Firefighters' 5.6% pay rise worries brigades

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT'S tough policy towards public sector pay was undermined yesterday when 50,000 firefighters were awarded a pay rise of 5.6 per cent - more than twice the 2.5 per cent inflation rate.

The increase, triggered by the fire-fighters' automatic pay mechanism, will prove a major embarrassment to ministers who are insisting that wage rises for state employees should not exceed inflation.

It will also cause massive problems for fire brigades all over Britain which have set aside funds for maximum 3.5 per cent increase. The award will add pounds 48m to the annual pay bill of pounds 868m.

Attempts to cut back on services over the past four years to finance pay rises and cope with rising costs have lead to industrial action in a number of areas, including Merseyside and Essex.

Councillor Lawrence Conlon, the chairman of authorities set up specifically to deal with fire services, said the settlement was pounds 13m more than could be afforded. "To meet the extra costs, authorities will either have to make cuts, make even more efficiency savings, cut other local authority services - or do all three."

Councillor Tony Ritchie, the chairman of local councils which control their own fire brigades, called for urgent talks with the Fire Brigades' Union. "This is not a situation which can go on indefinitely without adversely affecting the front-line service to the public. I want to discuss with the union how we can get greater efficiency into the service. Firefighters' pay must not imperil public safety," Mr Ritchie said.

In Scotland, employers would have "great difficulty" in meeting the award, according to Councillor Jane Mitchell, Mr Ritchie's counterpart.

Ken Cameron, the general secretary of the FBU, pointed out that the Audit Commission found that the fire service was already the most efficient in the public sector. "We don't believe there is any room for more cuts," he said.

The firefighters' wage rise, which is due to be paid on 7 November, will take the wages of qualified employees from pounds 18,678 a year to pounds 19,725.

Their wages are partly tied to the upper quartile of manual earnings under a formula established more than 20 years ago in settlement of their first - and last - nationwide strike. Last year, fire brigades staff received an increase of 4.8 per cent, also comfortably outstripping inflation.

The only other major group of public sector workers whose pay is tied to a formula is the police, who recently received an increase of 4 per cent.

Representatives of 1.3 million local authority staff are demanding increases of 5 per cent or pounds 500, whichever is the greater.

Leaders of 500,000 nurses and midwives are seeking increases of no less than 9 per cent in their submission to an official pay review body. Teaching unions, which represent around 500,000 employees, want a "double figure" rise and have warned of possible industrial action.

Doctors and dentists at the National Health Service are looking for 10 per cent at least.

At the TUC last month, the Government came under fire from the public service union Unison over its strategy towards public sector pay. Ministers were warned that their austere approach to wages was leading to "demoralisation" among public servants and a sense of unfairness.

Unison is urging ministers to recognise "the pressing and urgent need" for higher levels of public spending to ensure quality services.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, the general secretary of the union, has warned that his members will eventually resort to industrial action unless the Cabinet addresses the problems.