West Midlands Fire Authority has vowed to fight against government proposals to outsource fire and rescue services.
The authority, which oversees West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service, warned the proposal was “fraught with danger”.
And the national Chief Fire Officers Association, currently led by Vij Randeniya, the Chief Fire Officer for the West Midlands, said the Government’s plans “can quickly become the first step towards privatisation”.
Ministers have drawn up plans to allow fire services to outsource everything they do, including responding to 999 calls. It follows Cleveland Fire Brigade’s announcement that it plans to become a mutual, a business owned and led by employees.
The Government says it needs to change the law to allow Cleveland’s plans to go ahead, but the proposals set out by ministers appear to go much further and opens the door to a wide range of organisations taking over fire services.
In a letter setting out the proposals to a Commons committee, Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: “Fire and rescue authorities should be able to adopt alternative models for the delivery, under contract, for some or all of their services by a suitable alternative provider, eg a mutual, social enterprise or other appointed contractor.”
It follows the failure last year of West Midlands Police’s plans to bring in private sector partners to provide services, which were scrapped following widespread opposition.
The police force received a £2 million grant from the Home Office to help it develop proposals, and got as far as opening negotiations with a shortlist of six businesses and consortia, including security firm G4S.
Mr Edwards, a Labour councillor in Sandwell and a former firefighter, met Mr Lewis last week to discuss the plans.
He said: “The Minister said the proposal was to change the law to accommodate the creation of a mutual service in Cleveland, but I pointed out to him that his letter goes well beyond that and would allow fire services to contract out the whole range of their services to a suitable provider. It opens the door to wholesale privatisation of fire and rescue services. I did point out to him the grave danger of legislating in the way the letter describes and where that would inevitably lead in the months and years to come. It is fraught with danger.”
Coun Edwards added: “From West Midlands’ point of view, we will campaign firmly against any change in that direction.
“This is the slippery slope towards privatisation. It is totally abhorrent to bring the profit motive into blue light services.”
The Chief Fire Officers Association welcomed proposals to give fire services “greater freedom and flexibility” in the way they deliver services.
But the statement continued: “The Chief Fire Officers Association would urge the government to undertake a full public consultation process before considering proposed changes in legislation to facilitate employee-led mutuals in the delivery of core fire and rescue emergency functions. We have enduring concerns that any such model can quickly become the first step towards privatisation.”
The statement also said: “We firmly believe that the emergency response role of the fire and rescue service should always remain as a public provided service and whilst there are some elements of the business that could be contracted out to other providers or wholly delivered by the private sector, this should not include the emergency response role which should be immediately available and accessible to anyone.”
Mr Lewis set out the proposals in a letter to the Commons Regulatory Reform Committee.
He highlighted the Government’s plans to encourage “public sector workers to form employee-led mutuals” to take over services. However, the letter stated that the proposed change would allow fire brigades to contract out services to “a suitable provider, including a public service mutual” but not excluding other organisations.
The measure would not require legislation and may not even require debate in the Commons if it receives the unanimous support of the Committee.