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Caroline Spelman MP: The Labour Government has shamefully neglected its duty to defend the realm by leaving the country dangerously exposed if firefighters go out on strike

SPELMAN CAROLINE NW Caroline Spelman MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Few could forget the images of the Green Goddesses rolling into service during the national fire strikes of 2002 and 2003, manned by the Armed Forces. This week the threat of fire strikes hang over us again as a result of local industrial disputes spanning London, South Yorkshire, Humberside, Merseyside and Essex.

The prospect of being without our firefighters is very worrying indeed, but all the more so because of the reckless way in which the Government has left us without and emergency fire cover for this critical period – despite knowing for some time the threat of industrial action was looming.

The Green Goddesses have been sold off and government policy now excludes the possibility of the military stepping in to cover during fire strikes.

The decision by Ministers to rule out military cover is the inevitable consequence of the chronic over-stretch our troops have to endure in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yet despite this decision – taken by Ministers at a national level – there has been no provision made for vital cover during a strike.  The Government has simply pulled the rug out from under local authorities.  Answers to written parliamentary questions also reveal that there is no training taking place in the armed forces to provide contingency cover.

If the fire strikes take place as predicted, our country will be arguably the least prepared it has ever been and the responsibility for that lies firmly with Ministers who have stuck their heads in the sand.

All of this points to a gross dereliction of duty by the Government whose first priority should always be the Defence of the Realm.  The Government has put all its eggs in one basket with a high profile, but ultimately doomed project called ‘Fireguard’.  Originally promising to give private sector contingency cover for local authorities across England and Wales in the event of industrial action, the scheme collapsed with no emergency cover being left in place.  A written question I tabled in July revealed that only London has been able to secure emergency cover by going its own way.

The reasons for the failure of Fireguard are various and complicated, but what is clear from local authority minutes is a clear concern that the Government was not prepared to support the project fully.  The Fireguard venture was aborted amid recriminations and justifiable anger on the part of fire authorities because attempts to release funding under the Government’s ‘New Burdens’ principle were refused by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The upshot is that our country has been left dangerously exposed by a catalogue of negligence and complacency.  Ministers do not hold copies of contingency plans for industrial action and clearly have no overview ensuring that provision of adequate cover in the event of strikes. 

Some fire authorities, in the absence of Fireguard, have had to look to enlisting retired personnel and volunteers to provide cover.  Clearly these people have a lot to offer and their willingness to assist in a time of crisis is to their credit – but how could the Government have let it get to the stage that we are relying on the retired and volunteers to protect people?

Without sufficient contingent cover, local fire authorities are far less able to resist unreasonable demands by unreformed, far-left union barons.  Yet lives and property will undeniably be at risk in the event of a fire strike, given the wholly inadequate cover.

For council tax payers it will mean that the fire levy on council tax bills will inevitably have to rise to meet the shortfall created by the withdrawal of support from central government, even if just to buy off potential strikers.

Our firefighters do an incredible job, one which many of us could barely contemplate.  The decision by irresponsible union barons to press ahead with industrial action at a time when our country is so ill-equipped with contingency plans is disappointing.  But the Labour Government’s neglect in allowing our country to slide into such a state of ill-preparedness is nothing less than shameful.


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