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Written Statements

Volume 541: debated on Thursday 1 March 2012

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 1 March 2012

Communities and Local Government

Fire and Rescue Control Services

Today the Government are publishing the outcome of their invitation to fire and rescue authorities in England to submit their plans to improve the resilience, efficiency and technology in their control services following the termination of the last Government’s FiReControl project in December 2010.

In contrast to the last Administration, the coalition Government are adopting a localist approach to help secure improvements in national resilience, rather than the flawed approach of FireControl which tried to impose a top-down regionalisation of the fire service.

As I announced in my statement of 13 December 2011, Official Report, column 89WS, the Government are making available £81 million for local improvements —up to £1.8 million for each authority—and additional funding of £1.8 million to secure benefits of national importance bringing total funding available to £82.8 million.

I would like to thank all the fire and rescue authorities that responded to this invitation and for their co-operation in sharing their plans. Most respondents agreed with the Government’s preferred approach of achieving this through improvements and increased collaboration—in a locally determined manner, with some Government support. The plans submitted by fire and rescue authorities have reinforced this approach and shown how a localist approach will build resilience on a national scale.

Our approach also seeks to take steps to tackle the legacy of the empty regional fire control buildings which we have inherited and which, as the National Audit Office has observed, were a consequence of the flawed procurement process of the FiReControl programme. Some of these bids will make use of these legacy buildings; otherwise, we are separately seeking to dispose of the buildings for appropriate public or private sector use, to ensure value for money for the taxpayer.

This Government have also acknowledged the criticism of the National Audit Office of the FiReControl programme. As they stated in their report of 1 July 2011, HC1272;

“The FiReControl project was flawed from the outset because it did not have the support of those essential to its success—local fire and rescue services. The Department rushed the start of the project, failing to follow proper procedures. Ineffective checks and balances during initiation and early stages meant the Department committed itself to the project on the basis of broad-brush and inaccurate estimates of costs and benefits and an unrealistic delivery timetable, and agreed an inadequate contract with its IT supplier. The Department under-appreciated the project’s complexity, and then mismanaged the IT contractor’s performance and delivery. The Department failed to provide the necessary leadership to make the project successful, over-relying on poorly managed consultants and failing to sort out early problems with delivery by the contractor. The Department took a firmer grip of the project from 2009 and terminated the contract in December 2010 to avoid even more money being wasted”.

(National Audit Office press release, The Failure of the FiReControl project, 1 July 2011)

In total, 23 bids were received from 44 of the 46 fire and rescue authorities. The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority did not submit a bid as alternative arrangements had been agreed previously and resulted in London’s fire control arrangements being provided from a new operations centre in Merton, which I had the pleasure of opening on 1 February. The Isles of Scilly fire and rescue authority did not bid because its control arrangements are already provided by Cornwall fire and rescue authority.

The bids outline a series of local proposals to:

Improve the efficiency of fire and rescue control rooms: for example, Staffordshire and west midlands fire and rescue authorities aim to combine the provision of control room services for both authorities sharing one common call handling and mobilising, command and control system, including a secondary control providing local resilience. Combining control services will provide the opportunity to improve efficiency;

Strengthen local resilience: for example, resilience for large incidents and spate conditions in Buckinghamshire, Cambridge and Suffolk will be enhanced due to greater numbers of control staff being on duty at any one time than had they worked in isolation and create a larger pool to “recall to duty” if required, thereby strengthening the building blocks of national resilience;

Improve the ability to interoperate with each other and with other emergency services and agencies; 36 fire and rescue authorities’ submitted joint bids that involved collaboration with at least one other fire and rescue authority. The other eight fire and rescue authorities’ submitted bids that involved collaboration with other emergency or local services;

Deliver cumulative financial savings of over £120 million by 2021; and

Provide a platform for further strengthening and improvement.

Each bid has been considered carefully in line with the criteria I set out in July for value for money, efficiency and resilience. The resilience aspects of each bid were assessed by the chief fire and rescue adviser. I am pleased to be able to announce that I will be providing funding this year to the following fire and rescue authorities:

Buckinghamshire

Cambridgeshire and Suffolk

Cornwall

Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire

Devon and Somerset, Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire

Essex and Bedfordshire and Luton

Gloucestershire

Hereford and Worcester and Shropshire and Wrekin

Hertfordshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire and Norfolk

Kent

Isle of Wight and Surrey

Merseyside

Northamptonshire and Warwickshire

Oxfordshire and Berkshire

South and West Yorkshire

Staffordshire and West Midlands

Tyne and Wear and Northumberland

I rejected 13 requests for funding above the indicative amount of £1.8 million per fire and rescue authority. In those cases, I am awarding £1.8 million per fire and rescue authority. The submissions did not provide evidence of exceptional factors sufficient to justify a higher amount.

These allocations are in addition to early bids that I had already accepted from: a consortia of four fire and rescue authorities (for Lancashire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Cumbria); Durham and Darlington fire and rescue authority; and East and West Sussex fire and rescue authorities. I awarded the consortia of four authorities an additional £300,000 per authority above the indicative amount because their plans involve utilising the new control centre in Warrington and will deliver additional savings to the public.

There are three bids from English fire and rescue authorities which require further work before I can award any funding. I have asked officials to work with Avon fire and rescue authority, Cleveland fire and rescue authority and North Yorkshire fire and rescue authority with the aim of concluding matters by the end of June. I have set aside funding for them. We received one bid from a Welsh joint emergency services group which was out scope for the funding and has therefore been rejected.

I am also announcing today that I am minded to provide some funding from the £1.8 million fund for interoperability to a collaborative partnership of 13 fire and rescue authorities which has submitted a bid to develop standard operating procedures. I have asked officials to work with the authorities concerned to significantly reduce costs and ensure proposals align and support wider work now under way on cross “blue light” service interoperability and have potential to be adopted across all fire and rescue authorities. We will be reviewing the further work under way on cross-service interoperability and will consider whether there is other essential work that ought to be funded from the £1.8 million interoperability fund.

My Department is writing today to fire and rescue authorities to notify them of the outcome of their bids. Where bids have not been accepted this communication will set out the next steps.

I am pleased to note that the Chief Fire Officers Association national resilience has developed a detailed peer support process designed to provide assistance and support to fire authorities with the implementation of their control room improvement plans. This will provide central support to single fire authorities, or groups of partnering authorities, to facilitate implementation of their proposals to improve or replace their fire control facilities. It will also include the provision of a sector owned central repository to collate and manage information that will aid all fire authorities with the improvement or replacement of existing fire control facilities, along with the provision of professional support and assistance to resolve problems or issues when required or requested to do so.

Documents accompanying this statement have been placed in the Library of the House and on my Department’s website.

Defence

Defence Transformation

As part of the defence transformation project, MOD has been developing a new operating model to implement the changes recommended in Lord Levene’s defence reform report. This includes considering how to deliver acquisition and enabling services more efficiently, effectively and professionally through Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), the newly created Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) and Defence Business Services (DBS). In doing so, we are looking to make use of relevant private sector expertise.

The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) was created on 1 April 2011, bringing together all aspects of defence infrastructure, asset management and facilities management under one organisation. The DIO transformation programme will determine both the future operating model and the most appropriate corporate structure for DIO to deliver the support our armed forces need at the best value for money while delivering savings in operating costs.

The DIO has recently conducted ‘soft’ market testing to explore prospective roles for the private sector, determine likely levels of interest from industry and review the commercial principles on which the private sector might be engaged. This exercise gave prospective partners the opportunity to examine a range of delivery options with varying degrees of private sector involvement. The results from the soft market testing process will be used to inform an analysis of the scope for greater private sector involvement in the delivery of DIO services to deliver value for money, and of the appetite of the private sector to enter into such contractual arrangements with MOD.

MOD is also committed to improving performance at Defence Equipment and Support, and ensuring that the organisation has the structures, management and skills it needs to provide the right equipment to our armed forces at the right time, and at the right cost. I have asked the Chief of Defence Materiél to examine options for increasing the role of the private sector in the management of DE&S. These options will be developed and tested further over the coming months, and I will update the House as our thinking matures.

The Defence Business Services (DBS) organisation was created on 4 July 2011 to provide a high quality and professional service to the Department across a range of corporate services, covering civilian human resources, finance, information and security vetting.

As the next step in improving efficiency and effectiveness in these services I now propose, following a competitive process, and subject to a 10-day standstill period, to appoint an external management team from Serco to take over the leadership of DBS. Serco will work with DBS staff to transform the organisation into a lean and effective shared services centre, building on private sector best practice. DBS will continue to be part of the Ministry of Defence and personnel working in DBS will be employed in the same way as all other MOD staff, with the same terms and conditions.

Over its four-year duration, the value of the contract is around £36 million; there is an option for the Department to extend this for a further year. The contract is based on a zero management fee with all Serco’s earning being performance related. Serco will be strongly incentivised to drive down costs and deliver efficiencies and we expect savings of around £71 million to be achievable over the life of the contract.

Together, these three initiatives comprise a significant step in implementing the transformation of defence so it can best support Future Force 2020 as set out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Circuses (Wild Animals)

Following considerable public debate and concern about wild animals in travelling circuses, the Government are today setting out their approach to the use of performing wild animals in travelling circuses in England. We are confirming the intention to pursue a ban on the use of such animals on ethical grounds. This will take time and we have today published a consultation in which we propose establishing a licensing scheme to protect the welfare of such animals in the meantime.

The 2007 Radford report on circus animals concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate that travelling circuses are unable to meet the welfare needs of wild animals presently being used in the United Kingdom. That position has not changed. Consequently, we are now looking at the means by which a ban could be introduced on ethical grounds.

We have always made it clear that the Government are minded to ban performing wild animals in circuses. However, at the time this was last debated in the House there remained legal uncertainties which still required resolution as they would have a bearing on the position in the UK. In particular, a legal challenge to the Austrian ban was unresolved, including the possibility of a referral to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). It was prudent for the Government to hold back from making any commitments to a ban at that time. In December 2011, the judgment by the Austrian Constitutional Court did not result in a referral to the CJEU and on that basis we have the legal confidence to make our intentions clear.

As we develop the details and legislative framework for the ban, the welfare of those wild animals currently in circuses is paramount, and for this reason we are consulting on a tough new licensing regime that we can put in place promptly.

For the licensing scheme, we intend to use powers that are already available in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This will allow us to make sure the welfare-based licensing scheme is considered by the House before it rises for the summer.

Under the proposed licensing scheme, we propose that anyone responsible for a travelling circus that uses wild animals in performance:

Must hold a valid licence before using their animals in performance or face prosecution;

Must meet strict welfare standards or face enforcement action;

Must prepare and follow care plans for every animal; and

Must prepare a retirement plan for every animal.

The proposed welfare standards cover all aspects of life for a wild animal in a travelling circus environment, including:

Accommodation and housing standards;

Arranging for full veterinary care;

Changing animals listed in collections;

Controlling carefully who may access animals;

Diet (including food storage, preparation and provision);

Environmental and behavioural enrichment;

Environment factors (such as noise and temperature);

Welfare during training and performance.

Draft guidance is included in the consultation package. It sets out the practical steps that circuses would be able to follow in order to comply with the law. It explains the welfare standards which are based around the “five needs” established by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (the need for suitable environment, diet, normal behaviour patterns, housing with or apart from other animals, and protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease) and applies them to the travelling circus environment.

Formal inspections would be undertaken by Government-appointed specialist vets before a licence may be issued or renewed. If a licence were issued, compliance checks would be carried out during the period of a licence, including a combination of announced and unannounced visits both to winter quarters and to tour sites.

I welcome views on the details of our proposed licensing regime. The consultation runs from 1 March to 25 April to help ensure regulations can be laid before Parliament in summer this year with a view to having systems in place to secure the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses in time for the next touring season.

Once the consultation has closed, DEFRA will consider all responses and produce a summary response alongside setting out the next steps. The regulations will be laid before Parliament after consultation and be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. A copy of the consultation papers have been placed in the House Library.

Work to set out the ethical basis for a ban will proceed alongside the development of the licensing scheme.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Diplomatic Security in Syria

I wish to inform the House that I have taken the decision on security grounds to suspend the services of the British embassy in Damascus and to withdraw all diplomatic staff

We have maintained an embassy in Damascus despite the violence to help us communicate with all parties in Syria and to provide insight into the situation on the ground. Throughout this time we have kept the security situation of our staff and embassy premises under intense and constant review. We now judge that the deterioration of the security situation in Damascus puts our embassy staff and premises at risk, and have taken the decision to withdraw staff accordingly. Our ambassador and diplomatic staff left Syria on 29 February and will return to the UK shortly.

British nationals who remain in Syria despite our longstanding and consistent message to leave the country should contact the embassy of any remaining EU member state if they require consular assistance.

My decision to withdraw staff from the British embassy in Damascus in no way reduces the UK’s commitment to active diplomacy to maintain pressure on the Assad regime to end the violence.

We will continue to work closely with other nations to co-ordinate diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian regime through the Friends of Syria group and the European Union, building on the new EU sanctions agreed on 27 February which will restrict further the regime’s sources of revenue.

We will give full support to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his role as the joint special envoy to Syria for the UN and the Arab League.

And we will also continue to work with the Syrian National Council, to encourage a more united and representative Syrian opposition and the vision of a peaceful, multi-ethnic and more democratic Syria.

Home Department

Border Force

From today, the Border Force has been split from the UK Border Agency to become a separate operational command within the Home Office. We will finalise the detail of the operational and structural arrangements over the coming weeks, but I would like to inform the House of the high-level arrangements that we have put in place.

Brian Moore, chief constable of Wiltshire police, has taken up post as the interim head of the Border Force and, with the agreement of HM Treasury, I have designated him as the director of Border Revenue under section 6 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. Rob Whiteman will remain chief executive of the UK Border Agency. The Border Force will be responsible for entry controls and customs functions at the border, including our juxtaposed controls in France and Belgium. The UK Border Agency will be responsible for immigration casework, in-country enforcement activity, the immigration detention estate and our overseas immigration operations.

All obligations, commitments and undertakings given by the UK Border Agency will continue to be honoured by the Border Force where they relate to operations at the border. Relevant agreements, guidance and documentation will be amended in due course but for the time being should be read, where appropriate, as applying to the Border Force as well as the UK Border Agency.

John Vine, the independent chief inspector of the UK Border Agency, will be responsible for the inspection of both the UK Border Agency and the Border Force.

Leader of the House

Transport

Mobility Scooters / Powered Wheelchairs

In 2010, the Department for Transport undertook a consultation into possible reforms of the use on the highway of mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs (referred to in legislation as “invalid carriages”).

I am today publishing the Department’s response to the consultation. A summary of the results of the consultation is also attached to that document.

I have concluded that no changes should be made regarding the following issues, which formed part of the consultation:

speed limits and maximum permitted speeds;

the minimum age for using a class 3 vehicle; and

the law relating to the use of a mobility scooter by only one person.

I do not, at this stage, propose that there should be an alternative to the current arrangements for registering class 3 vehicles or any additional requirements for making vehicles conspicuous, such as adding reflective strips to vehicles or a requirement on users to wear high-visibility jackets. I have decided that the maximum unladen weight of class 2 powered wheelchairs should be increased to 150 kgs, but that the class 2 mobility scooter should stay at the current maximum unladen weight of 113.4 kgs.

I have also decided that the legal term “invalid carriage” should be replaced with a more suitable and contemporary term, and have asked officials to consider how this might be achieved, recognising that unfortunately, the term is set by primary legislation.

I indicated in parliamentary answers last autumn (26 October 2011, Official Report, column 249W and 27 October 2011, Official Report, column 284W) that I was considering the case for mandatory eyesight testing. I have concluded that this is not necessary for users of class 2 vehicles, but in response to points made by respondents to the consultation, I believe the position in respect of class 3 scooters requires further consideration. To that end, I intend to convene a meeting of interested parties to review the available evidence and options, including matters relating to insurance and the use of specialist training providers. I am conscious of the crucial role such vehicles play in some people’s lives and that will be an important factor in deciding what further actions, if any, to take.

From 2013, the police will be able to record whether a vehicle has been involved in an accident on the public highway, but I have also asked officials to examine how current legislation aimed at reducing accidents could be better enforced.

The Transport Select Committee invited the Department to look into the carriage of mobility scooters on public transport. The Confederation of Passenger Transport has produced a code of practice regarding carriage on buses, while train operators have their own individual arrangements. I have asked my Department to work with transport operators and the industry to develop a kite marking scheme for public transport, which would enable a disabled person to have more confidence that they can travel with their mobility scooter—this work is currently underway. I have also asked officials to work with the industry on suitable designs for public transport. I will report back on this work as soon as possible.

I am also publishing today improved guidance and information for mobility vehicle users.