Fire and Rescue Services Bill

[back to previous text]

Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): On a technical point, the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that in the forthcoming Energy Bill there will be an opportunity to right a wrong.

The Chairman: Order. I am a bit concerned about the proliferation of legislation that is being introduced into the Committee. We are debating the Fire and Rescue Services Bill.

Jim Knight: I simply say that the nuclear police have no authority to deal with RTAs, even though they have police badges and people expect them to stop and help. The amendment would put them in a difficult position; as things stand, they have no mutual aid powers.

Richard Younger-Ross: I take the point. I am considering the police in general rather than specific instances. I suppose that the same conditions would apply to railway police. People would not expect them to take charge at the scene of a road traffic accident. That would not be logical. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hammond: This is a welcome clause, which gives statutory responsibilities to fire authorities in respect of road traffic accidents. As the Minister said on Second Reading, most people would be astonished to discover that, for the moment, fire authorities have no such statutory responsibility.

It is important that we note before we progress that the Government are not, as some of their rhetoric suggests, placing the responsibility for road traffic accidents on an equal footing with the responsibility for firefighting. A lot of what I have heard suggests that firefighting, road traffic duties and responding to non-conventional emergencies are to be put on an equal statutory footing—and they are not. We have particular concerns, to which we shall revert in due course, about the scope for charging for road traffic accidents. Fire is clearly being left in a category of its own as one of several statutory duties placed on fire and rescue authorities for which no charges can be levied, but the new areas of statutory duty, such as road traffic accidents, will not be similarly ring-fenced against the potential for future charging.

There is a difference in the extent of preparation that is required to deal with firefighting and road traffic accidents, which is another distinction between the two areas. Questions arise in my mind about the use of others to carry out functions. The Government clearly envisage, as we shall discuss later, the possibility that some functions of fire authorities are carried out in certain circumstances by others. One can see the attraction of that, particularly in remote areas. Collaboration with the police might be more important in dealing with road traffic accidents than it is in firefighting because the police have equipment for dealing with some of the work that the fire services do at the scene. A later clause prohibits the employment of the police. When we reach it, I will ask the Minister to consider whether it is still a

Column Number: 119

relevant provision given the way in which fire and police services might work together.

Overall, we welcome the general thrust of clause 8 and are pleased to see that the fire services' role in dealing with road traffic accidents is being placed on a statutory footing. If that is not quite an equal footing to firefighting, at least the importance of the role is being recognised.

3.15 pm

Richard Younger-Ross: We debated fire safety and what fire officers can do to prevent fires. Does the Minister envisage that fire authorities will have a role in road traffic safety? A number of senior fire officers have asked that question. They would welcome that power, should it be given to them.

Mr. Raynsford: The clause is an important part of the new statutory framework for the fire and rescue service. It places a duty on all fire and rescue authorities to make provision for rescuing people from road traffic accidents and protecting them from serious harm in the aftermath of such accidents. Historically, the risk of fire was the trigger for attendance by firefighters at a road traffic accident. However, while advances in vehicle design have seen a decrease in the incidence of fires following accidents, calls to free people from wreckage and to deal with the aftermath of, for example, the spillage of hazardous substances have, sadly, increased dramatically. Fire and rescue authorities now rescue twice as many casualties from road traffic accidents as they do from fires. All fire and rescue authorities now deal with road traffic accidents. The clause puts what has become a mainstream function on a clear and appropriate statutory footing. That has been widely welcomed. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge welcomed the clause.

As with clause 7, the fire and rescue authority is required to make arrangements for the efficient discharge of its duty to deal with road traffic accidents. In particular, it must ensure that equipment, personnel and services are available. Clause 8 also places an authority under an obligation to ensure that personnel are trained, that it has in place appropriate mechanisms for receiving calls—we have dealt with that—and that it can contact staff and obtain information necessary to exercise its functions. Those provisions closely mirror the duties in respect of firefighting. The hon. Gentleman should not be too concerned about the slight differences in the definition. They do not imply a downgrading of the road traffic accident element, which is a significant part of the role of fire and rescue authorities.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge raised the question of whether the fire and rescue services should take greater responsibility for road safety. That would be a step too far. It would run across existing arrangements and would involve considerable expectation of further activity by fire and rescue services at a time when they already have substantial obligations and responsibilities in other areas. We do not believe that it would be right to extend their functions in that area, although we recognise that they have an important role to play in ensuring that the

Column Number: 120

public are safeguarded in the event of road traffic accidents and during their aftermath. That is a hugely important role, but we do not see them taking over responsibility for road safety from others.

Mr. Hammond: Although I cannot put my hands on it at the moment, I know from one of the briefings that I received that at least one fire authority interpreted the Bill as giving it powers to carry out road safety work. Is the Minister saying he does not want fire authorities to be the lead authority, or is he saying that it would be ultra vires for a fire authority to carry out such work?

Mr. Raynsford: I fully sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. At this stage in the Committee, the proliferation of paper is such that it is not always possible to put one's hands on things at the right moment.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is very much our view that fire and rescue authorities should not take the lead responsibility. However, we recognise that there are circumstances in which they have special expertise and skills to contribute to road safety, as well as fire safety, campaigns. However, it is important that a process of ill-thought-out mission-creep does not transform them into the lead authority in respect of road safety. We expect the fire rescue authorities, when discharging their duties, to take reasonable steps to limit damage to property resulting from their actions. That again mirrors the firefighting provisions.

Mr. Drew: My right hon. Friend did not really answer my point on the hierarchy that almost exists between the different services, and I have a question on the back of that. Do all fire appliances have the necessary resources to ensure that they are properly equipped to deal with road traffic accidents? Areas such as mine, which have a high preponderance of retained firefighters, cannot, with the best will in the world, have the same level of kit. Will my right hon. Friend say something about that, as it is not in the Bill?

Mr. Raynsford: I can say two things to my hon. Friend. First, existing operational protocols determine that, at road traffic accidents, the emergency service that is first on the scene can exercise a lead role. I expect that, in the world in which we live, there will be a growing need to define the circumstances in which there is interdependence between the services, for a variety of reasons. We believe that that is the right way forward, rather than putting a hierarchy in the Bill.

Can my hon. Friend remind me of his second point?

Mr. Drew: It was on resources. I asked my right hon. Friend whether the Bill should state that any fire appliance that has to deal with road traffic accidents must have sufficient resources because of the differing status of full-time firefighters and their equipment, and retained firefighters.

Mr. Raynsford: The duty requires the authority to equip for, and respond to, a range of responsibilities, including road traffic accidents. That suggests a need to ensure adequate provision. It will be for the individual fire authority to determine how that is best deployed. There have been some interesting

Column Number: 121

debates about whether there is a case for creating new rescue centres in critical locations close to parts of the road network where accidents occur regularly and where the presence of a team that can respond quickly might be effective in saving lives. Such a centre could be considered by the fire and rescue authority, which might want to discuss with the other emergency services the most co-ordinated approach to adopt.

As regards the equipment to be carried by an individual appliance, again it is for the authority, in developing its integrated risk management plans, to consider how best to respond to the range of risks.

The Bill gives a general framework. The national framework, which we are publishing and will be given statutory effect by the Bill, goes much further in setting out our expectations. It is for the authorities, in defining their IRMPs, to set out how, locally, they can best respond to those challenges.

The Bill creates an important new duty, which sets the right basis for the service to plan ahead and make the necessary provision to contribute to the important work of saving lives and rescuing people from road traffic accidents. I hope that the clause will stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 12 February 2004