Speaking at the Local Government Association Annual Fire Conference last week, Lyn Brown MP, Shadow Minister for Fire and Communities, spoke about Labour’s priorities for the future of the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS).
Having visited half of England’s FRSs, she said that every conversation had helped her to understand “where the Service is now and what you feel the options are going forward”.
She talked about the cuts across the whole of the public sector, saying that the immediate future “will be one of continuing to do more with even less”.
“We face a sustained financial challenge,” she said. ”From which we need to protect operational capacity, resilience, and indeed public and firefighter safety.”
In a bid to find a way forward, she said the Service must be fit for purpose, able to tackle changing local and national risk patterns, and contend with emerging threats.
“That doesn’t mean ducking our financial responsibilities or shying away from tough decisions,” she said. “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.”
Referring to a survey carried out by Labour at the end of last year regarding the future organisational structure of the FRS, she said most respondents wanted “real leadership and responsibility” to be shown by central government.
“Most firefighters have told me that the organisational structure doesn’t bother them one jot,” she said, and that they didn’t feel that if they merged with other FRAs or even worked as 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”.
She said that Labour’s approach had “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”.
She said she was under “no illusions as to the scale of the challenges” being faced, and recognised that government needed to play a much more clear and active role.
Highlighting the key points of action should Labour come to power in May, she firstly stressed that the party would not privatise the FRS: “We will not let a critical public emergency resource pursue private profit over public safety and protection,” she said.
Secondly, they would make it a statutory duty for FRSs in England and Wales to respond to flooding incidents. Although this is something the Service does already, Labour’s aim in putting it on a statutory footing is “to provide clarity and to increase safety. It’s what many of you have asked me for,” she said.
Thirdly, she said, a Labour government would support the Service as it developed alternative crewing models, different types of first- and co-responder practices, new technology and kit, and streamlined back-office operations.
“One of the big challenges facing public services in this country is to make the most effective use of the money that we have and to collaborate with others,” she said. “The example, being pioneered in a number of services, of the Fire and Rescue Service responding to 999 calls for the ambulance service in rural communities, is a really great example of blue light co-operation.”
Finally, she reassured the audience that Labour would not let FRSs be subsumed by Police and Crime Commissioners (indeed they plan to scrap them), but would instead 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,” she said.
“The LGA rightly argues 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.”
She urged the FRS to work with the party and to look at the issues objectively, although she admitted that this was hard to do so “when you are politically connected and emotionally connected to the service you nurture and sustain”.
“Labour’s key priority is to protect the frontline,” she said, but this “demands proper strategic oversight, effective and decisive leadership, and a coherent plan in the face of tighter public spending”.
She concluded: “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.”
Click here to read the full speech.
Commercial buildings, non-domestic and multi-occupancy premises in England and Wales are already forced to undertake a ‘suitable and sufficient’ fire risk assessment carried out under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
While the overwhelming majority of premises do this, if the assessment is thought to have been carried out to an insufficient extent, the Responsible Person can face an unlimited fine or up to two years in prison.