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Pressure building on Merseyside councillors to stop fire service cuts
Firefighters on Merseyside are resisting further devastating cuts to the fire and rescue service being implemented by the Labour-run fire authority as it passes on Tory government funding cuts. £1.9 million is being cut back by closing fire stations during nights, while £25 million is held in the reserves of the fire authority and £100,000 a year is spent on a 'scab army' to undermine the Fire Brigades Union (FBU)!
The 60-odd attendees at the Merseyside FBU's campaign launch public meeting were outraged at this. As FBU regional secretary Mark Rowe explained, the fire service locally was in a pretty poor state going into 2010 after six years of New Labour attacking and deregulating the service.
Since 2010 the cuts have been devastating, "now way beyond crisis point", said Mark, with firefighter numbers by 2020 to fall from 927 to 580, engines from 42 to 22, six stations already closed and five to be shut overnight.
Already fire deaths locally have trebled, with smaller fire crews now facing even more dangerous situations.
Firefighters have tried to help the fire authority deal with the government cutbacks, voluntarily going to 12-hour-day shift patterns they didn't want, doing more community work on fire safety, taking shorter breaks and a voluntary pay cut that takes salaries below the national rates, and changing working practices to keep specialist appliances running. The response of the fire authority has been to take all this and demand more.
"The cuts are government led but we're angry that despite everything we've done that Merseyside Fire Authority have seen fit to attack our terms and conditions, the Labour controlled fire authority has refused to honour national agreements on overtime payments. We say to them, pay the overtime rates and get the engines back on the run."
To add insult to injury, in Greater Manchester the metro-mayor Andy Burnham eventually stepped in with extra funds to resolve a similar situation, but on Merseyside there is no sign of such a shift from the fire authority.
Instead the fire authority has imposed night-time closure on Crosby, Aintree and Kensington fire stations, and intends to close Liverpool city centre and Wallasey fire stations overnight from the near future.
Since 2006, over £1 million has been spent by the fire authority on payments to a scab army, inducements to people to undermine the Fire Brigades Union.
The fire authority at all points has been a Labour-run body, but has behaved worse than some Tory authorities. The current Labour chair of the fire authority was a Tory councillor in the past, before crossing the floor to Labour!
Mark reported that the West Midlands fire authority backed down on changes to contracts after a 90% vote by firefighters for industrial action. "It's not too much to ask for, from a Labour-run fire authority", said Mark, that it abides by national agreements between employer and union. The cuts are government led but there is £25 million held in reserves.
Government guidelines for the proportion of reserves to be held have been reduced to 5%, yet the Merseyside fire authority reserves equal 40% of it's annual budget! The reserves should be spent on stopping and reversing the cuts, to make it safer for the public and firefighters.
Mark concluded by explaining the need to convince the 18 members of the fire authority to change tack, through lobbying, petitions and leaflets, and demonstrations.
Contributions from the floor mostly expressed rage at the councillors, especially in the wake of Grenfell, and the fire at the Echo Arena carpark in Liverpool which needed a turnout of firefighters from across the north-west to tackle due to the cutbacks already.
Socialist Party members spoke early and met with widespread agreement. Tony Mulhearn from Liverpool called on the fire authority councillors to resign and make way for people willing to conduct a struggle in defence of the FBU.
Mark Hazlehurst from Wirral Socialist Party reported that in six months of campaigning in Wallasey to keep the fire station open 24/7, over 2,000 petition signatures have been collected, "ramping up the pressure on the councillors", which has had an effect, with a motion opposing the downgrade put to the Labour-run council by one of the fire authority Labour councillors!
Mark called for strong local campaigns in every community where a station is threatened, to build big public meetings, and get posters in every shop window: "With universal public support, let's harness that".
Fifteen of the 18 councillors on the authority are Labour, with seven of those up for re-election next year, and so reselection as candidates this year, including the fire authority chair. "Let's write to those councillors and their wards asking them to outline their position", said Mark, "and if they won't then we should move to deselect them or stand against them in next May's elections."
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 6 July 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.