Fire service pay dispute settled

The long-running pay dispute affecting the UK’s fire service ended in mid-June 2003 when a special conference of the Fire Brigades’ Union voted to accept a revised pay deal.

On 12 June 2003, the delegates at a special conference held in Glasgow by the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU) voted three to one in favour of accepting a revised pay deal agreed between the local authority employers and union negotiators. The following day, the pay agreement was formally approved by the National Joint Council for Local Authorities’ Fire Brigades (NJC), bringing to an end the long-running pay dispute within the UK fire service.

Under the agreement, firefighters will receive pay increases in three stages, producing a cumulative increase of 16%:

  • under stage 1, pay rates have been increased by 4%, backdated to November 2002;
  • stage 2 will involve agreement by the NJC on a new 'role-based' pay structure to be introduced in November 2003, which will produce average pay increases of 7%; and
  • stage 3 will be an increase of 4.2% applied to the new pay structure with effect from July 2004.

The 16% increase will result in an annual wage for qualified firefighters of GBP 25,000. This falls well short of the GBP 30,000 originally claimed by the union (an increase of 40%) (UK0211107F), though the settlement is still one of the highest in the public sector.

The agreement also envisages two further, but unquantified, pay increases:

  • under stage 4, with effect from July 2005, firefighters’ pay will be increased in line with a pay formula to be agreed by the NJC by the end of July 2003; and
  • under stage 5, pay will be increased in July 2006 in line with the pay formula agreed under stage 4.

Other aspects of the package include changes to conditions of service, new arrangements for dealing with local disputes and disciplinary matters and a commitment to revise the current negotiating machinery. The agreement provides that the pay increases under stages 2 and 3 are subject to the completion of all negotiations on the issues identified by the agreement as requiring further discussion, and to verification by the Audit Commission that the intended benefits, including savings, of the various national changes are being delivered locally.

Although the 'headline' 16% pay increase is the same as in the draft agreement rejected by the FBU in March (UK0304102N), the final agreement incorporated changes in other areas. These included:

  • provision for disputed changes in duty systems to be referred to a panel with an independent chair;
  • an assurance that pre-arranged overtime will not be used to cover for planned shortfalls in overall staffing levels; and
  • acceptance that, in relation to the new pay formula still to be agreed, firefighters’ pay will be linked to that of professional and technical occupations rather than manual workers.

The FBU’s leadership faced strong criticism from some delegates at the 12 June conference over its handling of the dispute, with some branding the settlement as a 'sell-out' and calling for the resignation of the union’s general secretary, Andy Gilchrist. However, the government and the local authorities welcomed the union’s decision to accept the agreement and end the dispute.

On 30 June, the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, published a white paper, Our fire and rescue service, setting out a blueprint for future developments in the fire service. The white paper includes reforms suggested by the Bain report in December 2002 (UK0302101N), which was strongly criticised by the FBU, and is seen by some commentators as the government’s 'revenge' for the long-running industrial action staged by the union. The FBU said that it would not be making any 'knee-jerk' reaction to the white paper but would submit a 'considered response' in due course: 'While there are proposals in the white paper which we support, there are of course many that we will need to take issue with.'

Meanwhile, the Fire Services Bill, which will give the government the power to fix or modify the conditions of service of firefighters, and to give directions to fire authorities about the use or disposal of property or facilities, was passed by the House of Commons in early June, despite opposition from some Labour MPs, and is now being considered by the House of Lords.

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