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Mr. Hammond: It is not paranoia; it is just a concern about the propriety of the Government giving unequivocal commitments that they will do something

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that, on the Minister's own admission, they do not even have the power to do. They are depending on some future legislation to give them that power.

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, we have published a White Paper and given a commitment to publish draft legislation, which we hope to do in July this year. There will also be a vote in a referendum at some subsequent date, probably in October. That, of course, is dependent on good progress being made with the other matters that have to be dealt with before the referendums can take place.

We have strayed far from the provisions of the Bill, and I would like to come back to the matters in hand. I have given assurances about the use of clause 2(2)(b); they are on the record. If we need to act on grounds of public safety, it will by definition be something that has to be done quickly, so I cannot accept the constraint that subsection (1)(a) and amendment No. 3 would place on the ability of the Secretary of State to take urgent action to protect the public.

Subsection (1)(b) has a rather different objective from subsection (1)(a). It seeks again to require the Secretary of State to commission an independent study, but this time into the success of regional management boards—including, if I read the intent of the hon. Gentleman correctly, any negative impact on the management capability of individual authorities of having some of their functions pooled at regional level. Here, I can reassure him that we are thinking along similar lines.

Of course any responsible Government will want to assess and evaluate the impact of their policies, including those required under the fire and rescue national framework. But the independent evaluation that the hon. Gentleman suggests need not await a study commissioned

That role has already been given to the independent Audit Commission, which has agreed to take on the task. Indeed, it has already published, on 25 February, a consultation paper setting out its draft comprehensive performance assessment framework for fire and rescue authorities. It proposes to implement the framework early next year, with outcomes publicly reported before autumn 2005.

As the hon. Gentleman would expect, value for money will of course be to the fore, but the commission also specifically plans to assess the effectiveness of the work undertaken through regional management boards and to report on the management capability of individual fire and rescue authorities. It plans, in other words, to address the very issues about which he expressed concern, and it plans to address them sooner rather than, as the amendment envisages, later. Additionally, we are required by clause 24 to report periodically to Parliament on the delivery of the national framework, which of course includes regional collaboration. There will therefore be every opportunity for Parliament to keep a close watch on this matter. Because they are on the one hand damaging, and on the

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other unnecessary, I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman not to press his new clause and the linked amendment to a vote.

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister explain to the House what form that reporting to Parliament will take?

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are committed to report on the national framework and to lay it before Parliament. Indeed, any significant amendments to it will be laid before Parliament as well. It will of course be open to Parliament to decide how, or if, it wishes to take these matters up and to scrutinise them. I have no doubt that the Select Committee may wish to consider some of the issues involved; it has shown a keen interest in them. Indeed, it will also be open to Opposition parties to seek debates on relevant matters if they choose to do so.

Turning to new clause 9, also tabled by the hon. Gentleman, we find a solution in search of a problem. It sets out in elaborate detail a process for the appointment of members of fire and rescue authorities when the Secretary of State chooses to exercise the power in clause 3(3)(a). I am not going to dwell too long on the detail of that process, although I point out in passing that it could involve no fewer than six distinct stages, and that at its heart is a transparent attempt to create a stand-off between individual fire and rescue authorities and the Secretary of State over who should form their number.

Instead, I shall focus on the substance. The issue of Secretary of State appointments was debated in Committee, although, as I recall, debate was curtailed when the hon. Gentleman moved rather swiftly to a vote. I acknowledged then that there were concerns, but I emphasised that the motivation was not to enhance central control but to improve the delivery of a vital public service. Clause 3(4) makes it clear that Secretary of State appointees—if they are made—will be a numerical minority, and will not be allowed to take part in votes on precepting. Only elected members will be able to make decisions about how resources are allocated.

When appointment is considered necessary, however, those elected members will make decisions with the benefit of expertise that they themselves may not possess. I was frank and honest in Committee that, when combination is undertaken to tackle failing authorities it could well, in our view, be contradictory and counter-productive to restrict appointments to existing authority members. When capacity is needed to deliver improvements and modernisation, clause 3 could be used to bring into the new authorities the wider experience and expertise—be it managerial, financial or professional—that the existing authorities may lack. But to guarantee that the experts will be chosen for their ability, these will be open, advertised appointments made in accordance with the principles of public life that underpin the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Thus they will be made on merit, with openness and transparency and with full regard to equal opportunities. But in line with the seventh principle, they will also be proportional; they will not involve the endless to-ing and fro-ing advocated in new clause 9.

Given all those safeguards, it should be clear to the House that we will use the power carefully and responsibly—if ever we come to use it. I must once again

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stress that we have these powers available only for circumstances in which there may be a failing authority and it is necessary to achieve a combination to tackle the problems relating to it, and when sufficient expertise is not otherwise available.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister describes this as a reserved power, but does he envisage that power being built into the scheme for the CFA, so that, if there were to be a 49 per cent. Secretary of State appointment, it would be within the scheme rather than applying only in specified circumstances—for example, when the CFA has demonstrated a failure such as that of which the Minister speaks?

Mr. Raynsford: As I have already made very clear, these are reserve powers that we would use only in certain rather limited circumstances. It is certainly not our intention to put a scheme in place that would provide for such arrangements to be made according to a prearranged plan. As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, we have set maximum limits on the number of appointees. That does not mean that we would appoint that number of people, however. In certain cases, it might be appropriate to make only a very small number of appointments—if, for example, there were a serious weakness in terms of financial expertise or expertise in another area of responsibility regarded as very important. That would, however, be judged on a case-by-case basis. So far as the elected regional assemblies are concerned, arrangements for the appointment of the members of the regional fire authority will be contained in the legislation that brings the assemblies into existence.

Amendment No. 14 repeats one that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge tabled in Committee and was rejected. Indeed it repeats something that he earlier tried to achieve through new clause 5 and its linked amendment No. 3. Amendment No. 14 seeks to remove the current clause 2(2)(b), which allows fire and rescue authorities to be combined so that their boundaries are aligned with those of the English regions. As I said earlier, in tabling it again, the hon. Gentleman appears to have taken little account of the explanation and assurances that I gave him during our exchanges in Committee. I made it clear that the only circumstances in which I envisaged using the provisions of clause 2(2)(b) were ones of public safety.

Mr. Hammond: I apologise to the Minister. When I intervened on him earlier to make a point about amendment No. 3, I was of course referring to amendment No. 14. I had got myself confused between the two. Given what he has just said, can he envisage any circumstances in which he could not do what he has just described under the powers granted to him in clause 2(2)(a)? Surely, in circumstances in which public safety required a CFA to be created urgently, it would be in the interests of greater efficiency and effectiveness, if not economy, to use those powers. Is it not the truth that clause 2(2)(b) is simply redundant?

Mr. Raynsford: No, it is not. It is available only in limited circumstances, but it is very important because

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one can envisage circumstances in which existing fire and rescue authorities were operating with a reasonable degree of economy, efficiency and effectiveness but had failed to come together on the resilience issues in a way that ensured an effective arrangement at regional level to provide the resilience that we are seeking. In those circumstances, it would be necessary for us to act in the interests of public safety.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned public safety issues, and I have just highlighted some of those. An example that I have often cited, which any Secretary of State would need to take very seriously indeed, would be a failure to agree on the siting of or operational arrangements for regional control rooms. I emphasise again that this is not a cavalier provision and that my assurances about its use are on the parliamentary record. On the basis of those assurances, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his proposal.

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