HL Deb 06 April 2004 vol 659 cc1777-818

2.58 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill is important and historic. It forms a critical part of the Government's strategy to modernise the fire and rescue services to help to save more lives. It is the first comprehensive legislation on the fire and rescue services in more than 50 years and will replace the Fire Services Act 1947. That legislation built a framework which placed a strong emphasis on rapid and effective response to fires.

The services have historically performed to a very high standard in responding to and dealing with fires. Noble Lords no doubt share in holding firefighters in high esteem for their professionalism and willingness to confront danger. But despite that success, still too many lives are lost. Around 300 deaths and over 9,000 injuries are estimated to have occurred in accidental dwelling fires in England and Wales in 2002. It is the vulnerable in society who are most likely to be affected. For example, people aged 80 or above are six times more likely to die in a house fire than those between the ages of 30 and 59.

The effectiveness of a predominantly intervention-based approach was considered by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Select Committee in its report on the fire service published on 23 January. It noted that in 50 per cent of cases involving fatalities, the victims were dead before the fire service was called. So there is a powerful and persuasive case for increasing the focus on the prevention of fire, which is a key aim of the Bill.

Shifting the service towards a more risk-based and preventative approach was a key recommendation of the independent review of the fire service led by Sir George Bain. Noble Lords will recall that the report by Sir George and his two colleagues, Sir Michael Lyons and Sir Anthony Young, was published in December 2002. It did not pull its punches in demonstrating either the case for change or the responsibility of all involved with the fire and rescue service to deliver that change. As the Select Committee recognised, too many far-reaching reviews into the future of the fire and rescue service had been left to gather dust on the shelf.

The fire and rescue service White Paper, Our Fire and Rescue Service, published in June 2003, set out the Government's response to the Bain report. It welcomed and accepted the broad thrust of the recommendations. It also made clear that the Government were committed to implementing reform and providing greater strategic direction for the fire and rescue service. I am pleased to inform noble Lords that good progress is being made on taking forward these reforms.

Responses to the consultation on the draft fire and rescue national framework are being considered. Integrated risk management plans, which all fire and rescue authorities must now have, are being implemented as of 1 April. Regional control centres are being introduced and the new integrated personal development system is being rolled out with a new investment in the Fire Service College to develop a centre of excellence.

The Bill represents the next crucial step in delivering that package of reforms. I will briefly delineate its structure. Part 1 deals with the definition of fire and rescue authorities and their structure. It updates existing powers that provide for voluntary and compulsory combination of fire and rescue authorities. These powers were the subject of considerable debate during the detailed scrutiny in another place where accusations about regionalisation by the back door were prominent.

So before we go any further I would like again to set the record straight so that there is no doubt. The Government are not proposing to regionalise the fire and rescue service except in those regions where voters themselves choose to have an elected regional assembly. That is the choice of the voters, not the Government. Elsewhere existing fire and rescue authorities will continue to be responsible for the service.

But greater collaboration and co-operation between fire and rescue authorities is vital to provide a more cost-effective public service and the efficient organisation and delivery of key functions. For example, the crucial role of the fire and rescue service in dealing with major emergencies such as a terrorist incident requires adequate capacity, continuity and consistency of approach. Achieving the necessary resilience also requires robust planning and preparation and region-wide co-operation. That is why, for example, regional control rooms are such an essential requirement.

That is a key reason why we requested that all fire and rescue authorities other than London—which is already organised on a region-wide basis—work together to establish regional management boards. The Local Government Association is monitoring progress which, I understand, is generally encouraging. We hope and expect that regional management boards can and will tackle the issues that must be addressed at a regional level, but the powers in the Bill provide an important reserve power to be used only should regional management boards fail to deliver.

I turn to the functions of the Bill. Part 2 establishes a new legislative framework for the fire and rescue service. It provides a clear statement of the new functions of fire and rescue authorities alongside their traditional role in fighting fires. I say in parenthesis that that is why some of the Bill's provisions are almost statements of the obvious; it is because they have come over from the Fire Services Act 1947, which is being completely repealed. The functions are to deal with the aftermath of road traffic accidents, to promote fire safety and to prepare for, and respond to, major emergencies.

This new legislative structure is integral to a modern fire and rescue service that helps save more lives and is better able to protect the public. Stopping fires happening and educating people about fire safety is critical, and we know that prevention works.

Smoke alarm ownership has gone from 9 per cent to 76 per cent in the past 20 years. As a result 80 lives a year are believed to be saved. But we need to focus our efforts on the remaining 24 per cent of households, typically those most vulnerable to fire, that still do not have a working smoke alarm. Smoke kills. Some months ago 1 visited the Fire Service College. Under supervision I put on the appropriate clothing and with air equipment tackled a fire. I was told, "OK, Jeff, you can put on the hose and put out the fire". However, I could not see the fire although I knew that it was there as I had watched it being lit. The smoke became very black in a short space of time. It is easy to understand that smoke is the key danger and that it is what kills most people, hence the work that is needed to persuade the remaining 24 per cent of households that do not have a working smoke alarm to get one.

Some excellent and innovative work is being done by individual fire and rescue authorities to raise levels of fire safety awareness. But across the country performance varies and there is clearly a need to do more. The duty to promote fire safety will ensure that prevention is at the heart of fire and rescue authority strategy.

Proper statutory footing for the role of the fire and rescue service in responding to major emergencies, for example serious flooding or a terrorist incident, is a key element of the Bill. Noble Lords are aware that the purpose of the Civil Contingencies Bill is to create a new national framework for responding to major civil emergencies. The powers in this Bill will ensure that the fire and rescue service makes an effective contribution to that response.

In addition to setting out core duties, we are giving fire and rescue authorities flexibility to equip for and respond to other events and situations they judge, for example, as a result of the preparation of their integrated risk management plans, present a risk to life and the environment.

Part 2 of the Bill also provides flexibility for fire and rescue authorities to work in partnership with others to deliver. It provides for delegating the discharge of a function to another body, for example the promotion of fire safety to a local education authority; securing assistance from other fire and rescue authorities and others such as the BAA Fire Service that employ firefighters to discharge core operational functions; and maintaining the existing prohibition that only those who employ firefighters can deal with fighting fires.

The Bill also provides the power to set out by order what fire and rescue authorities can charge for. This particular provision also received extensive scrutiny in another place. It was made clear that the Government's policy is to enable fire and rescue authorities to continue to recover the cost of providing certain services, in circumstances where they deem it appropriate. That was the commitment in the fire and rescue White Paper and the consultation paper issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on 10 February. I cannot say much about that as I think that the consultation does not close until 7 May.

Part 3 of the Bill covers the administration, supervision and infrastructure of the fire and rescue service. It will give statutory force to the fire and rescue national framework and require the Secretary of State to report against it.

The national framework provides the strategic direction recommended by the Bain report. It sets out priorities and objectives for the fire and rescue service and the support the Government will provide. In most instances it will be for fire and rescue authorities to determine how best to deliver the requirements of the framework, and we hope and expect that they will do so. But we must be able to act where a fire and rescue authority is failing to act in accordance with the national framework given the potential impact for essential emergency response services. The Bill provides intervention powers for such circumstances where existing powers available under "best value" would not apply. However, as my ministerial colleagues made clear in another place, they are powers of last resort and would be exercised within the spirit of the existing intervention protocol agreed with local government.

Part 3 of the Bill also provides powers for the Secretary of the State to supply equipment or services to the fire and rescue service and, if necessary, to require an individual fire and rescue authority to use them. The Bill also re-enacts Section 1(1)(b) of the Fire Services Act 2003, which allows the Secretary of State to direct fire and rescue authorities on the use and disposal of assets and facilities. Noble Lords may recall that the 2003 Act is time-limited by a two-year sunset clause.

However, when that Bill was introduced, the Government made it clear that longer-term arrangements to ensure access to assets crucial to public safety would be a matter for a substantive Bill. But the Bill before us today does not allow the Secretary of State to impose terms and conditions. That was the other limb of Section 1 of that Act. Those powers will end, as envisaged, in November 2005—two years after the legislation came into effect.

So far as concerns employment, effective negotiating machinery is crucial to modernising the fire and rescue service. Weaknesses in the existing national joint council arrangement were crystal clear to anyone who took an iota of notice during the recent pay dispute. Therefore, the White Paper made clear that the review by the Fire Brigades Union and employers of existing national joint council arrangements must deliver a structure which reflects more closely the changing role of the service and which is more representative of all those who work within it. Therefore, Part 4 of the Bill provides the powers to put that new structure in place. I repeat that these are reserve powers which we do not intend to use so long as the current discussions between employers and workforce representatives deliver a satisfactory outcome.

Another issue to emerge from the pay dispute was the role of government in setting out their legitimate concerns about the implications for wider public sector pay policy. We believe that that is best achieved by setting out our requirements in advance of negotiations, leaving employers and employees clear about government expectations. The Bill will provide powers to issue that guidance to any negotiating body—established voluntarily, which is what we want, or via powers under the Bill—and such a body will have to have regard to it.

Other measures within the Bill will also help to make the fire and rescue service a better place for all who work within it. For example, it will strengthen existing pension provisions while providing powers to create new, multiple pension schemes—a major workforce concern—and it will repeal outdated legislation to allow a modern approach to recruitment, training and development and discipline.

Noble Lords will be aware that the Bill also contains a number of other provisions. It re-enacts provisions to ensure the effective supply of water for fighting fires; it provides for ancillary powers for firefighters to respond to situations on the ground when dealing with fires, road traffic accidents and other emergencies; it provides powers to enter premises and investigate fires; it deals with the abolition of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council; and it deals with devolution of the fire and rescue service in Wales to the National Assembly for Wales.

In conclusion, the new challenges that we face require a modern fire and rescue service that is better able to protect the public and save more lives. It will be a service that places greater emphasis on the prevention of fires and takes greater account of today's risks in deploying its resources. It will work closely with local communities to identify and eliminate potential risks, particularly those affecting the most vulnerable, and it will be a more efficient service with fire and rescue authorities working together to underpin national resilience. The White Paper set out the Government's vision for a fire and rescue service—a vision which has been very widely welcomed and endorsed, most recently by the Select Committee in the other place. The Fire and Rescue Services Bill is crucial in delivering that vision. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill he now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, it seems no time at all since we were sitting during the long hot days of last summer discussing what became the Fire Act 2003, the emergency measure brought in as a result of the tire dispute and strikes. The dispute soured the relationship between the Government and the firefighters and resulted in both the Bain and the Mott MacDonald reports. Many of their recommendations are included in the new Bill.

As the Minister said, the 2003 Act enables the Secretary of State to take control of equipment; to order fire station closures; and, if necessary, to impose the financial settlement. Those provisions are very similar to many in the new Bill, although I accept that. as the Minister said, the financial implications will fall as a result of the sunset clause contained in the Act.

Two questions immediately arise. First, which legislation will take precedence—this Bill or the Fire Services Act 2003? Secondly. as this Bill will repeal the entirety of the Fire Services Act 1947, what is the position with regard to Section 19 of that Act which was repealed as part of the Local Government Act 2003 and which transferred decisions on the closure of fire stations and the reduction in the number of firefighters from the Secretary of State to local fire authorities? The provisions in this Bill enable the Secretary of State to do what he is enabled to do under the 2003 Act, which is to take those powers to himself. As we discussed during passage of the Local Government Act, we clearly have a dichotomy and divergence, which we saw coming. The Minister may like to reply to that because it will save us having to debate the matter further.

As the Fire Services Act 1947 will not exist, does that mean that this decision will not exist either and that the Deputy Prime Minister will resume control over the numbers of firefighters and stations? There seems to be a danger that confusion rather than clarity will reign.

One aspect which is clear, however, is that the Government's centralising tendency is hack in play again. However much the Minister tries to put it aside, regionalisation in this legislation is no less ambitious than it has been in the field of planning, housing, learning and skills, all of which now have a regional dimension. The fire service, too, is destined to be administered by regional assemblies if they are ever implemented; but whether or not they are, regional management boards, a combination from other fire authorities, have already been set up. It is not unknown for the Government to implement new arrangements before they have legislative backing to do so. However, to instruct that those bodies should be set up by 1 April this year, prior to any consideration of this legislation in this House, takes this unhappy talent into new territory.

Questions have already been raised in the other place about the rationale behind the creation of this regional level, and we shall pursue that further. The Bill presages major reform of an important service. It throws all the cards up in the air, as has happened with other services, and has the possibility of leaving things standing for a long time unresolved. During the Bill's passage we shall certainly want to test how quickly things will be implemented. Experience from other major reforms has been that they set up and send out far more questions than they resolve in the rather limited detail in the Bill.

The details for the Bill's implementation are found in the national framework, a draft document which the Government do not intend should be debated or considered by Parliament even though it contains the prescriptive detail which dictates to the fire authorities how the newly named fire and rescue service should operate. The introduction states that the White Paper on which this Bill is based introduced the most radical reform since the Second World War. That statement, which the Minister has borne out, scarcely does justice to the 1947 Act, which has survived and served us well for some 55 years.

We shall concentrate on the need for the framework to be the subject of an affirmative order so that the extremely important elements of the Bill which appear in the national framework and are not due to be discussed by Parliament cannot be just cast aside as not being of concern to both Houses. These include such matters as the integrated risk management—a not uncontentious subject, at least among the firefighters themselves; the regional approach, which covers such subjects as how fire and rescue authorities should work together through the regional management boards; the management of specialist and common services; training—the vastly important matter of how the service should be organised, trained and equipped to deal with any terrorist threat; and the proposal, which also is not widely welcomed, to introduce the best value regime to the fire and rescue service.

I cannot forbear from commenting on one word, which is contained in the ministerial foreword to the framework. That is the word "customer". It states that, we have established a Business and Community Safety Forum and a Practitioner's Forum to involve the 'customers' of the Fire and Rescue Service". If ever there were a less appropriate use of that word, it would be hard to imagine.

By definition, any service which seeks to protect and provide security for the public needs to be locally based. We are concerned about the proposals for the combining of fire authorities and possibly control rooms—I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Hanningfield will want to talk about that when he winds up—and the power that will reside in the hands of the Secretary of State. Clause 22 must be quoted in this context, because it is so ridiculous. It states: For the purpose of securing that the authority acts in accordance with the Framework the Secretary of State may … require the authority … to do something; … to stop doing something; … not to do something". On that definition, the Secretary of State could manage to intervene on almost anything.

The fire service has the well-earned respect of local communities. The proposals in the Bill to extend its name to the fire and rescue service is a welcome recognition of the work that in fact it has been doing for years in attending road accidents, chemical spillages, train disasters, releasing people trapped in lifts and even rescuing cats from trees. But it is not a new concept. Local people rely on their fire stations and the expertise brought by those involved in the service. We welcome, therefore, the introduction of local flexibility to match the deployment of resources to locally identified risks.

However, we view the framework's proposals for charging for some of these services with caution. Of course, firefighting would be exempt, but it has been suggested—and the Minister might want to comment on this—that road accidents might be subject to a charge, as might rescuing those trapped in lifts or in dealing with flooding. By definition any charge under those circumstances would probably fall on the insurance industry. But it raises really quite serious questions as to whether someone trapped, for example in a car, would have to indicate that they had insurance before they were rescued. I am sure that the Minister will want to reassure us about that because it is not at all clear.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, let us make it clear before that hare gets running. It is completely out of the question that the fire service on attending a road traffic accident would seek to ask someone trapped in a car, "Have you got insurance or will you pay for this before you are rescued?". With great respect to the noble Baroness, it is preposterous for her to even raise that. As regards rescuing people from lifts, a commercial property normally has its own cover with lift engineers. They ring for the fire brigade because they know that it will come more quickly than the engineer—and then expect it done for nothing. Therefore, charges are usually made for things like that.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, many people will be grateful for that response. However, where insurance is involved, and it surely will be, the insurance industry is not a milch cow, and the costs will inevitably fall back on general insurance premiums. However, providing educational training, lectures on fire prevention, and other fire safety issues, could be a form of money-raising. I accept that for people stuck in the lift, that might be an acceptable charge, but I would not want to be sitting round waiting having to pay for it. It would be infinitely preferable to savings being raised from the indiscriminate closure of fire stations.

The threat of terrorism seems to be one of the drivers for the changes, and for the Bill that the noble Lord mentioned. A more centralised approach to the service must be catered for, and arrangements must be made to ensure that there is cover and expertise in the event of a major catastrophe. This can be done on a cooperative basis, and I am sure it has had to be in the past. That alone would certainly not be a justification for this Bill, nor is it for the powers that are being taken to enable the Secretary of State to create new combined fire authorities, to appoint the members of those authorities, to impose negotiating bodies on the service, to intervene in the management of a specific fire or incident, and to override the decisions of a professional fire officer on the scene of a major incident. We have difficulty with all this, and much else.

The Bill gives sweeping powers to the Secretary of State, far in excess of what is required to ensure that we have an up-to-date fire and rescue service. I have indicated some of our areas of concern. We will be dealing with these, and others, during the next few weeks. We recognise the importance of combining fire and rescue and also of prevention work. We welcome the emphasis laid on that. The safety of people in our communities is one of the most important areas for a govevnment. We need to be sure that this Bill and the accompanying framework are a means of achieving that, in a measured and sensible way.

3.26 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the Bill and from these Benches I also put on record our thanks to firefighters and to others who work in the service to enable them to do the front line job.

I have no direct interest to declare, but I do have an interest in a non-technical sense, having observed at a slight remove over the past four years how certain major services have operated in London, having been brought under the umbrella—or, in friendlier terms, into the family—of the Greater London Authority. One of these is the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. Its tradition and culture of governance, having transferred from local governance authority—the 33 boroughs governance—shows. Although it still has some battles to fight and goals to achieve, I firmly believe that that culture translates well into efficiency and effectiveness.

In sharp contrast, the police in London, until a little less than four years ago, were under the direct control of the Home Secretary. Noble Lords should not in any way take this as a comment on the police's operational effectiveness. I am talking about transparency and accountability, and I firmly believe that the financial controls in the case of the police are far better. Certainly they are beginning to be clearer. That means that when you spend less on paperclips—and I do not believe that anyone really knew how much was spent on paperclips—you can spend more on front line services.

I make the distinction because the Bill returns us to our old friend, the question of centralisation and the powers of the Secretary of State. I can see the Minister grinning—he is starting to write already. He can write down that these Benches in general welcome the Bill. I want to make that clear. However, it is the role of the Opposition to dig into the detail. That may mean that we are critical on some matters. That should not be taken as general opposition to the Bill. I shall exercise some self discipline, but not 100 per cent, during the Committee stage.

These Benches will question the powers of the Secretary of State. I hope that the Minister will understand that is not the same as questioning his right honourable friend as an individual, or even as a representative of the current Government. As I have said before in this House, the current Secretary of State, the Deputy Prime Minister, may not always be the right honourable friend of the Minister, raising the spectre of a Conservative Secretary of State, or even worse in the Minister's eyes, a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State. I read the Bill in the knowledge that life moves on, but legislation does not come along as often as new governments. However, when I last made the point, somebody from behind me on these Benches said rather loudly, "That does not mean you do actually trust the current Secretary of State". To retain my street credibility, I better put that on record as well.

A number of these points have been touched on already, but we will discuss during the proceedings on the Bill the compulsory creation of combined fire authorities of a size determined by the Secretary of State. We will also discuss what evidence he or she will need for such a creation, and how that will be shared with others involved. We will discuss the Secretary of State's power to appoint just under half of the members of the new boards; his or her power to establish negotiating bodies, including their membership and chair; and powers to intervene when an authority is regarded as failing.

We well understand the need to ensure standards and also, in some matters, cohesion and co-ordination between brigades and between authorities. We also understand that the Government cannot let be it said, "Why did you stand by and let such and such happen?". However, I question whether it is necessary to be quite so prescriptive as this Bill is.

In the foreword to the draft framework, the Minister, Mr Raynsford, tells us that it, sets out the Government's objectives for the fire and rescue services, and what fire and rescue authorities should do to achieve these outcomes". Those are separate matters. The Government do not need to set out every "how" as well as every "what". The foreword goes on to say: These expectations will form a key tool in shaping the Audit Commission's Fire and Rescue Comprehensive Performance Assessment". It does not give me confidence that, as the introduction states, giving fire and rescue authorities the flexibility they need to meet the specific needs of their local communities", is at the heart of the Government's approach.

The Government's own submission to the Bain report referred to, allowing flexibility to deliver the services communities require in changing circumstances with good value for money, and focusing on, delivering the outcomes that the community needs". I have commented on the distinction between "how" and "what".

The White Paper refers to a service improvement team within the ODPM. That worries me. I am worried not about the Government's determination to create a good service but about their thinking that it cannot be good unless the ODPM is right there at the heart of it. However, I am a little confused. As I understand the White Paper, it would be independent of central government. If there is a need for a team within the ODPM, then the ODPM should own it, and it should not be independent. Is there anything the Minister can say on that point?

We will also discuss what is encompassed by the power to require authorities, as the noble Baroness has said, to do something, stop it, or not do it. Unlike the noble Baroness, I can find something positive to say about this. When we were discussing the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, we were reminded of the desirability of using more modern terminology. That is certainly fairly modern and straight forward in the way it is worded.

The power to direct an authority to respond or not to respond to an emergency is another matter we will focus on. The Minister mentioned the Civil Contingencies Bill, which is currently in the Commons. I should be interested to explore how the two Bills mesh together. As I read them, the definitions in the two Bills of "emergency" are not the same. What are the implications of that?

It is also unclear how an order made by the Secretary of State conferring functions on a fire and rescue authority would work in practice. How does meeting an urgent situation sit with the process of obtaining an order before which the Secretary of State must consult?

At Second Reading in the Commons, the Minister said: If we have to use our reserve powers"— he was not talking about all of them at that point— we will obviously consult more widely before doing so, and any details can be made public at that point—[Official Report, Commons, 26/1/04; col. 53.] That probably speaks for itself. Having said that, I reiterate that we welcome the extended role for fire and rescue authorities, in recognition of the current reality. We join others who welcome the acknowledgement of the importance of prevention. We will join in the debate that we will, no doubt, have about how to deal with the provision of sprinklers and misters and about which premises they should be in and whether we should leave it to building regulations or use the opportunity provided by primary legislation.

I mentioned the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. Its most recent figures show that, for the current year, the target percentage of fire staff time spent on community safety is 6 per cent. In fact, it is only at just over 2 per cent. There is a long way to go.

The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and others have, as we know, difficulty in recruiting women and people from ethnic minorities. That is important not just for all the reasons relating to equality of which your Lordships will be well aware but because, in achieving prevention, it is important that people in the service should—sometimes literally but more often metaphorically—talk the same language. I was disturbed to see that, with regard to the London authority, the percentage of black and minority ethnic applicants has always substantially exceeded the percentage appointed.

With women, it is a question of attracting the right applicants. There is interesting work to be done in addressing the stereotyped perceptions of the role that deter women. Nor have I heard much mention of disabled people. The London authority recognises the need to work with the disabled community on public policy relating to disabled access and fire safety and ensure that the needs are met.

As the Minister says, the question of pensions must be tackled. It is relevant to retained firefighters. I hope that it does not sound like lip service, but the most important resource is people.

I have been interested in comments that I have heard from, among others, the Local Government Association about giving the fire and rescue authorities the power of well-being. That is an abbreviated way of expressing it, but it fits in with the prevention role and with the acknowledgement of the part that fire and rescue services play in wider issues relating to social injustice, anti-social behaviour and so on.

As we were reminded by the noble Baroness, we will spend time in Committee on the regional dimension. The local dimension is also hugely important. I was much taken with a comment made by Andrew Bennett in one the debates in the Commons on joining up fire and rescue authorities and other parts of local government. He used the example of the provision of a dump site for old cars, to reduce the number of burnt-out cars that must be dealt with. We will have to do a lot of joining up. I am not sure what the implications of sharing the role with the Health and Safety Executive are. There are also issues concerning the co-responder role, and the fact that different emergency authorities may have roles that overlap.

There is much to welcome in the Bill. There is much that we will question, both as a matter of democracy and, not least, because the best application of democracy leads to the best effectiveness.

3.40 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his comprehensive introduction to this Bill. As he rightly said, this is part of the reform programme outlined in the Government's White Paper.

I understand that the FBU generally welcomes the new approach to fire cover, based on risk to life rather than risk to property. The union also supports moves for more resources to be put into fire prevention.

There is apparently concern, however, that apart from some transitional funding, no additional money is to be provided for the reform package. This matter has already been raised before the Select Committee. There seems to be a belief that savings will be made as a result of the reforms, when according to many experts—including the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association—more money is needed to bring about improvements in community safety.

It is thought that emphasis on fire prevention will result in fewer fires and this will cut costs. But will it? Very often preventative measures are themselves costly. These are matters that need to be addressed through consultations with the organisations most closely connected with this important service.

Clauses 2 and 4 are concerned with moves to create larger regional fire and rescue authorities. The Bain report suggested joint police/ambulance/fire service control rooms. That is not supported by those involved in the provision of the service on the ground.

As to large regional authorities, the FBU believes that this might make sense with a regional government structure—which looks to be some years away—but not with the current structure, and it appears to have little local support. I note with interest what the Minister had to say about regionalisation in his introduction to the Bill this morning.

Clause 19 says that the Secretary of State may "by order" authorise charging for special services, but not for extinguishing fires or protecting life and property in the event of fires. Presumably it covers such matters as control of flooding, road accidents, possible terrorist attacks and other matters that involve fire services. It is doubtless intended that insurers should meet the charge, which would then be passed on to policy holders in higher premiums. Such powers exist at the moment, but they are not widely used.

The ethos of the fire service is to provide humanitarian assistance. The provisions in Clause 19 may tempt cash-strapped authorities to charge where no charge has hitherto been made. That point has also been made to me by the FBU.

As foretold in the White Paper, the Secretary of State is given overriding powers to do more or less as he pleases. This is apparent from Clause 22, that deals with intervention by the Secretary of State. Under Clause 22(1). he has overriding powers to intervene if he thinks that, a fire and rescue service … is failing, or is likely to fair. I emphasise that. In other words, he has pre-emptive powers to act in accordance with the framework under Clause 21. But whereas Clause 21(5) provides for consultation of persons affected—particularly those representing employees—there is no consultation required prior to intervention under Clause 22. Why is it necessary to have such an overriding power of intervention?

The section of the Bill which gives me—and some of my noble friends—most concern is Clause 31 dealing with employment.

As I read the Bill, the Secretary of State may simply dispose of the national joint council, and bring into being a new body, of which he appoints the chairman, referred to as "independent". However, the work of the NJC was only reviewed and changed two years ago. The changes were approved by everyone, including the Government.

In the new Bill, the Government reserve the right to impose their will on both sides. This is at variance with good industrial relations practice, as I—and my noble friends—indicated in the discussion of the last fire services Bill, to which. it may be recalled, we had a number of objections.

The Government clearly intend to determine the number, composition and chairing of the new negotiating bodies. The Bill further says that the Secretary of State may issue guidance to negotiating bodies in connection with the conditions of service of employees and continues: Negotiating bodies must have regard to any guidance issued". In other words, they must do as they are told by the Secretary of State. This is clearly not free collective bargaining as most of us understand it.

I believe that the Government regard these powers as essentially fallback powers. Indeed, the Minister made that point this morning. But this is nowhere stated in the Bill, and it does not look as though these are contingency powers but powers the Secretary of State may use whenever he wishes to do so from the first day the Bill becomes law. The Explanatory Notes refer to them as reserved powers, whatever that may mean.

I do not understand why it is necessary to legislate for these powers at all. It is true that there was a dispute last year—the first for very many years—but the fire service has always responded to emergencies threatening life, and did so during that dispute. So why are these powers necessary? As the Bill stands, the clause is, in my view, quite unacceptable.

Why is it necessary to disband the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council? This will apparently be replaced by a number of other, chiefly appointed, advisory bodies. Is the aim to exclude staff representatives such as the FBU and the other unions from as many of these bodies as possible? The FBU suspects that it is, and perhaps the Minister will tell us.

There are a number of issues that we shall want to explore further in Committee. In the mean time, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive explanation.

3.47 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the provisions of the Bill, concerned with industrial relations and with local authorities, interact to create a dual control freak, under the aegis of the right honourable gentleman, the Deputy Prime Minister, for which the Fire Services Act has afforded a wrong and unwelcome precedent. The Bill is not acceptable to those who render the fire and rescue services, the chief officers, the Fire Brigades Union and the retained fire officers. It is not acceptable to local government and it is not acceptable to the TUC.

In this context, on implementation, the Bill is opposed by the Conservative Party. As my noble friend Lady Hanham said, which statute takes precedence? What is the position of powers on control? Radical reform cannot cast aside a national framework, contrary to the recommendations of the Bain report which cautioned a step-by-step approach. My noble friend referred to the powers of intervention.

It was not and is not acceptable to certain noble Lords on the Back Benches opposite, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden. who has had vast practical and quasi-judicial experience in these affairs. She expressly rejected the overriding power—we come back to the control freakery, the essence of the Bill, and Clause 31—of intervention. With all her experience, she said that it is not necessary to legislate for these powers.

Apparently, the Liberal Democrat Party has come off the fence. Although it does not wish to criticise the Government—it never does—I frankly have no inhibitions in doing so. I understand those who have. However, while not wishing to criticise the Government, the Liberal Democrats are going to indulge in an exercise that questions the powers of the Secretary of State in Grand Committee—more control freakery. Inevitably, alas, that will be a critical exercise, leaving aside questions of joining up with women, ethnics, the disabled and old motor cars.

As it is common ground that restructuring of the fire and rescue service is long overdue, welcome and an urgent necessity, I hope that further consultation may ensue before Grand Committee with local government and the TUC on the means of implementation. Certain provisions, to which exception has been taken, are not so readily amendable and engage our international obligations; for example, those under Article 6 of the Social Chapter; Article 8 of the UN Labour Relations (Public Service) Convention 151, as referred to in the context of the Fire Services Act; and paragraph 1/6 of the House of Lords Paper 119.

The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that the Government have responded to the Bain report. However, in the context in which I have referred to it, assuredly they have not. He may say that there is no intention to use the powers, but here we revert to a rather tedious exchange that took place throughout the passage of the Fire Services Bill, to which I am anxious not to return on Second Reading of this Bill.

I have some brief notes in order to save time. The first relates to the industrial relations aspect. Terms and conditions of employment and pay would be imposed; freedom of collective bargaining and the rights of representation would be restricted; and ownership of fire appliances would be assumed. I am concerned also by provisions in the Bill that would confer powers on the Secretary of State—the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred to them—to establish negotiating bodies and to settle their membership and their chair. He would also have powers of intervention to establish new remunerating bodies. These contravene employment law, convention and accepted practice. It is not understood how any government could have devised Clauses 31 and 32, or how they could have been passed in another place. That is a matter for Grand Committee. It may be resolved only at Third Reading, probably, or at Report.

Moving on from the industrial relations aspect, there are many other concerns. We have dealt with the Bain report, but there is a question about the adequacy of funding, there being no additional investment. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, made reference to this reduction of the rescue role to make resources available for protection. A risk is taken there; it is a gamble. My noble friend Lady Hanham referred to other matters which do not call for repetition.

What about the comprehensive performance assessment process? Surely that must be the only criterion by which to assess whether a fire authority should be deemed to be failing, or likely to fail, so as to enable intervention and to issue directions. Surely the same process used for local authorities facing intervention should be used. What about the extant local government arrangements with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? Should they not be followed? Are they not working satisfactorily? Surely the statutory guidance for the national framework should be expressed and recognised as having uniform general application.

My last notes are on international obligations. I compliment the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who has said so much of this before. I am afraid that I have to say it again because it is of crucial consequence to the order of this part of the debate. It is certainly no occasion on which to examine a 40-page submission of the Institute of Employment Rights, which was sent to the Joint Committee on Human Rights—of which I am a member—on 31 March of this year. This is because, long before this submission was received, the Joint Committee on Human Rights undertook to deal with observations made by the United Nations Committee on Economic. Social and Cultural Rights on the implementation of such obligations by the United Kingdom, which will become of some relevance to this debate.

It is asserted that the proposed regulatory regime under the Bill is in contravention of the international conventions that I mentioned, and another. Inevitably correspondence will ensue between the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the Chairman of the Committee; that sort of correspondence must ensue before a committee can ever report. One cannot report without seeking the Minister's views. It is inevitable that, irrespective of that correspondence, whenever that report is made, this matter will be debated in Grand Committee, and the response of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will be sought.

The Bill is of general application, not limited to an emergency such as a terrorist attack. It is an imposition by decree, save in an emergency, on some sort of hand-on-heart assurance that it will be used only as a last resort. That inevitably constitutes an intended and wholly effective threat against the international obligations. As the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, has said in this context—and it was about the only thing that he said with which I really agreed—the legislation should be examined devoid of assurances and as a matter of strict instructions.

Removal of the accepted traditional process of collective bargaining is neither requisite nor acceptable. It could well engender the very disruption of the services that it is presumed the Bill seeks to avoid. My noble friend Lady Hanham referred to the fact that the Government have the Fire Services Act; they already have adequate powers in an emergency situatimn such as a terrorist attack. As other noble Lords have said, it is not readily apparent that Clauses 31 and 32 could be amended to restore bargaining in accordance with convention and practice. At all events, the powers of intervention to impose new negotiating bodies must be removed. Will the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, tell me to what extent representation will be available on those bodies that replace the central fire brigade's advisory council to which the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred?

I am highly critical of the Bill, for the reasons that I have given, and I am not ashamed to say so.

4.3 p.m.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I want to say three things. First, I want to welcome the Bill and welcome the Government's statements in support and their explanation of it. It is time that we extended legally and in compulsory terms the responsibilities that the fire service has discharged for the most part on a voluntary basis, without being properly paid, for a very long time. It is good that we should bring that work into legislation, make it universal, fund it properly and regulate it. That is really what the Bill is about, and it is good that it should be done.

It is also good that should be done on the basis of a certain amount of reorganisation. Everybody knows that the employers' side of this industry—if it is an industry—is fragmented, sometimes almost to the point of disappearance. There needs to be a restructuring. We could debate whether that should be based on regions or on some other level of control, but reorganisation is needed. Regulation is also needed and all that matters is that what the fire service is doing, should do and can do, should be specified by Parliament. So we welcome the Bill. I think that the whole House probably welcomes the Bill in that respect.

Secondly, the doubts that have been raised are mostly clearly summarised in the report of the Select Committee that deals with the fire service in another place and which noble Lords may have read. It must be read very carefully because it is very guarded. Its criticisms are somewhat muted, but they are all there. When we get into Committee we shall, no doubt, be reading them out to each other.

The criticisms concern many matters, but the one that I wish to focus on this afternoon is whether the Government are funding this exercise properly. The Select Committee is very concerned about that. The evidence from the submission that the union made to the committee is that it is also very concerned about it, as one would expect. If one reads what the local government employers say, it appears that they are also very concerned, as are a number of experts on the fire service who gave testimony to the committee.

The crux of the issue is whether the Government believe that they are in engaged in some kind of self-financing productivity deal. In an attempt to find out about this, I asked a Parliamentary Question on 5 January about the balance of benefits and costs in this exercise. I do not suppose that many noble Lords read that in the Official Report.

I was astonished to find that the Government claim that the benefits and costs will balance by 2006, that is to say that the savings plus the revenues on the one hand will balance with the costs on the other hand, perhaps by reductions in services. So there will not need to be any net funding of this beyond the funding of the pay deal and one or two small incremental increases.

I also asked a question about the rate of increase in core funding. Since 1997 the rate of increase in core funding has been 4 per cent a year. In other words, we have spent 4 per cent more a year on the fire service—if I have got this wrong or if my question is not easy to understand, I hope that the Minister will tell me so. I understand that the Government have no express intention to raise the rate of increase in core funding, despite the fact that they will extend services, make them compulsory and make the fire service responsible for their enforcement. It is very difficult to believe that this can be possible. It is very difficult to understand why the Government say that they will do it. They do not have to say that. They would not dream of saying it about the National Health Service, education or the Prison Service, for example.

Everyone now knows that if one improves the value, scope and efficiency of public services it costs more money. But somehow there will be increased revenues or increased savings and the Secretary of State says that the whole thing will balance out in 2006. I think that in Committee we shall be asking the Government to specify just how this will be done. They say that they will not charge people any more when they improve the services in relation to motorways or floods. When getting people out of flooded houses they will not charge them on the way. Most of what they do to help will continue to be free at the point of use. Of course there would be a scandal if there were a significant change to the present position. Yet somehow it is to balance out by 2006. Even if it balanced out by 2006 there would be an enormous deficit before it balanced out. I have asked the Government about that but they do not seem to be able to answer.

If one reads the written evidence carefully, and if one reads the statements of the Ministers in another place, every now and again certain ideas are floated as to how there might be a reduction in costs. Later someone usually denies it or someone will say, "We shall not take much notice of 999 calls", and someone else will say, "Of course we will". Someone may say, "We'll send out smaller crews", but someone else will say, "Oh, no, we won't". Someone may say, "How do you explain the fact that in this improved service we are budgeting for reductions in certain key targets; for example, a smaller reduction in the number of anticipated deaths, so there may be a saving there?". But then someone else will say, "No, of course, there won't be any reduction".

It is time the Government recognised, and were prepared to say, that there is no such thing as a self-financing productivity deal in the public sector. It always costs more money. The Conservatives thought that they could have a self-financing productivity deal in the health service and the quality of care went down the drain. It cannot be done because a price is not charged for the product. If a price is not charged for the product, as one extends the service, it will cost more money. Considerable sums of money have to be put up front and when the service has improved, the core funding has to increase. That is the evidence of every attempt that we have made to improve the real value of our social and public services.

It will be exactly the same with the fire service. Unless the Government recognise that, and unless they are prepared to say here and now that that is what they will allow to happen, they will find that they cannot meet their targets. That is my second main point.

I now turn to the third which covers the collective bargaining consequences of the Bill. As regards what is in the White Paper, there are some improvements on the face of the Bill. I am pleased to be able to say that. If the Bill is any guide—I hope it is—it looks as though the Government have dropped the ridiculous idea that one cannot go into the disputes procedure with an issue unless the employer says that one can. There is no sign of that proposal. I understand from the Government that they have taken it away.

All the same, we will have to table an amendment to Clause 31, although the Government will not really answer it. A careful read of the clause as it is reveals that there is now no statement that the Government could put a Minister in the chair of the negotiating committee. They spell out the kind of people who could be put in the chair, but Ministers of the Crown are not among such people. They have dropped that one.

I shall table an amendment to ensure that I have understood the point correctly—that we have it wrong when we think that in Clause 31 they are giving themselves powers to decide the individuals v% ho sit on the workers' side. They could not now say, "We're not having the general secretary of the firemen's union; we'll have the deputy". That would have been quite monstrous, but as I understand it, they do not intend to do that.

All that the Government are now trying to do in Clause 31 is to change the basis of recognition on the workers' side. I am sure one would not understand that if one just read the clause as it stands. Several noble Lords who have spoken today have not taken on board that when they talk about "persons", they are really talking about trade unions. They use a strange language. They are trying to replace the FBU monopoly with the retained fire fighters and the other associations. They are trying to break up the FBU monopoly.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, what business is it of the Government to change recognition? Does that lie within the remit of Government?

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I am coming to that matter. We must not attack them for what they are not trying to do. What they are trying to do is bad enough. We shall ask and find out, but I take them on what they say. They say that they are not trying to do that; they are trying to change the recognition arrangements. I agree with the noble Lord; it is not for the Government to change recognition. There is certainly no need for a law. There is nothing in British law that prevents the employer from derecognising any trade union.

If the local government employers wanted to derecognise the Fire Brigades Union, they could do so tomorrow. We do not need a law; it has nothing to do with the Government, unless of course they want to make themselves the employer, which they do not. Therefore I agree that it has nothing to do with them. We shall table an amendment to say so and ask the Government why they think it has anything to do with them.

I turn to the chairperson. Although the Government say that they are not trying to put in the Minister as the chairperson, they say that they are taking power to decide who the chairperson shall be. They tell us in Clause 31 what kind of qualities the chairperson should not have: he should not be a Minister; he or she should not be an employee; and so on. But they do not tell us what he should be or where he should come from. If they are going to have a chairperson—and they do not tell us what the functions and powers of the chairperson are to be; we will table an amendment that forces them to say something—why do the Government have to decide whom he or she should be?

In this country we have a valuable institution that deals with such issues; it is called ACAS. Why cannot the Government say that the parties will try to find their own chairman and if they fail they can go to ACAS to see what it can do? Why do we have to give the power to the Minister? I do not see why and we intend to pursue the matter in Committee.

Finally, I turn to my old friend the independent assessment. We argued throughout Committee—and I do not think that the Government ever understood what we were saying—that there should be some form of third party assessment of what the Government wanted to do, particularly in the sphere of industrial relations, when they were imposing such provisions by law; by force, in effect, by the legal power of the Secretary of State to issue an order. They said that the parties could decide to use arbitration or mediation and go to ACAS while negotiating, but they could not do so after the Secretary of State had his last bite of the cherry.

This is what I believe the Minister means by "reserve powers". If, as a result of the parties talking to each other, they cannot come to an agreement that he accepts, he can use his reserve powers. I call that legally enforced arbitration. I do not see why the Secretary of State, in this industry alone. should have that power.

If we put this matter to the Government in Committee they must think about what they will say. I say that there should be a general right of independent assessment. It should not necessarily be binding and I do not say that the Secretary of State could not ignore it, but for anything he wants to do by law under the Bill he should not only consult—of course he should consult; the fact that he has to consult means that he cannot be in a hurry—but after he has consulted, or before, the judgment that he wants to impose by law should be subject to a published independent assessment.

I want to end with a warning. The Government are not dealing with perceived failures; they are dealing with a perceived success. The fire service comprises the most popular group of public servants in the country. Independent polls have been carried out that show that 74 per cent of the public believe that the fire service is doing a good job. You cannot say as much for doctors or nurses, you certainly cannot say that for politicians and you cannot say it for journalists.

The fire service is the most popular public service in the country. Whatever the Government believe, people believe that the fire service works. They think that it is a friendly, efficient, effective service. It has a higher level of trust than the BBC, the CAB or the PDSA. It is almost as popular as the AA. That is quite remarkable. Moreover, it is getting better. It is not as good as it could be, but it is still getting better all the time. So God help any government who are thought by the electorate to be making the fire service worse. You must be very careful what you do to the fire service.

4.21 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, as I am a late speaker in this debate many of the points that I might have made have been covered and so I shall speak from my personal experience as a member of the public and a former member of the Fire Brigade Committee of the Greater London Council, which was the successor to the London County Council so regularly mentioned in the 1947 Act.

I am a great supporter of the fire brigade, and when I attended the presentations of commendations and awards for bravery I could hardly credit the courage of the recipients and the extraordinary lengths to which they went to save lives. They were so modest—"just doing my job", they often said.

This has always been one of the problems of the service; life waiting to respond to a fire can be pretty dull. Then, in one moment, full alert comes and immediate action is required. It is not an easy transition for firemen to make and yet it is essential and they respond.

As is clear in The Independent Review of the Fire Service, modernisation has been necessary for a very long time. Some changes have taken place but they have been piecemeal and slow.

In my committee days, there were firemen working in London who travelled daily from Devon. That was costly and inefficient as it added long hours to the working day. The "spoilt meals allowance claims" were so great that one wondered whether a fire ever occurred except at meal times. Those are the sort of minor issues that required attention and I understand that they have now been addressed.

It must be good to have the fire services working more closely with the other emergency services. I was sorry to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, say that the unions were not in favour of a joint system comprising the police, fire and ambulance services, as I think that would be a very good thing. I have always admired the system in France that seems to combine services. I agree that firemen should not be trained as full paramedics. I support the recommendation in paragraph 10.16 of the Bain report, that some firefighters are trained as first on the scene co-responders which would give them basic life support skills including training in the use of automated defibrillators". It is usual now for people to be able to operate that equipment, and I believe that it is desirable. There is a certain satisfaction in job terms in acquiring that skill.

Someone referred to the views of the Local Government Association. It is worth quoting its view on the national framework. It states: What is the national framework? The bill establishes a national framework for the fire service. This will set out priorities and objectives focusing on public safety, economy, efficiency and effectiveness of authorities and their functions". In response to the question, "What is the LGA's view?", the document states: We welcome the innovation of the framework, including national quantified targets, which were proposed in the white paper. However the framework needs to allow enough discretion for local decision making and it must be recognised that authorities should be free to set their own, possibly more challenging targets". Paragraph 5.25 of the Bain report recommends other changes, not least of which is matching staff numbers and the whereabouts of those staff to the changing needs of daytime and night-time; for example, the City of London is busy during the commuter hours of the day and very quiet at night and at weekends, whereas, in the suburbs, the population increases at night.

Traffic can be a problem and, of course, no one can foresee when a number of fires will occur in one area, necessitating the bringing in of an appliance from a more remote venue. But it is to be noted that in London fire stations are not always near areas of social deprivation, where most fires occur, or near large arterial routes, where most car crashes occur.

Different areas of London have, indeed, changed and developed over the years, but moving sites will not be easy. Everyone wants a fire station but people do not want them to be next door to them. In spite of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, saying that everyone loves the fire service—I accept that the figure of 74 per cent is correct—everyone wants the noise of the fire engine out on quick call to be somewhere else and not on their doorstep. Paragraph 5.25 of the report also recommends a much greater emphasis on fire prevention and calls for, the prevention of fire, the detection of fire, and safe escape should a fire occur". Education is essential. People need to know what precautions they should take. Smoke alarms are now common. I was pleased to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that 76 per cent of homes now have them, and they are priced so as to be available to all. I have personally found that the requirement to build in a wired smoke alarm in any new building can cause problems. Such alarms seem to go wrong much more often than the battery-operated variety, which, by constant beeping, make one aware when a new battery is needed.

Many things are ideal in theory but do not work so well in practice. Fire-resistant construction and covering for furniture is good and necessary, but there seems to be no permanent method of marking. There is usually a tag attached to a new settee but that is not durable. I have been in the position of wanting to pass on settees that I no longer needed to someone who could use them. There are various organisations which collect good pieces for reuse, but they will not take them unless one can prove that they comply with fire protection standards. How can one prove that if the label is worn out or was detached when one received the piece?

We have heard about sprinkler systems, and they were referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I believe it is very important to build in sprinkler systems, particularly in new buildings and those for elderly, disabled or vulnerable people because they are the ones who have the greatest difficulty in getting out in the event of a fire. However, when we legislate for sprinkler systems, I think it is important to include flexible wording to cover whatever will apply to the generation of appliances that follow the sprinkler system. The word "sprinkler" may not be enough in itself.

On a more basic level, at Question Time in this House, when I have tabled Oral Questions on this matter, one of your Lordships raised the issue of the chip pan fire—perhaps one of the most common causes of a home fire—pointing out that many people do not understand that water is the last thing that one puts on such a fire. Many years ago, my children gave me a fire blanket for use in such a situation. Even though I cannot say that I cook chips now, I keep the blanket in the kitchen. However, there is a need for greater public awareness of simple issues such as that.

There also needs to be more clarification about the use of lifts in fires. In the 9/11 situation in New York, some people who used the lifts, contrary to advice, escaped. I understand that some special types of lift are now being developed which are suitable even for high-rise buildings. If that is the case, all that information should be available to those who are involved in designing new buildings as disabled people, in particular, may have no hope of a stair escape.

I want to see the improvement of these vitally important services and hope that the Bill will be viewed as constructive. Of course, it will be considered in detail through its further stages. There is a need to maintain high morale in the service and to create a career structure, which will provide interesting and worthwhile future prospects for members of the fire services. But the Government should take note of the comment of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, which impressed me, about the cost of public services free at the time of delivery. I believe that more money will be needed. That is something which the Government will have to consider. I support the Bill.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Fire and Rescue Services Bill, which will modernise the fire service; give it new and appropriate duties needed in the 21st century; make its activities indisputably legal and so give cover to its practitioners; combine the best of local decision making with regional efficiencies where regional assemblies are set up; rejuvenate the important link between the public and the fire service, which has always been based on the public's abiding admiration for the courage of firemen and fire women; and, above all, produce a fire service which protects property but saves lives quicker, more often and more efficiently and effectively.

But this is a reform that has been waiting too long to happen. Fifty years of running on the spot led us to the trauma of the industrial action instigated by the FBU with its tactically intemperate 40 per cent pay claim, which in turn led to the Bain report and a proper exposure of the sclerosis of thinking that had taken root in the fire service.

We now have a real opportunity not to wipe the slate clean but rather to build on the real legacy of Britain's fire service, which has always seen the brave men and women who staff it held so high in the esteem of the British public, a point made by my noble friend Lord McCarthy. The Government have established a positive agenda with the Bill and should see it through to the end. I have one word of caution for my noble friend the Minister. The Government rightly seek to redress the failures of earlier governments who procrastinated and prevaricated in the face of the obvious silting up of the workings of the fire service and its capacity to deliver. That, indeed, is a fault of earlier governments and should not be visited unthinkingly on those who now serve in the service.

The Government rightly ask for thorough-going change: changes in the law and in standards of response, a move to a risk assessment regime; and changes in the conditions of service as well as changes in the skills and training structures. But in acting as midwife to these profound changes the Government must show sensitivity to those who must now embrace change. I am convinced that the Government will be sensitive to these concerns and I hope that my noble friend can give the House further comfort today when he replies to the general debate.

I also ask my noble friend to be mindful, as he always is, of the concerns of a wider public, who we all seek to serve. The fire service is a much loved and prized service, and the public will want a full explanation of why the proposed changes will be beneficial. I give an example: standards of response to a fire, expressed in numbers of appliances and their arrival times at incidents, are currently transparent and hence easily understood in the public's mind. Moving to a risk assessment regime, which seeks to match resources to fires, is less visible and hence perhaps less comforting to the voter. The Government must redouble efforts to explain why a more sophisticated system of risk assessment ultimately means more fires put out quicker and more lives saved and injuries avoided.

But we must turn away from a world in which the fire service was home to too many practices, which undermined its central purpose. The absurdity of banning retained firemen from appliances staffed by full-timers has been laid bare by the Bain report. The practice of banning overtime as a spoiling tactic certainly helped achieve its aim of boosting jobs in the most perverse of unlooked-for outcomes. Where an appliance on call was one officer short on a four-person appliance due to illness of one of the team, the ability to grant overtime to an officer already on the station led authorities, as I understand it, to hire permanent full-time understudies who may or may not have been productive for the whole of any given shift, but who certainly raised the wages bill.

Keeping highly-skilled footballers on the bench may be a surplus of talent and hence a luxury affordable by the Chelseas and Manchester Uniteds of this world, but it is not in the serious business of saving lives from fires.

So I turn to the out-of-date thinking that will not contemplate fewer control rooms, better equipped and perhaps shared with other emergency services. The test should always be effectiveness as well as efficiency. Where efficiencies are achieved, it should be recognised that savings and surpluses could then be applied to other parts of the fire service, or indeed to other vital public services. That is a restatement, surely, of Nye Bevan's axiom that socialism is always about the language of priorities.

In that regard I also welcome the Government's proposals to widen the skill base of those working in the fire service and their capacity to take on other relevant tasks once their core duties of firefighting have been better focused and resourced. It has been put to me, for instance, that one's local fire station could play an active role in relation to the better protection of children, especially in respect of the danger of ill fitted child seats in cars. Most of us are decidedly unskilled at things mechanical—certainly, I am. Why not provide a service at one's local fire station of checking the proper fitting of a child seat for worried parents? In addition, the public and firefighters would benefit from a better mutual understanding by such face-to-face meetings.

That of course leads me to the proposals in the Bill to broaden the role of the fire service to recognise its already profitable involvement with the other rescue services. It must be wholly legitimate, and so welcomed, that we make the best use of all the skills our firefighters have, not only in fighting fires, but in other tasks where their core skills can come to the fore. Surely, that is not only a better use of resources, but fertile ground for broadening skills and their application for firefighters, which in turn breeds greater job satisfaction.

I also welcome the Government's desire to give greater emphasis to the preventive role that the service currently undertakes. The Government must of course find a proper balance between fire prevention and firefighting. It makes sense to couple the functions, since the one in part depends on the other.

However, I express my disappointment that the Bill does not intrude into the area of obliging the greater frequency of installing sprinkler systems—mentioned already by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes—whose benefits many of us believe to be evident, and which is now being encouraged by the Scottish executive in new high-rise blocks of flats, residential care buildings and sheltered housing. My noble friend will know of your Lordships' strong interest in this subject from the Starred Questions that I and other noble Lords, again including the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, have asked on the issue in recent months. My own concern is for fires in school buildings where I believe existing as well as new buildings would benefit from sprinklers being fitted, especially when the occasional refenestrations offer established cost benefits. I hope that my noble friend will respond and perhaps say when the work commissioned by the ODPM and carried out by the Building Research Establishment will be concluded. Would he also comment on its interim findings, which found a positive role for hard-wired smoke alarms in preventing fire deaths, especially those attributable to smoke inhalation? I do not know whether the Minister has ever inhaled acrid smoke from a fire, but I did once, from toast burned to a cinder in a faulty toaster in a confined space. I got the fright of my life.

I welcome too the Bill's rebalancing of the objectives of the fire service; namely, the placing of the saving of life above that of property. What will that mean in reality? I have had it put to me that our firefighting capacity provision may be thought to be too static, when you appreciate that potential risk moves from the city centre to the suburbs, from the working day to the evening and night. Most of us are exposed to greater danger from fire in our homes rather than our workplaces. Workplaces are often better equipped in terms of smoke alarms and sprinklers. The City of London, a former site of terrorist bombings, is a classic example. Its huge population by day retreats to the suburbs in the evening. leaving the square mile a ghost town. The danger to human life from fire has moved elsewhere, but do our fire services move likewise? They should, despite real logistical difficulties. Will the Minister say a little more on this?

I hope that my noble friend will accept my support of the devolution of decision-making from the centre to our local communities, which is a theme common to the Government's policies on education and health. How will this devolution square with the equally appropriate moves to greater regionalisation, where the electorate vote for the regional assemblies? I see enormous benefits from establishing overviews from the regions, but I have two qualms. First, what will be the political set-up to ensure proper democratic control and oversight of any such broader-based regional entities? Secondly, how will such regional groups, and national groups, recognise the strong cross-border ties that exist in various parts of the United Kingdom? I live in Chester on the Welsh border, where over many years we have enjoyed considerable cross border co-operation of the fire services, as is sensible in the economic, social and cultural block that is represented by north Wales and the north west of England. We want nothing that dilutes that co-operation or which puts up an unnatural fire break between us.

I am anxious to learn from my noble friend what ties have been established in the European Union and with our Commonwealth friends to share best practice in the fields of firefighting and fire prevention. I have a hunch that we too easily forget to share knowledge with friends, on the spurious grounds that things are different over there. In the end, we all end up endlessly reinventing the same turning wheel. For instance, I learned only the other day that in Sweden it is the chief fire officer. not the chief constable, who takes the lead in co-ordinating the civil protection services. That is an interesting thought, which, like other thoughts and practices from the European Union and elsewhere, we should examine and adapt and adopt if they serve the general purpose of improving our fire and rescue services.

These are some of the thoughts of a politician who warmly welcomes the strides that Government are making in this area, which is so needy of reform. I have not had time to mention the considerable sums of money that the Government are injecting into the services, to help flavour and favour reform, but I hope that the Government will respond to my thoughts, while especially cocking an ear to the brave men and women who put out dangerous fires and clean up sickening road accidents, a job from which most of us politicians would flee. However, firefighters are wiser than politicians. On their way to help other people, they slide down greasy poles, whereas we, for some unaccountable reason, try to climb up them.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, the Minister gave us a very good overview of the Fire and Rescue Services Bill when he opened the debate this afternoon. Many people around the Chamber have welcomed the fact that we have a new Bill before us. However, as my noble friend, Lady Hamwee, said, just because you welcome something, it does not mean that you are not critical of certain points. In response to earlier remarks, on these Benches we have been extremely critical of the Government—most noticeably on the recent planning Bill, through the passing of the Energy Bill and many more.

There are quite a number of things that we agree on around the Chamber. Most of us agree that it is time we modernise our thoughts on how we run a fire service—given that most of the legislation that we are working on at the moment was introduced in 1947. Communications have changed out of all recognition since 1947, as have all sorts of other modern technologies that the fire services use and that are available in dealing with emergencies. Indeed, the types of emergencies that we have to deal with are very different. There has been a massive increase in the amount of road traffic since 1947, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and the noble Lords, Lord McCarthy and Lord Harrison, mentioned that. In that regard, I think everybody welcomes the fact that we recognise the role that the fire services have played in dealing with road traffic accidents, and we welcome the fact that that is being regularised.

Several noble Lords talked about the Bain report, which came about as a result of various problems with the fire services, and I think most people are in broad agreement with the thrust of that report.

There is also agreement on all sides of the House on the need to continue to reduce the numbers of deaths in fires, despite the figures that the Minister mentioned. The emphasis on fire prevention is important because, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said. there are still far too many deaths by fire in this country. As other noble Lords said, elderly people are at greater risk, as are certain types of accommodation. That was mentioned in the Select Committee report of another place, and I am sure will be considered as the Bill progresses.

There has been some discussion of the role of sprinklers and other modern methods of dousing fires. As I understand it from reading the debates in another place, they did not really have enough time to discuss in any detail how we could proceed better on this issue. My colleagues on these Benches and I would like to see more sprinklers available in public buildings, and to look at buildings that have been up for some time. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, in particular have an interest in this. We will be considering a housing Bill at some stage, and again, in relation to houses in multiple occupation, this is a big issue. In the last housing Bill, I moved amendments dealing with fire. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, perhaps it is more appropriate to deal with that in the housing Bill, but it is an issue we can look at as the Bill progresses.

We on these Benches are in total agreement that fire authorities should be able to combine where they wish to, and we also agree that collaboration at regional level is beneficial. However, and the tenor of the debate has backed this up, such moves should not be dictated from the centre; nor should they bypass democratic accountability. We hear a lot from the Government about their desire to decentralise. It seems to me that they do not mind decentralising as long as people are doing what they think is the right thing; when they are not, then the Government always have to have a clause in order to be able to change to what they want to see. That is not true democratic decentralisation.

Indeed, many noble Lords referred to the centralising nature of much of the Bill, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Hanham and Lady Turner of Camden, my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. In every part of the Bill, we find the Government centralising. In Part 1, there is the compulsory creation of combined fire authorities and, as my noble friend said, the power to appoint almost half the members of the new boards. In Part 2, relating to functions, there are directions on fire and emergency, and the same applies to Clauses 16 and 17 on the discharge of functions by others. In Part 3, relating to administration, Clauses 21 to 24 contain a power for the Secretary of State to intervene if an authority is deemed to be failing or likely to fail. As was pointed out, we already have ways of dealing with failing authorities. That is something to which we will need to return in Committee. There is also a power to oblige authorities to use certain facilities or services.

The area about which, perhaps, most has been said today is Clause 31, which relates to negotiating bodies. The clause gives the Secretary of State the power to establish negotiating bodies, including, as others have said, specifying the members and the chair. There is also a power to intervene to establish new negotiating bodies. We all recognise that there have been problems with the differences between retained firefighters and the Fire Brigades Union, but we will have to return to the issue at a later stage.

As has already been said, the Local Government Association has also been critical of the Government's desire to centralise in their modernisation. Like us, it believes that we must allow for the importance of local accountability and control. Several noble Lords talked about that.

There are other areas about which there will be further discussion. We touched on the new national framework. How much discretion will be given to local authorities? The Local Government Association has made the case powerfully that local authorities need discretion to set their own targets to take account of differing local needs up and down the country and in areas near to national borders, which was something that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, talked about. I hope that we can have some assurances. I realise that much of the detail will be in secondary legislation, but I hope that the Minister can reassure us on some of those aspects. I realise that some of it is still being consulted on.

The other area that concerns some of us is cost. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, was right to ask whether anybody could point to a reorganisation that had been done for nothing. It is difficult to find one. Obviously, if we can prevent fires in decent quantities and use the modern technology that we have, we will save money. However, the fire authorities are to be given other jobs to do. and there are always set-up costs. The Government may be right to say that, at some stage, the whole operation will be cheaper, but the evidence shows that that is not always the case. Many noble Lords supported that view. There is also the question of charging, which is quite controversial. I am sure that we will return to it.

Still on the theme of money, the Audit Commission recently examined the progress that had been made in reorganising the fire service. I can give your Lordships one or two quotations from its recent report: All but 2 of the 50 fire authorities in England and Wales are making some progress towards modernisation, as envisaged in the pay and conditions agreements and the White Paper … [but] our review indicated that, overall, there has been little progress on overtime, duty systems and part-time working. We noted that demands on managers have been heavy over the past year, a period when they have had to cope with many new initiatives and demanding time frames. These areas will be crucial to the progress of the modernisation of the fire service and it is of concern that so many authorities have not been able to demonstrate progress in these areas". It also states: We observed a relatively weak degree of financial planning at many authorities". That is a worry for those of us who are concerned about costs. It continues: We saw action plans that had not been costed and had not been built in to the authority's overall planning and related budget projections". And yet the Government are confident that they will be able to afford this with no extra money.

I also received a press release from the employers on the fire service pay deal. They say that, great progress has been made since June last year … We believe that we can sort this out in a matter of weeks. The employers are happy with the principles surrounding the terms and conditions of employment but the detail needs to be worked out and we are quite confident that we can do that at a joint meeting with the FBU in early May". Again, that is not completed. If the Government think that the early stages are going to cost nothing, they are mistaken.

Nobody has talked about the matter of pensions this afternoon. The only person who did mention them was the Minister. The Government think that they have decent proposals on this matter, but some of us are worried about the detail.

The Bill does not strengthen or help the role of the retained firefighter as much as I would like it to. I come from Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, where all our firefighters are retained. I hope that we can pursue this matter as the Bill progresses.

Everyone in the Chamber this afternoon has paid great tribute to the fire service. We have done so on these Benches. They are held in very high esteem, which is why it is so important that we ensure that all the aims that we want to sign up to in this Bill become a reality.

We support the Bill and will do our best to improve it as we see fit as it passes through Committee stage and other stages in this House.

4.58 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to wind up this important debate. Before I get down to the details of my speech, I should like to pay tribute to the firefighters in this country, as other noble Lords have done. Tragic scenes of the type recently witnessed in Madrid remind us all of our debt of gratitude to the ordinary men and women who make up our fire services personnel. I echo the words of my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, who talked about attending ceremonies of bravery that firemen have participated in. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, that has been a common theme in this Chamber this afternoon.

This Bill is the final part of a package of measures that make up the Government's response to the Bain report. The Conservative Party welcomes the Government's decision to update the statutory framework in which the fire and rescue services operate, which, as has been noted here today, has changed so little since 1947. In line with that, we have seen here today a general agreement that the overall principle behind the Bill—the need to modernise the fire service—is welcome and surely overdue.

Various important and related aims and objectives flow from the overarching principle of modernisation. These include placing much more emphasis on fire prevention—something on which we all agree—modernising work practices and putting the saving of lives at the forefront of Government policy. We support those aims wholeheartedly.

We support the abolition of a prescriptive national response standard and the introduction of local flexibility to match the deployment of resources to locally identified risks. We positively welcome the ending of old-fashioned working practices, discipline procedures and career paths. We support the recognition of the wide-ranging role of the service by the creation of new statutory duties on fire and rescue authorities to perform the many essential rescue and support tasks they have carried out in practice for many years, over and above their obligations under the 1947 Act.

The problem, as with much of the Bill, as has been highlighted today, is that it goes against the Government's stated aims. I would like to recapitulate why that is clearly the case.

Throughout the fire dispute, the Government expressed their intention to reduce national prescription and thus allow more local control and flexibility. We have heard that today. But it is evident from today's debate that there is a tremendous amount of centralisation in the Bill. In trying to illustrate the point, one is spoilt for choice—Clauses 2, 10, 22, 31 and 32 stand out particularly as granting the Secretary of State sweeping powers.

We have heard that Clause 2 gives powers to the Secretary of State to merge existing authorities to create new combined fire authorities and to appoint up to half minus one members to those authorities for the first time, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Maddock, have said. We have also heard about the Secretary of State's new powers to impose negotiating bodies on the fire service, which will have to follow the Secretary of State's guidance. Many Peers commented on that this afternoon.

The Bill also gives powers to the Secretary of State to acquire, own and operate equipment, which the supposedly independent fire authorities will have to use and purchase. Perhaps most worrying of all, the Bill contains provisions that will enable an unprecedented amount of intervention and micromanagement from Whitehall. I hope the Minister will comment on that. It is completely inappropriate not only in terms of local accountability and democracy but, equally, in terms of best practice and undermining the Government's own drive to increase and improve partnership working.

I have already sketched a fairly bleak scenario for devolved governance, local accountability and local delivery. It gets worse with the power given to the Secretary of State to impose the national fire and rescue framework. Unscrutinised by Parliament, this document will be exactly the kind of straitjacket that strangles local decision-making. It represents the kind of prescription from on high that we have come to expect from the Government.

There was an exception, however. This week I spoke in the Second Reading debate of the Children Bill. Afterwards, I had a discussion with the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, in the Corridor. She said that for once the Government had got their relationship with local government right. I wish I could always say that about the ODPM's legislation, but perhaps we might improve it.

Fire authorities will be required to follow the framework, and their performance will be measured against the extent to which they do that.

We cannot accept this riding roughshod over local accountability by central control. In order for the Government to push through these changes, they will need the support of local communities and local fire authorities. As many Peers have said, the fire service is a popular service, supported by local communities. It is invariably a bad policy if everyone can be affected by it but very few can exercise influence over it. That is why local accountability and local decision-making work, because fire authorities can respond to the needs of their communities. I thought that that was the point of empowering brigades to tailor the deployment of firefighting capacity to reflect risk to human life.

It is odd indeed that, at the same time as they are abolishing national response standards, which we support, the Government are introducing a regime that seems to allow them to control directly from Whitehall the organisation, structure, employment practices, collaboration arrangements, procurement, training and human resources policies of every fire and rescue authority in the country. Perhaps the Minister can give us an explanation.

In his introductory remarks, the Minister denied the regionalisation of the fire service by stealth, but we must look at the philosophy behind the regionalisation of this agenda. The ODPM has already gone beyond the Bain report, which recommended co-operation between brigades rather than a reorganisation on a regional structure.

The Government may marshal the earlier Mott MacDonald report to justify their attempt to regionalise the fire service, but nowhere does that report claim that the existing regions with government offices are operationally the most appropriate regions for organisation of the fire and rescue service.

I have had briefings from various organisations, including the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, the County Councils Network of Chief Fire Officers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Local Government Association. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said, they have expressed serious reservations about the proposals for regional functions. They emphasise that no business case has been made for the introduction of regional management boards and that no alternatives have been properly investigated. They have legitimate concerns that the pooling of resources may be pushed through at the expense of diminishing levels of service or delivery at point of need.

Certainly there is a risk that potential regionalisation will prove to be a burden that distracts from the really important task of delivering the integrated risk management plans. Those organisations have drawn my attention also to the lack of consultation with firefighters' associations and fire authorities on how and why the regional changes are to be implemented. The County Councils Network of Chief Fire Officers has stated: Simply stating that a Fire Authority which has fewer than 700 people is inefficient without supplying any argument to support this, verges finely between simplistic and arrogant. We can easily furnish evidence that smaller Authorities. many of which are linked to County Councils outperform much larger fire brigades, frequently at a significantly lower expense". No serious attempt has been made to review the geographical boundaries that are most appropriate for the delivery of anti-terrorism responses and civil contingencies. I agreed with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, when she mentioned the connections between this Bill and the Civil Contingencies Bill. That being the case, why are the Government contemplating such a radical restructuring that could see someone reporting a fire in Lowestoft to a Watford control room?

I mention my own county frequently, but Essex has little in connection with Peterborough or north Norfolk. For anti-terrorism measures, we are part of London. If there is a problem in London, Essex is at the forefront. Peterborough and north Norfolk are not, so why do we have to be in an eastern region? We need to be with London or Kent to solve those problems. The sooner the Minister looks at the boundary, the sooner he might stop hearing speeches from me.

Not only is community safety being subordinated to the political agenda of the Deputy Prime Minister, but there is an unrealistic assumption that the technology on which many of the changes rely will somehow work. That is rare in my experience. We all know that there are days when we arrive in the office first thing in the morning and the PC just does not work. A lot of the reorganisation is based totally on technology. The control rooms for vast areas of the country rely on it. That is of concern.

I shall not dwell any longer on my concerns about regionalisation. I think that most noble Lords are fed up with it, but it is an important issue and I hope that the Minister will comment on it. However, as the leader of a large local authority, I am disappointed at having once again to counsel government against taking powers and accountability away from local people and moving them upwards to a more remote, less accountable tier of government. I am all the more disappointed that it is being done in such a prescriptive and hasty manner, with little consultation on or piloting of the various reforms proposed.

As several noble Lords have said, we need to be concerned about the financial implications of the legislation. The Government have promised £30 million of transitional funding for the pay award, but firefighters will have to pay that back from savings generated through the integrated risk management process. It remains difficult to be sure whether those savings will be realised. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, and several other noble Lords have expressed concern about the potential lack of resources to pay for the changes.

Some noble Lords have mentioned the problem of pensions. I think the pensions provision in this legislation is inadequate. Having been involved in local government for many years, I know that fire brigade pensions have been a real problem for the finances of fire authorities. I would like to have seen the Government accept the recommendations of the Bain report on pensions, rather than put forward their own proposals, and would like the Minister to comment on why the Government did that instead.

On the issue of performance monitoring, we do not believe that the draft fire and rescue national framework is sufficiently specific to allow the Audit Commission to set a framework for monitoring the performance of fire authorities. The Government should bring forward some further thinking to guide the Audit Commission's performance monitoring.

There has been a lot of discussion about charging this afternoon. Several noble Lords have commented on that. In most fire authorities, there is now charging for discretionary services. I think that is appropriate. I would certainly like further guidance from the Minister on his views on charging—he reacted very fiercely to my noble friend Lady Hanham's comment on it. I am sure we can discuss charging at length in Committee. There probably does need to be charging for discretionary services, and we would like to be clear what the Government's views are on that. I think that the discretionary charging system has been particularly successful in the fire authority in Essex, and we have been working on that.

There is also the wider debate about Government policy that is inseparable from our scrutiny of this Bill. I would like to know whether the Minister expects that this Bill will save lives. We are surprised that, at the same time as introducing this legislation, the Government have pushed back their target of achieving a 20 per cent reduction in accidental fire deaths in the home from March 2004 to March 2010. The target of cutting the incidence of deliberately started fires by 30 per cent by 2009 has been downgraded to 10 per cent by 2010. Why have these targets been downgraded?

Several noble Lords have commented this afternoon on sprinklers and other measures to help with fire systems. We need to think about new schools and, as people have said, homes for the elderly should probably have sprinklers installed when they are constructed. I am sure we are going to be discussing that in Committee.

In conclusion, although we support the aims of the Bill, it is flawed because, instead of empowering fire authorities to face new operational challenges, it has hamstrung them by undertaking reform through the erroneous twin prisms of centralisation and regionalisation.

We have covered a lot of ground today. Some issues have been raised which will need to be returned to in Committee. I am sure other issues will emerge as we get through the detail. My noble friend Lady Hanham and I look forward to the opportunity to discuss this in Committee, and we hope to amend parts of the legislation that we are not so happy with. I thank everyone this afternoon for the opportunity to speak to this Second Reading.

5.13 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am very grateful to everyone who has spoken, and for their positive contributions. I do not think I am stepping out of line by saying that we are on Second Reading, not in Committee, and that when I sit down the building can close. Therefore, everyone will be hanging on my every word. First of all, I want to reinforce what I said in opening the debate, because it is what everyone else has said. I pay tribute to the work of the firefighters. There is no doubt about it, the firefighters in this country—both retained and full time—are the aristocracy of the emergency services. There is no question about that, and I do not think that we need to have it qualified in any way whatever.

I want to draw attention to one other thing because no one has mentioned it at all, mainly because it is good news—the report of your Lordship's Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. Normally, when that is bad news for the Government, everyone mentions it. The committee said in the conclusion of its report, published yesterday, that there was nothing in the delegated powers in the Bill to which it wished to draw the attention of the House. Therefore, I do not believe that I need to spend too much time on some of the nonsense that I have heard this afternoon about the overweening powers in the Bill. If there were a real serious problem, that important committee would have highlighted it and drawn attention to the fact that amendments were required.

That is all that I am going to say about that matter. I have no doubt that we shall come back to it in Committee. Quite clearly, no one had had time to read the committee's report—that is the best interpretation I can put on it.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, as a member of that committee, can I say that I did not draw the Minister's or the House's attention to that matter because, indeed, we concluded as the Minister described?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that. I can assure him that, from my short experience in this House, the Government have to deliver on what that very important committee says. Usually it will point out where the Government have got it wrong—and, by and large, that is what has happened, and we have adjusted things.

At the outset, I should say that I am really glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, mentioned Essex and charging in the same context, because it means that I cannot be accused of raising the matter myself. I can tell the noble Lord that I am looking forward to Grand Committee and to learning all about Essex and charging in the fire service. I am looking forward to hearing about the squillions that they have been raising, and I would like to know the mechanism and arrangements that they have for raising those substantial sums of money. In that way, perhaps we can share it with colleagues and other authorities and see whether it is all hunky-dory, if I can put it that way. Obviously, there are entrepreneurs in Essex, and we need to know more about them.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene on the Minister, but I was warned by a chief officer about providing too much ammunition about what he had been doing through discretionary charging in that county council. Obviously one is quite willing to share information about the Essex fire brigade at Committee stage.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it is the fire brigade that I am referring to. Obviously, it is doing an excellent job fighting fires and an excellent job raising funds. We would like to learn more about that during Grand Committee.

I shall try to answer some of the points that noble Lords made, but not all of them, as that would take far too long. Section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 meant that the Secretary of State had to approve every change or reduction in manpower or equipment in the fire authority. It was ludicrous to expect him to do that. The repeal of the section means that those matters are now, rightly, dealt with locally. Fire authorities are expected to produce and consult on the integrated risk management plans, which are locally produced and which set out the local standards of any purpose that they follow. There is nothing in this Bill that changes that. The "last resort" powers in the Bill do not undermine the significant new freedoms given to authorities as a result of the repeal of Section 19. There is no contradiction there.

All the points that were raised were important, and I do not want to demean any of them, but I cannot deal with them all. However, I would like to get out of the way first the point about which legislation takes precedence. Section (1)(b) of the Fire Services Act 2003 will stay in force until repealed by this Bill, if it is enacted. It will then be replaced by Clause 29. Section (1)(a) of the 2003 Act will stay on the statute book until it falls at the sunset clause in November 2005. I hope that that clarifies the matter.

The Business and Community Safety Forum—the BCSF—represents users of the fire and rescue services, such as business, the fire protection industry, wider community interests, the Disability Rights Commission, Help the Aged and RoSPA. Those bodies are among the nominating members. The Practitioners Forum includes the Fire Brigades Union, the Local Government Association and the Chief and Assistant Fire Officers Association.

The other point, for the avoidance of any doubt, is that best value does apply to fire and rescue authorities.

Another issue related to the different definitions of emergency in this Bill and the Civil Contingencies Bill. The Civil Contingencies Bill deals with much wider emergencies than this Bill. For example, the fire and rescue service has no role in preventing terrorist incidents. It has a role in responding to them, but not in preventing them. The police service does have a role in preventing them. There is no contradiction in the definition, it is just wider. It does not cause a problem to any of the services.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised the well-being power. Her concern about additional power is welcome, but she argued that the combined fire and rescue authorities need the power of well-being. We think that the powers in Clauses Nos. 5, 11 and 12 give sufficient discretion to allow combined fire and rescue authorities to discharge their functions. We have received no robust examples that demonstrate where the new powers would fall short but we would be very happy to be informed of any during the course of the passage of the Bill. That is what this House is for: to revise and scrutinise the legislation sent by the other place.

The role of the service improvement team at the ODPM was criticised by implication. The White Paper made it clear that the service improvement team would be part of the ODPM: I draw attention to paragraph 5(10). The Bain review said that central government should provide more effective leadership and so we are satisfied that that is where that role should lie. I shall not go into detail as it is set out in the White Paper. We can come to it in Committee if it is required.

On the issue of recruitment, the ODPM is leading a project to improve recruitment methods in the fire and rescue service. I agree with the noble Baroness that we need to be fair to all applicants and to attract a more diverse set of applicants.

A question was asked about what happens if an emergency occurs for which there is no time to make an order under Clause 9. Clause 9 will be used to place a duty on fire and rescue authorities to deal with emergencies such as chemical spills or major flooding. Any emergency that occurs for which there is no time to make an order under Clause 9 will be covered by the Secretary of State's power to direct fire and rescue authorities under Clause 10. Again, we can explore the power of the Secretary of State in Committee.

On the exclusion of employee representatives, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council was less representative of employees than the new practitioners forum. The latter includes Unison, which was not a member of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, and Networking Women in the Fire Service. This is in addition to the Fire Brigades Union and the Retained Firefighters Union. There is an issue there. We are not in favour of the exclusion of employee representatives but if we talk about only the FBU then we are excluding other representatives.

With respect to the consultation on Clause 22 powers, we have said that although the powers exist, we do not want to use them. If we do, we shall use them, as I mentioned in my opening speech, in accordance with the intervention protocol agreed with the Local Government Association. This would mean consulting the fire and rescue authorities involved. It is not simply that a diktat would come from the Secretary of State without any warning late one Friday afternoon. There is a consultation protocol that we will use.

Regarding the issue of the chair of the body, as raised by my noble friend Lord McCarthy, it will be independent. That is under challenge, but it is the ODPM's current practice to comply with the principles set out by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We would expect to apply those principles if an appointment were to be made in this instance. We can explore this in greater detail in Committee but there is no doubt about it; there is a procedure. It is not just acting on a whim and appointing one's chum. Those days belong to other governments, not to this Government.

The other issue raised by my noble friend was whether the Government would use the powers to derecognise the Fire Brigades Union. The noble Lord is right to pose the question if he wants to but it beggars belief that it needs asking. The answer is, "No". He actually said, "Will the Government use the powers to derecognise the Fire Brigades Union and replace it with the Retained Firefighters Union"? The answer is, -No". We recognise that there are a number of unions representing fire and rescue service employees but at present the Fire Brigades Union is the only union represented on the national joint council. We believe that the new negotiation body should be opened up to representatives of the Retained Firefighters Union and the Fire Officers' Association as well as the Fire Brigades Union.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, if the Minister will give way, I should like to clear up the matter. It seems to me that the Minister is saying that the clause is not intended to affect the negotiating powers of the Fire Brigades Union. Therefore, although there will be another union alongside—they claim to represent the part-time fire workers as much as the full-time ones—and although they will have to share with another union, that will not affect the negotiating powers. Is that was he is saying?

Lord Rooker

No, my Lords, I am saying exactly what I have just said and it is a matter of record in Hansard. I do not want to repeat it because I am already going over the time that I told my two noble friends sitting either side of me that I would take. We will have plenty of time in Committee for such matters. On whether we shall derecognise one union to recognise another, the answer is no.

Much was said about funding, but I shall not go over that, although the notes that I have are extensive. Most of what I heard about funding is erroneous. The idea that we are trying to do this on the cheap, and that no funding has been put in, is erroneous. Frankly, the money that the Government have pumped in to fund the changes in the fire service is a matter of public record. In Grand Committee, I shall explain what the pots of money have covered.

I realise that there were difficulties as regards the dispute last time round, in terms of how the changes will take place and how the savings from those changes will be deployed. The idea that the Government have put no money into the fire and rescue services, over and above that that had already gone in from the council tax, is simply not true. I shall not answer the detailed challenges now because that would be unfair as I could not do justice to the issues that have been raised.

The framework allows local discretion. The whole point about the integrated risk management plan is that it will allow authorities to plan on the basis of their local needs as opposed to mandatory, prescribed targets. There is also scope for local fire and rescue authorities to set different and more challenging targets for themselves. The Government would welcome that. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot say, "Keep the nanny government away from us, get out of the way, we know best", and when we set them free, say, "By the way, you can set even more challenging targets". Why can they not set the targets? They are free to do that and we would welcome it.

The issue of sprinklers has been raised. I cannot do justice to that now. The Bill is not a suitable vehicle for that point. We think that it would be better to do that through building regulations. Nevertheless, we can explore the matter in Grand Committee. I came to the House in 2001 or 2002, having come from the Yarlswood fire near Bedford—a brand new building that was built without sprinklers—and there is a similar building with exactly the same type of construction here in London, in Harmondsworth. Two fire brigades were giving totally different written advice about whether sprinklers should be put in when the buildings were constructed. There are some issues to be raised, but by and large we believe that that is a matter for building regulations.

On the issue of cover, I shall put a couple of statistics on the record. My noble friend Lord Harrison spoke of the different numbers of people in the City during the day compared with the night. Many noble Lords raised that matter. The City of London is a good example. At the moment the fire brigade provides the same level of cover during the day and during the night and yet during the day there are 500,000 people working in the City and at night only 5,000 live there. In a modern risk-based system, one does not need the same amount of cover when the risk has clearly moved to the suburbs. There are twice the number of primary fires at three or four in the afternoon—about 10,000 each year—as there are at three or four in the morning—about 5,000 each year. To put a blanket figure on the matter, saying that that is what must happen 24 hours a day, does not make sense with the resources that we have. There is scope for efficiencies, as my noble friend Lord Harrison said.

On devolution, we do not see any problem. Devolution will not be a barrier between England and Wales nor between England and Scotland. We expect co-operation across the border to continue, as it does now. I have been given no serious evidence to suggest that it is an issue. The other place fully scrutinised the Bill and debated many of the issues, many of which, such as sprinklers, are not in the Bill.

On the current negotiations, one should not speak from the Dispatch Box when negotiations are continuing about a settlement in what was an acrimonious dispute. There is remaining optimism that the issues will be negotiated and will shortly be resolved satisfactorily.

The Audit Commission's verification findings were raised. It will undertake a second stage of the study and will report in the summer. The Audit Commission has said that it will be important that progress has been made by then on issues such as overtime and shift patterns. The Government Offices for the Regions are the established bases for the delivery of key government functions, including the new expanded role of the fire and rescue services and civil contingency planning.

I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that we have not invented the Government Offices, nor the government regions. We inherited them from the previous government. There may be arguments about which counties are in which region. We do not accept that the framework is a straitjacket. It is not a blueprint. The flexibility is there for the local fire authorities. They have been consulted widely on the framework and we are currently considering responses from the key stakeholders.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that the framework is encased in primary legislation and there is no delegated legislation within it and that is why the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee decided that there was no reason to make any recommendations?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, in that case we do not have a problem. I have not been able to answer all the points made and I did not set out to do so; it would have been unfair and time consuming, bearing in mind that we will have an interesting Grand Committee. It is not for me to say this; it is up to others, but I hope that the Grand Committee will concentrate on the meat of the Bill, which is all of it, and not re-examine the legislation from last year. Part and parcel of that is the obvious reason that negotiations are still going on for a solution to the arrangements brought about at the end of the dispute. This is a new vision after 50 years to replace the existing fire legislation.

Firefighters, full-time and retained, are the aristocracy of the emergency services. We should treat them with that respect when we consider the legislation. I beg to move.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.

House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes before six o'clock to Monday, 19 April at half-past two o'clock.