Whitehall silence ‘undermining emergency service collaboration’

6 Mar 14

Greater collaboration between the three emergency services is being hampered by the lack of clear direction from Whitehall, CIPFA’s police conference was told.

Roy Wilsher, chief fire officer for Hertfordshire and chief executive to the county’s police and crime commissioner, said there was disagreement between ministers in the Home Office, Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health about the degree of integration they wanted to see between fire, ambulance and police services.

‘The government can’t bring itself to bring the strategy together,’ he said during a panel discussion on collaboration between ‘blue light’ services at the March 5 conference.

Part of the problem was that each service was embedded very firmly in its parent department. ‘You need to break and move forward and I’m not sure there’s a will to do that,’ he said.

He also noted there had been a ‘deafening silence’ in Whitehall to Sir Ken Knight’s 2013 review of fire services, which highlighted the huge management variations between England’s 46 fire authorities and the scope for millions in savings, as well as possibilities for greater collaboration across services.

Wilsher’s view was echoed by Stephen Bett, Norfolk’s police and crime commissioner. Speaking from the floor he said: ‘We need more clarity on where [ministers] want us to go and a greater understanding from them of the problems that are likely to happen.’

He cited past opposition from the Fire Brigades Union to sharing workshops with police because they believed it would endanger their members. Ministers needed to understand these barriers, said Bett.

‘We need a better government steer, strategically, on exactly what they want us to do.’

Mike Boyne of the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, offered a different perspective, saying the service gets a ‘pretty good steer’ from the Department of Health on direction of travel.

But he added that it made more sense for ambulance services to link up with non-emergency 111 NHS providers than with fire and police services. It was ‘difficult’ to see how ambulance, fire and police call centres could be merged given the degree of specialist training given to ambulance call handlers to help them sift calls on a clinical basis.

In his presentation, Boyne noted that politicians did not always recognise how much integration the emergency services had done already and criticised the ‘unhelpful politicisation’ of the issue.

He said that ambulance services were already moving towards becoming a more integrated part of the wider health service.

Rather than just dropping people at hospital, ambulances were becoming ‘mobile health centres’ working with people with chronic conditions and general health problems.

‘Culturally, that’s a huge shift and we are well on the journey,’ Boyne said.

‘Responding to high-end trauma is only a tiny proportion of what we do.’

Read Herts PCC David Lloyd's views on options for emergency service integration


  • Vivienne Russell
    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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