Q We will now hear evidence from the Fire Brigades Union, the Chief Fire Officers Association, the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities and the West Midlands fire service. We have until 11.25 am to conduct this session. For the purposes of the record, may I begin by asking the witnesses to introduce themselves?
May I ask you what effect you think transferring governance to police and crime commissioners would have on the fire service? Do you fear that PCCs will seek to raise funds via the privatisation of fire services, should governance be transferred? Do you know of any colleagues refusing to collaborate under the current system, which would need a swingeing power to place them under PCCs at the behest of the Home Secretary?Q
We have made our views clear: we do not support the shift in governance of fire to PCCs. There are a whole number of risks in that. We think there is no appetite within the fire and rescue service for it, and there is no public appetite for it. As was touched on in the earlier session, it begins seriously to blur the lines between the role of the fire and rescue service and the role of the police service, and the people who perform those roles. We have grave concerns about that.
On privatisation, the first concern is that this is seen widely among those within the fire and rescue service as a takeover. The police service is clearly far larger in terms of personnel, resources and so on. Fire is a much smaller public service. Nevertheless, fire has a unique reputation among our communities. Among firefighters, this will be seen as a takeover. We are concerned, in terms of the funding squeeze, that the area of the two services that would come under the greatest pressure as a result of such takeovers is fire.
On collaboration, I want to make a number of quick points that arose from the previous session. First, I think there is some confusion about different types of collaboration. Operational collaboration among fire services is built into the very fabric of the fire and rescue service. It happens every single day. For example, on the question about Wales, there will be border areas where Welsh fire stations attend daily predetermined attendances in English fire and rescue service areas. That happens on a much greater scale with major incidents and so on.
There is a huge amount of experience of collaboration over many years between fire and various agencies. We are concerned that one thing that is not being addressed in the discussion here is greater collaboration with local government. Fire is currently a local government service. We are concerned that there are very few councillors here. We do now have two councillors here, but they are from metropolitan authorities. There are no councillors here to give the views of non-metropolitan fire services. A great deal of collaboration is going on in other areas, such as the fire service and the ambulance service, and the fire service and social services, but, again, there is nobody here from ambulance trusts to give evidence to the Bill Committee.
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge:
From a Chief Fire Officers Association angle, the most important thing is that we fully welcome the move of fire into the Home Office. We think that that is the right thing to do for national resilience and national security, and we think that it will enhance the way in which the conversations can take place, at a very strategic level, about managing the risk to the UK. It is a very positive move.
On the governance issue regarding PCCs, CFOA’s position has been very clear: where there is a local need and a local business case, and where that will make a positive impact on efficiency, effectiveness and, most importantly, public safety, we feel it is entirely appropriate for there to be a conversation around the governance model that oversees the fire service. However, the most important thing is where that local case is made.
A patchwork of different governance structures sits over the whole UK, but it is a patchwork quilt that knits together well and operates effectively. The fire service is held in very high public esteem and we need to ensure that we can maintain that. To support what Matt from the Fire Brigades Union said, when it comes to operational delivery, we have a seamless approach of that blue light emergency delivery right across the UK. I absolutely believe that the emergency services in the UK are the best in the world.
Certainly, we have no problem with collaboration. We collaborate all the time and we have been doing so for many years. The most recent example across the country is the national fire control collaborations that we have done after the national failure of the regional controls some time ago. There are many examples. As Matt said, every day the fire service collaborates with the police, the ambulance service and other services at emergency incidents. We have no problem at all with that and we are looking for better ways to collaborate all the time. The problem with a forced takeover of the governance of fire and rescue authorities is that it puts some of that collaboration in jeopardy. If we are going to be engaged in a prolonged discussion with a local PCC about a merger or a takeover—possibly a hostile takeover—it will detract from the collaborative efforts in which we are currently engaged. It will be a distraction.
An absolute concern of mine in the face of a hostile bid for the fire and rescue service is the impact on the neutrality of the fire service. We are not a law and order service. We have access to communities and individual residences where people welcome the fire service and will share a lot of information with us. We work with lots of disadvantaged young people and people who are sometimes on the edge of the criminal justice system and we bring them back into the mainstream. We would start to lose some of our impact in the event of a loss of our neutrality.
My other concern about a takeover is that, in the metropolitan area—I speak on behalf of the six mets—we are all engaged, in one way or another, in some form of devolution pathway. We are going to be in a situation next year, if we are not careful, where one part of government is telling the elected mayor that he should be looking at us and the other part is telling the PCC they should be looking at us. Our favoured route is with the combined authorities and the elected mayor—that is where we naturally fit as part of local government. We have done lots of work with our local councils in delivering a very wide health and wellbeing and prevention agenda. We have a lot in common with the police; we have a lot more in common with our local authorities and the health services. That is the track we are engaged on.
We have to be very careful what we wish for here. The PCCs were an experiment. We are still in the very early stages of the transition and how the PCC will work and operate. I think the police service has a lot to contend with in today’s society. When you look at the implications of the Bill on the police force, I think they just need to get on with the job. The fire and police services are unique. The fire service is very unique—we are the envy of the world. Why would you want to disrupt, disturb or disband that? We get through more thresholds than any other organisation in the public sector. The work is not just about saving lives; it is about changing lives. We have proved that time and time again. We are a very efficient and effective service and we need to get on with the job.
Regarding collaboration: we have been doing it on a daily basis for a number of years. I know the fire Minister is due to visit Merseyside and we will prove to him exactly the types of collaboration we are undertaking at the moment. It is not just with the police or the ambulance service; it is with the health service, local authorities and any other partner that will engage with us. We are at the forefront of looking at public services and how we can assist in reducing the overall burden on the health agenda. We can impact on that. We are doing a fantastic job. Why would you want to change it?
At the moment, the boundaries of police and fire are similar. The issue we have at the moment is that the ongoing discussion about Liverpool city region includes Halton, which is part of Cheshire. The issue among local authorities is whether Halton should come into the Liverpool city region. That is not for us to get involved with. We have said we will go along with the Liverpool city region bid. If it comes to the discussion in the next term and our ask for the city region, the fire service would happily engage with those discussions, as we do at the moment.
Mr Wrack, this question is to you. In your response to the spending review, you said that the Government’s modelling of the fire service was dangerous and ludicrous. You described the PCC proposals in the Bill as “parochial” and “maverick-driven”. You said they would put the public at risk. Today, again, you are saying that the proposals are dangerous. I have two questions. First, would you agree that using this kind of language is simply scaremongering and brave firefighters will keep the public safe, regardless of what model they work underQ ?
Secondly, would you agree that these comments are driven by your view of PCCs—you made clear in the document that they are a failed model? In fact, many PCCs are doing a very good job and we will hear from some in this Committee.
In terms of the PCC model, we do not apologise: we are critical of that model. We think there is a good tradition of local government in the UK; it is a very good model, and fire sits within it. As I have said, we are slightly alarmed that no one from the elected member side is giving evidence in terms of their experience—outside the mets—of delivering a local authority fire and rescue service in the current situation.
But putting that to one side, the PCCs are in. We are now debating the question whether there should be the power for PCCs to put in a bid to take over the fire and rescue service. We are very concerned about that for a number of reasons, which we have put in our response to the consultation. That is on grounds of professionalism. I think some of my colleagues on the panel have highlighted that. The fire service is a unique brand that has pioneered collaborative working in many areas of public services, has pioneered preventive work and has pioneered community engagement. Anything that puts that at risk should be closely scrutinised, and we think there are risks in terms of the model that is proposed—the PCC takeover—of doing exactly that.
We have not got on to it, but there is also the question of the single employer model. Clearly, as a trade union, we have concerns about our members’ terms and conditions, as we are, rightly, entitled to do. There is a whole host of questions in relation to that area that have not been answered in terms of where we are with the Bill currently.
I want to be careful about this. It is a perfectly legitimate line of questioning, but I am anxious that this session should not become about just one issue or one organisation, because there is a lot of expertise to be had, for the benefit of the Committee and therefore the Bill. It is a legitimate line of questioning, but I do not want it to dominate the proceedings. Do you want to come back on that, James?
Q The reason why I asked the question was that they are very serious allegations. No one wants the dangerous situation that Mr Wrack described in his written documents so, Mr Etheridge, could I ask whether you agree with the FBU’s analysis as it was put in the written documents to which I have referred?
Q There are two issues. I will come back to what James said in a moment, but the first and a dominant issue is this. You have said in your evidence that you already co-operate; and that you are in favour of greater co-operation and integration, not just with police but with a range of statutory providers including local government. By the way, on that, presumably you are not opposed, therefore, to strengthening a duty to co-operate. Can we, then, come to this question? Is it the case, from what is being said by the fire service, that you are not proposing that there should be circumstances in which there could be a “hostile takeover”, to use the words of John Edwards, by a PCC of a fire service?
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge:
That is a very good question. The whole issue of collaboration is, for me, very much based around common sense: what is the right thing to do for the local citizen? We can look at all the emergency services. We can look at fire combinations and collaborative working. If the challenge of the leadership is to try to zip up those organisations from the citizen to the state, it takes on a very different feel around that service delivery.
A huge amount of collaboration is going on across the UK. Lots of it goes on in a very silent way where fire is involved with things such as cadet schemes and Prince’s Trust schemes. We are involved with things such as Fire Fit campaigns in schools. We now have fire services up and down the UK that collaborate with local authorities on road safety—they oversee the road safety team. A huge amount of work goes on. So we do not necessarily need a duty to collaborate to collaborate. However, what is very important, and one thing that we therefore welcome from this duty to collaborate, is that it will, we think, have great potential to speed up the process around collaboration.
If that is supported by some effective benchmarking to understand what is going on in the service—a couple of those issues were touched on by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office in relation to the effectiveness of fire and rescue—I think there is an opportunity to smarten up the way we work with that collaboration, but I really would emphasise that when we start to talk about collaboration it seems as if we are coming from a new place, where we have never touched this before. Over one third of fire and rescue services in the UK now co-respond with ambulance services. The outcome of that for the citizens of the UK is fantastic. There are people walking around now in this country who would not be if the fire and rescue service had not got involved with that.
That takes leadership, an enormous amount of courage and a big leap of faith, from unions and the leadership of the service, and from clinical governance around ambulance services. It is a huge step, but it is one of those things where we will have a conversation in 10 years’ time saying, “I can’t believe we didn’t do that 15 years ago.” There is an enormous amount of work going on.
Chief Fire Officer Loach:
I would just like to add, and bring a little bit to the discussion, that this should not be seen as just opportunistic ways to involve ourselves with other agencies. This all comes from the heart of integrated risk management planning. We look at who we should be collaborating with to reduce vulnerability from fire or fire service-related emergency incidents. We then seek to see if we can add value to other public services at the same time. So I think any actions taken going forward that would jeopardise our ability to do that should be carefully considered.
I think Mr Dromey’s final point about the possibility of a hostile takeover is one area where there is particular concern within the fire and rescue service—that, if the business case is not found to be convincing within the fire and rescue service, or other areas of local government, for example, that are currently responsible, the idea that effectively that could be forced through by the Secretary of State causes considerable concern among a number of partners in the fire and rescue service.
In the words, therefore, of Dave Etheridge, a conversation—yes; greater collaboration—yes; but you are not supporting the notion of the potential hostile takeover? Is that the view of the fire service?
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge:
Are you asking me that question? Absolutely—very clearly, if there is a local need, if there is a business case, predominantly that must be around public safety. Clearly there are some police and crime commissioners who are very ambitious. There are some police and crime commissioners who come from very different angles on things. Our role as the professional leaders of the service, therefore, is to ensure that we are the guardians of the service; but we are also here to ensure that the future is very positive around the service. Therefore we are a big advocate of making sure that, if there is a business case, that is based around public safety. We have spoken already about the demarcation lines between services, and I think the Bill is clear around ensuring that a firefighter remains a firefighter.
IQ wanted to ask a question to Councillor John Edwards. Do you not agree that, for the public, it is quite helpful to have one accountable person? With the police and crime commissioners, it has really improved things for the public, having one person that they can go to with issues. I heard many of the same things when the police and crime commissioners were being mooted, from the police authorities, that I now hear from members of fire authorities. Do you not think it would be helpful for the public to have one person to go to? Also, dealing with operational issues will remain with the professional lead in the fire service. The issue is about the fire authority, not the fire officers.
I think there is absolute sense in what you say. In my experience as a chair of a fire authority we have the best of both worlds. We have a person—the chair of the authority—to whom most of the public relate. We are the best-known member of the fire authority, for obvious reasons.
I think they do. I think certainly the correspondence that I get—directly, and the contact through social media—makes it really clear that there is a wide understanding of what the fire authority is and who chairs it; but we also have enough members on the fire authority to do the governance and accountability. We have a scrutiny committee, for instance, that holds the service and me to account. It is more difficult to do that with one person.
I am not arguing for no change. We are in a devolved area. We are embracing change. We are embracing our combined authority but embracing the potential move to an elected mayor in 2017. I am not against change, but I also think that a service like the fire and rescue service needs an accountable body of some sort to hold it to account and to provide the governance. I have seen no evidence that the police and crime commissioner could do that any more effectively than the fire and rescue authority does.
This seems to be a theme that the Committee is anxious to discuss. I want to pursue it, but I am also aware that we only have 15 minutes left. I propose that anyone who wants to say anything about this particular theme—the accountability and visibility of the police and crime commissioner—pursues it now, and we will then hopefully move on to other things.
Q I just wonder how a fire authority with individuals who are appointed to it—they are not elected by members of the public—can possibly be as democratically accountable to the public as a police and crime commissioner whose name is on the ballot paper when it comes to the election.
I think we perhaps have forgotten in this room that, in many cases, the general public—the people who we serve—voted against there being mayors and one person who might have this kind of control. The issue around PCCs is that there are going to be elections in May without the public, who voted against the mayoral system, knowing that mayors are going to be responsible for PCCs. Do you think that that might equate to a democratic deficit?Q
Q I have two questions, if I may. First, it was mentioned earlier that there was nobody here representing the ambulance service. However, I know that Phil Loach, as well as leading the West Midlands fire service, also sits as a governor for the West Midlands ambulance service. It was said earlier that a third of collaboration happens between fire and ambulance services; does that mean two thirds does not? I wonder if he could give us a view on that. Secondly, I want to go back to Matt Wrack’s earlier comment that a PCC takeover would be dangerous. Do you all agree?
Q Could you say specifically how you think the current governance arrangements, in terms of there being a panel, are better, more publicly accountable and more democratic than what is proposed in the Bill?
On the appointed versus elected argument made by Amanda Milling, members of fire authorities are elected in their own local areas. I chair West Midlands fire and rescue authority. I am a member in Sandwell and was then nominated to the fire authority by Sandwell Council. We have an arrangement: there is a provision in the Act that established the fire and rescue authorities for a section 41 member—that is me. I report back to Sandwell Council on matters concerning the fire and rescue authority, and members of the public can come to Sandwell Council and ask me questions directly about what I do in that role. There is a very good record there on accountability.
The current governance arrangements have worked since 1986, when the fire authorities were put in place. I do not think anybody has had a problem with accountability in the fire and rescue service. I think everybody well understands the fire authority concept—it has been there a long time—and they know how that works. It contains scrutiny arrangements that hold the fire and rescue service to account. I do not think it is flawed.
Q I think that was a specific response, but it did not actually answer my question, which was: how are the current governance arrangements better—not how long have they worked—than what is proposed in the Bill?
I am actually not arguing for the current arrangements. All the mets are caught up in a devolution agenda. There will be change, within that agenda, in how the fire authorities work. We need to explore what that will look like with elected mayors and the combined authority, but there will be a change in governance anyway. In some ways, what I am saying is that we are going to change at some point in the very near future. Do we need an additional change in the meantime by moving to a PCC? Two changes in possibly four years might be a little bit wasteful. It is like digging a road up twice. Why would we do it? The change we want is through the combined authority and the elected mayors.
Q We are heading for the buffers in terms of time, so I will ask each of the respondents to be as brief as they possibly can. The Committee needs to understand that they will answer the questions in their own way, and it is for them to determine how they answer; there is not time for us to come back and cross-examine them. Mr Phil Loach, is there anything that you would like to add?
Chief Fire Officer Loach:
The question that was originally asked is whether scrutiny arrangements would be better, or whether they are better. I cannot answer that question. I do not know, because the PCCs may be something in the future. All I can say is that the scrutiny arrangements at the moment are effective, which should be seen by our successful track record in reducing incidents and engaging on a wider agenda.
On the specific question about ambulances, it is a rapidly developing picture. Indeed, the health agenda has come up as probably the single most important agenda on which the fire service should be engaging, not only to complement the reduction in its own incidents, but to contribute to a wider vulnerability agenda. Although it may be one third, half or up to two thirds, it is a rapidly developing picture. The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives recently updated its position to support things such as co-responding and wider engagement, and we should seek to keep open the widest channels of collaboration to allow us to engage not only through the ambulance service, but through social care in local authorities as well.
As I said earlier, I think we have to be careful about what we wish for. At the present moment, the dialogue that we have with the PCCs is very good, very constructive and very forward thinking. Our doors are open for discussions with any of the public services. That has been proven, and again I defer back to the Minister.
When you have a major incident, as we had with the floods up in Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, Merseyside fire and rescue service is there to assist. When we had the two major incidents in Cheshire and the one in Didcot, Merseyside fire and rescue service was there to assist. We are a highly professional organisation—a first-class emergency service.
The problem we have now is that all our staff are looking over their shoulder and thinking about whether their job is going to be in jeopardy. Morale is low because of that. We need to get on with the job. Our actions speak for themselves.
The accountability is a lot better than it used to be. I could ask the same question of the PCCs. How many people voted for the PCC? There is a question for you. Are they known within the local community? That is another question for you. Do they need to have a higher profile? Yes, of course they do. Do the chairs of fire authorities, or the fire authorities as organisations, need to have a better profile? They probably do, but our communication, organisation and collaboration work is absolutely first class. I invite any of you to come along to Merseyside, and to the other metropolitan authorities, to see the fantastic work that we do.
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge:
I have a couple of points. First, a point was made earlier about the members of fire authorities not being directly elected, but being appointed. For the benefit of the Committee, there are 14 county council fire and rescue services in the UK, so those councils have a fire and rescue service within them. I am in one within Oxfordshire, so the members that oversee Oxfordshire fire and rescue service are directly elected. I have a scrutiny panel, really, of 62 elected members. Believe me, I am scrutinised and my performance is scrutinised. Of course, the service produces a performance report and we are required to put our annual statement of assurances in to central Government.
The key thing for me here—this is certainly the view of the Chief Fire Officers Association—is that some of the elements that came out of the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and our current work with the Home Office on the reform agenda on openness and transparency need to be supported by an effective set of benchmarks. When they are established, it will be lot easier for services to be held to account and for individual chief fire officers to be held to account, regardless of the governance model over the top of them. We are certainly keen to make sure that the fire and rescue service covering the UK is open and that its performance can be challenged.
I have three quick points. First, on the current model versus what is proposed, we have disagreements with a whole range of politicians on many occasions, but we have political balance in the current system, both at a local level and nationally in terms of fire service employers. That allows a lot of collaborative work.
I want to pick up on one other point that people have made about some of the groundbreaking work that has been done on co-responding. That has been pioneered through joint work between the Fire Brigades Union and the national employers, without any involvement by central Government at all. That is being done currently. It is groundbreaking and it is possibly the biggest change in the fire service in our lifetime. That is being done under the current arrangements.
On the argument that police and crime commissioners would be more accountable, the proposal is that someone would stand for PCC election without responsibility for fires, so people would be voting for someone to be a PCC without responsibility for fires, but they may subsequently take over that responsibility and, by the way, they may do so whether the local community agrees or does not agree with it. Again, it is not just the views of those in the fire and rescue service but the views of local communities that should be taken into account in any such discussion.
Q My question is about any concerns that your members and staff may have about the perceived lack of independence from the police. I am assuming there are concerns. If there are, could you highlight the key ones?
That view has been expressed very clearly by the union, but it is a very big concern for firefighters at a local level who, every single day, do pioneering work that has been developed probably over the past 15 years, as was touched on earlier. Youth engagement and fire safety inspections are now much wider. There are some fantastic trials, for example in Greater Manchester, where the fire service is working closely with social services and health. That means getting access into people’s homes—I think Steve White from the Police Federation touched on this earlier—and failing to recognise the very distinct roles puts that at risk. The idea that a single employer with a single chief executive does not blur those lines misses some serious points.
Chief Fire Officer Loach:
There is an operational uncertainty in terms of neutrality and impartiality. We deal with vulnerable people and we need to make sure that that remains unfettered. From a governance or strategic management perception, we need to understand and be assured that budgets would remain separate and that the fire service would be funded according to its integrated risk management plan, not necessarily on the grounds of affordability against policing.
This is about the trust for individuals who are going into a person’s home. Last year, the fire service nationally carried out around 670,000 home fire safety checks. In Merseyside, it carried out about 50,000. If there is any suggestion that we are reliant on the police, we may not get through those thresholds. We know that the risk elements for people are changing. They are living longer, there is more independent living and there are more mental health issues. If we do not get across those thresholds, those people will be more vulnerable and will become a higher risk, and they will be more prone to be caught up in a fire and a fire death. We need to prevent that as best we can.