Chris Williamson: Saving lives, not cash, must be the priority for our fire services
NEVER in my seven years as a member of Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Authority did I anticipate my successors would be faced with the unwelcome spectre of privatisation.
Yet that is exactly what they may need to contemplate under proposals being developed by the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition.
We all knew that the Government would not exempt our emergency services from its austerity programme but the unprecedented cuts are reckless and downright dangerous.
Conservative Fire Minister Brandon Lewis has already axed more than 4,000 firefighters, closing scores of stations and decommissioning dozens of appliances.
Between 2010 and 2012, according to the Government's own figures, Derbyshire lost 188 whole-time and retained firefighters.
Mr 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 co-operatives.
But the fact is there are no protections in place to shield public-sector co-operatives 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 co-operative 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, in the United States, where a couple lost everything after their home burned to the ground, even though they had called 911 to ask for help.
Firefighters had responded but did not 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.
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, in my role as the Shadow Fire Minister, I am launching a national campaign to highlight and oppose the Government's reckless plan.
We cannot allow the fire and rescue service to be another sacrificial lamb on the altar of austerity.
Savings lives, not money, must be the priority.