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Mr. Hammond: The Minister must be honest about this. "Disposal" in this context includes the transfer by sale of land, and it has to. He, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions have all said that the pay settlement on offer will have to be paid for by savings through modernisation. That means reducing the number of fire appliances, fire stations and firefighters. What else could yield the savings to pay for an above-inflation pay settlement?

Mr. Leslie: There are all sorts of ways, highlighted in the Bain inquiry, of making savings in the fire service that involve neither selling off or reducing the facilities available for the protection of public safety nor creating redundancies. There are ways of making savings through good prudent management, as in any organisation. I believe that that is at the heart of the offer made by the employers and of the agreement that they seek to achieve in ensuring a rational distribution of resources based on risk. Where there are particular

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problems, they will be tackled, rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach to the allocation of assets and personnel.

Mr. Llwyd: I am sorry to keep pressing the Minister on this, and I do not want to be awkward. Clause 1(2)(b) makes provision for

That is all well and good, and understood. Clause 1(2)(c) refers to payments being made accordingly. Those eventualities are covered in those two subsections. I return, however, to clause 1(2)(a) and ask the Minister whether he would please define in simple terms what is meant by the term "disposal", if it is different from the definition that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) just gave.

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Mr. Leslie: I shall give the hon. Gentleman an example. Some fire authorities, particularly the more enlightened, have recognised that they can create efficiency by perhaps sharing a control room facility, whereby two authorities come together to establish a joint control room. While two existed previously, an office may have been disposed of to allow the creation of a single joint control room, which may be more capable and have better technology to deal with calls more rapidly. That will have involved, at some level, the disposal of an asset, but not necessarily to the disadvantage of residents in either fire authority area.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's point directly, of course "disposal" can mean either the sale of an asset or the transfer of an asset from one fire authority to another, but it does not necessarily mean in any way degrading the protection of public safety.

Mr. Llwyd: I am not alleging that for one moment, but the Minister has just confirmed the awful scenario to which I referred: the village station closing down and the town station looking after its own interest. The best example that the Government have given so far has confirmed my worst fears.

Mr. Leslie: I am loth to use the phrase, "Read my lips", but I repeat that we would use directions only to protect or enhance public safety. We do not intend to use directions for asset stripping, some sort of privatisation or a mass fire station closure programme. We want to ensure that the proper modernisation of the fire service—protecting public safety even more than it is already protected—can continue and can be implemented.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman said about rural fire stations and retained firefighters—it was a perfectly legitimate point for him or any Member with concerns about their constituency to raise. In many ways, the modernisation of the fire service involves enhancing protection, perhaps more for residential areas, because increasingly we are recognising the fact that the priority of saving lives has to come first.

People in many residential areas perhaps feel that they are too distant from fixed appliances or provision and that they could have an enhanced facility. Those discussions need to go on in fire authorities as they

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consider their risk management plans and implement them to improve public safety by focusing resources and reducing those risks that are perhaps too high at present.

The Bill's explanatory notes set out the circumstances in which the powers may be used—for example

We are all encouraged by the fact that there has not been a strike since early February, but we must be prepared for all eventualities.

Should a strike occur, it is vital that those providing emergency cover have an automatic right of access to fire authority assets, including, for example, fire stations, appliances and aerial platforms should they be needed. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge raised that point when he referred to the remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister. Those are assets that the public have paid for so that lives and property can be protected. They may be needed strategically in the event of a strike.

Matthew Green: Some authorities are considerably further down the modernisation route than others. Indeed, when a member of the Bain inquiry came to Shropshire, he said that the county has the most modernised fire brigade. That means that less saving is available to the authority to pay for the wage settlements through modernisation. The Government said that they would take that into account when they divide up the additional money, but since they are recovering that money at a later stage—it is, in effect, a tide-over loan—my concern is that these rules may be used to fund the pay settlement in Shropshire, which is already modernised, through the sale of assets.

Mr. Leslie: All fire authorities have scope to improve and modernise. The hon. Gentleman says that his fire authority has modernised in a number of areas, but perhaps it could still engage in joint control room activity and so forth. There are a number of ways for all authorities to contribute.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge specifically asked whether the orders could be used to implement integrated risk management plans. Given that integrated risk management is part of the agreement on offer from the employers and which the FBU executive is recommending to its members, it is true that should that agreement not come to fruition and not be implemented, it would be possible to use orders to make such improvements and to implement a risk management approach.

The hon. Gentleman's specific point was about whether there would be consultation on the use of such orders. Indeed, the provisions on facilities and property allow for consultation on their use—appropriate consultation with those directly affected and those representing people who would be affected. In many ways, that is the right approach to take.

Mr. Hammond: I drew the distinction between the use of those powers to implement an already agreed and approved integrated risk management plan in respect of

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which the consultation exercise would have been undertaken, and the use of powers to enforce modernisation—where for one reason or another, a satisfactory integrated risk management plan may not have been adopted. In that case, can the Minister confirm that the consultation procedure under subsection (4) mirrors that required by the circular on integrated risk management plans? In other words, will the situation be the same as that when an IRMP is developed properly?

Mr. Leslie: The Bill will allow the Secretary of State to undertake a consultation exercise as he thinks fit because different circumstances can require different consultations. Should there be short notice of strike action, it would be inappropriate to engage in a protracted paper-based consultation. In the circumstances envisaged by the hon. Gentleman—an IRMP approach needs to be pursued locally, but there is obstruction for one reason or another—the Secretary of State would have greater scope to engage in more in-depth consultation. In the normal course of events, I envisage a consultation such as that which is normally undertaken when an IRMP is drawn up to be considered by the Secretary of State.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 would require a certain form of consultation and a report to Parliament. In some circumstances, they could mean that the Secretary of State would be unable to take prompt or immediate action to secure access to the required fire authority assets to give those providing the emergency cover the tools that they would need in the event of a strike. The amendments are unnecessary because the Bill already requires the Secretary of State to consult representatives of those likely to be affected by his proposals. There is ample provision to ensure that there will be appropriate consultation before an order is made. As I have said on property and facilities, there must be consultation with those directly affected and those who represent such people. Orders on conditions of service have to go before the negotiating body for at least 21 days for its comment, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said earlier.

We must follow the principle that the consultation is appropriate, reasonable and proportionate to the circumstances. Let us not forget that the Secretary of State is required to act reasonably at all times. That responsibility is firmly accepted, but we must be prepared for and anticipate circumstances in which we may need to act swiftly if there is, in particular, an imminent threat to public safety.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington that, as I have said, it is highly probable that in the normal course of events the Secretary of State would wish to consult local Members of Parliament and local authorities—and, indeed, the local community. I do not think that members of that community should be excluded from a prescriptive list. Including specific lists of consultees may risk the omission of others with a genuine interest.

The Committee should resist the proposal for a report of consultations in Parliament to be laid before the making of an order. That could constitute an administrative obstacle that might inhibit swift action to protect public safety. If swift access to fire authority assets is needed owing to a risk to public safety, the

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preparation of a parliamentary report on a consultation exercise will not be a desirable prerequisite. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says about the need for a wider examination of accountability processes for the fire services in general. I noted his suggestion of a conglomerated report, perhaps on an annual basis.

These powers are necessary. We need to hold them in reserve, although, as I have said, I hope that they will not be required. We must make contingency arrangements to protect and enhance public safety.

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