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Mr. Campbell: I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but in the case of the Bondicar fire in Blyth, the fire safety gear was all in place, yet a fire still occurred and the house was gutted. It is nice to have these smoke alarms and safety doors, but they are not the end of the matter—fires do happen.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes the key point that fires will happen—notwithstanding the best efforts of the fire and rescue service and of householders, accidents will occur. The Government have been trying, supported by Members on both sides of the House, to decide how best to deploy the resources of the fire and rescue service to deal with fires when they occur and now also to determine how best to prevent fires in the first place. Rather than setting prescriptive dictates in Whitehall, we delegated responsibility for that to local fire and rescue authorities because, as they know the area best, they are best placed to be able to determine the needs of local populations and the risks confronting them.
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The tragic incident in Blyth last month to which my hon. Friend referred demonstrates the importance of working on fire prevention issues. As he said, despite the first fire crew reaching the scene in three minutes, one life could still not be saved. I argue that only preventive measures might have helped in that situation. He quoted the estimate that 80 per cent. of fire deaths occur before the 999 call is made. I had not heard 80 per cent.; I have heard 50 per cent. It is certainly accepted that a considerable number of people who die in fires do so before the call is made.

Mr. Campbell: That figure of 80 per cent. came from the fire chief himself. Is that the correct figure, or is it what my hon. Friend said?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I was trying to explain that I had not heard the figure of 80 per cent., but that I had heard the figure of 50 per cent. I cannot definitively say from the Dispatch Box what the figure is, but I can say that it is estimated to be substantial. Even if a fire station is next door, the prospects may be that some people will still die. The questions are how to deploy and balance resources, how to ensure that we have the most effective preventive arm to stop fires happening in the first place and how best to protect the most vulnerable in the community. As all hon. Members know, the majority of people who die in fires are the elderly, the sick, those with substance or alcohol abuse problems, people with disabilities or the poor who live in houses with bad or no insulation, no central heating and no double glazing.

That is one reason why the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has embarked on its ambitious £25 million programme to carry out home fire safety checks in the 1.25 million most vulnerable homes in the country and to install smoke detectors as the best initial way to protect people by alerting them to the fact that there is a fire in their dwelling and enabling them to escape. We have already carried out almost a third of a million visits and more than 300,000 smoke detectors have been installed particularly in the premises of the elderly and the most vulnerable people in our communities. We believe that that is an important way of demonstrating that fire prevention can work and protect the most vulnerable.

We are also introducing suppression systems in homes where a smoke detector would not be of use. There is no point in introducing a smoke detector in the home of someone with disabilities and mobility problems, because it would wake them up just to tell them that there were about to suffer a major fire. Sprinkler and suppression systems provide additional protection in those circumstances. They are also being introduced across the country.

I was referring to the tragic situation in Blyth. As my hon. Friend said, it was a recent event and, at this time, there is still work to be done to ascertain the facts. A formal investigation will find out exactly what happened and the facts will be given to the coroner at the inquest. I am sure that we will all be interested to discover whether there are any lessons to be learned.

The national framework emphasises that, to make a difference, the service needs to move towards a culture of effective prevention and community fire safety work
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alongside its already excellent 999 response. That is exactly what is happening. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned the move away from prescriptive national standards to locally determined integrated risk. It is not the role of Ministers to agree the operational proposals in an authority's plan. That is for elected members of the fire authority concerned. They are best placed to act on the professional advice of principal officers and to balance the competing local demands on available resources for the benefit of the whole community that they serve.

I understand, however, that Northumberland has based its proposals on carefully gathered and validated risk assessment data, using the fire safety emergency cover toolkit provided by the ODPM. It has consulted the local community fully on all proposals contained therein and I will come back to the consultative aspects towards the end of my speech.

Mr. Denis Murphy: To be fair, that would be true of the very first set of proposals. Two years were spent working them up, but the point that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) have made is that the proposals were changed within 48 hours. All the data were pushed aside and a site five miles away from the original one was then chosen. The Minister needs to address that point with the chief fire officer to see why that happened.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I made a note of the comments that my hon. Friend made and will come to something of an explanation later. However, I also undertake to seek more information than I have at present to respond to that point. I am confident that the chief fire officer and the elected members of Northumberland county council have at heart the interests of the community, just as have my hon. Friends. I do not in any way, shape or form underestimate the integrity or seriousness of everybody involved in the issue.

The officers and elected members have at the heart of their work the best interests of their community. The chief fire officer and the fire and rescue authority are in the best position to decide where the resources of the fire and rescue authority should be deployed, using the robust data that they have available. I am sure that the fire and rescue authority would be willing to take my hon. Friends through the evidence on which its decisions are based, notwithstanding that, as they described, the position has changed since the original explanation. As I will mention later, there is still time for further discussion.

Fire and rescue services have, in general, responded well to the challenge presented by the introduction of IRMPs. They have achieved much in a short time. The introduction has given senior fire and rescue service managers flexibility to make decisions about fire cover based on existing and potential risks to their communities, within a strategic framework set by locally elected members. They have long sought that freedom and are starting to make the most of it. Fire and rescue authorities are shifting the emphasis from intervention to prevention and progressing objectives to free up resources to direct towards community safety activity. Northumberland fire and rescue service is no exception. It has pursued a number of initiatives, including working with care providers such as Sure Start to
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promote safer communities. It has also sensibly joined other fire and rescue authorities in the north-east, such as Tyne and Wear and Darlington and Durham, to take forward a private finance initiative project that will help to further their objectives.

On the concerns that this is some covert path towards regionalisation, there is evidence from the Bain inquiry, and from research carried out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, that collaboration and co-operation within brigades will mean better ways of working. It is not a covert regionalisation plan—nothing could be further from the truth. I have given those assurances to the Local Government Association and a variety of fire service gatherings up and down the country. There is no doubt, however, that closer co-operation and collaboration—I know that brigades in the north-east are engaged in such discussions, as are several other fire authorities across the country—will provide dividends in areas such as combining fire investigation units, human resources facilities and, as my hon. Friends will know, in relation to plans to provide a regional network of control and communications mobilisation centres, which we announced late last year.

The private finance initiative can help to provide fire and rescue authorities with the necessary infrastructure on which to base a truly modern fire and rescue service. It will assist the Northumberland fire and rescue service in achieving its aims by enabling more resources to be put into prevention work, training, community education and equipment across the whole county. The service will therefore be better prepared to deal with all risks to life—one of the fundamental aims of the fire and rescue service as a whole.

The Northumberland plans are to reduce even further deaths and injuries throughout the county, within a range of risks including road traffic accidents and potential major incidents. They will allow the whole service, across the county, to benefit from investment in better training, community safety work and equipment, through the generation of efficiencies allowing reinvestment in prevention.

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