HL Deb 24 January 2005 vol 668 cc1099-104

8.21 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 14 December 2004, be annulled (S.I. 2004/3217).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the framework document for 2005–06 is similar to that for the previous year, but that does not mean that it does not raise significant questions, which I believe it is appropriate that the Minister should address. It is for this reason that I have prayed against the statutory instrument.

The first matter may not be one of complete surprise to the Minister as it relates to the continuation of the principle of regionalism within the organisation of the service. The electorate, as the Minister will recall, resoundingly rejected the possibility of having elected regional assemblies, where it was tested. My understanding is that the Government have to all intents and purposes come to the conclusion that regional assemblies are a dead duck. It is an important matter in terms of the fire and rescue service, since authorities have been led to believe that they had no choice but to set up regional management boards. Indeed, they were instructed to do so, well before the legislation was in place, with the threat of the Government using their statutory powers to impose such structures if they did not. Now the 2005–06 framework suggests that combining fire and rescue authorities might be achieved at a sub-regional level.

That immediately begs two questions. First, why are the Government continuing to demand a regional structure when the new wording would at least suggest that regional management boards are not now a requirement? Secondly, would it not be a sensible conclusion to reach that sub-regional structures could be constituted from local authority partnerships and/or clusters, and that regional management boards should be developed only on a voluntary basis? Will the Government be advising local authorities of this new position to enable them to revise the fire and rescue service management into smaller divisions, if they so wish?

There are two further matters that arise from the regional organisation, which appear later in the framework, which I can and will address now. The fire and rescue authorities are obliged, within this structure, to co-operate with other, emergency services, local authorities and front line responders at a local level". What is the logic of expecting a local service to be organised regionally in order to work with, front line responders at a local level", and with local authorities to which the service is already happily linked?

The framework calls for greater co-operation with police and ambulance services, but these are local services, so what is the benefit of having regional management boards running this service which is, by definition, a local service?

Why are regional management boards being instructed to draw up human resources strategies, when this should be conducted at a local level? It is clear that there will be considerable displacement of staff from control rooms, but it is anticipated that they will be absorbed into, or have the situation managed by, local authorities. Why is a regional HR strategy required?

I will address the situation regarding the FiReControl project; that is, the regional control rooms. The 2004–05 framework said that a finance working group had been set up to make recommendations on funding issues associated with the project by September 2004. The Minister will know that it did not report until November, and then there were highly restricted details on finance. How will authorities be expected to respond to this report, and the outline business case, in the light of the sparsity of information, and in a significantly reduced time-scale?

It is apparent, at paragraph 2.14, that more information has been given to the chairmen of the regional management boards, and they have been consulted on the full outline business case. The fire and rescue authorities have been consulted on the outline business case but with some commercially sensitive information excluded. How are the full boards to make decisions on financial matters when the business case will not be published until mid-2005?

I have already put down some Questions on the Firelink project. As we know, the contract signing has been delayed. Will the Minister confirm that either in the absence of such a contract, or one being signed imminently, there will be no call on fire and rescue authorities to make any contributions in this financial year, since they would now be under very short notice for their financial planning? It would also be a good opportunity here to record the considerable concerns of local government about the speed and secretiveness of the Firelink project, particularly as local government are already committed to the responsibility for bringing the computer system in within the Government's time-scale, and, presumably at its negotiated costs.

There are still some big issues around with regard to the new fire and rescue service. I have at least raised some of them here, and I hope that the Minister will answer them tonight, or if unable to deal with them all, give a written reply.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 14 December 2004, be annulled (S.I. 2004/3217).—(Baroness Hanham.)

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I feel rather at sea here, as I am surrounded by veterans of the 2004 Act. I am here as a newcomer, but I will do my best, and I will attempt to be brief, as I know that colleagues who are dealing with the Education Bill need to get on.

From these Benches we do not have the inherent problems with the regional agenda that the noble Baroness has, although our preference would be for voluntary arrangements to continue, as in many cases these are working extremely well. Where the best local option is the voluntary arrangement, we would like to see that continue. Each region has different geographical and social circumstances, so often collaboration on the exact nature of their co-operation is better left for them to decide rather than for central government to determine.

Would the noble Lord like to comment on the delays in publishing the guidelines? There have been some problems for local authorities as dates have passed without the guidance that they have been waiting for having materialised.

On the question of regional control rooms, there is concern among local authorities about the identification of callers. I know that that is particularly the case in large regions such as the south-west. People in Cornwall are very concerned that calls routed to Bristol will not be identified properly. I gather that, during the passage of the Act, a commitment was made to introduce IT systems which would identify the location of the callers. Can the Minister comment on progress on that? Given the track record of government IT programmes, I am sure he will understand why there are some concerns.

Finally, in the context of debates about reform of regulation generally, regulation of the fire authorities comes about partly through the Audit Commission and its comprehensive performance assessment but also, of course, through Her Majesty's Fire Service Inspectorate. I wonder whether the Government's review of regulation and inspection will include a rationalisation of those two roles or whether the Minister sees them as staying separate.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, I am conscious of the hour and of the urgency of other business that this House has to consider. Therefore, I wish to speak very briefly in putting some rather important points to my noble friend on the Front Bench.

The noble Baroness will excuse me if I say that, so far, I think that the Minister just needs to enter a plea of "no case to answer" so far as concerns annulling this order. This is a very important order and I want to ask some questions about the booklet which lay behind it: The Fire and Rescue Service National Framework. I take it that the copy with which I have been provided is the same booklet referred to in the order.

I was unable to attend the House for much of the period in which one might have discussed this matter, but I think I am right in saying that there has been no debate specifically on that central document since its publication. The booklet—or, at least, my copy— came out at about the same time as, or just a day or so after, the Third Reading in this House of the big Fire and Rescue Services Bill in July.

That booklet insists that the new national framework must be brought in, and, indeed, in previous debates the case has been made that some such framework is needed. But it states that it must be brought in in partnership between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the fire authorities. It states that they must work in "partnership where appropriate". I want to put to my noble friend one or two points of that kind. He may not wish to speak on them at length this evening but he may be able to deal with them in the future if it is not appropriate to do so now.

For example, there will be a new consultation in summer 2005–06. I want to ask what consultations there have been, and indeed will be, with all the stakeholders. The document refers a number of times to all the stakeholders involved in the new national framework. Therefore, I ask my noble friend whether, either today or on another suitable occasion, the Government will tell us what consultation has been, or will be, held with the trade unions representing the firefighters, who have the primary task of carrying out what will be an enormous extension of their functions under this booklet, the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 and, of course, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which is probably more important. The House will know that that Act covers an enormous area, far beyond problems of terrorism, to cover any threat of serious damage to any place or to human welfare, including illness, health, homelessness, disruption to supplies or communication or transport or disruption even of plant life in Britain. These provisions impose an enormous extension of firefighters' duties, as the booklet makes very clear. I am glad to refer to the much wider training that will be required of everyone in the fire and rescue services in this regard.

The workers involved are among the stakeholders in these important changes. The booklet admirably insists that we must have more women and more ethnic minority firefighters, but it says little about consultation with organisations which will represent the firefighters of tomorrow. It states categorically that the new regionalisation of fire control functions, for which a case has been made previously, will need "fewer staff. Indeed, that will be a delicate operation. Many think that it is surprising, in the light of the enormous extension of functions, that the service will be called upon to exercise such a reduction. Can my noble friend say anything about the expected size of the firefighting force under the document?

Firefighters do not largely figure in the booklet, except that their greatly increased duties of co-operation, as the noble Baroness rightly said, with all other emergency services, and the increased training to meet those duties, are fairly set out. But the booklet refers to "recent industrial action"—recent in 2004—where the Secretary of State will, under the new statutes, continue to have, the power to direct the use of fire and rescue facilities and assets", which will constitute, new and more effective arrangements", in the face of such industrial action.

I do not wish, either here or on any future occasion, to reopen old wounds on this subject. But the Government's position in previous debates was that the Secretary of State's new statutory powers would not affect the law as it stood on rights of industrial action. That is not what the booklet says.

Consultation on that and all other matters that affect the workforce is important—for example, in respect of the new discipline code which must be introduced. While one must welcome the intention to introduce a new law based on ACAS principles, firefighters will lose a previous right of appeal to the Secretary of State on dismissal. Consultation on aspects of appeal against dismissal, as much as what the new booklet raises regarding the new pension scheme, must, surely, be a matter for extensive consultation, including with the organisations that represent those concerned.

There is much more to be said on this matter, especially regarding the regulatory impact assessment. I am sure my noble friend will agree that it is vital that these extensive and important changes should be the subject of consultation with the workforce, from fire officers to firefighters and their unions. That is critical. There is much concern on the matter, but it may be that my noble friend can allay such concerns. I hope that he may say something about, or refer on some future occasion to, consultation with the trade unions, either when he replies or, as time is limited today, to a source where we can find details of what has happened and what is planned in that regard.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I shall try to deal with some of the points briefly and I shall write to noble Lords about those matters I do not cover. I shall first address the points made by my noble friend Lord Wedderburn because they are the easiest to answer. My noble friend has the old document. The document that we are debating tonight for approval was published in December 2004 and relates to the 2005–06 framework. My noble friend was, I believe, referring to the 2004–05 framework.

The order lists the principle differences between the 2004–05 and the 2005–06 frameworks, which are minor. The changes have taken into account responses to the consultation. There was no justification for a regulatory impact assessment on the order, because none of the interests was affected—however, I shall check on those points.

A separate consultation on the pension scheme started on 13 October and finished last week on 14 January. I can assure my noble friend that these issues are receiving full consultation. There is ongoing work on the setting up of the new Joint Industrial Council, although that is not the subject of this document.

On the points raised by the noble Baroness, I thought we were revisiting the referendum, although the points were legitimate. The referendum was lost and that is water under the bridge. There is no prospect of elected regional assemblies, but that does not mean that there is no need to do things regionally.

On Firelink, which is the new radio system, the contract will be signed around May 2005. There will be competition to ensure a value-for-money outcome. There will be no costs to fire authorities in 2004–05 or in 2005–06. The capital costs are being met by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, so there is no additional cost to fire authorities. The Government are meeting the costs of operational continuity to ensure the existing systems work in the interim. On commercial competition, it is subject to the procurement rules for fair and open competition. It is not a secretive issue.

The noble Baroness asked why the regional management boards have been asked to draw up regional human resource strategies. The reason is that there are considerable efficiencies—we made that quite clear—to be gained by co-operation and working on human resource issues, including training, recruitment and equal opportunities. That is why we have asked authorities to draw up strategies so that they can jointly achieve those efficiencies.

I was also asked why a regional structure is still being demanded. The regional management boards are required to deal with the six issues identified in the White Paper. Those are the specialist services, resilience, human resources, training, procurement and the regional control centres. So the regional approach is about helping the service to work at the most appropriate level: at local level, at district level, at sub-regional level or at regional level.

The noble Baroness asked me how we can respond to the consultation document on fire control in a short space of time. The consultation document was issued late, but the full consultation period of 12 weeks was allowed, so we did not cut any corners and there was no reduction in the consultation period.

I was also asked about how the boards are able to make decisions when the full business case will not be published until mid-2005. The outline business case does not have final figures. The full business case will be published later this year, when we shall have full and final figures. All the authorities will be consulted on the final version and they can use that to set their budgets.

I regret to say that I do not have an answer on caller location, which is a fair point as it was mentioned in the debate, nor on the joint inspection process under the regulations. I shall seek further and better particulars on those points and I shall write to all noble Lords involved in the debate.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I appreciate and welcome the fact that he has offered to respond to all questions in writing—some of them were quite detailed. For today's purposes, I thank the House for the debate and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.