A TRAGIC COMEDY OF ERRORS
Were it not so shocking, Friday’s County Council debate on fire service cuts would have been comic.
Most people, when adding 3 + 6 + 46, end up with 55, but not Councillors Lionel Barnard and Jim Rae. They think 3 + 6 + 46 = 3. These are the figures from their own technical report on the estimated number of extra deaths if the cuts go ahead and it is 55, not 3! Even the Chief Fire Officer appears unable to add up. In his Council report he only refers to fire deaths, but he adds 3 (fire deaths in the home) to 6 (other fire deaths) and also comes up with a total of 3. Why he got that wrong and ignored the extra deaths in non-fire emergencies is unclear.
It should be of great concern to everyone that people who are responsible for millions of pounds of public money cannot do sums that primary school pupils can manage.
Cllr. Rae had no defence for the cuts, so he repeated false and misleading figures and resorted to abuse. He even stupidly criticised Cllr. Michael Jones for speaking on behalf of the people he represents in Crawley. People who will shortly have the worst fire protection in the County, despite having the most incidents.
He also tried to pass the buck to the Chief and Deputy Chief Fire Officers. They have no choice but to work to Cllr. Barnard’s instructions, within his inadequate budget and with the damaging effects of previous cuts and neglect. Hundreds of West Sussex firefighters, who will have to risk their lives with inadequate resources, face public anger for poor response times, and carry the bodies out, have been ignored. They know these cuts will increase the risk to themselves and the public.
Cllr. Rae claimed no secrecy, but the consultation document said nothing about extra deaths, and the technical document only mentioned 3 extra deaths in the home. The other 52 deaths were hidden in a table of figures that had to be calculated to understand them. Something he clearly failed to do.
Cllr. Barnard also misled Councillors. He referred to a non-existent fire authority at Gatwick, and clearly showed he does not understand his responsibilities. The Airport Fire Service is only responsible for initial actions at an aircraft accident. The legal responsibility for providing an adequate response to all incidents at Gatwick is his, and he is failing in that duty.
‘Prevention is at the heart of everything’ proclaims Cllr Barnard, yet the number of fire safety audits has fallen from over 3,000 in 2010-11 to less than 1,400 in 2012-13. Worryingly 34% of the premises inspected were found to be unsatisfactory. His latest cuts will further reduce prevention work by at least 5,000 hours a year.
He says he has known about Retained Firefighter recruiting problems since 2003. So what has he done about this serious problem? Sadly, all he mentioned was a recruiting sign at the end of the road near his home. Perhaps his prevention initiative will be to add another sign, ‘Don’t have fires’.
He did not mention that he has deliberately restricted the maximum number of Retained Firefighters to a level that makes it impossible to crew all their fire engines 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He also did not mention that new contracts he introduced to ‘improve’ availability have actually made the situation much worse.
He claimed the ‘service is changing away from house fires’, which is not true. House fires in West Sussex have fluctuated between 491 and 654 for the last 12 years and there were 530 in 2012-13. Very similar to the 1980s when they fluctuated between 502 and 599.
He summed up his callous disregard for the public by saying that he would make the cuts, even if he did not have to save money. Sacrificing the lives of West Sussex residents for no reason is an absolute disgrace.
It was very noticeable that Conservative Councillors were very uncomfortable about being required to support these cuts. None of them spoke in support of Cllr. Rae, who prepared these savage cuts, and Cllr. Barnard who approved them.
The only other Conservative Councillor who spoke on the motion said, “Cutting other County Council Services may have caused some people inconvenience, hardship, anger and distress, but since my involvement these will be the first that will actually cost lives.” Councillor Andy Petch deserves high praise for putting public safety before party politics.
Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP Councillors were the only other honourable Councillors who roundly condemned these dangerous cuts. Many Conservative Councillors left before this critical vote.
Councillors Lionel Barnard and Jim Rae have deceived the Council and the public, embarked on reckless cuts, and reduced public and firefighter safety. They have been aided and abetted by just 26 of their colleagues who have put party interest before public safety. It is wholly undemocratic that, based on inaccuracies and deceit, these cuts have been approved by just 28 out of 71 Councillors.
Friday 17th October 2014 will be remembered as the darkest and most shameful day in West Sussex County Council’s history.