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Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. It is fair to say that what underlies this is a degree of criticism that targets which looked extremely testing at the time when they were first set—a reduction between 1994 and 1999 and then up to 2004—have suddenly slipped another six years. Our amendment was designed clearly to smarten up those targets in relation to both fire deaths and incidents of arson, and to try to ensure that they were met.

I hear what the Minister has said about the figures and the arrangements under the public service agreements. I hope that they will achieve what has been set out, but this demonstrates a real concern about targets and the dates set. If people think that they are going to achieve a target in 2004 but it does not happen because the date has slipped for another five or six years, that is not much of an incentive to try to achieve it in the first place. If targets are set, they must be real targets within a firm timescale.
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However, it is clear that there has been movement on the issue, which ultimately is what we all want: everyone wants to see a reduction in fire deaths and certainly in incidents of arson. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 [Reinforcement schemes]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 26:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with this amendment we return to the issue of the criteria for the establishment of reinforcement schemes because it is our belief that the clause as currently drafted is far too woolly. The aim of our amendment is to tighten up the definition of Clause 13(1). That means defining the authorities with which a fire authority is obliged to enter into reinforcement schemes. Common sense suggests that geographical contiguity would be the most appropriate criterion. However, beyond that there should be an ability—a permissive power—to enter into reinforcement schemes with other authorities where appropriate.

At present the Bill places an obligation on an authority to enter into such a scheme with potentially any, or even all, other fire authorities. That is unsatisfactory given the uncertainty surrounding the future configuration of fire authorities' boundaries. Fire authorities need to be sure that they have satisfied at least the minimum required of them by subsection (1).

It may be the case that mutual assistance schemes are functioning well between fire and rescue authorities now, but precisely because of the unknown future demands of national resilience and precisely because this did not have to be addressed in 1947, we should take this opportunity to leave no room for doubt as to what is necessary; that is, schemes with contiguous authorities, and what may be useful but not compulsory, such as schemes with non-contiguous authorities.

I do not think that this amendment will be a source of great disagreement. I thought that it would help to delineate more clearly the fundamental responsibilities from the voluntary ones. This may become more important if and when we have fewer but larger authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, Amendment No. 26 would mean that fire and rescue authorities would be required to enter into a reinforcement scheme only with neighbouring authorities, although they would have discretion to extend such schemes to other authorities. At this point I shall plead history.

As the noble Baroness understands, Clause 13 re-enacts the existing provisions of the Fire Services Act 1947 requiring fire authorities to enter into reinforcement schemes with other authorities and simply extends them to apply to their new core duties under the Bill. As such, we are not sure why the noble
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Baroness really wants to limit the requirement for fire and rescue authorities to co-operate in this way. While it is true that the 1947 Act does not specifically require cross-border mutual assistance, such schemes are already in place between adjacent fire and rescue authorities and are integral to the day-to-day operational effectiveness of the fire and rescue service.

One of the reasons for including the new core duties in the schemes was to make it easier for fire and rescue authorities to participate in a national mutual aid agreement for non-fire emergencies as well as providing simple cross-boundary assistance between authorities in the event of a fire. We feel it is important that fire and rescue authorities work together in this way in order to improve our national resilience to terrorist attack and natural disaster. Removing any requirement for fire and rescue authorities to enter into reinforcement schemes with authorities other than their immediate neighbours would not provide the necessary resilience in the event of an emergency.

Fire and rescue authorities are in the process of signing a national mutual aid agreement to cover emergencies such as the increased terrorist threat, but the development of such an agreement has been hindered by concerns that participating in such an agreement could create a conflict with their local duties. Limiting the requirement for a fire and rescue authority to enter into a mutual reinforcement scheme only with neighbouring authorities, and leaving it entirely voluntary whether they extend such schemes to other authorities, will not provide the solid statutory base they need in order to remove such concerns. This could endanger the arrangements under Clause 9 for ensuring cover for those authorities responding to an emergency outside their areas.

We do not want to be prescriptive. We want to ensure that the authorities are under a duty to enter into a wider scheme rather than a simple cross-border one. This is for resilience purposes. It will be entirely up to the authorities to decide how wide such schemes should be, based on operational need. This matter should be left to the individual fire authorities, which have hands-on experience on a daily basis.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that clear reply. It is interesting that Clause 13 states that:

A "practical" arrangement may very well be—and probably always will be—with the authority next door. The best starting place would seem to be with the authorities abutting a particular fire and rescue authority's area. Of course, there may now be more than one abutting authority, and probably at least two.

Indeed, making such arrangements on a "must" basis would absorb nearly all the material and time of a fire authority. It would therefore be better for it to have a "conditional" reason for entering into arrangements with other fire authorities. In other
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words, you have a responsibility to start with the contiguous authorities; thereafter, if you have any time, money and so on left over, you would be entitled to go to other authorities. That is the purpose of the amendment.

However, I hear what the Minister says. For today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 [Directions as to reinforcement schemes]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 27:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 27, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 28 to 31 and 57. Again, these amendments are brought forward at the instigation of the Welsh authorities; they are concerned about the position in regard to crossing the boundary between England and Wales. I assume that what the Minister said about the need for regional arrangements does not apply in this context.

The concern is whether the provisions in the Bill will work where one authority is in England, one is in Wales and the others are in one country or the other. There seem to be no powers of direction in the Bill to resolve cross-border situations. The central problem is that, as drafted, the wording of Clauses 14 and 17 seems to assume that the same person would be involved in dealing with all the fire and rescue authorities concerned.

Under Clause 60, references to the Secretary of State are to be read, in respect of Wales, as references to the National Assembly. So there is a quite clear and quite proper division of powers. The Welsh authorities ask your Lordships to assume a hypothetical case—which is not far removed from the case put to the House earlier by the Minister—involving, say, the North Wales fire authority and the Cheshire fire authority; not in this case the Staffordshire and Shropshire fire authorities. The Secretary of State could not issue a direction to the two fire authorities because he does not have the power to issue directions in Wales and, similarly, the Assembly could not issue a direction in England—but Clause 17 requires that any direction is issued to the two authorities.

It does not seem entirely clear whether an authority can ask the Secretary of State or the Assembly to act under Clause 14(1)(c) or Clause 17(2). It may be that, because of the way in which Clause 60 works, only Welsh authorities can ask the Assembly to act and only English authorities can go to the Secretary of State. The amendments therefore seek to make clear that a direction may be issued to one or more authorities and that any fire and rescue authority may ask the Secretary of State or the National Assembly to act.

These amendments may not be necessary to provide for such a situation. I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that they are not, or indicate a way forward. I beg to move.
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7.15 p.m.

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