HC Deb 30 June 1958 vol 590 cc1013-34

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Fire Services (Conditions of Service) Regulations, 1958 (S.I., 1958, No. 759), dated 1st May, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th May, be annulled. Although all of us who represent Lancashire constituencies are emotionally exhausted after a day of discussing the position in Lancashire. I make no apology for raising at this stage of our discussions the question of the remuneration of firewomen.

I do so for three reasons. The first, is that it affects a number of women who are doing an extremely arduous and responsible job, indeed one of the most responsible jobs in the public service. I think it right at this stage to point out that firemen and firewomen cannot go to arbitration, take industrial action or invoke the industrial disputes machinery as most other workers can do. Secondly, the Prayer affects all workers in the public service because the Government's action involves a repetition of their regrettable conduct in the case of the Health Service employees and the senior and chief probation officers. The third reason, and perhaps in a way the most important, is that the issue involves a principle of great importance to all trade unionists.

On 22nd May, in a Written Answer, the Home Secretary told my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) that he: …had decided that a re-assessment of the basis on which the pay of firewomen is calculated should be deferred until a more appropriate time, and that for the present the revision of firewomen's pay should be limited to the consequential increases which they would have received on the basis of the Local authority salary scale to which the pay of firewomen has hitherto been related, with corresponding increases for the higher ranks.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd May. 1958; Vol. 588, c. 91.] I hope the House will bear with me if I go through the history of this dispute. Last June the local authorities and the Fire Brigades Union reached a pay settlement in respect of lower ranks of firemen. Following that settlement, the union sought to put the pay scales for firewomen on a basis which would mean that any future pay increases for firemen would be automatically followed pro rata for the women. They therefore proposed to the employers—the local authorities—that women's pay should reach its maximum after five years' service and should roughly correspond to 80 per cent. of firemen's pay on that five-year scale of increments. That would mean an increase of£55 a year on the maximum rate and£30 on the minimum; that is to say, a scale ranging from£405–£475 a year. Perhaps I should add that it was proposed that the firemen's service increment of 6s. per week after 9 and 14 years' service was to be ignored.

After very full consideration, the employers agreed to the union's proposal and recommended that the new scheme should operate from September last year. The appropriate recommendation went to the Home Secretary in October, 1957. I think I ought to interpolate here the fact that throughout the discussions the union and the local authorities had kept the fire services department of the Home Office fully informed so that there would be no undue delay in implementing the recommendation once it had been agreed. However, although the recommendation went to the Home Secretary in October, the Home Office did nothing. Over a substantial period, both the union and the local authorities tried to get a decision from the Home Secretary.

On 31st January of this year a letter was sent to the Home Office signed by the secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and the secretary of the Local Government Conditions of Service Advisory Board, as joint secretaries of the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades. An identical letter was sent at the same time to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The letter referred to the decision taken in October, which was a unanimous decision reached by the local authorities and the union, and it went on to say: We were obliged to report to the National Council at its meeting on 23rd January last and to the Officers' Committee later on the same day that the Secretaries of State had not signified their approval of this recommendation nor, despite inquiry, had any indication been received whether such approval would be forthcoming in the near future. The National Council was disturbed to learn of this situation, and we were directed to bring its concern to your notice, and to refer in particular to the disparity of treatment and the measure of hardship which has resulted for women members of brigades compared with their male colleagues. It is the earnest hope of the National Council that in these circumstances there will be the least possible delay in now approving the recommendation, and that the adjustment of pay will then operate from 1st September last in accordance with its terms. That letter was sent in the name of both the employers and the firewomen.

On 14th February the Home Office replied to that letter, turning down the recommendation—that being four months after the recommendation had been submitted by the National Joint Council. The letter from the Home Office rejected the proposals on two grounds. It was said, first, that the proposal would mean a percentage increase for firewomen which would be greater than that granted to firemen the previous June. It was further said that the increase would be: greater in certain respects than would be justified on a basis of strict comparability with the local government scale to which firewomen's pay has previously corresponded. The letter went on to say: In the circumstances the Secretary of State does not feel able, in the light of the Government's policy as regards wage increases, to agree at present to the proposed reassessment… The recommendation was therefore referred back to the National Joint Council.

The next step was that an emergency meeting of the National Joint Council was held. At that meeting the councils and unions representing the local authorities—that is to say, the County Councils Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations, the London County Council and the Scottish local authorities—decided that they saw no reason to modify the terms of their original recommendation, and they asked for an interview with the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland. A meeting took place on 26th March, and the Home Secretary, in the course of the discussion, said that wage increases had precipitated inflation.

He also said that wherever the Government could exert any influence in wage settlements to effect economy, however small the saving, they would do so. He would, however, approve an increase if it did not exceed the scale for women employees in grade I of the miscellaneous grades of the local government services. That would involve the acceptance of the recommended starting rate of£405, but a maximum of£445 after two years.

That was the basis from which the National Joint Council had consistently been trying to depart over a considerable period, and if it had accepted that proposition it would have meant that fire-women, responsible for mobilising appliances and working a 48-hour week in three shifts, would in some cases have earned less than copy typists employed by local authorities, working a 38-hour week. There have been cases of fire-women leaving the fire service and taking better-paid employment under the police in the same local authority area.

The National Joint Council therefore wrote to the Home Secretary on 28th April making three points. At this stage I should like to say that that letter was signed by the two gentlemen to whom I have already referred, and also by the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris). That letter made three points, which I should like to read:

  1. "(a) The Council was committed to a reassessment of firewomen's pay before the announcement of the Government's present policy on wage increases. Unfortunately it was not possible to reach a decision until October, 1957. The settlement, however, was based on comparisons and relativity which existed before the critical developments to take account of which the Government's policy was formulated.
  2. (b) The resulting reassessment of pay is fully justified on grounds of merit and can have no inflationary repercussions. Indeed, at certain points, it is less costly than the alternative course indicated by the Secretaries of State.
  3. (c) In similar circumstances in the Civil Service and elsewhere other salary increases have been negotiated or awarded since October, 1957, and have been duly implemented. It is reasonable to infer, both from the implementation of these agreements and awards, and also from expositions which have been given of the Government's policy, that the policy does not exclude wage increases of this character, distinguished from other wage increases because they rest upon a revaluation of the particular employment concerned. The Council, therefore, submits that the agreement in respect of firewomen ought not, in equity to be excluded."
The document also states: For all the foregoing reasons the Council is persuaded that it ought to persist in its original decision. It is not unimportant to say that throughout these negotiations and this correspondence the local authorities, the Fire Brigades Union and I think the Fire Officers' Committee have all been in complete agreement.

The decision of the Home Secretary was announced, as I have already said, in response to a Question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn who will second this Motion. We ought to remember, in considering issues of this kind, that it is the National Joint Council which is responsible for all the discussions with the firemen and firewomen concerned. There are not normally direct negotiations between the Home Secretary and the men and women in the Fire Services. If the Home Secretary is to set aside decisions which have been reached by the National Joint Council, whether on matters of pay or on other matters, that is bound to impair the authority of the National Joint Council.

In this case the Home Secretary has flatly refused, on grounds apparently laid down by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to implement a decision which was unanimously reached by both sides of an important public service. It is a public service, moreover, which is already seriously undermanned, possibly to the point of danger.

It is a decision that the Home Secretary has taken which has been condemned by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. On 25th June, Sir Vincent Tewson wrote to the Prime Minister saying: The General Council are…concerned at this further intervention in the process of collective bargaining and share the view of both sides of the National Joint Council that this is an unwarranted interference with properly constituted negotiating machinery. They wish therefore to register a strong protest at the Home Secretary's action. It is that protest that we repeat in this House. I hope that even at this late stage the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will be able to indicate that the Home Secretary has not a closed mind on this issue and is prepared to reconsider the claim put forward by the Fire Brigades Union and unanimously accepted by the employers concerned.

10.25 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) has outlined the history of this case so effectively that there is no need for me to detain the House very long in seconding the Prayer, but there were three points of principle in the excellent speech he made which I should like to underline.

This may seem a very small matter, involving a very small number of people and a very small amount of money, but that, in our opinion, makes it all the more serious because it seems extremely unfortunate that the Government should have undermined the confidence in collective bargaining machinery for such a small sum as that which is involved. It shows a frivolity of approach to the whole question of collective bargaining which to us on this side of the House is quite shocking. We have here an interference by the Government in the exercise of a judgment by the National Joint Council as to the proper relationship between the wages in the service they are controlling. Here we have not only a unanimous decision of the National Joint Council, but a unanimous decision, unanimously reaffirmed after the Home Secretary had sent the matter back. That shows the importance the employers attached to the question and that it was not a matter of no significance.

I hope that the hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary, who is to reply to the debate, will agree that we should take a special interest in questions which involve the relationship between rates of pay for men and women in a service or in industry. I agree that the question of equal pay is not involved directly here, because firemen and firewomen are not engaged on equal work; but there is a relationship here which ought to be established. It is a point which the N.J.C. has made in the statement, which my hon. Friend quoted. It says that while the Council does not consider the principle of equal pay is applicable in the circumstances of the Fire Services, the male rate of pay must influence the female rate. It says: since firewomen have to work in Control Rooms with firemen receiving operational rates of pay, their rate should be brought into a settled relationship with that of firemen and should move correspondingly. I certainly attach very great importance to the establishment of that principle. I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not seem to attach the same significance to the demands which the N.J.C. has been making to give women in the Fire Services the reward they ought to have.

As women Members of this House we would always expect that our rates of pay should be brought into proper operational relationship with those of our male colleagues. We must admit that we have not yet reached that point because, if we had, we should get a greater rate of pay than they would get. Still, we are progressing in the right direction and it is wrong for any member of our sex to deprive women in any other calling of a proper relationship with the rates for male colleagues.

The second point of principle is in the Answer by the Home Secretary to my Question on 22nd May, to which my hon. Friend has referred. That makes it quite clear that the Government accept the merits of the N.J.C. argument. In fact it would be very difficult for them not to do so. The N.J.C. is the authority on the subject and knows the conditions. It knows what it is talking about. It would be a very serious reflection on the judgment of the N.J.C. if it did not. The Home Secretary does not say, "We do not agree that the firewomen's rates should be related to those of the men," or that the ideal relationship is not that they should continue to be related to the local government miscellaneous services rates. On the contrary, he said: We had decided that a re-assessment of the basis on which the pay of firewomen is calculated should be deferred until a more appropriate time…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd May, 1958; Vol. 588, c. 91.] When is it more appropriate to do justice than the present? What is the appropriate time? We are given no further indication of that. Is the "appropriate time" the return of a Labour Government, on which the present Government are so clearly relying to clear up so many injustices? Is this another, to be deferred until we have a Government with a proper sense of what is right? There is no indication that the Home Secretary sets a time limit on the delay in reassessing the relationship.

He made the position clear in the statement which he made to a deputation from both sides of the National Joint Council which he saw recently, because, according to the journal of the Fire Brigades Union, the Fire Fighter, he made the following astonishing statement: Wherever we can exercise any influence on wage settlements to effect economy, however small the saving, we shall do so. That is an intolerable statement, because it means that it is on the weaker sections of the community that the burden will fall. However small the economy, the Government will effect it if they can. We know that it is the Government's policy to effect these economies at the expense of little groups which are impotent to hit back and that it is before the more powerful groups, which have a way of hitting back against injustice, that the Government yield. It is intolerable that because this is a small section it should have to contribute a saving which, though small in total amount, is important to the people concerned.

Finally, there is the point of principle to which my hon. Friend has referred. It is not only a question of the Government deliberately impairing the authority of a National Joint Council and therefore interfering with machinery for collective bargaining. It is just another step by the Government which has the effect of undermining the confidence of all workers, in whatever unions they may be, in the Government's approach to wage claims. Here workers see once again that the Government have accepted the merits of the case, by implication, but have rejected it on the ground, not that it has not gone through all the due processes of collective bargaining and independent judgment but that they can pick on people here and there for these economies and that these people are to be the victims of that policy. That kind of step produces resentment throughout the whole trade union movement, as the letter from the Trades Union Congress showed. It creates deep suspicion of Government's economic policy and it has an effect on wage rates which is liable to lead us to one industrial problem after another. From this small matter big consequences flow. We register our protest most vigorously.

10.34 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I wish briefly to support the case which my hon. Friends have already put very clearly and distinctly. I do so because of the small number of firewomen within the Fire Services—I believe it is between 450 and 500—about one-fifth are in Wales. The Welsh authorities make considerable use of the services of women, and find them extremely reliable and conscientious in these very responsible duties.

When this matter was under discussion, the firewomen in my own County of Flint asked if I would see them and, by courtesy of the chief fire officer, I saw them at work. I went to the control room and saw exactly what these women had to do. I might say that in the County of Flint—and I know that this is the case in other places as well—the fire-women are responsible, not only for the controls for the fire services but also for the county ambulance services. That means that they have constant calls to deal with in addition to their work for the fire services. They not only have to know the geography and the resources of their own area most intimately, but have to be very clear-headed; able to take quick decisions, and know precisely to whom they have to refer in a great variety of emergencies, where human life may be at stake. That, obviously, applies to the ambulance service, too.

It really is quite ludicrous that women who are asked to undertake work of that kind should find that their maximum rate of pay is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) has said, less than that for copy typists in local authority offices. There is absolutely no comparison in the degree of responsibility that these women have to undertake. That is particularly so in the case of those who have had some length of service, because the peculiar thing is that the Home Secretary did not reject the application entirely and out of hand. As my hon. Friends have said, he accepted the principle.

As was said in the letter of 14th February, he was not averse from the principle that the pay of firewomen should be related to that of men in the fire services, and he went so far as to suggest certain increases for the first year's service. He proposed to start at the same figure for the first year, and suggested that the figures for the second and third years should be larger than those proposed by the National Joint Council. But then, according to the Home Secretary, there was to be an absolute stop—no further increments.

Surely, women doing this kind of work should be encouraged to remain in the fire services when they have gained the experience that gives them the necessary confidence and poise in dealing with this sort of work. There is here, of course, as in all services in which women are employed, a tendency to leave for marriage, but I think that those who stay on should be reasonably encouraged to look forward to something better, and not reach their maximum after three years.

I think that the Home Secretary's action has really been most regrettable. Justice is not being done to women who are doing very responsible work. I would absolutely agree with the proposal of the National Joint Council chart in their pay arrangements the firewomen should be related to the men with whom, after all, they work side by side. I quite understand the dissatisfaction so very clearly expressed to me, and most sincerely felt by the women whom I saw, that they should be regarded as something quite different, whereas they would like to feel themselves as a genuine part of the fire services, of which they are proud to be members.

The Home Secretary has shown a most lamentable lack of imagination in dealing with the situation. The amount at stake is infinitesimal, and cannot really have any effect on our inflationary position. He has not even entirely refused some increase—in a way, that is one the irritating things about it—but he has done so in a manner that I think is not in the best interests of the efficiency of the service.

I hope, therefore, that the Home Office will look into this matter again, and will find that the appropriate moment for accepting this principle will be in the very near future.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)

There is no doubt that the firewomen had a very raw deal over this pay increase. It was not their fault that it was not until October, 1957, that the National Joint Council was able to get round to the job of deciding what their pay should be. There had been in the previous months three pay increases for the male members of the fire services. In November, 1956, February, 1957, and again in June, 1957, the male members were fortunate in getting whatever they got in little bits and pieces. Perhaps, therefore, it was not so noticeable. But it is no fault of the firewomen that it is a frightful job to try to get the National Joint Council together.

The firemen had been dealt with at the beginning of July. Then the summer holidays came, and it is not so easy to get local councillors and other representatives to come from all over the country, including Scotland, particularly at the beginning of the holiday period. It was, therefore, quite fortuitous that the firewomen's pay question was left until after the summer holidays, during which time the Government decided on a certain line of policy on wages generally in connection with their battle against inflation.

If this increase in pay had been a pure cost-of-living increase the Government might have been justified in saying, "We think that a 13 per cent. cost-of-living increase is too much." But, in fact, this was not a cost-of-living increase at all. It was a revision of the wages structure for the firewomen in the fire services and was consequential on what had been happening in the fire services during the previous four years for the male members of the fire services, both firemen and the officer ranks.

It took at least that time to carry out a revision of the wages structure and a complete revision of the hours of duty. The National Joint Council—both the full Council and the officers' committee—had been extremely heavily engaged with these revisions of all the conditions which applied to the male members of the fire services, and the Joint Council was a bit exhausted, but it got round to the job of the firewomen's pay in October.

The recommended increase of 13 per cent. was not just a cost-of-living increase. It was the result of very careful deliberation and the realisation that we could not go on any longer in justice aligning a firewoman's pay to that of a typist in a local government office. These firewomen do an extremely responsible job in a most unobstrusive and efficient manner. It is no exaggeration to say that on their efforts lives depend, because if a firewoman does not turn up to work awake, alive and fit she may make a mistake which may result in a fire engine going to a wrong address. It is the easiest thing in the heat of the moment to take down a message wrongly, and lives may be lost.

These women do a very responsible job indeed. They are not like other local government employees wearing their own clothes and more or less doing what they like provided they do not murder anybody or steal the cash. They wear uniform and they are subject to a very strict code of discipline, as are the firemen. It is exactly the same code for the firewomen as for the firemen.

Because of these extra responsibilities, the National Joint Council got round to the job at last—possibly it ought to have done it much sooner—of working out a fair and just rate of pay for the firewomen. While I am on this side of the House I will not say anything against the Government's efforts in their battle against inflation, but I must say that in this case I do not think that any of their efforts would have been in any way jeopardised if they had given the fire-women what was after all very natural justice. After all, the Government do not have to worry that the employers' side on the National Joint Council is composed of weak-kneed chaps who will say "Yes" to anything that the employees' side put up. They are a very tough lot indeed, and, if someone wants to get anything past them, he has to make out a very good case.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

Is the Home Secretary represented on the employers' side of the Council?

Mr. R. Harris

No, the Home Secretary is not represented on the employers' side of the Joint Council, and has not been since the fire services were denationalised. Some of us have tried to make up our minds since whether the fire services would be better off if he were; but the answer is that he is not, although everything has to go as a recommendation to him.

Because of the longer hours and the much stricter discipline, it is obvious that, sooner or later, firewomen should have the proper rate for the job. The fact that the Home Secretary has seen fit to turn down the recommendation has been very unfortunate, and it makes one wonder why this treatment has been meted out to firewomen when, evidently, it is not to be meted out to other classes of people in the Civil Service, who may have increases in pay recommended for them as a result of the activities of the Civil Service Pay Research Unit. Will the Home Secretary turn down all those recommendations, if any of them happen to be for more than, say, 4 or 5 per cent.? If so, I should think that the Civil Service would like to be told fairly soon. In fact, the Civil Service Whitley Council has been told that any increases recommended by the Pay Research Unit will be paid.

I hope that it will not be long before my right hon. Friend finds some way of doing justice to these firewomen. To my mind, they have been surprisingly quiet during the last ten years since the service was denationalised. They have not made nuisances of themselves, like some other people may perhaps be considered to have done in the fire services. Others have fought hard for their rights, but the firewomen have been very quiet until now. Now, they are becoming a little militant, and I cannot say that I blame them. I hope that my right hon. Friend will soon find a way of giving them the whole increase which was recommended after such careful thought by the Council.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

I thought that the Civil Service might come up in the course of the debate on these Regulations. I have heard references to it by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) and by the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris). It is true, as was said in some of the correspondence which passed between the Home Secretary and the secretaries of the National Joint Council, that some increase in the pay of the Civil Service had been made during the last nine months. Most, if not all, of this stemmed from the Report of the Priestley Commission on the Civil Service, which settled many general principles——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that this is within the terms of the Regulations before us.

Mr. Houghton

The criticism of the Regulations is based, in part, on what has happened elsewhere in the public service, and I was seeking to bring into proper focus that criticism.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps the criticism to which the hon. Member refers is misplaced, but that would not allow us to debate conditions in the Civil Service on these Regulations.

Mr. Houghton

I know how strictly limited the scope of debate is on a Prayer on a Statutory Instrument, and it was only because reference had been made to action in another part of the public service as a basis for criticism of these Regulations that I ventured to make some comment on what had actually happened elsewhere. However, I will not pursue that. It would only bring me into further conflict with the Chair and I have no desire to detain the House on a matter which is not strictly relevant to the debate on the Regulations.

What I wanted to say is that it seems to me that the machinery of negotiation in this case, as, for example, in the case of the National Health Service, reveals a weakness when the Home Secretary, who is not represented on the employers' side of the National Joint Council, nevertheless has the power of veto over its whole proceedings. The hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth said that he sometimes wonders whether it would be better if the Home Secretary were represented on the National Joint Council.

I do not venture any practical suggestion as to how the machinery of negotiation should be adjusted to meet this situation. What I do know is that this kind of action by the Home Secretary, comparable with the action of the Minister of Health in relation to the Whitley Council recommendation in the Health Service, excites bitterness and resentment out of all proportion to the issues involved. Having swallowed the camel of the men, he strains at the gnat which are the women, probably due to the fact that the men were settled before the Government decided on certain stringent economic measures last autumn and, as the hon. Member said, the women's case had to be considered at a most unfortunate moment for the women. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman crashes down on the scheme.

That is unfair, especially since the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not crash down on civil servants, whose cases were being considered after that period but stemmed from earlier settlements precisely in the way that the women's case in this instance has done. That is the weakness of the whole set-up. The Home Secretary not only has responsibility as a member of the Government, but has a responsibility because a large part of the expense involved will be borne by the Exchequer. That is where he comes into it. If, however, he comes into it at the end with the sole voice of veto and has to be asked to see a deputation before he can be required to explain himself to the parties concerned, that reveals a weakness in the machinery of joint negotiation.

It is only when this kind of thing occurs that this sort of weakness is revealed with acuteness and with the consequences and bad feeling which it arouses amongst the staff's and the employers' representatives who have been responsible for the negotiations, who have thought it all out and who have reached what they believe to be the right decision. They make a recommendation to the Home Secretary and find that he slaps down on the whole thing, partly on the ground of comparison and partly on the ground of economic climate, but whichever ground he chooses the right hon. Gentleman has refused the proposed increase.

There is a further point. It seems to me that the proposals regarding fire-women derive to some extent from the adoption by the Government of the principle of equal pay in the public service. This increase, as the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth said, is not a cost-of-living increase. It is a consequence of the adjustment of the rates of pay for the men and a consequence also of the new approach to relativities between the pay of firewomen and the pay of firemen.

Again, in the public sector generally, the Government have adopted the principle of equal pay for equal work. If the firewomen were doing the same duties and all the duties of the men, they would have the clearest case to be paid equal pay with the men, even though it were introduced on the seven-year instalment plan, in the same way as in the Civil Service; but the principle of equal pay would have been accepted and they would now be in their fourth or fifth year of progress towards the attainment of absolute equality. The fact of it being a 13 per cent. increase or a 30 per cent. increase would have been beside the point. It would have followed from the adoption of a principle long overdue and one which, it is generally acknowledged, should be applied where women are doing equal work with men.

There is a difference here in the nature of the duties of firewomen and those of men, as, indeed, in the Civil Service there are grades in which women perform duties distinguishable from those of men. Therefore, the principle of equal pay has not been conceded. We make no complaint about it. However, women in grades whose duties are distinguishable from those of men are given what we describe as sympathetic increases to establish or maintain proper relativity between women and women, those who are given the full equal pay and those not in grades where the duties are fully the same as those of men. These increases seem to be of that kind. Therefore, there seems to be less justification for the Home Secretary's turning them down.

I must say I was quite astonished when this matter was reported to the Joint Council of the Trades Union Congress only recently. There was strong feeling that it was a misfortune that the Home Secretary had intervened in the way he had. It gives rise to a lack of confidence in the negotiating machinery, and if there is a lack of confidence in the machinery of negotiation then there is all the more impulse behind strike action—not, I know, in the fire services, but generally. Any damage to the machinery of negotiation, which is the only basis for reaching agreements, is a blow to an amicable settlement of disputes and is an encouragement to direct action, which may have grievous consequences in more ways than one. It is, therefore, the Home Secretary's special care to see that this machinery is properly used and its authority is not impaired, and in my judgment he would have done far better to have accepted the recommendation, whatever he may have wished to say afterwards about any matter coming before the Council in future or any question he may have raised about having representation on the employers' side or other matters in which he has concern.

10.57 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

I do not dissent from the very clear diary of events which the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) outlined at the opening of his speech tonight, and I do not propose to go over again what was a very fair analysis of what has happened over the past year in relation to this claim. As the House will be aware, this matter was debated on the Fire Services Estimates on 17th March, and thereafter my right hon. Friend received a very full and representative deputation from the National Joint Council on 26th March to which he fully explained the Government's attitude and the reasons for his decision.

Some very harsh words have been said about my right hon. Friend—"crashing down on the women," and firewomen having a "raw deal." Let me say straight away that there is no question of the Government's having imposed any freeze on the firewomen's wages. They have not been denied a wage increase, and they will receive, under the Regulations we are debating, increases which are back dated to 1st September, 1957, and which range from£23 to£45 per annum according to their grades.

This increase, as some Members have pointed out, compares favourably with the last award to the firemen, who received a 3.6 per cent. increase at the maximum of the scale compared to the 6 per cent. increase at the maximum which the Regulations we are debating will apply to the firewomen. In contrast, the recommendation put forward by the National Joint Council would have resulted in an increase at the maximum of 13 per cent.

When my right hon. Friend met the deputation he made it clear that, whilst he accepted that increases would be justified on the basis of the local government scales to which firewomen's pay had hitherto been related, he could not accept the proposal to relate those scales immediately to the firemen's scale, which would have resulted in a very considerably larger increase in certain respects and at certain points of the scale. At the same time my right hon. Friend made it plain—and he has particularly asked me to reaffirm this tonight—that his decision was based on the overriding necessity for all-round restraint in wages, and that he would willingly review the situation when circumstances permitted. That position still applies.

It is not, I think, fair to suggest that because the sum involved is small, the principle and the stand taken by the Government should therefore be thrown overboard. Discussion tonight has revolved round the recommendation that the firewomen's pay should in future be linked to that of the firemen. The recommendations for a pay increase provided a scale which, at a time when all sections of the community were being asked to exercise restraint in wage claims, my right hon. Friend felt he was unable to accept.

It has been suggested that because of the smallness of the sum, the principle of wage restraint should not have been imposed on this particular section of the public service, and that there might be less need now for wage restraint. That view the Government do not accept, and it was made emphatically plain in the Budget speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that our first priority was still to maintain the value of the pound. He felt it necessary to point out that if wage increases in general were beyond the national increase in productivity it was bound to damage the national interest and that of everyone.

Mrs. White

The hon. Lady has not given the estimated cost of the increases compared with the estimated cost of the proposed scales. She has worked only in percentages. But as the Home Secretary's own proposals made larger increases in the earlier increments than in the proposed scales, and as the proposed scale comes higher for a number of people who stay on in the service beyond five years, only those who have been in for a longer time would be getting more under the proposals which have been objected to. The House is entitled to know the Home Office's estimate of the real difference in total cost—not in percentages.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

The difference in total cost is about£4,000. I have said earlier that it is a small sum, but that does not invalidate the principle at a time when all sections of the community were being asked to accept wage restraint. The Council's proposals would have meant an increase at the maximum of 13 per cent., compared with an increase at the maximum under the new Regulations of 6 per cent.

Mr. Greenwood

The hon. Lady is talking about principle, but does she not appreciate that, for the sum of£4,000 a year, the Government are throwing overboard the principle of joint negotiation and destroying confidence in the trade union movement in the Government's intentions in these matters?

Miss Hornsby-Smith

That may be the hon. Gentleman's interpretation, but I shall be dealing with the question of the principle of joint negotiation, and I do not accept what has been said by hon. Members opposite in relation to my right hon. Friend's conduct in this matter. Since the Chancellor's statement, nothing has happened to change our view of the necessity for wage restraint, although the Government have shown that where they believe there is a claim for a reasonable increase—as is provided for in these Regulations—an increase to that extent has been granted. It cannot be argued that because a service cannot be productive in the industrial sense it need not be required to conform to restraints which are applied elsewhere. In our view it would be both idle and irresponsible of the Government to exhort others to apply restrictions if, in the field of public service, where the Minister has a statutory responsibility—as has the Secretary of State in this case—he should decline to do so.

We accepted that the firewomen had a just claim to an increase of pay, and the Regulations provide for it. When we analyse the increases provided for in these Regulations and compare them with the recommendations of the National Joint Council we find that the four officer ranks will receive less under the Government recommendations than they would have done under the National Joint Council proposals, as will firewomen at two points in the scale; that firewomen at six points in the scale will receive the same increase as that recommended by the Council, and that at two points they will receive more under the Government proposals than under the Council's recommendations.

It has been suggested by nearly every speaker that the action taken by my right hon. Friend constitutes an interference in the rights of employers and employees freely to negotiate agreements about pay. I emphasise most emphatically that we do not accept that the Secretary of State's attitude impairs the authority of the National Joint Council. Under the Fire Services Act, 1947, he is statutorily empowered to refer back to the Council recommendations which he does not approve. The fact that that has not happened on many occasions does not lessen his powers as laid down in the Act, which says that if he approves the recommendations he may, by regulation, give effect to them. The Act does not say that he shall do so. As I have explained, the Secretary of State is given express power to refer back to the National Joint Council any recommendations that are not approved by him.

So long as the Secretary of State is so empowered he has a duty to fulfil that responsibility. It is for him, if he deems fit, to refer back recommendations to the Council, and to suggest that the responsibility given him under the Act is meaningless, that he should not exercise it, and that if he uses the authority given him by Parliament he is undermining the whole authority of the Council, is a gross exaggeration of the position. If he is to be denied that authority it undermines the authority of the Minister and Parliament to control the expenditure of public funds voted by this House.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) said in reply to the question raised by the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), the Government are not represented on the National Joint Council, but the Government contribution towards the overall cost of the fire services is 25 per cent. It runs into some millions of pounds, and features in the Estimates of the Department, and is voted by the House. I cannot accept the view that the Secretary of State, by using the powers statutorily given him, is undermining the authority of the Council by virtue of the fact that he is using those powers to refer this question back to that Council.

I say again that my right hon. Friend made it plain to the deputation—and he still stands by the undertaking he gave then—that the door is not closed on the re-assessment of the basis on which fire-women's pay is calculated, as was hoped for in the original recommendation of the Council. He made it plain to the deputation that he certainly hoped that he would be in a position to do so in the not too far distant future.

The firewomen have received increases which are not ungenerous, and I hope that the House will not accede to the Prayer.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. John Diamond (Gloucester)

I will detain the House for but a few minutes, and only because I myself received a delegation from firewomen a little time ago in relation to the subject of this Prayer.

I did not attempt to speak earlier because it seemed to me that hon. Members on all sides of the House virtually made the same points, that in two major respects these Regulations were a fatal mistake. It has been suggested that they hit at the most tender point of wage negotiations, namely, belief in machinery of this kind, and seem to be bearing down as in a previous case on a section of the community because it was weak and unable to fight back. As the arguments were wholly one way, and most important arguments, it seemed only right to listen to the reply of the hon. Lady in the hope that there would be some possible explanation for the action proposed.

There are two arguments in respect of the action proposed against which we are praying. The first is the argument about inflation; namely, that we cannot afford to pay any section of the community more than what is compensated for by an increase in productivity. That argument was utterly destroyed by two things the hon. Lady said. First, at two points in the scale the Home Secretary is proposing to pay more than the National Joint Council itself proposed, and in total the Home Secretary is proposing an increase of 6 per cent., as opposed to the 13 per cent. which the National Joint Council suggested.

Mrs. White

At the maximum.

Mr. Diamond

At the maximum. The 6 per cent. is far in excess of any increase in productivity that anyone is possibly looking for in the overall increases in the country. Until the figures came out, yesterday or today, productivity was generally regarded as stagnant, but as we know now, that—as usual—was an understatement and in fact productivity is falling. In other wage negotiations 3 per cent. has been discussed, and 6 per cent. must be well up on anything so far contemplated.

The other argument was that this was not an interference with the work of the National Joint Council. I imagine that in this case, as in other cases, these matters have been very carefully considered. As the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) pointed out, the employers' side on the Council is not made up of a lot of simple individuals who will not pay full regard to the economic implications. They decided on a general structure and a general series of variations of wages which they thought appropriate to the circumstances. All those who, like myself, have seen fire-women at work know how right it is that they should be paid wages commensurate and comparable with the duties they do alongside their mates, the firemen.

The Home Secretary has seen fit, not to reject the four years' work—it has taken four years to come out, I do not know how long it was considered—but in three major instances to give more in certain cases and less in others, and has destroyed the whole basis of the suggestions which were put forward. It would be difficult to find a more certain way of destroying the value of that work and giving every member on the employers' side the feeling that this is the last time they will go out of their way to devise suitable rates of wages. Therefore, I hope that, as the reply of the hon. Lady has given the case away in these two major respects, we shall do whatever is in our power to fight against the suggestion which is now being made.

Question put and negatived.