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Mr. Simon Hughes: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are about to consider a motion on the business of the House, which may not be taken tonight if it is opposed. It would provide that the House could sit and wait for messages from the Lords, as we did last

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Thursday. Given that Mr. Speaker made it clear from the Chair that he supported a more modernised procedure, can you do anything to ensure that when the House is sitting--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. I must inform the hon. Gentleman that that motion is not debatable.

Mr. Hughes: I accept that; I said that it stated that on the Order Paper.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I believe that I have already given the hon. Gentleman an explanation.

Mr. Hughes: Last Thursday, before we returned late at night, there was a period when the House was sitting but we were doing nothing. Tonight, we have discussed two groups of amendments in three hours while seven groups, containing 119 amendments, have not been considered. Can we please use our time to better effect?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I must inform the hon. Gentleman that the points that he is raising are matters for debate. The House has proceeded in a way that is fully in order, as the House agreed earlier today.


Madam Deputy Speaker: With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation)

Income Tax

Question agreed to.


Motion made,

(i) the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any Messages from the Lords shall have been received, and
(ii) if the House has completed its consideration of any Messages received from the Lords and the Lords have adjourned their sitting, the Speaker shall adjourn the House without Question put.-- [Mrs. McGuire.]

Hon. Members: Object.

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Madam Deputy Speaker: With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to Committees.


Accommodation and Works

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Devon Fire and Rescue Service

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mrs. McGuire.]

12.29 am

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) rose--[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Would Members please leave the Chamber quickly and quietly?

Mrs. Browning: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I introduce to the House a debate that is of great concern to many of us in the county of Devon. The headquarters of the Devon fire and rescue service is at Clyst St. George in my constituency of Tiverton and Honiton.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is impossible to hear my hon. Friend, even though I am sitting close to her. Can she begin again so that we can hear what she is saying?

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is a matter for the hon. Lady. I have asked Members to leave quickly and quietly, and most have left the Chamber.

Mrs. Browning: On behalf of the Devon fire and rescue service, whose headquarters are at Clyst St. George in the Tiverton and Honiton constituency, I shall raise with the Minister concerns that have been felt for some time. We are in such a position that the Government must consider a problem that faces the county of Devon: the future of the fire and rescue service.

As long ago as 9 May, I tabled a written question to the Home Office in respect of the representations received from the emergency services on the cost to them of the changes to radio channels. On 10 May, I received a reply from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke):

It was known earlier this year that the change to the radio frequency required by the replacement scheme affected all emergency services nationally, but I want to draw particular attention to the impact on the Devon fire and rescue service.

There is a national Home Office requirement to vacate existing radio frequencies used by the emergency services by 2005 at the latest. As a result, Devon fire and rescue service, along with all other fire authorities in England and Wales, will be required to replace its wide area radio scheme. The police service has a single framework

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agreement to purchase the Airwave service, formerly PSRCS, which is supplied by Quadrant--a consortium led by BT. That framework agreement was negotiated by the Police Information Technology Organisation and was the subject of a referral by the European Commission to the European Court of Justice. I am afraid that my speech contains a lot of acronyms, so I shall spell them out.

Devon fire and rescue service currently shares radio transmission sites with Devon and Cornwall constabulary. Similar arrangements exist with a number of other fire authorities. Devon county council, and therefore the police, will move to a replacement radio scheme in December 2002. It is likely that many shared facilities will no longer be available to the fire service after that date. Devon county council police authority has given formal notice that current partners in shared radio facilities must make their own arrangements for future wide-area radio provision after that date.

I emphasise to the Minister that the service in Devon must not only have procured the new system but put it in place--not by 2005, but by the end of 2002. That means that it is required to replace its scheme much earlier than many other services in the country. It is currently under notice from the police that that is the time scale under which they are working, and we have every reason to believe that the police project is on time. Indeed, the police annual report confirms that it is.

Other pressures for change in the radio scheme include the increasing need for data to be sent to front-line fire appliances to meet health and safety requirements with regard to the provision of operation and tactical information. Those are not available under the current radio arrangements. If any existing shared sites remain available for fire service use, for a sole user the costs would be prohibitive. There is also concern that the communications industry will not be able to meet the demands of all emergency services' replacement needs in the time frame available. There is great anxiety in the Devon fire and rescue service about the possibility of procurement in such a short time.

In a "Dear Chief Fire Officer" letter dated February 1999, the Home Office set out the fire service strategy for radio replacement. The strategy did not propose or establish a single framework procurement option that PITO adopted, but the Home Office recommended local rather than national procurement, provision by the Home Office of procurement guidance, the adoption of an output as opposed to a technical specification, and collaboration between brigades. It also suggested that PSRCS (Airwave) should be considered as an option. According to current guidance, the strategy is still valid.

Since the publication of that advice, the Minister has commissioned two studies--one to look at options for the provision of fire control rooms, and the other to provide guidance on radio replacement options. Devon in particular would have been pleased if the second study could have been produced much earlier, given the short time frame within which it is now obliged to work. There are significant lead times for both tender and implementation, not least--as the Minister will know--because of public-sector regulations relating to tenders and contracts.

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While I accept that two alternative strategies for radio replacement have been adopted by the police and the fire service, there are still a number of inequitable anomalies supported by central Government. The Minister of State, Home Office, has found that PSRCS represents an important part of the Government's commitment to ensuring that the police have access to modern communications facilities. I particularly want this Minister to focus on that tonight.

Over three years, the police will receive an extra £1.24 billion of central Government funding so that they can introduce the new system that they will use. Annual charges for PSRCP will be reduced by £50 million, obtained from the capital modernisation fund. The financial pressures on police forces will be taken into account in the overall level of resources to be provided for the police service in future years as part of the 2000 spending review. Today's announcement on local government expenditure clearly identified the on-going revenue costs of the scheme in figures relating to the police.

I make no complaint about the money that the Government have allocated--one might almost say "ring-fenced" for the police. However, what is extraordinary is that one emergency service has been treated in that way, yet the Government do not seem to have recognised the important role that another emergency service, the fire and rescue service, plays, particularly in a county such as Devon, or the short time available.

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