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10 May 2000 : Column 242WH

Northern Ireland Fire Brigade

12.30 pm

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly on the plight--if that is not an exaggeration--of fire officers in Northern Ireland and some of the problems that they face, and have faced consistently, during the past 15 years. I acknowledge at an early stage that, subsequent to questions tabled by me, which were answered on 11 April, the Minister has taken steps to remedy certain problems. One of those problems would have led to the first strike by the fire service in Northern Ireland since 1977. I am grateful to the Minister, as are members of the Fire Brigades Union and the public at large, for quickly recognising the difficulties and taking steps to avert what would have been a serious problem.

I hope that the Minister will not think that I am nit-picking, but I want to draw attention to one or two points that relate to his answers to my questions. I know that Ministers approve answers, rather than prepare them, but he suggested in one answer that civil disturbance call-outs often involved children who threw stones at appliances. I hope that he will recognise that that is a derogatory way in which to regard some of the hazards that fire officers have faced down the years. Last weekend, we witnessed the sad effects of throwing stones during a football match. Similarly, as the Minister will acknowledge, in the past 30 years, firemen in Northern Ireland have been seriously injured, or have given their lives.

In another answer, the Minister said that firemen in Northern Ireland have four additional days leave a year, but on closer examination, he will realise that different fire authorities have different terms and conditions. Compared to firemen in certain regional fire authorities, those in Northern Ireland may indeed have an extra four days leave, but compared to the firemen in Northamptonshire, there is just one day's difference. Such issues must be carefully understood, so that we do not give the impression that there is a huge difference between firemen in Northern Ireland and those in other regions of the United Kingdom.

I shall deal in due course with some significant factors that affect the fire brigade in Northern Ireland, but at this stage, the Minister will acknowledge that the attempt to introduce a two-tier system in the Northern Ireland fire brigade has proved a folly. Since the most recent agreement in Northern Ireland, I have been bombarded with equality agendas. Everyone must now produce an equality agenda. I am waiting for my elderly next-door neighbour to produce an equality agenda for when he goes down the road to the pub for his pint. We are overwhelmed with equality agendas. Yet our newest young recruits were to be paid, as whole-time firemen, £24.99 a week less and, as retained firefighters, £1.24 per call-out less than their established colleagues, which is not acceptable.

One acknowledges the dangers of being a firefighter in Northern Ireland, and across the United Kingdom, but what do those dangers have to do with the extent to which firefighters are brought on the scene when there are civil disturbances? Sadly, although we hope, on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, to see a change in the situation, in 1998 there were 1,156 civil disturbance call-

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outs in Northern Ireland--these are the Minister's own figures--and in 1999 there were 555. That may seem like a halving of the problem, but if we take out the figures for one month--July--which two years ago was quite fraught, to put it mildly, and compare the remaining 11 months, in 1998 there were 413 other call-outs and the following year there were 476. That is considerably more than one a day.

Until the Minister took a hand subsequent to my written questions, there was folly in the way in which an agreement negotiated and put in place under the aegis of the Labour Relations Agency was to be swept aside. If one wonders why that was so, one has only to look at the fire authority's annual report for 1998-99. On page 25 it alludes to its financial difficulties and says:

Following a review of fire cover in Northern Ireland some years ago a major report was published that took, as the costs, the figures for 1983-84. That may seem a long time ago, but at that time the per capita costs of the fire service made startling reading. I shall not compare them with the £17.40 per capita that the London fire brigade cost in that year. It is more realistic to compare Northern Ireland, with its large rural areas, to Scotland.

The Scottish brigade cost £13.55 per capita. The Northern Ireland fire service cost £9.74. That is a considerable difference, with about 28 per cent. less being invested in what I consider to be a comparable fire service. More up-to-date figures are difficult to come by, but the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy produced figures for 1996-97, when the comparative figures were £24.83 per head of the population for Northern Ireland against £30.38 for Scotland. The estimate for 1998-99 showed Northern Ireland at £25.80 and Scotland at £33.45. I simply ask the Minister what the cumulative effect of the underfunding from 1983-84 to the present must be.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether, in his judgment, the saving is mainly the result of reduced staffing or reduced equipment and resources in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Maginnis : If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall try to cover that later.

I know that statistics are boring, but we are talking about financial issues so statistics are important. The cost of responding to emergency calls across the regions varies considerably. In metropolitan fire and civil defence authorities, it is about £1,102 per call, whereas in Scotland it is as high as £1,377. Northern Ireland is the second lowest at £1,163. There is a fair difference between those figures.

Does the Minister accept that a major problem has to be tackled? The reality is that the cumulative effect is reflected in several ways, which brings us back to the

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question asked by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). It is reflected in the cutting back of the establishment, which was identified in various reports including the 1998-99 annual report. We are talking about undermanning. There has also been a reduction in the updating and modernising of equipment and stations. I shall return to the subject of stations.

The cutback could inevitably be dangerous. I hope that I suggested that 77 per cent. of the budget pays for staffing. If there were a shortfall, it would be reflected in the quality of training and retraining. Nothing stands still in firefighting. There are changes and advances in technique and equipment to which I feel that the fire service in Northern Ireland is entitled, in the same way as any other fire service in the United Kingdom. I cannot quantify the extent to which training suffers, but I shall try to give an example of the undermanning and extrapolate that argument to other subjects. To do so is not unreasonable.

Page 25 of the fire authority's annual report refers to an approved establishment of 1,919 whole-time firemen and 980 retained firefighters. Yet the reality is that the number of full-time firemen has fallen from 895 to 872 and retained firefighters from 923 to 827. Administrative and manual personnel also decreased: from an establishment of 205 there was a fall from 196 to 191. If my mathematics is right, the figures show that a total establishment of 2,104 was reduced to 1,890. In other words, we are manning at a level 10 per cent. below what is required, in a context in which there were 16 deaths from fire in Northern Ireland in 1998 and 28 in 1999.

Let me return to the 827 retained firefighters. For presentational purposes, they are presumed to be available as 24-hour manpower units. In reality, 75 or 80 per cent. of them provide only limited availability--12-hour cover, perhaps--and two limited-availability retained firemen equal only one of what is intended. What we therefore require is not a reduction from 980 to 827, but more than 1,700 retained firefighters. I am quoting the fire authority's own figures. I may be boring people with these statistics, but I do not how to illustrate the point without referring to them.

I shall compare Essex fire brigade with that of Northern Ireland. Essex covers a population comparable--in fact, just a little less--to Northern Ireland's, though its geographical region is only a quarter of its size. In 1998, the Essex brigade reacted to just under 23,000 call-outs, compared with Northern Ireland's 32,000. Yet the manpower and budget for Essex is greater than for Northern Ireland.

I shall briefly move on to fire stations. In the Northern Ireland fire brigade's survey of 1984, a requirement for new retained part-time fire stations was listed. Sixteen years later, Aughnacloy in my constituency and Market Hill are still without fire stations. Similarly, there was to be an upgrading to provide greater full-time cover in places such as Coleraine, Newtownards, Portadown, Enniskillen and Omagh. Again, that has not happened and one wonders why. In fact, I know why--it is all to do with underfunding.

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Some of those towns are well known for the wrong reasons. We all remember the tragedy in Enniskillen and the tragedy in Omagh. We are all aware of the tragic confrontation over the years in Portadown. Yet these major rural towns remain without adequate fire cover.

In considering those points, I ask the Minister to remember that Northern Ireland does not have the advantage of inter-regional back-up. If Essex is under pressure, a nearby region can provide support. There is no similar arrangement in Northern Ireland, and because of our political circumstances, we do not even receive much support from the Irish Republic. Our fire brigades will go across into Donegal, but because of the confrontational nature of society in Northern Ireland, that support is not reciprocated to any degree.

I understand that 15 stations are inadequately manned and require semi-permanent back-up arrangements that are placing neighbouring stations under huge strain. There is the danger that we will have inadequate cover for a tragedy. Why does the Northern Ireland fire authority not advertise in the local press to counter the undermanning? That would make an impact, and seems a simple way forward, yet it is not pursued. I wonder whether the fire authority is being kept fully acquainted with the facts. I believe that the authority is being kept in the dark in some respects.

As I said, I know that the Minister endeavours to provide meaningful responses when a serious issue is raised with him. We have averted the crisis and the firemen are comparatively happy. Can he move the situation forward on a broader basis? Given all Northern Ireland's problems, and its isolation from support, can he ensure that the fire service receives equipment and finance that are comparable with those in other regions of the United Kingdom? Despite the dedication of the fire officers, the people of Northern Ireland should not be required to accept second-rate fire and emergency protection.

12.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) on his choice of subject, and I thank him for his generous remarks about me. The Government appreciate the work that the Northern Ireland fire brigade has carried out during many long years of civil unrest. It has consistently provided a high quality of professional firefighting, without showing favour towards any part of the community, and I know that almost everybody in Northern Ireland agrees with that. The brigade is owed an enormous debt of gratitude, and I am happy to place on record my admiration and respect for its work and for the dedication and courage with which it carries out its work.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone raised a couple of issues that arose from written answers that I gave him recently. We did not intend to cause offence by highlighting the stone-throwing incident, we merely wanted to point out that some incidents of disorder have no sectarian dimension. They are regrettable and should not be excused, indeed, they

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should be condemned, but they should not be seen as unique to Northern Ireland. Sadly, and unacceptably, such incidents are not unknown in all parts of the United Kingdom, including in my own constituency of Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. However, that does not undermine the fact that firefighters in Northern Ireland have had to carry out their job in difficult circumstances and, in many cases, in circumstances specific to Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the written answer that I gave him, in which Hansard records that I said that there is

Mr. Maginnis : I shall certainly not endorse the call for the Minister to resign, but I quibble over even his amended answer. To pick out the phrase "four days" and suggest that Northern Ireland firefighters have four days more than all other fire brigades is not accurate either. In the case of Northampton, the difference is one day. We are dealing with packages, and we must not pick part of a package and suggest that the brigade is more favourably treated than other brigades.

Mr. Howarth : As the brigade receives those four days, it is treated more favourably than some other brigades. However, I accept that it is not unique, and that different local arrangements are involved.

I shall make three brief points before I conclude, as time is short. First, like the hon. Gentleman, I am pleased that the dispute that was looming has been resolved through sensible negotiation between the fire authority and the trade union involved, the Fire Brigades Union. A sensible conclusion was reached, and I am glad that I played a small part in encouraging them to negotiate a sensible solution to the problem. In such circumstances, the use of industrial action, which was threatened, is unsuitable, as I told the Fire Brigades Union, among others.

The hon. Gentleman raised two issues with which I shall deal briefly. The first related to the finances of the fire brigade and the authority, and the second related to manning levels. The fire authority's baseline budget allocation has risen from £43.7 million for 1998-99 to £51.4 million for the current year. In 1999, an upgraded control room was opened and training facilities at

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Boucher crescent were improved. The modernisation and improvement of fire services throughout Northern Ireland has been pursued through the development of efficient maintenance of the fire brigade fleet and firefighting equipment, of which there have been several examples.

The authority's budget has increased by £2.9 million for the 1999-2000 allocation. An additional £4.9 million was allocated last year, which is an increase of 8.5 per cent. in real terms. There has also been benefits from the comprehensive spending review.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. McWilliam): Order. Time is up.

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