§ 3.14 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ On what grounds the decision has been taken to cease. the central funding of the Fire Service College and whether any estimate has been made of likely reduction in attendance of the staff of county councils and fire and civil defence authorities as a result of this decision.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, the decision to phase in the charging of fire authorities in England and Wales for training at the Fire Service College was made in order to give fire authorities greater involvement with the college so that it should be more responsive to its customers' requirements. No estimate has been made of any possible reduction in attendance.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. However, is he not aware of the views of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association that the move is likely to lead to a dramatic reduction in training for members of fire brigades in the UK? As that will impinge on public safety, does he not agree that it may well prove to be a retrograde step?
My Lords, I am aware of the views of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association but the statutory requirement to ensure the efficient training of fire brigade staff lies with the fire authorities. We are confident that the fire authorities will meet that requirement in the future as they have in the past.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, while not disputing the wisdom of the decision, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that the Fire Service College has not only provided training for members of the fire service, but also that it has been at the forefront of technical progress in methods of doing so? Will he give an assurance that that important part of the college's work will continue?
My Lords, the view of the Government is that the Fire Service College stands pre-eminent in the world for fire service training. We have every intention that it should stay that way.
§ Baroness Stedman
My Lords, I speak as an ex-student of the original Fire Service College and as the governor of this one for some time. I am concerned at the steps the Government are taking to put the responsibility for payment on to local authorities. I am sure local authorities will continue to use the 152 college for their recruit training. But it is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, that they continue to provide refresher courses aimed at supplying the increased scientific and technical knowledge required by our firefighters. With the shortage of funds that local authorities, particularly local fire authorities, are experiencing, these services may be neglected. The whole country would regret that.
My Lords, all the courses of the Fire Service College are enormously important. The point is that in future fire authorities will be responsible for funding those who attend the college other than those attending the brigade command courses in order to become chief fire officers. It is our intention to ensure that the funding of that is taken account of in the revenue support grant.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, does not the Minister take into account the feeling expressed throughout the fire service and throughout the land at all levels that these cuts—as really they are —will affect safety standards, and training and careers in the fire service? Can he give an assurance that where a local authority lacks the funds that he speaks of, that will in no way affect the careers of the fire service members within that authority?
My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon —not for the first time —that this results in cuts. It is transferring the responsibility for providing the funds. In the past the Fire Service College was funded mainly by the Home Office. It will now be funded by local authorities via the revenue support grant. The noble Lord asks whether funds will be made available. I point out that the manner in which local authorities dispose of their funds is up to them.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, I asked a question which I now repeat. Where the local authority has different priorities of need and determines that those priorities do not take into account the fire service and the Fire Service College, will the Minister give an assurance that that will not affect the careers and training of the fire service members within those authorities?
My Lords, I can only say to the noble Lord that when the fire authorities and the local authorities have their funds to dispose of as they think fit, it is up to those authorities to decide whether or not to send people to the Fire Service College. I hope that prudence and common sense will ensure that they do. They have an obligation under the Fire Services Act 1947 to ensure that people are properly trained.