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Spelman: John Prescott is playing politics with people's lives

Speech to the House of Commons - debate on regionalisation of emergency services

"The House may recall that almost a year ago a referendum was held in the North East on elected regional assemblies.

The result was an emphatic 'no' to regionalisation.

Twelve months on, I am sure colleagues will be as surprised as I am that the people of the north east are still paying for a regional assembly which 80% of them said they didn't want.

But then again everybody is paying for the roll-out of this government's regional agenda - the difference is that in other parts of the country people weren't given the opportunity to reject them.

However regional assemblies, the unelected and unaccountable quangos which have leeched powers up from local people, are merely the most obvious manifestation of a whole tide of regionalism which is fundamentally changing they way we are governed.

The most recent and disturbing example of which is the regionalisation of emergency services.

The very manner in which the regionalisation of emergency services was slipped out in the press over the summer recess shows just how sheepish the government is about this announcement.

I am sure colleagues on both sides of the House will, like me, have received lots of letters from people rightly concerned about the implications of this latest experiment in restructuring. In fact looking at the number of colleagues who have signed EDM 229, at least 219 of them agree with these concerns.

It started with the regionalisation of Fire Control Rooms, now it is Ambulance Trusts and Police Forces are to be morphed into an unwieldy regional structure.

Regionalism is such an abstract concept, even the word 'regionalisation' smacks of bureaucracy and administrative 'jargon'.

The Government's concept of 'regions' pays scant regard to the geography of our country and people's sense of identity.

It fails the Simon Jenkins 'Marbella Test' so when you bump into someone walking along the beach and ask them where they are from it is hard to imagine someone from Banbury saying they are from what the Government calls 'the South East', similarly people in Scunthorpe would never say they come from 'Yorkshire & the Humber'. It just shows how artificial, contrived and arbitrary these government-defined regions really are.

The mechanics of regionalisation, sidelining our counties and shires in favour of governmental units is not only culturally alien, it is undemocratic, and with regard to emergency services it is hugely damaging.

Without any statement having been made to the House on these changes I have had to rely on press reports and it seems that the number of fire control rooms are being cut from 46 to 9, the number of Ambulance Trusts are being cut from 31 to 11, and the number of Police Forces are being cut from 43 to 23.

So there isn't even any consistency across Whitehall on how to structure the regions. One of the lessons from New Orleans shows that overlapping and confusing tiers of administration compromises our ability to respond in an emergency.

In practical terms, only yesterday we learnt that huge tracts of the country from Banbury to Folkestone will be served by only one control room in Fareham.

When people in Gloucester call the local fire brigade they will speak to an operator in Taunton. For the whole of the North West, stretching to the border with Scotland the regional fire control room will be in Warrington.

The decision to be even more drastic in the reduction in the number of Ambulance Trusts from the original 15 to 11 will mean that within six months there will only be one Ambulance Trust for the whole of the East and West Midlands - an area of 33,000 square kilometres.

It's amazing how many euphemisms are used for the word 'cuts' - but restructuring, rationalising and dare I say 'regionalising' all spring to mind.

If the role were reversed and we were announcing cuts on this scale the shrieks from the benches opposite would be enough to shatter that new glass screen.

Local emergency services will be mothballed and local knowledge and expertise will be lost.

I know that advances in technology can change the way services are delivered, but anyone who has a car equipped with Satellite Navigation will know that it is far from infallible and a little local knowledge counts for a lot.

Common sense tells us that when it comes to providing emergency services local knowledge is a precious commodity - speed of response is everything and this can so easily be compromised through practical things like time lost through not being able to place an address or even a misunderstanding arising from an operator who is unfamiliar with the accent of someone in distress.

But it's not just an issue of proximity, it's also priority. Within a region which area get first call on where resources are targeted? It is nearly always the urban areas at the expense of the rural areas.

I can tell the House that in my own constituency we have seen police resources diverted into Birmingham which has left outlying areas very exposed. When I asked my local Chief Constable why response times were so long he replied "It's simple Mrs Spelman, as a police force we have 98 hot spots to focus on and none of those are in your constituency."

With people now forking out for way above inflation increases in council tax, they are entitled to ask why it is that the government can no longer afford to maintain local services.

And this issue of resource allocation is part and parcel of accountability. Once the regional framework for these services has been established they will no longer be answerable to the communities they serve.

By determining targets and priorities at a regional level, accountability is being eroded and in the long-term that can only make life more difficult for frontline staff.

Historically the strength of our emergency services has been partly derived from the support of the society they serve, but by adopting a regional structure this crucial relationship is broken.

How can a single body serving a region of typically up to eight million possible me more responsive than a locally-based, locally-accountable service?

Over and above the advantages that we know we are going to lose by moving to a regional structure, what about all the risks that go with such a radical upheaval?

I'm not a natural pessimist, but when we look at the track record of this government on delivering grand IT projects it isn't great. The Tax Credits and Passports Agency fiasco bear witness to how badly things can go wrong and the consequences of such a breakdown when it comes to providing rescue services is unimaginable.

The worst case scenario is obviously loss of life arising from IT breakdown, but even risks like project over-run in terms of both time and budget will end up impacting on council tax bills.

Yet again people will be forced to dip in their pockets and pay for the cost of regionalisation which they never even wanted, costs that some estimate could run as high as £988 million for the restructuring of fire services alone.

I have to ask, just what is the driver behind this headlong rush into regionalism? It certainly isn't that local people want it. As a project it seems fraught with risks that simply aren't outweighed by the benefits.

I am no military tactician, but it would seem to be elementary to me that in the current climate of heightened security, consolidating multiple emergency services into just one location makes the overall structure even more vulnerable to attack. If a regional centre is knocked out the fallback would be another regional centre even further away - this smacks of putting all your eggs in one basket.

No-one is going to be fooled by the packaging of these proposals. People can see the reorganisation as the cost-cutting exercise it's meant to be. Least of all the 1300 or so jobs which will be lost in local fire control rooms.

And although these changes will not be complete until 2009, the reality is that jobs will start leaching away, undermining the quality of the service in the interim.

This will happen with all emergency services as regionalisation gathers pace and attractive headlines like "A New Era for NHS Ambulance Services", cannot mask the inevitable decline that will follow.

It certainly won't satisfy an efficient ambulance trust like Warwickshire which makes half the number of patient journeys of London Trust with just one tenth of the funding.

Ambulance trust managers suspect it's more about the Government delivering its manifesto pledge to provide £250m worth of savings in NHS administration?

Surely it is the Chancellor that should be subject to efficiency savings and performance delivery targets rather than our frontline emergency services.

In whose interest is this regionalisation really taking place?

The Ambulance Service review said trusts needed to be "of a size to provide better financial, operational and resource management." But there is no mention of the patients. Everyone knows rural ambulances have to carry more kit because of the distances involved but will that get overlooked with regional procurement? I'm not even convinced regionalisation delivers cost benefits either. It's rare for a reorganisation to save money

It is not that we believe there is no scope for amalgamating services if it is practical and people want it. This is why we have set out an alternative 'clustering' of local authorities as and when they see fit.

This will be more responsive to local demands and better reflect considerations like population, geography and infrastructure. This is a far more practical solution that the one-size-fits-all straight jacket that is regionalisation, and above all it ensures proper accountability.

People at the front line will know where and when to coalesce far better than a bureaucrat in Whitehall - so trust them and give them the freedom to do that. But this government won't embrace clustering because to do that is to grant local authorities and service providers with a degree of autonomy, in other words it is decentralisation. No matter how hard it tries to speak the language of localism it still behaves as if central government knows best.

That's why regionalisation in whatever form is not a way of delivering localism, it is just a new way of enforcing centralism.

The evidence is there. The Government has created a whole plethora of unelected regional bodies in what amounts to a quangocracy. The A-Z includes Art, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Fire, Housing, Industry, Public Health, Rural Affairs, Social Inclusion, Tobacco, Transport and Waste.

Local people are finding decisions which directly affect their lives being taken by regional assemblies who they cannot hold to account

And who are these assemblies answerable to? Nobody except the Deputy Prime Minister. If that is localism the mind boggles as to what form a dictatorship would take.

And if people are paying for it haven't they a right to know what these unelected regional bodies are up to? Why are the regional assemblies exempt from the Freedom of Information Act?

The Lord Chancellor still hasn't replied to that question which I put to him last week, perhaps the Minister could do so in his reply.

Something tells me the government is all too aware of the folly of this programme of regionalisation. There are few except the Deputy Prime Minister himself who would rush to defend it, but in fact regionalisation has gone beyond being the Deputy Prime Minister's personal plaything, it has now become a proxy for sweeping cuts to our public services.

The tax-paying public have a right to know what has happened to all their money? Has a risk-assessment been carried out on regionalisation? Has a cost/benefit analysis study taken place? If so, when are they to be published?

When local Police Stations, Fire Control Rooms and Ambulance Trusts are boarded up, and the land used for the Deputy Prime Minister's £60k houses, people will see how he and the Chancellor have conspired to scrap their local emergency services - and they won't thank them for it.

There is no demand for regionalisation, the actual quality of our services will suffer and it comes at a high price. Surely now is the time to abort this disastrous regionalisation programme and accede to the wishes of the electorate.

The Deputy Prime Minister is playing politics with people's lives - putting his empire building before the public interest. The rest of us in politics understand the public interest comes first."

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