Trade Union Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) (TUB 52)

Trade Union Bill Committee

This is the Fire Brigades Union’s written submission to the Trade Union Bill Committee. The FBU is the authoritative, professional voice of firefighters across the UK. The union represents the vast majority of 50,000 firefighters in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including wholetime (full-time) and retained (part-time, on-call) operational firefighters and control staff. The fire and rescue service is an indispensable public service, a public good rightly held in high esteem by the taxpayers who fund it and who receive a first-class service.

1. General comments to the committee

The government is proposing extensive restrictions on trade unions and their members without a thorough consultation or evidence-based recommendations supporting legislative change. To date, the government has failed to publish a full impact assessment of all the measures in the bill. Whilst impact assessments have been published relating to the balloting thresholds, restrictions on pickets and protests and the proposed removal of the ban on the use of agency workers during strikes, these have been roundly criticised by the Regulatory Policy Committee as ‘not fit for purpose’ conclusions.

The government’s impact assessment cites the FBU’s conduct and tactics during 2010 shifts dispute as an example of why new legislation to govern industrial action is required. It draws heavily upon the 2014 Carr Review which presented an unbalanced account of what actually happened and why the dispute arose in the first place. Indeed, by the authors own admission, the report does not include proposals or recommendations for change "… due to the increasingly political environment within which [he] was operating coupled with the lack of a significant enough body of evidence to support any recommendations for change". It is extremely disingenuous that the report has been portrayed by the government as evidence-based judgment.

Following the second reading, the public bill committee convened to conduct detailed examination of the bill. The FBU is disappointed that the two days allocated to the committee to take oral evidence from witnesses were not effectively utilised. The committee wasted a significant amount of time questioning government witnesses from organisations with tenuous links to the bills remit, who were unfamiliar with the bills contents and whose evidence was clearly of limited value to the committee. In contrast, key stakeholders representing millions of workers whose rights this bill threatens to diminish, were allocated shared slots and permitted only limited opportunity to give evidence on the proposals.

London Fire Brigade (LFB) Commissioner Ron Dobson spoke at length during his evidence to the committee about the FBU’s 2010 dispute with LFB in an attempt to justify provisions in the bill on picketing that threaten civil liberties. Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the FBU, spent much of his time – and indeed, the time permitted to the representatives of the four other unions who shared the slot – responding to statements made by Mr Dobson. Matt Wrack endeavoured to put the 2010 dispute into context and correct some of the inaccurate impressions which had been made in earlier evidence.

Given the weight that the government has attributed to fire and rescue services disputes, the FBU believe further comments and clarifications would be of value to the committee.

2. Fire and rescue service disputes

2010 LFB dispute: background

The dispute in 2010 between the LFB and FBU arose as a consequence of local measures to change shift patterns which would be introduced separately by each fire and rescue service. Regrettably, the LFB threatened to sack all 5,600 firefighters in order to impose a new shift system. Firefighters were outraged by this management bullying and voted to take industrial action.

2010 LFB dispute: striking

The FBU commenced strike action in October 2010 following a ballot where 79% voted in favour of strike action. Firefighters rightly picketed fire stations and fire service headquarters when they were threatened with the sack and the potential loss of their livelihoods. No FBU members were arrested, prosecuted or convicted on account of this action.

When the committee asked Mr Dobson if, to his knowledge, any arrests were made during the dispute, he said no. FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack addressed this inaccuracy in his evidence session, confirming that in fact two arrests were made - of an agency worker and a non-striking London Fire Brigade manager, both of whom drove into striking firefighters on picket lines in separate incidents. It is surprising that Mr Dobson appeared to be unaware of the arrests given that his own authority paid compensation to two FBU members who were injured in these incidents.

2010 LFB dispute: agreement

In December 2010, FBU members voted to agree revised LFB proposals on shift changes and further planned strikes were called off. As the Carr Review noted, the new proposals and their acceptance was the result of "compromise on both sides". [1]

Effective negotiations between unions and employers rely on equal bargaining power. This fire and rescue service dispute demonstrates that the ability of unions to organise lawful industrial action ensures that employers take the views of the workforce seriously and engage in genuine negotiations.

2013-14 fire and rescue services pensions dispute

The government’s reliance on allegations stemming from the 2010-11 dispute as the rationale for new legislation to govern industrial action is further undermined by progress made in relations during more recent disputes.

In 2013-14, national industrial action took place with strikes taking place across England and Wales in response to the government’s proposals to raise the normal pension age of firefighters from 55 to 60. Despite the fact that there were substantially more strikes, there were substantially fewer allegations made by both sides as acknowledged by Mr Dobson during his evidence session.

The Carr Review found that the LFB had learned lessons from previous strikes and attributed the improvement to better contingency planning. [2] This achievement demonstrates quite clearly that relations can – and did - improve without recourse to legislation. As we have set out, Mr Dobson’s evidence is disputed by the FBU but, in any case, does not provide support for the proposals within the bill.

3. Additional comments on the trade union bill proposals

Thresholds for industrial action ballots

The government have proposed to introduce a series of arbitrary turnout requirements, so that even where a majority of those participating vote for industrial action, at least half of eligible members have to have voted. Firefighters and those who work in "Important public services" will also have to meet an additional threshold and prove that 40% of those entitled to vote support strike action.

The FBU has met these thresholds in its recent ballots, as acknowledged by Mr Dobson and by the government in their impact assessment. Nevertheless the union does not accept these requirements should be laid down in law. These restriction have no basis in domestic or international law or in other voting systems. The threshold and the selected sectors mostly reflects the government actual intention – expressed in its impact assessment – of reducing the number of days "lost" to strikes by two-thirds.

The FBU is disappointed that this government and its predecessors have rejected trade union proposals to improve turnout such as electronic voting. As Matt Wrack highlighted in his evidence session, many membership organisations - including both the Conservative Party and Labour Party - use electronic and online balloting for their internal elections. [3] The government’s reluctance to afford trade unions the same option indicates that turnout is not the central issue in these proposals, but merely a ruse to prevent strikes and undermine workers’ rights.

Furthermore, the government’s proposals to make it harder to lawfully strike will undermine effective industrial relations in the UK. Effective negotiations between unions and employers rely on effective bargaining power. Fire and rescue service disputes demonstrate that the ability of unions to organise lawful industrial action ensures that employers take the views of the workforce seriously and engage in genuine negotiations. The introduction of ballot thresholds will inevitably divert time and efforts away from finding an amicable settlement. Unions will take more time in the run up to ballots, to ensure the necessary turnout whilst employers will have no incentive to seek an early resolution of a dispute as many will wait and see if a union can meet the strike thresholds before making a revised offer.

Limits of facility time

The government is seeking to limit the amount of time union workplace reps can spend representing members in the public sector. These proposals will undermine unions’ ability to effectively protect their member’s interests by negotiating on pay and condition, raising safety standards and ensuring access to skills and training. The government have failed to consult on these proposals or publish and impact assessment.

Making facility time harder to obtain will simply store up a backlog of problems for employers. It will breed resentment with employees at the lack of representation on individual and collective matters, such as pay and conditions, collective bargaining, health and safety, grievances and disciplinary matters, bullying and harassment at work. It will worsen morale in workplaces and contribute to worsening industrial relations.

Firefighters’ safety will be directly threatened if this change comes into force. The FBU’s Serious Accident Investigations involve hundreds of hours of work by union reps to undertake careful investigations of firefighter fatalities and other serious incidents. Lessons are also learned from the work of safety reps on injuries and near misses. This work has been absolutely essential to UK firefighter safety over generations, making the fire and rescue service far safer for firefighters and for the public. Restricting time off for trade union reps puts this in jeopardy.

Limits on time off for trade union duties will also hit some of the wider progressive work that trade unionists are involved with, such as equalities campaigns and environmental campaigns. Some union reps have taken by these roles in the workplace and in their local communities, adding their valuable experience and also bringing important ideas into the workplace. Trade unionists are an authoritative voice for working people and restricting reps’ time off will diminish this valuable contribution. Not long ago, the Department for Business was lauding these roles (BERR, How Businesses Can Gain from Modern Union Representation, 2009).

Compulsory "opt-in" for individuals into the political fund every five years

The FBU uses our political fund to represent members’ views and champion the interests of firefighters through political campaigns. The FBU is currently an unaffiliated union and our political fund finances key political campaigns around the terms, conditions and safety of firefighters. Currently, members are balloted every ten years on whether to have a political fund and unions have always met these conditions. FBU members may opt not to pay into the political fund if they so choose. FBU members also have the option to instruct that their political fund cannot be used for the purpose of an affiliation to a political party (even though the FBU is not currently affiliated to any political party).

The government proposals will require union members to formally "opt-in" to the political fund every year. This will place huge administrative burdens on unions and negatively impact funding streams and member’s participation in the political system. Substantial behavioural economic evidence demonstrates that opt-in systems tends to result in reduced participation.

This measure is designed to reduce the funds available to trade unions for campaigning purposes and to reduce the voice of workers in politics. It is designed to reduce the revenue of trade unions and to prevent unions from representing members’ views in campaigns. It is indirectly an attempt by the Conservative Party to reduce funds donated by trade unions to the Labour Party – or indeed other parties.

Removing the ban on the use of agency workers to replace strikers

Alongside the bill, the government plans to introduce regulations removing the ban on the supply of agency workers during strike action. These proposals will undermine effective industrial relations in the UK for as Mr Dobson recognised, 'there are tensions when agency workers are used’. The 2010 FBU dispute considered above was unique in that it did relate to the use of agency workers. This was undoubtedly an important factor in the worsening of industrial relations in the London Fire Brigade. The evidence suggests that broadening this approach will substantially worsen industrial relations across the board.

Furthermore, these proposals pose genuine health and safety risks to agency workers, who could find themselves asked to deliver entire services or industries without the support, proper induction and direction from experience permanent staff.

The use of inexperienced temporary staff will also reduce the quality of services provided to the public. Concerns have been raised about the efficiency of contingency crews providing fire strike cover in recent years. In one incident that took place during the 2010 dispute, one resident reported that the contingency crew who attended the fire at her home in Enfield took 20 minutes to connect hoses to a street hydrant and that when they finally did begin to tackle the fire, they were unable to direct the water jets on target. [4] Previous strikes have exposed the dire contingency arrangements made by the brigade, leading to the union authorising members to leave picket lines to put out fires that agency staff were unable to accomplish

Firefighters are committed public servants and have always agreed to provide minimum levels of service to ensure that the public’s safety and health is protected. Whenever the FBU has organised strikes it has put arrangements in place in case of major emergencies. During strike action at Christmas 2013, firefighters in the South East of England voluntarily refrained from planned industrial action and left picket lines to assist with flood rescues. This was done with the national agreement of the union and the union and its members were thanked for their role by the then fire minister.

October 2015

[1] The Carr Report: The report of the independent review of the law governing industrial disputes (2014) p. 40

[2] Ibid. p41

[3] Report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy (2015)

[4] Evening standard ( 25 October 2010 ) p12

Prepared 28th October 2015