Local Government Bill

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Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): My right hon. Friend has referred to the letter that we had from the FBU, and he has, in his remarks and in the letter that he sent us, answered some of its criticisms. However, the main criticism that he has not yet addressed is that the present scheme ensures national uniformity and consistency, but repealing section 19 will abolish that uniformity and consistency. Will my right hon. Friend comment on whether we are losing any Government quality control by repealing that section?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a very important and fair point. We certainly do not intend in any way to reduce the level of cover and the confidence that the public can have in the effectiveness of the fire service. However, he will understand that a modern assessment of need must take account of the threat to life and today's location of people at risk.

The problem with the old national standards is that they relate predominantly to property types. For example, if a fire occurs in an empty office block in a town centre in the middle of the night, it is necessary under the existing national standards for two fire appliances to reach the site within five minutes, and a third within eight minutes. However, if a fire occurs at the same time in a house in a suburban area that is occupied by a family whose lives are at risk, the current standard requires only one appliance to attend within eight to 10 minutes.

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An approach based on property classifications is not the right way forward. There should be a more sensitive assessment relating to the threat to life and the needs of individual people and communities. That can best be developed within each area by those able to make those assessments and within an overall framework set by the national inspectorate. That approach was recommended by the Bain report and is the right way forward.

Mr. Davey: It is important that the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) is clarified. As I understand it, the task group on the fire cover review, whose draft conclusions are on the website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, will set the national guidelines for the minimum standards for fire cover. Local fire authorities, in deciding on their own risk management schemes, will have to adhere to those national minimum standards agreed in consultation and with the inspectorate.

Mr. Raynsford: The intention is to issue guidance, prepared by Her Majesty's chief inspector of the fire service, to inform individual fire authorities how they should draw up integrated risk management plans along the lines that I described in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower. The guidance provided by the chief inspector will form the national framework, which will then inform the preparation of local plans to address local issues.

In the modern context, that is the correct and proper way to achieve a broad national approach setting out the objectives that need to be met, as well as a local analysis based on a local understanding of today's circumstances and risks. I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will accept that that is consistent with our general approach to delivery of services. It is not right for central Government to try to cross every t and dot every i; it is right to set out broad objectives and standards, and to allow each democratically accountable local delivery body to be responsible for putting them into effect in their own area. That is our approach.

Mr. Todd: It is worth drawing the Minister further on what would happen if a fire authority were shown by the inspectorate not to be performing its duties. The clause addresses a narrow issue of performance, and one can argue legitimately, as the Minister appears to be doing, that it is not a true measure of how well the fire service is delivering. It would reassure the Committee if the Minister set out how the Government intervene in a case of poor performance that is reported by the inspectorate, which he referred to in his letter.

Mr. Raynsford: There are several options. The inspectorate already performs an important function in regularly examining the performance of individual fire brigades and authorities, and that will continue to happen. However, the best value framework, to which I already referred, specifically provides for intervention powers to be available to the Secretary of State when they are necessary because of a failure.

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The Government will not use those powers lightly. We would be accused of being heavy handed by the Conservatives if we did. However, as in the case of other local authorities, we will use the powers on the basis of evidence and advice provided by the Audit Commission for local authorities and by the fire inspectorate for fire authorities when it is clear that they are necessary to ensure that the service is delivered properly and effectively. I hope that that is the safeguard that my hon. Friend was seeking.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): The Minister gave a long reply to the intervention by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, but it was not entirely clear. Is he saying that the guidance will contain no prescriptive standards for response times or cover levels but that it will deal with the procedure by which integrated risk management plans are to be developed?

Mr. Raynsford: We have undertaken to consult the FBU and the local authority employers on the draft guidance, and I do not want to go further into that at this stage. I hope that the guidance will have been made public by the Report stage, and I will want to ensure that it is available so that we can have a full debate on the issue. I should make it clear that the aim is not to have prescriptive, rigid guidance, such as that on the standards of fire cover for property to which I referred earlier, but to have guidance that is designed to encourage individual fire authorities to develop their own arrangements around the framework that it provides. It is important that the fire service should be able to respond to locally identified needs, and it will be monitored by Her Majesty's fire inspectorate.

I was talking about the various repeals. The Secretary of State's powers to hold a local public inquiry for the purposes of his function under section 19 are made redundant by the other changes in the amendment, but he will still retain the power to hold a public local inquiry into the manner in which any fire authority is performing its functions by virtue of section 33(1) of the 1947 Act. There will remain a power analogous to the intervention power for those circumstances but not in the limited frame of section 19 related to the level of establishment.

New clause 13 also repeals part of section 7 of the Fire Services Act 1959. This provision applies section 19 to fire authorities constituted by a combination scheme. The amendment would repeal the requirement to obtain the Secretary of State's approval for the making of establishment schemes by combined fire authorities. Amendments Nos. 189 to 192, which amend clauses 122 and 123, provide for the repeals to take effect on Royal Assent. I commend the new clause to the Committee.

3 pm

Mr. Hammond: The Minister has outlined the Government's agenda in seeking to repeal most of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. On this side of the Committee we have no wish to obstruct any genuine modernisation of the fire service. The Minister painted the removal of section 19 in terms of the general thrust of the Bill. As all members of the Committee will know, there is some disagreement

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about whether the Bill's overall effect is to introduce freedom and flexibility to local authorities or whether it is about taking power to central Government.

Wherever one stands in that debate, it is slightly disingenuous of the Minister to introduce new clause 13 as a provision that accords with the Bill's general principles. If it did, I presume it would have been included from the outset. New clause 13 is clearly a response to events over the past six or seven months, and specifically to the Bain report's recommendations, which the Minister mentioned. The intention as I understand it is that local fire authorities aided and guided by their chief fire officers will produce risk-based assessments, which will be the basis for a redeployment of assets in the way that provides the optimum response to the identified risk.

That sounds like a sensible approach. I shall return to the concerns around possible interpretations of that redeployment of resources. On the face of it, new clause 13 removes the Secretary of State's role and delegates to local level decisions about the deployment of fire and emergency cover resources. The guidance the Minister spoke about will direct and inform the preparation of these integrated risk-management plans.

The most obvious area where this is needed is a refocusing of attention on lives to be saved rather than property at risk. It is not merely, as the Minister said in his example, that the large commercial properties likely to receive a significant first response compared with domestic properties at night will be unoccupied; it is also the fact that most of them, at least most modern ones, will be well protected by their own fire systems. They usually have on-site security, and good fire alarm and firefighting systems. The world has moved on since 1947, thank goodness. We need to take account of that and try to ensure that our fire service is organised in a way that can maximise the saving of lives at risk. Modernisation of the New Zealand fire service clearly showed that a risk-based reorganisation of a fire service can substantially increase the number of lives saved.

That is the good news, but I have one or two concerns. First, will the Minister say something about the proposed time scale for the preparation by all fire authorities of the integrated risk management plans? I understand that local authorities and chief fire officers have already been asked to start work on a risk management-focused approach. I also understand that there will be an opportunity for public consultation before those plans are adopted. I am concerned about the opportunity for public scrutiny of those draft plans.

I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the school summer holiday is not, in most people's eyes, a proper and reasonable period for public consultation or scrutiny. I realise that there is some urgency, but I ask the Minister to ensure that the public consultation is held outside the summer holiday season. Let us call it the general election closed season for the reason that people cannot participate in that consultation if they are not around.

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My second point is blindingly obvious, but I shall make it none the less. Delegating the power to make politically sensitive decisions locally about fire stations, manning levels, levels of cover and response times is in accordance with the overall scheme that the Government say that they are trying to promote. We see much merit in it, but we also have to recognise that hard decisions are sometimes difficult to make locally. As the hon. Member for Gower said, the Secretary of State's involvement may in many cases have been a fig leaf, behind which local politically elected authorities could avoid more difficult and contentious decisions by passing them up to the Secretary of State.

The Minister will know that the Fire Brigades Union has already mounted an effective campaign at local level. Firefighters are in the almost unique position of having the sympathy of the communities that they serve. People are predisposed to be sympathetic to their arguments, and they will be in a strong position to exert considerable local influence on the process. That is one of the potential hazards, as well as one of the benefits, of a functioning and flourishing local democracy. On balance, a flourishing local democracy is better than the alternative. I should say to the Minister, however, that I fear that the Government are mistaken if they imagine that they will speed up the process of taking tough decisions by delegating those powers and removing the Secretary of State from the equation. It may be democratic and a good thing, but I suspect that it may cause more delay. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's assessment.

 
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Prepared 13 February 2003