COMMONS

Action needed to improve oversight of fire and rescue services

17 February 2016

The Public Accounts Committee report warns risks to the sustainability of fire and rescue services could increase given the Government’s decision to implement further funding cuts from 2016–17.

The Committee concludes fire and rescue authorities—whose duties include responding to fires, road traffic accidents, and other emergencies—have done well to absorb funding reductions since 2010.

Prospect of further cuts

However, it warns oversight must be strengthened as fire and rescue authorities face the prospect of further cuts.

The Committee finds central government lacks understanding of the potential impact these reductions would have on services, and—following a handover of responsibility from the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Home Office—urges the Home Office to set out what it is doing to improve this.

It highlights concerns about the way authorities’ operational performance and value for money are scrutinised, finding the standard of local governance and accountability to be "variable".

Risk of lack of independent inspectorate

The Committee is also concerned "the lack of an independent inspectorate creates the risk that scrutiny of fire authorities will be inconsistent".

It concludes the Department for Communities and Local Government "did not provide Parliament with sufficiently rigorous assurance on the standards and sustainability of fire and rescue authorities".

Last month the Government announced that responsibility for England’s 46 fire and rescue authorities was transferring from the Department to the Home Office.

Chair's comment

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said today:

"Our Report comes at a critical time for fire and rescue authorities.

More funding cuts are in prospect and effective oversight is vital if frontline services are to be protected. Government must properly understand the local implications of budget decisions made in Whitehall and in our view that simply hasn’t been happening.

The transfer of responsibility for fire and rescue to the Home Office is an opportunity to put right the failings of the past, and one it cannot afford to miss. We urge government to act on our recommendations and will be expecting to see improvements to oversight by the summer."

Background

At the time of the Committee’s evidence session on 26 November 2015, it was the Department for Communities and Local Government which provided fire authorities with financial resources, enabled them to raise their own income, and mandated duties which they must carry out.

Between 2010–11 and 2015–16 the Department reduced funding for the sector, with its funding for the majority of fire and rescue authorities going down by an average of 28% in real terms. During this period, fire safety continued to improve, with fatalities declining by 22% between 2010–11 and 2014–15.

Some fire and rescue authorities have expressed concern, however, as to the potential implications of a further period of funding reductions on their capacity to respond to major incidents.

Report summary

While fire and rescue authorities have done well to absorb funding reductions since 2010, risks to their financial and service sustainability could increase given the Government’s decision to implement further funding reductions from 2016–17.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has not had a strong understanding of the capacity of individual fire authorities to absorb further reductions through efficiency savings, or of the impact of reducing fire prevention work.

By not providing more active support and guidance, the Department exacerbated the risk that fire authorities would miss opportunities to improve value for money—for instance, through greater collaboration or mergers—and that the projects they do implement may not represent best practice.

Weaknesses in local scrutiny

There are weaknesses in the local scrutiny by fire authorities which raise concerns about their operational performance and safeguarding value for money; this is more serious because of the lack of an external inspectorate, unlike in other emergency services.

Weaknesses in the local system of oversight also led to gaps in the Department’s statutory assurance to Parliament that all authorities are maintaining both required performance standards and value for money.

From January 2016 responsibility for fire and rescue has been transferred to the Home Office.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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