Don't panic, don't panic! There's no one in charge

simon jenkins

Who is in charge?

The key parties in the firefighters dispute have now gone head-to-head. The employers are eyeball-to-eyeball with John Prescott, who is face-to-face with Gordon Brown, who is fist-to-fist with Tony Blair. Mr Blair has summoned the Pensions Minister to supplant the Fire Minister to challenge the Defence Minister to confront the admiral to order the Army to put out the fires. Meanwhile the 4 per centers have given way to the 11 per centers, who are upstaged by the 16 per centers. The one-year dealers have lost out to the two-year dealers who are now in retreat before the three-year dealers.

On Monday a distraught Downing Street declared that its nominee for Fire Negotiator of the Week was to be Ian McCartney. When accosted, Mr McCartney said that, no, Mr Blair was in charge, or that Mr Prescott was in charge, or that someone called "the employers" were in charge. In other words, nobody is in charge.

Harold Macmillan used to boast that British government was "a Rolls-Royce". He had only to push this button or pull that lever and it purred to life. Not any more. The old banger is now a rust bucket. The conduct of the fire dispute suggests a vacuum at the heart of government. Not only was there no proper contingency for fire services in case of a strike - lest it "inflame things" - but there was no proper framework for negotiations. This is a pay dispute with no real employer.

Last week I wrote that a strike is no small matter. To understand its real motivation we must seek out the tribal loyalties that underpin it. The same is true of the bosses. They supposedly represent those who must pay, in this case taxpayers. They too have their habits of mind. As Lord Birkenhead said during the General Strike, "without exaggeration the miners' leaders were the stupidest men in England, had we not had frequent occasion to meet the mine owners".

Fire protection is something the public "buys" from others. In an American town, the fire station is its prized possession, alongside the high school and town hall. It is manned mostly by citizen volunteers, for whom fire training is a proud duty. The service is run by an elected committee and residents pay a local tax specifically for it. Crews are part-time. Such a system also obtains across much of Europe and is not regarded as ineffective or dangerous.

Not so in Britain. Fire services are bought by the public through local authorities which have been induced to treat them, like the police, as virtually a self-governing service. While rural forces have been mostly volunteers, urban fire brigades have long been fraternities under such left-wing leaders as Jim Bradley and John Horner. Andy Gilchrist is in that tradition. His website proudly boasts "the ultimate aim of bringing about the socialist system". What that has to do with fires is a mystery.

As the Bain report said, fire management is non-existent in Britain and "Spanish practices" therefore rife. The best roofing company in east Kent is owned and run by full-time firefighters. There are 40,000 of these, when there need probably be a third that number. Bills are simply passed over to local authorities and ticked by central government for grant purposes. Pay negotiations are conducted by a bizarre 29-strong National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades. This body is institutionally pacifist. It conceded the celebrated nocturnal shift system which has firemen doing the majority of their work during the relatively quiet nights and has made the job of firefighter the most coveted in the public sector.

Mr Gilchrist's 40 per cent "no strings" claim was a calculated gamble in that it pushed even the negotiating council to the limit and duly came to the attention of the Treasury. But rather than devolve fire services back to local communities and leave them to sort out the mess, Downing Street now says it wants to streamline the joint council and run things itself. Mr Blair at his Monday press conference put forward detailed staffing proposals which, in most firms, would be the job of the operations manager. Only in Britain are they a job for the Prime Minister.

Everyone is now running the Fire Service, or pretending to. There are impotent "employers". There is a Fire Minister, Nick Raynsford. Above him is Mr Prescott, who fancies himself as a negotiator. There is a minister for panic, Mr Blair in his Cobra bunker. There is a roaming Mr Fixit, Mr McCartney, said to be "good at unions". This army of monkeys came near to settling the strike on Thursday night, at 16 per cent. There would have been vague pledges from the unions to discuss modernisation and Mr Prescott would have declared a triumph for common sense.

This was stopped by the organ grinder, Gordon Brown. Facing a bill for the "transitional gap" of between £ 20 million and £ 40 million, he said no. He must be ruing the day last year that he promised a public sector spending splurge and condoned a massive (20 per cent) pay award to the Tube drivers. The knock-on bills are falling like snow on his desk.

Private sector pay awards are running at 2.5 per cent this year and falling. Public sector awards are at 3.5 per cent and rising. They are being propelled by Mr Brown's mad faith in two to four-year deals, formulated with no reference to the economy or state of the jobs market. With unemployment certain to rise, Mr Brown is trapped into deals of 10, 15 and 20 per cent. They get higher the nearer the recipients are to central government. The Treasury has settled 15 per cent over three years on its own Inland Revenue staff, and 10 per cent on politicians.

The mantra is that these deals are "funded by productivity". This is Mr Brown's version of James Callaghan's Social Contract of 1978-79. It is a device as old as the hills to appease particularly bloody-minded unions. The headline rate is what stimulates comparability. Union leaders now feel they are back to the "leapfrog years" and are naturally eager not to be upstaged by a new band of challengers for their jobs. There is now a real risk of union moderation appearing not to deliver the goods.

Workplace productivity is achieved not by Treasury bribery but by management, usually after a bruising dispute. It was tough management that reformed the car, steel and printing industries. The money came later. There is no management of the Fire Service. There is just a negotiating shambles and a Treasury thumbs up or down. Nobody in this Government has the guts to buy out the firefighters' night shifts, which would prompt a prolonged dispute. These shifts are not Mr Gilchrist's to sell. They are the basis of a firefighter's entire lifestyle and income pattern.

In an ideal world, most big city fire brigades should be replaced by new multi-tasked emergency crews, locally employed and financed. That must be the pattern for the future. Instead, Mr Brown wants a National Fire Service under his personal control, like the deeply conservative prison and hospital services. He cannot bear a corner of the public service whose every move is not recorded on his winking computer. He now has 26 different public sector deals on the boil, all with complex productivity deals over three years or more. It is the most intricate government incomes policy since the Heath Government's "phase one" in 1972. Its fate underpins Labour's whole fiscal strategy.

In which case at least go the whole hog. Mr Brown is the public sector employer of last resort. He is the boss. There is no point in having negotiating teams, junior ministers, Cobra centres and trouble-shooters. The Chancellor should step out of the shadows and state how far the Prime Minister's proposals as set out yesterday are negotiable. He must then sit down at the table and deal with Mr Gilchrist to his face. Bellowing at a CBI conference is not negotiating.

Chancellors of the Exchequer love to stay behind curtains. They hate answering questions or facing the music for policies that they impose on others. Mr Brown is the most retiring of all. Last week he was forced into the open. He had to veto a rotten deal to salvage his pay policy. He remains in danger of being bounced into the same pay inflation that gripped, and wrecked, Labour in the 1970s. For once, Mr Brown must take the heat. He cannot just write menus. He must get into the kitchen and cook.