|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Deputy Prime Minister: Well, I do not know what that "Oh" is about. I am just telling the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) what I think is the position, but it is a matter for the House. I cannot decide when the Bill will be introduced, but I am trying to give an honest answer, not that honesty necessarily dictates the right hon. Gentleman's political position[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] No, it is all right, he would not deny thathe himself is laughing.
Finally, on the Fire Services Bill, which is now before the House of Lords, I would like to see that process completed by the summer, but there are difficulties with the legislative timetable, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden knows. We hope to get the Bill into law by the summer, but certainly by September at the very latest. We are discussing that with various parties.
On the proposed restructuring of fire authorities, can the right hon. Gentleman give the House a cast-iron guarantee that no powers will be taken from local fire authorities unless and until there are directly elected assemblies in place? No powers should be given to regional quangos. Can he say what powers will be taken down from Whitehall to any new regional authorities or to local fire authorities?
Can the Deputy Prime Minister make clear his latest position on resources for fire authorities that have modernised already? The issue was raised by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and has been raised repeatedly by us, but we have received no reassurance from Ministers. Can the Deputy Prime Minister say whether fire authorities that have already reaped the financial benefits of reform will be compensated for the higher costs built into the recent agreementyes or no?
The White Paper is not without merit, but the Deputy Prime Minister knows that the case for modernisation rests on saving more lives. That will be its true test. I hope that he will respond to proposals that could save many lives over the coming years.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of support. The proposals are designed to save lives by changing the priorities that determine risk assessment, giving higher priority to individuals than to buildings, and seeing that the rescue services are nearer to concentrations of population. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden made it clear that that is done better in Europe, and we have learned something from that, as Bain was quick to point out. We believe that we can achieve safety, efficiency and greater effectiveness, and that is the purpose of the White Paper.
The White Paper is in line with the Government's proposals for the modernisation of the fire service. The industrial agreement was not just about modernisation. The Government made it clear that they intended to modernise the fire service, but the negotiations on wages, conditions and modernisation are some aspects of that, but not all. That is why we need wider consultation on the broader aspects of the fire service, not just on industrial negotiations, agreements and working conditions, which are largely determined by the council. The other matters are the concern of another body. That is why I spoke to them all this morning. We are carrying out the Government's policy in line with many of the recommendations made by Bain, and taking into account some of the responses given to the Bain recommendations. That is reflected in the White Paper published today.
On research, there is always a great need for research, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We should do all we can to reduce the incidence of arson£43 million has been put into increased research and services in that area. We should ensure that the results are more effective, but I do not underestimate the need for continuous research on these matters.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the powers of unelected regional quangos, as he called them. The regional bodies will all be unelected in the first instance, even if there are successful elections in the three northern areas, so in the course of the reorganisation we will be dealing with unelected bodies. There are certain regional aspects of the fire service that are best considered on a regional basis, sometimes because local authorities cannot afford to provide all those services, and sometimes because it makes sense for them to co-ordinate their activities.
I have agreed with the local authorities that we will look at how we can achieve that regional co-ordination in the present circumstances, working with them. But our principle is clear: if there are elected representatives, the regional dimension should be accountable to them. I do not think the hon. Gentleman would disagree. With regard to regional co-ordination, we are discussing with the local authorities how they would make an unelected body accountable. That is a matter for further discussion.
On the question whether fire authorities will be denied the resources that they want, there are some that have carried out modernisation. We said that we would consider compensation. It is not my first priority. There is scope for all the fire authorities to achieve greater efficiency, if they so wish. We will consider how best to achieve that and give them the proper support. Change will take place. It costs money, but the Government will face up to their responsibilities.
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly its emphasis on more co-operation within the industry. I welcome also the ratcheting up of the building regulations. I
The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Some fire authorities have adopted such measures recently, with some going to schools to provide education about preventing fires. That has had some effect, with Kent and one or two other authorities having success. We want to encourage more of that, and emphasise prevention rather than intervention. The balance needs to be better and we want to provide such measures. My hon. Friend makes a good suggestion on which we will build and report back later.
Bob Spink (Castle Point): I welcome the stated objectives of the programme of change, but does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that a number of smaller communities will, for reasons of accessibility or other special factors, need to retain fire stations, even though a so-called efficiency review could put their survival in question? Will he give an undertaking that the programme of change will not be used to put stations such as Canvey Island in Castle Point under threat?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman expresses a general concern. I cannot give an exact answer on his point about his area, except to say that integrated risk management is about providing the same level of safety cover for people in rural areas, dangerous areas, less dangerous areas and urban areas. That is what the White Paper is about. Local areas will decide and each has different measures. They will make the decisions and recommendations.
In that regard, many retained firefighters work in those areas, and I answered a question from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden on that subject. This is an important matter, about which he asked me during my last statement on the subject. There is no need for any redundancies there, either, and retained firemen can now get a fairer deal from the system than they do now. We are desperately short of retained firefighters in certain areas. We will get a better balance and they will face no more risk of compulsory redundancy than any full-time worker.