Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Mr Bayley, for the opportunity to speak.
Were the West Midlands fire service considered to be a fat and flabby public service, the Minister would have some justification for ignoring the things that it says or the position that it faces. In his response to the debate, will he say whether he believes that that is the situation with regard to the West Midlands fire service?
The West Midlands fire service has been at the forefront of some of the recent efficiencies and reforms, which some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have discussed in relation to their own areas. In the first 10 years of this century, the West Midlands fire service cut its fire officer numbers from 2,043 to 1,788, while maintaining a service—it has struggled to do so, but it has maintained it—of which all of us in the west midlands are proud and respectful. It has also managed to transfer resources to prevention work, which right hon. and hon. Friends have also discussed in relation to their own areas. The West Midlands fire service is not a fat and flabby organisation; it is an organisation that is doing its level best to be efficient and to provide a service, and that has faced considerable cuts already.
So far, under the formula grant imposed by the Government, the West Midlands fire service has faced a 12.6% cut. Our own chief fire officer, who is not prone to scaremongering, has said that if the Government continue with that formula,
“People will definitely be much more at risk and our ability to respond in the way we currently do will be severely disrupted, so therefore an increased chance of losing their life or suffering injury.”
Those are his words, not mine, and he believes that if the current formula continues he will have to get rid of another 300 fire officers, on top of the 300 he has lost in the past decade, and he will also have to close 11 fire stations. He also says—these are his words, and I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends disagree with this view—that he would like to see the flat rate formula apply rather than the grossly unfair formula that is currently planned. If we went to a flat rate formula, we would still face a reduction in funding in the west midlands, but not the 27% reduction that we potentially face if the current formula continues in the future.
I do not want to repeat things that other Members have said, given the severe time constraints that exist. However, I want to raise one other issue with the Minister. The chief fire officer has also said that he will inevitably have to introduce charges for call-outs in non-life-threatening situations. In some ways, I can see the attraction of that, but I really worry about it because I do not know where, down the spectrum of responses, people should be subjected to a charge, and I do not think that members of the public would either. Let us say that some youths light a bonfire over the fields. If a member of the public calls out the fire service, should they expect to be charged? We are talking about £412 an hour, potentially. If the youths then start throwing dustbins on to the fire, should the member of the public then feel free to phone the fire brigade without risk of a charge? At what point, as the incident escalates, would a member of the public feel safe to call the fire brigade without the risk of being charged?
I want the Minister to talk to me, and to respond to the issue of the potential introduction of charges for call-outs in non-life-threatening situations. That is the severity of the situation that is faced by the West Midlands fire service and, I am certain, by others as well.
Mr Shaun Woodward (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): We are in no doubt that the implication of the settlement being prosecuted will be an extremely unfair distribution of lives lost. The new Minister will today, undoubtedly, be given a file basically dressed up as “Minister, this is a difficult settlement. It is one that has basically been taken. Go forward with it. We have no choice.” Knowing that the settlement, if implemented, will lead to loss of life, what advice would my right hon. Friend give to the Minister, and his civil servants, given his own extraordinary experience as a Minister and a member of the Cabinet?
Mr Ainsworth: I think that the Minister will struggle to square off the different things that Ministers have said and done. They have said that we are all in it together, yet they have imposed the kind of cuts that we have seen in the west midlands and elsewhere. At the same time, the fire service in Cheshire, where the Chancellor has his seat, has seen its funding increased. There is no way that the rhetoric can stand, and the Minister must address the situation and be able to justify his decisions. (Hansard, 5 September 2012)