Last week (w/c 4 January 2016) the Home Office announced that it was taking on responsibility for government policy in relation to the fire and rescue service. While many council tax payers may not notice the shift, firefighters and local councillors will be asking why this has been done at this time and with little or no discussion or consultation.
Firstly it is important to remember that fire and rescue policy is a devolved matter, so this change affects directly only those services in England. Policy for Wales, Northern Ireland and particularly Scotland has been heading in a different direction for several years. This has been most notable with the creation of a single service in Scotland, a service which is no longer a local authority service but is run by a board appointed by the Scottish government. This change, and the debates about the future of our service across the UK, raises important issues about the balance between local and national responsibilities and about how to achieve local accountability in this (relatively small) area of the public services.
War and the modern fire service
In some ways the shift to the Home Office is not of any great significance. Throughout most of the post-Second World War period, fire policy was the responsibility of the Home Office. The origins of this lie with the story of the creation of a modern fire service, a process largely driven by war and the threat of war. The UK fire service became a world leader on the basis of the lessons learned facing the mass bombings of the blitz. This obviously posed a threat to large numbers of civilians, to homes and to industry. The pre-war amateurism and localism which characterised fire services in much of the country was challenged by central government, by forward thinking senior officers and by the Fire Brigades Union.
These key issues of public safety and security made the link to the Home Office a natural one. Central government had a role in the setting of standards and in monitoring and inspecting performance. Essentially this was the structure of the service which I joined in 1983, a structure sometimes described as a 'national service, delivered locally.'
The shift away from this structure started under the Blair Labour government. Fire policy in England was passed first to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (now gone and un-mourned). It then passed to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Now we end up back at the Home Office where we started decades ago.
Context is everything
The fire and rescue service should be about planning for the whole range of risks and emergencies which our communities face today. These risks change and are always evolving. The firefighter's role has extended over time to include tackling road traffic collisions, inspecting workplaces and public buildings, working to make people more aware of the risks in the home. Increasingly the role has included tackling new and emerging risks such as the threat from terrorism or from the impact of climate change. Tackling the aftermath of major flooding is now a key function of our fire and rescue service. A discussion is also underway with our employers across the UK about what the fire and rescue service might look like in ten or fifteen years' time and what new risks might need to be addressed.
For the Fire Brigades Union, the key to doing all this effectively is ensuring professional standards. This means planning and preparing for the whole range of risk using the most up to date technical information and ensuring there are adequate resources with the correct training and procedures to carry out our work safely, efficiently and effectively.
In moving fire policy back to the Home Office it could be argued that little is changing. But context is everything. We have a government which is making unprecedented cuts to public services - with some 7,000 firefighter jobs cut under the last Parliament. The Westminster government seeks greater collaboration between police and fire and talks about the possibilities of better procurement and of sharing back office functions. It has also introduced policy to enable Police and Crime Commissioners to take over the governance of fire and rescue. In both of these areas there are significant problems with the government's approach.
Firefighters work alongside other 999 services every single day, at fires, road traffic accidents and so on. That does not mean the roles are the same. The fire and rescue service is a separate humanitarian service very distinct from policing. Indeed a more obvious link lies with emergency ambulance services and elsewhere across the world there are models which include much closer working between fire and ambulance services. In some cases they are merged.
The situation is very different in relation to policing. The police have the power to arrest. Firefighters do not. This is extremely an important aspect of our relations with local communities, especially in an era when firefighters are asking to enter people's homes every day to provide safety. Likewise, there are powerful lessons from our own history and internationally about how firefighters can deal with emergencies in difficult political or social situations including civil disturbances. Our neutrality and our independence from the police are essential to being able to do our job effectively.
It seems that one key aim of this move is to strengthen the hand of the Home Secretary in forcing through the PCC takeover of fire. In many areas this will be hugely problematic since the two services do not share the same boundaries. But in any case PCCs do not have the experience, expertise or democratic mandate to take over the governance of fire and rescue.
Regrettably, the government plans for our fire and rescue service are unlikely to do anything to improve local accountability, professional standards or planning for future risks. Instead they are likely to be a means to force through further unwanted and ill-planned change. Our experience in recent years suggests this will not be based on any serious examination of the evidence relating to fire and rescue or on a genuine desire to reduce risk to our communities. Instead we face further cuts to a service delivered by outstanding professionals. The intention seems to be that the views of firefighters and of local communities should be ignored.