I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate fire station provision within Warwickshire. I am also delighted to have the support of my colleagues from the county. However, I am sure that we in Westminster Hall will especially appreciate the presence of the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright). Owing to the convention that Whips do not speak in Westminster Hall debates, he is prevented from participating, although his thoughts on this matter are well documented.
Warwick is passionate about its fire station, and I will let my hon. Friends from the county speak in support of their own fire stations. Recently, 12,000 of my constituents signed a petition to keep Warwick fire station—a move that garnered support from the entire community, not just for emotional reasons, although Warwick residents will be forgiven for wanting to keep their fire station, given that much of the mediaeval town was destroyed in the great fire of 1694.
Warwick is an old town that is rich in heritage, and it is the central point of an ancient county. Warwick castle is located in the very heart of the town, and I need not go into great detail about the dangers that can occur from castle fires. Alongside our local NHS hospital, we have the 500-year-old Lord Leycester hospital. Both buildings are located not more than half a mile from the present fire station.
Local residents want to go to sleep safe in the knowledge that their town is secure and that, if the worst should happen, there is a fire station nearby to deal with any emergencies. It is not too much to ask to keep that fire station; local people should not have to plead to keep it.
People in my constituency appreciate—indeed, I do, too—that things need to move on. Local residents are not opposed to change, but they just do not understand why they have to lose their fire station because of change. Frankly, they do not think that they have been given a good enough set of reasons to explain the loss of their fire station. The very first priority must surely be front-line public safety.
It would not be too much to say that people in my constituency are also frustrated by the whole process of change. A flawed consultation, costing in excess of £300,000, was carried out, but it consistently showed the local population’s anger at the proposed closures. People have turned to their local town councillors and district councillors, who have supported them. They have also turned to their county councillors.
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot make a speech. You can make an intervention, with the permission of the Member who has secured the debate—I understand that to be the case. Any contribution to the debate must take the form of an intervention, not a speech.
You put that very beautifully, Mr. Benton; you are quite right. I therefore thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene on him in this debate. I shall just add that the initial consultation on this issue was deeply flawed, which I think was recognised in the end. I went to see the chief fire officer before May—I will see him again on Friday—to press the point home that the local community and the local fire officers in Bidford, Studley and Alcester have not been in any way objectionable. In fact, they have been very proactive and John Maples, my predecessor as the MP for Stratford-on-Avon, has worked very hard with them. They have put forward a very strong proposal, which I have supported throughout this process, and I just implore the councillors to look at that proposal for Bidford, Studley and Alcester fire stations to remain open, because if one looks at all the evidence that I have before me, which I am sure my hon. Friend has also seen, one sees that if those stations close the length of time that firefighters will take to get to fire hazards would be increased to what I believe would be an unacceptably long time. So I implore the councillors to listen very carefully before they make the decision to close those three fire stations.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. If the arguments that he is using are not enough, the proposals really fail on the common-sense test. The proposals rightly say that the range of incidents and the types of risks have changed—those things have changed—but the consultation document has not considered the fact that Warwickshire is due to experience an increase in housing and industry. As the economic recovery happens, we still need to look at how we strategically place our fire service provision.
We need a more reliable and faster fire service; but on a common-sense level, how can that be achieved with fewer firefighters and fewer fire engines? Withdrawing a third of the local fleet does not seem to be the best method to increase response times or reliability. The proposals say that we need to increase the training of firefighters, but what good will that do if there are not enough of them to go around? Getting rid of a group of highly skilled retained firefighters will not help to tackle a skills shortage.
Even more unreasonably, the proposals say that retained fire engines suffer from insufficient crewing. Obviously, therefore, the most logical response to a shortage of retained firefighters is not to get rid of retained firefighters. Who in their right mind would apply to become a retained firefighter, sacrificing their time and energy as well as taking enormous personal risks, when they can be got rid of so easily?
Tackling road incidents is the fastest growing area of work for our fire service. Forgive me if I am wrong, but surely it is obvious that responding to that growing area of work requires more fire engines, not fewer. However, having fewer fire engines is exactly what the fire service is proposing. It is seeking to reduce the number of local fire engines by 10, yet it has gone to the great length of hiring a new assistant chief fire officer, which, from my point of view, seems to be a very retrograde step.
I appreciate that our fire service is a key part of the national resilience network and that arguments have been made that a greater focus is needed on that aspect of its work.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make a couple of points of my own. I think that he is aware that, as an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps, I have been personally responsible for conducting emergency medical and fire response planning and training for NATO troops in Bosnia, so the subject of this debate is one with which I am fairly familiar.
I think that we all fully understand the difficulty that Warwickshire county council finds itself in. The senior firefighter for Warwickshire has recommended these changes, and the council cannot simply dismiss them out of hand. Therefore, to consult widely on these proposals was the right thing to do—
Order. I just want to point out that Members can only make interventions—I do so in the nicest possible way—and that they cannot make speeches. The hon. Gentleman who secured the debate asked me if it was okay for his colleagues to intervene, not to make speeches. So, in the best possible manner, I just point that out to Members.
Thank you, Mr Benton. I apologise. As I am obviously a new Member, perhaps I am still finding my feet a little in relation to some of these matters. I therefore just want to ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that the county council must now demonstrate that the consultation was a genuine exercise and that local people’s concerns will be listened to? During the consultation, a number of us asked the leader of the council and the chief fire officer whether public confidence in the proposals was a factor that they were taking into account, and I think that the people of Bedworth, Warwick and Warwickshire have clearly shown that they have no confidence in a number of these proposals.
I am certainly happy to pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I am sure that we will all be working in our own way. I apologise for some of my colleagues, Mr Benton; it is a happy disaster that so many new Members have been elected in Warwickshire.
The Morphew report, published in 2007, made it clear that waste and inefficiency were present, not because of too many fire stations but because of too much bureaucracy, which is something that we all understand from many other walks of life. According to the report, the Warwickshire fire and rescue service spent more per head on non-uniformed staff than any other county fire and rescue service in the country. The difference was not small: Warwickshire spent 220% more than its nearest rival, and it has between 15% and 20% more support staff than any similar fire and rescue authority in the country.
The report not only identified waste on non-uniformed and support staff, but outlined that Warwickshire had the sixth highest corporate and democratic core costs out of 43 fire services. Those costs increased by 54% in the four years preceding the 2007 report. The report also stated that such costs accounted for about £5 million of the Warwickshire fire and rescue service’s budget. A conservative saving of 10% on those costs, rather than on front-line services, would cut £500,000. I respect the work of our support and non-uniformed staff and I appreciate that all organisations in this country face rising costs, but if it comes down to a choice between saving firefighters and fire stations and spending more on back-room staff, I know which one the people of Warwick would prefer.
I compliment my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the strong case that he is making in respect of the consultation affecting the fire service in Warwickshire. Will he join me in advancing the case for Brinklow fire station? It is a retained station north of Rugby in my constituency that serves a rural area. Significantly, it is near junction 1 of the M6. Warwickshire has many motorways, and the ability to get to a motorway fast is important. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to speak, and I compliment him on his remarks.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is clear and evident support across the county for every one of our fire stations.
Our constituents have put trust and faith in us by putting us in this place. They expect their Members of Parliament to stand up for them when they feel ignored or wronged. In this debate, I am doing what I can to honour that trust. However, as I am sure we are all aware, I cannot personally overturn the decision, nor would it be right for me to do so. I do not seek to undermine the authority of the county council or confidence in our fire station, and I respect the hard work done by our councillors and the Warwickshire fire and rescue service, but in cases where the local community’s wishes are absolutely and unequivocally clear, something must be done. I call on the Government from this platform to do what they can to influence the decision and to ensure that proper consultation is carried out, that the rationale for closure makes clear and absolute sense and that local residents’ wishes are heard. The people of Warwickshire deserve nothing less.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) on securing the debate and raising what I know is an important issue for him and the other hon. Members who have spoken, as well as their constituents. The fire service is important, as it deals with people’s lives, and it is therefore particularly appropriate that this debate has been so well attended by hon. Members from the county of Warwickshire. I take on board the points made by my hon. Friend, whom I listened to with care. I also take on board the points made by hon. Members in interventions, as well as those that have been made to me by the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), who, as another member of the Government, is not in a position to speak in this debate, but has taken the trouble to contact me on behalf of his constituents.
Against that background, I understand my hon. Friend’s pride in Warwickshire’s fire stations and the services that they provide. Local pride in services is one reason why we as a Government are committed to localism for the fire service as well as the rest of local government. Local providers are best placed to know how to serve their local communities and, importantly, to know what level of service that might entail and the best means of delivering that service.
I associate myself with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington for the work of firefighters in Warwickshire, particularly the retained firefighters to whom he referred, who work hard to keep the people of their communities safe. We should be immensely proud of them. I had the pleasure to meet officials of the Retained Firefighters Union earlier today. The retained service has the full support and confidence of the Government.
The background to the proposals is based in the governance and statutory arrangements controlling the fire services in England. Fire and rescue authorities are required to produce and regularly update an integrated risk management plan, sometimes called an IRMP, which identifies and assesses a local need and sets out plans effectively to mitigate existing and potential risks to communities. The Warwickshire fire and rescue authority’s plan was produced by that process.
The process epitomises localism by enabling each fire and rescue authority to decide how best to provide fire and rescue-related services. That, of course, includes prevention and protection as well as response. Resources are allocated on the basis of an evaluation of risk and where risks are greatest. The evaluation includes such strategic and operational issues as the siting, manning and equipping of fire stations and their hours of operation, and should also take into account cross-border arrangements with neighbouring authorities. Local requirements are thus determined by local people according to local circumstances.
An evaluation under that process has led to specific considerations by the Warwickshire fire and rescue authority to change the fire cover arrangements in its area in light of both the assessed risk and the availability of resources. It is fair to say, of course, that fire and rescue authorities, like all other public services, must be cognisant of constraints on budgets in the circumstances of the economic crisis inherited by this Government. Equally, of course, it is the Government’s determination that priority should be given to services at the front line. It is therefore right that many of the proposals in IRMPs—this applies across the country, not just in Warwickshire—aim to increase efficiency. By so doing, fire and rescue authorities can maximise the amount of risk-reducing activity they can deliver from the resources available. That is clearly the right approach, and the aim must always be to ensure excellent service delivery.
I know that that sometimes involves difficult decisions. Having served as a member and leader of a fire authority myself, I am conscious that, in such circumstances, there are often contrary arguments that are advanced in good faith that must be weighed up. I have read Warwickshire fire and rescue authority’s improvement plan proposals, which cover many areas besides fire station changes, such as the promotion of public fire safety, increased firefighter training, enhanced flood response, the introduction of a specialist road traffic collision unit, and the deployment of small fires units and target response vehicles. I note that Warwickshire contends that, overall, the plan will ensure that current fire cover is maintained across all areas and that, in some areas, it will be improved. It also contends that there will not be an adverse effect on response times.
Of course, I have heard a number of counter-arguments in today’s debate that have echoed the concerns expressed locally in the past six months or so. I am also aware that the inquiry into the tragic deaths of firefighters at Atherstone on Stour remains outstanding. An argument can be advanced for bearing in mind the outcome of that inquiry before coming to any final conclusions on the shape of the service although, as I will make apparent, that decision is not for me to make as Minister; it is for the fire and rescue authority to make.
It is a requirement that the IRMP and any significant changes to it are subject to full consultation with the local community prior to agreement and implementation, and I am aware of the amount of debate that has already been generated about these proposals. At one level, that degree of interest is a good thing. One never likes to see controversy, but the process has generated a real sense of engagement in the communities concerned about the importance of the fire service in their area. As someone who believes passionately in the fire service—as I did before I became Minister—that is something I welcome. Although such a process is healthy, it is right that both sides of the debate are heard, and therefore I recognise and commend the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington in ensuring that counter-arguments are appropriately focused and conducted, and presented to the fire and rescue authority before it takes its decision.
Against that background, I come back to the crucial point that it is not the place of central Government and Ministers to intervene in the operational proposals of a local authority’s IRMP or the associated balancing of competing local demands on available resources. The consideration of such proposals and the assessment of the benefits to the communities that are served are rightly the role of elected members of the authority concerned. They should make the appropriate decisions on the basis of the professional advice of the principal officers of the fire and rescue service and, as we have seen, following due consultation with the local community.
It might well be that members wish to come to a view on the material that they already have, that they will wish to consider options that are being put forward by various interested parties, or that they wish to consult across the areas of advice available to them about the options that are appropriate. I am sure that they will bear in mind the broader background to these proposals. That said, because of the statutory position and the correct political process of localism that applies here, I am sure that you, Mr Benton, and my hon. Friend will understand that I am unable to comment directly on the specific proposals that are being put forward and consulted upon by Warwickshire fire and rescue authority. The very principle of local determination and local solutions for local circumstances means that it would not be appropriate for me to attempt to influence the decisions with which the fire and rescue authority will be faced on 20 July in the light of representations made to it.
There is still a period of time between this debate and the decision on 20 July during which representations can be made. I am sure that all hon. Members who have spoken and others who are interested will continue to take the opportunity make such representations. My hon. Friend’s case was made powerfully and with admirable succinctness—such admirable succinctness that I am in the dilemma in which Ministers sometimes find themselves by wondering whether I should repeat my remarks until 4.30 pm.
It is important that our voices are heard and that my hon. Friend the Minister’s voice is heard. I am pleased that he has at least asked the county council to consider further consultation on the proposals, so that we can get local community support. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) was absolutely right when he said that if the confidence of the local community is not carried, it would be a tragedy. That is what I suggest should be echoed back to that decision-making meeting on 20 July.
I am sure that those taking the decisions will have heard this debate and will no doubt read the transcripts of it. As I said, it is not for me to comment on specific proposals when the decision must be taken by others, so I cannot go any further than again congratulating my hon. Friends on raising these matters. I shall therefore follow the advice of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and conclude.