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Fire Services (London)

Volume 552: debated on Friday 2 November 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joseph Johnson.)

There is a view that to serve as an officer in the fire brigade, one has to be good at taking risks. Nothing could be further from the truth. To serve as an officer in the fire brigade, one has to be good at assessing risks. It is for this reason that, when I heard of the £65 million cut that the Mayor has proposed to the budget of the London Fire Brigade, I sought the views of those best able to assess the risks that such a cut might involve: the officers themselves. I want to begin by thanking the crew at the Wembley fire and rescue station for the time they spent with me and Labour Assembly Member for Brent and Harrow, Navin Shah, earlier this week outlining the very real concerns that they and their colleagues have about the impact that such cuts will have on the service they provide and on public safety.

What do we know? Well, we know that there is a leaked hit list of 17 fire stations that have been earmarked for closure. In alphabetical order they are Acton, Bow, Belsize, Clapham, Clerkenwell, Downham, Islington, Kensington, Kingsland, Knightsbridge, New Cross, Peckham, Silvertown, Southwark, Westminster, Whitechapel and Woolwich. If these stations go, 17 appliances go with them, along with 600 firefighters.

After this hit list was leaked, the chairman of the London Fire Authority, James Cleverly, provided a further list of 28 fire stations that he said would definitely not be closed. These are Barking, Battersea, Croydon, Dagenham, Dockhead, East Ham, Edmonton, Hammersmith, Harold Hill, Harrow, Heston, Holloway, Kingston, Lambeth, Lewisham, Leytonstone, Millwall, Mitcham, Old Kent Road, Orpington, Paddington, Plaidstow, Purley, Shadwell, Stratford, Walthamstow, Wembley and West Norwood.

We also know that the 17 stations on their own could achieve only £30 million of savings and we can therefore deduce that on top of the 17 stations earmarked for closure, a further 68 out of the 113 stations in London have the threat of closure still hanging over them. This is unacceptable. I ask the Minister to recognise that such uncertainty is bad for these communities, and to urge the Mayor to announce his definitive plans as early as possible.

London Assembly members on the fire authority were originally set to debate the proposals at a meeting on 22 November, but the Mayor has now said that the authority should defer this until after the local government finance settlement is known on 20 December. This means that the Mayor will avoid any scrutiny and, in effect, bury the announcement in the Christmas holiday season so that no proper public debate can take place until after the middle of January, with the final decision being taken in March. I trust that the Minister will regard this as reprehensible and make the necessary representations to the Mayor’s office to ensure that such a cynical move is not carried out. The Mayor has a public face of bonhomie and charm, but Londoners will not be fooled by such manipulation to stifle debate about their safety.

As the 17-station hit list cannot deliver the totality of cuts that the Mayor has demanded, the LFB has outlined a preferred option that would see 30 stations and 30 appliances lost, along with 840 jobs, but even this would save only £45 million. To this must be added what the authority has identified as “back-office” savings of £14 million. These sound like bureaucracy savings that might be achievable without impacting on public safety, and I put this to the 30 or so officers whom I met. They pointed out that these back-office savings included a reduction in translation teams. For anyone who doubts the importance of that to a borough such as mine, let me point out that in Brent 130 different languages are spoken in our schools. Many residents are from refugee communities where parents and grandparents speak English poorly or not at all, and where cooking practices are widely different from those in the average English kitchen. The importance of translation teams in educating these communities about fire safety is absolutely fundamental. Good fire safety begins with fire protection. In Brent, and in many other London boroughs, the loss of so-called back-office functions will be even more dangerous than the proposed closure of fire stations. It is essential, therefore, that we know what equality impact assessment has been conducted into the proposed loss of translators as part of these cuts.

Another “back-office” function that faces closure is the local intervention fire education—LIFE—project. This project was pioneered in Brent, where youngsters with a history of arson offences were given a week’s intensive induction into the fire service. At the end of the week, they not only performed fire drills in front of their parents but had acquired a real understanding of the risks and dangers of fire. The project was a major success in two important ways. It turned around the lives of serial arsonists so that they no longer started fires, and it turned into friends youths who had previously thrown stones at fire crews when they attended fires. One particular estate in my constituency had been dreaded by fire crews because of the abuse that they used to endure from young people when they were attending incidents there. The LIFE project has completely turned that around.

When politicians are told by civil servants that it is possible to make back-office savings, we often breathe a sigh of relief and think, “Thank goodness it won’t hit front-line services.” The truth is that these proposed savings are every bit as damaging to the safety of the public and of fire officers themselves. They will result in many more incidents as translation teams are disbanded, fire safety education programmes in schools are cut, and innovative and effective prevention work such as the LIFE project is abandoned.

In my discussions with front-line firefighters this week, I was told that the loss of 17 stations and their crew, let alone 30, would in effect put crews on restricted attendance for approximately half the time. This means that instead of sending two appliances to an incident from the beginning, only one will be dispatched. They explained to me that the initial protocols and guidelines around an incident and the risk assessment that takes place will often mean that, under restricted attendance, crews have to wait for a back-up crew before they are able to take effective action.

Such delays result in not only greater economic loss before a fire can be brought under control, but in extreme cases, increased danger to firefighters themselves or even loss of life to the public when no entry control officer is present from the beginning of an incident. As one officer in charge put it to me, “The public need to know it is going to take us longer to pull them out of a burning building.” He thought for a moment, and then added, “And in a major city like London, that is just unacceptable.”

Another risk that the officers foresaw was an inability to respond to a combination of major incidents. They told me that last year the service had been stretched to breaking point when, during the London riots, it was called to a major incident at the Sony distribution building in Enfield. The Sony incident lasted for six days, with relief teams being called from south of the river. Instead of crews being relieved every three or four hours, they were forced to work seven-hour shifts and told that no relief was available. These firefighters are courageous individuals who are prepared to endure such gruelling conditions when they accept them as the result of exceptional circumstances, but they simply could not countenance what the impact on their own personal safety would be if such exceptional calls on their resource become commonplace as the result of the potential culling of up to 840 of their front-line colleagues and 30 appliances.

Another officer recalled this summer’s Dagenham fire, which coincided with the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. In this instance, there was restricted attendance on what became a 40-pump fire. It is not just unreasonable but unsafe to expect our firefighters to work routinely under such conditions.

The concurrence of major incidents puts extraordinary pressure on the fire brigades. One of the key ways of relieving that pressure at present is through reciprocal arrangements and protocols of cross-border support, whereby teams from other authorities in the home counties come to support London crews and London crews go to the surrounding shire counties—even as far afield as Buncefield when required—for such emergency incidents. Officers are concerned that the loss of personnel in London and a corresponding loss of capacity in surrounding services will reduce the capacity of brigades to offer such cross-border support in the future. The public need to be aware that the Fire Brigades Union has already lost 1,500 officers since 2010. We must be clear that these cuts really will endanger both public and crew.

In his usual cavalier fashion, the Mayor has said that response targets will be maintained regardless of any cuts. The targets currently stand at six minutes for the arrival of the first engine and eight for the second. I note in passing that the target prior to 2008 was that the first engine should arrive within five minutes. The FBU regional secretary, Paul Embery, spoke with me yesterday, and told me of his concern that the computer modelling used to justify the Mayor’s statement is flawed. The FBU has asked that the system be independently audited to ascertain whether the targets could still be met under a cuts scenario, but this eminently reasonable request has been denied. Will the Minister speak to the Mayor’s office to ensure that the computer modelling system that the authority has used is independently audited, so that public confidence can be maintained in the process? The FBU has every right to be suspicious that response times will not be maintained, because it is already the case in four London boroughs that the brigade does not meet these response targets.

I have no doubt that the Minister’s officials will have armed him with statistics that show that the number of fire incidents to which the London Fire Brigade is called is at its lowest level since records began in 1966. He may be tempted to respond that last year, London recorded 26,845 fires, whereas 10 years before, in 2001, there were 55,063. That is a drop from an average of 150 fires to just 74 fires each day—a reduction of just over 50%.

The Minister’s officials may have encouraged him to conclude that a smaller number of fires requires a smaller number of appliances and firefighters. May I counsel him that that would be a foolish conclusion to draw? It would ignore the fact that the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 broadened the remit of the service substantially. It placed more obligation on local brigades to focus resources on fire safety work as well as the traditional intervention work. Today’s firefighters are out and about in the local community giving talks in old people’s homes, fitting smoke alarms and taking part in youth engagement schemes in a way that they were not previously. That is precisely what accounts for the drop in incidents and call-outs in the past decade, and it cannot be used as a justification for depleting the service now.

The cuts to the force will put increasing pressure on crews and create a vicious cycle. Either less time will be spent on training, in which case lives will be put at risk, or less time will be spent on preventive community work, in which case the number of fires will rise and, again, lives will be put at risk.

Society has rightly become much more keenly aware of the duty that we have to those in our armed forces who put themselves in harm’s way for our safety. I regret that we have not yet recognised with equal force the obligation that we have to the men and women of our fire and rescue service, who daily expose themselves to danger and put their lives on the line to protect us. Nobody in the Chamber today would doubt that we owe them an enormous debt of thanks. I hope the Minister will agree that it is a debt that is ill repaid by a budget cut of £65 million.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on securing this important debate.

The London fire service has been protecting and serving Londoners for almost 150 years, but the Government’s decision to cut the fire service budget by 25% is putting it under enormous strain. As my hon. Friend said, the London Mayor’s reported plans for implementing the cuts could lead to 17 fire stations across London being forced to close and hundreds of firefighters and other staff losing their jobs.

I wish to focus on the impact of the proposals on my constituency. We are currently served by three fire stations, in Bow, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, and I echo my hon. Friend’s comments about the enormous gratitude we owe the firemen and women who protect us. We must do everything we can to ensure that they are supported in their very difficult job.

In Tower Hamlets, the fire brigade attended nearly 6,000 call-outs in 2011-12 alone. Its front-line service is vital for keeping the community safe, but the Mayor’s proposals to cut our local fire brigade would represent the deepest cut to a borough’s fire service in the whole of London, leaving us with nearly 100 fewer staff, four fewer appliances and only one remaining fire station in my constituency. That seems outrageous considering that Tower Hamlets had by far the greatest number of fire incidents in London last year.

The loss of vital front-line services would have a severe impact on the speed with which crews can attend fires in my constituency and across the borough. It would also dramatically reduce the fire service’s ability to engage in important community safety and fire prevention work. I am shocked at the apparent willingness of the Government and the London Mayor to take such risks with the safety of my constituents and residents in other parts of the borough and across London.

Densely populated constituencies such as mine are always likely to experience higher rates of call-outs and fire-related incidents. Last year there were 308 fires in people’s homes in Tower Hamlets, 35% higher than the fire brigade had hoped. How can the Minister support a Mayor whose decision to cut fire services so drastically, not only in Tower Hamlets but across London, is bound to put lives at risk? Some 33 London Labour MPs have written to Boris Johnson expressing our deep concern about the risk to the safety of our constituents should the cuts go ahead. Will the Minister write to us and explain how the Government will ensure that lives will not be put at risk as a result of these irresponsible proposals?

The Mayor and the Conservative chair of the fire authority deny that a list of specific closures has been drawn up, and refuse to clarify details of what exactly will be cut. They are not being straight with Londoners, and London Labour MPs call on them to hold an honest and open discussion with Londoners on the future of our vital front-line services. I imagine that the same concerns apply to colleagues in other parties where fire services are at risk. The Government must also take their share of the responsibility. By slashing 25% of the fire budget they are forcing the fire service in London to cut this year’s budget by £29.5 million, and by £35.5 million next year.

In conclusion, Tower Hamlets has the highest rates of fire call-out in the whole of London, yet Boris Johnson thinks that stripping our borough of one third of its fire stations is a sensible idea. Does the Minister agree that those cuts are irresponsible and will unnecessarily put safety and lives at risk? The Opposition call on the Mayor of London to reverse those plans, as nothing is more important to protect lives in London and ensure that our fire service men and women do their jobs to the best of their ability and with proper support.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on securing this important debate and on speaking with a characteristic and heartfelt sense of why this issue is important and of the role of individual fire officers and services. Both he and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) alluded to the fact that fire and rescue services in London is a devolved matter. I am sure that the Mayor will take great interest in the issues raised in this debate, although I strongly reject the idea that there is a cynical or underhand approach to the way he deals with this issue. I was sorry that the hon. Lady started to turn this into a partisan debate, which it should not be, and we must look at these matters on behalf of all our constituents. Before responding to the specific issues raised, I wish to commend—as did the hon. Member for Brent North—the remarkable courage and bravery of the men and women who serve in the fire service in London and in my area of Hertfordshire. I met some of those people recently.

A number of issues have been raised, and I would like to look at the context of this debate and at the welcome reduction in incidents of fire. I will respond to the point about funding streams and answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions on how we can best secure a more effective and efficient service.

Thankfully, the context of this debate is one in which the number of injuries and fatalities is falling. That is due in part to the efforts of fire and rescue authorities, the impact of the Fire Kills campaign, and changes in modern technology. The past 10 years have seen a fall in the number of accidental fire deaths of 40% nationally. Ten years ago there were 310 accidental fire deaths in the home, but latest statistics show there were 187 fatalities in 2011-12. Numbers of non-fatal casualties in accidental fires in the home are also decreasing. In 2011-12 there were 6,335 non-fatal casualties, compared with 9,278 in 2001-02—a reduction of 30%. Those statistics are reflected in London where the number of accidental fire deaths in homes has fallen by 45% in the past 10 years, and attendance at incidents has reduced by 38%. Clearly, any deaths are to be regretted, but hon. Members across the House will accept that those figures are significantly better, and that they must have a substantial effect on the nature of the fire and rescue services that we need now and in the future. The financial context is that the Government inherited a record deficit from the previous Administration. To date, we have been able to cut that deficit by a quarter. That is an important part of the context of the debate.

Every bit of the public sector needs to play its part, but the Government recognise that fire and rescue is a front-line emergency service. That is why we have sought to give funding protection when we have been able to do so. For example, reductions have been back-loaded to give more time for long-term savings to minimise the impact on the quality and breadth of the service.

In the context of London, it is worth bearing in mind that the reductions applied to the fire and rescue services have been less than those applied to local government as a whole. London fire service has had its formula grant reduced by 3.3% in 2011-12, but the Greater London authority has had a reduction of 4.9%. This year, London fire has had a small increase of 0.2% compared with a GLA formula grant reduction of 5.9%.

Clearly, operational matters such as the deployment of firefighters should and must be determined at local level, and it is for each fire and rescue authority to determine the operational activity of its fire and rescue service. It does so through an integrated risk management plan, and it must do so in consultation with the local community.

The hon. Gentleman specifically raised the question of fire stations. I am very much aware that there is speculation about fire station closures. The Fire Brigades Union has, I believe, named 17 stations that it believes are earmarked for closure. As an experienced parliamentarian, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment directly on speculation, and that fire station closures are rightly a matter for the Mayor of London, but I can advise hon. Members that any significant changes to the integrated risk management plan, such as closures, are subject to public consultation. That means that people will have the opportunity to make their voices heard.

Will the Minister assure me that he will make representations to the Mayor that the computer modelling system that is being used should be independently audited? That would do a great deal to enhance public confidence in the proposals.

That is a slightly different matter from stations, and I will come to it in a moment.

I was talking about the speculation about the fire station closures. It is worth bearing it in mind that the London Fire Brigade has stated that it plans to build nine new fire stations—Dagenham, Leytonstone, Plaistow, Old Kent road and so on. Eight are being completely rebuilt on the existing sites, but one will be on a new site. It is important to bear it in mind that this is not simply a matter of closures, but a matter of deployment. That is an important local issue, and Ministers should not seek to overrule.

Let me turn to the future, which is an important part of the question. We have looked at how the grant system works, but the hon. Gentleman highlighted the new functions that the 2004 Act brought into play. It is important to bear in mind the balance of the debate. There are other funding streams. Funding for the new dimension capability, which addresses a number of the activities to which he referred, has increased by £9 million in two-year period from 2011 to 2013. That deals with some of the additional functions to which he referred, such as urban search and rescue, and the new operations of high-volume pumps. The Government have always had the stance that, should more be required, we will treat it as a new burden. That is an important point to bear in mind.

Given the time, I want to draw my remarks to a brief conclusion. It is true that funding reductions have been made to London’s fire services, but it is important that we see them in the context of a significant fall in fire deaths and casualties. In other words, demands on fire services are changing. That is why we believe that London’s fire service needs to respond. Although this is a devolved matter for the Mayor and local management, the Government are ready to help the service to manage change—I mentioned funding streams in that context. The very fact that the Government are providing those funding streams, and responding to the changes and challenges that face the brave men and women to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, are testimony to the constructive approach that we intend to take.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.