Baroness Smith of Basildon rose on the floor of the House of Commons to express her concerns regarding the Localism Bill.
“My Lords, I agree with the Minister when she introduced the debate by saying that this was an important, wide-ranging Bill with a great deal of consensus. Both those things are true but, as we have heard during the debate so far, there is also great concern about some of the principles and detail of the Bill. I welcome her comment that she is prepared to consider amendments in further debates. The number of speakers in the debate today reflects the experience and expertise in your Lordships’ House on these issues. It is a shame that, with extraordinary discipline, so many noble Lords had to curtail their comments to just seven minutes. With the number of speeches, I am sure that we would have benefited from hearing more from those noble Lords. It is a shame to do so much in one day when perhaps a two-day debate would have been better for a Bill of this importance and interest.
On several issues, I share the concerns that have been raised, notably around the sale of community assets, the governance arrangements in local government and on social housing. It is worth reflecting that when we debate social housing and flexibility of tenure, we are talking about someone’s home. People want security of tenure; they want to ensure that they can bring up their children, that they can go to work and that their children can be secure in their school in long term. We need to understand the concern that that has raised with so many people who are currently in social housing or who long for social housing and spend years on the waiting list.
I want to comment on issues, not yet discussed in your Lordships’ House, in Chapter 2 of Part 1-Clauses 9 and 10-on the fire and rescue service. I wish to comment on three aspects and, as the Bill progresses, I shall seek clarification from the Minister. Two of those aspects are in the Bill: the powers being given to fire authorities and the limitations placed on those powers and the charging for services, other than core services, and the implications of that. The third issue is not in the Bill, but I hope we can look at it during our debates and deliberations. It is whether the existing scrutiny and oversight measures for fire authorities are adequate, in light of new powers and responsibilities.
I have a long-standing interest and commitment to the work of the fire service. In my eight years as a county councillor, I was a member of the fire committee and of the fire authority and I have also been the Fire Minister in England and Northern Ireland. I fully understand the reasons for the new provisions in Clauses 9 and 10, and the need for greater clarity for the fire and rescue service so that it can carry out the full range of duties expected of it and entirely appropriate for it. It is clearly not acceptable that the fire and rescue service should be unclear about whether it has the proper authority to carry out functions that it deems to be part of its responsibility to the community. I am broadly supportive but I am concerned that, although this is heralded by Ministers as an extension of powers, the Secretary of State will have new powers to prevent the service doing something that he does not want it to do.
The Bill states that the power allows the fire and rescue service to do anything that it has statutory power to undertake, or anything it considers appropriate for purposes incidental to its statutory responsibilities, however incidental that may be. The Bill makes clear that it cannot do anything that it is explicitly prohibited from undertaking. But certain subsections allow the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers to restrict what a fire and rescue authority may do under the general power or make its use subject to conditions. Within the Bill there is no need for justification or explanation by the Secretary of State; there are no criteria on which the judgment will be made; there are no criteria on which the service or authority can rely to make an assessment about whether the Secretary of State is likely to use his or her powers to prevent them taking on a specific role; and there is no guidance for the Secretary of State about when it would be appropriate for him or her to use those powers.
Neither the Bill nor the Explanatory Notes is helpful in this regard, so how can an authority possibly have confidence that it really has the powers that the Bill initially outlines? The Bill both states that it is a matter of judgment for the fire and rescue authority, and then overrides that use of judgment with special powers for the Secretary of State. It would be helpful to have further detail from Ministers of what powers the Government envisage the fire and rescue service taking on, or at least some indication of when and why the Secretary of State will stop them using those powers. Would it be the same for all authorities, or would it depend on the Secretary of State’s assessment of the level of competence of that authority?
The second issue is charging. The Government have helpfully been clear that in effect core services cannot be charged for. The Bill then outlines those areas that cannot be charged for, but anything not specified can be charged for. However, there are still some areas that could be deemed grey areas and, as the Bill progresses, clarification will be required.
The 2004 Act emphasised the provision of community safety and fire prevention work, but this does not appear to be in the Bill as an area that cannot be charged for. Many of your Lordships will have seen at first hand the work undertaken to educate the public about fire prevention and fire safety, including provision of smoke alarms, particularly in multiple-occupancy houses. Is it the intention of the Government that the fire and rescue services and authorities should have the power to charge for these services in future?
At present, flooding is not a core service, as I understand it. It is explicit that an emergency resulting from a direct result of severe weather or an event of widespread significance could not be charged for, but what about the five houses that are flooded by a burst water main, or a blockage in a sewerage system? Could the fire and rescue service charge those households for those services? I suspect, and I hope, that it is not the Government’s intention that they should, but that is not clear in this Bill.
I can understand the Government wanting to allow charges for responding to a fire alarm where there is no fire, although I have concerns about that, and further clarification is required there as well. It must be clear what the Government consider to be a false call, as opposed to a malicious or hoax call, and what is considered to be malfunctioning equipment.
There is a serious issue here about additional burdens on business. Already business has responsibility for undertaking fire assessments, and the costs of installing and maintaining fire detection and alarm systems. Statistics show that 80 per cent of businesses fold within 18 months of a fire and we need to ensure that any action taken does not increase risk or overburden businesses.
My final point is on the issue of scrutiny. This Bill places heavier burdens and responsibilities on the members of fire and rescue authorities, both in terms of responsibilities and the issues relating to charges. The scrutiny and overview process must be able to match those responses. Unfortunately, my own recent experience of scrutiny and overview in the fire service has left me extremely concerned about the robustness of the current arrangements and whether they are fit for purpose for the new powers.
Following a number of local and national press reports, I recently received a number of complaints and allegations of mismanagement and financial mismanagement of the Essex fire and rescue service. It would not be appropriate to outline those allegations in this debate but I want to refer to the process. I was so concerned that I passed the documentation to the appropriate authority for examination, which was the clerk to the Essex combined fire and rescue authority. I am not in any position to make a judgment on the accuracy or otherwise of the allegations, but I need to be reassured that those matters will be investigated robustly, independently and transparently. If they are found to be inaccurate, misleading or just plain wrong, I thought that I would receive an explanation that would satisfy my concerns, or, if any of the allegations were accurate, that appropriate action would be taken.
I have been bitterly disappointed and my confidence in the process is being severely tested. I have been informed that much of the information has already been investigated, but I have not been told which issues or the result of any such investigations. I am told that there is a report going to an appropriate committee, but I have not been informed of which allegations are going to the committee, what information they have received, or how the judgment will be made. I know that the meeting will be in private and will not be open to public scrutiny at any stage. I am not convinced that the authority of elected councillors which is charged with the effective management of the fire and rescue service is aware of the detail and nature of the complaints, and the response that I have received from the county solicitor is far from satisfactory.
I am in the position of having received information that gives many people, including me, cause for real concern but there seems to be no way for these matters to be fully investigated in a robust and transparent way which gives confidence to the complainants. That is unacceptable. The public need to be reassured that the management, including financial management, of all public bodies is at all times above reproach and can withstand scrutiny. Being a long-time supporter of the fire service, particularly in Essex, I want to have full confidence in the service and the authority. That means having confidence that issues of concern will be robustly and transparently investigated.
With new powers and new charges being introduced, with certain constraints, the public will need to be satisfied that there is proper and effective scrutiny. I regret that my experience to date has not given me confidence in the current system. I do not ask the Minister to respond today, but I hope that this is an area that we can examine during the passage of the Bill. In brief, there is much in these clauses on the fire service to commend them to your Lordships’ House, but the devil is in the detail and I hope that we can address these issues as the Bill progresses.