NORTH YORKSHIRE’S Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner has been accused of not being “suitable to hold such a vital office” in a heated debate in the House of Lords.
Julia Mulligan, who controversially took on the oversight of the county’s fire service earlier this month, has been dogged by bullying claims, with one complaint against her already upheld by the area’s Police and Crime Panel (PCP) and others lodged.
In the Lords, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Harris of Richmond said she was “very concerned that the PCC (Police and Crime Commissioner) for North Yorkshire has been allowed to take over the fire and rescue service while still having further charges of bullying brought against her”.
She said: “She treats people who disagree with her with utter contempt.”
Baroness Harris, a former chairwoman of the now-defunct North Yorkshire Police Authority, disputed claims that the change would bring about efficiencies.
She said: “Indeed, it appears that she has led North Yorkshire Police into its worst financial crisis since the millennium. There is a £10m shortfall this financial year, which may come as a surprise to the people of North Yorkshire as there has been no public acknowledgement of this gathering storm.”
Read more: Fears for fire service front line in both North and South Yorkshire amid funding shortfalls
She said, instead, there were fears that cost-cutting would harm front-line fire services.
She added: "Until this PCC can understand that leadership means listening to people and taking them with her, rather than bullying them, she is not suitable to hold such a vital office."
The debate was triggered by Baroness Harris’s Liberal Democrat colleague, Baroness Pinnock, who submitted an unsuccessful motion calling for the House to register its unhappiness at Mrs Mulligan’s takeover, claiming it would “severely impact on the fire service’s capacity to serve residents”.
Baroness Pinnock said the change of governance went through despite opposition from councils, the PCP and the North Yorkshire Fire Authority, and with Mrs Mulligan having “completely failed to garner the support of any of her locally elected Conservative colleagues”.
Home Office Minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, disagreed, saying Mrs Mulligan had run a 10-week consultation on the proposals.
Read more: Controversial move to allow North Yorkshire Crime Commissioner to take control of fire service to be debated in the Lords
She said: “Opposition to the proposal was not widespread, as the noble Baroness maintained. It is clear that the status quo in North Yorkshire had not been aiding collaboration across the emergency services. All local stakeholders agreed that some change in governance was needed to aid collaboration.”
Conservative peers accused the Liberal Democrats of electioneering and the motion was defeated at the vote.
Mrs Mulligan has previously said she was “very sorry” for any behaviour that could have been perceived as bullying.
Earlier this week, the commissioner warned there would have to be “tough decisions” made after an independent report by former Oxfordshire Chief Fire Officer Dave Etheridge revealed a multi-million pound shortfall in the fire service budget which had until now been patched through the use of reserves.
Asked by The Yorkshire Post whether she could rule out the closure of fire stations or the loss of engines, Mrs Mulligan said it would be for the fire service to put together the specific savings plans.
Mrs Mulligan said: “My job is to ensure people and businesses across North Yorkshire remain safe and feeling safe in the future, and I am committed to that.”
Read more: Crime commissioner Julia Mulligan to take over North Yorkshire's fire service
She said decisions on any service changes, as well as any increases in council tax precepts, would be “made transparently”.
Mrs Mulligan also sought to defend her expanded role.
She said: "By bringing both North Yorkshire Police and North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service under the same governance, we can increase the speed and depth at which we collaborate, improve transparency and efficiency of both organisations and ensure savings are reinvested into frontline policing and fire services.
“I know this process has been controversial, but the independent report from Oxfordshire Chief Fire Officer Dave Etheridge OBE published this week shows how much of a mess the finances are in and why it is so important for there to be a proper, transparent plan to ensure the Service has a strong and sustainable future.
"This is not the case at present as crucial decisions have been put off in the past, and the challenge I inherit is significant and worse than expected when this process began.”