Fire and Rescue Services Bill

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Phil Hope: What if the voluntary approach breaks down? That is the point about having the ability to direct when necessary. We hope that the voluntary approach works. There have been occasions when, perhaps because there has been a bit of pressure and people are negotiating, the Government have helpfully intervened to encourage a resolution between two authorities working together in a mutual reinforcement scheme. To deny us the fall-back of being able to intervene when a voluntary approach might not work is foolish. I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's fears in that regard. It is important to have the ability to step in if required. However, we hope and expect the voluntary approach to be successful.

Mr. Hammond: The record will show that the Under-Secretary is now saying something different.

Phil Hope: Not at all.

Mr. Hammond: The record will show that the hon. Gentleman is now saying that he expects a voluntary approach to be successful. A few moments ago he said that a purely voluntary approach will not deliver. He seems to be saying two different things. I support what he has just told us—that he expects and hopes that the voluntary approach will be successful—and I am relieved that he does not think that a purely voluntary approach will not deliver the resilience that the Government seek. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15

Arrangements with other employers offire-fighters

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 37, in

    clause 15, page 8, line 5, leave out ', 8 or 9'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 38, in

    clause 15, page 8, line 6, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 39, in

    clause 15, page 8, line 7, at end insert—

    '(2A) A fire and rescue authority may enter into arrangements with any person for securing provision of assistance for the discharge by the authority of a function conferred on it under sections 6, 8, 9 or 11'.

Mr. Hammond: Clause 15 deals with the situation where fire authorities want to make arrangements between other private sector, or third party, providers of support whom they may wish to use in certain circumstances. It allows for the equivalent of reinforcement schemes, which are a mutual aid arrangement between fire authorities, on a one-way commercial basis, with third-party employers of fire fighters.

This is a perfectly sensible arrangement. The obvious case that springs to mind is that of employers of private fire brigades. I think that I am right in saying that British Airports Authority has the fourth-largest fire service in the United Kingdom, measured in terms of manpower and equipment. Although it is spread across a very large area, it is quite a significant resource that could be used as back-up in certain types of emergency.

There are other employers of private fire brigades: large commercial undertakings might have fire equipment on their premises that could be brought into service in a particular type of emergency. We are absolutely at one with the purposes of the clause. This is another provision brought forward from 1947, and it gives fire authorities a statutory basis—a proper basis—on which to engage in commercial arrangements with outside bodies.

We now need to look at this in the light of the other changes that we have made to the environment in which fire authorities operate and to their functions that. Subsection (1) allows the fire and rescue authority to

    ''enter into arrangements with a person who employs fire-fighters . . . for the purpose of the discharge by the authority of a function conferred on it under section 7, 8 or 9.''

Clause 7 confers firefighting functions on a fire authority; clause 8 confers road traffic accident functions on a fire authority; and clause 9 deals with other emergencies, which can be anything specified by the Secretary of State. We have already had the benefit of the draft order, so we know that it will include such things as dealing with the response to terrorist attack, major flooding incidents, inshore rescue and perhaps rescue further out at sea, as has previously been seen. However, those are not firefighting functions.

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The purpose of amendment No. 37 is to challenge the restriction of powers under subsection (1) to arrangements with employers of firefighters. There is no obvious reason why only an employer of firefighters should be contracted to render assistance to a fire authority in relation, for example, to road traffic accidents. Let me give an example. It might be perfectly logical for fire authorities to have stand-by arrangements with operators of heavy lifting equipment, such as large, heavy cranes that can be brought on to the motorway to remove wreckage or, in the case of a building collapsing, the kind of equipment that can be used to jack up and support structural elements of the building.

I know that in some cases the Government intend that the fire and rescue services will have access to a pool of such equipment that will be purchased and, I assume, maintained centrally by a designated authority on behalf of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. That is fine but, by definition, those will always be centrally pooled resources. It is perfectly logical, particularly in more sparsely populated areas of the country, that fire and rescue authorities may wish to enter into arrangements to bring in assistance—I heard the Minister muttering ''clause 16'', from a sedentary position—not to delegate the discharge of their functions to another person, but to contract with another person to assist them in the discharge of their functions. I take that to be a very different thing.

The best and most obvious example is the use of heavy lifting equipment. Why is it necessary for a fire authority to contract for the supply of locally available heavy lifting equipment or hydraulic jacks, and for experts in their use, only if the contractor employs firefighters? That has been brought forward from the 1947 Act, and a time when the only statutory function that we were dealing with was firefighting and the requirement that the person in question employed firefighters would be wholly logical and consistent with the structure of the Act. Now that we have introduced other statutory functions, we must revisit that. Amendment No. 37 is designed to remove the reference to clauses 8 and 9 from subsection (1) so that the restriction on making such arrangements only with employers of firefighters would relate only to firefighting functions.

10.15 am

Amendment No. 39 would introduce a new subsection that gives fire and rescue authorities broader powers to enter into arrangements relating to their functions under clause 6—the fire safety promotion clause, which is not mentioned in clause 15. Clause 8 refers to road traffic accidents, clause 9 refers to emergencies as defined by the Secretary of State and clause 11 deals with discretionary services and the power to respond to other eventualities. In relation to those functions, fire authorities could enter into arrangements on a commercial basis with any third parties that they found appropriate.

The Under-Secretary needs to explain why there is no reference to clause 6 in clause 15. There are statutory duties on a fire authority for fire safety, and

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it is perfectly conceivable that authorities will want to contract out—for example, for the fitting of smoke detectors—to a third-party contractor on a commercial basis. I do not see where that power is stipulated.

Phil Hope: In clause 16.

Mr. Hammond: The Under-Secretary says again that the power is in clause 16, but that contains the power to delegate the discharge of a function. That is quite different from securing the provision of assistance, which will always be alongside the principal discharge of the function by the fire authority. The delegation to another person of the discharge of a specific function under clause 16 is a different action—it must be, or there would be no point in having both clause 15 and clause 16. If there is a technical explanation, I look forward to hearing it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes the amendments in the spirit in which they have been tabled, and will address the issue arising from the change in the core function of fire and rescue authorities.

Amendment No. 38 would delete subsection (2), which explicitly prevents the entering into of such an arrangement with another fire and rescue authority. I can see where such an idea would come from in the climate of 1947; mutual reinforcement is seen as good, and arm's-length, commercial-type transaction as bad. However, we have moved on since then, and it must be possible for the Under-Secretary to envisage mutual reinforcement schemes as appropriate in some cases, while in others there could be an arrangement that is more on a one-way, arm's-length basis with an authority that will specialise in road traffic accident rescue.

Let us consider the Manchester example again. Might it not be sensible, logical and economical for Cheshire fire authority to decide that it wants to contract with Greater Manchester fire authority to deal with road traffic accidents on the M62, which stretches beyond Greater Manchester into Cheshire? That would be a perfectly logical arrangement; it ought be something that fire authorities, discharging their functions efficiently, could decide to do. Fire authority A might decide to contract for a sum of money with fire authority B to provide cover on a defined stretch of motorway. Perhaps that would be a stretch to which there was no easy access for one authority, but which was easily accessible for an adjoining fire authority.

In the present mixed-economy climate, in which the Under-Secretary recognises that commercial arrangements and arms-length, one-way, for-cash transactions can be as valid as mutual assistance arrangements, I see no reason to exclude an arms-length arrangement with another fire authority. It must be for each individual authority to decide what is best for its circumstances in each case. We should not constrain them.

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