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Tory austerity means making us less safe, writes Diane Abbott MP
?SINCE Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, we have consistently made the point that austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity.
As well as holding back investment, living standards and growth, it’s important to also point out that the Tories’ ideologically driven austerity also makes us all less safe.
One example of this is the cuts to our fire and rescue service.
While our firefighters do an amazing job, we have seen the axing of thousands of posts, the closure of fire stations and cuts to equipment.
Here in London, Anthony Mayer’s review into the London Fire Brigade concluded that it should not have its budget cut any further, making it clear that it could not cope with any further cuts after eight years of cuts under Boris Johnson.
The review pointed out that emergency response times have increased in areas where fire stations were closed in 2014, one of which was Kingsland fire station near my home in Hackney.
Nationally, a report published by the Home Office in January confirmed that the number of people who have died as a result of fires in the home has increased.
The Fire Incident Response Times statistical bulletin reveals that in England between April 2015 and March 2016, the number of fatalities from fires in the home increased by 17.4 per cent compared with the same period in 2014-15. This meant there were 34 more deaths than in the previous year.
This is what happens when you prioritise cuts ahead of public safety — cuts have real, human consequences.
The report also found that the average response time to primary fires had increased by 31 seconds since 2010. In rural areas, the figure was worse, with fire crews taking on average 48 seconds longer.
This tallies with BBC research released in December that showed fire crews taking longer to arrive at house fires.
In this Radio 5 Live investigation, the BBC highlighted the case of pensioner Bernard Lewis, who tragically died from smoke inhalation days after a house fire in Merseyside when the second fire engine didn’t arrive on time.
Sixty per cent of the fire and rescue services that responded to the BBC’s freedom of information request said that second fire engines were slower to respond to house fires in 2016 compared to 2010.
Additionally, 55 per cent of fire crews said that the first engines were arriving slower to house fires, with some arriving five minutes later.
This matters — evidence shows that the longer it takes firefighters to get to incidents, the more likely it is that people will be injured or killed.
Months earlier, the October Fire Operational Statistics Bulletin from the Home Office showed that 10,000 jobs have been axed in England over the last seven years, leading to a decline in the amount of fire prevention work that fire and rescue services can perform.
Fire prevention exercises such as home safety checks have been reduced by a quarter over five years. Fire and rescue services are also spending 13 per cent less time on public safety campaigns and initiatives.
Another development was the flooding in January which led the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to warn of a desperate lack of resources.
With more flooding predicted in future years due to climate change, this issue will become all the more important.
This was yet another example of firefighters doing a remarkable job in keeping the population safe, but the FBU pointed out that lessons had not been learned from previous experiences.
The fire and rescue service was the primary emergency responder during the 2015-16 winter floods, after which the FBU reported how there had been a lack of dry suits for firefighters to use — some worked in cold water for hours while wearing fire kit instead of proper flood rescue waterproof clothing.
As FBU general secretary Matt Wrack put it: “At times like these, it is particularly apparent how important a fully resourced fire and rescue service is.
“It is yet another reason why the government should be giving the fire and rescue service a statutory duty to respond to flooding as already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
These comments chime with the call in November from a group of cross-party MPs that the government give fire and rescue services a statutory duty to respond to flooding — a pledge that was included in the 2015 Labour manifesto.
Explaining the importance of this, Wrack said: “A statutory duty would secure the additional funding and staff resources to do the job properly and ensure that effective, adequate flood response can be relied upon this winter and the public kept safe.”
Labour also back the FBU’s campaign for greater professional standards in the fire and rescue service to better protect firefighters, which was highlighted in a lobby of Parliament last year, after the union published a report about firefighter Stephen Hunt who was killed in 2013 while responding to fire at a hair products store. His death was since found to have been completely avoidable.
As shadow chancellor John McDonnell said on the day: “We have been here time and time again, and those MPs still went ahead and voted for cuts to the fire and rescue service. Many firefighters, like Stephen Hunt, would be alive now if these MPs had said yes and listened to us at previous lobbies.”
We need to make the government and Tory MPs understand the impact of fire and rescue service cuts on both firefighter safety and the safety of the public as a whole.
More broadly, we need to get the message across that cuts do have consequences — not least for public safety — and that we need a Labour government, committed to investing in our future and public services, for the benefit of the economy and society as a whole.