It is a great pleasure to be back here again at the LGA fire conference
The discussions and debates that take place here really do help to shape the future of the whole fire sector.
So let me begin today by saying a big thank you to the LGA for the invitation, and to Dave [Cllr Acton] for his kind words of introduction. I’d also like to thank you and your colleagues for the quiet and steely determination you have shown in very difficult times indeed.
I really am very grateful to have the opportunity to come and talk to you about Labour’s priorities for the future of the Fire and Rescue Service.
Over the past eighteen months or so in this job, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of you here today. I’ve visited about half of our Fire and Rescue Services in England, I’ve been north of Hadrian’s Wall, and most recently, I’ve been doing a number of visits to fire stations up and down the country to meet with different crews and watch groups on the frontline.
Your professionalism and dedication to saving lives and protecting the
public never fails to impress, and every conversation has helped me to build an understanding of where the Service is now, and what you feel the options are going forward.
I’ve been doing this because I am the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers.
But I have been fortunate to gain a great deal from the discussions I’ve had with you and with firefighters across the country. You have shared concerns, you have offered solutions and you’ve been ready to tell me what needs to change.
Today I want to talk honestly and frankly about the position we as a Service are in, and the approach that Labour will take after 7 May. Our Fire and Rescue Service, our partners, and above all our firefighters, deserve as much.
Over the last five years our Fire and Rescue Service, like services across the public sector, has had to deal with year-on-year cuts to its Revenue Support Grant from Central Government. Since the 2010 Spending Review, an estimated £236million has been cut, amounting to around 22.5% of overall Government funding. And last month the Government confirmed a further 8.8% reduction for 2015/16.
You all know that our immediate future will be one of continuing to do more with even less. We face a sustained financial challenge, from which we need to protect operational capacity, resilience, and indeed public and firefighter safety.
It’s the same across the economy: We will get the current budget into surplus, we will cut the deficit each year, and we will make sure that national debt falls. But we do not have a slash and burn approach to public services.
What I have tried to emphasize over the past months, and particularly with the discussion around budget reductions and potential reorganisation, is that we need to think strategically. I don’t think it’s right to continue to task individual Fire and Rescue Authorities with merely slicing away from the services they have. Some of you, after all, have told me that your Service will not be viable in the future.
So we need to find a way forward.
I think it is our duty and responsibility to ensure that this Service is fit for purpose and that it protects the safety of the public and its staff. It must be fit for the future, a Service that can tackle changing local and national risk patterns and contend with emerging threats.
And frankly, that doesn’t mean ducking our financial responsibilities or shying away from tough decisions. Quite the reverse, it means acknowledging them and investing in leadership to oversee not just a smarter use of public money, but an opportunity to position the Fire and Rescue Service for the sustainable long-term.
Facing the future cannot be about deciding what our minimum acceptable standards are. It has to be about protecting, developing, and consolidating what our Service does best – saving lives.
That is why we are consulting on the way forward, and why we are putting radical options up for discussion now.
Some of you, I hope, will have seen the survey we launched at the end of the year. I am really grateful to those of you who have already provided responses, and I would encourage anybody who hasn’t already done so to give it your consideration.
The purpose of the survey was to collect expertise and advice from across the sector. It presented three broad options for the future organisational structure of the Fire and Rescue Service, all of which start from the basis that 46 separate and independent authorities is not a sustainable trajectory.
We asked you for your views on the operational risks and benefits, the implications for resilience, and the financial and political feasibility of either continuing to encourage small-scale individual mergers on an ad-hoc basis; moving towards a much smaller number of Services, much like what took place in Wales; or adopting a single Service and creating one English Fire and Rescue Service.
We were also clear that we have an open mind on the way forward, and I really am grateful to those of you who have brought forward other ideas.
Many of the responses I have received so far suggest that a smaller number of Services are needed if we are to protect the frontline, and some favour a single Service. However, most also said that this is not easy and real leadership and responsibility needs to be shown by Central Government. I take this advice very much to heart.
But I asked for criticism, I asked you to identify the pitfalls of potential reorganisation, and I really wanted to gauge the potential impact of each option, not just for organisational management, but for the frontline.
Most firefighters I’ve spoken to have told me that the organisational structure doesn’t bother them one jot. Whether they have given 4 years or 40 years of service, they joined up to save lives, and that’s the job they want to be allowed to continue doing.
They didn’t feel that if they merged with other Fire and Rescue Authorities or even a single Service, that they would be any less proud of the brigade they belong to, have any less pride in the job they do, or any less attachment to their local communities. What is clear is that to better protect frontline jobs we cannot afford parochialism or local rivalry.
When I’ve had the same discussion with senior management, many have raised the issues of local political barriers, council tax, resource distribution, or measures for stringent and supportive inspection.
These are valid and important issues that would need to be addressed and navigated for change to be made possible.
Our approach has to be one of common sense where reform is made where it is needed in order to protect the frontline, manage risks and increase the scope for operational flexibility at a local level. Vital prevention and protection work must be continued, and we must develop a safe and sustainable Service for the future.
Whatever the future shape of the Service, we must also ensure local democratic accountability and transparency. Local communities, local businesses, and a host of other public interests must have an investment in the Service, have greater input into its development, and a better understanding of issues of risk and delivery.
I am under no illusions as to the scale of the challenges we face. But I won’t be a Minister that leaves services to sink or swim. I will be a Minister that gives her all to giving you the leadership and support you need, which is so long overdue.
We recognise that Government needs to play a much clearer and active role, one which Labour will not neglect.
The Government has failed over the last five years to provide real leadership. When some of you have told me that you are worried your Service will not be sustainable beyond 2016, I don’t believe that I’m privy to any special secret. I’m quite sure that the same message will have been given to Ministers and civil servants. So frankly, I can’t understand why no action has been taken and no leadership been shown.
I don’t think it is right for the Government to wash its hands of responsibility. I don’t think it’s right that they have made huge decisions about your budgets without having an understanding of the picture on the ground or delivering any coherent or sustainable vision for the future to protect fire cover and resilience across the country.
And I would remind you that almost two years have passed since Sir Ken Knight published his review. The Number 10 website transparency page said the Department for Communities and Local Government was “overdue” in providing a response. In fact, it was only when Labour asked parliamentary questions asking when we could expect a response that what we got was a fourteen paragraph Written Ministerial Statement from Eric Pickles, which said very little at all.
Surely this cannot continue.
This Government has offered no vision for the Fire and Rescue Service. Perhaps that may be because they don’t have one. Or perhaps it is because their vision for the future has not yet been made known. Perhaps they do have a plan that we have not yet been privy to.
Labour will take responsibility and we will provide leadership. So let me assure you of the direction we will take.
Labour will not privatise the Fire and Rescue Service. I am unequivocal about that. We will not let a critical public emergency resource pursue private profit over public safety and protection.
Secondly, we will make it a statutory duty for Fire and Rescue Services in England and Wales to respond to flooding incidents. This is something our Service already does, albeit not on a statutory footing, and it’s a growing risk for the future. Our aim in putting it on a statutory footing is to provide clarity and to increase safety. It’s a duty which Scotland has had since 2005 and Northern Ireland since 2012. It’s what many of you have asked me for. I’ve listened and a Labour Government will take action.
And thirdly, we will support you as you are developing alternative crewing models, different types of first- and co-responder practices, new technology and kit, or streamlined back-office operations.
One of the big challenges facing public services in this country is to make most effective use of the money that we have and to collaborate with others. The example, being pioneered in a number of Services, of the Fire and Rescue Service with appropriately trained staff responding to 999 calls for the ambulance service in rural communities is a really great example of blue light co-operation.
Let me give you another reassurance.
We will not let Fire and Rescue Services be subsumed by Police and Crime Commissioners. If you needed any reminding, Labour will scrap PCCs altogether. They are wasteful and unaccountable and they are not the right way to govern our Fire and Rescue Services.
Instead, we will return to some basic principles that underpin the Service and its purpose.
We must ensure a risk-based allocation of resources and that we best prioritise resources according to varied national and local risk patterns.
The LGA rightly argue that Fire and Rescue Authorities plan and budget according to risk, not purely to service demand. It is intrinsic to your operations, your planning and your leadership on a daily basis.
But there is a complete disconnect between this model and how the Government sees the future of the Service, content to neglect its responsibilities without regard for how it is for you on the frontline.
The Fire and Rescue Service is a critical emergency resource. It saves lives and it’s here to protect us. As you know best, getting better at targeting risk and preventing disaster doesn’t mean that there is less need.
It is a big challenge, and that’s why we have asked you to work with us, to tell us what you honestly think of the options we’ve put forward in the survey and to come forward with other ideas of your own.
Please try and look at this objectively. I know this is hard. I have been there myself during my time as Chair of the LGA’s Cultural Services Committee. So I know how hard it is to be objective when you are politically connected and emotionally connected to the service you nurture and sustain. So we need you to engage with us at this really important time. We need your expertise and insight.
Labour’s key priority is to protect the frontline. Our firefighters are among the bravest of our public servants, and we will support them to save lives, protect the public, and respond to a host of emergencies.
Doing so demands proper strategic oversight, effective and decisive leadership, and a coherent plan in the face of tighter public spending
And I praise the truly excellent work our firefighters do on a daily basis, putting their lives on the line day in day out to protect the rest of us. The last 10 years have seen a real fall in deaths from fire and the number of call-outs for the Service, not least because of the targeted prevention and protection measures you have undertaken.
But I refuse to come here and congratulate you, only to stand by while you are dealt an impossible hand.
It is time to invest some political leadership and proper national responsibility. We have an opportunity to create an enduring Fire and Rescue Service for the future and I look forward to working with you as we do just that.
Thank you very much.