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Fire and Rescue Services

Volume 563: debated on Monday 3 June 2013

5. What plans he has to enable external organisations to have greater involvement in the operation of fire and rescue services. (157162)

The hon. Gentleman may have not realised, or may have forgotten, that the last Government’s Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 allowed external organisations to become involved in the provision of fire services. For my own part, I am helping fire and rescue authorities to explore the best way of delivering their services to meet the needs of their communities.

What the Minister said in his letter to the Regulatory Reform Committee rather conflicts with the answer he has just given. The fact is that, as part of his drive to make further savings, he wants to remove—as he said in his letter—the legal obstacles to the privatisation of the emergency fire services. Given that West Midlands fire service is already two years into a programme to cut its budget by nearly a quarter, and has lost nearly 10% of its firefighters, my constituents will regard with alarm—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but we need a question with a question mark: one sentence.

Will the Minister assure my constituents that these moves will not result in a privatised, non-publicly accountable emergency fire service?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Hansard reports of what has been said over the last few months, he will see that I have made clear on more than one occasion that we will not privatise the fire service, notwithstanding the scaremongering of members of his party. He should also note—if he is not already aware of it—that West Midlands fire service is currently advertising for firefighters.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, rather than carping at chimeras and imagined proposals for privatisation, Opposition Members might do better to study seriously a report by Sir Ken Knight—arguably the most distinguished and experienced operational commander of his generation—which sets out serious and important proposals for efficiencies in the organisation?

It is somewhat surprising—although I suppose that it ought not to be—that the Opposition seem to have wanted to create a campaign to prevent something that was never going to happen in the first place.

My hon. Friend is right about Sir Ken Knight’s report. It is very well written, and there is much in it for us to note. I look forward to the responses that we shall receive from the sector itself and from authorities more generally. We have already held a teleconference on the report, and I shall return to the subject more formally later in the year.

20. Given the Minister’s statement to the Communities and Local Government Committee on 15 May that Cleveland fire authority had decided not to proceed with mutualisation, will he confirm that documentation relating to that mutualisation will not be blocked by a section 35 exemption, but will be available to the public via freedom of information requests? (157179)

What I actually said was that the Government supported mutuals and co-operatives. What Cleveland fire authority does is a matter for the authority itself. I note that the Labour party does not support mutuals now, which is surprising given that a Labour authority wants to mutualise. I commend the authority for having looked at new ideas, but it really is for Cleveland fire authority to decide how it should proceed.

It seems from the Minister’s answers that either he is in denial or he does not understand the measures that he is seeking to introduce. As for the Ken Knight review, on page 74 he explicitly recommends privatisation. [Interruption.] I am afraid he does. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) ought to look at the report. [Interruption.] I have read it.

Will the Minister now concede that procurement law requires any fire and rescue authority that opts to mutualise its services to re-tender those services periodically and open them up to the private sector?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not here for the debate on Cleveland fire authority, when we said explicitly that we were not going to privatise the fire service. We cannot allow something to be introduced that would allow that. We have been categorical about that. To be clear, he should take care to read Sir Ken Knight’s review, which is superb and has given us a lot to discuss but does not make a single recommendation.