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These threats are not diminishing, as quickening climate change accelerates the incidence of environmental disasters that devastate local communities—searing heat waves in France, severe snowfalls in Germany, floods in Britain, landslips in Italy and wild fires in Greece and Spain. There are still acts of terrorism—as in London, Madrid and Paris—or failures of technologies, as with the Buncefield disaster that startled my noble friend Lord Brookman from his bed the morning it happened, and fires in tunnels through the Alps and under the Channel.

At home, the recent NAO report on the £330 million programme for the fire and rescue services points to successes such as the response to Buncefield, but also to failures, such as in procurement and management, all pointing to the need for a UK fire lord or tsar.

However, the EU is our concern tonight. It, too, lacks recognition of the pivotal roles of the fire and rescue services in protecting communities throughout Europe. The European Commission and the member states are not talking properly to each other, certainly not on a structured or professional basis—a victim perhaps of a short-sighted interpretation of subsidiarity. Similarly, the Commission’s silo approach to these cross-cutting issues inhibits a co-ordinated response. We need a clear and single point of entry into the Commission to provide an observatory and a data-collecting point. We also need to co-ordinate trans-European emergencies and we need member states to help one another. What can my noble friend do to advance that?

This problem is further exacerbated by the mosaic of the different member states’ organisation of their fire and rescue services. In the UK, oddly, FRS is dealt with by the emergency medical services, whereas France and Germany do their health through the emergency services themselves. Sweden and Bulgaria have national agencies, whereas Britain remains local; consequently, our local services know too little of EU developments and therefore fail to give the British view in Brussels.

Does my noble friend recognise a departmental confusion in the United Kingdom? EU FRS matters are dealt with by the Cabinet Office. This bypasses her own Department for Communities and Local Government, which is surely better placed to canvass competent local authorities on EU fire and rescue service issues and thus improve the European Union legislative proposals, standards and practices. At present, the firefighter’s voice is second-hand and so second rate.

The lack of a fire lord or a fire tsar also impairs our response to European Union social legislation, which affects the fire and rescue services in Britain. The dismantling of the British opt-outs in the working time directives will scupper the use of part-time employees in Britain. Ironically, in protecting our workers we may lose the right to exceed working time hours as appropriate and negotiated by workers through collective agreements. Indeed, I note that the driving hours directive has already dried up the availability of part-time drivers used in the service. With the free movement of workers across Europe, we must have certainty throughout

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the single market of common and verifiable standards of competency among those who practise in the fire and rescue services sector.

The lack of a fire sector skills council in the United Kingdom and common examinations reviewing civil emergency skills likewise hampers us. I ask my noble friend to address these national deficiencies, because they impact on the European stage. European Union social law must not inadvertently undermine our domestic fire and rescue services.

To create sensible EU law and practice we must have accurate statistical data in Britain. We are proficient at the national data, but our EU partners are not. Nor are these data properly standardised. Thus, in the United Kingdom, we record delayed deaths subsequently reported from an earlier emergency incident, whereas in Europe that does not happen. In the European Union, these deaths are recorded locally, not nationally as in our case. An example of this is that the EU legislative proposal for substituting reduced ignition propensity cigarettes for existing slow burn will need sound and comprehensive data across the European Union to convince us that the unwanted deaths from smouldering stubs can be stamped out. Will my noble friend encourage the collection of good and comprehensive data across the European Union?

I now turn to the Government’s lukewarm response to the French President’s proposal for an EU civil protection rapid reaction force. The Commission has already provided use of EU funds to transport firefighters to EU disaster hot spots or to pay for aerial water bombers dowsing wild fires across national boundaries. Indeed, the United Kingdom has received a grant of £180 million to compensate for the disastrous floods in 2007. However, the UK is not actively engaged in the rapid reaction force proposal, where the British firefighters can help abroad. Our view that Britain will never need others’ help is daft. Pooling EU resources and humanitarian aid at times of national disasters is sensible and sound. The UK should get involved in the Barnier proposal now if for no other reason than protecting the many Britons who visit, work and live across the European Union.

We should promote the civil protection force and ensure good liaison with the developments within NATO, too. Likewise, the deplorable incidence of hotel fires abroad leading to family tragedies at home is allowed because we have a disparate set of 27 laws applying to hotel safety. This mosaic of law must cede to a sensible EU directive. It will help us all to sleep better in our beds at night, whether in Corfu or in Carshalton.

Britain’s viewpoint on these matters is missing from the EU Fire Safety Network, an organisation funded by the EU civil protection unit, which is based in the Brussels environmental directorate. I am told that Britain’s CLG-nominated fire resilience representative attends only intermittently, with inadequate and infrequent reports back. Will my noble friend tell the House how such cross-cutting issues that affect DBERR, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Transport will be properly communicated in Whitehall? We cannot do that if we are absent from Brussels. The safety of British families and businesses is not helped by snubbing Brussels.

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If Britain does not speak up, British trade and industry are vulnerable to the misapplication of EU laws in the field of fire and rescue services. The construction products directive requiring the use of the CE mark is not systematically monitored in Britain, because of the lack of resources in local government trading standards. This means that British export firms are poorly advised on relevant EU law governing the circulation of their goods and services within the single market. The REACH chemical regulation, with significant cost implications for the fire sector companies, is added to the already strict UK hazardous substance control regimes, with sparse assessment of the cost to related industries. The EU services directive remains similarly unexamined. Nor is the understanding of single market codes and standards promoted by the self-financing approach to the BSI. We need something more hard-headed and designed for the entrepreneurs to brief themselves in order to succeed.

In conclusion, I hope that we understand the necessity of spreading our concern at the time of these disasters wider than the United Kingdom for the protection of our people, not only here in Britain but also in the European Union. I thank Dennis Davis, my colleague from Chester and the former chief fire officer of Cheshire, and his associates. Not only has he worked hard for many years to raise these issues at the European level, but he has helped in the preparation of the debate this evening, which I bring to the attention of the House.

6.22 pm

Lord Brookman: My Lords, I first declare an interest as an officer of the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group. My noble friend Lord Harrison, a colleague and friend, is to be congratulated. It is appropriate and worth while to have this debate. Frankly, I only wish that there were more participants making a contribution.

I congratulate all our firefighters and emergency workers in the United Kingdom. Their dedication, bravery and service to our nation are indeed immense. Their heroism, commitment and sense of duty at King’s Cross, for example, and, as my noble friend Lord Harrison said, at Buncefield in Hertfordshire, as well as recently with the shuttle train—the third such incident in the past 12 years—are of the highest order. We are deeply proud of them all.

The all-party group works closely with the Federation of British Fire Organisations, which will be taking a keen interest in the debate. Its concerns are my concerns. I am not talking of weakness or governmental inactivity. The question is whether the management of safety can be more effective.

My noble friend Lord Harrison has covered much of what needs to be said in his wide-ranging, clever and well understood speech. Is there a need for wider participation between government, fire rescue authorities, and public and private bodies and enterprises? If so, how can it be achieved with a European dimension?

I do not profess to be an expert in the fire and rescue field in the United Kingdom or across Europe—although, when I was a steelworker in south Wales, danger and death were never far away. However, I am

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advised that there is no certain or professional relationship between the EC and member state Governments on fire and rescue services. Perhaps the Minister will address this point when she sums up.

The Government work closely with the Federation of British Fire Organisations. FOBFO wants to strengthen that relationship. In this respect, FOBFO strongly states that its vital focus is in recognising the importance of the European Union as both a trading and a social partner and the impact that this has on the fire and rescue services. I sincerely hope that the Government do all that they can to assist.

6.25 pm

Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I sometimes wonder why I am here—on this occasion mainly because my noble friend Lord Harrison has said just about everything that needs to be said on this subject. There is little that I can add, apart from “Hurrah!” or something.

I felt inclined to contribute to this brief—and I shall be brief, let me tell you—debate because, as older Members of the House may recall, and there are not too many here, I have spent a lifetime in the construction industry. That industry of course finds fire safety and things of that sort extremely important. I remind my noble friend Lord Brookman that when he was a young man I was involved in the steel industry, too. I worked in a town called Motherwell—not a spa but a big steel concern.

I was a structural engineer in the 1940s. The Dalzell steelworks were built on made-up ground, much of which had come from ironworks slag from the nearby Clyde Bridge. Interestingly, it formed a pretty good foundation for a steelworks apart from one flaw: it was given to spontaneous combustion. The foundations under the steelworks would therefore catch fire from time to time. We applied a high-tech solution to this problem: we hurried along and filled up the hole under the foundations, where the fire was burning, with concrete. The fire would go out. We solved the problem; it was not too high-tech, but it seemed to work. I have therefore always had an interest in the relationship between the construction industry and fire.

As we all do, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on raising this subject. I thought that his opening remarks were a little apocalyptic. He drew our attention to Chernobyl. Now, we all know that Chernobyl was not a very good idea. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne—a good personal friend of mine, although he sits on the opposite Benches for some idiosyncratic reason of his own—pointed out, the Chernobyl disaster was never as bad as people and the press continually say. It is like Three Mile Island. Nothing happened there either, but the press go on about it.

Leaving the apocalypse aside, all that I have to say is that I endorse everything that my noble friend has said. Were it not for vanity, I would now sit down—but I shall not just yet. I add a remark that has been provided for me by the Federation of British Fire Organisations, to which my noble friend Lord Brookman alluded. It pointed out that last November a new era of European Community solidarity began to emerge. The Commission held a civil protection forum to

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emphasise the renewed vigour that it feels is needed to address the unprecedented demands of EC citizens facing natural, economic and technological disasters.

I am somewhat tepid in my admiration for the European Union. I have swung from opposition to support to tepidity, if that is a word. It is a funny kind of organisation. When it is at its best—and it is by no means always at its best—it means that if we do not pull together, we sink together. Sinking together does not seem to me a very good idea if pulling together will save us from sinking together. So I endorse everything that my noble friend said. I hope that I have not kept noble Lords for too long from their dinner.

6.31 pm

Lord Tope: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating the debate, and to the Federation of British Fire Organisations for raising these extremely important issues with us through its briefing. It is some 10 years since I was a member of a fire authority and I certainly do not claim any special or particular knowledge of fire safety issues. However, I recognised many of the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, raised. I have some 15 years’ experience in local and regional government in the European Union and am therefore very familiar, not particularly with fire issues, but with other issues concerning the different structures and systems in member states, and the difficulties that that sometimes causes in achieving mutual understanding and reaching agreement on how best to approach these matters.

I spent eight years, until last May, as a member of the Greater London Authority, of which the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority is a part. However, my role, for eight years, was that of chair of the finance committee of the Metropolitan Police Authority; therefore, I am very familiar with the sort of issues that we are discussing. My experience relates to the Metropolitan Police Service, although I think that it is relevant to the fire service as well. The Metropolitan Police Service has very good international links. It has many contacts worldwide, particularly in Europe. It generally has a good relationship with Europe, with which it generally works well on operational issues. However, I found that an organisation as large, well equipped and well organised as the Metropolitan Police Service still had remarkably little understanding of how the European Union works and of how to influence the decision-making process at the right stage, not when it is too late and something is being done to it. For an organisation with an annual budget of some £3 billion, it had little awareness of the opportunities—albeit now limited—for gaining funding from the European Union. We set up an EU oversight group, which I chaired, but whose membership otherwise comprised senior officers from the police service and the police authority, specifically to look—given that I chaired the finance committee—at opportunities to raise funding. However, another objective—this was probably more important—was to look at the policy developments that were coming through the processes of the European Union, whether through the Parliament or, more usually, the Commission, so that at an early

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stage we could recognise issues which were not necessarily about policing but might well be of concern to it. That must have exactly the same relevance to fire and rescue services.

We should not assume, therefore, that simply because authorities have good contacts and good relations across Europe they necessarily know what is happening in the European Commission, the Parliament and the other organisations, still less that they are equipped and informed to intervene at an early stage when the policy is being formulated, not at the much later stage when, realistically, all that is happening are negotiations about the finer points to try to reach agreement. Therefore, my first question to the Minister—I am sure that she will address this—is what mechanisms there are within the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at fire and safety issues from an EU perspective. I am very aware from my 15 to 20 years’ experience of how her department deals with European issues generally—it generally does so very well—but here we are talking about fire and rescue services specifically. In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said, these are cross-departmental matters within the UK Government, much of the responsibility for which rests with the Cabinet Office rather than with CLG. My subsidiary question is: what are the mechanisms within the UK Government for effective co-ordination and liaison on these issues in the EU context, and how effective is that mechanism?

I was concerned to read in the Federation of British Fire Organisations’s briefing:

“Fire and Rescue Authorities are rarely advised or able to influence EC developments affecting the Fire and Rescue Services”.

That chimes exactly with what I was saying about my experience with the Metropolitan Police Service. I must ask CLG, which is responsible for fire authorities in this country, what steps it is taking, and will take, to ensure that fire and rescue services and fire authorities are advised and are able at an early stage to influence EC developments, probably through feedback to CLG or to the Cabinet Office through central government. Central government need that input, knowledge, experience and thought from the fire services. With regard to the Metropolitan Police Service, I cannot, unfortunately, remember the specific instance about which the commissioner spoke to me, but it had discovered a measure which was about to be agreed by the European Commission which would have a very substantial impact in operational and financial terms on the police service, but it was too late to do anything about it. That is the key question. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, laid out very well the difficulties involved here with different structures in the different member states and, indeed, with the range of responsibilities across various departments of the UK Government. This is a challenge, but I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that the UK Government, perhaps led by her department, are able to meet and rise to that challenge.

We live in an age where free movement throughout the European Union, whether for work or leisure, is a growing reality. I am the last person to call for greater regulation. Indeed, I spend much of my time calling for less regulation rather than more. I am a passionate believer in subsidiarity. Therefore, I do not call for the European Union to take over fire and rescue services—far

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from it. I welcome the cultural diversity that we have, but we need to be able to deal effectively with the results of that diversity and to recognise that people are moving around the European Union member states freely and that they deserve proper protection and effective liaison to bring that about.

I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for raising these important issues and look forward to the reassurance from the Minister that, I am sure, we are about to get.

6.39 pm

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for bringing this debate before us, although I must admit that he raced through his speech at such a pace that I was not quite sure whether he had a strategic point to aim for. He seemed to say that everyone was doing a lot of good work and that everyone was doing some things wrong. However, that is a naturally human state.

Our ancient forebears regarded fire as one of the four great forces of nature and believed that, if fire was out of control, it was really dreadful. I learned to respect that point of view in my younger days, when I used to burn every field of straw on my farm myself. That was 10 days of hard work, at your peril—although it could be done with safety. We need always to bear in mind that fire, which we regard as a tool and a friend, will break out if you give it half a chance. That is, of course, when our fire and rescue services come to the fore. I add my tribute to those very brave men.

There was criticism from the fire service that perhaps the reason the service was so dangerous because of the wretched business of risk assessment, which is difficult when you have a big fire. You may think that you have all the knowledge about the contents of a building and its construction. If the fire is out in the open, you have a different set of parameters to deal with. However, fire makes its own rules and we have to face the fact that every now and again we will have a tragedy.

The Fire Brigades Union told us of the very sad rise in the number of deaths in the fire service in recent years, after a period in which it suffered no deaths. Have the Government any statistics on the number of fires over the same period, which began in 2003? It could be that the number of tragedies per fire is minuscule; however, to the person involved, it is 100 per cent. We need to recognise that and do everything we can to reduce the risk to the absolute minimum—but we cannot remove it.

The second issue is that the debate is aimed towards—I will not say at—the European Union. If I understand the situation correctly, fire prevention, the fire services, safety and so on, is not, in fact, a European competence; it is a national competence—and rightly so. In this country, we have made it even a local competence. That also has to be appropriate, because it is only at a local level that you can make a reasonable assessment of the risks in a community. It is no good having a wonderful ivory tower in the middle of London and trying to tell people in Hartlepool, Liverpool, Bristol or Southampton or in our rural communities what their level of fire risk is. A much more local organisation

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is needed to provide appropriate cover. We are very fortunate in this country to be able to enjoy the services of a large number of volunteers who cover great areas of the country.

Sometimes, paradoxically, volunteers have greater experience of firefighting than their professional brethren, who, if they are fortunate, may have a shift pattern which inadvertently means that they might not attend a fire for a year or more; whereas part-time firemen, apart from doing some weekend practice, attend only when there is a fire. There is a slightly strange situation whereby sometimes the amateur, as you might put it, is more experienced than the professional. However, all their work is wholly admirable.

There needs to be a European information exchange facility. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned that each nation had its own safety regulations for hotels. However, given the volume of travel that we all undertake nowadays, it would be reassuring to know that there was at least some parallel organisation that was, in looking at this matter, disseminating best practice—not just in fire regulation, but in equipment, communications and all those other things.

So much can be done above the national level, but it is not simply a European problem. We do not have the only valid sources of information; this is an international problem. To be fair, I know that a considerable exchange of information already goes on, but there is no formal structure. Perhaps it would be better if the situation were better recognised, so that information was more freely available across national boundaries.

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