Previous SectionIndexHome Page

3.45 pm

I should like to quote from the report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published in January. With regard to downgrading, it states:

It is hardly surprising that the public are increasingly sceptical about the integrated risk management plan cuts that are beginning to filter through locally—they are certainly beginning to do so in my area—when the Government are simultaneously downgrading the very target whose fulfilment is the justification for much of the modernisation programme. The foreword to the framework document, which is signed by the Minister for Local and Regional Government, talks of

Whether the service saves more lives depends on the base line, however, and the Government have simply moved the goalposts—[Interruption.] The Government have moved the goalposts over the past 12 months by downgrading the target for reducing accidental fire deaths in the home.

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but he has misled the House in suggesting that a change in the actual targets—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister should perhaps rephrase his remarks. I do not think that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) would mislead the House.

15 Mar 2004 : Column 26

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. I wanted to point out to the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to reducing fire deaths. The fact that there may be a change in the target does not in any way change the commitment to a reduction in the number of deaths, and neither does it indicate that there will be no change or reduction. A change has been made in the light of circumstances which, as he knows only too well, could not have been foreseen when the target was set. That is the result of the collapse in the scrap metal price, which we debated at length. He knows perfectly well that that is the case. Will he accept that, if a target becomes ineffective because of outside circumstances, sticking to it rather than realistically trying to ensure an appropriate response in the changed circumstances is folly? I hope that he will accept that we are doing the most sensible thing.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister referred to the reduced target for deliberate fires or arson, but he has ignored the reduced target for accidental fire deaths in the home. If he would like to explain to the House what unforeseen circumstances have made that target impossible to achieve, I would be very happy to give way to him again. The only suggestion that I have heard from him is that an increasingly elderly population has made it difficult to achieve the targets. I hardly think that that circumstance was impossible to foresee at the time when the targets were set.

I will accept what he says about the arson targets and scrap metal, although I shall have something else to say about them in a moment, but in relation to accidental fire deaths in the home, the Government have reduced the target. [Interruption.] In my book, it is a reduction in the target; other hon. Members will draw their own conclusions. The target of achieving a 20 per cent. reduction from a given base line by March 2004 has been pushed out to a target of achieving the same reduction from the same base line by March 2010. To my very simple mind, that is a reduction in the target—

Mr. Raynsford: It is an extension.

Mr. Hammond: I shall leave other hon. Members and members of the public to reach their own conclusions.

On the reduction in arson targets, as the Minister rightly says, the number of vehicles being subjected to deliberately set fires has increased dramatically, partly as a result of a collapse of the scrap metal market and the cost now involved in disposing of vehicles. What are the Government proposing to do about that, apart from downgrading the targets? They are proposing a methodology for the implementation of the EU end-of-life vehicle directive that will by general consent make the problem worse by creating an additional disincentive to the owners of old vehicles to take them to authorised dismantlers.

The Minister of State clearly disagrees, but I had lengthy debates on this in a previous incarnation with a then Industry Minister, and I would be fascinated to

15 Mar 2004 : Column 27

hear how the current proposals for implementing the directive will not lead to an increase in the number of abandoned vehicles deliberately set on fire.

Mr. Raynsford: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain how free disposal of end-of-life vehicles from 2007 will not have the effect that he wishes. We think it will.

Mr. Hammond: The right hon. Gentleman misrepresents what the Government are proposing. There will be a gap during which people with existing vehicles will be required to take them to an authorised dismantler, who at current scrap metal prices is likely to charge a fee.

The Government's performance on targets has been rather shabby. The dropping of the fire deaths target undermines the high moral stance that Ministers have sought to attach to the modernisation programme, and reinforces an already sceptical public in the suspicion that modernisation is a cover for some old-fashioned cuts. Frankly, that suggests to us that the setting, monitoring and performance in achievement of the targets must be watched closely. That is why new clause 11 would force the Government regularly to publish, update and explain any changes to the targets, and to give Parliament an assessment of progress in achieving them. That would allow us to measure the real impact of modernisation on these important public safety objectives.

Amendment No. 20 would limit the guidance that the Secretary of State can give in the framework—guidance allowing the Secretary of State to intervene under clause 22 if there is a failure to act in accordance with it—to areas in which decisions could not reasonably be left to fire and rescue authorities. We concur with the sentiments behind that amendment. We see a real danger that the Government's instinct to try to micro-manage from the centre will find expression through the national framework. That is one of our two principal concerns about the shape of the Bill as it stands.

Through amendment No. 17, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) seeks to include a requirement for a specified minimum standard of response to specified categories of incident. I will be interested to hear what he intends, because it seems to us that the amendment would undermine the local discretion that the integrated risk management plan process is intended to introduce for local authorities. I will also be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that, on the new clauses, and in particular on the Government's reduced targets.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I want to speak about amendment No. 17, which I tabled specifically to allow the Minister to elaborate on some of the questions that have just been posed and thus overcome some of the arguments that have been advanced in previous debates to the effect that the exercise is simply about cuts to service. It is important to clarify exactly how the new system of integrated risk management proposals will be implemented.

We should celebrate the work that has already been done. In March, we celebrated another 5 per cent. reduction in fatalities in the past year. We should

15 Mar 2004 : Column 28

congratulate the service on that. I tabled the amendment because of the dilemma that runs not only through our debates but through the Select Committee report—a dilemma in relation to the need to ensure some consistency in standards throughout the country. The amendment gives the Minister an opportunity to negate the contention that the new system may introduce flexibility to the extent of creating a postcode lottery in local fire services' response to specific incidents.

In moving away from the traditional national minimum standards system, we need clarity about local discretion. Of course, everyone—including the fire authorities and the Fire Brigades Union—has argued that we need to tailor the modern service response to specific needs. However, there are anxieties. We need to put on record again the fact that we are not considering an overall reduction in investment in the service or a cuts exercise for any individual fire authority. We are considering a long-term, consistent pattern of investment that will improve service provision and the resources on which individual firefighters and authorities can draw.

Mr. Hammond: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, during the industrial dispute in 2002 and early 2003, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister both said that the firefighters' pay settlement over and above inflation had to be self-financing out of the savings from modernisation? Does that not suggest that it will be difficult to achieve the objective that he has outlined?

John McDonnell: I do recall that, but I also remember the subsequent debate in which the Government identified a sum of money for transitional investment in the fire service to cover the interim period when the savings could be identified. I am confident that, if the new system is implemented properly, we can overcome the allegations that it is a cuts exercise. I seek clear reassurance, on the record, from the Minister that we are considering increasing not reducing investment.

How far will the integrated risk management plans go to establish a consistent approach throughout the country? If we are moving from minimum standards, how can we achieve consistency of approach? I would welcome the Minister's elaborating on that today so that the Government's intentions can be put on record. I would welcome in particular an outline of what happens if inconsistencies break out in individual fire authorities. What powers of intervention would the Minister have if he believed that a specific fire authority's inconsistent approach would increase risk?

I am anxious about some of the statements that have been made about local approaches, especially responses to automatic fire alarms. How will individual fire authorities identify the level of risk and therefore the appropriate response? Some fire authorities have made statements that have not helped the argument for the need for a flexible approach. For example, the firemaster, as he is called, for Lothian and the borders said:

There has been some suggestion that authorities will invite the general public to investigate whether a fire is associated with an automatic fire alarm. Clearly, that is

15 Mar 2004 : Column 29

unacceptable. We need clearer national guidance to ensure that such an inconsistent approach does not break out. It is estimated that there are 1,500 calls through automatic fire alarms when, although it is not confirmed, there is a fire. Clearer guidance on minimum standards would help.

Next Section

IndexHome Page