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18 Mar 2008 : Column 189WH—continued

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) on securing the debate. One of the fascinating things about
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Westminster Hall is that hon. Members like me, from Cornwall at one end of the country, can find out what is different about other areas, as well as the similarities about issues that are being raised, the challenges that local authorities face and the decisions that they take to deal with them. I was particularly interested to hear about the great impact that the proposals will have on the hon. Lady’s constituency in particular, with regard to both whole-time fire stations and the retained service. I shall talk later about the retained service and the important contribution that retained firefighters make.

The hon. Lady referred to concentrations of industry and the ports sector in her constituency and the wider area of Humberside. That is a crucial concern. I attended a debate in Westminster Hall some time ago about what happened at Buncefield, and the lessons that are being learned from it. I think that it has been referred to in coverage locally in the hon. Lady’s area.

Shona McIsaac: In fact it was firefighters, including retained firefighters, from Waltham who were flown down to Buncefield to advise on how to deal with the fire.

Dan Rogerson: I continue to learn about firefighting expertise in the hon. Lady’s area. Of course the cuts are not just to bricks and mortar—fire stations—but to the number of firefighters. That has been shown to be a matter of great concern to her constituents. She also discussed additional funding, to which I may return when I respond briefly to the remarks made by hon. Members during the debate, and risk assessment. Her detailed analysis of the facts and figures relating to incidents in her constituency was useful and illuminating.

As well as briefing us on the highlights of the social calendar in the run-up to Christmas in his constituency, the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) talked about how significant the consultation has been. That is to be welcomed. Hon. Members in all parties are in favour of local decision making and of locally elected representatives having the power to examine issues in detail and act accordingly. If that is to happen, proper consultation is crucial and those responsible should show how they will take comments on board. Given the time allowed for the consultation and the engagement with the public, I am reassured that that is happening, and I am glad to hear of it.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) discussed the impact of the cuts in terms of job losses. Of course that is a matter of concern, and the FBU has been vocal in fighting for its members in the light of the contribution that they make, and of professional concerns about changes to fire and rescue cover throughout the country. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of pressure from above—efficiency targets, the general culture in which people are working at all levels in local authorities, and the pressure to modernise, to use a word that is probably over-used. The right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) talked about the wider role of every station and the knock-on impact of what is happening. Again, he referred to the operation of the retained service.

I shall focus on some of the factors influencing the decision to make changes in the Humberside area. It seems to me that there is relevance to the wider debate
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about efficiency, to which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby alluded—the question of a culture that requires every local authority, or, indeed, fire and rescue authority, to show that it is changing all the time. That process is not necessarily always helpful. It must be based on evidence. Rather than involving purely local decisions taken in a vacuum, the process takes place within a culture of messages about what Whitehall wants local authorities to do. I hope that the Minister will talk about the statements and policies that the Government are putting into practice, which are leading to some of the changes that local authorities must make.

As for the Government’s contribution, although I am sure it is true that there has been some increase in funding and that it compares favourably with the national average for central funding for fire and rescue, local government overall is struggling to deliver the services that it is asked to provide, given the tight financial constraints. It may be that in the case that we are discussing the precept has not been set as high as it could have been, but I suppose that one eye must be kept on the future. Perhaps the changes are being made on the basis of efficiency savings that may be asked for in future and are intended as an early attempt to allow for that.

It is interesting that other fire authorities elsewhere are having to act in a similar way. If the decision is purely local, why is that happening? The hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to my area, Cornwall, where consultation is taking place on the number of whole-time fire stations that are to be in operation. Indeed, I went with some of my hon. Friends to discuss with the Minister both that issue and the funding pressures on Cornwall county council. I know that the situation is the same for the new neighbouring Devon and Somerset fire and rescue authority and for authorities in many other parts of the country.

The Government are also pushing through regional control centres, which will have a cost overall. There will certainly be an up-front cost, although it remains to be seen whether efficiencies will be demonstrated in the longer term. The FBU in particular has been vocal about that change, and it is important to put it in context. I understand that one of the aspirations for the process was to help to fund more technology, particularly for retained firefighters. The aim was to provide them with better technology, such as satnav, with which to respond to incidents. I hope that that materialises as part of the Government’s leadership in bringing about change.

I hope that as the Minister considers the issues that are local to Humberside, he will also consider the issues for the whole country. I also hope that he will see that Humberside’s review of cover and of the number of whole-time and retained firefighters is not an isolated incident, and that he will consider the effect of messages from Whitehall and Westminster, through discussions with local authorities of the reasons for their decisions.

One of the downsides of debates such as this emerges when a case of a station changing from whole-time to retained is raised in the media. I completely understand why people want to discuss whether that is right for their area, but sometimes a negative message goes out about the retained service, suggesting that it is in some way second class. I do not say that the Labour Members
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who have spoken meant to make that point, merely that it is sometimes the mood music in the background because of people’s concern about how the retained service operates. I represent an area where the vast majority of cover is provided by retained firefighters, and they provide an excellent service. I should hate it if the message were to go out from this or any debate that we in Westminster do not appreciate the job that they do, or that we are unaware that they display just as much professionalism as whole-time firefighters. The two groups working together usually provide an excellent team in every area.

I hope that the Minister will examine ways of modernising retained firefighting systems, to ensure that response to call-out is more effective. Given that patterns of working have changed, and that people often no longer work close to the fire station where they are on call, but further afield, perhaps more resources can be put in by the Government to support local authorities in pursuing new ways of operation, including pilot schemes, for the retained fire service, at least in the short term. In that way, we can ensure that retained as well as whole-time fire services change with the times.

To return to local services in Humberside in particular, what we want ultimately is to know that the consultation, which has attracted a huge number of responses from local people, will be taken into account by the local fire authority, and that the authority will re-examine everything that it proposes to do in view of the additional points that will undoubtedly have come to light in the consultation, so that the final decision, when it is reached, will be a local decision that takes into account all the factors. However, we must recognise that the local fire authority operates within a climate set by the Government.

12.10 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) on securing this debate, as well as her fellow local Members of Parliament.

The proposals have generated considerable concern locally, not least because of allegations that they are all about saving £4 million over three years and because they will involve more than 100 job losses and affect four stations. However, we should not forget that the campaign is an all-party effort—it is a campaign not just by Labour councillors and Members of Parliament but by people across the party spectrum. It is timely to pay tribute to local newspapers such as the Scunthorpe Telegraph, whose “stop the fire cuts” campaign has been very helpful.

Members have covered the issues comprehensively, so I shall try not to repeat what they have said, but one of the specific issues that I shall address is the efficacy of spending £36,000 of public money on a consultation undertaken by a Swansea-based public research company. The fire service prays in aid Cabinet Office guidelines. I do not think that that is necessarily an excuse for spending so much money while considering service reductions. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I take the view that elected officials should take executive decisions rather than trying to offload responsibility through consultation processes, which are not always as genuine as they might seem.

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The fire service has claimed that the planned reductions are not financially driven. Hon. Members have made the point clearly that the service has been given a generous 5.8 per cent. increase in the grant allocation for 2008-09—although the percentage increase will be reduced provisionally over the next two financial years—despite a 2005 Audit Commission comprehensive performance assessment rating of only fair and a declining direction of travel rating between 2006 and 2007.

There are other areas of specific concern. As hon. Members have mentioned, an inconsistent approach has been taken to development. In a recent presentation to Hull city council, the fire service conceded that development patterns in Hull had informed its decision, particularly with respect to Hull central station, but that factor has been disregarded in respect of north Lincolnshire and north-east Lincolnshire, where future development is not considered an appropriate issue. Significant industrial development is occurring in the Goole area, particularly in Centreport and Capitol Park, and proposals are in the offing to build a straw-burning power station there.

As the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) said, there seems to be no recognition of the proximity of transport infrastructure. Goole is the busiest inland port in England. It receives a huge amount of timber, for example, through its docks, and is adjacent to the busy M18 and M62 motorways. As I understand it, the service conveniently focuses on road traffic accidents only in the Goole area, rather than in the wider area, which would include those major roads. Mention has also been made of the level crossing and traffic in Goole. In Kirton in Lindsey, as the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) mentioned, road traffic accidents on the A15 are increasing, and that must be taken into account.

There is also the question of the methodology used in the fire service emergency cover risk assessment, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and the hon. Member for Cleethorpes. The East Riding of Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire seem to be dismissed as a low-risk area by reducing the standard response time to 20 minutes. In my opinion, that is based on a narrow interpretation of urban deprivation indices. As my right hon. Friend said, it ignores the growing elderly population, particularly in the East Riding.

The proposals also disregard the consequential changes to other fire stations in the area. As we have heard, the changes to Goole will have an impact on Howden, which already has problems recruiting retained firefighters, as well as on Crowle, Snaith and other stations. The downgrading proposals will therefore mean that a significant rural proportion of the East Riding of Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire will be covered by just one pump for much of the day. Similarly, the proposal to close the Kirton in Lindsey station will affect the retained pump in Brigg, necessitating cover overstretch in Barnetby, Brigg and other areas.

However, that is where the consensus must end. Hon. Members cannot expect me not to mention that every action has a reaction. Each hon. Member who has spoken supported the Fire and Rescue Services Bill in 2004, which forced on local authorities a local
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integrated risk management plan. Hon. Members have prayed in aid the Fire Brigades Union, but the FBU said in a press release in 2004 that the Bill and its proposals would

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, who at that time was shadowing the Deputy Prime Minister, challenged the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), asking:

Hon. Members must also admit that it is inconceivable that the Government’s regionalisation programme for the fire and rescue service, which is three years late and perhaps as much as 14 times over the budget in the outline business plan of October 2005, has had no impact on the proposals. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole, for whom I have a great deal of respect, has publicly defended the decision to relocate control facilities to Wakefield in West Yorkshire. In that respect, he is out of step with the FBU. Surely all Members must now see a causal link between the Government’s flawed reorganisation agenda and service reductions in their constituencies.

Mr. Cawsey: The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 ensures that risk to human life is the first priority for each fire service. If the Conservatives are saying that they disagree with that, I am surprised. As far as local opinion is concerned, if the situation was caused by a national Act, why is it not happening everywhere in the country? It is happening in Humberside, not elsewhere. How could it be linked to a national Act of Parliament?

Mr. Jackson: I spoke earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who cannot be here because he has other engagements. He made the point that in 18 years of Conservative Government, there were no proposals for cuts of this size in Humberside. That is pertinent.

Mr. Cawsey: I was a Humberside county councillor during the period of Conservative Government. We had regular demonstrations about attempts to cut fire services in the area. Peakes Lane station in Grimsby is not being affected now, but it was then. This is not new at all.

Mr. Jackson: I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments on board, but I must press on to allow the Minister to respond.

The Humberside fire and rescue service is about to receive an above-inflation grant increase, so the reasons for the reductions must be non-financial. They are being contemplated—I address this to the Minister—only because the Government refuse, even when faced with a significant risk of flooding like last year’s, to reconsider resilience funding for uniforms and equipment for the Humberside fire service or, as hon. Members will know, for proactive work on smoke alarms, at a cost of £180,000 a year.

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Even after three years of study and research, the proposals have not been thought out fully; they are incoherent, opaque and, potentially, a threat to life and property. They have arisen out of the centralising agenda of this Labour Government. To blame the fire service alone is disingenuous and wrong. I trust that the Minister will accept some of the blame for the situation and reassure the Chamber that he is aware of that fact and intends to do something about it.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) on her very effective and cogent argument. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and, indeed, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). The latter is not here now, but got his point across effectively without being distracted, like the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), by talking about funding in such a party political way. The right hon. Gentleman knows that, at 5.8 per cent., the settlement for the region is one of the best in the country, with a further 3.5 and 3.3 per cent. in subsequent years. It is quite sad that the hon. Gentleman tried to play party politics in the debate. My right hon. and hon. Friends and their local papers—the Hull Daily Mail, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph—did not. That was an unfortunate contribution to the debate.

As well as the settlement of 5.8 per cent. over the next year, the Government have supported national fire and rescue services with about £200 million of new dimension equipment, which for Humberside has meant an incident response unit for mass decontamination, a mass decontamination disrobe module, a detection, identification and monitoring team and a high-volume pump, which proved very helpful during the summer floods.

Mr. Morley: I was discussing that with a firefighter on the train home recently. He said that, as a firefighter in Humberside for many years, he has seen a huge improvement in the quality of equipment and machines under this Government, compared with the previous one.

Mr. Dhanda: My right hon. Friend is correct. That is one of reasons why the number of fire deaths has been reduced to the lowest figure since the 1950s, including in my hon. Friends’ region. That is also in part the result of legislation and changes in the fire service introduced in the past five years by this Labour Government, such as the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and the local integrated risk management plans. We should congratulate the fire and rescue service on the way in which it has remodelled and changed itself in recent years.

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