Leaders: Fire chiefs & union must find compromise

Worrying times ahead for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Picture: John Devlin
Worrying times ahead for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Picture: John Devlin
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NEWS that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service faces the threat of industrial action in a dispute over pay and working conditions is a worrying development for all.

The dispute has its origins in the introduction of a new salary and grading structure affecting 800 ancillary staff, which is being brought in as part of the move from eight regional brigades to a single national unit.

Spending cuts to frontline services have already been singled out by trade union Unison as the culprit. The SFRS recently warned that it was considering cuts to frontline services as the result of a £50 million funding gap. Others have blamed the drive by the SNP administration to centralise fire services.

This is not, of course, the first time that fire services have been threatened by strike action. A UK-wide dispute on working conditions and pensions in 2013 was averted in Scotland after improvements were proposed around issues of fitness capability, the threat of “no job, no pension” and pensions for retirements from the age of 55.

At the time, Roseanna Cunningham, then the Scottish Government minister for community safety, said the creation of the single service had helped the situation. So it is not clear how by itself the move could be a cause of the latest dispute.

Scotland’s fire service does an outstanding job in ensuring the public is kept safe. It commands widespread public respect and support. Its staff are required to work in the most dangerous conditions and at all hours. And that front line service could not be sustained without committed ancillary service personnel – office staff, mechanics, hydrant testers and others.

That said, every public service needs to operate efficiently and to ensure that working practices keep pace with changing public needs and technology. Savings and efficiencies are possible in a wide variety of operations and Unison needs to be mindful that in an era of colossal pressures on the public purse there are broader considerations that must be taken into account.

The country’s debt interest bill continues to rise with every year, putting a further strain on resources for essential services. While there are large areas of public spending that are protected, many others are having to find savings. However, care needs to be taken with front line services where public safety is a prime concern.

Unison has said the two sides are currently “poles apart” on the issue. It will continue talking with the management of the fire service, but warned that any attempt to impose the agreement would lead to balloting for industrial action.

That is clearly to be avoided. Negotiators on both sides need to hold further discussions to explore how economies can be made and how civilian staff are given the pay and conditions they deserve without affecting life-saving services.

Holyrood should check its priorities

Wet, weary and mud-splattered: revellers who paid £82.50 a day for this year’s T in the Park music festival might have thought the organisers could have been better prepared for the all-too-predictable exit.

But now it transpires that, in addition to the steep ticket price and sponsorship money, the festival organisers also received £150,000 from the Scottish Government in a secret funding deal to assist the festival in its move from Balado to Strathallan Castle.

Now there is fury on two fronts. Festival revellers faced lengthy waits to get out of car parks which had turned into mud baths, while a potentially dangerous crowd crush developed as The Proclaimers played. Meanwhile, cash-starved arts organisations are questioning Holyrood’s priorities.

If the Scottish Government really wants to support the performing arts there are surely worthier causes. Take, for example, the Royal Lyceum theatre, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It was hit with a huge and unexpected 17 per cent cut in its grant for 2015-18 in November’s Creative Scotland three-year funding round.

The Lyceum had no option but to go ahead with the anniversary season as planned, and to ask Creative Scotland to load the whole cut into the years 2016-18. So there will be a 10 per cent drop in the company’s resources from next summer, with a disproportionate effect on the work that can be produced, given the high fixed costs of the historic building.

The Traverse has also had to contend with budget cuts.

When our premier arts organisations are under severe pressure, a £150,000 grant for a pop concert hardly speaks well of Holyrood’s priorities.