AT A TIME when there is growing pressure and demand on fire and rescue services, central government funding has been cut by £155 million from 2016/17 to 2019/20. At the recent FBU conference, Matt Wrack said: “Firefighters spend each day risking their lives to save others, but governments and employers have thanked them with a real terms pay cut and massive cuts to jobs, all while piling on new duties onto their daily work. Enough is enough. We will not stand by while the work of firefighters is done for free.” Karen Lee MP, Shadow Fire Minister, agreed: “The damage caused by sustained austerity over the past nine years must be rectified. This includes addressing the long overdue pay rise, ensuring fire services receive the resources they need and fixing broken fire regulations.”
In April, 58 per cent of FBU members voted to reject a derisory and cynical pay proposal from employers, which would have seen them enter into open-ended contracts in return for the possibility of a pay rise, funding for which had not even been agreed with government.
While FBU members nationally are fighting for decent pay, resources and regulations, in Oxfordshire, they are also facing proposals that are a major threat to the safety of firefighters and to the local communities. Steve Wright, Oxfordshire FBU vice-chair, a firefighter for almost 20 years, following in his father’s footsteps, explained: “National guidance, based on a risk assessed approach, states that fire engines are crewed with five trained firefighters. Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service (OFRS) is intending to cut this number to three. There has not been any formal documentation detailing the risks or any mention of a full public consultation on these fundamental changes.”
Based on conversations about these issues at my local Didcot fire station, I wrote up and submitted a motion with detailed background and context to the local Didcot Labour Party branch, calling for solidarity. I invited Steve and James Harris, Oxfordshire FBU chair, to speak to the motion, which was passed unanimously. The motion then went to a full Wantage CLP meeting and was again carried unanimously, resolving to:
1. Call for a full public consultation on these changes and raise awareness by sending this motion to county councillors, the OFRS, local media, and submitting motions to town councils across our CLP - copied to Oxfordshire FBU.
2. Support Oxfordshire FBU in their call that this proposal is withdrawn with immediate effect - lobbying OFRS and county councillors in our roles as Labour Party members, CLP officers and local councillors. 3. Support Oxfordshire FBU in any industrial action taken on this issue with activities listed above and also solidarity on any picket lines. These concrete activities are now being delivered and driven by LRC members within Oxfordshire CLPs. “Cathy’s visit to the fire station to offer support and solidarity was really timely,” Steve explained. “We had just started forming our plans for a campaign against these proposals, so having a direct channel to Labour Party members and councillors gave us a flying start. We now have a model motion to take to local Labour Parties and other unions, as well as a template letter to councillors. The support and enthusiasm of the members supporting us has also encouraged me to join the LRC and to recruit FBU colleagues.”
Firefighters are already expected to cover the role of paramedics - camouflaging the cuts to our NHS and ambulance services. Now OFRS is trying to impose work outside of a firefighter’s role, expanding it beyond recognition.
Proposed tasks include (yes, really!):
» Offering advice and making referrals to relevant health or care agencies across a range of issues including dementia and alcohol awareness.
» Reducing the effects of loneliness and isolation.
» Assisting faster discharge from hospital - transportation home including expanded ‘safe and well’ checks.
» Road safety awareness for new drivers and/or speed safety awareness courses for those caught speeding.
» Training members of the wider community in the use of defibrillators and application of CPR.
» Fitting of child car safety seats.
To add insult to injury, there is a clause stating that: “Any existing local additional responsibility allowances in connection with work covered by this agreement will cease.” These demands are impractical and outrageous, and would detract from a firefighter’s core role and restrict the ability to respond to emergency calls to fires. They would, of course, also be a sticking plaster to cover the deep cuts to social care and community outreach programmes.
On all three counts, LRC members will stand shoulder to shoulder with FBU comrades in opposing their employers’ so-called deal.
Wantage CLP and Unite member.