LEADING ARTICLE:Call out the waste-busters

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

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

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power