18 November 2004

S2M-1960 Fire (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1960, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the general principles of the Fire (Scotland) Bill be agreed to, and two amendments to the motion.
... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): As a loyal member of Amicus, I find myself in the same trade union as four of the members who are sitting on the Labour benches. As a loyal trade unionist, I thought that I should start with a quotation from the Fire Brigades Union's response to the consultation. It is a quotation with which I suspect there will be universal agreement. The FBU said that it is clearly

"on record and ... is clear that the only societal tolerable rate for all fire deaths that is acceptable to the inhabitants of Scotland is zero".

Whatever else we might disagree about in the debate today, or in the subsequent debates at stages 2 and 3, I am confident that we all want an effective fire service in Scotland that protects public safety and takes responsibility for communities.

My contribution to the debate will be made in a slightly different vein to that which speakers before me have taken. The bill that is before us today has some worrying aspects; they run across measures that the Executive has previously sought to implement and for which it has gained support from the Scottish National Party benches. I speak specifically about the power of well-being. The phrase is, of course, shorthand for saying that we expect more of our councils: we expect them to take more responsibility for what they do for their communities. The expectation that they will do so is reinforced by the steps that are being taken to provide councillors with better support and to give them the opportunity to professionalise. There is a real danger that, if many of the proposals in the bill are brought into force, they will diminish the role of local government in its ability to provide the kind of services that we all wish to see delivered effectively throughout Scotland.

The minister's role in this—as per the roles of ministers who are responsible for other areas that the Executive seeks to promote and has promoted in the past—is to consider whether we are using the opportunity that the bill gives us to re-empower and reinvigorate local government, or using it to say, "We do not trust you. We need to take charge." I will illustrate my concern with one tiny example that came before the Communities Committee, and which was related to a piece of secondary legislation to fix new rates for planning. Why not let councils do that? In the case of the bill, as in the case of the planning instrument, the Executive is placing duties and responsibilities on councils in a uniform way. That is neither consistent with good local democracy nor with the need to trust that the electorate will take account of the successes and failures of its local councils.

I turn to specific responses that the Executive received to its consultation. The Highlands and Islands fire board commented on control rooms—a subject that many members have referred to this morning. The board

"considers the retention of Control in Highland and Islands to be essential ... The Board would urge that the additional specialisms of our control room staff, and the special needs of our diverse communities, are all taken into account."

Another comment that Highlands and Islands fire board made touched on the centralising tendencies of the bill and in particular on the common fire services agency. It expressed considerable scepticism about the benefit of central procurement in respect of intermediate technology, procurement, finance and human resources. All of those are matters that the white paper identified as topics for the common fire services agency; the Highlands and Islands fire board thinks otherwise.

Grampian fire board, which is responsible for the area that I have the privilege to represent, said:

"The Board is not persuaded of the need to take general reserve powers of direction with respect to national service delivery and national resilience ... The Board has, it believes a strong record of supporting the Executive in developing on its national fire priorities. It sees no justification in developing statutory powers to formalise this situation."

Quite properly, Grampian fire board welcomed some aspects of the proposals, but it touched on an important issue when it discussed the role of commercial call centres, which load on to the fire service in Grampian a large number of calls that result from alarms, 95 per cent of which turn out to be spurious. There is a message in that about the disconnection among the people who deal with calls in the commercial sector and effects on the delivery of a public service. That disconnection illustrates the more general point about the difficulties that would exist if we were to disconnect control rooms from communities.

I want to give the minister a test on locality and localisation, which I think might appeal to John Farquhar Munro, who raised the subject. If all the members of a particular control room have read The Press and Journal in the morning, they will know what is going on in their communities, because that is the national paper that delivers local news par excellence. If a call comes in from Turriff about an incident in the swimming pool there, how much more effectively will the control room operators respond if they are aware that they must take into account the 30,000 people who are in the park immediately next door for a pipe band contest? Local knowledge is a moving phenomenon; it is not static and cannot be captured forever in a database.

The FBU raised other points. It appears that, yet again, the Executive has decided to take powers to the centre while claiming to improve local accountability and democracy. Section 14 is on training. One point on which national intervention might be really useful is in setting training standards and qualifications which, with local diversity of implementation, would allow fire and rescue workers to work consistently throughout Scotland.

I am happy to support my colleague Kenny MacAskill's amendment.


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