It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I welcome the Minister to his position. This is certainly the first time that I have spoken in a debate with him in his current post; I do not know whether it is his first outing in the role. I am also pleased at the good turnout from Gloucestershire, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I am particularly delighted to see the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) who was of course responsible for the issues in question before recent changes. I commiserate somewhat with the present Minister for the rather poor inheritance that he has to deal with.
Local fire and rescue authorities throughout England face the prospect of having to make cuts to their fire services, or raise the amount of council tax that they must charge, if the fire control regionalisation process continues. There is no guarantee that any of the measures that are proposed will improve fire services.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
In a moment, when I have finished my opening remarks.
Major problems have been revealed with the Government’s plans for regionalisation.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, has not discussed the matter with our chief fire office, who would tell him that with respect to FiReControl, all new burdens are being met from central Government, not by local taxpayers. I am not sure where he gets his information.
It is helpful of the hon. Gentleman to raise that subject. He will know that the Government have made a commitment to meet the incremental costs only for the first three years of the project. After that, local taxpayers will bear the burden. It is a typical case of the Government putting burdens on them and covering the cost for the first few years, after which costs must be met by those local taxpayers. They have seen through it, and so have councillors—I think that hon. Members have seen through it, too. I want to make a little progress now, and then I shall be happy to take further interventions.
The Government’s proposal is to close the existing 48 control centres, and replace them with nine large regional control centres. That move was announced at the end of 2003. One of the stated objectives is to improve efficiency. A further aim, which is the one by which I am unconvinced, is increasing public safety and enhancing national resilience. The Government’s chief fire and rescue adviser, Sir Ken Knight, who will, I suspect, be oft-quoted by the Minister, as he was by the Minister’s predecessor, highlighted the excellent response of the fire services to last year’s floods, despite very difficult conditions. That is something about which we know well in Gloucestershire, as we were at the epicentre. Sir Ken has said:
“My review shows that there was a magnificent response by the Fire and Rescue Service’s firefighters, control room and support staff. Firefighters responded with their renowned professionalism and complete dedication to the challenges faced in very difficult conditions. The national coordination of the high volume pumps across the country worked well, helping to protect infrastructure and homes.”
My hon. Friend knows that I want to pay tribute to Chippenham fire service, which provided the boats for Gloucestershire during the crisis last summer, demonstrating that cross-border co-operation works extremely well at the moment without the creation of the new fire control centres that the Government propose.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his local fire service, which performed extremely well, as did the Gloucestershire fire and rescue service.
To be fair, Sir Ken went on to say that there were problems; but my contention is that those problems have different solutions, and that it would be better to consider an alternative—co-locating fire and rescue services with other emergency services. That approach has worked extremely well in Gloucestershire.
Unlike many aspects of local government, fire and rescue services are generally efficient, well run and popular with residents. They have adapted to significant change since the publication of the Bain report in 2002. The 2007 Audit Commission report on the majority of fire services would be the envy of many council chief executives. Indeed, I have already highlighted what Sir Ken Knight said about how well authorities coped with the floods last year.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about how the service coped in Gloucestershire. Its members did incredibly well with the system available to them, but the hon. Gentleman is being very partial in his quotations from the chief fire and rescue adviser’s report. He made it very clear—and the chief fire officer of Gloucestershire made it clear to the Department—that thousands of calls came in that could not be answered by the system, because the system that exists is not resilient enough. That must be changed, and Sir Ken Knight made it clear in his report.
I did, as well as quoting Sir Ken’s positive remarks, say that he acknowledged that there had been problems. My contention is that the way to deal with those is not to remove the very good locally-based systems, throw them away and set up something new and untested, but to build on what we have. In Gloucestershire, for example, we benefit from a tri-service centre at Quedgeley, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Gloucester, with the police, fire and ambulance services co-located next door to the police headquarters, which, together, operated as gold command during the emergency last year. The tri-service centre was set up in 2003 at a cost of £3 million and it enabled the emergency services and county council, and other bodies, to provide a co-ordinated response. Following last year’s events, Gloucestershire’s deputy chief fire officer Chris Griffin said in response to Sir Ken Knight’s comments:
“The arrangements between the three emergency services worked well during the summer’s flooding crisis and the working relationship was strengthened and enhanced by their close proximity.
It’s always been my view that emergency services work better when they train together and are co-located together.”
The chief constable of Gloucestershire, Dr. Tim Brain, who was the gold commander last year, defended the service and the tri-service control centre by saying:
“To lose the close inter-agency working which the centre affords the county can only have a detrimental impact upon our collective ability to effectively deal with crises affecting residents and visitors to the county.”
That does not, of course, mean that there are no improvements that can be made. However, it would be more sensible to build on what works well in what we have. I shall come back to that point.
It could only be the present Government who would choose to put the south-west fire control centre—something that is supposed to improve resilience—on a site on a flood plain that is at high risk of flooding. That was pointed out and there has been a bit of jerry-rigging on the site, putting defences around the fire control centre to protect it from flooding; but it is only the present Government who would put such a fire control centre on a flood plain when only last year we had to protect ourselves from a major flood. If we had another major flood the new fire control centre would be one of the first places to flood, and even if protections were built around it, instead of pictures of Tewkesbury abbey as an island in the middle of a flood, we would have pictures of the south-west fire control centre in exactly the same position.
I do not want to turn the debate into a dialogue, and I shall try not to intervene on the hon. Gentleman again—I shall make my own points later; but that myth has been kicking about for more than a year. The site is not in an area of flood risk. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the word “jerry”; well, there is a Jerry who is a key figure in the debate—a Conservative councillor called Jerry Willmott, in Wiltshire where there is also a tri-service centre. He made it clear that we need FiReControl to save people’s lives. It is all very well co-locating a command centre, which is something that can continue to happen—it would happen again in the city of Gloucester if a major event were to occur—but at the same time Jerry Willmott makes it clear that we must put other measures in place to save lives.
Order. That intervention was too lengthy.
Thank you, Mr. Benton. To respond—I shall not dwell on it for too long—the Environment Agency’s flood risk website shows the location of the proposed south-west fire control centre to be in an area of flood risk, on a flood plain. That does not appear to be a wise place to put a fire control centre, one of whose key purposes is to provide resilience. It is not where I would have chosen to put it.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I will not keep interrupting. Jerry Willmott, who is indeed a Conservative councillor from Wiltshire, is wholly opposed to the notion of a single fire control centre in Taunton. I have no idea where the former Minister got that information from. Jerry Willmott has gone to great lengths recently to say that we are operating under huge demand with limited resource, and to attack the Government of which the hon. Member for Gloucester is a Member.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening to put the record straight on behalf of Councillor Willmott.
There is also discontent within the fire service itself about the Government’s plans. A leaked letter from the head of the new south-west regional fire control to the former Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester, revealed widespread discontent about the Government’s plans. The head of FIReControl warned that local fire and rescue services would not voluntarily submit to the Government’s regionalisation and criticised delays in the project that led to “immense frustration” and “profound disappointment”. Ministers were told that
“confidence amongst the company directors, our hard working officers and, we suspect, fire authorities is now rock bottom.”
The cross-party Select Committee on Communities and Local Government has already sounded the alarm, saying that
“there is no evidence to suggest any overall saving…we are unconvinced that the Government can offer the assurance of maintained or improved service quality resulting from the FiReControl project”.
Another worrying sign, apart from the lack of evidence that service to the public will improve, is the escalating cost of the project. The Government belatedly published a new regional business case in July, and an updated national business case has yet to be published. Last year’s business case admitted that the costs of the project were £400 million over its original £1 billion budget. By any measure, such an escalation in cost is significant, and it indicates that the project has been poorly managed, at least financially.
The Fire Brigades Union commissioned an independent report from the Institute of Public Finance on the business case for the FiReControl project. The report forecast that between October 2006 and June 2007, the total invested in the project by the Department for Communities and Local Government would have risen £180 million from £160 million to £340 million, a rise of 112 per cent. Annual efficiency savings were forecast to fall 80 per cent., from £115 million to £23 million. The costs are rising considerably, and the forecast financial savings are falling at almost the same rate. That is incredibly worrying for taxpayers in general and for local taxpayers in Gloucestershire and the south-west specifically.
Has my hon. Friend contrasted what is proposed for our fire and rescue service with what was proposed and implemented for our ambulance service? We were told when the Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Avon ambulance services merged that we would get lots of savings and a better service. Does he not think that the Government are making exactly the same statements now, and that we will end up with a worse service in Gloucestershire that puts people’s lives at risk, which is exactly what has happened with the ambulance service?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, to which I will respond briefly, as I do not want to stray too far from the subject of this debate. He is quite right. Claims that regionalising services—taking smaller services and joining them all together—improve services and lower costs have proved over the years to be false. The example that he gives is a pertinent one, as it involves emergency response. At the time of that merger, we were all promised better services and lots of savings from efficiencies. Those savings would be ploughed into front-line services, and the public would see a better response, faster response times and an improved service.
As my hon. Friend said, that simply has not happened, and there is a great lack of confidence that it will. A significant amount of extra money now has to be invested to deliver those improved services. He has demonstrated that there is simply no evidence that there will be tremendous savings from the project to pay for it all and deliver improved services. The Government’s track record on the subject is very poor.
One last time, as others want to speak.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the need to preserve what we have at the moment, but I do not think that he would disagree that we need to invest in technology as well. Gloucestershire in particular does not have the ability to trace where its engines are. It does not have satellite navigation systems and it has no way to trace a call, let alone obtain floor plans for buildings that are burning down. If he wants to replicate the required technology in all 46 control rooms, will he commit his party to it and urge his Front Bench to commit to spending at least an extra £2 billion to do it?
The hon. Gentleman is welcome to look at the record of Gloucestershire’s fire and rescue services, which is very good and has continued to improve. They have worked incredibly closely as part of the county council to deliver excellent services. He posits a false choice. The Scottish National Party Government in Scotland, in a move largely unnoticed south of the border, has cancelled the regionalisation of Scottish fire control centres, but Scotland is still going ahead with improvements to IT, infrastructure improvements such as digital radios and GPS and interoperability with other emergency services, demonstrating that improvements in technology for resilience can still be achieved without flawed regionalisation plans.
Perhaps the UK Government might take a lesson from the SNP Government. I know that they find that painful, and sometimes the arguments in Scotland between the two parties are painful to watch, but perhaps they could accept that the SNP Government have made a sensible decision in that particular case.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I will not trouble him again. Is not the answer to the hon. Member for Gloucester proved by the Government’s large-scale IT failures, for example in patient records? Is it not much better to have smaller high-tech projects? Are not smaller units that can talk to each other in a high-tech way much more likely to produce better results than one large national scheme?
Indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right for two reasons. First, a parliamentary answer given to Lord Hanningfield in the other place about why the costs of the FiReControl project had escalated stated that a significant amount of the extra cost was due to certainty on costs arriving once the Government had awarded the IT contract. Clearly, IT and the failure to manage it properly is one of the key drivers.
The other significant reason, given the Prime Minister’s admission yesterday that the Government simply cannot be trusted not to lose personal data and information, is that we cannot trust the Government to manage large-scale IT projects or have confidence that they will be under budget and well managed. That confidence is deservedly low, and my hon. Friend is right to be sceptical about huge projects. More sensibly scaled projects are much more likely to be successful.
To return to the costs, as I said in answering the intervention by the hon. Member for Gloucester, although the Government have pledged to fund centrally the increased running costs of the regional control centres, they have pledged to do so for only three years. After that, local fire authorities are likely to have to pick up the bill. In the case of Gloucestershire, where fire services are part of the county council, other services will have to be cut to fund them or the precept on the council tax payer will have to rise. Neither of those choices will be welcome to council tax payers in Gloucestershire or elsewhere.
July’s regional business case admits that
“additional efficiencies and/or revenue generating”
will be needed. One need not look very hard to notice extra taxes in there, which are not welcome at any time, particularly in the straitened financial circumstances that we face.
Indeed, in May the Government instructed the new regional management board to deliver more sharing of functions at a regional or sub-regional level, in order to deliver efficiencies. That raises the prospect that local fire stations will face cuts that are imposed at a regional level and outside the democratic accountability of our local councillors, to pay for this flawed process.
It is not just myself and other colleagues here today that have concerns about this process. The Communities and Local Government Committee said in its 2006 report, “The Fire and Rescue Service”:
“We are unconvinced that the Government can offer the assurance of maintained or improved service quality resulting from the Fire Control project…and there is clearly widespread doubt across the FRS”—
that is, across the fire and rescue services. That is very worrying. The hon. Member for Gloucester drew attention to the importance of saving lives. However, if there is no benefit of improved service quality from these changes, it is even worse if the Government cannot offer the assurance of maintained service quality. If current service quality deteriorates, that would put lives at risk. The Communities and Local Government Committee also said in the same report:
“There is no evidence to suggest any overall saving. As a result we, like many within the FRS, do have not full confidence in the Government’s claim that Fire Control will achieve enhanced efficiency.”
As I say, that report is very worrying. The Communities and Local Government Committee obviously undertook a thorough investigation into this process and its report should cause us to pause and think again.
My final point is to examine what an alternative system might look like. Coming from Gloucestershire myself, I think that we should look at the option of having more tri-service centres to improve resilience; I am surprised that the hon. Member for Gloucester, who is a former Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, did not pay more attention to this option. As I have already mentioned, in Gloucestershire we have a tri-service centre that links all the emergency services and it played a crucial role in co-ordinating the response to last year’s floods. Such service centres could do a lot more to enhance local resilience than distant regional fire control centres.
The Government’s business case has never properly examined the merits of such joint working between emergency services. Indeed, the Government’s full business case simply says that
“tri-service controls may remain an option for the long term”.
However it seems to me that in those parts of the country that already have a tri-service centre, such as Gloucestershire—
My hon. Friend points out that Wiltshire has such a centre too. As I was saying, in those areas that already have such a centre, which would have been built at a significant cost, to get rid of those structures in order to set up something that is untried and untested, while only considering tri-service centres at a later date, seems to be very short-sighted.
The report from the Communities and Local Government Committee said:
“Greater collaboration between emergency services is crucial to enhancing civil resilience. The failure of Government to include an element of collaboration, or at least co-location, in its model of Regional Control Centres represents a missed opportunity for civil resilience.”
The Committee went on to say:
“We consider that achieving a common location for command controls for the three emergency services would facilitate greater collaboration in responding to incidents.”
I do not favour greater collaboration at regional level, but at local level it would be sensible, and that applies not just to emergency services but to many other services too. Last year, when I visited gold command at Quedgeley, to look at what had happened in Gloucestershire with the flooding, it was very noticeable that not only were the three traditional services co-located at Quedgeley but there were also other services: Her Majesty’s armed forces; representatives from the health service, including from the primary care trust; Gloucestershire county council; social services, and highways. All those services were co-located in one location and all of them were working together as a team, delivering the emergency support that was necessary during last year’s floods. It seems to me that looking at Quedgeley and learning the lessons from it would be much more sensible than carrying out this piece of vandalism to our emergency services.
In conclusion, it seems that the Government have undertaken a flawed analysis of the problem; they have come up with the wrong solution; the solution has been poorly managed, is significantly over budget and out of control, and they have ignored a potentially better solution, which is to examine collaboration and co-location of services, as we have in Gloucestershire. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that, as well as dealing with the specific points that I have made, he will be able to tell us that the Government will look at the example of the tri-service centres in Gloucestershire and elsewhere to see how collaboration and co-location has worked locally and to determine if those lessons can be learned now, before it is too late and all the expertise that has been built up in this field is just thrown away.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I would like to point out to hon. Members that this debate only lasts for an hour and a half. A lot of hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. Obviously, I will do my best to get everybody in and to let them speak. However as I have said, the debate is only one and a half hours long, so I appeal to hon. Members to try to keep their remarks as brief as possible.
Thank you, Mr. Benton, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure, too, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) on his new post as Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
I want to start by applauding, as I am sure we all would, the work of the fire and rescue services in our region, the south-west. Naturally, I know the Avon fire and rescue service better than others and I would like to pay a particular tribute to the work of its firefighters, other staff, the relevant trade unions, the members of the fire authority and the chief officers, who provide an excellent service to my constituents and to others in Avon. In the few minutes that I have, I would like to focus on a specific issue in relation to the funding of the Avon service, although I am sure that my comments will be relevant to other authorities in our region.
Before I do so, I would just like to make one point. My comments will be critical of Government in relation to the funding of my fire authority in recent times. However, it ill-behoves those who argue that we have had too much taxation and public sector borrowing in the last 11 years to turn around and pretend that they would have not cut public spending significantly. They cannot have it every which way. I congratulate the Government on what they have done in the past 11 years in their overall approach to funding public services, including fire and rescue. They have provided infinitely greater resources—let us not exaggerate: I will say “far greater resources”—than would be the case if the Conservatives were in office and, indeed, than the Conservatives provided when they were in office. I hope that that contextual comment will be taken on board by the Minister as I move into more critical mode.
I would just like to say that Avon fire authority was shocked, at every level, and I think it would be fair to say that the other nine members of the “at-floor authorities”—those authorities that had very low increases in Government grant for the current year and very low proposed increases in grant for next year—were shocked when those increases were announced. Dorset is the other at-floor authority in our region, so there are real issues for Dorset, too.
In the case of Avon, there was an increase in Government grant of a mere 1 per cent. for the current year, with proposed increases of a mere 0.5 per cent. for next year and the year after. All of us were amazed that that increase could be considered by the Government as a serious proposition. In cash terms, those increases are clearly below inflation and below the level of pay awards. Indeed, to be specific, at the time that the grant was announced, consumer prices index inflation was running at 2.1 per cent. and retail prices index inflation, on which pay deals are based, was running at 4.2 per cent. Given the events of more recent times, an inflation figure of 5 per cent. is probably a more reasonable figure with which to compare the cash increases.
As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, last week, a number of hon. Members from the 10 at-floor authorities met the chairs of their fire authorities and chief officers, and they will seek to make a case to the Department for Communities and Local Government for fairer funding for these particularly badly hit fire authorities. Briefly, what is the impact of the financial situation on Avon fire authority? As a single service authority, we do not have anywhere to go. We all know that there are local authorities that have more direct responsibility for the fire service, but we are a single service authority; we have little alternative but to reduce variable expenditure and that basically means expenditure on staff. I cannot see any alternative for the Avon service but to impose a freeze on recruitment, which is not good news for our service. I hope, therefore, that the Government will reconsider the level and distribution of funding and, at the very least, reinstate last year’s funding floor of 2.7 per cent.
The increase that the Avon fire and rescue service will receive over the next two years is just one fifth of the increase that it received last year. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the effect that that might have on pay and recruitment, but what about the number of fire engines in the authority? There are already concerns in Bristol that following the large growth in housing in the city centre, there are not enough pumps to ensure that everyone is safe. There might be also a detrimental effect on the future procurement of equipment.
There is little doubt that the financial situation is seriously challenging.
I want to focus on three issues. First, as the Department has been made aware by Avon fire authority, there is a problem with transitional grant recovery. The authority’s treasurer has made representations to the Department arguing that it has treated the adjustment for the transitional grant incorrectly. Every floor authority can prove that it has repaid the grant, but the money has not been put back into the base budget. In the case of Avon, that means that this year’s apparent grant floor of 1 per cent. has become a reduction, in cash terms, of £360,000 on last year’s grant. If that is not corrected for this year and for the future, we will be repaying that money for ever. That is not only unfair, but it is the most expensive loan imaginable. This issue has to be addressed. I have looked at the papers that the treasurer submitted to the Department, and although I am not an accountant, I am entirely persuaded by the argument. I strongly hope that the Minister will respond constructively to those representations.
The second issue that I want to discuss is equality and diversity policy, which has attracted some attention in the media in our area. Chief fire officers and fire authorities are rightly being asked to recruit more female staff and more staff from minority ethnic communities, for the simple reason that we must have public services that reflect the communities they serve. That is the right thing to do. In Avon, officers, members and trade unions are enthusiastic about committing to those higher targets, because they fully understand the value that diversity adds to the service. The problem is that a grant settlement of the kind that we are discussing will inevitably mean a freeze on recruitment, so how on earth is Avon to meet its equality and diversity targets?
Avon fire authority has been subject to some pretty vicious and inaccurate comments in the media. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) will be aware of the newspaper articles to which I am referring. To their credit, the chief fire officer, authority members, trade unions and staff have made serious attempts to ensure that the make-up of the authority’s firefighters and staff reflects the diversity of the community they serve. I strongly support them, but they will have a very difficult job in future. They have made progress in the past five years, but I fear that that progress will now come to a stop, and that is unacceptable.
My final point is about the local integrated risk management plans that all fire authorities have been required to produce since the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. The plans are based on local risk, and are supposed to determine the way in which services are provided, which they usually do. However, I cannot see any link between the plans and the methodology behind the allocation of funding to fire authorities. If that is correct, we are in a bizarre situation in which the plans are the driver for the services to be provided, but not the driver for allocating the money to enable those services to be supplied to local communities. To put it mildly, we need more transparency in relation to funding, so that we can understand and address these problems.
I am conscious that other colleagues wish to speak, so I shall conclude. Along with other floor authorities, Avon has been put into an unacceptable position through no fault of its own. The Government need to reconsider the level and distribution of funding and, at the very least, to reinstate last year’s funding floor of 2.7 per cent. Adjustments to the floors and the transitional grant position need to be made as a matter of urgency, and I urge the Minister to consider doing so.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this important and timely debate. The Minister recently visited the new fire station at Marshes End in my constituency, and I suspect that he might already have heard some of the points that I shall make today, but they are so important that they are worth reiterating.
First, I have a few comments to make on the FIReControl project, which is expected to offer enhanced physical and operational resilience, but the costs and savings are highly questionable, as we have heard. We have also heard that the timing of delivery is problematic. Dorset disputes several of the current assumptions, and predicts that there will be a net cost to the authority from moving to the regional control centre. Even if the Department for Communities and Local Government could meet in full the deficit between steady-state RCC costs and current costs on a regional basis, the vagaries of the regional cost apportionment model, based on the council tax base, have led Dorset to believe that it would still face additional costs of £125,000 a year.
The Dorset authority is concerned about cost apportionment across the south-west, and does not see how it can possibly end up not being a net loser unless protection is built in, or unless more attention is paid to each authority. Its members are concerned that the costs for out-of-scope activities and data management have been underestimated. The capping of regional resilience payments to three years is absolutely unacceptable.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is extremely difficult to find anyone in Dorset who thinks that, on the other side of the balance sheet, there is any advantage to the measure?
I have detected a distinct lack of enthusiasm from everyone with whom I have discussed the project.
Three-year funding is another problem that is simply being deferred to the future. What will happen when the three-year funding ends? We will have yet more cuts. There is significant disappointment about the business case, and we now have the impact of the delays to consider. I hear that the project has to be “reprofiled”—I think that that means delayed—because the deliverables are not going to be delivered on time. It is no surprise that that has to do with an IT contract; that is nothing new. My big concern is the impact that all the problems with the regional control centre will have on poorly funded authorities. In a sense, the delay is delaying the extra cost, but there is serious concern about work force morale.
Returning to cost, Dorset is one of the 10 authorities that the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) has mentioned will have particularly low funding for the next few years. I agree that it is vital that the 2.7 per cent. funding floor is reinstated, so that front-line fire services are kept at a level that is safe for both the public and fire fighters. Dorset originally assumed, for planning purposes, that there would be 2 per cent. growth, but it then faced severe shortfalls on its original budgeting. I have been anxious throughout about the implications for safety. That issue has been discussed in detail with civil servants and, indeed, with Sir Ken Knight. Some 80 per cent. of the service’s budget goes on salaries, so there is little room for manoeuvre. Dorset has only six whole-time stations, and opportunities for shift arrangement and redeployment are limited. It really is difficult to find savings. Sadly, there have been 10 fire-related deaths in 10 separate incidents since December 2007; six of those people were over 70. Studies have identified lone pensioners as being the most at risk in our community, and that is true in other parts of the south-west. It is sad that that risk has been confirmed by the recent spate of fatalities. Dorset has the highest proportion in the country of people over retirement age, with an average of 27 per cent. and an incredibly high proportion in certain pockets. That compares with 18.7 per cent. nationally. The proportion of elderly people is likely to increase in future, so there is a real need to address the formula. We need the floor reinstated now, and within the next few years the formula must be reformed. The proportion of elderly people is one of the many factors that need to be taken into account.
The chief fire officer of Dorset tells me that as a consequence of the firefighters’ pay and conditions agreement, fire authorities were loaned a sum of money over a two-year period to ensure that pay increases could be made prior to efficiencies being found. For Dorset, that represented a sum of £350,000, to be paid back in two consecutive years, 2006-07 and 2007-08. The chief fire officer asked Dorset MPs to press the Government on why there is still to be a deduction of approximately £175,000 a year in the base budget. I think that we would all agree that that works out as a massive rate of interest.
Dorset’s fire and rescue service is acknowledged as a good performer, with comparatively low budgets and cost per head of population. It achieves a good overall performance, and in the national comprehensive performance assessment of 2007 it was stated as having the highest performance nationally. Locally, we are proud of our fire and rescue service, but we are deeply concerned about the pressures and worries that are put on it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who will not be surprised to learn that I will cover some of the same issues.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate and on addressing the important issue of flooding as well as tri-service co-operation, which needs to be improved. I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. I am a little surprised to see the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), in his place, considering the efforts that many of us from the south-west made to secure a better deal. There is no flooring, and there is no security to ensure that fire services receive an inflationary increase at minimum. As we have just heard, Dorset has received one of the worst increases in the country. It will be just 1 per cent. next year, 0.5 per cent. the year after and 1 per cent. the year after that. How can we possibly survive on such a budget set by the Government?
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has taken up far too much time on the matter already. He had plenty of opportunity when he was responding to debates to answer questions about why lives were being put at risk in the county of Dorset by the ridiculous numbers that we face.
Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the fire service across the country, and particularly in Dorset. I spoke this morning to Darren Gunter, the chief fire officer, to confirm the concerns that still exist. Fire services are expected to be of the highest standard. If bins are not collected on time, it matters, but it will not cause any deaths. If potholes are not repaired, it is an annoyance, but it is not vital to life. When it comes to the fire services, however, we expect the highest standards. Unfortunately, if we are not willing to pay for those services, lives will be put at risk. I am sorry that party politics has come into this, but we in Dorset cannot help but look over our shoulder and see what is happening in other parts of the country. Nottingham, for example, will receive a 17 per cent. increase.
The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) expressed concerns about the total amount of money that is in the pot. I do not dispute his case, but I am asking not for more money but for even sharing of Government funding. That has not been forthcoming, which is why Dorset is suffering. There is to be a national increase of 7.5 per cent. over three years, but in Dorset, as I have just explained, it will be only 2.5 per cent. We cannot exist on that without the standard of service being affected.
As we have just heard, Dorset is constantly ranked in the top five authorities in the country, but it has the lowest cost per head of population and is already one of the worst funded in the country. Why are we being picked on in this way? I simply do not understand. I believe that Dorset is a special case and deserves extra funding, or at least an inflationary increase.
I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I have made very clear. I shall say it to him directly—no, I will not give way. You can speak yourself in a few minutes.
There are vulnerable groups in Dorset. We have an above-average number of elderly people, as we heard from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. They often live on their own and need extra care. Sadly, 11 people, mostly elderly, have died in the past nine months in fire-related incidents, and I am afraid that that is because of the limitations that have been placed on the fire service.
May we be clear? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is a direct link between any of those deaths and decisions taken by the Government?
I am saying that there must be a direct correlation. I would be grateful if I could meet the Minister, perhaps with Darren Gunter, the chief fire officer, so that we can look into the matter in more detail.
I am really surprised by what the hon. Gentleman has just said. I raised the matter with Darren Gunter when I went to Dorset last week, and he confirmed that there was no link between funding or the settlement and any of those deaths. The hon. Gentleman should be careful about what he says, because the implications are serious.
Of course these are serious matters, and I do not believe that they can be answered in full in this debate. I would be grateful if I could meet the Minister to consider the issues affecting Dorset. The service has had to make cuts in the Weymouth area and across the board, affecting its ability to meet needs. I wish to make it clear to the Minister that we cannot manage in the current situation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), will have an opportunity to speak about the implications of the cuts. People living alone are affected, and there are many of them in Dorset. That is why I plead with the Minister to reconsider the settlement that we have received. Creating a regional centre in Taunton will not save any money, but it will increase costs, which will not benefit our area at all.
An argument that I had with the previous Minister concerned the additional burden placed on Dorset, because of the Olympics in 2012, to provide safety at sea. Yet Dorset fire and rescue service does not even own a boat. Only after we raised the matter with the then Minister was some funding finally forthcoming, but even that only takes us up to 2009, not even clearing the Olympics year, so we may not have the funding when the big event comes in 2012.
The consequences are simple: cut the budget and lives will be threatened and possibly lost. I urge the Minister to think again and examine what is actually happening in Dorset. A 2.5 per cent. increase is an insult, and we look over our shoulder to other parts of the country that are getting 10 per cent., 12 per cent. or 17 per cent. increases in their settlement. It just does not seem right, so please will the Minister introduce some fairness before more lives are put in danger?
I shall be quick, because I know that other Members wish to speak.
First, I disclose an interest: my son-in-law is a retained firefighter trying to enter the full-time service, and I am a member of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group and receive some support from the FBU. However, I speak on my own part and from my own experiences.
Memories are somewhat short, because I remember on more than one occasion under the previous Government having to fight to save various pumps, appliances and even fire stations. I shall be fair to the Government, who have put some serious resources into Gloucestershire. Our two main fire stations are being rebuilt, and a boat has recently been provided. I wish the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) well in that regard in Dorset, and I hope that other improvements will follow.
One of the issues of most concern to FBU members is the commutation scheme. I shall say no more, because the Minister knows what I am talking about and now might not be the time for that debate. It is fair to say that people are rather upset by what has happened to their pension scheme. I also wish to pay due regard to the work of firefighters, about which we know only too well in Gloucestershire due to the 2007 floods and their repercussions. I would commend to anyone who has not read it the FBU’s report on the 2007 floods, which affected Humberside and Sheffield as well. It shows why we need firefighters, and points to their bravery and commitment. Of course, we have lost some of them—not many, thankfully, but some—in the past few years.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that recent correspondence with the Department has revealed that personnel who transfer to the regional fire centre will not actually be part of the fire service at all?
I am aware of that, which is one reason why the FBU has serious misgivings about the move. However, I shall not pursue that because of the shortage of time.
As someone who has been a consistent critic of regionalisation, I think that I can speak with some authority on the issue. I do not know whether any Opposition Member would like to confirm this, but I was concerned that in the last meeting the cabinet member for Gloucestershire either signed off the agreement on the regional centre or was about to sign it off. I gather that the Liberal Democrats also are protesting but still signing it off. I would like to think that that is not happening, but perhaps it is.
I am a critic not only of regionalisation but of the FIReControl project. It has merits, and I have always argued that we need regional back-up. Anyone who was around during the floods will know that what happened was of such a scale that no control centre would have been able to cope, and we have a very good tri-service centre. One of the things that the Minister might like to dwell on is why Mott MacDonald, the wonderful consultants who have underlined all the things that have happened, has never published its investigation into the tri-service arrangements. It has published many other reports, which have cost millions of pounds. I do not know whether those reports have saved any lives, but they have certainly cost millions. I would like to know what Mott MacDonald says about the tri-service arrangements in Gloucestershire.
I hope that the Government will have another look at their proposals. I do not have any problem with regional back-up—we need it. The scale of possible disasters—whether floods or, dare I say it, a big security issue—means that we need the best available provision for our fire and rescue service. I still believe that that should be provided locally, and that we should listen to the people who work in the service and, indeed, the chief fire officer in Gloucestershire, who has been put in a difficult position.
However, we have to go from where we are, and that is the regional centre in Taunton. It is not working yet, but it has cost rather a lot of money. I worry about who, if anyone, will relocate, but, more than anything, I think that that centre should be the back-up to front-line local services, which have worked very well. I hope that that the Government will consider that, despite the money that has been spent and, obviously, despite some loss of face. We can always learn from our experiences.
It is not helpful if people say one thing in public and do other things in private. The person who has been most trenchant, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) knows, is Terry Walker, one of his predecessors on Avon county council, who spent his life—and I mean his life—as the chairman of the Avon fire authority. He still has strong opinions not only on whether the centre is the right thing but on whether it will work. I hope that the Minister will listen to such comments. Other people will have views that are slightly different from mine, but it is important that we hear from those who work in the service as well as those who represent or manage it.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, there is provision for me to request that the Opposition spokespeople confine their winding-up speeches to five minutes, and the Minister to 10 minutes. Because this is such a localised debate, I want to let as many Members speak as possible. If the Opposition spokespeople are agreeable to that, I will proceed in that manner.
I begin by endorsing everything that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) have said.
Dorset is in a uniquely disadvantaged position. Based on the cost per head of population, it has one of the most efficient services in the country. Cost per head in Dorset is the lowest, at £31 per head, compared with Cleveland, at £63 per head. Such a disparity is extremely difficult to explain, particularly as Dorset has a high proportion of elderly people, as has been said. I believe that my constituency may have the highest proportion of retired people in the country, at about 30 per cent. of the population, yet the grant per head of population for Dorset is the third lowest. It is £16 per head, compared with Cleveland, which is £40 per head. Again, it is hard to explain such a disparity.
Even Avon county council, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), gets nearly £25 per head, compared with Dorset’s £16, so something is going badly wrong somewhere. The county is being discriminated against in a way that I find difficult to understand.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that risk assessments may suggest that there are greater needs for services in some parts of the country than in others? With respect, one cannot simply use crude figures and draw conclusions from them as easily as he is trying to do.
The figures are extremely crude, but it is evident that we are getting less than one half what many other authorities get, yet we have a high-risk profile. That is inexplicable.
[Janet Anderson in the Chair]
Similarly, our settlement, which is exactly the same as that described by the hon. Member for Kingswood, is 1 per cent. for next year, 0.5 per cent. after that and then 1 per cent. after that. It is extremely low, and I sympathise with his council having to manage with it, because Dorset has to do the same. Without the floor, our grant would have been cut by 1.8 per cent.—nearly 2 per cent. Again, that is rather difficult to justify.
The consequences for Dorset are dire indeed. I have been told by Darren Gunter that it is necessary to abolish whole-time crewing and go back to day-time crewing only. Since many fires occur at night, particularly those involving the elderly, that is a worrying situation. The service has to combine whole-time stations, so the time that it will take to get to fire incidents will be longer, and it has to close retained stations. Again, cover is being reduced.
There are also impacts on community safety activity. I have been told by our chief fire officer that the service will have to reduce safety events in schools, and funding for Streetwise, which is dear to my heart. I am a trustee of Streetwise. It is a safety centre that has been built and financed by Dorset county council, Bournemouth borough council and Poole borough council. It provides training for schoolchildren, who come at two stages during their school career to see where the dangers lie in an urban situation. It has been extremely effective and is now being rolled out around the country. It is supported by the Government, thankfully, but not through this funding. If funding disappears from the fire and rescue service, there will be severe complications for Streetwise. Streetwise also has groups of elderly people come around the centre to learn about risks in the home in an effort to prevent terrible fires.
Frankly all of this is inexplicable. Other support services that will be affected are training and development, including fire safety courses, welfare provision, recruitment, fleet and equipment maintenance—we will not have such well-maintained equipment—and property maintenance. Dorset is now being cut to the bone, and there will be a real impact on the ability to save lives.
I warmly welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), to his place as the fire Minister. Whatever else he does in government, being the Minister with responsibility for the fire and rescue service is a true honour and something that he will enjoy, regardless of the fact that it can sometimes feel like a bed of nails. He will find that firefighters are unique people of whom we should all be proud, wherever we live in the country.
The number of fire deaths is actually down to its lowest level since 1958, and the recent advances are the result of some of the investment in the past 11 years. We have seen a complete restructuring of the way in which the fire service does its work. The advent of the regulatory reform order and the local risk management plans has made a real difference and has allowed the fire service to look outward to local communities.
We see far more of the kind of important work done by Streetwise, for example, which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) has mentioned. I join the hon. Gentleman in saying that people such as Darren Gunter do a terrific job. When I tried to intervene on the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), I was going to make that point and mention something that has not been mentioned by Dorset colleagues. Although I appreciate that the settlement was tight this year, when Dorset Members came to see me, I mentioned that the extra money—the £250,000 for the Olympics—would make a real difference. Darren has made that point clearly as well. I understand that that money has arrived, which is important.
We have never seen the like of the investment over the past decade. We live in a new world now. The £200 million of new dimension investment—the high volume pumps, the urban search and rescue equipment and the decontamination units—are there to cope with the new threats, whether in the south-west of England or anywhere else. Yes, we are having an in-depth debate about fire control, but that is part of the new and emerging—
I want to point out that I was a bit misleading a little earlier on. Councillor Jerry Willmott, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, is in favour of the plan, but that is because he is chairman of the new company. But I apologise.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I am glad that he has made that point. Jerry Willmott supports FIReControl, not because he is chair of the company, but because he is a man of real integrity who understands the fire service and the risks better than most people in this Chamber, including, I am afraid to say, the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). It is interesting to note that when the Front-Bench spokesmen had the opportunity to debate this matter in July in Committee—we did so in some depth—neither the Tories nor the Liberals voted against this measure. At that point, we had the opportunity to flesh out the arguments.
Before speaking about fire control, I wish to add to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) about the importance of having a diverse fire and rescue service. I went out of my way in my time as fire Minister to congratulate Avon on the work that it has done in this regard. I am sure that, because this subject is a passion of my hon. Friend the Minister, he will continue this work on diversity in the fire and rescue service.
We are working with the unions and other stakeholders to push the barriers and to call for representation to increase from 2 per cent. to 5 per cent. of the local minority population to be recruited into the fire service with an incentive grant, and we are also calling for women to be brought into the fire service at operational levels so that they comprise 18 per cent. at that level. That can only be good for the fire service and, ultimately, good for our local communities.
There are hon. Members in this Chamber who will never agree with me about FIReControl. Some will not agree for the right reasons and some, I fear, will disagree for the wrong reasons, knowing that this is an easy cheap shot in terms of frightening the electorate and winning good headlines with newspaper editors. It is not the newspaper editors’ job to understand the detail; it is their job to make good headlines. I accept that this makes good copy, but there are far more important issues here.
I went to Sweden to see the changes made there, which involved reducing the number of control rooms from 120 to around 20. That rationalisation was introduced not only to make savings but because a single network to improve resilience was wanted. We have 46 control rooms, many on different networks. That is why, when the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East talks about resilience and the tri-service centre, he needs to understand that the tri-service provision is incredibly good and would remain as our gold command. However, resilience is about networks and systems. That is why we had more than 1,000 calls when the flooding was serious. I know about that. I did not just pop into gold command and say hello; I was there. I had a seat at the table, and I was in there every day. I know that people’s lives can be put at risk if they cannot get through and speak to an operator when they dial 999. Having a single resilient system where all parts back each other up will make a huge difference.
I ask hon. Members to put politics aside for a moment and think about themselves and their families. If their child or partner were caught in a burning wreck on the M5, what would be the key thing? They would want a fire service that mobilises the engine nearest the scene. When that engine arrived on the scene, they would want systems in the cab—the technology—to say where to cut into a particular type of vehicle to avoid air bags, rescue a person and get them out in one piece.
I urge hon. Members—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, because I want to complete my point. The hon. Gentleman should get out with the fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire, as I have done, and get it to take him into a mock burning building, then he would learn a little bit more about the role of a firefighter. When doing that, crawling around in the dark in a smoke-filled room, totally and utterly reliant on colleagues—[Interruption.] He says that he knows that. I urge him to try it, actually, because the kinds of stresses involved—
No, I will not give way because I want to finish this point. On getting out of that room and talking to the point man or woman on the floor, they will map out and draw the burning building wreck that the firefighter has been in. Fire control will provide those people with the floor plans of the buildings, so that the shape and structure of a building, the location of the nearest hydrants and information about chemical risk can be known.
We know that already.
No, we do not know that already. There are many other things that we do not know already.
I have already said that I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] If he wants to learn about the fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire, he should read some of the stuff that is sent to him and listen a little more closely to chief fire officers, because the Chief Fire Officers Association is backing the plan, as is the Retained Firefighters Union.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way now?
We always discuss every criticism by the FBU of the FIReControl plans. From my experience going round the country, however, the majority of FBU members to whom I have spoken support the changes, because when they go into dangerous circumstances, they want more knowledge about the situation. They want mobile data systems that—lo and behold!—they do not have in my patch at the moment. However, they will have those systems under FIReControl.
Order. I remind hon. Members that we want to get one more speaker in before we start the winding-up speeches, so I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman were to bring his remarks to a close.
I will do so.
We do not have status managing, automatic vehicle location systems and satellite navigation in our local fire and rescue service. Our constituents believe that we have them, but we do not, and we will only have them if we are brave enough to make these changes. Our challenge is to join people such as Councillor Jerry Willmott, Pete Roffey and, yes, the Conservatives and Liberals in Gloucestershire who say one thing but do another—I have seen them doing it—and who privately support the plans for FIReControl.
I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) for calling for this debate.
I had not intended to speak—I intended only to make some interventions—but the speech by the former Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), compels me to say a few words. Of course, I echo the comments of Dorset colleagues from all parties about the terrible effects of our settlement, which we tried, but failed, to bring home to the former Minister when he was in place, and which will result in threats to safety that the current Minister will have to take seriously.
It is clear that, as an emergency measure, the floor needs to be raised. However, I want to say just a few words about the regional control centre, because the former Minister has now illustrated the source of the problem with which we are dealing. He clearly exists in an alternative universe—
A parallel universe!
Yes, the hon. Member for Gloucester exists in a universe where it is necessary, in order to mobilise the vast resources of networks, to co-locate vast numbers of people in particular centres. We are no longer in that universe; we are in a different universe in which it is perfectly possible to achieve all the technological shifts that he was describing at a local level. That is precisely the character of an open network age. The complete failure to recognise that has helped to generate the mayhem caused by an ineffectual and ill-designed computer programme and an ineffectual and ill-designed regional control centre. I accept and agree with the point about regional back-up that the hon. Gentleman made, but that does not imply a need for regional control centres, still less the need to denude Dorset of extra funds when it is already so hard-pressed.
It is interesting that the Conservatives are indicating that they want to provide all the fire control and fire link technologies to all the local control rooms. It is fair to say that that is what the right hon. Gentleman implied. He must realise, when he makes such implications and suggestions, he is also suggesting that an additional £2 billion would have to be found if his party came to office.
That is total junk. The Minister is—[Interruption.] The ex-Minister is, as usual and as was the case with the NHS computer, the identity card system and many other computers, living in an age in which mainframe was the right approach. That is not necessary now, because it is perfectly possible to operate on a network basis, but I regret to say that his ex-Department and many others have not yet recognised that. We must go back to the drawing board and recognise that we are in a Google and network age and that we do not need the sort of physical infrastructure that he so wrongly and unfortunately imagines is necessary and which is leading to real problems on the ground.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. In the few minutes available to me, I shall try to develop some of the points that have been made, and which I was hoping to make.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this debate. It is evident from the number of hon. Members from the south-west, including Labour Members, that there are strong feelings on many of the issues, including regional control centres, which is the topic of most discussion, and, crucially, funding. He was absolutely right to raise inconsistencies between what was promised for regionalisation and what will be delivered in savings and improvements to service. If neither of those boxes are ticked, we must call the policy into question, as my party and his have done ever since it was first posited.
The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) rightly referred to diversity and important work on that issue, as well as to the funding problems that affect his authority, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also raised some important demographic issues, which are particularly acute in her county and throughout the whole south-west, where there is a huge amount of inward migration . Demographic changes towards the older end of the age spectrum will present challenges.
I want to focus on the fantastic job that the fire service does. Information from people on the ground, whether through the Fire Brigades Union or people in fire authorities who are concerned about the programmes towards which the Government are pushing them, suggests that they are achieving fantastic results with the available resources and focusing very much on preventive work. At a recent open day at the fire station in Bodmin, I heard more about the fire service’s work with young people to encourage them to play a more active role in ensuring that communities are safe, as well as their work with smoke detectors, local businesses and the Flashpoint Lifeskills Centre, which is similar to the street light facility in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bristol, West—[Interruption.] I am sorry, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill).
Bristol, West is a Liberal Democrat constituency.
Absolutely. I have in fact referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West, and I am sure that he will continue to be the MP there.
Full-time and retained fire services offer a valuable whole service in many of the rural communities that we serve, and it is important to recognise the challenges facing the retained service. Local authorities that have retained services are considering ways of improving their responsiveness and ensuring that they are efficient, as well as providing the technology to people who do a wonderful job in addition to what they do in their ordinary lives to ensure that their communities are safe. There are sometimes challenges in recruitment and affordability in rural communities, and we need a bigger steer from the Government on how areas such as the south-west, which have many rural communities, can be supported.
My party is not convinced, and never has been, that regionalisation will be effective or deliver the savings that have been promised. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), both in robust interventions and his own contribution, was keen to point out his belief that that is the only way of delivering new technology. However, if it is clear that regionalisation will not deliver savings, that calls into question the whole promise of delivering the new technologies. In fact, the Government should consider other ways of delivering improvements without going down the regionalisation route. I want to put on the record the fact that during a Standing Committee debate on fire and rescue services in which I participated, my party did not call for a vote on the national framework—we were debating many other issues and not just regionalisation—but I made it clear that my party remains opposed to it. I thank you, Mrs. Anderson for the opportunity to speak, and I am sure that those who are listening outside the Chamber will focus on the fact that the former Minister’s position does not seem to have moved in line with business models and the evidence from people on the ground.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this vital and timely debate. I pay tribute to him and to my hon. Friends in the south-west for their campaigns over past months and years against fire control centres and the underfunding of local fire and rescue services, which will have such a big impact on their constituents.
I also welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), to his post, which is something of a hospital pass, as the former Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) acknowledged. I had intended to discuss the wider issue of funding as well as the FIReControl project, but I must be circumspect in my comments. My colleagues are concerned about the discrepancies and massive disparities in funding in the comprehensive spending review period, such as those between Avon and Dorset, which received 2 per cent. in revenue support grant in this CSR period, and Humberside, which received 12 per cent., Derbyshire, which received 15 per cent., or Nottinghamshire, which received almost 18 per cent. Additionally, there are big variations in grant per head of population during that period. Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset will receive less than £20 per capita compared with other local authorities, while the average is £19.64. The Government should consider factors affecting grant allocation, such as relative resources based on the tax base of population and tax base per head, which militate against authorities in the south-west.
It is as well to step back a little and consider the issues raised by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). It is all very well for him to say in his little homily how much was spent—[Interruption.]—or not under a Conservative Government, but his Government have been in office for 11 years. Terry Walker and the Avon fire authority feel that they have been unfairly treated by his Government as a result of the floors and ceilings mechanism and the transitional grant repayment in Avon.
I thought that I said that.
I am happy that the hon. Gentleman confirms that that is the case.
I do not have time to discuss the review that the Department will undertake on the formula spending share by 2010, but many authorities believe that it must be speeded up as a matter of urgency. The floors and ceilings mechanism has led to major problems in the south-west, as we have heard. In the wider context, during the CSR period, south-west fire and rescue services must deal with inaccurate data on inflation, and above-inflation pay awards. Local initiatives that need discrete funding, such as civil contingencies, community fire safety and new dimensions funding, will be a significant burden.
It is important to mention Fireguard, which is an ongoing issue for fire and rescue authorities. At its board meeting last Monday, it collapsed, so local fire and rescue authorities have no means of dealing with fire cover in the event of a pandemic, national firefighters strike and so on. They will therefore fail in their legislative duty under section 7 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 and section 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2002. The reality is that most fire and rescue services are faced with real-term cuts in their funding. They have been forced to view the integrated management plans as a fig leaf for real cuts in services, job losses and the removal of appliances.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) did not break off from his tirade long enough to take an intervention from me, so I am grateful for the opportunity to mention that I, too, have spent time with my fire and rescue service officers—the retained officers in Cinderford. I have gone into smoke-filled buildings with them and have been incredibly impressed by their dedication. If this project is so good and compelling, why is it that the men and women whom we ask to risk their lives and go into burning buildings find it so unconvincing?
My hon. Friend makes a sound and accurate point. I do not recognise the picture that the hon. Member for Gloucester paints of widespread support for the project—not least because it is not true. Even if people such as Councillor Willmott in Wiltshire support it, they do so only because of the threat that the Government will use reserved powers under the 2004 Act. It is hardly surprising that they support the project when they are faced with that difficulty.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean has comprehensively demolished the case for the FIReControl project. All we heard from the hon. Member for Gloucester were platitudinous comments and vacuous sound bites that show that there is no empirical data to back up his comments about, for instance, the number of calls received during the floods.
Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to draw his contribution to a close so we have time for the Minister to respond.
The case has not been made, either in terms of cost savings or resilience. The project is not only opposed by the Fire Brigades Union, but by ordinary firefighters and councillors on local fire authorities. The Government need to look again at two pertinent issues: the funding formula and the need to scrap the FIReControl project. The project will be a disaster and will encumber local fire authorities and council tax payers in the future. The Government need to be honest about that and scrap the project.
It is a pleasure to respond to the many points that have been raised. The comments of hon. Members deserve respect, and I will deal with as many points as I can as swiftly as I can.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate. Aside from his congratulations to me, I did not agree with anything else in his speech. However, it is important to thank him for initiating this debate, because it gives me the chance to put on the record something with which I am sure we all agree: through their commitment and professionalism, the fire and rescue services play a crucial role in keeping our community safe. Indeed, the timing of today’s debate is a powerful reminder of the bravery and dedication that firefighters persistently demonstrate when fulfilling their duties. Today is the anniversary of the warehouse fire in Warwickshire in which four firefighters lost their lives. I beg the indulgence of hon. Members, as I shall name them: Ashley Stephens, John Averis, Darren Yates-Bradley and Ian Reid—the youngest was 20 and the oldest was 44.
It is appropriate that the hon. Gentleman secured this debate—and I am pleased he did so—which has provided an opportunity for hon. Friends and members of the Opposition to raise important points. I want to do those points justice in the short time I have. On my first outing as the Minister responsible for fire, I visited the fire station referred to by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). It is an excellent station with excellent facilities and is proof, if it is needed, of our investment during the past 11 years. The station is the first building in Dorset to be completed through the private finance initiative as part of the joint police and fire service initiative.
I shall make a swift passage through some of the investment we have made, because people have short memories. For example, during recent years, we have invested more than £400 million in a PFI programme to help to deliver 21st-century stations. Fire and rescue authorities will benefit from a further £130 million in PFI credits. In fact, Dorset is receiving nearly £28 million in PFI funding to support new building projects, and other fire and rescue authorities in the south-west have benefited from PFI. Much has been made of Gloucestershire and Avon, both of which, with Somerset, were part of the collaborative PFI project to provide joint training in Avonmouth. Nearly £17 million of investment has been made through PFI. Gloucestershire has also received £40 million for new community fire stations—not for one, two or three stations, but for four of them—and a community life skills centre. I respectfully advise those who have amnesia to try to recollect what life was like before the improvements that have been made during the past 11 years.
Much was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and others about the three-year settlement for fire and rescue services. The architect of the next Conservative manifesto, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), is here, and I am happy to take an intervention from him if he will make spending commitments in relation to what his party will do over the next period. The Opposition are not willing to make commitments for the next few weeks and months, let alone for three years’ time.
Let us be clear that under the three-year local government settlement, which was announced at the beginning of this year, single-purpose fire and rescue authorities will receive an average increase in formula grant of 2.4 per cent., 1.4 per cent. and 1.4 per cent. during the three spending review years. No fire and rescue authority will receive—[Interruption.] I can hear chuntering. I am not sure if Opposition Members wish to make an intervention; I am happy to take one if that is the case. No fire and rescue authority will receive an increase of less than 1 per cent., 0.5 per cent. and 0.5 per cent. It is worth emphasising that over the comprehensive spending review 2007 period, councils will receive an additional £8.91 billion. The factors and criteria by which the grant is allocated are well publicised and we know about them. We heard from the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who is involved with Streetwise, that there are benefits to having a floor, as otherwise there would be a loss, so I am glad that we have heard an endorsement of the need to have floor.
The intention of our financial policy in relation to local government has always been to provide fairness and stability. Our goal is to ensure that the three-year settlement is a three-year settlement; not a settlement that changes each year because we are lobbied to change the data or methodology that is used. The Government and I believe that it is important to provide stability for local government, so that it can have more time for planning its income and expenditure. That creates a greater degree of certainty and that is our goal.
If the Minister is so concerned about transparency and clear planning, why has he disaggregated the national business case to regional FIReControl boards and delayed the publication of that case? As a result, local fire authorities are not in a position to make proper planning past the comprehensive spending review period post-2011, which will put them in a difficult financial position.
If this were not a serious debate, that would be a laughable point. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made a point about the commitment to £300,000 for fire service facilities in relation to the Olympics. The idea that we can predict what will happen in four years’ time is absurd. There is a three-year spending commitment and those plans are reviewed towards the end of that period. Plans are made for the following three years.
Does the Minister appreciate the predicament that Darren Gunter finds himself in because that was the very issue he raised with me on the phone this morning? He asked me to plead with the Minister for some form of guarantee. It is great to have the boat now and to be able to run and maintain it, but there is no point in training the fire service to provide security and safety at sea if we cannot have the money to continue doing so during the Olympics in 2012.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we have the CSR 2010 now, I cannot give him that commitment. However, there has been scaremongering about the ability of Dorset fire and rescue services to provide facilities for the Olympics—we had a section 31 grant of £300,000—but I am confident that, if this Administration is in power in 2010, we will ensure that his authority has the facilities it needs to do the job it needs to do. We have always done that until now and that will always be the criteria that we use to give funding. The idea that we can somehow give commitments until 2010 is absurd. Darren Gunter will know—and the hon. Gentleman should know—that Dorset has already received £77,000 this year to do the sort of work that he is concerned the authority cannot do. The allegation that we cannot fill the hole for the work that is needed is not accurate.
We are not talking about future funding. If the Minister takes his mind back to the comments of Dorset fire authority cited by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), he will understand the current funding situation and the fact that, as recently as February 2007, 30 per cent. savings were anticipated for the fire control project for the south-west. Those savings have not materialised, and there is no likelihood that they will do so.
I do not accept those figures. In the time I have left, there are two things worth saying. The capital grant, which is new money for which Dorset will receive the fruits, is £35 million next year and £45 million the following year. That can be used to buy fire engines, which should deal with the scaremongering comment blurted out by someone in relation to the inability to buy fire engines. An important issue I have had not had the chance to address is that of FIReControl, and the fire and resilience programme. There is no better argument and justification for that than the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda)—my predecessor as the Minister for fire. He completely destroyed the points made by four separate Opposition Members—
Order. We now come to the next debate.