HL Deb 11 May 2004 vol 661 cc61-114GC

(Second Day)

The Committee met at seventeen minutes past four of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff)

I do not think that I need to repeat all the rules of this place in terms of Divisions and so on. We may as well go straight into the business.

Clause 9 [Emergencies]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 40A: Page 6, line 19, after "order" insert "in case of urgent need

The noble Baroness said: As I understand it, the purpose of the clause, which is headed "Emergencies", is to empower the Secretary of State to confer on the authorities additional functions relating to emergencies, as that term is defined. The Secretary of State may do so by order, subject to negative resolution. I said "confer" as that is the term in the clause. However, I think that "impose" would be better.

My amendment is a rather clumsy way of asking why the circumstances are not detailed in the body of the Bill. Why does the clause not set out the functions which fire and rescue authorities are equipped and/or able to perform relating to emergencies?

The memorandum which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister provided to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee spelt out many anticipated circumstances at quite some length. It referred to major floods, air accidents, accidents at sea, decontamination in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack, and search and rescue in the event of the collapse of buildings. Unhappily, Members of the Committee will readily be able to imagine that fire and rescue authorities will be well equipped to assist when responding to those emergencies. That is what the public would expect them to do and the public will be very grateful.

I do not want to suggest that the authorities should not undertake those responsibilities. It is common ground that modernisation demands a more extensive, more realistic set of duties to be enshrined in legislation. We heard last week how useful other clauses—in particular Clause 11—will be in allowing a much broader, more up-to-date approach than that in the 1947 Act. But, surely, if dealing with other emergencies is contemplated, we should have something more in the Bill about what those functions might be. We have the draft order, after all, and that must be a starting point. There may be differences of view about the wording, but surely the terms of the functions are not in issue.

If the Government are now in a position to say what those functions should be, it is right and proper that they should be dealt with on the face of the Bill. Unless, of course—and this is where my amendment has a tangential relevance—it is a case of urgent need, when a second order procedure could be used. I beg to move.

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

I can understand why the noble Baroness has moved the amendment but we think that it is possible that she may have misunderstood the whole purpose of Clause 9, which is to enable the fire and rescue authorities to plan for and respond effectively to emergencies such as floodings or terrorist events.

Much of the time of the fire and rescue service is already spent on non-fire emergencies and it has acquired a wide range of equipment and experience for dealing with these matters. The public expectation is that the fire and rescue service will respond to a range of incidents, including chemical, biological, radiological and, indeed, nuclear exposure, search and rescue work and flooding. However, the fire and rescue service is at the moment required only to make provision for fire fighting. This raises potential issues of consistency and effectiveness of response, as well as issues of vires, about which the fire and rescue service has become increasingly concerned.

The effect of Amendment No. 40A would be that an order could be made only in the event of an emergency. This would not enable the fire and rescue authorities properly to plan for and respond to such emergencies. It therefore would not provide the proper legislative support that the fire and rescue service seeks.

I appreciate the noble Baroness's point about putting our ideas in regard to emergency duties on the face of the Bill—I questioned this myself on Bills in the other place when I was in opposition—but if we were to list definitively all the emergencies to which the fire and rescue authorities had a duty to respond, then, with the best will in the world and the best brains in Whitehall, we would run the risk of missing something out and of not covering all possible risks. Simply by taking the power to create new duties by order, we retain the ability to respond to changing needs. That is why the clause is drafted in the way in which it is.

We have supplied an early copy of the order to those noble Lords who spoke during the Second Reading of the Bill. The draft provides an indication of what the fire and rescue service authorities would be required to do in the event of emergencies such as flooding and chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents. I should remind Members of the Committee that the draft order in their possession is not yet available to the public. We expect to launch a full public consultation on it later this year.

As I said, I understand why the noble Baroness has tabled her amendment and the points she has made, but I respectfully ask her to withdraw it.

Baroness Hamwee

The Minister is right—I did misunderstand. But after I had read it last night, I understood it properly. That is why my speech was a little contorted.

I would not propose that we should have something definitive on the face of the Bill. That is why I mentioned putting into the Bill what has been identified but allowing for a further order. Since so much progress has been made in identifying what might be needed in circumstances as we now know them, I think that the right and proper way to move forward would be to deal with this in primary legislation without cutting off the opportunity to extend the functions as they may be required in future. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 40B not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 41: Page 6, line 36, at end insert— (3A) An order under this section conferring a function additional to its functions under sections 7 and 8 for which a fire and rescue authority must make provision, shall also provide for the payment to that authority by the Secretary of State of sums calculated to meet the capital and recurring costs of such a function.

The noble Lord said: The Government have implicitly accepted that the intention is to develop specialist resources within fire and rescue authorities. That is a sensible idea. They will deploy wherever they are needed but will be financed in the ordinary course of events, primarily by council tax payers in their home area.

It seems appropriate to provide in the Bill that if the Secretary of State confers specialist responsibilities that are to be prepared and exercised for the benefit of a much wider group of council tax payers, the council tax payers of the specialist authority should not end up bearing the cost. Therefore, Amendment No. 41 seeks to impose on the Secretary of State an obligation to match the functions that he confers with funding of the capital and revenue costs of those functions.

Perhaps the Minister can reassure the Committee that the Bill contains such provision elsewhere to cover any incurred cost. I concede that Clause 16 deals with reimbursement but not for functions conferred by Clause 9. I look to the Minister to explain how the burden would be equitably distributed or, if it is not to be equitably distributed among council tax payers let it be borne entirely on his own broad shoulders. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, the amendment would require the fire and rescue authorities to be compensated for carrying out any duties which may be specified in the order under this clause, which has already been referred to. As set out in an early draft order which we circulated, we envisage those duties encompassing such emergencies as flooding and chemical spills.

As I have said, much of the time of the fire and rescue services is already spent in dealing with those non-fire emergencies and it has acquired a wide range of equipment and experience in those matters. In the Bill we are simply creating a clearer legislative framework to enable fire and rescue authorities to plan for and respond to such emergencies. The only new challenge is responding to the increased terrorist threat. We recognise that and have funded it accordingly.

It is not part of the Bill but we are providing £188 million over three years, which includes training. We are also currently discussing with the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and the Local Government Association the revenue implications of responding to new dimension incidents. It does not matter where the work is carried out—whether in its own area or that of another fire or rescue authority—the equipment, training and additional funding to cover resource costs will still have been provided by the Secretary of State. Therefore, we do not see any need to make provision for additional payment.

It is normal, of course, for governments never to be thanked for the money they put into services, but I repeat that we have made £188 million available over a three-year period for the functions I mentioned; that is, over and above those which are taking place at present.

Baroness Hamwee

If the Government do not wish to spell out in this clause the extra functions, the extra circumstances, how can they argue that in conferring functions—we know not what they are because they are not spelt out—we should have faith in the funding? I do not take issue with the Minister about the amount which has been paid to the fire authorities for new dimensions work. However, I am not sure that the two positions are wholly consistent. In the Commons, Mr Raynsford said on a group of amendments, which included, if not precisely this one, one making the same point: It does not matter where the work is carried out … the equipment, the training and additional funding to cover resource costs will still have been provided by the Secretary of State".—[Official Report, Commons; Standing Committee G, 12/2/04; col. 127.] The amendment is unnecessary as of 11 May 2004, but how do we know about 2006 or 2016? I should like to think that it would be, but the amounts involved for capital equipment are great. It is very expensive. Things such as gas-tight suits are much more expensive than one might think. So we are talking about large sums of money.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker

I will just respond to the noble Baroness. I do not have all the details. The £188 million is over three years. It includes £56 million for phase 1 of the new dimension project covering mass decontamination. Obviously, that leaves £132 for phase 2, which will cover search and rescue. It covers training as well as equipment. As regards extra burdens, we have the new-burden rules across government, which we meticulously follow. We have to in ODPM because we are always reminded if we do not. But we actually police those rules because we have responsibility for local government and the fire service. So this is an issue.

In addition. I would point out that ODPM has spent almost £8 million on new dimension training for the fire and rescue service. So money is flowing in for these new—if I can call them—"burdens". That is not quite the right word, but the noble Baroness understands the sense of what I am saying.

Baroness Hamwee

Yet again we are in the position where either the Government think that they are going to remain in administration for ever or at any rate for some decades, or they do not think that the Bill is robust enough to stand up for use by a future administration. That remains my point. I shall try not to make it too often this afternoon.

Baroness Hanham

I understand capital. That is easy because there is a very clear result from capital expenditure. One knows exactly what one is doing and exactly where one is providing. I can understand about training being provided by the Government because that will probably be done centrally and at one of the training colleges. That can also be identified. What I do not understand are the revenue aspect implications. If one has quickly to move people from one area to another, one may very well have to rely on their doing overtime. One indeed may have to bring in extra off-duty firefighters from elsewhere. So the revenue implications would be either overtime expenditure or payment for extra people. How will that be allocated to a specific incident?

As I understand the burdens issue, it is easy so far as concerns the capital, but not so easy with the revenue because one would have to make special one-off payments to a fire authority. Perhaps the Minister can explain.

Lord Rooker

I will give a little more of the background, some of which exists at the present time. There are arrangements for mutual assistance in the event of emergencies. One could argue that in practice there is no satisfactory arrangement in place to ensure the wider level of emergency fire and rescue service support necessary to guarantee the national resilience needed to deal with the new levels of threat, which is what we are talking about. So, it is essential that coordinated arrangements are in place in which every fire and rescue authority can participate according to its means.

The Government will be supplying most of the equipment and the vehicles under the new dimension programme, but we need to be assured that it will be available where and when it is needed. That is why we need a legislative framework in place to ensure that authorities know what their responsibilities are in the event of emergency and can carry them out where and when necessary without worrying about the issues of liability and level of access to the appropriate training and equipment.

We already have arrangements in place for the funding of new dimension incidents, and existing funding mechanisms to meet the costs, which are the subject of continuing discussion between the authorities, the Local Government Association and ourselves, so we do not think there is any need to set out such an arrangement in the Bill. That is the point. We are replacing fire legislation from 1947, so one hopes that the Bill will stand the test of time. However, it will not do so if we write a load of incredible extra detail into it.

Lord Hanningfield

There is now financing for equipment and so on, and there is a three-year programme but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, says, the equipment is very expensive. Labour is very expensive; the firemen cost a lot of money. The Minister said that the money was mainly for emergencies, but the Bill does not specify that; it could he for all sorts of other things that the Government might say that they need a fire authority to do, on a wider remit. Therefore, it seems sensible that there be a provision that those authorities should be paid.

As we all know, fire authorities have had an extremely difficult time with budgets this year, mainly because of their first precept. Most had to raise balances that they had not had before. They are very cash-strapped at the moment. We may return to the issue several times later in the Bill, because we need to get clear who is financing what. Fire authorities are small, not big, and a few thousand pounds can sometimes make a lot of difference to them.

Lord Rooker

I have something to say to avoid repetition. As the noble Lord said, the issues will flow through quite a bit of our debate today. I do not want to keep saying the same thing. When the points are made, we will take them away and have a look at them. I say that without any commitment, but the point is that the whole packaging of funding, charging and so on is in the Bill and subject to amendment. We are trying to look at the matter in the spirit of co-operation.

Without commitment to come back with amendments on Report, where the points are made we will try to make sure that we have satisfactory responses. If the response is not that satisfactory, we will look at how we can clarify it, in regulations or whatever the case may be. I do not want to say that on every group of amendments on finance. The same theme will run throughout, because of the nature of the fire and rescue service and the way in which it is operated not by central government, but with input from them in terms of the funding, particularly the extra funding for the new dimension.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for those comments. He has agreed with what I said, really: we shall come back to the funding issues. I hope that, by the time that we get to the end of the Bill, there will be some clarity on who is doing what. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Directions relating to particular fires and emergencies]:

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 42: Page 7, line 3, after "State" insert "for the purpose of ensuring preparedness for an emergency as defined in section I of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (meaning of "emergency")

The noble Lord said: Clause 10 gives the Secretary of State powers to direct an individual fire or incident. I cannot stress how concerned I am in respect of that possibility. It is reminiscent of, I think, Churchill in 1912, and is a step that should worry us all. If we remember, the Deputy Prime Minister did not seem able to get out of his bed during a key stage of the fire negotiations, so it does not bode very well for him getting out of bed to direct an emergency or a big incident. To the relief of us all, the Secretary of State will not personally take charge. Therefore, the amendments attempt to shed some light on who will actually do so. We need to understand more precisely what the Government have in mind.

I suspect that the Secretary of State will delegate the powers to a senior regional fire officer in each region, who will exercise them on his behalf in respect of an individual fire or emergency scene. I am sure that the Government will say that the power is needed to deal with only the most extreme emergencies. Again, I must ask why arrangements being put in place in the Civil Contingencies Bill are not adequate enough to deal with such super-emergencies.

It is my understanding that the purpose of that Bill is to deal with major incidents and put in place an overarching command structure with the resources to meet their scale, as we have just discussed. Furthermore, the powers of direction of individual fire and emergency incidents given by the Deputy Prime Minister in the Bill may conflict with, or cut across, the powers of a senior officer who is responsible under other legislation. Amendment No. 42 effectively ties in this Bill with the intent within the Civil Contingencies Bill, ensuring that there is no confusion or duplication in respect of his powers.

Amendment No. 43 ensures that the Secretary of State can take such an action only after recourse to Parliament. Of course, we do not seek to hinder the response of an emergency service to a major incident. However, I am concerned that the real intent within this clause has more to do with other circumstances—for example, those due to a possible breakdown in industrial relations.

Amendment No. 44 is consequential to Amendment No. 42, if that amendment is accepted. Amendment No. 45 is designed to draw from the Minister further clarification on what scale and size a fire would have to be before the Secretary of State became involved. At present, I believe that this clause is simply too opaque and vague in relation to the possible power that it intends to confer upon the Secretary of State. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I apologise that my speech on this group of amendments is rather long but I need to put it on the record. However, the point is that it underlines the importance of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. In some ways, Amendments Nos. 42 to 45 suggest a misunderstanding relating to Clause 10. That clause provides, in some respects, a safety net to enable a fire and rescue authority to take action quickly during an unusual or catastrophic event. It is important to place these issues on the record simply because of the read-over with the Civil Contingencies Bill and so that there is no misunderstanding at future stages of the Bill.

Amendment No. 42 would limit the circumstances under which the Secretary of State could direct a fire and rescue authority to ensure preparedness for an emergency under Part 1 of the Civil Contingencies Bill. As the wording suggests, Part 1 of' that Bill is primarily about contingency planning rather than response. On the other hand, Clause 10 of this Bill is intended to be used only to make urgent provision once an unusual or catastrophic event has occurred which no one has foreseen and for which authorities have been unable to plan. In such cases, there will have been no time to carry out contingency planning. It may also be the case that a level of central coordination is required. It will therefore be necessary for the Secretary of State to act quickly in directing authorities to ensure that the appropriate action is taken to preserve public safety.

Clause 10 is also intended to enable a particular authority to be directed to deal with a particular emergency. For example, a fire and rescue authority with the appropriate training and equipment may be required to carry out search and rescue in an area in which the local fire and rescue authority does not have the resources to cope on its own. Part 1 of the Civil Contingencies Bill, on the other hand, is designed primarily to make generic provision applying to a range of responders.

Furthermore, we do not see any need to use the definition of "emergency" in the Civil Contingencies Bill as the trigger for action under Clause 10. The definition of an emergency in the Civil Contingencies Bill is, by necessity, different from the definition in this Bill as it applies to a broad range of very different responders and so needs to be fairly detailed and transparent. We prefer to use the definition of the word as it appears in this Bill, which is tailored to the activities of fire and rescue authorities.

Perhaps I may give an example. While fire and rescue authorities are involved in responding to terrorist attacks, they have no direct role in corn bating terrorism. Therefore, it is not necessary specifically to mention terrorism in this Bill. But in the Civil Contingencies Bill, which applies to the police, there is merit in specifically mentioning terrorism.

4.45 p.m.

The effect of Amendment No. 42, which seeks to limit the circumstances under which the powers of a Secretary of State could be used to issue a direction for the purpose of ensuring preparedness for an emergency as defined in Clause 1 of the Civil Contingencies Bill, would be to restrict the ability of a fire and rescue authority to act swiftly.

Amendment No. 43 would require a direction by the Secretary of State to be made by order. Again, Amendment No. 43 seems to reflect a misunderstanding of what Clause 10 is intended to cover. The power of the Secretary of State to issue a direction would be used when an unusual or catastrophic event has happened and its effects are already upon us—for example, a fire on a massive scale or an emergency such as a terrorist event on the scale of 11 September 2001.

Such unusual or catastrophic events are, by their nature, ones for which fire and rescue authorities will not have planned under an order made under Clause 9 of the Bill. In such circumstances, and where events dictate that an authority needs to act swiftly, there would be very little time, or no time at all, to issue an order before the Secretary of State could direct a fire and rescue authority to take swift action. The effect of Amendment No. 43 would be to hamper a co-ordinated response by fire and rescue authorities to an unusual or catastrophic event.

We do, however, acknowledge the concern about the powers of the Secretary of State under Clause 10. I wish to reassure the Committee that, although speed of action would rule out the making of an order, Ministers would make a Statement to the House as soon as practicable on making such a direction. Indeed, the issue of reporting to Parliament is the subject of an amendment to which we shall come shortly.

Amendment No. 44 would require a direction by the Secretary of State to specify the circumstances under which a particular action must be taken in the event of a fire or other emergency. Yet again, this reflects a misunderstanding of what the clause is intended to cover. For example, Amendment No. 44 would not assist a fire and rescue authority's response during a catastrophic fire on a massive scale or an emergency such as a terrorist event on the scale of 11 September 2001. In the event of such emergencies, the fire and rescue authority, like the rest of us, will be only too well aware of the circumstances, and the Secretary of State would issue a direction, if necessary, to ensure an appropriate response to those circumstances.

Finally, Amendment No. 45 would require a direction by the Secretary of State to describe the class or type of fire to which it applies. I need again to clarify this point. The purpose of Clause 10 is to allow the Secretary of State to issue a direction swiftly to a fire and rescue authority where circumstances require it during an unusual or catastrophic event, including a fire. An example of this could be where one or more incendiary devices were set off at co-ordinated times in a city and intended to cause maximum disturbance, chaos and casualties.

Having to classify the type or class of fire within a direction would limit the Secretary of State's power so that it could not be exercised in relation to a particular incident. This would mean that a fire and rescue authority could not be instructed to respond to a particularly unusual or catastrophic incident quickly and would therefore hamper a fire and rescue authority's response.

In summary, the amendments seem to misunderstand the purpose of Clause 10. I hope that the extra time I have spent explaining it has been helpful.

The point that the direction cuts across the responsibilities of other offices and services is not correct. Under Clause 10, the direction can apply only to a fire and rescue authority. As to the delegation of power to a single regional fire officer—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield—power cannot be delegated but will be exercised after taking appropriate advice from, for example, the Chief Fire Officers Association or Her Majesty's Fire Services Inspectorate.

I am not criticising the amendments but, given that overview of the purpose of Clause 10, I hope noble Lords will concede that they are not necessary. As I said, they would hamper the actions of the fire and rescue authority at relevant times.

Lord Hanningfield

The one thing the Minister did not comment on was my suggestion that these powers for the Secretary of State were extensive. They could be designed not for an emergency, which one understands, but an industrial action. The Minister did not comment on that aspect.

Lord Rooker

I am desperately trying to avoid industrial relations issues during the passage of this Bill, but I may fail. The provisions relate to fires and emergencies. I am not a lawyer but I do not believe that industrial issues are the central purpose of Clause 10. I will come back if I am wrong on that.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister. We will read his comments in detail. Although there should he powers to deal with emergency situations, one must ensure that those conferred on the Secretary of State are not so much that one loses the democratic element. It was suggested that Statements would be made in the House and so forth, but we need to read the Minister's replies. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 43 to 45 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 45A: Page 7, line 10, at end insert— ( ) A direction made under this section shall be reported by the Secretary of State to Parliament within 14 days.

The noble Baroness said: This, too, is an amendment to Clause 10 and the Minister has anticipated the point about reporting to Parliament. I understand that the clause is drawn as a safety net, but it must he proper for the Secretary of State, having taken emergency action being unable to wait half a day or whatever, to report to Parliament afterwards. Even more importantly, it must be possible for him to explain himself to the fire and rescue authority which is the subject of the direction. The period of 14 days may not be right, but I wanted to raise the general point. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The amendment would oblige the Secretary of State to report to Parliament within 14 days of making a direction under Clause 10. We take the view it is right that Members of the Committee should wish to ensure that Parliament is informed quickly of any order made under Clause 10. Indeed, my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has written to members of the Standing Committee in another place stating that the Secretary of State would make a Statement to Parliament either before exercising the powers under Clause 10 or as soon as possible thereafter.

Having said that, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I was not aware of the letter. Indeed, the point came entirely out of my head and was not prompted by what was happening at the other end of the Palace. I am pleased that we have it on the record because letters to a handful of MPs are not the same as getting the information in Hansard. With that, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Power to respond to other eventualities]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 45B: Page 7, line 15, after second "to" insert "or in anticipation of

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 45B, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 45C. Last week, we heard of the importance of Clause 11 and only after I had tabled the amendment did I realise that although subsection (1)(a) does not seem to anticipate events, subsection (1)(b) probably does. However, it is necessary to read them two or three times together in order to interpret them in that way. I now construe them as indicating that a fire and rescue authority would anticipate in taking preparatory steps.

Amendment No. 45C proposes the inclusion in Clause 11(1) of a power to secure training as well as the provision of equipment. Why is equipment singled out? Is it because we are talking about particular equipment? I understand, for instance, that if this country needed really heavy lifting equipment, it might well have to obtain it from a country in mainland Europe because it is not available in this country. Is that the sort of thing that is to be covered?

I wondered whether issues of personnel could be read into this by what is set out in Clause 5; that is, the reference to providing for power to, do anything which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of its functions", but Clause 11 is not about a function. Clause 11 refers to a power, so I do not think that Clause 5 applies. I wonder whether the Minister can help on that. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

In short, we think that the matters covered in the amendments are already provided for within Clause 11, and I shall try to explain why. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, anticipated part of the answer in re-reading Clause 11(1)(b). As drafted, it allows the fire and rescue authority to take any action it considers appropriate, for the purpose of enabling action to be taken in response to such an event or situation". it believes is one that causes or is likely to cause a risk to individuals or the environment. I hope that the noble Baroness managed to follow that. I think it is clear.

The key phrase to understand here is, for the purpose of enabling action". Its intention is to give fire and rescue authorities clear statutory authority to make arrangements; for example, to plan and equip for a response to a specific type of incident before that incident takes place.

Without that ability, the fire and rescue authorities would not have the capacity to anticipate and Clause 11 would not meet its purpose of ensuring that fire and rescue authorities have discretion and, probably more importantly, flexibility to mitigate and respond to local risks and priorities; for example, those emerging from their integrated risk management plan.

We think that Clause 11 is an important part of the new arrangement of duties and powers we are giving to authorities for the first time over and above their longstanding duty, which is now in Clause 7, to make provision for fighting fires. Clauses 6, 8 and 9 add the duty to promote fire safety and to respond to road traffic accidents and other emergencies. Clause 11 gives them the power to prepare and equip for responding to other incidents so that they can develop their integrated risk management plans and embed response to such incidents in their work. For example, Clause 11 will allow a fire and rescue authority to make provision to participate in a co-responder scheme. I am sure that noble Lords will remember that we discussed these schemes previously when we confirmed that the Government supported their introduction where a fire and rescue authority and local ambulance trust felt it was appropriate.

While the Bill stops short on making it a duty on all fire and rescue authorities to participate in such schemes, Clause 11 does provide statutory authority for those who choose to do so. The national framework stresses the benefits and gives support to their establishment.

While the Bill does not impose specific duties on authorities to respond to other incidents, there is a clear expectation that the integrated risk management planning process will lead to authorities deciding to do so in whatever manner best suits their local circumstances. The clause will remove any doubt about the power of authorities to implement such decisions and their power to instruct their staff to do so.

Other examples where Clause 11 could be used to meet local needs and priorities are where a fire and rescue authority judges it needs the capacity to deal with incidents requiring specialist training or equipment; for example, to effect rope rescue or animal rescue.

Amendment No. 45C raises the issue of authority for training. The enabling power within Clause 11(1)(b) provides for all matters a lire and rescue authority requires in preparing to respond to an incident. In our view, it is implicit that this broad power includes appropriate and adequate training of firelighters. Such matters are necessary for a fire and rescue authority to be satisfied that it can undertake the emergency response envisaged under Clause 11(2). Indeed, not to do so could pose questions about the competence of a fire and rescue authority, and perhaps raise issues about liability and the health and safety of staff. I hope that that point has satisfied the noble Baroness.

Finally, the clause extends the existing power to provide discretionary or special services under the Fire Services Act 1947. However, historically there has been a lack of clarity about the ability to equip for those services. Clause 11(4) deals with that problem, and it provides statutory authority to train firefighters to provide discretionary services. We had not thought that that would be a problem in drafting the clause in the way in which it is drafted. I take slight issue with the noble Baroness when she says that Clause 11 is not a function. We think that it is; perhaps we are looking at the title above Clause 10 on page 7. That confirms the point, as it describes it as being under "Other functions".

5 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

But the heading of Clause 11 is, Power to respond to other eventualities". The noble Lord may take issue, but I take issue with his taking issue. The Minister bracketed specialist training and equipment together when he responded, and then he said that the power to provide training is implicit. As I understand it—because I did not until he said this—the need to refer specifically to equipment is because of some doubt over the 1947 Act. I wonder whether we could be referred—to save us hunting after today—to which section in the 1947 Act that might be.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Section 3(1)(e).

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful for that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 45C not moved.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 46: Page 7, line 24, at end insert— (5) The power conferred by subsection (1)(b) may be exercised outside as well as within the authority's area in respect of events or situations relating to functions conferred on the authority by the Secretary of State under section 9 with a requirement that such functions be discharged outside the authority's area. (6) Nothing in this section shall be taken to grant immunity from criminal or civil action in respect of action taken by an authority under subsection (1).

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 46 would insert two new subsections into Clause 11—it would, if I persisted with my intention to include new subsection (6) in the amendment, but I do not. It was originally tabled to ascertain from the Government that nothing in the Bill implied immunity for the fire services, but I understand that since I tabled it the assurance has been given by the Under-Secretary of State in the other place that that would be the situation.

However, that does not mean that I am not persisting with the rest of my amendment. I want to pursue the point of the subject under new subsection (5). This subsection would restrict the power under Clause 11 to those functions that have been conferred on the authority under Clause 9, and in respect of which the Secretary of State has given the authority an obligation to operate outside its area. Without such a provision, subsection (1), which allows a fire and rescue authority to take any action that it considers appropriate in terms of the subsection for the purpose of enabling action to be taken in response to an event or situation, and subsection (4), which provides for the extra-territorial application of this power, introduce the possibility that a fire and rescue authority could establish and maintain facilities and services in the area of another authority. That would not be just to discharge a function for which the Secretary of State has given the responsibility in that area under Clause 9, but to discharge a function that it has chosen to take on under the discretionary powers of Clause 11.

Clause 11 has extremely wide-ranging powers, which are linked with the ability to operate outside the area. This clause would create that odd situation. Amendment No. 46—at least the first part of it—would close that loophole. In the other place, the Under-Secretary of State said that it would restrict the ability of a fire and rescue authority to equip itself under Clause 11 (1)(b) to emergencies defined in Clause 9. Therefore, an authority would not be in a position to equip itself to deal with events and situations that its local risk assessment had identified were not covered by its core functions. I do not see why the Minister interpreted the amendment as doing that. We are talking about limiting the power of an authority to act outside its own area on discretionary matters.

Two neighbouring authorities might have very different views of their priorities. They might have different agendas and, in relation to discretionary activities, one might choose to focus on one thing and the other on another. Is it reasonable then that an authority should have the right to pursue its agenda, other than in an incident situation in the area of another authority, which authorities appear to be able to do under the clause? One would expect that to be done under other arrangements in the Bill and at the request of other authorities.

If we want to defend the principle that the primary responsibility for the discharge of functions in an area lies with that area's fire and rescue authority, this particular part of the Bill is unsatisfactory. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As I understand Amendment No. 46, it has two purposes: first, it seeks to extend the powers under subsection (1)(b) to events and situations relating to an order under Clause 9, which places additional duties on fire and rescue authorities; and, secondly, it seeks to clarify that anything done under Clause 11 is still open to civil or criminal actions.

Baroness Hanham

I indicated that I did not want to persist with my intention to include the second part of the amendment—new subsection (6)—in my Amendment No. 46.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I heard that first time around, but it is still on the Marshalled List. I just want to make clear that the amendment is not necessary on either point.

So far as we are concerned, an order made under Clause 9 provides a fire and rescue authority with the powers necessary to make provision to discharge the functions placed upon it. That includes the power for a fire and rescue authority to act outside its area. We cannot see any obvious benefit to extending the powers under Clause 11(1)(b), as proposed in the amendment.

As we made clear in dealing with Amendments Nos. 45B and 45C, Clause 11 is critical to enable and empower fire and rescue authorities to plan, equip and respond to situations where they believe that there is a risk, perhaps as a result of their integrated risk management plan, to individuals or the environment.

In making those decisions a fire and rescue authority will obviously have to take account of local risks and priorities, as identified in its integrated risk management plan. Subsection (1)(a) gives fire and rescue authorities the power to respond in those circumstances. Our concern really is that if the amendment were successful, although in some ways it does something else, it would mean that the local flexibility would be lost and the power to equip under Clause 11(1)(b) would be limited. It would be part of closing down that flexibility.

We take the view that a fire and rescue authority should not be prevented from being equipped to deal with all events and situations it determines pose a risk to the community. An example would be helping to save more lives through a co-responder scheme established in partnership with a local ambulance trust.

I can see that there is concern that one particular fire and rescue authority might get drawn into something that it does not see as a risk in another area, but we need that flexibility across boundaries. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, understands that that is very important. It is important that we have both arrangements in place so that mutual assistance schemes, which deal with the core functions of fire and rescue authorities, can operate effectively. The amendment would be undesirable because it would cut across that.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am not sure whether my amendment or his reply is not quite right. To some extent we are at cross-purposes in our intention. We are trying to say that where there is a wide power to enable people to do something, there should be a power which stops an authority from taking action on a discretionary basis. We are concerned about interference between one authority and another. There is a mismatch between my amendment and the Minister's response, but that may be my fault or a misinterpretation.

None the less, it remains an issue and I want to reread the Minister's reply. We may need to reconstruct the amendment and return to the matter in order to limit the powers of one authority to go into another authority's area on a discretionary basis rather than with an associated power. I am happy to withdraw the amendment today but I shall probably return to it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Clause 12 [Other services]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 12: Page 7, line 28, at end insert "so long as such provision does not impair the authority's discharge of the functions conferred on it by sections 6, 7, 8 and 9

The noble Baroness said: Clause 12 provides fire and rescue authorities with the power to provide the services of their employees and equipment for any purpose they consider appropriate inside or outside their area. It refers also to commercial services which might be provided by the authority. It is useful to have those resources available for the benefit of the community. We have no difficulty with any of that or with the proposals. The services are being provided to individuals in the authority and it is therefore acting no differently from any other service provider.

The purpose of the amendment is to emphasise that those services should never be provided at the expense of the core functions that are being imposed on the fire authorities. I am sure that the Minister agrees with the sentiment of the amendment, but I would welcome his assurance that the performance of the service under Clause 12 must always be secondary to the statutory functions of a fire and rescue authority. I see lots of nodding heads behind him and all I need is clarification of that situation. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

As the noble Baroness surmises, I am happy to give the guarantee for which she asked. The amendment is unnecessary. It is implicit that a fire and rescue authority must make provision for the efficient discharge of its core duties under the Bill as set out in Clauses 6, 7, 8 and 9. Not to do so, for whatever reason, would leave the authority in possible breach of its legal obligation. I do not need to say more than that.

The power in the clause complements the discretionary powers under Clause 11 that allows fire and rescue authorities to equip and respond to events and situations they judge pose a risk to people or the environment. But in no way am I qualifying what I have just said about the core duties of the fire authority.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his response and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 48: After Clause 12, insert the following new clause—

"SETTING FIRE, DEATH AND ARSON REDUCTION TARGETS ETC. (1) The Secretary of State shall set a target for—

  1. (a) the reduction in the number of accidental fire deaths in the home; and
  2. (b) the reduction in the number of deliberate fires.
(2) The targets referred to in subsection (1) shall be published annually by the Secretary of State for a period of five years forward. (3) The Secretary of State shall place before Parliament at least once in every session a report specifying—
  1. (a) the targets set under subsection (1)(a) and (b);
  2. (b) any changes to those targets since the previous report and the reasons for those changes;
  3. (c) measures taken or being taken to achieve the targets set out in subsection (1)(a) and (b); and
  4. (d) the assessment by the Secretary of State of progress towards achieving those targets."

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 48 requires that as part of the framework arrangements, the Secretary of State sets out annually on a five-year forward basis targets for a reduction in the number of accidental fire deaths in the home and of incidents of arson. It requires him to report to Parliament annually on progress in achieving those targets, which is not a terribly onerous burden. After all, the Government have said that reducing accidental fire deaths is the raison d'être of modernisation, so surely they will not object to putting that objective at the centre of the framework structure, with clear targets that are updated regularly, thus enabling them to measure the progress of the reforms.

5.15 p.m.

The problem is that the Government have reduced their own targets. Until last summer, the target for the reduction of accidental fire deaths in the home was a cut in the average for 1994 to 1999 of 20 per cent by March 2004. The reduction should have been achieved already, but last summer, the Government put the date for the achievement of that important target back by six years to March 2010. We covered that extensively at Second Reading. While they have been telling us that modernisation will save lives, and while fire authorities, required to reconfigure their deployments under integrated risk management plans, have already closed fire stations, changed manning and crewing arrangements or, as in the case of my own constituency, removed fire appliances from fire stations, and have been busy with their integrated risk management plans, the Government have demonstrated a lack of confidence in the saving lives agenda by reducing the targets for accidental fire deaths in the home.

I quote from the report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published in January. With regard to downgrading, it states: We are disappointed that the Government has relaxed its target to cut down the number of deliberate fires and extended the time available to meet the targets on accidental fire-related deaths. We are concerned that Government did not consult sufficiently with relevant parties before relaxing targets".

It is hardly surprising that the public are increasingly sceptical about the integrated risk management plan cuts that are beginning to filter through locally, when the Government are simultaneously downgrading the very target whose fulfilment is the justification for much of the modernisation programme. Indeed, the Government have moved the goalposts over the past 12 months by downgrading the target for reducing accidental fire deaths in the home. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I realise that the subject of the clause is serious in terms of human life, but I was waiting for a smile on the face of the noble Baroness as she made her speech—she kept a straight face throughout. We are accused of "targetitis"; of having targets for this, that and the other. We try to cut the targets, because we do not want to overdo it, but the noble Baroness is bringing up another load of targets. She kept a straight face throughout, and I compliment her on that.

The new clause would require the Secretary of State to set these national targets. We have been criticised elsewhere for the proliferation of targets, particularly in the other place. We are committed to the new national targets for the reduction of accidental fire deaths in the home and for the reduction of deliberate fires, which were announced in the fire White Paper. Any implication to the contrary is unfounded. As before, progress will be reported in the annual report of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is deposited in the Library of the House. If memory serves, the most recent report was published just a few days ago.

I cannot accept any suggestion that the present targets are insufficiently challenging. If we take no action, we could expect an additional 200 accidental fire deaths over the period to 2010, but instead the target on accidental fire deaths commits us to save over 1,000 lives in that period. I am delighted to say that we are making good progress. Accidental fire deaths in the home now stand at 292 for England and Wales in 2002–03. That is the lowest figure for over 40 years. I will repeat that: they stand at 292 for England and Wales for 2002–03.

The new floor element—that is, that no fire authority should have fire deaths more than a quarter above the national average— is also challenging. The highest fatality rate per 100,000 population is currently 200 per cent of the average. In about one-fifth of fire authorities, fire deaths currently stand close to, or above, the target level. We are providing additional support to those authorities through the Community Fire Safety Innovation Fund.

For arson, the target is equally challenging. On recent trends, annual incidence of arson could have been close to 190,000 by 2010. We are committed to cutting it to a little over 100,000. I am pleased to say that arson was down 3 per cent in 2002–03. Nor can I support the proposal for the fixed five-year horizon for both targets. As I said, we are happily in the position that accidental fire deaths are the lowest for more than a generation. Of course, we seek to prevent every preventable death. The number is already low enough to fluctuate randomly year to year.

A fair measure of progress—and of the impact of all the efforts of the fire and rescue service, the police and other partners—requires an average over a reasonable length of time. That is why we have chosen to set the national target for accidental fire deaths as the average over the period 1999–2010. The target date also matches the 2010 target date for Healthier Nation targets, in order to signal the strong link that we see between fire prevention and the whole health promotion agenda.

For deliberate fires, a fixed five-year target would not take account of the external factors which affect the annual figure. Two-thirds of the total is made up of car fires, often where a car has been abandoned. In recent years, abandonment has been an increasing problem as the cost of safe disposal has fallen on the last owner, due to a drop in scrap metal prices. I fully understand that the proposed approach is deliberately inflexible, but in the future there may be compelling reasons for different targets, for instance on false alarms.

More immediately, some fire authorities are already setting local public service agreement targets, which include the reduction of serious injuries, in order to recognise this important category of the harm caused by fire, and to motivate continued effort in areas where fire deaths are already very low. We would want to introduce a national target on the reduction of serious injuries as soon as reliable data can be established.

This is nothing to do with the Government's lack of confidence in the fire and rescue service. I refer to the introduction of the integrated risk management plans and the repeal of the requirement for the Secretary of State to approve decisions on establishment of appliances. The Government have devolved decision making to the local level, where best judgment is made about where the risks are and how to respond to them. It is an important point, which is obviously the subject of public debate at present. I hope that I have made my point. In no way did I wish to diminish the seriousness of the issues by my churlish remarks at the beginning.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Baroness responds, I thought that the Minister was going to tease her about whether this amendment was consistent with criticisms of centralisation. I am sure that she does not mean to suggest that fire and rescue authorities should not be setting their own targets. Clearly, as the Minister has just said, they do and they will.

There must be an argument that the Secretary of State is required to justify decisions that he takes both about how funding is allocated—because that must go to an objective, and one would assume that the objective is linked to targets dealing particularly with considerations that the noble Baroness has identified—and also tying it in with the national framework, which has broad targets in annexe A. The draft of annexe B as we have it—and I appreciate that this has just reached the end of its consultation period, so it is not in its final form—deals with best value performance indicators. If those targets are set from the top, the Secretary of State ought to be able to justify why he is setting them and explain the bigger objective of reducing deaths and fire.

Baroness Hanham

I thought that the irony of the situation—that I should be talking about targets—would not escape the Minister. However, one is bound to talk about them. These were not targets that my party, the Opposition, had any brio in putting forward. These government targets were laid down as centralised targets to be implemented. There is no rationale—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said—for "downgrading" these targets to the local level on the basis of best value. They have, apparently, just been allowed to slip. Promotion and prevention are required here.

The arson targets are rightly in the area of antisocial behaviour; we are often talking about burnt-out cars. Most people who start fires are either ill or have a malign intent. There must be a clear indication that steps must be taken to prevent that. We do not understand why the Government appear to have downgraded the importance of prevention, education and promotion in working with other authorities. Now these targets, which the Government must have seen at some stage as being realistic, will not be met. The Government have decided to set targets. If targets are to be set, that should be done within the sort of parameters that we have laid down in this amendment. If you believe in targets—and I am not saying that I do—you make them, you stick to them, you report on them, and you meet them within a time frame.

The Minister may have explained this, but I do not understand why the prevention of fire and arson have anything to do with health promotion. I find it hard to establish or see the link. Is the rationale for reducing the targets to meet some other targets related to health in 2010? There must be some rationale going on here that we simply cannot see.

Who was consulted on the reduction of these targets? Was it just a whim when it was suddenly decided that these targets were far too difficult to meet? I understand why they are difficult to meet. It is difficult to know how many people are going to go around and set fire to cars and other people's houses, and how you begin to understand whether you have reduced those incidents. If that was the target, and that was the area that the Government thought was important, the rationale that the Minister has given for their reduction does not stack up. I do not know whether the Minister wants to come back, but I am happy to withdraw this amendment for today, although I think that we will return to it—

Lord Rooker

Yes, I have no doubt that we will return to it, hut I am happy to come back briefly. I understand the connection with the health targets. I am aware of a lot of other issues around about 2010. Decent Homes is a 2010 target. You have to look at the health situation in disadvantaged areas. You have to look at where the fires are; the car fires, the arson, and the fires in people's homes. They are not evenly spread geographically around the country. The connection between the two sets of targets is probably geographical as much as anything else.

We are currently out to consultation with the main stakeholders on the new public service agreement targets on fire. We will report on the final target, and the Government will expect to be judged on the performance, as on all of the targets. As I said during the course of my speech, we have a lot of good efforts to report.

I remember that there was a similar situation a couple of months ago, when we had a brief exchange at Question Time in the House over fire, fire prevention, arson and reduction in fires. I am not saying that everything is fine, but the trend is in the right direction.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for that response. As I said, for today's purposes, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, although we shall probably want to return to the matter.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 [Reinforcement schemes]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 49: Page 7, line 34, leave out "other fire and rescue authorities" and insert "lire and rescue authorities for all areas which are contiguous with the area of the authority and may enter into a reinforcement scheme with any other fire and rescue authority

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 49 is designed to introduce rigour and relevance into reinforcement schemes. As Clause 13 currently stands, the duty placed upon fire and rescue authorities to enter into reinforcement schemes is rather ill-defined. It is both prescriptive and yet leaves one hostage to interpreting the phrase "so far as practicable". Within subsection (1), the "other" fire and rescue authorities are unspecified.

The aim of Amendment No. 49 is to insert more definition into Clause 13(1). That means defining the authorities with which a fire authority is obliged to enter into reinforcement schemes. Common sense suggests that geographical contiguity would be the most appropriate criterion. However, beyond that, there should be an ability—a permissive power—to enter into reinforcement schemes with other authorities, where appropriate.

At present, the Bill places an obligation on an authority to enter into such a scheme with potentially any, or even all, other fire authorities. Equally, an authority that neglects reinforcement may blame that on the impracticability of doing so, and it would be able to do that because of the lack of objective criteria for the establishment of reinforcement schemes.

We believe that that is unsatisfactory and that the principles of accountability mean that fire authorities will need to be sure that they have satisfied at least the minimum required of them by subsection (1). I hope that the Minister can agree to the amendment as it would certainly tidy up this provision and avoid any doubt about reinforcement schemes. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

We have not yet reached the point in the groupings list where I have a note that says "Accept", but there may be good things to come in the future. As the noble Baroness said, the amendment would mean that the fire and rescue authorities would be required to enter into a reinforcement scheme only with neighbouring authorities.

Perhaps I may point out to the noble Baroness that Clause 13 re-enacts the existing provisions of the Fire Services Act 1947, requiring fire and rescue authorities to enter into reinforcement schemes with other authorities, and it simply extends them to apply to the new core duties under the Bill. As such, I am not clear why the noble Baroness wants to place a geographical limit or restriction on the co-operation between fire and rescue authorities in the way that the amendment would do. As I am sure she must realise, mutual assistance schemes are already in place between adjacent fire and rescue authorities and are integral to the day-to-day operational effectiveness of the fire and rescue service.

One reason for including the new core duties in such schemes was to make it easier for fire and rescue authorities to participate in a national mutual aid agreement for non-fire emergencies, as well as providing simple cross-boundary assistance between authorities in the event of a fire. We think it is important that fire and rescue authorities work together in this way in order to meet the requirements of national resilience. I am not saying that the status quo is simply carried over, but no case is made for the geographical restriction implied in the noble Baroness's amendment.

Baroness Hanham

The Fire Services Act 1947 did not relate to fire and rescue authorities. Has that not come about as a result of this Bill? Therefore, fire and rescue authorities were not in existence and will not be in existence until the Bill is passed. In fact, I think that, to some extent, therein lies the difference between these measures.

The authorities, as outlined in the 1947 Act, will obviously bear no relation to the fire and rescue authorities that will come about as a result of this Bill, particularly if the various fire authorities draw themselves together to form bigger authorities. It is partly for that reason that we do not know at the moment the boundaries of fire and rescue authorities. There needs to be more rigour within the clause in regard to who will operate with whom and which will operate with what. As matters stand at the moment, we might end up with nine regional fire and rescue authorities in this country. That seems very much the way in which the Government are going. The words "as far as practicable" are the Government's let out from what they must do and who they must do it with.

We feel that this part of the clause is unacceptably woolly and needs more effort spent on it to make it clear for whom the fire and rescue authorities will become responsible, who they will work with and who not. Perhaps the Minister will tell me whether it is right that a London fire authority could well be called to Norfolk as part and parcel of what it must do, but only under very specific circumstances.

I hope that I have made my reasons for tabling the amendment quite clear. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 50 and 51 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

Clause 14 [Directions as to reinforcement schemes]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 52: Page 8, line 20, after "may" insert "by order

The noble Baroness said: Clause 14 gives the Secretary of State the power to give directions on reinforcement schemes. Amendments Nos. 52 and 53 concern the process by which the Secretary of State would intervene to give such directions, and Amendments Nos. 56, 57, 58 and 61 relate to Clause 17 but would have more or less the same effect.

As I said, Clause 14 deals with the Secretary of State's power to intervene where, by implication, authorities cannot agree to work together. This is an unsatisfactory basis on which to build co-operation and collaboration. Co-operation must come from the bottom up and cannot be imposed from the top down. However, we accept that the Secretary of State may need a reserve power to require an authority to enter into a reinforcement scheme to guard against authorities undermining a broadly agreed strategy, which it is to be hoped is unlikely.

The circumstances in which such a direction might be given will invariably involve the Secretary of State taking the side of one authority against another in circumstances where one authority refuses to cooperate with a scheme that another authority is seeking to introduce. The amendments are designed to review and scrutinise what the Secretary of State proposes—which seems reasonable—and the decision by the Secretary of State could then be subject to parliamentary scrutiny if necessary.

The adjudication process presupposes disagreement, perhaps even controversy. In addition, in the other place, the Under-Secretary of State said that the intervention of the Secretary of State in this area would not be routine. We would therefore argue that these are precisely the kind of circumstances where such a direction should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. If the order were uncontroversial, it would not necessarily have to be debated, but if what the Government were proposing was sufficiently controversial for one of the fire authorities involved to enlist the support of Members of Parliament to scrutinise the Secretary of State's decision, the mechanism suggested in the amendment would be a sensible and light-touch way of allowing it to do so. I remind the Minister that the Secretary of State's decision would probably override the wishes of a locally accountable authority to reject arrangements or to enter into arrangements that it finds appropriate for its circumstances.

As I said earlier, Amendments Nos. 56, 57. 58 and 61 deal with the same matters in Clause 17 and would make the directions that the secretary of State can give subject to statutory instrument and therefore debatable in Parliament. I hope that the Minister agrees that that would provide the degree of scrutiny that these matters would need; something less than a full inquiry but more than simply an instruction issued from Whitehall without any further scrutiny. Scrutinising the executive is a core function of Parliament; I am sure that I do not need to say that. The aim of the amendments is to try to resist what many of us see as a growing tendency to make what is effectively secondary legislation, by directions issued by Ministers from their departments, that do not need parliamentary scrutiny.

The Secretary of State would never have to make such a direction if all the authorities involved were in agreement, so there would be at least one aggrieved party as a result of such a direction being made. Such a matter is, by definition, contentious, and it is entirely appropriate that that direction should be made by statutory instrument and that Members of Parliament should be able to debate it if they felt it necessary.

We were not totally satisfied with the response given by the Under-Secretary of State in the other place when the amendments were put to him. I hope that the noble Lord will elaborate more fully today on why, if he does not agree with the amendments, the directions should not be made by order and in what circumstances he expects such directions to be given. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Can I clarify that the noble Baroness has grouped together Amendments Nos. 52, 53, 56 to 58 and 61?

Baroness Hanham

That is correct.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful for that clarification, as the group did not appear that way on the groupings list that I saw earlier. However, having looked at the amendments, I must say that they sit reasonably conveniently together.

Baroness Hanham

If it is any help to the Minister, I can say that Amendments Nos. 54 and 55 are not my amendments. They will be dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and are separate.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As I am sure the noble Baroness appreciates that Amendments Nos. 52 and 53 deal with Clause 14 which largely re-enacts the provisions of the Fire Services Act 1947. It allows the Secretary of State to direct fire and rescue authorities to enter into, vary or revoke a reinforcement scheme. The Secretary of State may invoke that power only in cases where fire and rescue authorities are unable to come to an agreement about forming such a scheme and. more importantly for the purposes of the amendment, only at the request of one of the authorities concerned.

As such, the role of the Secretary of State is simply that of an adjudicator in a dispute between authorities over a practical arrangement. As is the case under existing legislation, all the parties involved will have the opportunity to make representation to the Secretary of State. If he feels that it would be helpful, he may even cause an inquiry to be held. We cannot see any good cause to introduce a further degree of parliamentary scrutiny.

I shall now deal with Amendments Nos. 56 to 58 and 61. As the noble Baroness said, there is a similarity in purpose behind them. The amendments seek to make the exercise of the Secretary of State's powers under Clause 17 subject to parliamentary scrutiny. That clause re-enacts Section 12 of the 1947 Act. It gives the Secretary of State the power to require two fire and rescue authorities—I accept that the nomenclature will be changed in the Bill—to enter into an arrangement under Clause 16 or vary or revoke such an arrangement. The Secretary of State can exercise his powers at the request of either of the fire and rescue authorities involved or on his own initiative.

Under Clause 17, the Secretary of State keeps his existing role as provided for in the earlier legislation; namely, to act as an umpire when asked to determine a disagreement between two fire and rescue authorities. It also enables him to retain the ability and the power to initiate action where he believes it necessary. Any direction under Clause 17 must be with a view to securing greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness, and can be issued only after consultation with the authorities affected. As on earlier amendments, the Secretary of State has the option to hold an inquiry if that would be appropriate, so that he can get to the bottom of the problem. Again, we can see no reason why the direction should be subject to an order-making power. Our view is very plain: that could lead to delay and cause uncertainty. It could affect the outcome or delivery of a public service should the order be subsequently revoked.

I appreciate that I may not have given as much detail as the noble Baroness would like, but we see the issue as rather simple. We do not think that the Secretary of State should have to make such an intervention very often. I cannot cite to her interventions of a similar sort under the 1947 Act, but my suspicion is that they have not happened as a great matter of regularity. To introduce a parliamentary process would probably be entirely unnecessary and would interfere with the effectiveness of fire and rescue authorities.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

As so often in legislation, the mischief lies in the fact that it leaves the most senior person in a service or in government able to make decisions without those decisions being scrutinised. If there were an arbitration system between fire and rescue authorities in some way at a lower level, one would understand that that could be done, but there is not. We are talking about actual government intervention in a dispute. That is what the provision is all about. It is for cases in which someone has not agreed or the Secretary of State does not like it—cases in which there is some pretty major controversy.

As the Minister said, that does not happen very often. I would be interested to know whether it has ever happened. The fire Act was about a very large number of fire authorities.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Would the noble Baroness like to give an example of where she thinks the intervention might happen, or has happened in the past?

Baroness Hanham

No, I would not. The provision is in the Government's Bill. They say that it could happen. As things stand, there could be a different setup. We could be moving into having quite large fire and rescue authorities. As so often with such legislation, one has to imagine a situation. I imagine one in which there is quite a deal of contention between two fairly major authorities, and the Secretary of State has to arbitrate, by definition, because he is the only person who seems to be able to do so. I do not know what the effect might be of that arbitration. If he is the person responsible, he is responsible to Parliament, so he ought to have to report to Parliament on what action is being taken and perhaps why.

The fire and rescue service will become one of the most important services in the country. The whole Bill is designed, along with the Civil Contingencies Bill, to ensure that this country is in a state of preparedness. That is what it is all about; let us not be mealy mouthed about it. If two fire and rescue authorities cannot agree and, for some reason, need to and the Secretary of State has to intervene, that seems to be a matter for Parliament.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We do not see the issue that way. When it was drawn to the attention of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, the committee agreed with the approach that we had adopted. The provision has been in legislation since 1947; we are simply re-enacting it. We are not aware that the umpiring or arbitrating role has ever had to be used, but its presence will probably be helpful if there is a dispute in future. I am not keen to see us make the Bill more complicated by adding an extra layer of consideration and having orders brought before Parliament. We see the matter as simply administrative and we do not think that the noble Baroness's approach is helpful.

The noble Baroness is obviously very exercised by the issue. It may be useful if we give a little consideration to the way in which the Secretary of State's power to act on his own initiative is subject to other clauses. We shall have another look at it in that light, but the problem that the noble Baroness sees may not be as big as she imagines. We think that the powers have worked pretty well to date using the old legislation. The clause simply updates that.

Baroness Hanham

I will return to the matter. I am no more exercised about it than I am about trying to ensure that the legislation is implemented with proper scrutiny. It is a danger to say that this one measure is being lifted from the 1947 fire Act and being put into the Bill because this Bill is not the 1947 Act. It is quite different and has quite different implications, responsibilities and co-operative powers.

I hear what the Minister says and will be very glad if, at a later stage, he is able to produce examples of where the power has been necessary—a matter on which he challenged me. If the power is only a reserve power and is exercised only at the last minute and at a serious level, we need to direct our minds to whether it is appropriate for it to be used in conjunction with Parliament. I cannot take the matter any further today and therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 53 not moved]

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Arrangements with other employers of fire-fighters]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 54: Page 8, line 33, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Lord said: Clause 15 deals with fire authorities which want to make arrangements with private-sector or third-party providers of support whom they may wish to use in certain circumstances. It is a perfectly sensible arrangement and one to which we are happy to lend our support. The obvious case that springs to mind is that of employers of private fire brigades. Such examples, of course, include airports that have their own firefighting services, together with other companies that operate in ports, large-scale industrial complexes and power stations.

However, a number of issues arise from the clause and I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on them. That is why we tabled the amendments. Amendment No. 55 would introduce a new subsection giving fire and rescue authorities broader powers to enter into arrangements relating to the functions under Clause 6. That is the fire-safety promotion clause, which is not mentioned in Clause 15. Clause 8 refers to road traffic accidents. Clause 9 refers to emergencies as defined by the Secretary of State, and Clause 11 deals with discretionary services and the power to respond to other eventualities. In relation to those functions, fire authorities could enter into arrangements on a commercial basis with any third parties that they found appropriate.

Amendment No. 54 would delete subsection (2), which explicitly prevents the entering into of such an arrangement with another fire and rescue authority. I can see where such an idea would come from in the climate of 1947, as mentioned previously by my noble friend Lady Hanham: mutual reinforcement was seen as good, and arm's-length commercial transactions as bad. We have moved on a lot since then, and it must be possible for the Minister to envisage mutual reinforcement schemes as appropriate in some cases while, in others, there could be an arrangement—more on a one-way, arm's-length basis—with an authority that specialised in, say, road traffic accident rescue.

I see no reason to exclude an arm's-length arrangement with another fire authority. It must be for each individual authority to decide what is best for its circumstances. We should not constrain them. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Amendment No. 54 would remove the restriction that arrangements under Clause 15 cannot be made with another fire and rescue authority. Amendment No. 55 would widen the scope of Clause 15, allowing a fire and rescue authority to secure the assistance of any organisation in discharging its functions under Clauses 6, 8, 9 or 11.

Clause 15 should be read in conjunction with Clause 13, which provides for reinforcement schemes. The effect of Clause 15 is to give fire and rescue authorities the flexibility to complement reinforcement schemes by making arrangements with other employers of firefighters. The noble Lord referred to airport fire services, which are a very good example. They might agree to respond to road traffic accidents near the airport when requested to do so by the local fire and rescue authority.

Our view is very simple: we believe that the amendments are unnecessary and confusing. The first would remove Clause 15(2). That provision ensures that there is no overlap between Clause 13, which relates to mutual assistance between two fire and rescue authorities, and Clause 15, which relates to arrangements between fire and rescue authorities and other employers of firefighters. The second amendment would break the symmetry with the reinforcement schemes under Clause 13 and confuse the relationship with Clause 16. The amendments would undermine the sensible purposes of those clauses and remove a level of useful and beneficial flexibility. I hope that the noble Lord does not feel inclined to press the amendments at some later stage.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for that response. We seem to desire the same result, but we wanted to add a little clarity with our amendments. He acknowledged that airports and other people have their own firefighting schemes and businesses, which could help at various times in some circumstances. We shall look at what he said and, I am sure, come back to the matter. There does not seem to be much difference in what we are talking about, except in terms of the various words that we use to describe it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 55 not moved.]

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 [Directions as to arrangements under section 16]:

[Amendments Nos. 56 to 58 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 59: Page 9, line 15, leave out from "(1)" to "one" in line 16 and insert "only if requested to do so by

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No.59, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 60, too. It is not grouped with Amendment No. 59 but I shall be very brief. Clause 17 deals with the Secretary of State's power to direct the discharge of functions by one authority on behalf of another, or by one body on behalf of another. We are concerned not about the underlying ability to enter into those arrangements but about the Secretary of State's power to direct such arrangements. That takes us back to an earlier amendment. We believe that responsibility and accountability for the discharge of functions must lie with the individual authority.

We strongly support the making of arrangements between authorities—and between authorities and third parties, as we have just talked about—for the efficient, effective and economical discharge of their duties. The arrangements must be on a voluntary basis. The power of the Secretary of State to order that a fire authority's functions he discharged by others is inconsistent with the maintenance of a locally managed and accountable service.

Amendment No. 59 would limit the Secretary of' State's power to make an arrangement for the discharge of functions to a situation in which he had been requested to do so by one of the parties involved. In other words, it would eliminate the power of the Secretary of State to act on his own initiative. Amendment No. 60 would change the meaning of subsection (3)(b) to require an inquiry to be held before a direction was made, whereas the Bill is purely permissive and allows the Secretary of State to hold an inquiry if he wishes. It would substitute "shall" for "may". I beg to move.

6 p.m.

Lord Rooker

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said that he was moving Amendment No. 59 and wanted to speak to Amendment No. 62; but he also mentioned Amendment No. 60.

Lord Hanningfield

I meant Amendment No. 60.

Baroness Hamwee

He meant "Amendment No. 60, too".

Lord Rooker

Got it! It is amazing. I remember the film "The Conversation": it is the way in which the words are said; the meaning can be totally different.

In responding on Amendment No. 59, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 60. The amendment would remove the Secretary of State's power to direct two fire and rescue authorities to enter into an arrangement for the discharge of any of their functions without a request from one of the authorities. I want to make it absolutely clear that the provisions in Clause 17 reenact Section 12 of the Fire Services Act 1947. That gives the Secretary of State a dual role with regard to the delegation of the discharge of functions. First, he can act as umpire between two fire and rescue authorities when they disagree about delegation arrangements. However, he can also act on his own initiative should he become aware of an arrangement already in place which he considers, on advice, endangers the economy, efficiency or effectiveness of the service provided to the public, or where he considers, on advice, that such an arrangement would be appropriate and beneficial.

That power to initiate action, which exists under the 1947 Act, is an important safeguard. It would be quite ridiculous if, as would be the case under the amendment, the Secretary of State could not intervene in such circumstances unless invited to do so by one of the parties.

I fully accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, about having a locally delivered service. But the fact is that we are re-enacting a provision in existing legislation. I accept that it is for a new regime—the fire and rescue service rather than just for the fire brigades. However, I would also add that, before he makes any direction, the Secretary of State must give the affected fire and rescue authorities the opportunity to make representations to him. Of course, he may set up an inquiry, if appropriate. Amendment No. 60 would oblige the Secretary of State to cause an inquiry to be held before he gave any direction.

As I have already said, Clause 17 re-enacts provisions in Section 12 of the Fire Services Act 1947. It enables the Secretary of State to discharge those functions, sometimes acting as an umpire, and any direction under Clause 17 must he made with a view to securing greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness. As I said, he must give the fire and rescue authorities concerned opportunities to make representations.

The amendment would oblige the Secretary of State to hold an inquiry. It is possible that an inquiry would not be necessary, and that could lead to unacceptable delays. But the fact is that he could hold an inquiry, if required; and the obligation to hold an inquiry could lead to significant delays. As Clause 17 is drafted, it allows the Secretary of State to hold an inquiry where appropriate and he would have to take the delay into account. By definition, an inquiry is bound to lead to a delay. Whether the delay is acceptable depends on the circumstances and what its consequences might be.

The central point that I am making to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is that this is not new material. It comes from the 1947 Act—traditional legislation for modern methods, one might say.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Lord responds, I have a question relating to Amendment No. 60. I can understand that he may wish the Committee to consider that the Secretary of State should be required to call an inquiry if he is giving a direction on his own initiative, but would it be equally appropriate if the direction was at the request of one of the authorities or, indeed, at the request of more than one authority? Is his concern that there may be a dispute? Is that what it is about?

Lord Hanningfield

In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, if there is a disagreement between authorities, there should be an inquiry. Therefore, I would say that if there are differences between authorities, there should be an inquiry. I heard what the Minister said about the Secretary of State's powers in the 1947 Act, but that does not mean that those powers need to be exactly the same in this Act. On Report, we shall have to consider the Secretary of State's powers throughout the whole Bill. I am sure that we shall debate what should be locally determined and what should be a power of the Secretary of State.

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 60 and 61 not moved.]

Clause 17 agreed to.

Clause 18 [Training centres]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 61A: Page 9, line 32, after "functions" insert "whether to its employees, the employees of other fire and rescue authorities or to any other person

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 61A seeks clarification or, in our terminology, it seeks to probe whether the training centre can provide education and training for those who are outside the authority, outside its employment or, indeed, outside the employment of any fire and rescue authority. Can the authority use a training centre to provide training for employees of other authorities or for anyone? One can imagine that there may be private sector customers for such provision. I did not realise that it would be a neat way into the charging provisions, but perhaps it is some sort of introduction. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I think that the noble Baroness is simply seeking to find out whether fire and rescue authorities have specific authority to provide training to their own employees and to employees of other fire and rescue authorities. If that is the case, we think that the amendment is unnecessary because Clause 18 is a re-enactment of Section 23(3) of the Fire Services Act 1947, which enables fire and rescue authorities to establish and maintain training centres.

As I am sure the noble Baroness knows, a number of fire and rescue authorities already provide training for other fire and rescue employees in addition to their own, or they have established joint training centres in partnership with neighbouring authorities. Clause 18 does not specify to whom a fire and rescue authority may provide training and, in our view, it is implicit that it already provides authorities with appropriate powers. That may well apply not only to fire and rescue authorities but to private sector fire service providers of one form or another.

The amendment adds nothing other than the phrase "an avoidance of doubt". We take the general view that that expression is not particularly helpful because in itself it creates a doubt. We believe that the provision is perfectly sound, that it works and that it effectively re-enacts what was there previously. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I am a little puzzled by "the avoidance of doubt"; that was not part of my amendment Perhaps the noble Lord is saying that that is implicit.

Having said that this is a re-enactment of Section 23(3) of the 1947 Act, the noble Lord dealt with the private sector. However, that section states: A fire authority may establish and maintain training centres for providing courses of instruction for members of their own or other fire brigades and for training persons for service in fire brigades". So, if it is a re-enactment and is intended to be confined to Section 23(3), unless the print-out which I have lacks an amendment which was added later, Section 23(3) of the old Act does not seem to extend to the private sector. In this day and age, I think we would expect it to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I think that the noble Baroness may be right. I am always prepared to own up to these things. The new clause is a re-enactment of the old section, but it does widen it. Therefore, for those reasons, it enables private sector fire service providers—private firefighting authorities, as it were—to have training provided. However, I believe in practice arrangements have been made that enable the private sector to access fire service training of a similar sort.

As regards "the avoidance of doubt", what I said was not quite right. It is not in the amendment but that is its effect and it does not really help us in terms of drafting the legislation.

Baroness Hamwee

Indeed, it does not. The Minister is right in reading that into my mind; it must be implicit. I am grateful for the clarification. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 [Charging]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lyell)

I have to remind the Committee that if Amendment No. 62 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 62A and 62B because of pre-emption.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 62: Page 9, line 34, leave out subsection (1) and insert— ( 1 ) Subject to the following provisions, a fire and rescue authority may charge a person for providing a service to him if—

  1. (a) the authority is authorised, but not required, by an enactment to provide the service to him, and
  2. (b) he has agreed to the provision."

The noble Lord said: Clause 19 deals with what we on these Benches consider to be one of the most contentious parts of the Bill; that is, the issue of charging. In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 62.

The Bill gives the Secretary of State order-making powers to set out services for which an authority may charge and who will be charged, in addition to authorities' existing discretionary powers. There will be a statutory prohibition on charging for extinguishing fires or for protecting life and property in the event of fires, except fires under the sea—I am not sure about that—and for emergency medical assistance.

However, the Bill makes clear that if charges are made, they must not exceed the fire and rescue authorities' costs. That is in sharp distinction to the present power to charge, which enables authorities to make such charge as it may determine.

Whilst on the one hand we support fully the idea that authorities should not charge for performing their statutory duty as set down in the Bill, we believe that the Bill runs contrary to the position of' other local authorities when it comes to charging. We all debated in this room the Local Government Act 2003, which enables an order to be made authorising charges above cost provided the authority provides the service via a company. On consulting on its proposed use of the new powers under Clause 19, the Government stated that they do not propose to allow fire authorities to be included in such an order until a bespoke comprehensive performance assessment is introduced for them in 2005 as it is felt that it is appropriate for trading freedoms for fire authorities to flow only from their own CPA assessments.

Amendment No. 62 therefore seeks to place fire authorities on a similar footing to other local authorities by placing the discretion for charging in the hands of the relevant fire authority. We believe that the order-making powers for the Secretary of State contained within Clause 19(1) are unduly burdensome, given the freedoms and discretion that already exist for local authorities. I beg to move.

6.15 p. m.

Lord Rooker

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said that he had arrived at what he described as the most contentious part of the Bill, which concerns money. During the course of this group of amendments, we may learn a thing or two about the entrepreneurs in the Essex fire brigade, and so he brings his experience to our deliberations. The noble Lord may find that we are not so far apart as he might think.

Amendment No. 62 is phrased in the same terms as Section 93 of the Local Government Act 2003. That section deals with the provision of discretionary services by best value authorities. Those are services which the authority is allowed to provide but which are not obligatory. We do not consider that Section 93 or a provision in similar terms would he a suitable substitute for the charging provisions that exist in Section 3 of the Fire Services Act 1947. That is why we have brought forward Clause 19.

The first effect of Amendment No. 62, as a mirror to Section 93 of the 2003 Act, would be to restrict the services for which authorities can charge to those which they are not obliged to provide. At present, authorities are only obliged to provide a response to fire calls, although in practice they tend to respond to a fairly large range of requests. We have made provision in the Bill for that situation to change and have imposed additional response requirements on the service in respect of traffic accidents and other non-fire incidents.

We gave a commitment in the White Paper that the power to charge for dealing with non-fire incidents would continue. Our proposals fulfil that commitment and continue the prohibition on charging for extinguishing fires or for protecting life and property in the event of a fire.

Amendment No. 62 is also likely to have the possibly unintended effect of frustrating the provisions of Clause 19(4). The latter is designed to enable authorities to recover the cost of dealing with an incident from a responsible third party in circumstances where it may not be appropriate to seek to charge the person to whom the supply was made.

A situation in which authorities might seek to charge third parties is effecting the release of people in stalled lifts, for example. Many of' those incidents arise from a failure adequately to maintain the lift system, which is usually the responsibility of the building management or owner and certainly not of the passengers. Amendment No. 62 would require an authority to obtain the consent of the person liable to pay the charge before effecting a lift release if there were any possibility of recovering the costs incurred. I suggest that that may not be desirable so far as the passengers are concerned. That certainly was not the case when I was stuck in a MAFF lift which we had spent a fortune doing up in Nobel House.

The recent Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Select Committee report on the fire service noted the potential for authorities to recover the cost of dealing with traffic accidents from insurers in a manner similar to that which exists in the NHS. The requirement in Amendment No. 62 for express prior consent from the person to be charged would prevent any such approach, as would excluding duties other than firefighting from the scope of the charging regimes.

With all those caveats, I certainly hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment because I do not think that it meets the points that he wanted to make. A number of amendments relate to charging. I shall not go into other details now as they will come out in the debates on those amendments.

Lord Hanningfield

As the Minister said, some of these issues will be covered in later amendments. I have not been involved with the fire service in my county as much as I have with planning systems and therefore I do not know as much about the fire service. The only occasions on which I have been involved with the fire service have been when strikes have occurred and I have had to try to sort them out. We have had one or two of those in Essex. Therefore, I am not as familiar with the fire service as I am with the planning system. It is now a joint fire authority with Southend and Thurrock.

It is worth giving one or two examples of what the Minister described as the entrepreneurial nature of this. The fire authorities receive a lot of income from training or helping businesses to have their own fire prevention systems. The fire services in Essex and other counties go into companies and help them to train their staff on fire prevention and are able to make reasonable charges for that. What we are suggesting here would allow them to continue to do that. The Bill would prevent that. I think that that brings an income of several hundred thousand pounds to Essex fire authority. That obviously helps when they have such financial difficulties.

Another example is that all large fire authorities have to have maintenance depots. Such depots have peaks and troughs of repairing and maintaining fire engines. At times, the joint Essex fire authority renovates fire engines and sells them to New Zealand, which is a lucrative business. The Bill prevents that. So, various income streams that the fire authorities have are prevented by this legislation, which is unfortunate. It is a harmless type of income generation and it is very sad that the Bill prevents that.

Lord Rooker

I do not want to jump the gun, and I certainly do not want to start a debate. However, I have just said to my expert advisers, "Aren't these the very examples that we shall allow to continue to happen?" and the answer is, "Yes". In some fire authorities, not all, there is at present some entrepreneurial work. There will be transitional provisions to allow that to continue. That will come out as we go through this series of amendments.

Lord Hanningfield

It is unfortunate, however, that there is legislation to stop it and then the legislation has to be recreated. It is happening now. Why does the legislation have to stop it and then have to be recreated?

Lord Rooker

There is a reason for that, which will come out in some of the other amendments. It concerns whether the current legislation allows it in the first place.

Lord Hanningfield

As has been said, there are several amendments on these issues. I am sure that there will be a debate today, which will be ongoing. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 62A: Page 9, line 34, leave out "may by order authorise a" and insert "shall within 12 months of the commencement of this Part make an order authorising every

The noble Baroness said: I do not know whether we shall hear more about the transitional arrangements in connection with this amendment. That would give the Minister an opportunity to explain what the Government have in mind by way of a timetable. Amendment No. 62A proposes essentially that the Government should get on with it, or at any rate that the orders should be made within a year of commencement.

The Minister mentioned the transitional arrangements to enable those who are working at the extreme margins of entrepreneurship to continue. I hope that that will not mean that those who are being entrepreneurial will be allowed to continue—that is fair enough—but that those who have not managed to find loopholes or perhaps go a little beyond the boundaries will be restricted. That does not seem to be right or fair. My amendment was tabled in order to ask what timetable the Government have in mind because this is clearly of huge interest. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

The final point raised by the noble Baroness, which I shall come to in one of the other amendments, is a typical case of the Liberal Democrats wanting it both ways. I shall come to that. It is not covered by this amendment but by one of the others. I hope I can satisfy the noble Baroness entirely on Amendment No. 60A.

We do not intend there to be a gap between the repeal of the charging provisions within the Fire Services Act 1947 and the commencement of the new charging regime under Clause 19. Therefore, the amendment is unnecessary.

Through a consultation exercise, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has sought to identify activities for which fire and rescue authorities currently levy a charge. That would ensure that those services for which the fire and rescue authorities currently make a legitimate charge are included in the first Section 19 order, which will apply to all authorities. Any extension beyond that will require careful consideration and consultation in due course. In other words, there will not be a gap, which is the central issue of the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I think that one can probe both ways without it being too much of a disgrace. I am grateful for the answer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 62B: Page 9, line 35, leave out "a person of a specified description

The noble Baroness said: As drafted, Clause 19(1) allows the Secretary of State to authorise charging of, a person of a specified description".

Those are the words I seek to take out in order to understand what is intended by this provision. Is it to enable, for instance, the charging of businesses—the private sector as distinct from individuals—when they are flooded, or is it to exclude other authorities, in which case you would exclude them rather than specify who they are?

The consultation document mentioned by the Minister refers to differential charging and, in some cases, to not charging. However, that is dealt with later in the clause. Can the Minister help as to what this is driving at? I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I certainly hope I can, although in some ways I am limited, simply because the consultation has only just closed so the analysis has not yet taken place. The wording in this clause was specifically chosen to ensure that the charging would be levied on classes of persons who would be considered appropriate.

Clause 19(4) would allow fire and rescue authorities to charge third parties, for example, the owners of a building following a lift rescue. The amendment would raise the possibility of those trapped in the lift being charged by the authority. As I have said before, that is completely and utterly undesirable. We have consulted widely with the fire and rescue authorities and other relevant organisations on the classes of service that may attract a charge and the classes of person on whom the charges might be levied. As I have said, the consultation closed only on 7 May, so it is too early at present for the analysis to have taken place.

An indication—we are looking at them as they come in—is that the categories of person suggested were considered appropriate and sufficient but I have no further information at present. In other words, the wording was chosen carefully so that we do not catch the wrong person.

Baroness Hamwee

I agree that one should not catch the wrong person—there may be differences in definition—or the wrong people. However, I ask again—I am prepared to leave it hanging—whether it is right to try to deal with this by specifying the description or by excluding those one does not want to charge, which I think would he a more obvious way of setting about this. Certainly, if we are left with doubts over the wording of the legislation, they need to be dealt with whatever the results of the consultation. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 63: Page 9, line 37, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 63, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 115. Amendment No. 63 seeks to gain from the Minister an understanding of why it is, perhaps as Clause 19(2) appears to suggest, acceptable for a charge to be incurred for activities relating to firefighting and rescue at or under the sea. I find it difficult to understand the logic behind that and would therefore welcome the Minister's thoughts.

I turn to Amendment No. 115. In reality we would like to see this new clause in place of Clause 19 as it stands. The new clause seeks a prohibition on charging for the emergency statutory functions of the fire and rescue authorities under Clauses 7, 8 and 9. It does not suggest that the ban on charging should extend to the statutory functions of fire prevention and fire education work under Clause 6 or other non-statutory duties, as I have already said.

At present the Bill extends a clear additional statutory function. On the other hand it seeks to keep open the ability to charge for the discharge of that function in an emergency. The Minister has talked about lifts and so on. I think the Committee would agree that no one wants to charge someone who is stuck in a lift. That is not an acceptable proposition. We need clarity on it. The Bill also provides for the charging of third parties, which is a thinly disguised reference to insurers. Charging motor insurers would represent another stealth tax on the Government's favourite victims—the motorist.

As I have said, I am against charging for emergency services that are part of a statutory function, although I am not necessarily against charging for non-emergency work.

Subsection (2) of the new clause addresses a different issue—charging for emergency medical assistance. The background to the provision is the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999, which authorises charging via insurers for the cost of National Health Service treatment provided after a road traffic accident. We resist unfair discrimination against the motorist, who should not be seen as a soft target simply because, if he is a law-abiding individual, he will generally have insurance.

A programme is currently underway to promote co-response and, indeed, first response by fire and rescue authorities, whereby if a fire and rescue authority is the first on the scene of an incident, it will increasingly be able to deliver emergency medical assistance. Furthermore, especially in rural areas, fire services could in future be the first responder to other types of medical emergency—for example, cardiac arrests—if the fire station is significantly nearer than the nearest ambulance station to the patient. We simply cannot have a situation in which people pay according to whether the fire engine or the ambulance gets there first. That would be outrageous and our proposal attempts to deal with it. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I apologise for responding for longer than the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, took to make his points. It is important because of the nature of this part of the Bill and as we shall have other stages it is best to get some of this material on the record.

The noble Lord said that the amendments would extend the restriction on the services for which a charge might be made by excluding all the emergency statutory functions on an authority. Subsection (1)(a) of Amendment No. 115 replicates the restriction, which the Government included in the Bill at the time of introduction. However, subsections (1)(b) and (c) would also apply to road traffic accidents, where there was no incidence of fire and to a variety of other emergency situations.

With the passage of time, the fire and rescue service has acquired a great deal of experience and skill in dealing with the effects of road traffic accidents. Yet there has been no obligation on the service to render rescue assistance. That is the legal reality. We have brought forward a new duty for the service to respond to these incidents in Clause 8. At the same time we have recognised that fire authorities already have a power to charge for dealing with the non-fire assistance rendered at such an accident, though they appear not to have used it. The order-making provision in Clause 19 will allow us to ensure that there is no move towards charging for road traffic accidents without further consultation, while preserving the principle of being able to charge for these incidents if it is appropriate.

At present, the cost of dealing with these incidents is borne by the taxpayer. So, a pedestrian on a low income can find himself subsidising a wealthy or careless driver, particularly during foggy days when we have great pile-ups. The reality is that drivers always expect the fire brigade to get them out, sort it out and clear the road. It has grown like Topsy, in a way. It is important to note that.

The funding of our health and education services from general taxation is a legitimate and proper course because they benefit all members of society. Driving is an activity to which costs attach. I know this off the top of my head because the figures came out years ago. I remember when Brian Mawhinney was transport secretary. He produced a very interesting document, which gave some figures about the numbers of motorists that never used the motorway. It is amazing the number of people who drive cars and never use a motorway. Yet motorways are there at vast expense for a minority of motorists. It is very interesting. I do not think that he was making a case for toll roads. He may have been; I am not certain. It makes the point that one must not assume that everything is equal and that all the services are used equally. Certainly health and education are used by everyone in the course of their lives, whether by them or on their behalf.

Driving is an activity to which costs attach. You cannot drive without incurring certain costs. Insurance is one. There is no doubt about it. Noble Lords may claim that the 27 million motorists in the UK might face a hefty hike in premiums but that claim was laid to rest I understand during debates in the other place.

The recent ODPM Select Committee report on the fire service noted the potential for authorities to recover the costs of dealing with traffic accidents from compensators in a manner similar to that existing in the NHS. That scheme recovers a flat-rate charge for treatment received in an NHS hospital. Later this year it will, I understand, also levy a charge for the ambulance conveyance to hospital for such treatment.

We believe that further work needs to be done on how any such scheme might operate for the fire and rescue service and the impact that it would have on authorities, the insurance industry and the public. In the light of that, we do not think that it would be appropriate to close off the possibility of charging for road traffic accidents in the way that is countenanced by this new clause.

The range of incidents that may fall within Clause 9 is not confined to the new terrorist threat. It can include major incidents of flooding or damage caused by the accidental or negligent discharge of a large volume of harmful chemicals by a company. The effect of subsection (1)(c) would be such that incidents of this type would be excluded from the scope of charging. You have to ask yourself: is it right that a major commercial undertaking could cause huge disruption and damage and escape the costs of putting it right? There is a good case for damage caused to the environment by companies. Many years ago I proposed a Bill to make sure that companies indicated in their annual reports the number of times the particular company had been prosecuted for environmental damage requiring clean-up and cost to public services. Of course it was voted down by the then government in the other place.

The consultation document published in February included as one of the proposed categories of charge the provision or removal of water. The fire and rescue service already deals with incidents of significant flooding and already has the power to charge for action taken. It is a matter now for each authority to determine whether it is appropriate, in the light of all the relevant circumstances, to impose a charge in such a situation. We think that authorities should continue to enjoy that right; but, this proposed clause would strip them of that power.

I can understand in giving that example that the noble Lord might fear that every person unfortunate enough to suffer a tidal surge may find himself or herself confronted with a bill for pumping out. But in many cases they will have buildings and contents insurance. If it is felt appropriate to charge for this activity, Clause 19(4) might be used to allow authorities to recover from insurers their costs of responding to flooding incidents. And let us not forget that authorities have the discretion to waive charges where they feel that particular circumstances warrant it. They may feel that the charge should be mitigated or waived in areas where residents are unable to obtain insurance at reasonable rates for this risk. We can all think of areas in the country where that would be the case.

Subsection (2) of Amendment No. 115 seeks to ensure that fire and rescue authorities are not empowered to charge for providing emergency medical assistance where there is no corresponding power for an NHS ambulance trust to impose such a charge. The Government agree with the sentiment behind that, and that is why we brought forward the amendment that now stands as subsection (3) on the face of the Bill. In fact, that provision is more generous than the one proposed by the noble Lord in this new clause in that it precludes charging for emergency medical assistance in any circumstances.

I also have to point out that the drafting of the proposed new clause is defective in that it does not also remove subsections (3) and (9) of Clause 19. That would leave us with two conflicting provisions on emergency medical assistance. It is a minor point, but I mention it in case noble Lords want to come back to it on Report.

Amendment No. 115 would also prevent charging for fires that occur at sea or under the sea outside the jurisdiction of any fire authority. The ability to charge for dealing with such incidents was inserted into the 1947 Act by Section 2 of the Marine Safety Act 2003 at the specific request of marine salvage operators. They were concerned that there was no incentive for authorities to deal with incidents that occurred outside their jurisdiction and so they were prepared to meet the costs of such intervention in the hope of reducing the loss incurred. We think that removing that provision would be a retrograde step.

I apologise for the length of my reply. This is an important part of the Bill and the noble Lord said that it is contentious. Therefore, I wanted to place as much on the record as possible not only in order to answer many of the issues raised but because, if noble Lords bring back the matter on Report, they will do so with the knowledge of the little extra information that I am able to give.

Baroness Hanham

Perhaps I may deal with the question of people who are not insured. The Minister got frightfully cross with me at Second Reading when I asked whether people would have to produce their Barclaycards before they were released from traffic accidents. It was perhaps not best put. However, as a magistrate, I know that a number of people in this country are driving around without insurance. Therefore, by definition, someone else will have to pay if there is no insurance. It is always the people who should least be on the motorway who drive without due care and attention and end up causing someone else a whole lot of grief. If there is to be further consultation on the matter, perhaps the Minister will take the issue on board.

If more burdens are placed on the insurance industry, this issue will also be germane to people who live on flood plains. This will become more prevalent and relevant as more building takes place on areas which, frankly, should not be built on and which are now causing trouble. Once again, the insurance market is backing away from that. Recently there have been many cases of people being flooded out once or twice and now being unable to insure their properties. So what is the situation? Will the fire service come to help them out because the insurance company will not pay as those people are not insured? Within the amendments is a very genuine concern about what happens with regard to motor insurance, to those who do not have insurance and get away with it, and to people who live on flood plains.

Lord Rooker

Off the top of my head, I cannot conceive of Parliament allowing the circumstances to arise in which, before assistance is rendered, which is clearly required out of both common sense and humanity, the fire and rescue service has to seek someone's Barclaycard or insurance certificate. That is absolutely preposterous. I am not suggesting that that is the case. As a Minister, I for one would not stand here and propose such an arrangement. The fact is there is a way of recovering money from the insurance companies. If people are not insured, that is another issue; it is not a matter for the charging mechanism.

Nevertheless, as the noble Baroness, as a magistrate, said, too many people are driving around without insurance. That matter should be addressed in other ways rather than through the Bill.

As far as concerns the flood plains, building on them is fairly prevalent. Members of the House of Commons have a fine building, built on a flood plain at £1 million per room; Portcullis House is built on a flood plain. The point is that it is secure and safe because of the vast costs of putting the building there. So it is possible to build on a flood plain without necessarily allowing a place to be flooded each time. That does not happen with the generality of people's homes. The noble Baroness is quite right that the matter of insurance companies red-lining areas because of continual flooding has to be addressed.

I shall come back with a satisfactory reply on Report. It may be a holding reply, but it will be more satisfactory than the one I am able to give at the moment. The noble Baroness has raised an important issue, which naturally follows when one is looking at charging for these services and indeed encouraging some cross-recovery. That is the implication of the consultation paper. Therefore, we have to cover the eventualities to make sure that people are not discriminated against because insurance companies have red-line districts. It is not the first time that they have red-lined issues and these are seriously important matters.

I hope that reply is satisfactory. I have no doubt that we shall return to the issue.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

There is a whole raft of services—for example, when an elderly, frail person gets locked out of his or her home the first person he or she rings is the fire brigade to get back in—for which we are not going to charge. People are not charged for them now. Obviously, if someone lives in a six-bedroom house with six bathrooms and gets locked out, one might want to charge him or her, but not the frail elderly person who rings the fire brigade to get him or her back into his or her house, or perhaps a child whose kitten gets stuck up a tree.

The discretion that fire authorities have at the moment is why the fire service is generally well regarded by the public. They often perform things for the community that people like. I know there have been some ups and downs in recent years because of industrial action, but generally the fire service is regarded as being very good. It has done much of benefit to the community and has helped people at various times when they have been in trouble. I hope we will not lose that, although, as I said earlier, there should he opportunities for charging when doing something in a commercial way.

There is a big issue here. If we get it wrong in the Bill we could do a lot of harm to the service itself. On the other hand, we do not want to stop the potential for charging when there is some income to be earned to help with hard-pressed finances. Obviously, we shall have further discussions about the issue. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 64: Page 10, line 8, leave out from "authority" to end of line 9 and insert "must publish a list which specifies the amounts the authority will charge in specific circumstances and in which circumstances they will charge nothing

The noble Lord said: The amendments are not grouped together but, in moving Amendment No. 64, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 65, 66 and 67. That will speed up matters a little.

Amendment No. 64 is designed to bring greater openness, clarity and transparency to the actual process of charging. If the Minister is concerned that fire authorities are in some way abusing their positions when it comes to charging— something I can assure him they are not—then this amendment would helpfully allow individuals to see how much an authority actually charges for a particular service.

Amendment No. 65 seeks to remove what is a rather draconian attempt to restrict authorities charging for non-statutory and non-emergency functions and activities. As I said, fire authorities do not make excessive profits. Indeed, they do not make any profits whatever if you consider that moneys gained from charging are ploughed straight back into existing budgets.

I should have thought that the Minister would welcome such entrepreneurial activities in reducing both the level of government grants and of course, ultimately, the level of council tax that is spent on fire authorities. There is a whole list of activities that authorities currently undertake—such as fire training, new dimensions, terrorist attack training, fire risk assessment solutions and so on— which would be seriously curtailed if this subsection were to stand part of the Bill. I therefore urge the Minister to reconsider.

I shall not move Amendment No. 66.

Amendment No. 67 is simply designed to increase the breadth of consultation that the Secretary of State must undertake before granting any powers of charging, especially to those groups that would be most affected. We have just discussed that. Again we believe that this would bring greater clarity and openness to proceedings. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps I may comment first on Amendment No. 65. I do not know whether the Minister would like me to speak at this point to my Amendment No. 66A. I will do so, or leave it—

Lord Rooker

In for a penny—

Baroness Hamwee

Okay. I imagine that I am not the only noble Lord to have been briefed by the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, which tells me that, having taken advice from leading counsel, it is not correct to say that there is no charge from the current situation, and that Section 3(1)(e) of the 1947 Act does have power to charge in excess of cost recovery. It would be helpful to hear the Government's view on this. The Minister is grinning—I hope that his brief extends to that. It would be useful to get the explanation on to the record.

I apologise to the Committee, because I am better at writing than I am at typing. The fourth word in the second line should be "or" not "of". Noble Lords will probably have understood that, reading Amendment No. 66A, which allows authorities to include in their calculation of the cost what I have described as reasonably attributable overheads—those overheads reasonably attributable to taking the action, or putting themselves in a position to allow themselves to take the action. The Government's consultation document, in paragraph 18, says that the authorities may find it helpful to draw on existing and familiar principles set out in the CIPFA Best Value Accounting Code of Practice, and refers to the code's definition of "Total Cost". As an alternative, authorities may wish to consider adding to "Total Cost" an appropriate contribution for "Corporate and Democratic Core" and "Non-Distributed Costs", as those terms are defined in the code.

I am remiss, and I apologise to the Committee that I have not made the time to chase up those definitions so that I understand them, but they sound as if they extend to something more than the direct and immediate costs that seem to be referred to in the Bill.

Lord Rooker

I shall speak to the group that is being joined together as we speak: Amendments Nos. 64, 65, 66, and I think 66A and 67. I will start with Amendment No. 65. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is a lawyer, or one of the lawyers that does not count—I think that she is a solicitor. I say to her that this issue about the legality of charging—I am advised as a pure layman—is nowhere near as clear cut as some people make out according to advice within Government. I shall come to that.

I teased the noble Lord, but I pay tribute to the Essex fire authority. I really am sucking up to Essex today. Given what the noble Lord has said that it is doing, it all seemed admirable. I could not see—as a lay person—anything wrong with what it is doing. It is using its capacity to do good things.

Lord Hanningfield

It might be illegal.

Lord Rooker

It might! We are going to make it, it is all right.

Amendment No. 65 would remove from the Bill the requirement that the charges set by an authority do no more than recover the annual cost of providing the service in question. I understand that there is considerable concern among some authorities that under the clause as currently drafted they would not be able to recover an element of profit, as is their current practice. They have made representations to my officials, both through the consultation process and in private meetings, that the power to charge under Section 3 of the 1947 Act is more widely drawn than we suggested in the consultation document. Also, it allows the authorities to factor in an element for profit when calculating their charges.

Having taken further advice, I have to admit that there is no easy or clear-cut answer and that the situation is finely balanced. I hate using words like that; it sounds as though we do not know what we are doing. We do not wish to continue with the phrasing in the 1947 Act, which has led to differences of opinion between authorities as to the extent of their powers. For that reason, I do not propose to restore the wording of Section 3 of the 1947 Act as some authorities have asked. Greater clarity is needed and that is achieved by the clause as we have drafted it.

We have no wish, however, to create financial difficulties for authorities that have become accustomed, in good faith, to recovering a profit component on some of their activities. Therefore, we are prepared to offer the assurance that authorities that already incorporate a profit element, which we term as trading, will be allowed to do so for a period of up to two years after the first charging order is made.

That will be achieved by means of an order under Section 95 of the Local Government Act 2003 and will require authorities to conduct their trading activities through a company. Authorities will not be allowed to expand into new areas of trading under that concession, but may be allowed to do so if they achieve favourable assessments under the initial performance assessment or comprehensive performance assessment processes. Where an authority fails to achieve a favourable assessment in the first two such cycles, any trading order under the concession will be withdrawn. I shall write to noble Lords with further details of the concession and, in due course, request that the amendment be withdrawn.

Those comments were specifically on Amendment No. 65, but they set the scene for the others, which I shall run through. Amendment No. 64 would require the authority to compile an exhaustive list of the circumstances in which it might seek to levy a charge that had been specified by order. It would also require an authority to specify the circumstances in which it would charge nothing for one of those services. That seems to us to be an overly restrictive approach and one which is likely to constrain an authority's ability to exercise its discretion appropriately.

Let us consider the practical effect of the amendment. Having decided that, in general, an authority will charge for one of the specified services, it then seeks to compile an exhaustive list of the circumstances in which it considers it appropriate to make a nil charge. Some time later an entirely novel situation is encountered. By definition, it would not have been covered in the nil-charge list, yet the authority considers that it would be unjust to seek to levy or recover the charge. The amendment would prevent it doing so—it would be bound by its previous decision even though it had not been taken with the relevant circumstances in mind. The only remedy available to the authority would be to change its policy with retrospective effect. We do not think that a desirable way to proceed, as it would open the door to introducing charges retrospectively as well.

I can accept that Opposition Members of the Committee wish to see some clear public statement by an authority, perhaps on an annual basis, about how it will determine a charge, and possibly even what the charge might be in terms of an hourly rate. Some authorities already do that, and the Government would be happy to see it become the norm. Indeed, we suggested in the consultation document some bases on which the charge may be calculated, and we see no reason why an authority should not be open about the methodology that it has adopted. However, to require a detailed exegesis of how and when the authority will exercise its inherent discretion seems to us to be a recipe which undermines that discretion and may have unfortunate and unintended consequences at a later date. We have to be careful about that.

Amendment No. 66 would restrict the level of the charge to be set by an authority so that it was able to recover only the marginal cost of the action taken. That seems unnecessarily restrictive. It is more onerous than current arrangements and is at variance with the approach adopted by local authorities when setting the charge for delivery of discretionary services outside the fire arena.

7 p.m.

The accepted approach is to seek to recover the full costs of the service provided, although authorities retain their discretion to recover less than full costs if they consider it to be appropriate in the circumstances.

We have made it clear in paragraph 18 of the consultation paper that we consider authorities should draw on familiar and accepted accounting practices in determining the level of charge to be levied under a Clause 19 order. We have also made some suggestions that they may wish to adopt, which are tenable and highlighted in the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy definition of "total cost". We believe it would be a retrograde step to limit the ability to charge to marginal costs.

Amendment No. 66A is not required as the clause already allows authorities to charge on the basis of full recovery of costs. I do not need to say any more about that.

The provisions of Amendment No. 67 are unreasonably onerous as it is very difficult to know how to draw the line at those people "likely" to be affected. As phrased, it could arguably require the Secretary of State to seek out and consult everyone in England—that is the reality—and I am sure that that is not the intention of those who phrased the amendment. We could not consult everyone. We are consultation mad—we are a very consultative and listening government—but we cannot consult everyone in England. We could arguably do that at a general election but a great deal of the minutiae would get lost in the generality.

The requirement to consult on the face of the Bill is in tried and trusted terms. We published the consultation document on our proposals for the first order in February and delivered it to a wide range of consultees. I will make sure that Members of the Committee are provided with a list. There was some degree of press interest in the document so many members of the public were aware of its existence. The consultation period closed only last week and so it is too early to provide a detailed response.

I hope that my response basically covers the issues raised by the amendments. The next part of my brief refers to Amendment No. 67A and I do not believe that that amendment was spoken to. I hope that what I have said has been useful in answering many of the points raised. I hope it gives a steer as to the way in which these issues might be brought back, if considered necessary, on Report.

Baroness Hamwee

I have two questions. First, in regard to Amendment No. 66A, I can understand that the words in the amendment are not necessary, but the Minister seemed to suggest that we are talking not only about the direct costs of taking an action but the fact that there is scope for including overheads. Can he expand on that issue, or shall I table an amendment on Report to elicit how overheads can be included?

Lord Rooker

I did not use all my notes on every single amendment because of what I said on Amendment No. 65. Where authorities are able to recover up to the full cost of provision, that must include an overhead element. That would be my definition of full-cost provision and so, to that extent, it would contain an overheads element.

Baroness Hamwee

That is helpful. As to allowing certain authorities, after the comprehensive performance assessment process has been undertaken, to continue acting entrepreneurially for a period of up to two years, I wish to raise two points of disagreement rather than questions. I believe that the system will be harsh on those authorities that have been cautious and will be restricted from it. I do not agree with discrimination.

Paragraph 25 of the consultation paper refers to a "bespoke CPA" for fire authorities being introduced in 2005. Is it anticipated that all authorities will have gone through the process by 2006, which seems to be suggested by the Minister's reference to two years?

Lord Rooker

I apologise if I was not clear. Once the Bill becomes law, everyone can charge. It might look as though there is an inherent unfairness at the moment, but there is not. I shall explain why. Although there may be a small amount of dispute about the law, under the existing framework some authorities are charging for an element of profit but they are not doing so through a trading company. There is a difference between making a charge and trading—that is the distinction. We do not want to disturb the finances of those who have been doing what they are doing now—which is, in effect, trading, but not through a company and taking an element of profit on top of the charge—and therefore the concession will be allowed for two years. But everyone will be able to charge. In other words, those who have not been entrepreneurially gifted—or perhaps followed the Essex way—will be able to learn from such authorities. I do not know how many there are.

This has nothing to do with the noble Lord—there is nothing personal about this—but it was drawn to my attention that there is this difference. In future, it will have to be done through a trading company—authorities will not be able to do it as an arm of local government—and so there will be no unfairness. That may not have come across when I explained the issue because I did not go into the distinction between the charge and trading. Everyone will be able to charge once the Bill is enacted, but they will not be able to do so at a profit without going through the trading route. In a way, they are not there to provide services at a profit anyway.

Lord McCarthy

Why should it necessarily be done through a company and not in the way it is done now? What is the advantage of making authorities do that?

Lord Rooker

Because the system has to be fair. It has to be done as a trading enterprise—even local government has to set up companies to perform certain tasks—because otherwise they would be totally outside the competition rules of the private sector. No one would know how they had lost leaders, if you like, in local government; there would be no set of accounts; there would be no trading company. Transparency would be lost in the generality of the accounts of local government.

The reason authorities are required to set up trading accounts, as it were, is in order that people may see the true costs of delivering the service and see that they are not being ripped off.

Lord McCarthy

People are being ripped off. The Minister is saying that the private sector must never be ripped off and that the public sector must never be given an advantage.

Lord Rooker

My noble friend thinks sometimes that I am living in a time warp. Competition leads to benefits—but it has to be open, fair and transparent. It would be quite wrong for the public sector to put my former constituents working in small private companies out of work through misuse of its muscle. It would be totally unfair if, in the mass generality of its funding arrangements, the public sector did not charge the proper costs for buildings and so on. That would be totally unfair. You cannot defend people being put out of work because of unfair trading practices, whether from the public or private sector. I do not defend it here and now, when I have no constituents, and I certainly would not have defended my constituents being put out of work through malpractice or the abuse of monopoly power in the public sector by not disclosing a full set of accounts. My noble friend surely cannot defend that.

Lord McCarthy

It never happens in the private sector.

Lord Hanningfield

I agree with the Minister's last comments. This is a big issue and we need to digest the discussion that we have had on it. Certainly the suggestion that authorities that are following this practice now can at least continue to do so for the moment and not lose an income stream—which would obviously affect them dramatically—is welcome. We need to digest what has been said in the debate. We shall come back to the issue at Report stage.

Baroness Hamwee

It may have been the distraction of the discussion about competition, but did the Minister answer my question about the speed of the comprehensive performance assessment?

Lord Rooker

No, I did not, but I do have the note. All authorities will have undergone the comprehensive performance assessment by 2006.

Baroness Hamwee

How will they know?

Lord Hanningfield

Having been involved in comprehensive performance assessments of authorities, I know that it will be a tall order for all of them to go through by 2006. The Audit Commission will have to beef up how it starts. I am sure we will come back to the issue.

We have had a good discussion today. I am sure that we all need to analyse what has been said and come back to the issue on Report. If there is anything the Minister can do to clarify the situation for us over the next week or two in the form of information about exactly where the Government stand, it would be very helpful. We would then know what kind of amendments to bring forward on Report and what kind of matters we need to probe. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 65 to 67 not moved.]

Clause 19 agreed to.

Clause 20 [Exercise of powers at or under sea]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 67A: Page 10, line 23, at end insert "(including permanent and semi-permanent offshore installations)

The noble Baroness said: This is another probing amendment. Clause 20 allows fire and rescue authorities to exercise their powers or perform duties at sea or under the sea. It is perhaps my age showing, but I understand "at sea" to mean things floating on the sea and I wonder whether it includes offshore installations. Does "at sea" extend, for instance, to oil rigs? I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment. I hope that I can help to satisfy her probing point.

We believe the amendment is unnecessary because, as the clause makes clear, fire and rescue authorities can act at sea or under the sea in the same way in which other provisions in the Bill allow them to act outside their own areas—for example, in providing mutual assistance.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has a general duty to manage the response of UK authorities to maritime incidents in territorial waters and beyond. It does not maintain its own corps of firefighters but will enter into agreements with other service providers, including fire and rescue authorities, to provide a response to fires and other emergencies at sea, whether on vessels or installations such as offshore oil rigs, and whether permanent or otherwise. I hope that answers the point.

Baroness Hamwee

Indeed it does. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 agreed to.

Clause 21 [Fire and Rescue National Framework]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 68: Page 10, line 32, leave out paragraph (a).

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 68 brings us to the framework and to Clause 21, which gives statutory force to the framework. The Secretary of State has published a draft and I gather that the consultation has recently ended. However, I see from the introduction that it will be reinvigorated in the near future after consultation ends.

7.15 p.m.

The framework is the key document that will effectively define how fire and rescue authorities discharge their functions and which, by virtue of provisions later in the Bill that require compliance, allows the Secretary of State to dictate the blueprint for the operation of fire and rescue services. This further erodes the principle of local service accountability.

Amendment No. 68 would remove the obligation for the framework to set out priorities and objectives for authorities and the discharge of their functions. The proper role of Parliament is to set out the functions of fire and rescue authorities in primary legislation, and the Bill does that. The Secretary of State already has substantial powers, particularly under Clauses 9, 14 and 17, to direct how those functions will be discharged. The further provisions in the framework allow an unscrutinised document to have the force of primary legislation. Under subsection (2)(b) the Secretary of State will be able to issue guidance to authorities, in connection with the discharge of any of their functions".

That should be a sufficient level of intervention. The discharge of their proper functions must be a matter for local fire and rescue authorities rather than something to be defined in detail by the Secretary of State.

In the other place, the Minister, the right honourable Nick Raynsford, said that to delete Clause 21(2)(a) would undermine the Government's commitment to implement Bain's recommendations. We beg to differ. The national framework should provide the strategic leadership for the fire and rescue service, but it should also take into account that local authorities and local fire and rescue authorities need discretion. For example, the needs of the Devon fire authority are very different from the needs of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. The national framework should not be a huge, prescriptive document that attempts to micro-manage everything that fire authorities do.

Indeed, I am slightly reinforced in the view that that is what it seeks to do at the end of the introduction to the framework, where paragraph 6 states: The legislation we have announced will place the Framework on a statutory footing and it will, in due course, incorporate mandatory requirements on key national performance issues. The expectations set out in the Framework will become a key tool in shaping the Audit Commission's fire and rescue Comprehensive Performance Assessment".

So the framework will ultimately set out some very prescriptive requirements for fire and rescue authorities. We are trying to lessen that prescriptiveness. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

This is an important amendment in the debate about the balance between local and national. Having heard what the noble Baroness said, I am not so sure that we are terribly far apart. However, I think it is important to retain the clause as it stands. Nick Raynsford was right to say that, if the amendment succeeded at some point during the course of the legislation, it would seriously undermine the importance of the national framework—which is a strategic document—and undermine our strategic approach. We would end up with something which was regarded merely as guidance for local fire and rescue authorities, and we need something more than that.

Sir George Bain's report—which was generally accepted as providing a way forward for the modernisation of the fire service—provides the backdrop against which we wish to set out a clear direction for fire and rescue services, and the national framework is designed to do exactly that. If the amendment were accepted it would leave us in a situation where we would not have strong leadership from central government. That being the case, we would be left with a fluid situation and perhaps too much local autonomy.

As a localist and former local government person, I believe that there has to be a balance. We think that we have struck the right balance in framing this piece of legislation and in phrasing this clause.

The noble Baroness was arguing about the wording of the clause. Clause 21(7) states: Fire and rescue authorities must have regard to the Framework in carrying out their functions". That, to me, seems to strike the right tone. This is not an authoritarian national framework and it is not the nationalisation of the fire service; it recognises that there will be important priorities which are relevant nationally but there will also be locally determined priorities. In responding to the national framework, the local fire and rescue authority will carefully have to work in its own priorities. Presumably, those priorities will necessarily relate to its own local risk assessment in terms of the pressures on the fire authority arising from the services to be provided in that locality.

We repealed Section 19 of the 1947 Act and replaced national standards with local flexibility. Ultimately, the framework will be about that important word "partnership" between local authorities and the way in which we see things working as a national Government. I believe that we have the balance about right, but we can always argue the semantics of the word.

The noble Baroness herself said that there was a need for a strategic purpose. She also said that there would be a need for local discretion. We do not disagree with that, but we think that the national framework is important and we see it setting out a strategy for the fire and rescue authorities. I hope that, having heard that, the noble Baroness will feel reasonably reassured. I hope that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment today and that she will not press it at a later stage.

Baroness Hanham

I find myself in a schizophrenic situation here. The national framework is a document which must set out priorities and objectives for fire and rescue authorities. It may contain guidance—or it may not, but that is another thing—and it may contain any other matter. As I understand it, the document that we have at present is not the final one, and yet much in it is not guidance. It states absolutely categorically, "You must do this" or "You must not do that".

Therefore, the framework is not a guidance document—we must be really clear on that—but it contains mandatory requirements. That seems to me to be awfully confusing. A framework is either what is says—that is, a guideline to what one should do—but one cannot say that a document that states, "You must do something", is simply guidance; it is not. It is setting out mandatory requirements. I could give endless examples, such as the section relating to regional control rooms. Paragraph 2.15 on page 17 states: Against the background above, Fire and Rescue Authorities, through the Regional Management Boards, must … ensure the phased transition … work closely with the Government… agree with the Government … comply with national protocols". Throughout the document, there is a difference between the "musts" and the "mays". If the Government are not careful, I believe that this framework document will cause confusion rather than be of help. It would be far better if it were set out exactly as the Minister suggested—that is, by stating things to which the authorities "may" pay regard. However, as I see it, that is not the situation with regard to the framework document as it stands at present. More statutory requirements may be included in it as this is clearly only the start of it and not the end. There is a clear expectation that it will be updated as time goes on and it will have to be updated by the Bill that we are discussing at present. Therefore, I hear what the Minister says but I am afraid that I do not agree with him. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Rooker

This may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn until Wednesday 19 May at 3.30 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

The Committee stands adjourned until Wednesday 19 May at 3.30 p.m.

The Committee adjourned at twenty-five minutes past seven o'clock.