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Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

I am grateful, Mr. Pope, for the opportunity to bring this important matter to the House’s attention today.

I am aware that the Minister recently met the head of Norfolk fire and rescue service and Norfolk county council cabinet members. Despite that meeting, several serious concerns affecting my constituency and others in Norfolk were raised during my recent visit to the service’s headquarters.

I want to put on record the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has indicated his support for my concerns, which also affect his constituents, but, alas, he cannot be here today. I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), and I acknowledge the fact that the service’s headquarters is in his constituency. I pay tribute to the chief fire officer, Richard Elliott, and the county council cabinet member with responsibility for fire and community safety, Richard Rockcliffe, and thank them for their time in keeping me briefed.

Many of the challenges facing Norfolk fire service have been brought to my attention, and relate specifically to the rural environment in which it operates. Of the 41 fire stations servicing the county, only two are staffed entirely by full-time firefighters, and a further four are staffed by a combination of full-time crew and retained firefighters. All the county’s remaining 35 stations are crewed entirely by retained firefighters. In all the county’s rural areas the service relies wholly on retained crews.

As the Minister knows, retained duty firefighters respond to calls on a needs-only basis, and are often employed full-time in other occupations. They are trained to deal with the same range of incidents as their full-time counterparts. As the statistics show, Norfolk’s fire and rescue service would be nothing without them. The problem lies in recruitment and availability of retained firefighters. Provision of cover is proving a huge challenge, leaving some rural areas insufficiently covered. Outwell and Downham Market in my constituency are particularly badly affected. The chief fire officer told me that it is not unusual to have 10 fire engines unavailable during the working day due to crewing and availability problems. In Norfolk, difficulty in recruiting retained firefighters stems in part from the evolution of rural industries and agriculture.

With mechanisation and modernisation, fewer people are employed on the land, and businesses have moved away or closed down, thus reducing the pool of suitable people whom the fire service can target for retained duty. Employers are increasingly disinclined to give employees the necessary time to carry out their duties, not least because of the cost and inconvenience of unplanned or lengthy absences by members of the work force. Does the Minister agree that it is time to provide employers with proper incentives to release staff to work as firefighters instead of continuing to rely on their good will? Few outside the fire service understand how important the retained duty system is for our safety. They do not appreciate that by signing up they could save the life of a family member, friend or neighbour. How does the Minister respond to calls from the fire service for a national campaign to raise awareness of the system and build better links with business?

The service’s funding is important. Norfolk does not have a precepting fire authority and cannot raise money through council tax. The county council funds fire and community protection alongside other key services. It received an acceptable settlement this year, but the challenges of delivering adequate services across a vast rural area remain. The fire service is, of course, a priority, but so are adult social care, education, planning and transport infrastructure, to name but a few. Extra pressures on both the fire service and the council include a growing elderly population, and an increase in the financial burden of dealing with flooding and associated demands for water rescue.

On the challenges of the increasingly elderly population, at a recent meeting the council’s fire and community protection review panel confirmed that fire deaths in Norfolk are almost entirely of elderly people or those living alone. That is a bleak statistic. Prevention is vastly more effective and less dangerous or costly than dealing with a fire. The service is doing what it can to educate and inform people of the risks of house fires.

Building regulations require mains-operated smoke alarms to be fitted to all new dwellings or dwellings that are substantially altered, but there is no law to require people to fit smoke detectors in their homes in other circumstances. I welcome the television campaign to persuade the nation that smoke alarms should be fitted in every home and regularly maintained, and I have used my columns in constituency newspapers to press home that point. Does the Minister agree that it is a great pity that Norfolk fire service has a large stock of smoke alarms, which the Government have supplied, that it cannot afford to fit, because the cost of that work in a rural area is prohibitive? Will the Minister give careful consideration to funding a one-off campaign to fit those smoke alarms, rather than leaving them to collect dust in a warehouse?

The assistance of Norfolk fire service in water rescue is increasingly demanded and expected, although it has no statutory duty or funding to carry out this work. Coastal and inland flooding is becoming frequent, and in my constituency flooding in the Norfolk fens shuts roads with worrying regularity. The service does not have specialist water rescue teams in place, but there is an urgent need for them. I understand that a national review of the possibility of establishing water rescue as a new statutory duty has been undertaken. If flood water rescue were a statutory duty, Norfolk county council would receive the investment that it desperately needs to provide extra resources to the fire service for water rescue equipment and training. The county council has provided some money from an already limited budget, but the fire service is looking for greater Government commitment of money and recognition that this is a serious issue that must be addressed. I hope that the Minister will give favourable consideration to that today because I am sure that he understands the problems facing us not just in Norfolk, but throughout the country.

I come to the plans for regionalisation. The Government are planning to close the Hethersett centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, and to move control to Cambridgeshire in a value-for-money exercise. Norfolk county council is concerned that the cost of that move is spiralling out of control. The cutting-edge technology used at Hethersett is the envy of firefighters throughout the country, and it seems crazy that the Government want to close the centre and to move control to Cambridgeshire. I cannot believe that that regionalisation is anything but a cost-saving measure, and I am extremely concerned that the high level of delivery that we currently receive in Norfolk could be jeopardised. Will the Minister assure us today that regionalised control will not lead to a decline in the efficiency and technological capabilities of the service? Will he also assure us that value-for-money measures will not be pursued at the expense of the quality of service provision?

At the start of this year, for the third consecutive year the Audit Commission concluded that Norfolk county council continues to provide a “good” well-performing fire authority. However, inspectors also recognised that pressure on the county council’s budget was challenging an already low-spending service. Norfolk fire and rescue service has already met efficiency savings above national targets. I urge the Minister to assure the service that it will not be penalised for its own efficiency in terms of future funding.

Finally, has the Minister had any discussions with ministerial colleagues from the Treasury or Department for Transport on the issue of rebated fuel for emergency service vehicles? A report published by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in December 2005 states:

“vehicles used by the emergency services, armed forces, and local authorities are not automatically entitled to use such rebated fuel”.

Significant expenditure is committed to fuel costs for specialist vehicles, such as fire engines. With recent fuel price increases, that cost demands an ever growing proportion of the total budget. Yet, as with other emergency services, the fire service is prohibited from using so-called red diesel, on which there is a beneficial rate of duty. Does it make sense for taxpayers’ money to be given to the fire service to buy diesel for fire engines when tax and duty will then go back to the Treasury? Will the Government reconsider the case for specialist equipment, such as fire tenders, so that the tax saving can be committed to front-line emergency service cover—not only in Norfolk, but across the country?

Norfolk fire and rescue service does an excellent job in difficult circumstances and I hope that the Minister will see it in his gift to ensure that that service continues in a more efficient way that suits the population better. Will the Minister give assurances to my constituents that performance will be maintained and that they will not be put at risk because they live in rural areas that are costly and more difficult to serve?

I will make a very brief contribution. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) on securing the debate. He highlights an important issue, of which the public are not widely aware. The general public do not necessarily realise, although you may be aware, Mr. Pope—as is anyone working as a retained firefighter and their employers—that many of the people who put their lives at risk and help to protect the public are teachers, business people, factory workers, hospital porters, bricklayers and agricultural workers. They protect the public and are firefighters on the side and they do so on an exceptionally good value-for-money basis. It costs £1 million to crew-up a fire engine if it is serviced by full-time personnel and only about £70,000 if it is crewed by retained firemen. Does the Minister think that that ratio is sufficiently startling? I think that it is and that it is exceptional value for money. It might be worth the Government going the extra mile—or raising their game—to protect the retained fire service.

The figures that my hon. Friend quoted demonstrated that it is not unusual to have 10 fire engines unavailable in Norfolk at any one time because the available crew is absent for understandable reasons, such as pressures on employers who are unable to let people go because of the nature of modern employment and how it has changed. That suggests that the system is beginning to break down. If it were just one or two unavailable engines, it would be fair enough, but 10 fire engines are unavailable on a regular basis, which suggests that the Government need to do more in terms of recruitment, advertising and campaigns to encourage participation in the retained fire service. Otherwise, the Minister will have to bite the bullet and pursue the alternative, which would cost him and his colleagues a great deal more money.

My hon. Friend mentioned regionalisation, to which there are advantages and disadvantages. I have heard people talking about that issue from both perspectives. Like my hon. Friend, I want reassurances from the Minister that if regionalisation goes ahead and the control centre in Hethersett is closed, the quality of the service will be maintained.

Finally, the subject of water rescue deserves a mention. Most people find it extraordinary that there is not a statutory duty on the fire services to rescue people. We all know about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at sea, but the fact that there is no statutory duty in relation to our inland waterways suggests—I know that this is not the case—that the Government think that protecting the public if they fall in a river is not sufficiently important to be backed by the force of the law. That is not necessarily the Government’s position and I invite the Minister to respond to that point and say what their position is. Surely, if it is worth protecting the public, it is worth doing so whether they are on land or in a river. We should not end up in the ludicrous situation of the Health and Safety Executive threatening to prosecute fire services because a retained firefighter standing on the edge of a river bank decides to jump into a river and save somebody rather than consult the rule book first.

I thank the hon. Members for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) for their contributions to this important debate. I put on record the fact that good and admirable work is done by not only the fire service in Norfolk—the hon. Gentlemen know about that work—but fire services right across the country. I congratulate those involved on the recent settlement, which over the next three years will amount to 8.7 per cent., 6 per cent., and 5.3 per cent. That will stand the county’s authority in good stead to invest in the fire and rescue service. The hon. Gentlemen can correct me if I am wrong, but the figures that I have on the strength of the local fire service in Norfolk show that numbers have risen from 430 in 2001-02 to 479 in 2005-06, which implies that the local authority takes the matter of protecting local residents seriously.

Over the next three years, the Government are investing in not only a substantial settlement, but the new dimension programme, of which the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk will be aware, given that he talked about flooding. Across the country, £200 million will be put into new dimension equipment, including the high-volume pumps that were used effectively in the floods of last summer, not least in my constituency of Gloucester. The pumps were also mobilised to the eastern coast when we had the recent surges and threats of flooding, which thankfully did not materialise.

I know that the new dimension equipment that Norfolk has received includes a high-volume pump, an urban search and rescue unit and the funding of—this might sound amusing but it is very important—a search dog, which will be based in Norfolk. There will also be an instant response unit for mass decontamination and four prime mover vehicles, which I announced earlier this year. Hopefully that will make a real difference to equipping Norfolk for not just the challenges that we have traditionally expected the fire and rescue service to face, but new challenges.

Does the Minister accept that Norfolk has special circumstances? We have suffered for a long time because flood problems that have been alleviated upstream have been pushed down to Norfolk. Does he also accept that Norfolk is a large area in which to operate one pump? If there is a problem on the coast, it cannot be used in the fens—much of my constituency—which is at sea level.

The hon. Gentleman is more aware of the local geography than me. I was about to come on to that issue, as well as the importance of fire control and where that will be of real benefit to Norfolk. I will discuss those matters in a few moments, but first I shall respond to a couple of important points that were made about the retained duty service.

It was only a few months into my time as the Minister responsible for fire and rescue services that we had the tragic events in Warwick. As hon. Members will know, four men lost their lives, all of whom were retained firefighters. I was quite disturbed by some of the reporting in the media. I know that the hon. Members for South-West Norfolk and for South Norfolk will agree that it is important for us to say that retained firefighters are in no way either part-time or in the second division. They are incredibly important to our fire and rescue service and they do a terrific job in rural areas, in particular.

I meet regularly with representatives of retained firefighters. I quite recently met Adrian Hughes, the president of the Retained Firefighters Union, and its general secretary, John Barton, to take on board many of the considerations. We have also been involved in a number of reviews, including to look at some of the issues that the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk raised around business and business support. The results of the research have shown that employers are pretty keen and enthusiastic about the work of the retained firefighters. I think that there is more that we can do as a Department, in our relationship with these businesses, to get across the message of just how much we value those people and how important it is that businesses allow these retained firefighters to do their work in local communities. I will impress on my colleagues and officials in my Department that retained firefighters do an incredibly important job.

With regard to fire control, the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that a lot of complex technology already exists in Norfolk. Such technology will allow us to use satellite navigation systems to find the closest fire engine to an incident and to trace the incident, whether it has been reported from a mobile or a land line. Norfolk has been a trail-blazer for us with the fire control project, which is a £360 million national project to ensure that all 46 fire and rescue services have the same kinds of technology. Fire control is continuing to develop.

Just a few weeks ago, I was working with a key agency: the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company. Technology is moving on and will provide Norfolk with even more technical support than ever before. It is important to get across the fact that there are two areas from which Norfolk will benefit, although it does not benefit from them at the moment. My constituency experienced bad flooding, and despite the fantastic work that was done in our tri-service centre, rescue workers were overwhelmed by the number of calls. Those calls had to be taken by other control centres around the country. Because those control centres are all on separate networks at the moment, the calls could not be automatically relayed back to the gold command in Gloucester. Some of the calls ended up being faxed in on pieces of paper, which is not satisfactory for a 999 system.

Under fire control and the new control centre, which will serve the east of England and the rest of the country, nine regional control centres will all be on one system and will all back each other up. The system will therefore be much more resilient. If there is exceptional demand in Norfolk, or anywhere else, the new system will enable all regional controls, which will be networked to each other, to talk to the control room in the hon. Gentleman’s county.

The hon. Gentleman understandably says that this should not be about savings. He is quite right. It should be about technology, resilience and saving people’s lives, and that is what it is about. However, it will also result in savings in the order of 25 per cent.

May I go back to the point about an overwhelming number of calls coming into a fire service? As things currently stand, if there is a demand for a lot of services in Norfolk, Norfolk fire service is quite within its rights to call upon the facilities of other services. However, I do not understand how the Minister’s nine regional control centres differ from what we have at the moment and how that makes the system more efficient. It would be different if he was saying—I suspect that he is not—that he will man it with nine times as many people to cover the calls. I cannot understand how the system will be any better than the one that we have at the moment.

I can correct the hon. Gentleman on that. At present, we have 46 different control rooms, and very many of them are on different systems. That means that there is not the same kind of capacity if one of those control rooms receives a lot of calls. The nine regional controls will all be on the same system and will be able to back each other up and talk directly to the one that has been overwhelmed. That is a key difference. The system will be much more resilient. It will also allow for the cross-border mobilisation of an engine and will move the nearest engine to the scene of the incident. All that will provide our firefighters with the best system that this country has ever seen, and also, I believe, the best system in the world, which is what they deserve.

The hon. Members for South-West Norfolk and for South Norfolk mentioned water rescue, which is a very important issue. It is something that my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, is looking at. The issue of a statutory duty is important. Within our calculations and considerations, we must consider three points. First, we find the fire and rescue service to be a can-do service, as was the case in my constituency during the floods. We had fire and rescue services from across the country coming together and getting on with the job without the need for a duty. We must also bear in mind whether, if there is a duty in place, it will stop rescue services—whether they are from the voluntary sector, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or others—from attending and supporting the fire and rescue service, because all of a sudden, they will know that it is not their responsibility, but that of somebody else.

The Minister talks about the RNLI or whoever. At sea, one can understand what he is saying, but on our domestic waterways, who is it from the voluntary sector who he imagines will be dissuaded from turning up who otherwise would? Will we have members from the British Heart Foundation or Barnardo’s running out into the street from their shops to jump into waterways to save people?

That brings me neatly on to the third of my three points. Any agency or organisation will be within its rights to say, “Actually, it costs us money to do this. You have the statutory duty, so here is the bill.” That is another consideration that we have to take on board. Having said that—

It does not matter who it is. We are talking about circumstances that have not happened. I am trying to explain to the hon. Gentleman the considerations that it would be remiss of us not to take on board before making these judgments. Hence, Sir Ken Knight is looking into the issues around a statutory duty. We will shortly report back to the House, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to make his comments then. Sir Ken Knight’s report will be ready soon. He needs to take on board all these considerations.

The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk also talked about prevention and smoke alarms. My Department has funded about 1.3 million smoke alarms for people’s homes. I am very proud to say that such a preventative role is at the heart of what the fire and rescue service does. It is important that chief fire officers and others continue with such work because it saves lives and has got us to the position in 2008 in which we can say that we have the lowest number of fire deaths that this country has seen since 1958. The good work that is taking place in Norfolk and the rest of the country must continue. The prevention work must be seen as not an aside, but a mainstream part of the fire and rescue service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.