HC Deb 25 October 1973 vol 861 cc1486-90
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Gordon Campbell)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Glasgow Fire Service dispute.

Two meetings of firemen in Glasgow yesterday voted in favour of a strike which I understand is to take effect from tomorrow morning.

The dispute is one between the men and Glasgow Corporation, as the fire authority, and it is primarily over pay, the men having refused an offer made to them by the establishment committee of the corporation in response to a claim for an additional payment of £5 a week. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the issues involved in the dispute, beyond making it clear that pay and conditions of service are governed by agreements within the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades. The National Joint Council has asked my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and me to receive a deputation to discuss current problems arising from the Cunningham Report, and this is being arranged.

The strike on which the firemen have decided is against the clear advice of their union. I very much regret that the men should have decided upon this course of action, which runs counter to the whole tradition of the fire service in the discharge of its essential duty to the community. I hope that even now those concerned will think further before they commit themselves to industrial action.

I have kept in close touch with the situation, and I asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture to fly to Scotland yesterday to be ready to meet those involved. He has already held useful meetings today with the corporation and the union. I understand that a request for assistance will be reaching me this afternoon from the corporation.

Meanwhile, the Government are taking immediate measures to ensure that they are in a position to help the Glasgow Firemaster, should this be necessary, in safeguarding life and property in Glasgow.

Mr. Ross

I am sure the Secretary of State will be aware that the Opposition share his concern about what could be a serious situation if this dispute develops—in a city where the fire risk is so high and where it has proved so deadly. We echo the right hon. Gentleman's hope that even at this late stage the firemen will think again about the advice given to them by their union.

The Secretary of State must be aware that there are special strains and dangers faced daily by Glasgow firemen. Is he aware of their almost unique record in terms of strikes and of the fact that their situation has evoked public sympathy and admiration? Therefore, will he agree that when such men feel impelled to take such drastic action the Government should look again with urgency at their part in the matter and the part their policies have played in bringing about this confrontation?

Have any meetings been arranged with the firemen? I notice that the Undersecretary of State has met the corporation and the union, but has there been any communication with the firemen? What kind of assistance has Glasgow sought? Will they be released from some of the restrictions of the pay code, and what measures has the right hon. Gentleman in hand to deal with the fire cover? Am I right in thinking that it may mean the bringing in of Service personnel? The right hon. Gentleman may have no option but to do this, but does he realise the special dangers that face Service personnel in fire fighting in an area in which they are bound to be unfamiliar with the special risks and hazards concerned? I sincerely hope that it will not come to that.

Mr. Campbell

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it would be wiser for the Glasgow firemen to have second thoughts about yesterday's decision. I agree that the situation which threatens the city is a serious one, and I am greatly concerned about the protection of the citizens of Glasgow.

I will not comment on the merits of the issues. The men's right course, as strongly advised by their union, is to pursue these matters in the National Joint Council.

We have not had talks with representatives of the men other than the union representatives; that is to say, the officers of the Fire Brigades Union, who, I understand, have condemned the proposal to strike and have dismissed the local union representatives.

Contingency planning does not preclude the use of armed forces if necessary to provide adequate cover. The assessment of the requirements for maintaining adequate fire protection is a matter on which we will keep in close touch with the Firemaster in Glasgow, with whom my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is now.

Mr. William Hannan

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us feel that the local authority has no alternative but to seek the assistance of the Government in the situation which faces it? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that many former members of the fire service and the union who, like myself, have served for many years and during the war feel dismayed at this break with the well-recognised tradition of the service, which has always been to meet its responsibilities? Will he add a tribute to the courage of the union leadership, which has already taken action in repeatedly asking the men to return to work?

Above all, will the Government learn the lesson from the invidious predicament in which the local authority has been placed, on the one hand being strangled by the Government's prices and incomes policy and on the other hand being faced with the statutory duty of protecting the lives and property of Glasgow citizens, especially when Glasgow has had more than its quota of dangerous fires?

Mr. Campbell

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's dismay at what is happening in view of the industrial relations record of the fire service. I agree that the union has firmly made its attitude clear against unofficial action of this kind, but I cannot pursue the issues which are dividing the corporation and the firemen. That is a matter for discussion elsewhere.

Dr. Miller

May I press the right hon. Gentleman for a greater degree of specificity? Is he aware that the situation is extremely hazardous and that a strike of firemen is even more dangerous to the public than is a strike of doctors? We want from him today a clear indication that in the event of strike action being taken he has contingency plans for safeguarding the citizens of Glasgow. Will he let us have details of the plans?

Mr. Campbell

I assure the hon. Gentleman that contingency planning is being carried out and that we shall be able to help the Glasgow Firemaster from 8 o'clock tomorrow morning, when it is understood that the strike will start, if it does happen. We are in touch with the Firemaster about his requirements. It may be that a large number of men will continue to work.

Mr. Sillars

I have an interest to declare as a member of the Fire Brigades Union. Is the Secretary of State aware that the Scottish TUC and the TUC this afternoon joined the union executive in appealing to the men to continue to work tomorrow and not to join in the strike? Those of us who know about the fire service are opposed to the strike. I personally deplore it because it will destroy the unity of the union and of the fire service. We recognise that without that unity no progress can be made in the years ahead.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the fire service pay and conditions affect all firemen in the United Kingdom—not only the Glasgow firemen—and that many of us do not see why the basic rate in one area should be different from the basic rate in another area?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that representatives of the Fire Brigades Union came to see him and the Home Secretary more than two months ago to urge implementation of the final part of the Cunningham report on the fire service? Will he give an assurance that priority will be given to the implementation of the Cunningham report as the best means of solving the difficulties?

Mr. Campbell

As I say, the Fire Brigades Union has made its view clear, and it is no surprise that this should be supported by other unions. As I said in my statement, the Fire Brigades Union has asked to see the Home Secretary and me, and a meeting is being arranged in the near future. We also saw the national chairman and other officers of the union about two months ago to discuss the Cunningham report. These are matters on which discussion is continuing.

Mr. James Hamilton

As one who has constituents involved in the dispute, I fully recognise the union's authority and believe that that authority should be recognised by the membership. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that over the years there has been great dissatisfaction about the National Joint Council negotiations? Does he accept that because of the hazards of the job and the poor pay of the firemen their case should be treated as a special one? There is recognition by the union at national level that the men have a justifiable case. Will the right hon. Gentleman add his weight to the union's point of view, try to resolve the difficulty and treat the firemen as a special case?

Mr. Campbell

I have noted what the hon. Gentleman says about the National Jount Council negotiations. I cannot go into the issues which he raises. Those are matters for discussion in the normal way. I recognise, as does my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the special hazards of the fire services.

Mr. Ross

I realise that the Secretary of State cannot go into the details of later negotiations, but will he speed up the meeting with the delegation from the local authority and the National Joint Council?

Mr. Campbell

With my right hon. Friend I shall be meeting that delegation in the next few days. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is dealing with the situation today in Glasgow and with the immediate question of maintaining fire protection cover in the city from tomorrow morning.