Former firefighter focuses on fair play

To the untrained eye, there may not be many obvious similarities between being a firefighter and being an MP. But according to former fireman Jim Fitzpatrick – the minister for employment relations – there are a few comparisons that can be made between the two professions.

“In a fire station, there’s a sliding pole, and in politics there’s a greasy pole,” said Fitzpatrick, 54, who spent more than 20 years working for the London Fire Brigade.

“A firefighter’s main activity is helping people and responding to 999 calls, and as an MP you’re also responding to individual crises and trying to help people find a way out,” he added.

Keeping it fair

The Glasgow-born MP, who joined the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in May this year, said his main concern over the next 12 months would be to develop the government’s ‘fairness’ programme across UK businesses.

“We’re gently moving the fairness agenda along to a place where employers are comfortable, and people feel they’re being valued, but not to the extent that it makes it difficult to do business,” he said.

The DTI has recently revised the Work and Families Act by extending flexible working rights to employees with caring responsibilities from April next year. And the Act increases statutory maternity pay from 26 weeks to 39 weeks for women with babies due on or after 1 April 2007.

Both aspects of the legislation are essential to promoting best practice at work, according to Fitzpatrick.

“We want to make sure the workplace becomes a friendlier environment. That’s why we’re making flexible working a right to request rather than an obligation,” he said.

He acknowledges that employers could suffer increased costs with the additional maternity leave entitlement, but believes the benefits outweigh the concerns.

“It will place additional burdens on business, but overall there’s an understanding and an acceptance that this is where we want to go to make sure we’re bringing kids into the world in the best possible environment.”

Fitzpatrick also accepts that businesses have legitimate concerns over some elements of the age discrimination laws, which were introduced last month, but points out that there was extensive consultation with employers beforehand.

“In today’s litigious society, especially in employment law, there’s a degree of nervousness from business because, although we’ve passed the regulations, no case law has been established,” he said.

Fitzpatrick and the DTI are not, however, so naive as to think that the age discrimination laws will be a panacea for tackling ageism.

“We’re not foolish enough to believe that passing regulation is going to eliminate ageism any more than passing anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of gender or race has eliminated racism or sexism in society,” he said.

“It’s basically presenting people with a framework of how workplaces should look. It’s saying that you can’t discriminate against people on the grounds of age any more than you can on the grounds of colour or sex. You’ve got to treat people fairly and equitably.”

He said giving the unions a more pivotal role would also be an important element in establishing fairness in the workplace.

“Having rolled back some of the anti-union legislation Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives passed when they were in power, we’re trying to move the pendulum back to a more central position,” Fitzpatrick said.

Strike a balance

Creating a framework for recognition agreements, fostering union learning representatives and trying to build a greater degree of partnership between unions and employers are all fundamental, he said.

“We’re trying to strike a balance between listening to the concerns of business and the trade unions. Unions are part of a civilised society and they could play a very positive role in many companies.

“A happy worker is a productive worker, and people should not have barriers to stop them joining unions.”

Despite Fitzpatrick’s continued progress in Westminster, he still pines for his days as a firefighter.

“Nothing can really compare to the adrenalin rush of being in the back of a fire engine on your way to an incident,” he said.

Jim Fitzpatrick’s CV

  • Minister for employment relations, DTI, May 2006
  • MP for Canning Town, East London, 1997-2006
  • Member, National Executive Council, Fire Brigades Union 1988-1997
  • Firefighter, London Fire Brigade 1974-1997
  • Driver, Mintex transport operator, London1973-1974
  • Trainee, Tytrak engineering company, Glasgow 1970-1973

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