Eric Pickles, the communities secretary,thisweek made an extraordinary statement for a Tory Cabinet Minister. He categorically ruled out the privatisation of the fire service in England. This has not been reported in any national newspaper or TV network.
Even more extraordinarily he made this statement in a very public place in front of some 80 journalists from the Westminster elite body of lobby hacks as guest speaker at a Parliamentary Press Gallery lunch. And only one, the questioner, Rob Merrick, a freelance parliamentary correspondent who writes for the Northern Echo and other regionals, bothered to report it.
Evidently such a statement is not regarded as news by journalists.
Yet it is significant. Mr Merrick had spotted that the government was using some obscure measure to amend an act passed by the Blair government in 2004 to allow the core of the fire service – the full-time firefighters – to be privatised.
The reason they were doing it was that Cleveland fire authority wanted to become a mutual – a half way house to privatisation – but had found it was illegal. The Tories ever keen to end the state look like ready to oblige.
First Mr Pickles denied that the government was going to privatise the fire service only encourage mutuals. But Mr Merrick came back and said the same change in the law could permit privatisation as well as mutuals. The in an extraordinary statement Mr Pickles said: ” If this is the case we won’t go ahead with the change. I repeat there will no privatisation of the fire service.” So he seemed to suggest that even Cleveland’s mutual plan could be dead in the water.
To me this was extraordinary . First one of the big privatisers in government had actually ruled out full-scale privatisation – not a normal statement from the Tory right.
Second the press -even on the old man bites dog scenario – thought this didn’t merit any attention.
I know that no privatisation does not equate to no cuts – see what is happening in London and elsewhere now- and it does not stop some of the services being run by private companies. But it seemed that a very senior Tory had decided that they could not turn the whole system over to the private sector. Perhaps the Assetco scandal in London has made its mark. Perhaps they have decided that it is not worth a full-scale dispute between them and the Fire Brigades Union, led by Matt Wrack. But whatever a Rubicon was crossed and nobody reported it. But now he can held to account.