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Fire Services: North-east England | Westminster Hall debates

My hon. Friend makes a good point, as always. Labour will put lots more neighbourhood policing back on to our streets to prevent the kind of antisocial behaviour that leads to arson in his area.

As we face a cold winter, when people will be forced to choose between heating and eating thanks to the Government’s mini-Budget and the huge rises in costs and inflation, we have already heard about people using increasingly desperate means to keep warm. Staffordshire’s fire chief warned of people relying on electrical heaters to dry clothes, burning unsafe materials to keep warm or staying too close to open fires.

To add to all those problems, the lessons of Grenfell have not been learned. Shamefully, the Government have implemented only a handful of recommendations from phase 1 of the inquiry: fire regulations are still unclear, sprinklers are still not mandatory, single stairwells are still allowed in blocks of flats, and there is no duty on anyone to develop personal evacuation plans for disabled people—an absolutely shameful reversal of a Government promise. On top of the Grenfell failings, as we move towards the more sustainable building of homes, we are increasingly using timber frames, which risk even more fires, because they are more combustible. Funding our fire service is literally a matter of life and death, not least because of the Government’s woeful record on the economy and post Grenfell.

What an indictment it is that the policies of the past 12 years mean that our firefighters now have lower pay in real terms and that more than 11,000 firefighters have been lost. We have seen a pensions fiasco for firefighters and the police. Fire inspectors have seen some of the largest cuts in numbers—their numbers have fallen by almost one third since 2010, making the job of firefighters even harder. I have heard reports of firefighters using food banks. That is completely unacceptable.

At the height of the pandemic, the Conservative-controlled East Sussex Fire Authority tried to push through sweeping cuts. I was pleased to play a small part in those cuts being dropped. Cornwall’s fire service told me that the Government’s mismanagement of the new contract for our 999 and radio services—called the emergency services network—has put one of its vital centres at risk of closure, while leaving it with an outdated radio system that often breaks down. Will the Minister tell us what on earth she is doing to tackle that extraordinary waste of public money, which is costing each of our fire services literally millions of pounds? It is a shocking example of incompetence in the Home Office.

The Budget showed that, yet again, the Conservatives have loaded the costs on to working people. Our growth will still be the lowest in the G7 and the OECD over the next two years. As pay stagnates and inflation rises, more and more trade unions are balloting about their pay deals. The backdrop to many of the disputes is clear: working people are being hit by the fastest fall in real wages on record, and hammered by the Government’s abject failure to tackle the cost of living emergency.

Strike action is always a last resort, because working people do not want to lose pay, especially in the middle of a cost of living crisis, but they simply feel that they have no choice. I find it extraordinary that the Home Office has written to fire and rescue services to say that they need to pay £4,000 per soldier per week for soldiers to be on stand-by if there is a strike and that local fire services across the country will have to suffer all the costs. Fire services do not want this. One told me that it would go down like “a bucket of sick” with firefighters. I have heard anecdotally that the Army is not keen on it either, because last time this happened, a lot of soldiers were lost to the fire sector, with people joining the fire service. What is the Minister doing and how is she engaging?