Fire Services: North-east England - Westminster Hall debate
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fire services in the North East.
I am very grateful to see this important debate so well attended; it could not be about a more deserving group of people. Like all our emergency services, our firefighters run towards danger while the rest of us run away. They have always kept doing their job, coming to our rescue and keeping our community safe. It is our job, as politicians, to ensure that they have the money and resources to do so.
Unfortunately, it has been hard to say that the Government have done that job properly for the last 12 years. I have been an MP for all those 12 years—for 17 years, actually—and I have spent a lot of time warning, throughout austerity and various debates, often in this very Chamber, about the impact that Government cuts would have on local fire services and their ability to maintain service levels and protect us.
In 2012, I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate about fire and rescue services. I warned that
“budget reductions will hit the poorest areas hardest… services will have to be cut. That, of course, is after preventive services have been cut to the bone.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 84WH.]
In 2018, I raised the issue again in another Westminster Hall debate, talking about how areas with high levels of deprivation, such as Washington and Sunderland West, had a higher risk of fire-related deaths, and needed a fair funding settlement. At the time, I spoke to Chris Lowther, our chief fire officer at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service. I told Westminster Hall in that debate that
“He is doing everything within his power to manage the resources currently available, in a way that guarantees the safety of my constituents, and everyone across Tyne and Wear.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2018; Vol. 650, c. 132WH.]
Like many chief fire officers across the country, he did an impossible job, cutting back on everything he could in order to keep the service running safely. But he warned that if there were further cuts it would be difficult to say, hand on heart, that Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service would be able to provide a safe service.
I raised the issue successively at Prime Minister’s questions in the following two weeks, when the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was Prime Minister. I raised just how concerned our local fire and rescue services were about their very stretched funding.
That brings us to today. Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service has continued to make its service more efficient, but there is very little left to cut back on. If the current trajectory continues, it has nothing left to cut. I have already said that services have been cut to the bone. Having spoken this week to the chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, and the chair of the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Authority, Councillor Phil Tye, I know how tough the situation is.
In 2010, before austerity, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service employed 880 full-time fire fighters, and over 1,000 full-time staff. In 2022, that has dropped to just 624 full-time firefighters, and just 860 staff employed Toggle showing location ofColumn 152WHfull-time in total. Given the recruitment freeze between 2014 and 2019, as well as an ageing workforce coming to retirement, staff numbers are likely to fall again. In 2010, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service had £59.4 million to spend. To keep up with inflation, that should have risen to £84 million by 2022. But what has happened? Its budget has been cut down to just £54.8 million; that is much less than it was in cash terms in 2010, and a massive and unsustainable real-terms cut. It leaves us, frankly, unprepared for the next crisis we may face.
We can all appreciate that the fire service was put under a huge amount of pressure this summer, with the unprecedented heatwave leading to an increased number of fires across the country—we all saw them on our TV screens, if not more up close. They devastated lives and livelihoods alike.
(Liz Twist MP, Blaydon)
I want to commend the firefighters working at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, who have attended two major fires in my constituency: one at Shee Recycling in Birtley, where there are environmental hazards, and a second at the Ryrton Willows—one of those summer fires that my hon. Friend referred to. We have also seen the impact of those budget reductions, with the loss of one pump at Swalwell in my constituency.
Thank you. There were also the proposed cuts to night cover in Birtley, which fortunately we were able to amend.
Coming back to the summer fires, that period included the busiest day for firefighters since world war two. That brings home the important role and work that firefighters do. How do the Government expect them to cope with future heatwaves without addressing the serious concerns this crisis raised about how stretched the workforce is?
In less foreseeable moments of crisis, fire services are the first responders there to protect the public. Following the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attacks, we were told that some fire and rescue services would be “unprepared” to respond effectively if a tragic event like that happened again. If such an event happened at one of the big arenas in our region—heaven forbid—how could we be assured that lives would be protected given this funding crisis?
(Alex Cunnigham, Stockton North)
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I apologise for being a couple of minutes late for her speech. Teesside is served by the Cleveland Fire Brigade. Teesside is one of Europe’s biggest fire risks, yet the formula that determines its income does not take any of that into consideration. Does she agree that risk should be examined as an important factor in determining funding?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I will come on to. My chief fire officer told me that Cleveland is the worst in the country in terms of the fairness of that funding formula.
On a community level, these cuts will have consequences. Last Friday, I visited Barmston Village Primary School in my constituency. With no prompting from me whatsoever, two young boys told me separate stories of their family cars being damaged in an arson attack and one young girl told me about a time when she had to knock on a neighbour’s door to tell them that something was burning on their property. What is more, all the children were upset about the damage caused to the play equipment in the local park by the big kids—they mean teenagers—setting fire to it.
In previous years, fire services have come out to schools and done talks with the children, especially the older children—the big kids—in the secondary schools, explaining the danger of arson and what to do if they see a fire. However, with preventative measures being cut first, it is becoming even more difficult for fire and rescue services to provide that important community outreach. That will also have consequences.
The Government promised to level up areas like Sunderland, but I fail to see how those promises can continue to be made when basic public services are being starved of cash and millions of working people are facing the fastest fall in their pay in years. That is why the chief fire officer and Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service have called for the fire funding formula to be revised, so it once again takes into account deprivation as a risk factor, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned is so problematic in Cleveland. That was the case under the last Labour Government and it was changed after 2010 by the current Government.
The change would help local authorities like mine and all of ours that cannot raise huge amounts of funding through council tax to keep our services running. I do not want to go into all the reasons why, but that is a well-known fact. What is becoming ever more clear is that service bosses and frontline workers are on the same page: the service must protect the public, but it equally needs to protect its own staff.
The lack of funding has led to the Fire Brigades Union rejecting an unfunded 5% pay rise put forward by national employers. To be clear, that 5% is unfunded, meaning that fire and rescue services have to find an extra 5% from their existing budget to pay for it—I have already said how stretched their budgets currently are. It puts our chief fire officers across the north-east and across the country, who just want the very best for firefighters, in an incredibly difficult position. They do extremely important work. They just want the funds to properly reward their staff with fair pay for the very important work they do.
If industrial action does take place, there has been talk of the Home Office drafting in soldiers to replace striking staff and then asking these strapped-for-cash fire services to pay £4,000 per week per soldier to train and employ them. No one wants to see a strike. It is now up to the Government to get around the table with the FBU and resolve this dispute. The Government must now make sincere efforts to ensure that fire and rescue staff can continue to provide safe services, which means ensuring that fire services get the support they need and doing everything they can to ensure that fire services get a decent deal. It is clear for all to see how the Government Toggle showing location ofColumn 154WHhave shamefully cut fire services for more than a decade and how the cuts now risk the safety of our communities in the north-east.
I hope that if I ever attend another Westminster Hall debate on fire services in the north-east, it is under a Labour Government and we are able to properly address some of these issues. How would we do that? We will have grown the economy, provided high-quality public services and ensured that workers have better pay and conditions. That day cannot come soon enough for our communities in the north-east.
(North East MPs make their speeches)
Minister responds. Read full debate in Hansard here >
I look forward to the publication of the new data, but will the Minister respond to the point about taking away the deprivation funding? I think all of us in this room were united in saying that that is a risk factor in a lot of the arson and fires that we see, and it really needs to be put back into the formula.
I thank all MPs from across the north-east who have attended today’s important debate. I also thank the shadow Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones)—and the Minister, who is the one who made this debate political, rather than anyone else.
This afternoon, we have had almost complete agreement on the issues that all four of our fire services face, and we all agree that we need a much fairer fire funding formula—one that once again recognises levels of deprivation as a risk factor that leads, in particular, to more arson. I will take the Minister up on her suggestion and write to her with more details on that issue. We need formula reform so that we can fund this vital service properly but also pay our vital firefighters properly. The unfunded 5% pay offer is just not acceptable, and I put the Government on notice that we—particularly those of us in the Labour party, although I also look to Government Back Benchers—will not let this debate be the end of the matter. The Minister is new to her Department, so if she wants to make her mark, she can do so by getting this issue sorted out as soon as possible, and definitely before Christmas.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fire services in the North East.
Read the full debate in Hansard here >
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