MP Chris Leslie warns of fire service privatisation

Firefighters in Nottingham The current law allows only trained crews employed by a fire authority to fight fires

When buildings burn, we expect the fire brigade. It's a public service funded by the tax payer. But a political row has been ignited by government plans to allow fire fighting and rescue to be outsourced and bring in private contractors.

That alarms Labour MP Chris Leslie, a former fire minister in the Blair government.

He's furious that the government's fire services minister Brandon Lewis used the parliamentary Regulatory Reform Committee to get the changes, rather than introduce a new bill.

"The ministers are taking this through a committee - a little known committee in the House of Commons - but actually I think they should have the courage to admit what they are doing, which is out sourcing the entirety of the fire services," he told me.

"I think it's a step too far. It's a different thing saying IT services or human resource management service within a fire fighting service should be outsourced, but to sell off everything is full scale privatisation.

Start Quote

Fire and rescue authorities will remain statutorily responsible for this public service and to suggest otherwise is completely wrong”

End Quote Department of Communities & Local Government

"I don't think that profit should be at the forefront in fire and rescue protection."

'Serve public'

The law allows only trained fire fighters employed by a fire authority to fight fires or handle other emergencies.

That's what the government wants to change. In the North East, Cleveland is the first authority to consider transferring its fire fighting service to an independent employee-led mutual.

In the East Midlands, union leaders say it's just not on.

"Fire fighters are there to serve the public. They have no wish to become share holders in the fire service," said Gary Mitchell, the regional secretary of the FBU, the Fire Brigades Union

"Look what has happened in Lincolnshire," he added.

"AssetCo actually own the fire engines. It's a private company. That means the councillors, who are responsible for the fire service, just won't have any say in it in future."

Chris Leslie MP Chris Leslie says the fire service is on 'the brink of privatisation'

But there are some privately run fire fighters - for example, at East Midlands Airport. It employs its own specialist crews. Is this an option the government wants?

In a statement, the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "Fire and rescue authorities will remain statutorily responsible for this public service and to suggest otherwise is completely wrong.

"The government does, however, support co-operatives and employee ownership. We are keen to work with local authorities and their staff wanting to explore the scope for employee-led mutuals, where there is local support and backing."

'Absolutely appalled'

That doesn't persuade Chris Leslie.

"If the public knew that the fire service was on the brink of privatisation, they would be absolutely appalled," he said.

"The police or the ambulance service could be next in line. Our emergency services should not be privatised."

The government says it wants more cost effective alternatives for fire service delivery.

The last Labour government attempted to release efficiency savings by creating a network of regional fire control rooms. Smart new buildings appeared. But, like the planned East Midlands HQ, it was never used and was mothballed at great public expense.

The fire minister Brandon Lewis has a new approach. But even he recognises his proposals are "not without some level of controversy".

Chris Leslie said: "They should have the courage of their convictions and bring forward a full bill. Because sneaking through is just out of order."

The minister may have a political fire fight to win his argument to secure the changes he wants.

John Hess Article written by John Hess John Hess Political editor, East Midlands

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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    As a serving Fire Fighter with almost 20 years service I think I can speak with some knowledge of the service. Compulsive Competitive Tendering in the 80s in other areas of local government did not work, and it definately will not work in the fire service. Its a scandal that its even being considered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The profit motive is a good thing, but this is a step to far. Fire men are not motivated by profit, They are there to serve the public and put their lives on the line doing so. I work in the NHS my job is about to be privatised, I'm going to get a new job back with the NHS. The clients I serve are about to loose 12 years experience. £1 profit equals £1 that should be spent on the service.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Cont from post 22.

    The main problem with the fire service is that it's a core public service from which the public expect a minimum level of service. No matter how far you go to put minimum service clauses into contracts or franchise agreements, it could be very messy for the government if things go wrong. An example would be the farce that was Railtrack - re-nationalised within 10 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    As a great believer in the free market, I believe that proposals for privatising the fire service are worthy of further consideration.

    But the government are making it look as if they have something to hide. Why can't they enact fire privatisation in the normal way by publishing a white paper, having a public consultation and then getting a bill through parliament?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.


    Under an employee mutual, the fire service would be owned and run by the fire fighters as a not for profit - they can then run the service using the same equipment as before and better because they'll be in charge and won't make all the bad decisions their management teams currently make (as they are always keen to point out).


Comments 5 of 25


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