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Mr. Raynsford: I repeatedly told the hon. Gentleman in CommitteeI am surprised that he did not hearthat in each of the Government office regions we have regional resilience forums, which ensure that we have the best possible resilience to cope with terrorist threats and other emergencies. How can he possibly suggest that it does not make strong operational sense to align the boundaries of the fire and rescue services' work in that regard with those of the regional resilience forums?
Mr. Hammond: What the Minister is seeking to do is reorganise the work of fire and rescue authorities, 90 per cent.-plus of which will be carrying out the community-based role that they have to perform along Government office region lines. He has never sought to evaluateI stand to be corrected if he can produce some evidence, but I have never seen itthe most appropriate geographical arrangements for the delivery of a supra-brigade level.
Mr. Hammond: That is very interesting, but it does not answer the accusation that the regions that have been selected for political purposes are self-evidently not the most appropriate ones for the delivery of fire and rescue services.
Mr. Hammond: If the Minister wishes to intervene again, perhaps he will explain why the most appropriate unit for organisation of the fire and rescue service in the north-east has a population of 2.5 million spread over 8,000 sq km, while in the south-west, it is a unit with a geographical extent of 23,000 sq km, and in the south-east, it is a unit with a population of 8 million.
Mr. Raynsford: I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that it is because it is essential for operational needs that there is clear contiguity between the regional resilience forums and the fire and rescue service. That is very much about public safety. Will he now please withdraw the entirely unjustified allegation that this is a political arrangement? It is not such an arrangement because it is about public safety and the best arrangements that we can make to guarantee us against the risk of terrorism and other serious incidents.
Mr. Hammond: I do not remember the Minister rushing to the Dispatch Box to withdraw the inappropriate accusation that he made against me earlier in the debate, and I did not press the point at the time. I shall not withdraw my concern that one of the driving forces for the Government in taking this route and using the organisational units is that that approach fits extremely well with another important political initiative by the Departmentthe promotion of the regional structure in Britain.
If the Minister were to commission from Mott MacDonald or whoever else an independent report of the sort suggested by new clause 5, asking what the optimal sub-national organisation of England would bewe are now talking only about Englandfor operational fire and rescue purposes, it is theoretically possible that the answer would be a structure of 8,000 sq km in the north-east and 23,000 sq km in the south-west, with 2.5 million people in the north-east and 8 million people in the south-east. However, I very much doubt that that would happen, as it flies in the face of all intuition and logic. In the absence of such a report, I am deeply sceptical. That is why new clause 5 seeks to require that an independent study be carried out on the optimal organisational units for fire and rescue purposes. If those units are the Government office regions, fine, but I am prepared to bet that an independent report would find otherwise.
The new clause would also require an independent study to be carried out on the impact of the existing regional structure. That will be a structure of regional management boards and any regional combined fire authorities that the Minister has created at the time when the study is conducted. That is the best that we can
If the proposed reports were carried out, they would show whether there is a better way of organising supra-brigade level activity and whether the Government office regions structure is really a cost-effective way of organising fire and rescue services, as well as what impact it is having on fire and rescue authority management capability, which appears likely inevitably to wither as a result of the transfer of responsibilities up to regional management boards.
That process would be entirely objective. If the Minister is confident that the best interests of public safety are served by the Government office regions and that they are the best and most appropriate units of organisation, he has nothing to fear in accepting the new clause and commissioning an independent report, so that we can all see some independent underpinning of the Government's position and some basis for his repeated assertion, which flies in the face of intuition, that this structure of organisation has not been adopted because it ties in with the ODPM's other agenda of regional government. The public would then be able to see for themselves whether the structure is designed primarily to enhance public safety rather than to advance the Deputy Prime Minister's regional agenda.
Amendments Nos. 3 and 14 address another frankly outrageous or preposterousI shall put it that way, as that is the Minister's favourite wordprovision: clause 2(2)(b). That provision allows the Secretary of State to create new combined fire and rescue authorities if efficiency, effectiveness and economy demand that he does so. That is fine, but it is not the case if the combined fire and rescue authority that he wishes to create is one whose boundaries coincide with those of a regional development agency region. In that case, he does not have to demonstrate that creating the authority will be in the interests of efficiency, effectiveness and economy; he can proceed with no hurdles and no best value criteria to be met. That seems a scandalous misuse of public responsibility, and amendment No. 3 would allow a combined fire authority for a region to be created without hurdles only if it was for a region identified in the report that would be required under new clause 5 as an optimum regiona region that, by definition, is the most appropriate one for the delivery of fire and rescue services.
If the Government reject new clause 5, amendment No. 14 offers an alternative route, as it seeks to delete all together the special treatment for a regional combined fire authority and to make all new combined fire authorities subject to the criteria set out in clause 2(2)(a).
New clause 9 addresses a different issue. It seeks to limit one of the extraordinary powers of the Secretary of State under the Bill. The power to create a combined fire and rescue authority mirrors the power under the 1947 Act to create a combined fire authority, but the power to appoint 50 per cent. of the members of that authority, minus one, is new. While protesting that fire and rescue remain a local service, the Government are not only grafting on a regional structure, but displaying their usual centralising instinct by taking draconian powers to appoint the members. Deployment of the power will
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will recall that, on Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), the Chairman of the Select Committee, whose work the hon. Gentleman so frequently quotes, made very early the point that the calibre of members appointed to fire and rescue authorities was not always of the highest. Does he recognise that there may be some truth in that, and that if there is a problem, it is appropriate to think about how the calibre of fire authorities could be enhanced?
Mr. Hammond: The Minister puts his point in very reasonable terms, and if he listens, he will see that I recognise the possibility of his needing the reserve power. That does not alter the preposterousness of suggesting that whenever the electorate choose badly Ministers can intervene. Where will it end? If people choose duff councillors, does he want to be able to intervene and replace them? That is the clear implication. What about duff MPs? Those are not unknown. Does he want to intervene and appoint new Members of Parliament?
The Minister quoted the Select Committee Chairman on Second Reading and in Committee and said that he thought there was a problem, and I aired those concerns at the recent LGA fire conferencethey did not go down very well with the local government members there.
New clause 9 sets out a procedure to ensure that any Secretary of State appointment is only a last resort, when no appropriate nominees are offered by the appointing authority. We may have an objection in principle to such a power of appointment, but the new clause is drafted in a spirit of compromise, recognising the argument that reserve powers may be needed. Combined fire authority members are appointed by the authorities that would be fire authorities if not for the existence of the combined fire authority. Under the new clause, in circumstances in which the scheme gives the Secretary of State powers to appoint, he has to exercise them by taking names from lists submitted to him by those underlying authorities. Furthermore, if he does not believe that there are sufficient suitable people on the list, he can specify reasons for rejecting any of the nominees and ask the authorities to submit a further list, reflecting criteria that he has set down in his rejection.
I honestly do not think that I could have been more accommodating in wording new clause 9. Only if the second set of lists that the Secretary of State receives from the appointing authorities contains insufficient numbers of what he believes to be suitable candidates can he use the reserve power to appoint someone who is not on a list. That introduces some objectivity, local input and transparency to the process, because he has to account for his rejections. As rejection can be made only on grounds of suitability, there is scope for a challenge to his decisions.
The Minister is no doubt preparing a defence that this is all impossibly complex and will take too long, but there is a good analogy with the arrangements in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, under which the Secretary of State selects a shortlist from a longlist submitted to him by local bodies, and then refers that shortlist back to the police authority to make the final appointment: a three-stage process that has not proved impossibly cumbersome but ensures proper interaction between the powers of the Secretary of State and the important role of local stakeholders.
The Minister has made it clear that if an elected regional assembly is set up in any region, he will appoint a combined fire authority for that region. I understood him to intend that it would be members of the elected regional assembly who would effectively make up the combined fire authority, but clause 3(3)(a) refers only to
Government amendments Nos. 7 to 11 give effect to a concession that the Minister made in Committee. They impose a requirement for an inquiry prior to the creation of a new combined fire authority or the variation or revocation of an existing authority established under the 1947 Act, except where the underlying authorities are all in agreement, or the combined authority is created as a result of local government reorganisation, or the Minister considers that the need for reorganisation is urgent.
Of course we accept that things can be urgent and that circumstances can change quickly, but it is difficult to envisage a situation in which public safety would require a management restructuring without delay. The Secretary of State has many powers under the Bill to intervene in an emergency or where an authority is failing. He can direct them to do or not do things, to share equipment and to take responsibility for each other's functions. It is almost inconceivable that in a real emergency the solution would be to alter the management structure and change the shape of the authority. That cannot be done overnight, and frankly a new fire authority cannot be instantly effective just because a Minister says that it should be.
Does the Minister have examples that support the need for that final exemption from the requirement for a public inquiry? I should say, however, not to be churlish, that this concession is worth noting as one of the few positive changes that the Government have been prepared to accept, and we are grateful for what we consider a significant additional protection.
Amendment No. 21 would introduce a test of failure by a fire and rescue authority before the Secretary of State can create a combined authority. With the exception of the circumstances of local government reorganisation, which is a pretty big exception, I agree with what the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) is seeking to do through that amendment. I also agree that there is no such requirement in the Bill. However, the amendment does not address the fact that most if not all combined authorities to date have been created as a result of local government reorganisation, which clearly should be recognised.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there is a difference between failing in discharging statutory functions and the Secretary of State perceiving that there may be additional things that could be done differently or something that he does not like about how the authority operates. It is a difference of degree, and intervention by the Secretary of State is appropriate in the one case but not in the other. I therefore have a great deal of sympathy with amendment No. 21.
Amendment No. 22 sets out the voluntary route to a combined fire authority. Let me put a difficult case to the hon. Member for Teignbridge. If an elected regional assembly were established in any of the English regions, some fire authorities in the region might try to create a combined authority as an alternative to a regional combined fire and rescue authority. How would the hon. Gentleman respond to such an initiative? Would he support it in the interests of localism or abandon Liberal Democrat principles of many years to support the party's more recent desire to snuggle up to the Government as they promote their regional agenda? Does he support local authorities' right to retain their independence if they choose to do that? Amendment No. 22 could be used to achieve that.
I hope that amendment No. 23 is not an attempt at compromise. If it is wrong for the Secretary of State to appoint half the members of an authority, it is wrong for the Secretary of State to appoint a third. Since I am feeling charitable, I shall interpret amendment No. 23 as being complementary to and not a substitute for new clause 9 so that when all its safety-net provisions were accepted, the hon. Gentleman would still like the Secretary of State to be limited to appointing a third of the members of a new combined fire authority. I hope that that interpretation is correct. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will reassure hon. Members about that.