Can privatisation of the fire service work?

Can privatisation of the fire service work?

Privatization of the fire serviceI read with interest that Cleveland Fire Brigade has won a multi-million pound contract to provide 24-hour emergency cover for one of Europe’s biggest plastics manufacturers. And there was I thinking the whole point of the fire and rescue services was to provide a 24 hour emergency response which we already pay for through business and domestic rates. When you start adding a profit motive to delivering emergency services you start on a slippery slope that is unlikely to benefit the consumer.

The Government and senior fire chiefs are pressing the fire services to find ways of generating cash to fill the gap caused by cuts in central funding so further privatisation seems inevitable. Other recent events confirm the trend such as outsourcing the running of London’s brigade control room to Capita. It’s a 10 year contract to take over all control room staff and implement a new IT system. If this sounds familiar remember Capita (famously dubbed Crapita by satirical mag Private Eye) is the company responsible for a series of IT system failures on public sector contracts – think Criminal Records Bureau, School Records System, the Individual Learning Accounts fiasco and a £1million fine for messing up the London Congestion Charge.

It is also perhaps not widely known that all 500 fire appliances and 50,000 pieces of critical safety kit used by the London Fire brigade is owned and maintained by AssetCo. A recent report from London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, warned that AssetCo is loaded with crippling debts that were affecting its ability to deliver on its contract. The company is apparently trying to sell its London operations, but even AssetCo’s directors admit there is “significant doubt about the ability of these companies to continue as a going concern”. Question is if it goes bust who will own the Capitals fire and rescue equipment.

AssetCo’s problems go to the nub of the argument against privatisation of our “999” services. Private companies can fail, ownership can change, and profit is king.

Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude remains bullish. Commenting on the Cleveland contract he said it proved “how successful entrepreneurial public servants can be and bolsters Cleveland’s ambition to spin their Brigade out of the public sector and run it as a staff-led mutual business”. Now there’s an idea unlikely to raise public confidence in the fire and rescue services.

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