London's burning

The London fire brigade is under a grave threat, thanks to Boris Johnson.

What the Luftwaffe couldn’t achieve, Boris Johnson might. Not since the dark days of 1940 has there been such a grave threat to the London Fire Brigade. Hyperbole? No, plain reality. Brigade managers have been told by the mayor to find an eye-watering £65m of savings. Letters seeking expressions of interest in redundancy have already been sent to all operational firefighters in London, and this week it was revealed that the fire stations and engines are also under threat.

The preferred option of managers – and the one, tweaks notwithstanding, most likely to be put before fire authority politicians in November – is the closure of 17 stations, with the resultant loss of the same number of engines and 600 frontline firefighter jobs. Fire stations which have stood proudly – in places such as Westminster, Clerkenwell, Clapham and Whitechapel – for generations, protecting local communities from fire, flying bombs and terrorism, now look set to have “For Sale” signs hammered to their front doors by the mayor.

The decision to slash the brigade’s budget by so many millions is as likely to have been driven by the mayor’s economic philosophy, his support for grinding austerity measures and general antipathy to the public sector, as by such technicalities as actual risk. He has, it is true, argued that attendance times – a target of six minutes for the arrival of the first engine (increased from five in 2008) and eight for the second – will be maintained. But insofar as that claim will prove correct – and the Fire Brigades Union is sceptical that it will – attendance times are far from the only consideration when planning a co-ordinated and effective response to emergencies. The weight of the response is as critical as its speed. Ensuring that adequate back-up resources are in place to assist with developing and large-scale incidents is vital. If the situation escalates, as it so often does, firefighters need to know that more engines and crews will be forthcoming quickly. If they aren’t, those firefighters and any members of the public who might be involved have suddenly got a big problem on their hands, regardless of how quickly the initial crews arrived. 

In August, a fire, described by the brigade as the largest since the Second World War, broke out in Dagenham. At its height, 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters – around a quarter of the brigade’s capacity – were tackling it. It was the weight of response that eventually ensured the fire was brought under control safely, without injury, loss of life or widespread damage to neighbouring properties. 

Likewise, the effective actions of firefighters at the 7/7 bombings – which, ironically, were attended by crews from several of the stations on the hit list – owed as much to the numbers responding as to their alacrity in getting there.

All sorts of dangers arise from a lack of resources at incidents. Standard operating procedures, in which firefighters are relentlessly drilled, rely on minimum numbers carrying out designated jobs. A shortage of personnel and equipment would compromise the safety of those firefighters and the public they are trying to protect. Indeed, this very point was recognised by London Fire Brigade managers themselves as recently as 2010, when, in response to an Audit Commission suggestion that the brigade maintained too many fire engines, they argued that the commission had done “no work to demonstrate the particular demands which can arise if there are very large and lengthy incidents. Such incidents may be the product of terrorism or some other catastrophic event, such as a train crash, but they may also include ‘normal business’.” They concluded that “there are regular enough large incidents in London to justify the level of emergency response capacity which we hold ready each day”.

The proposed cuts, along with a disastrous experiment in privatisation which has jeopardised the renewal of the engine fleet due to commence in 2014 and the government’s desire to increase the retirement age for firefighters to 60, gives rise to the prospect that, in just a few years from now, London’s fire service will consist of aging men and women being mobilised to emergencies as part of a seriously reduced capacity of creaking and inadequate fire appliances.

In September, chief officers from six of England’s seven metropolitan brigades joined forces to warn ministers about the “potentially catastrophic impact” of fire service cuts. (The government has reduced the grant by 27 per cent, making it almost impossible for brigades to uphold the pledge made by David Cameron pre-election that there would be no frontline cuts and despite the fact that over the last decade the remit of the fire service has broadened substantially.) One voice was missing: that of London’s chief, Ron Dobson. The likely dire consequences of the proposals for the capital make it incumbent on him now to speak up. His first call should be to Boris Johnson; his second, to the prime minister.

 
Firefighters pose with Boris Johnson in better days. Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Embery is the Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union in London.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.