According to todays Times the Government is about to extend the role of Police and Crime Commissioners to oversee Fire & Rescue Services. Apart from any Union opposition which the article focuses on, this is a mistake for several reasons. The most fundamental of these is that Police work and that of Fire and Rescue Services extend far beyond the impact of the Blue light activity, which is primarily the common link between them. For many years those in Sussex who determine where Fire Stations and Ambulance Stations are located have worked closely with their colleagues in Sussex Police and they have explored how they can share resources. Clearly more could be done, but this does not depend on one person holding two of the three services to account. Just as Policing goes far beyond emergency call outs using marked vehicles, so too a modern Fire and Rescue Service such as East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service extends well beyond putting out fires. Fire Officers carry out a great deal of preventative work helping vulnerable people to live more safely and reducing fire deaths to a very low level. In this extensive work arguably they work in a context that gives them stronger links with social workers and the NHS than with the Police, although none of these agencies work in isolation.
It is certainly true that Fire and Rescue Services are in desperate need of reform in terms of their oversight. For many years they have been governed using one of 2 specific models. One is as a division of a County or Metropolitan Council, so this service is governed by a subset of the full Council. The other is as an arms length organisation from the Council, but again with the governing body made up of 100% Councillors from local Councils. The big difference here is that Councillors from District and unitary Councils can be included. However unlike the old Police Authorities which were composed of 47% Independent members, Fire Authorities include no Independents within their board. This has made them the poorer for this lack, they have also shown themselves to be naively resistant to change. Despite widespread public support and a strong economic case for a merger between East Sussex and West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services, the County Council governed WSFRS refused to join up with ESFRS who are governed independent of the County Council. However to assume that replacing these two bodies with the Sussex PCC is another matter. Certainly they need some form of directly elected governance structure. However Fire and Rescue Services are not part of the Criminal Justice System, and most Fire fighting has no link to Crime fighting. Indeed in settings where a Police intervention may be inflammatory (sorry!) to the people involved in riots or raves etc, the Fire & Rescue Service is usually seen as a neutral agency. To loose or reduce this sense of independence would be a tragedy for all concerned.
The strongest argument against the current proposal is that the original remit for the PCC is far from being fulfilled. Nick Herbert who designed the PCC concept spoke in 2011 at a meeting I attended, deriding the idea of the Criminal Justice System as being anywhere close to a cohesive System. His idea was to extend the work of the PCC to the Courts Service, Probation and Prisons. These components along with the Police have a very strong link and explain why the office is not just that of Police Commissioner. They also lack the local governance structures that Police and Fire Authorities offered. For 5 years I was a member and then Chair of Surrey and Sussex Courts Board that was a pale imitation of the Police Authority, primarily because it was denied the power to make decisions and not democratically accountable. The same failings could be seen in many of our Probation Trusts, and of course there is no locally accountable structure for our Prisons. Nick was right, the PCC or some similar arrangement is needed at a local level to jointly govern our Policing, Courts, Prisons & Probation Services, and to send clear messages to the voluntary and community sector agencies that do so much to help reduce the speed with which the revolving door spins (and could with additional resources bring it to a stop more or less). Sadly much of the experience and value of the old Probation system has been lost in the Transforming Rehabilitation debacle.
It seems clear that our Government is not committed to reforming our Criminal Justice System. They are instead happy to muddle around with local democratic infrastructure to tidy up a few loose ends and force through some savings on buildings and fleet costs. Once again the Government is failing Victims of Crime and those who commit Crimes, despite the enormous costs of the CJS. I am no fan of Nick Herbert politically, but we desperately need his influence before the next generate of PCCs are elected.