§ 2.44 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ When they expect to make a decision on the future of the Fire Service College.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)
My Lords, it has been decided that, for the time being, the Fire Service College should continue as a Next Steps agency operating as a trading fund. A number of measures have been taken or are still being considered which are intended to strengthen the college's financial position and to secure its place as the central provider of both command and specialist training for the UK fire service.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. I believe that she will appreciate, as do the general public, the fine professionalism of the fire service not only in fighting fires but as regards accidents on the motorways and humanitarian aspects. That professionalism results from the training in which they participate and the facilities at the Fire Service College. Does the Minister agree that it is terribly important that such training continues? The safety of people whom they protect through training is important to us all.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. It is a fine service and does a brilliant job, for which it must be trained. I promise the noble Baroness that I will leave no stone unturned in my department to ensure that we secure the future of the Fire Service College. It is important that whatever the outcome of the debate today the fire service should be properly trained and it is our determination that it should continue to be so.
§ Lord Allen of Abbeydale
My Lords, when I was at the Home Office I was rather proud of the creation of the Fire Service College. I have been watching the troubles about its finances with great concern. Since 1992, the Fire Service College has been both an executive agency and a trading fund, to use the modern jargon. However, the Civil Service College at 148 Sunningdale, although an executive agency, is not a trading fund. The Police College at Bramshill—a comparable service—is neither an executive agency nor a trading fund. Can the Minister say why the Fire Service College was picked out for different treatment from the others and made subject to a financial regime as a trading fund, in which—to put it charitably—some element of miscalculation must have been involved?
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the noble Lord is right in his observation on the distinctions between the three colleges. There are 110 agencies, only 12 of them with trading fund status. The problems of the Fire Service College do not derive from anything other than the circumstances at the college. The problems have nothing to do with the college's present situation. Prior to agency status it was a cost on the Home Office's Vote. Wherever the cost is, it has created a considerable deficit. The problem is that it occupies a large site which is substantially under used. At the moment we are trying to find complementary activities which can take place on the site and which will make the overheads of running the site and all that happens on it economically viable. The problem is not about the distinction between agency status and whether it is on the Home Office Vote or even the local government Vote.
§ Lord Greenway
My Lords, we recognise that the debt burden imposed on the Fire Service College is partially responsible for its present parlous financial state. However, is it not a worry that the reduction in the county fire brigade budgets and local government budgets affect the training of young firemen? After all, they are the seed corn for the Fire Service College in the future. Would it not be a tragedy if the magnificent facilities which can cope with almost any fire eventuality were to be lost? That would be not only from the point of view of training our own young firemen but also of its use by industry and foreign fire brigades.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the facility of training will not be lost to the fire service because we have an obligation under the law to provide fire service training. Each of the fire brigade local authorities, whether free-standing metropolitan fire authorities or fire authorities within county brigades within the county council, nevertheless, still has an obligation under the law to provide adequate training. We use the inspectorate system to ensure that that is the case.
If any local authority or fire authority believes that it cannot provide adequate funding for training it must put the case to the Department of the Environment, which will consider it. One authority did that last year and had a relaxation of the cap so that it was able to meet its obligations under the law.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a feeling across the political spectrum regarding the fire service that over the past five years the reduction in real terms in the funding of our fire brigades has reached an all-time dangerous low? Should that not be a matter of concern for the Government, and will they look into it?
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I do not agree that funding has reached an all-time dangerous low. As I just 149 said, there is an obligation under the law: fire brigades must meet their obligations to provide fire cover in their areas. If there are authorities that believe they cannot do that there is a proper process for them to present their case. That is not to say that there are not financial tensions. However, I understand that the noble Lord's own party is not offering local authorities very much more money to provide services. We are aiming to make sure that we have the most efficient use of resources that are available to local authorities.