Privatisation is back on the Conservatives’ agenda and this time they have local fire services in their sights. Last week it was revealed that Brandon Lewis, Minister for fire services, had written to the Regulatory Reform Committee seeking a change in the law which would enable fire and rescue services to be handed over to private companies.
The move has faced condemnation from firefighter groups and Labour MPs alike. Privatisation of public services in the UK has a poor track record at best and it is alarming that the Conservatives now seem willing to play games with the emergency services as well.
Significant questions remain unanswered, in part due to the Government’s decision seek this change through the back door rather than putting the question fully before Parliament. What happens if a contractor goes under or fails to meet the conditions on their contract? Who steps in to fix the problem and at what cost? How will private companies work effectively with other emergency services and can they be trusted with the security clearances which some of the work involves?
In West Sussex the county council has cut the budget for the Fire and Rescue Service by 10% over the last three years, with £2.5 million of cuts this year alone and a reduction in both wholetime firefighters and support staff. It’s hard to see how a company could step into that environment and turn a profit without compromising on the quality of the service?
Indeed locally the legacy of outsourcing has often been a reduction in the quality of the service provided to residents and a loss of democratic control, the current state of our roads is just one clear example.
In Crawley we are already having to deal with the county council’s failure – after years of promises – to provide a new fire station for the town, a proposal which was lauded at the time as allowing the service to ‘save more lives than ever before’. With massive ongoing cuts to the funding of our local fire service, the Government’s proposal could not have come at a worse time.