LEADING ARTICLE:Call out the waste-busters

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable