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9.33 pm

Mr. Hammond: The 45 minutes that have been allocated for Third Reading constitute a totally inadequate time, so I shall be brief.

We have had our differences in these debates, but our proceedings have been generally constructive. I say to the Minister that regionalisation is an issue but Europe, in the context of fire and rescue services, thankfully, is not. I want to reiterate our strong support for the modernisation agenda as originally presented, with its emphasis on local management; its focus on prevention and education and the matching of resources to risk to life through genuine risk-based integrated risk management plans; and, critically, its reform of working practices, freeing up resources for that prevention agenda and for the new focus that we need on the response to terrorism.

We were nervous when Ministers declared the result of the IRMPs in advance by saying that modernisation would pay for the firefighters' pay settlement. We were alarmed, as the Minister knows, when the targets were relaxed last summer, as they were a key justification for the modernisation programme. We had fears about the balance between local, national and regional dimensions, especially when we read the Bill and the framework documents, but we have remained supportive throughout of the Bill's core. At its core, the programme is sound.

We acknowledge that, for exceptional circumstances, there is a need for a supra-brigade response, especially to deal with the new threat of terrorism. We have always recognised the benefits of co-operation between authorities, not only in response to unconventional threats but across the board to create appropriate units for providing the best possible service to the public. However, a balance needs to be struck between the national, regional and local tiers. We need to focus on the needs of the service, not unrelated considerations. We must also ensure that the service is driven from the bottom up, with democratically accountable local fire and rescue services working together so that the service is provided at the appropriate level.

Mr. Redwood: Is my hon. Friend worried, as I am, that regional management might mean another tier of management, with higher salaries, more inefficiency and

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enormous reorganisation rather than the drive for job losses and greater cost control that the Minister imagines?

Mr. Hammond: All the evidence shows that the introduction of a regional tier increases, not decreases, bureaucracy. The Select Committee report pointed out that no evidence had been presented to show that there would be a reduction in bureaucracy. I stress to my right hon. Friend that a bigger concern is that sucking away certain powers to the regional management boards will leave some smaller fire and rescue services with a management structure that withers on the vine. I wonder whether the Government's medium-term to long-term objective is to emaciate fire and rescue authorities to the point when regional combined authorities become inevitable.

We share the Government's view that the Bill recognises the wider role of fire and rescue services by including statutory functions for road traffic accidents and other forms of emergency. We appreciate and approve the focus on prevention and education. Many other aspects of the measure are long overdue acknowledgements of the work of the fire and rescue services.

The Bill suffers from two significant flaws. First, the balance between national and local powers is wrong, with the Secretary of State's huge reserve powers having the potential to undermine the role of local, democratically accountable fire and rescue authorities. The Minister is at pains to emphasise that they are reserve powers, but only time will tell.

Secondly, we are worried about the imposition of an arbitrary and irrelevant regional structure on the fire and rescue service. That structure was designed for a different purpose and no evidence has been adduced for the proposition that it is the most appropriate way in which to run a fire and rescue service. The Government's agenda is nowhere more evident than in their proposal to reduce the number of control rooms throughout England from 49 to nine. No evidence has been produced to show that that is in the interests of public safety. We believe that it will prove sub-optimal and that the motivation for the regional agenda is extraneous to the fire and rescue service.

Our preference is for a fire and rescue service that is based on the maxim, "Quality services locally delivered." We support a service that would confer clear functions and duties, including best value, on local fire authorities, which are accountable to their communities. That would lead them to work together, for example, by merging control rooms and sharing equipment, to discharge those functions, and they would always answer to their communities, not the Secretary of State.

We accept that the Secretary of State must play a role in national preparedness to deal with a terrorist or other major incident, but that must not snuff out the stand-alone capability of our local emergency services, which will surely happen with regionalisation.

At the heart of the Bill is a positive agenda, which we support. It has been spoilt by the inability to resist the Whitehall obsession with total control of every last detail, and by the subordination of its aims to the regional agenda. We will not vote against it tonight, but

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urge our noble Friends to try again—as we have tried—to get the Government to see the case for restoring local fire authorities' lead role in the new structure. We want a bottom-up, collaborative approach based on geographical units that are relevant to the fire and rescue service, not some other agenda, so that we end up with a service that is truly rooted in our local communities and is the stronger for it.

9.40 pm

John McDonnell: I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which he has handled the Bill. I thank him both for his inclusiveness in involving us in discussions, and for the open and transparent way in which he explained the details of the Bill. Much in the Bill reflects the views of firefighters, fire managers and fire authorities. It reflects a modern fire service, and the range of services that are now provided. I am grateful to the Minister for addressing continuing concerns, particularly the clear establishment of minimum standards to be set through guidance across the country but also the advocacy of maximum quality of service.

Clause 32, however, still causes concern. It relates to guidance in the context of industrial relations. Let me sound a note of caution. The Bill arrived in the climate that followed one of the bitterest disputes in 25 years. We introduced legislation giving Government powers to impose a settlement, and we introduced a sunset clause that will, we hope, reach fruition shortly as a result of the constructive discussions that have taken place. What I do not want is for clause 32 to be interpreted by this or any future Government as a way of interfering in industrial relations again, and imposing settlements on firefighters. Tonight they will be on shift—men and women who risk their lives daily to protect us and our communities. We do not want to drag them into the bitterness of another dispute like last year's.

9.42 pm

Richard Younger-Ross: It has been a pleasure and an honour to serve on the Committee, and to lead for my party today. My father was a firefighter in the London docks during the war, and as a child I was brought up with the fire service.

As has been said, there is much in the Bill to support. As we said on Second Reading, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has made clear, we wholeheartedly believe in the modernisation process. Most of our debates have been very constructive. The Minister, for instance, was able to accept an amendment that we tabled in Committee; at least, he produced a similar amendment today providing that there should—not must—generally be an inquiry, which is an improvement. Nevertheless, some parts of the Bill could do with a little more improvement. Like the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), we intend to ask those in the other place to consider how they might be able to improve it.

I want to make five brief points. The Bill still tends towards centralisation. We reject the Secretary of State's power to force fire authorities to combine even when they are working well. We believe that if an authority is to combine with another, that must be at its instigation, because of reorganisation or because it is failing in some way. I do not believe that the Secretary of State's power

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to act for the sake of what are, effectively, cost savings is democratic. It pulls the rug from under local democracy.

A lot still needs to be protected in terms of democracy. The Secretary of State is taking powers to remove elected members from committees. He can determine that a person is not fit to serve. When the Secretary of State can say, "We do not think this councillor is fit to perform this duty", a stiletto is pointed at the heart of local democracy. That is not a power that the Secretary of State should ever have. Local authorities determine who should be on their committees, and it is up to them to say who is fit to perform the role; it is not a matter for the Secretary of State.

On accountability, we need still to consider what comes to this House and what does not. The Secretary of State has again turned down the reasonable request—from the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge—that the national framework be considered in this House via statutory instrument. As was said earlier, it is flawed and it is very disappointing that we will be unable to consider it.

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