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10 Mar 2003 : Column 101—continued

Dr. Palmer: Can my hon. Friend tell me on how many occasions since 1991 the Home Secretary has overturned a proposal?

John McDonnell: It has been very rare for applications even to reach the Secretary of State, because fire authorities operated in the knowledge that they would ultimately have to be accountable to the Secretary of State. That is the effectiveness of an appeal mechanism.

The task group was established specifically to review section 19 and the fire policy unit was to produce the report, yet no report was produced, although the chairmanship and the secretariat was in the hands of the Government. The fire cover review produced by the task group concluded that section 19 was not a barrier to the introduction of risk-based emergency cover. Included in that task group were representatives from Government, Her Majesty's inspector of fire services, the employers' organisations, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and, of course, the Fire Brigades Union.

Then, Bain came along. The Government's proposal to amend the legislation comes directly from Bain. It drives to the heart of the contradiction of the Bain inquiry and report, because Bain is either a considered assessment and proposed programme of reform of the organisation and management of the fire service or it is part of the negotiating process to settle a pay dispute—it cannot be both. The tragedy of Bain is that it is being used for both purposes, ultimately not particularly effectively. Bain made several recommendations and proposals concerning the planning and future provision of fire cover. It recommended the establishment of new institutions to consider risk management, to advise Secretaries of State, and to bring forward a level of expertise in that advice through the fire service college and a new role for the inspectorate. Bain said that the move to allocate resources according to risk would not require legislation. Then, Bain moved beyond being a body that recommended improvements in fire cover and professional management into the negotiating process, saying that if full efficiency gains are to be unlocked by the use of new models of fire cover, the Government must repeal section 19 of the 1947 Act.

That is the crux of tonight's debate. Bain's recommendation was not about the introduction of risk management to improve the overall service; it stemmed from the Government's demand from Government for resource-driven reform. That meant that Bain had to come up with some process by which those resources, through supposed modernisation savings, were identified rapidly. The Bain report had to deliver the removal of what the Secretary of State would describe as "encumbrances" to achieving cuts. It is appalling that that recommendation has been brought forward before all the other Bain recommendations. We were promised—and Bain recommended it—that a White Paper giving a new legislative base for the fire service would be published by Easter. Most of us have been

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arguing for that for a long time. The FBU was involved in discussions with Government on a draft White Paper. It was not published but Ministers commended the fire service for its exemplary modernising practices over the years.

8.30 pm

We now have one section of Bain being brought forward before a comprehensive analysis of what new fire safety legislation should look like. Why? Because Bain has to find £140 million of cuts in the pay bill. That is what this is all about. For opportunistic reasons, we are dragging a proper assessment of the reform of the fire service into the mud of a pay negotiation. If we are to have reform of the fire service, let us have a proper and appropriate process. Let us establish bodies to consider the professional practices that we want. Let us consider changes proposed in a White Paper or new legislation; but, Oh Government, do not come here and seek to bounce through the sorts of changes in this Bill. They will result in cuts in fire cover, in firefighters' posts and, indeed, in the numbers of fire stations.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman knows that my hon. Friends and I disagree with much of what he is saying, but there is one point of agreement. Is it not ironic that the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that he would be willing to use powers to impose a settlement from Whitehall, but that tonight he is trying to remove the Secretary of State's powers in other areas?

John McDonnell: It is ironic that, at the same time as the Minister was waxing lyrical about reform that would place devolved power in the hands of the local fire authorities, as I note he did in one of the meetings of the Committee, the Secretary of State was interfering in the dispute to prevent a settlement—which but for his intervention would have been arrived at last November.

David Hamilton: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in effect, we are talking about national negotiations and conditions? Local authorities have no choice but to consider the 15 per cent. that they are left with, which can only mean various cuts in, for example, fire boards.

John McDonnell: I fully agree with my hon. Friend. It is clear that the changes to the Fire Services Act 1947 that the Government have proposed will result in local fire authorities seeking to introduce practices in the fire services that will demand local negotiation. Thus it will be sought to break the power of a union that has represented its members well and has worked effectively with the Government, up until this dispute, to promote reform of the fire service that would deliver increased professionalism and effectiveness.

Our anxiety as MPs was to ensure that Government listened to the wishes of our local communities. We were told in Committee that guidance would be produced to ensure that local consultation would continue. That guidance was placed in the House of Commons Library three working days ago. I believe that most people only picked it up today. The guidance has no teeth. It says what it expects of fire authorities, but nothing more. There is no legal requirement for consultation. We are told that, if a local fire authority acts unreasonably, the

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local community can seek judicial review. Judicial review costs, on average, £15,000 just to get cases into court—and that is not to mention the possible subsequent costs. Judicial review is no remedy for the local working-class community that is about to lose its fire station and needs a voice or a protector against a fire authority, under the cosh because of Government cuts, that wishes to close services.

The Government should give us time to consider the guidance. They should pull back from their position and allow this amendment to go through. They should give us time to consult properly on the guidance, as they promised. We want national uniformity and consistency of standards. However—and we say this clearly to the Government—individual MPs in individual communities will not stand by and allow their local fire stations to be closed. They expect Government to work with them. They expect the Secretary of State to protect communities. I find it bizarre that the Secretary of State wants to give up his role in vetoing outrageous local policies for the fire services, but that central Government, as we heard last week when debating local government finance, are trying to retain their power to control the level of rates that local authorities can set.

Tonight we are asking Government to hear the message that local communities should retain a voice. We need to have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. We have such a right in education, when schools are threatened with closure; we have it in health when hospitals are threatened with closure; but we do not have it in the police or ambulance services. There were horrendous problems, especially in the ambulance service, in my constituency and London overall. We needed Government intervention to protect local communities, but they did not have the powers. The provision gives rise to the suspicion that it clears a path for the Government to implement a massive cuts package as a result of the wage negotiations. I will not be a party to that and will not allow them to introduce proposals that aid and abet something that is driving down the working conditions and the wages of firefighters.

Mr. Edward Davey: Liberal Democrats have many concerns about the way in which the Government have dealt with the fire dispute. We have often questioned them about their role—in particular how they will handle transitional funding. We have been concerned about the fact that Ministers have said different things and have sometimes not spoken with one voice. I agree with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and hope that the Minister responds to him. In particular, I am interested to learn who would fund military cover if local disagreements lead to local industrial action by the FBU.

We are concerned that the Government are, to an extent, prejudging the integrated risk management programmes by setting them in stone. If the analysis shows that more money is required to maintain or increase community safety in an area, they need to be clear that that money will be forthcoming. Equally, however, we are worried about the FBU's behaviour

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throughout the dispute. It did not accept the latest offer on the table although it was reasonable, and I hope that it will not go ahead with strikes, especially at this time.

I was concerned to read in the FBU's briefing note sent to Members of Parliament tonight that if we maintain clause 118

If that were true, I would have voted against it in Committee and would vote against it tonight, but we have to make our decisions on the basis of truth and what information is available to us. I have read guidance notes 1 and 2 and it is clear that there will be full and open consultation. Let me set out what form that will take because, although we have not discussed it so far, it is germane to the debate. The consultation is vital. If there were no consultation—no due process—to consider a change in the configuration of local fire services, that would be a huge problem. It would mean that those of us who want to campaign against the closure of a fire station or the removal of a fire appliance in our constituency would have no mechanism to represent our communities if they were concerned about such proposals; but from my reading of the guidance notes that is not the case.

Relevant sections of the guidance notes show that consultation is required. Guidance note 1 is sent to chief fire officers. Paragraph 2.4 states:

the integrated risk management plan. In the guidance note on consultation itself, the Government go into detail on how that should be undertaken and they set out who should be consulted and on what. The guidance covers the draft integrated risk management programme, the annual action plans and changes to them, examples of proposals for changes, who should be consulted on them and the best way to consult. I refer hon. Members to the note because it sets out exactly what consultation there must be. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) implied that the consultation could take place if the fire authorities choose to do that, but in fact there is a statutory requirement for them to do so. I looked up section 3 of the Local Government Act 1999—the best value authority legislation. It requires best value authorities—fire authorities are defined as a best value authority in section 1 of that Act—to undertake consultation. The guidance note refers to that. There is clear protection for our communities and for us as Members of Parliament in the requirement that consultation must take place.

Although I agreed with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, I thought that at times he quoted selectively from the guidance notes. Paragraph 3.6.2 of guidance note 2 provided me with some reassurance. The hon. Gentleman might suggest that I am naive to be reassured, but if we in this place cannot trust what is in a Government document, we had better give up, as we cannot have proper debate. Paragraph 3.6.2 makes it clear that in the event of any changes resulting in a reconfiguration of the fire service, there must be no reduction in community safety. It states:

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That is a clear safeguard. If it had not been in place, I would have been on my feet tonight asking where it was.

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