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House of Commons Hansard
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Fire Service: Flooding and Statutory Duties
08 June 2016
Volume 611

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered flooding and statutory duties of the fire service.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding this morning, Mrs Gillan, and I am glad to see the Minister taking his place. It is only appropriate that two former firefighters are contributing to the debate.

Let me start with a couple of points on the general history of the fire and rescue service—[Interruption.]

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Order. Can I ask Members to have their conversations outside the Chamber and respect the Member who has moved the motion?

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Thank you, Mrs Gillan.

As I was saying, I will start with a couple of points on the history of the fire and rescue service. The great fire of London was in 1666, which was the beginning of insurance fire brigades and voluntary pumps being deployed in London. The fire of 1834 destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster and led to the creation of a London county council and of a London fire brigade, which this year is enjoying its 150th anniversary, which I know the Minister is celebrating—happy birthday to the London fire brigade. Statutory duties have evolved over the centuries in which fire brigades themselves have been evolving.

I thank the House of Commons Library and Pat Strickland for briefing paper No. 07605, “Should Fire and Rescue Services have a statutory duty to deal with flooding?” Before I quote from that, I want to make reference not only to the increasing incidents of flooding, but to their severity and regularity. A role that the fire and rescue service used to tackle once in a blue moon is now a core activity for many brigades. A Fire Brigades Union document details the extent of the new demand, stating:

“Firefighters responded magnificently to the winter 2013-14 floods, the largest deployment by the fire and rescue services since Second World War. Across the UK over the entire three months…firefighters responded to nearly seven thousand incidents”,

and

“effected a large number of rescues…almost two thousand across the UK.”

A briefing note from the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service said that on Boxing day 2015 it deployed two thirds of its available resources on flood response.

I cannot imagine that the Minister will be in denial either that floods are on the rise or that the fire and rescue service is doing more of this type of work than ever before. There is certainly no room for him to deny that we have seen a significant reduction in the numbers of firefighters in the fire and rescue service since 2010.

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It is not just the fire services that are putting the information out there. The Met Office has said that we are in the middle of one of the most

“exceptional periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years.”

Is it not very clear that we need a fully resourced fire service, backed up by a statutory duty?

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My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which I will reinforce in a moment.

Lancaster University states:

“The London Fire Brigade is only able to respond to less than half of calls within its six minute target following the closure of 10 stations. The closures coupled with the loss of over 552 firefighters and 14 engines in central London were made in 2014 as part of Government cutbacks of £29m.”

Greater Manchester fire and rescue service has seen a 25% cut since 2010. Its briefing says that in 2009-10, it had 1,598 front-line firefighter posts. By 2019-20, it will have 1,026—a loss of 572 firefighter posts, a reduction of 35%.

The Fire Brigades Union’s 2015 floods report outlines the depth of the cuts. It says that 6,740 positions were lost between 2011 and 2015. The same report lists the number of flood incidents and rescues: in December 2015 alone, there were 2,589 incidents and 2,808 rescues. Flooding is on the increase, as my hon. Friend outlined. We only have to look to France and Germany last week, or at London and the flash floods yesterday.

In the general election campaign of 2010, the Prime Minister spoke at Carlisle fire station and promised to protect front-line public services, but between 2011 and 2015, Cumbria lost one in eight firefighters. Five fire stations were earmarked for closure in Cumbria before the flooding in December last year, and in February this year, the local council cited the floods as a key reason to keep the stations operational.

The question is whether a statutory duty is needed. The Commons Library briefing paper and the Fire Brigades Union briefing refer to the existing legislation. On the law in England and Wales, both documents say that part 2 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 sets out the statutory core functions of fire and rescue authorities. Those are statutory duties to provide for fire safety, firefighting, and rescuing people and protecting them from harm in the event of road traffic accidents. The Library briefing paper states:

“Section 9 gives the Secretary of State the power to give FRAs functions relating to other emergencies, including outside the FRA’s area. This is an order-making power. Primary legislation would not be necessary.”

The Fire Brigades Union has outlined its position:

“The FBU has serious concerns about the resources available to the fire and rescue service to ensure resilience against flooding…These include the number of firefighters, boats and equipment available… There are issues of staffing, technology and resilience in fire control rooms… The FBU believes a statutory duty on the fire and rescue service in England and Wales, along with investment in the service, provides the best guarantee of resilience to flooding going forward”.

It explained why it has that belief:

“A statutory duty would add significantly to fire and rescue service resilience when faced with flooding. Such a duty would…Underscore the need to resource fire and rescue services specifically for flooding…Assist with strategic planning, not only between fire and rescue services and local resilience forums”—

it should be “fora”—

“but also between different fire and rescue services across England…Ensure firefighters play a full part in the temporary construction of flood defences, as they do in Sweden…Help ensure fire and rescue services have sufficient, professionally trained firefighters available to tackle flood emergencies…Ensure sufficient boats of the right quality are available…Help ensure sufficiently trained and equipped boat teams are available …Ensure sufficient control staff are available to”

handle calls and to make

“resources available to communities during the clear up, ensuring premises are secure to hazardous substances testing and clear up”.

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The fire service could also have a strategic role in flood prevention and the protection of homes; that was missing in the recent floods. I add that the cuts coming to the fire service will have a serious impact on its ability to respond to floods, as we saw in York in 2015.

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. She saw exactly the nature of flooding in York when it affected her constituency in recent years.

The Minister may very well ask why, when I was Fire Minister in 2006—[Interruption.] He kindly forewarned me that he would remind me that I was the Fire Minister in 2006. It was generous of him, and I think the criticism is absolutely fair, but I will come on to why I think times have changed in just a minute. Department for Communities and Local Government figures underscoring the increase in the threat show that in 2007—a year after I was Fire Minister—there were 14,000 flooding calls, in 2011-12 there were 16,000, and in 2013-14 there were 18,000. I believe that demonstrates a pattern.

Even Age Concern—or Age UK, as it is now called—has weighed in. Suzanne Foster wrote to me:

“I wanted to send you a copy of a report published by Age UK on ‘Older people and power loss, floods and storms’”,

which she said could be found online and was attached to her email. The first recommendation was:

“Join up essential services better”.

The result of the inquiry into the 2007 floods was clear. On the Pitt review, the Commons Library briefing paper states:

“The issue of a statutory duty was raised in the 2008 report of the Pitt Review into the 2007 floods. The Review took the view that a statutory duty would be beneficial”.

The text of the review states:

“The Review believes that clarifying and communicating the role of each of these bodies would improve the response to flooding. However, we are concerned that the systems, structures and protocols developed to support national coordination of multi-agency flood rescue assets remain ad-hoc. We believe that the Fire and Rescue Service should take on a leading role in this area, based on a fully funded capability. This will be most effective if supported by a statutory duty”.

Following on from that examination and text, it made recommendation 39:

“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.”

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My constituency was affected by the floods on Boxing day, and we asked many questions following the floods about giving the fire service a statutory duty. The Government’s response seemed to be that the fire service would turn up anyway. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is some complacency on the Government’s part in refusing to make flood rescue a statutory duty?

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I will come to that, but in defence of the Government, I would say not that they are complacent, but that they trust the fire service to turn up. What many of us are saying—we have done so in this Chamber and when discussing various Bills relating to police and crime commissioners, which I will come to—is that they should do more than just trust them. They should fund them and give them statutory responsibility for planning, continuity, mitigation and resilience. I will return to that in a moment. The case for a statutory duty on the fire and rescue service is not less than it was in 2008. In fact, the reverse is true, as the pressures are growing, with more and more flood calls, fewer staff, less equipment and more closed fire stations.

As a former firefighter and Fire Brigades Union member and official, the Minister knows that after the second world war, in the ‘50s and ’60s, the union argued to the Government and local government that fire personnel in stations could be used more productively on fire prevention than on cleaning fire stations, polishing the brass and washing out the toilets. I am not denigrating those jobs, which are very important. The disastrous fires of the late ’60s led to the Fire Precautions Act 1971, when the Government suddenly realised that they needed a skilled workforce of about 20,000 people to police and enforce the new safety rules. That is what has changed the British fire service in the last 100 years. Ultimately, safer buildings and fewer people smoking have led to there being many fewer fires, deaths and serious injuries. Perversely, that has led to the huge cuts of the past six years.

The fire and rescue service is the victim of its own success in reducing fires, saving lives and preventing injuries, but at the same time it is evolving into new roles—not just flood response, but medical and social care. The Government are transferring the control of fire and rescue service to police and crime commissioners. The Minister knows that I and many colleagues believe that fire and ambulance services are a better fit, and that link is happening almost despite the Government. Some county brigades in England are reporting that they are attending more medical calls than fire calls.

The London fire brigade and the London ambulance service have just begun a four-borough pilot of first responding and co-responding to specific emergency medical calls to save more lives in London. In the north-west, the fire and rescue service has joint working pilots on social care schemes. The service continues to evolve, as it has over time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) asked about a new statutory duty on flooding, but the Government’s answer has always been that the fire service has attended, so there is no need for one. Fire brigades were attending fires for centuries, but a statutory duty was felt necessary in that case, although it was in only 1938 that it arrived, under the Fire Brigades Act 1938. That Act required every county borough council to make provision for

“the extinction of fires and the protection of life and property in the case of fire.”

Why was a statutory duty needed? Because the situation, service and society were evolving, and something different was needed. There was a recognition that circumstances had changed. The fire service had been providing fire protection for centuries, but a statutory duty was introduced only in 1947. I have also mentioned the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

The fire service has been rescuing people from road traffic crashes for decades, but it was felt that a statutory duty was needed, and the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 was introduced. Along with charities umbrella-ed by Fire Aid, we are deploying that expertise across the world, because we are among the leaders in rescuing victims in road traffic crashes, and we are proud of that.

In contrast, the Library briefing outlines the law in Scotland, stating:

“There is a power in the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 to make orders giving the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service additional functions. A Scottish SI (the Fire (Additional Function) (Scotland) Order 2005/342), creates a duty to make provision for the purpose of… rescuing people trapped, or likely to become trapped, by water…protecting them from serious harm, in the event of serious flooding in its area.

This duty was conferred on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service when this was created in April 2013.”

The briefing then refers to the law in Northern Ireland, stating:

“In Northern Ireland a very similar provision came into force in January 2012.”

The Library is saying that parts of the United Kingdom already have a statutory duty on flooding. Finally, as I have said, section 9 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 gives the Secretary of State power to give the fire and rescue authority functions relating to other emergencies. That is an order-making power, so primary legislation would not be necessary to create a statutory duty to deal with flooding. It works in Scotland; it works in Northern Ireland; so why not in England and Wales? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Gillan. I have lots of conversations with the former Fire Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), because we are good friends and have the same feelings for the fire service, so at the start I should pay tribute to what the fire service did during the flooding over the Christmas and new year period, which was exemplary. I had the privilege of meeting many of the front-line firefighters and other emergency services that took part in that work.

Perhaps I should nudge the former Fire Minister, who does a lot of work with Fire Aid, to declare his interest in it. It does exemplary work and I know he champions it, but he did not mention that during his comments.

May I say at the outset that we are looking for the fire service, working with the other emergency services, to deliver the best possible rescue facilities and prevention work? I do not disagree with many of the points that have been made. I agree that I do not need primary legislation, although some of my civil servants may disagree slightly. I come back to the discussion that took place in 2008, when the Pitt review specifically referred to the role being underpinned “as necessary” by a statutory requirement. That was put before the Government of the day. I rarely do party politics, as most people know, but that was not this Administration or the coalition Administration, but a Labour Administration. Following the Pitt review and following the floods, they did not go ahead with that, but said that the fire service working with the other emergency services could do very well. I think the situation is similar today. The fire service has evolved tremendously.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I may give way in a moment. Time will be difficult.

The fire service continues to evolve and not every fire service will come under police and crime commissioners. Around five PCCs are looking into this, but other PCCs and clinical commissioning groups are considering whether the ambulance service could be included. My views on this are pretty well known. I think the blue light emergency services must work much more closely together than now. I am chuffed that in London we have co-responding, but that is just the start. In Hampshire, there are qualified paramedics who are firemen. I apologise to the ladies, I mean firefighters. When I was in the job, there were only firemen.

It is important to see where the job is going. Yes, we are going to more flooding. We have always gone to flooding, I went to flooding and the London fire service went to a flood yesterday. None of the national resilience back-up was used yesterday. I asked the question before coming here today.

I am a former member of the Fire Brigades Union. I met the leadership and it put similar arguments to me. I will keep the matter under review. I will not comment too much on the numbers, not least because in other parts of the country we have seen firefighter numbers drop, but there has been a different way of delivering the service, including retained firefighters. London still has this policy, which I thought was an anomaly when I was in Essex—it will not allow retained firefighters on to its ground even if in their day job they are fully qualified firemen. I have never understood that and it is something that must be addressed as we evolve. I know that the union is trying to protect jobs, but in retrospect it is probably not doing that.

Lancashire has developed a completely different model. The union there wanted to protect jobs and to keep stations open. There was a risk of them closing so it went to the eight-eight day model, so that they were manned during the day with back-up crews during the evening. That is a completely different model. That is why local decision making is vital.

I am not denying that there are fewer firefighters, but there are dramatically fewer turn-outs. Fire prevention work started during our time in the job. I remember vividly arguing that firemen should go into homes to help to install smoke detectors. The situation has dramatically changed but there are still too many deaths and there is a lot more work to do.

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It is often said that there are far fewer fire incidents, but that varies from region to region, as I am sure the Minister is aware. The fact is that there are more and more flooding incidents in this country than ever before. Does that not mean we should be looking at the recommendations of the Pitt review in 2008 and give the fire and rescue service a statutory duty on flood and resilience?

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I will try to make my point a bit stronger. Respectfully, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, and the reason is that I cannot find an instance in which the fire service is not doing what it would do if there were a statutory duty. In fact, I have real concerns that, if we put in statutory powers, fire services would have kit—and crews—sitting there, at huge expense, and the likelihood of it being used regularly would be completely different from what it would be in Cumbria, York and other parts of the country.

I know that the former Fire Minister understands this: if we say to the fire service, “You have a statutory duty,” it will put the kit in place. In many places, they have that kit. It would really worry me if we had lots of kit sitting around in areas where we know the risk is very minimal. I will keep the situation under review, but I am confident as to where we are. I am meeting in particular the metropolitan chief fire officers later today to discuss the issue, so I am not in any way saying that I will never look at it. I will keep it under review, but at present our position is like that of the Government in 2008. I accept that there are more flooding situations, but in terms of manning levels, we are going out to fewer calls, even though we are doing different sorts of calls. I remember going to flooding incidents quite extensively when I was in the job in the 1980s.

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The Minister talks as though the flood rescue equipment is in a silo and cannot be used outside the area. In my constituency of Heywood and Middleton, we have a water rescue unit, and it was out in Cumbria during the Cumbrian floods. It does not just sit tight and gather dust.

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No, and that is the point I would make: that is a mutual aid piece of kit that is used, and mutual aid is becoming more and more important. I will come on to national resilience in a second. If we put in a statutory requirement, the neighbouring service, which went and helped brilliantly well, would have to have that there as well. That is what happens in the fire service if we make things statutory. I am confident about where we are, but I will continue to talk to the chiefs.

There are areas where I think we could move. I am thinking of the high-velocity pumps—they were never there when I was in the job, and I pay tribute to the previous Labour Administration who brought in that national asset—and where they sit. For instance, Sussex is about to take one of those pumps as part of its assets, which it will share in a mutual aid situation. I know the fire service listens to everything that the Fire and Police Minister says: I am looking to see whether we can develop that better around the country so that those assets sit where the risks would be, rather than it coming to, perhaps, a Cobra situation and us saying, “We will deploy,” which has a cost implication, or people requesting the deployment. I am talking about improving things in predictability terms. For instance, after we had the floods over Christmas and the new year, there was a prediction that we would have another such situation, and of course the question then is: do we pre-deploy or do we not pre-deploy? Those assets should be sitting out there. I think that they should be sitting out there as an asset of the services, within reason, and we are going to look to see how we can do that.

When we are looking at who decides what should be in place and in which area, the experts are the people on the front line, the people who are putting the local plans together, and an awful lot will be learned from what happened during the flooding. For instance, when I was in Lancashire, one of the crew, who had been up to their waists in floodwater for most of the day, said to me, “With all due respect, sir, we couldn’t use the radios because of the risk with the water. We couldn’t drive our appliances into areas where we saw the Army driving their appliances, because our vehicles frankly couldn’t take that,” and several vehicles were damaged because of floodwater.

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It is not just the firefighters who are calling for a statutory duty; it is also the chief officers in flood areas such as North Yorkshire. That is based on evidence as a result of the floods in 2015. They believe that a statutory duty would help them with preventive work as well as, obviously, dealing with flooding situations. They are saying that it is an imperative, so will the Minister listen to those chiefs?

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I do listen to the chiefs. They are firefighters as well, interestingly enough. I am sure that they would like to be classed as firefighters, not separate from firefighters—we may make a few enemies with some chief firefighters, but that is semantics. I do listen to the chiefs, and other chiefs in other parts of the country are not saying the same thing. What we need to do is ensure that we have the assets in the right place. To go back to the point about Lancashire, one of the crews said to me, “We did not have a flotation platform, so we were using salvage sheets and ladders,” which I trained with all those years ago; people would think we had moved on from there. I understand that that service is now looking at deploying that piece of kit. It does not take up a huge amount of space. It uses compressed air.

We have to look very carefully at this matter, and the brigadiers’ report on how the resilience worked during the flooding is crucial as well. We had a situation in which the Army could get in, because it was using what I still call 4-tonne trucks, but when we tried to follow them with fire appliances, many of them broke down and were severely damaged. That had a lot to do with the air intake and with positioning. People would think that in the 21st century we would have learned how to deal with those situations, but actually that is what we were learning. We also know that the cars of crews who came in and parked in one particular fire station were destroyed by flooding. We therefore need to look very carefully at the resilience that is there, and that is one reason why I am looking very carefully at the pumps.

The point I want to make is that we can change the title and say, “You should do this and you should do that,” but we have to ask whether the services are doing that first and whether that is the best utilisation of what we are asking them to do. There are some chiefs who take the view referred to, and the FBU has been running a very long campaign on this matter; it goes way back to when the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was the Fire Minister. However, I am of the same opinion as the 2008 Minister: if necessary, we could do this, but at present—

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I am glad that the Minister has at least said that he will keep the situation under review. The best argument he has is that a statutory duty would force all 40-odd fire brigades in England and Wales to buy the equipment when some of them may well not need it—but then a number of us have been advocating fewer fire authorities for a considerable time. It would be much better to have regional structures and fewer chief fire officers and fewer fire and rescue authorities. That streamlining would be better. The key point here is that whether it is because of climate change or just weather patterns changing, floods are on the up; they are increasing exponentially. We need the equipment and resources to deal with that, and people think that a statutory duty is the only way to get the Government to focus on ensuring that those resources are available.

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I agree that the fire service is top-heavy in administration terms, which is why I am looking at PCCs who want to take over that administration and limit those costs, so that we have more money for the frontline; I am sure that we would all agree with that. Perhaps it is a question for another debate, on the number of fire and rescue services. That is a really emotive subject, because a local community relate, they tell me, to their fire service.

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I will ask a very simple question and I am sure I will get a very simple answer. If it is right and correct that there is a statutory duty in Scotland and Northern Ireland, what is the difference with the people of England?

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I go back to the decision that was made in 2008. Devolved Assemblies will make their decisions on their priorities in their way. I have no evidence whatever that creating a statutory duty would enable our firefighters to do their job in regard to flood rescue and prevention any differently from how they do it now. However, I have said that I will keep an open mind. It is not a uniform view across the myriad fire and rescue services in this country that this should be statutory. The union has a view, and in most cases I agree with many of the things that the union says. I would do: I was a branch secretary for a short time. But on this issue, I do not agree, and the leadership know that I do not, so it will not come as a big surprise to them. This is really personal to me. I am sure the former Fire Minister will appreciate that if I thought that in any way, shape or form, this would do what it says on the tin, I would do it. I have real misgivings that actually there would be ongoing costs that would be disproportionate to what we were trying to do.

It has been very useful to discuss this issue this morning. I can probably look forward to further debates with the former Fire Minister and I am pleased to be giving him a few seconds now to respond.

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Hesitation robbed me of another three seconds, but I am grateful to the Minister for this brief opportunity. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for turning up to support the debate. The Minister knows that there are Government Members who have a similar view. It is reassuring that he is prepared to keep this matter under review. Many of us, right across the country, are very worried about the level of cuts, because obviously if we have cuts and cuts and cuts, we get to a point at which the situation is too dangerous and then the Government start reinvesting. We are drawing attention to the fact that at the moment the cuts are in, if not beyond, that territory, and flooding is one of the additional pressures that the service is having to deal with. Because it is on the increase, we hope that the Minister will look at it seriously and ensure that the brigades affected get the resources that they need.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.