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Devon and Somerset Fire Service

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2008

1. What discussions she has had with the Devon and Somerset fire service on its funding settlement; and if she will make a statement. (188682)

The Devon and Somerset fire service met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), on 5 December. It also submitted written representations, and we carefully considered those alongside all the other representations that we received before making our decisions on the local government finance settlement.

The Minister will be aware that the Devon and Somerset fire service estimates that it is £2 million worse off because of the change to the pensions for firemen, although that was meant to be cost-neutral. The Government Actuary’s Department came up with a figure of £1.2 million, although the way in which it was calculated means that we are talking about £174,000 less than even that amount. The Under-Secretary has indicated to the authority that he estimates that it was short-changed by £440,000. Will the Minister for Local Government provide all the estimates calculated for Devon and Somerset’s funding, so that we can decide whether we are short of £1 million, £174,000 or—

The changes to which the hon. Gentleman refers were designed to smooth out the cost peaks and troughs that fire authorities previously faced year to year in paying for pensions. The Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service has been quids in as a result of this arrangement, whereby the national Government step in to make good any shortfall over the past couple of years. Of course I am happy to examine the case that the Devon and Somerset authority has offered—we did so in the run-up to the finance settlement and we will do so again if it has fresh information—but I have studied the figures, and I think that the balance of advantage lies with that service.

Would the Minister be prepared to meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament from Devon and Somerset to examine next year’s settlement, because every year the authority has to consider cutting operational capacity, as it has done in this year’s budget round, and that cannot be in anyone’s interest?

Of course I will meet a delegation of MPs—I am always prepared to do so. I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman, but nor should his own fire and rescue service. Far from being hard done by in the next financial year, and unlike 10 fire and rescue services whose settlements are on the floor for such authorities, Devon and Somerset’s settlements for the next three years of the period are significantly above the floor. The authority is thus hardly hard done by in the terms that he argues.

Clearly the three-year settlement is disappointing. The Minister will be aware of the disquiet felt by many fire authorities in the south-west about the financial implications of the FiReControl project. It is felt not least in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), where there is near universal opposition to the closure of the tri-service centre in Quedgeley as a result of a new FiReControl centre in Taunton. The regional FiReControl project is three-years late, and 14 times over budget and still heading north. Will the Minister for Local Government give the House a firm undertaking that the cost overruns on the project will not mean fewer firefighters and poorer pensions in the south-west and throughout the country?

First, the hon. Gentleman misrepresents some significant opinion about the attitude to the FiReControl project in the west country. Secondly, the FiReControl project is designed to strengthen the service’s capacity to deal with all sorts of pressures and challenges that it may face in the future. Far from demonstrating the case against that initiative, the summer floods reinforced the case for making just such a move. We will do our best to ensure that the implementation of the FiReControl programme across the country proceeds according to its current time scale and budget. That is what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be doing, and I shall give him any support that he needs.