Sarah Jones – 2020 Speech on Local Government in Manchester

Below is the text of the speech made by Sarah Jones, the Labour MP for Croydon Central, in the House of Commons on 5 May 2020.

We are living through extraordinary times. Covid-19 has dealt a great blow to our country—its health, its economy and its way of life—and we are mourning the loved ones we have lost. But in the midst of this crisis, we have seen countless acts of extraordinary resilience and bravery.

As usual, as the Minister just said, the fire service has been front and centre in this battle, answering our calls for help, driving ambulances, delivering personal protective equipment, helping to distribute food and even, I hear, delivering babies. The fire service is the most trusted of all our emergency services because it is always there when we need it, so it would not be right to begin this debate without paying tribute to the work of our firefighters across the UK. Yesterday was Firefighters Memorial Day. The minute’s silence at midday was a moment to reflect on the more than 2,300 UK firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Each one of those tragic lives lost paints a stark picture of the realities faced by firefighters. They risk their lives every day to ensure the safety of each and every one of us.

We are here to debate the draft Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020. The Labour party supports the order. It is nearly two years since the Greater Manchester Combined Authority asked to bring responsibility of fire and rescue services into the hands of the deputy mayor for policing and crime, with no particular reason for the delay, as far as I can see, and there is precedent elsewhere in England for this model.

This relatively straightforward order represents the gentle evolution of devolution. As Donald Dewar said at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, devolution is ​not an end, but a “means to greater ends.” We should be constantly open to change, to better serve our local populations.

The order allows the Mayor to make arrangements for fire and rescue functions to be exercised by the deputy mayor for policing and crime, and amends the remit of the Greater Manchester police and crime panel to include scrutiny of the exercise of those fire and rescue functions in addition to their existing remit of police and crime commissioner functions. That allows the Greater Manchester police and crime panel to scrutinise the delivery of all the main functions of the deputy mayor for policing, fire and crime.

The order will build on the success of devolution that we have already seen in Greater Manchester. Under Andy Burnham, we have seen real action to tackle rough sleeping, real support for young people and the biggest investment in cycling and walking outside London. Devolution enables good local, joined-up and effective policy making.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend the efforts of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, his deputy mayor and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority for their recent work on fire and rescue services. Following the tragic fire at Grenfell, where 72 people lost their lives, they set up the Greater Manchester high-rise taskforce, chaired by Salford City Mayor Paul Dennett, to provide fire safety reassurance. They carried out proactive inspections of all high-rise residential premises to ensure that all buildings comply with fire safety regulations.

Greater Manchester has 78 high-rise buildings that have had to adapt interim safety measures because of serious fire safety deficiencies and slow Government action to support remediation. In late February, I watched Andy Burnham, City Mayor Dennett and other civic leaders and MPs from across the country join residents caught up in the cladding crisis at a rally on Parliament Square, calling for urgent action from the Government in the Budget. The Government listened, and the Chancellor announced the £1 billion building safety fund for the removal of dangerous cladding of all forms from high-rise buildings.

With thousands of leaseholders across the country still living in buildings wrapped in unsafe cladding, the focus must now be on completing remediation works as quickly as possible. We only need to briefly read the accounts of the Manchester Cladiators to know the dire situations they face on a daily basis.

From blocks like Imperial Point in Salford Quays to Albion Works in central Manchester, the stories are painfully similar: lives put on hold as residents are trapped in unsafe buildings, unable to sell their properties, and living in constant emotional and financial distress. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments from last week’s Fire Safety Bill, but we know that there is much more to be done by the Government and that we must move faster. I press the Minister again to provide an update on the progress of the review and the costs that residents are incurring while paying for waking watches. Is this review looking into the whole costs of interim fire safety measures?

As the Fire Brigades Union said yesterday, each time a firefighter dies at work, we need to understand what led to their death and what could have been done to ​prevent it. Yesterday we remembered the 2,300 firefighters who have died in service, but we must never accept their loss as inevitable. It is our duty to learn from every firefighter death and to fight for the improvements to operational practices that could save lives into the future. But that job has been immeasurably harder over the last decade, as we have seen brutal funding cuts.

After a decade of austerity, we have 11,000 fewer fire- fighters, so when fires sadly do occur, fire engines may answer the call without enough firefighters to tackle the blaze. That is not only dangerous for the public, but potentially deadly for firefighters too. We could not debate this order without considering the heavy hand of 10 years of cuts to our fire services in Greater Manchester and across the country. The landscape of complexity post Grenfell, with the enormous fire risk of so many buildings across the country, compounds an already difficult situation. Given the extent of the crisis in recent years and the number of individuals who live in unsafe buildings, we need a strong fire service to be ready to deal with what can perhaps be described as a ticking time bomb for as long as the cladding remains in place. Central Government funding for fire and rescue services in Greater Manchester has been decimated over the past decade; it has fallen by almost a third from £75.2 million in 2010 to £52.9 million now. Across the UK, between 2010 and 2016, the Government cut central funding to fire and rescue services by 28% in real terms, followed by a further cut of 15% by 2020. These cuts have led to a cut of 20% in the number of firefighters.

When a Grenfell Tower resident first called 999 just before 1 am on 14 June 2017, it was five minutes before a fire engine was at the scene and 13 minutes before the first firefighters entered the building. Equally, it was only a matter of minutes after the first call was made that fire services were on the scene of the fire at the student accommodation in Bolton in November last year. Clearly, when operating on such fine margins as the hazard of fire presents, fire services rely on rapid turnaround to be effective. It is shocking, then, to see that fire response times across Greater Manchester since 2010 have risen from seven minutes and 14 seconds to seven minutes and 20 seconds, with a rise of over 40 seconds across England. It may seem like only a matter of seconds, but with the fine margins that exist in fire and rescue situations, a rise in fire response times is unacceptable.

But this is no damning indictment of the fire service across central Manchester or anywhere else. No—it is far more a wrong that stems from a decade of successive Conservative Governments’ neglect of fire and rescue services. While funding has been cut, the number of firefighters across Greater Manchester has fallen by 29% since 2010—down from 1,923, to 1,368 in 2019. The number of operational appliances has fallen by 14% over the same period. The Mayor and deputy Mayor in Greater Manchester, and their teams, are doing their best in these circumstances—namely, with their pledge to bring in 108 new firefighters—but, despite their best efforts, there remains a gaping hole left by increasingly scarce central Government funds.

On Friday, we will celebrate VE day, marking the end of world war two. In the first 22 nights of air raids during the blitz, firefighters fought nearly 10,000 fires. According to Winston Churchill, the fire service

“were a grand lot and their work must never be forgotten.”

Well, the Opposition—and I am sure the Government—agree. With such extensive cuts across the past decade in ​provisions for fire and rescue services, and with a far more precarious environment facing those services in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, will the Minister tell us when the Government are going to begin to make fire and rescue services in Greater Manchester and across the rest of the country a priority? With firefighters risking their lives to save our lives, the bare minimum they can expect is a properly funded service. After a decade of cuts and a covid crisis where our firefighters have gone above and beyond, we must now see real change.