UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 311-i

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT Committee

KNIGHT REVIEW OF FIRE AND RESCUE SERVICE

Monday 15 JuLY 2013

SIR KEN KNIGHT

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 68

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee

on Monday 15 July 2013

Members present:

Mr Clive Betts (Chair)

Simon Danczuk

Mrs Mary Glindon

James Morris

Mark Pawsey

John Pugh

Andy Sawford

Heather Wheeler

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Sir Ken Knight, former Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser for England, gave evidence.

Q1Chair: Sir Ken, good afternoon and welcome. This is a one-off evidence session about the Knight review of the efficiencies and operations in fire and rescue authorities in England. For the sake of our records, could you introduce yourself and tell us the capacity in which you appear this afternoon?

Sir Ken Knight: I am Sir Ken Knight, former chief fire and rescue adviser. I left that position at the tail end of last year and commenced an efficiency review of the 46 fire and rescue authorities in England at the request of the Minister.

Q2Chair: This is your idea of retirement.

Sir Ken Knight: I have not decided what that looks like yet.

Q3Chair: We have had so many reviews over the years: the Bain review and a review commissioned by the National Audit Office. There are many different reviews of the fire service. Why another one?

Sir Ken Knight: I am conscious of those reviews. As you well know, I was part of the service for a very long time and part of those reviews. I took notice of those reviews, however, during the efficiency review that I did, which was a fairly short one in its own right, but in the public sector it is quite right to want continuous improvement and a continuous look at how we do things. As a chief officer someone said to me, "When is this modernisation going to end?" I said that it was about a continuing journey of reform and transformation, so I do not think it is about too many reviews but implementing some of the findings for the next decade.

Q4Chair: Why do you think the Minister wanted you to do the review? There is what is said up front, isn’t there, in the terms of reference? They are always fairly bland and talk about improving this, that and the other, but what do you think was the real purpose of it?

Sir Ken Knight: For the Government and the public, austerity was taking its toll generally on local government, and fire is very much embedded in local government. The Minister had also been on a number of visits to fire and rescue services and seen, in my view, a disparate approach to different issues. Some were very innovative, some perhaps were not taken up as quickly as others and some were very different. He felt that he would like to bring some of those issues together and say, "How can we take forward some of the efficiencies that we think are going on and perhaps share them?" By the way, as you will have seen from my report, there is some really good stuff going on and a good story to tell, hence my point about the low number of fires and fire deaths and injuries.

Q5Chair: There are two different points, aren’t there? There is one about how you raise efficiency levels, perhaps in weaker areas. That would demand a national approach, but you are saying that there is good stuff going on at local level. What you are proposing in the end is to nationalise the fire service, isn’t it?

Sir Ken Knight: You will be pleased to see that I did not make any recommendations on governance at all. My whole report was about findings. It would have been unreasonable to make hard recommendations in a report of this duration and detail and with the resources I had. Instead, I wanted to raise a number of issues that I thought should be taken forward. I hesitate to sound like a seasoned consultant-because I am not-but there is further work to be done in very significant areas. I certainly could not get under the skin of a lot of the issues I raised, but they need to be tackled.

Q6Heather Wheeler: You have led to this very nicely, Sir Ken. Thanks very much for coming along today. I am fascinated by what I think most people have commented on, which is the narrowness of the points of efficiency and operation that you looked at. Basically, the issue is expenditure per head of population. That is the only measure on which you seem to have based efficiency. How did you come to that original decision and, given the comments that came out afterwards, do you think that perhaps you were too narrow?

Sir Ken Knight: I raised what I saw as a number of measures in my journeys. Depending on where I was, people would say how important was the cost per hectare because it was a very large rural area, or the cost per fire in a very busy urban area, or the cost per whole-time firefighter because it was a whole-time fire station area. It is difficult to get to a single measure.

I felt that cost per head of population was not a bad starting point. First, the public can understand what they are paying for their services. They get to the point of saying, "What am I paying for the service I am getting in my local authority area?"-as they were. I think it is an opportunity to compare what appears to be like for like, but you will see from some of the charts that I was intrigued, even though I was a firefighter and ex-fire chief, to find that you could not say all urban areas would be more costly, or that areas with more deprivation or industry were more costly than affluent areas. There was a whole mix as to why cost per head should be so different from one end of the scale to another.

The question I raise in my review is that the sector needs to sit down and think about what the benchmark looks like. What is the equivalent benchmark that people could aspire to as the best and have a common measure to get there? It is not there at the moment. For me, there is a proxy for that-cost per head-which says, "Look at the disparate picture coming out."

Q7Heather Wheeler: The very robust reply of the LGA-I guess they would say that, wouldn’t they-was along the lines that it ought to be based more on the close correlation between the total number of incidents and net spend in any fire authority rather than per head.

Sir Ken Knight: I am wary of that. It throws us back to something that used to happen many years ago: costing based on incidents, or even costing based on risk. There is a perverse incentive there. You want to reduce risk and incidents and not reward them, so it is about having a programme that rewards efficiency and change, not lack of change.

To digress, I went to one fire authority which had approved their risk map as it now looks for the whole of their county and how they wanted it to look in 10 years’ time. There were changing colours on the map by reducing risks, fires and incidents with the installation of smoke detectors and sprinklers, and sometimes necessarily reducing fire cover. For me, that would be a good reason why you would not want to find there was a perverse incentive to reward that authority for not reducing its risk over that 10-year plan. Some clever people need to sit down in a room and come out with those measures, but it is not just about the risk they face now. You want to reduce the risk, which the service has been really good at.

Q8Heather Wheeler: I would love to ask the most provocative question. Did you use that measure in order to be provocative?

Sir Ken Knight: I did not wish to avoid being provocative because it was timely to do so. The service is at a crossroads. It has faced very difficult austerity, as has much of local government. I was struck by the fact that the rest of local government had a huge increase in demand for its resources at a very difficult time. By the way, you asked me why I did the review. It is a service that I love. I still care very much about the service and what it stands for, but its whole basis and nature is changing. Therefore, I think it was right to be slightly provocative in order that others-the leaders of the service, not me-take the issues forward for the future.

Q9Chair: Picking up on one point, you described the range of different expenditure between authorities as inexplicable. I can understand that you may not want to reward risk by giving more money to areas which claim they have greater risk, but the difference in risk between areas might just explain the difference in spending per head, might it not?

Sir Ken Knight: You would think that, but it is not evident from the statistics I drew down. Bear in mind the statistics on the early pages of my report. I will point to those graphs, if you wish. You would think that, but you cannot obviously see why one urban area or rural area would cost twice as much as another. They are not obvious in that sense. If I thought cost was based on deprivation and risk in an area, I would entirely agree with you, but it is not. That was why I used the word "inexplicable". It is not easily explained, or as obvious as it sounds, that you can get twice the cost per head in one area compared with another. That is why I think further work needs to be done.

Q10Chair: You are saying that some of the differences can be explained but some cannot.

Sir Ken Knight: Yes. If it was entirely risk based, I would expect to see all those high-risk areas needing more fire and rescue services, more cover and potentially costing more. You do not see that across this picture.

Q11Mrs Glindon: The question I am about to ask is in no way meant to demean the tragic loss of Stephen Hunt in Manchester on Saturday. In assessing the level of service provided by fire authorities, why did you choose to focus on reductions in fires and deaths?

Sir Ken Knight: It is timely that I should also extend my condolences to Stephen Hunt’s family and the fire service of Greater Manchester, who will be feeling in a very raw state at the moment, and also the wider fire service. I was minded of that over the weekend, as I am today.

The reason I looked at fire deaths and injuries in particular was twofold. One was because there had been a significant reduction. That has not been incidental or accidental. In no small measure it is due to the work of the fire and rescue service in playing its part in community safety, fitting smoke alarms and focusing on those most at risk, and the work of this House 20 or 30 years ago on foam-filled furniture and the reduction in such fires. When I was a young firefighter, there were 750 fire deaths a year; now it is less than 200. A real success story has taken place. In my review I talked about a 40% reduction. I did not have the advantage of the latest figures, which came out last month. The reduction over the last 10 years is 46%, so the story is even better. I think that was a reasonable proxy for saying: here was a great success story the fire and rescue service has played a major part in, but we now need to recognise, therefore, that it needs to transform and reconfigure in a way that is fit for purpose for the future.

Q12Mrs Glindon: How did you take account of the increased prevention work that has been carried out by fire authorities, and the money that has saved in the wider community?

Sir Ken Knight: That is a very telling question. When I went to fire authorities-I went to 15 and spoke to a number of other stakeholders-I tried to put a value not just on that but on working with young people and those less able in society. I am glad that the Chief Fire Officers Association has started to do some work on the added value of that. As may have been suggested earlier, let’s be slightly provocative. I talked about it as latent capacity. How are we using the increased time available from not going to incidents as latent capacity to do fire safety work, and is that the best way to do it? I tackled some of those issues as well. There is huge value in not just community fire safety but other work where firefighters work on road safety or community safety schemes. I do not think it is either measured or has a value put on it at the moment.

Q13Mrs Glindon: The Chief Fire Officers Association suggested that you wrongly equated a reduction in incidents with a reduction in risk. Do you accept that?

Sir Ken Knight: I accept that I talked about a reduction in risk, but I do not believe that the fire and rescue service are the only people who can do community fire safety well, and to do so would drive us back into silos. In my journey and my experience, I have seen that, for example, the best person to give an elderly person, Mrs Miggins, advice on her smoke detector might be the meals on wheels lady she trusts and knows and can talk to. In one area, neighbourhood watch teams are skilled to check that people have smoke detectors and that the batteries are changed. In that particular case, there were 50,000 neighbourhood watch volunteers in the county giving advice on everything, including smoke detectors. In another fire and rescue service, I saw 400 uniformed volunteers giving that advice to young people and elderly people in the community. I am not saying the fire service does not have a pivotal and leading role, but they cannot be the only people who deliver this really important message in society.

Q14Mrs Glindon: How do you get over the actual savings made by the fire and rescue services in relation to the economy because of the specific services they provide?

Sir Ken Knight: I have talked about a number of ways where I think potential savings are to be had. Some of those are fairly tried and tested and some of them are taking place. It is not universal, of course. I said in my review that I felt there was a great deal of sharing, but it appeared to me there was not a great deal of learning. There was a great deal of duplication of that effort either in procurement or saving things again or not doing new things. To answer your direct question, I have seen some really good examples where smaller, faster fire engines are put on the front line-it is not the cost of the fire engine-where perhaps you need fewer numbers of first crew. I saw an increased number of what are called on-call firefighters who add huge value, particularly when call numbers are down. Equally in some notable fire and rescue services they are saying that utilisation of their fire engines is now 7%. If you compare that with 94% for the ambulance service, there is a huge difference of utilisation, and whether you need the same cover and response in the way we had it before.

Q15Chair: But when you need it you need it, don’t you?

Sir Ken Knight: Yes, you do, but you are providing for risk. Risk is that collection in axes of likelihood and severity. As the likelihood of fires has reduced significantly, as we have seen, not least due to the community fire safety work that you talk about, it is right to say that risk in many of those areas has been reduced dramatically by the introduction of fire safety measures, and you do not necessarily need the same weight of attack. Where you do need it-I address this in part-is in resilience: where you have larger fire incidents, where you have longer-term resilience over protracted periods of days or even weeks, and national resilience. You are right that you need a way to call in those resources, perhaps from neighbouring fire authorities, or others, but you do not necessarily need them as an in-house fire and rescue service standing alone in some fairly small fire and rescue authorities.

Q16Simon Danczuk: You talked about savings of £196 million. What savings do you think could be made on top of that without a detrimental effect on risk?

Sir Ken Knight: In round terms you are absolutely right. There are £200 million worth of savings if you reconfigure in the way I said. Those figures are regurgitated from those produced by fire and rescue authorities themselves saying what their expenditure is; they come from CIPFA, but they are based upon last year’s estimates. I had a dilemma as to whether to produce my report on estimates or actuals. The actuals will not be out until the end of the year. I felt that equally there could be a criticism that I am using only estimates. Therefore, I used those actuals. There is an argument in one of the submissions, but these are last year’s figures. They were not to demonstrate that there are further savings to be made, but that there were still £200 million worth of savings at that time, and the spending review now in place would utilise most of those savings. From here on in, much more transformation needs to take place than salami-slicing by the fire and rescue service to find future savings of that kind.

The transformation I talked about was through joining services, with probably fewer than 46 fire and rescue services in the future, and perhaps combining with other blue light services. For me, that is going to be the interesting part of the future transformation of the blue light services and how that takes some of those issues forward. When that £200 million worth of savings are used up, I doubt there will be much left to keep salami-slicing the fire and rescue service.

Q17Simon Danczuk: I am a little confused. In their submission, Greater Manchester suggest in response to your report that savings are being double counted; another authority says it provides an inaccurate headline; another says it is not a true representation of the funds invested in local fire and rescue service delivery. How much are you predicting can be saved between now and 2014-15?

Sir Ken Knight: Those are the savings in that period.

Q18Simon Danczuk: That is what you think can be saved-nothing more and nothing less.

Sir Ken Knight: Yes, in global terms. Remember, these are global figures. Individual authorities-you have quoted one or two-will feel that austerity wind harder than others. It depends on where they started. I have said that in this period, there are savings of that order up to the next spending round period, but after that something much more fundamental about the future of the service needs to be discussed. I would like it to be discussed, not necessarily top-down from Government, but that might be the solution. I said my wish was that the service itself and the political and professional leaders would take the future in their hands and decide how it can deliver the service for the future.

Q19Simon Danczuk: But further savings would have a detrimental effect on risk.

Sir Ken Knight: Unless there is transformational change, yes.

Q20Simon Danczuk: How does your national analysis and the use of anonymised data inform our understanding of local variation in fire authorities?

Sir Ken Knight: I did not even doubt that I should use anonymised data. The first thing is that all the data have come from fire and rescue services, so it is not secret in that sense. I can assure you that every fire and rescue service has looked and knows exactly where it is on those data sheets, because that is what you do if you are a chief. I felt that if you put names of fire authorities on those charts, so that people could say they are in the good or less good end of the chart, you just do not get a collective debate, which I am pleased has started. I am delighted that the Select Committee has also decided to ask these questions, because that will undoubtedly aid the debate. I do not think that we would have had that collective debate if we had put individual fire and rescue authorities on those charts. Fire and rescue authorities individually, not collectively, might well have switched off and said, "We’re okay; it doesn’t apply to us." I think this is big enough for it to apply to the service as a whole, which is why I anonymised the data. This was not about saying Blankshire over here was better than Blogshire; it was about a collective review of the 46 fire and rescue services.

Q21Simon Danczuk: If we drill down a little, Greater Manchester estimates that by the end of 2014-15 it would have 1,418 firefighters, which is a reduction in firefighters of 33%. That is a loss of one third since 2000-01. It will not be the same proportion in other fire authority areas, will it?

Sir Ken Knight: No, it probably will not be. A metropolitan area may well have some of those larger numbers to speak about. They will all configure their fire and rescue service in different ways. One, as you know, is combined with a neighbouring fire authority, so they will deliver it in a different way themselves. At the moment, it is up to each fire and rescue authority how it delivers its own capability, and it is delivering it in a different way. Greater Manchester are delivering a very fine service. This is a tragedy.

Q22Simon Danczuk: Does your report help or hinder Greater Manchester fire authority?

Sir Ken Knight: I hope that, collectively, it helps it to think about the wider issues. Greater Manchester is an extremely able authority led by a very able chief fire officer. They are able to think about the part they are playing in the national debate about the future of the fire and rescue service. The authority is playing a leading role in the region in combining its fire control systems after the demise of the Government’s regional control project. It is taking a leading role in many ways, and will continue to do so.

Q23Simon Danczuk: In terms of the recommendations you make in your report, which of them did you introduce when you were a chief fire officer in London?

Sir Ken Knight: At the time I was chief officer of three fire and rescue services, I went through a number of transformations and changes. I probably had it rather easier than the current chief because we were not living in times of austerity.

Q24Simon Danczuk: You never had an opportunity to cut down the firefighters by a third.

Sir Ken Knight: I did, in answer to the direct question, but I would like to make a wider point. Because of the changing risk and the calls, I recommended, and the authority agreed, the removal of a fire engine from Westminster fire station, and that went.

Q25Simon Danczuk: One fire engine.

Sir Ken Knight: Two pumps and one fire engine were removed, and there was the closure of the fire station at Manchester Square just behind Selfridges-that is no longer a fire station in the heart of London. All of this caused considerable debate and dispute at the time. All those things were agreed with the fire authority and the changes went ahead.

Q26Simon Danczuk: Is that on a par with what I have described as a one-third reduction in the number of firefighters in Greater Manchester?

Sir Ken Knight: In fairness, that is not what you asked me.

Q27Simon Danczuk: Let me ask you, then. Have you ever had to cut your fire service by a third of firefighters?

Sir Ken Knight: Let me answer. No, I did not, for the reason, first, that incidents were not reducing as they have over the last decade, and, secondly, as a chief I was never in a period of austerity like the one we are in now. There was never a period when we had a real reduction in budgets. Undoubtedly, the reductions in budgets and austerity have focused the whole of local government and fire authorities on the need to take some very innovative decisions. The status quo was not an answer, and that is what Manchester has said.

Q28John Pugh: I was going to ask you a similar sort of question. I am interested primarily in the Government’s £30 million incentivisation fund and what that is going to do. What do you think it is going to do?

Sir Ken Knight: You are referring to the spending round announcement.

John Pugh: Yes.

Sir Ken Knight: I had just left CLG by then. The spending round announced £35 million of revenue saving and the availability of £45 million of capital incentivised funding. I hope it will add to the very debate that the review addresses about change and transformation. I am not there now, of course, but I think it is particularly targeted at those fire authorities coming together and combining services or buildings, or even blue light services. I said in my review that, in terms of capital expenditure, the likelihood that in a town you might have a police station, an ambulance station and a fire station just does not stack up any more. Some of those changes will come so you can have joint capital bills and joint revenue funding available. I am sure that the service will think up very innovative ways with others to take up that offer of incentivised funding.

Q29John Pugh: But you did not think of doing that when you were a chief fire officer either in the West Midlands or in London.

Sir Ken Knight: No. We did not have incentivised funding available.

Q30John Pugh: But you are aware of the fact that areas like Merseyside have joint command and some of the things you are recommending, which obviously was done without incentivised funding.

Sir Ken Knight: Yes, and I made some of those changes, absolutely, in Dorset, in West Midlands and in London. I thought you were talking particularly about the Government’s incentivised funding as part of the spending round.

Q31John Pugh: I am just suggesting that it is a good thing with or without incentivised funding.

Sir Ken Knight: That is absolutely true. Every chief officer will consider and take to his or her fire authority how they can best use the funding available and how they can best serve the public in doing so. In that way, the incentivised funding is dealing with priorities, but we are in a completely different era now with the austerity programme and the funding that is available.

Q32John Pugh: How does efficiency play into the funding formula? As Heather said earlier, funding hitherto has been based largely on risk, has it not, rather than efficiency? How do you see it playing out in terms of the apportionment of the total cake?

Sir Ken Knight: It is a fairly complex formula at the moment, based on a number of things. I noticed that a number of those who responded to your request said it is time to review how the funding formula takes shape and takes effect. It is not a pure funding formula, as this Select Committee has addressed before; it requires floors and ceilings to be put in place, because it could end with a considerable amount of overfairness or underfairness in terms of the final formula. It is timely for the right people to sit down and think about what the right formula is in the future. I said at the beginning that basing it just on potential risk is probably not the whole answer.

Q33John Pugh: To go back to your previous incarnation, when you were with the London fire brigade, PricewaterhouseCoopers made an assessment of the London apportionment of funding and argued that the risks in London were not adequately reflected in that formula. Presumably, you have now distanced yourself from that report.

Sir Ken Knight: No; I do not distance myself from the fire service at all.

Q34John Pugh: They were arguing quite explicitly that the risks in London should be better reflected in the formula. If you are going to go for efficiency rather than risk, presumably that is a vain hope, is it not?

Sir Ken Knight: I am saying that risk is not the only way. I do not feel that, either during the period of the review or now, I am equipped to say what the new formula looks like. It is timely not to base it just on risk but to relate it to deprivation, changes, the area they are in, and, in some cases, rurality. Rural areas also suffer particular challenges in having their risk covered, so it is not just about urban or rural. The service itself needs to think about what the formula looks like for the future.

Q35John Pugh: In terms of integration of services, the Government have ruled out a single governance model. What is your view?

Sir Ken Knight: Do you mean between blue light services?

John Pugh: Yes.

Sir Ken Knight: I deliberately did not make any conclusions in that report. There is much more work to be done. The difficulty with fire at the moment is that there are about five different governance models, so it is quite a disparate landscape: there are county councils; unitary fire authorities; combined fire authorities; metropolitan authorities; and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. All have very different governance models, and they are rooted in local government. It is right to do a more detailed study particularly with the emergency medical service and ambulance service to see how closely that works alongside the ambulance service. As I highlight in my report, there is some suggestion and innovation about whether there is a role in the new governance models for PCCs. I have not made those conclusions, but this is the moment to think about how some of those changes could be made. In doing so, you do not change any of those front-line services in that sense, but in terms of duplication of services behind all of that, whether it is command and control or managers, undoubtedly there are opportunities for further savings, but I have not done the business case and detailed work and it needs doing.

Q36John Pugh: You mentioned national resilience. Obviously, you are expecting individual fire authorities to adjust their way of behaving and their previous operations quite radically in some respects and achieve greater efficiency and so on. This can all go very well. On the other hand, there can be hitches, problems and difficulties. You must be looking ahead and advising the Government as to the implications for national resilience. What do you think are the risks?

Sir Ken Knight: I was, but I am not now advising the Government.

Q37John Pugh: But in terms of your report, you must have a view.

Sir Ken Knight: Yes. I did not address national resilience in particular, but it is a very fair point and one that has been raised.

Q38John Pugh: It has a cumulative effect.

Sir Ken Knight: Yes, and that is a point made by CLG. Indeed, each fire authority takes into account not just its local need but the part it plays in national resilience. You will know that much of the national resilience, for example equipment, is in local authorities, not central Government, and is used for local incidents in any case, whether it is local chemical spills, local flooding or a local collapsed building. It is not just sitting in splendid isolation. That national resilience is derived from the national risk register. Therefore, the national risk register dictates the kind of response that the fire and rescue service should be able to make in the event of a major national disaster. That is a timely review, because the new dimension equipment for the fire and rescue service was brought about after 9/11.

Q39John Pugh: But your view is that, if all your recommendations were implemented, there would be no additional risks to national resilience.

Sir Ken Knight: I am absolutely convinced there is no additional risk.

Q40Andy Sawford: Let’s continue on the point about national resilience. What risk assessment have you done on these proposals?

Sir Ken Knight: I have not done a risk assessment on national resilience at all.

Q41Andy Sawford: Then how can you be convinced?

Sir Ken Knight: Because I know that the national risk register allows for the kinds of incidents to be responded to in a national risk sense and that that capability still exists. It is funded from Government and it is still there. There will be a review of that over time, because it is right that, as risk changes, it will be amended and it will change, but that is separately funded from Government as part of the national resilience programme in fire authorities. The equipment is funded as well, and it is used locally more than national resilience.

Q42Andy Sawford: You have done no risk assessment of these proposals; you acknowledge that the arrangements have changed substantially, and yet you assert absolute confidence that there is no increased risk because of your proposals.

Sir Ken Knight: Yes, I do.

Q43Andy Sawford: Let me take you forward on that one. Is the change to on-call firefighters driven simply by the need to save money or by fire safety?

Sir Ken Knight: Do you mean "fire safety" as in legislation?

Q44Andy Sawford: Doing what the fire service is there to do.

Sir Ken Knight: On-call firefighters are already the majority in fire stations in this country.

Q45Andy Sawford: Let’s not call them on-call firefighters, because that is a misnomer, is it not?

Sir Ken Knight: That is what they are called. The name was changed two years ago from "retained" to "on-call nationally", and was agreed to be the national title. If you do not mind, I will call them what they prefer to be called and was nationally agreed, which is "oncall firefighters".

Q46Andy Sawford: The Association of Chief Fire Officers tell us that that is a misnomer.

Sir Ken Knight: They are wrong because they agreed that the name was "on-call firefighters".

Q47Andy Sawford: That is their view. The point about it being a misnomer comes from the fact that they are not on call in the same way as your full-time firefighters. Full-time firefighters at Corby fire station can be inside the fire engine and out of the station within a minute. The on-call firefighters, that I call retained firefighters, in smaller towns around Corby and east Northamptonshire have to come from their factories, shops and other places of work to the station before they can get in the vehicle, so inevitably they are not on call in the same way.

Sir Ken Knight: If I may pause there, "on-call firefighters" was a term agreed some two years ago by the fire and rescue service, including CFOA, more properly to reflect the situation, not that they are somehow retained or are volunteers because they are paid the same hourly rate as firefighters. They are trained to be firefighters in all the communities they serve. They give a huge return in protecting their communities from fire and other incidents, so I would not in any way denigrate the way on-call firefighters undertake their role.

Q48Andy Sawford: It is an important role, but it is a different role, isn’t it?

Sir Ken Knight: No. A firefighter is a firefighter is a firefighter.

Q49Andy Sawford: But their availability and the speed with which they can respond is different from full-time firefighters.

Sir Ken Knight: It is a fairly circular debate. It depends on where the incident is, how far they have to go and where they come from. You talked about them all coming from the factories. In some places, the fire authority places the fire engine at the factory so they respond from there. You have very different models of on-call firefighters being able to respond in a very efficient way.

Q50Andy Sawford: Do you say they are substitutable and there is no difference?

Sir Ken Knight: I say there is an absolute necessity for both, but it would not be sensible to have a 24/7 whole-time fire station in an area that does 50 calls a year. It just would not be sensible to have firefighters sitting there.

Q51Andy Sawford: Do you accept that they are not substitutable and they are not the same?

Sir Ken Knight: No, I am saying that, depending on different areas, different risks and the necessity for resilience, there is a mix, but in this country the majority are on-call firefighters, and as in other areas, they respond in the same way to assist, they will continue to do so. Many authorities rely on the majority of their firefighters being oncall firefighters.

Q52Andy Sawford: So you are quite happy for a one-to-one swap to take place in order to realise the saving of £123 million.

Sir Ken Knight: My local fire station is an on-call firefighter station. I know them very well. They do community fire safety; they respond extremely well in the town where I live, and I am very confident about them.

Q53Andy Sawford: For example, do you think that in Corby, where there are two full-time crews available at any time to leave the station within a minute, it would be fine for those to be replaced by what you call on-call firefighters?

Sir Ken Knight: I am not here to address individual fire authority matters. The fire authority, advised by their own chief officer, will decide the appropriate staffing and crewing level and types of appliances at Corby, and it is quite inappropriate for me to advise on that.

Q54Andy Sawford: But do you think it would have any implications for national resilience? I will give you an example. There are two major units held at that fire station, bought after 9/11, that are for national flood resilience, and they have been used all round the country. At the moment, because they have sufficient full-time firefighters at the station with two crews, they also have a certain resilience to get those major units out of the fire station quickly to respond to national emergencies. Do you accept that if they had a different mix of on-call or retained firefighters and full-time firefighters-?

Sir Ken Knight: No, I do not, because much of the national resilience equipment in the country is crewed by on-call firefighters. The fact that it is not in Corby is a decision of that fire and rescue service, but outside we have on-call firefighters crewing national resilience equipment, boats and other rescue equipment. I cannot possibly accept that.

Q55Andy Sawford: You quite rightly said that it is for local fire authorities to make judgments about the mix.

Sir Ken Knight: Yes, it is.

Q56Andy Sawford: But your report is trying to take away from them that local discretion by saying they have to realise a huge saving by replacing full-time firefighters with on-call firefighters.

Sir Ken Knight: I did not say that at all.

Q57Andy Sawford: That is what the report says.

Sir Ken Knight: No, it does not. I said that, if it were to change that mix, there are savings of X to be made by doing so. I did not recommend any fire authority changes that mix or makes that mix. I pointed out that there are savings to be made by the introduction of more on-call firefighters. I did not recommend that individual fire authorities do that. Some have done it and are doing it.

Q58Chair: How do you make the total saving if changing that mix is not part of the total?

Sir Ken Knight: I am saying that by doing that, there are savings to be made.

Q59Chair: Are there other ways of getting to the saving?

Sir Ken Knight: There are all sorts of ways. One way, which we are seeing in patchy form, is to use smaller fire engines with smaller crews for first responses and early responses. Metropolitan authorities are doing that at the moment.

Q60Chair: They have had quite a few problems with the vehicles in some cases, have they not?

Sir Ken Knight: In some cases. I do not think that can necessarily be laid at the door of the fire and rescue service; that is about specification, body-builders and procurement, but we come back to that issue as well in my report. It is not the only way to produce efficiency savings. It was an example I used to show that if there were more on-call firefighters and you transferred them to that, it would produce this level of saving. But I will not be drawn to suggest that on-call firefighters are not doing a good job, much as one would not want to denigrate the RNLI or the Territorial Army. There is a different mix in terms of them delivering a service.

Q61Chair: To come to one of your other ways of making a saving, the proposal for privatisation has not exactly gone down very well, has it?

Sir Ken Knight: That was another area I did not recommend.

Q62Chair: But you did draw attention to Denmark as another way of doing things.

Sir Ken Knight: Yes. My personal view is that privatisation for front-line delivery of what we now know as the local authority fire service would not be right, but I was careful not to say that private sector fire brigades do not work, because there is not a single international airport in this country that does not run a private sector fire brigade. I would not suggest that those firefighters in all those airports do not provide an effective and efficient service, but I do not think it is right for local authority fire brigades. In any case, I made the point in the report that without an overview of using those outsourced services in that way, I felt that the public would not be satisfied with no scrutiny and external public reporting, and that was when I talked about an inspectorate.

Q63Chair: Perhaps you were not quite confident G4S would get there in time.

Sir Ken Knight: That was when I raised the spectre of an inspectorate.

Q64Andy Sawford: What was the point of talking about private sector solutions if it was not something you were recommending? Were you flying a kite?

Sir Ken Knight: I was very aware at that time, and still am, that there was at least one fire authority very keen to move to mutualisation of its fire and rescue service. One fire authority has taken a decision to do that.

Q65Andy Sawford: Why did you not recommend mutuals?

Sir Ken Knight: Because you cannot get to a mutual without its being thrown open to competition the second time round and getting to privatisation, because of the legislation as it stands at the moment. The Chairman will recall, I think, that we went through some of this before at a previous Committee. I was conscious of not going into that territory, but I recognised that because of some of the limitation in the legislation that would need to change, mutualisation would itself not disbar complete outsourcing of the fire and rescue service.

Q66Andy Sawford: The widely held view about the Cleveland example is that this is an attempt at privatisation rather than mutualisation. If you wanted to recommend mutualisation, you could have recommended changes that would allow for that.

Sir Ken Knight: I do not think I could. I do not think there are many other people other than myself working on it. I do not think there is a way round it. My understanding is that the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 allows mutualisation but disallows privatisation.

Q67Andy Sawford: Would you rule out privatisation as a model?

Sir Ken Knight: Personally, yes.

Q68Chair: Are you surprised that the general response we have had to your report has not been, "Oh, here are a lot of good ideas. We need to get on and implement them", but, "These suggestions are simply wrong. We refute them, and do not like lots of the analysis"?

Sir Ken Knight: It is not entirely my reading of it. In fact, I am pleasantly surprised. There is still an active response going on within the service, both in written form and in a lot of the social media, about changes to the fire and rescue service. There has been significant discussion going on between various parties within the other blue light services about interoperability and joint working. If the report is part of that discussion-because it does not make firm recommendations-and it is said, "That part is wrong, but we would like to do it this way", I would be delighted if they did that and to hear from them. As I have said throughout, it is time that the sector, whether it is local politicians, professionals or the Government, comes forward with proposals for the future of the fire and rescue service. It is not necessarily solely about the fire and rescue service. It is timely to have that debate, and I am genuinely grateful that the Select Committee has taken this much interest in it, because there is further work to be done in the future as well.

Chair: That is probably a very good point on which to end our inquiry this afternoon. Thank you very much indeed for coming along.

Prepared 18th July 2013