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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Given that the Under-Secretary is not even extending to my hon. Friend the courtesy of listening to his argument, is he not a little worried that such an advisory body would be ignored by a Government who are not interested in the employer's view, and who do not look after retained firemen?

Mr. Swire: My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Having sat through our deliberations in Committee, I know that neither the Under-Secretary nor the Minister is interested in any of our arguments. So far as they are concerned, they are going to implement this measure, in keeping with their attempt to regionalise everything and in line with the artificial regions that they are seeking to create throughout the country. It is part of their regionalisation programme, and anything that stands in the way of that is dismissed.

The Government say that we are little Englanders and that we are not keen on modernisation, but as we know, that is all baloney. [Interruption.] The Minister says "Correct" from a sedentary position, but many of the people who will shortly be invited to vote on whether to have regional assemblies will probably show that it is we who are correct. We leave that, however, to the electorate—something that the Minister is apparently not prepared to do, given that he is prejudging the result of a democratic vote. Historically, that has been shown to be a dangerous thing to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) suggested that the Minister might not be listening to employers. There is no real evidence that anything that this Government have ever done has involved listening to employers, particularly in the private sector. They are seen as the bogey men, the people who must pay more each time there is a tax rise. As we look forward to a third term of Labour tax rises, if there is to be one—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members are clearly not listening. As we look forward to a possible third term of Labour tax rises, those employers will be invited to pay more and more tax, but we are asking the self-same people to release employees to act as retained firefighters.

It is incumbent on the Minister for Local and Regional Government to consider having a platform, such as that suggested in new clause 2, to enable representatives of the retained fire services and employers to get round a table and solve a problem that he has to admit exists—we have not invented it. I shall be interested to know the answer, if either the Minister or the Under-Secretary will do me the courtesy of answering the question.

Mr. Flook: If we are to protect the fire service in our rural counties, we need an advisory panel on the recruitment and retention of retained firefighters. That would make eminent sense. As we have already heard, retained firefighters are the backbone of the service, especially in rural areas. That is certainly the case in Somerset, where only three of the 27 firefighting stations are full time: Taunton, Bridgwater and Yeovil; the other 24 stations operate on a retained basis. In my constituency, that involves some very brave men and women in Wellington, Wiveliscombe and Dulverton. By definition, they are drawn closely from the local community, which is vital in rural areas because many

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addresses are not tabulated in the way in which we should like them to be, and local knowledge is needed to discover exactly where fires are, and where firefighters must go.

The future is worrying. As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said, the recruitment and consequent retention of firefighters in the retained stations is dropping considerably. There is already a 20 per cent. shortfall, which is no surprise in rural areas. My hon. Friend mentioned greengrocers, and many farmers and farm workers are also involved, of whom there are now far fewer. As we all know, there are also fewer farms—no doubt because other Government policy undermines them. There are therefore fewer and fewer people who are willing and physically able to be retained firefighters.

It is important to address that issue, and one way of doing so would be better and more fully to understand why employers might be willing to release individual employees to be retained firefighters. It is therefore helpful and sensible to suggest that an advisory panel be set up. It would be even more helpful if there were greater representation of private sector employers. I presume that the 20 per cent. shortfall is increasing rather than decreasing, and although the Government may not agree with the precise wording of new clause 2, I should be interested to learn how the Minister for Local and Regional Government intends to remove that serious impediment to the modernisation of the fire service. Somerset, a rural county that is delivering its firefighting capability very cost effectively, is not receiving its fair share of the transitional funding needed to move to a modernised firefighting service. That is also the case in Devon. If the shortfall is increasing, one solution would be to set up an advisory panel, as proposed in new clause 2, to enable the Government to understand the reasons behind the shortfall and work towards lessening it.

Richard Younger-Ross: I am not too sure of the situation in Somerset, but Devon requires £2 million in transitional funding and has been loaned £500,000. The important word is "loaned"; the money must be paid back.

Mr. Flook: I am grateful for that intervention. Only a quarter of the contribution is being made in the short term—rather than in the long term—because it has to be paid back.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made an excellent point about the need to raise awareness. In communities that have retained firefighters, the firefighters' neighbours will probably know what they do part time, at weekends and at night, but the majority of people in communities such as Wellington, Wiveliscombe and Dulverton will not be aware of that. It would help if the Government and local firefighters did more to raise that awareness.

I welcome the announcement that the Minister made on 15 December of a review of the retained firefighting service. It will be interesting, some weeks on, to see whether he is able to inform the House of any progress. In Committee, he alluded to the involvement of the CBI, and I would be interested to hear whether he would consider it appropriate for the Federation of Small

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Businesses or the Institute of Directors to become involved, and whether they could be asked why they believe there is a shortfall and how they could help to shore up the gap, which seems to be getting larger rather than smaller.

Phil Hope: I appreciate the concerns about the recruitment and retention challenges that face the retained section of the fire and rescue service, which have prompted the proposal of this new clause, but I believe that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) is misguided in suggesting that a new statutory standing body would be an effective method of tackling these issues. I hope that I will be able to satisfy his concerns about engagement with the public and private sector employers, for example. I note that he has recruited two whole-time Back Benchers—if I may call them that—from the Committee, and one retained Back Bencher, who seems to have slipped in, and who will possibly slip out again later—[Interruption.] I also appreciate that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge seems to have taken the whole Committee stage through single-handedly.

Hon. Members will no doubt recall that the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council also acted as a statutory consultee for the majority of the Secretary of State's regulation-making powers under the Fire Services Act 1947. That body has already been criticised for its increasing inability to provide any strategic direction on the future of the fire and rescue service. Indeed, Professor Bain's report recommended a new advisory and consultative structure that would widen engagement with stakeholders and ensure a focus on strategic advice rather than on executive functions. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that we have already put this new, more flexible structure in place. The practitioners forum and the business and community safety forum are up and running to ensure that both the providers and the users of the service can inform the process of modernisation.

Mr. Hammond: Which business representative organisations are engaged in the business and community safety forum?

Phil Hope: I can confirm that the CBI, for example, is a member of the forum. The hon. Gentleman mentioned other business organisations, and I shall describe in a moment how they are being consulted in the review of the retained fire service.

It was not just the existing advisory and consultative structure that Professor Bain considered to be ineffective. The independent review of the fire service found the existing negotiating machinery also to be ineffective. The Bain report recommended that it be replaced with

The new body should have an independent chair and clear links to Ministers and the policy-making process. Significantly, Bain also made it clear that membership of the body should include the Retained Firefighters Union, whose members, like those of the other unions,

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have a keen interest in the new clause and a very strong interest in effective negotiating machinery. I include in that the National Association of Fire Officers, the Association of Principal Fire Officers and Unison, as well as the Fire Brigades Union.

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