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4 Mar 2008 : Column 410WH—continued

The strategy is also about ensuring that the alcohol industry plays its part in reducing harms by considering the effectiveness of its codes of practice and strengthening them, if necessary. Those priority actions will help us to achieve our public commitment to see fewer alcohol-related
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violent incidents, fewer people experiencing drunken rowdiness in their areas, including Warrington, fewer admitted to hospital for acute alcohol-related illnesses and fewer children drinking alcohol.

We have made some progress, as my hon. Friend says, and fewer children are drinking. However, those who are drinking are drinking more. We have launched alcohol referral pilots in Ealing, Cheshire, Liverpool and Manchester, where advice will be provided to those who have been arrested for alcohol-related offences. To date, 758 individuals have received referrals. We will shortly be rolling out those pilots to 10 new areas.

We have achieved significant reductions in test purchase failures from more than 50 per cent. in 2004 to the current level of 14.7 per cent. to ensure that ever-decreasing numbers of children are able to get access to alcohol illegally. We are continuing to carry out various enforcement campaigns, including, as my hon. Friend said, recent campaigns related to confiscating alcohol from young people.

It is important that local partnerships work together to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. We recently sent out an alcohol strategy local implementation tool kit, which gives people information about the tools and laws that are currently available to them to deal with alcohol-related problems. Again, as my hon. Friend said, it is crucial to ensure that existing law is enforced, irrespective of new laws that are needed. I take her point about the need to improve the law, particularly in respect of one or two areas, but we also need to enforce the existing law more robustly than at present.

Helen Jones: I wonder whether my hon. Friend has talked to his colleagues in the Government about what figures they keep on the reasons that licences are lost. I have asked questions, but it seems that we keep few statistics on that so it is difficult to know how the relevant powers are being used. I always ask, “When did you last hear about a place that lost its licence for serving people who are persistently drunk?”, because that is an offence.

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend is right. I will consider that, because I am concerned about it. Far more premises should be losing their licences for persistently selling to children. The fact is that even if they are found to have persistently sold alcohol to children three times in three months, I understand, from the figures on the last campaign, that the number of premises losing their licences is only in the low 20s. That is not a sufficient deterrent. That is why the Government have made some announcements on that subject, which I shall come to in a minute.

Some 500 designated public place orders have been made, allowing local authorities to give the police enhanced powers to confiscate alcohol from people drinking in public. Given that local authorities can simply designate an area for a public place order, I should have expected far more orders to be used. There are often complaints that adults, not to mention children, are drinking in public, causing huge problems in town centres, or wherever. A local authority can designate areas with a designated public place order and the police can then confiscate alcohol from adults, if they believe that it is causing a
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problem. I do not understand why there are not hundreds more such orders. My hon. Friend will know that Brighton, for example, has made designated public place orders, and other seaside resorts and various towns make those orders, which give the police additional powers.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport set out this morning, the introduction of the 2003 Act has not led to the widespread problems that some feared. Although crimes involving violence may have reduced over the evening and night-time period, the evidence also points to increases in offences reported during 3 am to 6 am.

To deal with some of the points that my hon. Friend made, the Government remain determined to address the issues under discussion, and have announced new initiatives to protect the public, including a new yellow and red card alert system that clearly outlines the consequences of breaching a licence, changing the offence of persistently selling alcohol to a person under 18 from three strikes to two strikes in three months and utilising existing powers to identify a problem premises. We will make it easier to review premises where local intelligence suggests that there is a problem. We will support the police and local authorities to identify problem hot spots by ranking geographical areas and concentrations of premises on the basis of the risks that they present to crime and disorder, public nuisance and children. That will allow licensing authorities to exercise more caution and conditions when issuing licences, to withdraw licences wholesale in such areas, which I think that my hon. Friend would welcome, and it will permit local authorities and police to target enforcement resources more effectively at problem hot spots.

To tackle wider antisocial behaviour associated with alcohol consumption, the Home Office will introduce legislation as follows: to increase the maximum fine from £500 to £2,500 for anyone not obeying instructions to stop drinking or to give up their drink in a designated public place; to make it easier for the police to disperse antisocial drinkers, both adults and children, from any location—if necessary, we will change the law to make that happen; and to extend the use of acceptable behaviour contracts for young people caught drinking in public to require them and their parents to attend a session with an alcohol specialist to try to address the problem. I think that my hon. Friend will be pleased about that. In addition, we will extend alcohol arrest referral pilots so that under-18s may also benefit from a brief intervention from a trained worker. That will help deal with young people drinking in public who may already be involved in criminal activities. However, we recognise that more needs to be done.

Although young people are drinking less, it is worrying that those who do drink are drinking substantially more and are doing so more often. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently outlined the Government’s wish to see greater use of parenting contracts if poor parenting is identified as an issue when alcohol is confiscated from under-age drinkers. It cannot be right that nearly half of all children obtain alcohol from home. That is simply not acceptable.

We are fully aware that enforcement alone will not be enough to tackle drinking by young people. As such, the Department for Children, Schools and Families will shortly launch a youth alcohol action plan to set out the
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Government’s proposals further to tackle under-age drinking. That includes dealing with the cultural change, not only with children but across the board, that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Just as parents have a role to play, so do those who sell alcohol. The Government are fully committed to tackling those who sell alcohol irresponsibly. Alcohol retailers, pubs and clubs should manage their establishments safely and deal with their customers responsibly or they should be dealt with. We welcome the work that is being done throughout the country, but more needs to be done. As we know, the industry wants the irresponsible minority to be dealt with and we should deal with such people robustly. Throughout the country we are seeing what can be done, through schemes such as Citysafe in Liverpool and the Think 21 campaign in Cambridgeshire, when agencies work together to try to tackle the problem.

We will be investigating the way in which retailers offer and advertise cheap alcohol. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Department of Health is currently reviewing that. The Home Office is also reviewing the alcohol industry social responsibility standards and will report by the end of this month.

I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution, for the way in which she has represented her constituents in Warrington and for driving forward this debate. Although we all enjoy a drink—at least, many of us do—there can be no excuse for drinking that leads to violence or to some of the behaviour that we see on our streets. The public in this country have said, “Enough is enough”; they want to see tough, robust action and we will take such action as a Government.

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Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service

1.30 pm

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful, Mr. Pope, for the opportunity to bring this important matter to the House’s attention today.

I am aware that the Minister recently met the head of Norfolk fire and rescue service and Norfolk county council cabinet members. Despite that meeting, several serious concerns affecting my constituency and others in Norfolk were raised during my recent visit to the service’s headquarters.

I want to put on record the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has indicated his support for my concerns, which also affect his constituents, but, alas, he cannot be here today. I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), and I acknowledge the fact that the service’s headquarters is in his constituency. I pay tribute to the chief fire officer, Richard Elliott, and the county council cabinet member with responsibility for fire and community safety, Richard Rockcliffe, and thank them for their time in keeping me briefed.

Many of the challenges facing Norfolk fire service have been brought to my attention, and relate specifically to the rural environment in which it operates. Of the 41 fire stations servicing the county, only two are staffed entirely by full-time firefighters, and a further four are staffed by a combination of full-time crew and retained firefighters. All the county’s remaining 35 stations are crewed entirely by retained firefighters. In all the county’s rural areas the service relies wholly on retained crews.

As the Minister knows, retained duty firefighters respond to calls on a needs-only basis, and are often employed full-time in other occupations. They are trained to deal with the same range of incidents as their full-time counterparts. As the statistics show, Norfolk’s fire and rescue service would be nothing without them. The problem lies in recruitment and availability of retained firefighters. Provision of cover is proving a huge challenge, leaving some rural areas insufficiently covered. Outwell and Downham Market in my constituency are particularly badly affected. The chief fire officer told me that it is not unusual to have 10 fire engines unavailable during the working day due to crewing and availability problems. In Norfolk, difficulty in recruiting retained firefighters stems in part from the evolution of rural industries and agriculture.

With mechanisation and modernisation, fewer people are employed on the land, and businesses have moved away or closed down, thus reducing the pool of suitable people whom the fire service can target for retained duty. Employers are increasingly disinclined to give employees the necessary time to carry out their duties, not least because of the cost and inconvenience of unplanned or lengthy absences by members of the work force. Does the Minister agree that it is time to provide employers with proper incentives to release staff to work as firefighters instead of continuing to rely on their good will? Few outside the fire service understand how important the retained duty system is for our safety. They do not appreciate that by signing up they could save the life of a family member, friend or neighbour. How does the Minister respond to calls from the fire service for a national campaign to raise awareness of the system and build better links with business?

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The service’s funding is important. Norfolk does not have a precepting fire authority and cannot raise money through council tax. The county council funds fire and community protection alongside other key services. It received an acceptable settlement this year, but the challenges of delivering adequate services across a vast rural area remain. The fire service is, of course, a priority, but so are adult social care, education, planning and transport infrastructure, to name but a few. Extra pressures on both the fire service and the council include a growing elderly population, and an increase in the financial burden of dealing with flooding and associated demands for water rescue.

On the challenges of the increasingly elderly population, at a recent meeting the council’s fire and community protection review panel confirmed that fire deaths in Norfolk are almost entirely of elderly people or those living alone. That is a bleak statistic. Prevention is vastly more effective and less dangerous or costly than dealing with a fire. The service is doing what it can to educate and inform people of the risks of house fires.

Building regulations require mains-operated smoke alarms to be fitted to all new dwellings or dwellings that are substantially altered, but there is no law to require people to fit smoke detectors in their homes in other circumstances. I welcome the television campaign to persuade the nation that smoke alarms should be fitted in every home and regularly maintained, and I have used my columns in constituency newspapers to press home that point. Does the Minister agree that it is a great pity that Norfolk fire service has a large stock of smoke alarms, which the Government have supplied, that it cannot afford to fit, because the cost of that work in a rural area is prohibitive? Will the Minister give careful consideration to funding a one-off campaign to fit those smoke alarms, rather than leaving them to collect dust in a warehouse?

The assistance of Norfolk fire service in water rescue is increasingly demanded and expected, although it has no statutory duty or funding to carry out this work. Coastal and inland flooding is becoming frequent, and in my constituency flooding in the Norfolk fens shuts roads with worrying regularity. The service does not have specialist water rescue teams in place, but there is an urgent need for them. I understand that a national review of the possibility of establishing water rescue as a new statutory duty has been undertaken. If flood water rescue were a statutory duty, Norfolk county council would receive the investment that it desperately needs to provide extra resources to the fire service for water rescue equipment and training. The county council has provided some money from an already limited budget, but the fire service is looking for greater Government commitment of money and recognition that this is a serious issue that must be addressed. I hope that the Minister will give favourable consideration to that today because I am sure that he understands the problems facing us not just in Norfolk, but throughout the country.

I come to the plans for regionalisation. The Government are planning to close the Hethersett centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, and to move control to Cambridgeshire in a value-for-money exercise. Norfolk county council is concerned that the cost of that move is spiralling out of
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control. The cutting-edge technology used at Hethersett is the envy of firefighters throughout the country, and it seems crazy that the Government want to close the centre and to move control to Cambridgeshire. I cannot believe that that regionalisation is anything but a cost-saving measure, and I am extremely concerned that the high level of delivery that we currently receive in Norfolk could be jeopardised. Will the Minister assure us today that regionalised control will not lead to a decline in the efficiency and technological capabilities of the service? Will he also assure us that value-for-money measures will not be pursued at the expense of the quality of service provision?

At the start of this year, for the third consecutive year the Audit Commission concluded that Norfolk county council continues to provide a “good” well-performing fire authority. However, inspectors also recognised that pressure on the county council’s budget was challenging an already low-spending service. Norfolk fire and rescue service has already met efficiency savings above national targets. I urge the Minister to assure the service that it will not be penalised for its own efficiency in terms of future funding.

Finally, has the Minister had any discussions with ministerial colleagues from the Treasury or Department for Transport on the issue of rebated fuel for emergency service vehicles? A report published by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in December 2005 states:

Significant expenditure is committed to fuel costs for specialist vehicles, such as fire engines. With recent fuel price increases, that cost demands an ever growing proportion of the total budget. Yet, as with other emergency services, the fire service is prohibited from using so-called red diesel, on which there is a beneficial rate of duty. Does it make sense for taxpayers’ money to be given to the fire service to buy diesel for fire engines when tax and duty will then go back to the Treasury? Will the Government reconsider the case for specialist equipment, such as fire tenders, so that the tax saving can be committed to front-line emergency service cover—not only in Norfolk, but across the country?

Norfolk fire and rescue service does an excellent job in difficult circumstances and I hope that the Minister will see it in his gift to ensure that that service continues in a more efficient way that suits the population better. Will the Minister give assurances to my constituents that performance will be maintained and that they will not be put at risk because they live in rural areas that are costly and more difficult to serve?

1.42 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I will make a very brief contribution. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) on securing the debate. He highlights an important issue, of which the public are not widely aware. The general public do not necessarily realise, although you may be aware, Mr. Pope—as is anyone working as a retained firefighter and their employers—that many of the people who put their lives at risk and help to protect the public are teachers, business people, factory workers, hospital porters, bricklayers and agricultural workers. They protect the public and are firefighters on the side and they do so on an exceptionally good value-for-money basis. It costs £1 million to crew-up a fire engine if it is
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serviced by full-time personnel and only about £70,000 if it is crewed by retained firemen. Does the Minister think that that ratio is sufficiently startling? I think that it is and that it is exceptional value for money. It might be worth the Government going the extra mile—or raising their game—to protect the retained fire service.

The figures that my hon. Friend quoted demonstrated that it is not unusual to have 10 fire engines unavailable in Norfolk at any one time because the available crew is absent for understandable reasons, such as pressures on employers who are unable to let people go because of the nature of modern employment and how it has changed. That suggests that the system is beginning to break down. If it were just one or two unavailable engines, it would be fair enough, but 10 fire engines are unavailable on a regular basis, which suggests that the Government need to do more in terms of recruitment, advertising and campaigns to encourage participation in the retained fire service. Otherwise, the Minister will have to bite the bullet and pursue the alternative, which would cost him and his colleagues a great deal more money.

My hon. Friend mentioned regionalisation, to which there are advantages and disadvantages. I have heard people talking about that issue from both perspectives. Like my hon. Friend, I want reassurances from the Minister that if regionalisation goes ahead and the control centre in Hethersett is closed, the quality of the service will be maintained.

Finally, the subject of water rescue deserves a mention. Most people find it extraordinary that there is not a statutory duty on the fire services to rescue people. We all know about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at sea, but the fact that there is no statutory duty in relation to our inland waterways suggests—I know that this is not the case—that the Government think that protecting the public if they fall in a river is not sufficiently important to be backed by the force of the law. That is not necessarily the Government’s position and I invite the Minister to respond to that point and say what their position is. Surely, if it is worth protecting the public, it is worth doing so whether they are on land or in a river. We should not end up in the ludicrous situation of the Health and Safety Executive threatening to prosecute fire services because a retained firefighter standing on the edge of a river bank decides to jump into a river and save somebody rather than consult the rule book first.

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