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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 20:02 GMT 21:02 UK
Firefighter bosses offer new plan
Striking firefighters
Picket lines could return if agreement is not reached
Fire Service bosses say they have new proposals for unions in an attempt to resolve a dispute that has seen unofficial action across the UK.

But the union covering Greater Manchester firefighters gave bosses a deadline of 1600 BST on Friday to meet their demands or a ballot will be held.

They say employers failed to honour the deal that ended the 2003 pay dispute.

The latest action has seen the suspension of 47 firefighters who refused to use new equipment.

In an ultimatum published on Thursday, Fire Brigades Union leaders called for the withdrawal of new working practices and equipment until a national agreement was reached.

Manchester FBU brigade secretary Kevin Brown said the fire authority had "dragged its feet for more than seven months".

"The new terms and conditions under discussion at national level have not been agreed and do not form part of our terms and conditions of employment," he said.

The union will ballot the 2,000 members in Manchester if bosses do not respond by Friday afternoon.

'Productive discussion'

The chairwoman of the employers' side, Christina Jebb, said the proposals addressed union concerns over stand down time.

Bosses want firefighters to carry out training, inspections and other duties at night rather than sleep for part of their shift.

"After a productive discussion we have come up with a proposed form of words we believe will at least give both parties the basis for more talks.

Salford, Greater Manchester
Broughton, Greater Manchester
Ashton under Lyne, Greater Manchester
West Midlands
East Sussex
Tyne and Wear

"We believe this form of words will address the need for firefighters to have reasonable rest periods when they are not required by their fire authorities to undertake duties at night."

She said the two sides should meet as soon as possible, and once agreement had been reached the remaining 3.5% pay rise backdated to November 2003 will be implemented.

It is understood the proposals will guarantee that firefighters working in the early hours of the morning will have reasonable rests when not required to perform duties, said BBC labour affairs correspondent Stephen Cape.

A spat broke out ahead of a meeting of Fire Service bosses, with the local authority employers saying the unions had been invited to the talks but failed to respond, reacting with "nothing but diatribes".

The Fire Brigades Union insisted no request had been received.

Protests spread from Wales to fire stations across England, parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland on Thursday.

However, on Thursday night, the Northern Ireland Fire Service called off industrial action, returning to normal working practices.

In Salford, 36 firefighters were suspended on Tuesday, followed by staff in Broughton on Thursday being sent home without pay for not agreeing to use new decontamination equipment.

Legal threat

Greater Manchester County fire officer Barry Dixon has written to FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist demanding he repudiate the current industrial action.

He also threatened to begin legal proceedings and seek damages against the union.

But Mr Dixon said he was in favour of the plan to ballot members for industrial action because this would make any strikes legal.

He claims it would also allow the brigade to make alternative arrangements to ensure the safety of residents.

Mr Dixon added: "I would ask the FBU locally to advise their members not to partake in unofficial action that puts them outside the law."

Following agreements made last June for a staged 16% rise - which settled the previous year's nationwide pay dispute - fire crews were expecting a rise in November.

But the FBU has withdrawn from the deal, saying the money has still not been delivered.

The BBC's James Blatch
"The sticking point in the national agreement appears to be just a few words"

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