HL Deb 12 July 2004 vol 663 cc1015-24

3.22 p.m.

Report received.

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

Baroness Hanham

moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 2, line 10, leave out subsection (1) and insert— (1) Fire and rescue authorities may constitute, with the agreement of the Secretary of State, a fire and rescue authority for the combined area of two or more existing fire and rescue authorities.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, before addressing the amendment, I want to welcome the recent accolade that has been heaped upon the head of the Minister. I hope that it will see him well into the future, considering who he beat, and we endorse it for the Ministers on his side of the Chamber. We are delighted for him. However, those are probably the last kind words that we shall say today.

This group of amendments—Amendments Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 16—return to the subject of what we consider to be one of the fundamental flaws of the Bill; that is, the unwelcome forced regionalisation and centralisation of the fire and rescue service. The arguments have been well exercised and rehearsed both in Committee and during the earlier passage of the Bill in another place. During the Committee stage, the Minister made clear in his replies that he could not, or would not, accept our concerns. That is a shame, for our concerns remain very real. I can only hope that the Minister has had a change of heart and is alive to the potentially damaging consequences of the Bill.

Suffice it to say that we on these Benches are still fundamentally opposed to what the Government are intending to do in the Bill as regards regionalisation. I suspect that we shall never be able to see eye to eye on this issue. But the Deputy Prime Minister's obsession with regionalisation runs amok throughout much of what his department does and throughout all the legislation that we have seen and dealt with over recent months. We see it here again in the plans for the future of the fire service. That is of course in contrast to the Bain report, whose recommendations for a reformed and improved fire service we were happy to support.

I wonder how much of that enthusiasm is shared by other Ministers in the ODPM and in the country at large. One thing is certain—the Deputy Prime Minister's plans for regionalisation will be tested later this year in the referendums, when I have no doubt that he and the Government will receive an unequivocal answer.

It is clear that regionalisation of the fire service will do nothing but introduce additional bureaucracy. It will not save a penny. Of course, so far as concerns the fire service, it will not save a single life or a single property. That is why we are so adamantly opposed to this part of the Bill.

I stress that we fully support the much needed reforms and modernisation of the fire service. Indeed, we have no problem if fire authorities want to work together on a voluntary basis on, for example, procurement or any issues that they believe will improve the service they provide to the public. Amendment No. 1 seeks to achieve that objective by giving fire authorities the ability to come together as they wish, removing the unwelcome dead hand of central government in forcing them to do so.

We believe that, with their comprehensive knowledge of the local circumstances, fire authorities will be best placed to make such decisions about cooperation and partnership working. I do not think that the Minister really believes that benefits will accrue from forcing an authority—say, Wiltshire—to work in partnership with another—say, Cornwall—that may be hundreds of miles away. Indeed, perhaps the Minister could outline some of the benefits that a substantially rural authority such as Cumbria would have in working with an urban authority such as Merseyside. That is precisely what the Bill envisages.

Amendment No. 3 is a consequential amendment to Amendment No. 1. It would remove the power of the Secretary of State to compel authorities to combine if Clause 2(1) is amended, as my first amendment designs. Amendment No. 5 is, again, a consequential amendment, removing the unnecessary subsection that empowers the Secretary of State to consult under subsection (3)(b), which the two previous amendments would, if accepted, remove.

Amendment No. 4 would require the agreement of authorities to any modification by the Secretary of State to a combination scheme that they themselves have proposed. As such, it reinforces an important principle of local decision-making and discretion, as opposed to the excessive hand of the centre once again being imposed without due regard to local circumstances.

Finally, Amendment No. 16 has a similar intent to that of Amendment No. 4. It attempts to safeguard against the Secretary of State misusing his powers in regard to authorities which, under Sections 5 and 6 of the 1947 Act, come together on a voluntary basis. In Committee, the Minister asserted that this was an amendment too far. Indeed, he branded it then as a wrecking amendment. Yet the very real possibility remains that the Secretary of State could simply ignore the wishes of authorities which are already operating on a combined basis and override their wishes and day-to-day operations simply so that he could impose his own model on them as he wished.

Amendment No. 16 would therefore ensure that each authority so affected would have to agree to any changes that the Secretary of State proposed. I do not call that a wrecking amendment; I call it a sensible and rational amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, the Bill seems to have cleared the Chamber immediately after Question Time even faster than do many other Bills. I hope that, as they were rushing to the door, enough noble Lords were listening to join in the noble Baroness's congratulations.

With regard to the noble Baroness's amendments in this group, two issues seem to relate to how the criteria and so on are to be used by the Secretary of State and the combining authorities—that is, whether the Secretary of State's actions are top down and whether everything must be done to fit the Government's pattern. I am puzzled about that because, in many debates over quite a long period, the same individuals on the three Front Benches have accepted the benefits of sub-regional approaches in certain circumstances. The Government deny being centralising but, however much is said about consultation, the fact remains that the Bill is dealing with the Secretary of State's scheme to make, modify or revoke.

3.30 p.m.

As regards a pattern, and regional arrangements fitting the administrative regional offices, does it matter if combined authorities cross boundaries and cross government regional administrative areas? I am not convinced that it would matter. In any event, picking up on what was said by the noble Baroness in moving Amendment No. 1, if that were to cause problems, it is unlikely that all the authorities would want to combine in that way. What I am saying, I suppose, is that the Government should demonstrate a greater degree of trust in the common sense and practical experience that would be displayed by the authorities in question.

On the other hand. I have to accept that in effect a veto by a single authority by not agreeing could scupper a scheme agreed to by everyone else. What the noble Baroness seems to be proposing is what would amount to, say, half a dozen authorities agreeing, persuading the Secretary of State of their case to combine, but a seventh, in what would be a natural grouping, disagreeing and so thwarting not just the proposals of central government but those of other fire authorities. So, there is something of a dilemma there.

As regards Amendment No. 2, to which the Minister will no doubt speak when he responds, I hope that this will not sound churlish because the issue of public safety is one which I raised last time. However, I had understood Ministers in the Commons, who concentrated on this there more than we did here, to say that public safety, which is now an additional point, was part of effectiveness, which is already required by the Bill. I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation. It may be—I do not know—that, for reasons of effectiveness, the Government want to allow for something which would not give good economy. Are we now disaggregating those three terms in pulling out public safety as a different issue?

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness for her very kind words. As I said when I got the gong, I promised not to take it seriously. Nevertheless, I am very grateful for the obvious support I received from all sides of this House, given the competition.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we have tried to show that we are a listening government. So, in answering this group of amendments I want first to deal with Amendment No. 2, which is a government amendment. This was tabled in response to points put forward in debate by Members of another place and Members of this House. In effect, scrutiny of the Bill resulted in this amendment.

We know that, as drafted, Clause 2 generated a good deal of concern, and we have heard a little of that today. It was seen as giving the Secretary of State carte blanche to create regional fire and rescue authorities whether or not a referendum was being held on the creation of a regional assembly. Because it left the matter of holding an inquiry to the discretion of the Secretary of State, some people felt that it allowed the Government to ride roughshod over local objections.

We have not always—indeed, we did not in Committee—accepted those interpretations. The Ministers concerned with the conduct of this policy, and, indeed, me, made clear that we have no plans to regionalise the fire and rescue service outside those parts of England in which a referendum is imminent. I repeat that. We have assured both Houses that the only circumstances in which we envisage using the original Clause 2(2)(b) are ones of urgent public safety, in particular, if authorities were failing to co-operate on a key resilience requirement such as the creation of a regional control centre.

But we have come to the conclusion that in view of the debates and comments made—we have had time to reflect on this—and of our stated position, it is best if the Bill is equally clear about our intentions. We have already responded to an opposition amendment in the other place by agreeing that an inquiry into a combination scheme will be mandatory apart from in a very limited number of circumstances; for example, if suggested by the authorities themselves or where urgent public safety needs cannot tolerate any delay.

In our view, Clause 2 now addresses all the legitimate concerns raised by Members in both Houses and does so by significantly departing from its original wording. Of course, on some things we have not been able to move. We have sought carefully to explain in correspondence with noble Lords and Baronesses that we believe it is right to retain a last resort power for the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales to appoint a minority of authority members if a culture of failure needs to be challenged and turned around. We are also satisfied that the list of consultees on the face of the Bill strikes the right balance. But we have in both cases made clear our genuine intention to be transparent, proportionate and inclusive.

Amendments Nos. 1, 3, 4 and the consequential Amendment No. 5, seek to prevent the Secretary of State—currently the Deputy Prime Minister—combining fire and rescue authorities in any circumstances other than those in which the authorities themselves have requested it, and only on the basis of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. As we have said before, that is simple untenable.

As we have already debated at some length in Committee, we cannot have a situation where the Secretary of State has no power to act on his own initiative. There may be, for example, independent Audit Commission evidence that improved economy, efficiency and effectiveness might result from combining authorities. Moreover, there may be an urgent need to combine authorities which have failed to deliver on a vital issue of public safety, as I have said, such as the creation of the cross-regional control rooms.

In those circumstances, we simply cannot leave it to the authorities themselves to come along and volunteer a combination. To suggest that even then the Secretary of State should be unable to act in the interests of the public as a whole is to suggest that the Government should abandon their responsibilities for ensuring an effective emergency service and the best use of taxpayers' money. Members of Parliament would be up the wall about this if Ministers stood at this Box and in another place saying, "It's not our responsibility". They simply would not understand that.

Amendment No. 4 even requires the initiating authorities, the fire authorities, to agree any significant modifications to an existing scheme that the Secretary of State might suggest. As we have already argued, that could lead to an extraordinary situation—I give the same example as I recall giving in Committee—in which if Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire were to propose to combine, they could veto a modification to restrict the combination to Shropshire and Staffordshire even though the people of Cheshire are due to vote in a referendum on whether they will have a north-west regional fire and rescue authority, because they are part of the north-west and the other two counties are not.

Amendment No. 16 seeks to prevent the Secretary of State varying or revoking an existing order combining fire and rescue authorities unless they themselves have agreed to it. Again, as with the other amendments in this group, that would prevent the Secretary of State taking a wider perspective in the interests of the public as a whole. It also ignores the extensive consultation required in the Bill, including Clause 4(5)(c), which provides for consultation by anyone other than fire and rescue authorities who the Secretary of State considers to have a potential interest. The Secretary of State needs to have the freedom to act on the basis of such a wide consultation.

The noble Baroness raised two other points. First, she asked whether it matters if combined authorities cross regional boundaries. Yes, it does. The civil resilience matters are organised on existing Government Office lines. I repeat—I know that this is irritating—that the present Government did not draw the current Government Office boundary lines. They were drawn by the previous Conservative government. I know it may be said that that was for different purposes. Certainly, it was for the administration of services, and we have not sought to change that, even though we have had debates about the boundaries in certain cases. Fire Control project and Firelink are also essentially to be organised on the Government Office lines.

As to the question about subparagraph (b) of the Government's amendment—is public safety included in effectiveness? —we believe that public safety would generally be included in effectiveness. However, we wish to draw out public safety separately, so as to ensure that, where different elements of the three "e"s have to be balanced, the primacy of public safety is absolutely clear.

The Government tabled Amendment No. 2 quite specifically in response to debates in both Houses—and sometimes probably the uncomfortable position Ministers have been in when trying to respond to those debates—because there seemed to be a thread of justification in the speeches. We looked at the issue, listened and tabled the government amendment, which I shall formally move at the appropriate time.

Baroness Hanham:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I shall first address the Government's amendment. It leaves out the words from the end of line 13, so that the subsection would state: A scheme under this section may be made only if"— and then would go on— it appears to the Secretary of State that, in the interests of—… economy, efficiency and effectiveness, or…public safety there should be a single fire and rescue authority for the combined area". That is almost exactly what is there at the moment except for the inclusion of the words "public safety". One need take out only a few words and one gets back to exactly the same position. So, while the noble Lord has made a valid effort to try and say that this meets all sorts of objectives and objections, I am afraid that I do not see how it does as the provision is termed at the moment.

The basis of the amendments is exactly as it was when we discussed the issue in Committee. We do not see that there should be an opportunity for a regionalised role in this. The trouble with legislation coming forth at the moment and the aspect of regionalisation in it is that the Government do not yet have any authority for regional assemblies. Legislation has been pouring out of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister over past months, always with this regionalised element, and predicated on there being a successful outcome to the regional assemblies referendum. It is all in anticipation.

There should be far greater local control, and regionalisation is a step too far. Although we support many other aspects of the Bill, we do not support this one. I therefore seek to test the opinion of the House.

3.42 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 73; Not-Contents, 156.

Division No. 1
Ampthill, L. Denham, L.
Anelay of St Johns, B. Dixon-Smith, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Elles, B.
Attlee, E. Elliott of Morpeth, L.
Baker of Dorking, L. Elton, L.
Biffen, L. Feldman, L.
Blaker, L. Flather, B.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Fookes, B.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Garel-Jones, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Geddes, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Glenarthur, L.
Cope of Berkeley, L. [Teller] Glentoran, L.
Craigavon, V. Goschen, V.
Crickhowell, L. Hanham, B.
Hanningfield, L. O'Cathain, B.
Higgins, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L. Plumb, L.
Howe, E. Rawlings, B.
Howe of Aberavon, L. Renton, L.
Howell of Guildford, L. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Hurd of Westwell, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Jenkin of Roding, L. Seccombe, B. [Teller]
Kalms, L. Sharples, B.
Kimball, L. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Kingsland, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Liverpool, E. Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L.
Luke, L. Strathclyde, L.
Lyell, L. Swinfen, L.
MacGregor of Pulham Market, Thatcher, B.
L. Trenchard, V.
Marlesford, L. Trumpington, B.
Miller of Hendon, B. Ullswater, V.
Mowbray and Stourton, L. Wakeham, L.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Walton of Detchant, L.
Naseby, L. Warnock, B.
Noakes, B. Wilcox, B.
Northesk, E. Windlesham, L.
Acton, L. Evans of Parkside, L.
Addington, L. Evans of Temple Guiting, L.
Ahmed, L. Ezra, L.
Alli, L. Falconer of Thoroton, L. Lord
Alton of Liverpool, L. Chancellor)
Amos, B. (Lord President of the Falkner of Margravine, B.
Council) Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Andrews, B. Fearn, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Filkin, L.
Ashdown of Norton-sub Fitt, L.
Hamdon, L. Fyfe of Fairfield, L.
Ashton of Upholland, B. Gale, B.
Bach, L. Gibson of Market Rasen, B.
Barker, B. Giddens, L.
Beaumont of Whitley. L. Golding, B.
Berkeley, L. Goldsmith, L.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L. Goodhart, L.
Bhatia, L. Gordon of Strathblane, L.
Billingham, B. Goudie, B.
Blackstone, B. Gould of Potternewton, B.
Bledisloe, V. Graham of Edmonton, L.
Boothroyd, B. Grocott, L. [Teller]
Borrie, L. Hamwee, B.
Bragg, L. Hannay of Chiswick, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Harris of Haringey, L.
Brookman, L. Harris of Richmond, B.
Burlison, L. Harrison, L.
Campbell-Savours, L. Hart of Chilton, L.
Carter, L. Haskel, L.
Carter of Coles, L. Hayman, B.
Chorley, L. Henig, B.
Christopher, L. Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Clark of Windermere, L. Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.
Clarke of Hampstead, L. Hollis of Heigham, B.
Clement-Jones, L. Howells of St. Davids, B.
Clinton-Davis, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Cohen of Pimlico, B. Hughes of Woodside, L.
Corbett of Castle Vale, L. Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Craig of Radley, L. Irvine of Lairg, L.
Crawley, B. Jay of Paddington, B.
David, B. Jordan, L.
Davies of Coity, L. King of West Bromwich, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. [Teller] Kirkhill, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Lipsey, L.
Desai, L. Lockwood, B.
Dholakia, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Dixon, L. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Donoughue, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Drayson, L. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Dubs, L. Maclennan of Rogart, L.
Maddock, B. Simon, V.
Marsh, L. Slim, V.
Mason of Barnsley, L. Smith of Clifton, L.
Massey of Darwen, B. Snape, L.
Merlyn-Rees, L. Steel of Aikwood, L.
Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Morgan of Drefelin, B. Strabolgi, L.
Morris of Manchester, L. Strange, B.
Newby, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Northover, B. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Ouseley, L. Temple-Morris, L.
Pendry, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Phillips of Sudbury, L. Thornton, B.
Pitkeathley, B. Tomlinson, L.
Plant of Highfield, L. Tordoff, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. Triesman, L.
Prosser, B. Truscott, L.
Ramsay of Cartvale, B. Tunnicliffe, L.
Randall of St. Budeaux, L. Turnberg, L.
Rendell of Babergh, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Richard, L. Wall of New Barnet, B.
Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L. Warner, L.
Rooker, L. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Roper, L. Weatherill, L.
Rosser, L. Whitaker, B.
Russell-Johnston, L. Wilkins, B.
Sandberg, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
Scotland of Asthal, B. Williams of Elvel. L.
Sharp of Guildford, B. Wooler of leeds, L.
Shutt of Greetland, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Rooker

moved Amendment No. 2: Page 2, line 13, leave out from "if" to end of line 18 and insert "it appears to the Secretary of State that, in the interests of— (a) economy, efficiency and effectiveness, or (b) public safety, there should be a single fire and rescue authority for the combined area.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 3 to 5 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee

moved Amendment No. 6: Page 2, line 28, after "question," insert— ( ) all local authorities in the area affected,

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment is grouped with Amendments Nos. 7 and 17. The amendments would require consultation of all local authorities in the affected area, if the Secretary of State was considering combining schemes or revoking or varying an existing scheme. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, confirmed the Government's commitment to the widest possible consultation. We do not question that commitment, but neither the noble Lord, nor the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, can commit future governments. As it stands, there is an obligation to consult existing authorities and other persons whom the Secretary of State considers appropriate. To pre-empt an argument to rebut mine, I accept that that action would have to be reasonable.

The Government say that it would be more flexible not to list consultees and have referred to 52 organisations listed as consultees in the annexe to the draft framework. They say that if an organisation, whether a local authority or a voluntary organisation, is relevant and important, it will have access to the consultation process. In a letter from the Minister following Committee, for which I thank him, they also say that other organisations have an equally strong claim to be listed and that to refer to local authorities would be a slippery slope.

I do not accept that. I suggest that local authorities are not in the same category as other organisations. The elected nature of their office makes them qualitatively different and the existing authorities have been constituted from among their membership. I do not doubt the assurances about maximum consultation, but I should like better to understand why there is no specific obligation or reference to local authorities—especially as, from what I understand the Government to be saying, they will consult local authorities anyway.

The letter that we have received from the Minister says that the Government are less convinced that local authorities are unique in carrying such a direct mandate. Perhaps the Minister can amplify that point of view. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I am not prepared to amplify that. Given the oratorical skills and forceful argument of the noble Baroness, I am prepared to say that I will take the matter away and ensure that local authorities are inserted in the Bill.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, what can I say, except that I should warn the Minister in future when I am going to be oratorical, so that he can have that answer prepared? I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]