Resetting the relationship between local and national government. Read our Local Government White Paper

December 2020: Are recent criticisms of the Fire Service negotiating machinery fair?

In our December blog Cllr Nick Chard asks whether the traditional collective bargaining mechanisms of the National Joint Council can help to deliver a modern fire and rescue service.

A photograph of Councillor Chard

There has been recent discussion about whether current collective bargaining arrangements may no longer be appropriate if we want to modernise Fire and Rescue Services. However, during this difficult year, the National Joint Council (NJC) for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services has again proven its worth: quickly putting in place arrangements to support communities in responding to the challenges of COVID-19 while continuing to negotiate affordable changes to pay and terms and conditions. Councillor Nick Chard wonders whether the problem isn’t the NJC, but rather our lack of understanding of what its role and achievements are.

The National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue services (NJC) is a UK-wide collective bargaining body where employer and employee representatives negotiate. Its remit covers pay and terms of conditions for some 48,500 uniformed employees of Fire and Rescue authorities (FRAs) ranging from firefighters to middle managers.

Councillors play a vital role in this work, making up the majority of the fourteen National Employer seats on the NJC. The National Employers are separate from the Local Government Association (LGA) and the role of employer members is to negotiate with employee representatives to seek agreement on matters of pay and terms & conditions and other industrial relations matters. The four stakeholder bodies and their representation on the National Employers are the LGA (nine members), the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (two members), the Welsh Local Government Association (one member) and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Services Board (one member). The National Employers are supported by the Advisory Forum, this is a body of 14 operational experts covering senior operational management, finance, legal and HR professionals from fire and rescue services across the UK.

The NJC has come under increasing levels of scrutiny and criticism in recent years. As with any institution, the NJC is not perfect and has never pretended to be, nonetheless I firmly believe it currently delivers value for money for fire authorities and their local communities, whilst also maintaining excellent employee and employer representation.

One of the most recent criticisms is from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) in England. Their ‘State of Fire 2019’ report asked if the ‘NJC is no longer fit for purpose’ and suggests that moving to a pay review body might be best for the sector; would this be an improvement? Aside from the fact that the NJC’s remit goes well beyond pay, the benefits of this current model of negotiating machinery have many advantages, some well-known and others that are less well-known.

One of those is affordability. The overarching message received by the National Employers’ when they consulted with UK Fire and Rescue services about a pay award this year was that though we would all like to see our firefighters paid more for the vital work that they do, fire and rescue authorities could not afford the level of increase suggested by the majority of pay review bodies (one of the alternative pay mechanisms that have been suggested). Subsequently, a settlement agreement was reached at an affordable level. A pay review body would also have excluded both employer and employee representatives from the decision-making process, and many services would now be having to balance a larger pay uplift with already mounting budgetary pressures. This is why I believe that pay bargaining should remain as close and in touch with the service as possible.

As previously mentioned, the remit of the NJC goes beyond annual pay settlements and terms and conditions, in fact the NJC has played a key role in improving industrial relations within the fire service and delivering local as well as national outcomes. It has undertaken joint conciliation on a substantial number of issues where agreement could not be reached by local parties. Due to the confidential nature of many of these localised industrial relations disputes much of this vital work sadly flies under the radar but is substantial nonetheless; for example, in the last three years NJC conciliatory assistance has been provided to FRSs across 37 separate issues.

Another, often unfair, criticism of the NJC is that it can be slow to react and slow to achieve change, however in March at the start of the pandemic both sides of the NJC, employers’ and employees’ (FBU), entered into a Tripartite Agreement with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC). We were able to quickly secure the necessary temporary changes to firefighters’ terms and conditions to support the NHS, Ambulance Service and other partners to help our communities. Throughout the course of this national emergency, firefighters across the country have assisted the emergency service response with a range of important additional activities such as driving ambulances, delivering PPE and medical supplies, taking samples for antigen testing, providing infection control training to NHS staff and care home workers and sadly, even assisting with the movement of bodies. All of these vital activities have helped to relieve pressure and free up important resource elsewhere in the healthcare system and continue to be available.

Reflecting on some of these criticisms of the NJC it is clear that more can and will be done to communicate the breadth and wider value of the NJC’s work and make it even more effective and relevant. All members of the NJC are committed to ensuring the importance of the body, its functions and its benefits are promoted more widely. Far from being an obstacle to change, there are many instances where the NJC has actually facilitated the change that is required at local level through its dispute resolution work. Across the UK, the NJC ensures stability, a consistency of approach and removes the need to unnecessarily duplicate effort at a much-increased cost.

You can keep up to date with our work and any agreements reached for the fire service online and by subscribing to the LGA’s monthly Workforce e-bulletin on our website.