I beg to move,
That this House has considered closer working between the emergency services.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. You and I share a passionate interest in the NFL and American football, so I am glad to see you here. I do not know whether you made it to the Super Bowl, but hopefully one day we will be at the Super Bowl at Wembley.
Today’s debate focuses on emergency services, and—by way of background—it follows a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on 3 November 2015 at the beginning of the consultation period. There were a number of contributions to that debate, and the Minister was rightly somewhat reticent to explain his beliefs on what the Government would propose—he was waiting to see what the consultation would say. I have looked at the Government’s response, and it is clear that there was widespread participation, with more than 300 responses from organisations across the country. Today is our first opportunity to raise questions with him on the specifics of the Government’s recommendations and to probe him for more details on the Government’s thinking and on his next steps to take the matter forward. This debate is also timely because we will shortly be having police and crime commissioner elections across the country, so this will be a live issue as people make their democratic choice.
In their response, the Government say that
“the picture of collaboration around the country is still patchy and there is much more to do to ensure joint working is widespread and ambitious.”
It would be helpful if the Minister pointed to some examples today to give us a sense of what he thinks the direction of travel in collaboration is likely to be. If it has been patchy, we do not want to go into a sort of organised patchiness. We need a sense of what the Government think are good ways to collaborate and of where they feel the case has not been made so significantly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate ahead of possible legislation. He mentioned where collaboration is already happening, and I think he will concede that Hampshire is a good example. Some 750 staff now work across shared services between Hampshire constabulary, the Hampshire fire and rescue service and Hampshire County Council in the innovative H3 programme. We think that we are doing many things right, and hopefully we are letting other areas learn lessons for the future, so would he concede that Hampshire is a place to see where collaboration is already starting?
As a proud son of Bedford, and therefore Bedfordshire, I hate to give credit to other counties, but my hon. Friend is right that Hampshire is demonstrating a clear path, as evidenced by the fact that a significant number of Hampshire Members of Parliament are here today. One reason why I am pressing the Minister is that there are good examples. The PCC position is still new, and we should be honest about the record of PCCs across the country. Some have been very good and some—again, I speak from direct experience in Bedfordshire—have been less good, so we need a sense from the Government about what level of collaboration they believe makes sense.
The Minister will know—I do not—what is meant by
“a high level duty to collaborate on all three emergency services”.
That is what he intends to propose, so will he tell us today what it means? It would be helpful for us to know that before the Government introduce their legislation. What sanctions do the Government expect to impose on organisations that do not collaborate?
The Fire Brigades Union has spoken to me about same-service collaboration. For those of us who believe that we need to do more to reduce public expenditure to deliver public services more efficiently—I count myself as a fiscal conservative—a whole range of savings are available in the fire service through combinations of fire services across the country. One fear that the FBU and I have is that, by concentrating control through PCCs, the Government are giving up the opportunity for cross-border collaboration and the savings that will come from that. What is the Minister’s answer to the FBU?
One of my two main points is on the duty to collaborate with ambulance services. Other hon. Members are extremely disappointed, and I certainly am, by the half-hearted response of the ambulance services to this opportunity for them to participate in collaboration between the emergency services. On other issues raised in the consultation, page 19 of the Government’s summary states:
“By far the most commonly stated view was the need for ambulance services to engage more with the police and fire and rescue services.”
That is absolutely correct. There are many people in the fire and rescue services who believe that their humanitarian mission is much more closely aligned with those in the ambulance services, yet the ambulance services seem to drift along on their own thinking that it is okay to stay within their own silo and not participate in the Government’s positive and welcome change. Is collaboration by the ambulance services central to the Minister’s vision, or is it a “nice to have”? On the surface, it looks like a “nice to have.” If PCCs are to be the central organising point for emergency services, the Government have missed a step in not using this opportunity to propose measures to drag parts of the ambulance services into the overall responsibilities of the PCCs.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically passionate and well thought-through speech. I understand his point about the importance of ambulance services being better involved in the debate, but it could be argued that there are unique pressures on them. In Poynton, to the north of Macclesfield, there is an interesting model of co-location between fire, police and ambulance services in an emergency hub. Does he agree that there are options, maybe at the margins or on the periphery, where ambulance services could play a more integrated role?
Not only do I agree, as usual with my hon. Friend, but I would take his idea and move it another step forward. There are opportunities not only for co-location but for training, skills development and establishing career paths that enable people to join a fire and rescue service and an emergency medical responder service and then determine whether they want to have a pure firefighter career path or whether they want to have a career path that includes achieving medical qualifications that make them capable of being EMRs. Such opportunities are relevant to the vision that the Minister wishes to outline, but the Government’s proposals give a free pass to the ambulance services to continue thinking in their own silo. There is an imperative on the Government to bring that under the overall arch of their recommendations.
I spoke to firefighters on the frontline in my constituency last week about that point, and it is not a difficulty—they have a pilot with the ambulance service. Last week alone, the fire and rescue service saved two people’s lives in Northumberland because of that joint approach. However, there is a huge difficulty with amalgamating with the police service, which is quite different.
I have a lot of empathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, which is another reason why the lack of effort, as it seems from the Government’s proposals, to try to bring in the humanitarian, ambulance and EMR capabilities will store up problems for later. There is a concern that it will be not a merger but essentially a takeover of the fire services by the police. I know that that is not the Minister’s intent—I am sure that as a former firefighter himself, he has a passion for the fire service and understands the unique skills it has better than many hon. Members—but unless the Government introduce stronger measures on collaboration requirements for the ambulance service, the fears outlined by the hon. Gentleman are likely to continue. It is the Government’s responsibility to try to cut them off.
A number of points in the proposals deal with governance and PCCs, and with management. When I read the consultation document originally, I thought that on governance issues, a pretty straightforward case could be made for or against, but that the management issues involved quite a lot of detail and potentially some weeds that we would not wish to get into. In their response, the Government rightly clarified the issues for chief fire officers, such as that the position of chief officer in a combined service is now open to them. It is now clear that they can take part in that way, but what about the terms and conditions for the bulk of the workforce in the two arms of the police and fire service? What will the single-employer structure mean for them?
The Government has rightly considered potential back-office savings. That is quite right, and we know all about co-location—those are the easy bits—but a single employer also has responsibility for human resource management, training and development, terms and conditions and pay. What is the Government’s plan on that? Can they give us some reassurance on terms and conditions that the changes are not a stepping stone to a substantial change in working relationships and opportunities for the fire service and police?
I am sure that there will be questions about force boundaries, as there were in the debate in November. As the Government have moved forward with their proposals, I can see instances working where multiple fire authorities are under a single PCC, because the PCC is the apex, but what are the Government’s proposals for the admittedly limited number of areas where the PCC is not the apex of the fire authority? It is not just that the boundaries are not coterminous; they go beyond the scope of the apex. Can the Minister address those issues? For example, Cornwall and Devon police forces are merged, but Devon and Somerset fire services are merged and Cornwall is independent. What does he suggest there? It is also proposed to merge Wiltshire and Dorset fire services, but there will be two PCCs for those areas. Can he give us some thoughts about that?
The H3 project that I mentioned in Hampshire also now combines its back office with Oxfordshire County Council. Clearly, that is outside the county boundary and the PCC boundary, but it proves that if local collaboration happens without being forced, where there is a will, there is a way.
That is right, but sometimes there is no will; what is the way then? PCCs are democratically elected figures, and they have a responsibility to the people who elected them to maintain their range of services. The proposals in the legislation are not clear about how that will be managed. It would be helpful to hear that from the Minister, because it will not apply to the vast majority of places across the United Kingdom. The number of places affected is small, but they are important. The people of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset will want to know the Government’s intentions, because in a few weeks’ time, they will be voting for someone who may well have that responsibility if Parliament passes the legislation.
I would like to make a few points about PCCs, starting with finance. All Members of Parliament will be aware that chief constables have made the case for a number of years now about the financial pressure involved in maintaining the desired levels of policing. Many of us on the Government Benches have pressed chief constables and others to look for savings and, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes positively, they have engaged with us. Guess what? Effective policing can be delivered with lower budgets. Who would have thought that possible? However, there is admittedly still pressure across the board on public and police financing, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was right to maintain police budgets in the autumn statement.
I am sure that we all look forward to that maintenance of funding, but I was concerned, not for the first time, by comments made by the police and crime commissioner in my county of Bedfordshire. Just last Sunday, the Bedfordshire on Sunday led with a story headlined, “Takeover threat for fire service”. It began:
“‘Help us with our funding or be taken over’, is the warning to the fire service from the county’s cop boss.”
The PCC may well be jumping the gun, because he does not have those powers yet, but I think that many of us would be alarmed to hear such an aggressive statement from a PCC who might be given responsibility for the fire service. The fire service is not a piggy bank for police and crime commissioners to raid for their budgets.
But it is.
The PCC ought to know, and have responsibility for knowing, that he must—
Order. If Front-Bench Members want to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, they can, of course, but otherwise, they should be quiet.
I am not sure whether the shadow Minister was speaking out in support of the PCC raiding fire service budgets. Perhaps she was; perhaps that is new news. Who would have known? Perhaps she would like to clarify.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify, and I congratulate him on securing this debate and on the tenor of his contributions. I was merely agreeing with his suggestion that some PCCs may well see the fire service as a piggy bank from which to fund the police service, and I wonder whether that was the Minister’s intention.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister, who came to my constituency last year just before the general election. She was very welcome in Bedford. The issue is not so much that some PCCs may be incapable of managing their budget effectively and who therefore think that this is an opportunity to take money from our firefighters—as the Bedfordshire PCC appears to think—but that they should not be permitted to do so. On that, I think she and I agree. We want to ensure that the funding for our fire service cannot be raided by PCCs such as the one for Bedfordshire, who wishes to get his hands on it.
Judgment is an important issue for PCCs, especially as they come before the electorate in May. I would argue that the judgment of the Bedford PCC has been flawed—I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees—in that, with huge reserves, the PCC still went to the electorate and asked for a 15% increase in the precept, which was rightly rejected. He was trying to raid the piggy bank of the electorate, rather than that of the fire service. Perhaps he should concentrate on his own financial situation.
I am tempted by my right hon. Friend to go further and talk about the PCC for Bedfordshire, but that is a bit parochial. I have one final point, which I think is relevant for all Members of Parliament. In Bedfordshire, we consider the fire stations that exist around the county. In my constituency, we have one in Bedford on Barkers Lane and one in Kempston. My concern is that the PCC will close that station. If he is already firing the gun and saying that he wants to take money from the fire service, that could mean real reductions in fire service coverage for my constituents.
Can the Minister tell us a bit more about the financing for the new arrangements that he is seeking? In particular, council tax is in separate precepts at the moment. Will a single precept be charged? Secondly, what accountability will there be within the PCC organisations to ensure that one budget is not raided for another? If there is no clarity that people are being charged separate precepts for fire and police, and there is no oversight in the service about how that money is used between fire and police, that is of great concern.
In their response, the Government say that they are quite rightly considering the issue of an inspectorate and how that should roll. My personal view is that that inspectorate needs to have a very strong mandate and, in particular, needs to see itself as maintaining the correct financing for both the fire service and the police service. That should be a specific requirement in the inspectorate’s brief and it should not have an overall brief to ensure that money is being used effectively by the PCCs. If we do not maintain that idea of separation, the predations of certain PCCs will be too strong.
I will be very careful what I say, because Dorset’s PCC is a man who I respect a lot and he does a very good job within his remit, but it would be fair to say that this whole argument is made even more difficult by the fact there is still a lot of doubt about the role of the PCC. Personally, I have always thought that we politicised the police force in one straight swipe and now there is a danger of doing so with the fire service. Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is adding angst to an argument that is very difficult to resolve?
That is a fair comment, but there is no better person to alleviate angst than the Minister himself and I am sure that at the end of this debate the angst will be significantly lessened.
Overall, I hope that Members welcome both the consultation process undertaken by the Government and the broad thrust of their proposals to take these measures forward. There is a lot of good stuff in these recommendations and I think that all hon. Members want to help the Minister identify where there are perhaps ongoing concerns, so that he can consider them and refine his thoughts before he introduces legislation, and to encourage him on the path that he has set, which is most welcome for the people of Bedford and—I am sure—for many people across the country.
It is my intention to call for the two winding-up speeches no later than 10.40 am and I have seven Members who have indicated they wish to speak. My arithmetic tells me that means about seven minutes per person. I do not want to impose a time limit because that is not my way, but I ask Members to bear that guidance in mind.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Bone, and I thank the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) for setting the scene very well, as he always does, with his knowledge and experience. We thank him for that.
We look forward to hearing the responses from the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). There is no pressure on the Minister whatsoever—he just has to absorb all the angst in the room and come up with the answers. Knowing him as we do from when he was a Northern Ireland Minister, we know that he has a great interest in his job and a passion for it.
I look forward to giving a Northern Ireland perspective. I know that the issue has been devolved to us in Northern Ireland, but it is always good for the House to hear about experiences from across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and in this particular case from Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister will encompass that in his response.
Just last September, a poll commissioned by the Police Federation of Northern Ireland was released. It found that 96% of those who took part believed that morale was at its lowest. That indicates how the pressures of budgets, the pressures on jobs and the changes in police officers’ circumstances have all lead to a reduction in police morale. The significance of the survey cannot be overstated. Some 2,527 serving police officers in Northern Ireland, which is just over a third of the total number, responded to it. Budget cuts, pension fears and internal changes have been blamed for the slump in police morale. We have also seen the hard-pressed Northern Ireland ambulance service declare major incidents, as it has been unable to cope with a combination of rising demand and cuts to funding.
What we are considering in this debate is closer working between the emergency services. I want to give a perspective from Northern Ireland, where the three services can work together, do better and respond to events because of some of the things that we have done in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to which power in this area is devolved.
We live in tough times economically, and all Departments are being asked to tighten their belt, but the statistics on police morale, and issues affecting the ambulance service and the fire service, are all causing concern. It is good to discuss how we can use co-operation between the emergency services to help those affected by the tightening of the purse strings to do more with less.
My hon. Friend is coming to a point that will hopefully command widespread support across the House and the nation. People want to see a pragmatic, sensible and practical series of co-operations between the emergency services, not just to raise morale among the staff in those services, important as that is, but, even more importantly, to deliver a more efficient and effective service to people across the United Kingdom.
As always, my hon. Friend and colleague makes a very focused intervention. Yes, we need to have that co-operation, and that is what this debate is about. It is not about attacking anybody or giving anyone a hard time; it is about considering how better we can have that co-operation. In Northern Ireland, we have done some things better than elsewhere, and some things have been done better on the mainland. We can exchange views, and it is important that we do so.
The answer lies in innovation—learning to do things differently. Reducing bureaucracy and red tape is a simple measure that would make co-operation between our emergency services easily obtainable. It is the attractive thing to do and the right thing to do, and if we encourage that process we could see some real results.
I know that the issue of how the three services can come together and help each other when it comes to training is a different one for a different debate. A previous debate in Westminster Hall addressed such training. However, in Northern Ireland we have taken some steps towards achieving that joint training. A location has been identified for it, but we do not yet have the training school to bring the three services together. I know that the Minister is aware of that approach, because I think he will have overseen it during his time in the Northern Ireland Office. Once again, there are some good steps being taken forward.
We have already seen what innovative approaches can do in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland fire and rescue service adapted to a tighter budget rather than simply doing things as it had always done them before. Reallocating shift patterns, having less bureaucracy and providing more autonomy for local stations and fire service men and women are just a few of the steps that the command of the fire and rescue service in Northern Ireland has taken to adapt to the challenging financial environment.
The most interesting part of all the changes that have taken place, and of those that will be made shortly, is that they have come from those within the fire service themselves. They have acted rather than waiting for Government. The initiatives came from people within the fire service—they want to provide a better fire service, as they are part of it. If we can do things better, let us do so.
In Northern Ireland, fire stations that would otherwise have closed are now staying open, and fire service personnel who would have otherwise been out of a job are part of a fire service that is looking forward, despite the challenging circumstances. There is real innovation and there are real ideas, and people are working together. Replicating that innovation in the other emergency services, and sharing the methods by which improvements can be made, will surely go some way toward alleviating the pressure of cuts to our emergency services.
We do not have any Scottish colleagues here today, but I always say that we are better together, in every sense of the phrase, and we want to stay together. However, we also have emergency services across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that do a good job. If we are doing things well in Northern Ireland, let us share that, and if there is something in Scotland, Wales and the rest of the mainland that we can learn from, let us do so.
However, while it is encouraging to see what can be done, there is no replacement for funding. Cuts have been made to our front-line services, and particularly our emergency services. We have to look at those cuts again—surely there are other areas in which the Government, and indeed the Northern Ireland Assembly, should focus attempts to save money. Greater co-operation, while always desirable, cannot be a smokescreen for cuts. The people will not be distracted, and the figures cannot be swept under the carpet.
I return to my comments about the police service survey. Of those surveyed, 96% said that morale is low in what has to be one of the most important institutions for Northern Ireland’s future. We need law and order in place, and it is good that we have it, but we also need the emergency services to work together better. The fire and rescue service, the ambulance service and the police can do that. Co-operation is desirable and always beneficial, but it will not always be a good enough smokescreen to cover the fact that our emergency services are facing cuts to their budgets. What matters is how those cuts happen, how budgets are then brought together and how we deliver a service that our people can depend upon.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing this interesting debate. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) to bash me when I get to six minutes; I would be most grateful if she did so.
I will quickly touch on the overall picture in Dorset, then I will give the views of four representatives in Dorset—the chief constable, the police and crime commissioner, the chief fire officer and the chief executive of the south-western ambulance service, Ken Wenman. I asked my team to tell them that I was going to participate in the debate and that I wanted to hear from the coalface, as it were, exactly what people in Dorset thought.
In Dorset, we already have close collaboration between the police and the fire service—it is already a fact of life. The Dorset police and fire services already share seven buildings and facilities, and two years ago Dorset police and fire became the first 999 blue light street triage service—I think that is the jargon—in the country, with police officers, fire officers and mental health professionals working together. First-aiders with in Dorset police advanced training will respond to life-threatening emergency calls on behalf of the ambulance service if the latter’s attendance is unduly delayed and police resources are closer. That is the overall picture in Dorset.
The view of Chief Constable Debbie Simpson is that blue light collaboration is not helped by the ambulance service being regional. The police and fire services are not regional, so who partners with whom? That is a question for the Minister. The chief constable says that although there will be some efficiencies, the majority of those working in each emergency service train for entirely different functions, and that
“we struggle to put together teams across forces, let alone across different blue light disciplines.”
She would prefer the police to look at the criminal justice family—courts and probation—as an area for closer collaboration. She thinks that the police have a closer affinity with those organisations than with the other blue light services.
Martyn Underhill, who I mentioned in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, is the Dorset police and crime commissioner and also the national representative for PCCs to the Government. He says that there is a natural synergy between the police and fire services nationally and that the idea of the PCC being responsible for fire and rescue services is good. However, he feels that in Dorset it will not work. We already have the combined Wiltshire and Dorset fire services, which will merge on 1 April 2016. The merged service will be associated with two police forces and two PCCs, for Wiltshire and Dorset, but they are not coterminous—that is a dreadful word, but I think you understand what I am trying to say, Mr Bone. Will the Minister comment on how that situation can be resolved in the interests of further “efficiency and effectiveness”? In Dorset’s case, the PCC supports the chief constable’s view that collaboration across the criminal justice system might be more fruitful.
Darran Gunter, our excellent chief fire officer, and the new authority that has been formed—the shadow Wiltshire and Dorset fire authority—unanimously reject the proposal that the fire service should be governed by the PCC. They are concerned about over-complexity, but they support localism, local democracy and accountability. The fire service’s first priority is prevention and behaviour change, and only then responding to save lives. Joining up should not be viewed solely in operational terms.
Darran Gunter is not sure that there is any proven evidence of efficiencies from combining the blue lights, which have different vehicles, equipment, competencies, conditions of service, personal protection kit and so on. His view is that closer control of fire services in the past has failed. I cannot remember how many millions it cost, but I know the Minister is aware of the disastrous case of the past attempt to regionalise the fire service. The fire and rescue service area is shared by two PCCs—Dorset and Wiltshire—so how will overall responsibility be addressed? The PCC posed the same question. If the PCC takes control of the fire service, how will the fire authority, which is already elected and has a duty to the community, be consulted? What about the views of the community? There should be a demand-led culture.
Mr Gunter says that the fire services does not want to alienate other public services, such as those for children, families and adults, and health partners, by exclusive collaboration with other blue light services. It is disappointed that the duty of collaboration is limited to the three emergency services. He says that local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the voluntary sector and others should be included.
Responsibility for the fire service has now moved to the Home Office, which is responsible for the police. How will future funding work? Police budgets are protected, while the fire service is to be reduced by 30% over the next four years. In Dorset, 85% of operational vehicles are crewed by retained firefighters—one of the highest levels in the country. Some fire services are still in county councils, some are in combined fire authorities; and some are in metropolitan fire and rescue services. Further changes; could come with the new arrangements for mayors. There are significant challenges in combining services, so does the Minister agree that that is one area in which the Government should offer a blueprint?
I turn to the views of Mr Wenman, who is the chief executive of the South West Ambulance Service Trust and a trained paramedic who still goes out today. He is an extraordinarily nice man, and an affable and very able paramedic. His view is that the ambulance service
“is the emergency arm of NHS, not the medical arm of the blue light services.”
There is a big difference. Each regional ambulance service deals with anything from 750,000 to 2 million calls a year—10 times the activity of the fire service. The ambulance service provides a broader response than conventional fire and police services, with its responsibilities including the 111 and 999 services. Its services are aimed at “hear and treat”, with clinicians giving advice over the phone and pointing patients in the right direction. Some 85% of the response is urgent rather than emergency care.
I will make a few final points, so as not to go over my seven minutes and interfere with colleagues’ time. As far as first aid is concerned, the fire service is currently trained to “plug holes” and “manage airways”, backed up by paramedics from the ambulance service. Mr Wenman can envisage there being fire service paramedics, with three years’ training, and understandably many firefighters are keen to do that. In 2006, the ambulance service saved a significant amount of money through the reduction from 34 ambulance services to 10 statutory NHS ambulance trusts. Money could also possibly be saved through localism in services.
That was a quick sketch, covering the views of four professionals who deal with the very business we are talking about, and right hon. and hon. Members will see that their views are mixed.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on his great speech. He has given so much support to the firefighters and the fire service. I declare that I chair the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, so I have a real interest in the issue.
First, I want to point out how disappointing I found the announcement in January that responsibility for the fire and rescue service was to be transferred from the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Home Office. That is no reflection on Home Office Ministers, or the shadow Minister. I was in the Home Office way back when the fire service was the responsibility of that Department, and if anyone spoke to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who was the Fire Minister at that time—at the beginning of the century—it would have been clear to them that fire not only got a minimal share of resources but suffered a kind of neglect. It was very much the little bit of the Home Office, and that was characterised by the big issues, such as immigration and criminal justice, getting so much more priority.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Yes, I will give way to the Minister—he was not around then.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. In those days, in the Home Office, the Fire Minister was separate from the Police Minister, and that is exactly why the Prime Minister has made me the Police and Fire Minister, to ensure that the mistakes of the past do not happen again.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be a very good Minister, particularly given his background. He was an FBU representative at one time, I think. For me, however, this is about all the emergency services working together, and somehow the ambulance service and the whole medical side have been left out. That will genuinely affect the very good work that firefighters do in prevention and protection. The level of that work is already falling, and there will be fewer school visits and that kind of thing—I can see that that is the way it is going.
I am also a little disappointed in the consultation. There is no substantial evidence in the document for bringing about the change, and it has the usual kind of civil servant feel to it, with questions being asked to get an answer that coincides with the preferred outcome, because the decision had already been taken. The document did not ask the crucial question, whether having a single employer for the two services is a good idea. I do not think it is. The public have great trust and confidence in firefighters, even when, unfortunately, they occasionally have to withdraw their labour. Support from the public has been enormous, unlike in many other areas where strikes have led to huge public dissatisfaction. There is huge confidence in them, and they are seen as independent and impartial lifesavers. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) have left, but firefighters in Northern Ireland had to work hard for all the communities during the many years of difficulty, and there was confidence in them.
I have a lot of confidence in my local police, particularly Commander Richard Wood, but there is no doubt that the public do not feel the same way about the police as they do about firefighters. I genuinely think that the reforms could damage the reputation that firefighters have built up in their neighbourhoods over decades, so I am concerned. Co-operation will come about if people want it to happen, not because it is made to happen from the top down. The Hampshire examples are good, and the system works there because everybody wanted to work together.
The example that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) mentioned of the fire and ambulance service working together shows that it can work, and that it does not have to be just about saving money. Of course we all want to save money, but I am keen to hear from the Minister what is really at the bottom of the reforms—unfortunately, I will have to leave slightly early.
I particularly want to pick up on the point that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) made about the role of the PCCs. They are not popular, as the turnout at their elections showed. It is crass to try to lump the two services together. It means we will lose accountability, which is very important in London. We need democratically elected people who have an overview and a link into the community. We need to be able to feel that people can be got rid of, which I do not think people feel at the moment.
There are many questions I could ask the Minister, but I do not have time. The Minister should look at this matter again. As enforcers of the law, the police do not have the universal access that the fire service has to people’s homes and to the many hard to reach communities. It is vital that the fire service retains its distinctiveness to ensure continued trust in it. That is my most crucial point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the fire and rescue service and the ambulance service could do a lot of business together? Those services are humanitarian services that have the confidence of the people in their communities. The police service, which seeks out crime, is not a life-saving organisation, and it does not have that same confidence of communities. Further integration will jeopardise any community spirit in the places we are trying to secure.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He sums up why I feel so unhappy about this move. It has been rushed through, and I do not think it will work. Even people who felt that there was a role for PCCs are now beginning to say that their introduction was a mistake. If the reforms go ahead, I think we will be back here in a few years saying that they were a mistake.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing this debate. It is a great pleasure to praise the example that we have in Hampshire of how the emergency services and the local authority—Hampshire County Council—can work together. We already have some of the finest services in the county, with Hampshire constabulary leading the way in efficiency and focusing on the priorities of policing. I was sad to hear of the departure of Chief Constable Andy Marsh, and I know other Hampshire MPs will want to join me in paying tribute to him. His successor will inherit a strong and effective force, which I will be pleased to support in Parliament.
However, I must sound a note of concern about the plan that the police and crime commissioner has unveiled to close police stations in Portsmouth. I am going to be parochial for a couple of minutes to illustrate a point. The city faces unusual challenges of geography. We have only three main roads on to Portsea Island, and they lead into the most densely populated space outside London. It is unthinkable that we should be left without a fully supported police station and I hope that Mr Hayes will reconsider his options. The first that any of us heard about this plan was through our local newspaper, which is no way to manage a service that we all depend on for public safety. In the light of the proposals for the police and crime commissioners to take on greater responsibility, it is a real cause for concern. I know from my postbag that the closure plan is alarming to constituents, and I will continue to oppose it.
However, to get back to positives, in the fire service we have had the recent consultation on its future as a service in Hampshire, and how it can adapt to a changing physical environment and capitalise on a steady improvement in fire safety. We know that over the past 10 years, the number of call-outs to domestic incidents has halved. Call-outs overall are down by almost a third, and Hampshire fire and rescue is in the best-performing quartile in the country for response times.
As has been mentioned, in Hampshire we already have a highly evolved co-operation between the emergency services. It is called H3: Hampshire fire and rescue, Hampshire County Council and Hampshire constabulary. The sharing of facilities between Hampshire fire and rescue service and the police has been achieved without radical surgery to governance; it is all about common sense. The fire service works with the South Central ambulance service as a co-responder, and they share buildings in parts of the county, too. There is a genuine willingness to co-operate in Hampshire, which is perhaps at a more advanced stage than that assumed by the proposals to legislate. So I hope that any legislation does not impose unwieldy structures where there is flexibility at present. I know from the Hampshire fire and rescue service consultation response that that is of concern. It also makes the excellent point that there is the potential for co-operation nationally in bringing ambulance services into the mix. That is a very powerful argument from a service that already knows so much about collaboration.
Indeed, it is important that the differing roles and competences of our emergency services are respected when it comes to matters such as accountability for complaints and personnel. There are plenty of areas for potential integration, such as communications and service planning, and in outreach and safety issues of all kinds. Let us make sure we focus on what is practical first and keep that flexibility for our emergency services to design the best services for their particular region.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), who demonstrates that some local authorities are ahead of the game on this issue. It is also a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate and on the eloquent way in which he described the conundrums and dilemmas facing the Government.
I should declare an interest. I was a member of the London fire brigade for 23 years. It celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. I was a former Fire Minister. I am secretary to the fire and rescue service all-party group and am chair of Fire Aid. I am also a Member’s representative on the House’s Fire Safety Committee. If colleagues have not done their online fire training yet, go on to the intranet. Only 30 out of 650 Members have done the training for their own safety, let alone the safety of the staff and constituents who come in, and it takes only 10 minutes.
There are two key questions for me: governance and the question of operational issues. As has been mentioned, the Government recently changed control of the fire service back to the Home Office from the Department for Communities and Local Government. As the Minister has already said, it was there before. Government moves things around; I do not think that matters too much. We have had a national fire service and we have had local government controlling the fire service. In London we have had the London County Council, the Greater London Council, the Greater London Authority, the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, and now control is going to the Mayor. Do the public know? Do they care? I do not think it matters at all.
The key question, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and others, is about accountability. Having someone to go to to make a complaint or to congratulate and praise is the most important thing. Given the state of the fire service in recent years with the disputes and strikes, we have hardly had a model of a successful operation of the fire service. I do not think the integrity of the service will be affected by a transfer to police and crime commissioners, although my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a powerful point about the integrity of the fire service, which was accepted by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall and which the Minister knows is out there in the public domain. I am not a big supporter of PCCs. Police and fire services would be better located with local government, along with some health matters, as many colleagues know, although I do recognise the points made about shared services.
More important for me is operational effectiveness. As the Minister knows, the fire service will always respond. A great recent example is its response to the floods. There is a suggestion that the fire service should have a statutory flood duty, allied to those of the Environment Agency and the water companies. The Government’s response so far has been that we do not need a statutory duty because the fire brigade will always turn up. Well, the fire brigade always turned up to fires before it became a statutory duty. The point is to make somebody responsible, and for it be somebody’s job to do the planning and argue the case to Government for the resources for a particular job. That is another question that is out there.
The fire service is a victim of its own success. The reduction in the number of fires, deaths and injuries has led to reductions in the number of fire engines, fire stations and firefighters. The service is being cut because it has been successful. The Minister knows all the reasons why that has been the case: better building construction, double glazing, central heating, and fewer candles and paraffin heaters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, there has also been much better fire protection, with the fire service reaching out to communities. That is another important factor, which goes back to the Fire Precautions Act 1971.
We need to be clear about the suggestion that there are now fewer fire deaths. That is generally the case in some regions, but regions such as Merseyside have seen a huge increase in fire deaths, and the trajectory is likely to go up over the next couple of years.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. If we cut services when the service has been successful, at some point it hits rock bottom so it has to start bouncing back. The statistics demonstrate that we do not have enough police officers or firefighters, but they show that only after there has been a rise in crime or in the number of fire deaths.
The hon. Member for Bedford made a powerful point about the number of fire brigades. One reason why the last Labour Government’s botched attempt at regionalising the fire service failed was the intrinsic opposition of so many fire empires throughout the country. The Minister knows only too well who I am talking about.
This is a missed opportunity: it is not until question 15 of the consultation document that the ambulance service is even raised. That is despite the successful operation of combined fire and medical services in most states in the United States of America and the fact that most European Union states have combined fire and emergency medical services. That is despite the greater need for first-aid skills in firefighters; despite the arrival of idiot-proof defibrillators—I am not saying that they have to be idiot-proof for my fire colleagues to be able to operate them, but it makes it easier for us all; and despite the 2013 report from the Government’s fire adviser at the time, Sir Ken Knight, called “Facing the Future”, which looks mainly at the more developed area of co-working with ambulance services. That ought to be a key recommendation.
The fire brigade in London has been cut because of its success. We see the London ambulance service under pressure, with a rising number of calls. It is criticised for not making its call times and is under budget pressures. More lives could be saved in London through the more efficient use of the emergency services, particularly the ambulance and fire services—frankly, if the Minister wants to add the police to that list, that is not the most important issue to me. More savings could be made in London through co-location, the disposal of property assets and closer working. I have not seen any of the candidates for the mayoral election bring that up, but I have been feeding it out to them and am still hoping.
In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford again. He says that the Minister intends a higher level of collaboration. I look forward to hearing what both the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and the Minister, with his excellent knowledge of the fire service, have to say. I am interested to hear whether the ambulance service and the fire service can be brought together.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate. At this time on a Tuesday morning we would normally be sitting in the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, so this makes an interesting change.
Since I was elected to this place, the issue of closer working between emergency services—particularly police and fire—has been a priority for me, so I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to speak today. Since I secured a Westminster Hall debate on closer working between the police and fire services in November 2015, there have been some welcome developments. In December 2015, Staffordshire fire and rescue agreed to undertake a review of how it could work more closely and collaboratively with Staffordshire police. That was welcome news, as it was something for which I, along with some of my Staffordshire colleagues and our police and crime commissioner, had been calling for some time. I was, however, disappointed that it took around six months to reach that point.
More recently the Minister, whom I am pleased to see in his place today, published the Government’s response to the “Enabling Closer Working Between the Emergency Services” consultation. I was particularly pleased to see the Government’s proposals, which include two matters that I shall discuss further: a statutory duty for blue light services to collaborate to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and police and crime commissioners’ taking over responsibility for fire and rescue services, where a local case is made.
First, I welcome the proposals on a statutory duty for blue light services to collaborate, because, as has been mentioned a few times, collaboration has been patchy to date—Sir Ken Knight highlighted that in his 2013 review of fire and rescue authorities. That is not to say that there are not some excellent and successful examples of collaboration. We have heard examples from Dorset and Hampshire from my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), but sadly that is not the case universally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford said, there has not always been the will locally to collaborate. That is a challenge that must be overcome.
It is absolutely right that blue light services have a statutory duty to investigate where they can share control rooms, back-office staff, offices, human resources, payroll and procurement—I could go on. It is just common sense, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South described for Hampshire. Eradicating duplication, which often exists at a local level, even within towns, will mean better outcomes for the public and taxpayers, and will ensure that funding can be targeted to front-line services.
Secondly, in the Westminster Hall debate that I secured in November 2015, I expressed my concerns that PCCs would take responsibility for fire and rescue services only where a local case was made. As the Minister may remember, I called for it to be mandatory. My concerns were based on the potential for resistance to considering such a transfer—again, there is the issue of patchiness and the possible lack of will locally. Although I look forward to seeing more detail, I am reassured to some extent by the Government’s proposal to enable cases to be put to the Secretary of State where parties are not in agreement about the transfer. It will then be up to the Secretary of State to make a final decision based on local consultation and an independent assessment of the business case. It is important that local priorities drive decision making, but equally important that decisions can be scrutinised if necessary.
Ultimately, I am keen to see police and crime commissioners universally develop into a broader role, potentially becoming public safety commissioners. In the first instance, they should incorporate fire services, but over time things could go further—for example, we have been discussing ambulances. That said, I do recognise that there are some complexities and that the regional structure of the ambulance service makes things more complex.
As the role of PCCs develops, might there be a need to consider whether their title should evolve? There are several reasons for that: we need to ensure that there is no perceived police takeover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford said earlier, and that the public are clear about the role of these individuals. In terms of the latter, it will be particularly important to build on the benefits of the electoral accountability of PCCs. They, like Members of Parliament and local government councillors, are directly accountable to the public, and members of the public can express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with them at the ballot box. To date, such direct, clear accountability has been lacking for fire authorities. Although I appreciate that elected councillors serve on those authorities, they are appointed to those positions, rather than elected by members of the public. We must ensure that the public are clear about who and what they are voting for. I think the name “police and crime commissioner” can cause confusion; are there any plans to create a new title for the commissioners in recognition of their broader remit?
I am a keen advocate of greater collaboration and I welcome the positive steps that have been taken in recent months to ensure more collaborative working across the blue light services, but I recognise that we can go much further. I look forward to seeing more detail when the Government’s proposals are brought before the House.
Before I call the shadow Minister and the Minister, I remind Members that it is now tradition that the Member who moves the motion gets a couple of minutes to wind up.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. We have had an excellent, well-informed debate and hon. Members have made many good points.
Labour supports close collaboration among the emergency services, but we fear that these proposals come with significant risks and are being carried out in a cavalier fashion. The consultation exercise that preceded the proposals gives us the distinct impression that the Government decided that they would make radical changes before they spoke to the key stakeholders. In any serious consultation, stakeholders would be asked what they think of the substance of the proposals. Instead, they were merely asked to comment on the process by which PCCs will gain control of their local fire service, not on whether the process has any merit, and they were asked a litany of leading questions.
The proposed process by which a PCC takes control of a fire service is rather authoritarian. Although they must seek agreement from the local fire authority, if agreement is not forthcoming the matter will be arbitrated by the Home Secretary, who will decide whether a change is
“in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness or public safety”.
That is a recipe for hostile takeovers.
In Northumberland, the police and crime commissioner was opposed to further integration with other blue light operations. Will my hon. Friend comment on the position there?
That one passed me by, but I will come to Northumberland and have a conversation about it. I am sure the Minister has an answer.
The Government are ignoring the advice of the 2013 Knight review. When Sir Ken Knight considered expanding the role of PCCs, he recommended that, if such a policy were pursued, it ought to be trialled through a pilot, rather than be rolled out immediately. Why did the Government choose categorically to ignore that key recommendation?
I fear that these proposals carry a number of serious risks, and I worry about the continuation of the successful, locally driven collaborations that have been talked about at length in recent years and have saved lives. When I was shadow Fire Minister, I visited a number of fire services, including Northumberland’s, and I heard of collaborations with ambulance services. I was particularly impressed by the Lincolnshire fire and rescue service and the East Midlands ambulance service, which ensured a swift, comprehensive service to isolated parts of the county. Firefighters responded to medical emergencies and took patients to hospital if they could do so more quickly than the ambulance. It really did save lives; it was an exceptionally good collaboration.
Only yesterday, we heard that the ambulance service has missed its targets six months in a row. Our paramedics work hard, but they cannot be everywhere at once. Our fire and ambulance services recognise that, and they work side by side to be part of the solution. What will happen to such innovations in the brave new world of combined police and fire services? Will PCCs be charged to continue that work, or will it simply fall by the wayside? What guarantees do communities have that such innovations, which are important to them, will be top of PCCs’ agendas?
To save money and be more efficient and effective, local services successfully share back office functions. A good example is the North West Fire Control project, which set up a single control centre for services in Cumbria, Lancashire and Greater Manchester. It works really well. What will happen to such collaborations? Will those services be disaggregated? I do not know. Perhaps the Minister does. I worry that there is a danger that such locally driven projects will be crowded out as energy is spent on responding to an agenda that has been dreamt up in Whitehall.
I also worry that dismantling the existing structures of accountability will cause a democratic deficit. The next PCC elections are in May, and the major political parties have already selected most of their candidates. Does the Minister expect the candidates to detail in their manifestos their intentions about fire services? Should that be a central issue in the election debates? I gently say that I do not believe that the Home Secretary or the Minister expect the fire service to be a central plank in the PCC elections. Is that not worrying in itself? It is as though the Government see the fire service as a secondary concern to policing.
Peter Murphy, director of public policy and management research at Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, said that
“if the current plans are implemented there is a very strong chance that the fire and rescue services would go back to the ‘benign neglect’ that characterised the service from 1974 to 2001 when the Home Office was last responsible for fire services. Police, civil disobedience, immigration and criminal justice dominated the Home Office agenda, as well as its time and resources.”
If the fire service becomes the lesser partner in a merged service,
“the long-term implications will include smaller fire crews with fewer appliances and older equipment arriving at incidents. Prevention and protection work, already significantly falling, will result in fewer school visits and fire alarm checks for the elderly, not to mention the effect on business, as insurance costs rise because of increased risks to buildings and premises.”
I think his assessment is right. There is a real danger that fire will become an unloved, secondary concern of management—a Cinderella service. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how he will ensure that the service is improved, that we invest in the best equipment and training, that vulnerable people continue to have fire alarm checks and that schools are visited and children educated.
I want to ask a basic question about reorganisation. The Government appear to assume that it will be easy for fire and rescue services to reorganise to suit the PCCs’ boundaries, but to talk simply about transferring responsibility from a local authority belies the complexity of the situation. Fire budgets are very integrated in some councils to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the service, so it will be difficult to unravel them, as has been shown by previous attempted mergers of fire services. Has any work been done to assess the complexity? What conclusions has the Minister come to about the difficulties he might encounter? What concerns have county and metropolitan councils raised with him about disaggregating budgets and the effect on important emergency services?
Finally, on funding, fire and rescue services have already had to reduce spending by 12% over the course of the last Parliament, which is a cumulative cash cut of some £236 million, and further projected reductions are to come. When I met some fire services, I was told that their service would not be viable in future as a result of the cuts. That is the reality of the tough financial context in which PCCs are being asked to take on fire services.
There are alarming signs that the front-line service is beginning to suffer. Response times are creeping upwards. As the Minister knows full well, every second counts when people are stuck in a car wreck or a burning building. What risk analysis has the Home Office done to ascertain how PCCs will be able to reduce fire spending without increasing response times and reducing resilience and safety? I ask him to publish that risk assessment so that we can all evaluate it. It is not as if police forces have spare money to pass to the fire service, as we heard in the effective speech by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond). They are still absorbing cuts of 25% to their funding from the last Parliament and face further real-term cuts. They have done amazingly well in such tough circumstances, but one has to wonder whether PCCs are happy that the Government are handing them another Whitehall-imposed funding crisis to deal with. Again, does the Minister expect PCCs to cover the shortfall in funding by introducing privatisation into the fire and rescue frontline? The last time I asked that question, the Minister shook his head but offered no verbal or recordable assurances whatsoever. Will he allow PCCs to end the full-time professional fire service or to sell it off bit by bit? What assurances can he give the House that those paths will not be followed? What control will remain in Whitehall to ensure that our fire services are not privatised or sold?
In conclusion, we genuinely support closer and more effective working between the emergency services, which we have seen work really well, but we have serious concerns about the inherent risk in the Government’s proposals. If the Minister is convinced that they are the way forward, he should publish a risk assessment and be confident that a rigorous pilot will demonstrate their merits. Until he commits to that, I feel that the risks involved are too great and pose too much of a threat to our communities for us to be able to support the proposals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, not least because the Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner is one of the best in the country, offering the sort of innovation that we have heard about during the debate. It is sad that he is not standing for re-election in May.
I welcome today’s debate and the opportunity to bust some myths, which is important and can provide confidence going forward. I am generally a friend of the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and we get on 99% of the time, both inside and outside this Chamber, but some of her comments frankly amounted to scaremongering. I will address the points that have been made during the debate, but, as always, I will write to colleagues if I cannot cover everything.
Like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I have a passion for this country’s fire service. I was a member of it for a short time but nowhere near as long as him. The fire service that turns up to our homes and factories to protect us is a public asset and will stay so—let me throw this privatisation thing out of the window once and for all. However, when my constituency was blown to smithereens on 11 December 2010, I welcomed firefighters from anywhere, including the private sector, which has huge experience in the type of fire that we were fighting.
We must also get away from the London-centric perception that all fire stations stay open 24/7, because they do not. We have an absolutely fantastic voluntary service based on retained firefighters, who make up the vast majority of firefighters around the country. Brilliantly, we now have full-time retained firefighters—it was not allowed when I was in the job. I understand that there are retained London firefighters who live in my constituency, but I must be slightly careful about that as I do not want to get them into trouble. The Fire Brigades Union in London does not like retained firefighters. On Merseyside, there are only 25 retained firefighters for the whole area, even though many firefighters have told me that they would love to be retained when they go back to their villages and homes. We also have full-time day-manning, as I call it, with firefighters being retained and on call later. Only the other day, I was in Lancashire to congratulate firefighters on their fantastic work during the floods. They have just moved to a new system with no 24/7 stations, but the cover is safe and the unions have accepted it. We must therefore remember when looking around the country that one size will not fit all.
However, we must consider—the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse hit the nail on the head—that other countries often have emergency services that work together much more closely than ours and protect their public much better. Of all the countries that I could refer to, it is America, the nation of privatisation, where firefighters have paramedical skills vastly in excess of any fireman in this country. I am really passionate about that. I took five years to qualify as a military paramedic before paramedics were even heard of in civvy street. When I started the job in Essex after passing out, I was posted to the station in Basildon. I was given my trade union card—I had no choice in the matter—and I was then given my first aid certificate, because I was made to take a first aid course during my basic training. By the way, at no stage during my service was I asked to renew the certificate, which is quite fascinating.
We have moved on since then. The vast majority of firefighting appliances now have defibrillators, but so does the cashier at my local Tesco. It is fantastic that this life-saving kit is available to us. When I was in Hampshire the other day, I saw advances in skills for firefighters for which I have been screaming for years, and we could go further. The key thing is whether we can keep a person alive until the other professionals arrive. This is not about replacing the ambulance service or the police; this is about the fire service being able to save a seriously injured person when it is out on a job and an ambulance cannot get there. That happens in most other parts of the world. In Hampshire, I was chatting away with a fireman who had paramedical skills right up to just below being able to insert an IV. I think there are legal reasons behind him not being able to do an IV, but we will try to move on that as well, because, as I know from experience, getting fluids into the body is one of the most important things, alongside keeping the airways open. People have transferred from the ambulance service into the fire service and vice versa, because of their on-the-job experience.
The reason why legislation is so important is that this is not just about money. If it was, I would not be standing here. It is about whether we can get a more efficient service to protect our constituents’ lives day in, day out, 24/7, 365 days of the year. Are there things preventing us from doing that?
In some parts of the country we have gone forward in leaps and bounds, but in other parts we have not; in some parts of the country we have huge amounts of collaboration, but in others not. I freely admit—I will probably get myself in trouble with the Department of Health again—that when I was in opposition I was fundamentally opposed to regionalisation of the ambulance service. As a former firefighter, I saw problems with that. When the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was the Fire Minister, I was fundamentally opposed to the regionalisation of the fire service control centres. Thirty-odd years ago, however, when I was a fireman, we had a tri-service control centre—only one of them—and it worked really well. Where such things are working in places around the country, issues such as contracts and job descriptions have been addressed, which is absolutely right.
On Thursday, I was at the police control centre in London when the Syria conference was going on here. That was a hugely difficult and tactical job for the Metropolitan police, with the fire service, the Army, the ambulance service and the London boroughs all in that control centre together, but it was a brilliant operation. I pay tribute to those involved in the mutual aid that took place in London last Thursday. We had armed response and other police officers from throughout the country, including from the Police Service of Northern Ireland—the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) have now had to leave the Chamber for other business.
Collaboration does take place, but what do we do when it does not? Do we simply sit back and say that that is acceptable? A locally appointed—not elected—fire authority might say, “No, we’re doing fine. There are 25 of us, and we turn up twice a month. We’re doing absolutely fine”, even though they know full well that in another part of the country collaboration is saving lives and doing the job. This is not about replacing a fireman with a policeman—that is clearly scaremongering. I know what the FBU has been saying, and I will try to work with it on the matter. This is about delivering better care and value for money.
Why are the emergency services not all coming together on procurement? I now publish the lists of what police authorities spend, and I shall do exactly the same for the fire authorities. The accountability of PCCs is in place—they are elected. There are people who are seconded or appointed to different authorities, but at the end of the day the PCCs are the ones in the community who are elected, and the vast majority of them want collaboration.
Nearly every chief fire officer has congratulated me on my new position, although that is probably natural—they do not want to get on the wrong side of me straightaway. They welcome the fact that I am the Fire Minister as well as the Police Minister, so the fire service is not the forgotten body, which to be fair they have felt in the past. I was aware of the extent of that when I took office.
We want collaboration to be as voluntary as possible, but where there is complete belligerence about not doing it, we will take powers. The Bill will be published shortly. There will be evidence sessions, because that is the modern way we do things now, and we will look carefully at a lot of the comments made in the debate today. All that, however, has to be about how to do things—the way we did things in the past is not necessarily the best one. Some of the work we are doing now I was pushing for 30 years ago, and I am pushing to go further.
I would like the ambulance service to work more closely with the others. That is much more complicated because of the regional structure, but we could do things locally. I know of at least one PCC—I will not name him, because I was told in confidence—who has been approached by the new commissioning group in his area to ask whether the PCC could provide emergency blue light cover for ambulances. That is starting to come about not from the top down but from the grassroots.
We should listen not only to the chiefs, the PCCs or the unions—more unions than the FBU alone are involved—but to the individual firefighters, who have had the confidence to talk to me in the past few weeks, since I had this new job, and to say, “Minister, we are thrilled that you are an ex-firefighter and that our voice may now be heard above all the other chatter of people protecting their jobs.” That is the sort of comment I have been hearing.
With regard to the grassroots and the people on the frontline, who the Minister mentioned—he was one of those people himself—in the event of a single employer model, will he guarantee the people in the fire and rescue service their rights to unionise, to collective bargaining and to industrial and strike action? The police have none of that, so will the Minister guarantee that firefighters may retain their rights?
That is an important point. The operational control of the individuals will always be by the operational officers. There is no evidence whatever that PCCs, since we have had them, have interfered in cases or in operational work. It is crucial that that does not happen.
What are we really saying? More than half of all fire stations—I think this figure is right—have a police station or ambulance station within 1 km of them. Although it is difficult to put a fire appliance into a police station—some ambulance stations could take them, but not police stations—the reverse is easy, and we have seen that in Winchester.
The new fire station in Winchester, which a fantastic piece of kit, is fully bayed, and the police are in there, too. The two services are completely working together, without it affecting their operational control. Someone who dials 999 and asks for a police officer will not get a fireman—that is a ludicrous idea and will not happen. However, elsewhere in the country we already have, for example, police community support officers in Durham, I think, carrying first aid kits. They might even have short extension ladders. They have had the training and are doing that because of the sheer geographical issues involved.
One size will not fit all, and that gives us an opportunity. There are complications, and I am not shying away from the fact that doing something might be difficult, but nor will I shy away from the fact that we need to protect our public better than we do now. Where collaboration works, I will not have belligerence and bloody-mindedness blocking that sort of care in other parts of the country. That is why we are bringing it through.
I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate. In particular, I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and the Minister for their contributions.
The Minister was kind enough to say that he would write to Members with responses to their questions, because he did not have time to answer everything specifically. The key message that he will have received today is that there is broad and widespread support for collaboration in principle, but some important questions remain about how it will be developed.
We heard about some strong examples in Hampshire from my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), and about the experience in Northern Ireland from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, however, there are still mixed opinions among professionals, so the Minister will have to provide guidance. He will have to lead on this, so that others may follow and get the best of the opportunities presented by collaboration.
As the Minister himself mentioned, there are continuing questions about where the ambulance service and the responsibility for emergency healthcare response sit in the review. We heard about that from the hon. Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), as well as from me and the shadow Minister. That issue will not go away.
Let me just say to the Minister that, in my experience, workplace culture matters—the culture that makes men and women want to work together grows and matters, because it is an ethos and a motivation for people. Nowhere is that more so than among members of our public service whom we ask to put their own personal safety behind the safety of our public. Clearly there is such an ethos among those in the fire service whom the Minister has met. They see themselves as having a humanitarian mission.
When the Minister says that he is minded to do more, therefore, he really does need to do more. We have to find a way to bring those responsibilities into the changes he is making. If he can put that in the Bill, or if the shadow Minister tables amendments to that effect, they will find widespread support from Members of Parliament in all parts of the House.
Before I put the Question, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their self-restraint, because every Member who wished to speak did so.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered closer working between the emergency services.