Sharon spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on the funding of Fire and Rescue Services - a 4 minute limit on speeches was in place by the time Sharon was called to speak.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this important debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for leading the fight for fairer funding with determination, as is his way.
I pay tribute to Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service for its continued hard work to keep my constituents—and, for that matter, my family and me—safe. Over the past four years, that hard work has translated into great improvements in the service’s performance indicators. The number of primary fires has halved, as has the number of accidental fires in homes, and fatalities have fallen by more than 60%, with no fatalities at all in the first quarter of this financial year.
That success owes as much to the competent and speedy response of appliance crews and dispatchers as to the service’s great preventive work, whether in education programmes in schools about the dangers of fire or on testing smoke alarms. Many of the improvements can be attributed to the excellent leadership of former chief fire officer Iain Bathgate. Unfortunately for Tyne and Wear’s new chief, Tom Capeling, his main task will be balancing the cuts that we are discussing.
The Minister is new to his post, but he has said that he will continue his predecessor’s stance, which I believe was simply to defend and push through the cuts that he was given. I hope that the new Minister will revisit the facts. The fact is that the Department’s own equality impact assessment makes it clear that the budget reductions will hit the poorest areas hardest. The size of the budget reductions faced by metropolitan authorities such as Tyne and Wear mean that simply streamlining back-office costs and slimming down procurement costs will not be enough. Front-line services, including fire officers, will have to be cut. That, of course, is after preventive services have been cut to the bone.
It is estimated that Tyne and Wear will lose 100 front- line fire officers and 70 staff by the end of this Parliament. I have heard it argued that local authorities can step up and take over that preventive work in order to free up fire service employees to concentrate on responding to incidents. However, as the Minister will know all too well, local authorities, especially those in deprived areas such as Sunderland that have suffered deeper cuts than the county shires, are struggling to meet even their statutory duties, let alone pick up other agencies’ functions.
These issues have not been concocted by Labour politicians. They are being raised by those on the front line who we rely on to be there in times of need. We must also remember the risk to the lives of firemen and women. Fewer staff members inevitably means more shifts, a greater risk of crew understaffing due to absences and greater fatigue and stress, all of which can lead to mistakes or bad judgments, which could put officers in harm’s way. I therefore implore the Minister to engage more constructively with the metropolitan fire service chiefs and the elected councillors who sit on authority boards, so that he has a better idea of the challenge they face and what cuts they can absorb without having to stop doing all the things that we need them to do.