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8.30 pm

Amendment No. 21, tabled by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, is designed to limit the use of clause 2(2)(a)—but, strikingly, not the use of clause 2(2)(b), about which he appears to have less concern—to circumstances in which one or more of the authorities concerned are failing to discharge their duties. Clause 2 as currently drafted provides the Secretary of State with the power to combine existing fire and rescue authorities into a larger single authority in the interests of greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness. In doing so, it accepts that the work of the fire and rescue service—work to which I have paid tribute on many occasions—must be performed effectively, but acknowledges that it must also be performed as economically and efficiently as possible. It is the council tax payer who funds a significant proportion of the cost of the service; it is the general taxpayer, through central Government, who funds the rest.

It is perfectly possible—indeed, independent studies confirm it—that we might have an excellent, responsive service at a local level costing significantly more than an equally excellent and responsive service elsewhere. If combination can maintain that quality at a lower cost to the taxpayer, freeing up moneys to be reinvested in fire prevention work and the promotion of community fire safety, I doubt that many in the House would wish to prevent it, but amendment No. 21 would. It says that there must first be a failing authority—one not performing its legal duties—before a larger unit can be created.

The case for combination, may be based not on failure, but on the proven ability of larger authorities to rise to the challenge of delivering the best service for the lowest cost. The Secretary of State still needs to make that efficiency case, not least at the inquiry that we will now be holding in response to the hon. Gentleman's persuasive arguments in Committee to the effect that an inquiry should be mandatory. On his restrictive and counter-productive amendment, however, we are not persuaded, and I ask him to withdraw it.

Amendment No. 22, also proposed by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, appears to be the product of a misunderstanding. The Bill as currently drafted allows the Secretary of State under clause 2(2)(a) to make a combination order on the grounds of economy,

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efficiency and effectiveness. Such an order may, among other things, give effect to a draft scheme submitted by the existing authorities themselves under clause 2(3)(a). Amendment No. 22 would duplicate the meaning of those provisions read in tandem, and add nothing further. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Amendment No. 23 was tabled by the hon. Member for Teignbridge in Committee, but circumstances prevented us from debating it. Had we done so, I hope that I would have persuaded him that it amounts simply to an arbitrary and artificial restriction on the Secretary of State's ability to appoint the necessary expertise in situations where combination has been undertaken to tackle failing authorities.

Clause 3(4) already makes it clear that Secretary of State appointees to combined fire and rescue authorities will be a numerical minority, and clause 3(5) that they will not be allowed to take part in votes on precepting. As I have already said, Secretary of State nominees will be appointed only after open advertisement and in accordance with the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. They will also be appointed solely on merit.

With all those safeguards, amendment No. 23 really does tilt at windmills. Ensuring that Secretary of State appointees are in a minority maintains the democratic principle that local representatives should have the final say in matters of disagreement. Restricting them to one third presupposes that our objective is to have as many as possible when, in fact, our intention is to have only as many as necessary. We no more wish to appoint 49 per cent. than 10 per cent. Rather we wish to ensure that combined authorities have the skills and expertise that they need to deliver a modernised and cost-effective service. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

I now move on to Government amendments Nos. 7 to 11. Government amendments Nos. 7 and 8 fulfil a promise made in Committee. I said then that I would further consider an amendment from the hon. Member for Teignbridge that would have made an inquiry mandatory in every case where the Secretary of Sate proposes to create a combined fire and rescue authority or to vary or revoke a scheme creating one.

I explained that we were sympathetic to the underlying purpose of the amendment, and confirmed that it was our intention in normal circumstances to hold an inquiry, as well as carrying out the specific consultation required under clause 2(5). I also explained, however, that there might be circumstances in which the needs of public safety meant that we could not await the outcome of a potentially lengthy inquiry before taking action.

The example that I gave—and have repeated today—was fire and rescue authorities failing successfully to work together to meet the demands of civil resilience by establishing a regional control room. I therefore undertook to find a form of words that embodied the spirit of the amendment while ensuring that the needs of public safety remained paramount. That is what we have tabled today. As well as an exemption for public safety, it exempts from a mandatory inquiry situations in which those affected by the Secretary of State's proposals are happy with them and those where the

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combination, variation or revocation is simply a consequence of a wider local or regional government boundary change. In all other cases, an inquiry will now be the norm. I hope that hon. Members will welcome the steps that we have taken to accommodate the wishes of the Standing Committee.

Mr. Hammond: Something registered an alarm bell there. The Minister spoke of what would happen as a result of a local or regional government boundary changes. My interpretation was that the Government amendment referred to local government boundary changes undertaken under the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003 rather than to the regional boundary changes themselves. I had interpreted the provision as meaning that things could proceed where there was a change in local government boundaries—nothing to do with regions.

Mr. Raynsford: I think that the hon. Gentleman is right, and I will certainly check it. The wording is quite technical, so I will write to him about the point.

Government amendments Nos. 9 to 11 also fulfil a promise that I made in Committee to reflect further on the circumstances in which holding an inquiry might not be possible or appropriate. The amendments apply to existing combination schemes—that is, schemes made under the Fire Services Act 1947. I have already outlined our approach towards new schemes and to their future variation or revocation.

As with Government amendments Nos. 7 and 8, an inquiry will now be the norm. The only exceptions—I trust that they are not now contentious—are an exemption for public safety, an exemption in situations where those affected by the Secretary of State's proposals are happy with them, and an exemption where the variation or revocation is simply a consequence of a wider local or regional government boundary change. I trust that hon. Members will welcome our steps to accommodate the wishes of the Standing Committee, and I commend the amendments to the House.

Before I conclude, I should like to deal with some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Teignbridge and by my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew).

The hon. Member for Teignbridge asked about local knowledge and the operation of a control room. He posed an interesting example of controllers talking to a young child and trying to identify the location of a call. I have to tell him that the arrangements being put in place to procure a new communications or call system for operation by the fire service—to be operated through regional control centres—will use the latest modern technology, which has the capacity to pinpoint very precisely the location from where a call has been made. That obviates the need for a lengthy process of having to talk through the problem of location.

It is fundamental to have the best modern technology, which makes it possible to identify the location of the call and then to direct and guide the fire and rescue service to that particular location. I have seen some of the best new systems being introduced, so I am well aware of the scope for improving the effectiveness of the service through the introduction of new technology.

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On the notion that new clause 5 is not particularly objectionable because it requires only a review, I have to say that it does not require only a review. When linked with amendment No. 3, it would block any move to a region other than those that satisfy the conclusions of the review proposed by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. It is not simply a benign and ideal Liberal Democrat debating chamber opportunity for endless discussion about optimal regional boundaries—and if it were, it would, as we all know, rarely, if ever, lead to conclusions.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for Gloucester made important points about regional control rooms and the possible implications for Gloucester. I recognise the achievement in creating the tri-service centre in Gloucester, which my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio visited recently—he told me how impressed he was by what he saw. I have been invited to visit it, and I have indicated that I will be happy to when a convenient moment becomes available in my busy diary because I want to see more of the good work that is being done there.

I am also well aware of the anxieties in Gloucester about the implications of a move towards regional control rooms. I say to my hon. Friends that there is no reason why a move to regional control rooms would threaten the continued operation of the Gloucester centre. In the first place, Gloucester will be open to bid as a location for the regional control room. No decisions have been taken on an appropriate location, and I am sure that my hon. Friends will make a persuasive case on the merits of Gloucester.


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