Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The fact is that the Gloucester fire control room will be lost. Perhaps one fruit of today might be that the Government listen to concerns from both sides of the House, including from their Back Benchers.

It is amazing how many euphemisms there are for the word "cuts"— restructuring, rationalising, and dare I say, regionalising, all spring to mind. Were the roles reversed, and were we announcing cuts on such a scale,
12 Oct 2005 : Column 303
the shrieks from the Labour Benches would be enough to shatter the new glass screen. Local emergency services will be mothballed and local knowledge and expertise will be lost.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): The Minister is, like me, a former fireman, and he knows that local knowledge of topography saves lives. Ultimately, I do not think that he believes in the regionalisation but has been told what to do by the Deputy Prime Minister. I believe passionately that firemen want to save lives, like I did. The Minister does not believe that what is going on is right—it will cost lives and he knows that it has done.

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend makes a point about those who operate within the service and who put their lives on the line. I hope that he will speak in this debate and give us the benefit of his inside knowledge. I also hope that there is a chink in the Government's armour with a Minister susceptible to such important arguments.

I know that advances in technology can change the way that services are delivered, but anyone who has a car equipped with satellite navigation will know that it is far from infallible and that a little local knowledge counts for a lot. Common sense tells us that when it comes to providing emergency services, local knowledge is a precious commodity—speed of response is everything, and that can so easily be compromised by such practical issues as time lost through not being able to place an address or even a misunderstanding arising from an operator who is unfamiliar with the accent of someone in distress.

It is an issue not just of proximity, however, but of priority. Within a region, which area will get first call on where resources are targeted? It is nearly always the urban areas at the expense of the rural areas.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Before my hon. Friend moves off the point about local knowledge, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) has put eloquently in the case of the fire service, I want to draw to her attention the case of the police service. Recent surveys by Kent police have shown that the single biggest complaint of my constituents and others in Kent was that they were dialling 999 and getting people who clearly had no knowledge of the area in which they lived. That significantly reduced confidence in the police. If we get regional call centres, in which people will not even have heard of the town in which the emergency is taking place, public confidence in our police will be reduced. Along with the many other reasons that she has advanced, that ought to give the Government pause and get them to reverse this wretched policy.

Mrs. Spelman: I agree totally with my hon. Friend, and he will have heard from the support for his intervention that the experience of most of us is that the regionalisation of call centres for our police services is simply not working. It is unpopular with those of us who want to use the service and generally increases anxiety when a critical 999 call is being made. It is not working well.
12 Oct 2005 : Column 304

In my constituency, police resources have been diverted into Birmingham, which has left outlying areas very exposed. When I asked my local chief constable why response times were so long in my constituency, he replied, "It's simple, Mrs. Spelman, as a police force we have 98 hot spots to focus on and none of those is in your constituency." With people forking out for way above inflation increases in council tax, they are entitled to ask why the Government can no longer afford to maintain local services.

That issue of resource allocation is part and parcel of accountability. Once the regional framework for such services has been established, they will no longer be answerable to the communities that they serve. By determining targets and priorities at a regional level, accountability is being eroded, and in the long term that can only make life more difficult for front-line staff. Historically, the strength of our emergency services has been partly derived from the support of the society that they serve, but by adopting a regional structure that crucial relationship is broken. How can a single body serving a region of up to 8 million people possibly be more responsive than a locally-based, locally-accountable service?

Over and above the advantages that we know we will lose by moving to a regional structure, what about all the risks that go with such a radical upheaval? I am not a natural pessimist, but the track record of this Government on delivering grand IT projects is not great. The tax credits and the Passport Agency fiasco bear witness to how badly things can go wrong, and the consequences of such a breakdown when it comes to providing rescue services is unimaginable. Obviously, the worst case scenario is loss of life arising from an IT breakdown, but even risks such as project over-run in terms of both time and budget will end up impacting on council tax bills. Yet again people will be forced to dip into their pockets and pay for the costs of regionalisation, which they never even wanted—costs that some estimate could run as high as £988 million for the restructuring of fire services alone.

What is the driver behind this headlong rush into regionalisation? Certainly, it is not that local people want it. As a project, it seems fraught with risks that are simply not outweighed by the benefits. I am no military tactician, but it would seem elementary that in the current climate of heightened security, consolidating multiple emergency services into just one location makes the overall structure even more vulnerable to attack. If a regional centre is knocked out, I presume that the fallback would be another regional centre even further away. That smacks of putting all our eggs in one basket.

No one is going to be fooled by the packaging of these proposals. People can see that reorganisation is a cost-cutting exercise, not least because of the 1,300 or so jobs that will be lost in local fire control rooms. Although these changes will not be complete until 2009, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) pointed out, the reality is that jobs will start leaching away from now, undermining the quality of the service in the interim. That will happen with all emergency services as regionalisation gathers pace. Attractive headlines such as "A New Era for NHS Ambulance Services", cannot mask the inevitable decline that will follow. Certainly, that will not satisfy an efficient ambulance trust such as
12 Oct 2005 : Column 305
Warwickshire, which makes half the number of patient journeys as London with just one tenth of the funding. Ambulance trust managers suspect that it is much more about the Government delivering their manifesto pledge to provide £250 million worth of savings in NHS administration. Surely it is the Chancellor who should be subject to efficiency savings and performance delivery targets rather than our front-line emergency services.

In whose interest is regionalisation really taking place? The ambulance service review said that trusts needed to be

But there is no mention of the patients. Everyone knows that rural ambulances have to carry more kit because of the greater distances over which they have to travel, but will that get overlooked under regional procurement? I am not even convinced that regionalisation delivers cost benefits. It is rare for reorganisation to save money. It is not that we believe that no scope exists for amalgamating services; scope does exist, if doing so is practical and people want it. That is why we have set out an alternative "clustering" of local authorities, as and when they see fit. Such an arrangement will be more responsive to local demands and will better reflect considerations such as population, geography and infrastructure. It is a far more practical solution than a one-size-fits-all jacket of regionalisation. Above all, it ensures proper accountability.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): May I provide some evidence to support my hon. Friend's assertion? Only last night, the now Conservative-controlled Isle of Wight council agreed to co-operate with Conservative-controlled Hampshire council on the provision of fire services. They did not need to amalgamate to provide an improved service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) indicated assent.

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) demonstrates the benefit of an entirely voluntary, clustered approach in which both parties see the benefit of the merger.

People at the front line know where and when to coalesce far better than a bureaucrat in Whitehall, so why do the Government not trust them and give them that freedom? This Government will not embrace clustering because to do so is to grant local authorities and service providers a degree of autonomy: in other words, it is decentralisation. No matter how hard the Government try to speak the language of localism, they still behave as if central Government know best. That is why regionalisation, in whatever form, is not a way of delivering localism; it is just a way of enforcing centralism. The evidence is there. The Government have created a plethora of unelected regional bodies in what amounts to a "quangocracy". The A to Z of this quangocracy covers art, biodiversity, climate change, fire, housing, industry, public health, rural affairs, social inclusion, tobacco, transport and waste.
12 Oct 2005 : Column 306

Local people are finding that decisions directly affecting their lives are being taken by regional assemblies that they cannot hold to account. Who are these assemblies answerable to? They are answerable to nobody—except the Deputy Prime Minister. If that is localism, the mind boggles as to what form a dictatorship would take. If people are paying for them, do they not have a right to know what these unelected regional bodies are up to? Why are the regional assemblies exempt from the Freedom of Information Act 2000? The Lord Chancellor still has not replied to that question, which I put to him a week ago, so perhaps the Minister could do so when he responds.

Something tells me that that the Government are all too aware of the folly of this regionalisation programme. There are few—except the Deputy Prime Minister himself—who would rush to defend it, but in fact regionalisation has gone beyond being his personal plaything: it has become a proxy for sweeping cuts to our public services. Taxpayers have a right to know what has happened to their money. Has a risk assessment or a cost-benefit analysis of regionalisation been carried out? [Interruption.] The Minister says yes, so perhaps he we would like to publish it and make it available to Members.

When local police stations, fire control rooms and ambulance trusts are boarded up and the land used for the Deputy Prime Minister's so-called £60,000 houses, people will see how he and the Chancellor have conspired to scrap their local emergency services, and they will not thank them for it. There is no demand for regionalisation; the quality of our services will suffer and it comes at a high price. Surely now is the time to abort this disastrous regionalisation programme and to accede to the wishes of the electorate. The Deputy Prime Minister is playing politics with people's lives, putting his empire building before the public interest. The rest of us in politics understand that the public interest must come first.

1.5 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page