Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Baroness praises “Firebreak” in discussions on Localism Bill

Baroness Smith rose on the floor of the House of Lords to speak on the Localism Bill.

“My Lords, I rise to speak to our Amendment 112 and comment on the government amendments in this group.

I welcome the Government’s amendments and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments. I appreciate that it caused some confusion when I first raised this. As the noble Baroness generously said, when she first wrote to me, her officials and government Ministers had understood that the legislation as drafted would not allow for charging. It was completely inadvertent, as she said, and they had not appreciated that a consequence of the Government’s proposals to expand and increase charges would lead to community fire safety being charged for. Indeed, she wrote to me to that effect. I thank her because, when it was recognised that our concerns on this were justified, she raised the matter in the House and immediately wrote to me as well to clarify the position and agreed to bring forward government amendments to correct the error. I am grateful to her for doing that.

I have to say to her that this is a fairly large Bill, about 500 pages long. It is very detailed and quite technical in parts, and some of the discussions we have had have sometimes seemed quite complex. We have concerns that some parts of this Bill may have been rushed through to the House before they were fully and properly drafted. It is to the great credit of the noble Baroness that she has been ready to engage and debate on these issues, and at times has been prepared to concede and bring forward amendments to try to improve this legislation. So I am grateful to her for the amendments she has brought forward today, in so far as they go.

I am sorry to raise the matter in this way, but I am looking at the difference between the amendment in my name and the amendment from the Government, which refers to Section 6(2)(b) of the 2004 Act. Our Amendment 112 would not allow charging for community safety or fire prevention work, whereas the government amendment refers to Section 6(2)(b) of the 2004 Act, which is purely about the fire safety work that a fire authority must undertake as part of its core functions. I entirely agree that that is right and proper in so far as it goes. The last Government recognised that fire safety should be a core function, and therefore placed a duty on fire authorities to undertake fire safety. No fire authority should be allowed to charge for that core function, as the noble Baroness rightly agrees. Where I think there is a grey area-and some clarification on this would be helpful, as this is another unintended consequence-is that many fire authorities have extended this work to the related, but slightly wider, community safety remit.

I have some particular examples of this work, which I am sure the noble Baroness would never want to see lost to the community. For example, my authority in Essex runs a number of courses for young people, such as one called “Firebreak” and another called “Young Firefighters”, and there are similar schemes in other authorities. They do promote fire safety-there are clearly benefits for fire safety-but there are much wider benefits to the individuals taking part and to the community. In Basildon, Essex fire service uses these projects, working with local authorities, councils and other bodies, as part of a team tackling crime and disorder. The fire service is part of the crime and disorder reduction partnerships, and it is very proud of this work. I looked at its website earlier today for examples. It seems to me-the noble Baroness can assure me on this-that from the wording that is taken from the 2006 Act this does not exactly fall under fire safety.

For example, there is a page on the Essex County Fire and Rescue Service website about Darren, 18, of Ashingdon Road in Hawkwell. He has just joined the crew of his local fire station as the newest recruit, and he said:

“It was Firebreak which really showed me what I wanted to do with life and how I could do it. I had got into the wrong crowd and was getting in trouble with the police and then bringing that trouble with me into school and getting into worse trouble”.

His head teacher referred Darren to the “Firebreak” course-it is a long quote but I will read it-and, as Darren says,

“When I got back to school I ditched my mates and really buckled down. Almost straight away I saw my grades improving and my predicted exam results shot up. Firebreak made me realise that there is more to life than getting in trouble and mucking about and gave me something to work towards”.

That is not technically fire safety, but the benefits to the community are enormous. Another person mentioned is Craig, who is 20 and attended this course in 2005. He says:

“I was taking drugs, drinking and stealing cars. Basically I was completely off the rails. Firebreak has changed my life, I no longer drink or take drugs and am now working to become a firefighter myself”.

The Cheshire fire service signs up to I do not know whether the noble Baroness is aware of When I was Fire Minister I went to see some of the work that it is doing, which is about community safety for younger children. Given the trust placed in firefighters, and their very respected position in the community, they were engaging very young children in community safety. Part of that was about fire safety and being safe, but also about being safe in their broader lives. The Cheshire fire service is also one of the employers involved with the Prince’s Trust programme. I certainly think that nobody in your Lordships’ House would want to lose the fire service’s involvement with the Prince’s Trust. There is a 12-week personal development course, and the fire service is one of the employers doing that.

Devon and Somerset is another authority that has a personal development scheme, also called “Firebreak”, for key stage 4 pupils from 14 to 16. Its website says that it provides a

“themed educational diet designed to complement and enhance the school curriculum. It aims to raise achievement, improve self motivation, increase educational engagement”,

and aims to develop,

“practical skills, life skills, communication skills, team work”.

Looking around the country, I see that Suffolk authority is another one to engage actively with children and young people. One of its objectives is to prevent and reduce fire crime and fire, but it also wants to engage young people, and has professional staff working with the authority, to identify good practice in working with children and young people. East Sussex has a “LIFE” project and Chester has a “Respect” project.

All of those have proven successes in deterring young people not only from a life of crime but from social disorder as well. My fear is, if it was the Government’s intention, which I suggest it probably was not, that these should be charged for-and I think that, under the Government’s amendments, they would be able to be charged for-then those very young people who can benefit most from these courses would not be able to do so.

Another issue is that, if these courses were chargeable, who would pay? In many cases it would be another public authority. What we would be doing is introducing a bureaucracy to move money around the system. So it would be helpful if the Minister, perhaps not today, could reflect on the advice she was initially given that this would not be covered by fire safety. Perhaps there may be some kind of guidance that could be issued. I think that this is the kind of work that so many people in the community benefit from.

In my own authority, at Basildon fire station, Martin Trevillion leads the community safety programme, and it is an exceptional programme. Having spoken to so many young people that have benefitted from it, I would be reluctant for us to lose that programme simply through inadvertent drafting of legislation.

Finally, I want to raise one other issue, which is that of carbon monoxide safety and awareness. I am also not clear that Section 6(2)(b) of the 2004 Act, which talks about advice on how to prevent fires and on means of escape from buildings, would cover carbon monoxide safety. This is a particular issue: there have been a number of deaths and serious injuries due to carbon monoxide, and it is something that fire authorities are able to take on and work with, and I know that some of them already do so. I would not think that the noble Baroness intended that that should be charged for as well.

When at Second Reading I first raised the issue of charging for community safety, it was clear that the Government had not thought about the implications, quite inadvertently, and this had slipped through. The Minister was able to respond to those concerns very positively. I hope she understands that my raising these tonight is in exactly the same tone, as this is a service provided by the fire authorities, working with their community, which we really would be very loath to lose, if they had to charge for it. I ask the Minister-I think she has had time to reflect, or to receive enlightenment on this issue quite soon-even if she cannot give me a full answer today, to reflect on that so some guidance can be issued, because this resource that is provided by our fire and rescue services is very valuable for the community.


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