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House of Commons

Wednesday 19 April 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


HBOS Group Reorganisation Bill (By Order)

Read the Third time, and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Fire Prevention

1. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): What steps the Government plan to take to reduce the risk of death and injury through fire prevention. [63752]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Government's plans are based on targets to reduce the number of accidental deaths from fire in the home by 20 per cent. and incidents of arson by 10 per cent. by 2010. Fire prevention was made a statutory duty for all fire authorities as part of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. I am pleased to advise the House that last year's figures for deaths showed a 45-year low. The fire service is to be commended for the recent reductions and encouraged to continue making our communities safer, year on year.

Andrew Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he specifically consider the issues around Cheshire? He will be aware that my constituents take fire safety very seriously, for reasons of the proximity of the petrochemical industry. Will he help my constituents by putting into perspective what he says about the national picture by including Cheshire? Can he describe how successful Cheshire has been in achieving those goals?

Jim Fitzpatrick: As my hon. Friend suggests, modernising the fire service is a challenging task. Cheshire fire and rescue service, led by Chief Fire Officer Steve McGuirk, has been at the forefront of many positive, new initiatives, which include supporting our programme of home fire risk visits for the most vulnerable, installing some 10,000 free smoke alarms and pioneering innovative working with young people, including young offenders, as well as dealing with the industrial risk pertinent to the locality. I am sure that
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Cheshire fire and rescue authority is grateful to my hon. Friend for his full support in making the county a safer place to live and work.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): May I congratulate you on your return to the Chair, Mr. Speaker? We are delighted to see you.

The Minister will know that three schools a day suffer fire damage in this country. Most of those fires involve arson and most are started by pupils. The increasing number of them started in school time are putting more children's lives at risk. Will the Minister now require all new and extended schools to have a sprinkler system installed to safeguard against that risk?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Department is very well aware of the increasing risk to schools from arson and accidental fires. Using building regulations approved document B, we have been consulting on the installation of sprinklers generally. The Department for Education and Skills is in the lead in considering building bulletin 100 and a revision of the provision of sprinklers in schools. Its consultation will conclude later this year, and we are looking forward to that to find out whether we can move forward on this very important issue.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Retained firefighters play a very valuable role in the fire and safety service, particularly in rural areas. Will the Minister consider ways in which retained firefighters could play a much stronger role in fire prevention, as well as in firefighting?

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Retained firefighters cover some 35 per cent. of the United Kingdom. A retained firefighters working party was set up by the Department and the Chief Fire Officers Association last year. There were 51 recommendations, as I think that she is aware, on how the retained fire service can participate better in community fire safety, as well as on improving the position of retained firefighters. That review is being examined. The recommendations are being taken forward, and I am sure that they will improve the lot of the retained fire service and its ability to contribute to fire safety in general.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): With regard to the Department's fire control project, what chance has the Minister had to liaise with those in Fire Brigades Union region 6 in the east midlands who have written to regional MPs to say:

Jim Fitzpatrick: I believe that I have probably written to the hon. Gentleman directly, and he may recall that I said in my correspondence that the quote that the Fire Brigades Union is using is taken out of context from an analysis of an initial examination of the regional fire control project. We are fully supportive of the regional control project. We believe that the FBU's misgivings are badly placed. The first three control rooms are under construction. We are pushing ahead with the scheme, which will provide a much more efficient control,
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communications and mobilisation system for the fire and rescue service, and we believe that it will be online by 2009.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): May I also say how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Mr. Speaker? The Minister may be aware of two recent serious arson attacks at schools in my local authority area, but far from being isolated cases, a report published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister last year admitted that the number of deliberate fires rose by 40 per cent. between 1998 and 2002. Why, then, have the Government cut their target for reducing the number of deliberate fires from 30 per cent. to just 10 per cent. by 2010? Is that not an admission of defeat?

Jim Fitzpatrick: On the contrary. The hon. Lady acknowledged that her statistics on arson attacks relate to 2002, but the latest figures from last year demonstrate that fewer than 100,000 arson attacks were committed—26 per cent. below the 10 per cent. reduction target that we set for 2010. We have set ambitious but realistic targets to deal with arson right across the piece. It is a combined effort between ourselves and the Home Office through the arson taskforce and we are making good progress. In that regard, the fire and rescue service and local authorities should be commended.

Traveller Sites

3. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of the Local Government Association to discuss Traveller sites. [63754]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): The Department is working closely with the Local Government Association on Gypsy and Traveller sites. I met the Local Government Association in February and September, and officials in the Gypsy and Traveller unit met the LGA earlier this month. We expect to continue regular discussions.

Mr. Bellingham: Does the Minister recall the Deputy Prime Minister saying that when it comes to allocating Traveller sites and issuing enforcement proceedings against illegal Travellers, the views of local councils should prevail? Why does her Department often overrule local councils, particularly in the case of the Crays Hill site at Billericay? When it comes to a sensitive issues such as Traveller sites, surely the views of local people and local democracy should prevail.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I cannot comment on individual cases. I hope that he would also recognise that if we are to deal with difficult problems relating to unauthorised sites, which cause huge distress for local communities, we must do so in a balanced and sensible way. That means providing more alternative appropriate sites to deal with the shortage and improving enforcement. We are working closely with local councils and the LGA across the country. We have already offered Basildon help to find alternative sites, but the council has to acknowledge some responsibility as well.
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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I welcome the plan for more sites, but has my hon. Friend discussed with the LGA or local councils the tenancy rights of Gypsies and Travellers? Does she support greater security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers who are on official sites?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. We recognise that that is an important issue, which has also been raised by court cases. We will be looking further into the matter, but I have to say that our priority at the moment is ensuring an increase in the number of sites to address the shortage and improving enforcement on inappropriate sites.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister told us that one of the criteria for deciding whether to evict illegal encampments at places such as Minety in my constituency is the degree to which proper provision has been made elsewhere in the country. By what mechanism can the county judge whether proper provision is being made, given that most of the Gypsies are coming in from Ireland, Poland and elsewhere? How can we judge the requirements and decide whether sufficient sites are being provided?

Yvette Cooper: We think that local authorities need to carry out proper needs assessments for Gypsy and Traveller sites just as they do for housing accommodation more widely. We have set out detailed guidance for local authorities to help them to achieve that and I would be pleased to send a copy to the hon. Gentleman if he thinks it would be helpful. The problem of unauthorised sites and site shortages has increased since the Conservatives abolished the duty to provide sites in the first place.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): There is a desperate need for more sites in Kent. Is there a time scale for Kent county council to nominate sites for Gypsies who want to live on them permanently?

Yvette Cooper: We hope that local authorities would already be starting work to identify appropriate sites. That is an important way of removing some of the pressures, tensions and the real difficulties that we see with unauthorised sites. We would hope that local authorities would do that through the planning process—the issue is partly about identifying private sites as well as publicly provided sites—that is under way at the moment. I am happy to give my hon. Friend further details of the planning timetables in his area.

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