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Mr. Dunn: As I have said in the context of all the other services that I have mentioned, it is cruel and wicked to focus on people who are least able to defend themselves and who need essential services to preserve their quality of life. For us, that is unforgivable.

Sir Roger Moate: It is not just that such measures are wrong, but that there is a hopeless distortion of priorities. It is extraordinary that the council proposes to close some fire stations, not on the justification that fire cover can be reduced, but simply to save about £200,000 to £300,000. The saving is less than the council is spending on conferences for its officers and leaders at county hall. It is a muddled approach to administration. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a taste of what the country might get if a Labour Government were ever inflicted upon us?

Mr. Dunn: My hon. Friend is right. If people want to see the Labour party and its minor allies, the Liberal Democrats, in action, and anticipate what they may be like in government if they get the chance--which they will not--they are welcome to come to Kent county council, where we shall give them individually guided tours around the philosophy of the present administration. In Kent, we see Lambeth below the Thames. It holds not to responsibility and decency and the application of services in the name of the people; rather to narrow, petty, political garnering of points. That could have been avoided, and in the name of the people whom we represent it must be avoided.

For some years, the Conservative group on Kent county council has pointed out the error of the ways of the present administration and offered ideas, programmes and solutions for restructuring and slimming bureaucracy in the light of the services that have left the county. Have those Conservative been listened to? No, they have been ignored, and the problem faced by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in Kent is now our problem--but there is a solution; the election of a majority of Conservative county council candidates across the county on 1 May. That will bring back responsibility, decency and honest application in the name of the people. That is why I felt it right to initiate this debate.

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Mr. David Shaw (Dover): Kent has had 100 years of relative stability under the Conservatives. Incredibly, Kent survived one economic crisis after another under Labour Governments and services were maintained. In the past four years, as a result of a Labour-Liberal pact, there has been ever-increasing disaster and chaos. A budgeting system that needs an increase of £101 million has been based on a pie-in-the-sky figure. On expenditure of £1,000 million, Kent is demanding an increase of 10 per cent. What Government in Europe or what county council or shire council in this country plans an increase of that size? I have looked at the statistics, but I cannot find any shire county that is planning an increase in expenditure at the level that Kent county council under Labour-Liberal control claims to need.

Kent council has introduced a political budget and is trying to put the blame on the Government. Its priority is not to look after the disabled, those who need adult education or those who need the fire services, but to have a political budget in election year. I hope that it reaps the reward for that, which is to be thrown out of office on 1 May.

Under a Conservative Government, the council has had an increase of £22 million. It is interesting that all the councils of the Opposition spokesmen who are present for the debate have had less of an increase than Kent. The Opposition have shot themselves in the foot by offering spokesmen from areas that have had lower increases than Kent. Kent has had allocated to it one of the largest increases in resources of any county in the United Kingdom, but still the Lib-Lab coalition on the council has got itself into a mess and bleats its complaints.

The council needs to get going with some decent budgeting procedures. I say as an accountant that it could have used zero-based budgeting. It could have returned to core essentials and asked itself, "Do we need to spend at the current level on some services or could we increase our efficiency and look at overheads?" It dismissed zero-based budgeting.

It could have opted for priority-based budgeting by looking at priority expenditure. It could have examined the way in which it looks after the elderly and cares for those who need education and for disabled people, but it dismissed that. It went for an Alice-in-Wonderland budgeting system--a politically based system--instead of looking at the priorities, concerns and needs of real people. No wonder Price Waterhouse and Co., the independent auditor, has said that the county council must increase its efficiency, do better, get something out of the £20 million a year that it spends on information technology, and cut central overheads.

A constituent came to see me who works within the Kent county council orbit. That constituent, who obviously does not want his name to be mentioned, complained that, a few years back, when the county council was under Conservative control, he had only two tiers of management to go through before he could report to the director. Now he has five. That is what four years of Lib-Lab control have done. They have converted two tiers of management into five.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): My hon. Friend has considerable experience in this sector. Is it usual to introduce a major capital investment in technology with the aim of increasing staff?

Mr. Shaw: As my hon. Friend points out, it is incredible that, after all the new technology investment,

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Kent has failed to reduce its central overheads significantly. That is why I am delighted that we have had pledges from Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the Conservative leader, that any cuts in libraries, adult education or the fire service will be reinstated and that efficiency savings will be found elsewhere in the budgetary system.

May I turn to something of great interest to me and to my constituents? Last Friday, I visited St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe fire station. I am delighted that today there are seven retained firemen here from my constituency, who are concerned about the fire station's future. They are not full time, but give their services in their spare time. They have other jobs, but, in their spare time, they look after my constituents and people in the village where I live. I know that many colleagues have the same situation in their constituencies. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has asked me to say that he would like to be associated with these comments, as two retained fire stations in his constituency are also threatened with closure.

It is a disgrace that the county council could contemplate cutting a fire service when the cost of individual retained fire stations is so minor in relation to the total budget. We are talking about individual fire stations that perhaps cost £40,000 a year and a total Kent budget of £1,000 million a year. It is simply not necessary to go for cuts in that sector.

Mr. Brazier: Is there not something truly sad about the idea that these absurd cuts in the fire service should be proposed only a few weeks after the county council set up yet another expensive bureaucratic committee to consider public safety?

Mr. Shaw: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. There are far too many committees in Kent county council. There is far too much bureaucracy and far too much paperwork moving around, and there is not enough action or service delivery. That is what we are interested in as Conservatives: action, service delivery and increased efficiency. That is why there are threats of cuts in Kent's fire service. It is ludicrous.

Sir Roger Moate: With my hon. Friend's usual delicacy, he has refrained from commenting on the point made earlier about one county councillor--I have forgotten his name--who has made a large number of trips abroad. I cannot remember the precise number--[Hon. Members: "Fourteen."] I cannot believe that one member could make 14 trips in such a short time, but is it not likely that even a small part of the expenditure on those trips--that, presumably, is just the tip of the iceberg--would keep all our fire stations open?

Mr. Shaw: My hon. Friend makes a point. As that councillor is my Labour opponent, I am slightly embarrassed to have to refer to his 14 trips. My hon. Friend may feel that, in due course, the electorate in Dover and Deal will be interested in those 14 trips abroad, including to Hungary and Philadelphia in the United States of America, and in their relevance to the needs of Dover and of fire stations in our region.

When the channel tunnel fire occurred recently, people at St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe fire station had to give extra cover. I understand that London and Sussex fire services

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were on alert to give support if necessary. We have major transport operations in Kent and we must maintain the ability to have a retained fire service as well as a full-time fire service. Many arguments support the retention of the St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe fire station.

Sir John Stanley: Is my hon. Friend aware that a letter that I have received from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration shows that the Government's local government settlement provides for

Against that background of an increase that is well in excess of inflation, is it not intolerable that the Liberal and Labour-controlled county council should be contemplating any reduction in fire service cover?

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