HC Deb 03 July 1959 vol 608 cc809-15

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Reader Harris

This Clause is one of the very greatest importance to all who serve in fire brigades, because it is the Clause which no longer makes it necessary for the Home Secretary to make regulations which govern the pay and conditions of service of members of fire brigades.

This is the one Clause in the Bill which has led many members of fire brigades to believe that they are now being thrown to the- wolves, if I may use that phrase about the local authorities, in matters of pay, hours of duty, and so forth. The local authority associations have wanted this Clause for a very long time, because they have always taken the view that they know how to be good employers, that they are, in fact, good employers and that members of fire brigades have nothing to worry about. By and large, that is true, and though there is always the recalcitrant fire authority which chooses not to implement something in a regulation which is of a permissive nature, so far as permissive regulations go, there is no change in the situation.

On the other hand, pay and hours of duty of the junior ranks in the fire service have been laid down in mandatory form in the regulations and it is these regulations which will in due course disappear. I do not think that the representative bodies in the fire service are necessarily concerned about this too much, provided that there is always some method whereby a local authority can in the end be brought to heel.

Obviously, in the final analysis the Home Office could, I suppose, withhold grant if the fire authority did not comply with the mandatory regulations. It will not be nearly so easy now to get that withholding of grant applied, although there is some provision for it in the Local Government Act, 1958. It is presumed now that the Terms and Conditions of Employment Act will now be the relevant Act for seeing that individual fire authorities carry out their duties in a reasonable manner.

My chief reason for speaking on this Clause is that I am wondering whether the Clause affects in any way the last paragraph of Section 17 of the main Act referring to the Wages Councils Act, 1945. I apologise for my ignorance of this matter. Possibly this Act has now been repealed and does not apply any longer. The main concern is that there should be reference to arbitration, not only that it shall be possible to reach an agreement between the two sides in the fire service, the employers and employees, but also that new fire authorities will be compelled eventually to comply with reasonable conditions which are agreed on the National Joint Council for local authority fire brigades.

I do not think I need say any more except to remind the Joint Under-Secretary that this is a very big step in the relaxation of controls which the Home Office has exercised for so long over the fire brigades. It is a relaxation which does not meet with universal approval, but if it has got to come I suppose that we must accept it.

So far as members of the fire brigades are concerned, this is a retrograde step in their conditions of service. There is great concern lest we get in the fire service what exists in some branches of local government, and that is a complete departure from national standards of pay. We do not want to have what applies in the National Union of Public Employees—zoning for pay arrangements whereby the pay in one zone is different from that in another, depending on whether or not the employment situation is easy or difficult.

We are very anxious that the fire services should maintain a national standard throughout the country, because it is fairest for the employees, and, in the end, it contributes to the efficiency of the fire brigades. We hope that when the local authorities come into complete control, they will view the matter in the same light as did the Home Office in the past, because we regret generally the passing of control from the Home Office in this matter.

Mr. Ede

I share the misgivings felt by the hon. Member for Heston and Isle-worth (Mr. Reader Harris). Do not let us forget that, in the event of a grave national emergency, it has always been said that the first thing to be done will be to re-nationalise the fire services. I do not think that there is any difference between the two sides of the House on that. It is, therefore, very essential that the national unity of the service, now that some of the central controls are being relaxed, should always be borne in mind. I very sincerely hope that it will be recognised by all the fire authorities that their position is different from that of any other service in that there is no doubt that, in the event of a grave national emergency—and everyone knows what those three words mean—this service will again become national in scope and in administration.

I do not want to see us drift into a situation in which we have immobility in the service, even while under local control, because of differing scales of salaries and conditions in various parts of the country. It is very important that this shall be a service in which men can move from one area to another and acquire a range of experience which will make them really efficient members of the service, particularly if, in an emergency, they should have to be moved from one part of the country to another.

I know that Manchester was in a serious plight during the war owing to heavy bombardment, and that fire services far from Manchester received instructions from the centre that they were to proceed with all possible speed to assist in dealing with the conflagration and its results as they affected Manchester. I also know that there were other places where similar efforts had to be made.

One of the things that astounded me was that before they took over the local authorities met and agreed on scales of salaries and wages which were more than would have been thought of had the local authorities not taken the opportunity to move in before they actually had the statutory powers. I rather imagine that the hon. Member for Heston and Isle-worth, who was actively engaged in these affairs at the time, also received a pleasant surprise in the way that the first scale was negotiated.

Mr. Reader Harris

Hear, hear.

Mr. Ede

I hope that there will be a feeling of responsibility in the local fire authorities, and a recognition that it is essential that this service, on which the safety not merely of the lives of the people but of the whole social arrangements of the country, might depend in a grave emergency, must be unified, and that this unity will not be disturbed because of anything that might happen if unwise counsels should prevail as a result of the passing of this Clause.

Mr. Hannan

May I add a sentence or two of support for what has been said on the extremely important aspect of this Clause? I was not concerned with this matter as directly, in the important sense, as the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris), and to a much lesser extent than my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), but at the beginning of the war, when the conditions of pay and service were brought into a uniform pattern, that was one of the first things which gave an impetus to the recruiting which was so very necessary to build up the fire services.

I wish to ask the Joint Under-Secretary to impress upon the local authorities how important it is that they should not deviate in this matter of conditions of service. If there is—which God forbid—a national emergency in the future, all the work which my right hon. Friend and others did will have to be gone though once more, to the great disadvantage of the country. I therefore support them in the contention which they have put forward, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to reassure us that the points they have raised are kept in mind.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

While I hope that we can have the advantage of hearing the views of the Joint Under-Secretary, perhaps it might be convenient for me to intervene at this point to express my support for the point of view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and other hon. Members. I think that it would be a great mistake now if we did depart from any national standard of conditions, and that any zonal arrangements would be disastrous. I wish to remind the hon. Lady that the men and the officers in the fire services are organised on a national basis, and I am quite sure that they will be able to look after their own interests and deal with any recalcitrant authorities which seek to depart from any national standard. On the whole, relations are very friendly, and it would be a great pity if such action as that were necessary.

It would be a great help indeed if the Home Office could do something towards maintaining the national standards of conditions of service which have now existed for so long, and I intervene at this stage only to suggest that perhaps the hon. Lady might look at the matter again between now and Report stage and consider whether something can be done at that time to meet the legitimate points which have been made.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to clear up, I hope, what I believe is an unnecessary apprehension about the manner in which these new arrangements will work. I do not think that there is the slightest intention or desire on the part of the fire authorities to do other than abide by national negotiations and the national scale, and I am sure that the apprehensions which my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) expressed about differing rates are unfounded.

Perhaps I could clarify the position as it is now and as it will apply after the passing of this Measure. The present situation is that there is satisfactory national negotiating machinery in the form of two National Joint Councils—one for chief fire officers and one for the ranks below chief fire officer—but that the recommendations of these bodies do not take effect until the Secretary of State has approved them and has embodied them in regulations. He also has the power to initiate changes. We believe that the stage has been reached where the known views of fire authorities and members of brigades can be met, and the Secretary of State's powers as regards pay and conditions of service can be relinquished, except those relating to the maintenance of discipline and efficiency.

The effect of the Clause is, broadly, that pay and conditions of service of member of brigades will in future continue to be a matter for collective bargaining between representatives of fire authorities and members of brigades through the joint negotiating machinery, and that decisions of the National Joint Councils will take effect hereafter without the approval of the Secretary of State.

The position then will be that as the decisions of the National Joint Councils will not be embodied in a Statutory Instrument, they will no longer be automatically binding on fire authorities. Members of brigades will, however, be safeguarded by Section 8 of the Terms and Conditions of Employment Act, 1959, which provides machinery, similar to that previously provided by the Industrial Disputes Order, 1951, for the settlement of "issues" between employers and workers.

Section 8 provides that where there are established conditions of employment in any trade or industry which have been settled as the outcome of negotiations between organisations representing a substantial proportion of the employers and workers concerned, and an employer fails to observe those conditions—this would cover the local authority which, my hon. Friend suggested, might not honour or keep to the generally-recognised national rates—the Minister of Labour may, on the matter being reported to him, take suitable steps to settle the issue and, if necessary, refer it to the Industrial Court. An award by the Industrial Court requiring the employer to observe the recognised conditions of employment has effect as an implied term of the contract of employment.

Workers whose remuneration is governed by Statute are excluded from the operation of these provisions, which consequently do not at present apply to members of brigades. When, however, Section 17 of the Fire Services Act is amended as now proposed, members will automatically come within the ambit of this machinery for the settlement of "issues". So far as the fixing of their conditions of service is concerned, members of brigades will then be in a similar position to local government employees generally.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the existence of this safeguard. I am sure that there is not the slightest desire or intention by the councils representing either the employing authorities or the chief fire officers or those below that rank that there should be any move back to any individual or zonal rates. I am sure that they are determined to maintain the national standard for this important national service.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.