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Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Does any other country hit that target?

Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not take her intervention, which was almost sedentary.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the tying of aid. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said. Genuine multilateral untying of aid would be acceptable to us, but we cannot accept the untying of United Kingdom aid with the risk that others will not untie their aid. That would not be to the advantage of the United Kingdom, the aims of our aid policy or the recipient countries. We hope that we can reach a multilateral agreement on tying of aid, but it certainly is not the Government's intention to settle for a one-sided policy.

I am sorry that we do not have more time in this important debate to discuss Zaire, which was raised by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. Political and security problems lie at the heart of the crisis. We all recognise that no purely humanitarian solution is possible, and he is right to suggest that we need a regional settlement. Yesterday, I met some of the British NGOs working there. The idea of humanitarian corridors merits further consideration. We currently await a detailed proposal from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The United Kingdom is doing a huge amount to provide aid. We have a proud record. Far too often in this country we are unwilling to say what we are doing, and what we are doing well because of the drip feed of cynicism from the media and doom mongering from the Opposition. I am proud of our record, which is the Government's record.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Time is up, I am afraid.

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Fire Services (Lancashire)

12.30 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I should like to thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise an important issue, which is of immense concern to my constituents and others throughout Lancashire.

A crisis is facing the fire service nationally and in my county. Lancashire is by far and away the busiest shire county fire authority. The county has dense urban areas, lots of industry, and of course, Blackpool, which poses particular fire risks, as does the rest of the Lancashire coast. Last year, the number of incidents shot up by 16 per cent. to 34,814. The number of calls that the Lancashire fire brigade dealt with rose by 14 per cent. to 55,872.

It is a busy fire brigade, and, like many fire authorities throughout the country, it is spending above the level that the Government consider to be right and appropriate. The county's chief executive, Gordon Johnson, wrote to the Minister's colleague Baroness Blatch, on 13 September:

In 1993-94, Lancashire spent £33.6 million on its fire service, which is 4.2 per cent. above the fire services standard spending assessment--the figure that the Government believe to be right for the county to spend. In 1994-95, that percentage gap had widened to 4.9 per cent. Last year, the gap widened yet again to 5.8 per cent. The forecast difference between what the Government believe the county should spend and what it is actually spending on providing its fire service is a staggering 10.2 per cent. So, the county will be spending £37.9 million on our fire service, but its SSA is £34.4 million.

There are good reasons why Lancashire fire authority has to spend at that level, which I shall discuss in a moment. First, I refer to a document entitled "Standards of Fire Cover Review", which was produced by the county's chief fire officer, Gordon Russel, in June this year, dealing with fire cover standards across the county. He made it perfectly clear that the report was his and that its purpose was to give an up-to-date picture of the changed categories of risk around the county. He set out possible options for change. He said in his report that his review, which has been considered by county councillors, was

according to the Home Office national minimum standards of fire cover.

Mr. Russel stated that one option was to cut one of the two retained pumps at Barnoldswick, in my constituency. Furthermore, were he to follow Home Office standards, he could remove one of the pumps at Colne. Those suggestions, which cause great anxiety, surface regularly every year when they are considered by the councillors. Nothing happens, but those suggestions have a tremendously damaging impact on the morale of the firefighters.

Barnoldswick is a designated C risk area, but it is home to many important industries such as Silentnight Beds, which could go up in a puff of smoke. I am not suggesting for a moment that that would happen, but the materials

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that it uses to make beds are highly combustible. The Rolls-Royce plant that manufactures fans for aeroplane engines is based there. It is also home to Albert Hartleys and a number of other textile firms. I also live in the town. It is not part of a wider conurbation, but its status as a separate town has implications for response times and other considerations.

Colne is a different kettle of fish, and is designated a B risk area. It is one of the busiest two-pump retained stations in the country. Last year, it took 460 calls. The suggestion that those two fire stations could lose one pump each has been made according to the minimum standards of fire cover set down by the Home Office, which were agreed in 1958, almost 40 years ago. I take the view, as does everyone else to whom I have spoken, that that suggests there is something fundamentally wrong with those standards, and that they should be looked at.

I should like to make it clear for the record that I do not want to see a reduction in fire cover in my constituency, and I do not believe that that will happen. Even if the fire authority were to decide to get rid of those two retained fire pumps, it would save about £30,000--a small sum against the fire authority's budget of £38 million.

My local council is, unfortunately, run by the Liberal Democrats, who have relentlessly exploited the issue year after year. Tragically, they chose to vote down a recommendation put last September to Pendle borough council by Councillor Carol Hopkins, who is the leader of the Labour group. All she asked the council to do was call on the Home Secretary to conduct a further review of the Home Office minimum standards of fire cover. The Liberals voted that down because they said it would

Those Liberal Democrats never miss the opportunity to vilify and condemn Lancashire county council if it suits their purpose.

The Liberals have shamelessly exploited the issue and stoked people's fears and anxieties by predicting that the fire engines at Barnoldswick and Colne would be cut as part of a wider package of cuts. They have ignored the fact that the possible loss of two fire engines was suggested by the county's chief fire officer, Gordon Russel, to the fire authority; instead they have dubbed it "Labour's crazy plan".

In Barnoldswick, the Liberals sent a personalised letter to my constituents stating:

A Focus leaflet produced by county councillor and Pendle borough councillor, David Whipp, states:

    "Do you want Barnoldswick to lose its fire engines? This is the only cut in services put forward for Barnoldswick--and it has come from the Labour run Fire Services Committee. This plan will put local lives and safety at risk. Yet only . . . the local Liberal team are fighting against it."

He said that, if people voted Liberal, it would be a protest

    "against the Labour Party's crazy plan."

That sort of mendacity has an effect. The Liberal Democrats recently presented a petition signed by 3,500 people who are obviously concerned that the town's fire cover may be reduced. They have launched a propaganda

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blitz. Hardly a week goes by without acres of coverage in the local press. There has been a blizzard of Focus leaflets perpetuating the lie that the Labour party wants to cut our local fire cover.

What is the position? In a letter that I received yesterday--Guy Fawkes day--the chief fire officer said that the Lancashire fire authority

We in Barnoldswick--a C risk area--remember the horrific fire that occurred earlier this year in the old Gwent fire authority, now the South Wales fire authority. Only one pump was sent to a blazing domestic fire in which children were trapped and two firefighters lost their lives. The question whether one or two pumps should be sent is not an academic one. When one pump is sent and that is inappropriate, people and firefighters can lose their lives--firefighters did lose their lives in Gwent earlier this year.

The chief fire officer told me that the safety of individuals is of paramount importance, but that he must have regard for the safety of his own firefighters. He concluded:

That is what I would like the Home Office minimum standards to say, because they are currently deficient.

I raised my concerns with Baroness Blatch on 30 July. She responded on 2 September. She reminded me--as if I need reminding--that

As I have already pointed out, those national standards are grotesquely inadequate. I rely on the professional view of Gordon Russel, our chief fire officer. I repeat that I want the Government to give a firm commitment to an early review of the minimum standards.

Baroness Blatch spoke of "an efficient fire service", yet the Government, over the years, have asked fire authorities to push an enormous boulder uphill. The Government's assessment of the amount of money that fire authorities should spend to provide a common standard of fire cover across the country is plainly unrealistic. The SSAs have not kept pace with inflation or, indeed, with the firefighters' pay award, which is coming up.

A fact sheet from the local authority associations tells me that the Government are already providing less than is needed across the country, and that the situation is becoming "critical"--their word. The associations tell me that spending in fire authorities

That has implications. We in Lancashire have an efficient and well-run fire service, but the Government are making it difficult for Gordon Russel and his team of firefighters to provide the service that people have a right to expect.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1200

All sorts of nonsenses are built into the SSA formula. Lancashire was at the forefront of the effort to tackle the problem of malicious calls, yet the SSA formula does not reward its success. Although the number of malicious fire calls fell by a staggering 42 per cent., the perversity of the system docked £280,000 from Lancashire fire authority's SSA. Lancashire was penalised for being successful.

The cost of retirement and pensions is eating away at the funds that the county has to spend on delivering the fire service. At the beginning of the decade, Lancashire fire authority's pension bill was 8.8 per cent. of the fire service budget; in the current year it is 12 per cent., and no element in the SSA reflects that. I should say that, in fact, there is such an element but no additional money. The money has to come from the pot that has to be used to provide the fire service that people need today.

There has been a progressive reduction in the county's capital allocation, from £1.6 million in 1992 to £996,000 this year. That means that the fire stations we need, such as the one in Accrington, cannot open, and that vital fire appliances and equipment that firefighters need cannot be bought. If equipment can be leased, as has happened in Lancashire, the revenue costs of leasing are not recognised by the Government. Lancashire therefore loses yet again as a result of ensuring that its firefighters have the up-to-date equipment they need.

Not all fire authorities in the country take the same view. In their fact sheet, the local authority associations say that, throughout the country, the purchase of essential fire equipment is being deferred and that current spending levels are not being maintained. Vacancies in fire brigades are being frozen and there has been

The associations conclude that, all across Britain,

    "service provision is being reduced to meet only minimum Home Office standards."

As I have explained, that is not happening in Lancashire. There, the county council is topping up from its own resources the cash that our firefighters need, but the council clearly needs help.

After a recent committee meeting, the fire authority wrote to Baroness Blatch asking for a meeting in which it could press its case. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that he and his colleagues will meet councillors and the professional officers of the brigade as soon as possible. We also need an early commitment to a review of the antiquated minimum standards, which lie at the root of the crisis.

Blackpool and Blackburn are being wrenched from Lancashire county council following the local government review and, from April 1998, there will be a new combined fire authority. In the past, Lancashire fire authority has managed to get by because the county council has religiously topped up from its own resources the funding that the fire authority needs, but that might not continue after 1998. I want the Minister to give consideration to what is happening, not only in Lancashire, but in other parts of the country where new fire authorities are being created.

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