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28 Mar 2001 : Column 300WH

Fire Stations (Wirral)

12.30 pm

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): I should first express my appreciation of the opportunity to debate this issue, as, among the many public services, that provided by the fire service must rank as one of the most important, with its major roles of dealing with fires and other emergencies, such as road traffic accidents; advising on fire prevention measures and encouraging their implementation; and carrying out inspections for fire safety certification. Those services are provided by trained personnel and paid for through the public purse.

As a service funded by the public, it is only right and proper that the responsible statutory body, the fire service authority, includes representatives of the public as well as representatives of the professionals who provide the service. In principle, that should ensure that the service provided meets with public approval and professional agreement.

My reason for asking the Minister to look at the role played by the fire service authorities, and particularly by the Merseyside fire authority, is that I believe that the checks and balances built into the system of representation may be insufficiently robust, with the result that an authority may take decisions that satisfy neither the public nor a substantial number of the professionals in the service--the firefighters. That is the situation that has arisen on Merseyside as a result of the representatives of the public on the fire authority possibly being out of touch with public opinion, and the opinions of the senior professionals perhaps being unduly weighted by factors removed from the primary purpose of saving lives and property.

Because the Merseyside fire authority has reached a decision that is greatly at variance with public opinion in my local community, I hope to persuade the Minister that it must be carefully considered and, I hope, reversed. The decision that has prompted my raising this matter is the fire authority's decision to reduce the manning of fire stations in the Wirral from 24-hour cover to daytime cover, with night-time cover being based on fire crews on call. One of those stations is in Heswall, in my constituency, where I live.

First, I shall set out the main arguments, as I see them, of the fire authority in favour of its proposal, together with some comments of my own. Before I start, we should all be clear in our minds that, whatever rationalisation is presented for the changes, the underlying motive should not be merely to save money.

To put the main argument baldly, cutting out 24-hour manning reduces staffing costs substantially. The authority argues that the resulting savings in the running costs of the two stations will allow it to shift the emphasis from firefighting to fire prevention. It proposes to fit, without charge, smoke alarms in all the houses throughout the area for which it is responsible. It believes that that provides better value for money. If that argument were reduced to absurdity, we would have masses of smoke alarms, wonderful value for money and no fire stations.

I, of course, have no objection to the devoting of more effort to fire prevention; indeed, I welcome it. But fitting fire alarms does not of itself prevent fires. It merely

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reduces the risk of catastrophic consequences should a fire break out. In any case, although fire alarms reduce the risk of loss of life in the event of fire, they require regular maintenance.

For example, and obviously, batteries must be fitted at regular intervals--a task which is unlikely to be undertaken by the fire service. That may sound like a trivial point, but if the authority seriously believes that fitting fire alarms is a significant contribution to safety and will reduce the need for call-out of firefighters, it must recognise that installation of fire alarms is not a one-off process. It, or someone, must ensure that the alarms remain fully operational. I have not yet heard from the authority its long-term plans on this matter, or the costs that will be involved; but, above all, whatever the arguments on detail, the point remains that fire prevention is complementary to firefighting, not an alternative to it.

What causes public concern is, of course, the closure of the fire stations at night, particularly as Merseyside, according to a statistic supplied by the fire authority, has the highest rate of fire deaths in the United Kingdom: 20 a year. Whatever the relative differences in fire statistics as between night and daytime, what are not the same are the consequences of an emergency, particularly in the case of a property fire. People are not around to see a fire in its early stages, and people are often asleep, so the fire gets a strong hold before the emergency services can be alerted.

The authority argues that emergency cover will still be available at night as the firefighters will be required to live within four minutes of the station and be ready to turn out should the need arise. That seems a rather theoretical notion. First, will firefighters be able to find affordable housing within four minutes' access time, by moving house if necessary? Heswall is a relatively expensive place to live. There is a real danger of arriving at the ludicrous situation of losing experienced staff and gaining inexperienced ones, merely as a result of that condition of employment.

Secondly, will firefighters really be able to get up in the middle of the night, get dressed and be at the station within four minutes of the alert, whatever they might have been able to do under ideal practice conditions? I am assured that firefighters are well used to that, but what happens if they get up to find their car windows covered in ice or if they have to drive to the station in thick fog or have some other unforeseen problem? At best, the procedure will add four minutes to the interval between receiving the alert and arrival at the emergency--four minutes that could mean the difference between life and death, or between minor and permanent injury. The latter reservation is shared by those at the coal face: the firefighters.

However, it would not be fair if I did not refer to what some people would regard as a powerful argument in favour of the proposal--the fact that many stations throughout the country operate the proposed manning system. In many cases, however, purpose-built housing is available for firefighters in the immediate vicinity of the station, so that the time taken to respond to an emergency is less of an issue.

My counter-argument is to ask, why degrade an excellent service to save money when the public support the expenditure? Moreover, I understand that the

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normal daytime crewing hours in other stations on daytime manning elsewhere are 9 am to 6 pm. Those hours do not fit the peak hours for call-outs at Heswall, which are 9 am to 11 pm.

Many would argue that the proposed changes to manning would result in fire cover arrangements below the national standard. Moreover, the performance of Merseyside fire service was, in my view, already deteriorating. From April 1999 to March 2000 inclusive, there were in Merseyside increases of 37.7 per cent. over the previous year in the number of fires, of more than 12 per cent. in other emergency incidents, of 11.3 per cent. in dwelling fires, and of 14.6 per cent. in the average time taken to carry out inspections for the issue of fire safety certificates.

In addition, the inspectorate, in the principal inspection report of 9 June 2000, sent a clear message in respect of its

I have also been told, albeit indirectly, that some members of the fire authority have said that, had they been informed of the substantial decrease in the yearly target in respect of fire cover from the national average of 96 per cent. to 90 per cent. by October 2000, they would have voted against the decision taken in November 2000 to close Heswall fire station at night. Comparing like with like on a variety of counts, Merseyside can be seen as the worst performing fire authority in a metropolitan conurbation, so why seek to make it worse, as would happen under the proposals?

I shall now deal with the consultation process. Under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, there must be adequate consultation before final decisions are taken. In fact, I understand that the Home Secretary considers it desirable that the fire authority should not only consult as appropriate, but consider any representation that it receives. A local meeting, convened by the Heswall and District Business Association in conjunction with the Heswall Society, was held at Heswall in October of last year; the fire authority was represented, together with the Merseyside branch of the Fire Brigades Union and, of course, many members of the general public.

It is fair to say that, at that meeting, the fire authority representatives merely reiterated their case, claiming that the proposed changes would not lead to an inferior service. The record of that meeting shows that none of the many members of the public present were convinced by the arguments produced and agreed unanimously to

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oppose the plans to downgrade the status of Heswall fire station. The fire authority also organised meetings at which the tenor of the argument was the same.

Lest it be thought that those meetings were in some way unrepresentative of the local view, let me remind the Minister that I have already presented to the House a petition, signed by more than 2,000 residents--there could have been many more--who object to the proposal. I have yet to meet anyone in Heswall who favours it. I have heard of someone with such a view, but I have not met that person. I have received numerous letters expressing objections to the proposal. Wirral metropolitan borough council has reservations and has expressed its concern that the fire authority is unable to guarantee that all the smoke alarms would be installed before the changeover in shift pattern took place, if it took place.

I feel bound to mention another issue, given that it has been raised by several Heswall residents. Many of them think it unfair that the Heswall station should be downgraded to release money to fund fire prevention throughout Merseyside. As substantial contributors, as council tax payers, to the local council's finances and, through precepts, to the other statutory bodies on Merseyside, they often already feel that they do not get their fair share of the benefits. They question the validity of losing a valuable amenity--the 24-hour manning of their local fire service--so as to provide alarms elsewhere. Others may not wholly agree with that view, but many people hold it strongly.

The Minister will recall that the fire authority should not only consult as appropriate, but consider any representation that it receives. I hope that I have made it clear that there is no sign that the fire authority has taken any account of local residents' views. The consultation process is regarded locally as a sham and as having been predetermined; the conclusion was fixed in some of the circulars that were issued in advance. None of the points made at the meetings or elsewhere have been met, or apparently even genuinely considered. The fire authority's decision-making process is thus flawed. When the representatives of the public do not represent the public view, and when the points made in consultations are ignored, the whole process is fundamentally unsound.

I shall summarise my views. The proposal to downgrade Heswall fire station is based on far too many dubious propositions. The consultation process has revealed that the fire authority has already decided to proceed with the proposal, so the consultation was not at all genuine. The decisions reached by the fire authority have taken no account of local residents' fears. We, in Heswall, have a particularly high preponderance of people aged over 60. So I ask the Home Office and the Minister to reiterate, as I have been told previously, that they are still open to receive representations. The Minister has agreed to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hesford), together with the Heswall Society and Heswall and District Business Association; I look forward to that meeting and to advancing further arguments.

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I ask the Minister also to reflect on the points that I have made today and, I hope, having done so, to support my plea for that local issue to be referred back to the fire authority for further consideration; especially, I hope that he will insist that the authority do more to meet the wishes of local residents. I also ask him to look at the wider issue to consider how we might ensure that more weight is given to local opinion when such decisions, which directly affect their communities, are taken in future.

12.46 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on securing this debate on the staffing hours at fire stations in the Wirral.

I apologise for the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), cannot be here today because of a long-standing prior commitment. I am happy to stand in for him. I shall pass the full text of the debate to him for his attention, and I shall discuss it with him. He has asked me to confirm that my hon. Friend is right; he has agreed to discuss the situation further and in more detail with a delegation of the type that my hon. Friend mentions. So I hope that further clarification of the issues discussed in this debate will be given at that meeting.

I fully understand the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed today about the proposal by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority to change the crewing arrangements at Heswall and West Kirby fire stations from whole-time to day crewing, but, before I respond in detail, I should like to set the issue in context.

We have good reason to be proud of the fire service in this country, because it achieves consistently high standards of performance, often in difficult and hazardous circumstances. The fire service's high level of performance in responding to fire calls has been confirmed year after year by the Audit Commission. The latest figures published by the commission show that, in 1999-2000, the fire service nationally met attendance standards in responding to fire calls on 96 per cent. of occasions. In Merseyside, the standards were met on 96.4 per cent. of occasions--slightly above the average.

The inspectorate of fire services is considering, with the Merseyside fire authority, how it proposes to address the issues raised in the inspection report about attendance standards, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend. I confirm that the ability to meet attendance standards in Heswall and West Kirby is one of the key issues on which the inspectorate will provide advice to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in relation to the authority's application under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947.

In general, the fire service is to be commended for the range of community-based initiatives it undertakes across the country to promote fire safety in the home. With the full support of fire service interests, we are seeking to make a commitment to prevention as the first line of defence against fire, to develop a clearer vision for the service and to set out a clear strategy with targets for improvement.

We want progress to be measured against that commitment. We have therefore publicly set a target of reducing the average number of accidental house fire

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deaths by 20 per cent. over five years. We believe that the current strategy is paying dividends and we are seeing a pleasing reduction in the number of people being killed and injured in fires in the home.

I confirm that my hon. Friend's remarks about fire prevention being complementary, not an alternative to fire safety, are absolutely correct, and represent the Government's position. He refers to the absurdity of having smoke alarms and no fire stations, but that is not our aspiration; the two must go side by side. We should not undervalue the important role that community fire safety can play in our approach. In particular, the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority has an excellent programme of activity that is designed to reduce the number of preventable dwelling fires and the deaths and injuries that they can cause.

I now turn to the case of the Heswall and West Kirby fire stations that my hon. Friend raised. In November last year, the authority submitted an application under section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 seeking approval to change the crewing arrangements at Heswall and West Kirby fire stations from whole-time to day crewing. The application was made following a special meeting of the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority on 6 November at which responses to a consultation begun on 7 August were considered in detail.

I can confirm that Merseyside fire and civil defence authority is defined as a best value authority under the Local Government Act 1999. It therefore has a duty to secure continuous improvement to the way in which it exercises its functions, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

As I said, the application was made following a meeting of the authority on 6 November and, under section 19(4) of the Fire Services Act 1947, a fire authority cannot reduce the number of fire stations, fire appliances or firefighting posts without the express consent of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The authority's proposed change of crewing arrangements at Heswall and West Kirby fire stations would result in a net loss of 14 posts at each station and the proposal therefore requires such consent.

My right hon. Friend has a specific role in considering section 19 applications. He can grant approval only if he is satisfied that the proposals have been sufficiently widely publicised, and in appropriate detail and with adequate time to enable any interested party to make representations; that the representations have been considered by the authority; and that Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services advises that the national standards of fire cover will be maintained. My right hon. Friend has to take those three rigid requirements into account, and two of them relate to the nature of the consultation process.

The point about national standards of fire cover was specifically addressed in my hon. Friend's speech, and it is for the chief fire officer to put in place such crewing arrangements as, in his professional judgment, will best meet the authority's statutory responsibility to provide effective fire cover in Merseyside, in line with the national standards.

Day crewing means that professional firefighters are based at the fire station during the day and the same firefighters then provide cover from their homes at other

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times. To do so, they are linked by pager and they must be able to reach the fire station within four minutes. The four-minute period represents the actual travelling time between home and station, and it is fully tested by timed runs. This arrangement is used by many brigades without difficulty, and has been used for many years in many parts of the country where my hon. Friend's points about the weather and other issues are taken into consideration. However, I am happy to assure him that I shall pass on his remarks about the potential difficulties of the four-minute period to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and, through him, to the inspectorate. They will then be able to address the concerns that have been raised in the debate.

Whether day crewing is appropriate for Heswall and West Kirby is one of the issues to which Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services will give careful consideration when advising on the section 19 application. The other fire stations in the Wirral--Birkenhead, Wallasey, Upton and Bromborough--are crewed on a whole-time basis and will continue to be so.

On the consultation process, there is no statutory requirement on the authority to consult, but my right hon. Friend considers it important--he has said so on several occasions--that proper consultations be undertaken, so that he can be sure that his first duty, which is to ensure that the proposals have been sufficiently widely publicised, can properly be met.

I appreciate that the section 19 application submitted by Merseyside fire and civil defence authority regarding Heswall and West Kirby fire stations has raised considerable concern locally among residents and the business community. Concern has also been raised, in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hesford), that the consultation process undertaken in Heswall and West Kirby by the authority has differed from the one in Formby for a separate but similar section 19 application. That application was approved earlier this month after lengthy consideration.

An inspector from Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services visited the brigade in February to examine the consultation process in detail. His conclusion, at that stage, was that appropriate consultation had been undertaken and that sufficient opportunity had been given for representations to be made. However, once a section 19 application is made, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will also take into account representations that are made directly. As I said at the beginning of my speech, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has indicated his willingness to meet my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, South and for Wirral, West to take account of their representations as well as the points that have been made in the debate.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's primary concern is the maintenance of the national fire cover standards--that is the principal issue. Successive Secretaries of State have interpreted the duty to provide an efficient fire service against those standards. I can give an absolute assurance to my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend and the Home Office will not approve any proposal unless we are entirely satisfied that national fire cover standards will be maintained.

All fire authorities are obliged to review regularly the fire risks in their area against the national standards to ensure that the brigade's deployment of resources is

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updated in the light of changing circumstances. It is important to emphasise that the standards are not just nationally recommended, but are nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council for England and Wales and in the Scottish Fire Brigades Advisory Council--both constituted under the Fire Services Act 1947 to represent fire service interests in advising the Secretary of State.

The standards dictate the initial attendance to a fire in terms of number of appliances and speed of response. They rest on four main standards of service, according to the risk category of the area, and they assume for each category that a predetermined number of firefighting appliances should attend within a certain time.

The areas currently served by Heswall and West Kirby fire stations are a mixture of C risk, which includes suburbs of large towns and built-up areas of small towns, and D risk, which is mostly rural. The national standards provide that, in normal circumstances, a fire authority should respond to a fire call in a C risk area by sending one pumping appliance to reach the incident within 10 minutes, and, in a D risk area, by sending one pumping appliance to reach it within 20 minutes.

I understand that it is, in fact, the Merseyside brigade's policy to send a minimum of two appliances to all property fires regardless of risk category, so it is ahead of the national standards. That policy will be unaffected by the proposed change of crewing arrangements at Heswall and West Kirby. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will want to be assured that that point is clarified by Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, and its report will assess whether the area covered by the two fire stations has been correctly categorised for risk and whether the brigade will continue to be able to meet the standards of fire cover.

As I have said, I fully understand the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South and his constituents have about the quality of their local fire service and about whether it will be affected by the authority's application to change the crewing arrangements at the two fire stations. We shall seek advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate and we shall take full account of representations, together with the points that have been made in this debate.

My hon. Friend's driving commitment is to ensure that national standards of fire cover are appropriately maintained, and I assure him that they will be. It is our intention, policy goal and ambition to achieve that side by side with improving significantly the ability to prevent fire in the first place, and to take the steps that he described that would enable us to achieve that aim. The two arms of our policy will work in parallel, without one being carried out at the expense of the other. The most effective way to reduce the number of fire accidents and fatalities is to have both arms of the policy working together, and that is the overall context in which we approach the problem.

I have tried to cover the points that my hon. Friend has made in the debate. As I have said, he will have the opportunity to discuss them directly with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary at an appropriate time.

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