Privatisation fear over fire service plan
LEGAL changes proposed by the Coalition Government could lead to the privatisation of English fire services, Shadow Fire Minister and Derby North MP Chris Williamson has warned.
The Government wants reform that would enable fire and rescue authorities to contract out their services "to a suitable provider".
But Fire Minister Brandon Lewis has denied that this move would entail privatising them.
Mr Lewis said he wanted the change in law to help fire brigades "fully mutualise", meaning that control would be handed over to employees, giving them more power over how they operate and the ability to expand by bidding for new business.
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But Mr Williamson says the wording of a letter from Mr Lewis to the House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee suggests there is more to his plans.
The letter was written after Cleveland Fire and Rescue Authority said it was talking directly to staff and unions about the possibility of becoming a mutual in 2014.
In it, Mr Lewis sought the views of the committee on Government "proposals for a Legislative Reform Order that would enable fire and rescue authorities in England to contract out their full range of services to a suitable provider, including a public service mutual".
Mr Williamson said this wording suggested mutualisation would pave the way for privatisation.
He said: "Once the rules change, what's to stop the Government saying 'we are just going to privatise this'.
"Their record is one of attacking public services.
"And a private company will only consider getting involved if there is something in it for them.
"The day emergency services become about profit would be a dark day indeed for society."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said the move was "aimed at improving services rather than saving cash" and that fire brigades would not be forced to mutualise.
A statement from Mr Lewis said: "This is not about privatisation but rather operating in a way that ensures the public are protected by robust and efficient services.
"Local authorities will remain legally responsible for fire and rescue services even with mutualisation."
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude added that mutualisation was already happening across the public sector.
He said: "Thousands of employees are forming mutuals and taking control because they're fed up with the wasteful bureaucracy imposed on them by the State and know they can do better."
The Government's proposed law change will now go out to public consultation.