London Firefighters' Bonfire Night Strike Raises Safety Concerns

When Lord Young of Graffham announced that he would be lighting a ‘bonfire of red tape’ in his review of health and safety laws in the UK, few people expected a quite literal interpretation of his plans. Earlier this month, however, the Fire Brigades Union declared that its firefighters in London are preparing to strike for 47 hours starting on the 5th November – or Bonfire Night, as most Britons would refer to the date.

Although the strike comes in direct response to shift patterns imposed by the London Fire Brigade, Lord Young’s health and safety review remains an underlying cause of the action and an integral component of the overriding problem. The London Fire Brigade has implemented its new rota system in part to reduce costs, which is a consequence of the coalition Government’s assault on the public deficit. The Government’s drive to cut public spending has also helped to shape Lord Young’s review, which suggested that emergency service workers ought not to be able to rely on health and safety laws. At the same time as firefighters’ were campaigning for greater control over their working conditions, Lord Young proposed an end to their fundamental legal rights.

It ought to come as little surprise to the Government, therefore, that the Fire Brigades Union has opted to strike. The timing of the strike, however, falling as it does on Bonfire Night and the Diwali festival of lights, could not have been more cynically scheduled. In its desire to punish its firefighters’ employer, the Fire Brigades Union has ensured that public sympathy in London will be as dire as the potential health and safety consequences of a Bonfire Night without firefighters.

As Lord Young helps Government officials choose which provisions of health and safety law can be thrown on the bonfire to save public money, the Fire Brigades Union appears willing to risk public safety in order to preserve its own selfish interests. There is no other reason for staging a strike on Bonfire Night than to cause maximum disruption; in any such situation, the complainants’ fragile right to strike tends to be interpreted by the public as a desperate and misguided attempt to hold an employer hostage. In other words, as Fire Minister Bob Neill has publically stated, London firefighters have “shot themselves in the foot”.

Prime Minister David Cameron also criticised the timing of the strike. Mr Cameron said: “The public would not think this is a responsible way of conducting industrial action to choose this particular day for a strike. We will be doing everything we can to ameliorate the effects of the strike, but we do not think it’s responsible and I’m sure the public don’t think it’s a responsible course of action”.

Meanwhile, London Mayor Boris Johnson offered an unusually balanced and sensible response to the proposed strike. Mr Johnson stated: “There are solid contingency plans in place to deal with further firefighters strikes and Londoners should be confident that they can go ahead with their fireworks parties but, as always, take tried and tested precautions by following the Firework Code”.

It remains to be seen whether the firefighters’ strike will result in a surge of personal injury claims. Accident claims involving fireworks and out-of-control fires are common at the beginning of November, with statistics for 2009 suggesting that the London Fire Brigade was called out to 860 fire-related incidents, 224 of which occurred on Bonfire Night, in the first 10 days of November.

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