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Mrs. Spelman: I looked doubtful because I do not see the logic in the right hon. Gentleman's argument. If Norfolk, which he cited, is so successful with new technology, it does not automatically follow that things need to be restructured regionally. We could simply share best practice. He may be happy to lose one of the two appliances that he mentioned, but fire stations have gone from two to one appliance overnight throughout the west midlands. That is a cut.

Mr. Raynsford: I am afraid that the hon. Lady is exaggerating and not giving an accurate picture. I considered that argument very carefully, as any hon. Member would when presented with a proposal to remove an appliance, and I was convinced, when I had scrutinised and questioned the authority, that that was the right decision. Hon. Members should do that and not have a knee-jerk reaction and exaggerate, as the hon. Lady has done in implying that appliances are being taken out all over the west midlands. That is simply not the case.

The Norfolk technology is good, but it did not extend to mobile phones when I saw it. Merseyside has moved on and its technology covers them. Clearly, we need the
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best modern technology, with the greatest capacity, installed throughout the country, but it would simply not be economic to do so on the basis of the existing 46 control centres. In many cases, they are not organised well to respond. They may have sufficient staff to respond to any possible incident, but many of them will not have much work to do for a lot of the time because of the relatively small volume of calls.

For example, I looked at the figures for the Isle of Wight and I could see that, on average, a control room operator would expect to deal with probably no more than one incident in the entire shift on which they were on duty, because it is necessary to have sufficient staff on duty at any one time to cope with potential surges. That is simply not economic, and that is why the Isle of Wight has recognised that it cannot go on as an independent fire control centre.

By contrast, London is already organised on a regional basis and the fire control centre covers a much larger number of calls, so it is operating on a far more cost-effective basis. It gives as good a service, if not a better one, and does so with significant savings that then allow more focus on fire safety. I talk to the chief of the London fire brigade from time to time and he strongly emphasises his service's real commitment to driving down the number of lives lost unnecessarily in fires. That commitment is the result of the Government's policy and of the potential for making savings through an intelligent approach towards facing today's risks.

I thought that the speech of the hon. Member for Meriden and the Opposition motion were among the feeblest that I have come across in the House for a very long time. They indicate thinking that is stuck in the past and that shows no recognition of the failure of their abortive approach to reorganisation and to a department of homeland security. They show no willingness to engage in the serious debate—not the token debate with Opposition motions that are not worth the paper they are written on—about how to improve the fire service, save lives and ensure that we have the best and most effective service.

I hope that the House will reject the opportunistic Opposition motion and treat it with the contempt that it deserves.

2.11 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the debate and to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford). He at least has the benefit of knowing a good deal about this subject and made aspects of his case quite strongly. I would say to him and to the House that I take a pragmatic view of administrative structures; I want structures that work and that can handle and make the best use of modern technology in the interests of my constituents and others. We all move about the country, and we do or do not benefit from the situation in the area in which we happen to be at the time.

I am in no sense, and never have been, what I would call a visceral anti-regionalist. I confirm the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on the genesis of the original Government office structure. I was Department of Trade and Industry Whip at the time that that was being
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thought about, and it was very much a matter of co-ordinating the national effort of the various Departments in the regions rather than seeking to take over or administer major aspects of service delivery. Indeed, I pursued that strategy as a Minister in relation to some educational components in the process and later, as an Agriculture Minister, I worked closely with a regional structure. Although such a strategy is not unthinkable, I take odds with it when it brings in large elements of additional bureaucracy and further structures that may not be appropriate and that may dilute the democratic structures in place. My interest is in sensible co-operation to achieve the right technical result, not in fitting the services to a regional template irrespective of the benefit or otherwise. That is what motivated me to participate in the debate, and I wish to make several points to support my view.

I am genuinely concerned about the nature of the consultation. It is perhaps no good for us as Members of Parliament to get pompous about that, but it is something of an outrage that the major proposals for the fire and ambulance services, the wider health service and the police authorities were not notified to us by communications from Secretaries of State. Indeed, if the proposals were all part of an integrated strategy that the Government wish to pursue, they might at least have told us.

The problem goes further. I genuinely believe that consultation can be beneficial and that it is sometimes a good idea to ask Members of Parliament, as the primary elected representatives for their constituencies, to participate in the process. That is as much in the Government's interest as it is in ours. I know that the Minister is an entirely reasonable fellow, and I hope that he will want to take some of these points on board.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I arrived back at the House this week to find that I had been sent through the post—I am sure that my hon. Friend has received it too—the latest newspaper from the Northamptonshire police force. Its front page contains the headline "Getting ready for a merger", but that is the first communication that any Northamptonshire MP has received on the subject. We are informed:

The chief constable is reported as saying:

That entirely reinforces my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and Northamptonshire colleague for making that point. I am delighted that his voice reinforces my argument. That is exactly the concern that we have. It would not have been too difficult for Ministers to have approached us, and it might even have been in their interests to do so.

Sometimes I wonder whether the Government consult only on the unimportant issues and that the level of consultation, or the time provided for it, is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject. One of the problems is that we have not really seen a base of evidence, and it might be quite different for the different
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services. It would be useful to have an overview and independent analysis, not least because of the concerns being expressed powerfully in this debate.

I wish to make a specific point. I know a little about resilience, because as an 18-year-old I wrote a paper on the subject that was sent to the Home Office in 1961. I suffer gravely from not having a BBC service that is particularly relevant to where I live. I live in Northamptonshire, but receive the service from Oxford and the regional service is from the south, so I see a lot about shipping in the Solent. If I am to be put into an east midlands mould, I will need an east midlands service if there is a difficulty or an emergency. That must be integrated right up to the borders of the services that operate in the area. I mention the point, because I think it is a consideration that the Minister is nodding at.

The final point of the general considerations that I put to Ministers is my worry at the frenetic pace of change. I am conscious that others wish to speak and that we do not want to extend the debate to cover the whole field of public services, but I will say two words about health provision more generally in a moment. As the Government mature, I notice that they are going through a second or even third cycle of change. In these respects, they now seem to be quickening the pace, because they want to produce solutions or to save money, as colleagues have said. In other cases, the second or third reorganisation merely adds to the confusion of staff and service users alike. I think that it was Petronius who said nearly 2,000 years ago, "Every time that we were just about to get somewhere, they reorganised us and then we had to start the process all over again."

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