Fire Brigades Union

Fire Brigades Union

June 21, 2011 07:29 ET

Union Reveals Confidential Letters at Centre of "Gagging-Order" Storm-and Makes Formal Complaints

ESSEX, ENGLAND--(Marketwire - June 21, 2011) - The FBU has taken the exceptional step of revealing the confidential letters written by Basildon Firefighters to Councillors which provoked disciplinary action from Essex fire chiefs to silence them. The union has now made formal complaints against the councillors and accuses the fire authority of failing to deal robustly and openly with complaints made against senior people in the organisation.

The controversial disciplinary cases of 42 Firefighters and Fire Officers stationed at Basildon have now concluded with 37 receiving written warnings and 4 having final written warnings hanging over their heads for the next 18 months – all simply for exercising their fundamental democratic right to raise concerns in confidence with locally elected politicians.

MPs and Councillors are supposed to be bound by a "duty of confidence" when they receive letters from constituents and other individuals raising issues with them. Essex County Council has a clear Code of Conduct for Councillors covering confidentiality. But Councillor Anthony Hedley (Essex Fire Authority Chairman) and Councillor Jill Reeves, forwarded the letters and personal details of the firefighters to fire chiefs - without any prior consent. The result has been a harrowing experience for the firefighters directly involved and the ruthless manner in which senior managers responded has effectively placed a gagging-order over all Essex firefighters.

The firefighters and officers at Basildon were charged with using defamatory and disrespectful language which was also detrimental to the image of the Service. In fact they simply dared to raise questions about the levels of pay of senior managers and for criticising frontline cuts to the 999 service.

Paul Woolstenholmes, FBU National Officer:

"This whole affair has been a disgraceful abuse of authority, confidentiality and strikes at the heart of the fundamental democratic principles in our country. If firefighters are gagged from raising matters of concern with local MPs and councillors then how on earth can the public rely on their elected politicians being sufficiently informed to hold the running of our public services to account?

"A defamation claim based on these letters would quite simply be laughed out of court and if the senior managers in Essex think the way to earn respect is to threaten firefighters with discipline then they really have lost all sense of what it takes to be an effective leader. We believe that any damage done to the image of the Service has actually been caused by the Councillors who breached the confidentiality of the letters in the first place and then by the outrageous and heavy-handed actions taken by senior managers.

"Any reasonable person reading the letters will see there was no overriding and lawful imperative compelling the Councillors to breach their duty of confidentiality and there was no reason to disclose the letters or the names of the firefighters who sent them to their senior managers.

"As a consequence, we have now formally submitted the breach of conduct of the Councillors to Essex, Southend and Thurrock Councils for formal investigation – together, they are the constituent authorities that make up the Combined Essex Fire Authority. At the same time we have had to complain to them about the wholly unsatisfactory manner in which the Clerk to the fire authority and a small band of fire authority councillors have dealt with another serious complaint. There seems to be an institutional reluctance at Essex Fire Authority to deal robustly and transparently with complaints made against senior people in the organisation. This contrasts starkly with the zeal with which the 42 Basildon firefighters were dealt with.

"In fact, the longer it goes on the more people are noticing the bad smell that seems to be hanging around the goings on at the top of Essex Fire & Rescue Service. We are placing our faith in the Essex, Southend and Thurrock Councils being able to usher in a breath of fresh air."

To view the letters associated with this press release, please visit the following links:

Letter A: http://media3.marketwire.com/docs/LetterA.doc

Letter B: http://media3.marketwire.com/docs/LetterB.doc

Letter C: http://media3.marketwire.com/docs/LetterC.doc

Letter D: http://media3.marketwire.com/docs/LetterD.doc

NOTES TO EDITOR

  1. Thirty six of the firefighters agreed to accept written warnings without going to hearing as they had been advised by local managers and by the union, that senior managers had made it plain they would risk more severe sanctions if they refused. Six had the courage to risk going to hearing: two received written warnings and four received final written warnings for sending the same generic letter as the others.
  1. Letter A is the generic letter sent by all 42 firefighters and fire officers to Councillor Hedley.
  2. Letter B was sent by 1 firefighter to Councillor Hedley.
  3. Letter C was sent by 1 firefighter to Councillor Hedley.
  4. Letter D was sent by 1 firefighter to Councillor Reeves.
  1. The ESSEX COUNTY COUNCIL MEMBER'S CODE OF CONDUCT
    Essex Codes and Protocols - Code of Conduct 128 - updated June 2009 and Part 5 in particular
    General Provisions
    Introduction and Interpretation Section 1
4. You must not:
(a) disclose information given to you in confidence by anyone, or information acquired by you which you believe, or ought reasonably to be aware, is of a confidential nature, except where—
(i) you have the consent of a person authorised to give it;
(ii) you are required by law to do so;
(iii) the disclosure is made to a third party for the purpose of obtaining professional advice provided that the third party agrees not to disclose the information to any other person; or
(iv) the disclosure is:
(a) reasonable and in the public interest; and
(b) made in good faith and in compliance with the reasonable requirements of the authority; or
(c) prevent another person from gaining access to information to which that person is entitled by law.

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