Theresa May accuses fire and rescue services of significant failings
The Home Secretary is ready to use her policing reform model to drive a culture of change through a radical shake-up of fire and rescue.
Theresa May has ruled out letting fire and rescue services “stand still”, calling for an end to “bullying and harassment” in parts of the service in England.
With too many stuck in the past — reluctant even to recruit women — she pointed out how chief officers in the police service had resisted change only for forces to end up more diverse and professional, while crime rates had fallen.
A refusal to modernise meant fire and rescue workforces have remained 95 per cent male and 96 per cent white.
Mrs May also said they are still the size they were a decade ago despite a massive 42 per cent fall in the number of incidents.
Her reforms are the first major changes announced since the Home Office took on responsibility for fire and rescue from the Department for Communities and Local Government last year.
Setting out the proposals in a London speech, she said they include having more firefighters on call at home to save money and a new independent inspection regime to hold fire chiefs to account.
She reminded her audience that earlier this year the Government announced measures to enable police and crime commissioners (PCCs) to take on responsibility for fire and rescue authorities “where a local case is made”, while emergency services will be placed under a statutory duty to collaborate.
The Policing and Crime Bill, which is making its way through Parliament, will also allow PCCs to bring “greater accountability”, she argued.
But she said her plan “does not and should not mean a reduction in the quality of frontline firefighting”.
“Just as we have seen in policing, it is possible to protect the frontline and increase the proportion of officers deployed in frontline roles even as savings are made,” she said.
Mrs May said the fire service had a “fine tradition and a proud record” but “there remains much more to do”.
If she allowed it to stand still, “we choose to ignore the 263 people who lost their lives to fire last year and the thousands of business owners whose livelihoods went up in flames”, she said.
The Home Secretary highlighted a “widening disparity” between the pay of chief fire officers in different parts of the country — “with little relationship to their skills, performance or the size of the role”.
Announcing “a rigorous and independent inspection regime”, the Home Secretary said she will make amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill to “put beyond doubt” the powers of fire inspectors to access information, and to ensure the government has the power to commission inspections.
Mrs May said although fire authorities had “shouldered their fair share” in making savings, “further savings will need to be made” over the next four years.
After six years engrossed in police reform and with her mind set on “radical reforms”, she announced her intention to publish data to show how much each fire and rescue authority is paying for items including uniform, kit, and vehicles to “help services work together to buy equipment and services”.
Information will also be published to allow members of the public to compare their performance and value for money and diversity.
The changes only affect England — as control for fire services is devolved to the four nations of the UK.
The Fire Brigades Union, led by general secretary Matt Wrack, is already locked in a row with the Government over pensions.
But Mr Wrack gave the independent inspectorate a cautious welcome.
He said: “The Home Secretary may be surprised that we agree with her on some of the issues she raised.
“We have been calling for an independent inspectorate for some time, as the current system had led to huge imbalances on the standards imposed on services across the county.”
But he said it defied belief to say the size of the workforce had not changed at a time when fire deaths had risen by more than a fifth last year.
“The record cuts that this Government have imposed on the fire and rescue services have resulted in far fewer frontline firefighters and is contributing to a poorer and less reliable public service.
“Whilst we want to work with the Home Secretary for a greater diversity in our fire and rescue service, it needs to be pointed out that it was her government who in 2010 chose to remove the diversity targets that were in place, sending a clear signal to employers that diversity was being downgraded.”
Sir Ken Knight, former chief fire and rescue adviser for the government, said: “We need targets that fit the local communities, set by the local fire and rescue service authority so that it meets the community that it serves.
“And top-down targets by central government frankly don’t work and it’s got to be in the will and the gift and the DNA of the organisation to want to reflect the community it serves, both in fire safety, as well as the response.”