No to privatisation but yes to modernising the UK Fire Service

Published:  25 October, 2016

Fire Minister outlines his vision for a service that 'needs to be fit for the work in the years ahead.'

Speaking at the Fire Protection Association’s Fire Sector Summit in London last week Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Services Brandon Lewis spoke about the many changes that would be taking place in the UK Fire & Rescue Service in the months ahead.

The prospect of privatisation in the fire service was ruled out at the beginning of his speech, which then mainly focussed on the fundamental fire reform that he said was necessary to make the service the best it can be.

His role, he explained, was to deliver the radical and ambitious package of reforms Prime Minister Theresa May had announced earlier this year when she was Home Secretary.

The final agenda has been refined into three distinct pillars comprising efficiency and collaboration; accountability and transparency; and workforce reform.

Examples of collaboration include shared estates and support functions between FRS and Ambulance Service, and a statutory duty to do so is being included in the Policing and Crime Bill currently being heard at the House of Lords: “It is intentionally set at a high level and it is non-prescriptive, because we want to ensure local leaders can determine the sort and style of collaboration that is in the best interest of their local communities.”

Combined procurement has been classed as another form of collaboration, and one that is not just about reducing costs, said Lewis, but also about purchasing more smartly and more effectively: “I appreciate that every single fire service in this country can justify why their fire engine needs just a little bit different colour paint than the next one, but we have got to do better.”

A recent exercise that saw the publication of prices paid by different fire services for commonly-procured goods would be repeated, said Minister Lewis, adding that it may even be expanded. “The differences in price paid across fire and rescue authorities for the same item is remarkable. Over 28,000 pounds of variance in price in staff vehicles, let alone the differences in price for laptops and helmets.”

He emphasised that he wanted fire and rescue authorities to collaboratively buy goods and services and engage with the industry ‘as one voice’ via a more standardised, joint way.

This approach could also be extended to product evaluation and he said that CFOA, the Fire Service College and the Fire Industry Association were collaborating to run a research and development function that would evaluate equipment once, rather than repeatedly by each local service. “I’ve heard stories of individual pieces of kit being individually tested by 20 services at any one time. That kind of duplication is wasteful, and our expectation is that the services will engage in this function going forward.”

A coherent and comprehensive set of professional standards were also in development and the establishment of a standards body was being explored to drive sector improvements: “I see the possibility of a standards body as a powerful lever in securing professional ownership and driving up performance in key areas of fire reform.” These standards would include professionalisation, ethics, technology, and the workforce.

In addition to the new standards body, there were also plans for the introduction of an independent inspection regime for fire, a revised peer challenge process to support sector improvement, and the new National Fire Chiefs’ Council that would replace the Chief Fire Officers Association. Further details of this reform pillar will be announced before the end of this year.

Turning to the second pillar, accountability and transparency, Minister Lewis explained that the Policing and Crime Bill contained provisions enabling police and crime commissioners to take on the functions of fire and rescue authorities where a strong local case was made: “I’m aware of a number of police and crime commissioners who are already doing the work on their business cases,” said the Minister, who explained that the move would facilitate collaboration while providing greater accountability. He highlighted that such a move was not a ‘police takeover’ and that the distinct identities of both organisations would be retained. Royal Assent was expected for the Bill around the end of the year.

The Policing and Crime Bill also contains a provision to create an inspection framework for fire, which the Minister said would be both independent and rigorous. It will strengthen the inspection powers in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 to enable fire inspectors to enter premises and access information. The new regime is expected to be fully operational in April 2018, with the preceding period being used to plan, pilot, and develop standards of performance and future performance.

Regarding pillar three – the workforce – the Minister noted that a third of the employees in the fire and rescue services would be retiring in the next five years, affording the fire and rescue authorities with the opportunity to reshape their thinking and workforce: “There is clearly much rebuilding to be done about culture, and trust within the service.”

He continued by informing delegates that the Adrian Thomas Review would shortly be published. This review was commissioned in August 2014 to consider whether the current terms and conditions were conducive to building the fire and rescue service of the future. These included management practices and crewing arrangements; collaboration and integration with other emergency services; the use of on-call firefighters; the process of fair recruitment and remuneration of chief fire officers and fire officers: “The majority of the review’s recommendations are for the service to deliver. I know that many services and the sector more generally, challenged and supported by government, have not waited for publication and are already taking some steps towards reform. For example, the recent decision by CFOA to become the National Fire Chiefs’ Council and the positive engagement between the sector and government on the development of professional standards and a fire inspectorate are clear examples of this.”

Following the detailed description of the ambitious journey planned for the UK Fire Service, Minister Lewis did not remain to answer questions from the fire sector, to the great disappointment of his audience.

  • Operation Florian

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