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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister knows from our discussion yesterday that I was lobbied by the fire control staffs of the five component counties of the east midlands, which will see their centres closed and relocated to the northern part of north-west Leicestershire. If he is so convinced of the strength of his case on regional centres, will he now announce that there will be an independent assessment of the business case that underpins a very expensive and quite risky project?
My hon. Friend raised that matter with me yesterday and he will recall that I suggested that if he listened to my full explanation, he might be persuaded that a full independent assessment was unnecessary. The Government certainly do not believe that such an assessment is needed. We believe that all the protocols of assessment within the Government have
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been observed and that the business case, as well as the professional and organisational case, clearly stand up to scrutiny.
Jim Fitzpatrick: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have already spent 10 minutes, but I am only a third of the way through my speech. I will give way later, but we have only limited time and many colleagues wish to participate in the debate. If he insists, however, I will give way.
Mr. Benyon: I am grateful. Will the Minister respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about the Government's lamentable performance on new information technology projects, which are absolutely key to success?
Jim Fitzpatrick: Yes, I shall deal with the issue later in my speech, but to anticipate, nothing that we are going to deploy in the new regional control centres has to be invented. Everything is already in existence and already deployed in fire control centres in different parts of the country. The problem is that only a minority of fire services have and enjoy the benefits, which we are going to roll out to all 46 English fire brigades so that the latest technology will be available to all.
I have said many times before that existing control staff do a good job, but that does not mean that we have a control system suited to the demands of the 21st century. To respond more fully to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), with FiReControl, we will enhance the role of control staff with the latest technology, which has a proven track record with emergency services across the country. The new national network will make it possible to respond effectively to all incidents, however big, whether natural disasters or terrorist attack, and allow the service to deal with surges in demand that can currently overwhelm local resources. Should one centre be out of action because of loss of power or telecommunications, it will allow immediate fallback arrangements. It will underpin dynamic mobilising of appliances to help cut incident response times, resulting in saving lives and reducing property damage, as well as allowing data transfer from control rooms to the cab or fire appliances on the way to incidents.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The gold command structure has worked effectively from 7 July and the Firelink radio communication system will have interoperability, which is part of the modernisation process in communications.
In carrying all that out, we estimate savings of more than £20 million a year and a 30 per cent. reduction in annual running costs, with the money saved to be reinvested in the service. There is an overwhelming case on resilience and efficiency grounds for FiReControl, which will help deliver individual fire and rescue authorities' integrated risk management plans and be fully accountable to those authorities.
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All that makes the Opposition motion particularly baffling, as we have freed the fire and rescue services from centralised state control. We have repealed section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, which meant that almost any change in local operational delivery required ministerial approval, and removed the outdated national standards for fire cover that forced local professional chief fire officers into a Whitehall-imposed straitjacket. We have thus moved the emphasis of protection for the fire and rescue service from buildings to people, and put the service under local control.
Tony Baldry: The Oxfordshire fire service does not want a regional fire and control centre. The Minister has talked a lot about resilience, but how will he protect the integrity of control centres between now and 2009? There are 22 jobs at Kidlington. Those people owe their families a duty of care, and they will drift away and find employment elsewhere. How will he ensure that the Oxfordshire fire and control centre will still operate between now and 2009?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is being addressed by local fire authorities, chief fire officers and human resources managers. My Department is also looking at its ability to assist in the transfer arrangements between now and 2009. We know that the majority of posts will be maintained, and we are confident that most control room staff will want to avail themselves of the new opportunities for better career paths in the new control rooms. There will be better facilities, and greater demands will be placed on the professionalism of staff, many of whom are under-utilised at present. However, not everyone will adopt the same approach, and it is clear that management will have to deal with that.
I was saying that I hoped that all hon. Members would welcome the integrated risk management plans, which respond to many of the needs of our constituents and communities. As has been noted in the past few minutes, people do not want to be told by Whitehall what to do and how to deploy resources. Throughout, we have sought to work with the elected members of fire and rescue authorities to modernise and improve the service so that we can achieve our common goal of saving lives, reducing injuries and preventing fires.
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): My question may be hypothetical, but it is all too possible. A person who reports a fire in my area might not know the locality and so may not be able to describe the address. An operator in a regional fire control centre is far less likely to be able to fill in the gaps in that report than would be the case with a local fire control operator. Therefore, would not a regional fire control centre be less likely to save lives than a local one?
I shall draw two analogies for the hon. Gentleman. First, London has a single control centre that covers several hundred square miles, and a population of 7 million people who speak 300 languages. However, that centre's staff are among the most efficient in the country. By contrast, the Strathclyde centre deals with most of the west coast of Scotland, which includes both rural and metropolitan communities. The latest technology and
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the professionalism of our control staff mean that reports are being dealt with more efficiently than ever before. I strongly advise the hon. Gentleman to look at the modern control rooms that a minority of this country's fire brigades have. I accept that not every brigade has a modern control room, but we want to make the technology available to everyone. His question is a fair one, but the problem will be resolved by the use of modern technology.
Naturally, there is a regional dimension to this matter. The Government offices for the regions exist because, more than a decade ago, the Conservative Government of the time decided that it made sound organisational sense for different Departments to operate within the same geographical boundaries. The same logic
Mrs. Spelman: The Government offices for the regions were set up originally to act as a one-stop-shop interface between Whitehall Departments, especially for people a long way from London. They were never conceived as an accountable body to which emergency services should be responsible. Does the Minister accept that the Government's policy of establishing elected regional assemblies has failed, and that the proposed regionalisation of the emergency services is not democratically accountable?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The world has moved on, and indirectly elected regional assemblies now exist. In the fire service, for example, there are regional resilience forums, through which the fire and rescue service can co-ordinate with other organisations how best to respond to natural disasters and emergencies. The London resilience forum has been working since September 2001. I respectfully suggest to the hon. Lady that its existence was what helped London respond so effectively to the bombings in July. It served as a clearing house for all the major organisations in business, emergency services, the voluntary sector and local authorities. It allowed those bodies to plan for such an incident, and we all know how well London responded when the time came. We need to establish the same structures at regional level in all parts of England, to ensure that the country is protected. That is a question not of ideology, but of basic common sense.
I turn now to the restructuring of the police force. At present there are 43 police forces in England and Wales, and for some time people have questioned whether that is the right structure. Police forces need to be able to tackle crime at all levels. They need to be able to deliver neighbourhood policing, and have the capacity and ability to meet the threats posed by terrorism, domestic extremism, serious organised crime and civil emergencies.
Concern has been expressednot least within the police service itselfthat the existing force structure is not fit to undertake both those critical roles. For that reason, in June 2004 my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commissioned Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary to examine whether the service was sufficiently robust to handle the whole spectrum of its responsibilities. The HMIC's findings were published last month in a report entitled "Closing the Gap". It concluded that the existing structure was no longer fit for its purpose and that, below a certain size, there is not
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a sufficient critical mass to provide the necessary sustainable level of protective services that the 21st century increasingly demands.
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