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Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): On prevention, will the Minister return to the points that we discussed earlier about the targets being moved? It is difficult for the layman to comprehend why the targets are being reduced. The target of achieving a 20 per cent. reduction in accidental fire deaths in homes by March 2004 has been pushed back to 2010, and the target of reducing deliberately started fires by 30 per cent. by 2009 has been cut to 10 per cent. Those reductions occur at a time when a country such as New Zealand has managed to halve such deaths in four years, so it must be possible to meet the targets. If the Bill is about prevention, why have the targets been moved?

Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Gentleman had been following proceedings, he would know that we are discussing new clause 1 and that targets are covered by a different new clause, which I shall deal with in due course. I was responding to issues raised properly in the context of new clause 1 and intend to continue to do so.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington that a working group set up by the practitioners forum is examining the issue of automatic fire alarms, which raises important considerations. We know that automated fire alarms produce a substantial number of malfunctions and that if appliances are called out to deal with a malfunctioning AFA when a real fire occurs, it could prejudice the response of the fire service to the other incident. It is therefore important to implement robust procedures to ensure that those incidents that cause genuine concern are responded to in the normal way, and that fire and rescue authority resources are not indiscriminately allocated where there is actually no risk. Finding the means to do that without creating greater risk is difficult, but it is a proper challenge that a number of fire authorities have already begun to address, and I hope that we can make considerable progress through the practitioners forum working group.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised a number of issues about how the community safety plan, which draws together different services, links with IRMPs. I reassure him that IRMPs allow fire and rescue authorities to provide extra resources for prevention work, which may be undertaken by them or in partnership with other bodies. There are many examples of good practice in partnership work, which may involve engaging with teachers and others who are in a position to assist with effective fire prevention activity in particular sections of the community. We want to see continuing work of that nature and will give further guidance through the support team that I have alluded to, which is in place to help authorities establish the new arrangements introduced by IRMPs.

The fire and rescue national framework will play a significant role in driving forward the modernisation agenda, which is required to ensure that we have an effective fire and rescue service that saves more lives, and it is imperative that there are no unnecessary obstacles to delivering that agenda. The requirement for a statutory instrument to be agreed by this House before the national framework or amendments to the national framework can take effect could mean unnecessary delay and uncertainty.

Before the Bill has received its Third Reading in this House, let alone consideration by another place or Royal Assent, we are already well advanced with the first draft of the national framework, which has been out for consultation, and we hope to publish the first definitive version this spring. Thereafter, we will update the framework and, in order to help authorities with their planning processes, we intend to publish the framework in time for the start of their budget setting and business planning rounds each year. Unnecessary delay and uncertainty before the framework takes effect would be entirely unhelpful.

Furthermore, any guidance that updated policy would be issued as a revision to the framework, so that authorities and the Audit Commission were clear about our expectations. For example, we will provide guidance to ensure that medical criteria for firefighter appointment and retention are compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Under new clause 1, all such guidance would require a statutory instrument before having effect. The delay and uncertainty that would result from the requirement for a statutory instrument for each new piece of guidance would again be to the detriment of the smooth and efficient running of the service.

4.30 pm

We do not accept new clause 1, but we accept that Parliament has an important role in scrutinising decisions relating to fire and rescue policy. The Government will continue to be accountable to Parliament in the normal way. Clause 21(6) requires that we lay the plan, and any significant revisions to it, before Parliament and we have ensured in the legislation that, if the Secretary of State proposes to enforce a measure in the framework by exercising the intervention powers in clause 22, the order-making process will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. There is already a good example of how that would work in the national plan for the police. The Police Reform Act 2002 requires the Secretary of State to prepare a national policing

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plan, but there is no requirement for a statutory instrument before the plan takes effect. The Secretary of State must lay the plan before Parliament in the same way that would be required for the framework.

I can reassure the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that we have included in the legislation a requirement to consult in preparing the framework, or significant revisions to it. We have consulted widely, and we will continue to do so on future revisions. Members of both Houses have had the opportunity to comment during that process. Amendment No. 1 is consequential to new clause 1 and seeks to remove the requirement to lay the framework before Parliament. However, it is absolutely appropriate that Parliament is kept informed of the contents of the framework.

Amendment No. 20 seeks to limit the priorities and objectives for fire and rescue authorities that the Secretary of State would be able to set out in the national framework to those that authorities could not "reasonably decide" for themselves. As I have already stressed, the Government have devolved much more responsibility to fire and rescue authorities. We have repealed section 19 of the 1947 Act, which required that any reduction in the number of fire appliances or firefighting posts, or the closure of any fire station, required the Secretary of State's consent.

We have also replaced the outdated national standards of fire cover with local integrated risk management planning, thereby allowing more local discretion for fire and rescue authorities to deploy their resources in line with their assessment of present local needs and risks. However, we must get the balance right. The independent review of the fire service said:


It also said:


The national framework will play a crucial role in providing that leadership and driving reform and improvement in the service. That includes setting priorities and objectives where appropriate, but we will not use the national framework unnecessarily to interfere with local decisions. That would run counter to our overall programme of reform, not least to the principle of local risk management.

We see the national framework as a contract, embodying our partnership approach to reforming the service. It was first issued as a draft for consultation with plenty of time for people to comment before it became a statutory document. Clause 21(5) sets out a requirement for a full consultation process. However, the amendment would create unnecessary uncertainty about what can and cannot be "reasonably devolved" to a fire and rescue authority. That is obviously a subjective issue. The amendment would therefore inevitably lead to ambiguity and could in theory lead to expensive and time-consuming legal challenge. That is the last thing we need at a time when we are embarking on a major reform programme to deliver a better service that saves more lives.

On new clause 3, I have previously referred to the existing protocol covering the use of existing intervention powers across all local authority services that has already been agreed with local government

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stakeholders and published. The protocol was developed through the framework for partnership, signed in November 1997 by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on behalf of the Government and by the chairman of the Local Government Association on behalf of local authorities. It has worked well and directions have had to be issued to local authorities on only two occasions.

The protocol provides for a sufficient evidence base before any action is taken and for the form and extent of intervention to reflect the type and seriousness of failure and the need for effective improvement. It provides that, other than in cases of urgency, there should be a process of agreement with the authority on how it will address any service failure in the first instance. It provides for the use of intervention powers only if that process fails to deliver the required improvement. It also provides for consultation with the authority concerned on any proposed directions.

In exercising the powers that we seek under clause 22 and elsewhere, we are committed, as I have already made clear, to following the principles set out in the protocol, which already covers the existing powers to intervene in fire and rescue authorities contained in the Local Government Act 1999. I do not believe that it would be sensible to produce a separate protocol for the powers in the Bill; the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has implied as much and, in the light of my reassurances, I am sure that he will want to withdraw the proposed new clause.

Amendment No. 17, proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, would require the national framework to set out minimum standards of response to incidents for fire and rescue authorities. I remind him that the independent review of the fire service stated:


Following the recommendations of the independent review, we acknowledged in our White Paper last summer that national standards of fire cover that set out the speed and weight of response to incidents are no longer appropriate and that they would be replaced by integrated risk management plans, produced by each fire and rescue authority. Each IRMP should set out the authority's own standards for both prevention and intervention purposes, based on its assessment of risk to life in the local community. All fire and rescue authorities in England and Wales have published their draft plans, are consulting their communities and work forces on their proposals and will formally adopt their IRMPs from 1 April 2004.

To require the inclusion of minimum standards of response in the framework would limit the flexibility that we intend to devolve to a local level to ensure that emergency cover and response is determined locally and provided on a risk to life, not a risk to property, basis. The inclusion of minimum standards could skew authorities' decisions on the allocation of resources.

Let me provide a few statistics from the old national fire cover standards. Between 1997 and 2001, there were 2,600 fatalities and 76,300 injuries as a result of fires in England and Wales. Throughout that period, there were recommended minimum attendance standards.

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Specified attendance time to industrial and commercial—A and B risk locations—was between five and eight minutes, but a breakdown of the figures shows that 80 per cent. of fatalities occurred in C and D risk locations where attendance times were between eight and 20 minutes. That makes the point that if we base the whole approach on risk to life, it is important to move away from the old property-based standards, so that the approach reflects more effectively the risk to life.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington that there is no scope for local fire authorities simply to abandon the principle of action designed to save lives, but if we stuck with the old arrangements, there would equally be no scope for local fire and rescue authorities to vary the standards in the light of local circumstances to ensure a quicker and more effective response where people's lives were at risk. I am thinking particularly of night-time fires in houses containing families in residential areas where, under the old standards, the response requirement would have been slower than that for empty commercial property in a city centre. Such an arrangement cannot be right. The focus must be on threat to life and I hope that the IRMPs will allow a more sensitive implementation of what we are all committed to: measures to safeguard lives.

New clause 11 would require the Secretary of State to set targets for each fire and rescue authority in relation to the reduction of accidental fire deaths in the home and of deliberate fires, and to report to Parliament on progress in each Session. I am intrigued that the Opposition have moved that provision, as during most of our debates, not only on this Bill but on the Local Government Act 2003, they constantly attacked the Government for what they described as the unnecessary proliferation of centrally set performance targets. However, when it suits them politically, they are only too happy to try to impose targets.

We remain absolutely committed to new national targets, which were announced in the fire White Paper, for the reduction of accidental fire deaths in the home and for the reduction of deliberate fires. As before, progress will be reported in the ODPM annual report, which is deposited in the Library. I should make it clear that there is no question of reducing the targets. We are committed to real reductions in the number of lives lost and the number of non-accidental fires. However, we recognise that since the targets were first set, changes in circumstance and a greater understanding of context have made it impossible for the original aspirational targets—that is what they were—to be achieved realistically. We need targets that can be delivered, rather than notional targets that would generate disappointment if they could not be met.


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