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11 Jul 2000 : Column 160WH

Fire Services (Shropshire)

11.50 am

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): There is great unhappiness and no little dissatisfaction in Shropshire following the decision to replace two appliances with a single appliance at five retained fire stations. The dissatisfaction in my county springs from the fact that the nature of the decision is not readily accepted. People are dissatisfied about the unsatisfactory way in which the consultation was carried out and about the underlying reason for the decision, which is the inadequate funding in our county. I shall deal with each of those points in turn.

The decision is almost universally opposed by Shropshire residents living in parts of the county that rely on retained fire service men. Six of the largest parish councils in the eastern part of my constituency--Alveley, Claverley, Chelmarsh, Cleobury Mortimer, Highley and Stottesdon--not to mention Bridgnorth town and district councils, have all voiced their strong objections, for sound and practical reasons.

The area covered by Bridgnorth district council is divided by the River Severn--which I am sure that the Minister will recognise as one of Britain's largest and most important rivers--with crossing points only at Bridgnorth itself or downstream at Bewdley in the adjoining county of Worcestershire. It follows, therefore, that simultaneous fires in Alveley, on one side of the river, and Highley, on the other, would, although those places are fewer than 2 miles apart as the crow flies, necessitate a road journey of about 15 miles by the northern route, or 19 miles by the southern route. In neither case would the bypasses at either Bridgnorth or Bewdley be accessed, because the road to and from Highley does not connect with the bypasses, but runs directly into each of the town centres.

As a result of reducing the number of fire appliances at Bridgnorth from two to one, calls on the single engine at Cleobury Mortimer are almost bound to increase. However, difficulties in recruiting suitable fire fighters in that town are already causing major headaches. A further practical anxiety is that, in the event of an incident in the area that requires the attendance of two appliances, one of the adjacent areas will inevitably be left without cover for the duration.

My constituents have many other, equally valid, practical objections to the proposals. For example, the eastern part of my constituency faces the additional hazard of fires started in dry weather spells by the steam engines that power the Severn Valley railway, which is an important tourist attraction in my constituency. Time prevents me from detailing all their other practical objections.

I come now to the vexed problem of the consultation process. Four consultation meetings have been held, the last one being in Bridgnorth on 8 June. However, on 24 March the chairman of Shropshire and Wrekin fire authority wrote to me and said:

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The nub of the matter is the inadequacy of the standard spending assessment. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) put it in a nutshell when he wrote to the Minister. He said that the Shropshire budget for fire services was £12.5 million, but that the SSA for this year was £8.5 million. He added that Shropshire was therefore underfunded by 47 per cent. and that the £4 million shortfall must be taken out of other services provided by the Shropshire county council.

To put it another way round, the standard spending assessment for fire services in Shropshire at £20.58 per head of population is the third lowest of all counties in England--a mere 63p above the lowest figure, but nearly £8 per head less than that of the highest. If Shropshire had achieved even the average of all English fire authorities at £28.17 per head, the SSA would almost exactly match the actual budget. We are asking for the same average deal as everyone else, as a result of which there would be sufficient funds for us to provide an adequate service throughout the county.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Is my hon. Friend aware of the real anger that the funding problem is causing in Whitchurch and Market Drayton, which will also be cut back to one pump? People contrast the £22.2 million that Cheshire receives and the £21.9 received by Staffordshire with the £8.1 million received by Shropshire. The formula is wrong.

Mr. Gill : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The formula is wrong and it has been for a long time. What depresses me and my constituents, however, is that the Government have recently made it known that there is unlikely to be any change to the formula for determining such matters for at least another three years. That, taken together with the fact that, for the past three years we have been at a standstill in terms of any alteration to the formula, means that, in effect, something that was wrong six years ago--sorry, three years ago--will still be wrong in three years' time.

The Government are fond of blaming the previous Administration on such occasions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien ): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gill : Before I give way to the Minister, I want to say that the Government's excuse is wearing thin. The Labour Administration have been in power for three years and it is no use their looking backwards. The electorate in Shropshire want the Minister to look forward and to give us some hope for the future.

Mr. O'Brien : The hon. Gentleman referred to six years; he then paused and referred to three years, which

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is the time that the Government have been in office. But he supported a Government who, according to his argument, caused Shropshire to be severely underfunded. How did he justify that, and why, now that we have a different Government, does he want to change the standard spending formula that he previously supported?

Mr. Gill : I have never supported the formula. I am on the record in the House as having voted, together with the former Member for North Shropshire, against the revenue support grant settlement in the previous Parliament. I am a long-term opponent of the formula. My point about the three years and the three years is that the Govt have not altered the formula. They recently announced that they are unlikely to do so for the next three years. That is a period of six years during which time the residents of Shropshire will continue to be disadvantaged.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the formula is wrong. It gives Shropshire a bad deal on just about every count. Shropshire is almost bottom of the league for the funding of police, health, social services and almost everything else. It is self-evident that that is a result of the funding formula. The Minister does not have a point when he says that I have supported the formula. I am on record as being absolutely opposed to it and pleading with this and the previous Government to effect changes that would produce a more equitable solution for my constituents.

In the final analysis, what emerges is that the intention to downgrade the number of appliances at five fire stations from two to one is driven by economics. Our county's inadequate budget means that the fire authority is forced to make cuts wherever it can. Many of my constituents question the rationale of cutting back on the retained sector, which is extremely cost-effective. The current proposals will realise a saving of less than 1 per cent. of the budget, but will result in a massive 15 per cent. reduction in capacity. If we reduce the number of fire engines from 33 to 28, it follows--this is fact not opinion--that the availability of fire engines to fight fires in emergencies in Shropshire will be reduced by 15 per cent.

Furthermore, the fire authority was obliged by law to stage a consultation exercise which, in the circumstances, was nothing more than a charade. The general public are fed up and disillusioned with being invited to participate in a plethora of consultation exercises when it is increasingly plain that the decisions have often been made. Either the outcome of public consultations should be respected or Ministers should have the courage to do what they have to do and take the electoral consequences. It is not satisfactory to govern on the basis that the Government consult on an idea that they have already formed knowing full well that, come hell or high water, they will not be distracted from their original intention. The public have to spend a lot of time and, in the case of local authorities, a lot of money responding to such consultations, when the answer is invariably a lemon.

No change in fire cover in any county can occur without the Home Secretary's formal approval. What will the Minister do? Will he take a chance with people's lives and property by endorsing the fire authority's proposals, or will he demand a re-examination of the

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funding formula so that fire service standards, set by his Department, can be adhered to? Before the Minister responds to the debate, I respectfully remind him that the buck stops with him. Rural Shropshire will not be fobbed off with lame excuses or any attempt to shuffle off ultimate responsibility on to others.

I remind the Minister--not as an afterthought because this is central to our consideration--of the importance of firefighters and the damaging effect that failure to come up with satisfactory responses will have on morale. There is a fear among retained firefighters in my constituency that, if the two fire appliances in Bridgnorth are replaced with one, there will be a lesser requirement for retained firemen, which will affect recruitment and morale in the fire service generally. Retained firefighters are an essential and highly valued part of our rural community. Without them, the Government would be faced with massively increased expenditure, not to mention recruitment problems.

I trust that, in his reply, the Minister will acknowledge the importance of the human dimension, but, as things stand, the proposals are opposed by the tax-paying public, the county, district, town and parish councils, the trade unions and, not least, the firefighters themselves. All that comes on top of a catalogue of complaints from the countryside, which were succinctly summarised by Mrs. Morris, the clerk to the Stottesdon and Sidbury parish council, who lists them as follows:

I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate he will give people in the countryside some hope that the one service for which he is responsible will not follow those other services in being run down to an unacceptable level.

12.7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien ): As someone who also represents a rural area, and who is concerned about rural issues, I am pleased to note that, despite the many difficulties to which the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) referred, employment is increasing in rural areas. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to raise his concerns about fire services in Shropshire.

Before I proceed, I am sure that hon. Members will want to join me in expressing our shock and sadness at the news of the very serious fire at Southgate near Telford on Sunday, when a mother and two young children died in a house fire. That was a serious incident, and I am sure that all hon. Members would want us to express our condolences to the surviving members of the family, their relatives and friends.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Telford): I thank the Minister for that expression of regret and concern. As he rightly says,

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all hon. Members would wish to be associated with those remarks. That is an appalling tragedy and our hearts go out to the family.

Mr. O'Brien : That tragic incident reinforces the need for those of us in Government, Members of Parliament, the fire service and individuals to redouble our efforts to reduce fires and casualties in the home, and to treat that matter seriously, rather than as a political football. That is why, with the support of fire service interests, the Government are seeking to make a commitment to prevention as the first line of defence against fire, to develop a clearer vision for the fire service and to set out a clear strategy for the next 10 years with clear targets for improvements. We want to make progress in a way that can be measured against that commitment. To that end, we have publicly set a target of reducing the average number of accidental house fire deaths by 20 per cent. in the next five years.

I fully understand the importance that the hon. Member for Ludlow and his constituents attach to the quality of the fire service provided by the Shropshire and Wrekin fire authority. We have good reason to be proud of our fire service. In many ways, we have the best fire service in the world. It puts out fires. We can be grateful because, in some countries, there are substantial delays and other problems in fire services doing that job.

The fire service achieved consistently high standards of performance, often in difficult and hazardous circumstances. The high performance in responding to fire calls has been confirmed year after year by the Audit Commission. That body's latest figures show that, in 1998-99, the fire service nationally met attendance standards in responding to fire calls in 96 per cent. of occasions. In the Shropshire and Wrekin area, even that excellent performance was bettered--attendance standards were met in 97.6 per cent. of occasions. The fire service in that area has an extremely high standard and I am sure that it will do all that it can to retain it.

The ability to attend fires is influenced, among other factors, by the proximity of fire stations. A proposal from Shropshire and Wrekin fire authority is worrying the hon. Gentleman. The authority seeks to replace two pumping appliances at Ludlow fire station, which is in his constituency, and at Newport, Whitchurch, Bridgnorth and Market Drayton, with an extra large appliance that can carry nine staff. As the hon. Gentleman noted, the authority is consulting on the proposal, but has not yet made an application under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. That application will not doubt be made to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in due course. It would be appropriate for Ministers to express a view at that point. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is inappropriate and wrong for Ministers to express views on matters on which they will have to exercise a semi-judicial role before they are submitted to them.

I will be clear on the matter. The statutory responsibility for the provision of an efficient fire services rests with a fire authority. That is all about local democracy and local control of fire services. It is for Shropshire and Wrekin fire authority to keep its fire cover provision under review and to set a budget that allows it to meet its statutory and other obligations and, in particular, to provide a service that meets the national standards for fire cover.

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I will come to finances, but I want to say more about the section 19 procedure. Under section 19(4) of the 1947 Act, a fire authority cannot reduce the number of fire stations, fire appliances or fire fighting posts without the express consent of the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary is given a specific statutory role, which he does not exercise until an application is made to him. Any wish that we express a view on the matter now would be inappropriate for that reason. The Home Secretary will grant an application only if satisfied that the proposals have been publicised sufficiently widely, in sufficient detail and with adequate time to enable an interested party to make representations. Recently, I referred back an application under section 19 because I was not satisfied about the extent of the consultation period.

I listened with great care to what the hon. Member for Ludlow said about the way in which consultation was conducted in this case. In considering such matters, I must also advise the Home Secretary on whether the fire authority has properly considered representations. That does not mean that the authority must do what the representations suggest: fire authorities are there to exercise judgment about the way in which they can best manage their budgets and provide effective fire cover standards. Her Majesty's fire services inspectorate will also advise on whether the national standards of fire cover are being maintained. In listening to the representations made by the fire authority, we will also consider the opinions of Her Majesty's fire services inspectorate, to ensure that we have a view on whether there is a risk.

Whenever change in the fire service is proposed, someone shouts "Danger to lives." However, past changes have not caused perceptible danger to lives. The debate appears to revolve around every single section 19 application. That is why the Home Secretary always relies heavily on the advice given by Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, which has great experience in assessing whether national fire standards are being maintained and protected.

Mr. Gill : I have been paying attention to the Minister's remarks, but does he accept that what the fire authority wants to do in Shropshire is driven principally by economics? We cannot consider the matter in isolation and say what we would like or what we need accordingly. Instead, the fire authority has to cut its cloth according to its pocket, and it will probably have to cut a lot of corners on public safety to do so. Ultimately, the buck stops with the Minister.

Mr. O'Brien : There is no question but that the Home Secretary will have to make a decision--I will consider the papers and advise him on it--on whether to grant the fire authority's application. However, it is for the authority and not for the Minister to make the initial application, set out the procedures and comply with the requirements for appropriate consultation. This country has a tradition of local control of fire services.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned funding. Every single public service that I know of requests greater funding, and taxpayers often balk at the idea that they will have to pay more tax in order to provide it. There

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is always a balance to be struck. The hon. Gentleman's constituents will want to know that the fire authority is spending their hard-earned money in order to deliver value for money in fire cover. It is right and proper for taxpayers to want to know that the fire authority is exercising care in deciding how to spend its budget. It is spending taxpayers' money--funds that are provided by those who work in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and in the surrounding area. They want value for money and it is right that the fire authority should consider that in taking any decisions. It is also right for those constituents to want to ensure that their homes are safe and that proper and effective cover is in place. That is why the Government take great heed of the experienced voice of Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services.

Mr. Gill : Does the Minister recognise that every taxpayer in Shropshire is obliged by law to pay the same rate of taxes as people in other parts of the country? Our complaint is that, out of every pound that we pay to the Treasury, we are getting back less pro rata than many other counties, including that of the Minister. In his own county of Warwickshire, for example, the SSA per head for fire services is nearly £3 more than in Shropshire. Surely, in equity, the figures should be balanced up and poor old Shropshire should not be bottom of the pile on every heading.

Mr. O'Brien : Warwickshire had serious problems in fire service funding under the previous Government. At one stage, the inspectorate was about to declare it unable to continue to operate. It is now in much better financial shape and we are providing a better settlement for the fire service than has ever before been achieved. The distribution of funding is based on the standard spending assessment formula that we inherited from the previous Administration. We consulted on that after we came to office in 1997. When a funding formula is changed, there are winners and losers; the hon. Gentleman obviously hopes that Shropshire will be a winner.

Mr. Gill : For a change.

Mr. O'Brien : I would hope that my constituency of Warwickshire, too, might benefit from such a change, but other hon. Members will be worried that their constituencies might lose.

We consulted on changes to the local government SSA formula, but we found that some local authorities did not want change. Later this summer, we shall publish a Green Paper to try to obtain local authority agreement on how to proceed. It is not simply a matter of the Government's issuing an edict. We need to discuss our proposals properly and democratically with those who represent local people. The Green Paper will set out proposals and options for change in the SSA.

We are prepared to tackle that issue in a way that the previous Government were not, but it requires some sort of consensus among local authorities. For entirely proper and legitimate reasons, the hon. Gentleman wants Shropshire to benefit, but other hon. Members will want to represent their constituents.

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Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I can think of at least one way in which Shropshire and Warwickshire could benefit from a reform of the SSA system. The Home Office recently announced a £15 million increase in police funding in recognition of the sparsity factor in rural areas. Can the Minister say how seriously he and his colleagues are reviewing the inclusion of an enhanced sparsity factor in the funding of fire services?

Mr. O'Brien : Yes, I can. I have met people from Shropshire and Wrekin fire authority who suggest that the fire service SSA formula should include a sparsity indicator. If, in the light of consultation on the Green Paper, we decide to continue with a formulaic method of distributing grants rather than a system that gives greater recognition to the individual council tax payer, we shall have to consider the priorities further with the Local Government Association.

One of the problems will be how to gauge a sparsity indicator. Earlier work suggests that taking such an approach for the fire service could cause technical difficulties that do not apply to the police. It might produce perverse results. We already have enough problems with SSAs producing perverse results by giving more to those fire services with a higher number of call-outs. That is almost an incentive for more call-outs to be received.

We shall need to consider that proposal in the Green Paper. We want to take perversity out of the system. We do not want to put perversity back in by including a sparsity formula in the SSA that does not work. It is a technical and complex issue. None the less, sparsity raises proper and legitimate questions. There is no simple solution. We need to reconsider the means by which we distribute grants. I hope that we shall be able to do that during the wider consultation that we hope to undertake later this year.

I am aware of the financial pressures faced by the Shropshire and Wrekin fire authority, and other authorities. Indeed, in May I met a delegation from the authority, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), to discuss its concerns about funding. More generally, we listened carefully to fire authorities' concerns during the comprehensive spending review. That provided that fire authorities in England would receive, overall, an increase in the fire service element of total standard spending of £143.6 million over three years, including £47.4 million, 3.5 per cent., for 2000-01. That is well above the settlements that were given under the previous Government. We are listening carefully to the

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representations of the fire service. It will take time for us to undo some of the problems that we have inherited, but we are determined to try to deal with them.

Mr. Paterson : The Minister kindly wrote to me on 14 June suggesting that my proposed delegation of all Shropshire's MPs to visit him should be postponed until after publication of the Green Paper. I want to stress the intense hostility, in Whitchurch and Market Drayton, to the proposed changes, which are forced on the fire authority, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow has said, by the failures of the spending formula. Will the Minister commit himself to accepting a delegation before a final decision is made?

Mr. O'Brien : I shall certainly see a group of MPs--it might be appropriate to see the chief fire officer and chairman of the fire authority as well--before a final decision is made. I have no problem in giving that undertaking.

I have mentioned already that the increase in funding for 2000-01 was 3.5 per cent. as a national average. Shropshire and Wrekin's share of total standard spending for the fire service for 2000-01 has increased by the above average 4.4 per cent. That increase should be seen in the context of the firefighters' pay award of 2 November, but the Government have recognised the problems of Shropshire. We have acknowledged them in the funding for Shropshire, and provided extra help. I do not deny that there are inherited problems, which remain serious. I hope that we can tackle those in the long term, by considering the standard spending assessment overall so that we can deal with the wider problems of counties such as Shropshire, and in the shorter term, in dealing with the section 19 application when it is made. We should look at the question in the round.

I assure the hon. Member for Ludlow that no decision will be made that will put at risk the lives of people in Shropshire. Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services will advise the Home Office on whether there is a risk to lives. Our clear position is that we do not put lives at risk. Sometimes difficult judgments must be made, but if Her Majesty's inspectorate advises us of a serious risk to lives, the relevant application will not be approved. However, if the advice is that the matter concerns redistribution and doing things differently, we shall, while others may take a different view, weigh heavily the views of those who have great experience and knowledge about the risks of fire.

I hope that I have provided some reassurance. I thank the hon. Member for Ludlow for initiating the debate, which concerns matters of great importance. I shall consider them very carefully when the section 19 application and the future funding of the fire service in Shropshire are considered.

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