Angry MPs turn up the heat over fire service cuts

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LABOUR MPs from across Yorkshire have attacked the Government’s decision to slash spending on the region’s fire services by up to a quarter over the next four years, as fears grow over public safety and the possibility of a drawn-out industrial dispute.

Former Home Secretary and Sheffield MP David Blunkett said the latest round of cuts follow a long efficiency drive by the previous Government and warned the move is “a cut too far.”

“Fire and rescue are in an impossible bind,” he said. “They have already made substantial cuts, productivity improvements and flexible working.

“They are now left with the totally unacceptable closure of large numbers of stations, cuts in manpower and inevitably longer travelling time and greater risk to public. This is a cut too far.”

The biggest cut in the region will hit West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, which is set to lose £18m from its £93m budget.

Local MP Hilary Benn, Labour’s new Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary and the member for Leeds Central, said: “West Yorkshire is facing significant cuts, yet the Government has made no assessment of the impact on safety. Our brave firefighters and the communities they serve deserve better.”

The Government, however, insists it has protected the fire service from the worst of its spending reductions by ‘back-loading’ budget cuts, so the biggest changes do no kick in until 2014.

Councils, by contrast, had their cuts ‘front-loaded’, and so have had to make their biggest savings in the current financial year.

A spokesman from the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “The Fire and Rescue Service performs an incredibly important function. Despite the need to cut the budget deficit, this Government has offered protection for the service.

“We believe savings can be made without harming the breadth of the service. (These) could include more flexible staffing, better sickness management, sharing back office services and senior staff.”

Some of these proposals have already been discussed and rejected by Yorkshire’s forces, however.

Talks were held over the summer between South and North Yorkshire and Humberside over the possibility of sharing a Chief Fire Officer and senior management teams. But the authorities decided their needs were too different to be controlled by one group. Humberside this week began advertising for its own £136,000-a-year Chief Fire Officer.

Discussions about sharing back office staff continue, with a report due before Christmas.

Both Humberside and North Yorkshire are thought to be waiting for the outcome before they announce their own service shake-ups next year. But South Yorkshire has made clear there is a limit to how much money can be saved from back offices.

“These are front-line cuts, absolutely,” said John Gilliver of South Yorkshire Fire Brigade Union.

“We urge fire authority members to reject what’s being proposed. This will have a massive impact on the safety of the public.”

In West Yorkshire, the brigade insists its plan to close 10 fire stations and replace them with just five – getting rid of more than 160 firefighters’ jobs – will in fact lead to a better service.

“A lot of these fire stations were built a long time ago and they’re just not in the right places any more,” a spokesman said.

“There’s a need to put fire stations in the appropriate locations to protect people’s lives.”

But FBU regional secretary Ian Murray said any suggestion that the service could be improved by cutting firefighters was a “myth.”

“What this means is that in West Yorkshire they are making coverage areas twice the size,” he said.

“So response times to the furthest point will be doubled.”

Fire chiefs also highlight the marked drop in the number of 999 calls over the past decade as a reason for needing fewer firefighters.

But Mr Gilliver said: “It is not about the number of calls, it is about risk. If you’ve got a school that sets on fire, you count how many fire engines you need to be there in a certain amount of time – that’s how you cover the risk.

“If you were to say the school hasn’t caught fire in the last 10 years, and so we don’t need all this any more – where does your fire cover then come from?

“The school is still there. The risk is still there. But we will no longer be able to cover it.”