Fire Service Debate

8th June 2016

Mike Penning responds to a debate on flooding and the statutory duties of the fire service.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Gillan. I have lots of conversations with the former Fire Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), because we are good friends and have the same feelings for the fire service, so at the start I should pay tribute to what the fire service did during the flooding over the Christmas and new year period, which was exemplary. I had the privilege of meeting many of the front-line firefighters and other emergency services that took part in that work.

Perhaps I should nudge the former Fire Minister, who does a lot of work with Fire Aid, to declare his interest in it. It does exemplary work and I know he champions it, but he did not mention that during his comments.

May I say at the outset that we are looking for the fire service, working with the other emergency services, to deliver the best possible rescue facilities and prevention work? I do not disagree with many of the points that have been made. I agree that I do not need primary legislation, although some of my civil servants may disagree slightly. I come back to the discussion that took place in 2008, when the Pitt review specifically referred to the role being underpinned “as necessary” by a statutory requirement. That was put before the Government of the day. I rarely do party politics, as most people know, but that was not this Administration or the coalition Administration, but a Labour Administration. Following the Pitt review and following the floods, they did not go ahead with that, but said that the fire service working with the other emergency services could do very well. I think the situation is similar today. The fire service has evolved tremendously.

 

Will the Minister give way?

 

I may give way in a moment. Time will be difficult.

The fire service continues to evolve and not every fire service will come under police and crime commissioners. Around five PCCs are looking into this, but other PCCs and clinical commissioning groups are considering whether the ambulance service could be included. My views on this are pretty well known. I think the blue light emergency services must work much more closely together than now. I am chuffed that in London we have co-responding, but that is just the start. In Hampshire, there are qualified paramedics who are firemen. I apologise to the ladies, I mean firefighters. When I was in the job, there were only firemen.

It is important to see where the job is going. Yes, we are going to more flooding. We have always gone to flooding, I went to flooding and the London fire service went to a flood yesterday. None of the national resilience back-up was used yesterday. I asked the question before coming here today.

I am a former member of the Fire Brigades Union. I met the leadership and it put similar arguments to me. I will keep the matter under review. I will not comment too much on the numbers, not least because in other parts of the country we have seen firefighter numbers drop, but there has been a different way of delivering the service, including retained firefighters. London still has this policy, which I thought was an anomaly when I was in Essex—it will not allow retained firefighters on to its ground even if in their day job they are fully qualified firemen. I have never understood that and it is something that must be addressed as we evolve. I know that the union is trying to protect jobs, but in retrospect it is probably not doing that.

Lancashire has developed a completely different model. The union there wanted to protect jobs and to keep stations open. There was a risk of them closing so it went to the eight-eight day model, so that they were manned during the day with back-up crews during the evening. That is a completely different model. That is why local decision making is vital.

I am not denying that there are fewer firefighters, but there are dramatically fewer turn-outs. Fire prevention work started during our time in the job. I remember vividly arguing that firemen should go into homes to help to install smoke detectors. The situation has dramatically changed but there are still too many deaths and there is a lot more work to do.

 

It is often said that there are far fewer fire incidents, but that varies from region to region, as I am sure the Minister is aware. The fact is that there are more and more flooding incidents in this country than there ever before. Does that not mean we should be looking at the recommendations of the Pitt review in 2008 and give the fire and rescue service a statutory duty on flood and resilience?

 

I will try to make my point a bit stronger. Respectfully, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, and the reason is that I cannot find an instance in which the fire service is not doing what it would do if there were a statutory duty. In fact, I have real concerns that, if we put in statutory powers, fire services would have kit—and crews—sitting there, at huge expense, and the likelihood of it being used regularly would be completely different from what it would be in Cumbria, York and other parts of the country.

I know that the former Fire Minister understands this: if we say to the fire service, “You have a statutory duty,” it will put the kit in place. In many places, they have that kit. It would really worry me if we had lots of kit sitting around in areas where we know the risk is very minimal. I will keep the situation under review, but I am confident as to where we are. I am meeting in particular the metropolitan chief fire officers later today to discuss the issue, so I am not in any way saying that I will never look at it. I will keep it under review, but at present our position is like that of the Government in 2008. I accept that there are more flooding situations, but in terms of manning levels, we are going out to fewer calls, even though we are doing different sorts of calls. I remember going to flooding incidents quite extensively when I was in the job in the 1980s.

 

The Minister talks as though the flood rescue equipment is in a silo and cannot be used outside the area. In my constituency of Heywood and Middleton, we have a water rescue unit, and it was out in Cumbria during the Cumbrian floods. It does not just sit tight and gather dust.

 

No, and that is the point I would make: that is a mutual aid piece of kit that is used, and mutual aid is becoming more and more important. I will come on to national resilience in a second. If we put in a statutory requirement, the neighbouring service, which went and helped brilliantly well, would have to have that there as well. That is what happens in the fire service if we make things statutory. I am confident about where we are, but I will continue to talk to the chiefs.

There are areas where I think we could move. I am thinking of the high-velocity pumps—they were never there when I was in the job, and I pay tribute to the previous Labour Administration who brought in that national asset—and where they sit. For instance, Sussex is about to take one of those pumps as part of its assets, which it will share in a mutual aid situation. I know the fire service listens to everything that the Fire and Police Minister says: I am looking to see whether we can develop that better around the country so that those assets sit where the risks would be, rather than it coming to, perhaps, a Cobra situation and us saying, “We will deploy,” which has a cost implication, or people requesting the deployment. I am talking about improving things in predictability terms. For instance, after we had the floods over Christmas and the new year, there was a prediction that we would have another such situation, and of course the question then is: do we pre-deploy or do we not pre-deploy? Those assets should be sitting out there. I think that they should be sitting out there as an asset of the services, within reason, and we are going to look to see how we can do that.

When we are looking at who decides what should be in place and in which area, the experts are the people on the front line, the people who are putting the local plans together, and an awful lot will be learned from what happened during the flooding. For instance, when I was in Lancashire, one of the crew, who had been up to their waists in floodwater for most of the day, said to me, “With all due respect, sir, we couldn’t use the radios because of the risk with the water. We couldn’t drive our appliances into areas where we saw the Army driving their appliances, because our vehicles frankly couldn’t take that,” and several vehicles were damaged because of floodwater.

 

It is not just the firefighters who are calling for a statutory duty; it is also the chief officers in flood areas such as North Yorkshire. That is based on evidence as a result of the floods in 2015. They believe that a statutory duty would help them with preventive work as well as, obviously, dealing with flooding situations. They are saying that it is an imperative, so will the Minister listen to those chiefs?

 

I do listen to the chiefs. They are firefighters as well, interestingly enough. I am sure that they would like to be classed as firefighters, not separate from firefighters—we may make a few enemies with some chief firefighters, but that is semantics. I do listen to the chiefs, and other chiefs in other parts of the country are not saying the same thing. What we need to do is ensure that we have the assets in the right place. To go back to the point about Lancashire, one of the crews said to me, “We did not have a flotation platform, so we were using salvage sheets and ladders,” which I trained with all those years ago; people would think we had moved on from there. I understand that that service is now looking at deploying that piece of kit. It does not take up a huge amount of space. It uses compressed air.

We have to look very carefully at this matter, and the brigadiers’ report on how the resilience worked during the flooding is crucial as well. We had a situation in which the Army could get in, because it was using what I still call 4-tonne trucks, but when we tried to follow them with fire appliances, many of them broke down and were severely damaged. That had a lot to do with the air intake and with positioning. People would think that in the 21st century we would have learned how to deal with those situations, but actually that is what we were learning. We also know that the cars of crews who came in and parked in one particular fire station were destroyed by flooding. We therefore need to look very carefully at the resilience that is there, and that is one reason why I am looking very carefully at the pumps.

The point I want to make is that we can change the title and say, “You should do this and you should do that,” but we have to ask whether the services are doing that first and whether that is the best utilisation of what we are asking them to do. There are some chiefs who take the view referred to, and the FBU has been running a very long campaign on this matter; it goes way back to when the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was the Fire Minister. However, I am of the same opinion as the 2008 Minister: if necessary, we could do this, but at present—

 

I am glad that the Minister has at least said that he will keep the situation under review. The best argument he has is that a statutory duty would force all 40-odd fire brigades in England and Wales to buy the equipment when some of them may well not need it—but then a number of us have been advocating fewer fire authorities for a considerable time. It would be much better to have regional structures and fewer chief fire officers and fewer fire and rescue authorities. That streamlining would be better. The key point here is that whether it is because of climate change or just weather patterns changing, floods are on the up; they are increasing exponentially. We need the equipment and resources to deal with that, and people think that a statutory duty is the only way to get the Government to focus on ensuring that those resources are available.

 

I agree that the fire service is top-heavy in administration terms, which is why I am looking at PCCs who want to take over that administration and limit those costs, so that we have more money for the front line; I am sure that we would all agree with that. Perhaps it is a question for another debate, on the number of fire and rescue services. That is a really emotive subject, because a local community relate, they tell me, to their fire service.

 

I will ask a very simple question and I am sure I will get a very simple answer. If it is right and correct that there is a statutory duty in Scotland and Northern Ireland, what is the difference with the people of England?

 

I go back to the decision that was made in 2008. Devolved Assemblies will make their decisions on their priorities in their way. I have no evidence whatever that creating a statutory duty would enable our firefighters to do their job in regard to flood rescue and prevention any differently from how they do it now. However, I have said that I will keep an open mind. It is not a uniform view across the myriad fire and rescue services in this country that this should be statutory. The union has a view, and in most cases I agree with many of the things that the union says. I would do: I was a branch secretary for a short time. But on this issue, I do not agree, and the leadership know that I do not, so it will not come as a big surprise to them. This is really personal to me. I am sure the former Fire Minister will appreciate that if I thought that in any way, shape or form, this would do what it says on the tin, I would do it. I have real misgivings that actually there would be ongoing costs that would be disproportionate to what we were trying to do.

It has been very useful to discuss this issue this morning. I can probably look forward to further debates with the former Fire Minister and I am pleased to be giving him a few seconds now to respond.

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