Below is the text of the speech made by Matt Wrack, the General Secretary of the FBU, to the Local Government Fire Conference held on 12 March 2015.
Thank you for the invitation to address your conference.
You will not be surprised to hear that the Fire Brigades Union is critical of this review. We see it as a party political initiative.
It has been prompted by the government’s anger at the long running pension dispute and it is timed to attack firefighters and their union in the run up to the general election.
The FBU is critical of the nature, rationale, methods and timing of the Thomas review.
1. First, the review is not independent.
The terms of reference were set by DCLG alone. It was staffed DCLG.
The chair was selected by DCLG.
2. Second, the rationale for the review is incoherent.
It hinges on vague comments in Ken Knight’s Facing the Future report which we also believe was not an evidence based report.
Our fear is that the review is an attack on national bargaining arrangements and a prelude to further attacks on pay and other conditions of service.
It is a response to the FBU’s campaign to defend pensions, as is clear from the terms of reference.
3. Third, the methods of the review are also highly questionable.
The surveys were drawn up without any discussion with anyone within the fire and rescue service – either employers or employees.
The surveys were not conducted by an independent survey body.
A review conducted in this amount of time, with so few resources and without significant input from stakeholders, risks degenerating into a hatchet job.
The FBU does not endorse the process.
However our national officials have met Adrian Thomas and offered our wisest counsel on how he might make some use of the opportunity presented by the review.
We made a submission in good faith – so that the review at least avoids denigrating firefighters in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘reform’.
We also carried out our own investigation of conditions of service, including from a recent YouGovsurvey commissioned by the FBU, undertaken in December 2014.
With almost ten thousand (9,936) responses from across the UK, this is by far the most representative survey of firefighters’ conditions undertaken in recent memory.
At least one in five firefighters in every region of England responded to the survey.
We believe that its findings are robust – not least because they have been subjected to YouGov’s scrutiny.
I will therefore comment on the key issues and explain the FBU’s interpretation on behalf of firefighters.
I think the central threat in this review is to firefighters’ nationally agreed pay and conditions.
The FBU believe the NJC continues to play a valuable role as do others:
The NJC’s current independent chair, Professor Linda Dickens, wrote in her most recent annual report:
‘The Joint Secretariat has a very good record of assisting the parties to either reach agreement at the time of conciliation or to develop the basis of an agreement which leads to a resolution following further discussion shortly afterwards at local level’.
The record of the NJC in recent years in progressing vital industrial relations matters has been impressive.
Over the last year the NJC considered issues such as:
– the 2014 pay award process
– ongoing work on terms and conditions
– a fitness agreement
– implementing the part-time workers settlement agreement
– amending the Grey Book on maternity, childcare and dependency
– the Grey Book sections relevant to health, safety and welfare.
National bargaining provides stability, is cost-effective, strategic and efficient, providing both the necessary competence and capacity that cannot be reproduced locally, particularly with small services.
The YouGov survey also showed that firefighters value the national arrangements for negotiating their pay and conditions.
Five out of six (87%) said they were in favour of a national pay structure.
There is no appetite within the fire and rescue service for cumbersome, duplicative and bureaucratic local or regional systems of pay.
The NJC has also been working on five significant workstreams:
– Environmental challenges
– Emergency medical response
– Multi agency emergency response
– Youth and other social engagement work
– Inspections and enforcement
This is a positive, engaging schedule to transform and bring genuine improvement to the fire and rescue service.
This is a ‘win-win’ programme of change, underlining the virtues of a national system of employment relations.
The NJC’s record for dispute resolution is highly impressive.
Over the last year, nine fire and rescue services have referred a total of nineteen issues to the Joint Secretariat for formal conciliation. In addition, there are numerous and unrecorded informal interventions. These help to avoid or resolve local disagreement, conflict and help to prevent local disputes.
However in the last year, neither RAP nor TAP were required to meet.
The NJC meets on average three times a year.
Over that decade around 100 issues have been resolved by the NJC, with six cases sent to RAP and 9 to TAP.
The NJC has introduced a joint protocol for good industrial relations.
The contents of Grey Book have been reviewed and amended on a number of occasions since the publication of the sixth edition in 2004.
The FBU is committed to the progressive amendment of the Grey Book.
Staffing and workforce management practices
The other central issue in this review, which I suspect will be ignored, is the context of austerity cuts.
Overall trends show a decline in staff employed by the fire and rescue service over the last decade – down by around 5,000 people and representing around 1 in 10 of those previously employed.
The greatest reduction has been in wholetime firefighters – accounting for around 5,000 fewer jobs over the decade.
Control staff have also faced an absolute fall in numbers over the decade.
The number of retained firefighters has now fallen below 2005 levels, having risen for a number of years.
The only increase has been the ballooning of non-uniformed roles.
Most of the staffing reduction in the fire and rescue service has taken place in the last five years.
This has been devastating – and will continue unless everyone in the fire and rescue service stands up and opposes it.
It will worsen the conditions firefighters work in and ultimately increase the risk to the communities we serve.
Workforce management practices
The FBU is not opposed to improvements in workforce practices, providing they make the service better for the public and are not to the detriment of firefighters’ safety and welfare.
The central problem with many workforce management practices imported into the fire and rescue service is that they increase the risk to the public and worsen the conditions of firefighters.
They are often cost-cutting fads dressed up as ‘reforms’.
Firefighters are clear that getting the job done safely, effectively and professionally involves collective action, cooperation and solidarity.
In the YouGov survey, 96% of respondents said the watch system is crucial to teamwork, while 93% said the watch system is crucial to safety.
Working alongside colleagues, training together and going through the same experiences has built the fire and rescue service into a formidable emergency response organisation.
This is not something to be tampered with lightly.
Bullying and harassment
The FBU is aware that the fire minister has raised concerns about bullying and harassment in the service.
I have to say she has no idea about the real issues, but wants to use it to bash the FBU.
The YouGov survey has revealed some of the real issues:
Two-thirds (66%) of firefighters said that principal managers in their brigade were not committed to good industrial relations.
More worryingly, two-in-five (40%) said they had been bullied at work in recent years.
Of those who had been bullied, the majority (60%) attributed the bullying to senior managers, while a third blamed corporate management policy and similar numbers said it was their immediate line managers.
The vast amount of bullying recording by this survey is management bullying of employees lower down the hierarchy.
Another contrast was the view of various agencies for tackling bullying in the service.
Three-quarters (76%) of respondents said that the FBU had been helpful in tackling the bullying they had faced.
However, three-quarters (74%) also said that fire and rescue service managers had not been helpful.
This review appears to have been established for one reason alone: to worsen firefighters’ conditions, to make us work longer and harder – with lower levels of safety – and for less money.
The agenda is simply about short term cost cutting – at the expense of those who regularly place themselves in danger on behalf of society.
A genuine review of our service would survey the changing risks facing our communities at local and national level and assess how the fire and rescue service might plan and prepare for these risks.
Significantly, such a strategic debate has not commenced through DCLG. It has not come from the government at all. The minister has played no role in and shown no interest in these discussions.
Rather the discussion started on the National Joint Council – where those who employ firefighters on behalf of local communities meet and discuss with those representing firefighters.
National bargaining arrangements through the NJC provide a mechanism for addressing terms and conditions issues for sound organisational and operational reasons.
They reduce costs and by avoiding the unnecessary duplication and they ensure that firefighters facing the same risks at incidents enjoy broadly the same conditions of service.
The Fire Brigades Union has always been interested in genuine discussion about the future direction of our service and our profession, as even the slightest familiarity with our history demonstrates.
We seek such a genuine debate today, based on a serious assessment of changing risk and the need to properly plan for these changing circumstances.