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Labour Party Conference ’19 Reckless Tory cuts have consequences

Now is the time to stop cuts to our fire and rescue services, writes DIANE ABBOTT MP

JUST this week a tower block in my Hackney constituency was set ablaze. 

The building is covered in wooden panels, the safety of which have repeatedly been called into question by residents since before the Grenfell Tower tragedy. 

Thankfully, no-one was hurt. But many have been displaced and the community remains shaken and concerned for their safety.

It was revealed last month that fires in England have increased by almost 10 per cent this year, yet this austerity-obsessed government still continues to cut fire and rescue services. 

The overall number of incidents, including flooding and wildfires, attended by firefighters also continued to rise, amid heavy cuts to both fire and rescue budgets and firefighter numbers in recent years.

Yet all the Tory government shows is more complacency. It has been utterly complacent about fire safety for years and now it is taking its toll.

The figures from the Home Office show not only that there were nearly 10 per cent more fires than the year before, with firefighters attending over 180,000 fires; but also that the number of overall incidents increased by 2 per cent this year, with firefighters attending a total of 575,000 incidents; and that non-fire incidents totalled 160,000, 5 per cent higher than they were when the Tories took power in 2010.

These increases come after years of massive cuts to fire safety officers and years of fire safety deregulation as part a “slash-and-burn” culture to our emergency services from the Tories, who are seemingly prepared to sacrifice all our beloved public services to the altar of austerity.

Firefighter numbers have fallen by a fifth since 2010, while the number of specialist fire safety officers has been cut by a quarter.

And what has the Tory government thanked firefighters for all their efforts in facing these challenges over the last year with? Yet another real-terms pay cut.                                                                              

This is part of a picture where central government continues to cut funding for English fire and rescue services, which will fall by £155 million in 2019-20, representing a 15 per cent cut from 2016-17 to 2019-20. 

This is even worse than it sounds, as it follows a 30 per cent funding cut between 2010 and 2015.

Here in London, the effects of the biggest cuts in the history of the London Fire Brigade, forced through in his time as mayor by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, could still be felt on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire just over two years ago and are still being felt now.

In a time when the overall number of fires in London fell fire deaths actually increased, due to an under-resourced fire service struggling to meet its target response times. 

Astonishingly, London’s Fire and Emergency Planning Authority had tried to prevent the disastrous cuts, but Johnson overruled them, showing a total disregard for public safety.

Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack has gone as far as to argue that Johnson showed “callous disregard for fire safety in his time as mayor of London,” and this judgement is backed up by the fact that a review of the brigade’s resources in 2016 warned against any further cuts and advised that the new mayor at City Hall and his team: “Be ready to mitigate any unacceptable negative impacts arising from cuts in front-line resources made by Mayor Johnson.”

While our firefighters do an amazing job, Tory austerity means that we have seen the axing of thousands of posts, the closure of fire stations and cuts to equipment.

As Wrack has also so rightly said, “These latest figures confirm what firefighters are feeling on the ground — they are under increasing pressure, responding to more incidents with scarcer resources, as budgets and firefighter numbers continue to be cut.”

This has to change, especially when one considers that the impact of climate change will mean that our fire and rescue service is more likely to have to respond both to more floods and more fires due to the long, dry summers we are seeing.

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.

In contrast to the Tories’ approach, now is the time for a Labour government, which will invest in our fire and rescue services, in addition to firefighter recruitment, for the safety and security of all of us.

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, 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, we have also pointed out again and again that the Tories’ ideologically driven austerity also makes us all less safe.

The cuts to our fire and rescue service are one clear example of this, but they are not the only one. Years of cuts to the police, for example, have made us all less safe.

This is what happens when you prioritise cuts ahead of public safety — cuts have real, human consequences.

Now is the time 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.

Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

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