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FIRE DISPUTE: EMPLOYERS PUT CASE TO INDEPENDENT INQUIRY ON EVE OF STRIKE BALLOT RESULT

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Local government employers currently facing an enormous pay demand by the...
Local government employers currently facing an enormous pay demand by the

Fire Brigades Union (FBU) of 40% or the threat to strike, have today

highlighted the economic impact, if equivalent claims were to be made across

the public sector. If all public sector workers demanded the same increase

as fire fighters this would mean a hike in the basic rate of income tax by

20% or 3.9p in the pound. Employers do not believe that the UK taxpayer

would accept such an increase particularly at a time when the public is

concerned that any additional government funding for public services should

not be swallowed up in over-inflated wage demands made by the most vocal

unions in the sector.

As fire employers prepared to submit their evidence to the independent

inquiry into the fire service, headed by George Bain, they reiterated

their call on the Fire Brigades Union to postpone strike action, should the

union achieve a majority vote in its ballot result due to be announced

tomorrow. Employers remain incredulous that the FBU would seek to bring fire

fighters out on strike and consequently put lives at risk rather than hold

off action for only one month - the date when the independent review is due

to report.

The evidence submitted to the inquiry includes recommendations on

modernisation of the service:

- Modernising conditions of service - despite the operational efficiency of

the service, there are serious shortcomings in the deployment of resources

due to the rigidity of the national framework. This includes simplifying the

rank structure and introducing more flexibility into shift systems. No

headway has been possible on modernising conditions of service due to Union

opposition, despite examples being set elsewhere in the public sector.

- Changing role of fire service and employees - the philosophy in the fire

service continues to be one of increasing investment in prevention rather

than just reactive response to fires and other emergencies. This requires

cultural change where community protection is at the heart of the service

not peripheral to firefighting. The employers want to introduce a range of

collaborative working arrangements with local communities and agencies

(social services, health, education, probation etc) to reduce risk to life.

- Changing approach to risk management - traditionally the deployment of

firefighting resources has been determined by an assessment of property

risk. The service is now working towards an approach that puts greater

emphasis on life risk. Because people move around, the service will need the

flexibility to move resources around so that the right personnel and

equipment are available in the right place at the right time. The Union

opposes this change.

- Achieving greater fairness, equality, diversity and cultural change - the

fire service needs to better reflect the diverse communities it serves. But

there is a long way to go before this becomes a reality. Currently 99%of

fire fighters are male and 98.5% are white.

The FBU's belief that the fire service has already modernised is based

largely on its popularity with the public, on greater emphasis being given

to fire safety, on the service's adaptation to new equipment and techniques,

and on the first steps being taken to achieve a more representative

workforce. However, this is not enough to justify a claim that it has

modernised. Attitudes and working practices are remarkably unchanged over

the last 25-30 years despite huge changes outside the service. The

prevailing culture is one that resists change that in any way involves

switching resources to an overall improved effect.

While employers are committed to bringing about a radical change in the way

the fire service works, with far greater emphasis being given to fire

prevention, this requires more flexibility in the way resources are deployed

but would not result in job losses. The FBU strongly opposes the removal of

restrictive practices that are making modernisation difficult, if not

impossible.

However, an overwhelming 88% of the public believe that it is reasonable for

management to be able to deploy fire fighters wherever they are most needed

to save lives.

For example, in Greater Manchester the fire authority wants to redistribute

its firefighting resources in order to reduce attendance times and improve

fire cover provided to the communities in Leigh and Wigan. It proposed to do

this by reducing from two to one the number of fire engines at one fire

station and then building a new station in a more strategic location and

relocating the second engine there. The cost of the new station is in excess

of£1m and the scheme will create five new jobs. The FBU supports the

new station but opposes the movement of the second fire engine from the

current station. It is running a misleading local media campaign seeking to

persuade local residents that their fire cover will be reduced and lives put

in danger when the fire authority's proposal will actually improve the level

of fire cover and reduce risk to life. In numerous examples around the

country proposals for shared use of control room facilities with the police

and ambulance services have met with implacable opposition even though no

jobs were at risk. In Cleveland, the fire authority wished to relocate the

control room to a new site with the police and ambulance control rooms. Job

security was guaranteed. However, the FBU started a ballot for strike

action, ignoring agreed disputes procedure. The authority had to decide not

to pursue the proposal in the face of the ballot's expected result. The new

site would have been part funded by additional money from the government and

would have provided better operational facilities and an improved working

environment. In Wiltshire, agreement was reached between the local branch of

the FBU and the fire authority for a shared control room, only for the FBU's

consent to be withdrawn on instructions from FBU head office.

Notes

The employers are made up of the LGA, Cosla and the Fire Authority of

Northern Ireland.

In a recent public opinion poll

- 64% believe that an immediate 4% (over twice the annual rate of inflation)

and an independent review is a reasonable offer

- 53% believe that the union's demand for between a 39-49% increase is not

reasonable

- 79% believe that any increase in pay above the 4% should be linked to

changes in the service

- 54% are confident that the army will provide adequate cover to protect

homes and lives if a national strike occurs.

Fire Services Dispute: The Facts

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is currently balloting its members on strike

action. This follows the FBU's rejection of the employers' offer of an

interim 4% pay increase plus a commitment to implementing the results of an

independent enquiry subject to government funding.

This leaflet explains why the employers think their approach is reasonable

and suggests a way of avoiding a potentially damaging dispute.

Pay

How does firefighters' pay compare with other occupations?

A fully qualified firefighter would earn£22,392 per year if the Employers'

interim 4% offer were accepted. Firefighters' pay compares favorably to the

average full-time rate elsewhere in local government. The average full-time

pay for those covered by the National Joint Council for Local Government

Services is£17,278. Over 95% of full time local government staff covered by

the National Joint Council earn under the£30,000 per annum, which the FBU

are claiming for firefighters.In relation to the whole economy, firefighters

are in the top half of the national earnings league for full-timers. 50% of

male full-timers in the April 2001 New Earnings Survey earned less than£408

a week gross, whereas average earnings for qualified firefighters

(firefighter being the lowest operational rank) at that time were£416 a

week.

How many firefighters claim Working Families' Tax Credit?

Only 0.4% of firefighters claim Working Families' Tax Credit - that is only

216 firefighters and control room staff out of 57,200 uniformed personnel in

the country. This is a much lower rate of claiming WFTC than for the working

population as a whole.Working Families Tax Credit is not in any case a

reliable indicator of poverty. It is for people on low or middle incomes,

who work 16 hours or more a week and are responsible for one or more

children. It is possible for an individual earning over£30,000 or even

£40,000 to be eligible.

If the salary levels are considered low, it must be difficult to recruit

firefighters?

No. There are few problems of recruitment in the fire service. A recent

survey of fire authorities up and down the country shows that on average

each firefighter vacancy attracts 42 applicants.

Type of Work

Isn't the job of a firefighter very dangerous, so shouldn't they be paid

more because of that?

Many situations faced by firefighters are hazardous, but the risk of death

and injury is lower than for some other hazardous occupations, for example

construction, trawler fishing and agriculture. In a recent research letter

to the Lancet, firefighters were 23rd in a list of 30 hazardous occupations.

Government statistics show a marked reduction of fire-related injuries in

the service over recent years (1,287 in 1990, compared to 683 in 2000).

This is because employers, in partnership with the FBU, have introduced

stringent health and safety procedures. Much money is invested in providing

the right protective equipment and effective training.

Hasn't there been a huge increase in the workload of firefighters in the

last ten years?

There has been a significant change since the late 1970s, when the total

number of calls was around 500,000 with fewer false alarms and special

service calls. However, over the last ten years the number and pattern of

calls has been more stable.An Audit Commission report shows that less than

10% of firefighters' duty time is spent at fires and other incidents.

Restrictive Practices

Why is modernisation of the fire service so difficult?

Employers are committed to bringing about a radical change in the way the

fire service works, with far greater emphasis being given to fire

prevention, even though high quality firefighting will always play a key

role. This needs more flexibility in the way resources are used, and a

service that reflects and can work successfully with the community. The FBU

strongly opposes the removal of the restrictive practices that are making

modernisation difficult.The Audit Commission supports the Employers' view

that existing conditions of service prevent the introduction of new flexible

practices that could significantly affect the performance of the fire

service. These include:- Inflexible shift and crewing systems that

significantly reduce the fire service's ability to respond flexibly to

varying degrees of risk- Practices that prevent firefighters from

volunteering to do paid overtime in response to sickness and planned leave-

Practices that prevent collaboration between fire brigades and other

emergency services as a matter of courseIn a recent public opinion poll, 79%

of those surveyed thought it reasonable that any increase in pay above 4%

for fire fighters should be linked with changes that will deliver a better

service for the public.

Cost of Claim

What would be the cost of meeting the claim?

The total cost of meeting the FBU claim would be£450m per annum, or

£520m including pension costs.This claim, for just 50,000

firefighters, would cost the same as this year's award to 1.25 million local

government workers.The average district hospital costs, very roughly,£125m. So the firefighters' pay claim equates to just over four hospitals a year.

How can employers justify an offer of 4% as reasonable?

The 4% offer is interim and part of an overall package offered by the

employers. The employers have offered the firefighters an unconditional 4%

pay rise from 7 November. This would be linked to an offer to change the

method of calculating the annual pay increase. If this new formula is

agreed and produces an increase of more than 4%, the employers will pay that

extra backdated to 7 November. If the pay increase determined by using the

new formula is less than 4%, no money will be reclaimed. The employers

would also agree to pay any increase recommended by a government enquiry if

this is backed by new government money. A strike is an extreme and drastic

form of action that, in the fire service, will put lives at risk. The

employers cannot offer more than they have already offered without

government support. They believe the best chance of getting that support is

if the firefighters' claim is tested independently by an inquiry. A strike

is therefore both unnecessary and counter-productive.In a recent opinion

poll, 64% of those surveyed said they thought an immediate 4% pay rise

together with the potential for further increases pending the independent

review, is a reasonable offer.

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