HC Deb 17 November 1977 vol 939 cc744-7
6. Mr. Durant

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he next plans to meet the Fire Brigades Union.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have told representatives of both sides of the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades that we are ready to meet them at any time.

Mr. Durant

Is the Home Secretary aware that in my constituency, in the last two months, two firemen have been killed and two have been awarded bravery honours for rescuing somebody from the River Thames? I talked to the picket lines late last night. Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that they are looking for some way out of this dilemma? Can he not make some small offer, such as the 2½ per cent. that Ford workers were given, so that negotiations can begin and we can get this strike over?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting to me—we are not negotiating here—that 2½ per cent. over the 10 per cent. would settle the dispute. I do not think that he is speaking on behalf of the Fire Brigades Union in that sense. It is easy to suggest ways in which it can be done, and I am not at the moment going into the merits of the 10 per cent. guideline which I think are basically important to the future of this country. There is more than that to the discussions which have been taking place.

Of course, the Government are concerned about the matter, but, according to the negotiating procedures which are laid down, the local authorities and the Fire Brigades Union are talking together, and to suggest these ways of doing it as though, if only I would think of them, the dispute would be over is to ignore the realities of the situation.

Mr. Flannery

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me that there is deep and spreading sympathy in the general public for this patient and orderly body of men, and that it is an increasing wish among our people that some major concession should be made to them?

Mr. Rees

I should be the last to say that the work of the firemen was not held in very high regard. But I had a message last night from other unions that said bluntly "If you give to the Fire Brigades Union, you will give to us as well." Talking about special cases, if my hon. Friend could tell me that every other trade union would say that the Fire Brigades Union was a special case and that it would not be called in aid in any other dispute, that might be a different matter. But that is not the situation.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Everyone hopes that this strike will be settled. When the Home Secretary next meets the Fire Brigades Union, will he emphasise the fundamental constitutional importance of the distinction between the exercise of the right to strike, which, though deplorable and regrettable, is legitimate, and the exercise of a power which it is now using to deprive those authorised by Her Majesty's Government to use Her Majesty's property and to obstruct the use of that property by those authorised by means of the illegal use of transmitters?

Mr. Rees

On the last point, blocking the use of transmitters is evil. Who is doing it is not known, and I think it would be wrong to suggest that it was a member of the Fire Brigades Union. On the other matters, the soldiers are not trained to use the sophisticated equipment, and it is idle to pretend that they are. We have been considering the use of the masks. People cannot learn to use them just by coming in one morning and using them; they are very complicated. We have a small group of trained Service men who can be protected in that way, and they will be used as appropriate. The general approach of the hon. Gentleman that this equipment is not being used because of a block imposed by the Fire Brigades Union is not true.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me as someone who is not putting forward the special case principle but who believes that the 10 per cent. rule is a hazard to free collective bargaining and must be removed that it will cost the Government, through the NJC or any other body, a lot more money as long as the strike persists? Will the Home Secretary also acknowledge that he can give a nudge, a nod and a wink to the NJC, even though principally it is a Tory-controlled body, to ensure that renegotiations may start? Would not 18 per cent., the amount which the Royal Family got, be a good starting point?

Mr. Rees

There is one aspect of the 10 per cent. guideline in the current situation which is being forgotten. On a wage of £70, that is £7 a week. We are not talking about small sums of money, because 10 per cent. is a largish amount of money on anybody's salary or pay, and it is an important factor to take into account in this stage of moving on and developing pay policy. When analogies are made with anybody else in the community or with the Royal Family, I say on behalf of the Government that 10 per cent. is the basis on which to move. The discussions on the 42-hour week are a major breakthrough, and the benchmark for the future is something that the Fire Brigades Union has been talking about for a long time. In my view, it is on this basis and through discussions with the NJC that we shall find a solution.

Mr. Churchill

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that the lives of Service men are being put at stake by their being required to enter blazing premises and dense smoke without the proper equipment? Furthermore, the lives of the public are being put at risk because foam appliances are not available, and in certain cases sufficient fire-fighting equipment is not available. Even accepting the Home Secretary's premise that certain of the equipment is too specialised for Service men to use, I ask him now to give his authority that the people's fire tenders, equipment and breathing apparatus can be made available to the Service men who are fighting the blazes.

Mr. Rees

No, I shall not do that, because they are not trained to use them. There are occasions, as one has seen from the newspapers, when no fire officer would send soldiers into a blaze or into a smoke-filled building.

Mr. Churchill

They are going in.

Mr. Rees

The marginal cases are happening, as can happen in any instance, but Service men are not there to deal with fires for which they are not trained and which they do not have the equipment to deal with.