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25 Nov 2008 : Column 174WHcontinued
Julia Goldsworthy: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Flooding seems to be an ever-increasing concern, which I know from my fire services experience in Boscastle. The flooding there was probably the most significant incident that it ever had to deal with.
Fire call-outs are not the only thing and, as I was saying, the work that firefighters do on the doorstep is important. I saw at first hand people who probably would not have opened their door to anybody else, doing so because they see firefighters as people they can trust. The firefighters were able to install fire safety measures straight away. I would not want to underestimate the impact of that work, but there needs to be a balance.
On the pressures on local authorities, I have already mentioned the wider financial situation.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that it is imperative that the Government bring forward to 2009 the review of the formula spending share that was scheduled for 2010, given the pressures on revenue budgets in fire and rescue services throughout the country?
Julia Goldsworthy: That review is long overdue. For councils that are bumping along the floor, it has continued to cause significant difficulties. I can say that, too, from the experience in my constituency.
In Hertfordshire, however, there are other things to take into consideration, which the Minister, especially as he represents the Department for Communities and Local Government, may be able to comment on. First, what about the councils exposure to the collapse of the Icelandic banks? I know that the council is exposed to the tune of about £28 million. Clearly, if those resources cannot be reclaimed in a timely way, that could have further impact on a range of front-line council services.
There is also a resource problem with the Conservatives approach. They are calling for a council tax freeze, which, in effect, would mean real-terms cuts to services. In addition to calling for the wider review of funding, the Conservatives need to look at the impact that that would have on their own services, given that the budget cuts that we have already seen in fire and rescue services have resulted in the closure of fire stations such as Radlett.
The Fire Brigades Union said that there have been delays in making improvements, which was highlighted by Government audits, and that funding has been unavailable to address matters highlighted in coroners reports. The FBU also said that there has been a lack of personnel to conduct risk assessments in communities, cancellation of essential training and outsourcing for contracts for the supply of vital safety equipment. The situation is already difficult, but the people of Hertfordshire should have real concerns about their funding. Some of it, of course, is determined by the central allocation, but questions should be asked about the allocation of the councils resources.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for coming back to the essential point on the funding allocation. I am sure that she is fully aware that Hertfordshire, being in the east of England, is a net contributor to the Chancellors coffers, and that we get so very little back. I am sure that my council tax payers would welcome not paying any more than they already
do as net contributors to council tax, and I am sure that she would welcome a transparent system that sought to ensure that we had a fair allocation system, rather than us constantly being asked to be the cash cow of the local area.
Julia Goldsworthy: I absolutely agree that we need a fairer, more transparent system. That requires fundamental changes to how local taxation is raised and spent, which is why the Liberal Democrats have been talking about local income tax, which would make things clearer. I am not entirely sure how a one-off central grant, which is what the Government are claiming to offer, will achieve transparency. Council tax payers in Hertfordshire will rightly be annoyed about being net contributors, but, as the hon. Lady pointed out, they are concerned about resources for their public services. That is a balance that council tax payers have to strike, and they have to decide whether they are prepared for further service cuts, which Conservative Members say they do not want. There is a contradiction that must be resolved.
The debate is not just about a local situation; there are national issuesnot just of funding, but of the co-ordination of training, the establishment of standards, the making available of guidance and the collection of data. As to training, when firefighters came to see me at the national lobby, they pointed out that there has been a change of emphasis towards fire safety and away from training to deal with larger incidents. They explained that that makes it difficult for them to make time for such training to deal with large fires. They also talked about their great difficulty in obtaining training to understand the wide and widening range of equipment that they are asked to use.
The most recent addition at my local fire station is an emergency response unit that can deal with chemical spills, for example. The firefighters said that it was difficult for fire stations with whole-time cover to make time available for training in using the hundreds of items of equipment for firefighting and for dealing with road traffic accidents, flooding and chemical spills.
Things are even more difficult for retained firefighters. I spent a day with retained firefighters who were doing their initial training, and was gobsmacked when I learned how much ground they must cover in two weeks. As the firefighters at the national lobby explained to me, they are concerned that there will be a knock-on effect on their ability to turn out. There is a reliance on retained firefighters not just to turn out and man a tender; it is necessary also for them to be trained to use the equipment.
Will the Minister comment on the number of occasions on which fire stations have been unable to turn out with the equipment firefighters want to use, not because there are not enough firefighters, but because not enough of them are trained to use the equipment needed for a particular incident?
The experience in Hertfordshire provides a microcosm of the experiences I have been describing. Despite a reduction in the headline figures relating to fires prevented and call-outs, this is an area where there have been significant fires and, sadly, fatalities and injuries have resulted. That seems to me to be representative of the wider story that the FBU was trying to tell in its national lobby: there is a headline impact on the number of fires and call-outs, but insufficient time is being dedicated to allow firefighters to respond to the larger incidents.
Guidance is another issue that arises, and the FBU makes recommendations in its report In the Line of Duty. It points out that in 2004 the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council was abolished, and raises concerns that since then there has been no systematic issuing and development of guidance. It suggests that a new body needs to be established to take on that role. I am not convinced of the need for a separate body, although I am open to being convinced. Does the Minister have any comment to make on whether any existing bodies could take on that function?
As to data, we know largely from requests made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that more firefighters are dying and that the official figures are lower than the levels recorded. What can the Minister do to ensure that the definitions of reportable deaths and of minor injuries are widened and clarified to allow systematic reporting of incidents resulting in fatalities, as well as of other deaths of firefighters while they are on duty but not necessarily fighting fires? In addition, what can he do to ensure that near misses are recorded? The point of collecting the data is to understand how situations arise and what can be done to prevent them. Understanding near misses is as important as following through with information on what has happened when things go wrong.
The hon. Member for St. Albans raised pertinent issues on fire control. I have been concerned about the apparent continuing delay in the roll-out of the regional fire control centres. That adds to my cynicism about the prospect of the regional fire control centres doing a more effective job than existing fire control centres. I have asked several questions about that matter. On one occasion I asked why, if the Government say that centralisation is needed, they do not go the whole hog and put everything in one place. The response from the then Minister was that that would not be sensible because a terrorist hit could take out that one fire control centre. That is true, and it seems to me to be an argument for spreading control centres out as widely as possible.
A huge amount of expertise will be lost. The people who work in fire control in my constituency will not relocate to Taunton, where the new fire control centre is to be built on the flood plain. Resources are being spent; once again, an information technology system is being set up that is running over budget and over time. The resources could be much better spent on the front line.
There is a case for getting the correct balance between focusing on prevention and ensuring that firefighters have access to the training they need to use equipment that enables them to deal with fires and an ever-widening range of other incidents such as road traffic accidents and flooding, which has become a particular problem. Firefighters will be best able to respond, and the Department will be best able to ensure that they have the right equipment, only if there is proper reporting of information on the risks taken by firefighters whey they go out to do their job every day, and the impact of those risks.
I would like to hear the Ministers response to all the recommendations in the reportfor a common and consistent reporting mechanism for fatalities and major injuries, the widening of the definition of reportable
incidents, a national independent fire and rescue service investigation unit, centrally issued guidance to ensure that firefighters know that they have back-up, national standards, and systems to enable lessons to be learned from the fatalities that occur.
The report shows a need for Government action, and I hope that the Minister will provide reassurance to all hon. Members who have raised concerns and the firefighters who came to the lobby.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate and on her eloquent and well researched remarks. She is passionate about the issue and has responded as a good constituency Member of Parliament to last weeks debate and lobby, when the Fire Brigades Union came to the House. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who brought a personal touch to the debate when he related the experience of his constituent and his family, and the bravery of that gentleman. I support and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on his principled and tenacious campaign on behalf of his constituents to save Radlett fire station.
The issue is immensely important, not least because, as we have heard, 22 firefighters have been killed in the past five years, and the trend seems to be getting worse. It is interesting that one of the mantras repeated constantly by the Ministers predecessor, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), concerned the number of fire-related deaths being the lowest since the 1950s. I do not necessarily query that. It is the case, and is the result of demographic and social changes and changes in education and community engagement. I congratulate the Government on that success, but the corollary, if I may quote Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, whom I met last week with Mick Shaw, the president, is that there is
a policy vacuuma neglect of up-to-date central guidance on firefighter safety.
If, as my hon. Friends have said, overall fire deaths are falling but firefighter deaths are rising, there are some big issues.
It goes without saying that I pay tribute to Hertfordshire fire and rescue as well as to the Fire Brigades Union, not only for its report, In the Line of Duty, but for its work in exposing the shambles of the regional fire control centres and destroying the intellectual case for that policy. I will refer to that later.
I draw the Houses attention to early-day motion 2489 on firefighter safety and data collection, which I tabled and which has been signed by 61 other hon. Members from all parties. It is a straightforward early-day motion that calls for more safety-critical operational guidance for fire authorities, draws attention to the deficiency in data collection mentioned by my hon. Friends and urges greater clarity and standardisation in the recording and investigation of firefighter fatalities and injuries. It stands as a record of the commitment of Her Majestys Opposition to this pressing issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans raised concerns about flooding and resilience funding, which we discussed two weeks ago in this Chamber. The reason
why Project Fireguard has collapsed is that fire authorities take the sensible view that resilience is essentially a national issue that should be funded nationally. It is incumbent on the Government to move quickly and to decide, finally, whether it should be a statutory duty for fire and rescue authorities to attend to flooding. If not, the Government should decide where to site funding to facilitate proper reactions to flooding incidents across the country.
It is important to discuss the practical operation of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. Mention has been made of the integrated risk management plans. In the experience of many long-standing firefighters, union officials, local councils and fire authorities, the plans are being used as a fig leaf for driving through revenue cuts that remove retained firefighters, appliances and stations. In a debate on 18 March this year on Humberside fire and rescue, we saw that that is what is happening in practical terms. We should review integrated risk management plans, relate them to the everyday on-site training that firefighters receive and use them properly in terms of risk assessment.
On funding, as I have mentioned, we need to bring forward the review of the formula spending share from 2010 to 2009, not least in the light of yesterdays pre-Budget report and the fact that this Government have all but bankrupted this country. That is an important issue that the Fire Brigades Union and others will take forward.
Why is there such a lack of risk-critical operational guidance? Why have we not updated it using avenues such as the national chief fire and rescue adviser, Sir Ken Knight, or the operational guidelines from the Department for Communities and Local Government? As the Minister will know, his predecessor and I debated the national fire and rescue service framework in June. That would have been an opportune moment to review firefighter training, but it was not addressed. More emphasis is placed on diversity, quotas and tick boxes than on firefighter safety. I do not think that that is the right set of priorities going forward over the next few years.
We come to the subject of regional fire control centres. Where do I begin? Yesterday morning, I visited the new regional fire control centre at Blackbrook business park in Taunton. It has been built on the edge of a flood plain. There has been massive opposition to regional fire control centres, not least in Gloucestershire, where the fire element of the tri-service centre in Quedgeley has been ripped out and a £6 million private finance initiative scheme disabled by the obsession for regional government started by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the 2004 vote against the regional assembly and the vote not to go ahead with the merger of police forces. Fire control centres are the only behemoth of regional government still being pursued by this Government.
Given that the then fire Minister told us in 2004 that regional control centres would cost only £100 million and would definitely generate £30 million, or 30 per cent., in revenue savings over the period to 2017, the figures are horrendous. Some £55 million has been spent so far on consultants and £50 million on local and national project set-up. That is £100 million already. Some £190 million has been spent on IT and £342 million
on premises. We are heading towards £700 million, and not one regional control centre is yet open, nor is one likely to open.
I challenge the Minister to give us a date for the new cut-overs. He has delayed them in the south-west and throughout the country, and he has refused to tell fire authorities when they will happen. He knows that they must happen before 2012, because of the Olympicssenior chief fire officers have said that it will not be a tenable situation if the fire control project is not online by the time of the Olympics. He will also know that, as I have said, the cost basis rationale for the project is dead and buried, as is the resilience basis. All the technical improvements that Ministers trotted out constantly and wrote to hon. Members about in the summer are happening anyway. For instance, in Avon, 19 of the 20 technical improvements that have taken place would have happened anyway, without a regional control centre and all the related costs.
I challenge the Minister to have the courage of his convictions in his new role and to say to the Treasury, This is a disastrous project. Its impacting in the post-comprehensive spending review period on real front-line services and on revenue funding. Kill it off; pull the plug. He would have our strong and emphatic support, as well as that of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), I am sure.
Incidentally, I am sure that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne will support the Conservatives push for greater transparency. In government, we would seek an Australian-style grants commission that would exercise fairness and transparency in allocating revenue grant funding, unlike the present Government, who seem to make it up as they go along. However, I am slightly concerned that the hon. Lady is confused about how it will all be paid for. I thought that the Liberal Democrats had killed off local income tax, not least because it is electoral poison in most of the south of England, includingdare I say itin the south-west and Cornwall.
Julia Goldsworthy: For a lot of people, the fundamental confusion arising from the system of local government funding is due to the fact that in a lot of cases about 80 per cent. of what is spent is provided by central Government grants. Surely the drive is not just to have a clearer central Government grant system. I thought that the hon. Gentlemans party was committed to localism and ensuring that more is raised and spent locally. Once one goes down that path, it is clear that most people feel that council tax is not fit for purpose. It rises every year above inflation.
Mr. Jackson: I hope that the Liberal Democrats have more clarity by the time we reach the general election, because people will want to know. They will want to know the point of voting Liberal Democrat anyway, given that it will be a clear choice between two competing visions, but I assure the hon. Lady that we have a clear and well-argued policy, which we will articulate in our general election manifesto.
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