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10 Mar 2003 : Column 97—continued

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I am trying hard to follow the hon. Gentleman, but with some difficulty. Is he opposed to a 16 per cent. settlement being mainly self-financed? Is he opposed to the risk-based assessment producing savings? Or is he trying to blame the Government either way?

Mr. Hammond: I would certainly not be opposed to a risk-based assessment producing savings if that is what a risk-based assessment produced. Before implementing the risk-based assessment programme, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said that the settlement must be self-financing through modernisation. I suggest that they are defining modernisation as a reduction in real resources available to the fire service. In a moment, I shall invite the Minister to disabuse the hypothetical cynic of the view that he may take of this whole process.

The fear is that politically unpopular cuts in service that are dictated from the centre will have to be implemented by local politicians. If that hypothetical cynic were to read the draft guidance on how the locally produced integrated risk management plans are to be developed, his fears would not be allayed. We are told in the guidance that the Government will helpfully provide guidance notes that fire authorities

Moreover, the Government will make available Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate to advise fire authorities, so as to ensure the

Indeed, paragraph 2.7 says that Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate

The draft guidance gives what can only be described as some not very subtle steers on this locally based programme of risk assessment. Paragraph 3.5.6 says:

Paragraph 3.5.8 says:

the fire authorities—

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In paragraph 3.6.1, fire authorities are told that they will wish to

It goes on to say rather controversially:

My cynic would see that as an example of prejudging the review that the guidance is supposed to set up. Paragraph 3.6.2 tells local fire authorities:

All that may be true, and fire authorities may indeed wish to consider these matters, but setting them out in the guidance suggests to some people that the Government have prejudged the likely outcome of these reviews.

In paragraph 3.6.2, the document says categorically that fire authorities should

That is flatly contradicted in paragraph 3.2 of the second draft guidance notes, which talks about the public being most interested in those aspects that impinge directly on the service provided to them. It says:

That clearly presumes that not all the changes will be in accordance with the exhortation in paragraph 3.6.2 that authorities should make changes only when it is clear that the overall net effect will be to improve community safety.

The reality for fire authorities, as they embark on this process, is, first, that central Government controls the funding; secondly, that central Government have shown themselves determined to set the parameters for any settlement to this dispute; thirdly, that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have both said that any settlement has to be self-financing; and fourthly, that the understandable conclusion of many observers is that there is a presumption that these integrated risk management plans must call for fewer resources. It would be understandable if an observer were concerned about the transfer to local fire authorities of the power to implement this modernisation, which is likely to be politically painful and controversial if the overall real resources deployed are to be cut.

The facts are these. A 16 per cent. pay increase by July 2004 was recently offered, presumably with the approval of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I know that officials from the ODPM monitor the negotiations closely. That will not be paid for by staff reductions over that period, especially given the pledge of no redundancies. All the Government have offered the fire

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service employers is a £30 million transitional funding loan that will be clawed back out of future funding allocations, thus requiring an even greater ultimate reduction in the level of real resource.

The Government have been silent on allocation issues. The cost of a settlement of this dispute will have an impact on all fire brigades, but the scope for savings through the modernisation programme and the implementation of risk-based management plans will be largely concentrated in the metropolitan and urban area brigades.

I have five simple questions to put to the Minister in order to assess the genuineness of this process. Are the Government budgeting for the service to cost more or less in total after the introduction of the integrated risk management plans? Will the resource requirements of any properly developed integrated risk management plan be reflected in the formula grant for the local authority that implements it? I hope that this is not the case, but if the Government's proposal merely replaces a national dispute over modernisation and pay with local disputes over specific proposals for resource redeployment, will the Government underwrite the cost of military fire cover for authorities involved in individual disputes? During the national dispute, the Government have met that cost. Indubitably, none of the fire authorities could have afforded to fund the military cover that has been provided if they had been forced to meet that out of their own budgets. It is difficult to see how the Minister expects fire service employers to be able to negotiate appropriately at a local level if the Government will not back them with Government-supported military cover if a dispute unfortunately occurs.

Will there be a robust regime for measuring the performance of brigades under integrated risk management plans, and how will it work, given that there will no longer be standard performance indicators and therefore no immediate comparability between brigades? If so, will the Government commit themselves to achieving some testing targets for reduction in fire deaths? If they really believe that these risk management plans will deliver greater community safety, can they reassure the public by setting testing targets to show that they have genuine faith in the process on which they have embarked? Otherwise, the watching public may prove to be as cynical as my hypothetical observer.

Conservative Members will support modernisation and the integrated risk management plans if they are genuinely about improvements to the service, but when the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister said that the settlement had to be self-financing through modernisation, they undermined the case for genuine modernisation. Eighty-five per cent. of the cost of the fire service consists of wages and salaries. That gives rise to a genuine fear that more pay equals fewer jobs and fewer appliances in fire stations. The fear is that the Government have prejudged the review that they are setting in progress. There are real concerns that integrated risk management programmes will not be risk based, but will be driven by cuts in the real resources available as higher pay is financed by lower manpower and fewer appliances. In those circumstances, the local consultation to which the Minister has committed the

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Government would be a charade. We are well disposed to genuine modernisation, but the Minister must seek to dispel our concerns.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I know that several hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall try to be brief.

First, I disabuse any hon. Member of the idea that there has suddenly been an alliance of the socialist Campaign group with elements on the other side of the Chamber. We tabled the amendment unwittingly, not knowing that the other amendment had been tabled.

For the benefit of those who did not have the enjoyment of serving on the Committee, I want to go through the genesis of the amendment and the background to how it came about. When the Fire Services Act 1947 was introduced, section 19 was identified as a mechanism whereby the Government would be able to ensure that minimum standards of fire cover were maintained by fire authorities, and subsequent guidance ensured that there would be full consultation with local communities prior to any changes in provision. That meant that section 19 ensured that the Secretary of State would need to be consulted on any significant changes and to approve them. However, that applied only in cases where there would be a reduction in cover; no approval would be required if a fire authority wished to increase cover. Approval was required for station closures and changes in practices whereby full-timers, part-timers or pumping appliances would be removed from individual fire stations. The system worked in such a way that no trivial matters were referred to the Secretary of State. It was not about replacing fire stations on existing sites, but about significant changes in local fire cover practices. The same applied in relation to staffing matters—the system was concerned with reductions in firefighter posts, which is of concern to local communities. Time scales were set—usually six weeks—within which the Secretary of State would be required to come back with a decision, or at least an explanation of why the decision had not been made in that time.

Pertinent to the whole process—I quote from the circular that the Government issued in 1992—was that potential changes should be sufficiently widely publicised in sufficient detail with adequate time to ensure that any interested parties would be able to make representations, and that such representations should be considered by the fire authority. What then happened, of course, was that the Secretary of State became the longstop in terms of any right of appeal for a local community. MPs, local authorities, fire authorities and members of the local community recognised that the Secretary of State could intervene if the local fire authority was trampling over their wishes.

Changes in the professional environment then followed. In May 2000, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council agreed to set up a task group to look at section 19 procedures and to develop a strategy for dealing with section 19 applications resulting from any changes in fire cover standards as the service—yes, even at that point—developed its discussions about modernisation. The first meeting of that group was convened by the Home Office on 19 December 2000. It agreed its terms of reference, and there were four meetings. At its final meeting on 20 December 2001, the

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fire policy unit said that it would produce a report on whether the circular should be amended or replaced and on how, if the risk-based standards were introduced, section 19 procedures would then be either sustainable or changed.

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