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Northamptonshire: Combined Fire and Police Service

Volume 628: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of a combined fire and police service in Northamptonshire.

I welcome you to the Chair, Ms Ryan, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I thank Mr Speaker for giving me the honour of having this debate on an important issue for my constituents in Kettering and for everyone across the county of Northamptonshire.

The title of the debate is not very accurate, which is probably my fault, because we are actually talking not about a combined fire and police service but about the combined governance of the fire and police services in Northamptonshire. In my more optimistic moments, however, I hope that one day we will have a fully combined fire and police service, and I urge the Minister to consider that.

To set the context for any constituents who in a weak moment might have tuned into today’s proceedings, Northamptonshire is a county of more than 720,000 people, with a single police force and a single fire and rescue service, which have coterminous boundaries—that in itself is helpful when thinking about joining the two together. The picture for policing and for fire and rescue is changing, and has changed rapidly in the past decade.

For fire and rescue, demand for fire-related emergencies has reduced by 50% in Northamptonshire, compared with a national decline of some 40%. Fire and rescue has had to diversify into more proactive activities and now provides a first response and co-response service to medical emergencies with East Midlands ambulance service. On a recent visit to the fire and rescue service in Northamptonshire, I was amazed and pleasantly surprised to learn that 60% of its calls are now for medical emergencies, so the emphasis is very much on rescue as opposed to fire.

I ought to say that the reason I attended the fire and rescue service is that I have taken part in the fire service parliamentary scheme. I spent one year with the London fire brigade, and the second year with the Northamptonshire fire and rescue service. I also completed two years with the police service parliamentary scheme—with the Northamptonshire police force some years ago—and I have also been a special constable with British Transport police. I placed a great deal of emphasis on talking to individual police officers and fire and rescue officers to find out what life is really like for them at an operational level.

I want to place on record my thanks to all the wonderful police and fire and rescue staff we have in Northamptonshire. We are truly blessed as a county to have so many individuals of such dedication, resolution and resolve, who day in, day out and week in, week out are prepared to serve the local public as best they can.

The Northamptonshire police force has a budget of £116 million, 1,242 officers, 95 police community support officers, 860 police staff, 488 specials and 84 volunteers, and operates off 38 sites. Northamptonshire fire and rescue service has a budget of £24 million, 242 whole-time firefighters, 254 retained firefighters and 74 support staff, and operates off 24 sites. In terms of the scale of the operations, they are therefore quite different, but police officers and firefighters attend many of the same incidents.

In southern Northamptonshire, indeed, we now have two rural intervention vehicles, or RIVs, which on one side are badged with the Northamptonshire police livery of blue, yellow and white, and on the other side are badged with the fire and rescue service livery of yellow, red and white. On one side of the vehicle is a police officer and on the other a firefighter. They go around the rural parts of the county in response to call-outs. It an incredibly efficient way to manage policing and firefighting resources. That is evidence of something I know the Minister will appreciate—the boys and girls in the service getting on with mixing up their operations to increase local efficiency, regardless of what happens with governance at the senior level. On the ground, individual police officers and firefighters are already operating jointly in many cases.

I back 100% the business case presented to the Minister by Stephen Mold, the police and crime commissioner for Northamptonshire, for him to become the police, fire and crime commissioner for Northamptonshire.

I am very pleased that the Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner has taken the opportunity to look at the governance model and to consider becoming a police, fire and crime commissioner. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the news that that is happening in Staffordshire too? The consultation has recently been completed. The police and crime commissioner taking the fire authority into his role would enable greater collaboration and joint working.

I am delighted to hear that positive news from Staffordshire. My hon. Friend is developing a well-deserved reputation for being thoroughly on top of local issues in her constituency. I join her in welcoming the news from Staffordshire. I believe that seven police and crime commissioners are now actively consulting on taking over fire service responsibilities. I very much hope that they all succeed. I would like Northamptonshire, Staffordshire and the five others to be successful role models for authorities around the country, because it makes huge sense to me that delivery of emergency services should be as joined up as possible.

My understanding is that under the Police and Crime Act 2017, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), the Minister and I supported, four options were given to police and crime commissioners and the local fire and rescue authorities. Option 1 was a duty to collaborate, but with no change in governance; option 2 was for the police and crime commissioner to take a place on the fire and rescue authority; option 3 was for the police and crime commissioner to become the fire commissioner as well; and option 4 was to combine the services.

Ultimately, I hope that option 4 is delivered in Northamptonshire, but I fully recognise that option 3 is the right place to be at the moment. Operationally, the police service and the fire and rescue service will be two different organisations, but the police, fire and crime commissioner will be the head of both. Although structurally separate organisations below the commissioner, on the ground police officers and firefighters are increasingly working together already. Indeed, I think there are now three fire/police/ambulance stations in Northamptonshire. At Rushden, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), there is certainly an all-singing, all-dancing police, fire and ambulance station with all three services together. I think the same is true at Thrapston.

I do not see why we should not be really ambitious. Ultimately, I would like to see a Northamptonshire-wide police, fire and ambulance service dedicated to Northamptonshire. I do not see why East Midlands ambulance service needs to provide ambulance services to Northamptonshire; the police, fire and crime commissioner would be well able to run ambulance services locally. I invite the Minister to come to Northamptonshire if he ever would like to pilot such an initiative, because I think we could persuade the police and crime commissioner that that might be a good idea, especially since 60% of calls to the fire service are already for medical emergencies.

Both services will remain operationally distinct, but joint working is increasing. That does not mean that police officers will put out fires, and it does not mean that firefighters will have the power of arrest; it just means that they will work sensibly together. This is not a police takeover of the fire service or a merger of the two; it is just a shared governance structure that should lead to sensible joint decisions. If this move is approved by the Minister, it will accelerate collaboration and better protect the frontline than the existing model. At the moment, the fire service is part of Northamptonshire County Council. With the best will in the world, any fire and rescue authority in a county council structure will not get the funding certainty that can be provided by governance by a separate police, fire and crime commissioner.

I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene again. Does my hon. Friend agree that having a police, fire and crime commissioner would improve the democratic accountability of the fire service? Councillors are appointed to the fire authority, but they are not electorally accountable to the public.

My hon. Friend demonstrates once again that she has a wise head on young shoulders. That is the same as the argument in favour of police commissioners. Who knew who the members of the local police authority were? No one did. Sometimes, even members of the police authority did not know who the other members were. The same is true of the fire and rescue authority. Accountability and transparency, along with more funding security and certainty, are big drivers behind the proposal.

I am pleased that people in Northamptonshire basically agree. Some 1,200 people responded to the police commissioner’s consultation. Some 61% of them, and 92% of people working in the fire and rescue service, are in favour of the proposals, which they know will deliver efficiency, effectiveness, economy and improvements in public safety because of increased funding certainty. Those are impressive results—they certainly impressed me, and I hope that they will impress the Minister.

The business case is now on the Minister’s desk; it requires his signature for the proposals to be moved forward. If it gets his signature, in his distinguished hand, the change could come into effect from April 2018. I urge him to study the case and approve it. Northamptonshire has demonstrated that police officers and firefighters are getting together on the ground to deliver sensible joint working, and the governance structure is now catching up with that. If we can get Home Office approval, we can move on over time—not too long, I hope—to stage 4, which is combining the services. Crucially, the proposed change should not lead to increased costs for the taxpayer, because the money that is now given to the county council to fund the fire and rescue service will be given to the police, fire and crime commissioner, but there will be a separate line on people’s council tax bills for the fire authority precept, which will improve transparency and accountability.

Thank you for your patience with me, Ms Ryan. I hope that I have outlined my 100% support for these proposals. The Minister is diligent, assiduous and very much on top of his game, and I know that he will take the proposals seriously. If he agrees with the police and crime commissioner and approves the business case, we in Northamptonshire are up for the challenge of delivering the country’s best combined police and fire service.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, I think for the first time, and to respond to this welcome and timely debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) secured. We came into the House in the same year—back in 2005—and since then he has been a tireless champion of the interests of the people of Kettering. I was therefore delighted to hear him express his 100% support for police and crime commissioner Mold’s proposals, and I heard him urging me to go even further in terms of ambition. It is typical of him that, to get insight into the operating reality of the people serving his constituents, he invested time in the parliamentary fire and police schemes and was himself a special constable, and I congratulate him on that.

I note the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), who is presumably here to support my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering in registering what appears to be a consensus across Northamptonshire and clear popular support for this initiative, which to some degree, as he noted, reflects the reality on the ground. Northamptonshire is well known to be in the vanguard of collaboration between the emergency services, and I place on the record my congratulations and respect for everyone involved in the leadership that has been shown there. The debate is very welcome.

I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering immediate reassurance about the Government’s support for the principle of enabling police and crime commissioners to have greater involvement in fire governance. That goes beyond words: we have already approved the first proposal, from Roger Hirst in Essex. We are encouraged to see that about a dozen areas, including Staffordshire—I very much welcome the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling)—have responded to the legislation that enables that greater involvement and are actively developing proposals to take on governance for fire and rescue. As I said, I am particularly pleased to see areas such as Northamptonshire leading the way.

As we MPs all know, the reality is that our public services—particularly our emergency services, which do an incredible job—responded impressively to pressure to control costs and find savings. Many of them have embraced collaboration, which is easy to talk about but quite difficult to do in practice. We are keen to encourage leadership to go even further in that direction, not just in the interests of using taxpayers’ money better and finding efficiencies, but to deliver a better service to the people we serve.

In that context, I pay tribute to police and crime commissioner Mold and his team for the hard work that they put into developing the proposal that gave rise to this debate. Indeed, they worked at such pace that they have already submitted the proposal. I must correct something that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said: the proposal is not actually sitting on my desk; it is sitting in the bowels of the Home Office being processed by officials, because it has only just come in. It will come to me, I will take a view, and it will go to the Home Secretary. That is the process. That means that I am a bit restricted in what I can say about the detailed business case, because I have not seen it. However, I will see it and we will test it robustly, not least because my hon. Friend will want the reassurance that I want that it is sensibly rooted in good economics, will result in a better service for his constituents and will leave Northamptonshire County Council with a solid financial base. The statute requires us to make various tests of the business case, which is in the system and will be processed as quickly as possible. I am a bit restricted in what I can say, but I absolutely note his message to get on with it.

I am sure the Minister will welcome the fact that Northamptonshire County Council, unlike some county authorities, supports the case. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet in Northamptonshire, if that gives him any encouragement.

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he makes an important point. As I have said, this is easy to talk about, but difficult to do. In particular, some of the work, which he talked about, that the county council has to do with the police and crime commissioner on data is complicated. He is quite right that some county councils have set their face against these changes, so I place on record my respect and thanks to Northamptonshire County Council for the leadership it has shown in fully co-operating with this complex task.

By way of conclusion, I would like to draw out a couple of key themes. First, I join my hon. Friend in placing on record my personal thanks and the Government’s thanks for the hard work and the service that the police and fire officers in Northamptonshire and across the country perform on our behalf. He is right that there are operational aspects to emergency response that are common to police, fire and ambulance, so it must make sense to explore where those services can be more effectively joined up to maximise capability, resilience and everything he talked about in his remarks. There are some fantastic examples of collaboration out there, including joint control rooms, multi-agency intervention teams and joint prevention and support capability. The Government have invested more than £88 million since 2013 in local blue light collaboration projects. We are not just sitting here, saying, “Get on with it.” We are actively trying to provide support, such as initiatives in Northamptonshire that include £4.5 million for police innovation and £3 million for fire transformation.

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

I get the sense that we are perhaps not in danger of going over the time limit, so I want to intervene again and say that we are blessed in Northamptonshire with two outstanding senior officers. The chief constable of Northamptonshire, Simon Edens, is fantastic. He is down-to-earth and hands-on, and he knows all his officers. Likewise, the chief fire officer, Darren Dovey, has years of experience and knows all the boys and girls in the fire service. The two are determined to work together operationally to make things work, whatever the governance structure will be. The changes to the governance structure will help them to do what they are already doing.

I am sure that my hon. Friend’s intervention will be noted by both those officers. In this place, we perhaps do not do enough to celebrate and recognise individuals who do outstanding work in public service. In the course of my process of engaging with police officers, I have spoken to the police chief on the phone, and I very much look forward to visiting Northamptonshire and meeting him and the fire chief in person, not least because it is clear that Northamptonshire has been at the forefront of many collaboration initiatives, including estates co-location, interoperability and joint community prevention work, as my hon. Friend brought to life in his speech. Frankly, I am very encouraged that PCC Mold has made collaboration and emergency services integration a running theme in his police and crime plan, for which he is accountable. His conviction about the benefits of service transformation is evident and encouraging.

While we know that good work is going on in some local areas, it is fair to say that nationally the picture remains a bit patchy, as my hon. Friend alluded to, and more can be done. In some ways, the pace and ambition with which policing has been transformed since 2010—it is much to the credit of police leadership across the country—can serve as a model for the changes we want to see in fire. With the Home Office now responsible for this area, we are able to support what we hope to see as the continuous improvement of fire and rescue services, enabling them to be more accountable, effective and professional than ever before. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase pointed out the important scope in the governance reforms to introduce much greater transparency and accountability, not least around funding streams into fire services, which the public we serve are obviously going to be increasingly interested in post-Grenfell.

To support the fire service along this journey, we are establishing an independent inspection regime for fire and rescue to be delivered by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services. There is consensus about the need for that. We are also making progress in setting up a professional standards body for fire. However, we want the bulk of the fire reform programme to be owned and delivered by the service itself. For example, we want the fire service to get better deals when buying equipment. There is still a lot of scope to improve that area, and we believe that a true commercial transformation and radical improvement to procurement processes are needed. We also want the service to look at workforce reform, increasing diversity and more flexibility in terms and conditions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering made a very good point about how the police and crime commissioners have developed in the consciousness of the public. The system we had before was sub-optimal in terms of public accountability. Police and crime commissioners were a bold reform that is beginning to develop momentum, thanks not least to the individuals involved, such as PCC Mold, who has shown great leadership since his election. That includes action on cyber-security, domestic violence and children and young people’s safety. Such examples convince us that PCCs are ideally placed to support emergency services collaboration and the fire reform agenda. In bringing together local police and fire under a single leadership, we hope to see PCCs driving through transformation that truly delivers for local people. We expect to see improved visibility and transparency, direct accountability to the electorate and a renewed impulse to police and fire collaboration, which my hon. Friend is calling for. That is why we want PCCs to explore the opportunity.

A transfer of fire and rescue governance is not the only option for involving PCCs. As my hon. Friend mentioned, they can request a seat on their local fire and rescue authority, which can come with full voting rights, subject to local agreement. There are options, but I am clear that where PCCs are up for the governance option, are convinced that they have a strong business case, feel that they have the public on their side and, ideally, have the local authority on their side as well, they will have our support, subject to the rigour and robustness of the business case. It is up to local areas to decide what arrangements will work best for them. That is why the Government chose not to mandate the involvement of PCCs in fire governance.

Successful transformation has to involve local people and key stakeholders, and that is exactly what has happened in Northamptonshire. We want everyone to get behind the changes and what they hope to achieve, so that we can really see the benefits of improved accountability and greater collaboration. That is why we have encouraged early dialogue with local communities, local leaders and fire and rescue staff about the future they see for their fire and rescue services. Northamptonshire has shown that a constructive dialogue between PCCs and partners, including the county council, is possible, and I strongly urge other areas to follow that model and leadership.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but I am going to press him into an area that is a little off-piste and where he might be a little uncomfortable. Would he welcome innovative proposals that came forward from a county, such as Northamptonshire, to go for the full Monty: to combine fire, police and ambulance in some kind of sensible, county-wide emergency provision? That would enjoy huge popular support. I know it is very early days, but if someone were to produce a sensible plan, would the Home Office look at it?

I thank my hon. Friend, not least for the heads-up that he is encouraging me to go off-piste. We are operating in tough conditions. The situation requires outstanding leadership and for authorities, the system, the Home Office and the Government to be open to new proposals, because this is an environment in which we need to innovate. My instinct is always to be open to new ideas, and I will always ask, “Is there local support for this? Is there a business case and an evidence base to support this?” We feel strongly that there is an opportunity to go further with the governance of emergency services and police and fire in particular, which is why we enabled that through legislation. I am absolutely delighted that Northamptonshire is in the vanguard in responding to that opportunity, as I would expect. I can assure my hon. Friend that when the business case is released from the bowels of the Home Office and on to my desk, I will process it as quickly as possible. In the meantime, I congratulate him on securing this debate and thank him for his approval.

Question put and agreed to.