HC Deb 15 November 1977 vol 939 cc289-356

3.33 p.m.

Mr. James Sillars (South Ayrshire)

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

Leave having been given on Monday 14th November under Standing Order No. 9 to discuss:

The grave threat to public safety and the future of the Fire Service now that the firemen are on strike.

Because of the rules of the House, it is not possible to move a more substantive motion than that on this issue. But I draw the attention of the House to Early-Day Motion No. 39, which states That this House believes the members of the Fire Service have a just case and are engaged on work in circumstances requiring special consideration over pay and conditions; and calls for meaningful negotiations between the Government, local authorities and the Fire Brigades Union to reach a new pay arrangement which recognises the need to be both flexible and fair. There is considerable significance in the words "flexible and fair", to which I shall come later in my remarks.

It may well be that a number of my hon. Friends and I will feel the necessity later this evening to divide the House on this technical question of the Adjournment. But I hope, if that arises, that no one will go into the Lobby with myself and my hon. Friends other than on the issue of the firemen's strike and that no one will take advantage of that situation to try to cause political embarrassment for the Government. I believe that the situation which faces us at present far transcends any party political manoeuvre, even in an Election year. The question whether there will be a Division will depend largely upon what is said by the Home Secretary.

The first time that I visited the Houses of Parliament was as a young fireman in the 1960s, and I was down here on the question of wages and conditions. I was also down here as a member of the Fire Brigades Union lobby of Members of Parliament to talk and argue about improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Fire Service. It is a marked feature of the Fire Brigades Union that it has been more concerned with the dedication of the men for the job and concern for the effectiveness of the Fire Service when it gets to a fire and tends to the needs of the public than it has been with pay and conditions.

Most of my adult life has been associated with the Fire Brigade Union, and I should declare an interest. I am an out of-trade member of that union. My brother is a member of the Fire Brigades Union now on strike and, as he usually buys the pints at the weekend, I suppose I have an indirect pecuniary interest. I have always felt considerable pride in being associated with the Fire Brigades Union. The hallmark of the Fire Brigades Union—when I first joined it under the leadership of John Horner, then of T. Parry; Enoch Humphries, the President, has just retired, and now Wilf Barber is the new President—has always been a concern about the service given by the men on the fire stations to the general public.

It is an absolute tragedy that men in that service and that union find themselves on the street at this time, especially when there is a Labour Government in power. How did this situation arise? It is due to the wages policy. It is well known that I am not sympathetic to the Government's position on wages policy. I hold to exactly the same position as the Labour Party had in October and February 1974 when we recognised the crass stupidity of having a wages policy that had no flexibility.

Indeed, part of the reason that the firemen are on strike now is that they, more than most groups, have suffered grievously under repeated wages policies. The first time I came here was as a young fireman. That visit came after a massive public campaign when we actually went round the doors in the towns that we served, delivering pamphlets and asking the general public to give us their support. We got a settlement at 12 noon and, at 4 p.m. under the Selwyn Lloyd wages policy, we were told that we could not have it.

If hon. Members care to look up the records of the firemen on wages policy—the Fire Brigades Union has today delivered to the House a number of letters to each Member of Parliament explaining the firemen's position—they will see that on wage policy after wage policy the guillotine came down on the firemen more often than it ever came down on any other group.

The current wages situation began with phase 1 of the agreement between the TUC and the Government. No one can complain that in phase 1 and phase 2 the Government acted independently of the Labour movement. Both phases were with the total agreement of the TUC. Indeed, there was the unusual feature of White Papers containing annexes from the General Council of the TUC.

That cannot be said about phase 3. There is no agreement with the TUC on phase 3, except on one particularly important issue, which is the 12-month rule. I hope that no one on the Government Front Bench will say this afternoon what some of the Ministers in the Department of Employment have written to me—that they have the approval of the House for the policy they are pursuing in respect of the 10 per cent. limit because the House gave a vote in favour of the last White Paper.

The Government cannot have it every way. Certainly, the House voted on the White Paper, but that White Paper itself contains the disclaimer from the TUC in respect of the 10 per cent. limit. So the Government cannot have some parts of the White Paper and not others. If the Government want a rigid wages policy, they should have the guts to bring forward a statutory incomes policy. But everyone here knows that that would never be carried in the House.

Phase 3 has always been the difficult re-entry period. All prices and incomes policies have collapsed in phase 3, and it is not difficult to understand why that is so. Indeed, members of the present Cabinet should know all about the problem of phase 3, because it was phase 3 that they inherited when Labour returned to office in February 1974.

In making a statement on the Fire Service the other day, the Home Secretary made a slip of the tongue when he said—I paraphrase his words—that we are now entering the difficult period of phase 3 after a statutory incomes policy. It was a slip of the tongue, because we have not had a statutory policy. But the policy we had in phase 1 and phase 2 has been just as rigid as any statutory policy. So, in essence, there is no difference in our phase 3 problem from the phase 3 problems created by the Conservative Party when it was in Government.

I shall argue in the course of my remarks that, as one enters phase 3, one must recognise exceptional cases, and that should be no new experience for the Government. When the Lord President of the Council was Secretary of State for Employment, he said in the House on 6th May 1974, explaining that he would operate the consent powers under the Counter-Inflation Act: We want to see a smooth transition from statutory controls to voluntary methods, using the limited powers of consent available under existing legislation to ease the most exceptional difficulties. He went on to say later: However, it is borne in on me daily how many difficulties are created by the present controls, and I have made clear that I have no power to issue a consent except where the circumstances are truly exceptional.

One of the truly exceptional circumstances referred to in the next sentence by my right hon. Friend was the case of the Glasgow firemen at that particular time, also that of the Hull freezer trawlers. The Lord President said this later: I am still considering the extremely strong case put to me last week by London Transport and the various unions involved. This raises urgent questions in the light of the necessity to sustain the public transport system in the capital city."—[Official Report, 6th May 1974; Vol. 873, c. 29–31.]

If it was an exceptional circumstance in 1974 under a Tory phase 3 to sustain essential transport services, how much more of an exceptional circumstance is it under Labour's phase 3 to maintain the life-and-death service of the fire brigade in London and elsewhere? So the proposition of exceptional circumstance, the need for flexibility in phase 3, is certainly not new to the Government Front Bench.

The great tragedy if my right hon. Friends continue with their attitude to the firemen, of saying that 10 per cent. is the limit and no more, is that they will find themselves exactly where the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was in the autumn and winter of 1973–74, adopting a Maginot Line mentality that could not give and that inevitably invited confrontation. There is little point in the Home Secretary saying that the Government are not seeking confrontation. No member of the Fire Brigades Union would ever accuse them of that. I certainly do not accuse them of that. But that is the inevitable consequence of saying "Ten per cent. it is and 10 per cent. is a rigid factor that will not change".

If there is to be a sensible return to collective bargaining, there must be a recognition of special cases. There must be a recognition of the need for flexibility. That recognition of the need for flexibility was put to the Fire Brigades Union annual conference in May this year by no less a person than the Home Secretary himself.

In the Library of the House there is a news release from the Home Office. It is dated 18th May and is headed: New pay arrangements must be flexible and fair: Home Secretary warns against wages explosion. The Home Secretary addressed the annual conference of the Fire Brigades Union as the fraternal delegate from the Labour Party. The handout states: … the right hon. Merlyn Rees M.P. spoke of the need for pay arrangements which were both flexible and fair. Those are the very words we use in our Early-Day Motion. My right hon. Friend continued: What we want to see now is the widest possible discussion between the TUC and the Government, within the Trade Union movement, and outside, about how we can beat inflation; about how we can avoid a wages explosion, but at the same time ensure that any new pay arrangements are both flexible and fair. My right hon. Friend went on: I do not believe that we can continue with the rigid policies that we have—necessarily—had for the past two years. I think it is clear that we must look at ways of building more flexibility into the arrangements; we must see if we can give negotiators more elbow room to deal with some of the difficulties which two years of 'rough justice' have undoubtedly caused. What this adds up to is a way of easing a path back to normal collective bargaining, in an orderly and planned fashion, which lets us maintain an effective grip on inflation.

So my right hon. Friend went to the firemen's conference in May at the end of phase 2 and said that when we come to phase 3 flexibility and fairness would be the guiding principles in respect of phase 3. Then we wonder why the firemen are angry at being told that there is a fairly rigid policy in phase 3!

It is not as though the Government—and the Opposition—do not recognise that there are special cases. The Government have recognised that the police are a special case by the acceptance of a police inquiry and a forward commitment to what the inquiry says. The Opposition have declared to everyone who will listen that they regard the police as a special case. I, too, regard them as special. But I am going to argue that the firemen are a very special case, and I think that I can prove it.

I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that there are others who are receiving increases beyond 10 per cent. I also say to my right hon. and hon. Friends, many of whom have great experience of the trade union movement and who know what is going on in industry at present in respect of productivity deals, fringe benefits and so on, that we all know that settlements are more likely to be nearer to 15 per cent. than to 10 per cent. Knowing that, it is almost criminal that we keep the firemen on the street for 10 per cent.

I argue that the firemen are a very special case because of the nature of their job. Outside the Armed Forces, I believe that they are indeed very special. The firemen's job is to go into buildings, factories and houses and risk their lives when everyone else is trying to get out of those buildings to save their lives.

There was an article in The Times of 10th November which is well worth reading. It states: Heads turned in Forest Gate, East London, on Tuesday night when engine F21 and another pump answered a call to a terrace house. The glamour would have been rapidly dispelled at the sight of a 55-year-old dying after self-immolation with paraffin. Men of 'red watch' based at Stratford fire station gathered round her as she lay moaning, her body a mess of burns. That did not quite compare with a case of a woman's body exploding in the heat. It lacked the drama of the Moorgate train disaster or the explosion at Ronan Point, which many of the crew attended. At Moorgate conditions were so bad that the Salvation Army dropped its scruples and served whisky to the firemen.

There are many things within fire stations that are kept private—the type of horror with which firemen deal, for example. They do not normally talk about it to the general public or to Members of Parliament. It is one of those things which tend to be kept inside because there is no point in distributing the horror around. But I shall give one or two examples of the horror—not simply to secure an emotional response to the fireman but as part of his job description. It is one of the reasons why he is a very special case, and is taken from my own knowledge of the Fire Service.

I can remember being called out on a very windy Saturday afternoon to clear up a family home after a chimney head had crashed down two storeys and into a kitchen. The family had been gathered round a six months' old baby who was sitting in the middle of the family circle —the centre of attention—when the falling chimney head had killed the child in full view of there all. Within minutes, it was the responsibility of my watch to attend to that disaster, to console the family and to clear up the problem that had been created—if, indeed, "problem" is an apt description.

There was another case, in which three young people were travelling in a mini-car one Saturday night. The car crashed and the two people in the front seat were thrown clear, but a girl was trapped in the back. The car caught fire and the firemen could not reach the girl as she screamed her way to a horrific death. A fireman tells me that frequently, when he falls asleep at night, he has nightmares about attending incidents of that type.

Another friend of mine, who is now retired from the fire service, went to a fire which had started when a young woman had been doing her ironing in the kitchen. The baby's cradle was near the ironing board, and at that time paraffin heaters were frequently used. The girl had fainted, knocked the paraffin heater over the cradle and the child, and, when she came to, found that she had been carried outside the home. It was my friend's job to hold down that demented girl while her baby roasted inside, as the rest of the firemen tried to overcome the blaze. My friend never recovered from that experience.

That is the nature of fire-fighting. What the public regards as the difficult, dramatic fire is often, in many ways, the easiest type of fire for men to attend—the sort of fire where flames are shooting out all over the place and the roof has already gone; when one can stand 30 yards back to fight it because the building is on its way to being gutted. The really difficult job for the fireman is that which the public does not regard as dramatic, where the basement of a building is totally smoke-logged and the job is to go in, find the seat of the fire, and put it out.

I remind hon. Members that when a fireman dons breathing apparatus and enters a smoke-filled atmosphere, he is literally stepping into the unknown. If he goes into a factory, he does not know whether chemicals will explode, or whether there is a lift shaft and he will fall four storeys on to a concrete floor. It takes a tremendous amount of guts and commitment to engage in fire-fighting. Imagine a fire in a basement, where the smoke and heat have not been allowed to escape because there is no ventilation. It is like stepping into the jaws of Hell. I believe that that is what makes the job very special and I believe that the public recognise that fact.

There is also the question of morality. When the Home Secretary appeared on television the other night, he asked the highly emotive question: would the firemen let women and children burn? I should like to ask the Home Secretary whether he would let women and children burn. Of course there is a moral commitment on the firemen, but there is also a moral commitment on the Government, on this House and on the general public.

Perhaps the best way I can describe that commitment is to quote from an article that I wrote at the time of the Glasgow firemen's strike. Incidentally, I did not support that strike, because it was against trade union policy. This is what I said then: To the public may I explain that I know how the men are feeling, because I have been through the experience of being a fireman, driven to the limit by the frustration of working in a dangerous job for long hours on low pay. When I was a fireman, the strike weapon was discussed frequently in fire stations. All the moral arguments were thrashed out on both sides. I emphasise 'both sides' because many people can see only one side—that which affects the public. There is another side. Firemen are used to public acclaim of their bravery and dedication to a dangerous job. They have come to expect sympathy by the bucketful plus flowers and fine words if they are killed at fires. To many firemen it seems that public and government are concerned more with doing honour to dead firemen—which does not cost the ratepayer or taxpayer very much—than with meeting the needs of living firemen. Firemen also feel their inborn sense of moral duty, to answer life or death calls, has been used against them time and time again. I can remember a previous pay dispute and the terrible frustration I felt on being done out of a wage rise by a Government. I felt then that my moral code was being taken advantage of, and that my wife and family were paying a heavy price for my moral scruples. My mates and I felt like striking—but we did not. We could not bring ourselves to withhold life from people. But firemen ask: 'Is it fair that my moral code is used to hamstring my efforts to get a decent wage. Has the public not a moral duty to me to see that I am not penalised and get a decent wage?' So far, as firemen will point out, the code of morality has worked too much the one way, with the public continuing to get their fire protection and the men getting too little financial reward in return.

I think that sums up adequately the case of the firemen at the present time. Morality must work both ways. As one lad said the other night, "Conscience does not meet the wife's needs when she holds out her hand for the pay on a Thursday".

No. one, Mr. Speaker, can say that firemen are impatient or callous. This is the first national strike of firemen ever, and it is the wish of every fireman that it is the last national strike of firemen.

The Home Secretary asked whether firemen would stand by and watch people burn. He had his answer at Poplar and at Strathclyde—the answer is "No". They will not stand by and watch people burn. The men who are picketing fire stations at the moment are in an agony of apprehension about the consequences of their strike. They believe—quite rightly—that they have been driven to this particular position.

At this point, Mr. Speaker, I have an important question to put to the Home Secretary concerning the legal status of the firemen pickets who go into a building to save lives, and who might themselves in that circumstance be killed or injured. Some of them are going in without the normal protective clothing or fire equipment. What is their legal status under the Fire Service Pension Fund? Will they be covered if that happens?

I met this morning some of the lads who are lobbying Parliament. I asked them if they had thought about that aspect. They said, "It seems to be an ill-defined position but it will not make any difference. We will go in and save someone's life regardless." I believe that says a great deal for the firemen involved. I say to my right hon. Friend—and I gave his office notice earlier—that it is important that we get an answer to that question.

I believe that the fault for the strike lies firmly with the Government—it is the fault of the Government and not of the firemen. If the Government and society insist that the firemen heed the needs of society, then society and its Government must heed the needs of our firemen. It may be that the Government and the Home Secretary are taking a calculated risk that something will happen somewhere and an incident will occur which will turn public opinion against the firemen, and the firemen will ultimately be driven back defeated. That may well be the case, and the firemen recognise it.

Another reason for asking for the debate, Mr. Speaker, was the effect on the Fire Service itself of this strike and its aftermath. I have had discussions with members and officials of the Fire Brigades Union, and they want me to impress upon the House their concern about the future of the Fire Service if this strike is allowed to continue for much longer. One requires an enormous commitment and dedication to enter a fire—it is not the easiest thing to do. A demoralised Fire Service would be of no use to the community, even if the community scored a spectacular pay policy success over the firemen.

I therefore beg the Government—I use the word "beg" advisedly—to consider the implications of this situation for the Fire Service. If men are to go into a fire as a fire-fighting team—and the word "team" is all-important—they must have the utmost consideration for and confidence in their mates, a wonderful ésprit de corps, and camaraderie. If the firemen's strike continues, and if they are eventually driven back by one circumstance or another, there will be a lot of ill-feeling. There will be a lot of bitterness. Some will for ever be labelled blacklegs.

Already problems are being created between the full-time and the part-time men. How can any fire officer command on the fire ground if his fire crews are at one another's throats because of a historical factor; because of one man blacklegging in the firemen's strike and another not blacklegging? How can full-time stations service the part-time stations if the full-timers think that the part-timers were partly responsible for breaking their strike?

The demoralisation of the Fire Service will be upon us if we allow this dispute to continue much longer without resolution. It is extremely important that we maintain the morale, commitment and teamwork of firemen, and that will never be the case if the firemen are defeated in the manner being urged upon the Government by the Press.

I earnestly ask the Government to take the opportunity presented by this debate to call in the local authorities on one side of the National Joint Council and the Fire Brigades Union on the other.

Let the Government put their general view on pay policy—as they are bound to do, as legitimately they must do—but let them tell both sides that they are free to negotiate. To quote the words of my right hon. Friend to the firemen's union conference, Give the negotiators elbow room. There is room.

It is not my job here, as a Member of the House, to make detailed suggestions—I am not authorised to do so—on behalf of the men or the union or anything of that nature. I am speaking as an individual Member of the House. There is room for negotiation. Firemen do not get paid for Saturdays and Sundays—they are merely normal working days—so there is room for negotiation. The 48-hour week will become a 42-hour week in 12 months from now, so, in a sense, the firemen are earning their productivity between now and next autumn by working 48 hours. There are six hours to play around with in terms of negotiation.

There is also the question of the consolidation of phases 1 and 2, in the basic pensionable pay. There is the possibility of a working inquiry of the kind that has been accepted for the police, with the same forward commitment as for the police. Given the situation of the Fire Service, there are many ways in which, with flexibility—to use another word used by my right hon. Friend—the problem can be overcome. The Government would be foolish to believe that a hard-line attitude towards the firemen will, in a sense, be a victory for the pay policy.

Naturally, firemen are almost instinctively going out to save lives, but they are not going into industrial or other properties if lives are not involved. How would Members of the House, especially hon. Gentlemen opposite, like to be the underwriters of fire insurance policies for industry and households at the present time? There is a great deal of industrial capital at risk, and it will remain at risk even if lives are saved.

I do not believe that there is public pressure on the firemen. I have been round London fire stations, and they are gaining massive support from the public on the basis of petitions. Nor do I believe that the public will think that the Government's pay policy has caved in if the Government say that the firemen are a very special case and that negotiations must take place. The public did not take that attitude when the Government responded to the police. I believe that there would be a sigh of relief from the general public if the Government, the firemen and their employers finally got together and fire cover for the public was resumed as soon as possible.

Finally—and I apologise for taking so much time—I ask the Government to show some sense in this matter, based on flexibility and fairness. The one thing that I am able to say on behalf of the Fire Brigades Union is that it is not seeking confrontation. It is not seeking to smash the wages policy or to bring down a Labour Government. It is merely seeking a fair deal for its members who do an exceedingly dangerous task for the rest of society.

I ask the Government to show sense and flexibility so that our firemen can return to their work at an early date, knowing that we in this House and the people whom we represent outside acknowledge their work, their significance and their special contribution to our society.

4.5 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

If it is convenient to the House, I think that it would be valuable for me to put the Government's views now and, if it is the wish of the House, and depending upon what arises, to reply briefly later. What I should like to do is to divide what I have to say into two parts. It is absolutely right that we should debate the matter. The pay aspect is of the greatest importance. However, perhaps I should say a brief word about the situation in the country.

There is no point in going over the preparations that the Government made—the 10,000 soldiers, the 700 "green goddesses" and their distribution round the country, the guidance and advertisements. That is now in the past. It was done with the aim of saving life. From the reports that I have received it seems that the pattern today is the same as yesterday. There have been fewer calls than usual. It is too early to say whether that is because people are taking more preventive action to see that there are no fires.

There have been an irritating number of hoax calls—far too many all over the country, but the proportion in the urban areas is unusually high. I have spoken to the police and dealt with the matter in other ways, and we are checking on these calls. I simply remind those who are making these calls—in one area a third of the calls were hoax calls—that it is a criminal offence and that we are taking steps to see that they are brought before the courts.

So far there have been two deaths in England and Wales—one in Tyne and Wear and one in Cornwall. I am advised that, judging from the circumstances, it is likely that they would have occurred in normal circumstances.

The strike seems to remain widespread. The majority of retained stations—that is, in the rural areas—are reported to be available to respond to calls, but in some instances they are restricting their attendance to calls in their own areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) was good enough to telephone my office before the debate started concerning the legal position of firemen. The reply that I can give him is that a fireman on strike does not cease to be a member of a brigade, so the provisions of the firemen's pension scheme about members of brigades killed or injured on duty would still apply.

I come now to the strike itself, and it is right that we should consider it. What I should like to do, because they are the matters that will have to be negotiated about and are being negotiated about, is to put some of the issues on the record. The negotiations, however, take place in the NJC with the Fire Brigades Union, the local authorities and other unions representing other members of the Fire Service. The point that I think is of the greatest importance is where the negotiations should take place. I have no wish to break the negotiating procedures that take place in the NJC. In talking about it today—my hon. Friend certainly has not done so—anything that we say here must not be such as to exacerbate the dispute and certainly nothing that would make negotiations more difficult, because it is negotiation that is the way of settling this dispute.

My hon. Friend referred to a number of things that have happened in the past. In 1975 and 1976 the NJC, where the negotiations take place, agreed to settlements, as he fairly said, in accordance with phase 1 and phase 2. This year, on 21st September, the union submitted a claim to the employers' side of the NJC for a pay increase from 7th November. The claim was that qualified firemen should receive an annual salary equivalent to the total of the average weekly earnings of adult male workers plus 10 per cent. to take account of the range of skills required of qualified firemen, as identified in the NJC's agreed job description, and to recognise the physical hazards and dangers faced by firemen.

The union claimed that that would mean a salary of about £4,500 per annum, compared with £3,400 that qualified firemen now receive. This was an increase of about 31 per cent. That was the claim about which the negotiators have been talking. The claim of 31 per cent. in September which referred to the recommendations of the small group from both sides of the NJC, chaired by Lord McCarthy, was well outside the present guidelines, and I ask both sides of the House to consider that.

We are talking not about a claim that is just over 10 per cent., or flexibility of that sort, but about 31 per cent. now. My hon. Friend talks about other wage negotiations in which I have been involved and in which settlements have been agreed. I remind him that there was no payment other than 10 per cent.

After discussions with the Government, on 3rd November the employers' side of the NJC offered three things with effect from 7th November. The first was 10 per cent. immediately on earnings. The second was negotiations on a reduction in working hours from 48 to 42. The Government had told the NJC that they would be prepared to see that negotiated and, although the reduction could not be implemented before the autumn of 1978, detailed preparations could begin before then. I shall not go into that now, because the negotiations have to take place in the NJC.

As my hon. Friend knows, there are discussions not just on the speed with which extra firemen are trained and the way in which they are used on a roster system, but on the basis of the variant throughout the country of the number of hours that men are stood down within each brigade. All that is for negotiation.

Thirdly, there were to be negotiations on establishing a formula—a benchmark—for determining Fire Service pay. Because the negotiations on this issue have been going on and are taking place now, we said that the Government was closely following the discussions on this, but that the phasing of any further pay increase would have to be considered in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time. As I understand the matter, this is what was recommended to the Fire Brigades Union's conference and was rejected in favour of the 31 per cent. and the strike.

I put it to the House that there were three aspects to the offer that was made. There were the 10 per cent., the benchmark, and the negotiations on hours, and I should like to look at these one by one.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

My right hon. Friend mentioned Lord McCarthy's report—

Mr. Rees

I am just coming to that. I shall consider each part of the offer in turn, and I hope that my hon. Friend will see the relevance of the McCarthy report.

With regard to the 10 per cent., my hon. Friend said that this was no different from what had been offered before in terms of pay policy. I understand that the figures that the Fire Brigades Union has circulated have been based on take home pay after superannuation, and so on, and that they were presented very fairly. If one is talking about a man after six months' service who, during the second year, is on £2,863 a year, one sees that 10 per cent. is an annual increase of £286, and that is not a small figure.

My hon. Friend said that this was no different from what had been offered before, I remind him that in terms of the current economic situation, the fall in interest rates and in prices, too, there is now a different background to this aspect of pay policy. It is vital above all not to throw out of gear the improving pace of economic advance, because that is of advantage to us all.

People talk about special cases. I have had a great deal to do with the Fire Brigades Union over a number of years, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire put its case to the House extremely fairly. But the point is that a number of people in industry in general can also put forward a special case. I must make it clear, as I did with the police negotiations, that as of now the 10 per cent. is important, that we cannot move outside our guidelines, and that what the local authority negotiators are dealing with is a claim for 30 per cent. now, which marks it out as different from claims that have been made by other people.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will my right hon. Friend accept and acknowledge that there have been exceptions to this so-called 10 per cent. rule? The Royal Family were generously treated in this matter, and others, including Ford workers—although only marginally, it is true—have been treated as a special case for some reason.

Many people have evaded every incomes policy that has been invented or put forward by any Government, including the multitude of people who, in the main, are self-employed and are never corralled into any collective form of incomes policy. Will he also acknowledge that the TUC does not accept the 10 per cent. rule, and that it is not a statutory policy?

Nor, to my knowledge, has it ever had the blessing of the House of Commons. Taking all these things into account, and the terrible occurrences that may take place arising from—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Order. I must ask the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) not to intervene at too great a length. The debate is very short.

Mr. Rees

I simply say to my hon. Friend that the local authorities that do the negotiating are faced with a claim for 31 per cent. now. There is no comparison with Ford and the others my hon. Friend has mentioned. Whatever is said outside, in this developing situation, as we move from the voluntary policy with the fixed figures, it is most important for the Government, in order to get the full benefit as the months go on, to stay within guidelines on the pay which they themselves control, or on which they at least have an influence.

Mr. Sillars

My right hon. Friend has quite rightly said that at one end of the negotiating posture is a 31 per cent. claim and at the other end 10 per cent. Would he not regard it as normal, sensible and flexible to say that there should be negotiation and a give-and-take in that negotiation, and that the firemen may have to give as well as asking the Government to give on the other side? Is he sticking rigidly to 10 per cent.?

Mr. Rees

The Government are sticking to pay policy within the guidelines, as we have said. This is the difficulty in the House of Commons when we speak of negotiations. The FBU's commitment is to 31 per cent., returning to conference, and so on. I think that it would be a mistake to become involved in discussing that now.

I turn now to the second and third points of the negotiations. The Fire Brigades Union wants a benchmark. It wants a stable reference point for future wage settlements. That, indeed, featured at its conference this year, which I attended. Let me put this in perspective, because its aim in this respect has been stated for some time.

There was the Cunningham Report of 1971, which followed a fact-finding inquiry, evaluating and comparing with other jobs of similar content and responsibility. There was the NJC working party—I note the date, May 1977—which sets out the factors that go towards making a qualified fireman, bearing in mind many of the factors that my hon. Friend has mentioned—not only the qualifications, but the stresses and strains of the job.

Later on, when Lord McCarthy was involved—the inquiry started in August—the effect was to put a price on the analysis made by the NJC working party. I have the report here. In paragraph 4 Lord McCarthy says: It follows from this that the most appropriate comparison to make is with the generality of jobs in the community. Against a broad benchmark of this kind discussion can take place on any special features of the qualified fireman's job. We therefore recommend that the National Joint Council should begin early discussions on this". It did not finalise the point; what McCarthy recommended were the discussions.

What we have said on this point of the benchmark was the point that I made just now—that the Government recognise the need to establish a formula for determining Fire Service pay. The Government welcome the fact that the NJC is seeking, through established negotiating procedures, to achieve that. The Government are following closely discussion on this subject in the NJC—we are not represented there—but the phasing of any further pay increase will have to be considered in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time.

So that is the second one: the benchmark. As my hon. Friend knows, this aspect has loomed in union thinking for some time.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

Is not the firemen's point that they have had six years of discussion, from the Cunningham Report through the 1974 National Joint Council up to the McCarthy Report? What I assume they are looking for is some commitment from the Government similar to the commitment on the police, that it will not be another three or four years of further negotiations and subject to other pay policies which will put them off yet again and again.

Mr. Rees

Instead of drawing an analogy with any other group where there happens to be an independent inquiry because the negotiating procedures had broken down and the benchmark figure was not being achieved, all I recommend the hon. Gentleman to do is to see what has happened there. Of course it is important to have the benchmark, but there is discussion in the proper place about what that benchmark shall be. What we said to the firemen a week ago was that there cart be no commitment on the phasing of that because it is difficult to know what the situation would be at an appropriate time, when one could take a decision on it.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

If the firemen are not to continue to feel that they are going to be fobbed off once again, must not my right hon. Friend go further than saying that the Government recognise the need for a formula? Will he not say categorically that the Government will accept any formula that comes out of the negotiations in the NJC and will phase it in under pay policy in the same way as they are going to do for other groups, such as the police?

Mr. Rees

There have been no commitments on phasing with anybody else and I cannot do it for the firemen.

Mrs. Castle

Say that the Government will accept the formula.

Mr. Rees

On the point about accepting the formula, the difference is that discussions are taking place on this formula in the NJC. It is a matter for the NJC when it comes to an agreement on that, and only in August did Lord McCarthy start his investigation and his report. It is a matter for the NJC, on which the Government are not represented.

I come to the 40-hour week. My hon. Friend was good enough to quote what I said at the conference earlier this year. What I said was: Now I want to speak about the 40-hour week. I know very well the importance you attach to a reduction from the present 48-hour week to a 40-hour week, particularly as the trend in other occupations is towards a working week shorter than 40 hours. In March"— that was a few weeks before— I had to tell your Executive frankly that I could not give them any commitment or under- taking about the introduction of a 40-hour week. For me to have done so would have been contrary to the current pay policy guidelines"— that is, phase 2— agreed between the Government and the TUC, and could not be reconciled with the limitations on local government expenditure to which the Government is committed. I must await the outcome of the inquiry. My hon. Friend used the word "flexibility". We have now—and I quoted it just now—made it clear that in the negotiating machinery negotiations can now begin for the reduction in hours to 42 following the feasibility study. I regard that as flexibility. That is one of the most important things that the Fire Brigades Union has wanted for years, and indeed it is the point that the firemen were putting to me at that conference in the early part of the year.

In that issue of the Firefighter, which I checked today, this was said: The Home Secretary did not duck the issue. In as many words he said that under present policy it was not on. He promised his best efforts on behalf of firemen, but he reminded everybody that a reduction of eight hours in the working week could not be achieved without a substantial increase in manpower and expenditure, and the expenditure 'could not be provided under present Government policy'. That is what I said in May, and now, at this end of the year, the firemen can start negotiating in the proper way—and there is nobody else who is in that position—in terms of flexibility and hours of work. It is not just the 10 per cent., but that nobody else with whom the Government have negotiating influence is moving above the 10 per cent. From the Fire Brigades Union's point of view, the benchmark negotiations and those on the 42-hour week, in my view, are of the greatest importance and illustrate what I mean by flexibility.

Mr. Spriggs

Now will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Rees

No. I shall do so in a moment. The point I want to make is that it has to be negotiated in the NJC. That is where the negotiations should take place, because that is the statutory machinery.

Mr. Spriggs

My right hon. Friend referred to the 10 per cent. in the future negotiations. I think that this is starting at the wrong end. I ask my right hon. Friend to give the members of the Fire Service their proper status. They are highly qualified technicians. Every day of the year new toxic substances and poisonous gases are being produced which these men are called on to deal with, hourly, daily—at any part of the 24 hours. They are ready seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. If such men are prepared to give the nation this service, why not give them the proper status first? Why not give them the average skilled worker's rate of pay first and then let them negotiate the 10 per cent. on top of that?

Mr. Rees

I have explained to my hon. Friend that the purpose of the second part of the discussion is to get that right. The Government's policy is within the guidelines. Of course, in terms of what my hon. Friend has just been saying, there is a need to do something about firemen's pay. There is no doubt about that. That is what the benchmark is for, and that is what the reduction in hours to 42 is for. Something has been offered for discussion in the proper place, at the NJC.

Mr. Richard Crawshaw (Liverpool, Toxteth)

My right hon. Friend knows that I support him absolutely in his attitude on this point. But on the question of the reduction to 42 hours, although that is a social advance it does not put another penny into the pocket of the firemen. Another 5,000 men are to be recruited to make up for the hours the present firemen will not work. If there were the opportunity of overtime—a reduction to 42 hours plus overtime—I could understand that that would put money into the firemen's pockets. Has the Home Secretary considered that?

Mr. Rees

All I am saying in regard to the reduction in hours is that this has been a major part of the policy of the Fire Brigades Union for many years. It is important, and the social aspect is important, but it is a matter for negotiation.

For the record—I offer it at no more than that—what happens in the 48-hour week is that pay for the last eight hours is paid at time and a third that is, there is a premium rate in the 48 hours. I do not make anything of that except to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend.

The present situation is that the Government's guidelines and the discussions on the benchmark and the reduction in hours to 42 offer the flexibility that one has not been able to achieve before. This is the right way to move forward. The firemen cannot be considered in isolation, and, on behalf of the Government, I say to the House that that is the only way through to the benefit of us all, including the firemen. As I told the firemen in May, I want to help them in this respect, and I initiated discussions so that the local authorities could negotiate on the question of hours, as can be seen from what I told the conference in May.

4.29 p.m.

Mr. William Whitelaw (Penrith and The Border)

By obtaining this emergency debate, the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) has provided the House with a valuable opportunity to discuss these matters, and he made a notable contribution to the debate himself. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to use this opportunity to inform the Home Secretary of their constituents' problems and anxieties in a potentially dangerous situation. I, therefore, intend to intervene only briefly.

As the nation faces its first firemen's strike, it is important that I should make the position of the Opposition absolutely clear. First, we expect the Government to ensure that the local authorities continue in the NJC to seek a negotiated settlement. I agree with the Secretary of State in that regard. Secondly, we shall certainly not give any encouragement to the firemen to believe that they can gain a remedy for their grievances on pay, however strongly felt, through strike action.

We shall support the Government in taking any measures which are necessary for the protection of the public during this emergency situation. That, we believe, is the duty of a responsible Opposition in the interests of the whole nation. As such, it contrasts strongly with the behaviour of the Labour Opposition in 1974. The present Prime Minister, in a speech at Aberdare, using words in complete contrast to what he says today, did his best at that time to undermine the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who equally was fighting the battle against inflation, and, of course, many of those who are now senior Ministers—including, naturally, the Leader of the House—behaved likewise. Since then, as a Government they have reaped the whirlwind of their own irresponsibility at that time, and the nation has suffered as a result.

However, we now have to deal with the present situation and look to the future. There must be those in this House who, like me, look back now over more than 20 years and remember all the different methods used in efforts to curb wage inflation, some statutory, some otherwise. Unfortunately, under successive Governments the results of these efforts have left those in the public service who are responsible for the maintenance of our society and the safety of our citizens—such as the Armed Forces, the police and the firemen—with their position lower in relation to average earnings. We must remember, as the hon. Member for South Ayrshire made clear, that these groups face special dangers and special responsibilities in their work. I believe that we, in this House, wherever we sit, will fail in our duty to our people if we allow this process to continue.

Frankly, I must tell the Home Secretary that the Government's shifting position on the 10 per cent. guidelines—an upper limit at one moment, an average at another—cannot hope to provide a basis for fair and sensible negotiations. I hope, therefore, that, as we are now embarked on what the Government describe as an orderly return to free collective bargaining, we shall all consider what different arrangements should be made for determining the pay and conditions of such groups in the future. Indeed, it will be the height of absurdity if the taxpayer supports overmanning in one part of our economy, such as the British Steel Corporation and fails to provide the money necessary to prevent undermanning in another vital and dangerous sector of our community.

I want to put some brief questions to the Home Secretary about the arrangements to deal with the present situation. I am sure we would all wish to join my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson) and many of my hon. Friends who have signed an Early-Day Motion congratulating the Armed Forces of the Crown on their efforts to cope with fire emergencies.

We are also entitled to ask, as they do, why the troops have to do this with outdated equipment. Will the Home Secretary tell us why the local authorities have not been required to make available their essential standard fire-fighting appliances? If the answer is that some of the appliances are so complicated that they could be used only after further intensive training, does that apply to all the equipment? For example, does it apply to the ladders necessary to reach high-rise flats? In that connection, what special measures do the Government intend to take to protect those who live in tower blocks and whose lives are particularly at risk?

The Home Secretary will also be aware that problems arise where various fire authorities have closed-shop agreements with the Fire Brigades Union. Some firemen may feel that they are in conscience bound to go to fires where there are particular dangers to life. I am sure that we would all applaud the actions of those firemen on official picket duty at Popular fire station who went to help fight a fire which threatened patients in St. Andrew's Hospital, Devons Row, Bow, last night.

There are, too, those firemen who have consciencious objections to going on strike when the safety of the public is at stake and wish to remain at work. I am certain that the public would consider it utterly deplorable if such men were to be victimised at the end of the strike. What action, therefore, is the Home Secretary taking to ensure that where closed-shop agreements are in force there will be safeguards against losing their jobs for those men who feel obliged to work in certain circumstances?

At the start of my speech I made the Conservative Party's position clear. The Government can rely on our constructive approach as long as the strike lasts. All the more are we entitled to answers from the Home Secretary on crucial questions affecting our constituents. The Government's policies must be seen by the House and the country adequately to meet the dangerous situation that all our fellow citizens now face.

4.38 p.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

One question not dealt with by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) was why the Opposition thought and argued that the police were a special case, but not the firemen.

Mr. Whitelaw

I made it abundantly clear throughout all the discussions about the police that in no circumstances would the Opposition consider even talk of a police strike. That is the position, and that is where we stand on the firemen's strike, too.

Mr. Heffer

As usual, the right hon. Gentleman dodges the question. What have we had from him? A partisan political speech with no thought of trying to deal with the really important questions. As usual, the Conservative Party uses every occasion such as this to make a party political point when what we should be dealing with are the specific issues and the actual claim made by the firemen. That is the point dodged by the right hon. Gentleman.

No one has suggested that the Conservative Party said that the police should go on strike for their special case, but Opposition Members argued strongly in the House that the police were a special case and that their claim ought to be met. Therefore, if the police are a special case it is perfectly right to point out the special circumstances of the firemen, and to say that they are equally a special case and deserve special treatment.

I was disappointed with the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I thought that we would get a better speech than that from him. I do not want to say anything that will exacerbate the situation, but I think that he was only half correct in outlining precisely what has happened in relation to the firemen.

May I draw the attention of hon. Members to the document headed "Assessing His Value" which, as they came into the House today, hon. Members had handed to them by firemen at the gates of the House. At the beginning of the document there is a statement by the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Terry Parry. The point that he makes is that The National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades was moving close to this in 1975 through a working party dealing with the wider involvement of firemen in Fire Prevention duties. Their report came within a hair's breadth of being endorsed by the National Joint Council, but pay policy intervened and it remained an un-endorsed interim report. Once again, the pay policy intervenes and a group of workers has been left behind because of their special circumstances, because they have not used their muscle, and they have more muscle than many other workers. They have been left behind because they have a social conscience.

The House has a duty and a responsibility to help such sections of workers precisely because we do not want them to go on strike, more so than any other section of workers. If the Ford workers go on strike a number of cars are not produced. But we trade on the social conscience of the police and of the firemen, and it is not right. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the Army?"] We are not talking about the Army; we are talking about sections of workpeople.

It is right that we should have this debate today. I have heard people say that we should not have a debate because it may exacerbate the situation. If people thought that the House was not prepared to debate an issue of this kind in this sort of crisis, that would be a reason for people to turn away from it. That is what the House of Commons is all about. If we can spend days and hours on such nonsense as devolution, we can certainly spend a little time in discussing real problems, the problems of the firemen.

I want to draw attention to the McCarthy Report, to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred. Lord McCarthy was the chairman of a working group—

Mr. Skinner

A moderate, as well.

Mr. Heffer

I should have thought that the firemen were being moderate. I think everybody in this case is moderate.

Lord McCarthy says that After careful consideration, and much discussion, we are jointly agreed that there are no precise analogues to be found in respect of the qualified fireman's job. Some aspects of his job are similar to particular features of other jobs; but there are invariably substantial and important differences. This makes it unreasonable to conclude that his level of remuneration should be tied to the level of a remuneration in a narrow range of specified occupations. That is what the Home Secretary did not quote. He quoted the next part, which says: It follows from this"— remembering the previous paragraph— that the most appropriate comparison to make is with the generality of jobs in the community.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

All I was concerned about was that Lord McCarthy did not come up with a precise result. I am saying that it must be discussed in the negotiating machinery.

Mr. Heffer

Of course Lord McCarthy did not come up with a specific proposal in that sense, but it was on the basis of the statement from the working group that the Fire Brigades Union—in my opinion perfectly justifiably—put forward its specific claim. That is what it was based on. The union was perfectly right to do so.

Let us now look at the firemen's position. Their hours of work amount to 48—no overtime, no rent allowances, no extra payment for shifts or weekend work. The firemen's daily stint is nine hours work in a day, and 15 hours if they are on night work. On the basis of four grades, their gross pay, when they start, is £52.53. After six months, and up to two years, it is £54.88. In the third year, it is £57.48. In the fourth year, it is £60.32. When qualified, they receive £65.59.

Out of that gross pay comes income tax, stamps and all the other payments that workers have to make. A fireman in the fourth year, with two children will actually take home £46.71. That is an absolute disgrace. We are asking people to risk their lives. Incidentally, in his speech my right hon. Friend said, as have many other people: I am pleased to pay tribute here today … to the heroic way in which you respond to the calls which are made upon you, and to the essential role which you perform in our community. Always heroes—until it comes to the question of giving them a decent wage for the work that they do. The time has come when the House has to say quite clearly that these workpeople have a just case.

I do not know how many trade union negotiations my right hon. Friend has been involved in, but he said that it is a 31 per cent. claim. Of course it is a 31 per cent. Claim—just as the coalminer's claim is a large one, and just as all the claims with which I was involved in my industry were as high as we could get. A claim and settlement are two totally different things. Anybody who knows anything about trade union negotiations knows that that is the exact position. Of course a claim is put in. In any case, what are the firemen asking for?

They are asking for the national average wage plus 10 per cent., which is, in fact, within the norm that my right hon. Friend talked about.

Let us return to the question of 10 per cent. It is like a virility symbol. We must keep to the 10 per cent. Of course, if it is Ford, we can go up to 12 per cent. If it is a nationalised industry, talks must be held through the nationalised machine, and it must be below 10 per cent. We all know what is going on. But what is going on at the moment is a firemen's strike that is totally unnecessary.

I conclude by telling my right hon. Friend that he must not think that the general public will say, as the Tory Front Bench wanted to say, "Fine. Stand firm against this bunch of ruthless workers, these terrible people. Stand firm." That is not what the general public are saying. [Interruption.] That is what the right hon. Gentleman meant. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] All right, if that is not what the right hon. Gentleman meant, he should say so.

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman seeks to put words into my mouth. Let me be perfectly clear what I said. I simply made clear that the Opposition would not encourage the firemen to believe that they could gain a settlement of their grievances, however strongly those grievances were felt, by means of strike action. That is miles away from what the hon. Gentleman now attributes to me. He must be fair. Normally, he is fair. He had better start by being fair to me now.

Mr. Heffer

I obviously always want to be fair to the right hon. Gentleman. If he did not actually mean that, I think that we shall all accept what he says. I did not say that he said it. I said that that is what he means. If he does not mean that, and means something else, that is all right. But whatever his attitude, if my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench think that the general public will turn against the firemen, they are wrong. One has only to listen to any local radio broadcast to hear people, some of whom have already been involved in a fire, saying that they think that the firemen have a just case. They know the firemen. When one has a fire in one's house, it is the decent, friendly lad from the nearest fire station who comes to put out the fire, and he does everything possible to help. We have all seen the fireman in action.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

He makes the householders a cup of tea.

Mr. Heffer

Exactly; he makes a cup of tea if an old lady is involved. I have seen firemen do it. It is marvellous how they deal with the situation.

It is about time that we put aside the decision that we have taken to stand firm against sections of workers such as these. I appeal to my right hon. Friend, when he talks about flexibility, not to talk only about flexibility of hours. Incidentally, my right hon. Friend did not actually say that at the conference. He was talking about flexibility in relation to pay settlements. That is what he was talking about, and not just about hours. I ask my right hon. Friend to be flexible and not to make hard and fast statements. He should get back round the table, and get the lads back to work.

I conclude by saying this about the firemen: if one reads their resolution—I hope that people have read it—they ask for either a settlement or a recalled conference, which means that at such a conference they will consider proposals put to them. Let us put some proposals to the firemen at the earliest possible moment, get a resumption of work, and make certain that people's lives and property are safeguarded, because none of the firemen wants to do anything other than look after the interests of the people.

4.53 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) on bringing this short debate before the House. I believe that it is right for the House to debate this matter, because it is a matter not touched by the CBI or the TUC. It is a matter essentially for Parliament. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), that it is right and proper that Parliament should support the Government in the discharge of their authority. Against that, I must say that my support is not unlimited on this issue.

The fact is that the authority of the Government does not depend merely on votes in the House of Commons. The authority of the Government depends on the willingness of those who have to enforce public safety, of those who have to enforce the defence of this country. That is a factor in determining whether the Government have such full support. It is an alarming situation today, where there is disgruntlement in the Armed Forces and where there is disaffection in the police forces to the point at which a police strike was threatened, and now we see those responsible for the protection of public safety actually on strike. That should cause the House, especially the Government, furiously to ask why we should have got into such a position today.

In my view, it is not a question of flexibilities. Flexibilities can be used in such a devious way, either by the massive use of the pistonage and muscle power of trade unions or the activities of people such as the CBI, or by the actions of persons, as the hon. Gentleman said, who may be self-employed. But Parliament has to make it not a question of a measure of flexibility but a question of a special category for those who are engaged in the protection of the realm and public safety. That, I believe, is what Parliament should be about.

We have seen what happened in the past in relation to areas of flexibility. This Minister or that, of either Government, will make an arrangement, staying within some mysterious range of flexibility, and immediately set off a response throughout various sectors of organised labour. The House has to recognise that there must be certain groups which protect the community and which need special treatment but which will always be last in the queue.

I am not in favour of anyone winning by a strike against the public interest, but the public interest essentially lies in the protection of those persons who do not have the CBI or the TUC to talk for them and whom Parliament must defend. That is what Parliament is about.

We live in a mercenary age. We are all mercenary in various ways, but some are more mercenary than others. [Interruption.] I speak for myself. We live in a mercenary age, and there are some who are more mercenary than others. But those who are engaged in the public service, whether in the police, in the fire service or in the Armed Services, are mercenary in the sense that they are paid—and pay is a vital matter to them. But they are there for better reasons than mere mercenary attraction.

May I recall to the House the lines written by Housman about a mercenary army? He said that when all else was crashing and trembling, they, the mercenaries, maintained And saved the sum of things for pay. This is a question of pay. It is also a question of maintaining the sum of things—the authority of the State and the proper defence of public safety, whether at home or abroad. That is why I hope that when the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister reach a decision they will look more carefully at the so-called guidelines and recognise that there is a special category of people who must be treated differently from those whose attitude is merely that of grab, of organised materialism and the seizure of what they can. I hope, therefore, that it will be on these terms, when it comes to a settlement, that the Government and the Opposition will consider a proper redefinition of those who serve the country well.

4.58 p.m.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

There can be no special categories today. The whole House knows that. I agree with the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) that, in the longer term, we should consider further the problem of people in the public service upon whom our safety depends.

The plain truth is that if the Government give way to the firemen the Government are doomed. Every Member knows that. We are paying today, and all these anomalies are arising, because we have gone in and out of incomes policy. Listen- ing to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), one would not think that it was the Conservatives who abolished the Prices and Incomes Board when they took office in 1970. The Labour Government abolished the Relativities Board which could have been of much use at present in the public service in analysing and getting a proper relativities scale.

If one goes in and out of incomes policies, one pays the price. All kinds of anomalies are created. Many categories of people today can establish a first-class case for being treated as special categories. But no section can at present be treated as a special category. The right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone referred to discontent among the Armed Forces, the police and the firemen. The basis of this discontent is, in every instance, inflation.

It is important for this country to conquer inflation. If we give way now to special groups, inflation will continue. We all know that if one special category is acknowledged outside the guidelines, another will claim tomorrow even more special status.

Mr. Spriggs

The hon. and learned Gentleman charges the Fire Brigades Union with putting itself in a special category. I have not seen it trying to make a special case of its claim. Over the past three years or four years it has been trying to obtain a reassessment of its members' job value. It has never had that reassessment. If the job value of its members had been reassessed correctly, it would not have argued about 10 per cent., it would have gone ahead, like the rest of us.

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Gentleman should be honest with himself. The hon. Gentleman is arguing that the Government guideline of 10 per cent. should not be observed in respect of the firemen. What is that but arguing a special case?

Mr. Spriggs


Mr. Hooson

We have a chance to emerge from a period of high inflation to a period of relative prosperity. The whole process will be jeopardised and probably wrecked if the Government do not stay firm.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)


Mr. Hooson

I sometimes wish that the hon. Gentleman would read. If he did, he would make more sense.

The Government dare not give way in the public sector, which is the only sector they control. I am convinced that the public want the Government, whatever their colour, to stand firm and get us out of the inflationary spiral. That is the dominant requirement of our age.

I found little with which to disagree in the eloquent speech of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) when he referred to the tremendous service that is given by firemen. I think that they are held in high esteem. When we consider the great efficiency with which fires have been tackled and the great bravery displayed by firemen, we all appreciate that they are in a special public category. In the longer term, I agree with the view that we need to demonstrate some special recognition of this fact. The reality is that we cannot do that today. The firemen are deceiving themselves if they think that they can bring the Government to abandon their guidelines. If the Government do that, they cannot survive.

Mr. Heffer

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman saying that if the Government are more flexible in their approach in order to get a settlement the Liberal Party will withdraw its support from the Government?

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Gentleman is, as usual, being hypocritical. He knows that he is suggesting that the Government should abandon their guidelines. He is saying that they should recognise the firemen as a special case financially. If that happens, the police will have to be recognised as a special case, and then there will be the miners. That is a means of destroying the Government's policy, and the hon. Gentleman knows that.

Mr. Skinner

What is wrong with that?

Mr. Hooson

I must tell the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham and Crawley)

I repeat what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) asked the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson). It raises a matter of considerable importance. If the Government negotiate with the fire- men or any other body in any other sector and the result of the negotiations is a settlement that goes beyond 10 per cent.—in the private sector, for example—is he saying that the Liberal Party will then and there withdraw its support from the Government?

Mr. Hooson

I am saying that if the Government negotiate an agreement that effectively destroys their battle against inflation the arrangements with the Liberals will be at an end. My right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) has always said so, and everyone in the House knows that the purpose of the arrangement with the Government is to give the country a period of stability to enable it to get out of the situation that has been partly created by the Government's own mistakes.

Mention has been made of 1974. When the Government came to power they governed very badly. Straightaway they abolished such things as the Relativities Board and the basic set-up for a prices and incomes policy. They said that they would have free collective bargaining and a free-for-all. We see where that led the country. It was exactly the same when the Conservatives came to power in 1970. They dismantled all the incomes machinery that had been set up by the previous Labour Government. The result was that in two or three years we were in a highly inflationary situation. Those who have suffered in the long run have been groups such as the firemen. The firemen and the police, for example, have been the victims because they have not used their muscle power.

Today we are facing the realities. I heartily commend the line taken today by the Secretary of State for the Home Department. It cannot give him any pleasure to take a firm line on the firmen's claim. I am sure that he recognises that they have many special features. However, he can take no other course than that which he has taken today.

The firemen have gone on strike for the first time in their history. I am sure that it gives them no pleasure to be on strike. I now suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should think of a formula that brings them back to the negotiating table—[Interruption.] The trouble with right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches is that they will never listen. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that a reduction in working hours "cannot be taken to the butchers", as it were. What is necessary is an acknowledgement, not that the Government will allow the firemen to make a claim outside their guidelines, but that when the present guidelines have come to an end the Government will appreciate that the firemen have, to a degree, in the past been led up the garden path. As the old saying goes, Hope deferred maketh the heart sink. There have been four reviews in the past decade, two of them in the past year. They have all been caught by pay policies. The firemen are looking for an acknowledgment from the Government that they appreciate their position.

5.8 p.m.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson)—

Mr. Ridley

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it normal to call two Government supporters one after the other? I have raised this matter on several previous occasions. One Government supporter has been called immediately after the other and no Opposition Member has been interspersed between them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) has been a distinguished Member of the House for long enough to know that the order in which Members catch the eye of the Chair is at the discretion of the Chair.

Mr. Kinnock

I suppose that we must get used to the idea that the winter quarters of Chipperfield's Circus are in Cirencester and Tewkesbury.

On incomes policy it is unfortunate that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, like the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe), employs all the bravado of a gnat about to rape an elephant. I refer to their stimulation of the Government's courage and their strident insistence on the inflexible maintenance of whatever norm has been set. They adopt that approach in the easy knowledge that there is little responsibility for meeting the obligation that will arise from sticking to the norm.

I am not accusing the hon. and learned Gentleman or his party of avoiding responsibility. The fact is that just as the Government can sensibly take not inflexible attitude, neither can the Liberal Party. That applies to any men of good conscience and common sense who seek to represent the people.

The matter that we debate is grim and the times are grim, but a certain lightness is lent to every occasion of its kind by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), especially when, again, he says that Conservative Party policy is one of holding the Government's coats. The Conservative Party earnestly supports the Government's income policy and it will hold their coats. It will second them in their corner and then proceed as firmly as it can to hack the hamstrings and kick the backside of the Government at every opportunity that presents itself.

The right hon. Gentleman talked of the need to free firemen's equipment so that people other than firemen can use turntable ladders and breathing apparatus. He spoke, although there is not a single instance of it happening, nor will there be, about the victimisation of fulltime or part-time firemen because of their conviction, for whatever reason, that they should go to work. I repeat that there has not been a single instance of this happening and there will not be, yet the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border rehearsed arguments over the closed shop. How inappropriate, sick, disingenuous, opportunistic, ludicrous and insupportable politically it is to introduce such matters in this debate. I believe that we should bring more reason to bear on this subject than the right hon. Gentleman sought to do this afternoon.

Firemen are well known to me. For the last 12 years I have, twice a week, and sometimes more frequently, attended their schools all over the country, including their national and executive schools. I suspect that the people who attended their conference last week have been part of my classes. They are in many respects close friends and comrades of mine. Many of them are people with the most progressive and radical political attitudes, and they work for political and radical ends. They never thought that they would be on strike, nor did I—nor, Indeed, did the country. For people with such a profound social conscience to come out on strike must mean that they were provoked to do so arising from a longstanding cause.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary knows this because he has known the firemen and their situation over a long period. He knows that even if there is no settlement, eventually the firemen will go back to work. But there is no interest at all in the Government's winning a slow and sullen victory over the firemen. That should not be contemplated by anybody. They will go back because of their consciences. They will not be starved out, but they will return to work because they cannot contemplate what is happening in the country. That is what makes most of them firemen. They are not in it for the money, otherwise they would not have stayed in the Fire Service in the last 10 or 12 years.

What are the circumstances behind the present situation? I have a letter which should have been circulated to all hon Members, but unfortunately because of the postal arrangements this was not possible. I should like to make extensive references to that letter, because it comes from the pens of the very people who are affected in our considerations today.

The letter makes it clear that the firemen are on strike because of their low wages for the job they do, and because of the additional factor that over the last 18 years they have achieved a number of pay settlements and recommendations, only to have them taken away at the eleventh hour, or in some cases even later, because of the incomes policies practised by successive Governments. They are uniquely unfortunate in that situation, and that is why we must give them unique consideration. That is why they have said "This is the last time this will happen."

In 1961 a pay settlement was achieved in the National Joint Council, but before the next item on the agenda was reached a message was received from the then Home Secretary, Rab Butler, stopping that settlement. Following that, Selwyn Lloyd, as he then was, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, put his "guiding light" policy into operation, and a settlement, after lengthy demonstrations by the union, was deferred for six months. At the June 1966 meeting of the NJC the negotiators agreed an 8½ per cent. pay increase for the Fire Service. The day before that was to be ratified by the NJC, the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, sent for both sides of the NJC and told them that the claim could not be settled. The matter was then referred to Aubrey Jones and the National Board for Prices and Incomes. That happened to be the day when my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), the then Prime Minister, announced the six-month pay freeze. The then Home Secretary had double bad news for the firemen.

In 1970 the NJC negotiated a reasonable pay rise. On the day before it should have been ratified, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling), summoned the employers' side of the NJC and said that that arrangement should not be proceeded with. That was at a time when we had no incomes policy.

All these incidents have brought about industrial unrest in the Fire Service. In 1969 the London Fire Brigade was within hours of going on strike. The strike was called off amid scenes of violence. The General Secretary of the FBU, Mr. Parry, is here in the House, and he knows all these things. In 1973 the Glasgow Fire Brigade went on strike for 11 days. Arising from the 1970 block on agreed pay settlements, an inquiry into Fire Service pay and conditions was set up under the Cunningham Committee. Eventually a report from that committee fixed firemen's pay in 1971 at £35.58 weekly—£2.58 above average male earnings at that time. In 1977, a fireman's pay of £65.70 a week is £12.90 behind average male earnings, a deterioration, in money terms, of £15.48. That is an intolerable position considering the kind of work that firemen carry out, as I am sure every hon. Member, including the Home Secretary, will agree.

In 1964, and up to April 1975, a National Joint Council working party was in being, whose terms of reference were to evaluate a wider involvement in fire prevention duties. By April 1975 an interim report was drawn up and an evaluation made with regard to extra pay for new duties.

As a result of "Attack on inflation" and the present pay policy, stage 1, the report of the working party was shelved. It resulted in the Fire Service answering only emergency calls in the period from April to August 1975. In stage 2 the NJC supported the TUC and the Government. In 1977 the NJC working party was reconstituted, and we have all been circulated with details of the outcome.

An attempt was then made by a joint working group headed by Lord McCarthy, which produced a comparison of job descriptions. After many meetings, the working party jointly decided that there was no precisely analogous occupation to be found in respect of a qualified fireman's job, and that the most appropriate comparison to make was with the generality of jobs in the community.

Since 25th October this year the NJC has been considering a pay formula for firemen, and is still considering it. There is to be a further meeting between employers' and union representatives on this issue tomorrow, Wednesday 16th November.

It is for these reasons and no other that there is a feeling that a debate in this House is inappropriate, since the House of Commons is not a fit forum to discuss and expose these issues. Therefore, it is to be hoped that tomorrow's meeting will not induce additional inflexibility into the Government's attitude or additional embarrassment to the negotiators, and it is to be hoped that a settlement will not be circumscribed. This arrangement certainly has nothing to do with any attempt at secret industrial diplomacy. It has everything to do with the fact that tomorrow's meeting should not be impeded or embarrassed by anything that may be said in this House. Fortunately, until now that difficulty has been avoided owing to the sensitivity of everybody who has spoken in the debate so far. I hope that the debate will continue in that vein. It will be assisted if the House is not divided on this matter, but that is up to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars).

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Because of the possibility of a vote, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what will be the position of the NJC at tomorrow's meeting if the Government decide to give 10 per cent. now and agree to accept whatever conclusion is reached in the NJC, with both sides being involved, but reserving the question of phasing until later?

Mr. Kinnock

I cannot speak for the FBU. I am not its official representative, and I do not pretend that I could be. I am not a Government spokesman, but my opinion is that there can be no question of holding totally firmly to the 10 per cent. line. There must be more than the 10 per cent. limit would permit. How much more is a matter for negotiation.

The Government have said that the situation would be dealt with "in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time." The firemen have demonstrated how serious and impatient they are and that they want to go back to work. The figure, the conditions of work and additional considerations are all negotiable. Just as the Government have made 10 per cent. a fertility symbol, so have those with whom they are negotiating. That always happens when a norm or limit is imposed. There is enough good will and conscience on both sides to avoid difficulties arising out of making the 10 per cent. a token.

The claim is for 31 per cent. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said that everybody asked for more than they expected to receive. For the firemen the 31 per cent. is a means of lifting them above the average manual wage. They want that guaranteed in perpetuity, and such a formula must be agreed somehow. It is not necessary for it to be agreed immediately, or even before the men return to work, but the firemen must be confident that there is an absolute determination that that kind of procedure shall be embarked upon.

The firemen have enough trust in the Government and enough recognition of the difficulties that the Government have to a large extent imposed upon themselves for a settlement to be agreed. The firemen recognise that the Government have imposed inflexibility upon themselves but that they are prepared to escape from it.

There must be a compromise. We have the basis for a solution if NJC negotiations are conducted on those lines and so long as free collective bargaining in that sense is permitted. The Government, the employers and the firemen want a return to normal working. It is not a question of face-saving. The nature of the firemen's work must be recognised. That recognition must be demonstrated, so that firemen feel that their conditions will be improved, and substantially improved, in the long term.

The Government's position was summed up earlier and communicated to the union. The communication stated that The Government recognise the need to establish a formula for determining Fire Service pay. The Government welcome the fact that the National Joint Council is seeking through established negotiating procedures to achieve this. The Government are following closely discussion on this subject in the NJC, but the phasing of any further pay increase will have to be considered in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time. We can anticipate the "prevailing circumstances". The Government have said what they expect them to be in the next 12 months. They talk about falling inflation. They have calculated what will happen by considering a mixture of national and international situations. Inflation is falling.

One of the circumstances that must prevail is the restoration of certain areas of public spending. That will not commend itself to the Opposition. If there is a restoration of public spending it will have the full endorsement of the Labour movement.

That could lead to another prevailing circumstance—the relaxation of strict pay limits. The opportunity that that would give employers in the public sector would mean that there would be no sell-out, no backing down and no loss of face. It would mean that the firemen could be among the first to settle a satisfactory wage level. That would mean that the firemen would no longer have to trail behind the average manual industrial worker and would remove the possibility of their repeating their present action.

Even if a formula can be agreed in the NJC the Government pay policy allows for only a 10 per cent. increase. That policy should not be torn up or thrown away, but it must reflect reality. Many suggestions have been made to the union and the Government about a pos- sible formula. One of the more sensible ideas is that of a reconstruction of weekend working. The Government have paid attention to that idea. I am sure that there is a feasible product to be gained from that and that there will be profit from it.

All sorts of possibilities have been explored by the union and the Government, but no one has yet managed to agree to a settlement that comes within the guidelines. The guidelines must not represent a straitjacket. They must be negotiable, and it must be possible to go above them. That would not open the floodgates. The Government should remember that the dam holding back the water could be more dangerous than the flood itself.

I am not calling for a sell-out. The firemen do not want a sell-out. They recognise the necessity of a counter-inflation policy, even if they do not like incomes policies. They do not want to cause the Government damage, but they cannot go along with half promises or anything that is based upon a kiss and a promise. I am sure that the Government will not act in that way.

I believe that the firemen will receive something tenable from the Government. I hope that the NJC will be given the freedom to negotiate realistically, so that the men may return to work as quickly as possible on a different footing.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I remind the House that there are only 60 minutes of the debate left and that it is possible that the Home Secretary will wish to wind up. I appeal to hon. Members to make their speeches brief, since that would be in the interests of all.

5.28 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I am grateful for being allowed to speak in this debate, and I promise to be brief. I feel obliged to speak because of the situation in my constituency. As has been reported in the local Press, a group of full-time firemen at Rhyl are standing ready to answer emergency calls despite the strike. They are crossing the picket line and have met with no resistance. As one might have expected from such a distinguished body of men, the pickets have behaved with complete propriety. Awards for gallantry have been awarded to two of the men on that picket line.

Those firemen who are breaking the strike have asked for my support. The attitude of the fire officers and the local fire prevention committee has been equivocal. Those who are continuing to work have not managed to extract an undertaking from their chiefs or employers that they will be protected or even helped should any victimisation occur when the strike is over. They have no guarantee that they will be able to keep their jobs. Therefore, they have asked me, as their Member of Parliament, for my support. I could not possibly withhold it. I have told them that I shall support them to the best of my ability and press the Home Secretary to make a statement of support for people in such a position.

Of course, the firemen feel frustrated. They have a justified claim, which has been put magnificently by a succession of speakers from the Labour Benches, particularly in an outstanding speech by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars). I understand that they feel aggrieved because they were left behind in the scramble which took place in 1974–75 under the title of the social contract. It is no wonder they feel bitter. But whatever their bitterness, whatever the strength of their claim, can they be happy in their minds about the form of industrial action that their union has taken?

I know that Socialist Ministers abhor the idea of strike-breaking or giving any encouragement to strike-breakers. But they must recognise an overriding obligation to protect people from fire, from being trapped in debris or in crashed cars. Whatever their Socialist principles, have they the right to reject any means of saving life? I appeal to the Home Secretary. I know that for anybody on the Labour Benches the word "blackleg" is highly emotive, but what sort of blackleg is it who risks his own job in order to save life?

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

Is the hon. Gentleman trying to help?

Sir A. Meyer

When the Home Secretary is appealing to the leaders of the strike to call it off—[Interruption.] The sedentary interruptions from the Labour Benches are a clear illustration that for some Labour Members Socialism comes first and humanity second. I do not believe that that is the Home Secretary's attitude or that of many Labour Members.

Mr. John Mendelson

Does the hon. Gentleman want to help or to exacerbate the situation?

Sir A. Meyer

I am being very careful in my choice of words. I have already said that I believe that the firemen have a strong claim.

I shall not join those who are urging the Government to break their pay policy to meet the firemen's claim, but I still believe that if they had not gone on strike the argument for a compromise would have been overwhelming, and that by going on strike they have weakened their argument. I appeal to the Home Secretary to give some encouragement, some indication of support, to those whose consciences will not allow them to stand by when human lives are in danger.

5.33 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I appreciate the opportunity to speak. I shall be as brief as possible. I have no doubt that that will be welcomed by Opposition Members and perhaps by some on my side of the House.

I am not surprised by what is taking place here today. I fully expected that when the re-entry period of the incomes policy came there would be someone in the front row arguing about wages. It must happen, because incomes policies have been the bane of the Labour Government. The Tories have introduced them as well, but that is not my business. If they want to play around with incomes policies, that is a matter for them. But the Labour Government were elected, as I and all Labour Members were, on the basis of no interference with free collective bargaining.

I have been waiting for this day, waiting for Parliament to get down to the bare bones of the argument about what we do about incomes policies, about how we dispose of them, because they are alien to the whole idea of the trade union and labour movement. We fought the election on free collective bargaining. I well remember even Roy Jenkins, that super-Social Democrat, saying on television that there should be no interference in free collective bargaining unless we were at war. A succession of Labour Shadow Ministers went on television at that time and said the same. Little Harold was there and said his piece—that there could be no interference.

There were people like myself who throughout that period, in 1975 and 1976, voted diligently against interference in free collective bargaining. I remember that there were about 17 of us on one occasion. Then the number dropped, until finally on the 12-month rule last July it was down to two. Somebody walked through the Lobby and supported us, but then found out that he had made a mistake and walked through the other Lobby, cancelling that vote.

Therefore, I have waited for this day. There is no doubt in my mind that the sooner the Labour Government dispose of their rigid attitude on incomes policies and the sooner they can increase the purchasing power of the people, the sooner they will get rid of that human pile of misery known as the dole queue and be able to appeal to the electorate on the basis on which we appealed to it in 1974, and the better their chance of being re-elected.

The Government will not be re-elected on the basis of carrying out a policy of bashing the unions, of following a barmy opinion poll last Thursday morning which said that 88 per cent. of the public believed in bashing the unions and keeping down wages. They will be reelected on the basis of appealing to people such as the firemen, who have diligently supported the trade union and labour movement over the years, through thick and thin.

Therefore, although I have signed a motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) about a special case and special consideration for the firemen, let me make it abundantly clear that I am not speaking about special cases. My argument is that the 10 per cent. rule must be disposed of. It just so happens that on this occasion the firemen, like the miners in 1974 and in 1972, were the first in the firing line. I want a breach to be opened and others to march through where some of those such as the firemen are trying to march through now.

There have been eight incomes policies in the past 12 years, all based on the suggestion that we would help poorly-paid workers. Every incomes policy is supposed to help the old, the weak and the infirm. We are told that it will help the agricultural workers and even the firemen—all those who do not have the strength to bargain collectively. But what has each incomes policy produced? Those who were at the bottom of the wages league when the policy was introduced are always at the bottom when it finishes. The pensioners and the rest get nothing out of it. There has never been an incomes policy able to transfer the amount of wages forgone by a certain section of the trade union movement to another section intended to benefit. It has never happened, and it never can. There is no device, no instrument, in this place or outside it that can transfer that sum of money from one section of society to another.

Therefore, I am glad to see the beginning of the end of this new round of incomes policies. I say to my hon. Friends that this debate is not about a one-off job. We are seeing the gradual dismantling of the latest effort at an incomes policy, which attacked only those who could be easily identified, like the 40,000 firemen. To slap an incomes policy on them is quite easy. They can all be collated easily in the computer. It is easy to slap an incomes policy on 250,000 miners, several thousand dustbin men and several thousand teachers. They can all be corralled inside it.

But what about those hundreds of thousands—even millions—who are not affected by an incomes policy? How many chartered accountants were affected by the £6 pay policy and its successor? How many lawyers were affected by the incomes policies either of the Ted Heath Government or of this one? None.

Every time we have an incomes policy, it is the same people, those in the public sector, who get caught and are hit the hardest. Therefore, it is to be expected that the end of an incomes policy is largely the result of an attack on the public sector. We all recall what the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) did to the postal workers. The Tory Government had a similar formula. It was called N-minus-one. The right hon. Gentleman thought that he could defeat the postal workers because they were not as well organised as some others. The whole idea of the incomes policy was to help weak organisations, such as the postal workers, but, because they were easy to clobber, the right hon. Gentleman decided to clobber them. The Tory Government, and some Labour Members, went along with him. They were able to succeed for a time, but in the end they were defeated.

The weaker groups in our society are always indentified and attacked by an incomes policy. On this occasion the firemen are in the centre of the stage.

Television commentators have contracts which are renegotiated, not at 10 per cent., or even at the 18 per cent. that the Royal Family received, but at much higher rates. Such people are outside the incomes policy. The editors of newspapers are not subject to the incomes policy. They will pick up £50,000 or whatever it is as managing directors of various newspaper companies, but, day in, day out, they will be preaching that the policy must be adhered to through thick and thin. I do not believe in such people.

I have learned something in the last seven years which I used to think was a fantasy when I worked in the coalfields. I used to think that the stories that I heard from public platforms about people evading incomes policies were not true. The seven years that I have spent in this place observing the people who frequent this place has taught me that it is not just a few people who are getting away from the rigidities of the incomes policy, but hundreds of thousands or even millions. That is why—and I am desperately sorry for the firemen—the debate had to take place. But it is about 12 months too late. As a result of calls for cuts in public expenditure by the Oppostition, the social wage was slashed at a stroke, and the contract was broken from then on.

This is the latest of the watersheds. Let us not torment ourselves with the idea that incomes policies can solve our problems in future. Even some of my hon. Friends in the Tribune Group stick to the old idea that we can devise an instrument to make them fair for one and all. It cannot happen, because so many people will be able to evade the rigidities of the incomes policy.

I suggest to those of my right hon. Friends who want to listen that they should not get any ideas that the firemen do not have public support. Never mind last Thursday's opinion poll. Many opinion polls have been organised and orchestrated about many matters, including elections. We had opinion polls in 1970 prior to the downfall of the then Labour Government. Let us not get carried away by opinion polls. Let us not get carried away by euphoria in the City. The City does not vote for or put back a Labour Government.

The firemen have a lot of public support. I was on the picket lines last night and again this morning. Hordes of people travelling past fire stations in their cars have waved to the firemen. I have been involved in quite a few strikes and been on many picket lines in my time, but I have never seen so many people in cars putting their hands up and waving to the firemen as I witnessed both last night and this morning.

We should not misread the signs. It is time that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took less notice of the Liberal Party and more notice of those who throughout the years have supported the labour movement and Labour Members to this place. That is the area to which he should lend his ears, not to the Liberal Party.

The Liberals talk about pulling out from underneath, deserting, and saying that if the 10 per cent. limit is broken they will withdraw their support. I know what they will do. I read what is happening in the country. I know how many Liberal Members will be returned at the next election—and it does not matter when it comes. There will be many fewer than there are at present. Therefore, this lot will not bother about pulling the rug out. They will stick as long as they can. They will find some phrase, some form of words, to cover up the cracks when the 10 per cent. limit is breached. They will whisper to my right hon. Friend "Yes, we will settle for that form of words. That will be all right. Just put in an extra semicolon. It will be all right. It is enough for us."

I urge my right hon. Friend not to worry about the Liberal Party, but to listen to the heart-beat of the Labour movement, which on this occasion is represented by the firemen. Those are the people to whom we should listen. The Treasury Bench must listen to them from now on. They must start the renegotiation. Let us see the strike called off, and to hell with the 10 per cent. rule and any form of incomes policy in future.

5.47 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Henderson (Aberdeenshire, East)

I find it difficult to speak after the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), as he goes off in his armourplated car to breach the Home Office bastions. However, he made some valuable and useful points.

It should be said at once that too many people in this Hounse and throughout the country have taken the fire brigade services for granted for far too long.

The right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) referred to the uniformed services and how we have regarded them over the years. We have taken them for granted. We have assumed that when we pick up the telephone and dial 999, within two, three or four minutes the comforting and reassuring figures of firemen will appear whether to extricate a child's head from railings, to go into a burning house, or to deal with an extensive and dangerous industrial blaze. In the same way, we have assumed that when there is trouble the police will arrive and provide the necessary reassurance.

Because the firemen have not been vociferous in putting their views and explaining their conditions, and because they have not had a long history of strikes and industrial disputes, we have assumed that society has remunerated them and looked after them properly in the scheme of things.

It is only now, when we see what to many is the unprecedented and horrifying spectable of these men having to go on strike and man the picket lines, that we consider their situation and ask: why did we allow this situation to go on for so long?

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars), in his very moving speech, put forward many of the basic reasons and gave us much valuable history for this strike taking place.

I met some of the office bearers of the Scottish executive of the Fire Brigades Union last Friday in Glasgow. I found them to be men of responsible character in the highest degree. They desperately wanted any alternative to the action that seemed inevitable on Monday. When they explained the pay and conditions under which they operated, it seemed a sorry record and a poor reflection on our society, irrespective of which Government were in power, that this situation had been allowed to continue for so long.

Whatever the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) may say, there is quite definitely an unfairness to people working in the public sector as opposed to the private sector.

Mr. Hooson


Mr. Henderson

If I may continue for a moment, I shall allow the hon. and learned Gentleman to intervene.

All of us who are in close touch with industrial affairs in our own constituencies know very well that there are myriads of ways in which extra earnings opportunities can be found within the private sector. Everyone knows that things like overtime, incentive schemes, shift allowances, perks and other examples apply in the private sector from the shop floor to the boardroom. The opportunities are being taken now, during phase 3.

But where in the public sector are the opportunities for overtime, shift allowances, or productivity schemes? Those are the sorts of unfairness that come home to people in the public sector because they live next door to people who work in the private sector. These people are not marooned on a desert island. They know what goes on elsewhere.

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Gentleman fairly makes the point that there is unfairness in the present system. Has he considered the unfairness in free collective bargaining? Why did that not succeed in 1973, 1974 or 1975, or from 1970 to 1972? That ended up as a desperate unfairness.

Mr. Henderson

The hon. and learned Gentleman is entitled to his opinion, but there are several views about the various successes of the prices and incomes policies that we have tried over a number of years.

What worries me most about the view that the Government are taking—I have not yet heard enough from the Home Secretary to convince me that the Government should be supported and sustained on this issue—is the sense of rigidity that has crept into their attitude. It seems to be hardening. We seem to be back in the days of three or four years ago, but instead of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) saying it, it is now the Home Secretary who stands at the Dispatch Box and says it.

I believe that the Home Secretary is in a somewhat ambiguous position, because during the course of his remarks he said that this was a matter for the National Joint Council. The right hon. Gentleman has a responsibility in this regard, because he is surely the ultimate paymaster. Surely it is possible for him to say something before the debate ends tonight. Surely he can send out a word to the employers' side of the National Joint Council saying, in effect, "For Heaven's sake, when you have this meeting tomorrow, take into account all these factors, which can be negotiated. Take into account the productivity increase that you are already getting from firemen, because while their hours remain at 48 you do not have to employ additional staff. Take into account the fact that there is no special payment for Saturdays and Sundays. Hammer out some kind of deal and let me bring it back to the House of Commons."

I assure the Home Secretary that if he does that he will have the gratitude of all of us in the House, and he will have the gratitude of the country as well.

5.53 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

I agree with what was said just now about the National Joint Council. It is a little naive of the Home Secretary to say that he was not represented in these negotiations, because, after all, it is he who is the ultimate paymaster and it is his Government who control the rate support grant and all the influence that flows from it.

I agree with the sentiments expressed in several speeches, notably that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) pointing out the factors that are special to the firemen. The hon. Gentleman particularly mentioned the fact that there was no overtime.

I also agree with the speech of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars), who pointed to the anguish of the firemen themselves in taking the action that they have taken. That was my personal experience yesterday, when I met the fire brigade in my own constituency. However, I believe that the firemen have made a profound mistake in taking the action that they have done. I believe that the potential harm that it causes to the community greatly outweighs the strength of the firemen's own grievance, grave though it is. I believe that it will seriously prejudice their own position in the eyes of the public.

I therefore believe that the Government must do nothing to allow it to be seen that a strike of this nature succeeds. Having said that, I feel certain that if the strike could end now, the point would have been made and the firemen would be in a stronger position to secure a settlement which I believe would be fair.

Much has been said by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire based upon his great knowledge of the firemen's job. I wish to say a few words about the others who are involved in this emergency, with no knowledge of the firemen's job. I am referring to the troops. A great deal has been said about the success with which they are carrying out their job. We have all read about it today, with great admiration. The senior fire officers who have observed it have been lavish in their praise. I quote one quick example. Last night a party of Grenadiers rushed into a blazing hospital near Charing Cross and put out a fire in circumstances in which, according to the senior officers who were present, regular firemen would have acted with much more caution.

The point that I want to make is that soldiers lack not only the experience of regular firemen but also the proper equipment. That seems neither unavoidable nor excusable.

I am not speaking about the sophisticated equipment referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw); I am speaking about the unsophisticated equipment—the basic equipment. I am speaking of turntables with ladders of more than 40 feet, of modern water tenders and, above all, of breathing equipment. All of this equipment is sitting in the fire stations and the Home Secretary has not allowed it to be used. That means that the troops have to do the best they can with 40-foot ladders. It means that they have to lug their hoses up flights of stairs in blocks of flats. It means that they are taking more risk. The troops are having to use ancient water tenders on the "green goddesses", some of which leak as much at the back end as they pump out at the front. This means that the troops are exposed to greater risk.

The troops plunge into smoke-filled rooms without any breathing apparatus. We have seen pictures of this. Luckily, to date this has not been serious, but it could well be fatal.

I shall not trouble the Home Secretary to tell us tonight what view the Government would take of any other employer who deliberately exposed his men to such risk to their lives, assuming that any other body of men could be found to undertake those risks; I merely ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether it is just.

Every fire authority has in law a duty to take reasonable care for the safety of its firemen. Perhaps the Home Secretary will accept from me that if a fireman is sent to a fire without breathing apparatus when it is available, that duty is broken, because it is forseeable that he will, nevertheless, run risks to his own safety in order to save life.

If the fireman is seriously injured through his employer's negligence in this respect, he will receive from the courts substantial damages. If he dies, his widow will receive them. The figure might run to £25,000 or £30,000. But compare with this the position of the young soldiers who are taking the firemen's place at the request of the Government. They are already paid less than the firemen who are on strike. There will be no damages for them, or for their widows. If they are injured through lack of proper equipment they will get a Service pension, a lump sum, a terminal grant if they are 100 per cent. disabled, and a DHSS disability pension. But the fact is that the total, when capitalised, will be a relatively small fraction of the damages that a fireman would receive in a similar situation if he were injured by reason of the negligence of a fire authority in sending him into a fire without breathing equipment.

These young men joined the Army to be soldiers and they accept the hazards of that occupation If they are to be used as firemen, I believe that the Government owe them the same duty as that which they owe firemen. That duty is to provide them with the equipment that is available to the extent that they are able to use it.

The Government cannot excuse themselves from that duty by saying that it will make matters politically difficult for them. I do not believe that the soldiers object to being used in aid of the civil power, so long as they are not exposed to wholly unnecessary risks. They do not expect that from their generals, and they do not get it, either. Why, then, should they get it from the Home Secretary?

6.0 p.m.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)

There has been an absence from this debate of certain key words which we often hear from the Opposition. I have in mind words such as "incentives". No one has talked about the need for these workers to have any incentives. On the other hand, they have been lectured about their duty. The hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) asked whether the firemen could be really happy in their own minds. There is a crassly stupid statement, if ever there was one. Are any of happy in our own minds with the present situation? But are we happy in our minds about the fact that firemen get £12 less per week than average male earnings?

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) said that there had to be some solution in the longer term. The trouble about that is that we depend on the services of our firemen in the short term. We depend on our firemen here and now. Fires and accidents will not wait for the longer term.

The hon. and learned Member also spoke of the high esteem in which he holds our firemen, and he spoke of their efficiency and bravery. But is it not a little insulting to tell people in these circumstances how much we admire their efficiency and bravery? They cannot eat the esteem in which they are held. They may appreciate it, but they will think that it makes poor food for their children.

I am very much afraid that too much of this lack of urgency—this feeling that the longer term will serve—characterised the speech of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He said that there were three elements to the present situation—10 per cent. now, negotiations about a formula, and a reduction in hours of work.

An increase of 10 per cent. now would still leave firemen about £6 behind average male earnings. It would not even bring them up to average male earnings, let alone provide any compensation for the dangers, the special skills, the unsocial hours and the rest of it. Yet this 10 per cent. apparently is utterly rigid.

My right hon. Friend said that he was not represented in the negotiations. But he does not need to be there in person. He has made it crystal clear that there can be no meaningful negotiations now because there can be no negotiations which go beyond the so-called guidelines. I thought that guidelines were meant to help negotiations on their way. I did not think that they were a euphemism for a straitjacket. Unfortunately, that is the way it seems.

My right hon. Friend then referred to hours of work. I am all for negotiating a reduction in the hours worked by our firemen. But is that to be used as a back-door method by which they then work overtime, so that they get an increase in wages in that way? I do not think that that will happen. I would not agree with it if it were to happen. So, there again, a reduction in hours of work, however desirable it may be, will not help firemen to pay their bills.

Then it is proposed to conduct negotiations about a formula. Here we have the feeling of "Next year, some time, maybe and according to the circumstances, let us look for a formula." There is a total absence,of the feeling of urgency which is necessary.

The firemen's claim is being distorted grossly. It is not a claim for 30 per cent. I went to Coventry this morning specifically to talk to local Fire Brigades Union officials. They bitterly resent the distortion of their claim. It is not a claim for 30 per cent. It is a claim based on a formula which they think would put them on a fair basis. The formula for 10 per cent. above average male earnings is a sensible one. My right hon. Friend must know—if he does not, someone should tell him—that it is designed to avoid these circumstances arising in the future. It is designed not only to solve the problem now but to prevent it arising again.

The firemen do not want to be in a position where they have to use their industrial strength. Speaking as one who normally approves of workers using their industrial strength, I may say that I do not want the firemen to be forced to use theirs. This dispute is one time when I do not know what I would want my husband to do if he were a fireman, and that is the first time that I could have said that about an industrial dispute. So I understand the men's anguish. The firemen have been driven to take this strike action knowing better than anyone the risks involved. They have been driven to it because they cannot make anyone understand the urgency of their case. No one listens.

Even when it comes to acknowledging the sort of job that they do and the bravery they show, the media cause our firemen a great deal of bitterness, and that has been expressed again in the Firefighter about the way that the Press dealt with the deaths of a number of firemen recently.

The firemen have been driven to take action which is unwelcome, and they do not want the situation to recur constantly. They want a self-adjusting formula which is fair. I do not know whether it will be average male earnings plus 10 per cent., although that sounds pretty sensible. But some self-adjusting formula like that is imperative—and not in the dim and distant future, hedged round with "ifs", "maybes" and "let us see what the situation is like".

It is necessary to talk on these lines now. I am afraid that the firemen will not go back to work on the basis of an offer which leaves them substantially behind average male earnings, unless they are driven to it by some disaster. Then they may crumble. Is that what we want? Do we want our firemen to be confronted with a disaster which causes a rout? Opposition Members want that, but do Government supporters want it?

The Fire Brigades Union contains people who are actively the backbone of this movement in every sense. Yet our Government, for the sake of a 10 per cent. guideline on wages, apparently have gone to war with the firemen. It is an untenable position. I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to extricate himself from it.

I do not normally argue special cases. I am much more in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on this. But if we think that there are dangers we must at least acknowledge that in the case of the firemen there are genuine differences which are recognised by the population at large. That is why the firemen have the support of the public—and my hon. Friends are right: they do. In this instance I beg my right hon. Friend, if he must insist on his pay guidelines, not to make the firemen the make-or-break case. It is absolutely imperative, for the sake of the Government and our movement, that the Labour Party is not seen to be at war with the firemen. This issue must be solved.

I appeal to the Home Secretary. People are far more afraid of a conflagration than of inflation. It is ridiculous to find ourselves in the position in which the Government are apparently saying that a fair wage for the fire service could cause the end of the economic strategy. I do not agree with that economic strategy but, even in their own terms, the Government are putting themselves into a ridiculous position. It is nonsense to say that the firemen must be burned on the altar of the 10 per cent. guideline—and some of the population along with them.

It is not the wealthy in our society who should be giving us lectures about such people as the firemen. The Home Secretary should remember that some people have not needed to keep within the 10 per cent. guideline, not only for the reasons that have been given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover but because if one has an income of £25,000 a year one has already received the equivalent of a gross wage increase of 20 per cent. as a result of the Chancellor's April Budget. Such people do not need the 10 per cent. guideline. They are outside it.

I also appeal to the Home Secretary to inject some urgency into the negotiations so that they may be meaningful, because they are not so at present. Tomorrow's negotiations will not be meaningful because no time element will be involved in them; there will be no sense of urgency. I was told that when the date for the resumption of negotiations was under discussion members of the joint council got out their diaries and were saying such things as "There's a meeting of the county council policy committee on Tuesday"—and that in the middle of a firemen's strike!

That is just not good enough. The Home Secretary should get rid of the straitjacket and get some sense. There is no percentage in it for the Labour Government to be at war with the firemen.

6.12 p.m.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

I find it extremely difficult to agree with any of the speeches that have been made from Labour Benches today, bar two. I agreed first with the moving and persuasive speech of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) and also—and I hope that this will not embarrass the hon. Member—with about 70 per cent. of the speech made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman may find that acutely embarrassing, but I agreed with him except when he mounted his class-hatred hobby-horse. He spoke a lot of good sense, and I have never been able to say such a thing before.

I shall try to compress my speech into about three minutes, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if it seems a little disjointed.

We cannot expect people to behave particularly honourably unless they are treated honourably. We are using double standards with the firemen in that we are expecting a special code of conduct from them while we are not prepared to abide by any special code of conduct ourselves.

I had the honour and privilege of visiting the operational headquarters of the London Fire Brigade this morning, and I can confirm the smooth-running and cheerful co-operation that is taking place between administrative staff, the Fire Brigade, the Army, police and the ambulance service. I doubt that such co-operation could have been organised so quickly, smoothly and with such good relations in any other country. Operations so far have been a complete success, and the Army was proud this morning to have had its first success in dealing with an incident in a high-rise block of flats.

However, we must not become complacent because, as the Home Secretary knows, the disaster potential in London and throughout the country is extremely grave. We are now operating from 17 bases with old equipment, compared with 114 bases, modern equipment and trained people—and that shows the tissue thinness of the protection that the people of London are receiving today.

I cannot agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew), because there are acute dangers that could confront untrained people using breathing apparatus. One has only to consider the accidents that occur in the use of aqualungs. It is a serious matter, and perhaps people should now be trained to use such apparatus. However, I hope that the Home Secretary will be able to come to the House the day after tomorrow to say that this tragic chapter has finished.

I wish to refer to a matter that has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock)—who is no longer here—and my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer). This a matter of the closed shop. I ask the Home Secretary to mention this point specifically when he replies to the debate. If firemen belonging to a closed shop go to an incident—I believe that the Home Secretary would wish them to do so—would they be deprived of jobs after the strike? Unless firemen can be assured—and today is the occasion upon which such an assurances should be given—that there will be a no-victimisation clause written into any solution to the strike, they will be in an exteremely ambiguous position. Firemen must be told that if they take part in life-saving exercises they will not suffer from the loss of their jobs under Government legislation.

The Fire Brigades Union and the National Association of Fire Officers are frustrated, angry and sad. They feel that they are betraying their service, but they feel more seriously that the community is betraying them. Out of the blue and to the great surprise of the national joint council, the Home Secretary has introduced this business of a shorter working week. It is in that that we should be able to find a solution within the Home Secretary's own terms. We should be able to arrive at an almost immediate solution. I have spoken to fire brigade members and they long for a quick solution. Their demands are not inflexible. I hope that this strike will be solved and that it will not last longer than another 24 hours.

6.18 p.m.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

The only word with which I could agree in the speech of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) was "urgency". For some weeks, I and other hon. Members have been following the pace of the negotiations. I was talking to firemen in my constituency before the weekend, and all of us have been surprised at the lack of urgency in the negotiations. It may be that underneath there has been more urgency than has been visible, but certainly none has been visible.

I hope the Home Secretary realises that there is some scepticism among firemen upon a point which has been raised by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) and me. There have been repeated reports and the union would be heartened if the Home Secretary would give a commitment that, through the negotiating machinery—even if he cannot give such a commitment tonight—the results of the grading and positioning will be firmly implemented by the Government at some point and will not be shelved for some dim and distant future time only to be overtaken by a change of policy.

I cannot help but marvel over the degree of inflexibility that there now seems to be over the guidelines. There seemed to be some fair amount of flexibility in the negotiations at Ford's. It seems to me and to firemen that, if there can be flexibility there and flexibility in the negotiations for local authority manual workers, there ought to be some degree of flexibility in this case, whether it lies within the negotiations on hours, overtime done after reduced hours of work, an increased meal allowance or some form of productivity deal. I believe that there is room for genuine productivity. I ask the Home Secretary, for goodness sake let us get some urgency and positive suggestions into the negotiations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) raised an important point in relation to uniformed personnel. If these people whom we ask to do dangerous jobs are different from the mass of other people, it would be helpful if the TUC were asked to recognise that fact. That would help negotiations and would help to differentiate between the rôles of firemen, police and the Armed Forces and those of the mass of other workers.

It is not enough for the Home Secretary to follow the negotiations. The firemen are on strike and lives are at risk. The time has come to give guidance and leadership and to suggest to the negotiators that they negotiate long and hard tomorrow so that a result is achieved and the men can go back to work.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)

I share the feeling of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) in the critical note that he sounded about the excessive rigidity of the Home Secretary's position over the misnamed guidelines. It has become increasingly clear during the debate that the Home Secretary's handling of the dispute has lacked skill and sensitivity.

I say that particularly because definite evidence has emerged from the debate that earlier this year the Home Secretary raised firemens' expectations and gave them false hopes that the Government would be much more flexible and generous than they have been. The Home Secretary is shaking his head, but let him read and eat the words quoted by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars), at the FBU conference in Bridlington. The right hon. Gentleman's words could be construed by the firemen only as an indication that an extra degree of flexibility would be shown to them.

The Home Secretary has put himself in the position of the Grand Old Duke of York in this matter. He led the firemen to the top of the flexibility hill and indicated the pastures of greater flexibility below them. Then, when faced with a strike, he has backed away and has become quite inflexible.

There are areas in which there could be some flexibility. The question of fringe benefits is an example. In addition, can the Home Secretary say whether the 10 per cent. figure is a guideline, an absolute limit or an average? He has not yet answered that question.

As regards fringe benefits, why should the police get a rent allowance worth £28 a week in central London while the firemen get nothing? Why should the police be in an advantageous position over travel and food allowances while the firemen are in a disadvantageous position?

If flexibility is not shown, there will be serious long-term consequences for the firemen in addition to the disastrous short-term consequences of this tragic strike. Since 1975, 2,500 firemen have left a force whose establishment is only 33,000. The overwhelming majority in this high wastage rate are young men who are turning to more lucrative economic pastures.

We have been struck in the debate and in our constituencies by how much public support there is for the firemen. They have a just claim, although they may have been using unjust methods to get the claim implemented. However, the Government must not act unjustly, and in the absence of flexibility and a much more constructive approach than we have had so far we must declare that the Government are not being flexible and are acting unjustly.

6.24 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

There are a number of points that I should like to answer. If I do not have time to cover them all, I shall get in touch with the hon. Members concerned.

I start with the issue of closed shops. I am advised that union membership agreements have been concluded in South Yorkshire, the West Midlands, Humberside and London. Guidance has been issued over the years by the Local Authorities Conditions of Service Advisory Board in this respect, and what will happen when the strike ends is another matter.

The TUC has set up an independent review committee to hear complaints by individual members who are excluded or expelled from membership of a trade union because of the closed shop. This arrangement has nothing to do with legislation of recent years. The arrangements in these fire bridgades and the question of the closed shop were going on long before some people thought of the words "closed shop". There may be a problem, but I am sure that good sense will prevail.

Mr. John Page


Sir A. Meyer


Mr. Rees

I will not give way. There is not enough time.

Questions have been raised about the problems of fires in high-rise buildings and the fact that the ladders being used by the Army will not reach such fires. I am advised by my Fire Inspectorate that fires in high-rise buildings are not tackled by ladders. They are dealt with from inside. I am under no misapprehension that the Services can cope in the same efficient way as fire brigades, but what matters is getting into the building, and I am sure that the Service personnel will do the best they can.

I have been asked about breathing apparatus. This is not something that anyone can don straight away. Firemen are trained in the use of breathing apparatus. If it is not possible to go into a building without breathing apparatus, of course the Service men will not be able to go in. That is one of the deficiencies of the service that we are now providing.

In regard to red appliances and their use, I am advised that special training is required for the turntable ladders and that their use by soldiers is not on because of the nature of the vehicles, let alone any other aspect that may arise.

As regards the general situation as we move out of phases 1 and 2, it is the Government's strong view that the 10 per cent. policy is right. We stick by that.

We have talked about benchmarks, and analogies have been drawn with the benchmarks arrived at by independent inquiries. In this case, it is something for the negotiating procedure that has been going on this year. The McCarthy inquiry was part of the process. It is important to have a benchmark, but there can be no question of a commitment on how it can be phased once it is arrived at.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

If the national joint council is able to reach agreement on some form of pay formula and a reduction in hours, can the Home Secretary say, without any commitment on phasing, that he would look favourably at that agreement and, as far as he can, seek to implement it?

Mr. Rees

We were involved in the technical work that was necessary in re- gard to hours of work, but this aspect needs negotiation because of different arrangements in different forces. It is a matter for the NJC.

The benchmark that is arrived at will not involve my saying that I accept it. It has to be negotiated by the NJC and will not come from an independent inquiry, so it is not a matter of a blanket acceptance. Of course, we shall look at it favourably. I can go no further than that. I cannot use the same words as I have used in other fields. It is a matter for negotiation.

There is no sense in which I wish to see the fire service driven back to work or the union humiliated. I want the negotiating machinery to be used.

The question of the police pay claim has also been raised. The police NJC broke down completely. I was sad about that because the best place to talk is in the negotiating machinery that has been built up over the years. I want to see that developed in future weeks, and that is the basis on which we shall move.

The Government stick by the 10 per cent. figure. As to hours of work and danger money, these are matters that can develop and this is where the flexibility lies. They are matters that the FBU has been concerned about for a long time.

Sir A. Meyer

Will the Home Secretary give a word of advice at least, if not of encouragement, to those who are carrying on their duty during the present strike?

Mr. Rees

As far as my job is concerned and the work that is done, whether by the soldiers or anybody else, of course I approve of that. It would be extremely silly for me to become involved in the problems that arise in the FBU, the stresses and strains which may be there, between some of its members who are officers and some of them who are leading firemen who have worked. That is something that I have to think about. I do not want to see the fire service get into a situation arising out of this strike whereby the morale and the attitudes in it are such that we cannot carry on and build on what we have done before.

I understand the problems of the fire service very well and what we need to do. It is something on which we need to build. Some people pretend that it can all be done at once. That is not possible. But we have a chance to build.

Therefore, I think that acceptance of the motion for the Adjournment would be the wrong approach. It will not be an easy matter in the next day or two or in the next week or two. I want to see this strike ended. I want to see a chance for the firemen to get the status in society that they want. It cannot be done in one blow overnight. That is the difficulty that we have got ourselves into in the last week or two. I will accept responsibility,

but so also must a lot of others. It has not come from just one direction.

Mr. Sillars

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That this House do now adjourn:—

The House divided: Ayes 58, Noes 211.

Division No. 7] AYES [6.31 p.m.
Allaun, Frank Hatton, Frank Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Heffer, Eric S. Rooker, J. W.
Atkinson, Norman Henderson, Douglas Selby, Harry
Bain, Mrs. Margaret Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Skinner, Dennis
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Hughes, Roy (Newport) Spriggs, Leslie
Bidwell, Sydney Kerr, Russell Stewart, Rt Hon Donald
Buchan, Norman Lambie, David Swain, Thomas
Canavan, Dennis Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Costain, A. P. Leadbitter, Ted Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Craigen, Jim (Maryhill) Loyden, Eddie Thompson, George
Crawford, Douglas Madden, Max Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Dunlop, John Maynard, Miss Joan Welsh, Andrew
Durant, Tony Mikardo, Ian Wigley, Dafydd
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Moonman, Eric Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Winterton, Nicholas
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) Newens, Stanley Wise, Mrs Audrey
Fell, Anthony O'Halloran, Michael
Flannery, Martin Page, John (Harrow West) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Paisley, Rev Ian Mr. James Sillars and
Griffiths, Eldon Parry, Robert Mr. John Robertson.
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Richardson, Miss Jo
Anderson, Donald Dalyell, Tam Gould, Bryan
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Davidson, Arthur Gourlay, Harry
Armstrong, Ernest Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Grant, John (Islington C)
Ashton, Joe Davies, Denzil (Lianelli) Grocott, Bruce
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Hamilton, James (Bothwell)
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Deakins, Eric Hardy, Peter
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Harper, Joseph
Bean, R. E. de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Bishop, Rt Hon Edward Dempsey, James Hayman, Mrs Helene
Blenkinsop, Arthur Doig, Peter Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Boardman, H. Dormand, J. D. Hooson, Emlyn
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Douglas-Mann, Bruce Horam, John
Boothrayd, Miss Betty Duffy, A. E. P. Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Dunnett, Jack Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Eadie, Alex Huckfield, Les
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Edge, Geoff Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Hunter, Adam
Buchanan, Richard English, Michael Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE) Ennals, Rt Hon David Jackson, Colin (Brighouse)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)
Campbell, Ian Evans, loan (Aberdare) Janner, Greville
Cant, R. B. Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Carter-Jones, Lewis Faulds, Andrew John, Brynmor
Cartwright, John Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Johnson, James (Hull West)
Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Johnston, Russell (Inverness)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Foot, Rt Hon Michael Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Cohen, Stanley Ford, Ben Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Coleman, Donald Forrester, John Judd, Frank
Concannon, J. D. Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Kaufman, Gerald
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) Kelley, Richard
Corbett, Robin Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Lamborn, Harry
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Lamond, James
Crawshaw, Richard George, Bruce Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Cronin, John Gilbert, Dr John Luard, Evan
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Ginsburg, David Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Golding, John McCartney, Hugh
McElhone, Frank Price, C. (Lewisham W) Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
MacFarquhar, Roderick Price, William (Rugby) Tierney, Sydney
McGuire, Michael (Ince) Radice, Giles Tinn, James
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S) Tomlinson, John
Mackintosh, John P. Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Tomney, Frank
Maclennan, Robert Robinson, Geoffrey Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Roderick, Caerwyn Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Mahon, Simon Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Mallalieu, J. P. W. Roper, John Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Marks, Kenneth Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Ward, Michael
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Watkins, David
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Rowlands, Ted Watkinson, John
Meacher, Michael Sandelson, Neville Weetch, Ken
Mendelson, John Sever, J. Wellbeloved, James
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South) White, Frank R. (Bury)
Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert White, James (Pollok)
Molloy, William Shore, Rt Hon Peter Whitehead, Phillip
Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford) Whitlock, William
Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Silverman, Julius Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Moyle, Roland Small, William Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Smith, Cyril (Rochdale) Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Smith, John (N Lanarkshire) Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)
Noble, Mike Snape, Peter Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Oakes, Gordon Spearing, Nigel Wilson, Rt Hon Sir Harold (Huyton)
Ogden, Eric Staliard, A. W. Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Orbach, Maurice Steel, Rt Hon David Woodall, Alec
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham) Woof, Robert
Palmer, Arthur Stoddart, David Wrigglesworth, Ian
Park, George Stott, Roger Young, David (Bolton E)
Parker, John Strang, Gavin
Pavitt, Laurie Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Pendry, Tom Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W) Mr. Ted Graham and
Penhaligon, David Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery) Mr. Alf Bates.
Phipps, Dr Colin Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)

Question accordingly negatived.