5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of funding reductions on the operational activities of fire and rescue services. (105717)
Operational matters are best assessed at the local level. It is for each fire and rescue authority to determine the operational activities of its fire and rescue service through its integrated risk management plan, which is subject to consultation with the local community.
I am extremely proud of the Cleveland fire service, which looks after the area of highest industrial risk in Europe. Its proactive work in Teesside communities has driven down house fire numbers, which have gone down and down, and it has excellent working plans with local companies. I am told that owing to the drastic agenda being pursued by the Tory Government, Cleveland has lost or will lose 180 firefighters. The Government are playing with people’s lives so I would like to know what the Minister’s message is to people in my communities, and who he will blame when there is a tragedy there.
The Cleveland fire service does excellent work. The risks that it deals with on its territory are recognised by the fact that its funding per head of population by formula grant is the highest in the country and more than twice that received by many authorities in other areas.
It is estimated that South Yorkshire fire and rescue service will lose 100 firefighters’ jobs. It is all very well for the Minister to say, “We’ll pass the budget cuts down and somebody else has to take the responsibility.” What happens if response times increase in South Yorkshire and the people in South Yorkshire, who are not a party to the decision that has been taken by the Government to cut the budgets, feel unsafe in their beds at night?
Response times are dealt with through the integrated risk management plan. I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that the reductions in expenditure of formula grant to the fire service are less than those for local authorities as a whole. They are part of the deficit reduction strategy, and he might like to reflect that part of the deficit caused by the Labour Government was the better part of half a billion pounds wasted on the aborted FiReControl project, which did nothing to keep anyone safe.
Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service has already made significant savings, including cuts of 28% to back office staff, but we are facing deep front-line cuts. May I urge the Minister again to look carefully at the situation faced by metropolitan areas such as Tyne and Wear, and ensure that he brings forward a funding settlement that is fair?
I have met representatives of metropolitan fire and rescue authorities and meetings continue to take place at an official level, and we will meet representatives of any fire authority, regardless where in the country they come from. In Tyne and Wear, the formula grant per head at £29 is significantly above the average, which reflects some of the risks. In fact, the formula was updated by this Government to give a greater weighting to population density.
I refer the Minister to the answer he gave a few moments ago to my hon. Friends in relation to risk assessments. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the excellent report that was carried out on fire deaths and injuries by the County Durham and Darlington fire and rescue brigade, which showed that poor health, social issues and deprivation are key contributory factors to high levels of fire risk. We are losing 40 firefighter posts, so what risk assessments were carried out before cuts to central funding were made to the Durham and Darlington fire and rescue brigade?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he has not grasped the point that the risk assessment is dealt with at a local level by the integrated risk management plan, which is consulted upon with the local community and then approved by the fire authority. Durham’s funding per head has been maintained over two years at a steady level of £21 per head. It is worth saying that all metropolitan fire authorities have had increases in their capital grant of 50% to 80%, which is significantly more than under the previous Government.
Two hundred firefighter posts are being lost in Greater Manchester, but Cheshire and Essex are getting a 2% increase in their budgets. As there is a greater risk of fire, civil disturbances and industrial incidents—and in my constituency motorway incidents as well—in the metropolitan boroughs, how can the Minister possibly justify such a huge cut to the metropolitan authorities and an increase to the leafy counties?
I was just looking at the figures that the hon. Lady gives me for her authority. It is worth observing that Greater Manchester is funded at the rate of £26 per head in formula grant. Cheshire, which was referred to, gets only £18 per head in formula grant, so I do not think she is giving a fair comparison.
At Castle Donington in my constituency there is a monument to the waste and profligacy of the previous Government with regard to fire services: a £14 million unused regional FiReControl centre that is still costing the taxpayer £5,000 a day. Particularly galling is the fact that Leicestershire has the lowest funded fire authority in the country. Will my hon. Friend remind the House how much the previous Government wasted on regional FiReControl centres?
The figure that the Public Accounts Committee of this House gave was not less than £469 million, and I observe that in one year, 2010, the Labour Government spent £69 million on consultants, which is broadly the amount that the fire services have contributed to deficit reduction over two years.
Will the Minister congratulate Dorset fire and rescue service on its work in co-ordinating its efforts with the police and ambulance services in preparation for the Olympics? However, there is a worry that the improved resilience infrastructure will fall away after the Olympics. Will he do what he can to ensure that the much-needed blue light improvements are not dismantled after the games?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will seek to do that. I have had the pleasure of visiting Dorset fire and rescue service and am impressed by the joint working that is being done. The Government, in all Departments, are anxious to continue improving interoperability.
I have to say that I am a little puzzled by the Minister’s responses this morning—[Hon. Members: “This afternoon.”] That reinforces my puzzlement, as his answers have been so confusing. The point is that the Prime Minister, prior to the general election, gave a solemn pledge that he would veto any ministerial plans that involved cuts to front-line services, yet in the Minister’s Department we have seen thousands of firefighters losing their jobs, dozens of fire stations closing and response times going through the roof. As a consequence, he is putting the safety of the public at risk. Did he forget to tell the Prime Minister about his cuts, or is this simply another broken prime ministerial election pledge?
A lot of fire and rescue authorities are making the savings not by cutting firefighter posts or reducing fire stations, but through shared operations, better joint working and, interestingly, amended shift practices—one thing that the hon. Gentleman seems to have taken on board rather literally.