Bucks Fire Attacked Over Consultants

Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service must save £4.8m by the year 2015, but they've revealed £600,000 has gone on consultants been January and July 2011.

The FBU say that almost equals the entire amount spent on these services over a four year period, 2005-2009, and if the Service continues at this rate, that'll be a yearly expenditure of nearly £1m.

But Bucks Fire & Rescue say the money has helped us undertake an organisational restructure which has saved hundreds of thousands of pounds, with no detriment to frontline services.

At the same time as this massive increase in consultancy costs, senior managers are proposing a number of reviews incorporated within their recently published "Public Safety Plan" specifically aimed at reducing front line costs.

Senior managers have been visiting crews on fire stations to discuss these proposals and informed them that around 40 firefighter jobs will need to be cut in order to deliver front line services in a more economical way.

FBU Brigade Secretary James Wolfenden told Heart "I am truly shocked by these revelations, and absolutely certain that the public would not support this massive increase in consultancy costs at the same time as senior managers are proposing to make some of the biggest cuts to front line services in the history of the Brigade. If the Authority keeps paying this much public money to private consultancy firms and employment agencies they will hit a total yearly expenditure of just under a million pounds. This figure is equivalent to the wages of 35 firefighters. This is an irresponsible fiscal policy and must be addressed. The Fire Authority has an obligation to provide the best service possible to the public they were elected to represent. To savagely cut front line jobs and service provision whilst this reckless spending on consultants continues is inexcusable. The Authority needs to be doing everything in its power to protect and safeguard the frontline fire and rescue service and ensure that the public suffers no detriment as a result of spending cuts."

Mr Wolvenden added "The Fire Authority have already approved the removal of a full time fire engine at Great Holm Fire Station, serving one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and a reduction in the number of firefighters that crew fire engines county-wide. Local people want their family kept safe from harm by fire fighters not consultants. I would urge members of the public and local politicians to strongly oppose any cuts to front line services."

Statement from Mark Jones, Chief Fire Officer of Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service

We are aware of the FBU’s recently stated concerns in relation to the money the Authority has invested in services provided by employment and consultancy agencies, however we are convinced that this money has been wisely spent. The money has helped us undertake an organisational restructure which has saved hundreds of thousands of pounds, with no detriment to frontline services, and also to initiate much needed improvement to our Finance and HR functions which have historically been viewed as under-developed/poorly supported by both internal and external independent audits. For example, just over £200,000 of the reported spend was on projects which addressed long-standing problems in managing the Authority’s assets and supplies. The result saw the enabling of online stock ordering and the delivery of a new HR and payroll system.

We are one of the poorest funded fire authorities in England in terms of governmental grants over recent years. In spite of this fact, and the continued tough financial climate we operate in, Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service achieved a managed underspend of £1.5 million of taxpayers’ money in the year 2010/11. This was achieved without detriment to the emergency response services we supply, and we are proud to say that Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes continue to retain their positions among the safest places in the country to live, work and travel. These achievements have allowed us to become one of the best value for money services at the same time as placing some money aside to help minimise the impacts of funding cuts on our vital emergency response services. 

The Senior Management Team and the governing Fire Authority take our responsibility as guardians of the tax payer’s money very seriously, and appreciate that during this tough financial climate it is important for us to take stock of our spending, scrutinise carefully where we spend and review what we obtain from our spending. However the need to improve and undertake effective business is not diminished by the current financial situation, and some spending must continue to ensure that the service remains effective. 

As part of this we are looking at how the organisation can achieve the required spending reductions with minimal impact to front line service provision over the next four years. As part of those considerations, we are currently undertaking a public consultation on four initial revisions that we want staff and members of the public to consider, and give us their view as to the benefit of further investigation into the potential for savings.

I note that the Fire Brigades Union is now adopting a public safety imperative as being paramount. I sincerely hope that the FBU will make a detailed submission on those matters, above those which affect their member’s pay and conditions. In the meantime the public should remain confident that, thanks to efforts of the men and women of this service and the good governance exercised by the Fire Authority, we still live in one of the safest places in England in terms of fire risk. 

The increased expenditure on consultants reported represents a very different method of delivering our services, and is greatly offset by the scale of the overall spending reductions. In fact, the quoted figures did not represent the true costs which, for fair comparison to be made, would have to have included the costs of temporary staff and unfilled vacancies. It is reasonable to ask: Without cutting services how could we deliver a reduction in spending of over five per cent, if our costs are escalating as the FBU have suggested? 

Reports of a reduction in full-time fire cover in any area we serve are misleading. The implementation of a decision, taken by the Authority some years ago, to crew fire vehicles in a more flexible manner does not represent a greater risk to those we serve, and to suggest so is simply being alarmist - I hope that those we serve and protect will recognise the good value fire service they receive, and will be reassured that in taking our responsibilities seriously we will also look at the options available to us to ensure value for money while remaining one of the safest places in the country to live, work and travel.

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