The press release issued by the Fire Brigades Union on 14 November 2022.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack gave evidence to the Home Affairs select committee in Westminster last week.
The select committee is made up of MPs. Matt gave evidence on a range of current issues in the fire and rescue service including pay and conditions, wildfires and climate change, Grenfell, and more.
He gave evidence alongside HM Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services Roy Wilsher and National Fire Chiefs Council chair Mark Hardingham.
The evidence session came in the context of an earlier evidence session of the committee, on 2 March this year. At that session then-HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services chief inspector Tom Winsor alleged that the FBU had obstructed the fire and rescue service assisting Covid efforts, specifically the vaccine rollout.
The FBU then wrote to Diana Johnson (as reported in circular 2022HOC0128MW), chair of the Home Affairs select committee, to correct the record on this clear untruth, pointing out that an FBU circular in December 2020 clearly stated that “Firefighters are ready to assist the UK’s rollout of Covid-19 Vaccines after an agreement was reached between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the fire and rescue service national employers…”. In the letter to Johnson the FBU also provided clarification on various other statements Winsor had made.
In its letter the FBU asked to be called to reply in person at a further session of the committee. This session of the committee then took place.
Wrack made clear that the FBU and firefighters had not obstructed the Covid response as alleged by some, and in fact had been a significant aide to it. Describing the process that initially happened after Covid hit, Wrack said “We very rapidly took a decision that we would be keen to support wider efforts to engage in the Covid response. That took place very quickly – tripartite talks between our employers, national fire chiefs council and the FBU. We reached a whole series of agreements”.
These agreements were praised as “groundbreaking” by then-National Fire Chiefs Council chair Roy Wilsher throughout the first wave of the pandemic, Wrack pointed out. The NFCC and later fire employers then unilaterally pulled out of the agreements during the second wave and made unfounded criticisms of the FBU.
Wrack then described in some depth the impact that Covid had had on firefighters and the extent to which firefighters had done everything they could to help.
“Firefighters as key workers, unlike millions of other people, were required to continue attending their workplace, with all the risks that that brought. And we have had members who have died of Covid, some of which we believe are linked to their attendance in the workplace. But additionally to that, we had members who volunteered to do a whole range of activities. So they were delivering PPE to care homes and other venues. They were delivering other items to vulnerable people in the community. They were driving ambulances. They were training people in the use of PPE.
“And I think the one that possibly brings home in the most stark way what our members volunteered to do, in agreement with their union, was that we had specialist teams in at least two services moving the bodies of the deceased, and that included FBU officials.”
He said it was “absolutely and utterly untrue” that the union had tried to obstruct Covid efforts and that suggestions otherwise in a previous evidence session of the committee had “caused a great deal of offence”.
Wrack told the select committee that “The question of pay is an urgent one. Pay has fallen in real terms for the last twelve years. A competent firefighter on the national rate of pay is at least some £4,000 a year worse off than if their pay had kept pace with CPI inflation. That is alarming”.
He continued to describe the material impact financial struggles are having on FBU members, stating “We have firefighters using foodbanks. We have firefighters being referred by their union officials to foodbanks. We have at least one chief officer, of Avon, who publicly wrote that he is aware of firefighters using foodbanks. There is a growing cost of living crisis, as there is for millions of other people, very much in the fire and rescue service and it has been allowed to drift for more than a decade.”
Even Mark Hardingham, head of the body representing Chief Fire Officers, concurred to an extent, stating that the level of pay was an issue when it came to recruitment and retention.
Wrack stated that fire and rescue services were “extremely stretched” when it came to dealing with the effects of climate change. He stated that wildfires touching on London over the summer “should be a wake-up call for us all”. He said “We need to build in thinking about wildfires, floods and other extreme weather events. These incidents are often very large-scale and they are protracted. A major flood may last for days and indeed weeks. If you think about the resource implications of that, that’s something I don’t think is adequately addressed”.
He emphasised the issue of firefighters being asked to go to large wildfires, floods and other extreme weather events far away for extended periods of time, not knowing “when they’ll get home”, and the impact of this on “families, commitments and so on… [and] that’s quite a regular occurrence”.
He highlighted a moorland fire in Scotland which “over the days in which it burnt produced the same emissions as the entire rest of the Scottish economy during the same period”. He said that this “showed the scale of what we need to think about”.
Wrack also highlighted an exchange he had following a significant wildfire, relaying that “a comment was made by a principle [fire service] manager who said ‘perhaps the community needs to be told not to be able to expect us to be able to tackle fires on that scale’. I found it quite shocking. I said, well actually if your fire service hadn’t been cut in half over the past 15 years perhaps you wouldn’t be making that point. I think communities have the right to expect that their fire services can put out fires. We need to build in the resilience to make sure we can deal with what can only be a growing threat”.
Asked about Grenfell and the ongoing aftermath Wrack said that the FBU was “taken aback” by the response by the Government on the question of personal evacuation plans for disabled people despite a Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommendation. The government ruled it out on grounds including cost. Wrack said that “Along with people who are bereaved, survivors, residents, the local community, and campaigners on housing and disability rights, we had expected something on that issue”.
Wrack also emphasised the extent to which fundamental change was needed when it came to being prepared for risks in the future. “In our view, there was a failing at a national level of this horizon-scanning and monitoring the changing risks. We have put that in our evidence [to the inquiry] about the risks of the external spread up a building as the result of a cladding system. We gave evidence on that issue here in the House of Commons more than 20 years ago. Frankly, it was ignored for the intervening 17 years”.
He spoke about the concerns around the ideology that led to Grenfell still being present. “Our concern is that policy is still driven by a desire to deregulate [reduce and remove rules and restrictions]. For us, in terms of fire and housing policy, regulation is the difference between safety and non-safety, and, on this occasion, the difference between life and death. Sometimes there is too much lazy talk about the need to deregulate, and we have made that very clear throughout the inquiry”.