New Dimension-Enhancing the Fire and Rescue Services' capacity to respond to terrorist and other large-scale incidents - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


10 NOVEMBER 2008

  Q60  Mr Mitchell: Why did you employ them in the first place? Why does the department or the Fire Service not have the capability of doing this? After all, consultants just scratch together a motley crew of so-called experts for particular projects. You could have done that rather than pay the inflated fees. I see in 2.11 that some consultants "charged over £1,000 per day against the average cost that the contract stated should not exceed £500 per day ... ", and the total cost of the consultants is £12 million. That is about 25% of the cost of administering the programme as a whole. You cannot be happy with that, but let me start with the question of why the department could not do that without employing consultants.

  Mr Housden: There are two basic reasons, Mr Mitchell. First of all, the department had never done a national procurement of this type, so it did not have in the body of the department as civil servants enough skilled programme and project managers, so to start with those people had to be brought in through a consultancy firm. That is one set. The second set is very specialist expertise that the department would only ever use in this context [the new dimension programme] For example, the question of where all this kit was going to be put in the long term and how it was going to be moved around drew on, needed, expertise in warehousing and logistics.

  Q61  Mr Mitchell: But it also needed the expertise in the Fire Service, which had it.

  Mr Housden: That we had, but they did not have national equipment that needed to be moved around, and so this was a new issue and we brought in consultants' expertise to do it.

  Q62  Mr Mitchell: But these consultants were supposed to be training up people and passing on their knowledge to them. They do not appear to have done so. They appear to have hung on in there to make the maximum money for themselves.

  Mr Housden: I think there was an element of skills transfer, in the jargon, which has enabled the department progressively to pick up that role, particularly in the programme and project management area, and we are now essentially through the period of consultant input to this programme.

  Q63  Mr Mitchell: But you are still happy with Serco?

  Mr Housden: I have no cause for complaint with the contractors.

  Q64  Mr Mitchell: The department is responsible for the Fire Service College. Why does it not pull it together? It did not have enough confidence to send people there, as well as it being cheaper, to be trained rather than sending them to Disaster City in Texas, which I thought was a description of Hull. That is certainly how we see it on the south bank. Why did they not have the confidence and why at the end of the day are we still getting complaints, 3.10, that, "The Fire and Rescue Services have three main concerns with the College: high cost of courses, poor accommodation facilities, and inflexible course scheduling"? Why did you not pull it together?

  Mr Housden: It was not a question of confidence, Mr Mitchell. The Fire Service College simply did not have the facilities on the ground at the time to enable people to be trained in urban search and rescue. In Texas they did and, given the immediate needs of the country, a decision was taken, and it sounds to me like a good one, to make use of those facilities in Texas. The Report does include a price comparison. I do not know the basis on which that comparison was made in terms of subsidy, sponsorship or other things that might have reduced the charges that were made, but ministers have shown great confidence in the Fire Service College here by investing £8 million to enable that rig to be developed. It gets very good reviews from firefighters who use it and who have been trained on it, and the general point that you make about the Fire Service College's responsiveness and so forth of course is always work-in-progress and they are very keen to learn from their customers, in this case the Fire and Rescue Services.

  Q65  Mr Mitchell: Let me just be a bit parochial because I see in the Report that planning and certainly delivery is deemed to be patchy. The Chairman and I represent jewels of English constituencies which are on the south bank of the Humber. It is the most profitable port in the country, it has enormous inflows of oil and bulk cargo, it has got chemical industries, it had Flixborough before it blew itself up. In other words, it is an area of potential disasters. Let me ask you, since I saw this fascinating list of equipment on page 12, how much equipment have we got access to in South Humberside? You might not be able to tell us now, I appreciate that, but perhaps you could give us a note for the Committee.[2] First of all, there are prime movers. I thought that was God but evidently not. What do we have in South Humberside and how quickly can we get access to it? Further down there are detection, identification and monitoring vehicles and high volume pumping. I would be grateful because I have always been concerned, and we have got a very good fire authority but we do keep trying to cut down the number of engaged firemen, about what access we have got to equipment in what could be a very dangerous area. Let me ask Sir Ken—I see 10,000 out of 50,000 engaged firemen have been trained but you are having difficulties in attracting people for training on detection, identification and monitoring vehicles. Why is this? Are they paid extra for training and, if they are not, why are they not? This is a financial problem.

  Sir Ken Knight: It is not a financial problem, Mr Mitchell. There was a shortage at the time of the Report. I am pleased to advise the Committee now that we are fully trained on all of those vehicles. It is a very technical area. We are requiring people to be able to deal with the technical equipment on those vehicles, identify what the spillage is, identify what the chemical is and therefore the action to be taken, but I am pleased to report that they are now fully crewed and fully trained.

  Q66  Mr Mitchell: That is in all the vehicles?

  Sir Ken Knight: Yes, in all the vehicles.

  Q67  Mr Mitchell: Are they paid extra?

  Sir Ken Knight: They are not paid extra.

  Q68  Mr Mitchell: Why not?

  Sir Ken Knight: Because it is fundamentally the role of the firefighter and it is in their job description and role map to do this work, and actually there is not a shortage of volunteers to do this work. They really enjoy doing this work on the specialist equipment. I would prefer to let you have a note on where the equipment is. I just wanted to make the point that, of course, all the equipment is available to Humberside because it is a national response, so it all comes together when it needs to, as it did in Buncefield, so that it can be brought together for a major incident.

  Q69  Mr Mitchell: As it did to a degree in the Yorkshire floods.

  Sir Ken Knight: Indeed.

  Q70  Mr Mitchell: The fraud intrigues me because it was basically not a very clever fraud; it was quite simple stuff. Why should the department be paying large sums of money to a housing association to supply equipment to fight a major disaster? Why was that not detected earlier?

  Mr Housden: The basic thing, Mr Mitchell, was that normally, of course, it would have been detected.

  Q71  Mr Mitchell: Do you get a lot of stuff from housing associations?

  Mr Housden: It would have shown up on a standard report as being a payment to be checked. The individual concerned had an understanding of our financial software which enabled him to suppress the report, so a further check a bit down the line identified these payments and led to a police investigation. It was not that the department was defenceless but, of course, we have learned from that process and now have a much more systematic set of arrangements.

  Q72  Mr Mitchell: How long did the guy get?

  Mr Housden: Four years, I am advised.

  Mr Mitchell: And then he retires to the South of France.

  Q73  Chairman: It took you nine months to detect the fraud, though.

  Mr Housden: It was a considerable period.

  Q74  Chairman: It was a long time.

  Mr Housden: Yes, it was the best part of that.

  Q75  Nigel Griffiths: Mr Housden, are you a fan of Strictly Come Dancing?

  Mr Housden: Only at one remove.

  Q76  Nigel Griffiths: In respect of this Report I am Len Goodman, and in the face of the Craig Revel Horwoods and what I think are some carping criticisms, I have to say that, having been to see the London Fire and Rescue Service, I was very impressed. If everyone who went and saw that was not impressed I will go home and pickle my walnuts. This Report itself I think deserves a better mark than six or seven. Yes, there are some criticisms but the Chairman stressed the timetable slippage and I would like to know if it resulted in any failure to protect the public from actual terrorist incidents or suspected incidents or catastrophic environmental events.

  Mr Housden: It is difficult always to answer those questions unequivocally, but I think that the action the Department took in the early period whilst the equipment was being procured, manufactured and delivered seemed to me to be prudent and sensible. As soon as equipment has become available it has been integrated with local responses, so generally I think you can be confident about that.

  Q77  Nigel Griffiths: If you had completed the project by early 2003, what are the chances that the money would have been spent on inferior equipment than was later available and which you actually bought?

  Mr Housden: On the basis that there are, as the Report indicates, indications where poor procurement and specification threatened value for money, had the Department attempted to do it still more quickly then logically I think the risks of those would have gone up. I have not seen the basis of the estimate for 2003 as to whether a delivery date was doable or realistic. Looking at it from this distance, the type of equipment, the novelty and so forth, would naturally have suggested a longer time period.

  Sir Ken Knight: Can I just add to this, if I may. It was not in the absence in the Fire and Rescue Service planning for catastrophic disasters. We have talked about the 7 July incident, which I said was not an unforeseen event. There was a huge amount of planning having watched the four simultaneous Madrid bombings take place, which mirrored what happened in London. There was a huge exercise in Bank Underground in the City, Osiris, which absolutely mirrored 200 firefighters being used on exercise and then deployed on 7 July. There was not a vacuum of planning for catastrophic events going on while this was happening.

  Q78  Nigel Griffiths: Thank you, Sir Ken. Page 5 mentions the 2005 Buncefield oil depot fire and Box 2 on page 22 highlights the flooding in the summer of 2007, particularly in Yorkshire and the West of England. Could you have effectively tackled those disasters with pre-New Dimension equipment?

  Sir Ken Knight: We could, but not as well I would argue. The New Dimension's high volume pumping came into use very well indeed. The National Audit Office raised a question, "What would have happened if all those events over all those days had happened together, would we have run out of equipment?" The truth is that an area of activity that the Fire and Rescue Service does particularly well is pump water, and there are 2,000 pumps on fire stations in this country, admittedly a 3:1 ratio of pumping capacity compared with High Volume Pumps and more logistics as well as Environment Agency pumps, and they would have been deployed differently at different times in different places, but I am confident we could have fulfilled that expectation and that need.

  Q79  Nigel Griffiths: Box 1 on page 5, the third point on High Volume Pumps, says that before the New Dimension programme there was one larger capacity pump based in Shropshire and now there are 46 larger capacity pumps. That must be a step change in capacity.

  Sir Ken Knight: And a huge value that we have seen in reality.

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