Transcript of the speech as delivered.
Thank you Vij and Lee for you kind introductions. I am delighted to be here.
Let me start by thanking Peter Holland for his contribution over the last year as President and for the support I received from him in my role as Fire Minister.
And let me congratulate you, Lee, on the start of your tenure as President, I know it has been said before that Chief Fire Officers Association Presidents from the Chief Fire Officers Association have up to three different Fire Ministers in a year but I think I must be the first Fire Minister to be on my third President!
I was most interested to hear your views and I hope you will find much to hearten you in my address as you seek to steer the Chief Fire Officers Association towards taking even greater leadership in the future.
Acknowledging the Fire and Rescue Services
Looking back at over the last 12 months this has been a year when we have seen the Fire Rescue Service exemplifying all that we rightly value in a public service. The response of the women and men of the Fire and Rescue Service to both national and international emergencies has been second to none.
The report earlier this year into the 7 July bombings rightly praised the ‘extraordinary courage, composure and compassion’ of the Fire and Rescue Service crews and all responders who had to deal with the terrible events unfolding that day.
And much more recently we have again seen the dedication of our firefighters who, in the face of shameful criminal behaviour by rioters, battled to put out fires, whilst at times finding themselves under attack. I am pleased that no one suffered life threatening injury - although some were evidently subjected to quite terrifying ordeals. The remarkable story of Firefighter Peach who was pulled off her bike by the very public she was on her way to work to protect, which she continued on to do was extremely heart warming. The professionalism of fire crews during the riots was outstanding and inspirational and I thank all of them for their efforts.
The co-ordinated approach by emergency services, Local Authorities and Government following the riots was key to getting our high streets back up and running - in many cases the next day.
But as we look to the next 12 months, and Lee, your Presidency tenure I hope you will seize the opportunities for the Fire and Rescue Service.
Resetting the Relationship, Fire Futures, Localism and the National Framework
We want to free Fire and Rescue Authorities up to concentrate on their local services whilst working collectively together to achieve efficiencies, value for money for the local taxpayer and better services - both at the local level, but at the national level too. We have been putting in place the building blocks needed, first with the Localism Bill and the Fire Futures Review, and as a direct consequence of both, the new National Framework.
The Fire Futures review was the first step in our journey together toward setting out the mechanics of a new relationship and empowering you all, to take greater responsibility and a proactive leadership role. Fire Futures gave you and other sector partners the opportunity to highlight the areas where you thought that Government needed to help by removing inhibiting constraints and regulations.
The Localism Bill, which we plan to enact by the end of the year, responds to this. We will provide you with more freedom and flexibility enabling you to take responsibility and deliver services which truly take account of local considerations. With new powers you will be able to deliver innovative services specific to the communities you serve.
Lee, in your speech you talked of the change in the relationship between Central and Local Government, including Fire and Rescue Authorities. This is vital. It is all about resetting the relationship. You will have heard me make mention of this before but what exactly does it mean?
- it means taking ownership of your role in the delivery of national resilience; responding effectively to major national emergencies such as natural hazards and malicious threats
- it means Fire and Rescue Services and Authorities taking ownership of and being accountable for service delivery to individuals and their local communities; local decision making on local services; with the focus moved away from central government
- it means taking on collective responsibility and managing cross sector functions collaboratively
- it means improving public safety and preventing deaths and injuries from fire, through promoting fire prevention, particularly amongst the most vulnerable sections of the community.
Much of this you do already, what we need this to step up further, I mentioned before opportunity - this is yours.
- opportunity for collective leadership at a National level
- opportunity to further embed your role as a truly local service
- opportunity for strong local leadership and delivery.
I am particularly encouraged to hear that you are ready to step up and take greater responsibility and show the leadership necessary to take the Service forward and welcome the establishment of the Fire and Rescue Service Advisory Council - it signals an important step and I look forward to seeing it deliver.
I would also like to complement those of you here and the principal officers who act as part of the National Strategic Advisory Team. I see this as an extremely valuable role in coordinating a response to a national event and providing professional advice to strengthen our national resilience arrangements during national emergencies.
But there are many more areas where a strong collaborative fire and rescue approach, perhaps facilitated by Chief Fire Officers Association, would bring further benefits and increase the influence of the Fire and Rescue Service. For example the future control rooms’ bids are an opportunity not only for local solutions but for delivery of these broader aims.
Central Government should not be in the business of hands on management of local performance. This is why we have started work with you, and other partners to develop a new National Framework which will reflect and support the new relationship between the centre and Fire and Rescue Authorities. We’re clear this can be achieved by the approach I have set out and expect to consult on the draft Framework by the end of the year.
Part of this work on a new Framework will be to clarify roles in relation to resilience and ensure that we prepare for and are able to respond to all the risks we face, from local fires to widespread flooding to terrorist attacks. This is an opportunity for you to take an even stronger role in providing professional leadership and to instil a bottom-up approach to resilience, drawing upon your local expertise and knowledge to ensure that Fire and Rescue Authorities have the necessary capability in place to respond to all risks that may face a local area.
Interoperability is an integral part of resilience. This must also be built on the solid foundation of your experience and expertise, rather than by central Government imposing unwanted top down solutions.
Better Regulation (Red Tape Challenge)
In the same vein the Government firmly believes that reducing the number of regulations will help remove barriers to economic growth and increase individual freedoms.
I am aware that some of you have supported calls for more regulation for fire safety in the home and in non-domestic buildings, particularly in relation to smoke alarms and sprinklers. This is an important issue, however we want to avoid excessive regulation where non-regulatory routes can offer the same outcomes, as we have seen with smoke alarm ownership.
In this context, I am delighted that Councillor Mark Healey, Chair of Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority, has kindly agreed to support the Fire Kills campaign by helping promote smoke alarm ownership messages to private rented landlords. This is a great example of a sector-led initiative, highlighting what can be done through non-regulatory routes.
I would also like to let you know that we will be publishing the Fire Kills Annual Report for 2010/11 shortly which will provide detail on the national advertising strategy and outlines the key PR and partnership activity undertaken to target the harder to reach and those potentially more vulnerable to the risks of fire.
Fire Service College
Lee, in your address you made reference to future arrangements for the Fire Service College. I was there just this morning speaking at the Fire Service Chaplains’ Conference. Last week we launched the first phase of work to explore options for a new ownership, operational and governance model for the Fire Service College which is another important opportunity for the Sector.
Let me be clear. We see strong value in a national College, delivering common, consistent standards of safety critical training and improved intra-operability across the Service in support of resilience, and enabling it to meet public expectations.
But the current College ownership and business arrangements do not provide the flexibility necessary for it to operate with sufficient commercial success.
This is your opportunity to step forward and help secure the future of the College, whether independently or in partnership with other organisations. I know you will rise to this challenge and look forward to hearing your views.
Funding and Economic Environment
However, with all of these issues we are discussing today I am mindful of the financial context which we must all note and all working within. I have been extremely heartened to hear how many of you have risen to the challenges that the spending review has posed.
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You know that my view is that whilst, the settlement has been tough, it was a fair one in a difficult environment, and one that demonstrates our commitment to protecting front-line services. You have risen to the demands of protecting front-line services in the new environment some of you are considering merging, many of you have streamlined operations or have rationalised backroom services.
We protected Fire and Rescue in the first two years to give you time to prepare but to continue to tackle the deficit further savings are still required. Having said that, everything I’ve seen from you tells me that you will also rise to meet this challenge.
At this point I would like to highlight the consultation on capital grant funding for the next three years as a means of investing to deliver efficiencies to help you live within your reduced resource budgets. I wish to be clear that capital grant funding must be targeted to areas that deliver the greatest efficiencies and we are currently consulting upon a competitive bidding process, complimented by the current pro-rata distribution - providing a degree of certainty over future allocations. We are keen to receive responses on the proposed process by 21 October 2011.
Understandably, you all want to know what years three and four will look like for you, and as things stand it won’t be until autumn 2012 before we can tell you.
There are a number of variables, not least the local government resource review and you will have seen our direction of travel, with policies to devolve power; improve accountability and unchain local innovation being equally important in funding as in other areas. We are keen to introduce changes to provide a direct financial incentive for local government to promote local economic growth, as well as reducing the dependency of many authorities on central government grant.
In particular, our proposals on business rates retention cover all local authorities, including Fire and Rescue Authorities and we are actively seeking your views on these proposals.
There are some key issues that I am sure you will want to consider, including, for example, should single purpose Fire and Rescue Authorities be treated like county councils; be part of the business rates retention scheme, and be able to benefit from growth in business rates? Or is there a case for treating single purpose authorities like police authorities and have their funding direct from central government?
So, in short, the 2013 to 2015 sums for individual Fire and Rescue Authorities depend on a number of decisions still to be made, in particular whether you are part of the business rates retention scheme and, as part of that, how the baseline is set.
I know that your finance officers have been taking a very keen interest in this topic. I am pleased about the level of debate that the future of your funding has engendered and look forward to seeing your response to the consultation.
And then closer to home for many of your staff will be the understandable concerns about the pension issues. The previous administration introduced the New Firefighters’ Pension Scheme, but did not tackle issues surrounding the old scheme, which remains the most expensive in the public sector in terms of total contributions. Increasing longevity has meant that the cost of providing the scheme has continued to rise, putting further pressure on Fire Authority budgets. The Government’s reform proposals stemming from the Hutton Review around a career average scheme and improved longevity risk management, which are at the heart of our reform agenda, will put the fire pension schemes onto a more sustainable footing.
We have listened and will continue to listen to the concerns raised around opt-outs. Maximising membership is important for the long-term viability of these schemes. The consultation which I published last week takes steps to minimise opt-outs. Any increases in contributions will be phased in over three years. The increases will be progressive. And the proposals will provide protection to the more affordable New Firefighters’ Pension Scheme.
There is also a strong economic rationale for people to remain in public service pension schemes and it is important that firefighters hear that message and maintain their support for the schemes.
This is why the Department for Communities and Local Government, and other Government Departments, are asking professional bodies like the Chief Fire Officers Association, individual chief fire officers and senior managers, to show leadership on this issue as the reform process gathers pace.
I know that there remains some uncertainty around the process, which is understandable. It is important that workforces understand the reform context and what it means for them. The Firefighters’ Pension Committee has a key role to play here. In addition, alongside the consultation document, my Department has published a pension reform question and answer paper which can be used as a basis to talk to your workforce.
Industrial Relations - Business Continuity
With pensions to the fore, before I conclude there is a final key area on which we should focus. I refer to business continuity arrangements.
As I have clearly indicated I believe that it is possible to achieve change, even on thorny issues such as pensions, through consultation, dialogue and negotiation with trades unions. However, we all have a duty to be ready should those negotiations break down.
If there were to be a national dispute over pensions, and I repeat I see no reason why there should be one, then it will be for you to ensure that arrangements are in place to protect communities and business in your areas.
In closing I would like to share with you the optimism I feel for the future. From what I have heard here today this is a future with Fire and Rescue Authorities working together to share expertise, talent and resources; working with the communities they serve;, accepting accountability, and demonstrating strong local and national leadership.