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25 Nov 2008 : Column 168WH—continued

That original estimate jumped to £1 billion, with the latest Government answer confirming that the cost will rise to £1.4 billion. It is worth noting that the entire UK fire service costs only £1.7 billion a year to run, so the
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business case for the scheme certainly has not been made and, more importantly, the firefighters who are being asked to perform these tasks are left unconvinced.

It is worth remembering, as my local force has pointed out, that during the floods of 2007 control rooms throughout the country were able to cope with the massive number of calls that they received. At times of emergency with spate conditions, many staff simply turn up at control rooms to help, which will not happen once controls are regionalised.

The Government’s answer is that neighbouring control rooms will take the overflow of calls. However, weather systems can travel the country quickly, so if one control is busy it will switch to the next and so on. Have the Government considered what will happen when nine rooms instead of 46 are busy? It could lead to a catastrophic failure where our fire control rooms cannot answer calls from the public when they are in trouble.

The number of staff predicted to be working in these control rooms ranges from six to 12 covering six counties. The Hertfordshire control room has a minimum of four staff at any time. I therefore question the logic that the change will make our fire service more resilient. Why spend billions of pounds fixing a system that is not broken, especially in these difficult economic times?

Will the Minister tell us why the plans are so delayed? Will he confirm rumours that the project is still beset by technical problems? Given that front-line fire stations and firefighters are threatened by cuts, is he prepared to reconsider spending that money on front-line fire services, in order to keep it low-cost, efficient and—more important—local? Is it not time to scrap the project and revisit the closures that have dogged local services?

The Minister knows that there is no statutory obligation to respond to flooding, but he should try telling that to the public as they battle flood waters. Flooding has always been the sort of incident to which firefighters respond. In St. Albans on Saturday, firefighters rescued an elderly lady from a flooding incident in her flat. Two weeks ago in London Colney in my constituency, the fire service arrived promptly to pump out flooded areas. It was the first port of call for many residents. It is an ongoing problem in many constituencies beset by flooding.

My constituents expect the fire service to attend, so why does the Minister not ensure that the Pitt review is implemented? The area-wide floods of 2007, and the possibility of more events like that, have changed the outlook. The Pitt review made a number of recommendations, including greater responsibilities for the fire service. Hertfordshire has firefighters trained in the use of boats and working in water, but fire services will need more resources to match the recommendations of the Pitt review and to meet the increased challenge. That includes national assistance from fire services across the country, which is already in place. Will the Minister finally commit the Government to recognising the additional pressures of dealing with flooding, and undertake to implement the Pitt review?

9.52 am

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate. After the
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lobbying of Parliament, a number of Members were keen that there should be such a debate, so that we could raise concerns, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend has succeeded.

I pay tribute to the Hertfordshire fire and rescue service, which does a tremendous job. It did extremely well at Buncefield. I, too, benefited from its services when I had a small fire at home. The service does a good job on prevention and advising the public how to avoid fire; indeed, what it does to persuade people to use smoke alarms is particularly important.

On 2 February 2005, there was a tragic incident at Harrow Court flats in Stevenage. Two firefighters lost their lives there—Jeff Wornham and Michael Miller. I know the Wornham family—a popular local farming family, committed to public service. Jeff’s father Robert is here today—Robert is chairman of the parish council. It was a tragedy that Jeff should have lost his life. He showed tremendous bravery in going into that building on that night. Everyone was proud that he was given the George medal posthumously. However, as his father said, we all wish that it had not been posthumous.

It is against that background that I come to the debate. I fully accept that Hertfordshire fire and rescue service has made improvements. I understand that the number of property fires is down by 25 per cent., accidental dwelling fires have been reduced by 13 per cent., arson is down by 36 per cent., and fire fatalities are down. However, there is continuing concern as a result of what happened that night in 2005. The Fire Brigades Union inquiry into what happened was critical of the procedures, and the training and resources made available, and concern was expressed that there had been previous incidents elsewhere and that safety critical advice was somehow not being passed on to the firemen as it should.

The FBU report, “In the Line of Duty”, was prepared by the Labour Research Department. It is notable that the 1996 incident at Blaina, in south Wales, is mentioned on page 30 of the report because what happened in 2005 showed similarities with what happened nine years earlier. On both occasions, firemen attended in small numbers, managed to rescue one person and then went back in; it was a delayed backdraught that caused the fatalities. Our concern is that the sort of advice that should come from such occasions is not being spread around to the firefighters.

The overall message of the FBU report seems to be that at the end of the 1990s relative safety had been achieved for firemen, as there were hardly any fatalities at that time, but that more recently, between 2003 and 2007, there were 21 fatalities. The situation seems to be getting worse. The report notes the poor recording of fatalities—not all loss of life being properly recorded—and the non-recording of near misses, which are often useful for learning lessons. It also mentions the lack of research into the causes of deaths and near misses; finally, it talks of inadequate risk assessment processes. The report says that there is no system at national level to ensure that lessons are learned and guidance is spread.

I asked the Minister a parliamentary question on the subject, which he answered on 18 November. He said that

That seems to be a rather leisurely process.

We seem not to be getting the sort of guidance mentioned by “In the Line of Duty”—something comprehensive that should be available quickly. It speaks of having

The report gives a long list of items that should be covered, including minimum standards on the initial attendance, which is particularly important to my constituent because that was the background to the incidents at Blaina and Stevenage. The report also mentions revising generic risk assessments, minimum standards for training and many other aspects.

I therefore have some questions for the Minister. First, is the programme not rather leisurely, and could we not have what is recommended in the FBU report—something substantial, and soon? Secondly, on the question of how fatalities and near misses are recorded, is it so difficult to have a comprehensive national system that works? Surely, that is done in a range of other areas. Thirdly, what about proper investigation? One of the report’s recommendations is that a new body should be set up to deal with investigations, to ensure that we understand why a fatality or a near miss occurred.

The Minister might say, “We’re on to that already, but will deal with it slightly differently”, which, if so, would be an acceptable answer. However, those three points—on recording deaths and near misses, investigating them properly and providing proper safety critical advice nationally—seem to be the nub of the proposals in the report and make obvious good sense. I wanted to press those points in my short contribution today. What will the Minister do about them?

10 am

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate and on presenting her case in such a comprehensive and well informed way. I have no hesitation in supporting her and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on every one of their points. I also join them in paying tribute to the Hertfordshire fire and rescue service and, in particular, to the courageous and dedicated firefighters in Hertfordshire.

Like my hon. Friends, I recently had the opportunity to meet those firefighters, when they visited the House on 13 November in connection with the report, “In the Line of Duty”, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred. They were keen to highlight the issues that he raised this morning and, in particular, a matter of which I had not been aware: the steep increase in the number of firefighter deaths over recent years—sadly, as he said, that includes three firefighter deaths in Hertfordshire, and I join him in his appropriate tribute to those courageous men who lost their lives in the line of duty.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan) indicated assent.

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Mr. Clappison: The firefighters were keen to highlight the following concerns in the report:

Anne Main: It is worth repeating those statistics again and again, because the Government are incredibly fond of targets for other deaths related to health and safety. I find it alarming that they have not addressed the increase in firefighter deaths, but I hope, following this debate, that might change. In all other aspects, the Government pride themselves on reducing deaths, so I hope that today will not be a missed opportunity to put the matter right.

Mr. Clappison: I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, the firefighters were keen to raise that concern with me, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I also look forward to the Minister’s response to another point that the firefighters were keen to make—my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire also mentioned it—about the way in which firefighter deaths are categorised. It is important that we have an appropriate way of categorising the deaths of men who, when they go out on calls, are putting their lives at risk.

Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that given that the number of fires is falling the fact that so many more people are dying is even more worrying? It suggests that despite a smaller number of cases, the risks have increased.

Mr. Clappison: That point stands out from the facts, although, to be fair, we need to hear from the Minister on this very important subject, because other factors might be at play.

I am aware of the heavy responsibilities that firefighters face in my constituency. Running through, or near, my constituency is a concentration of infrastructure, especially transport infrastructure, including the three main north-south rail routes. Local crews attended the Potters Bar derailment in 2002, and I pay tribute to their prompt attendance and bravery on that occasion. Crews from my constituency, including one from Radlett, also attended the nearby Buncefield fire. Furthermore, the M1 and A1 run north-south through my constituency and the M25 runs across it, and firefighters often have to attend incidents on those motorways. In fact, one of the firefighter deaths in Hertfordshire occurred during attendance at a motorway incident. It is very dangerous for firefighters to attend motorway or main road incidents.

I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans about funding. Hertfordshire county council was hit relatively hard by the Government’s local government funding formula. It was a relative loser—as she said, it is a floor authority—and although the formula was put in place some four or five years ago, the effects are still being felt. Sadly for Hertfordshire residents, those effects continue to be felt at this time of wider economic difficulties, when we know that economies might have to be made.

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Against that background, I shall deal with a matter of great interest to many of my constituents—many of them have asked me to raise it today—Radlett fire station, which was closed two years ago. What can only be described as a very vigorous campaign was mounted by Radlett residents and others to keep the fire station open, and a 7,000-name petition was delivered to Hertfordshire county council in connection with the closure. The council considers petitions of 250 people to be significant, so to say that concern in Radlett is very widespread would be an understatement.

For many of the concerned residents in Radlett, and elsewhere in my constituency, the closure of the fire station is not the end of the matter, and public concern has not lessened in Radlett and nearby communities since the closure. For example, there has been close scrutiny of attendance times for fire appliances to fires in Radlett and the surrounding area, especially Borehamwood, which had also been served by the Radlett fire station. In particular, residents are taking a great interest in the time taken for second appliances to reach fires—a significant point.

Anne Main: I concur with my hon. Friend’s comments, especially on monitoring by local residents who scrutinise arrival times. I pay tribute to those residents who have remorselessly been accessing that information under freedom of information legislation. They have serious concerns about arrival times, especially of second vehicles. The concern of the local community is demonstrated by the fact that people are going to so much effort to prove what they believe is happening on the ground.

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, concern over the past two years has not lessened.

Among the many issues concerning residents is that of attendance times of second appliances at fires, especially domestic fires, because second appliances are very important. Although an appliance might now come from Borehamwood, others have had to come from much further afield to attend fires in Radlett and Borehamwood. The support our fire and rescue campaign—SOFAR—to reopen Radlett fire station has reached its own conclusions.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans referred to the great interest that SOFAR takes. The information it has given to me states:

That is SOFAR’s conclusion, and it takes a great interest in the matter.

Hertfordshire county council may take a different view, and there has been lively communication between the two organisations. It is important in the circumstances for the county council to be receptive to the views of local residents in Radlett and Borehamwood, and there should be two-way dialogue between the groups. This is my message: I hope that the debate continues and that the two sides keep talking to each other, and that each listens to what the other has to say. For its part, Hertfordshire county council has some important points to make that local residents need to take on board but, equally, Hertfordshire county council needs to listen to
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local residents, because their concerns remain. A campaign that was aimed at keeping the fire station opened has now become a campaign to reopen it. For local residents, it remains a very important local issue.

I put those points before the House because my constituents want me to give vent to that important issue. I pay tribute to the fire and rescue service in Hertfordshire and to individual firefighters. I agree with the wider points that my hon. Friends made in the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the residents of Hertfordshire as a whole.

10.11 am

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate, which is timely, given the recent national lobby. Fire services throughout the country will be listening carefully to the Minister’s response, because the issues that have been raised have wider implications and do not affect Hertfordshire only. The debate is also timely because, as I realised when travelling through King’s Cross, we are close to the anniversary of the King’s Cross fire, which resulted in severe loss of life many years ago and in significant changes to equipment and fire safety.

Basically, the problem in Hertfordshire boils down to two things. First, as contributors to the debate have made clear, Hertfordshire county council is under significant financial pressure. The financial outlook, as we heard yesterday, does not look particularly rosy. Local authorities all over the country will be concerned about how their settlement is going to affect their ability to meet ever-rising cost pressures. The system of local government funding makes it difficult for local authorities to deal with their funding pressures, because the bulk of their expenditure is on staff costs, which increase above the rate of inflation.

Exactly the same is true with the fire service, and I know from my constituency that there are great pressures on it. Much of that pressure owes to the fact that 80 per cent. of its budget is for staffing costs. It is therefore difficult to make the cut anywhere other than on the front line, which in key emergency services such as the fire service is of great concern.

We know from local news and council reports that the pressures have already resulted in cuts to services, but there has been great progress on, for example, fire service call-outs, which have dropped by 7.5 per cent., and smaller fires, which have fallen by 21 per cent., notwithstanding the small fire in the home of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). Clearly, that is a response to the emphasis that has been placed on fire prevention. I have visited my local fire station several times and spent time on the doorstep with firefighters to push the safety programme forward. I saw at first hand the impact that they can have, as well as a number of homes that did not have smoke alarms, for example.

Anne Main: The hon. Lady draws attention to the number of times that firefighters are called out to fires, but does she share my concern that the number of times that they are called out to deal with flooding does not necessarily appear in the statistics? We are therefore getting a skewed view of exactly what fire services deal with.

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