Now the Fire Brigades Union are planning their first national strike action in 20 years, it puts Croydon Tory MP Chris Philp at the centre of the dispute.
By ANDREW FISHER
The worst cost-of-living crisis in decades is bringing an upsurge in industrial action. Yesterday, more than half a million workers were on strike: teachers, civil servants, lecturers, train drivers and bus drivers all took industrial action.
If the government thinks that represents the high watermark, they are probably deluding themselves.
Nurses and ambulance workers remain in dispute, as do other rail staff. On February 20, we will get the result of the junior doctors’ strike ballot, too.
On Monday it was announced that more than 30,000 firefighters have voted to take national strike action, with 88per cent voting in favour on a 73per cent turnout.
The ballot result smashes through the thresholds for industrial action, brought in when David Cameron was the Conservative Prime Minister, which requires not only a “Yes” vote on more than a 50per cent turnout, but 40per cent of all eligible members to have voted “Yes”.
Firefighters have not taken national strike action since 2003.
According to analysis by the Fire Brigades Union, since 2009 firefighters have lost £4,000 a year from the average salary – a real terms cut of 12per cent. Over that same period, 11,500 firefighter jobs have been cut – slowing response times and jeopardising the safety of firefighters and the public.
It’s not hard to see why FBU members are motivated to strike. In Spring 2022, firefighters were offered just a 2per cent pay increase, which they rejected out of hand.
That was increased to 5per cent (still only half the rate of inflation for 2022-2023), and the union put that offer to its members – with 80per cent voting to reject.
Even after announcing its members’ substantial vote for strike action, the union offered their employers, the local fire authorities, 10 days to make a better offer before any strike dates would be announced. No further offer has yet been received, although talks are scheduled for February 8.
With their pay cut, jobs lost, pensions downgraded and, across London when Boris Johnson was Mayor, fire stations closed, firefighters have suffered a bruising last 13 years. To make matters worse, in October, the hapless Chris Philp (booted out of the Treasury for his role in crashing the economy) was appointed Minister with responsibility for the Fire Service by new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
In this role, Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, has recently voted to limit firefighters’ right to strike – and remove unfair dismissal protection from them when they do. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill breaches the country’s international commitments and has been condemned by the International Labour Organisation, a UN agency. Although it has now passed in the House of Commons, it faces more scrutiny in the House of Lords before it becomes law.
Philp’s other recent votes include supporting further restrictions on the right to protest and backing water companies to continue to dump sewage into our rivers – for which Extinction Rebellion at the weekend posted a “blue plaque” on Croydon Tories’ HQ in Purley commemorating the fact that, “Chris Philp MP voted to block a law requiring water companies to dump less raw sewage in our waterways and seas.”
In the neighbouring constituency, Croydon Central, Labour MP Sarah Jones is the shadow minister for the fire service. Speaking in a debate in November, she noted that: “The number of fire service call-outs has increased every year since 2007. The number of fires increased by 3per cent last year. And global warming is leading to increased wildfires… we saw a 200per cent increase this summer.”
Jones told me, “The Home Secretary needs to get around the table and negotiate. She should put public protection above politics and do everything in her power to stop this strike.”
Quite what the Fire Brigades Union has done wrong to deserve the malicious Suella Braverman being inflicted on them as Home Secretary is anyone’s guess.
In the ministerial merry-go-round that played out as successive Tory governments collapsed last year, Braverman was found to have breached the ministerial code, possibly on multiple occasions, yet she continues to play a leading role in the Sunak farce.
Thankfully, firefighters don’t have to sit opposite either Braverman, Philp or more credible figures, like Coco the Clown, in their pay negotiations. They negotiate with the 14 fire authority chiefs in the National Joint Council. Fiona Twycross, a former London Assembly member and Croydon resident, is London’s representative on the NJC.
But the fire authority chiefs can only make a pay offer contingent on sufficient government funding in their budgets. The government needs to pay up.
If the talks fail and the FBU does call strike action, what will that mean for Croydon residents?
A Home Office spokesperson told me: “We are committed to keeping the public safe and have robust contingency plans in place.
“We are working closely with the National Fire Chiefs Council and partners to manage the impact of strike action, whilst ensuring we can continue to deliver vital services to the public.”
Having looked at the “contingency plans” for myself, and checked them with people on the ground, I am rather less assured. In London, there are normally 144 fire engines and 11 high-rise ladders available in case of emergency.
If firefighters strike, cover will be provided by dodgy contractor Serco, which will have just 27 fire engines and a single high-rise ladder for the whole of the capital.
Serco charges the Mayor of London around £1 million per day to provide cover.
The FBU also has an agreement in place that should a “major incident” occur – something like the Grenfell Tower fire or the London Bridge terror attack – they would then return to work.
As Labour MP Jones says, “Firefighters run towards danger when the rest of us run away.
“Their work is invaluable, and they deserve to be fairly rewarded with fair pay.”
Let’s hope the government and the NJC can give firefighters the fair reward they deserve.
- Click here to hear Andrew Fisher talking about the cost-of-living crisis and the resulting strikes on Croydon Insider, our latest Under The Flyover podcast
- From 2015 to 2019, Andrew Fisher worked as the Labour Party’s Director of Policy under Jeremy Corbyn. He is the chair of the Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party. Fisher is also the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works, and now writes regular columns for InsideCroydon in a personal capacity
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