Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab): I am pleased to speak under your stewardship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this important debate.
As a former chair of Merseyside fire and rescue service, I feel I have a little knowledge—some would say very little knowledge—of the area that it serves. As a former Fire Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) also shares significant knowledge of the service. The headquarters of the fire service is in my Bootle constituency. I visited the service HQ only a few weeks ago, and I am pleased to say that there is a jointly located command and control centre, shared with the police. That was an initiative taken and implemented without Government diktat, so Merseyside
is already ahead of the curve in that regard. Discussions have also taken place to one degree or another with the ambulance service over the potential relocation of its control centre within the Merseyside fire service.
The service has excellent partnership arrangements with the police and local authorities, and, over the years, has developed excellent relations with community groups, voluntary organisations and the faith sector. It is no easy task to go out and make contact day in and day out to build up relationships with those organisations, and they respond constructively and positively.
Merseyside fire and rescue service can truly claim to be an integrated partner within the various communities that go to make up Merseyside. In addition, its relationships with the business community are absolutely second to none. Put simply, Merseyside has an excellent service that has a record of being proactive—in that, too, it is second to none. Over the years it has not only responded in the physical sense to actual fires, but has been responsive in ensuring that prevention has been at the top of its agenda. That takes time, determination and both financial and human resources, which are incrementally disappearing.
Merseyside fire and rescue service has risen to the financial challenge, albeit an unfair one, that the Government have set it over the past five years. Merseyside is a diverse community. It has a major river running through it, with two strategic road tunnels running beneath. It has major dock estates on both sides of the river and a burgeoning cruise terminal, with a major expansion of the Seaforth dock under way. It has an airport, two universities and major regional, national and international hospitals of repute within its care. It has two excellent football teams, in addition to Liverpool FC. It also has Aintree racecourse, which hosts one of the largest horse-racing events in the world. Meanwhile, Merseyside fire and rescue service has brought down the number of fires over the years with an innovative fire prevention strategy. The number of deaths and injuries have gone down to remarkably low levels, and that excellent record is in jeopardy. There is no doubt about that at all. It has done all that without kicking up a fuss and under great financial pressure, but that can go on only for so long without having serious effects on the resilience of the service.
The six metropolitan authorities, out of a total of 46 services, accounted for 57% of the budgetary reduction in the service as a whole between 2011 and 2013. Little is changing under the Government’s proposals; in fact, it is getting worse. During the same period, Merseyside fire and rescue service’s budget was cut by 13%—one of the highest cuts, and double the average—while others received increases. That is simply not fair and not equitable, and it is on top of all other the major cuts to local government services across the region over the past few years, which my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned. Put simply, that financial inequity is wrong, particularly when lives and livelihoods are at risk. The Government really have to think again.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): As we have heard, and as the figures that I have show, the Merseyside service faces a 41% cut in the support it will get from the Government over the next five years. It is calculated that that means it is likely to shrivel from 962 firefighters in 2011 to 564 in 2020, almost halving its firefighting workforce. Fire engines have been depleted from 42 to 28—it is possible that another 10 engines are to go—and four of Merseyside’s 26 stations have closed, with another eight under threat. It is a really dramatic cut in front-line services by anybody’s measures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) made an excellent speech, supported by the other Merseyside MPs. She was absolutely right to bring the subject to the House’s attention and to seek to get the Government to understand, even at this very late stage, just what these cuts mean to our constituencies and constituents. It is not just Merseyside—other fire services have been hit hard, with a 15.6% reduction in the cash budgets of metropolitan services and a reduction of 5.9% for non-metropolitan services. As the National Audit Office has said:
“Spending power has fallen most in areas assessed by the Department as having highest levels of…need.”
There are likely to be more incidents in areas of the highest need, as the Minister knows only too well. It is in the cities—in poorer metropolitan areas just like Merseyside—that fires are most likely to happen and to cause the most damage. Spending forecasts show that the trend is likely to continue. According to the House of Commons Library, metropolitan services are going to lose more spending power than combined county services, which means that services such as Merseyside’s will continue to face the toughest cash squeeze. Where is the risk-based allocation that used to inform Government spending on fire services?
Since 2010, our fire and rescue service has had to deal with year-on-year cuts totalling an estimated £236 million—about 22.5% of its overall Government funding—and a further 8.8% this year alone. That has led to real reductions on the frontline. We have 5,000 fewer firefighters in England than we had in 2010. I travelled around the country earlier this year—I was the shadow Fire Minister prior to the election—and I talked to people at both metropolitan and non-metropolitan services. Some of them told me that their services would not be viable in the future. Those words chilled me, as they should chill the Minister.
Those who see logic in slashing fire budgets seem to believe that as there are now fewer fires it is safe to have a depleted fire service, but that argument is utterly specious. It completely disregards other important services that firefighters provide in key areas such as flood fighting, terrorism and others that we have heard about today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West said, a key factor in the smaller number of fires is the 670,000 home fire safety checks that the fire service carries out every year. Since 2004, when the checks began in earnest, the proportion of homes with fire alarms has increased from 74% to 88%. Those checks save lives as well as preventing fires—double the number of fatalities happen when a fire occurs in a building without a smoke alarm. To cut the fire service because the number of fire incidents has been reduced successfully, saving lives in the process, would be like cutting the number of mammograms because the number of deaths from breast cancer is going down. It is complete madness.
We should therefore be in no doubt that the cuts faced by services such as Merseyside will put the public at greater risk. Indeed, as we heard earlier, the independent consultants Greenstreet Berman suggest that by 2020, slower response times nationally—they are now at their worst level for 20 years—could lead to more than 100 additional deaths a year. The cuts may well lead to the Government failing in their first duty: to keep the public safe.
Fire deaths in Merseyside have already increased over the past five years of cuts. I know we are dealing with small numbers at the local level, so I do not want to talk about percentages because they can be totally misleading, but the trend concerns me deeply, as it should concern the Minister.
The funding cuts faced by the Merseyside fire service and other beleaguered services are all the more difficult to manage because the Government have consistently shown little or no leadership on the future of fire services. Now, however, after a long period of inertia, the Government are suggesting a patchwork, top-down reorganisation. They are effectively proposing to put fire services under police and crime commissioners, or to place the police on the boards of fire services to be part of their management. They are also suggesting a single employer.
There is real concern that all that will mean that the fire service becomes subsidiary to the police and ceases to be a statutory service in its own right, and that the fire service will be the one to see the reductions in budget and staffing—no longer two equal services working side by side for the public good, but one subordinate to another. Where PCCs take over, what guarantees do the public have that fire budgets will be maintained? Merseyside has a right to ask for that, and for an unequivocal assurance from the Minister that this top-down proposal will not be used to introduce privatisation.
The reorganisation is, I assume, to save money. Why, oh why did the Minister not look to Wales or Scotland to work out how a reorganisation could be done to save money and yet protect the frontline? Was it simply a “not invented here” reaction, or something more nefarious? As the shadow Fire Minister before the election, I thought hard about what an incoming Labour Government could do to save money, in Merseyside and elsewhere, and protect the frontline. I consulted experts, and they told me that there were only three ways to work within the Tory-Liberal Democrat spending plans: merge the service into one; volunteerise the whole service; or privatise it. Which of those options is today’s announcement moving us towards—a service staffed completely by volunteers or a privatised service?
As the Minister knows, firefighters run into danger when the rest of us are running away. They are professional and work with determination and expertise to protect us all from the most appalling risks. They should be valued and listened to, not ignored. The Minister knows that better than anyone, and I urge him to take stock of the funding on Merseyside and in all the other areas of the country that are struggling to make massive reductions.
The Minister must respond to the impressive and passionate case that Merseyside MPs have made today about fire service funding, and not fob them off with some fairy tale about reorganisation providing more money for the frontline. Budget reductions and his suggestions for mergers with the PCCs put him in danger of creating a Cinderella service. That fairy tale ended happily, but today, sadly, I see no Prince Charming on the horizon.
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