HC Deb 15 November 1951 vol 493 cc1168-71
Mr. J. Langford-Holt

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is aware that the Fire Brigades' Union is calling on all brigades in Great Britain to demonstrate their support for the Union's claim for an increase of pay by a standstill on duties next Monday and Tuesday, and whether, in view of his responsibility, under the Fire Services Act, 1947, to ensure the maintenance by fire brigade authorities of an efficient fire brigade service, he has received any inquiries from the local authorities on the matter.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe)

Yes, Sir. I have received a number of inquiries from local authorities as to the course which they should pursue in view of their responsibility to me and to the public to maintain an efficient fire brigade service.

As the House will be aware, a dispute has arisen on the National Joint Council on a claim for increased wages submitted by the Fire Brigades' Union. The matter in dispute has been reported to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service. In the meantime, the Fire Brigades' Union have decided to take direct action in support of their claim and have called on all members of fire brigades in Great Britain to refuse to perform any duties other than fire and emergency duties on Monday and Tuesday next.

All members of fire brigades in England and Wales are, of course, subject to a national code of discipline embodied in statutory Regulations which have been made on the recommendation of the National Joint Council. Similar Regulations are in force in Scotland. There can be no room for doubt that action on the lines suggested by the Fire Brigades' Union would be a serious breach of these Regulations.

I have felt compelled to inform local authorities in response to their request that I must look to the local authorities to carry out their responsibility to maintain an efficient fire service. In expressing these views I sincerely hope that wiser counsels will prevail among the men and that they will recognise their duties as members of a disciplined service.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is informing the fire authorities in Scotland in similar terms.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell

Will the Minister give very careful consideration to this case, because, while we all appreciate that the members of the Fire Brigades' Union have agreed to look after the essential services and to give protection where fire takes place, these people do, on the other hand, feel that they have a genuine grievance owing to the difference between their pay and that of the Police Force? Previously, there was a similarity in rates of pay between the two services, as there had been for a very long time. Before any drastic action is taken, will the Minister and the Government as a whole give careful consideration to this genuine grievance with a view to getting a settlement as quickly as possible without causing any undue friction?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I very much appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman asks that question, and I am most anxious that nothing should be done to embitter the dispute. But I would remind him, and all hon. Gentlemen interested in the matter, that the process provided by the machinery for dealing with such disputes has not yet taken its full course, and I can express no opinion on wages and conditions, which are a matter for the National Joint Council and the subsequent procedure. Therefore, I am not going to do that.

On the other point, I have told the House that the matter has gone to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Labour, and I am sure that all its aspects will be borne in mind. I hope the House will appreciate that I am very anxious that the conciliation procedure should go on. I am also very anxious —and am sure that all local authorities who have the duty are very anxious—that no rash action should be taken without appreciating the seriousness of the matter. I hope the House will appreciate the spirit in which I am trying to deal with it, which is, I think, that in which the hon. Gentleman asked the question.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. George Thomas.

Mr, G. Thomas rose

Mr. S. Silverman

On a point of order. Would it be in order for me, Mr. Speaker, to ask a supplementary question?

Mr. Speaker

No, I am afraid it would not.

Mr. Silverman

May I ask why not, Sir?

Mr. Speaker

Because I had called Mr. George Thomas.

Mr. Silverman

On a perfectly serious point of order, Sir. The Home Secretary, in response to a Private Notice Question, has made an exceedingly important statement on which only one supplementary question has been asked. The matter must be of considerable importance, Sir, or you would not have allowed it to be asked as a Private Notice Question. Surely it is customary, in circumstances of that kind, if there is another hon. Gentleman who wishes to ask a supplementary and if the number of supplementary questions has not already been excessive, to permit that to be done?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must know that how many supplementary questions asked is a matter for the Chair. It is often a difficult discretion to exercise. I thought, from the questions asked from both sides and from the answer given by the Minister, that it was, perhaps, a matter which should not he unduly debated at this time, and in the exercise of my discretion and in trying to carry out my responsibility I took the course I did. If the hon. Gentleman objects to it, he knows the course of action he must take.

Mr. Silverman

I have no intention whatever of objecting to your discretion, which is your responsibility, Sir, but, all the same, I submit to you with respect that I had no intention whatever of asking any kind of a debating question. There is an aspect of the statement made which I regard as of considerable importance and to which no other reference has been made. I think that that discretion is a little tightly exercised when only one supplementary has been asked.

Mr. Speaker

Opinions must always differ on these matters of discretion, but I have given my Ruling.