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Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2016

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the funding of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I am so pleased to have secured this debate this afternoon on the future of Merseyside fire and rescue service.

I begin by congratulating Merseyside fire and rescue service on its response to the floods right across the north of England this winter. It was able to provide that response because it makes such a positive contribution to national resilience, and I think we would all agree that we would like to see that contribution continue.

Merseyside fire and rescue service has been at the receiving end of severe cuts from central Government since 2011 and it faces further damaging cuts under the current Government. The cuts have led to fire station closures, a reduction in the number of fire engines and the loss of firefighter posts. The situation is a serious one and so I would like to describe these cuts in some detail today.

We all rely on the emergency services to be there should we need them. The work of firefighters is heroic. They enter burning buildings to rescue people who are in extreme peril, and who are terrified, exhausted or unconscious. That is the work that our firefighters do. They are brave people who put their own lives at risk to save the lives of others and I am sure that the Minister himself understands that, because of course he was himself once a firefighter. Firefighters are highly valued public servants.

In Merseyside during 2014-15, there were 582 rescues from all incidents; a rescue was carried out by Merseyside firefighters once every 15 hours. Their value cannot be in doubt. So it is important that we do what we can to ensure that firefighters can carry out their work in as safe an environment as possible. That is the very least that we owe them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. Does she share my concern that by 2020 there could be a cut of around 41% in the number of Merseyside firefighters in this vital emergency service?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that really important point, which I will return to. She is absolutely right. A cut of 41% in any workforce would add stress, but in an environment such as firefighting the resulting stress would be an unacceptable one to place upon firefighters.

With these points in mind, I will set out the scale of the cuts that the service has suffered since 2011 and their impact. I will then turn to the further cuts that were announced in December last year by the Government, and their implications, and I will ask the Minister to consider what all this means for Merseyside fire and rescue service.

Looking at the cuts from 2011-12 to 2015-16, we see that Merseyside fire and rescue service had a total cut from central Government of 32%, which is a huge and damaging cut. Like other metropolitan authorities, Merseyside relies to a much greater degree on its central Government grant than do county combined authorities such as Buckinghamshire. In 2010-11, Merseyside received 63% of its funding from its Government grant. Clearly, when the Government grant is cut, Merseyside receives a disproportionate cut in overall funding.

From 2011-12 to 2015-16, the cuts resulted in Merseyside fire and rescue service having to make £26 million worth of savings. What that meant on the ground is that we have lost nearly 300 firefighters, which is a cut of 31%; we have lost nearly 150 support staff, fire prevention and protection staff, and management staff, which is a cut of 35%; and we have had a 21% cut in our control staff, whose numbers are down from 42 to 33.

Cuts from central Government have also led to cuts in the number of fire engines on Merseyside, and in this respect the numbers are staggering. Back in 2011, we had 42 fire engines; we now have just 28, which is a cut of 33%. That cut has also led to a cut in the number of fire stations. On Merseyside, we are losing four fire stations as we go down from 26 to 22, which is a cut of 15%.

In my constituency of Wirral West, we currently have two fire stations—one at Upton and the other at West Kirby. Both are due to close and my constituents will no longer have their own fire stations but instead will be reliant on fire engines arriving from a neighbouring constituency. That will lead to longer response times, particularly into West Kirby and Hoylake, which are important urban centres. I am extremely concerned about this situation. Merseyside’s chief fire officer, Dan Stephens, has described the closure of those two stations, to be replaced by one station at Saughall Massie, as “the least worst option”. Clearly, that is not a ringing endorsement. The situation is far from ideal.

The loss of firefighters, fire engines and fire stations has led to an increase in response times across Merseyside over the five-year period from 2011 to 2016. Most notably, the response times of the second fire engine to attend incidents have increased by up to three minutes. That is worrying, because the crew of the first fire engine to arrive at an incident have to assess whether to carry out a search for people or to tackle the blaze. The arrival of the second fire engine is crucial, because with two crews the service can both tackle the blaze and carry out search and rescue. The Minister knows that minutes cost lives in a fire and that any increase in response times increases the risk of loss of life.

The number of fire deaths is often misrepresented, but the facts and figures with regard to Merseyside are that in 2011-12 there were five fire deaths; in the year 2014-15, there was a doubling of that number to 10; and the indications are that the number could even treble in the next year or so. Does my hon. Friend share my deep concerns about this situation?

I thank my hon. Friend for that really important point, because of course someone might say that five is a small number—of course, every life matters—but when we see a trend such as that one it is significant. We also have to consider the wider trauma that is suffered, because of course one person who dies in a fire may have many relatives and children, and so the trauma is not just restricted to that one person. This is a very serious situation.

In addition to the increased risks to the public that we are seeing, we must also bear in mind what these cuts mean to the fire crews themselves. When a firefighter is committed to an incident wearing breathing apparatus, the length of time that they spend dealing with that incident and the activity that they undertake will have a bearing on the length of time they will need to recover away from the area of danger before they can be recommitted. Each time a firefighter wears breathing apparatus at an incident, the potential risk that they face increases, because of the amount of time they are exposed to hazards and the physical efforts of repeated use of breathing apparatus.

The speed at which other fire appliances arrive to provide additional crew in breathing apparatus is crucial to reducing the risk to firefighters and to providing an effective firefighting response. Dan Stephens, the chief fire officer of Merseyside fire and rescue service, has given his view of the impacts of the cuts so far. He says, “The reduction of appliance numbers resulting from the cuts to the Merseyside fire and rescue authority budget have increased response times for the first and subsequent appliances to life-risk incidents. The reduction in appliances has also impacted on the number of crews that can be released for risk-critical training and exercises on any given shift. The organisational capacity to undertake community safety interventions such as home fire safety checks has also been significantly reduced.” It is important that we take notice of the chief fire officer’s analysis of the situation that the cuts have given rise to.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend both for her good fortune in securing this debate and for the powerful way in which she is making her case. Does she agree that given the weight of the problem that she has described, it would be appropriate for the Government to treat the fire and rescue service in the same way that they have treated the police, which is to say there should be no further cuts to the fire and rescue service?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that excellent point, and I absolutely agree with it.

As though all that has happened from 2011-12 to 2015-16 was not enough, there are more cuts to come. The future funding settlement announced as part of the local government funding settlement at the end of last year—on 17 December—has left Merseyside fire and rescue service facing a 41.3% cash reduction in the revenue support grant, which is the grant from central Government, over the period from 2016-17 to 2019-20. That equates to approximately a 50% reduction in real terms. Once business rates are added, Merseyside fire and rescue service will see a cut in cash terms of 16%, or between 22% and 25% in real terms if we take inflation into account. Of course, we have to remember that that those cuts are on top of the cuts that the service has already suffered, meaning total cuts of £11 million over the four years. The cuts that are coming our way are likely to lead to the loss of another 10 fire engines, taking the number down from 28 to 18, and the loss of another four or more fire stations.

The overall impact of the cuts delivered and planned for by the coalition Government and the current Government, between April 2011 and March 2020, will be a 41% reduction in the number of firefighters—a loss of about 400—a 46% reduction in the number of support, fire prevention and management staff, to just under 200, and a 21% cut in control staff, bringing their number down from 42 to 33. We can also expect to see the number of fire engines reduced from 42 to 18—a 43% cut.

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way again. Does she agree that it is of great credit to Merseyside fire and rescue service that it has maintained such high standards in the face of the cuts? It would be absolutely wrong for the Government to continue their course of action in the knowledge that there would be a calamity in due course.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She is absolutely right that it behoves the Government to take the situation extremely seriously.

The combined numbers for the loss of fire stations mean that we would be down from 26 to 18—a 31% cut. The numbers are shocking, and the scale of the cuts dramatic. Frankly, I find it unbelievable that it is possible to cut the number of firefighters by 41% with no increased risk of loss of life.

My hon. Friend paints a bleak picture of the impact of the cuts. In many ways, Merseyside fire and rescue service is a victim of its own success. It undertook to carry out preventive measures pre-2010, and that had a massive impact on the number of incidents to which it was called out. Last year, fire deaths on Merseyside doubled, but the low point in 2010 was because of those measures. Does my hon. Friend fear that the loss of 300 firefighter posts will have devastating consequences for firefighters’ ability to address the rising number of fire deaths on Merseyside?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s excellent point.

We have already mentioned the increased response times that are so critical when it comes to saving life. Independent consultants Greenstreet Berman suggest that by 2020, should the cuts go ahead, slower response times nationally will mean up to 41 additional deaths at dwelling fires, up to 91 additional deaths at road traffic collisions, up to 57 additional deaths at water incidents and 212 additional deaths at special service incidents. A significant increase in loss of life is predicted, so we must consider too what cuts in staffing on that scale will mean for those left working in the service. Anyone working in an environment that involves teamwork knows full well that the loss of 40% of staff would put pressure on those remaining.

As well as considering the impact on the service’s ability to respond to fires, we must also bear in mind the other essential work that the fire service carries out. In 2015, the Government published the latest edition of the national risk register of civil emergencies, which is the unclassified version of the national risk assessment. The register covers a range of civil emergencies that threaten serious damage to our welfare, the environment and security. A striking number of those threats are matters dealt with by the fire and rescue service, for example terrorist attacks, coastal and inland flooding, storms and gales, low temperatures and heavy snow, heatwaves and severe wild fires, pandemic influenza and other disease outbreaks, major industrial and transport accidents, and public disorder, such as during the civil disturbances of 2011. We must remember that a Government’s first duty is to protect its citizens, and the coalition failed in that duty in 2011, with the riots that took place in London. I happened to be in London at the time, and it was very frightening to be there.

Firefighters in Merseyside continually plan, prepare and train for those kinds of emergencies. Some of the risks posed by such events have increased in recent years, and with climate change many of the risks are likely to increase in the foreseeable future. The Government’s own analysis of flooding incidents responded to by fire and rescue services across England in 2014-15 shows a 15% decrease in the number of such incidents, but I think that we would all agree that this winter we have seen just how important fire and rescue services are in flood incidents, and we have all powerfully been made aware of how unpredictable extreme weather events can be. Merseyside fire and rescue service has supported every major flood event over the past 10 years.

We have to remember too the risk of terrorism. Terrorist incidents are, of course, by their nature unpredictable, but Merseyside fire and rescue must be able to respond to them. For example, it provided a terrorist firearms attack team for the NATO summit in Cardiff.

Other events are highly uncertain and difficult to quantify, and it is impossible to plan for multiple events. Everyone assumes that the fire and rescue service is prepared, equipped and staffed to meet every challenge. The Government’s planning for such risks assumes that sufficient firefighters are available to tackle the emergencies, and that the fire and rescue service in Merseyside is resilient in the face of such threats.

I want to talk a little about the drop in the number of fire incidents. Some have tried to argue that the drop justifies the reduced spending on fire and rescue services. That might have once been the case, but after receiving deep cuts in 2011, Merseyside fire and rescue service should not face any more. The latest round of cuts will adversely affect the service’s ability to carry out crucial fire prevention work in the community, which is particularly important when one considers the age profile of the local population, as in my constituency, for example. Older people suffering from memory loss, mobility issues, sight and hearing loss, and dementia increase the risk of domestic fires. The prevention work carried out by Merseyside fire and rescue service is as important today as it has ever been.

The increase in the number of road traffic incidents, to which the fire service across England has had to respond, should also be borne in mind. The coalition’s cuts to Merseyside fire and rescue service have damaged the service’s ability to respond to fire and a range of other incidents, many of them life-threatening. The cuts announced before Christmas will make matters far worse. The loss of 41% of firefighters, 46% of support, prevention, protection and management staff, and 21% of control staff will put an inacceptable strain on the remaining staff and affect response times. Cuts on that scale could also lead to loss of life.

I have looked but have been unable to find mention in the Conservative party manifesto that the Government intended to make dramatic cuts to essential life-saving services. I welcome a correction from the Minister if I am wrong. I very much doubt that the public will support this level of cuts or that they would be forgiving of such detriment to the service over time.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Dan Stephens, the chief fire officer, said today that he believes that there is no capacity to absorb any further cuts. He also said that the situation is exacerbated by our low tax base and that

“the cuts we have sustained to date”

mean that the

“bulk of future savings”

will have

“to come from response”.

Is that not the case in a nutshell? My hon. Friend has described all the consequences—that more people will be at risk, more firefighters will be at risk, more people will lose their lives, more people will be injured and more properties will be destroyed or badly damaged.

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Increasing response times is not an option if we take risk management seriously.

In the spending review, on 25 November, the Chancellor made great play of the fact that there would be no cuts in the police budget and that there would be real-terms protection for police funding. He said:

“The police protect us, and we are going to protect the police.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1373.]

On closer inspection, the pledge does not look quite as watertight as it did when it was first made, but the U-turn does prompt the question: why are the Government not going to protect firefighters? Moving the responsibility for the fire service from the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Home Office offers the Minister an opportunity to pause, reconsider and drop the cuts, and I urge him to do so.

I will call the Front Benchers at 5.38 pm. They will have 10 minutes each, and Margaret Greenwood will then have two minutes at the end to sum up the debate. We have got between now and 5.38 pm for other contributions. I have two names on the list in front of me—I am happy to take others—of which the first is Conor McGinn.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for enabling us to have this important debate. She spoke passionately and outlined in some detail the severe difficulties facing Merseyside fire and rescue service and the fears that its staff, public representatives and the people of Merseyside have for its future. I agree with everything that she said, so I will restrict most of my brief remarks to the impact on my constituency.

Let me say at the outset that I deeply regret the situation that Merseyside fire and rescue service finds itself in as a result of the huge cuts to its budget, which have meant that it has had to reduce significantly the number of firefighters, appliances and stations across the region. I pay tribute to the fire authority and senior management in the service for how they have tried to mitigate the worst effects. I also commend the regional and national leadership of the Fire Brigades Union for how they have worked constructively to protect and defend their members, but also for how they have laid the blame where it truly lies, which is at the feet of this Conservative Government.

Following a consultation last year, it seems likely that St Helens fire station in my constituency will close. Eccleston station, in the constituency of St Helens South and Whiston, will suffer the same fate, with a new station being built to serve an area previously covered by two. This merger, as it has been called, is a bitter blow to those who work at the stations, and there are expected to be 22 job losses. It will also have a hugely negative impact on the local community, who value the station, their firefighters and the prevention and safety work done out of what is colloquially known as Parr station. More fundamentally, it raises questions about the impact on public safety, given the statistics that have already been quoted in this debate—notably the rise in response times and the increase in the number of fatalities across Merseyside, which is above the national average. It is currently proposed that the second fire engine at the new station will be crewed by whole-time retained firefighters, and there are concerns about the potential impact that will have on the already bad response times, especially at periods of high demand.

I am very fond of the Minister, but there is a pattern here. Over the past five years, £20 million has been taken from Merseyside fire and rescue authority, with a further £6.3 million to be found this financial year. My local council in St Helens will have had its budget halved by 2020. A planned new police station in Newton-le-Willows is now unlikely to be built, and St Helens courthouse is under threat of closure. The Tory Government call that savings. I call it theft. They are taking from the people of St Helens, Merseyside and the north-west of England what is rightfully theirs: their public services.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point on the cumulative impact not just of the cuts to the Merseyside fire and rescue service, but of the cuts to local authorities in our area. Does he agree that it is a targeted ideology of the Government to hit the poorest areas hardest? Unfortunately, Liverpool City Council has had a 52% cut, which is disproportionate to the cuts in other areas, such as Witney in Oxfordshire, which is the Prime Minister’s seat.

It certainly seems that way. Public services are not optional; they belong to the people of this country and the people of St Helens, Merseyside and the north-west of England. Those public services have been paid for by their taxes, built by their hands and staffed by their hard work. Firefighters and their families represent all that is best about our public services and communities. The Opposition will stand by them, as they have so often stood by us.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for securing this important debate. She is right to highlight the cuts to Merseyside fire and rescue service and to the six metropolitan fire and rescue authorities in general. They have borne the brunt of budgetary reductions between 2010-11 and 2015-16. My constituency is served by the Greater Manchester fire and rescue authority, which like its metropolitan sister in Merseyside is facing massive cuts that cannot mean anything other than a drastic reduction in its services. Following the local government settlement, Greater Manchester fire and rescue authority will have to cut £15.8 million from its budget by 2020, with a massive £12.6 million reduction in the first two years alone.

Today the Government announced greater collaboration with the other emergency services, but Greater Manchester already has numerous collaborative projects, which include a national flagship station at Irlam that includes police, fire and ambulance, and the development of the UK’s first safe and well assessments, which focus on health and crime prevention as well as fire safety and prevention. It is the first fire and rescue service in the UK to have all front-line firefighters and resources responding to cardiac arrests on behalf of the local ambulance service. It is also building a joint fire and ambulance station in Wigan; providing offices to Greater Manchester police in Stockport, Stalybridge and Mossley; launching the community risk intervention team to support Greater Manchester police and health services; opening prevention hubs with Greater Manchester police and Salford City Council to support troubled families; and developing and delivering joint realistic multi-agency public disorder training.

The Government announced joint working with the police with a lot of fanfare, but I put it to the Minister that it is already going on. A further cut of £15.8 million will undoubtedly have an impact on the projects I have just outlined and will serve to limit the type of joint working that the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service has done so successfully with the police and other agencies. That is surely a retrograde step, given today’s announcement.

Since 2009-10, Greater Manchester fire and rescue authority has saved £28 million, which amounts to a 25% reduction in budget. Similarly to Merseyside fire and rescue service, that has been achieved through cutting the numbers of firefighters; cutting support staff and senior management; revisions to firefighter shifts and crewing arrangements; increased collaboration with other services, as I have already outlined; and improved procurement, among many other savings. With those steps already taken, a further cut of £15.8 million will require an unacceptable reduction in the fire and rescue cover that the service can provide. The scale of the new cuts will require the loss of a further 312 firefighter posts and the reduction of night-time cover from 56 fire engines to 33, meaning that Bury, Stockport and Trafford will have only one engine that is immediately available. The cuts will reduce front-line firefighters to 1,000 by 2019. In 1996, the authority had more than 2,000 firefighters. Fewer firefighters means fewer crewed-up fire engines being immediately available. As other Members have outlined, the consequence is that it will take longer to get to incidents and fires will spread more extensively.

Greater Manchester fire service has delivered more than 425,000 home visits and reduced fires by 42% over the past six years, but the trend of reduced incidents is now levelling off and in some places reversing. Between July and September last year, special service calls, such as road traffic collisions and flood responses, rose by 28% compared with the same period in the previous year. The numbers of non-domestic fires, accidental house fires and fire casualties have also increased. Further cuts will have an impact on preventive work, resulting in increased risk, more fires and more casualties.

On Boxing day last year, two thirds of Greater Manchester fire and rescue service’s available resources were deployed to provide flood rescue response across the county. Firefighters rescued nearly 1,000 people in less than 24 hours. Future incidents of that size will leave large parts of Greater Manchester with no fire and rescue cover. The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 does not place a statutory duty on fire services to respond to flooding, and Greater Manchester fire and rescue service will be unable to maintain its current levels of response to flooding following a further £15.8 million in cuts.

Greater Manchester fire and rescue service is one of the most innovative brigades in the country. As we go forward into a devolved administration in Manchester, our communities should have the power to decide the type of fire and rescue service that they need. Cost-benefit analysis shows that for every £1 invested in firefighter provision in Greater Manchester, £18 is returned in benefits to the local economy—a contribution of £1.27 billion in 2014 alone. I urge the Government to take note of those figures and ask themselves whether further cuts to our fire and rescue services are a false economy. If the answer is yes, which I believe it is, the Government must think again before they put short-term financial savings ahead of public safety.

I am pleased to speak under your stewardship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this important debate.

As a former chair of Merseyside fire and rescue service, I feel I have a little knowledge—some would say very little knowledge—of the area that it serves. As a former Fire Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) also shares significant knowledge of the service. The headquarters of the fire service is in my Bootle constituency. I visited the service HQ only a few weeks ago, and I am pleased to say that there is a jointly located command and control centre, shared with the police. That was an initiative taken and implemented without Government diktat, so Merseyside is already ahead of the curve in that regard. Discussions have also taken place to one degree or another with the ambulance service over the potential relocation of its control centre within the Merseyside fire service.

The service has excellent partnership arrangements with the police and local authorities, and, over the years, has developed excellent relations with community groups, voluntary organisations and the faith sector. It is no easy task to go out and make contact day in and day out to build up relationships with those organisations, and they respond constructively and positively.

Merseyside fire and rescue service can truly claim to be an integrated partner within the various communities that go to make up Merseyside. In addition, its relationships with the business community are absolutely second to none. Put simply, Merseyside has an excellent service that has a record of being proactive—in that, too, it is second to none. Over the years it has not only responded in the physical sense to actual fires, but has been responsive in ensuring that prevention has been at the top of its agenda. That takes time, determination and both financial and human resources, which are incrementally disappearing.

Merseyside fire and rescue service has risen to the financial challenge, albeit an unfair one, that the Government have set it over the past five years. Merseyside is a diverse community. It has a major river running through it, with two strategic road tunnels running beneath. It has major dock estates on both sides of the river and a burgeoning cruise terminal, with a major expansion of the Seaforth dock under way. It has an airport, two universities and major regional, national and international hospitals of repute within its care. It has two excellent football teams, in addition to Liverpool FC. It also has Aintree racecourse, which hosts one of the largest horse-racing events in the world. Meanwhile, Merseyside fire and rescue service has brought down the number of fires over the years with an innovative fire prevention strategy. The number of deaths and injuries have gone down to remarkably low levels, and that excellent record is in jeopardy. There is no doubt about that at all. It has done all that without kicking up a fuss and under great financial pressure, but that can go on only for so long without having serious effects on the resilience of the service.

The six metropolitan authorities, out of a total of 46 services, accounted for 57% of the budgetary reduction in the service as a whole between 2011 and 2013. Little is changing under the Government’s proposals; in fact, it is getting worse. During the same period, Merseyside fire and rescue service’s budget was cut by 13%—one of the highest cuts, and double the average—while others received increases. That is simply not fair and not equitable, and it is on top of all other the major cuts to local government services across the region over the past few years, which my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned. Put simply, that financial inequity is wrong, particularly when lives and livelihoods are at risk. The Government really have to think again.

As we have heard, and as the figures that I have show, the Merseyside service faces a 41% cut in the support it will get from the Government over the next five years. It is calculated that that means it is likely to shrivel from 962 firefighters in 2011 to 564 in 2020, almost halving its firefighting workforce. Fire engines have been depleted from 42 to 28—it is possible that another 10 engines are to go—and four of Merseyside’s 26 stations have closed, with another eight under threat. It is a really dramatic cut in front-line services by anybody’s measures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) made an excellent speech, supported by the other Merseyside MPs. She was absolutely right to bring the subject to the House’s attention and to seek to get the Government to understand, even at this very late stage, just what these cuts mean to our constituencies and constituents. It is not just Merseyside—other fire services have been hit hard, with a 15.6% reduction in the cash budgets of metropolitan services and a reduction of 5.9% for non-metropolitan services. As the National Audit Office has said:

“Spending power has fallen most in areas assessed by the Department as having highest levels of…need.”

There are likely to be more incidents in areas of the highest need, as the Minister knows only too well. It is in the cities—in poorer metropolitan areas just like Merseyside—that fires are most likely to happen and to cause the most damage. Spending forecasts show that the trend is likely to continue. According to the House of Commons Library, metropolitan services are going to lose more spending power than combined county services, which means that services such as Merseyside’s will continue to face the toughest cash squeeze. Where is the risk-based allocation that used to inform Government spending on fire services?

Since 2010, our fire and rescue service has had to deal with year-on-year cuts totalling an estimated £236 million—about 22.5% of its overall Government funding—and a further 8.8% this year alone. That has led to real reductions on the frontline. We have 5,000 fewer firefighters in England than we had in 2010. I travelled around the country earlier this year—I was the shadow Fire Minister prior to the election—and I talked to people at both metropolitan and non-metropolitan services. Some of them told me that their services would not be viable in the future. Those words chilled me, as they should chill the Minister.

Those who see logic in slashing fire budgets seem to believe that as there are now fewer fires it is safe to have a depleted fire service, but that argument is utterly specious. It completely disregards other important services that firefighters provide in key areas such as flood fighting, terrorism and others that we have heard about today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West said, a key factor in the smaller number of fires is the 670,000 home fire safety checks that the fire service carries out every year. Since 2004, when the checks began in earnest, the proportion of homes with fire alarms has increased from 74% to 88%. Those checks save lives as well as preventing fires—double the number of fatalities happen when a fire occurs in a building without a smoke alarm. To cut the fire service because the number of fire incidents has been reduced successfully, saving lives in the process, would be like cutting the number of mammograms because the number of deaths from breast cancer is going down. It is complete madness.

We should therefore be in no doubt that the cuts faced by services such as Merseyside will put the public at greater risk. Indeed, as we heard earlier, the independent consultants Greenstreet Berman suggest that by 2020, slower response times nationally—they are now at their worst level for 20 years—could lead to more than 100 additional deaths a year. The cuts may well lead to the Government failing in their first duty: to keep the public safe.

Fire deaths in Merseyside have already increased over the past five years of cuts. I know we are dealing with small numbers at the local level, so I do not want to talk about percentages because they can be totally misleading, but the trend concerns me deeply, as it should concern the Minister.

The funding cuts faced by the Merseyside fire service and other beleaguered services are all the more difficult to manage because the Government have consistently shown little or no leadership on the future of fire services. Now, however, after a long period of inertia, the Government are suggesting a patchwork, top-down reorganisation. They are effectively proposing to put fire services under police and crime commissioners, or to place the police on the boards of fire services to be part of their management. They are also suggesting a single employer.

There is real concern that all that will mean that the fire service becomes subsidiary to the police and ceases to be a statutory service in its own right, and that the fire service will be the one to see the reductions in budget and staffing—no longer two equal services working side by side for the public good, but one subordinate to another. Where PCCs take over, what guarantees do the public have that fire budgets will be maintained? Merseyside has a right to ask for that, and for an unequivocal assurance from the Minister that this top-down proposal will not be used to introduce privatisation.

The reorganisation is, I assume, to save money. Why, oh why did the Minister not look to Wales or Scotland to work out how a reorganisation could be done to save money and yet protect the frontline? Was it simply a “not invented here” reaction, or something more nefarious? As the shadow Fire Minister before the election, I thought hard about what an incoming Labour Government could do to save money, in Merseyside and elsewhere, and protect the frontline. I consulted experts, and they told me that there were only three ways to work within the Tory-Liberal Democrat spending plans: merge the service into one; volunteerise the whole service; or privatise it. Which of those options is today’s announcement moving us towards—a service staffed completely by volunteers or a privatised service?

As the Minister knows, firefighters run into danger when the rest of us are running away. They are professional and work with determination and expertise to protect us all from the most appalling risks. They should be valued and listened to, not ignored. The Minister knows that better than anyone, and I urge him to take stock of the funding on Merseyside and in all the other areas of the country that are struggling to make massive reductions.

The Minister must respond to the impressive and passionate case that Merseyside MPs have made today about fire service funding, and not fob them off with some fairy tale about reorganisation providing more money for the frontline. Budget reductions and his suggestions for mergers with the PCCs put him in danger of creating a Cinderella service. That fairy tale ended happily, but today, sadly, I see no Prince Charming on the horizon.

It is, as everyone has said, Mr Hollobone, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again.

I welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), to her role. I thought we had got rid of each other after the psychoactive substances debate, but here we are again. I do not know which of us feels sorrier. This is the first time that she has attacked me, which is probably a sign of the future, but we can still be friends outside the Chamber.

Colleagues from Merseyside are present today and I understand what they have said, although I do not understand or recognise some of the figures that have been used. I will come to those in a moment.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing the debate and on making all these colleagues come out of the main Chamber for this debate, which is obviously important. I will answer as many of the points as possible. Naturally, if I cannot answer them all, I will write to colleagues. Actually, I want to write to colleagues from throughout the area—to colleagues who are not present as well—to clarify some of the figures, because I just do not recognise some of them. If I am wrong, I will obviously make that clear later and apologise, but let me give an example. The shadow Minister talked about core spending power between now and 2020, and a 41% cut was alluded to. Actually, it is 3.4% and a reduction of £2.1 million. There is obviously a discrepancy between the figures that my officials have produced for me and the figures that have been used in the debate.

One thing that slightly surprised me was this. The local authority is concerned and obviously has lobbied extensively, yet my notes tell me that Merseyside had the opportunity formally to respond to the local government financial settlement if it was concerned about the funding cuts, but it did not do so, so it did not take part in the consultation. I might be wrong, but those are the notes I have. I would think that if there were concerns, they would have been expressed.

I will make a tiny bit of progress and then give way.

I am very conscious that a former Minister and a former chair of the Merseyside fire and rescue service are present. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), because he went through an enormously difficult time in reforming the Merseyside service. I know that that was not an easy thing for him to do, so I pay tribute to him for the work that he and his board did.

For a short period, I was a fireman in the fire and rescue service in Essex, and I was the branch representative of the Fire Brigades Union for a very short period—until we fell out—and so no one is more conscious than I am of the work that our firefighters do on a daily basis. A lot of it is not seen by the public, even though the public expect them to do it. I am very conscious, having been to Lancashire, of the work that is done through mutual aid agreements. I saw help come across those borders—there were no borders and no lines on maps; firefighters just went across to help in the way that they should have. Firefighters from my constituency in Hertfordshire were also in the north-west, assisting with high-velocity pumps. A lot needs to be learnt from the type of flooding and rescue work that was done. The Prime Minister has already announced a review of not only how we protect the public better from flooding, but how we respond and where the facilities should be.

It is also important that we acknowledge the changes that have taken place in the structure of the fire service, certainly since I joined in ’82, as well as what has happened over the past few years. I pay tribute to the Fire Brigades Union, which in my time, would never have agreed to some of the changes that have taken place, especially in the manning of stations. However, practicalities relating to the modernisation of the service meant that when I was in Lancashire only the other day, all the whole-time station staff I met were what I would call day-manning staff. Other crews come down at night and are on call. It seems to be working really well there. It was first piloted, I think, in Woodham Ferrers in Essex, back in the ’80s. When I was there, we went to day-manning stations. It is about a different sort of facility, looking at what the requirements are and when staff can come in.

I am grateful to the Minister. I join him in paying tribute to the FBU for the concessions that it has been willing to make, but does he not recognise that, because it has already made those concessions, the scope for any further reductions is inevitably much smaller?

In some respects, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We have come some way, but I do not think that anyone would say that we have fully come through. For instance, the figure I have for the number of retained firefighters in Merseyside is 25, which is very low. That may be because we are looking at day-manning stations among other things, but the use of retained firefighters is how it is done in many parts of the country. Sadly, that is not the case in London, where there are no retained firefighters, which I find strange. We need to continue to look at that.

I do not have the full figures for Manchester, because the debate is about Merseyside fire and rescue service, so I will have to write to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). My officials were scurrying away behind me to ensure that I had some details, but it is probably better if I write to her. I will say again that I do not recognise some of the figures on the amount of losses. We can all throw figures around, but let us get down to the facts.

Colleagues have talked about the small but significant increase in deaths in Merseyside, and that needs to be addressed. The statistics are always difficult: one death is too many, and one of the first things I said when I took over this responsibility just over three weeks ago was, “Yes, we have reduced deaths nationally enormously, but hundreds of people still die in fires and we need to get that figure down even more.” With the fire service in Merseyside and my specialist teams, I will personally look and ask for analysis as to why that figure has moved.

A couple of comments are very important. I am brand-new into the job. I was a firefighter, but that was a long time ago and the service has changed enormously since then. The one thing that has not changed is that, while we go in one direction, the fire service and other emergency services are going in the other direction, so it is right that we continue to pay tribute to fire services across the country and acknowledge the work that they do and that there have been many changes. In the debate, I was listening carefully about who is manning what and where.

Some colleagues said that their fire station may not open—I refer in particular to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn). It might well open if it were a fire and police station. It is difficult to convert a police station into a fire station because the big red trucks do not get into the foyer so well, but we can plan constructively in the community. I always use the analogy that a church is not about buildings; it is about people coming together, and that is what we are talking about with the emergency services.

The reforms we announced today based on the consultation are not top-down but an attempt to move further forward. As chief fire officer Paul Hancock said today, there is a general warmth towards them in the service. This is not about taking one force, putting it under another and undermining it—as a former firefighter, why would I do that? I am trying to ensure that those on the front line have the opportunities and finances there and that we do not waste money in silos with headquarters here and there when they could come together. Why is it that in any part of the country the fire and police headquarters are not in the same building? Why are human resources and procurement not done together?

Since I took over responsibility for the fire service, I have published information on the 43 police authorities in which I listed about 20 average products that they buy for front-line operational use, so that the public can see how much each PCC and chief constable is spending on that equipment. The variation is enormous. For instance, on a type of approved body armour, there was a £300 difference between one piece of kit and another. On batons, the figure was about £80. I intend to do similarly for the fire service. I am not telling anyone that they should go to a specific organisation to buy their equipment, but I think the public should know what is being spent and how it is being spent. In vehicle procurement, the fire service should be part of the e-auctions process to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent correctly.

I will give way in a second, but I want to make a tiny bit of progress.

The equipment has changed dramatically from when I was in the fire service. We need to look carefully at the equipment we have for the 21st century. For instance, when I was in Lancashire, six fire appliances were sadly damaged due to the flood. Their crews watched the Army vehicles go through. Squaddies will drive through anything, but their vehicles are adapted to go through it, whereas six of the fire appliances got trapped in the water, went off the road straight away and were quite seriously damaged. The engines were damaged as well. We need to look at the manufacturers to make sure we have the right equipment.

In case there is any confusion, Merseyside fire and rescue service submitted a response to the consultation on behalf of and jointly with other metropolitan authorities; I want to clarify that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) may well be mistaken and myopic in his choice of football team, but he was absolutely right on the statistics we used, which were provided by Merseyside fire and rescue service itself. He was there, along with a number of other Merseyside MPs, when the Leader of the Opposition visited the joint control centre that the Government are pushing in Bootle. The chair of Merseyside fire and rescue service, Councillor Dave Hanratty, has asked me to extend the same invitation to the Minister. The chief gave out that information, and he is very careful about being absolutely non-political and impartial, so the Minister can come along and get the briefing for himself.

I will come. I have been to Merseyside many times in my ministerial role, not least when I announced the decision to open the cruise terminal in Liverpool, which was opposed by many areas in the south of England. I know Merseyside very well, and I will come as soon as my diary allows.

I would never say that anybody has intentionally used a figure that is not correct. Of course, everybody thinks that the figures they use are correct. All I have said is that the information I have is slightly different. It may be a question of semantics—who knows? Let us get the facts right, and then we will know.

The biggest thing I want to make sure I get across to the House is that I am new and I have an open mind. The Prime Minister has put me here for a reason, and it is obviously a logical reason. The role of Fire Minister is back in the Home Office where it was when I was a firefighter in the ’80s, interestingly, and it is logical that the emergency services are together. I will look carefully at why Merseyside has seen this slight but significant increase in deaths. It is very important we look at that and find out what has been going on.

I thank the Minister for his response and his proposition to look carefully into the increase in deaths; that is welcome. However, I have to say that I find his response on the business of figures somewhat baffling, because all the figures I have presented to him have come from Merseyside fire and rescue service. I wonder why he has not challenged the figures I have come up with of £26 million in cuts during the coalition and a further £11 million cuts to come. It does not matter whether we talk in percentages; those are huge cuts and that is a vast amount of money. Talking about merging HR functions and so forth is all well and good, but it does not really go to the nub of the issue. This is all about saving money, and that is the issue we are so concerned about.

In 2010-11, Merseyside received 63% of its funding from Government grants, so any cut in Government grant has a disproportionate effect. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister would do well to look at that particular element in his assessments?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Of course, not all areas of the country receive that level of grant, but to us it is massively important. These cuts are real, and they are being felt already. We have already lost 300 firefighters. I am losing all the fire stations in my constituency. These cuts have not been magicked out of a small percentage; they are real cuts we are seeing.

I commend the Minister for paying tribute to the way in which the FBU has responded to modernisation, but I wonder what more he wants. The FBU has gone a long way to meet the cuts dealt to it already. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) said, with the fire services having made those concessions and responded so valiantly to the scale of the cuts last time, there is nothing left to cut without detriment to services.

Finally, I would like to welcome the Minister to come to Merseyside and urge him to look at the figures very closely indeed.

I therefore urge the Minister to consider the possibility of dropping the cuts. If the cuts are of the scale that we have presented today, which I believe they are, there is a strong case for cutting them. Merseyside deserves a fire service that it can rely on and that is well funded, well resourced and does not put its firefighters at risk.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the funding of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service.

Sitting adjourned.