Speech by Lyn Brown MP, Labour’s Shadow Fire and Communities Minister
Fire Sector Summit, 11 November 2014
Today we observe a solemn moment of remembrance for all those who have given their lives, in two World Wars and other conflicts. That must include our firefighters. Speaking for London alone, 327 firefighters died across around 50,000 call-outs in the Second World War. As London, and other cities around the country, faced the terror of the blitz, it was firefighters who worked tirelessly, with no thought for their own safety, to protect, to rescue, and to save lives. We must always remember that bravery, and the bravery of our firefighters who risk their lives on a daily basis.
Let me first say a big thank you to the Fire Protection Association for inviting me to come and talk to you today, to give you some of my thoughts on the Fire and Rescue Service and the broader sector. Collectively, you are the people who work so very hard to lower risk, to prevent and protect, to respond and attend in minutes, and to rescue us from a host of different emergencies and accidents.
Before I get much further, I want to touch briefly on the deeply damaging dispute on pensions which still continues. Without the resources of civil servants and actuaries at my disposal, it is understandably difficult to cut directly to the technical contentions in the regulations. Having said that, I do feel that the way Ministers have handled the situation has been shambolic and deeply irresponsible. There is a real need to urgently get around the negotiating table.
We know the pension offer is not the only configuration possible within the amount of money that the Treasury has set aside for the scheme, and devolved administrations are negotiating alternative proposals and managing to avert strikes, which is why we have tabled a ‘prayer’ on the regulations that the Government have put down, to obtain a debate and hold the Government to account.
So, on with the thrust of my speech.
I am not going to try to match the professional expertise in this room this morning, but what I do want to do for you today is to lay out very clearly my thoughts about how to approach the future for our Fire and Rescue Services across the country.
Over the past year that I have been in the job I have travelled around the country meeting our Fire Services – that is, until I badly mashed my leg, which has rather put a hold on my travels! But before then, I travelled around the country – and even over the other side of Hadrian’s Wall – to meet with as many Services as possible. I wanted to talk to chiefs, unions, and control staff and to those on the frontline putting their own safety on the line day in day out, to protect the rest of us. I knew the countless policy papers, service reviews and statistics that I could have obtained in Westminster could only scratch the surface of what is really happening and how the Service itself envisaged its future in the short and long term.
What I want to present today, then, is the picture that I have been given of where the Service is at now and what the realistic options are for moving forward.
I don’t need to tell you that Fire and Rescue Services are facing the most uncertain of times. I don’t need to tell you that many Services struggle to budget for the coming year at the same time as remaining confident in the speed and efficiency of their emergency services. By the end of this financial year, Fire and Rescue Authorities in England will have seen a 22.5% reduction in central Government funding since 2010. This amounts to a total cash cut of £236m over that period.
And if the annual reduction in Government grant for this year and last year has been 7.5% and 7.6% respectively, then we know a further 8.4% is to be cut in 2015/16. Fire and Rescue Authorities face a real financial challenge
Of course, spending reductions are not unique to this sector. Things are not going to get easier in the immediate future, and we need to do more with less across a range of vital services. But what has been absolutely extraordinary in this sector is the total abrogation of leadership by this Government and by the last two Fire Ministers. This is what I believe can ultimately be most damaging to the Service. We hear the message about the need for greater efficiencies, but we get absolutely nothing by way of a vision, no attempt at strategic oversight; a Government complacently washing its hands of its responsibility.
We had hoped that the DCLG might step up to the mark with a proper response to the Knight Review, published, I remind you, 18 months ago. No, the Government failed even to respond to their own commissioned review. Individual Fire and Rescue Services have been left to deal with each annual cut without recourse to any over-arching national strategy to deal with risk and resilience. Sadly, we have seen policy lurch from confusion to uncertainty to malign neglect.
Ministers will tell us there is no operational threat from cuts. They will tell us there has been a steady fall in the number of deaths from fire. They will tell us there has been a sharp decline in the overall number of incidents attended and that all types of fire have decreased. This is indeed true, not least because of the professionalism of the Service, and the extensive prevention and protection work that has been carried out over the last decade. But as you know, this reflects a partial grasp of the facts and an unwillingness to face reality.
It undermines basic concepts of the sector and the Service as a critical emergency resource. As the LGA have said, Fire and Rescue Authorities plan and budget according to risk, not purely to service demand. That is the fundamental nature of its resilience capabilities and its rescue capacity. I do think we must understand this if we are to develop an accurate picture of emerging risks and bring these into our vision for fire in the future.
We do not see the arguments made for reducing cancer screening services simply because there may be fewer deaths. On a visit to one Service, I was shocked to see from their latest IRMP that the resource to deliver Home Fire Safety Checks had been removed for the coming year. In trying to protect the frontline, the Authority had taken the very tough decision to stop a really vital area of community safety work. The very activity that has led to the fall in the number of incidents and deaths from fire.
Let me briefly touch on what I think are some of those emerging risks. Most obviously, our population is getting older and more of us are living alone which we know is related to fire casualties and fatalities.
Fire and Rescue Services play a major role in a range of other emergencies – they respond to Road Traffic Collisions, they rescue us from floods, and they are increasingly operating co- and first-responding schemes to attend medical emergencies. Indeed, the number of co- and first-responder incidents the FRS attends is rising by about 10% or more each year, and is expected to treble to over 30,000 by 2020 from current levels.
And then there is the resilience work, with the expectation that the Fire and Rescue Service will respond to major incidents like terrorist attacks or chemical disasters.
What we see is a Service that does much more than rescue us from fire. We see a Service which reflects and adapts to dynamic local, regional, and national risks. This is why I find this Government’s attitude to the Service so difficult to countenance. This is why I believe that Ministers should not be passing the buck and ignoring their own responsibilities.
So while we have been clear that we will not be able to find additional resources in straightened financial times, what you will get under a Labour Government is leadership, responsibility and partnership. You will get a strategic approach which understands that risk must underpin any change, and that supports Fire and Rescue Services to develop a safe, cohesive, and sustainable development in the face of tighter public spending.
That starts today. We have all applauded the heroic efforts made by so many different Services in tackling the floods we saw over the last winter, but it is time we recognised the concerns raised and the changes that have been asked for.
Given that Fire and Rescue Services are already carrying out flood and water rescue, and given the increased frequency of flooding we are now seeing, I believe that the time has now come to place this rescue activity alongside fighting fires and attending road traffic accidents as a statutory duty.
That is why today I can announce that a Labour Government will make it a priority to introduce a statutory duty on the Fire and Rescue Service to respond to flood incidents, with the express purpose of providing clarity and increasing safety.
This is something that Scotland has had since 2005 and Northern Ireland has benefited from since January 2012. It is absolutely right that England and Wales see parity with the rest of the UK on this issue, especially after the wettest winter on record and the growing threat of floods and climate change.
I can also give some guarantees about other aspects of the Service I know some are worried about.
First of all, let me deal with the concerns about privatisation. We have seen moves by some towards changes in authority governance and ownership, which have fuelled worries of privatisation in the Fire and Rescue Service. Let me tell you today, unequivocally, that Labour emphatically rejects both partial and full privatisation of Fire and Rescue Services.
With the financial pressures over the coming years, some may argue that a privatised Service is the way forward – it is not. It is public safety that drives development in our service, not the pursuit of private profit.
And let me reassure you on another thing.
Increased collaboration between blue light services is certainly important, and there are areas where greater shared working is logical, efficient and sustainable. But I do not believe that the idea, recently floated by the Home Secretary, of placing Fire Authorities under the control of Police and Crime Commissioners is truly directed to this end.
If there are still those of you who remain worried about this prospect, let me remind you of Labour’s promise to scrap PCCs altogether – this Government’s measure has proved wasteful and unaccountable. Under us, there is absolutely no threat that Fire and Rescue Authorities will have to hand over their resources or control to Police and Crime Commissioners.
How then do we provide the leadership and governance to the Fire and Rescue Service that is so important as we approach a tight financial future? I think there are some basic principles to which any change must adhere.
First, we must focus on measures that will best protect the frontline and enable firefighters to continue to provide efficient and safe emergency responses.
Next, if we are to recognise that there will not be additional resources, then we have to ensure that the Service is best prepared to deal with dynamic risk patterns and that it is able to meet the challenges of the future.
I want to explore the options we have available to us that will build a resilient, enduring, and – above all else – safe and professional, Fire and Rescue Service for the coming years.
Let me be clear: No change is not an option. 46 Fire and Rescue Services, left to their own devices to find further spending reductions, is not sustainable and I believe it will result in greater public danger, less community fire safety, longer response times, and a diminished frontline.
The truth is that the Government did not respond to the Knight Review because it knew that the majority of the measures it recommended could already be seen in practice in most Services across the country. Everywhere I have been I have met services tailored to meet local needs, each confronting the financial challenge in diverse and often innovative ways. Back offices have been squeezed, shift patterns changed, crewing models adapted, and collaboration with police and ambulance services extended.
But we face a substantial financial challenge. A salami-slice approach is not sustainable. We need to put more radical options on the table if we are to really put safety and the frontline first.
A small number of Authorities have attempted to merge with neighbours. I can understand why.
But I think we need a coordinated approach with proper strategic oversight rather than action taken on a piecemeal basis to address 46 different budget reductions. And I believe Government has a role here, in ensuring that there is that oversight, that there is a rationale behind integration which takes into account local and national risk and resilience. That role will not be neglected under Labour as it has been over the last four and a half years.
If we are to address the budget challenges responsibly and safely, I do think we need to look seriously at the current structure of separate authorities. And we need to learn from what has taken place in both Wales and Scotland.
If we are serious about protecting the frontline, then change is inevitable. The question for us today is what change we want to see.
In Wales, it has been estimated that the regionalisation of 8 Services into 3 has saved in the region of 7.5% from total FRS resource costs. Starting with 46 rather than 8 Services could mean that we are able to capitalise on a greater economy of scale and find a model with a much smaller number of Services that enables us to make the savings we need at the same time as keeping the bulk of the frontline in place. However, we must recognise and factor in to the equation that some of the savings opportunities that relate to a restructure may well already have been realised in the struggle to achieve current budgets.
We would need to explore the number of Services which permitted the most efficient and the safest operational model. The Minister’s task would be to provide the leadership to support innovation, cost reductions, and service improvements, and enable local policymakers to see a broader solution to the local difficulties.
Some have argued for a more radical option to pursue a national solution, and create a single Fire and Rescue Service for England. Some believe this is where Wales will now head – I do not know if that is likely. A single service might deliver large savings by removing the duplication that is intrinsic to a structure with separate Services. It could reduce management and back-room costs, it could mean pooled resources and it could facilitate a strategic approach to command and control, resilience, and resource deployment.
The Scottish model indicates a 10% saving in the resources budget, and again, the economy of scale in this country may permit us to go further – but with the same caveat that some of those savings may already have been identified.
Whatever the model we arrive at, it will be important to respond to the concern in communities that there will be a loss of local control, less accountability and the demise of local identity in a service which has so long been at the heart of community life.
This means ensuring that whatever model of reform is adopted, the aim must be to increase local accountability and pursue greater local input into services. I believe this is absolutely central to our vision for the future.
I firmly believe we have a chance not only to protect the frontline but to see real Fire Service improvements. We have to confront the reality of the situation we face and use it to our advantage to build a Service fit for the future.
I can therefore announce today that, over the coming months, Labour will be consulting across the Fire and Rescue Service and across the sector on how we can build that service. What I have come here today to ask you is to be part of that process, and contribute to a crucially important conversation, which I think can truly shape the future of fire and rescue.
We want to hear your views on the feasibility of some of the options. We want to know where you think the operational and resilience benefits and risks of each option lie. We want to understand both the opportunities and the obstacles you believe we face. And we are open to different solutions if you have other ideas to achieve the same ends of leadership, capacity and sustainability.
I am under no illusion as to the challenges we will face. Major reform at a time of financial constraint can understandably be a worrying prospect. But I am convinced that if change is to be managed successfully and safely, we need your expertise and your input.
We cannot afford this Government’s gradual sleepwalk into a crisis: change is needed. I know the Fire and Rescue Service demonstrates its dedication, ambition and determination on a daily basis and you’re not in the business of ducking tough judgement calls.
I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge – indeed it’s the scale of the challenge that demands action – but I firmly believe that if we work together with: an honest dialogue; a clear focus on the front line and an unrelenting drive to get the right outcomes, we will do so. Our firefighters are among the bravest of public sector workers. They deserve nothing less than the best leadership of Fire and Rescue Services that are fit and proper for the 21st Century.
Thank you very much.