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11 Oct 2005 : Column 47WH—continued

Rushden Fire Service

12.30 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I should like to begin by thanking Mr. Speaker for kindly granting me the opportunity to have a debate on the Rushden fire service and by thanking you, Mr. Taylor, for chairing the debate. I should also like to thank the Minister for attending to respond to it. This is probably the first time that there has been a debate in Parliament on Rushden, and I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to highlight one of the most important issues affecting the town and the surrounding area in my constituency.

I am pleased to welcome to the Palace of Westminster Councillors Allan Bailey, Ron Pinnock, Mrs. Pinnock, Paul Bell and Steven North, who have been instrumental in highlighting the issues, and Steve Mason, Gary Mitchell and David Limer, who are local firefighters.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Member that it is not strictly in order to refer to people outside the debate.

Mr. Bone : Thank you, Mr. Taylor.

I should like to pay tribute to the superb job that firefighters do in my patch and around the country. They risk their lives day in and day out for us, and the hugely important job that they do should be noted. Our instinct would be to run away from a terrorist attack, but the firefighter's instinct would be to run towards it.

Rushden lies in the east of the Wellingborough constituency and is a largely urban area. Rushden fire service serves the towns of Rushden and neighbouring Higham Ferrers and Irchester as well as several towns and villages outside the constituency. Rushden has the only full-time fire station in the whole of east Northamptonshire. It is home to Northamptonshire's incident response unit, which is manned by the whole-time, professional firefighters in Rushden, and which would be used to respond to a chemical, biological or other terrorist attack in the area or as a back-up to the incident response units in London should there be a large-scale attack in the capital.

Rushden, Higham Ferrers and Irchester have a population of more than 40,000 people. The huge increase in development that is about to take place in the county will mean many more new homes in the area and increased traffic on the roads, all of which require a fire service at Rushden fire station that has a 24-hour guaranteed turnout. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister declared that an extra 167,000 homes are to be built in Northamptonshire during the next 20 or so years, and 10,000 are to be built in east Northamptonshire. There is also a huge ongoing project to develop thousands of homes in east Wellingborough, which is beside Rushden.

At a time when Rushden and the surrounding areas are set to grow rapidly, we should be thinking about more fire cover provision, or, at the very least, what is in place at present, but certainly not a reduced fire service. Is it not in the interests of all those who live in and who will migrate to the area to have the satisfaction of knowing that, should they need it, there is 24-hour guaranteed turnout for a fire engine from Rushden
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station? I should be interested to hear the Minister's view later in the debate, but it certainly seems that any talk of reducing a service while the population who need to use it is growing is ludicrous.

Given the plans for huge expansion in Northamptonshire, will the Minister tell us what plans there are to expand the fire service in the county, with particular reference to east Northamptonshire and Rushden? What guarantees are there that that will be done before the development of the extra homes? Can the Minister guarantee that proper infrastructure will be in place beforehand?

Last year, the previous administration of Northamptonshire county council proposed to cut fire cover in Rushden. Under the current system, if a pump from Rushden fire station is required, a full-time, professional team is guaranteed to turn out 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The fire station operates two watches of seven full-time firefighters, who rotate in shifts for four whole days and nights. Those watches are required to turn out at any time of day or night. It is often at night that the most deadly fires occur.

Rushden operates a second pump, which is manned by part-time, retained firefighters. It is used for incidents that need more than one fire engine, when the first pump has already been called out, and if another area, such as Wellingborough, requires a back-up pump. Part-time, retained firefighters are not required to turn out if the second pump is needed. There is a huge countrywide problem in recruiting part-time, retained firefighters, as most retained firefighters are already in full-time employment and become part-time retainers as a supplementary job.

There is a particular problem recruiting retained firefighters in Rushden because the decline of the manufacturing industry in Northamptonshire means that people who used to work locally have to travel further to work and are unable to devote as much time to becoming part-time firefighters. Will the Minister acknowledge that fact and tell us the number of retained firefighters in Northamptonshire and in Rushden 10 years ago, five years ago and now? Will he also tell us what the establishment for retained firefighters is for Northamptonshire and for Rushden, and how far short we are of that number today? At Rushden, there is meant to be a complement of about 15 retained firefighters but the station is currently running with about seven. Recently, the second pump at Rushden was not manned for 14 days and nights due to the lack of retained firefighters.

Retained firefighters do a hugely important job, and their efforts must be noted, but if there is no guarantee that they can turn out, a full-time professional team is surely needed in the interests of community safety. Unfortunately, that is not how the previous administration at the county council saw things. It proposed to cut the number of full-time, professional firefighters from 14 to eight, who would operate one watch only—from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. In the evenings and at weekends, the people of Rushden, Higham Ferrers, Irchester and east Northamptonshire were to rely on part-time, retained firefighters to man the first pump, but, as we know, the retained firefighter system does not guarantee that a pump will turn out.
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What would happen if the recent situation in which there was no retained pump for 14 days and nights were to occur under the new proposals? A pump would have to be called out from a neighbouring fire station such as Wellingborough, which would increase the time it took for the fire engine to reach the incident. What if that fire engine were already being used? If there were no other pump in the area to respond at that time, the people affected would have to wait until one became free, but when a house is on fire, or there has been a serious road accident, time counts. Time can be the difference between a minor house fire or a major one. Time can be the difference between living or dying. One reason given as to why the Government are pushing through the regionalisation of control centres is to reduce response times so that fire engines can respond to incidents more promptly. It would certainly seem at odds with that that the previous Labour Administration's proposal would almost certainly increase incident response times. I am sure that the Minister will respond to this obvious anomaly later in the debate.

Much has been made of risk assessment and prevention as reasons to cut fire cover in Rushden. Yes, we need smoke detectors, but we need both prevention and reaction. We cannot have one without the other. Smoke detectors cannot put a fire out or cut someone out of a car when there has been a road traffic accident. Does the Minister think that road traffic accidents, arson attacks and house fires will decrease when we have more houses? I suggest that they will increase.

The proposals would give the people of Rushden a guaranteed turnout between 9 and 5 on weekdays, but no such guarantee at any other time. That simply is not good enough. Calls for fire engines in the area have doubled since 1995. In that year, there were 10 road traffic accidents and 17 property fires. In the first nine months of this year, there were 42 road traffic accidents and 51 property fires.

The main driver for the proposals was to save money—about £300,000 a year. To save money at the risk of losing lives does not sound right to me. Surely the county council could have looked for savings elsewhere rather than through cutting front-line services. Let me give hon. Members one example: the county council operates a spin department of over 15 people, which costs more than £500,000 a year. Yes, 15 spin doctors cost £500,000 a year. If I were to ask the people of Rushden whether they wanted fewer firefighters or fewer spin doctors, I know the answer I would get.

That, unfortunately, is a symptom of Labour administration. There is more and more spin, not enough listening, and a cut in core public services. After the 2001 general election, Mr. Taylor, I felt that many politicians of all parties had become arrogant and out of touch. We are more than happy to preach to people, but we are not prepared to listen. I founded the Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden campaign, which aimed to seek the views of local people, groups and organisations and then campaign on their behalf for change. I listened to local people at every opportunity through surveys, attending public meetings, visiting residents and them coming to me. People were crying out for someone to listen to their views and concerns, and then to do something about them. It pays to listen to the views and concerns of the people whom we represent on how we can improve their local services—
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the services that they pay their taxes for and for which, rightly, they expect something in return. While tax continues to rise, people do not expect their services to be reduced, especially those services that are in the business of saving lives. That is what the debate is really about. It is about a fire service, which if cut as the Administration had proposed to do, would put lives at risk.

In October 2002, as part of my listening campaign, I went to listen to firefighters on the picket line at Wellingborough, which is the neighbouring fire station to Rushden. I learned from talking to them that, although the firefighters believed that the Government have been economical with the truth, they also felt that the Fire Brigades Union was not being frank with me. I would not have known that had I not gone to listen to them. Although I do not agree with strikes, I knew that those firefighters were heroes before the strike and would be heroes after the strike, and I owed it to them, as local heroes, to listen to their views. Therefore it was as a co-ordinator of the Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden campaign that I found out about the proposals to reduce the fire cover at Rushden fire station.

In August 2004, I went to see the firefighters about the issue and was horrified to learn about the proposed cut. Overnight, we produced 15,000 leaflets that informed local people of the proposed changes. Ten thousand of those were delivered by local firefighters and their families; the remainder were distributed by Conservative activists, who all pulled together to ensure that the residents were made aware of what was happening to their fire service. People who had never previously been involved in politics helped us to ensure that the message got out.

I passed the information that we received up through the shadow Cabinet, so that it was aware of what was happening. I had discussions with the Leader of the Opposition and received his support. In October 2004, I was able to present the petition we raised to the leader of the Conservative party. The local firefighters organised their own petition and set up street stalls, and the listening campaign also supported those efforts. We sent the petition to the county council to inform it of the huge depth of feeling among people who did not want to see their fire service reduced. We produced and delivered a newsletter to all homes in Rushden and Higham Ferrers that explained what the listening campaign had been doing on their behalf.

That was direct democracy at work—asking the people for their views and feeding that information back to those who made the decisions. The county council took a different view, however. It put out a glossy propaganda sheet that, in keeping true to the nature of spin, dealt with everything except the real issue. That was the county council's form of consultation with the public. Yes, it organised a public meeting but in a different town—it was not held in Rushden. Therefore the listening campaign organised its own meeting. People in the town came along—it was an opportunity for firefighters, local councillors, cabinet members of the county council, and the chief fire officer and his team to get together to discuss the issue. But that did not work.

The Labour county councillors took the proposals to the full council meeting in March. Every Labour member voted for the cuts, while every Conservative
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member opposed them. The cuts went through; after that we were into the general and local government election period. Rushden fire service became a key issue in both elections, and it was during that time that democracy was really at work. The issue was debated thoroughly in the media and in leaflets. At the beginning of the campaign, the Conservative party chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), visited Rushden firefighters. He took the information that he had found out back to inform the shadow Cabinet, and suggested that the Leader of the Opposition visit the town to see for himself what a devastating effect the cut would have.

During the general election, both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister visited Rushden. However, while the Prime Minister did not leave the confines of a local leisure centre, the Leader of the Opposition went and met the people of Rushden. He talked to them on the high street, and he specifically set time aside for a meeting with Rushden firefighters. When it came to the election, democracy proved to work. Overwhelmingly, the towns that were affected by the cuts to Rushden fire service moved towards the Conservatives. We gained two county council seats in Rushden, so we now hold all three. The Conservatives gained a county council in Irchester, and held the seat in Rushden.

What I have described is a demonstration of democracy in action at its very best. We had an issue, we had the arguments, we had the debate, and ultimately, the people decided what they wanted, and they voted for it. David took on Goliath and won. It shows that, in this day and age, people can still change things, peacefully, democratically, by working together. I doubt whether there has ever been a time before where firefighters, the Fire Brigades Union, the Tory party and uncommitted people have worked together to change something. That restores my faith in democracy and shows what can still be done.

There is now a new Conservative administration at county hall, very ably led by councillor Jim Harker. Conservatives on the county council have honoured their commitment, which was made before the election. There has been no cut to the service at Rushden fire station, and the new administration has set up a review, so that the decisions about the safety of our community can be properly made. The review is being led by Councillor Liz Tavener, who is the cabinet member for public protection, and a scrutiny sub-committee has been set up to review Labour's cuts, led by one of the new county councillors for Rushden, Councillor Andy Mercer. He played an important part in the listening campaign, and was part of the debate, and has turned out to be an excellent representative for the local community.

I should like to hear the Minister's views, particularly on the matters that I have raised about the future of the Rushden fire service and east Northamptonshire. In addition, I should like him to comment on the fact that we still have an opportunity in this democracy to change something that the establishment did not want to happen. That shows our commitment to improving core public services through democracy, rather than focusing on spin and propaganda. Our win, both in the general
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election in Wellingborough and at the county council, is an example of a triumph for democracy and action. That is what I fear that this Government try to stifle. It was not the Conservative party that was proved right over the issue at the election; it was the people of Rushden who, given the chance to say what they wanted for their families and their lives, were proved right in the end.

12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : May I say how pleased I am to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Taylor? I congratulate the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) on securing this important debate, and allowing me to help him to highlight the excellent job that our fire and rescue services do, day in and day out. He has raised his concerns about the issue of protection for Rushden.

I hope that all hon. Members would welcome the integrated risk management plan approach of the fire and rescue services, because it is designed to respond to the needs of all their constituents and their local communities. It is not Government diktat. During the summer recess, I had the opportunity to visit a number of fire and rescue services across the country, including some in the east midlands last week. Such visits have given me the opportunity to see at first hand the excellent work that is going on locally. I shall try to respond to all of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Let me be clear: the overriding objective of the fire and rescue service is to save lives The Government have set ambitious targets to drive down accidental fire deaths and injuries. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's public service agreement target is to reduce the number of accidental fire-related deaths in the home by 20 per cent. by 31 March 2010, and deliberate fires by 10 per cent. by the same date. That includes a floor target that no local fire and rescue authority will have a fatality rate from accidental fires in the home of more than 1.25 times the national average by 2010.

The Government have been criticised for setting targets that have been described as too modest. There are those who say that we should have zero tolerance of fire deaths, and I accept that principle. However, we are dealing with the real world, and have set targets that we believe are practical to achieve and will assist fire authorities; then we can move on. We have put in place the framework to enable us to do all that we can to achieve the targets, and that seems to be working. Accidental dwelling fire deaths were down by over 20 per cent. in 2004. However, anybody who has been involved with the fire service over the years knows how volatile fire statistics can be. Until we can see the results replicated over several years, we will not be able to demonstrate that we have a trend.

The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 has put prevention at the heart of the Government's agenda for improving the fire and rescue service, creating a new duty to promote fire safety. The Government are reforming general fire safety legislation, ensuring that responsibility for safety in non-domestic premises will rest with the person responsible for those premises through the regulatory reform order.
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The fire and rescue national framework sets out the Government's priorities and objectives for the fire and rescue service and what authorities should do to achieve them. It provides clear strategic direction from Government while ensuring that authorities are free to make local decisions. To make a difference, as the hon. Gentleman said, the service needs to move towards a culture of effective prevention, alongside its already excellent 999 response—and that is exactly what is happening. The move away from prescriptive national standards to locally designed integrated risk management plans is determining that.

The Government have put the framework in place and we are supporting it through substantial funding for the service. In 2005–06, fire and rescue authorities received an average 3.7 per cent. increase in grant, and no authority received an increase of less than 2.5 per cent. The Government are also investing heavily in a new national network of regional control centres called FiReControl. This morning I laid before the House a statement detailing the locations of those centres, including the last one for the south-east region. We will provide for a new system called Firelink, and the new dimension programme, also mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, has seen us commit an additional £188 million for mass decontamination, urban search and rescue, and high volume pumping equipment in order to improve the capability of the fire and rescue service to respond to major disasters including terrorist incidents. We have made contributions to every fire authority to ensure that that happens.

Fire and rescue authorities have generally responded well to the challenge presented by the introduction of IRMPs, and have achieved much in a short space of time. That introduction has given senior fire and rescue service managers the flexibility to make decisions about fire cover based on existing and potential risks to their communities, within a strategic framework set by locally elected members. They have long sought that freedom, and they are starting to make the most of it. All fire and rescue authorities are shifting the emphasis from reaction to prevention and, in the process, freeing resources to direct towards community safety activity.

We have heard the hon. Gentleman's views on the future of the fire and rescue service, on the number of firefighters on the retained duty system in Northamptonshire, and on new housing, which I come to now. It is for local fire and rescue authorities to take account of current and future risks to their communities as part of their IRMP. Those plans should also set out ways in which the authority will work in partnership with its neighbours to address the risks that have been identified. We are reviewing the ODPM's funding mechanism for local services to help to ensure that funding allocations for major services and infrastructure are provided alongside growth.
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As part of the three-year settlement process, the ODPM intends to use forward-looking population data, which will benefit authorities that are experiencing significant levels of growth. Indeed, another consultation paper on the distribution of formula grants, which covers this and other issues, was launched in July and finished only yesterday, so this matter is clearly under review, as the hon. Gentleman requested. The Government currently have no specific plans for the future of the fire and rescue service in Rushden or Northamptonshire. We set out our expectations of all fire and rescue authorities in the national framework, and authorities set out plans to tackle effectively existing and potential risks to their communities in their local IRMPs.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the number of firefighters on the retained duty system in Northamptonshire. My information is that there are 237. That is 16 more than five years ago, but coincidentally exactly the same number as 10 years ago. If the hon. Gentleman requests further information, I will be very happy to write to him.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about 24-hour turnout. The station in Rushden will still have 24-hour cover. Day crewing will be retained through the night. The Government have put in place a comprehensive and robust framework that will ensure that our fire and rescue services are fit to meet the challenges of the future. That includes locally determined IRMPs that best meet the risks that our local communities face and that offer safety and value for money to local people, and a national network of regional fire and rescue control centres that will increase resilience, cut response times and provide more effective fall-back. Arson reduction strategies are in place, as are youth intervention programmes, home safety fire checks, smoke detector installations, and much more. All will contribute to increasing public and firefighter safety and to creating fire and rescue services that save more lives, including in Rushden and the rest of Northamptonshire.

I am fully confident that the consultation carried out by the local fire and rescue service, as provided by the chief fire officer and approved as recently as this year, will be fit for its task and will protect local people. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's conclusion that democracy will prevail. I should point out that we have just won a general election and that the British public have decided, but we have withdrawn from dictating to local fire authorities the complexion of their local cover.

No size fits all. We have moved away from protecting buildings to protecting people. Our joint ambition is to support the fire and rescue service and to cut deaths and injuries. We are confident that that is what is happening, and we are hopeful that we can drive down the number of deaths and injuries. I am very grateful for the opportunity provided by the hon. Gentleman to put my points on the record today.
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