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4 Nov 2008 : Column 37WH—continued

The consequences for Dorset are dire indeed. I have been told by Darren Gunter that it is necessary to abolish whole-time crewing and go back to day-time crewing only. Since many fires occur at night, particularly those involving the elderly, that is a worrying situation.
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The service has to combine whole-time stations, so the time that it will take to get to fire incidents will be longer, and it has to close retained stations. Again, cover is being reduced.

There are also impacts on community safety activity. I have been told by our chief fire officer that the service will have to reduce safety events in schools, and funding for Streetwise, which is dear to my heart. I am a trustee of Streetwise. It is a safety centre that has been built and financed by Dorset county council, Bournemouth borough council and Poole borough council. It provides training for schoolchildren, who come at two stages during their school career to see where the dangers lie in an urban situation. It has been extremely effective and is now being rolled out around the country. It is supported by the Government, thankfully, but not through this funding. If funding disappears from the fire and rescue service, there will be severe complications for Streetwise. Streetwise also has groups of elderly people come around the centre to learn about risks in the home in an effort to prevent terrible fires.

Frankly all of this is inexplicable. Other support services that will be affected are training and development, including fire safety courses, welfare provision, recruitment, fleet and equipment maintenance—we will not have such well-maintained equipment—and property maintenance. Dorset is now being cut to the bone, and there will be a real impact on the ability to save lives.

11.59 am

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I warmly welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), to his place as the fire Minister. Whatever else he does in government, being the Minister with responsibility for the fire and rescue service is a true honour and something that he will enjoy, regardless of the fact that it can sometimes feel like a bed of nails. He will find that firefighters are unique people of whom we should all be proud, wherever we live in the country.

The number of fire deaths is actually down to its lowest level since 1958, and the recent advances are the result of some of the investment in the past 11 years. We have seen a complete restructuring of the way in which the fire service does its work. The advent of the regulatory reform order and the local risk management plans has made a real difference and has allowed the fire service to look outward to local communities.

We see far more of the kind of important work done by Streetwise, for example, which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) has mentioned. I join the hon. Gentleman in saying that people such as Darren Gunter do a terrific job. When I tried to intervene on the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), I was going to make that point and mention something that has not been mentioned by Dorset colleagues. Although I appreciate that the settlement was tight this year, when Dorset Members came to see me, I mentioned that the extra money—the £250,000 for the Olympics—would make a real difference. Darren has made that point clearly as well. I understand that that money has arrived, which is important.

We have never seen the like of the investment over the past decade. We live in a new world now. The £200 million of new dimension investment—the high volume pumps,
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the urban search and rescue equipment and the decontamination units—are there to cope with the new threats, whether in the south-west of England or anywhere else. Yes, we are having an in-depth debate about fire control, but that is part of the new and emerging—

Mr. Gray: I want to point out that I was a bit misleading a little earlier on. Councillor Jerry Willmott, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, is in favour of the plan, but that is because he is chairman of the new company. But I apologise.

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I am glad that he has made that point. Jerry Willmott supports FIReControl, not because he is chair of the company, but because he is a man of real integrity who understands the fire service and the risks better than most people in this Chamber, including, I am afraid to say, the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). It is interesting to note that when the Front-Bench spokesmen had the opportunity to debate this matter in July in Committee—we did so in some depth—neither the Tories nor the Liberals voted against this measure. At that point, we had the opportunity to flesh out the arguments.

Before speaking about fire control, I wish to add to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) about the importance of having a diverse fire and rescue service. I went out of my way in my time as fire Minister to congratulate Avon on the work that it has done in this regard. I am sure that, because this subject is a passion of my hon. Friend the Minister, he will continue this work on diversity in the fire and rescue service.

We are working with the unions and other stakeholders to push the barriers and to call for representation to increase from 2 per cent. to 5 per cent. of the local minority population to be recruited into the fire service with an incentive grant, and we are also calling for women to be brought into the fire service at operational levels so that they comprise 18 per cent. at that level. That can only be good for the fire service and, ultimately, good for our local communities.

There are hon. Members in this Chamber who will never agree with me about FIReControl. Some will not agree for the right reasons and some, I fear, will disagree for the wrong reasons, knowing that this is an easy cheap shot in terms of frightening the electorate and winning good headlines with newspaper editors. It is not the newspaper editors’ job to understand the detail; it is their job to make good headlines. I accept that this makes good copy, but there are far more important issues here.

I went to Sweden to see the changes made there, which involved reducing the number of control rooms from 120 to around 20. That rationalisation was introduced not only to make savings but because a single network to improve resilience was wanted. We have 46 control rooms, many on different networks. That is why, when the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East talks about resilience and the tri-service centre, he needs to understand that the tri-service provision is incredibly good and would remain as our gold command. However, resilience is about networks and systems. That is why we had
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more than 1,000 calls when the flooding was serious. I know about that. I did not just pop into gold command and say hello; I was there. I had a seat at the table, and I was in there every day. I know that people’s lives can be put at risk if they cannot get through and speak to an operator when they dial 999. Having a single resilient system where all parts back each other up will make a huge difference.

I ask hon. Members to put politics aside for a moment and think about themselves and their families. If their child or partner were caught in a burning wreck on the M5, what would be the key thing? They would want a fire service that mobilises the engine nearest the scene. When that engine arrived on the scene, they would want systems in the cab—the technology—to say where to cut into a particular type of vehicle to avoid air bags, rescue a person and get them out in one piece.

I urge hon. Members—

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

Mr. Dhanda: No, because I want to complete my point. The hon. Gentleman should get out with the fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire, as I have done, and get it to take him into a mock burning building, then he would learn a little bit more about the role of a firefighter. When doing that, crawling around in the dark in a smoke-filled room, totally and utterly reliant on colleagues—[Interruption.] He says that he knows that. I urge him to try it, actually, because the kinds of stresses involved—

Mr. Harper rose—

Mr. Dhanda: No, I will not give way because I want to finish this point. On getting out of that room and talking to the point man or woman on the floor, they will map out and draw the burning building wreck that the firefighter has been in. Fire control will provide those people with the floor plans of the buildings, so that the shape and structure of a building, the location of the nearest hydrants and information about chemical risk can be known.

Mr. Ellwood: We know that already.

Mr. Dhanda: No, we do not know that already. There are many other things that we do not know already.

Mr. Harper rose—

Mr. Dhanda: I have already said that I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] If he wants to learn about the fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire, he should read some of the stuff that is sent to him and listen a little more closely to chief fire officers, because the Chief Fire Officers Association is backing the plan, as is the Retained Firefighters Union.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way now?

Mr. Gray: Give way!

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): Order.

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Mr. Dhanda: We always discuss every criticism by the FBU of the FIReControl plans. From my experience going round the country, however, the majority of FBU members to whom I have spoken support the changes, because when they go into dangerous circumstances, they want more knowledge about the situation. They want mobile data systems that—lo and behold!—they do not have in my patch at the moment. However, they will have those systems under FIReControl.

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that we want to get one more speaker in before we start the winding-up speeches, so I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman were to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr. Dhanda: I will do so.

We do not have status managing, automatic vehicle location systems and satellite navigation in our local fire and rescue service. Our constituents believe that we have them, but we do not, and we will only have them if we are brave enough to make these changes. Our challenge is to join people such as Councillor Jerry Willmott, Pete Roffey and, yes, the Conservatives and Liberals in Gloucestershire who say one thing but do another—I have seen them doing it—and who privately support the plans for FIReControl.

12.7 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) for calling for this debate.

I had not intended to speak—I intended only to make some interventions—but the speech by the former Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), compels me to say a few words. Of course, I echo the comments of Dorset colleagues from all parties about the terrible effects of our settlement, which we tried, but failed, to bring home to the former Minister when he was in place, and which will result in threats to safety that the current Minister will have to take seriously.

It is clear that, as an emergency measure, the floor needs to be raised. However, I want to say just a few words about the regional control centre, because the former Minister has now illustrated the source of the problem with which we are dealing. He clearly exists in an alternative universe—

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): A parallel universe!

Mr. Letwin: Yes, the hon. Member for Gloucester exists in a universe where it is necessary, in order to mobilise the vast resources of networks, to co-locate vast numbers of people in particular centres. We are no longer in that universe; we are in a different universe in which it is perfectly possible to achieve all the technological shifts that he was describing at a local level. That is precisely the character of an open network age. The complete failure to recognise that has helped to generate the mayhem caused by an ineffectual and ill-designed computer programme and an ineffectual and ill-designed regional control centre. I accept and agree with the point about regional back-up that the hon. Gentleman made, but that does not imply a need for regional control centres, still less the need to denude Dorset of extra funds when it is already so hard-pressed.

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Mr. Dhanda: It is interesting that the Conservatives are indicating that they want to provide all the fire control and fire link technologies to all the local control rooms. It is fair to say that that is what the right hon. Gentleman implied. He must realise, when he makes such implications and suggestions, he is also suggesting that an additional £2 billion would have to be found if his party came to office.

Mr. Letwin: That is total junk. The Minister is—[Interruption.] The ex-Minister is, as usual and as was the case with the NHS computer, the identity card system and many other computers, living in an age in which mainframe was the right approach. That is not necessary now, because it is perfectly possible to operate on a network basis, but I regret to say that his ex-Department and many others have not yet recognised that. We must go back to the drawing board and recognise that we are in a Google and network age and that we do not need the sort of physical infrastructure that he so wrongly and unfortunately imagines is necessary and which is leading to real problems on the ground.

12.10 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. In the few minutes available to me, I shall try to develop some of the points that have been made, and which I was hoping to make.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this debate. It is evident from the number of hon. Members from the south-west, including Labour Members, that there are strong feelings on many of the issues, including regional control centres, which is the topic of most discussion, and, crucially, funding. He was absolutely right to raise inconsistencies between what was promised for regionalisation and what will be delivered in savings and improvements to service. If neither of those boxes are ticked, we must call the policy into question, as my party and his have done ever since it was first posited.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) rightly referred to diversity and important work on that issue, as well as to the funding problems that affect his authority, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also raised some important demographic issues, which are particularly acute in her county and throughout the whole south-west, where there is a huge amount of inward migration . Demographic changes towards the older end of the age spectrum will present challenges.

I want to focus on the fantastic job that the fire service does. Information from people on the ground, whether through the Fire Brigades Union or people in fire authorities who are concerned about the programmes towards which the Government are pushing them, suggests that they are achieving fantastic results with the available resources and focusing very much on preventive work. At a recent open day at the fire station in Bodmin, I heard more about the fire service’s work with young people to encourage them to play a more active role in ensuring that communities are safe, as well as their work with smoke detectors, local businesses and the Flashpoint Lifeskills Centre, which is similar to the
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street light facility in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bristol, West—[Interruption.] I am sorry, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill).

Mr. Ellwood: Bristol, West is a Liberal Democrat constituency.

Dan Rogerson: Absolutely. I have in fact referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West, and I am sure that he will continue to be the MP there.

Full-time and retained fire services offer a valuable whole service in many of the rural communities that we serve, and it is important to recognise the challenges facing the retained service. Local authorities that have retained services are considering ways of improving their responsiveness and ensuring that they are efficient, as well as providing the technology to people who do a wonderful job in addition to what they do in their ordinary lives to ensure that their communities are safe. There are sometimes challenges in recruitment and affordability in rural communities, and we need a bigger steer from the Government on how areas such as the south-west, which have many rural communities, can be supported.

My party is not convinced, and never has been, that regionalisation will be effective or deliver the savings that have been promised. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), both in robust interventions and his own contribution, was keen to point out his belief that that is the only way of delivering new technology. However, if it is clear that regionalisation will not deliver savings, that calls into question the whole promise of delivering the new technologies. In fact, the Government should consider other ways of delivering improvements without going down the regionalisation route. I want to put on the record the fact that during a Standing Committee debate on fire and rescue services in which I participated, my party did not call for a vote on the national framework—we were debating many other issues and not just regionalisation—but I made it clear that my party remains opposed to it. I thank you, Mrs. Anderson for the opportunity to speak, and I am sure that those who are listening outside the Chamber will focus on the fact that the former Minister’s position does not seem to have moved in line with business models and the evidence from people on the ground.

12.15 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this vital and timely debate. I pay tribute to him and to my hon. Friends in the south-west for their campaigns over past months and years against fire control centres and the underfunding of local fire and rescue services, which will have such a big impact on their constituents.

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