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4 Mar 2008 : Column 417WH—continued

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I thank the hon. Members for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) for their contributions to this important debate. I put on record the fact that good and admirable work is done by not only the fire service in Norfolk—the hon. Gentlemen know about that work—but fire services right across the country. I congratulate those involved on the recent settlement, which over the next three years will amount to 8.7 per cent., 6 per cent., and 5.3 per cent. That will stand the county’s authority in good stead to invest in the fire and rescue service. The hon. Gentlemen can correct me if I am wrong, but the figures that I have on the strength of the local fire service in Norfolk show that numbers have risen from 430 in 2001-02 to 479 in 2005-06, which implies that the local authority takes the matter of protecting local residents seriously.

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Over the next three years, the Government are investing in not only a substantial settlement, but the new dimension programme, of which the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk will be aware, given that he talked about flooding. Across the country, £200 million will be put into new dimension equipment, including the high-volume pumps that were used effectively in the floods of last summer, not least in my constituency of Gloucester. The pumps were also mobilised to the eastern coast when we had the recent surges and threats of flooding, which thankfully did not materialise.

I know that the new dimension equipment that Norfolk has received includes a high-volume pump, an urban search and rescue unit and the funding of—this might sound amusing but it is very important—a search dog, which will be based in Norfolk. There will also be an instant response unit for mass decontamination and four prime mover vehicles, which I announced earlier this year. Hopefully that will make a real difference to equipping Norfolk for not just the challenges that we have traditionally expected the fire and rescue service to face, but new challenges.

Christopher Fraser: Does the Minister accept that Norfolk has special circumstances? We have suffered for a long time because flood problems that have been alleviated upstream have been pushed down to Norfolk. Does he also accept that Norfolk is a large area in which to operate one pump? If there is a problem on the coast, it cannot be used in the fens—much of my constituency—which is at sea level.

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman is more aware of the local geography than me. I was about to come on to that issue, as well as the importance of fire control and where that will be of real benefit to Norfolk. I will discuss those matters in a few moments, but first I shall respond to a couple of important points that were made about the retained duty service.

It was only a few months into my time as the Minister responsible for fire and rescue services that we had the tragic events in Warwick. As hon. Members will know, four men lost their lives, all of whom were retained firefighters. I was quite disturbed by some of the reporting in the media. I know that the hon. Members for South-West Norfolk and for South Norfolk will agree that it is important for us to say that retained firefighters are in no way either part-time or in the second division. They are incredibly important to our fire and rescue service and they do a terrific job in rural areas, in particular.

I meet regularly with representatives of retained firefighters. I quite recently met Adrian Hughes, the president of the Retained Firefighters Union, and its general secretary, John Barton, to take on board many of the considerations. We have also been involved in a number of reviews, including to look at some of the issues that the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk raised around business and business support. The results of the research have shown that employers are pretty keen and enthusiastic about the work of the retained firefighters. I think that there is more that we can do as a Department, in our relationship with these businesses, to get across the message of just how much we value those people and how important it is that businesses allow these retained firefighters to do their work in local communities. I will impress on my colleagues and officials in my Department that retained firefighters do an incredibly important job.

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With regard to fire control, the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that a lot of complex technology already exists in Norfolk. Such technology will allow us to use satellite navigation systems to find the closest fire engine to an incident and to trace the incident, whether it has been reported from a mobile or a land line. Norfolk has been a trail-blazer for us with the fire control project, which is a £360 million national project to ensure that all 46 fire and rescue services have the same kinds of technology. Fire control is continuing to develop.

Just a few weeks ago, I was working with a key agency: the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company. Technology is moving on and will provide Norfolk with even more technical support than ever before. It is important to get across the fact that there are two areas from which Norfolk will benefit, although it does not benefit from them at the moment. My constituency experienced bad flooding, and despite the fantastic work that was done in our tri-service centre, rescue workers were overwhelmed by the number of calls. Those calls had to be taken by other control centres around the country. Because those control centres are all on separate networks at the moment, the calls could not be automatically relayed back to the gold command in Gloucester. Some of the calls ended up being faxed in on pieces of paper, which is not satisfactory for a 999 system.

Under fire control and the new control centre, which will serve the east of England and the rest of the country, nine regional control centres will all be on one system and will all back each other up. The system will therefore be much more resilient. If there is exceptional demand in Norfolk, or anywhere else, the new system will enable all regional controls, which will be networked to each other, to talk to the control room in the hon. Gentleman’s county.

The hon. Gentleman understandably says that this should not be about savings. He is quite right. It should be about technology, resilience and saving people’s lives, and that is what it is about. However, it will also result in savings in the order of 25 per cent.

Christopher Fraser: May I go back to the point about an overwhelming number of calls coming into a fire service? As things currently stand, if there is a demand for a lot of services in Norfolk, Norfolk fire service is quite within its rights to call upon the facilities of other services. However, I do not understand how the Minister’s nine regional control centres differ from what we have at the moment and how that makes the system more efficient. It would be different if he was saying—I suspect that he is not—that he will man it with nine times as many people to cover the calls. I cannot understand how the system will be any better than the one that we have at the moment.

Mr. Dhanda: I can correct the hon. Gentleman on that. At present, we have 46 different control rooms, and very many of them are on different systems. That means that there is not the same kind of capacity if one of those control rooms receives a lot of calls. The nine regional controls will all be on the same system and will be able to back each other up and talk directly to the one that has been overwhelmed. That is a key difference. The system will be much more resilient. It
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will also allow for the cross-border mobilisation of an engine and will move the nearest engine to the scene of the incident. All that will provide our firefighters with the best system that this country has ever seen, and also, I believe, the best system in the world, which is what they deserve.

The hon. Members for South-West Norfolk and for South Norfolk mentioned water rescue, which is a very important issue. It is something that my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, is looking at. The issue of a statutory duty is important. Within our calculations and considerations, we must consider three points. First, we find the fire and rescue service to be a can-do service, as was the case in my constituency during the floods. We had fire and rescue services from across the country coming together and getting on with the job without the need for a duty. We must also bear in mind whether, if there is a duty in place, it will stop rescue services—whether they are from the voluntary sector, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or others—from attending and supporting the fire and rescue service, because all of a sudden, they will know that it is not their responsibility, but that of somebody else.

Mr. Bacon: The Minister talks about the RNLI or whoever. At sea, one can understand what he is saying, but on our domestic waterways, who is it from the voluntary sector who he imagines will be dissuaded from turning up who otherwise would? Will we have members from the British Heart Foundation or Barnardo’s running out into the street from their shops to jump into waterways to save people?

Mr. Dhanda: That brings me neatly on to the third of my three points. Any agency or organisation will be within its rights to say, “Actually, it costs us money to do this. You have the statutory duty, so here is the bill.” That is another consideration that we have to take on board. Having said that—

Mr. Bacon: I am asking who.

Mr. Dhanda: It does not matter who it is. We are talking about circumstances that have not happened. I am trying to explain to the hon. Gentleman the considerations that it would be remiss of us not to take on board before making these judgments. Hence, Sir Ken Knight is looking into the issues around a statutory duty. We will shortly report back to the House, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to make his comments then. Sir Ken Knight’s report will be ready soon. He needs to take on board all these considerations.

The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk also talked about prevention and smoke alarms. My Department has funded about 1.3 million smoke alarms for people’s homes. I am very proud to say that such a preventative role is at the heart of what the fire and rescue service does. It is important that chief fire officers and others continue with such work because it saves lives and has got us to the position in 2008 in which we can say that we have the lowest number of fire deaths that this country has seen since 1958. The good work that is taking place in Norfolk and the rest of the country must continue. The prevention work must be seen as not an aside, but a mainstream part of the fire and rescue service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.

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