Scots fire service faces strike threat over pay

The single fire service was created in 2013 along with Police Scotland to save costs. Picture: John Devlin
The single fire service was created in 2013 along with Police Scotland to save costs. Picture: John Devlin
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THE cash-strapped Scottish fire service is facing the threat of industrial action in a dispute over pay and working conditions.

Around 800 civilian staff are affected by the introduction of a new salary and grading structure which is being brought in as part of the move from eight regional fire brigades to a single national organisation. According to Unison, around a quarter of staff are set to see a reduction in their salary, with some losing as much as 35 per cent.

This underlines the scale of unhappiness we’re looking at

Alison McInnes MSP

Talks are due to take place next week between the union and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which recently warned it was considering cuts to frontline services as the result of a £50 million funding gap.

However, Unison said the two sides were currently “poles apart” on the issue, which affects back office staff, mechanics, hydrant testers and others.

A spokesman for the union said: “The package on offer from SFRS will never be acceptable to our members. More money has to be put into SFRS by the Scottish Government to enable a fair and just package to be put to our members.”

The union said a ballot on accepting the proposals on offer had already led to a 2:1 rejection by its members.

Unison said it would continue talking with fire bosses, but any attempt to impose the agreement would lead to balloting for industrial action. Earlier this year, The Scotsman revealed the fire service was looking at its “frontline delivery model” to help address an 11 per cent cut in its funding alongside a 6 per cent rise in costs.

In a document sent to MSPs, the service said funding had fallen by £31.5m in cash terms since 2012-13, while costs had risen by £16.7m mainly due to VAT and pay inflation. The service said it had been left with a funding gap of £48.2m.

Lib Dem MSP Alison McInnes said: “Civilian staff play an essential role in our emergency services and the move to single police and fire services has been a real challenge. Strike action is not something that anyone will take lightly and this underlines the scale of unhappiness that we are looking at.

“All sides need to get round the table and ensure that we do everything we can to give civilian staff the pay and conditions they deserve without affecting life-saving services.”

The single service was created on 1 April 2013 alongside Police Scotland as part of an ambitious cost-cutting programme, with both choosing to close control rooms to save money.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland is now carrying out a review of call handling in police control rooms following the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill. It took officers three days to find the couple’s crashed car on the M9 after the force failed to log a call.

Appearing before the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee in April, the Fire Brigades Union’s Scottish secretary, Stephen Thomson, said he was “extremely concerned” about cuts being made to the service’s budget.

Meanwhile, the organisation’s chief officer, Alasdair Hay, told MSPs that his service was the only one in the UK to be saddled with a VAT bill, which currently costs £10m a year – the equivalent of 350 firefighters.

According to Unison, the changes being put forward by the service mean around half of staff will lose some annual leave allowance. Shift allowances would also be taken away.

A “handful” of staff will see their pay cut by more than a third, according to unions.

Scottish Labour’s shadow justice secretary Hugh Henry called on the Scottish Government to revisit funding arrangements. He said: “Yet again we see that non-uniform staff are having to bear the brunt of cuts to the emergency services.

“The SNP government has used the centralisation of services to hide the significant budget cuts it has imposed.

“On top of this the SNP government landed the fire service with a VAT burden which could have been avoided.

“SNP ministers need to revisit the funding of our fire service. It’s only a matter of time before frontline firefighters are also asked to take their share of cuts.”

But Tory MSP Alex Johstone said Unison were “abandoning the moral high ground” by threatening industrial action.

“This problem is all down to the Scottish Government and their obsession with centralising key public services,” he said.

“The fire service does an amazing job in ensuring the public are protected and kept safe, and they have the sympathy of ordinary people against this authoritarian nationalist government.

“By moving towards strike action, Unison are not only putting lives at risk, they are abandoning the moral high ground. The Scottish Government should be stepping in and accepting responsibility for the mess they have created before this dispute gets out of hand.”

A spokeswoman for the SFRS said: “The board and the trade unions have reluctantly accepted that an agreement on a revised support staff pay and reward framework cannot be achieved at this stage and therefore have reached a failure to agree within the formal process.

“Accordingly, we have formally notified the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) of the failure to achieve a collective agreement.

“The SFRS will commence a statutory period of 45 days consultation with the trade unions, during which it is hoped we can identify measures that would facilitate a collective agreement.”

“The service remains committed to offering staff an attractive pay and reward package that recognises their contribution.”