Firefighters issue strike threat as pay deal falters

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The Independent Online

Britain faced the threat of fresh industrial action by firefighters yesterday as the deal that ended last year's strikes fell apart.

Britain faced the threat of fresh industrial action by firefighters yesterday as the deal that ended last year's strikes fell apart.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) suspended its annual conference on its opening day as delegates were urged to campaign for a new round of disruption, after talks on a 3.5 per cent productivity payment failed to reach agreement.

The 300-strong conference in Bridlington, North Yorkshire, voted overwhelmingly to adjourn for a month and to withdraw from a programme of modernisation, which had been agreed as part of a package to end nationwide stoppages.

The postponement gives union and management four weeks to negotiate a deal and avoid an FBU decision to scrap its link with the Labour Party.

Andy Gilchrist, the general secretary of the union, said the exact date of the new assembly was yet to be fixed. It is thought it will take place after the local elections on 10 June, a particularly sensitive time for Labour.

Management argues that the main point at issue was the union's refusal to negotiate over "stand-down'' time. Fire authorities are seeking the ability to force staff to undertake non-emergency work between midnight and 7am. At the moment firefighters normally only respond to 999 calls between those times.

Mr Gilchrist said the issue was not really about stand-down time, it was more to do with "management wanting to tell us what to do just because they can''.

He said fire chiefs were unable to find duties for staff to perform in the early hours of the morning. Mr Gilchrist said that employees were allowed to sleep because they are often on duty 30 hours out of 39. "Sometimes firefighters are called upon to work at extreme levels of exertion.''

Christina Jebb, chair of the fire service employers, said it was important that staff were able to respond to the 24-hour society. She said that management could not tolerate stand-down time as a national right.

John Ransford, a senior official at the Local Government Association, argued that the gap between the union and management was "very narrow". However he said the union's decision to withdraw from the modernisation process could jeopardise the next stage of the agreement.

The latest dispute between the union and employers arose after marathon sessions of negotiation on 5 and 7 May. The FBU had demanded that management agree terms by yesterday, but a letter from Phil White, a senior fire authority negotiator, failed to appease employees' representatives.

The emergency motion passed by delegates yesterday condemned employers for their lack of urgency that risked "derailing the entire modernisation process''.

The resolution said there would now be no agreement on the implementation of new duty systems and additional responsibility allowances.

Union delegates resolved to consult the FBU's 50,000 membership over the next month. This will be followed by a vote to hold a ballot on industrial action when the conference is reconvened.