HL Deb 12 July 2004 vol 663 cc1074-85

  1. The Secretary of State shall set a target for—
    1. the reduction in the number of accidental fire deaths in the home; and
    2. the reduction in the number of deliberate fires.
  2. The targets referred to in subsection (1) shall be published annually by the Secretary of State for a period of five years forward.
  3. The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament at least once in every session a report specifying—

  1. the targets under subsection (1)(a) and (1)(b);
  2. any changes to those targets since the previous report and the reasons for those changes;
  3. measures taken or being taken to achieve the targets set out in subsection (1)(a) and (1)(b); and
  4. the Secretary of State's assessment of progress towards achieving those targets."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we return to this amendment which, again, we moved in Committee. I was left with some unanswered questions that I shall try to condense into two areas. First, can the Minister say why the Government have reduced their targets for accidental deaths in the home? What is the timescale for achieving them? I understand that the original target set last summer was for a reduction of 20 per cent by 2004. That has now been extended to 2010.

We understand that it is necessary to have reasonable time to measure progress. But pushing the timeframe back to 2010 completely undermines the purpose of having a target. Why was that not taken into consideration when the targets were originally set? I should also like to know who was consulted on the change of targets. Were they approved or agreed by anyone other than the Government?

Secondly, I do not see that the requirement to set targets far ahead—our second point in the amendment— should be a difficult obstacle. The amendment is deliberately inflexible—I repeat, inflexible. It focuses minds on addressing the various issues within a given timeframe—unlike the previous government targets—and it need not preclude innovation in new developments. It would, however, be the bottom line and thus highlight the Government's commitment to the modernisation programme for the fire and rescue services, which underpins the Bill.

The amendment requires that as part of the framework arrangements, the Secretary of State sets out annually, on a five-year forward basis, targets for a reduction in the number of accidental fire deaths in the home and incidents of arson. It requires him to report to Parliament annually on progress in achieving those targets, which is not a terribly onerous burden. Surely the Government will not object to putting that at the centre of the framework structure, with clear targets that are updated regularly. That would thus enable them to measure the progress of the reforms more speedily than they are proposing. Normally, I do not want to major on targets, but if the Government are going to have targets, they must live up to the obligations that they set. I beg to move.

Lord Monson:

My Lords, I was not present in Grand Committee when these targets were discussed. At the risk of adding to the mirth on the Front Bench, I confess that I am always uneasy when statutory targets of this nature are proposed, as distinct from informal, loose targets or, better still, aspirations. They always remind me of five-year or 10-year plans, which are so characteristic of 20th century authoritarian regimes. Of course, neither government targets nor proposed opposition targets are remotely authoritarian in intent.

Nevertheless, the zeal to achieve a fixed target can present dangers. One always thinks of the law of unintended consequences: for example, how on earth can the incidence of arson be systematically reduced in this country without installing CCTV cameras at close intervals on every street in Britain?

One always thinks of the Government's target—the previous Conservative government were also to some extent to blame—of reducing gun crime. One may ask what that has achieved. It has resulted in legislation causing immense hardship to respectable, law-abiding pistol shooters, but has not reduced gun crime to the slightest degree. Indeed, gun crime has increased considerably since legally owned pistols were virtually banned. We really should be cautious about such proposals, however well intentioned they undoubtedly are.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I apologise for my unprofessional conduct—it was the idea of having to read out about fire engines in "hot pursuit" of each other and then having to go down into an "inland waterway". The term "predatory" was the trigger, and I am sorry.

However, it is a little surprising to see this amendment. As will be known, the Government have been very much criticised in the other place for the proliferation of performance targets. The amendment would have precisely that effect, enshrining the targets in legislation for the foreseeable future.

We are committed to the new national targets for the reduction of accidental fire deaths in the home and for the reduction of deliberate fires, which were announced in the fire White Paper. Any implication to the contrary is unfounded. As before, progress on the targets will be reported in the Annual Report of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is deposited in the Library. The national framework also includes our targets, and we are committed to reporting against the delivery of that as well.

As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have today announced the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review 2004. It includes a new public service agreement target that reaffirms our commitment to achieving the long-term reductions in fire deaths and deliberate fire, including in the worst-off areas, set out in the White Paper. That is proof, if proof were needed, that we take very seriously the importance of making significant progress on these issues.

7 p.m.

The targets set out in the fire and rescue service White Paper have now been formulated into the public service agreements as part of the spending review. A massive amount of public consultation was held on the public service agreements before these targets were included and we think that they are sufficiently challenging. As the proportion of older people in the population grows year by year. if we take no action we could expect an additional 200 accidental fire deaths over the period up to 2010. But instead the target on accidental fire deaths commits us to save 1,000 lives in that period. I am pleased to say that we are making good progress. Over the first four years of the target, accidental fire deaths in the home are on average 17 per cent below the target baseline.

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

For arson, the target is equally challenging. On recent trends, annual incidents of arson could have been close to 190,000 by 2010, but we are committed to cutting it to a little over 100,000. I am glad to say that arson was down 3 per cent in the year ending June 2003. Nor can I support the proposed fixed five-year horizon for both targets. As I have said, we are happily in the position that accidental fire deaths are the lowest for over a generation. Of course we seek to prevent every preventable death, but the number is already low enough to fluctuate randomly from year to year.

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

For deliberate fires, a fixed five-year target would not take account of the external factors which affect the annual figures. Two-thirds of the total is made up of vehicle fires, often where a vehicle has been abandoned. In recent years, abandonment has been an increasing problem as the cost of safe disposal has fallen on the last owner, due to a drop in scrap metal prices.

I fully understand that the proposed approach is deliberately inflexible, but in the future there may be compelling reasons for different targets, for instance, on false alarms. More immediately, some fire and rescue authorities are already setting local public service agreement targets, which include the reduction of serious injuries in order to recognise this important category of the harm caused by fire, and to motivate continued effort where fire deaths are already very low. We would want to introduce a national target on the reduction of serious injuries as soon as reliable data can be established.

There is nothing between us about what we want to do here, but we do not think that it should be set out as proposed on the face of the Bill. I hope that I have given the noble Baroness sufficient reason to explain why we are using different timescales for the targets that have been set.

Baroness Hanham:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. It is fair to say that what underlies this is a degree of criticism that targets which looked extremely testing at the time when they were first set—a reduction between 1994 and 1999 and then up to 2004—have suddenly slipped another six years. Our amendment was designed clearly to smarten up those targets in relation to both fire deaths and incidents of arson, and to try to ensure that they were met.

I hear what the Minister has said about the figures and the arrangements under the public service agreements. I hope that they will achieve what has been set out, but this demonstrates a real concern about targets and the dates set. If people think that they are going to achieve a target in 2004 but it does not happen because the date has slipped for another five or six years, that is not much of an incentive to try to achieve it in the first place. If targets are set, they must be real targets within a firm timescale.

However, it is clear that there has been movement on the issue, which ultimately is what we all want: everyone wants to see a reduction in fire deaths and certainly in incidents of arson. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 [Reinforcement schemes]:

Baroness Hanham

moved Amendment No. 26: Page 7, line 34, leave out "other fire and rescue authorities" and insert "fire and rescue authorities for all areas which are contiguous with the area of the authority and may enter into a reinforcement scheme with any other fire and rescue authority

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with this amendment we return to the issue of the criteria for the establishment of reinforcement schemes because it is our belief that the clause as currently drafted is far too woolly. The aim of our amendment is to tighten up the definition of Clause 13(1). That means defining the authorities with which a fire authority is obliged to enter into reinforcement schemes. Common sense suggests that geographical contiguity would be the most appropriate criterion. However, beyond that there should be an ability—a permissive power—to enter into reinforcement schemes with other authorities where appropriate.

At present the Bill places an obligation on an authority to enter into such a scheme with potentially any, or even all, other fire authorities. That is unsatisfactory given the uncertainty surrounding the future configuration of fire authorities' boundaries. Fire authorities need to be sure that they have satisfied at least the minimum required of them by subsection (1).

It may be the case that mutual assistance schemes are functioning well between fire and rescue authorities now, but precisely because of the unknown future demands of national resilience and precisely because this did not have to be addressed in 1947, we should take this opportunity to leave no room for doubt as to what is necessary; that is, schemes with contiguous authorities, and what may be useful but not compulsory, such as schemes with non-contiguous authorities.

I do not think that this amendment will be a source of great disagreement. I thought that it would help to delineate more clearly the fundamental responsibilities from the voluntary ones. This may become more important if and when we have fewer but larger authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, Amendment No. 26 would mean that fire and rescue authorities would be required to enter into a reinforcement scheme only with neighbouring authorities, although they would have discretion to extend such schemes to other authorities. At this point I shall plead history.

As the noble Baroness understands, Clause 13 reenacts the existing provisions of the Fire Services Act 1947 requiring fire authorities to enter into reinforcement schemes with other authorities and simply extends them to apply to their new core duties under the Bill. As such, we are not sure why the noble Baroness really wants to limit the requirement for fire and rescue authorities to co-operate in this way. While it is true that the 1947 Act does not specifically require cross-border mutual assistance, such schemes are already in place between adjacent tire and rescue authorities and are integral to the day-to-day operational effectiveness of the fire and rescue service.

One of the reasons for including the new core duties in the schemes was to make it easier for fire and rescue authorities to participate in a national mutual aid agreement for non-fire emergencies as well as providing simple cross-boundary assistance between authorities in the event of a fire. We feel it is important that fire and rescue authorities work together in this way in order to improve our national resilience to terrorist attack and natural disaster. Removing any requirement for fire and rescue authorities to enter into reinforcement schemes with authorities other than their immediate neighbours would not provide the necessary resilience in the event of an emergency.

Fire and rescue authorities are in the process of signing a national mutual aid agreement to cover emergencies such as the increased terrorist threat, but the development of such an agreement has been hindered by concerns that participating in such an agreement could create a conflict with their local duties. Limiting the requirement for a fire and rescue authority to enter into a mutual reinforcement scheme only with neighbouring authorities, and leaving it entirely voluntary whether they extend such schemes to other authorities, will not provide the solid statutory base they need in order to remove such concerns. This could endanger the arrangements under Clause 9 for ensuring cover for those authorities responding to an emergency outside their areas.

We do not want to be prescriptive. We want to ensure that the authorities are under a duty to enter into a wider scheme rather than a simple cross-border one. This is for resilience purposes. It will be entirely up to the authorities to decide how wide such schemes should be, based on operational need. This matter should be left to the individual fire authorities, which have hands-on experience on a daily basis.

Baroness Hanham:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that clear reply. It is interesting that Clause 13 states that: A fire and rescue authority must, so far as practicable, enter into a reinforcement scheme". A "practical" arrangement may very well be—and probably always will be—with the authority next door. The best starting place would seem to be with the authorities abutting a particular fire and rescue authority's area. Of course, there may now be more than one abutting authority, and probably at least two.

Indeed, making such arrangements on a "must" basis would absorb nearly all the material and time of a fire authority. It would therefore be better for it to have a "conditional" reason for entering into arrangements with other fire authorities. In other words, you have a responsibility to start with the contiguous authorities; thereafter, if you have any time, money and so on left over, you would be entitled to go to other authorities. That is the purpose of the amendment.

However, I hear what the Minister says. For today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 [Directions as to reinforcement schemes]:

Baroness Hamwee

moved Amendment No. 27: Page 8, line 18, after "State" insert "or the National Assembly for Wales

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 27, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 28 to 31 and 57. Again, these amendments are brought forward at the instigation of the Welsh authorities; they are concerned about the position in regard to crossing the boundary between England and Wales. I assume that what the Minister said about the need for regional arrangements does not apply in this context.

The concern is whether the provisions in the Bill will work where one authority is in England, one is in Wales and the others are in one country or the other. There seem to be no powers of direction in the Bill to resolve cross-border situations. The central problem is that, as drafted, the wording of Clauses 14 and 17 seems to assume that the same person would be involved in dealing with all the fire and rescue authorities concerned.

Under Clause 60, references to the Secretary of State are to be read, in respect of Wales, as references to the National Assembly. So there is a quite clear and quite proper division of powers. The Welsh authorities ask your Lordships to assume a hypothetical case—which is not far removed from the case put to the House earlier by the Minister—involving, say, the North Wales fire authority and the Cheshire fire authority; not in this case the Staffordshire and Shropshire fire authorities. The Secretary of State could not issue a direction to the two fire authorities because he does not have the power to issue directions in Wales and, similarly, the Assembly could not issue a direction in England—but Clause 17 requires that any direction is issued to the two authorities.

It does not seem entirely clear whether an authority can ask the Secretary of State or the Assembly to act under Clause 14(1)(c) or Clause 17(2). It may be that, because of the way in which Clause 60 works, only Welsh authorities can ask the Assembly to act and only English authorities can go to the Secretary of State. The amendments therefore seek to make clear that a direction may be issued to one or more authorities and that any fire and rescue authority may ask the Secretary of State or the National Assembly to act.

These amendments may not be necessary to provide for such a situation. I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that they are not, or indicate a way forward. I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, given the nature of the noble Baroness's speech in moving the amendment, I do not need to use the incredibly copious notes that I have; she has explained the position clearly. Superficially, it may look as though there is a problem, but we do not believe that there is.

I understand the reasoning behind the amendments but do not feel that, for example, the refusal of an English fire authority to enter into a reinforcement scheme with a Welsh authority warrants the intervention of respective governments. The same situation has existed between England and Scotland since the Scotland Act 1998 devolved the functions of the Secretary of State under the Fire Services Act 1947 to Scottish Ministers. Neither the Secretary of State nor Scottish Ministers have the power at the moment to direct authorities to make a reinforcement scheme involving both English and Scottish fire authorities.

However, this has not stopped authorities having such arrangements. For example, Cumbria has an agreement with the Dumfries and Galloway authority, while Northumberland has one with Lothian and the Borders. These are voluntary arrangements that have been entered into for operational reasons around the provision of a firefighting service rather than for wider national resilience reasons.

Given that there is no existing power of direction between cross-border authorities in Scotland and England, we are not convinced that the situation between Wales and England should be any different. In other words, the arrangement works—and has worked perfectly well—between Scotland and England. We have now got the experience and, therefore, we do not think that there should be any difference between England and Wales.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, it may be that relationships across the border are better than they are within the country, but the Minister's argument seems to be that there should not be any power of direction at all. Authorities obviously would be in the best situation and would carry on doing things in a commonsense way; they would not have to be directed.

In the happy world that the Minister has put before the House one would not need all this detail. I am not convinced about the technical aspects but shall not pursue the matter today; those who know more than me will read precisely what the Minister has said.

The noble Lord referred to his "copious" notes. If they provide a technical back-up to what he has said, perhaps he will write to me, put it on the record and share the information.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I will do that.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 28 and 29 not moved.]

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

[Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 not moved.]

Clause 19 [Charging]:

Lord Hanningfield

moved Amendment No. 32: Page 9, line 34, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

  1. Subject to the following provisions, a fire and rescue authority may charge a person providing a service to him if—
    1. the authority is authorised, but not required, by an enactment to provide the service to him, and
    2. he has agreed to the provision."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I will also speak to Amendments Nos. 33, 34 and 35. Amendment No. 32 would place fire authorities on a similar footing to other local authorities by placing the discretion for charging in the hands of the relevant fire authority. In Committee, the Minister gave a lengthy response about why the amendment would run into problems. I will tackle one of those arguments because, on reflection, it does not seem so compelling.

The first caveat that the Minister outlined was that the amendment would restrict the services for which the authorities could charge to those that they are not obliged to provide. He said that the amendment would be difficult because, in practice, authorities respond to a fairly large range of requests. However, as the Minister said, the rules of the game have changed so that responses to non-fire incidents have become part of their core functions. Therefore, we would concur that they should not charge for such call-outs. Also, subsection (5)(b) allows them to charge nothing, should they so wish.

The second caveat, which I agree may be problematic, is the need to have express consent from the person to be charged. I recognise that there are various pitfalls that could crop up around the way that this amendment is drafted. However, in most situations, the question of charging arises precisely because a core function is not involved. Because the situation is not deemed to be an emergency in which life or property is in danger, there should be enough time to seek consent.

Amendment No. 33 is designed to bring greater openness, clarity and transparency to the actual process of charging. I disagree with the Minister that the amendment would constrain an authority's ability to exercise its discretion appropriately. The wording of the amendment is helpful. It states: a list which specifies the amounts the authority will charge in specific circumstances". That implies that the list cannot be exhaustive because it is impossible to list all specific circumstances. However, it can usefully list those that are found to recur, which would presumably help those who may be charged. I do not see why the list cannot be couched in language that alerts people to the nature of a charging regime and that inherently involves discretion and consequent variation in charges. The Government have looked at the amendment and tried to count up all the possible things that could go wrong rather than using a little initiative to see the benefit of what could be a very helpful amendment.

On Amendment No. 34, I record my gratitude to the Minister for his helpful letter regarding trading by fire authorities. I am glad that the Government recognise that, where authorities have been charging with an element of profit, they have been acting in good faith. However, although I recognise the arguments concerning the difference between charging and trading, I am concerned that the Government are still ultimately stifling innovation and alternative sources of funding among fire authorities, as well as creating an unfair system that restricts the capacity of certain authorities to charge—compared with the entrepreneurs of Essex to whom I referred earlier. We should remember that moneys gained from charging are ploughed straight back into existing budgets, helping many severely stretched budgets.

Amendment No. 35 is simply designed to increase the breadth of consultation that the Secretary of State must undertake before granting any powers of charging, especially to the groups that will be most affected. Unlike the Minister, I do not think that that means the whole country. The Minister promised in Committee to send me a list of consultees, but I have not received it. Perhaps that is my fault. I do not think that this minor amendment is too onerous. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, this group of amendments deals with charging, which I know is a sensitive issue. Taken together they would constrain charging. Amendment No. 32 is phrased in the same terms as Section 93 of the Local Government Act 2003. We do not consider that Section 93 or a provision in similar terms would be a suitable substitute for the charging provisions that exist in Section 3 of the Fire Services Act 1947, which is why we have brought forward Clause 19.

The first effect of Amendment No. 32, as a mirror of Section 93, would be to restrict the services for which authorities can charge to those which they are not obliged to provide. At present, the only response that authorities are obliged to provide is to fire calls, although in practice they tend to respond to a range of requests. We have made provision in the Bill for that situation to change and have imposed additional response requirements on the service in respect of traffic accidents and other non-fire incidents.

Amendment No. 32 is also likely to have the possibly unintended effect of frustrating the provisions of Clause 19(4). The latter is designed to enable authorities to recover the cost of dealing with an incident from a responsible third party in circumstances where it may not be appropriate to seek to charge the person to whom the supply of the service was made.

Amendment No. 33 would require an authority to compile an exhaustive list of the circumstances in which it might seek to levy a charge that had been specified by order. It would also require an authority to specify the circumstances in which it would charge nothing for one of those services. That is an over-restrictive approach and one that might constrain an authority's ability to exercise its discretion appropriately.

We accept that noble Lords opposite wish to see some clear public statement by an authority, perhaps on an annual basis, about how it will go about determining a charge and possibly even what the charge might be in terms of an hourly rate. Some authorities already do that. I do not know what the entrepreneurs in Essex do. I know that they make a lot of money, but I do not know how they go about that. We would be quite happy to see such action by authorities become the norm. Indeed, we suggested in the consultation document some bases on which the charge may be calculated and we see no reason why an authority should not be open about the methodology that it has adopted. However, to require a detailed explanation of how and when the authority will exercise its inherent discretion is a burdensome approach, and we do not want to constrain that discretion.

Amendment No. 34 would remove from the Bill the requirement that the charges set by an authority do no more than recover the full annual cost of providing the service in question. The wording of Section 3 of the 1947 Act caused confusion among authorities about the extent of their powers. To claim that there was unanimity of opinion would be to ignore the evidence submitted by the fire and rescue authorities during the consultation exercise, the results of which will be published soon.

Greater clarity is needed and that is achieved by the clause as we have drafted it. However, we have no wish to create financial difficulties for authorities that have become accustomed, in good faith, to recovering a profit component on some of their activities. For that reason, we announced a concession in Grand Committee when we considered what was then Amendment No. 65. When an authority recovers an element of profit on a given service on or before 1 April this year, the concession will enable them to continue doing so for up to two years after the introduction of a freedoms and flexibilities package under the fire comprehensive performance assessment. That will be achieved by means of an order under Section 95 of the Local Government Act 2003 and will require authorities to conduct their trading activities through a company. Authorities will not be allowed to expand into new areas of trading under the concession, but may be allowed to do so if they achieve a favourable comprehensive performance assessment.

When an authority fails to achieve favourable assessments within two years, any trading order under this concession will be withdrawn. I wrote to noble Lords with further details of the concession following Grand Committee and will be happy to do so again.

Amendment No. 35 is unreasonably onerous, because it is very difficult to know how to draw the line at those people "likely" to be affected. As drafted, it could arguably require the Secretary of State to seek out and consult everyone in England, or anyone who might find themselves requiring the assistance of the fire service while in England, on the terms of any order he proposed to make. That is excessive. The requirement to consult that is in the Bill is in terms that are tried and tested.

The Government published a consultation document on our proposals for the first order in February and delivered it to a wide range of consultees. There was considerable media interest in the document, so many members of the public were aware of its existence. However, we have received less than 50 responses in total to the consultation. Of those, none was from members of the public.

It is also disappointing to note that only 25 of the 47 fire and rescue authorities in England considered this matter to be worthy of their comment. We expect to publish an analysis of the responses during August—this will necessarily be done during the Recess.

We have made it clear that any proposal to expand the scope of the charging regime, as detailed in the February document, would be the subject of a fresh consultation. That might, of course, make the other 22 fire and rescue authorities wake up to something that affects them.

I hope that I have given a fairly considered response to each of the amendments. As I say, the results of the consultation exercise will be published and, if need be. we will go through a further one later this year.

Lord Hanningfield:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I still think that there is little to be desired from the whole process of charging and consultation. None of us wants to charge for services that should be supplied to the public, but there are elements that could help the fire service when it provides services for which the public would not mind paying. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the fire authorities should publish that, and I hope that the Government will encourage it. It would clarify the position on charging as far as the public were concerned.

We thanked the Minister for his concession of at least two years for authorities that were doing things that made a profit and helped their budgets. Obviously, if they lost that profit, the taxpayer would have to replenish the budget, which is surely not desirable.

There needs to be absolute clarity about charging and trading. We will study the Minister's answers, and in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 33 to 35 not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton:

My Lords, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before 8.33 p.m.