The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is proposing huge changes to the role of a Firefighter, which could have significant implications, including safety, not to mention the impact on the other emergency services which we reply upon.
Over the past few weeks, the STUC has been speaking to firefighters about these proposed changes and what it means to the people who actually deliver the services rather than those who strategise from above.
You’ll probably have seen somewhere in the media over the past few weeks that firefighters are to receive a 20% pay rise.
For that pay rise we have to expand our role and accept job losses and station closures. The Transformation package, without the monetary value of the pay rise or any detail on anything, was launched a number of months ago.
The Service and the FBU have been in talks for months trying to get our terms and conditions sorted (after 4 years of being a single fire and rescue service we’re still effectively on different rates of pay due to allowances, extra payments for extra skills, etc). Just as those talks were coming to a head with the final proposal being given to the union, the Service produced the big offer. And sent it straight to the firefighters, after no talks with the union. The first sight the FBU had of it was the Monday lunchtime.
This really isn’t how you should do things. This Transformation package and the vision it sets out is huge. There are so many aspects that need to be clarified and discussed before going to the workforce, because they’ll just ask the exact same questions and be in disbelief that all this hasn’t been thought out before now.
And, there are long established trade union relationships to be respected, there’s a Working in Partnership document that states that there will be a “no surprises culture” and that all communications should be open and transparent. And that “All collective agreements that regulate or change contracts of employment are arrived at by negotiation between the relevant parties exclusively”.
That’s what should have happened.
The next day things really kicked off. The STUC wrote a letter to the Justice Secretary, Michael Mathieson, saying that the Service’s actions amounted to “union busting”, the GMB (who represent Scottish Ambulance Service members) also wrote to the secretary saying that they had just heard on the news that firefighters were going to be going to medical calls, and that shouldn’t they (the ambulance service) be doing that? Why isn’t more money going to try and help them out of the dire straights that they’re in?
Then Annabelle Ewing, under who’s remit the Fire Service sits, had to take an urgent question in Parliament. Brought forward by Liam Kerr (Conservative). Here’s what he said…
“The public will understand the rationale for changing the fire service but, as I have said before in the chamber on similar occasions, they will have legitimate concerns that the proposal is a way to implement cuts by the back door. The chief fire officer has told firefighters that there will be a small reduction in whole-time firefighter posts. Will the minister confirm exactly how many full-time equivalent posts will be lost? Will she explain how the service is expected to respond more quickly with fewer firefighters, given that the average time taken to respond to house fires has increased in almost every council area in Scotland?”
This is how bizarre everything has become, the Tories are worried about cuts to the public sector.
So, then Mrs Ewing responds in politician’s fashion, but has clearly been caught off guard. They have a little back and forth about the VAT issue and Liam Kerr then says…
“There are aspects of reform that we can welcome. In particular, I praise the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service for its successful trials of responding to cardiac arrests—I understand that a number of lives have been saved thanks to that effort. However, the Fire Brigades Union has said that its members have been given no specific detail about the roles that they will be expected to take on. We understand, for example, that firefighters will take on youth and social prevention work and inspection and enforcement responsibilities. Will the minister outline the specific duties that will be included in the definition? Further, will the Government publish the methodology that has been used to calculate the proposed pay rise?”
We’ve been asking this since the summer.
Then Gillian Martin from poor Annabelle’s own party asks…
“Will the minister give a guarantee that those who take on enhanced responsibilities as a result of the new contract will be given comprehensive training and the necessary resources to carry out their new role effectively?”
Been asking this for ages, too. The Service have stated, categorically, in their letter that we’ll be given all the training, equipment and time required. But, as we’ve talked about before, how can we have any faith that this will be the case when our training has suffered so badly over the past 10 years and especially since the move to single service.
Daniel Johnson (Labour) then came in with this…
“Will the minister therefore confirm whether, ahead of yesterday’s announcements, she was aware of the scale of the reductions in firefighters, stations and units? If so, given the scale of the change, why did she not feel that it was worth revealing to Parliament directly? Finally, does she share my concerns and those of the FBU that it did not receive prior sight of the details and that national pay and bargaining mechanisms have, in effect, been bypassed?”
Liam McArthur (Lib Dems)…
“Simply relying on the good will and hard work of staff on the front line to get by is not a long-term sustainable strategy, and an important part of protecting the fire service is paying workers properly and preventing their living standards from falling. To follow on from Daniel Johnson’s question, was the minister informed specifically of the offer before it went directly to staff? How does the enhanced role that is envisaged for staff in respect of terrorism, medical emergencies and community engagement differ from what staff already do? Will it to any extent formalise or recognise existing practices?”
Then John Finnie (Greens) weighed in:
“I welcome the minister’s comments about collective bargaining. As a former full-time official of a staff association, I would have been raging if the employer had bypassed agreed procedures. That is not an operational matter, so will the minister direct the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to adhere to the collective bargaining procedures, not only for the benefit of future negotiations for the fire service but to send a clear message to others in the public sector?”
There’s not much point in me listing what the minister had to say as it pretty much revolved around things being operational matters for the SFRS, and being encouraged that the FBU are still willing to enter into negotiations. And that she wasn’t aware of the letter being sent to employees. I’ve not seen many politicians take a cross party kicking like she did very often, if at all.
So, political scoring from the opposition parties, for sure. But it’s pretty easy to do when the Service bypasses the recognised trade unions, and launches a vision for the fire service that has so many blatantly obvious questions that need answered before any real talks can proceed. The Service has obviously been unaware of the links that the FBU has forged with politicians and the other unions over the past couple of years. The Service have huge resources, a media team, and a LOT of management to call on to get their message out, these new alliances redress that disparity.
For me, it was really encouraging to see the speed and weight of the response from those outside the job. It shows that there are a lot of people watching what’s happening with us, perhaps as a barometer of what’s coming across the rest of the public sector in Scotland, or maybe people still value us and share our concerns about what these changes could mean for the communities that we live in.