Thirty years ago, I wrote a paper on better collaboration between the emergency services, covering the ambulance, fire and police services. I was wrong, because it should have included the coastguard—as a former shipping Minister, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Let me say at the outset that I have much sympathy with some aspects of the provisions that have been tabled today. We may be able to look at some of them again and to bring back proposals in the Lords. However, I fundamentally disagree with others, because they would rip the heart out of the Bill—I am looking at the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who knows exactly what I mean.
Let me also say that I am enormously proud to be the first police and fire Minister, and that role is perhaps an indication of how seriously the Government take some of the concerns the fire service and the shadow fire Minister have. I actually gave up huge swathes of my policing portfolio, including responsibility for the National Crime Agency and organised crime, to other Ministers, so that I could take on this portfolio. The work has taken up a huge amount of my time—that is not just because of this Bill—because I have been on an enormously steep learning curve from when I was a fireman all those years ago. The job has changed, although some of the semantics and language have not. Some things have changed enormously fast, but some have not changed as fast as we would perhaps all like.
Because we have a fantastic fire service, there has been a decrease of 17% in fire-related fatalities and of 50% in reported fires over the past 10 years. I am concerned about the correlation between those two figures, and I have asked my officials to look at that. As the shadow Minister said, there is an increase at the moment. We should not take one year as an example, and there may be, very sadly, some one-off events. I vividly remember, as roads Minister, going to the terrible fire on the M5 following a road traffic collision where many people survived the RTC, got out of their vehicles, and sadly lost their lives to fire.
Members of the fire service, the police and the ambulance service are amazing creatures. We often send them in one direction while we go in the other direction. The group of people who work in the fire service and in our other emergency services are a special breed. Many of them are ex-armed forces due to some of the training that we give in our armed forces. Sadly, not as many are coming through as there were in my time: I left the Army and went straight into Essex fire and rescue services. I applied to the Metropolitan police and the London fire service. I got accepted into both, but Essex offered me a flat. If the Met had offered me a flat, I probably would not be standing here now and would have retired a couple of years ago.
Many fire services around the country have not been recruiting recently, although I understand that some have started to recruit now, but the police are most certainly recruiting. The Metropolitan police have brought in the right policy of making sure that people serving in the police force in London can represent their community, so they come from the community they live in. When the commissioner first proposed this and said that it was the right thing to do, I said, “Be very careful, because you would have excluded me from joining the Met. Although I grew up in Edmonton, you would have said that I’d been away for five years and so would not be allowed to join the police force.”
The rule has been changed, and, quite rightly, the police force in London will now allow someone to join even if they have been in the armed forces for some time. This is a very important area, especially as the police are now recruiting extensively. Only the other day, I took the passing out parade at Hendon, with over 200 officers. I think that in excess of 2,000 officers are coming through training in London imminently.
Perhaps because of my background in the military and in the fire service, I understand that neither organisation likes change. I listened to the arguments made earlier about why there was opposition to PCCs possibly taking control of the fire service in a managerial way, in the same way as they took over from the police authorities. It is almost an identical argument that says, “What experience do they have? Surely it’s better that we let the councillors who have sat on the committee for 20 years, with all that experience, do it.”
The introduction of PCCs was fundamentally opposed by Her Majesty’s Opposition—I understand why—who had it in their manifesto to abolish them. They did not win the election for many reasons, not least because people such as Vera Baird and Paddy Tipping are excellent PCCs in their parts of the world. Vera Baird has absolutely transformed victim support in her part of the world, as have many others. I know the candidates up there will say, “You shouldn’t name names”, but actually we should give praise where it is due. There have been good independents. I want Conservative PCCs to win in every single seat, but we have to be pragmatic, and if others are elected, then let us make sure that we can work together.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) touched on the concerns about whether PCCs have the necessary experience. Some PCCs do have lots of experience within the police force, but that is not necessarily relevant. When the Prime Minister appointed me as shipping Minister, I said, “You do realise, Prime Minister, that my constituency is the furthest away from the sea in the whole country?” He said, “Yes, but you should question whether the way things have always been done is the right way.”
I use the example of armed guards on ships. When I arrived at the Department for Transport, we were having massive problems with Somali pirates. I simply said, “Why hasn’t the Royal Navy been able to do that job with the Marines—no navy in the whole world is more capable—and so allow people to protect their property?” So we convinced other countries and the International Maritime Organisation that we should allow that. I did not look at that from the perspective of a shipping person; I looked at it as an outside individual who was trying to say, “Let these people have an opportunity to do that.” That idea had been looked at by people who were much more experienced than I was in shipping, and it had been rejected on more than one occasion because it was not possible. I came in from the outside and said that it was possible.
Amendments 3 to 6, tabled by Her Majesty’s Opposition, would decimate the PCCs’ role. I know exactly why the shadow Minister has tabled them, because we had a very similar debate in Committee. The shadow Minister knows full well that I will not accept them, and if she presses them to a Division, we will attempt to vote them down.
In principle, we completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on amendment 2. We need to do some work around it to ensure that it encapsulates titles other than the PCC, and we can work together on it before the Bill goes to the Lords. In the Lords, we will introduce a Government amendment that will be very similar to amendment 2 but will be drafted in such a way as to make sure that no consequential issues arise.
In Lancashire, for example, I met the chief constable and the PCC, and they told me that they were going to use some of the reserves to build a new police station in Blackpool. I said, “Fantastic news. I wondered what you were going to use the allocated reserves for. But you have had a conversation with the fire service as well, haven’t you? You cannot put a fire station into a police station, because the big red trucks do not fit in the foyer, but you most certainly can put a police station in a fire station.”
I want to touch on the issue of flooding. I was so impressed by our firefighters and ambulance crews, and by the local communities, volunteers, local authorities and police in areas where flooding took place. Flooding is becoming more and more a part of the fire and rescue service’s work. However, that is not new. There is a lovely place on the edge of Epping forest called Theydon Bois—it is in Essex, but quite close to east London, where the shadow Minister resides—where flash floods were a regular occurrence, and we used to go there. As a full-time firefighter, I regularly used to go there.
In Committee, I said that I would keep an open mind about the need to change the title to reflect areas of responsibility. In my opinion, this has nothing to do with money. Normally, I agree with nearly everything that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) says, but on this occasion, I do not. Her constituency is only partially affected by the Bill, because the Mayor has now taken over direct responsibility for the fire service in London—that had been called for for some considerable time—so I am not surprised that PCCs are not at the forefront of conversations when she knocks on constituents’ doors in her part of the world.
There are real benefits to come from the collaboration that can take place. I am not saying that no collaboration is now taking place, but much more can be done. In particular, there is more work to do with ambulance services, especially with the triage units on blue light vehicles. I will soon have the honour and the privilege to go to America to pay my respects at the site of 9/11 in New York. No policing and fire Minister has yet done that, which I think is a sad indictment. One of the main reasons why I want to go to New York is to look at its firehouses, as they are called. Another reason is the fact that paramedics are carried in the back of fire appliances, which we need to consider very carefully in this country.
I am enormously keen not to make this a one-size-fits-all provision. However, there has to be a backstop provision in case no one can reach an agreement and no one can move forward. In a perfect world, we would not be in a situation where we had to make it a statutory requirement to collaborate, but, frankly, collaboration in some parts of the country is not of the standard we would expect in the 21st century. We therefore need measures to take forward such collaboration.
Finally, amendment 21 is about the concordat. I have talked about that, and other bits and bobs, particularly with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I do not think it would be good to put that on a statutory footing—in other words, to make that law. The concordat seems to be working really well, so let us see how that evolves with these agreements. The shadow Minister did not refer to that, but it is relevant. We spoke about it in Committee and I will keep a really close eye on how the concordat works, but I do not think that at this early stage putting that into law is the answer .
I hope that I have alleviated the concerns of my hon. Friends. I hope, although I do not expect, that the Opposition have listened to the assurances that I have given, not only here but in Committee.
Jon Wedger is about to embark on a walk from London to Manchester to raise funds and awareness.