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Richard Younger-Ross: Devon was indeed extremely well represented in Committee, with three members, but the south-west generally did not do too badly either, with five. However, that did not mean that we always got our points across to the Minister.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) spoke about employer representation on the review body. He thinks that he was at cross purposes with the Minister, but I understood exactly what he meant in Committee, so I am surprised that it was not so clear to the Government.

We debated this at length in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman has mentioned our probing amendments on encouraging employers to release people to serve as retained firefighters. We suggested cash rewards, which will perhaps not prove to be the way forward, as a way of recognising what employers do. The Minister responded positively and said that retained firefighters were a vital resource, so I am horrified to hear that there are eight fire authorities with no money to recruit them. That is a scandal.

Mr. Hammond: In fact, it is worse than that. The Retained Firefighters Union polled the eight authorities at random, so the statistical suggestion must be that many more will prove to have no budget.

Richard Younger-Ross: That is an appalling situation. It could be that the authorities that rely heavily on retained crew are having problems with their budget. The Government are quite rightly seeking parity of salaries for retained firefighters, so they have recognised the need in words, but they have not recognised it in cash terms. Let us consider the example of the combined authority in Devon, which relies heavily on retained firefighters. The 16 per cent. pay increase over three years translates into a 23 per cent. increase in the budget of the Devon fire authority. That authority is finding it hard to make ends meet and says that it would require a further £2 million to achieve the same sort of funding as other fire authorities. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising if recruitment campaigns are cut in the attempt to ensure that resources are put into essential services such as firefighting, the response to road traffic accidents and so on.

The problem will get worse. As work patterns change and our countryside has fewer people working in it and more people commuting longer distances, those available on the ground will become few and far between. It is therefore imperative that greater efforts

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are made to recruit those few people who reside close enough to the station. The Government accept that a genuine problem needs to be tackled. I hope that they also accept that it is not simply a matter of an advertising campaign or a review but of considering the way in which fire authorities are funded to recruit and retain those firefighters. Parity is good as far as it goes but it falls apart if the fire service is left short of cash.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge mentioned local authorities. We do not need a review in that case because Ministers are responsible for local authorities. I therefore urge the Minister to write a letter to himself to spur himself to write to local authorities telling them to be more responsive and to encourage their members of staff to become retained firefighters. Many authorities resist that, which is a great shame because a potential resource is not being used. In rural areas, its use is essential.

Mr. Drew: I wish to make a couple of brief observations. Like other constituencies, Gloucestershire relies heavily on retained firefighters. However, those firefighters can function only if they have a close relationship with full-time firefighters. Sometimes we talk about retained firefighters as though they work in isolation and provide cover to an area on their own, but, in order to provide effective fire cover, the full-time firefighters in a sizeable market town must have a relationship with the retained firefighters in the smaller market towns. Whatever the Government devise, a structure that recognises that relationship is vital.

I do not want to get hung up on the idea of an advertising budget. I accept that advertising might attract some individuals, but the main problem is that the retained fire service operates restrictively. If we had an arrangement under which people would be off call far more often, we could recruit them more easily. However, the system is predicated on the belief that people live and work locally. If either does not pertain, the opportunity to become a retained firefighter is precluded. We may have to consider a system whereby people who work locally but live some distance away are on call when they are at work and those who live locally and are willing to be retained firefighters and on call at times of greatest danger in the evenings and at night are not on call during the day, when they work away from home.

I do not think that this is a matter for statute. I think we should ask ourselves whether we have a service that is fit for the 21st century, and it is clear that the service is not currently working very well. The only way in which the three retained fire stations in my neck of the woods—Painswick, Nailsworth and Dursley—can recruit is by word of mouth. Nepotism often occurs: the sons and daughters of existing retained firefighters often become retained firefighters themselves, because they have been targeted directly. I do not think that is a terribly good thing, because we want the service to be open and accessible, and in any case it is a pretty ad hoc method.

Mr. Hammond: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He mentioned an advertising budget. I do not think that a responsible fire authority would limit a ring-fenced budget to advertising for recruitment purposes. There is much more to

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recruitment than advertising. I wonder how many people are aware of the retained fire service, of how it works and of the opportunities it provides.

Mr. Drew: That is certainly true. I am merely saying that I think any advertising should be aimed at employers rather than attempting to recruit directly. Employers may encourage staff to think about becoming retained firefighters, but those who are interested will have probably taken that route already. It is more a question of securing release from employers.

I think we need a set of proposals from the Government, rather than legislation for the statute book.

Mr. Swire : The Minister will have to resist the temptation to use the Labour party buzzword of the last fortnight—"opportunistic", as applied to everything that the Opposition do—because I think that there is a commonality of interest in this case. The new clause is eminently sensible, and deals with an issue about which we in the west country feel strongly. As we have heard, Devon in particular relies very much on its retained firefighters.

I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that retained firefighters should not be regarded in an individual way, in that they are part and parcel of the deal. In our part of the world, however, they are perhaps more significant than they are in other areas. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) mentioned the costs to Devon fire and rescue service of the increase in retained firemen's salaries—above 16 per cent. over three years, representing a total increase of 23 per cent. in the authority's budget. That means that a £2 million increase is needed for the service just to stand still.

The Bill does not address the issue of rural sparsity, which has an impact on the question of retained firemen. Nowadays we look increasingly to employers in the private sector, and elements of the public sector, to release employees so that they can do community jobs. We have community support police, for instance, as well as established voluntary bodies such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Sidmouth inshore lifeboat service—if I may give a plug to an excellent service in my area.

We seem to be asking businesses, particularly those in the private sector, to do more and more, while penalising them through higher national insurance contributions and more and more socially based legislation. All that deters them from taking on more people in order to expand. Now we are telling them that, having taken on more people despite all the penalties, they should release those people to do community jobs. We have to be very careful in terms of how much we ask these hard-pressed businesses to do.

However, I take the point that we need to raise awareness of the existence of the retained fire service and the opportunities within it—not only among employers but among the employees themselves. However, I am not convinced that an advertising campaign per se is the answer. It might go some way towards alleviating the problem in the short term, but we need to articulate a

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career structure in the retained service to show people that there is a career progression, that the terms of employment have been improved, and that the service is a viable alternative for those who cannot become full-time firemen, or for those for whom the fire service has not provided the opportunity to become full-time firemen.

5.30 pm

I do not know the latest figures for retained firefighters in Devon—whether there is a problem, or whether one is likely to arise—but the genuine feeling exists that this legislation is based on the desire to create larger units, which it surely will, and that at some point our service will be subsumed and we will come off worse. Ours is a very good fire authority that works extremely well, using a lot of local knowledge; frankly, it cannot be improved upon. A merger and no increase in the number of retained firemen could result in one of two things: a loss of cover or a cut in services. As we all know, for a rural area the insurance implications of a loss of cover could be very profound indeed. That issue has not been touched on at all.

I take the point, made by the hon. Member for Stroud, about increasing the number of off-call retained firemen, but to go down that road would require increasing the number of retained firemen on call at any given time. I do not see how having more off-call firemen would deal with the problem of a lack of retained firemen. Yet more would be needed, and such a problem cannot be solved in that way.

I should be interested to hear what the Under-Secretary has to say about new clause 2. We Conservatives are generally against increasing the amount of legislation, but the creation of such an advisory panel would mean that our retained firemen were being properly represented. The new clause is well constructed. It refers to

and to

I suspect that there are lessons to be learned, particularly in the light of the mobilisation—[Interruption.] If the Under-Secretary would do me the courtesy of listening, he might be in a better position to answer this point. Indeed, when I asked the Minister for Local and Regional Government a direct question earlier, I was not granted the courtesy of a direct reply.

I shall re-run what I said to allow the Under-Secretary to take it on board. In terms of releasing private sector and public sector employees, there are probably lessons to be learned from the recent Iraq war. There was a significant mobilisation of the Territorial Army and other reserve forces, but to be honest some employers were more compliant and encouraging to their employees than others. It would be very interesting if representatives of those self-same employers were included on a advisory panel, which might well be able to answer some of our questions about retained firemen.

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