FactCheck: Fire alarm – but is it all smoke and mirrors?
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has launched a very strongly-worded advertising campaign against budget cuts, saying 6,000 firefighters could lose their jobs as a result of austerity measures.
Ads placed in national newspapers feature the slogan “they slash, you burn” above a picture of David Cameron and George Osborne, along with the warning: “The stark reality is that these cuts will kill people.”
Andrew Haldenby, director of the centre-right think-tank Reform, called the FBU’s rhetoric “gratuitously offensive”.
The Department for Communities and Local Government told us that they don’t recognise the union’s numbers on potential job losses or on the scale of the cuts allegedly being imposed by Westminster.
Is this all just scare-mongering or is the FBU right to be fanning the flames of protest? All the claims checked here are from FBU campaign material released this week.
The union is very keen to use this figure of a 25 per cent cut, and while this claim is technically true it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Fire and rescue services get funding from central government and from local council tax, in varying proportions. It’s true that the government has cut its slice of the pie by 25 per cent, but the overall money available to fire chiefs is only falling by 13 per cent in real terms over four years. (See here – p48)
That’s actually slightly less than the cut police forces are facing over the same period – 14 per cent between 2011/12 and 2014/15.
But – and it’s a big but – the overall average figure hides huge regional variations.
Fire services in the big cities tend to get much more of their money as a percentage directly from central government, so they will be disproportionately hit by the cut in the grant.
It’s the same pattern we’ve exposed before in cuts to local government and police funding, and opponents of the government have been quick to point out that the pattern hits traditionally Labour-voting urban centres harder than the typically Tory-supporting county shires.
In this case, the six metropolitan fire brigades (Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire) suffered an average cut in total spending power of about 5 per cent in 2011/12. That’s well above the national average cut of just over 2 per cent.
Eight authorities, all of them fairly leafy, actually saw their revenue spending power go up very slightly.
Metropolitan chief fire officers say this doesn’t make sense, as higher population and deprivation rates in urban areas mean there are more fires, and cities are also more likely to be hit by riots and terror attacks.
The chiefs of the metropolitan authorities are pleading with the government to change the funding formula to spread the impact of the cuts more equally from now on.
No. The cuts so far have been less severe than in many other parts of the public sector. The government said in 2010 that it would back-load them to give fire authorities the chance to prepare.
That’s one of the reasons why many of the job losses so far have taken place through natural wastage, with firefighters leaving or retiring and not being replaced, rather than being made redundant.
DCLG told us: “Overall fire and rescue authorities have seen a reduction in their revenue spending power, taking into account grants from central government and revenues from council tax, of just 2.2 per cent in 2011-12 and 0.5 per cent in 2012-13. This is far less than the savings being asked of the rest of local government over this period.
“Contrary to claims by the FBU, funding for future years has not been set, and details will be announced in the Local Government Finance Settlement later next month following the Autumn Statement.”
This is basically true, if a little disingenuous. While it’s true that we’ll have to wait until December to know the full extent of the cuts next year, the government has always said the cuts would pan out at 13 per cent over four years.
Understandably, fire chiefs have been working on that assumption, and since the reductions have been fairly modest so far, the natural expectation is that far biggest cuts are on the way in 2013/14 and 2014/15.
It’s difficult to know whether DCLG are just conveniently forgetting that the target has always been 13 per cent over four years, or whether this response contains a glimmer of hope for firefighters that the final settlement might not turn out to be as bad as predicted after all.
It’s true that fire services reduced their headcount in 2011/12, shedding 2,172 staff in total, 1,457 of them firefighters. That’s according to Freedom of Information research responses given to the union.
But how do we know how much of this was a direct response to the cuts? The fact is that firefighter numbers had been falling anyway for some years before the Comprehensive Spending Review, as this graphic from the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) shows.
So the cuts we see in 2011/12 could partly be the continuation of a long-term trend rather than a sudden reaction to budget cuts.
As far as the FBU’s 6,000 figure goes, the first and most obvious thing to point out is that it’s just a projection, it hasn’t happened yet, and we won’t get the government’s final decision on funding for the next two years until December.
Another problem is the use of the word “another” here, which implies that this is on top of job losses that have already happened.
In fact, the union’s own briefing material makes clear ( here – p5) ) that the 6,000 is for the whole spending review period, including 2011/12. So it includes the firefighters lost in the first year of the spending review period.
That’s not to say that there won’t be more cuts. Fire service bosses have almost unanimously said they will have to cut the front line, although the final number is still up in the air.
CFOA tends to take a more moderate line than the union on this issue but is in broad agreement with these numbers. The organisation thinks we could lose an additional 4,050 firefighters from 2013 to 2015, on top of the reductions already made.
Although common sense would suggest that a smaller emergency service will leave us less well protected, we have to acknowledge that the total number of fires has fallen – by around half in the seven years to 2010/11, according to government figures.
Chief fire officers have tended to accept that at a time of falling risk, the number of firefighters can be safely cut too.
Greater Manchester says that since 2005 it has seen primary fires fall by a third, deliberate fires fall by 42 per cent and casualties go down by 29 per cent. During the same period the brigade has made £80m in savings and cut firefighter numbers too.
Other fire and rescue services, mostly in the big cities, have slimmed down too as the number of fires and casualties has fallen – presumably as a result of improved fire prevention and education projects carried out by the firefighters.
How you feel about this is really a question of interpretion rather than fact.
On the one hand, we can see that safety has been improving at the same time as the fire service has been shrinking, so the union can’t be right to suggest that fewer firefighters will inevitably result in more danger for the public.
On the other hand, there will logically come a point where we reach a minimum level of resilience below which the service will be unable to cope with major incidents. And the good work on bringing fires down could unravel if brigades don’t have time to carry on with prevention work.
CFOA points out that since fire services saw smaller increases in funding under Labour than police, education and health, and the number of firefighters was already shrinking before 2010, we are cutting from a lower base and there may well be less slack in the system than in other public services.
The “25 per cent cuts” line deserves a bit of a pinch of salt, as does the complaint that the fire service as a whole has been hit harder by austerity than other public services.
On the other hand, it does appear that fairly severe firefighter job losses are inevitable, particularly in the big cities where chief officers are facing disproportionately severe cuts.
This raises the biggest question of all: does it matter? Are we able to cope with fewer firefighters at a time when the risk of fire is falling?
That’s a huge subject to tackle. We’re not convinced by the union’s claim that there will inevitably be more deaths thanks to cuts, but we don’t see how you can guarantee that safety won’t be compromised either.
Not everyone on the inside is convinced that the unions have the right to take the moral high ground quite so forcefully on this issue.
While generally supportive of the FBU’s stance, some chief officers have told us off the record that the union’s historically trenchant opposition to radical shifts in working patterns has hindered the process of getting more out of what we already have.
The union, for their part, may feel that there is a very old story playing itself out here: prove you can do more with less and you will only be rewarded with more cuts.
Other chief officers have privately admitted to us that, if numbers of fires continue to fall and the demand for hospital treatment continues to rise, there is a case to be made for a new kind of emergency response force merging fire, rescue and paramedic functions.
By Patrick Worrall