HC Deb 12 February 1997 vol 290 cc310-8 1.29 pm
Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I apologise to the Minister for coming to him twice within one week, but he will appreciate that this important and serious issue relates to the financing and operation of fire brigades and the special problems in Essex.

Thanks to the courtesy of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), I had the pleasure of speaking in his debate last week. I shall try to speak briefly so that he might have the opportunity to do the same in mine.

Most colleagues are aware of the difficulties in getting problems resolved. Essex, including Rochford, faces a serious problem. It is not unusual, when such constituency problems arise, for hon. Members to shout a great deal, but I hope that the fact that hon. Members from all parties in Essex have co-operated on this will prove to the Minister that this is an extremely serious issue.

That fact has also been demonstrated by the meetings of local residents. Indeed, some of the consultation meetings have resembled nasty boxing matches. I attended a meeting in Rochford, which was delightfully chaired by the deputy mayor, Councillor Heather Glynn, who, although not from my party, was clearly a respected person in the community. The meeting was so large that we had to add another full meeting.

The points made by residents are simple: first, the calls on the brigades have increased; secondly, the number of buildings at risk have increased; and, thirdly, the principles on which those reports are based seem to be out of date, given the problems of trying to conform to travel time requirements.

In trying to resolve the problems, the hon. Member for Thurrock and I have been frustrated by different public authorities. I have felt a certain frustration with the Government, although I love them all dearly.

To try to ensure that we had accurate information before this debate, I tabled a "W" question asking simply how much money had been provided by the Government within standard spending assessments for fire authority operations and how much had been spent. I thought that that information would be available, but the answer that I received yesterday, as the Minister will be aware, was that the Government would provide the information shortly—no doubt after the debate. It would be nice to know that basic fact, because the information we have is that, in almost every major county, there is excessive expenditure.

I have also felt a certain frustration with the county. Although it has made it clear to hon. Members that it would like more money, it unfortunately did not apply for it by 10 January, as it should have. It says that it sent a nice letter to the Minister expressing concern, but did not make the appropriate application.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), who is a resident of Rochford, and I, as a resident of Southend, offered to arrange meetings with Ministers to try to resolve the problem if the county would drop its quota proposals in the meantime, it sadly extended the consultation period, and said that the issue could not be prejudged. Essex Members are afraid that something will be done after the consultation period, unfortunately without the issue being as carefully resolved as would be appropriate.

I want the Minister to consider six specific questions and give some guidance on them. First, is the money provided for fire stations within the standard spending assessments for the counties inadequate, and, if so, why?

After I had looked for guidance on the Government's views on fire services, the only major report that I could locate was a wonderful report by the Comptroller and Auditor General in November 1992. In his fundamental review, he pointed out four alarming developments: first, that fires, fire casualties and fire losses were increasing; secondly, that more deaths and injuries were being caused in the home than anywhere else from any other activity; thirdly, that there were prevention problems; and, fourthly, that performance indicators were needed.

None the less, we are well aware that, in most counties, financing appears to be inadequate within the overall settlement. We want to know why that is so. Counties throughout the country will not spend more on one activity unless there is a special need for it.

The second issue on which I would appreciate guidance is whether provision is made in the settlement for a major national activity within a county—for example, the airport at Stansted, which requires more fire cover. It would be unfortunate if fire stations were removed from the south of the county because of problems in a national airport, which is basically not a county responsibility.

Thirdly, is there a case for reviewing the principles on the basis of which the reviews are carried out? It strikes me that the enormous increase in traffic and congestion since the principles were drawn up has created a new problem.

Fourthly, retained firefighters are extremely relevant and significant, especially in Rochford, where we have a temporary station. However, a new problem has been created by the jobseeker's allowance. I am sure that the allowance is splendid, and that the Government introduced it as an exciting new development, but it is alleged that special problems are being created because the jobseeker's allowance takes such a form that those who previously worked part time as retained fire officers now find it difficult to do so because of the allowance's provisions.

The fifth point on which I would appreciate guidance relates to the interim budget published by the county council. I have no wish to enter into battle with the county council, although a different party is in charge, but this is a point of principle. The county council proposes a cut of £651,000 in the cost of employment, which would undoubtedly mean a reduction in the number employed.

I understand that any such reduction will bring some stations under complement, and that special approval will be required from the Government under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. If any such proposals were made to reduce the number of firefighters and put stations below the appropriate number, will special Government permission be required?

My sixth point is important, and I should appreciate the Minister's views on it. Will he confirm that the closure proposals cannot go ahead unless the Government say that they are in accordance with the principles for the fire service? It is important for the local community to know that, after 1 May and whichever party is in charge, the county council will need Government approval for any proposed closures of fire stations.

Given the special problems in Essex, it would be immensely helpful if the Minister could confirm that Government approval would be required. If a review of the Essex fire service were being considered, it could then be established whether it was working efficiently, as both the county and the fire service claim, and whether it was fulfilling its obligations. That is important for the local community, so that we can see whether the Government will make a decision on the basis of the facts.

Although the hard-working Minister, whom I admire for taking his responsibility seriously, must sit on the Front Bench and hear complaints from hon. Members on both sides of the House, he should appreciate that this is not simply hon. Members shouting for their constituencies. The fact that the hon. Member for Thurrock make his excellent speech last week without trying to make party politics, and that hon. Members on this side of the House who agree on nothing have worked together, show that this is a point of principle.

Southend-on-Sea faces the possibility of three local fire stations closing, and local residents are genuinely alarmed and concerned. I was present in Southend when we had the big fire on the pier, and when a huge fire took place in a factory in Southchurch road. It is alarming. The official figures show that fires are increasing and public safety is very much at risk. If the Government can look at this issue seriously and with interest, they will genuinely provide some comfort to the people of Southend, Rochford, Canvey Island and other places.

I emphasise to the Government that this is a real and serious issue. It must be addressed. It cannot be swept under the carpet, and Members of Parliament—from all parties—who represent Essex are absolutely adamant that we will not allow it to happen.

1.39 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I shall be brief, as I do not wish to rehearse the arguments that I advanced last week.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and to reinforce his point that, nationally, the fire service is underfunded. I hope that that matter is addressed, whatever the political complexion of Her Majesty's Government, because it is a much-valued service.

My second point relates to airports. As the House knows, the police service is fully chargeable to the owners and operators of airports, and there is a compelling case for the fire service facilities that are provided as a back-up to the airport's fire service to be wholly, or at least in part, charged to airport operators. I recognise that these are much wider long-term policy issues, but I hope that the Government will consider them.

Another point that needs to be reinforced is that Essex county council asked for a meeting with Baroness Blatch, but at the time that was felt inappropriate. Now, the hon. Member for Southend, East has offered to use his good offices in pressing for a meeting with Ministers. I support that, but I understand that the county council now says that it does not think that a meeting will be appropriate or useful. I hope that the Minister will, on his own initiative, following the representations of hon. Members, say that there will be a meeting without preconditions.

Sir Teddy Taylor

The suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and myself was that, if the county would drop its plans in the meantime, we would be glad to seek meetings. That would be the right way to go ahead. Then we could have meetings without preconditions. I am sure that the hon. Member for Thurrock will agree, in view of the strength of his opinion and the fight that he is putting up for his local residents, that the best first step would be to drop the proposals and then to talk.

Mr. Mackinlay

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman on this matter. There needs to be a meeting. The county council should follow the hon. Gentleman's advice on this and meet the Minister. I hope that, when the Minister replies, he will say that his door is open and that he will write to the county council and invite it to come along and have a chinwag about this very serious crisis.

If, as a consequence of the review or the county council's budget, there is to be a reduction in the number of fire personnel, appliances or fire stations, I hope that the Minister will say that there will be an inquiry under section 19. It is very important. We, the people of Essex, want our day in court on this matter, and to be able to rehearse to the Government and the county council the full extent and ramifications of any reduction in fire service provision in the county.

Regardless of whether there is a meeting—I hope that there will be one—there should be an inquiry if there is any diminution in the level of fire cover in our county as a result of the review or the budget reductions.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) on securing this debate, which mirrors the debate that we had only a week ago on the same subject.

My hon. Friend has expressed strong concerns about the provision of fire services in Essex. I understand the concern that hon. Members and their constituents feel about the quality of their fire service and the sensitivities that inevitably surround any proposals, such as those under consideration in Essex, to change the arrangements for providing fire cover. My hon. Friend took part in last week's debate on fire services in Essex, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).

I appreciate that the subject of today's debate goes a little wider than the particular concerns of Essex, but many of the same issues arise, so I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me if I repeat some of the points that I made a week ago.

We have every reason to be proud of our fire service. As the Audit Commission said, we can be proud of the fire service's record in responding to incidents, the high level of skill and professionalism it shows, and its very able managers and courageous front-line staff. The Government wholeheartedly endorse those sentiments. Essex has a particularly high standard, and met the required response times to fire calls on 96 per cent. of occasions.

On the specific question of proposed changes to fire provision locally, I should make it clear that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has a specific and limited role under section 19 of the Act. He is required to be notified of the number of the fire authority's fire stations, fire appliances and firefighting posts as at 1 January each year. The fire authority may not reduce its establishment—although it can increase it—without his specific consent.

As I explained last week, my right hon. and learned Friend grants those approvals only where he is satisfied that the authority has consulted properly about its proposals and considered any representations, and where Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services advises that the nationally recommended fire cover standards will be maintained.

We have not received any section 19 application from Essex about the proposals that have been made in respect of its fire cover review. All fire authorities review their fire cover arrangements periodically to keep them up to date. I know that Essex county council is currently consulting about its proposals.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Does my hon. Friend regret the county council's new policy to delay its decision on this matter until after the county elections on 1 May? That delay is causing great anxiety to all the people of Essex, particularly those who live on Canvey Island.

Mr. Sackville

I certainly condemn any delay motivated by politics. If the council is trying to seek changes, it should come up front with them and bring them forward at such time as it is ready. Obviously I cannot speak in any detail about what is happening with those proposals, but I hope that they will be brought forward promptly. It would be quite wrong for such political interests to become involved.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Does my hon. Friend understand that one of the consequences of the delay is an inability to implement policies that would protect the service? Is he further aware that the Conservative opposition on the county council will produce a budget next week that protects the number of firefighters and stations?

Given the overall position of the county council, which enjoyed the largest reserves last year of any county council and still enjoys a very large reserve, is my hon. Friend not left with the impression that the Liberal and Labour controlling group are relying on the good will of Conservative Members by using these tactics, when it is quite clear that there are alternatives that protect stations and firefighters?

Mr. Sackville

I cannot go into whether the council should make section 19 applications, but I reiterate what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point. If it is to make any applications, it should do so promptly. Any delay in bringing them forward will undoubtedly add to the problems of forward planning. I hope that the people who make those decisions will hear what my hon. Friends have said. I hope that the county council will listen very carefully to the points that hon. Members have made in this debate and in the debate last week.

In the event that a section 19 application is made, my right hon. and learned Friend will also take into account any representations made directly to him.

I assure hon. Members that, should the county council make such an application, my right hon. and learned Friend, in reaching his decision, will take full account of the representations that he receives, including those made in this debate. In answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East, it is my clear understanding that any major change of the sort to which he referred would have to be the subject of a section 19 application.

Mention has been made of the power that my right hon. and learned Friend has under section 19(8) of the 1947 Act to hold a public local inquiry. That has happened very occasionally in the past, but it is always open to the Home Secretary to do so in any such application.

I referred last week to the national recommended standards, which various hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East, have called into question. Those standards 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, and assume for each category that a predetermined number of firefighting appliances should attend within a certain time.

The standards are not just nationally recommended: they are nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which is constituted under the Fire Services Act 1947 to represent fire service interests. The council undertook an extensive review of the standards in 1985. They enable all concerned to know where they stand as regards the minimum level of service that should be delivered.

As I said last week, we believe that those standards have served us well, but that does not mean that we regard them as unchangeable or incapable of improvement. The Audit Commission has recommended that there should be a further review of the levels of fire cover. It recognised, however, that no fundamental change should be considered without careful research. A review of fire cover standards is being taken forward by the joint committee of the advisory councils for England, Wales and Scotland.

Dr. Spink

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about fire standards. They are probably appropriate, and I am delighted that he is examining them. However, the problem is not the standards themselves, but the assumptions made when using those standards to calculate where fire resources should be placed in Essex.

Those assumptions are inappropriate in that they assume an average speed of 30 mph for all areas of Essex, when clearly the average speed attainable by fire engines in the north and rural areas is far greater than the average speed attainable by fire engines trying to get on to Canvey Island or through Hadleigh, which is very congested. The problem is the assumptions that are made in applying the standards in this specific case.

Mr. Sackville

That shows the need for a further review. Another example of the problem is the existence of a major international airport. Those considerations must form part of the review.

The Government have shown their commitment to the fire service by confirming, in the final local government settlement, that we shall increase the fire service element of standard spending assessment in England for the coming year by £50 million, which is an increase of more than 4 per cent. I believe that that is a satisfactory settlement. Within that, we must expect a continued search for efficiency savings, as with any organisation in the public or private sector anywhere in the country. Many parts of both sectors have found such savings.

It was notable that the Audit Commission's report said that, if all fire services came up to the level of the best—if, indeed, that is the best achievable, and it may not be—considerable savings would be possible without effecting the standard of fire cover. All fire services must take that into account.

The fire standard spending assessment distribution formula takes into account a number of factors. The problem with any proposal to change the formula is to find an alternative that does not unreasonably increase the grant to some brigades and disproportionately reduce it to others. Many counties feel that they have specific characteristics that make them a special case.

If local authority representative organisations—or a single organisation in the future—were to agree on a new formula, the Government would consider carefully how they could improve allocation among the counties. This matter is not simple: one county may believe that it has particular difficulties, whereas there may be special difficulties of a completely different nature in other parts of the country, such as remote or hilly regions, that must be taken into account.

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

Following my hon. Friend's speech last week, stories appeared in local newspapers saying, "Minister supports cuts" or "Minister supports closure of local fire stations". Is he a little surprised to learn that that is how his speech last week was interpreted?

Mr. Sackville

I shall consult Hansard, but I think that I will find that I never said any such thing. I said very clearly that, if applications were received to reduce provision at any fire station or part thereof, the Home Secretary would have to make a decision. I want to put the record straight. No decisions have been taken on any reduction in provision.

Mr. Mackinlay

I want to take a bipartisan approach to this matter. I was present last week, and the Minister certainly did not say that. If any grotty newspaper said he did, it should read Hansard. I do not know who the guilty party is, but I want to make it clear that the Minister listened to us and did not say that. There should be accurate reporting of this matter.

Mr. Sackville

I do not know to which grotty newspapers in his constituency the hon. Gentleman is referring.

Mr. Mackinlay

It is not one in my constituency.

Mr. Sackville

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support.

If Essex county council feels that it does not have sufficient resources, various options are open to it. As has already been said, it had an opportunity to meet Ministers at the Department of the Environment to discuss the rate support grant settlement, but chose not to do so. If the authority were to set a budget above its cap, the county would have an opportunity—which I am sure it would take—to put its case to Ministers in person and to challenge the level at which it was designated.

It must also be kept in mind that fire service spending in Essex during the current year is £39.3 million out of a total base budget of £976.7 million: so it represents about 4 per cent. of total county spending. If the council cannot find savings elsewhere in administration, it could increase the amount of resources that it allocates to fire to more than the current planned level. I am sure that the people of Essex would expect the council to do just that.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Because of the shortage of time, would the Minister respond in writing to my questions, especially that on the jobseeker's allowance?

Mr. Sackville

I am happy to respond to that specific question. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend receives a letter within a short time.

Mr. Mackinlay

I want to make it quite clear that the newspapers in my constituency report these debates with clarity and precision: it was certainly not a newspaper in my area. I feel sorry for the hon. Members who are not covered by the Thurrock Gazette and the Thurrock Recorder.

Mr. Sackville

I am grateful for that assurance.

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.