I am delighted to be invited to speak here today and to see so many others here to support you. I understand that this is the fifth AFSA national conference, and my predecessor Bob Neill has spoken at the last 2. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Bob, who has a deep understanding of the issues you face, as well as a great knowledge of the sector. I know that Bob, when he was Fire Minister, greatly valued the close and positive relationship he had with AFSA. I very much hope to be able to continue that.
The importance of AFSA
The importance of groups such as AFSA cannot be underestimated. You provide a forum for people to come together to discuss key concerns, to support each other’s development, and provide an opportunity for challenge.
And in terms of challenge, AFSA continues to perform a vital role in terms of ensuring that equality, diversity and fairness are mainstreamed in the Fire and Rescue Service. Events such as this provide excellent opportunities for the exchange of ideas, and for lively debate. I know that a regional AFSA group has been set up here in the West Midlands, supporting professional development and progression, sharing learning experiences, building a solid network of mutual support for employees, and supporting charities and fundraising. All of this shows the excellent work that the association is doing both at the national and local level.
I know that Sir Graham Meldrum, when he was Chief Fire Officer in the West Midlands and again as Chief Inspector of Her Majesty’s Fire Service Inspectorate did a great amount of work to promote equality and diversity in the service, and this excellent work has been carried on by Vij as Chief Fire Officer of the West Midlands, and in his presidency of the Chief Fire Officers Association.
And I would like to say, on a personal note, that I am deeply committed to advancing equality of opportunity to one and all, not only in the fire and rescue service, but also in the communities they live in and serve. I am also of the firm conviction that this is best driven locally. And I say this because I want each fire and rescue authority to be responsible for reaching out to minority groups, and ensuring that they recognise that the service is for them - not as an add on - but for them along with everyone else in the community. I want fire and rescue services to go out into their communities, find the right people, engage with them and draw them into the heart of the fire and rescue service family. I want the entire community to be so integrated into the fire and rescue service that we no longer have to think in terms of equality and diversity - it will just happen automatically. I know that this is at the core of what AFSA is working for, and you have my full support in that.
There is no doubt, a lot is already happening, and I would like to highlight some of the work going on here in the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service. They have Welcome to the West Midlands, an education programme for new migrants to promote safety, well being, community understanding and citizenship. This has been developed in consultation with migrants to meet the information gap which can occur when someone arrives in this country. The West Midlands also has active employee engagement through the local AFSA group, working with them to target under represented operational and support staff to develop essential skills.
In my short time as Fire Minister I have been very impressed by the wide range of local initiatives such as these, which not only reach out to the under represented, but also to the vulnerable.
In Greater Manchester, the fire service is leading a community project with the Asian Development Association of Bury. This project, which provided employment opportunities for local people, has already seen the production of a fire safety video that can be heard in eight of Manchester’s most commonly used languages. It will be the main communication tool used in community education sessions, facilitated by fire and rescue service volunteers recruited by the association. There will also be a series of workshops for the BME business community designed to raise awareness of how the fire and rescue service can help them meet their responsibilities under the Fire Safety Order. This project will be rolled out across all of Manchester’s ten metropolitan boroughs in the near future.
To engage young people from a community they have previously found hard to reach, and to respect religious beliefs, they have established a cadet scheme in Hyde for young women from the Bangladeshi community, and they are hoping to use this as a model to engage many ethnic communities in similar activities.
This work is being driven forward at the local level - not by central target or quotas, but by responding to the demands of their local communities. And to be able to respond to these, each fire and rescue service needs to make full use of the human resources at their disposal - and to do this equality and diversity has to be at the core of any organisation.
The key to delivering the best service to the local community is to have a diverse, representative workforce, equipped to understand and meet the needs of those it serves and capable of delivering a first class service to everyone. This will also support the service’s aim to create a better understanding of its preventative role and of the support and advice it is able to provide.
The fire service must ensure that every employee is valued; that there truly is equality of opportunity for all, and that the working culture is such that unfair discrimination, unacceptable behaviour, bullying and harassment are not tolerated. I strongly believe that the fire and rescue service has gone a long way to achieve this goal and together with partners like AFSA they can continue to work to create an even more open and inclusive service.
I should also like to take this opportunity to thank AFSA for your continued support of the Fire Kills campaign. The Fire Kills campaign has had a focus on BME groups since 2005 - and for good reason. Research has shown that certain BME communities are at a potentially greater risk from fire. Smoke alarm ownership amongst Asian communities is ten per cent lower than the national average. Recent analysis of accidental dwelling fire victim profiles has suggested that Asian communities are potentially more vulnerable than African communities. This has led to our 2012 campaign focussing solely on the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. With smoke alarm ownership levels lower in these communities the primary message will be on the importance of working smoke alarms. Two bursts of advertising will run - one which began this week, and another in March 2013. The new campaign will focus on blessings. As you know blessing of wellbeing, health and a long life are delivered on important occasions in these communities. The new campaign will encourage people to make their blessings count - ‘when you give a blessing, make it count: test your smoke alarm’. There will be radio advertising to demonstrate the fire consequences of not having a working smoke alarm, linking it back to a blessing that was given. I have no doubt that this campaign, targeted primarily at first generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, will be a powerful tool for you and all those in fire and rescue services seeking to reduce deaths and injuries.
The theme of this conference is ‘advancing equality during austerity’. I think that it is important to note that there are signs of improvement in the economy. Jobs are being created, manufacturing and exports have grown as a share of our economy, our trade with vibrant, emerging economies such as China and Brazil is improving, and the world is once again investing in Britain.
But we face many challenges. The debts built up over many years will take time to work our way through, not helped by a decline in our competitiveness which was effectively masked by unsustainable borrowing.
Despite the need to cut the national deficit, fire and rescue, as a frontline emergency service, has been given funding protection with reductions back-loaded to give more time for sensible savings to be made, and reductions applied to fire and rescue authorities have been less than those applied to local authorities in general.
I have been heartened to hear how many fire and rescue authorities have risen to the challenges that the spending review has posed. However, I know some of you have concerns that fire and rescue services may disproportionately reduce funding on equality and diversity activities.
I hope this is not the case. But if you see this happening, then you must speak up. It is vital that fire and rescue services do not make decisions that will impact on their ability to deliver on their statutory duties as required under the Equality Act 2010, and transparency and accountability are at the heart of our approach towards local government generally.
In closing I would like to thank you once again for giving me this opportunity to speak to you today. I do hope that your organisation goes from strength to strength, and that you remain and important and influential voice in the British fire and rescue service.
I would also like to extend my congratulations to all the award winners who will be honoured at this evening’s event, well done, keep up the good work and have a great night.