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5.45 pm

In the White Paper, "Our Fire and Rescue Service", we made it clear that we agreed with much of Bain's thinking on the negotiating machinery. Our objective was—and still is—to see three negotiating bodies for uniformed fire and rescue service staff. We want one for chief fire officers and assistant chief fire officers; one for middle managers; and one for fire fighters and control room staff. Like Bain, we also want the new negotiating bodies extended to include a wider range of employee representative bodies. That will benefit all fire service employees and will ensure that issues relating to the pay terms and conditions of retained staff can be tackled effectively.

Members will know that, under the pay agreement for the fire and rescue service 2003, the current negotiating machinery is being reviewed. I hope that that review will result in the improvements that both the independent review of the fire service and the recent White Paper articulated—a matter that later amendments touch on—but, if it does not, the Bill will enable the Government to take the powers needed to bring about those improvements themselves. I still hope that that will not be necessary.

Hon. Members will be aware that, both in the White Paper and the draft national framework, the Government have recognised the vital contribution of the retained section of the service and have acknowledged the need to find solutions to the long-recognised problems of recruitment and retention, which have been mentioned this afternoon. That is why I announced on 15 December that there would be a review of issues affecting the retained section of the service. Under the more flexible arrangements afforded by the new consultative structure, a team has now been formed to take forward that review.

The review team's key remit is to examine the factors that contribute to the recruitment and retention challenges faced by the retained section of the fire and rescue service. That will include issues surrounding equality and diversity, public awareness, engagement with the business community, deployment, community participation, and the role, reward and conditions of service as they relate to recruitment and retention issues.

The retained review team met for the first time on 21 January. Its membership is drawn from across the fire and rescue service community and includes representatives from the Local Government Association, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, the Retained Firefighters Union, the Fire Brigades Union, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Scottish Executive justice department.

Although the focus of the review will be the fire and rescue services of England and Wales, the Scottish Executive justice department's participation has been invited because the issues that the retained review team will be investigating also have relevance to the Scottish fire service. ODPM will also liaise with the Northern Ireland fire service about the work of the review team.

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Only the key service stakeholder groups will be directly involved on the review team. However, other organisations—including public and private employers' organisations—will be involved in helping to identify a range of options for tackling the recruitment and retention challenges. I made it very clear in Committee that employers would be fully engaged in the process. It is essential that we understand the motives, and the reluctance, of private and public employers whom we wish to attract into releasing staff to become retained firefighters. The review team is therefore seeking advice from a wide range of public and private sector employers and the national bodies that represent them.

Let me go further to provide more reassurance to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. A workshop has been arranged for the end of April, which will involve the review team, other representatives from the fire and rescue service, organisations that rely on volunteers in order to provide a service, Government Departments, employers' organisations in the public and private sectors and bodies that promote opportunities for voluntary work both to individuals and to employers. We anticipate that the workshop will provide the review with valuable insight into how the challenges of recruitment, retention and business community engagement can be effectively overcome.

The business community will include the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, which will bring a welcome nod from Conservative Members, and Business in the Community. I might add that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, along with the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, will also be invited. We would like to invite those bodies, along with others that I shall not read out, to participate in the workshop, and I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.

On recruitment budgets for retained firefighters, I am sure that the review will want to take into account the survey, which has been mentioned this afternoon. The retained review must examine recruitment budgets, which are matters for individual fire and rescue authorities, because we do not know whether they separately identify whole-time and retained firefighters. When we make judgments about budgets, we must know the detail, which is exactly what a review team and a workshop can identify. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is providing centrally produced recruitment literature for use by all fire and rescue authorities.

Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister will know, because it has been in all the papers, that there is a massive campaign to recruit special constables. Does he envisage that the Government might lead or encourage such a recruitment campaign for retained firefighters?

Phil Hope: The retained review is all about examining what works and what does not. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that the ODPM is producing a video that includes information on retained firefighters, which can be issued to raise awareness in the local community about the wider role of retained firefighters. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge pointed out that the issue is about not only adverts but

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understanding the wider contribution that retained firefighters make and that we want them to continue to make in future.

Mr. Swire: Can the workshop's remit be extended to discuss with the Institute of Directors and other employers' organisations what incentives can be offered to employers who regularly release their employees as retained firemen?

Phil Hope: The problem with identifying one or two organisations is that the list tends to grow. I cannot say whether the workshop will examine that point, but it is the exactly the kind of issue that the review team must examine to ensure that we are getting things right.

A number of hon. Members have raised questions about different things that the review might do. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked whether greater flexibility in the times when retained firefighters are required to be on call might help recruitment, and the review team will certainly examine that issue. Individual fire services are already examining the requirement to be on call, with flexibility in mind, and they are offering differing contracts depending on what times retained firefighters can offer. My hon. Friend's contribution was helpful and it addresses the issue of the availability of retained firefighters in terms of their living or working close to a fire station.

The hon. Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for Taunton (Mr. Flook) discussed funding. I do not want to get diverted into a debate about funding, but when they bid for extra cash for Devon, which is understandable, they might like to have a word with the shadow Chancellor, who has just announced a policy to freeze funds for local government—I do know how he will square that with his Back Benchers. Conservative Front Benchers often say that they will clamp down on public spending, but Conservative Back Benchers keep standing up and asking for more cash. I do not want to introduce discord into the debate; I simply point out some of the contradictions in the position adopted by Conservative Members.

The physical hard work undertaken by retained firefighters in their firefighting activities has been pointed out, but the Bill's purpose is to broaden the role that the fire service plays, which includes promoting community fire safety. We will attract many more people into the fire service, whether they are whole-time or retained firefighters, who will undertake a variety of roles. The extra numbers mean that firefighters can focus on prevention, which is important in reducing fire death.

Mr. Hammond: That is interesting. Does the Minister envisage fire authorities engaging retained personnel to carry out routine, non-emergency response duties? As far as I know, the bulk of the retained work is responsive, and the nature of the role will change slightly if retained firefighters report by pre-planned arrangements to do preventive work.

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the bulk of the work is responsive. When I described the fire service's wider role in prevention at the Retained Firefighters Union conference, a retained firefighter said

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that retained firefighters could not do that. Before I could respond, a Welsh retained firefighters' representative stood up and gave an excellent account of how retained firefighters are doing precisely that in Wales. The flexibility and diversity of the role provides many opportunities for retained firefighters to contribute to the overall targets that we are endeavouring to achieve.

I have answered in full the questions about how we will consult on the future of retained firefighters, and I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he requires. The review team will, we hope, submit its report to the practitioners forum in July, and its report will contain its recommendations, its implementation and communications strategies and its programme for delivery. Given today's debate and the consultation, which will take place not only through the workshop but in other ways, I hope that we have satisfied the hon. Gentleman that new clause 2 is not necessary and that he will see fit to withdraw it.

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