HL Deb 06 May 2004 vol 660 cc237-96GC

(First Day)

Thursday, 6 May 2004.

The Committee met at a quarter past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton)

There has been a request that gentleman may wish to take off their jackets; I suppose it falls on me to say, "Yes, gentlemen have permission to take off their jackets".

Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, perhaps I may remind your Lordships of two points of procedure. Noble Lords will speak standing and the House has agreed that there will be no Divisions in Grand Committee. Unless an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 [Fire and rescue authorities]:

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hamwee

I apologise if there has been confusion as to whether or not we are opposing the clause—we are not. Our opposition to it was tabled as a result of a misunderstanding. I hope that the Minister received a message this morning outlining the question I wish to raise on the clause.

In the Commons, Nick Raynsford said that the fire and rescue authorities would be able to call themselves whatever they want. I think the words he used were that they could rename themselves in line with the new definition. Can the Minister confirm whether that extends to the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which has that name as a result of the Greater London Authority Act 1999? It is actually enshrined on the face of the Act, which then goes on to refer to it as "the Fire etc Authority".

To table an amendment on this point would be going too far; it is not a huge matter of urgent moment. I do not think that the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority—which has only quite recently changed from its previous title of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority—is anxious to go into a great deal of reprinting and rebranding. Nevertheless, if the Bill's predecessor is any precedent, it will last for some decades, and "emergency planning" in its title may or may not be appropriate as new arrangements are undertaken for cross-service resilience arrangements. Indeed, as the new and very welcome powers are established and better known, it may appear to be a rather outdated title.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

I have a brief answer to the noble Baroness's question, which I hope she will find satisfactory. I am not up to date with the matter being raised in the other place, but it is a matter for individual authorities, including the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, whether they wish to call themselves a fire and rescue service in line with the changes in the Bill. The definition in the Bill has been changed to comply with what is, in reality, a fire and rescue service.

In order for that to happen, an amendment to Section 328 of the Greater London Authority Act would be required to change the name formally. Such an amendment would be within the scope of the Bill but we understand that no formal request to this effect has been received from the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. In other words, it could be done through the Bill if it so desired, but it does not have to do it.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful for the Minister's reply. It seems to raise the possibility of putting in the Bill some kind of enabling provision so that the authority can decide—this year, next year or in 25 years time—whether it wants to change its name. Perhaps I may leave that thought with the Government. As I said, the authority does not want to do anything now, but it would be a pity if we passed legislation which prevented it saying what it is. I would be grateful to the Government if they were to come back on that.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Power to create combined fire and rescue authorities]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 7, leave out subsection (1) and insert— (1) Fire and rescue authorities may constitute, with the agreement of the Secretary of State, a fire and rescue authority for the combined area of two or more existing fire and rescue authorities.

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 1, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 7, 9 and 10. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has two amendments in this group. It seems that daily the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Bassam, and myself face each other across the Dispatch Box on successive legislation.

In principle, there are many matters in the Bill on which we are in agreement, but we want to test some issues. As with all Bills, we shall want to see that it is improved where necessary and build on it during the course of debate. The Bill contains flaws and, if it were enacted as it is, I believe that the effect and capability of our fire service to perform its duty to the best of its ability would be reduced. We do not want that; we want it to be effective.

The background to the Bill is well known. Not all that long ago in Grand Committee, we considered other measures and we aired the background at Second Reading. However, in drafting the Bill, I believe that the Government have departed from the good intent of the Bain report and of their own White Paper. As well as taking this opportunity to bring much-needed modernisation to the fire service, which we are happy to support, the Government have taken upon themselves to introduce once again little-needed structural reform. Quite apart from introducing additional bureaucracy, it is clear that regionalisation of the fire service, as the Bill intends, has more to do with the Government's obsession with devolution and providing work for regional assemblies than bringing about real reform of the fire service. So far as we are concerned, that is not a promising start.

I hope that during the passage of the Bill the Government will listen to the arguments and—dare I say?— see the light and back down on the Bill's more unwelcome elements. On these Benches, we do not believe that the possibility of forcing fire authorities to combine on what may be unnatural and artificial regional boundaries is at all sustainable. Hand in hand with regionalisation, the Bill gives almost unprecedented powers to the Secretary of State—almost unprecedented since the planning Bill. The two themes of regionalisation and centralisation run throughout the Bill; that comes from a government who miss little opportunity to proclaim their belief in localism.

Turning to Amendment No. 1, we strongly believe that there should be democratically accountable fire and rescue authorities, based on viable, recognisable and publicly understood administrative units—not on artificially created boundaries drawn up by the Secretary of State in Whitehall. Provision of the fire and rescue service should reflect local circumstances, and the constitution of any fire and rescue authority should be democratically accountable to the community that it serves.

However, we recognise that not all services can be delivered at the lowest level because of the economies of scale, the need for specialisation, which is well addressed in the Bill, and reinforcement patterns and various other aspects about which we have no disagreement with the Government.

It is entirely appropriate that fire and rescue authorities should work together in collaborative units. I use the term loosely because some may wish to combine fire authorities, but others may wish to organise themselves into clusters for certain purposes only while retaining their independence for other purposes. Amendment No. 1 seeks to achieve that objective by giving fire authorities the ability to come together as they wish and removing the unwelcome hand of central government in forcing them to do so.

Amendment No. 7 is a consequential amendment to Amendment No. 1, removing the power of the Secretary of State to compel authorities to combine if Clause 2(1) is amended, as my first amendment designs. Amendment No. 10 is, again, a consequential amendment, removing the unnecessary subsection that empowers the Secretary of State to consult under subsection (3)(b), which the two previous amendments would, if accepted, remove.

Amendment No. 9 seeks to require the agreement of authorities to any modification by the Secretary of State to a combination scheme that they themselves have proposed and, as such, it reinforces an important principle of local decision-making and discretion, as opposed to the excessive dead hand of the centre once again being imposed without due regard to local circumstances. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I am grateful for the way in which the noble Baroness introduced the amendment. So that I can get it off my chest and not repeat myself later, I say at the outset that I reject the arguments about excessive centralism. On behalf of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, I can say that he does not take personally all the references to removing his alleged centralist powers.

The final thing that I want to say in order to help things along is that many of the amendments, but not all, were considered in the other place. That is not a criticism of how they are considered here but, as one can imagine, my answers will be the same as those given in the other place. Nevertheless, sometimes it is worth taking a second look at issues, and, in any event, that is the purpose of this House.

This group of amendments, taken together, seeks to prevent the Secretary of State combining the fire and rescue authorities under any circumstances other than those in which the authorities themselves have requested it. The amendments even require the initiating authorities to give their agreement to any modifications that the Secretary of State might suggest. As Ministers in the other place pointed out, this latter restriction could lead to an extraordinary situation. They gave the example that if Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire were to propose to combine, they could veto a modification to restrict the combination to Shropshire and Staffordshire, even though the people of Cheshire were due to vote in a referendum on whether to have a north west regional fire and rescue authority. Therefore, in an example such as that, massive complications would be caused. Obviously, such a proposal is hypothetical but it is an example. As I have already said, many of these issues were raised in the other place.

The amendments mean that the Secretary of State will have no power at all to act on his own initiative—even if, and when armed with an independent Audit Commission report, there is evidence that improved economy, efficiency and effectiveness might well result from combining authorities or when faced with an urgent need to combine authorities which have failed to deliver on a vital issue of public safety, such as the creation of cross-regional control rooms. We say that that is simply untenable. We are dealing with a national service which is locally delivered and locally governed in many ways. Therefore, it would be untenable to remove the Secretary of State completely.

The fire and rescue authorities cannot exercise individual vetoes, which is what the amendments would amount to. As we shall deploy over the coming sessions, the Bill requires extensive consultation, including an inquiry in all but the most urgent circumstances or where the matter is, in any event, uncontroversial. To suggest that even then the Secretary of State should be unable to act in the interests of the public as a whole is to say that the Government should abandon their responsibility to ensure an effective emergency service and the best use of taxpayers' money.

As I said, I reject the arguments of excessive centralism. It is a national service and it is delivered locally in many cases by extremely local people, as in the case of the retained firefighting staff. Nevertheless, there needs to be a power at the centre in the sense that the holder of the purse strings is held accountable if things go wrong—and, believe you me, it will be the Secretary of State who is blamed and not individual fire authorities.

Therefore, I believe that it would be wrong to cut out the Secretary of State completely in all the circumstances that I have mentioned, and there may be others. Where there are clearly major problems and where, following inquiry and armed with Audit Commission reports and so on, initiation at the centre is required, it would seem preposterous to remove the Secretary of State from that role.

I hope therefore that, as the answers and questions have not changed—indeed, the example has not changed; it was the one given in the other place—that will satisfy the noble Baroness. However, there will be plenty of opportunities to test the details of the arrangements in the amendments with which we shall deal later.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply, but he will not be astonished to hear that I am not totally satisfied with it. In fact, it is difficult to achieve in amendments the absolute fineness that one wants. It will be no surprise to him to know that, by and large, we think that the Secretary of State's ability to control and direct should be taken out of the Bill. I have some sympathy with the fact that there might be odd occasions when it is necessary, but the Bill makes no such provision. At the moment, the Bill simply makes it very clear that the Secretary of State may, under no circumstances delineated, intervene and force fire and rescue authorities to come together. It is also clear that, under Clause 1, the people who are authorities are laid out but they are subject to Clauses 2 and 4, which we shall consider today.

I note the example that was brought to the other place, and I also note the role of the regional assemblies, which again come roaring into the Bill. We shall come to contest further the fact that the regional assembly areas—and indeed, the regional development agency areas, on which we had a small skirmish yesterday—are democratic areas, even if the assemblies are elected. We shall also contest whether they are the right way sensibly to combine fire authorities.

I do not think that I can take the amendment any further at the moment. The whole issue of the Secretary of State's power will come up again as we go through the Bill. In some cases, we may accept that it is justified. However, on a general basis, which is what appears under Clauses 2 and 4, we are not happy with it at present. For today's purposes, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment. by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 2: Page 2, line 7, leave out "may" and insert "shall

The noble Baroness said: With Amendment No. 2 are grouped Amendments Nos. 3, 8, 15 and 18. The arguments on both sides are probably much the same as they were on the previous group. I thought to myself that I would not repeat the points, but I will say that none of them are personal so far as we are concerned. I hope that they are not taken personally.

Our amendments differ from those of the noble Baroness in that we have specifically provided that, if authorities notify the Secretary of State that they want to combine, he shall make an order. However, we have left in the possibility of modifications under subsection (4). I heard what the Minister said about where the buck stops if there is a problem, but why not combine if asked to combine by the authorities in question? That point must be answered as everything else is consequential on it. I beg to move.

Lord Bassani of Brighton

My noble friend Lord Rooker made all the arguments that needed to be made on the previous amendment, and I would save him the task of repeating them. In truth, I can see very little—and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has said that there is little—between the two groups of amendments. The only question that was asked in the contribution made by the noble Baroness was: why he should not make an order if there is already local agreement to a form of combination? My guess is that in most circumstances, if the authorities were bringing forward a combination proposal, the Secretary of State would probably be very happy with it.

There might not be a circumstance when that happens, and you must allow for that. It may be completely ridiculous; it may be a barmy proposition. I cannot believe that sensible fire and rescue authorities would come forward with such a barmy proposition, but there may be circumstances when it just does not make sense in terms of the way in which the services need to be organised. I do not think that we could allow that to creep into the Bill.

We come back to that important point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker, which is that there might be circumstances where the Secretary of State—by the effect of the drafting of this amendment, were it to be put in place—would be prevented from acting effectively in the public interest, even where he is well armed and well prepared with the proper Audit Commission evidence. The point is that sensible means of combining authorities could be prevented because of the way in which this set of amendments would work.

One further point that is perhaps worth making—it is an oddity really—is that if we were to agree to Amendments Nos. 15 and 18, and if they were passed in isolation, they would have a strange and perverse effect of allowing schemes initiated by the Secretary of State to proceed without an inquiry. That seems to be very odd, given where the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, comes from. Nearly every time that we discuss and debate things such as this, certainly the Lib Dems and our colleagues on the Conservative Benches are keen to ensure that there is the utmost consultation, and in most instances we agree with that. Amendments Nos. 15 and 18 would prevent any sort of consultation or local inquiry as to the effectiveness of the combination scheme. For those reasons, we cannot accept these amendments, both in principle and in detail.

Baroness Hamwee

The noble Lord knows of course that Amendments Nos. 15 and 18 are not proposed in isolation, but are part of this package. I accept that finding appropriate legislative language to restrict barminess is quite a task, but as it was described, the Secretary of State might not agree with authorities, first in terms of the organisation of the fire and rescue services, and secondly in terms of the public interest.

The noble Lord has made me think that I want to reread this part after today. It comes hack in one way to what the noble Baroness was saying, but what are the criteria that must the Secretary of State use, and what criteria should be excluded? Are we talking just about the fire and rescue services, or can the Secretary of State say, "I have some other game plan, something else that is related to other bits of organising how government is delivered"? What is the relationship to those? I apologise to Hansard that that is nothing like a proper sentence. He has made me interested in the question of the criteria that will be applied. For today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 4: Page 2, line 12, leave out "economy,

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 4 is a probing amendment, and not one that the Minister should use as a basis for teasing us for being spendthrift. It is to seek to understand what weight the term "economy" has in this context.

We are all used to the term "economy, efficiency and effectiveness". The three go together. It has almost become a technical term covering those three limbs. But it is not a technical term. And it must be possible to have one or two of the triumvirate without the others.

The rationale for the Bill—modernisation—is very much about effectiveness and delivering a modern service in a modern context. We know that modernisation should carry savings in its wake, but that is not its purpose. So I have tabled the amendment in the hope that the Minister can explain the weight of the term judged against efficiency and effectiveness and to help me decide whether that is the right combination of characteristics and whether economy, while always laudable, should have first place, or indeed a specific place on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

On that last point, if you try to read out these three words in any other combination you get really tongue-tied. They are always presented in this fashion because you would really have to think about saying them the other way around. That answers that point. I do not think that any one word is more important than another; it is just for clarity of reading out. Obviously, this is a probing amendment and I shall not be nit picking on that.

In Committee in the other place, comments were made that to some Members of Parliament—very suspicious people—"economy" is a euphemism for cost-saving. You could argue that such economy would be an excuse for wasting money. No one in his or her right mind is going to stand up and say that we should proceed with this policy in order to waste money.

We have the point about efficiency and effectiveness. It was also said that they were euphemisms for cost-savings. In other words, "Let it rip; there's loads of money; please sign the cheque". That is what people normally say to the Government. We have gone over that. That is not the position.

If the concern is that there is a subtext to any of these words—this is just one chosen for the amendment—I can assure the Committee and the noble Baroness that this is not what "economy" means in this context. It is our intention, and I am sure it is one the opposition parties endorse, that the fire and rescue authorities should continue to be best-value authorities. As such, the Audit Commission will assess them on the extent to which they are achieving economy, efficiency and effectiveness. That wording of course follows Section 3 of the Local Government Act 1999. My three years on the PAC back in 1989–90 branded the words on my forehead and this was the way of tracking taxpayers' pounds to make sure that they receive value for money and we achieve an efficient use of public resources.

The general use of the term in the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission seems quite uncontentious. It is true if you are a suspicious Member of the other place—there are no such people in this place—you can see other agendas. I want to make it clear that there is no other agenda. We want them to be best-value authorities, assessed by the Audit Commission. These are the words that guide the Audit Commission in its duties. One is no more important the other. I genuinely think that they are always presented that way around simply because they trip off the tongue a lot easier.

Baroness Hamwee

I suppose they would trip off the tongue more easily if they had started off in a different order. It is often difficult to follow the other place because I have points that I want to raise which may look as though they are the same as those raised at the other end and they are actually quite different. How one ever explains that in tabling amendments, I do not know. They are indeed best-value authorities but, at this point in the Bill, the issue is not how they perform and how the Audit Commission judges them but the decision of the Secretary of State. These are the criteria to which he has to have regard.

I have hard what has been said and I am not wholly convinced. However, I thank the Minister and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 13, leave out from "area" to end of line 15.

The noble Lord said: The amendment seeks to delete Clause 2(2)(b). As it stands, Clause 2(2) is schizophrenic. The first paragraph provides for a proper test for the creation of combined fire authorities—that the scheme can be made if it is in the interests of greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Although we believe that such a scheme should be voluntary, that is the kind of test that makes sense.

However, paragraph (b) completely undermines that test by allowing the Secretary of State to create combined fire authorities if the boundaries are coincidental with those of the Government Offices for the Regions. We have had this argument before. This subordinates the appropriate operational and economic criteria to the political agenda of the Government, which is the regionalisation of England according to entirely inappropriate regional boundaries. As paragraph (b) makes clear, the regions we are talking about were created for regional development agencies, not combined fire authorities.

Public services should not be strategically organised on the basis of convenience and coincidence. If paragraph (a) sets a proper test for the public, paragraph (b) exposes the Government's real objective regardless of what is best for the public. I can think of no arguments for allowing the Secretary of State to create fire authorities for regions without proving that the sensible criteria in paragraph (a) have been met or would be promoted by the scheme proposed under paragraph (b).

The Government have not attempted to demonstrate that the Government Offices for the Regions would be the most appropriate operational boundaries for fire authorities, presumably because they know that facts as well as public opinion is not on their side. Let me illustrate my point. The south east has a population of 8 million; the north east has a population of 2.5 million; the north east has an area of 8,500 square kilometres; the south west has an area of 23,000 square kilometres. It seems inconceivable that the most effective way of managing a fire service stretches between these two demographic and geographical situations. It beggars common sense.

Public safety must be the first criterion for any reorganisation of the fire service. We assume that the word "effectiveness" is underpinned by the principle of promoting public safety. However, paragraph (b) undermines that principle. The Government need to convince a sceptical public that the aim of modernisation is not to promote a political agenda for the regionalisation of England but to improve our fire and rescue services.

There is no evidence—no supporting arguments at all—that the existing nine Government Offices for the Regions will be the most operationally effective units of our fire and rescue services. If there were no Government Offices for the Regions or the Regional Development Act 1998, and if the Government were modernising the fire and rescue service from a purely "best practice" perspective, we all know that the answer to the question of how best to organise and deliver fire and rescue services would not be based on the current regions.

That is the case. Fundamentally, the amendment will improve the Bill because it will shift the burden of the argument from convenience and coincidence to improving a public service. I am sure that we will come back to this issue. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock

My noble friend Lady Hamwee and I have added our names to the amendment. As usual when we talk about regions, the two parties approach the issues from slightly different angles.

I am particularly concerned about the very large size of the regions. I probably live in the smallest one—the north east— but even there, in the southern part of our region, there will be difficulties in trying to organise the service across the area and making it accountable to local people. This is what concerns me about the Bill and a great deal of the other legislation on public services that has been dealt with recently.

For that reason, we do not want this provision in the Bill. However, if the Government carry on with it, what kind of criteria will they use to judge whether the regions are a suitable size to be run as a single fire and rescue authority? It is asking a great deal of people who want to run such an authority effectively.

On the previous group of amendments, we discussed the criteria of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. However, in regard to other legislation I read that some areas in south-west England, which runs from Gloucestershire to the end of Cornwall, are nearer to Scotland than to the end of Cornwall. The Minister therefore needs to clarify the issue because the areas are large.

My main concerns, therefore, are the size and criteria. I believe that the areas are too big and that we will not achieve democratic accountability. I say that much as I agree with regional government, provide of course that it is democratically elected.

Lord Rooker

Here we go! We cannot escape it. This is the fourth Bill in the past 12 months in which regional boundaries have arisen. I have my own views on them, but the views I give at the Dispatch Box are always those of the Government—unless they are my own personal views.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, gave a good example. I have never measured the distance but I have seen on a map that Chipping Camden is one of the most northern parts of Gloucestershire. The bit that sticks up, which is about 40 miles south of Birmingham, is in the same region as Land's End. I have given that example previously—it is not new—but I shall resist the temptation to redraw the regional boundaries.

As this is the fourth Bill in a row where the issue could be raised, there may be an idea that the Government have a plan, a plot or a deadly scheme for regionalisation by stealth. One cannot call open debate in a House of Parliament "by stealth". On the other hand, each Bill has a purpose and in this case it is the fire and rescue authorities. I hope that the concerns were allayed by Nick Raynsford in the other place during Committee stage and Third Reading when he made it clear that the only circumstances in which the Government envisage using the provisions of Clause 2(2)(b) are ones of public safety where the fire and rescue authorities have failed successfully to work together to ensure resilience.

He cited the example of the failure of the authorities to agree on the siting of, or the operational arrangements for, a regional control room. We believe civil resilience requires that the fire and rescue service is equipped to meet the challenges of the new dimension of both the terrorist threat and environmental disaster. They can be the same thing, but that is why it is important. In order to meet that challenge, the service must be integrated into the work of the regional resilience teams based within the Government Offices for the Regions.

I realise there is a natural suspicion and I hope that I have given an assurance. Every time we bring forward such legislation, it is possible to raise the issue of the shape of the boundaries and the south east is a good example because Banbury is in the same region as Hastings, Thanet and Guildford. One can look at them and make points about the geographical size of an area as opposed to its population. Heaven forbid that we made everything the same because the beauty of this country is that it is not all the same. The regions are different in size and so forth.

When the previous Conservative government, in their wisdom, set up the Government Offices for the Regions they wrote these regional maps. That is what they are—they are not new. It may appear to an outsider and onlooker that we are talking about regions constituted under an Act of Parliament of 1998 and that they are therefore Labour-drawn boundaries. We all know that that is not the case. The simple fact is that that legislation mirrored the Government Offices for the Regions. We have not changed the regional boundaries. We have also stated that they are not there forever—I hope that I can knock that idea on the head.

We have said repeatedly in relation to the other legislation that the place to start was not by redrawing the boundaries through legislation because that would take for ever. It was important to deal with the matters in hand. One issue was a form of elected regional government, which was not the purpose of this legislation. I nearly said "Madam Chairman" but we do not have a chair in this place; there are no orders. I cannot be ruled out of order. That is what is so crazy about this place. I am still working to the rules of the other place and trying to stay in order.

The point that I was making was that it is important to do the job in hand. We must see whether we can set up regionally elected assemblies. In this case, that is relevant because they would become the fire authorities. We must look at the fire and rescue service and, if it has to be regionalised for various reasons, those boundaries should be used. That is the key job—it is keeping our eye on the ball. It does not mean that at a later date the boundaries will not be reviewed. I can say that because I have said it in relation to other legislation and it would apply no differently to this Bill. Obviously, if the boundaries did change, they would change in sequence for all the items of administration and delivery of functions that we have talked about in the past, whether they are the regional planning bodies, the regional housing boards or the elected regions.

Throughout the Bill, many of the Secretary of State's powers, although I am not claiming that here, are, indeed, reserve powers. It is not the case that he will wake up one morning and say, "We are going to do this today". He must have a reason for doing it. Criteria must be laid down. What he does must be subject to judicial review and it cannot be done on a whim or a hunch. Nor can it be done as a party-political fix. It cannot happen in that way. I hope that, with those reassurances, which I am sure I shall repeat throughout our debates on the Bill, the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Lord responds, in brackets I want to say that I have always thought that it takes a huge talent to chair the House of Lords or a Committee of the House of Lords because of the self-discipline that is required not to intervene and call us to order.

The Minister made a great exhibition of Clause 2(2)(a) but, if I may say so, he has not begun to explain Clause 2(2)(b). Surely all that he said relates to Clause 2(2)(a). If anything needs to be done in relation to the regional aspect, that can be picked up when we deal with the regional assemblies powers Bill, which we hope to see before too long, and dealt with on a regional basis. But everything that he has explained as justifying the Secretary of State's decision to use the power in Clause 2(2)(b) is set out very clearly in Clause 2(2)(a).

Lord Hanningfield

I want to ask the Minister one or two questions arising from his comments. When he talked about resilience—I do not really want to quote my own county again—Kent or Buckinghamshire in the south east were very much involved with London resilience. That is certainly a matter in which I have to become involved as the leader of a local authority. Clearly the boundaries—even those relating to terrorist problems, although I hope that that will never be the case—are not regional boundaries; they are based far more around large conurbations or other areas which might be affected by terrorism. The same applies to difficult situations in respect of the fire and rescue service. If there are big fires in London, we all have to come and provide support in those situations.

I cannot see why the Government want to proceed in this way when we could have smaller systems. Our regions, if we ever have the regions envisaged by the Government, are about the size of a German Länder. Every other European country has much smaller regions. Spain has one or two big regions but all the other countries have far smaller ones. The south-east is about the same size as Austria and yet Austria has 10 regions in it; therefore the south east could have perhaps 10 regions.

I cannot understand the Government's thinking. I can understand that because of modern technology one could perhaps have fewer control rooms as long as they all work. However, from a fire authority's point of view, most of the world has relatively local fire authorities which are supported by their communities. In Germany people are proud to belong to the fire authorities. They are almost like a club and they are very much supported.

I do not understand the Government's thinking. I do not understand why they want the areas to be so enormous and so impersonal. The regional paper in the east of England, called the East Anglia Daily Times, ran a campaign and thousands of people wrote in support of the Suffolk fire authority and the Norfolk fire authority and the Essex fire authority. It is not a popular move at all. I really cannot understand the thinking behind the Government in wanting to create these enormous, remote bodies. Although there needs to be efficiency, which can be achieved technically, I cannot understand why they cannot do something that the public might like more.

4 p.m.

Lord Rooker

The Government do not want to create these authorities. In the areas where there are no elected regional assemblies, it is not our intention to force this on regional authorities. So for the good people who want to support their local fire services, that is fine. It is only where the local fire authorities do not work together and are clearly operating against the issues of public safety—that would have to be judged as a criterion—that the Secretary of State would use the powers. We do not want to create them where there are no elected assemblies. The east of England and Essex is such a case because no referendum is being held there.

Lord Hanningfield

Surely the Minister would not expect Cornwall to co-operate with Gloucestershire? That would not make sense. Cornwall would rarely go near Gloucestershire because Devon is in between. There may be times when Devon and Cornwall need to co-operate. I cannot understand why the Government are going in for large regions, although I agree that neighbouring fire authorities would need to co-operate.

Lord Rooker

I know that Devon and Cornwall have a joint police authority, but I cannot answer the noble Lord. Quite clearly Cornwall is a long way from Gloucestershire. For one to come to the aid of the other would mean travelling through several counties to do so. One would assume that the more local counties would give support. If that were the case, it would mean that they were working successfully together. There are good reasons why there may be contact between Cornwall and Gloucestershire, as they are in the region, but I suspect that there are no issues of public safety and resilience because they are not very near to each other. The local county authorities would be the obvious ones to work together successfully. If they work together successfully there would be no reason for the Secretary of State to intervene.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for those answers. This is an issue that we shall continue to explore as the Bill proceeds. I still want to question why any authority should be forced into this, although I agree that local authorities should work together. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 6: Page 2, line 15, at end insert— and provided in either case that the Secretary of State does not consider that, in the interests of public safety, a scheme should not be made

The noble Baroness said: This amendment does not refer to the point on public safety made in the Commons, which I believe was answered by safety falling within effectiveness. It is provoked by the reference in Clause 2(9)(d) to public safety being taken into account in deciding whether the Secretary of State is to hold an inquiry into making a scheme, varying it or revoking it. I wonder why the same should not be explicit in Clause 2(2). If we are talking about effectiveness and public safety is within the framework of effectiveness, why is the issue dealt with differently in Clause 2(9)(d)? Is it a reason not to hold an inquiry? The decision in the first place and holding the inquiry are clearly different, but is it enough that the Secretary of State has a view to lead him to determine that there will not be an inquiry? I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness asked questions about whether the action was in the interests of public safety. She is obviously indicating a genuine concern that Clause 2(2) does not incorporate a specific reference to public safety.

That being the case, all that I can do is follow what was said by the Minister for the fire service in the other place. I shall repeat the assurance that he gave to the Committee there, which was that the Secretary of State is expected under Clause 21 to discharge his or her responsibility for the fire and rescue national framework in a way that appears best calculated to promote public safety. There are no conceivable circumstances where a Secretary of State would approve a combination over which there was any question mark of such a nature. Indeed, we claim that the whole purpose of the Bill is to improve and extend the protection of the public.

The issue that the noble Baroness raises is of genuine concern, but in some ways it is answered by the duties in Clause 21. There is no real difference between us there. I shall take advice on the points that she raised about subsection (9)(d), but I do not think that they mitigate what I said about Clause 21.

Baroness Hamwee

I thank the Minister for that; of course there is nothing between us on the issue of safety. He has heard me ask before why a couple of clauses are not the same, or are the same, and about the issues that that raises. I understand his reference to Clause 21, which I would have thought applied to holding the inquiry. Perhaps not; perhaps the function dealt with under Clause 21 is different. I come at the matter with a small but nevertheless noticeable niggle that, if safety is referred to in subsection (9)(d), it raises a question mark over subsection (2). That is the extent of the niggle. I am not trying to make trouble, but to be clear. As we are in Grand Committee, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 7 to 10 not moved.]

Broness Hamweemoved Amendment No. 11: age 2, line 25, after "question," insert— () all local authorities in the area affected,

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 11, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 12. Again, we are dealing with the issue of consultation. Our amendments would provide that, all local authorities in the area affected", would be consulted in the making of a scheme. The amendment was raised in the Commons and is intended to make the same point as was made there. However, I had some difficulty in quite understanding the answer, no doubt because it was a compendium response by the Minister to a lot of amendments that covered related but not exactly the same ground.

The consultation that we propose does not amount to a veto on the part of any individual or group of authorities.

It seems to us that to consult all the authorities— after all, they are democratically elected public authorities which would debate the matter in public—is the correct democratic way to go about it. It is also common sense. Anyone who has undertaken a consultation exercise—I am not suggesting that the Government are inexperienced—know that consultees often come up with things that are not wholly expected. They often make good points and they reinforce the importance of consultation.

In much of this, the name of the game is partnership. All authorities, because of their other roles in dealing with anti-social behaviour and so on, will have views about the fire and rescue services. Perhaps as the services' powers and remits are extended under the Bill, they will have even more comments and directly applicable experience. We may hear that of course the Minister will consult all local authorities, but if that is so, I would like to see it on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

On the face of it, this seems an extremely reasonable proposition. We have had the same debate in many pieces of legislation and we are all in favour of consultation. But it comes down to whether it is proper, right, sensible and practicable to list each and every organisation in the legislation. The difference between us is that we do not believe it makes much sense to do that. However, we are fully committed to the widest possible involvement of all the affected authorities and organisations which might be caught up in a proposal for combination, an alteration in the pattern of their services and so forth.

We believe it is more flexible to leave listing out of the legislation. For instance, 52 organisations were listed as formal consultees in Annexe E to the draft national framework. The inclusion of some organisations but not others would inevitably mean that those not listed might fear they would not be consulted. That would be especially unfortunate when we have shown in practice that we want to be as inclusive as possible in the way in which we consult.

Picking up an argument made by the noble Baroness, it may well be that consultees come up with the unexpected. There may well be unexpected consultees—people who suddenly find that in their organisation there is a real and genuine reason for them to be included. Therefore, an exclusionary list would work against their interest.

I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness that if it is relevant for an adjacent local authority to be consulted, of course we will want to see it consulted whatever tier of local government it is. There is therefore no desire to exclude people from consultation; our desire is to have maximum flexibility. If an organisation is relevant and important, whether it is a local authority or a voluntary organisation, it has access to the consultation process. We are trying to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Baroness Hanham

I want to follow that up. Local authorities are probably one of the most important organisations to consult as their members are representative on the fire authorities. It is not wholly unknown for representatives of local authorities and fire authorities to disagree with their own local authority when the time comes for a decision to be made. There can be disagreements.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

It is called "going native".

Baroness Hanham

I did not put it that way, but that is exactly what I am talking about. A proposal as important as this should be tested out with the lead organisation of the representative. Other organisations are involved in fire authorities and the same applies to them. The bodies which provide the representatives are, sine qua non, at least as important as any others. In fact, I think I am probably supporting the amendment.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

I shall see you in the Chamber for the next stage. This is not intended to exclude anyone. I want to make that clear. I believe that democratically elected authorities are different from quangos and from practically everyone who is listed in Annexe E of the draft framework. I could make a case for referring to those who currently work in the service. I would not expect to list them in detail. There is a difference of quality when one refers to local authorities.

The annex to which the noble Lord has referred mentions the Local Government Association, quite rightly. This is not intended to be a criticism of the Local Government Association, but if it is collecting other people's views inevitably there will be a filtering exercise. I do not believe that that is right. Chairs of fire authorities are mentioned and I am sure that we shall return to this matter. There is something very important here. By including this in the Bill, the Government will not lose out, but will gain Brownie points and will certainly make me feel more comfortable, without impugning what the Minister has said.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Perhaps I can ask the noble Baroness which authorities she believes in the end we would exclude by adopting what I see as the more flexible approach that the Government wish. Is she worried that people may not listen to adjacent authorities? Is she worried that people may not listen to constituent authorities? About which authorities is the noble Baroness concerned?

Baroness Hamwee

I cannot answer that question. I am not in the Government and the Minister may not be in the Government who operate the clause in 20 years' time. We have been here before. We shall not make headway today so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 14: Page 2, line 37, at end insert "by an independent inspector

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 14 is grouped with Amendment No. 17. The amendment probes who will undertake the inquiry referred to in Clause 2(9). Will it be an independent inspector? Can the Minister explain who will carry out the job?

In Amendment No. 17 I refer to Clause 27 which provides for the appointment of inspectors, but those are inspectors to check on how an authority is performing, not on the making of the scheme in the first place. I have tried to find another reference in the Bill to inspectors and there is one in Clause 55. which has the title "Inquiries: supplementary", but that appears to concern the powers that apply to an inquiry, and not to its function or objective. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I hope that I shall be able to satisfy the noble Baroness. Amendment No. 14 seeks to ensure that an independent inspector should carry out an inquiry held into a combination scheme. On the face of it, this is unnecessary. However, there is a problem. When the amendment is read, as we believe it must be, in conjunction with Amendment No. 17, it clearly intends that those appointed under Clause 27 as Her Majesty's inspectors of the fire and rescue services should fulfil this role.

There are many important roles to be fulfilled by Her Majesty's fire services inspectorate, not least the professional advice it provides to the Secretary of State. But its expertise does not extend across the full range of issues of an inquiry under Clause 2(8) that it would be expected to address. These include a range of governance issues, the extent to which a proposed combination will test economy, efficiency and effectiveness, and the impact on public safety.

I am advised that it would be normal to appoint as chair of such an inquiry someone with expertise in considering evidence from a wide range of parties, drawing conclusions and making recommendations. He or she would need the benefit of the operational side and technical advice, for whose provision the fire services inspectorate would be ideally suited, as well as an input from the Audit Commission on best-value matters and others as appropriate. However, because Amendment No. 17 misunderstands the role of the inspectorate in relation to such inquiries, we believe that it is fundamentally flawed. As a result, Amendment No. 14, which would otherwise simply be redundant, is flawed by extension.

I know it is horrible and I feel bad about saying it—it is terrible what I used to say about them—but the kind of person I have just described is the pinstriped barrister twit sent from London to Birmingham to conduct parliamentary boundary inquiries because he had the expertise in listening to arguments, weighing up evidence and writing a report. Most of that they did successfully but sometimes unsuccessfully.

Lord Hanningfield

And on the same lines throughout the regional agenda.

Lord Rooker

It is a terrible thing to say about my learned friends, but it is one of those things. In other words, because of the nature of the job of chairing, it is not for the fire services inspectorate. It would have a massive input because of its technical expertise, but the job of drawing the evidence together is beyond the range of expertise and experience of the fire services inspectorate.

I will never take through a Bill for the lawyers in this place, that is for sure! With that explanation, I hope that I have satisfied the noble Baroness. The points she raises are legitimate, but the nature of the inquiry is such that another class of expertise would be best chairing it.

Baroness Hamwee

Personally, my entirely prejudiced assessment of these people is in direct relationship to the width of the pinstripes. I am not sure that the Minister has answered the point technically about what an inquiry is under subsection (9). One is so used to seeing inquiries hedged about with provisions on how they are to be held and here the term arises without explanation in the middle of a Bill; cause an inquiry to be held". I do not know how you define "pinstriped twit", but I take the point made about the expertise being different. It seems to me that "inquiry", even if it is put with "held", could be something quite informal. That is really what I was driving at. However, having exchanged sartorial comments with the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 16: Page 2, line 39, at end insert— and shall only proceed with the proposed scheme, variation or revocation as the case may be if the inquiry concludes that the making of the scheme, variation or revocation is in the interests of greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the fire and rescue service or services concerned

The noble Baroness said: I am just ruminating as to whether the Bar Council is at the moment leaping to find out whether it can sue the Minister for undermining its members. I am sure that we will see about that later.

Both Amendments Nos. 16 and 30 would ensure that the powers of the Secretary of State both to initiate a scheme for creating combined fire authorities and to revoke or vary such a scheme—in effect his powers of intervention, control and pursuing a regionalist agenda at the expense of what is best for the public—would be limited by the findings of an inquiry that would focus only on answering the question whether the Secretary of State's plans would deliver greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the fire and rescue service concerned.

This is a modest hurdle. The fire and rescue services and the public will need to be assured that the modernisation, or the bringing together of formation service, is not premised on regionalisation and centralisation, but on delivering improvements and the best possible service structure. They need to know that there is a process that protects the public interest. An inquiry that finds that the Secretary of State's regionalisation plans would not promote greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the relevant fire services cannot be ignored. It would need to be taken into account. Only an inquiry can decide whether the Secretary of State's plans are genuinely in the public interest, or possibly, a political agenda with no operational merit.

I say that not in terms of doubting this Government but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, keeps reminding us, this legislation might last for a long time, and its implementation will not be carried out by those of us who had anything to do with it. The Minister may say that there will be consultation—I am sure that he will. That is insufficiently rigorous, because the Government can, if they wish, ignore the results, or some of the results, of that consultation. The Bill needs teeth to ensure that the Government are obliged to act in the interests of the people, and, most importantly, of the service. The principle behind this amendment is important. Central government control and the political agenda of regionalisation need to be judged according to what is best for the public and the future of the service. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

This is another amendment that limits scope for action by the Secretary of State, and I am fairly confident that I can give a response that will be acceptable. The point is made that only if an inquiry agrees that a combination scheme or a variation or revocation of existing schemes is justified on grounds of economy, efficiency and effectiveness can it proceed. The primary purpose of this is to prevent combination along regional lines envisaged in Clause 2(2)(b). I hope that I have already given assurances there. They are significant assurances about the limited circumstances in which we would use that power.

Indeed, in those limited circumstances, sometimes to wait for an inquiry might not be in the interests of public safety. I remind your Lordships that the Government agreed to an inquiry being the norm, in response to representations made in the other place. This was not in the Bill to start with. We have accepted that it should be the norm, and having agreed to it, I assure noble Lords that we are hardly likely to ignore the findings of the inquiry. If an inquiry came to the conclusion that economy, efficiency and effectiveness were not best served by a particular combination, or a change to a combination, the Secretary of State would be obliged to have regard to it. It would be a foolish Secretary of State who decided to proceed on the basis of such an inquiry. He would have to have very good reasons, having had such an inquiry. The point is that the Secretary of State must take account of an inquiry that came to such a conclusion. He cannot simply ignore what an inquiry would say.

Therefore, we think that the amendments are unnecessary in the circumstances. I cannot be any stronger than that, because one cannot envisage the hypothetical circumstances—that is all we are dealing with—of what might happen as a result of one inquiry in one part of the country, as opposed to another inquiry in another part of the country. The Secretary of State might take a different view, and circumstances might be different. Needless to say, as I have said before, he would not be able to act on a whim or a hunch, having had the results of an inquiry that said, "Don't do it on these grounds". If one proceeded down that road without a good, clear and transparent reason, that would be the subject of a judicial review by interested parties.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for that reply. I appreciate that he will become tarred with the issue of regionalisation. It is important to be certain that in an inquiry that found against regionalisation and against the whole process, matters would not be overridden because of a wish to regionalise. That is what lies behind this matter. Even with regional assemblies, if that were the situation it may still not be appropriate for the service to be regionalised and it might still be the wish of the Secretary of State to do so. One has to be very clear that with an inquiry held under those circumstances there would be no question of the Secretary of State not bowing to the result of the inquiry. I have heard sufficient from the Minister on this amendment. It is an area to which we shall return at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 not moved.]

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 19: Page 3, line 12, leave out subsection (10).

The noble Baroness said: To some extent Amendments Nos. 19 and 20, which would remove subsections (10) and (11) of Clause 2 respectively, are probing amendments. Whether they were discussed in the other place or not, I cannot make head or tail of them. I hope that the Minister will clarify why the subsections are in the Bill. Perhaps I can try to make sense of this matter. Subsection (11), which is dependent on subsection (10), bypasses the requirement that an order must come into force to have effect. Although at the end of subsection (11) there is a proviso that a scheme, may not come into force before the order or provision does", in subsection (11)(a) the Bill states that a scheme under Clause 2, may be made as if the order or provision referred to in subsection (10)(b) were in force".

Perhaps the Minister can explain the reasoning behind the two subsections or perhaps the reasoning behind the explanation of the two subsections. If the issue concerns the sequence of order making in establishing a particular scheme, can he illustrate how and why the two subsections might be necessary and how and why they are expected to work? I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As the noble Baroness said, these issues were debated in another place although they did not proceed to a vote. Consequent to that, we thought that the technical explanation provided by our ministerial colleague in the Commons was considered to have answered the point. As I understand it—I have not read Part 4 of the Local Government Act 1972 or the other related pieces of local government legislation—the intent of this provision is to ensure that local government reorganisation, and any consequent reorganisation of fire and rescue service boundaries, proceeds in tandem. That is what those two parts of the clause achieve. I do not suppose that I need to spell it out much more than that, other than to say that obviously if there is a local government reorganisation, and it does have implications for the reorganisation of fire and rescue services, it makes sense to do these things in an orderly fashion and to achieve transition in as smooth a way as possible.

I have been involved in a local government reorganisation, and I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has also been involved by implication. That is what the technical impact of these two parts of Clause 2 achieve. Where boundaries need to be changed, the Government would have to be satisfied that existing fire and rescue services continued to cover their current areas of responsibility until new authorities were established, and that the new authorities operate seamlessly from day one. That is difficult to achieve in any reorganisation, as we all know. Subsections (10) and (11) allow the development of a combination scheme to proceed in parallel with any relevant local government reorganisation, so that there are no gaps in the overlap or transition period. I hope that satisfies the noble Baroness. If not, no doubt she will come back.

Baroness Hanham

I am as satisfied as I can be. I still cannot make sense of the orders of the sections. I am not a lawyer, as everyone will know. I cannot understand how lawyers can get themselves into such a confusion. The explanation given by the Minister was straightforward. The two subsections are completely opaque, it seems to me—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

If it helps, when I read them at first, I thought, "What does this mean?". Clearly, it has something to do with the way in which a process is put in hand. That is actually the explanation, at the end of the day.

Baroness Hanham

I had tumbled to that. It was just unclear how the process was legitimised by these two subsections. I will not tangle any more with the Minister or with the parliamentary draftsmen on this. We have had an explanation of what it means. I am grateful, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 20 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 21: After Clause 2, insert the following new clause—

"REGIONAL MANAGEMENT STRUCTURES (1) The Secretary of State shall within 12 months of the coming into force of any Part of this Act—

  1. (a) commission an independent study to establish the optimum geographical areas within England for the organisation of fire and rescue services; and
  2. (b) commission an independent study of the impact of any existing regional management structures on—
    1. (i) operational effectiveness of fire and rescue services,
    2. (ii) cost-effectiveness of fire and rescue services, and
    3. (iii) management capability of fire and rescue authorities.
(2) Upon receipt of the reports of the studies referred to in subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall cause those reports to be published.

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 21 is drawn widely, and touches on all the fire authorities in England with the exception of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. It addresses the compulsory and arbitrary regionalisation of the fire and rescue services on the basis of the existing regional development agencies or the Government Offices for the Regions. Clearly, that is the issue that we referred to in several other amendments this afternoon. The Commons ODPM Select Committee looked at the Government's proposals on regionalisation and said in paragraph 81 of its report: The draft framework emphasises the importance of local solutions to local needs, and highlights that there is no national blueprint. Yet Fire Services and Authorities appear to have no choice about adopting a regional approach".

We have always accepted that there is a case for harvesting the efficiencies of co-operation by doing certain things at supra-brigade level, but that must be a bottom-up process that starts with individual fire authorities collaborating together, not a top-down process in which the Secretary of State directs fire authorities to work in certain ways. It must be driven not by the Secretary of State's demands, but by the accountability of fire and rescue authorities to local taxpayers and by their best-value obligations. That is already happening, but not necessarily on the geographical boundaries that Ministers seek.

We accept the case for common procurement to ensure interoperability and the need to co-ordinate the response to non-conventional threats at a higher level than that of the individual brigade. None of those arguments, however, points to a government-dictated organisation of fire and rescue services along the geographical lines of the Government Offices for the Regions. Fire and rescue services are a local government function and, under modernisation, they are charged with becoming more of a community service. They must be managed and run closer to, not further away from, the local community that they serve. We must never forget that, even in the environment in which, sadly, we now find ourselves, at least 90 per cent of a fire and rescue authority's work will continue to be performing community-based traditional roles as well as the new, important role of fire prevention and education.

The Government have not produced a shred of evidence to establish the benefit to public safety of choosing the structure of the existing Government Offices for the Regions as the basis for imposing regional management boards, the use of those regions as the basis for the combined fire authorities of the future, or, indeed, for reducing the 49 existing control rooms to just nine in England. We need convincing evidence that the regions chosen by the Government are the optimum regions for fire and rescue purposes and that they will not merely reduce costs but will meet the Government's avowed criterion of improving public safety.

I was interested in the fact that earlier the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that he might have his own views about regions. When he replies, perhaps he will be able to give us some of those views. For example, the Government have not explained why it is right and appropriate to have one control room in the north-east region with a population of 2.5 million spread over 8,000 square kilometres, and one control room in the south-east region with a population of 8 million—the size of Austria—spread over 19,500 square kilometres.

Resilience will be achieved by common equipment and operating standards. The reduction of 49 control rooms to nine is about saving costs. There is nothing wrong with saving costs, but it is not the Secretary of State's role to deal with such matters in a locally based, locally accountable service. He should deal with resilience, but economy of operation should be dealt with under the best-value arrangements and through the accountability of democratically elected fire and rescue authorities to their local electorates.

The truth is that the Deputy Prime Minister has been scratching around to try to find some powers for his pet regional tier to counter the repeated accusation that it is a hollow promise. The fire and rescue services are being regionalised by stealth through the regional management boards, the inevitable withering of the management capability of individual fire and rescue authorities, and by the regional fire authorities that the Secretary of State will impose on any region that elects to have a regional assembly in a referendum. Incidentally, that demonstrates the untruth of the Government's repeated statement that any extra powers given to elected regional assemblies will be handed down from central government and not drawn up from local government. Those extra powers will clearly come from a diminution of local government power and responsibility.

We will never accept that public safety should be subordinated to the Government's regional agenda through the imposition of a sub-optimal regional structure. I re-emphasise that we object not only to the introduction of a supra-brigade level for certain purposes but to the transparently political use of existing government office regions.

This new clause would also require an independent study to be carried out on the impact of the existing regional structure. That will be a structure of regional management boards and any regional combined fire authorities that the Minister creates when the study is conducted. That is the best that we can do within the structure of the Bill as the regional management hoards are not created by the provisions but are part of the national framework document.

If the proposed reports were carried out, they would show whether there was a better way of organising supra-brigade level activity and whether the Government Offices for the Regions structure was really a cost-effective way of organising fire and rescue services. They would also show what impact it was having on fire and rescue authority management capability, which, inevitably, appears likely to wither as a result of the transfer of responsibilities up to regional management boards. That process would be entirely objective.

If the Government are confident that the best interests of public safety are served by the Government Offices for the Regions and that they are the best and most appropriate units of organisation, they have nothing to fear in accepting the new clause and commissioning an independent report so that we can all see some independent underpinning of the Government's position. The public would then be able to see for themselves whether the structure was designed primarily to enhance public safety rather than to advance the Deputy Prime Minister's regional agenda. I beg to move.

Lord McCarthy

How long does the noble Lord think this will take? He will have to commission an independent study, find people to undertake it and service them. They will then have to decide what the optimum geographical areas are within England for the organisation of fire and rescue services. People may not agree with that: they may want to debate the issue to decide whether it is right.

The noble Lord would then have to commission another independent study of the impact of any existing regional management structures. Does that mean that while the second inquiry is going on it will be all right for the Government to set up new regional management structures? If not, there would not be many to be examined; they would not have much impact.

How long will all this take? Does the noble Lord feel that all the matters the Government are suggesting to us, and which the Bain report suggested, about the need to get on and create new authorities based upon the formulae of integrated risk-based management are somewhat urgent? Is he saying that all this can go on irrespective of the consequences while the inquiry is sitting, or would it all have to stop?

4.45 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the noble Lord for that question. We already have, of course, the regional management boards. They had to be established by 1 April and so they are there. Obviously the suggested new clause would open the door to something we have wanted for some time—a consideration of the boundaries for the regional areas. I would be interested in the Minister's comments because I believe everyone accepts that there should be some rethinking of the boundaries. The amendment offers the opportunity to do that and it could be done as quickly or as slowly as people wish to do it.

The amendment would clearly open a new dimension, which the Government would be reluctant to do. One can understand sometimes why they are reluctant because, once one opens a Pandora's box on boundaries, there will be a great deal of debate on the issue. But, if we are going to proceed, surely it is better to have that debate and get the thing right.

The Minister said in reply to my earlier amendment that the boundaries could be changed in due course. But how can they be changed if we continue to set up structures based on these boundaries? It would cost a lot of money to do so. We are talking about a very important emergency service for which the public has a tremendous regard. It has been through a series of difficulties over the past few years and therefore, if we are going to do it, now must be the time. We tabled the amendment because we feel that now is the right time to review the process in order that we may get the best possible structures for the safety of our country.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, put his finger on one of my concerns: that essentially the amendment is a recipe for delay before we can proceed with what the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, agrees is an important agenda—that is, the modernisation of the fire service. We agree on that. Where we disagree, obviously most profoundly, is on the way in which that should be achieved. The noble Lord said, essentially, that any modernisation should be bottom up. We agree that that is highly desirable. But the Government obviously have a responsibility to ensure that they see through the modernisation, and we can probably both agree that there is a need for a fair amount of determination to ensure that that is the case.

I shall deal with the specifics of the amendment. Our ministerial colleagues observed in the debate in the other place that, unless the Opposition are turning the clock back on the modernisation agenda, a study of the boundaries of Government Offices for the Regions—which the noble Lord's party introduced when it was in power—is rather academic. The pure research suggested in the amendment seems even more academic. I am not sure what its benefits would be today, and I am certainly not sure what its benefits would be in terms of this legislation. We all have our views about boundaries, but pure research on the optimum geographical boundary seems to be somewhat rarified when we are considering the ways in which the services themselves can be better run, better modernised and better organised.

The second issue is probably one of more practical concern. I can confirm what was said in another place. It was said that rather than wait for studies to be commissioned within 12 months of the Act, we have already agreed that the Audit Commission, which, after all, is an independent body—one not established by our Government but by the noble Lord's government when they were in power—will take on this task. On 25 February it published a consultation paper setting out its draft comprehensive performance assessment on fire and rescue authorities. It proposed to implement it early next year, with the outcomes publicly reported before the autumn of next year.

An important part of the CPA process will obviously focus on value for money. It is also planned specifically to assess the effectiveness of the work undertaken through regional management boards and to report on the management capability of individual fire and rescue authorities. In other words, it is planned to address the very issues covered by the second part of the amendment. And it is planned to address them sooner rather than—as the amendment envisages—later. I hope the noble Lord can accept that and that that will enable him to withdraw his amendment.

In this legislation we are trying to modernise and improve the way in which fire and rescue authorities work. We have no desire to take away from them the full responsibility for fire safety work, the response to fires, the response to road traffic accidents or any other emergencies to which they respond through their current service planning. Therefore, we do not see the need for the amendment. We think in any event that the second part of it is covered by the Audit Commission's proposed study into the way in which the original management boards operate. We think that the consideration of the boundaries in the way in which the noble Lord suggested is rather a secondary consideration. We want to make sure that these things work well. Navel gazing about getting to a state of perfection on regional boundaries does not best serve us when we are looking at the modernisation agenda for the fire and rescue authorities.

Baroness Hanham

Does the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, think that this obsession with taking on the regional environment has waltzed a whole lot of legislation into considerable problems—perhaps this Bill almost more than any of the others? The regional management boards are already there. It keeps on being pointed out that the previous government set up the government offices. But the government offices were never meant to be anything more than an administrative base. They were never meant to be the centre for democratically elected government. Their whole purpose was entirely different. Somehow this Government seem impaled on regionalisation against those boundaries.

In fact, the whole Bill would work perfectly well without any question of regionalisation. The bringing together of authorities could be done perfectly well without any question of regionalisation. My recommendation to the Government would be to take the whole question of regionalisation out of the Bill and to concentrate on bringing the fire services together in the most useful, comprehensive and efficient way, and make it work not only in running the service but to protect the public.

This whole obsession with regionalisation merely clouds issues all across this particular Bill and other legislation.

Lord Hanningfield

I endorse what my noble friend said. No one is disputing that the fire service needs modernising. We all agree on that. The fire authority for the most part falls into substantial organisations. To be modernised they do not need to be regionalised. We agree that they need to co-operate. In particular, neighbouring authorities need to work together. That is different from creating regional fire authorities.

As my noble friend said, we keep having it thrown at us that our government created the regional offices. We know that they created the regional offices. I was the regional chairman for further education colleges. We were based in one office. The highways office for the region was based in another office. Another group was based in another office. It made absolute sense to put all the offices together in one group of buildings. I was part of that grouping as regional chairman of the further education colleges.

No services were run there: they were all run at different places. The Government are now trying to deliver services from what were supposed to be outposts of the Civil Service. So that is a totally different agenda altogether.

If the Government want to pursue the regional agenda and to create regional fire authorities, it should be done on the logical basis of which ones should sensibly work together. I do not like to keep referring to my own authority, but it has much more business with London, Hertfordshire and Kent than with north Norfolk. It is crazy. Much as I love north Norfolk—my mother came from there—one feels as though one is going back 20 years or so. In Essex we are modernised, different and part of the London conurbation.

Going back to the south west, we are creating artificial things, which will not make anything any better. If you want to have regional fire authorities, it would be much better to look at the map and say: "Well, these fire authorities are similar. They work together. They can help London if there is a problem". And to do it properly. Rather than do something that does not make any common sense at all.

To continue to pursue a regional agenda, someone has to sit down at some stage and make sense of the boundaries. We might as well start some time. That is why we tabled the amendment. We are putting the issue together as necessary to modernise the fire service without regional fire authorities. It might take a few months to do it. We can carry on the modernisation agenda without having regional fire authorities. But let us make some sense of it. I wish the Ministers would admit that and let us get on with it and start some time. Perhaps they would like to comment on when we can start to make some sense of this whole thing.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Let us go back to the core argument. The noble Lord is really suggesting that we have this massive regional agenda, but that it should be held up while we consider one piece of legislation that relates to the modernisation of the fire service. While that is going on we should hold up the whole process of modernisation so that we can just go back and check whether we have all these regional boundaries right, not just for the fire service presumably, but also for a whole range of other regional functions.

If that is what the noble Lord is suggesting, clearly that is nonsensical. As we have said, we can have lots of arguments about whether boundaries are right. I lived in north east Essex for the first 19 years of my life. I am not sure I consider myself to be part of Greater London. I had more affinity with southern Suffolk on the borders.

We can always have that argument. But I do not think it is right to hold up modernisation and then to have that argument. That is essentially what the noble Lord suggests. That makes no sense at all. There are many good reasons for working to ensure that we get that agenda moving more quickly, so that we can bring those efficiencies into place; so that we can work across services; and so that we can change how the service works and work with the service to achieve that change in a co-operative and understandable way.

As to whether fire authorities are the wrong size to carry out some of the services, that is obviously a debatable point. This much must be the case: some fire authorities acting and working on their own are not always best able to carry out those functions. For instance, the Isle of Wight fire authority provides a service, which is there for the island, but there may well be times when it requires and needs support from other fire services. It is for such reasons that we need to move this agenda on and to carry on with the modernising approach. I am sure that the noble Lord would understand and appreciate the point I am making here.

This is not the right way to deal with the issue the noble Lord identified. It is not about our obsession, it is about making some good sense and some progress in modernising the fire service; making it more relevant to the demands that are currently being placed on it; and ensuring also that we get good value for money.

5 p.m

Lord Hanningfield

We shall continue the debate for the rest of this legislation and probably other legislation, as we have done in past legislation.

The Isle of Wight obviously has to work with someone. It is an island. Hampshire is the place it works with. I am not sure whether the Isle of Wight needs to work very well with Oxfordshire or Kent, as it has to under these arrangements. They are rather a long way away. It would be much better to have some simple arrangement in which the Isle of Wight works with Hampshire.

I still dispute that the modernisation could go on without this complication of talking about creating regional fire authorities. The whole thing is becoming a nightmare. One fairly obvious region of Newcastle and the area around it and the whole of the rest of the country is artificial. Perhaps Yorkshire and Humberside should be together. But the rest of the country is so artificial that I am describing it as a nightmare. I have to live with this nightmare all the time these days in various capacities. I wish other people would recognise that. Someone is going to have to undo the provision. We will have to undo it one day. It seems silly to keep on creating these provisions. But we shall carry on talking about the matter during the Bill, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Creation of combined fire and rescue authorities: supplementary]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 22: Page 3, line 30, at end insert "and which, in the case of a scheme made under section 2(3)(a), have been agreed to by the authorities in question, and in the case of a scheme made under section 2(3)(b), have been considered by the inquiry held under the provisions of section 2(8)

The noble Baroness said: This is a small amendment to ensure that the Secretary of State does not get carried away when dealing with Clause 2(3). In subsection (3) he has two possibilities, one is agreeing to a scheme that has been put forward to him by authorities and the other is on his own initiatIve. The amendment would seek to limit his ability to go outside the scheme—either one put forward initially by the authority or agreed to in an inquiry—and subsequently to make up some of his own rules or have his own ideas and put those forward without the agreement of the original authority or outside the inquiry.

It is a small test to ensure that the Secretary of State does not go dancing off on his own frolics any more than he can do already.

Can the noble Lord in reply—and if he cannot do so now he might let me know subsequently—enlighten me as to what a "body corporate" is on page 3, line 27? I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

Amendment No. 22 is a continuation of the theme of other amendments. It suggests that in the case of a voluntary combination submitted by fire and rescue authorities, those authorities should have a right to veto any amendments the Secretary of State chooses to make. As we have said throughout the passage of the Bill, the fire and rescue service is—among many other things—an emergency service; and the Government must be able to take a wider view of the public interest than that taken by individual fire and rescue authorities themselves.

We do not act lightly, nor, as I constantly say, on a whim or a hunch. Nor do we do so without consulting those affected. But to say that we cannot act in the best interests of overall national resilience is to place an unreasonable restriction on our constitutional responsibilities.

The suggestion that we might make provision in a combination scheme that has not been part of a detailed inquiry under Clause 2(8) is incorrect. Clause 3(3) covers the main issues that a scheme might include. I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no question of Clause 3(2) being a Trojan horse for unidentified further provisions. The phrase used is "supplementary and incidental". Subsection (2) states that the, scheme under section 2 may, subject to this section, make any supplementary and incidental provision which the Secretary of State considers appropriate". That means what it says—in case that is queried—"supplementary and incidental". It does not mean "substantial" and it does not mean "subsequent". That is normal language.

No notes have arrived on what "body corporate" means, but there are loads of bodies corporate about. It means legally a person. I am not a lawyer but I know that this makes it a person so that it can act and do things that people can do. Companies incorporated under the Companies Act are bodies corporate. It gives a legal entity to the structure of the organisation, so it can do things that people can do. It can buy and sell property and so on.

Therefore, it is a normal term. It is not something we have invented for the Bill. It is not part of the regional agenda. There is no regional agenda in that sense. There is no ulterior motive in using that phrase. It is perfectly normal. So, it is a legal body; it is treated as though it was a person. The lawyers among us, of whom I think there is only one—there are plenty of barrack-room lawyers—will understand what I have said and that it is true. On that basis, I hope the amendment can be withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, particularly about the body corporate. I am sorry I brought it in, but it has been bugging me for some time. People keep asking me about it in relation to regional assemblies. A number of RDAs are apparently being constituted as bodies corporate. It is an interesting construction of bodies that are using public money. It is something that I do not want particularly to pursue at the moment, but it is a matter of legitimate interest, which has suddenly arisen as a result of regionalisation. That is where it first started. I know of no local authority that is a body corporate. Indeed, under the Local Government Act it would not be allowed.

Lord Rooker

Local councils are bodies corporate. The leader of a very powerful local authority, who is sitting next to the noble Baroness, will understand that. His local authority is a body corporate. Nothing has been invented for this Bill or the fire and rescue services, or the regional agenda, in terms of bodies corporate. It is not new.

Baroness Hanham

I accept what the Minister says. I am glad I raised the matter because now I have been enlightened. As far as the rest is concerned, I do not wish to pursue the amendment further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lyell)

We come to Amendment No. 23. Your Lordships will see that in the list of groupings we are also covering Amendments Nos. 24 and 25. I have to advise the Committee that if Amendment No. 24 were agreed to, I should not be able to call Amendment No. 25.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 23: Page 3, line 33, leave out "or by the Secretary of State

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 23, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 25, 26 and 27. I accept that, as the Deputy Chairman said, they will fall if Amendment No. 24 is agreed to. They deal with supplementary and incidental provisions, which the unwary reader might be led to think are of minor consequence. In fact, a careful reading of the clause shows that those supplementary and incidental provisions include fundamental matters that relate to combined fire authorities that would be established under Clause 2.

I suspect that the Minister will not be surprised to learn that these amendments target the right of the Secretary of State to appoint 50 per cent of the members of the combined fire authority, minus one, which would give him a huge say in the running of that authority. The Government have argued that, for reasons of democratic accountability, it would be appropriate for regional fire and rescue authorities to be accountable to elected regional assemblies, should regional assemblies be created. It is slightly disingenuous for the Government therefore to argue simultaneously that they must be allowed to appoint half the members of any such authority.

If combined fire and rescue authorities were created other than as a result of the establishment of elected regional assemblies, there simply would be a naked transfer of power from local authorities to the Secretary of State; a provision that undermines most, if not all, of the Government's rhetoric about wanting to remove the hand of Whitehall from the affairs of running fire and rescue authorities. The Secretary of State has no such powers of appointment at the moment. I am curious to know how a government who profess to the creed of localism can possibly justify seeking to give themselves, in effect, the power to appoint half the members of a combined fire and rescue authority.

The provision more than any other in the Bill underlines the Government's centralising tendency, and suggests the hollowness of the apparent commitment to decentralise.

That is the essence of the reason for tabling Amendment No. 26. Amendments Nos. 23, 25 and 27 are consequential amendments, drafted to deal with changes to the Bill that would be required if the Secretary of State's right to appoint members of a combined fire authority were deleted, as Amendment No. 26 seeks to do. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock

Several amendments are grouped here. I have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has just said. We should be grateful if the Minister could explain the rationale behind this scheme; how it would work and why they are again creating a slight democratic deficit. I do not know who the Minister will appoint to these boards. We do not have any information on that. I note that in Amendment No. 27, which would delete subsection (5) of Clause 3, that there is some concern that when voting, particularly on the precepts, the majority is elected members. For my part, I am a little confused as to the rationale behind this provision and exactly who is going to be on these authorities. I concur with many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for explaining their amendments. The noble Baroness is right to ask for the rationale behind this provision. That is only fair.

The arguments were, however, well rehearsed in another place. I want to say at the outset that it is not the Government's primary motivation in seeking the power to appoint to enhance central control. Our primary motivation is to improve the quality and the delivery of a vital service. Clause 3(4) makes clear that Secretary of State appointees will be a numerical minority. It also makes clear that they will not be allowed to take part in votes on precepting—to deal with the point the noble Baroness raised—and that only elected members will be able to do so.

Furthermore, to guarantee that Secretary of State appointees are independent, they will of course be appointed based on their ability. The advertising will be entirely open, as it should be, and entirely in accordance with the Principles of. Public Life, set out in the Commissioner for Public Appointments' code of practice—commonly described as the Nolan principles.

I also want to make it clear that the Government's firm view is that where combination has to be undertaken to tackle failing authorities, it would be contradictory and counter-productive to restrict appointments to existing authority members. Where capacity is needed to deliver modernisation, Clause 3 will be used to bring into new authorities the wider experience and knowledge which they lack—whether that is managerial, financial, personnel or relating to other professional services that are important to the way in which the authority carries out its work. Elected members will still make the decisions, but assisted and advised by those with specific expertise, which members of the fire authority may not always possess.

The body will operate with clear safeguards as I have outlined and it should be clear to noble Lords that we will use the power carefully and responsibly. Our primary purpose is to ensure that where there are failing authorities and where a combination has to be undertaken to tackle that problem, this particular clause will come into play.

I can almost hear the arguments made against this and the noble Lord as an echo of the arguments made against the appointment of independent members to police authorities in the mid 1990s. That was not on our watch, it was on the watch of the noble Lord's party. In that case, they were imposed on police authorities and were designed to dilute the work of the pace authority members—as they were then. As time has gone on, there has been much learning and the value of those independent members has been recognised. I am not making a direct comparison, but the appointment and use of those independent members in the context of police authorities has some relevance. It shows what that independent expertise—whether professional, financial, managerial or personnel-related—can bring to a body dominated by elected representatives. It is a parallel in that sense.

I have heard the arguments, which sound like an echo of an old argument. For the reasons that I have outlined, they are no longer relevant on the matter, and the noble Lord needs to understand the circumstances in which we would seek to have independent members appointed.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

I am grateful for the Minister's attempt to enlighten me but, I have to say, enlightenment has not really dawned. I would like to know how many people we are to have on the bodies. I do not know what a combined fire authority of elected members would be but, if we are to try to appoint all the people by Nolan principles, all I can say is that it is going to be a hell of a long job.

We rightly agreed that, on the committee, the elected members would make the decisions about precepts and finance. However, what happens if the majority of the committee, with the non-elected members, votes through all sorts of provisions. They do not have anything to do with the money. I fail to see how the provisions will work in practice. Will we see some details about the matter before we get through our consideration of the Bill? I would like to see more detail on Report, as I am not convinced that there is a clear idea about how the provisions will work. I understand the principles that the Government are trying to get over on what they want to do, but the practicalities of how the provisions will work are far from clear.

Lord Hanningfield

I echo that. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, indicated that appointments would be made only to failing authorities. I would like that clarified, as it is an important point.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Obviously, the size of a fire authority will be set out in the statutory instrument that establishes it. However, as I made clear in my initial comments, we would expect the numbers of independent appointments to be small. We expect authorities to be somewhat less than 20 in membership. The important point is that the independently appointed members would not have a majority on the authority. It could be that only one independent member was appointed to the fire and rescue authority. Alternately, a minority—a majority minus one, as it were—might be appointed.

I shall take up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. My argument is based on the police authority experience. I hope that it would be recognised that the independent members have made a very important contribution to the way in which those police authorities have worked. They have brought in expertise and experience that was not there. They have offered the opportunity and scope to provide a broader social base as well, in some circumstances. Our firm view is that, where a combination has to be undertaken to tackle failing authorities, it would be both contradictory and counterproductive to restrict appointments to existing authority members. Other members would have a direct value in those circumstances, because they would bring something else with them. Our clear view is that they would help to strengthen and broaden the experience necessary, to ensure that the failing authority does not carry on failing under its new guise.

For those reasons, we see the provision as having value. Of course, we need to approach the matter sensibly. We obviously want to ensure that the democratically elected element that is so important to the way in which Fire authorities now work is continued in any new arrangements. We want to see the provision working carefully and cautiously. We obviously want to ensure that we get maximum support for the new approach.

Baroness Hanham

Before the Minister retires from the frame, we are all assuming—and I am not sure whether it is correct—that the members appointed by the existing authorities will be democratically elected members of that authority. There is nothing in the Bill which says that. All local authorities can appoint people who are not elected—shall I wait while the Ministers get the answer?

Lord Rooker

My noble friend is dealing with this. The noble Baroness asked a question and we stated the obvious because we had assumed that the local authorities would be appointing elected councillors. That assumption is correct.

Baroness Hanham

But the Bill does not say that and, as everyone involved in local authorities will know, local authorities are usually empowered and able to appoint people to all sorts of things and by definition they are members. School governors are an example in point. It is not necessary to have an elected member as a school governor—you can have, but you do not have to have one. You can have an elected member appointed to some of the outside bodies but you do not have to have one.

The clause simply states, the appointment of members by the existing authorities", and that does not indicate that they must be elected members of the existing authorities. It may be resolved simply by producing an amendment on Report requiring elected members, but as things stand that is not what the clause requires.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I have listened to the noble Baroness and I am half way persuaded.

Baroness Hanham

It is a new argument!

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We like new arguments—we thrive on them. There may be 100 reasons further to clarify the issue. We will want to write to Members and we may well return to the matter at the next stage of the Bill. The noble Baroness is right, we want to be clear on that point.

Baroness Maddock

I am pleased that the Minister has said that and I would appreciate something in writing before the next stage. I want to make it clear that I was not questioning what the Government were trying to do—and the Minister told me again about police authorities—but I was questioning the practicalities. Who will it be and how will it work? We would appreciate information on that.

Lord Hanningfield

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that we must have some answers. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, did not answer my question about whether they would relate to more failing fire authorities rather than to the generality. I am not certain that everyone believes the police authorities work so well, and I gather that the Government have proposals for fully elected police authorities. People have all sorts of ideas about their future, but they are different from Fire authorities. They are bigger, have more staff and much larger budgets. Furthermore, magistrates are among those appointed to them. They are two totally different bodies.

I would have thought that if the fire authorities wanted expertise on human resources or finance, they would look to officials for that support. It is demeaning to the officials who support the fire authorities to say they need other members to provide such support. The whole proposal will need much more scrutiny and the Government must be more rigorous in its defence. It does not seem to be the right thing to be doing when we are trying to improve democratically elected bodies and ensure that there is democratic accountability. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 24 to 27 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 28: After Clause 3, insert the following new clause—

"LIMITATION ON POWER OF SECRETARY OF STATE TO APPOINT MEMBERS OF A COMBINED FIRE AND RESCUE AUTHORITY (1) Where a scheme made under section 2 provides for members of a combined fire and rescue authority to be appointed by the Secretary of State, the provisions of this section shall apply. (2) Before making an appointment to a combined fire and rescue authority, the Secretary of State shall invite each of the existing authorities with power to appoint members to the combined fire and rescue authority to submit to him a list of nominees for consideration for appointment by the Secretary of State. (3) The Secretary of State shall appoint from the lists of nominees received those persons who appear to him to be best qualified to serve as members of the combined fire and rescue authority unless there are an insufficient number of persons on the lists appearing to the Secretary of State to be suitable for appointment. (4) If the Secretary of State considers that there are an insufficient number of suitable persons on the lists to make all the necessary appointments, he shall advise each of the existing authorities of his reasons for considering each of their unsuccessful nominees as suitable for appointment and shall indicate the qualities, experience and other relevant factors required for appointment by the Secretary of State in the particular case. (5) Each of the existing authorities shall then be invited to submit a further list of nominees fulfilling the criteria set down in accordance with subsection (4) by the Secretary of State. (6) Upon receipt of the further lists referred to in subsection (5), the Secretary of State shall appoint from the lists those persons who appear to him to be best qualified to serve as members of the combined fire and rescue authority. (7) If there are insufficient numbers of persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be suitably qualified for appointment on the list submitted, the Secretary of State may appoint such other persons as he considers suitable to fill any remaining vacancy. (8) On the occurrence of any casual vacancy for membership of a fire and rescue authority which falls under the terms of the scheme to be filled by an appointment by the Secretary of State, the procedure set out in subsections (2) and (3) shall apply.

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 28 is consequential on what we were discussing just now. It seeks to limit one of the extraordinary powers of the Secretary of State under the Bill. The Bill seeks to create a combined fire and rescue authority and mirrors the power under the 1947 Act to create a combined fire authority. However, the power to appoint 50 per cent of the members of that authority, minus one, is new.

While protesting that fire and rescue authorities remain a local service, the Government are not only grafting on a regional structure but are displaying the usual centralising instinct by taking draconian powers to appoint members. We have just discussed that point, but I shall continue to move this amendment today.

The deployment of that power will fundamentally alter the nature of democratic accountability in the local services. If the Secretary of State can deploy the power to appoint 49 per cent of members, the political balance in a combined fire authority, which might be an elected regional assembly area fire authority, will be capable of being overturned by the Secretary of State's appointments. That seems to be a step too far in what is still supposed to be a democratically accountable service, as we have just debated.

The Secretary of State will say that he needs a power to appoint as a reserve power, in case fire and rescue authorities do not nominate people of what he considers to be a sufficiently high calibre. That point arose in the discussion that we have just had. However, that does not alter the preposterousness of suggesting that, whenever the electorate choose badly, Ministers can intervene.

The amendment sets out a procedure to ensure that a Secretary of State appointment is made only as a last resort when no appropriate nominees are offered by the appointing authority. We may have an objection in principle to such a power of appointment, but the new clause is drafted in a spirit of compromise, recognising the argument that reserve powers may be needed. Combined fire authority members are appointed by the authorities that would be fire authorities if not for the existence of the combined fire authority.

Under the proposed new clause, in circumstances in which the scheme gives the Secretary of State powers to appoint, he must exercise them by taking names from lists submitted to him by the underlying authorities. Furthermore, if he does not believe that there is a sufficient number of suitable people on the list, he can specify reasons for rejecting any of the nominees and ask the authorities to submit a further list, reflecting criteria that he set down in his rejection. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

Until the noble Lord was halfway through his speech, I thought that the amendment might be inconsistent with the points that he had just been making. However, I believe that it is intended to provide an alternative to the Secretary of State's appointments.

As I understand it, the amendment talks about appointing from a list of nominees provided by the local authorities. Are those intended to be local authority members? If that was the route to be followed where a fire and rescue service was failing, I would be hesitant about putting the matter back to the local authorities as they themselves may have failed as part of the whole process. I am not saying that I support the amendment; I am trying to follow the logic of what is to be achieved here. If one is looking for "independent" members to bring along different expertise, and if one accepts the premise from the start, I wonder whether it is wise to confine the list of candidates in the way suggested.

I am not trying to argue against what the noble Lord said because, as my noble friend said, we are very much with him in relation to the previous set of amendments. However, I think that the whole thing is a complete porridge.

Lord Hanningfield

In moving the amendment, I tried to indicate that we had tabled it and I had written my speaking notes on it before the previous discussion. That discussion highlighted a lot of the difficulties of the whole area. The Minister recognised that as well, and clearly the Government will go away and look at the matter. We will have to look at it altogether before Report, and I hope that the Minister can clarify some of the points on it. I still object totally to the principle of having appointed members but, if there are to be appointed people, we need to find processes that can make them acceptable. I hope that we can resolve the issues as we go further with the Bill, but I would like to hear the Minister's comments.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

Having got the clarification that local authorities can appoint elected members or non-elected members, can we now clarify the process of appointment? That was effectively what the amendment was trying to do. There are all sorts of examples of ways in which people are appointed to authorities. The Bill leaves appointment in the hands of the Secretary of State, effectively.

The Minister said that people would be appointed along Nolan lines. That is all right; that makes sure that people are competent, straight, have no criminal convictions and are capable of fulfilling a public appointment. However, it does not set the scheme for appointment. There is no indication of that in the Bill. Will they be appointed by an appointments committee, or on behalf of the Secretary of State by a committee formed from the combined fire authorities? The Minister will say that all that will be part and parcel of the regulations, but it has not been aired and clarified in a way that would be helpful.

We want to ensure that the authorities are made up of elected members and people who have been appointed through a proper, recognised process. There should be not only an advertisement in the Guardian, but a proper process so that we know who will do the appointing.

Lord McCarthy

I wish to ask three questions. The provisions ought to get an alpha for ingenuity. I have never heard of it before but we are told that, in local government, all kinds of things are done in the way outlined. First, has such a method been used before? Is it something that the Government have particularly invented for the Bill, or is the ingenious and somewhat complex procedure well known in certain local authorities?

Secondly, if some people are appointed but not others first time round, why do the Government think it a good idea to write to those who did not get appointed to say why? It is not usual to write to unsuccessful candidates to tell them why they failed.

Noble Lords

It is.

Lord McCarthy

Well, one must be very careful about the libel laws if one does. That brings me to my third and final question. The first time that such people go around the roundabout, one writes to tell them why they have failed. The second time that they do, one does not, so far as I can see. Perhaps that is done all round the country, too. Why the difference?

Lord Hanningfield

In employment procedures, if we interview people we certainly have to tell them why we have not appointed them. We make notes and so on; people have the right to know why they have not been appointed. These days, other people who apply for jobs or positions under the Nolan laws have a right to know. I assume that most of that is enshrined in law. If it is not, it is a matter of good practice to tell people why they failed in various positions. It is common practice, certainly in local government and, I thought, in most organisations.

We have been going round in circles on the matter. At the moment, joint fire authorities are mostly comprised of elected members. A county fire authority is normally always made up of members of that county council. We now have a lot of joint fire authorities— counties and unitaries—and London as well with the metropolitan areas. As I understand it, the members appointed to them are mostly elected members of the authorities that constitute the joint fire authorities.

We have had an interesting debate today on whether local authorities can appoint members who are non-elected. I do not know any instances where they have done so. Perhaps that can be clarified before the Report stage. I repeat that the amendment was tabled before the previous discussion took place. I am sure that there will be further amendments and discussions, and I hope that Ministers will try to clarify some of the issues and take them forward so that we can have a more positive idea of what the Government think. Then we can put forward potential alternatives before Report. After that discussion, I should probably withdraw the amendment.

Lord Rooker

We will come back to it.

Lord Hanningfield

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 [Combined authorities under the Fire Services Act 1947]:

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 29: Page 4, line 27, after "must" insert—

  1. "(a) obtain the agreement of the fire and rescue authority constituted under the scheme or (in the case of an order to revoke the scheme) the agreement of all the authorities which would, apart from the scheme, be fire and rescue authorities under section I for any part of the area covered by the authority constituted under the scheme; and
  2. (b)"

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 29 is designed to safeguard against the Secretary of State misusing the powers under subsection (3)(a) in order to take a scheme for the creation of a combined fire authority that was presented as voluntary and change it out of recognition. The Secretary of State may want to review a scheme and to come back to the authorities and propose certain changes. So long as the authorities agree with that, there is no problem; it remains their scheme, with improvements proposed by the ODPM and agreed by the authorities.

If the Secretary of State wants to propose something more radical which is not, in the view of the fire authorities concerned, acceptable, he should have to resort to the powers to create a combined fire authority on his own initiative rather than allowing one to be voluntarily created with his potentially substantial modification. Amendment No. 29 would require the authorities to agree all modifications. We believe that that is a more transparent approach. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

Although the word never crosses the lips of the noble Lord, this is basically another veto amendment. Its purpose is to prevent the Secretary of State taking a wider view in the interests of the public as a whole, and we therefore cannot accept it.

I have already said in relation to a couple of previous amendments that the Bill requires extensive consultation on a range of issues including, in Clause 4(5)(c), with anyone other than fire and rescue authorities that the Secretary of State considers to have a potential interest. That is a very important point. To suggest, as the amendment does with its veto, that even after such wide consultation the Secretary of State should be unable to act is, in effect, to suggest that the Government should abandon our responsibilities. We simply cannot do that.

Ultimately, it will be our responsibility to ensure that we have an effective emergency service and that the best use is made of taxpayers' money. That is done on the basis of the Secretary of' State undertaking extensive consultation outside of the fire and rescue authorities. Anyone who has a potential interest is covered. I cannot spell the matter out any more than that because I would then repeat what I said on earlier amendments. Amendment No. 29 is simply an amendment too far.

Lord Hanningfield

I hear what the Minister says. We are concerned that sometimes the establishment of combined fire authorities may be imposed without the ownership of the local authorities. As we go on through the Bill, we may be able to clarify that rather more. I shall withdraw the amendment today, but we shall have to come back to the area to make certain that there is some acceptance locally of what happens and what the Minister might do. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 30 not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Powers of combined fire and rescue authorities]:

[Amendment No. 31 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Fire safety]:

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 32: Page 5, line 23, at end insert— (iii) the use of sprinklers as an effective means of reducing deaths, injuries and damage as a result of fires.

The noble Lord said: The amendment is an honest attempt to establish a clear role that a fire authority could play in the promotion of sprinklers in the fight against death and damage caused by fire.

The most recent figures, published earlier this year, show that in 2002 there were 562 fire deaths—44 fewer than in 200 l—while the number of fires fell by 5 per cent to 519,400. However, I am sure that we all believe that that figure is still too high. No one can forget the tragic events of earlier this year at the Rosepark care home in north Lanarkshire in which so many lost their lives. It is that kind of horrific incident that the use of sprinklers might have avoided.

Furthermore, a recent survey from the Local Government Association found that the annual cost of fire damage in schools was around £100 million, and that one in 15 schools will suffer from a fire in any given year. Sprinklers would be a very simple, effective and cost-efficient method of protecting school property.

The amendment does not seek to impose sprinklers on a mandatory basis—far from it. It merely encourages a fire authority, wherever possible, to promote their use. The number of lives saved and the protection of property would be substantial. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 32, Amendment No. 33: Line 2, after "sprinklers" insert "and misters and other devices

The noble Baroness said: I obviously support everything that the noble Lord said about his amendment; our amendment would widen its scope. We need to be clear in the Bill what methods we want to be used in trying to reduce the number of deaths and amount of damage caused by fire. Modern technology has moved on incredibly since the previous fire Act, whenever it was. The cornerstone of the reform programme that we are discussing is a move away from overdependence on intervention once fires have started.

There was a long debate in another place—introduced by one of my honourable friends, I think—which was far more wide-ranging than this debate. It looked at how sprinklers, misters and so on could be put into all kinds of different buildings. I suspect that we may have a discussion on such matters at a later stage on the Housing Bill, under building regulations, as they are quite important.

These are fairly modest amendments. It is an important issue. The Local Government Association takes it terribly seriously and has continued to push it. It and others who support it believe that such devices are a very effective way of reducing deaths and injuries, and particularly damage to property, which costs local authorities a huge amount. Although it obviously costs to install sprinklers, I am told that the amount that local authorities can save in insurance over five years more or less pays for them. Schools are particularly important. When a school is burnt down, the effect of that on the education of many children over a long period, let alone the cost of rebuilding a school, is enormous. The technology that we have today could make a huge difference.

The Government have looked at some research in the area. The Building Research Establishment has considered it. I accept that it is not a panacea, and it is very important that sprinklers and other mechanisms using water are correctly installed, just as smoke alarms have to be. Our amendment includes all kinds of apparatus—not only those that use water.

I hope that the Government will be a little more friendly about this than they were in another place and that they will consider the matter more seriously. If there is one area in which there is agreement across the board on what we want to see as we modernise the fire service, it is the use of modern technology to reduce the scale and number of fires. It would send a very powerful message if that was on the face of the Bill and I hope that the Government will seriously consider it.

There is a huge amount of evidence from all kinds of bodies and, in terms of saving money, clearly the case has been very well made. We discussed the issue of money and finance earlier and I look forward to a more positive response than we had in another place. The Minister is very good at coming back with good news at later stages and, even if he cannot do anything today, I hope he will do the same on Report. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

As the noble Baroness said, there is a widespread view, right across the board, in favour of the amendment. Indeed, the unions are very much in favour of it. I have a note which states that they believe that steps need to be taken to ensure a far more widespread installation of sprinkler systems. This should include their compulsory installation in multiple occupation premises and in all new builds. This would be the most positive step forward in reducing all fire deaths and must form part of a holistic modernisation agenda.

It is notable, of course, that the people at the forefront of the battle to prevent fire deaths and all the unions involved, including the professional organisations, are in favour of sprinkler systems. The FBU is in favour of compulsory installation of sprinkler systems in multiple occupation premises. I note that the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, does not propose compulsion. Nevertheless, if this provision were on the face of the Bill it would lead to the installation of systems. I hope that my noble friend will receive it with agreement.

Lord Rooker

I shall receive it with sympathy. However, I should remind the noble Baroness that basically it is the same Government in this House as in the other place; the line is not so different.

I wish to make it absolutely clear, as the Committee would expect, that we believe that systems that suppress fire, stop fire and prevent fire have an absolutely crucial and central role to play. The fire service gains its success by preventing fires; it spends very little time on fighting fires and a great deal of time on preventing them. There is no question about that. It is what the fire service wants and what it is expert at. However, I fully accept that more people should listen to its advice.

As was mentioned, the Government commissioned new research on the effectiveness of residential sprinkler systems, which is available from the research contractor at the Building Research Establishment. A summary of the work is available on the website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. It underlines the potential role of sprinklers in providing additional fire protection in homes for children, homes for the elderly, homes for people with disabilities and higher-risk houses in multiple occupation. As the noble Baroness said, we shall discuss this in extensive detail when the Housing Bill arrives in the House.

We shall be undertaking further work on this as part of our current review of Part B of the building regulations which deal with fire safety. I am not using it as an excuse, but that is the place to deal with this issue and to tackle it head on. Part B deals with fire safety in new and substantially altered buildings. In some ways, dealing with a new building is easy; it is the stock that presents difficulties. I do not rule it out on the grounds of cost—that would be ridiculous—but there are difficulties with the practicalities of using these modern technologies in the stock.

The research highlights the importance of having effective smoke alarms and the important role they play in increasing the chances of surviving a fire. I mentioned at Second Reading that I spent three-quarters of a day at the Fire Service College, where I went through the process of seeing a fire started and fighting the fire using breathing apparatus. When they said to me, "Okay, Jeff, you can put the lire out now", I could not see the fire. I knew it was there because I had watched it being started, but within five or 10 minutes the smoke was so black that I could not see the fire. I knew where it was, but I could not see a thing; I could not see the fire. By and large, most people die of smoke inhalation before the fire service gets there.

The current building regulations already recommend that all new residential buildings are provided with inter-linked mains-operated smoke detectors. Sprinklers can help to protect particularly vulnerable groups, but only when properly maintained and in good working order. That applies to all preventative measures, of course. In any case, sprinklers cannot be a substitute for simple precautions, such as closing fire doors and installing smoke alarms, combined with fire safety education and the effective management of such buildings.

That is not always the case. I know from my own certain knowledge that the Government can sometimes get contradictory advice on buildings. I shall not go into details, but when I was at the Home Office there was a large fire in one of our buildings in the Bedfordshire area. That building had been constructed at exactly the same time as a similar building carrying out the same function in the London area. The written advice from the two fire brigades about the installation of sprinklers at the point of construction was totally different. The Secretary of State at the time—this was before the election and the construction was well under way—received totally different advice for the installation of sprinklers in regard to two buildings, both used for a similar purpose and identical in terms of modular construction.

One also has to consider costs and, if one uses sprinklers in certain buildings, one has to be very careful that they cannot be deliberately misused. Sprinkler systems are open to abuse and can cause difficulties. This issue should be considered in the sense that the people in those buildings may not want to be in them. As I have said, sprinklers can be used to protect particularly vulnerable groups, but they are not a panacea. That may be why the reaction was as it was in the other place. It can sometimes look like an easy solution, but it is not necessarily the case.

Watermist technology has been used for sometime now in specialist engineering and marine applications. There is no established standard for the design of watermist systems and each installation may indeed be different. Indeed, these days when fighting fires, the last thing the firemen will do is turn a full jet of water onto a fire. The delivery of the water and the use of watermist technology is totally different and much more effective in fighting fires.

I regret to say that there is not sufficient reliable evidence about the effectiveness of these systems. In some situations they will work; in others they will not work as well. We have recently commissioned the Building Research Establishment to carry out an initial project to establish what kinds of innovative fire suppression systems are being used, where and to what standard. When we have this information available we shall consider whether further investigation of the potential benefits is warranted.

In this context, the proposed amendment is unnecessary. Clause 6(2)(b)(i) already requires fire authorities to give advice, on request, about how to restrict the spread of fires in buildings. Where justified by a proper risk assessment, the fire service may already advise the installation of a sprinkler system.

Amendment No. 32 could also be taken to imply that advice on sprinklers should be given without taking account of the research evidence on their effectiveness and without regard to a proper risk assessment of the building and its occupants. The risk assessment is the basis of our approach across the board, for work places and homes and for existing and new housing. As I said, there is an issue in regard to dealing with the stock.

I am sure we shall come back to this issue. I did not intend to give a negative response and I hope that it has not appeared as such. We have commissioned further research and we wish to look at the issue in the context of the review of the building regulations. As with some of the other issues that were raised in regard to building, energy and installation, the best and most effective way of dealing with them is to consider them with the building regulations. They can be reviewed more quickly and keep pace with the changes brought about by modern technology.

Baroness Maddock

I thank the Minister for his reply. I was right: it was more friendly than the reply in another place.

I understand the point about the building regulations. However, I am particularly concerned about fires in schools. Perhaps when we return to the issue we can consider ways in which we can make it more difficult for schools not to use them. It is the one area where it works well and saves a lot of money.

Lord Rooker

I have no evidence for what I am about to say, but I know that there are some 20,000 primary schools and 4,000 secondary schools in England. My experience as a constituency member was that when a school was set on fire, it was usually at night and at a weekend. It was usually when the building was unoccupied and not being used for its normal purpose.

That is not to say you do not do anything about it. That is the point. Fires can occur when there is not enough staff and the caretaker's house can be somewhere on a campus where he has three or four schools on the go. One school burnt down whilst it was being rebuilt after a previous fire. It was heartbreaking. Now it has been built to world-class standards. Perry Beeches school has floods of visitors because of its modern technology and northern European architecture, by which I do not mean English architecture. It is a very startling building. As I say, I can also remember it being on fire when I was a young pupil there. But I shall be happy to look at the issue.

My experience with local authorities—this may apply only to the large ones—is that they self-insure; they do not go out to insure their buildings as such. So it is not a question of saving on the premium, although they would save on the distress and the absolute waste of money spent on rebuilding as the result of a fire. I shall seek further and better particulars about the situation in regard to schools before Report stage.

Baroness Maddock

I am grateful to the Minister for that. It occurred to me that we could have discussed the issue on the Housing Bill, but that would not affect schools. From the figures I have read, more fires are occurring when people are in schools than ever before. I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure we shall pursue the issue at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 33, as an amendment to Amendment No. 32, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hanningfield

There has been a great deal of agreed discussion on the issue of sprinklers. I believe that sprinklers should be in every elderly persons' home and in every school. Certainly we should try to get sprinklers installed in new build. I totally accept the Minister's view that installing them in converted buildings and existing buildings is not so simple.

I hope that we come back to this issue at later stages of the Bill. The discussion was agreed between us all. I hope that when we come back to it we shall show some enthusiasm for sprinklers becoming the norm in new build public buildings, especially where there are vulnerable groups. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 32, by leave, withdrawn.

6 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 34: Page 5, line 23, at end insert— () All fire and rescue authorities are to be included in section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (promotion of well-being) and be given the power to undertake work that promotes or improve the economic, social or environmental wellbeing of the areas they serve.

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 34 is designed to probe the Government's thinking on giving all fire and rescue authorities the power of well-being afforded to local authorities, as set out in the Local Government Act 2000. The power of well-being applies to county, unitary, London borough and district councils. However, it does not apply to combined fire authorities, fire and civil defence authorities and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which collectively comprise more than half of the fire and rescue authorities in England and Wales. Can the Minister explain whether the Government are deliberately letting this difference stand? It is interesting to note that the Scottish Executive has given fire and rescue authorities in Scotland the equivalent power of well-being in Section 20 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 2003.

As is clearly stated on the face of the Bill, fire authorities are now expected to play a full role in tackling social issues and work to prevent fires as well as to extinguish them. They are also seen as increasingly mainstream authorities, with legislation such as best value, precepting powers and, shortly, the comprehensive performance assessment process, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred earlier. However, they do not have the power to undertake activities that promote or improve the economic, social or environmental well-being of the areas they serve.

There may be benefits in extending this provision to all fire authorities. After all, freedoms and flexibilities are usually required to enable local strategic partnerships to be both creative and innovative in delivering new patterns of working and new solutions. However, we recognise that there may be important reasons why this has been left off the face of the Bill—for example, the danger of mission creep or that the power of well-being that county fire authorities enjoy is really for the overarching county council rather than the fire authority.

The aim of the amendment is to give the Government an opportunity to clarify their position on this issue. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

We support Amendment No. 34. I am unclear as to why Amendment No. 35 has not been grouped with it; they could hardly be more similar.

Lord Rooker

I am not in charge of the grouping.

Baroness Hamwee

We are not in charge of the grouping either. The trouble is that if one is not consulted on the groupings because the e-mail does not arrive, there is not much one can do about it—other than to seek the Minister's indulgence and ask him to reply to both amendments at the same time.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I was going to suggest that we should do that because it would make much more sense.

Lord Hanningfield

Perhaps I may suggest that Amendment No. 47, which is grouped with Amendment No. 34, should be spoken to separately.

Lord Rooker

Certainly. That is no problem.

Baroness Hamwee

Fire authorities have, as we know, a wide, widening and prospectively wider role. To have the power of well-being—the promotion of well-being, as we abbreviate it—would enable them to fulfil that role.

In response to a point made at Second Reading, the Minister said that he has not had examples of where there is a problem—there is a point to be made about what problem the Government see in putting this power into the Bill—and so I have sought some examples. I thought to do this only a couple of days ago. I shall read them and get them into the record. If I had thought to do it earlier, there may well have been many more.

A point was made to me that the power in the Local Government Act 2000 is still in its relatively early days and local authorities may not specifically be using that power as they will as time goes on. I recall that the power was included in the Bill, perhaps, as the next best thing to a power of general competence, which many of us were arguing for on behalf of local authorities. It is close to being the best thing and certainly ensures that local authorities are not vulnerable to claims of ultra vires.

One of the examples that I have received is from South Yorkshire where, in partnership with Humberside authority, the authority is engaged in hosting the World Fire Fighter Games. When I read that I thought, "What has that got to do with it?" hut, reading on, it became clear. The letter stated that the restricted nature of the fire authority's powers means that it cannot be involved to the degree that it would in an ideal world like to be.

The games made an excellent platform on which to herald community fire safety to an audience which would not otherwise be attentive and the authority is disappointed at not being able to fully embrace the opportunities the event would offer in a whole raft of fire-related well-being areas. It refers to the occasion as an opportunity wasted in terms of the wider fire safety agenda, to say nothing of the scope for recruitment, advertising training, anti-arson initiatives, including crime reduction, and so on.

In the area of partnerships, the lack of powers restrict the authority's ability to be pre-emptive in community safety issues. It refers to a local multi-services initiative of teaching good citizenship and life skills, including fire safety, to young people as part of its wider outreach initiative. The authority includes a current example. It states that its ability to engage in this is severely restricted by its being denied the power.

It makes the useful point that the exercise of such powers would be auditable and confined within the ethos of the fire authority's raison d'etre The officer who contacted me said: I would not envisage it being a mandate for reckless expenditure and as a legal adviser I would always advise restraint". The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made points about the ODPM's apparent concern with "mission creep". From Hull—the same area but not the same authority—I have received information that it has no powers to purchase equipment such as smoke detectors from its own budget. Considerable time is spent working with local businesses to raise funding from them for these. It is also unable to second officers to work with specific communities, or to use its budgets to carry out work with junior firefighters, the Duke of Edinburgh's Award or the Prince's Trust. Again, it spends time looking for alternative resources for these projects. The Lancashire authority also referred to the Prince's Trust and to a local community safety and combating crime initiative.

Finally, from Essex, from the noble Lord's authority, an inquiry was made whether, when doing a fire home safety check, should a fire fighter ignore an obvious unsafe situation, such as a stair guard to prevent a child falling just because it is not related to his core function. Commonsense would suggest no. The chief fire officer refers to the Bradford race riots when the West Yorkshire Fire Authority demonstrated that, as a facilitator, it could contribute significantly to bring various groups together on neutral ground.

As I say, if the counties and some fire and rescue services authorities have the power, and they have it in Scotland, and if there is concern that some things could not be done by confined authorities, why should the Government resist?

Lord Rooker

I shall deal, first, with Amendments Nos. 34 and 35 and answer the specific points raised by the noble Baroness.

Amendment No. 34 seeks to give all the fire and rescue authorities the power of well-being available under Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000. We do not believe that approach is necessary or warranted. I am sure that the Committee is aware that the power of well-being is already available to all principal local authorities. This is in recognition of their role as directly elected bodies uniquely placed to provide vision and leadership for their communities. They have multi-service delivery responsibilities and a wide strategic role. As a result, county fire and rescue authorities have access to the power of well-being by virtue of being a service department of the principal authority for their area.

However, we are not persuaded that a combined fire and rescue authority, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority or metropolitan fire and civil defence authorities, as single purpose authorities, need this particular power to aid the discharge of their statutory functions. Nor do we believe they should be able to assume the leadership functions of directly elected bodies. In taking decisions affecting their areas or their people, councils will have to weigh up the likely effects of a decision against the three objectives—economic, social and environmental—and, if necessary, strike a balance to ensure that the overall well-being of their areas is achieved. It would be difficult to combine fire authorities and fire and civil defence authorities, with their relatively narrow focus, to do this.

In our view the duty to promote fire safety under Clause 6 will provide all fire and rescue authorities with powers to work with other agencies and local partners to help save lives and create safer communities. The provisions in Clauses 5, 11 and 12, when taken together, provide significant local flexibility and discretion for all fire and rescue authorities to discharge their functions and provide a service that responds to local priorities.

I should add that we have yet to receive—I must put this on record—robust examples of where the powers in the Bill would be insufficient or inadequate, despite what I said at Second Reading. I shall turn to the points made by the noble Baroness in a moment.

The purpose of Amendment No. 35 is identical to Amendment No. 34, which I have responded to in part, in that it seeks to give all fire and rescue authorities the power. I have already made it clear that, in our view, the extension of the power is neither necessary nor warranted. We are not persuaded that the power of well-being should be extended to the combined fire and rescue authorities.

One of the examples given by the noble Baroness referred to West Yorkshire hosting the games. It will be able to do this under Clause 5, once the Bill is passed, if it is ancillary or incidental to its functions. Clearly that would be the case. Smoke detectors, for example, can be purchased under Clauses 5 and 6. Seconding officers to other groups can take place under Clause 12.

Let me give three examples of the use of the power of well-being. In regard to Gateway Employment Limited in the London Borough of Greenwich, the council has used the new power to set up a recruitment agency scheme to promote local employment. This has been established as a non-profit arm's-length company with the power to give financial assistance, enter into contracts and provide staff, good services and accommodation. The aim of the agency is to ensure better terms and conditions of employment, help to create permanent job opportunities and work with local employers to identify staff shortages. Savings to the council are projected to reach some £200,000.

Hastings Borough Council has used the well-being power to promote safe sunbathing. This is a fairly crucial issue. A large number of people die from melanoma which does not stay only on the skin. It is a serious issue, as I know personally. A partnership between the council and a local manufacturer two years ago has led to lifeguards distributing suntan lotion, free of charge in the first year and then at a reduced price. The initiative promotes safer skin care as well as a positive image of the resort. So, as well as providing the council with new strategic opportunities, it is also a power to help people to stay well.

Norfolk County Council—which I believe someone called "sleepy Norfolk" earlier—is plugging the gap in post office provision. Using the well-being power, the authority's economic development unit has developed an action plan in partnership with the Rural Shops Alliance, the Post Office and the Countryside Agency in a bid to help provide post office services. A pilot project planned will look at how mobile libraries can be used to plug the gap in some rural areas. The council plans to use its own computer network located in schools, together with a radio link, to enable mobile libraries to log-on to the post office network remotely.

As I said, we believe that there is enough flexibility in the Bill for the fire and rescue authorities to do what they are doing, but not necessarily to the extent of the single-purpose authorities that I listed earlier. I hope that that is a satisfactory response. I do not want to be a wet blanket, but an enormous amount can now be achieved. Once the Bill becomes an Act, under the clauses to which I have referred the fire and rescue authorities will have the power to undertake those other activities for the well being of our fellow citizens.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive response. I am not sure whether it answers all the questions that we posed in our amendments but it gave much food for thought. We shall return to the matter as the Bill progresses. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 35 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Fire-fighting]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 36: Page 5, line 27, leave out "life" and insert "people

The noble Baroness said: The amendment gives me the opportunity to ask the Minister how extensive is the duty of protection of people? Clause 7(1)(b) refers to making provision for, protecting life". I do not argue with that, but is the phrase an inherited one? How would an authority make a judgment as to whether there is a threat of injury—protecting limb as distinct from protecting life? I do not know whether there is anything in this matter, but I wondered when I read it. I apologise to the noble Lord. Sometimes when colleagues in the House talk of lawyers going on, I bristle; and they say, "No, not you. You're only a solicitor". I apologise on behalf of my profession if this question is completely unnecessary. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I can give a succinct and I hope satisfactory explanation for this. The wording in Clause 7(1)(b) re-enacts in modern form the existing wording of the Fire Services Act 1947. The requirement that that places on the fire and rescue authorities is well established and understood and we are not aware of any difficulties that have arisen regarding its meaning. Furthermore, no representations have been received by the fire and rescue service to lobby for the wording to be amended.

The interpretation of the word "life" has not to our knowledge been tested in the courts. There can be no question but that it covers human life. On the basis that the wording is a tried and trusted—although maybe not tested—formula on which the fire and rescue authorities have successfully operated for the past 50 years, and no one within the service is pressing for change, Amendment No. 36 is unnecessary.

To ask a rhetorical question, does the existing duty cover protection from injury from fire? The answer is yes. To discharge the duty under Clause 7(1)(b) to make provision to protect life and property in the event of fire, a fire and rescue authority will need to consider a number of factors; for example, smoke inhalation, extraction from damaged buildings, and so on. That duty is there as well. I hope that that comprehensive answer will satisfy the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hamwee

I will not seek to mend what ain't broken, but as the Minister was speaking, it occurred to me that life must be read to extend to animal life. There are issues that we will perhaps come to later about that—well, some people might think so. I make that point not wholly flippantly, because if there is to be a duty, there are issues about how extensive that duty should properly be.

Lord Rooker

I can answer that. We do not need to come back to this. In terms of life of property, I accept that for a commercial person—such as a farmer—food production animals would be property, but for individuals, their pets, or companion animals would also be property. I hope that that means we do not have to have a long debate about burning pets and animals in the next stage of the Bill.

Baroness Hamwee

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 37: Page 5, line 31, leave out "normal requirements" and insert "requirements which it is reasonable to anticipate, after taking into consideration any arrangements which the authority has entered into under the provisions of sections 13, 15 and 16

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 would qualify what a fire and rescue authority must take account of when determining what constitutes the appropriate level of people, equipment and services to discharge its duty to extinguish fires and to respond to road traffic accidents.

These two amendments deal with the same issue in relation to Clauses 7 and 8. The clauses require the authorities to, secure the provision of the personnel, services and equipment necessary efficiently to meet all normal requirements".

In the case of Clause 7, "normal requirements" relates to firefighting obligations, and in the case of Clause 8 it relates to road traffic obligations. "Normal requirements" seems a rather ambiguous term. These are probing amendments. They tighten up the language, and we wait with interest to see how the Minister reacts. Will he tell us that inserting the word in the amendments would result in something different from what is in mind when he uses "normal requirements"?

It is important that account be taken of the arrangements entered into under Clauses 13, 15 and 16, which relate to the authority's re-enforcement arrangements, any arrangements that it has with third parties for providing assistance and, under Clause 16, any arrangement that it has entered into with other parties, third parties, or other fire and rescue authorities to discharge any of its functions. Clearly, the optimally efficient operation of the service overall requires that each authority makes the provision that is required after taking into account those other arrangements.

We certainly advocate an approach that encourages fire authorities, where appropriate, to engage third parties, or work with other fire and rescue authorities, to deliver specialist services or services that require a critical delivery mass to make them economic and efficient. Part of the purpose of these amendments is to emphasise the importance of those arrangements, and to make it clear to fire authorities that the requirement to provide services, personnel and equipment directly will be reduced to the extent that they have entered into proper arrangements under Clauses 13, 15 and 16. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 qualify what a fire and rescue authority must take account of in determining what constitutes the appropriate level of people, equipment and services to discharge its duty to extinguish fires and rescue people from road traffic accidents and protect them from serious harm in the aftermath.

Clause 7(2)(a) re-enacts in a modern form the existing wording within Section 1 of the Fire Services Act 1947. This requires that a fire and rescue authority must make arrangements for securing the resources necessary— that is, people and equipment—to discharge its duty to deal with fires and to meet efficiently "all normal requirements". This structure is also repeated in Clause 8(2)(a).

The decision to retain the word "normal" in the Bill is deliberate. Within fire and rescue authorities, it is regarded as a helpful formula for defining responsibility in terms of limiting potential liability. The inclusion of the word "normal" accepts that it is for an authority, considering all its functions, priorities and available resources and arrangements with others, to determine what is an efficient service on a day-to-day basis.

The noble Lord may be seeking to establish a degree of greater clarity. We would argue that the effect of Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 taken together would weaken the duty. We shall come to the relevant clauses in due course but, for the record, Clause 13 places an expectation on fire and rescue authorities to enter into mutual assistance arrangements and Clauses 15 and 16 offer the authorities other routes to deliver services. Nevertheless, in our view, a fire and rescue authority should not be forced by statute to give them undue weight.

We believe it is right that such matters should be determined locally, taking into account all the relevant factors—for example, the integrated risk-management plans. I am not aware of any clamour or pressure from the fire and rescue service to replace the word "normal", which enjoys wide recognition and support within the service, and it has operated in that way for the past 50 years. Therefore, I hope that that is a satisfactory explanation which will allow the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for those comments. We shall read what he has said in Hansard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 [Road traffic accidents]:

[Amendment No. 38 not moved.]

Clause 8 agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 39: After Clause 8, insert the following new clause—

"EMERGENCY MEDICAL CARE (1) A fire and rescue authority must make provision for the purpose of—

  1. (a) delivering emergency medical care to persons seriously injured by fire or the effects of fire,
  2. (b) delivering emergency medical care to persons injured in road traffic accidents, and
  3. (c) providing other emergency medical care,
in situations where employees of the authority are first on the scene of an incident in relation to which the authority has functions under sections 7, 8 and 9. (2) The level of provision that must be made under subsection (1) is that which it is reasonable to make having regard to—
  1. (a) the number of such incidents to which the authority is required to respond,
  2. (b) the typical period of time during which the authority's employees are at the scene before the arrival or specialist medical or paramedical personnel, and
  3. (c) the conclusions of the consultation referred to in subsection (3).
(3) A fire and rescue authority must consult each NHS ambulance trust which has responsibility for responding to emergency incidents within its area not less than once in every two years about the level of provision it is appropriate for the authority to make in accordance with subsection (1).

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 39 touches on the issue of the first-responder and co-responder scheme and attempts to ensure that the fire service would be able to have emergency medical capabilities. The thinking behind that is that, if a fire appliance arrives at an accident before an ambulance, fire personnel are able to provide life-saving first-responder treatment. We hope that the proposal would encourage a proportion of fire officers to be trained in the use of defibrillators.

Subsection (3) of the amendment requires that a fire authority consults the relevant National Health Service ambulance trust in its area to establish that the requirements contained within subsection (1) of the amendment are met.

Much of the intent of Amendment No. 39 stems from the recommendations of the Bain report. Paragraph 6.26 of the report states: The benefits to the public of First Responder schemes are immediate, direct and obvious. We recommend brigades investigate the potential for developing First Responder partnerships".

Paragraph 10.16 comments: We recommend that some firefighters are trained as first on the scene co-responders which would give them basic life support skills including training in the use of automated defibrillators. Currently there is no central guidance on or standards developed for co-responders. Rather than develop prescriptive central guidance, we suggest brigades will need to agree with their local Ambulance Service and NHS Trust what is expected and how appropriate training can best be provided".

On 8 May 2003, in another place, the Deputy Prime Minister commented: In some areas, there is flexible crewing or alternative shift patterns are in operation … In still others, firefighters are already using defibrillators and participating in co-responder schemes with the ambulance services, but elsewhere they are not. In too many areas, there are none of these things. Effectively, we have a postcode lottery for fire and rescue services, which is not acceptable".—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/03; col. 858.]

This amendment has its foundation solidly within the Bain report. We are not attempting to place increased burdens on the fire service, but merely acknowledging the modern environment that fire authorities now operate in. To us, it seems entirely sensible for the fire service to have the ability and the resources to offer immediate emergency assistance in the event that they are first on the scene in an accident.

This amendment does not seek to replace the ambulance service, but to support it. Firefighters would not be replacing paramedics, but would use simple-to-operate, automatic defibrillators, following standard training in their use. The aim is that firefighters could stabilise, say, cardiac arrest victims, until trained paramedics arrived. Having defibrillators on some fire engines would mean that firefighters are better equipped to help people at fires and other incidents. As the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister touched on, it would additionally bring a much-needed uniformity in the provision of immediate emergency assistance across the country.

I notice a recent ballot for industrial action taken by members of the FBU in Tower Hamlets against plans to introduce a trial lifesaver co-respondent scheme in the borough. I find this quite bewildering. This amendment would therefore effectively bypass the legitimacy of the FBU to take action on these grounds—something I hope that all members of this Committee would support. The amendment is not prescriptive; it leaves it as a possibility that this could be done.

We would all say that in the circumstance where someone's life is in danger and there is a possibility that another organisation could be trained to deal with that—in an emergency situation where they are likely to be the first people on the scene—this would be a sensible measure. It is one that I would have thought that a number of firefighters would not be adverse to being trained to carry out. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

We mentioned the issue of co-responder schemes at Second Reading. I very much support what the noble Baroness has said, not least because it is in the expectation of the public these days that all emergency services should be able to undertake what we have come to see as fairly basic care and assistance. We probably should not, because that may mean that we are devaluing what they provide.

At a time when there is talk of defibrillators being made available in aircraft, at railway stations and so on—a blue light service—the public can now reasonably expect to be moving in this area. I realise that there will be some potential problems in this, because once one starts down this road, it is expected that all response vehicles will be equipped and that there will be one officer on each of them who is able to carry out the treatment. When one starts to think about this, one wonders whether they cannot all do it and whether people will worry about being sued for negligence if they do not. One has to consider the insurance problems that arise from all that. I think that it is not necessarily straightforward. Therefore, if I say "reasonable", I do not mean to make it sound easy. But I believe that we should take the opportunity provided by this legislation to encourage the process that the public are coming to expect.

Lord Rooker

This is an important issue, and I fully take on board the noble Baroness's point concerning what the public have come to expect in this regard. The new clause is clearly intended to create a new duty on all fire and rescue authorities to make provision to deliver emergency medical assistance when the fire and rescue service is first on the scene.

Each fire and rescue authority would have to judge what provision it was reasonable to make under the new clause, taking into account the likely number of incidents attended and the period of time before the arrival of specialist medical staff. In determining what constitutes "reasonable provision", a fire and rescue authority would be required to consult the National Health Service ambulance trust operating in its area at least once every two years. While we recognise the spirit in which the new clause has been tabled, we think that it is unnecessary and, at present, unhelpful to extend the duties of the fire and rescue authorities as proposed.

The aim of emergency service response is, of course, to reduce the number of deaths and the number and severity of injuries. Increasing co-operation with other emergency services and adapting new ways of working can greatly improve the service provided to the public. For example, as has been said, the carrying of defibrillator equipment on fire appliances in some fire and rescue authorities has helped to save lives. We know that. Therefore, we made it clear through the draft Fire and Rescue National Framework that fire and rescue authorities should explore the benefits of working with others, including by implementing first and/or co-responder schemes.

In our view, such schemes are to be commended and encouraged where fire and rescue authorities and their local ambulance trusts consider them appropriate. We are giving fire and rescue authorities the power under Clause 11 to equip for, and respond to, a range of scenarios, and co-responder initiatives could form a part of that response. However, we do not believe that it would be appropriate to make this type of activity a core function. We need to see how the schemes which are already in existence develop and bed in before going further.

In our view, this combination of policy expectations, backed up by intervention powers and supported by appropriate legislative underpinning, provides the right balance. In other words, not accepting the amendment means that there is no barrier to the duty being undertaken in the future, as it currently is in some areas. In our opinion, imposing a new core function, which would have significant implications for the fire and rescue service in terms of resources and training, is not warranted or helpful at present.

In terms of training staff, it is the case that, for their own health and safety purposes and those of their colleagues, firefighters have first-aid expertise, which encompasses life-saving skills—for example, resuscitation techniques. Clearly, firefighters use those skills, where appropriate, on members of the public who are injured at the scene of an incident. No doubt, such assistance often proves to be important in the successful treatment and recovery of those who are injured and, indeed, in saving their lives.

Making it a core function in the Bill at the present time is not warranted or helpful. That is not a criticism. We commend such schemes where the fire and rescue authorities and their local partners consider them appropriate. We give them all possible support. However, we do not see that being a requirement of a new core function in this legislation.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for that reply. It is worth raising this matter as it is an important aspect. I do not know much about the London ambulance service but I am conscious of its reorganisation in having paramedics. One sees the yellow Rover cars travelling around containing paramedics who are first on the scene and they act before the ambulance arrives. That is now an enormously important part of the ambulance service's response to problems and it is enormously effective. It means that people are treated immediately. It seems neither wrong nor out of order to expect another public service to be in a position to do something similar—something that will help all the other public services—and stabilising people much more quickly so that far less harm is caused to them.

I understand what the Minister says, although I have a question for him, but he may not know the answer at the moment. There is an understanding that there is a permissive nature that enables fire authorities to do such things at the moment. If that is correct, do they carry out such procedures under legislation or do they act through their own goodwill? If they are not required to do that, there may potentially be difficulties—as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has just said to me sotto voce—in relation to legislation if someone does not take action when expected to. Having such a provision in legislation would ensure that it was rational for them to perform in that way.

Lord Rooker

We shall return to this matter and I want to give as much information as I can. My point is not unimportant. I understand that defibrillators are legally carried on fire appliances at the moment for the use of the firefighters. They are covered. Making use of them for the general public is fully consistent. but they are one of the appliances primarily for the legal use of the firefighters themselves. There is no legal gateway for carrying them for the general use of the public.

I was not happy with the answer that I gave, although it was a legitimate answer. I am not knocking what I have just said in answer to the debate. but we shall have to return to this area. We are trying to modernise the fire service in many ways and getting the services to work as partners. We are turning the service into a fire and rescue service, which is important. That is an important aspect. On the other hand, there is the aspect of training and the legal requirements about the position, and about who does what first. Next we shall be asking ambulances to carry fire extinguishers in case they arrive at the scene first. One has to be careful about this. I am sure we shall return to this point.

I am happy to announce that the Bill gives clear authority to carry such equipment on fire appliances for the use of the general public. I am making a case and saying that such situations apply in some authorities and we think it is a good idea that services should work in partnership. We commend such a move. On one visit to the Fire Service College with the Deputy Prime Minister this issue was raised in relation to the appliances there. The legal aspect was drawn to our attention. However, the Bill gives legal authority in Clause 11. Clause 11 appears to be an important clause as I have referred to it many times today. I hope that that extra information will clarify future debates on this matter in relation to the current legal position.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Baroness comes back on that point, I wonder whether the Minister can also announce that Clause 11 gives clear legal authority to fire and rescue authorities to undertake training and administer treatment. I am getting a nod from behind the Minister.

Lord Rooker

If that is the case, I am certainly happy to do so. Clause 11 seems to be a very widespread clause. Needless to say, I did read the Bill, but a long time ago. It is a power to respond to other eventualities. That is part of the original definition that we discussed earlier. A fire and rescue service is not only a firefighting service; it goes far wider than that.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister. I assume that the power is under subsection (2)(a). I am looking for someone to check or nod. If it is not there, I do not see where it is. I am not disputing that it is there; I simply want to clarify where it is.

Lord Rooker

I confirm that the noble Baroness has correctly identified the power as being under Clause 11(2)(a).

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister. It is a permissive power to enable the carrying of defibrillators. At some stage, perhaps, we may come back to that briefly in order to see how it can be included in regulations or guidance—or the framework, if nothing else—so that it can be made clear that this is a perfectly reasonable thing for fire and rescue services to do. Frankly, I do not know much about defibrillators but I do not believe that it takes a million years to learn how to use them. However, I think that technical or insurance matters may arise as a result of their use. I believe that the discussion we have had will shorten the debate at the next stage of the Bill. I am very grateful to the Minister for his reply, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 [Emergencies]:

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 40: Page 6, line 24, at end insert "but such an order may only be made with the consent of each authority in the area of which such functions are to be discharged

The noble Lord said: Clause 9 deals with the fourth category of responsibilities—an unspecified category relating to emergencies—to be placed on fire and rescue authorities. Those responsibilities are to be defined by order. The Secretary of State has the power to specify a function for which a fire and rescue authority will have responsibility other than the functions that Clauses 6 to 8 already confer. The power to confer that function over a wider area than that of the authority is significant because, unlike in the draft order, it does not necessarily have to be done in a uniform way across all authorities. We are concerned about a situation in which a Secretary of State would confer functions on an authority to be discharged over the area of many authorities.

Amendment No. 40 specifically provides that the recipient authority in whose area the function was to be discharged should consent to the discharge of the function by the other authority. We acknowledge that there is a perfectly sensible case for extra-territorial functioning by fire and rescue authorities but it must be based on consent in a planned and agreed way. However, the clause goes much further and allows the Secretary of State to make asymmetric arrangements without the consent of the recipient authority. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on this matter. However, I believe that the circumstances in which we see the authority acting outside the authority area are such that the noble Lord will probably see the sense of what I am about to say.

We have supplied a copy of the draft order to those who spoke at Second Reading as an indication of what the fire and rescue authority will be required to do in the event of emergencies such as flooding or a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident. The Government's intention is that a fire and rescue authority which is required to act outside its own area could potentially carry out those functions anywhere in England. As the noble Lord explained, the amendment would require the consent of all fire and rescue authorities in England.

Besides the practical problems that it would present, in our view, the amendment would undermine any duty to respond outside a fire and rescue authority's area. One purpose of the clause is to ensure resilience in the event of a major emergency. So far as we are concerned, it does not make a great deal of sense that if a terrorist attack took place, for example, in Surrey, a neighbouring authority, such as London, would be unable to assist unless Surrey's fire and rescue authority had consented to an order requiring London to act in the Surrey area. I am sure that people waiting to be decontaminated, or those needing to be rescued from collapsed buildings, would prefer to know that the authority with the most appropriate equipment and experience could respond to the emergency that had arisen.

It may also help if I explain how we see that working. In the event of an emergency, the regional control rooms would direct the most appropriately equipped fire and rescue authority to supply equipment and/or personnel to the area where the incident had occurred. That would be no different to a control room directing the most appropriate fire and rescue authority to attend a fire, except that, for reasons of national resilience, they would be able to direct across boundaries.

I am sure that the noble Lord will see the sense of this measure. It is about being practical in the circumstances and ensuring a swift and flexible response. Obviously the niceties of boundaries must be understood but, where there is a regional commitment and a regional need, it seems to us that having this inflexible barrier could act only to obfuscate, delay or prevent the service doing what it is there to do and would weaken national resilience.

Lord Hanningfield

I take note, in particular, of what the noble Lord said in relation to emergencies. Obviously one has some fears about other occasions, but I shall look carefully at what has been said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Rooker

In view of the phenomenal progress that we have made today, this may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn until Tuesday 11 May at 3.30 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff)

The Committee stands adjourned until Tuesday 11 May at 3.30 p.m.

The Committee adjourned at eight minutes before seven o'clock.