I don’t normally do requests, and I don’t intend to make a habit out of it, but I have been asked by a number of firefighters to write about my thoughts on the difference/similarities between them and the armed forces.
I was asked to do this because I wrote about the former Labour government’s cuts to the UK’s reserve forces and now I’m making cuts to the London Fire Brigade. I can understand that many firefighters my feel this is hypocritical, I want to explain why it isn’t.
The first and most obvious point is to look at the scale of the reductions in each case. The Labour government were proposing to cut the reserve forces by around 30% at a point in time when they were at their busiest. In 2009, when I wrote the article, British reserve forces were heavily committed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, indeed it had been the most intense period of activity for the reserves since WWII. The current government has recognised this massively increased utilisation of the reserve forces and and is increasing their numbers.
By contrast the London Fire Brigade will see about a 9% reduction in staffing set against the backdrop of consistently reducing demand. Over the last decade the proactive work of firefighters has contributed to nearly a halving of fires in London. Neither the armed forces or fire brigade are demand led organisations but the size and scope of each organisation cannot exist in a vacuum and must have regard for likely levels of activity.
I described Labour’s actions as cowardly because they were planning to cut the less obvious element of the armed forces, namely the reserves. Rather than make the case for reform Labour hoped that the cuts would slip in, under the radar. Whether you agree or not with the plans I have put forward for London, no one can accuse me of trying to sneak these changes through unnoticed.
I was particularly angry that Labour had taken a front line first attitude. As I said in the article there is was considerable waste in the MOD which should have been addressed before looking at the front line. The London Fire Brigade has made significant savings in the back office functions meaning that over the last few years, while other brigades were reducing their firefighter numbers by up to 25%, there have been no front line reductions in London until now.
The final point is that Labour were proposing these cuts at a time when they were still planning to increase public spending in a almost all other areas of government. Since taking office and seeing the full horror of the UK’s public finances, it is obvious that all government departments are having to play their part in bringing the deficit down, defence and fire service included.
I have a huge amount of respect for both firefighters and members of the armed forces and in an ideal world I wouldn’t want to cut funding to either. Members of both put their lives on the line for others and deserve our admiration and respect but they are not identical and the situations they find themselves in are different.