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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to end and add:

I speak on behalf of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as the Minister responsible for the fire and rescue service—one of the emergency services whose future has, we have just been told, prompted today's debate. Anyone reading the Opposition motion would be led to believe that our emergency services are either in difficulty or about to be so. With respect, that argument does not stand up to inspection.
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I shall try to respond to the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) by outlining exactly how much progress has been made in recent years, especially in the fire and rescue services. The Government's role in trying to deliver this progress has been clear. On the back of the 2002–03 fire dispute, we had the Bain inquiry—an independent review that recommended what Professor Bain called "supra-brigade co-ordination". He argued that local fire services could improve their effectiveness in saving lives by working together at regional level in key areas such as command and control. The June 2003 White Paper and the subsequent national framework documents set the strategic direction for the 21st century fire and rescue service—one in which prevention has joined emergency response as a core function.

Sarah Teather: Although the Bain review recommended co-operation, it also specifically ruled out the merging of services.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Lady makes a fair point; I was simply trying to explain that the Bain inquiry pointed in a particular direction. We are not trying to force amalgamations or mergers, but we do support co-operation and collaboration between county brigades where appropriate. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) mentioned earlier, such a decision was taken by the Isle of Wight and Hampshire fire authorities. We have discussed it and we know that it is a sensible move forward, and I will further discuss Professor Bain's recommendations in due course.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): As my hon. Friend knows and as has been mentioned, we have the tri-service centre in Quedgeley, in Gloucester, which has been subjected to an initial evaluation. Will he now agree to a full evaluation, and will he talk to the various parts of that service—not just the management, but the workers—to see whether that model has some merit and could be applied in other parts of the country?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He has written to me about this issue and we have discussed it, and I will in due course explain in detail why we are not convinced that that model is the best one for 21st century fire brigades, and why the proposal on which we will deliver is the best way forward for England's fire and rescue services.

The fire and rescue national framework sets out the Government's priorities and objectives for the fire and rescue service. What both the authorities and the Government need to do is to achieve them. The framework provides clear direction from central Government, while ensuring that locally, authorities are free to continue to make their own strategic decisions about fire cover.

We have set overall public service agreement targets. By 2010, we want to cut accidental fire deaths in the home by 20 per cent. and deliberate fires by 10 per cent.

Mike Penning: You say that local authorities can choose whether to amalgamate. Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire fire authorities have chosen to do so
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and that is good practice, but such choice does not apply to fire control centres. They have no choice—you are imposing regional control centres on them.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I would never impose anything on anyone.

Jim Fitzpatrick: If the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) can be patient, I shall discuss the specific arrangements and our proposals for fire controls in greater detail later.

As I was saying a few moments ago, we have set firm public service agreement targets to cut accidental deaths, injuries and fires in the home—targets that were attacked by some and criticised by many who said that the 20 per cent. cut in deaths was not ambitious enough and that we should have zero tolerance of fire deaths. However, it is our belief that setting this target is achievable, practicable and provides a good way forward for the immediate future.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): The Minister's ideas and targets for reducing deaths are laudable. To a degree, fire deaths are at a plateau in respect of the next series to be reduced, but surely the most logical approach is to tackle the problem of houses in multiple occupation. In particular, we should be thinking about using sprinkler schemes. The Minister is going to spend considerable amounts of money on reorganisation, but would it not be better spent on sprinklers and tackling the problem of houses in multiple occupation?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman demonstrates his familiarity with his subject. There is no disagreement between us that sprinkler systems are an effective way of protecting people, particularly the most vulnerable. I commend to him this morning's Westminster Hall debate with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on the very subject of smoke detectors. What I said there demonstrates exactly what the Government are trying to achieve through the development of domestic sprinkler systems, which we believe will protect the most vulnerable in our communities. I do not disagree with the idea of moving in that direction, but I am also saying that any savings made from the new regional control centres will be available for fire and rescue services to deploy for the better protection of their local communities. I shall say more about that in due course.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The former Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who now sits on the Back Benches, was clear in Committee that the Government were looking towards taking action on sprinkler systems and that new legislation would be introduced in the form of building regulations. Can the Minister tell us when that is likely to happen?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The building regulations document is out for consultation at the moment and we expect the outcome of that consultation to be known shortly. I shall endeavour to supply the hon. Gentleman with the exact date in due course.
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The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 put prevention at the heart of the Government's agenda for improving the fire and rescue service and created a new duty to promote fire safety. The Government are also reforming general fire safety legislation, ensuring that the responsibility for safety in non-domestic premises will rest with the person responsible for those premises. From 1 April next year, the Regulatory Reform Order 2001 will simplify the law, remove a bureaucratic regime of fire certification, and replace it with a modern risk assessment approach.

We are investing substantially in the service, including in new personal protective equipment for firefighters' own safety and new training facilities and opportunities. In particular, the training facilities for urban search and rescue at the Fire Service college are now regarded as the best in the world. Grant support is also targeted for local action to reduce arson and other fire risks. Under the home fire risk check programme, for example, we are funding to the total of £25 million a programme of visits to the 1,250,000 houses that are judged to be most at risk from fire to offer advice and practical help such as the free installation of smoke alarms. In the first six months of this year alone, 87,000 such visits took place and 91,000 new smoke alarms were fitted. I have already mentioned this morning's Westminster Hall debate on the subject, sponsored by the hon. Member for Rochdale.

In 2005–06, fire and rescue authorities received an average 3.7 per cent. grant increase and no authority received less than 2.5 per cent. In addition to that investment in fire prevention and mainstream emergency response, the Government are investing heavily in a new resilience framework—approaching £1 billion to create a national network of regional fire control centres, called FiReControl—a new radio system called Firelink and a new dimensions programme, which has seen us commit £180 million for mass decontamination, urban search and rescue, and high-volume pumping equipment to improve the capability of the fire and rescue service to respond to major disasters, including terrorist incidents.

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