Police, Fire and Rescue Services: Funding Reductions — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:58 am on 20th February 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:58 am, 20th February 2019

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank Grahame Morris for securing it. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who made their contributions forcefully and gracefully on behalf of the fire and rescue services and the police.

An attempt to lower the deficit has clearly led to cuts and losses, but I believe that a few areas must be untouchable, including frontline healthcare, funding for schools to provide basic education, defence spending to secure our nation and its interests, and—lastly, but no less importantly—the police, fire and rescue services. The fat on all those things can be trimmed, but I believe the emergency services are as lean as they can be. In fact, we are too skinny, and without the ability to do what the body is capable of doing if it is well fed. We have tremendous talent and ability, yet we cannot do what a well-funded body can do.

We also have a police service and a fire service that train the world, yet they are precluded from giving their best, due to a lack of funding. I pay tribute, as others have, to the fire and rescue services of Northern Ireland and the whole nation. I also pay tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I know the debate is not about the ambulance service, but I also put on record my thanks to those who work in it for what they do. In many places, they are hard-pressed financially and resources-wise.

A few years ago, I was in Afghanistan with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We had a chance to visit Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. It was remarkable to be in a camp and all of a sudden to hear a Northern Ireland accent—former police officers were being seconded to train the Afghanistan army and police. That incident told me a number of things. Those gentlemen had done their stint in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the PSNI. They then had the opportunity to train people in other countries, and they did that. The husband of the lady who works in my office is a retired police officer, and he trains police officers in Serbia, Montenegro and other parts of the Balkans. The expertise, commitment and ability we have through our police forces is being used to train police forces in other parts of the world. That is an indication of just how highly thought of they are.

In Northern Ireland in 2017, the fire and rescue service of Northern Ireland warned that any more cuts would almost certainly result in preventable deaths. We are not playing with figures; we are playing with people’s lives—the lives of families and children. That is backed up by findings from the Local Government Association. Many of us know the LGA from our days on councils. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central spoke about her time on the council. My hon. Friend Mr Campbell and I have been councillors, too, and I suspect others have the same expertise and knowledge. The LGA represents more than 370 councils and fire authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a massive body with a lot of knowledge and expertise. It highlighted the latest fire statistics, which show that although the overall number of fires has fallen steadily, the rate of decline has slowed and certain types of fire have increased. Deliberate primary fires are on the rise, which is incredibly concerning.

The LGA further outlined a 22% increase in fire-related deaths involving those over 65 in the past two years. There is a need to raise awareness about elderly people on their own in their homes. In Northern Ireland, we have regular advertising on TV about smoke alarms, saying, “Check your smoke alarm on a Monday. Press the button. If it goes off, you know the batteries are not done.” It is important that people do that, because some elderly people probably do not have that ability. It is about how we raise awareness.

The LGA also said that, in deciding fire service funding, Ministers should consider the rising over-85 population and the increasing numbers of people renting houses. When it comes to raising awareness, landlords should be reminded of the responsibility they have, and elderly people should be helped. It is not hard to look out for our elderly neighbours and to call in and see how they are. In two minutes, we can check their smoke alarm and make sure everything is all right.