New Worker Banner

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

The Voice of Fire Fighters

by our Eastern European Affairs correspondent

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has been much in the news recently for its actions over the floating barge, the Bibby Stockholm. Built in 1976, it was used to accommodate homeless people and asylum seekers in Hamburg and Rotterdam in the 1990s and early 2000s. More recently it has been used to house construction workers on large-scale coastal projects and is presently based at Portland Port in Dorset to house asylum seekers as a cost-saving measure. This has been widely opposed by the local authority and many charities who say the accommodation is unsuitable for families with children. The first few inmates were evacuated after the discovery of Legionella bacteria.

The FBU have legally challenged this on fire safety grounds because it has been altered to take more than double the numbers it was originally designed for. A local authority whistle-blower said checks in July showed the barge had the potential to become a “floating Grenfell”.

Matt Wrack, FBU’s general secretary, says: “It is disgraceful that the Home Secretary is not even willing to meet us to discuss these concerns.

“Fires do not discriminate based on immigration status, and neither can fire safety regulations. Everyone, no matter where they are from, has the right to live in safe and decent accommodation, and firefighters have the right to expect that they will not be recklessly endangered.”

On Merseyside, FBU members have voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action and action short of a strike in opposition to plans by the local fire authority to reduce night-time staffing numbers from an agreed level of six to five, and the requirement for some members to work an imposed duty shift system. This would apply to new firefighters and would breach nationally agreed terms and conditions in relation to overtime rates of pay. The FBU will announce strike dates if management do not enter serious talks very soon.

Ian Hibbert, the union’s Merseyside brigade secretary, warned that: “Merseyside fire control staff and firefighters smashed through ballot thresholds this week, delivering a huge mandate for industrial action. … During this dispute, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has continued to refuse to abide by locally and nationally agreed negotiation procedures. We are here, waiting to negotiate in good faith. Our employers have until the 12 September to meet us and avoid strikes.”

In Scotland, the SNP Government plans to cut £36 million from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service over the next four years. This was the subject of a recent demonstration in Glasgow’s George Square attended not just by off duty firefighters, but by posties, local government and health workers, all of whom have, or have had, disputes of their own. Ironically, one of those addressing the rally and pledging support for the FBU was a Green MSP representing the very same government imposing the cuts. An unimpressed observer noted that: “Maggie Chapman and her party colleague members rocked up to a Scottish Fire and Rescue Service budget cut protest in George Square, tweeting they oppose the cuts etc, this is despite them being in government under the Bute House agreement.”

FBU Scotland executive council member Colin Brown told the rally: “Modernisation doesn’t come cheap, and it doesn’t come with £36 million of cuts over four years. “There have been 1,100 jobs cut already, there’s been three control rooms shut already, and now we face the loss of another 200 jobs.”

The union has warned the Scottish Government that they will face strike action.

Another battle the FBU is presently fighting is the more specific one of opposing “dangerous and irresponsible” policies for using breathing apparatus, which it says is “one of the biggest threats to firefighters’ health and safety in decades”.

New instructions from the National Fire Chiefs Council are that they should don their breathing apparatus without checking it.

Some fire authorities have said that they will not implement the policy – but others have indicated that they will push ahead.

It took a long battle with the Health and Safety Executive who ignored the complaint for a year, but the HSE has U-turned and will now be investigating the policy.

National officer Riccardo la Torre said: “The change to breathing apparatus safety procedures is one of the biggest threats to firefighters’ health and safety in decades. We will continue to hold the Health and Safety Executive to account and challenge any fire and rescue service that tries to implement this practice. We are prepared to take whatever action is necessary to stop this policy.”

This is the sort of thing that the smaller, specialised unions tend to do much better than the larger unions who often do not have the right expertise in the right place to deal with such technical questions.

Dodgy Doings

Whilst the FBU does good work on behalf of the public and its members, it also has an interesting internal life that is not very edifying. The union’s expense account has some interesting items on it. Amongst other things, it is unclear why the union’s senior officials really need very expensive exercise bikes.

Court battles have been fought to even allow union members sight of the union accounts. In one case, after using an expensive QC to fight the issue an aggrieved member was only allowed to read the accounts so long as he took no notes and had his phone switched off. Accusations have been made that even the Union’s executive have been kept in the dark about severance payments to departing officials.

In one case an official was dismissed for supporting Brexit in a personal capacity, a matter ruled illegal by an Employment Tribunal. This cost the union a pretty penny in legal fees.

More recently, three senior officials have departed with considerable pay-offs and gagging clauses. The reasons for their leaving are unclear, but one alleges bullying by the General Secretary.

The fact that such payments have been concealed could even land the person responsible for compiling the official accounts in one of His Majesty’s penal establishments.

One national official received a secret pay-off of £100,000 and another £50,000, with another receiving an unknown sum, which certainly isn’t peanuts. All three came with non-disclosure agreements. Their salaries were high enough to be individually listed in the obligatory annual returns to the certification officer, but of their pay-offs there is no mention.

According to the Campaign for a Democratic FBU blog, five members of the FBU have “submitted a collective complaint to the certification officer about the failure of the leadership to disclose the exit payments in the annual return and statement to members”.

The blog is surely correct to say that: “It is almost certain that the certification officer will launch an investigation into the matter. It appears inevitable, then, that this whole rotten scandal is set to deepen further. This is no longer just a debate about internal union accountability and transparency; the affair has moved into the area of criminality.”

The FBU has not made any comment on the blog’s claims.

The present leadership when elected were hailed for being on the left. The blog’s authors are not, but dodgy practice in trade unions whether by senior officers or the humblest branch secretary is unacceptable whatever the colour of the accusers or accused and must be rooted out.