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Government aims to "privatise" Cleveland Fire Authority in 2014
A NORTH-East fire service will be “privatised” next year, under Government plans - after ministers decided to fast-track the controversial move.
The shake-up of Cleveland Fire Authority (CFA) - to allow private firms to bid to run its services - would be carried out by 2014, under a fresh proposal to be rushed through parliament.
The fast-track comes as a letter by a Government minister has laid bare, for the first time, the full impact of creating a public service mutual (PSM), in Cleveland.
Long-standing legislation to prevent the creation of privately-run fire brigades would be repealed – allowing firms to answer emergencies, enter premises and make a profit.
The model would then be quickly extended across the whole of England, giving companies the chance to bid for contracts from all fire authorities.
Tom Blenkinsop, the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, said: “This now looks like a clear conspiracy to privatise the fire service.
“And the Government is trying to do it as quickly as possible, although – if you asked the man in the street – I’m pretty sure they would say they don’t want a private fire service.”
Dave Howe, the chairman of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Cleveland, added: “We didn’t expect the Government to do this so quickly.
“We are very concerned because, at the moment, only the local fire authority has the legal responsibility to put out fires, attend road accidents and even terrorism incidents.
“Now, if you read this letter, it clearly states that those powers would be available to private companies, like G4S, relying on making a profit – that’s the most serious worry.”
Last night, Robbie Payne, the Cleveland Fire Authority (CFA) chairman, again insisted that he did not wish to see a private firm responding to 999 calls.
But, pointing to the impact of harsh funding cuts, he warned: “We are not ruling anything in or out. If we were properly funded we would not consider going down this road.”
Concerns were first raised last year CFA will assume a “commissioning role”, pitching its brigade into head-to-head battles with private firms for service contracts.
However, Brandon Lewis, the fire minister, has now set out the clear end game for the mutual, in a letter to an all-party committee of MPs.
It describes the “legislative barriers” that need to be removed – including, crucially, a 2004 Act that states “only fire fighters employed by a fire and rescue authority have access to emergency powers”
Pointing out they include “powers of entry”, the letter reads: “Without these powers, the contractor’s employees would be restricted in their ability to fight fires, or deal with other incidents.”
And, setting out the fast-track timetable, Mr Lewis wrote: “Cleveland would like to be in a position to deliver the full range of their services, via a mutual social enterprise, in 2014.”
The letter was sent to the obscure regulatory reform committee, which was asked to approve the changes without the need for a full vote in parliament.
However, such a move requires a unanimous vote, which – given the presence of Labour MPs Dave Anderson (Blaydon) and Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) – will not happen.
That suggests the controversy is heading for a fiery showdown on the Commons floor, on a date yet to be determined.
A department for communities and local government spokesman said: “Claims that the Government intends to privatise the fire service are completely untrue.
“The Government does want to back locally-led mutuals and parliament will absolutely have the opportunity to scrutinise our plans to support employee-led cooperatives.”