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Posted by: John Brace | 3rd September 2014

Labour councillors blame government for strikes in 1st ever film of a Merseyside Fire Authority meeting

Labour councillors blame government for strikes in 1st ever film of a Merseyside Fire Authority meeting

                                  

Merseyside Fire and Rescue crew in James Street, Liverpool 2nd September 2014

Merseyside Fire and Rescue crew in James Street, Liverpool 2nd September 2014

I attended (and filmed) a public meeting of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s Consultation and Negotiation Sub-Committee yesterday afternoon. Since last visiting Merseyside Fire and Rescue Headquarters quite a while ago, the whole building has been rebuilt.

We arrived about half an hour before the meeting started and were asked to wait in reception. After about fifteen minutes (we had been told they were “running late” although the meeting started on time) someone came and took us to the meeting which was being held in the Temporary Conference Room on the first floor.

Thankfully there was a working lift which we used. The room had been set up up for the councillors on the Sub-Committee, fire officers and union representatives from unions such as the Fire Brigades Union. Microphones for everyone (with built-in speakers) were set out and tested before the meeting started.

Someone was even kind enough to put one of the speakers behind us so we could hear what was being said. Unlike Wirral Council there was no tea and coffee machine in the room drowning out what was said, but jugs of water and glasses were put out.

I informed someone of my intention to film the upcoming meeting and referred to the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014. In my opinion in response she looked rather crestfallen and left the room in a hurry (maybe to tell someone else).

During the meeting, due to everyone having a microphone (maybe Wirral Council prefers councillors to share as that way they can give the public the impression they’re too skint to afford a microphone for each councillor), there was none of the usual requests you get at Wirral Council public meetings from councillors to repeat what’s just been said as everybody could hear what was going on. In fact playing back the video of the meeting, the sound quality (often a complaint when I record meetings at Wirral Council whether they have microphones or not) was much, much improved.

Due to a current technical fault with one of the SD cards (I do have a backup card but it was impossible for me to predict at the start how long the meeting would last), I didn’t film in HD (which I would’ve preferred to do as that would have been broadcast quality) but instead in VGA. Apologies for the black boxes on the video, this was down to using the usual compression codec I use for HD which has a slightly different aspect ratio.

As having the tripod in front of me would’ve blocked a passageway and I didn’t want to argue about the interpretation of fire regulations with a bunch of fire officers, I put the tripod instead to the side which meant I did less panning and zooming than usual.

Before the meeting itself, I enquired about the West Kirby/Upton fire station plans and was told that a consultation with the public on that issue would be starting soon.

The agenda and reports are on the Mersey Fire and Rescue Authority website if you’re interested in reading them. As you are probably aware, there have been a number of days recently when fire officers have been on strike and anyone passing the new fire station in Birkenhead on those days will have seen the Fire Brigades Union picket.

The Chief Fire Officer, Dan Stephens did most of the talking at the meeting. His report gave an update on the weekly meetings with unions and a summary of progress on the issues.

There was currently a dispute with the Fire Brigades Union which would be going to a conciliation hearing on the 10th November, once the outcome of this was known he would report back to councillors and the committee.

He apologised for using MACC in an email and said it was “not a mistake he would be making again”. Referring to the civil disturbances in 2011, he considered that these had been managed on Merseyside more effectively than in other parts of the country due to excellent interagency work with the Merseyside Police on Operation Derwent.

However the command and control on the seventh floor of the police headquarters was “no longer fit for purpose”. He went into detail about a decision of the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority to engage with Merseyside Police on the Merseyside Joint Command and Control Centre in which both organisations would work along with the North West Ambulance Service.

The Joint Command Centre had gone live in early July and he went into detail about the shift patterns outlined in paragraphs nine to fourteen. He wanted to highlight the “outstanding achievement” to have “got to this point” but that the Merseyside Police were training their call handlers and he went into some of the differences as to how Merseyside Police and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service deal with emergency calls.

The Chair, Cllr Jimmy Mahon (Labour, Sefton) gave his congratulations to the Chief Fire Officer and said there had been the concern that in order to work properly the Control Centre should be in Merseyside.

The Chief Fire Officer continued with talking about the arrangements that they’d put in place for when fire officers were on strike in a dispute over pension reform. He made it clear that it wasn’t a localised dispute on Merseyside, but a national dispute between the Fire Brigades Union and the government over which Mersey Fire and Rescue Authority didn’t have any real influence over which had been the subject of previous reports.

He wanted the dispute itself “resolved as quickly as possible” and commended the FBU as they took a “responsible approach” on Merseyside and also gave them his thanks. Moving on to the collective agreement with the Fire Brigades Union and Fire Officers Association over twenty-four working, there was one location in Croxteth where it was allowed to due to an “operational rationale”. He went into some detail about how twenty-four hour working freed up rota days and other impacts of it.

Referring to the “acute pressure” of “financial challenges” he said that it wouldn’t get easier in 2015/16 and the final two paragraphs of his report were about an independent review of conditions of service. In his opinion the questionnaire contained loaded questions and it had been a Fire Brigade Union recommendation that they shouldn’t take part in the survey. He put on record that he couldn’t be a stronger advocate of the whole time duty system and that he would take questions on his report.

Two trade union representatives replied and also referred to the national issues, challenges, how they were never going to agree to everytying but the Fire Brigade Union representative felt that things were going forward and that both sides were pragmatic. The FBU representative said that they’d used all procedures, asked for external assistance and hopefully both sides had an open mind.

Councillor Leslie T Byrom (Labour, Sefton) made comments about the Ken Knight review and the government’s response to it, as well as a related resolution at the LGA Conference.

He used the analogy of a teenager only being able to afford the cheapest insurance for their first car, but gradually moving up to comprehensive insurance. In his opinion Merseyside had the equivalent of comprehensive insurance in its fire cover. The councillor didn’t want to revert to an inferior service. He referred to the recent terrorism alert change and how fully staffed authorities “can send boots on the ground” but that they had to lobby hard to explain the advantages.

Cllr Linda Maloney (Labour, St Helens) said that she had asked the St Helens’ Human Resources officer for advice on the redundancies issue. The advice she had received was that Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service was being very lenient compared to other councils in making people redundant. She wanted to put on record the work they did keeping full-time firefighters and engines to keep Merseyside safe.

Cllr Tony Robertson (Lib Dems, Sefton) asked a question about the questionnaire. The Chief Fire Officer replied that it had to be returned by the 19th September, but that their submission would be reported back.

There weren’t any meetings of a committee to formally approve it before the deadline, but said that if he was being cynical he’d have taken the view that it was almost a response to the Fire Brigades Union strike action, however he was conscious he was being filmed so was a little circumspect.

Cllr Tony Robertson said that he understood.

Cllr Roy Gladden (Labour, Liverpool City Council) referred to if they wanted to get the person they wanted in a position, they they just needed to sort out the shortlist in relation to the questionnaire. He felt other parts of the country didn’t need full-time firefighters and referred to Devon and Cornwall. The independence vote in Scotland was also referred to and also discussions across the country where they were fed up with being told what’s best for them in that part of the country.

No matter what happened on the 18th September he felt they should be demanding a better say in what happened regionally and locally and no matter what government there was he wanted the power base lowered so that Merseyside would decide what’s best for them. As elected representatives they could come to the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and disagree and he would be very surprised to be in a situation where they all agreed on everything as “one of us” would be “out of order”. The unions would at times disagree fundamentally with the way forward. However he wanted to make clear this was a national strike and that the government was using finance to look at the service.

The Chair, Cllr Jimmy Mahon (Labour, Sefton) agreed.

Cllr Roy Gladden (Labour, Liverpool City Council) then said the following:

“Just one quick thing which I think you mentioned before, we’ve got cameras. Are we going to be writing to Mr. Pickles asking him if we can have a makeup room before we go out? *laughter* I’m a bit concerned that it’s err, you know splashed across the national and worldwide media and at least I want to get me hair dyed and me makeup on so I don’t look horrible. Well I’m just making sure, I hope Mr. Pickles wouldn’t mind as he’s insistent upon this that we have our makeup room in future.

Having been at the BBC, I mean it really isn’t like that, I might not come along if I haven’t had my hair done. So I just hope in the future, we’ll put it down Chair. Some of us don’t need our hair cutting.”

Chief Fire Officer Dan Stephens said, “Just two things Chair, I thank Councillor Gladden for his last comment and second justly to reassure Councillor Gladden that he looks as devilish as ever..”

Unknown councillor “That’s enough, that’s enough. Meeting closed, thank you.”

Chief Fire Officer Dan Stephens said, “What I would say is, I could use this opportunity to my Ice Bucket Challenge, I nominated Eric Pickles, unfortunately he’s not yet responded to the challenge I’ve put down to him so maybe this is my opportunity to reinvigorate that challenge to him and I shall leave that at the behest of our guests further to the meeting to give some thought as to whether they would like to send that through to him and I will pause at that point Chair having committed career suicide.”

The Chair asked, “Can we have a copy?” to which I replied “ok”. He replied, “It will be interesting to have a look at to see how we’re mentioned. That’s the end of the meeting.”

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Responses

  1. It’s a bit rich of so-called Labour councillors to blame this government for strikes when their party had 13 years in which to roll back enemy of the people Mark I, Margaret Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws.

    But no, they did nothing, rolled over, abused the power vested in them, created illegal wars, became Torylite traitors, abusers of the vulnerable, enemy of the people mark II and the rest is history.

    • Yes, well Labour blame the Tories for the strikes, the Tories will blame the last Labour government and so the political blame game continues.

      The issue of the FBU strikes did come up in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003, as contingency plans to deal with the strikes diverted a lot of Armed Forces resources. Obviously a certain number of troops are always kept in the UK for civil contingencies such as strikes, floods and other situations in which they’re needed.

      As to the rest, it’s history. However I wasn’t even born when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and didn’t live through the trade union strife in the 1970s.

      I did once teach someone who was an industrial correspondent for a national newspaper during that time and he told me about some of the union protests he reported on in that time period.


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