HC Deb 22 June 1995 vol 262 cc459-60
1. Mr. O'Hara

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received on the reduction in services that fire authorities will have to make as a result of expenditure shortfalls. [28397]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

Representations have been received from a number of hon. Members and others. My approval is required under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 when any reduction in the number of fire stations, fire appliances or firefighting posts in a brigade is proposed.

Mr. O'Hara

Is the Home Secretary aware that, according to figures provided by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, our fire services face a funding shortfall of £90 million? The situation is so serious not only in my area of Merseyside but in other parts of the country that at least one authority, North Yorkshire, is considering charging motorists for attending car crashes—the so-called "cash as you crash" plan. When will the Home Secretary finally face up to the serious in-built underfunding of a vital area of our emergency services?

Mr. Howard

It is all very well for Labour Back Benchers to complain about underfunding, but the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury keep telling everyone that the Labour party will not spend any more money. Only one fire authority—South Yorkshire—sought a redetermination of its capping limit, and the application was successful.

Mr. John Greenway

Notwithstanding what my right hon. and learned Friend has said, is he aware of the grave concern in places such as Filey and Scarborough about the reductions in fire cover that have had to be made because the standard spending assessments for big shire counties such as North Yorkshire are inadequate? May we now have a thorough review of the Home Office fire standard and the standard spending assessments that should go with it so that the big rural areas get the fire cover that they need?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend will know that the standard spending assessment formula is being reviewed. Of course we shall take the concerns of North Yorkshire and others into account in that context. However, I see no reason why the nationally recommended minimum standards of fire cover cannot be maintained throughout the country.

Mr. Beith

What is the logic of a system under which the Home Secretary tells fire authorities what standard of cover they must maintain but the Department of the Environment then tells them that because of their SSAs or capping they cannot spend the amount necessary to achieve that level of cover? That happened in Northumberland and Shropshire, and it is happening in North Yorkshire. Are not the public, who are thus at greater risk, the sufferers of all that?

Mr. Howard

The right hon. Gentleman totally misrepresents the facts. It is the duty of every authority to provide fire cover in accordance with national minimum standards. I have made that clear time and again. Authorities that are not single-service authorities must assess the priorities for their budgets so that cover is provided. If single-service authorities were capped they had the opportunity to make an application for redetermination of the cap. As I have said, only one fire authority made such an application, and that was successful.

Sir Donald Thompson

May I make a special plea for the fire authority in my constituency, which has unusual topographical and geographical features? Will my right hon. and learned Friend reconsider my plea?

Mr. Howard

The special features of my hon. Friend's constituency—they are indeed special, and he has drawn them to the attention of every local government Minister for the past 10 years—will be carefully taken into account in the review of the SSA.