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Fire and Rescue Services

Volume 549: debated on Wednesday 5 September 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, for what I believe is the first time. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for all his work to build a cross-party consensus on this issue, particularly on the impact of funding cuts on metropolitan authorities.

It is clear from the number of right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber that there is considerable concern about the impact of cuts to fire and rescue services, and their effect on the services’ ability to protect the communities they serve. I pay tribute to firefighters in Tyne and Wear and across the country who take risks every day on our behalf. Sadly, firefighters can too often be injured or even killed in the line of duty. We owe it to those brave men and women, and the public they protect, to ensure that they have all the resources and support that they need to do their job properly.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber, although I am not sure whether he will have responsibility for the fire service—I am trying to keep up with all the reshuffle business. I hope that he will approach the debate with an open mind and consider the arguments that are made. Those arguments have been set out strongly over the past two years, and they will continue to be made about the settlement for 2013 to 2015.

I appreciate that this is not the custom, Mr Bayley, but I thank the hon. Lady for that. The attitude she suggests has always been my general approach as a Minister. I am fresh in the job—dare I say it, I am firefighting the debate. Perhaps I may put my point in the form of a question and ask her to understand that I would hope to continue to approach the matter in the manner in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) did.

I am glad to hear that the Minister will deal with the matter in that way and continue the cross-party work that has been done to try to resolve something that is in the interest of all our constituents.

I call on the Minister to implement a fairer funding settlement for fire and rescue services in the period 2013 to 2015. I ask him to listen to the arguments and to do the right thing for the service, for the firefighters who put their lives on the line for us, and for the public who depend on the risks they take.

In the first two years of the period covered by the comprehensive spending review, formula grant funding for fire and rescue services nationally decreased by about 6.5%, but Tyne and Wear had a cash cut of twice the national average. Many hon. Members have questioned whether the cuts were made fairly and equitably.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about averages. For example, does she realise that in Durham and Darlington the figure for the first year is 14%, while for the second it is 15%?

My hon. Friend’s constituency is not covered by a metropolitan authority, but Durham and Tyne and Wear face many of the same challenges. We do much cross-border work, and that will increase as a result of natural events such as flooding. We will call on firefighters from different authorities to provide cover and help out where needed.

The metropolitan authorities—West Midlands, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, and Tyne and Wear—have shouldered the biggest burden so far. In the previous settlement, 11 non-metropolitan services received extra funding, while all six mets received budget cuts. The Minister may touch on the fact that the formula employed by the previous Government has been used, but changing the weighting of four crucial blocks caused significant disadvantage to areas such as mine with a reduced council tax base. The cuts have so far led to Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service losing 68 full-time firefighters, 31% of enforcement staff, 28% of support staff and one pump.

My hon. Friend mentioned West Midlands authority and the formula. Does she agree that West Midlands relies on 80% Government funding and that changes to the formula should therefore be considered carefully? The settlement will inflict a big deterioration on the service, will cost jobs and will affect safety.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I share that view; the problem is the same in Tyne and Wear. I hope that the Minister will listen and change the formula to deal with that problem.

In addition to the cuts in Tyne and Wear, there has been a freeze on the recruitment of firefighters in the past two years, and that could extend to 2015-16, and perhaps as late as 2017. We hear from the Government about the need for back-office savings—I agree—but if Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service had scrapped its back office entirely, it still would not have made all the savings required by the Government due to the settlement it received. The scale of the cuts that the mets face will continue to have an impact on the front line, putting the public and firefighters at risk.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I recently visited the fire station at Elswick in my constituency, where I was impressed by firefighters’ bravery and dedication, and by their commitment to serve the community and to do as much to prevent fire as to put it out. Does my hon. Friend agree that losing firefighters of that calibre will undoubtedly cost more in lives, property and money in the long run than it will save?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I agree that prevention is vital, yet many of the firefighters we are losing have considerable expertise and have served their communities for a long time, and we cannot even replace them because we have a recruitment freeze. By losing those experienced men and women, however, we will lose the vital experience that they have gained over many years, and they will not be able to pass that on to recruits coming through the ranks.

Last week, I met Tyne and Wear Fire Brigades Union representatives who expressed their concern that the fact that there is no spare capacity left will lead to challenges in responding to major incidents. That is borne out by the view of chief fire officer Tom Capeling, who has made it clear that the cross-border work that Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service does with Durham and Darlington and Northumberland fire and rescue services will be put at risk by reductions in the number of firefighters, especially if there are repeats of major incidents such as widespread flooding over several days. The potential impact of a 13.5% reduction in total funding in 2013 to 2015 could be the tipping point that puts years of preventive work—and, ultimately, people’s lives—at risk.

To put things into context, in addition to the cuts of 68 full-time firefighters and 28% of back-office staff that have already taken place, a 13.5% reduction in 2013 to 2015 would mean that 136 additional full-time firefighters would be lost, along with 12 retained firefighters and up to four pumps. It is estimated that a more severe cut of 27% would result in Tyne and Wear alone in the cutting of a further 208 full-time firefighters—almost a third—and the loss of 10 pumps. Any further reductions should be calculated in a way that takes account of important social and demographic factors. We must avoid the outcomes of the previous settlement round when some of the highest-risk areas had their funding cut while authorities that faced reduced challenges received an increase in their revenue spending power. The then Minister suggested that he was surprised by the outcomes, but surely this time we should deliver a fair settlement, and there should be no surprises.

Of course everyone, including the met authorities, recognises that savings need to be made. What the mets and the firefighters object to is the Government’s prioritisation of deficit reduction at the expense of public safety. How can it be justified that the areas of the country that are the most populous, deprived and susceptible to fire risk will have their budgets disproportionately cut? Under the Government’s future planned spending cuts, preventive work will suffer. In Tyne and Wear, preventive efforts such as installing smoke alarms, speaking to children in the community and the pioneering Phoenix project have led to a reduction in the number of primary fires between 2005-06 and 2010-11 of more than 50%. Installing smoke alarms allows fires to be discovered sooner, thus reducing the number of deaths and the amount of damage to property.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I draw her attention to the enormous amount of preventive work that has been done by the fire service in Staffordshire. Ours is one of the best performing fire authorities, with a cost of £40 per person across Staffordshire, but such modernisation and a new way of working on the preventive side is being put at risk by the flat-rate proposals for cuts across the board. Does she agree that the Government need to take account of the real inroads that authorities such as Staffordshire have made?

My hon. Friend is right that such factors should be considered. It has been put to me that the Government need to look at reshaping the formula entirely. The formula was used when times were better and it was possible to make increases to the budget, but given the scale of the reductions that we face, perhaps it needs to be entirely revisited so that the factors that my hon. Friend touched on, and others such as deprivation, can be addressed. That process is crucial to ensuring that there is a fair settlement for all fire and rescue authorities. Clearly, my priority is to secure the best possible deal for Tyne and Wear, but I know that she wants exactly the same for the people of Staffordshire.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. This is the second such debate to be held, and I hope that we will continue to have them until the Government make their decision. I hope to have the opportunity to make representations on behalf of Merseyside fire and rescue service.

My hon. Friend talks about prevention, so does she share my concern that, nationally, there has been a reduction of more than 14% in the number of smoke alarms fitted and of 14% in the number of hours spent on arson prevention work over the past two years, both of which have led to increases in the number of fire casualties and arson incidents over that period? Is not that why prevention is so crucial?

My hon. Friend is entirely right and she highlights important figures. Just because prevention work has happened, we cannot imagine that past improvements will always continue. Often, especially in deprived areas, firefighters have to return to homes more than once—for example, where there is a higher turnover of tenants, especially in the private rented sector—to ensure that they have working smoke alarms. Such work has to be repeated and must continue all year round; a one-off visit will not do the job.

At times when families face a real squeeze on household budgets, many are cutting back on home contents insurance. That has led many families to lose all their worldly possessions, which they do not have the means to replace, due to fire. It is crucial that such families receive advice and working smoke alarms from their local fire brigade, but the funding cuts that many authorities face are putting that important work at risk.

The Government’s funding cuts will inevitably lead to the mets being unable to carry out important preventive work on the scale previously undertaken. Reducing the number of hours spent on prevention through making firefighters redundant is an incredibly short-sighted approach, because less prevention means more fires. Under Labour, from 2005-06 to 2009-10, the number of deaths from fire fell steadily across Britain. It would be a tragedy if the number were to rise again in the years ahead due to the scaling back of prevention work.

I am proud of the role that Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service plays in contributing to our nation’s fire and rescue resilience capability. The mets contain the majority of the UK’s urban search and rescue teams, and detection, identification and monitoring vehicles, as well as a third of incident response units and a quarter of the high-volume pumps. Many of those assets are funded separately by the Government, but the support personnel and back-up needed to operate such equipment are being lost. Further deep cuts will damage our nation’s capacity to respond to threats of natural disasters, civil disorder and terrorist incidents.

Several cross-party meetings were held with the previous Minister with the aim of resolving the situation, and I hope that they will continue with the new Minister. We need a fair and equitable settlement that does not jeopardise the progress made through preventive work nor places in harm’s way the communities that our fire and rescue services protect. I call on the Minister to implement a fair funding settlement across fire and rescue services for 2013 to 2015. Those services face a period of intense pressure and change that will place huge strains on their ability to deliver front-line services. It takes only a short time to weaken front-line services and demoralise firefighters, but a long time for that to be restored. It is in the interests of all our constituents that a solution is found before it is too late.

Order. I would like everybody to have the opportunity to speak. There are 11 Members standing and we have about 45 minutes left, so hon. Members can do the maths as well as I can—you have about four or five minutes each. If speeches last much longer than that, I may have to send a message to the Deputy Speaker to ask him to impose a firm time limit.

Thank you, Mr Bayley. I will try to do my speech in about six minutes, depending on interventions of course. I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate, but particular congratulations should go to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for his excellent work in what is a cross-party campaign. Although there may not be many Government Members here, that is merely because the metropolitan areas are primarily represented by Opposition Members, so one therefore presumes that the proportion of people here is much the same on both sides of the Chamber.

Possibly the reason why many Conservatives are not here is that they have actually looked after their authorities through the formula funding.

My point was in relation to the proportion of people in metropolitan areas, not in proportion to the number of Members.

Will the hon. Gentleman take into account the fact that I represent Staffordshire, which is not a metropolitan area, but that I do not see any Government Members from Staffordshire here?

I was referring to Members from metropolitan areas. We do not have many Government Members from metropolitan areas, but a lot of them have turned up, while many who are not here are also concerned about this issue.

Obviously, we disagree with some of the things said by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South. The reality is that we are in a very difficult financial position. I refer the hon. Lady, who hopes that we can spend our way out of recession, to Sir James Callaghan’s speech in 1976 in which he basically said that that was not possible. We face the challenge of how to deal with a reducing budget nationally in an equitable and acceptable manner. My personal view is that, because of various constraints, we are going to face austerity for some time beyond the next general election and possibly into the 2020s. It is therefore very important that whatever mechanism is used to distribute funding across the country is equitable.

Local government funding—in many ways, fire and rescue is part of that—has been referred to as being like the Schleswig-Holstein question as it is very difficult to understand. It was perceived as unjust that, under this complex formula, certain areas of the country had much greater cuts than others. It is a complex formula, so it is difficult to see the equity in that result. When there are places, such as in the metropolitan areas, that are much more dependent on grant funding, the cuts in grant funding will impact much more on the total budget of some organisations than on those of others.

In meetings with the Minister’s predecessor, we asked him to ensure that fire and rescue service officers in the mets had direct contact with civil servants in the Department for Communities and Local Government, so that the operation of the formula was transparent. In some circumstances, there should be a floors-and-ceilings type of approach to avoid a situation in which some authorities get more money and others get less. That would obviously be difficult, because there are changes in demand—some areas will see much higher growth in the number of people living there than other areas, and consequently have greater demand.

The essence of the situation is that the funding conclusion is perceived by both Government and Opposition Back Benchers to be unfair. When the budget is constrained, that relates both to prevention and to incident responses. We all pay tribute to the excellent work done by firefighters throughout the country in protecting our constituents but, at the end of the day, there has to be a long-term solution that is seen as equitable across the country. That is the challenge for the Government, as it will be for future Governments. When there are no more goodies to share out, but there are constrained circumstances, it is a nil-sum game in which increasing spending in one area means having to reduce spending in another; that is the difficulty.

I agree, as will some of my hon. Friends, with part of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he really believe that the fact that so few Government Members represent metropolitan areas is unrelated to the outcome, which is that those areas are facing the biggest cuts?

No, I do not believe that. We have a complex formula into which figures have been slotted and an outcome has emerged. That is not the cause. My argument was that, given the relatively small number of Members who represent metropolitan constituencies, a large proportion of such Members in the Chamber today are Government Members. That demonstrates that concern about the formula—my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who could not be here today, is equally concerned about this—exists among both Opposition and Government Back Benchers. Obviously, the Minister has just been chucked into this and cannot give us any major assurances now, but what is critical is that the long term has to be far more transparent and far more equitable.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important and timely debate in Westminster Hall. It will help to underpin and underline the strong cross-party concern about the future funding of our fire services.

I pay tribute to the former Minister, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). He understood the fire services and had a long track record in local government. I hope that he may yet emerge from this reshuffle with another post. I also welcome the new Minister to his post and hope that he picks up the brief in the same way as his predecessor. May I say to him that we are here to help, as are his hon. Friends, the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady)?

Essentially, we are all here to argue our case. Many of us representing parts of the six metropolitan areas of South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands feel that the year one and year two cuts in the fire and rescue services were unfair, unequal and hard to justify. Let me explain. The settlement for the first two years brought cuts to the budgets of most of the 31 fire and rescue services across the country. It brought especially deep cuts in the six metropolitan areas, but it also brought funding increases to six of those fire and rescue authorities. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government—and the Minister’s hon. Friend—who represented one of the winning authorities in the first two years, described that situation as “ludicrous”.

The previous Minister said that he was surprised by that result. Some of those in fire and rescue authorities looking at grant increases over those two years were astonished, and many of us in the six metropolitan areas were angry. We heard and we took at face value what the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had said about all being in this together. We believed that the previous Minister misspoke in the Commons Chamber when he said that the poorest would have to bear the greatest burden in paying for the deficit. The situation that we faced in these first two years was indefensible. While six of those authorities were wondering how to spend the extra cash they had, the six metropolitan areas were working out how to cut 1,258 full-time firefighters, 69 retained firefighters and more than 550 other staff in this spending review period.

In South Yorkshire alone, we have to cut one in seven of our full-time firefighters. The fire chiefs have been reasonable and restrained in their response. They have accepted the year one and year two settlement. They have come together for the first time ever to make a joint case and they have produced strong evidence and strong reports. They have concentrated their concern on years three and four, on which the Minister will have to make decisions in the next month or so, and they have argued not that there should be no cuts but that there should be a flat-rate percentage cut for all 31 fire and rescue services across the country.

Many of us as Labour MPs in the six metropolitan areas believe that there is a case for reversing the pattern of cuts in years one and two in years three and four. We see the situation as iniquitous and inexplicable as well as indefensible. We are ready to back the fire chiefs and we have worked across area and across party to make that reasoned and restrained case to Government.

Does my right hon. Friend not think that that would entrench the unfairness in the formula funding, and certainly would not help County Durham and Darlington fire service?

My hon. Friend underlines the modest case that the fire chiefs have been making, which many Labour MPs have been prepared to back. Indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South did so today. The scheme does entrench the unfair pattern that we have seen in years one and two, but, from the fire chiefs’ point of view, it recognises that the Fire Minister, unless he is going to renegotiate the settlement with the Treasury for years three and four, will have to find cuts worth more than £130 million in the next couple of years.

I add my voice to the praise that has been heaped on my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done on this subject. On the question of unfairness and the difference between the six metropolitan districts and the rest, does not the Merseyside case make that point very well? We have one of the highest incident rates, yet we also have one of the highest negative funding differences. That illustrates the point he is making. We have to be selective, but we also need to bend the rules a little towards those who are in the greatest difficulty.

My right hon. Friend is right. There is a pattern of deep cuts, especially in the six metropolitan areas, and it is strongest in poorest areas with the highest number of fires; urban areas in which the risk of fires is greatest; metropolitan brigades that have done the most over the past decade to become more efficient; and the six fire and rescue authorities that have done the most, and do the most, to cover other areas in cases of national emergency such as flooding, terrorism and major incidents. If the pattern of years one and two is repeated in years three and four, our areas together will be looking at axing an extra 1,000 firefighters, 150 extra staff and another 40 fire engines.

We worked with the Minister’s predecessor very closely over the past nine months. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, his officials and the chief fire officer for the way in which they have worked. I also pay tribute to the chief constables, their staff, the unions and the members of the fire and rescue authorities in the six metropolitan areas.

In the past nine months, we have given the Government fair warning, and the Minister should take this as a final warning. He is close to having to make a decision. If the cuts fall in the same way, so deeply and so unfairly in the metropolitan areas, there will be fewer firefighters, fire engines and fire stations. Bluntly, more people will die.

Let me offer a solution to the Minister—we argued this with his predecessor—and encourage him as a fresh Minister to take a fresh look and learn from the Home Secretary. This year, each of the 43 police authorities have had an even cut in their budgets of 6.7%. Last year, each and every one of them had the same cut of 5.1%. and it was done through the floor-damping mechanism. Exactly the same policy is at the Minister’s disposal to apply to the 31 fire and rescue authorities. It would be more equitable. It would still be tough, and it would be especially tough in those metropolitan areas that have some of the highest need, the highest risk, the lowest council tax base and the weakest levels of economic growth but, none the less, the fire chiefs are prepared to accept that and go with it.

Finally, will the Minister take a fresh look at how fire and rescue authorities are treated in the future? He should adopt the same approach to those authorities as has been taken to the police. In the middle of July, his Department produced a big document on the consultation on business rates retention. It confirms that in future, police authorities will be funded outside the new business rates retention scheme. The document says that the reason for doing so is that it is recognised

“that the police have limited levers to influence growth.”

Exactly the same argument applies to the fire and rescue services. The fire service, which is also an emergency service, has exactly the same need for stable and predictable funding. I urge the Minister to take a leaf out of the Home Secretary’s book, for years three and four, and for the long term. Let us put the funding of fire services on a proper footing—and a fairer footing—for the future.

Thank you very much, Mr Bayley, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I will heed your injunction and restrict my remarks. Nevertheless, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate and I am also pleased to speak after my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). I recognise the work that he has done on this issue in highlighting the position of the metropolitan authorities. Indeed, we both have the opportunity to speak for the South Yorkshire authority.

We need to acknowledge the enormous achievements of firefighters and our fire authorities recently. In the 10 years up to 2010, fire deaths fell by 30% and fire casualties fell by 40%. Those are extraordinary achievements by those in the front line, backed by government. However, those achievements are at risk. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South has pointed out, fire casualties in dwellings have increased by 7% since 2010. That is an issue of critical importance, as those statistics highlight.

That issue is deeply worrying for all parts of the country, but I want to focus on the position of the metropolitan authorities, because it appears that the approach of the Government to fire service funding, as with so many of their policies, is hitting hardest those who are most in need.

The Minister might argue that metropolitan fire authorities receive a higher level of funding. I anticipate that he will do so and I recognise that they have a marginally higher level of spending power than other forces, but that is for a reason: there are bigger risks in urban areas with higher levels of deprivation. That is shown in the fire statistics. I urge the Minister to address the real financial position of the metropolitan authorities by looking at the spend per fire. In that respect, the metropolitan authorities are the most efficient authorities, with the lowest level of spending. Of the seven authorities with the lowest spend per fire, six are the metropolitan authorities. My own authority—South Yorkshire—spends less than half the money per fire that is spent in, for example, East Sussex.

As has been pointed out, the metropolitan authorities have already been making significant savings. They have responded to the situation by reducing senior management teams, rationalising back-office functions, improving performance management and looking at better provision of service. Enormous amounts of work have been done. The work on fire prevention has perhaps been most important. During the past five years, the South Yorkshire fire service has cut the number of fires by 45% and achieved a reduction of almost 60% in deaths and injuries from fires. Those extraordinary achievements have resulted from investing in fire prevention.

However, that investment is at risk from the perverse formula, and the consequences arising from it, that the Government are seeking to push through. The chief fire officer of the South Yorkshire service is clear about the impact for our area. He says that the reduction in appliance and firefighter levels that will be necessary will seriously increase the risk to our communities. There will be an increase in deaths and injuries due to longer attendance times and a reduction in proactive community fire safety work. More people will die in fires and road traffic collisions.

That will be not only a human tragedy—and I ask the Minister to pursue a joined-up consideration across Government—but a real financial cost. It is calculated that if we returned to the 2007-08 incident levels as a result of the cuts, the extra cost across public spending would be £17.4 million.

I recognise the time constraints today, so I will conclude by asking the Minister two questions; one is specific and one is general. First, on response times, it goes without saying that the sooner that firefighters get to a fire the more likely they are to save people from death and injury. The proposed cuts will undoubtedly have an impact on response times. The South Yorkshire fire service aims for a response time to a fire of six minutes; that aim is not always achieved, but it is the aim. What does the Minister think is an acceptable response time? It is not enough for him to dodge the issue by saying, “Well, that’s a decision for local politicians”, because local politicians are working within the framework of the resources that the Government are making available. Working within that framework, I hope that he can give a specific answer.

My second question is a general one, and it has already been asked by others. Recognising the huge bulk of evidence that exists, would it not be more sensible for the Government to put aside the perverse and unfair weighting to the formula that is leading to the consequences that have been described today, and to accept the case that is being made by the metropolitan authorities for a fair and equitable settlement across the country?

I am grateful to you, Mr Bayley, for the opportunity to speak.

Were the West Midlands fire service considered to be a fat and flabby public service, the Minister would have some justification for ignoring the things that it says or the position that it faces. In his response to the debate, will he say whether he believes that that is the situation with regard to the West Midlands fire service?

The West Midlands fire service has been at the forefront of some of the recent efficiencies and reforms, which some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have discussed in relation to their own areas. In the first 10 years of this century, the West Midlands fire service cut its fire officer numbers from 2,043 to 1,788, while maintaining a service—it has struggled to do so, but it has maintained it—of which all of us in the west midlands are proud and respectful. It has also managed to transfer resources to prevention work, which right hon. and hon. Friends have also discussed in relation to their own areas. The West Midlands fire service is not a fat and flabby organisation; it is an organisation that is doing its level best to be efficient and to provide a service, and that has faced considerable cuts already.

So far, under the formula grant imposed by the Government, the West Midlands fire service has faced a 12.6% cut. Our own chief fire officer, who is not prone to scaremongering, has said that if the Government continue with that formula,

“People will definitely be much more at risk and our ability to respond in the way we currently do will be severely disrupted, so therefore an increased chance of losing their life or suffering injury.”

Those are his words, not mine, and he believes that if the current formula continues he will have to get rid of another 300 fire officers, on top of the 300 he has lost in the past decade, and he will also have to close 11 fire stations. He also says—these are his words, and I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends disagree with this view—that he would like to see the flat rate formula apply rather than the grossly unfair formula that is currently planned. If we went to a flat rate formula, we would still face a reduction in funding in the west midlands, but not the 27% reduction that we potentially face if the current formula continues in the future.

I do not want to repeat things that other Members have said, given the severe time constraints that exist. However, I want to raise one other issue with the Minister. The chief fire officer has also said that he will inevitably have to introduce charges for call-outs in non-life-threatening situations. In some ways, I can see the attraction of that, but I really worry about it because I do not know where, down the spectrum of responses, people should be subjected to a charge, and I do not think that members of the public would either. Let us say that some youths light a bonfire over the fields. If a member of the public calls out the fire service, should they expect to be charged? We are talking about £412 an hour, potentially. If the youths then start throwing dustbins on to the fire, should the member of the public then feel free to phone the fire brigade without risk of a charge? At what point, as the incident escalates, would a member of the public feel safe to call the fire brigade without the risk of being charged?

I want the Minister to talk to me, and to respond to the issue of the potential introduction of charges for call-outs in non-life-threatening situations. That is the severity of the situation that is faced by the West Midlands fire service and, I am certain, by others as well.

We are in no doubt that the implication of the settlement being prosecuted will be an extremely unfair distribution of lives lost. The new Minister will today, undoubtedly, be given a file basically dressed up as “Minister, this is a difficult settlement. It is one that has basically been taken. Go forward with it. We have no choice.” Knowing that the settlement, if implemented, will lead to loss of life, what advice would my right hon. Friend give to the Minister, and his civil servants, given his own extraordinary experience as a Minister and a member of the Cabinet?

I think that the Minister will struggle to square off the different things that Ministers have said and done. They have said that we are all in it together, yet they have imposed the kind of cuts that we have seen in the west midlands and elsewhere. At the same time, the fire service in Cheshire, where the Chancellor has his seat, has seen its funding increased. There is no way that the rhetoric can stand, and the Minister must address the situation and be able to justify his decisions.

Order. I am determined to get everyone in, if I can. The Chairman of Ways and Means has authorised the imposition of a time limit on speeches. I intend to set the limit at four minutes. We have exactly 28 minutes left, which is four minutes per person. If there are interventions, you will get a minute’s injury time, but that will mean that at some later point I will have to cut the speeches to either three or two minutes long.

We have heard a lot in this debate about the effects that the Government’s cuts to fire services are having right now in communities, and about the severe impact they will have in future. I wish to focus my remarks particularly on the Merseyside fire and rescue service.

The Merseyside authority has felt the impact of above-average budget cuts imposed by the Government over the past two years, and it will be severely affected if there are any further cuts this year. If the last grant is anything to go by, the one for 2013 to 2015 will hit some of the most efficient fire services, in the most deprived areas, the hardest, forcing them to reduce front-line services. That will lead to firefighter jobs being lost, stations closing and lives being put in danger. Merseyside has already seen a £5.8 million reduction in its grant funding over the past two years, which is more than double the national average. The authority had allocated funds in its existing plans to meet price increases and capital costs, so the overall deficit that had to be financed was £9.2 million. There has therefore been a real-terms cut in grant of more than 20% in the past two years, while the neighbouring fire service, Cheshire, has seen an increase in its funding.

It has been difficult for Merseyside to make the cuts without affecting front-line services. The service was one of the most efficient authorities, having reduced the number of fire officers by 500 since 2002. Despite the challenging situation, the authority, led by chief fire officer, Dan Stevens, has managed the cuts, protecting front-line services wherever possible. It has not been easy, and tough choices have had to be made. Pay was frozen for three years, and back office and management were cut, making it the leanest of any comparable service, with the lowest costs per incident in the country. Reserves were spent, innovations were made, the council tax precept was raised, and 92 firefighters and 80 support staff lost their jobs.

In short, everything that could be done to ensure that the fire service kept doing the vital work of saving lives while making the required reductions, has been done, and there is no fat left to trim. In November, however, if the current formula is anything to go by, Ministers are expected to tell the Merseyside fire and rescue service that it has to save a figure somewhere between £9.5 million and £17 million. The worst-case scenario, already being prepared by the authority, is stark. Ten of Merseyside’s 26 fire stations will have to be closed; 20 fire engines will be shunted off duty, leaving just one pump at the bulk of Merseyside’s fire stations; more than 300 firefighter jobs will be axed, along with 244 support staff; and vital preventive work, including firefighter training, safety checks on homes and youth engagement programmes, will stop. That is where the unfairness of the cuts becomes obvious. Even in the best-case scenario, there is no chance that the cuts can be made without a damaging impact on Merseyside’s firefighting capability.

Why are the Government imposing blanket cuts on a fire authority that has already made huge efficiency savings, effectively punishing it for doing the right thing and running an efficient service? What risk assessment will the Government undertake of the impact of further cuts to Merseyside’s fire and rescue service budget? Merseyside has 32 of the 100 most deprived areas in the country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate. I had not intended to speak but, because of some of the comments made by Opposition Members, I feel that something must be said for those of us who represent county seats run by Conservative county councils. Some of the hard luck stories, which are very real—I understand that—are shared by other counties.

I pay tribute to the local firefighters of the Suffolk fire and rescue service. The majority of the service is provided by volunteers, and I give my wholehearted support and thanks to them for their important work. I understand that fire service delivery in Suffolk has the lowest cost per head, but it has to be said that there is no expectation that there will be the same response standards that there seem to be in Sheffield. Our target is 11 minutes, and we do not meet even that, so I recognise that the lower cost sometimes comes with a different level of service from that enjoyed elsewhere. There is no question, however, but that our chief fire officer felt the effects. He did stuff to make more efficiencies and to reduce cost per head, but when Suffolk county council had to come up with a settlement, the grant was cut by 12%. The burden is therefore being shared by other parts of the country, beyond the metropolitan areas that have been highlighted.

At the time of the settlement, there was an indication that there might be an attempt to create a separate fire authority, so that a separate precept could be levied outside the county council budget. Our chief fire officer is in charge not only of the fire brigade but of trading standards, consumer protection and other such matters, and I have long argued that I would rather see a dedicated fire officer than someone with all those extra responsibilities.

When some of the cuts were proposed, I campaigned against the proposal to move from a seven-day full service in Felixstowe to a retained service. That was a step too far, and I was proud to join others in trying to ensure that changes were made on the basis of risk and also of the perception of risk by local residents. Felixstowe is on the end of a peninsula, with a huge port, and residents felt cut off from the proposed service in Ipswich. I am pleased that the county council listened, and Haverhill and Felixstowe have a service manned during the week by paid firefighters, with increased hours on call for retained firefighters at weekends. So far, that seems to have worked well. I commend the county council for listening and making those changes, which shows the importance of public confidence.

I understand why people are nervous about cuts and the reduction of fire stations, but I encourage the three emergency services to work together. Suffolk and Cambridge fire services may merge. I am not against that, but I am nervous, given the response from the ambulance service. My one political point is that the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), presided over a report that stated that £469 million of taxpayers’ money was wasted on regional centres, one of the worst wastes of Government money ever. Unfortunately, that is an example of why the Government, in trying to balance to deficit, have to make up for past mistakes. I thank her for that report, but we should recognise that areas across the country are affected, not just those perceived areas highlighted earlier.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) for securing this debate.

Nationally, the number of deliberate fires has increased by some 2.7%, and there has been a large 14% decrease in the number of hours devoted to preventing arson. Worryingly, in Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland arson has risen by more than 30% in one year. Not only have deliberate fires had human costs, they have taken £2.7 million out of the economy of Teesside and East Cleveland.

Due to funding disparities, Cleveland will receive £1.23 less per capita in 2012-13, which is the joint-heaviest cut per capita of any English fire authority, despite fire incidents per 1,000 of population being the highest in England. Cleveland is not a typical urban fire authority. Cleveland covers moorland, including North York Moors national park, where bracken moorland fires are frequent. Cleveland also has one of the largest petrochemical industry conurbations in Europe, Europe’s largest iron blast furnace and Hartlepool nuclear power station.

The Government’s devolution of responsibility—and blame—to local authorities to manage unjustified cuts to fire authorities has meant that Cleveland fire brigade has set up an arm’s length social enterprise, or community interest company. All local bodies are trying hard to make the CIC a success so that Cleveland fire brigade is cross-subsidised, as central Government cuts have left the service severely underfunded. Consequently, the potential fallout of the CIC securing private sector industrial contracts has left some retained firefighters in a precarious situation.

The vast majority of retained firefighters working in fire stations across East Cleveland, such as those in Saltburn, Skelton, Loftus and Guisborough in my constituency, work mainly in private sector fire services within the Teesside chemical industry conurbation and for one firm, which previously held specific contracts with the industry on Teesside, but the CIC has taken away one of the contracts. As a result, retained firefighters are now being informed that their employment with the industrial firm is suspect due to a conflict of interest. That is an unforeseen consequence of the Government’s cuts and shows the failures within the big society model. Retained firefighter recruitment depends on key sector workers working in sites on Teesside with specific industrial needs. Cleveland fire brigade and local authorities are doing what they can, but the Government have essentially devolved responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

I am secretary of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group and we consistently said to the previous Minister that in such times of constrained resources the Government have a duty to be open and transparent about decision making. We have consistently highlighted the lack of central monitoring of information and the collection and publication of data. The FBU has had to resort to freedom of information requests to get information on what is happening nationally.

Between April 2010 and March 2011, 1,184 firefighter posts were cut. Between 31 March 2011 and 31 March 2012, 1,457 firefighter posts and 715 support staff were cut. In that last year, 2,210 jobs went within the fire service. A total of 2,641 front-line firefighter jobs have been cut in the past two years.

Metropolitan boroughs have been hit the hardest, and we have heard how inequitable the settlement is. Undoubtedly, there has been political interference. Data have been doctored to ensure that the poorest areas have been hit the hardest. The FBU has made it clear that, because of the abolition of national standards, there is no clear monitoring by national Government of what is happening at local level.

The FBU’s position is straightforward: the front line is not being protected. The autumn settlement for 2013-15 is worrying. Now is the time to make the case for the fire service. The FBU’s case is simple and straightforward: enough is enough. The service is under such pressure that lives are at risk. This is not shroud waving; it is the serious judgment of the men and women on the front line. They are the people who go into burning buildings, and they are saying that the cuts have a direct impact on their service, which is being put at risk.

It is not only the FBU—the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities reported to the Select Committee in July. AMFRA considered a range of cuts between 13.5% and 27%, and the losses in front-line firefighter posts ranged from 1,583 to 2,543, which is between 11 and 31 fire station closures. That cannot be addressed by natural wastage; there is now a threat of compulsory redundancies and the resultant risk of industrial conflict.

The principal officers of the metropolitan fire services were asked whether lives would be put at risk. The officer from the west midlands said:

“People would definitely be at much more risk, and our ability to respond in the way we currently do would be severely disrupted. Therefore, those people have an increased chance of losing their life or suffering injury, and therefore, damage to the infrastructure of the country as well.”

That argument is overwhelming, and needs to be considered by the new Minister. As others have said, we will assist him in negotiations with the Treasury, if necessary, because the service is under such strain that our constituents fear for their lives.

Order. We have 13 minutes before I call the winding-up speakers. There are four other Members who wish to speak, so I have to set a three-minute limit.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his post. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for his work.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said that there have to be cuts, and my my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (Mr John Healey) talked about the usual mantra that we are all in this together. Well, I am sorry, but we are not all in this together. The Government have constructed the funding of fire and rescue services in the same way as local government funding. They have rigged the formula to protect and help their own areas.

I accept what the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) has said, but people need to look at the figures. County Durham and Darlington, in 2011-12 and 2012-13, lost 11.7% of its grant, which resulted in the loss of 40 firefighters and 20 other staff. We can compare that with the figures for more deprived areas, such as the Royal Berkshire fire service and look at incidents per 1,000 of population, for example, and consider the funding per capita for 2012-13. Durham has 9.16 incidents per 1,000 of population, but its funding per capita has been cut by 49p. Deprived Royal Berkshire has nearly half the number of incidents, 5.6 per 1,000, but its grant has been increased by 21p per capita. That is also the case with regard to cuts. Royal Berkshire fire and rescue has had to cut only eight firefighters and five staff.

I am against embedding injustice in the system. The flatline system will not help County Durham. We need a root-and-branch look at how the funding is being skewed to help areas represented by Conservative Members—unsurprisingly, they are not here to protest. I also remind the Liberal Democrats on County Durham council that it is their Government who are taking money away from the fire and rescue service there.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for leading the fight for fairer funding with determination, as is his way.

I pay tribute to Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service for its continued hard work to keep my constituents—and, for that matter, my family and me—safe. Over the past four years, that hard work has translated into great improvements in the service’s performance indicators. The number of primary fires has halved, as has the number of accidental fires in homes, and fatalities have fallen by more than 60%, with no fatalities at all in the first quarter of this financial year.

That success owes as much to the competent and speedy response of appliance crews and dispatchers as to the service’s great preventive work, whether in education programmes in schools about the dangers of fire or on testing smoke alarms. Many of the improvements can be attributed to the excellent leadership of former chief fire officer Iain Bathgate. Unfortunately for Tyne and Wear’s new chief, Tom Capeling, his main task will be balancing the cuts that we are discussing.

The Minister is new to his post, but he has said that he will continue his predecessor’s stance, which I believe was simply to defend and push through the cuts that he was given. I hope that the new Minister will revisit the facts. The fact is that the Department’s own equality impact assessment makes it clear that the budget reductions will hit the poorest areas hardest. The size of the budget reductions faced by metropolitan authorities such as Tyne and Wear mean that simply streamlining back-office costs and slimming down procurement costs will not be enough. Front-line services, including fire officers, will have to be cut. That, of course, is after preventive services have been cut to the bone.

It is estimated that Tyne and Wear will lose 100 front- line fire officers and 70 staff by the end of this Parliament. I have heard it argued that local authorities can step up and take over that preventive work in order to free up fire service employees to concentrate on responding to incidents. However, as the Minister will know all too well, local authorities, especially those in deprived areas such as Sunderland that have suffered deeper cuts than the county shires, are struggling to meet even their statutory duties, let alone pick up other agencies’ functions.

These issues have not been concocted by Labour politicians. They are being raised by those on the front line who we rely on to be there in times of need. We must also remember the risk to the lives of firemen and women. Fewer staff members inevitably means more shifts, a greater risk of crew understaffing due to absences and greater fatigue and stress, all of which can lead to mistakes or bad judgments, which could put officers in harm’s way. I therefore implore the Minister to engage more constructively with the metropolitan fire service chiefs and the elected councillors who sit on authority boards, so that he has a better idea of the challenge they face and what cuts they can absorb without having to stop doing all the things that we need them to do.

Once again, I place on record my gratitude and praise for the work done by our brave firefighters every day. I also welcome the Minister to his new post.

It is a testament to the feeling in the House and our constituencies that we are here again asking questions of a Government who have thus far fallen short of providing answers. Merseyside MPs have made it abundantly clear that, under the formula used by the Government, Merseyside fire and rescue service will be penalised as a victim of its own success. MFRS boasts the leanest management structure in the country and has worked hard for many years with schools, council tenants and businesses across the sub-region to ensure that they are as fire-safe as possible. We cut the fat of our own accord before others even recognised it, but we are now being financially stripped to the bone.

Let me make the following points absolutely clear to the new Minister, as it appears that the debate earlier this year did little to change his predecessor’s mindset. In 2011-12, Merseyside’s grant cut was almost twice the national average, and its grant cut for 2012-13 will be more than three times the national average. That means that our total grant has been slashed by £9 million in the first two years of this disastrous and desperately unfair comprehensive spending review.

The Minister knows that that is dangerous. The Prime Minister knows it, and the people of Merseyside certainly know it. It is a bitter pill to swallow when we consider the backdrop across the country. Although Merseyside’s grant cut has been more than the national average in both the past two years, six shire authorities, none of which is anywhere near the top of the most deprived areas list, have received increases. The Government would know that if they had carried out a comprehensive risk assessment of the effects of the cuts, and I suspect that the Minister’s predecessor has already come to regret that omission.

No one doubts that such decisions are tough for this Government, as they would be for any Government, but that is no excuse for them to be patently unfair. For the good of the people of Merseyside, for the sake of their safety and in the name of common sense, I urge the new Minister to reconsider his Department’s fire funding decisions.

I am deeply honoured, Mr Bayley; thank you very much. I will make a few remarks in the limited time available, although I know that I have another 30 seconds. I had prepared quite a long contribution, but I will concentrate on a few points.

I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate. The number of Labour Members attending and the quality of the contributions indicate how important and timely it is. I do not envy the task that the Minister faces, but this is an opportunity for him to answer some of our questions and to take a number of our concerns on board. In the spirit of generosity, I wish him well in his new post.

I place on record my thanks to the men and women of County Durham and Darlington fire and rescue service, and my appreciation of the excellent work that they do not only to tackle fires, but on County Durham’s two major roads—the A19 trunk road and the A1M. They deal with many hazardous road traffic accidents. We had a meeting last night with the Environment Agency and Northumbrian Water, and the fire brigade played a tremendous part after the exceptional weather events and flooding in the north-east. It is very much on the front line of public services. I remind the Minister of the promises made about protecting the front line. If the fire and rescue service is not the front line, I do not know what is.

On equity and fairness, the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) suggested that it is not just an issue of metropolitan and shire counties. I tend to agree, as the situation affects not only metropolitan brigades, but my own authority of County Durham and Darlington. Our grant reduction for 2011-12 and 2012-13 was 11.76%, and under the arrangements that are being considered, we face cuts of 14% to 15% over the next two years.

Let us compare that with more affluent areas. While I do not suggest that there is no risk involved, Oxfordshire’s fire and rescue service faces cuts of three firefighters and two staff. By contrast, Durham is looking at losing 40 firefighters and 20 staff. In the neighbouring metropolitan areas, Cleveland is looking at losing 180, and Tyne and Wear more than 100, in addition to 70 staff. The cuts are not being applied fairly and equitably.

I appeal to the Minister to consider how the cuts are being applied. To echo the comments of hon. Members from other parts of the country, in many authorities such as mine, extensive efforts have already been made to produce efficiencies, so the efficiency argument does not apply. We have already consolidated the number of fire stations and taken a risk-based approach to assessing appropriate fire cover. In my area, we have double the national average area of fire cover for each station. Our response times—perhaps this is the same as in Suffolk Coastal—are also double those of metropolitan areas. We cannot afford for that position to worsen.

We now come to the winding-up speeches. I thank hon. Members for co-operating with the slightly messy arrangements for time limits, but at least they meant that everybody was able to make some of the points that they wished to raise.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate. She put forward an eloquent and cogent argument in favour of a change of direction from the Government, so I hope that the Minister was listening.

I welcome the Minister to the debate. I know that he is not yet sure whether he will be covering the fire brief, but I hope that he will use his influence in the Department for Communities and Local Government to stand up for the fire service. Given the strength of feeling that we have heard in the Chamber, it is vital that he and the rest of the team do that.

The previous Minister with responsibility for the fire and rescue service, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), had a good track record. In a previous incarnation, I think that he was chair of the London fire brigade, so he knew about the fire service. I know that he felt pleased with himself for managing to secure for the fire service a back-loaded cuts agenda; in other words, the cuts faced by the fire and rescue service will be more severe in years three and four. He felt that that made it possible for the fire and rescue service to prepare for and plan the implementation of the stringent and severe cuts that are coming down the road. The truth, however, is that the cuts have already been incredibly severe. Not just hon. Members but the fire chiefs themselves are now saying that health and safety, and indeed lives, are being put at risk by the scale of the cuts, and that if we go further with the planned cuts, the consequences will be dire.

The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said that this was a nationwide problem. I absolutely agree with her and those who made similar points. I hope she will join us in opposing the further planned cuts and stand up for a fairer settlement for the fire and rescue service across the country, because, let us face it, there is no fat left to cut. The fire and rescue service has already found efficiency savings of £117 million. There is no further fat to cut. Let us be clear: the scale of the cuts has meant that thousands of firefighters have already lost their jobs. The £117 million in efficiency savings is the equivalent of 3,217 firefighters. If those efficiency savings were not forced on the fire and rescue service, there would not be such an impact on response times and fire prevention work, and lives would not be put at risk in such a way.

Is the Opposition’s position that there should be no further cuts, or that the cuts should be equal?

Well, we would not be starting from here—let me put it like that. The cuts have gone much too far already. After listening to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, I thought that he was on the same page that we all are.

The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head now, so he is not. I hope that he agrees, however, that the cuts have been very severe. If the further planned cuts go ahead, lives will be put at risk, as we have heard from the professional chief fire officers.

I will not give way again, because we are short of time and I want to make a few more points.

The fire and rescue service is a can-do service with a can-do mentality. It has got on with it and made the efficiency savings. The service deals not just with fires and water rescue; it is an enabling service that does a lot of work with young people. It has been extremely effective at reducing fire deaths, anti-social behaviour and the problems of deliberately set fires and arson. However, as a result of the cuts that have already been made and the further cuts that are being planned, such fire prevention work is being compromised. From my research through freedom of information requests, I know that the result of the diminution of arson prevention work has been an increase in arson. As a result of less investment going into firefighter training, firefighter injuries are now increasing around the country, and that cannot be right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a point about the number of front-line firefighters being lost. Back-office staff have also been lost. Fire appliances are being decommissioned and fire stations are being forced to close. There has been a 14% reduction in the number of smoke alarms fitted, which is putting people’s lives at risk. The investment in fire prevention work and smoke alarms was one of the greatest success stories of the previous Labour Government, but all that is being put at risk as a result of the cuts.

National resilience is being compromised as a consequence of these reductions. Let us be clear that the metropolitan fire and rescue authorities are the backbone of national resilience, yet those services have been singled out for the biggest cuts. I do not make a case simply for the metropolitan authorities. They have a very bad deal, but, as the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal and I agree, this problem is affecting the whole country, albeit to varying extents. I hope that the Minister’s response will take account of the fact that national resilience is being compromised and lives are being put at risk. Hon. Members have cited their chief fire officers in the South Yorkshire fire and rescue service, the West Midlands fire service and the Merseyside fire and rescue service.

I hope that the Minister can shed some light on another problem: we knew from the previous Minister that the cuts were back-loaded, but we do not know the level of the settlement. Even bigger cuts are planned in the next two years, but I hope that the Government will turn away from that course. It is very difficult for the fire and rescue authorities to plan because they do not know what the scale of those cuts will be. I hope the Minister will give an early indication of what the cuts will be because that would enable the fire and rescue services to plan for the future. Most importantly, I hope that the Minister will take account of the contributions we have heard from hon. Members, and listen to the professional fire chiefs who are making the strong case that the cuts are extremely damaging and are putting lives at risk.

The service has already made massive efficiency savings and there is little more that it can do. This is in the Minister’s hands. I hope that he will use the acumen that he displayed when he was an effective Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, that he will bring that verve to his role in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that he will stand up for the fire and rescue service, and stand up for the British public, to ensure that we provide the support and protection that they deserve.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate and for starting it on a reasonably non-partisan basis, although there will always be party political differences. Her representations in this timely debate were important. I have recently met firefighters in my own area, and I put on the record my strong support for what they do. It is only when meeting individual firefighters that one understands not only the nature of the challenge that they take on, but how it is changing. That is an important aspect of any consideration by Government.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I might have previously referred to the wrong constituency, although he may be happy with that; I do not know what the boundary might be. His view has been that we must listen and engage, and that is certainly the view of this Department. Whether I continue to hold this role once the Government reshuffle is settled, that would be my approach to this or any other matter.

I welcome the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) saying that hon. Members are here to help. This is a difficult issue and, as we have heard, it has impacted and will continue to impact in different ways in different types of authorities. Inevitably, decisions will not satisfy all. I understand that.

Hon. Members have raised crucial issues. I shall try to respond to the broad issue of fire funding and will mention the background, in terms of fire safety and practice, and some issues to do with metropolitan areas and others as well. Any consultation—one is in hand at the moment—must consider how the Government’s actions impact in every area. Inevitably, as we have heard in relation to whether flat rate does or does not help, there will be a difference of opinion and that has been reflected in the representations received by my predecessor.

Fire and rescue authorities deliver an important service for their local community, which varies from a full-time, retained service to other kinds of service. The Government have made a clear commitment to ensuring the effectiveness of front-line services, despite the need to tackle the substantial deficit, which was, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) mentioned, inherited from the previous Administration. Fire and rescue—a front-line emergency service—has been given funding protection, with reductions back-loaded to try to give those authorities more time in which to make sustained savings. Of course, within that spending framework—right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned this—operational decisions about fire stations and so on must be, should be and are best assessed locally. It is for each authority to understand their own operational priorities and use the integrated risk management plan as the basis on which they make those assessments. We should not forget that those plans are open to local consultation. It is right that a community is able to participate when decisions are made that affect it.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and others, said that the background to this issue is, thankfully, positive, in the sense that the number of injuries and fatalities is decreasing. I pay tribute to the efforts of fire and rescue authorities in this regard. The impact of the Fire Kills campaign and changes in technology, which several hon. Members mentioned, mean that accidental fire deaths in the home have gone down by 40% in the past 10 years. We can all welcome that.

In 2001-02, there were 310 accidental fire deaths in the home, compared with 187 deaths in 2011-12, according to the latest fire statistics. Clearly, neither I nor any member of the Government would regard 187 deaths as acceptable in any sense, but that trend and the substance of that change is important, and, as with any public service, it must be reflected in how the service is provided. All hon. Members must respect the fact that the figures show good progress.

Hon. Members and those who have lobbied them will wish to understand where the Government are going in terms of funding. We have set out proposals for a fundamentally new approach to the funding of local government, which provides a direct financial reward to local authorities for delivering growth in their area. We intend to introduce these new arrangements from April next year. On 17 July, we published a technical consultation on the details of our proposals. That relates to several points raised by hon. Members.

The consultation proposes that single-purpose fire and rescue authorities should receive 2% of the local share of business rates. That will ensure that fire and rescue authorities will be top-up authorities and, as such, will have the confidence of having a significant proportion of their funding protected and their top-up payments being uprated annually on the basis of the retail prices index. The consultation also sets out issues concerning the transition from the current formula grant system to the implementation of business rates retention and looks at setting up and operation of the business rates retention scheme.

The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne mentioned making fire and rescue services comparable with police authorities. I am new to this, but I understand that there is a quite a difference of opinion and that some authorities are in favour but others are not. During the consultation we will not rule out any possible option. However, I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point and will ensure that that is reflected on carefully, whether I am dealing with the matter or another Minister is doing so.

I am sure that hon. Members understand that the consultation runs until 24 September. We want to encourage representations. I want to ensure that representations are full and cover each and every type of fire authority.

Let me mention local funding decisions before dealing with a couple of specific points raised by hon. Members. We believe that there is further scope to drive out waste and inefficiency with properly planned measures. The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South mentioned that changes have been made in the fire authority in Tyne and Wear: savings of £9 million have already been achieved. That fire authority has also targeted future savings of £15.84 million through integrated risk management and delegated budgets.

It is important to bear in mind that, in the light of declining incidences of fire and other incidents, authorities will naturally want, as any other public body would, to revisit their plans, which will in some cases have been made up to 10 years ago. We understand that. There is a challenge here and a difficult choice to make.

The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) spoke passionately on behalf of the Opposition. I do not think—perhaps the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley differs—that we got an answer from the Opposition about whether they support further cuts. All parties in the House need to step up to the plate in that regard, because people are watching and will want to know where the Labour party stands. It is important that we get some clarity.

I welcome the remarks made by hon. Members from all parties about this being a difficult issue. We need to re-address how the funding is progressing.

Let me talk briefly about the metropolitan authorities and then answer some questions. It is important to recognise that, under the current system, those authorities receive far more protection under the existing damping financial system than any other type of authority. For example, Tyne and Wear fire and rescue authority benefits from damping of £6.25 million from 2011 to 2013. In the metropolitans as a whole, there is a damping benefit of roughly £26 million.

Some hon. Members have rightly said that substantial urban areas face different issues. We recognise that, which is why we have changed an element of the formula, which we inherited, to increase the relative needs weighting, which operates to the benefit of metropolitan authorities, because it reflects more of the needs that arise in urban areas. We understand that point.

I want to answer a couple of points raised in the debate.

There were two specific questions. First, on response times, we do not try to set a national target—rural and urban areas have different needs—and we must be careful not to go down that path.

Secondly, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) mentioned charging. I will write to him, because time is short, with specifics about why that matters. The context is that, thankfully, the number of incidents and fatalities is declining. We need to ensure that reconfiguration of this service is done appropriately. We will listen carefully to further representations until the consultation closes on 24 September.