Fire Services: North-east England

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 23rd November 2022.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West 4:30 pm, 23rd November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered fire services in the North East.

I am very grateful to see this important debate so well attended; it could not be about a more deserving group of people. Like all our emergency services, our firefighters run towards danger while the rest of us run away. They have always kept doing their job, coming to our rescue and keeping our community safe. It is our job, as politicians, to ensure that they have the money and resources to do so.

Unfortunately, it has been hard to say that the Government have done that job properly for the last 12 years. I have been an MP for all those 12 years—for 17 years, actually—and I have spent a lot of time warning, throughout austerity and various debates, often in this very Chamber, about the impact that Government cuts would have on local fire services and their ability to maintain service levels and protect us.

In 2012, I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate about fire and rescue services. I warned that

“budget reductions will hit the poorest areas hardest… services will have to be cut. That, of course, is after preventive services have been cut to the bone.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 84WH.]

In 2018, I raised the issue again in another Westminster Hall debate, talking about how areas with high levels of deprivation, such as Washington and Sunderland West, had a higher risk of fire-related deaths, and needed a fair funding settlement. At the time, I spoke to Chris Lowther, our chief fire officer at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service. I told Westminster Hall in that debate that

“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.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2018; Vol. 650, c. 132WH.]

Like many chief fire officers across the country, he did an impossible job, cutting back on everything he could in order to keep the service running safely. But he warned that if there were further cuts it would be difficult to say, hand on heart, that Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service would be able to provide a safe service.

I raised the issue successively at Prime Minister’s questions in the following two weeks, when Mrs May was Prime Minister. I raised just how concerned our local fire and rescue services were about their very stretched funding.

That brings us to today. Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service has continued to make its service more efficient, but there is very little left to cut back on. If the current trajectory continues, it has nothing left to cut. I have already said that services have been cut to the bone. Having spoken this week to the chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, and the chair of the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Authority, Councillor Phil Tye, I know how tough the situation is.

In 2010, before austerity, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service employed 880 full-time fire fighters, and over 1,000 full-time staff. In 2022, that has dropped to just 624 full-time firefighters, and just 860 staff employed full-time in total. Given the recruitment freeze between 2014 and 2019, as well as an ageing workforce coming to retirement, staff numbers are likely to fall again. In 2010, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service had £59.4 million to spend. To keep up with inflation, that should have risen to £84 million by 2022. But what has happened? Its budget has been cut down to just £54.8 million; that is much less than it was in cash terms in 2010, and a massive and unsustainable real-terms cut. It leaves us, frankly, unprepared for the next crisis we may face.

We can all appreciate that the fire service was put under a huge amount of pressure this summer, with the unprecedented heatwave leading to an increased number of fires across the country—we all saw them on our TV screens, if not more up close. They devasted lives and livelihoods alike.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I want to commend the firefighters working at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, who have attended two major fires in my constituency: one at Shee Recycling in Birtley, where there are environmental hazards, and a second at the Ryrton Willows—one of those summer fires that my hon. Friend referred to. We have also seen the impact of those budget reductions, with the loss of one pump at Swalwell in my constituency.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. A reminder that interventions must be brief.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

Thank you. There were also the proposed cuts to night cover in Birtley, which fortunately we were able to amend.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

Coming back to the summer fires, that period included the busiest day for firefighters since world war two. That brings home the important role and work that firefighters do. How do the Government expect them to cope with future heatwaves without addressing the serious concerns this crisis raised about how stretched the workforce is?

In less foreseeable moments of crisis, fire services are the first responders there to protect the public. Following the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attacks, we were told that some fire and rescue services would be “unprepared” to respond effectively if a tragic event like that happened again. If such an event happened at one of the big arenas in our region—heaven forbid—how could we be assured that lives would be protected given this funding crisis?

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I apologise for being a couple of minutes late for her speech. Teesside is served by the Cleveland Fire Brigade. Teesside is one of Europe’s biggest fire risks, yet the formula that determines its income does not take any of that into consideration. Does she agree that risk should be examined as an important factor in determining funding?

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I will come on to. My chief fire officer told me that Cleveland is the worst in the country in terms of the fairness of that funding formula.

On a community level, these cuts will have consequences. Last Friday, I visited Barmston Village Primary School in my constituency. With no prompting from me whatsoever, two young boys told me separate stories of their family cars being damaged in an arson attack and one young girl told me about a time when she had to knock on a neighbour’s door to tell them that something was burning on their property. What is more, all the children were upset about the damage caused to the play equipment in the local park by the big kids—they mean teenagers—setting fire to it.

In previous years, fire services have come out to schools and done talks with the children, especially the older children—the big kids—in the secondary schools, explaining the danger of arson and what to do if they see a fire. However, with preventative measures being cut first, it is becoming even more difficult for fire and rescue services to provide that important community outreach. That will also have consequences.

The Government promised to level up areas like Sunderland, but I fail to see how those promises can continue to be made when basic public services are being starved of cash and millions of working people are facing the fastest fall in their pay in years. That is why the chief fire officer and Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service have called for the fire funding formula to be revised, so it once again takes into account deprivation as a risk factor, which my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham mentioned is so problematic in Cleveland. That was the case under the last Labour Government and it was changed after 2010 by the current Government.

The change would help local authorities like mine and all of ours that cannot raise huge amounts of funding through council tax to keep our services running. I do not want to go into all the reasons why, but that is a well-known fact. What is becoming ever more clear is that service bosses and frontline workers are on the same page: the service must protect the public, but it equally needs to protect its own staff.

The lack of funding has led to the Fire Brigades Union rejecting an unfunded 5% pay rise put forward by national employers. To be clear, that 5% is unfunded, meaning that fire and rescue services have to find an extra 5% from their existing budget to pay for it—I have already said how stretched their budgets currently are. It puts our chief fire officers across the north-east and across the country, who just want the very best for firefighters, in an incredibly difficult position. They do extremely important work. They just want the funds to properly reward their staff with fair pay for the very important work they do.

If industrial action does take place, there has been talk of the Home Office drafting in soldiers to replace striking staff and then asking these strapped-for-cash fire services to pay £4,000 per week per soldier to train and employ them. No one wants to see a strike. It is now up to the Government to get around the table with the FBU and resolve this dispute. The Government must now make sincere efforts to ensure that fire and rescue staff can continue to provide safe services, which means ensuring that fire services get the support they need and doing everything they can to ensure that fire services get a decent deal. It is clear for all to see how the Government have shamefully cut fire services for more than a decade and how the cuts now risk the safety of our communities in the north-east.

I hope that if I ever attend another Westminster Hall debate on fire services in the north-east, it is under a Labour Government and we are able to properly address some of these issues. How would we do that? We will have grown the economy, provided high-quality public services and ensured that workers have better pay and conditions. That day cannot come soon enough for our communities in the north-east.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. Colleagues, you can see how many of you there are wishing to get in. You will have about three minutes each. I call Peter Gibson.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 4:42 pm, 23rd November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to be called to speak in the debate. Having grown up in a fire service family in the north-east, this is a subject close to my heart. I congratulate Mrs Hodgson on securing the debate. Having met with my local fire service—the County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service—just last week, it is very timely. I appreciate the opportunity to speak.

The County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service is a vital emergency service and I am hugely proud of the fantastic work all its staff do every day of the week. Indeed, the service is recognised nationally as being extremely high performing, productive and efficient. I want to take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to the staff and praise them for their work and dedication. However, I understand that the service has serious concerns regarding the ongoing funding challenges it is facing, which may mean that there is a danger that it cannot sustain its current level of service into the future.

The authority now receives two thirds of its funding from local taxpayers. This reliance on council tax to fund fire and rescue services represents a significant challenge for the authority when it is faced with cost pressures and the council tax referendum limit remains as low as it has been. The impact is magnified in areas such as County Durham and Darlington, where almost 80% of the properties are in council tax bands A and B, meaning that a 1% increase in council tax would raise only an additional £190,000 for the authority, while in other areas 1% would raise significantly more. The reality is that the additional income that could be raised via council tax does not cover the cost increases incurred by the authority through unfunded pay awards, inflation and energy prices. Moreover, no one wants to see an increased council tax burden on our local communities. As such, the current funding mechanism appears to be unsustainable. Can the Minister outline what more the Government can do? I know the service is asking for precept flexibility.

More generally, I welcome that in May ’22 the then Home Secretary unveiled the most comprehensive plans for fire reform in decades in the fire reform White Paper. The proposals put forward centre on people, professionalism and governance and aim to strengthen the emergency services and ensure that people feel safer in their homes. I know that County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service has responded to them. I know that these reforms seek to introduce changes to allow fire professionals to further develop their skills and I think it is important that we also talk about that in this debate.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 4:45 pm, 23rd November 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson on securing this debate. I, like her, pay tribute to all members of the fire and rescue service, particularly those in County Durham and Darlington. I also pay tribute to Stuart Errington, the chief fire officer at County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, who is retiring in January after 30 years of service.

I have just listened to Peter Gibson talking as though this has just happened: no, it has happened because the Government have cut back central Government grants. As he has just said, in Durham, the fire and rescue service relies on council tax services for two thirds of its funding. It is a high-performing, efficient and extremely productive service. That is not me saying that—it is His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services. They have had changes in working practices and there is nothing more that can be done to cut the fat out of the system. By pushing this on to the taxpayer, County Durham cannot fill the gap. For one thing, that is unfair but, secondly, due to the large numbers of band A properties, a 1% increase in council tax in County Durham will not raise anything like it would in, for example, Surrey.

The Government talk about levelling up but what we actually have here is distribution southward rather than to the deprived areas such as the north-east. Unless that funding formula is actually tackled in terms of more central Government grant or changing the formula, County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service will fall over; it will go bankrupt. I know there is a call to increase council tax by 5% from the current 2% cap, but that is not fair and it will not solve the problem. That is pushing the issue on to the local council tax payers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, the situation has been going on since 2010. It has been done by stealth not just in that service, but in local government, where council tax payers in areas such as mine in County Durham are having to raise more through local council tax. With those low bandings, they have a limited ability to do that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, we rely on the men and women in the fire and rescue service to do remarkable things on our behalf in times of crisis.

The system is broken. My final point is this: if it is not fixed this year or certainly next year, County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service will fall over. It will no longer be able to provide the service that keeps us all safe.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 4:48 pm, 23rd November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I obviously congratulate Mrs Hodgson on securing the debate. As the son of a former County Durham senior fire officer, Bob Howell, I am incredibly privileged to take part in the debate. I begin by acknowledging and thanking the County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, which I will refer to as CDDFRS from hereon in, for the hard work that they do to protect us all.

Before coming to this place, I sat as a local councillor on the combined fire authority, so I fully understand the position. The chair of the CFA, John Shuttleworth, and the chief fire officer, Stuart Errington, have expressed to me and other colleagues that inflation and staff demands are taking a toll on the fire service’s budget. Although they are solvent this year, even their best-case scenario for next year would see the budget fall into deficit.

In the decade to 2021, the number of incidents that fire and rescue services in England attended fell by 8%, but in my local area a heavy demand continues to be placed on the CDDFRS because, as my inbox sadly shows, arson in particular is a recurring problem. Indeed, in the north-east of my constituency of Sedgefield, in places like Wingate and Station Town, arson is the weapon of choice for a significant part of the criminal fraternity. It is predominately vehicle arson, which puts a disproportionate amount of pressure on the CDDFRS.

The funding model, as has been said, simply does not work. Due to the number of properties in council tax bands A and B, funding raised through council tax is too limited. Coupled with the level of deprivation, which means that many residents pay little or no council tax, fire services in parts of the country like mine cannot rely on making up what inflation has taken away. As a result, the leaders of CDDFRS are seeking changes to balance the budget while maintaining a high level of service and properly recompensing their staff.

I would like the Government to give further consideration to options to resolve that conundrum. The opportunity to move to 3% is a step in the right direction, but at an impact of £1 per percentage point, broadly speaking, the increase would need to be about £5 to bring the budget to balance. That is a relatively small amount, but it is outside the current threshold.

Changing the approach to capital expenditure may be a way to alleviate part of the cost pressure without dramatic funding changes. There is no longer a capital budget, so capital expenditure must be financed through loans or the use of reserves. Clearly, with rising interest rates, loan financing costs become an ever bigger drain. The alternative of utilising reserves is not open to CDDFRS, as it rightly maintains its reserves at a lower level, although I am aware that, across the UK as a whole, fire services do have significant reserves. I therefore encourage the Minister to consider an approach whereby capital expenditure is granted to those across the country with very low reserves.

I will finish by placing on record my admiration and support for Stuart Errington, the current chief fire officer of CDDFRS, who will retire at the end of the year. He has run the fire service with the motto “being the best”. I believe that he has achieved that objective. I put on record my appreciation to him and all his exceptional staff for all the work they have done.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 4:51 pm, 23rd November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my good and hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson on her determination in securing this important and timely debate. I declare an interest as a member of the FBU parliamentary group and a proud supporter of our firefighters and their trade union. I place on record my thanks—indeed, those of all of our members—for the excellent work that our firefighters do.

The funding crisis in fire and rescue highlights a basic contradiction in the Government’s rhetoric. Whether we are talking about a northern powerhouse or levelling up, the reality is that we face higher taxes and cuts to services. I saw an interesting statistic from the Office for National Statistics that highlighted that contradiction. It showed that between 2006 and 2020, average wealth fell 17% in the north-east while increasing in every other region, bar the east midlands. London and the south-east led the way, with their wealth increasing 63% and 43% respectively.

As we have heard, County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service has lost around £10 million in Government funding over the past 12 years when we take inflation into account. Our fire and rescue authorities experienced a shift over the past decade so that two thirds of their overall funding now comes from local taxpayers.

I have a solution for the Minister, if she cares to act on it. The problem is that our choice is not between raising council tax and cutting services; due to the nature of the grant and the low council tax base, we are likely to have increased taxes and cuts to services. Clearly, that is unfair and unsustainable. Council tax is an unfair, regressive and broken system that places the heaviest burden on communities with the highest demand for services and the lowest ability to pay. We need to scrap that unfair tax and deliver a fairer system that is based on wealth, the ability to pay, and delivering public services based on need. My message for the Minister is to match the rhetoric with action, whether on the northern powerhouse, levelling up, or one nation, compassionate Conservatism.

The first step to resolving the funding challenge is to replace council tax with a proportional property tax that would balance an area’s ability to pay and deliver services based on need. Can the Minister explain how we will secure additional funding for County Durham and Darlington if not through a proportional property tax, given that it cannot be raised through our low council tax base?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. Colleagues, because you have all been so disciplined, I will allow the remaining speakers—with apologies to those who have already spoken—to have three and a half minutes.

Photo of Jill Mortimer Jill Mortimer Conservative, Hartlepool 4:54 pm, 23rd November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate Mrs Hodgson on bringing forward this important debate.

Hartlepool is in the Cleveland Fire Authority area, which has already been mentioned. I met recently with representatives of the CFA, including chief fire officer Ian Hayton, to discuss some of the challenges that are unique to our area. I will illustrate some of those to give the Minister some context. We have a high hazard area, as we have already heard. We have an industrial cluster spanning two sides of a large river, with few crossings. We have 15 power stations, one of which is nuclear. We also have a large number of urban conurbations spread over a wide geographical area—again, split by the large river—including areas of severe deprivation.

That deprivation causes issues with arson, as we have already heard. In Cleveland, we have 10 times the national average of deliberate property fires. They are used as a weapon by drug dealers, money lenders and so forth. That creates a huge strain on our resources in Cleveland. Despite all that, my firefighters have a fabulous record, and I have admiration for them all. They still consistently manage the seven-minute response time for house fires, despite the number of full-time firefighters having fallen by 33%. However, as we have already heard, they are severely hampered by disproportionate funding compared with other fire and rescue authorities. It is unclear how long that will be sustainable with inflationary pressures.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank the hon. Member and my next-door neighbour for giving way. She will have had the same letter as me from Ian Hayton and the chair of the Cleveland Fire Authority, which tells us that there were 494 full-time firefighters in 2010. There are now 330—a cut of 33%. The chief fire officer and the chair are saying that they cannot keep people safe if they do not get more money through a different formula. Does the hon. Member agree that the Minister needs to make change?

Photo of Jill Mortimer Jill Mortimer Conservative, Hartlepool

Yes, I believe that change must be made, but after my discussions with Ian and his team—I have met them on a couple of occasions now—I do not believe it is all doom and gloom. They do have solutions. This is not just about cuts and funding. We have to accept that money is tight and scarce in this country. We have just gone through a global pandemic and we are fighting a war. It is all our money; there is only so much of it, and it has to be shared appropriately.

The people who know most about this are those in the fire service themselves. They are the people I spoke with. I am not going to stand here and say that I am an expert on how to fund a fire service; they know where to make positive changes, and where to find answers and solutions to the problems. Will the Minister meet me, along with colleagues from the Cleveland Fire Authority area and representatives of the authority, so that she can have the conversations that I have had with them and discuss their ideas, and we can plan positive ways to secure a safe way forward not just for the people of Hartlepool, but for everyone in the Cleveland Fire Authority area?

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck 4:58 pm, 23rd November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson for bringing forward this important debate. I declare an interest as a member of the FBU parliamentary group. I want to place on record my sincere thanks, and those of my constituents in Wansbeck and the people of Northumberland, to the fantastic men and women of the fire and rescue service. They do an absolutely brilliant job. We need to recognise that, and I will focus most of my limited contribution on the pay increase.

Morale in the fire and rescue service is undoubtedly at an all-time low. There have been cuts of up to 30% since 2010, stations have closed, there are more fire engines off the streets, and 11,500 frontline firefighters have been sacked. In real terms, wages are around £4,000 lower than they were more than a decade ago. Is it any wonder that morale is as poor as it is?

When we look at what the fire and rescue service has done in Northumberland, we see that it was fantastic during covid and brilliant during Storm Arwen not so many months ago. It assisted in setting up the vaccine centres and getting personal protective equipment out to the relevant places. That is what the fire and rescue service does as well as putting out huge fires and saving lives. The service has been fantastic in getting humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and it has been really active in saving lives in rural Northumberland, with the wildfires and of course the floods. I remember the floods in Morpeth in 2008, when the fire and rescue service was unbelievable, I have to say.

Offering the fire and rescue service 5% is absolutely insulting—it really is. Inflation is 11.1% and here we are offering these key workers, who we clapped incessantly on a Thursday night, 5%. It is absolutely insulting. It is intolerable. It is not right. We have to remunerate fire and rescue service workers correctly to save our lives, our families’ lives, and the lives of other people in our community, including schoolkids. We have to treat these people with the respect they deserve.

I worry that the dead hand of government is coming across the pay talks with public sector workers—the posties, the rail workers, the teachers—and I worry that the firefighters are going to be brought into some sort of big culture war that is being brewed up, and that they will not be recognised for the great work they do on behalf of our communities.

What a brilliant job the firefighters do. They do a fantastic job. I fully support every single man and woman involved in the fire and rescue service, and I think that we, as UK parliamentarians, need to get behind them and pay them right.

Photo of Matt Vickers Matt Vickers Conservative, Stockton South 5:02 pm, 23rd November 2022

I thank and congratulate Mrs Hodgson for securing this important debate.

First, I pay tribute and offer my thanks to the brave firefighters across Cleveland who do so much to keep my community safe. Recently, I had the chance to get out on shift with officers from Cleveland Fire Brigade and spend time with the teams at Thornaby and Hartlepool. I got to see at first hand the determination and commitment of those brave officers, who put their lives on the line in the service of my community, facing the challenges of road traffic collisions on our busy road network, adopting a specialist approach to dealing with accidents in the River Tees, taking on the unique challenges of my area’s industrial heritage and its chemical sector, tackling grass fires and floods, and saving the lives of those whose homes or places of work are hit by fire. My local force and officers remain undeterred by their huge task, using every spare minute they have to support fire prevention and community safety, visiting the homes of vulnerable people to provide life-saving checks and safety advice, and supporting the vulnerable and elderly by providing equipment to keep them warm in the winter months.

Cleveland Fire Brigade faces unique financial challenges and pressures. The brigade serves an area with pockets of severe deprivation. Across the Cleveland Fire Brigade area there is an exceptionally low council tax base, with 46% of properties in band A compared with the national average of 24%, meaning that the authority raises from council tax the lowest proportion of core spending when compared with the UK’s other fire and rescue authorities. That makes it incredibly difficult for the force to increase revenue in the way that many other brigades might.

I am saddened to say that Cleveland is the arson capital of Europe. A minority of mindless individuals put the lives of residents and our brave firefighters at risk. Moreover, the heavy industry in my part of the world adds to the pressures on service delivery. The risks and hazard profile of Cleveland simply are not recognised in the funding formula. We are not getting our fair share.

Cleveland has one of the smallest fire brigades in the UK, making it difficult to realise economies of scale. In recent years, the brigade has been innovative in its approach, becoming leaner and more efficient, but its current financial outlook is incredibly challenging. Like my hon. Friend Jill Mortimer, I would be grateful if the Minister would agree to meet me, parliamentary colleagues from across Cleveland, and the brigade leadership to look at how we can ensure that Cleveland Fire Brigade continues to provide a sustainable, safe service, keeping the residents of Stockton South safe and giving our brave firefighters the resources that they need and deserve.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham 5:05 pm, 23rd November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson for securing this important debate, the timing of which could not be more pertinent.

In recent years, we have seen the fire service step up when our communities have needed it, first working through the challenges of the pandemic, and then tackling wildfires in places such as Brandon in my constituency during this summer’s heatwave. Almost a year ago today, Storm Arwen ravaged the north-east, leaving a trail of damage in its wake, with many of my constituents in harm’s way. The Government were slow to help after the storm but, as always, the fire service was there when we needed it.

Of course, that is just one example. Every day, across our region, firefighters protect us by running towards danger while we run from it—but we cannot run away from the fact that those working in our fire service are not immune to the cost of living crisis. Their bills, mortgages and rents have spiralled while, like many public sector employees, their pay packet has lagged behind. According to FBU analysis, since 2009, real-terms wage cuts have wiped £4,000 a year from an average firefighter’s salary.

In my constituency, the fire service is already under significant financial pressure; even its best-case projections involve more restructuring of an already stretched service. An unfunded 5% pay rise will push it into a budget deficit. The solution that the fire service in Durham would like to see is simple: a fair pay increase for its dedicated firefighters, funded by central Government. This is another fact that the Government cannot run away from: under their watch, the fire service has had its central funding slashed by 30%. That means that nationally, we have 11,500 fewer firefighters than we had in 2010, reducing resilience, slowing response times and jeopardising the safety of firefighters and the public.

Moreover, in the north-east as a whole since 2010, one in four firefighters has been cut, 600 whole-time firefighter posts have been slashed, and a quarter of fire control posts have gone. This is just another example of public services being run into the ground by the Government while working people see their pay, conditions and living standards eroded. To witness our brave firefighters and control staff having to resort to using food banks is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Climate change means that we will need firefighters more than ever, as wildfires and floods become more frequent. The damage done by extreme weather conditions such as Storm Arwen is no longer a once-in-a-generation event; we will increasingly have to live with it. I echo the FBU’s call for a statutory duty for flooding in England, as there is in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is clear that we need a well-funded service. Let us not forget that it was the firefighters that dealt with some of the most harrowing scenes during the pandemic. It is only right that those who gave so much during that time are appropriately rewarded.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 5:08 pm, 23rd November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson on securing this important debate. She made a powerful speech, and she is an incredible champion for her area. We were all struck by her story of the children in Barmston Village Primary School, who all had stories to tell about arson. I was in nearby Horden last year, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Grahame Morris, where I met the veteran Sean Ivey, whose house was burned down by kids in the area. I heard about the antisocial behaviour and the epidemic of arson in the area; we must not underestimate the impact that those fires have on local communities.

It is interesting that Members from across the House have said the same things today: we need fairer funding and more funding; we understand the inequalities in how the system is set up—the precept council tax in particular; we need more capital expenditure; and there has been a fall in real terms in the salaries of our firefighters. Throughout the debate we have heard about the cuts over the past 12 years. Although the number of fires has been decreasing over the past few decades, we face significant new dangers. The number of fire service call-outs has increased every year since 2007; the number of fires increased by 3% last year; and global warming is leading to increased wildfires, which hon. Members have referred to—we saw a 200% increase this summer.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I take no satisfaction in agreeing with my other neighbour, Matt Vickers, who said that Cleveland is the arsonist capital of the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need not only a fair funding formula for the fire service, but all the police officers we have lost since 2010 to be rehired?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, as always. Labour will put lots more neighbourhood policing back on to our streets to prevent the kind of antisocial behaviour that leads to arson in his area.

As we face a cold winter, when people will be forced to choose between heating and eating thanks to the Government’s mini-Budget and the huge rises in costs and inflation, we have already heard about people using increasingly desperate means to keep warm. Staffordshire’s fire chief warned of people relying on electrical heaters to dry clothes, burning unsafe materials to keep warm or staying too close to open fires.

To add to all those problems, the lessons of Grenfell have not been learned. Shamefully, the Government have implemented only a handful of recommendations from phase 1 of the inquiry: fire regulations are still unclear, sprinklers are still not mandatory, single stairwells are still allowed in blocks of flats, and there is no duty on anyone to develop personal evacuation plans for disabled people—an absolutely shameful reversal of a Government promise. On top of the Grenfell failings, as we move towards the more sustainable building of homes, we are increasingly using timber frames, which risk even more fires, because they are more combustible. Funding our fire service is literally a matter of life and death, not least because of the Government’s woeful record on the economy and post Grenfell.

What an indictment it is that the policies of the past 12 years mean that our firefighters now have lower pay in real terms and that more than 11,000 firefighters have been lost. We have seen a pensions fiasco for firefighters and the police. Fire inspectors have seen some of the largest cuts in numbers—their numbers have fallen by almost one third since 2010, making the job of firefighters even harder. I have heard reports of firefighters using food banks. That is completely unacceptable.

At the height of the pandemic, the Conservative-controlled East Sussex Fire Authority tried to push through sweeping cuts. I was pleased to play a small part in those cuts being dropped. Cornwall’s fire service told me that the Government’s mismanagement of the new contract for our 999 and radio services—called the emergency services network—has put one of its vital centres at risk of closure, while leaving it with an outdated radio system that often breaks down. Will the Minister tell us what on earth she is doing to tackle that extraordinary waste of public money, which is costing each of our fire services literally millions of pounds? It is a shocking example of incompetence in the Home Office.

The Budget showed that, yet again, the Conservatives have loaded the costs on to working people. Our growth will still be the lowest in the G7 and the OECD over the next two years. As pay stagnates and inflation rises, more and more trade unions are balloting about their pay deals. The backdrop to many of the disputes is clear: working people are being hit by the fastest fall in real wages on record, and hammered by the Government’s abject failure to tackle the cost of living emergency.

Strike action is always a last resort, because working people do not want to lose pay, especially in the middle of a cost of living crisis, but they simply feel that they have no choice. I find it extraordinary that the Home Office has written to fire and rescue services to say that they need to pay £4,000 per soldier per week for soldiers to be on stand-by if there is a strike and that local fire services across the country will have to suffer all the costs. Fire services do not want this. One told me that it would go down like “a bucket of sick” with firefighters. I have heard anecdotally that the Army is not keen on it either, because last time this happened, a lot of soldiers were lost to the fire sector, with people joining the fire service. What is the Minister doing and how is she engaging?

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

It is interesting that the hon. Lady refers to the intervention of the Army in previous strikes. I have just been doing some research into when the last fire brigade strikes were. They were in 2002, when Labour was in power, and 1997, when Labour was in power, but all the speeches from the Opposition side of the Chamber this evening seem to suggest that year dot was 2010. It clearly was not.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Let us remind ourselves that we are talking about the north-east.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I do not think anyone thinks 2010 was year dot, but the Government have been in power for 12 years, and we are judging that record today.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

It was year dot in 2010, because the Government took the deliberate decision to cut central Government funding to fire services and to push responsibility for that funding on to local taxpayers. That affected local council tax and fire services.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. They tried to push that funding to make themselves look better, so they could pretend the cuts were smaller than they actually were. We all know what is going on.

What is the Minister doing? How are the Government engaging with the FBU and the fire authorities to help us come to an agreement and avoid a strike? I urge her to clarify the Government’s position, because it looks like Ministers are upping the ante when they should be solving the dispute. Ministers must work to address how we avoid strikes, instead of letting us drift towards them through inaction.

We have heard about the impact of the cuts in Tyne and Wear. In the north-east, one in four firefighters has been cut since 2010. I met fire chief Stuart Errington in Durham, and I want to add my praise for him as he approaches retirement. I also want to put on record my appreciation for Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service and for the amazing job Chris Lowther—the chief fire officer—and his team are doing to keep people safe. In 2018, the Government said they were reviewing the funding formula for fire services. In 2020, they said that that review had been suspended due to the pandemic. Can the Minister tell the House whether the fire funding formula will indeed be reviewed?

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:16 pm, 23rd November 2022

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. The topics covered in this debate are of great importance to every one of us and to the public. I thank those who have taken part. It has been an extraordinary year for fire and rescue services, responding to wildfires and major events such as the Commonwealth games, providing vital kit to Ukraine and working with the Government to drive forward fire reform.

I held the brief of Fire Minister briefly over the summer, and it was a pleasure to meet the Interior Minister of Ukraine and some of the firefighters who, with firefighters from across Europe, were helping to deliver much-needed equipment to Ukraine. It was very humbling. That work has been a joint effort on the part, not least, of local fire and rescue services and national Government.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I add my praise for the work that has gone on to send fire services and support to Ukraine. However, does the Minister know that some areas wanted to send equipment to Ukraine, but it turned out to be too old? Some equipment is so old that it was not deemed adequate to send to Ukraine.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I had several meetings about that. The fact of the matter was that we were sending much-needed surplus. I know from my experience—one would need to write to the present Fire Minister about this, as I am assisting him today—that there were many circumstances where even old equipment was streets ahead of what the Ukrainians had. They were extremely grateful, and the firefighters I met were tearful to have our old equipment, so I do not think we need to be so critical. We assisted them greatly and saved many lives. I spoke to people who spent weeks taking that equipment over. It was gratefully received. It was never rejected as being outdated, as far as I am aware.

I want to pay tribute to the firefighters at home who dealt with wildfires. As Fire Minister, I was able to visit scenes that required fire services—even one just outside my constituency, in the constituency of High Peak. In addition, fire and rescue services helped to ensure our public safety while the nation paid its respects to Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II. Those efforts should be celebrated, but we still have further to go.

Along with Grenfell and the Manchester arena inquiries, the inspectorate’s state of fire and rescue reports fired the starting gun for reform. There is a clear and growing case for change. Fires and the reaction to them and other threats are growing and changing. Fire and rescue services, like all other sections of the public sector, need to respond to that. They are usually up for a challenge, and I have every confidence that they will perform well.

In May, the Government published a fire reform White Paper that consulted on our vision for reform, and we aim to publish the response to the consultation in due course. The public are rightly proud of our fire and rescue services, and right hon. and hon. Members have spoken eloquently of their experiences of hearing from professionals and constituents in this regard.

It is important that the services are encouraged to put the public first in everything they do. The Government have their part to play in ensuring that we support our fire and rescue services and that they are making the most of the tools and knowledge available to them. The White Paper has set out proposals that achieve that. Firefighters and fire staff do great work and deserve the gratitude and support of us all—I know that everyone present will agree on that.

Let me turn to some of the specific points made in the debate, starting with protection and prevention, to which Mrs Hodgson referred. The Government recognised that additional capacity was required and have provided an additional £50 million. Since 2019-20, that money has been funded to assist increases in capacity and capability in protection teams, which has delivered an increase in the number of staff.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

In Cleveland, the fire and rescue service faces inflationary pressure of £145 million, and there is no chance at all of finding further cuts. Either we put the public and industry at risk or the fire authority goes bust. Which would the Minister prefer?

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

There are many concerns in this regard. However, I have the utmost faith that local fire and rescue services will be able to work in a way that does not put the public at risk, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument.

The Government have delivered an increase in the number of staff working in protection, and an increase in the skills and qualifications of those already there.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

There is not a great deal of time left, so I will make some progress.

I would like to talk about live pay issues, which were mentioned by Sarah Jones. On concerns about the threat of industrial action by the FBU, I note that it has rejected the significantly increased 5% pay offer made by employers and will now ballot members for their views on industrial action. Under the current system, the Home Office plays no direct role in negotiation or funding of firefighter and control staff pay, which is the responsibility of the National Joint Council. In the White Paper, we set out our intentions to conduct an independent review of the current pay system under the National Joint Council, which has been widely criticised. Of course, firefighters deserve to have a decent pay system instead of the current arrangement, which has been widely criticised. I hope that industrial action can be avoided through continued employer and employee negotiations.

I want to talk about the funding formula, which has been mentioned by various right hon. and hon. Members. Changes to the fire formula are being looked at. As Members may be aware, fire is part of the local government settlement, and any updates would need to be co-ordinated across local government. However, as Members are aware, the fire formula is mainly a population formula, and population will always be a significant driver in any new formula. The important thing is to provide the funding that fire and rescue services need. The local government settlement will be published next month, and it will set budgets for the year 2023-24.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

I look forward to the publication of the new data, but will the Minister respond to the point about taking away the deprivation funding? I think all of us in this room were united in saying that that is a risk factor in a lot of the arson and fires that we see, and it really needs to be put back into the formula.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I invite the hon. Lady to write to the Fire Minister to express in detail the particular characteristics of her area, which have also been mentioned by other speakers, to see what can be done in that regard.

In relation to capital funding, the Government are clear that fire and rescue services have the resources they need. Standalone fire and rescue authorities have received a 6.2% increase in core funding for the year 2022-23, compared with last year. What is important is that the quantum of funding is right, rather than having specific capital funding grants, which are less flexible for local authorities than funding from a standard local government grant or council tax.

A number of other issues were mentioned. Various hon. Members, particularly Alex Cunningham, raised the issue of firefighter job cuts. Firefighters work very hard to protect our communities, but the nature of a firefighter’s work is changing. Fire incidents have fallen 32% in a decade, although I appreciate that there are regional variations and local issues, and I welcome correspondence about those issues following today’s debate. It is, however, the responsibility of fire and rescue services to ensure that they have the appropriate number of firefighters and control staff to deliver their core functions. The Home Office works closely with fire and rescue services to ensure they have the resources they need to do their work, and funding continues to increase. I want communities to receive the service they desire, which includes firefighters being fully supported to meet those communities’ concerns.

Regarding general funding concerns, when the last Labour Government left office, public services and the public finances were in a parlous state. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] It would have been irresponsible to continue spending at that rate, so it does not behove Members to moan and groan about the present situation. Where there are international and domestic crises, we need to work together to make the most of the money we have. I hope that Members will not fall into the trap of wanting to play party politics with people’s lives.

I pay tribute to everybody who has contributed to today’s debate. There are interesting regional variations that have to be considered, and where there are issues such as arson, fire, criminality and antisocial behaviour, I expect everyone to work together with their local police to assist in addressing them. That requires joint working, and greater training on how to deal with those social issues may need to take place. Just putting more money into something does not mean it will work—it needs careful thought, and we must all look after every penny and be careful in that regard.

I thank each and every hon. Member who has spoken for raising their individual issues, including flooding and other interesting issues in their constituencies—for example, my hon. Friend Jill Mortimer talked about the dynamics in her constituency. I apologise to those I have not mentioned due to the time constraints, and I know that these issues mean a great deal to all of us in this Chamber.

In my last 30 seconds, I will repeat my thanks to all who have contributed today. This has been an insightful and interesting debate, but we must not allow it to be political. These discussions provide us with a useful reminder—not that we need one—of the extraordinary contribution that fire and rescue services make to our communities. It is in all our interests to ensure that fire and rescue services are adaptable, inclusive and efficient, and the Government will continue to work with them to deliver improvements and, where necessary, reforms.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West 5:28 pm, 23rd November 2022

I thank all MPs from across the north-east who have attended today’s important debate. I also thank the shadow Minister—my hon. Friend Sarah Jones—and the Minister, who is the one who made this debate political, rather than anyone else.

This afternoon, we have had almost complete agreement on the issues that all four of our fire services face, and we all agree that we need a much fairer fire funding formula—one that once again recognises levels of deprivation as a risk factor that leads, in particular, to more arson. I will take the Minister up on her suggestion and write to her with more details on that issue. We need formula reform so that we can fund this vital service properly but also pay our vital firefighters properly. The unfunded 5% pay offer is just not acceptable, and I put the Government on notice that we—particularly those of us in the Labour party, although I also look to Government Back Benchers—will not let this debate be the end of the matter. The Minister is new to her Department, so if she wants to make her mark, she can do so by getting this issue sorted out as soon as possible, and definitely before Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered fire services in the North East.

Sitting adjourned.