HC Deb 15 March 2004 vol 419 cc45-60

  1. "The Secretary of State shall by order, within six months of the coming into effect of any part of this Act, establish a body to be known as the Advisory Panel on the Recruitment and Retention of Retained Firefighters.
  2. The body shall be made up of such people as the Secretary of State shall appoint to include—
    1. at least two persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be representatives of fire and rescue authorities or organisations representing fire and rescue authorities;
    2. at least two persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be representatives of retained firefighters or organisations representing retained firefighters;
    3. at least two persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be representatives of private sector employers or organisations representing private sector employers;
    4. at least two persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be representatives of public sector employers or organisations representing public sector employers.
  3. The body shall meet as the Secretary of State shall direct to advise the Secretary of State and fire and rescue authorities on all matters relating to the recruitment and retention of retained duty firefighters.—[Mr. Hammond.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hammond

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause relates to retained firefighters, and I think that it is common ground on both sides of the House that they play a crucial part in the modernisation agenda. All too often the focus or the spotlight falls on the large metropolitan brigades, with their need occasionally to respond to major disasters and to think about the response to the new agenda of anti-terrorist preparedness. However, in many brigades throughout the country, retained firefighters are the backbone of the service.

In many ways the challenges of modernisation are greater for those brigades that depend largely on retained firefighters. By and large, they will not see the same savings from changed work practices as those brigades that employ mainly whole-time firefighters. Almost by definition, those brigades with retained firefighters do not already have available a pool of full-time employed personnel to deal with the service's new emphasis on fire prevention. They are faced with some particular challenges as we move forward with this agenda. On the whole, the brigades in question are the smaller ones, with lighter management structures, which in turn pose further difficulties in addressing the issues.

As I look round the Chamber, I am certain that every Member here would be happy to record the huge debt that is owed to retained firefighters for their sterling support of the community when they continued to provide cover during the brief but potentially dangerous fire strikes at the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003. I regret to say that in some cases that was done in the face of intimidation and harassment from colleagues. By way of belated but well-deserved reward, those retained firefighters will be included in the new negotiating machinery, and the Minister made it clear in Committee that he intends that they should have proper representation, along with other groups of firefighters and employees of fire and rescue services.

In the new clause, I have sought to address the overarching problem of the recruitment and retention of sufficient retained firefighters to allow the modernisation agenda to proceed successfully. It is increasingly difficult to find the kind of people who traditionally have worked as retained firefighters. I do not want to digress too far into anecdote, but when I was a boy I remember being terribly excited about the fact that the greengrocer was a retained firefighter. Every now and then, to great excitement in the greengrocer's shop, he would tear off in his car to fight a fire. In traditional communities, the small self-employed shopkeeper or business man could undertake that vital community role and provide himself with a worthwhile additional income. As our lives have become more complicated and as pressure on the self-employed has increased—people generally have to spend more time on running a business now—it has become less easy to persuade such people that they can afford the time and potential disruption to their business that being a retained firefighter entails. According to figures produced by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the retained firefighting force across the country is about 3,000 firefighters or 20 per cent. short of its intended strength, which represents a considerable gap in its ability to deliver what is required of the current structure and set-up. The Minister may wish to comment on this, but my understanding is that as we proceed with things such as integrated personal development strategies both retained firefighters and full-time firefighters will participate in in-job training and personal development programmes, which are extremely worth while but which, almost by definition, require a greater number of personnel to provide cover while people are undertaking training and personal development activities. We are 20 per cent. short now, but once the integrated risk management plans have been put in place, the modernisation agenda has been implemented more fully and the new human resources arrangements are up and running, we will have an even greater need for retained firefighters.

The key to finding such people is recognising the role of employers. Some retained firefighters, of course, will be self-employed, but the great majority will be employees, and it is important that the House should acknowledge the need to focus on persuading employers of the benefit to the community and perhaps to themselves of releasing employees for retained duty. Various proposals were made in Committee. It was suggested, for example, that formal recognition should be bestowed on employers who release employees for retained duty and even that cash rewards or compensation should be made available to employers who sacrifice the efficiency of their business by allowing employees to play a role as retained firefighters.

New clause 2 would introduce a formal recognition of the importance of retained firefighters and of the problem of recruiting and retaining them by establishing an advisory panel to the Secretary of State. In Committee, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), referred to a comprehensive review that he had established on 15 December 2003 looking at issues relating to retained firefighting and the need to recruit more retained firefighters. Why have I tabled the new clause, given that he told the Committee about that? I want to be clear that the Government recognise the need to involve employers from both the public and private sectors in the initiative.

In Committee, the Under-Secretary said that the review would include members from a variety of stakeholder groups, including the Local Government Association, CACFOA and the RFU". When I intervened to ask him whether the employer community was also engaged in the process, he replied: The employers will be fully engaged in the process. However, it turned out that we were speaking at cross purposes, as he clarified his remarks by saying: The LGA is in the review team."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 2 March 2004; c. 386–387.] The Local Government Association is a representative of employers of retained firefighters, but I had intended to convey to him the need to engage the employers of potential retained firefighters—the businesses and public bodies that employ such people in their everyday jobs, which need to be persuaded of the community's need for them to be released for retained firefighting duties. As far as I understood it, he confirmed in the Committee that representatives of employer organisations other than the LGA were not engaged in the review process. I would like the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and various other bodies that represent private sector employers to be included. I would also like representatives of the big public sector employers to be engaged in the process. Of course, the public sector must lead by example. In many parts of the country, large proportions of the population are engaged in public sector employment; indeed, the proportion is as much as a third in some areas.

The point of tabling the new clause was to seek to formalise the advisory panel as an ongoing body that would advise the Secretary of State on matters relating to retained firefighters and also to formalise the membership of the panel so that it included representatives not only of the fire and rescue authorities and the retained firefighters, but of employers from both the public and private sectors. The problem should be put on the table—we are 3,000 retained firefighters short today, and the number may be 4,000 by the time that the IRMP process is completed—and we need to work together to ensure that additional retained firefighters are delivered in the places where they are needed.

In my fire authority, Surrey, there are proposals in the integrated risk management plan to change the manning of a fire station from whole time to retained service. Of course, that will be possible and the saving will be harnessed only if and when it is possible to recruit the additional retained firefighters. The provision of 24-hour retained cover at a single-appliance fire station will take a considerable number of retained firefighters. I have not done the maths, but I suspect that about 20 or 24 individuals are required to provide 24-hour retained cover in a single-appliance fire station, although the Under-Secretary will correct me if I am wrong.

I tabled the new clause to draw attention to the point and to get the Under-Secretary to focus on the role of employers and—I hope—to give some commitment about the engagement of employers in the process. I shall certainly not press the new clause to a Division if he can assure us that employers in the public and private sector will be properly engaged. Furthermore, I tabled the new clause because I know that some hon. Members—not least those from the Devon contingent, which featured strongly in Committee—will have a lot to say about retained firefighters. Devon is a fire authority that depends almost entirely on retained firefighters.

5.15 pm

Having tabled the new clause, I did some further digging. On Friday, the Retained Firefighters Union told me that it had done a quick survey of eight fire authorities picked at random and discovered, shockingly, that not one had a budget for recruiting retained firefighters. That is a serious situation, when we are already facing a shortfall of 3,000, and the shortfall is likely to increase.

It is imperative that we act. Retained firefighters are arguably the most cost-effective part of the fire service. Failing to recruit and retain enough of them will undermine the modernisation process and will certainly slow down the harvesting of its financial savings. The authorities with the largest number of retained firefighters are almost invariably those with the least scope for modernisation savings and the smallest slice of the transitional funding that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has made available.

I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that there will be a mechanism whereby employers, both public and private, will be included in the process in a way that fully recognises their key role. I look forward to his response and to the contributions that I confidently anticipate from the aforementioned Devon contingent.

Richard Younger-Ross

Devon was indeed extremely well represented in Committee, with three members, but the south-west generally did not do too badly either, with five. However, that did not mean that we always got our points across to the Minister.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) spoke about employer representation on the review body. He thinks that he was at cross purposes with the Minister, but I understood exactly what he meant in Committee, so I am surprised that it was not so clear to the Government.

We debated this at length in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman has mentioned our probing amendments on encouraging employers to release people to serve as retained firefighters. We suggested cash rewards, which will perhaps not prove to be the way forward, as a way of recognising what employers do. The Minister responded positively and said that retained firefighters were a vital resource, so I am horrified to hear that there are eight fire authorities with no money to recruit them. That is a scandal.

Mr. Hammond

In fact, it is worse than that. The Retained Firefighters Union polled the eight authorities at random, so the statistical suggestion must be that many more will prove to have no budget.

Richard Younger-Ross

That is an appalling situation. It could be that the authorities that rely heavily on retained crew are having problems with their budget. The Government are quite rightly seeking parity of salaries for retained firefighters, so they have recognised the need in words, but they have not recognised it in cash terms. Let us consider the example of the combined authority in Devon, which relies heavily on retained firefighters. The 16 per cent. pay increase over three years translates into a 23 per cent. increase in the budget of the Devon fire authority. That authority is finding it hard to make ends meet and says that it would require a further £2 million to achieve the same sort of funding as other fire authorities. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising if recruitment campaigns are cut in the attempt to ensure that resources are put into essential services such as firefighting, the response to road traffic accidents and so on.

The problem will get worse. As work patterns change and our countryside has fewer people working in it and more people commuting longer distances, those available on the ground will become few and far between. It is therefore imperative that greater effort are made to recruit those few people who reside close enough to the station. The Government accept that a genuine problem needs to be tackled. I hope that they also accept that it is not simply a matter of an advertising campaign or a review but of considering the way in which fire authorities are funded to recruit and retain those firefighters. Parity is good as far as it goes but it falls apart if the fire service is left short of cash.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge mentioned local authorities. We do not need a review in that case because Ministers are responsible for local authorities. I therefore urge the Minister to write a letter to himself to spur himself to write to local authorities telling them to be more responsive and to encourage their members of staff to become retained firefighters. Many authorities resist that, which is a great shame because a potential resource is not being used. In rural areas, its use is essential.

Mr. Drew

I wish to make a couple of brief observations. Like other constituencies, Gloucestershire relies heavily on retained firefighters. However, those firefighters can function only if they have a close relationship with full-time firefighters. Sometimes we talk about retained firefighters as though they work in isolation and provide cover to an area on their own, but, in order to provide effective fire cover, the full-time firefighters in a sizeable market town must have a relationship with the retained firefighters in the smaller market towns. Whatever the Government devise, a structure that recognises that relationship is vital.

I do not want to get hung up on the idea of an advertising budget. I accept that advertising might attract some individuals, but the main problem is that the retained fire service operates restrictively. If we had an arrangement under which people would be off call far more often, we could recruit them more easily. However, the system is predicated on the belief that people live and work locally. If either does not pertain, the opportunity to become a retained firefighter is precluded. We may have to consider a system whereby people who work locally but live some distance away are on call when they are at work and those who live locally and are willing to be retained firefighters and on call at times of greatest danger in the evenings and at night are not on call during the day, when they work away from home.

I do not think that this is a matter for statute. I think we should ask ourselves whether we have a service that is fit for the 21st century, and it is clear that the service is not currently working very well. The only way in which the three retained fire stations in my neck of the woods—Painswick, Nailsworth and Dursley—can recruit is by word of mouth. Nepotism often occurs: the sons and daughters of existing retained firefighters often become retained firefighters themselves, because they have been targeted directly. I do not think that is a terribly good thing, because we want the service to be open and accessible, and in any case it is a pretty ad hoc method.

Mr. Hammond

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He mentioned an advertising budget. I do not think that a responsible fire authority would limit a ring-fenced budget to advertising for recruitment purposes. There is much more to recruitment than advertising. I wonder how many people are aware of the retained fire service, of how it works and of the opportunities it provides.

Mr. Drew

That is certainly true. I am merely saying that I think any advertising should be aimed at employers rather than attempting to recruit directly. Employers may encourage staff to think about becoming retained firefighters, but those who are interested will have probably taken that route already. It is more a question of securing release from employers.

I think we need a set of proposals from the Government, rather than legislation for the statute book.

Mr. Swire

The Minister will have to resist the temptation to use the Labour party buzzword of the last fortnight—"opportunistic", as applied to everything that the Opposition do—because I think that there is a commonality of interest in this case. The new clause is eminently sensible, and deals with an issue about which we in the west country feel strongly. As we have heard, Devon in particular relies very much on its retained firefighters.

I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that retained firefighters should not be regarded in an individual way, in that they are part and parcel of the deal. In our part of the world, however, they are perhaps more significant than they are in other areas. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) mentioned the costs to Devon fire and rescue service of the increase in retained firemen's salaries—above 16 per cent. over three years, representing a total increase of 23 per cent. in the authority's budget. That means that a £2 million increase is needed for the service just to stand still.

The Bill does not address the issue of rural sparsity, which has an impact on the question of retained firemen. Nowadays we look increasingly to employers in the private sector, and elements of the public sector, to release employees so that they can do community jobs. We have community support police, for instance, as well as established voluntary bodies such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Sidmouth inshore lifeboat service—if I may give a plug to an excellent service in my area.

We seem to be asking businesses, particularly those in the private sector, to do more and more, while penalising them through higher national insurance contributions and more and more socially based legislation. All that deters them from taking on more people in order to expand. Now we are telling them that, having taken on more people despite all the penalties, they should release those people to do community jobs. We have to be very careful in terms of how much we ask these hard-pressed businesses to do.

However, I take the point that we need to raise awareness of the existence of the retained fire service and the opportunities within it—not only among employers but among the employees themselves. However, I am not convinced that an advertising campaign per se is the answer. It might go some way towards alleviating the problem in the short term, but we need to articulate a career structure in the retained service to show people that there is a career progression, that the terms of employment have been improved, and that the service is a viable alternative for those who cannot become full-time firemen, or for those for whom the fire service has not provided the opportunity to become full-time firemen.

5.30 pm

I do not know the latest figures for retained firefighters in Devon—whether there is a problem, or whether one is likely to arise—but the genuine feeling exists that this legislation is based on the desire to create larger units, which it surely will, and that at some point our service will be subsumed and we will come off worse. Ours is a very good fire authority that works extremely well, using a lot of local knowledge; frankly, it cannot be improved upon. A merger and no increase in the number of retained firemen could result in one of two things: a loss of cover or a cut in services. As we all know, for a rural area the insurance implications of a loss of cover could be very profound indeed. That issue has not been touched on at all.

I take the point, made by the hon. Member for Stroud, about increasing the number of off-call retained firemen, but to go down that road would require increasing the number of retained firemen on call at any given time. I do not see how having more off-call firemen would deal with the problem of a lack of retained firemen. Yet more would be needed, and such a problem cannot be solved in that way.

I should be interested to hear what the Under-Secretary has to say about new clause 2. We Conservatives are generally against increasing the amount of legislation, but the creation of such an advisory panel would mean that our retained firemen were being properly represented. The new clause is well constructed. It refers to representatives of fire and rescue authorities or organisations representing fire and rescue authorities", and to representatives of private sector employers or organisations representing private sector employers". I suspect that there are lessons to be learned, particularly in the light of the mobilisation—[Interruption.] If the Under-Secretary would do me the courtesy of listening, he might be in a better position to answer this point. Indeed, when I asked the Minister for Local and Regional Government a direct question earlier, I was not granted the courtesy of a direct reply.

I shall re-run what I said to allow the Under-Secretary to take it on board. In terms of releasing private sector and public sector employees, there are probably lessons to be learned from the recent Iraq war. There was a significant mobilisation of the Territorial Army and other reserve forces, but to be honest some employers were more compliant and encouraging to their employees than others. It would be very interesting if representatives of those self-same employers were included on a advisory panel, which might well be able to answer some of our questions about retained firemen.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Given that the Under-Secretary is not even extending to my hon. Friend the courtesy of listening to his argument, is he not a little worried that such an advisory body would be ignored by a Government who are not interested in the employer's view, and who do not look after retained firemen?

Mr. Swire

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Having sat through our deliberations in Committee, I know that neither the Under-Secretary nor the Minister is interested in any of our arguments. So far as they are concerned, they are going to implement this measure, in keeping with their attempt to regionalise everything and in line with the artificial regions that they are seeking to create throughout the country. It is part of their regionalisation programme, and anything that stands in the way of that is dismissed.

The Government say that we are little Englanders and that we are not keen on modernisation, but as we know, that is all baloney.[Interruption.] The Minister says "Correct" from a sedentary position, but many of the people who will shortly be invited to vote on whether to have regional assemblies will probably show that it is we who are correct. We leave that, however, to the electorate—something that the Minister is apparently not prepared to do, given that he is prejudging the result of a democratic vote. Historically, that has been shown to be a dangerous thing to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) suggested that the Minister might not be listening to employers. There is no real evidence that anything that this Government have ever done has involved listening to employers, particularly in the private sector. They are seen as the bogey men, the people who must pay more each time there is a tax rise. As we look forward to a third term of Labour tax rises, if there is to be one—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members are clearly not listening. As we look forward to a possible third term of Labour tax rises, those employers will be invited to pay more and more tax, but we are asking the self-same people to release employees to act as retained firefighters.

It is incumbent on the Minister for Local and Regional Government to consider having a platform, such as that suggested in new clause 2, to enable representatives of the retained fire services and employers to get round a table and solve a problem that he has to admit exists—we have not invented it. I shall be interested to know the answer, if either the Minister or the Under-Secretary will do me the courtesy of answering the question.

Mr. Flook

If we are to protect the fire service in our rural counties, we need an advisory panel on the recruitment and retention of retained firefighters. That would make eminent sense. As we have already heard, retained firefighters are the backbone of the service, especially in rural areas. That is certainly the case in Somerset, where only three of the 27 firefighting stations are full time: Taunton, Bridgwater and Yeovil; the other 24 stations operate on a retained basis. In my constituency, that involves some very brave men and women in Wellington, Wiveliscombe and Dulverton. By definition, they are drawn closely from the local community, which is vital in rural areas because many addresses are not tabulated in the way in which we should like them to be, and local knowledge is needed to discover exactly where fires are, and where firefighters must go.

The future is worrying. As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said, the recruitment and consequent retention of firefighters in the retained stations is dropping considerably. There is already a 20 per cent. shortfall, which is no surprise in rural areas. My hon. Friend mentioned greengrocers, and many farmers and farm workers are also involved, of whom there are now far fewer. As we all know, there are also fewer farms—no doubt because other Government policy undermines them. There are therefore fewer and fewer people who are willing and physically able to be retained firefighters.

It is important to address that issue, and one way of doing so would be better and more fully to understand why employers might be willing to release individual employees to be retained firefighters. It is therefore helpful and sensible to suggest that an advisory panel be set up. It would be even more helpful if there were greater representation of private sector employers. I presume that the 20 per cent. shortfall is increasing rather than decreasing, and although the Government may not agree with the precise wording of new clause 2, I should be interested to learn how the Minister for Local and Regional Government intends to remove that serious impediment to the modernisation of the fire service. Somerset, a rural county that is delivering its firefighting capability very cost effectively, is not receiving its fair share of the transitional funding needed to move to a modernised firefighting service. That is also the case in Devon. If the shortfall is increasing, one solution would be to set up an advisory panel, as proposed in new clause 2, to enable the Government to understand the reasons behind the shortfall and work towards lessening it.

Richard Younger-Ross

I am not too sure of the situation in Somerset, but Devon requires £2 million in transitional funding and has been loaned £500,000. The important word is "loaned"; the money must be paid back.

Mr. Flook

I am grateful for that intervention. Only a quarter of the contribution is being made in the short term—rather than in the long term—because it has to be paid back.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made an excellent point about the need to raise awareness. In communities that have retained firefighters, the firefighters' neighbours will probably know what they do part time, at weekends and at night, but the majority of people in communities such as Wellington, Wiveliscombe and Dulverton will not be aware of that. It would help if the Government and local firefighters did more to raise that awareness.

I welcome the announcement that the Minister made on 15 December of a review of the retained firefighting service. It will be interesting, some weeks on, to see whether he is able to inform the House of any progress. In Committee, he alluded to the involvement of the CBI, and I would be interested to hear whether he would consider it appropriate for the Federation of Small Businesses or the Institute of Directors to become involved, and whether they could be asked why they believe there is a shortfall and how they could help to shore up the gap, which seems to be getting larger rather than smaller.

Phil Hope

I appreciate the concerns about the recruitment and retention challenges that face the retained section of the fire and rescue service, which have prompted the proposal of this new clause, but I believe that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) is misguided in suggesting that a new statutory standing body would be an effective method of tackling these issues. I hope that I will be able to satisfy his concerns about engagement with the public and private sector employers, for example. I note that he has recruited two whole-time Back Benchers—if I may call them that—from the Committee, and one retained Back Bencher, who seems to have slipped in, and who will possibly slip out again later—[Interruption.] I also appreciate that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge seems to have taken the whole Committee stage through single-handedly.

Hon. Members will no doubt recall that the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council also acted as a statutory consultee for the majority of the Secretary of State's regulation-making powers under the Fire Services Act 1947. That body has already been criticised for its increasing inability to provide any strategic direction on the future of the fire and rescue service. Indeed, Professor Bain's report recommended a new advisory and consultative structure that would widen engagement with stakeholders and ensure a focus on strategic advice rather than on executive functions. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that we have already put this new, more flexible structure in place. The practitioners forum and the business and community safety forum are up and running to ensure that both the providers and the users of the service can inform the process of modernisation.

Mr. Hammond

Which business representative organisations are engaged in the business and community safety forum?

Phil Hope

I can confirm that the CBI, for example, is a member of the forum. The hon. Gentleman mentioned other business organisations, and I shall describe in a moment how they are being consulted in the review of the retained fire service.

It was not just the existing advisory and consultative structure that Professor Bain considered to be ineffective. The independent review of the fire service found the existing negotiating machinery also to be ineffective. The Bain report recommended that it be replaced with a smaller body, with executive authority to negotiate and the experience and skills to do so". The new body should have an independent chair and clear links to Ministers and the policy-making process. Significantly, Bain also made it clear that membership of the body should include the Retained Firefighters Union, whose members, like those of the other unions, have a keen interest in the new clause and a very strong interest in effective negotiating machinery. I include in that the National Association of Fire Officers, the Association of Principal Fire Officers and Unison, as well as the Fire Brigades Union.

5.45 pm

In the White Paper, "Our Fire and Rescue Service", we made it clear that we agreed with much of Bain's thinking on the negotiating machinery. Our objective was—and still is—to see three negotiating bodies for uniformed fire and rescue service staff. We want one for chief fire officers and assistant chief fire officers; one for middle managers; and one for fire fighters and control room staff. Like Bain, we also want the new negotiating bodies extended to include a wider range of employee representative bodies. That will benefit all fire service employees and will ensure that issues relating to the pay terms and conditions of retained staff can be tackled effectively.

Members will know that, under the pay agreement for the fire and rescue service 2003, the current negotiating machinery is being reviewed. I hope that that review will result in the improvements that both the independent review of the fire service and the recent White Paper articulated—a matter that later amendments touch on—but, if it does not, the Bill will enable the Government to take the powers needed to bring about those improvements themselves. I still hope that that will not be necessary.

Hon. Members will be aware that, both in the White Paper and the draft national framework, the Government have recognised the vital contribution of the retained section of the service and have acknowledged the need to find solutions to the long-recognised problems of recruitment and retention, which have been mentioned this afternoon. That is why I announced on 15 December that there would be a review of issues affecting the retained section of the service. Under the more flexible arrangements afforded by the new consultative structure, a team has now been formed to take forward that review.

The review team's key remit is to examine the factors that contribute to the recruitment and retention challenges faced by the retained section of the fire and rescue service. That will include issues surrounding equality and diversity, public awareness, engagement with the business community, deployment, community participation, and the role, reward and conditions of service as they relate to recruitment and retention issues.

The retained review team met for the first time on 21 January. Its membership is drawn from across the fire and rescue service community and includes representatives from the Local Government Association, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, the Retained Firefighters Union, the Fire Brigades Union, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Scottish Executive justice department.

Although the focus of the review will be the fire and rescue services of England and Wales, the Scottish Executive justice department's participation has been invited because the issues that the retained review team will be investigating also have relevance to the Scottish fire service. ODPM will also liaise with the Northern Ireland fire service about the work of the review team. Only the key service stakeholder groups will be directly involved on the review team. However, other organisations—including public and private employers' organisations—will be involved in helping to identify a range of options for tackling the recruitment and retention challenges. I made it very clear in Committee that employers would be fully engaged in the process. It is essential that we understand the motives, and the reluctance, of private and public employers whom we wish to attract into releasing staff to become retained firefighters. The review team is therefore seeking advice from a wide range of public and private sector employers and the national bodies that represent them.

Let me go further to provide more reassurance to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. A workshop has been arranged for the end of April, which will involve the review team, other representatives from the fire and rescue service, organisations that rely on volunteers in order to provide a service, Government Departments, employers' organisations in the public and private sectors and bodies that promote opportunities for voluntary work both to individuals and to employers. We anticipate that the workshop will provide the review with valuable insight into how the challenges of recruitment, retention and business community engagement can be effectively overcome.

The business community will include the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, which will bring a welcome nod from Conservative Members, and Business in the Community. I might add that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, along with the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, will also be invited. We would like to invite those bodies, along with others that I shall not read out, to participate in the workshop, and I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.

On recruitment budgets for retained firefighters, I am sure that the review will want to take into account the survey, which has been mentioned this afternoon. The retained review must examine recruitment budgets, which are matters for individual fire and rescue authorities, because we do not know whether they separately identify whole-time and retained firefighters. When we make judgments about budgets, we must know the detail, which is exactly what a review team and a workshop can identify. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is providing centrally produced recruitment literature for use by all fire and rescue authorities.

Richard Younger-Ross

The Minister will know, because it has been in all the papers, that there is a massive campaign to recruit special constables. Does he envisage that the Government might lead or encourage such a recruitment campaign for retained firefighters?

Phil Hope

The retained review is all about examining what works and what does not. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that the ODPM is producing a video that includes information on retained firefighters, which can be issued to raise awareness in the local community about the wider role of retained firefighters. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge pointed out that the issue is about not only adverts but understanding the wider contribution that retained firefighters make and that we want them to continue to make in future.

Mr. Swire

Can the workshop's remit be extended to discuss with the Institute of Directors and other employers' organisations what incentives can be offered to employers who regularly release their employees as retained firemen?

Phil Hope

The problem with identifying one or two organisations is that the list tends to grow. I cannot say whether the workshop will examine that point, but it is the exactly the kind of issue that the review team must examine to ensure that we are getting things right.

A number of hon. Members have raised questions about different things that the review might do. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked whether greater flexibility in the times when retained firefighters are required to be on call might help recruitment, and the review team will certainly examine that issue. Individual fire services are already examining the requirement to be on call, with flexibility in mind, and they are offering differing contracts depending on what times retained firefighters can offer. My hon. Friend's contribution was helpful and it addresses the issue of the availability of retained firefighters in terms of their living or working close to a fire station.

The hon. Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for Taunton (Mr. Flook) discussed funding. I do not want to get diverted into a debate about funding, but when they bid for extra cash for Devon, which is understandable, they might like to have a word with the shadow Chancellor, who has just announced a policy to freeze funds for local government—I do know how he will square that with his Back Benchers. Conservative Front Benchers often say that they will clamp down on public spending, but Conservative Back Benchers keep standing up and asking for more cash. I do not want to introduce discord into the debate; I simply point out some of the contradictions in the position adopted by Conservative Members.

The physical hard work undertaken by retained firefighters in their firefighting activities has been pointed out, but the Bill's purpose is to broaden the role that the fire service plays, which includes promoting community fire safety. We will attract many more people into the fire service, whether they are whole-time or retained firefighters, who will undertake a variety of roles. The extra numbers mean that firefighters can focus on prevention, which is important in reducing fire death.

Mr. Hammond

That is interesting. Does the Minister envisage fire authorities engaging retained personnel to carry out routine, non-emergency response duties? As far as I know, the bulk of the retained work is responsive, and the nature of the role will change slightly if retained firefighters report by pre-planned arrangements to do preventive work.

Phil Hope

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the bulk of the work is responsive. When I described the fire service's wider role in prevention at the Retained Firefighters Union conference, a retained firefighter said that retained firefighters could not do that. Before I could respond, a Welsh retained firefighters' representative stood up and gave an excellent account of how retained firefighters are doing precisely that in Wales. The flexibility and diversity of the role provides many opportunities for retained firefighters to contribute to the overall targets that we are endeavouring to achieve.

I have answered in full the questions about how we will consult on the future of retained firefighters, and I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he requires. The review team will, we hope, submit its report to the practitioners forum in July, and its report will contain its recommendations, its implementation and communications strategies and its programme for delivery. Given today's debate and the consultation, which will take place not only through the workshop but in other ways, I hope that we have satisfied the hon. Gentleman that new clause 2 is not necessary and that he will see fit to withdraw it.

Mr. Hammond

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation, but I detect a touch of complacency. He does not recognise the crisis that the retained service currently faces—the retained service is short of 20 per cent. of its personnel and as the role expands that shortfall is likely to get considerably worse.

I am interested in the workshop that the Minister is holding. As he anticipates, I shall write to him to suggest some other organisations that might appropriately be invited to participate in order to ensure that the business community bodies represent the employers found in the areas where the retained service operates—on the whole, that is not city centres or even large towns but rural and semi-rural areas. If the Minister has an observer ticket for that workshop, perhaps he will write to me. I promise to keep my mouth closed, but I would be interested to see what goes on.

It is disappointing that the Minister has not made a commitment to add business membership to the review team, which is the ongoing body that will report to the practitioners forum in the summer. Despite everything that Ministers say about changing the culture of the fire service, which I am sure that they genuinely want to achieve, their approach is still exclusive. The review team is made up entirely of insiders—employers, civil servants, expert advisers and union officials—who will listen to what people in the real world have to say, but those slightly awkward people from the real world have not been risked on the inside of the deliberation. I would feel more comfortable if the Minister had said that he would put representatives of the business community on to the review team, which might then achieve rapid progress in the direction that we all want to go.

Perhaps the best way to make progress would be if the Minister were to have a quite word in the ear of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, preferably before Wednesday, to suggest that when he is thinking about incentives to business to do various worthwhile things for the good of the economy, he might spare a thought for those businesses that could be persuaded to release employees for retained firefighting duties, which might make a rapid difference to the available pool of retained firefighters. I do not intend to press new clause 2; I simply wanted to raise the issue. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments and hope that we can regard the debate as ongoing, because it is in everybody's interests that we address the retained firefighter crisis.

I have one final point. The Minister said that he was not sure whether fire authorities had separate budgets for recruitment of retained firefighters or whether that was subsumed within a larger budget. Given the scale of the crisis and the significance of retained firefighter recruitment in some fire authorities, appropriate fire authorities should identify separate budgets for that purpose. When the Bill reaches the statute book, the Minister will have various powers to ensure that that happens and I hope that he will consider doing so as a means of making progress on the issue.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

6 pm

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