We continue to keep up the pressure in relation to lobbying for
a fairer settlement for Metropolitan Fire Services and Greater
Manchester in particular. Recently, we have been talking to the
Lords explaining the situation and seeking their support to keep
the issue as a high priority.
Yesterday there was a question tabled that lead to further
questions. There is a saying when people use when talking about
controversial things: "there will be questions in the House"
- and I use this to illustrate that questioning of government this
was is a very powerful part of trying to win arguments.
I have cut and pasted the whole session below (it is not too
long) as I thought people would find it interesting.
I was particularly pleased at the question from Bishop Nigel
McCulloch of Manchester - who is very much interested in this issue
and very well informed.
Bishop Nigel obviously isn't a politician but, before speaking
out in this way as a church leader, he needs to be clear of the
issue and adopt a position that is impartial and in the community's
interest - hence my pleasure at his support.
As I keep saying, whether all this lobbying fundamentally
changes anything remains to be seen.
Moreover, it also remains important to be clear that, even if it
does, all we will achieve is a fairer distribution of cut - instead
of some either getting increases or stand still budgets.
And there are some signs of movement - for example London
are currently talking about shutting 30 fire stations and losing
800 firefighters for example. But there remains little doubt we
will nevertheless also see significant cuts.
Also in support of this, the Chairman of the Fire Authority was
interviewed this morning on BBC Radio Manchester's Alan Beswick
show (listen here) - when we get the link for people to
be able to listen themselves we will share that. Finally, this
afternoon I am meeting another one of our local MPs to continue our
Fire Services: Funding
Lord Alton of LiverpoolTo ask Her Majesty's Government what
assessment they have made of the risks arising from proposals to
reduce funding for fire services outside London.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for
Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham):My Lords,
single-purpose fire and rescue authorities outside London have had
a change in their revenue spending power of minus 2.2% in 2011-12
and minus 0.5% in 2012-13. Many fire and rescue authorities are
making sensible savings without impacting on the quality or breadth
of the services offered to their communities. It is for each fire
and rescue authority to determine the operational activities of its
service through its integrated risk management plan, which is
subject to consultation with the local community.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I thank the Minister
for that reply. Has she had a chance to study the letter sent to
her by Members from all parts of your Lordships' House, and also
the letter sent to her department yesterday by the six chief fire
officers of the metropolitan areas, in which they stated that
current proposals would lead to the loss of 2,500 front-line
firefighters and 100 fire engines, and to the closure of 60
stations? In an area such as Merseyside, this would lead to a 33%
cut, when it has already made cuts of up to Â£20 million and lost
500 firefighters in recent years. Given the terrible tragedies that
can be wreaked by fire, and the inherent risks to public safety
that may ensue, would it not be sensible, before this becomes an
issue of antagonism, public debate and concern, for the Government
to commission an independent risk assessment so that we can be
clear about the implications of these proposals?
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, as I indicated, once
the Government have made decisions on funding, it is up to each
fire authority to deal with the standard of service that it
provides. It is worth noting, thankfully, that the number of fires
has gone down, largely due to the work carried out by fire
authorities. Given that, the response need may be slightly
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: Would my noble
friend be agreeable to meeting the Secretary of State in an
all-party delegation on this matter? I ask because I do not believe
that, following previous value-for-money changes in metropolitan
fire services, the proposal before us is the right solution. We
need to discuss it calmly and I hope that the Minister will
persuade her Secretary of State to receive such a delegation.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, the noble Baroness
will understand that I am perfectly prepared to pass on her
request, but I know that the fire Minister is already in close
discussions with the metropolitan fire and rescue services and is
listening very carefully to what they are saying.
Lord Shipley: My Lords, I understood the
Minister to say that London had been protected from the recent
round of cuts over the past two years. I also understand that this
was due to the Olympics. Will she confirm that there will now be
fairness in the distribution of reductions in budgets, particularly
in view of the fact that a number of senior firefighters believe
that there is now a danger to the delivery of the national
resilience policy because of the unevenness of the impact of the
cuts across the country?
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, as the noble Lord
will know, there are different views about the impact of the
reductions. Depending on where you are in the country, you may have
a different view. The best thing that can happen-which is
happening-is that the consultations should continue until decisions
are made on the next spending allocations.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, does
the Minister understand that little that she has said up to now
today will strengthen the morale of authorities such as the Greater
Manchester fire and rescue service, which serves courageously in
very high-risk and deprived areas, is often under attack while on
call and feels that it is being disproportionately hit by unfair
cuts? Is not the fairest way a flat-rate cut for all fire
authorities and not to allow 84.2% of the cuts to fall on the
Baroness Hanham: To answer the right reverend
Prelate's initial comments, of course we all recognise the very
valuable service that the fire authorities carry out. I indicated
earlier that I thought that the reduction in the number of fires is
due to the expertise of the fire service, and it is to be greatly
welcomed. I acknowledge that there are really bad exceptions to
that and that the fire service then carries out a heroic and very
valuable role. Local authorities, including fire and rescue
authorities, were asked to respond to a consultation on how the
baseline distribution should be set in 2013-14. I cannot pre-empt
the future settlement position and, as I said earlier, there is not
a settled view among firefighters on whether it should be based on
a flat-rate cut or on other methods.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: The Minister will be
aware, because we have debated it extensively, that we are about to
embark on a new business rate retention scheme as well as a poll
tax mark 2. Is not the reality of the business rate scheme that it
will further entrench the inequalities and inadequacies in funding
and could do so for up to seven years if the Government have their
way on how the system will work?
Baroness Hanham: Yes, my Lords, the business
rate retention scheme will have some effect on the fire and rescue
authorities and their direct levers for growth. We have therefore
proposed that single-purpose fire and rescue authorities should
keep 2% of the local share of business rates.