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LEADING ARTICLE:Call out the waste-busters

If you want to save lives, who are you going to call? The Audit Commission, that's who. Today's report issued by the commission on Britain's fire service could lead to fewer lost lives and less lost wealth through fires. Our fire service, as the report points out, is much loved. Fire-fighters are wholly positive role models. The image of the wartime fireman, standing alone, silhouetted against the light of the incendiary blazes caused by Hitler's bombers, is part of our visual folklore. But, says the commission, this respect may have had the effect of cushioning the service from some of the hard questioning that it needs. "National decision-makers," says the report, "consistently prefer to avoid major changes."

The figures show that there must be change. We suffer more fire deaths than comparable countries, the number of fires is growing and so are the number of injuries caused by fire. What is more, the difficulties faced by the service are likely to grow. Over the next few years substantially increased expenditure on pensions will badly affect budgets.

The Audit Commission calls for more prevention. In the West Midlands, it points out, there has been an astonishing 70 per cent reduction in the numbers killed or injured in fires. This follows a four-year programme of education. It also recommends that, rather than sticking religiously to ancient national targets on matters such as call-out times, there should be more local flexibility in setting standards. Finally, the commission urges a change in the funding structure, arguing that the present "the-more-fires-you-attend, the-more-money-you-get" formula actually discourages prevention. It means that there is a disincentive for fire services to have fewer fires in their areas.

So this is a good and important report. But is it enough? Does it not just emphasise the absence of self-correcting mechanisms in the public sector? For instance, why on earth does it take a report from the Audit Commission to tell the fire service what it should have seen years ago - that its prime emphasis should be upon prevention. Why were not the practices of the West Midlands swiftly made standard?

In private business, competition will often force a constant study of what competitors are doing. Less efficient practices are junked, more successful ones put in their place. There is an unremitting search for best practice. But in the public sector it is hard to duplicate the effects of this discipline. The introduction of limited markets can help, but there are acute public sensitivities at stake.

What these services need is a best practice revolution. They have to be able to measure performance and thus to recognise success or failure. Once best practice has been identified, it needs to be spread on a systematic basis. This requires great openness and a breaking down of bureaucratic barriers. Devolution of decision-making is necessary so that local experiments can be conducted.

Most tricky of all, efficiency needs to be rewarded. But not, as the Audit Commission seems to recommend, by letting efficient services keep money that they no longer need - that would be irrational. The best way would be to reward better practice directly, through higher pay or bigger bonuses for those responsible. But there is an unpalatable truth here. It may turn out that the best way to save lives is to reward the efficient fire-fighter, even though we will continue to be stirred by the brave one.