Fire services at risk from Spending Review cuts, warns PAC

17 Feb 16

The financial sustainability of fire and rescue services could be put at risk by further cuts in government funding set to begin in April, the Public Accounts Committee warned today.

In a report reviewing the impact of spending reductions on services, MPs stated that fire and rescue authorities – whose duties include responding to fires, road traffic accidents and other emergencies – have done well to absorb funding reductions since 2010. There had been average reductions of 28% across England’s 46 fire and rescue authorities in England between 2010/11 and 2015/16, according to the report.

However, with further reductions in funding expected to 2020 following November’s Spending Review, committee chair Meg Hillier said oversight must be strengthened.

In particular, government needed to properly understand the local implications of budget decisions made in Whitehall. “In our view that simply hasn’t been happening,” she added.

The committee also raised concerns about how operational performance and value for money was scrutinised locally. The standard of governance and accountability is “variable” across the country, according to MPs, while the lack of an independent inspectorate also creates the risk of inconsistent scrutiny.

The report was published just over a month after responsibility for fire authorities moved from the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Home Office.

DCLG told the committee that, after local funding (such as council tax) was taken into account, the total income available to local government was forecast to go down by just under 7% in real terms by 2019/20. However, it was not able to provide the committee with a breakdown for fire and rescue authorities specifically.

Hillier said this was therefore a critical time for governance.

“More funding cuts are in prospect and effective oversight is vital if frontline services are to be protected,” she stated.

“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.”

According to the report, DCLG “did not provide Parliament with sufficiently rigorous assurance on the standards and sustainability of fire and rescue authorities”.

In addition, the department “exacerbated the risk” that fire authorities would miss opportunities to improve value for money by not providing more active support and guidance.

MPs therefore called on the Home Office to set out by the summer how it is improving central government’s understanding of the impacts of ongoing funding reductions on fire and rescue authorities. This 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 Home Office should also set out more details of what the government’s plans are for so-called blue light collaboration in the future.

Policing and fire minister Mike Penning has set out plans for police and crime commissioners to take on responsibility for fire services. DCLG was clear that collaboration would not mean fully merged services but rather involve ‘aligning overall oversight’. The Home Office should set out what this means in practice, Hillier stated.

Responding to the report, Penning said: “We welcome the Public Accounts Committee’s report which we will consider in detail and respond formally in due course.

“The fire service has delivered significant savings over the past five years. During the same period, fire deaths have fallen by 22% and fire injuries have fallen by a quarter. 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.”

Responding to the report, a spokesman for CIPFA said: “Further funding cuts certainly could jeopardise front line fire and rescue services. Councils are maintaining services well, but smaller authorities in particular could soon struggle to cope with major incidents.”

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