Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

When all is said and done, we will still have a service of brave people who so often come to rescue us from mistakes that we have made. Perhaps we have accidentally left something switched on at night or fallen asleep while smoking in bed. Perish the thought, but that is not unknown. These things lead to tragedies. We can have the most wonderful service in the world and people who will give their lives for us if they have to—and they do—but if we ourselves are not careful and sensible, we deserve all the trouble that we get into.

There is, therefore, another level of responsibility in all of this, which I hope the noble Baroness will touch on: personal responsibility. That is where this particular area of safety begins. If we do not get that bit right, there is nothing that anyone else can do to help us.

6.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for initiating such an important debate. The contributions around the House have been a tribute to the wide-ranging issues that he raised, as well as demonstrating our very different experiences across the House. Although the House may not be full, there is absolutely no question that every Member would take an interest in the role of the fire services.

One of the most impressive things that I had the privilege of doing this year was attending the official opening of the National Fire Service memorial by Her

19 Nov 2008 : Column 1191

Royal Highness, Princess Anne. I had the privilege of speaking to some of the families whose loved ones, as firefighters, very sadly had died this year. That brought home to me at a very personal level the personal contribution and price paid in the most difficult circumstances. I certainly join every noble Lord who has spoken on the extraordinary contribution that our firefighters make, not just to keeping our communities safe, but—we must not forget, as my noble friend reminded me—to the added benefits that they bring to the communities that they serve and the extraordinary efforts that they make to become involved in them, especially regarding young people in schools and so on by informing and supporting the work of the community.

This is an extremely important debate, for many different reasons. Although we have been focusing on Europe, other issues have been raised by noble Lords, which I shall try to address. I shall certainly write to noble Lords if I cannot. I am very grateful to my noble friend for giving me advance warning of some very wide-ranging and technical questions, which I hope to be able to address towards the end of my response.

This has, indeed, been a wide-ranging debate, and it has provided me with an opportunity to talk about what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to encourage the co-ordination of fire safety and emergency services. That is something about which my noble friend is particularly concerned and it is an ambitious theme. I want to set out what we are doing, primarily in working with our partners in Europe, to reduce accidental fires in the home and non-domestic premises. I was very interested in the two examples given by my noble friends Lord Brookman and Lord Howie of Troon. Together with Buncefield, they illustrated two very different professional experiences and showed some of the genuinely catastrophic implications of accidental fires. That was a very useful perspective. With our European partners, we are trying to prepare properly to deal with emergencies, including with cross-border co-operation.

I reassure my noble friend that I would not dream of pretending that I know as much as he does about the work that is done in Europe or by the fire service. I want to try to bring together what we know is happening, and that will illustrate how this Government and the Department for Communities and Local Government are at the forefront of many EU work streams to co-ordinate fire and rescue services and emergency response work across Europe.

I think that my noble friend called for a fire tsar. It is some time since we heard the call for a tsar, so my noble friend has brought about the welcome return of this mythical figure. In fact, we have a tsar in the very experienced Sir Ken Knight, our Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, who is more of a knight than a tsar. I have got to know him and have accompanied him on the odd occasion, and I have been incredibly impressed by the esteem in which he is held throughout the fire service. I do not think that we could have better advice.

I move on to the way that we work in Europe, in particular. The UK is a member of the EU’s civil protection mechanism, which is crucial. The mechanism

19 Nov 2008 : Column 1192

co-ordinates assistance and provides prompt support and assistance to any country inside and outside the European Union that requires help. It became operational in 2002 and, since then, has been activated for a number of disasters within Europe and around the world. Three examples are the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia, the 2005 forest fires in Portugal and the 2005 floods in Bulgaria and Romania. Those were three very different but dreadful cases where our help was needed.

A further element of the mechanism is the training programme, which is designed to prepare national responders for international deployment, the co-ordination of a disaster response and the assessment of disaster areas. As of 11 July, the UK has had 11 deployable personnel, eight of whom are part of the fire and rescue service. We expect to have 20 fully trained personnel for deployment by the summer of 2009.

To pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, we have also exerted considerable influence. We have played key roles in recent exercises to ensure that the EU is prepared to deal with major disasters and incidents. These have included: exercise EULUX 2007 in Luxembourg, which simulated a conventional chemical and radiological attack; exercise EUPOLEX 2005 in Poland, which tested the Community’s ability to respond effectively to a major incident requiring assistance from member and non-member countries; and exercise EUROSOT 2005 in Italy, which simulated a scenario based on an earthquake. That gives an idea of how, in a very practical way, we are bringing our experience into play.

The Government have invested £300 million, through the New Dimension project, to enhance the capacity of fire and rescue services to deal rapidly and effectively with terrorist and other large-scale catastrophic incidents. Part of my response to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, concerns the investment that the Department for Communities and Local Government makes as part of our wider £1 billion fire and resilience programme. These specialist New Dimension assets have been delivered to ensure that the fire and rescue service is prepared to respond to national incidents. However, in the event of an EU or international disaster, the Government would obviously want to deploy this capability abroad to assist where it was able to do so.

I turn to the specific steps that the Government are taking to encourage other forms of leadership in the UK and the co-ordination of specific fire-safety issues across the European Union. This is an area where my noble friend has played an absolutely key role. UK fire statistics show that smoking products cause the greatest number of accidental fire deaths in the home. Taking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, this is of course a very acute example of where personal responsibility comes in. In 2006, 3,168 accidental dwelling fires in the UK—an extraordinary figure—were started by smoking products, killing 96 and injuring 1,146.

My noble friend Lord Harrison knows that the Government have been instrumental in encouraging the European Commission to look into the case for creating a European standard for fire-safer cigarettes—cigarettes that are designed to self-extinguish if left unattended, rather than smoulder down and set things

19 Nov 2008 : Column 1193

alight. We have watched with interest developments on this in other countries—in particular, the US and Canada. In October 2005, Canada became the first country to implement a cigarette fire-safety standard. Assessments that have been carried out since then on the basis of the Canadian methodology suggest that we would have had 2,116 fewer fires if such cigarettes had been available. Therefore, these fire-safer cigarettes work.

Since my noble friend and I debated this matter in October 2007, the European Union has voted overwhelmingly to create such a standard, and I am very glad to bring the House up to date about that. By establishing a European standard for fire-safer cigarettes, manufacturers will be compelled by law to produce cigarettes that meet the EU standard. The Government continue to be at the forefront in pushing this process forward. We expect work on developing the standard to commence late this year, and it will probably take about two years to complete.

We also learn from the experiences of other countries. The UK is one of the founding members of the European Fire Safety Network, which was set up in 2004 with the support and welcome of the Commission’s Civil Protection Unit, the committee for the action programme and the Community mechanism in the field of civil protection under the aegis of the civil protection committee. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about the role of the CLG, in relation to fire-safer cigarettes, our officials in that department led very much from the front. Sir Ken Knight was also involved in that work.

The European Fire Safety Network currently includes representatives from national authorities in 23 EU states which are competent in fire prevention matters. The idea is to exchange knowledge and foster co-operation between nations to help to improve fire safety. Here, perhaps I should mention some fire statistics. With the other members of the forum, we have achieved consensus on issues such as support for the development of fire-safer cigarettes and the need for better fire statistics. I hope that that reinforces the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. At the UK’s suggestion, the network has agreed to consider the use of fire statistics across Europe. It will look at what members of the forum gather by way of fire information and what comparisons this enables, what gaps exist and how this might be improved. I believe that real progress is being made there. We are liaising, for example, with the Federation of the European Union Fire Officer Associations, Eurostat, the European Fire Academy and so on. This is a major undertaking, which is very progressive.

In conjunction with colleagues from the Government of Estonia, we have offered to collate information from EU members to produce an overview of the situation, with recommendations for how that could be improved to promote the better use of statistics across Europe. However, the EU itself would need to take the lead in how the statistics would be collated.

My noble friend raised some questions about the extent to which CLG attended meetings. My advice is that it has certainly attended many meetings on European issues in recent years. I can advise him that the UK will also be hosting the next meeting of the network to

19 Nov 2008 : Column 1194

tie into a celebration of 20 years since the introduction of regulations on fire safety in furnishings, which BERR will be launching jointly with CLG on 25 November. That is yet another example of joined-up government. We are assiduous in this work and as officials now know that the eye of my noble friend is on them, they will be even more assiduous.

I will not go into our strategies in the UK in great detail, except to say that our key strategy is to drive down preventable deaths. We have proactive community fire safety activities. We have a very good record, particularly in the penetration of smoke alarms; the 80 per cent smoke alarm ownership is a tremendous achievement. Of course, we still need to reach 20 per cent of households which are not yet covered. Effective fire safety standards extend well beyond the home and we want to ensure that all UK premises are as safe as possible. Prior to October 2006, there were more than 70 separate pieces of fire safety legislation in England and the fire safety order brought all fire safety legislation together in one place, simplifying the framework. That has been a progressive step forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, asked about deaths among firefighters. Every single death of a firefighter is a tragedy. Thankfully, the number of fatalities still remains very low and injuries are steadily falling. Our data show that the number of deaths while on operational duty over the past 20 years averages less than two per annum. There has been no fatality in England in the past 12 months, which is positive. Obviously, we can improve the situation with a whole range of measures.

I turn to the specific issues raised by my noble friend. I recognise and agree with my noble friend Lord Harrison that fire and rescue services have a distinctive and pivotal role. He questioned co-ordination mechanisms and criticised their absence. I believe that we have a strong co-ordinating mechanism within the EU. In fulfilling its monitoring and information-sharing function during disasters within and outside the EU, the Commission's Monitoring and Information Centre acts as the single point of contact for member states. The Monitoring and Information Centre can also be valuable as an entry point to the Commission's various director-generals at times other than during disasters.

My noble friend was critical of cross-government arrangements, but within the UK we have the Civil Contingencies Secretariat at the Cabinet Office, which is the most appropriate department to represent the Government on fire and rescue services in relation to the EU because of its strategic responsibility and the perception it brings. I think that is absolutely justified. CLG works closely with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, sharing and disseminating information on EU matters. Most of the civil protection debate at EU level is on the principles of international mutual aid and how that might be enhanced across all aspects of the civil protection agenda. There is little or no detailed discussion on practical fire and rescue service issues which tend to occur in any other forum where the Civil Contingencies Secretariat is not involved.

I turn to my noble friend’s remarks about the impact of the working time directive and the driving-hours directive on the UK fire and rescue service. Dealing

19 Nov 2008 : Column 1195

first with the working time directive, we are clear that losing the UK’s opt-out could have a major impact on the fire and rescue service. There is no question of dismantling the opt-out. The UK’s position remains unchanged. We remain committed to keeping the opt-out. I should perhaps explain that the UK’s position was agreed by the Council of Ministers in June. Officials from my department are working closely with BERR and the Cabinet Office to ensure MEPs and other member states are fully briefed on the UK’s position.

The position on the driving hours directive is that the Chief Fire Officers Association is currently surveying all fire and rescue services to enable the potential impact of the drivers' hours rules on the retained-duty system and their ability to provide appropriate emergency cover to our rural communities to be assessed.

My noble friend has also expressed concern that the encouragement of cross-border movement of labour creates employment complications within the fire sector as there are currently no agreed EC standards of competency. I am pleased to say that a considerable amount of work is being undertaken by various groups within the EU to work towards the harmonisation of fire and rescue service functions and recognition of professional qualifications between member states. The Fire and Rescue Sector Vocational Standards Group is considering aligning the current firefighters' national qualifications framework with the European qualifications framework and will consider wider work from across the EU as part of the process.

It is the Government's policy that the existing 25 sector skills councils should cover the UK workforce. The fire sector is too small to justify its own sector skills council but the Fire and Rescue Sector Vocational Standards Group is currently discussing sector skills council membership with the Skills for Justice sector skills council. So there is a recognition that there can be more synergy. The UK Fire and Rescue Sector Vocational Standards Group is considering aligning the current firefighters' national qualifications framework with the European qualifications framework.

My noble friend described a civil protection rapid reaction force, whose creation has been called for by Michel Barnier, as rather lukewarm. The Commission and member states generally have supported measures

19 Nov 2008 : Column 1196

to enhance civil protection in the EU. The first pillar civil protection mechanism has been amended to allow limited financial assistance towards the cost of transporting civilian response from a donor country to one affected by disaster, including aerial water bombers to be used in wildfire situations.

On the proposals made in the Barnier report, the UK's position is clear. HMG support the principle of member states co-operating voluntarily in the response to disasters, but not the creation of a stand-by European civil protection force. That is consistent with our general attitude to how we see European co-operation working best. A European civil protection force would not be a cost-effective way of responding. The current voluntary approach, which allows member states to provide urgent assistance bilaterally, offers more flexibility and better value for money.

My noble friend also mentioned hotel safety and the fact that it is not regulated. Our position on this matter is quite clear. We recognise that while there is considerable support for any initiative aimed at achieving a more consistent standard of fire safety in hotels across Europe, there is no consensus on a need to replace the EC recommendation with any European law.

Finally, on trade, we have the construction products directive. Rather than read my quite detailed response to the specific issues raised on trade, I shall write to my noble friend.

We gladly recognise the contribution made by the UK fire trade to the fire safety agenda. I think we are playing a positive and successful role in Europe. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to explore some of those issues. It has been a most useful debate.

Energy Bill

The Bill was returned from the Commons with the amendments agreed to with an amendment. It was ordered that the Commons amendment be printed.

Climate Change Bill [HL]

The Bill was returned from the Commons with the amendments agreed to.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page