HC Deb 21 November 1977 vol 939 cc1100-12
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Fire Service, in particular on the negotiations which have been taking place in the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades on the claim submitted by the Fire Brigades Union for an increase of about 30 per cent., and on the operational response to the strike.

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

On 7th November a recalled delegate conference of the union rejected the recommendation of the executive council of the union that negotiations should continue within the framework of the employers' offer. At the same time a resolution was carried calling for strike action to begin on 14th November in the event of failure to settle the union's claim before that date. As the House will know, a national strike in the Fire Service began on 14th November.

Nevertheless, discussions have continued between the two sides of the NJC. On Friday 18th November the employers' side of the National Joint Council and the full executive of the Fire Brigades Union came to see me. I had separate talks with these two groups. The employers had maintained their offer to implement immediately a pay increase of 10 per cent. This would have put some £5.50 to £6.60 into the firemen's pay packet immediately and would have increased the pay of the qualified fireman outside London from £65.65 a week to £72.29 a week and in London from £74.07 to £80.67 a week.

Progress was made on the longer-term issues. The employers were ready to agree in principle to a reduction of hours from November next year. There were useful discussions on a formula for determining fire service pay in the future. I understand that the employers would have been prepared to reach agreement on a pay formula if the Fire Brigades Union for its part would undertake to put it to a further recalled conference, recommending its acceptance and also a return to normal working.

The Fire Brigades Union rejected this. Members of the executive made it clear to me that what they wanted was a more substantial pay increase immediately.

Talks will continue between the two sides on the longer-term issues of a reduction in hours and a pay formula, but there is no present basis on which the union would be prepared to recall its conference and seek an end to the strike.

I have been in touch with the secretaries of the National Joint Council to clarify the situation. The Secretary of State for Scotland and I are available at any time to see the two sides of the National Joint Council.

As to the operational response, the steps which we have been taking with fire authorities and with the Services to provide a fire-fighting force have been under constant review during the past week and we have taken steps, as necessary, to increase our capability. Further Service men have been made available, and so have further emergency appliances.

We have looked very carefully at all aspects of the use by Service men of breathing apparatus and other equipment ordinarily used by regular firemen. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services and the Service authorities have confirmed their original advice that it would be unsafe for inexperienced Service men with only minimal training in fire-fighting as a whole to be issued with breathing apparatus. Fire-fighting is a skilled and complex operation. It is not simply a matter of a Service man learning to wear a mask. It is necessary to be fully trained in the fire-fighting techniques made possible by the use of breathing apparatus, and in the safety procedures to be followed, if men are not to be put at grave risk. The great majority of Service men now carrying out fire duties are not trained at all in this way.

But we have now deployed 132 trained RAF fire-fighters who are competent in the use of breathing apparatus. A further 30 are in reserve, and 60 trained men are also being made available by the Royal Navy.

With regard to the other equipment in fire stations, essentially what we are concerned with here is the red appliances, the water tenders and pumps, hydraulic platforms, turntable ladders and pump escapes. The advice given me by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services is that some of these appliances—the hydraulic platforms, turntable ladders and pump escapes—could not be used safely by troops without extensive training. The pumping appliances, water tenders and pumps do not present the same safety problems, but they are a good deal more sophisticated than the Green Goddesses which the Service men are now using, and there are difficulties, even for trained firemen, in switching from one make and type of pumping appliance to another.

The only equipment in fire stations for which there might conceivably be need and which could be used by troops is foam-making equipment. This is required only in fighting certain types of fire, for example, oil fires. In fact, foam compound is available from the RAF and has been made available to the Service men, in addition to other foam-making units. All this foam may be used in conjunction with the Green Goddesses.

Finally, I repeat that the Secretary of State for Scotland and I remain ready to see the two sides of the National Joint Council if it appears that we can help in any way to bring this dispute to an end, and so enable firemen to have the benefit of the immediate pay offer which has been made to them and of the longer-term improvements which can come to the service.

Mr. Whitelaw

The right hon. Gentleman said that the employers are ready to agree in principle to a reduction in hours from November next year. If the principle of a reduction in hours is conceded, would there not be a basis for negotiation leading to a settlement on the timing of any such changes?

We appreciate the problems of Service personnel using complicated equipment. May I ask what steps the right hon. Gentleman is taking to give the troops the necessary training? Does he appreciate that we welcome the RAF fire-fighting services that have now been brought into operation, although I think we must say that it is a pity that they were not brought in at the very first instance? There may, however, be reasons for that.

Further, will the right hon. Gentleman look into exactly what equipment was used by the Forces in the Glasgow fire problems in 1973? Finally, will he undertake to ensure that whatever equipment can safely be used is made available, including—and I understand that this is not universally allowed—plastic helmets for the troops? Can these be made available whenever they can be used, for the protection of the troops and as a help in fighting fires on behalf of the public?

Mr. Rees

The right hon. Gentleman is right that the big change in these negotiations is the reduction in hours from 48 to 42, which I put to the NJC at the beginning. It is something that the union has been concerned about for many years, not just in the context of a reduction of hours but in terms of a more efficient use of Fire Service personnel. I believe that it is a basis on which we can talk within the guidelines of the pay policy.

I want to make one point clear about equipment, namely, that the fact of the RAF personnel going in did not take place as a result of any discussions in the House. It was a result of what was put to me by my technical advisers in the course of last week.

Turning to the issue of training, it should be realised that it is not just a matter of training someone in the use of equipment. What matters—and this is reflected in the pay and rank structure of a fire brigade—is the use that is made of that equipment in a fire situation. It is an extremely complicated matter, as anyone will know who has visited Moreton-in-Marsh to see the nature of the training that takes place there. It is not training simply in the narrow use of equipment. It is training in the wider use of such equipment in a complicated fire, under the leadership of officers and leading firemen who are trained fully in the art.

I am absolutely convinced—and I am reinforced in this conviction by the advice given me—that it would be extremely foolish, on the basis of the training alone, to put the Service men in a dangerous and difficult situation in a complicated fire incident.

As for the point made about Glasgow, I will look at that suggestion—

Mr. Prior

The Secretary of State should do more than look at it.

Mr. Rees

May I say to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) that the question of what happened in Glasgow may be important, but it is not of fundamental importance in the wide discussions that have been taking place in recent weeks. In the context of industrial disputes the right hon. Gentleman is the last man, given what he has done in industry in the past, to talk in that way.

Mrs. Castle

Can there be any hope of the industrial action being concluded until a formula for firemen's future pay has been firmly agreed between the two sides and accepted by the Government, subject to the same sort of phasing as is to apply to the police? Is it not that on which we should be concentrating?

Mr. Rees

In the earlier stages I thought that there was something in my right hon. Friend's initial suggestion. As for the phasing, if my right hon. Friend will consider what I said earlier, I am advised that agreement could be reached on that relatively quickly. If that were to happen the view of the Government about when it could be implemented and phased would be relevant. At this pitch, as much as a week or so ago, I thought that there was something in the idea. There has to be agreement in the NJC. It did not come about, but that is where the negotiations take place. I do not believe that the issue of reaching a formula is holding up an ending of the strike.

Mr. Pardoe

Will the Home Secretary accept that most right hon. and hon. Members would wish to thank and congratulate the troops and Royal Air Force personnel on the remarkable job which they are doing, at substantially lower rates of pay than would be paid to the firemen, even under the existing arrangements?

Does the Home Secretary accept that discussion about the future position of firemen in the national pay scale is a matter not for collective bargaining but for a fully formulated pay policy. Does he agree that it is a great pity that we do not still have the National Board for Prices and Incomes to sort out this kind of problem?

Does the right hon. Gentleman further accept that those of us who represent low-income areas do not regard the offer of £72.29 for a fireman outside London as derisory?

Mr. Rees

On the question of the relative pay of the low-paid in all parts of the country, there is no doubt that, when one looks at the structure of the pay of the firemen, a 10 per cent. pay offer is not a bad offer compared with offers in the past. Also involved, however—and this is part of the intricacies of emotion involved—are the discussions that have taken place over the past eight years about the future of the Fire Service, its greater use in fire precautions, higher status for the firemen, and matters of that kind, which I believe are important, and, I agree, are related to the reduction to a 42-hour week. There is far more to it than that, but I accept fully that the matter of the pay that is being offered and the pay figures that have now been published put the pay position of the firemen in a different perspective.

Mr. Heffer

As some people in private industry, such as white-collar Ford workers, are now voting to accept 12 per cent., does my right hon. Friend not accept that firemen look at this situation and feel very aggrieved as a result? Is it not quite clear that, if there is to be a settlement, it is a question not just of reduction of working hours in the future but of putting more on the table now? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that the Government are losing public support on this question, that the public are backing the firemen, and that, whether he or anybody else likes it, sooner or later they have to get round the table and offer more in order to get a settlement?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend talks about 12 per cent.—and I suppose that nobody would pretend, despite the way it is being put, that the 30 per cent. is absolutely inviolate. But nothing that I have learned in my discussions leads me to think that, even if it were possible, anything like 12 per cent. would be acceptable to the firemen. They are talking about a good deal more, and that would drive a coach and horses through the pay policy. That is something that the Government must protect. It is of the greatest importance that there is a flexibility here and, like my hon. Friend, I think that talking round the table is the way to achieve it.

Sir John Hall

While I have considerable sympathy for the firemen's case, is the Secretary of State aware that in the High Wycombe station there are some 12 members of the British Fire Service Federation who have remained on duty to give a vital service to a high-risk town? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that in consequence they have been subjected to vicious abuse and some violence by so-called pickets brought in from outside the area? They have also been threatened that, if and when the strike is settled, they will lose their jobs. Will the Home Secretary point out to the Fire Brigades Union that such tactics do its cause no good at all?

Mr. Rees

I have known the FBU for a long time, and I have no doubt that the viciousness and other things that are going on in different parts of the country do not have its support. There always are problems with picketing, and one has to wait and see how the matter is resolved and what happens in the longer run. But I make it absolutely clear that this sort of behaviour and abuse—some of it turned on the wives of officers, and so on—does not have the support of the FBU, whose service in the wider trade union movement over the years and the work that it has done mark it out as one of the most important and best unions that I have ever had anything to do with.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Is my right hon. Friend not aware that there is considerable disappointment in his statement this afternoon in that the two sides are just as wide apart as ever? Should he not forget protocol in this case and take an initiative himself in order to try to arrive at a solution based on what he has said this afternoon, in respect, for example, of the overtime payments over and above the 42-hour week? Will he also take on board the possibility that there could be other payments made to firemen which would not break the Government's guidelines—in rent allowances, for example? Would he take these on board, and will the Government try to take an initiative of their own, otherwise the situation will become even more dangerous.

Mr. Rees

I met separately the Secretaries of the NJC this morning to—and I use the correct word—clarify the situation.

My hon. Friend spoke about my responsibilities. I am not unaware of them. But the question of overtime has been thrown into the discussion, and I noticed over the weekend that people were talking about it as if it were new. In fact, there is overtime which is subsumed into the 48-hour week. I leave the matter at that.

I understand that it was trade union policy some years ago to end rent allowance. That, too, was subsumed in the payment. By the nature of the Fire Service—as the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), whom I see opposite me and who is involved in the Fire Service, will know—this is a most complicated matter. These matters are best discussed round the table, and that is my aim, because at the end of the day that will be the way in which this dispute will be settled.

Mr. Bowden

Is the Home Secretary aware that at the Fire Services Training College at Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire there are considerable quantities of equipment—simple, straightforward equipment—which could be used by the troops? Will he consider making these available to the Armed Forces where their units are engaged in fire-fighting activities? Further, is he aware that I believe that the House as a whole and the country will be disgusted at the comments he made about my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior)? If my right hon. Friend had been in charge, this situation would never have arisen.

Mr. Rees

With that last remark we moved from a serious discussion of the matter into romancing and the novel. With regard to the equipment at Moreton, I am advised by my advisers that, given the use of Service men, the equipment that is provided is suitable for the job. We are not seeking to do the job—and it could not be done—that is done by the firemen when working normally.

Mr. Ashton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government are now trying to run a voluntary incomes policy without any volunteers? To make it even worse, there is no referee to sort out the good cases from the bad.

Mr. Pardoe

Whose fault is that?

Mr. Ashton

I am not in favour of statutory policies either.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that trade unionists in other unions up and down the country would not be averse to the firemen's union receiving overtime pay for the difference between the 40 hours and the 48 hours that they work, and would not take this as a precedent?

Mr. Rees

I note what my hon. Friend says about incomes policy. The present position is that in the last eight hours of work there is premium pay at time and one-third, which is overtime which is already paid. It is possible to argue whether it should be paid at a higher rate. But I would say that if that were possible in pay policy it would produce a very small sum of money.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is the Home Secretary aware that there are certain situations in which troops and volunteers, with the best will in the world, could not possibly cope in the event of serious fire? In particular, there are hospitals and old people's homes where the inmates are particularly vulnerable and cannot be moved quickly, and whole communities, such as Canvey Island, that have to live close to excessive concentrations of gas, chemical and oil storage and are dependent entirely upon a highly professional Fire Service? Would it not be possible in these circumstances for the Home Secretary to appeal to the Fire Brigades Union to deal with these situations exceptionally without prejudice to their cause?

Mr. Rees

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, because he is an adviser to one of the Fire Service organisations, given the present mood I do not think that the appeal would matter. I have noticed that, with few exceptions, when there is something serious the strikers remember that they are firemen and what they have been trained to do. I think that we can leave that matter to that aspect.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call two more Members from each side. There are two short debates today.

Mr. Clemitson

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity of refuting some statements made on the "World at One" programme today by the leader of the employers' side on the National Joint Council, who said that firemen are now pawns in a political game and that the control of the strike had passed into the hands of the International Socialists? Will not the Home Secretary agree that such statements are hardly conducive to the settlement of this dispute?

Mr. Rees

I did not hear that. I understand that in some parts of the country there is an influence in that respect, but the idea that the Fire Brigades Union is run by an outside body is not true.

Mr. Henderson

Will not the Home Secretary consider that the area for movement in this matter is the recognition that hours ought to be reduced from November next year, which will require the employment of a large amount of additional manpower? Looking at the terminology of the Government's pay policy, could he not find it possible to accept the argument that the firemen are working some 14¼ per cent. additional hours at present and that this surely is productivity in anyone's language?

Mr. Rees

All these matters are being considered. A number of things also have to be taken into account. The hon. Gentleman has obviously studied the matter. The feasibility study on hours of work shows that in one brigade at one extreme, out of 48 hours, 32 hours are on standby, whereas in another brigade it is as low as eight hours. There are reasons for this. All this material together certainly needs to be studied. My aim is to bring people together to talk.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to talk about the 31 per cent. as though it were rigid would be wrong and that it is a negotiating figure which should allow a great deal of flexibility on both the employers' and the workers' side? Does he also agree that, even after a 10 per cent. increase, this group of, to use his own words, "highly skilled workers" would still be receiving many pounds below the national male average? Therefore, could he not, possibly through overtime, which brings firemen nowhere near the national average wage, find some method of flexibility in order to give them something more?

Mr. Rees

Because of the overall situation, this is the difficulty about making comparisons in special cases. But I ask my hon. Friend to look at the figures published inHansard on Friday last, because the way that he is putting it—by saying "many pounds", and so on—is not the fact of the matter. I understand the short-term situation, but what matters in the long term are the hours and the bench-mark for the pay of firemen in future, in the context of the new style of fireman who works even when there are no fires and operates principally in the field of fire precautions.

Mr. Goodhart

Is the Home Secretary aware that in recent days I have seen some Army fire-fighters living in conditions that can only be described as squalid? If this strike is to be protracted, surely these sub-standard conditions must be put right immediately or the strain on the Army fire-fighters will be intense. Is he also aware that there appears to be some confusion about the charges for food and accommodation made on the Army personnel who are fighting fires? Surely during this emergency no Service fire-fighters should be required to pay a penny for their keep or accommodation.

Mr. Rees

I shall certainly take that up with my right hon. Friend. The matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised is important. The number of soldiers has been increased. With regard to strain, it is possible to reduce the number of hours during which these men have to go to fires or are on duty. I am told that the mood of the Service men certainly does not lead anyone to talk about strain, but I shall bring these points to the appropriate quarter.

Mr. Whitelaw

May I return to one point about the use of equipment? The right hon. Gentleman has said that some equipment can safely be used by the Service men. I should like to add one that I believe is right. I understand that in some areas plastic firemen's helmets are being allowed for use by the troops; in other areas they are not. Surely this is a device which can safely be used for the protection of the troops in their work. In these circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake simply to answer one question? Will he ensure that whatever equipment can safely be used for the protection of the troops, and, indeed, for the benefit of the public, will be made available to the troops?

Mr. Rees

I had a long meeting on this matter last week and another, lasting many hours, yesterday, and the answer which I gave is a considered one and taken fully on advice. Given the situation and the needs, I am sure it is being done in the right way. I will certainly consider the question of the use of plastic helmets. I was advised on one point in connection with protective clothing: in one instance I queried why men were not wearing it and I was told that the men and their officers preferred—given the nature of the fires, not right inside the building—not to wear it. I do not know whether that point has a bearing on the use of plastic helmets, but I will consider the matter.

Mr. Bowden

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I submitted an application for Standing Order No. 9.

Mr. Speaker

I thought that in view of the exchanges the hon. Gentleman was not pursuing it.

Mr. Bowden

I was going to say, Mr. Speaker, as you have just told the House, that I had asked permission to seek the leave of the House under Standing Order No. 9 to discuss the supply of fire-fighting equipment for the Armed Forces. In view of what the Home Secretary has said, I should at this point like to withdraw the application but reserve my right to submit it at some future time.

Mr. Speaker

That is a new formula to me.

Mr. Mates

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that in such a serious situation the Home Secretary would not wish in any way to mislead the House as to the state of affairs as regards equipment being issued to the Services. I am not trying to use a point of order to get round the fact that I could not put a supplementary question. I was in Belfast last night and I was present at a fire. The troops were not issued with the equipment. They wanted to be issued with the equipment. It has happened in some parts of the country and not in others.

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that there are means open, both with his own Front Bench and with the Secretary of State, for him to pursue that information.

Mr. Rees

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Because the Belfast and Northern Ireland situation is even more difficult, given the background, I wonder whether I should be in order if I said, without knowing the background to the matter—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is responsible there—that I shall bring it to his notice. I should not like that matter to fester because the point has not been answered in the House.