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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 311 ii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Communities and Local Government Committee
Knight Review of Fire and Rescue Service
Monday 9 September 2013
Ron Dobson, Darran Gunter AND Steve McGuirk
Paul Fuller, CLLR Kay Hammond and Matt Wrack
Evidence heard in Public Questions 69188
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee
on Monday 9 September 2013
Mr Clive Betts (Chair)
Mrs Mary Glindon
Dr John Pugh
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Ron Dobson, Chief Fire Officer, London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, Darran Gunter, Chief Fire Officer, Dorset Fire and Rescue Service, and Steve McGuirk, County Fire Officer and Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, gave evidence.
Q69 Chair: This is the evidence session on the Knight review of efficiencies and operations in fire and rescue authorities in England. Welcome to you all. Thank you for coming to give evidence. Just for the sake of our records at the beginning, could all our witnesses just say who they are and the organisation they represent?
Ron Dobson: My name is Ron Dobson. I am the London Fire Commissioner and I represent the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority.
Darran Gunter: Darran Gunter, Chief Fire Officer, Dorset Fire and Rescue Service, also representing the Dorset Fire Authority.
Steve McGuirk: Steve McGuirk, County Fire Officer and Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority.
Q70 Chair: Thank you very much for coming to be with us this afternoon. I suppose a very obvious first question, given that Sir Ken looked at the variations in spending per head of the different fire and rescue services and described the variation as "inexplicable", is whether you think it can be explained.
Ron Dobson: Yes, I think it can be explained. Fire and rescue services cover a very diverse set of communities and areas in the country, and also the funding formula that fire and rescue services are funded through has changed many times over many years; it is a reflection of those two factors. I am sure we will come on to funding formulas, but in terms of funding formulas, in the future it should be something that is demonstrable and can be demonstrated exactly why people are getting the amount of money that they get. The funding formula at the moment is based on a range of categories, and they are the categories that demonstrate why we have such diverse amounts of funding.
Steve McGuirk: There has never been a zerobased budgeting exercise for the fire and rescue service, so it is perfectly easily explained in that the budgets were what they were and, as different reorganisations took effect, they grew commensurately with whatever percentage increase that local authority decided to apply at the time, in combination with a variety of changes to the funding formula, as Ron suggests.
Over the years, they have been modified in a variety of ways, but essentially just reslicing the same cake slightly differently. So it is a real historical set of precedents that lead us to where we are. There has never been, to the best of my knowledge, a zerobased budgeting exercise for this thing called "the service", nor indeed a set of criteria against which efficiency or costs could be judged, or to compare one fire and rescue service with another in a fair and equitable manner.
Darran Gunter: For me, it is also a product, and Ken’s report makes the point about different Governments’ arrangements, different structures, and if we started again we would not start from this position. That has allowed or prohibited different financing regimes and different levels. In my own authority, for example, in Dorset, we see a very different spend in rural Dorset as what we see with resourcing in the conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole and that is simply in one authority.
Q71 Chair: But presumably the public are entitled to some measures of spend against performance and need. What Ken said when we challenged him about the fact that there were very big differences was, "Okay, but the differences in levels of spending do not necessarily correlate to the differences of risk or deprivation. There can be wide variation between areas that look very similar." Is that a fair comment?
Steve McGuirk: That assumes that somewhere at the start of this process it started off with some linkage between spend and risk or performance or any of those things, and it did not. It started off with local government reorganisation and that was the figure that you got when you started, and it has just grown from there. When you pursued Sir Ken in his evidence on this and talked about the cuts made over the years, Sir Ken made the point that in his time as a chief fire officer there was not a period of austerity, so the amount of reductions were not risk or performancedriven; they were budgetdriven.
Darran Gunter: Just to support that, if you take a wider view about national resilience arrangements you will see different levels of spend in Dorset than you would in London and that is from a Government perspective. That difference in level of spend will be commensurate with risk. So we see that at a local level, but we also see that in some national decisions that are made about new dimensions of resilience funding on a comparable basis about risk.
Ron Dobson: Just to add to that, national resilience is a really important area the Committee should consider, because the Knight review considers very much in terms of the falling numbers of fires and fire deaths that take place across the country and comparing that to our spend. During that period, the service has also taken on responsibility for a wide range of other risks that we now respond to, and national resilience is one of those, in terms of our response to things like flooding and largescale disasters. Those are the things that I do not necessarily think came out as clearly as they could have done in the review.
Q72 Chair: What you are saying to us is that Ken has raised an interesting issue for discussion, but does not have necessarily the solution. So what is the solution? Is it to go for a zerobased budget and start again? I think you all ought to be a little bit careful that you do not get what you do not want, because everybody assumes zerobased budgets are going to deliver them more money than somebody else.
Ron Dobson: The difficulty with going for a zerobased budget option would be the criteria against which you are going to measure that. I do not think the criteria are clear enough at the moment about what the public expects from its fire and rescue service. The public are very clear they expect as fast response times as we can manage, but in terms of the other risks that we respond to, I do not think that it as clear as it could be.
A zerobased budgeting process would need to be really clear about the criteria before we made a start on that. That is the first thing the Committee maybe should think about: what are the criteria? What is it that the public and the Government really want the service to deliver for the future, taking on board that the historic risks that we respond to-fires and other emergencies-have changed significantly over a period of years?
Steve McGuirk: Can I develop Ron’s point, because I think this is at the crux of it, is it not? That assumes that as authorities and chief fire officers we are all going to readily agree a set of neat and sterile indicators of efficiency. We can all benchmark ourselves against them and figure out what we need to do to get from A to B, and become more efficient. There is not that agreement. That depends on what your response standards are, because your response standards drive the number of people and they are hugely different in different parts of the country and that is what localism is all about. It does not take account of the safety work that we do or the resilience work that we do or, indeed, the protection work.
The whole built environment is protected as a consequence of the risk assessment regime that fire and rescue services regulate, and there is no value on that; it depends what kind of value you want to put on it. It comes down to the point that it will be, I think, impossible for a group of people to agree a set of measures that are noncontroversial and about which we can all say, "That basket of indicators represents efficiency".
Darran Gunter: The zerobased concept is an interesting one, because for over 40 years we have been having a debate in the sector about what is the right size of fire and rescue service to maximise our efficiencies. More recently, the sophistication has been, "Well, what about the things that are to do with response and the things that are not to do with response?" I think there is some work we could do in that nonresponse work.
What is the maximum arrangement where we could draw out the mean efficiencies in the fire and rescue service? But in terms of response, it very much depends on your risk appetite. Ten years ago, as a result of Bain, fire authorities and fire and rescue services were allowed, were empowered, and were required to manage risk with their own response standards and level of prevention that suited their particular needs. As a result now, as Steve mentioned, you do have very much imprecise metrics and different starting positions with regard to what is an efficient and inefficient service.
Q73 Bob Blackman: Sir Ken Knight, in his evidence to us, pointed out that deaths from fires in the home are at an alltime low, which is good news that I think you would strongly support. But at the same time, the cost of the service remains the same, the number of firefighters we have remains the same, and there have been no reductions recognising this whole process of good news. What is the scope for reconfiguration and also reductions in the prevention work that you do?
Steve McGuirk: Could I challenge that?
Bob Blackman: Are you challenging what Sir Ken told us or my assertion?
Steve McGuirk: I certainly challenge the data, yes. I just do not recognise those figures. In my own authority that is simply not true. Between 2000-2001 and 2013, our workforce has reduced by just under 33%. Fire calls have, broadly speaking, halved-you will find this in our submission-and we think it is a sensible thing to do to maintain a sensible level of contingency between the speed with which you reduce your workforce commensurate with the speed with which we manage fires down. We think that is about a 20% headroom. Fires have gone down 50%; we have reduced by 30%. So we do not recognise that idea that the fire and rescue service has remained broadly the same.
On the second point about what the margins are for change here on in, Sir Ken does make the point it is just under £200 million, somewhere in that order of magnitude. I think the LGA submitted-
Bob Blackman: Just to correct you, I think the view was that if every fire service was as efficient as the average there would be a £196 million saving.
Steve McGuirk: Indeed, but that was for the last financial year. In fact, during the financial year that we are already in, more than that figure has already been taken out of the fire service.
Darran Gunter: I take a slightly different perspective, because my authority is largely retained and therefore it is a payasyougo basis. What you have seen over the last 10 years is changes in UK and European legislation where we have had to now employ more retained firefighters. We are not simply morally or legally allowed for them to work 168 hours a week. Also, through the less favourable treatment regulations, we have seen considerable increased costs of retained. So there are reasons outside of risk assessments that, in one particular instance, the number of retained and the cost of retained is indeed more than it was 10 years ago. That is from a service where 85% of our fire engines are accrued on a payasyougo basis.
Ron Dobson: In terms of the reductions in fire deaths, fire injuries and the number of fires, that is obviously good news across the whole country, but to relate the resources the service has directly to that is not the right way to go about it. I do not think there is a proportional relationship between the two, because of the new risk that we pick up.
So if you look at the way London, for example, has taken on new risk, we are resourced for other things that might take place in London, as well as the number of fires and the number of fire deaths. Take major terrorist incidents, major flooding, rail accidents, train accidents, those sorts of things. The fire and rescue service is there to provide its normal service but also to be an insurance policy against those things that might happen in the future. That is not to say that as the level of demand comes down we should not examine our resources and reduce our resources. I think we should, but I do not think there is a direct relationship between a drop in the number of fires and fire incidents and the level of budget that we have.
In terms of the number of firefighters across the country, as Steve said, that has reduced, and there are figures that demonstrate that many brigades have reduced that, but also the amount of service that is kept in any fire brigade is, to some extent, a reflection of political choice and public will. We have been through a very large public consultation exercise in London only recently about the potential closures of some fire stations, and the thing that has come across to me most clearly, I have to say, is that the public do not like their fire stations being closed.
The public do understand about the need for savings. They do understand that the risk has reduced in terms of fires and fire deaths, but they also recognise that if they have a fire in their premises they want a fire engine to get there as quickly as possible. That came across very clearly to me, so the amount of resource that we keep has to be a reflection of the risk that we face, inevitably, but it is a complex mixture also of political choice and public will as well, and that needs to be part of the equation.
Steve McGuirk: Could I add one point about the incidence of fire? I was slightly disappointed in the tone of the report, and I do not think I am misrepresenting it. It portrays the idea that we find ourselves in this position fires have been halved-crikey, how did that happen? The fact is that it was the direct action, not solely and exclusively but very largely speaking, of fire and rescue services and firefighters to get off the fire stations and go into people’s homes and fit smoke alarms in their tens of thousands. Across the country, this year, there will be over a million homesafety assessments undertaken by firefighters the length and breadth of the country. So it really is not a surprise that we find ourselves in this position, and it is part of the transformation that has already taken place. That is not to say there is not more to do, but we ought to pause and reflect that it is not an accident altogether that we find ourselves in this position.
Q74 Bob Blackman: I am coming on to that now. In his review, Sir Ken says that there do not seem to be any measures on the community-safety aspects, the roadshows that are done, the fire prevention work, etc. Can you see measures that could be put, and therefore a financial value put against those? Is there some way of doing that and doing it on a national basis?
Ron Dobson: Certainly in London Fire Brigade, we have carried out a number of reviews into our community safety activity, particularly into our youth engagement schemes. We have managed to carry out quite comprehensive reviews of those and we have been able to put figures against what we think the total benefit has been to the London community as a result of LFEPA’s investment in the community, particularly youth engagement work. So I think it is possible. It takes quite a bit of effort, and probably the service needs to think about the way we might do that on a wholecountry basis, but we have certainly managed to do some work towards that locally.
Q75 Bob Blackman: Presumably, that is confined to London and maybe one other-
Ron Dobson: It is.
Darran Gunter: I would support that. We all run varying degrees of youth programmes, and the majority of those youth programmes are accredited, and they will have success metrics about retention or about positive outcomes. Only last week, we closed a programme on Friday; 11 people finished with positive outcomes and are now moving towards employment, education or training.
The other point is that-and this is a case study, so there is perhaps a slight contradiction-one of the case studies recognises the increase in smoke alarm ownership as a metric of good success. Certainly in our authority now, we regularly survey about people not just who have smoke alarms but who have working smoke alarms and an awareness of what to do in case of fire. There are metrics out there. They are quantitative and qualitative, but they are certainly out there.
Steve McGuirk: I would agree. Most fire and rescue services do report publicly now, although we are not required to, on a set of PIs that do just this. If we are in the right area fitting smoke alarms, two things will happen: there will be fewer fires, because our advice about how to prevent fire will be starting to work, but also people will have a working smoke alarm who have a fire as well. Those are very easily measurable and most fire and rescue services do that.
Some fire and rescue services start to put a hard cash value, through things like the Association of British Insurers, about the average cost of a fire. You can start to put some cash value to some of those things. Historically, though, I suppose the fire service has been seen as maybe slightly embellishing the bit that is saved. For example, we have the Trafford Centre. If we put out a small fire in the Trafford Centre, we would suggest, perhaps, we have saved £1 billion, because that is the value of the Trafford Centre. So there is something about face validity and making sure our PIs do not seek to overegg the pudding, as it were.
Q76 Bob Blackman: One of the challenges that we will probably be putting to the second part of our inquiry here today will be over the issue of when people retire and their pensions. Given the switch from frontline firefighting to prevention-both community safety, and fitting fire and smoke alarms, etc-is it not the case that firefighters who are no longer fit enough and do not pass the tests to be frontline firefighters fighting fires, rather than just being dumped and removed from the service, could be used for the community safety work and fitting smoke alarms, etc?
Ron Dobson: To some extent, we do that already. It is a whole different set of questions in relation to the firefighters’ pension scheme and some of the issues that are going on around that at the moment and the consultation and the Fire Brigades Union’s potential for strike action. But in terms of the way in which we provide that service, yes, I think we should be using a wide variety of people, not just operational firefighters to deliver that as we can. In fact, we should be working with partners from other agencies too-local authorities, charitable organisations. They all know where the people are who are at risk, and they should be, and they are, helping us to identify those people.
But for the longer term, we need to look at the profile of our workforce, look at the way in which that workforce will be changing over future years, look at the way the pension scheme will be for the future, and find innovative and different ways to use staff who may be coming towards the end of their operational years. During our recent consultation on our London Safety Plan, someone raised with me that we were going to lose 550 posts, and whether those posts would not be better employed by a local authority somewhere maybe doing community safety work. It is a good thing to think about.
Darran Gunter: Certainly in my own authority we would not have the current roles to absorb that kind of redeployment, and, of course, there are all kinds of legal employment issues around redeployment and whether it is like work. Currently, we have two positions in the whole of Dorset because, quite frankly, if there is space there to do home safety checks, then you could probably employ two people with twice the productivity at the cost of a fulltime firefighter. That is speaking quite bluntly. So there are economies of scale and whether it is in the business interests of the organisation versus whatever pension arrangements are left to redeploy that individual for home safety.
Steve McGuirk: There are better issues raised by Sir Ken in his report that make much better use of the skills and talents of firefighters later on in their careers, because that skill and experience is a virtue. Things like corresponding and some of the other suggestions that Sir Ken made to be considered are better alternatives, because Darren is absolutely right: it is a very, very expensive way of holding on to somebody who may not be necessarily inclined to do that work if they are just hanging on for some reason. The reason why we are suffering this efficiency review is that we still have some major savings to find, so it is a very tricky balance, but I think there are better alternatives in Sir Ken’s report to be explored.
Q77 Simon Danczuk: Before this meeting started, I was reading your biographies, and I noticed that you have all worked across a number of fire and rescue services over a good number of years. I just wondered whether you accept that some fire authorities are not efficient. Can I start with you, Ron-just a quick answer?
Ron Dobson: I have only ever worked in London. I have always been a London firefighter.
Q78 Simon Danczuk: Are you aware of any that are not efficient?
Ron Dobson: The problem is that there are lots of different ways of doing things and lots of ways of assessing that, so it is difficult for me to say that there are fire authorities that are not efficient, but there are things that we can learn from each other.
Simon Danczuk: You think there are no inefficient fire services.
Ron Dobson: No, I am not saying that; I am sure there are.
Simon Danczuk: Just in a couple of words, what are you saying, Ron?
Ron Dobson: I think there probably are some fire and rescue services-
Simon Danczuk: There are some that are inefficient.
Ron Dobson: Yes.
Q79 Simon Danczuk: What do you think, Darren?
Darran Gunter: As in any public services, in any organisation there are some entities that are more efficient than others. There are some entities that are perhaps less riskaverse and-
Simon Danczuk: So some are not efficient then.
Darran Gunter: I am saying that some are more efficient than others. I could not look at every fire and rescue service in the UK-
Simon Danczuk: You have worked across a fair few.
Darran Gunter: I have worked across a fair few and those brigades do things in different ways, which lend themselves to different levels of efficiency.
Simon Danczuk: So you accept that some are not efficient.
Darran Gunter: Some are more efficient than others.
Q80 Simon Danczuk: Steve?
Steve McGuirk: Some fire authorities are more efficient than other fire authorities; of that there is no doubt. However, I have to say, having spent some time looking at other bits of local government and the wider public sector, that relative to the rest of the public sector, I think all authorities do a pretty good fist of it. We have halved fires in 10 years and reduced our workforces and not put up council tax massively and so on.
Q81 Simon Danczuk: What should we do about those that are less efficient or are not efficient?
Darran Gunter: It comes back to the very first question we raised: what do we mean by efficiency? There is also something for me about separating out efficiency and effectiveness, because they are two entirely different things. As long as you say locally that your risk appetite, your response standards, and your level of response is down to local determination with your communities, as came out of the Bain review 10 years ago, then you are going to have different metrics of what people need and regard as efficiency.
Q82 Simon Danczuk: So carry on as we are.
Darran Gunter: No, I am not suggesting that. I think there is an exercise there to be done.
Steve McGuirk: What we are doing is cutting the budgets. Whether that makes them more efficient or not remains to be seen. What we should do is a different matter.
Q83 Simon Danczuk: That is the question, Steve. What should be done with the less efficient ones? What do you think should be done with the less efficient fire authorities?
Steve McGuirk: The less efficient ones will be surfaced and they will have to make the money from efficiencies in order to put a balanced budget together. I do not think that is the real debate here, because I keep coming back to Sir Ken’s point. We have already taken out that £200 million, so that efficiency drive of fewer officers and back office and all that stuff is all going on. The bottom line is the big change and the big money is only possible by a fundamental reconfiguration.
Q84 Simon Danczuk: Let us move on to that then, because Sir Ken does talk about transformational change. What is the big transformational change, in just a few words, that you think will save us some cash in this area?
Ron Dobson: The recognition that the significant reductions in fire injuries and fire deaths over the last 10 or so years has been about working with other partners out in communities proactively-
Simon Danczuk: So more of that.
Ron Dobson: More of that rather than focusing all the time on the operational response.
Darran Gunter: We need to factor in somewhere this issue about social value. We keep talking about efficiencies, but what other outcomes are we providing for our communities? For me, I have to say, it is a relatively small brigade; there is scope there for larger fire and rescue services in some areas.
Q85 Simon Danczuk: Are you talking about mergers and things?
Darran Gunter: Yes. At the very least it should be explored.
Steve McGuirk: As a minimum, we cannot sustain 46 fire and rescue services. I personally believe that combinations with other bluelight services-my personal view is the ambulance service-has an awful lot to commend it, not least from a fire and rescue perspective, but also to deal with some of the implications of ageing population, climate change, terrorist threat, and all those things that have got massive growth in terms of emergency medical calls. I think a latent capacity fire and rescue service can be applied in a different way. I am not saying it is easy, but I do think that is one of the key suggestions that Sir Ken made that has real merit.
Q86 Simon Danczuk: Just coming back to where we are at the moment then, briefly, he did say that fire and rescue authorities spend to their budgets, not to their risk. What he is saying there is-and it is not uncommon; you were saying earlier, Steve, about the public sector-that fire authorities spend up to the budget that they have. That is right, is it not? That is what you are doing. Instead of trying to save cash you are spending up to it. That is part of the problem, is it not?
Ron Dobson: Largely speaking, that is true, but I do not think it undermines the work that does go on in brigades to look at savings and efficiencies and the amount of savings that we have managed over the last number of years. It is absolutely true that fire authorities are reluctant to take on difficult choices around operational cover particularly, because of the public reaction, but equally there is political choice there about how much money you want to spend on community safety.
Q87 Simon Danczuk: Darran, what do you think about this issue about spending up to the budget every time?
Darran Gunter: I think now we change our services to the budget every time. Ken makes the point about whether it is budget driving the service or wider transformation and innovation. Certainly in a service that is largely payasyougo, if you do not pay, you do not go, so there is a direct correlation between incidence and turning out retained firefighters. But I think the point that is also missed, and it was picked up briefly by Steve, is that over the last 10 years, in addition to those fires, my authority is now doing more homesafety checks than it does incidents. It is rescuing more people from cars and from floods. It has responsibilities under the Civil Contingencies Act. None of that is funded. That is being met because of the reinvestment and transformation that we have been doing for the last 10 years.
Q88 Simon Danczuk: Steve, before you come in there, I was reading what is probably one of the best regional papers in the UK, the Manchester Evening News.
Chair: Makes a change from the Daily Mail.
Simon Danczuk: That is a national.
Steve McGuirk: It depends what they said about me.
Simon Danczuk: You are going to find out. On 21 June, they published an article "Firefighters get shirty as brigade chiefs pay £13,000 to swap from blue to white. Some 475 managers at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service have had their traditional navy blue shirts replaced by white ones to distinguish themselves from firefighters, who continue to wear blue." One of your firefighters described it as a vanity project. Talking about spending up to budgets and stuff, £13,000 changing colours of shirts is a perfect example, is it not, Steve?
Steve McGuirk: And if it were true, that would be absolutely right. Do not believe everything you read in the papers, Mr Danczuk.
Q89 Simon Danczuk: That is not true?
Steve McGuirk: No, it is not. They save two quid a shirt. Believe it or not, blue dye is more expensive than white, so over time we save two quid a shirt on that example.
Q90 Simon Danczuk: But you are distinguishing from them.
Steve McGuirk: Distinguishing shirts from-sorry?
Simon Danczuk: Blue from white, so that staff have different coloured shirts.
Steve McGuirk: Absolutely. We are really clear that we want to separate out those who manage from those who are managed, and that has been a cultural issue in the fire service for many a long year. So, yes, we are doing it over time; ultimately, it saves money. I am more than happy to send you a paper with the accurate figures, rather than rely on the Manchester Evening News for all your data.
Q91 Simon Danczuk: Just on that, perhaps you could check this for us as well: the bigger point on that quote, I think, is that it says some 475 managers. There are 10 local authorities; that is over 40 managers to each local authority area. Rochdale has a 200,000 population. That is a lot of managers, is it not?
Steve McGuirk: And if it were true it would be, correct, yes.
Simon Danczuk: It is not true.
Steve McGuirk: We do not have 475 managers, no.
Q92 Simon Danczuk: How many do you have now?
Steve McGuirk: I would have to send you data; it is fewer than that. But it is true to say, I am not suggesting it-
Q93 Simon Danczuk: It is a lot of managers, is it not?
Steve McGuirk: We have a manager in charge of each appliance, and we have a manager in charge of each watch. So if your proposal is that this is a kind of commune where people make their own minds up on a fire, I do not think that is the way to proceed. Someone has to be in charge of a fire engine and a fire appliance and a crew of people and a station.
Now, what we have done is we have taken out 40% of all management costs over the last five years, and we will be coming back into that cycle again because staffing levels have reduced. So it is absolutely true to say. I am more than happy to give you an accurate figure, but off the top of my head I could not give it you just now; it is nowhere near 475. Would you like me to answer the other question, rather than the shirts question?
Simon Danczuk: Yes, go on.
Steve McGuirk: Which was-could you remind me again?
Simon Danczuk: No, I am done. I am all right.
Q94 Andy Sawford: Steve, perhaps you could save some money by sacking your PR officer, if all the information in the report in the local paper is all wrong. I wanted to start by asking all of you to describe the difference between retained duty firefighters and wholetime firefighters. Ron, perhaps you would start.
Ron Dobson: I come from a brigade where we have no retained firefighters. All of our staff in London are wholetime for a range of reasons that are historic, which I am happy to explain to the Committee if they wish me to. Wholetime firefighters mean that we have a number of firefighters on each station on four watches or four shifts. They provide cover around the clock. There are always people ready to go to fire calls at a fire station. Darran has much better experience than me with a retained service.
Andy Sawford: I did start with you, Ron, deliberately.
Ron Dobson: Basically, they are people who are not at the station all the time. They have other jobs.
Q95 Andy Sawford: Let us have those who have them explain. The reason why I started with you is that you, therefore, must reject Sir Ken’s big idea that the challenge for all fire and rescue authorities is to increase the use of retained duty firefighters.
Ron Dobson: I do not reject it completely. I think what we need to do, though, is recognise the difficulty in some areas that having a retained service or introducing a retained service means for us. Some years ago, we had a project to look at introducing a retained service in a number of areas of London Fire Brigade. The difficulties we had with that were that the majority of London firefighters live nowhere near London-live well outside of London. Certainly those who do live within London do not live near their local fire station, so it was very difficult for us to-
Q96 Andy Sawford: So you have effectively already rejected it.
Ron Dobson: No. This was some years ago we looked at it. It is one of the things that we need to look at for the future to see if there are other options about the way in which to deliver our service. We are happy to look at it, so I do not reject the proposal at all. I just think that there are difficult, different issues across the country in having different types of shift patterns.
Q97 Andy Sawford: Darran, you have described Sir Ken’s proposals in a very disparaging way. You said, regarding these "these broad-brush extrapolations", that it would be "uneconomical" to use retained duty firefighters for fire safety. So you have looked at Sir Ken’s options too and rejected them.
Darran Gunter: No, absolutely not. We are a brigade where 64% of our resources are retained, and 85% of our appliances are retained. We are reliant on retained. If I could just explain some of the difficulties about retained: over the last 10 years the employment legislation has dramatically changed. They are not the cheap option that they were, and it is absolutely right that they have equitable terms. You also find that more and more employers are a bit more reluctant to allow somebody, at the drop of a hat, to run out and respond to their local fire station, so the recruitment and retention issues are very, very difficult.
Where I disagree is the use of retained firefighters for fire safety, and this is something in Dorset that we are quite adamant on. Why would we want to pay somebody £15 an hour to do fire safety when we can get a volunteer to do it for nothing? If that individual has spare time, I would much rather make sure that individual is safe and competent to do their job, and I would rather pay them to do extra training to do that. So it is extrapolation about more use of retained to do fire safety that certainly in Dorset we think is uneconomical.
Q98 Andy Sawford: So Sir Ken’s figures are not very meaningful from a Dorset point of view, because we have the quote from today that there are considerable increased costs of retained.
Darran Gunter: There are.
Q99 Andy Sawford: So you might see retained firefighters as having an important role, but not in the same way as Sir Ken, who describes them as the big saving-the £123 million saving.
Darran Gunter: That is absolutely right. Like I say, we make heavy use of retained, but you do get to a point on a station, if you have a station answering thousands of calls a year, where, frankly, it is uneconomical to have it as retained. Simply, you would not have the retention for the alternative means: they would never been in employment; they would always be running back and forth to the station. There is a cutoff point in terms of just operational viability where it is still economic, efficient, effective and safe to use retained firefighters. Again, that is a piece of work that is largely unanswered but merits consideration in this wider use of RDS across the country.
Q100 Andy Sawford: Steve, you said you were disappointed with the tone of Sir Ken’s report.
Steve McGuirk: Some aspects, yes.
Q101 Andy Sawford: Is the spin around this language "on call", which is clearly rejected by most firefighters I have spoken to, part of your disappointment-the broad-brush, simplistic way that this solution has been presented?
Steve McGuirk: I think it would be unfair to accuse Sir Ken of spinning that. The service agreed to redefine the title of "retained firefighters" to "on-call firefighters" a couple of years ago, so it is the term that is used. If anything, I suggest the Committee might have tried to spin it a little bit, rather than Sir Ken.
The bottom line is that it does portray an idea the way people have picked it up without that background knowledge and assumed it means on call, meaning on call, almost 24/7 availability at a much lesser cost. As Darran has amplified far better than I could, it is not necessarily that simple. That is not to say that there is no merit in extending the use of on-call firefighters where appropriate, but it is against the backdrop of recruitment constraints, retention constraints, operational constraints and all of those issues. So it is not a panacea, but it is absolutely part of the way forward for all fire and rescue services.
Q102 Andy Sawford: Could you give me a one-word answer to this? Are retained or on-call firefighters-whatever you want to call them-substitutable for wholetime firefighters: yes or no? Are they substitutable? You have lots of experience; you must know.
Steve McGuirk: I do not think it is that simple, because with retained firefighters, the tricky bit is training them up to the required-
Q103 Andy Sawford: Darran, could you do a yes or a no? I have another question I want to ask you, Steve. Could you do a yes or a no, Darran?
Darran Gunter: I do not know if I can, because it depends on what function. Are you talking about fire safety or response? If you are happy with a response that is going to take longer, if that is your risk appetite-five, six or seven minutes longer-then operationally, yes, they can do the role when they arrive. There is absolutely no mistake about that.
Q104 Andy Sawford: Ron?
Ron Dobson: I do not know the answer to that, I am afraid.
Q105 Andy Sawford: My final question: what do you see as the risks for both community safety and for emergency response of substituting at the scale that Sir Ken talks about, up to 10%, of wholetime firefighters with retained firefighters?
Ron Dobson: For me, the response is in two areas. One is in substituting the one that Sir Ken is offering up, you sacrifice some response time, because retained or oncall firefighters are inevitably going to have slower attendance times than wholetime firefighters, so you sacrifice attendance times. As Darran said, in relation to fire safety, you sacrifice maybe some expertise and also availability of staff to do that and, potentially, it would not be costefficient.
Darran Gunter: In Dorset, there are 40 fire engines; 33 are retained. We need seven fire engines that we know are always available, 24/7, because it is not just the extra five minutes. Sometimes those retained fire engines, for a variety of reasons, are not available. You need a meaningful core to sustain a certain level of service and organisation.
Q106 Andy Sawford: Can we put that in other words? My concern is that it will affect resilience.
Darran Gunter: For me, yes, absolutely.
Steve McGuirk: I would endorse that. With the range of firefighters’ requirements now, from car crashes to chemical attack to breathing apparatus, to get that training in the intensity that is necessary to have a competent firefighter takes a huge amount of time and the amount of time available to oncall or retained firefighters poses some real challenges to be able to do that.
Q107 Heather Wheeler: I am particularly interested in the idea of closer collaboration for the bluelight services. I am a Derbyshire MP and our ambulance service is looking for a new chief executive, so if anybody wants to put in that would be fantastic. Do you think any of these ideas of closer collaboration has some legs? Are there any thoughts on that?
Ron Dobson: Personally, I think they do have some legs. We should be looking very carefully at the role of the emergency services and how we are managed and constituted. I do not think we can continue with the situation we have at the moment where, for example, the demand on the ambulance service is rising exponentially and yet the demand on the fire and rescue service is decreasing almost exponentially.
We have to do something to address the demand issues. Obviously, we need to carry on with our community safety and fire safety regulation responsibilities, and I would not like to see a diminution of the efficiency or professionalism of any of the services, but I do not think we can carry on the way we currently are. The demand is now becoming so unmanageable in the ambulance service that there needs to be some way of rationalising that.
Darran Gunter: I absolutely agree. We have a station where we had a particular issue with recruitment, because it was very low volumes. That station now does coresponder calls and we have no problem with recruitment. That is a joint ambulance, fire and police station. I would like the discussion to start at the centre between ministerial Departments, to have a collective vision of what can be achieved, because, frankly, if that vision is not there centrally, it is not going to happen locally.
Steve McGuirk: I would reinforce that point. Of course, blue-light collaboration has to be the way forward. All of us are already sharing in a piecemeal way stations, estate, technology, and so on, but it is a bottomup, piecemeal approach. It really does need a policy decision and some real drive and push at the top, because it is very easy to find barriers not to make it happen if you are minded to.
Q108 Heather Wheeler: I am really interested in that your response has been so positive, which is fantastic, from my point of view, but also clearly that you are asking for direction from the centre, rather than a localist answer. You feel that doing it piecemeal is just not really appropriate.
Darran Gunter: The trouble is you have piecemeal visions of the ambulances’ 10 organisations and 46 fire and rescue services. This is perhaps some of the difficulty in having these local experiments: that we will end up in a place we do not want to be. You cannot have leadership, whether it is at the national or local level, without a vision. So let us agree what that is going to look like over a period of time and let us work to get there. I guess that is what I am asking for-not direction, but to agree at least a vision that aligns itself nationally and locally.
Steve McGuirk: Similarly, it is easy to come up with big ideas, and everyone can agree at that level. When you get down to the details it is an entirely different matter. The practical reality of implementing some of this stuff-people pay VAT, people do not pay VAT.
With some of those practical legal issues of the complexity of regional ambulances services tied into trusts and the NHS and commissioning arrangements and 46 different fire and rescue services, never mind PCCs thrown into the mix, are we as chiefs going to sort that one out? I think that is quite a big challenge. We have plenty going on, thanks very much, so I do not think it is at all unreasonable to ask the Government to step in and take a view about how it believes it ought to be.
Q109 Heather Wheeler: A final question, then: because of the great strides all of you guys have made with fire safety-you have already given us examples where you have lots of volunteers helping with fire safety in the home or industry or wherever it is-what do you think, notwithstanding this great new vision that you are giving us as a challenge that we will take back to Ministers and I am sure they will take it gleefully on, about the idea that perhaps there are still opportunities for more localism with volunteers about fire safety aspects, which would leave you, perhaps, a slightly more diminished physical number of professional firefighters? What about that thought?
Darran Gunter: Yes. We have 8% fewer wholetime staff and we are now doing 13,000 safety checks that we were not doing 10 years ago. Much of that has been done by reconfiguring the people we employ, but also having six volunteers per station. There are innovative ways of certainly looking at business outside of response areas with different establishment levels.
Ron Dobson: For me, one of the things that the review does not really focus on as much as I would like it to have done is the amount of collaboration that does take place already. In terms of our community safety work, we work very, very closely with all local authorities in London, with the charitable services and others to make sure we identify the people at risk and they deliver some of our service on our behalf. It is difficult to put a cost against that at the moment, but it would be very helpful if we could for the future, because that would demonstrate an enormous amount of efficiencies. But there is always more that we can do.
The amount of community safety work that we do now is enormously more than we have ever done in the past, as it is for the amount of home fire safety visits and the amount of education that we do, but there is always more that we can do. If you think about collaboration between the services, that would throw up opportunities to do more preventative work rather than less.
I think it is right that it would be very helpful to have Government direction or a Government vision about emergency services and how we might be working more closely together in the future. That is absolutely right, but there is more we can do locally before that vision comes along in terms of the way we work together, the things that we do on each other’s behalf. Things like the Government’s Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme are about working better in the initial stages of an incident, but it is a very good example of how we might preserve our services across the board in a more integrated way that will probably make us more efficient and deliver savings as well.
Steve McGuirk: Our responsibility as public service leaders is not to protect jobs; it is to deliver the best possible outcomes within the means available to us. If we can find innovative ways of delivering better outcomes by using volunteers or different groups of staff or different rostering models and all those things, then balancing that with proper negotiation with representative bodies and moving that forward properly is the way we should go. We are not here just to ossify the fire and rescue service and protect it in a world it once was.
Heather Wheeler: Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed; that is very clear.
Q110 James Morris: Notwithstanding the need for a vision of the bluelight services, it sounds a little bit like you are copping out on thinking through some difficult aspects of your role by saying, "Well, we need a vision". What specific ways do you think that the fire and rescue services can collaborate with other bluelight services that you are not doing already?
Darran Gunter: I am a believer in that vision. There does need to be signup nationally, but let us move on. Certainly for me, there are 29 work places across Dorset, ambulance service. It is very difficult sometimes to have rest areas in strategic areas. There is much more we can do in terms of sharing our assets and some of our infrastructure. That has to be a good starting point. You then move on to ancillary functions, such as, for example, for fleet and equipment, training opportunities. So there is much already we can do, as Ron mentioned.
Ron Dobson: For me, it is about a range of things that we can do now. We already share some premises; we should be doing much, much more of that, in my opinion. We should be doing procurement together in future. For London Ambulance Service to be going out and procuring ambulances and vehicles completely separately to the London Fire Brigade, and the Metropolitan Police doing the same thing again, seems to me to be an area where we should really be looking at cooperation.
James Morris: Do you think control and command centres-
Ron Dobson: Control rooms.
James Morris: You could get into a whole list.
Steve McGuirk: It depends on how fast you want to go, really. The bottom line is it is a hell of a lot easier to collaborate with other fire and rescue services, because we enjoy the same legislation, the same framework, etc. The North West runs one control centre; we do payroll services for Lancashire fire and rescue services; we are moving rapidly towards shared ICT and so on. That is not to say we do not collaborate with others. We have two police stations inside fire stations; we have ambulance and fire stations. We even have driver vehicle licensing centres on two of our fire stations as well.
So I do not think we should exclude collaboration to just bluelight services, but the speed with which we would want to move on this locally means that it is sometimes easier to work around the barriers between those different services as it is to work across fire and rescue services. We are all doing a pretty good job, but there are some barriers that would need to be removed if we want to accelerate that process.
Q111 James Morris: It sounds as if, even if the Government came up with a vision that you could even potentially buy into, you would still be cautious about the possibilities of realising that vision.
Steve McGuirk: I do not think we are cautious now. Every single one of us is sharing our estate; we are sharing technology. It is not necessarily our caution. You would have to ask chief constables and chief executives of ambulance services as well. Colleagues in the ambulance service go for foundation trust status, etc. The austerity programme is hitting us all. There are only so many hours in the day to do your core business and then to do collaboration. I do not think there is any hesitation on the part of any senior leader I have ever encountered in any bluelight services to slow the pace of collaboration. I just do not think it is going to get any quicker for the reality.
Ron Dobson: The caution is about protecting the professionalism and the competence of our own staff to deliver the responsibilities that we have now, not about collaborating or working more closely together. If you look at what is happening around the country-Steve gave some good examples about Manchester, and similar things are going on in London-we have demonstrated that we are not overcautious about working together, but we need to have some of the barriers removed for us to make that caution even less.
Darran Gunter: There is something as well about avoiding fashion and making sure what you do is sustainable and meets the needs of your communities. That is a key driver for me. There should be real, positive community outcomes, not purely following a fashion parade that seems a good thing to do.
Q112 John Stevenson: My colleagues have touched on many of the questions I was going to ask. You seem very openminded in terms of reform, change, etc, which is very commendable. Looking at the barriers to reform, do you think the time has come now, rather than at any local, piecemeal initiatives, for there just to be a comprehensive review and reform coming from the centre?
Steve McGuirk: If you read what Sir Ken said, he is saying just that: that the margins of where the efficiencies are left are quite small. Fundamentally, the country now needs to think again about what it wants from its fire and rescue services and what those roles are-resilience, all that kind of stuff, fire safety, fire protection-and new areas, like coresponding or whatever that is, and how that sits alongside other areas of public policy.
I think Sir Ken did an interview where he said the Bain report was still some unfinished business, and that is a fair summary. We have made an enormous journey and we are in an extremely good place. Now is the time to look again at configuration for the next 10 to 20 years.
Q113 John Stevenson: And that, in your view, has to be driven by central Government.
Steve McGuirk: I cannot see anybody else. There is this idea that this metaphysical construct can somehow act organically with intelligence and what-have-you. If you said to a load of prison governors, "Sort out the judicial system", I am sure if you put them in a room they would come up with some really bright ideas, but they do not have the legal authority, the political mandate or the resources to do it. We have no shortage of ideas amongst chief fire officers and local authority elected members. What we necessarily lack is the means to do it, the legal authority to do it and the resources to do it.
Darran Gunter: For me, 10 years after Bain, we are at a place where we should expect to be: that we now want to look at what is our journey and movement over the next 10 years. Steve is right; there is some unfinished business. But we have got braver, more courageous and more sophisticated. We are now willing to tackle the issues about sovereignty and solvency, about identity and independence, and all those issues in the past that were really thorny.
Q114 John Stevenson: Do you think those issues can be addressed locally-between authorities, etc-or do you think it has to come from a national perspective?
Darran Gunter: My worry-it is the reason I used the word earlier about a national vision-is if, as some reports are encouraging us to do, we all go away and do these 101 different local experiments, so Greater Manchester combines with the police, we combine with the ambulance and London combines with a number of fire and rescue services, come five years, when we are looking at the next iteration of change-as Sir Ken said, if we wanted to go forward we would not start from where we are now. We are going to be tangled up in all kind of assortments and we are going to ask, "Why did we get here? Where were we trying to get to?" That is why I would like an alignment and agreement about where we want to get nationally and locally: is that the same place? That is all I mean by a vision.
Q115 John Stevenson: What I am trying to get at is the vision has to be set by the centre.
Steve McGuirk: It is a collaboration.
Darran Gunter: It is collaborative; it is a shared vision.
Steve McGuirk: The sector and all of its players need to sit down with the Government, and I think Darran’s word, "alignment", is absolutely appropriate.
Ron Dobson: Most of that will come from the sector, because we know where we want to be. We know where the barriers are. We know the things we need to do to become more efficient and provide a better service to the public, but there are definitely some barriers that will have to be removed by central Government if we are to make that happen. It starts with a discussion between central Government and local authorities and chief fire officers and fire and rescue authorities about what that looks like for the future and what those barriers are. Government then has a part to play in removing some of the barriers, and we have a part to play in delivering the change.
Q116 John Stevenson: A final comment then: you clearly are, as I said, openminded. You seem to be very receptive to change and you accept change. Do you think local politicians would have the same willingness to see change in the way that you do?
Ron Dobson: There is a debate about whether the public want the change as well. We, as professionals, see lots of things we could be doing as chief fire officers that we think might be for the benefit of the public overall, but we come back to that old issue of every time you make a change to the fire and rescue service the public do not like their local fire station being changed.
Q117 John Stevenson: Exclude the public here, and just think about local politicians.
Ron Dobson: That then leads on to the pressures that are put on local politicians around it. There are many local politicians who understand the need for change and are supportive of it, but equally they represent members of the public and they are put under great pressure by those constituents where the change might come about. It is always a very difficult thing for local politicians.
Q118 John Stevenson: Do you see local politicians as being a barrier to change?
Darran Gunter: I do not agree with the language that we accept change. It is our job as leaders to create change. With the austerity measures and whatever, we need to move forward. The difficulty I get in a small organisation like Dorset Fire and Rescue Service is of course this transformation, whether it is larger fire and rescue services or blue light services, is not just about the willingness of the Dorset Fire Authority; it is also about the willingness and our alignment with other organisations. We can be as innovative, as courageous, and as creating of change as we like, but some of this wider agenda needs a joinedup approach with perhaps some direction, as Steve mentioned, in other areas.
Steve McGuirk: I think it is probably a question for Kay Hammond, who is up next for the LGA.
John Stevenson: Do not worry; we will be asking the same question.
Steve McGuirk: I am sure you will. In my experience, the answer is no. Rather than a barrier, I think they are a good check and balance. The bottom line is we are spending taxpayers’ money, and it is entirely appropriate that they should be a check and a balance; it is a very healthy thing to do.
One of the things in Sir Ken’s report is about scrutiny. If local elected members are not there asking some of the awkward questions about "why", on behalf of the general public, then you have to put in place some other mechanism to do it.
Q119 John Stevenson: Yes, but if you want to see change, central Government wants to see change, but local politicians do not, that can create a barrier to reform.
Steve McGuirk: The debate between central Government and local government is a much bigger debate than the one just around the fire and rescue service, and it is probably not one for us to solve.
Q120 Chair: Is what you are really saying to us that you want fewer fire authorities up and down the country? You want amalgamations and larger bodies, which seem to run counter to the grain of localism, do they not?
Ron Dobson: To some extent, but there is a general view professionally across the service emerging that there are too many fire and rescue authorities and we would be more efficient and probably work more collaboratively, more cooperatively and more consistently if there were fewer fire authorities. Obviously, that is an issue for central Government if they want to make that happen.
Darran Gunter: In my fire and rescue service, each of our local stations responds to their local communities even though they are part of a larger organisation, so it depends on the granulation of localism. If you are intimate, if you have that insight, information, intelligence, you can have that influence, regardless of size.
Steve McGuirk: We could have an hour’s debate and still not agree what localism means, but as far as the public is concerned, all they are bothered about is their local fire station. When they dial 999, if a big red shiny thing come bouncing down the road they are happy. They do not really bother who manages it, who buys it and all those things. As far as the public is concerned, localism is their community.
Q121 Chair: But they have someone in their local community who they can shout at if they do not like the fact that their fire station might close, and if you start getting amalgamations and more and more fire authorities, is there not remoteness between the people making the decisions and the people who elect them?
Steve McGuirk: There is certainly a risk of that, yes, but that is true for all other parts of the public sector. It is this essential tension between how you give people a local voice and choice and how you balance scarce resources in that process. Ultimately, those are the decisions that really shape the mind of Government.
Darran Gunter: That is where the balance and the tempering about perhaps improved scrutiny and accountability arrangements could then factor in. There are ways to counter that potential weakness.
Q122 Chair: Just one further point, Darran, if I could, before we conclude. You did talk about the work you are doing on floods and all those sorts of issues and said, basically, that was funded from the savings and the other parts of your work to do with fire. But there is Government money, is there not, on national resilience, which helps deal with those issues? It is not totally a matter of savings from other parts of the service.
Darran Gunter: There is money that deals with national assets, but when, like we did last year, we attend over 200 incidents in a weekend and rescue 52 people, that is on a payasyougo basis. That costs us hundreds of thousands of pounds, because those are seen as local incidents, where we discretionarily attend. There is no legislation for us to attend; there is a community and a moral expectation and, of course, we want to do everything we can to save lives. That national money, in that instance, does not find its way down to my retained firefighters or my wholetime firefighters. It is for national assets predominantly.
Q123 Chair: Just finally, Steve, you said that there had been a 30% reduction in your workforce in the last 10 years or so.
Steve McGuirk: Just over 10 years.
Q124 Chair: Darren, you said it was 8%.
Darran Gunter: 8% over two years, wholetime staff.
Q125 Chair: What about Ron?
Ron Dobson: Ours has gone down by about 1.5%, but our budget has gone down by significantly more than that. If you look at what the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority has done over the last four or so years, it has decided to protect and prioritise the frontline response, because we know it is what the public want in terms of operational response, and we have taken nearly 30% out of our budget from support services and other areas.
Q126 Chair: You are saying your workforce has gone down by 1.5%.
Ron Dobson: Just over 1.5%.
Q127 Chair: There is quite a big difference between London and a met area: 1.5% and 30%.
Ron Dobson: It is a big difference, yes, but once again it comes down to choice about what we want to protect and what we are looking at. The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority chose to protect the frontline response and attendance times above support services, so we have taken a significant amount of efficiencies and staffing levels out of the support services. This year, now we have done that piece of work, we are looking at proposals that will reduce the size of the operational workforce by about 10% or 15%.
Q128 Andy Sawford: Specifically on that, what is the difference in response times between your two authorities?
Steve McGuirk: Our average is five minutes and 37 seconds.
Ron Dobson: Our average is just a bit more than that: about five minutes and 38 seconds for a first appliance. We target to get a second appliance to anywhere in London within eight minutes, and we achieve about six minutes and 19 seconds. We have a response standard that covers both our first and second appliances.
Darran Gunter: Ours is about 11 minutes for the first appliance.
Q129 Andy Sawford: But yours is a different kind of geography, is it not?
Darran Gunter: Yes.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for coming.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Paul Fuller, Vice President, Chief Fire Officers Association, Cllr Kay Hammond, Chair, Fire Services Management Committee, Local Government Association and Matt Wrack, General Secretary, Fire Brigades Union, gave evidence.
Q130 Chair: Welcome. Thank you for coming to give evidence to us today. Just for the sake of our records, could I ask you all to say who you are and the organisation you represent?
Paul Fuller: I am Paul Fuller, Vice President of the Chief Fire Officers Association.
Cllr Hammond: I am Kay Hammond. I am Chairman of the Fire Services Management Committee at the Local Government Association.
Matt Wrack: I am Matt Wrack. I am General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.
Q131 Chair: Can I just say, at the beginning, that right at the end, if Matt Wrack is agreeable, we might just ask a question about the pensions issue and the potential for an industrial dispute? It is a separate issue, but we thought we could not let the session go by without at least raising that point with you. It has been partly raised already by Bob Blackman.
Sir Ken got a good deal of attention by comparing the costs per head of population of various different fire services up and down the country, and saying that it was not explicable. Were you surprised that he chose to go about it in that way and drew that very simplistic comparison?
Paul Fuller: I would not say I was surprised, because head of population is one measure. What is surprising is that he has alighted on a single measure, and there are a large number of different metrics that try to identify the costs and affordability of fire and rescue services. I think a simple comparison of cost per head is, perhaps, a blunt instrument. An example would be if you have a very dense population covering a small area, your cost per head will be lower; in a very spread-out population in a large area, cost per capita potentially could be higher without any difference in service theoretically.
Cllr Hammond: Yes, the funding is a difficult issue, without question and it is quite right that Sir Ken majored on this element. As far as the Local Government Association is concerned, we would always say that local is best. Local flexibility is what is needed and if that causes differences around the country, so be it. After all, we have an integrated risk management plan that has been proven to reduce incidence and, therefore, majoring on just per head of population is not looking at integrated risk, and integrated risk is the flexibility that is required in local communities.
Matt Wrack: I think Ken Knight’s report oversimplifies the whole issue, and it will vary very much on the nature of each individual fire and rescue service. For example, we have metropolitan authorities that also have large rural areas within them. That will change the profile of the cost of providing a fire and rescue service. I think the biggest trick he missed is the point that the LGA makes: that there is a strong correlation between the cost of a fire and rescue service and the number of calls attended. The LGA answered his suggestion that it is inexplicable very adequately.
Q132 Chair: So cost per head is an oversimplification. We all recognise that locally more or less money can be allocated to the fire service; that is a local choice and that is fine. In terms of Government distribution, then, if we have a simple system that is not going to work, what elements should be included in deciding how grant is allocated between the different services up and down the country?
Paul Fuller: We have to recognise that by 2015 central Government funding of the fire and rescue service will have reduced by a third-some £318 million less in central Government grant funding. The fire and rescue service cannot be sustained on that basis if we continue with this transactional relationship between Government and the fire authorities, where Government says, "We have this much money and we will devise a formula to divide it up between you".
The solution lies more in identifying what it is in terms of public social policy we require from our fire and rescue service, costing that and then funding that which you want and making decisions based on the services that you do or do not want in relation to the affordability of them.
Cllr Hammond: If I can make two points here. First of all, the Local Government Association produced a document, which was launched at the last Fire Conference in May, and I am very happy to forward a copy of it; it talked about the future funding of fire and rescue services. There is a lot of detail about that, about sustaining fire and rescue services into the future, and so that is some evidence that I can additionally give to you.
Secondly, with regard to the point that Paul has just made, we do need to look at council tax levels, and what the Local Government Association would certainly be saying is we require the flexibility at local level to raise a preset; at the moment, we are capped. We cannot raise above 2%, excepting that last time there was a discretion given to eight local fire authorities, Dorset being one of them because it was a small fire authority, to raise above the 2% level, up to £5, which made a significant difference to those budgets.
We would be saying that we would continue to plead for Government to allow us that flexibility, because we do need a conversation with the public. We do need to talk about what their expectations are. We have a job to do in local government in having those conversations with the public, so to speak within our communities about what fire and rescue services do, because I think there is a misunderstanding sometimes about what they are there to achieve.
Q133 Chair: But the LGA wants fire authorities to be exempt from the referendum rules.
Cllr Hammond: Absolutely.
Q134 Chair: Just the fire. Why pick fire out amongst all the other important services?
Cllr Hammond: I am here to talk about fire and rescue.
Q135 Chair: That is a politician’s answer-but you are a politician, I suppose.
Matt Wrack: I have known Ken Knight a long time, and I hope he will not take exception to this: I think he completely missed a trick on this point. The whole premise of his report is about how the fire and rescue service should react and respond to austerity, rather than the point that Paul has touched on-what do we want from our fire and rescue service?
I want to be absolutely clear. There are massive cuts being made in our fire and rescue service. You had a number of chief officers here last year, and I think they equivocated on this issue. I want to be very clear: those cuts will put public safety at risk; those cuts will put firefighters’ safety at risk; they will put lives at risk; and they will mean that homes that could have been saved will be lost, and businesses that could have been saved will be lost. That is the point that Ken Knight has completely missed in drafting the questions that he has asked himself in the course of that report.
So the fire and rescue service needs to come here and say very clearly to you, "You cannot keep cutting funding to the fire and rescue service and expect us to deliver in the way the public expect". I will touch on one point that Ron Dobson made: that the public do not like seeing fire stations closed. They are very sensible not to want to see their fire stations closed, because when you close a fire station, it means that when you dial 999 it will take longer for firefighters and fire engines to get to a fire or other emergency. That means that fires will be worse and bigger, and, as I say, lives, safety and property will be at risk as a result of that.
Q136 Chair: Is not one of the problems with that argument-I am not saying I agree or disagree with it-that there is evidence from that last 10 years? We heard the evidence from Greater Manchester of a 30% reduction in staff and an improvement in the number of fires and deaths in fires. The evidence does not quite go together, does it?
Matt Wrack: The evidence does go together. There are very clear models within the fire and rescue service that have been around for a long time, which demonstrate very clearly the impact. There are scientific ways of doing it but there are also common-sense ways of doing it. The longer a fire develops, the worse it will be and the more damage that will be done. There are models that were developed some 15 years ago that demonstrate the impact of that on the loss of life. Those are well known within the fire and rescue service.
There is a difference between having fewer fires and therefore fewer people dying in fires, and the impact of slower attendance times, for example, on the fires that do happen. What I am saying is that yes, we can drive down the number of fires, but also we could save additional lives, we could save additional property, we could save additional business, and we could prevent people being put out of work by getting to fires quicker and by putting out fires more effectively if we were not being cut to pieces.
Q137 Chair: Just coming back, finally, on the spending issue. The idea was raised before, and it may be something that fits in with what the LGA have been doing, about having a zerobased budget approach to funding for fire authorities. Is that something that you would welcome? In particular, how do we get round the problem that some fire authorities have made very big savings and become more efficient in the last 10 years and the feeling there is that they are getting smaller budgets in response to the efficiencies they have made, so they getting a kick in the teeth for the good progress they have made? How do we deal with that particular problem?
Paul Fuller: To some extent, it is probably the other way round. They probably made those efficiencies because they have had to. Others have not made them because there has not been the financial pressure on them to do so. As that financial pressure builds, others will also take those or similar measures, and it would be wrong to reward people who are taking those measures lately, as against those who took them some years ago. That is why we would oppose some sort of efficiency award within a funding mechanism.
But the discussion we are having now or have had for the last few minutes is rather historical. We are where we are now and, in 2015, we will be £318 million worse off. We have to think about how we change the relationship between the public, the fire and rescue service and the understanding of the services that we are willing to or expected to deliver and the cost of that, rather than just saying that our cake is a bit smaller, so the way we divide it up is going to be different.
As Matt has indicated, we have driven a great deal of the cost efficiency to contribute to that reduction already, and so now we are getting to a point where we have to think differently. That is why the Chief Fire Officers Association is asking for a review with Government, with Treasury and the CLG, about that funding mechanism in its entirety.
Cllr Hammond: As far as I am concerned, the job of fire and rescue authorities is to have an efficient and effective fire service, and evidence has absolutely shown in Sir Ken’s review that that, to a large extent, has already taken place. That is not to say that public service, which is the most effective and efficient service in the country, to be quite frank, has no more to do. It absolutely does, and I am quite happy to help lead on that.
The issue as well is that if you get hung up about response times, you are not dealing with all the big issues and the wide remit. Fire and rescue services are well respected. Their job is a huge job. They are efficient. They are effective. They are well respected in communities. They do so much good work in the local areas, and it is not just about fighting fires.
We have heard about road traffic collisions; we have heard about the prevention agenda; and we have heard about flooding issues. We have heard about all the sorts of things that the fire and rescue service do, so to get hung up about a response time is only dealing with a minuscule amount of what fire and rescue services deliver and what the community need to expect of fire and rescue authorities in the future.
Matt Wrack: Clearly, response times are only one aspect of what firefighters do. They have taken on a huge range of work over the past 10 years. In terms of community engagement, one thing that needs to be acknowledged is that many of those initiatives come from firefighters themselves on the ground. There are a whole range of youth engagement projects that have been initiated because firefighters, who know their local communities, have thought, "I know a way of dealing with a particular problem", so they have used that. I am well aware of those issues.
Nevertheless, an absolutely essential part of the triangle of work that we do-protection, prevention and intervention-is intervention. If you are going to send firefighters to fires, they need to go adequately resourced, adequately trained and so on, and they need adequate resources when they get there; otherwise, they cannot deal with the fire or whatever other emergency it is. Kay is quite right to raise flooding, terrorism, road traffic collisions, and all those other issues that we are dealing with, but our point is that we need adequate resources to deal with any of those operational incidents effectively, safely and professionally.
Chair: There are facilities for how you divide the resources between the different authorities and we will look at the LGA report, because I am not quite sure that there is a clear view on what we should be looking at there.
Q138 Simon Danczuk: Just for the sake of clarity-and briefly, please, starting with you, Matt-what are the major proposals that the FBU have put forward to save significant amounts of money in the fire service?
Matt Wrack: One proposal that would have saved us all half a billion pounds was, under the last Government, our opposition to the FiReControl project. We were the only voice within the fire and rescue service that consistently said, "This plan is going wrong". There were huge numbers of very well paid consultants in buildings around this part of London, who were making a lot of money of it, but Ken Knight, as the chief fire and rescue advisor, kept telling the Government to carry on with that project.
Q139 Simon Danczuk: We know that, but are there any other major proposals besides that in terms of saving money for the fire service, anything else?
Matt Wrack: One of the issues where I would agree with some of the points that Ken Knight picks up on is about the fragmentation; it is a word we have used often over the past decade or so within the service. We have fire services commissioning different types of fire engine, and replicating different types of fire engine. We used to have systems in the fire service that would have prevented that happening. They have all been scrapped. There is a lack of joinedup thinking.
Simon Danczuk: Some standardisation across different-
Matt Wrack: Standardisation, sharing of good practice, and systems whereby all the key stakeholders could-because there is a firefighter input into that. If you are having a fire engine, we need to know that it is going to be able to be workable and safe for our members to use.
Q140 Simon Danczuk: I want to keep it brief. Kay, just briefly, major savings in the fire service-what does the LGA propose to save money?
Cllr Hammond: I would like to respond a little bit to what Matt said.
Simon Danczuk: I would like you to just give me major savings in the fire service. I want to do this briefly, you see.
Cllr Hammond: All we can do is provide, as fire and rescue authorities, leadership in political leadership, so that those politicians who have to set budgets do it efficiently, and it is about the training that we then provide to allow those politicians to make the correct decisions. At the end of the day, it is individual fire authorities that set budgets.
Q141 Simon Danczuk: People will say the LGA do not have any major proposals for saving money in the fire service from that answer. Paul, your organisation, major savings.
Paul Fuller: Increased flexibility in the workforce. More tailored responses based on integrated risk management planning and understanding the relationship between the available funding and allocating it properly to the things that the public expect us to be able to do. Greater collaboration-working together at local authority level, but particularly with the bluelight services; that means sharing premises, training, administration and management. A far more effective funding mechanism, which we spoke about earlier on. Most importantly, not forgetting the impact of the fire and rescue service in terms of station return. It costs about £2 billion to have a fire and rescue service; it returns about £6 billion to our community.
Q142 Bob Blackman: Sir Ken has suggested that community safety aspects and fire prevention work could be absorbed by local authorities. What is your reaction to that view?
Cllr Hammond: As a member who comes from a county authority, in fact, Surrey has already done a large piece of work in relation to a governance review, as a county. I think Sir Ken is indicating that counties are the most efficient way of running a fire authority, and I wanted to get some evidence around that. Certainly, I know that some counties are very protective, and say, "No, we want Surrey County Council"-or whatever county it is-on their fire appliances. It really does not matter, because when there is a major incident we all respond and are required to do so anyway.
The evidence that we produced-and again there is a big report; I can send it to you, if you would like-shows that we would not benefit from merging with any other authority. The evidence is that collaborative work across authorities is what needs to happen and there is no reason at all why that does not happen. Certainly, community budgets is a way of dealing with some of those issues and certainly we would be looking to do that.
What I would like to say as well is that within fire and rescue services there are already pieces of work done about standard operating procedures. There are 23 fire and rescue authorities already now signed up to work, which started in our south-east region of nine authorities, under standard operating procedures. That has escalated now, and so there is collaboration. It does not mean to say that you have to merge or have separate governance structures to deliver.
Q143 Bob Blackman: I understand that. Colleagues may question you further on this particular aspect, but the key here is clearly that we are using expensive firefighters to go out and do work that could be done by local authority employees or even volunteers. Are local authorities ready to absorb that type of function and take it over?
Cllr Hammond: There is no reason why they cannot.
Q144 Bob Blackman: So are you doing it in Surrey, for example?
Cllr Hammond: We are. We have about 150 volunteers already. Community safety work is done in a variety of ways, not least, in adult social care services, where some of the work when people go into vulnerable adults’ homes is then brought back into the information that fire and rescue services need to provide an efficient service if an incident happens in that particular property. So work is already happening across different departments within local government, and certainly within my authority that happens.
Q145 Bob Blackman: Matt, what is your view of this transformation from firefighters doing this work to volunteers or local authority employees?
Matt Wrack: You have heard evidence today already that there are different mixandmatch models already in place. However, I would say very firmly that there is a unique aspect that operational firefighters bring to that work, because they know and understand fire and, to be honest, in terms of explaining a message, you cannot beat that.
I will give you one example. I know of an example of a schools fire safety team that was moved from being a uniformed team to being a nonuniformed team, and the first thing that the nonuniformed team said was, "We need firefighters to be coming out to schools, because to get the message across to school students, we need that direct experience of fires, fire-fighting and, to be honest, we cannot do it". Clearly, there are already other initiatives and variations on that underway, but you cannot replace that value that firefighters can bring to that.
Q146 Bob Blackman: I raised earlier with the chief fire officers the issue about what happens to firefighters, say, in their 50s who fail the lung tests and therefore can no longer go on operational duty. Clearly, at the moment, as I understand it-and correct me if I am wrong-basically, they are told, "Your service has ended". Do you think there is a place then for those individuals to be doing much more community safety work, fire-testing and so on, and doing the sort of work that you are envisaging?
Matt Wrack: We are touching on the point that the Chair made about raising that point at the end. The difficulty is that in fire and rescue services, there are simply not those jobs. We did a survey as part of our dialogue with the Department and the Minister on this, and in English fire services at the time-about a year ago-we found something like between 20 and 30 posts available for redeployment for 34,000 wholetime firefighters.
Q147 Bob Blackman: But you are saying to us that there is no substitute for firefighters going into schools. Now, I do not know the implications for either pensions or pay, but for those individuals who have that experience, is that not a role that they could fulfil? Then the issue is who funds it.
Matt Wrack: It could be, but the difficulty is the past 10 years, when some of the savings that have been referred to have been made, precisely the firefighter jobs that have gone first have been the ones you are referring to. The opportunities for redeployment are precisely those areas where cuts have already been made. And just in terms of Ken Knight’s comments on savings, just since 2010 we have seen 3,600 firefighter jobs go. We saw a couple of thousand under the last Government, so we do not recognise those figures.
Q148 Bob Blackman: Paul, your reaction to the transfer of this work potentially to local authorities.
Paul Fuller: May I answer the question in reverse? The Chief Fire Officers Association only this week have offered to do a piece of work to identify roles that firefighters above the age of 55 could do within the operational role, so slightly rethinking our operational deployment, because the issue that Matt surfaces is important. You can take people off fire appliances and get them to do something else, but you still need firefighters, so you double the cost potentially and that is an issue.
In terms of the local-authority question, they are the same people. The same people who are largely delivering your emergency response are also delivering all those other services. If you take away those other services, you decrease the value of the firefighter. I understand that, to some extent, where we have gone into new areas of work we have used volunteers and we have worked in partnership with youth offending teams and those sorts of people, and so we have looked at that in a slightly different way with slightly lower cost and, perhaps, lower impact on staff, but generally speaking it has come from the same resource. It is not as simple as saying that we will just get firefighters to go to fires, and then all those other people who are doing things are transferred to the local authority.
The other issue, of course, is that firefighters have very good access, and firefighters are able to access parts of the community that most public services are not. As a public service, we are the most trusted, other than GPs, so we do get through the door.
Bob Blackman: Whether the door is open or not, you get through it, yes.
Paul Fuller: I am not suggesting we have that level of medical expertise, so I do support the coresponder. We have good access to the public. We also have some political neutrality between different authorities. Often, the presence of the fire and rescue service in a partnership can have quite a neutralising impact, and we have found that to be quite useful in the past.
The other thing to bear in mind, of course, is if more of our roles and responsibilities are transferred to local authorities, presumably the cost also transfers, and local authorities may sit here on another day saying they are financially as on their knees as anyone else, so it is about how you best lever that-
Q149 Bob Blackman: Yes, but local authorities may choose, for example, to deliver this via volunteers or by other, with due respect, lowergrade, lowerpaid people, because it not a frontline firefighting service; it is delivery of an advisory service, which might be delivered as part of home care or something else.
Paul Fuller: And we are already doing those things. Almost all fire and rescue services are working in partnership with a wide range of other partners-social services, Age Concern and all of those people-so that when someone knocks on the door, they knock on the door and do several different functions, rather than them all lining up down the garden path, "I will do the fire bit", "I will do the meals on wheels bit", and "I will do the adult social care and the truancy bit", or whatever. We are joining those things together increasingly.
Q150 Andy Sawford: Sir Ken Knight says that greater collaboration between the bluelight services would unlock further savings. Is this the future for emergency services?
Paul Fuller: I think absolutely it should be. At the level of sharing premises, training facilities, administration and management, absolutely there are savings to be made. At the level of the citizen’s experience, whatever emergency a citizen has or is suffering, they ought to be able to rely on a belief that all public services are geared towards a unified approach to dealing with their problem, and that is about working together much more closely.
Cllr Hammond: I would say absolutely the same. Collaboration is key to delivering a better service for the public that we serve. People think it is crazy that when you ring 999 you go through a central 999 and you might then go to ambulance, you might go to police, you might go to fire, or you might go to all three. Why not have a central control, and certainly what we are looking at in Surrey, through the Public Service Transformation Network, is bluelight collaboration to deal with that very aspect. The general public really would not understand why you have different control systems for what is the same emergency, which is one of the ways that collaborative work can take place. Control is one way that, I am afraid to say, Government got it wrong and locally now we are probably trying to get it right.
Q151 Andy Sawford: You are very definitive in your view about what the public want and expect. Could you share the evidence of that? Perhaps there is some polling that you have access to that I have not seen. It would be very helpful for the Committee to know whether that is just conjecture or whether you have some evidence of what the public expect.
Cllr Hammond: I think I do have experience in speaking to the people that I represent.
Q152 Andy Sawford: So it is just your personal view. Could you tell me, in terms of how this is working in Surrey, what training are firefighters given in administering medicines and drugs?
Cllr Hammond: I am not operational. I am the politician. I am not the chief fire officer who deals with that.
Q153 Andy Sawford: This is more simple, then: what is the capacity of your police vehicles in terms of hoses and water on board the police vehicles?
Cllr Hammond: I think potentially you are missing the point. I talked about collaborative work in control centres in which we have trained staff to deal with an emergency incident, and they are very well served in doing that. Certainly in Surrey we not only deal with Surrey, but we deal with the Isle of Wight as well. So we already have a service that goes across two different authority areas providing that 999 capacity. What we are looking at and what we are looking to develop is working alongside the police, ambulance and fire to deliver that service.
In relation to coresponding, which happens in some parts of the country, in terms of having defibrillators on fire appliances, they absolutely should. It is patchy in areas. Sometimes they are there; sometimes they are not. At the end of the day, the service is about saving lives, and if there is a different way of delivering the service in the future, and of preventing loss of life, then there is no reason why fire and rescue services could not do that.
Q154 Andy Sawford: You understand my question. I am aware of the point about defibrillators, for example. There may be cooperation in terms of when you ring the control centre, and it would be interesting to see your evidence for what the public expect. They might be happy to say it does not matter if they get put through to a different emergency service; I can accept that. However, they might not be happy if they expect an ambulance to turn up and a fire engine does. Would you agree with that?
Cllr Hammond: I do, but that is because the conversation has not happened yet with the public.
Q155 Andy Sawford: My question is a bit facetious, but could you foresee a time then when we have combined vehicles, for example? Is that possible? Are there international examples? Or are there serious limits to collaboration that you have already described, in terms of control rooms, premises, and back office? This is the tension, is it not?
Cllr Hammond: It is a tension, but it is only because people, historically, have had a certain type of vehicle arriving to deal with an incident. If we talk about capacity within fire and rescue services, they are highly trained and competent individuals. There is no reason not to, potentially, if there is capacity in the system, look at medical technicians, which does happen in other parts of the world. We should look at that capacity, because they are highly trained individuals. People want a response. It does not matter if it is a blue vehicle.
Q156 Andy Sawford: There are limits in terms of getting the right service at the right time. Let me just bring Matt in on the principle of this and the vision.
Matt Wrack: In terms of collaboration, it is a greatsounding word; I am sure everyone is going to say they are in favour of collaboration. I just want to pick up on a point Kay has just referred to, and that is about the emergency fire controls or police controls or ambulance controls. There is a big risk in what Kay is suggesting, because it is about public expectation. The one thing that virtually every citizen in the UK knows is how a 999 call is handled: that they will be asked, "Fire, police or ambulance?" If, in one part of the UK or one part of England, that suddenly changes, I can see all sorts of problems, and that is a matter that should be discussed nationally, rather than in one county or one fire and rescue authority.
My more general point is that we are dealing with hazardous and lifethreatening situations. If are going to talk about collaboration, let us not rush into any of these things without, first of all, getting all the people, including the people who provide the service on the frontline, involved in those decisions. I mentioned FiReControl. We based our criticisms of FiReControl on, first of all, trying to financially analyse what the Government was doing and, secondly, talking to FiReControl staff themselves about the problems, and that was the basis on which we reached our position.
What has happened since the scrapping of the FiReControl project is we have a bit of a mishmash of how services are now dealing with that. We have some looking at adhoc merger arrangements. Again, I think there is a place for the service, and there is a role for Government, sitting down and saying, "What do we want out of how 999 calls are handled?" A key role within that is for the people who deliver that on the frontline. So, for us, about collaboration, the key is planning, preparation, and quality of service. All those things have to be built into any thinking about how we improve collaboration.
Q157 Andy Sawford: Why does the FBU refer to collaboration as dependency?
Matt Wrack: In what context?
Andy Sawford: It is your language, your words. The FBU describes Sir Ken’s proposal for greater collaboration as greater dependency. I think it was pejorative, Matt, but you might explain it.
Matt Wrack: We are in favour of thought-through work about how we can collaborate. Firefighters collaborate with police officers and ambulance personnel on a daily basis at emergency incidents. We have certain specialist teams who work very, very closely together, like the HART and USAR teams. We have no objections to that. What we are concerned about are illthoughtout projects that have not been discussed, for example, at an earlyenough stage with the people who have to deliver that service.
The most controversial one is probably around coresponding. There are many people who think they understand what the FBU’s policy on coresponding is, but what they should do is read it, because what the FBU’s policy on coresponding is based on is a discussion about 10 years ago on certain concerns around training, the effect on the fire and rescue service and various other issues that, at that point, we said therefore the union is opposed to it. There is a clear contractual issue about what firefighters are required to do contractually and not. The most alarming thing about this debate is that I have been in post since 2005, and in that time the fire service employers and Government have never approached us to have a discussion about coresponding. If people want to discuss that, at least have some joinedup thinking and a dialogue.
Q158 Andy Sawford: You highlighted the way in which the review contained no impact assessment. We raised this with Sir Ken here. I will have to look to the evidence-I do not want to misquote him-but the implication of his evidence was that that was not a serious issue. We thought that it was. The FBU have certainly raised it. Why does it concern you?
Matt Wrack: We are dealing with a service that deals with some of the most hazardous situations citizens can face-fires, floods, terrorism, road traffic collisions or other things that we might not have even thought of as yet. The idea that you can simply apply what I think is a fairly simplistic financial model and say, "That is my conclusion about the fire and rescue service", without looking at the impact of that on risk is a failing in the report.
In the evidence given by the previous set of witnesses, we touched on the issue of his suggestion-and it seems to be plucked out of the air-that we should shift to a greater use, by 10%, of retained or oncall firefighters. First of all, this seems to be a figure plucked out of the air, as I say, but what he really means is that we should reduce wholetime firefighters by 10%. The impact of that, as previous witnesses have outlined, is that it will take longer to get to incidents. That is the risk assessment side of things.
Q159 Andy Sawford: An issue that the Committee is struggling with and that Sir Ken struggles with-and I think we can all understand why he sought to address this-is why incidents have declined by 40%, and yet expenditure and firefighter numbers have remained broadly the same. That is at the heart of his report. What is your explanation for that?
Matt Wrack: I have said earlier that I do not accept completely his figures. There have been significant reductions in firefighter posts, both under the last Government and very, very significantly under this Government. In terms of the call numbers, for example, he mentions floods. He suggests in his report that there has been an 8% decline in flooding calls. Last year alone there was a 50% increase in flooding calls.
Q160 Andy Sawford: In the interests of time, the nonacceptance of figures is an explanation. Paul, you were going to comment on the limits of coresponding.
Paul Fuller: Yes. There are two points I picked up from your line of questioning. One was about how we know what the public think. Every fire and rescue services has public focus groups; they are part of citizens’ panels; they also consult on their integrated risk management plan and their budget each year, so we do get quite a lot of feedback from the public in that way.
Q161 Andy Sawford: On that, Steve in the previous session was absolutely clear. He said, "As long as you get a big red fire engine bouncing down the road, the public are happy". So who do you agree with: Councillor Hammond or Mr McGuirk?
Paul Fuller: I am not sure about bouncing. The issue is that we take robust discussion from representative groups of the public in order to inform the decisions that fire authorities make. The point that Steve was making was that, outside of that, what people are worried about is, when they are in trouble, getting help. We are cognisant of that, obviously, as well.
Q162 Andy Sawford: Sorry to labour the point, but if it is a police car with cutting devices in it that can deal with you at a road traffic accident, you are happy not to have the big red fire engine bouncing down the road. Do you think the public would be happy?
Paul Fuller: For the record, there are police cars that have cutting equipment capabilities.
Andy Sawford: Yes, I know. That is why I gave that example.
Paul Fuller: To be clear, this whole issue about bluelight collaboration and amalgamation is not about creating some sort of universal emergency service worker who can put out your fire, be a paramedic, arrest you or whatever-not necessarily in that order. It is about premises, training, administration, management, vehicles, and procurement. It is about all of the things that enable those three figurative people-police officers, fire officers and paramedics-to be able to do their jobs more effectively, with the resources focused towards the citizen they are trying to help.
It is about all of those other things that can take place, rather than starting from a position of saying "Can you have somebody who is a firefighter paramedic?" Information is now coming over from the United States, where they have those situations in place, that because of the increasing demand and the increasing role of ambulance paramedics and firefighters, it is becoming quite difficult for them to maintain the whole skill set for both roles.
That is fundamentally different from having a rural location where there is a fire station, and an ambulance, because of practicality and feasibility, is 20 minutes away-putting a defibrillator on to that fire appliance, so that within five minutes it can do a first aid response to save the life of a heart attack victim, rather than waiting for an ambulance. That is about putting the citizen first.
Cllr Hammond: Could I just add something to that? Work is already under way through the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme, where the Home Office are there, the ambulance trusts are there, the fire service are represented and certainly the Local Government Association is represented on that. It is a twoyear programme that is being funded to look at how this can move forward, looking at emergency services’ interoperability, and absolutely I agree that it is not about everybody doing everybody’s job.
Q163 James Morris: When we took evidence from Sir Ken, he was pretty categorical in saying that he did not think any of the measures or recommendations in his report would have any impact on the national resilience responsibilities of the fire and rescue service. Do you agree with that?
Paul Fuller: I have some difficulty with it. If you think about many of the largescale incidents that we have dealt with over the last few years, and they are all in the papers-widespread floodings, Buncefield, more recently the large incident in Smethwick-what that does is draw all those resources to that incident, and the challenge is continuing with your daytoday work whilst you are attending that incident.
If you turn that argument on its head, if you have fewer resources to do your daytoday work, how can you respond in the same way to a national resilience incident? So I do not agree with Sir Ken that reductions will not affect our ability to respond to a largescale incident. I think it naturally must, if you have fewer resources.
Q164 James Morris: We are not talking about a largescale incident though, are we? We are talking about specific issues to do with national resilience. That is separate from a largescale incident. However horrific the Smethwick incident was, that was not about national resilience response, was it?
Paul Fuller: In terms of national resilience planning and preparedness, this report does not touch that, so in that sense Sir Ken was right. I thought the question was about whether there will be sufficient resources to meet a national resilience issue, which is perhaps a different question.
Matt Wrack: Yet again I cannot see how Ken Knight can reach that conclusion. If you reduce significantly the resources the fire and rescue service has in terms of fire engines, firefighters and their availability, then you must impact on your ability to respond to major incidents. A related question is: how does Ken Knight know? How does the Minister know? Who is doing any monitoring? For example, for a local IRMP that might decide to close a number of fire stations, who is doing centrally any measurement of the impact of that on planning nationally for resilience? I am not convinced anyone is doing it.
Q165 James Morris: Sir Ken’s argument, which he gave in response to questioning, is, "Because I know that the national risk register allows for the kinds of incidents to be responded to in a national risk sense and that that capability still exists. It is funded from Government and it is still there. There will be a review of that over time […] that is separately funded from Government as part of the national resilience programme in fire authorities." So because it is a separate funding stream, he is saying it would not be affected, because it is already hypothecated towards national resilience work. Do you not accept that?
Matt Wrack: "Resilience" is a word that is thrown around quite a lot in the fire and rescue service. I think Paul is right to raise, for example, the question of the Smethwick incident, where the chair of that fire authority said publicly that, at the height of that incident, there was one remaining West Midlands fire appliance available. So clearly, other services had provided support into the West Midlands on the day of that incident. The question in terms of resilience arises, therefore, of what happens if you have another similar incident? What happens if you do have a terrorist incident or whatever? You argued that Smethwick is not a nationalresiliencetype issue, but take major floods-I visited the floods in Yorkshire and Humberside in 2007. Firefighters went from all over the UK to assist in responding to those floods, and it clearly tested national resilience.
If you take the point that Ken Knight makes about shifting from wholetime to retained firefighters, you have already heard the evidence about the problems. We represent 10,000 retained firefighters, and the problem they have is about juggling their primary employment, their commitment to the fire service and their domestic life. To then say, "We are sending you 200 miles up the motorway for four days", the idea that there are large numbers of private sector employers who are just going to go, "Oh yes, get on with that"-there clearly are issues in Ken Knight’s report that have an impact on how we plan for major issues and how we prepare for national resilience issues.
Cllr Hammond: The only thing that the Local Government Association would say is that we were surprised that there was so little said about national resilience, because of the requirement on fire authorities to address these issues as well. Wherever it is funded from, there is still a requirement. We have New Dimension equipment all over the country and we need firefighters to be trained on those.
If you separate it, I do not see how you can, because you still have to train people on the appropriate equipment. Whether it is decontamination units and all the rest of it, it still has to be done and they still have to be trained. So to separate that issue I think was wrong, so we were surprised that not more was said in relation to national resilience, because it is critical that fire and rescue services are part of that.
Q166 Mrs Glindon: In his review, Sir Ken has proposed that there should be a single independent inspectorate for the fire and rescue service, because it is out of step with other agencies that have one. Do you think it is time to rethink the way in which fire and rescue authorities are held to account?
Paul Fuller: Yes, I do. It is difficult for Government to have an expectation of assurance and a power of intervention if they are not able to have a regime that tells them when to intervene. We have quite well developed, sectorled measures to benchmark our performance and, in a peer sense, test against one another, but as I say, I think it is difficult for Government to maintain a power of intervention without having some form of inspection. We are the only public service, to my knowledge, which does not have an inspectorate.
What we are seeing is that where there is crisis in the public sector-I would point you towards health-inspectorates are now being formed to deal with that, and it would be entirely wrong to wait until a fire and rescue service fails and then put in place an inspectorate. The time to do that is now, so that we can avert that failure and make sure that everybody is able to share that best practice and, to some degree, have some commonality between Government in its work with the Chief Fire Officers Association, the LGA, the unions and others in forming that vision that colleagues spoke about earlier on.
Cllr Hammond: This is where I would disagree. The Local Government Association certainly would not welcome a national inspectorate. We think it would be bureaucratic. The Audit Commission was abolished because of whatever-partly finance and all the rest of it. We know it is expensive bureaucracy, and I have certainly heard chief fire officers talking about the revolving door of inspections going on, because they are just trying to address something and then another inspector comes in and challenges again.
What local government have done, in conjunction with the Chief Fire Officers Association, is to produce a product under the peer challenge regime to assist, forwardlooking, the development not only in leadership terms, but looking at assurance going forward in the peer review challenges. Every single fire and rescue authority has signed up to this peer challenge. Already, 23 have been undertaken in the last 18 months and over the next year all of them and three in the final year.
As part of the fee that people pay into the Local Government Association, it is funding a team to go into a fire and rescue service and look at not only the service-the operational side of things, because chief fire officers go in alongside it as well-but also members, and we look at how the authority works as well. So, as a team, we already go in, and there is no evidence to suggest at the moment that it has not been an effective way. In fact, Cardiff University at the moment are doing an independent evaluation of the reviews that have already been undertaken and its effectiveness. So I would like to see the evidence coming out of the Cardiff review to see how we move forward.
I think your question, though, if I might say, was twofold. You are talking about an inspectorate, but also you are talking about holding to account. Holding to account can happen in scrutiny, which you are doing today, to understand issues, and I do think there is a need and I am quite happy to work with others in seeing how we can progress, to make sure that all fire and rescue authorities and services are appropriately challenged through a scrutiny or select committee method, to challenge their effectiveness. This is where I think there is work still to be done.
Q167 Mrs Glindon: Councillor, in Scotland they still have the HMI for the services there. Do you think that the peerled challenge would instil the same level of public confidence as an HMI?
Cllr Hammond: I do not know the answer to that. Again, this is where I do not want to say something if I do not have the evidence to back up anything I say. It is interesting that Scotland at the moment has now merged into one. It is interesting that Wales went from nine to three in terms of governance, and it is interesting that at the next Fire Conference we are looking at evidence about that.
Let us see how those are developing as well, and let us have a look to see how things move on into the future with regard to evidence. But sectorled improvement is a good thing, there is no question, and there is credibility, because there are professionals who understand the service going in to look at it, rather than somebody who is in a London building who perhaps has no prior knowledge of how fire and rescue services work.
Matt Wrack: I take a different position from Kay’s. We would think that there should be an inspectorate and, for us, it is around a couple of areas: public confidence in the fire and rescue service, and also, for us, workforce confidence in the fire and rescue service is necessary. So we would not want to see an inspectorate that is simply looking at financial matters. Clearly that is an important matter. We would want an inspectorate that is looking at operational issues and at how planning is done within the fire and rescue service. We are very critical, in some cases, of how planning is done. It is about ensuring standards in the fire and rescue service, so that both the public and the workforce are confident.
I would make this point: communities ask their firefighters to go into, potentially, very hazardous situations. Those firefighters, in my view, therefore have the right to demand that they have adequate resources, that they have adequate training, and that the people who are sending them there have done proper planning. Ken Knight makes some comments about firefighter safety, for example. In terms of trips and minor injuries, he may be correct, but in terms of serious injuries and death, in the last 10 years the number of firefighters killed at fires is double what it was in the previous 10 years. That is something the fire service should be shocked and alarmed about.
Our view is that there is evidence that fire services are not learning lessons from earlier tragedies and that we have coroners identifying, in some of those cases, that precisely the same point that has been made in a previous coroner’s inquest is now being made in a subsequent coroner’s inquest. I think alarm bells should be raised in the fire and rescue service about that matter. We need a proper, thorough-going debate around that, and an inspectorate is a very valid part of that process that we would want to see come out of that.
Paul Fuller: Just to be very clear, I am not for a moment advocating any sort of return to an audit approach that does not involve professional fire officers taking a view of the operational effectiveness of the fire service. That is a complete distraction. I do not lament the passing of CPA; I do not think it did us a great deal of good, and I would not advocate a return to it. The public take great comfort from independence and I think that those people, in any discussion we might have, would be professional officers making a judgement.
I am a peer reviewer and I see huge value, as Kay does, in the peer review process, but it is completely voluntary. Its outcomes are regarded or disregarded by the authority or by the fire and rescue service as they choose, and, in that way, it is a service. It is not capable of imposing recommendations and it is not capable of speaking truth unto power, which an inspectorate would be.
Q168 John Stevenson: Today we have talked a lot about savings, budgets, collaboration, change, etc. At the end of the day, if there is going to be reform, somebody has to do it. If that reform is to come, is it to come via central Government or via local government? How would you see reform?
Paul Fuller: The reform process has to be a very integrated one, otherwise it creates siloism and an attitude where this local authority does this and this one does the other, and all the tensions that were talked about earlier on. In our response to the review, we have offered to work with Government, the LGA, trade unions and others to try to map out some of these ways forward.
Q169 John Stevenson: Would you not agree that somebody has to take the lead? Who should it be?
Paul Fuller: Somebody has to take the lead.
Q170 John Stevenson: Who should it be?
Paul Fuller: I think that is issuesbased. I would very, very happily, on behalf of CFOA, take the lead over finance, but the CLG might have a different idea. It is very much issuesbased and it depends whether you are talking about delivering an operational service, whether you are talking about funding that service, or whether you are talking about staffing and working conditions for the people who are within the service. All of us will have a point of view, as you have seen this afternoon.
Who takes the lead on that depends on the issue. What we have tried to do in our response is to be very clear about how we think each of those issues that emerge from the review ought to be taken forward-in other words, our vision in each of those areas. There are some of those areas where very much the Chief Fire Officers Association thinks we should be leading and other areas where we think others should, because it is about having that understanding of public policy about how society decides what services it wants and which are affordable.
Q171 John Stevenson: Should that not be the politicians?
Paul Fuller: Absolutely it should be politicians.
Q172 John Stevenson: If it is the politicians, should it be central or local? Who should take the ultimate lead in this?
Paul Fuller: It has to be a combination of both.
Cllr Hammond: I absolutely agree that we need to have local involvement in determining what a local community needs. That is why we have integrated risk management plans to assess local need and by which a service then is formed. To have a central diktat, on its own, to me is not right. Absolutely, legislation is required and that is the role of central Government: to look at legislation. That is why we have the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004; that is why we have thee Civil Contingencies Act. That is what the role of central Government is, but the implementation tends to be local on the ground.
Q173 John Stevenson: If we are to do a comprehensive review of the fire service, in one of your earlier responses you said you would rule out mergers and takeovers, but you would have thought if there was going to be a comprehensive review something like that has to be looked at.
Cllr Hammond: No. I hope I have not said I would rule out mergers. What I and the Local Government Association is saying is that sometimes governance structures can become a distraction, rather than delivering on the ground. I really do reiterate, if people want to merge, if local government wants to merge and fire authorities want to merge, which has already happened-some wanted to and were unable to do so-I do not have an issue, and nor does the Local Government Association, which would do everything it could to facilitate and support that.
Q174 John Stevenson: Do you think that local politicians are up to a comprehensive reform of the fire service, or do you think something like that needs to be led by central Government?
Cllr Hammond: It can be led in conjunction with Government through the Local Government Association, because we are the voice of local authorities throughout the country, and so I would say that.
Matt Wrack: There is a range of views, and you will have heard that in the evidence on this issue. One thing that is lacking, for me, in the fire and rescue service is joinedup thinking. Part of that is touched on in Ken Knight’s report; he talked about fragmentation. The past 10 years has seen something of a fragmentation.
There is a debate about localism and national direction. There is a debate to be had about the degree to which local fire and rescue services make decisions compared with what Government might expect in some of those circumstances. If there were mechanisms by which all key stakeholders could discuss those things in good time that would be a way to assist that debate. We used to have, for example, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council; that was abolished.
Q175 John Stevenson: Who should take the lead? Who should start the whole project off?
Matt Wrack: Clearly, I agree that ultimately politicians have to take the lead. There is a role for professionals, whether that is chief fire officers or ourselves, representing the vast majority of professionals delivering the service, but ultimately there have to be politicians. I do not accept the approach that Ministers have taken most recently, which almost seems to be a handsoff approach to the fire service. There clearly is a role for Ministers centrally to make decisions and recommendations. One we have just touched on: if we are going to move to an entirely new system about how people dial 999 and get an emergency response, I think that is a matter for national public debate, to be honest. I do not think that is a matter simply for local politicians to take.
Q176 John Stevenson: A final question: in 10 years’ time, how do you see the service? A very quick response.
Paul Fuller: More integrated with others, and a lot more joinedup in terms of understanding what that relationship is between what politicians determine as public policy and how people like me deliver those services.
Cllr Hammond: The service will be different. The service today is different from how it was 10 years ago, and it will be different again in 10 years’ time.
Matt Wrack: I would like to see firefighters developing new ranges of skills. I would like to see a service that is identifying issues in advance, rather than reacting to issues. We need a lot more horizonscanning and vision for the future.
Q177 Chair: I did say that right at the end I would raise the pension issue and the potential for industrial action. It is clearly something the public would expect us, as elected representatives, to raise with you, as the General Secretary of the Union. Now, I suppose the public think that there are a lot of changes going on in public sector pensions; there have been a lot of negotiations with lots of groups of workers and, by and large, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, settlements have been reached, but not in the fire service where we are looking at industrial action. Why is that so different? Why are you so different from everybody else?
Matt Wrack: As part of those discussions we were asked to enter schemespecific discussions-initial central discussions through the TUC with Government and then eventually both sides agreed we should move to schemespecific discussions. So, since then, we have concentrated on the firefighters’ pension schemes and what we have done is engaged fully with that process. We have done a huge amount of research. We have commissioned a large number of reports, which we have submitted into that process. As part of that, the previous Fire Minister commissioned a report on firefighters’ normal pension age.
There are a range of issues, but probably the single key one is pension age, and it comes down to this: there are very rigorous fitness standards within the fire and rescue service, understandably. If you are going to send people into compartment fires, for example, then you need to be confident that they are fit enough to do so. There are no national standards but there is guidance that various bodies have developed. What that Government report demonstrates is that, unsurprisingly, as people get older their fitness declines. Everybody knows that-my neighbours know that; you do not need to commission a report, but it demonstrates that very clearly. What the tables in that report by Tony Williams show is that by the time people are beyond 55, something like 66% of the current workforce would be unlikely and unable to meet the fitness standards.
In the tripartite discussions, the body that first raised this-not Kay but a local government employee acting on behalf of the LGA-said, "This might not mean ill health retirement. This might simply mean that as those people age, they cannot do the job, we cannot pay the pension and therefore we would have to dismiss them under capability". That was spelt out very clearly to us. In many fire and rescue services across the country now we have fitness policies that have a clear link to capability dismissal, and yet we have evidence showing-it is a pretty straightforward argument-that as people get into their 50s and certainly beyond mid-50s, that becomes a greater and greater issue. That is probably the key issue why we have not resolved our matter. We were then presented with a deadline to agree something and that is why the union decided to ballot.
Since then, we have not called strike action as yet. We have discussions with Government in all parts of the UK. We wrote to Ministers immediately on the conclusion of our ballot to seek dialogue to try to avert industrial action, and those discussions are continuing.
Q178 Chair: But the public would probably say that all groups of workers are having to work longer. People are living longer, and regarding the balance of life between working time and retirement time, we have to do something to alter that by increasing the pension age, do we not? Is this something that firefighters alone are going to be exempt from?
Matt Wrack: Firefighters were asked about a specific scheme that relates to their occupation. It is called an occupational pension scheme; it should relate to the occupation. The occupation is physically demanding. As we heard earlier, fire and rescue service employers are not saying they can redeploy people into other jobs. In fact, they are very clearly saying they cannot redeploy people into other roles. So, as people get into their mid50s and beyond, there is a problem of people who have paid into schemes; firefighters are currently paying, along with the police, the highest contribution rates in the public sector, so are paying a very significant amount of their pension and yet will not be able to get to pension age. That makes no sense to us at all, and I think the public will understand that that is just simply unfair and unjust.
Q179 Chair: Do you see the age going up in the future? Is that a resistance?
Matt Wrack: The age has gone up. What we are discussing now is how the fire service deal with that issue, because we think it should be evidencebased.
Touching on one of the earlier points about how we discuss things in the fire and rescue service, the first debate on fitness standards within the fire and rescue service started in the mid-1980s after a fire in South Yorkshire. There was work done collaboratively, and that is where the first of these fitness standards emerged.
When I joined the fire service, you had to expand your chest two inches and carry someone down the road; it was not very scientific. We have moved to a more scientific approach, and what we are saying is the scientific evidence very clearly shows that people will increasingly fail those fitness tests as they get into their mid-50s. That is the evidence.
Q180 Bob Blackman: So what is the union’s position, then, on people who fail the fitness test? What should happen to them? Obviously, as you quite rightly say, the evidence is suggesting that 60% or thereabouts of men-and they are principally men; I know there are now increasingly numbers of women, but we are talking about the people who are coming towards retirement age, and most of them are men-clearly are going to be in a position where, as you say, they are either discarded or they are put on light work. What happens to them from the union perspective?
Matt Wrack: That is the big dilemma. What does happen to them? The CLG pensions team have used the term-and I have challenged the Minister on this-"choose to leave": that if people choose to leave beyond the age of 55, they are discussing what might happen to them. We are saying that it is not a question of choice. If you get to 55 and no matter what you do you cannot pass your fitness test, that is not a matter of choice. Yet the scheme is designed that they cannot access the full pension that they would have expected to, because pensions are designed that you get to a certain age and you are entitled to get a pension.
Q181 Bob Blackman: Can I just clarify: the position of the union is that if someone gets to an age of 55 and they are no longer fit enough to do the job, they should receive their pension? Is that the stance of the Union?
Matt Wrack: They should have access to their pension at that point, yes.
Q182 Bob Blackman: Is that the stance the union takes: that if they fail the fitness test through no fault of their own-and I am not talking about people who maybe have done stupid things, etc; I am talking about people who fail the lung test, etc, purely because of their age-they should then receive their pension whatever age they are.
Matt Wrack: Not whatever age they are. I do not want to undermine any discussions we might be involved in with other people, but essentially you are right, yes. We are saying that if, through no fault of their own, a firefighter, because of ageing, begins to struggle with fitness standards-and we want to discuss with the fire service employers how they support people on the fitness issue, because we have mentioned retained firefighters; there is far less support given to retained firefighters to maintain fitness, for example, than there is to wholetime firefighters. So this is a huge issue that should have been being discussed with us five or 10 years ago. Unfortunately, because of the fragmentation in the fire service, it has not been discussed.
Q183 Bob Blackman: Finally from me, clearly the position that the Government is taking is that the pension scheme as currently constructed is not affordable, so who should pay for this? From the union perspective, where do you think this money should come from?
Matt Wrack: It relates to an additional point. The Chair mentioned earlier that a large number of public sector workers will be put into new schemes, which means that their pension age is increased. For firefighters, that is significantly longer than for other groups of workers-some firefighters are being asked to work up to 10 years longer.
In terms of a public debate, firefighters say very strongly that when they joined a fire service at 18 or 20, or whatever it was, and were told, "Here is your pension scheme", to get 15 years into that, for example, and be told, "You may have thought that you were retiring at 52, 53 or whatever it was, but we are now telling you that you have to work seven, eight, nine, 10 years longer", there is something fundamentally wrong with that.
Q184 Bob Blackman: That raises another issue, which is: would the union accept a position whereby people entering the service now accept a pension scheme that says, "Your retirement age is 60. These are the terms and conditions, and we will expect you to pay more money into the scheme than currently is the case in order to fund it"?
Matt Wrack: We have a group of members who, since 2006, have had a pension scheme with a pension age of 60, which we opposed at the time. You raised this point earlier; interestingly, in our discussions with the previous Government-and this is in the House of Commons Library documentation-it was very clearly said that as firefighters get older they will be redeployed into nonoperational fire safety roles.
What we have demonstrated since then is that those roles do not exist. The scheme was brought in, in 2006, without an evidence base, based on a wing and a prayer about what might happen in the future. We have always said that that needs addressing and that the issue of fitness would apply to those people as well. So yes, they have joined a scheme where they have been told at the start, "You are working until 60". We still think there is a major public policy issue. You cannot simply start dismissing people who expected a pension. So, yes, for those people maybe jobs need to be created. That raises a whole number of problems for local government employers.
Q185 Andy Sawford: I want to ask Matt or any member of the panel what impact this has had on morale. I say that because I visited my local fire station and I felt it was having a significant impact, but that could be just my fire station.
Paul Fuller: No firefighter wants to go on strike, and obviously these-
Andy Sawford: I did not mean the strike; I meant the shifting of the goal posts-the situation that Matt described.
Paul Fuller: It is the uncertainty and the turbulence caused in the organisation, both through the issue and through the possible response to it, which obviously is going to damage morale for a while.
I do not want to comment specifically on the discussion that Matt has had with you about pensions, but I do think that the important thing is for people to keep talking about those issues and find ways to resolve them through discussion. It is dangerous for our community and for firefighters who choose to continue to work if firefighters exercise their right to go on strike, and the Chief Fire Officers Association would not condone or agree with that action. There has to be a better way.
Matt Wrack: In terms of morale, it has undoubtedly had a huge impact on morale for a number of reasons. There are groups of members who say, "I just cannot believe that I am being told that the agreement I thought I had reached when I joined at the age of 18 is being rewritten". When I joined, it was compulsory to join the firefighters’ pension scheme. That changed in 1989, I think. But there are people who were convinced-and we used to tell people very strongly, "Join the pension scheme"-who were then told the whole game is being rewritten, so that is slightly different from the point about a new scheme for new starters.
I hope Paul would acknowledge people expected that we might have balloted for strike action a long time before this. We have not rushed into it at all. It has taken a long time. Our members and our executive council that represents them are at the end of their tether. That is why it came to this. We took an approach that we would present an evidencebased case, and we commissioned huge amounts of research on this, and the feeling of firefighters is that we have presented evidence to Government and it has been ignored. That is what has staggered people. Even their own report, which broadly confirms what we are saying-it does not say exactly what we would say-in our view, is being ignored, and people just are very angry and demoralised as a result of that.
Q186 John Stevenson: If you do go out on strike, do you think you will get any public sympathy, given the fact that there are many, many people in both the private and the public sector who have had their pension schemes fundamentally changed in a completely different way from when they first went into their profession, job or whatever? Do you think the public are going to be at all sympathetic? Arguably, they will be rather angry at the fact that you are going out on strike when they have had to accept something similar.
Matt Wrack: First of all, I think we should be having decent pensions for everyone; a decent state pension and decent occupational pensions. What has happened to people in both the public and the private sector on their pensions is pretty disgraceful and, in some cases, exceptionally disgraceful.
Q187 John Stevenson: Does it not reflect the reality that we are all living longer and if we are going to pay for pensions we have to accept that we have to take them at a later age and contribute more to them? For example, when the pension age first came in at 65, the average age for someone to live to was 64; now it is in the 80s.
Matt Wrack: On that particular point, we were asked by central Government to discuss an occupational pension scheme. So, first of all, in terms of the private sector-and I do not agree at all with what has happened to private sector workers’ pensions-firefighters are paying considerably more than the vast majority of people in the public or private sector in terms of their contribution. It is expected to rise to 13.2% or 14.2% and, for higher earners, much higher than that. That is a very high rate of contribution for people on very modest wages.
Q188 John Stevenson: Rather than go around the argument, do you think you will get public sympathy?
Matt Wrack: Yes, I think we can get public support.
John Stevenson: Fair enough.
Chair: Thank you for responding to those issues. We obviously will be drawing those matters to the attention of the Minister and asking for a response from the Minister as well. Thank you all very much for coming to give evidence this afternoon.