- Fire Brigades Union urging politicians to focus on investment
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has called for a UK-wide moratorium on fire cuts, calling on the Prime Minister and devolved administrations to halt fifteen years of “unprecedented” austerity and invest in the fire and rescue service.
In a letter to Boris Johnson and the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, and Arlene Foster, and Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neil, firefighters criticise the lack of preparedness amongst public services for the pandemic and warn leaders not to allow plans to be drawn up that reduce vital fire cover during or after the crisis.
Instead, the union that represents firefighters and emergency fire control staff across the UK asks politicians to “not only guarantee sustainable levels of funding but also … a programme of investment to ensure our fire and rescue service is resilient going forward”.
The FBU has had to fight cuts to every brigade in the country over the last decade and, last week, East Sussex fire authority began a consultation on sweeping fire cuts mid-pandemic.
Firefighters have taken on fourteen new areas of work to support their communities through the pandemic, delivering “important results for the health service and the public”, the letter says, which “may be needed in case of further waves or future outbreaks”.
On Friday, firefighters agreed to step in to stem the spread of infection in care homes. They are already face-fitting PPE masks for frontline NHS and care staff, delivering PPE and medical supplies, taking COVID-19 test samples, moving dead bodies, driving ambulances, and delivering food and medicines to vulnerable people.
But services have undergone sweeping cuts over the last fifteen years, most strikingly since the beginning of austerity in 2010. The most recent local government funding settlement figures found that central funding for fire services in England has been cut by 30% since 2013-14, while National Audit Office figures show similar cuts from 2011-2015, under a different system.
The budget for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has been cut by 7% in real terms since it was established in 2013, losing 990 firefighters. Reductions in Welsh fire spending have seen around 600 jobs cut since 2010.
In Northern Ireland, where the fire and rescue service is still “playing catch up” after decades of underfunding during the Troubles, the fire budget has gone down from £81.6m in 2011/12 to £74.1m this year, while the service has a shortfall of around 200 firefighters.
In the letter, the FBU has also warned about the impact the collapse on business rates caused by the pandemic is having on the finances of services.
The union is also writing to every fire authority in the country.
There are around 48,000 firefighters and emergency control staff in the UK.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:
“The crucial value of investing in public services has never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot return to the failed politics of slashing services and then expecting them to spring into action when a crisis comes around.
“Brigades have been gutted by a decade of austerity, but firefighters have nonetheless taken extraordinary steps to help the fight against coronavirus. They cannot be thanked with further cuts.
“There’s a host of foreseeable risks that could cause the next major national emergency – not least the risk of another coronavirus wave or another pandemic. When that emergency comes, there should be a properly funded fire service ready to respond.
“The Prime Minister and First Ministers have joined the public in applauding key workers each Thursday. It would be unthinkable for them to turn around and allow the slashing of fire services to continue."