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Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): My constituency is in the south of Northumberland and bridges on to the conurbations of Tyneside. At least 80,000 people live there. The next-door constituency of Wansbeck has about the same number. This part of Northumberland is fairly well populated compared with the rest, which is sparsely populated.
The county council and the chief fire officer have decided not merely to withdraw fire pumps, but to close fire stations. The proposal is to close two fire stations in my area that have been in existence for years. The Cramlington station covers the new town, which is a big area. It is on the edge of the town for the people to call on its services at any time. The old town of Blyth has a population of at least 39,000, and its fire station is also to close. There will be no retained fire pumps in those areas. Instead, they will be five miles upland in Wansbeck.
The plan is also to close the fire station at Morpeth, which has about 27,000 people. The station is in the town itself. Ashington fire station will close, too. It is on the edge of the town, which has about 26,000 people, if Newbiggin by the Sea and Bedlington are included. However, the chief fire officer, Mr. Hessler, says that he will build two state-of-the-art fire stations by the private finance initiative. We need to do our sums on PFI to see whether we save money or not. What we have come up with is that we will not save money and that the scheme will cost the council tax payers big time.
Never mind that, though, because Mr. Hessler is going to build the two big fire stations. One will be out in the country in Pegswood, which will cover Morpeth, Ashington, Newbiggin by the Sea and Bedlington and the other will be five miles outside my constituency to cover my 80,000 constituents. The idea is to regionalise the fire service and then to introduce a Bill to privatise it. That is the motive. I could say that the Tories will not privatise it, but I think that they will. It is a big worry.
Many years ago, when I was a young councillor, a guy was put in charge of the Northumberland ambulance service. Laurie Caper closed all the ambulance stations around Blyth Valley and Ashington, except for a couple of big ones. All the ambulances were put in those two stations. At times, they could not get through the traffic to the stations and response times were extended. Years later, instead of billeting ambulances somewhere on a roadside, which the ambulance service did for a long timethe ambulances were told where to wait for a callit decided to put them in the fire stations in Blyth, Cramlington and so on. It served a purpose because we got a fire station back, but that is all up in the air now. Where will the ambulance service go in Northumberland? It is a big worry.
The Government say that it is up to the county council. As far as they are concerned, it is in charge and they have nothing to do with it. I have sent the Minister a letter and a map outlining the problem. Response
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times will increase. Perhaps the chief fire office is going to put two jet-propelled rockets on the side of the fire engines to get them to emergencies in Blyth quicker.
We are losing out. Hundreds have signed a petition in Blyth because people say, "Wait a minute. Our fire station looks after 39,000." That may not be many compared with other constituencies. Hon. Members should tell me whether I am getting a bit of luxury. Is it acceptable for one or two fire appliances to cover 100,000 people? That is what we have had in the south-east of Northumberland.
On top of that, Mr. Hessler wants to cut 28 full-time firemen as part of the regionalisation. Those will not be redundancies, but natural wastage. He says, "But behold. We are going to have retained firemen." Well, that is all right. We know what retained firemen do. However, a member of the Fire Brigades Union told me last week that they have retained firemen in Ponteland, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). An incident happened, but the retained firemen could not get to it because they were off working somewhere else. The fire engine from Blyth had to go all the way up to Ponteland to fight the incident. We are closing stations, removing pumps and getting rid of full-time firefighters. We are expected to rely on retained firemen, but we cannot because they do other jobs. We must look at that problem.
I do not have a problem with other aspects of what the Government are doing. I understand that we need to modernise, but we cannot take vital services away from the public. It is always dodgy because if they are used to them being there, they feel safe. The fire service does a lot of other work, such as putting in fire alarms. Not so long ago it put a sprinkler into my mother's house. That is good and should be encouraged.
The recent national audit of Northumberland fire brigade gave it ratings of either excellent or good. It did not get fair or poor on anything. Although that service was excellent it was cut, and there will be only two fire stations. I would like to know what the Minister thinks about that. When he digs out my letterit has been in his office for three weekshe should investigate the situation. He should not rely on the chief fire officer, who will produce a biased report, as he did at the recent public meeting, but should seek the opinion of the Fire Brigades Union. I attended that public debate in New Hartley, and the chief fire officer lost hands-down. If I was not convinced before I went to the meeting I was when I left, because the FBU made a good case. Northumberland county council is making a grave mistake, and I urge Hessler to go back to where he came fromNoddyland, where he produced his Noddy policy.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con):
May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for giving us the opportunity to debate this extremely important issue, which is causing such grave concern to many of our constituents? I suspect that it worries not just constituents of Opposition Members but those of Government-
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supporting Members. I listened to the Minister with great care but without surprise. He made a fluent defence of a policy that I believe is indefensible. He sought to be constructive, and explained why he genuinely believes that the Government are doing the right thing to improve the services.
It is a pity that I cannot say the same of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather). In the two years since she has become a Member of Parliament I have not had the experienceI choose my words carefullyof having to listen to one of her speeches.I certainly hope that I do not have to listen to another one in the next two years. With all the arrogance of immaturity, she typified the problems that the Liberal Democrats have experienced since the general election. They do not have a clue about who they are going to attackthe Conservatives or the Governmentso they try dishonestly to grub up votes to enhance their political position. In typical Liberal Democrat fashion, therefore, the hon. Lady compromised
The hon. Lady compromised by deciding to disagree with the motion and the Government amendment. She sought, in an extremely cheap way, to attack the Conservative decision to support the FBU, to which the motion refers, for trying to stop regionalisation of control centres. I have to tell the hon. Lady that in the grown-up world real people with depth and maturity support the point of view they believe in, whoever expresses it. We will support the FBU if we believe that its cause is right. We will support an improved service of fire protection for our constituents if that means opposing regionalisation. We do not blow in the wind and we do not take a view because we think that it might enhance our popularity. We take a view because we believe that it is right and is in the best interests of the people who send us here every four or five years.
I have grave concerns about the Government proposals. I am not convinced by the Minister's argument that they will save money that can be reinvested in the service to improve it for our constituents. I believe that the proposals are crude, and are part of an overall agenda for regionalisation. The money that will be saved will not necessarily be reinvested pound for pound in the fire services or the ambulance service. It will go into the Chancellor's depleted coffers to help tackle the growing economic crisis in the public finances. My county of Essex has a population of 1.5 million, and is one of the most densely populated areas in the country. We are extremely fortunate, as we have an excellent fire service, and I pay tribute to the dedicated men and women who work day in, day out to protect us and provide the security and safety that all citizens deserve.
The system works. The control centre is located in Essex, and the people who work in it are extremely familiar with the county. They can do their job to the highest standard, and that is what the service
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should offer. If it is to be submerged into an eastern region including Suffolk, Norfolk and perhaps Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire, that quality of service, local knowledge and the ability to respond effectively and efficiently to calls for help will be diminished because the area covered will be too great. My motto has always been "If it ain't broke don't try to fix it." I urge the Government to follow that motto, even at this late stage. They should display a little more humility. The Minister knows what he is talking about, as he has intimate knowledge of the fire services, having worked for them. That is unusual, however, and I believe that the policy was dreamed up and imposed by civil servants in Whitehall to fit a wider agenda of regionalisation and to try to save money on the side.
Essex ambulance service, which is first-rate, is experiencing similar problems. It has an extremely good chief executive who is sensitive to the county's changing needs and demands, and who will make sure that the service and its resources are used to maximum effect so that ambulances are available to respond to accidents, to perform other functions and to offer an excellent service to the people of Essex, including my constituents. However, it faces the melting pot, because there are proposals to regionalise it. If the argument is that there are other ambulance services in the eastern region that are not as efficient and effective as that service, it is not right that all the services should be merged and brought down to the lowest common denominator. They should all be brought up to the highest standard. However, it is not clear that that will be achieved by putting them all together in a single mammoth organisation.
I am not making a party political point, because there have been local government reorganisations under Governments of all persuasions. Some of those reorganisations were motivated by the tenet that bigger is better but after the ensuing problems and upheavals, and given the grievances of people who felt detached from the services they were using, it was recognised that that was not the right approach. As a result, the clock was turned back, and people sought to return to the original arrangements. If the Government are determined to pursue their proposals to the bitter end, I fear that they will destroy an efficient, effective service. They will not be here in a few years' time to make the decisions, but we will have to pick up the pieces and reverse the process by trying to return to the original service that met people's needs.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden for securing today's debate, which is our only meaningful opportunity to debate the issue on behalf of our constituents on the Floor of the House. Both Ministers on the Front Bench are eminently reasonable, and when they are on their own and are not being bullied or pressurised by their political peers and civil servants, they should think again about this debate and be man and woman enough to admit that maybe they have not got it completely right and that maybe the policy is not necessarily the right way forward. They should be prepared to be magisterial and think again, and my constituents would be extremely grateful if they were to do so.
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