Ambulances dash off after profit

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THE GOVERNMENT'S flagship ambulance service in the North-east of England has come under fire for diversifying into increasingly 'bizarre' businesses.

The first ambulance brigade to adopt semi-independent 'trust' status, Northumbria sells and fits vehicle anti-theft devices and employs former police officers to provide security advice to the public and private sector.

Laurie Caple, chief executive of the trust, plans to use emergency control room members as auxiliary security personnel. Screens at headquarters will enable staff answering 999 calls to monitor security at places of business. A plan to establish a garage franchise to sell Portuguese station wagons was, however, seen as a diversification too far by the chief executive.

Mr Caple says the subsidiary business, Communi-Services, helps to finance the 'core' ambulance activity, but union leaders believe it increasingly diverts management attention from the primary function.

The row is a vivid illustration of the debate over whether a public sector organisation providing a 'life or death' service should indulge in 'income generation'.

Jonathan Upton, of the Unison public sector union, argues that Northumbria is moving into 'bizarre' business activities. He concedes public sector money-making activities are 'here to stay', but contends the Government originally meant only that 'spare capacity' be used. An ambulance service using its vehicle maintenance facility to generate money was legitimate, he said.

In the background is a dispute between Mr Caple and Unison over the dismissal of three Communi-Services staff. Mr Upton says they were sacked for failing to achieve unrealistic income-generation targets.

Mr Caple says they were guilty of misconduct. He adds that Northumbria's policy was backed by local Labour politicians because a better ambulance service was being provided without demands for more public money.

The emergency service's response times compared with any in the country and all vehicles were sent out with a fully qualified paramedic on board, Mr Caple added.

He thinks Unison is sniping at Northumbria because the union is no longer recognised. Management has drawn up an agreement with the non-TUC Association of Professional Ambulance Personnel, despite its having fewer Northumbria members.