HC Deb 13 March 1996 vol 273 cc918-39

11 am

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

I make no apology for this being the fourth occasion in as many weeks on which I have raised my concerns about the fire service. On previous occasions, those concerns were related to the situation in London. Today I wish to widen the debate in view of the fears expressed by other hon. Members about the situation in their constituencies.

We now seem to be embroiled in an annual ritual fight over budgets for fire brigades: a fight to save fire stations, to save fire engines on the road, to save firefighters' jobs and, ultimately, to save lives. Implementation of the proposed fire service cuts will cost lives that the firefighters are there to protect and also the lives of firefighters themselves.

Earlier this year, hon. Members received a letter from Dennis Davies, president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, in which he stated: The fire service is facing a serious financial situation which needs to be remedied if it is not to create major operational difficulties. Mr. Davies, who is chief fire officer for Cheshire, said that current expenditure in real terms on the fire service exceeds formal allocations, as expressed in the revenue support grant, by about £80 million. He said in his letter: To date the service, locally managed through Fire Authorities although substantially centrally funded, has sought to keep its quality by internal changes and innovation. He added, however, that a crisis had been averted in many cases because local government has consistently placed Fire higher in the list of local service priorities, often to the detriment of other services. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), agreed with that point when he said in a reply to the hon. Member for South Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) that a shire county is not limited in its spending on its fire brigade by the fire service share of its SSA. What matters is the overall SSA for the county council. It is for the county council to decide its priorities for spending across all its services."—[Official Report, 29 November 1995; Vol. 267, c. 1175.] So there we have it from the mouth of the Minister. Fire cover can be maintained in the shire counties, despite underfunding, by cuts in education or social services. The hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) and for South Worcestershire were rightly concerned about the possible risks to their areas from the proposed closures of Beudley and Pebworth, the halving of staffing at Kidderminster, the reduction in the number of appliances and the removal of a hydraulic platform.

Principal fire officers have instituted countless reviews and embraced many new ideas. The Audit Commission has also conducted an in-depth review. It is now estimated that that review will result in only £7 million savings from improved performance, whereas the initial optimistic forecast was for £67 million. Either figure would leave the service with a substantial shortfall.

I share Mr. Davies's concern that, despite routine local reporting of fire service difficulties and the generally held belief that our communities should be safe, the fire service predicament has not yet reached the national consciousness and we have not yet had a national debate. I hope that today's debate will lead to a full national debate.

Fire services have a responsibility to comply with operational standards set by the Home Office. Increasingly, however, performance to minimum standards—measured, in the case of the fire service, by speed of attendance at the scene of a fire—has become the acceptable quality standard. Attendance times are important—they can mean the difference between life and death—but as the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association said, achieving a fast arrival is just the beginning of our task. What real value is there in the fast arrival of an ill-equipped or ill-trained fire crew?

The current situation—and this trend is accelerating—is that the absolute need to ensure a fast response is taking money from training, vehicle replacements, equipment purchases and public education and prevention programmes. The association has warned that the fire service—which needs technical development to meet more complex hazards, with better information systems and personal protection—is short of basic capital investment, that new skills training is stagnating when it should be growing and that research into better options for public protection is slowing down.

Last month, firefighters from Tyne and Wear came to Parliament to spell out the consequences of the £2.3 million shortfall in their 1996–97 budget to hon. Members.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Tyne and Wear. As I believe he knows, we are faced with losing, through natural wastage, 92 front-line firefighters. That is bound to have an impact on a service which has always received the auditors' approval for its cost-effectiveness.

Mr. Austin-Walker

I certainly take that point. The loss of 92 firefighters' jobs and the loss of five firefighting appliances in my hon. Friend's area will obviously affect public safety.

Mr. Mullin

It is seven appliances.

Mr. Austin-Walker

I stand corrected. Those losses are happening in an area in which three members of the public died in a fire after a fire station less than one minute from their home had been closed.

The problem does not exist only in urban and inner-city areas. In Scotland, many rural areas may be left to burn when stations in Balmoral, Gordonstoun, Rothes, Cullen, Banff and Kintore are closed. When a firefighter lost his foot, the fire authority concerned was criticised by the court for inadequate training; yet the current funding levels will mean further cuts in training for firefighters.

The Government's approach to the fire service has been typical of their approach to all public services: they want to know the cost of everything but recognise the value of nothing. The Fire Service college is a case in point. That former centre of excellence and one time world leader has been reduced to agency status, and profit rather than professionalism has become the priority. Throughout Britain, firefighter training has been restricted as a result of understaffing and underfunding, and many brigades can no longer afford to send staff to the Fire Service college.

The key issue is insufficient total funding of the fire service, and the situation is bound to worsen due to the effects of the pensions time bomb. Eighteen months ago, in the debate on the Queen's Speech, I drew the Minister's attention to the problem facing the London fire authority and warned that unless that problem was dealt with, there was a real prospect that we face dramatic cuts in the cover provided by fire and civil defence authorities in the next financial year."—[Official Report, 18 November 1994; Vol. 250, c. 293.] In the debate on 9 February this year, I pointed out that in London the fire authority is already devoting 19 per cent. of its budget to pensions. I further stated: The estimate of the pension requirements in 1996–97 is £45 million. The calculation in the SSA is £41 million—a difference of £4 million".—[Official Report, 9 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 630.] Nationally, it is estimated that in 10 years' time employers' contributions to the pension fund will absorb 25 per cent. of total fire service revenue expenditure. In London, the 25 per cent. level will be reached by the year 2002 or 2003. Throughout the country, the result of the Government's financial settlement will be a loss of hundreds of operational posts and a virtual freeze on recruitment. That will inevitably exacerbate the pension problems as fewer firefighters will be contributing to the pensions of more retired firefighters.

The Minister tells us that authorities have reserves or that further savings can be made, but it has already been shown that the efficiency savings identified by the Audit Commission are more likely to yield only £7 million rather than the £67 million hoped for by the Government. Services have already been pared to the bone. The Government claim that that is political posturing by Ken Cameron and the Fire Brigades Union, or by Councillor Tony Ritchie of the London fire authority, but the truth is that anyone who knows anything about the fire services holds the same view.

Mr. Clarkson, the previous chief fire officer for London, is on record as having said that he had already cut the service to the bone and that there was no more room for cuts. He is not a member of the Fire Brigades Union, and he is certainly not a member of the Labour party. It was revealed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) in a debate on 1 February that Mr. Clarkson is in fact a Conservative nominee for the police committee in Kent.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the loss of 15 fire appliances from the capital is particularly absurd at a time of threats of disruption from bombs and that it is particularly inappropriate that as we develop the site for the millennium festival in Greenwich the two stations next to that site are to lose fire appliances? Does he further agree that Londoners would prefer to pay 4p per week and feel secure in the knowledge that they have a good fire service rather than face the cuts imposed by the Government?

Mr. Austin-Walker

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am intimately concerned about Greenwich, which is in a neighbouring constituency. It is true that East Greenwich fire station, which is east of the millennium site, is to lose an appliance, as is Deptford fire station, to the west of the site, which is eventually scheduled for closure. That problem in London must be addressed.

The major difficulties faced by the fire authorities stem from the local government settlement for the current year and the next. Last year's settlement, which was generally accepted to be one of the most difficult on record, meant a planned overall increase of 3.3 per cent. in public expenditure, whereas most local authorities were required to manage budget increases limited to 0.5 per cent. No increase in provision was made for the fire service and the spending caps remained screwed down. The 1996–97 settlement shows little change, with an increase of just 1.5 per cent.

I accept that the SSA formula now includes a pensions element, but that is not the same as injecting additional money to cover costs. Nationally, the settlement for 1996–97 represents a cut in real terms of £70 million. That is the shortfall between actual budgets and the settlement. In London, that means a gap of £7 million. The 1995–96 budget of £258 million would need to be increased to £266 million to maintain current levels of service—a service already "cut to the bone", in the words of a former chief officer.

Some rather over-enthusiastic prospective Conservative parliamentary candidates in London, worried by the growing tide of public anger at threats to their fire stations, swallowed whole the propaganda from Tory central office. Those candidates were ready to rush into print in their local newspapers to say that it was all the fault of a wicked plan by a Labour-controlled authority which could not manage its finances. If only, instead of relying on the provenly unreliable central office machine, they had consulted their own Tory colleagues on the London fire authority. They should have read the letter, jointly signed by the leader of that authority, the leader of the Conservative group, Councillor Adrian Fitzgerald and the leader of the Liberals, Councillor Rowlands. If those candidates had consulted Tory councillors on that authority, they would have realised that the statements made by Baroness Blatch in her letter to hon. Members were at best misleading and that the document from Tory central office was a total distortion of the facts.

I regret that the SSA formula does not measure real fire cover needs. It is important to consider risk categorisation. Attendance times—and hence resources—are based on that categorisation. I welcome the comments of the Audit Commission in its report of last year, "In the Line of Fire". The categorisation of risk dates back to the days when insurance companies ran the fire service and graded their risks on the basis of property liability and not the saving of lives.

Many modern buildings incorporate sophisticated fire prevention and detection features, something which is absent from most inner-city and urban homes. It is in densely populated urban areas, however, that most deaths occur. Under the Government's categorisation of risk, most urban areas of terraced, detached and semi-detached housing and blocks of flats are categorised as C risk. That means that one fire engine should be sent to arrive at a fire within eight to 10 minutes. I believe that the current level of service in London is appropriate. The fire authority treats a domestic fire in a C risk area as one in a B risk area, where policy dictates that two appliances should be sent—one to arrive within five minutes and the second within eight minutes. There have been countless instances in London in which the lives of members of the public and of firefighters would have been lost if just one appliance had been sent to a house fire and arrived within 10 minutes. In some of the outer areas of London, including parts of my constituency, properties are categorised as D risk—which means that one fire appliance is sent, to arrive within 20 minutes. Thankfully, it is the policy of the London fire authority, supported by Conservative councillors on that authority, to send two appliances to any house fire.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his comprehensive account. Can he tell me whether an arrival time of 20 minutes is sanctioned by the Home Office?

Mr. Austin-Walker

I regret to say that it is.

The Minister of State replied to my Adjournment debate on the fire service on 9 February and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville), replied to a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East on 1 February. Both Ministers said that the London fire authority could make cuts and still meet the Home Office's recommended attendance times, and they were probably telling the truth. The Under-Secretary of State quoted the authority's report, which said that the reductions could be made without affecting the Authority's ability to meet Home Office recommended times. What Ministers did not admit, however, is that that guarantee represents a dramatic reduction in service. Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), I ask the Minister whether he thinks it reasonable that a fire in a flat on the Glyndon estate in Plumstead should be responded to by one fire engine, arriving in 10 minutes, without any further back-up. If he does, I must tell him that lives will be lost. The later an appliance reaches the scene of a fire, the greater the risk to the building and to any occupants, and the later a firefighter arrives, the greater the risk to him or her from flames, suffocation or falling debris—as in the case of Fleur Lombard.

Cheshire's chief fire officer makes the point that fast arrival is just the beginning; what then comes into play is the equipment, the back-up and the fact that the crews are well trained. A fire dealt with at its inception is much easier to extinguish than one that has taken hold. That makes sense financially, too, as resources are tied up for less time, allowing other incidents to be dealt with. If the fire gets worse before an engine arrives, the crew will be there much longer and will be unable to respond to other calls. If a crew turns up and there are people to be rescued, it can usually rely on the second crew to do resuscitation and first aid. The first few minutes are vital.

The health and safety of crews is also at risk when just one appliance is used and approved procedures have to be ignored. Imagine a fire on the 20th floor of one of the blocks on the Glyndon estate. The five firefighters have to take into the building two lengths of hose, two sets of breathing apparatus, one branch, one adaptor, one breathing apparatus control board, one dividing breach, one radio, breaking-in gear, a first aid kit, one or two axes and a resuscitator. The officer in charge must stay downstairs to implement command and control; the driver operates the pump to ensure that the water gets upstairs and another firefighter will set in the hydrant and dry riser to allow the passage of water. That leaves two firefighters to carry all that equipment. There is no breathing control officer and no one to carry out first aid.

Such is the result of a one-appliance response, with which the Minister seems quite content. Does he believe that a one-appliance response within 10 minutes is adequate in such a situation? That is, after all, the Home Office minimum standard. Minimum standards should be a safeguard for the public. Instead, those standards are being used as a lever to cut spending. As the screw tightens, either the service copes, but at a cost in terms of quality, reliability and morale—the lowering of any one of which puts lives at risk—or a major disaster occurs. It has not yet happened on a large scale, but any fire officer can cite one example after another of instances in which the outcome could have been disastrous. Every turn of the screw brings us closer to that disaster.

In the debate on 9 February, I compared two incidents in Woolwich. One took place when Shooters hill fire station had two appliances, and the other when it had one. In the first, four people in Rowton road were saved. In the second, in Llanover road, four people died; I do not claim that they would have survived if two appliances had been available, but it remains in the minds of everyone involved in that incident that a second appliance might have made all the difference.

As I have said, some parts of Woolwich are categorised as D risk. The Minister believes that it is reasonable for a fire in property there to be dealt with by one engine, arriving within 20 minutes. Thank goodness a Labour councillor and not the Minister is in charge of the London fire authority.

I speak with experience of London, but there is a nationwide crisis. In Greater Manchester, budget reductions have averaged £1 million a year over the past two years. Vacant fire safety officer posts have remained unfilled and repair and maintenance work has been reduced. Tyne and Wear has had to take off two front-line fire appliances and suspend its safety education programme. West Midlands has had a £4.6 million budget cut, with major cuts in training and no capital available for replacement fire stations. South Yorkshire has a shortfall of more than £1 million and the district auditor has warned that reserves are at the minimum acceptable level, so there is no possibility of their being available to help support the budget in future years.

The crisis is not only in London and the metropolitan areas; it is nationwide. I could give endless examples of cuts in services being made by brigades in county areas. In the home counties, there will be no minor works, no provision for information technology or for fire safety work as set out in the Audit Commission report, and 50 per cent. cuts in training at the Fire Service college. In the north-west, there are no resources for hazard management to deal with chemical spills and fires, and fire safety officer inspections have been reduced.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

In my constituency in the north-west, there is a category A fire risk in close proximity to Victorian housing. Does my hon. Friend agree, given such situations, that the cuts—which are spread across the country as he has described—typify the way in which the Government are mismanaging the situation? If we do not do something about that as a matter of urgency, the "What happens if …" question that arose from the Associated Octel fire last year will hit us very seriously.

Mr. Austin-Walker

I share my hon. Friend's concerns. I know that the Cheshire area has several establishments which use hazardous industrial processes and chemicals. I agree about the potential danger, which I shall come to because there are some risks with which fire authorities have to deal for which there is no adequate recompense or any funding arrangement. They include dealing with spillages of hazardous chemicals. Fire brigades are effectively funded only to deal with fire operations.

In the south-west, there have been reductions in essential training and community fire safety units have been abolished. I mentioned earlier the cuts in Scotland. The list goes on and on, and it makes depressing reading.

Capital funds are an essential part of fire service development. I live in Thamesmead, a new town built on the Thames marshes. No additional fire cover has been provided for it, although a dedicated fire station was once promised. When I complained, Baroness Blatch replied that it was nothing to do with her but a matter for the authority—yet she controls the authority's capital expenditure.

For the London fire authority, the basic credit approval for 1996–97 has been set at £5.5 million—£3 million less than for the current year—nearly halving the authority's capital programme so that it is unable to sustain the level of investment needed in vehicles and equipment without reductions in appliances or crews. On Merseyside, the credit approval is £2.1 million against a requirement of £3.5 million. The money available for vehicles is less than a third of what is required.

If we take the figures for all fire and civil defence authorities, basic credit approvals have been cut from £23 million in the current year to £15 million in the coming year—a decrease of almost 35 per cent. for Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire and London.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

What my hon. Friend describes is common in north Wales. We have had a major cut in the capital programme. On top of all that, local government reorganisation has reduced the number of fire services from eight to three and created additional difficulties that have not been recognised by the Government.

Mr. Austin-Walker

My hon. Friend points to the fact that several factors are not fully taken into account in calculating a fire authority's spending needs. They are certainly not adequately taken into account in the standard spending assessment.

I shall briefly describe the background to the cuts. In the 10 years from 1983 to 1993–94, the operational establishment in fire services in Great Britain went down from 40,000 to 39,438, while fire calls rose by 28 per cent. and false alarms rose by 116 per cent. Calls for special services went up by a staggering 82 per cent. Special services include attending road traffic accidents and releasing trapped people; releasing people trapped in lifts; dealing with spillages of hazardous chemicals; pumping flood water out of premises and similar services. However—wait for it—the Government do not take account of any of those services in deciding funding for fire authorities. In London, the number of such incidents, at more than 61,000 a year, exceeds the number of fire calls, excluding false alarms. No wonder Mr. Davies of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association said: Fire service funding would be a farce if it wasn't so serious. The Standard Spending Assessment is worse than the National Lottery—at least there, somebody wins. Most people would be surprised—I suspect that some hon. Members are surprised—to learn that the fire service receives no funding for turning out to road traffic accidents or rail crashes. There is no funding and no obligation to assist. Nevertheless, the fire brigades turn out, as we expect them to. That part of their work has grown by 82 per cent. since 1983. Is it not time that the Minister recognised that in the funding formula?

I hear that some brigades may be planning to charge victims of road accidents for cutting them out of vehicles. Will they ask to see our credit cards before rescuing us—"Yes, that'll do nicely sir"? I also hear that some brigades are contemplating setting up driving schools as a nice little earner to boost their inadequate budgets.

Recently, we mourned the deaths of three firefighters. On 6 February, the Prime Minister referred to the selfless bravery of the fire service."—[Official Report, 6 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 133.] Why, then, do the Government refuse to fund this selfless service? It is intolerable that it should take the tragic deaths of courageous public servants to draw attention to the dire state to which the fire service is being reduced. As the Fire Brigades Union has said: how many firefighters and members of the public must continue to die as a result of fires and fire related incidents before the parliamentarians that represent the people of the UK will in fact listen to us. If such views are unpalatable to some, then that is a reality that they must come to terms with, the FBU only relates the experiences and concerns of firefighters. Must we really, as a nation that has led the world in so many areas of excellence and endeavour, enter the next millennium and the 21st century on the basis that only disaster and significant casualty and fatality figures or losses arising from such occurrences are necessary to even spur the policy makers into considering what might be done to protect us all collectively from such circumstances? The answer must be no. The Government must think again and we must have this national debate now.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

It is obvious that a large number of hon. Members wish to speak. I make a plea for short speeches.

11.27 am
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) on winning this important debate, which I am pleased to be able to participate in, especially as a London Member. He is a London Member who has spoken before on the subject regarding London, but this morning he has given the House the opportunity to debate the fire services in the rest of the country. I shall concentrate on London.

Congratulating the hon. Gentleman on getting the debate and choosing this subject is about the last compliment that I shall have for him. The hon. Gentleman has given us a tour d'horizon of the fire services and the arguments that many of us have heard before from representatives of the Fire Brigades Union in our constituencies. I wonder, with all his hopes and wishes, whether his speech has been looked over by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown). There were considerable cost implications in what he said. I imagine that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), will have something to say about that and that our colleagues in the Treasury will examine closely what Labour Members have said about the fire services. Costs are vital in every area of government and of public service, and the fire service must be subject to rules of efficiency. The hon. Member for Woolwich said that the Audit Commission's assessment of savings of £67 million in the fire service across the country is on the high side—a fact that he claims the Audit Commission now acknowledges. I have not seen any documentation to that effect, but, if about £67 million in efficiency savings can be achieved across the nation, presumably we are talking about possible efficiency savings of £12 million to £15 million in the London fire service. The Audit Commission suggested efficiency savings in a number of areas.

I turn now to the specific arguments regarding the London fire service. I praise the bravery of the fire service and the enormous skills of the front-line firefighters in our capital city. I am sure that everyone agrees that London has a fine fire service, which is well above the minimum standards laid down by the Home Office in terms of fire appliances and fire stations.

Therefore, I was amazed when I heard that the London fire authority was considering closing four fire stations and reducing the number of fire appliances in London. According to figures provided by the fire authority, it has substantial reserves totalling £27 million. Its standard spending assessment has increased this year and the level of the cap has also increased by £5 million.

Ms Hodge

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has managed to praise the London fire service. Does he agree that, if the fire service in London is funded by eating into reserves, those reserves will vanish by 1998–99? Does he agree also

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Only one point should be raised by way of intervention.

Ms Hodge

The two matters are linked.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should recognise that it is a tradition of the House that interventions deal with a single subject.

Mr. Tracey

As she also represents a London constituency, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) may wish to catch your eye to speak in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We are talking about £27 million in reserves for the London fire authority. I understand that the Birmingham fire authority has only £2 million in reserve, so reserves of £27 million are far and away above the level required. The hon. Lady has led a local authority—we all have views about it—and she must recognise that £27 million is an enormous sum. At the beginning of the year, the director of finance for the London fire authority said that the reserves were too high and should be reduced. He revealed also that the fire authority underspent by £3.7 million last year. What possible reason could it have for threatening to close four fire stations and reduce the number of fire appliances—two of them in Twickenham and in Wimbledon close to my constituency? Naturally, I deplore such plans.

A remarkable thing then occurred. Hon. Members and the London local authorities complained about the plans previewed by the London fire authority. Quite mysteriously, about a week before it was to meet to decide on the budget cuts, we heard that a Labour party caucus meeting somewhere in London had decided that the four fire stations would not close and that several fire appliances would not be removed. Councillor Ritchie, the Labour leader of the predominantly Labour-controlled London fire authority, then announced to the nation what had been decided in the Labour party caucus meeting. That is a disgraceful way to run the fire service in the capital.

We have heard much about the level of protection needed for the millennium celebrations in Greenwich and the protection necessary for the great stores, Government buildings and our built heritage in central London. Fire safety has been undermined by the disgraceful actions of the fire authority which, after scaremongering and politicking, reached a decision in a Labour party caucus meeting and announced its decision via a press release.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)

Is my hon. Friend aware that 22 Labour councillors, six Conservatives and one independent serve on the London fire and civil defence authority? In addition to the funding that the authority has put aside and its underspend, the Audit Commission conducted an inquiry and found that the authority's training methods and its expenditure were above the level requested by the commission. As a consequence, is my hon. Friend aware—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have made it clear that interventions should comprise a short question and not a speech.

Mr. Tracey

I am well aware of the situation that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) describes. He has been at the forefront of the campaign against the disgraceful cuts which would have reduced the number of appliances in his area.

I shall draw my remarks to a close as I have highlighted my anger upon hearing about the nonsensical actions of the predominantly Labour-controlled fire authority. Its behaviour has mirrored that of Labour local authorities around the country. There is no basis for the authority's assertions. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) has tried for three weeks to get details from the fire authority about why it suddenly reversed its decision to close four fire stations and reduce the number of fire appliances. Perhaps he will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and explain the situation.

I believe that the London fire authority has engaged in a particularly squalid exercise. The final straw was Councillor Ritchie' s announcement that the London fire authority intends to increase overseas travel allowances—heaven knows why—by £5,800 and to increase members' expenses by £43,200. That shows what the London fire authority is made of.

11.38 am
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Shortly after I became a Member of Parliament, I was holidaying in the former Yugoslavia when a charter plane crashed. Many British people died in the accident and those who survived suffered appalling burns. I spent four days with my doctor husband in the hospitals that were treating the victims, and the sights, sounds and smells of what fire can do to human beings will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Therefore, when I learnt that the Cheshire chief fire officer was saying, in an extremely responsible way, that the fire service was now at a considerable risk of not being able to provide adequate and proper fire cover, I took it seriously. I took this issue seriously—not like some hon. Members who seem to think that it is a suitable subject for squalid party political arguments—because there are men and women in the fire service who daily risk their lives and considerable injury. They have a strong belief that our constituents are entitled to high-quality fire services and protection.

It is important to take seriously what the Cheshire chief fire officer is saying. He has looked at the cuts—not one set of cuts but a series of cuts across the budgets over a number of years—and has concluded on behalf of the Cheshire fire service, and many fire services across the country, that one can no longer seriously talk about providing the level of cover that is essential. He has not said that the fire services cannot respond to an external audit that says that there should be some efficiency savings and a rearrangement in the way in which they work.

The chief fire officer has said something more fundamental: that we have now undergone a series of changes, we are still undergoing a series of changes and we are no longer able to provide the level of care that the general public are entitled to assume we will provide. That is the issue—it is an argument about not the political views of individual fire committees, but whether the House of Commons will face up to the fact that we are not allowing sufficient money for the fire service to do the job for which it is retained. That seems to me to be so essential and simple, and I cannot see why it is difficult for hon. Members to understand it.

The Cheshire chief fire officer said—I am talking about Cheshire, but what I am saying applies to many brigades: Our study indicates that the Brigade is very efficient. The Brigade has been required to make significant savings in each of the last three years, in 1994/95 these amounted to £195,000". He continued: One of the best indicators of the overall cost effectiveness of a brigade is its gross cost per pump. Other statistics may provide an indication of the efficiency … but the gross cost per pump, when compared to benchmark figures, gives an indication of the likely savings". He then details the figures, which prove time and time again that the fire service is doing a good job. The Cheshire chief fire officer has also given me the effects of the underfunding over these years, including capital costs. It has meant a cut in operational officer cover, a reduction in managerial posts, changes to staffing practices at shift changeover and bank holidays, a reduction in rescue tender provision, a rationalisation of special appliance provision—I could go on. In capital costs, it means that equipment is not being replaced, that modern equipment that is available to save lives is not being supplied and that there are real problems in finding the money for core training for officers.

I shall briefly say what I think of a Government who allow an important service like the Fire Service college to be treated in that shabby way. The Government have seen fit to write off the debts of innumerable companies when they want to sell them on the private market. The Government have no difficulty whatsoever in writing off billions of pounds of taxpayers' money, but when the fire college was set up as an independent agency, it was lumbered with considerable debts and was told to recover them from the fees that it charges.

The result is terribly simple and plain: throughout the United Kingdom, fire services are not sending the same number of fire officers for core training, which their chief fire officers believe to be essential, because of the cost. Such training is down by 25 per cent. Fire officers in need of proper training are not receiving it, not because no one accepts the need for it but because they cannot pay for it. That is a simple formula. What will it lead to? It will lead to death, to injury and to lifetimes of unhappiness for our constituents who are caught in major fires. It is unacceptable for a so-called civilised country to have got its priorities so badly wrong.

I have listened with care to the various debates as to whether the money is available. Is it not astonishing that when the Government want to spend a great deal of money on arms, they can find however much money they want? However, when we want to find money to provide a high-quality fire service—to protect our constituents, to carry out the training programmes that fire services are increasingly doing and to teach small children what to do if a fire breaks out—it is not available. That is despicable and unacceptable.

If this debate awakens in the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), even a tiny voice of conscience, it will have achieved more than what my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker), who introduced the debate, set out to achieve.

11.47 am
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) on securing the debate and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). She has given me an ideal introduction to the debate, because I want to say a few brief words about the Fire Service college at Moreton-in-Marsh, which is in the heart of my constituency. The college employs 250 of my constituents in a rural area. It is a national asset.

I shall briefly describe the college to hon. Members. It comprises 500 acres of an old airfield. It has magnificent facilities: a mock motorway, so that it can stage mock pile-ups; an office block, so that it can stage fires in a three-storey office block; and an entire mock ship, so that it can stage fires on it. The college teaches British firemen with the best facilities and training in the world. The college has excellent information technology laboratories and it has the national fire service chapel. It is an absolute gem—it is a national asset. We should be able to train British firemen to the highest standards at the college, and market its services to the rest of the world because there is nothing else like it, except in the United States.

I have had discussions with Baroness Blatch about the future of the college. It was set up as an independent trading fund in 1992 and it has consistently been making a loss. In case any hon. Member jumps to the conclusion that it is being run inefficiently, I emphasise that that could not be further from the truth. The college was set up as an independent trading fund on 1 April 1992, and it was the first such independent trading fund to be set up by the Government. Unfortunately, the Treasury had eyes on a milch cow that was non-existent and it set it up with several severe disadvantages, which I shall outline to hon. Members.

When the Treasury set up the Fire Service college, it made it honour its commitment to prices of courses before it was set up as a trading fund. That reduced the college's profit in its first year of trading by £1.2 million. Much more importantly, a valuation of the college was carried out by a well-known firm of chartered surveyors at £33 million. Being a chartered surveyor, I hesitate to criticise a fellow firm of surveyors. However, I am reliably informed that that was a gross overestimate of the valuation of the college at that time and that it should have been less than £10 million. The problem is that, because of that trading fund status, the college is obliged to pay notional interest on half the loan because half of it is deemed public interest capital, and the notional loan in the accounts this year amounts to £1.7 million.

The college is thirdly disadvantaged by a further £1.25 million as a result of a decision last year by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise that the college has to pay VAT but cannot reclaim it. The notional interest, and the fact that it cannot reclaim VAT, amounts to about £2.5 million. Last year, it made a loss of £2.75 million. The chief executive, Nigel Finlayson, and the commandant, Mr. David, do an excellent job, but it is tremendously dispiriting to be saddled with such on-costs about which nothing can be done.

I have had discussions with Baroness Blatch to see what can be done to secure the college's future. I have been trying to encourage other Government organisations to place their training at the college, most notably the Ministry of Defence. However, I have received a reply from the MOD saying that it is not prepared to commit its training requirements to the national Fire Service college while there is a question mark over its future.

The chief executive goes all over the world. I pay tremendous tribute to him because he increased the non-UK training budget last year by more than 10 per cent. He is doing a magnificent job, but he has one hand tied behind his back when the accounts for the past three years show that the college has been making a loss of more than £2 million.

I do not want to take up too much of the debate, but I suggest three courses of action to the noble Baroness in order to secure the college's future. First, as has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, the Government should, having set up the college as a trading fund on the wrong basis, now write off all past debts and notional interest rates, allowing it to start with a clean sheet so that we can see whether it is run efficiently.

If the Government are not prepared to do that, they should consider—I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take these concerns back to Baroness Blatchallowing the college to revert to the former Home Office vote. The college should be run directly from the Home Office and everybody should accept that the college will make a loss of about £2.5 million a year.

If neither of those two alternatives is acceptable, the college should be sold off to an entrepreneur, with appropriate safeguards for training the UK fire service, with a remit to go out into the world and obtain as much non-UK fire service business as possible. It should then be required to make a profit. The Government would benefit from the sale of the college and the people running it would not have the burdens around their necks.

As has already been mentioned this morning, there is considerable concern about the adequacy of the training of UK firemen. At the moment, the college provides just over 16,000 man days of fire training. But there is great concern that, with the squeeze on the SSAs of each fire authority, that figure may drop to 14,000. If that happens, the college will make a substantially bigger loss next year, and that will not be caused by the college's inefficiency in organising itself.

It would be a tragedy if this national asset were to be let go. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take those concerns back to Baroness Blatch. I have written her a detailed letter, to which I have yet to receive a reply. However, I reassure the Government that I shall continue to battle for the future of the college because it is a national asset.

11.53 am
Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

I do not agree with everything that the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said; none the less, his speech was like a breath of fresh air coming through the smoke compared with some earlier contributions. I feared that the debate would deteriorate into a Conservative and Labour battleground over the particular problems in London. I hope that that will not happen, because the problems affecting the fire service concern hon. Members on both sides of the House and are of great concern to our constituents.

We know from the remarks addressed to us all by Mr. Davies, the president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, of his concern that, across the country, the fire service is, in effect, facing death by a thousand cuts—the gradual erosion of standards which is taking place year by year, yet is going largely unnoticed in the communities in the areas served by local fire brigades.

As has been said before, in Greater Manchester cuts of £1 million a year have been the fate of the local fire service during the past couple of years. Towards the end of last summer, I had the opportunity to visit firefighters in Oldham and Littleborough, serving my constituency, and to learn at first hand just how our firefighters spend their time. They had just finished a period which had seen some of the most intensive use of fire tenders and fire crews for many years, with a spate of moorland and heath fires in other parts of the country which had stretched their resources to the limit and beyond. Retired firefighters had to be called in to eke out the resources at that time.

General concern was expressed at both those fire stations that the squeeze on finance was likely to reduce the number of tenders available in their stations if a major incident took place across a wide area. There was also concern that access to the most modern equipment being developed by the fire brigade would be denied to them and they would have to make do with equipment which, while good in its day, would not meet the most modern requirements, placing the lives of firefighters at risk.

It is obvious that the vast majority of a firefighter's time is not spent fighting fires. It is spent in training, in maintaining equipment and in dealing with false alarms. Some 40 per cent. of incidents are cited as false alarms and, in practice, I suspect that that number is growing rapidly. The introduction of smoke alarms has been a major asset in saving lives in the home, but they have led to many additional call-outs for fire crews.

The fact that firefighting crews are not fighting fires does not mean that their time is not being spent usefully or that it is being wasted. They have to be equipped to deal with emergencies as and when they occur. They do not occur neatly, as a Government accountant might require them so to do.

When the bell rings in a fire station, the officer taking the call cannot know whether it will be a false alarm or will lead to tenders being sent out to deal with a life-threatening major fire or a major incident on a motorway in which a driver has to be cut out of the wreckage of a crashed vehicle. He cannot know whether it will prove to be a major city centre incident, perhaps the result of a terrorist outrage, something to which we have been alerted recently, requiring fire crews from across the county to meet the needs that arise. The service must be equipped to deal with those worst case scenarios.

Sadly, I fear that that is not the approach being taken by the Government. They seem to require brigade officers to use their equipment and resources as efficiently and effectively as possible. That, of course, is right, but the mechanism that they are using is the crude one of spending cuts requiring officers to face up to a crisis and to adjust to it accordingly.

The basic assumption for planning purposes is not the need to meet the worst case scenarios, but the need to deal with the average demands being placed on the service. That approach, which might be admirable if applied to an efficient quality manufacturing industry, is not appropriate to a fire service which has to meet the needs of people in situations which cannot be predicted. When the call comes, our firefighters need to be equipped and ready. The Government must address their concerns and ensure that they have the resources to meet the requirements placed on them and to maintain the confidence that the public rightly feel in the fire service.

I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be able to stay to hear the end of the debate. I shall finish my remarks and allow other hon. Members to speak, but I wish to remind the House of the remarks made by Mr. Davies in the letter that was circulated to all hon. Members. He said that "delay is not acceptable" because it is "dangerous to firefighters". The House should accept that the cuts in expenditure are threatening a quality public service of which we can be proud, and they must be halted.

11.59 am
Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

I wish to take only two minutes of the time of the House. Although the debate has given a general impression of the fire service, it has centred almost entirely on the London scene and I was quite surprised to learn that there was a deposit account for the London fire service of £27 million. That may have made the authority change its mind when it considered closing down four stations, but in Hampshire it is a totally different story.

The fire service in Hampshire is very efficient and modern in its approach. All the observations that my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made about the training college in his area are duplicated in Hampshire.

There can be no doubt that cost is the issue. People in all grades of society are worried about cost and maximum efficiency. The way to get the message over is to ask the fire service to do the tasks and, if it cannot, exceptions can be made. The plan of Baroness Blatch and her colleague is to meet groups of Members of Parliament. All the Hampshire Members of Parliament have been given the opportunity to meet Baroness Blatch, and instead of all the argy-bargy and semi-political chitchat that some hon. Members have raised in the debate, we can have a balanced debate about the pros and cons. I am sure that, after meeting the Ministers, the Hampshire Members will put forward a formula that could carry the day.

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the debate has been extremely useful in highlighting another problem in modern society.

12.2 pm

Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)

I shall speak as rapidly as possible because I wish to deal exclusively with the Greater Manchester fire service, its resources and its role.

In 1986, the Audit Commission reported that the fire services generally were "notably well managed", great value for money and, in efficiency and effectiveness, were second to none in the United Kingdom and the world. That is a glowing tribute to our fire services. The problem is the inability of the fire services to fulfil the statutory functions that are placed on them, because of the cuts imposed on them and their ever-increasing work load. The work load is rising at the same time as a static amount of money is available to the fire services to cope with the explosion in the number of incidents.

The incidence of fires in Manchester has constantly increased at a rate that is not commensurate with the amount of money available to increase the facilities to cope. In 1985, 48,000 incidents were recorded in Manchester, and in the past decade there has been a 70 per cent. increase, to 81,000 in 1995. Operational resources remained virtually unchanged in the same period. In 1994, the fire service in Manchester had just 68 appliances available to deal with that work load, and every single fire tender available had to deal with between 3,500 and 4,000 incidents.

When the fire service is forced—I use the word "forced" advisedly—by economic and financial constraints to impose a series of measures that impede or weaken the efficiency of the force, it gives rise to concerns that we all share, nationally and regionally. In my area, there has been much alarm about that problem. Budget reductions over the past two years have been about £1 million. This year—as was announced only yesterday—the chief fire officer of the Greater Manchester brigade said that there would be a £1.9 million deficit. That sum can be taken out of available balances, but the Audit Commission made it clear that it believed that no further injection of funds from the balances could be reconciled. That means that no more reserves will be available until 1998.

We have seen reductions in recruitment. Recruitment courses have had to be revised because of the cuts. The reduction in the use of the Fire Service college has been mentioned today, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on the way in which he put the case for the college. I disagree with him on privatisation, but the college is first class and that is recognised by all the brigades throughout the United Kingdom.

We have seen a decrease in repairs and in the efficiency of vital fire appliances. Further funding deficiencies, for obvious reasons, will accelerate the problem and make it harder for the fire services to fulfil their role. The prime example is the use of the fire college and the impact on core and non-core training of brigades. Future training is necessary—indeed, imperative—to give a first-class service.

In spite of the reduction in funding, the fire services are now expected to finance more and more high-tech equipment, which is more sophisticated and more costly than previous equipment. The new equipment must be used to its maximum efficiency to get value for money for the fire services, which do such a necessary job.

There is also increasing pressure to devote more resources to fire safety education. We need to do more work in fire prevention and to educate the general public. I tabled an early-day motion recently, which was signed by some 60 Members of Parliament, about the tragic death of a 15-year-old girl, Melanie Ellison, who suffered horrendous burns when the modern padded shirt that she was wearing—like the shirts and anoraks worn by many young people and, indeed, adults—ignited through a single spark from a cooker.

Some hon. Members will remember the campaign on foam in furniture. Such shirts should be labelled to show whether they are non-flammable or inflammable, according to the type of material used to fill them. Such tragedies could be avoided if warning labels were used. I have pointed that out to the Home Office, to the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs and to the industry. They have a clear responsibility to ensure that imported goods, many from third-world countries, should be subject to safety standards when imports are licensed. Labelling for such garments is imperative.

Last year, we had an unusual summer followed by a harsh winter, and the demands on fire brigades have been heavy. In the first three weeks of August, many specialist uniformed staff manned vans and cars to deal with the grass fires, and off-duty personnel were recalled for duty. Some departments have not yet recovered from the backlog of administration work that was caused. For such unusual circumstances, compensation ought to be paid.

Bonfire night and the end of December, when there was severe weather, saw more increases in activity. On 30 and 31 December brigade control handled 763 and 728 calls respectively—twice as many as the norm. A great deal of additional overtime and wear and tear to vehicles was incurred in 1995 owing to the additional number of incidents, but no additional funding has been provided to help the service cope with these unpredictable circumstances.

I do not want to make a political point directly, but in the long term if we are penny wise and pound foolish there will be a regrettable loss of life and limb. That will have certain political consequences for the Government at the next general election.

12.10 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) on winning the ballot, and on raising this important subject. I also congratulate him on his thoughtful and effective speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), in her customary way, made some sound, commonsense points not just about Cheshire but about the fire service's wider problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) has just given us a detailed account of the difficulties confronting the Greater Manchester fire authority. I know that he takes a great interest in that topic.

I begin with two statements which I suspect will attract consensus. The first is that firefighting is a dangerous occupation. The recent deaths of a couple of firefighters have served only to underline that point. Every hon. Member will want to be associated with sending to the families of those who lost their lives our deep appreciation of the risks they took and the price they paid on behalf of the general public.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

My hon. Friend may be aware that two part-time firefighters in my constituency died a few weeks ago attempting to save the life of a child. Their deaths were mourned, and their courage was saluted by all. But the local community is very angry, because the common-law wife of one of them, who was in a caring and loving relationship with him for 17 years and who has a child of 10, has been informed that she will not receive a pension, because she is not married.

I contacted Baroness B latch to express my concern and anger. She responded by saying that, although the matter was under review, even if the outcome of the review was positive, it would not be retrospective. May I have a commitment that a future Labour Government will not just review the situation but will ensure that this woman receives the pension she deserves, so that justice is done?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend and I have discussed that. I should first want the review to reach its proper conclusions, and then to examine them. Generally speaking, we now recognise all sorts of relationships. Divorce law, in the context of pensions, recognises differing relationships outside marriage, and I am almost certain that the review will reach a similar conclusion.

As for my hon. Friend's specific constituency case, I know that there is a great deal of anger in his community. The public admire this country's firefighters, and it would be a nice gesture if the Minister promised to raise the matter with Baroness Blatch and gave a commitment that any regulations that may apply would be waived and the pension granted in this case. That would not necessarily be a precedent—each case is different—and I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic.

My second general point centres on the fact that the fire services offer an emergency service. People in difficulties call out the fire service, and rightly expect help to arrive almost immediately. That may not always be possible, but people certainly expect a fire crew and an engine or two to be in attendance within a short time. Our charge against the Government is that they have refused to face up to the growing crisis in the fire services.

Some of the evidence has already been covered. For 1995–96, the standard spending assessment shortfall arrived at by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils amounted to £52 million, and the shortfall for 1996–97 is forecast to be at least £70 million. Removing so much money from a relatively inexpensive national emergency service is bound to create problems.

I believe that every hon. Member has received a copy of the letter sent by the president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, Mr. Davies, who states: What has happened so far is that a series of issues like capital financing, pensions, fire service training costs, national employee conditions and standards of fire cover have all been examined in isolation, only to find that they are one and the same problem—the need for adequate basic funding to meet objectively set quality standards—and that is a nettle not many people want to grasp".

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

My hon. Friend, as a Merseyside colleague, may be aware that Merseyside fire and civil defence authority, on the advice of the chief fire officer, has just set a budget of £52.7 million, which is £2.139 million above the cap. Her Majesty's chief inspector has agreed with the chief fire officer's assessment of these needs of the service.

Mr. Howarth

Merseyside is dear to both our hearts, and my hon. Friend has put his finger on the problem. Statutory obligations and expectations are not matched by resources—that is true across the country.

The Government simply have no way left to explain their case. The only argument they have been able to produce so far is based on selective quotations from the Audit Commission's report last year, entitled "In the Line of Fire". On that, they base their idea that there is scope for saving £29 million. A more realistic figure, quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, would be £7 million, which, in a global service of this type, does not add up to much in the way of efficiency savings.

Fire authorities in Tyne and Wear, Cheshire, Manchester and Merseyside—and many other places—are having to make reductions that will have a measurable impact on services. It will mean that fire engines will be mothballed, stations will be closed and there will be job losses among firefighters.

Similarly, capital expenditure was reduced last year by 50 per cent., and it is forecast, from what we know about basic credit approvals, to do so again by an average of 35 per cent. The Government say that the private finance initiative can bridge the gap, but they have not yet been able to point to a single case in which the PFI could be made to work in the fire services.

The Audit Commission report "In the Line of Fire" shows that there are many in-built problems with the SSA formula: pensions, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, the assessment of risk, the application of minimum standards and special services, which are not covered by the formula. None of that is covered. What we have is a working party here, an inquiry there, a special investigation elsewhere. Government by working party does not add up to proper management of our fire services.

I ask the Government to look further at transitional costs, particularly those in Wales and the shire counties, because they are a serious problem. We have government by working party, a Government who have failed and refused to face up to the in-built problems in the fire service. I suspect that it will take a change of Government before anybody with responsibility faces those problems. The sooner we have a Labour Government prepared to accept these responsibilities, the sooner we can start moving again.

12.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

The recent tragic events in Gwent and Avon have reminded us yet again of the risks that firefighters take every day of their working lives. I share hon. Members' feelings about that, and pay sincere tribute to the dedication and selfless courage of all those who work in the fire service.

Mr. Llew Smith

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Kirkhope

No, I have only about eight minutes.

The service performs an essential public duty; whether it is operating as an emergency service or responding to a more routine call for assistance, it is rarely, if ever, found wanting. We are all profoundly grateful for that.

The fire service has been a local authority service since the second world war. Local "fire authorities" have a statutory responsibility to provide an effective and efficient fire service. As a result, funding for the fire service is included in the local government finance settlement, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced in January. It is, I believe, a fair settlement.

In 1996–97, central Government support for local authorities will increase by £966 million. Total standard spending in England for 1996–97 has provisionally been set at £44.9 billion. That is an increase of 3.3 per cent. on 1995–96. The fire service standard spending assessment for England in 1996–97 has been increased by £17 million. But it is ultimately for local authorities to decide how much is spent on individual services, in the light of their local circumstances.

It is true that the fire service is being asked to make efficiency savings, but so is virtually every other public service. It is essential that we ensure that the taxpayer gets the best value for money, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey), who has explained to me the reasons why he has had to leave us.

When the Audit Commission looked at the fire service, in its report published last year, it concluded: There are local opportunities that can be taken now within the current framework. The locally achievable savings identified by this study are £67 million a year. This represents 5 per cent. of the total expenditure on the fire service". Although some people—some hon. Members, even—may take issue with the Audit Commission's conclusions, I stress that it is totally independent and has an excellent track record in this area. Moreover, its report highlights specific areas in which efficiency savings can be made. It suggests that reducing sickness rates in all brigades to the level of the lower quartile would save £17 million a year nationally. Bringing the level of leave in all brigades down to the level of the lower quartile would lead to savings of £8 million a year; and moving all brigades' management costs to the performance of the most efficient quarter would save about £29 million a year nationally.

The fire service element of the SSA is distributed to individual authorities via a formula that is reviewed every year in consultation with local authority associations. The Government carefully considered the formula for the fire service element of SSAs for 1996–97. We decided that it should be adjusted to include factors for fire safety enforcement, fire safety education and firefighters' pensions. That is in line with recommendations by the Audit Commission.

The process of reviewing the SSA formula for the fire service for 1997–98 has just begun. To help inform the review, the Department of the Environment has commissioned research on the costs of providing services in densely and sparsely populated areas and the area cost adjustment. That adjustment is included in the formula to compensate for the additional cost of providing services in south-east England.

The Home Office is also participating with local authority associations in a technical group, which is exploring the possibility of an alternative formula based on the number of fire stations in each brigade area. Any change to the formula must not unreasonably increase the grant to some brigades and disproportionately reduce it to others. However, the Government are always willing to see what improvements can be made.

The provisional council tax capping criteria for 1996–97 set by the Secretary of State for the Environment allow an increase in net budget of 2 per cent. for metropolitan fire authorities and 3 per cent. for shire authorities as the norm. However, in many cases, authorities were permitted an increase above that norm if the result otherwise would have been to prevent them from receiving the full benefit of agreed increases in SSA.

If an authority believed that it could not set a budget for 1996–97 that would allow it to meet its legal obligations, it had the option to set a budget higher than the proposed capping limit, and to apply to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for redetermination of the cap. Some authorities have taken that option. The outcome of such applications will depend on the quality of the case that is made.

Many hon. Members referred to London, the SSA of which will increase by £1.1 million in 1996–97. Under the proposed capping criteria, the authority was able to set a budget of up to £5.1 million—or 2 per cent.—more than in 1995–96. In setting its budget, the authority would have taken these factors into account, as well as the scope for savings and the availability of its reserves.

Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)

As £27 million of reserves have emerged only belatedly after the consultation period by the LFCDA, will my hon. Friend urge our right hon. Friend seriously to consider rejecting these unnecessary proposals from the London fire brigade?

Mr. Kirkhope

My hon. Friend is right to raise that, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton. The relatively high reserves of about £27 million were referred to even by the authority's own director of finance as needing to be reduced. It is important that the Labour party should remember that so much political activity, which has been referred to by my hon. Friends, is not particularly in the interests of the fire service for London. Indeed, I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) has asked that an investigation take place into the activities of the authority in that regard.

Mr. George Howarth


Mr. Kirkhope

I shall not give way.

As hon. Members will know, the authority has decided to set its budget for 1996–97 at the capping limit. It has decided not to proceed with the closure of four fire stations, recommended by its own fire cover review. Nor does it propose to seek approval to withdraw appliances from seven stations, which was also recommended. It has, of course, applied to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for approval to withdraw pumping appliances from 15 fire stations. The authority also intends, as I understand it, to provide an additional appliance at two fire stations. As hon. Members will know, that does not require approval, and was mentioned by Opposition Members.

Under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, my right hon. and learned Friend's approval is required if a fire authority wishes to reduce the number of its fire stations, fire appliances and firefighting posts. My right hon. and learned Friend has a specific but limited role in considering applications, and grants approval when the conditions are met.

Mr. Llew Smith

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Kirkhope


My right hon. and learned Friend will also consider representations in addition to those already forwarded to the fire authority, provided that the individual or organisation concerned forwards them promptly on being advised that a section 19 application is to be submitted.

The standards that are applied dictate the initial response to a fire in weight and speed of attack. They rest on four main standards of service, according to the risk category into which an area has been placed. This system of risk is based on the characteristics of the buildings and property in an area, and assumes for each category that a predetermined number of firefighting appliances should attend within a certain time.

The standards are not just nationally recommended, but are nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council.

The Government consider that the standards have served the country well, but that is not to say that we regard them as immutable. The Audit Commission's report recommended another fundamental review of the levels of fire cover, and we are proceeding with that review.

We are grateful for the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in our consideration of the future of the Fire Service college. We are keen for it to remain in existence. Although it is subject to financial constraints, we want it to succeed, and will do all we can to preserve it.

The fire service in England provides an excellent public service. We value the work of firefighters—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Time's up.

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