Leighton Andrews, Minister for Public Services
The last few weeks have seen a significant number of grass fires across Wales, especially in South Wales. South Wales Fire and Rescue Service has confirmed that 93% of the fires in its area have been started deliberately. I join the Fire and Rescue Services, the Police and others in condemning those who engage in this dangerous, destructive and criminal behaviour.
I commend the Fire and Rescue Services, and individual firefighters, for their response to these outbreaks. The South Wales Fire and Rescue Service has borne the brunt of these fires, and has introduced specific arrangements to ensure fire cover remains available should a house fire occur whilst firefighters are being used to deal with extensive grassland fires.
I welcome the tough stance taken by South Wales Police. We should not be in this position. Starting grass fires is a crime. It puts people in danger – both firefighters and members of the public. This is before we talk about the damage to wildlife, livestock and the environment, and the significant cost to the public purse of dealing with these fires. Each year we see a series of outbreaks which coincide with the Easter school holidays and the onset of better weather.
South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, along with the other two Fire and Rescue Services in Wales, have a full programme of activities aimed at reducing deliberate fire-setting. It is believed that often those responsible are children and young people and so these programmes focus on changing the behaviours of children and young people generally, providing more targeted interventions for those who have offended or are at risk of doing so.
We know that these programmes can have an impact. For instance, one focused publicity campaign [BERNIE] led to the incidence of grass fires falling by almost 80% in the five target areas between 2010 and 2014. Reoffending rates from participants in the Fire Service’s Phoenix programme – which aims to divert young people from offending behaviour – are typically below 5%. These and other Schemes are funded by the Welsh Government and delivered by the Fire and Rescue Service in conjunction with other partners.
South Wales Fire and Rescue Service has also launched local initiatives. It is currently working with Rhondda Cynon Taf Council to deliver a hard-hitting presentation to all secondary schools in Rhondda Cynon Taf this week setting out very clearly the impact that these fires have, and making sure that young people understand the seriousness of these crimes.
The Service is also co-ordinating links with community groups who have come forward to support the Service – groups such as the Bicycle Doctor in Porth, Wildfire FOA in RCT, and the Grass Fire and Mountain Fire Prevention Teams in Caerphilly, RCT and elsewhere.
Members of the communities affected are rightly angry and want action taken. Many have also come forward to volunteer their support for the fire service at a community level. Tackling this menace must mean much more than just fighting fires or prosecuting offenders. It needs robust action at the community level to divert people away from setting fires, and to identify and expose those who do. The public concern is already clear. There were 170 separate 999 calls about the same mountain fire near Caerphilly. Others took photos of those trying to start a fire near Clydach Vale, which have been passed to the Police. We need to build on that and ensure that all concerned citizens, groups and organisations are part of a coherent and effective solution.
The Welsh Government also has an important role to play. We need to co-ordinate action across Government, and that of the Fire Service, the Police, schools, Local Authorities and Natural Resources Wales. The First Minister and I will therefore hold a summit next week with key players to discuss this, and to formulate a clear and co-ordinated programme of action for the short, medium and long-term.