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Richard Younger-Ross: First, let me emphasise that Liberal Democrats have a clear commitment to the regions. That is why we tabled an amendment in Committee to give broader powers to an elected regional assembly. We would give the powers for fire services to such an assembly. The Bill makes such provision for Wales but, sadly, the Government and Conservative Members decided to reject a measure to devolve power

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from the centre to the regions in England. As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) pointed out earlier, there is a tendency to take powers up to regional level rather than from the top down.

Mr. Hammond: We could not support the amendment that the hon. Gentleman tabled in Committee partly because it would have given each region a responsibility for preparing a national framework.

Richard Younger-Ross: It dealt with a regional framework, but there may have been glitches in the parliamentary language. The hon. Gentleman was always quick to point out that the Government have far more resources to spend on drafting than Conservative Members do. I never complained in Committee about our lack of resources or the Short money that the Conservative party receives to help it. I simply stress that it is important that powers come downwards and do not necessarily go upwards.

In the context of new clause 5, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made some extremely good points about existing boundaries. The points that the Minister made in his interventions were not especially strong. Existing boundaries were established for entirely different purposes. Their use for constructing regional assemblies is a mistake. I shall not repeat previous arguments about the great variety of area sizes and populations.

When preparing for the Bill, I visited several fire authorities. One of the control centres emphasised to me why a single control room for a region the size of the south-west would be inappropriate. In one control room, a tape was played of a small boy who dialled 999 to say that he could smell smoke. His mother was asleep upstairs on the bed with the baby.

7.45 pm

The controller asked the child where he lived. He could give the house name and the street name, but not the name of the town. The controller spent approximately 15 minutes talking matters through with the child. When the child named his school, the control room was able eventually to determine where the town was. It would be far harder for a single regional control room to work out such detail—not street names or the location of the chippie, as we discussed in Committee, but basic knowledge about where schools are—and thus identify the location of the incident. In the case that I mentioned, the child, the mother and the baby were all saved. I am not sure that that would have happened if there had been a regional control room.

Mr. Swire: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as I have had to be absent from the Chamber for a little while, for which I apologise.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. When I visited the Devon fire rescue services centre, which he has visited often, I was impressed by its ability not only to locate a fire but to determine the equipment that was required to deal with it. For example, a specific number of vehicles and personnel would be sent to a burning

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timber yard. Of course, information is held on a computer, but local knowledge is also built up over many years. Anything that undermines that will disadvantage both the service and local people.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point well and I do not need to add to it. Conservative Members and Liberal Democrat Members accept that there does not necessarily have to be one control room to one authority, as currently happens. We accept that there might be some efficiency savings in combining some control rooms. However, the boundaries that the Government propose are fundamentally flawed. The Minister argued that there is currently a resilient regional network. That is a strong argument, but, if it is so strong, why will not he allow it to be tested? New clause 5 calls for a review—it states not that the boundaries should be changed but that they should be reviewed. If the review found that the Minister was correct, we would have to say, "Fair enough." However, he insists on forcing through inappropriate boundaries.

Let us consider amendments Nos. 21, 22 and 23. I thank the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge for his broad support and I shall answer his questions. The Bill causes concern to the general public and especially those in the fire services because it states that


People outside the Chamber may read into the phrase,


simply economy savings. Those conditions are not strong enough to force authorities to combine. An authority should be forced to combine only if it is negligent or failing. Amendment No. 21 would ensure that authorities that function well could continue to provide the service that the public require. Only if they are failing will the Minister be able to cast them aside and force them to combine.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge about reorganisation. In my haste to redraft clause 2, I assumed that, under clause 22, a combined authority would follow a voluntary request, as long as there had been a reorganisation. Perhaps something should have been added, but I think that clause 22 would cover the situation.

Clause 23 is complementary to new clause 9 rather than being an alternative. I think that new clause 9 has failings, but they are minor and not worth discussing in detail. The principles are broadly right.

The proposal in amendment No. 23 for "one third" rather than "half" is intended simply to limit the Secretary of State's powers. Let us suppose that he has decided to combine the authorities, and to appoint up to 49 per cent. of members. How easy would it be for those so appointed to find one person elected from the authorities to take their side? I suspect that it would not be very difficult—and if they could do it, in effect the Government would control the committee. Reducing the Secretary of State's say to a third would allow the Government to have a say, but would prevent them

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from controlling the authority. Local authorities must be trusted; if we cannot trust them, there is no point in having them. Democracy relies on that trust.

As for Government amendments 7 to 11, I too am thankful that there was something on which the Government were prepared to concede, and I am glad that it was a Liberal Democrat amendment, supported by the Conservatives. I am not sure whether they proposed the same amendment and it went in after ours, or whether they added their names to ours, but the fact remains that the need for change was accepted in principle.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made a very good point about the meaning of the word "urgent". I need to do some things urgently, but some things need to be done more urgently than others. The definition of the word "urgent" is like a piece of elastic. The Minister must tell us in what circumstances he would need an urgent management arrangement. Management reorganisation, by its very nature, takes time. I am not certain that urgency is required in this case. We will not be churlish, though. We are thankful for the concessions that have been made, although they may be small pickings.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I am going to be parochial, and talk about control rooms or call centres rather than the more general subject of regionalisation. Although the Bill does not refer to control rooms in depth, they are a constituency issue.

In some ways, Gloucestershire has been penalised for being somewhat ahead of the game. Not so many years ago, the thinking tended towards tri-service rather than regional arrangements. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know how difficult it was to get an arrangement up and running in Gloucestershire involving three services in one building, control rooms working together, and a level of integration that has not been achieved elsewhere in the country. I gather that as recently as last week there was an attempt to integrate the three services in Wiltshire, but so far it has not proved possible to integrate the fire service with the other two. In our case, members of the fire service said that the arrangement could prove difficult and dangerous, and there was even talk of loss of lives. I am pleased to say, however, that at local level all three services have been pragmatic enough not just to do this but to make it work, in a £6 million centre.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the threat of a loss of lives, but let us talk about loss of money for a moment. As far as he is aware, has anyone told the authorities in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire how they will cover their financial exposure to the tri-service control centres that they have set up, at the Deputy Prime Minister's exhortation, when the regional control rooms go ahead?

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman is getting very excited. I shall deal with his point shortly.

It would be helpful to know whether the Minister can give Gloucestershire certain assurances, not least an assurance that the £6 million tri-centre building and its facilities will survive.

In Gloucestershire, the extent of integration has gone beyond call centres. We now have a tri-service workshop. The three services work together to ensure

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that their equipment, machinery and vehicles are worked on not by the same set of engineers but under the same roof. Much can be learnt from that model. We do not want the region to lose it. As the Minister knows, the services have also set up a "blue skies group", which thinks through problems and does what it can to bring about even more integration. I hope that before any decisions are made about regional control centres the Minister will visit that centre, and take a good look at it.

I am trying to be pragmatic, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) has been, especially in Committee. I note that, whether deliberately or otherwise, he proposes in amendment No. 22 the insertion of paragraph (c) in clause 2 in addition to paragraphs (a) and (b) rather than their replacement by it. In other words, he is creating circumstances in which a more regional or consolidated structure would exist. That is certainly pragmatic.

If a regional structure is adopted for call centres and control rooms, I do not think there is a better example of best practice in the south-west than what we have managed to achieve in our tri-service centre. I should be interested to hear the Minister's view on our chances of ensuring that it remains in Gloucestershire and that the three services can continue to learn from the three levels of integration. I think that Gloucestershire is an ideal location, given the way in which they have worked together and made things happen.


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