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Mr. Hammond: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I shall do so in a moment, but the hon. Gentleman should listen to what I have to say, because he is, I am afraid, equally guilty of Pavlovian reactions to any references to Europe or regions and is happy to dance to the UKIP tune.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister has added "Pavlovian" to "preposterous" and "paranoid" as his favourite adjectives to describe me. He is obviously stung by his inability to deal with the charge that inappropriate regionalisation is being imposed on the service. He has moved away from defending himself against that attack, and in the past hour or so he started to refer to Europe and the UKIP. Would he tell me when I have ever referred to Europe or, indeed, the UKIP in the context of the Bill?

Mr. Raynsford: I have a long memory, and I recall the many occasions during the passage of the Local Government Act 2003 and during our discussions on the Bill when references to regions produced the utterly predictable response that this was all a European plot to impose inappropriate structures on Britain. That response was entirely unjustified and indicative of a party obsessed with the long forgotten ideological causes that motivated it in the era when Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister. One day, its members will wake up, realise that the world has moved on, and become a better Opposition party. Sadly, however, it will be a long time before they have the responsibility of government.

We are committed to ensuring more effective collaboration between fire and rescue authorities and more cost-effective services, which involves working together at a regional level on a number of responsibilities that are best discharged at that level. Our White Paper set out clearly the Government's view that certain responsibilities need to be discharged at a national level. We made clear our commitment to give leadership and show the way forward for the fire and rescue services in the White Paper, the national framework and the Bill, but we accept that a number of services are delivered best and most cost-effectively at regional level. Regional resilience requires co-ordination with the other emergency services at a regional level. The demands of coping with major threats such as that of terrorism require organisation on a scale that can only be discharged effectively at regional level. The introduction of regional control rooms will bring substantial benefits, including considerable gains in cost-effectiveness. The average cost of answering an emergency call in London is £18, but in the Isle of Wight the equivalent cost is £168. Such wide discrepancies are

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simply not sustainable, and we have to move forward in a way that guarantees an effective service that delivers the most cost-effective outcomes, but does so on the basis of the absolute underlying principle that public safety and a quick response to any emergency are fundamental.

Mr. Hammond: Does the Minister have any evidence that the closing down of 40 of the fire control rooms in England to leave only nine covering the whole country will improve public safety? If he has such evidence, why did not the Select Committee uncover it and include it in its report?

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, although he chose not to refer to it, the Mott MacDonald study looked very carefully at that issue. It concluded that the previous recommendations of some three years earlier had not been implemented and acted upon, and that there was an overriding case for moving to regional control rooms. It even suggested that there was a possibility of moving to three supra-regional control rooms for the whole of England. In the end, it decided that a basis of nine regional control rooms in the English regions was probably the best outcome.

The arguments are clear and they have been spelled out; they are to do with ensuring the most cost-effective systems, but also the most effective and up-to-date systems. That includes new technology that enables the pin-pointing of calls in order to direct fire and rescue teams in the most effective way to the location of a fire or emergency and arrangements that allow integration with the other emergency services through the new Firelink communications system. All those things are about improving effectiveness, giving a better service to the public and responding more effectively to a wide range of possible eventualities.

Mr. Flook: Has the Minister any idea which of the regions will move more quickly? Does he have any idea whether the south-west will be moving towards regional control centres more quickly than other regions?

Mr. Raynsford: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will know—we said it often in the Committee, of which he was a member—that the process has involved all regions setting up regional management boards, which are in place, and they will be considering over the next few months the detailed arrangements for implementing what is required to be implemented at a regional level. I have always made it clear that some issues need to be handled nationally, some need to be handled regionally, including regional control rooms and other things, and some need to be handled locally. Getting that arrangement right is fundamental to delivering the best possible service. Of course, response and community engagement are best handled at a local level, and that will continue to be the case in all circumstances and all parts of the country.

We also recognise that fire and rescue authorities must work with each other and other bodies to deliver their new functions. In the course of this evening's debate, we have highlighted areas where, on the fire prevention and community engagement agenda, it is clearly advantageous for fire and rescue authorities to work with other bodies, including local authorities,

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individuals and community groups, to ensure the most effective outcomes. The message about joint working and working across traditional barriers is also very important, and such activity will be facilitated by the Bill.

We are also ensuring that fire and rescue authorities have appropriate powers and obligations to enter into mutual assistance schemes to support the discharge of all their core operational functions. We will continue to maintain the existing ability for fire and rescue authorities to charge for particular services while continuing to exclude the possibility of charging for fighting fires and not extending charging powers other than in circumstances in which it is clear that that is appropriate and can be done in a way that in no way damages public safety and security. I have always said—and I repeat it tonight—that public safety is the overriding priority. Ultimately, that determines our whole approach to the future of the fire and rescue service.

The Bill will help to make the fire and rescue service a better place for all who work in it by repealing outdated legislation to allow a modern approach to recruitment, training and development; by bringing forward new powers to create new multiple pension schemes while protecting existing pension provision; and by taking reserve powers to ensure effective negotiating machinery for the fire and rescue service that recognises its changing role and includes representation of all its employees.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I asked the Minister about devolution on Second Reading. I am still not clear whether the Government intend to devolve the setting up of pay negotiating bodies and pension provision to the Welsh Assembly. It is not clear in the Bill.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I am not in the least surprised that he is confused. The provisions are governed by clause 60, which says:

On a cursory reading of the Bill, especially if they started at the front rather than the back, people might be tempted to believe that the Secretary of State has powers to determine matters in Wales. The policy objective is the devolution of all policy functions and finance matters to Wales. The one matter that is reserved is pensions, for reasons that he will fully understand.

I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government intend to continue to operate the current arrangements for negotiation and bargaining on pay and conditions at a UK level, and I know that the Scottish Executive are equally committed to maintaining that arrangement, which will continue as long as all the parties agree that it should, and it will be a voluntary arrangement reached by the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Williams: I thank the Minister for that clarification. Will there be any provision to ensure that Welsh fire and rescue services and employers are represented on the pay negotiating bodies?

Mr. Raynsford: That will be a matter for the national joint council, which will consider changes to the rather cumbersome existing structures.

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The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) is looking for bits of paper to prove that the Secretary of State will have inevitable intervention powers here. I remind him that we have made it clear that we have such powers but will use them only if the NJC fails to come up with satisfactory amendments to the existing arrangements to allow the whole system to operate effectively.

In June 2003, we published our fire and rescue White Paper, responding to the challenge set out by the independent review of the fire service led by Sir George Bain. It outlined our vision for a fire and rescue service better able to meet the challenges of the 21st century—a service that saves more lives by protecting the public and creating safer communities. The Bill is crucial to delivering that vision, and I commend it to the House.

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