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'including the Members of Parliament and local authorities for the area served by the facilities'.
'and lay before Parliament a report on these consultations'.
John McDonnell: I shall be fairly brief in speaking to the amendments. I tabled them because there is some anxiety that the Secretary of State is taking significant powers of detail. In particular, the provision on disposal of property is a remarkable power of detail if it is to involve the wholesale closure and sale of individual fire stations. The amendments give the Government the opportunity to reassure the general public that the power will not be used extensively for the closure of fire stations.
In addition, I have tabled amendments that would reinforce the rights of individual Members of Parliament and local authorities to be consulted on any local changes in practice involving the dispersal of facilities in an area. I accept that section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 has been amended in previous legislation, but it would be helpful for the Government to reassure Members and others that, where the powers are to be exercised, there will be consultation with Members of Parliament and local authorities. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State can consult whomsoever he thinks fit, but I think that we need to tighten the legislation to ensure that Members of Parliament have a role in their area.
In addition, I suggest that when the consultations have taken place, a report should be laid before Parliament. I am not proposing that there should be reports on all individual consultations about minor changes of practice, but I believe that at least some form of conglomerate report should be made regularly, so that we can have an overview of the changes of practice
The amendments on property are probing amendments that seek to tease out the Government's intentions with regard to the specific interventions that they envisage on the disposal and dispersal of property. It would be helpful if the Minister enlightened and reassured us that the provision is not about the wholesale selling off of fire stations, that Members of Parliament and local authorities will have a distinctly direct consultative role in respect of any changes and that Parliament will have an overview.
Primarily, I want to clarify whether the purpose of the powers in clause 1(2) is to implement integrated risk management plans. If so, would it not have been better to include a specific reference on the face of the Bill? Such plans will be prepared after proper consultation. The Minister has already issued a circular setting out the consultation that he expects. If the powers set out in subsection (2) explicitly related to the implementation of adopted integrated risk management plans, it would be relatively easy to justify them, although the need for them would not be so clear. Perhaps the Minister has it in mind that some fire authorities may not have the bottle to implement their own integrated risk management plans and to make the necessary changes, and that they may need the Secretary of State to come along and stiffen their resolve by using his powers to impose the changes that their fully consulted on and properly adopted plans envisage.
That is one possible scenario, but it is equally credible to suggest that the powers will be intended primarily to direct the use of assets. In that regard, I take it that the word "disposal" has two possible meaningsthe transferral of land ownership or simply making something available in the short term. For example, the provision could be used by the Secretary of State to prevent firefighters from having access to fire service buildings during a strike. It could be used to direct that appliances be made available to military firefighters orperhaps this is not beyond the realms of possibilityprivate contractors undertaking a firefighting role in the absence of the regular firefighters.
It is very important that we understand precisely how the Minister envisages that the powers will be used. If he envisages that they will be used in different ways, the Committee must be clear about that. The three options, as I see them, are as follows. The powers may be used to implement approved integrated risk management plans. They may be used to implement change where a fire authoritylet us take Avon at randomfails to propose a proper integrated risk management plan that the Secretary of State can endorse. Finally, they could be wholly related to contingency planning in the event of a strike.
If the Minister is going to tell us that the powers are to be used for the implementation of integrated risk management plans that have been subject to the proper procedure, the concerns addressed by amendments Nos. 10 and 11 will be dealt with, as the plans will have involved proper consultation. However, if he can at least envisage using the powers because of the failure to produce a plan, it will be perfectly logical to suggest that there should be a consultation process that parallels the consultation that would have taken place if a plan had been prepared and proposed.
My concern remains that the Government will face a major task and a genuine problem in convincing the public that changes that appear to be cuts, as they reduce the number of appliances, fire stations or firefighters, are risk-driven rather than cost-driven. Given the statements that have already been made and repeated today that any pay settlement has to be funded out of savings made through modernisation, I suggest to the Minister that it is very important that any rationalisation of assets imposed by ministerial order must be seen to have been subjected to the proper and rigorous process that is proposed with regard to the preparation of the integrated risk management plan. I have described at least one scenario involving long-term permanent change that could not happen without the introduction of a consultative procedure somewhat akin to those proposed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). The imposition of such changes without the consultation process envisaged in the circular would only increase the risk of public scepticism.
I should be grateful if the Minister would address specifically each of the three possible uses of the powers in relation to property and assets and explain whether those are uses that he intends and, in each case, how he intends to use them.
That was a flippant remark, but I think that hon. Members will know what I mean."[Official Report, 8 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 861.]
Mr. Drew: I rise to make a narrow point, on which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to allay my fears, concerning the possible disposal of assets. That always raises alarm in rural areas. Under the previous Conservative Government, we regularly had to run campaignswe were a campaigning partyagainst proposed closures of rural retained stations. I am unclear as to how that would play in relation to the Bill.
I am even more mystified in that I was persuaded to support the changes to section 19 to the Local Government Bill on the basis that the Government were introducing sensible changes to the labyrinthine mechanism by which any changes in the disposal of assetschanging the location of stations and so onshould, instead of being left in the hands of the Secretary of State or his nominee, be decided locally. As a great believer in decentralisation, I thought that that was a good move. Such decisions should be made locally and the people who make them should be accountable locally. That was the right way to go about it. Yet the Bill seems to say something different and almost contradictorythat if and when a problem arose as regards the way in which pay and conditions were introduced nationally, the Secretary of State or his nominee could decide that it would be sensible, whether in terms of finances or the notion of integrated risk management, to close or move a particular station. We all know the type of reaction that that would cause locally. People in Painswick in my constituency have already run too many campaigns to save stations, and they certainly do not want to have to do so under a Labour Government.
Will the Minister confirm where these powers might be introduced, whether the Bill contradicts the Local Government Bill, and whether we will find that the White Paper clarifies the position? We need to know that local people will have a say in how a fire authority's management are able to exercise their powers, so that there is no confusion and we do not end up in a real mess over who is able to take the decision and where the blame lies.