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Mr. Raynsford: Nonsense.

Mr. Flook: The Minister may call that nonsense, but I have here the comment made in Committee on 24 February, clear as the light of day.

Mr. Raynsford: Does the hon. Gentleman recall the comments of his Front-Bench colleague at the end of the Committee about the adequacy of time for full consideration of the Bill?

4.15 pm

Mr. Flook: I might well be able to, if I had those comments in front of me. None the less, the point about scrutiny is as plain as the light of day at column 231.

Three fears are particularly relevant to new clause 1. The first is that the national framework is too rigid and will undermine localness. Secondly, there is a fear of gold-plating. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said that the Minister had described this as a just-in-case set-up. I can see exactly what will happen in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. It will take on board more and more responsibilities, and the document will become a gold-plated version that undermines localness. Thirdly, the entire emphasis of the national framework involves the ultimate aim of cutting costs. The Government have not been particularly open about that in the framework document, and it will be interesting to know how many respondents to the consultation process, which I believe has now finished, referred to the Government's aim of cutting costs.

The Government have said that they see the framework document as a strategic one. The Minister hides behind the fact that the Bain report called for it. I am sure that it did—it called for a lot—but I am not sure that the Government have responded to everything in that report with provisions in the Bill. The framework sets out in minute detail how fire authorities must act in a huge number of respects, including human resources, training, control rooms and procurement. It goes so far as to talk about the swapping of personnel between various authorities and even between different branches of the emergency services. It talks at some length about

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effectively discharging those responsibilities at regional level. In fact, the word "regional" occurs throughout the document. The Government are looking closely at making regional management boards omnipotent over a large number of fire authorities. That might easily undermine the basis for the working of, for example, Somerset fire authority. That might be the Government's aim.

There is definitely an irony here. The Minister has been keen at every twist and turn, both in the framework document and in Committee, to talk about local accountability, and I am sure that he is going to wax lyrical about it now. The irony is that Somerset county council will no doubt be able to see a nudge and a wink when they are offered. When human resources, training, control rooms and procurement are subsumed into a regional body, a cash-strapped Somerset county council will no doubt welcome the chance of a capital receipt and the chance to release the beautiful Hestercombe house on to the open market. The control room may well end up somewhere else in the south-west, whereas, if these changes were to happen in the fullness of time, it might move to the centre of Taunton, which would make far more sense for any tie-up with, say, Devon, Dorset or Cornwall.

The basis for all those changes is this large framework document, which is 49 pages long; the Bill is only 26 pages. The framework needs to be subject to much more regular scrutiny, and that is why new clause 1 is so important. I hope that Conservative Members will call for a Division on it. At the very least, we need scrutiny, and there are effective ways of carrying that out without clogging up the machinery of government. Parliamentary scrutiny is necessary. It is impossible to deliver what we need in local terms from the framework as it has been drafted.

Mr. Raynsford: New clause 1 seeks to introduce a requirement for a statutory instrument before the national framework can take effect. This requirement, unlike that in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) in Committee, would not alter the status of the framework as guidance. I suspect that the change in the amendment reflects the point that we made in Committee that wording the framework as a statutory instrument would probably not help comprehension and implementation by those engaged in the fire service.

Our intention with the national framework is to provide a comprehensive document that will act as a "manual" for fire and rescue authorities. That is reflected by its status as guidance to which authorities must "have regard". By its nature, a national framework should provide strategic leadership—hence the inclusion of subsection (2)(a) in clause 21, stating that the fire and rescue national framework

That provision is very much in accordance with the thinking not only of the Bain report, but of the Select Committee, whose first recommendation is worth repeating. Its report was very good, and I am very happy to cite its first recommendation, which says:

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That is exactly what we are doing and the framework has been produced within that remit.

Providing strategic direction is not the only purpose of the fire and rescue framework. To be effective as a manual, the framework should include guidance on all aspects of Government fire and rescue policy and reference to good practice as it develops. There is an enormous amount of good practice in the fire and rescue service; the problem is often that it is not universal. We believe that the good practice of individual fire authorities, if adopted by others, could make a real difference. Spreading good practice is fundamental.

The framework should also help to deal with the capacity support measures that the Government will provide to fire and rescue authorities, making it clear what help is available—an important matter mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), to which I shall return. It will also help to deal with the independent performance assessment measures that the Audit Commission is implementing. I shall also say more about that later.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge accused us of producing a centralising document, but I have to say that it is not. We have repealed—or are in the process of repealing—a highly centralised statutory framework dating back to the Fire Services Act 1947, which prescribed in considerable detail exactly what was required in every part of the country. In its place, we are giving greater discretion and responsibility to fire and rescue authorities to develop their own integrated risk management plans, reflecting local needs and priorities. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) rightly explained, there must be an overarching national framework to ensure that there is both coherence and consistency and that standards are not allowed to fall below acceptable levels. That is precisely the purpose of the framework.

My hon. Friend was concerned about whether there might be a fall away from decent standards as a result of changing the 1947 Act framework, and I hope to reassure him on that point. We are absolutely committed to reducing deaths, to improving the effectiveness of the fire and rescue service and to ensuring more effective prevention of fire, which is the key to reducing the number of deaths. All our measures are designed to achieve that purpose.

There is no question of a cuts package: no cuts whatever are envisaged. We are continuing to provide real grant increases to fire and rescue authorities, and we are investing heavily in new equipment for the fire and rescue service—and we are committed to carrying on doing so. That is in marked contrast to Conservative Members, who choose to criticise us opportunistically but who, significantly, did not include the fire and rescue service among those that would be exempt from the shadow Chancellor's pledge for no further growth. When we hear Conservative Members criticise us, we should remember that the Conservative party is committed to cuts in the fire service that will jeopardise the ability of fire and rescue authorities to implement the modernisation programme that we are introducing. Of

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course, it would be a risk only if—heaven help us—the Conservatives were elected again. I repeat my reassurance to my hon. Friend.

We have been closely monitoring and supporting the development and implementation of IRMPs through the provision of guidance and risk assessment, with support teams working directly with fire and rescue authorities, and through our role as a consultee. The Bill re-enacts the existing statutory duty for a fire and rescue authority to plan and provide arrangements for fighting fires and protecting life and property from fires within its area. Authorities will be required to secure sufficient equipment and training to discharge their duty in normal circumstances and implement effective arrangements for receiving and responding to calls for help.

The published guidance on IRMPs makes it clear that fire and rescue authorities should set their own locally determined standards, which should be expressed in easily understood terms, to measure performance on intervention and prevention. The framework will be closely monitored and will allow us to see whether we are making the progress that we are committed to making, and, if we are not, it will allow intervention to tackle any failures.

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