March 13, 2012 - Bill Esterson's Westminster Diary

Bill Esterson


Merseyside has had cuts to its Fire and Rescue Service that are twice the national average, 12% over two years. And yet Merseyside already has a highly efficient fire and rescue service. MPs from across Merseyside took part in a debate in parliament along with colleagues from other Metropolitan areas about the cuts to the fire service. We asked the government to justify such large cuts and to explain how on earth the people of Merseyside could be protected by the fire service faced with such dangerous cuts. Merseyside, West Midlands, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Nottinghamshire, Cleveland, Cambridgeshire and Shropshire have faced the biggest cuts with Greater Manchester only a fraction below the figure of those other mainly metropolitan areas, while there have been increases in funding for Devon and Somerset, Dorset, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Essex and Hampshire. There is a pattern about the nature of the authorities that are facing these double-national-average cuts and the authorities that are seeing real-term increases. Mainly Labour inner city areas have had their budgets cut while mainly Tory voting shire counties have had increases. How can this be justified and how can this be fair?

And how can Merseyside deal with that 12% cut when they have already made the savings over a number of years? Predictably, the Tory minister who responded to the debate, Bob Neill, the MP for Bromley, failed to answer these questions. Merseyside has made the back-office and management savings, put in place a three-year pay freeze and taken money from the dynamic reserve but still the Tory government and their Lib-Dem friends demand more from people across Merseyside at the cost of safety.

The docks  are surrounded by residential areas. Therefore, in the event of a major incident, not just the industrial areas but the nearby residential areas would suffer. Without the necessary back-up, how can those areas be protected? Yet, the government plans further cuts which will make it impossible for the fire and rescue service to respond quickly enough to save lives in and around a major industrial incident.

In his plans for future years, the Chief Fire Officer make has already assumed there will be a three year pay freeze, a 4% council tax increase and no additional contributions will be made to the pension, yet he is still short by £8.5 million if Merseyside is cut at the national average. Merseyside has made the savings that it can. If further cuts are double the national average, as they have been so far, goodness only knows where he would go to make those savings.

It is clear to me that the chief fire officer would be in the invidious position of not being able to meet his statutory obligations to keep the people of Merseyside safe.

Of course the question that arises for the government is exactly how does he define what the statutory obligations are for the metropolitan authorities, such as Merseyside. What level of service does he deem to be necessary to protect the people of Merseyside and the other metropolitan areas?

In the Minister’s written answer to my recent parliamentary question, Mr Neill said,

“It is for elected members of each authority to determine such matters, acting on the professional advice of their principal officers and following full consultation with the local community”.

I told Mr Neill that the professional advice of the chief fire officer of Merseyside and his colleagues is that it is not possible for them to maintain the current service on the funding settlement that the chief officer has already received, and it will be even more impossible for them to protect the community that they serve given the proposed future cuts. In addition, I also told the Minister that the local community do not accept that these cuts should be made at all and that they want to be protected by the fire service. However, they are also aware that, with cuts of this nature, it is impossible for the chief fire officer to maintain the level of service that is needed

I called on the Minister to stop the cuts, to freeze the changes in the system and to get his own officials to talk directly to the fire officers who have been affected by the cuts, so that we can maintain public safety and protect lives in our areas. I only hope that he listened to all the MPs and that the Lib Dems in government and their Tory friends will take the threat to safety seriously. Otherwise we will have a fire and rescue service that simply cannot respond and that will mean people will die in fires where previously they could have been saved.