Skip to main content

Fire and Rescue Services

Volume 603: debated on Monday 14 December 2015

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of changes to the level of funding for fire and rescue services on the effectiveness of those services. (902665)

Fire authorities have continued to provide an excellent service while making sensible savings. The number of incidents is 42% lower than 10 years ago, while the number of fire deaths and injuries is at an all-time low.

The existing grant distribution formula disproportionately penalises grant-dependent authorities such as Cleveland, regardless of socioeconomic deficits, unparalleled levels of industrial risk and/or their efficient performance. What assessment will the Minister make to identify less efficient authorities that can make savings and, more importantly, what capacity grant-dependent authorities have to make further savings?

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the magnificent work of firefighters, who, with the other emergency services, council staff, engineers, the armed forces, and indeed the whole community, have worked tirelessly to protect and help people during the flooding in the north of England.

Over the past five years, fire authorities have had spending reductions of less than local authorities. I have given the hon. Gentleman figures showing how well they have performed and managed those cuts, and the National Audit Office has said that the picture is one of financial health. In Cleveland, for example, the fire authority’s spending power is £48 per head of the population, compared to the national average of £37. So that is reflected in the formula.

The Minister mentioned the cuts to fire services over the years and said he took great pride in their work, particularly in places such as Cumberland, so I think he should award them a decent wage increase. What guarantee can he give that local fire and rescue services will not be negatively impacted if taken over by local police and crime commissioners?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are consulting across the country on whether to remove barriers to better local collaboration between all the blue light services. Such collaboration would be initiated locally, where it is wanted, for the purposes of providing a better service, if those changes would help.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that greater collaboration between the fire service and the police service necessary to reduce costs will not end the distinction between firefighters and police officers?

I can certainly confirm that. They are two distinct services with proud and distinct histories, but, as I think my hon. Friend would acknowledge, the opportunities for them to work together should be taken, whenever it could make a difference to people on the ground.

I was greatly encouraged by what the Secretary of State said about amalgamating services, particularly with local authorities. Wiltshire fire service has been in discussion with the first-class, Conservative-controlled Wiltshire Unitary Council. Will he encourage the fire service, which has also been negotiating with Dorset council, to seek to find areas of co-operation with Wiltshire council?

That is a matter for the local services. The consultation proposes requiring that those discussions take place, but it is up to them what they conclude.

I also pay tribute to the magnificent response of fire and rescue services to the floods in Cumbria and other northern areas. Fire and rescue services are rescuing people, pumping out water from flooded high streets and homes and rescuing livestock, thus limiting damage to rural communities, yet all those fire and rescue services have suffered cuts over the last five years. We have lost nearly 7,000 firefighters—one in eight—and equipment and appliances have been cut by more than 12% in metropolitan fire and rescue services. The fire service is at a key juncture. It is not safe, effective or efficient simply to keep cutting resources. Does the Secretary of State agree that more cuts will further damage the service’s ability to meet the risk in local major incidents, such as the recent floods, and will he commit to providing adequate resources so that the service can continue to contribute to national resilience on the scale and at the speed the public expect?

I would draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the National Audit Office report, which was published quite recently. It says that the picture to date is one of financial health and that

“fire authorities have not changed emergency response standards as a result of budget cuts”.

The evidence is that all but one stand-alone fire authority increased its reserves by 67% in real terms from 2010 to 2015. That tells me that the fire services are coping well with the reductions they have been invited to make.

I have lost confidence in the Staffordshire fire authority, which has decided to build a brand new fire station in Lichfield, but to reduce the number of appliances to half of what it is presently. Will my right hon. Friend work with Matthew Ellis, the police and crime in commissioner in Staffordshire, who has good, positive plans to combine the police and fire services for the betterment of the whole county?

That is the purpose of the consultation that we have embarked on: to remove the barriers that have prevented that kind of collaboration. I am very interested in what my hon. Friend has to say about the proposals in Staffordshire.