For over a decade, firefighters have been at the forefront of the fight by trade unions and their allies against austerity cuts imposed from on high by successive Tory governments. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has vowed to continue the resistance after the chancellor’s latest attack.
Rishi Sunak rebuffed the union’s claim for urgent investment in the fire and rescue services, and froze public sector pay in his autumn statement last month. This is the same man who has failed to declare his family’s extraordinary wealth on the official register.
Akshata Murty, who married Sunak in 2009, has, according to a special investigation, shares in the technology giant Infosys worth £430m. Murty and her family are also involved in a £900m-a-year joint venture with Amazon in India. The ministerial register, however, just mentions Sunak’s wife and only refers to her ownership of a small venture capital company.
The FBU’s demand are a drop in the ocean by comparison with Sunak’s family wealth. The FBU had demanded money to deliver at least an additional 5,000 firefighters to protect the public from the increasing risks of mass flooding and wildfires driven by climate change, terrorism and the dangers posed by a crisis in building safety.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, called the move to freeze public sector pay “a cold hard slap in the face”. Accounting for inflation, a firefighter’s pay is now £4,000 lower in real terms than in 2010, and there are now over 11,000 fewer firefighters – one fifth of the workforce – than in 2010. Central funding for the fire service has been reduced by almost a third.
Wrack condemned the chancellor for failing to deliver the levels of funding that the service needs after a decade of austerity. “Going into the new year we know we have a battle on our hands to rebuild our service and protect our members from further attacks on their terms and conditions”, he said.
In an interview, he said the incidence of fires and floods had increased in recent years owing to climate breakdown. “The climate crisis is clearly the question of the age, it’s about the survival of humanity ultimately,” he said. “But I think the test about whether the government is serious about the issue is about what it does about those who are asked to face the impacts of climate change.”
And he added: “As the climate continues to warm, and the environment faces further collapse, it is clear to us that our first line of defence, the fire and rescue service, needs more investment, starting with the recruitment of at least 5,000 frontline firefighters in the next year.”
10 years of resistance to the cuts—firefighters campaign for a service fit for the new demands on the service from climate breakdown—and for decent pay and pensions
The FBU has also joined the TUC campaign to get the government to drop its proposals to scrap the funding for the Union Learning Fund which allows retiring and injured union members to expand their skills and re-employment prospects.
In a statement the union said: “At a time when the country is on the brink of mass unemployment, and when ministers themselves are talking about the need for upskilling and retraining, it would be ludicrous to cut one of the most effective programmes allowing workers to expand their skillset.
“For twenty-two years, the Union Learning Fund has provided crucial training and guidance to thousands of firefighters. For injured and retiring firefighters, it’s a vital means of gaining new skills with courses offered in digital skills, health and social care, and fitness and nutrition.
“The programme makes life changing improvements to learner’s income and huge productivity benefits for employers, all while providing a lucrative return on investment for the Treasury.
“Scrapping the fund would blatantly place partisan politics over sensible policymaking.”
Photos and report: Peter Arkell