Sunday, 4 August 2013

Essex Fire: Naive or just plain stupid

It's hard to say how mystified I am at the decision of Essex Fire Service to accept a supplier paid trip to China. Essex has not been without criticism as a result of the behaviour of its former Leader Lord Hanningfield who ended up in jail, so you would have expected them to have been a bit more risk averse in all matters of potential criticism.

It may well have been perfectly innocent to accept the payment of flights and accommodation from a supplier in the hope that Essex would be viewed as a beneficial training provider to Chinese firefighters, but if business development was in the mind of the FRS they need to be significantly more business savvy. How on earth did they not see the high probability of the visit and a public procurement exercise being linked and open to allegations of abuse. I can see almost no circumstances which would justify a supplier paid visit by anyone in the public sector.

I hope the FRS will be judged to have been merely naive and this will be a warning lesson to others. However, if they are to be exonerated they will need to demonstrate there was openness in the decision-making to attend and a sound business case, no connection between those involved in the procurement and those who took part in the visit, absolute integrity in the equipment procurement decision, clarity of when the decision to attend was first mooted, what the deputation actually did in China (detail of who was met, when and the level of hospitality accepted), whether the sought after training which was the purpose of the visit was gained, and, how and when the report of the visit was fed back.

Unfortunately, as I suspect Essex Fire have now discovered, when you're dealing with public procurement you need to not only be spotlessly clean but also to be perceived as being spotlessly clean. Some will no doubt say "there's no smoke without fire" - I hope Essex Fire do not let this smoulder.

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