Thursday, 14th March 2019

I am a Corporate Parent- how I discharge that responsibility matters- and how do I know our Fire and Rescue Service is safe?

Two onerous responsibilities impacted on me at the beginning of this week. You may have seen the BBC programme in which Gareth Malone trains a choir for a concert at the school which sits beneath the hulk of Grenfell Tower. In a very moving film, he works to identify talent among the remarkably resilient and interesting young people, who lost many of their school friends in the fire. Among them is a young man with an obvious talent and imagination, but who finds school challenging because he has had to move to new foster parents; he has difficulty trusting people because as he gets to know them they seem to abandon him.

I sat at a Surrey Committee on Monday called the Corporate Parenting Board. It is not well known, but its importance is hard to overestimate.

The Board is responsible for ensuring that Surrey’s Looked After Children are getting the best possible deal in their lives- whether that be in their foster homes or in a residential setting; it oversees the management of the process of fostering, tries to ensure that young people in its care get the support they need to transition to adulthood and independence, ensures they get educational support, like a laptop, and looks carefully at how their support is resourced.

The responsibility is to ensure that Surrey’s Looked After Children get a deal which is as close as possible to what we would expect for our own children. As part of the discharge of that responsibility we meet the young people regularly to hear their concerns, meet the social workers who work to support and place them, and worry about how they can find the resilience to solve some of the practical issues associated with getting their own flat, driving lessons, managing money, getting an appropriate course in higher education and having the confidence and wherewithal to make their own way in the world.

Foster parents sit on the Board and their advice and experience is crucial; we don’t get involved in individual cases as that would be inappropriate, though we do convene panels to discuss applications for bursary funds for things to make a difference, like music lessons, or horse riding, or a digital camera.

I find the responsibility awesome, and worry that we are, that I am, not doing well enough. I worry that placements fall through or end, that sometimes young people are separated from brothers or sisters, or placed far from home and away from extended family or friends. I worry that schools have so little slack now and struggle to deliver all the pastoral care they used to; I worry that since Children’s Services are judged inadequate by Ofsted, that there are systemic failures we may not know about.

We discussed the recruitment of more foster carers (what generous and committed people they must be!) We discussed the level of support they need and tried to check whether it is adequate; I find my imagination struggles to comprehend how hard the job must be.

The role of the Board is to allow elected members to challenge and check that all is as it should be. That is what governance is- it is what school governors do, it is how public governance works.

But it is exceptionally difficult. No-one asks you about it on the doorstep, no-one prepares you for the role, very rarely do concerns appear in your inbox, yet the effectiveness of its work is crucial to the future of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

There are some aspects of being a councillor which test the character of us, which challenge parts of us which do not feature in the processes by which we are selected or elected. I say this because the image of the elected is so lamentable, so unworthy, so dysfunctional. The image drags me down and however well I try to do the job, the failings of others hang round my neck. But I meet others like me every day who strive to discharge these hidden roles with the same diligence and compassion, and they are not in the same party as me; I can work with them, trust their integrity.

With all the nonsense in the House of Commons it is worth setting out the principles by which I and others have sought to live their public lives. They are the Nolan Principles of Public Life. They appear on the website. How ironic.

They are:

“1. Selflessness

Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

2. Integrity

Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

3. Objectivity

Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

4. Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

5. Openness

Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

6. Honesty

Holders of public office should be truthful.

7. Leadership

Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.”

I will not labour the point, but it is obvious isn’t it that some of our most high profile public servants do not demonstrate these behaviours and do not live their professional lives by these standards. What I find extraordinary is that they get away with it.

I am wrestling with another dilemma, also very important; how do I know whether our Fire and Rescue service is safe? How do I raise my concerns in a responsible way, so as not to grandstand as if I know, try to make political capital out of it, or scare the public?

Just before Christmas last a very critical report was published. The summary of the findings is disturbing:

“Overall summary of inspection findings

We have concerns about the performance of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service in keeping people safe and secure. In particular, we have serious concerns about the service’s effectiveness and efficiency. In view of these findings, we have been in regular contact with the chief fire officer, as we do not underestimate how much improvement is needed.

The service should keep people safe from fire and other emergencies more effectively. It must improve how it responds to and prevents fires and other risks, and how it uses fire regulation to protect the public. Positively, it understands these risks well. It is also good at responding to national risks.

The service is inefficient at keeping people safe from fires and other risks. This is particularly so in how it uses its resources. But the service should also be more affordable.

The service needs to improve how it looks after its people. More specifically, it should do better at:

• promoting the right values and culture;

• getting the right people with the right skills;

• ensuring fairness and promoting diversity; and

• managing performance and developing leaders.

Overall, there are improvements we expect the service to make. We will be monitoring progress.”

A Press Release issued this week, (12th March) by the Fire Brigades Union:

“Proposals from Surrey County Council would see drastic reductions to fire cover at night, with Egham, Painshill and Banstead fire stations closed at 18:00. Fire cover at Guildford, Woking, Camberley, and Fordbridge would be cut in half.

The drastic reductions to firefighter availability at night are under the guise of what the council calls “risk-based cover”, as more fires occur during the day than in the evening. But the FBU warns that, despite this, there is a far greater chance of fire deaths at night, as victims are often asleep.

Home Office figures show that, from 2017-18, 73% of all deaths from residential fires and 77% of all deaths from accidental residential fires occurred between the hours of 18:00 and 09:00.

Response times in the area have already suffered, with it now taking nine minutes and 13 seconds for a crew of four firefighters to arrive at a fire, the longest response time for Surrey on record. In 1994/5, it took just six minutes and 52 seconds to send a larger crew of five, showing the cumulative effect of decades of cuts to the service.

Lee Belsten, FBU Surrey brigade secretary, said:

“The council’s claim that these cuts are ‘risk based’ is ludicrous. Slashing night-time cover leaves the public exposed when they are most at risk of fatality. These proposals offer no improvement in public safety and do nothing to address how firefighters are supposed to keep themselves safe.”

I would be expected, I think, to challenge the Council’s actions and support the FBU in pressing for safely staffed services. I will do my best on that.

But my instincts tell me I need to understand the detail and be able to balance the facts before I shoot my mouth off on such a controversial issue. I must challenge but not raise concerns, or even panic, unless there is a foundation for real concerns.

I need to work on this.

More next time!