Having made it possible to privatise 49% of the NHS, this Tory/LibDem Government has now got another precious public service in its sights. This time it is the Fire and Rescue Service in England that is being lined up to be sold off to the highest bidder.
It’s softening it up with unprecedented cuts. Of course we all knew the Government would not exempt our emergency services from its austerity programme, but the unparalleled cuts are reckless and downright dangerous. They have already axed more than 4,000 firefighters, closed scores of fire stations and decommissioned dozens of fire and rescue appliances.
The Fire Minister, Brandon Lewis, set out his privatisation plans in a letter to the House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee in January this year. He was proposing legislation to enable Fire and Rescue Authorities “to contract out their full range of services”. But the cross-party committee sensibly dismissed his scheme, not least because the letter attempted to circumvent proper parliamentary scrutiny of this fundamental policy shift. But there can be no question that the proposal remains on the table.
Mr Lewis has tried to put a different spin on it, claiming it is only about enabling Fire and Rescue Services to be run as public sector cooperatives. But this is just a charade. The fact is there are no protections in place to shield public sector cooperatives from being replaced by a future private sector operator. Furthermore, the change that Mr Lewis is proposing would allow Fire and Rescue Services to be privatised immediately without even bothering to establish a cooperative first.
In some countries around the world, people have to pay a premium to obtain protection from the Fire and Rescue Service. I discovered one such example in Tennessee USA, where a couple lost everything after their home burned to the ground – even though they had called 911 to ask for help. Firefighters responded, but didn’t put out the blaze because the couple had not paid the $75 subscription to the local fire service.
This is where privatisation of our Fire and Rescue Services could ultimately lead. In the meantime, if the private sector were to run this vital emergency service we would see a massive reduction in the contribution it makes to our community. Much of what the Fire and Rescue Service does is outside its statutory responsibilities. This includes responding to flooding incidents and working with young people. Our brave firefighters deserve better and the British public have a right to expect the fire and rescue service will always be free at the point of need.
That is why I have launched a national campaign to highlight and oppose the government’s reckless plan. We cannot allow the high priests of neoliberalism to sacrifice the fire and rescue service on the altar of austerity.
Saving lives, not making private profit must remain the priority of our Fire and Rescue Service.