HC Deb 20 November 1951 vol 494 cc226-8
Mr. Swingler

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action he is taking to maintain an efficient national Fire Service in view of the widespread suspension of firemen on 19th November.

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

The responsibility for the maintenance of an efficient fire service is, by the Fire Services Act, 1947, vested in the councils of counties and county boroughs. My responsibility is limited to ensuring that an efficient fire service is maintained by the local authorities. From reports which have reached me from the areas chiefly affected I have no reason to think that the local authorities have been or will be unable to make reasonably satisfactory arrangements. The suspensions are not on a widespread scale, and I do not think any action is called for on my part.

Mr. Swingler

Is the Home Secretary aware that the position is causing much concern to hon. Members like myself, who represent boroughs in which the whole fire brigade has now been suspended, and in which, in our opinion, there is at the present moment no adequate fire cover? Is the Home Secretary further aware that in the instructions issued by the County Councils' Association to fire authorities they suggest that in the first place the men who refuse to obey orders should be charged but not suspended, and—I quote from the in-instructions— where indiscipline affects relatively few, and where, therefore, procedure by way of suspension can be resorted to without serious effect, authorities might wish to consider whether suspensions in every case would not be a better course? Does not the Home Secretary think that these instructions have produced a very bad situation, in which, for the same offence, some firemen have been charged but not supended, and other firemen—in some cases whole brigades—have been suspended and locked out of the fire stations? Will he, therefore, consult with local authority associations so as to persuade them to handle this dispute with a little more common sense?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

In reply to the first part of the supplementary, the hon. Gentleman was good enough to indicate his difficulties to me personally yesterday at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon. I ascertained before the House rose that steps had been taken to provide an adequate service. I was not able to find the hon. Gentleman when I had ascertained the position.

With regard to the second part of his Question, may I remind the House that I am the appellate authority in the case of dismissals, requirements to resign, or reduction in rank to a rank lower than that immediately below. It would, therefore, be improper for me to discuss at present the disciplinary action that is taken which I might have to consider in my official capacity.

Mr. Reader Harris

When these demonstrations are concluded will the Home Secretary undertake to investigate the way in which some local authorities handled them, bearing in mind that the advice which was given by the local authority associations to the fire authorities included not only advice that firemen should be suspended, but also that, if they refused to leave the station having been suspended, the police should be informed; and that this raises a very unfortunate precedent which requires investigation? Would the Home Secretary also bear in mind that the local authorities have been given advice which, in effect, deprives the public of fire cover, and that this is not simply a Communist inspired demonstration as it was described in the Press? There is something more behind it than that.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

Again I do not think the House would expect me to discuss the implications of my hon. Friend's question, which means criticism one way or the other. As I said in the House a few days ago, I am very anxious not to make the dispute more serious or more difficult. In view of the mention of the position of the police, I ought to tell the House what action I have taken. I have sent a telegram to local authorities in the following terms The attention of the Secretary of State has been called to reports that in a few cases the police have been called in to eject firemen who have been suspended from duty, and it is represented to the Secretary of State that this is an interference by the police in a trade dispute. The Secretary of State has no power to give directions to the police or to the fire authorities as to the performance of any particular duty, but he thinks that, in order to prevent an exacerbation of the dispute, it is important that the help of the police should not he sought merely"— I repeat "merely" because I want the House to appreciate exactly what the purport of the telegram is— for the purpose of securing the removal of a man suspended from duty. I hope the House will see that I am seeking, while not exceeding the limited powers I have, to do nothing within those powers to exacerbate the dispute. I am sure the House will support me in this approach to the matter.