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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No.127) on Special Grants for Reducing Fire Deaths in Those Areas in England Suffering the Highest Fatality Rate

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First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 21 October 2003

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Local Government Finance (England)
(SGR no. 127)
on Special Grants for Reducing Fire
Deaths in those areas in England
suffering the highest fatality rate

10.21 am

The Chairman: Sincere apologies, everyone; I had the wrong time in my diary.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 127) on Special Grants for reducing fire deaths in those areas in England suffering the highest fatality rate.

I am delighted that we can now proceed with the business of the Committee.

As the House is aware, the recently published White Paper entitled ''Our Fire and Rescue Service'' reiterated the Government's commitment to fire prevention. At its heart is a pledge to build a fire service with a culture of preventing rather than fighting fires. I seek approval today for special grants that will support fire and rescue services in developing community fire safety work—that is, a programme of fire safety education, outreach and intervention aimed at preventing deaths and injuries in the home and reducing the impact of fire on the community.

Of course, community fire safety is only part of the Government's approach to fire prevention. It also covers integrated risk management planning, which includes fire prevention as part of managing the fire risks identified by a fire authority; building regulations, which ensure that fire safety is designed into new or materially altered homes, offices and other buildings; and fire safety legislation, which sets out employers' and others' responsibilities for providing and maintaining a safe environment.

Our top priority in fire prevention is to reduce fire deaths in the home. I am glad to say that the trend is downwards—down 14 per cent. last year compared with the five years to 1999. However, more than 300 people a year still die in house fires and, tragically, most of those fires are preventable.

We are determined to engage the fire service, local authorities and other stakeholders in a united effort to tackle the devastating impact that fire can have on families and communities. That is why we announced a new fire death target in the White Paper. We recognised that, with the best will in the world, the previous target was not attainable. To motivate a strong and successful partnership, we must have a target for everyone that is stretching, but also realistic and achievable, and we now have that.

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Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): The Minister is aware that local authorities, including fire authorities, are inundated with reports, targets and so on. Is this an additional target and will there be a compensatory reduction in targets in other areas?

Phil Hope: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not a new target, but a revised target intended to drive forward our policy of reducing accidental fire deaths.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): As the Minister has just said that this is a revised target, could he say what the previous one was in respect of the target date and the percentage reduction?

Phil Hope: The new target is to reduce accidental fire deaths in the home by 20 per cent., based on the average over the 11 years to March 2010 compared with the average in the five years to March 1999. The new target recognises that we need to evaluate our progress against a long-term average, because fire deaths fluctuate from year to year. I want to emphasise the entirely new and challenging commitment to reducing inequality.

Mr. Hammond: I think that the Minister did not hear my question. I asked what the old target was that the revised target replaces.

Phil Hope: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the revised target is to achieve a reduction of 20 per cent. by an earlier date; we extended that date to March 2010 because the earlier date was not achievable. It is agreed that the new target is stretching but achievable and more realistic.

Mr. Hammond: That is not what I understood. The Minister said that the revised target set a closer date, but he then implied that the target had been loosened and the date pushed back. Will he tell the Committee what the date was under the old target?

Phil Hope: I can provide the information that the hon. Gentleman requests. The old target was to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction that was based on the average for the five years covering March 1999 to 30 March 2004. We have extended that to March 2010 because, as I said, the previous target was not attainable. We wish to achieve a similar reduction in the number of accidental fires in the home, but to do so within a more realistic timetable.

Sir Paul Beresford: It has been a long-standing requirement for fire authorities to enforce or at least persuade people to take fire prevention measures. It is rather dismal that the target should be extended. An average rate of 300 deaths each year for another six years is a pretty poor and pessimistic outlook.

Phil Hope: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. That is why we are announcing extra grants to local authorities, particularly those with the worst accidental fire death rates. That is why we are putting extra resources into the fire service. Indeed, in making new resources available, we hope to see new measures being taken by local fire authorities in the worst hit areas to tackle the problem. That is in contrast to the Conservative party's policy, which is to reduce public

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spending on areas like the fire service, the police and hospitals and teachers by 20 per cent.

Sir Paul Beresford: It is ludicrous to make that point. Reduced expenditure can be achieved by increasing efficiency.

Could the Minister explain the sum of £902,306? Is that top-sliced, or is it new allocated money; and what is it as a proportion of the total allocation?

Phil Hope: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to proceed, I shall answer later such detailed points about where the money is coming from and how it will be allocated.

The poorest people are 16 times more likely to die by fire than the average, and five times more likely to be injured. That is why we have added a second element to the target, which is that, by March 2010, no fire and rescue service area should have a fatality rate of more than a quarter above the average. The special grants that we propose today will help us to meet that target by supporting the brigades with the worst fatality rates.

Mr. Hammond: We understand that everyone wants to reduce fire fatalities among people living in what I guess must be the worst and most crowded housing, but is the Minister not concerned that it will create a perverse incentive not to improve the rate more generally? The Government's target will be more readily achieved if the rate of the best performing authorities does not move.

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman clearly misunderstands the process. He probably does not understand either the concept of progressive universalism, under which we are trying to encourage all authorities to take up a sound fire and community safety process. We are doing so, but we wish also to target extra help on those who need it most—the poorest, who are more likely to suffer death or injury from accidental fire in the home. Targeting resources in that way will, as the hon. Gentleman said, help us achieve a floor below which people will not be able to fall; but it will also help promote better practice in all other local authorities.

Three strands underpin our commitment to fire prevention.

Sir Paul Beresford: Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope: I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman, but if he allowed me more time, I think he would hear the information he needs.

Sir Paul Beresford: I have listened to the Minister and quickly perused the report. I am sure he will tell me that he is going to cover the point later, but do local fire authorities have to apply for the grant, or was it a light bulb idea that occurred suddenly to the Deputy Prime Minister one night?

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman is right; I will be addressing that question later.

In order to underpin our commitment to fire prevention, we will invest more than £43 million over the next three years in centrally run community fire safety and arson reduction programmes. That programme of work has three strands. First, the

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central funding will be used to increase the budget of the national community fire safety centre to £8.25 million per annum for the three years up to March 2006. The centre will use this money to enhance its programme of national community fire safety media campaigns, designed to tackle the main causes of accidental house fires.

Secondly, we will provide additional funding to address the problem of arson fires. To co-ordinate the fight against arson we have established the arson control forum, a multi-agency group that comprises representatives from all key stakeholders. Partnership is at the heart of the fight against arson. Therefore the police and fire services, the insurance sector, central and local government and industry and staff representative bodies all serve on the forum.

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister confirm, as he is talking about arson as an important strand, that the Government have reduced their arson reduction target from 30 per cent. by 2009 to 10 per cent. by 2010? If the Government regard the reduction of arson as so important, can the Minister explain why they have done that?

Phil Hope: Yes, Ministers recently agreed a revised service delivery agreement target of a 10 per cent. reduction by 2009–10 from the 2001–02 baseline. The new target is a demanding one. One of the major reasons for the change was the growth in the number of abandoned vehicles. The figures produce a curve that is going up in the wrong direction. Such vehicles create the fuel that can be set on fire in a local community. That is an issue that we are taking measures to address.

The grant is not about arson reduction. I was discussing the arson reduction resources to put the grant in context, but it concerns accidental fire deaths in the home as opposed to arson. It was helpful to the Committee for me to describe the other work that is going on.

We have provided the arson control forum with a budget of more than £13 million over the next three years. Some of the money from the arson implementation fund will be used to fund research work into arson issues, such as the motivation of offenders, but most will be used to continue to support the work done locally by the fire and rescue service in terms of car clearance schemes, arson taskforces and other innovative ideas to tackle arson problems.

Thirdly, through the special grants that we are discussing, we will provide £4.5 million over three years to support local fire services in their community fire safety work. We have a budget of just over £900,000 for England for the current financial year, rising to £1.5 million in 2004–05 and £2 million in 2005–06.

As I have already said, we intend to use the special grants to support fire prevention work in the areas with the worst fatality rates. That will help to achieve the new target of reducing inequality in deaths by fire. There are currently six fire and rescue services above the target level, with an accidental fire death rate more than one and a quarter times the national average. There are five fire and rescue services that are only just

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below one and a quarter times the national average. Those 11 fire and rescue services account for about 40 per cent. of all accidental dwelling deaths—some 122 deaths a year.

We will fund the 11 fire and rescue services that have the worst problems for a full three years to enable them to carry out community fire safety work. In the second year we will be able to offer funding to an additional seven fire and rescue services with lower fatality rates. By the third year all fire and rescue services with above average fatality rates will receive an allocation of funds. That will deliver the greatest impact on both the overall target to reduce accidental fire deaths in the home and the floor element of the target.

I will set out the purpose for which we wish to pay grants under the report. We want to fund work on community fire safety to drive down the number of accidental fire deaths in the targeted areas.

 
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Prepared 21 October 2003