All change for 'blue light' services?

17 Jun 13
John Tizard

Is the idea of bringing all three ‘blue light’ services under the watch of police and crime commissioners just political kite flying by home secretary Theresa May? Or does it deserve serious consideration?

It is reported that Theresa May, the home secretary, is promoting the idea of bringing responsibility for the three key ‘blue light’ services – police, fire and rescue, and ambulances – under the control of police and crime commissioners (and, one presumes in London under the Mayor, who already is responsible for two of them).

Steve McGuirk, the well-respected chief fire officer for Greater Manchester has been quoted as saying that there would be merit in a commission being established to consider the options. Many chief fire officers are known to advocate some merger with or takeover of the emergency ambulance service, though not with the police.

Of course, May’s interest in this idea may have more to do with her longer term political ambitions than with stimulating a serious policy debate. The Home Office is responsible for policing, with fire and rescue coming under the Communities and Local Government department; and the ambulance service, being part of the NHS, is a Department of Health responsibility. One wonders if there is a Cabinet view on the subject.

However, whatever her motivations, has May landed on an idea worthy of consideration rather than quick dismissal?

To a lay person there are apparent synergies between elements of all three services; even though there are more differences, especially between the police and the other two. ‘Blue light’ services are only one element of policing; and the relationship between citizen and the police is different from the other two services. The role, accountability and nature of the wider police service should not be compromised.

If there is be any debate on the issue it needs to be informed and avoid being dominated by vested interests. It also needs to be inclusive and allow all interested parties including staff, trade unions, local government, the public, insurance and other businesses to have their say.

If May’s idea, or elements of it, are to be explored, a commission with representatives of the key interests and professions, as well some independent minds would seem to be a sensible approach.

Such a commission would need to undertake or commission significant research to examine the options, and their financial, operational, human resource, constitutional, governance, accountability and legal consequences. A decision would be needed on what elements of the three services could seriously be considered within scope for such an exercise and what the implications would be of separating these elements from other elements of the services. And there would be merit in considering whether other services with related emergency planning and response, and national resilience responsibilities should be in scope.

Some very detailed and robust cost-benefit analysis, including the costs of implementation – such as financial, operational and human resource related costs – would be essential. Such analysis would have to take into account public opinion and public confidence too. It would need to be undertaken in such a way that key stakeholders and the public had confidence in the analysis and its execution.

A commission would have to consider alternative governance options – why select PCCs as responsible and accountable persons and not local government? Local authorities are responsible for the fire and rescue service either directly or through joint arrangements. The role and responsibility of central government would also have to be considered; and central government’s relationship with local accountability in any new arrangement.

Labour has, of course, committed to abolishing PCCs if it forms the next government. This may seem a short sighted commitment, but if there were no PCCs where does May’s idea go? To local government perhaps?

Any commission should examine the arrangements in other jurisdictions – taking into account their wider political, constitutional and operational differences – and analyse what works and what does not; and why?

Across the public services and public agencies there is inevitably and necessarily going to be change and reform. We have to be ready to challenge all orthodoxy if this can improve outcomes, but to do so in a considered and evidenced based way.

Therefore, I think that it would be short-sighted, especially given both the public expenditure pressures and the ever-greater complexity of operational challenges being faced by the ‘blue light’ services, not to consider the potential for greater operational collaboration; the potential to share resources, equipment and expertise; and even to consider integrated local emergency response services.

Many if not all of such arrangements could be achieved under the current governance and accountability systems. Of course, any new arrangements should only be pursued if they enhance safety and operational effectiveness not simply to save money, or to make a political or media headline. Professional and political accountability have to be maintained as does the operational independence of the police.

Theresa May could be kite flying. She may be positioning herself for political advancement. She may have stimulated a much needed debate and exploration about the future of our civil emergency services. I wonder if it might be a mistake to too easily and too quickly dismiss giving some thought and consideration to aspects of the idea, or to similar if less ambitious ideas. There is an opportunity for a debate. Steve McGuirk is right – this debate needs to be informed by a serious review with robust independent research and analysis; and with all stakeholders involved and engaged.

With that in mind, I wonder if there is any appetite beyond the home secretary’s office for her bold ideas. I suspect that there might be very little. If there is no debate, this could be a missed opportunity. Yet to pursue the wrong change – or indeed any change for the wrong reasons – would be disastrous too.


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