The TUC’s attack on a leading public sector reformer, reported today, was designed to embarrass him and discredit the idea of reforming the public sector. In fact, it has shown that they will oppose any change to the public sector workforce, even if it results in a better service for the public.
According to reports (here and here), TUC staff yesterday handed out copies of the transcript to Reform’s conference on public sector productivity. They highlighted a quote from the presentation by Tony McGuirk, the chief fire officer of the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), that, “we’ve got some bone idle people in the public sector”. Tony McGuirk apologised for the tone of his remarks this morning.
But he did not apologise for what he has achieved on Merseyside, which is the real story. Ten years ago there were 2,140 fires in the Merseyside FRS area and 15 deaths from fires. Last year there 1,300 and 7 respectively.
Ten years ago there were 1,400 fire officers. This year there are 850. This is the perfect example of more for less.
The turning point in Merseyside was a tragic death, in 1999, of a very young child in a fire that the fire service could have seen coming: in the home of a family of smokers, using a chip pan, without a fire alarm, in a highly deprived area.
Up until then, those social issues would have been irrelevant to the fire service. Their job was to get an engine with trained staff to the scene of a fire within minutes. And they did a good job in those terms – for 88 percent of fatalities, a fire crew was there within five minutes.
What they realised was that speed of response wasn’t the answer. Instead, prevention was the key. At that time – although a great deal of emphasis was placed on statutory fire prevention in offices, shops and so on – no fire and rescue service in the country committed any major resource to preventing fires in the home. The leaders of Merseyside FRS resolved to visit every home in Merseyside, and apply a simple points system to grade the risk of individual homes. They would provide basic fire safety advice. And they would fit smoke alarms in every home in the area, all 650,000 of them.
They did this by using existing fire crews, by recruiting new kinds of fire staff (such as “advocates” that took the fire safety message to individual ethnic communities), by increasing the number of part-time officers and by forming new partnerships with local health and social services.
They realised that the traditional shift patterns of fire officers left them under-employed for long periods when they could carrying out fire prevention. So they changed shift patterns and made efficiencies worth tens of £millions according to an Audit Commission evaluation.
The steady improvements in fire numbers and fire deaths were not a strong enough argument to prevent the fire brigade union calling a strike, in 2006, over changes in working arrangements. Of around 1,000 officers at that time, 800 went on strike and 200 stayed at work. Those 200 officers were enough to run the service at full capacity. The strike was defeated in six weeks. This is, of course, another reason why Tony has got up the nose of the TUC.
The TUC campaign would have force if it was directed at improving the quality of public services. In fact, it is just designed to maintain the working practices of their members, right or wrong. I don’t think it will win.
Andrew Haldenby is director of Reform