In the run up to the general election, I wanted to see what the political parties had to say about fire. I could sum that one up quite easily: not a lot. I’m not the only one offering up digests of manifestos and having a bit of a moan; Peter Wells from the Open Data Institute was complaining just today about the lack of references to data and others are doing the same in different subject areas.
With so much noise from competing demands crowding out the electoral space, it is not a surprise that fire’s tucked away. Fire had its time in the limelight with the Policing and Crime Act 2017 changing things in England but for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is business as usual.
Only Labour makes a detailed manifesto commitment about the fire and rescue service, they want to increase firefighter numbers by 3,000. There is no maths behind the figure but the justification is clear: response times. And in the last few days, the FBU released a new film called The Firefighters’ Dilemma to reinforce the point. It calls on the government to set national standards to improve emergency response times.
I thought that the opposition parties might want to get rid of Police and Crime Commissioners. Only the Liberal Democrats went that far, noting that they are elected at great expense and very low turnout. On the latter point they are right: 24 per cent last year up from a paltry 15 per cent back in 2012. Labour just wants to keep police and fire governance separate, so that would mean reversing the provisions in the 2017 Act when the ink is barely dry.
And the Conservatives? Well, they want widen the role of PCCs – putting them on Health and Wellbeing Boards when even the fire and rescue service don’t have a statutory place on them, which is a bit galling. Apart from saying the 2017 Act ‘introduced better co-ordination of policing and fire”, they are silent on the fire and rescue service.
Any chance to try and get a duty for responding to flooding and Labour is in there and it’s firmly in the manifesto. Despite great efforts in Parliament in the last year, this remains a pipe dream.
One thing in the Lib Dem manifesto that puzzled me was a reference to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service paying VAT. How did that make it over any other fire related topic? It seemed a bit leftfield but then I found it in the SNP manifesto too. It’s worth quoting this one to get to the bottom of it: “Despite emergency services in England having tax relief from VAT, the UK Government has failed to deliver the same relief for Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.” The SNP says that it has cost Scottish taxpayers £140m since 2013 and if it’s successful in overturning this policy, it will plough that money back into making Scotland safer. Ah, so that’s why.
I’m kind of guessing that the Conservatives will get back in, so my prediction is that the fire and rescue service will be left alone, although I won’t go so far as to call it benign neglect. The service will carry on collaborating and will slowly be taken under the wing of the PCCs. It will also carry on being criticised by the government for not being diverse while at the same time not helping the service do anything about it. Does that sound about right? Let’s see, shall we?