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Fire Services (Hertfordshire)

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ian Austin.]

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Hood.

This debate is about firefighters in Hertfordshire. Many hon. Members from all parties met their local fire officers when the fire officers lobbied Parliament on 13 November. The lobby took place principally to raise concerns about the deaths of firefighters in the UK since 1978, but the fire officers also wanted to discuss operational concerns.

Not all colleagues can participate in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and other hon. Members would have liked to attend, but they have other engagements. Regrettably, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) is in Afghanistan with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, but I know that he feels strongly that firefighters in Hertfordshire provide a hugely valuable service. That was never more appreciated than when our brave firefighters tackled the massive explosion at Buncefield, which was the biggest fire in peacetime Europe. He wants me to tell the Minister that he shares the concerns that I will raise today about the pressure facing firefighters.

I am sure that the Minister recognises that those in the fire service who are expected to deliver the service feel a great deal of anger and frustration. Such feelings are also felt by members of the public, who have seen cuts and closures in the name of rationalisation and local efficiencies. I will not address the closures that have impacted on my constituency, because I know that other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), will voice their concerns about the loss of local services. My hon. Friend has campaigned vigorously against the closure of Radlett fire station.

As the Minister knows, I continually argue that Hertfordshire and, indeed, St. Albans do particularly badly under the Government’s current funding formula. That has serious implications for the funding of our local services and has led to so-called efficiencies. Given the real-term cut in funding that will take place for all county council services next year, there is a continuous need to find year-on-year efficiencies in Hertfordshire. As a floor authority, we expect to receive an increase of 1.5 per cent. Our fire and rescue authority is unable to raise its own precept, because it is not a separate entity, so it has even less control over its financial destiny. Although the fire authority is exempt from Gershon efficiencies, the total county council budget is not. There are pressures to cut budgets and make savings, which is already happening.

Today is an opportunity for the Minister to address our concerns and give us a progress report on some of the outstanding policy recommendations that were made to the Government in relation to fire services. We are waiting for those recommendations to be implemented and for a decision to be made. The debate is timely, and I shall pose a series of questions to which I would like the Minister to respond. The number of firefighters who die on duty was falling, so why have more died on this Government’s watch? Linked to that, how can we tackle concerns relating to emergency planning and training issues? Why are the Government pressing ahead with regional fire control centres? In addition, when will the Government implement a policy of statutory obligations on flooding?

Every year on 28 April, trade unionists mark workers’ memorial day with a call to remember the dead and to fight for the living. This year, firefighters and the Fire Brigades Union had special reason to observe it, because, sadly, they had to commemorate the highest number of deaths in a single year since at least 1985, and three of those deaths were in Hertfordshire. Consequently, the FBU made recommendations to the Government in a report entitled “In the Line of Duty”. I agree with the FBU and think that the Government should look at some of the issues raised by the report.

Exactly what constitutes an on-duty death, because that has never been clearly defined? Often, it is defined as being a death that occurs when a firefighter is in uniform or doing a shift. Included in that are, for example, firefighters who are killed in road traffic accidents while travelling in an appliance or fire service vehicle en route to or returning from an incident. That might be extended to include retained firefighters who are killed when responding to a call or returning from attending an incident.

Brave firefighters usually selflessly head forwards into danger when we, the public, are mindful of our own lives and safety and head in the opposite direction. The least that we can do is ensure that those who lay their lives on the line for us are truly accounted for and that lessons are learned from serious incidents. That should involve publishing UK-wide figures for all firefighter fatalities, major and serious injuries and near misses in a single annual publication. A national independent fire and rescue service investigation unit should also be established. It is worth considering the FBU’s call for a widening of the definition of reportable incidents to the Health and Safety Executive to include work-related road traffic accidents, heart attacks or other life-limiting situations that are incurred as a result of working in an occupationally hazardous job. Those may be work related, but they are generally excluded from the on-duty figures, although many people think that they should come under the category of an on-duty death.

Currently, the only Government source that covers the whole of the UK for the period under review is the annual “Fire Statistics, United Kingdom” report. However, those figures refer to fatalities only from fires and therefore do not fully capture firefighter deaths that might be attributed to other causes. We need to learn from incidents, but to the Government’s shame, which is the true way to put it, no formal process has been implemented to deal with matters arising from significant health and safety investigations, coroner’s rule 43 letters and inquiries, such as the one into Buncefield. The Minister should tell us today why such a process has not been implemented.

There is a large gap in the fire service’s processes and guidance and in the information that is vital for operational response. There has been a lack of national, central risk-critical operational guidance for some years now, and only recently have the Government started to develop a mechanism to deal with that important issue. Why have the Government been so slow to deal with the matter and shown such a lack of urgency?

The chief fire and rescue adviser’s unit has been established. It has sufficient resources to advise Ministers, but, bizarrely, it has insufficient resources to cover the role and responsibilities of the old fire services inspectorate. I am given to understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government is so short of resources in the unit for fire and safety policy that it is considering outsourcing and commissioning national fire service policy work. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case?

There was a consultation on a possible centre of excellence for the fire and rescue service, as envisaged by the Bain review, which took place more than five years ago. A centre of excellence may have gone some way to meeting the concerns about central guidance, capacity and policy. However, sadly, there was no agreement on the funding of the centre and little indication of how it would work in practice. So, the fire service missed out yet again on an opportunity for improvement and on having an agency similar to the one used by the police. Even more worrying—this is linked to the lack of central guidance—has been the demise of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of fire services, which means that fire and rescue services are assessed by the Audit Commission. Although the Audit Commission is an expert in audit, it has no professional expertise in fire and rescue, unlike the inspectorates of other services.

My hon. Friend has rightly mentioned the absence of a national operational guide, but representations from my firefighters in Hertford have brought to my attention the point that basic operational training—the thing that they need for their safety—comes second to other matters, such as long-term contingency planning. Given the tragic deaths in the county and nationally, does she share my fear that that set of priorities is wrong—particularly for firefighters themselves?

I completely concur with the observations of my hon. Friend. As I shall mention later, I have had contact with people who work in the operational field and who have drawn exactly that conclusion.

Will the Minister tell us whether he intends to remedy that deficiency? Crucially, we need to learn from when incidents go wrong. For example, on 2 February 2005, two Hertfordshire firefighters died at a fire in a block of flats at Harrow court, Stevenage. Bravely, the firefighters had rescued one victim and were attempting to rescue another when they were both killed. The report into the incident found that the deaths would almost certainly have been prevented, if Hertfordshire fire and rescue service had ensured that adequate procedures, training and resources were systematically in place. The report also found that adequate procedures, training and emergency response resources would have significantly reduced the life-threatening risks that faced the firefighters who attended the incident. There is a need for centrally-issued, substantial, safety-critical national guidance on the issues that have arisen from recent fatalities.

We need rigorously to assess the concerns about the distress signal unit that firefighters raised with hon. Members when they met at the recent lobby. As I am sure that the Minister is aware, that unit is worn by firefighters with breathing apparatus and emits a loud sound if the firefighter does not move for 20 seconds or so, which provides a warning and a location for firefighters who are lost, trapped or injured. The battery has lower temperature resilience than the unit—55° C compared with 75° C. Yes, the battery was tested in isolation and not within the unit, but firefighters are deeply unhappy about the uncertainty surrounding the reliability of that equipment in the event of a serious hot fire. It should be fully appraised as a matter of urgency, if we are to ask people to use it, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that that happens.

The FBU believes that there should be guidance for initial attendance, risk assessment, incident command, breathing apparatus, compartment fires, high-rise fires, backdraught, flashover and heat stress. That is a long list, but as I am sure the Minister is aware, firefighters’ anger is growing about the lack of urgency surrounding those matters. Relevant training courses should also be provided.

Will the Government consider imposing a duty on employers, landlords and other responsible persons at selected high-risk premises to submit in writing their fire risk assessments to the local fire and rescue service? The public find it somewhat strange that that does not happen. Such a move would provide more information for risk mapping and identify potential areas for enforcement action and operational planning.

Our local branch of the FBU is anxious that Hertfordshire learns lessons from fire-related deaths and has made a number of recommendations to Hertfordshire fire and rescue service. It recommends that all firefighters receive regular training in all aspects of active fire safety measures. I shall go on to say why the FBU believes that that is not happening. We should ensure that there are sufficient firefighters on the initial attendance, so that one firefighter can be detailed as forward commander.

I have been told about a worrying situation in which there were not enough firefighters. The firefighters were expected to wait outside a property until the second engine arrived. In the event of a blaze, the public would not understand why firefighters were waiting for the correct numbers. Of course, firefighters do not wait in such circumstances, which puts them in danger. We should ensure that all firefighters receive regular training in all aspects of compartment fires and ventilation, particularly in high-rise buildings. We should ensure that all firefighters receive regular training and monitoring in all aspects of high-rise procedures and that initial crews take the correct equipment up to the bridgehead. Will the Minister consider those requests?

We also need to address the issues relating to hot fire training. Before 2006, Hertfordshire had a single real fire training unit that burned wood and chipboard. In 2006, Stevenage borough council placed an abatement notice on that facility, because of the pollution, and mobile units were purchased to take its place. Those units came into service in 2008. However, concerns have been expressed to me and other hon. Members that the units are used only to train new recruits and not to train existing firefighters, some of whom have told me that they have received no hot fire training at all since 2001. That was put down to financial constraints, but whatever the reason, does the Minister believe that the situation is satisfactory?

I particularly want to talk about retained duty firefighters, who experience a particular set of issues relating to training and safety. I was contacted by a retained duty firefighter, Mr. Bill Liggins of Wheathampstead, who works part time with Hertfordshire fire and rescue service alongside his full-time job. Believe me, we need retained duty firefighters. Mr. Liggins is concerned because whole-time duty system firefighters do 18 weeks training, whereas retained duty system firefighters do only four weeks. The WDS firefighters do a 42-hour week in which they are expected to train for eight hours; the RDS firefighters do only a three-hour drill night. He asserts, quite logically, that those cannot and do not equate, but when the two types of firefighter turn out to fires, the dangers that they face are the same. He believes that the RDS firefighters need more training on weekends and at drill nights by specialists.

The service has introduced national vocational qualifications to recognise competency, but they are not paid for, and RDS firefighters have to pay for them themselves. WDS firefighters do qualifications at work, but the service says that RDS firefighters should do them during drill nights. As an RDS member, Mr Liggins is concerned that they just do not have enough time both to train and to study for qualifications.

RDS firefighters have historically had hand-me-down equipment from the WDS. Bizarrely, firefighters who met hon. Members the other week told us that uniforms go missing in the abyss of the cleaning systems and that they rarely get the same one back. The RDS has been allocated some new fire engines, but they do not carry full equipment—disc cutters, chemical suits and air mats. Again, that has to do with training implications and is principally driven by cost. As I have said, Hertfordshire county council is hard-pressed financially, and it has asked Hertfordshire fire and rescue service to try to cut £1.1 million every year for the next three years, which must have implications for training budgets.

The Minister must accept that there are huge concerns about the levels of financing and training offered to serving WDS and RDS firefighters. If the regionalisation of our fire services were scrapped, that funding could be better spent. Why are the Government pressing ahead with regional fire control centres? I have a deep unease about moving services further away from local expertise and knowledge. Conservatives have consistently argued that that scheme should be scrapped. It is a costly, wasteful and misguided approach to delivering local services dressed up in a cloak of so-called efficiency savings.

According to my local county council:

“The burden of the Regional Control Centre project on local Fire and Rescue Services is becoming an increasing concern. There are hopes that the project and financial management are an improvement on the management of the New Dimensions programme. The shortcomings of the New Dimensions programme were recently highlighted by the National Audit Office. Local workload and burden is not being met by sufficient New Burdens funding and the fear is that local priorities like Community Safety may have to be reduced to meet the workload of Regional Controls.

The East of England Regional Control Centre in Cambridge will be in the last operational wave, and far from providing greater financial efficiency is likely to cost the Hertfordshire taxpayer considerably more.”

Lesley Morris, who works in command and control in Hertfordshire, also wrote to me to make exactly that point. She said that

“sadly this project is not wanted by anyone within the fire service”—

contrary to what the Government say—

“and we have real concerns that this will also be putting firefighters lives at risk due to losing the professional, highly trained personnel we have within control. This government says that with the new technology we will be able to mobilise the nearest appliance to an incident therefore creating a better service—well in Hertfordshire we already do that BUT with highly skilled professional people at the end of the phone who know the topography of Hertfordshire inside out.”

Lesley also told me that

“government says that with caller ID we will know exactly where the caller is calling from—but it’s worth remembering that the person putting in the call is not always the person who is in trouble and they are not always in the same location. What about local dialects??”

She was of the view that any delay, for whatever reason, in mobilising appliances puts more pressure on our firefighters once they are at an incident and therefore puts the public at risk. She asked that the Government consider her expert opinion:

“With the mobilising systems we have in Hertfordshire and many other brigades around the country surely it would have made sense to enable us to link to other brigades in…extreme busy periods but to keep the personnel in the locations we already have. This would have cost a fraction of what the project has cost and the money saved could have been put into frontline services and training”.

If regional control centres are so badly needed, how did Hertfordshire’s control room cope with the biggest fire in peacetime Europe? During the Buncefield incident, Hertfordshire fire control coped professionally and comprehensively with hundreds of calls to that incident alone. The regional fire control project is officially three years late and the costs are 14 times the original estimates. The new centres were to start opening in November 2006, but are now not due to start opening until October 2009. Indeed, local rumour says that that date is optimistic—unless the Minister tells us differently. I hope that he will tell us that the centres are to be scrapped.

In a written answer regarding the original cost estimates for regional fire control centres, the then Minister responsible for fire services, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), said that consultants Mott MacDonald

“estimated project costs at £100 million, comprising project management costs, technology costs, accommodation costs and redundancy.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2005; Vol. 438, c. 484W.]

That original estimate jumped to £1 billion, with the latest Government answer confirming that the cost will rise to £1.4 billion. It is worth noting that the entire UK fire service costs only £1.7 billion a year to run, so the business case for the scheme certainly has not been made and, more importantly, the firefighters who are being asked to perform these tasks are left unconvinced.

It is worth remembering, as my local force has pointed out, that during the floods of 2007 control rooms throughout the country were able to cope with the massive number of calls that they received. At times of emergency with spate conditions, many staff simply turn up at control rooms to help, which will not happen once controls are regionalised.

The Government’s answer is that neighbouring control rooms will take the overflow of calls. However, weather systems can travel the country quickly, so if one control is busy it will switch to the next and so on. Have the Government considered what will happen when nine rooms instead of 46 are busy? It could lead to a catastrophic failure where our fire control rooms cannot answer calls from the public when they are in trouble.

The number of staff predicted to be working in these control rooms ranges from six to 12 covering six counties. The Hertfordshire control room has a minimum of four staff at any time. I therefore question the logic that the change will make our fire service more resilient. Why spend billions of pounds fixing a system that is not broken, especially in these difficult economic times?

Will the Minister tell us why the plans are so delayed? Will he confirm rumours that the project is still beset by technical problems? Given that front-line fire stations and firefighters are threatened by cuts, is he prepared to reconsider spending that money on front-line fire services, in order to keep it low-cost, efficient and—more important—local? Is it not time to scrap the project and revisit the closures that have dogged local services?

The Minister knows that there is no statutory obligation to respond to flooding, but he should try telling that to the public as they battle flood waters. Flooding has always been the sort of incident to which firefighters respond. In St. Albans on Saturday, firefighters rescued an elderly lady from a flooding incident in her flat. Two weeks ago in London Colney in my constituency, the fire service arrived promptly to pump out flooded areas. It was the first port of call for many residents. It is an ongoing problem in many constituencies beset by flooding.

My constituents expect the fire service to attend, so why does the Minister not ensure that the Pitt review is implemented? The area-wide floods of 2007, and the possibility of more events like that, have changed the outlook. The Pitt review made a number of recommendations, including greater responsibilities for the fire service. Hertfordshire has firefighters trained in the use of boats and working in water, but fire services will need more resources to match the recommendations of the Pitt review and to meet the increased challenge. That includes national assistance from fire services across the country, which is already in place. Will the Minister finally commit the Government to recognising the additional pressures of dealing with flooding, and undertake to implement the Pitt review?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate. After the lobbying of Parliament, a number of Members were keen that there should be such a debate, so that we could raise concerns, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend has succeeded.

I pay tribute to the Hertfordshire fire and rescue service, which does a tremendous job. It did extremely well at Buncefield. I, too, benefited from its services when I had a small fire at home. The service does a good job on prevention and advising the public how to avoid fire; indeed, what it does to persuade people to use smoke alarms is particularly important.

On 2 February 2005, there was a tragic incident at Harrow Court flats in Stevenage. Two firefighters lost their lives there—Jeff Wornham and Michael Miller. I know the Wornham family—a popular local farming family, committed to public service. Jeff’s father Robert is here today—Robert is chairman of the parish council. It was a tragedy that Jeff should have lost his life. He showed tremendous bravery in going into that building on that night. Everyone was proud that he was given the George medal posthumously. However, as his father said, we all wish that it had not been posthumous.

It is against that background that I come to the debate. I fully accept that Hertfordshire fire and rescue service has made improvements. I understand that the number of property fires is down by 25 per cent., accidental dwelling fires have been reduced by 13 per cent., arson is down by 36 per cent., and fire fatalities are down. However, there is continuing concern as a result of what happened that night in 2005. The Fire Brigades Union inquiry into what happened was critical of the procedures, and the training and resources made available, and concern was expressed that there had been previous incidents elsewhere and that safety critical advice was somehow not being passed on to the firemen as it should.

The FBU report, “In the Line of Duty”, was prepared by the Labour Research Department. It is notable that the 1996 incident at Blaina, in south Wales, is mentioned on page 30 of the report because what happened in 2005 showed similarities with what happened nine years earlier. On both occasions, firemen attended in small numbers, managed to rescue one person and then went back in; it was a delayed backdraught that caused the fatalities. Our concern is that the sort of advice that should come from such occasions is not being spread around to the firefighters.

The overall message of the FBU report seems to be that at the end of the 1990s relative safety had been achieved for firemen, as there were hardly any fatalities at that time, but that more recently, between 2003 and 2007, there were 21 fatalities. The situation seems to be getting worse. The report notes the poor recording of fatalities—not all loss of life being properly recorded—and the non-recording of near misses, which are often useful for learning lessons. It also mentions the lack of research into the causes of deaths and near misses; finally, it talks of inadequate risk assessment processes. The report says that there is no system at national level to ensure that lessons are learned and guidance is spread.

I asked the Minister a parliamentary question on the subject, which he answered on 18 November. He said that

“a framework for the future development of operational guidance has been developed, including a priority programme of work…This programme has begun and includes the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. As part of this framework, an additional four pieces of operational guidance has recently been published”.—[Official Report, 18 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 381W.]

That seems to be a rather leisurely process.

We seem not to be getting the sort of guidance mentioned by “In the Line of Duty”—something comprehensive that should be available quickly. It speaks of having

“safety critical national guidance on the issues arising from recent fatalities.”

The report gives a long list of items that should be covered, including minimum standards on the initial attendance, which is particularly important to my constituent because that was the background to the incidents at Blaina and Stevenage. The report also mentions revising generic risk assessments, minimum standards for training and many other aspects.

I therefore have some questions for the Minister. First, is the programme not rather leisurely, and could we not have what is recommended in the FBU report—something substantial, and soon? Secondly, on the question of how fatalities and near misses are recorded, is it so difficult to have a comprehensive national system that works? Surely, that is done in a range of other areas. Thirdly, what about proper investigation? One of the report’s recommendations is that a new body should be set up to deal with investigations, to ensure that we understand why a fatality or a near miss occurred.

The Minister might say, “We’re on to that already, but will deal with it slightly differently”, which, if so, would be an acceptable answer. However, those three points—on recording deaths and near misses, investigating them properly and providing proper safety critical advice nationally—seem to be the nub of the proposals in the report and make obvious good sense. I wanted to press those points in my short contribution today. What will the Minister do about them?

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate and on presenting her case in such a comprehensive and well informed way. I have no hesitation in supporting her and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on every one of their points. I also join them in paying tribute to the Hertfordshire fire and rescue service and, in particular, to the courageous and dedicated firefighters in Hertfordshire.

Like my hon. Friends, I recently had the opportunity to meet those firefighters, when they visited the House on 13 November in connection with the report, “In the Line of Duty”, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred. They were keen to highlight the issues that he raised this morning and, in particular, a matter of which I had not been aware: the steep increase in the number of firefighter deaths over recent years—sadly, as he said, that includes three firefighter deaths in Hertfordshire, and I join him in his appropriate tribute to those courageous men who lost their lives in the line of duty.

The firefighters were keen to highlight the following concerns in the report:

“The trend in firefighter deaths was downwards until the turn of the century. However there has been an alarming upturn in recent years. Since 2003, at least 22 firefighters have died while on duty, significantly more than in the previous period.

At least 44 firefighters have died in fires since 1978. However, firefighter deaths at fires had effectively ceased by the turn of the century. From February 1996 until October 2002 there were no recorded fire deaths in the UK.”

It is worth repeating those statistics again and again, because the Government are incredibly fond of targets for other deaths related to health and safety. I find it alarming that they have not addressed the increase in firefighter deaths, but I hope, following this debate, that might change. In all other aspects, the Government pride themselves on reducing deaths, so I hope that today will not be a missed opportunity to put the matter right.

I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, the firefighters were keen to raise that concern with me, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I also look forward to the Minister’s response to another point that the firefighters were keen to make—my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire also mentioned it—about the way in which firefighter deaths are categorised. It is important that we have an appropriate way of categorising the deaths of men who, when they go out on calls, are putting their lives at risk.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that given that the number of fires is falling the fact that so many more people are dying is even more worrying? It suggests that despite a smaller number of cases, the risks have increased.

That point stands out from the facts, although, to be fair, we need to hear from the Minister on this very important subject, because other factors might be at play.

I am aware of the heavy responsibilities that firefighters face in my constituency. Running through, or near, my constituency is a concentration of infrastructure, especially transport infrastructure, including the three main north-south rail routes. Local crews attended the Potters Bar derailment in 2002, and I pay tribute to their prompt attendance and bravery on that occasion. Crews from my constituency, including one from Radlett, also attended the nearby Buncefield fire. Furthermore, the M1 and A1 run north-south through my constituency and the M25 runs across it, and firefighters often have to attend incidents on those motorways. In fact, one of the firefighter deaths in Hertfordshire occurred during attendance at a motorway incident. It is very dangerous for firefighters to attend motorway or main road incidents.

I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans about funding. Hertfordshire county council was hit relatively hard by the Government’s local government funding formula. It was a relative loser—as she said, it is a floor authority—and although the formula was put in place some four or five years ago, the effects are still being felt. Sadly for Hertfordshire residents, those effects continue to be felt at this time of wider economic difficulties, when we know that economies might have to be made.

Against that background, I shall deal with a matter of great interest to many of my constituents—many of them have asked me to raise it today—Radlett fire station, which was closed two years ago. What can only be described as a very vigorous campaign was mounted by Radlett residents and others to keep the fire station open, and a 7,000-name petition was delivered to Hertfordshire county council in connection with the closure. The council considers petitions of 250 people to be significant, so to say that concern in Radlett is very widespread would be an understatement.

For many of the concerned residents in Radlett, and elsewhere in my constituency, the closure of the fire station is not the end of the matter, and public concern has not lessened in Radlett and nearby communities since the closure. For example, there has been close scrutiny of attendance times for fire appliances to fires in Radlett and the surrounding area, especially Borehamwood, which had also been served by the Radlett fire station. In particular, residents are taking a great interest in the time taken for second appliances to reach fires—a significant point.

I concur with my hon. Friend’s comments, especially on monitoring by local residents who scrutinise arrival times. I pay tribute to those residents who have remorselessly been accessing that information under freedom of information legislation. They have serious concerns about arrival times, especially of second vehicles. The concern of the local community is demonstrated by the fact that people are going to so much effort to prove what they believe is happening on the ground.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, concern over the past two years has not lessened.

Among the many issues concerning residents is that of attendance times of second appliances at fires, especially domestic fires, because second appliances are very important. Although an appliance might now come from Borehamwood, others have had to come from much further afield to attend fires in Radlett and Borehamwood. The support our fire and rescue campaign—SOFAR—to reopen Radlett fire station has reached its own conclusions.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans referred to the great interest that SOFAR takes. The information it has given to me states:

“Our conclusion is that the statistics are showing that the Fire Service is failing to meet its targets in the area previously supported by Radlett Fire Fighters.”

That is SOFAR’s conclusion, and it takes a great interest in the matter.

Hertfordshire county council may take a different view, and there has been lively communication between the two organisations. It is important in the circumstances for the county council to be receptive to the views of local residents in Radlett and Borehamwood, and there should be two-way dialogue between the groups. This is my message: I hope that the debate continues and that the two sides keep talking to each other, and that each listens to what the other has to say. For its part, Hertfordshire county council has some important points to make that local residents need to take on board but, equally, Hertfordshire county council needs to listen to local residents, because their concerns remain. A campaign that was aimed at keeping the fire station opened has now become a campaign to reopen it. For local residents, it remains a very important local issue.

I put those points before the House because my constituents want me to give vent to that important issue. I pay tribute to the fire and rescue service in Hertfordshire and to individual firefighters. I agree with the wider points that my hon. Friends made in the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the residents of Hertfordshire as a whole.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate, which is timely, given the recent national lobby. Fire services throughout the country will be listening carefully to the Minister’s response, because the issues that have been raised have wider implications and do not affect Hertfordshire only. The debate is also timely because, as I realised when travelling through King’s Cross, we are close to the anniversary of the King’s Cross fire, which resulted in severe loss of life many years ago and in significant changes to equipment and fire safety.

Basically, the problem in Hertfordshire boils down to two things. First, as contributors to the debate have made clear, Hertfordshire county council is under significant financial pressure. The financial outlook, as we heard yesterday, does not look particularly rosy. Local authorities all over the country will be concerned about how their settlement is going to affect their ability to meet ever-rising cost pressures. The system of local government funding makes it difficult for local authorities to deal with their funding pressures, because the bulk of their expenditure is on staff costs, which increase above the rate of inflation.

Exactly the same is true with the fire service, and I know from my constituency that there are great pressures on it. Much of that pressure owes to the fact that 80 per cent. of its budget is for staffing costs. It is therefore difficult to make the cut anywhere other than on the front line, which in key emergency services such as the fire service is of great concern.

We know from local news and council reports that the pressures have already resulted in cuts to services, but there has been great progress on, for example, fire service call-outs, which have dropped by 7.5 per cent., and smaller fires, which have fallen by 21 per cent., notwithstanding the small fire in the home of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). Clearly, that is a response to the emphasis that has been placed on fire prevention. I have visited my local fire station several times and spent time on the doorstep with firefighters to push the safety programme forward. I saw at first hand the impact that they can have, as well as a number of homes that did not have smoke alarms, for example.

The hon. Lady draws attention to the number of times that firefighters are called out to fires, but does she share my concern that the number of times that they are called out to deal with flooding does not necessarily appear in the statistics? We are therefore getting a skewed view of exactly what fire services deal with.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Flooding seems to be an ever-increasing concern, which I know from my fire service’s experience in Boscastle. The flooding there was probably the most significant incident that it ever had to deal with.

Fire call-outs are not the only thing and, as I was saying, the work that firefighters do on the doorstep is important. I saw at first hand people who probably would not have opened their door to anybody else, doing so because they see firefighters as people they can trust. The firefighters were able to install fire safety measures straight away. I would not want to underestimate the impact of that work, but there needs to be a balance.

On the pressures on local authorities, I have already mentioned the wider financial situation.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is imperative that the Government bring forward to 2009 the review of the formula spending share that was scheduled for 2010, given the pressures on revenue budgets in fire and rescue services throughout the country?

That review is long overdue. For councils that are bumping along the floor, it has continued to cause significant difficulties. I can say that, too, from the experience in my constituency.

In Hertfordshire, however, there are other things to take into consideration, which the Minister, especially as he represents the Department for Communities and Local Government, may be able to comment on. First, what about the council’s exposure to the collapse of the Icelandic banks? I know that the council is exposed to the tune of about £28 million. Clearly, if those resources cannot be reclaimed in a timely way, that could have further impact on a range of front-line council services.

There is also a resource problem with the Conservatives’ approach. They are calling for a council tax freeze, which, in effect, would mean real-terms cuts to services. In addition to calling for the wider review of funding, the Conservatives need to look at the impact that that would have on their own services, given that the budget cuts that we have already seen in fire and rescue services have resulted in the closure of fire stations such as Radlett.

The Fire Brigades Union said that there have been delays in making improvements, which was highlighted by Government audits, and that funding has been unavailable to address matters highlighted in coroners’ reports. The FBU also said that there has been a lack of personnel to conduct risk assessments in communities, cancellation of essential training and outsourcing for contracts for the supply of vital safety equipment. The situation is already difficult, but the people of Hertfordshire should have real concerns about their funding. Some of it, of course, is determined by the central allocation, but questions should be asked about the allocation of the council’s resources.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for coming back to the essential point on the funding allocation. I am sure that she is fully aware that Hertfordshire, being in the east of England, is a net contributor to the Chancellor’s coffers, and that we get so very little back. I am sure that my council tax payers would welcome not paying any more than they already do as net contributors to council tax, and I am sure that she would welcome a transparent system that sought to ensure that we had a fair allocation system, rather than us constantly being asked to be the cash cow of the local area.

I absolutely agree that we need a fairer, more transparent system. That requires fundamental changes to how local taxation is raised and spent, which is why the Liberal Democrats have been talking about local income tax, which would make things clearer. I am not entirely sure how a one-off central grant, which is what the Government are claiming to offer, will achieve transparency. Council tax payers in Hertfordshire will rightly be annoyed about being net contributors, but, as the hon. Lady pointed out, they are concerned about resources for their public services. That is a balance that council tax payers have to strike, and they have to decide whether they are prepared for further service cuts, which Conservative Members say they do not want. There is a contradiction that must be resolved.

The debate is not just about a local situation; there are national issues—not just of funding, but of the co-ordination of training, the establishment of standards, the making available of guidance and the collection of data. As to training, when firefighters came to see me at the national lobby, they pointed out that there has been a change of emphasis towards fire safety and away from training to deal with larger incidents. They explained that that makes it difficult for them to make time for such training to deal with large fires. They also talked about their great difficulty in obtaining training to understand the wide and widening range of equipment that they are asked to use.

The most recent addition at my local fire station is an emergency response unit that can deal with chemical spills, for example. The firefighters said that it was difficult for fire stations with whole-time cover to make time available for training in using the hundreds of items of equipment for firefighting and for dealing with road traffic accidents, flooding and chemical spills.

Things are even more difficult for retained firefighters. I spent a day with retained firefighters who were doing their initial training, and was gobsmacked when I learned how much ground they must cover in two weeks. As the firefighters at the national lobby explained to me, they are concerned that there will be a knock-on effect on their ability to turn out. There is a reliance on retained firefighters not just to turn out and man a tender; it is necessary also for them to be trained to use the equipment.

Will the Minister comment on the number of occasions on which fire stations have been unable to turn out with the equipment firefighters want to use, not because there are not enough firefighters, but because not enough of them are trained to use the equipment needed for a particular incident?

The experience in Hertfordshire provides a microcosm of the experiences I have been describing. Despite a reduction in the headline figures relating to fires prevented and call-outs, this is an area where there have been significant fires and, sadly, fatalities and injuries have resulted. That seems to me to be representative of the wider story that the FBU was trying to tell in its national lobby: there is a headline impact on the number of fires and call-outs, but insufficient time is being dedicated to allow firefighters to respond to the larger incidents.

Guidance is another issue that arises, and the FBU makes recommendations in its report “In the Line of Duty”. It points out that in 2004 the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council was abolished, and raises concerns that since then there has been no systematic issuing and development of guidance. It suggests that a new body needs to be established to take on that role. I am not convinced of the need for a separate body, although I am open to being convinced. Does the Minister have any comment to make on whether any existing bodies could take on that function?

As to data, we know largely from requests made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that more firefighters are dying and that the official figures are lower than the levels recorded. What can the Minister do to ensure that the definitions of reportable deaths and of minor injuries are widened and clarified to allow systematic reporting of incidents resulting in fatalities, as well as of other deaths of firefighters while they are on duty but not necessarily fighting fires? In addition, what can he do to ensure that near misses are recorded? The point of collecting the data is to understand how situations arise and what can be done to prevent them. Understanding near misses is as important as following through with information on what has happened when things go wrong.

The hon. Member for St. Albans raised pertinent issues on fire control. I have been concerned about the apparent continuing delay in the roll-out of the regional fire control centres. That adds to my cynicism about the prospect of the regional fire control centres doing a more effective job than existing fire control centres. I have asked several questions about that matter. On one occasion I asked why, if the Government say that centralisation is needed, they do not go the whole hog and put everything in one place. The response from the then Minister was that that would not be sensible because a terrorist hit could take out that one fire control centre. That is true, and it seems to me to be an argument for spreading control centres out as widely as possible.

A huge amount of expertise will be lost. The people who work in fire control in my constituency will not relocate to Taunton, where the new fire control centre is to be built on the flood plain. Resources are being spent; once again, an information technology system is being set up that is running over budget and over time. The resources could be much better spent on the front line.

There is a case for getting the correct balance between focusing on prevention and ensuring that firefighters have access to the training they need to use equipment that enables them to deal with fires and an ever-widening range of other incidents such as road traffic accidents and flooding, which has become a particular problem. Firefighters will be best able to respond, and the Department will be best able to ensure that they have the right equipment, only if there is proper reporting of information on the risks taken by firefighters whey they go out to do their job every day, and the impact of those risks.

I would like to hear the Minister’s response to all the recommendations in the report—for a common and consistent reporting mechanism for fatalities and major injuries, the widening of the definition of reportable incidents, a national independent fire and rescue service investigation unit, centrally issued guidance to ensure that firefighters know that they have back-up, national standards, and systems to enable lessons to be learned from the fatalities that occur.

The report shows a need for Government action, and I hope that the Minister will provide reassurance to all hon. Members who have raised concerns and the firefighters who came to the lobby.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate and on her eloquent and well researched remarks. She is passionate about the issue and has responded as a good constituency Member of Parliament to last week’s debate and lobby, when the Fire Brigades Union came to the House. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who brought a personal touch to the debate when he related the experience of his constituent and his family, and the bravery of that gentleman. I support and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on his principled and tenacious campaign on behalf of his constituents to save Radlett fire station.

The issue is immensely important, not least because, as we have heard, 22 firefighters have been killed in the past five years, and the trend seems to be getting worse. It is interesting that one of the mantras repeated constantly by the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), concerned the number of fire-related deaths being the lowest since the 1950s. I do not necessarily query that. It is the case, and is the result of demographic and social changes and changes in education and community engagement. I congratulate the Government on that success, but the corollary, if I may quote Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, whom I met last week with Mick Shaw, the president, is that there is

“a policy vacuum—a neglect of up-to-date central guidance on firefighter safety.”

If, as my hon. Friends have said, overall fire deaths are falling but firefighter deaths are rising, there are some big issues.

It goes without saying that I pay tribute to Hertfordshire fire and rescue as well as to the Fire Brigades Union, not only for its report, “In the Line of Duty”, but for its work in exposing the shambles of the regional fire control centres and destroying the intellectual case for that policy. I will refer to that later.

I draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 2489 on firefighter safety and data collection, which I tabled and which has been signed by 61 other hon. Members from all parties. It is a straightforward early-day motion that calls for more safety-critical operational guidance for fire authorities, draws attention to the deficiency in data collection mentioned by my hon. Friends and urges greater clarity and standardisation in the recording and investigation of firefighter fatalities and injuries. It stands as a record of the commitment of Her Majesty’s Opposition to this pressing issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans raised concerns about flooding and resilience funding, which we discussed two weeks ago in this Chamber. The reason why Project Fireguard has collapsed is that fire authorities take the sensible view that resilience is essentially a national issue that should be funded nationally. It is incumbent on the Government to move quickly and to decide, finally, whether it should be a statutory duty for fire and rescue authorities to attend to flooding. If not, the Government should decide where to site funding to facilitate proper reactions to flooding incidents across the country.

It is important to discuss the practical operation of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. Mention has been made of the integrated risk management plans. In the experience of many long-standing firefighters, union officials, local councils and fire authorities, the plans are being used as a fig leaf for driving through revenue cuts that remove retained firefighters, appliances and stations. In a debate on 18 March this year on Humberside fire and rescue, we saw that that is what is happening in practical terms. We should review integrated risk management plans, relate them to the everyday on-site training that firefighters receive and use them properly in terms of risk assessment.

On funding, as I have mentioned, we need to bring forward the review of the formula spending share from 2010 to 2009, not least in the light of yesterday’s pre-Budget report and the fact that this Government have all but bankrupted this country. That is an important issue that the Fire Brigades Union and others will take forward.

Why is there such a lack of risk-critical operational guidance? Why have we not updated it using avenues such as the national chief fire and rescue adviser, Sir Ken Knight, or the operational guidelines from the Department for Communities and Local Government? As the Minister will know, his predecessor and I debated the national fire and rescue service framework in June. That would have been an opportune moment to review firefighter training, but it was not addressed. More emphasis is placed on diversity, quotas and tick boxes than on firefighter safety. I do not think that that is the right set of priorities going forward over the next few years.

We come to the subject of regional fire control centres. Where do I begin? Yesterday morning, I visited the new regional fire control centre at Blackbrook business park in Taunton. It has been built on the edge of a flood plain. There has been massive opposition to regional fire control centres, not least in Gloucestershire, where the fire element of the tri-service centre in Quedgeley has been ripped out and a £6 million private finance initiative scheme disabled by the obsession for regional government started by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the 2004 vote against the regional assembly and the vote not to go ahead with the merger of police forces. Fire control centres are the only behemoth of regional government still being pursued by this Government.

Given that the then fire Minister told us in 2004 that regional control centres would cost only £100 million and would definitely generate £30 million, or 30 per cent., in revenue savings over the period to 2017, the figures are horrendous. Some £55 million has been spent so far on consultants and £50 million on local and national project set-up. That is £100 million already. Some £190 million has been spent on IT and £342 million on premises. We are heading towards £700 million, and not one regional control centre is yet open, nor is one likely to open.

I challenge the Minister to give us a date for the new cut-overs. He has delayed them in the south-west and throughout the country, and he has refused to tell fire authorities when they will happen. He knows that they must happen before 2012, because of the Olympics—senior chief fire officers have said that it will not be a tenable situation if the fire control project is not online by the time of the Olympics. He will also know that, as I have said, the cost basis rationale for the project is dead and buried, as is the resilience basis. All the technical improvements that Ministers trotted out constantly and wrote to hon. Members about in the summer are happening anyway. For instance, in Avon, 19 of the 20 technical improvements that have taken place would have happened anyway, without a regional control centre and all the related costs.

I challenge the Minister to have the courage of his convictions in his new role and to say to the Treasury, “This is a disastrous project. It’s impacting in the post-comprehensive spending review period on real front-line services and on revenue funding. Kill it off; pull the plug.” He would have our strong and emphatic support, as well as that of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), I am sure.

Incidentally, I am sure that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne will support the Conservatives’ push for greater transparency. In government, we would seek an Australian-style grants commission that would exercise fairness and transparency in allocating revenue grant funding, unlike the present Government, who seem to make it up as they go along. However, I am slightly concerned that the hon. Lady is confused about how it will all be paid for. I thought that the Liberal Democrats had killed off local income tax, not least because it is electoral poison in most of the south of England, including—dare I say it—in the south-west and Cornwall.

For a lot of people, the fundamental confusion arising from the system of local government funding is due to the fact that in a lot of cases about 80 per cent. of what is spent is provided by central Government grants. Surely the drive is not just to have a clearer central Government grant system. I thought that the hon. Gentleman’s party was committed to localism and ensuring that more is raised and spent locally. Once one goes down that path, it is clear that most people feel that council tax is not fit for purpose. It rises every year above inflation.

I hope that the Liberal Democrats have more clarity by the time we reach the general election, because people will want to know. They will want to know the point of voting Liberal Democrat anyway, given that it will be a clear choice between two competing visions, but I assure the hon. Lady that we have a clear and well-argued policy, which we will articulate in our general election manifesto.

The issue of regional control centres is integral to this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans has mentioned the Pitt review. The Pitt review specifically does not advocate regional control centres in the conclusions that it reached after examining the widespread national floods in the summer of 2007, despite being “invited” to do so. That is an important point.

My hon. Friends asked what might happen in a new regional control centre set-up if there were a catastrophic outage—for instance, if a hacker were to place a computer bug throughout the IT system. Can anyone imagine the ramifications of all nine regional control centres, including the one for the London fire brigade in Docklands, crashing at the same time? Of course, that is something that none of us wants to happen, but it is something that we need to think hard about in terms of a risk assessment. At the moment, there would be 45 other potential fire control centres to pick up the slack in the event of a serious terrorist incident, a pandemic or major floods. That would not be the case if we had nine or 10 centres interlinked by a common IT network, which is a very serious concern.

The New Dimensions programme has been mentioned. I know that the Minister will want to have some time to put his views forward and to answer the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans has put. In the spirit of consensus, I want to give the Minister an opportunity to use two specific avenues to try to address the particular issues that my hon. Friends the Members for St. Albans, for Hertsmere and for North-East Hertfordshire, as well as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, have raised today.

One avenue is the report into the very sad circumstances of the firefighter deaths at Atherstone on Stour, which the Minister will know about. That report is due by the end of this month or early December and it will obviously raise the profile of firefighter safety. It will be a golden opportunity for the Minister to examine the key issues that have been raised today. The other avenue, of course, is the Minister’s official response to the National Audit Office report on the New Dimensions programme, which is also concerned with issues of resilience.

Those two avenues will perhaps give the Minister the opportunity to look at resilience, training, achieving a level of consistency and the policy vacuum that the FBU has alluded to, and also the potential disaster of regional control centres. Let us trust local professionals and respect their expertise, and let us see some flexibility from the Government in assuaging the concerns that my hon. Friends have articulated so well today.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. The issues that she raised are all very serious and, by and large, she raised and discussed them in a temperate manner. In fact, every contribution to the debate, even the last one by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), has been made in a reasonable and calm manner. I say that because the hon. Gentleman and I normally have knockabout in debates, but it is appropriate that when the father of a brave firefighter—a hero—is in Westminster Hall we all behave in a manner that respects the fire service and firefighters.

I know that one of the reasons that the hon. Member for St. Albans secured this debate is the recent Fire Brigades Union report, “In the Line of Duty”, to which she alluded, and the subsequent lobby by firefighters, which was referred to by other colleagues too. The report covers a wide range of issues. Although I will address some of them now, I am sure that hon. Members will understand that I cannot deal with all the points substantively in the short time available to me.

The contribution by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) was very important; he made some excellent points. There are two options that I can take today: I can either respond in a knee-jerk manner to the points made in the FBU report, or I can consider them. There were some very serious points. The hon. Gentleman referred to just three of them: the process for recording deaths, the investigative processes that are in place, and the safe strategic guidance.

I have discussed the report with the general secretary of the FBU and important points are made in it. However, I cannot then be criticised for being lackadaisical or for lacking the conviction to take the report seriously, if I have considered the report and want to respond in a proper manner. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me as I respond to the points that have been made.

The hon. Member for Peterborough, who is the spokesman for Her Majesty’s Opposition, gave me two avenues to try to show that there had been a cultural change. Once again, on the one hand we consider reports and try to find an opportunity to make announcements yet on the other hand we are criticised and accused of being lackadaisical.

For reasons that I hope will be clear, I will not go into too much detail about the FBU report, although I will touch on some of the points that have been made.

The point that I was making was that in an earlier answer to me, the Minister described a framework for future development of operational guidance. I was not really suggesting that he was lackadaisical, just that it seemed a rather leisurely process and that there might be a need for a little more expedition. If the framework is something worth doing, let us get on with it. I would be very grateful if the Minister could explain what the framework is and what is happening about the issue of operational guidance, because that seems to be at the core of the debate.

I will be coming to that issue later. However, in short it is a system whereby the adviser, stakeholders and the Government work together, and not a command control system whereby we inflict and impose guidance. Instead, we will be working with key stakeholders to ensure that the system is acceptable, which is the right and proper way to do things. I will talk about the framework in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

I want to kick off by putting on the record that I believe that we have a fire and rescue service that we can be proud of. Day in and day out, members of the fire and rescue service put their lives on the line—we heard examples of that earlier today. In fact, my family were saved from a big fire many years ago by brave firefighters, so I personally am hugely grateful to firefighters. Firefighters serve the community with true professionalism, courage and dedication.

The statistics show that the fire and rescue service is making a difference. Accidental fire deaths have fallen to their lowest level since the 1950s. The latest verified figures for 2006 in England show that 233 people died in accidental fire deaths in the home, but the provisional figures for 2007 are potentially looking even better. They show an 18 per cent. reduction, to 190 accidental fire deaths in the home.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire queried why the number of deaths of firefighters has been going up when the number of incidents was going down. One death, or one injury, is too many, so I feel uncomfortable talking about figures going down. In fact, the hon. Gentleman is not right. The number of injuries to firefighters has been falling steadily, as has the rate of injury per incident, so I would just like to put it on the record that his assertion is not quite right. However, as I have said, any death is still unacceptable and we are taking the FBU report very seriously, including some of the FBU’s recommendations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, as I will swiftly return to those recommendations. I will try to use the avenues or pegs that the hon. Member for Peterborough has given me as I respond, but please bear with me.

On a related issue, the Minister will know that in February the FBU also reported on data on attacks on firefighters. He will also know that there was a significant discrepancy between the official recorded number of attacks, as recorded by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the number obtained under freedom of information provisions. In any review that he conducts on firefighter safety and training, will he also look at the collation of data in respect of physical assaults on firefighters?

Only last night I was reading about the impact of antisocial behaviour on firefighters. May I drop the hon. Gentleman a note on the issue? If he is still unhappy after receiving the note, I will be happy to discuss the issue with him. It is serious and we must ensure that we deal with the pernicious evil in our society, whereby people who go into fires, risking their lives or even losing them, have antisocial behaviour inflicted on them.

As I said, one death would be one too many, but thankfully the statistics are going in the right direction. The service, in partnership with the Government and county councils, has been putting measures in place to support the reduction of deaths. However, as we all recognise, the kind of challenges that the service faces and the conditions in our communities are changing. As the tragic events of 7 July 2005 showed, we have to contend with a new type of terrorist threat. Last year’s floods were the worst in living memory and in years to come climate change is likely to make such extremes of weather more common.

I take the point that was made by the hon. Member for St. Albans about recording. We need to record properly what the fire and rescue services do, otherwise it is not fair. I hear her point and I will ensure that I try to deal with it. I would like to drop her a note about that too, because we would not want to use old systems of recording when it comes to working out how efficiently and usefully firefighters are using their time. I would be grateful if I can come back to her on that point.

We have come a long way since the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, when we did away with national standards of response and gave the fire and rescue services new flexibility to make local community safety plans that were tailored to local needs, and empowered fire authorities to use resources for a wide range of emergency responses. I hope that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and who is all in favour of empowerment and devolution, welcomes that system rather than stringent national standards.

We have experienced emergencies such as the terrorist threat and the Buncefield fire in Hemel Hempstead. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who is in Afghanistan. He has championed the concerns articulated by the hon. Member for St. Albans, and I know that he is a mouthpiece for constituents who are rightly concerned. Such emergencies and that of widespread flooding have demonstrated the benefits of mutual aid arrangements in giving an effective response while avoiding unnecessary duplication of specialist resources. As we respond to new challenges, we can surely make the most progress by finding common ground, listening to each other and learning. That is vital to the debate.

The hon. Lady mentioned the three-year settlements for fire and rescue authorities. We are committed to sustainable funding for all fire and rescue authorities, which will allow them to build on modernisation and fund the various efficiency initiatives that are being implemented. As has been said, in the three-year local government settlement announced at the beginning of this year, Hertfordshire county council received an increase of 2 per cent. for 2008-09 on a like-for-like basis. Provisionally, it will receive increases of 1.75 per cent. in 2009-10 and 1.5 per cent. in 2010-11. As has been mentioned, that is protected by the floor dampening mechanism, which means that in each of those years respectively, it will receive £36.7 million, £32.2 million and £21.1 million more than it otherwise would have.

We must accept that Hertfordshire county council has responsibility for fire and rescue and other services throughout the county, not Ministers.

The Minister is right in the figures that he has used about the floor. However, they reflect the fact that Hertfordshire county council suffered a redistribution of funds away from it through the Government’s original mechanism, which distributed greater funds to other parts of the country. Hertfordshire county council was left on the floor, which is a protective mechanism. Local residents are still feeling the effects of that decision, about which the Government were warned at the time.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened. I have the figures for the past 10 years, and interestingly the smallest increase was 1.9 per cent. in 1998-99, when we were tied to Conservative spending limits. From then on, there have been increases of 3.9 per cent., 5.4 per cent., 6.2 per cent., 7.3 per cent., 6 per cent. and 4.9 per cent. Opposition Members were not to know that this debate would come a day after the shadow Chancellor’s shocking speech, but God knows what would happen if we had a council tax freeze in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and county over the next two years. God forbid that the shadow Chancellor be allowed to have his policies prey upon the people of Hertfordshire. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman should thank his lucky stars that he has the current Chancellor in the job rather than the shadow Chancellor.

Hertfordshire county council has responsibility for fire and rescue services throughout the county, as well as for other services. Formula grant is an unhypothecated block grant, which means that there are no restrictions on how the county allocates it to the services that it provides. Deciding on the allocations is a local matter, and the council is best placed to decide on local priorities for the communities that it serves.

I was surprised by the criticism of efficiency savings by the hon. Member for St. Albans. I thought that her party, and the shadow Chancellor, were all in favour of efficiency savings. In fact, we are criticised for not going far enough in requiring county councils, other local authorities, and by extension fire and rescue services, to make such savings. I do not resile from asking all public servants to do so, and I do not apologise for that. Taxpayers’ money is finite.

I turn to the matters raised in the FBU report, which the hon. Lady mentioned. She raised the crucial matter of firefighter fatalities, which was one of the key concerns that the FBU raised. Although any firefighter fatality is a tragedy, thankfully the number of fatalities remains very low and the number of injuries to firefighters is falling steadily. Of course, we will continue to work closely with stakeholders to ensure that lessons are learned.

It was extremely unfair of the hon. Lady to suggest that lessons were not being learned or that there was somehow a sham in relation to either the Buncefield incident or the 2005 incident that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned. He was right that in that case, the breathing apparatus crew rescued an occupant. When they learned that a further person was inside, they went back inside in search of the second reported person. That was when they suffered their injuries. It is worth taking the time to record that, so that they are thanked properly. There is a Health and Safety Executive investigation, and we will take it seriously, respond to it and work with key partners to learn lessons.

On Buncefield, the hon. Lady will know that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead would not allow the Government not to take action—she knows him too well. Further work is taking place, and four separate reports have been published and their recommendations implemented. I hope that she will shortly see the fruits of some of the changes that have been made, if she has not already.

The hon. Lady mentioned training. My Department, the Chief Fire Officers Association and the Local Government Association continue to work together to provide support to fire and rescue authorities to ensure, as employers, that staff are trained to undertake their roles effectively and safely. Looking forward, we are keen to work with the service to ensure that training is effective. We are planning research to support continuous improvement in service delivery and share good practice. It should be noted that notwithstanding the difficult times and the policy of some parties to make cuts, we have provided some £50 million of funding for the Fire Service College since 2002, including £15 million to provide a state-of-the-art resilience training facility.

The Minister said that he did not want to give his full response to the FBU report “In the Line of Duty” today. How does he intend to respond to it, and when?

My officials are currently going through the report thoroughly, as am I. As soon as we are in a position to respond to it, we will. I have spoken to the general secretary of the FBU once, and will be speaking to him again this week. As soon as I make progress, I undertake to alert the usual channels and the hon. Gentleman about the time lines involved. It was worth the hon. Gentleman’s raising the matter, and I will not resist his chasing me up every few weeks to see what our response will be. That chivvying is right and proper, especially in discussing such matters.

We have spent more than £7.5 million on work force development projects, to provide training programmes and e-learning facilities and to establish a centre for leadership for the fire and rescue service.

I cannot end without mentioning FiReControl—I do not think that the hon. Member for Peterborough would forgive me. He is right that there is a £1 billion fire and resilience programme for England’s fire and rescue services, and I believe that the case for a new national network of control services to handle emergency fire calls is clear. Every area and every constituency in England will benefit from enhanced resilience. Under FiReControl, eight key capabilities will be provided to each and every fire and rescue service, ranging from automatic caller location from land lines and mobiles to real-time information on the location of the resources out on the road and in-cab computers for firefighters, loaded with vital safety information. The hon. Member for St. Albans claimed that no one in Hertfordshire wants that, but that is not the case. Only 10 of the current 46 control rooms have six or more of those eight capabilities, and only two have all eight. They will benefit from being part of a national network that, unlike the present system, can back them up and deploy the right response if they get extremely busy.

Floods have been mentioned. During last year’s floods, we all saw the magnificent response of the professionals in the fire and rescue service and the other emergency services. We saw what a brilliant and professional job they did in tough circumstances. It brought home to me and to many others, including our independent adviser Sir Ken Knight in his report on the floods, the need for a national network able to respond to local, regional and national incidents. In short, the need to give the fire and rescue service the tools to face 21st-century challenges such as climate change and the threat of terrorism supports the need for FiReControl.

The fire and rescue service has undergone a period of unprecedented modernisation and change since 2003. It has risen to the challenges admirably, and I believe that it will continue to do so. I welcome the opportunities of my new role as the fire service Minister, and I shall continue to work with the service. I once again congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans and thank her for raising important issues. If there is any point to which she does not think I have done justice, I ask her to get in touch and I will respond by letter.