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4 Nov 2008 : Column 25WH—continued

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, to which I will respond briefly, as I do not want to stray too far from the subject of this debate. He is quite right. Claims that regionalising services—taking
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smaller services and joining them all together—improve services and lower costs have proved over the years to be false. The example that he gives is a pertinent one, as it involves emergency response. At the time of that merger, we were all promised better services and lots of savings from efficiencies. Those savings would be ploughed into front-line services, and the public would see a better response, faster response times and an improved service.

As my hon. Friend said, that simply has not happened, and there is a great lack of confidence that it will. A significant amount of extra money now has to be invested to deliver those improved services. He has demonstrated that there is simply no evidence that there will be tremendous savings from the project to pay for it all and deliver improved services. The Government’s track record on the subject is very poor.

Mr. Dhanda: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Harper: One last time, as others want to speak.

Mr. Dhanda: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the need to preserve what we have at the moment, but I do not think that he would disagree that we need to invest in technology as well. Gloucestershire in particular does not have the ability to trace where its engines are. It does not have satellite navigation systems and it has no way to trace a call, let alone obtain floor plans for buildings that are burning down. If he wants to replicate the required technology in all 46 control rooms, will he commit his party to it and urge his Front Bench to commit to spending at least an extra £2 billion to do it?

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman is welcome to look at the record of Gloucestershire’s fire and rescue services, which is very good and has continued to improve. They have worked incredibly closely as part of the county council to deliver excellent services. He posits a false choice. The Scottish National Party Government in Scotland, in a move largely unnoticed south of the border, has cancelled the regionalisation of Scottish fire control centres, but Scotland is still going ahead with improvements to IT, infrastructure improvements such as digital radios and GPS and interoperability with other emergency services, demonstrating that improvements in technology for resilience can still be achieved without flawed regionalisation plans.

Perhaps the UK Government might take a lesson from the SNP Government. I know that they find that painful, and sometimes the arguments in Scotland between the two parties are painful to watch, but perhaps they could accept that the SNP Government have made a sensible decision in that particular case.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I will not trouble him again. Is not the answer to the hon. Member for Gloucester proved by the Government’s large-scale IT failures, for example in patient records? Is it not much better to have smaller high-tech projects? Are not smaller units that can talk to each other in a high-tech way much more likely to produce better results than one large national scheme?

Mr. Harper: Indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right for two reasons. First, a parliamentary answer given to Lord Hanningfield in the other place about
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why the costs of the FiReControl project had escalated stated that a significant amount of the extra cost was due to certainty on costs arriving once the Government had awarded the IT contract. Clearly, IT and the failure to manage it properly is one of the key drivers.

The other significant reason, given the Prime Minister’s admission yesterday that the Government simply cannot be trusted not to lose personal data and information, is that we cannot trust the Government to manage large-scale IT projects or have confidence that they will be under budget and well managed. That confidence is deservedly low, and my hon. Friend is right to be sceptical about huge projects. More sensibly scaled projects are much more likely to be successful.

To return to the costs, as I said in answering the intervention by the hon. Member for Gloucester, although the Government have pledged to fund centrally the increased running costs of the regional control centres, they have pledged to do so for only three years. After that, local fire authorities are likely to have to pick up the bill. In the case of Gloucestershire, where fire services are part of the county council, other services will have to be cut to fund them or the precept on the council tax payer will have to rise. Neither of those choices will be welcome to council tax payers in Gloucestershire or elsewhere.

July’s regional business case admits that

will be needed. One need not look very hard to notice extra taxes in there, which are not welcome at any time, particularly in the straitened financial circumstances that we face.

Indeed, in May the Government instructed the new regional management board to deliver more sharing of functions at a regional or sub-regional level, in order to deliver efficiencies. That raises the prospect that local fire stations will face cuts that are imposed at a regional level and outside the democratic accountability of our local councillors, to pay for this flawed process.

It is not just myself and other colleagues here today that have concerns about this process. The Communities and Local Government Committee said in its 2006 report, “The Fire and Rescue Service”:

that is, across the fire and rescue services. That is very worrying. The hon. Member for Gloucester drew attention to the importance of saving lives. However, if there is no benefit of improved service quality from these changes, it is even worse if the Government cannot offer the assurance of maintained service quality. If current service quality deteriorates, that would put lives at risk. The Communities and Local Government Committee also said in the same report:

As I say, that report is very worrying. The Communities and Local Government Committee obviously undertook a thorough investigation into this process and its report should cause us to pause and think again.

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My final point is to examine what an alternative system might look like. Coming from Gloucestershire myself, I think that we should look at the option of having more tri-service centres to improve resilience; I am surprised that the hon. Member for Gloucester, who is a former Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, did not pay more attention to this option. As I have already mentioned, in Gloucestershire we have a tri-service centre that links all the emergency services and it played a crucial role in co-ordinating the response to last year’s floods. Such service centres could do a lot more to enhance local resilience than distant regional fire control centres.

The Government’s business case has never properly examined the merits of such joint working between emergency services. Indeed, the Government’s full business case simply says that

However it seems to me that in those parts of the country that already have a tri-service centre, such as Gloucestershire—

Mr. Gray: And Wiltshire.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend points out that Wiltshire has such a centre too. As I was saying, in those areas that already have such a centre, which would have been built at a significant cost, to get rid of those structures in order to set up something that is untried and untested, while only considering tri-service centres at a later date, seems to be very short-sighted.

The report from the Communities and Local Government Committee said:

The Committee went on to say:

I do not favour greater collaboration at regional level, but at local level it would be sensible, and that applies not just to emergency services but to many other services too. Last year, when I visited gold command at Quedgeley, to look at what had happened in Gloucestershire with the flooding, it was very noticeable that not only were the three traditional services co-located at Quedgeley but there were also other services: Her Majesty’s armed forces; representatives from the health service, including from the primary care trust; Gloucestershire county council; social services, and highways. All those services were co-located in one location and all of them were working together as a team, delivering the emergency support that was necessary during last year’s floods. It seems to me that looking at Quedgeley and learning the lessons from it would be much more sensible than carrying out this piece of vandalism to our emergency services.

In conclusion, it seems that the Government have undertaken a flawed analysis of the problem; they have come up with the wrong solution; the solution has been poorly managed, is significantly over budget and out of control, and they have ignored a potentially better solution, which is to examine collaboration and co-location of services, as we have in Gloucestershire. When the
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Minister responds to the debate, I hope that, as well as dealing with the specific points that I have made, he will be able to tell us that the Government will look at the example of the tri-service centres in Gloucestershire and elsewhere to see how collaboration and co-location has worked locally and to determine if those lessons can be learned now, before it is too late and all the expertise that has been built up in this field is just thrown away.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I would like to point out to hon. Members that this debate only lasts for an hour and a half. A lot of hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. Obviously, I will do my best to get everybody in and to let them speak. However as I have said, the debate is only one and a half hours long, so I appeal to hon. Members to try to keep their remarks as brief as possible.

11.25 am

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Benton, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure, too, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) on his new post as Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

I want to start by applauding, as I am sure we all would, the work of the fire and rescue services in our region, the south-west. Naturally, I know the Avon fire and rescue service better than others and I would like to pay a particular tribute to the work of its firefighters, other staff, the relevant trade unions, the members of the fire authority and the chief officers, who provide an excellent service to my constituents and to others in Avon. In the few minutes that I have, I would like to focus on a specific issue in relation to the funding of the Avon service, although I am sure that my comments will be relevant to other authorities in our region.

Before I do so, I would just like to make one point. My comments will be critical of Government in relation to the funding of my fire authority in recent times. However, it ill-behoves those who argue that we have had too much taxation and public sector borrowing in the last 11 years to turn around and pretend that they would have not cut public spending significantly. They cannot have it every which way. I congratulate the Government on what they have done in the past 11 years in their overall approach to funding public services, including fire and rescue. They have provided infinitely greater resources—let us not exaggerate: I will say “far greater resources”—than would be the case if the Conservatives were in office and, indeed, than the Conservatives provided when they were in office. I hope that that contextual comment will be taken on board by the Minister as I move into more critical mode.

I would just like to say that Avon fire authority was shocked, at every level, and I think it would be fair to say that the other nine members of the “at-floor authorities”—those authorities that had very low increases in Government grant for the current year and very low proposed increases in grant for next year—were shocked when those increases were announced. Dorset is the other at-floor authority in our region, so there are real issues for Dorset, too.

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In the case of Avon, there was an increase in Government grant of a mere 1 per cent. for the current year, with proposed increases of a mere 0.5 per cent. for next year and the year after. All of us were amazed that that increase could be considered by the Government as a serious proposition. In cash terms, those increases are clearly below inflation and below the level of pay awards. Indeed, to be specific, at the time that the grant was announced, consumer prices index inflation was running at 2.1 per cent. and retail prices index inflation, on which pay deals are based, was running at 4.2 per cent. Given the events of more recent times, an inflation figure of 5 per cent. is probably a more reasonable figure with which to compare the cash increases.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, last week, a number of hon. Members from the 10 at-floor authorities met the chairs of their fire authorities and chief officers, and they will seek to make a case to the Department for Communities and Local Government for fairer funding for these particularly badly hit fire authorities. Briefly, what is the impact of the financial situation on Avon fire authority? As a single service authority, we do not have anywhere to go. We all know that there are local authorities that have more direct responsibility for the fire service, but we are a single service authority; we have little alternative but to reduce variable expenditure and that basically means expenditure on staff. I cannot see any alternative for the Avon service but to impose a freeze on recruitment, which is not good news for our service. I hope, therefore, that the Government will reconsider the level and distribution of funding and, at the very least, reinstate last year’s funding floor of 2.7 per cent.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): The increase that the Avon fire and rescue service will receive over the next two years is just one fifth of the increase that it received last year. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the effect that that might have on pay and recruitment, but what about the number of fire engines in the authority? There are already concerns in Bristol that following the large growth in housing in the city centre, there are not enough pumps to ensure that everyone is safe. There might be also a detrimental effect on the future procurement of equipment.

Roger Berry: There is little doubt that the financial situation is seriously challenging.

I want to focus on three issues. First, as the Department has been made aware by Avon fire authority, there is a problem with transitional grant recovery. The authority’s treasurer has made representations to the Department arguing that it has treated the adjustment for the transitional grant incorrectly. Every floor authority can prove that it has repaid the grant, but the money has not been put back into the base budget. In the case of Avon, that means that this year’s apparent grant floor of 1 per cent. has become a reduction, in cash terms, of £360,000 on last year’s grant. If that is not corrected for this year and for the future, we will be repaying that money for ever. That is not only unfair, but it is the most expensive loan imaginable. This issue has to be addressed. I have looked at the papers that the treasurer submitted to the Department, and although I am not an accountant, I am entirely persuaded by the argument. I strongly hope that the Minister will respond constructively to those representations.

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The second issue that I want to discuss is equality and diversity policy, which has attracted some attention in the media in our area. Chief fire officers and fire authorities are rightly being asked to recruit more female staff and more staff from minority ethnic communities, for the simple reason that we must have public services that reflect the communities they serve. That is the right thing to do. In Avon, officers, members and trade unions are enthusiastic about committing to those higher targets, because they fully understand the value that diversity adds to the service. The problem is that a grant settlement of the kind that we are discussing will inevitably mean a freeze on recruitment, so how on earth is Avon to meet its equality and diversity targets?

Avon fire authority has been subject to some pretty vicious and inaccurate comments in the media. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) will be aware of the newspaper articles to which I am referring. To their credit, the chief fire officer, authority members, trade unions and staff have made serious attempts to ensure that the make-up of the authority’s firefighters and staff reflects the diversity of the community they serve. I strongly support them, but they will have a very difficult job in future. They have made progress in the past five years, but I fear that that progress will now come to a stop, and that is unacceptable.

My final point is about the local integrated risk management plans that all fire authorities have been required to produce since the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. The plans are based on local risk, and are supposed to determine the way in which services are provided, which they usually do. However, I cannot see any link between the plans and the methodology behind the allocation of funding to fire authorities. If that is correct, we are in a bizarre situation in which the plans are the driver for the services to be provided, but not the driver for allocating the money to enable those services to be supplied to local communities. To put it mildly, we need more transparency in relation to funding, so that we can understand and address these problems.

I am conscious that other colleagues wish to speak, so I shall conclude. Along with other floor authorities, Avon has been put into an unacceptable position through no fault of its own. The Government need to reconsider the level and distribution of funding and, at the very least, to reinstate last year’s funding floor of 2.7 per cent. Adjustments to the floors and the transitional grant position need to be made as a matter of urgency, and I urge the Minister to consider doing so.

11.35 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this important and timely debate. The Minister recently visited the new fire station at Marshes End in my constituency, and I suspect that he might already have heard some of the points that I shall make today, but they are so important that they are worth reiterating.

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