HC Deb 16 May 1997 vol 294 cc352-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

2.30 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

It is my extremely good fortune to have secured my first Adjournment debate for my constituents in Southend, West in the first week of a new Session of a new Parliament. [Interruption.] Ignoring the rudeness of certain sedentary interventions on the Labour Benches, after the very poor showing that we have just had, may I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment to your great office? You are a colleague from Essex and I know how proud your constituents must be of the honour that you have been accorded. Without wishing to show any favouritism, I wish you well throughout the next five years in the job that lies ahead of you.

I raise a serious matter on behalf of my constituents in Southend, West. It concerns the future of Essex fire services and, in particular, the future of Leigh fire station. It is with some regret that, in my brief speech, I will have to criticise the local Liberal party and the local Labour party for their conduct throughout the general election campaign on two issues, which, frankly, if they had only listened to the common sense of the Conservative party, could have been avoided.

On the dispute over pay and conditions for the local fire service, Essex county council is not—until next May—controlled by the Conservatives. It has an unusual arrangement whereby the Liberal and Labour parties have come to a working agreement. That agreement does not seem to work its way through to this Chamber, because the Liberals seem to be sitting with the Conservatives and we clearly have a Labour Government. The Liberals and the Labour party work together on Essex county council, although, during an election, they apparently utter words of hatred to one another. As a result of mismanaging local funds and introducing a disgraceful budget, Essex county council is in a financial shambles. In particular, the Liberals, who led Essex county council, supported by Labour, cut expenditure on the fire service by £1.5 million, whereas the Conservative party would have put £750,000 into the fire service.

May I quickly congratulate the Minister on his appointment? Although he and I have nothing in common politically, it would be churlish not to welcome him to his post. I wish him well in the time that lies ahead of him and make this initial plea: I hope that he will listen carefully to the important matters that I raise and do his best to help my constituents, without necessarily automatically referring to the 18 years of a Conservative Government, but by dealing with the matters that are on his table in his Department. Whereas a general debate tends to be a shouting match, Adjournment debates are constructive and worth while, and I have usually managed to secure the best that I possibly can for my constituents.

In the initial press release from Essex county council on 6 December 1996, the reason given for cuts in funding and the proposed closures of Leigh and Rochford fire stations was that it was trying to ensure that firefighters and appliances were stationed where they were most needed. I attended the public meeting in Southend town hall. I thought that the proposals and the arguments deployed were unconvincing, and the other people present also found them unconvincing. The chief fire officer said: This is not a cost-cutting exercise.

On 8 December, the Liberal chairman of the committee said: the proposals have nothing to do with the county's budget. However, throughout the general election campaign his party was hypocritically running around with forms for people to fill in and petitions for them to sign. His party's poisonous literature said daily that the problem was all to do with money and was all the fault of the wicked Conservative Government: it was my fault in particular. It was the same old story.

Nationally, the Liberal party leader began his campaign—

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

The Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Amess

Look, the Liberal party has changed its name four times since I have been in Parliament, and I cannot keep up with it. If the hon. Gentleman tells me that it is the Liberal Democrat party, then so be it. Whatever the name of the party, its leader launched the campaign by saying that he did not want a Punch and Judy show, because his party was above the fighting between Conservatives and Labour. Locally, however, the running of its campaign could not have been further from the edict of the leader of the Labour party. Its campaign was all about poison, personalities and misrepresenting the truth. According to the Essex county council press release, the proposals were entirely strategic and not due to lack of finances.

The Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate led the campaign and said that the proposals were all to do with finance. The now defeated leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Essex county council entirely backed up her spurious and misleading arithmetic. The truth of the matter is that the former Government gave more money to the fire service in Essex: there can be no argument about that. The fire element of the standard spending assessment for Essex was £31.5 million, which was an increase of 4.6 per cent. compared with a national increase of only 4.2 per cent., so Essex did pretty well. Any decision to cut spending was entirely in the hands of local councillors.

Before the general election, the Liberal Democrats and Labour got together and said, "We've got to keep this running as a general election issue, because there are votes in it. We want to spread the poison." That is what they did, because the Conservative proposal was voted down. The poison may have worked elsewhere, but it did not work in the constituency of Southend, West.

The Liberal Democrats put out the press release to distract attention from what they had actually done, because the cuts were their fault. Whether it be education, highways or fire services, they bungled the management. The local brigade is now balloting its members: the ballot papers went out on Monday and must be returned by the 22nd. I have seen the proposals. As ballot papers are still being returned, I do not wish to influence anyone who has not yet voted, but I am cautiously optimistic that the agreement will be accepted by the fire brigade. Nevertheless, it is to the shame of certain local politicians that those firemen were put in a completely invidious position. I know only too well that the last thing the firemen wanted to do was to go on strike. Moreover, there would have been no need for a strike if the Conservatives had been listened to.

I am sure that the Minister will have other issues in future fire service funding to which he will have to direct his attention. Nevertheless, I should like to quote from a document entitled "In the Line of Fire: Value for Money in the Fire Service" and the arguments deployed by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) just before the general election. As the document deals with important matters, with which I hope the Minister will deal, I shall repeat some of those arguments. It states: The current method of assessing risk, although simple and clear, has many disadvantages. When the approach was first developed in the 1930s and 1940s it was probably ahead of its time, but since then more sophisticated risk assessment techniques have been developed. I did not find any of those matters dealt with in our meeting at Southend civic centre.

The document continues: Moreover, the framework determines risk by consideration of property type and density". However, all those factors have changed. The framework takes no account of the socio-demographic make-up of the population", which has certainly changed in Southend, West. The document continues: Additionally, they are viewed by some senior fire officers as inappropriate. It has been argued, for example, that the recommended minimum response for A risk areas (e.g. commercial districts) is excessive, whereas the minimum response for some C risk areas (e.g. densely populated, inner-city areas) is insufficient. Those are serious matters, and they must be dealt with quickly.

The document continues: The formula is based on a basket of key data about each fire authority (population, ward-weighted density, the amount of A risk territory and the number of fires and false alarms). Currently, a majority of English county councils spends in excess of their SSAs … The SSA formula does not accurately reflect the cost for all authorities of providing fire cover to meet the national standards: for example, it can hardly be a coincidence that all rural counties deem it necessary to exceed their SSAs, some by over 40 per cent…. The failure of the current SSA formula to reflect local needs and local costs equitably is not the only shortcoming of the current formula.

I know that firemen feel very strongly that SSAs do not seem to take into account any funding for special services, and I should specifically mention the fundamentally important services that they provide in dealing with road traffic accidents in the Leigh area of Essex. If the Minister does not have time in this debate to deal with those matters, I ask him to do so after it.

Some months ago, other Essex Members and I were invited by officers of Essex county council to a presentation at Southend civic centre on the closure of Leigh fire station. I rest my case on the basis of that presentation. One of the officers, who had responsibility for planning, had originally said that Essex county council had met and decided that future building would occur in the middle of the county. However, as everyone wanted to live in either Basildon or Canvey Island, the council subsequently decided that future building would occur in those areas—a statement which I questioned. The House can therefore imagine my shock when I learned at the presentation that none of those matters had been taken into account.

I should mention some crucial facts about Leigh fire station. We have had it for more than 100 years, during which time the nature of the area has changed dramatically. The area has an aging population. Indeed, according to Age Concern, Southend, West is 31st out of the 659 constituencies in that respect. It contains a huge number of homes with elderly people. In addition, Southend general hospital has taken over all the services formerly provided by Rochford hospital, making it a large hospital in terms of the amount of work it does, although not in terms of its site when compared to that at Basildon. However, it is difficult to gain access to the Southend hospital, which is a huge risk in itself.

The presentation also failed to cover other factors. I now live in Westcliff where, over the years, there has been an increase in the number of houses in multiple occupation. I was surprised that some of the houses that I saw during the election campaign had been granted licences. I was a member of the Standing Committee that debated the 1996 Housing Bill which dealt specifically with the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. The increase in the number of such properties is an important factor in assessing the viability of Leigh fire station.

Southend also has an airport; there have long been arguments about air traffic movement, which is a matter of dispute between Southend and Rochford councils. The Al3 and the Al27 also run through the area. I represented Basildon for 14 years and think it inappropriate to place on Hadleigh, Canvey Island or Basildon all the extra work that will undoubtedly arise from the closure of Leigh fire station.

There are many issues that I do not have time to raise, but the bottom line is that the response time laid down for the service by the regulations—regulations of which the Minister is no doubt only too well aware—cannot be delivered.

I now sit on the Opposition Benches, but that does not mean that I intend to remain silent on this or any other matter. The Conservatives did very well in the local elections. Southend will have a unitary authority next year and the Conservatives will certainly be the largest group, followed by the Liberals, who are now down to 14 councillors and Labour, down to seven. On Essex county council, the Conservatives are again easily the largest group with 44 councillors, while the Liberals are down to 20 and Labour down to 33.

Next April, Thurrock and Southend are to be removed from Essex county council's area and the council will be Conservative controlled. I pay tribute to Councillors Paul White and David Westacott, who gave me an undertaking that they would carefully examine all the matters that I have raised. I have asked them to ensure that Leigh fire station is kept open. I hope that Labour and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament will also try to use their influence with county and district councillors.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), on his appointment. I know that he cannot put right in just a few days all the wrongs that I perceived during the election campaign, but I ask him to consider the future fire service SSA and, above all, to do all that he can to secure the future of Leigh fire station.

2.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

I congratulate you on your elevation, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have served under you in Committee and I know that you will be firm and fair in the Chair, which is as much as we can expect.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for. Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on initiating the debate. I thank him for his kind remarks about my new post. I confirm that we have little in common politically, but I am sure that, over the months, we shall find that we have more in common, particularly on his concerns about the fire service in Essex.

The hon. Gentleman understandably concentrated on events leading up to the recent industrial action. I shall respond to those points, but it is important to make some more general comments, as this is the first time that the Government have had an opportunity to comment on the fire service.

We have good reason to be proud of the performance of the fire service in this country. The courage of our firefighters and other qualities of the service were recognised in the 1995 Audit Commission report, "In the Line of Fire", which the hon. Gentleman referred to. Hon.. Members who are present should know that we want to take that important document seriously.

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), for Basildon (Ms Smith), who had a wonderful victory in the election, and for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick), who brings a great deal of expertise on the fire service to the House. I should point out that my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock and for Basildon had some influence on the events that led up to what we hope will be a settlement of the dispute. I congratulate them on their constructive involvement.

We have every reason to be proud of our fire service. The Audit Commission highlighted four important achievements: its record in responding to incidents; its high levels of skill and professionalism; the able managers and the courageous and committed front-line staff; and the great esteem in which the service is held by the general public and individuals who have needed its assistance. The Government whole-heartedly endorse the Audit Commission's comments.

In March this year, the commission further reported on performance indicators for local authorities for 1995–96. It said that the fire service is one of the most consistently high-performing services in local government. Most brigades achieved national standards for at least nine of the ten fire calls during all three years from 1993–94 to 1995–9696, with the poorest performances significantly improving over this period. These improvements were achieved with increases in spending no higher than the levels of inflation. We are therefore debating a service which has a proven record of efficiency and effectiveness. Essex is now one of the high-performing brigades. In 1995–9696, it met its recommended response times to fire calls on 95.8 per cent. of occasions.

A few words about the duties of fire authorities are also appropriate. The statutory responsibility for providing fire services rests with the local fire authority, which is responsible for securing the services for its area, for the efficient training of members of the fire brigade, for efficient arrangements for dealing with calls for fire brigade assistance in the case of fire and for summoning members of the brigade. The fire authority sets the budget within which the brigades work and is responsible for ensuring that it is set at a level sufficient for those responsibilities to be discharged.

However, fire authorities have to set the budget within the overall limits set by central Government. To discharge their statutory obligations in 1996–9697, fire authorities are expected to have to spend £117 million more than the fire service share of total standard spending determined by the previous Government. As I made clear in a debate in the House on the fire service on 8 May last year, the difficulties that the fire authority in Essex was experiencing even then stemmed from the manner in which the previous Administration had dealt with local government and fire service financing not only in the past two or three years but since the late-1970s and early-1980s.

The fire service has done particularly well to maintain levels of performance in the light of constraints on its funding. Problems that this Government have inherited, however, cannot be resolved overnight. The hon. Gentleman should not seek to minimise the difficulties that face Essex county council in setting the budget for its local authority services for 1997–9698 or to disguise the true origin of those difficulties.

The increase in Essex's fire standard spending assessment for 1997–9698 of £1.6 million, which is a 4.7 per cent. Increase—the hon. Gentleman said that it was a 4.6 per cent. increase, but I will not quibble—has to be seen in the context of the budget for the county as a whole, which was capped at 2 per cent. and from which the authority had to meet all the demands on education, personal social services and many other services. That led to the industrial action.

As the House will be aware, the initial budget proposals of the council led the Fire Brigades Union to ballot for industrial action. The ballot went ahead and the strike action was supported by more than half the firefighters in the county. Seven strikes were called between 19 April and 7 May. Four further dates were notified, but have now been called off pending a ballot on the proposed settlement. Further ballots were held in Cambridgeshire and London, but they are not relevant to this debate.

Not all the Essex fire stations were affected, as 22 of the 33 retained fire stations continued to provide a normal level of service. At the request of the fire authority, the military assisted. I pay tribute to the armed forces for the assistance they provided, as I do to the officers of the brigade for co-ordinating the work that had to be carried out to keep the service running. It is fortunate that there were no major fires while the industrial action was taking place and it was certainly an unwelcome additional commitment for the military, which they discharged with their customary braveness and professionalism.

In any industrial action there are, of course, costs. When the union first chose to strike, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) urged arbitration. Although initial negotiations between the council and the union were unsuccessful, the message from the House needs to be that industrial action can only ever be justified as a weapon of the very last resort, especially in these circumstances. The military cannot provide the necessary level of fire cover or, in every case, the skill required. It is estimated that the additional cost initially will amount to about £300,000. That cost will be borne by the council tax payers in Essex.

The hon. Gentleman will, no doubt, be aware that existing legislation provides safeguards; that is of direct relevance to the proposals from the fire service. Any proposals must have the express consent of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He will give approval only if he is satisfied that the authority has consulted properly and that it can reduce the number of fire stations, fire appliances and firefighting posts without there being an undue effect. He will, of course, take account of any comments made by the Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services on the necessary levels of fire cover, which are set nationally.

We recognise the importance of those responsibilities and if further proposals come forward, we shall examine them with great care and responsibility. We have a great commitment to maintaining the integrity and efficiency of fire services in Essex and elsewhere.

There is still work to be done. I have already referred to the Audit Commission report. In 1995, the commission recommended that there should be another national review of levels of fire cover. The research into those conclusions is going ahead and I hope that, in due course, we shall have a report available for discussion. The section 19 safeguard to which I have referred is already in place and if there are any future proposals regarding Leigh fire station, any appliances or any jobs, it will come into play.

I am sure that the House will join me in hoping that the present dispute will now be brought to a speedy and amicable conclusion, and that the firefighters will accept the settlement that their union has recommended to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.