Speech

Fire Minister Brandon Lewis speaks at Fire Sector Summit 2016

Minister for Policing and the Fire Service Brandon Lewis talks about fire reform at the Fire Protection Association Sector Summit.

Brandon Lewis

Introduction

Thank you for the warm welcome and for the trailing in as well. I’m delighted that fire was promoted to the Home Office just as I was. It is opportune, if not ironic, timing to regain responsibility for fire and rescue in England and to re-engage with the wider work that is going on across the wider fire industry and stakeholder sector. And it is true that while everything changes, also very little changes, and things that we were talking about in 2012, we are still talking about now. And can I just say, that I have no plans to privatise the fire service.

Your work – collectively and individually – in providing equipment, products, services and advice to all those involved in making the built environment safe from fire makes a vital – and let’s be honest, often unsung – contribution to the high levels of public safety that are evident across our communities today.

I know from when I was in housing, the impact that your work has on keeping people safe. Like the fire and rescue service, you should all be proud of the long term downward trend in fire incidents and fatalities over the last decade, which have recently reached historically low levels. But we always have to be vigilant. Buildings are safer, families and communities are more secure, and fewer false alarms are wasting business and firefighters’ time.

I do very much welcome your collective and proactive efforts to ensure that the standards of fire safety advice, products and services available to designers, architects, construction professionals, building owners and managers and the enforcing authorities are appropriately high, exactly how we all want them to be.

I have no doubt that it is the ambition of everyone in this room to maintain the UK’s reputation as a world leader for fire safety and response. And that positive pressure across the fire safety industry and by fire and rescue services continues to support and motivate and to make sure we continue innovation and advancement of products and services available both to UK customers and, of course, to the international market place.

I do very much value the positive approach being taken by the sector - notably the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) and the Fire Industries Association are taking in conjunction with colleagues in the Department for International Trade to develop and promote high quality UK fire safety products and services across the world. Fire safety is a commodity. It is good for UK plc and is an important part of promoting our country as we go ahead. Maintaining the UK’s status as a world leader in fire prevention and protection, and working together to bring the best of the British fire safety industry to a global market, makes a vital contribution to both our economy and importantly our reputation. You can rely on this government’s support.

The recent – hopefully short-term – small increase in the number of fire incidents and fatalities is a clear and stark reminder, should one be needed, that no-one should be complacent in thinking that our collective work is done or near so.

Maintaining high standards of building and public safety requires constant vigilance and, of course it needs further innovation.

Using research and technology to continuously improve and develop new systems and products to provide more sophisticated and intelligent fire protection.

And, of course always recognising that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that works across the board.

Businesses and others operate in a complex and challenging environment. Fire safety might not always be top of their list of priorities but there is no doubt that the consequences of a fire can be devastating – both for the businesses and the local community, as I saw in my own constituency recently.

Businesses and those responsible for non-domestic premises need a diverse set of fire safety solutions. They can then genuinely benefit from the flexibility to determine how best to meet their statutory responsibilities in respect of life safety and protection. They need easy access to good, competent advice to identify and assess risks, high quality workmanship from trusted and certified suppliers and installers, and products which demonstrably meet good standards.

But this is only a part of the story. As the minister I want to see the downward trend in fire continue and deaths and injuries to continue to fall – and of course, the quicker the better for everybody.

What you – the wider fire industry – do goes far beyond life safety and regulatory compliance, delivering property protection and building robust business and community resilience across the country. Your work plays an important part in building and maintaining UK plc – supporting business growth and building resilience – by offering the products and services that allow business to make informed decisions.

My expectations and my hope is that you will continue to drive the work needed to professionalise the fire safety industry – by developing new standards for products, and exploiting innovation and technology to further enhance the quality and responsiveness of safety measures and systems. And, by developing and promoting training and certification schemes, allowing those involved in the business of protecting our buildings from fire to extend and demonstrate their competence. We can do this alongside ensuring further professionalism in the fire service.

All of this adds up to a significant package of support to the business community – both large and small – enabling them to make a positive and informed choice about how, from design to demolition, to cost effectively protect their buildings and people in the communities.

Fire reform

I want to use this opportunity to outline my vision for fire reform more generally.

While the fire and rescue service has been effective in preventing and responding to fires, fundamental reforms are needed in order to make the service the best it can be. And to quote Mark’s earlier comments, be fit for not just the 21st century but the 23rd century. Like the fire industry represented here today, we expect the fire and rescue service to rise to the challenge. My role is clear: to deliver (in partnership with the Chief Fire Officers’ Association, the Local Government Association and individual fire and rescue authorities) the radical and ambitious package of reforms the Prime Minister, when former Home Secretary, announced earlier this year.

I want this reform programme to be owned by the service, for the service, delivering for the future, harnessing the skills and expertise that exists in the fire and rescue service – and in industry – to shape what we are collectively looking to achieve and deliver.

Pillar 1: efficiency and collaboration

Our fire reform agenda comprises 3 distinct pillars: efficiency and collaboration, accountability and transparency and workforce reform. This is about maximizing available resources, enhancing local resilience and improving the service that it is delivering to the public.

On the first pillar, collaboration presents a real opportunity for emergency services to increase their efficiency and effectiveness, ultimately improving the service that is delivering to the public, to see better outcomes.

In my travels around the country, not only in the last few months when taking on this role but in the last few years, I have seen many positive examples: from shared estates and support functions in Cheshire to co-responding between the fire and rescue service and the ambulance service in Hampshire.

The statutory duty to collaborate in the Policing and Crime Bill now going through the House of Lords is intentionally high level and non-prescriptive, and that is on purpose, so that local leaders can determine the sort of collaboration that is in the best interests of their local communities.

But collaboration should not be restricted to just the emergency services. I am delighted to see sector wide activity such as the recent British Woodworking Federation’s fire door safety week and the Chief Fire Officers’ Association’s annual business safety week.

As we know from the national Fire Kills campaign which we run in partnership with CFOA and local fire and rescue services, campaigns such as these are a great opportunity to make a real and lasting difference across the country. As, of course, is the fire sector’s collaborative work a few years ago to develop a competency standard and certification system for commercial risk assessors which has provided businesses with confidence that they need so that they can employ to assess fire risk in their buildings are up to the task.

There are many more excellent collaboration examples I could have mentioned. I want to see you build on your collective and individual strengths to further collaborate so that we can all realise the sector’s wider potential to better support improved fire safety for the built environment for communities more generally through the national provision of quality advice, products and improved services.

Procurement

Procurement is one area where, I am sure you will agree, the service must do better. Policing reform has shown that local services can deliver substantial savings by collectively buying the same equipment where operational requirements allow. This is not just about reducing costs but about purchasing more smartly and more effectively.

Sir Ken Knight’s report Facing the Future back in 2013 set the wheels in motion for collaborative and better procurement, and I was pleased to see the sector recently agree a new commercial transformation programme through CFOA’s newly formed Strategic Commercial Committee with endorsement from chiefs across the country.

In my view, it simply makes no sense for fire and rescue authorities to buy separately when there are both financial and operational benefits to buying together. As our recent basket of commonly procured goods exercise captured, the difference in prices paid across fire and rescue authorities for the same item is remarkable: over £28,000 variance in the price of staff vehicles, over £1,000 in the price paid for laptops and £10 for helmets.

I have every intention of repeating the exercise and am looking at when may be the best time to follow up and will look at whether we should expand the basket of goods.

I would like to see the new approach enabling fire and rescue services to collaboratively procure goods as well as services in a more standardised and joined up way, as well as engaging with the industry as one voice.

I am clear that a similar joined up approach can be taken to evaluating products, which I know will benefit some of you here today. CFOA, the Fire Service College and the Fire Industry Association are collaborating to run a research and development function which will evaluate equipment once, rather than repeatedly by each local service, in doing so reducing duplication and facilitating the sharing of knowledge and making procurement more efficient as well. I have heard stories of pieces of kit being individually tested by over 20 services at any one time. That kind of duplication is wasteful and my expectation is that all services will engage with this function going forward.

Standards

We are also working with the sector to develop a coherent and comprehensive set of professional standards and exploring options for the establishment of an standards body to drive sector improvement.

I see a standards body as a powerful lever in securing professional ownership and driving up performance in key areas of fire reform, complementing the planned introduction of an independent inspection regime for fire, a revised peer challenge process to support sector improvement and the new National Fire Chiefs’ Council (NFCC).

I want these new standards to cover a range of issues such as professionalisation, ethics, technology and the workforce. The National Operational Guidance Programme is a good example of how the sector, with government support, has developed a suite of operational guidance for the fire and rescue service which promotes consistency and removes conflict in the approach taken by firefighters at incidents.

I hope to announce further details on this key reform pillar by the end of the year.

Pillar 2: accountability and transparency

Turning to the second pillar – accountability and transparency – the Policing and Crime Bill contains enabling provisions for police and crime commissioners to take on the functions of fire and rescue authorities where a strong local case is made.

Subject to the will of Parliament, the bill is expected to get royal assent by the turn of the year and I am aware of a number of police and crime commissioners who are well on the way with doing the work on their business cases.

This is a key reform which will bring a direct democratic mandate to oversight of fire and rescue, in doing so providing greater accountability and strong leadership committed to keeping the public safe. And by overseeing both services, police and crime commissioners who would be police, fire and crime commissioners should take it on and can maximize the benefits of collaboration and ensure best practice is shared.

We will preserve the distinct identity of the fire and rescue service and ensure that the public have clarity that they are electing someone to the role of both police and crime commissioner and the fire and rescue authority. This is not a police takeover and the important distinction between operational policing and fire fighting will be maintained.

In addition to reform of accountability we also need to improve transparency of the service and allow members of the public – as well as the service themselves – to make informed judgements as to how their service is performing against a range of measures.

The publication of operational statistics later this month will include more workforce diversity data, and the published ‘basket of goods’ procurement data is one measurement of value for money. Policing will shortly be publishing more integrity data and I believe fire and rescue service should follow suit.

And, knowing how important some of the data we collect can be to you as a sector, I want to reassure you. Across government there is a commitment to open data and we are exploring what more we in the Home Office can do and can publish, including IRS data. We are on the case.

Inspection

We will also create a rigorous independent inspection regime.

The Policing and Crime Bill has provisions to create an inspection framework for fire that is similar to the current framework for police forces, strengthening the inspection powers in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 to put beyond doubt the powers of fire inspectors to enter premises and access information, and to ensure the government has the power to commission inspections of particular issues or individual fire and rescue services.

Our working assumption is that a new inspectorate will be fully operational in April 2018, with 2017/18 used to plan, pilot and develop standards that future performance can be assessed against.

Pillar 3: reform of the fire and rescue workforce

The final pillar covers the fire and rescue service’s greatest resource, the workforce, which accounts for over 80% of service spend.

While we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the third of the current workforce who will be retiring over the next 5 years, there is no question that fire and rescue authorities will shortly as a result of that, have a great opportunity to re-shape both their thinking and their workforce. There is clearly much rebuilding to be done about culture and trust within the service. And greater workforce flexibility introduced to allow for a new risk and demand model being able to be met. Our reform programme – including the work underway on standards and inspection – aims to drive higher performance across the board.

Thomas review

And having fully considered it, I will shortly publish the Adrian Thomas Review. A review, incidentally, I instigated when last in office.

The review is a wide ranging piece of work which makes a number of recommendations across 5 broad themes: the working environment; documented conditions of service; industrial relations; retained duty system and management. And again, if you pick up the Knight review, there are things that we were talking about several years ago that we need to do. We need to get on with this now, this has to happen.

The majority of the review’s recommendations are for the service to deliver. I know that many services and the sector more generally, challenged and supported by government, have not waited for publication and are already taking some steps towards reform. For example, the recent decision by CFOA to become the National Fire Chiefs’ Council and the positive engagement between the sector and government on the development of professional standards and a fire inspectorate are clear examples of this. This work will have a clear bearing on broader workforce reform. I now look to all services to react positively to the review’s findings and take action to modernise and transform our workforce for the better.

A few of the recommendations are addressed absolutely directly to government and I assure you we will carefully consider them and respond to them.

Conclusion

As you can see, we are embarking on an ambitious programme of far reaching reform of fire and rescue in England.

At the heart of it is collaboration, transparency and accountability. And I firmly believe that these are principles which can be adopted more widely than fire and rescue authorities. The wider fire sector has an absolutely crucial part to play in ensuring that all those who need to understand how to protect people and buildings from fire are able to do so with sound and proportionate advice and with high quality products and services.

I can assure you that while fire reform and delivering on that collaboration work is my number one priority I will continue to advocate the adoption of proportionate standards of fire safety and protection across the built environment. And also that my officials in the Home Office will continue to build and maintain the collaborative relationships that are so crucial in government. Between us all, everyone in the fire sector, we have a huge opportunity and challenge and responsibility to deliver change that the service needs.

Thank you and I hope that you enjoy the rest of the conference today.

Published 19 October 2016