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1.39 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I shall be brief, as I do not wish to rehearse the arguments that I advanced last week.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and to reinforce his point that, nationally, the fire service is underfunded. I hope that that matter is addressed, whatever the political complexion of Her Majesty's Government, because it is a much-valued service.

My second point relates to airports. As the House knows, the police service is fully chargeable to the owners and operators of airports, and there is a compelling case for the fire service facilities that are provided as a back-up to the airport's fire service to be wholly, or at least in part, charged to airport operators. I recognise that these are much wider long-term policy issues, but I hope that the Government will consider them.

Another point that needs to be reinforced is that Essex county council asked for a meeting with Baroness Blatch, but at the time that was felt inappropriate. Now, the hon. Member for Southend, East has offered to use his good offices in pressing for a meeting with Ministers. I support that, but I understand that the county council now says that it does not think that a meeting will be appropriate or useful. I hope that the Minister will, on his own initiative, following the representations of hon. Members, say that there will be a meeting without preconditions.

Sir Teddy Taylor: The suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and myself was that, if the

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county would drop its plans in the meantime, we would be glad to seek meetings. That would be the right way to go ahead. Then we could have meetings without preconditions. I am sure that the hon. Member for Thurrock will agree, in view of the strength of his opinion and the fight that he is putting up for his local residents, that the best first step would be to drop the proposals and then to talk.

Mr. Mackinlay: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman on this matter. There needs to be a meeting. The county council should follow the hon. Gentleman's advice on this and meet the Minister. I hope that, when the Minister replies, he will say that his door is open and that he will write to the county council and invite it to come along and have a chinwag about this very serious crisis.

If, as a consequence of the review or the county council's budget, there is to be a reduction in the number of fire personnel, appliances or fire stations, I hope that the Minister will say that there will be an inquiry under section 19. It is very important. We, the people of Essex, want our day in court on this matter, and to be able to rehearse to the Government and the county council the full extent and ramifications of any reduction in fire service provision in the county.

Regardless of whether there is a meeting--I hope that there will be one--there should be an inquiry if there is any diminution in the level of fire cover in our county as a result of the review or the budget reductions.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East(Sir T. Taylor) on securing this debate, which mirrors the debate that we had only a week ago on the same subject.

My hon. Friend has expressed strong concerns about the provision of fire services in Essex. I understand the concern that hon. Members and their constituents feel about the quality of their fire service and the sensitivities that inevitably surround any proposals, such as those under consideration in Essex, to change the arrangements for providing fire cover. My hon. Friend took part in last week's debate on fire services in Essex, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).

I appreciate that the subject of today's debate goes a little wider than the particular concerns of Essex, but many of the same issues arise, so I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me if I repeat some of the points that I made a week ago.

We have every reason to be proud of our fire service. As the Audit Commission said, we can be proud of the fire service's record in responding to incidents, the high level of skill and professionalism it shows, and its very able managers and courageous front-line staff. The Government wholeheartedly endorse those sentiments. Essex has a particularly high standard, and met the required response times to fire calls on 96 per cent. of occasions.

On the specific question of proposed changes to fire provision locally, I should make it clear that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has a

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specific and limited role under section 19 of the Act. He is required to be notified of the number of the fire authority's fire stations, fire appliances and firefighting posts as at 1 January each year. The fire authority may not reduce its establishment--although it can increase it--without his specific consent.

As I explained last week, my right hon. and learned Friend grants those approvals only where he is satisfied that the authority has consulted properly about its proposals and considered any representations, and where Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services advises that the nationally recommended fire cover standards will be maintained.

We have not received any section 19 application from Essex about the proposals that have been made in respect of its fire cover review. All fire authorities review their fire cover arrangements periodically to keep them up to date. I know that Essex county council is currently consulting about its proposals.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): Does my hon. Friend regret the county council's new policy to delay its decision on this matter until after the county elections on 1 May? That delay is causing great anxiety to all the people of Essex, particularly those who live on Canvey Island.

Mr. Sackville: I certainly condemn any delay motivated by politics. If the council is trying to seek changes, it should come up front with them and bring them forward at such time as it is ready. Obviously I cannot speak in any detail about what is happening with those proposals, but I hope that they will be brought forward promptly. It would be quite wrong for such political interests to become involved.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Does my hon. Friend understand that one of the consequences of the delay is an inability to implement policies that would protect the service? Is he further aware that the Conservative opposition on the county council will produce a budget next week that protects the number of firefighters and stations?

Given the overall position of the county council, which enjoyed the largest reserves last year of any county council and still enjoys a very large reserve, is my hon. Friend not left with the impression that the Liberal and Labour controlling group are relying on the good will of Conservative Members by using these tactics, when it is quite clear that there are alternatives that protect stations and firefighters?

Mr. Sackville: I cannot go into whether the council should make section 19 applications, but I reiterate what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point. If it is to make any applications, it should do so promptly. Any delay in bringing them forward will undoubtedly add to the problems of forward planning. I hope that the people who make those decisions will hear what my hon. Friends have said. I hope that the county council will listen very carefully to the points that hon. Members have made in this debate and in the debate last week.

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In the event that a section 19 application is made, my right hon. and learned Friend will also take into account any representations made directly to him.

I assure hon. Members that, should the county council make such an application, my right hon. and learned Friend, in reaching his decision, will take full account of the representations that he receives, including those made in this debate. In answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East, it is my clear understanding that any major change of the sort to which he referred would have to be the subject of a section 19 application.

Mention has been made of the power that my right hon. and learned Friend has under section 19(8) of the 1947 Act to hold a public local inquiry. That has happened very occasionally in the past, but it is always open to the Home Secretary to do so in any such application.

I referred last week to the national recommended standards, which various hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East, have called into question. Those standards 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, and assume for each category that a predetermined number of firefighting appliances should attend within a certain time.

The standards are not just nationally recommended: they are nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which is constituted under the Fire Services Act 1947 to represent fire service interests. The council undertook an extensive review of the standards in 1985. They enable all concerned to know where they stand as regards the minimum level of service that should be delivered.

As I said last week, we believe that those standards have served us well, but that does not mean that we regard them as unchangeable or incapable of improvement. The Audit Commission has recommended that there should be a further review of the levels of fire cover. It recognised, however, that no fundamental change should be considered without careful research. A review of fire cover standards is being taken forward by the joint committee of the advisory councils for England, Wales and Scotland.

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