SCOTLAND: FIREFIGHTERS’ PAY AND THE FUTURE OF THE FIRE AND RESCUE SERVICE
Members’ meetings in Scotland
Last week, the President and I were able to attend a series of meetings for FBU members across Scotland. This was an opportunity to hear the views and concerns of FBU members in Scotland regarding the discussions on pay and the future of the service; both through the National Joint Council (NJC) and within Scotland. It was extremely welcome to hear the views of members across Scotland and we thank all those who attended and contributed either during the meetings or informally afterwards.
The background to these discussions is the same across the UK. Almost a decade of austerity has wrecked and undermined many of our public services. We have seen a pay freeze imposed by the Westminster government and we have seen job cuts on an unprecedented level all across the UK, including in Scotland.
As a result of debate at our union’s conference, we have embarked on discussions with the fire service employers about the future of the service. This approach has been with the aim of making the case for long term and sustainable funding for the fire and rescue service, including for pay.
These discussions have involved five work-streams for discussion. These have looked at:
- Environmental challenges
- Emergency medical response
- Multi agency emergency response
- Youth and other social engagement
- Inspection and enforcement work
This has meant lobbying the different governments across the UK for additional resources. Inevitably, this has not been straightforward due to the different legislation and dynamics affecting politics in a devolved system where fire policy itself is a devolved matter.
The situation in Scotland: the single service
At the member meetings we discussed the record of the SFRS. The case made for the move to a single service was that it would best protect the front line. The results, however, do not support many of the claims made at the time.
The real situation we have faced has seen:
- Emergency fire controls closed
- More than a thousand jobs cut between 2013 and 2017
- Harmonisation of terms and conditions delayed for five years
- Conditions of service changed
- Response times slowing
- Major problems with availability.
These factors mean that the SFRS, like every other fire and rescue service in the UK, needs investment instead of more cuts.
While the FBU has been engaged in a debate about the future role of the fire and rescue service, the situation in Scotland has been made difficult by the aim of the SFRS management and board to pursue their agenda of ‘Transformation’ and, worse, to attempt to link it to pay and conditions. It is clearly understood by FBU members in Scotland, and by the Scottish committee of the FBU, that ‘Transformation’ means more cuts and more job losses. The Scottish committee of the FBU has challenged this cuts agenda in various ways over the past 18 months.
The attempt by the SFRS board and principal management to seek the support of our union for cuts to our own service would inevitably create disagreement. The work-stream discussions (set out above) clearly demonstrate the willingness of the FBU to discuss future changes to our service and the activities we may undertake. However, that is an entirely different discussion to one about cutting jobs in a service where the cuts have already gone too far. The FBU has long standing policies aimed at defending crewing levels, duty systems, safe systems of work and the term and conditions of our members. It is certainly not the job of the FBU, or any union, to support the further destruction of our own industry.
In addition, the issues have also been made more complex as a result of the aim of the SFRS to bring together into a single agenda the issues of harmonisation of terms and conditions; new roles and functions for the service (the work-streams); and “Transformation” (cuts). Such an approach could never have been in the interests of FBU members in Scotland. The issue of harmonisation of terms and conditions should have been addressed by the new employer (SFRS) on Day 1 of the new service. Instead the issue was delayed by SFRS for years – to the disadvantage of FBU members.
There has been no Scottish offer
FBU members in Scotland will be aware that January 2018, the SFRS wrote to staff (our members) directly outlining a ‘proposal’ on pay. This ‘proposal’ was again clearly linked to further cuts to the service and to further job losses. Again, the Scottish committee of the FBU and FBU officials across Scotland, responded very firmly to expose this as a mechanism to bypass normal negotiations. FBU members in Scotland were justifiably angry at this and this anger was clearly expressed by FBU Scotland officials in writing to the SFRS board.
The FBU will, of course always discuss industrial relations matters with employers as long as such discussions take place within agreed structures. The union is also well aware of the differences in Scotland – and other parts of the UK – around issues such as funding compared to the situation faced with the Westminster government.
In this context it is important to note:
- During any dialogue with the SFRS, officials of the union - whether Scottish officials or from Head Office – have made clear that all discussions on matters of terms and conditions would need to be conducted through agreed and recognised industrial relations channels.
- There had been no approach to the FBU for any formal discussion on these issues until the SFRS wrote to the NJC joint secretaries on 11 April 2019. On receipt of this letter arrangements were immediately made to meet the SFRS. Indeed a series of meetings were arranged and these continue to take place.
- Most importantly, NO OFFER on pay and conditions has ever been made using the normal structures for industrial relations either in Scotland or using the NJC. That remains the case today.
- The only formal proposals actually made by the SFRS to Scottish firefighters was made through the NJC. It was the proposal which FBU members rejected by 97% in the recent ballot. It is also clear that the SFRS was fully involved in, and supportive of, making that proposal.
We raised these matters in a recent meeting with the new CFO and the Chair of the board of the SFRS. We expressed our concern that we had heard reports that some senior managers had presented a version of recent events which sought to blame the FBU for any delays in discussions or for the fact that no “Offer” had been made or implemented.
We were assured that no such briefing had been given to managers and that no such briefing formed part of the intention of the SFRS. If members become aware of any such misinformation, they should alert local officials. We will take the matter up with the CFO.
Discussions with SFRS continue
The union is well aware of the differences which face our members across the union, including the differences in the political position in Scotland. There have been various discussions involving officials from Scotland and from Head Office with Scottish ministers as part of the FBU strategy. This dialogue continues. Additionally, two meetings have now been held with SFRS representatives and two further such discussions are planned over the next two weeks. Members will be kept informed at the earliest opportunity of developments following these discussions and following the NJC meeting on 11 June.
The next few weeks are likely to see a number of potential developments. We therefore urge all members to follow the issues closely through the FBU website, local meetings and other communications. We will update you further as soon as possible.