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Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 5 May 2020

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the Virtual Proceedings do consider the draft Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020.

The Motion was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, it is with a great sense of privilege that I have taken my seat in this House—the first Greenhalgh ever to do so. It is also with a great deal of trepidation that I appear before your Lordships by video to give my maiden speech at this extraordinary time for our nation. This is the first maiden speech by video in the history of the Lords, so my place in the Guinness book of records is assured, if nothing else.

My background and experience are, unashamedly, in local government, with 16 years as a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham, of which I spent six years as leader of the council, and four years as deputy mayor for policing and crime—or DMPC for short—in London. Therefore, it is a privilege to be able to introduce this order on behalf of a fellow DMPC, for Greater Manchester, the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes.

I thank noble Lords and the staff of the House for making me feel so welcome. I thank in particular: the Leader of the House, my noble friend Lady Evans; my noble friend Lord Howe; my Whip, my noble friend Lady Bloomfield; and Garter King of Arms, who has traced my lineage back to James Greenhalgh, aged 47 in 1851—so more work to do. Finally, I thank my noble friend Lady Williams, my ministerial colleague in the Home Office.

The purpose of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020 is to improve the delivery of public services in Greater Manchester by driving greater collaboration and interoperability, and by bolstering accountability for the way in which those functions are exercised.

The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 allows, in certain areas of the UK, the devolution of a number of municipal functions. In 2017, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) Order conferred responsibility for, and management of, the functions of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Therefore, those functions came under the authority of the directly elected Greater Manchester mayor, and arrangements were introduced to oversee the operational discharge of functions, with scrutiny of fire and rescue functions being added to the remit of the corporate issues & reform overview and scrutiny committee.

In 2017, police and crime commissioner functions were also transferred to the mayor and the role of the deputy mayor for policing and crime was established. The exercise of PCC functions is scrutinised by Greater Manchester’s police and crime panel. Devolution of the exercise of fire functions to the mayor, in parallel with devolution of the police and crime commissioner functions, has provided for greater direct accountability for both blue light functions under one individual in Manchester.

In July 2018, the Mayor of Greater Manchester wrote to the Home Secretary to request further changes to the governance arrangements for fire and rescue functions within the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. The mayor sought authority to delegate the exercise of the majority of those functions to the deputy mayor for policing and crime and to amend the scrutiny functions of the existing police and crime panel to include scrutiny of fire and rescue functions. The then Home Secretary approved the mayor’s request in September 2018.

The order before the House today gives effect to the mayor’s request by amending the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) Order 2017. It brings the exercise of police and fire functions closer together by allowing for the exercise of all delegable fire and rescue functions by the deputy mayor for policing and crime. There remain some non-delegable functions—namely those listed under Article 6 of the 2017 order—which remain the sole responsibility of the mayor. These include the hiring and firing of the chief fire officer, signing off the local risk plan and approving the annual declaration of compliance for the fire and rescue national framework.

To ensure that there are appropriate scrutiny arrangements of the exercise of delegated functions, the order also extends the remit of the Greater Manchester police and crime panel to include scrutiny of the exercise of fire and rescue functions, whether they are exercised by the mayor or the deputy mayor for policing and crime. To reflect this wider role, the panel will become known as the police, fire and crime panel.

This is a straightforward order that will improve the accountability and delivery of fire and rescue services in Greater Manchester. The order enhances transparency, augments scrutiny arrangements and should facilitate greater interoperability between blue light services, especially the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and Greater Manchester Police. It will provide a clearer line of sight for the exercise of fire and rescue functions, with delegable functions being exercised by the deputy mayor for policing and crime rather than a fire committee. This will make it easier for the public to know who is responsible for holding the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service to account on a day-to-day basis.

It will also ensure that police and fire matters are scrutinised effectively and in the round by extending the role of the police and crime panel. This brings similar scrutiny arrangements to fire as already exist for policing. Crucially, by bringing together oversight of policing and fire under the deputy mayor for policing and crime, it will also help to maximise opportunities for innovative collaboration, foster the sharing of best practice and ensure that strategic risks are reviewed across both services.

The Kerslake report into the tragic Manchester Arena attack criticised the slow response of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, which did not respond to the attack for nearly two hours and was therefore outside the loop. The report called for greater interoperability between the fire service and other blue light services and better multiagency working. This order takes important steps to do just that.

I am aware of recent collaboration in Manchester as part of the response to the Covid pandemic. I take this opportunity to thank the incredible fire and policing personnel for everything they are doing in Greater Manchester and the wider country. In Greater Manchester, nearly 250 have volunteered to support the NHS and front-line carers in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They are a credit to themselves and the fire and rescue service.

I commend this instrument to the House and beg to move.

My Lords, I first congratulate the Minister on an excellent virtual maiden speech. I did not realise that it was the first ever such maiden speech in the House of Lords—perhaps not the one he would have wished to make but one that people will recognise in these difficult times.

We may be from different parties, but I believe we have one or two similarities. He became leader of his local authority in 2016; I became leader of mine in 2017. He was deputy mayor for policing and crime in London; I was a vice-chair of the Greater Manchester Police Authority for a number of years. We have a saying up north: “Do they get it?” It is usually about people down south. I think that, with the noble Lord’s background in local government, he gets it. His history and knowledge tell me that. He might just be one of the good guys whom we can work with in government.

The first combined authority was set up in 2011 in Manchester. I was one of the 10 leaders who signed up for it. At the time, that local authority was made up of five Labour members, three Liberal Democrats and two Conservatives. Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council, used to call me one of the “awkward squad”. Another member of the awkward squad was Susan Williams, now the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and a Minister in the Government. It goes to show how far you can get if you probe, question, check, harry and stick to your principles. The noble Lord has an able ally in her for sure.

I broadly support the order, which I have examined in the Lords scrutiny committee, on which I also sit. There are questions around democracy but I believe my noble friend Lord Stunell will raise them, so my thoughts will be around the budget implications.

Noble Lords may be aware that, following the Grenfell fire and The Cube fire in Bolton, the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service had to pause its programme for change and review the high-risk buildings programme and turntable ladders. No capital grants are now available for the fire authority, and the capital programme will now need to be funded from underspends and borrowings. Should further borrowing proposals come from the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, can the Minister therefore give me an assurance that he and the Government will support that borrowing?

Perhaps I should declare an extinct interest, as I was a member of the Greater Manchester Fire Authority for about eight or nine years, and old habits die hard. We live in desperate times, and we will overcome them. The fire service has had desperate times: Grenfell, the 2017 Manchester bombing, and the IRA bombing in Manchester. The photograph that sticks in my mind is of that blast in Manchester, when everyone was running away from the fire and the explosion, while the firemen were running towards it. That is the essence of the fire authorities. They need our support, I hope the Minister will support them, and there will undoubtedly be budget pressures on them, so he can give support with that.

The combined authorities go from strength to strength. This is one of the final pieces of the jigsaw. I hope that when the jigsaw is complete and we get fully devolved government to Greater Manchester, we will see the benefits, so I support the order.

I commend the Minister on his appointment and indeed on his historic virtual maiden speech, detailing his wide-ranging experience before arriving in the Lords. Alongside my noble friend Lord Kennedy, I look forward to working with him from these Benches in his latest role, and, as a former leader of a council myself, I welcome the first-hand experience in local government that he brings to the role, together with the knowledge and understanding of probably one of the most challenging and difficult jobs in government: being the leader of a council.

I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to council leaders across the United Kingdom, who have managed and continue to manage the practical delivery of so many vital services during this health crisis, and who are working tirelessly to ensure that their communities have the best possible public services available at this time. They are supported by the leadership at the LGA of Councillor James Jamieson, and at the WLGA by my successor Councillor Andrew Morgan, and the many officers in both organisations who have been exemplary in dealing with how local government responds to the pandemic.

I will mention local government funding at this juncture, and repeat my oft-quoted point that councils are not put in the same position during this decade as they have been during the previous one. The result of this pandemic will demonstrate that austerity was not a financial necessity but a political choice. The coronavirus has well and truly negated that model and has revealed the necessity of well-funded public services now and in the future in our society.

The statutory instrument before us today authorises the Mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to arrange for fire and rescue functions to be undertaken by the deputy mayor for policing and crime, which, in the best traditions of local government, allows decisions to be taken at the most appropriate level and closest to the people affected by those decisions. This move has precedent: it is in line with similar action taken in 2018 by the Mayor of London to create a deputy mayor for fire and resilience, after the mayor took on powers from the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority.

This measure is supported, and Members on this side of the House pay tribute to the important work that both the mayor and deputy mayor of Greater Manchester have done on fire safety. However, I urge the Government to take much stronger, swifter action on fire safety across the UK and to end the continued cuts to our fire and rescue services.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service has seen its central government funding cut by £22.4 million in the last 10 years, amounting to a 35.9% fall over the period. Over the same period, Greater Manchester has increased its contributions to the GMFRS by an extra £3 million. This is at a time when the population of Greater Manchester is increasing and when the built environment is becoming increasingly complex, as development rapidly tries to cater to the increased need for homes and infrastructure.

This statutory instrument provides for the police and crime panel to have oversight functions in relation to the exercise of all those fire and rescue functions, and thus to have an extended remit. It is an opportunity for change, to make a more effective operational and governance model so that the services in Manchester can work more effectively and the level of scrutiny can be applied across both the police and the fire service by one membership. The city of Manchester has seen many triumphs and tragedies in its history; as it is one of the UK’s leading cities, it is of utmost importance that the most appropriate systems are in place to support the vital services that operate within the city region.

In Wales, we have the future generations Act, which leads our operational thinking on such matters. As the former leader of Newport City Council, I chaired the Newport Public Services Board, where public bodies addressed cross-cutting issues requiring a multi-agency approach. This helped to ensure that the emergency services knew what each other’s organisations were doing in terms of joint working. I trust that this statutory instrument will have a similar effect for the GMCA.

Finally, in tandem with these changes, what action, if any, are the Government planning to take to reverse the recent rises in average response times across fire and rescue services in both Greater Manchester and England? I thank the Minister for his letter, which I received today.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, to the Front Bench and to the House. I congratulate him on making an effective maiden speech in very difficult circumstances. He set out clearly his background and the contribution that he will make. I echo my noble friend Lord Goddard of Stockport in saying that he is joining a strong local government team here, alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. We very much look forward to them defending local government inside the Government—as well as defending the Government in the House, no doubt. I look forward to not a virtual meeting but, in due course, a real meeting.

I thank the Greater Manchester Combined Authority for the briefings that it sent to me—and to other Members, no doubt—which outline some of the circumstances. At first sight, there is no doubt that this is a common-sense, tidying-up operation. It aligns the police and the fire and rescue service across Greater Manchester, which is definitely a good thing. It aims to produce a joined-up senior leadership structure to replace the one that was examined and criticised by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, in his report; it also aims to get a joined-up scrutiny function to go with it. I have no quarrel with that alignment. It will make those forces—the fire and rescue service and the police service—better able to co-ordinate their actions and to respond effectively in the face of major incidents, as they failed to do in the aftermath of the suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert.

I want to question the Minister on what might, at first glance, appear to be a minor and trivial part of this not very significant statutory instrument: the silent reduction in the capacity that there will be to scrutinise the fire and rescue service properly as a direct consequence of this statutory instrument. The Explanatory Memorandum tells the truth about the proposed new scrutiny process—of course it does—but it does not tell the whole truth. It says that:

“Provision is also included to give the Police and Crime Panel the authority to scrutinise fire and rescue functions in the Greater Manchester Combined Area.”

It certainly does that. It says what the new scrutiny arrangements will be, but it is silent on what the old scrutiny arrangements have been up to now in the fire and rescue service, and in that silence is the mischief that I want to comment on.

Let me fill in the gap for noble Lords. At present, by law, the fire and rescue scrutiny panel must be chaired by a member in opposition to the mayor’s party. The panel must be balanced in accordance with the pattern of overall elected party representation across the 10 constituent boroughs. As the Minister will know, this is very much in line with local government practice that scrutiny should be led by poachers and not gamekeepers; it avoids state capture of the scrutiny process and the subsequent reduction of scrutiny to token box-ticking. The chair of any scrutiny panel sets the agenda and can choose what to focus on and what to put to one side. In Greater Manchester, there are no directly elected representatives to hold the mayor to account. The scrutiny panels do that job, and they give some assurance to minority parties and dissenting voices that the difficult questions will be raised, and the truth published.

The problem with this statutory instrument is not that, in future, it proposes to combine the two scrutiny bodies; that is sensible. The problem is that the provision sets aside that existing assurance of challenge and inquiry, and substitutes for it the police and crime panel.

In the municipal year 2018-19, that body was made up of 10 Labour members and two co-opted independent members. No opposition members of any party served on that scrutiny body. Of course, those 10 Labour members will always behave with integrity and absolute objectivity in carrying out their scrutiny functions—one would expect nothing less from Labour councillors in Greater Manchester—but I put it to the Minister that compared to the existing situation that this statutory instrument takes away, he is proposing something that is inherently less satisfactory. In place of a multi-party scrutiny panel with an opposition chair, we will have a body made up of members of one party—the mayor’s own party.

How does the Minister see the robust challenge that is needed for major budgets and vital services, such as the police service and the fire and rescue service, being delivered by a model of scrutiny that can—and in 2018-19 did—produce a single-party body in charge of operating it? I will be interested to hear the answer. That is a function that must be exercised on behalf of all residents and all electors across Greater Manchester, which is very diverse. With the best will in the world, a body with such a narrow membership cannot do that as effectively as a more diverse and representative one.

Does the Minister agree that it would have been better to continue to require the joint panel to work on the same procedures and statutory requirements for membership of the existing fire and rescue service panel, rather than the closed membership of the existing police panel? In other words, given the choice of which way to amalgamate the two bodies, the Minister has chosen the one which produces the least accountability.

Unfortunately, as keenly as everyone now shares the Liberal Democrat passion for the devolution of powers and responsibilities from Whitehall down to local communities, the bit about people with power being held accountable for the exercise of that power has a lot less traction. Whenever it has been a 50:50 call, it always comes down in favour of less accountability, not more. The Minister may say that this is not a big step away from better scrutiny, but rather just a very small baby, and that there is no threat to anything here; perhaps he will say that it is an incidental consequence of a necessary reform—a fishing bycatch, or collateral damage. It is not. Somebody made the choice and, intended or not, that choice has consequences that could easily have been avoided if anyone in the decision tree had thought of doing so.

There is something strangely appropriate in this widening of the accountability deficit in Greater Manchester coming into force through a statutory instrument in your Lordships’ House—itself hardly an ideal mechanism for accountability. A Virtual Proceeding on a statutory instrument, where there is at present no opportunity to intervene to seek clarity or explanation from the Minister when he winds up, adds insult to injury. However, I have a feeling that the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, with his local government background and understanding of these matters, will be able to address my questions and give me direct answers. Perhaps he will get his officials to reflect that, the next time that a 50:50 call on accountability lands on his desk, they should advise him to go the other way and enhance accountability at every opportunity—and not, by accident or design, to slim it down.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Sometimes, the price of it is listening to me complaining about something quite small which has big implications. On this occasion, I fear that that vigilance was not exercised at the ministerial desk. Somebody blinked and we have an answer which is not the best that was available.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, on his maiden speech. As he says, it is a first of its kind. I look forward to our encounters together and, in particular, to when we can meet in person and debate across the Dispatch Box. The Minister has a record of service in local government on which he should be congratulated, serving as a councillor in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and, in 2006, as he told us, becoming the leader of that council. I know that authority quite well and, as the Minister knows, it has changed political hands many times. The Minister also worked closely with the Prime Minister when he was Mayor of London, and served as deputy mayor for policing and crime.

I wish the noble Lord well with his new responsibilities. He has some very big shoes to fill. He will be aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, and the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, have all carried out his ministerial responsibilities and are respected by the House. They all engaged positively with people in the House, and still do, and always worked to bring people together. If the noble Lord carries out his duties in a similar vein, he will undoubtedly be a successful Minister in the House of Lords.

I was never leader of a council, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, my noble friend Lady Wilcox of Newport or the noble Lord, Lord Goddard; I was merely the deputy leader of Southwark Council. But like all other noble Lords, I am a big supporter of local government and local councillors, and I know what a great job they do and how much we should support them. I am always pleased when a member of the local government family takes on new and important responsibilities, and I look forward to working with the Minister.

The order before us is not, in my opinion, controversial and it has my full support. But before I get on to the order, I am conscious that yesterday was Firefighters’ Memorial Day. I honour the commitment of all firefighters and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice by doing their duty, protecting others and saving lives. I join the Minister in his tribute to the whole fire service for the work it is doing in these challenging times to help us all.

The order allows the Mayor of Greater Manchester to make arrangements for the fire and rescue service to be delegated to the deputy mayor for policing and crime, and extends the role of the police and crime panel to include scrutiny of the fire and rescue function. It is clear that the strategic decisions will remain with the mayor, who is accountable to the police, fire and crime panel, and to the general public, for the exercise of these functions.

I am aware that the Minister is leading a review into the cost of waking watches. It would be helpful if he could update the House on that work when he responds to this debate. If not, maybe he could agree to write to us about where he has got to with his review.

The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, asked a number of questions in respect of reductions in funding and budgets in general. I endorse his comments and look forward to the response he will receive.

I also endorse the comments from my noble friend Lady Wilcox of Newport in her tribute to council leaders, councillors and the staff of local authorities, along with all public servants who are dealing with these unprecedented challenges for our country. We have been separated from our families and friends, but our communities have been brought together and we have seen fantastic work in the public and voluntary sectors that must never be forgotten.

In conclusion, I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points raised today and congratulate him again on his excellent maiden speech. As he said, it is a first of its kind. I also wish him well in his new responsibilities in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

My Lords, this order will help to deliver key outcomes that will improve the delivery of public services in Greater Manchester. I am hugely grateful for the insightful and helpful contributions that noble Lords on all sides of the House have made during this debate.

I will comment on the contributions made by noble Lords, starting with those of the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox—I feel we can call ourselves the “former leaders of local government club”. The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, asked whether I would give a cast-iron guarantee to support the borrowing requirements when they come forward from the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service. I cannot do that, but I give my assurance that they will be considered, alongside the comments he made about the need for this.

There have been huge budget pressures on the fire and rescue services, but noble Lords should know that, in the latest round of funding, a considerable amount of money was allocated specifically to these services: about £33 million, as well as some top-slice grant in the latest £1.6 billion for local government. In addition, we recognise that there is a real need to increase funding for the protection pillar of the fire and rescue services. There is £20 million of surge funding support to enable that to happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised the issue of the rise in average response times. My understanding is that fire and rescue services are measuring response times in three segments: call handling, mobilisation and driving time. Generally, call handling and mobilisation are speeding up or staying constant, and it is the length of driving time incidents that is increasing. I will write to the noble Baroness on the causes of this, but the latest reported increase was around one or two seconds.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, raised not so much the approach to this statutory instrument as the tidying-up operation that has potentially seen a one-sided approach to scrutiny. He clearly agrees with the idea of bringing together the scrutiny functions, but I note his points about the political make-up, and that this may have been avoided with another approach. It was certainly not the intention to reduce scrutiny, but it is far more effective to have a scrutiny panel that mirrors the executive. I am sure that, in due course, elections and the changes of democracy will enable that panel to change over time, as they so often do.

Finally, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for raising the cost of waking watches. It is fair to say that this cost goes up the longer the remediation work on tall buildings with flammable cladding carries on. I have asked my officials to look at the very great differences in waking watch costs between buildings, to shine the spotlight of transparency. I am also aware of what many early adopter developers and social landlords have done to reduce waking watch costs, including the installation of evacuation alarms. Above all, I am pleased to say that there is huge cross-party support from the Secretary of State, the metro mayors, a significant number of council leaders in our metropolitan cities and 20-odd boroughs in London for the building safety pledge, which will ensure the continuation of essential building work on tall buildings with flammable ACM cladding during the Covid pandemic. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.

I want to provide some more examples of the positive things we are seeing in Greater Manchester, having raised the issue of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. I was actually wrong about the level of volunteering: I would like to put on record that apparently there are nearer 500 volunteers in Greater Manchester and I thank them for all they are doing—driving people to hospital, supporting the ambulance service and other things in the course of this pandemic. There are some incredible examples of collaboration in Greater Manchester between the fire and rescue service and the police; for instance, fitting target-hardening measures at homes that are at risk of fire, which has successfully continued even during the current lockdown. Multiagency training has helped partners involved in emergency response and it is envisaged that regular multiagency training, developed through a closer relationship with the districts, facilitated by the deputy mayor, will help to improve all agencies’ responses to large-scale incidents such as pandemics, flooding and fires. The third example is a fire plan which has been developed jointly with the Greater Manchester police and community safety partnerships. Community safety is a key priority and this pre-existing framework will help the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service integrate an approach that supports vulnerable residents at a local level.

Today’s order will provide a clearer line of sight for the exercise of fire and rescue functions. It will make clear to the public who is responsible for which decisions and help them understand the governance process. Importantly, it will also help to ensure that collaboration is implemented more efficiently and effectively by bringing those functions together into one place so that best practice is shared and strategic risks are reviewed across both services. Cognisant of the statutory duty introduced by the Policing and Crime Act 2017 for the emergency services to collaborate, the GMCA recognised that allowing the mayor to delegate the exercise of fire and rescue functions to the deputy mayor for policing and crime would enable the deputy mayor to accelerate the pace of change, ensuring that collaboration is implemented, as well as interoperability across the blue-light services, more effectively and efficiently.

The joining up of policing and fire functions under the deputy mayor for policing and crime will enable quicker decision-making at the appropriate level. It also mirrors the arrangements for police, fire and crime commissioners. Who can delegate police and fire functions to their deputies. As I mentioned earlier, the need for better interoperability between blue-light services was made all the more compelling in light of the findings of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, into the tragic Manchester Arena attack. A single individual overseeing both the fire and rescue and policing services is best placed to drive greater collaboration and interoperability between blue-light services.

In closing, the Government firmly believe that democratically elected mayors matter. Today’s order confirms the request of the Mayor of Greater Manchester and serves to clarify and improve governance arrangements for fire and rescue in that great city. I firmly believe that the order serves the interests of the people of Greater Manchester, and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.