[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the issue of police and fire shared services.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the Minister and fellow Members for their time. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of shared police and fire services. The integration of blue-light and amber-light services is a topic that many hon. Friends and colleagues have raised over the past few years, for good reason. This afternoon I will focus on police and fire. I welcome the Government’s recent consultation on enabling closer working between emergency services, which closed last month. The consultation demonstrates the Government’s commitment to the concept of greater collaboration between blue-light services, as set out in the Conservative manifesto.
Before I discuss the matter in detail, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all the blue-light services for the work that they do. Each makes a vital contribution by serving and protecting our communities and ensuring that we are safe and secure, often in the most difficult circumstances. Their members put their lives on the line for others. We were starkly reminded of the dangers of policing only recently with the tragic death of PC Dave Phillips, who was hit by a stolen car while on duty. I take this opportunity to offer my sincere condolences to his family. We cannot overestimate the sacrifices made by the blue-light services, and I place on record my thanks.
Why did I apply for this debate? Earlier this year, Staffordshire fire and rescue service conducted a consultation on the future of fire services across the county that considered several options for changes to the services’ operations, resources and activities. The purpose of the changes was twofold: to help make our communities safer and to deliver efficiencies and savings. Before a meeting with the fire authority in July, fellow Staffordshire MPs and I called on the authority to consider an alternative option to those already tabled. The alternative was to investigate the feasibility of a single integrated police and fire service. In our view, a fully integrated service would provide a more viable and cost-effective means of creating a long-term sustainable future for both services in Staffordshire and, all-importantly, of protecting the public’s safety.
Despite all our efforts, regrettably, that option was not pursued. The options progressed involved cuts to front-line services. In my constituency, fire engines have been removed from both Cannock and Rugeley fire stations, and other stations across Staffordshire have been similarly affected. Although I appreciate and welcome the fact that given prevention, protection and response activity, the number of accidents has fallen across Staffordshire—reflecting the national picture—I do not believe that front-line services should be cut ahead of a complete review of governance, leadership, estate and back-office functions.
I agree that nothing should happen until the review is completed, but that said, I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that certainly in the west midlands, fire and police service wages have been frozen at 1%, the value of pensions has been reduced and many redundancies have been made, as well as the fire station closures that she mentioned.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As a fellow Member of Parliament from Staffordshire, does she agree that given that Staffordshire police field some 2,000 calls a day while the fire service fields only 40, integrating back-office services could allow savings to be ploughed into the frontline? That is why the proposal is supported by many police officers who see that money going into their jobs and future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend enormously on securing this debate. Many of us have been discussing these issues with our police and crime commissioners, police forces and fire services. I certainly have been doing so in Somerset with my MP hat on. I would like to widen it even more. Avon and Somerset police already have a loose arrangement with Wiltshire, but there is certainly interest in sharing back-office IT and admin, which would allow our police officers to stay on the street doing their jobs.
Equally, I recently had a very successful meeting with Somerset fire and rescue service. I urge that we bring the ambulance service into the picture, because it is something of a model case, with the biggest fire service outside London. [Interruption.] Oh my goodness, that is my phone going off. I apologise, Mr Pritchard.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. There are a number of examples around the country of services that are collaborating. It is not just police and fire; it is fire and ambulance, police and ambulance and all three of the blue-light services. I will come to those points in a little more detail.
On collaboration, I am not alone in posing the question that my hon. Friend asked in her intervention. The concept of greater collaboration between the blue-light services, particularly police and fire, has been the subject of debate for some time, well before I was elected to this place. I read with interest the Knight report, published in May 2013. A number of its key findings relate to this discussion.
As I have said, the number of incidents has decreased by more than 40% in the past decade, while at the time when the report was published, expenditure and firefighting numbers had stayed broadly the same. That suggests scope for reform and efficiencies to better match risk and response. The report also found evidence of a disparity in the amount of money spent per person per year across the different fire authorities, with little to explain those differences and a limited relationship between expenditure and outcomes. There was clear widespread duplication among fire and rescue authorities across England: each had its own management structure, leaders and operational differences.
One thing that we intend to do in Northern Ireland, although we have not yet delivered on it, is to bring together police and fire training in one place, which will save on training across Northern Ireland. The Minister might be aware of this. Does the hon. Lady feel that it might be a way to save more money if we had regional training places for the police and fire service together?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that it is better when solutions and mergers come from the ground up, as was the case for example, when Devon and Somerset fire services merged, when the West Midlands and Staffordshire fire services agreed to share a control room, and when Devon and Cornwall police work together with Dorset police? All those examples were better than what we saw with the regional fire control projects, where top-down direction went totally wrong.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he makes the valid point that there are many incredibly good examples of such collaboration across the country. Indeed, when I put pen to paper for this debate, I was able to write down several such examples, although I will not repeat them this afternoon; I have saved people from that. Nevertheless, as I say, there are many good examples out there.
Although there is evidence of progress in terms of fire services’ collaboration, co-responding and co-location with other blue light services, the Knight report highlighted that such collaboration was actually quite patchy, even though it could create real savings when it did happen. It gave some really good examples of collaboration, which were quite wide-ranging in nature, including the co-location of stations and headquarters, shared training, joint communication centres, joint operations and joint fleets. Those examples demonstrate that a clear appetite for collaboration, where there is the will to do it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in a county such as Hertfordshire, where there is a shortage of staff for the ambulance service and it is difficult to recruit them, it would be a good idea if firemen who already have some medical skills could be trained up to paramedic status and possibly deployed—by agreement—in accident situations or when required?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. He makes the very good point that where people have such skills, it is right that when they respond to situations they should use them, although we may have to be quite careful with that approach in the future.
As I said, the Knight report identified that collaboration was not universal; in fact, it was quite patchy across the country. It is for that reason that I welcome the Government’s commitment to greater collaboration, which was set out in the Conservative manifesto as a commitment
“to enable fire and police services to work more closely together”.
In September, a joint consultation was launched by the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Health Secretary, which invited views on proposals to improve joint working between services. I welcome those proposals, as I believe that legislating for greater collaboration will go some way to seeing more areas adopting shared initiatives, providing positive outcomes for the public, in terms of both their safety and their pockets. I will make a few points about this joint consultation, because my view is that the proposed moves should be the first step towards a more formal, mandatory integration, by which I mean the creation of police and fire commissioners.
Although I appreciate that it might be unrealistic and too complex to integrate the two services ahead of the police and crime commissioner elections in May 2016, the moves proposed in the consultation should provide the road map to achieving combined police and fire commissioners. This hybrid role could be created in the next term of the PCC, with full police and fire commissioner elections taking place in 2020.
I have been disappointed to read some press reports that cite some resistance to the proposals, the implication being that the police are taking over the fire service. Before I go any further, it is worth noting that I am by no means suggesting that the police go out and fight fires while firefighters go out and arrest criminals.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. She is right to insist on the specificity—the different roles—of the police and fire services. One of the issues that is of concern in my community is that any changes do not lead to the loss of those different roles in the community, because both are very important.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me again and for being so generous with her time. I have heard her comments about integration, with PCCs becoming police and fire commissioners. How would she deal with an area such as Torbay, where the PCC covers Devon and Cornwall while the fire service covers Devon and Somerset?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and that is an example of some of the complexities in the landscapes covered by fire authorities and PCCs, which is why I am realistic about the fact that this process will take time.
I simply suggest that all common aspects—such as buildings, fleets, resources, and back-office functions—are integrated, so that resources can be better utilised on the frontline. As I see it, integration is a bit like running a business. There is a managing director or chief executive, who has the overall responsibility. Then there are functional heads; in this context, there is one for police and one for fire. Each of these functional heads has responsibility for their own budgets, but staff and resources are shared, not duplicated. Practically speaking, this cuts out waste and means that more funding can be protected for the frontline. It also means that operational excellence and specialism are retained, and can flourish.
There is a difference between integration and collaboration. In my view, integration is about the pooling of relevant functions, with an emphasis on the back office, while collaboration emphasises the frontline, where teams work together when they respond to incidents. I have read many interesting speeches and reports from hon. Friends who spoke about front-line collaboration in the last Parliament. It is that collaboration that is essential to the delivery and enhancement of public safety.
As I have said, I welcome the Government’s proposals, as set out in the consultation, although I would like to pick up on a few points, because—put simply—we should be moving from voluntary collaboration and integration to mandatory collaboration and integration.
The consultation proposes
“encouraging collaboration by introducing a new statutory duty on all three emergency services to look at opportunities to work with one another better to improve efficiency and effectiveness.”
However, I am concerned that “encouraging” such collaboration might not go far enough. After all, one of the issues that we have faced so far is that collaboration is far from universal. There is a danger that this voluntary integration will be inconsistently applied, and what will the statutory duty do to ensure consistent levels of consideration? Even the simplest things, such as the back-office staff, offices, human relations, payroll and even the stationery orders, are clearly areas where integration is just common sense.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way to me again, and I also thank her for securing this Adjournment debate today; I should have thanked her earlier. Does she not think that mandatory collaboration could ultimately lead to a one-service situation, where the police and fire services are actually amalgamated under one management, which would lead to an elected part of an elected mayor process?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will go on to discuss the points about leadership. There must be leadership, but it must be provided in such a way as to recognise the difference between the two services, especially on the frontline.
I welcome the proposal in the consultation to enable
“police and crime commissioners to take on the duties and responsibilities of fire and rescue authorities, where a local case is made”.
I am concerned that a voluntary opt-in process adds to the complexity. I believe that it should be mandatory, although I accept that getting to that point might take time, given the complexities and details I referred to earlier.
I cannot understand why the integration of administrative and back-office functions would differ from location to location. Why would a local case need to be made? The aim, as I see it, is to streamline the common functions so that resources can be targeted at the frontline. When the bodies involved are responsible for public safety, variations in service risk lives and can make more people vulnerable to harm. We simply cannot have a postcode lottery on safety.
The proposal involving abolishing
“the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and giving the Mayor of London direct responsibility for the fire and rescue service in London, as will be the case for the new Mayor of Greater Manchester”
sets a precedent that the Government believe that one person is capable of being responsible and accountable for both police and fire. The Mayor of London is responsible for everything from transport to tourism, including policing and now, potentially, fire. Given that that portfolio is so broad, I cannot see why there would be barriers to rolling out a combined role throughout the country, to police and fire commissioners. It is absolutely the right time, now that the devolution agenda is being debated, to plan for the medium-term future of police and fire leadership.
Accountability is also important. Those making decisions where local taxation is concerned are all, but for fire, elected representatives, accountable to the public. The council’s share of the council tax bill, and any changes to it, is subject to decisions made by elected representatives—so too, with the police, since the introduction of police and crime commissioners. It is not, however, the case with fire and rescue services under the fire authorities. It is time for change. There should be no taxation without representation. Although some may argue that the fire authority is made up of appointed people, who in another guise are elected, that representation should not be confused with democratic accountability. The devolution agenda is increasing the question of accountability to the public and is another reason why it is time for reform of fire authorities and a move to police and fire commissioners.
The hon. Lady said that the fire authority was appointed; I suggest that the fire authority are people elected in their own constituencies and boroughs. If we take that analogy to its conclusion, surely we would have to elect the Minister. He was appointed by people elected to this House and the people from my constituency and hers cannot get rid of him. If that should apply to a police commissioner it should also apply to the Minister, although he is doing a good job—[Interruption.]
I am sure the Minister would be pleased to hear that. My point is that in local government all local taxation ultimately sits under the responsibility of elected representatives, whether it be councillors or police and crime commissioners.
In conclusion, the Government want to see greater collaboration. I recently posed a question to the Home Office, and the Minister answered:
“It is common sense to break down silos and get the emergency services working together to secure more money for the front line.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 5.]
My hon. Friend is typically generous in giving way as she concludes, and typically forceful in putting the interests of her constituents first. Does she agree that collaboration and the sharing of services amounts not to amalgamation but to an opportunity to improve services, save money and help protect the front-line services on which my constituents—all our constituents—rely?
I thank my hon. Friend for introducing the debate. I agree with all her wise words, but one of the greatest difficulties we face is public perception. When the public sees services amalgamating, buildings closing and a police station based in a fire station, they see a loss—they do not see the gain. Our job as MPs, and that of police and crime commissioners and others, is to deal with that perception and put a good case over, which says that they are gaining rather than losing.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In Staffordshire, I had to face the public when fire engines were being removed from fire stations. There is a point in having the frontline. It is all about ensuring that we protect the frontline and enhance its services so that our communities are, and feel, safer and safer.
I was talking about the Minister’s response to a recent question. The Home Secretary supports the idea of greater collaboration—as does the Prime Minister. On 11 September, the Prime Minister outlined, in his “vision for a smarter state” speech, his support for collaboration, and he gave Hampshire as an example of where emergency services have brought functions together to save millions of pounds a year. In Staffordshire, there has been resistance to greater sharing, collaboration and integration, but I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s proposals. All the evidence suggests that reform is required and this is an opportunity to create police and fire commissioners.
The proposals set out in the Government consultation could provide a platform and a road map for creating such commissioners over the next few years, ahead of full elections for them in 2020. I simply ask the Minister to consider, as part of his work in the cross-ministerial working group, to consider the mandatory introduction of police and fire commissioners by 2020.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on bringing this debate on an extremely topical and important issue to the House. We might have some disagreements about it, but perhaps we will have agreements as well. I have to say at the outset that I do not share the view that taking fire engines away from a fire station means that people feel safer, as one speaker said. Quite often, taking fire engines away and dropping pumps off at local fire stations does not make people feel safer.
I certainly share the view that taking fire appliances or engines away from fire stations does not make anyone feel safer, but does the hon. Gentleman share my view that the people who are expecting firefighters to turn up on the frontline are probably pretty relaxed about who does the human resources for the fire service and whether that function is shared with the police force? It would not make them feel any safer, or any less safe, if HR were shared between the fire, the police and the ambulance services.
The hon. Gentleman makes a viable point, which can and should be discussed if we want a top-class blue-light service, whether it be the ambulance service, the fire service or the police service. That can, and will be I am sure, the topic of much discussion in the future.
It is unusual for me to intervene, but there are four emergency services in this country. We must not forget Her Majesty’s Coastguard. It would be inappropriate for me, as a former Shipping Minister, not to raise that point.
Of course we can. The only problem is that we have only one mine left—but anyway, I am sure we will discuss that. The coastguard is an important service as well.
The issue that has been brought to the House is the greater collaboration and work between the police and the fire service. I think we all agree that we want a top-class service, across all four blue-light services. We want to have the best possible and the safest service we can have—top class, with the best technology and everything that the communities that we represent need. The real cause for concern is that this is not just about having a top-class service or enhancing the blue-light services; it is being approached as a cost-cutting exercise. That is what the general public are concerned about.
Since 2010, there has been a huge reduction in the police service and the fire service and we cannot get enough people in the ambulance service. People are rightly concerned about the cuts in the services, whether front-line or back-office staff.
Suppose that the fire service had someone who wanted to train as a paramedic and also someone who was capable of filling out the accident book, as the police do at a straightforward road accident. Why should that multi-tasking not take place? If it saves money, what is wrong with that?
It is not as easy as that. I wish it was. To multitask between being a crime officer and being a fireman or woman in the fire and rescue service is difficult. To be a paramedic takes a three-year university course. It is not as simple as transferring basic skills; the individual needs to be properly skilled, with a university degree. Unlike in other parts of the blue-light services—in the NHS, for example—there are no bursaries for people to train to be paramedics; they have to pay their own way. The issue might seem simple, but it is not as simple as many people believe.
No matter which way the argument is put by Government Members, the fact remains that there will be rationalisation, which means saving money that will not be ploughed back into the service. As I said earlier, West Midlands police has lost about 2,500 policemen. In Kent, the private sector is being employed to do the police’s job. It is surely all leading to privatisation.
There is obviously a whiff of privatisation in the air in relation to all the blue-light services. The people involved in the services fear that themselves. It is not just me or my hon. Friend as Members of Parliament who are suggesting that; people working in the services are worried. That is why we have to consult with people and listen to those who are delivering the services.
Is the hon. Gentleman interested to hear that my police force in Devon and Cornwall is involved in the project in Hayle that has produced the UK’s first tri-service responder? A gentleman called Andrew Hitchens is an on-call firefighter and an ambulance service emergency first responder, and he has been trained in specific crime and disorder duties, too.
Well, that is interesting. That could be put on the table in the consultation with other people up and down the country who work in the services. We need consultation and discussion with those delivering services, such as the gentleman that the hon. Gentleman just mentioned.
There is a huge difference between a firefighter and a police officer. They have completely and utterly different remits. The police are law enforcers—it is as simple as that. The fire and rescue service is basically a humanitarian service. The two services have totally different remits. For example, firefighters need to be neutral in their communities and politically neutral. They cannot be seen as law enforcers or even to be connected in any way to law enforcement. In many areas, they have built up trust that the police probably do not have.
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman, and I declare an interest as a former firefighter. The fire service is exactly as he described—part of the community—but its members have been law enforcers since day one. As a fire prevention officer, I used to do that sort of work. We would go to clubs and we would shut them down because we were protecting the public, as the police do in their way. It is wrong to say that members of the fire service are not law enforcers, because they are, they will be and they must be.
That is something we must disagree on. I think that the two roles have to be completely different. Firefighters are not law enforcers in the name of the law or in statute—[Hon. Members: “Yes, they are.”] I disagree. Perhaps the Minister can send me the information that shows that each firefighter in each community is, as part of their job, a law enforcer.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. We are good friends, so it is right that we debate this matter. As a young fire officer, I used to do FPO inspections in clubs. If that club did not adhere to the recommendations made, in statute that club could be closed and sometimes it was closed. That was the fire authority; it was nothing to do with the police or anybody else.
I understand the instances to which the Minister refers. In my constituency, fire authorities have checked alarms and different things in buildings, and I understand that, but what I am describing now is the different in terms of law enforcement. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said, we will not have fire and rescue service officers detecting crime and clipping young people around the head or doing things of that nature. It will be completely different. I understand that there is a duty and obligation on the fire and rescue services in relation to alarms and things of that nature, and they do an absolutely fantastic job; they have built up a great reputation. The Minister was a member of the fire and rescue service many years ago. I am sure that he was up to the task then and that he will support the issues we are raising today. When he was in the service, I am sure he had the utmost respect of his community, because that is what happens with the fire and rescue service.
There are alternatives that will not compromise the trust in and integrity of the fire and rescue service, and they are what we need to look at. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase mentioned joint procurement, which is absolutely on the money. Why should there not be joint procurement? There is no reason not to look at sharing administrative services and, potentially, servicing roles with other public sector bodies where that is appropriate—but not necessarily between the fire and rescue service and the police service. It should be with other public sector services that share the humanitarian remit, rather than the crime remit.
That brings us on to a number of points, such as the difference in the roles and remits. As I have just explained, there is a huge difference between the fire and rescue service and the police, and that needs to be considered. The police and the fire service perform very different roles and consequently have very different command and control structures. If the proposal went ahead, that would limit the opportunities available for any joint working.
Members have mentioned the police and crime commissioners. I am sure we will have a massive disagreement about this, but there is already a lot of concern about the police and crime commissioners’ role, without giving them extra responsibility for the fire and rescue services. After all, they were elected by, on average, only 15% of the electorate. I am not even sure that the commissioners themselves want any additional responsibilities; in fact, commissioners up and down the country have emphatically said, “We don’t want any additional responsibilities. We are police and crime commissioners. What on earth have we got to do with the fire and rescue service?” Again, we have to listen to the people who are actually delivering services on our behalf.
It is obvious that, unlike many public sector organisations, including the police, the fire service lacks common guidance and a natural procurement channel. That is a wasted opportunity. We must improve the procurement channel for fire-specific products.
The hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) mentioned the ambulance service. I have to be honest: the ambulance service—certainly in my area—is creaking. The North East ambulance service needs 120 recruits—the paramedics we discussed, who cannot suddenly appear because of the training and expertise they require—so I wonder whether the ambulance service should be involved in these proposals.
We have fantastic blue-light services—the four services—and every member of every one of those services deserves lots of credit. They have all suffered massive cuts. They are all working as hard as they can in the most stringent financial circumstances, and that is very difficult for them. It is easy to criticise them, but I am not sure the answer is to bring them all together and plonk them in one place, although I accept that some of the measures I have mentioned should be looked at for the common good.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase said it was time to move to a mandatory position, rather than a voluntary one. Well, call me a dinosaur—
I have been called a dinosaur many times, but rarely have I been called a happy dinosaur, so that is a first.
In her very good speech, the hon. Lady suggested that we need to move immediately from a voluntary to a mandatory arrangement. We have a duty as Members of Parliament to listen to the people on the frontline—the police who are dealing with crime in our communities, and the fire and rescue services that are dealing with problems every day—rather than just tell them what to do.
I concur that my hon. Friend is a dinosaur, because he has a big heart. Is there not a pattern here? The Government just do not want to talk to ordinary people. For example, they insist on places such as the north-east having regional mayors without any consultation with local people. They insist on police and crime commissioners, even though there is no demand for them. They are now suggesting that we combine the roles of police and crime commissioners and fire commissioners, which would do away with another job done by local, elected people. Is this not really about the diminution of democracy?
I fundamentally disagree. Actually, combining the police and crime commissioner and fire commissioner roles will give much more democratic accountability. Does the hon. Gentleman think that a fire panel made up by local authority councillors is much more accountable? Could he name everyone on the fire panel in his area? I admit that I cannot do that for my area. If MPs cannot do that, how are constituents meant to?
That is a fair point. The Northumberland fire and rescue service is completely different from the services in the rest of the country. I can tell the hon. Gentleman the names of the people elected to run the service on behalf of Northumberland County Council because I have met them on numerous occasions, but I understand his point about whether constituents know who is on the fire panels.
To conclude, this is a serious issue. I understand the points that have been raised by almost everyone here. There are a lot of things that need to be discussed, and I urge the Government not to move forward with any plans without holding proper consultations with the people who deliver these services. It is important that we represent those people and, of course, the people in our communities who rely on these services in the most difficult times.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to our blue-light services for everything they do to keep us all safe every day of the week. I was the chairman of Hampshire fire and rescue service for five or six years; in fact, I was a member of the authority for about 15 years. I was perhaps the only chairman who was interviewed by Sir Ken Knight when he did his review.
Austerity—this situation in which the country faces significant financial challenges—brings not only challenges but opportunities for our services, if people are prepared to take them. As a result of my leadership, that of the former chief fire officer, John Bonney, and that of his former deputy, Dave Curry, who is the current chief fire officer, Hampshire fire and rescue service has become one of the best, if not the best, fire and rescue services in the country. Of course, I would say that, because I was the chairman, but I think most people would acknowledge that it is right up there in the top 10, if not the best.
The service has tried to innovate its way out of the financial challenge it faces. If other fire and rescue services and police services did the same, we would not be having this debate about mandatory mergers. I think that that is a step too far and is completely unnecessary.
We talked about merging back-office functions; Hampshire has set up a business, as it were, called H3, which merges all the back-office functions of the police, the Hampshire fire and rescue service, and the county council, so when it comes to bringing in another public sector body, we are not necessarily talking about the police and fire; it could be the police and anything, or fire and anything. H3 merges IT, human resources and the back-office functions that the individual organisations involved would otherwise have, and it can bring more in. Other local authorities are looking to bring in their back-office functions. There is a philosophical argument about whether to privatise back-office functions. Some people feel a lot more comfortable about outsourcing those functions to an organisation that is publicly owned and run. Hampshire has already done that, and it was not rocket science.
If the arrangement were not mandatory but voluntary, what role does my hon. Friend envisage the Local Government Association, and in particular the national fire services management committee, of which I used to be a member, would play in encouraging such co-operation?
It can have a role, precisely because that is a forum in which chairmen and others could meet and share best practice. I do not think that has been done, even now. People know what Hampshire is doing, and it is not just about H3 and back office. We have merged 18 or 19 premises with police—and I mean premises, not people; that is fundamental. We try to keep as many people as possible operating on the frontline. We will merge our headquarters into a police and fire headquarters, using the Government’s transformation fund. That will put police and fire in the same building, where they can work collaboratively on, for example, marketing and communications. Just putting them in the same building will save the police the cost of another building and will bring money into Hampshire fire and rescue service. Hampshire is in effect commissioned to run the Isle of Wight fire and rescue service; we are partnered with that service. I pay tribute to its former chief fire officer, Steve Apter, who in effect negotiated himself out of his job so that the saving could be made and so that Hampshire could effectively run the Isle of Wight’s fire services.
There are relatively minor savings in merging such things as governance, and it comes with a risk, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) suggested. That is not to say that fire and rescue authorities should not be leaner, and perhaps smaller. Hampshire fire and rescue has 25 members; a county brigade has one member. Of course, there are obvious savings to be made. In all likelihood the police and crime commissioner would spend at least half of what it costs to run a fire and rescue authority in running it himself, and that would mean less of a saving.
Mergers of all three services make no sense. One police and crime commissioner said it was ridiculous to send three vehicles to a road traffic collision, but of course it is ridiculous not to. The fire and rescue service may be needed to cut a casualty from a car; an ambulance may be needed to evacuate the casualty; and the police will be needed to ensure that traffic can continue to run. That could not be done with one vehicle; it would be physically impossible.
I do not think any place in the developed world has a merged police and fire service, but ambulance and fire services have been merged in many places, and that works well. Hampshire now provides a medical co-response to thousands of calls a year. That could be improved and increased. However, there is no operational reason for police and fire to merge. There is synergy in the merging of ambulance and fire, as I have said, and if savings in blue-light services are wanted, I think that is where the resources should be put. What the three services have in common is the fact that they all operate with blue lights; beyond that, much of what they do is entirely different, so we should be cautious before talking about mandatory mergers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on securing a hugely important debate that matters particularly to Lancashire Members; the idea of sharing services to reduce costs will be particularly important there, given changes to the police funding formula. The Minister will not have scope to respond to me on that matter, but I want to thank him for meeting me and a cross-party delegation of Lancashire MPs who expressed concern about potential savings. His Department and officials have supported us every step of the way and have enabled Lancashire MPs to contribute to the continuing consultation to try to protect services.
Blue-light services are under pressure throughout the country because of financial constraints such as those I have mentioned. When MPs talk in the House about blue-light services—police, fire, ambulance, the coastguard and the Mines Rescue Service—they should reflect on the huge contribution that they make. My grandfather patrolled the docks in Bootle in Liverpool during the blitz—a tremendously brave thing to do—while he was in the police service. He put his life at risk every night to try to keep people safe in the city. We had a tragic reminder of the risks yesterday in the same city, at the funeral of PC Phillips at the Anglican Liverpool cathedral, where there were amazing scenes as more than 1,000 police officers lined the streets. I know that the Minister attended, to pass on the condolences of everyone in the House. When we discuss the blue-light services, we must remember that they are like no other part of the public sector. We ask and expect the people in those services to put their lives at risk to keep us safe.
Nevertheless, the new funding environment is here to stay. There must be savings and all services must play their part in helping us to pay down a record deficit. There is an opportunity for blue-light services throughout the country, but particularly in Lancashire, to begin saving by sharing more back-office services, to protect the frontline. When our constituents dial 999 or 101, they really care about whether someone will arrive on their doorstep in the worst of emergencies—or perhaps for a more minor incident if they dialled 101. Will someone arrive to help them? They do not particularly mind whether those people share headquarters or training facilities. We heard a fantastic example from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the sharing of training facilities in Northern Ireland. I support services sharing if, and only if, all the savings are used to maintain investment in and support of officers in all front-line services.
I was involved in running a business before I came to the House, and we had 1,500 employees, who were all fantastic and made a huge contribution. They would have thought it bizarre if we had had five HR, payroll or training departments for our five offices. They would have thought it even more bizarre if I had told them that to maintain the five payroll departments, we would sack people doing the work in the five different offices. That does not work in business, and it should not work in blue-light public services. For too long, there has been a silo mentality, and public services have not wanted to co-operate with each other, because they thought of that as a bit of an attack on their independence. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made some fantastic points, with some momentum. We agree on quite a lot and he made some constructive comments about how we can share services but still maintain independence. I agree that if I phone the fire service I expect someone to turn up in the uniform of a firefighter, not a police officer. We have a special relationship with firefighters, which is to do with the fact that they are independent and not linked to crime fighting. That needs to be maintained.
I want to keep my remarks brief; perhaps I have already gone over the time limit. I just want to say that there is an opportunity, through PCCs, to look at increasing democratic accountability. I outed myself as unable to name everyone on the fire panel in my constituency. I doubt whether many hon. Members could do so for theirs. I can name a few whom I have met in my constituency, but there is an opportunity to increase democratic accountability, and that is why I support the Government’s consultation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. My speech goes on a lot longer than 70 seconds, so I shall leave it where it is. I agree with most of what has been said. It is clear that first and foremost our blue-light services must be not buildings or machinery, but people on the frontline. That is what the general public want and what our voters are after, and the Government must give that priority.
In areas such as mine—I represent the largest rural constituency in England and Wales; it is 85 miles long—the reality is that we must have a mix of services. We have first responders; it may be the fire service that responds, doing a marvellous job and saving lives. The crew may not be putting fires out when they do that, but they save lives doing the work of paramedics. They have trained accordingly and keep people alive until the paramedics arrive. There is a need for this crossover, and thank goodness we have it. I will sit down within the 70 seconds, but I want to pay tribute to the blue-light services and to the Government for having the consultation. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this debate.
May I also pay tribute to Mr Berry and Mr Smith for keeping their remarks brief? I am sorry, Mr Davies, that you did not have as much time as I anticipated. I remind newer colleagues in particular that if they want to speak, they have to put their names forward. That allows the Chair to introduce a formal time limit, rather than an informal one, as exampled in the past few moments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) was cut short, but I absolutely agree with his remarks about the services and the importance that they play in all our constituencies. I thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this debate.
It has been interesting for me as a Scottish National party Member to see how the debate about shared services is developing in England. In Scotland, we have had this debate, and we went in a slightly different direction, with national services for police and for fire. As a former member of the Strathclyde fire board, I am aware of the way in which that developed. There were difficulties in merging different types of services, given the difference between urban and rural areas, and all the things involved. There are lots of challenges. The imperative was to save money. We asked whether we needed eight different services in eight areas and whether we could share back-room functions. We ended up with a national Scottish fire and rescue service and a Scottish police service, rather than locally based services. So we had that debate.
The hon. Lady talked about the pressures on all the services. They are a vital lifeline, and I agree that they need to be protected as much as possible. If we can remove duplication of services, it is definitely worth pursuing. Some Members picked up on shared training between different services. As one of its last acts before it was abolished, Strathclyde fire and rescue established a new training centre in Cambuslang near Glasgow. It is an absolutely fantastic service. If Members have not been there, they absolutely should go, because it is a state-of-the-art facility. Police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency services go there to do line rescue, road safety and accident training. It is very worth while. All the services have gained a great deal from that shared working and training together. They have learned a lot about accident response, including large-scale accident response.
The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) talked about amalgamation and privatisation and the threats that they can bring to services, particularly with the loss of specialist expertise. If we have full amalgamations, will the services be liable for VAT? The Scottish services became liable for VAT. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made interesting points about the remits of different services in the community and the particular importance of the fire service being neutral. That is an interesting and key point. In my experience, in Glasgow, where young people might not trust the police or attend events with them, they would attend events with the fire service. The Fire Reach programme in Glasgow brought in young people who were at risk of offending and who were attacking firefighters, and reduced the level of criminality. The fire service has a very important role in doing such work.
There has been a lot of talk about procurement, but perhaps there are alternatives. In Scotland, we have a procurement portal for public services called Scotland Excel. I am not sure whether there is a parallel body in England, but that might be an interesting way forward. Local authorities and public bodies can buy into the service and get the benefits of procurement without having to go through formal mergers. Councillors sit on the Scotland Excel panel, so there is accountability.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) made interesting points about the experience in Hampshire and the voluntary arrangements to share services. He is absolutely correct to say that we are talking about premises, not people, and that everything that can be done to protect the frontline should be tried. We have certainly not seen any closures of fire stations in Scotland, or reductions in firefighter posts. England has lost 4,700 firefighters since 2010. We have seen nothing like that in Scotland, and police service numbers in Scotland have been protected as well, despite the mergers. Back-room savings have gone towards protecting the frontline.
The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) made interesting points about these jobs being special. We must recall that every day when firefighters, police and ambulance staff go to do their job, they put themselves at risk. I associate myself with his comments, because I am aware of the difficulties and tragedies that can occur every day for the police service and particularly the fire service, and I thank them. The debate has been very interesting, and I again thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase for securing it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, as I perform my first duty as a shadow Minister. I thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this debate, and I think we all agree that it has been interesting. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) that there are areas where we can agree and areas where we will disagree. I was pleased to hear the comments made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith). Hampshire has been mentioned several times during this debate as a shining example. I think that he said it was innovating its way out of financial problems. It was interesting to hear his view that mandatory mergers are unnecessary and that savings can be made by merging back offices and sharing functions with the council, the police force and the fire service.
I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss): we need to think about premises and not people when we talk about making savings. Also, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck that we need to thank people who work on the frontline. We have all paid tribute to our emergency services and the fantastic work that they do and the dedication that they show in keeping us safe and secure. We absolutely must pay heed to the workers and what they want from the services, not just what we might think is a good idea. We really need to consult those people and listen to them.
I want to keep my remarks brief because I want to give the Minister time to reply. I was quite entertained by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) who used the phrase “mandatory collaboration”. As oxymorons go, that wins this week’s prize. That emphasises how we are talking about a one-size-fits-all model across the whole country, and I do not think we can have such a model for providing emergency services. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is being considered at the moment, which will give responsibility back to local areas, and we also have the localism agenda. To try to bring in mandatory legislation for every police and crime commissioner to have control over every fire service in the country goes against both the Bill and the localism agenda.
Several Members referred to the fire service working with the ambulance service—I think we can explore that route—and many fire services already do that. I am sorry to keep referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck, but he is a fount of wisdom—[Interruption.] In my opinion he is. He discussed the different ways the police, fire and ambulance services are perceived by the public. Firefighters have a real fear that if they come under the jurisdiction of the police, they will be perceived differently by the public. I have spoken to them, and they feel that their role is very much a humanitarian one. They can see themselves working with the ambulance service—in fact, there are many examples from up and down the country of firefighters collaborating with paramedics and ambulance services—but they feel that their role in outreach work, helping in the community, dealing with community issues and going into people’s houses would be changed, and that the trust in them would be eroded, were they to go into partnership with the police, even though it might work in some areas. That is why, with all due respect to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, I do not feel we should be going down the mandatory route. It should be for local areas to decide how best to run their emergency services.
I will move on to a few quick points that I wanted to address, and then I will give the Minister time to answer. I have just touched on the need for firefighters to be seen as neutral to gain access to people’s homes for prevention and rescue work. What assessment have the Government made of the effect on public perception of integrating front-line police and fire services? Several Members have discussed the fact that the police and fire services perform very different roles, so have very different command and control structures. I put it to the Minister that that might limit the opportunities for joint working. Significant concerns have been expressed about the role of the chief fire officer, who it appears would be subordinate to the police and crime commissioner under the new proposals. For such a partnership to be successful, it would have to be a partnership of equals, not a subordinate relationship.
An important point was made about fire and rescue services not serving the same geographical areas as police forces. That might make reorganisation in certain areas particularly challenging, with the possibility of further fragmentation to the service. The fire service currently lacks common guidance and a national procurement channel, so that is an opportunity we could explore that might provide some of the financial savings that are required. I am sure the Minister has a view on that and I would be interested to hear it.
I have already discussed how the fire and ambulance services work closely together, and there are several examples of that from England and Wales. The Government proposals seem to reflect a clear preference for collaboration between the police and fire services. Will the Minister consider revising the proposals? Given the common humanitarian remit of the fire and ambulance service, we should explore that option. There is also a general feeling in the Chamber that we could explore the possibility of integrating back-office services.
I welcome the shadow Minister to her post. One reason why collaboration works so well in the county where I am fortunate to represent a seat is that we have done it voluntarily through local partnerships. The PCC in Hampshire, Simon Hayes, is crucial to the work between the police and the fire service. Before the election, the Opposition’s policy was to abolish PCCs. Can the hon. Lady confirm that that has now changed?
It was our policy at the general election. It was in our manifesto that we would abolish PCCs and put the money back into front-line policing. I am not aware that Labour party policy on PCCs has changed, but we are where we are. Whether I like it or not, we are in opposition and have to work with PCCs. That is the situation. I obviously have to deal with reality and with the here and now.
As I have already said, I do not believe that the proposed new arrangements should be mandatory. I stress to the Minister that local areas should be able to make local decisions. Where a fire and rescue service identifies that it could benefit from collaboration with another service, such as the ambulance service, or even first responders, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), it should be able to. Fire services should be free to consider other partnerships. They should not be tied to a single arrangement with the police.
As usual, Mr Pritchard, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on securing this debate. What perfect timing, with the consultation having just finished and Her Majesty’s Opposition accepting that Vera Baird and Paddy Tipping were absolutely right that police and crime commissioners should be kept. We agree. Thank goodness that the Conservative party won the election, or Vera and Paddy would not have been happy.
I declare an interest: I am an ex-firefighter and an ex-military paramedic, and I have also worked in counter-terrorism, so, perhaps unusually for a Minister in a debate on this subject, I know what I am talking about a fraction. I apologise to the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery): I was in no way saying that firefighters have the same sort of powers as the police. The police are warranted, of course, but it is important to note that fire services have statutory powers as well. At no stage in any part of the debate has it been said from the Government Benches—or anywhere, I think— that front-line operational officers in the police, fire or ambulance services should be amalgamated. I will explain and reiterate what has been said, using anecdotal evidence.
I came out of the military, having done four years as a qualified battlefield medic. I joined the fire service and was told to take a first aid certificate. I attended what used to be called RTAs—road traffic accidents; they are now called road traffic collisions, or RTCs—often with no ambulance in sight, not for minutes but for a considerable length of time. Sometimes, the police were not there. These days, very often the police will not be there, because it will be the Highways Agency traffic officers—they have renamed themselves since I left the Department for Transport—who attend. Having better skills to protect the public is crucial. That is part of what we are trying to do. In my own county, the fantastic chief fire officer, Roy Wilsher, who almost 10 years ago did an amazing job saving half my constituency when the Buncefield oil depot blew to smithereens, is the CEO of the PCC’s office. As well as being the chief fire officer, he actually runs the PCC office. Why? Because it is logical and sensible.
The public often talk about buildings. It is our job to ensure that they talk about not buildings but people. I welcome the shadow Minister to her role. I think we will probably meet fairly often, although I am not the Minister responsible for the fire service—that falls to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Communities and Resilience; I am here because of the connection to PCCs. When she reads Hansard, she will find that she said it is about buildings, not people. I think she meant that the other way around, but I fully respect and understand that. A church is not a building; it is a group of people who come together. Emergency services should not be about buildings, but about how we deliver the best service.
We must learn from the mistakes in the past. The amalgamation of the ambulance service met a fair bit of opposition. I am not a Health Minister, although I was shadowing the public Health Minister responsible for the ambulance service when it happened, and we had real concerns about it, some of which came true. We fundamentally opposed the regionalisation of fire control centres. Thank goodness we stopped that in time, although there are still some very expensive buildings out there, at least one of which is occupied by the coastguard. Actually, this is nothing new. I remember that in the early ’80s—all those years ago when I was a fireman in Essex—there was a tri-service control centre in Warwickshire. They were doing it then, so we have come full circle.
The skills of the people who are there to look after us are rightly interoperable. I hear forces saying, “We are going to lose x amount of front-line people”, “We are going to lose this” or “We are going to lose that,” but have they really looked at where those savings can be made so they can deliver the taxpayer-funded service that the public deserve?
We were talking about procurement a moment ago. I am not one to say that one size fits all and that we should procure everything from one place, but I published on the Home Office website how much each police force spends on the average 20 items. We all want our officers to have body armour, but there is a £300 difference between the price that two forces pay for it. Surely, as we approach the police and crime commissioner elections, that is the sort of thing we should be talking about. The fire service and the police both buy white shirts, so why do they not buy white shirts together? If a local provider can match the average national price, I am sure we would all want to support that local business, but if it cannot we have to question seriously whether that would provide value for money. We have changed the way we procure vehicles. There was some criticism from the Opposition, but for the first time the Government are buying huge amounts of very expensive equipment at e-auctions at the best value we can get it for. That is our responsibility as representatives of taxpayers.
There are myriad other things that can be done. Hampshire is very well represented in the debate this afternoon for a reason: it is one of the most forward-thinking authorities in the country. I went to Winchester fire station, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), and met the chief fire officer. The station is shared. I went to the yard, where the fire brigade was carrying out a drill—I am sure they do joint drills with the police in that yard, because that is the sort of thing we need to see—and at the bottom part of the yard is a brand spanking new building for the armed response unit and other police facilities. Nobody would ever know, and, frankly, I do not think the public would care if we explained to them that we want to do this to look after people.
One of the advantages of what was suggested by our hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) is that it would mean we have the flexibility of having a company, which other authorities can join and move their back-office functions into. Equally, the sort of contracts that he talked about—outsourcing contracts and others of that type—have a flexibility to them. Do the Government support that sort of thing, or are they going to create new institutions through statute?
We do not want to make it mandatory. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past. As an illustration of the support that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) alluded to, the Home Office gave £1.8 million to support H3, and we supplied extensive moneys for the relocation from the police innovation fund. That is the sort of innovation we are looking for.
The only thing I disagreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase about was her point about compulsion. I know exactly where she is coming from, and I have a huge amount of sympathy with it. I was arguing this point long before austerity was even thought of, when we were throwing money at our emergency services—we have sometimes seriously thrown money at our emergency services over the years, not least for kit that is hardly ever used—because it is right that we have a better, joined-up emergency service. We need people who are trained for the 21st century; we cannot look at the fire service, the police service and the ambulance service in a historical way.
Community first responders were never heard of previously. Communities came together for that. People said, “I want to be part of this community. I would like to do this.” We have them in my constituency, and they do really well. My point is that it is always better if the Government can bring people together and say, “This would be better for you,” rather than say, “This would be better for you, now come together and do it.” The consultation specifically looks at some areas where it would be difficult—for example, where forces and fire authorities are not co-located.
Northamptonshire is a good example, because the Northamptonshire PCC is one of the most forward-thinking PCCs in the country. He is already running the fire service management, but he does not interfere in the operational running of the fire service, in exactly the same way as PCCs do not have any effect on the operation of the police force. He is now looking at the ambulance service to see whether, for instance, the clinical commissioning groups would like to commission non-blue- light or blue-light vehicles from him. The vast majority of the ambulance services that are offered in this country, such as patient transport, do not use blue-light vehicles. It is hugely expensive, and it is often very highly qualified people doing those sorts of jobs. Where we are short of paramedics, we have to ensure they are doing front-line jobs, not administrative jobs or ordinary patient transport jobs.
I want to touch on that point in relation to the police forces, too. It is imperative that highly paid, highly skilled, hugely brave people—I was at Liverpool cathedral yesterday with David Phillips’s family and the thousands of people from across these islands and the world who came to pay tribute to him—are in operational positions, not behind a desk. In some forces, 10% of the warranted officers are not available because they are not fit for duty. How can that be right?
The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said policemen have been made redundant, but we have not made anybody redundant. They may have been declared medically unfit for duty, but we do not have the power to make officers redundant. We have got to ensure that as many people are in front-line roles as possible in the fire service, the ambulance service and the police service. They should be doing the jobs they trained for and joined the force to do, and they should be serving the community.
When we go in one direction away from danger, those people go in the opposite direction for us. We should pay tribute to them and ensure that they have the right kit and body armour. When I was in the fire service, we had cork helmets and serge jackets from the second world war. Now, they have the proper equipment. We had body armour that it was almost impossible for me to stand up in, and I am pretty hefty—not as big as them, but still pretty heavy. Now, they have lightweight breathing apparatus. We rightly praise their skills, but let us save money in the back offices, the bureaucracy and procurement before we dream of saying that we are not going to provide front-line officers, no matter which of those services it is.
This debate is a massively important part of the consultation. It is brilliant that we agree on most things, which is what this Chamber was designed for.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard, for giving me a couple of minutes to conclude. I thank all hon. Friends and Members for their contributions, and I thank the Minister for sharing some of his experiences. He spoke not simply as a Minister but as someone who was on the ground in various roles in the emergency services. I found it interesting that although we have some differences of opinion—[Interruption.]
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the issue of police and fire shared services.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.