Byline: JONATHANWALKER Political Editor
Ministers have been accused of attempting to sneak through proposals to outsource fire services - just months after West Midlands Police scrapped controversial plans to bring in private sector partners following widespread opposition. The proposals would "enable fire and rescue authorities in England to contract out their full range of services to a suitable provider". And ministers have attempted to avoid holding a debate about the plans in the Commons by presenting the proposals to a little-known committee instead.
Fire services would not be forced to outsource services but Labour MPs argue they would be encouraged to do so, after West Midlands Police received a PS2 million grant from the Home Office to draw up plans to bring in private sector partners to run its services.
The police force got as far as opening negotiations with a shortlist of six businesses and consortia, including G4S, the security firm that failed to provide enough security guards for the London 2012 Olympics.
But the proposal was scrapped in November following the election of the first West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, Labour councillor Bob Jones, who opposed the scheme.
It was never entirely clear what private sector partners would do, as the force insisted security guards would never replace front line officers, while saying it had an open mind about the services a partner might provide.
It now appears that there are similar hopes for the fire service, after Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis wrote to the Commons Regulatory Reform Committee setting out plans to free fire services to bring in partners to carry out any activity.
His letter highlights the Government's plans to encourage "public sector workers to form employee-led mutuals" to take over services.
However, it states that the proposed change would allow fire brigades to contract out services to "a suitable provider, including a public service mutual" but not excluding other organisations.
The measure would not require legislation and may not even require debate in the House of Commons if it receives the support of the committee.
Committee chairman James Duddridge, a Conservative MP, has warned Ministers that this is unlikely to happen - even though a majority of the committee's members are members of the governing Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. …