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

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Mr. Dhanda: As someone whose mother worked in a hospital, I think that that is a good thing. It is good to see people from BME backgrounds contributing to public services, which I think they do disproportionately. They can also contribute to the fire and rescue service, which should change its methods so that it looks outwards and recruits more of those people to it. Across the board in the service, everybody—fire and rescue authorities, the unions and so on—has agreed to those demanding targets. The unions pushed me even further, and I am grateful for that. We have set up an additional fund of £2 million for those fire and rescue authorities that choose to recruit 18 per cent. or more women into operational ranks, and 2 to 5 per cent. more people from BME background above the local BME proportion in the locality. It is their choice to do so, but, disproportionately, fire and rescue authorities and chief fire officers tell me that it is a great idea.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): The Minister has referred three times to the unions in a rather different context to Her Majesty’s Opposition, who seem to have found a new amity with the FBU. Given the amount that they refer to the FBU, does he agree that the time might be right for the Opposition to start consulting with the National Union of Mineworkers on energy policy?
Mr. Dhanda: I concur with my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. However, I do not want to go too far down that path as I might incur your wrath, Mr. Benton.
The last key point relates to the area of difference around fire control. Opposition Members obviously have an interesting alliance with the FBU on this matter, but it is important to clarify that there are a range of views in the FBU. Its members often tell me that on saving the lives of the general public and improving the service for firefighters, so that they can have the experience to allow them to get to the scene of an incident more quickly, the big difference will be made by fire control. We should not listen to the vocal voices who are lobbying shadow spokespersons very hard—
Mr. Jackson: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Dhanda: I will give way in a few moments, but it is important that I make some key points about fire control. If hon. Members oppose the order, they will be voting not only against the stakeholder coalition and the greater degree of localism that I have highlighted, but against the diversity strategy that we have brought in and some of the new things that fire control will provide in the constituencies of all hon. Members.
Mr. Jackson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Dhanda: I shall, but I want to finish my point before I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
There will also be automatic vehicle location systems. This is about MDTs containing global positioning systems, with transmitters showing the exact location of the appliance—both standard appliances and specialist new dimension resources. It is incredibly important for us to know where our appliances are, if we are to locate the nearest appliance to the scene. Hon. Members might think that such technology already exists in their fire and rescue services, but it does not. It does not exist in mine. I shall circulate a table to all Members of Parliament showing just how many areas it does not exist in, which is extraordinary. It does not exist in the constituency of the hon. Member for Peterborough. It does not exist in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Cornwall either. Does he think that his constituents deserve that? I do. I am willing to put up £360 million to make sure that they have it.
Furthermore, there is satellite navigation. Many hon. Members might already have that in their vehicles. Do they think that we should have it in our fire appliances? Personally, I think that we should. If we are going to have that, Opposition Members will have to swallow their pride, forget about some of the briefings that they are getting from the FBU, and listen to other members of the FBU and to other unions, including, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned, the Retained Firefighters Union, which has been supportive on such issues. If that union believes that we should be able to have satellite navigation, he should certainly believe in it for his fire appliances as well.
The enhanced information service for emergency calls is important. It allows the billing address of the phone from which an emergency call is being made to be displayed to the control room operator, thereby speeding up the task of confirming the caller’s location. That is true local knowledge of where that person is when their house is burning down or their loved ones are in peril. The technology can also be used to locate the whereabouts of a mobile phone caller by identifying the network cell from which they are calling. That is particularly useful for when callers are reporting incidents on the road network and are unaware of their exact location. We also have huge problems in this country due to hoax callers. Here is an opportunity to diminish—perhaps even to help eradicate—that, through fire control and being able to trace people’s calls.
Mr. Jackson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Dhanda: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I must say that his constituents and fire and rescue service do not have that technology. The constituents of the hon. Member for North Cornwall happen to have that particular element, but there are many others that do not, and do not have the possibility of using in-cab technology to tell firefighters, when they arrive on the scene of a car accident, where to cut into a vehicle to avoid the air bags. I think that all of these matters are important.
Mr. Jackson: This is an example of blinding with science. The Minister might be surprised by the fraternal solidarity that I have with my hon. comrade, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, but this is about taking cognisance of the intelligent views of the Fire Brigades Union. Frankly, it has responded with independent advice and data on the outline business cases that have been published by the Department for the past four or five years. It is not a knee-jerk reaction from the Fire Brigades Union. I do not resile from Her Majesty’s Opposition being in a position to take advice from key stakeholders, be they the Local Government Association or the Fire Brigades Union, but we would be failing in our duty as an Opposition if we did not draw the facts to the attention of the House. The regional control centre programme is hugely behind schedule. It is massively over budget, and a huge amount of taxpayers’ money has been wasted through the purchase and lease of buildings throughout the country. This is opposition, whether the Minister likes it or not.
Mr. Dhanda: I have no problem with opposition, but I disagree with opposition for opposition’s sake. I disagree with opposition that puts the lives of our constituents in danger, and I disagree with opposition that will result in the fire and rescue service having a poorer technological solution to their day-to-day problems. The hon. Gentleman says that this it is delayed and way over budget, but this £360 million project will be delivered and completed well in advance of the Olympics. Every single constituent in the land will benefit from a single networked solution, rather than 46 independent ones.
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to believe me when I tell him that there are examples, not least in my constituency when there was severe flooding, of existing technological solutions not being able to cope. That is a fact; the local fire and rescue service gave us that information. We have seen that happen not just in my area, but in Buckinghamshire. We have had chief fire officers telling us about it. It is a real and current problem. If we are going to do something about the resilience problems that we are likely to face in our nation, we will have to be brave, and sometimes say to the FBU that it should come and talk to us. I want to engage with it on this. Unfortunately, it has not wanted to engage at a local level. I have tried to talk to it on a national level, but that has been very difficult, to say the least. It is sometimes the role of politicians to say that this is the right thing to do, and that is why I am going to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, however difficult it might be for him to sell the message to his own Members.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s arguments, and it might well be that I have missed something. I would be grateful if he could help me or correct me. I would imagine that every member of this Committee would be in favour of the new technology, whether it is GPS, satellite navigation or better software, to enable firefighters to know where they are. However, is he trying to link the introduction of that new technology to regional control centres? If he is, can he please explain why, in Greater Manchester for instance, we could not have all that technology based at the Greater Manchester level? I have missed that logic.
Mr. Dhanda: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I suppose that we could create 46 different control rooms, all having that technology, but we have to learn from best examples from abroad. Frankly, not only do we want to increase resilience, but there is a business case here for savings. We do not need the 46 different systems, and if there is any hon. Member in the room who says that they want Firelink, new dimensions and fire control, and that they can deliver it to all 46 control rooms, at the cost of well over £2 billion, that person should intervene right now and say that they are prepared to do so. If they are not, they should be frank and honest about the matter and see how this, allied with other things in the national framework, which has been agreed with our stakeholders, around diversity, working with our local communities, and resilience, will make a huge difference to our local communities. That is why I hope that all members of the Committee will support the order.
11.4 am
Mr. Bellingham: I listened very carefully to what the Minister said. He made several very good points. We are still not convinced about what he said about regional control centres, but he has explained to us that the business case is to be published in the near future. There will obviously be other opportunities for the Opposition to hold the Government to account on this and to challenge the Government. On that basis, albeit somewhat reluctantly, we will not be voting against the Government today. I am grateful to the Minister for what he said in his closing speech.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Fire and Rescue Services (National Framework) (England) Order 2008 (S.I. 2008, No. 1370)
Committee rose at five minutes past Eleven o’clock.
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Prepared 16 July 2008