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Dr. Spink: I agree with what my hon. Friend said about fire standards. They are probably appropriate, and I am delighted that he is examining them. However, the problem is not the standards themselves, but the assumptions made when using those standards to calculate where fire resources should be placed in Essex.

Those assumptions are inappropriate in that they assume an average speed of 30 mph for all areas of Essex, when clearly the average speed attainable by fire engines in the north and rural areas is far greater than the average speed attainable by fire engines trying to get on to Canvey Island or through Hadleigh, which is very congested. The problem is the assumptions that are made in applying the standards in this specific case.

Mr. Sackville: That shows the need for a further review. Another example of the problem is the existence of a major international airport. Those considerations must form part of the review.

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The Government have shown their commitment to the fire service by confirming, in the final local government settlement, that we shall increase the fire service element of standard spending assessment in England for the coming year by £50 million, which is an increase of more than 4 per cent. I believe that that is a satisfactory settlement. Within that, we must expect a continued search for efficiency savings, as with any organisation in the public or private sector anywhere in the country. Many parts of both sectors have found such savings.

It was notable that the Audit Commission's report said that, if all fire services came up to the level of the best--if, indeed, that is the best achievable, and it may notbe--considerable savings would be possible without effecting the standard of fire cover. All fire services must take that into account.

The fire standard spending assessment distribution formula takes into account a number of factors. The problem with any proposal to change the formula is to find an alternative that does not unreasonably increase the grant to some brigades and disproportionately reduce it to others. Many counties feel that they have specific characteristics that make them a special case.

If local authority representative organisations--or a single organisation in the future--were to agree on a new formula, the Government would consider carefully how they could improve allocation among the counties. This matter is not simple: one county may believe that it has particular difficulties, whereas there may be special difficulties of a completely different nature in other parts of the country, such as remote or hilly regions, that must be taken into account.

Mr. David Amess (Basildon): Following my hon. Friend's speech last week, stories appeared in local newspapers saying, "Minister supports cuts" or "Minister supports closure of local fire stations". Is he a little surprised to learn that that is how his speech last week was interpreted?

Mr. Sackville: I shall consult Hansard, but I think that I will find that I never said any such thing. I said very clearly that, if applications were received to reduce provision at any fire station or part thereof, the Home Secretary would have to make a decision. I want to put the record straight. No decisions have been taken on any reduction in provision.

Mr. Mackinlay: I want to take a bipartisan approach to this matter. I was present last week, and the Minister certainly did not say that. If any grotty newspaper said he did, it should read Hansard. I do not know who the guilty party is, but I want to make it clear that the Minister listened to us and did not say that. There should be accurate reporting of this matter.

Mr. Sackville: I do not know to which grotty newspapers in his constituency the hon. Gentleman is referring.

Mr. Mackinlay: It is not one in my constituency.

Mr. Sackville: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support.

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If Essex county council feels that it does not have sufficient resources, various options are open to it. As has already been said, it had an opportunity to meet Ministers at the Department of the Environment to discuss the rate support grant settlement, but chose not to do so. If the authority were to set a budget above its cap, the county would have an opportunity--which I am sure it would take--to put its case to Ministers in person and to challenge the level at which it was designated.

It must also be kept in mind that fire service spending in Essex during the current year is £39.3 million out of a total base budget of £976.7 million: so it represents about 4 per cent. of total county spending. If the council cannot find savings elsewhere in administration, it could increase the amount of resources that it allocates to fire to more than the current planned level. I am sure that the people of Essex would expect the council to do just that.

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Sir Teddy Taylor: Because of the shortage of time, would the Minister respond in writing to my questions, especially that on the jobseeker's allowance?

Mr. Sackville: I am happy to respond to that specific question. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend receives a letter within a short time.

Mr. Mackinlay: I want to make it quite clear that the newspapers in my constituency report these debates with clarity and precision: it was certainly not a newspaper in my area. I feel sorry for the hon. Members who are not covered by the Thurrock Gazette and the Thurrock Recorder.

Mr. Sackville: I am grateful for that assurance.

It being two minutes to Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

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    Oral Answers to Questions



    1. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussion he has had with the Nigerian military Government concerning the restoration of democratic institutions to Nigeria. [13954]

    15. Mr. Pike: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment he has made of the current human rights situation in Nigeria. [13968]

    The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. Liam Fox): I apologise for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is attending the ministerial meeting in Singapore between the Association of South-East Asian Nations and the European Union.

    My right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development held discussions with the Nigerian authorities at the highest level, most recently during the Commonwealth ministerial action group visit in November. We remain extremely concerned about the human rights situation in Nigeria, and the lack of progress towards the restoration of democracy in that country.

    Mr. Bruce: My hon. Friend is right to be very cautious about any promises that come from the military regime. As he will know, Members of Parliament attended the presidential election as observers. It was clear that Chief Abiola won that election, and that the military regime simply discarded the result. Can my hon. Friend be certain that the regime's current assurances about restoring democracy are real, or are they merely illusory?

    Dr. Fox: We continue to monitor progress with the transitional timetable. The local elections on a party basis, which are now due on 15 March, are the next important benchmark, and they must be free and fair.

    Mr. Pike: The Minister will know that 19 Ogoni activists are still being held in prison, on charges similar to those applying to the nine who were executed in 1995 under a seriously flawed legal system. The prisoners are being held in appalling conditions, and it has been said that one has gone blind as a result. What do the British Government feel they can do to ensure that those people are released as soon as possible, and that human rights are restored in Nigeria?

    Dr. Fox: I raised those points myself in a recent Adjournment debate. We have made representations about prison conditions. We have made it clear to the Nigerian authorities that we expect the Ogoni 19 to be released--or to be brought to a properly constituted court that respects human rights--and that any further trials by the tribunal that tried Ken Saro Wiwa would provoke an extremely serious international reaction.

    Sir David Steel: Is the Minister making particular representations to the Nigerian authorities about the

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    continued detention of General Obasanjo? Does he recognise that the general was the only president of Nigeria--the only military ruler, that is--who handed over to a democracy, and that since then he has played a distinguished part in providing democracy throughout the continent of Africa? His continued detention is an international outrage.

    Dr. Fox: The detention of political prisoners in Nigeria is indeed a cause for international outrage in many cases, as the Commonwealth ministerial action group made extremely plain during its last visit. We will continue to make that clear on every occasion. It is one of the most obvious abuses of human rights that we looked at.

    Rev. Martin Smyth: The Minister will remember that Nigeria played a role in bringing democracy to South Africa. Will he confirm that the Government have shared with the Nigerian authorities the idea that democracy has nothing to do with white and black, but has to do with the rights of people?

    Dr. Fox: I entirely agree. We will take every opportunity to tell the Nigerian Government exactly what we expect from them. There must be a move towards proper democracy in that country: we cannot help it with aid projects and international finance if it does not respect human rights and basic democratic principles.

    Mr. Tony Lloyd: Does the Minister realise that, although I am sure that General Abacha took note of the recent Adjournment debate and the Minister's welcome comments, when the Commonwealth ministerial action group went to Nigeria, the fact that the Canadians were not part of the group gave a clear signal to General Abacha that little would come of that visit and that he used it for propaganda purposes? What tough action will we get from next week's CMAG meeting, and what signals will be given to Nigeria that the present lack of progress towards democracy is simply unacceptable?

    Dr. Fox: CMAG does of course meet next week and it will make clear what we expect. At the meeting, we will demand the immediate release of all political prisoners, including Chief Abiola, the restoration of a democracy in which all can participate, the early resolution of the Ogoni 19 case, as I have already mentioned, and a review of prison conditions.

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