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18 Mar 2008 : Column 177WH—continued

In reality, that means that we will lose between 100 and 110 firefighters on top of similar cuts a couple of years ago. Most of those jobs—12 retained firefighters at Waltham and 53 whole-time firefighters at Immingham—are in my constituency, so Cleethorpes will bear the brunt of the cuts. The nine appliances covering north-east Lincolnshire will be reduced to seven if the cuts go ahead. Those will be the most savage cutbacks ever experienced by Humberside fire and rescue service.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I agree with everything that the hon. Lady has said so far, but I do not want the debate to run away with one point—risk assessment. I have an interest because in the Howdenshire part of my constituency and in Goole, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), the fire service emergency cover model, FSEC, which assesses risk in various areas—as the hon. Lady said, there are high risks in some parts of the counties—dramatically underestimates the individual risks applying to elderly constituents, who may use oil or container-based gas heating, and who have as much right to a fire service as anyone living in the middle of a town. I am worried that one of the calculations to justify the cuts underestimates the risk in rural areas. Does she agree?

Shona McIsaac: I shall come to the FSEC computer programme. I agree that it has serious flaws and that it does not give a robust enough analysis. Fire and rescue services in some parts of the country do not use it because they know from local knowledge that it underestimates some risks and puts some areas at high risk when they are not. Waltham retained fire station covers the more rural and suburban southern part of north-east Lincolnshire. Many of the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns—for example, about Howden—are also experienced in places such as Waltham.

I raised the matter in the House in the Christmas recess Adjournment debate on 18 December. Following that, I met firefighters to discuss their concerns and objections to the changes. What struck me as odd was that I had not received an official communication from the fire authority. In fact, I am not aware of any of the area’s MPs receiving anything official from the fire
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authority about the proposals. On investigation, I found that other key stakeholders—for example, the port health authority—were not included in the discussions at an early stage.

However, to be fair, after Christmas I received a letter dated 21 December from the chief fire officer, Frank Duffield, who said:

What I was given was the statement that was made on 14 December. Those dates are important, because there are time limits within which to raise objections. When key stakeholders were made aware of the plans is pertinent to the argument.

Following the announcement, I kept checking the Humberside fire and rescue service’s website. The proposals were not posted on it until about the second week of January—almost a month after the initial announcement. The printed document came out about the second or third week of January, which is fine if someone can see what the proposals are because they have access to the internet, but many residents do not. Those people have been denied a chance to have the full time to air their views on the changes.

I know that MPs met the chief fire officer, members of the Fire Brigades Union and others in the new year. However, at the same time news also broke that Humberside fire and rescue service will receive a 5.8 per cent. increase in its funding, which was much more than it expected and much more than neighbouring fire and rescue services. I refer hon. Members back to the comments made in the breaking news stories of 15 December, which state that the cutbacks were part of an effort to save an overspend. At that stage, given the additional funding available, many of us hoped that there would be a rethink. Sadly, that did not happen.

I have concerns about the data—the FSEC issue. A lot of jargon and acronyms will be used in the debate, and FSEC is the computer programme used to predict risk. Before we received the official documents, I examined the background to how fire authorities make their decisions. I discovered that FSEC is not universally applied across the country. On the fire service emergency cover toolkit, a document from a neighbouring authority—West Yorkshire fire and rescue service—states that the

Despite a neighbouring authority saying that any decisions based on that programme will not be robust, an enormous emphasis has been placed on the programme in Humberside.

I have compared the statistics on the previous round of cuts in 2005 with what has been presented to us, and the maps that were produced for both rounds of cuts vary enormously. Areas that were previously high risk before FSEC was relied on so heavily, are now deemed low risk. To someone with knowledge of those areas, that seems to be totally counter-intuitive, and therefore I am worried about the robustness of the data.

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In addition, FSEC is used only—or mainly—for predicting dwelling fatality rates. There seems little in the programme that considers, for example, road traffic collisions. We all know that we are far more likely to be involved in or lose our life in a road traffic accident than in a dwelling fire. Again, that leads me to worry about the proposed cuts.

David Davis: I could not find an age profile in the FSEC model. When dealing with the ageing population of rural areas—I think that many hon. Members here represent rural areas—it seems sensible to provide such information because age profile indicates a higher risk of being unable to escape once a fire starts.

Shona McIsaac: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I cannot consider that matter in too much detail because the debate is not entirely about FSEC. However, the analysis of West Yorkshire fire and rescue service states that

An example is given in relation to rented accommodation as that is one of the criteria used. In two areas with the same percentage of rented accommodation, one area may have detached houses and another may have terraced housing, which has a higher risk. However, FSEC would put those areas in the same category.

As I said, the chief fire officer consulted the various councils in the area and people everywhere told him that they were opposed to the cuts. Prior to last Saturday’s march, I conducted a survey of residents in the affected areas in my constituency. About 1,000 people said that they opposed the cuts, and such responses were not based simply on emotion—the chief fire office sometimes accuses us of being emotional about the matter. People were given very good statistical reasons for the cuts and facts about why they would put communities at risk. In fact, only 45 people in some way supported the plans.

I find it worrying that I recently heard that a PR firm has been hired to run consultation forums on the proposals and that people are being paid £25 to attend those meetings. The process is meant to be terribly independent and involve people selected at random, but when it was discovered that someone was the wife of a firefighter, she was rejected and not included in the discussion forums. Those involved are trying to stack the so-called independent forums in their favour and skew the results.

As far as I am aware, apart from the meetings with local authorities and the forums, there have been no official public meetings to date. On behalf of my constituents, I want the plans to be rejected, and I am sure that other hon. Members feel the same. The entire process is flawed. There are concerns about the FSEC computer modelling programme and there have been serious delays in making details publicly available. A whole month passed before the supporting documentation was put into the public domain, and therefore the proposals should be thrown out. Key stakeholders were not involved in the discussions and the consultation document does not stand up to detailed scrutiny. For example, although we have heard that many proposals were made for cost reasons, there are no costings in the document. How can we compare and contrast the proposals, therefore, and ask whether
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a certain project can be brought in under budget so that we can invest more money in another area? My background is in local government and we certainly did not produce documents that did not have costings.

Statistics in the document are given only for one year. There are no historic data or predictions. It is difficult to make a decision when there are no predictions of trends. I have obtained historic data for Waltham and Immingham. They show that the number of incidents has gone up rather than declined. Despite that, we are considering closing fire stations, which puts the FSEC model in question. For example, the incident data that I have for Waltham station state that the number of incidents in 2005 was 91. In 2006—the data used in the document—there were 116 incidents, and in 2007 there were 134. The number of incidents over the same three years at the Immingham West fire station were 147 in 2005, 158 in 2006, and 200 in 2007. Therefore, the risk is increasing.

There is also a lack of information in the document about road traffic accidents. As I said, people are more likely to die in a road traffic accident than in a house fire. When I asked the chief fire officer about that, he said that Waltham station had covered only four road traffic incidents. The answer was slightly disingenuous because that figure relates only to cases in which specialist cutting equipment was used to free people. That figure, therefore, underplays the level of road traffic accidents. My information about road traffic accidents covers north-east Lincolnshire, north Lincoln and Hull. For those three areas, traffic accident rates are well above the regional and national average, according to data from the Humberside police collision unit. I am afraid that I do not have detailed information about the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The number of collisions in north-east Lincolnshire resulting in death or serious injury in 2002 was 114, of which 21 involved young drivers, which equates to about 18 per cent. of the total. In 2006, there were 123 fatalities and serious injuries, of which 31 were young people, which is 25 per cent. of the total. Again, the trends show an increased risk. It is well recognised that our area has made poor progress towards achieving the 2010 target of a 40 per cent. reduction in road deaths and serious injuries. Any improvement was due to the reduction in child pedestrian casualties.

The collision data also suggest that young drivers living in the more rural areas are at particularly high risk. They tend to come from the more leafy suburbs in which incomes tend to be higher. It is quite normal for a household to have two or three cars, especially in the newly built estates. Young people tend to have cars and use them to get around. Certainly, Waltham fits that bill. Also, because of the rural nature of such areas, it takes fire and rescue services longer to get there, and those minutes are vital if we are to save lives.

I want to focus on how the proposals will impact on my constituents. I know that other hon. Members will focus on their own particular areas. The outcry over the closure at Waltham has been deafening. To date, there have been 18,000 signatures on a petition objecting to it. Some 12,000 letters of objection have been sent in as well. Yet the station costs just £123,000 to run. That is why it was important for the consultation document to include financial information. That £123,000 is partly paid by Lincolnshire county council because the
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station is on the border between the two authorities; Waltham’s costs often go into that county. Therefore, the cost to Humberside fire and rescue is just over £100,000 a year. The town of Waltham pays far more than that in its precept to the fire authority.

I want to focus on an issue that appeared in the Hull Daily Mail on 4 January. The article states:

Waltham was more or less a hamlet in 1959; now it is a suburb of Grimsby. It has seen very fast growth in recent decades and it has had a housing boom, yet those residents are being told that the growth in their area means that their fire station has to close. In Hull, on the other hand, residents are told that they are getting a £5 million investment because of housing growth there. I am not complaining about that, but I want consistency across the board. If there is growth in an area, that should be recognised.

The chief fire officer has told me that the Grimsby-based fire station of Peaks Lane will be able to take on the workload if Waltham closes. That is not what the firefighters at Peaks Lane tell me. Such a statement also assumes that the two engines at Peaks Lane will be there if an incident occurs in the area that Waltham covers. It is highly likely that they will be out somewhere else, which means that the time to reach that vast southern part of north-east Lincolnshire will increase, and that will put lives at risk. Also, Peaks Lane deals with chemical incidents that occur in the factories on the south bank of the Humber. Again, that leaves a huge gap in coverage in our area.

A previous review of fire services moved Immingham’s fire cover from the centre of the town to the outskirts. That was done because of the huge amount of industry that is located in Immingham. Immingham West and East fire stations were opened by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey). Four engines are based there because of the huge concentration of COMAH—control of major accident hazards—sites. Anyone who knows that part of the world just needs to look at the flare stacks of the two oil refineries to understand the risk that exists on the south bank of the Humber. We have to exercise a precautionary principle. The reason why we have a lot of fire stations is because if something happens it will be serious and we need to have firefighters in place. The risks are real.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) will confirm that there are people who remember the Flixborough explosion, which was not that far away from Immingham. A few years ago, there was a serious explosion at one of the refineries. Luckily, it was Easter and there were not many people on site and no loss of life. If people had been working, the incident could have been very serious. That is why I want to see the plans rejected. I want every member of the fire authority to receive copies of the debate to see the strength of feeling among the communities that we represent. If it is a genuine consultation, I hope that it will listen—I hope
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that it is not a foregone conclusion. However, I am worried about the verb tense in the original press release, which said:

rather than “a proposal to close and take out of service”. I say to the fire authority and to its chief, “Prove to us that the consultation has been genuine. Go away, look at the proposals and throw them out, because if you don’t, lives will be lost.”

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) to speak, may I say that other hon. Members wish to contribute? I alert them to the fact that I anticipate calling the first Front-Bench spokesperson at about 12 o’clock. Will hon. Members limit their contributions to ensure that everyone who wishes to speak can do so?

11.28 am

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): This is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) on her contribution and on securing the debate, which is important to all Members of Parliament in the Humberside area and all the area’s residents as well.

I share the general concerns that my hon. Friend has already outlined about the whole review and the way in which the chief fire officer and the authority seek to change our fire cover in the area. I want to concentrate most of my remarks on Goole, because proposals for that area are causing enormous concern in the locality. Concern, however, is not restricted to Goole. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said, the measures have a knock-on effect on all rural areas around the town as well. I, and many other people, do not believe that the proposals are sound or sensible for that part of the East Riding.

For me, this all started back on 14 December. I was driving home from the Goole and District Mariners Association’s annual Christmas party, so I was full of festive cheer—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman has had the honour of attending, so he knows what a good night it is. I heard about the proposal on Radio Humberside in my car. I could not believe what I was being told, or the fact that, if it were true, we had had no notification of it and nothing had been said to local authorities. The whole thing came as a bolt from the blue just before everything closed down for the Christmas period. That created a number of concerns, because we were unable to get to the bottom of what was being said and done.

On 3 January, I was able to organise a meeting with the chief fire officer and his team, and with Councillors Doreen Engall and Darrell Barkworth, the chair and vice-chair of the fire authority. Before that, I met the Fire Brigades Union in its office in Hull to get the perspective of the firefighters themselves. At the meeting with the chief fire officer, it was put to me that the proposals were about changing how the fire service was operated in the Humberside area. We spoke about
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funding, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes has pointed out, the Humberside fire service has received a 5.8 per cent. increase in its Government funding this year. That is a generous allocation that compares favourably with the national average of 3.3 per cent. I am indebted to the Library, as always, for helping me to obtain the figures.

Since 1997, the Government contribution to the Humberside fire service has risen from £18 million. It will stand at £27 million under the latest comprehensive spending review announcement. Significant extra cash has been put into the service, so funding does not appear to be a driving factor behind the proposed changes. Indeed, the fire authority confirmed at our meeting that it did not intend to use all its precepting powers to raise money from the council tax and increase the overall budget. That, too, indicates that the authority was not really feeling under great financial pressure. In fairness to the chief fire officer, when I asked him whether the proposals were about money and whether the authority needed more money, wherever it might come from, he said that his driving force was how the service should operate in future, and that it was not a financial thing at all.

So, the consultation began. I should say one thing in favour of the fire authority: a consultation that effectively started in the middle of December and will run until the end of March at least gives people a generous amount of time to get involved. That has allowed local authorities, town and parish councils, port and health authorities, and all sorts of other organisations to have a say, and it has allowed the fire authority, the chief fire officer, the FBU and others to speak to people. At least we have had decent time for the consultation, but the simple truth is that the more people have heard about the proposal, the less they have liked it. They are extremely concerned about what will happen if the proposals go ahead.

Goole is a town that is changing enormously and quickly. It currently has a full-time fire station and two fire engines, both staffed with full-time firefighters. The plan is that one of the two engines will be changed to retained status and will back up the remaining full-time pump. Goole’s growth in recent years has been in both population, through people moving into the town, and new development. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden will remember when Goole had a lot of derelict buildings, but now there are many homes in multiple occupation, which I think present a greater fire risk in many respects.

New houses are being built, new people are coming in and there are big industrial developments. The Capitol Park development, formerly known as Centreport, at junction 36 of the M62, has already had two major developments—the Guardian Industries glass factory and a large Tesco distribution site—and will continue to grow. More and more development is coming into Goole. It is on the edge of a motorway and it has a port, and there are risks associated with both. It seems to me, and I think to most local people, that when the town is going through unprecedented growth in such a time scale, the idea of reducing its fire cover is bizarre.

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