Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Clergy Recruitment

23. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the implications of the Human Rights Act 1998 for the recruitment of clergy in the Church of England. [122055]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): It would fall to the Archbishops Council to make such an assessment. I understand that it has not yet done so.

Mr. Rendel : Will the hon. Gentleman report back to the Church Commissioners that a great deal of concerted opinion has been expressed in the House during Question Time that the appointment of the Bishop of Reading was good and should certainly be allowed to proceed? Will he report that any indication that the Church of England discriminates on the ground of sexual orientation when appointing bishops would be against the best interests of the Church itself?

Mr. Bell: The proceedings of our House on Church business are widely read in and outside the Church, and I am sure that the Commissioners and the wider Church will note the hon. Gentleman's views with great care. As I indicated earlier, all steps that have been taken on the appointment of a suffragan bishop in this case are within the laws of the land, and I have no doubt that a consecration will go ahead.


The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Local Government Boundaries

24. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What the estimated cost is of the forthcoming review of local government boundaries in the north-west. [122056]

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The reviews will be undertaken by the boundary committee for England, which is a statutory committee of the commission. The committee has not estimated the cost of carrying out a review in the north-west alone. However, for budgetary purposes, it was estimated that costs of around £6.2 million would be incurred by conducting local government reviews of three regions.

Mr. Prentice: I think that £6.2 million is an underestimate of the true costs and that we need local government reorganisation like we need a hole in the head. Will the electoral committee examine the opportunity costs of the reorganisation of England into three regional assembly areas, bearing in mind that councillors and senior officers will be poring over local government maps—not concentrating on service delivery but examining the reconfiguration of local government maps? That is a complete waste of time.

Mr. Viggers: The legislative framework for the matter is quite sophisticated. The boundary committee received

30 Jun 2003 : Column 19

a direction from the Deputy Prime Minister and will report to him. Therefore, policy on the issue is not a matter for the Speaker's Committee or the Electoral Commission, and questions should be addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister.


The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


25. Hugh Bayley (City of York): How many libraries are funded by the Church Commissioners in (a) the south and (b) the north of England. [122057]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): The Commissioners fund small collections in the house of every diocesan bishop, but the great majority of their financial responsibility is represented by Lambeth palace library, a major collection of national significance.

Hugh Bayley: Does my hon. Friend agree that the other major church collection of national significance is the York Minster library? Is he aware that the First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, is currently examining how best to conserve the documentary heritage of the Church's national institutions, including Lambeth palace library? Will my hon. Friend meet Mr. Whittam Smith to discuss a proposal that I put to him that it might be wise if the terms of reference for the study of Lambeth palace library were broadened to include York Minster library?

Mr. Bell: My hon. Friend will know that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1866 gave our predecessors the power to maintain Lambeth palace library. Following the Church Commissioners Measure 1947, the library and the power to maintain it were vested in the Church Commissioners. My hon. Friend is also aware—I have read his comments in the York Evening Press—that York Minster library is the property of the dean and chapter. I am aware that he has been in touch with the First Church Estates Commissioner about the reference of the review that we are holding on documentary heritage. I shall be glad to take up my hon. Friend's suggestion and speak to the First Church Estates Commissioner about the matter.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): While considering Church funding of libraries, are the Commissioners fully seized of the importance of the internet to increase accessibility

30 Jun 2003 : Column 20

to Church matters, especially for young people? Will they consider promoting the use of the internet through their library service?

Mr. Bell: The Church has an extensive internet system of its own that is quite widely used. We would, of course, welcome greater use of it. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is not in the Chamber. I am also going to Lichfield this weekend, where I will visit the library as well as the festival. I may see the Secretary of State en route.


The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electoral Systems

26. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What discussions the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission about the level of comprehension among voters of the electoral systems of the (a) devolved Administrations and (b) proposed English regional assemblies. [122058]

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission commented briefly on public comprehension of the voting system for the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament in research reports published in December 2002. The issue is also addressed in the ICM research report on the May 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, published by the commission earlier this month. The electoral system to be used for any regional assemblies has still to be decided.

Kevin Brennan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. In the reports, did the Electoral Commission give credence to the opinion put about by supporters of first past the post that the general public are too thick to understand the electoral system used for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament? Surely the fact that they are bright enough to understand it and use it well, and that it produces a fair result, is a good recommendation that it should be used for English regional assemblies.

Mr. Viggers: The commission's reports "Scotland Votes?" and "Wales Votes?", published last year, considered public attitudes to voting systems at the 1999 elections. They indicated that understanding the voting system was a factor affecting the decision on whether to vote in a small percentage in cases. The commission's statutory reports on the 2003 elections in Scotland and Wales will again make use of public opinion research to measure voter comprehension of electoral systems.

30 Jun 2003 : Column 21

Fire White Paper

3.31 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the fire and rescue service.

Today I am publishing our White Paper "Our Fire and Rescue Service". It sets out our plans to modernise and reform the fire and rescue service in England and Wales. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

The fire and rescue service is a vital public service. It is part of the fabric of our communities. The service it provides is essential in preventing fires and in responding quickly and effectively to fire emergencies. It also has a much wider role, which involves rescuing people from accidents, responding to environmental disasters, such as flooding, and being ready to respond to the threat of terrorist incidents, which unfortunately is an increasingly important role.

The Government are committed to modernisation and reform of all our public services. We want to build on what is good in the fire service and tackle those areas where there are shortcomings, many of which have been exposed in the course of the dispute over the past 12 months. I hope that with the publication of today's White Paper we can all look ahead to a better future for the fire and rescue service and draw a line under what has happened over the past year.

It was in response to the dispute that last September we asked Professor Sir George Bain to carry out an independent review into the fire service and to make recommendations on how the service might be modernised and improved. Sir George's review built on previous reports into the fire service and drew on the evidence from a wide range of interested parties. Sir George reported last December. I am grateful for his work and the work of Sir Michael Lyons, the past chief executive of Birmingham city council, and Sir Anthony Young, past president of the TUC, who assisted him in that review. Today's White Paper is the Government's response to Sir George Bain's report.

The White Paper sets out our proposals for the fire and rescue service of the future. The service will be more proactive in preventing fires; it will have more effective institutions better to support its role and purpose; it will be more effectively led and managed and will be better able to adapt to change and to respond safely, quickly and efficiently. Above all, the reformed fire and rescue service will save more lives and reduce injuries.

The House will be well aware that the fire service of today has many strengths, not least of which are the firefighters and other support staff who work in the service. They are committed to the service and, I believe, share our wish to see it improved, but, to do that, change is essential. I do not believe that the service can continue to be run in the same way as it has been since the national pay dispute 25 years ago. The White Paper therefore proposes a sensible package of changes that will make the service more effective, efficient and safer, and the jobs of those people who work in the service more rewarding.

The White Paper has six themes. First, it explains the new emphasis of the service on the prevention of fires and other emergencies as well as on firefighting. Much

30 Jun 2003 : Column 22

can be done by sensible fire precautions and other measures to reduce the number of fires that start and reduce the risk to our firefighters. For instance, we will continue to review the building regulations, rationalise existing legislation and increase our investment in community fire safety, arson reduction measures and measures to combat terrorism. We will also make changes so that fire authorities will ensure a better allocation of resources on the basis of risk.

The risk-based approach means that more emergency cover will be available at times of highest risk. At present, cover is based on the number and type of buildings in an area, rather than on the risks faced by the people in them. In future, authorities will plan to provide cover for all the risks facing our communities, not just those from fire. In recognition of that wider role we will rename the fire service as the fire and rescue service.

Secondly, the White Paper sets out our proposals for a more coherent regional approach to fire and rescue. Professor Bain, in his report, recognised the strength of argument in favour of regional organisation of the fire service. Current arrangements for managing the fire service are confused and inefficient. There are too many small fire authorities that cannot generate economies of scale and do not have the resources to tackle some of the major threats, particularly those from terrorism, facing us today. For example, the cost of control rooms responding to a single fire incident ranges from £168 in the smallest authority to £18 in the largest. That is an ineffective use of resources. We therefore expect local fire authorities to set in hand arrangements at regional level so they are more efficient, more effective and better able to respond flexibly to threats and emergencies.

In due course, where directly elected regional assemblies are established, we envisage there being regional fire and rescue authorities that are democratically accountable to those assemblies. The fire and rescue service is, however, delivered locally. Better regional co-ordination and management of the service must not detract from the local focus of the service on working with communities on fire prevention and other community safety measures. We will work closely with local authorities, the Local Government Association and others to ensure that that happens. In accordance with Bain's recommendations, and with the support of the Welsh Assembly, we will devolve responsibility for fire issues to Wales.

Thirdly, the White Paper sets out the institutional changes that we will make to improve the management of the service. Current fire service institutions date back to the period immediately after the second world war. Reform is long overdue. In line with the Bain recommendations we will seek external, impartial advice to assist us in giving national strategic direction to the service. We will set up a service improvement team in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to drive through the modernisation process. We will also set up two forums to inform policy development. One will seek the practical input of those working in the service, and the other will get the wider views of stakeholders representing business and the communities.

I also intend to ask the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Associations, to play a greater role in

30 Jun 2003 : Column 23

developing policy. Like their counterparts in the police service, chief fire officers are critical to the effective management of the service. We want to see stronger leadership, better co-operation and more effective management of the fire and rescue service. We will create a new centre of excellence based on the Fire Service College, and we will reform the fire services inspectorate.

Fourthly, the White Paper sets out our plans for improved scrutiny and inspection. In line with Bain's advice we are working with the Audit Commission to develop its role in inspecting and reporting on the work of the service. Fifthly, the White Paper sets out changes to reform the machinery for negotiating pay and conditions. The shortcomings of the current arrangements have been clearly exposed during the fire dispute. At present, the employers side has to represent 58 separate fire brigade employers. That is simply too unwieldy to work effectively, so we will set up three smaller bodies to negotiate pay and conditions for chief fire officers, middle managers, and firefighters and control room staff.

Finally, the White Paper sets out our proposals for modernising the personnel management arrangements of the service. Firefighting is a popular occupation; on average, there are 40 applicants for every job. However, there are real problems. At present, there are no systems whereby the best performers can progress quickly; the service does not fully represent the communities that it serves; and there are real problems recruiting retained or part-time firefighters. Retained firefighters crew more than half of the appliances in this country, so it is vital to the future of the fire and rescue service to attract new retained firefighters.

To tackle those issues the White Paper sets out how we intend to work with employers and employees to introduce the new integrated personnel development system to build best practice into the service. We will introduce multi-level entry in the fire and rescue service and accelerated development schemes. We will introduce measures to promote diversity and to end any bullying or harassment. We will reform and modernise the pensions system, and we will modernise the disputes and disciplinary arrangements to bring them into line with ACAS best practice.

The White Paper sets out a practical programme of change for the fire and rescue service. It is a programme of change that I believe should be welcomed by all. The White Paper will benefit the public and business, who rely on the service to protect them from danger and rescue them from incidents; it will benefit authorities and managers through a safer, more efficient and effective service; and it will benefit all those who work in the service by providing greater career opportunities and more work satisfaction. I believe that when they look at the detail of this White Paper, the great majority of firefighters will see the good sense in the proposals. We will send a summary of the White Paper to every firefighter in the country. I hope that they and their families will take the time to read it.

The White Paper allows us to look ahead to the future and leave behind the difficulties of the past year. It sets out the future for a modern fire and rescue service—a service focused on fire prevention; a service that works

30 Jun 2003 : Column 24

with and for the community; a service that is fair to all the staff who work in it. The White Paper is good news for the fire and rescue service. It provides for a modern, efficient and safe service for the 21st century and will be good for Britain. I commend the White Paper to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page