Public sector pay has been capped for the past four years, with the fire service (which technically isn’t covered by the cap), receiving a rise of 1% each year since 2012. Fire Service Pay and Conditions (excluding Pensions) is negotiated within the National Joint Council (NJC), a non-statutory body so cloaked in secrecy that no minutes are publically available (not even redacted versions) for employees to ascertain how they are being represented, or in the case of Retained/On-Call staff, whether they are being represented at all.
We have argued for many years that because of the way the NJC is structured, it is a genuine barrier to modernising the UK Fire Service. Following the publication of the Thomas Report last year, it seemed that the government had an appetite to finally reform the NJC and we continue to lobby government to follow through with its change agenda. We have however, had a previous false dawn when George Bain undertook his review into the fire service back in 2002, recommending much needed reform only for certain stakeholders to challenge modernisation at every opportunity.
Clearly, the recent horrific events across the country in terms of terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire has put a spotlight on the emergency services with questions being raised at local and national level as to whether they are underfunded and/or under resourced.
Despite the current national arrangements being out of date and rigid, often to the detriment of employees, people with power don’t often want to give it up without a fight. So perhaps now might be the right time for the government to loosen the purse strings in exchange for reform of the national pay body plus a widening of the role to ‘officially’ incorporate additional duties such as medical care?
The fact that there are trials for Co-Responding when some services have been successfully operating such schemes for over a decade goes someway to demonstrate just how archaic the current setup is at national level.
In our view, the Retained Duty System (RDS) is and has been underfunded for a number of years, however, the vast majority of fire authorities fail to spend their RDS budget year-on-year, with these surpluses being used elsewhere to ‘balance local budgets’. This is because the vast majority, if not all fire authorities, are below their official establishment level, despite being funded as if they were at full strength.
We agree that now is the right time to review pay for our members, who broadly have suffered a reduction in wages due to the nature of the duty system and fall in call numbers. But financial remuneration is only part of the issue to overcome the current shortages of On-Call firefighters. The UK Fire Service is desperately lacking in leadership, innovation and direction. Currently national pay bargaining arrangements have failed operational employees with National Conditions of Service (the Grey Book) providing more barriers to change than solutions.
The RDS and the committed personnel who work within it, need support, empathy and encouragement to allow them to continue to do their job. All too often we hear of new policies, procedures and standards that make the job of being an On-Call firefighter that much more difficult.
We still have fire services who focus primarily on the conditions of their Wholetime employees despite their operational response being provided by 60, 70 or even 80% of On-Call firefighters. These attitudes and mind-set has to change if we are to fully utilise and embrace the potential of the RDS.
It’s not all doom and gloom!
There is some good work being undertaken by officers who genuinely want the RDS to work and understand what is needed in terms of flexibility and good management but they are in the minority. These services have a strong and active RFU presence, this is no coincidence, there are those for whom a failing duty system suits their desire for the status-quo, and claim that the RDS is unworkable in a modern society.
Our argument to those who are not members of the RFU, is that if you continue to do what you’ve always done, don’t be surprised that nothing changes. If however, you would prefer to be part of an organisation that believes in the RDS and is willing to fight your corner and give you a voice at local and national level, you will be very welcome.
In the meantime we will continue to protect and serve our membership, championing the belief that with the right management style, that has flexibility and good interpersonal skills at its core, the RDS will flourish.