Labour Research June 2019


Cuts mean crisis for emergency services

As bereaved families mark the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire this month, Labour Research looks at how austerity has impacted on 999 emergency services.

Cuts to the number of police officers has made headline news over recent months, particularly in the light of rising levels of serious violent and sexual crime. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published in April 2019 show the number of homicide offences (murders) increased by 6% from 690 to 732 in England and Wales last year. 

There was also a 6% increase in police-recorded offences involving a knife or sharp instrument to 40,829, and a small rise in the number of sexual assaults. 

However, there has been less focus on the impact of austerity as a result of cuts to the wider police service and to the fire and rescue and ambulance services. 

According to Ben Priestley, national officer for the UNISON public services union: “Policing as an emergency service relies on a whole team of police staff to put police officers on the beat, but police staff also carry out many vital operational roles in their own right — like police community support officers and crime scene examiners for example.” 

The latest Home Office police workforce statistics for England and Wales, published in January 2019, show a slight increase in both police officer and police staff numbers, while the number of police community support officers (PCSOs) has continued to fall. 

Police workforce

The latest Home Office police workforce statistics, published in January 2019, show the number of police officers rose from 121,929 in September 2017 to 122,395 in September 2018, an increase of 0.4%. 

The number of police staff increased by 2.8%, from 66,393 to 68,256 over the same period, while the number of police community service officers (PCSOs) continued to fall, by 2.6% from 10,056 to 9,971.

“The cuts have bottomed out and there has been a very modest increase in police numbers,” Priestley told Labour Research. “But these latest figures disguise the huge cuts since 2010, the deepest around 2016-17, which have seen around 25% of the police staff workforce cut.”

Although police funding has increased by 7.2% this year — the government allowed police and crime commissioners to increase the policing element of Council Tax, adding an average of £24 to council tax bills — Priestley says that “the damage has not been rectified or addressed”.

The union’s 2017 Cuts and crime report showed that serious crime against the person in England and Wales has risen sharply “as police numbers have fallen”. It also reports that the dismantling of neighbourhood policing means the sight of a police officer or PCSO on the beat is now a rare experience for most. And, says Priestley: “PCSOs, 999 call-takers and crime scene investigators are all under incredible duress because of the cuts”. 

Following the launch of home secretary Sajid Javid’s Front Line Review of policing in May 2018, which aimed to gather evidence on the “lived experience” of frontline police officers and staff, UNISON carried out its own survey. 

Two-and-a-half thousand UNISON frontline police staff responded and highlighted problems with unmanageable workloads, including an “incessant drive of a more for less culture”, staff shortages and unfilled vacancies. The union is also challenging an “insidious” increase in volunteering in the service (see box). 

Police support volunteers

Public services union UNISON’s November 2018 Crossing the line report highlights a worrying increase in the number of police support volunteers (PSVs) working for police forces in England and Wales. 

Using Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, the union found their numbers grew by 857 (15%) between 2014 and 2017. At the same time, the number of police staff in the forces which responded to the FOI inquiry declined by 1,566.

UNISON says its research feeds “the ongoing concern that PSVs are being used to replace paid police staff roles”. In Hampshire, PSVs made up 35% of the combined paid police staff and PSV workforce, 25% of that in Devon and Cornwall, 19% in Hertfordshire Constabulary and 16% in Thames Valley Police. Lincolnshire has introduced volunteer police community support officers (PCSOs), with Kent police possibly hoping to follow. 

UNISON acknowledges that volunteering can be valuable to police forces, rewarding for the PSVs, and a valuable bridge between communities and police forces. 

But it says, “questions need to be asked when volunteering spills over into areas that were previously the preserve of directly employed, highly trained, vetted, and skilled police employees”. 

As well as volunteer PCSOs, UNISON also found volunteer roles including crime team support assistant and drug testing on arrest support.

“You can’t do policing on the cheap,” UNISON national officer Ben Priestley told Labour Research. “You can’t expect it to be done by well-meaning amateurs. 

“While we have no objection to volunteers working as, for example, puppy walkers and sitters, the service needs to recognise it can’t function with volunteers in operational roles.”

Fire Service

Meanwhile, the FBU fire brigades’ union has accused the government of trying to “sneak through” further austerity cuts to fire and rescue services (FRSs) with “virtually no scrutiny from Parliament”. Central government funding for the FRS in England fell by 30% between 2010 and 2015, and an FBU analysis of the latest annual Local Government Finance Settlement shows it will fall by another £155 million in 2019-2020, a cut of 15% between 2016-17 and 2019-2020.

A recent FBU briefing makes clear these cuts are coming at a time of rising demand across the UK (see box below) and that: “Firefighters are being asked to do more with less”. Since 2010-11, more than 9,000 FRS jobs have been lost in England alone (a 20% cut), while 433 fire control room staff have also been cut. 

Rising demand on fire services

The FBU reports a 3% increase in fires and a 1% increase in overall incidents attended by firefighters in 2017-18. 

Firefighters rescued over 45,000 people last year, 4% more than the previous year, with both England and Northern Ireland seeing increases. 

These included 42,000 rescues from non-fire incidents, including flooding, hazardous chemical spillages, road traffic collisions and lift rescues, compared with almost 4,000 people rescued from fires. 

Nearly 38,000 people were rescued by firefighters in England between April 2017 and March 2018. 

Around 2,500 rescues took place in Wales, there were 1,700 in Northern Ireland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service rescued over 3,500 people overall.

At the same time, average response times have increased. It now takes crews in England 30 seconds longer to reach callouts compared to 2010, with what the FBU describes as a “postcode lottery” of 999 response times. In a serious fire, the union says 30 seconds can be the difference between life and death. 

Last year, fire fatalities increased by 25%, and 2017-18 was the worst year for fire deaths since 2010-11, including the 72 lives lost in the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017.

“Fire and rescue services are looking at a whole range of measures to reduce costs,” FBU assistant general secretary Andy Dark told Labour Research. “Fire engines have been taken off the run, fire stations have been closed and the effect has been to increase response times.”

FRSs are also sending out engines with fewer firefighters on board.

Dark said: “Five used to be the norm, then four and now some fire and rescue services are moving to three. You can’t fight a fire with only three crew, and they are being advised to wait for a second engine. 

“That’s not what the public wants to see. The increasing mobilisation of engines with just three crew seriously impacts on their ability to deal with a fire.”

Austerity has also taken its toll on firefighters’ health and safety. A number of FRSs have introduced new shift patterns, involving 96-hours of continuous working over eight days. Through judicial review, the FBU successfully challenged this as being in breach of the 1998 Working Time Regulations.

Anecdotally, violence against fire crews is on the rise, and Dark says both general stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have massively increased. In March 2019, the mental health charity MIND published “blue light” research from over 5,000 respondents across police, fire, ambulance and search and rescue services. 

Only 45% of respondents reported having good or very good mental health, compared to 53% in 2015. Just over one in five (21%) reported having poor or very poor mental health, compared to around one in seven (14%) in 2015. The most frequently cited cause of poor mental health was excessive workload.

Union campaigning at local level has had some success in reversing proposals for cuts at local level, notably in Tyne and Wear and Merseyside, but the union is calling for a moratorium on government funding cuts while the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is continuing. 

“Following Grenfell, there has been a large focus on fire safety arrangements including inspections,” said Dark. 

“The number of fire inspection officers has been decimated since 2004, but there has to be additional funding for inspections, otherwise it will have to come from already overstretched existing budgets for fighting fires. 

“We need the government to recognise there needs to be more firefighters and more fire engines, yet the cuts are still going on.”

Ambulance service

In the ambulance service, the problem is not so much cuts as “funding not keeping pace with rising demand”, according to UNISON national officer Colm Porter. 

“You can’t look at the ambulance service in isolation,” he told Labour Research. “You also have to look at primary care and A&E. 

“The demands on A&E mean, for example, there are delays in dropping off patients, so ambulance staff are having to hang around in corridors with patients instead of being on the road responding to the next call. 

“Handovers are a big issue because there isn’t enough staff.”

Health think tank the Nuffield Trust’s April 2019 QualityWatch update on emergency care reported a general upward trend in the number of ambulances experiencing a handover delay of over 30 minutes during the winter period since 2010-11. 

It also reported that the target that all ambulance trusts must respond to — Category 1 (life-threatening) calls in seven minutes — was met for the first time in March 2019. However, the national standards for Category 2 (emergency), Category 3 (urgent) and Category 4 (less urgent) calls are all being missed. 

It said the response times for Category 2 calls are particularly concerning as they include people who may have had a heart attack or stroke or be suffering from sepsis or major burns.

Almost a decade of austerity has also had an impact on ambulance workers, according to GMB general union national officer Rachel Harrison. She said pay had been “driven into the ground” following years of pay freezes and pay caps for all but the very lowest paid. 

Both Harrison and Porter also report grade and role “drift” with staff, including technicians and emergency care assistants being asked to take on more than they are being paid for. 

“Most ambulance service roles are not fit for purpose,” Harrison told Labour Research. “Jobs have developed, people have taken on more duties or are acting up into vacant posts and are not being paid properly for the skills level they are using. 

“That is across the board, for paramedics, technicians and drivers, but particularly those on lower levels of pay.”

Porter reports some success in moving paramedics on to higher pay bands and says the union is trying to get further improvement though a wider review of job descriptions. 

But Harrison describes a staffing crisis, linked to pay, as people leave the service and vacancies remain unfilled. This is affecting health and safety as increased workloads lead to rising levels of stress, mental ill health, assaults and abuse and force more to quit the service. 

Last year, the Unite general union balloted staff in a dispute over extreme shift overruns causing dangerously long hours at the North Division of the Scottish Ambulance Service. Unite members reported one employee working up to 36 hours, and another worked 23 hours in a shift that should only last 12 hours. 

Porter says ambulance workers are leaving the service before they retire and “significantly earlier” than other groups of NHS staff because of the stresses and strains of the job. 

A petition by a UNISON member as part of a campaign to bring down the retirement age for ambulance workers from 68 to 60 — the age at which firefighters and police officers can begin to draw their pension — has gained 250,000 signatures and put the issue back on the agenda.

The GMB’s In harm’s way report, part of a successful union campaign for stiffer penalties for those who attack NHS workers, revealed that 80% of ambulance staff have been attacked on duty. 

The 2018 report identified some of the reasons for the rising number of attacks. These include cuts to social services and care in the community leading to increasing demand for ambulance services, and police services no longer routinely attending incidents until violence has actually occurred. 

It also identified the failure of ambulance funding to keep pace with rising demand, which is causing delays and triggering violence from some patients. 

Harrison says the GMB is pushing for real change on the ground in terms of reducing violence, following the In harm’s way report, while job evaluation and fair pay structures are also among the union’s priorities. 

But she told Labour Research: “We can’t escape the fact that after almost 10 years of austerity, the service needs a serious injection of cash.”

The NHS Long Term plan (LTP) to improve the quality of patient care “doesn’t take into account what has already been cut,” she added. 

“So it would keep us stable but doesn’t begin to address the crisis in the ambulance service and other parts of the NHS.” 

And she said that the workforce implementation plan — to deliver the measures set out in the LTP — is yet to be published, “and there is uncertainty about the funding allocation”.

In his budget speech last year, chancellor Philip Hammond claimed that “austerity is coming to an end”. But unions representing the country’s emergency service workers will agree with Harrison’s view that: “There is no light at the end of the tunnel that real change will come.”