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Lord Bassam of Brighton: I thought I had made plain that the Employment Act 2002 goes some way towards achieving what the noble Lord requires. I am a parent with three young children and I fully recognise the importance of the point being made. I wish sometimes that our working hours were rather more family friendly and that I could see my children in the evenings, which I do not do on at least three occasions in the working week.
Under the new legislation, the Government have already placed a duty on employers to consider requests for flexible working arrangements and, as I said, those requests cannot unreasonably be refused, although there are business grounds on which they may be. We have gone a long way towards where my noble friend is heading. We are not aware of any difficulties as yet, although I accept that we are required to monitor and evaluate the success and effectiveness of the legislation.
Lord Northbourne: The noble Lord, Lord Graham, has referred admirably to many of the issues I was going to raise and I shall not repeat them. I declare an interest as a member of the advisory body, the Caldecott Community. I also carry out Section 33 visits for the Caldecott Community.
It does not make sense to say that work schedules cannot be arranged in such a way to enable people not to have to work on either a Saturday or a Sunday, the two days when children are not at school. The Minister must accept that even in his dreadful job he does not have to work on Saturdays and Sundays, at least not on a mandatory basis.
Baroness Hanham: We want to probe the detail of Clause 120, which removes the requirement in Section 19(4) of the 1947 Act for fire authorities to seek the Secretary of State's approval before making any reduction, no matter how minor, in the number of fire-fighting posts or fire appliances or before the closure or relocation of fire stations.
According to the Minister in the other place, who introduced it as a new clause, the benefit would be that the clause would ensure that there is devolution of responsibility to individual local authorities to work within a national framework set by guidance. The point, he explained, is to let decisions be taken at local level, responding to the needs of a particular locality as decided on by democratically accountable fire authorities, with the advice of fire chiefs and with local consultation.
In general, we welcome any provisions that encourage the modernisation of the fire service, particularly the introduction of risk-based organisation, which can increase the number of lives saved. Bain directed many of his comments at that. However, we have some queries and concerns about
Will local authorities be obliged to follow the guidance, or is it just guidance? Consequently, how prescriptive will it be? What happens if local authorities do not follow it? As we do not have the draft, the position is not clear. In the other place, the Minister also said that the guidance,
We welcome decisions taken at local level to some extent, as they allow responses to particular circumstances in each locality. We also understand that there may be a danger of variable standards throughout the country and a lack of consistency and uniformity, if it is adopted.
How does the new clause introduced in Committee relate to the Bain report? I raised that point earlier. Can the Minister elaborate on the reasons why changes to the legislation were deemed necessary in reaction to that report? What will the timescale be? How long will fire authorities have to prepare integrated management plans? Is there a likely to be a transitional period? Will any extra resources be allocated to fire authorities to carry out the consultation process and integrated management plan? The Secretary of State may wish to devolve, but he must also make sure that funding is there to provide adequate financial support for local authorities taking on the new role.
I share many of the concerns just raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. There was considerable debate on this in another place. In fact, it went on for a long time. Four times, I think, the Minister promised that guidance would be produced in time for Report stage in another place. I have the list of guidance produced so far, and I cannot find it. I assume that it has not been produced. I do not know whether that is because there have been other developments with the fire services dispute. When we debated the Fire
We are not against the principle. It is up to local people, within a framework, to set up the best fire service for their area. We are not against that, but I have some concerns, particularly given the other things that are happening, that we have moved as far on as this and yet we still do not have the promised guidance. I hope that the Minister can give a satisfactory answer on that, but I suspect that we will raise it again at the next stage.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I must apologise in advance if I do not answer all the points that have been raised. I recognise the importance of the issues; the effect of seeking to remove Clause 120 from the Bill is widely understood. However, we think that this is a welcome modernising step, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for her acknowledgement of that. As she said, it is our view that decisions on fire cover should be taken by democratically accountable fire authorities acting on the professional advice of local fire chiefs.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I understand that and appreciate the support we have received. There is a degree of political consensus on this point, although on occasion we may disagree about some of the means. In general, it is our intention to secure the early introduction of a new risk-based approach to fire cover that will be more responsive to local needs. We believe that that will offer a real prospect of reducing the incidence of fire outbreaks and the resultant deaths and injuries.
I turn now to the specific points. It is the recollection of officials that draft guidance was placed in the Libraries of both Houses on 4th March last. The guidance was then issued for consultation on 3rd April, and that consultation closed on 30th May. I am advised that the responses are being analysed.
Baroness Hanham: I must take issue with the Minister on this. Throughout the progress of the Bill we have asked for sight of all guidance or regulations which had been produced in draft form. We have consistently made inquiries in the Library of this House for sight of any draft guidance that the Government have made available. Consistently, we have not been given any material about the Fire Services Bill.
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