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Mr. Hammond: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause relates to retained firefighters, and I think that it is common ground on both sides of the House that they play a crucial part in the modernisation agenda. All too often the focus or the spotlight falls on the large metropolitan brigades, with their need occasionally to respond to major disasters and to think about the response to the new agenda of anti-terrorist preparedness. However, in many brigades throughout the country, retained firefighters are the backbone of the service.

In many ways the challenges of modernisation are greater for those brigades that depend largely on retained firefighters. By and large, they will not see the same savings from changed work practices as those brigades that employ mainly whole-time firefighters. Almost by definition, those brigades with retained firefighters do not already have available a pool of full-time employed personnel to deal with the service's new emphasis on fire prevention. They are faced with some particular challenges as we move forward with this agenda. On the whole, the brigades in question are the smaller ones, with lighter management structures, which in turn pose further difficulties in addressing the issues.

As I look round the Chamber, I am certain that every Member here would be happy to record the huge debt that is owed to retained firefighters for their sterling support of the community when they continued to provide cover during the brief but potentially dangerous fire strikes at the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003. I regret to say that in some cases that was done in the face of intimidation and harassment from colleagues. By way of belated but well-deserved reward, those retained firefighters will be included in the new negotiating machinery, and the Minister made it clear in Committee that he intends that they should have proper representation, along with other groups of firefighters and employees of fire and rescue services.

In the new clause, I have sought to address the overarching problem of the recruitment and retention of sufficient retained firefighters to allow the modernisation agenda to proceed successfully. It is increasingly difficult to find the kind of people who traditionally have worked as retained firefighters. I do not want to digress too far into anecdote, but when I was a boy I remember being terribly excited about the fact that the greengrocer was a retained firefighter. Every now and then, to great excitement in the greengrocer's shop, he would tear off in his car to fight a fire. In traditional communities, the small self-employed shopkeeper or business man could undertake that vital community role and provide himself with a worthwhile additional income. As our lives have become more complicated and as pressure on the self-employed has increased—people generally have to spend more time on running a business now—it has become less easy to persuade such people that they can afford the time and potential disruption to their business that being a retained firefighter entails.

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According to figures produced by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the retained firefighting force across the country is about 3,000 firefighters or 20 per cent. short of its intended strength, which represents a considerable gap in its ability to deliver what is required of the current structure and set-up. The Minister may wish to comment on this, but my understanding is that as we proceed with things such as integrated personal development strategies both retained firefighters and full-time firefighters will participate in in-job training and personal development programmes, which are extremely worth while but which, almost by definition, require a greater number of personnel to provide cover while people are undertaking training and personal development activities. We are 20 per cent. short now, but once the integrated risk management plans have been put in place, the modernisation agenda has been implemented more fully and the new human resources arrangements are up and running, we will have an even greater need for retained firefighters.

The key to finding such people is recognising the role of employers. Some retained firefighters, of course, will be self-employed, but the great majority will be employees, and it is important that the House should acknowledge the need to focus on persuading employers of the benefit to the community and perhaps to themselves of releasing employees for retained duty. Various proposals were made in Committee. It was suggested, for example, that formal recognition should be bestowed on employers who release employees for retained duty and even that cash rewards or compensation should be made available to employers who sacrifice the efficiency of their business by allowing employees to play a role as retained firefighters.

New clause 2 would introduce a formal recognition of the importance of retained firefighters and of the problem of recruiting and retaining them by establishing an advisory panel to the Secretary of State. In Committee, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), referred to a comprehensive review that he had established on 15 December 2003 looking at issues relating to retained firefighting and the need to recruit more retained firefighters. Why have I tabled the new clause, given that he told the Committee about that? I want to be clear that the Government recognise the need to involve employers from both the public and private sectors in the initiative.

In Committee, the Under-Secretary said that the review would include

When I intervened to ask him whether the employer community was also engaged in the process, he replied:

However, it turned out that we were speaking at cross purposes, as he clarified his remarks by saying:

The Local Government Association is a representative of employers of retained firefighters, but I had intended to convey to him the need to engage the employers of potential retained firefighters—the businesses and

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public bodies that employ such people in their everyday jobs, which need to be persuaded of the community's need for them to be released for retained firefighting duties. As far as I understood it, he confirmed in the Committee that representatives of employer organisations other than the LGA were not engaged in the review process. I would like the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and various other bodies that represent private sector employers to be included. I would also like representatives of the big public sector employers to be engaged in the process. Of course, the public sector must lead by example. In many parts of the country, large proportions of the population are engaged in public sector employment; indeed, the proportion is as much as a third in some areas.

The point of tabling the new clause was to seek to formalise the advisory panel as an ongoing body that would advise the Secretary of State on matters relating to retained firefighters and also to formalise the membership of the panel so that it included representatives not only of the fire and rescue authorities and the retained firefighters, but of employers from both the public and private sectors. The problem should be put on the table—we are 3,000 retained firefighters short today, and the number may be 4,000 by the time that the IRMP process is completed—and we need to work together to ensure that additional retained firefighters are delivered in the places where they are needed.

In my fire authority, Surrey, there are proposals in the integrated risk management plan to change the manning of a fire station from whole time to retained service. Of course, that will be possible and the saving will be harnessed only if and when it is possible to recruit the additional retained firefighters. The provision of 24-hour retained cover at a single-appliance fire station will take a considerable number of retained firefighters. I have not done the maths, but I suspect that about 20 or 24 individuals are required to provide 24-hour retained cover in a single-appliance fire station, although the Under-Secretary will correct me if I am wrong.

I tabled the new clause to draw attention to the point and to get the Under-Secretary to focus on the role of employers and—I hope—to give some commitment about the engagement of employers in the process. I shall certainly not press the new clause to a Division if he can assure us that employers in the public and private sector will be properly engaged. Furthermore, I tabled the new clause because I know that some hon. Members—not least those from the Devon contingent, which featured strongly in Committee—will have a lot to say about retained firefighters. Devon is a fire authority that depends almost entirely on retained firefighters.

5.15 pm

Having tabled the new clause, I did some further digging. On Friday, the Retained Firefighters Union told me that it had done a quick survey of eight fire authorities picked at random and discovered, shockingly, that not one had a budget for recruiting retained firefighters. That is a serious situation, when we are already facing a shortfall of 3,000, and the shortfall is likely to increase.

It is imperative that we act. Retained firefighters are arguably the most cost-effective part of the fire service. Failing to recruit and retain enough of them will

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undermine the modernisation process and will certainly slow down the harvesting of its financial savings. The authorities with the largest number of retained firefighters are almost invariably those with the least scope for modernisation savings and the smallest slice of the transitional funding that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has made available.

I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that there will be a mechanism whereby employers, both public and private, will be included in the process in a way that fully recognises their key role. I look forward to his response and to the contributions that I confidently anticipate from the aforementioned Devon contingent.

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