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Public Bill Committee Debates

Fire and Rescue Services (National Framework) (England) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Joe Benton
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
Goldsworthy, Julia (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
Miller, Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Rogerson, Dan (North Cornwall) (LD)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Stringer, Graham (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Viggers, Sir Peter (Gosport) (Con)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Richard Ward, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118:
Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 15 July 2008

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Fire and Rescue Services (National Framework) (England) Order 2008

10.30 am
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Fire and Rescue Services (National Framework) (England) Order 2008 (S.I., 2008, No. 1370).
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton, as I have done on a number of occasions. I move the motion because Opposition Members feel strongly about the regionalisation of the fire service and about regional control centres. We feel that the order takes away local autonomy. I speak from experience of my local fire station, where there is substantial camaraderie within the fire service, a strong connection with local communities and a strong connection at the county and the area command levels.
My concern—the concern that has been put to me by many constituents—is that if we move to regional control centres, a great deal of that localism will be lost, the service will become far too remote and power will be taken away from area commanders. Although in some ways economies of scale and some efficiency can be achieved through regional control centres, many of the excellent practices in the fire service will be lost. That is why Opposition Members—on the specific point of regional control centres, the Liberal Democrats are on our side of the argument—we feel that the Government have got this wrong. Some good can come out of it, but that will be overridden by the damage that will be done, particularly to morale in the fire service, which is already delicate. That is why we oppose the concept of regional control centres and why we are praying against the order.
Nevertheless, we have looked at the framework carefully, and there is much in it that we support. We certainly support the three-year duration, and there are aspects on cross-border arrangements that meet with our approval. We also agree with the implementation of the electronic incident reporting system, and we approve of the spirit of the equality and diversity strategy, although we have some reservations about the details. We accept much of the rest of the framework, but we cannot support regional control centres, and that is why we oppose the statutory instrument.
10.33 am
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Benton. We are discussing a matter of great interest to my constituents in Cornwall, in the far part of what the Government call the south-west. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, regional control centres remain controversial, and I will consider them later.
I should first say that all the officers in my local fire service do a fantastic job. On Saturday, by happy coincidence, I attended the open day for Bodmin fire station, where the officers were reaching out into the community, talking about the work that they do and explaining to everyone what fire and rescue services are in the modern setting. They have a huge number of roles, including the prevention of injury and accidents, and they do a vast amount of work in responding to other forms of emergency. There is now a more formal role for them in road traffic collisions, industrial accidents and, as we saw recently, flooding. One of the appliances, which is provided under the national framework and based in Cornwall, was sent to Tewkesbury to help with the pumping operations. That was a useful reminder to me of how committed firefighters are, including, of course, the retained firefighters. They will deliver what is in the framework, and they must not be forgotten.
Last summer, a terrible fire at the Penhallow hotel in Newquay in my constituency tragically resulted in loss of life. There was much discussion at the time about whether retained firefighters deliver in the same way as whole-time firefighters. That is unfortunate, because they complement each other very well. I look forward to hearing more from the Government about how they will develop the retained service and support local authorities in doing that.
The explanatory notes describe the framework as guidance to the authorities that will deliver the plan. Paragraph 10 of the introduction to the framework speaks of the reduction in usage of the words “must” and “should”, which I am sure is welcome. However, I notice that those words still appear quite a lot. Although it is made clear that the framework is an opportunity to offer guidance, I am still concerned that it is restrictive and that it dictates to fire and rescue authorities what they should be doing. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a tension with the idea of localism. Rather than offering best practice and support, there is still a “we know best” attitude, with people being told the way to do things.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the consultation on the framework. Sadly, the word consultation has been devalued. Given that the consultation on post office closures in my constituency is being launched, I fear that it is about to be devalued even further in North Cornwall. The Government claim to have changed the framework considerably, as a result of the consultation. It is right to focus on the vexed question of regional control centres, because there is still a feeling that they will be remote. The retained firefighters whom I have spoken to welcome investment in technology, such as global positioning systems. If they are given the right tools, their job will be made easier. I understand that such investment has been provided in other parts of the UK, such as Scotland, without having regional control centres. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if he disagrees with that point.
I believe that regional control centres are unlikely to deliver efficiencies. The Fire Brigades Union shares those concerns and is awaiting the Department’s publication of the business case on how much efficiency will be delivered by the regional control centres. I share the FBU’s expectation that that will reveal that the efficiencies are not materialising in the way that was predicted. This change is against the wishes of those in the service and against the wishes of local people. I am interested to hear what representations the Minister has received about this aspect of the framework. The Department has continued down the path of instructing people to prepare for the change. Does he believe that the forecast savings are likely to be revised downwards when the business case is revealed and published?
Sadly, because of the inclusion of regional control centres and the idea that Whitehall knows best in telling fire and rescue authorities what they should be doing in their local areas, even though those areas are often very different, my party does not support the order.
10.38 am
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): There is an end-of-term feeling, Mr. Benton: the shadow Fire Minister is not on the list of members of the Committee. However, we live in interesting times. We are honest in admitting that there was a slight organisational difficulty, notwithstanding the talent and loquaciousness of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk.
We agree with a significant amount of the national framework. We agree that the move from the two-year to the three-year time scale is appropriate and helpful. It will enable fire and rescue services to plan more effectively. We welcome the focus on outcomes rather than processes. We are broadly supportive of the more emollient language, as befits the Fire Minister. It is less prescriptive and target-driven than the language in previous documents, which sought to control the operational work of fire and rescue authorities and services by diktat. Who can disagree with the strong focus on reducing fire-related deaths? However, the Fire Brigades Union makes the important point that we are not judging like for like when we compare the number of fire-related deaths in 1958 with the latest figures available. The Minister might want to touch on that.
We have a number of concerns and questions for the Minister. A degree of centralised planning and control is appropriate in some areas, such as in the incident recording system, as mentioned by my hon. Friend. We welcome the move towards the implementation of that by 31 March 2009. But there are a number of key issues, one of which is tied up with the governance of regional management boards. The Local Government Association published its response to the consultation document in February 2008, and said:
“The LGA would not want to see a more formal or increased role for RMBs than that which currently exists.”
I would concur with that.
As the Minister will know, the FBU expressed concern in its response to the consultation that regional management boards were another layer of bureaucracy, applied only to fire and rescue authorities, and that they would involve an additional cost burden and provide no facility that fire and rescue authorities and fire and rescue services could not perform without them. Perhaps the Minister will clarify his view of the future of regional management boards and their relationship with authorities and fire and rescue services. Will he reassure the Committee that the establishment and operation of regional management will not necessarily lead to a regional fire service model and structure?
Paragraph 4.4 of the document states:
“Fire and Rescue Authorities working through Regional Management Boards must review the opportunities to deliver greater efficiencies through closer joint working or sharing of functions at regional or sub-regional level and take action to implement those efficiencies.”
That is somewhat Orwellian language. As we have seen from the circumstances in the Humberside fire and rescue service, which we debated in Westminster Hall in March, the integration of that integrated risk management plan inevitably led to the closure of retained and full-time fire stations and consequent job losses. That is obviously an important issue, and the Minister might want to touch on it.
We also concur with the FBU’s view that integrated risk management plans should be published and consulted on annually, to improve accountability and transparency. The costs of contingency and resilience planning should be made known and explicit, so that we can be made aware of the resources committed to them. Perhaps the Minister might touch on the substantive issue.
On the question of resilience in chapter 2 of the national framework, the case is obliquely made again for regional control centres. The Minister has particular sensitivities in his region and constituency. On several occasions in the House, we have debated the sensitivities involving the transfer from the private finance initiative funded, tri-service centre at Quedgeley to Blackbrook business park in Taunton. The Minister may quote the various supportive independent or Conservative councillors, but the general consensus established in the south-west, from Cornwall to north Gloucestershire and further, is one of strong opposition to those proposals. No doubt, the Minister will body swerve debating the south-west regional control centre, but he may wish to debate the wider issue.
On fire control centres, the Minister issued a letter last week to hon. Members headed “Regional Benefits of the New National Fire Control Network”. We are yet to be provided with substantive evidence that, as he made clear last summer during the floods, existing fire control structures were so over burdened that they had to receive details of 999 calls by fax. If he can give us details today of where, when and how often that happened, the Committee will be reassured. Using fax machines because of a very significant but, we hope, one-off circumstance is not the intellectual evidential basis for imposing regional control centres. I think that he would concede that point.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk is a pugnacious character; I am more inclined to listen to the Minister’s answers before we make a decision on whether to divide the Committee and vote against the statutory instrument. If the statutory instrument was only about regional control centres, there would be no question but that we would oppose it, because we have been consistently against it, and it is over budget and hugely behind schedule. However, it would be unwise to disregard all the good work that has been done and is chronicled in the national framework document. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views and hope that he can answer some of our concerns, specifically on fire control centres, but also on some of the other areas identified in the framework document.
10.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I shall try not to detain colleagues for very long—that is a popular thing to say at the outset.
There are four key aspects of the framework that hon. Members would be voting against, if they chose to. The framework has really good stakeholder support. It is not my creature; it was shaped by the fire and rescue service with strong buy-in, including from the Chief Fire Officers Association, the Local Government Association, fire and rescue authorities, and employee representatives, including the trade unions.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall talked about the need for a more local and less centralised fire and rescue service. I agree with him. When I became the Minister responsible for the fire and rescue service, I made it clear that there were no plans for a regional fire service. I like the autonomy of local fire and rescue authorities and services. When they choose to come together to work with each other to do more, so much the better. I saw that in Warwick after the tragic deaths of the four firefighters and during the incidences of flooding up and down the land. We have also seen that through policy changes such as IROs and IRNPs. Reshaping the role of firefighters and what they do to make them more outward looking, so they are not in their stations waiting for a fire or major road accident, but are in the community installing in smoke alarms and talking to children in schools, has led to fewer deaths from fire than at any stage since 1959.
I wish to talk about two other key measures in the framework. The first is about equality and diversity, which I have made a priority. I was interested by the concerns of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk—I invite him to intervene. I would be disappointed if any hon. Member wanted to vote against such a thing, which they would be doing if they voted against the framework.
I was appalled when I found out that only 3 per cent. of operational firefighters are women, and I was equally appalled to learn that only 3 per cent. come from a black or minority ethnic background. I have worked with stakeholders, including the trade unions, to bring in more challenging targets. Those will be on recruitment, rather than being process-driven, because we do not want to change who is in the work force already. We do not want to push people out—people who join the fire service tend to want to stay there. On recruitment, we have said that 15 per cent. of people should be women, and that the fire and rescue service should ensure that there is parity with the local working population of people from a BME background. I pushed the fire and rescue services even further on this.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the Minister indicate what has happened on that front in the Isle of Wight, where almost the majority of people from BME backgrounds are hospital workers?
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Prepared 16 July 2008