BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 20.10.02

Interview: ANDY GILCHRIST, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and NICK RAYNSFORD, the Local Government Minister.

Can a firefighters strike be avoided?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first, next week the firemen go on strike.... for forty eight hours. Then there will be another one... again for forty eight hours. Then another four ... of eight days apiece. A frightening prospect. Could it have been avoided? CAN it be avoided... even at this late stage? It's about money of course. They want an extra forty per cent. They have been offered four per cent. Now their pay is to be reviewed by an independent commission chaired by Sir George Bain. With me is the minister responsible for the Fire Service Nick Raynsford and the leader of the Fire Brigades Union Andy Gilchrist. Mr Gilchrist, why not wait for the review to report? ANDY GILCHRIST: Well, the review is not actually a review into pay at all. It's a very wide ranging review and we question seriously the independence of it. HUMPHRYS: Sir George Bain is an eminently independent man. Everybody believes that. GILCHRIST: Our issue is not about the eminence of Sir George Bain. The fact is, this is not an independent inquiry. The Prime Minister, indeed the Deputy Prime Minister, have backed up the fact that even if Sir George Bain were to find that we were right in claiming forty per cent, that in fact he would not be allowed to award that. HUMPHRYS: Nonetheless, you'd have a stronger moral case for taking action wouldn't you, if you had an independent review saying yes, they ought to get forty per cent, that would be a pretty powerful argument for you, wouldn't it? GILCHRIST: Well there is no such thing at the moment as an independent review of pay. What there is, is a rather farcical wide-ranging review into the Fire Service. HUMPHRYS Why is that farcical, why is it farcical on a wide-ranging review? GILCHRIST: It's rather repetitive of much of the work that's going on currently, which I have to say the Fire Brigades Union is not only involved in but is leading on. Now, I don't know how you re-invent the United Kingdom Fire Service in a little under six weeks, but that seems to be the task that this team of people have set themselves. HUMPHRYS; But you're refusing even to talk to them, even to get involved in the review. And here you're planning all these strikes in which people might very well, almost certainly, will die. And yet you're refusing to sit down and talk to an independent review. GILCHRIST; We have a very successful history inside of the Fire Service at the National Joint Council, some forty odd years of resolving issues of pay and conditions of service in an amicable and indeed negotiated way. That actually was blocked by the government earlier in the summer, when the employers were prepared at that stage anyway, to make us an offer of twenty-five thousand pounds a year. The government stepped in and said they weren't allowed to do that and then they embarked on this rather dangerous distraction, called the Independent Review. HUMPHRYS Let me just deal with that, because I saw the Minister shaking his head at that, Mr Raynsford , you were shaking your head, you say you didn't block it. NICK RAYNSFORD: Yes, there's no truth in that whatsoever, and that's been confirmed not just by us, but by Sir Jeremy Beecham who is the Chairman of the Local Government Association, who made it quite clear that the only discussions that the employers had with government on this matter were about the extent to which government would fund any settlement that was agreed. It's for the employers to reach a decision. We made it clear that if they went beyond the four per cent they would have to fund that, but it was their decision. HUMPHRYS: But why should government, central government, get involved in this at all. It ought to be an issue for the Local Authorities didn't it? RAYNSFORD: We didn't get involved until the point on the 2nd of September when negotiations between the Fire Brigades Union and the employers broke down. It was at that point, because we were worried about the risk of a strike, that we moved very quickly indeed to set up the Independent Review. It is a truly independent review. No-one, apart from the FBU is doubting the integrity and the independence of Sir George Bain, and it will report before Christmas. HUMPHRYS: But, isn't it a bit disingenuous to say that government is not getting involved at all. The fact is, if the Fire Brigades Union got their forty per cent or anything close to their forty per cent it would blow apart the government's entire economic plans I mean Gordon Brown would be in deep trouble, the Government would be in deep trouble. The knock-on effect would be colossal. You simply cannot allow that to happen can you? RAYNSFORD: Well, I think that almost all commentators do regard the forty per cent as over the top, but it's going to be a question for Sir George Bain to look at the case. HUMPHRYS; Except that you are saying, he won't, even if he recommends, you won't accept his recommendation, that's what Mr Gilchrist is saying. RAYNSFORD: No John, I've said on many, many occasions, and I repeat it again this morning, we've said that we will look very seriously, very carefully indeed at any recommendation that comes for the Bain review. I can't give a commitment in advance that we will implement whatever they say, because that would be signing a blank cheque, and no government will do that and I wouldn't actually expect Andy Gilchrist to say that he would accept any recommendation that the Bain review might come up with, but we will look very carefully, very sympathetically at any recommendation that comes from Bain. HUMPHRYS: Well, there we are Mr Gilchrist. They will look at it very carefully, very sympathetically, and yet you're saying we're not even prepared to wait for that, even until Christmas. We're going to go ahead and do it now, and put people's lives at risk. GILCHRIST: No, we're not, because we are going to look at it seriously what there isn't there and I'm glad that Mr Raynsford has confirmed it, there's no commitment to fund it necessarily. HUMPHRYS Well he said we will look at very sympathetically at it. GILCHRIST: Our issue at the moment is that for forty odd years we've had a very successful, backed up by the industrial peace that people experienced, mechanism for resoling issues of pay and conditions of service, and what we're actually asking here, and there's much talk about the forty per cent, is that firefighters and control staff who work forty-two hours a week, actually take home or should take home eight pounds fifty an hour. Now I don't think that's unreasonable or unrealistic. HUMPHRYS: Well, what you're asking for is a forty per cent increase, and very few people find that realistic. It is a huge increase - forty per cent when people are getting four, five, six per cent if they're very, very lucky indeed and inflation is half that. GILCHRIST: I don't share your analysis that people don't see it as realistic or reasonable. HUMPHRYS: Have you read the newspapers this morning? GILCHRIST: Well, the newspapers are one thing. Having spent about six or eight months around this country talking, not only to firefighters, but many members of the public, they are extremely supportive of what our claim is about. They understand the job they do, what our members do, and they're intent on supporting us throughout this dispute. We want the ability to sit down with our Fire Service employers, or if the government are intent on hijacking this dispute in its way, we'll sit down with them, and seek to work out a negotiated settlement on pay. HUMPHRYS; Yes, but I mean here is the government, and I'm going back to it, because to many people it will be deeply, deeply surprising that on an issue literally, quite literally of life and death, the government has said, we will set up - we have set up this independent review led by a man, Sir George Bain, whom I don't think even you would describe as not being independent. His record says that he is entirely independent and always has been, and he is prepared to chair this review which may come up with something that you want, it may not, but it is independent. And here you are saying, no we're not interested in that, we want our forty per cent and if we don't get it we're going to go on strike and we're going to put people's lives at risk. I mean that sounds an extraordinary thing to do. GILCHRIST No, I don't think it's extraordinary at all. For decades firefighters have been poorly paid. We're intent on resolving that this year. We were very serious about constructively moving through the negotiating process. That was effectively hijacked. I do not share your view that this is an independent inquiry, and the government pronouncements from indeed the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister no less have actually made it quite clear that they are not prepared to meet the FBU's claim..... HUMPHRYS: Even if.....the minister..... GILCHRIST: He said he'd seriously consider it. HUMPHRYS; Well, they can't say more than that in fairness can they. You expect the government to say okay we'll give them forty per cent. Then we'll have to give the teachers thirty per cent, and we'll have to give somebody else twenty-five..... GILCHRIST: We've provided enough documentary evidence through independent research to make the case that professional firefighters deserve professional pay. Now our Fire Service employers have had that for months and then we have this dangerous distraction of a so-called independent review into I have to say, the future of the Fire Service. HUMPHRYS: Do you accept the point that I have been making throughout this, the point that Ministers made in the past, that people will die as a result of your actions. GILCHRIST: I'm certainly clear that if the government will not speak to the Fire Brigades Union and are intent on putting into place what they call their alternative Fire Service arrangements, then certainly people's lives will be put at risk. That's why I've said... HUMPHRYS: And you're prepared to go ahead with it. GILCHRIST: That's why I said on Friday that rather than shout across London in the style that the Deputy Prime Minister did, that actually what he ought to do, is pick up the phone and speak to the Fire Brigades Union, or allow fire service employers to independently negotiate with the Fire Brigade Union. HUMPHRYS: But you are prepared, let me just make this very clear because this is what it comes down to in the end, you are prepared to see, risk people dying if you don't get your claim met? GILCHRIST: I am not...what I am not about.. HUMPHRYS: That's a yes or no really, isn't it. GILCHRIST: No, it's not a yes or no at all. The situation is clear. We are no longer prepared to have our commitment to the safety of the public blackmail us into the issue of poor pay. What we want to do is to sit down, independently, with our Fire Service employers, or indeed as I've said, we are quite prepared to sit down with the appropriate people in government and resolve this in the next eight days. HUMPHRYS: So you are prepared to talk to anybody except an independent review, well you don't accept it's independent... GILCHRIST: It's not independent and quite frankly it's an irrelevant distraction.. HUMPHRYS: Alright, well, in that case, Minister, they won't meet the independent review, that's that. They will however, talk to John Prescott, they'll talk to the local authorities, shouldn't that be happening, even as we speak? RAYNSFORD: Well we got to the present position when the union and the employers got to the end of the road in terms of negotiations on 2nd September, failed to reach agreement and clearly there was a prospect of a strike. Now, that's situation, in that situation, we set up the independent review and we think this is the right way to resolve this. HUMPHRYS: But since they won't meet..since they have no confidence in the independent review and Mr Gilchrist has told us why, why do you not say, alright, we've got to stop this strike at all cost. I mean not at forty per cent maybe, but at least let us talk to them, so John Prescott should sit down, you should sit down and talk with them and say let's try and find a way around this. Why can't you do that? RAYNSFORD: Because we have a group of three people, independent people, looking at all the evidence, assessing it, to come up with a reasoned judgement as to what is an appropriate level of pay, for fire fighters and other measures as well, how the service can be modernised... HUMPHRYS: Let's deal with the reality, should you not go to any lengths now. I mean...I know it sounds melodramatic and all that, but it's language that you yourself have used, that people will die as a result of this dispute. Surely you should take any steps, any sensible steps, any possible steps to stop it happening. RAYNSFORD: We believe we have and that the review is the way forward. HUMPHRYS: But they don't. RAYNSFORD: What you're asking us to do John, will be to double-guess the review by sitting down and having separate discussions... HUMPHRYS: Well abandon the review, if they won't talk to you, if they won't take any notice of the review then abandon it and do something else. RAYNSFORD: I think that's a very very foolish proposal because if you have a serious review, with imminent people, experienced people, already well into their work, they've taken evidence, the last day for evidence closed last Friday. They will be moving forward over the next few weeks, to their recommendations, and surely it isn't too much to ask for the Fire Brigades Union to suspend any action until we get the result of that serious analysis of pay and conditions within the Fire Service. HUMPHRYS: You've said, as I say, that people will die as a result of this dispute. Do you believe that the Undergrounds and the Underground systems and the railways should close, we've already heard Aslef saying that they will walk out if they are not satisfied, if their members are not satisfied that they are going to be entirely safe and the public will be safe. Is there an argument for saying the Underground, or large sections of the Underground and the railways should simply not run during this dispute. RAYNSFORD: This is a matter for the Health and Safety Executive, who we understand have issued guidance that it is not unsafe to operate the rail network and that apart from a number of deep stations, which probably will have to be closed on the London Underground, perhaps nineteen but otherwise the London Underground is perfectly safe to run. HUMPHRYS: And if there is an accident, if there is a crash. RAYNSFORD: Well that is the judgement of the Health and Safety Executive and clearly London Underground and the train operating companies have got to look very carefully at that and reach their judgement. HUMPHRYS: But your view, if they were to decide that they should close, they would have your support. RAYNSFORD: It's their judgement, based on the advice they get and we obviously would look very closely at any decision that they reach but we see no reason at the moment from what we've heard, for this to happen. HUMPHRYS: One of the things that puzzles people a lot is all this talk about these ancient Green Goddesses. The things that only do about forty miles an hour or whatever it is and they are fifty years' old and yet during the strike, if it happens, we will have lots of fancy new fire engines sitting in fire stations. Why cannot the Army, I know they are not trained in them, but it wouldn't take very long to give them basic rudimentary instruction, why can't the Army, the soldiers who are going to use the Green Goddesses, use modern equipment. RAYNSFORD: I think there's three reasons for that. Firstly, they are much more sophisticated, we.. HUMPHRYS: You'd have to train them, I acknowledged that. RAYNSFORD: ...and that takes time and we haven't had very much time. HUMPHRYS: But you could start now and... RAYNSFORD: We have now got trained military personnel ready to operate the Green Goddesses, we could not have done that if you are talking about the more sophisticated modern kit. Secondly, those appliances are mostly in fire stations and they will almost certainly be picketed if the FBU go ahead with their strike action. It would unnecessarily draw the Army into an industrial dispute if they had to cross picket lines. HUMPHRYS: Isn't that better than people dying? RAYNSFORD: Well I think it could inflame the situation, we have no wish to do that. We want to find an amicable and sensible way through this that does protect the public's interests to the best of our ability and that's why we are arranging to deploy military personnel on Green Goddesses, we will also be running safety campaigns to advise the public of what measures need to be taken to minimise the risk of fire. HUMPHRYS: But I'm trying to imagine and you must surely yourself have imagined this, somebody's house is on fire, or whatever it may be and there's a fire station a hundred yards away with a perfectly good fire engine sitting in it and the soldiers can't get there in their ancient old Green Goddess so their house burns down or somebody gets killed, you must have thought that. Even if it upsets the Fire Brigades Union, even if you cross a picket line, it's worth doing. RAYNSFORD: Well we are extremely worried about the situation because as I've said on many occasions and as Andy Gilchrist has also recognised, there is a risk that people's lives will be lost unnecessarily, that's why we say the Fire Brigades Union should now be calling off this unnecessary strike, should be waiting for the conclusions of the Bain Review and then should sit down to discuss with the employers, the Local Authorities, the implementation of recommendations that come from the Bain Review. HUMPHRYS: Very quick thought, the police cannot go on strike, for very obvious reasons, should you change the law so that fire officers, fire fighters cannot go on strike as well? RAYNSFORD: We have no plans to do so.. HUMPHRYS: Shouldn't you? RAYNSFORD: ...but it is of course interesting when comparisons are made between the levels of pay that apply in different services, that that element isn't taken into account. HUMPHRYS: Are you prepared to consider introducing legislation that would make fire fighters' strikes illegal? RAYNSFORD: Not at the present time because we hope that commonsense will prevail, the fire fighters will not go on strike. HUMPHRYS: Not at the present time but you might at some stage in the future. RAYNSFORD: We have no plans to do so. HUMPHRYS: A final thought from you Mr Gilchrist. You are actually prepared to go ahead for a strike, for a forty per cent increase in pay that could put people's lives at risk, I mean that's what it comes down to isn't it. GILCHRIST: We have always expressed a view that this was entirely avoidable and when the government reflects it might regret where we are. We could have negotiated a position on pay with our employers and then jointly, with our employers, could have come to the government and made the argument for funding. That's the right way to resolve this issue, it would have been, however the government involvement made that impossible. HUMPHRYS: Gentlemen, thank you both very much indeed. GILCHRIST: Thank you John. RAYNSFORD: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.