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25 Nov 2008 : Column 180WH—continued

The issue of regional control centres is integral to this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans has mentioned the Pitt review. The Pitt review specifically does not advocate regional control centres in the conclusions
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that it reached after examining the widespread national floods in the summer of 2007, despite being “invited” to do so. That is an important point.

My hon. Friends asked what might happen in a new regional control centre set-up if there were a catastrophic outage—for instance, if a hacker were to place a computer bug throughout the IT system. Can anyone imagine the ramifications of all nine regional control centres, including the one for the London fire brigade in Docklands, crashing at the same time? Of course, that is something that none of us wants to happen, but it is something that we need to think hard about in terms of a risk assessment. At the moment, there would be 45 other potential fire control centres to pick up the slack in the event of a serious terrorist incident, a pandemic or major floods. That would not be the case if we had nine or 10 centres interlinked by a common IT network, which is a very serious concern.

The New Dimensions programme has been mentioned. I know that the Minister will want to have some time to put his views forward and to answer the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans has put. In the spirit of consensus, I want to give the Minister an opportunity to use two specific avenues to try to address the particular issues that my hon. Friends the Members for St. Albans, for Hertsmere and for North-East Hertfordshire, as well as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, have raised today.

One avenue is the report into the very sad circumstances of the firefighter deaths at Atherstone on Stour, which the Minister will know about. That report is due by the end of this month or early December and it will obviously raise the profile of firefighter safety. It will be a golden opportunity for the Minister to examine the key issues that have been raised today. The other avenue, of course, is the Minister’s official response to the National Audit Office report on the New Dimensions programme, which is also concerned with issues of resilience.

Those two avenues will perhaps give the Minister the opportunity to look at resilience, training, achieving a level of consistency and the policy vacuum that the FBU has alluded to, and also the potential disaster of regional control centres. Let us trust local professionals and respect their expertise, and let us see some flexibility from the Government in assuaging the concerns that my hon. Friends have articulated so well today.

10.42 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. The issues that she raised are all very serious and, by and large, she raised and discussed them in a temperate manner. In fact, every contribution to the debate, even the last one by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), has been made in a reasonable and calm manner. I say that because the hon. Gentleman and I normally have knockabout in debates, but it is appropriate that when the father of a brave firefighter—a hero—is in Westminster Hall we all behave in a manner that respects the fire service and firefighters.

I know that one of the reasons that the hon. Member for St. Albans secured this debate is the recent Fire Brigades
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Union report, “In the Line of Duty”, to which she alluded, and the subsequent lobby by firefighters, which was referred to by other colleagues too. The report covers a wide range of issues. Although I will address some of them now, I am sure that hon. Members will understand that I cannot deal with all the points substantively in the short time available to me.

The contribution by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) was very important; he made some excellent points. There are two options that I can take today: I can either respond in a knee-jerk manner to the points made in the FBU report, or I can consider them. There were some very serious points. The hon. Gentleman referred to just three of them: the process for recording deaths, the investigative processes that are in place, and the safe strategic guidance.

I have discussed the report with the general secretary of the FBU and important points are made in it. However, I cannot then be criticised for being lackadaisical or for lacking the conviction to take the report seriously, if I have considered the report and want to respond in a proper manner. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me as I respond to the points that have been made.

The hon. Member for Peterborough, who is the spokesman for Her Majesty’s Opposition, gave me two avenues to try to show that there had been a cultural change. Once again, on the one hand we consider reports and try to find an opportunity to make announcements yet on the other hand we are criticised and accused of being lackadaisical.

For reasons that I hope will be clear, I will not go into too much detail about the FBU report, although I will touch on some of the points that have been made.

Mr. Heald: The point that I was making was that in an earlier answer to me, the Minister described a framework for future development of operational guidance. I was not really suggesting that he was lackadaisical, just that it seemed a rather leisurely process and that there might be a need for a little more expedition. If the framework is something worth doing, let us get on with it. I would be very grateful if the Minister could explain what the framework is and what is happening about the issue of operational guidance, because that seems to be at the core of the debate.

Mr. Khan: I will be coming to that issue later. However, in short it is a system whereby the adviser, stakeholders and the Government work together, and not a command control system whereby we inflict and impose guidance. Instead, we will be working with key stakeholders to ensure that the system is acceptable, which is the right and proper way to do things. I will talk about the framework in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

I want to kick off by putting on the record that I believe that we have a fire and rescue service that we can be proud of. Day in and day out, members of the fire and rescue service put their lives on the line—we heard examples of that earlier today. In fact, my family were saved from a big fire many years ago by brave firefighters, so I personally am hugely grateful to firefighters. Firefighters serve the community with true professionalism, courage and dedication.

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The statistics show that the fire and rescue service is making a difference. Accidental fire deaths have fallen to their lowest level since the 1950s. The latest verified figures for 2006 in England show that 233 people died in accidental fire deaths in the home, but the provisional figures for 2007 are potentially looking even better. They show an 18 per cent. reduction, to 190 accidental fire deaths in the home.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire queried why the number of deaths of firefighters has been going up when the number of incidents was going down. One death, or one injury, is too many, so I feel uncomfortable talking about figures going down. In fact, the hon. Gentleman is not right. The number of injuries to firefighters has been falling steadily, as has the rate of injury per incident, so I would just like to put it on the record that his assertion is not quite right. However, as I have said, any death is still unacceptable and we are taking the FBU report very seriously, including some of the FBU’s recommendations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, as I will swiftly return to those recommendations. I will try to use the avenues or pegs that the hon. Member for Peterborough has given me as I respond, but please bear with me.

Mr. Jackson: On a related issue, the Minister will know that in February the FBU also reported on data on attacks on firefighters. He will also know that there was a significant discrepancy between the official recorded number of attacks, as recorded by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the number obtained under freedom of information provisions. In any review that he conducts on firefighter safety and training, will he also look at the collation of data in respect of physical assaults on firefighters?

Mr. Khan: Only last night I was reading about the impact of antisocial behaviour on firefighters. May I drop the hon. Gentleman a note on the issue? If he is still unhappy after receiving the note, I will be happy to discuss the issue with him. It is serious and we must ensure that we deal with the pernicious evil in our society, whereby people who go into fires, risking their lives or even losing them, have antisocial behaviour inflicted on them.

As I said, one death would be one too many, but thankfully the statistics are going in the right direction. The service, in partnership with the Government and county councils, has been putting measures in place to support the reduction of deaths. However, as we all recognise, the kind of challenges that the service faces and the conditions in our communities are changing. As the tragic events of 7 July 2005 showed, we have to contend with a new type of terrorist threat. Last year’s floods were the worst in living memory and in years to come climate change is likely to make such extremes of weather more common.

I take the point that was made by the hon. Member for St. Albans about recording. We need to record properly what the fire and rescue services do, otherwise it is not fair. I hear her point and I will ensure that I try to deal with it. I would like to drop her a note about that too, because we would not want to use old systems of recording when it comes to working out how efficiently and usefully firefighters are using their time. I would be grateful if I can come back to her on that point.

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We have come a long way since the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, when we did away with national standards of response and gave the fire and rescue services new flexibility to make local community safety plans that were tailored to local needs, and empowered fire authorities to use resources for a wide range of emergency responses. I hope that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and who is all in favour of empowerment and devolution, welcomes that system rather than stringent national standards.

We have experienced emergencies such as the terrorist threat and the Buncefield fire in Hemel Hempstead. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who is in Afghanistan. He has championed the concerns articulated by the hon. Member for St. Albans, and I know that he is a mouthpiece for constituents who are rightly concerned. Such emergencies and that of widespread flooding have demonstrated the benefits of mutual aid arrangements in giving an effective response while avoiding unnecessary duplication of specialist resources. As we respond to new challenges, we can surely make the most progress by finding common ground, listening to each other and learning. That is vital to the debate.

The hon. Lady mentioned the three-year settlements for fire and rescue authorities. We are committed to sustainable funding for all fire and rescue authorities, which will allow them to build on modernisation and fund the various efficiency initiatives that are being implemented. As has been said, in the three-year local government settlement announced at the beginning of this year, Hertfordshire county council received an increase of 2 per cent. for 2008-09 on a like-for-like basis. Provisionally, it will receive increases of 1.75 per cent. in 2009-10 and 1.5 per cent. in 2010-11. As has been mentioned, that is protected by the floor dampening mechanism, which means that in each of those years respectively, it will receive £36.7 million, £32.2 million and £21.1 million more than it otherwise would have.

We must accept that Hertfordshire county council has responsibility for fire and rescue and other services throughout the county, not Ministers.

Mr. Clappison: The Minister is right in the figures that he has used about the floor. However, they reflect the fact that Hertfordshire county council suffered a redistribution of funds away from it through the Government’s original mechanism, which distributed greater funds to other parts of the country. Hertfordshire county council was left on the floor, which is a protective mechanism. Local residents are still feeling the effects of that decision, about which the Government were warned at the time.

Mr. Khan: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened. I have the figures for the past 10 years, and interestingly the smallest increase was 1.9 per cent. in 1998-99, when we were tied to Conservative spending limits. From then on, there have been increases of 3.9 per cent., 5.4 per cent., 6.2 per cent., 7.3 per cent., 6 per cent. and 4.9 per cent. Opposition Members were not to know that this debate would come a day after the shadow Chancellor’s shocking speech, but God knows what would happen if we had a council tax freeze in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and county over the next two years. God forbid that the shadow Chancellor be allowed to have his policies prey upon the people of Hertfordshire.
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Frankly, the hon. Gentleman should thank his lucky stars that he has the current Chancellor in the job rather than the shadow Chancellor.

Hertfordshire county council has responsibility for fire and rescue services throughout the county, as well as for other services. Formula grant is an unhypothecated block grant, which means that there are no restrictions on how the county allocates it to the services that it provides. Deciding on the allocations is a local matter, and the council is best placed to decide on local priorities for the communities that it serves.

I was surprised by the criticism of efficiency savings by the hon. Member for St. Albans. I thought that her party, and the shadow Chancellor, were all in favour of efficiency savings. In fact, we are criticised for not going far enough in requiring county councils, other local authorities, and by extension fire and rescue services, to make such savings. I do not resile from asking all public servants to do so, and I do not apologise for that. Taxpayers’ money is finite.

I turn to the matters raised in the FBU report, which the hon. Lady mentioned. She raised the crucial matter of firefighter fatalities, which was one of the key concerns that the FBU raised. Although any firefighter fatality is a tragedy, thankfully the number of fatalities remains very low and the number of injuries to firefighters is falling steadily. Of course, we will continue to work closely with stakeholders to ensure that lessons are learned.

It was extremely unfair of the hon. Lady to suggest that lessons were not being learned or that there was somehow a sham in relation to either the Buncefield incident or the 2005 incident that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned. He was right that in that case, the breathing apparatus crew rescued an occupant. When they learned that a further person was inside, they went back inside in search of the second reported person. That was when they suffered their injuries. It is worth taking the time to record that, so that they are thanked properly. There is a Health and Safety Executive investigation, and we will take it seriously, respond to it and work with key partners to learn lessons.

On Buncefield, the hon. Lady will know that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead would not allow the Government not to take action—she knows him too well. Further work is taking place, and four separate reports have been published and their recommendations implemented. I hope that she will shortly see the fruits of some of the changes that have been made, if she has not already.

The hon. Lady mentioned training. My Department, the Chief Fire Officers Association and the Local Government Association continue to work together to provide support to fire and rescue authorities to ensure, as employers, that staff are trained to undertake their roles effectively and safely. Looking forward, we are keen to work with the service to ensure that training is effective. We are planning research to support continuous improvement in service delivery and share good practice. It should be noted that notwithstanding the difficult times and the policy of some parties to make cuts, we have provided some £50 million of funding for the
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Fire Service College since 2002, including £15 million to provide a state-of-the-art resilience training facility.

Mr. Heald: The Minister said that he did not want to give his full response to the FBU report “In the Line of Duty” today. How does he intend to respond to it, and when?

Mr. Khan: My officials are currently going through the report thoroughly, as am I. As soon as we are in a position to respond to it, we will. I have spoken to the general secretary of the FBU once, and will be speaking to him again this week. As soon as I make progress, I undertake to alert the usual channels and the hon. Gentleman about the time lines involved. It was worth the hon. Gentleman’s raising the matter, and I will not resist his chasing me up every few weeks to see what our response will be. That chivvying is right and proper, especially in discussing such matters.

We have spent more than £7.5 million on work force development projects, to provide training programmes and e-learning facilities and to establish a centre for leadership for the fire and rescue service.

I cannot end without mentioning FiReControl—I do not think that the hon. Member for Peterborough would forgive me. He is right that there is a £1 billion fire and resilience programme for England’s fire and rescue services, and I believe that the case for a new national network of control services to handle emergency fire calls is clear. Every area and every constituency in England will benefit from enhanced resilience. Under FiReControl, eight key capabilities will be provided to each and every fire and rescue service, ranging from automatic caller location from land lines and mobiles to real-time information on the location of the resources out on the road and in-cab computers for firefighters, loaded with vital safety information. The hon. Member for St. Albans claimed that no one in Hertfordshire wants that, but that is not the case. Only 10 of the current 46 control rooms have six or more of those eight capabilities, and only two have all eight. They will benefit from being part of a national network that, unlike the present system, can back them up and deploy the right response if they get extremely busy.

Floods have been mentioned. During last year’s floods, we all saw the magnificent response of the professionals in the fire and rescue service and the other emergency services. We saw what a brilliant and professional job they did in tough circumstances. It brought home to me and to many others, including our independent adviser Sir Ken Knight in his report on the floods, the need for a national network able to respond to local, regional and national incidents. In short, the need to give the fire and rescue service the tools to face 21st-century challenges such as climate change and the threat of terrorism supports the need for FiReControl.

The fire and rescue service has undergone a period of unprecedented modernisation and change since 2003. It has risen to the challenges admirably, and I believe that it will continue to do so. I welcome the opportunities of my new role as the fire service Minister, and I shall continue to work with the service. I once again congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans and thank her for raising important issues. If there is any point to which she does not think I have done justice, I ask her to get in touch and I will respond by letter.

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