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Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make a couple of points of my own. I think that he is aware that, as an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps, I have been personally responsible for conducting emergency medical and fire response planning and training for NATO troops in Bosnia, so the subject of this debate is one with which I am fairly familiar.
I think that we all fully understand the difficulty that Warwickshire county council finds itself in. The senior firefighter for Warwickshire has recommended these changes, and the council cannot simply dismiss them out of hand. Therefore, to consult widely on these proposals was the right thing to do-
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. I just want to point out that Members can only make interventions-I do so in the nicest possible way-and that they cannot make speeches. The hon. Gentleman who secured the debate asked me if it was okay for his colleagues to intervene, not to make speeches. So, in the best possible manner, I just point that out to Members.
Dan Byles: Thank you, Mr Benton. I apologise. As I am obviously a new Member, perhaps I am still finding my feet a little in relation to some of these matters. I therefore just want to ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that the county council must now demonstrate that the consultation was a genuine exercise and that local people's concerns will be listened to? During the consultation, a number of us asked the leader of the council and the chief fire officer whether public confidence in the proposals was a factor that they were taking into account, and I think that the people of Bedworth, Warwick and Warwickshire have clearly shown that they have no confidence in a number of these proposals.
Chris White: I am certainly happy to pass on my hon. Friend's concerns, and I am sure that we will all be working in our own way. I apologise for some of my colleagues, Mr Benton; it is a happy disaster that so many new Members have been elected in Warwickshire.
The Morphew report, published in 2007, made it clear that waste and inefficiency were present, not because of too many fire stations but because of too much bureaucracy, which is something that we all understand from many other walks of life. According to the report, the Warwickshire fire and rescue service spent more per head on non-uniformed staff than any other county fire and rescue service in the country. The difference was not small: Warwickshire spent 220% more than its nearest rival, and it has between 15% and 20% more support staff than any similar fire and rescue authority in the country.
The report not only identified waste on non-uniformed and support staff, but outlined that Warwickshire had the sixth highest corporate and democratic core costs out of 43 fire services. Those costs increased by 54% in the four years preceding the 2007 report. The report also stated that such costs accounted for about £5 million of the Warwickshire fire and rescue service's budget. A conservative saving of 10% on those costs, rather than on front-line services, would cut £500,000. I respect the work of our support and non-uniformed staff and I appreciate that all organisations in this country face rising costs, but if it comes down to a choice between
saving firefighters and fire stations and spending more on back-room staff, I know which one the people of Warwick would prefer.
Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I compliment my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the strong case that he is making in respect of the consultation affecting the fire service in Warwickshire. Will he join me in advancing the case for Brinklow fire station? It is a retained station north of Rugby in my constituency that serves a rural area. Significantly, it is near junction 1 of the M6. Warwickshire has many motorways, and the ability to get to a motorway fast is important. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to speak, and I compliment him on his remarks.
Our constituents have put trust and faith in us by putting us in this place. They expect their Members of Parliament to stand up for them when they feel ignored or wronged. In this debate, I am doing what I can to honour that trust. However, as I am sure we are all aware, I cannot personally overturn the decision, nor would it be right for me to do so. I do not seek to undermine the authority of the county council or confidence in our fire station, and I respect the hard work done by our councillors and the Warwickshire fire and rescue service, but in cases where the local community's wishes are absolutely and unequivocally clear, something must be done. I call on the Government from this platform to do what they can to influence the decision and to ensure that proper consultation is carried out, that the rationale for closure makes clear and absolute sense and that local residents' wishes are heard. The people of Warwickshire deserve nothing less.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) on securing the debate and raising what I know is an important issue for him and the other hon. Members who have spoken, as well as their constituents. The fire service is important, as it deals with people's lives, and it is therefore particularly appropriate that this debate has been so well attended by hon. Members from the county of Warwickshire. I take on board the points made by my hon. Friend, whom I listened to with care. I also take on board the points made by hon. Members in interventions, as well as those that have been made to me by the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), who, as another member of the Government, is not in a position to speak in this debate, but has taken the trouble to contact me on behalf of his constituents.
Against that background, I understand my hon. Friend's pride in Warwickshire's fire stations and the services that they provide. Local pride in services is one reason why we as a Government are committed to localism for the fire service as well as the rest of local government. Local providers are best placed to know how to serve
their local communities and, importantly, to know what level of service that might entail and the best means of delivering that service.
I associate myself with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington for the work of firefighters in Warwickshire, particularly the retained firefighters to whom he referred, who work hard to keep the people of their communities safe. We should be immensely proud of them. I had the pleasure to meet officials of the Retained Firefighters Union earlier today. The retained service has the full support and confidence of the Government.
The background to the proposals is based in the governance and statutory arrangements controlling the fire services in England. Fire and rescue authorities are required to produce and regularly update an integrated risk management plan, sometimes called an IRMP, which identifies and assesses a local need and sets out plans effectively to mitigate existing and potential risks to communities. The Warwickshire fire and rescue authority's plan was produced by that process.
The process epitomises localism by enabling each fire and rescue authority to decide how best to provide fire and rescue-related services. That, of course, includes prevention and protection as well as response. Resources are allocated on the basis of an evaluation of risk and where risks are greatest. The evaluation includes such strategic and operational issues as the siting, manning and equipping of fire stations and their hours of operation, and should also take into account cross-border arrangements with neighbouring authorities. Local requirements are thus determined by local people according to local circumstances.
An evaluation under that process has led to specific considerations by the Warwickshire fire and rescue authority to change the fire cover arrangements in its area in light of both the assessed risk and the availability of resources. It is fair to say, of course, that fire and rescue authorities, like all other public services, must be cognisant of constraints on budgets in the circumstances of the economic crisis inherited by this Government. Equally, of course, it is the Government's determination that priority should be given to services at the front line. It is therefore right that many of the proposals in IRMPs-this applies across the country, not just in Warwickshire-aim to increase efficiency. By so doing, fire and rescue authorities can maximise the amount of risk-reducing activity they can deliver from the resources available. That is clearly the right approach, and the aim must always be to ensure excellent service delivery.
I know that that sometimes involves difficult decisions. Having served as a member and leader of a fire authority myself, I am conscious that, in such circumstances, there are often contrary arguments that are advanced in good faith that must be weighed up. I have read Warwickshire fire and rescue authority's improvement plan proposals, which cover many areas besides fire station changes, such as the promotion of public fire safety, increased firefighter training, enhanced flood response, the introduction of a specialist road traffic collision unit, and the deployment of small fires units and target response vehicles. I note that Warwickshire contends that, overall, the plan will ensure that current fire cover is maintained across all areas and that, in some areas, it will be improved. It also contends that there will not be an adverse effect on response times.
Of course, I have heard a number of counter-arguments in today's debate that have echoed the concerns expressed locally in the past six months or so. I am also aware that the inquiry into the tragic deaths of firefighters at Atherstone on Stour remains outstanding. An argument can be advanced for bearing in mind the outcome of that inquiry before coming to any final conclusions on the shape of the service although, as I will make apparent, that decision is not for me to make as Minister; it is for the fire and rescue authority to make.
It is a requirement that the IRMP and any significant changes to it are subject to full consultation with the local community prior to agreement and implementation, and I am aware of the amount of debate that has already been generated about these proposals. At one level, that degree of interest is a good thing. One never likes to see controversy, but the process has generated a real sense of engagement in the communities concerned about the importance of the fire service in their area. As someone who believes passionately in the fire service-as I did before I became Minister-that is something I welcome. Although such a process is healthy, it is right that both sides of the debate are heard, and therefore I recognise and commend the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington in ensuring that counter-arguments are appropriately focused and conducted, and presented to the fire and rescue authority before it takes its decision.
Against that background, I come back to the crucial point that it is not the place of central Government and Ministers to intervene in the operational proposals of a local authority's IRMP or the associated balancing of competing local demands on available resources. The consideration of such proposals and the assessment of the benefits to the communities that are served are rightly the role of elected members of the authority concerned. They should make the appropriate decisions on the basis of the professional advice of the principal officers of the fire and rescue service and, as we have seen, following due consultation with the local community.
It might well be that members wish to come to a view on the material that they already have, that they will wish to consider options that are being put forward by various interested parties, or that they wish to consult across the areas of advice available to them about the options that are appropriate. I am sure that they will bear in mind the broader background to these proposals. That said, because of the statutory position and the correct political process of localism that applies here, I am sure that you, Mr Benton, and my hon. Friend will understand that I am unable to comment directly on the specific proposals that are being put forward and consulted upon by Warwickshire fire and rescue authority. The
very principle of local determination and local solutions for local circumstances means that it would not be appropriate for me to attempt to influence the decisions with which the fire and rescue authority will be faced on 20 July in the light of representations made to it.
There is still a period of time between this debate and the decision on 20 July during which representations can be made. I am sure that all hon. Members who have spoken and others who are interested will continue to take the opportunity make such representations. My hon. Friend's case was made powerfully and with admirable succinctness-such admirable succinctness that I am in the dilemma in which Ministers sometimes find themselves by wondering whether I should repeat my remarks until 4.30 pm.
Nadhim Zahawi: It is important that our voices are heard and that my hon. Friend the Minister's voice is heard. I am pleased that he has at least asked the county council to consider further consultation on the proposals, so that we can get local community support. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) was absolutely right when he said that if the confidence of the local community is not carried, it would be a tragedy. That is what I suggest should be echoed back to that decision-making meeting on 20 July.
Robert Neill: I am sure that those taking the decisions will have heard this debate and will no doubt read the transcripts of it. As I said, it is not for me to comment on specific proposals when the decision must be taken by others, so I cannot go any further than again congratulating my hon. Friends on raising these matters. I shall therefore follow the advice of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and conclude.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Benton. It is particularly appropriate that you are in the Chair for this important debate, because you represent my neighbouring constituency of Bootle. I also welcome the Minister to the Chamber and congratulate him on his appointment to one of the most interesting and enjoyable jobs in Government. I am delighted that all four of my colleagues from Liverpool are here for this debate because that demonstrates the incredible strength of feeling across the city on the issues that I will raise and that my colleagues will, I am sure, mention in interventions.
The focus of the debate is the importance of investment in education in Liverpool. It is important for the life chances of children and young people, for social mobility and justice, and for the future economic prospects of the city. A vibrant knowledge economy is absolutely crucial for a city such as ours, and that is especially the case if we are to meet the challenge of increasing the role of the private and voluntary sectors in the city region's economy.
"The future for cities like Liverpool has got to be in higher value economic sectors. Investing in education and creating a generation of state of the art new schools is a vital element in the bigger economic picture. At Liverpool Science Park we are providing support to new knowledge-based businesses. If we, in conjunction with our partners, are to continue to grow the commercial knowledge economy it is vital that there is a qualified and capable supply of talent from which knowledge-based companies can recruit."
"The Building Schools for the Future programme is as important to our future economic success as the Liverpool One retail development or the Capital of Culture. Investment to transform education is essential to the development of a high-skill, high-value economy in Liverpool."
Over the past 13 years, we have seen a remarkable improvement in attainment in Liverpool's secondary schools. In 1997, the city had one of the lowest attainment rates at GCSE; just 32% of 16-year-olds achieved five or more A* to C grades. The most recent figures available show that in 2009 that attainment rate had grown from 32% to 74%, which is 8% higher than the national average. I pay tribute to the hard work of staff and students, backed by their parents, and the local authority in achieving that incredible transformation. Liverpool's Building Schools for the Future programme is designed to learn from that educational progress over the past 13 years so that we can promote excellence in all Liverpool schools.
I want to say a few words about Building Schools for the Future nationally. I had the privilege of serving for three years as a Minister in what was then the Department for Education and Skills, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) led the original proposals for Building Schools for the Future. We looked at decades of low investment in school buildings under Governments of both main parties, frankly, through the '70s, '80s and '90s. We looked not only at the physical fabric of schools, important though
that certainly is, but at a programme that, more importantly, would support improvement, innovation and change in all our schools. That is a massive challenge, so we had to decide where to start. We made a deliberate policy decision to give priority to those areas with the highest levels of social and economic deprivation. That is why Liverpool is one of the first beneficiaries of Building Schools for the Future, the biggest ever investment in education in the city.
There are six schemes already under way as part of a £135 million wave 2 investment, and I am pleased that three of them are in my constituency: West Derby school, including Ernest Cookson school; Broughton Hall high school; and Cardinal Heenan high school. I have had the opportunity to visit all three of them. They are already excellent schools and have hugely impressive plans. What is most striking is the ambitious education vision at the heart of their plans. I am especially pleased to have been invited to open the brand new West Derby school in September.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the programme is vital for the whole of Liverpool, that schools such as Archbishop Blanch school, St Hilda's school and Shorefields school would benefit from participating in it and that it would be very cruel to crush their ambitions through any clawback on projects already in the pipeline?
Stephen Twigg: I thank my hon. Friend and hope that in the course of my speech all my colleagues will have the opportunity to intervene, so that all the schools benefiting from Building Schools for the Future in Liverpool can be mentioned in the debate. The programme is about education transformation, led by the schools themselves; it is not some central Government initiative being handed down from on high. Many of the schools in the programme are already high achievers, but they are being constrained by their buildings.
Wave 6, the next wave of Building Schools for the Future, involves 26 Liverpool schools, with a promised investment of £350 million. The council has identified two sample schools: Archbishop Beck school, which is in the constituency of the my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram); and St John Bosco school. Five years ago, Archbishop Beck school was in special measures, but it has made huge progress since then and its results are now above the national average. Ofsted has judged the school to be "good, with many outstanding features". St John Bosco school, which is in Croxteth in my constituency, was last month judged by Ofsted to be "outstanding". I visited the school last month and was hugely impressed by the focus on standards, the high proportion of the girls who are going on to university in what is a very deprived community and the active involvement of the students themselves in the development of the Building Schools for the Future plans.
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