Richard Rosser on the government’s unusual behaviour over proposals for PCCs to take over responsibilities for fire and rescues services
Last week saw the start of the Lords Committee stage of the Policing and Crime Bill, with a key debate on a government proposal for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to take over responsibility for the local Fire and Rescue Service (FRS). In seeking to delete the relevant Clauses, Labour has pointed out that ministers have yet to explain the likely benefits; and at the same highlighted the many existing and successful voluntary arrangements between emergency services.
Yet the government appear to have decided that the most effective organisational structure for FRSs, both now and in the future, was precisely in line with that currently in existence for the police and PCCs. Yet there have been mergers of FRSs which has meant they are not always co-terminus with police/PCCs structures. Bringing fire and rescue under such control would make unlikely further desirable mergers.
The government’s consultation has not made the case for the change either. Nor did it seek views or comments on the substance of the proposal, instead asking for comments on a process by which the takeover could be effected.
Ministers have also not addressed the potential risks involved in the transfer of fire and rescue to PCCs, and the impact it could have on existing collaborations – including with the ambulance service, with whom the FRS works far more closely than the police. Another risk of being closely associated with the police relates to the FRS’s much smaller budgets and less media attention. It could become the service of secondary concern under a new police orientated management and governance structure, and suffer from benign neglect.
Then there are the potential associated problems of a change in public perceptions of the FRS and its personnel. The public regard the FRS as a humanitarian service as opposed to the police with its law enforcement role. Much of its work is preventative, involving visiting workplaces and homes and talking to people about safety issues. A closer alignment with the police will be rightly or wrongly interpreted by some as leading to an increased exchange of information, making the preventative role more difficult.
In response to our many concerns, the government made assertions but failed to provide hard evidence that the takeover of FRS responsibilities by PCCs would be more effective or improve performance. They also could not explain why having made it a statutory requirement in the Bill for an emergency service to keep under consideration entering collaboration agreements with other services, they were now seeking such changes.
In the end, Ministers sought merely to fall back on the argument that there had been a commitment in the Conservative Party’s manifesto at the 2015 general election. In reality, it was not specific in this regard but referred to enabling fire and police services to work more closely, and to develop the role of PCCs. We will of course return to this issue during the later stages of the Bill but for the now the government is showing unusual tunnel vision on this matter. Something perhaps, to do with the former Home Secretary’s new position of power?
Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords
Published 20th September 2016