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Mr. Ronnie Campbell: I missed that point, but the hon. Gentleman is right. There is a question of regionalisation and, at the end of the day, a question of privatisation.

Mr. Atkinson: I am not sure that I would go quite as far as that, so I will stick to regionalisation at the moment. Every other emergency service has gone that way. Even now it is proposed that Northumbria police will become even bigger through its amalgamation with the police forces of Durham and Cleveland. I cannot believe that the regionalisation agenda will not be extended to include the fire service in time. People have long said that there is no logic in having an independent fire service in Northumberland and that it should certainly amalgamate with Tyne and Wear—who knows what would happen from then on?

A person who was thinking of going for a regional service might find that the proposals and the places in which the new fire stations may be built would make absolute sense, because a much wider area would be
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covered that than covered by the existing four stations. I suspect that the regionalisation of our Northumberland fire services will occur, which I would oppose because I think that local services are best dealt with locally. If the Northumberland fire and rescue service needs extra equipment or specialist pieces of equipment, it has a long-standing arrangement to use the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service's equipment. The arrangement works extremely well, and I would hate regionalisation to be extended to our fire services.

3.42 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) on securing the debate. I also congratulate him and my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on their excellent speeches. I declare a registrable interest as the secretary of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, in which capacity I wish to speak.

The decision in Northumberland has national significance. It was based on the new approach introduced by the Government, which moved away from national minimum standards towards a system of integrated risk management planning. That has enabled the fire authority and fire chief to reach a decision that has not been supported by local Members, the local population, or the FBU.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said, there has been hardly any consultation with the union. I am as sceptical as my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley about the consultation with the general public. I have decided to speak in the debate because this is the test case for the new system to determine whether the Minister has the power to intervene so that he can at least undertake a reconsideration of decisions that have been taken to date, if not override the local decisions, which we believe may be wrong. It is quite clear from the evidence presented by my hon. Friends that serious risks could be caused by the decision to invest significantly in establishing stations that might well be white elephants and certainly will not perform effectively and with public support in the same way as the existing stations.

In the comprehensive assessments on fire authorities, Northumberland has come out not as "good" or "excellent", but simply as "fair". One key element in that document is the importance of communicating with the general public and consulting on such matters. In my view, Northumberland has not been assessed as "excellent" or "good" because it has fallen down badly in terms not only of its relationship with the union and its members, but of its communication with the general public.

The specific case, in a narrowly drawn debate, throws up a national issue. Has the Minister the powers to intervene now that we no longer have minimum standards? What is the role of the Government when a decision is made which we believe is not only inappropriate but possibly dangerous? What powers are still available to him and how will he exercise them? More importantly, will he bring to the House a report on how he will intervene? If he cannot intervene, can we consider the system again, re-examine the integrated risk-management plans and go back to the establishment of minimum standards, which served the country well and ensured the safety of the general public?
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I would also welcome the Minister's comments on the fire authority's lack of consultation with the trade union and the general public, and how he will address those matters, if only to issue guidance to the authority to improve its performance.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) has raised this subject with me in the Lobby for some weeks, so I am pleased that he has been successful in securing time to raise it on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell: I did not call the Minister a murderer this time.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend puts that on the record before I have had a chance to do other than congratulate him on securing the debate.

We heard interesting contributions on the fire and rescue service in south-east Northumberland. Its overriding objective is to save lives. That has not changed since I was a firefighter and a Fire Brigades Union official. The Government have set out ambitious targets to drive down accidental fire deaths.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Minister mentions targets. Is not it true that the Government abolished minimum response times?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman is correct and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) referred to that. As a result of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, we have delegated responsibility for integrated risk-management planning, the determination of the siting of fire stations, the deployment of fire appliances, and the employment of crews and equipment to local chief fire officers and to fire and rescue authorities locally. There are no set national prescribed attendance times in the sense of those outlined in the Fire Services Act 1947. However, we have established public service agreement targets, the first of which is to reduce the number of accidental fire-related deaths in the home by 20 per cent. and to achieve a 10 per cent. reduction in deliberate fires by 31 March 2010.

John McDonnell: My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley raised the contentious issue of the use of a PFI scheme to develop the new facilities. Has the decision making on the mechanism for use of the PFI or mainstream funding also been delegated to individual fire authorities, or is that determined by the Treasury and Government policy?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Treasury and Government policy facilitate the use of the PFI as a mechanism for procuring and constructing assets. It is a matter for local authorities how they use the resources that are devolved to them. This is the second time that my hon. Friend and I have debated fire issues. Having started in Committee Room 10 at 9.30 this morning, I am pleased to see him back in his place and continuing to demonstrate his interest as secretary of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group.
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We also have a floor target: by 2010, no local fire and rescue authority should have a fatality rate from accidental fires in the home higher than 1.25 times the national average. We have set performance targets for the level of protection that the public should anticipate receiving from their local fire and rescue service, but through the local consultative programme we have greatly devolved and delegated responsibility for how that is accomplished to the authorities and the chief fire officers.

The Government have put in place the framework to achieve those targets, and we believe that it is working. Our latest figures show that there was a 16 per cent. fall in the number of accidental dwelling fires between 2003–04 and 2004–05, a major achievement for the service that we must now make sure is sustained. We have put in place the framework to make the achievement of our PSA targets possible.

The 2004 Act has put prevention at the heart of the Government's agenda for improving the fire and rescue service by creating a new duty to promote fire safety. As we were discussing this morning in Committee Room 10, that is unfinished business going back to the '60s and the '70s. A number of major inquiries, including a royal commission, have said that the fire and rescue service was providing an excellent emergency response but ought to be addressing fire prevention much more in its culture. It was not until the introduction of the 2004 Act   that we had the drive to accomplish that, notwithstanding the good fire prevention work that the service has been providing over recent decades. This is taking that work on to a completely different plane. It is a vital part of the work of the fire and rescue service. It is only through fire prevention that we can ensure that the risk to property and to lives is reduced.

Northumberland fire and rescue authority introduced a focus on community safety education and prevention in 2001, and it is now reaping the benefits of that approach. It achieved zero fire deaths in the home in 2004–05 and a 30 per cent. reduction in the number of deliberate fires in 2003–04, a record of which it can be proud and which it attributes to adopting a preventive approach to its work.

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