Fire service row descends into farce

THERE was dismay last night after an agreement to end the long and bitter industrial dispute between Essex Fire Service and the unions collapsed at the eleventh hour.

Fire Brigade Union (FBU) representatives thought they were on the verge of ending months of disagreement after reaching a verbal agreement about accepting a package of cuts to front-line services.

The deal, which had been “painstakingly negotiated” with Chief Fire Officer David Johnson, was due to be signed off by both sides at a media event yesterday.

But the occasion descended into farce when the FBU refused to sign, angered at a last minute alteration to the agreement.

The row had centred around a series of proposed service cuts and led to industrial action starting last June but looked to finally be over after a verbal agreement was reached, hailed by the FBU saying as a “victory for common sense”.

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But by Midday yesterday the agreement was on hold after the latest twist in the bitter row which has caused deep division between Essex County Fire and Rescue Service (ECFRS) and members of the union.

The key sticking point was the insistence of CFO Johnson’s team to insert a new paragraph into the agreement – taken from the FBU’s own circular to its members – saying that whilst all parties were happy to sign up to the principles of the agreement, both recognised the uncertainty of ECFRS’ current economic position and were signing within this context.

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CFO Johnson said: “We have done all we can to explain to our employees and their representative bodies that while we are happy to sign this agreement it can’t be counted on as a union success in securing jobs, shifts and stations when none of us is aware of how the Government spending review will affect budgets.

“We were concerned that the FBU has been circulating literature heralding its success on behalf of its members in securing cast iron guarantees and pledges that just cannot hold up with the financial position as it is. It was important for the credibility of this service that both sides officially recognised this position.

“We inserted a clause in the agreement taken from the union’s own letter. When they refused to sign with that in place, we said we would be happy for it to be deleted if union officials would sign a covering letter setting out the context in which the agreement is being made. The union said it did not have a mandate to agree and the meeting was abandoned.”

CFO Johnson said the agreement was signed and insisted he was “ready to meet again with union officials once they are in a position to sign up”.

But a furious Keith Flynn, Essex FBU Secretary: “We simply can’t believe that yet another, last minute hurdle is placed in the way of a final agreement, especially when the full and final terms of settlement already offered by the fire authority have been formally agreed by both sides.

“We were given no prior notice of the new clause, there was no negotiation and inevitably we will now be faced with calls from angry members to reinstate our industrial action.

“It transpires that the chief had sent a letter late last night to elected members of the fire authority telling them what he was going to do. It’s almost as if a trap was being laid for us to walk into today.”

“It all should have been a formality. The full and final wording of the settlement document was agreed with the chief fire Officer on June 22.

“As far as we are concerned the deal was already done. We signed the original full and final settlement but the chief refused and handed us his revised version.

“In the end we were forced to withdraw from today’s meeting to calmly consider the situation and the implications of the new clause dropped on us today.

“We shall now consult with our members and seek a face to face meeting with the elected members of the fire authority as soon as possible because we simply can’t keep on doing business this way.”

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