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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 5 September 2012

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

Fire and Rescue Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)

9.30 am

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, for what I believe is the first time. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for all his work to build a cross-party consensus on this issue, particularly on the impact of funding cuts on metropolitan authorities.

It is clear from the number of right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber that there is considerable concern about the impact of cuts to fire and rescue services, and their effect on the services’ ability to protect the communities they serve. I pay tribute to firefighters in Tyne and Wear and across the country who take risks every day on our behalf. Sadly, firefighters can too often be injured or even killed in the line of duty. We owe it to those brave men and women, and the public they protect, to ensure that they have all the resources and support that they need to do their job properly.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber, although I am not sure whether he will have responsibility for the fire service—I am trying to keep up with all the reshuffle business. I hope that he will approach the debate with an open mind and consider the arguments that are made. Those arguments have been set out strongly over the past two years, and they will continue to be made about the settlement for 2013 to 2015.

The Minister for Housing (Mr Mark Prisk): I appreciate that this is not the custom, Mr Bayley, but I thank the hon. Lady for that. The attitude she suggests has always been my general approach as a Minister. I am fresh in the job—dare I say it, I am firefighting the debate. Perhaps I may put my point in the form of a question and ask her to understand that I would hope to continue to approach the matter in the manner in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) did.

Bridget Phillipson: I am glad to hear that the Minister will deal with the matter in that way and continue the cross-party work that has been done to try to resolve something that is in the interest of all our constituents.

I call on the Minister to implement a fairer funding settlement for fire and rescue services in the period 2013 to 2015. I ask him to listen to the arguments and to do the right thing for the service, for the firefighters who put their lives on the line for us, and for the public who depend on the risks they take.

In the first two years of the period covered by the comprehensive spending review, formula grant funding for fire and rescue services nationally decreased by about 6.5%, but Tyne and Wear had a cash cut of twice the national average. Many hon. Members have questioned whether the cuts were made fairly and equitably.

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Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a good point about averages. For example, does she realise that in Durham and Darlington the figure for the first year is 14%, while for the second it is 15%?

Bridget Phillipson: My hon. Friend’s constituency is not covered by a metropolitan authority, but Durham and Tyne and Wear face many of the same challenges. We do much cross-border work, and that will increase as a result of natural events such as flooding. We will call on firefighters from different authorities to provide cover and help out where needed.

The metropolitan authorities—West Midlands, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, and Tyne and Wear—have shouldered the biggest burden so far. In the previous settlement, 11 non-metropolitan services received extra funding, while all six mets received budget cuts. The Minister may touch on the fact that the formula employed by the previous Government has been used, but changing the weighting of four crucial blocks caused significant disadvantage to areas such as mine with a reduced council tax base. The cuts have so far led to Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service losing 68 full-time firefighters, 31% of enforcement staff, 28% of support staff and one pump.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned West Midlands authority and the formula. Does she agree that West Midlands relies on 80% Government funding and that changes to the formula should therefore be considered carefully? The settlement will inflict a big deterioration on the service, will cost jobs and will affect safety.

Bridget Phillipson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I share that view; the problem is the same in Tyne and Wear. I hope that the Minister will listen and change the formula to deal with that problem.

In addition to the cuts in Tyne and Wear, there has been a freeze on the recruitment of firefighters in the past two years, and that could extend to 2015-16, and perhaps as late as 2017. We hear from the Government about the need for back-office savings—I agree—but if Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service had scrapped its back office entirely, it still would not have made all the savings required by the Government due to the settlement it received. The scale of the cuts that the mets face will continue to have an impact on the front line, putting the public and firefighters at risk.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I recently visited the fire station at Elswick in my constituency, where I was impressed by firefighters’ bravery and dedication, and by their commitment to serve the community and to do as much to prevent fire as to put it out. Does my hon. Friend agree that losing firefighters of that calibre will undoubtedly cost more in lives, property and money in the long run than it will save?

Bridget Phillipson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I agree that prevention is vital, yet many of the firefighters we are losing have considerable expertise and have served their communities for a long time, and we cannot even replace them because we have a recruitment

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freeze. By losing those experienced men and women, however, we will lose the vital experience that they have gained over many years, and they will not be able to pass that on to recruits coming through the ranks.

Last week, I met Tyne and Wear Fire Brigades Union representatives who expressed their concern that the fact that there is no spare capacity left will lead to challenges in responding to major incidents. That is borne out by the view of chief fire officer Tom Capeling, who has made it clear that the cross-border work that Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service does with Durham and Darlington and Northumberland fire and rescue services will be put at risk by reductions in the number of firefighters, especially if there are repeats of major incidents such as widespread flooding over several days. The potential impact of a 13.5% reduction in total funding in 2013 to 2015 could be the tipping point that puts years of preventive work—and, ultimately, people’s lives—at risk.

To put things into context, in addition to the cuts of 68 full-time firefighters and 28% of back-office staff that have already taken place, a 13.5% reduction in 2013 to 2015 would mean that 136 additional full-time firefighters would be lost, along with 12 retained firefighters and up to four pumps. It is estimated that a more severe cut of 27% would result in Tyne and Wear alone in the cutting of a further 208 full-time firefighters—almost a third—and the loss of 10 pumps. Any further reductions should be calculated in a way that takes account of important social and demographic factors. We must avoid the outcomes of the previous settlement round when some of the highest-risk areas had their funding cut while authorities that faced reduced challenges received an increase in their revenue spending power. The then Minister suggested that he was surprised by the outcomes, but surely this time we should deliver a fair settlement, and there should be no surprises.

Of course everyone, including the met authorities, recognises that savings need to be made. What the mets and the firefighters object to is the Government’s prioritisation of deficit reduction at the expense of public safety. How can it be justified that the areas of the country that are the most populous, deprived and susceptible to fire risk will have their budgets disproportionately cut? Under the Government’s future planned spending cuts, preventive work will suffer. In Tyne and Wear, preventive efforts such as installing smoke alarms, speaking to children in the community and the pioneering Phoenix project have led to a reduction in the number of primary fires between 2005-06 and 2010-11 of more than 50%. Installing smoke alarms allows fires to be discovered sooner, thus reducing the number of deaths and the amount of damage to property.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I draw her attention to the enormous amount of preventive work that has been done by the fire service in Staffordshire. Ours is one of the best performing fire authorities, with a cost of £40 per person across Staffordshire, but such modernisation and a new way of working on the preventive side is being put at risk by the flat-rate proposals for cuts across the board. Does she agree that the Government need to take account of the real inroads that authorities such as Staffordshire have made?

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Bridget Phillipson: My hon. Friend is right that such factors should be considered. It has been put to me that the Government need to look at reshaping the formula entirely. The formula was used when times were better and it was possible to make increases to the budget, but given the scale of the reductions that we face, perhaps it needs to be entirely revisited so that the factors that my hon. Friend touched on, and others such as deprivation, can be addressed. That process is crucial to ensuring that there is a fair settlement for all fire and rescue authorities. Clearly, my priority is to secure the best possible deal for Tyne and Wear, but I know that she wants exactly the same for the people of Staffordshire.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. This is the second such debate to be held, and I hope that we will continue to have them until the Government make their decision. I hope to have the opportunity to make representations on behalf of Merseyside fire and rescue service.

My hon. Friend talks about prevention, so does she share my concern that, nationally, there has been a reduction of more than 14% in the number of smoke alarms fitted and of 14% in the number of hours spent on arson prevention work over the past two years, both of which have led to increases in the number of fire casualties and arson incidents over that period? Is not that why prevention is so crucial?

Bridget Phillipson: My hon. Friend is entirely right and she highlights important figures. Just because prevention work has happened, we cannot imagine that past improvements will always continue. Often, especially in deprived areas, firefighters have to return to homes more than once—for example, where there is a higher turnover of tenants, especially in the private rented sector—to ensure that they have working smoke alarms. Such work has to be repeated and must continue all year round; a one-off visit will not do the job.

At times when families face a real squeeze on household budgets, many are cutting back on home contents insurance. That has led many families to lose all their worldly possessions, which they do not have the means to replace, due to fire. It is crucial that such families receive advice and working smoke alarms from their local fire brigade, but the funding cuts that many authorities face are putting that important work at risk.

The Government’s funding cuts will inevitably lead to the mets being unable to carry out important preventive work on the scale previously undertaken. Reducing the number of hours spent on prevention through making firefighters redundant is an incredibly short-sighted approach, because less prevention means more fires. Under Labour, from 2005-06 to 2009-10, the number of deaths from fire fell steadily across Britain. It would be a tragedy if the number were to rise again in the years ahead due to the scaling back of prevention work.

I am proud of the role that Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service plays in contributing to our nation’s fire and rescue resilience capability. The mets contain the majority of the UK’s urban search and rescue teams, and detection, identification and monitoring vehicles, as well as a third of incident response units and a quarter of the high-volume pumps. Many of those assets are funded separately by the Government, but the

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support personnel and back-up needed to operate such equipment are being lost. Further deep cuts will damage our nation’s capacity to respond to threats of natural disasters, civil disorder and terrorist incidents.

Several cross-party meetings were held with the previous Minister with the aim of resolving the situation, and I hope that they will continue with the new Minister. We need a fair and equitable settlement that does not jeopardise the progress made through preventive work nor places in harm’s way the communities that our fire and rescue services protect. I call on the Minister to implement a fair funding settlement across fire and rescue services for 2013 to 2015. Those services face a period of intense pressure and change that will place huge strains on their ability to deliver front-line services. It takes only a short time to weaken front-line services and demoralise firefighters, but a long time for that to be restored. It is in the interests of all our constituents that a solution is found before it is too late.

Several hon. Members rose

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I would like everybody to have the opportunity to speak. There are 11 Members standing and we have about 45 minutes left, so hon. Members can do the maths as well as I can—you have about four or five minutes each. If speeches last much longer than that, I may have to send a message to the Deputy Speaker to ask him to impose a firm time limit.

9.44 am

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Thank you, Mr Bayley. I will try to do my speech in about six minutes, depending on interventions of course. I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate, but particular congratulations should go to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for his excellent work in what is a cross-party campaign. Although there may not be many Government Members here, that is merely because the metropolitan areas are primarily represented by Opposition Members, so one therefore presumes that the proportion of people here is much the same on both sides of the Chamber.

Mr Kevan Jones: Possibly the reason why many Conservatives are not here is that they have actually looked after their authorities through the formula funding.

John Hemming: My point was in relation to the proportion of people in metropolitan areas, not in proportion to the number of Members.

Joan Walley: Will the hon. Gentleman take into account the fact that I represent Staffordshire, which is not a metropolitan area, but that I do not see any Government Members from Staffordshire here?

John Hemming: I was referring to Members from metropolitan areas. We do not have many Government Members from metropolitan areas, but a lot of them have turned up, while many who are not here are also concerned about this issue.

Obviously, we disagree with some of the things said by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South. The reality is that we are in a very difficult financial position. I refer the hon. Lady, who hopes that

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we can spend our way out of recession, to Sir James Callaghan’s speech in 1976 in which he basically said that that was not possible. We face the challenge of how to deal with a reducing budget nationally in an equitable and acceptable manner. My personal view is that, because of various constraints, we are going to face austerity for some time beyond the next general election and possibly into the 2020s. It is therefore very important that whatever mechanism is used to distribute funding across the country is equitable.

Local government funding—in many ways, fire and rescue is part of that—has been referred to as being like the Schleswig-Holstein question as it is very difficult to understand. It was perceived as unjust that, under this complex formula, certain areas of the country had much greater cuts than others. It is a complex formula, so it is difficult to see the equity in that result. When there are places, such as in the metropolitan areas, that are much more dependent on grant funding, the cuts in grant funding will impact much more on the total budget of some organisations than on those of others.

In meetings with the Minister’s predecessor, we asked him to ensure that fire and rescue service officers in the mets had direct contact with civil servants in the Department for Communities and Local Government, so that the operation of the formula was transparent. In some circumstances, there should be a floors-and-ceilings type of approach to avoid a situation in which some authorities get more money and others get less. That would obviously be difficult, because there are changes in demand—some areas will see much higher growth in the number of people living there than other areas, and consequently have greater demand.

The essence of the situation is that the funding conclusion is perceived by both Government and Opposition Back Benchers to be unfair. When the budget is constrained, that relates both to prevention and to incident responses. We all pay tribute to the excellent work done by firefighters throughout the country in protecting our constituents but, at the end of the day, there has to be a long-term solution that is seen as equitable across the country. That is the challenge for the Government, as it will be for future Governments. When there are no more goodies to share out, but there are constrained circumstances, it is a nil-sum game in which increasing spending in one area means having to reduce spending in another; that is the difficulty.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): I agree, as will some of my hon. Friends, with part of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he really believe that the fact that so few Government Members represent metropolitan areas is unrelated to the outcome, which is that those areas are facing the biggest cuts?

John Hemming: No, I do not believe that. We have a complex formula into which figures have been slotted and an outcome has emerged. That is not the cause. My argument was that, given the relatively small number of Members who represent metropolitan constituencies, a large proportion of such Members in the Chamber today are Government Members. That demonstrates that concern about the formula—my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who could not be here today, is equally concerned about this—exists among both Opposition and Government Back Benchers.

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Obviously, the Minister has just been chucked into this and cannot give us any major assurances now, but what is critical is that the long term has to be far more transparent and far more equitable.

9.50 am

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important and timely debate in Westminster Hall. It will help to underpin and underline the strong cross-party concern about the future funding of our fire services.

I pay tribute to the former Minister, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). He understood the fire services and had a long track record in local government. I hope that he may yet emerge from this reshuffle with another post. I also welcome the new Minister to his post and hope that he picks up the brief in the same way as his predecessor. May I say to him that we are here to help, as are his hon. Friends, the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady)?

Essentially, we are all here to argue our case. Many of us representing parts of the six metropolitan areas of South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands feel that the year one and year two cuts in the fire and rescue services were unfair, unequal and hard to justify. Let me explain. The settlement for the first two years brought cuts to the budgets of most of the 31 fire and rescue services across the country. It brought especially deep cuts in the six metropolitan areas, but it also brought funding increases to six of those fire and rescue authorities. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government—and the Minister’s hon. Friend—who represented one of the winning authorities in the first two years, described that situation as “ludicrous”.

The previous Minister said that he was surprised by that result. Some of those in fire and rescue authorities looking at grant increases over those two years were astonished, and many of us in the six metropolitan areas were angry. We heard and we took at face value what the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had said about all being in this together. We believed that the previous Minister misspoke in the Commons Chamber when he said that the poorest would have to bear the greatest burden in paying for the deficit. The situation that we faced in these first two years was indefensible. While six of those authorities were wondering how to spend the extra cash they had, the six metropolitan areas were working out how to cut 1,258 full-time firefighters, 69 retained firefighters and more than 550 other staff in this spending review period.

In South Yorkshire alone, we have to cut one in seven of our full-time firefighters. The fire chiefs have been reasonable and restrained in their response. They have accepted the year one and year two settlement. They have come together for the first time ever to make a joint case and they have produced strong evidence and strong reports. They have concentrated their concern on years three and four, on which the Minister will have to make decisions in the next month or so, and they have

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argued not that there should be no cuts but that there should be a flat-rate percentage cut for all 31 fire and rescue services across the country.

Many of us as Labour MPs in the six metropolitan areas believe that there is a case for reversing the pattern of cuts in years one and two in years three and four. We see the situation as iniquitous and inexplicable as well as indefensible. We are ready to back the fire chiefs and we have worked across area and across party to make that reasoned and restrained case to Government.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my right hon. Friend not think that that would entrench the unfairness in the formula funding, and certainly would not help County Durham and Darlington fire service?

John Healey: My hon. Friend underlines the modest case that the fire chiefs have been making, which many Labour MPs have been prepared to back. Indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South did so today. The scheme does entrench the unfair pattern that we have seen in years one and two, but, from the fire chiefs’ point of view, it recognises that the Fire Minister, unless he is going to renegotiate the settlement with the Treasury for years three and four, will have to find cuts worth more than £130 million in the next couple of years.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): I add my voice to the praise that has been heaped on my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done on this subject. On the question of unfairness and the difference between the six metropolitan districts and the rest, does not the Merseyside case make that point very well? We have one of the highest incident rates, yet we also have one of the highest negative funding differences. That illustrates the point he is making. We have to be selective, but we also need to bend the rules a little towards those who are in the greatest difficulty.

John Healey: My right hon. Friend is right. There is a pattern of deep cuts, especially in the six metropolitan areas, and it is strongest in poorest areas with the highest number of fires; urban areas in which the risk of fires is greatest; metropolitan brigades that have done the most over the past decade to become more efficient; and the six fire and rescue authorities that have done the most, and do the most, to cover other areas in cases of national emergency such as flooding, terrorism and major incidents. If the pattern of years one and two is repeated in years three and four, our areas together will be looking at axing an extra 1,000 firefighters, 150 extra staff and another 40 fire engines.

We worked with the Minister’s predecessor very closely over the past nine months. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, his officials and the chief fire officer for the way in which they have worked. I also pay tribute to the chief constables, their staff, the unions and the members of the fire and rescue authorities in the six metropolitan areas.

In the past nine months, we have given the Government fair warning, and the Minister should take this as a final warning. He is close to having to make a decision. If the cuts fall in the same way, so deeply and so unfairly in the metropolitan areas, there will be fewer firefighters, fire engines and fire stations. Bluntly, more people will die.

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Let me offer a solution to the Minister—we argued this with his predecessor—and encourage him as a fresh Minister to take a fresh look and learn from the Home Secretary. This year, each of the 43 police authorities have had an even cut in their budgets of 6.7%. Last year, each and every one of them had the same cut of 5.1%. and it was done through the floor-damping mechanism. Exactly the same policy is at the Minister’s disposal to apply to the 31 fire and rescue authorities. It would be more equitable. It would still be tough, and it would be especially tough in those metropolitan areas that have some of the highest need, the highest risk, the lowest council tax base and the weakest levels of economic growth but, none the less, the fire chiefs are prepared to accept that and go with it.

Finally, will the Minister take a fresh look at how fire and rescue authorities are treated in the future? He should adopt the same approach to those authorities as has been taken to the police. In the middle of July, his Department produced a big document on the consultation on business rates retention. It confirms that in future, police authorities will be funded outside the new business rates retention scheme. The document says that the reason for doing so is that it is recognised

“that the police have limited levers to influence growth.”

Exactly the same argument applies to the fire and rescue services. The fire service, which is also an emergency service, has exactly the same need for stable and predictable funding. I urge the Minister to take a leaf out of the Home Secretary’s book, for years three and four, and for the long term. Let us put the funding of fire services on a proper footing—and a fairer footing—for the future.

Several hon. Members rose

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I remind colleagues that time is slipping. We are down to about four minutes per speaker.

10.3 am

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr Bayley, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I will heed your injunction and restrict my remarks. Nevertheless, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate and I am also pleased to speak after my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). I recognise the work that he has done on this issue in highlighting the position of the metropolitan authorities. Indeed, we both have the opportunity to speak for the South Yorkshire authority.

We need to acknowledge the enormous achievements of firefighters and our fire authorities recently. In the 10 years up to 2010, fire deaths fell by 30% and fire casualties fell by 40%. Those are extraordinary achievements by those in the front line, backed by government. However, those achievements are at risk. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South has pointed out, fire casualties in dwellings have increased by 7% since 2010. That is an issue of critical importance, as those statistics highlight.

That issue is deeply worrying for all parts of the country, but I want to focus on the position of the metropolitan authorities, because it appears that the approach of the

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Government to fire service funding, as with so many of their policies, is hitting hardest those who are most in need.

The Minister might argue that metropolitan fire authorities receive a higher level of funding. I anticipate that he will do so and I recognise that they have a marginally higher level of spending power than other forces, but that is for a reason: there are bigger risks in urban areas with higher levels of deprivation. That is shown in the fire statistics. I urge the Minister to address the real financial position of the metropolitan authorities by looking at the spend per fire. In that respect, the metropolitan authorities are the most efficient authorities, with the lowest level of spending. Of the seven authorities with the lowest spend per fire, six are the metropolitan authorities. My own authority—South Yorkshire—spends less than half the money per fire that is spent in, for example, East Sussex.

As has been pointed out, the metropolitan authorities have already been making significant savings. They have responded to the situation by reducing senior management teams, rationalising back-office functions, improving performance management and looking at better provision of service. Enormous amounts of work have been done. The work on fire prevention has perhaps been most important. During the past five years, the South Yorkshire fire service has cut the number of fires by 45% and achieved a reduction of almost 60% in deaths and injuries from fires. Those extraordinary achievements have resulted from investing in fire prevention.

However, that investment is at risk from the perverse formula, and the consequences arising from it, that the Government are seeking to push through. The chief fire officer of the South Yorkshire service is clear about the impact for our area. He says that the reduction in appliance and firefighter levels that will be necessary will seriously increase the risk to our communities. There will be an increase in deaths and injuries due to longer attendance times and a reduction in proactive community fire safety work. More people will die in fires and road traffic collisions.

That will be not only a human tragedy—and I ask the Minister to pursue a joined-up consideration across Government—but a real financial cost. It is calculated that if we returned to the 2007-08 incident levels as a result of the cuts, the extra cost across public spending would be £17.4 million.

I recognise the time constraints today, so I will conclude by asking the Minister two questions; one is specific and one is general. First, on response times, it goes without saying that the sooner that firefighters get to a fire the more likely they are to save people from death and injury. The proposed cuts will undoubtedly have an impact on response times. The South Yorkshire fire service aims for a response time to a fire of six minutes; that aim is not always achieved, but it is the aim. What does the Minister think is an acceptable response time? It is not enough for him to dodge the issue by saying, “Well, that’s a decision for local politicians”, because local politicians are working within the framework of the resources that the Government are making available. Working within that framework, I hope that he can give a specific answer.

My second question is a general one, and it has already been asked by others. Recognising the huge bulk of evidence that exists, would it not be more

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sensible for the Government to put aside the perverse and unfair weighting to the formula that is leading to the consequences that have been described today, and to accept the case that is being made by the metropolitan authorities for a fair and equitable settlement across the country?

10.6 am

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Mr Bayley, for the opportunity to speak.

Were the West Midlands fire service considered to be a fat and flabby public service, the Minister would have some justification for ignoring the things that it says or the position that it faces. In his response to the debate, will he say whether he believes that that is the situation with regard to the West Midlands fire service?

The West Midlands fire service has been at the forefront of some of the recent efficiencies and reforms, which some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have discussed in relation to their own areas. In the first 10 years of this century, the West Midlands fire service cut its fire officer numbers from 2,043 to 1,788, while maintaining a service—it has struggled to do so, but it has maintained it—of which all of us in the west midlands are proud and respectful. It has also managed to transfer resources to prevention work, which right hon. and hon. Friends have also discussed in relation to their own areas. The West Midlands fire service is not a fat and flabby organisation; it is an organisation that is doing its level best to be efficient and to provide a service, and that has faced considerable cuts already.

So far, under the formula grant imposed by the Government, the West Midlands fire service has faced a 12.6% cut. Our own chief fire officer, who is not prone to scaremongering, has said that if the Government continue with that formula,

“People will definitely be much more at risk and our ability to respond in the way we currently do will be severely disrupted, so therefore an increased chance of losing their life or suffering injury.”

Those are his words, not mine, and he believes that if the current formula continues he will have to get rid of another 300 fire officers, on top of the 300 he has lost in the past decade, and he will also have to close 11 fire stations. He also says—these are his words, and I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends disagree with this view—that he would like to see the flat rate formula apply rather than the grossly unfair formula that is currently planned. If we went to a flat rate formula, we would still face a reduction in funding in the west midlands, but not the 27% reduction that we potentially face if the current formula continues in the future.

I do not want to repeat things that other Members have said, given the severe time constraints that exist. However, I want to raise one other issue with the Minister. The chief fire officer has also said that he will inevitably have to introduce charges for call-outs in non-life-threatening situations. In some ways, I can see the attraction of that, but I really worry about it because I do not know where, down the spectrum of responses, people should be subjected to a charge, and I do not

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think that members of the public would either. Let us say that some youths light a bonfire over the fields. If a member of the public calls out the fire service, should they expect to be charged? We are talking about £412 an hour, potentially. If the youths then start throwing dustbins on to the fire, should the member of the public then feel free to phone the fire brigade without risk of a charge? At what point, as the incident escalates, would a member of the public feel safe to call the fire brigade without the risk of being charged?

I want the Minister to talk to me, and to respond to the issue of the potential introduction of charges for call-outs in non-life-threatening situations. That is the severity of the situation that is faced by the West Midlands fire service and, I am certain, by others as well.

Mr Shaun Woodward (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): We are in no doubt that the implication of the settlement being prosecuted will be an extremely unfair distribution of lives lost. The new Minister will today, undoubtedly, be given a file basically dressed up as “Minister, this is a difficult settlement. It is one that has basically been taken. Go forward with it. We have no choice.” Knowing that the settlement, if implemented, will lead to loss of life, what advice would my right hon. Friend give to the Minister, and his civil servants, given his own extraordinary experience as a Minister and a member of the Cabinet?

Mr Ainsworth: I think that the Minister will struggle to square off the different things that Ministers have said and done. They have said that we are all in it together, yet they have imposed the kind of cuts that we have seen in the west midlands and elsewhere. At the same time, the fire service in Cheshire, where the Chancellor has his seat, has seen its funding increased. There is no way that the rhetoric can stand, and the Minister must address the situation and be able to justify his decisions.

Several hon. Members rose

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I am determined to get everyone in, if I can. The Chairman of Ways and Means has authorised the imposition of a time limit on speeches. I intend to set the limit at four minutes. We have exactly 28 minutes left, which is four minutes per person. If there are interventions, you will get a minute’s injury time, but that will mean that at some later point I will have to cut the speeches to either three or two minutes long.

10.13 am

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): We have heard a lot in this debate about the effects that the Government’s cuts to fire services are having right now in communities, and about the severe impact they will have in future. I wish to focus my remarks particularly on the Merseyside fire and rescue service.

The Merseyside authority has felt the impact of above-average budget cuts imposed by the Government over the past two years, and it will be severely affected if there are any further cuts this year. If the last grant is anything to go by, the one for 2013 to 2015 will hit some of the most efficient fire services, in the most deprived areas, the hardest, forcing them to reduce front-line

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services. That will lead to firefighter jobs being lost, stations closing and lives being put in danger. Merseyside has already seen a £5.8 million reduction in its grant funding over the past two years, which is more than double the national average. The authority had allocated funds in its existing plans to meet price increases and capital costs, so the overall deficit that had to be financed was £9.2 million. There has therefore been a real-terms cut in grant of more than 20% in the past two years, while the neighbouring fire service, Cheshire, has seen an increase in its funding.

It has been difficult for Merseyside to make the cuts without affecting front-line services. The service was one of the most efficient authorities, having reduced the number of fire officers by 500 since 2002. Despite the challenging situation, the authority, led by chief fire officer, Dan Stevens, has managed the cuts, protecting front-line services wherever possible. It has not been easy, and tough choices have had to be made. Pay was frozen for three years, and back office and management were cut, making it the leanest of any comparable service, with the lowest costs per incident in the country. Reserves were spent, innovations were made, the council tax precept was raised, and 92 firefighters and 80 support staff lost their jobs.

In short, everything that could be done to ensure that the fire service kept doing the vital work of saving lives while making the required reductions, has been done, and there is no fat left to trim. In November, however, if the current formula is anything to go by, Ministers are expected to tell the Merseyside fire and rescue service that it has to save a figure somewhere between £9.5 million and £17 million. The worst-case scenario, already being prepared by the authority, is stark. Ten of Merseyside’s 26 fire stations will have to be closed; 20 fire engines will be shunted off duty, leaving just one pump at the bulk of Merseyside’s fire stations; more than 300 firefighter jobs will be axed, along with 244 support staff; and vital preventive work, including firefighter training, safety checks on homes and youth engagement programmes, will stop. That is where the unfairness of the cuts becomes obvious. Even in the best-case scenario, there is no chance that the cuts can be made without a damaging impact on Merseyside’s firefighting capability.

Why are the Government imposing blanket cuts on a fire authority that has already made huge efficiency savings, effectively punishing it for doing the right thing and running an efficient service? What risk assessment will the Government undertake of the impact of further cuts to Merseyside’s fire and rescue service budget? Merseyside has 32 of the 100 most deprived areas in the country.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry but time is up and we have to move on.

10.17 am

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate. I had not intended to speak but, because of some of the comments made by Opposition Members, I feel that something must be said for those of us who

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represent county seats run by Conservative county councils. Some of the hard luck stories, which are very real—I understand that—are shared by other counties.

I pay tribute to the local firefighters of the Suffolk fire and rescue service. The majority of the service is provided by volunteers, and I give my wholehearted support and thanks to them for their important work. I understand that fire service delivery in Suffolk has the lowest cost per head, but it has to be said that there is no expectation that there will be the same response standards that there seem to be in Sheffield. Our target is 11 minutes, and we do not meet even that, so I recognise that the lower cost sometimes comes with a different level of service from that enjoyed elsewhere. There is no question, however, but that our chief fire officer felt the effects. He did stuff to make more efficiencies and to reduce cost per head, but when Suffolk county council had to come up with a settlement, the grant was cut by 12%. The burden is therefore being shared by other parts of the country, beyond the metropolitan areas that have been highlighted.

At the time of the settlement, there was an indication that there might be an attempt to create a separate fire authority, so that a separate precept could be levied outside the county council budget. Our chief fire officer is in charge not only of the fire brigade but of trading standards, consumer protection and other such matters, and I have long argued that I would rather see a dedicated fire officer than someone with all those extra responsibilities.

When some of the cuts were proposed, I campaigned against the proposal to move from a seven-day full service in Felixstowe to a retained service. That was a step too far, and I was proud to join others in trying to ensure that changes were made on the basis of risk and also of the perception of risk by local residents. Felixstowe is on the end of a peninsula, with a huge port, and residents felt cut off from the proposed service in Ipswich. I am pleased that the county council listened, and Haverhill and Felixstowe have a service manned during the week by paid firefighters, with increased hours on call for retained firefighters at weekends. So far, that seems to have worked well. I commend the county council for listening and making those changes, which shows the importance of public confidence.

I understand why people are nervous about cuts and the reduction of fire stations, but I encourage the three emergency services to work together. Suffolk and Cambridge fire services may merge. I am not against that, but I am nervous, given the response from the ambulance service. My one political point is that the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), presided over a report that stated that £469 million of taxpayers’ money was wasted on regional centres, one of the worst wastes of Government money ever. Unfortunately, that is an example of why the Government, in trying to balance to deficit, have to make up for past mistakes. I thank her for that report, but we should recognise that areas across the country are affected, not just those perceived areas highlighted earlier.

10.21 am

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) for securing this debate.

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Nationally, the number of deliberate fires has increased by some 2.7%, and there has been a large 14% decrease in the number of hours devoted to preventing arson. Worryingly, in Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland arson has risen by more than 30% in one year. Not only have deliberate fires had human costs, they have taken £2.7 million out of the economy of Teesside and East Cleveland.

Due to funding disparities, Cleveland will receive £1.23 less per capita in 2012-13, which is the joint-heaviest cut per capita of any English fire authority, despite fire incidents per 1,000 of population being the highest in England. Cleveland is not a typical urban fire authority. Cleveland covers moorland, including North York Moors national park, where bracken moorland fires are frequent. Cleveland also has one of the largest petrochemical industry conurbations in Europe, Europe’s largest iron blast furnace and Hartlepool nuclear power station.

The Government’s devolution of responsibility—and blame—to local authorities to manage unjustified cuts to fire authorities has meant that Cleveland fire brigade has set up an arm’s length social enterprise, or community interest company. All local bodies are trying hard to make the CIC a success so that Cleveland fire brigade is cross-subsidised, as central Government cuts have left the service severely underfunded. Consequently, the potential fallout of the CIC securing private sector industrial contracts has left some retained firefighters in a precarious situation.

The vast majority of retained firefighters working in fire stations across East Cleveland, such as those in Saltburn, Skelton, Loftus and Guisborough in my constituency, work mainly in private sector fire services within the Teesside chemical industry conurbation and for one firm, which previously held specific contracts with the industry on Teesside, but the CIC has taken away one of the contracts. As a result, retained firefighters are now being informed that their employment with the industrial firm is suspect due to a conflict of interest. That is an unforeseen consequence of the Government’s cuts and shows the failures within the big society model. Retained firefighter recruitment depends on key sector workers working in sites on Teesside with specific industrial needs. Cleveland fire brigade and local authorities are doing what they can, but the Government have essentially devolved responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

10.23 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I am secretary of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group and we consistently said to the previous Minister that in such times of constrained resources the Government have a duty to be open and transparent about decision making. We have consistently highlighted the lack of central monitoring of information and the collection and publication of data. The FBU has had to resort to freedom of information requests to get information on what is happening nationally.

Between April 2010 and March 2011, 1,184 firefighter posts were cut. Between 31 March 2011 and 31 March 2012, 1,457 firefighter posts and 715 support staff were

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cut. In that last year, 2,210 jobs went within the fire service. A total of 2,641 front-line firefighter jobs have been cut in the past two years.

Metropolitan boroughs have been hit the hardest, and we have heard how inequitable the settlement is. Undoubtedly, there has been political interference. Data have been doctored to ensure that the poorest areas have been hit the hardest. The FBU has made it clear that, because of the abolition of national standards, there is no clear monitoring by national Government of what is happening at local level.

The FBU’s position is straightforward: the front line is not being protected. The autumn settlement for 2013-15 is worrying. Now is the time to make the case for the fire service. The FBU’s case is simple and straightforward: enough is enough. The service is under such pressure that lives are at risk. This is not shroud waving; it is the serious judgment of the men and women on the front line. They are the people who go into burning buildings, and they are saying that the cuts have a direct impact on their service, which is being put at risk.

It is not only the FBU—the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities reported to the Select Committee in July. AMFRA considered a range of cuts between 13.5% and 27%, and the losses in front-line firefighter posts ranged from 1,583 to 2,543, which is between 11 and 31 fire station closures. That cannot be addressed by natural wastage; there is now a threat of compulsory redundancies and the resultant risk of industrial conflict.

The principal officers of the metropolitan fire services were asked whether lives would be put at risk. The officer from the west midlands said:

“People would definitely be at much more risk, and our ability to respond in the way we currently do would be severely disrupted. Therefore, those people have an increased chance of losing their life or suffering injury, and therefore, damage to the infrastructure of the country as well.”

That argument is overwhelming, and needs to be considered by the new Minister. As others have said, we will assist him in negotiations with the Treasury, if necessary, because the service is under such strain that our constituents fear for their lives.

Several hon. Members rose

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. We have 13 minutes before I call the winding-up speakers. There are four other Members who wish to speak, so I have to set a three-minute limit.

10.27 am

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his post. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for his work.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said that there have to be cuts, and my my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (Mr John Healey) talked about the usual mantra that we are all in this together. Well, I am sorry, but we are not all in this together. The Government have constructed

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the funding of fire and rescue services in the same way as local government funding. They have rigged the formula to protect and help their own areas.

I accept what the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) has said, but people need to look at the figures. County Durham and Darlington, in 2011-12 and 2012-13, lost 11.7% of its grant, which resulted in the loss of 40 firefighters and 20 other staff. We can compare that with the figures for more deprived areas, such as the Royal Berkshire fire service and look at incidents per 1,000 of population, for example, and consider the funding per capita for 2012-13. Durham has 9.16 incidents per 1,000 of population, but its funding per capita has been cut by 49p. Deprived Royal Berkshire has nearly half the number of incidents, 5.6 per 1,000, but its grant has been increased by 21p per capita. That is also the case with regard to cuts. Royal Berkshire fire and rescue has had to cut only eight firefighters and five staff.

I am against embedding injustice in the system. The flatline system will not help County Durham. We need a root-and-branch look at how the funding is being skewed to help areas represented by Conservative Members—unsurprisingly, they are not here to protest. I also remind the Liberal Democrats on County Durham council that it is their Government who are taking money away from the fire and rescue service there.

10.30 am

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for leading the fight for fairer funding with determination, as is his way.

I pay tribute to Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service for its continued hard work to keep my constituents—and, for that matter, my family and me—safe. Over the past four years, that hard work has translated into great improvements in the service’s performance indicators. The number of primary fires has halved, as has the number of accidental fires in homes, and fatalities have fallen by more than 60%, with no fatalities at all in the first quarter of this financial year.

That success owes as much to the competent and speedy response of appliance crews and dispatchers as to the service’s great preventive work, whether in education programmes in schools about the dangers of fire or on testing smoke alarms. Many of the improvements can be attributed to the excellent leadership of former chief fire officer Iain Bathgate. Unfortunately for Tyne and Wear’s new chief, Tom Capeling, his main task will be balancing the cuts that we are discussing.

The Minister is new to his post, but he has said that he will continue his predecessor’s stance, which I believe was simply to defend and push through the cuts that he was given. I hope that the new Minister will revisit the facts. The fact is that the Department’s own equality impact assessment makes it clear that the budget reductions will hit the poorest areas hardest. The size of the budget reductions faced by metropolitan authorities such as Tyne and Wear mean that simply streamlining back-office costs and slimming down procurement costs will not be

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enough. Front-line services, including fire officers, will have to be cut. That, of course, is after preventive services have been cut to the bone.

It is estimated that Tyne and Wear will lose 100 front- line fire officers and 70 staff by the end of this Parliament. I have heard it argued that local authorities can step up and take over that preventive work in order to free up fire service employees to concentrate on responding to incidents. However, as the Minister will know all too well, local authorities, especially those in deprived areas such as Sunderland that have suffered deeper cuts than the county shires, are struggling to meet even their statutory duties, let alone pick up other agencies’ functions.

These issues have not been concocted by Labour politicians. They are being raised by those on the front line who we rely on to be there in times of need. We must also remember the risk to the lives of firemen and women. Fewer staff members inevitably means more shifts, a greater risk of crew understaffing due to absences and greater fatigue and stress, all of which can lead to mistakes or bad judgments, which could put officers in harm’s way. I therefore implore the Minister to engage more constructively with the metropolitan fire service chiefs and the elected councillors who sit on authority boards, so that he has a better idea of the challenge they face and what cuts they can absorb without having to stop doing all the things that we need them to do.

10.33 am

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Once again, I place on record my gratitude and praise for the work done by our brave firefighters every day. I also welcome the Minister to his new post.

It is a testament to the feeling in the House and our constituencies that we are here again asking questions of a Government who have thus far fallen short of providing answers. Merseyside MPs have made it abundantly clear that, under the formula used by the Government, Merseyside fire and rescue service will be penalised as a victim of its own success. MFRS boasts the leanest management structure in the country and has worked hard for many years with schools, council tenants and businesses across the sub-region to ensure that they are as fire-safe as possible. We cut the fat of our own accord before others even recognised it, but we are now being financially stripped to the bone.

Let me make the following points absolutely clear to the new Minister, as it appears that the debate earlier this year did little to change his predecessor’s mindset. In 2011-12, Merseyside’s grant cut was almost twice the national average, and its grant cut for 2012-13 will be more than three times the national average. That means that our total grant has been slashed by £9 million in the first two years of this disastrous and desperately unfair comprehensive spending review.

The Minister knows that that is dangerous. The Prime Minister knows it, and the people of Merseyside certainly know it. It is a bitter pill to swallow when we consider the backdrop across the country. Although Merseyside’s grant cut has been more than the national average in both the past two years, six shire authorities, none of which is anywhere near the top of the most deprived areas list, have received increases. The Government would know that if they had carried out a comprehensive

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risk assessment of the effects of the cuts, and I suspect that the Minister’s predecessor has already come to regret that omission.

No one doubts that such decisions are tough for this Government, as they would be for any Government, but that is no excuse for them to be patently unfair. For the good of the people of Merseyside, for the sake of their safety and in the name of common sense, I urge the new Minister to reconsider his Department’s fire funding decisions.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I call Grahame M. Morris. You have until 10.40 am—that is an extra 30 seconds.

10.36 am

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I am deeply honoured, Mr Bayley; thank you very much. I will make a few remarks in the limited time available, although I know that I have another 30 seconds. I had prepared quite a long contribution, but I will concentrate on a few points.

I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate. The number of Labour Members attending and the quality of the contributions indicate how important and timely it is. I do not envy the task that the Minister faces, but this is an opportunity for him to answer some of our questions and to take a number of our concerns on board. In the spirit of generosity, I wish him well in his new post.

I place on record my thanks to the men and women of County Durham and Darlington fire and rescue service, and my appreciation of the excellent work that they do not only to tackle fires, but on County Durham’s two major roads—the A19 trunk road and the A1M. They deal with many hazardous road traffic accidents. We had a meeting last night with the Environment Agency and Northumbrian Water, and the fire brigade played a tremendous part after the exceptional weather events and flooding in the north-east. It is very much on the front line of public services. I remind the Minister of the promises made about protecting the front line. If the fire and rescue service is not the front line, I do not know what is.

On equity and fairness, the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) suggested that it is not just an issue of metropolitan and shire counties. I tend to agree, as the situation affects not only metropolitan brigades, but my own authority of County Durham and Darlington. Our grant reduction for 2011-12 and 2012-13 was 11.76%, and under the arrangements that are being considered, we face cuts of 14% to 15% over the next two years.

Let us compare that with more affluent areas. While I do not suggest that there is no risk involved, Oxfordshire’s fire and rescue service faces cuts of three firefighters and two staff. By contrast, Durham is looking at losing 40 firefighters and 20 staff. In the neighbouring metropolitan areas, Cleveland is looking at losing 180, and Tyne and Wear more than 100, in addition to 70 staff. The cuts are not being applied fairly and equitably.

I appeal to the Minister to consider how the cuts are being applied. To echo the comments of hon. Members from other parts of the country, in many authorities

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such as mine, extensive efforts have already been made to produce efficiencies, so the efficiency argument does not apply. We have already consolidated the number of fire stations and taken a risk-based approach to assessing appropriate fire cover. In my area, we have double the national average area of fire cover for each station. Our response times—perhaps this is the same as in Suffolk Coastal—are also double those of metropolitan areas. We cannot afford for that position to worsen.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): We now come to the winding-up speeches. I thank hon. Members for co-operating with the slightly messy arrangements for time limits, but at least they meant that everybody was able to make some of the points that they wished to raise.

10.40 am

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate. She put forward an eloquent and cogent argument in favour of a change of direction from the Government, so I hope that the Minister was listening.

I welcome the Minister to the debate. I know that he is not yet sure whether he will be covering the fire brief, but I hope that he will use his influence in the Department for Communities and Local Government to stand up for the fire service. Given the strength of feeling that we have heard in the Chamber, it is vital that he and the rest of the team do that.

The previous Minister with responsibility for the fire and rescue service, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), had a good track record. In a previous incarnation, I think that he was chair of the London fire brigade, so he knew about the fire service. I know that he felt pleased with himself for managing to secure for the fire service a back-loaded cuts agenda; in other words, the cuts faced by the fire and rescue service will be more severe in years three and four. He felt that that made it possible for the fire and rescue service to prepare for and plan the implementation of the stringent and severe cuts that are coming down the road. The truth, however, is that the cuts have already been incredibly severe. Not just hon. Members but the fire chiefs themselves are now saying that health and safety, and indeed lives, are being put at risk by the scale of the cuts, and that if we go further with the planned cuts, the consequences will be dire.

The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said that this was a nationwide problem. I absolutely agree with her and those who made similar points. I hope she will join us in opposing the further planned cuts and stand up for a fairer settlement for the fire and rescue service across the country, because, let us face it, there is no fat left to cut. The fire and rescue service has already found efficiency savings of £117 million. There is no further fat to cut. Let us be clear: the scale of the cuts has meant that thousands of firefighters have already lost their jobs. The £117 million in efficiency savings is the equivalent of 3,217 firefighters. If those efficiency savings were not forced on the fire and rescue service, there would not be such an impact on response times and fire prevention work, and lives would not be put at risk in such a way.

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John Hemming: Is the Opposition’s position that there should be no further cuts, or that the cuts should be equal?

Chris Williamson: Well, we would not be starting from here—let me put it like that. The cuts have gone much too far already. After listening to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, I thought that he was on the same page that we all are.

John Hemming indicated dissent.

Chris Williamson: The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head now, so he is not. I hope that he agrees, however, that the cuts have been very severe. If the further planned cuts go ahead, lives will be put at risk, as we have heard from the professional chief fire officers.

John Hemming rose

Chris Williamson: I will not give way again, because we are short of time and I want to make a few more points.

The fire and rescue service is a can-do service with a can-do mentality. It has got on with it and made the efficiency savings. The service deals not just with fires and water rescue; it is an enabling service that does a lot of work with young people. It has been extremely effective at reducing fire deaths, anti-social behaviour and the problems of deliberately set fires and arson. However, as a result of the cuts that have already been made and the further cuts that are being planned, such fire prevention work is being compromised. From my research through freedom of information requests, I know that the result of the diminution of arson prevention work has been an increase in arson. As a result of less investment going into firefighter training, firefighter injuries are now increasing around the country, and that cannot be right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a point about the number of front-line firefighters being lost. Back-office staff have also been lost. Fire appliances are being decommissioned and fire stations are being forced to close. There has been a 14% reduction in the number of smoke alarms fitted, which is putting people’s lives at risk. The investment in fire prevention work and smoke alarms was one of the greatest success stories of the previous Labour Government, but all that is being put at risk as a result of the cuts.

National resilience is being compromised as a consequence of these reductions. Let us be clear that the metropolitan fire and rescue authorities are the backbone of national resilience, yet those services have been singled out for the biggest cuts. I do not make a case simply for the metropolitan authorities. They have a very bad deal, but, as the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal and I agree, this problem is affecting the whole country, albeit to varying extents. I hope that the Minister’s response will take account of the fact that national resilience is being compromised and lives are being put at risk. Hon. Members have cited their chief fire officers in the South Yorkshire fire and rescue service, the West Midlands fire service and the Merseyside fire and rescue service.

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I hope that the Minister can shed some light on another problem: we knew from the previous Minister that the cuts were back-loaded, but we do not know the level of the settlement. Even bigger cuts are planned in the next two years, but I hope that the Government will turn away from that course. It is very difficult for the fire and rescue authorities to plan because they do not know what the scale of those cuts will be. I hope the Minister will give an early indication of what the cuts will be because that would enable the fire and rescue services to plan for the future. Most importantly, I hope that the Minister will take account of the contributions we have heard from hon. Members, and listen to the professional fire chiefs who are making the strong case that the cuts are extremely damaging and are putting lives at risk.

The service has already made massive efficiency savings and there is little more that it can do. This is in the Minister’s hands. I hope that he will use the acumen that he displayed when he was an effective Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, that he will bring that verve to his role in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that he will stand up for the fire and rescue service, and stand up for the British public, to ensure that we provide the support and protection that they deserve.

10.50 am

The Minister for Housing (Mr Mark Prisk): I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate and for starting it on a reasonably non-partisan basis, although there will always be party political differences. Her representations in this timely debate were important. I have recently met firefighters in my own area, and I put on the record my strong support for what they do. It is only when meeting individual firefighters that one understands not only the nature of the challenge that they take on, but how it is changing. That is an important aspect of any consideration by Government.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I might have previously referred to the wrong constituency, although he may be happy with that; I do not know what the boundary might be. His view has been that we must listen and engage, and that is certainly the view of this Department. Whether I continue to hold this role once the Government reshuffle is settled, that would be my approach to this or any other matter.

I welcome the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) saying that hon. Members are here to help. This is a difficult issue and, as we have heard, it has impacted and will continue to impact in different ways in different types of authorities. Inevitably, decisions will not satisfy all. I understand that.

Hon. Members have raised crucial issues. I shall try to respond to the broad issue of fire funding and will mention the background, in terms of fire safety and practice, and some issues to do with metropolitan areas and others as well. Any consultation—one is in hand at the moment—must consider how the Government’s actions impact in every area. Inevitably, as we have heard in relation to whether flat rate does or does not

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help, there will be a difference of opinion and that has been reflected in the representations received by my predecessor.

Fire and rescue authorities deliver an important service for their local community, which varies from a full-time, retained service to other kinds of service. The Government have made a clear commitment to ensuring the effectiveness of front-line services, despite the need to tackle the substantial deficit, which was, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) mentioned, inherited from the previous Administration. Fire and rescue—a front-line emergency service—has been given funding protection, with reductions back-loaded to try to give those authorities more time in which to make sustained savings. Of course, within that spending framework—right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned this—operational decisions about fire stations and so on must be, should be and are best assessed locally. It is for each authority to understand their own operational priorities and use the integrated risk management plan as the basis on which they make those assessments. We should not forget that those plans are open to local consultation. It is right that a community is able to participate when decisions are made that affect it.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and others, said that the background to this issue is, thankfully, positive, in the sense that the number of injuries and fatalities is decreasing. I pay tribute to the efforts of fire and rescue authorities in this regard. The impact of the Fire Kills campaign and changes in technology, which several hon. Members mentioned, mean that accidental fire deaths in the home have gone down by 40% in the past 10 years. We can all welcome that.

In 2001-02, there were 310 accidental fire deaths in the home, compared with 187 deaths in 2011-12, according to the latest fire statistics. Clearly, neither I nor any member of the Government would regard 187 deaths as acceptable in any sense, but that trend and the substance of that change is important, and, as with any public service, it must be reflected in how the service is provided. All hon. Members must respect the fact that the figures show good progress.

Hon. Members and those who have lobbied them will wish to understand where the Government are going in terms of funding. We have set out proposals for a fundamentally new approach to the funding of local government, which provides a direct financial reward to local authorities for delivering growth in their area. We intend to introduce these new arrangements from April next year. On 17 July, we published a technical consultation on the details of our proposals. That relates to several points raised by hon. Members.

The consultation proposes that single-purpose fire and rescue authorities should receive 2% of the local share of business rates. That will ensure that fire and rescue authorities will be top-up authorities and, as such, will have the confidence of having a significant proportion of their funding protected and their top-up payments being uprated annually on the basis of the retail prices index. The consultation also sets out issues concerning the transition from the current formula

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grant system to the implementation of business rates retention and looks at setting up and operation of the business rates retention scheme.

The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne mentioned making fire and rescue services comparable with police authorities. I am new to this, but I understand that there is a quite a difference of opinion and that some authorities are in favour but others are not. During the consultation we will not rule out any possible option. However, I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point and will ensure that that is reflected on carefully, whether I am dealing with the matter or another Minister is doing so.

I am sure that hon. Members understand that the consultation runs until 24 September. We want to encourage representations. I want to ensure that representations are full and cover each and every type of fire authority.

Let me mention local funding decisions before dealing with a couple of specific points raised by hon. Members. We believe that there is further scope to drive out waste and inefficiency with properly planned measures. The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South mentioned that changes have been made in the fire authority in Tyne and Wear: savings of £9 million have already been achieved. That fire authority has also targeted future savings of £15.84 million through integrated risk management and delegated budgets.

It is important to bear in mind that, in the light of declining incidences of fire and other incidents, authorities will naturally want, as any other public body would, to revisit their plans, which will in some cases have been made up to 10 years ago. We understand that. There is a challenge here and a difficult choice to make.

The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) spoke passionately on behalf of the Opposition. I do not think—perhaps the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley differs—that we got an answer from the Opposition about whether they support further cuts. All parties in the House need to step up to the plate in that regard, because people are watching and will want to know where the Labour party stands. It is important that we get some clarity.

I welcome the remarks made by hon. Members from all parties about this being a difficult issue. We need to re-address how the funding is progressing.

Let me talk briefly about the metropolitan authorities and then answer some questions. It is important to recognise that, under the current system, those authorities receive far more protection under the existing damping financial system than any other type of authority. For example, Tyne and Wear fire and rescue authority benefits from damping of £6.25 million from 2011 to 2013. In the metropolitans as a whole, there is a damping benefit of roughly £26 million.

Some hon. Members have rightly said that substantial urban areas face different issues. We recognise that, which is why we have changed an element of the formula, which we inherited, to increase the relative needs weighting, which operates to the benefit of metropolitan authorities, because it reflects more of the needs that arise in urban areas. We understand that point.

Joan Walley: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr Prisk: I want to answer a couple of points raised in the debate.

There were two specific questions. First, on response times, we do not try to set a national target—rural and urban areas have different needs—and we must be careful not to go down that path.

Secondly, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) mentioned charging. I will write to him, because time is short, with specifics about why that matters. The context is that, thankfully, the number of incidents and fatalities is declining. We need to ensure that reconfiguration of this service is done appropriately. We will listen carefully to further representations until the consultation closes on 24 September.

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Thalidomide Victims

11 am

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this important issue. It is good to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber, although if everyone wishes to intervene, I shall have no time to speak—[Interruption.]

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. May I ask those leaving to do so quickly and to shut the door, because it is otherwise difficult for Members to debate this important issue?

Cathy Jamieson: Thank you, Mr Bayley. The issue is indeed important and a lot of people want to make interventions, so I will do what I can to accommodate them.

My interest was prompted by my constituent, Mr Paul Walkinshaw, who as a thalidomider was concerned about the future of the health grant. When I made further inquiries, I discovered that there were a number of concerns, in particular from members of the Thalidomide Trust, some of whom are present for the debate. I pay particular tribute to Mikey Argy of the Thalidomide Trust, and indeed to Liz Buckle, who lives in a wonderful part of Scotland. They made time to meet me and showed inspirational passion and commitment to the cause.

When I applied for this debate, little did I know that the whole issue of thalidomide would be back in the media and on the agenda because of the apology that was issued last weekend. We have seen Mikey, Liz and other thalidomiders in action over the weekend as they have commented on the apology.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees that an apology without any responsibility is no apology at all. In addition, may I say that I am hoping to carry on the work of the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton) by re-forming the all-party group? The group will meet next Wednesday, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would like to be a member.

Cathy Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the apology was fairly thin because it did not really accept responsibility or bring any additional resource with it. I will be delighted to take up the invitation to join the all-party group.

We all know the history. Between 1958 and 1962, thalidomide was given to thousands of pregnant women in the UK, supposedly as a simple solution to relieve morning sickness. In what has been called one of the darkest episodes in pharmaceutical research history, however, the drug caused thousands of babies to be born with a range of physical disabilities and medical conditions. It is worth remembering that the 472 thalidomiders alive in the UK today have been through a whole range of difficulties in their lives. They have been affected in a variety of ways, not only due to missing, short or deformed limbs, which is the common perception.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter before hon. Members. In Northern Ireland, there are 18 thalidomide victims,

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of whom eight are in my constituency and district, so the subject is close to my heart. One of the ladies, Sara Bunting from Newtownards, came to me this week to outline her case, which was to do with not only health but education. Does the hon. Lady feel that any pilot scheme for thalidomide victims must address not only the health issues alone, but education, because in many cases those people did not realise their potential? Such potential, if realised, could have been equal to or perhaps better than that of many in the Chamber.

Cathy Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This debate is focused on the health grant, but many people, with the right support and resources at an earlier stage and with people to champion their cause, could perhaps have done more to realise their potential. Ministers will want to take that on board to see what can be done in future in relation to the grant.

Many thalidomiders suffered damage to their eyes and ears, facial disfigurement and from damaged or missing internal organs, and a number have brain damage. Some 20% have hearing difficulties or deafness, and 1% are blind. The thalidomiders, who are now aged between 49 and 52, are beginning to show signs of early-onset wear and tear—the kind of symptoms normally expected of people in their 70s, 80s or 90s—and that has to be as a result of putting an unusual and sometimes extreme level of pressure and strain on their already disabled bodies.

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): My interest is spurred by my constituent, Gerry Cleary, who is in the 49-to-52 age bracket. The point he made intensely to me was that the reason why the grant and the money available through the Thalidomide Trust are so important is that, as thalidomiders reach their later years, they find that the problems linked to their disabilities become more acute. That is why it is so important for the money to continue.

Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. I will come on to that in a moment, because it is one of the main reasons why I felt it was important to secure this debate.

People are now coming up against new challenges in their lives after already facing many challenges over the years. Further action is needed. It is important to say that the challenges faced by those affected were such that when the health grant pilot was set up in 2010, it was welcomed as a way forward to address some of the problems.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con) rose

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance) rose

Cathy Jamieson: I want to have the time to say a bit more about that, but I shall give way briefly.

Fiona Bruce: I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that it is particularly pertinent at a time when thalidomide victims have reached a certain age and the support from their parents, who have been so faithful over most of their lives, is now coming, or has come, to an end?

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Cathy Jamieson: The hon. Lady makes an important point. Many elderly carers have of course given up part of their time. Indeed, they have used much of their resources, which is another reason why the grant is so important, because the costs for people dealing with the disabilities associated with thalidomide have not been fully covered, and many elderly parents are now struggling with them.

Naomi Long: One of the most prominent Northern Ireland campaigners on thalidomide issues is Kim Morton, who lives in my constituency. She has also served a term as mayor of Castlereagh borough council. When I have spoken to her about the importance of the health grant, she has stressed that while the cause of the disability is the same in all cases, the effect is not. The health grant gives people control over their own lives and the ability to make choices about the support and intervention that will make the difference in their individual circumstances. It is important that any package continues to give them such flexibility and control.

Cathy Jamieson: That is also an extremely important point. It is correct to say that while the cause was the same, everyone who has suffered as a result of thalidomide is a unique person who must deal with different situations. During my discussions with the people affected, I have become much more aware of the range of issues faced, which are not always accounted for in the design of our physical environment, as well as in the services that we provide. For example, while we are now better at considering wheelchair users, although we still have a long way to go, I am particularly struck by the additional need to take account of those with upper limb impairments, which we do not do in the environments that we provide for education or work. I was given examples of how heavy doors in buildings—these are things we take for granted—or inadequate toilets on transport create real no-go areas. That is not something that we can be pleased with in the 21st century.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): My constituent, Steven Fletcher, also makes the point that, given the thrust of the Government’s policy on individualised assessments so that benefits generally meet the needs of individuals, it is only right that an individual assessment is done properly in this extreme example of need so that there is no gap between a flat-rate grant and the needs of those who are suffering and have special needs.

Cathy Jamieson: Those who are affected make the point that many of them use the health grant to supplement existing services in a way that meets their individual needs. They argue that that fits exactly with what the Government say they are trying to achieve through personalised care. That is one reason why thalidomiders are so worried about the future of the grant. For example, people have been able to use their health grant to fund complementary treatments to alleviate pain, physiotherapy and counselling, if they have mental health issues. The report “Securing our future health: taking a long-term view” highlights not only that the self-management of health has benefited individual thalidomiders, but that it has saved the NHS and other services considerable resources.

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Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this hugely important debate. Does she agree that as the welcome pilot scheme is coming to an end, it is important for sufferers to have some certainty and confidence that something will follow? Will the Government give guarantees and assurances that there will be future financial security?

Cathy Jamieson: That highlights why I thought it was important to have this debate. It gives us the opportunity to raise issues on behalf of those affected by thalidomide and, at this crucial point, to get some indication about the future of the grant following the pilot. Thalidomiders argue that the most cost-effective answer is to give each of them the financial flexibility to develop their own solutions. They want the flexibility to combine all their different needs and to obtain one solution. They may need additional paid assistance if they have elderly carers or if their family circumstances change. They may need bespoke adaptations for their homes. We are used to homes being adapted for people with disabilities, but the cost of such adaptations for people affected by thalidomide might be way in excess of anything that that is done routinely for adapted housing. They may need better mobility solutions to enable them to travel and to use public transport, or they may need to make permanent lifestyle changes to help them to manage pain and other problems, and the health grant has been used for such things.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. The number of Members in the Chamber shows the importance of the matter throughout the country.

The second evaluation report from the Firefly research consultancy states that steps taken now would limit further deterioration and/or prevent future problems, and that that would mean in the long term that we would have fewer demands on the NHS. Surely that shows that investment now would have a greater benefit for the NHS and local services in the long term?

Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes an important point that goes to the nub of the matter. The evaluation report shows that the pilot scheme had an important impact that was significant to the lives of individuals because it allowed them to retain or obtain more independence, and that it was cost-effective to the NHS and other social services.

Some people who are affected by thalidomide receive disability living allowance, which provides a proportion of the special costs, but there is worry that many will lose the mobility component of DLA when the system changes to personal independence payments. I suspect that we could spend another half an hour on that topic, but I wanted to put it on record.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I am 50, having been born in 1961, and so is my cousin. My mum did not take thalidomide, but my cousin’s mum did. My cousin is a thalidomider, and she has lived a fantastic and active life. A friend of mine, Gary Skyner, whom many people here will know, is a Liverpool comedian, and has also lived an active and full life—he is a very funny lad. Both have relied on family support, but that

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will not always be there for them. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that all thalidomiders are asking for is a just settlement so that they can continue to live full and active lives.

Cathy Jamieson: The issue of justice is important, and it involves not just the health grant, although that is important, but compensation and other issues that are being pursued elsewhere.

Jim Shannon: Does the hon. Lady think that the Government should put pressure on the German Grünenthal Group? It said this week:

“we have been silent and we are very sorry for that.”

If its apology is forthcoming, surely it is time for it to deliver compensation. Perhaps the Government will support the thalidomide victims in their campaign for full compensation.

Cathy Jamieson: I am sure that any company would listen carefully to the comments and views that MPs are setting out on behalf of their constituents and take account of any message from the Government. I hope that Ministers will join us in calling for additional support and, further to the company’s apology, more compensation. The company must take responsibility for its actions.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to be associated with this hugely important subject. Several hon. Members have talked about the costs faced by thalidomiders. When talking to a thalidomider I know, I was surprised by the cost of prosthetic limbs—they cost several thousand pounds. If thalidomiders do not have a spare, they can be stuck for weeks without a limb. I was staggered by that cost, and it should be taken into account in addition to those such as for adapting properties.

Cathy Jamieson: That extremely important point was made during my discussions with my constituent and others. We just have not thought of many of the practical things that people need for day-to-day living. Thalidomiders should have resources to spend so that they can make decisions, and that is why it is so important to continue the health grant.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Cathy Jamieson: I will give way for the last time, because I must conclude to give the Minister the opportunity to respond.

Andrew Selous: The hon. Lady mentioned the health grant. One of my constituents, a thalidomide survivor, wrote to me stressing the importance of his health grant, which allows him to spend less time at work and to have physiotherapy, which helps his condition. He is worried that he will not have such help in future, and that is a small example of how the health grant helps.

Cathy Jamieson: That is another clear example of why the health grant is so important in a range of ways. Many people have told me that they may want to change what they do to accommodate their needs, especially

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as they get older. We are learning from studies that thalidomiders are showing signs and symptoms of the ageing process earlier and may require different support.

In April, thalidomiders received their third and final payment from the health grant pilot, with no guarantee of any future provision from the Government, so they are unable to plan ahead and they are worried. One said that they were worried that they “will be abandoned again”. The danger is that the progress that this country started might be overturned, and that those who are affected will be back to square one.

In June, members of the national advisory council to the Thalidomide Trust met the Minister with responsibility for care services. I understand that he gave no commitment then—perhaps he was unable to—other than to express an intention to meet again after he had received Firefly’s second interim evaluation report of the scheme in July. That was disappointing for thalidomiders, because they thought that the first evaluation report had clearly outlined the benefits of the pilot health grant, which we have heard about from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. They wanted a commitment that something will be taken forward.

Thalidomiders’ health and their levels of disability will not improve. As we have heard, their health conditions will continue to deteriorate as they age, and the best that we can hope for on their behalf is to try to slow the rate of deterioration. The health grant is crucial for thalidomiders, and they cannot and should not have to continue without that lifeline. I hope that the Minister will indicate today that the Government see the matter as important, and that they will commit firmly to making a permanent contribution for as long as it is required.

As I have said, this is a unique group of people, and every thalidomider is a unique individual with individual needs. The campaign for justice, apologies and compensation will carry on, but the Government, and particularly the new Secretary of State for Health, have the opportunity to do what they can to ensure that the grant continues. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.


11.20 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) on securing a debate on this important subject, about which she spoke passionately and knowledgably, and I am grateful that she raised the issue at this crucial time. I suspect that her heart might have sunk on discovering that she would be addressing a new Minister who had been in a job for less than a day, but the good news is that there is value in this being the first issue I have had to consider. I give my personal commitment on taking the matter extremely seriously. I will try to get the right result, and I understand how important the issue is.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): I appreciate the reflective way in which the Minister has responded, but does he accept that there is both a principle and a practical consequence? The principle is that this is a debt of honour that the previous Government partly

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redeemed, although it will not be fully redeemed until the companies accept some responsibility, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out. The practical consequence is that people who have additional capacity as a result of the grant are therefore less dependent.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I absolutely understand the responsibilities of society and the Government on this issue, and I shall seek to take my responsibilities seriously.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of the Thalidomide Trust. It has considerable expertise and knowledge of the needs of those affected by thalidomide, and it does much to support the health challenges that people face and to address barriers to every day living. The trust’s contribution to supporting survivors and their families cannot be overstated.

I would also like to pay tribute to the national advisory council to the Thalidomide Trust. I met its members when I was in opposition and took up their concerns with the Government. They work tirelessly in the cause of thalidomiders, often despite their own impairments. We are all grateful for their work, which has done much to highlight to the House and the public ongoing and increasing health concerns. The hon. Lady referred to new issues that have arisen and we have to understand and respond to those. I look forward to seeing the final report of the NAC project, “Securing Our Future”, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and I would welcome the opportunity to meet the council to discuss that report. I should add that on the first day of my job, I am not in a position to provide all the answers, but I am happy to meet hon. Members who are concerned about this issue.

Cathy Jamieson: I should have welcomed the Minister to his new post. It was remiss of me not to do so, and I look forward to taking him up on that invitation.

Norman Lamb: That’s a deal. We will arrange that.

The current three-year grant was introduced by the previous Administration, but I welcome the opportunity to reiterate the Government’s support for the pilot, which explores innovative ways of enabling people to invest funding to prevent further deterioration in their health and to preserve their independence, which is critical. The funding helps individual thalidomiders to take control in meeting their complex and highly specialised needs, for they are the real experts. The value of such a grant is that it puts the power in the hands of individuals, so that they can make decisions about their priorities, rather than the Government seeking to determine that for them.

The Thalidomide Trust recently provided us with its evaluation report for year two of the three-year pilot scheme, and officials have read with interest how the money has been invested. It was evident from the interviews that were conducted as part of the evaluation that many people have a growing desire to self-manage their health in order to cope with existing health problems, limit further deterioration and/or prevent future problems. For some, the focus was on maintaining fitness or controlling their weight through gym membership, personal

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trainers, or swimming—the list is endless, but the fact that individuals are making those decisions is of considerable importance.

I am aware that the grant is due to end in March next year and that its recipients are naturally anxious about future funding. I have heard the concerns expressed today by many hon. Members, and I am grateful that so many have shown an interest, and attended and contributed to the debate. I have also heard the very strong case that thalidomiders have made for the health grant to continue.

Cathy Jamieson: I know that the Minister is summing up, but does he take on board the important point about planning ahead? If a decision comes too late in the day, before the end of the grant, it will make it difficult for people to consider how they can organise their lives in the year ahead. Will he at least commit to ensuring, as soon as possible, that a decision is made and an indication given about the way forward?

Norman Lamb: I am keen to make this a priority to try and reach a decision as quickly as we can. There are two issues: it is not only about providing certainty as soon as possible, but about how long the period of the grant would be. I recognise the argument in support of a longer period, in order to provide people with more certainty for the future. I need to look at all those matters, hear from the trust and officials, and read the reports that have come in before making my decision, but I want to make it quickly.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I thank the Minister for giving way and I welcome him to his post. In July, when I asked his predecessor in the Chamber about the lack of a substantive commitment when he met the national advisory council to the Thalidomide Trust, he promised that that would be looked at carefully. He said that there would be further discussions with a view to concluding in autumn. Does the Minister accept that

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the conclusion will need more strategy and purpose, and not just be a periodic, time-limited top-up to the pilot fund? It has to be something better than “Pilot 2”.

Norman Lamb: I can reveal to hon. Members that the hon. Gentleman and I talked about that on Westminster bridge as we walked in this morning. Those are exactly the issues that I want to consider. Incidentally, I should pay tribute to my predecessor Minister, who worked closely with the trust to deal with such matters properly and effectively. I know that he was absolutely committed to doing so. He said that he would make a decision in the autumn, and I stick with that.

When a former Minister of State for Health, Mike O’Brien, announced the grant, he stated that the difference that it made to individuals’ lives would be evaluated. We have received the evaluation report on the second year of the grant’s operation, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) mentioned. Officials in the Department of Health and the devolved Health Departments have had the opportunity to meet the trust and discuss the evaluation report, and they are assessing how the grant is delivering against the objectives that have been set. It is important that a full, objective assessment is made of how effective the pilot has been at enabling independence, health and well-being in the way that was intended. The stories emerging appear to be very powerful. We all want to delay health deterioration and preserve independence as long as possible, and I am acutely aware, as has been mentioned, of the fulfilling lives that so many people have led despite suffering as a result of thalidomide. That is a powerful message. I will do everything that I can to reach the right decision quickly, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun for securing the debate.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Munich Olympics Massacre

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): It is a great pleasure to introduce this very important debate under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am delighted that we are able to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympics massacre.

First, we should pay tribute to the tremendous success of the London Olympics. The Olympic Delivery Authority, LOCOG—the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games—the security services, the Army and the police have all helped to deliver a brilliant, safe and secure games. We must also pay tribute to the 70,000 volunteers who have made it such a friendly and relaxed but businesslike Olympics. We see the London Olympics as having been one of the best games ever, and without doubt the London Paralympics have been the best Paralympic games that there have ever been. We can rightly be proud of that.

The games have been assisted by superb performances by athletes and particularly by Team GB. However, the crowd have cheered on athletes from throughout the world, not just Great British athletes. I am minded to recall the words of Lord Coe, who said that the medal table was not the important issue; it was the participation and performance of individual athletes, rather than their country of origin. We celebrate them as Olympians.

Everyone will have their own views on the opening and closing ceremonies of the London games. I think that it was right that we remembered the fallen of two world wars and, of course, the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks, but the one thing that was not mentioned was the darkest hour of the Olympic games—the Munich massacre. I think that it is indeed shameful that the International Olympic Committee could not find one minute during the six weeks of the games to commemorate the victims of the worst terrorist attack in Olympic history. I feel very strongly about this and have been very vocal in my belief. I have trumpeted it not only in the House of Commons, but at every event during the summer to do with the Olympics.

It may be worth providing some background and explaining what happened in Munich in 1972 and what the IOC subsequently did. At 4.30 am on 5 September 1972, the summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, were the scene of the most devastatingly violent and anti-Semitic attack against members of the Israeli Olympic team. A group of eight Palestinians—members of the Black September terrorist group—broke into the Olympic grounds and systematically hunted down Israeli athletes, officials and coaches. Forcing their way into bedrooms in the early morning, they killed on sight and took a number of hostages. The Black September members were demanding the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails and their safe passage to Egypt.

After a failed rescue attempt, undertaken by the ill-equipped and ill-prepared German authorities, 11 Israelis and one German police officer were murdered by the attackers. It is imperative that we do not forget those innocent men who died. I feel a duty to name them today: Moshe Weinberg, Yossef Romano, Ze’ev Friedman,

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David Berger, Yakov Springer, Eliezer Halfin, Yossef Gutfreund, Kehat Shorr, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer, Amitzur Shapira, Anton Fliegerbauer. I apologise if my pronunciation was not completely accurate.

Five of the eight assassins were killed by the German security forces. The three survivors were captured, but were later released by West Germany following the hijacking by Black September of a Lufthansa airliner. In a deplorable move, the bodies of the five Palestinian assassins were delivered to Libya, where they received heroes’ funerals and were buried with full military honours. The two prisoners released by the West German Government received a hero’s welcome when they returned and gave a first-hand account of the massacre at a press conference that was broadcast worldwide. Such acceptance and glorification of acts of terrorism must never be accepted.

The massacre prompted the suspension of the Olympics for the first time in modern Olympic history. Although the Israeli Government and Olympic team endorsed the decision to allow the games to continue, it quickly became clear that the remaining athletes no longer felt comfortable competing and groups began to withdraw from the competition.

A memorial service in remembrance of those who had died was held on 6 September and was attended by 80,000 spectators and 3,000 athletes. During the memorial service, the Olympic flag was flown at half mast. That overwhelming attendance and mass mourning was echoed at the 1976 Olympics, where, during the opening ceremony, the Israeli national flag was adorned with a black ribbon.

However, there has been nothing since. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre, yet until this year, in a remarkable state of apathy, there had been no further commemoration. In 2004, the widow of fencing coach Andre Spitzer, Mrs Ankie Spitzer, spoke to a room of more than 200 people at the Israeli ambassador’s residence to denounce that fact and call for a permanent mark of remembrance. Her words are as salient now as they were then:

“More than 30 years have passed, but for the families of the innocent victims, it seems like only yesterday. But why are we standing here? We should have this memorial in front of all the athletes. This is not an Israeli issue; this concerns the whole Olympic family.”

I am appalled by the lack of response from the International Olympic Committee to such calls. It has stated that to introduce such a specific reference could alienate and offend other members of the Olympic community. Indeed, Alex Gilady, an Israeli IOC official, told BBC News Online:

“We must consider what this could do to other members of the delegations that are hostile to Israel.”

Frankly, this is a disgrace. It is my firm conviction that we must not allow the memory of this tragedy to fade and that the IOC has an obligation to mark this loss with a permanent form of remembrance.

I am not alone in this sentiment. Mrs Spitzer has since tabled an online petition calling for a one-minute silence at the next Olympics. At the last count, there were 111,000 signatures recorded. The Facebook event aimed at uniting people around the world in their own minute of silence had 172,213 guests. That shows the astounding level of support for this cause.

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Earlier this year, I tabled early-day motion 100, calling for a minute’s silence at the London 2012 summer Olympics and at every Olympic games “to promote peace” and

“to honour the memory of those murdered”.

I urge hon. Members here today to sign that early-day motion if they have not already done so.

We must now continue to work to put consistent pressure on the IOC. It is vital that we do not allow another anniversary to pass without an appropriate and permanent form of remembrance. The families and friends of those who died have worked tirelessly for four decades for the recognition that they deserve, and I am now asking people here to add their voice to that struggle.

Mr Rogge is on the record as saying that he feels that the opening ceremony

“is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.”

However, that is wholly inconsistent with past opening ceremonies. The 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City justifiably included a number of references and tributes to those lost or injured in the 9/11 attacks. The same point can be made in regard to the tragic death of Georgian luge slider Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died during a practice run at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games. Quite rightly, the IOC commemorated his memory during the Olympic ceremony with a moment of silence and flew the Georgian and Olympic flags at half-mast. I see no reason why the same level of courtesy and respect should not be granted to those who lost their lives at the Munich games. The individuals murdered that day were not only Israelis, but Olympians, and should be honoured as such.

Claims that commemoration will politicise the Olympics are fatuous and deny those who lost their lives that day their rightful place in the Olympic family. It is the IOC that is guilty of politicisation, and those who have honourably fought for recognition and remembrance recognise that. Instead of doing what is clearly the right thing, the IOC has rejected repeated appeals from the Israeli team to note the anniversary. Jacques Rogge explained:

“The IOC has officially paid tribute to the memory of the athletes on several occasions.”

However, the Israeli Olympic committee and the Israeli Foreign Ministry, rather than the IOC, organised those occasions of remembrance.

Due to the growing amount of pressure placed upon him, the IOC President Jacques Rogge did hold a moment of silence for the Israeli athletes at the Olympic village. He is quoted as saying that it is

“absolutely normal I should call for a remembrance of the Israeli athletes.”

However, there was no advance notice of the event and, as such, only about 100 people attended. It is clear from the correspondence I have received and the support given to Mrs Spitzer and her cause that that number would have grown exponentially if it had been properly advertised.

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The behaviour of the Olympic officials has been wholly inconsistent with their own philosophy. The Olympic charter provides a number of clear bullet-pointed roles of the IOC. To quote a few, its role is

“to encourage and support the promotion of ethics…in sport as well as education of youth through sport and to dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails and violence is banned;…to take action”

in order

“to strengthen the unity and to protect the independence of the Olympic Movement”,

and

“to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement”.

The fundamental principles of Olympism state that it

“is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles. The goal…is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this very poignant story to the House today. Mary Peters, now Dame Mary Peters, from Northern Ireland won a gold medal 40 years ago. Every time she recalls her gold medal victory at the Munich Olympics, she recalls the despicable and vicious murder of the 11 Israeli athletes. It is recorded in her stories and in the provincial papers. I want to support the hon. Gentleman in bringing this matter to the House, but many nations and athletes, including those in Northern Ireland, remember it every time there are Olympics and every year on the anniversary.

Bob Blackman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I well recall the great performance of Mary Peters in winning her gold medal, which is something to be celebrated, but, sadly, it is remembered along with the terrible events in Munich.

Another key fundamental principle of Olympism is:

“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

The principles make clear that no person or country should be discriminated against, that violence should be abhorred and that human dignity should be valued. I merely ask for those principles to be upheld by the IOC. I am certain that had the 11 murdered Olympians been from any country other than Israel we would not be having this debate. The IOC would have organised a memorial at each and every subsequent Olympic games.

The Olympic ideals of friendship, brotherhood and peace are not just words—not a slogan for nothing. In the words of Mrs Spitzer:

“Our message is not one of hatred or revenge. It’s the opposite. We want the world to remember what happened there so that this will never happen again.”

The message of the campaign and the ethics of the Olympic movement are synonymous and harmonious. It is important that this humanitarian, rather than political, request is granted to show that the IOC still understands that. We should honour the 11 Olympians who lost their lives. We should honour them not because they were Israeli athletes and coaches, but because they

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were Olympians. We should remember the terrible event and I hope, Ms Dorries, that you will allow us to do so by honouring their memory with a one-minute silence at the conclusion of the debate.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): We have discussed the one-minute silence. The Minister and Dame Tessa Jowell agree. There will be a Division at 4 o’clock and we do not want the bell to cut across the one-minute silence, so the wind-ups need to start at 3.35 pm. We will call the one-minute silence at 3.58 pm, so we will be through before the Division bell rings.

2.46 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate and his excellent speech in commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Olympics massacre in Munich.

When we talk about middle east affairs, it is important that we always place them in the context of the time. Of course, 1972 was a very different age from our own. International terrorism, with which sadly we all have become far too familiar, was relatively new, and Black September itself was a relatively new terrorist organisation. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will know better than most of us that terrorist incidents in Northern Ireland really started to get going in 1969-70. I believe that 1972 was the most blood-drenched year in Northern Ireland’s history, with hundreds of soldiers murdered and many civilians killed. At that time, many countries in the world were confronting terrorism for the first time.

Another new thing in the early 1970s was live television, as was the start of colour broadcasts. I think that I am right that, even at the 1968 Mexico City games, live television as we know it today did not really happen, as a lot of events were recorded and broadcast later, but in Munich in 1972, there were live outside broadcasts to countries all around the world. What made the terrorist incident in the Olympic village in Munich all the worse was that the murders of 11 people and a German police officer were broadcast live as they happened on television screens in people’s front rooms. Millions of people around the world saw for themselves the awful events unfold and, of course, that made for very uncomfortable viewing.

Of course, 1972 was no more than 27 years after 6 million Jews were led to their deaths in German extermination camps. The Munich Olympics were meant to be Germany’s rehabilitation—if you like—in the international world order. They were to be a games of peace, joy and happiness that could bring the nations of the world together in the Olympic spirit, and that could show West Germany, as it was then, as a modern nation, free of its past. The presence of the Israeli team at the Olympic games was a very important part of that. Indeed, the Israeli athlete who carried the Israeli flag at the Olympic opening ceremony, Henry Hershkowitz, who was a marksman, said:

“I felt awesome pride that Jews could raise their flag on German soil. This is proof that the Nazis weren’t able to crush the Jewish spirit, the Israeli spirit.”

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The presence of such a large Israeli team in Munich was a very important part of the 1972 games, and it was therefore even more terrible that it was the Israeli team that was targeted by Palestinian terrorists.

Additionally, 1972 was the best part of a decade before other well-known terrorist incidents, such as the Iranian embassy hostage siege in London. Many of us recall that event, and the success of the SAS in liberating most of the hostages and killing the attackers sent a clear signal to the world that Britain would not be held hostage by terrorist organisations. However, the success in dealing with the Iranian embassy hostage siege was in complete contrast to the mess made by the German authorities in dealing with the Palestinian attack on the Israeli Olympians, because the Germans just did not know what they were doing.

In the early 1970s, nations around the world did not know how to deal with terrorist incidents. All the security apparatus with which we are now all too familiar—trained marksmen, and soldiers wearing gasmasks and abseiling into buildings—did not exist in 1972. Indeed, there were no armed police at all in the Olympic village or the Olympic park, because the German authorities deliberately wanted to downplay their militaristic part. The Israeli compound was on the ground floor with no security barriers, so the terrorists simply opened the door and walked in.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the cruellest ironies of what happened in Munich in 1972 was that, under the post-war settlement, the German military authorities were not able to undertake on German soil the sort of work that they could carry out only four years later when giving their assistance at Entebbe and in other terrorist actions? As he rightly points out, a particular tragedy in 1972 was that the German authorities on the ground were unable to organise the sort of rescue that we have perhaps all come to take for granted in other terrorist incidents in the decades since.

Mr Hollobone: As always on such matters, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Again, with reference to the Iranian embassy hostage siege in London, we remember pictures of black-clad SAS men on the roof abseiling down into the windows and taking out the terrorists. As people will recall from Munich, live television was showing German police officers—armed at that point, and dressed in tracksuits—on the roof and creeping down towards the Israeli quarters. The amateurishness of it all was exposed by the fact that nobody thought that there was a television in the Israeli quarters where the hostages were being held, but the terrorists could see on the TV screen the police officers on the roof above them. Basic security measures were not thought of.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East is quite right to say that the different organisational structures between the federal Government and the Bavarian authorities meant that there was no proper co-ordination. There were absurd scenes in which Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the federal Interior Minister—the equivalent of the Home Secretary in this country—stood outside the Israeli quarters negotiating face to face with the leader of the terrorists, who was holding a hand grenade. We just cannot imagine that such a situation would arise today. That was how basic it all was then; no one knew how to deal with such terrorist incidents.

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Although I am putting on the record my analysis of the amateurishness and incompetence of the German authorities in handling the situation, much bravery was clearly displayed by many people who tried to address the problem, and not least Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who offered himself as a hostage in replacement for the then nine hostages who were still alive. He actually went into the room at one point to check on the hostages’ welfare, but he failed to count the number of terrorists. Until the failed rescue at the military airfield later that night, the German authorities thought that they were dealing with five terrorists, not eight. They had five marksmen lined up at the military airfield to take out five terrorists, so they did not have enough to take out eight. Nowadays, there would be a lot more marksmen.

The marksmen who were put in place were not properly trained and did not have the proper rifles. There was no proper co-ordination. At the military airfield, the German police officers in the airliner that was going to take away the hostages and the terrorists voted, just 15 minutes before the operation was due to take place, to abort the mission and simply disappeared. The whole thing was tragically incompetent. Authorities around the world are now, thankfully, far better trained in knowing how to deal with such terrorist incidents.

Black September started as an Arab terrorist organisation by making attacks on Arab targets. Until 1972, Black September’s main dispute was not with Israel, but with the Jordanians. Black September actually assassinated the Jordanian Prime Minister and caused all sorts of terrorist outrages in the Arab world. The origins of that horrific movement were actually in Arab-on-Arab violence, and only in 1972, when it was forced out of Jordan into Syria, and then into Beirut, did Black September take on the Israelis. One of the tragedies of the middle east in relation to the Palestinian cause, which we in the United Kingdom recognise as having merit—the UK Government’s position is that there should be a Palestinian state and a homeland for the Palestinians—is that Black September and the start of Palestinian terrorism has, to my mind, blackened the Palestinian cause. Furthering its dispute through terrorism was one of the many wrong decisions taken by the Palestinian movement.

I simply do not accept the reason given by the terrorists for the Munich massacre, which was to raise the profile of the Palestinian dispute among the audience of the world, as 1972 was only five years after the 1967 war, and it was less than a year before the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict. The world knew about the problems in the middle east and about the Palestinian struggle. It was simply illegitimate for the Palestinians to say that the only way to attract world attention was by committing such atrocities. It was one of the many wrong decisions taken by the Palestinians in the furtherance of their aims.

Jim Shannon: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Palestinian terrorist campaign hardened the resolve of the Israeli Government and people not to give in? In actual fact, it was a backward step that did the very opposite of what the Palestinians were trying to achieve.

Mr Hollobone: It is of huge credit to the Israelis that when they were confronted with the horrendous hostage situation at the Munich Olympics, the then Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to negotiate with the terrorists,

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whereas the West Germans were all for having negotiations straight away. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East referred to the hijacking on 29 October, after the massacre—I think it was by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—about which there is strong evidence that the West German authorities liaised with terrorists to organise a hijack so that they would have an excuse to free the three remaining terrorists, who were then flown back to Libya.

One of the points in all this is the Libyan involvement in the Munich massacre. The terrorists came from Libya, they went back to Libya, and they were funded by Libya. Of course, Colonel Gaddafi was in charge of Libya at the time. How appalling to think that a major western country such as West Germany could collude with terrorist organisations to try to get itself out of the hole of holding terrorists in German jails.

The tragedy of the Munich Olympics is that, just 27 years after the holocaust, Jews were once again led to their deaths while bound and gagged on German soil. All that took place on live television and was seen on screens in people’s homes around the world. Clearly, the German authorities were embarrassed about it, but they handled it incompetently. The Israeli authorities, to their credit, refused to negotiate with the terrorists, and thus began the extremely hard line that Israel has taken with terrorists ever since.

It is completely wrong of Arab nations to applaud the terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics. Even today, Palestinian groups hail as martyrs the terrorists who were killed, and hold up the Munich attack as a good example of the sort of activity that Palestinians should undertake to highlight their cause. That is completely wrongheaded. Would not it have been wonderful, on the 40th anniversary of the massacre, for the Arab League to come out with a statement condemning the events in Munich in 1972? If we are ever to get a resolution to the middle east crisis, we will need such gestures from the Arab world as an attempt to go some way towards healing the wounds of the past.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East on securing the debate and his excellent speech. I hope that the Olympic authorities can find some way to commemorate those horrendous events of 40 years ago.