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29 October 2014

Fighting fire with fire: the government’s irresponsible approach to this week’s strike

This government wants to bear down on the rights of unions to take industrial action generally, and clearly want to limit the right of firefighters to strike.

By FIona Twycross

It might sound naïve but like many people following the fire pensions’ dispute, including many within the fire service and within the Fire Brigades Union; I had genuinely believed that the change of mood music since the change of Fire Minister meant that a deal was on the table. This was in fact because it had been suggested that this was the case by the fire minister herself. I know this because I heard her say it myself.

OK, so the person who tweeted me to say he would never trust this government was right. However, my view is that the Fire Minister, Penny Mordaunt, was plausible on this point because I think she believed it herself. It is not clear what happened within the Department of Communities and Local Government or between DCLG and the Treasury that meant she could not deliver a deal. As a result of misleading the firefighters, directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, she has irreparably damaged her reputation with them. She will never be trusted by firefighters, or the unions that represent them, again.

On the basis of taking her suggestion that she was going to try to get the best deal for firefighters at face value, the FBU had not undertaken industrial action since August. It is clear that offering nothing new and then laying new pensions regulations in Parliament on Monday have triggered an anger on the part of firefighters that means that the dispute that has already lasted well over a year, with 46 periods of strike so far, is likely to continue for some time.

The presence of alternative, better offers on firefighter pensions in all three devolved areas of the UK – first Scotland, then Northern Ireland and this week Wales, makes a rapid resolution of the dispute even less likely.

I don’t think the timing, or the lack of offer, in the government announcement is coincidental. This government wants to bear down on the rights of unions to take industrial action generally and clearly want to limit the right of firefighters to strike. The current consultation by Adrian Thomas, ostensibly about terms and conditions but straying in to questions about the right for firefighters to take industrial action, confirms this suspicion. A descent in to a protracted dispute suits this aim.

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It was completely irresponsible of a government to intentionally time an announcement – in the full knowledge that it would trigger a strike – eight days before the weekend between Halloween and Bonfire Night, when firefighters legally have to give seven days’ notice to strike.

However, the problem for the government so far in this dispute is that the public has consistently backed the firefighters. So engineering a situation in which the FBU is put in the position where a strike was unavoidable at the point it appeared some sections of the union were losing their appetite to strike is either incompetence or Machiavellian. We may never know which but this government is spoiling for a fight and it increasingly looks like they will get one.

Fiona Twycross AM is the London Assembly Labour Group spokesperson on fire, economy and welfare (and food)