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Mr. Drew: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) that there is no better place in which to continue the experiment than the Gloucester tri-service centre.

Let me repeat what I said on Second Reading. In many respects this has been seen as the most controversial part of the Bill. Although we had our differences in Committee and although there have been disagreements about emphasis, there has been a good deal of consensus. It is about evolving change, and the same is true outside of this place. Both management and those working in the service have to a large extent agreed on the best way to make progress.

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However, this issue gives rise to some controversy, and I reiterate what I said on Second Reading. I have no fear about the way in which regional management boards would operate, in terms of the degree of strategic thinking and the need, in these days of terrorism and counter-terrorism, to consider how best we can operate and deploy our forces, but if we are talking about the making of decisions at a local level, the provision is not appropriate. Given the Gloucestershire experience—as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, the same attempt is being made elsewhere with varying degrees of success—it is somewhat short-sighted to throw everything away, in the hope that we can improve delivery by assuming that the regional structure is the only structure. There are all manner of problems in the south-west, but they are not just a south-west phenomenon; they are likely to arise elsewhere in the country. The strategic direction is right, but operational delivery, including the most important elements of call centre work, should remain as local as possible. We need also to consider how to improve the relationship between the three emergency services.

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We must also consider the system of accountability. I make no apology for saying again that if we are to do the job properly, we must begin by considering the three emergency services with a blank sheet of paper. What is the best form of accountability? If the Opposition are arguing that accountability is best fulfilled through a modified police authority system, they can count me out because it does not work. We have too many authorities and in many respects we have the worst of all worlds. People are appointed as part of their county councillor functions, and magistrates are appointed through a system that anyone outside the political classes would find difficult to explain. Such authorities do not consist of happy people, and if Gloucestershire is anything to go by, the rate of inflation of police expenditure is far greater than that of any other authorities.

Mr. Hammond: All systems have their flaws, but is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a police authority-style approach would work better if the Secretary of State simply appointed members, rather than receiving a long list from the local area and sending back a shortlist for local appointment?

Mr. Drew: What I am saying is that the proposed system—be it the Government's version or the Opposition's—is deeply flawed and is antagonising local people. The previous Conservative Government thought that they were being clever in taking the police out of local authorities' remits, but that decision has rebounded, in that there seems now to be a total lack of accountability to the wider populous.

We have an opportunity to consider how to deal with the three emergency services. If the Gloucestershire trust is anything to go by, we should consider the dilemma of the ambulance service. The Gloucestershire trust is the smallest trust. It is undermanned and underfinanced and regarded as very vulnerable. I urge the Government to consider carefully the arrangement between the three services in the context of our strategic direction. It will not help if we simply assume that fire authorities will deliver better services, while allowing the other two emergency services to drift in the wind. That is not acceptable. It will not constitute good delivery or build good relationships, and it will lead to greater confusion.

Mr. Raynsford: This has been an interesting debate on an even more interesting group of new clauses and amendments, which deal with combined fire and rescue authorities.

In order to understand part of the overall intention of new clause 5, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), it must be read in conjunction with amendment No. 3. It seeks to turn the clock back on the modernisation agenda, and to delay the action that both the Bain report and the White Paper argued were long overdue. I shall deal separately with two strands of the argument, the first of which is the impact of new clause 5(1)(a) in conjunction with amendment No. 3. The overall effect would be simple. First, it would remove clause 2(2)(b), which allows fire and rescue authorities to be combined so that their boundaries align with those of the English regions,

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and replace it with a requirement that within 12 months of any part of the Bill being enacted, an independent study be commissioned into the "optimum geographical areas" for organisation of the fire and rescue service.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister is surely wrong about that. All that amendment No. 3 does is to remove the exemption for CFAs that constitute a region coterminous with regional development agency regions, in order to satisfy the criteria under clause 2(2)(a). If the Minister is proposing a CFA for an RDA region and it meets the criteria under clause 2(2)(a), he has no difficulty.

Mr. Raynsford: My understanding is that amendment No. 3 would substitute the concept of a region as constituted for the purposes of regional development agencies legislation—in other words, a region as defined in terms of Government office regions—with a body that has emerged from the hon. Gentleman's review of the optimum geographical areas. If I am incorrect in that assumption I shall withdraw my remark, but that is my understanding of the affect of his amendment, and I shall proceed on that basis, assuming that he concurs.

There are a number of things wrong with the proposal, the most important of which is that it appears to take little account of the explanation and assurances that I gave to the hon. Gentleman in Committee. During those discussions, I made it clear that the only circumstances in which I envisaged using the provisions of clause 2(2)(b) were ones involving public safety, in which the fire and rescue authorities had failed successfully to work together to ensure resilience. The obvious example of that is a failure to agree on the siting of, or the operational arrangements necessary for the introduction of, a regional control room.

The context is important, because contrary to the claims made by the Opposition in Committee, we do not have an agenda of regionalisation through the back door. What we do have is an agenda of civil resilience, to ensure that the fire and rescue service is equipped to meet the challenges posed by the new dimensions of the terrorist threat and environmental disasters. To meet these challenges, the service must be closely integrated into the work of the regional resilience teams, which are based in the Government offices for the regions. These teams, in their turn, operate on a regional basis because it is a key principle within emergency planning that response structures should mirror emergency planning structures.

I should tell the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) that it is preposterous—to use the word that the former has used a lot today—to suggest that there should be separate regional structures for the fire and rescue service and for the regional resilience arrangements. That could not work. It would be neither effective nor sensible, and it would not give us the protection that we need.

We could no doubt debate at length whether the Government office boundaries established by the previous Administration, which underpin the whole infrastructure, were the right ones.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister says that it would be preposterous not to organise the fire and rescue services

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on the same geographical basis as the resilience structure. According to that logic, will we have regional police management boards and regional health service management boards?

Mr. Raynsford: No, the logic is that in terms of the geographical arrangement for the discharge of the responsibilities of the fire and rescue service, it is absurd to suggest another regional alignment that is entirely separate from the existing one. That would create confusion rather than coterminosity. I accept entirely that police authorities do not operate on that basis at the moment, but they are closely engaged in the regional resilience arrangements, and are putting arrangements in place to ensure that they can discharge their regional resilience responsibilities. As I have said, those are organised through the Government regional offices on the basis of the existing administrative regions—which, incidentally, were introduced by the Conservatives when they were in government.

On Second Reading on 26 January, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) acknowledged that the existing Government office regions were


If we had time, an independent study such as that which the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge suggests in new clause 5 might be an interesting activity in which to engage although, as he knows only too well, boundary debates tend to be long drawn out, fractious and unproductive. It is usually the Liberal Democrats who suggest such arrangements, which are a recipe for constant talk and debate, and no action. That is the key to why the hon. Gentleman has tabled the new clause. He wants long, protracted talk and delay, with no action, to avoid anything ever happening, because he is obsessed with the view that we are somehow committed to imposing regions by the back door, which is all part of some kind of European plot.


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