Call for inquiry into fire control plan

By Carolyn Atkinson
Reporter, BBC Radio 4's You and Yours

Image caption,
New control centres such as the one in the West Midlands have remained vacant

A scrapped multi-million pound scheme to change the fire control system should be investigated by the National Audit Office, MPs have said.

The plan, called Firecontrol, aimed to replace 46 fire control centres in England with nine regional sites.

But it had suffered a series of delays and increased costs since it was announced by the Labour government.

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee said it should be investigated to see what went so wrong.

The plan was to create a national interlinked service that could direct fire brigades to the scenes of large emergencies more easily.

Clive Betts, chair of the select committee has told BBC Radio 4's You & Yours programme: "I've already had informal discussions, and I will formally want to request the National Audit Office investigate this whole contract and why it went so badly wrong.

"It's been in trouble from the very beginning. In 2006, as a select committee, we were critical then. At that time I said it was "almost an unmitigated disaster". I think I would change my view now and say it is an unmitigated disaster."

Additional burden

The nine centres have already been built, but have been standing empty for almost three years because of problems in developing their computer systems.

On Monday, the government announced it was scrapping the whole contract, after Fire Minister Bob Neill reached agreement with the main contractor EADS.

Mr Betts is now calling for more financial support to be made available.

"We've still got the situation that fire authorities up and down the country do need control rooms with modern up-to-date IT equipment. They are now going to have to invest in their own control rooms or look at how they can use these centres in a different way. There are going to be costs for them, in that this is an additional burden imposed on them.

"I think central government has to come in and help fire authorities who now have to find other ways of delivering these services to the public."

But a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government suggested this was unlikely.

"All fire and rescue authorities already receive funding that enables them to upgrade and replace their systems as they become out of date so they can continue to fulfil their statutory duties," he said.

"We will not be imposing a solution on local fire and rescue services. We will, however, be consulting with the fire and rescue community on the future of fire control room services in England.

"This consultation will encourage fire and rescue authorities to consider finding efficiencies, enhancing their technology and building national resilience as part of their future plans."

That consultation is due to start in January 2011.

In his first interview since learning that the contract had been scrapped, EADS chief executive Robin Southwell said: "You can only deliver something if somebody wants to receive it.

"The government has taken the decision it doesn't want to continue to receive it, and obviously we have to respect that. Too few champions were available to progress it."

Public money spent

He said his company had so far received nearly £100m of public money, although the goverment responded by saying it "did not recognise this figure".

"We've spent an awful lot more than that, so I don't think anyone is coming out of this anything other than disappointed. Within that there was expenditure on employees, on systems and integrations. I'm pleased to say there's quite a bit of kit that's actually in use now in fire stations and on fire engines," said Mr Southwell.

"We are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government on that and we hope to get a bit of value out of that, so all is not lost."

When asked what they could not do, in terms of delivering the contract he explained.

"We could do everything that we were contracted to do, I said that in the summer and I say it now. We could do it and we were prepared to do it. We never asked for a penny more from anyone.

"We were prepared to invest considerably more of our company money in this. The only thing we couldn't do to the satisfaction of the customer was deliver it within the timetable and timeframe that they originally wanted. So it was an issue in terms of timescale, not cost, nor quality."

In relation to the amount of public money EADS had received, the Department for Communities said it was not £100m, as stated.

"The Department does not recognise the figure. According to our accounts the department has paid EADS around £40m and this includes payment for software and equipment that will continue to be used by the Fire and Rescue Services," a statement said.

Meanwhile a deal has been done between EADS and the government which is described as commercially confidential. It is not clear whether EADS paid the government for failing to deliver, or whether the government paid EADS for terminating the contract.

Mr Southwell explained: "We've had a settlement between us - that's confidential. I am sure we are all comfortable that the amounts involved are not hugely significant. I think everybody on all sides has behaved very professionally in the matter.

"Hopefully out of this we will do two things, one, make use of the equipment that's there, and hopefully sell to others. And two, learn the lessons."

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