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Fire Services

Volume 653: debated on Monday 21 January 2019

9. What assessment he has made of the correlation between changes in the number of firefighters and fire service response times. (908653)

Response times to fire have increased gradually over the last 20 years. At the same time, as the hon. Lady knows, the number of fires and deaths from fire has, thankfully, fallen. There is no clear link between response times and firefighter numbers.

I thank the Minister for his response, but last month a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services found that fragmentation was resulting in a postcode lottery of 999 response times and standards, which simply is not fair on the public or on firefighters. What steps is the Minister taking to introduce a consistent national framework of standards across fire and rescue services, to provide a proper benchmark against which inspections can take place?

The independent inspection of the effectiveness of our fire service found that 10 of the 14 fire services inspected were rated good for effectiveness, including their response to emergencies. We are driving up standards and finding out what “good” looks like through independent inspection, the creation of the standards board and robust local accountability, including the chance for local police and crime commissioners to take over governance. That framework will drive up standards across the fire service, which is what everyone wants.

Rising response times are not the fault of firefighters, chief fire officers or local politicians. They are the result of this Government’s austerity agenda, which has led to 10,000 fewer firefighters protecting our communities. Council leaders such as those in South Yorkshire, where £12.5 million has been slashed since 2010, have explained to the Minister that this Government’s austerity measures will risk the public’s safety—they have made that clear. Will he explain how sustained cuts to fire service budgets, which force a reliance on small, one-off, un-earmarked—note the distinction—reserves, provide a sufficient basis for a responsive and well-resourced service? Will he commission a review?

I would say to the hon. Lady that we have fewer firefighters because we have had 46% fewer fires over the past decade. What I would also say to her, which I said to all the fire chiefs this morning, is that I am absolutely determined that, in the next comprehensive spending review, the fire service gets the resource it needs to continue to be world class.

I met the chief fire officer and the chair of the fire and rescue authority in Nottinghamshire on Friday, and they made no complaint about their funding level. They have had to make a series of reductions, and they have done it extremely well, without any risks increasing at all to the people of Nottinghamshire. They want to make sure that their funding is retained, and I do not expect the Minister to comment on that. However, does he agree with me that our fire services have done remarkable things, with cuts in their budgets, without any risk to the public at all?

I said exactly that to the fire chiefs today. Through austerity, they have made changes, and they should be commended on their leadership during that period. Their spending power will grow by 2.2% next year, and they sit on reserves worth 42% of their spending power. I repeat to my right hon. Friend what I said to them today: I am determined to ensure that, in the CSR, our fire service is properly resourced.