|What is the Government's line on the fire dispute?
3 Dec 2002
This is the text of a letter sent to me by the Deputy Prime Minister
OFFICE OF THE DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER
London SW1A 2WH
29 November 2002
FIRE SERVICE DISPUTE
You will have seen speculation in recent press reports about job losses in the fire service. I write to set out the true situation, and what needs to happen to resolve this damaging dispute. In doing so, I hope to answer a number of questions raised with me by colleagues. I attach a detailed response to some of the points made by the FBU in recent days at appendix A.
A modern fire service
The Government's objective is to create a modern, efficient and safe fire and rescue service in this country equipped to deal with modern demands. We want a resolution to the current dispute that is fair to firefighters, fair to other public sector workers, fair to the taxpayer and one which does not place in jeopardy the Government's hard-won reputation for economic competence. The independent Bain review remains the key to that resolution. It shows how firefighters could obtain substantial, staged pay increases, in addition to the 4% already offered, in exchange for substantial, implemented, audited modernisation such as:
· joint control rooms;
· an end to the FBU's 25 year-old overtime ban;
· a flexible shift pattern;
· the use of defibrillators by firefighters nearest to the scene;
· an end to the FEU ban on mixed crews of whole time and retained (part-time) firefighters.
I attach a summary of the interim Bain recommendations in detail at appendix B,
Taxpayers have a right to expect protection for their lives and property. They, too, could greatly benefit from the modernisation of the current system. Yet outdated working practices, rigidly enforced by the FBU, are preventing the effective deployment of resources.
Background to the dispute
Since the last fire strike 25 years ago, firefighters' pay has stayed ahead of comparable public sector workers due to the pay formula agreed at that time. This fact was acknowledged by the General Secretary of the FBU as recently as two years ago. The Government wants firefighters to be fairly paid for the job they do, a job that can be extremely dangerous. But the Fire Brigades' Union is blocking the prospect of better pay for firefighters. In its refusal to have anything to do with the independent Bain Review it has set its face against any modernisation that will produce significant savings. Instead, it has consistently pressed for an immediate, unconditional 40% pay rise, a claim that most people regard as wildly unreasonable.
The early stages are well documented: the FBU's 40% pay demand; the breakdown in negotiations in September, the Government setting up the Bain review just 3 days later; the FBU strike ballot, the interim Bain Position Paper; the FBU calling off 10 of the first 12 days of strike action.
The events of the evening of Thursday 21 November through the night to the morning of Friday 22 November are less well documented and have been much misreported as a consequence.
It has been alleged that the Government intervened to block an agreement between the union and the employers of 16% linked to modernisation by November 2003. This is simply untrue. A draft agreement was put together which the employers could not fund. There were no costings or guarantees that modernisation would be implemented and the Government was being asked to fund the unspecified shortfall. No Government could sign a blank cheque for an inflation-busting award of this nature. The FBU refused to call off its strike which went ahead on Friday 22 November.
The Way Forward
As the Prime Minister said in the House of Comrnons on Wednesday 27 November:
"The only way this dispute is going to be settled is by the employers and union agreeing to debate in detail the prospects for modernisation, giving a better deal over and above the 4%.”
I am in regular contact with Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chair of the LGA, who has put together a new group on the employers' side to provide a more structured approach to the negotiations. We will continue to work with the LGA in order to help them come to a clear view about the process of modernisation and savings which can be made, and relating these to the costs of any pay deal for the firefighters.
We welcome talks if they are on a sensible financial basis where any pay settlement not affordable within existing public expenditure provision is paid for by modernisation.
In the meantime I should like to thank the armed services, the police and other emergency services and the retained firefighters for the thoroughly professional job they continue to do. I should also like to acknowledge that striking firefighters have left their own picket lines to deal with emergency incidents.
But the best way to safeguard the public would be for the FBU to call off the next threatened strike and to get back to negotiation on pay and modernisation.
On Monday I will place in the library of the House a report on contingency arrangements during the eight day strike, compiled by the COBRA Joint Assessment Cell.
APPENDIX A: RESPONSES TO THE FBU
The FBU claims that modernisation means 10,000 job cuts
The Fire Service can be more efficient. The Bain position paper makes this clear.
The national conditions of service state that the number of fire fighters on duty at any time should remain constant. As a result shift patterns are inflexible and unable accurately to take account of risk. Senior managers in the fire service are currently prevented from deciding which shift pattern best meets risk in their communities
Firefighters typically work 48 hours in an 8 day pattern. Of those 48 hours, 18 are during the day when about two-thirds of call outs are received; yet 30 are at night when only about one-third of calls are received.
Firefighters must recognise that a modern fire service will require different ways of working. For example:
more people are needed in the daytime than at night and in all events shift patterns should be related to risk assessments;
emergency crews will need to be stationed close to identified areas of greatest risk;
more flexible crewing arrangements should be adopted to reflect local requirements.
Changes of this nature will improve the quality of service to the public, not reduce it. Their effect upon the number of posts in the fire service will depend on the outcome of negotiations.
Furthermore, for demographic reasons, over the next three years a disproportionately large number (19.4%) of whole-time firefighters will be eligible for retirement. This provides an opportunity to sit down and get the essential modernisation that the fire service needs, without the need for compulsory redundancies.
The FBU claims that whole time and retained firefighters already work together .
So they do, but only once they reach an incident. That is not what causes problems. Although through local agreement some brigades do have whole time and part time personnel providing a mixed crew, FBU national policy
bans part-time and whole-time fire fighters riding together on the same fire engine, which can delay their despatch to emergencies. The choice, therefore, is often not between a delayed response and an immediate whole-time response to a fire, but between a mixed crew response and no response.
For example, it takes five fire fighters to crew a fire engine. If seven whole- time fire fighters are at a station when an engine is deployed, then two whole- time fire fighters are left behind.
If a second engine is then required and only three retained firefighters are immediately available, the remaining whole-time fire fighters will refuse to make up the crew needed to deploy that second engine. It stays in the station until other retained fire fighters arrive.
The FBU claims that fire fighters already work overtime and they are only opposed to ending their 25 year-old ban on pre-arranged overtime.
The FBU does permit firefighters to work overtime but only if they are already at an incident. It claims that ending the 25 year-old ban on voluntary overtime would cost money. This is disingenuous since the alternative to overtime is to increase staffing levels. Overtime is more cost-effective. For instance, currently fire authorities have to recruit additional staff to cover for any shortfall arising from training & sickness.
(What is wrong with allowing whole-time firefighters to work as retained firefighters on their days off? The FBU is happy for firefighters to do other jobs on days off but not, it seems, to work as firefighters, the very job they are trained to do. Why is it that anyone meeting the entry requirement is permitted to work as a retained firefighter, except a whole-time firefighter who is banned from so doing by the FBU?) Furthermore, overtime would also allow more flexible use of firefighters during times of unusually high activity; such as summer forest fires or winter floods, or major events such as the Manchester Commonwealth Games.
The FBU claims that firefighters undergoing basic training in emergency aid would be an additional cost.
In some parts of the country local agreements mean that firefighters are able to use defibrillators before paramedics arrive at the scene. This obviously improves the chance of survival of incident victims -a safer system for the public.
The local ambulance service trusts provide all of the equipment and the training to take on 1st responder and co-responder roles. The contract is agreed with the ambulance service trust which pays the fire authority. The cost of basic training is minimal.
In practice, the process would be an extension of the firefighter's traditional role and training in first aid. Instead of heart massage with the hands, a defibrillator would be used, saving many lives.
However, FBU rules are preventing firefighters being trained in the use of a defribrillator, which they could deploy if required when they arrive at an incident first.
The FBU opposes joint 999 control rooms
When we talk about Joint Control Centres we mean either control centres with other services, or larger control centres shared with other brigades. There are advantages of both. FBU oppose both.
The FBU claims that joint control rooms with the other emergency services are not possible since the fire brigade controllers are too specialised.
The performance of joint control centres during the current strikes has proved that there is scope for effective joint operations.
There could be immediate savings from the use of shared facilities (heating, lighting, maintenance, IT). And, in the medium term, fire, police and ambulance services might be able to reduce the duplication of control rooms and improve co-ordination between the services.
The cost to the economy
The FBU claims that the Government is scaremongering about the costs of any deal and that a 40% pay rise for firefighters would hardly destroy the economy.
The Treasury assess that the pay deal that the employers claimed they were able to offer, would add some £500 million over three years to the cost of an unreformed fire service A pay deal If applied across the local authority sector, it would cost an extra £4bn Applied across the public sector as a whole, Ii would cost an extra £16bn Something in the order of a 30 per cent increase in income tax for the basic rate tax payer
The Government seeks a fair settlement: fair to firefighters, fair to other public sector workers, fair to the taxpayer. 40% is not fairness. 40% is fantasy.
APPENDIX B. Modernisation -the four strand approach
Strand One Proposals Duration: Four-Eight Weeks
Better personnel management Create specialist HR role at divisional level or equivalent in all brigades.
All staff above Leading Firefighter (LFF) to be trained in HR management.
Abolish Discipline Regulations, which are quasi-militaristic in approach and not compatible with a modern service. New regulations to be based on ACAS guidance and codes of good practice.
Abolish Appointment & Promotion Regulations and replace with local terms and conditions, underpinned by national regulations as required.
Allow Fire Control staff access to higher promotion opportunities.
Revise medical standards for retained staff to bring them into line with whole-time firefighters.
Improve management support for service workers suffering from ill health.
Improved flexibility Agree to introduction of other shift patterns alongside 2:2:4, including part-time working, to boost diversity, flexibility, create a family-friendly environment, and expand community safety work and other activities according to local need.
Allow mixed whole-time/retained crewing of appliances.
Allow whole-time firefighters to undertake retained role, if they wish, on their days off.
Multiple level entry to service and multiple options for progression.
Simplify national conditions of service to four core areas (pay, total hours, overall ranks and basic leave). Grey Book amended to take account of consequential changes.
Retained fire staff Retained firefighters to be paid the same, pro rata, as their full- time equivalents. .
Develop current trials in Wales into refined retained service providing regular pay for a fixed commitment in time to the service, full access to IPDS based training and with possibility of pension rights.
Agree creation of additional retained part-time roles to match whole-time service (e.g. retained control staff).
Reward specialist skills Consider introduction of specialist payments in advance of new reward structure to address urgent management requirements
(e.g. drivers in London).
Overtime Allow firefighters to work voluntary pre-planned overtime, thereby increasing available resources to meet demand and boosting their individual earnings.
Strand Two Proposals Duration: Six Months
Implementation of IPDS Complete preparatory work for introduction of IPDS by July 2003 to provide basis for new reward structure.
Agree migration to role-based rank structure by November 2003, and development into new reward structure.
Develop competency based training structure.
Accept specialist payments for scarce skills and competencies.
Local discretion to structure specialist payments according to local priorities.
Treat whole-time and retained staff as equal.
Recruitment, selection and development To encourage a more diverse workforce, develop new national recruitment processes which receive endorsement of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality.
New statutory regime for community Bring forward the proposed Regulatory Reform Order,
fire safety and fire safety enforcement currently planned for 2004
Amend Grey Book to reflect expanded firefighters' duties
Include formal training in necessary skills in IPDS
Retirement and Pensions Revise regulations to allow fire staff to work beyond retirement age but with different medical standards for different roles.
Consider creation of new roles with separate terms and conditions to allow them to do so
Powers and funds to develop partnership Provide joint services with other emergency services.
working with public, private and voluntary
sectors Includes stationing of emergency vehicles and staff at fire stations.
Allow fire staff to train as paramedics and fulfil first responder role.
Acceptance of enhanced medical assistance roles and resuscitation equipment by fire crews.
Control rooms to be co-located within this service and with other services, where business case is positive.
Fire staff to work with community services and other bodies to support community safety programme.
Strand Three Proposals Duration: One Year
Develop and integrated risk based approach to Complete framework for risk-based approach to fire cover.
Planning and resourcing fire service work
Agree a timetable for the introduction of Fire Cover Review.
Accept the implications of that introduction in terms of flexibility required in the deployment of resources and the closure/opening of stations.
Institutional change Review institutional structures to reflect reformed Fire Service.
Evaluate current roles within local network, clarifying and harmonising local policy-making machinery.
Introduce regional co-ordination bodies to ensure cohesive policy and direction is maintained in accordance with national policy, with correct adaptation to local conditions.
New negotiating body introduced to take account of IPDS with greater discretion at local level on pay and conditions.