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Monday, 18 March 2013

Mutualisation? What is that?

I note with interest and frustration that the government has issued a "rebuttal" of the story that they were planing to "privatise" the Fire and Rescue Services. The Minister is at great pains to make clear that "mutualisation" is NOT "privatisation." The question is, what is "mutualisation?"

My dictionary suggest that the word 'mutual' means, inter alia -

1. Having the same relationship each to the other,
2. Directed and recieved in equal amount, or
3. Possessed in common.

The English root of the word is from the French "mutuel" which comes from the Latin "mutuus" which meant exchanged, reciprocal or mutual.

Essentially it appears the Minister and his Civil Servant advisers wish to turn the Fire and Rescue Services into some form of "Co-operative" enterprise which is what, as my dictionary informs me is the meaning of the verb "to mutualise." Now, to me, a "co-operative" suggests that there are at least two "partners" in this venture, and possibly more. So now arises the question; who would be a party to this "co-operative" partnership?

Reading the Ministerial "rebuttal" one learns that the Whitehall idea is supposed to give 'control' of the service to the 'front-line experts' and to 'free' them from 'bureaucracy.' I'd love to see that, but I suspect what it will mean in reality is that there will be endless 'rules' issued by Whitehall in one guise or another and that there will be no 'savings' in Whitehall, but a severe reduction in funding to the service on the grounds that it must be 'locally funded and supported.'

It seems that what Whitehall has in mind is that the Fire and Rescue Services will take full control of their own management and 'contract' their services to the Fire and Rescue Authority under the provisions of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. Effectively the Chief Fire Officer and his staff will become "owners" of the local Fire and Rescue Service, saddled with 'leasing' their stations from the FRA and their appliances, fire equipment and uniforms from the contractor currently supplying these under contract to the FRA. Again, the Whitehall idea seems to be that the current staff, the Trade Union and the FRA will form a "mutual" to deliver the Service.

Frankly, I think this is someone in Cloud Cuckoo Land dreaming of Pie in the Sky. Frankly they may be taking some chemical substance as well.

A careful reading of the relevant Article in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 says that the FRA has three options for "delivering a fire and rescue service." It can do it itself, it can join forces with another FRA and do it jointly, or it can "contract" someone to do it for them, provided the contractor employs "fire fighters." So, if an existing Fire and Rescue Service becomes a "mutual" with a contract to supply its services to the Fire and Rescue Authority in its area - and the FRA chooses NOT to be a party to the "mutual" - there is no obligation to continue contracting the service from the "mutual" owned by its former staff. (See Article 15 Arrangements with other employers of firefighters, and 16 Arrangements for discharge of functions by others.)

I can see a situation arising under the current Treasury Rules to show "value for money" in every contracted service, where a FRA may decide that awarding the contract to supply its FRS may be better "value for money" if it awarded it to - say - Serco.

Frankly this looks like one of those Whitehall schemes dreamed up to "save" money which will end up costing jobs, far more money than it "saves" and frankly feathering the nests in Whitehall and Westminster. It will be unlikely to provide any improvement to anyone outside of the small and utterly inward looking community that calls itself the Central Government under any political dispensation.

Whatever the Minister thinks may be the benefits of "mutualisation", the most likely outcome is exactly what he says it won't be. Privatisation.  

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