EFA – it’s Hedley democracy

I guess there are two main things that emerged from yesterday’s Essex Fire Authority meeting. The first is that there are some very disrespectful Conservative members. Notable is Cllr Guglielmi who chose to laugh aloud when a Labour member was expressing concern about the process of choosing the options to be presented in the consultation regarding cuts. Tories may find mirth in the prospect of job cuts and a degraded service, this socialist does not.

The work workshop suggested two proposals be put forward in the public consultation exercise. Cllr Hedley chose to arbitrarily add a third. Evidently he sees the EFA as his fiefdom; unfortunately for him I do not. However clunky he may think the process, it must be adhered to. Doubtless he is used to the nodding dogs in his party just agreeing with everything he says. I suspect he finds the prospect of a Labour group actually scrutinising what he does quite unsettling.

The consultation exercise is akin to offering a perfectly healthy patient a choice of limbs to be amputated. Whilst I am not blind to the state of the economy (and one wonders just how much mismanagement Osborne can get away with) I do not see my role as being compliant to job cuts, degraded services, and residents being made to endure greater risk.

Doubtless a Labour-run EFA would be forced to make difficult choices. But I have no doubt that these would be made with a heavy heart, not glee. We would also engage with the workforce more, and explore every alternative to the cuts with utmost vigour.

Two EFA meetings

Two Essex Fire Authority meetings in as many days. The first was the main body, and the interesting item (as far as I was concerned) on that agenda was entitled Organisational Change.

Organisational Change has been forced on the EFA (who oversee the Essex County Fire and Rescue Service) by the huge cuts imposed on all public services by the Conservative Government. The four Labour councillors on the EFA tried to tweak the recommendations to include a commitment to no compulsory redundancies.

I said that whilst aware of the challenges the cuts are giving the Authority there were always choices. The cuts, described by one Tory member as ‘savings’, were ideologically driven, I added. I, and my Labour colleagues, believed that we should endeavour to protect jobs. We lost the ensuing vote 16 – 4 (with one abstention). At least the Labour quartet can hold their heads high with the realisation that at least we tried to protect the workforce.

Earlier today I attended the EFA’s Health, Safety, and Welfare Strategy Group Meeting. We discussed accidents at work, and at the scene of the incidents that fire fighters attend. We looked at a number of metrics for both Essex and nearby fire authorities. Essex does compare favourably, although there is always room for improvement.

Cllr Cathy Kent’s press release in respect of the recent Fire Authority Cultural Review

Following the release of a report by Irene Lucas into the culture of the Essex County Fire and Rescue Service, Cllr Cathy Kent, a Thurrock representative, and Labour lead, on Essex Fire Authority, said:

I would like to put on record my thanks to Irene Lucas for the hard work she has put in to this report.

Nobody reading it can fail to be aware that action needs to be taken … and now.

That is why I also appreciate the comments of, both, the authority’s chair and Acting Chief Fire Officer that they too welcome the report, although I would have preferred it if they simply accepted the recommendations here and now, rather than saying they need to “examine it in detail”.

I can assure everyone that myself and my Labour colleagues will be unstinting in maintaining pressure of the Essex Fire and Rescue Service and the Fire Authority to ensure these recommendations are acted upon rapidly.

It is no good to say – “we need to study in detail” – that’s what the report was for and that is what Ms Lucas did.

Her report states that what she found “creates a danger to individuals, equipment and property” which “may in turn put the communities of Essex at risk”.

It says this bullying intimidating culture “pervades the culture in ECFRS from the bottom to the top” and that there is a culture of fear.

Since my appointment to the Fire Authority in 2009 I have spoken to many dedicated fire fighters who have raised concerns with me. In turn I have, consistently raised these issues and asked why it is that people appeared afraid to speak out, and why nothing has been done to change the culture.

This is our chance to put things right. Ms Lucas accepts that things are improving – albeit slowly – and that many people want to move on against the “very small, malignant minority”.

Delaying the approval of these recommendations by even one day puts at risk the best opportunity we have to provide the service the people of Essex deserve.

Let’s not waste it. The time to act is now.


Essex Fire Authority Audit, Governance & Review Committee

Amongst the items discussed at yesterday’s Essex Fire Authority Audit, Governance & Review Committee was the Annual Governance Review. This one of a number of audit documents, which despite the good and hard work of those at the EFA, showed that there are some causes for concern.

On page four of the document, under a section entitled ‘Effectiveness’, is the following table.

This is described thus: The table below compares the audit results for the last five years:

Limited Assurance or No Assurance Reasonable Assurance Substantial Assurance
2010/11 0 10 4
2011/12 0 4 2
2012/13 1 5 2
2013/14 2 4 3
2014/15 2 4 3

The Essex Fire Authority is not a body to play political games with. However, because of the critically important job that it does I think it must be properly scrutinised.

The internal controls appear to be robust, but when three follow-up items have not been passed, and therefore have to go forward for another year, then this is an area for concern.

I asked of the auditor at one point: “I work in the automotive industry. To use a motoring analogy, would you drive a car with this level of assurance?” That I got no answer to this spoke volumes. The EFA has got to do better.

FTFP has implications beyond the council chamber

The flawed nature of the first past the post electoral system has implications beyond who sits in the numerous council chambers around the country. The ruling bodies of a number of organisations are drawn from the membership of various local authorities, thus further perpetuating this unfair representation.

For example, the Essex Fire Authority has its members drawn from Essex County Council, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Thurrock Borough Council. Of its twenty-five members twenty are Conservative, and five are Liberal Democrats.

Essex is admittedly a county dominated by the Conservatives. But to have no Labour representation does not represent the views of the voters. This year has so far been a disastrously poor year electorally for Labour, yet still in June’s county elections in Essex Labour polled 11.5% (the Conservatives were on 42.8% and the Liberal Democrats 20.1%).

Using these figures you would expect Labour to have around three persons represented on the EFA, and the Conservatives would have eleven.

I do not suppose many realise when casting their vote that it is not just who sits in the council chamber that is decided at election time.