Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation, but I detect a touch of complacency. He does not recognise the crisis that the retained service currently faces—the retained service is short of 20 per cent. of its personnel and as the role expands that shortfall is likely to get considerably worse.

I am interested in the workshop that the Minister is holding. As he anticipates, I shall write to him to suggest some other organisations that might appropriately be invited to participate in order to ensure that the business community bodies represent the employers found in the areas where the retained service operates—on the whole, that is not city centres or even large towns but rural and semi-rural areas. If the Minister has an observer ticket for that workshop, perhaps he will write to me. I promise to keep my mouth closed, but I would be interested to see what goes on.

It is disappointing that the Minister has not made a commitment to add business membership to the review team, which is the ongoing body that will report to the practitioners forum in the summer. Despite everything that Ministers say about changing the culture of the fire service, which I am sure that they genuinely want to achieve, their approach is still exclusive. The review team is made up entirely of insiders—employers, civil servants, expert advisers and union officials—who will listen to what people in the real world have to say, but those slightly awkward people from the real world have not been risked on the inside of the deliberation. I would feel more comfortable if the Minister had said that he would put representatives of the business community on to the review team, which might then achieve rapid progress in the direction that we all want to go.

Perhaps the best way to make progress would be if the Minister were to have a quite word in the ear of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, preferably before Wednesday, to suggest that when he is thinking about incentives to business to do various worthwhile things for the good of the economy, he might spare a thought for those businesses that could be persuaded to release employees for retained firefighting duties, which might make a rapid difference to the available pool of retained firefighters.

15 Mar 2004 : Column 60

I do not intend to press new clause 2; I simply wanted to raise the issue. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments and hope that we can regard the debate as ongoing, because it is in everybody's interests that we address the retained firefighter crisis.

I have one final point. The Minister said that he was not sure whether fire authorities had separate budgets for recruitment of retained firefighters or whether that was subsumed within a larger budget. Given the scale of the crisis and the significance of retained firefighter recruitment in some fire authorities, appropriate fire authorities should identify separate budgets for that purpose. When the Bill reaches the statute book, the Minister will have various powers to ensure that that happens and I hope that he will consider doing so as a means of making progress on the issue.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

6 pm

New Clause 4

Limitation on Power to Authorise Charging

'(1) An order under section 19 may not authorise a fire and rescue authority to charge for:
(a) extinguishing fires or protecting life and property in the event of fires; or
(b) rescuing people in the event of road traffic accidents or protecting people from serious harm in the event of road traffic accidents; or
(c) discharging any function relating to emergencies conferred on it by the Secretary of State under section 9.
(2) An order under section 19 may authorise a fire and rescue authority to charge for the provision of emergency medical assistance only in circumstances where a National Health Service Ambulance Trust is authorised to charge for such provision.'.—[Mr. Hammond.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment No. 12.

Amendment No. 2, in clause 19, page 9, line 10, leave out subsection (2).

Government amendment No. 13.

Mr. Hammond: The new clause deals with the scope of the power of the Secretary of State to authorise charging under clause 19. The current regime, under the 1947 Act, confers only one statutory function on fire authorities—that of extinguishing fires and protecting life and property in the event of fire—and prohibits charging for the discharge of that activity, but by omission it allows charging for all other areas of fire service activity. The practice is that few authorities charge for emergency work. I shall focus in this short debate on road traffic accidents.

15 Mar 2004 : Column 61

We should not confuse this issue with the power that exists, and could specifically be granted to fire and rescue authorities under the Bill, to charge for non-emergency functions, such as the use of equipment and manpower, or the establishment of the authority to carry out everyday functions such as pumping water out of a basement or filling a swimming pool. Those are useful functions, but they are not central to the emergency role of the service.

An essential part of the purpose of the Bill is to put road traffic accidents and other emergency work—for example, chemical and nuclear decontamination in the event of a terrorist attack, or rescue from floodwater—at the heart of what the fire and rescue services do. All those roles will have the same essential statutory basis as the current requirement to extinguish fires and protect life and property in the event of fire. The Minister has argued repeatedly—somewhat disingenuously—that because the Bill has a continuing prohibition on charging for fire-related activities, it reflects the 1947 Act. However, as I see it, that Act bans charging for the statutory function of the fire authority. There is only one statutory function at present. To retain the status quo, we would need to extend that ban on charging to all statutory functions, including attending at road traffic accidents and other emergencies. New clause 4 does not go that far. It does not suggest that the ban on charging should extend to the statutory functions of fire prevention and fire education work under clause 6. It simply suggests a prohibition on charging for the emergency statutory functions of the fire and rescue authorities under clauses 7, 8 and 9.

On the one hand, the Bill extends a clear additional statutory function, but on the other it seeks to keep open the ability to charge for the discharge of that function in an emergency. That is not an acceptable proposition, and it is not what our constituents expect us to legislate for. The Bill also provides for the charging of third parties, which is a thinly disguised reference to insurers. Charging motor insurers would represent another stealth tax on the Government's favourite victim, the motorist. What about the uninsured—the millions of people who drive on our roads every day without insurance? They are an increasing problem. Would they pay? How would the Government collect charges from people who do not have an insurer to pay up on their behalf, when they cannot collect two thirds of the fines imposed by courts on similar people? Will not this be simply another example of an additional charge or tax on the law-abiding, insured majority, while the public purse continues to support the antisocial minority?

Mr. Redwood: Is my hon. Friend worried that if a fire authority was particularly keen to recoup its costs in the way that he describes, there might be an argument about payment before someone received the service that they deserved in an emergency situation?

Mr. Hammond: My right hon. Friend raises an important point, but it is not a question of "might". At least one fire authority—the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority—is keen to charge in that way and has made it clear that it would like powers to charge for road traffic accident rescue work. Another practical problem might arise if fire authorities were allowed to charge for attending road traffic accidents.

15 Mar 2004 : Column 62

What if someone were involved in a road traffic accident and was trapped in his vehicle but physically uninjured? Such a person might tell the fire brigade, which has raced to the scene with lights flashing and sirens blaring, that he does not want to be cut out of his car and receive a bill for £250. He would rather wait while his friendly local mechanic or a chap he knows from down the pub, whom he has just phoned on his mobile phone, comes along to cut him out. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but it is central to our relationship with the emergency services that it never crosses our minds to ask whether we will be charged for the services delivered. When we pick up the phone and dial 999 because we see smoke, we do not wonder first whether there will be a charge for calling the fire brigade.

I am against charging for emergency services that are part of a statutory function, although I am not necessarily against charging for non-emergency work. I am also against discriminating against the law-abiding majority by limiting charging to those with insurers able to pay. That is the Government's idea of the way to make such charges a painless tax. I made the same point when I was health spokesman in 1998 during the passage of the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999. I sought an assurance in Committee on behalf of motorists, but all I got was a lecture from the Minister about bad landlords causing people to be trapped in lifts. Any hon. Members who have offices in Portcullis House will know that it has the eight lifts most likely to break down nearby, but they are not maintained by someone whom I would regard as a particularly bad landlord. I hope that the Minister will deal with motorists involved in road traffic accidents, instead of trying to refocus the discussion on people trapped in lifts.

Amendment No. 2 would leave out clause 19(2), which prevents charging for extinguishing fires, and replace it with new clause 4, which would prevent charging for fires, road traffic accidents and any emergency functions conferred on fire and rescue authorities by clause 19. That is an enabling clause that will give the Secretary of State power to confer functions by statutory instrument. We have the benefit of the Secretary of State's preliminary thinking, in the form of a draft statutory instrument that was circulated in Committee. To broaden the House's understanding of what is involved in clause 19 functions, the draft statutory instrument includes chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents; search and rescue in cases in which there is a serious threat that one or more persons has been trapped in the area as a result of a landslide or the collapse of a building; major flooding; and major rail, water and air accidents. It would be unthinkable to charge people for interventions in such emergencies, so why on earth cannot the Government rule out doing so?

Subsection (2) of new clause 4 addresses a different issue: charging for emergency medical assistance. The background to the provision is the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999, which authorises charging, via insurers, for the costs of national health service treatment provided after a road traffic accident. Our position during the progress of that measure was—as it remains—that we resist unfair discrimination against the motorist, who should not be seen as a soft target simply because, if he is a law-abiding individual, he will generally have insurance.

15 Mar 2004 : Column 63

A programme is currently under way to promote co-response and, indeed, first response by fire and rescue authorities, whereby if a fire and rescue authority is the first on the scene of an incident, it will increasingly—I shall come to that point later—be able to deliver emergency medical assistance. Furthermore, especially in rural areas, fire services could in future be the first responder to other types of medical emergency—for example, cardiac arrests—if the fire station was significantly nearer to the patient than the nearest ambulance station. We simply cannot have a situation in which people pay according to whether the fire engine or the ambulance gets there first. That would be outrageous and our proposal attempts to deal with it.

The Minister has obviously understood our concern, which we debated in Committee, and I am delighted that he responded with Government amendment No. 12, especially subsection (2A), which bans all charging for emergency medical assistance by fire authorities. However, I find myself in the curious position of having to tell him that I think he has given too much. We risk the opposite scenario, in which the victim lying at the roadside would no longer have to listen to the ambulance approaching from one side and the fire engine approaching from the other, hoping that the ambulance got there first so that he would not be charged by the fire service. As a result of amendment No. 12, he could be hoping that the fire engine got there first, because under the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999, if the ambulance arrived first, he might be charged by the NHS.

I anticipate the Minister's defence to my objection. A patient treated at the scene by a fire brigade will not always be taken away in an ambulance to an NHS hospital. Often, people at the roadside with minor injuries decline, for all sorts of reasons, to get into an ambulance and go to hospital; a plaster is stuck on the injury and they go off about their business. However, I hope that the Minister can give us a pragmatic answer to avoid creating a new injustice in resolving the one that we identified in the Standing Committee.

Amendment No. 12 limits the prohibition on charging for fires, so that fire authorities will be able to charge for fires under the sea—that is, in tunnels—or fires and rescues at sea. Can the Minister give us some information about that proposal? I understand that, at present, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has lead responsibility for rescue from fires at sea, which includes extinguishing them. What is the current practice on charging? From discussions with the Kent and Medway Towns fire authority, I know that the current interpretation of the 1947 Act is that it prevents charging for work carried out in relation to fires in the channel tunnel. None the less, there is an elaborate mechanism to allow the Kent and Medway combined authority to extract a substantial annual sum from the operators of the channel tunnel for providing cover for the tunnel. It would be useful if the Minister would clarify what the situation will be for the channel tunnel and other subsea structures, as well as how the amendment will affect rescue at sea? Government amendment No. 13 makes amendment No. 12

15 Mar 2004 : Column 64

consistent with other parts of the Bill, by making it clear that references to "sea" are not restricted to sea within the territorial limits of the United Kingdom.

Next Section

IndexHome Page