I want to deal with the challenges facing the Fire and Rescue Service in two parts; firstly addressing the issue of the economy and the cuts and secondly looking at where the Fire and Rescue Service is heading.
In relation to the cuts, it is important that this is discussed, as it affects what the sector (including Chief Officers, elected politicians and the workforce) says to the government. There are three points I would like to make on this:
- The economics of the austerity policies simply don't make sense. When you have a number of Nobel Prize winning economists criticising the UK government for its policies you really should take notice. The economic crisis, as Mervyn King has recently confirmed again, was caused by the banking sector - not by public services. Drastically cutting demand, which the cuts will do, at a time when the economy is extremely fragile is a huge gamble - even if you agree with the politics behind the strategy. The most recent economic data, such as the output figures for the last quarter, confirm that we are right to be worried.
- Even if you do agree with the government's cuts agenda there is the issue of the "protection of front line services", which was promised to the electorate before the general election. The fire and rescue service is the front line of the front line and yet the cuts in government grant are as big as anywhere else. There is no protection for the Fire and Rescue Service.
- Even if you accept the need to cut the Fire and Rescue Service (which we do not), the truth is that not all fire services are the same or are being treated the same. The Mets and some others are being particularly hard hit. I attended a fire authority meeting last week where a cuts package was agreed. But the Chair said very clearly that they could not go further.
I appeal to everyone here to work with us in challenging the government on it cuts agenda for our Service.
I now want to briefly look at where our Service is heading, especially under the coalitions 'localism' agenda. The Bain report stated that the Fire Service was a national service delivered locally. We now need to address what is required nationally and what can or should be done locally?
The Fire and Rescue Service is unusual as a local authority service in that it also has a clear national role and it is regularly required to work across normal local authority boundaries. The challenges we face on a national scale include floods; potential terrorist attacks and major incidents.
In these circumstances, what are the mechanisms to provide assurance? How do CFOs, ministers, authority members, the public and employees judge the performance of the Fire and Rescue Service if no proper standards are set or measured?
- How do we avoid increasing fragmentation?
- How do we avoid duplication?
- How do we ensure best practice?
- How do we ensure efficiency?
- How do we ensure accountability to local communities?
- How do we deliver all of these things especially if government withdraws from its previous role?
The FBU has argued that these matters can start to be addressed by developing professional standards across a range of issues, including operational guidance, training, recruitment and development, equipment. Developing accepted professional standards would allow local communities to measure the performance of their fire and rescue service against the bets professional standards.
This could also apply in relation to response standards. The issue of Fire Service response times has been dismissed as unimportant by some. It clearly is important to the public. Yet the record of the service over the past ten years on this issue is appalling.
The UK Fire Service has a world-wide reputation. This is because of the standards we have set in the past. I hope that this generation of chief officers, this generation of fire authority members, is not the generation that sees that reputation thrown away.
And finally, if we are to improve let's remember that the people who will deliver this on the front line are our firefighters. Staff are key to the quality of the service we provide and you cannot protect and improve a public service while endlessly attacking those who work within it on their pay, their jobs, their conditions of service and their pensions.