No strike deal in return for more cash

FIREFIGHTERS in Essex are to be offered more money in return for signing “no strike” contracts, it has emerged.

Essex Fire Authority have signed off the proposals saying the move was in response to an “increased likelihood” of difficulties and claimed the unions could be planning to use the Olympics as a time for high profile industrial action.

However, the Essex Fire Brigades Union last night questioned how the improved contracts would be paid for, saying they fear the new deal may have to be funded by more cuts.

The so-called “resilience contracts” will be voluntary but will offer enhanced pay to firefighters, control staff and officers willing to guarantee their availability in serious times of need such as strike action.

Members of the fire authority’s policy and strategy committee gave the initiative their full backing to the contract proposals at a meeting yesterday. <WED>

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Anthony Hedley, fire authority chairman, said the move was being made to “deliver certainty” to the service in Essex during “uncertain times”.

He praised senior managers for acting swiftly following the recent high profile dispute in London and said this was a decision the public would expect elected members to make on their behalf.

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Deputy Chief Fire Officer Gordon Hunter said that Essex County Fire and Rescue Service (ECFRS) would be under increased budgetary pressures over the coming months and years as efforts were made to “deliver a first-class service” to the public.

He said: “The significance of the service’s role in responding to local emergencies, terrorist incidents and the like and ultimately in saving life, can never be under estimated,” he said.

“The potential of the London Olympics 2012 being targeted as a key time to initiate industrial action would put the service under increased scrutiny and increased pressure to ensure resources are available.

“We also cannot ignore the fact that the there is also a probable, increased risk of local and national industrial action in response to measures instigated following the Comprehensive Spending Review.

“Frustratingly, as the recent events in London have shown, there continues to be a reluctance from the Fire Brigades Union to adopt a flexible approach towards accepting the reality of the economic climate and working with us to meet these challenges.

“Our principal managers have always tried hard and will continually strive towards building a professional and productive partnership approach with the unions but to date the FBU has remained entrenched in maintaining the status quo.

“Against this background, we need to ensure that should the worse happen and the current 14-month dispute is escalated, we can protect families living in Essex. That’s what these new arrangements are designed to do.”

Kevin Bentley, Essex Fire Authority’s vice chairman, added: “Essex Fire Authority is clear that nothing will detract from the service achieving its primary role in preventing the loss of life.

“The resilience contract will hopefully ensure that even in the most challenging of situations, we can rely on our own professional firefighters and officers to be there for the people of Essex when they need them most.

“The service is absolutely committed to doing all it can to deter industrial action – especially strike action – in the first place. But this will not be at the cost of fair and effective changes to the way the service does its business and for this reason we will support senior management in delivering its legal and moral responsibilities and doing all it can to strengthen its contingency planning for any event that threatens to significantly deplete staff availability, whatever the cause may be.

“The fire authority truly believes that the majority of ECFRS’ uniformed and support staff will rise to the challenges ahead because of their dedication and their can do attitude but we cannot ignore the fact that with all that is going on in the public sector right now there is increased risk of industrial action which is why we are acting now to protect services.”

However, Mick Rogers, secretary for the Essex Fire Brigades Union, said: “This does strike me as slightly odd – we have the chief constantly reminding us about the need to save money and cut costs – how we will be working differently and how it will be a painful time.

“It is a little bit off to then increase pay at a time when pay for fire service has been frozen for the next two years.

“If the costs of the service have to be shrunk by �10million over the next four years, how can you think about paying more money?

“My initial concern is that there will be a reduction of stations and a reduction of personnel potentially to pay for people to have a ‘no strike’ contract.”

Mr Rogers denied claims that the FBU was not willing to be flexible and said they would be attending a headquarters meeting this Friday to discuss changes to the service.

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