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Pension Credit

18. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): How many people in Plymouth, Sutton are in receipt of pension credit. [160854]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I know from my visit to my hon. Friend's constituency that she

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is an energetic champion of elderly people in Plymouth. At the end of February, 4,245 pensioner households in Plymouth, Sutton, comprising 4,875 individuals, were in receipt of pension credit, with an average award of just over £41. Our take-up campaign is continuing at a local and national level. The Plymouth local service, which will be at the guildhall on 25 March, is playing a major role in that drive.

Linda Gilroy : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. For years, my constituents have been saying to me that they have saved for their retirement to no effect. It is important that the work and pension service, which is doing such a good job, as he says, should provide such help. Will he encourage it to work in partnership with other agencies, particularly Plymouth city council, which has just launched a "Tell Granny" campaign on council tax benefit take-up? Many more who receive pension credit will now qualify for council tax benefit.

Malcolm Wicks: I thank the city council for its work. The senior citizens forum in Plymouth is also playing a major role by directly contacting its 9,000-strong customer base. That shows the importance of working with partners such as Age Concern and other organisations to drum home the message that pension credit is a success. I should add that, as part of the drive against sexism, we ought to tell Grandad as well.

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Orders of the Day


Order for Second Reading read.

Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Fire and Rescue Services Bill

As amended in Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Fire And Rescue National Framework—Scrutiny

'(1) The Framework referred to in section 21 as first prepared shall not have effect until an order providing that it shall have effect for the purposes of section 21 has been made by the Secretary of State.
(2) Any revisions to the Framework which the Secretary of State wishes to make shall not have effect until an order providing that they shall have effect as amendments to the Framework has been made by the Secretary of State.'.—[Mr. Hammond.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.31 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker : With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: new clause 3—Intervention Code—

'(1) The Secretary of State shall publish a Code specifying the circumstances and the manner in which:
(a) he may make an order under section 22; or
(b) he may issue a direction under any provision of this Act.
(2) The Code shall include, in particular, details of:
(a) the persons or classes of person the Secretary of State will consult before taking the action referred to in subsection (1);
(b) any other codes of conduct or agreements with any other persons or bodies to which the Secretary of State will have regard when contemplating any action referred to in subsection (1).
(3) Before publishing the Code referred to in subsection (1) the Secretary of State shall consult—
(a) all fire and rescue authorities or persons confirmed by them as representing them; and
(b) all persons or bodies recognised by any fire and rescue authority as representing any group of its employees; and
(c) any other persons he considers appropriate.'.

New clause 11—Setting of fire, death and arson targets and reporting on performance—

'(1) The Secretary of State shall for each Fire and Rescue Authority set a target for—
(a) the reduction in the number of accidental fire deaths in the home; and
(b) the reduction in the number of deliberate fires.

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(2) The targets referred to in subsection (1) shall be published annually by the Secretary of State for a period of five years forward.
(3) The Secretary of State shall place before parliament at least once in every session a report specifying—
(a) the targets under subsection (1)(a) and (1)(b);
(b) any changes to those targets since the previous report and the reasons for those changes;
(c) measures taken or being taken to achieve the targets set out in subsection (1)(a) and (1)(b); and
(d) the Secretary of State's assessment of progress towards achieving those targets.'.

Amendment No. 20, in clause 21, page 10, line 8, after 'functions', insert

'the decision on which cannot be reasonably devolved to a fire and rescue authority.'.

Amendment No. 17, in page 10 line 9, leave out subsection (b) and insert—

'(b) must set out minimum standards of response to specified categories of incidents from fire and rescue authorities in connection with the discharge of their functions under sections 7, 8, 9.'.

Amendment No. 1, in page 10, line 30, leave out subsection (6).

Mr. Hammond: New clause 1 deals with issues surrounding the fire and rescue national framework—a detailed document, which sets out what amounts to a blueprint for the organisation, operation and management of fire and rescue services across the country. Let me give hon. Members a flavour of the document. It states:


In turn, regional management boards must

strategies. Later, the document states that

and ensure compliance

whatever they are. In short, the framework document tells fire and rescue authorities how to organise the discharge of the functions conferred on them by the Bill. It sets out what they are and are not allowed to do, when and how they are required to devolve their functions upward to higher bodies, and the guidance that they should accept from Secretaries of State. The document even lays down detailed human resources policies and strips several functions from the democratically accountable authorities, transferring them up to the regional management board.

For the purposes of this debate, it is not necessary to argue whether having some sort of framework to deal with such matters is right or wrong. The concern that new clause 1 is designed to address is the democratic

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deficit—the lack of scrutiny of the framework document, which in many ways is meatier than the Bill itself. The framework is given statutory status by virtue of clause 21, and clauses 22 and 23 create a regime whereby the Secretary of State can intervene and penalise authorities if they do not comply with its requirements. The framework is extraordinarily centralising, and it will come into force without having undergone any proper parliamentary scrutiny. The Secretary of State determines what is in the framework, he issues the framework—after consultation, of course—and he can amend it at any time that he feels it is appropriate to do so.

Without making any comment at this stage about the precise content of the framework, I should explain that the purpose of new clause 1 is to subject the framework to parliamentary approval. Under the Bill as drafted, the Secretary of State has only to lay the finished document before Parliament, whereas new clause 1(1) provides that the initial framework shall have effect only once the Secretary of State has made an order by statutory instrument, giving Parliament an opportunity—albeit an inadequate one—to exercise some measure of scrutiny over what, as I have already suggested, will be by far the most important part of the collection of documents that will determine the way that our fire and rescue services operate in future: a document that will be at least of equal standing to the Bill itself.

Subsection (2) provides for similar arrangements in the case of any amendments to the framework that the Secretary of State may wish to make. Amendment No. 1 is a consequential provision that would remove from clause 21 the current provision for laying the framework before Parliament.

I hope that the Minister will be able to accede to our request for a simple measure of parliamentary scrutiny of what will be an extremely important document. If, as he repeatedly assured us in Committee, the framework will not amount to a micro-management plan for every nominally independent fire and rescue authority, he has nothing to fear from allowing parliamentarians—who represent the populations of communities throughout the country—an opportunity to consider the framework in its final form after he has completed his consultation, and to approve it so that it is incorporated in statute via the provisions of clause 21.

New clause 3 addresses a slightly different issue. It is designed to qualify the Secretary of State's power to intervene in the operation of a fire and rescue authority under the powers granted to him in clause 22. Under that clause, the Secretary of State may direct a fire and rescue authority precisely how to act or not to act if he believes that it is failing or likely to fail—not failing or likely fail to discharge its statutory functions but failing or likely to fail to comply with the national fire and rescue framework.

These are intervention powers that are over and above the sanctions under the best-value regime enshrined in the Local Government Act 1999, which also apply to fire and rescue authorities by virtue of clause 23. As drafted, these are wide-ranging powers of intervention. In our view, the ability to intervene gives the Secretary of State far too much power vis-à-vis what

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are supposed to be local community-based services that are delivering a service that is accountable to the local community.

New clause 3 simply requires the Secretary of State to provide some codification of the circumstances and the manner in which he will make orders under clause 22, and the circumstances and the manner in which he will issue directions under any of the many provisions allowing him to do so in a Bill that places huge powers in his hands.

Subsection (2) requires the Secretary of State to specify who he will consult. It does not require him to provide an exhaustive list of individuals or organisations. In Committee, the Minister made clear his objection to the listing approach. The subsection requires the Secretary of State instead to define the classes of persons, and critically to specify any other codes or agreements to which he will have regard before intervening.

It is no secret—I am sure the Minister will readily have divined the intention—that I have in mind the Local Government Association's code on intervention. It is a code that was agreed between the LGA and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, defining how the Secretary of State will use his intervention powers after a comprehensive performance assessment where an authority is deemed to be failing. The code includes extensive provisions on support for failing organisations, notice to be given and opportunities for authorities to rectify their deficiencies. Generally, it governs the Secretary of State's approach and ensures that intervention follows a clear scheme that everybody understands and is not arbitrary in any way. I should be grateful for assurance that the regime, which will apply to interventions under clause 23, which deals with best value, will also apply to interventions under clause 22. A loophole will otherwise be created, as the Secretary of State will invariably have the opportunity to intervene under either clause, and it is not appropriate that one intervention route is bound by the provisions of the LGA code and the other is not.

Finally, new clause 3(3) specifies the authorities and recognised organisations representing employees who must be consulted on the code before it is issued by the Secretary of State.

The new clause proposes a modest limitation on a wide power of intervention, and seeks to ensure that it is used as expected by fire and rescue authorities, is not arbitrary and does not become an alternative or loophole for avoiding established intervention procedures. If the Minister can confirm that the LGA code will be applied to any intervention under the provisions of the Bill, we will not seek to press new clause 3 further—[Interruption.] He is saying from a sedentary position that he has already done so, but that had not penetrated my consciousness. He will be glad of an opportunity to put that on record on the Floor of the House so that all local government bodies are aware of it.

New clause 11 requires that, as part of the framework arrangements, the Secretary of State set out annually, on a five-year forward basis, targets for a reduction in the number of accidental fire deaths in the home and of incidents of arson. It requires him to report to Parliament annually on progress in achieving those

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targets, which is not a terribly onerous burden. After all, the Government have said that reducing accidental fire deaths is the raison d'être of modernisation, so surely they will not object to putting that objective at the centre of the framework structure with clear targets that are updated regularly, thus enabling them to measure the progress of the reforms. The problem is that the Government have reduced the targets. Until last summer the target for the reduction of accidental fire deaths in the home was a cut in the average for 1994 to 1999 of 20 per cent. by March 2004. Gosh, March 2004 is now! The reduction should have been achieved already, but last summer, the Government put the date for the achievement of that important target back by six years, to March 2010. While they have been telling us that modernisation will save lives, and while fire authorities, required to reconfigure their deployments under integrated risk management plans, have closed fire stations, changed manning and crewing arrangements or, as in the case of my own constituency, removed fire appliances from fire stations, and have been busy with their integrated risk management plans, the Government have demonstrated a lack of confidence in the saving lives agenda by reducing the targets for accidental fire deaths in the home.

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