claim that the fire and rescue services have the resources that they need to do their important work, and instead concentrates on only the very genuine concerns that I and colleagues will express.
I will spend a little time considering how we got where we are with the proposed new IRMP. I have already mentioned that Tyne and Wear fire authority has suffered funding cuts for the last eight years, and those cuts can only be described as inordinate, because they have been some of the worst cuts to any service in England since 2010. Does the Minister acknowledge that austerity measures have affected metropolitan and northern fire and rescue services disproportionately since 2010?
I commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for her excellent introduction. I absolutely concur with every single word. Will she ask the Minister to accept that, far from austerity being over as the Prime Minister claims, the impact of those cuts on our constituents will continue for many years to come?
By the next financial year, the revenue support grant will have been reduced by £10.8 million, which is equivalent to 18.2%. There is also a projected gap in financial resources of £2.2 million in the next financial year, which will increase to £3 million by 2020-21, and to £3.6 million by 2021-22. The ability to increase income from council tax has been limited by freezes and caps imposed by national Government, and because Tyne and Wear is an area with high deprivation, there is no scope to raise income from business rates or council tax to the same extent as in more affluent areas, where fire and rescue services have benefited. With such regional differences, how can there ever be an even playing field?
On top of all this, Tyne and Wear fire service has had to manage higher costs, such as inflation and pay awards, which means that just over £25 million of total budget savings have to be met.
In the light of the dire case that my hon. Friend is making on behalf people in Tyne and Wear, I wonder if, like me, she thinks that there would be merit in holding a meeting between the Minister and a delegation of Tyne and Wear MPs, the chief fire officer and the chair of the fire authority, in order to discuss these matters?
I think that would be an extra way to present the case to the Minister, and I hope that he is open to that suggestion.
The new IRMP, produced under the Home Office’s fire and rescue national framework, has been prepared in the face of those reductions in spending and the projected gap in financial resources. Since
My hon. Friend referred to the consultation. Given the serious risks to public safety in some of the proposals, does she share my concern that the consultation period falls over Christmas and new year and is unlikely to be fully engaged with for the full 10-week period, and that the Minister should therefore consider extending it to a 12-week period to allow for that?
That concern has been raised by the FBU, and I raised it with the fire chief at my meeting with him. The Christmas period means the consultation is shorter than it ought to be, but I am not sure that the fire authority would be minded to extend it. If it is possible, I hope that it can be done, because the public consultation needs to be just that—public.
The aim of the proposed changes in the IRMP is to ensure that Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service can deliver a flexible and sustainable service to our communities, and focus resources on where the greatest risks are across the area, but the FBU, which will be meeting MPs on Friday, believes that the proposals will make all communities in Tyne and Wear less safe, because of the reduction in immediate response from a decreased number of immediately available fire engines with a decreased workforce over a greater area of the authority.
Furthermore, the proposed changes come on top of efficiencies made in recent years, which include the removal of six appliances across the service; the reduction of aerial ladder platforms from three to two; the stand-down of two fire appliances during quieter periods; and the introduction of two targeted response vehicles to attend lower risk incidents 24/7, and of two further targeted response vehicles to be staffed at night. There has also been a review of valuable fire and safety and community safety functions, which have proved to be so important in areas of high social deprivation to avert antisocial behaviour and increase fire prevention. From the beginning of June this year, crews in Wallsend, Marley Park, Hebburn and Birtley were reduced to four firefighters, which was described by the FBU as a dangerous move.
All the while, like neighbouring services, Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service is called to over-border activity. In the past year, the number and frequency of incidents attended by Tyne and Wear with fire engines for Ponteland fire station was 53, and for Northumberland 195, whereas Northumberland mobilised fire engines in Tyne and Wear only 71 times. I hope that the Minister’s colleagues in Northumberland are aware of the need for extra resources in their area and that they have made representations to him.
The question is why are the cuts so necessary when the service has reserves of £28.5 million? The answer is that £24.5 million is earmarked: £16.5 million to prevent an increase in the revenue budget, £4.5 million to support service delivery requirements, and £3.5 million to fund the capital programme. Reserves are a finite resource, so the service has stated that they cannot be used to fund sustainability, meaning that there is no room for manoeuvre there.
We cannot ignore the stark warnings of the FBU about the implications of the IRMP proposals. We must remember that our firefighters’ lives are at risk, as well as those of the general public. How much more of a hit does the Minister think the morale of our firefighters can take? How will further reductions in the fire service affect our businesses and economic growth? How could we attract businesses to an area where their valuable assets might be lost because of the lack of adequate fire and rescue cover? The public consultation might result in a rejection of the IRMP and the drastic cuts to our fire service operations. What would be the result? What would happen next?
I feel strongly that the IRMP proposals go too far. I am sorry to say this, but Minsters will be held directly to account if the cuts worsen a major incident, or cause injury or death. I look to the Minister present for some hope that the Government will live up to their responsibility to the people of Tyne and Wear and work to make available some extra funding to prevent the need for the IRMP to be implemented in its current form.
Although I trust that the fire chief and the fire authority are doing their best to make the best of a bad job, it is true to say that ultimately their decisions are based on financial considerations more than on any other factors. On their behalf, I have some asks for the Minister, which I hope he will consider thoroughly. In developing a fair funding model, will the Government take a nuanced approach, based on the effects of area and family deprivation on community safety risk factors? Will the Government give more certainty about funding in the medium term, as that would strengthen the fire authorities’ ability to plan financially to ensure better use of resources and reduced reliance on reserves? The removal of capital funding is not sustainable; can that be reinstated? Also, will the Government fund national policy and decisions that impact on services, to relieve the burden on the already overstretched services that they offer?
I hope that the Minister has heeded me, as I asked at the beginning, and will give full consideration to what I have said. I am sure that he will hear further pleas from my colleagues about how important the subject is, and why we need to make changes to the resources given to our brave firefighters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend Mary Glindon, on securing this important debate and on making a powerful case for our local communities, as she always does. I, too, place on record my appreciation of the vital work of our firefighters in keeping us safe. We are about to enter the festive period, when many of us will, I hope, be safe at home with our families. We must remember, however, that the emergency services, including firefighters, will be on duty over that period, as they are every day, keeping us safe.
Recently, I too met the Tyne and Wear chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, and a fire authority representative. More recently, I met Russ King of the FBU and firefighters at the fire station in Tynemouth. I therefore understand why the fire authority felt the need to propose the changes in the integrated risk management plan, given the financial constraints within which it has to operate, but I am sceptical and indeed critical of the suggested changes as they affect my constituency. To be clear, however, we should not simply fight for our own areas; this should be a whole Tyne and Wear issue, and the plan should be one that keeps every community safe, whichever constituency it happens to be in.
As my hon. Friend said, under one of the proposals offered, fire engines at Wallsend will simply be day-crewed, with an engine from Tynemouth taken over there to provide cover during the night. My first concern, therefore, is about the dilution of cover and the time taken for sufficient engines to arrive at a major fire incident. According to the consultation document, an average delay of simply 17 seconds will result from the change, but for someone who lives in St Mary’s ward in my constituency, with the second engine at Wallsend, the delay will be considerably longer in practice.
The fact is that, while the speed of response is important, the weight of response is crucial. For a fire involving people, at least three appliances are sent, so a thinner spread across an area would mean drawing engines from further away, and that adds time. In addition, as a result of previous cuts, as we have heard, some crews have already been reduced to only four members. For a person in the first engine reaching the fire and believing someone is in that fire, the enormous moral pressure to act is great, and that increases the risk. Under the proposed changes, that will get worse. Tynemouth station also has a mass decontamination vehicle to decontaminate firefighters and indeed the public. In theory—or in practice—that requires 28 operatives, but under the proposals that number will be reduced to only 16. To be clear, resources are already stretched, and the proposals will stretch them further.
Tyne and Wear appliances are already thinly spread, in particular when they are drawn into Northumberland. In recent years, Northumberland fire service has made cuts, and those at West Hartford, for example, mean that Tyne and Wear appliances are regularly drawn across the border into Cramlington. This summer, in Blyth, a major incident required five engines: three came from Tyne and Wear, and two of them were from Tynemouth fire station. Section 16 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 provides for mutual assistance, but the situation in Tyne and Wear is already stretched, so cuts might make mutual assistance impossible in future.
Even without engines crossing the border, the situation in Tyne and Wear is overstretched. Last Thursday, in North Shields, firefighters were called to a fire on the Meadow Well estate. At the same time, a further fire was reported in Cullercoats, which required an engine to be called from Fossway in Newcastle, seven miles away, leaving east Newcastle, an area of considerable industrial activity and housing, with a lack of cover. In April 2018, four engines were called to a fatal house fire in the Knott flats in North Shields—under the proposals, four engines will not be available locally. Earlier in the year, a fire at Hillheads in Whitley Bay was also, unfortunately, fatal. If the changes go through, the risk will be even greater. Firefighters tell me that it was becoming very rare to go to a house fire in which there was a fatality, but that has not been the case in recent times. Under these proposals, that could get worse.
Fire prevention is a crucial part of keeping people safe. The fire authority says that if the job losses continue in Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service as a result of these changes and what has gone before, 70 posts will be lost, and the FBU says 82 posts will be lost. Either number is considerable. One effect is likely to be a reduction in fire prevention work. There is already little time for fire prevention work in schools. Attacks on crews are also up by 25% nationally, and antisocial behaviour, which is increasing, is often linked in my constituency to fire raising. Uniquely, there was a bonfire night campaign this year, which is the first time I remember that being the case. There is an ever-diminishing resource and an ever-increasing risk. Although we see that in our constituencies, this is not about turning one area against another.
It is clear, not least from what my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside said, why we are in this position. Tyne and Wear is a metropolitan fire brigade; metropolitan fire brigades have taken 50% of the cuts since 2010. One of the root causes is the linking of funding to band D council tax. That means that better-off areas in the south tend to do better than metropolitan areas in the north, where the typical council tax band is more likely to be A or B than D.
There is a way that fire authorities could raise more funding. If they wanted to increase the precept by more than 2.99%, they could have a referendum, but I am told that the cost of holding a referendum would be greater than the money that would be raised to spend on the service. Understandably, that is not a route they would want to go down. Tyne and Wear has said that it has not had capital grants since 2010-11 and that equipment needs to be replaced. Reorganisation sometimes means that the location of fire stations has to be remodelled. It is important that the fire authority looks at reserves, but it must be careful because it cannot spend that money and still have the reserves in future to spend again.
I hope that the Government will reconsider changing the funding formula in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside described. I hope they will think carefully before they go too far down the sparsity route. Sparsity added into the funding will not do anything for metropolitan areas such as Tyne and Wear. I hope that we get some kind of equalisation. Whether it is business tax, council tax, or whatever other kind of taxation or funding, we have a habit of using a national model that does not look at needs in different areas. If fire authorities in the south have sufficient resources to run a good service, why are they being rewarded while other areas, such as Tyne and Wear, lose out?
The Government must face up to the consequences of the proposed cuts. The Home Office is responsible for fire and rescue—the police and fire Minister is in his place. It is odd that the funding still comes from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—perhaps the Minister will confirm whether that is true. It is very odd for one Department to be responsible for making decisions, and another to be responsible for going to the Treasury to lobby for money. HCLG has its own priorities, so I am not sure another Department’s priorities will be at the top of its list.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but the Home Office cannot perpetuate a laissez-faire approach where decisions on police cuts are the responsibility of the police and crime commissioners, and spending and decision making on the fire service are down to chief fire officers and fire authorities. If the Government do not provide the funding in the first place, fire authorities and police and crime commissioners will simply manage cuts. That must not be allowed to continue.
There is a consultation, but the period is truncated. Whether or not it continues to be truncated, I hope that residents in Tyne and Wear will find time to look at the consultation and to make their views known. I certainly will.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend Mary Glindon for securing this important debate and for her excellent speech outlining the issues.
Many people in the constituencies served by the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Services, whom we all represent apart from the Minister and the shadow Minister, are following this debate closely. A significant number of constituents have written to me in recent weeks to raise their concerns about the proposed new integrated risk management plan for Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, and the ongoing cuts to fire and rescue services more widely. People will be particularly concerned about this issue in the light of troubling events in recent weeks in which firefighters have been verbally and physically attacked—I will come back to that.
It has been noted in this debate that fire services across the country have felt the significant impact of funding cuts since 2010. As a result, almost 12,000 frontline firefighter jobs have been lost, including 285 in Tyne and Wear. Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service faces a number of unique funding challenges—we have heard about them in detail—and I want to bring some particular ones to the Minister’s attention. By 2019-20, the revenue support grant will reduce by £10.8 million, to £45.8 million. Based on all current information, the authority is on course to face a cumulative funding shortfall of £3.96 million by the end of 2021-22. Doing nothing is not an option. I am sure that colleagues will agree that is a huge shortfall, especially when pressure on all our public services is increasing.
The Minister may say that there are fire and rescue services across the country whose finances are growing—we heard that from my right hon. Friend Mr Campbell—due to their ability to raise funds from business rates and the council tax precept. Unfortunately, that is another way in which Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, along with other metropolitan services, experiences serious shortfalls in funding, and shows why a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Although we have the highest council-tax band-D precept of all metropolitan authorities, at £79.94, the vast majority of households are in bands A, B and C. As a result, the council tax income generated by the authority is the lowest of all metropolitan fire and rescue services. That is extremely concerning.
Our communities in the north-east have suffered hugely as a result of austerity and its associated problems. It should therefore not be the case that the very deprivation that this Government have caused has the knock-on effect of preventing some of our public services from having access to the funding that they need to keep us all safe. Even worse, in areas with high levels of deprivation there is a higher risk of fire and fire-related deaths. Will the Minister take a nuanced approached when developing a fair funding model for fire and rescue services, based on risks related to deprivation and local needs? It is absolutely clear that the Government should trust local services to outline their own specific needs. Those who work for and in communities on a daily basis are best placed to know where resources are best deployed and how much they cost. Budgets allocated on the basis of scarcity alone will not provide sufficient funding.
Like many of my colleagues here today, I recently met the chief fire officer of Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, Chris Lowther, to discuss proposals for the new integrated risk management plan, and wider concerns about the funding available to him. He is doing everything within his power to manage the resources currently available, in a way that guarantees the safety of my constituents, and everyone across Tyne and Wear. In response to the consultation that the service is currently running, there has been some pushback from members of the public, who are understandably concerned.
Let me make it clear that I hold this Government solely responsible for their failure to provide sufficient and sustainable funding for our fire and rescue service, and I do not blame Chris Lowther, or the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, for trying to make the best of a very bad deal. It is particularly frustrating that services such as ours are being put in such a terrible position. They are doing everything they can to deliver their services while coming under ever increasing financial pressure, and as we know, these are not the first round of such cuts in Tyne and Wear.
I also discussed with the chief fire officer the spate of recent attacks on firefighters, which I mentioned earlier. Last year, there were 148 attacks on firefighters in the north-east, and only a few weeks ago in Southwick in Sunderland Central—the constituency of my hon. Friend Julie Elliott—an incident took place that has been described as the worst attack of its kind in a decade. Firefighters were called to an incident in which a car was driven on to a bonfire, and they were pelted with bricks, bottles, and fireworks. The firefighters were ambushed and cordoned in by criminal “pool” cars. It is difficult to comprehend the mindset of someone who actively sets out physically to harm those on whom we rely to keep us safe, and I was pleased to see Sunderland Council back a motion just last week to call for a zero tolerance approach to attacks on emergency service workers.
The recent Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 will hopefully begin to have an impact, as the maximum sentence for such attacks has now been increased from six to 12 months. However, we must acknowledge that such things do not just happen or appear out of nowhere, and those attacks are a symptom of the underlying damage to the fabric of a community that has suffered almost 10 years of punishing austerity that has imposed cuts on all our public services. We know that when services engage with communities through education and outreach programmes, the long-term relationships that are forged can prevent such incidents from happening in future.
The successful preventive work undertaken by Tyne and Wear fire and rescue Service’s and its fast response times have, over the past nine years, reduced the number of injuries from accidental dwelling fires, and in two of the past six years it has been the only metropolitan authority to report zero accidental fire deaths. Its preventive work includes work in our communities on home safety, education and youth inclusion, and collaborative partnerships with other public services such as Sunderland clinical commissioning group and the Northumbria police and crime commissioner. I urge the Minister to ensure that all fire and rescue services are given the funding necessary not only to fulfil their statutory duties, but to continue engaging meaningfully with the communities they serve.
In conclusion, I wish to reiterate how important it is that the Minister listens to the concerns raised today by Tyne and Wear MPs, and to express my deep gratitude to Chris Lowther and the firefighters—some of whom are in the Gallery today—and everyone in Tyne and Wear fire service who works tirelessly day in, day out, serving our community and keeping us safe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mary Glindon on securing this important debate and setting out with such clarity and conviction the challenges we face. Let me pay tribute to the immense dedication of our firefighters in Tyne and Wear, and across the country, who take risks every day on our behalf. We owe it to those brave men and women to ensure that they have the resources they need to do their job properly and keep us safe. Our firefighters rely on excellent support staff, to whom we are very grateful.
Well-founded and real concerns arise from the proposed measures in the integrated risk management plan. On Friday I heard directly from firefighters at Farringdon community fire station about their fears regarding the risks that may be faced by the public under the proposals. The proposals would result in one fire engine at Farringdon being “on call”, which follows previous reductions in service across Tyne and Wear, as well as at Rainton Bridge community fire station in my constituency.
When firefighters are called to respond they do not fully know what lies before them, and it is vital that they have the resources they need to tackle the incident, so that the risk of harm is reduced as much as possible. Last Friday, and on every occasion I have met local firefighters, they impressed on me their determination to serve the community, whatever the circumstances. We discussed recent serious and tragic events in Sunderland, where firefighters have been called to respond and where there have been fire deaths. We cannot, and should not, expect those who put their lives on the line to be exposed to unnecessary risk, and the underlying factor in all this is the unfair funding settlement that leaves those areas of greatest need wanting.
Year after year the fire authority has had to confront difficult decisions driven by funding cuts from central Government, rather than what works and is in the best interests of our community. In 2012, I secured a Westminster Hall debate on that issue. In advance of this debate I reviewed what had been said then, and it is remarkable how little has changed, other than that the situation has got progressively worse. There has been an increase in incidents and fires, a massive reduction in the number of firefighters, and increased response times. If there were a backdrop of reducing demand, Ministers might find the rationale for these measures understandable, but demand is increasing, not reducing.
Since 2010, major cuts and efficiency savings have been made, yet we are facing even more. We have seen some of the worst funding settlements across fire and rescue services in England, and by 2019-20, there will have been a 19% budget cut at a time of rising cost pressures for the authority. I hope the Minister will listen to the concerns raised by hon. Members this morning on behalf of our communities and the firefighters who serve our constituents. I live in hope that the Minister will not just respond in the customary fashion, and say that these are local decisions and it is for local fire and rescue services to manage these cuts, or that local decisions fall to local decision makers to make better choices. That is not good enough when we know that the areas of greatest need have borne the brunt of austerity cuts. The Government should do the right thing for fire and rescue services, for firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way, and for the public who depend on the risks they take.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mary Glindon on securing this important debate about our fire and rescue services. I, too, thank the chief fire officer for taking time to brief me and other Members about the issues faced by Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service under these proposals, and I thank and pay tribute to members of our local Fire Brigades Union who have done a great job in considering these proposals and raising their concerns.
This debate did not begin this year, because as we have heard there have been earlier iterations of the IRMP. When I was a local councillor this issue affected the area I served, and it now greatly affects my constituency. Some years ago, in one of my local fire stations—Swalwell, which serves a largely rural part of my constituency—we lost what I used to call a fire engine, although I understand technically it is called a pump. We lost that pump from that station, which caused huge concern at the time. We had the introduction of new tactical response vehicles, which are response units for what are believed to be minor incidents. However, firefighters never know until they get there exactly what incident they will be facing, and the loss of that pump has led to a reduction in response times. One fire engine on its own cannot necessarily deal with an entire incident for safety reasons, and waiting for a second vehicle has had a detrimental effect on the service. Very real concerns remain, which have been demonstrated by the delayed response times.
Last year, further changes meant that the pumps were reduced to running with four staff members instead of five, again causing a risk to the service. That affected the station in Birtley, which is at the far end of my constituency. At that stage, staff were hugely concerned about the changes that were coming. As I reminded him when we met, the chief fire officer undertook to look at whether the numbers could be raised to five per pump in the future. Given the proposals and the budget gap we face, that is looking even less likely, but it is something I believe is important.
I very much understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends. The changes we are discussing today may not directly impact on my constituency, but there is a cumulative effect. Inevitably, a change in one part of Tyne and Wear, whether that is Hebburn, South Shields or elsewhere, will have an impact on the response in my constituency. In a concentrated area that relies on mutual support between teams, there will inevitably be an impact in staffing changes and the reduction and downgrading of vehicles. We cannot make the change in one area of Tyne and Wear without it impacting on other areas. That is a crucial point.
Earlier this year, I asked the Minister whether he would consider funding fire and rescue authorities by risk, not demand. He referred me to the reserves, which many Members have mentioned. I have asked the fire chief about those reserves and have been briefed on that. Will the Minister address the question of considering risk, not demand, and the number of incidents, which, given the nature of our communities, would have an impact on the Tyne and Wear rescue service?
As others have said, Tyne and Wear fire and rescue services are disproportionately affected by changes in council tax funding, because 75% of the properties in Tyne and Wear are below band D. While we may agree to increase the precept, that does not produce the same returns that more prosperous areas can produce. That issue affects a lot of our services, and I hope the Minister will address it seriously, because it is a real concern for us.
Will the Minister also take deprivation and its impact on the fire and rescue services into account? Will he look at reinstating capital funding for fire and rescue services? I know that reserves have been earmarked, but it takes a huge chunk, requires forward planning and there is a risk if the funding is not in place. Whatever Government Department makes a change, whether that is the Treasury making national insurance increases, pay awards or other increases, or another Department making other changes, that should be taken into account and be fully funded, so that we are able to meet the needs of the fire and rescue services. Certainty in funding is hugely important for all services, but especially for our fire and rescue services.
On Sunday, I will be meeting firefighters at Swalwell in my constituency to get their views on the latest proposals and to listen to their concerns. Many of them have been looking at the proposals over a number of years, not just this year, and expressing their concerns in a very measured way, pointing out the issues that they will cause. Some of those warnings have been borne out. When I meet them, and the firefighters and Fire Brigades Union at Birtley as part of the consultation, I would like to be able to tell them that the Government have heard their concerns and will take action to fund the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service properly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mary Glindon on securing this timely and important debate.
I put on record my thanks to the brave firefighters, not only in Tyne and Wear but across the country. We saw in the dreadful Grenfell disaster how, as members of the public run to get out of burning, dangerous, blazing buildings, firefighters run in to those buildings in an attempt to save lives. This debate is not only about the fire service and public service; it is about firefighters. The gratitude that this Government have shown to firefighters for the service that they give for the people of this country, by cutting their salaries by £7,000 and making them work longer for their pensions, is a disgrace.
Tyne and Wear integrated risk management plan has been brought about because of austerity. As we know now, austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. It is a political choice that has brought about a £25 million cut in resources to Tyne and Wear fire authority since 2010, with a further £3.5 million in the pipeline. By 2020, almost 20% will have come out of the fire authority budget in Tyne and Wear.
That means that we have 300 fewer firefighters than we had in 2010, with a cut of a further 70 in the pipeline. We have seen fire station closures; we have seen fire engines scrapped and numerous pieces of emergency rescue equipment put out of operation. What does it mean for what is, at the end of the day, a public service? It has meant a reduction in response times of two minutes per call, which will worsen by a further 20 seconds. As any firefighter knows, extra seconds cost lives.
The Government need to recognise that Tyne and Wear fire authority is overstretched and underfunded. They need to end the cuts. They need to increase the number of firefighters in Tyne and Wear. They need to listen to the fire service, listen to the firefighters, put public service first and end the downward spiral of Tory cuts that is putting the public at risk.
I repeat my earlier request. Will the Minister agree to meet a delegation of Tyne and Wear MPs, plus other representatives of the fire service, to discuss the very grave issues in Tyne and Wear?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mary Glindon on securing this crucial debate for the people in our constituencies.
The chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, the chair of the fire authority, Councillor Barry Curran, and the regional Fire Brigades Union, in particular Russ King and Tony Curry, who are with us today, and all firefighters are working together to try to find the best possible solution for the people we represent, while knowing all the time that if these cuts go ahead, people living in Sunderland and wider Tyne and Wear will be less safe. It is not possible to implement the cuts that are being proposed and not put people more at risk.
I question the timings in the consultation and worry about the number of appliances that will be available. It is important to remember that Tyne and Wear is a densely populated area, in parts very industrial, with two major ports and chemical and manufacturing plants. If something goes wrong, it can go quite catastrophically wrong quite quickly. The need to be able to get to an area quickly with the right number of appliances is absolutely crucial to the outcome of fires.
We have had two very serious incidents in my constituency in recent times. First, there was the one on bonfire night, which my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson referred to, so I will not go through the details again. That was a worrying situation that fortunately did not escalate, but could easily have been catastrophic. Secondly, we had a huge industrial fire, which took weeks to get under control, at a former recycling plant in an area that is crammed with industry and has residential areas around it. Those are just two examples of how, if things go wrong, the type of area we live in is relevant to what is being said today.
I do not want to repeat what has already been said. Instead I will stick to three main points. First, as my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson said, funding choices are only real choices if we have the money to make them. Choices where we do not have the money are not real choices, and that is down not to local decision making, but to the amount of funding the Government are supplying to provide the service that saves people’s lives in our communities.
The consequences of cuts since 2010 are that there are fewer fire appliances across the area, over one third fewer firefighters than in 2010, and much less work being done in the crucial area of community engagement on fire prevention measures and education about the risks of fires. I feel strongly about that, because I think the incident on
I know the Minister listens to us when we bring issues to do with the fire service to him, because I met him recently with my right hon. Friend Mr Brown to try to find a solution to the problems that Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service faced because of its pensions shortfall. A workable solution to that shortfall was found, but it is adding pressure to the service’s current financial situation. Although we totally accepted that we had to find a solution, that financial pressure is adding to the burden we have today.
Secondly, for me, the biggest problem is to do with council tax, which my right hon. Friend Mr Campbell went through in some detail. Using council tax band D as the denominator to work out budgets is simply unrealistic in our area. Tyne and Wear does not have a band D average—far from it. In Sunderland, there are 129,636 properties on the valuation list, of which only 8,962 are in band D. Hon. Members should not think that that is because all the properties are rated higher: there are only 5,012 in bands E, F and G put together. Almost 90% of properties in Sunderland, the largest local authority area within Tyne and Wear, are in bands below band D, so when the Government regard band D as the average, that has a significant effect on the ability to fund a service.
Thirdly, as my right hon. Friend also mentioned, I understand that the Minister here today is based in the Home Office, but the budget is in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. That is a massive problem, because, as was said, for a Minister to lobby for funding in a Department he does not sit in is quite extraordinary. I have not come across it before; I am sure there probably are examples of it, but I find it extraordinary.
The Minister needs to look again at the funding formula, taking into account all the concerns about our real-life situation and the band D issue, which makes it simply impossible to raise extra funds as he might suggest we do. It is often said that this is a matter of local decision making, but as I said, local decision making is impossible against a backdrop where the funds needed cannot be raised. I ask the Minister in particular to address the concerns about funding.
I thank my hon. Friend Mary Glindon for securing this debate. It is a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.
Hon. Members have voiced concerns about a number of issues, and I hope the Minister will respond in full. We have heard concerns about the ideologically based austerity cuts and the disregard for the social deprivation that this Government have caused. We have heard concerns about the impact of the cuts on public safety, concerns about the risk to the safety and even the lives of firefighters, concerns about their morale, and concerns about the possible increase in response times and the increase in antisocial behaviour. It is a shame that we have also seen such huge cuts to the numbers of police officers since 2010. We have heard concerns about the robustness of the public consultation, given the inclusion of the Christmas period within that time, concerns about the impact on businesses, and concerns about the unrealistic suggestion of using council tax to increase revenues for the fire service. I would especially like to hear the Minister’s response to that concern.
The financial situation of fire services nationally and in Tyne and Wear is very concerning and the new integrated risk management plan places the brunt of the Government’s cuts on frontline operations. The Conservative Government oversaw a 30% cut to central Government funding for fire and rescue services between 2010 and 2015, and slashed firefighters’ numbers by nearly 12,000. The Government have clearly chosen the fire service to bear a considerable part of the burden of their destructive austerity agenda, and ultimately it is our communities that suffer.
Whenever Opposition Members question the full impact of the austerity agenda on the fire service, the responsibility for cuts is passed on to the fire authorities, when in reality it is the central Government’s allocation of resources that is to blame. The Tyne and Wear fire service’s proposed integrated risk management plan is being undermined by austerity, which year on year is squeezing the resources available to the service to keep its communities safe. That is the key—keeping communities safe. When a risk management plan becomes a strategy to implement cuts, it evades its central purpose and focus, which should be analysing the service’s capacity to respond to risk, not trying to deliver a service on the cheap.
Tyne and Wear has been heavily affected by the Government’s austerity agenda. The service now has 285 fewer firefighters and cuts are set to continue. This is a reckless Government policy, the possible consequences of which have not been properly thought through. The fire service should be funded on the basis of its community significance, not an arbitrary demand. It must be prepared for any eventuality, not put on life support with a shoestring budget; I think Grenfell demonstrated that.
I acknowledge that the fire chief and the fire authority have been put in an incredibly difficult situation. Since 2010, Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service has been put under extraordinary pressure to make cuts. The cuts are principally of the Government’s making, yet I am very concerned about the proposals the fire authority have suggested, which include downgrading the availability of wholetime firefighters at Hebburn and Wallsend, a reduction in fire appliances at Tynemouth and South Shields overnight, two fire appliances cut from Gosforth and Washington and downgrading the immediate response wholetime appliance at North Moor in Sunderland. Each of those proposals accepts that the communities in Tyne and Wear will be much less safe. That is key. Effective fire response is contingent on a fast, well-staffed response, but the reality is quite the opposite.
The cuts also need to be considered in the context of available reserves. The service is under pressure to make cuts of £3.6 million, yet it has £3.9 million in unallocated reserves. I know the plan is about sustainability, but regularly when I stand up to speak in the Chamber, the Minister tells me that the fire service will not receive any more money, as it has reserves, and that fire responses are decreasing. Sadly, that seems to be his stock and only response. It would be nice to hear something different today.
That observation of the Minister’s is deeply flawed. As a service, fire and rescue is more than just fire response; it plays a vital role in our communities. Overall incident responses, rather than just responses to fire-related incidents, have increased every year since 2014. His response also overlooks the level of unallocated reserves available to fire services; it is important to recognise that unallocated reserves make up only a small percentage of overall reserves. I ask him to make a distinction between the two. I understand that reserves are a one-off, needed to deal with unforeseen pressures, and that this is money that has been hard-saved during the current Government’s tough budget squeezes. As the National Audit Office has stated, reserves are part of a robust financial strategy.
We simply cannot justify cuts to frontline or support services when the service has sufficient financial resources to prevent the service being downgraded. I urge the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue authority to reconsider its options. The community’s safety must be prioritised. However, it is vital to remember that the blame for this decision should not be pointed at local government, which is forced to deliver the cuts imposed by the Government. That is called passing the buck.
I remind everybody here today that the austerity agenda was and still is an ideological choice. Since 2010, this Government have underfunded all our public services, while continuing to hand out tax cuts to the very wealthy and large corporations. We never hear much about that. It is this Government who have actively chosen to reduce the capacity of fire services to keep communities safe across the UK. At the moment, all we ever hear about is Brexit. It is high time that we started to look at some of the serious things happening in this country, including having a fire service that is fit and prepared for the 21st century, which keeps our firefighters and our communities safe and well.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I start in a traditional and sincere way by congratulating Mary Glindon on securing the debate. She spoke extremely sincerely, as is her way. I know that she believes every word that she said and the fact that she is accompanied by nine fellow Members from the area tells its own story about their strength of feeling. I wholly respect that and I have listened very carefully. It is in part testament to the lobbying skills of the chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, who has certainly felt the love of his MPs this morning.
Clearly, there is a keenly held local view about the importance of making sure that the fire service is properly resourced and equipped to do its extremely important work. Given the seriousness with which the case was presented, I am very happy to meet the chief fire officer and talk it through, as was suggested. As Julie Elliott observed, I have been responsive to representations from Tyne and Wear in the past, in relation to the overpayment of the pension top-up grant, where we reached a settlement that was designed to be helpful.
That recognises, in part, the fact that Tyne and Wear has had a more challenging settlement than other fire authorities over this spending review period—I have been candid about that. Spending power has been reduced by 2% over the spending review period, compared with a 0.3% increase for stand-alone fire and rescue authorities as a whole. Having reviewed the figures, Tyne and Wear will see the fourth largest reduction in core spending power, after the Lancashire, Cleveland and West Midlands fire authorities. I recognise, not just from the strength of feeling in the room, that the past few years have been challenging as a result of the spending review settlement that flows from the way in which the current funding formula works. I recognise the challenge, I have tried to help with the pension top-up grant, and I am more than happy to sit down with Chris Lowther and talk through the issues.
I will now talk about the future. We need to have some perspective on this and try to avoid excessive language, scaremongering or unsettling residents. We are talking about a fire authority whose core spending power this year has increased by 0.8%. A reduction of 2% over the spending period is not an enormous proportion. I think it is important to put this into the context of other organisations that have seen their levels of income fall, as well as the scope to improve efficiency. That applies to almost every organisation in the public and private sector. Labour MPs did not talk very much about efficiency—on the whole, they do not tend to—but we will have a better view about Tyne and Wear’s efficiency as a result of the independent inspection, which will be happening shortly.
Various Members talked about reserves. I do talk about reserves, because this is public money and there needs to be accountability and transparency around it. To be fair, Tyne and Wear has published a reserves strategy, which is quite clear. Across the system, the simple truth is that financial reserves held by single fire and rescue authorities increased by over 80% between March 2011 and March 2018 to £545 million. That means that across the system fire authorities are sitting on reserves worth 42% of their core spending power. In the context of the public hearing “cuts, cuts, cuts” and “we are short of cash”, the system has actually increased its reserves, which can be done only if there is flexibility. Those reserves of 42% of spending power compare with an average in the police system of about 13% or 14%. I feel absolutely entitled to raise the question about reserves.
The Minister is talking about the reserves overall, for all the fire and rescue services. He says he has seen the reserve situation for Tyne and Wear. Does he acknowledge that although there may currently be £28.5 million, 86% of that money is earmarked to meet key, specific financial risks? Does he also acknowledge that in four years’ time those reserves will be down to £11 million, so they cannot be used? That money can only be used once and the authority is spending it, so it will only be left with reserves of £11 million in four years’ time.
My point is specific to Tyne and Wear: I am pushing back on the assertion that fire and rescue authorities have been starved of cash, as the fire and rescue authority is sitting on reserves worth 52%. That is the figure for Tyne and Wear—52% of spending power. There is a lot of talk about this money being earmarked. Let us be clear that anything above general reserves represents active choices made by the fire and rescue authority and the leadership. Those are the active choices that they make. Looking at the numbers, that includes £6 million now for the transformation reform reserves, a capital development budget—these are active choices that they are making. It is public money. The simple point I make is about the need for greater accountability and transparency.
That does not in any way detract from the need to revisit the fair funding formula and the comprehensive spending review, which is what I want to address. I have been challenged on reserves and I am explaining that this is constituents’ money—public money—sitting in reserve. The public have a right to understand how that money is going to be spent to improve the service to them. I would struggle if anyone could challenge that premise.
Would the Minister agree that it is right that when looking at its reserves, a fire authority considers all of its commitments, to ensure that it can meet its forthcoming requirements? As he said, the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service has been explicit in setting out what the reserves are for. There are reserves that are committed and need to be put to specific uses. Some of it is about capital replacement and some is about underpinning the integrated risk management plan, to make sure that we are as safe as possible. Talking about reserves is great, but we need to make sure that those reserves are being applied properly. We have all asked questions about the reserves and we believe that they are being used in a sensible and appropriate manner, to support the service going forward.
The point I am making is that levels of reserves are high, and in the past there has been insufficient accountability and transparency around their use. We are in a different place now, as a result of changes that we have pushed for, but reserves in this system have increased since 2011, even though the Labour party continues to talk about the system being starved of cash.
In the context of perspective—I hope I am not misrepresenting the hon. Member for North Tyneside—I would not want the people of Tyne and Wear to feel that they are getting a bad service from the current fire service. .The hon. Lady talked about “a high level of service”. I think that she is right and, looking at the data, I would certainly like to add my voice to those congratulating the firefighters and the fire service in the area, not least for their work in reducing the number of dwelling fires in the area by 9% during the past five years.
On that point, let me make it clear that the service given by Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service is the best possible service that we could expect, and that it will always strive to provide that. Only the finances are a problem. It would never be classed as a bad service, by me or by anyone else.
No. I made the point only because I would not want the people of Tyne and Wear reading about this debate in the local newspaper to have any sense of, or have, a lack of confidence in their fire service as a result of representations made by their Members of Parliament.
Let me address the heart of the issue, and subject of this debate, which is the integrated risk management plan that the fire authority is putting forward, and make several points. In case residents were not aware, the authority is required to do that. It is regular business for fire authorities: they are required to produce these plans and show how they plan to respond to a range of emergencies on the basis of risk assessment and management for their locality. Quite rightly, the plans are based on the professional and expert advice of senior fire and rescue officers and are made in consultation with local communities. The fire and rescue national framework requires authorities to produce a plan that reflects up-to-date risk analysis, including assessment of all foreseeable fire and rescue-related risks.
I point out that the Tyne and Wear reserve strategy makes it clear that the actions proposed in the current IRMP, and which are being consulted on, represent a review of organisational changes required by the authority to operate more effectively—its language, not mine. That is the context for the plan. It is not laissez-faire but a fact that it is not the position of the Government to have a view on the efficacy of the plan. It is for local experts to draw up these plans, although over time, with the new independent inspection regime that we have introduced, all of us will have a clearer picture by being able to compare the operational effectiveness of individual fire authorities in a way we have not been able to in the past. It is not for me to have a view on whether this is the right or the wrong plan. To repeat the point made by various Members of Parliament, it is for local people to have a view.
Therefore, I wholly support and endorse the messages about the constituents of Tyne and Wear MPs being encouraged to engage with the consultation. If there are concerns about the length of the consultation period and the consultation running over Christmas, they need to be listened to very carefully, because this is a vital public service. Clearly, uncertainties and concerns are being raised by MPs about the changes, so constituents need to be aware and need to engage with the exercise. To repeat the point made by the hon. Member for North Tyneside, it needs to be a proper public consultation.
Let me make a bigger point, in relation to the future funding. I have recognised that Tyne and Wear has been challenged by the last spending review. I need to make this point at the start, because there is a point of differentiation to be made. I am not tribal at all, but I cannot let comments stand from at least two contributions to the debate. Austerity is not a political choice; it is not ideologically driven. The idea that Conservative MPs went into politics deliberately to reduce public expenditure is deeply insulting. The idea that austerity is somehow disconnected from the actions of the last Labour Government and our inheritance of the largest peacetime budget deficit is absolutely disingenuous. The public are not fools and should not be treated as such. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that the fire service is properly resourced, while continuing to challenge it to be more efficient and to modernise and do all the things that we expect of a modern public service.
There have been concerns about whether the Home Office is somehow detached from the process. I can assure Mr Campbell that we are not. Fire funding is part of the local government settlement, and that situation is not unusual: lots of health and education funding comes through local government. However, it is the Home Office that is responsible for the fire budget at the spending review and it is the Home Office that is working with the sector to update our understanding of demand and risk and to identify the evidence that we need to take into discussions on the next funding settlement. I am absolutely determined to ensure that our fire service has the resources that it needs, while continuing to be robust in challenging it on efficiency reform.
Mention was made of Grenfell. I am the Minister for Grenfell victims. That has been a huge part of my life for the past 18 months. One has only to listen to the podcasts from the public inquiry and hear the evidence of firefighters to understand what they had to work with and through on that night, in the most terrible of conditions. I have the deepest admiration for the work that they do and I want to be absolutely sure that they are properly supported by means of a proper understanding of the demand and risk that is in front of us, the past not necessarily being a guide to the future.
The fire funding formula is being reviewed, along with all other local authority formulas. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will shortly publish a consultation document on the review of local authority formulas. We have been working with the sector to understand what the new cost drivers for a new fire formula should be, and I strongly encourage Tyne and Wear fire and rescue authority—I will make this point directly to Chris Lowther—to get involved in that process and respond to the consultation. The review will also look at how council tax is used to produce funding allocations. MPs and fire authorities need to engage with the process. That work is imminent. We must engage with it and get it right.
That takes us to the comprehensive spending review. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has signalled that austerity is coming to an end. [Laughter.] There is laughter from MPs, but they laugh at their peril, because cuts are very much a consequence of the actions that they took when they were in power. Austerity has meant tough choices and sacrifices being made, not least by people working in the public sector. We all want to move on from that. The CSR is the right place for that and the right place to ensure that the fire service is properly resourced for the critical work that it does.
I want to close with a point that is not central to the debate, but which was made by Mrs Hodgson and is very important. We are talking about supporting the fire service. It is absolutely unacceptable that our emergency workers, including our firefighters, should be subjected to abuse, assault and attack. Given the risks that they take on our behalf, that is absolutely unacceptable, and the strongest possible message about that needs to go out from this place. That is why I was so pleased, in an age of tribal ding-dong, that there was strong cross-party support for the Bill that became the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 and the signal that that sends to the courts on additional protection and powers to deal with violence against emergency workers. We did good work on that measure to send that signal about how completely unacceptable it is to attack and assault our emergency workers.
There have been strong representations from Tyne and Wear. Of course I will sit down with the chief fire officer to discuss the issues in more detail. We do feel that the fire service has the resources that it needs. This is a case of stable funding alongside efficiency. I totally recognise that Tyne and Wear had a tougher settlement than most. In relation to the integrated risk management plan, I urge constituents from that area to get fully involved and engage with it. I give my undertaking to ensure that, in the reviewing of the funding formula and in the CSR, this Government will continue to ensure that our fire service has the resources that it needs.
Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank all my colleagues who have taken part in the debate. Every local authority in Tyne and Wear has been represented in the debate, and I think that everyone has spoken with one voice in support of our fire services and our fire authority. They have also spoken with one voice in expressing concern about the fact that our fire services might be in jeopardy in future. I am truly thankful for the compelling cases that have been made, because we have shown that we know and care about our fire services, and what they mean to the safety of each of our constituencies, and to Tyne and Wear as a whole.
I thank the Minister for concurring on the need to support our fire services when they are under attack, and for recognising how disproportionately Tyne and Wear has been affected by recent cuts. We will have to agree to disagree about the reasons for austerity. We will never change our mind and, sadly, I do not think the Government will change theirs. However, I am hopeful that if austerity comes to an end, we will see better funding, after all the consultations and reviews. Christmas is on its way and perhaps that is one of the things we all wish for. I do not wish to be flippant, but we cannot emphasise enough how important this is to us and how concerned we all are that we get this right, and that the people in Tyne and Wear, as well as our firefighters, are kept safe and sound in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the proposed new integrated risk management plan for Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service.