The Fire Brigades Union has accused Surrey Fire and Rescue service (SFRS) of trying to block them from talking publicly about their public safety concerns.
A council officer acting on behalf of SFRS told members of the Guildford Joint Committee they should use their discretion to refuse the union permission to share details of “the matters discussed in the course of the parties’ attempts to resolve the trade dispute”.
Councillors were also asked to tell any member of the public who raised the issue in a meeting that it was not appropriate for discussion.
Surrey brigade chair Simon Harris said: “We would like to have representation at joint and local committee meetings to ensure our voice is heard. Debating things in an open forum is the best way to keep people honest.”
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) believes if councillors agreed to the request it would effectively ban them from having a public voice. Forbidding them to talk about anything discussed trying to find a resolution would include staffing of fire stations.
This is a bone of contention as the SFRS Making Surrey Safer Plan, currently having its second phase implemented, involves transferring 30 frontline firefighters over to fire prevention roles and others having shift lengths extended as night-time crews move over to day.
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Management says this better serves the public because demand is greater in the day-time, and the council says much council meeting time has already been devoted to the SFRS plan.
Mr Harris added: “We will say how it is, we have nothing to gain by telling lies. SFRS do not want us present because they know this and, unfortunately, this is what we are up against.”
A council spokesperson said a public forum was not the appropriate place for confidential discussions, but they had been transparent throughout the debate.
The email sent last week, seen by SurreyLive, reads: “SFRS would also ask that if the FBU do make future attempts to share details of confidential discussions regarding the trade dispute at local/joint committee meetings, the committee exercise its discretion to refuse the FBU permission to do so.
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“Further, if members of the public raise this issue, again SFRS would be grateful if it could be pointed out that there is a trade dispute which the parties are seeking to resolve and it would not be appropriate to discuss the matter further.”
A leaked response from Guildford Borough Councillor George Potter, which copied in all other committee members, said he could not personally agree with the request from the SFRS, calling it “deeply unworthy and highly inappropriate”.
In his email, the Liberal Democrat councillor for Burpham tells the council officer: “Discussion on the state of a service which has a direct impact on public safety should not be kept behind closed doors under the justification of a trade dispute.”
It reads: “There is justifiable public concern at the state of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service and many councillors will have received correspondence both from members of the public and from firefighters and their families.
“I do not see how it would be serving the public, or doing our duty as councillors, if we were to try to prevent the reasoning of either side from being placed in the public arena.”
A spokesperson for the county council, which is responsible for delivering the fire service, said: “Local and joint committees are a public forum and therefore participants are advised not to share the detail of confidential discussions in that forum.
“Public discussion of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service’s Making Surrey Safer Plan has been widespread, with the issue and related petition discussed at length at last week’s Surrey County Council cabinet meeting, as well as Surrey County Council’s recent select committee meeting and previous full council and cabinet meetings.
“The SFRS leadership and Surrey county councillors have engaged fully in that public debate and have been totally transparent throughout.”