Mike Penning responds to debate on closer working between the emergency services

9th February 2016

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, not least because the Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner is one of the best in the country, offering the sort of innovation that we have heard about during the debate. It is sad that he is not standing for re-election in May.

I welcome today’s debate and the opportunity to bust some myths, which is important and can provide confidence going forward. I am generally a friend of the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and we get on 99% of the time, both inside and outside this Chamber, but some of her comments frankly amounted to scaremongering. I will address the points that have been made during the debate, but, as always, I will write to colleagues if I cannot cover everything.

Like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I have a passion for this country’s fire service. I was a member of it for a short time but nowhere near as long as him. The fire service that turns up to our homes and factories to protect us is a public asset and will stay so—let me throw this privatisation thing out of the window once and for all. However, when my constituency was blown to smithereens on 11 December 2010, I welcomed firefighters from anywhere, including the private sector, which has huge experience in the type of fire that we were fighting.

We must also get away from the London-centric perception that all fire stations stay open 24/7, because they do not. We have an absolutely fantastic voluntary service based on retained firefighters, who make up the vast majority of firefighters around the country. Brilliantly, we now have full-time retained firefighters—it was not allowed when I was in the job. I understand that there are retained London firefighters who live in my constituency, but I must be slightly careful about that as I do not want to get them into trouble. The Fire Brigades Union in London does not like retained firefighters. On Merseyside, there are only 25 retained firefighters for the whole area, even though many firefighters have told me that they would love to be retained when they go back to their villages and homes. We also have full-time day-manning, as I call it, with firefighters being retained and on call later. Only the other day, I was in Lancashire to congratulate firefighters on their fantastic work during the floods. They have just moved to a new system with no 24/7 stations, but the cover is safe and the unions have accepted it. We must therefore remember when looking around the country that one size will not fit all.

However, we must consider—the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse hit the nail on the head—that other countries often have emergency services that work together much more closely than ours and protect their public much better. Of all the countries that I could refer to, it is America, the nation of privatisation, where firefighters have paramedical skills vastly in excess of any fireman in this country. I am really passionate about that. I took five years to qualify as a military paramedic before paramedics were even heard of in civvy street. When I started the job in Essex after passing out, I was posted to the station in Basildon. I was given my trade union card—I had no choice in the matter—and I was then given my first aid certificate, because I was made to take a first aid course during my basic training. By the way, at no stage during my service was I asked to renew the certificate, which is quite fascinating.

We have moved on since then. The vast majority of firefighting appliances now have defibrillators, but so does the cashier at my local Tesco. It is fantastic that this life-saving kit is available to us. When I was in Hampshire the other day, I saw advances in skills for firefighters for which I have been screaming for years, and we could go further. The key thing is whether we can keep a person alive until the other professionals arrive. This is not about replacing the ambulance service or the police; this is about the fire service being able to save a seriously injured person when it is out on a job and an ambulance cannot get there. That happens in most other parts of the world. In Hampshire, I was chatting away with a fireman who had paramedical skills right up to just below being able to insert an IV. I think there are legal reasons behind him not being able to do an IV, but we will try to move on that as well, because, as I know from experience, getting fluids into the body is one of the most important things, alongside keeping the airways open. People have transferred from the ambulance service into the fire service and vice versa, because of their on-the-job experience.

The reason why legislation is so important is that this is not just about money. If it was, I would not be standing here. It is about whether we can get a more efficient service to protect our constituents’ lives day in, day out, 24/7, 365 days of the year. Are there things preventing us from doing that?

In some parts of the country we have gone forward in leaps and bounds, but in other parts we have not; in some parts of the country we have huge amounts of collaboration, but in others not. I freely admit—I will probably get myself in trouble with the Department of Health again—that when I was in opposition I was fundamentally opposed to regionalisation of the ambulance service. As a former firefighter, I saw problems with that. When the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was the Fire Minister, I was fundamentally opposed to the regionalisation of the fire service control centres. Thirty-odd years ago, however, when I was a fireman, we had a tri-service control centre—only one of them—and it worked really well. Where such things are working in places around the country, issues such as contracts and job descriptions have been addressed, which is absolutely right.

On Thursday I was at the police control centre in London when the Syria conference was going on here. That was a hugely difficult and tactical job for the Metropolitan police, with the fire service, the Army, the ambulance service and the London boroughs all in that control centre together, but it was a brilliant operation. I pay tribute to those involved in the mutual aid that took place in London last Thursday. We had armed response and other police officers from throughout the country, including from the Police Service of Northern Ireland—the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) have now had to leave the Chamber for other business.

Collaboration does take place, but what do we do when it does not? Do we simply sit back and say that that is acceptable? A locally appointed—not elected—fire authority might say, “No, we’re doing fine. There are 25 of us, and we turn up twice a month. We’re doing absolutely fine”, even though they know full well that in another part of the country collaboration is saving lives and doing the job. This is not about replacing a fireman with a policeman—that is clearly scaremongering. I know what the FBU has been saying, and I will try to work with it on the matter. It about delivering better care and value for money.

Why are the emergency services not all coming together on procurement? I now publish the lists of what police authorities spend, and I shall do exactly the same for the fire authorities. The accountability of PCCs is in place—they are elected. There are people who are seconded or appointed to different authorities, but at the end of the day the PCCs are the ones in the community who are elected, and the vast majority of them want collaboration.

Nearly every chief fire officer has congratulated me on my new position, although that is probably natural—they do not want to get on the wrong side of me straightaway. They welcome the fact that I am the Fire Minister as well as the Police Minister, so the fire service is not the forgotten body, which to be fair they have felt in the past. I was aware of the extent of that when I took office.

We want collaboration to be as voluntary as possible, but where there is complete belligerence about not doing it, we will take powers. The Bill will be published shortly. There will be evidence sessions, because that is the modern way we do things now, and we will look carefully at a lot of the comments made in the debate today. All of that, however, has to be about how to do things—the way we did things in the past is not necessarily the best one. Some of the work we are doing now I was pushing for 30 years ago, and I am pushing to go further.

I would like the ambulance service to work more closely with the others. That is much more complicated because of the regional structure, but we could do things locally. I know of at least one PCC—I will not name him, because I was told in confidence—who has been approached by the new commissioning group in his area to ask whether the PCC could provide emergency blue-light cover for ambulances. That is starting to come about not from the top down but from the grassroots.

We should listen not only to the chiefs, the PCCs or the unions—more unions than the FBU alone are involved—but to the individual firefighters, who have had the confidence to talk to me in the past few weeks, since I had this new job, and to say, “Minister, we are thrilled that you are an ex-firefighter and that our voice may now be heard above all the other chatter of people protecting their jobs.” That is the sort of comment I have been hearing.

Ian Lavery: With regard to the grassroots and the people on the frontline, who the Minister mentioned—he was one of those people himself—in the event of a single employer model, will he guarantee the people in the fire and rescue service their rights to unionise, to collective bargaining and to industrial and strike action? The police have none of that, so will the Minister guarantee that firefighters may retain their rights?

Mike Penning: That is an important point. The operational control of the individuals will always be by the operational officers. There is no evidence whatever that PCCs, since we have had them, have interfered in cases or in operational work. It is crucial that that does not happen.

What are we really saying? More than half of all fire stations—I think this figure is right—have a police station or ambulance station within 1 km of them. Although it is difficult to put a fire appliance into a police station—some ambulance stations could take them, but not police stations—the reverse is easy, and we have seen that in Winchester.

The new fire station in Winchester, which is a fantastic piece of kit, is fully bayed, and the police in there too. The two services are completely working together, without it affecting their operational control. Someone who dials 999 and asks for a police officer will not get a fireman—that is a ludicrous idea and will not happen. However, elsewhere in the country we already have, for example, police community support officers in Durham, I think, carrying first aid kits. They might even have short extension ladders. They have had the training and are doing that because of the sheer geographical issues involved.

One size will not fit all, and that gives us an opportunity. There are complications, and I am not shying away from the fact that doing something might be difficult, but nor will I shy away from the fact that we need to protect our public better than we do now. Where collaboration works, I will not have belligerence and bloody-mindedness blocking that sort of care in other parts of the country. That is why we are bringing it through.

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