asked Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage the co-ordination of fire safety and emergency services across the European Union.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this summer I visited Slavutych, the town in the Ukraine built to replace Chernobyl following the 1986 nuclear explosion. As I entered the small, commemorative museum, my eyes fell immediately on the photographs of those who arrived first on the scene and perished at Chernobyl—the brave men and women of the fire and rescue services.
Chernobyl affected not only neighbouring Belarus and Russia but also the rest of Europe. Still today in Chester I look out on the north Wales peaks whose market in sheep meat remains tightly controlled. We are still one Europe and one world when manmade and environmental disasters strike and, because accidents happen increasingly across national borders, our response must equally be transnational. This is the subject of tonight’s debate.
These threats are not diminishing, as quickening climate change accelerates the incidence of environmental disasters that devastate local communities—searing heat waves in France, severe snowfalls in Germany, floods in Britain, landslips in Italy and wild fires in Greece and Spain. There are still acts of terrorism—as in London, Madrid and Paris—or failures of technologies, as with the Buncefield disaster that startled my noble friend Lord Brookman from his bed the morning it happened, and fires in tunnels through the Alps and under the Channel.
At home, the recent NAO report on the £330 million programme for the fire and rescue services points to successes such as the response to Buncefield, but also to failures, such as in procurement and management, all pointing to the need for a UK fire lord or tsar.
However, the EU is our concern tonight. It, too, lacks recognition of the pivotal roles of the fire and rescue services in protecting communities throughout Europe. The European Commission and the member states are not talking properly to each other, certainly not on a structured or professional basis—a victim perhaps of a short-sighted interpretation of subsidiarity. Similarly, the Commission’s silo approach to these cross-cutting issues inhibits a co-ordinated response. We need a clear and single point of entry into the Commission to provide an observatory and a data-collecting point. We also need to co-ordinate trans-European emergencies and we need member states to help one another. What can my noble friend do to advance that?
This problem is further exacerbated by the mosaic of the different member states’ organisation of their fire and rescue services. In the UK, oddly, FRS is dealt with by the emergency medical services, whereas France and Germany do their health through the emergency services themselves. Sweden and Bulgaria have national agencies, whereas Britain remains local; consequently, our local services know too little of EU developments and therefore fail to give the British view in Brussels.
Does my noble friend recognise a departmental confusion in the United Kingdom? EU FRS matters are dealt with by the Cabinet Office. This bypasses her own Department for Communities and Local Government, which is surely better placed to canvass competent local authorities on EU fire and rescue service issues and thus improve the European Union legislative proposals, standards and practices. At present, the firefighter’s voice is second-hand and so second rate.
The lack of a fire lord or a fire tsar also impairs our response to European Union social legislation, which affects the fire and rescue services in Britain. The dismantling of the British opt-outs in the working time directives will scupper the use of part-time employees in Britain. Ironically, in protecting our workers we may lose the right to exceed working time hours as appropriate and negotiated by workers through collective agreements. Indeed, I note that the driving hours directive has already dried up the availability of part-time drivers used in the service. With the free movement of workers across Europe, we must have certainty throughout the single market of common and verifiable standards of competency among those who practise in the fire and rescue services sector.
The lack of a fire sector skills council in the United Kingdom and common examinations reviewing civil emergency skills likewise hampers us. I ask my noble friend to address these national deficiencies, because they impact on the European stage. European Union social law must not inadvertently undermine our domestic fire and rescue services.
To create sensible EU law and practice we must have accurate statistical data in Britain. We are proficient at the national data, but our EU partners are not. Nor are these data properly standardised. Thus, in the United Kingdom, we record delayed deaths subsequently reported from an earlier emergency incident, whereas in Europe that does not happen. In the European Union, these deaths are recorded locally, not nationally as in our case. An example of this is that the EU legislative proposal for substituting reduced ignition propensity cigarettes for existing slow burn will need sound and comprehensive data across the European Union to convince us that the unwanted deaths from smouldering stubs can be stamped out. Will my noble friend encourage the collection of good and comprehensive data across the European Union?
I now turn to the Government’s lukewarm response to the French President’s proposal for an EU civil protection rapid reaction force. The Commission has already provided use of EU funds to transport firefighters to EU disaster hot spots or to pay for aerial water bombers dowsing wild fires across national boundaries. Indeed, the United Kingdom has received a grant of £180 million to compensate for the disastrous floods in 2007. However, the UK is not actively engaged in the rapid reaction force proposal, where the British firefighters can help abroad. Our view that Britain will never need others’ help is daft. Pooling EU resources and humanitarian aid at times of national disasters is sensible and sound. The UK should get involved in the Barnier proposal now if for no other reason than protecting the many Britons who visit, work and live across the European Union.
We should promote the civil protection force and ensure good liaison with the developments within NATO, too. Likewise, the deplorable incidence of hotel fires abroad leading to family tragedies at home is allowed because we have a disparate set of 27 laws applying to hotel safety. This mosaic of law must cede to a sensible EU directive. It will help us all to sleep better in our beds at night, whether in Corfu or in Carshalton.
Britain’s viewpoint on these matters is missing from the EU Fire Safety Network, an organisation funded by the EU civil protection unit, which is based in the Brussels environmental directorate. I am told that Britain’s CLG-nominated fire resilience representative attends only intermittently, with inadequate and infrequent reports back. Will my noble friend tell the House how such cross-cutting issues that affect DBERR, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Transport will be properly communicated in Whitehall? We cannot do that if we are absent from Brussels. The safety of British families and businesses is not helped by snubbing Brussels.
If Britain does not speak up, British trade and industry are vulnerable to the misapplication of EU laws in the field of fire and rescue services. The construction products directive requiring the use of the CE mark is not systematically monitored in Britain, because of the lack of resources in local government trading standards. This means that British export firms are poorly advised on relevant EU law governing the circulation of their goods and services within the single market. The REACH chemical regulation, with significant cost implications for the fire sector companies, is added to the already strict UK hazardous substance control regimes, with sparse assessment of the cost to related industries. The EU services directive remains similarly unexamined. Nor is the understanding of single market codes and standards promoted by the self-financing approach to the BSI. We need something more hard-headed and designed for the entrepreneurs to brief themselves in order to succeed.
In conclusion, I hope that we understand the necessity of spreading our concern at the time of these disasters wider than the United Kingdom for the protection of our people, not only here in Britain but also in the European Union. I thank Dennis Davis, my colleague from Chester and the former chief fire officer of Cheshire, and his associates. Not only has he worked hard for many years to raise these issues at the European level, but he has helped in the preparation of the debate this evening, which I bring to the attention of the House.
My Lords, I first declare an interest as an officer of the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group. My noble friend Lord Harrison, a colleague and friend, is to be congratulated. It is appropriate and worth while to have this debate. Frankly, I only wish that there were more participants making a contribution.
I congratulate all our firefighters and emergency workers in the United Kingdom. Their dedication, bravery and service to our nation are indeed immense. Their heroism, commitment and sense of duty at King’s Cross, for example, and, as my noble friend Lord Harrison said, at Buncefield in Hertfordshire, as well as recently with the shuttle train—the third such incident in the past 12 years—are of the highest order. We are deeply proud of them all.
The all-party group works closely with the Federation of British Fire Organisations, which will be taking a keen interest in the debate. Its concerns are my concerns. I am not talking of weakness or governmental inactivity. The question is whether the management of safety can be more effective.
My noble friend Lord Harrison has covered much of what needs to be said in his wide-ranging, clever and well understood speech. Is there a need for wider participation between government, fire rescue authorities, and public and private bodies and enterprises? If so, how can it be achieved with a European dimension?
I do not profess to be an expert in the fire and rescue field in the United Kingdom or across Europe—although, when I was a steelworker in south Wales, danger and death were never far away. However, I am advised that there is no certain or professional relationship between the EC and member state Governments on fire and rescue services. Perhaps the Minister will address this point when she sums up.
The Government work closely with the Federation of British Fire Organisations. FOBFO wants to strengthen that relationship. In this respect, FOBFO strongly states that its vital focus is in recognising the importance of the European Union as both a trading and a social partner and the impact that this has on the fire and rescue services. I sincerely hope that the Government do all that they can to assist.
My Lords, I sometimes wonder why I am here—on this occasion mainly because my noble friend Lord Harrison has said just about everything that needs to be said on this subject. There is little that I can add, apart from “Hurrah!” or something.
I felt inclined to contribute to this brief—and I shall be brief, let me tell you—debate because, as older Members of the House may recall, and there are not too many here, I have spent a lifetime in the construction industry. That industry of course finds fire safety and things of that sort extremely important. I remind my noble friend Lord Brookman that when he was a young man I was involved in the steel industry, too. I worked in a town called Motherwell—not a spa but a big steel concern.
I was a structural engineer in the 1940s. The Dalzell steelworks were built on made-up ground, much of which had come from ironworks slag from the nearby Clyde Bridge. Interestingly, it formed a pretty good foundation for a steelworks apart from one flaw: it was given to spontaneous combustion. The foundations under the steelworks would therefore catch fire from time to time. We applied a high-tech solution to this problem: we hurried along and filled up the hole under the foundations, where the fire was burning, with concrete. The fire would go out. We solved the problem; it was not too high-tech, but it seemed to work. I have therefore always had an interest in the relationship between the construction industry and fire.
As we all do, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on raising this subject. I thought that his opening remarks were a little apocalyptic. He drew our attention to Chernobyl. Now, we all know that Chernobyl was not a very good idea. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne—a good personal friend of mine, although he sits on the opposite Benches for some idiosyncratic reason of his own—pointed out, the Chernobyl disaster was never as bad as people and the press continually say. It is like Three Mile Island. Nothing happened there either, but the press go on about it.
Leaving the apocalypse aside, all that I have to say is that I endorse everything that my noble friend has said. Were it not for vanity, I would now sit down—but I shall not just yet. I add a remark that has been provided for me by the Federation of British Fire Organisations, to which my noble friend Lord Brookman alluded. It pointed out that last November a new era of European Community solidarity began to emerge. The Commission held a civil protection forum to emphasise the renewed vigour that it feels is needed to address the unprecedented demands of EC citizens facing natural, economic and technological disasters.
I am somewhat tepid in my admiration for the European Union. I have swung from opposition to support to tepidity, if that is a word. It is a funny kind of organisation. When it is at its best—and it is by no means always at its best—it means that if we do not pull together, we sink together. Sinking together does not seem to me a very good idea if pulling together will save us from sinking together. So I endorse everything that my noble friend said. I hope that I have not kept noble Lords for too long from their dinner.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating the debate, and to the Federation of British Fire Organisations for raising these extremely important issues with us through its briefing. It is some 10 years since I was a member of a fire authority and I certainly do not claim any special or particular knowledge of fire safety issues. However, I recognised many of the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, raised. I have some 15 years’ experience in local and regional government in the European Union and am therefore very familiar, not particularly with fire issues, but with other issues concerning the different structures and systems in member states, and the difficulties that that sometimes causes in achieving mutual understanding and reaching agreement on how best to approach these matters.
I spent eight years, until last May, as a member of the Greater London Authority, of which the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority is a part. However, my role, for eight years, was that of chair of the finance committee of the Metropolitan Police Authority; therefore, I am very familiar with the sort of issues that we are discussing. My experience relates to the Metropolitan Police Service, although I think that it is relevant to the fire service as well. The Metropolitan Police Service has very good international links. It has many contacts worldwide, particularly in Europe. It generally has a good relationship with Europe, with which it generally works well on operational issues. However, I found that an organisation as large, well equipped and well organised as the Metropolitan Police Service still had remarkably little understanding of how the European Union works and of how to influence the decision-making process at the right stage, not when it is too late and something is being done to it. For an organisation with an annual budget of some £3 billion, it had little awareness of the opportunities—albeit now limited—for gaining funding from the European Union. We set up an EU oversight group, which I chaired, but whose membership otherwise comprised senior officers from the police service and the police authority, specifically to look—given that I chaired the finance committee—at opportunities to raise funding. However, another objective—this was probably more important—was to look at the policy developments that were coming through the processes of the European Union, whether through the Parliament or, more usually, the Commission, so that at an early stage we could recognise issues which were not necessarily about policing but might well be of concern to it. That must have exactly the same relevance to fire and rescue services.
We should not assume, therefore, that simply because authorities have good contacts and good relations across Europe they necessarily know what is happening in the European Commission, the Parliament and the other organisations, still less that they are equipped and informed to intervene at an early stage when the policy is being formulated, not at the much later stage when, realistically, all that is happening are negotiations about the finer points to try to reach agreement. Therefore, my first question to the Minister—I am sure that she will address this—is what mechanisms there are within the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at fire and safety issues from an EU perspective. I am very aware from my 15 to 20 years’ experience of how her department deals with European issues generally—it generally does so very well—but here we are talking about fire and rescue services specifically. In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said, these are cross-departmental matters within the UK Government, much of the responsibility for which rests with the Cabinet Office rather than with CLG. My subsidiary question is: what are the mechanisms within the UK Government for effective co-ordination and liaison on these issues in the EU context, and how effective is that mechanism?
I was concerned to read in the Federation of British Fire Organisations’s briefing:
“Fire and Rescue Authorities are rarely advised or able to influence EC developments affecting the Fire and Rescue Services”.
That chimes exactly with what I was saying about my experience with the Metropolitan Police Service. I must ask CLG, which is responsible for fire authorities in this country, what steps it is taking, and will take, to ensure that fire and rescue services and fire authorities are advised and are able at an early stage to influence EC developments, probably through feedback to CLG or to the Cabinet Office through central government. Central government need that input, knowledge, experience and thought from the fire services. With regard to the Metropolitan Police Service, I cannot, unfortunately, remember the specific instance about which the commissioner spoke to me, but it had discovered a measure which was about to be agreed by the European Commission which would have a very substantial impact in operational and financial terms on the police service, but it was too late to do anything about it. That is the key question. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, laid out very well the difficulties involved here with different structures in the different member states and, indeed, with the range of responsibilities across various departments of the UK Government. This is a challenge, but I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that the UK Government, perhaps led by her department, are able to meet and rise to that challenge.
We live in an age where free movement throughout the European Union, whether for work or leisure, is a growing reality. I am the last person to call for greater regulation. Indeed, I spend much of my time calling for less regulation rather than more. I am a passionate believer in subsidiarity. Therefore, I do not call for the European Union to take over fire and rescue services—far from it. I welcome the cultural diversity that we have, but we need to be able to deal effectively with the results of that diversity and to recognise that people are moving around the European Union member states freely and that they deserve proper protection and effective liaison to bring that about.
I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for raising these important issues and look forward to the reassurance from the Minister that, I am sure, we are about to get.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for bringing this debate before us, although I must admit that he raced through his speech at such a pace that I was not quite sure whether he had a strategic point to aim for. He seemed to say that everyone was doing a lot of good work and that everyone was doing some things wrong. However, that is a naturally human state.
Our ancient forebears regarded fire as one of the four great forces of nature and believed that, if fire was out of control, it was really dreadful. I learned to respect that point of view in my younger days, when I used to burn every field of straw on my farm myself. That was 10 days of hard work, at your peril—although it could be done with safety. We need always to bear in mind that fire, which we regard as a tool and a friend, will break out if you give it half a chance. That is, of course, when our fire and rescue services come to the fore. I add my tribute to those very brave men.
There was criticism from the fire service that perhaps the reason the service was so dangerous because of the wretched business of risk assessment, which is difficult when you have a big fire. You may think that you have all the knowledge about the contents of a building and its construction. If the fire is out in the open, you have a different set of parameters to deal with. However, fire makes its own rules and we have to face the fact that every now and again we will have a tragedy.
The Fire Brigades Union told us of the very sad rise in the number of deaths in the fire service in recent years, after a period in which it suffered no deaths. Have the Government any statistics on the number of fires over the same period, which began in 2003? It could be that the number of tragedies per fire is minuscule; however, to the person involved, it is 100 per cent. We need to recognise that and do everything we can to reduce the risk to the absolute minimum—but we cannot remove it.
The second issue is that the debate is aimed towards—I will not say at—the European Union. If I understand the situation correctly, fire prevention, the fire services, safety and so on, is not, in fact, a European competence; it is a national competence—and rightly so. In this country, we have made it even a local competence. That also has to be appropriate, because it is only at a local level that you can make a reasonable assessment of the risks in a community. It is no good having a wonderful ivory tower in the middle of London and trying to tell people in Hartlepool, Liverpool, Bristol or Southampton or in our rural communities what their level of fire risk is. A much more local organisation is needed to provide appropriate cover. We are very fortunate in this country to be able to enjoy the services of a large number of volunteers who cover great areas of the country.
Sometimes, paradoxically, volunteers have greater experience of firefighting than their professional brethren, who, if they are fortunate, may have a shift pattern which inadvertently means that they might not attend a fire for a year or more; whereas part-time firemen, apart from doing some weekend practice, attend only when there is a fire. There is a slightly strange situation whereby sometimes the amateur, as you might put it, is more experienced than the professional. However, all their work is wholly admirable.
There needs to be a European information exchange facility. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned that each nation had its own safety regulations for hotels. However, given the volume of travel that we all undertake nowadays, it would be reassuring to know that there was at least some parallel organisation that was, in looking at this matter, disseminating best practice—not just in fire regulation, but in equipment, communications and all those other things.
So much can be done above the national level, but it is not simply a European problem. We do not have the only valid sources of information; this is an international problem. To be fair, I know that a considerable exchange of information already goes on, but there is no formal structure. Perhaps it would be better if the situation were better recognised, so that information was more freely available across national boundaries.
When all is said and done, we will still have a service of brave people who so often come to rescue us from mistakes that we have made. Perhaps we have accidentally left something switched on at night or fallen asleep while smoking in bed. Perish the thought, but that is not unknown. These things lead to tragedies. We can have the most wonderful service in the world and people who will give their lives for us if they have to—and they do—but if we ourselves are not careful and sensible, we deserve all the trouble that we get into.
There is, therefore, another level of responsibility in all of this, which I hope the noble Baroness will touch on: personal responsibility. That is where this particular area of safety begins. If we do not get that bit right, there is nothing that anyone else can do to help us.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for initiating such an important debate. The contributions around the House have been a tribute to the wide-ranging issues that he raised, as well as demonstrating our very different experiences across the House. Although the House may not be full, there is absolutely no question that every Member would take an interest in the role of the fire services.
One of the most impressive things that I had the privilege of doing this year was attending the official opening of the National Fire Service memorial by Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne. I had the privilege of speaking to some of the families whose loved ones, as firefighters, very sadly had died this year. That brought home to me at a very personal level the personal contribution and price paid in the most difficult circumstances. I certainly join every noble Lord who has spoken on the extraordinary contribution that our firefighters make, not just to keeping our communities safe, but—we must not forget, as my noble friend reminded me—to the added benefits that they bring to the communities that they serve and the extraordinary efforts that they make to become involved in them, especially regarding young people in schools and so on by informing and supporting the work of the community.
This is an extremely important debate, for many different reasons. Although we have been focusing on Europe, other issues have been raised by noble Lords, which I shall try to address. I shall certainly write to noble Lords if I cannot. I am very grateful to my noble friend for giving me advance warning of some very wide-ranging and technical questions, which I hope to be able to address towards the end of my response.
This has, indeed, been a wide-ranging debate, and it has provided me with an opportunity to talk about what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to encourage the co-ordination of fire safety and emergency services. That is something about which my noble friend is particularly concerned and it is an ambitious theme. I want to set out what we are doing, primarily in working with our partners in Europe, to reduce accidental fires in the home and non-domestic premises. I was very interested in the two examples given by my noble friends Lord Brookman and Lord Howie of Troon. Together with Buncefield, they illustrated two very different professional experiences and showed some of the genuinely catastrophic implications of accidental fires. That was a very useful perspective. With our European partners, we are trying to prepare properly to deal with emergencies, including with cross-border co-operation.
I reassure my noble friend that I would not dream of pretending that I know as much as he does about the work that is done in Europe or by the fire service. I want to try to bring together what we know is happening, and that will illustrate how this Government and the Department for Communities and Local Government are at the forefront of many EU work streams to co-ordinate fire and rescue services and emergency response work across Europe.
I think that my noble friend called for a fire tsar. It is some time since we heard the call for a tsar, so my noble friend has brought about the welcome return of this mythical figure. In fact, we have a tsar in the very experienced Sir Ken Knight, our Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, who is more of a knight than a tsar. I have got to know him and have accompanied him on the odd occasion, and I have been incredibly impressed by the esteem in which he is held throughout the fire service. I do not think that we could have better advice.
I move on to the way that we work in Europe, in particular. The UK is a member of the EU’s civil protection mechanism, which is crucial. The mechanism co-ordinates assistance and provides prompt support and assistance to any country inside and outside the European Union that requires help. It became operational in 2002 and, since then, has been activated for a number of disasters within Europe and around the world. Three examples are the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia, the 2005 forest fires in Portugal and the 2005 floods in Bulgaria and Romania. Those were three very different but dreadful cases where our help was needed.
A further element of the mechanism is the training programme, which is designed to prepare national responders for international deployment, the co-ordination of a disaster response and the assessment of disaster areas. As of 11 July, the UK has had 11 deployable personnel, eight of whom are part of the fire and rescue service. We expect to have 20 fully trained personnel for deployment by the summer of 2009.
To pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, we have also exerted considerable influence. We have played key roles in recent exercises to ensure that the EU is prepared to deal with major disasters and incidents. These have included: exercise EULUX 2007 in Luxembourg, which simulated a conventional chemical and radiological attack; exercise EUPOLEX 2005 in Poland, which tested the Community’s ability to respond effectively to a major incident requiring assistance from member and non-member countries; and exercise EUROSOT 2005 in Italy, which simulated a scenario based on an earthquake. That gives an idea of how, in a very practical way, we are bringing our experience into play.
The Government have invested £300 million, through the New Dimension project, to enhance the capacity of fire and rescue services to deal rapidly and effectively with terrorist and other large-scale catastrophic incidents. Part of my response to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, concerns the investment that the Department for Communities and Local Government makes as part of our wider £1 billion fire and resilience programme. These specialist New Dimension assets have been delivered to ensure that the fire and rescue service is prepared to respond to national incidents. However, in the event of an EU or international disaster, the Government would obviously want to deploy this capability abroad to assist where it was able to do so.
I turn to the specific steps that the Government are taking to encourage other forms of leadership in the UK and the co-ordination of specific fire-safety issues across the European Union. This is an area where my noble friend has played an absolutely key role. UK fire statistics show that smoking products cause the greatest number of accidental fire deaths in the home. Taking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, this is of course a very acute example of where personal responsibility comes in. In 2006, 3,168 accidental dwelling fires in the UK—an extraordinary figure—were started by smoking products, killing 96 and injuring 1,146.
My noble friend Lord Harrison knows that the Government have been instrumental in encouraging the European Commission to look into the case for creating a European standard for fire-safer cigarettes—cigarettes that are designed to self-extinguish if left unattended, rather than smoulder down and set things alight. We have watched with interest developments on this in other countries—in particular, the US and Canada. In October 2005, Canada became the first country to implement a cigarette fire-safety standard. Assessments that have been carried out since then on the basis of the Canadian methodology suggest that we would have had 2,116 fewer fires if such cigarettes had been available. Therefore, these fire-safer cigarettes work.
Since my noble friend and I debated this matter in October 2007, the European Union has voted overwhelmingly to create such a standard, and I am very glad to bring the House up to date about that. By establishing a European standard for fire-safer cigarettes, manufacturers will be compelled by law to produce cigarettes that meet the EU standard. The Government continue to be at the forefront in pushing this process forward. We expect work on developing the standard to commence late this year, and it will probably take about two years to complete.
We also learn from the experiences of other countries. The UK is one of the founding members of the European Fire Safety Network, which was set up in 2004 with the support and welcome of the Commission’s Civil Protection Unit, the committee for the action programme and the Community mechanism in the field of civil protection under the aegis of the civil protection committee. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about the role of the CLG, in relation to fire-safer cigarettes, our officials in that department led very much from the front. Sir Ken Knight was also involved in that work.
The European Fire Safety Network currently includes representatives from national authorities in 23 EU states which are competent in fire prevention matters. The idea is to exchange knowledge and foster co-operation between nations to help to improve fire safety. Here, perhaps I should mention some fire statistics. With the other members of the forum, we have achieved consensus on issues such as support for the development of fire-safer cigarettes and the need for better fire statistics. I hope that that reinforces the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. At the UK’s suggestion, the network has agreed to consider the use of fire statistics across Europe. It will look at what members of the forum gather by way of fire information and what comparisons this enables, what gaps exist and how this might be improved. I believe that real progress is being made there. We are liaising, for example, with the Federation of the European Union Fire Officer Associations, Eurostat, the European Fire Academy and so on. This is a major undertaking, which is very progressive.
In conjunction with colleagues from the Government of Estonia, we have offered to collate information from EU members to produce an overview of the situation, with recommendations for how that could be improved to promote the better use of statistics across Europe. However, the EU itself would need to take the lead in how the statistics would be collated.
My noble friend raised some questions about the extent to which CLG attended meetings. My advice is that it has certainly attended many meetings on European issues in recent years. I can advise him that the UK will also be hosting the next meeting of the network to tie into a celebration of 20 years since the introduction of regulations on fire safety in furnishings, which BERR will be launching jointly with CLG on 25 November. That is yet another example of joined-up government. We are assiduous in this work and as officials now know that the eye of my noble friend is on them, they will be even more assiduous.
I will not go into our strategies in the UK in great detail, except to say that our key strategy is to drive down preventable deaths. We have proactive community fire safety activities. We have a very good record, particularly in the penetration of smoke alarms; the 80 per cent smoke alarm ownership is a tremendous achievement. Of course, we still need to reach 20 per cent of households which are not yet covered. Effective fire safety standards extend well beyond the home and we want to ensure that all UK premises are as safe as possible. Prior to October 2006, there were more than 70 separate pieces of fire safety legislation in England and the fire safety order brought all fire safety legislation together in one place, simplifying the framework. That has been a progressive step forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, asked about deaths among firefighters. Every single death of a firefighter is a tragedy. Thankfully, the number of fatalities still remains very low and injuries are steadily falling. Our data show that the number of deaths while on operational duty over the past 20 years averages less than two per annum. There has been no fatality in England in the past 12 months, which is positive. Obviously, we can improve the situation with a whole range of measures.
I turn to the specific issues raised by my noble friend. I recognise and agree with my noble friend Lord Harrison that fire and rescue services have a distinctive and pivotal role. He questioned co-ordination mechanisms and criticised their absence. I believe that we have a strong co-ordinating mechanism within the EU. In fulfilling its monitoring and information-sharing function during disasters within and outside the EU, the Commission's Monitoring and Information Centre acts as the single point of contact for member states. The Monitoring and Information Centre can also be valuable as an entry point to the Commission's various director-generals at times other than during disasters.
My noble friend was critical of cross-government arrangements, but within the UK we have the Civil Contingencies Secretariat at the Cabinet Office, which is the most appropriate department to represent the Government on fire and rescue services in relation to the EU because of its strategic responsibility and the perception it brings. I think that is absolutely justified. CLG works closely with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, sharing and disseminating information on EU matters. Most of the civil protection debate at EU level is on the principles of international mutual aid and how that might be enhanced across all aspects of the civil protection agenda. There is little or no detailed discussion on practical fire and rescue service issues which tend to occur in any other forum where the Civil Contingencies Secretariat is not involved.
I turn to my noble friend’s remarks about the impact of the working time directive and the driving-hours directive on the UK fire and rescue service. Dealing first with the working time directive, we are clear that losing the UK’s opt-out could have a major impact on the fire and rescue service. There is no question of dismantling the opt-out. The UK’s position remains unchanged. We remain committed to keeping the opt-out. I should perhaps explain that the UK’s position was agreed by the Council of Ministers in June. Officials from my department are working closely with BERR and the Cabinet Office to ensure MEPs and other member states are fully briefed on the UK’s position.
The position on the driving hours directive is that the Chief Fire Officers Association is currently surveying all fire and rescue services to enable the potential impact of the drivers' hours rules on the retained-duty system and their ability to provide appropriate emergency cover to our rural communities to be assessed.
My noble friend has also expressed concern that the encouragement of cross-border movement of labour creates employment complications within the fire sector as there are currently no agreed EC standards of competency. I am pleased to say that a considerable amount of work is being undertaken by various groups within the EU to work towards the harmonisation of fire and rescue service functions and recognition of professional qualifications between member states. The Fire and Rescue Sector Vocational Standards Group is considering aligning the current firefighters' national qualifications framework with the European qualifications framework and will consider wider work from across the EU as part of the process.
It is the Government's policy that the existing 25 sector skills councils should cover the UK workforce. The fire sector is too small to justify its own sector skills council but the Fire and Rescue Sector Vocational Standards Group is currently discussing sector skills council membership with the Skills for Justice sector skills council. So there is a recognition that there can be more synergy. The UK Fire and Rescue Sector Vocational Standards Group is considering aligning the current firefighters' national qualifications framework with the European qualifications framework.
My noble friend described a civil protection rapid reaction force, whose creation has been called for by Michel Barnier, as rather lukewarm. The Commission and member states generally have supported measures to enhance civil protection in the EU. The first pillar civil protection mechanism has been amended to allow limited financial assistance towards the cost of transporting civilian response from a donor country to one affected by disaster, including aerial water bombers to be used in wildfire situations.
On the proposals made in the Barnier report, the UK's position is clear. HMG support the principle of member states co-operating voluntarily in the response to disasters, but not the creation of a stand-by European civil protection force. That is consistent with our general attitude to how we see European co-operation working best. A European civil protection force would not be a cost-effective way of responding. The current voluntary approach, which allows member states to provide urgent assistance bilaterally, offers more flexibility and better value for money.
My noble friend also mentioned hotel safety and the fact that it is not regulated. Our position on this matter is quite clear. We recognise that while there is considerable support for any initiative aimed at achieving a more consistent standard of fire safety in hotels across Europe, there is no consensus on a need to replace the EC recommendation with any European law.
Finally, on trade, we have the construction products directive. Rather than read my quite detailed response to the specific issues raised on trade, I shall write to my noble friend.
We gladly recognise the contribution made by the UK fire trade to the fire safety agenda. I think we are playing a positive and successful role in Europe. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to explore some of those issues. It has been a most useful debate.