Yesterday the members of the fire authority – LFEPA – rejected a recommendation from fire commissioner Ron Dobson that in future they withhold a full day’s pay for firefighters who strike for part of a shift.
The proposal – which opponents label a ‘lock out’ and supporters describe as not rewarding ‘partial performance’ – is about as controversial as they come.
A number of members have concerns that adopting the policy would drag LFEPA into the middle of a dispute between their staff and the Government, which is seeking to change the rules on when firefighters can retire, and leave the authority with heavily poisoned staff relations long after the pensions row is over.
The meeting was held because Boris again used his power to order the authority around to instructed them to consider the proposal as a way of limiting the financial cost – so far £10m – of any further industrial action.
Much of that cost stems from the way emergency cover has to be bought in from the private sector – LFEPA’s contractor will only provide services on the basis of a 12 hour shift yet the strikes only last 2 hours with walkouts staged over a number of shifts.
This means that for much of a strike day the authority is effectively paying two sets of wages.
Dobson’s report says: “The objective of short periods of discontinuous strike action appears to be aimed at maximising the inconvenience and cost to the employer whilst limiting the financial impact on those taking strike action.
“The effect of this action is that when spread over 4 shifts the financial impact per employee is relatively modest and can more readily be sustained over a lengthy period of time.
“This is reflected in the high number of short duration strike periods called and the relatively low level of time and pay lost per FBU member.”
One of the few bits of common ground at yesterday’s meeting was that firefighters who aren’t going to be paid for any of their shift if they refuse to work part of it won’t turn up to work at all on the day in question.
Opponents of the ‘no pay’ proposal claim this could lead to periods of up to eight days – the longest run of mini-walkouts – where Londoners only had the most basic, private sector fire cover.
Supporters privately express the view that it’s unlikely firefighters would hold long periods of consecutive strikes because they’d lose far more money than is currently the case.
Yesterday’s meeting heard both from Dobson and the FBU’s Paul Embery.
Both set out their positions and answered questions from members but from where I was sitting it didn’t seem like anyone had really turned up with the intention allowing the exchanges to change their mind.
Tory members of the authority were never going to vote against the commissioner’s proposals and there was no chance that Labour – who these days are far closer to the FBU than was ever the case when they chaired the authority and ran City Hall – were ever going to be persuaded by his answers.
Indeed, they’d already issued a statement the previous night declaring their intention to “fight against the move”.
It’s perfectly fair to make up your mind in advance of a meeting, and on an issue like this there’s enough evidence, claims and past experience to allow anyone to take an informed decision.
But why then engage in a hour-long charade of asking questions as if you really care about the answers or have any intention of letting them alter your position?
The low point of the meeting was yet another Labour inference that Dobson, who’d previously been against withholding pay for partial performance, had had his mind changed after a quiet chat with the Mayor.
The same claims that he leans whichever way the Mayor tells him to were made during the ill-tempered debate over the closure of fire stations as part of London Safety Plan 5.
It’s been suggested to me that the bruising experience of passing LSP5 and the repeated accusations from his own employers that he’s been politically compromised played at least some part in his recent decision to retire.
Dobson insists that, whether the Mayor had requested LFEPA reconsider the issue or not, the threat to the authority’s finances from covering the strike means he’d eventually have to bring forward a report and make the same recommendation, much as he didn’t want to do either.
Members were told that now or at some point in the future they’d have to take action to address the cost of the strikes already held and any – though there’s no immediate prospect of more – yet to come.
The Labour response to this was to use the Brigade’s reserves – already much depleted after Boris repeatedly raided them in his first term against the wishes of then LEFPA chair Brian Coleman.
The union suggested lobbying the Mayor or Government for more cash while the Tories insisted that you had to make tough decisions and live within your allocated budget.
Everyone was so busy grandstanding that no-one bothered asking the commissioner to come back with alternative proposals to plug the budget gap.
In the end the non-Tory majority won the vote but everyone in the room knows it’s only a matter of time before Boris gets out his note pad and issues another Mayoral Direction ordering them to adopt the proposal.
We’ll then get another expensive public meeting at which the same soundbites will be rehearsed before one group or other calls for a named vote – literally making each member publicly declare ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – with the intention of shaming their opponents.
If they follow the LSP5 voting pattern, most Labour, Green and LibDem members will vote against while a few will abstain to ensure the authority complies with Boris’s instructions purely on the votes of Tory members.
We’ll then get Labour press releases about how Boris has affronted democracy by overruling LFEPA – ignoring that it was their government who gave him the power to do so – and how he’s placed Londoners in danger.
The Mayor will in turn claim that he’s been forced to step in and take action because those appointed to do so are shirking from their duty to London taxpayers to run a balanced budget.
There’s no doubt that Boris is deliberately goading the self-styled ‘opposition’ group on the authority into creating circumstances in which he can intervene in its business.
Every time he does so it’s evidence he can point to in support of his proposed change in LFEPA’s composition.
But it’s also clear that many Labour members, all of whom are either councillors or London Assembly members, have forgotten what their purpose on the body is.
In response to the Government’s consultation on Boris’s reforms the Labour London Assembly group claimed LFEPA was there “to act as a democratic check on the Mayor”.
During yesterday’s meeting Labour members referred to themselves as “scrutineers” of the Mayor and within minutes of the vote issued a press release declaring that “opposition members” had voted down the commissioner’s proposals.
The law is very clear on this issue – LFEPA exists to run and maintain the fire brigade. It is not a council chamber where you have an executive and an opposition and it plays no part in scrutinising, checking or holding the Mayor to account.
That job falls to the Assembly and while some members sit on both bodies their roles on each aren’t inter-swappable.
And the commissioner whose integrity so many members like to question is not the personal puppet of the Mayor but their employee.
Most of the members who oppose LSP5 and opposed yesterday’s proposal also oppose the Mayor’s LFEPA reforms.
But if they’re so poorly informed about the authority’s role and are so unwilling to consider any proposal they think is a ‘win’ for a Tory Mayor what’s the point of them continuing to sit on the body and slow down its decision making?
At one point amidst the talk of strike breaking and ‘lock outs’ one Tory councillor decried the use of 1950’s language.
But LFEPA with its lack of accountability, poorly attended, non-webcast meetings and confused, splintered membership is itself increasingly looking like a dysfunctional relic from the 50’s.
Reform isn’t just desirable but essential to ensure the body refocusses on its sole job – to provide and maintain a fire service for Londoners – and drops the squabbling and political point scoring which is undermining senior officers in front of their subordinates.