06 August 2004
The Local Government Association 'pulled rank' during firefighters' pay negotiations, it emerged this week, prompting accusations of political interference and an inevitable ballot for industrial action.
The Fire Brigades Union said it was writing to all authorities informing them of the ballot after talks collapsed. Action could begin as early as next month.
The employers claim that the only outstanding issue preventing firefighters receiving back pay of 3.5% from November 2003 and 4.2% from July was the question of bank holiday working.
On the table was an offer of double time plus a day off in lieu for working bank holidays. The FBU had tabled its own preferred option of allowing firefighters to 'stand down' during bank holidays.
According to sources, the issue split the employers' side of the National Joint Council. Chair Christina Jebb, a Liberal Democrat, plus Scottish and Northern Ireland representatives were willing to accept the FBU proposals. English fire authorities and the LGA were not.
'The employers' meeting was not split across party lines,' a source explained. 'What has been portrayed as a Labour position was in fact English Labour and Conservatives. The chair wanted them to go further than the majority and she didn't manage to carry them with her. Clearly the LGA didn't like her position and they pulled rank.'
Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the chair of the LGA, said that with a 15% pay award, 'you can't have old fashioned restrictive practices hanging on'.
He added: 'To take a view that firefighters should work differently on bank holidays and still be paid double time is not reasonable, and the public wouldn't understand a costly dispute being kicked off on the back of it.'
For the FBU, the issue is a conspiracy to wreck a deal by Labour councillors and ministers. 'We reached a deal last week and government intervention stopped it,' said Mike Fordham, assistant general secretary. '[Local government minister] Nick Raynsford is the guiding hand behind the moves to block this deal, forcing a confrontation.'
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed the allegations as 'nonsense'. A spokesman added that it would be taking a keen interest in developments and 'will be considering all the options'.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Defence was notified to begin preparing its Green Goddess fire engines for action.