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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 efforts.
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 £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 different.
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 metropolitan authorities?
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.