HC Deb 08 May 1996 vol 277 cc296-342 7.14 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I beg to move, That this House congratulates the Fire Service on its exemplary record as one of the most consistently high-performing services in local government; is appalled by the uncertainty over the future of the world-renowned Fire Service College; and deeply regrets the lack of any clear strategy by Her Majesty's Government properly to sustain and to develop the service. As our motion spells out, the fire service in Great Britain is one of the most consistently high-performing services in local government". That is a direct quotation from the Audit Commission in its comment on the 1994–95 performance indicators for local government, which were published last month. The British people rely on their fire service. They hope that they will never need it, but when they do require its services, they not only expect that it will turn up as quickly as is humanly possible, but they know that that will be the case.

Like the police and the security services, our firefighters risk their lives to save the lives of others. Earlier this year, three firefighters were killed in the course of their duty in the space of one week. Kevin Lane and Stephen Griffin of the Gwent brigade were killed on duty on 1 February, and Fleur Lombard, of the Avon brigade, lost her life on 4 February. Last year in England and Wales, more than 600 fire personnel sustained injuries in the line of their duties. We pay tribute to them all.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I am grateful for the mention that the hon. Gentleman made of the two men who lost their lives in Gwent. Is he aware that the fire services in Wales are uniformly extremely worried that the cut in resources will undermine their capability to handle fires and also undermine their safety when they undertake work on behalf of the public? That cannot be allowed to continue.

Mr. Straw

I am indeed aware of the concern in Wales that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, as have a great many of my hon. Friends.

Even when no physical injury has been sustained, firefighters often suffer severe psychological trauma from the horrific events that they witness. That has been the case, for example, for the firefighters who attended the tragic fire in Southampton a few days ago in which four children died.

Many of the firefighters who are killed or injured on duty have dependent partners and children. Proper provision is generally made for dependants, but the death of Kevin Lane in Gwent has raised a grave anomaly. Mr. Lane left a partner and two children. He had been in a settled relationship with his common-law wife, Sian Bailey, for 17 years, but was not legally married to her. Provision has been made for their children and I understand that an ex gratia lump sum payment has been made to Sian Bailey. But she has been refused the regular pension to which she would have been entitled had she been legally married. I believe that that is unjust. At the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), I have raised the subject in correspondence with Baroness Blatch, the Minister of State, Home Office, and I hope that, in the exceptional and unusual circumstances of the case, there will be a positive response.

The British public's faith in their fire service is far from misplaced. As the Audit Commission reported, in 1994–95 an astonishing 95 per cent. of fire calls were met within the specified standard. That response rate was a one percentage point improvement on the previous year, at 94 per cent. No other public service, in local government or outside, can match such consistently high standards of performance or provide such value for money. For the immense peace of mind that the fire service brings, and the incalculable saving of lives, homes, businesses and other property, the service cost the British people just £23 per head last year.

Despite increasing and unwelcome central control from Whitehall, the fire service remains a democratically accountable local government service. It is that which contributes so much to its efficiency. The entire country can recognise the contrast between the intrinsic efficiency of the democratically run fire service and what has happened to that other vital emergency service, the ambulance service, which is now run by unaccountable quangos.

Despite the dedication of ambulance personnel, more than half the urban ambulance services, covering Greater London, all the metropolitan areas, and Avon, Cleveland and Surrey, failed to meet the standard response time of 95 per cent. of emergency calls being met within 14 minutes.

In Greater London, the contrast between the efficiency of the democratically run fire service and the inefficiency of the quango-run ambulance service is stark. Despite the traffic in London, the London fire service met 90 per cent. of calls within the standard response time. In nine out of 10 call-outs, at least one pump, and in many instances two, was at the scene within five minutes. Three pumps were there within eight minutes.

For the London ambulance service, facing the same traffic, 95 per cent. of emergency calls were supposed to be answered within 14 minutes and 50 per cent. within eight minutes. Anyone who knows about the London ambulance service will not be surprised to learn that in place of the 95 per cent. standard for answer within 14 minutes, only 62 per cent. of ambulances arrived on time. In place of the 50 per cent. standard for answer within eight minutes, only 12 per cent. of ambulances turned up on time. What a commentary on the difference between the democratically run fire service and the quango-led ambulance service.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

The hon. Gentleman is right to praise the fire service and its response times. In Hereford and Worcester, the service achieves rapid response times and we want to see them maintained. Will the hon. Gentleman therefore condemn the decision made by the democratically elected Hereford and Worcester county council, which is Labour-Liberal controlled, to cut by half the permanent fire cover at the Kidderminster station in my constituency, against the advice of the Fire Brigades Union and not for financial reasons, because more is being spent on the fire service review as a result?

Mr. Straw

I commiserate with the hon. Gentleman because he, like 99 per cent. of his colleagues, has a fire service and fire authority that are not run by Conservatives. I understand his concern about that. I shall not condemn the hon. Gentleman's fire authority because I believe in local democracy. I believe also that issues of the sort that he has raised should be settled locally and not be subject to the centralised control that the Government have sought to exercise over fire authorities and local authorities, including the capping of local authorities.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It is appropriate to say that over the past few years massive cuts have been engineered and imposed on fire authorities by the Home Secretary and his mate, the Secretary of State for the Environment. Between them, they have introduced cuts in many counties, including Derbyshire, where part-time stations are being closed. We listen to the Home Secretary talking about firefighters doing a wonderful job in docklands and then we see him shed crocodile tears. At the same time, he is closing fire stations. I ask the Home Secretary to meet Derbyshire Labour Members—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Member has made a long intervention. I thought that he was intervening in the speech of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and not directing remarks to the Home Secretary through me.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that the Home Secretary will agree to meet a delegation of Labour Members from Derbyshire.

I seldom disagree with my hon. Friend, but in this instance I must pick him up on one important fact. He described the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for the Environment as mates. Their relationship is more that of ferrets in a sack. We have the Europhobe on one side, the Home Secretary, and the Eurofanatic on the other. The idea of the two mating is difficult to comprehend.

In its report on the performance of the fire service, the Audit Commission commented that because of the high level of performance, it was difficult for most brigades to achieve significant year-on-year performance improvements. None the less, performance overall has increased, not decreased. That is despite a significant increase in the demands made upon the service, although its resources in staff and cash have at best remained stable and in some recent years have seen a reduction.

In 1983, the fire services of England, Scotland and Wales received 355,000 calls to fires. By 1994, those calls had increased by over 100,000, to 456,000. All of us who use Britain's motorways know that the fire service not only extinguishes or prevents fires; it has a vital role to play as a rescue/emergency service, attending the scene of countless road, industrial and other accidents when no direct fire risk has arisen.

In 1983, there were 93,000 rescue calls, which are designated special service calls. By 1994, the number had increased by 77,000 to 170,000, an increase of 83 per cent. During the same period we have seen a huge increase in criminal behaviour. I am sorry to say that the fire service has been a victim of that. The number of false alarms—many of them malicious—more than doubled from 220,000 in 1983 to 447,000 in 1994. Overall, the work load of our fire services, measured by calls, increased by two thirds or 65 per cent. in the 11 years from 1983 to 1994. There has been no equivalent increase in the resources made available to them.

In real terms, the amount of spending earmarked by central Government rose between 1984 and 1993–94. Since then, that spending has slowly declined in real terms. In England, it declined from £1,233 million in 1994–95 to £1,200 million last year, and £1,185 million this year. As local authority associations have commented, there was no increase in provision for the fire service in 1995–96, and caps remained screwed down. Capital allocations by the Government—basic credit approvals—have shown an even greater fall. Never large, in Greater Manchester, those allocations have been cut by 40 per cent. since 1992, to less than £2 million. The picture in the west midlands is similar.

The effect of the cuts will be to add to pressure on revenue spending in future years, as old equipment that is expensive to maintain will have to remain in use. The squeeze on spending has been reflected in staffing. The fire services' establishment was 41,745 in 1983, and 41,190 in 1994.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning the Lib-Lab group that controls Essex county council? Despite its standard spending assessment having been increased by £25 million, it has cut the fire service's budget by £1 million. The cut has caused 41 firemen to be put on the job list. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Labour councils should know better than to do that?

Mr. Straw

I understand the deep trauma that almost all Conservative Members must suffer. As a result of their profound unpopularity and incompetence, they have lost control of almost every local authority in the country. Indeed, there is only one Conservative-controlled fire authority. I shall not condemn individual local authorities. Electors determine the political control of their councils, and electors in Essex—the same has been done by electors throughout the country—have comprehensively turfed Conservative candidates out and in their place elected Labour or Liberal candidates.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is asking for more. I think that I am right in saying that Harlow was declared a Conservative-free zone only last Thursday.

Mr. Hayes

I have had more farewells than Frank Sinatra. May I say that for a rare moment I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)? Over the past few days, representatives of the Fire Brigades Union have been telephoning me to complain about the Labour party. They have been complaining because—

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

Sit down, Harpo.

Mr. Hayes

The hon. Gentleman really ought to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The interventions are becoming too lengthy.

Mr. Hayes


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows full well—as do other hon. Members—that interventions should be brief and to the point. I hope that that will happen soon.

Mr. Hayes

All that I would say to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is this. The Fire Brigades Union contacted me today, complaining about the fact that the Liberal-Labour pact in Essex had said that it would refuse to speak to any Conservatives. That is wrong. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?

Mr. Straw

I can only say to the hon. Gentleman—if he wants to listen to my answer—that, if he asked members of the Fire Brigades Union where they considered the blame lay for the current problems of the fire service, they would overwhelmingly point the finger at the Government, in Essex as in everywhere else.

One key indicator of the pressure on fire services is the fact that nearly 75 per cent. of fire brigades are funded above their standard spending assessment levels. That is done by forcing county councils to save cash in other areas such as education and social services, or through the use of reserves just to maintain an adequate level of cover. But the flexibility that that at least gives county brigades is not available to joint fire authorities in metropolitan areas, or to the new combined fire authorities in areas with unitary local authorities.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

I want to make some progress, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later.

Against that background, it is little wonder that the president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, Mr. Dennis Davis, took the unusual step of writing to all Members of Parliament to express his and his colleagues' concern about the state of the fire service. His letter ended: the fire engine arriving at your door may continue to he on time, but that certainly does not mean that all is well". Part of the complaint of the fire service—from chief officers and authorities, and from the Fire Brigades Union—concerns the level of resources, but that is only part of it. In all events, resources for this public service, as for any other, will be limited, and less than the total demand. Everyone in the service understands that, but what no one can understand is the lack of strategy and leadership on the Government's part, and Ministers' failure to comprehend that it is precisely when resources are tight that there is an even greater premium on good management—starting from the top, in the Home Office. What those involved in the fire services regard as unforgivable is the gratuitous harm that Ministers have done, and are doing, to the future of the fire service and its current morale by placing dogma before common sense.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman has now spoken for about 18 minutes. He has told us that he considers the fire service's resources to be inadequate. Will he now tell us what resources he thinks would be appropriate—or is he under an injunction from the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) to keep very quiet? The hon. Gentleman will have no credibility when he talks of resources unless he can tell us how much extra money he believes should be provided.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman obviously has not been listening, but I am delighted that he is so confident that we shall form a Government after the next general election. When we do so, he can sit on the Opposition Benches and organise his own debate about our stewardship of the fire service. Meanwhile, today's debate is about his party's stewardship of the current fire service.

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

The hon. Gentleman must know that that really will not do. He has been telling the House about a squeeze on spending. If he is complaining about a squeeze on spending, will he now tell the House how much more he thinks should be spent?

Mr. Straw

I shall tell the House how much more I think should be spent only if the Home Secretary can tell me what the Chancellor of the Exchequer's public spending plans will be in the autumn. We are not in government now; the right hon. and learned Gentleman is in government, and the debate is about his stewardship of the fire service.

Mr. Howard


Mr. Straw

No, I will not give way to the Home Secretary again. I have given him his answer.

High-quality training is important in almost all jobs. In firefighting, it is critical: the difference between a life lost and a life saved. At the apex of the training system for firefighters in Great Britain has been the Fire Service College, based at Moreton-in-Marsh, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown). The Home Office annual report describes the college as the central training establishment for the UK fire service", and says that it is the most comprehensive facility of its kind in the world. It has a "world-wide reputation." That is certainly true.

The college, then, is the jewel in the crown of fire training colleges; but what has been the response of Ministers to that jewel? Have they sought to build on its reputation, to raise its status still further, to see it as central to a strategy for reducing the number of fire casualties and fire risks even more? No, they have done none of those things. If these incompetent Ministers spot a jewel in the public service, their only instinct is to try to sell it off and to damage it in the process. That is precisely what is happening to the college.

The Fire Service College was made a next steps agency and forced to operate as a business with its own trading fund all in one go, in 1992. As the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury was candid enough to admit in the House on 13 March, Unfortunately, the Treasury had eyes on a milch cow that was non-existent and it set it up"— the college, that is— with several severe disadvantages".—[Official Report, 13 March 1996; Vol. 273, c. 930.] The hon. Gentleman went on to list those disadvantages.

The result of that doctrinaire nonsense has been predictable enough. The college has made a huge loss—but it could never be a profitable business, any more than the Joint Services college for our armed services could be turned into a profitable business. As a result of the bizarre financial hurdles that have been placed in the way of the college, however, there is now a serious question mark over its future. Indeed, its chief executive said, when preparing for a meeting with Ministers last November, we must emphasise that in our professional judgement, the long term future of the College could be significantly damaged if this situation persists. The number of students from the United Kingdom fire service has fallen, not because demand has fallen but because local authorities do not have the money to pay for places at the college. As the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury said, it would be a tragedy if we let go of such a national asset; but, in our previous debate on the fire service, the Minister who wound up gave no categorical assurance about its future. All that he could lamely say was that Ministers were keen for the college to remain in existence.

What makes such a supine comment all the less forgivable if that, while being so negligent in their management of this national asset, Ministers have continued to praise its work. Targets relating to student performance and attainment have been consistently exceeded was the accolade given to the college by the annual report. No issue has lowered morale in the whole of the fire service more, or raised more serious doubts about Ministers' commitment to the service, than their handling of the future of the college.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

The hon. Gentleman is being very disingenuous. First, I hope that he will not talk down the future of the Fire Service College, because we want it to go out into the world and secure the maximum amount of business. Secondly, he knows full well that I have been working extremely hard, with the greatest possible co-operation from the Minister of State, Baroness Blatch, and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope). They are giving the matter a good deal of attention, and I believe that they have concrete proposals to restructure the trading fund so that the loss of £2.5 million can be taken into account.

In a letter to me, Lady Blatch wrote: You are right to believe that we are at one in our determination to ensure that the college has a secure future. We want the college to go out into the world and have a good future—and, what is more, we want to encourage all fire authorities to use it or lose it.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point in his closing remark—use it or lose it. For many years, there was no question mark over the future of the college. It was used by the fire authorities, and was centrally funded by the Home Office. It took the incompetence and dogma of the present Administration, in 1992, to set it on a financial basis on which it could not possibly make a profit.

Mr. Clifton-Brown


Mr. Straw

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman. I am now responding to what he said. As for talking down the college, let me remind the hon. Gentleman that on 13 March 1996 he devoted an entire speech to talking down its future because he was so worried about it.

Mr. Clifton-Brown


Mr. Straw

This is a short debate. Nothing that has been said today or in the past by Ministers has categorically guaranteed the future of the college. Tonight, we need to hear the Secretary of State—I believe that this is the first time that he has spoken on the fire service—make a clear and categorical statement guaranteeing the future of that college.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The hon. Gentleman may be misleading the House. The Home Office funds the £2.5 million loss, so there is no loss to the fire college. It is funded by central Government.

Mr. Straw

I was paraphrasing accurately the point that the hon. Gentleman made in the debate on 13 March. He went through various options for funding the college and said that, if they did not work, the college should revert to the Home Office vote. That is exactly the position that we take.

Dogma has driven policy on the Fire Service College and pure dogma lies behind moves by the Government, especially the Deputy Prime Minister, to reduce fire safety by cutting fire regulation. Since the Government's so-called deregulation initiative, all sorts of hares have started running—on foam-filled furniture, children's nightwear and houses of multiple occupation—about which fire regulations might be watered down.

Thankfully, not even those Ministers have been rash enough to implement such change this side of the election. The annual report tells us that the Government's preliminary decisions on deregulation have been referred to the deregulation task force. Perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us when the task force's final conclusions on watering down fire regulations will be announced. I hope that he understands that the interminable process of deregulation, which has been led not by the need to protect the public better against the risk of fire, but by some weird ideology, has been very damaging to those who serve in the fire brigades and those who rely on them.

In February last year, the Audit Commission published a special report on the fire service, "In the Line of Fire". It raised a number of important issues on which I hope we may receive a considered response this evening from Ministers. It suggested that about £67 million could be saved by various changes in working practices and management structures. Coming from a body of the commission's reputation, the recommendations should receive the greatest attention from fire authorities, and are receiving that attention. Sensible improvements in the efficiency of all public services should always merit our support.

Two things need to be said about that £67 million. First, contrary to the impression given by the Secretary of State in the House on 14 March, for example, a saving of £67 million is not achievable in a single year. The report provides no alibi for the Secretary of State's failure to secure a reasonable settlement for the fire service in the last spending round. The Audit Commission has repeatedly made it clear that such savings are bound to take three or four years to come to fruition.

Secondly, changes in structure and working practices are most readily achieved not by hectoring, but by commitment and co-operation, which is scarcely a hallmark of this Administration. The local authority associations have made that point in telling terms. Their fire service expenditure working group said: The apparent lack of recognition or value created to justify the scarceness of resources, whilst responding to tighter deadlines and increasingly complex issues is taking its toll on service morale. The Audit Commission's report was also significant for the warnings that it gave the Government and fire authorities about future liabilities from the fire service pension scheme. Since that scheme is not funded, the commission estimated that so great are the prospective liabilities, fire pensions alone could absorb a quarter of fire service expenditure by 2007. It described that prospect as a "pensions time bomb". That is plainly not sustainable, and I hope that we shall hear about that from the Secretary of State. The annual report said that there would be a consultative document on that scheme and the pensions time bomb. Will the Secretary of State let the House know when we may expect to see that?

The most important section of the Audit Commission's report was that concerned with the upward trend in the number of serious fires and the increase in non-fatal injuries. Paragraph 15 said: The high level of public satisfaction with the fire service tends to disguise the fact that the nation has failed to respond as effectively as it could to the challenge of fire. It said that the challenge in relation to fires and serious fires and the growth in non-fatal but serious injuries "should not be underestimated". The report continued: It is possible to reverse such trends, as experience from abroad illustrates … there may be benefits in reviewing the national arrangements which circumscribe the operations of the fire service and place emphasis on fighting rather than preventing fires. Compared with some other countries, England and Wales could do better in their overall response to fire. The Home Office has to some extent recognised the importance of those recommendations, as we can see in the annual report, but just as targets have been adopted with success to cut road deaths and injuries, the time has come for a clear, nationally led strategy to achieve the same results in fire safety.

The fire service is always there when the public need it. We owe the service and those who dedicate their lives to it a great debt of gratitude. In turn, the service needs, but has not had from the Government, better recognition and leadership and a clearer strategy for the safety of us all.

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

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'recognises that fire brigades in the United Kingdom provide an unfailingly effective service to the public, pays tribute to the bravery of fire-fighters, who risk their lives in difficult and often dangerous circumstances, and welcomes the Government's continuing support for the fire service.'. The danger to the public from fire is devastating. I know that the hearts of everyone in the House go out to the surviving members of the Good family, whose four young children died in a fire in Southampton on Sunday. We look to the fire service to be our front line of defence against the threat from fire. The tragic events of recent months have reminded us yet again of the special risks that firefighters routinely face. We recall the courage of Fleur Lombard, who died fighting a blaze in Avon, and of Steven Griffin and Kevin Lane, retained firefighters who died attempting to rescue a child from a domestic fire in Gwent.

It goes without saying that the Government, like the general public, have a very high regard for the fire service and the professionalism and bravery that we associate almost as a matter of course with the men and women in it. We have seen the fire service at its best in responding magnificently to major disasters such as those at King's Cross and the docklands. Our firefighters do an excellent job of which they can feel justifiably proud.

Of course, the fire service not only fights fires but works to prevent them. Evidence shows that the work of fire brigades, increased public awareness of fire risks through national and local publicity drives and the increasingly widespread use of domestic smoke alarms are succeeding in reducing deaths. Statistics show that from a peak of more than 1,000 a year in the 1970s, the number of people dying in fires had decreased to about 700 in 1994.

Of course, there is no room for an ounce of complacency. The Home Office will continue to ensure that its fire safety publicity initiatives are clearly targeted to achieve maximum impact and effectiveness. We shall build on our relationship with the brigades, as well as forging closer partnerships with those outside the Department, to develop initiatives to take forward the achievements that have already been attained in this important area.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

In Tyne and Wear, it is precisely fire safety education that is having to be cut as a result of some of the reductions in Government grant.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman completely overlooks the fact that the fire service is a local authority service. It is funded by local authorities with the benefit of help from central Government. Any local authority that felt that it did not have enough resources properly to fund its fire service was able to appeal for its cap to be lifted. Both last year and this year, authorities that applied for their caps to be lifted were successful. The hon. Gentleman should go back to his party colleagues who run the authority in Tyne and Wear to ask them why, if they thought that they were short of money to fund the fire service in Tyne and Wear, they did not apply for the cap to be lifted.

While we are on funding, I should say that it was utterly disgraceful of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), in his mealy-mouthed way, to protest about funding, to suggest that there was a squeeze on it and then completely to refuse to suggest to the slightest extent what he thought a proper level of funding would be. It is not a question of what that funding should be when his party comes to power, although we do not think that it ever will, or in next year's Budget, but of what it should be now, the year about which he is complaining. If he thinks that the Government have not provided enough money to fund the fire service he has a duty to suggest how much should be provided. His failure to do so or to mention resources in the motion demonstrates how utterly pathetic is his approach to this question.

Mr. Skinner

Of course the Government could increase local authority grants. There should be no question of capping, but we all know what would have happened if Derbyshire had asked for the cap to be lifted. The council tax would have gone through the roof and the Home Secretary and his ex-mates on the Treasury Bench would have attacked that Labour-controlled county council for allowing the council tax to reach astronomical heights. Will the Minister answer the question? We have sent him a letter and want to discuss the issue of more Government money for the fire service in Derbyshire. Why will he not answer the letter that was sent by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)?

Mr. Howard

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself for a moment or two he will find that my speech deals closely and with relish with the matter of funding the fire service in Derbyshire.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware that Mr. Dennis Davis, president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, is also the chief fire officer of Cheshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and I recently met Mr. Davis and had a full, practical and constructive discussion. Does the Minister accept that there is a problem and will he assure me that the Government will continue adequately to fund the fire service, which is a vital national, life-saving service? Will he deal with the severe problem of pensions, which has continued under successive Governments, and will he guarantee the future of the national college? If he agrees to do those things, I shall be happy.

Mr. Howard

I yield almost to no one in my desire to keep my hon. Friend happy, and I can certainly give him the assurance that he seeks that we will continue to fund the fire service properly. As for the details of the funding, if he too will contain himself for a moment he will find that I deal with those in my speech.

If one is looking for an objective assessment of the standing of the fire service, the Audit Commission has provided it. The commission conducted a major study of value for money in the fire service and the findings were published last year. It reported that the fire service could be proud of its record in responding to incidents, that it has high levels of skill and professionalism, that it has able managers and courageous front-line officers and that it is held in great esteem by both the general public and by the individuals who seek its assistance.

Last month, the commission published information showing how individual brigades in England and Wales performed in 1994–95. Commenting on the figures, the commission said: The fire service maintained its outstanding performance, meeting national standards for attending fire calls on 95 per cent. of occasions. Overall, the fire service is in good shape, as the first part of the Opposition's motion seems to recognise.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does the Home Secretary accept that it is not simply a question of the speed at which the fire service responds to calls, but of the quality of service that it provides when it arrives on the site?

Mr. Howard

Of course I agree, and I am sure that the hon. Lady does not think that the Audit Commission was unaware of that. Its tribute to the efficiency and performance of the fire service, which I have just recounted, deals not simply with the speed of response to calls but with the quality of the service that the fire service provides when it gets to them.

It is true that the fire service is being asked to make efficiency savings: so is virtually every other public service. The trustees of taxpayers' money have a duty to ensure that it is used to best effect—a duty that Conservatives constantly recognise but Opposition Members constantly ignore. The Audit Commission identified significant scope for savings. 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. The commission highlighted specific areas in which efficiency savings can be made.

Mr. Straw

The Home Secretary is repeating my point about the Audit Commission's identification of up to £67 million of savings. Does he accept that the commission has made it clear that the savings could not be achieved in a single year, but that it will take three or four years to achieve them?

Mr. Howard

The passage that I read contained the word "now". It stated: There are local opportunities that can be taken now within the current framework. The commission's study set out an extensive agenda for change. It required sustained effort by all involved in the service, including the local authorities as employers, and the Government. We must all respond to the challenge of modernising the service. My noble Friend the Minister of State is active in giving the process momentum. In respect of fire risk assessment and standards of fire cover, we are carrying forward the work in a joint committee of the central fire brigades advisory councils. We are giving precisely that kind of leadership and putting in place exactly the kind of strategy for which the hon. Member for Blackburn called.

The fire service is a local authority service. Statutory responsibility for providing an effective and efficient fire service to meet all normal requirements rests with the local fire authority. The fire service is funded, like other local authority services, through the revenue support grant, national non-domestic rates and the council tax. Local authorities have the opportunity to discuss the question of resources at the Consultative Council on Local Government Finance, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment. He announces the grant allocations for local authority services, including fire, as part of the local government finance settlement.

For 1996–97, Government support for local authorities in England is increased by £966 million.

Mr. Skinner

It is not enough.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman says that it is not enough. We know that he would spend more and we gather that the hon. Member for Blackburn would also do so, although he did not say how much. I do not know whether he cleared his speech with the shadow Chancellor, although he might have had to clear the motion with him, which is why it contains no reference to funding.

Total standard spending in England for 1996–97 has been set at £44.9 billion, an increase of 3.3 per cent. on 1995–96. It is nonsense to talk of underfunding in such a context. The local government finance settlement is fair and eminently reasonable.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howard

No, I should like to proceed on the issue of funding.

For 1996–97, the total fire service element of standard spending assessments in England has been increased by £17 million—by 1.5 per cent., from £1,168 million to £1,185 million. This comprises £14 million for the additional costs of firefighters' pensions and £3 million for training. The criteria for council tax capping that was set by my right hon. Friend allowed an increase in net budget of 2 per cent. for metropolitan fire authorities and 3 per cent. for shire authorities as the norm. But 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 which 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 for redetermination of the cap. Some authorities have taken this option. In 1995–96, South Yorkshire fire and civil defence authority sought redetermination and was successful in its application. That precedent was followed this year by Merseyside fire and civil defence authority. Last month my right hon. Friend announced that he had redetermined that authority's capping limit to enable it to set a budget at just over £2 million above the level of its provisional cap.

I am pleased to note that firefighters in Merseyside are balloting to call off their long-running industrial dispute with the authority. I am also glad that firefighters in Surrey have called off a ballot for industrial action, but I am concerned that the Fire Brigades Union is in the process of conducting a ballot of its members in Derbyshire and in Essex on the possibility of strikes.

Strikes in the fire service could put lives at risk. I call on all firefighters in Derbyshire and in Essex to consider carefully the possible consequences of their votes in those ballots and, as an alternative to strikes, to pursue their grievances in discussion with the fire authority. I hope that Opposition Members will join me in calling on the Fire Brigades Union to abandon its strike intentions.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Howard

I specifically give way to the hon. Gentleman to ask him to join me now in appealing to the Fire Brigades Union.

Mr. Skinner

The Home Secretary has made it clear that, in Merseyside, people had to take several days of strike action to get the matter before the public and himself. Now that they have carried out the strikes, he has the temerity to say that they have won the argument without strike action, so he is encouraging firefighters throughout Britain to threaten to go on strike, to go on strike, to get the thing on to the agenda and then to get some extra money. He is inciting people to go on strike.

Mr. Howard

I am sorry, although I cannot pretend that I am totally astonished, that the hon. Gentleman has adamantly refused to join in any appeal to the Fire Brigades Union not to call a strike in Derbyshire. I wonder what his constituents and other people in Derbyshire would say if there were to be a fire strike in Derbyshire. I ask him to reconsider his position.

What the hon. Gentleman has said about Merseyside is absolute nonsense from beginning to end. What happened on Merseyside had nothing to do with the Home Office or the Home Secretary. I did not intervene in the resolution of the dispute on Merseyside. It was a local dispute between the Merseyside Fire Brigades Union and the Merseyside authority. I hope that it has been settled, largely on the terms originally proposed by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority. He should make sure of his facts before he intervenes.

Let me deal with Derbyshire and Essex. As shire county authorities, those councils are in a position to decide the priorities for spending across all their services, bearing in mind their statutory and other responsibilities. It was, therefore, for those councils, in the light of their standard spending assessments and the criteria for council tax capping for all their services, to decide how much to spend on the fire brigade to comply with their legal obligations.

If those councils believed that they could not fulfil those obligations within the proposed capping limits for 1996–97, they had the option to set a budget above that level and to apply to the Secretary of State for the Environment to have the cap redetermined. Neither council chose to do that. If they now consider that they can stay within budget only by reducing the level of fire cover, they must apply for my approval under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. In neither case has the county council so applied.

Nor have those authorities been harshly treated by the standard spending assessment mechanisms. The fire service element of Derbyshire's SSA was increased by £2.7 million in 1996–97. At 15.4 per cent., that was the biggest percentage increase for any fire authority.

Mr. Skinner

Not enough.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman says, "Not enough." Overall, Derbyshire's SSA increased by £20.5 million for all its services compared with 1995–96 on a like-for-like basis and, under the capping criteria, it was able to set a budget for 1996–97 for all services up to £21.2 million more than in 1995–96.

I understand that, although the authority has asked the fire brigade to make savings, the brigade has not suffered a reduction in its budget compared with last year. Its fire service revenue budget for 1996–97 has been set at £20.3 million. That represents an increase of 3.6 per cent. on £19.6 million, which is the council's latest estimate for revenue spending in 1995–96.

Essex county council's total SSA has increased by £25 million over 1995–96 on a like-for-like basis and, under the capping criteria, it was able to set a budget for 1996–97 up to £28.3 million higher than in 1995–96. The county council has set a budget for the Essex fire brigade of just under £41 million for 1996–97, some £1.2 million less than the budget proposed by the fire brigade. That is nevertheless an increase of just over 3.5 per cent. on the latest estimate of revenue spending for 1995–96, which is £39.6 million.

Of course, it is for Essex county council to decide whether that is sufficient for its fire service, but there can be no doubt that, this year, Essex county council has had a fair overall settlement. There must, therefore, be further discussion between the fire authorities concerned and the Fire Brigades Union before the latter can possibly consider resorting to strike action. In any case, such action can never be justified when the possible consequences for loss of life are so serious. The FBU should call off its ballots and Opposition Members should join me in appealing to it to do so.

One of the problems that the Audit Commission highlighted in its value-for-money study was the growing costs that fire authorities face in meeting the net costs of firefighters' pensions. That is partly historical, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). In common with most schemes in the public service, the firefighters' pension scheme does not have a pension fund. That is a particular problem for the fire service. It has been acknowledged by the inclusion for 1996–97 of a pensions factor in the SSA distribution formula for England. That factor has accounted for 14 per cent. of the total fire SSA. In addition, £14 million was added to the overall total fire SSA.

In the longer term, it may be possible to make the terms of the present scheme less expensive. A review is under way. The findings, when available, will be circulated to fire service interests as a consultation document.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I shall be brief. Is not the problem over the retirement pension time bomb—the expression used by Mr. Dennis Davis—compounded by the annual pressures on the fire service to save money, and by early retirement because of that and because of injury and illness, which often, sadly, are the result of many years in the fire service?

Mr. Howard

I do not imagine that my hon. Friend is suggesting that the pension problem, which I have acknowledged, should relieve the fire service of the duty to continue to find savings of the sort that the Audit Commission has identified as being available. We need to consider the pensions problem. I have said what we have done so far to deal with it and what we are contemplating doing over the medium to longer term, but we also need to achieve greater efficiency savings and we must deal with both.

Representations have been made about the treatment of individual firefighters under the pension scheme. As I have said, we recall today with enormous gratitude the bravery of the people who have recently given their lives. The firefighters' scheme is among the most generous of all public service schemes, but every pension scheme must draw the line somewhere. Proposals for change can be discussed in the joint pensions committee of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, but there are difficulties as well as cost implications for all public service pension schemes in going as far as some would wish.

The only specific criticism contained in the Opposition's motion relates to the Fire Service College. The college was established as the fire service technical college in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, following the closure of the staff college at Dorking, it was renamed the Fire Service College and took on the responsibility of training senior officers alongside all ranks of officer in technical subjects.

In April 1992, in accordance with our next steps initiative, the college became an executive agency on a trading fund basis. The then college management had pressed at the outset for the college to be established as a trading fund. It was expected that, in that way, the college could attract new business from wider markets, in particular from United Kingdom industry and overseas. That in turn would have enabled the college to reduce its prices to UK fire authorities by charging what the market would bear. The college's assets were professionally valued, and a financial framework for its operations was agreed which took account of its business prospects as they were then envisaged. The Fire Service College Trading Fund Order 1992 was laid before the House on 11 February 1992 and approved by resolution on 27 February.

Unfortunately, the business expectations proved too optimistic and the college traded at a loss in both its first and second years. A new joint management team was appointed in May 1994, comprising a new chief executive and a uniformed commandant. The chief executive was given the remit of stabilising the college's financial position.

The new team has had some success in reducing the rate of loss. In the first year the college's deficit was £2.4 million, as opposed to £2.7 million in 1993–94, despite the fact that it faced unexpected additional costs of £800,000 arising from changes in the VAT law on the treatment of vocational training. The college's finances are now under tighter control, the management of the college has been reviewed and a business strategy implemented that separates the business streams.

But the college is still trading at a loss, and I cannot allow that to continue indefinitely. This is why we are now exploring with the Treasury the prospects for financial reconstruction of the trading fund to achieve a better prospect of viability. This is a technical and complex area, but the repayment of the loan for opening assets represents a heavy burden on the business, and it is right to explore possible ways of reducing that burden.

In the meantime I must emphasise that the Home Office has continued to support the college. It made a £2.25 million grant in 1995–96, and there is a similar provision for 1996–97.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I have been listening carefully to what my right hon. and learned Friend is saying about the Fire Service College. I am grateful to him for making the provision that he has made both for last year and for the forthcoming year, which will reassure the management of the college, and above all my constituents who work there. Will he give serious and urgent thought to how the operation can be restructured so that we can come to a positive conclusion as soon as possible, and my constituents can be reassured that their jobs are safe?

Mr. Howard

I can indeed reassure my hon. Friend that we are pursuing that question as a matter of urgency. I pay tribute to the conscientiousness with which my hon. Friend has pursued the subject on behalf of his constituents. He has taken a close interest in it for several years now, and we certainly take seriously all the representations that he makes on the subject.

However, as my hon. Friend said in an earlier intervention, the bottom line is that if the fire service wants the college to continue, as I certainly do, fire authorities must make use of its facilities by sending their staff to take advantage of the training on offer. That training is world class, and it is up to fire authorities to make the most of it.

The hon. Member for Blackburn referred to the scrutiny of the fire service that is taking place, but he did so in terms that serve only to confirm the Labour party's continuing dedication to regulation for regulation's sake. I make no apology whatever for the fact that in this as in all other areas, we are looking to see what scope there is for lightening the burdens that regulations place on business and on private citizens in this country. It would be reprehensible if we could not do that.

Mr. Straw

Is it not even more reprehensible that included in the list for possible deregulation, or relaxation of the fire regulations, were the regulations applying to children's nightwear? Is that not utterly reprehensible? No amount of dogma should override the safety of children.

Mr. Howard

Of course nothing should override the safety of children, but all such matters must be examined from time to time, to see whether regulations that were necessary some time ago are still appropriate, and are still the right kind of regulations for today's conditions. Of course we need to consider such matters again. The hon. Gentleman's intervention was absurd. The country will note the dismissive tone in which the Labour party and its spokesman refer to deregulation. As I said before, the Labour party is the party of regulation for regulation's sake. It may no longer wish to be thought of as the party of the red flag, but it remains the party of red tape.

For the past two years the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has been at pains to stress that his party would not spend more. Yet week after week at that Dispatch Box Labour spokesmen carp and complain about alleged underfunding in Government services. Again and again they make promises that would cost the taxpayer more. We have heard that again today.

The hon. Member for Blackburn talked about a squeeze on spending, but he did not say what action he would take to increase spending, or by how much he would increase it. He admits that Labour would abolish capping, so that local authorities would be free to spend at will. I have no doubt that they would do so. The local authority associations have admitted that they would have spent £1 billion more this year if they could have done so.

To date compulsory competitive tendering has saved local authorities about £400 million. Yet new Labour would abolish it to keep its paymasters in the trade unions happy, and that £400 million would be denied to local authorities. The truth is that whatever Labour may say now, if it were ever to get into government it would spend more, less efficiently, and taxes would have to rise as a result.

As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who knows a bit about the Labour party, said: Labour now has a clear choice. It can be either the party of higher taxation and proud of it, or the party of higher taxes which it is ashamed to describe, afraid to admit and incapable of calculating with any accuracy. It cannot be the low taxation party. I have deliberately drawn attention to some of the achievements of the fire service, as well as responding to the misplaced criticisms of the hon. Member for Blackburn. Those achievements demonstrate the absurdity of the Opposition motion. Rightly, the fire service is widely admired for its excellent performance. There is no foundation whatever for the suggestion that it is being undermined by Government policies. Quite the contrary: our support remains completely solid. I recommend the amendment, and call on the House to reject the Opposition motion.

8.16 pm
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

The Home Secretary would have us believe that fire authorities throughout the country are deliberately cutting life-saving services, training, and health and safety when all they have to do is turn to a generous central Government who will provide all the resources necessary to avoid the cuts. Anyone who believes that must believe in the tooth fairy. Why are fire services screaming about the problems that they face if it is as simple as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says to resolve them?

It is an outrage that it has been left to the Labour party to bring the debate to the Floor of the House. On 8 February, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on our emergency services in Government time, and I drew attention to the Prime Minister's recent praise of firefighters during Prime Minister's questions, when he referred to their "selfless bravery". Tyne and Wear fire authority faces a £2.6 million shortfall in its budget because of Government policy. If that is not an example of hypocrisy—and of saying one thing, yet doing another—I do not know what is. The Leader of the House promised to consider my request, but I am still waiting for a reply. Had it not been for the Opposition, the nation would still be waiting for this debate.

The Government's vicious and unrelenting attacks on our public services have led to a looming crisis in the emergency services, which now affects ambulance services, police resources and the subject of the debate, the fire service. In March, representatives of the fire services in the north came to Parliament to impress on hon. Members the consequences of the shortfall in their 1996–97 budgets. Today, they are here again, in the hope that the Home Secretary will recognise the seriousness of the situation.

Last year, there was a £1.8 million cut in the Tyne and Wear fire authority's budget. At that time, there was outrage in the region. The local morning daily newspaper—The Journal—quoted local Members of Parliament who called on the Home Secretary to make sure that there were no further cuts in the budget, and said in an editorial on 13 January 1995: If Michael Howard does not wish to find the blood of more innocent fire victims on his hands, he will be advised to do precisely that. What a pity that he didn't listen to the experts' warnings earlier. It must not take more deaths to bring him to his senses. Its sister paper, the Evening Chronicle, echoed those sentiments in an editorial on the same day. It said: The Home Secretary must not impose these cuts on the people of Tyne Wear. Those comments came after a tragedy in which lives were lost within yards of a previously closed fire station in Whitley Bay.

Did the Home Secretary listen? Perhaps. But if he did, he was not impressed by the views of local people about their local services. A petition opposing the cuts accumulated 8,500 signatures in two weeks and was presented to the Home Office by my hon. Friends the Members for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) and me. Again the Home Secretary was not impressed. With the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Home Secretary is to preside over even more draconian cuts this year of some £2.6 million.

What will be the consequences of the cuts? Some 92 front-line firefighter jobs—the very people whose "selfless bravery" was praised by the Prime Minister—will be lost. Dual staffing of control units and foam tenders will mean that appliances will no longer be immediately available when needed. Special support for emergency incidents will be reduced, and two fire appliances will be removed from the operational fleet—a loss of seven life-saving appliances in all.

That is the reward that the Prime Minister thinks appropriate for dedication and "selfless bravery". Only last week, two firefighters were injured in the course of duty in Washington. During the past few weeks, seven people have been rescued by firefighters from house fires in Gateshead. They were saved by firefighters from two of the stations that will be downgraded as a result of the Government's policies.

When I protested to the Secretary of State for the Environment about the settlement that is causing the cuts, I was told that the Government standard spending assessment—a Mickey Mouse figure that Ministers use to make things appear to be what they are not and which does not take account of special services and the specialist equipment necessary to deal with road traffic accidents, people trapped in lifts and machinery and, as has been mentioned, payments to the pension fund—allowed the authority to operate within the minimum standards.

In the past five years, 550 people have been rescued from property fires in Tyne and Wear. The view of the chief fire officer is that, had the authority operated only the minimum standards—standards on which the Government rely and which have not been reviewed since 1985 or updated since 1955—many of those lives would not have been saved.

In addition, the constant erosion of resources to other fire brigades has meant that the continued existence of the Fire Service College—now a profit-pursuing agency—is under threat. Fire authorities cannot afford to send firefighters there for specialist training, and attendances are down by more than 50 per cent. As a result, specialist life-saving skills will be lost.

Even in-service local training is being cut because there are insufficient staff to cover for colleagues engaged in training. There have been cuts in school visits and visits to youth clubs, at which firefighters try to impress on youngsters the importance of fire safety and the dangers of hoax calls. Tyne and Wear was previously held up as a model to other authorities in this area of work.

The two most important elements in firefighting are speed of response, which is threatened by the Government's adherence to outdated minimum standards, and weight of response, which is threatened by reductions in staffing, equipment and training. The health and safety of other firefighters and of the general public is being put further at risk by this Government, who put a price tag on everything and know the value of nothing.

Britain's firefighters risk their lives every day for the public good. They are there so, if need be, they can rescue us. Today, they are asking us to rescue them. The public will neither forget nor forgive a Government who let them down.

8.24 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I welcome the opportunity to praise my local fire service, which is based at St. Dunstan's hill. The fire station is a well-known landmark, and the firefighters are loved by all and appreciated for their bravery, professionalism and enormous skills. All of my constituents know where they are and know that they can be relied upon.

That public confidence is essential to the fire service, and I am worried that Members of Parliament are trying to undermine it, despite the fact that the Government are backing the fire service all the way, as they always have done. There is only one party in this House that is trying to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

The hon. Lady says that the Government are backing the fire service all the way. Does she agree that, as a matter of justice and humanity, Sian Bailey—the partner for 17 years of one of the firefighters who died in Gwent and who left children—should have exactly the same pension rights as the widow of the other firefighter who died?

Lady Olga Maitland

This debate is about the fire service as a concept, and not about pensions as such. The hon. and learned Gentleman might like me to get on to the issue of marriage, but I shall not do that now.

I have been concerned by the scaremongering by the Labour party, which is suggesting that there have been cuts and crises. Labour has also suggested that resources are such that people are being left unprotected. That is extremely dangerous. Labour is turning the fire service into a political football, and that is downright irresponsible.

The London fire and civil defence authority is Labour-controlled and, my goodness, we all know about it. It has 32 members; 22 are Labour councillors, six are Conservatives, three are Liberals and one is independent. Responsibility therefore lies with those who are running the authority, and it is they who are trying to frighten people witless. It is disgraceful that people are being encouraged to write letters to Members of Parliament, suggesting that the Government are somehow leaving them unprotected. I have received a letter from a constituent in Worcester Park, who says: I am personally very concerned to hear about the proposal to reduce the level of public protection in London. Please inform where you stand on this issue as it will influence the way I will vote in the next election. This is a pro forma letter that has been sent out by activists who are trying to undermine a very valuable service.

The fire service is well supported financially and it is nonsense to suggest anything else. My local fire authority has £27 million in its reserves—a staggering sum. It has no moral right to suggest that it is being undermined. Indeed, the director of finance has said in a paper that the reserves need to be reduced. In January this year, it was forecast that the authority would underspend by £3.7 million. How can that possibly mean that the fire service is being under-supported?

Let us look at the matter in broader terms. Last year, the budget of the London fire and civil defence authority was £254 million, and there was £27 million in reserves. That is absurd, particularly when compared with the west midlands budget of £72 million and reserves of only £2 million. On that basis, the London authority should have reserves of only £8 million. How can the London authority have the audacity to suggest that it is short of money when it is sitting on a golden nest egg?

More than that, the authority has the cheek to overspend on administration—for every £4 that it spends on firemen, it spends £1 on administration. What about jobs for the boys? Members of the London fire authority have run riot and paid themselves handsomely. Their expenses have increased by £43,000 and their overseas travel allowances have increased by £5,800. Tell that to the people in the outside world and they can make their own judgment as to where the money ought to be spent.

We appreciate the fire service and we believe that firefighters should be paid appropriately. People should recognise that the pay of firefighters has increased by 34 per cent. in real terms since 1979. By contrast, average male earnings have increased by 25 per cent. in real terms over the same period. I believe that we should say thank you to our firefighters, as they have done a magnificent job for us in so many ways.

The professionalism of firefighters has meant that the number of fire deaths is decreasing. In 1993, the number of such deaths fell to 720, the lowest level since 1965. The number of fire deaths in homes fell to 536 in 1993, the lowest since 1962. These are examples of how the education campaigns of the fire service warn and protect people. The campaigns are working.

I welcome the fact that the Audit Commission has complimented the fire service on the fact that it reaches its national call-out attendances on 95 per cent. of occasions, a 1 per cent. increase on the previous year.

I believe that our fire authorities should have efficient managements and that they do not have the right to waste or to hoard. Like every public service, they should be asked to make efficiency savings so that the taxpayer gets the best value for money. That is important. There is no point hon. Members saying, "Spend more money." They should be asking, "Who will pay?" Every responsible Government have to ensure that we get value for money. The Audit Commission has said that there are local opportunities in the current framework to reduce spending. The locally achievable savings identified by its study total £67 million a year. I refer hon. Members to the Audit Commission's paper entitled "In the Line of Fire", which was published last year.

The Audit Commission has said that we should look at the level of sickness leave, which has been at an all-time high. If we looked at the sickness leave intelligently and seriously, we would begin to realise that it could be reduced and that that could save the fire service £17 million a year. We should also examine the amount of leave that is granted in the fire service—there should be more rigour in that direction. The Audit Commission believes that we could make savings of approximately £8 million a year.

Surely it is right and proper to manage all our public services appropriately. We should manage our fire service with the same rigour as we would apply to any other service. We have a firefighting service of which we should be proud. We have upheld and supported it in every possible way. We have increased our support and the pay of firefighters. We admire what they do for us. We should not undermine these magnificent men.

8.35 pm
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) has shown, not for the first time, that her obsessions take precedence over reason in what she says in the House. During an intervention that I made in her speech, I asked her to confirm whether she believes that Sian Bailey—who lived with a now deceased firefighter for 17 years and who bore their children—should, in all justice, have the same pension rights as a widow who lived with a firefighter for 17 years. She refuses to answer that question and just utters the word "family". Earlier the hon. Lady said from a sedentary position that she should have married him—and she now nods from a sedentary position confirming that she said that. That is what firefighters and their partners can expect from the Conservative party, as personified on its right wing by the hon. Lady.

The hon. Lady chose to criticise the relatively small sum that firefighters within her region spent on travelling abroad. Does she really believe that British firefighters, with all their expertise, should not make their contribution to the world knowledge of firefighting techniques? Does she really wish to criticise them for taking their expertise and their skills abroad? Again, the hon. Lady nods from a sedentary position—she does wish to criticise them for that. That is another extraordinary proposition from the hon. Lady. The hon. Lady at least recognises that we have a fine firefighting service in this country.

I would like to make three points which, I hope, no hon. Member will question. The first is that we have brave and efficient firefighters in this country, including retained firemen. We have heard that two retained firemen from Gwent recently lost their lives and we send our sympathy to their families, including Sian Bailey, who has already been mentioned.

Retained firefighters do not work only in urban areas; they also work in rural areas, such as mid-Wales where I have my constituency. There we depend almost entirely on retained firefighters. I say to the Minister that reorganisation has led to great uncertainty among the rural retained firefighters of mid-Wales, who see the future of their reorganised service as being very distant from the community that they chose to serve when they were first retained.

Secondly, the fire service commands the support of the public for its efficiency, for its dedication and for the way in which it conducts itself not only at fires but at other terrible events—such as at car accidents and scenes of terrorist bombs, where firefighters are involved in the sometimes horrific mopping up operation.

Thirdly, there are critical financial problems facing the fire service. Despite the bland assurances that we heard from the Home Secretary earlier in the debate, almost no chief fire officer accepts what he says. The Home Secretary and the hon. Lady may tell them that everything in the garden is rosy, but I urge Ministers to ask them for evidence of what is really happening in fire services around this country.

Mr. Dennis Davis, the President of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and the chief fire officer of Cheshire, has been mentioned. As it happens, I have known him for a number of years and I know that he is not an extremist in any sense. He has a reputation for being a sensible and moderate chief fire officer, and he has served his profession extremely well.

The House should listen to what Mr. Dennis Davis, with all his experience, has said. He said: The fire service is facing a serious financial situation which needs to be remedied if it is not to create major operational difficulties. This is not just a case of special pleading but one where the current financial arrangements help hide a significant problem. It is therefore not a new problem … It is however one which is reaching critical condition. He continues: The UK fire service reputation as a world leader in innovation, practice, equipment, vehicles and thinking, is in serious jeopardy as are those who trade world-wide in our fire related industries. The House, particularly the Home Office, should take notice when the man selected to represent all chief fire officers in this country is still of the view I have quoted, despite extensive discussions with the Home Office, despite what we have heard from the Home Secretary, and despite numerous letters in his direction from Home Office Ministers, some of which I have seen.

When I last saw Mr. Davis he made a telling point. He said that such was the financial state of the fire service, not just in Cheshire, but in many parts of the country, that it was having to rely on increasingly old equipment. It is having to cut down on training, which of course affects the Fire Service College—we are talking about an economic issue, not a desire not to use the Fire Service College. Every day, the service faces real-terms cuts in what it is doing. Mr. Davis rolled up his point by saying that the national minimum standards were now becoming the national standards. The national minimum standards were never intended to be the national standards to operate throughout fire services in this country. But, according to chief fire officers, that is what is happening.

We heard a good deal from the Home Secretary about the National Audit Office report. The National Audit Office identified failures by the Government and highlighted two problems in particular. It described the first problem as follows: Ineffective national response to the growing problem of fire". It gave three causes, of which two were: Perverse incentives in SSA mechanism and Lack of a concerted multi-agency effort to tackle the problem. The second problem that the National Audit Office identified was that the service was facing growing financial problems, and it gave three reasons for that. The first reason was: Pervasive and inflexible conditions of service". The second reason was the Burgeoning pensions bill". The third reason was the Inadequate SSA mechanism". The cause of two of the three problems can be identified, at least in part, as the perverse standard spending assessment mechanism.

The figures show what has happened through that perverse mechanism. The Government may quote the figures and they may demand to know of the Opposition parties how much money is needed to tackle the problem, but criticism of the latter sort comes rich from this Government. The Government have cooked the books of local government finance for so long that the pan has almost caught fire and the fire service may be needed to put it out.

The standard spending assessment for the fire service increased this year by 1.5 per cent.—or £17 million—to £1.185 billion. But one has to set that figure against the fact that pay rose by 3.5 per cent. One also has to bear in mind that pay in the fire service, which is extremely labour intensive, represents about 80 per cent. of budgets and that the evidence is that almost all the other expenditure experienced by the fire services rose in line with inflation.

The result is a widening gap. We do not need an economist, the Home Secretary or the Financial Secretary—all we need is Mr. Micawber to tell us that that position is unacceptable. That point was raised by Mr. Dennis Davis in correspondence—a copy of which I have seen—that passed to the Home Secretary via the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth), who represents the area in which the Cheshire fire service headquarters are situated. Was there an adequate response? There was no response to what the National Audit Office termed an inadequate standard spending assessment mechanism, with "perverse" incentives.

When the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville), replies to the debate I should like to hear how the Government propose to remove the perversity that is affecting the fire service throughout this country. How do the Government propose to make the SSA mechanism adequate to meet the criticism levelled by the National Audit Office?

When the Minister replies I should also like him to deal with the way in which the formula is calculated, particularly in London. There is clear evidence that, in London, the formula used to assess the SSA for the fire service values damage to property higher than damage to people. It is weighted in favour of areas where there are expensively built office blocks, which should be subject to adequate insurance in any event. When it constructs buildings, the private sector is under a duty to ensure that adequate fire precautions are included. It is wrong that people living in densely populated blocks of flats and terraced streets in London should find that the formula is weighted against them and in favour of office blocks along the embankment or in Canary wharf. But evidence to show that that is happening has been produced by the London fire and civil defence authority.

When the Minister replies will he come clean about the pensions problem? The history of public service pensions, particularly as it affects the police and the fire service, is unsatisfactory. But the Government have had stewardship of those important public services for the past 17 years. The Home Secretary reminded us, rightly and responsibly, that we are the trustees of public money. But I remind the Minister, rightly and responsibly, that we are also the trustees of the public service. Why is it that over the past 17 years the public service has been so let down that we all talk—on both sides of the House—about the pensions time bomb facing the fire service? It has become the term of art to describe the problem. The National Audit Office urged the Government to respond quickly. I asked a written question on the subject, and I was assured that the matter was being addressed. Why not answer in this debate? Why do not the Government take the opportunity to explain how fire services are to survive the pensions time bomb and avoid paying 25 per cent. of their revenue in pensions—which plainly cannot be permitted. The Government have had plenty of time to ponder. Perhaps they will now answer.

I urge the Minister to acknowledge that proactive fire safety campaigning needs more money when calculating the standard spending assessment. It is self-evident that such campaigns are cost-effective—they are an investment. One brigade invested approximately £1 million a year in proactive fire safety campaigning. The result was a 70 per cent. reduction in fire injuries and fatalities over four years. That is money well spent. There ought to be a statutory requirement to undertake proactive fire campaigning and more specific funding than acknowledged in the most recent SSA, which for the first time identified PFC as a specific funding area. The Government have no strategy for dealing with investment in years of fire safety campaigning, to influence the attitude of the public to their personal safety and the safety of their premises.

The NAO rightly urged that a partnership solution be found to the problems that it identified and to the difficulties faced by the fire service. That solution involves a partnership of central Government, local government, fire brigades and the civil service, military, police, ambulance service and other agencies that are closely related under the great trust that forms the public service. We see no evidence of the Government making such a partnership work. Fire brigades throughout the country are engaged, as I believe Mr. Dennis Davis would accept, in a damage limitation exercise against Government funding and Treasury decisions that are designed to secure the impossible—the present Government winning the next general election.

I ask the Minister to give a full and honest reply at the end of the debate—particularly to the issues that I have raised.

8.50 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

As the Opposition motion refers to the national Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh in my constituency, it is wholly appropriate that I should devote my speech to the college.

I spoke in the Adjournment debate of the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) on 13 March, and that speech—which was reported at columns 929 to 931 of Hansard—was a purely factual assessment of the problems that currently beset the college. I deplore the way in which the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) quoted selectively from my earlier speech for purely political purposes. I have an important constituency interest in ensuring the college's viability, which is a world renowned training centre of excellence. It maintains the highest possible standards in training UK firemen, whose excellence is recognised throughout the world.

I pay tremendous tribute not only to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary but to my noble Friend Lady Blatch, who has been unstinting in her efforts to accommodate my discussions and ideas for restructuring the Fire Service College to ensure its viable future. Recently I had a meeting with my noble Friend that lasted no less than one hour. As a result of the Adjournment debate on 13 March, my noble Friend sent me a detailed letter, and she is due to visit the college at the beginning of June. I am hopeful that we shall by then have reached some conclusions as to the way forward.

It is wholly appropriate for this debate to be in the presence of Dennis Davis, president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, because he was one of the pioneers of the Fire Service College—so he knows of its excellence and current difficulties. The college is highly efficient. Last year, it increased its non-UK fire business by 10 per cent. It is not a question of the college being inefficient or of problems being of its own making. It is a question of the nature of the independent training fund that was established in 1992. Some of the problems can readily be overcome.

The initial trading fund document that was put before the House when the college was established incorporated a valuation of £31.3 million by an independent firm of chartered surveyors, on the basis of historic cost replacement. The college's current market value is less than £10 million. If the college were required to make a return on that basis, it would be considerably better off. That is one aspect that the Home Office could constructively examine with the Treasury, to see if the basis of the valuation can be altered.

I am tremendously grateful to the Home Office for funding the college's past losses. Although they have not acccrued directly to the college, those losses should be written off so that college's excellent management can start with a clean slate. This morning, I received a letter from Nigel Finlayson, chief executive of the Fire Service College, which will give the House some idea of its current situation: Good progress is being made on the internal re-organisation to improve management of the delivery of the College's programme with a number of key appointments having been, or about to be, made. These include the new Commandant, Mr. Terry Glossop, who takes up post on 1 June. I pay tribute to the college's previous commandant, Mr. David, and I have no doubt that Mr. Glossop will do an equally good job. Mr. Finlayson also makes clear, as did my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary during the debate, that discussions on the college's financial restructuring are under way. He states that the focus is on issues relating to valuation, which are proving complex and difficult. I have already outlined a way forward.

The training that the college provides gives rise to two particular problems. One relates to value added tax, which this year has cost the college about £1 million. Following a ruling by Customs and Excise, educational establishments are entitled to register for VAT but are not allowed to charge VAT on their educational courses—the so-called outputs. Equally, such establishments are not allowed to reclaim VAT on the training element of their costs—the so-called inputs. As the college is a training establishment, it is considerably disadvantaged for VAT purposes. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to examine that problem together with the Treasury and Customs and Excise, because it affects not only the college but all other educational establishments—particularly grant-maintained schools. That arrangement is nonsensical, and the Government would be wise to re-examine the matter.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Blackburn to mention the training provided by the college to other fire authorities. Last year, the college provided 16,000 man days of fire service training. There is a great fear at the college that that figure will decline significantly this year. If that happens, it will affect the college's finances because it will continue to incur all its fixed costs but its income will decline. That would create even greater problems for its bottom line result this year.

I urge all fire authorities to use that excellent facility at Moreton-in-Marsh because they would never be able to set up training establishments to the same standard. As I said in my speech in March, the college has a mock-up motorway on which pile-ups can be staged involving all three emergency services. It has a mock office block and a mock ship in which fires can be staged. It also has one of the best analytical laboratories of any fire training establishment. In short, it has magnificent facilities.

I am concerned to secure an excellent long-term future for that establishment, because not only does it provide employment for 250 of my constituents, but it provides excellent training, which enables its employees to go out into the world to sell its services. There is a huge unmet need for such training because the only similar training establishment is in America.

If we could restore the college's finances to a sound footing, the management could have a new start and it could have the confidence to go out to its customers in the world and say, "We can provide excellent fire service training. We will get your firefighters up to the same level of training as our own." Those customers would provide the employment that my constituents so desperately need.

It is not a question of finance but one of common sense. I have no doubt that if we can sort out the college's finances so that it can make a clean start, we can then encourage all the United Kingdom's fire authorities to use it. There would then be no danger of Health and Safety Executive prosecutions because firefighters had not been properly trained.

The college is world renowned. It has a bright future. On behalf of my constituents I shall continue to have discussions with Baroness Blatch and I am absolutely certain that, between us, we shall be able to provide a secure future for the fire college in my constituency.

9 pm

Mr. Brian Jenkins (South-East Staffordshire)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for enabling me to make my maiden speech as the Member for South-East Staffordshire. I am happy to be here to speak in support of my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, who moved the motion on the future of the fire service. I hope that the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) will forgive me if I do not follow his speech in detail.

As is the tradition of the House, I would like to take a few moments to speak about my constituency before progressing to the main issues of the debate. South-East Staffordshire is the very heart of England—middle England personified. I consider it to be a great honour to serve a community in which I have lived for more than 40 years, and in which I have a great number of friends.

I am following in some very distinguished footsteps. My predecessor was a man of great stature, who served South-East Staffordshire since its inception. He was a man who battled for his cause, and was aptly described as a Tory warrior. I knew Sir David and Lady Ann Lightbown socially and politically for many years. His sudden and untimely death saddened all who knew him.

Our last Labour Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), has been a close friend of mine for more than 25 years, and is fondly remembered for his good work in the constituency.

Thomas Guy represented Tamworth from 1695 to 1708. He built Tamworth town hall and the almshouses before he came to London and built Guy's hospital. When he left Tamworth, having been defeated, he put a covenant on his almshouses to ensure that no Tamworth resident who could have voted for him, but who took part in his defeat, would ever be allowed in them. I will not say of which political persuasion he was.

Far and away my most famous predecessor was Sir Robert Peel, who served as the Member for Tamworth from 1830 to 1850. He was a distinguished 19th-century Prime Minister of Great Britain, and twice served in that office. He was famed not only for the Tamworth manifesto and for laying the foundation of the police force, but for forming the modern Conservative party. If Sir Robert and Thomas Guy were starting out in politics as young men today, I sometimes wonder which party they would consider joining. Dare I say it, as progressive thinking people, it would be new Labour.

My constituency has a great claim to fame. In the 9th century, King Offa ruled Mercia from Tamworth. He was the effective ruler of England, and his coinage, minted in Tamworth, proclaimed it. His only equal was Charlemagne, ruler of what is now France. They both called themselves emperor, and their currencies were exchanged in each other's kingdoms. That may have been the first European single currency since the fall of the Roman empire.

King Offa is also known for his great fortified ditch between England and Wales—Offa's Dyke. Some people believe it was dug to keep the Welsh out, but let me put the case of today's historians. Offa, like all major rulers, had a civil service and entourage in his kingdom, and he had to raise taxation. The people living close to the border could avoid his tax collectors by slipping over the border. That was a mediaeval tax loophole, and he had to close it by building a big ditch to stop people crossing over. So Offa's Dyke was built not to keep the Welsh out, but to keep the English in.

The main town in my constituency is Tamworth, and the town centre is dominated by the Norman castle. In days gone by, when rulers set taxes that were too high, the local citizens would storm the castle gates. Today the citizens have a different remedy: they use the ballot box. However, in the past 16 years, we have sometimes felt that a return to the old method would be justified.

I must admit that the ballot box served me and my party well on 11 April. The 22 per cent. swing to Labour was the second highest since the second world war. The majority of more than 13,000 sent an unmistakable message from the people whom I represent: it is time for the Government to go.

The present-day constituency is dominated by the growing town of Tamworth. The population has tripled since the war, and its economic activities have developed from mining and clay products through to light industry and distribution. It has a progressive and highly skilled work force. It has new, large housing estates, inhabited by people who have moved there from all over the country with aspirations of a better life.

The constituency has attracted as much inward investment as the rest of Staffordshire put together, and unemployment has fallen by 18 per cent. in the past year. Our leisure facilities are second to none: they include the only indoor ski slope in Europe with real snow. A Labour council has presided over much of that development, and it enjoys the confidence of the people. With 27 Labour members and no Tories, it is a Tory-free zone. I have every right to feel proud to serve my constituency as a Labour Member of Parliament.

In the 13th century, the Danes laid seige to Tamworth and razed it to the ground: that is where the fire service comes in. Unfortunately, we did not have an effective fire service, and the town suffered badly as a result. The future of the fire service is of real concern to my constituents. I commend the sterling work of the Staffordshire fire brigade. It has saved countless lives, but the invaluable service it provides is being squeezed by the Government.

While the number of call-outs has increased by more than 50 per cent. in 10 years, central Government funding has been cut. In 1995–96, the Staffordshire fire service lost more than £1 million in real terms, and 36 firefighters lost their jobs as a result. The Government squeeze on Staffordshire's fire service is endangering my constituents.

The potential work load in Tamworth has increased by 300 per cent., but the brigade's strength has increased by only 1 per cent. The town's continuing development makes it difficult for the service to meet its obligations on time. A new station is needed, but it would cost almost £2 million. That is not affordable, with a 37 per cent. reduction in the current capital budget.

The formula by which Government funding is calculated is arcane. The recent change to include a coastal allowance costs Staffordshire £800,000—hon. Members may be aware that Staffordshire does not have a coastline. However, there is no provision for earthquakes, and we have them. The difference between the standard spending assessment and the cost of providing the service is £1.5 million, and that sum is made up from the budgets of other services. There will come a time when it is no longer possible to do that, and the people of Staffordshire are beginning to believe that we pay more but get less from the Government.

My most famous predecessor must be Sir Robert Peel, who served this country well. I do not expect in my political career to emulate his achievement in becoming Prime Minister twice, or his many other achievements for the country. However, in his Tamworth manifesto, he said: Declarations of principle will ultimately and significantly fail if they are not adhered to. I have every intention of living up to that principle, and the people have every right to expect me to do so. In fact, they have every right to expect it of all politicians.

9.9 pm

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

As someone who went to canvass in Tamworth against the hon. Member for South-East Staffordshire (Mr. Jenkins), and despite the fact that I would rather the winner had been of a different political persuasion, I must congratulate him most heartily on his amusing speech. If he can keep it up, it will bring him that great accolade of people coming into the Chamber to listen to him when they see his name on the monitor. If he continues to be so amusing, his reputation will undoubtedly rise, at least during the time that he is lucky enough to retain his seat.

I was particularly fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's description of the real purpose of Offa's Dyke. He told us plainly that it had to be built to keep in people whose taxes were in danger of being raised. I hope that he makes that message clear to the Labour party national executive, because the British people are unaware of the taxes threatened by the Labour party should it ever form a Government. I suspect that that is why Labour Members do not mention that fact. We may well see a mass exit from our country if that disastrous event should occur. That being said, I welcome the hon. Member for South-East Staffordshire to the House.

I am concerned at the actions of the fire service and the way in which it has recently been petitioning us. It must be fully aware, as I know the hon. Member for South-East Staffordshire will be, that the allocation of funds for the fire service is the responsibility of the local authorities. To suggest that we can blame the Government is absurd.

The Government have increased by £866 million, I mean £966 million—I do not have my glasses on, so I apologise for that slip—the amount that local authorities have enjoyed in the latest spending round. In addition, in my area, Essex county council, which currently has the misfortune of being under the control of a Labour and Liberal Democrat pact, has received £25 million more from the Government as part of its SSA.

Despite that, the council has had the temerity to cut £1 million from the budget of that most essential of community services—the fire service. It ill behoves the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who answered my earlier intervention, to suggest that that cut was in any way the responsibility of the Government. He knows better than that: he should not seek to put the blame on the Government when it rests squarely on the shoulders of his colleagues and associates on the county council.

The fact that the fire service is making these complaints to a number of hon. Members shows that the Labour-controlled councils, about which the hon. Member for Blackburn was crowing, are dilatory in the way in which they treat it. They are clearly underfunding it all over the country, and it is causing great concern to the service and to those who rely on that magnificent service for their protection.

Having lost £1 million from the budget, my local service is facing the possibility that 41 front-line firemen may have to leave the service by March next year. It is only the Conservative party on Essex county council that has put up a fight to get the budget reinstated. If there was a shortage of money in Essex county council, one might make some accommodation for the budget cuts. The truth is that it is sitting on reserves of £120 million. Those reserves are tucked away in all sorts of budgets for goodness knows what purpose and what rainy day. If the prospect of cuts in the fire service is not a serious matter, I do not know what would be important enough to consider taking money out of those reserves.

I urge the firemen in Essex not to go through with the threatened strike, because the Conservatives have battled with the Labour group on Essex county council over the budget and have at least secured the promised increase of £250,000, which will be put back into the fire service budget. That will save the jobs of around 30 new firemen, but that is not good enough, and the Conservatives on the council intend to keep up the pressure.

It is no good, as I have said before and wish to say again, for the fire service to complain to us in the House as if the cuts were Government cuts. They are nothing of the sort. I urge the Government to make it clear again—as I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will—that the real culprits are the county councillors and those in unitary authorities who are using budget cuts to try to cause embarrassment to the Government. That is grossly misleading and grossly unfair, and will be unsuccessful.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Obviously, I disagree with much of what the hon. Lady has said, but tonight should not pass without a comment from one Labour Member from Essex, and I share her concern about the potential cuts in the fire service. I know that the Labour leader of Thurrock borough council has made representations to the county council, so this is not an issue on which, as the hon. Lady suggests, the Conservatives are Archangel Gabriels and Labour are otherwise. Many of us are concerned about the funding of essential public services, and I am one of them in Essex.

Mrs. Gorman

I wish the hon. Gentleman had as much influence with his county councillors as he appears to have with the Labour leader of Thurrock council. I urge the hon. Gentleman to turn his attention to and to criticise his Labour colleagues, to encourage them to do something about the problem. I also urge him to write to our fire officers to inform them that it is the stinginess of Labour and the Liberals on Essex county council that has caused the problem.

Like everyone else in the House, I am an admirer of the fire service. We all know that it does an excellent job and it deserves all the support that the Government's generous funding of local authorities allows it. I urge the hon. Members, when they vote, to make it clear to the fire service that the people they should be criticising are not in the Government but in the county councils and the unitary councils—many of them Labour-controlled today, unfortunately—so that the blame is placed where it belongs. In that way, pressure can be applied for the budgets to be reinstated, so that the fire services throughout the country can be manned to the level of safety that I am sure we all support.

9.17 pm
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

I am happy to support a motion that praises the fire service. It is treason to say it, but the amendment also praises the fire service, as has every hon. Member who has spoken, except for the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who could not resist carping at the service. But that general praise only reflects what the Audit Commission has said, and what the general public think about the fire service.

Last year, Nottinghamshire county council tried a unique experiment, and opened its books. It revealed its financial problems, and considered the possibility of cuts of £50 million. In the event, cuts of only £25 million were made, but the potential cuts for the fire service in Nottinghamshire would have involved the loss of 200 full-time and part-time firemen, and 10 firefighting appliances. As part of the consultative process with the public, the county council held meetings and asked people to write and to phone in on a hotline to tell the council in which areas they thought the cuts—the Home Secretary calls them efficiency savings, but I will stick to the word "cuts"—should be made.

The people of Nottinghamshire were faced with cuts in the education service, the provision of social services, teacher numbers and social worker and home-help establishments, but the council received 100 letters stating that the fire service budget should not be cut. That was the priority of those who wrote those letters.

It was even more astonishing that there were 2,500 calls on the hotline. Of those callers, 1,900 gave priority to the fire service. That demonstrates the esteem in which the general public hold the fire service. The Fire Brigades Union organised a petition, which attracted more than 130,000 signatories. That is a vote of confidence in the fire service, bearing in mind that the population of Nottinghamshire is about 1 million.

The opening of the books created a great deal of debate in the county. Ordinary people, including teachers, head teachers, bishops, Members, and Members of the European Parliament—the entire community—asked for more Government money. I think that they were partially successful.

Sir Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

The debate started on the basis that the potential cuts would amount to £50 million. Various options increased the total by £18 million, to about £68 million. That created havoc throughout Nottinghamshire. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the cuts eventually amounted to £22 million. It was something of a scare exercise.

Mr. Heppell

The hon. Gentleman's figures are not quite right. In any event, the council said, "This is what we shall have to do, and the potential cuts could amount to £50 million." The outcome was about half that projection. I do not accept that that was scaremongering. There were real worries.

The fire service budget will have to be cut by £300,000. Part of that will be met by a small reduction in staff and some small savings here and there. The majority of the cut will be met by reducing training. I know that the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) have said, and I am sure that the Minister will say, that the fire service is a local government responsibility, and has nothing to do with central Government. But let us focus on the facts.

We know that about three quarters of all local authorities already spend beyond their standard spending assessment, which is what the Government say is sufficient. Nottinghamshire spends £1.5 million in excess of its SSA. As I have said, Nottinghamshire is not alone in doing that. The Home Secretary seems to think that Derbyshire is awash with money, and that it has no problems. He suggests that money is being thrown at Derbyshire.

If that is so, why has Derbyshire had to make cuts amounting to £1.3 million? The cuts have meant the loss of a turntable ladder. A one-day staff station will be turned into a retained station. The service will lose three retained pumps. There will be a loss of eight rider-officer posts, 34 whole-time posts and 40 retained posts. Again, there will be cuts in training.

There will be cuts in Northamptonshire amounting to £147,000, which will be met mainly by reducing training. Cuts in Leicestershire will amount to £61,000. Appliances will not be replaced, and the number of posts will be frozen. Again, there will be cuts in training. In Lincolnshire, the cuts will amount to £68,000. Appliances and equipment generally will not be replaced. Similarly, there will be training cuts. There will be cuts in training everywhere.

It is nonsensical to talk about helping the Fire Service College. As a result of cuts, authorities cannot afford to send people there for training. We are told, "Use it or lose it," but the college will be lost because authorities cannot afford to use it.

What does less training mean? Every time a firefighter answers a call, the outcome is possibly life-threatening. That is often the position in which a member of the public finds himself. It is almost always a life-threatening situation for a firefighter. Dedication, courage and bravery are all very well, but those qualities are not enough.

Firefighters require the proper equipment; and, probably above all else, they require the proper training. They need the training, to be familiar with a variety of situations. They need it to know exactly what procedures to adopt in a certain situation, and they need it so that they can act almost instinctively.

Firefighters do not have the luxury that is available to politicians—the opportunity to consider before acting. They do not have the luxury that is available to the Prime Minister, who can hesitate before every action. For a firefighter, that moment of hesitation might be the reason for someone's death. The training is needed, and the cuts are affecting it. They are not efficiency savings; they are putting the lives of the public, and the lives of firefighters, at risk.

I also want to make a point about fire safety. I chair the all-party group on home safety, and I worry when I see in Audit Commission reports that £20 million or so should be spent on fire prevention. The standard spending assessment takes account of £5.8 million, about a quarter of what is required. Every so often, a major tragedy occurs. When people are saved, it makes the headlines. Many people have been killed in fires at the Richmond hotel in Scarborough, in other houses in multiple occupation and while using leisure facilities.

That is not the reason for my interest in home safety, however; I am interested in that because of the little fires that happen every day, but are hardly mentioned in the media. They might just make a byline in the local press, or get a mention on regional television. We should remember that, every day, someone over 60 is killed in a house fire, and that two children die in house fires every week. Those statistics may seem insignificant on their own, but I do not want to talk about statistics. The devastation involved means that we must find more money to spend on fire prevention, rather than letting the firefighters deal with the consequences of our failure to do so.

It amazes me that we are still waiting for a Government response to the report of the interdepartmental review team on fire safety legislation enforcement. A number of the team's 61 recommendations mentioned transferring the enforcement of safety legislation and fire prevention from the fire service to local authorities in some cases, and to the Health and Safety Executive in others—but, most worrying to me, in some cases to private inspectors. There was also the possibility of a do-it-yourself scheme, requiring people to decide whether they were safe in terms of fire prevention.

I do not want fire prevention to be privatised, and I am sure that the general public do not want it. If I want to know something about my car, I ask a mechanic. If I want to know something about politics, I ask a politician—usually someone of my own political persuasion. If I want to know about fire prevention, I will ask a firefighter, because firefighters deal with fires and know how to deal with fire prevention.

I hope that a recommendation will be made, and that the Minister will tell us that the fire service will have a statutory duty to educate people about fire prevention. I want fire prevention to be where the public want it—in the hands of the fire service. We believe that fire prevention will be safe in its hands.

9.28 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

I welcome the motion, for just one reason. I appreciate the opportunity that it gives me to pay tribute to the professionalism and the courage of the men and women in the fire service, and particularly those in the fire brigade that covers my area, the London fire brigade. I am surprised, however, that the Opposition should wish to spend their time attacking the operation of the fire service, for there is nothing to attack—certainly not the men and women who risk their lives to save others, the efficiency of the organisation behind them, which the Audit Commission praised so highly, or the safety of cover provided. Her Majesty's fire inspectorate sees to that, and there are minimum safety standards, with the vast majority of fire services providing cover well in excess of that. I should not be entirely surprised at the Opposition going down that route, bearing in mind their quite scurrilous attempt to run scares and play on false fears that they, along with certain officials in the Fire Brigades Union in my area, have conjured up.

People were induced to sign a petition—I have nothing against people signing petitions—on the reorganisation of the London fire brigade. The only problem is that when people were asked to sign it, they were told, first, that cuts were coming but not that those suggested cuts were only the initial response of the Labour-controlled authority, which it later significantly reduced. Secondly, people were told that the cuts were coming from the Government, which was not true, because the reorganisation plans were drawn up by the Labour-controlled London fire and civil defence authority.

Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the LFCDA had about £27 million in reserve? Is he further aware that the London fire brigade was considering purchasing a helicopter for the chief fire officer at enormous expense, which would have incurred enormous running costs, while at the same time considering closing fire stations and doing away with some appliances? It is quite disgraceful.

Mr. Merchant

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. The £27 million about which he spoke, which even the LFCDA's finance officer said needed to be drastically reduced, ought to be set against the £6 million or £7 million that it claimed it had to save and was trying to cut from its running budget. In other words, it has far in excess of what it said on which to draw, to cover the deficiency that it said existed.

People who were asked to sign the petition were misled about that and also led to believe that there would be reductions forthwith. Yet any plans for reductions in fire cover need the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. That approval is given only if Her Majesty's inspectors consider that the reductions are safe.

Thirdly, people were shown lists of proposed closures, all of which have been lifted, and reductions, a large proportion of which have been withdrawn, but not told at any stage of the extra pumps being introduced at some stations and of the new stations that were being planned. It is not surprising that people signed that petition. They signed it in false knowledge, with false expectations, so the petition is invalid.

In my constituency, cover will be improved in the final plan that has been forwarded to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I thank the London fire chief for achieving that. At Beckenham fire station, there will be fewer off-ground calls principally because an extra pump is being installed at West Norwood. That, too, will help my constituency because its western side, which abuts the Norwood and West Norwood fire station area, will receive better cover. Otherwise, the cover in the immediate boundaries of my constituency will remain the same, including in Downham, where the proposed closure of the fire station has been withdrawn.

I freely acknowledge that there is a wider picture, too. I also acknowledge that there is a need for some change. People are always afraid of change, but in the fire service, as in other areas, change is necessary at times because circumstances, such as where people live and the nature of risk, also change. I am all in favour of that being regularly reviewed.

The London fire chief very honestly and professionally faced those facts when he drew up his recent report on future fire cover. He said that the present pattern of stations is inherited from predecessor authorities"— that is, from some of the county councils that then existed. It is that long since the location of the stations was closely examined. He says that the cover has been largely unchanged for many years and states: It did not take fully into account the overall pattern of cover across the whole area. Plainly, improvements could be brought about by some change there. His report also states: A number of the older stations were built in an era when fire cover was provided by horse-drawn, steam-operated appliances or in the earliest days of the internal combustion engine. That is elegantly put. The report continues: As such, they were built close together to provide a suitable level of cover before the development of the present Home Office guidance on fire cover. He says that such stations may become surplus to requirements when an opportunity arises of a site to replace two stations by one that is more centrally located. That makes sense.

One other example among many that I should like to share with the House is a description of the present cover on the river. The fire chief states: The service offered at present through the very nature and design of the vessels is considered to be inefficient and expensive with the fire boat frequently taking so long to attend the fire call that the incident is handled by other appliances and crews and the fire boat is turned back before actually reaching the incident. That all shows that not everything needs to be changed. nor that there must be drastic cuts, none of which has been suggested. The report suggests a need for constant change and improvement, which are part of dynamic fire cover. That is what the fire chief, the expert, says, and I am happy to agree.

There must be no cuts for financial reasons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall) said in his intervention, the London fire brigade is well funded by Government grant and by constituent authorities and has £27 million in reserve. I do not for a moment suggest that the reserve should be drawn upon, but in view of this year's deficit, there are ample funds. The minor changes in cover that the authority suggests should successfully achieve the objective of meeting the budget and providing high-quality cover.

The authority's first responsibility must be to provide high-quality cover, but it also has a responsibility to the taxpayer to achieve value for money. I am surprised that anyone should question that. I am in favour of achieving that as long as the quality of cover is not jeopardised, and I think that that is what the fire chief is striving to achieve. I commend him for that.

The Opposition motion is another feeble attempt to fuel a myth by running down quality services and failing to say what would be put in their place. The Opposition should acknowledge the hard work that is carried out by all those who are charged with the heavy responsibility of protecting the people from the perils of fire and similar risks. I include not just those who are in the front line, but the administrators, who work hard behind the scenes to ensure that the service operates efficiently. The people in the service deserve praise for providing one of our highest-quality and most essential services.

9.38 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

There is no greater hypocrisy than to praise men and women who put their lives on the line and refusing to pay their dependants pensions. It is also hypocritical to say that they provide a marvellous service while refusing to fund their pension entitlement or the college that will train them, and refusing to make provision for the new unitary authorities that will have great difficulty in funding the changes. Above all, it is wrong to make it impossible for firefighters, who every day of their lives protect our constituents, to provide a high-quality service. There will not be replacement of their equipment, training or the necessary funding.

The debate has been clearly marked by those who understand that the provision of fire services is more important than the scoring of minor points in an imaginary election battle. It is so fundamental. It is a mark of how far the Government have fallen from taking responsibility that they are not able to say openly that they do not intend to provide the cash, but that they would prefer to blame local authorities, which are under considerable constraints. It is clear. The electorate understand it. Last week's results showed that and I hope that Ministers will, at long last, reconsider the population's absolute outrage at what they are doing day by day.

9.39 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I congratulate everyone who has taken part in the debate on this important subject, which we chose because, throughout the country, there is much concern about many aspects of the fire service.

It is a pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Staffordshire (Mr. Jenkins) on his maiden speech. I have listened to many such speeches—I made one as a by-election victor—but his speech was witty and in keeping with the best traditions of the House: it was, of course, entirely non-political. I in particular and, I am sure, hon. Members look forward to many more speeches from him. I am sure that his stay in the House, like that of one of his distinguished predecessors whom he mentioned, Sir Thomas Guy, will be long.

On fire service funding, my hon. Friend raised the issue of the coastal factor, which he rightly said was a difficult concept to grapple with if one represents part of Staffordshire. He will know, however, that the coastal factor is calculated by a highly scientific formula. The formula is £4.35 multiplied by the length of the coast line and divided by the population. There is a novel concept: multiple regression analysis combined with cartography. All is not well, therefore, and I am not entirely certain that the coastal factor will endure for too many years.

In their own characteristic styles, the hon. Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) raised—

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

In their inimitable styles.

Mr. Howarth

Who am I to disagree with my hon. Friend, who has had long experience?

In their inimitable and characteristic styles, the hon. Members for Billericay and for Sutton and Cheam raised the questions of London and Essex and went into rants about the Labour-controlled local authorities responsible in both cases. However, they failed to deal with the fact—and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made this point powerfully—that local government can respond only to the financial framework that central Government sets. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam should be quiet. I listened to her in silence.

The difficulties that fire authorities in Essex and in London are experiencing stem from the manner in which central Government have dealt with fire service financing not only in the past two or three years, but since the late 1970s and early 1980s. If the Government do not accept that responsibility, central Government will continually try to blame local government for what is going on.

Mr. Bendall

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because I have only a short time and he was not here at the beginning of the debate.

The Government must accept that they have those responsibilities. The hon. Members for Billericay and for Sutton and Cheam and their colleagues who have spoken in the debate may feel that the responsibilities taken by local government go too far, but, under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, the Home Secretary must approve those. He must verify each reduction, whether it involves job losses, tenders being taken out of commission or fire stations being closed. If they have a gripe over those they should take it up with the Home Secretary, who has created the financial framework and will ultimately make the decisions.

Lady Olga Maitland


Mr. Howarth

I shall give way to the hon. Lady, because I mentioned her, but I hope that she will be brief.

Lady Olga Maitland

Will the hon. Gentleman take into account the fact that in London alone there is £27 million in the reserves? How can he suggest that the Government are underfunding fire authorities when they have managed to build up such a sum, bearing in mind, too, the fact that each year there is a real increase in support?

Mr. Howarth

I sometimes wonder whether the hon. Lady listens to the debates in the House at all. Sometimes I feel that she may be on another planet when such matters are being discussed. The London fire and civil defence authority has operated within the guidelines set by the Department of the Environment for the maintenance of balances and reserves. It has to put money aside for the pension fund contributions that, as she has heard the Home Secretary acknowledge, represent a real problem for local authorities, because the pension fund is unfunded. The contributions in any one year do not match the payments that have to be made. The hon. Lady should understand the facts before she gets to her feet to condemn local authorities.

Mr. Howard

If the hon. Gentleman is so keen on the facts, why does he not acknowledge that the director of finance of the London fire and civil defence authority has said that the reserves are too high? Does he suggest that the director of finance does not know that provision has to be made for pensions?

While the hon. Gentleman is worrying about his answer to that question, will he join us in seeking a withdrawal of the strike ballots in Essex and Derbyshire? Will he call on the Fire Brigades Union to withdraw the ballots in those two counties?

Mr. Howarth

It is a bit rich when a Home Secretary who has spent so much time being defended in the courts attacks Labour-controlled authorities—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."' If the Home Secretary believes that the level of reserves in London is wrong, will he tell us what the right level of reserves would be? Will he also tell us what the fire services have done wrong in terms of the guidelines from the Department of the Environment, within which they have operated?

I have little time left, so I want to move on and draw a sharp contrast between the speeches by the hon. Members for Billericay and for Sutton and Cheam and those made by my hon. Friends, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and for Crewe and Nantwich. From direct experience and knowledge of the fire service, my hon. Friends understand vividly exactly what the effects of the Government's failure to face the difficulties in fire service financing are. They put their cases strongly and well.

The Government's failure is not a new phenomenon. Dennis Davis, the president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, has been quoted at some length from more recent occasions, but in his address to the 1995 conference at Harrogate he said: But just look at what's happening. At a time when CACFOA members sense real opportunity to move into the next phase of fire service development, to change for the better, to move our community to fire safety, through prevention rather than cure, we are on shifting sands and effectively lost in the fog of indecision. That is the Government's record on fire service funding.

Another issue covered was the future of the Fire Service College. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) raised the matter again, having also done so on a previous occasion when we debated the fire service—rightly so, as he is the local constituency Member. He seems rather embarrassed by the support that we have lent him, but I tell him again that we are serious about the need for a long-term strategy for the future of the college—and I accept the fact that he is serious about it, too. I would join him and any Minister in any reasonable plan that they could devise for that purpose.

However, the hon. Gentleman seems prepared to wait a long time for Baroness Blatch to come up with a solution. So far there is an options paper, which has yet to see the light of day, a working party here and a sub-committee there, all considering the matter, yet nobody has come up with a solution to the problem created by the Government in 1992. We hope that the security of the Fire Service College will be assured, but there is no solution on the horizon, and until there is, if I were the hon. Gentleman I should be very gloomy.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I have listened to most of the debate, but no one has mentioned the remarkable contribution of the voluntary sector and the fire service in the creation of the Young Firefighters Association. The association is a youth movement for those aged from 12 to 18, and was born out of the public service in, I might add, the west midlands. We should pay tribute to the association, as it is almost unique for such a movement to be created in the British public service.

Mr. Howarth

I obviously join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to that organisation.

Finally, I wish to refer to the question of fire safety and deregulation. In what I think was the most disgraceful section of any speech that I have heard the Home Secretary make—there have been some pretty disgraceful ones among that number—he said that our arguments for proper regulation of certain matters related to fire safety amounted to "red tape". The Home Secretary considers the regulation of children's nightclothes and of houses in multiple occupation to be "red tape".

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman must not misconstrue and distort what I said in that way. I said that it behoves any responsible Government to look at regulations to see if they are necessary and, if not, to eliminate or revise them. Any party that condemns any attempt to scrutinise regulations—as the hon. Member for Blackburn did—is a party of red tape.

Mr. Howarth

It is a frequent phenomenon, but the Home Secretary's cage has been rattled. Does he deny that the Government are considering deregulating children's nightclothes, houses in multiple occupation and foam-filled furniture? If so, will he give us a categorical assurance about that? If he does not, I will accept entirely that he considers such regulations to be nothing more than red tape.

Mr. Howard


Mr. Howarth

Will he give us a categorical assurance?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman bears out the charges that I levelled against him. Of course we must look at all these matters to see—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Listen to Opposition Members. Of course we must look and see whether regulations that were put in place years ago still match the requirements of today. Any party that is not even prepared to look at those regulations is behaving in a disgraceful fashion and is a party of red tape.

Mr. Howarth

The Home Secretary has a strange view of history, as the regulations to which I have referred were put in place in 1988. But he has given no categorical assurance. The Government are considering deregulating children's nightclothes, foam-filled furniture and houses in multiple occupation. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary says "Yes". He should be ashamed of himself and of the stewardship by his Government of the fire service. He should go, and the sooner the better.

9.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville)

I shall lower the temperature a bit. First, I pay tribute to hon. Member for South-East Staffordshire (Mr. Jenkins) on his maiden speech, which was distinguished and witty and showed a great sweep of history. I will admonish him on one thing, however. He should not make dangerous departures into single currencies—even from 1,000 years ago—in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). However, I congratulate him on an entertaining speech.

Everyone who has spoken has praised the fire service, and has acknowledged the enormous value that the people of this country attach to firefighters and the great confidence that they have in them. My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made a thoughtful and constructive speech, and clearly understood the complexities of the factors affecting the future of the Fire Service College. He referred to its evaluation, and this is being investigated at present by the Treasury. That is an important point, but his central point was that all fire authorities must take advantage of this excellent facility. The college needs such business to ensure its future. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government share his view that the college should have a long-term future, and we look forward to working with him to that end.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) mentioned the so-called pensions time bomb. I assure them that the Government take the issue of the future pressure of pensions very seriously. In fact, this year we added £14 million to help to deal with the problem. I assure them that that issue will be at the forefront of our minds in the future.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery mentioned the formula and I assure him that the Department of the Environment has commissioned research into the cost of providing services in densely populated and sparsely populated areas. The Government and local authority associations are working together in a technical group to explore the possibility of alternative formulae. However, I warn the hon. and learned Gentleman that we need to find an alternative that does not unreasonably increase the grants for some brigades while disproportionately reducing them for others. We want a fair formula.

Some hon. Members referred to the scare stories about the fire service. It worries me that the fire service is being used in the way that the national health service has been used over recent years—that is, to frighten people. I believe that on Opposition day debates the Labour party looks for things that will frighten people in their everyday lives, that it invents stories about them and that it brings in all sorts of evidence from political allies to support them. That is a dangerous tendency.

The London fire and civil defence authority was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). They are all correct in saying that during the threatened closure of four fire stations in London a whole lot of misleading information was put around and that a lot of people were frightened about fire services in their area quite needlessly because they were given highly selective information.

There is plenty of evidence that while the London fire authority was talking about the closure of four fire stations because of the lack of Government funding, it was not saying that it had £27 million in reserve—as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam—and it was not saying that it was projecting an underspend of £3.7 million for that year. At the time that the authority decided—lo and behold—that it was possible not to close the fire stations, there had been no change in financial circumstances. What does this mean? It is fairly obvious that the authority had absolutely no intention of taking this action and that the whole thing was a political manoeuvre.

We have a worrying situation because some of the people who have the stewardship of fire brigades, by being elected members of fire authorities, think that it is acceptable for them to use fire as a political football. When that happens we shall see a further lowering of political debate. We have seen it over the years in all sorts of spheres, of which health is the most obvious. The London fire authority has made that manoeuvre; I hope that it will not be followed by other fire authorities around the country and I hope that the Labour party will disassociate itself from it. If the Labour party does not, it will have plumbed new depths. I ask the House to reject the motion.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:

The House divided: Ayes 256, Noes 285

Division No. 123] [9.59 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Etherington, Bill
Adams, Mrs Irene Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ainger, Nick Fatchett, Derek
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Faulds, Andrew
Allen, Graham Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Alton, David Fisher, Mark
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Flynn, Paul
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)
Armstrong, Hilary Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Foster, Don (Bath)
Ashton, Joe Foulkes, George
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Fraser, John
Barnes, Harry Fyfe, Maria
Barron, Kevin Galbraith, Sam
Battle, John Galloway, George
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Gapes, Mike
Bell, Stuart Garrett, John
Benn, Rt Hon Tony George, Bruce
Bennett, Andrew F Gerard, Neil
Benton, Joe Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Bermingham, Gerald Godman, Dr Norman A
Betts, Clive Godsiff, Roger
Blunkett, David Golding, Mrs Llin
Boateng, Paul Gordon, Mildred
Bradley, Keith Graham, Thomas
Bray, Dr Jeremy Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Brown, Nicholas (N upon I.E.) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Grocott, Bruce
Burden, Richard Gunnell, John
Byers, Stephen Hain, Peter
Caborn, Richard Hall, Mike
Callaghan, Jim Hanson, David
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hardy, Peter
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Harman, Ms Harriet
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Harvey, Nick
Canavan, Dennis Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Cann, Jamie Henderson, Doug
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery) Heppell, John
Chidgey, David Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Chisholm, Malcolm Hoey, Kate
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Home Robertson, John
Clelland, David Hood, Jimmy
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hoon, Geoffrey
Coffey, Ann Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Cohen, Harry Howarth, George (Knowsley North)
Connarty, Michael Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd)
Corbett, Robin Hoyle, Doug
Corbyn, Jeremy Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Corston, Jean Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Cousins, Jim Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Hutton, John
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Illsley, Eric
Dafis, Cynog Ingram, Adam
Dalyell, Tam Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Darling, Alistair Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Davidson, Ian Jamieson, David
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Janner, Greville
Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth) Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l) Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Dewar, Donald Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Dixon, Don Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Dobson, Frank Jowell, Tessa
Donohoe, Brian H Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dowd, Jim Keen, Alan
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)
Eagle, Ms Angela Kennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)
Eastham, Ken Khabra, Piara S
Kilfoyle, Peter Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kirkwood, Archy Prescott, Rt Hon John
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Primarolo, Dawn
Lewis, Terry Quinn, Ms Joyce
Litherland, Robert Radice, Giles
Livingstone, Ken Randall, Stuart
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Raynsford, Nick
Llwyd, Elfyn Reid, Dr John
Loyden, Eddie Rendel, David
Lynne, Ms Liz Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
McAllion, John Rooker, Jeff
McCartney, Ian Rooney, Terry
Macdonald, Calum Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
McFall, John Ross, William (E Londonderry)
McKelvey, William Rowlands, Ted
Mackinlay, Andrew Ruddock, Joan
McLeish, Henry Sedgemore, Brian
Maclennan, Robert Sheerman, Barry
McMaster, Gordon Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McNamara, Kevin Shore, Rt Hon Peter
MacShane, Denis Short, Clare
McWilliam, John Simpson, Alan
Madden, Max Skinner, Dennis
Maddock, Diana Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Mandelson, Peter Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Marek, Dr John Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Spearing, Nigel
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S) Spellar, John
Martin, Michael J (Springburn) Steinberg, Gerry
Martlew, Eric Stevenson, George
Maxton, John Stott, Roger
Meacher, Michael Strang, Dr. Gavin
Meale, Alan Straw, Jack
Michael, Alun Sutcliffe, Gerry
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heetey) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Milburn, Alan Timms, Stephen
Miller, Andrew Tipping, Paddy
Moonie, Dr Lewis Touhig, Don
Morgan, Rhodri Trickett, Jon
Morley, Elliot Turner, Dennis
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Tyler, Paul
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Vaz, Keith
Mowlam, Marjorie Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Mudie, George Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Mullin, Chris Wareing, Robert N
Murphy, Paul Watson, Mike
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Welsh, Andrew
O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire) Wicks, Malcolm
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Olner, Bill Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Parry, Robert Worthington, Tony
Pearson, Ian Wray, Jimmy
Pendry, Tom Wright, Dr Tony
Pickthall, Colin Young, David (Bolton SE)
Pike, Peter L
Pope, Greg Tellers for the Ayes:
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Mr. Eric Clarke and Mr. Jon Owen Jones.
Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Bates, Michael
Alexander, Richard Batiste, Spencer
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Bellingham, Henry
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Bendall, Vivian
Amess, David Beresford, Sir Paul
Arbuthnot, James Biffen, Rt Hon John
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Body, Sir Richard
Ashby, David Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Aspinwall, Jack Booth, Hartley
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Boswell, Tim
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V) Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Bowden, Sir Andrew
Baldry, Tony Bowis, John
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Brandreth, Gyles Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Brazier, Julian Gorst, Sir John
Bright, Sir Graham Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Browning, Mrs Angela Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Bruce, Ian (South Dorset) Grylls, Sir Michael
Budgen, Nicholas Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Burt, Alistair Hague, Rt Hon William
Butcher, John Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald
Butler, Peter Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Hannam, Sir John
Carrington, Matthew Hargreaves, Andrew
Carttiss, Michael Harris, David
Cash, William Haselhurst, Sir Alan
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hawkins, Nick
Chapman, Sir Sydney Hawksley, Warren
Churchill, Mr Hayes, Jerry
Clappison, James Heald, Oliver
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif) Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hendry, Charles
Coe, Sebastian Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence
Colvin, Michael Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Congdon, David Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Conway, Derek Horam, John
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Cormack, Sir Patrick Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Couchman, James Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Cran, James Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Hunter, Andrew
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Davis, David (Boothferry) Jack, Michael
Day, Stephen Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Deva, Nirj Joseph Jenkin, Bernard
Devlin, Tim Jessel, Toby
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Dover, Den Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Duncan, Alan Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Duncan Smith, Iain Key, Robert
Dunn, Bob King, Rt Hon Tom
Durant, Sir Anthony Kirkhope, Timothy
Dykes, Hugh Knapman, Roger
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Elletson, Harold Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Knox, Sir David
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Evennett, David Lamont, Fit Hon Norman
Faber, David Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Fabricant, Michael Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Fenner, Dame Peggy Legg, Barry
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Leigh, Edward
Forman, Nigel Lester, Sir James (Broxtowe)
Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling) Lidington, David
Forth, Eric Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Lord, Michael
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus Luff, Peter
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
French, Douglas MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fry, Sir Peter MacKay, Andrew
Gale, Roger Maclean, Rt Hon David
Gallie, Phil Madel, Sir David
Gardiner, Sir George Maitland, Lady Olga
Garnier, Edward Major, Rt Hon John
Gill, Christopher Malone, Gerald
Gillan, Cheryl Mans, Keith
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Marland, Paul
Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel) Spencer, Sir Derek
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Mates, Michael Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian Spink, Dr Robert
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick Sproat, Iain
Mellor, Rt Hon David Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Merchant, Piers Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Mills, Iain Steen, Anthony
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Stephen, Michael
Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants) Stern, Michael
Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector Stewart, Allan
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Streeter, Gary
Nelson, Anthony Sumberg, David
Neubert, Sir Michael Sweeney, Walter
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Sykes, John
Nicholls, Patrick Tapsell, Sir Peter
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Norris, Steve Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Oppenheim, Phillip Temple-Morris, Peter
Ottaway, Richard Thomason, Roy
Page, Richard Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Paice, James Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Patnick, Sir Irvine Thurnham, Peter
Patten, Rt Hon John Townend, John (Bridlington)
Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Tredinnick, David
Pawsey, James Trend, Michael
Pickles, Eric Trotter, Neville
Porter, David (Waveney) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Rathbone, Tim Viggers, Peter
Redwood, Rt Hon John Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Walden, George
Richards, Rod Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Riddick, Graham Waller, Gary
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm Ward, John
Robathan, Andrew Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Watts, John
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Wells, Bowen
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Whitney, Ray
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Whittingdale, John
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Widdecombe, Ann
Sackville, Tom Wggin, Sir Jerry
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Wilkinson, John
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Willetts, David
Shaw, David (Dover) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Wood, Timothy
Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford) Yeo, Tim
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Shersby, Sir Michael
Skeet, Sir Trevor Tellers for the Noes:
Soames, Nicholas Mr. Simon Burns and Mr. Patrick McLoughlin.
Speed, Sir Keith

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House recognises that fire brigades in the United Kingdom provide an unfailingly effective service to the public, pays tribute to the bravery of fire-fighters, who risk their lives in difficult and often dangerous circumstances, and welcomes the Government's continuing support for the fire service.