HC Deb 09 November 1977 vol 938 cc685-8
Mr. Sillars

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the grave threat to public safety and the future of the Fire Service if a Government-imposed but non-statutory wages limit causes firemen to strike from Monday next. I submit that this application falls properly within the terms of Standing Order No. 9. It is specific in that it relates to the issue of the first-ever national strike of firemen, the date of which is known. Its importance cannot be over-emphasised. Today, people, their domestic property, commercial undertakings and industry en-enjoy a 24-hour fire and emergency cover from teams of highly skilled, highly motivated firemen. To perform the work of a fireman and thereby provide cover for the community requires a high degree of train ing in the technique of fire fighting, a sound knowledge of building construction and design, an understanding of hydraulics, a good grasp of topography, a recognition of the hazards presented by modern materials and chemicals, and, above all, experience, guts and a high morale.

The Fire Service is a highly specialised one. There is no ready-made substitute. The Army cannot provide an alternative. London alone has 450 calls a day and needs 5,500 trained men to give a 24-hour cover to this city. Troops running to fires with out-of-date fire engines cannot adequately replace professional firemen equipped with modern fire appliances and trained to cope with the trauma of fire.

The matter is urgent because the Fire Brigades Union and the Government have made no progress towards a settlement. If the House is to debate the issue before a firemen's strike becomes an appalling reality, it can only be today or tomorrow. Perhaps the urgency of the situation can best be summed up by an old slogan from a fire prevention campaign of the 1960s, "What burns never returns ", and that applies to people and property.

It is my submission that the House cannot let matters drift until next week. Lives lost in the horror of fire is what is at stake. That is what makes a debate so urgent.

Finally, in trying to persuade you, Mr. Speaker, and the House to hold an emergency debate, may I direct attention to what happened on 28th March 1960, when 14 members of the Glasgow Fire Brigade and five members of the Salvage Corps lost their lives in the whisky bond disaster. On 29th March 1960, the then Secretary of State for Scotland said : This disaster is a reminder of the hazards that members of our fire brigades and salvage corps constanly face with unfailing courage and devotion to duty and the men who were killed have given their lives in upholding the great traditions of their service. Tom Fraser, then leading for the Labour Opposition on Scottish affairs, carried the whole House with him when he said It is only on occasions such as this that we have brought home to us the great services that these people render to the rest of the community. "—[Officio! Report, 29th March 1960 ; Vol. 620 cc. 1141–42.] I have used these quotations to illustrate that firemen have never been short of sympathy when they are dead or when their mates have been killed. We have used up buckets of sympathy and wreaths of flowers at funerals. Surely it is not only on occasions such as this that we find time to debate the issue of the fireman and his contribution to society and, just as important, society's responsibility and that of this House to our firemen.

I believe that a debate could assist to achieve a settlement before strike action becomes inevitable on Monday. That is the reason I make the application, and I hope that it will be successful.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman gave me notice before noon today that he proposed to make this application under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely, the grave threat to public safety and the future of the fire service if a Government-imposed but non-statutory wages limit causes firemen to strike from Monday next. The House knows that the hon. Member has raised an extremely important matter. When I give a ruling I never state the considerations that are in my mind and the reasons that lead me to it. I do not intend to grant the hon. Member's request at this stage.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I fully accept your decision, but if other hon. Members tomorrow felt that the matter, as a continuing question, is one that the House should discuss, would you then give consideration to that?

Mr. Speaker

It is impossible for me to say what my ruling would be tomorrow. I imagine, however, that same considerations would be borne in mind.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

With respect, Mr. Speaker, I am not questioning your ruling, but may I raise another matter? Are we not later today to debate the Loyal Address in reply to the Queen's Speech? That is only a matter of convenience. There is nothing in the Standing Orders which prevents any hon. Member, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars), from raising this question. It may not be desired by the Government, it may not be welcomed by the Oppo- sition, but, with great respect, am I not correct in saying that if my hon Friends feel that this is a more important subject to debate than that which the usual channels have fixed they are at liberty to do so? I hope that my hon. Friends will do this, if only to teach the Government and the Opposition that there are some important matters that need to be debated.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is one of the most experienced Members. He is, of course, right in saying that the debate on the Queen's Speech is very broad, probably the broadest that we have throughout the year.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for intervening again. Of course any hon. Member can raise anything in the debate on the Queen's Speech, but we could not move a motion to ask the House to do something specific, which we could do in the event of an emergency debate. That is the difference. It is on that basis that hon. Members are raising this matter.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is also correct. He cannot move another motion during the debate on the Queen's Speech, but I have given my ruling and I must stand by it.