HC Deb 09 November 1977 vol 938 cc671-7
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I wish to make a statement about Fire Service pay and the threatened strike in the Fire Service.

In September, the Fire Brigades Union submitted a claim to the National Joint Council for local authorities' fire brigades. The claim is that the qualified fireman should be paid an annual salary equivalent to a total of the average weekly earnings of adult male workers, plus 10 per cent. to take account of the skills and dangers inherent in their duties. This would mean an increase of about 30 per cent. Similar increases would be sought for other members of the service, up to and including sub-officer.

On 3rd November, the employers' side of the National Joint Council made a three-part offer. This was: to increase earnings by 10 per cent. from 7th November 1977; to continue discussions on the appropriate future position of firemen in the national pay structure; and to continue discussions on a reduction in the working week from the present 48 hours.

At a recalled delegate conference of the union held at Eastbourne on 7th November, the executive council of the union recommended that the conference should approve negotiations continuing within this framework and that the outcome should be reported back to a further recalled conference within a few weeks. This recommendation was rejected by conference and a resolution was carried calling for strike action to begin on Monday 14th November in the event of failure to settle the union's claim before that date.

The Secretary of State for Scotland and I met representatives of the employers' side and of the union yesterday. We reaffirmed that there could be no question of any settlement with effect from 7th November which was not within the limits of the Government's guidelines on pay. We made it clear again that the Government recognised the need to establish a formula for determining Fire Service pay. We welcomed the fact that the National Joint Council was seeking through established negotiating procedures to achieve this. We said again that the Government would closely follow discussion on this subject in the National Joint Council, though the phasing of any further pay increase would have to be considered in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time.

We also repeated that the Government recognised that there was a long-standing claim for a reduction in the 48-hour week of the firemen and would now be prepared for a reduction in working hours to be negotiated. It would not be possible to implement any reduction before the autumn of 1978, although preparation, including the recruitment of additional firemen for training, could begin before then.

We urged yesterday that discussions on both of these issues should continue without delay. The two sides assured us that they would. The Secretary of State for Scotland and I told those who came to see us yesterday that we stood ready to meet representatives of the National Joint Council at any time.

It is the Government's duty to do all that they can to protect life and property in the situation which faces us. We have made preparations to this end. Plans have been prepared by central Government and by fire authorities, with the Services, and will be ready to be put into operation on 14th November. Emergency fire appliances are being made available to fire authorities and Service men are being specially trained to man them. With this assistance, fire authorities will provide the best possible fire cover.

We are issuing guidance through Government Departments and local authorities on the precautions to be taken in factories, schools, hospitals, old people's homes and so on, and we shall issue advice to the public about precautions to take in their homes. Each of us in our own community should do the best we can to help those less able to help themselves. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that similar arrangements would be made in Northern Ireland should that be necessary.

With the best that all of us can do by way of these precautions I am under no illusions that they can match the fire cover provided by the regular Fire Service. There remains serious risk of loss of life and damage to property. The serious consequences that must follow any national strike in the Fire Service are incalculable.

In conclusion, I recognise how much we all depend on the Fire Service and on the willingness of its members to turn out at the call of duty and face the difficulties and dangers their work involves. I share the wish of the Fire Brigades Union and its members to see their pay based on a formula which recognises their value to the community. I want to see discussions of that and of a reduction in the working week pressed forward. I can understand that firemen feel that they have waited a long time. None the less, I ask them, even at this late date, to think again.

An immediate increase of 10 per cent. in earnings is on the table. Firemen will share in the benefits that will come to us from the maintenance of the guidelines on pay. The discussions on a pay formula and on reduction of the working week hold out for the first time great and longlooked-for promise for the future. I ask the members of the union to weigh the benefits to them of what is on offer and the disasters and tragedies which may be the consequences of a strike.

Mr. Whitelaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if, alas, any further negotiations fail to produce agreement and the strike takes place, we shall support any measures which the Government consider necessary for the protection of the public? In particular, can he assure the House and the country that every effort will be made to ensure that the emergency 999 telephone system will continue to operate?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. There are a number of aspects where 999 telephones work through the police switchboard, and so on. It may vary in different parts of the country. I shall be issuing a circular to authorities about various aspects—for example, the situation on motorways, where the Fire Service does an excellent job extricating people involved in accidents. There is also the question what sort of radio communication there will be. It may vary from one area to another. The advice that we are giving and the advice that we have received—for it is a two-way process—has been worked on for some days. I have set up an operations centre at the Home Office. But the local authorities are responsible for fire services. It is not a national responsibility. However, the point the right hon. Gentleman raised is one of many which we expect will be attended to, if in different ways.

Mr. Sillars

Will the Home Secretary reaffirm what he said earlier—that the best possible fire cover cannot provide an alternative to what we get at the moment from a highly-trained professional, skilled Fire Service? Is the Home Secretary aware of the feeling of men on the fire stations that there can be no settlement without an increased offer? Unless an increased offer is forthcoming, the men will hit the streets in a bitter mood on Monday morning.

I ask the Home Secretary, given his forward commitment to the police, which demonstrates that the 10 per cent. limit is not only non-statutory but also flexible, to say that he recognises that the firemen are a special case in so far as they have to go into buildings from which everyone else is desperately trying to escape.

Mr. Rees

I reaffirm what my hon. Friend said about the scope of the fire cover provided by Fire Service men, including retained firemen and their officers, That is right. But when my hon. Friend makes comparisons, I must point out that the 10 per cent figure has been the same in all cases in any discussions I have had dealing with my various responsibilities. He is an ex-fireman and knows the basis of this problem. In the 10 years during which I have been associated with the Fire Service, at their conference each year what firemen sought more than any thing else was a reduction in the 48-hour week which marked them as different from everybody else. We have now said that straight away we can begin the training of new firemen. It will take about a year.

It will mean that in mid-year there will be people trained. It needs discussions on the various forms of rota. The aim is to get to a 42-hour week.

I believe that that commitment, which we allowed to go forward through the NJC, is one of the most important that the Fire Service has had during the past 25 years. It is a commitment that I hope firemen will think about very carefully.

Mr. Pardoe

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, whatever the delays and frustrations suffered over a long period by firemen in their demands, the Government's proposals as put forward by him and his colleagues yesterday are fair and reasonable? Does he recognise that although in this case withdrawal of labour may literally mean death, he has no alternative but to stand firm, and that the whole House must support him in his last-minute appeal to the better nature of the firemen?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said on behalf of his party. The results of the judgment we all make are incalculable. I do not believe that at the end of the day, despite what was said at the conference, people will sit by and watch other people die. That is not the Fire Service that I have known over the past 10 or 15 years. But if that is the way it will be, I must take every step that I have taken to save life. However the matter looks now in the newspapers, we must think of the effect in a community if people die in an old people's home as a result of fire. The kick-backs on the Government if we have not taken the right steps, on the local authority, whose legal responsibility it is, and on those who are the cause will be incalculable in a developing situation.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I intend to take only one more question from each side.

Mr. Heffer

My right hon. Friend is correct to say that the firemen are not taking this decision lightly. Is my right hon. Friend aware that I and other Members on the Labour Benches who have met firemen have never met such frustration and anger among any section of workers, including the police, who also have been to see me on occasion? Is he also aware that if there is a strike—I hope that there will not be one—we shall still have to come round the table? It is better to get round the table, almost as a continuous session, than to have a strike. I ask my right hon. Friend, even at this late hour, to intervene, intervene and intervene until a settlement is reached, otherwise, we shall have a chaotic situation, with loss of life, which neither the firemen nor anyone else want.

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is correct in his first statement. He is also correct that negotiations are the best way through. But to negotiate at the end of the day, when frightful things will have happened, is the wrong way to set about it. Not only with firemen but with policemen—and I have a responsibility in broadcasting as well—I must take into account that as we emerge from a statutory pay policy the dangers of what would happen overall if one gave in in that respect are far greater for the community as a whole.

Sir J. Eden

I pay tribute to the skill and dedication of the members of the Fire Service and share the hope that the strike does not take place. Will the right hon. Gentleman see that the fire authorities, in conjunction with the relevant military units, identify special areas of high risk and particularly places where elderly and infirm people live, including those who live on their own, for whom communications may be very difficult? Many of them are already suffering enough anxiety as a result of the power cuts.

Mr. Rees

I was wrong just now. I did not mean "statutory ". I meant an inflexible policy. [Laughter.] It is not an amusing matter.

On the question of special areas of risk, what I authorised a day or two ago was for the chief executives, the chiefs of police, the chief fire officers and the local army commanders to talk together about all the problems in advance of making firm decisions. As will be seen from the circular which I shall issue and which I shall put in the Library, of course it matters that the social services department in a locality should play its part, although it cannot be laid down in hard and fast terms. It may be that in old people's homes there will be need for extra guard during this period, and I know that the local authorities will play their part. But, as I said in my statement, there will need to be help to people living nearby of whom one knows, and in certain areas that is easier than in others. The community will have to help in this. The Government will do their part and the local authorities will do their part. Everybody has to help in this situation, because it is fraught with the greatest difficulty.

Mr. Crouch

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is one aspect on which the Home Secretary has not been questioned and has not been able to answer. I wonder whether it is possible to put a question to him about the situation in rural areas.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I think that it would be unfair to the House if I reopened questions after what I said. It seems to me to be the general wish of the House to move on.