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Fire Reform

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2017

I want to update the House on progress made since the Prime Minister, as then Home Secretary, set out plans last May to reform the fire and rescue service in England to become more accountable, efficient and professional than ever before.

Services are already transforming and seizing opportunities for collaboration, for example, delivering a single suite of national operational guidance, creating a single, cross-service research and development function and developing a cross-service new commercial strategy. The service has also recently formed the National Fire Chiefs’ Council which will transform the operational voice of fire and rescue services.

Our reform agenda is based around three distinct pillars: efficiency and collaboration, accountability and transparency, and workforce reform.

The Government have legislated through the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to transform local fire and rescue governance, enabling police and crime commissioners to become the fire and rescue authority where a strong local case is made. The Act also creates a statutory duty to collaborate. Better joint working can strengthen our emergency services, deliver significant savings to the taxpayer and—most importantly—enable them to better protect the public. This new duty requires emergency services to keep collaboration opportunities under review and to take on collaboration opportunities where it would be in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness to do so. It will come into force in April.

While fire and rescue authorities have achieved significant savings to date, I believe they can go further. Last year I undertook a basket of goods exercise to ascertain the prices each fire and rescue authority pays for a basket of 25 common items. The exercise illustrated that procurement practices need to be improved and so the Home Office has supported the sector develop a new commercial approach to aggregate and standardise procurement. This exercise will be repeated in the autumn to ensure progress is being made and a separate exercise will be undertaken this spring on different, high-spend items.

I will create an independent inspectorate and am considering options. I want this inspectorate to be rigorous in application and forensic in process, to deliver rounded and comprehensive inspections to assess the operational effectiveness and efficiency of each service. This independent scrutiny will ensure that fire authorities are held to the highest possible standards. I will update the House in due course as this body is formed.

Transparency of fire and rescue services increased last year by the publication of new procurement and workforce diversity data and will be strengthened further by the creation of a new website that will hold a range of information, in one place, about services. This will include information such as chief officer pay, expenditure and workforce composition and further information is planned.

I will create a professional standards body to further professionalise the service. The Home Office is working with the sector to develop options for this body which I hope will form later this year. I propose this body to set standards on a range of issues such as leadership, workforce development, equality arid diversity and codifying effective practice.

Finally, I published the independent review into firefighter terms and conditions by Adrian Thomas in November. The review’s recommendations, if implemented, will secure the future of the service for years to come by creating a diverse working environment free from bullying and harassment, with strong leadership and more flexible working conditions. I am encouraged that the Local Government Association, in partnership with the sector, recognise the need to take swift action in response to this report and deliver vital reforms to the workforce. I expect the recommendations of the review to be followed, particularly in relation to reforming the national joint council and the Grey Book, and I will be closely monitoring progress.

I also expect services to step up and find solutions to the current lack of diversity so clearly highlighted in the workforce statistics we published last year, with just 4% of firefighters from an ethnic minority background and just 5% female.

Delivering this ambitious reform agenda does not simply rest with me, or with the Government. Ultimately, the sector itself must shape and deliver these changes. It is for their benefit and the benefit of the communities they serve, and I look forward to seeing the results.