|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Deputy Prime Minister: Decontamination equipment has already been issued, at a cost of some £50 million. There were some slight difficulties to begin with, but, to be fair, the industry has reacted well and can now offer the necessary cover for this particularly important work.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I stand four-square behind what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said about the right to strike. There is much to be welcomed in the statement of my right hon.
The Deputy Prime Minister: One surprising conclusion of the Bain report was his saying that he was particularly shocked at the incidence of harassment and bullying. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable. The odd incident has gained considerable publicity, and the White Paper makes it clear that such practices are unacceptable. We are doing everything that we possibly can to eliminate them.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is it the Deputy Prime Minister's intention that the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate should form a single unified inspection regime at both brigade and thematic levels? If so, and it is decided that a brigade has been poorly treated because it has already made some of his suggested improvements in efficiency, will extra resources be available if they need to be applied?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there are two separate bodies. He asks whether we are merging them into one, and we are not. [Interruption.] They are separate in the sense that they have two different functions. One is responsible for the audit of comprehensive performance, and we believe that it is important to have a rating in that respect. The inspectorate, on the other hand, will carry out the role and functions that it has constantly hadensuring that safety standards are imposed, brought in and kept in the service. We do not envisage one body: they are two separate functions. If I have left the hon. Gentleman a little unclear, I will write to him with the precise details of how we see them working.
As to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), what was said in The Times is absolute rubbish. I have said that before, and I think that the journalist has apologised for it. On the question of more flexibility and the need for changes in shift policies, I have said time and again from the Dispatch Box that there will have to be modernisation and change. The overtime ban maintains the system in operation at the moment, which I do not believe to be efficient or effective. I have made that clear, so there will have to be some changes. I understand that the union has made some proposals about how to bring about changes to overtime arrangements, so the matter is under way, with the agreement of those working in the industry.
My principal concern is to ensure that we get the best possible fire service, which is exactly what I am doing. Wage conditions were agreed between the two parties after a dispute, as my hon. Friend well knows. I hope that we can now implement the proposals in the White Paper for a modern fire and rescue service. That is what the White Paper is all about.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify the exact implications of moving from local control rooms organised with local knowledge to the remote, regional control rooms that he has advocated in his statement and in the White Paper? Does he really believe that the decision to call out retained firefighters in remote rural stations such as Broadway and Pebworth, right on the edge of the west midlands and south-west regions, is best taken in Birmingham? If so, he would deserve to be burnt at the stakeholder.
The Deputy Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman gets a chance to look at the White Paperobviously he has not had enough timehe will find tables that show exactly what it costs to deliver regional services[Interruption.] I am trying to tell the hon. Gentleman that savings can be made regionally in comparison with the present local administration. That argument does not appear only in the White Paper; it was advanced in the Bain report, which pointed out that considerable savings could be made if several services were delivered regionally.
The Deputy Prime Minister: That should be simple enough even for the hon. Lady to understand. She shakes her head, but if she has any doubt, she should read the Bain report or the Fire White Paper, which she does not seem to have to hand.
In our judgment, some services will best be provided regionally. Indeed, some fire authorities have got together to do that. Certain functions, certain equipment and certain circumstances are beyond their
Angela Watkinson: Can the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance that the risk review will not lead to any lowering of fire cover in populated areas at night? The statistics show that there are fewer fires at night, but also that the proportion of fatal accidents is higher in night fires, partly because people are asleep and not aware that their house is on fire, partly because people are not out and about walking in public and so cannot raise the alarm. Response times at night are vital: another minute on a fire brigade's response time could lead to a death from a night fire.
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Lady's analysis of why there is a higher proportion of deaths at night is correct. It is not so much the speed of response as the nature and circumstances in which people die, as she rightly points out. However quick that response was, unfortunately, people have died, so the emphasis is now on the prevention measures that can be taken. Reference was made earlier to some of the measures that have been taken in schools and communities and they can make a real difference. It is the essence of the difference between the record here and the record in Europe: the balance between intervention and prevention is not quite right.
I give the commitment that the safety cover that the risk assessments will be giving will be the same whether it is day or night, rural or urban. That is the requirement. It may well be that we have to move facilities around in terms of the brigades and personnel more than we do at the moment, but it will be to maintain the highest levels of safety.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Surely any regionalisation will lead to the end of Norfolk fire service as such. It will lead to station closures, job losses and we will lose a force with a clear identity and an excellent esprit de corps. May I refer the Deputy Prime Minister to page 4 of his statement, which says that there is a real problem because the service does not fully represent the communities it serves? Surely what the public want is not a service that is used for social engineering, but one that saves lives and puts out fires.
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may be unhappy with that but there is a need to get some balance, with fire services representing the communities in which they work. Often, it can be a language situation, which can be quite important in the fire service in particular areas. It is important to get that balance into the fire service. It is a public service and it should reflect more effectively the areas and the community[Interruption.] I give hon. Members my judgment. We can have a difference between us. I think that there are probably many differences on that matter but I believe that to be right. As for saying that regionalisation will mean the end of that service, he gives no evidence for that and it is not true.