Fire and rescue services: Home Office urged to improve scrutiny "of budget decisions made in Whitehall"

As Home Office prepares to take on full responsibility for fire and rescue services from the Department for Communities and Local Government, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee say Whitehall must do more to understand the local implications of budget cuts

By Civil Service World

17 Feb 2016

MPs have urged the Home Office to keep a closer eye on the financial sustainability of Britain's 46 fire and rescue services after taking on responsibility for their running from the Communities department.

The Home Office will in April take on full oversight of fire and rescue services from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), which oversaw an average real-terms cut of 28% to the authorities' funding during the last five years.

The latest report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says fire and rescue authorities "managed these reductions primarily by reducing staff costs", with a 14% fall in the number of full-time fire fighters since 2010-11.

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Despite those cuts, the committee notes that fire safety "continued a long-running trend of improvement" with deaths caused by fire falling by 22% between 2010–11 and 2014–15.

However, the report says DCLG could have done more to develop "a sophisticated understanding of the impact of prevention and protection activities on reducing fire risks", and said there was a "danger" the department may have been "over-reliant on outcomes data" in understanding the impact of  funding reductions.

"While the Department for Communities and Local Government commissioned research on ways in which fire authorities could save money, it lacked a detailed understanding of their capacity to absorb further reductions through continued efficiencies," the report says.

"Although it took comfort from the fact that fire incidents are on a long-term downward trend, it lacked a sophisticated understanding of how reductions in fire authorities’ prevention and protection activities might affect this trend."

The department calls on the Home Office to set out how it will improve Whitehall's understanding of the impacts of further cuts, saying it should take into account "both fire authorities’ capacity to make further efficiency savings, and the impact of prevention and protection activities on reducing fire risk".

The government has also pushed for fire services to consider merging, and to share back-office functions with police and ambulance sevices.

While the committee says DCLG viewed such mergers "as primarily a matter for individual fire authorities to take forward", it warned that this hands-off approach could "create risks" when authorities may be forced to make rapid decisions in the face of funding reductions.

"If financial pressures mean mergers between fire authorities are being discussed locally then central government has a responsibility to address the barriers to merger, such as rules on equalising council tax precepts," the report says.

"However, the department offered no substantive answers to these issues, and was contradictory in its responses as to whether and how it would support possible mergers, generally adopting a laissez-faire attitude. It remains to be seen if this approach will be adopted by the Home Office in its new role."

Launching the report, PAC chair Meg Hillier said: "More funding cuts are in prospect and effective oversight is vital if frontline services are to be protected."

She added: "Government must properly understand the local implications of budget decisions made in Whitehall and in our view that simply hasn’t been happening.

"The transfer of responsibility for fire and rescue to the Home Office is an opportunity to put right the failings of the past, and one it cannot afford to miss. We urge government to act on our recommendations and will be expecting to see improvements to oversight by the summer."

Home Office minister Mike Penning, who now has ministerial responsibility for fire services, welcomed the report's findings, but stressed the gains he believed emergency services could make through back office reform.

“There is no question the fire service will still have the resources to do their important work but there are more efficiencies to be made through smarter working, reducing the cost of back office functions and using services’ buying power to get the best deals from suppliers.

“We will also look at other areas for potential reform highlighted by the PAC including oversight and independent scrutiny and the need for an evaluation of the wider community service projects carried out by the Fire and Rescue Service.”

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