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12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville): I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on securing

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1201

this debate on the fire service in Lancashire. We share his high regard for the fire service, for its professionalism, for the bravery of its firefighters and for the quality of the service it provides. The quality of this country's fire service is universally acknowledged.

The service was commended last year by the Audit Commission in its value for money study; and, in a report in April, the commission stated, in respect of the performance of the fire brigades in the year to that date:

Lancashire is one of those high-performing brigades. I would like to be able to say that I am a fellow Lancashire Member, but it is an historical fact that Bolton disappeared into something called Greater Manchester some years ago. I am nevertheless aware of the quality of the fire brigade in our neighbouring county, Lancashire, and I am aware that it has met the required response times to fire calls on 92 per cent. of occasions recently, which is a splendid achievement.

In its latest report on Lancashire, published in March, Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate commended the authority's continued commitment to the development of the brigade and the positive manner in which the brigade is led by the chief fire officer and his team. The report noted:

I am aware that an extensive review of fire cover was completed by the brigade, and the results were circulated recently for public comment. Fire authorities necessarily review their fire cover arrangements periodically to keep them up to date. I understand that the recommendations of the review could, if implemented, have implications for the constituency of the hon. Member for Pendle. One implication may be that proposals will be made to remove one of the pumping appliances from Barnoldswick and from Colne fire stations.

Under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, the Home Secretary's approval is required before any fire authority reduces the number of its fire stations, fire appliances and fire fighting posts. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has a specific and limited role in considering applications under section 19. He grants approval where the following conditions are satisfied. First, the proposals must have been sufficiently widely publicised, in sufficient detail and with adequate time to enable any interested party to make representations. Secondly, the representations must have been considered by the authority. Thirdly, after taking advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate, my right hon. and learned Friend must be satisfied that the national recommended standards of fire cover will be maintained.

To date, we have not received any application from the fire authority to reduce the operational capability of its brigade in consequence of its fire cover review. I assure the hon. Member for Pendle that, should the county council make such an application to reduce fire cover in any part of the county, my right hon. and learned Friend will take account of any representations he receives in reaching his decisions.

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I certainly agree that those who seek to cause panic and extreme distress among local residents, by causing them to fear that fire cover may become inadequate, should be ashamed of themselves. Anyone who indulges in such activity for political reasons should examine their conscience closely.

The Fire Services Act 1947 does not define the test of an effective and efficient fire service that a fire authority must provide, but it is longstanding practice to interpret that by reference to the national recommended standards of fire cover. Those standards dictate the initial response to a fire in weight and speed of attack. They rest on four main standards of service, according to the risk category in which an area has been placed. The system of risk is based on the characteristics of the buildings and property in an area, and assumes for each category that a predetermined number of firefighting appliances should attend in a certain time.

The standards are not only nationally recommended. They are nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. They were also extensively reviewed by the Joint Committee on Standards of Fire Cover in 1985 for the central fire brigades advisory councils for England and Wales and for Scotland. The standards enable all concerned to know where they stand regarding the minimum level of service that they should deliver.

I hear what the hon. Member for Pendle says about the standards, but I have to tell him that we consider that the standards have served us well. That is not to say that we regard them as immutable. The Audit Commission's report recommended that there should be another fundamental review of levels of fire cover. It recognised, however, that no fundamental change should be considered without very careful research. A review of fire cover standards is being taken forward by the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, but these are complex issues, as I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree, and much work will be needed before we make any changes.

The fire service is a local authority service, funded, like other local authority services, through the revenue support grant, national non-domestic rates and the council tax. Statutory responsibility for providing an effective and efficient fire service to meet all normal requirements rests with the local "fire authority".

It may be helpful for the debate if I say something about the national framework. For 1996-97, central Government support for local authorities in England increased by £966 million. Total standard spending in England for the year was set at £44.9 billion--an increase of 3.3 per cent. on the previous year. The total fire service element of standard spending assessments in England was increased by £17 million--1.5 per cent.--from £1.168 million to £1.185. That comprised £14 million for the additional costs of firefighters' pensions and £3 million for training.

It is true that the fire service is being asked to make efficiency savings, but so is virtually any public service. It is essential that the taxpayer gets the best value for money. After the Audit Commission considered the service, its report, published last year, highlighted specific areas in which it believed that efficiencies could be made, including reducing sickness rates and management costs to the level of performance achieved by the most efficient brigades.

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I remind the hon. Member for Pendle that there were and are considerable variations in all sorts of efficiency indicators between one service and another, and there is plenty of evidence that, if all services came up to the standards of the best, further considerable savings could be made.

Mr. Prentice: Has the Minister not already conceded that Lancashire is one of the most efficient fire authorities in the country?

Mr. Sackville: But that is not to say that there cannot be further efficiencies. At the start of my speech, I praised the fire service in Lancashire. I recall that I used the words:

brigades. That is true, but that is not to say that efficiencies cannot be made in Lancashire and elsewhere. All that the Audit Commission has said is that considerable savings could be made if all services came up to the level of the best. That is not to say that considerable further savings could not be made if the very admirable efforts made by many brigades in finding new efficiencies were maintained.

The fire service element of the SSA is, of course, distributed by a formula, which takes account of many factors. It is kept under constant review. Although not everyone will agree with the way in which the formula works for them, we believe that at present that formula provides the fairest allocation of funds.

A shire county such as Lancashire is not limited in its spending on the fire brigade by the fire service share of the standard spending assessment. What matters is the overall SSA for the county. It is for the county council to decide its priorities for spending between all its services, bearing in mind its statutory and other responsibilities. I remind the House that, as in most counties, spending on the fire service represents a very small proportion of overall county expenditure--in the case of Lancashire, of the order of 4 per cent.--and any decisions about inability to spend further above the SSA must be taken in the light of that.

I commend the hon. Gentleman's wise and moderate approach, and condemn those who say that there is a crisis in the making. Lancashire receives an extremely good fire service, in great measure due to the commitment of those involved in delivering that service. I pay tribute to the Lancashire fire service, and reiterate the Government's commitment to ensuring adequate resourcing for all fire services.

Paper (Ecolabelling)

12.59 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I welcome the opportunity to introduce this short debate on the ecolabelling of copying paper, a subject in which I have a strong constituency interest because Arjo-Wiggins, the papermaker, is based in Basingstoke. Among other things, the firm, formerly Wiggins Teape, provides all the House of Commons stationery.

I put on record my thanks to the Paper Federation of Great Britain for the advice and help that it willingly provided at short notice.

My argument is straightforward and direct. There is nothing wrong in theory, and in many cases in practice, with the concept of ecolabelling, but the ecolabelling of copying paper is an ecolabel too far. Lessons should be learned from the wretched saga.

The ecolabelling of copying paper is a mistake, which is compounded by the fact that the criteria are seriously flawed. If we must have ecolabelling of copying paper, at least we should get the criteria right. To make matters worse, the ecolabelling of copying paper especially disadvantages the United Kingdom paper industry.

It is indisputable that the industry takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. Unfortunately, its experiences and warnings seem to have received insufficient attention. In a letter dated 17 September, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State assured me that the industry's views had been taken on board, but that can scarcely be the case, as the industry's view is that the ecolabelling of copying paper should not have been introduced.

The main European paper producers, through their national and international trade associations, advised the European Union that it was not practical to define an ecolabel for paper because of the substantial variations in raw materials and manufacturing processes among the European Union countries. However, the industry strongly believes in eco-management systems and their continual improvement through annual targets. EMS environmental improvement standards are tough and take into account the whole site--what goes in and what goes out--energy consumption, raw materials, discharges into water, air and the ground, and much else.

In contrast, the criteria of the ecolabel have been brought together in a muddled and hasty manner. In reply to my barrage of letters, my hon. Friend referred to the lengthy consultations that preceded the finalising of the ecolabelling criteria. We should clarify what happened. The proposals were produced in April this year and were rejected by the Paper Federation of Great Britain. During the development of the proposals, there was communication between the president of the federation and the Secretary of State, as well as between the federation and the UK Ecolabelling Board, but no one should have been in doubt that the entire British paper industry was opposed to the developing and finally published proposals.

In the period between mid-April and 30 May, the proposals were changed and made more stringent. The changes were introduced without consultation with the Paper Federation of Great Britain and for one purpose: to change the voting preference of one member state of the European Union, Finland, so that the measure could be passed on qualified majority voting.

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My hon. Friend has emphasised that the scheme is voluntary and that no company is under any obligation to obtain the ecolabel. I regret that in that regard the experience and insight of the industry have received too little attention. The industry predicts that in due course Governments will make a company's possession of the label a precondition of their own purchasing. That will have a dire effect. Already noises to that effect are emerging from local government--specifically, from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. That is hardly surprising, as the declared objectives of ecolabelling include creating peer pressure so that the label brings commercial advantage. The system will have failed if that is not the case. In the light of those realities, I suggest that my hon. Friend should modify or qualify his use of the word "voluntary" in respect of the scheme.

I have argued so far that ecolabelling is the wrong approach for the paper industry; environmental management systems are the way to proceed; too little attention has been paid to the industry's warnings and advice; and the idea that the ecolabelling scheme is voluntary is unrealistic.

If we must have the ecolabelling of copying paper, let us get the criteria as accurate as possible. The criteria do not relate to environmental impact or life cycle assessment in any significant way, and they therefore fail the basic requirement of the enabling EU regulation. I arbitrarily select a few points by way of illustration.

First, the criteria include a carbon dioxide factor. But as everyone knows, or ought to know, the papermaking process is carbon dioxide neutral. New planting of trees balances the harmful emissions from the use of energy. The Government have acknowledged that in other contexts. The inclusion of the ecolabelling criterion for carbon dioxide in the production of copying paper is simply wrong.

Secondly, the UK Environment Agency recognises that adsorbable organo-halogens--AOX--should be disregarded below a level of 1.5, because at that level AOX have no adverse environmental impact. However, a lower level than 1.5 is one of the criteria for the copying paper ecolabel. One of the Government's own agencies therefore rejects the position adopted by the Government in drawing up the scheme.

Thirdly, the chemical oxygen demand--COD--which governs the discharge of effluent into the watercourse to prevent pollution is lower--that means more stringent--for pulp and papermaking together than is generally achievable in pulp-making alone. That is absurd. The required COD is 30 kg per tonne, but that is not commercially feasible. The criterion also disregards existing international agreements. My hon. Friend will know that of the 109 pulp mills worldwide on which we have data, only 12 are sufficiently low in COD to enable UK papermakers to achieve the ecolabel chemical oxygen demand. I shall return to that point shortly. The ecolabel system will fundamentally distort world trade and it is not surprising that the Governments of the United States, Canada, Brazil and others are angry about it.

Fourthly, the ecolabel requirements for copier paper are more demanding than those for tissue products. There is no sense in that. The environmental impact of the two production processes is virtually identical. The same pulp

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is used and there is no significant difference in energy consumption or discharges. My point is not only that we should not have ecolabelling for copier paper, but that the system with which we have landed ourselves is fundamentally flawed.

To crown it all, the criteria disadvantage UK papermakers in particular. In the opinion of the federation, no UK company, with the possible exception of one that has unique practices in respect of energy acquisition, can currently meet the requirements. The criteria favour the integrated producer, the manufacturer who carries out the whole process from basic raw material to finished product, and disadvantage the non-integrated producer who buys in pulp and turns it into paper. There are no UK integrated papermakers. UK companies are therefore immediately disadvantaged.

I have already referred to the ecolabel's chemical oxygen demand criterion, which favours integrated manufacturers and correspondingly disadvantages UK companies that produce copier paper from purchased pulp. When the COD for papermaking is added, the limit will be unduly stringent for non-integrated operators and will favour the integrated operators of Scandinavia.

The disadvantage that UK companies experience is even more apparent from the energy criteria, which are described by the industry as "oblique and poorly defined". A mill that has invested in its own power plant--virtually all UK mills have done so--is penalised for emissions while generating energy, but the company that buys in its energy is not penalised for the emissions from the generating of that energy elsewhere. Moreover, the added consumption of energy is often and increasingly associated with greater environmental protection, because it is used to treat effluent and residues prior to discharge. That point is not reflected in the criteria.

In the opinion of the Paper Federation of Great Britain, the simple definition of energy use

The UK paper industry exports 1 million tonnes of paper a year, which brings more than £1 billion a year to this country. The industry employs 25,000 people, and the total forest products chain contributes 6 per cent. of our gross domestic product. The interests of that important industry have been neither protected nor promoted by this piece of euro-nonsense. In the words of a senior executive of the Paper Federation of Great Britain:

    "This is a rotten, lousy measure."

Environmental protection is best achieved in the industry by the ecomanagement system approach, but if we must have ecolabelling, we should at least have got it right. To compound matters, the measure disadvantages the UK industry. It is, I submit, a sorry story.

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