The mess arises over the Government's dispute with the European Union over the length of the working week. Europe says no-one can work more than 48 hours a week. And no-one can do more than eight hours work at night.
Britain fought against the policy in the European Courts and lost. The British laws have yet to be changed to enforce the ruling in the private sector because the Government has yet to put the necessary legislation through Parliament. But European law applies immediately in the public sector. A British Act could have introduced variations and exemptions; without it councils get hit by the full, unbridled European law.
Sir Jeremy Beecham, AMA chair, says: 'Local authorities stand to be sued for millions by employees who are at present required to work more than eight hours at night or 48 hors a week. We tried to explain this to the Government and got a crass and complacent reply from junior trade minister John Taylor. He seemed to think we should just cut the hours worked, slash pay accordingly and revel in having some extra cash in the bank.
'Does Mr Taylor expect us to stop fighting fires after 2am?
'Will he and Treasury colleagues make it possible for local authorities to increase their workforce to ensure that services are not hit when working hours are slashed? If we cannot cut the hours and length of night shifts, will they give us the money to pay out millions in compensation to workers being denied their rights?
'The Government is showing not the slightest urgency about putting the situation right. In fact, it has started on 'consultations' that are scheduled to last three months - three times as long recent consultation periods on other issues like competitive tendering. This guarantees that nothing will get done before the election.
'The Government has got councils into this mess. They cannot shrug their responsibility to get us out of it.'