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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Forth
Carswell, Mr. Douglas (Harwich) (Con)
Clarke, Mr. Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Coffey, Ann (Stockport) (Lab)
Gauke, Mr. David (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con)
Holloway, Mr. Adam (Gravesham) (Con)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Ogmore) (Lab)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey (Coventry, North-West) (Lab)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Woodward, Mr. Shaun (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Wright, Mr. Iain (Hartlepool) (Lab)
Glen McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 24 April 2006

[Mr. Eric Forth in the Chair]

Draft Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Forth, and anticipate your expert guidance during our deliberations this afternoon. A draft of the order was laid before the House on 13 March. The draft order will introduce provisions broadly reflecting the legislative changes being undertaken in England and Wales through the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and in Scotland through the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005.
The order’s purpose is to give the Northern Ireland fire and rescue service a clear set of statutory responsibilities with a greater emphasis on fire prevention and community safety, including revisions to fire safety legislation. It will also introduce statutory protection against attacks on firefighters carrying out their duties.
The new legislation follows consideration of the responses to the policy consultation held in 2004, which in turn was based on the findings of the independent quinquennial review of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland and the report of the Bain review on the future of the United Kingdom fire service. The draft order provides for the establishment of a Northern Ireland fire and rescue service board and sets out the board’s statutory duties in addition to those of its sponsor Department, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Current legislation requires the service to fight fires and protect property from fire. The draft order will give a statutory basis for core duties not previously given legal effect, such as promoting fire safety and responding to road traffic accidents and other emergencies. Although the service is actively involved in such activities at present, the draft order will acknowledge that by providing a statutory basis for the service’s excellent work.
Attacks on firefighters and the activation of false alarms are reprehensible. We are not prepared to tolerate such mindless actions, and we therefore intend to ensure that people who think that it is acceptable to endanger the lives of firefighters or the public are punished appropriately. Firefighters work to protect the public, and we want to ensure that they are given every protection while carrying out their duties. The draft order will legislate against such actions and will thus help to protect firefighters and those who assist them in carrying out their duties.
Importantly, the legislation will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK by introducing new fire safety requirements, placing the onus for fire safety on those who own or are responsible for commercial premises. Responses to consultations on the policy and the draft order indicated general acceptance of and support for the proposed legislation. All agreed that it was an important and welcome piece of legislation for both the service and the population of Northern Ireland.
During the consultation, some concern was expressed about the reduced size and the composition of the fire and rescue service board. An associated issue was raised regarding democratic accountability. Those issues will be addressed in the review of public administration and the Government’s decision, announced in March, to transfer responsibility for the service to local government as an operational service shared among the seven councils. However, as the transfer to local government is not likely to take place until 2009, we must proceed with the draft order to allow the service to introduce essential reforms without delay. The future composition of the board will be dealt with either by legislative transfer of functions to local government or by separate amending legislation.
The Government are committed to supporting the fire and rescue service in Northern Ireland by introducing the legislation. Our aim is to provide front-line firefighters with the legislation, policies and protection they need to continue and develop their essential work.
4.34 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Committee,Mr. Forth. Despite the enormous amount of Northern Ireland legislation, I suspect that this sitting will unfortunately be quite brief. However, that is how Committees sometimes tend to go.
I welcome the draft order, and I shall make only one or two points. Some of the statistics in the consultation paper issued in 2004 were quite worrying, although I do not know how they compare with statistics in Great Britain. The total number of calls in the most recent year for which figures were available was 33,000. Of those, 12,000 were false alarms, of which 2,000 were malicious. That seems a high figure, which I am sure represents an unfortunate wrong use of the fire service’s resources.
The paper goes on:
“Arson is a major cause of fires and was apparently responsible for over 3,000 primary fires”.
Given that the incidence of that crime has been increasing, does the Minister consider that the order will address the particular problem? The consultation paper also states:
“The careless use of smoking materials has been the main cause of fatal fires in recent years and alcohol has been a contributory factor to 36 per cent. of recent fire deaths”—
problems that are easily preventable. It notes that the majority of people who died in house fires did not have an operating smoke alarm, a simple device which costs about £5. It really is unfortunate that people have lost their lives through not having such a simple mechanism in their house. Will the Minister say whether the order will help to deal with such matters?
4.36 pm
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) referred to the consultation paper of 2004. There are indeed a number of false alarm calls, but what most concerns us is the number of hoax calls that are made for the purpose of bringing out fire officers so that they can be attacked. One of the major contributions under the measure is that new penalties can be imposed on people who deliberately make a hoax call to get the fire service out with the purpose of attacking the firefighters. We want to deal with that problem.
In the past year or so, there has been a decline in those offences, but nowhere near enough. There are about three times the number of attacks on fire officers in Northern Ireland as take place in Scotland. It is an outrageous and disgusting crime and, under the order, the penalties are being increased severely and new offences are being introduced to ensure that those who may have escaped justice so far will be brought to book.
As for the careless use of materials and alcohol contributing to the number of deaths, the hon. Gentleman is right. I am pleased to be able to say that the number of deaths caused by fire is decreasing, although more work clearly needs to be done.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to smoke alarms and people dying unnecessarily. The biggest problem that we face is caused not by people not having a smoke alarm, but by people not putting batteries in the alarm. Some people think that batteries do not need to be put into smoke alarms. One of the campaigns carried out by the fire service, which we shall continue, was to alert people to the obvious and simple point that just having a smoke alarm is not enough: it needs to work and it needs to be tested. Undoubtedly, smoke alarms and the high number of them in people’s houses are the major contributorto lives being saved. We have a duty to continue prosecuting that policy so that people realise the importance of a smoke alarm in saving lives.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at twenty-two minutes to Five o’clock.

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