HC Deb 09 March 1998 vol 308 cc291-8

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

9.24 am
Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

I have waited nearly 12 hours to deliver my speech. Now that the deliberate attempts by Conservative Members to talk out this Adjournment debate have collapsed, we can get to the serious issue of the threatened closure of Shooters Hill fire station.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which he has approached the issue and for taking considerable time to discuss it with a delegation that came to his office to make representations against the closure. I recently received a letter from him that set out the criteria by which he will make his decision. He said that the matter had been widely publicised, that the authority had considered it properly, and that the fire service inspectorate had given its opinion that national standards of fire cover would be maintained. I have placed in the internal mail of the House 1,100 letters to my hon. Friend, collected over the weekend, to underline the strength of feeling on the issue in my constituency.

I hope to demonstrate through that correspondence and through this debate that the London Fire and Civil Defence authority does not meet the criteria that my hon. Friend set out in his letter to me. Why do we bother to consult the local community around a fire station such as Shooters Hill if we do not take people's representations seriously and make them aware of the proposals? Is the consultation designed merely to satisfy the wider public, away from the immediate vicinity, or is it a genuine attempt to address local people's serious concerns?

When we were elected, the credibility and standing of politicians were at a low ebb. One of the Government's tasks must be to restore that credibility, so we must treat consultation exercises seriously and not leave people feeling that they are nothing but a sham.

The LFCDA's decision was based on a consultation process that started in December 1995 and ended on 31 January 1996. The resulting document was considered at a meeting of the authority's policy and resources committee on 8 February, and then at a full meeting of the authority on 22 February. Given that the consultation started only in December, that Christmas intervened and that the closing date was 31 December, the process may not have been sufficient.

Furthermore, the local authority was asked on 21 December for its comments. I do not have to point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that that was unreasonably close to Christmas. Even worse, the local authority was asked to consult all the local groups, so it would have had to circulate the LFCDA's proposals, receive the comments and return them by the closing date at the end of January. That was clearly insufficient time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin), who was then the hon. Member for Woolwich where the fire station is situated, also made representations against its closure. He wrote to the chair of the LFCDA and to the Secretary of State. He also initiated an Adjournment debate on the subject on 9 February 1996. A further debate on fire services was held on 13 March, which my hon. Friend the Minister will recall, as he took part in it.

Given that so much attention was paid to the issue in the House, which is only across the river from the headquarters of the LFCDA, the Minister will be surprised to learn that the objections raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead were not recorded in the report to the LFCDA, which was made on 22 February. The council met on 15 February and passed a letter to the authority on 16 February. Its objections were also not recorded in the report that was sent to the authority on 22 February. The consultation arrangements were wholly inadequate, and I know that the chief executive of the London borough of Greenwich has written this week to the authority to make that point.

The LFCDA's decision to close Shooters Hill fire station, taken this week, is based on the consultation that took place in December 1995 and January 1996. That consultation was flawed because it did not accurately record the objections. Although some of them were received later than the closing date of 21 January, they were in time to be considered at the meeting of the authority on 22 February.

More important, as I have said, the decision has been based on that consultation. Because the objections of the local council and the Member of Parliament were not known and the consultation with local people was not sufficient, none of the objections is recorded in the current report before the LFCDA. Therefore, its decision is flawed.

The report that went to the LFCDA in October 1997, and led to the decision to close Shooters Hill fire station, did not take account of any developments in the area. For instance, it did not consider the development along the waterfront from Deptford to Thamesmead. It did not address the Creekside development, the Woolwich dockyard, the Royal Arsenal or the development at Thamesmead. It did not even consider the imminent development at the Queen Elizabeth II hospital.

I am sure that hon. Members will be surprised to learn that the report made no mention of the millennium experience, which will have 75,000 visitors on peak days and 35,000 visitors on non-peak days. The transport infrastructure that has been put in place—the docklands light railway and the Jubilee line extensions—was also not considered. All those developments may be subject to special measures, but they will still have an impact on the fire cover for the local area. Each time the issue has been raised with the LFCDA, it has claimed that it will not affect its ability to meet Home Office-recommended response times. That might be the case if the response times are measured from point A—the fire station—to point B or the location of the incident. Given the expansion and development in the area, that decision does not take account of the possibility that point C might need attention at the same time that the fire station is dealing with point B. That aspect is causing great concern in the local community.

I suggest that members of the LFCDA did not have all the facts before them when the decision was taken. For that reason, the report was flawed. It did not record the opposition of the council or the MP. The Minister cannot consider that public consultation was adequate and, therefore, the subsequent decision based on that was flawed and, I believe, challengeable. It also said that there was no need for reconsultation because there had been no significant developments. I have been told by the LFCDA that its decision is out of time for a challenge, but I suggest that there are significant grounds, as the section 19 request has not been granted yet by the Minister.

Local people fear that the service is being shaped by financial considerations. The 1995 Audit Commission report, "In the Line of Fire", referred to pensions and warned of the extreme financial pressure that would be placed on fire services throughout the country. Local people worry that their fire station is being closed not because of rationalisation of the service but because of financial constraints. That puts local people and property in danger. They are also concerned that too much emphasis is placed on property rather than people in calculating response times and the ability of the fire service to cover an area.

People feel that the assumptions made in the report to the LFCDA in October are woefully inadequate and that the failure of the previous consultation, and the failure to report honestly the concerns that were raised by the local authority and Member of Parliament, have seriously called into question other assumptions that were made in the report. Those are genuine feelings of concern in my constituency. I suggest that the Minister cannot grant the section 19 request of the LFCDA.

9.36 am
Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) has outlined the anxiety of people who believe that the millennium experience, with its car parks and increased traffic, will distract fire cover from residential calls. That is part of the background to the debate.

There is no doubt that the closure of Shooters Hill fire station is driven by difficulties with the London fire and Civil Defence Authority's pension funds. Were there no such difficulties, I doubt whether the closure would have arisen. This year's financial settlement in increasing support to the LFCDA has recognised the difficulty, but the LFCDA decided to use the extra money not to avoid shutting the station but to overcome the imbalance in its pension fund this year. It feels that, without some guarantee of the future, it has a fiduciary duty this year and subsequently to ameliorate the imbalance.

I recognise that the LFCDA operates within the rules laid down for it, but it is wrong for London's fire cover anywhere to be influenced or determined by the exigencies of the pension fund. I accept the Minister's assurances that provision, even with the closure of Shooters Hill fire station, will meet national minimum standards. Why, however, should cover above minimum standards be determined not by the appraisal of fire risks but by the number of firemen who have been injured and had to retire early, a bulge in past recruitment that is causing a retirement bulge now and the fact that firemen live longer in retirement than was anticipated when the actuarial foundations of the fund were laid? To accept those factors as legitimate influences on fire cover in south-east London is tantamount to accepting that, within limits, cover is determined by chance.

That cannot be a sound or acceptable basis on which to administer public service and recruit public confidence. I should like to make three requests of the Minister: to set aside the proposal to close Shooters Hill fire station; in the meantime, to urge the LFCDA to use the cash it has to overcome this year's pension difficulties; and to review the fire brigade pension arrangements and produce a lasting solution to an endemic problem in time for next year's settlement.

9.40 am
Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) has clearly set out how he feels the consultation was flawed in the way in which the decision was taken. He has just handed to me a copy of the LFCDA report that went to the committee on 2 February 1996. It refers to the fact that 267 responses, excluding petitions, had been received. In fact, the leader of the fire authority told my hon. Friend that 900 responses were received. I responded to the authority in writing, which was acknowledged by the leader of the authority on two occasions and I submitted an objection from the police consultative committee in Greenwich, but none of that was reported at the time to the authority.

The main concern is the area represented by my hon. Friend around Shooters Hill, but the fire station covers not only its own ground, but surrounding areas. It is in the centre, surrounded by Woolwich, Plumstead, Eltham, Lee Green, Bexley, East Greenwich and Sidcup fire stations—all of which, with the exception of Plumstead, are one-appliance stations. If Shooters Hill station were to close, it would mean that, whenever two appliances were called out, whether on a two-fire or a one-fire call, there would be an entire sector left without cover.

Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that there are several Labour Members here who are concerned about the future of the London fire service, but there is not a single Opposition Member present?

Mr. Austin

I note my hon. Friend's comments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham commented on the effect on the wider area. The following structures are on the major incidents plan involving Shooters Hill fire station: Eltham palace, the A102 motorway, the Blackwall tunnel, the Thames barrier, Erith oil works, Charlton Athletic's football ground, the Valley, the millennium site and all the developments that have taken place along the waterfront since the report was received.

The speed with which an appliance arrives on the scene of a fire is vital to safety, not only for the occupants of the buildings, but for the firefighters themselves, because their lives are at risk when their arrival is delayed. I shall quote some examples, which I know the Minister has, because I sent them to him. -When there was a fire at Eastcote primary school, the first appliance arrived in five minutes, the second in seven; for a fire at Long Walk housing office, the first arrived in three minutes, the second in seven; for a fire in Shooters Hill itself, the first arrived in four minutes, the second in seven; for a fire in Warland road in Plumstead, the first arrived in four minutes, the second in seven; for a fire in Elmdene road, the first arrived in three minutes and the second in six. If Shooters Hill fire station had been closed, I doubt whether those areas would have got even one appliance within 10 minutes.

I shall compare two incidents: the first took place when Shooters Hill had two appliances and the second when it had only one. Six years ago, there was a fire in Rowton road, and four people had to be rescued from upstairs bedrooms. The crew worked well: they passed the people on to the second crew, who carried out first aid and essential resuscitation. All four survived.

Two years later, when Shooters Hill had only one appliance, there was a serious fire in Llanover road. Again, the crews worked magnificently and did all they could, but four children did not survive. I cannot say with any certainty that, if there had been two appliances at Shooters Hill, those children would have lived, but there is a nagging question in the mind of everybody living in the area—what would have been the outcome if that cut had not been made?

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard) referred to the pension provision. The Minister will know that 1 raised that matter during the debate on the Queen's Speech in 1994 and in the debate on the fire services. I acknowledge that the Minister has been as good as his word. This year's fire settlement, with the additional cash for the fire and civil defence authority, was the best settlement in years. I do not believe that when the Minister gave that extra money he expected it to be stashed away in the reserves: he expected it to be spent on fire cover for the people of London, and that is what we expect.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) on securing the debate. The House will admire his patience in sitting through the night to raise this issue of importance to his constituents.

I am pleased that firefighters in London have decided against taking industrial action on the proposals to change fire cover in London. Whatever their motive, such action would have had the most costly and damaging consequences for Londoners.

I fully understand the concerns of hon. Members and their constituents about the quality of their local fire service. That was emphasised again last week when I met my hon. Friend with my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) and for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard), both of whom have contributed to the debate. They were with a delegation of residents from the area served by Shooters Hill fire station, who expressed their concerns about the proposed closure of the station. My hon. Friends and their constituents made it clear that they take this issue very seriously.

The fire service is a local authority service. Statutory responsibility for providing an efficient fire service rests with the local fire authority. In the case of Shooters Hill, that is the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority. It is for the authority to keep its fire cover provision under review and to set its budget at such a level that will allow it to discharge its statutory responsibilities.

It is important for the House to know that the proposal to close Shooters Hill fire station—and, indeed, the Barbican station—has its origins in a fire cover review by the London fire brigade. The aim of the review was to ensure that fire cover was provided on a strategic basis, deploying all the brigade's resources in the most effective and efficient way. It recognised, in particular, that appliances at any individual fire station were not the only resources available to that locality.

On section 19 applications, the legislation provides safeguards to ensure that statutory responsibilities continue to be met. Section 19(4) of the Fire Services Act 1947 requires that a fire authority cannot reduce the numbers of fire stations, fire appliances and firefighting posts without the express consent of the Home Secretary, who has a specific role in considering section 19 applications. He grants approval only if he is satisfied, first, that the proposals have been sufficiently widely publicised, in sufficient detail and with adequate time to enable any interested party to make representations; secondly, that representations have been considered by the fire authority; and, thirdly, on the advice of Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, that the national standards of fire cover will be maintained.

There is no statutory right of consultation, but the existing guidance makes it clear that the Home Secretary considers it desirable that there should be appropriate consultation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham dealt in some detail with the consultation arrangements made by the authority. That is primarily a matter for the authority, but the consultations on the fire cover review were extensive: 194 bodies were consulted, including hon. Members, MEPs, London boroughs, staff associations and others. The authority is itself a representative body made up of 33 members drawn from each of the London boroughs and the City.

The section 19 guidance makes it clear that the Home Secretary will take into account any representations that are made directly to him. The volume of letters that we have already received makes it clear that the authority's proposals are widely known and that the opportunity to make representations has been taken. The fact that I have received another 1,100 reinforces that point.

My hon. Friend spoke about new developments in the relevant areas. I know that the authority monitors new developments and keeps under review its assessment of fire risk. We have sought the advice of Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services on the substantive issues that were raised in representations to us, including those that were made to me last week in correspondence on new developments. Because of the importance of the matters that have been raised by this application and the number of representations, we have sought the personal advice of Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services.

Levels of fire cover are determined locally against national, recommended standards of fire cover. Those standards dictate the initial responses to a fire in terms of weight and speed of attack. The area that is served by Shooters Hill fire station is predominantly C risk, but it was made clear last week that just under 30 per cent. is classified as D risk. We shall not approve any proposals for Shooters Hill unless we are entirely satisfied that the national fire cover standards will be maintained. Shooters Hill already relies on neighbouring fire stations to meet the agreed standards of fire cover. In particular, the stations at East Greenwich, Plumstead, Woolwich, Eltham, Lee Green and Bexley supply second pumping appliance cover for the B risk area. I think that my hon. Friend would acknowledge that.

It is the responsibility of the fire authority to set a budget that will allow it to meet its legal obligations. In setting its budget for 1998–99, the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority will have taken into account the local government finance settlement and the criteria that were proposed for council tax capping. As part of that settlement, we are increasing the fire service share of standard spending assessment in England by £61.6 million. That is a 5 per cent. increase. It is a good settlement for the service and I am proud of it.

Under the proposed capping criteria, London was able to set a budget for 1998–99 up to £12.5 million, which is 4.7 per cent. higher than in 1997–98. That compares with an increase of 3 per cent. last year, 2 per cent. the year before, and 0.5 per cent. the year before that. If the authority thought that it could not otherwise meet its statutory duties, it was open to it to set a budget that was higher than the proposed capping limit and to apply for redetermination of the cap. It has chosen not to do so. That decision was entirely for the authority.

The application for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's approval for the closure of the Shooters Hill station has now been under consideration for four months. I make no apology for the time that we have taken. Such an application raises sensitive issues and it is important that that they and the many representations that we have received are given the most careful consideration. However, it is important to state a vital principle. These decisions are taken locally—in this case by the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority. The role of Ministers is limited to being satisfied on advice from Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services that such decisions do not affect a brigade's ability to meet its statutory obligations.

In fairness to the authority, it is right for us to aim to make a decision as soon as possible, but, before doing that, I shall want to reflect carefully on the points that have been raised in the debate and on any other information that my hon Friend passes to me.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Ten o'clock.