Speech

Chief Fire Officers' Association conference

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech by Fire Minister Brandon Lewis to the Chief Fire Officers' Association (CFOA) conference.

The Rt Hon Brandon Lewis MP

I am delighted to be here today a year into my job as Fire Minister. I’d like to congratulate Paul (Fuller) on his election as the new CFOA President and thank Vij (Randeniya) for his work over the last year during his time as president.

Like you I was hugely disappointed to hear that the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) confirmed dates for industrial action. I do not believe that this is necessary. The pension on offer to firefighters is one of the most generous available. Of particular concern to me is the misinformation being given out by the FBU on fitness. As you know the normal pension age for firefighters has been 60 since 2006 for new recruits. I also know that you have rigorous procedures in place to provide support to firefighters in maintaining and regaining their fitness. The FBUs emphasis on this issue is not only misleading but purely designed to create alarm and discontent in the service, and this needs to be tackled head-on in each fire and rescue authority.

As you know, as part of the revised offer I made to the FBU in June, I said that I would be prepared to set up a group to look at the workforce management issues to do with fitness. Some discussions have been progressing on this issue with ourselves, the FBU and the national employers. Of course fitness and capability is an issue for the employers, drawing on your expertise, and I expect fire and rescue authorities to play the lead in resolving any concerns which firefighters may have. It naturally goes without saying, that this futile strike will only damage the reputation of the fire and rescue service.

I am glad to hear that all your business continuity arrangements are now in hand and I am grateful for the work that you have put into these and to those who are providing emergency cover - whether firefighters or volunteers - who deserve our special thanks.

When I spoke at this conference last year, I said that I was very pleased to have been given the brief and that I was looking forward to working with you and your elected members in the coming weeks, months and hopefully years. I am happy to say that 12 months on I remain enthused about the opportunities and the agenda ahead.

It has been a busy and rewarding first year in post. In December 2012, I commissioned Sir Ken Knight to take forward a review looking at efficiencies and operations in fire and rescue authorities in England, which he reported on in May this year.

I think it’s fair to say that Sir Ken’s report wasn’t universally popular. But it was never going to be and it shouldn’t have been - it asked difficult but important questions for everyone involved in the delivery of fire and rescue. Many of you have contacted me on these issues and I’m pleased to say that we’ll be publishing the government’s response in the next month or so. I’d like to thank CFOA for their recent and more forward looking submission on the review.

Today’s conference therefore provides me with the opportunity to give you a bit of sneak preview of that response. As I’ve considered the issues Sir Ken raised, I’ve drawn out 3 key principles that I think need to guide all of us in the fire and rescue sector. These principles will drive government policy and I hope that they also reflect your ambitions for the service.

The first, and dare I say it, most important principle has got to be the need to put prevention and protection first in all that we do.

Anyone who has heard me speak over the last 12 months will know that this is something I place particular importance on. For me, fire prevention is the front line for fire and rescue authorities.

And clearly, effective fire prevention and protection activities are crucially important when considering how fire and rescue authorities can better protect their communities and achieve operational efficiencies.

Work together - with and through other partners - to promote and target fire safety advice and information. Offer tailored fire safety solutions. Support business and others to comply with fire safety regulations in a way that allows for business growth.

All of this activity minimises the risk that the next fire will even happen, let alone that it will claim lives, cause injury or close a business.

Sir Ken’s report made compelling and impressive reading on the distance that the public has travelled in fire safety terms over the past decade.

The latest statistics speak for themselves:

  • attendance at fires has fallen by 63%

  • building fires are down by 39%

  • fires in the home have fallen by 32%, in commercial and other buildings by 49%.

  • and attendance at incidents overall has fallen by 46%.

Over the past ten years. I think that’s hugely impressive.

So, don’t lose sight of it.

It is vital that in this time of fundamental and significant transformation, fire and rescue authorities keep a clear focus on the contribution and value that effective community safety activity makes to all their outcomes.

So, my message today is: maintain your focus. Rise to the challenge of continuing to provide intelligent, accessible and targeted community fire safety information and solutions.

You - and your partners - know where your risks are and have the local knowledge and expertise to tackle them.

There may, as Sir Ken has indicated, be smarter, more efficient or less expensive ways to deliver our aspiration for communities and individuals to be made safer than ever from the risk of fire.

I accept this and urge you all to give real thought and challenge to your consideration of how you can work most effectively, and with maximum impact, to reduce risk and enhance protection across your communities.

CFOA’s recent commitment to lead a work programme to apply the principles of engagement, collaboration and targeted support to the business community and to fire and rescue authorities is an important new start.

Business aspirations for improvements in the way the Fire Safety Order is enforced have been articulated clearly in the recent Focus on Enforcement report, and by the business lobby for the statutory primary authority scheme.

It is not that businesses think that enforcement powers available under the Fire Safety Order are overused. They don’t. All agree that where public safety is a real and unmanaged risk, it is right that enforcement action is taken.

However, what businesses want is a more constructive and collaborative relationship with their authorities and fire safety officers. One where they can approach and rely on consistent, sound and proportionate advice on compliance from their fire safety officers; and on consistent and proportionate enforcement action by their fire and rescue authorities.

Making regulatory compliance as easy as possible for those who want to protect their employees, clients and, ultimately of course, their business enterprises will mark a significant cultural step-change for some fire and rescue authorities.

But the time has come to invest in new ways of thinking and new approaches - creating undoubted efficiencies for fire and rescue authorities and for businesses.

I very much welcome CFOA’s leadership and commitment to ensuring the effectiveness of the recent primary authority pilots and its acceptance of the outcome:

  • that fire safety teams in individual authorities were up for making the pilots a success

  • that there are no substantive barriers to giving the business community the same opportunity to work with regulators on fire safety that is available to them in other regulatory areas.

We will announce the way forward on primary authority shortly. Both pilots demonstrated good outcomes are available to both business and fire authorities and CFOA have shown a pragmatic approach and a willingness to respond and drive change in fire safety, promoting the principle of increased efficiency through collaboration.

This brings me on to the second principle we need to apply to fire and rescue: delivering efficiency and value for money

I have said on many occasions, that fire and rescue authorities deliver an incredibly important service for local communities and are playing their part, along with other parts of local government, in cutting the deficit. And that still stands.

During my first months in post I saw many examples of efficiencies being made by fire and rescue authorities. However when faced with the facts that then there had been a significant reduction in call outs and incidents in the last decade - and that accidental deaths from fires in the home had reached an all time low - it was clear to me that more needed to be done to address the fact that despite these positive trends, expenditure and firefighter numbers had remained broadly the same.

This is why I commissioned Sir Ken to look at the operational efficiency of the services delivered by fire and rescue authorities in England and report back on ways that they could pinpoint savings and improvements without reducing the quality life-saving services that the country’s firefighters are known for.

You know the background and will be more than familiar with Sir Ken’s report, Facing the Future, and its findings.

In the past, fire and rescue authorities have shown real flexibility and openness to change and have responded well to broader public expectations on fire and rescue functions.

But as Sir Ken’s report suggests it is time to face a different future.

As fire and rescue professionals you need to ensure that the service you deliver is efficient and proportionate and provides value for money for the taxpayer. You need to be confident that you are using your resources effectively to achieve the best possible outcomes for your communities.

Sir Ken made clear that fire and rescue authorities could not go it alone in delivering the efficiencies and transformational change that the service needs in order to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

He suggested that thought should be given to greater collaboration between the blue light emergency services: driving out efficiencies and providing more joined up services that deliver for the tax payer. For example, sharing buildings and services, jointly responding to incidents and sharing senior management.

Government is still considering its response to Sir Ken’s review but I can confirm today that I believe that collaboration is absolutely the key way forward.

We know there are some good examples of collaboration already happening in some areas:

The tri-service emergency centre in Gloucestershire - a centre for call handling shared by all three emergency services - praised by the Audit Commission.

In Hampshire, fire, police and the council are joining up back office services and expect to save up to £4 million a year.

In Devon and Somerset, ambulance and fire services run a joint response system that is delivering value for money as well as improved responses to the most critical incidents.

And Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Authority and the Police and Crime Commissioner are actively exploring closer collaborative working between the two emergency services, potentially leading in the longer term to the creation of one service.

I am very interested in Northamptonshire’s thinking in this area not least because the government is keen to support closer blue lights collaboration where locally-driven and desired.

These one-off examples need to become standard practice - collaboration can drive more efficient, joined-up services that deliver real benefits to communities.

The government response to the review will set out in more detail the work the government will be doing with the emergency services but I can confirm here and now that I want to work with you to drive this forward by removing barriers and unlocking opportunities.

This is why in June this year, as part of the Spending Round for 2015 to 2016 we announced a total of £75 million of funding to support transformational change.

I want you to think big on this. It is not about just merging fire stations, it is about wider transformation. At one level this could be about creating more emergency centres to accommodate the three blue lights services, sharing back office functions and running joint response systems. At another level, it’s about the significant changes needed to promote efficient and effective service delivery and encourage greater collaboration.

Further details of the bidding process for these amounts will be made available in due course, and we expect bidding to commence in the New Year.

The final principle is one that must underpin all that fire and rescue authorities do: making local accountability meaningful

The government response will set out our thinking on the future for fire and rescue - but I want to be clear that power remains at the local level. Decisions must be taken locally on how to take advantage of the opportunities for reform and for efficiency.

Equally service delivery and resource decisions need to be taken locally and fire and rescue authorities must be held to account by the communities who receive and pay for them.

Elected members need to provide a strong challenge and clear leadership on this.

I note with interest that the conference theme for tomorrow is “Expanding our social footprint”. In Sir Ken’s findings he mentioned the issue of latent capacity and posed the question: to what extent is community work done to make use of inevitable latent capacity or is latent capacity built into provision to allow time for firefighters to do this work?

If you frame this question in the context of meaningful local accountability you have to ask - is this work providing the best use of resources? Does it provide a clear return on investment for my area - either through reduction in incidents or increased fire safety?

You need to ensure that all of your community work undertaken by firefighters stands up to the “bottom up” challenge - and that where the benefits from this work is enjoyed by other parts of the public sector, authorities should demonstrate this and work together to apply the community budget principles: bottom-up, establishing joint budgets and sharing local knowledge, community assets and voluntary effort.

I welcome the work that many fire and rescue authorities take forward with the Prince’s Trust to deliver the Team Programme - a 12 week personal development programme which helps 16 to 25 year olds - the majority of whom are unemployed - develop their confidence, motivation and skills through teamwork in the community. The programme is also used to raise awareness of key fire safety messages.

There is no doubt in my mind that the partnership developed between fire and rescue authorities and The Princes Trust is worthwhile and effective.

In fact evidence shows that these fire and rescue authorities are seeing real benefits within their communities, partnerships, and among their own staff and above all they are helping thousands of young people.

Last year, 81% of young people supported by The Trust and fire and rescue authorities moved into work, education, training or volunteering - a critical achievement that cannot be underplayed. This is a good example of latent capacity being utilised in a meaningful way - of benefit to the wider community.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sir Ken - that you are right to capitalise on your reputation to help deliver other services to hard to reach communities but this should only be the case where you are commissioned to do so, or have identified a clear cost benefit to your aims or those of other public sector bodies and demonstrated the benefit accordingly.

Another point from the review I want to mention here is the National Joint Council Scheme of Conditions for Local Authority fire and rescue services - also known as the Grey Book.

Sir Ken’s review found that firefighters’ terms and conditions, can act as a perceived or actual barrier to the sorts of transformation that can make services more efficient and effective.

A decade after the last significant revision it is timely to ask, as Sir Ken said, whether the current Grey book is fit for purpose.

Sir Ken’s thoughts on this topic have certainly given me food for thought and I know from many of you that it is something that you think should be reviewed. I’m really interested to hear your further views on this today.

In the wider context of local accountability, fire and rescue authorities and the communities they serve need to be able to hold their service to account, not just on an annual basis but against the performance of other fire and rescue authorities. The Local Government Association’s peer review scheme provides a helpful part of this process but there is an additional need for quantitative evidence.

It is my firm belief that the sector should set and agree its own standards for what an efficient fire and rescue authority looks like and on what basis they should be compared. The transparency drive that I have spoken about before is part of this, embedded in the National Framework and in Assurance Statements. But communities won’t be able to really assess services unless the information and benchmarking you provide is easy to compare. I therefore call on the Chief Fire Officers’ Association and the Local Government Association to work together to deliver a robust tool to enable authorities and communities alike to challenge the efficiency of their services.

And finally, having now covered all three emerging themes, in particular delivering efficiency and value for money you would be forgiven for thinking I have omitted a highly important issue: on call firefighters.

The Knight Review set a clear challenge on increasing the proportion of on call firefighters. I have said before that there is no doubt that the retained duty system is the backbone of the fire and rescue response in great swathes of the country.

In March when I spoke at the Local Government Association’s annual fire conference, faced with the evidence of falling calls, I challenged your Elected Members to address whether more stations could now be crewed by on call firefighters, even in urban areas.

It should therefore come as no surprise that I support the challenge posed by Sir Ken. On call firefighters are part of the solution for the delivery of fire and rescue services in England and a proportionate way to respond in a low-demand environment.

Some of you say that there are significant barriers, particularly in terms of recruitment and retention that prohibit extending the numbers and distribution of on call firefighters, but some of the barriers are cultural; ‘it wouldn’t work’ here you say. But I think there is a strong case for change. As I said earlier it is time to face the future and in doing so I want to hear from you, as the leaders in charge of operational delivery, not about just about why you can’t make this change, but how you can overcome the barriers standing in your way and how we can help you to do so.

We want to work with the sector to explore options to further support on call but this requires input from you as to how it can be delivered. As a starting point I would welcome your views during the question and answer session on how you think this can be achieved. It is clear that we face a number of challenges ahead. But these are also opportunities for us to deliver real transformation.

Thank you.

Published 19 September 2013