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Fire and Rescue Services

Volume 634: debated on Monday 8 January 2018

I recognise the vital role that firefighters play in the protection of communities, as demonstrated recently during the tragic fires at the Liverpool Echo Arena car park and in Manchester. Fire and rescue services have the resources they need and will receive around £2.3 billion in 2018-19 to continue their vital work. Single-purpose authorities’ non-ring-fenced reserves increased by 88% to £615 million between March 2011 and March 2017. That is equivalent to 49% of net expenditure.

The Home Secretary will be aware that there are 20% fewer firefighters in Plymouth today than there were in 2010, but the risk has not gone down. With combustible cladding still on the tower blocks in Mount Wise and Devonport, the risk remains high. Will the Home Secretary reassure us that there will be no further reductions in the number of firefighters in Plymouth and no further reductions in firefighting funding?

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. He is right that there are 20% fewer firefighters, but there are 50% fewer fire incidents that firefighters have to attend. It seems to me that that means we are still able to get the very best service from our firefighters. If the hon. Gentleman has requirements in respect of tower blocks in his community, in which he has shown a particular interest, I urge him to approach the Department for Communities and Local Government, which sometimes allows some financial flexibility to assist with additional needs.

In Northamptonshire, we now have a joint police and fire commissioner. Does the Home Secretary agree that that is the best way to make the best use of limited resources?

Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right that an excellent way to use resources most efficiently is to make sure that we have those sorts of mergers. In fact, there is now an obligation under legislation passed last year to make sure that fire authorities work more closely with the police.

The Home Secretary has already referred to the major fire that ravaged the car park at the Liverpool Echo Arena on new year’s eve, when around 1,400 vehicles were destroyed. It was only because of the magnificent efforts of Merseyside firefighters that there was no loss of life. Will she take that as a warning that Government cuts, which have slashed 42 full-time appliances down to 26 now and 18 next year, are putting lives at risk? Will she undertake urgently to review funding for the Merseyside fire and rescue authority?

I would point out to the hon. Lady the scale of the reserves that I have already highlighted and ask her to work closely with her local fire authority to ensure that it is using that money wisely. To follow up on her comments, I have the utmost respect and admiration for the firefighters who did such an excellent job in that particular incident.

In Lichfield, we have a brand new fire station, but one fewer fire appliance, which seems an odd sense of priorities in the way that the fire service is run in Staffordshire. There would be a £10 million saving if only the police and the fire service were to merge their back-office functions. What can the Home Secretary do to encourage them to do just that?

That is an excellent point from my hon. Friend, and it reinforces the point that was just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) that the best way to achieve such efficiencies is through closer working between police and fire services. I urge him to encourage his authority—if it has not done so already—to put in the business case review for us to look at.

May I wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker?

The Secretary of State has already mentioned the fire in the Lighthouse tower in the northern quarter in Manchester. Will she join me in praising the very quick efforts of the Manchester fire service, which meant that everybody was safely evacuated from what looked to be a very serious fire in that tower block? Will she also reassure me, and communities in Manchester and across the country, that the fire services will have not only the resources that they need, but the powers to inspect and ensure that private as well as social housing residential blocks are fire safe and that these fires do not spread?

I happily join the hon. Lady in congratulating and thanking the fire fighters for doing such an excellent job. She raises an important point: it is about not just resources but having the right powers. That is why we commissioned a report on building regulations from Dame Judith Hackitt, who reported her interim findings in December. We will be hearing from her later in the spring, in a few months’ time—or even in weeks—with her final report. I hope that that will give us additional guidance about what powers are necessary to ensure that these fires do not take place in future.

Tackling waste fires represents a significant financial burden for fire and rescue services; the fire at Slitting mill has cost Staffordshire fire and rescue service in the region of £70,000 to date. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of waste fires?

I also congratulate my hon. Friend’s local fire authority on the good work that it has done. I am happy to volunteer the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service for an early meeting with my hon. Friend to address her concerns.

We constantly hear Ministers at the Dispatch Box talking about reserves in the fire and rescue service as if there is some sort of magic money tree, but is the Secretary of State aware that most of the reserves are already earmarked for future spend? The annual budget for the fire and rescue service in England is £2.3 billion, yet it holds only £143 million in unallocated reserves. That is less than a month’s operating costs. Is she seriously suggesting that capital reserves of just 6% are an adequate buffer for all emergencies? If she is, she is living in cloud cuckoo land.

I can generously deny that I am living in any cloud cuckoo land—to wipe that immediately from the hon. Gentleman’s views. I just think he is being too lenient on these enormous reserves that have been accumulated. They have grown by 150%; they are now 40% of annual revenue. I know that the Labour party is not familiar with careful public finance guarding, but I urge him to take a little more scrutiny to this matter, rather than treating it like some Venezuelan dictatorship.