Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.
I am delighted to be here today at what is now my third of these events.
I am honoured to have been able to hold the position of Fire and Rescue Minister for what is now nearly two years. It has given me time to get to know you and understand the challenges you face. I hope to continue this dialogue, particularly with local councillors, to hear about the issues you face.
Over the last year we have again seen fire and rescue authorities exemplifying all that we rightly value in a public service. We clearly saw just how much we depend on fire and rescue as a high-performing emergency service in the public disorder that we saw on our streets this summer.
Put simply, the work you do saves lives. Fire and rescue authorities have been hugely successful in ensuring that our communities are safer places less exposed to the destruction and devastation caused by fire.
I know many of you work with the Fire Kills Campaign and I am delighted today to be able to announce that the Fire Kills national campaign has been given approval to continue in 2012/13.
We believe this and your wider prevention work, is a vital strand in our in our national fire safety armory - not only regularly reminding the public, through powerful media messages aligned to the forthcoming clock change, of the need to ensure they have a working smoke alarm, but also developing partnerships and working in collaboration with a range of organisations to target safety messages on those who are most vulnerable to the risk of fire.
Increasingly, the success of the Fire Kills campaign relies on a close relationship, based on true partnership with fire and rescue authorities, who must take much of the credit for the continuing stability around accidental fire deaths in home.
The valuable contribution fire and rescue authorities have made by supporting the campaign at the local level and implementing a raft of prevention and other community fire safety activities to delivering the fire prevention agenda has real impact.
As we look to the future this isn’t the time to slow down - injuries rose by nine per cent over the past year, clearly emphasising the need a high profile focus to remain on prevention activity.
Resetting the relationship
We need to continue the step change in the way we all engage. I am of course talking of resetting the relationship which is the clear vision I have been talking about it since my first speech back to you in Harrogate in 2010 - I would hope that it is something that you all recognise by now.
This vision is at the very heart of the Coalition Government’s ambition - putting power back where it belongs - in communities and the locally elected councillors who represent them.
Over the last year we have been making this a reality. The provisions for fire and rescue authorities within the Localism Act came into force 18 February 2012. This is a huge milestone.
Empowering fire and rescue authorities with greater freedoms and flexibilities is a good example of central Government stepping back and letting you get on with your job.
We have also seen milestones such as the Open Public Service White Paper and new guidance on data transparency.
My department has already begun to change the way it works with you and together we have made some great steps forward in our vision to reset our relationship.
For example, the announcement a couple of weeks ago on of funding for future control rooms services saw a localist approach in action, securing improvements in national resilience, rather than the flawed top-down regionalisation of the fire service.
And last autumn we undertook a pre-market engagement exercise to help inform our view and options in securing the future of the Fire Service College. Having considered responses to the pre-market engagement with the help of our partners, the option which is emerging as the most likely to meet our objective is to sell the college as a going concern to a private sector company who would continue to operate the college as a training centre.
With the college freed from the constraints of government ownership, a private sector owner can bring innovation and investment to the College, benefiting taxpayers, local residents, the Fire and Rescue Service and, ultimately, strengthening national resilience.
I hope to be able to confirm the final decision shortly but if the College is sold we shall, insist on a number of conditions on the proposed sale, including commitments not only that the college will be preserved as a national training college for the fire and rescue authorities, but also that it will continue to offer wider national resilience and emergency services training and exercises, that the wider emergency services will be involved in the overall setting of training governance and that government permission will be required to sell the site on for other uses.
I know that fire and rescue authorities do not want to lose the college so if the decision is to sell it as a going concern I do hope that you will continue to support the college in its new ventures. In short use it or lose it!
Continuing with the resetting the relationship theme there are a few issues I would like to pick up.
As you will be aware the consultation on the draft National Framework has just closed and taking an early view of some of the responses we have noted the request for more guidance and detail.
The best thing I can do to help you improve services is to set the framework and context and get out of the way and let you get on with your job. I will not second guess you with central government guidance unless absolutely necessary. This is role for you as local leaders, supported by your national leadership bodies.
You know that I am keen that there are robust scrutiny arrangements in place. Many of you in fire and rescue authorities will already arrangements in place that meet the requirement in the draft Framework.
I do not consider it appropriate for proper scrutiny of decision making on public safety and how public funds are used to be treated as an extravagance that gets in the way of the day job - it is a core function of any public service to act in a transparent way.
Some of you have asked for more information on assurance statements. I see these as a proportionate requirement for an important public service with no specific inspectorate.
I am keen not to duplicate existing arrangements with these statements; and have asked my officials to work with the Local Government Association and the Chief Fire Officers Association to deliver a light touch approach to delivering such statements.
I am also aware that there has been some concern that the draft Framework doesn’t highlight, as strongly as it has previously, achievements on fire prevention.
I’m absolutely sure no one doubts the significant contribution and impact the fire and rescue authorities have on protecting communities, especially those most vulnerable to fire.
The truth is local fire and rescue authorities are delivering their statutory duties to promote fire safety through innovative partnership approaches and engaging local communities. I am confident that these measures are saving lives and I support them. It is not central government’s role to meddle in this good practice by adding additional requirements or window dressing platitudes through the National Framework.
What we will say is that you need to engage your communities - give them a real understanding of the risks being faced and the full range of what you are doing so they can better understand why you make the decisions you do.
We all know there are some increasingly tough decisions to be made on how best to allocate prevention, protection and operational resources locally to effectively mitigate both existing and potential risks. And that this needs to be done in a way that meets community aspirations in an open and consultative way.
By giving communities a voice, you give them a choice;
- choice to make their views known on whether their priorities are the same as yours;
- choice to come up with new ideas on service provision; and,
- choice to challenge you on these issues.
National resilience remains a priority for government, and we will continue to retain strategic responsibility for ensuring that we are a nation resilient to significant risks. But we can only do this together, through true partnership, working across all local and national responders.
That is why I think we need a Fire and Rescue Strategic Resilience Board, to bring key partners together to consider national resilience issues. Of course, government will continue to set the strategic direction, but our approach to national resilience must be based on and drawn from local capability, expertise, knowledge and leadership.
We can only prepare effectively if we have an approach to resilience, based on the local expertise and knowledge that is held by fire and rescue authorities. This is because every major emergency originates as a local emergency.
The involvement and leadership of all fire and rescue authorities is needed to ensure that the necessary capability is in place to keep communities safe. This means being able to plan effectively for all incidents and emergencies, irrespective of whether such emergencies are of a local, cross-border or national nature.
Communities rightly expect their local fire and rescue authorities to play their part in keeping the country safe, and I am pleased to see that a number of you embrace this approach to national resilience.
But not every one holds this view, and some query the Framework’s expression of your Civil Contingency Act duties. I want to be clear that the draft Framework does not set out any new roles and responsibilities in relation to national resilience for fire and rescue authorities. The draft Framework simply sets them out clearly and succinctly. The existing National Framework, Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, the Emergencies Order 2007 and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 all set out requirements in relation to national resilience.
We have stated in the draft Framework that if it is seen that there is a need for building new national resilience capabilities, the case for who should provide the capability and how it should be funded will be considered carefully in line with the new burdens doctrine. All of this should ensure that our overall national resilience capability remains strong, and, with your leadership and commitment, we can continue to ensure that we are collectively working to ensure the safety of our citizens.
I am of course mindful of the financial backdrop to all this change. We have taken tough decisions necessary to get public spending under control. No-one in this room is under any illusions about the wider economic challenges we face today.
But every bit of the public sector needs to play its part to cut the deficit inherited from the last administration. Despite the need to cut the national deficit, fire and rescue, as a frontline emergency service, has been given some funding protection with reductions back-loaded to give more time for sensible savings to be made without impacting on the quality and breadth of services offered to communities.
Funding reductions to fire and rescue authorities have been less than those applied to local authorities in general and while spending decisions will be decided locally by individual fire and rescue authorities, there are many good examples that show that savings can be made without affecting the quality and breadth of front line services.
Further funding reductions are on their way for the whole of the public sector, including fire and rescue authorities. I’ve received representations from a number of you, and know that many of you are making great strives in efficiency. Thankfully fatalities are at an all time low and, thanks to innovation in industry, government action and the efforts of fire and rescue authorities, risks are falling.
If ever there was a time for strong local leadership, it’s now. Fire and rescue authorities need to look closely at their own service configuration and recognise that we are all delivering services in a new environment.
In making such decisions fire and rescue authorities use integrated risk management planning to identify and assess local need and then put plans in place to mitigate risks to communities. For each authority, their integrated risk management plan will take account of their overall budget and resource to make strategic and operational decisions on the siting of fire stations, the staffing and equipping of such stations, and hours of operation of each station.
Fire and rescue authorities already have a strong record of delivering efficiencies and have developed a number of methods through which they could achieve the savings. A couple of examples…
The South East Fire Improvement Partnership is a collaborative procurement partnership providing work-wear uniforms for nine fire and rescue authorities involved in the partnership [Buckinghamshire; East Sussex; Hampshire, Isle of Wight; Kent; Oxfordshire; Royal Berkshire; Surrey and West Sussex]. I understand that initial savings are of over £500,000 with further efficiencies predicted over the whole life of the contract. This contract is now being rolled out to other fire and rescue authorities.
I know that many of you are being imaginative on staffing arrangements. Steve, if I may highlight Manchester’s initiative to make savings , as just one example. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority are moving to a four shift annualised system where firefighters operate a much more flexible duty system by attending work outside of normal hours of duty to cover shortfalls, allowing for reductions in the size of the workforce overall. Further savings are being made by fire risk based availability of fire engines and the banking of firefighters hours to cover shortfalls during busier times. These changes in cover have been made against a backdrop of reductions in incidents driven by fire prevention work in communities.
In a different type of example I’d like to highlight Lee Howell’s work in Devon & Somerset. They have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Falck EMS in June 2011 to develop ways of working together. Falck is a company providing emergency, training and assistance services, including fire fighting, fire training and fire consultancy services.
And I am sure there are many more examples from across fire and rescue authorities that you can all look at to adapt to local circumstances, to help you meet the challenges ahead.
Capital Grant Funding
I am pleased today to announce the opening of the bidding process for capital grant funding for all fire and rescue authorities for 2013-15 which will support further improvements and efficiencies.
Last year we consulted on options for the distribution of capital grant funding, and on our proposal that fire capital grant funding be distributed based on a combination of:
- an efficiency fund, administered via a bidding process; and
- a pro rata distribution using the current distribution method.
You will be able to find the guidance, timelines and related documents on our website by later today and we hope to have concluded the bidding process and made announcements on outcomes by the autumn this year.
Lastly I wanted to just briefly touch upon the issue of pensions which I understandably know is of real importance to your workforce. As you will be aware the Heads of agreement was reached on the 9th of February for a new pension scheme.
The new scheme remains a very good scheme, affording protection for those closest to retirement. Detailed discussions are ongoing with unions and the Local Government Association on behalf of the employers and local employers have a key role in engaging with their workforces over what the reform means for them.
I remain optimistic that reform can be delivered through agreement.
I can appreciate that the last year has been a period of much change and the pace has been rapid. Your drive and your expertise are essential to meeting these changes.
In this important year, when we can look forward with pride and anticipation to this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games and the key roles during the Torch Relay and both Games the Fire and Rescue Service will be playing, and when our communities will be at the proudest, it seems right that we are continuing to restore focus back where it belongs, in our communities and with those elected members who serve them. It is the right thing to do.