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10 Mar 2003 : Column 105—continued

Mr. Hammond: I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman means by selective quoting—I quoted exactly the piece that he has just read out to the House.

Mr. Davey: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman then chose one or two other excerpts, which did not make his point fully. He should have quoted the full paragraph from which they were taken. He asked, rightly, how national standards would be measured in future. The guidance note refers to national performance measures. That reflects the 1999 Act, which allows the Minister to put forward performance measures—output measures, in the jargon—that fire authorities would have to meet. If they did not, they would be failing in their legal responsibilities. That clearly underpins the framework.

Dr. Palmer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman's Whip has just told me that I must shut up in a second, so I shall bring my remarks to an end.

I have some questions to the Minister, to which I should like answers to reassure me that the framework that he is setting in place is sufficient. The guidance notes are fairly clear about what will happen in the first round of integrated risk management plans. However, clause 118 will get rid of the safeguard for all time, or until another Parliament seeks to restore it, so what about future integrated risk management plans? What is the process for future consultation on those? What consultation on national performance measures is envisaged by the Minister? The guidance note refers to a future guidance note, but we do not have that in front of us, and those national performance measures will be important.

The guidance notes say little about the post-consultation period and what will happen with respect to decisions taken by the local fire authority, how it will held to account, and how those decisions will be published. If there is to be local accountability, as we agreed with the Minister that there should be, he needs to say more about the post-consultation period than the one paragraph in the current guidance notes. Can he confirm, as I asked him in Committee, that if a consultation process does not follow the guidance notes and the 1999 Act, the FBU and local communities could seek judicial review of that decision? That is an important safeguard. I know that judicial review costs a lot of money, but the FBU is more than capable of funding such a review. If its members were prepared to forgo a few dinners, they could afford it without difficulty.

David Hamilton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: No, I will not give way. I am trying to bring my remarks to a close. I was concerned that the guidance did not include more requirements for greater collaboration—

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8.45 pm

Ms Walley : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many people wanted to speak in this debate, and we are fast approaching the time when wind-ups will take place. Will you look again at our arrangements so that, when we have pure discussions of this kind, Members who wish to get involved have opportunities to contribute?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Lady will understand that that is determined by the Programming Committee, and that the general question of allocation of time must be tackled through the usual channels.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Lady will know that I am taking less than half the time that was taken by the Conservative Front Bench.

My final question to the Minister on the guidance notes is in relation to collaboration between local fire authorities and, for example, bodies that are involved in providing transport or bodies that are involved in community safety partnerships. A lot of the improvement in the fire service, in terms of community safety and prevention, will come through such collaboration. The guidance notes are very weak on that aspect, and they must be tightened up when they are finalised.

In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats support the inclusion of clause 118 in the Bill, which gives a greater decentralist flavour to the way in which we will run local fire services in future. I hope that the Minister will give proper answers, both to my questions and to those of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), so that we can be assured that proper consultation measures will be in place.

Mr. Raynsford: I shall do my best to answer the many questions that have been raised. If time gets the better of me, and I cannot deal with everything tonight, I shall write to all hon. Members who raised questions.

Ms Walley: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I have just begun. I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, but I should make a little progress.

We have had a useful debate, as we did in Committee, about this important element in the overall package of reform for the fire service recommended by the independent review. Before I deal with the details of the repeal of part of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, I would like to put that in the context of the current dispute. Following discussions at ACAS, the local authority employers tabled last Thursday an offer that holds out the prospect of a 16 per cent. increase in average pay by July 2004 in exchange for modernisation of working practices. That is, by any measure, a generous offer, and goes to the very limit of what local authorities can afford. Indeed, it offers substantially more to firefighters than the 7.8 per cent. deal over two years accepted by other local authority employees last year.

I sincerely hope that, despite the views being expressed by the Fire Brigades Union executive, the union's membership will recognise that this is a good

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deal. They have nothing to gain by refusing the offer. Indeed, refusal would risk another unproductive period of conflict from which no one can gain, and which would inevitably impact adversely on the public. At this particularly sensitive time, I cannot believe that any reasonable person could want such an outcome.

Some of those who oppose a settlement have suggested that the necessary reforms to existing working practices, which make possible a pay increase significantly ahead of what would otherwise be available, involve unacceptable changes—

John McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the Government wish to make a statement on the Fire Brigades Union dispute on the pay issue, may I suggest that they bring forward a statement at the appropriate time, rather than abusing the process of this Bill procedure?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. As far as I can rule on this matter, the debate appears to be in order. I am sure that the Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Mr. Raynsford: Indeed, I did, and I also heard the comments of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who specifically asked me to respond on this issue. I am only surprised that my hon. Friend does not want to hear these important points.

It is simply not the case that the reforms of working practices would involve unacceptable changes to firefighters' terms and conditions. The proposed changes allow a more flexible approach that will enable fire authorities to respond more effectively to today's risks and challenges. That will not mean tearing up all the terms and conditions enjoyed by most firefighters. Firefighters would continue to work, as they do now, an average 42-hour week. The majority could continue on the same shift system that applies now. Some would have the option of changing working patterns: for example, to work days only, as some wish to do. Some would be able to work overtime if they wanted. Nor will local fire chiefs be free to impose draconian changes on firefighters without regard to national considerations, as some who are hostile to a settlement suggest.

As I will make clear in a moment, we will issue guidance on how local fire authorities can best approach the development of integrated risk management plans. Her Majesty's fire services inspectorate will take a close interest, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will work closely with the Local Government Association to ensure fair implementation of the new arrangements.

Those are commonsense reforms in line with what is happening in almost every other sector of our economy, and they would ensure a better service to the public, as well as enabling firefighters to receive a substantial pay increase. I hope that the deal will be accepted and that the FBU will engage constructively in the reform and modernisation process, as it is both necessary and inevitable.

I turn now to specific subject of the debate. The purpose of clause 118 is to remove the requirement in section 19(4) of the Fire Services Act 1947 for fire

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authorities to seek the Secretary of State's approval before making any reduction, no matter how minor, in the number of firefighting posts, or before closing fire stations or withdrawing fire appliances.

David Hamilton: The Minister refers to the 7.5 per cent. offer that has been made, but does he agree that 16 per cent is far short of the 22 per cent. increase that was given to teachers in Scotland, along with a modernisation deal?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend will know that Scottish matters are devolved—I cannot speak for Scotland and do not intend to—but by contrast with the offer made to local authority employees in England, the offer made by the employers to the FBU last week is generous.

The proposed repeal is a key element in the replacement of the existing, outdated and over-centralised framework for fire cover. That framework is out of keeping with the aim of a modern fire service, where resources are flexibly deployed to meet locally identified risks to life and property. Repealing section 19 and the early introduction of a new risk-based approach to fire cover, recommended by Bain, offer a real prospect of reducing the incidence of fire, and deaths and injuries from fire.

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