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Jim Fitzpatrick: Let me apologise to the hon. Gentleman. If I have not apologised before, I certainly do so now. We had hoped to be able to deliver that information before the summer recess, but it was not possible. We put the locations out as soon as we could,
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which was during the recess. It would have been equally inappropriate to wait until we came back in October to do so.

Mike Penning: I fully accept the Minister's comments. I understand that it can take time to get things to happen when he is dealing with lots of bureaucrats, and it is the bureaucratic mess that I am particularly worried about. The Minister knows a lot about the fire service from his history of working in it, but I am not sure how many of the people who surround him in the civil service in London understand what is happening on the ground.

The Minister joined the fire service a little before I did. At that time, control people in the whole-time stations knew the topography of the local area; they knew what was going on. If someone called the fire brigade, the call went directly to their local whole-time fire station. That service was moved, however, from fire stations to divisional control centres. Why? It was to save money. The service stayed there for a while, where it worked pretty well, although not as well as it had in the stations. Guess what? To save money, we then moved it from the divisional control centres to the brigade control centres, which is where it operates from today. That has worked, because a lot of the local knowledge went to the control centres. It was possible for people who lived in the county and worked in those control centres to move up in that way. Most of the people who work in the control centres in Hertfordshire and in Essex—where I was a full-time firemen—moved in that way, and some of them had put in 20 or 30 years' service.

We are now talking about moving to nine regional control centres. If this is all about saving money—and it is; the Minister has already said that he wants to invest it elsewhere—perhaps we could just have one control centre. Or perhaps we could do as the banks have done and have a call centre in Delhi or Bombay. If it is not about knowledge and only about technology, the proposal for nine centres does not make sense. It must therefore be about what is safe for the public and what works.

Like many other Members, I have grave concerns about IT projects. A Labour Member commented earlier from a sedentary position that IT projects went wrong under Conservative Governments, too, which is perfectly correct—they have been going wrong since time immemorial. In relation to this IT project, the key is lives being saved. That is why I fundamentally oppose the project, and why the FBU opposes it, as it understands the situation on the ground much better than any bureaucrat in Westminster.

I want briefly to consider some of the modernisations that have—or, rather, have not—been introduced. The former Minister for Local and Regional Government, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich commented from a sedentary position that this is not about cuts. If you come to Hertfordshire, however, you will see that Bovingdon and Radlett fire stations are being closed. At least one pump is being removed from Watford, and four full-time firemen from Hemel Hempstead. When we asked the chief fire officer why that had happened, his reply was that he must save £500,000 so that he can finance the fire prevention measures—of which I am wholeheartedly in favour—that are not being funded by the Office of the Deputy
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Prime Minister. We are therefore having cuts—the provision is not being relocated, as some Labour Members were saying, but is vanishing.

The largest town in Hertfordshire is Hemel Hempstead—I am pleased that the Ministers of State from the Department of Health are in the Chamber, as the hospital is also subject to massive cuts, which perhaps I will delve into in a moment—and it has two pumps. The most accident-prone part of the M1 in southern England, junction 8—it is fantastic that it is going to be widened, and I hope that we will not have as many accidents in future—is covered by the pump at Bovingdon, and Bovingdon station is being closed. I take to heart the comments made about retained fire stations, and in a perfect world we would not have any retained or part-time stations. In this imperfect world, however, we have community-based fire stations that serve and are manned by their local community, and we should praise people who are willing to risk their lives for not a lot of money to be retained firemen.

The other week, I attended Dacorum borough council's scrutiny committee and listened to the commander of Bovingdon fire station, who has served as a community fireman for 30 years and who was almost in tears because he knows that the closure of that station will cost lives. One of the reasons that that is possible is that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has changed the rules and allowed a longer time of up to 10 minutes for the appliances to arrive at residences after a call is initiated. It was suggested earlier that most people are dead before the call is made, but many are not. The quicker that we can get the appliances to them, the quicker we can get them out, and those of us who have served know how important that is. If it is the case that most people are dead before the fire engine is called, we might as well turn the blue lights off and just drive. As a former driver of a fire engine, however, I could never do that. I would like to try to drive a fire engine in your constituency and get the distance without the—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. He must use the correct parliamentary language: "you" and "your" are not permissible in that direct way.

Mike Penning: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is the second time that I have had to be called to order today, and I apologise to you and the Minister involved earlier. It is a learning process—

Mr. Boswell : Like the call centres.

Mike Penning: Yes, it is like the learning process for people in call centres.

If we take away local knowledge and work only on the basis of costs, and say that we need much better fire prevention and smoke alarms fitted but do not fund it, we must close fire stations. Closing Bovingdon station will save £90,000. When I asked the assistant chief constable who did the presentation what the reasons were behind it, he said, "Sir, you have to ask the local politicians about that." I did, and the answer was that Hertfordshire must save £500,000 from the fire budget; otherwise it will not meet the criteria set by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
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Recently, I, like colleagues on both sides of the House, met representatives of my ambulance trust. I asked them whether they were looking forward to the mooted amalgamation. There was silence. Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire have a fantastic ambulance service. I told them that there will be massive changes to the health service in Hertfordshire. I am not ashamed to mention that I and my constituents are very worried about closures of acute services at Hemel Hempstead hospital, which means that we will need more ambulances to move more people, on a blue light, from my constituency to Watford, the only available accident and emergency department, which happens to be full at the moment and on red alert, so it has not been able to take anyone at all recently. The ambulance trust said, "We have asked for more money, Mr. Penning, but none is forthcoming." I ask the Minister responding to the debate to say where the extra money will come from. Will we get money not only for the reorganisation, but for more ambulances, so that we can move people around this "big is beautiful" health service that seems to be developing?

I turn finally to the police. I in no way take a draconian view on this issue, and I am not completely opposed to any amalgamation of constabularies. As I said this week in my local paper, if such amalgamation puts more bobbies on the beat and leads to a better police force and fewer bureaucrats and administrators, we will consider it. But we can do so only if the relevant evidence is put before us. All too often, we are getting "bounced", be it on fire services, fire control centres, hospitals, ambulances or the police. The lack of information—

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I want to make a very brief intervention. There is already evidence of the consequences of the regionalisation of police forces. A former divisional commander of the Met, which is effectively a regional force, told me that its priorities do not match those of the local divisional forces surrounding the centre. Resource drift into the centre is an inevitable consequence of the regionalisation of police forces.

Mike Penning: Let us hope that that evidence is put before us, so that we can have a proper debate. That is what I am looking for: a proper debate, rather than being "bounced".

3.36 pm

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