Further fire authority cuts could harm services – PAC

Further fire authority cuts could harm fire services, according to a new Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report.

The report, released today, says that fire and rescue authorities have successfully absorbed 28% government cuts in 2010-16, leading to a 22% decline in deaths from fire, although prevention and protection activities have gone down.

Last year, a report presented to the Local Government Association (LGA) warned that a lack of investment in fire prevention would inevitably lead to a rise in deaths.

However, further 7% cuts are due to impact local authority budgets by 2019-20, which representatives from the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) and LGA warned could have an impact on fire services.

In 2015, a National Audit Office report warned that cuts had already led to a 14% reduction in firefighters and further cuts could lead to strikes. The PAC found that the government lacked an understanding of the impact of the cuts, and that they had affected the areas with highest need.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “More funding cuts are in prospect and effective oversight is vital if frontline services are to be protected. Government must properly understand the local implications of budget decisions made in Whitehall and in our view that simply hasn’t been happening.

“The transfer of responsibility for fire and rescue to the Home Office is an opportunity to put right the failings of the past, and one it cannot afford to miss. We urge government to act on our recommendations and will be expecting to see improvements to oversight by the summer.”

The Home Office took over responsibility for fire and rescue authorities from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) last month as part of a plan to promote collaboration between the fire and police services.

The DCLG has sought to promote collaboration between services as a means of saving money, including creating a £75m fire transformation fund to improve services. A new multi-agency partnership between the LGA and Public Health England (PHE) also seeks to integrate fire services and the NHS.

However, the PAC report called the DCLG’s thinking on mergers “passive and underdeveloped”.

The PAC said the Home Office should write to it by summer 2016, setting out how they are improving central government’s understanding of the impact of cuts and work with fire and rescue authorities who are considering merging rather than forcing emergency mergers on them.

It also said the Home Office should provide Parliament with more substantive reassurance on the quality and sustainability of fire services and strengthen local governance and accountability by consulting the sector on additional guidance, to underpin the duty in the National Fire Framework on authority members to hold their chief fire officer to account.

The fire service, unlike other emergency services, has no external inspectorate. The PAC also said that this could mean oversight of fire services could be inconsistent across different local authorities, and that the Home Office should publish a delivery plan by summer to ensure a coherent approach.

The PAC also said that the value for money of projects for fire services to expand to other community services, including co-responding with paramedics to medical emergencies; reducing the risks of trips, slips, and falls when checking the properties of elderly residents; and working with disadvantaged young people to help improve their life chances, was unclear. The committee has called on the Home Office to publish a robust evaluation of the sector’s wider community service practices by summer 2016.

Mike Penning, minister for policing, fire, criminal justice and victims, said: “There is no question the fire service will still have the resources to do their important work but there are more efficiencies to be made through smarter working, reducing the cost of back office functions and using services’ buying power to get the best deals from suppliers.

“We will also look at other areas for potential reform highlighted by the PAC including oversight and independent scrutiny and the need for an evaluation of the wider community service projects carried out by the Fire and Rescue Service. “

Councillor Jeremy Hilton, chair of the LGA’s fire services management committee, said: "The fire service needs to be funded to risk, and not just demand. Unexpected events like the recent flooding, which involved 25 fire services, shows how important it is the fire service has the capacity to respond to a range of national and local events.”

The report is based on oral evidence submitted in November 2015 by witnesses including CFOA president Paul Hancock, Cllr Hilton and communities and local government permanent secretary Melanie Dawes and written evidence from bodies including the CFOA, DCLG and Fire Brigades Union.







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