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Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): The Minister cannot wriggle out of the question. The document by the chief ambulance officers in Wales through their membership of WAPAG referred to specific encouragement by the Under-Secretary of State, whom I understand to be the hon. Member for Cardiff,

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North (Mr. Jones). He cannot wriggle out of the question by saying that there is a general move towards achieving quicker response times. There is a reference to specific encouragement by him for the submission of the second document. Is he denying that, or is he saying that the people on WAPAG do not know what they are talking about?

Mr. Jones: The situation is as I said. I know that it would not be understood by the hon. Gentleman, who constantly displays his lack of understanding of the health service in Wales. I have not asked for any particular thing to be done, I am not directing it, and I am not paying for it, but I would be disappointed if any part of the health service in Wales was not giving serious professional consideration to improvements. Only after such consideration can we find ways forward.

It is clear that there is great strength of feeling on several matters. I have emphasised how essential it is for any review to address all the possible options, and for it to be based on hard information, and to reach conclusions about genuine patient benefits and value-for-money savings. I expect all those involved with ambulances to co-operate in providing whatever information is necessary.

I am aware of the group's objective to submit joint proposals for the future provision of ambulances in Wales by June this year. If the proposals include a possible reconfiguration of NHS trusts--I would consider proposals only if they clearly demonstrated benefits to patients and value for money--they would be subject to public consultation in the usual way.

I readily reassure the House that the group is a useful body, consisting of the chairmen and chief executives of the various ambulance NHS trusts in Wales. The group provides a good consultative forum for developing ambulance policy initiatives and best practice. One of my officials is generally invited to attend as an observer. That enables the Welsh Office to keep in touch with ambulance operation and secure good advice from the professionals on policy development. It is a further welcome sign of NHS trusts working together to provide better health care for the people of Wales.

Mr. Dafis: Will the Minister encourage those concerned to develop a specific scheme to meet the needs of the people of north Pembrokeshire, by ensuring much closer co-ordination or the provision of an ambulance station in Crymych?

Mr. Jones: I give my fullest commitment to the best possible provision of ambulances in Pembrokeshire and throughout Wales, but that must be evolved locally. I cannot anticipate whether there will be any change. I shall certainly not impose any change. If proposals come forward, they must all be subjected to the fullest consultation locally. Only then will I consider them.

While I shall bear in mind value for money, my overriding consideration will be whether proposals will benefit patients. All I am interested in is whether any proposed changes will bring about improvements in Pembrokeshire, west Wales or elsewhere in Wales, rather than Opposition Members' ridiculous conspiracy theories.

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Fire Services (Essex)

1.29 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East): I apologise to the Minister for coming to him twice within one week, but he will appreciate that this important and serious issue relates to the financing and operation of fire brigades and the special problems in Essex.

Thanks to the courtesy of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), I had the pleasure of speaking in his debate last week. I shall try to speak briefly so that he might have the opportunity to do the same in mine.

Most colleagues are aware of the difficulties in getting problems resolved. Essex, including Rochford, faces a serious problem. It is not unusual, when such constituency problems arise, for hon. Members to shout a great deal, but I hope that the fact that hon. Members from all parties in Essex have co-operated on this will prove to the Minister that this is an extremely serious issue.

That fact has also been demonstrated by the meetings of local residents. Indeed, some of the consultation meetings have resembled nasty boxing matches. I attended a meeting in Rochford, which was delightfully chaired by the deputy mayor, Councillor Heather Glynn, who, although not from my party, was clearly a respected person in the community. The meeting was so large that we had to add another full meeting.

The points made by residents are simple: first, the calls on the brigades have increased; secondly, the number of buildings at risk have increased; and, thirdly, the principles on which those reports are based seem to be out of date, given the problems of trying to conform to travel time requirements.

In trying to resolve the problems, the hon. Member for Thurrock and I have been frustrated by different public authorities. I have felt a certain frustration with the Government, although I love them all dearly.

To try to ensure that we had accurate information before this debate, I tabled a "W" question asking simply how much money had been provided by the Government within standard spending assessments for fire authority operations and how much had been spent. I thought that that information would be available, but the answer that I received yesterday, as the Minister will be aware, was that the Government would provide the information shortly--no doubt after the debate. It would be nice to know that basic fact, because the information we have is that, in almost every major county, there is excessive expenditure.

I have also felt a certain frustration with the county. Although it has made it clear to hon. Members that it would like more money, it unfortunately did not apply for it by 10 January, as it should have. It says that it sent a nice letter to the Minister expressing concern, but did not make the appropriate application.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), who is a resident of Rochford, and I, as a resident of Southend, offered to arrange meetings with Ministers to try to resolve the problem if the county would drop its quota proposals in the meantime, it sadly extended the consultation period, and said that the issue could not be prejudged. Essex Members are afraid that something will be done after the consultation period, unfortunately without the issue being as carefully resolved as would be appropriate.

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I want the Minister to consider six specific questions and give some guidance on them. First, is the money provided for fire stations within the standard spending assessments for the counties inadequate, and, if so, why?

After I had looked for guidance on the Government's views on fire services, the only major report that I could locate was a wonderful report by the Comptroller and Auditor General in November 1992. In his fundamental review, he pointed out four alarming developments: first, that fires, fire casualties and fire losses were increasing; secondly, that more deaths and injuries were being caused in the home than anywhere else from any other activity; thirdly, that there were prevention problems; and, fourthly, that performance indicators were needed.

None the less, we are well aware that, in most counties, financing appears to be inadequate within the overall settlement. We want to know why that is so. Counties throughout the country will not spend more on one activity unless there is a special need for it.

The second issue on which I would appreciate guidance is whether provision is made in the settlement for a major national activity within a county--for example, the airport at Stansted, which requires more fire cover. It would be unfortunate if fire stations were removed from the south of the county because of problems in a national airport, which is basically not a county responsibility.

Thirdly, is there a case for reviewing the principles on the basis of which the reviews are carried out? It strikes me that the enormous increase in traffic and congestion since the principles were drawn up has created a new problem.

Fourthly, retained firefighters are extremely relevant and significant, especially in Rochford, where we have a temporary station. However, a new problem has been created by the jobseeker's allowance. I am sure that the allowance is splendid, and that the Government introduced it as an exciting new development, but it is alleged that special problems are being created because the jobseeker's allowance takes such a form that those who previously worked part time as retained fire officers now find it difficult to do so because of the allowance's provisions.

The fifth point on which I would appreciate guidance relates to the interim budget published by the county council. I have no wish to enter into battle with the county council, although a different party is in charge, but this is a point of principle. The county council proposes a cut of £651,000 in the cost of employment, which would undoubtedly mean a reduction in the number employed.

I understand that any such reduction will bring some stations under complement, and that special approval will be required from the Government under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. If any such proposals were made to reduce the number of firefighters and put stations below the appropriate number, will special Government permission be required?

My sixth point is important, and I should appreciate the Minister's views on it. Will he confirm that the closure proposals cannot go ahead unless the Government say that they are in accordance with the principles for the fire service? It is important for the local community to know that, after 1 May and whichever party is in charge, the county council will need Government approval for any proposed closures of fire stations.

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Given the special problems in Essex, it would be immensely helpful if the Minister could confirm that Government approval would be required. If a review of the Essex fire service were being considered, it could then be established whether it was working efficiently, as both the county and the fire service claim, and whether it was fulfilling its obligations. That is important for the local community, so that we can see whether the Government will make a decision on the basis of the facts.

Although the hard-working Minister, whom I admire for taking his responsibility seriously, must sit on the Front Bench and hear complaints from hon. Members on both sides of the House, he should appreciate that this is not simply hon. Members shouting for their constituencies. The fact that the hon. Member for Thurrock make his excellent speech last week without trying to make party politics, and that hon. Members on this side of the House who agree on nothing have worked together, show that this is a point of principle.

Southend-on-Sea faces the possibility of three local fire stations closing, and local residents are genuinely alarmed and concerned. I was present in Southend when we had the big fire on the pier, and when a huge fire took place in a factory in Southchurch road. It is alarming. The official figures show that fires are increasing and public safety is very much at risk. If the Government can look at this issue seriously and with interest, they will genuinely provide some comfort to the people of Southend, Rochford, Canvey Island and other places.

I emphasise to the Government that this is a real and serious issue. It must be addressed. It cannot be swept under the carpet, and Members of Parliament--from all parties--who represent Essex are absolutely adamant that we will not allow it to happen.

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