Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.
I would like to thank you for inviting me to be here today. I am now in my seventh week as the Fire Minister and it is already a role that I am relishing, including the challenges it poses at this time and we’re all too well aware of these.
It was a particular pleasure for me to take on this post as this is a service which is very important to me. That isn’t just rhetoric I hope that I can claim a genuine track record. 25 years ago I became the first leader of the then London Fire and Civil Defence Authority. Later, I served on its successor LFEPA. Up until last month, my wife was a member of a Fire Authority. I had the pleasure of shadowing this portfolio for a time whilst in Opposition.
In the weeks that I have been in post, and from that previous knowledge I am fully aware of the breadth and depth of the work undertaken by our fire and rescue service and the dedication and professionalism of the men and women who work within it. You provide a trusted local service to your communities yet effectively respond to national emergencies where the interoperability and resilience on the ground becomes apparent and important.
The fire and rescue service has been hugely successful in ensuring that our communities are safer places and less exposed to the destruction and devastation caused by fire. You have played a full part as partners in delivering other local priorities and we naturally want that success to continue.
Put simply, the work you do saves lives. Fire Safety strategies are succeeding. Fire deaths in the home in England have halved since the 1980s. The long-term trend is downwards: in 2008, 213 people perished in accidental fires in the home. Of course, one fire death is one too many, but nevertheless real progress has been made. Recent statistics, however, suggest that the long term downward trend is beginning to plateau and we all need to look at how we can continue to drive deaths down further still.
It is not always easy, we all know that. Last year on the 3rd of July we saw the devastating fire in Lakanal House, Camberwell in which 6 residents lost their lives, and I recognise that tragically firefighters have lost their lives whilst attending incidents over recent years.
On the 6th of April this year we had the tragic loss of Firefighters Alan Bannon and James Shears (Red Watch, St Mary’s Fire Station) who died at the Shirley Towers, Southampton and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them and to all other firefighters who have lost their lives. Both myself and the Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser will continue to seek to learn lessons from these tragedies.
I appreciate that firefighters work is not just restricted to this country. You have also shown great resilience in responding to international catastrophes such as the terrible events in Haiti. One of my first events as Fire Minister was to meet with some of the Haiti crews at Downing Street and the Firefighter Charity awards. It was a humbling, yet proud experience.
So what I say here today, however challenging it may be, I, and this Coalition Government, recognise and value greatly the work that you do, we have the highest regard for the work of all our public services, and you, within the fire and rescue service, are an exemplar of what public services are all about.
Early into the new coalition we find ourselves facing tough choices around funding. When the Prime Minister took up office at Number 10 he was faced with a bill for £156 billion of public debt. The Government has made it clear from the outset, and as shown by the Budget last week, that deficit reduction is our most urgent priority.
This, and continuing to ensure economic recovery, is the most pressing issue facing our Country. We all need to restore confidence and support the recovery. It is better to start making those reductions now, as not to do so will simply delay the need for savings in future years.
This means that we must be utterly rigorous in prioritising resources to support frontline services, whilst cutting waste through greater transparency, improving efficiency through more joint working and energetically delivering value for money in procurement.
It has never been more important that we are open to new ideas, to new ways of working and delivery, and to greater flexibility in providing services.
These represent big challenges for us all. We all have our part to play. But, this is also our opportunity, for a better, more ambitious future. Because these challenges are not mere problems - they are a mandate for change.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Change begets change and it is time for a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to individuals and their communities. I am talking about localism.
There has been too much central government prescription telling you what to do in your local area. As has been made clear by the Prime Minister the days of big government are over and the days of Big Society and Localism have begun.
It is time for us to reset the relationship between central government and local government. The tired old bureaucratic approach needs to go. We want people to feel connected to their communities, proud of their communities and we are giving people a real say over what happens in their communities. This is not just a shift of power, but of culture.
The devolution of the power to individuals, to communities will make a real difference to the way local services are delivered, to the way communities hold service providers accountable.
We are serious about this. We are going to shake up the balance of power and change the constitution. As our Secretary of State, Eric Pickles would say our 3 priorities in order of priority, one, localism, and we’ll weave that into everything we do. The second priority is localism, and the third is, you’ve guessed it localism. But not necessarily in that order.
It won’t be a single action or a single law that we collectively embed the changes that are needed. It will be through dramatic and bold actions, but also small and incremental changes. Localism is the principle, the philosophy that defines everything we do.
So when I talk of a mandate for change, I am talking of opportunity.
Opportunity to build the Big Society and do things better by pushing power back to the people.
Opportunity for localism to become embedded in this country and all that we do.
Opportunity for you in fire and rescue services to shine and strengthen the engagement you already have in your communities.
For example, we recognise and value the important role the parts of the fire and rescue service play in their communities in working with vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, including those who may take part in anti-social behaviour. You do this through a wide range of initiatives focussed on the needs of young people and their communities both independently and in partnership with other local agencies.
And across England, the vital contribution of retained duty system firefighters provides an excellent example of how localism and the Big Society are already embedded within parts of the fire and rescue service. They serve and protect their local community and at the same time provide a crucial element of national resilience.
In the sphere of Local Government it is clear already that the pace of change is rapid. We want to hand more choice and more freedom back to local authorities, fire authorities and the communities they represent. Activity should take place at the most local level possible to give people a real say in what happens in their area.
We will not be moving back to prescriptive national standards. The Integrated Risk Management Plan process is already established and provides a sound basis to allow for the provision of local services driven by the local agenda and based on local risks and need of the local community. Localism, we all need to live it, not just say it.
This is just the start. As we said in the Coalition Agreement we will “promote a radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups”. We want to make sure that we treat Local Government like grown-ups rather than insisting that a nanny state knows best.
Changing relationship and challenges for the FRS
However, you would still be forgiven for thinking that all governments talk about shifting power. But we have proved it by getting on and doing it with pace:
- We’ve made HIPS history and already the number of homes being put up for sale has gone up 35 per cent.
- We’ve given a lifeline to thousands of businesses in ports who had huge backdated business rates hanging over their heads.
- We have scrapped the top down housing targets and meaningless regional spatial strategies.
- We’ve put an end to ‘garden grabbing’ which has seen acres of land lost to intensive development.
- We’ve cut the ring fencing and red tape which comes attached to hundreds of millions pounds worth of central government grants.
- We’re leading by example in making central government more open, more transparent, more accountable.
- And we’re showing we’re serious about saving money, taking pay cuts ourselves and announcing a public sector pay freeze in last week’s Budget.
With localism in mind we are also looking across the piece at what central government does and asking the question “should we?”
Should we be telling the fire and rescue service what constitutes frontline; surely you know best what your local priorities are and should be deciding what constitutes your frontline yourselves?
Should we continue to require fire and rescue authorities to work through Regional Management Boards or allow the freedom for individual authorities to work on a collaborative basis in a way that works best for you locally - not determined by regional boundaries?
Should we be setting national targets for you to achieve better diversity in your workforce? Isn’t this is an area where you should show your own leadership and commitment and choose to challenge yourselves rather than looking to government for that challenge.
Should we be telling you how to recruit and develop your staff? You are the Employers and you should know best your workforce requirements.
Should we be looking to regulate further? ‘No’ would be my answer. We must move away from the view that the only way to solve problems is to regulate, neither you nor business need to be bound hand and foot with red tape.
Take sprinklers for example. Just a couple of weeks ago I visited West Midlands where I saw first hand the good work that can be achieved without regulation. If you think that more fire protection would be good for UK businesses then you should be making your case to the business community, not to the government.
There is a line to be drawn and I want to send a clear signal that we in government are looking urgently at what we should stop doing and at what the sector can be expected to do for itself.
As I have said, it is about resetting the relationship. Looking at that line between central and national. If it makes sense for something to be handled at a national level that does not automatically mean that it needs to be driven centrally. The sector, by sharing good practice and agreeing on priorities should surely be able to drive much of this without our input.
I have talked about the future role of localism and the opportunity that a Big Society can bring. But what does this mean for the fire and rescue service? In taking on the brief as fire minister I have a duty to ask myself the hard questions about the modern fire service, and to ask them framed very much from a localist perspective.
I want to know how government and the service can deliver differently, more locally? I want to ask if there is a role for social enterprises or the voluntary sector? I want to ask if there is a role for business? I want to ask if we can pass power and funding down to communities?
I want to ask to what extent does central government have to be involved directly in the running of the fire and rescue service? I want to be clear about what needs to be done at the national level - where does the national interest lie? Assurance over response to national emergencies and resilience seems sensible but is that where the national interest in the fire and rescue service stops? I need your help to answer and ask these questions.
This is why I am proposing my department to seek out your best ideas, your new thinking and your experience to join me in a strategic review of the sector, government’s role in it and the future of the service, including whether or not we need a National Framework. I call on you today to put forward your best thinkers to work with me on this review. I will be asking my officials to pursue this with you as a matter of priority.
There are challenges ahead, including those posed by funding, but let me be clear, now more then ever there is a need for strong collective leadership by the service.
It is time for the sector to step up and seize the opportunities that are coming your way. Don’t wait around for us to tell you what to do. My advice is to never do tomorrow what you can do today. I recognise that the fire and rescue service has come a long way but it now needs to prove that it can be bold and innovative.
Meeting those challenges?
There is no disguising that things are going to be challenging, there are hard times ahead, but as I have said none of us came into public service for an easy ride.
We do recognise the challenges that lie ahead in delivering local services at a time when we face the worst financial deficit seen in decades. This will require a different way of doing things than we may have been used to previously.
The big question you will need to address is how you will deal with the changing environment. I believe there is significant scope to find efficiencies in the way you deliver services. And not to put too fine a point upon it, to deliver on savings will mean doing more for less, or in some cases stopping activity which no longer needs to be done.
It’s not just about value for money - that’s old news, its nothing special and it is what everyone should do all the time. But it is about looking at your ways of working.
You may wish to consider radical approaches such as flexible staffing with changes to shift and crewing systems, shared services or back office functions or even voluntary mergers at operational level.
Or you may wish to look at management of the more process type functions such as improved sickness management or improved procurement. These will be your choices and your decisions.
But none of these suggestions will be dictated by central government, and I can assure you we will not be providing your answers either.
These are your challenges and your decisions, not just as individual fire and rescue authorities and services, but collectively, as a professional organisation.
And finally I come to the major challenge for us all - FiReControl. I hesitate to say “what you have all been waiting for” because that couldn’t sum up the position better!
This project has been a catalogue of delays, poor delivery and added costs. You all know its history - and I am not going to waste time today by going over it yet again.
The basic concept of FiReControl - a resilient national network of control centres, delivering modernisation and efficiencies - is sound. Control operators and fire services should be able to work together across the country, with modern shared technology, especially at busy times. Many people would be surprised that they cannot now.
But so far we have seen very little of the main system delivered. So let us focus on the three delivery basics.
The project must be delivered to time. Both the Government and the main contractor EADS have given a clear public commitments on delivery. Now is the time to keep to those commitments. We cannot have more uncertainty and broken promises.
The project must be delivered to cost. I have already said clearly that the fire community has to face its share of cuts and efficiencies. These are tough times for public spending. Throwing more money at this project, from some bottomless pit of public expenditure, can no longer be the answer or the safety net when it hits problems. That would be totally unacceptable.
And third, the project must be delivered to quality. The fire and rescue service has been promised a system that is generally better - and at least as good as - their existing systems. The capability, resilience and performance of the new system must meet that promise. There cannot be any corner cutting. Nothing less will do.
Finally, I need to be satisfied that these three basics are achievable. As you know, the government is currently reviewing all major projects - and FiReControl is one of them. That is a timely and important step in making sure we can achieve what I have set out today - and the process must run its course as soon as possible.
I know this has been a long and frustrating business. Many of you have supported the objectives of FiReControl over many years and given your time and expertise. But have waited - and waited - to see the end product. That cannot go on.
However, you are also well aware that it is a very complex project with a history. Along the way the - many - Fire Ministers have made unhelpful announcements which have benefited nobody. I am not going to do that today - however much you would like me to!
We all want clarity and certainty on this project. And one thing is certain - both I and the Secretary of State Eric Pickles will carefully consider every aspect of FiReControl with a view to ensuring there is a clear outcome. Then we can be confident of a way forward that best supports local fire and rescue services in doing their vital job in local communities.
I must emphasise that we expect EADS to deliver what the fire and rescue services need. But, as is only sensible, if necessary - and as recommended by the Select Committee - we will talk to the fire service community about a contingency plan.
Today I have set out my agenda and aims for the sector. The fire and rescue service has undergone a period of unprecedented change and challenge over recent years and it has risen to these challenges admirably.
However we are now facing a new period of change, challenge and opportunity.
It’s time to reset the relationship, the day of the Big Society and Localism is here.
It is time to look at doing more for less. More power, less money.
It is time to step up and take the responsibility for your sector.
And it is time to put Firecontrol onto a sound and stable footing.
I have great expectations that the fire and rescue service will rise to these challenges with all the energy and enthusiasm that it has previously shown.
There is a lot of work to do and now is the time to do it.