HC Deb 30 June 2003 vol 408 cc21-36 3.31 pm
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the fire and rescue service.

Today I am publishing our White Paper "Our Fire and Rescue Service". It sets out our plans to modernise and reform the fire and rescue service in England and Wales. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

The fire and rescue service is a vital public service. It is part of the fabric of our communities. The service it provides is essential in preventing fires and in responding quickly and effectively to fire emergencies. It also has a much wider role, which involves rescuing people from accidents, responding to environmental disasters, such as flooding, and being ready to respond to the threat of terrorist incidents, which unfortunately is an increasingly important role.

The Government are committed to modernisation and reform of all our public services. We want to build on what is good in the fire service and tackle those areas where there are shortcomings, many of which have been exposed in the course of the dispute over the past 12 months. I hope that with the publication of today's White Paper we can all look ahead to a better future for the fire and rescue service and draw a line under what has happened over the past year.

It was in response to the dispute that last September we asked Professor Sir George Bain to carry out an independent review into the fire service and to make recommendations on how the service might be modernised and improved. Sir George's review built on previous reports into the fire service and drew on the evidence from a wide range of interested parties. Sir George reported last December. I am grateful for his work and the work of Sir Michael Lyons, the past chief executive of Birmingham city council, and Sir Anthony Young, past president of the TUC, who assisted him in that review. Today's White Paper is the Government's response to Sir George Bain's report.

The White Paper sets out our proposals for the fire and rescue service of the future. The service will be more proactive in preventing fires; it will have more effective institutions better to support its role and purpose; it will be more effectively led and managed and will be better able to adapt to change and to respond safely, quickly and efficiently. Above all, the reformed fire and rescue service will save more lives and reduce injuries.

The House will be well aware that the fire service of today has many strengths, not least of which are the firefighters and other support staff who work in the service. They are committed to the service and. I believe, share our wish to see it improved, but, to do that, change is essential. I do not believe that the service can continue to be run in the same way as it has been since the national pay dispute 25 years ago. The White Paper therefore proposes a sensible package of changes that will make the service more effective, efficient and safer, and the jobs of those people who work in the service more rewarding.

The White Paper has six themes. First, it explains the new emphasis of the service on the prevention of fires and other emergencies as well as on firefighting. Much can be done by sensible fire precautions and other measures to reduce the number of fires that start and reduce the risk to our firefighters. For instance, we will continue to review the building regulations, rationalise existing legislation and increase our investment in community fire safety, arson reduction measures and measures to combat terrorism. We will also make changes so that fire authorities will ensure a better allocation of resources on the basis of risk.

The risk-based approach means that more emergency cover will be available at times of highest risk. At present, cover is based on the number and type of buildings in an area, rather than on the risks faced by the people in them. In future, authorities will plan to provide cover for all the risks facing our communities, not just those from fire. In recognition of that wider role we will rename the fire service as the fire and rescue service.

Secondly, the White Paper sets out our proposals for a more coherent regional approach to fire and rescue. Professor Bain, in his report, recognised the strength of argument in favour of regional organisation of the fire service. Current arrangements for managing the fire service are confused and inefficient. There are too many small fire authorities that cannot generate economies of scale and do not have the resources to tackle some of the major threats, particularly those from terrorism, facing us today. For example, the cost of control rooms responding to a single fire incident ranges from £168 in the smallest authority to £18 in the largest. That is an ineffective use of resources. We therefore expect local fire authorities to set in hand arrangements at regional level so they are more efficient, more effective and better able to respond flexibly to threats and emergencies.

In due course, where directly elected regional assemblies are established, we envisage there being regional fire and rescue authorities that are democratically accountable to those assemblies. The fire and rescue service is, however, delivered locally. Better regional co-ordination and management of the service must not detract from the local focus of the service on working with communities on fire prevention and other community safety measures. We will work closely with local authorities, the Local Government Association and others to ensure that that happens. In accordance with Bain's recommendations, and with the support of the Welsh Assembly, we will devolve responsibility for fire issues to Wales.

Thirdly, the White Paper sets out the institutional changes that we will make to improve the management of the service. Current fire service institutions date back to the period immediately after the second world war. Reform is long overdue. In line with the Bain recommendations we will seek external, impartial advice to assist us in giving national strategic direction to the service. We will set up a service improvement team in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to drive through the modernisation process. We will also set up two forums to inform policy development. One will seek the practical input of those working in the service, and the other will get the wider views of stakeholders representing business and the communities.

I also intend to ask the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Associations, to play a greater role in developing policy. Like their counterparts in the police service, chief fire officers are critical to the effective management of the service. We want to see stronger leadership, better co-operation and more effective management of the fire and rescue service. We will create a new centre of excellence based on the Fire Service College, and we will reform the fire services inspectorate.

Fourthly, the White Paper sets out our plans for improved scrutiny and inspection. In line with Bain's advice we are working with the Audit Commission to develop its role in inspecting and reporting on the work of the service. Fifthly, the White Paper sets out changes to reform the machinery for negotiating pay and conditions. The shortcomings of the current arrangements have been clearly exposed during the fire dispute. At present, the employers side has to represent 58 separate fire brigade employers. That is simply too unwieldy to work effectively, so we will set up three smaller bodies to negotiate pay and conditions for chief fire officers, middle managers, and firefighters and control room staff.

Finally, the White Paper sets out our proposals for modernising the personnel management arrangements of the service. Firefighting is a popular occupant`ion; on average, there are 40 applicants for every job. However, there are real problems. At present, there are no systems whereby the best performers can progress quickly; the service does not fully represent the communities that it serves; and there are real problems recruiting retained or part-time firefighters. Retained firefighters crew more than half of the appliances in this country, so it is vital to the future of the fire and rescue service to attract new retained firefighters.

To tackle those issues the White Paper sets out how we intend to work with employers and employees to introduce the new integrated personnel development system to build best practice into the service. We will introduce multi-level entry in the fire and rescue service and accelerated development schemes. We will introduce measures to promote diversity and to end any bullying or harassment. We will reform and modernise the pensions system, and we will modernise the disputes and disciplinary arrangements to bring them into line with ACAS best practice.

The White Paper sets out a practical programme of change for the fire and rescue service. It is a programme of change that I believe should be welcomed by all. The White Paper will benefit the public and business, who rely on the service to protect them from danger and rescue them from incidents; it will benefit authorities and managers through a safer, more efficient and effective service; and it will benefit all those who work in the service by providing greater career opportunities and more work satisfaction. I believe that when they look at the detail of this White Paper, the great majority of firefighters will see the good sense in the proposals. We will send a summary of the White Paper to every firefighter in the country. I hope that they and their families will take the time to read it.

The White Paper allows us to look ahead to the future and leave behind the difficulties of the past year. It sets out the future for a modern fire and rescue service—a service focused on fire prevention; a service that works with and for the community; a service that is fair to all the staff who work in it. The White Paper is good news for the fire and rescue service. It provides for a modern, efficient and safe service for the 21st century and will be good for Britain. I commend the White Paper to the House.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I begin by thanking the Deputy Prime Minister for making a statement today and for giving me prior sight of it—albeit one read something of a trailer in The Times and The Sun, and even in the Daily Mail and heard one on the BBC this morning. I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman had nothing to do with that; none the less, it bore all the hallmarks of a co-ordinated briefing exercise and I would like him to look into it.

Inside the front cover of the White Paper it says that the price is £12.25. In truth, of course, the cost of the White Paper has been immeasurable. To get to this point, we have faced an unnecessary year-long dispute; great risk to the public at time of national hazard; excessive stress on the armed forces, who were made to fight fires as well as wars; and financial costs to the taxpayer of £100 million or more. By any measure, the cost of the White Paper has been immense, and if it is to justify that cost it must deliver dramatic improvements in our fire service.

I am sure that there is much in the White Paper that we will support and commend, but I tell the Deputy Prime Minister that in other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria, rates of death from fire are much lower than they are in the United Kingdom. If we lowered our rate to match that of the Swiss or the Dutch, we would save about 300 lives a year. New Zealand, which four years ago had the same level of fatalities as us, has halved its death rate as a result of reforms; in this country, that would be equivalent to about 300 lives a year. My first question to the Deputy Prime Minister is, therefore, will he estimate how many lives the reforms flowing from the White Paper will save every year?

The reform will entail a major overhaul of the fire service's structure. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that overhaul and the financing of pay increases that he has approved will be achieved by cuts to the number of firefighters and stations? Some fire services are more efficient than others: how will he ensure that today's efficient brigades will not be penalised because they have less scope to save money to pay for the increases? Will the grant formula in respect of such authorities, many of them Tory, explicitly recognise that? Will the reforms result in disproportionate manpower cuts in metropolitan brigades?

Throughout the past year's long dispute, the retained firefighters of this country have performed heroically, standing by their posts and by the public when others went on strike. Given that, will the right hon. Gentleman today repeat the guarantee that he has given me before that not one of our much-valued retained firefighters will lose his job as a result of the reform process?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister also pledge that rural communities, which have already lost their post offices, their police stations, their schools and their health centres, will not be penalised as a result of the integrated risk management approach? If he decides to press ahead with station closures or moves, will he commit to holding local public consultations on the changes?

The Deputy Prime Minister has announced today that he will move control of fire services from local authorities to his proposed regional assemblies. Can he explain how it will help, say, Kent's fire service to be amalgamated with that of Oxfordshire, or—perhaps more appropriate—Cheshire's with that of Cumbria? This will not reassure those who are concerned for the future of their local fire services. Yet again, power is moved upwards, away from real local control.

Some of this morning's newspapers were headlined, "Prescott takes revenge on the firefighters". As a result, and unsurprisingly, other newspapers were headlined, "New Fire Strike Threat". The Government have clearly not lost the delicacy of touch that we have got used to over the past year.

We understood from the Deputy Prime Minister, when he announced the settlement of the dispute, that the Fire Brigades Union had signed up to reform. If it is now threatening to strike over job losses, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House exactly the terms of the deal that he struck with the FBU behind closed doors?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the 21st century the fire service needs to operate within a no-strike culture, but that the quid pro quo for that is a modern and civilised pay review and arbitration process to ensure justice for the individual firefighter as well as a modern, effective and low-risk service for the public? There is no mention of such an arbitration mechanism in the right hon. Gentleman's statements. I shall be interested to hear what he has to say about that. After all, the right to strike is an important right, but that right is not more important than the public's right to life.

When will we see legislation arising from the White Paper? In particular, what will happen to the Fire Services Bill that is now before another place? Obviously it has direct implications in this context.

I have asked the Deputy Prime Minister a series of important questions, which I hope he will be able to address. We have made clear throughout the dispute that the Opposition will give the right hon. Gentleman support so long as his reforms are genuinely geared to saving lives. This must not be about revenge against the Fire Brigades Union and a display of synthetic machismo. It must not simply be an exercise in crude cost cutting to pay for the settlement. Instead, it must be about protecting the lives of the British public. In that endeavour, the right hon. Gentleman will always have our full support.

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is unusual for a Minister to offer thanks for an advance copy of an Opposition Member's brief-the right hon. Gentleman read it beautifully, and I have studied the questions. Indeed, he read his brief to a T and dotted the i's and crossed the t's.

When the right hon. Gentleman printed his brief—I received it a couple of hours ago—he asked questions about the press, and asked me to ring him. I tried to do so, but he is a business man—a busy man—and I could not get through to him. Eventually, we spoke a few minutes before we entered the Chamber. I could explain exactly what I would need to explain to the House. As I told the right hon. Gentleman a few minutes ago, there is nothing in any of that briefing that is in the White Paper. We did not give the White Paper to anyone and we did not brief on it. None of the points in the newspaper stories is from the White Paper, and they do not repeat anything that has been mentioned in the House during debates and statements that I have made in the past.

Surely the purpose of briefing newspapers is to get a favourable response. Given that one of the headlines is, "Prescott takes revenge on the firefighters", I miserably failed, if it was the case that I had briefed newspapers. However, I believe that the reporter involved has already apologised as that was not the intention of her story. I do not know whether it was. I do not talk to the press, as the House probably knows, except for the motoring correspondents in The Sun, but I leave that aside.

I move on to the more serious questions that the right hon. Gentleman has asked. I welcome his recognition of the need for co-ordination and his welcome for the proposals that are set out in the White Paper. I think that that has been his position all along. The right hon. Gentleman asked about lower safety levels in Europe.

David Davis


The Deputy Prime Minister

Yes, higher safety standards in the sense that they have fewer deaths and accidents in Europe. That was properly pointed out by the Bain review in which a great deal more emphasis was placed on prevention rather than intervention. That has always been behind what the Bain review recommended, and that is at the heart of the White Paper. I cannot give a guarantee, but I think that changing the procedures and roles will have the same effect in the United Kingdom as in Europe.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

What is the estimate?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I cannot give an estimate of deaths and accidents. I would be silly to do so in the circumstances. However, we are changing things to make the system more effective, along the lines that have been adopted in Europe.

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) is recommending that we should take a European approach to these matters, as a better way of dealing with them. It is not usually something that he has in mind, but I accept the proposition in this instance. As to the important question of whether sufficient resources would be available, a common complaint by the FBU and others is that we impose a lot of duties on them without finding sufficient resources. That is why the Government made extra resources available to settle the dispute. However, we will have to enter negotiations to make sure that the fire services are properly financed and have sufficient powers to guarantee a proper level of safety in both rural and urban areas. The risk assessment is based on that requirement, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that will happen.

As for the question of whether there will be any compulsory redundancies, local authority leaders and the negotiating team have stated that there is no need for such redundancies, despite the scare stories often put about by the FBU of 10,000 redundancies. For example, in the first three years, under normal circumstances 1,500 will leave the service, and a further 2,500 could leave early in the next three years because of conditions such as pension arrangements. Between 4,000 and 6,000 workers could therefore leave the industry during that period. All we are saying is that we should take that into account when dealing with the modernisation of the service. People may not be in exactly the same job, and there may be changes—we have talked about that. If we put greater emphasis on prevention rather than intervention, that is inevitable. We have to enter into negotiations about that, but all the talk about closing fire stations and tens of thousands of fire workers becoming unemployed is totally untrue. During the 12 months of the dispute, a number of fire stations were closed with the co-operation of the FBU—FBU members wanted to move out of old fire stations into new fire stations in a different location. As the union says, it is not completely against modernisation. The new fire risk assessment, as it applies to people rather than buildings, may result in some readjustment, but that does not mean redundancies on the scale that the FBU is talking about. In fact, if all goes as expected, the employers have said that there will be no compulsory redundancies and, based on the figures, I do not see why there should be.

Let me make it clear that there is no deal with the FBU. I would not have thought, after the last year, anyone could say that I had a cosy relationship with the FBU, and there is certainly no deal on this matter. I talked to everyone in the industry this morning about the nature of our intentions and the need for us all to begin to make changes. That is not a deal—the Government have set out their position, we will hear what is said by all the stakeholders in the industry, and we will introduce legislation in the House. I hope that that legislation will be introduced, depending on the business managers and the Queen's Speech, next year, and there could be a Bill in January, but that is not entirely in my hands.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


The Deputy Prime Minister

Well, I do not know what that "Oh" is about. I am just telling the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) what I think is the position, but it is a matter for the House. I cannot decide when the Bill will be introduced, but I am trying to give an honest answer, not that honesty necessarily dictates the right hon. Gentleman's political position—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] No, it is all right, he would not deny that—he himself is laughing.

Finally, on the Fire Services Bill, which is now before the House of Lords, I would like to see that process completed by the summer, but there are difficulties with the legislative timetable, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden knows. We hope to get the Bill into law by the summer, but certainly by September at the very latest. We are discussing that with various parties.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. I was not aware of the new practice according to which Opposition spokesmen hand their written statements over, and I am afraid mine is not ready. However, may I take the opportunity to welcome the fact that the long and bitter fire dispute has come to an end? Given the months of argument and damaging strikes, can the Deputy Prime Minister reassure the House that the White Paper is in line with the agreed settlement, and that there is nothing in either his statement or the White Paper that would undermine the parameters of the agreement signed by the employers and the FBU? Now that the dispute is over, and given that the Deputy Prime Minister's own White Paper talks about strong arguments for restricting the right to strike, is there not a case for consulting on a limited and specific restriction on the right to strike, applicable to life-saving fire duties only? While the White Paper is largely based on the Bain review, the Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that certain parts of Bain are not in the details published today. Can he explain those omissions, and tell us why there is not more detail on new building regulations for fire sprinklers? Does he not regard that as a key part of fire prevention, which receives new emphasis in the White Paper? The White Paper talks about more research, but surely there is enough research to press ahead with those vital new proposals to save lives through fire prevention.

On the proposed restructuring of fire authorities, can the right hon. Gentleman give the House a cast-iron guarantee that no powers will be taken from local fire authorities unless and until there are directly elected assemblies in place? No powers should be given to regional quangos. Can he say what powers will be taken down from Whitehall to any new regional authorities or to local fire authorities?

Can the Deputy Prime Minister make clear his latest position on resources for fire authorities that have modernised already? The issue was raised by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and has been raised repeatedly by us, but we have received no reassurance from Ministers. Can the Deputy Prime Minister say whether fire authorities that have already reaped the financial benefits of reform will be compensated for the higher costs built into the recent agreement—yes or no?

The White Paper is not without merit, but the Deputy Prime Minister knows that the case for modernisation rests on saving more lives. That will be its true test. I hope that he will respond to proposals that could save many lives over the coming years.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of support. The proposals are designed to save lives by changing the priorities that determine risk assessment, giving higher priority to individuals than to buildings, and seeing that the rescue services are nearer to concentrations of population. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden made it clear that that is done better in Europe, and we have learned something from that, as Bain was quick to point out. We believe that we can achieve safety, efficiency and greater effectiveness, and that is the purpose of the White Paper.

With regard to the right to strike and the hon. Gentleman's concern about omissions, I assume that he was referring to gold command. I did not say what the omissions were and I do not readily understand what he meant. Does he wish to clarify that? [Interruption.] He says that there were a number of specific omissions. Perhaps he could write to me and I will respond. I would like to be helpful, but he has not been specific so I cannot respond now.

The White Paper is in line with the Government's proposals for the modernisation of the fire service. The industrial agreement was not just about modernisation. The Government made it clear that they intended to modernise the fire service, but the negotiations on wages, conditions and modernisation are some aspects of that, but not all. That is why we need wider consultation on the broader aspects of the fire service, not just on industrial negotiations, agreements and working conditions, which are largely determined by the council. The other matters are the concern of another body. That is why I spoke to them all this morning. We are carrying out the Government's policy in line with many of the recommendations made by Bain, and taking into account some of the responses given to the Bain recommendations. That is reflected in the White Paper published today.

On research, there is always a great need for research, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We should do all we can to reduce the incidence of arson—£43 million has been put into increased research and services in that area. We should ensure that the results are more effective, but I do not underestimate the need for continuous research on these matters.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the powers of unelected regional quangos, as he called them. The regional bodies will all be unelected in the first instance, even if there are successful elections in the three northern areas, so in the course of the reorganisation we will be dealing with unelected bodies. There are certain regional aspects of the fire service that are best considered on a regional basis, sometimes because local authorities cannot afford to provide all those services, and sometimes because it makes sense for them to coordinate their activities.

I have agreed with the local authorities that we will look at how we can achieve that regional co-ordination in the present circumstances, working with them. But our principle is clear: if there are elected representatives, the regional dimension should be accountable to them. I do not think the hon. Gentleman would disagree. With regard to regional co-ordination, we are discussing with the local authorities how they would make an unelected body accountable. That is a matter for further discussion.

On the question whether fire authorities will be denied the resources that they want, there are some that have carried out modernisation. We said that we would consider compensation. It is not my first priority. There is scope for all the fire authorities to achieve greater efficiency, if they so wish. We will consider how best to achieve that and give them the proper support. Change will take place. It costs money, but the Government will face up to their responsibilities.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly its emphasis on more co-operation within the industry. I welcome also the ratcheting up of the building regulations. I remind him that the vast majority of fires occur in old houses where the building regulations will not apply. Will he look carefully at getting the fire service to emphasise the giving of good advice, particularly to people who carry out home improvements, which sometimes dramatically improve the cosmetic appearance of their dwelling but increase the fire risk?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Some fire authorities have adopted such measures recently, with some going to schools to provide education about preventing fires. That has had some effect, with Kent and one or two other authorities having success. We want to encourage more of that, and emphasise prevention rather than intervention. The balance needs to be better and we want to provide such measures. My hon. Friend makes a good suggestion on which we will build and report back later.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

I welcome the stated objectives of the programme of change, but does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that a number of smaller communities will, for reasons of accessibility or other special factors, need to retain fire stations, even though a so-called efficiency review could put their survival in question? Will he give an undertaking that the programme of change will not be used to put stations such as Canvey Island in Castle Point under threat?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman expresses a general concern. I cannot give an exact answer on his point about his area, except to say that integrated risk management is about providing the same level of safety cover for people in rural areas, dangerous areas, less dangerous areas and urban areas. That is what the White Paper is about. Local areas will decide and each has different measures. They will make the decisions and recommendations.

In that regard, many retained firefighters work in those areas, and I answered a question from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden on that subject. This is an important matter, about which he asked me during my last statement on the subject. There is no need for any redundancies there, either, and retained firemen can now get a fairer deal from the system than they do now. We are desperately short of retained firefighters in certain areas. We will get a better balance and they will face no more risk of compulsory redundancy than any full-time worker.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I was interested what my right hon. Friend had to say about risk assessment. What are the implications, if any, for high-risk areas such as nuclear power stations or airports that have dedicated fire crews attached to them?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those fire crews are separate from the fire and rescue services but have the same obligation. They will be subject to the same fire risk assessment because that affects their area. Those crews may be dealt with under a different service, but they will have the same obligation.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I welcome the statement, as far as it goes, and the reference to further devolution of fire authority powers to Wales. Does that mean entirely devolving fire responsibilities, or will any be retained in this place? Will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that the money provided for the cost of transfer will be sufficient, and that the Government will not apply a Barnett-type squeeze to the money? He has acknowledged honestly today that there is a cost attached to the process.

The Deputy Prime Minister

Being Welsh, I can say that both Wales and Scotland are always open to the opportunity of trying to get a lot more money from this House. We are transferring responsibility and the assets and, in that sense, it is not a great transfer of cost at all. There has been a demand from the Welsh Assembly that the cost should come back to the Assembly. I agree; send it back, all of it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Skinner

You are putting pressure on me. We have gone through a long and intermittent strike. Notwithstanding the fact that strikes are unpleasant, they do occur from time to time and the right to strike should be enshrined by any responsible Labour Government. My right hon. Friend has been asked by the Tories to get rid of the right to strike, and by the sloppy Liberal Democrats to diminish it in certain circumstances. Will he take it from me, and many others on this side—and certainly in the broad Labour and trade union movement—that we want to put in our two penn'orth and tell him, before the ink is dry: retain the right to strike?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Welcome back, Dennis. It is going to be a lot warmer. My hon. Friend makes a serious point, though, and one of which we both have direct experience. In one strike, the administrator took over the union as a consequence of the strike legislation. It did not solve the strike; it just made it more bitter. My personal judgment is that such legislation does not work in the way that people hope it will work. I said to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden that we would give the Government's response, and our reasons are set out in the White Paper. We all accept that there is a right to strike—that is guaranteed in our legislation—but there are circumstances in which certain unions or work forces give exemptions, in the form of no-strike deals. There are even no-strike deals that have been arrived at privately by trade unions in contracts, never mind in legislation.

The question is whether no-strike legislation would have helped over the past 12 months. In my judgment, it would not. Under existing law, we could have acted if the Attorney-General had judged that the strike constituted a threat to the safety of the individual, but he decided at that stage that it did not, so we did not use that legal weapon. If we are to take away the right to withdraw labour, we must carefully balance what the advantages are. I see no advantage. Nobody has made the case that it solves the strike or drives workers back to work. That is why the conclusion of the White Paper is that, while we must always keep it under review, we do not want to enact anti-strike legislation.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Many people will be relieved to hear the Deputy Prime Minister's assurance that there will be no compulsory redundancies. Has his Department made any assessment of the levels of personnel that will be needed in the new service?

The Deputy Prime Minister

These are all matters for the fire authorities to negotiate. I said in my statement that the fire authorities conducted their negotiations and the local authorities have agreed that there is no need for redundancies. It is not difficult to look at how many fire stations we have currently and assess how many crews will be needed and under what circumstances. For example, the FBU has said that, because of its overtime ban, 4,000 more workers are employed than would normally be. It is legitimate to ask whether that is the best and most effective way of using labour. The Government are entitled to that view. In the current discussions, and in particular those arising from the settlement, that will be one of the issues.

We leave it to the relevant parties to make the judgment, but there is a statutory responsibility to ensure a high level of safety. If we can achieve a proper balance between intervention and prevention, we will have a higher level of safety without the need for compulsory redundancies. That is the employers' judgment, and I accept it.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's reference to the importance of fire services being local, so I must express my worries about West Yorkshire fire service being abolished and becoming part of a regional service. We in Leeds often worry about our fire service having that local touch, and we can only fear for the worst if it disappears and is replaced by a regional service. Is this matter one for debate, and is it not a step too far in terms of local awareness?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I understand my hon. Friend's point about West Yorkshire. I face a difficult situation, in that there is a fire authority covering just the Isle of Wight, which makes it a very small authority, compared with the London authority, which is responsible for millions of people. West Yorkshire may reside somewhere between the two. On effective representation in the regions, I believe that certain things have to be delivered at a regional level because that is more effective, but certain authorities cannot do that. As my hon. Friend knows, some authorities are smaller than West Yorkshire's, and I have to make a judgment in this regard. However, the Government take the view that we would like to see regional government. It makes a lot of sense to strike a balance between giving regional functions to an elected regional body, and delivering service locally where it is decided, in determining risk and the allocation of resources, that it is best to do so. I am discussing with the local authorities exactly how we can achieve that.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

May I welcome in particular the Deputy Prime Minister's intention to review building regulations to see how fire prevention can he improved? Is he aware of a recent answer that I received to a parliamentary question that shows that there have been no deaths whatsoever in houses equipped with water sprinklers? That compares with the many hundreds of deaths that have occurred in houses that do not have them. Will he meet Richard Kent—a constituent of mine whose two sons, one of whom was a firefighter, were both killed in a fire in their home a few months ago—and East Sussex fire brigade to discuss the vital role that water sprinklers can play? Will he give me an assurance that his review of building regulations will examine the role that sprinklers should be playing, particularly in new properties?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman's point is a powerful one, whether in respect of the houses and dwellings to which he refers, or of industrial buildings. We are tightening up proposals on the provision of sprinkler systems in industrial buildings, and we have begun discussions on how they might be used in households. It should be easy to provide them in new buildings, but it is much more difficult to do so in older buildings. However, we are considering all possibilities in an effort to improve the situation.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I, too, welcome the White Paper and particularly its emphasis on prevention, which firefighters themselves mention repeatedly? Part of the Government's modernisation programme was to put the new guidelines for the emergency services out for consultation. As Halifax's MP, may I have my right hon. Friend's assurance that, under these proposals, which are presumably incorporated in the White Paper, there will be no reduction in the response to 999 calls in Halifax? We want no cuts in the emergency services.

The Deputy Prime Minister

There can be no question whatsoever about that. Otherwise, we would have failed in what we are setting out to achieve: the proper involvement of local people, to ensure that they get an immediate response to a concern about a safety or rescue issue. I give my assurance that that will not happen.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

In the light of the warning given by the chief of the Security Service about the inevitability of terrorist chemical and biological strikes on this country, I welcome the formal addition of antiterrorist measures in respect of the reformed fire and rescue service. Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure us that sensible levels of equipment will be issued and that training will start without further delay?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Decontamination equipment has already been issued, at a cost of some "50 million. There were some slight difficulties to begin with, but, to be fair, the industry has reacted well and can now offer the necessary cover for this particularly important work.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I stand four-square behind what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said about the right to strike. There is much to be welcomed in the statement of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, and I am sure that the same is true of the White Paper. Above all, I welcome his comments on some of the real problems that exist in today's service and how they should be tackled. I am thinking, in particular, of the ending of bullying and harassment, and I hope that he agrees that such behaviour has no place in today's working environment, least of all in a modern public service such as fire and rescue.

The Deputy Prime Minister

One surprising conclusion of the Bain report was his saying that he was particularly shocked at the incidence of harassment and bullying. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable. The odd incident has gained considerable publicity, and the White Paper makes it clear that such practices are unacceptable. We are doing everything that we possibly can to eliminate them.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Is it the Deputy Prime Minister's intention that the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate should form a single unified inspection regime at both brigade and thematic levels? If so, and it is decided that a brigade has been poorly treated because it has already made some of his suggested improvements in efficiency, will extra resources be available if they need to be applied?

The Deputy Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there are two separate bodies. He asks whether we are merging them into one, and we are not. [Interruption.] They are separate in the sense that they have two different functions. One is responsible for the audit of comprehensive performance, and we believe that it is important to have a rating in that respect. The inspectorate, on the other hand, will carry out the role and functions that it has constantly had—ensuring that safety standards are imposed, brought in and kept in the service. We do not envisage one body: they are two separate functions. If I have left the hon. Gentleman a little unclear, I will write to him with the precise details of how we see them working.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the correctness of the trailer of the White Paper that was run in The Times? It said that it would mean new shift patterns and more flexible working and an alteration in night working, which could lead to problems given that there are more deaths from fires at night. If the public felt that the FBU pay demand was over the top, is it not important that any Government response to new developments is not seen in a similar light? It would be peculiar if new Labour were incapable of finding the central ground.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is accusing me of being new Labour.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Oh yes, you are.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I own up, I am the establishment. I have accepted that.[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) keeps telling me that every day.

As to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), what was said in The Times is absolute rubbish. I have said that before, and I think that the journalist has apologised for it. On the question of more flexibility and the need for changes in shift policies, I have said time and again from the Dispatch Box that there will have to be modernisation and change. The overtime ban maintains the system in operation at the moment, which I do not believe to be efficient or effective. I have made that clear, so there will have to be some changes. I understand that the union has made some proposals about how to bring about changes to overtime arrangements, so the matter is under way, with the agreement of those working in the industry.

My principal concern is to ensure that we get the best possible fire service, which is exactly what I am doing. Wage conditions were agreed between the two parties after a dispute, as my hon. Friend well knows. I hope that we can now implement the proposals in the White Paper for a modern fire and rescue service. That is what the White Paper is all about.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify the exact implications of moving from local control rooms organised with local knowledge to the remote, regional control rooms that he has advocated in his statement and in the White Paper? Does he really believe that the decision to call out retained firefighters in remote rural stations such as Broadway and Pebworth, right on the edge of the west midlands and south-west regions, is best taken in Birmingham? If so, he would deserve to be burnt at the stakeholder.

The Deputy Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman gets a chance to look at the White Paper—obviously he has not had enough time—he will find tables that show exactly what it costs to deliver regional services—[Interruption.] I am trying to tell the hon. Gentleman that savings can be made regionally in comparison with the present local administration. That argument does not appear only in the White Paper; it was advanced in the Bain report, which pointed out that considerable savings could be made if several services were delivered regionally.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

indicated dissent.

The Deputy Prime Minister

That should be simple enough even for the hon. Lady to understand. She shakes her head, but if she has any doubt, she should read the Bain report or the Fire White Paper, which she does not seem to have to hand.

In our judgment, some services will best be provided regionally. Indeed, some fire authorities have got together to do that. Certain functions, certain equipment and certain circumstances are beyond their expenditure. Gold command is a classic example of fire forces coming together on a regional basis for major incidents. As explained in the White Paper, we believe that it can be done better and in a more balanced way at regional level.

Angela Watkinson

Can the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance that the risk review will not lead to any lowering of fire cover in populated areas at night? The statistics show that there are fewer fires at night, but also that the proportion of fatal accidents is higher in night fires, partly because people are asleep and not aware that their house is on fire, partly because people are not out and about walking in public and so cannot raise the alarm. Response times at night are vital: another minute on a fire brigade's response time could lead to a death from a night fire.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Lady's analysis of why there is a higher proportion of deaths at night is correct. It is not so much the speed of response as the nature and circumstances in which people die, as she rightly points out. However quick that response was, unfortunately, people have died, so the emphasis is now on the prevention measures that can be taken. Reference was made earlier to some of the measures that have been taken in schools and communities and they can make a real difference. It is the essence of the difference between the record here and the record in Europe: the balance between intervention and prevention is not quite right.

I give the commitment that the safety cover that the risk assessments will be giving will be the same whether it is day or night, rural or urban. That is the requirement. It may well be that we have to move facilities around in terms of the brigades and personnel more than we do at the moment, but it will be to maintain the highest levels of safety.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Surely any regionalisation will lead to the end of Norfolk fire service as such. It will lead to station closures, job losses and we will lose a force with a clear identity and an excellent esprit de corps. May I refer the Deputy Prime Minister to page 4 of his statement, which says that there is a real problem because the service does not fully represent the communities it serves? Surely what the public want is not a service that is used for social engineering, but one that saves lives and puts out fires.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman may be unhappy with that but there is a need to get some balance, with fire services representing the communities in which they work. Often, it can be a language situation, which can be quite important in the fire service in particular areas. It is important to get that balance into the fire service. It is a public service and it should reflect more effectively the areas and the community—[Interruption.] I give hon. Members my judgment. We can have a difference between us. I think that there are probably many differences on that matter but I believe that to be right. As for saying that regionalisation will mean the end of that service, he gives no evidence for that and it is not true.