A recent case has considered the process where Police and Crime Commissioners seek to take over responsibility for the governance of their local fire and rescue authority. Mark Heath and Allison Cook analyse the ruling.
In R (Shropshire and Wrekin Fire Authority & others) v The Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWHC 1967, the High Court upheld the Home Office’s decision to allow Cambridgeshire's Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) to take over the governance of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire and Rescue Authority (FRA). It also allowed the West Mercia PCC to take over the governance of both the Herefordshire and Worcestershire FRA and the Shropshire & Wrekin FRA.
The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 provides that the Secretary of State can only make an order making a PCC an FRA if to do so is in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.
A key part of the challenge and judgment was to define what the expression "in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness" (the '3Es') meant within section 4A(5) of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004.
It was argued by the FRAs that Parliament intended that each of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness tests must be met, rather than being considered together. They interestingly cited the 'Best Value' obligations under the Local Government Act 1999 as similar legislation and debates in Hansard both as aids towards interpreting the relevant provisions of the 2004 Act.
The judge said no. The starting point, and often the finishing point, for any exercise of statutory interpretation was the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used. He concluded that there was no clear, unambiguous explanation in the parliamentary material that would justify reference to Hansard by either party. He also rejected an attempt to draw comparison with 'Best Value'.
Further the judge decided that the addition of the word "economy" was intended to add something to "efficiency and effectiveness". This was not however a synonym for "Best Value". The meaning was clear: a proposal had to be in the interests of economy and efficiency and effectiveness. Individual consideration had to be given to each element.
The judge then turned to the meaning of the word "economy", ruling that it did not mean that a proposal had to result in an overall fall in total expenditure. The '3Es' did not demand proof that the proposal would save money overall. "Economy" had a broader meaning encapsulating the well understood concept for public bodies of the careful or prudent management of resources.
The second argument put forward by the FRAs was that the Home Secretary had acted irrationally as the independent assessors she had appointed had insufficient expertise in public safety to provide the required independent assessment in relation to that aspect.
The judge noted that both the proposals put forward by the two PCCs and the issues subsequently raised on those proposals were focussed on the '3Es' and the business cases . As a result the judge concluded that there was nothing irrational in the choice of assessor. What was required as an assessor was a body able to provide expert opinion on that proposal and on the objections to it.
It is understood that both fire authorities have said that they intend to appeal the decision.
In the meantime the case provides assistance to those advising all sides who are considering this issue and grappling with the approach in what is often a highly controversial matter.