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Syms: Fire and Rescue Services are local services

Speech at LGA Fire Services Conference

"I am delighted to be with you today for what will be my first LGA Fire Conference as Shadow Fire Minister.

My experience in this area comes from my time as a Wiltshire County Councillor when I severed as a Member of the Council's then Public Protection Committee and was always impressed by my dealings with the Fire Brigade.

I want to start on the positive. I, like millions of other people, travelled to work on the tube on the morning of the 7th July 2005 when terrorists attacked London. I would like to pay tribute to the Fire Service for the way they dealt with the bomb blasts on the Tube and on the bus in Tavistock Square. The calmness, professionalism and efficiency of Britain's emergence services undoubtedly saved lives.

Equally impressive is that the London Fire Rescue Service Control answered and dealt with the couple of thousand calls it received elsewhere in London that day. The Service is a credit to Britain.

Most of what is going on in the Fire and Rescue Service today can be traced back to decisions made or perceptions formed in the ODPM and 10 Downing Street during the dark days of the industrial dispute, now some three and a half years ago. Out of that traumatic experience was born the concept of "modernisation" - hardly a new word for the Labour Party which had already "modernised" everything from nurses pay to MP's working hours. But a novel concept for the Fire Service nonetheless.

Looking back, it is clear that a number of different strands of thinking drove the modernisation agenda in central government - an instinctive desire to smash what the ODPM saw as a "cosy" arrangement between an over dominant Union and a cowed management; a genuine desire to seek economies in service delivery that could be used to finance a pay settlement of sufficient generosity to settle the dispute; a real concern to do better in reducing accidental fire deaths; a desire to respond to the new potential threats in the wake of 9/11 and on top of all that, a misguided desire to underpin what the ODPM then saw as the coming era of regional government.

It was already apparent to Ministers in 2002 that their targets for reduction in accidental fire deaths (and indeed for arson), due to be delivered by March 2004 and March 2009 respectively, were hopelessly beyond reach.

Despite that, the Opposition welcomed, in principal, the concept of modernisation. The Government demonstrated convincingly that the old post-wartime pattern of deployment and response was redundant and might even be an impediment to delivering the targets. We accepted, as I believe did almost everybody, the need to change the primary focus of the Fire and Rescue Service from reaction to prevention; from putting out fires to planning out fire deaths. At the same time, we recognised and supported the need to ensure that our Fire and Rescue Services collectively were ready to deliver an effective response to an event on the scale of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, including the possibility of having to deal with non-conventional terrorist assault. The events in London in July 2005 underline that.

In the heady days of late 2002, after the Bain report was published, the talk was of radical new shift patterns, mixed crewing, flexible day time versus night time deployments of crews and appliances as well as radical changes to career development and negotiating machinery.

In short, what appeared to be on offer was a transformation towards a more flexible local authority-based community fire service, focused primarily on fire death prevention rather that property protection, yet at the same time with an enhanced response capability to major incidents. Better still, it was all going to be self-financing, happier, better-paid fire-fighters (albeit fewer of them) delivering a better, more flexible and more effective service.

We were buyers of that position - who wouldn't be? But there was always a tension between the image of a more flexible community-based service which the Government painted and its increasingly centralising agenda in practice - especially in relation to "national resilience". It always seemed to me that there was a kind of schizophrenia in the ODPM, with an image on the one hand of a gentler and more caring local fire and rescue community service, focused on social inclusion, caring employment practices and community involvement (fitting smoke detectors in old peoples' flats), and on the other hand of a quasi-military, heavily equipped, highly mobile rapid reaction intervention force, capable of dealing with challenges such as rescue from collapsed buildings and mass decontamination on a scale previously unimagined. At the heart of the problem we find ourselves in today is that tension between, on the one hand the local community service and on the other hand what the ODPM sees as primarily a national resource for emergency response effectively under central government control.

In a different, parallel, universe within the ODPM, John Prescott was bumbling his way into yet another disaster called the regional agenda. In this environment the temptation to "regionalise" a service over which they had effective departmental control, proved too much to resist. Two and a half years later, the early promise of the modernisation agenda, a promise of greater flexibility and a more locally accountable service has been lost under the weight of central direction and regionalising initiatives.

The savings that modernisation was due to generate have, for the most part failed to materialise, while those charged with managing fire and rescue authority budgets remain paralysed by major changes in command and control structures and massive equipment procurement programmes over which they have little or no control and in respect of which they have no effective input.

I and my colleagues warned the Government at the time of the settlement of the industrial dispute that the linking of the modernisation agenda with the savings that would finance the pay settlement was a dangerous step. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of State all repeatedly told Parliament, the Media and the Public that the fire-fighters' pay settlement would be "self financed" out of the savings of modernisation - thus defining modernisation as an exercise that would deliver financial savings. The problem, of course, is that when you define a service reform which is supposed to be "risk based" as being "cost saving" before you begin, you are inviting the public to look sceptically at it.

The Opposition view on the Regional Agenda is clear - we oppose it.

In our view, the creation of Regional Management Boards was always a flawed concept. Let me say clearly, that we have no difficulty at all with Fire and Rescue Authorities collaborating together to ensure effective delivery in respect of services which, in the interest of economy, must be delivered at a supra-brigade level.

But our starting point is this: the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 places statutory functions squarely upon Fire and Rescue Authorities. The modernisation agenda, in its original form, emphasises that Fire and Rescue Services are local services, provided by local government.

It is absolutely right and proper for the ODPM to support and encourage cooperation between Fire and Rescue Authorities in order to optimise service delivery and maximise economies; It is quite wrong for the ODPM to impose artificial, top-down bureaucratic regional structures, designed not to optimise the delivery of fire services, but to underpin what is now a demonstrably failed Government political agenda. When the Regional Management Boards were created and Nick Raynsford held out the prospect of regionally based CFAs being created in regions where Elected Regional Assemblies went ahead. The balmy days when the Government thought it had opinion on its side!

On the issue of Regional Fire Control Centres our concerns are threefold:

First, whilst we accept that there is scope for improvement of the resilience of control and mobilisation procedures through standardisation of equipment specifications and improved interoperability, we do not accept that a centrally-dictated bureaucratic regional model is an operationally optimum structure: Many brigades have historic patterns of cooperation and collaboration; The Government Office Regions are vastly different - the North East has a population of two and a half million spread over 8,600km², while the South West has a population of 5 million spread over 23,000km² and the South East control centre will have to support a population of 8 million. It is difficult to conceive that a model constructed on the basis of optimum operational efficiency would, by coincidence, recommend eight regions co-terminus with the existing Government Office Regions (created for a very different purpose) serving population catchments that vary by a factor of three and geographical areas that vary by a factor of four. This is simply not a credible model for the organisation of fire and rescue control and mobilisation operations.

Secondly, there is the project risk. Central Government's record on the delivery of large scale integrated IT and communications projects is questionable, to put it generously. It need hardly be said that what we are discussing here is a "critical system". There is simply no room for failure. We remain unconvinced that the ODPM has the skills to specify and implement a project on this scale with a zero tolerance of system failure. Many County Fire Control Centres regular training on "manual back-up" systems for use in the event of computer failure. That is when the local knowledge, the baby that the Government is proposing to throw out with the bath water of local control rooms, becomes critical. We are told that sophisticated computer systems can deliver "synthetic" local knowledge to an operator who may be completely unaware of the geography of a caller's location, local topography and other conditions. But what happens when that system crashes?

Thirdly, linked to the worries about on-time and on-budget delivery of the project we have deep concerns about the management of the service during the transitional period.

We would have cancelled the scheme had we won the General Election. We will monitor exactly how this new system works. We question the assumption made and the latest estimate of the Fire Control Budget of £988 million is a concern.

We recognise the case for developing national resilience to deal with a major emergency. Indeed, the next Conservative Government is committed to appointing a Minister for Homeland Security to take on that responsibility. He will work with Fire and Rescue Authorities in relation to their contribution to the National Resilience Programme.

Whilst, there is a need for coordination to deliver the national resilience agenda, the Government has got the balance wrong:

It has allowed the 99% of fire and rescue authority work which is local and community- based to be subsumed by the 1% which is the national resilience role. We will redress that balance, reasserting the local community-based role of the Fire and Rescue Authorities and their accountability to their local communities, while coordinating their contribution to national resilience through the Minister for Homeland Security.

We recognise, too, that there is a strong case for interoperability of communications equipment, allowing different brigades and the different emergency services (and the military) to communicate in a major emergency. But we also recognise the primacy of the local fire and rescue authorities in the delivery of these services. We believe that it is possible to have effective co-ordination, common standards and interoperability without disenfranchising the bodies charged with the statutory duty to deliver services.

We do not believe that any of this requires a bureaucratic regional structure and we are committed to scrapping it. The Regional Management Boards are an unwanted and unnecessary tier of bureaucracy and we would return their power to local, democratically-accountable, Fire and Rescue Authorities. That does not mean that we will abandon the concept of delivering services through larger units - we will encourage Fire and Rescue Authorities to "cluster" in operationally optimal groupings, determined by them and based on locally appropriate patterns of collaboration, to deliver specific services - thus enabling the harvesting of operational savings in service delivery and procurement, without eroding local accountability of the service as this Government is doing.

There is no room for the schizophrenia that this Government has displayed over the last couple of years. Either our Fire and Rescue Services are a national responsibility for which Ministers must answer, or they are a local community service, accountable to local people.

The Conservative answer is clear: our Fire and Rescue Services will remain local services, delivered by local, democratically-accountable, Fire and Rescue Authorities. The national resilience function will be coordinated by a Homeland Security Minister who will work with the Fire and Rescue Authorities in respect of their input to the National Resilience Programme only.

We do not believe that the imposition of an alien regional structure improves the effectiveness of response to the terrorist threat. We do not believe that you improve accountability of local services by transferring their decision making powers to distant quangos.

The future, under a Conservative Government, for our Fire and Rescue Services is one of partnership:

- Local decisions and local accountability for the great bulk of the work that makes up our community fire and rescue service;

- "Bottom-up" clustering by FRAs in operationally appropriate groupings (determined by them) to capture potential economies of scale in control and mobilisation, procurement and support services, and

- National coordination by a dedicated Homeland Security Minister of the input of individual FRAs to the strategic response to a major emergency.

Then we can return to the original agenda for modernisation: better local services, efficiently delivered, but locally accountable, within a framework that supports an effective, coordinated response to a major emergency."

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