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Fire And Emergency Services (London)

Volume 201: debated on Friday 20 December 1991

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

1.57 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise some important matters of concern regarding the provision of fire and emergency services in our capital city. At this time of year, and with terrorists making increasing use of fire bombs, our minds are drawn to the work of the emergency services. We all reject strongly the activities of those terrorists, and I am sure that the whole House and the country would like to pay tribute to the dedicated work done, day in, day out, by our fire fighters, ambulance staff and police officers to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. No doubt we should all like to wish all those staff, and others working over the holiday period, a happy Christmas and a prosperous new year.

The broadening of our consciousness of the fire brigade in London has been well served by London Weekend Television's excellent programme "London's Burning". Apparently, the programme is technically very accurate and it is advised on at every stage by expert fire fighters. Its only slight fault is that it does not quite do justice to the length of time that fire fighters spend in training and keeping fit between calls. Keeping up to date with the latest developments in every area, our fire fighters truly are professionals, and have little time left to sit around between calls drinking tea.

I am privileged to have the fire authority headquarters based in my constituency and I propose first to concentrate on four issues affecting the London fire brigade.

First, the London fire and civil defence authority has a statutory duty under the Fire Services Act 1947 to provide a fire-fighting service. The Act also gives discretionary powers for the authority to use its resources to provide other special emergency rescue services. Those emergency rescue services, for which no extra Government funding is available, cover such things as road traffic accidents, people shut in lifts, people locked in and out of premises, the emergency flooding of premises and cats stranded up trees.

In the first quarter of this year, the fife brigade attended 18,700 such calls, of which more than 1,000 were motoring accidents. Surely it is absurd that such essential services, which form 40 per cent. of the work of the London fire brigade, should be considered as discretionary and be exempted from the funding formula.

In the past five years, the mainstream work of fire fighting has increased by 7 per cent. and the funding has followed that marginal increase. Over the same period, those other essential emergency services have increased by over 70 per cent., with not an extra penny from the Government.

Secondly, I challenge the Minister to defend the Government's inaction in dealing with the capital needs of London's fire brigade. Because of massive demographic changes in the capital, the authority has had to increase and relocate many of its services. As many fire stations are in buildings that are historic and listed, those changes have meant significant alterations in station usage. The Government have failed entirely to consider the costs of the statutory duties of the authority to maintain those buildings in line with listed building standards.

Similarly, the Government's so-called commitment to the equality of women in the work-place is shown again to be lip service as, in funding the fire authority, the Government ignore the costs that must be borne by the authority—and rightly so—in altering many stations to accommodate the increasing number of women fire fighters.

The costs of developing and introducing new technology and equipment designed to save increasingly more lives are still not met by the Government in working out the funding. As a result, we risk losing our position as a world leader in life saving.

Thirdly, I come to the topical subject of pension funds, though I shall avoid the temptation to make comparisons with the problems facing the many Mirror Group and Maxwell Communication Corporation pensioners. Fire authorities are statutorily obliged to meet pension obligations for fire fighters from their revenue budgets. Between 1986 and 1990, when the Conservatives, with Liberal support, spawned the administration of the London fire and civil defence authority, more than 600 front-line fire fighters were cut from the establishment.

While today's revenue budget is led by the new, smaller number of fire fighters, the authority still has to pay for the pensions of the former staff. That pensions expenditure is predicted to rise between 1988 and 1993 from £13 million to a massive £34 million, which would account for about 14 per cent. of the authority's revenue budget, inevitably at the expense of other areas, such as training.

Fourthly, on fire cover, I challenge the Minister to respond to the outdated and discredited system of fire risk assessment which the Government have refused to address. It may not be well known that London's first fire bridges were established by insurance companies to protect the buildings that they covered. Since then, fire risk assessment on which basis fire fighters and engines are distributed and from which their funding is determined has been based almost exclusively on buildings and not on people. Those categories of A risk—the most intense—down to D risk are long overdue for replacement. The Government have failed to take the advice of many senior fire professionals to agree to such a fundamental review quickly. Although those assessed risk categories provide only minimum standards, I am pleased that the London fire brigade provides a service that is far higher than that bare minimum. I compliment the commitment of the members of the London fire authority, led by Councillor Tony Ritchie and Chief Fire Officer Brian Robinson, and the constructive co-operation of the trade unions involved in that service. Their commitment is extremely high.

Funding is based only on the minimum cover, even though the London fire brigade provides a service that is far higher than the bare minimum. A system that provides only for a minimum service is selling the people of London short. It relies on the extra dedication and commitment of individual fire fighters. A parallel can be drawn with the work and commitment of the ambulance service, and I shall allow for a short intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) specifically on that.

A more co-ordinated approach is needed to the resource allocations of the fire brigade. My hon. Friends and I look forward to the introduction of a Greater London authority to work with the fire service in performing a critical co-ordinating role, with the arrival in the next six months of a Labour Government.

I wish to give the Minister plenty of time to respond and I challenge him to answer the following points. When will the Government agree to extending the fire authorities' statutory responsibility to include other emergency rescue work with the necessary funding to pay for it? When will they provide suitable funding, through the basic credit approval system, which at present does not even keep pace with inflation, to undertake the essential building programme and fully keep up with the increase in the number of women fire fighters and ever-developing technology?

When will the Government agree to a standard spending assessment to meet unavoidable pension realities? When will they allow fire authorities to operate proper investment pension funds? When will they agree to a fire assessment system that takes proper account of people rather than just buildings?

As those issues and others that will be raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North cannot be dealt with fully in a short debate, will the Minister arrange for a full debate on this important subject in the new year in Government time and for a statement to be made? When will the Government stop running away from their responsibilities properly to fund emergency services for the people of London?

2.7 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) and the Minister for allowing me to contribute briefly to this debate. I wish to talk specifically about another aspect of London's emergency services. Although I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend said about the fire service, I wish to speak about the ambulance service.

May I state for the record—it is in the Register of Members' Interests—that I am sponsored in the House by the National Union of Public Employees, which has a significant membership among the London ambulance service.

The ambulance service is vital for Londoners. It demands and receives enormous dedication and conscientiousness from its staff. They have shown their commitment for many years, working in awful circumstances. They suffer greatly at present because of understaffing, inadequate vehicles and an unaccountable service and many of them do not live to enjoy a long retirement because the stress of the job often causes premature death. They suffer from the stress of the job and from the stress of being called out in an emergency and not knowing whether they will see a fairly minor accident in the home or a terrible tragedy on the roads or railways in which they will be asked to pull children's bodies out of the wreckage. That is the lot of the ambulance workers, who are extremely dedicated people.

The ambulance service was efficiently and accountably run by the Greater London council. The service was taken away from the council in the health service reorganisation of 1974 and was put under South West Thames regional health authority. It is now attempting to make itself into a trust.

There is the ludicrous position of the director of the London ambulance service seeming to be remarkably reluctant to meet Members of Parliament, never mind replying to correspondence from Members of Parliament concerning their legitimate fears about the ambulance service. When I met him 18 months ago, he told me that much of the ambulance service was now commercially confidential because of the tendering system. It is nonsense for the director of a major service on which the people of London rely to tell a Member of Parliament, "Sorry, I cannot answer your questions because of commercial confidentiality." That is wholly wrong.

The London ambulance service has also managed to get rid of £3 million on a computer system that does not work, and that is now the subject of an inquiry. A further £3 million is to be spent on a replacement. The 14th report of the Public Accounts Committee was heavily critical of the performance of the London ambulance service, and rightly so. The improvements that the Committee and London Members have looked for simply have not happened.

I will give a few facts before giving the Minister sufficient time to reply. I recognise that as a Home Office Minister, it will be difficult for him to answer all the questions about the ambulance service. I hope that he will be good enough to pass on what I have said to his colleagues in the Department of Health who should be able to answer the points.

In 1990, as an average, 76 per cent. of all emergency 999 calls to the London ambulance service were answered within 14 minutes. The national Orcon standard requires a response time of 95 per cent. within 14 minutes. For the first quarter of 1991, 66 per cent. of such calls were met within 14 minutes, so the situation got worse. In the second quarter, the figure improved slightly to 73 per cent. and in the third quarter, 68 per cent. were answered within 14 minutes. There are 2,000 calls per day, so that means that more than 600 emergency calls a day are not met within the nationally required times.

The ambulance service may reasonably say that the problem is a product of traffic and other factors. It is indeed a product of traffic, but it is also a product of inadequate vehicles, insufficient staff and insufficient funding for the service. Last weekend, 14 and 15 December, was a terrible weekend for weather. There was heavy fog, icy roads and very dangerous conditions. It is in just such circumstances that the ambulance service is more in demand than at any other time, yet one fifth of the vehicles were off the road because they did not work, because there were no drivers for them or because they were too old.

Does my hon. Friend agree that not only are the vehicles generally greatly inadequate, but the new vehicles that are being forced on some areas are inadequate in terms of safety for the ambulance personnel driving them? That is especially true in my own area of Brixton.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. The financial problems of the ambulance service are serious. I understand that some vehicles are now being forced to run for 16 hours a day, which means that there is insufficient time for basic maintenance and repair work on them. The vehicles are being run into the ground.

In reply to an Adjournment debate on 18 April 1991, which was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health announced expenditure of £3·5 million on new vehicles, as reported in column 672 of Hansard. Only 60 have been bought and none has been bought since April. They are not safe vehicles in the opinion of members of the National Union of Public Employees and of the Confederation of Health Service Employees who drive them. They held a meeting yesterday with the Health and Safety Executive so that they could express their concerns. They have two major concerns. First, there is no bulkhead door between the cab and the back of the ambulance. That is dangerous for the person in the back, because in the areas that my hon. Friend and I represent, tragically, attacks on ambulance personnel are common. I deplore and condemn those attacks, but they do occur as a result of drug-taking, drunkenness and so on.

Secondly, the vehicles have only one stretcher space. Therefore, at a stroke, the purchase of new vehicles has halved the ambulance service's capacity to carry emergency cases. In addition, the transmission system has been changed from automatic gearboxes, which give a smoother run. are easier to drive and are better and safer for patients, to manual gearboxes, which are much more difficult to drive and give passengers a rougher ride. That is important to patients with spinal injuries.

We are approaching Christmas when there is, tragically, great demand on the ambulance service because the number of accidents increases as a result of drunken driving and so on. I hope that the ambulance service gets through. I hope that it copes. I know that the staff will do their best. I wish that the Government would do their best to fund the ambulance service properly and that the senior management would do their best to get decent vehicles so that the dedication of the staff can be properly rewarded.

I am tired of hearing complaints after every major festival and holiday in London that the ambulance service could not cope. The ambulance service could cope if it were given the tools with which to do the job properly. We salute the quality of the staff every time there is a major disaster. Let us recognise that dedication and ensure that they have proper equipment to do the job and that we have an accountable service in London once again.

2.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) on securing this debate and I am grateful to her for raising the important subject of the provision of fire cover in London. I join her and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) in paying tribute to the vital work done by the emergency services in London.

This is a timely occasion for a debate on the fire service in view of the fact that the London fire and civil defence authority has just reached decisions on the future provision of fire cover in the capital and put forward for the approval of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary proposals for reductions in the number of fire-fighting appliances at certain stations and for the closure of Sanderstead fire station.

The statutory responsibility for providing an effective and efficient fire brigade in London, and thus the responsibility for assessing fire risks and the deployment of resources to meet them, rests with the authority. However, my right hon. Friend is concerned to ensure that fire authorities comply with the nationally recommended minimum standards of fire cover mentioned by the hon. Lady to which I shall come later.

The fire service in England and Wales costs more than £1 billion per year. Like other local government services, it is funded through revenue support grant and non-domestic rates, which together make up some 85 per cent. of fire authorities' expenditure, and the community charge. The Government are concerned to ensure that the way in which those sums are spent represents good value for money.

That is why, in 1985, the Home Office invited all fire authorities in England and Wales to review the fire risks in their areas and the resources necessary to meet them. The chief fire officer of the London fire brigade completed his review earlier this year. The proposals in the review were given extensive publicity in an extremely thorough consultation exercise by the authority with the public, London borough councils, adjacent county councils and other relevant organisations. The authority has kept the fire service trade unions, the National Association of Fire Officers and the Fire Brigades Union closely in touch with developments since the review began.

If my right hon. Friend is to give his approval to those proposals, he will need to be satisfied, on the professional advice of Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, that the London fire and civil defence authority will continue to meet the nationally recommended minimum standards of fire cover. He will not be prepared to agree to any reductions that would reduce standards of fire cover below those agreed minima.

Proposals to close fire stations or to reduce the number of operational fire fighters or fire-fighting appliances can raise important and sensitive local issues. The concerns expressed while the report has been developing and the implications of some proposals for standards of fire cover are well understood by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary who will take those factors into account when deciding whether to approve the authority's proposals. He will also want to allow adequate time for hon. Members to make further representations to him now that the authority has formally submitted its proposals.

Patterns of fire risk change over time and it is important regularly to reassess them to ensure that fire authorities continue to meet their statutory responsibilities and do so efficiently. I understand the concern about the implications of the recommended changes, but the Home Secretary will not approve reductions that would result in unacceptable levels of public protection.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall spoke about financing. The fire service in England and Wales costs well over £1 billion each year and the London fire and civil defence authority costs more than £200 million annually. We are anxious to ensure that the fire service, like any other public service, operates efficiently and with sufficient resources. That means ensuring that the resources are accurately targeted to where they are most needed. Fire service resources are largely determined by fire risks, and patterns of risk change. Therefore, the deployment of fire service resources needs to be reviewed regularly.

The hon. Lady complained about capital restraints on the fire service in London. The fire service share of total local authority standard spending in England in 1992–93 will be 8 per cent. higher than in the present year. The London fire and civil defence authority standard spending assessment for 1991–92 is £226·8 milion. Its provisional standard spending assessment next year is £242·4 million, an increase of 6·9 per cent. That compares with an increase last month in fire fighters' pay, which is the main constituent of fire authorities' expenditure, of 5·6 per cent. The increase for next year is on top of an increase of over 16 per cent. for this year. Both those increases have been above the rate of inflation and demonstrate the Government's desire to have an effective fire service.

Decisions on the total provisions for the fire service took account of additional burdens for fire prevention. The hon. Lady specifically mentioned non-fire services. Such services are provided at the discretion of the fire authority and the hon. Lady was right to say that the SSA distribution formula does not include an indicator for them. The overall resources provided for the fire service allow non-fire services to be carried out extremely well. Authorities may charge for those services, but obviously do not do so when such services are carried out in the course of attending an emergency.

The hon. Lady spoke about pension increases. That cost is not peculiar to the London authority. We are aware of concern that provision for expenditure on pensions is increasing at a rate higher than that of inflation. Additional pensions burdens were taken into account in reaching decisions on the fire service share of total standard spending. While the Government are always prepared to consider sensible proposals for changes to the standard spending assessment distributional mechanism, we are not convinced that a special indicator for pensions is yet necessary.

On capital expenditure, the London fire and civil defence authority's basic credit approval for 1992–93 was issued yesterday. It is £8·2 million, 4·1 per cent. above the approval for the current year of £7·9 million. Requirements for additional resources for fire service capital provision have to compete in each year's public expenditure survey with other new requirements, and at a time of continuing pressure on public expenditure it was not possible to allocate any more than this to the London authority. I am aware that the authority hopes to spend more than this next year and increase its capital programme in some of the ways mentioned by the hon. Lady. Basic credit approvals are not the only source of provision for capital expenditure. The authority may decide, in the light of its priorities, to contribute to capital provision from revenue expenditure, and it may use a proportion of any capital receipts.

We propose also, subject to the views of local authority associations, to issue £5 million additional provision nationally next year, in the form of supplementary credit approvals—for the specific purpose of expenditure on replacement mobilisation and communications systems.

The hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned risk categories, which were most recently assessed by the joint committee on standards of fire services in 1985. Buildings and complexes that are particularly at risk can be designated special risks, commanding initial attendance higher than that appropriate for the surrounding area.

There has been a particular request for a change in the formula for urban C risk. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities put to the Home Office a proposal that areas currently designated C risk should be divided into urban C and rural C—both with enhanced attendance standards, but with a requirement for an initial attendance of two appliances to fires in areas of urban C, as against the current requirement for one appliance in eight to 10 minutes.

That proposal would entail substantial additional resources for the fire service in England and Wales. We are considering that proposal, but the 1985 joint committee concluded that a formal split of the C risk category into two new categories was unnecessary, as 82 per cent. of fire brigades in England and Wales have a policy of mobilising two appliances to property fires in areas of C risk. However, the question of risk level is currently under examination.

The hon. Member for Islington, North raised the important question of the London ambulance service. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged in this remarks that the Department of Health is in the lead, but I admire the agility with which he properly used the debate to raise the subject. Although the hon. Gentleman very politely gave me notice of the various issues that he might raise in this debate, I had little time in which to acquaint myself with them. I will, however, do as the hon. Gentleman asked, and draw his remarks to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when the London ambulance service board was established in 1990, it was confronted by a number of serious and pressing issues, including low staff morale following an industrial dispute, acute staff shortages, high absenteeism, top-heavy management, poor industrial relations, an absence of reliable and meaningful management information, and failure to meet recommended standards of service.

To improve what the London ambulance service itself regarded as a totally unacceptable call answering problem in central ambulance control, the board took steps to improve staffing and the system for dealing with emergency calls. It commissioned a computer-aided dispatch system to speed the handling of and response to emergency calls, and new staffing rotas were arranged to reflect known peak demand times. Management introduced various initiatives to combat absenteeism, and to improve recruitment and retention levels in the service generally. Sickness levels have fallen by nearly 2 per cent. since December 1990, and a further 19 control room staff are being recruited.

I repeat that I will ensure that the many points raised by the hon. Gentleman on which I cannot comment will reach the ears of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Vauxhall for making possible this debate, and to the hon. Member for Islington, North for extending it.

It being half-past Two o'clock the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Broadcasting

Ordered,

That Mr. Nicholas Baker, Sir Anthony Grant, Mr. Bruce Grocott, Mr. David Harris, Kate Hoey, Mr. Robert G. Hughes, Mr. Charles Kennedy, Mr. John MacGregor, Mr. Humfrey Malins, Mr. Merlyn Rees and Mr. John P. Smith be members of the Select Committee on Broadcasting.—[Mr. Neil Hamilton.]