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4 Nov 2008 : Column 31WH—continued

First, I have a few comments to make on the FIReControl project, which is expected to offer enhanced physical and operational resilience, but the costs and savings are highly questionable, as we have heard. We have also
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heard that the timing of delivery is problematic. Dorset disputes several of the current assumptions, and predicts that there will be a net cost to the authority from moving to the regional control centre. Even if the Department for Communities and Local Government could meet in full the deficit between steady-state RCC costs and current costs on a regional basis, the vagaries of the regional cost apportionment model, based on the council tax base, have led Dorset to believe that it would still face additional costs of £125,000 a year.

The Dorset authority is concerned about cost apportionment across the south-west, and does not see how it can possibly end up not being a net loser unless protection is built in, or unless more attention is paid to each authority. Its members are concerned that the costs for out-of-scope activities and data management have been underestimated. The capping of regional resilience payments to three years is absolutely unacceptable.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that it is extremely difficult to find anyone in Dorset who thinks that, on the other side of the balance sheet, there is any advantage to the measure?

Annette Brooke: I have detected a distinct lack of enthusiasm from everyone with whom I have discussed the project.

Three-year funding is another problem that is simply being deferred to the future. What will happen when the three-year funding ends? We will have yet more cuts. There is significant disappointment about the business case, and we now have the impact of the delays to consider. I hear that the project has to be “reprofiled”—I think that that means delayed—because the deliverables are not going to be delivered on time. It is no surprise that that has to do with an IT contract; that is nothing new. My big concern is the impact that all the problems with the regional control centre will have on poorly funded authorities. In a sense, the delay is delaying the extra cost, but there is serious concern about work force morale.

Returning to cost, Dorset is one of the 10 authorities that the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) has mentioned will have particularly low funding for the next few years. I agree that it is vital that the 2.7 per cent. funding floor is reinstated, so that front-line fire services are kept at a level that is safe for both the public and fire fighters. Dorset originally assumed, for planning purposes, that there would be 2 per cent. growth, but it then faced severe shortfalls on its original budgeting. I have been anxious throughout about the implications for safety. That issue has been discussed in detail with civil servants and, indeed, with Sir Ken Knight. Some 80 per cent. of the service’s budget goes on salaries, so there is little room for manoeuvre. Dorset has only six whole-time stations, and opportunities for shift arrangement and redeployment are limited. It really is difficult to find savings. Sadly, there have been 10 fire-related deaths in 10 separate incidents since December 2007; six of those people were over 70. Studies have identified lone pensioners as being the most at risk in our community, and that is true in other parts of the south-west. It is sad that that risk has been confirmed by the recent spate of fatalities. Dorset has the highest proportion in the country of people over retirement age, with an average of 27 per cent. and an incredibly high proportion in certain pockets.
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That compares with 18.7 per cent. nationally. The proportion of elderly people is likely to increase in future, so there is a real need to address the formula. We need the floor reinstated now, and within the next few years the formula must be reformed. The proportion of elderly people is one of the many factors that need to be taken into account.

The chief fire officer of Dorset tells me that as a consequence of the firefighters’ pay and conditions agreement, fire authorities were loaned a sum of money over a two-year period to ensure that pay increases could be made prior to efficiencies being found. For Dorset, that represented a sum of £350,000, to be paid back in two consecutive years, 2006-07 and 2007-08. The chief fire officer asked Dorset MPs to press the Government on why there is still to be a deduction of approximately £175,000 a year in the base budget. I think that we would all agree that that works out as a massive rate of interest.

Dorset’s fire and rescue service is acknowledged as a good performer, with comparatively low budgets and cost per head of population. It achieves a good overall performance, and in the national comprehensive performance assessment of 2007 it was stated as having the highest performance nationally. Locally, we are proud of our fire and rescue service, but we are deeply concerned about the pressures and worries that are put on it.

11.41 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who will not be surprised to learn that I will cover some of the same issues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate and on addressing the important issue of flooding as well as tri-service co-operation, which needs to be improved. I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. I am a little surprised to see the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), in his place, considering the efforts that many of us from the south-west made to secure a better deal. There is no flooring, and there is no security to ensure that fire services receive an inflationary increase at minimum. As we have just heard, Dorset has received one of the worst increases in the country. It will be just 1 per cent. next year, 0.5 per cent. the year after and 1 per cent. the year after that. How can we possibly survive on such a budget set by the Government?

Mr. Dhanda rose—

Mr. Ellwood: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has taken up far too much time on the matter already. He had plenty of opportunity when he was responding to debates to answer questions about why lives were being put at risk in the county of Dorset by the ridiculous numbers that we face.

Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the fire service across the country, and particularly in Dorset. I spoke this morning to Darren Gunter, the chief fire officer, to confirm the concerns that still exist. Fire services are expected to be of the highest standard. If
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bins are not collected on time, it matters, but it will not cause any deaths. If potholes are not repaired, it is an annoyance, but it is not vital to life. When it comes to the fire services, however, we expect the highest standards. Unfortunately, if we are not willing to pay for those services, lives will be put at risk. I am sorry that party politics has come into this, but we in Dorset cannot help but look over our shoulder and see what is happening in other parts of the country. Nottingham, for example, will receive a 17 per cent. increase.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) expressed concerns about the total amount of money that is in the pot. I do not dispute his case, but I am asking not for more money but for even sharing of Government funding. That has not been forthcoming, which is why Dorset is suffering. There is to be a national increase of 7.5 per cent. over three years, but in Dorset, as I have just explained, it will be only 2.5 per cent. We cannot exist on that without the standard of service being affected.

As we have just heard, Dorset is constantly ranked in the top five authorities in the country, but it has the lowest cost per head of population and is already one of the worst funded in the country. Why are we being picked on in this way? I simply do not understand. I believe that Dorset is a special case and deserves extra funding, or at least an inflationary increase.

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

Mr. Ellwood: I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I have made very clear. I shall say it to him directly—no, I will not give way. You can speak yourself in a few minutes.

There are vulnerable groups in Dorset. We have an above-average number of elderly people, as we heard from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. They often live on their own and need extra care. Sadly, 11 people, mostly elderly, have died in the past nine months in fire-related incidents, and I am afraid that that is because of the limitations that have been placed on the fire service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): May we be clear? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is a direct link between any of those deaths and decisions taken by the Government?

Mr. Ellwood: I am saying that there must be a direct correlation. I would be grateful if I could meet the Minister, perhaps with Darren Gunter, the chief fire officer, so that we can look into the matter in more detail.

Mr. Khan: I am really surprised by what the hon. Gentleman has just said. I raised the matter with Darren Gunter when I went to Dorset last week, and he confirmed that there was no link between funding or the settlement and any of those deaths. The hon. Gentleman should be careful about what he says, because the implications are serious.

Mr. Ellwood: Of course these are serious matters, and I do not believe that they can be answered in full in this debate. I would be grateful if I could meet the Minister
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to consider the issues affecting Dorset. The service has had to make cuts in the Weymouth area and across the board, affecting its ability to meet needs. I wish to make it clear to the Minister that we cannot manage in the current situation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), will have an opportunity to speak about the implications of the cuts. People living alone are affected, and there are many of them in Dorset. That is why I plead with the Minister to reconsider the settlement that we have received. Creating a regional centre in Taunton will not save any money, but it will increase costs, which will not benefit our area at all.

An argument that I had with the previous Minister concerned the additional burden placed on Dorset, because of the Olympics in 2012, to provide safety at sea. Yet Dorset fire and rescue service does not even own a boat. Only after we raised the matter with the then Minister was some funding finally forthcoming, but even that only takes us up to 2009, not even clearing the Olympics year, so we may not have the funding when the big event comes in 2012.

The consequences are simple: cut the budget and lives will be threatened and possibly lost. I urge the Minister to think again and examine what is actually happening in Dorset. A 2.5 per cent. increase is an insult, and we look over our shoulder to other parts of the country that are getting 10 per cent., 12 per cent. or 17 per cent. increases in their settlement. It just does not seem right, so please will the Minister introduce some fairness before more lives are put in danger?

11.48 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be quick, because I know that other Members wish to speak.

First, I disclose an interest: my son-in-law is a retained firefighter trying to enter the full-time service, and I am a member of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group and receive some support from the FBU. However, I speak on my own part and from my own experiences.

Memories are somewhat short, because I remember on more than one occasion under the previous Government having to fight to save various pumps, appliances and even fire stations. I shall be fair to the Government, who have put some serious resources into Gloucestershire. Our two main fire stations are being rebuilt, and a boat has recently been provided. I wish the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) well in that regard in Dorset, and I hope that other improvements will follow.

One of the issues of most concern to FBU members is the commutation scheme. I shall say no more, because the Minister knows what I am talking about and now might not be the time for that debate. It is fair to say that people are rather upset by what has happened to their pension scheme. I also wish to pay due regard to the work of firefighters, about which we know only too well in Gloucestershire due to the 2007 floods and their repercussions. I would commend to anyone who has not read it the FBU’s report on the 2007 floods, which affected Humberside and Sheffield as well. It shows why
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we need firefighters, and points to their bravery and commitment. Of course, we have lost some of them—not many, thankfully, but some—in the past few years.

Mr. Letwin: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that recent correspondence with the Department has revealed that personnel who transfer to the regional fire centre will not actually be part of the fire service at all?

Mr. Drew: I am aware of that, which is one reason why the FBU has serious misgivings about the move. However, I shall not pursue that because of the shortage of time.

As someone who has been a consistent critic of regionalisation, I think that I can speak with some authority on the issue. I do not know whether any Opposition Member would like to confirm this, but I was concerned that in the last meeting the cabinet member for Gloucestershire either signed off the agreement on the regional centre or was about to sign it off. I gather that the Liberal Democrats also are protesting but still signing it off. I would like to think that that is not happening, but perhaps it is.

I am a critic not only of regionalisation but of the FIReControl project. It has merits, and I have always argued that we need regional back-up. Anyone who was around during the floods will know that what happened was of such a scale that no control centre would have been able to cope, and we have a very good tri-service centre. One of the things that the Minister might like to dwell on is why Mott MacDonald, the wonderful consultants who have underlined all the things that have happened, has never published its investigation into the tri-service arrangements. It has published many other reports, which have cost millions of pounds. I do not know whether those reports have saved any lives, but they have certainly cost millions. I would like to know what Mott MacDonald says about the tri-service arrangements in Gloucestershire.

I hope that the Government will have another look at their proposals. I do not have any problem with regional back-up—we need it. The scale of possible disasters—whether floods or, dare I say it, a big security issue—means that we need the best available provision for our fire and rescue service. I still believe that that should be provided locally, and that we should listen to the people who work in the service and, indeed, the chief fire officer in Gloucestershire, who has been put in a difficult position.

However, we have to go from where we are, and that is the regional centre in Taunton. It is not working yet, but it has cost rather a lot of money. I worry about who, if anyone, will relocate, but, more than anything, I think that that centre should be the back-up to front-line local services, which have worked very well. I hope that that the Government will consider that, despite the money that has been spent and, obviously, despite some loss of face. We can always learn from our experiences.

It is not helpful if people say one thing in public and do other things in private. The person who has been most trenchant, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) knows, is Terry Walker, one of his predecessors on Avon county council, who spent his life—and I mean his life—as the chairman of the Avon fire authority. He still has strong opinions not only on whether the centre is the right thing but on whether it will work. I hope that the Minister will listen
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to such comments. Other people will have views that are slightly different from mine, but it is important that we hear from those who work in the service as well as those who represent or manage it.

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, there is provision for me to request that the Opposition spokespeople confine their winding-up speeches to five minutes, and the Minister to 10 minutes. Because this is such a localised debate, I want to let as many Members speak as possible. If the Opposition spokespeople are agreeable to that, I will proceed in that manner.

11.54 am

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): I begin by endorsing everything that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) have said.

Dorset is in a uniquely disadvantaged position. Based on the cost per head of population, it has one of the most efficient services in the country. Cost per head in Dorset is the lowest, at £31 per head, compared with Cleveland, at £63 per head. Such a disparity is extremely difficult to explain, particularly as Dorset has a high proportion of elderly people, as has been said. I believe that my constituency may have the highest proportion of retired people in the country, at about 30 per cent. of the population, yet the grant per head of population for Dorset is the third lowest. It is £16 per head, compared with Cleveland, which is £40 per head. Again, it is hard to explain such a disparity.

Even Avon county council, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), gets nearly £25 per head, compared with Dorset’s £16, so something is going badly wrong somewhere. The county is being discriminated against in a way that I find difficult to understand.

Roger Berry: Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that risk assessments may suggest that there are greater needs for services in some parts of the country than in others? With respect, one cannot simply use crude figures and draw conclusions from them as easily as he is trying to do.

Sir John Butterfill: The figures are extremely crude, but it is evident that we are getting less than one half what many other authorities get, yet we have a high-risk profile. That is inexplicable.

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Similarly, our settlement, which is exactly the same as that described by the hon. Member for Kingswood, is 1 per cent. for next year, 0.5 per cent. after that and then 1 per cent. after that. It is extremely low, and I sympathise with his council having to manage with it, because Dorset has to do the same. Without the floor, our grant would have been cut by 1.8 per cent.—nearly 2 per cent. Again, that is rather difficult to justify.

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