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Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I feel rather at sea here, as I am surrounded by veterans of the 2004 Act. I am here as a newcomer, but I will do
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my best, and I will attempt to be brief, as I know that colleagues who are dealing with the Education Bill need to get on.
From these Benches we do not have the inherent problems with the regional agenda that the noble Baroness has, although our preference would be for voluntary arrangements to continue, as in many cases these are working extremely well. Where the best local option is the voluntary arrangement, we would like to see that continue. Each region has different geographical and social circumstances, so often collaboration on the exact nature of their co-operation is better left for them to decide rather than for central government to determine.
Would the noble Lord like to comment on the delays in publishing the guidelines? There have been some problems for local authorities as dates have passed without the guidance that they have been waiting for having materialised.
On the question of regional control rooms, there is concern among local authorities about the identification of callers. I know that that is particularly the case in large regions such as the south-west. People in Cornwall are very concerned that calls routed to Bristol will not be identified properly. I gather that, during the passage of the Act, a commitment was made to introduce IT systems which would identify the location of the callers. Can the Minister comment on progress on that? Given the track record of government IT programmes, I am sure he will understand why there are some concerns.
Finally, in the context of debates about reform of regulation generally, regulation of the fire authorities comes about partly through the Audit Commission and its comprehensive performance assessment but also, of course, through Her Majesty's Fire Service Inspectorate. I wonder whether the Government's review of regulation and inspection will include a rationalisation of those two roles or whether the Minister sees them as staying separate.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I am conscious of the hour and of the urgency of other business that this House has to consider. Therefore, I wish to speak very briefly in putting some rather important points to my noble friend on the Front Bench.
The noble Baroness will excuse me if I say that, so far, I think that the Minister just needs to enter a plea of "no case to answer" so far as concerns annulling this order. This is a very important order and I want to ask some questions about the booklet which lay behind it: The Fire and Rescue Service National Framework. I take it that the copy with which I have been provided is the same booklet referred to in the order.
I was unable to attend the House for much of the period in which one might have discussed this matter, but I think I am right in saying that there has been no debate specifically on that central document since its publication. The bookletor, at least, my copy
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came out at about the same time as, or just a day or so after, the Third Reading in this House of the big Fire and Rescue Services Bill in July.
That booklet insists that the new national framework must be brought in, and, indeed, in previous debates the case has been made that some such framework is needed. But it states that it must be brought in in partnership between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the fire authorities. It states that they must work in "partnership where appropriate". I want to put to my noble friend one or two points of that kind. He may not wish to speak on them at length this evening but he may be able to deal with them in the future if it is not appropriate to do so now.
For example, there will be a new consultation in summer 2005-06. I want to ask what consultations there have been, and indeed will be, with all the stakeholders. The document refers a number of times to all the stakeholders involved in the new national framework. Therefore, I ask my noble friend whether, either today or on another suitable occasion, the Government will tell us what consultation has been, or will be, held with the trade unions representing the firefighters, who have the primary task of carrying out what will be an enormous extension of their functions under this booklet, the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 and, of course, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which is probably more important. The House will know that that Act covers an enormous area, far beyond problems of terrorism, to cover any threat of serious damage to any place or to human welfare, including illness, health, homelessness, disruption to supplies or communication or transport or disruption even of plant life in Britain. These provisions impose an enormous extension of firefighters' duties, as the booklet makes very clear. I am glad to refer to the much wider training that will be required of everyone in the fire and rescue services in this regard.
The workers involved are among the stakeholders in these important changes. The booklet admirably insists that we must have more women and more ethnic minority firefighters, but it says little about consultation with organisations which will represent the firefighters of tomorrow. It states categorically that the new regionalisation of fire control functions, for which a case has been made previously, will need "fewer staff". Indeed, that will be a delicate operation. Many think that it is surprising, in the light of the enormous extension of functions, that the service will be called upon to exercise such a reduction. Can my noble friend say anything about the expected size of the firefighting force under the document?
Firefighters do not largely figure in the booklet, except that their greatly increased duties of co-operation, as the noble Baroness rightly said, with all other emergency services, and the increased training to meet those duties, are fairly set out. But the booklet refers to "recent industrial action"recent in 2004where the Secretary of State will, under the new statutes, continue to have,
I do not wish, either here or on any future occasion, to reopen old wounds on this subject. But the Government's position in previous debates was that the Secretary of State's new statutory powers would not affect the law as it stood on rights of industrial action. That is not what the booklet says.
Consultation on that and all other matters that affect the workforce is importantfor example, in respect of the new discipline code which must be introduced. While one must welcome the intention to introduce a new law based on ACAS principles, firefighters will lose a previous right of appeal to the Secretary of State on dismissal. Consultation on aspects of appeal against dismissal, as much as what the new booklet raises regarding the new pension scheme, must, surely, be a matter for extensive consultation, including with the organisations that represent those concerned.
There is much more to be said on this matter, especially regarding the regulatory impact assessment. I am sure my noble friend will agree that it is vital that these extensive and important changes should be the subject of consultation with the workforce, from fire officers to firefighters and their unions. That is critical. There is much concern on the matter, but it may be that my noble friend can allay such concerns. I hope that he may say something about, or refer on some future occasion to, consultation with the trade unions, either when he replies or, as time is limited today, to a source where we can find details of what has happened and what is planned in that regard.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall try to deal with some of the points briefly and I shall write to noble Lords about those matters I do not cover. I shall first address the points made by my noble friend Lord Wedderburn because they are the easiest to answer. My noble friend has the old document. The document that we are debating tonight for approval was published in December 2004 and relates to the 2005-06 framework. My noble friend was, I believe, referring to the 2004-05 framework.
The order lists the principle differences between the 2004-05 and the 2005-06 frameworks, which are minor. The changes have taken into account responses to the consultation. There was no justification for a regulatory impact assessment on the order, because none of the interests was affectedhowever, I shall check on those points.
A separate consultation on the pension scheme started on 13 October and finished last week on 14 January. I can assure my noble friend that these issues are receiving full consultation. There is ongoing work on the setting up of the new Joint Industrial Council, although that is not the subject of this document.
On the points raised by the noble Baroness, I thought we were revisiting the referendum, although the points were legitimate. The referendum was lost
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and that is water under the bridge. There is no prospect of elected regional assemblies, but that does not mean that there is no need to do things regionally.
On Firelink, which is the new radio system, the contract will be signed around May 2005. There will be competition to ensure a value-for-money outcome. There will be no costs to fire authorities in 2004-05 or in 2005-06. The capital costs are being met by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, so there is no additional cost to fire authorities. The Government are meeting the costs of operational continuity to ensure the existing systems work in the interim. On commercial competition, it is subject to the procurement rules for fair and open competition. It is not a secretive issue.
The noble Baroness asked why the regional management boards have been asked to draw up regional human resource strategies. The reason is that there are considerable efficiencieswe made that quite clearto be gained by co-operation and working on human resource issues, including training, recruitment and equal opportunities. That is why we have asked authorities to draw up strategies so that they can jointly achieve those efficiencies.
I was also asked why a regional structure is still being demanded. The regional management boards are required to deal with the six issues identified in the White Paper. Those are the specialist services, resilience, human resources, training, procurement and the regional control centres. So the regional approach is about helping the service to work at the most appropriate level: at local level, at district level, at sub-regional level or at regional level.
The noble Baroness asked me how we can respond to the consultation document on fire control in a short space of time. The consultation document was issued late, but the full consultation period of 12 weeks was allowed, so we did not cut any corners and there was no reduction in the consultation period.
I was also asked about how the boards are able to make decisions when the full business case will not be published until mid-2005. The outline business case does not have final figures. The full business case will be published later this year, when we shall have full and final figures. All the authorities will be consulted on the final version and they can use that to set their budgets.
I regret to say that I do not have an answer on caller location, which is a fair point as it was mentioned in the debate, nor on the joint inspection process under the regulations. I shall seek further and better particulars on those points and I shall write to all noble Lords involved in the debate.
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