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The hon. Lady should listen to this. Even more astonishing is the fact that the Opposition have drawn a veil of silence over the proposals for reorganisation that they touted over the previous three years. How many times can we recall hearing the Opposition criticise our arrangements for enhancing and improving the capacity of our emergency services to cope with whatever might be thrown at them with the continued refrain, "You aren't doing as well as the
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Americans. You ought to have a department of homeland security."? How many times did Opposition spokesmen tell us to set up a department of homeland security? Why are they now so silent about that? I give way to the hon. Lady and invite her to comment on why the Opposition have forgotten, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the performance of the American department of homeland security, their espousal of such a structure in the UK?
Mrs. Spelman: I want to address the accusation that we had not paid tribute to the work of our emergency services. The right hon. Gentleman acknowledged that he had not been in the Chamber for the whole of my speech but, before he came in, I made the point that at least two Members present had been directly involved and served with the emergency services and I said how much I respected those who put their lives on the line. It is dangerous for the right hon. Gentleman to call into question our sincerity on that point when he was not present. As for the rest of his diatribe, I think he was trying to change the subject. He is a respected specialist on the whole subject of local government and its remit, but I wish that he would save his ire and frustration about what is happening and direct it at his own Front Bench.
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Lady's intervention entirely ignored my point, which was that the Opposition motion made no reference to the performance of the emergency services and paid no tribute to them. That is an interesting comment. Secondly, her feeble attempt to skate over her party's commitment to an expensive and unproven reorganisation of the structure for oversight of the emergency services is also interesting
To refer to the right hon. Gentleman's earlier point, I notice that the Government amendment to our motion pays no particular tribute to our emergency services, so perhaps his criticism of my hon. Friend should be directed at the Treasury Bench.
This is an Opposition day debate. It is the Opposition's motion and I stand exactly by what I said. Not only did the motion pay no tribute to the work of the emergency services, or even mention it, but the Opposition have entirely glossed over their misconceived commitment to a major, expensive reorganisation to create a department of homeland security which, as we have seen in the American example, did not perform as well as its advocates on the Conservative Benches might have liked to think it would
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by comparison with the performance of our emergency services on 7 July, to which my hon. Friend the Minister
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Before the debate getsdare I say?a little heated, I remind all hon. Members that we should be discussing the Opposition motion and the Government amendment.
I want to say a little about the fire service. As the Government amendment rightly highlights, the fire service has been making important progress in achieving reductions in fire deaths and improving safety. That is the overriding objective. The new legislation, which I had the privilege of taking through the House during my time as a Minister, established a new priority of saving lives, as one of the service's key objectives, as my hon. Friend the Minister rightly said. Fire prevention is now absolutely on the agenda as a prime responsibility, something that had not been conceived of when the 1947 legislation was introduced.
Rob Marris: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the West Midlands fire service has been doing preventive work for many years, has one of the best records in that respect and is one of the largest fire services in the area? Large fire services can do very good preventive work and I pay tribute to the brothers and sisters in the West Midlands fire service for what they have done.
Mr. Raynsford: I wholeheartedly concur with my hon. Friend, who rightly highlights the good work that is being done in a number of fire authorities. Such work is being accelerated as a result of the White Paper, the legislation and the additional funds, to which my hon. Friend the Minister rightly alluded, that are being used to promote fire safety and ensure the greater installation of smoke alarms, particularly in vulnerable people's homes. It is astonishing that the hon. Member for Meriden referred to cuts in expenditure on emergency services. When the Conservative party was in government, the fire service did not have the equipment that it now has to deal with the new dimension of terrorist incidents.
Mr. Raynsford: I will give way in a moment, but I remind the hon. Gentleman about the underfunding of the fire service in the past. He will know about that only too well, but he will also know that the new dimension programme has been fully funded by the Government.
As a result, fire authorities are now far better equipped to cope with a range of disasters, including flooding, with high-volume water pumps, and rescuing people from collapsed buildings, with urban search and rescue equipment. They are also getting additional funds to ensure that fire prevention and fire safety work
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can be given the priority that it deserves. That was not the pattern when the Conservative party was in power, and it is outrageous for the hon. Member for Meriden to suggest that the funding has been cut by a Government who have been fully funding the response to the new pressures on the fire service.
Mike Penning: Perhaps we could talk about cuts today in Hertfordshire. Given the lack of funding, two brand-new appliances will not be required any more because the Government are closing two retained fire stations. Those are cuts today, not cuts eight years ago.
Mr. Raynsford: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman makes a great mistake if he goes from the particular to the general. Obviously, there will be changes and it is right that there should be. The old arrangements were inflexible and made it difficult for fire brigades to change the deployment of crews and equipment to meet today's threats. Those arrangements, based on 1940s legislationhe will be familiar with thatemphasised the protection of buildings. Although that is important, we believe that the saving of lives is more important. The new legislation rightly puts the focus on saving lives and fire authorities throughout the country are reviewing their arrangements to put a greater emphasis on that.
Yes, the result is that there are changes. I have accepted the removal of one appliance from a station in my constituency, having looked carefully at the figures, which show, as the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority demonstrated, that there would be a better prospect of saving lives by moving an appliance from one of the Greenwich stations to Sidcup because today's threats are different from those that existed in the 1940s, when a lot of the provisions were initially put in place. Any good service must seriously consider the need for change to take account of today's pressures and threats. We cannot ossify arrangements based on past patterns. Some change is necessary, but to talk about cuts is nonsense when the Government are increasing funding, as my hon. Friend the Minister has stressed.
I want to talk about a little more about fire control, because some hon. Members made some misleading comments in their contributions on the issue. The fire control arrangements are designed to ensure that every fire authority in the country has the use of the best modern equipment to ensure that it can deploy resources as effectively as possible to meet whatever risks are faced. The new technology is not a leap into the unknown, as some people have suggested when referring to IT.
Those who have any doubt about the technology should visit fire brigades such as Norfolk or Merseyside, where it is already used successfully. It allows a lot more than is possible in most other areas. It allows automatic identification of where the call is coming from. In Merseyside, that has now been extended to cover calls from mobile phones, which present an increasing pressure on the service. It also allows the automatic mobilisation of the appliances that are closest placed to
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respond and ensures that the crew in the cab will automatically receive a printout that identifies the hazards that they might encounter at the site that they are going to. Every fire authority in the country should benefit from those state-of-the-art arrangements. Fire control will ensure that they do.
It has been suggested that local knowledge will be lost. Such knowledge has not been a major factor for fire control operations for many years since computerised gazetteering was introduced. Even in the existing authorities, it is unrealistic to expect a fire control operator to know the location of every village and town in a county, or every street in London, which already has a region-wide fire control operation. That is not possible. The new technology obviates that need because it presents the operator with a screen showing exactly where the call is coming from and where the appliance best placed to respond is. The red herring about local knowledge should be set aside.
The other factor, which cannot be set aside, is the huge savings that are possible by introducing the new system across the country, with a smaller number of much more efficient control centres, thus allowing the savings to be ploughed back into fire preventionexactly the thing that we know will save lives.
The hon. Member for Meriden looks doubtful, but one of the statistics that I remember best from my period as the Minister responsible for the fire service is that half the people who die in domestic fires are dead before the fire brigade is alerted to the incident. However good they arethey are very good at responding to incidentsand however quickly they get to the site, they cannot save those lives. Prevention is critical if those lives are to be saved. If, as a result of making savings on fire control, some of those resources can be used to put more smoke alarms into vulnerable people's homes and to carry out more fire prevention work in the first place, more lives will saved. This is a sensible policy that is designed to give the best results.
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