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New clause 13
Fire brigade establishment schemes:
removal of Secretary of State's functions
'The following provisions cease to have effect—
(a) section 19(3) to (8) of the Fire Services Act 1947 (c.41) (functions of Secretary of State in relation to fire brigade establishment schemes), and
(b) paragraph (a) of section 7(2) of the Fire Services Act 1959 (c.44) (approval by Secretary of State of establishment scheme for fire authority on its becoming, or becoming a successor to, a combined authority).'.—[Mr. Raynsford.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 188 to 192.
Mr. Raynsford: The amendments remove several powers given to the Secretary of State under the Fire Services Act 1947 relating to fire authority establishment schemes. The repeals are an essential element of the new framework for a modern fire service set out by the independent review chaired by Professor Sir George Bain. As the review identified, our primary objective must be to make the service more responsive to local needs and better placed to deliver community safety. Moving to a flexible, risk-based approach to fire cover offers a real prospect of reducing the incidence of fire, deaths and injuries from fire, as well as other threats to community safety. As with our wider local authority policies, we will focus on outputs and outcomes rather than inputs.
New clause 13 and amendment No. 188 remove the requirement in section 19(4) of the 1947 Act for fire authorities to seek the Secretary of State's approval before making any reduction, no matter how minor, in the number of firefighting posts or fire appliances, or before the closure or relocation of fire stations.
The Government do not believe that in a modern fire service the Secretary of State should take those decisions. We believe that democratically accountable fire authorities should take them, acting on the professional advice of chief fire officers, and after taking account of the views of the local community. That is entirely consistent with the Bill's broad approach to remove unnecessary requirements for consents and to devolve responsibility to local authorities within the national framework set out under the best value arrangements.
Members of the Committee will have seen a briefing paper from the Fire Brigades Union and my letter explaining why the Government are taking forward these repeals now. The briefing paper contends that the Government were under a duty to consult the Central Fire Brigades' Advisory Council about the repeals proposed in the amendments. Indeed, the FBU sought judicial review of our proposals. A High Court judge yesterday dismissed that contention as
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unarguable and expressed the view that these were legislative matters before Parliament in which it was not a function of the Court to intervene.
My letter to members of the Committee refers to the concern that removing the need for the Secretary of State's approval to changes in fire cover means that local communities will no longer be consulted. That is not the case. There is no duty on fire authorities to consult under current section 19 powers, but existing guidance makes clear the Secretary of State's expectation that fire authorities will consult local communities and stakeholders about significant changes in fire cover. I should make it absolutely clear that our expectations on consultation will continue unchanged.
The new approach to fire cover recommended by the Bain review is, of course, being considered. But again, any new approach would still necessitate local consultation, and any new guidance would make it clear that the current arrangements for consulting the public, fire service employees and the fire service inspectorate on the reallocation of resources should continue.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): What would happen if a fire authority failed to consult properly in the way set out in the guidance that the Government will produce?
Mr. Raynsford: The fire authority would be open to the very course of action that I have just described—judicial review—because it would be failing to act in the way that any reasonable fire authority should act. I hope that that would not happen. Certainly the fire service inspectorate would want to keep a good watch to ensure that proceedings followed in the way outlined.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the new clause is added to the Bill it will be wise to produce new guidance on consultation, bearing it in mind that some fire authorities will have viewed the fall-back process of a referral to the Secretary of State as effectively negating some part of their duty to take the consultation process seriously?
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. I can give him an absolute assurance that it is our intention to issue new guidance. We have reached an understanding with the FBU that there will be consultation with it and with the local authority employers through an ad hoc forum on a range of matters relating to the Bain proposals and other issues that are not being considered within the national joint council for determining pay and conditions. We intend to begin those consultations in the near future, and we will then make more widely available the proposed guidance that the fire inspectorate has prepared.
Mr. Davey: Just for the record, can the Minister confirm that the courts could take the guidance that the Government will issue into account in the judicial review of the case of a fire authority that allegedly not consulting properly?
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Mr. Raynsford: I am not a lawyer, so I enter the caveat that what I say would be subject to any legal view, but it is certainly my understanding that guidance issued by Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate would be permissible evidence and could well be used in evidence in such proceedings. Under the best value provisions of the Local Government Act 1999, fire authorities have a general duty to secure continuous improvement in the way in which their functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. For the purposes of deciding how to fulfil that duty, a best value authority must consult, among others, representatives of persons who use, or are likely to use, its services. In addition to any guidance, there will be the clear presumption, which is embedded in the best value regime, that people who are likely to use the service must be consulted. Obviously, that means the local population that depends on the service.
New clause 13 and amendment No. 188 will remove the requirement for fire authorities to provide an annual return on their establishment schemes contained in section 19(3) of the 1947 Act, together with the Secretary of State's powers to make an establishment scheme under section 19(5) and to hold public local inquiries into the exercise of his functions under section 19(8). Fire authorities provide information on their establishments by a number of other means, and that provision is now unnecessary. The Secretary of State's powers to make an establishment scheme represent a degree of central control that no longer rests comfortably with a modern and flexible fire service that responds to locally identified needs and is accountable to the community that it serves.