Backhanded attempts at privatisation are as synonymous with the Tories as workers’ rights are with Labour.
But there can be fewer instances as frustrating as the short-sightedness displayed by Fire and Rescue Minister Bob Neill when he described the sale of the Fire Service College as an opportunity to bring “innovation and investment”.
The decision is flawed on a variety of levels.
The only triumph is that of dogma over reality. Mr Neill effectively told us that only the private sector is capable of delivering a world class Fire Service College for years to come.
Mr Neill appears not to have grasped the contradiction contained in that statement. In his previous sentence he reiterated that the college, run as a public concern since its inception, is an “asset of national importance with a world class reputation”. It is that lack of vision which repeatedly undermines this Government. And it is that dismissive attitude towards the public sector which continues to damage any hopes we have of a swift economic recovery.
It seems the Government is terrified to throw any support behind a publicly funded enterprise, however strong the argument. But cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face does not do justice to the scale of this ridiculous decision that is risking the future of an offering the Government recognises as “world class”.
You couldn’t write the script.
One line on which Mr Neill and I do agree is that the Fire College is a wonderful asset. Governments from overseas send their firefighters there, such is the quality of the training on offer. It is true, too, that steps need to be taken to protect the future of the college while the Government liberally waves an axe at any service with the first name ‘public’. But that is not a reason to sell off such a marvellous asset to the highest bidder and promise that they will make a business of it.
The irony of this proposed privatisation is that much of the college’s income is derived from the nation’s Fire and Rescue Services that are being hammered by the funding cuts by the same minister who is sponsoring the sale. But the Government’s desire to dispose of this national resource might yet be undone with potential bidders said to be viewing the sale with considerable caution. Some insiders believe the sale will only go ahead if the Government offers an ongoing revenue subsidy as a sweetener, but that would undermine the justification for sale.
I have submitted a number written parliamentary questions seeking assurances from the Fire Minister that additional public subsidies will not be made available to enable the Government to indulge its ideology. I am still awaiting a reply!
Chris Williamson MP is the shadow fire minister