The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, it has been decided that, for the time being, the Fire Service College should continue as a Next Steps agency operating as a trading fund. A number of measures have been taken or are still being considered which are intended to strengthen the college's financial position and to secure its place as the central provider of both command and specialist training for the UK fire service.
Baroness Fisher of Rednal: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. I believe that she will appreciate, as do the general public, the fine professionalism of the fire service not only in fighting fires but as regards accidents on the motorways and humanitarian aspects. That professionalism results from the training in which they participate and the facilities at the Fire Service College. Does the Minister agree that it is terribly important that such training continues? The safety of people whom they protect through training is important to us all.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. It is a fine service and does a brilliant job, for which it must be trained. I promise the noble Baroness that I will leave no stone unturned in my department to ensure that we secure the future of the Fire Service College. It is important that whatever the outcome of the debate today the fire service should be properly trained and it is our determination that it should continue to be so.
Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, when I was at the Home Office I was rather proud of the creation of the Fire Service College. I have been watching the troubles about its finances with great concern. Since 1992, the Fire Service College has been both an executive agency and a trading fund, to use the modern jargon. However, the Civil Service College at
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord is right in his observation on the distinctions between the three colleges. There are 110 agencies, only 12 of them with trading fund status. The problems of the Fire Service College do not derive from anything other than the circumstances at the college. The problems have nothing to do with the college's present situation. Prior to agency status it was a cost on the Home Office's Vote. Wherever the cost is, it has created a considerable deficit. The problem is that it occupies a large site which is substantially under used. At the moment we are trying to find complementary activities which can take place on the site and which will make the overheads of running the site and all that happens on it economically viable. The problem is not about the distinction between agency status and whether it is on the Home Office Vote or even the local government Vote.
Lord Greenway: My Lords, we recognise that the debt burden imposed on the Fire Service College is partially responsible for its present parlous financial state. However, is it not a worry that the reduction in the county fire brigade budgets and local government budgets affect the training of young firemen? After all, they are the seed corn for the Fire Service College in the future. Would it not be a tragedy if the magnificent facilities which can cope with almost any fire eventuality were to be lost? That would be not only from the point of view of training our own young firemen but also of its use by industry and foreign fire brigades.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the facility of training will not be lost to the fire service because we have an obligation under the law to provide fire service training. Each of the fire brigade local authorities, whether free-standing metropolitan fire authorities or fire authorities within county brigades within the county council, nevertheless, still has an obligation under the law to provide adequate training. We use the inspectorate system to ensure that that is the case.
If any local authority or fire authority believes that it cannot provide adequate funding for training it must put the case to the Department of the Environment, which will consider it. One authority did that last year and had a relaxation of the cap so that it was able to meet its obligations under the law.
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a feeling across the political spectrum regarding the fire service that over the past five years the reduction in real terms in the funding of our fire brigades has reached an all-time dangerous low? Should that not be a matter of concern for the Government, and will they look into it?
Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Government will shortly be making regulations effectively to prohibit the keeping of signal crayfish in those areas where they are not currently found in the wild. In other parts of the country, where signal crayfish are already well established, the scale of the problem can best be reduced by reminding everyone that they are easy to catch and delicious to eat.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. It indicates that the Government are taking action. Does he agree that this crayfish is the aquatic equivalent of the grey squirrel? Can he confirm that it has already eliminated native crayfish in some areas and is devouring freshwater creatures of many kinds? Unlike the squirrel, however, it is, as my noble friend indicated, very good to eat. Will the Government encourage as wide a consumption of it as possible, including drawing it to the attention of the Refreshment Sub-committee of this House, in the interests of preserving some ecological balance?
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I believe that the scale of the effect of this creature on the environment is a little over-stated. It is an active predator, but it lives quite happily in its native habitats with a wide range of fish and other species. We do not expect it to have any devastating effect on our native wildlife. It carries a fungal disease which kills our native crayfish, and that is the reason for our wanting to keep it in its present bounds. So far as the Refreshment Department of this House is concerned, I should be very happy to see squirrel on the menu. It is, I can tell the House, quite delicious.
Lord Carter: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the American signal crayfish--or Pacifastacus leniusculus, as we usually call it in Wiltshire--has been described as an alien omnivore which is voracious, aggressive and fertile or, to put it another way, over-fed, over-sexed and over here? Is he further aware that the narrow-clawed (Turkish) crayfish is believed to have got into our waters by escaping from restaurants in London? I am intrigued to know how that happened. Did they just perhaps pop down the Strand and dive into the Thames? The problem has been known for 15 years; and the Ministry has accepted that it should have acted much faster. Does the Minister agree?
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I cannot follow the noble Lord in his erudition. I rarely can. However, I can tell him that the contract for fishing crayfish in the Serpentine is currently vacant. The Turkish crayfish is there. If he wishes to go for the red swamp crayfish, he will find it in the men's bathing pond in Hampstead. But it is quite fond of fresh meat. So it is not sensible to stay still for too long.
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