There will be no wholesale takeover of fire and rescue services by Police and Crime Commissioners says the Government as it publishes the long awaited response to its fire reform white paper, 17 months after the consultation closed for comments.
In his foreword to the response, the Fire Minister provides no explanation about why it is so late and why his department has retreated from mandating a takeover of fire and rescue services by Police and Crime Commissioners. Instead the response presents a watered down approach that sees mayors in the frame for taking on fire but only if their boundaries match and if it is ‘locally led’. This might be good timing for West Midlands Mayor Andy Street as he’s just got the green light to take over governance of West Midlands Police next year.
Referencing the London Fire Brigade cultural review and the HMICFRS report into culture and values, the response confirms that the code of ethics developed under the Fire Standards Board will become statutory. Whether this will have any impact in dealing with the cultural problems faced not only in London but in other services such as Dorset and Wiltshire and South Wales (should the Welsh Government decide to do the same) only time will tell.
Despite a change of Fire Minister since the reform white paper was published, the three pillars of reform from his predecessor remain. People, Professionalism and Governance.
Changes to pay negotiating machinery
On the People front, the Home Office is still supportive of direct entry – and may expand it out despite the responses not being wildly supportive – but is not so keen on the mechanism by which frontline staff are paid. The FBU issued a furious response to the Government’s proposal ‘to critically review the National Joint Council’s own mechanisms, operations and transparency.’
This is no surprise as the Government has long disliked the way that the NJC works and may have been more bullish, if there were more parliamentary time left, and moved it all to an independent pay review body like the police and taken the unions out of the process altogether. There is a warning in the response that says if the review doesn’t result ‘in meaningful change,’ the Government will ‘explore other routes.’
The Minimum Services Levels Act looms large in the background here and is also referenced in the response but is dealt with in more detail elsewhere as the mechanisms are still being established.
Support for a College of Fire and Rescue
It is hard to read the sections about the proposed College of Fire of Rescue without wondering why the Government sold off the Fire Service College in the first place. There are lots of links with the College of Policing here, so it will be no surprise if fire ends up there in the same way that fire was added to the inspectorate. Wherever this College lands, it’ll be home to professional standards, some of which will end up on the statute books, although there are bland statements about leadership programmes and not much detail.
In a similar vein to my bemusement about the College, I feel the same way about the ‘frontline insights’ in this response that state there is a strong case to form an ‘entity’ to carry out research and gather data to help services to plan. Perhaps if the Government hadn’t decimated the fire statistics and research department that saw pretty much all the civil servants dispersed to other roles, it would still have that expertise in house. Nevertheless, the creation of a decent research function in a yet to exist College of fire will be welcome if it produces useful insights and evidence to inform future policy making.
The duty to collaborate has had little air time since it was introduced back in 2017 and there was a golden opportunity here for the Government to connect fire and rescue services more firmly with health and social care through the Integrated Care System and the Integrated Partnerships. Instead what we see here is a bland promise to work more closely together with the health department which doesn’t provide any useful basis on which fire and rescue services can firm up their important prevention role with local partners.
Disappointingly, both the long term problems of recruitment and retention of on-call firefighters and the poor levels of diversity in the service generally are mere footnotes to the People section. Generalities about exploring solutions are not good enough to address what are fundamental wicked problems that have been around for decades.
The response confirms that the Government will legislate – if there is time before an election – to give chief fire officers operational independence. In essence this means that the role of the chief will be defined in law with ‘clear demarcations of responsibility’ between the chief and the politicians on fire authorities or whatever governance is in place.
Because fire governance is complex, with many different models, the Government won’t also make the fire chief corporation sole in the same way as police chiefs. It’s a nerdy but important nuance that means while the chief is operationally independent he or she is not the employer of the staff, and that remains with the fire authority. The exception to this is in London, where the London Fire Commissioner is already corporation sole.
Having waited 17 months for this response, it’s hard to get over excited about it, as much as I would like to do so because it is so vague and much of the detail is missing.
My worry is that there is so little parliamentary time left to do the various legislative changes set out here that they are highly unlikely to happen before a general election. If Labour win the next election, they will need to decide if these changes fit with their view of a modern, progressive fire and rescue service and then we’ll have to see where fire sits on their very long to do list.