Essex fire commissioner predicts strikes in face of pay row

Firefighters are likely to walk out on strike over a dispute over pay, the fire commissioner for Essex has said.

But Roger Hirst, Police Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, has said he is content with the Essex Fire and Rescue Service (EFRS) contingency plans that he says will provide a minimum level of service should firefighters strike.

Mr Hirst’s comments come after the FBU announced that more than 80 per cent of its members who voted backed strike action across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland when they were balloted last month.

The FBU said it would delay announcing any strike dates until after it had met the individual fire and rescue services scheduled for February 8 when it hoped to receive a revised pay offer.

Mr Hirst said: “I think there will be a strike. I think it will be different from previous ones. I think we will manage to treat each other with respect.

“And I think after that we will find some way of coming to an agreement. But at the moment I think the FBU have the momentum toward strike action.”

Mr Hirst said EFRS could afford a nine per cent pay increase – made up of a backdated pay offer of five per cent for 2022/23, in addition to a four per cent potential offer likely to be offered for 2023/24 – which he said comes “pretty close to where inflation is”.

But he said pay above that is not affordable.

He said: “There comes a point where if they want more than five and four we have to talk about how we achieve productivity increases. What I don’t want to do is to cut the service to the public.”

The earliest likely date for any action would be February 23. If the strike goes ahead, it will be the first nationwide walkout over pay in 20 years.

Any pay increase would likely mostly come from the extra revenue being proposed from a precept increase of £4.95 (or 6.57 per cent) for the 2023/4 financial year for a property in Band D. It means the precept payable for a Band D Council Tax property is set to increase from £75.33 to £80.28.

Mr Hirst said: “I think the next round of discussions with the FBU will be that we offered five per cent for this year, we can offer four per cent for next year. Both of those we can do without cutting the service and without reducing the number of firefighters.

“Nine per cent is pretty close to where inflation is. If inflation comes down in the year ahead that will be a reasonable deal. If the prime minister achieves what he says with inflation, that is quite a good place to be, if he doesn’t then it is going to be difficult.”

A statement for members of the Essex Police, Fire and Crime Panel, due to discuss the proposed precept increases, said: “There has been no agreement reached with Grey Book Staff in respect of the 2022/23 pay award. This budget includes the costs of the five per cent pay offer that was made in 2022/23. If a final agreement is made that is above the five per cent offer previously made, then this would create an unfunded year on year financial pressure.

“Pay cost for 2023/24 are budgeted based on a four per cent pay award. Negotiations on the pay settlement will take place at the National Joint Council (NJC) and agreements made in excess of this amount would create further unfunded year on year pressures.

“Included within the 2023/24 budget is £400,000 for the creation of a local cost of living allowance. If the national pay settlements exceed the budgeted amounts, this would impact upon the affordability of being able to offer any specific local cost of living allowance.”

Jamie Newell, FBU executive council member for the eastern region, argued members have already rejected a proposed five per cent increase when balloted in October last year.

He said: “Roger Hirst needs to go back to the National Joint Council and the Home Office and come up with more money because it is not enough for what firefighters have already suffered over the past 12 years.”

On the likelihood of any strike action he said: “We are quite clear we wouldn’t call any strike action for 10 days and we have invited employers back to a meeting due to take place on February 8 and we told them to make a revised and improved offer.

“Any offer in circulation is not acceptable.

“We are expecting them to come back with a revised offer. So it is not a foregone conclusion that we will be calling strike action but if they do not come back with an improved offer then strike dates will be set.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter