§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
There is a crisis in the fire service in Essex. Before this debate, a local journalist asked me who I was going to blame. He misunderstood the motive for the debate. It is not to apportion blame but to identify that there is an acute problem with fire cover in Essex, and to try to point the way forward. If I make measured criticism, it is only to demonstrate that the county council's consultation process on the fire service review is deficient.
The public's expectation of what should be considered in assessing the adequacy of fire cover is not the same as that of the Home Office. Government resources are generally inadequate for England and Wales. The distribution formula needs to be revised. I believe that the Home Office is considering how it assesses fire cover and risk category. I hope that that process will be completed with greater expedition.
The existing criteria by which the Home Office judge the efficiency and adequacy of fire cover take account of property but not of lives, which are of paramount importance to all hon. Members. They assume that call-outs for fire appliances occur at convenient times. In practice, call-outs often happen simultaneously. In Essex last summer, on several occasions all fire appliances were out on call at the same time, leaving no cover for further emergencies. Fire incidents are, by nature, not routine.
The Home Office's criteria disadvantage Essex, and especially those of us in the south of Essex. Essex has a high number of road traffic accidents. It has many A roads, on which, unhappily, many accidents occur. We have a high inspection rate, which is critical in saving lives but which is not reflected in the Home Office criteria. The Lakeside shopping centre alone requires 360 inspections a year. That would be doubled if we included the whole West Thurrock retail park.
In addition to major traffic infrastructure, we have petrochemical industries all along the river. My constituency includes the QE II Dartford-Thurrock crossing. There is a major airport at Stansted, and soon the channel tunnel route will enter Essex in my constituency. The river requires extra fire cover because of riverside industries and the docks. The river also means that fire engines cannot come across the river to Southend from Kent. The borders of counties such as Sussex and Surrey allow reciprocity between counties.
I regret that Essex county council did not appeal against its standard spending assessment this year. That was a mistake. It did ask to meet the Home Office Minister, Baroness Blatch, but that request was turned down. I hope that that decision will be reviewed. I was told that the council had approached the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) to seek a meeting with Essex Members but had had no response. I put that to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday, but he said that that was not correct. That is between him and the county.
In the autumn, I was approached by the county's chief executive for a meeting to discuss the crisis in the fire service. I offered him some 20 occasions for such a meeting. I followed up the offer of those dates with telephone calls and correspondence, but he was unable to arrange a meeting. Getting the fire service review 982 documents that I have with me from the chief fire officer's representative a few weeks ago was like extracting teeth from a whale. The county council's consultation and powers of persuasion have been deficient.
In my constituency, the public consultation meeting on the fire service review was held at 5 pm. The county said that that was the borough council's choice. In response, I said that, while it should meet the borough council, the public consultation should be in addition to, not merged with, proper consultation with the borough council.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
The Fire Brigades Union has taken the initiative in protecting and promoting the fire service in Essex. We should acknowledge that it is a representative body of dedicated, skilled public servants who must deal every day with the harrowing trauma of road traffic accidents and domestic fires.
The revised SSA that the Government have awarded Essex provides sufficient cover only to meet fire service wages and pensions. That applies also to other counties, much of whose budgets go on wages and pensions. The county council's triennial review is happening at the same time as the budgetary process. I accept that the county council faces difficult choices. We were told yesterday that it was likely that there would be a further £1.5 million reduction in the fire service budget, in addition to the matters under consideration in the review. That fills me with alarm.
The review explores the possibility of closing fire stations at Rochford, Leigh—with its population of 80,000—and Canvey Island. I recognise that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) is in his place. Corringham could lose one appliance.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
Corringham fire station is in my constituency and I take a special interest. It covers the petrochemical areas of Shell Haven and Mobil on Coryton peninsula, two of the largest processing areas in Britain, which service many big oil tankers every day.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
The hon. Lady is correct. The nearest whole-time fire station that will have to meet the deficiencies if the closures and service reductions are enacted will be Basildon, which deals already with 3,000 call-outs a year.
I am concerned about the Purfleet Garrison estate area of my constituency. As long as 20 years ago, and certainly in the 1986 review, it was identified as an area of great concern. The Essex fire service cannot meet the attendance time recommended by the Home Office for Purfleet, being a B risk category area. The attendance time for B risk is one appliance in five minutes and two appliances in eight minutes. That time cannot be met for that critical part of my constituency. The problem cannot be abated by fire appliances from Greater London. The old reciprocity principle has long gone; local authorities decided to charge for fire services provided across county boundaries. I regret that. That means less fire cover for Purfleet and Aveley in my constituency.
983 The Southend conurbation, which has 20 per cent. of the county's population, has seven fire stations, three whole-time and four retained. Under the review, two stations would be closed. That would leave five stations to deal with a quarter of the county's calls. Some 44 stations will remain to deal with the rest of the county—a perverse distribution of fire cover. I do not, however, dismiss the needs of other areas of the county and I know that rural districts have special problems. I appreciate the attendance of the right hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) in the Chamber for today's debate. In an ideal world, there should be full-time stations at Braintree, Stansted and Witham. We should be expanding our services, not contemplating their reduction.
I have already mentioned my constituency and the special categories and risks that exist there and elsewhere along the river front. Another cause for great concern in our county is the significant growth in the so-called modern sandwich-panel buildings that are prevalent in the food storage industry and among factories, offices and warehouses. They present unforeseen opportunities for fire spread, with its attendant loss of life.
The review documents—to which, as I said, it was difficult to gain access—show areas of residential property in my constituency that are category D. One such area in my constituency is Stifford Clays and I know there are other examples in other constituencies. In category D areas, a pump has to arrive in 20 minutes. I am worried about the situation, not just in Essex, but nationally. We put property before people. Unhappily, the overwhelming majority of deaths caused by fire occur in residential properties, not factories and offices. I hope that the Home Secretary will acknowledge the fact that standards need to be re-examined.
What needs to be done? I have acknowledged—I reiterate—that Essex county council has enormous resource problems. I could have reduced the debate to a party political slanging match—the temptation is there, as we are now in an election period—but it would not be productive or useful for the people of Essex; nor would it advance the matter that I wish to bring to the attention of the House: the immediate crisis in fire cover in Essex.
I recognise that there is a problem with resources and that the county council has to weigh the fire services against other services such as social services and education. However, the council needs to reflect. The review—the consultation process—has been deficient; the council has been conducting it at the same time as it has been considering its budget. We have been told that there is likely to be a significant reduction in moneys for fire services as a result of the budget. As a consequence, there should be a moratorium in the review; the council must stop and consider the matter more critically.
The Home Office should recognise that Essex is an unusual county of great diversity, with a growing population. In the period up to 2001, my borough alone will have increased its population by 10,000 in 10 years. It is part of the Thames gateway—a welcome Government initiative, supported by the Opposition, designed to bring new industries, employment and residential properties to that part of south-east England. The river itself presents enormous difficulties in terms of fire cover. I hope that the Home Office will be prepared to reconsider those matters.
If my pleadings this morning do not bring a halt to the threatened cuts and if either the budget cuts or the review result in the county council making an application to the 984 Home Secretary under section 19 to permit a reduction in personnel, appliances or the closure of stations, I ask the Minister to hold a public inquiry. He is entitled to do so under section 19(8), and if a public inquiry is held, many of the matters that I have mentioned can be amplified and those issues that I have been unable to raise owing to lack of time can be explored in full.
That would allow the county council to have a fair day in court; it would also allow everyone interested in this important public service, as well as the representative organisations, particularly the Fire Brigades Union, to state their case. It would enable the Home Office to understand the special nature of the county of Essex, which is not reflected in its standard spending assessments or in the resources available for its important public services.
§ Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who made a most responsible speech, for allowing me two minutes to speak in his debate. I shall offer him the same facility next week when I have an Adjournment debate.
The Government should appreciate that, while local Members of Parliament are always shouting about local problems, in this case there is a widespread belief among hon. Members of all parties in south Essex that the closures proposed in the document presented to Essex county council are unacceptable on safety grounds. They are based on the principle of vehicles moving at 30 miles an hour. As a local resident in Southend, I know that, when travelling from Southend to Rochford—where it is proposed to close a fire station—it is impossible to move at 30 miles an hour in the busy period. In fact, it is difficult to travel at two miles an hour. All our stations face more calls and have more, not fewer, buildings to cover. We have special problems in the Southend area, with a number of houses in multiple occupation, a hospital and an airport.
We must also accept that Essex faces major problems. The report identified the need for extra facilities at Stansted national airport. The council is already overstretched as it already spends £5 million more per year than it should on its fire service. Despite that, the efficiency review showed it to be extremely efficient.
As the hon. Member for Thurrock said, it is vital not to apportion blame. It would be possible to blame each party in different ways, but the crucial point is to find a solution. I hope that Essex county council will formally declare that it is withdrawing its proposals so that Members of Parliament can, on its behalf, seek meetings with Ministers to discuss a number of issues. I hope that the Minister will accept that, if Essex were to withdraw its proposals and make it clear that it will not proceed, we could have discussions on a number of matters.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Is not the amount of money in question barely £1.5 million? As that compares with Essex council's current reserves of £21 million, should it not be well within its capacity to find that money? Will my hon. Friend address that point?
§ Sir Teddy Taylor
Most certainly. Those are issues that we could discuss. On Monday, the Minister of State 985 made it clear that, as long as the county could prove that it had a good case for overspending its capping limits, it would be considered.
National airports are more than a responsibility for a local council. I hope that that issue will be considered.
Another question is whether, despite the generous settlements that the Government have given counties over the country as a whole, there is a need for additional provision to be made for fire services.
I hope that the Government will accept that Members of Parliament in south Essex are genuinely concerned about safety. They hope that a solution can be found in commonsense negotiations and consultations. They hope that the Government will accept that hon. Members from all parties have a genuine desire to find a solution to this serious and urgent problem.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on securing the Adjournment debate, and I welcome other hon. Members to a debate of great concern to Essex Members. I particularly welcome the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton).
We have good reason to be proud of the fire service in this country. Surveys have consistently shown that the service is held in great esteem by both the general public and individuals who need its assistance. It was commended in 1995 by the Audit Commission in a major value-for-money study on its very high levels of skill and assistance.
In a report last April, the commission noted that, in respect of the performance of fire brigades in the year 1994–95,the fire service maintained its outstanding performance in meeting national standards for attending fire calls on 95 per cent. of occasions".In that respect, Essex is one of the best performing brigades. In the year 1994–95, it performed better than average in meeting required response times to fire calls—its response rate was 96 per cent. The Audit Commission will soon produce audited figures for 1995–96, and it will be interesting to see whether Essex has managed to maintain that high standard.
Statutory responsibility for the provision of an efficient fire service rests with individual fire authorities. Those authorities necessarily review their fire cover arrangements periodically to keep them up to date. The Essex fire brigade recently had an extensive review of fire cover, the results of which were recently circulated for public comment. As several hon. Members have already said, the report proposes a major redistribution of resources, including the closure of two stations, a change in the status of others, and an improvement in the fire cover in other parts of the county. I fully appreciate that those changes will cause concern to some hon. Members.
Under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary's approval is required if a fire authority wants to reduce the number of its fire stations, fire appliances and firefighting 986 posts. He has a specific and limited role in considering applications under section 19. He grants approval when certain conditions are satisfied.
First, the proposals must have been sufficiently widely publicised, in sufficient detail, and with adequate time to enable any interested party to make representations. Secondly, the representations must have been considered by the fire authority. Thirdly, after taking advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the national recommended standards of fire cover will be maintained.
In the event of a section 19 application being made, my right hon. and learned Friend will also take into account any representations made direct to him, including those from hon. Members, firefighters and the communities affected. To date, we have not received a section 19 application from Essex county council following its fire cover review. I assure the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and my right hon. and hon. Friends that should the county council make such an application, my right hon. and learned Friend will, in reaching his decision, take account of the representations that he receives, including those made in the debate.
§ Dr. Spink
Will my hon. Friend revisit the debate that I secured on 18 December, when I asked that the Home Office deal with those problems? He will see from reading the report of that debate that Canvey Island is a special case. Although I am sure that all hon. Members would claim that for their patch, I am sure that they would agree that that is true for Canvey Island.
Despite the fact that the public consultation undertaken by Essex county council was totally against the cuts, and despite requests from me and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), for the council to reconsider this matter using a more appropriate set of assumptions, including average speed of vehicles, it has extended the consultation period by two months, which will put this decision beyond the 1 May elections. Does not the Minister find that curious? Does it not show that Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors are running scared on this issue?
§ Mr. Sackville
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but this should not be a matter for party political debate. We are discussing whether, on advice from the inspectorate, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary believes that fire cover is being maintained. I hope that the county council will hear what my hon. Friend said, and will take his remarks seriously. There should not be a delay, but there should be cool and detailed consideration of where best to use the resources to ensure that every part of the county is properly covered.
I should say something about the national recommended standards of fire cover, about which the hon. Member for Thurrock has doubts. The Fire Services Act 1947 does not define the test of an effective and efficient fire service that a fire authority must provide. However, it is long-standing practice to interpret that by reference to the national standards, which dictate the initial response to a fire in terms of weight and speed of attack. They rest on four main standards of service, according to the risk category in which an area has been placed. That system of risk is based on the characteristics of the buildings and property in an area, and assumes for each category that a predetermined number of firefighting appliances should attend within a certain time.
987 The standards are not just nationally recommended: they are nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. They were extensively reviewed in 1985 by the joint committee on standards of fire cover for the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. The standards enable all concerned to know where they stand as regards the minimum level of service that they should deliver. We believe that those standards have served the country well.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
The standards have served us well, but they do not take account of modern shopping malls, such as Lakeside. Things have moved on, and it is time for those standards to be reviewed.
§ Mr. Sackville
I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's point later.
We believe that the standards have served us well, but that is not to say that we regard them as entirely unchangeable. The Audit Commission's report recommended that there should be another fundamental review of the levels of fire cover, but recognised that no fundamental change could be considered without the most careful research. A review of fire cover standards is being taken forward by the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, but these issues are complex and much work will be required. In the meantime, any section 19 application will be judged according to existing standards.
Many people are concerned about the level of resources available for the fire service. We still expect the fire service to make efficiency savings, as in every other 988 public service: it is vital that the taxpayer receives best value for money. However, the Government have shown their commitment to the fire service by confirming that we shall increase the fire service element of the standard spending assessment in England for the coming financial year by £50 million, which is more than 4 per cent. I believe that that is a satisfactory settlement. I also point out that Essex will receive an uplift of 4.7 per cent. in its SSA.
I appreciate that Essex spends over the SSA, which is its right. In case anyone is under any illusions, I point out that the cost of the fire service in Essex represents about 4 per cent. of its total base budget. The fire budget in the current year is £39.35 million, against an overall budget of £976.7 million. It is within the county council's gift to review its priorities and to make further funds available if it has doubts about whether the fire cover is being maintained.
I assure the House that everything that has been said today about the particular problems of Essex—whether they relate to Canvey Island, the extent of river industrial frontage, the number of A roads or cover for an airport with international flights—will be heard by the county council, the chief fire officer and the inspectorate. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's comments will be taken fully into account in any future decisions.
§ It being two minutes to Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.