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1.44 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who made a most responsible speech, for allowing me two minutes to speak in his debate. I shall offer him the same facility next week when I have an Adjournment debate.

The Government should appreciate that, while local Members of Parliament are always shouting about local problems, in this case there is a widespread belief among hon. Members of all parties in south Essex that the closures proposed in the document presented to Essex county council are unacceptable on safety grounds. They are based on the principle of vehicles moving at 30 miles an hour. As a local resident in Southend, I know that, when travelling from Southend to Rochford--where it is proposed to close a fire station--it is impossible to move at 30 miles an hour in the busy period. In fact, it is difficult to travel at two miles an hour. All our stations face more calls and have more, not fewer, buildings to cover. We have special problems in the Southend area, with a number of houses in multiple occupation, a hospital and an airport.

We must also accept that Essex faces major problems. The report identified the need for extra facilities at Stansted national airport. The council is already overstretched as it already spends £5 million more per year than it should on its fire service. Despite that, the efficiency review showed it to be extremely efficient.

As the hon. Member for Thurrock said, it is vital not to apportion blame. It would be possible to blame each party in different ways, but the crucial point is to find a solution. I hope that Essex county council will formally declare that it is withdrawing its proposals so that Members of Parliament can, on its behalf, seek meetings with Ministers to discuss a number of issues. I hope that the Minister will accept that, if Essex were to withdraw its proposals and make it clear that it will not proceed, we could have discussions on a number of matters.

Mrs. Gorman: Is not the amount of money in question barely £1.5 million? As that compares with Essex council's current reserves of £21 million, should it not be well within its capacity to find that money? Will my hon. Friend address that point?

Sir Teddy Taylor: Most certainly. Those are issues that we could discuss. On Monday, the Minister of State

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made it clear that, as long as the county could prove that it had a good case for overspending its capping limits, it would be considered.

National airports are more than a responsibility for a local council. I hope that that issue will be considered.

Another question is whether, despite the generous settlements that the Government have given counties over the country as a whole, there is a need for additional provision to be made for fire services.

I hope that the Government will accept that Members of Parliament in south Essex are genuinely concerned about safety. They hope that a solution can be found in commonsense negotiations and consultations. They hope that the Government will accept that hon. Members from all parties have a genuine desire to find a solution to this serious and urgent problem.

1.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville): I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on securing the Adjournment debate, and I welcome other hon. Members to a debate of great concern to Essex Members. I particularly welcome the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton).

We have good reason to be proud of the fire service in this country. Surveys have consistently shown that the service is held in great esteem by both the general public and individuals who need its assistance. It was commended in 1995 by the Audit Commission in a major value-for-money study on its very high levels of skill and assistance.

In a report last April, the commission noted that, in respect of the performance of fire brigades in the year 1994-95,

In that respect, Essex is one of the best performing brigades. In the year 1994-95, it performed better than average in meeting required response times to fire calls--its response rate was 96 per cent. The Audit Commission will soon produce audited figures for 1995-96, and it will be interesting to see whether Essex has managed to maintain that high standard.

Statutory responsibility for the provision of an efficient fire service rests with individual fire authorities. Those authorities necessarily review their fire cover arrangements periodically to keep them up to date. The Essex fire brigade recently had an extensive review of fire cover, the results of which were recently circulated for public comment. As several hon. Members have already said, the report proposes a major redistribution of resources, including the closure of two stations, a change in the status of others, and an improvement in the fire cover in other parts of the county. I fully appreciate that those changes will cause concern to some hon. Members.

Under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary's approval is required if a fire authority wants to reduce the number of its fire stations, fire appliances and firefighting

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posts. He has a specific and limited role in considering applications under section 19. He grants approval when certain 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 fire authority. Thirdly, after taking advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the national recommended standards of fire cover will be maintained.

In the event of a section 19 application being made, my right hon. and learned Friend will also take into account any representations made direct to him, including those from hon. Members, firefighters and the communities affected. To date, we have not received a section 19 application from Essex county council following its fire cover review. I assure the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and my right hon. and hon. Friends that should the county council make such an application, my right hon. and learned Friend will, in reaching his decision, take account of the representations that he receives, including those made in the debate.

Dr. Spink: Will my hon. Friend revisit the debate that I secured on 18 December, when I asked that the Home Office deal with those problems? He will see from reading the report of that debate that Canvey Island is a special case. Although I am sure that all hon. Members would claim that for their patch, I am sure that they would agree that that is true for Canvey Island.

Despite the fact that the public consultation undertaken by Essex county council was totally against the cuts, and despite requests from me and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), for the council to reconsider this matter using a more appropriate set of assumptions, including average speed of vehicles, it has extended the consultation period by two months, which will put this decision beyond the 1 May elections. Does not the Minister find that curious? Does it not show that Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors are running scared on this issue?

Mr. Sackville: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but this should not be a matter for party political debate. We are discussing whether, on advice from the inspectorate, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary believes that fire cover is being maintained. I hope that the county council will hear what my hon. Friend said, and will take his remarks seriously. There should not be a delay, but there should be cool and detailed consideration of where best to use the resources to ensure that every part of the county is properly covered.

I should say something about the national recommended standards of fire cover, about which the hon. Member for Thurrock has doubts. The Fire Services Act 1947 does not define the test of an effective and efficient fire service that a fire authority must provide. However, it is long-standing practice to interpret that by reference to the national standards, which dictate the initial response to a fire in terms of 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. That 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 within a certain time.

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The standards are not just nationally recommended: they are nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. They were extensively reviewed in 1985 by the joint committee on standards of fire cover for the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. The standards enable all concerned to know where they stand as regards the minimum level of service that they should deliver. We believe that those standards have served the country well.

Mr. Mackinlay: The standards have served us well, but they do not take account of modern shopping malls, such as Lakeside. Things have moved on, and it is time for those standards to be reviewed.

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