HC Deb 15 May 1978 vol 950 cc202-14

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Frank R. White.]

10.57 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a very important and serious matter, namely, the difficulties in the implementation of the 42-hour week agreement for the fire services, due to come into force in November this year. This matter was first raised with me in March by the Aberdeen secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Mr. Ian Davidson, and I am grateful to him and glad that he alerted me to the problems.

I do not intend, in view of the time available, to go into the origins and history of the strike, beyond saying that it arose because of a deep sense of frustration and, in my view, a justifiable grievance over the pay and conditions of service.

Again, I do not intend to go into the events of the strike itself, except to say that during the period that it lasted the nation was extremely fortunate that the loss of life and damage to property were not greater than they might have been. For that we owe a debt of gratitude both to the Service men who attempted to provide fire protection cover and to individual members of the Fire Brigades Union who, even though on strike, were extremely helpful in many cases.

In the discussions and negotiating sessions before and during the strike it was clear that the reduction in the working hours, without loss of pay, was an important part of the FBU claim. Indeed, before the strike started the FBU was urged to call off the strike and to continue negotiations on its claim for a shorter working week.

In the event, the strike took place, and agreement was reached in January. The National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades sent out a circular signed by both secretaries, Mr. B. J. Rusbridge on behalf of the employers and Mr. T. Parry on behalf of the union, setting out in full the 10-point settlement.

Item 4 of that settlement had this to say: Agreement was registered in principle to introduce for firemen, leading firemen and sub-officers a 42-hour week without loss of pay from November 1978 subject to the satisfactory completion of negotiations. Both sides recognise the many problems associated with the introduction into the fire brigade of a shorter working week and agree that on the resumption of normal working immediate negotiations shall commence within the NJC. From that it is clear that there were two definite commitments. One was to begin the 42-hour working week in November. The other was an unequivocal commitment to start immediate negotiations within the NJC. What is causing concern to firemen and to all of us who want to see good industrial relations and the preservation of an adequate fire service is the total failure of the employers either to begin negotiations or to enable to begin the recruitment and training of the additional firemen needed to implement the agreement.

It is staggering to reflect that, four months after the signing of the agreement, the employers are still insisting on further studies on the methods of introducing the 42-hour week before meaningful negotiation can commence. All that has so far happened is that the employers have made known their first thinking, and their first thinking is certainly not very constructive.

It is not as though this was something suddenly sprung on the employers, something which they had never heard of before, on which there was no previous preparation. In fact, investigations into the prospect of reducing firemen's working hours began almost three years ago following, or during, an earlier industrial dispute. As a result of that, there was a Home Office inquiry set up into the feasibility of what was then thought of as a 40-hour week in the fire service.

That inquiry reported in September 1977. Having taken evidence from each of the fire authorities, having looked at the evidence, the technical details, the financial details and the practical details, and concluding that it was essential to maintain the existing level of fire cover, the Home Office working party finally came to the conclusion that the best method of achieving a shorter working week was to go for a 42-hour week, not the 40-hour week.

It is clear from all the evidence which was taken that there is a great deal of information available on the practicability of the 42-hour week—information which the employing authorities and their advisers themselves provided—so there can be no excuse for prevarication and failure to honour a solemn and binding agreement. Clearly, doubts must exist about the good faith of the employers and whether they intend to meet their side of the bargain.

In fact, I go further and say that the employers are now in breach of both the spirit and the letter of the agreement. I appreciate that that is a serious charge to make, but I make it having studied the facts in detail.

If there was any hope of meeting the target of 7th November 1978, recruitment and training should by now have started. In fact, the opposite is the case. The employers' side of the NJC has advised local fire brigades—I have had this confirmed in answer to a Question—that for the time being it would be unwise to recruit in anticipation of the shorter working week. In other words, this is a directive not to recruit.

What possible reason can there be for such inaction? In answer to a Question on 9th December, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that to reduce the working hours from 48 to 42 an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 additional firemen would be needed for the whole country. It takes 12 weeks for a fireman's basic training, and standards are necessarily high. It is therefore self-evident that, even if one takes the lower figure of 3,000, they could not all be trained at the same time and training would have to be phased over a period.

Again, I ask what possible reason there can be for not recruiting. It cannot be that negotiations on work practices have to be finalised before recruiting can begin, because nothing in the basic training of a fireman can affect those negotiations or be affected by them.

It cannot be that money is not available for the training and subsequent employment of trained firemen. I understand that one cannot take people on for training and then say to them "Go away till November, then come back, and we shall give you a job." The fact is that at present the brigades in Britain are about 1,500 men short of recruitment to meet the present establishment for the 48-hour week, and finance is available now through the rate support grant to cover these numbers. So a recruitment drive should have begun. Publicity to encourage men to join the fire service is already long overdue. For the employers to insist on further studies—I repeat—must raise doubts as to their good faith in the minds of most reasonable people.

It must be remembered that the agreement finally reached did not meet with the universal approval of FBU members. The executive committee had to work hard for its acceptance. It is not surprising, given the course of events, that there is concern, anxiety and even anger at the delaying tactics of the employers. Nor is this confined to the ranks of the FBU. When the circumstances were reported to the TUC, the general secretary, Len Murray, issued a statement on 10th May, in which he said: There is not the slightest doubt that the provision of a 42-hour week for firemen formed an important part of the settlement which ended the firemen's strike. In the discussions which took place during the dispute, the Fire Brigades Union and the TUC certainly regarded this as an integral part of the settlement, as did the Government itself. It is now four months since the end of the strike, when immediate negotiations were promised to achieve a detailed agreement on the introduction of the 42-hour week. It is a matter of serious concern—even astonishment to me—that to date no firm proposals have been put foward by the local authorities. These employers clearly have a responsibility to speed up action to honour their obligation to bring in the 42-hour week by this November, especially in view of the Government's undertaking to provide the necessary finance for this long overdue form. That statement admirably sums up the position, and I believe that we now need clear and urgent action from the Government as to what can be done to remedy the unfortunate situation which now arises.

I understand that the Government are not directly the employer and that negotiations are a matter for both sides in the NJC, but I trust that the Government will accept their responsibilities, for the following reasons. First, the Home Office feasibility study finally proposed the 42-hour week as practicable. Second, the tripartite talks persuaded the employers to include point 4 in the offer, which finally led to a settlement. Third, the Government undertook to underwrite the settlement.

I therefore ask the following assurances tonight: do the Government stand by their commitment to provide the financial resources to cover the cost? Do the Government accept that the agreement is binding on the employers? Will the Government take steps to persuade or compel, if necessary—the employers to begin negotiations and to start a recruitment campaign immediately?

I believe that, even now, given good will and a sense of urgency, substantial progress can be made to meet the target date of 7th November, if not in every brigade, in many areas of the country.

The firemen came through their first-ever national strike with remarkably little bitterness. Should the agreement not be implemented, disillusion and anger will be great, and this will have very serious repercussions for industrial relations in the fire service for the future.

If, because of the intransigence of the employers, we are left without fire cover in November, the responsibility for the loss of life and damage to property will lie fairly and squarely on their shoulders. I urge my hon. Friend to act decisively to avoid that possibility.

11.8 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has raised tonight a matter of the greatest importance to the smooth and efficient working of the fire service, which is, I know, causing a great deal of anxiety in the ranks of the service. I welcome this opportunity to clarify the position if I can, and, particularly at the outset, two of the issues which are fundamental to a better understanding of the matter.

First, responsibility for determining the pay and conditions of service of firemen, including the length of their working week, rests with individual fire authorities. Central negotiations are, however, conducted in the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades, on which the fire authorities and the fire service staff organisations are represented. The Home Office is not represented on the national joint council, and my right hon. Friend has no power to enforce, by regulations, the rates of pay and conditions of service upon which negotiations take place in the national joint council.

Secondly, it is important to be clear about the terms of that part of the agreement relating to a reduced working week which was reached by both sides of the national joint council in January, following which the Fire Brigades Union agreed to return to normal working and the firemen's strike came to an end. The relevant part of the agreement reads as follows: Agreement is registered in principle to introduce for firemen, leading firemen and sub-officers, a 42 hour working week without loss of pay from November 1978 subject to satisfactory completion of negotiations. Both sides recognise the many problems associated with the introduction into the fire service of a shorter working week and agree that on resumption of normal working immediate negotiations shall commence within the NJC The Government's attitude towards a reduced working week in the fire service was made clear in guidance which was given to the NJC both before, and during, the firemen's strike. The guidance given by the Government on 3rd November 1977 was as follows: The Government recognises that there is a long standing claim for a reduction in the 48 hour working week of the fire service and would now be prepared for a reduction in working hours to be negotiated. The reduction could not be implemented before the autumn of 1978, although preparations could begin before then. Detailed arrangements on costs and other aspects of the reduction would be matters for negotiation. During the firemen's strike further guidance was given on 8th December 1977, which, after dealing with the establishment of a pay formula, went on to say: The Government hopes that negotiations will also continue in the NJC on the reduction of the 48 hour week. If a shorter working week is to be introduced without loss of pay this would have to be the basis of more productive working routines which permitted a more cost effective use of the time not spent on firefighting. If I may go back in time, I should like to make it clear that the Government had earlier given very careful thought to the feasibility of a reduced working week in the fire service. In September 1977, the Home Office had sent to the two sides of the NJC the report of an inquiry into the feasibility of a 40-hour week. The report, which came down in favour of a 42-hour week, followed detailed examination of this question by a team of officials over the preceding two years.

On 10th January 1978, the employers registered with the employees' side of the NJC their intention to raise, during the negotiations on the introduction of the shorter week, all aspects of the 42-hour week, among which would be the schedules of work and shift systems as applied to firemen; the achievement of the most productive working routines; and the most cost-effective use and deployment of manpower, including the use of the time not spent on fire-fighting.

A meeting of both sides of the NJC was held on 23rd February, at which a preliminary exchange of views took place on the introduction of the 42-hour week. I understand that the employers' side outlined its objectives and its intention of pursuing its investigations into the 42-hour week with the greatest possible despatch, but said that, because of the amount of work to be done and the delayed start arising from the fire service dispute, there was doubt whether negotiations on the 42-hour week could be brought to a point where there was agreement on satisfactory terms in time for its introduction in November 1978. I understand that at this meeting the employees' side, not unnaturally, expressed its concern and said that it did not see that a review of all aspects of the efficiency of the service as proposed by the employers was relevant to the 42-hour week.

In order to determine their approach to the negotiations on the introduction of a 42-hour week, the local authority associations and the employers' side of the NJC have embarked on a thorough and comprehensive study. They have formed a combined working party to define their objectives and the means to attain them, and have issued detailed questionnaires to fire authorities. Regional meetings have been held throughout the country. The association and the employers regard it as their duty to ensure that the fire service, based on a 42-hour week, should operate to the highest standards of efficiency. This has involved the working party in a thorough examination of the task of the fire service, which it considered had widened considerably in recent years, and of the resources required to meet that task. Against this background, the employers' side of the NJC informed all fire authorities on 27th February that there would be the fullest consultation with them as developments proceeded, but that for the time being it would be unwise for authorities to recruit in anticipation of the reduced working week.

In view of his central responsibilities for the fire service, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has seen both sides in the negotiations with the object of trying to bridge the differences between them, so that negotiations might proceed as quickly and as smoothly as possible. He remains in close touch with them and is prepared to see them at any time if this will help. The Fire Brigades Union's understandable concern is that the wide-ranging review which the employers' side and the local authority associations are undertaking before substantive negotiations can begin will make it impossible for a 42-hour week to be introduced from November this year.

Representatives of the employers' side have told my right hon. Friend that they intend to look at matters which they believe to be important to the future efficiency of the fire service. They acknowledge, however, that fire cover and manning levels are not matters for the NJC but ones on which my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State give guidance to fire authorities and on which they are advised by the central fire brigades advisory councils. My right hon. Friend's concern is that there should be a professional and efficient fire service and that negotiations should proceed in the NJC with the minimum of delay consistent with achieving this object. To this end, he has made clear to the national joint council that any assistance which the Home Office can properly provide will be quickly forthcoming.

Both sides of the NJC met again on 14th April. I understand that at this meeting the employers said that they would not be ready to begin negotiations until they had examined all the issues—and that this would not be until the end of May or beginning of June. The employers gave the Fire Brigades Union some indication of their general views. They said that the 42-hour week would have to be introduced in such a way that it promoted a more committed attitude by firemen to the service, that they were looking for an end to practices which limited the effective use and deployment of manpower, and that a national agreement on the introduction of a 42-hour week would have to be more closely defined than had been past practice, with local discretion operating within nationally defined limits.

In addition, the employers told the Fire Brigades Union that their preliminary views were that a 42-hour week should operate on a three-shift duty system, that they were examining the tasks which, in addition to fire-fighting and rescue work, firemen should be prepared to undertake, that all duty days, including weekends and public holidays, should be operative on the same working routine, that there should be a nationally defined stand-down period at night with all other hours, other than meal breaks, available for work, and that there should be a national definition of shift systems for variable and day manning systems, and freedom for fire authorities to introduce such systems as were necessary.

My right hon. Friend met the national executive council of the FBU again last week. It told him of its continuing and increasing concern about the lack of progress towards the 42-hour week and explained that its experience in attempting to negotiate with the employers had led it to call for a nationalised fire service. My right hon. Friend made it clear then and I make it clear now that the Government remain committed to their desire to see the agreement which ended the recent dispute put into effect.

With regard to pay, that agreement guaranteed the firemen a substantial and proper increase in pay, the next stage of which will be payable in November this year, under a formula which will maintain the firemen's rightful place in the community in the years ahead. The introduction of the 42-hour week in the fire service is undoubtedly an important step forward in the conditions of service of firemen, but it calls for the detailed consideration of a number of matters. It is understandable that the employers should wish to look at expenditure on fire service manpower and the return which is given for that money. But it is equally understandable that the Fire Brigades Union should view with concern what it considers to be a lack of progress so far on substantive negotiations for the introduction of the 42-hour week.

The concern of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is for the well-being of the fire service in the national interest. The negotiations on the introduction of the 42-hour week are a matter for the two sides of the national joint council, the employers and the employees. The employers' side has undertaken to put detailed proposals to the employees' side at a meeting of the NJC on 2nd June. We hope that both sides will approacch that meeting determined that the negotiations shall be constructive and fruitful. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear during the fire service dispute the Government's view on the 42-hour week and hopes that progress towards that end will be made.

Mr. Robert Hughes

By leave of the House; my hon. Friend has not answered the point and given me the three assurances that I sought. Will she now get the employers together and ensure that recruiting starts now? Why cannot recruiting start, given the existing shortage of firemen on current establishment? Such a move would be a gesture of good faith. Why does she not insist that the employers carry out that part of the bargain? The bargain is binding and should be met. Will she say that the Government will meet their responsibility of seeing that the agreement is kept in full without any further delay or prevarication?

Dr. Summerskill

As I hope I pointed out in my speech, this matter is one for the two sides of the joint council. They must negotiate and reach an agreement. The employers' side has undertaken to put proposals to the employees' side on 2nd June. We must wait until then. My right hon. Friend can only reiterate his hope that progress towards a 42-hour week will be made then.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

Will my hon. Friend convey to her right hon. Friend and, through him, to the employers the increasing anxiety of hon. Members on all sides over what now appears to be intransigence on the part of local authorities? I was staggered to hear the list of requirements that the employers outlined at their meeting in April. This looks like an attempt to postpone events in the hope that, in the meantime, a shift in the political power will take place. Large numbers of hon. Members are anxious about this, as well as those who are concerned with the union. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that the views of the House are conveyed to the local authorities.

11.24 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Is it not a fact that part of the reason for this intransigence on the part of the employers' side of the NJC is that it appears to be overloaded with Tory representatives, jealous of the intervention of a Labour Government leading to a settlement? Are they not now deliberately trying to build up the intransigence so as to be awkward and embarrass the Government and the Fire Brigades Union? Will the Minister take the appropriate action, since this behaviour is disgraceful? The union is fed up with it. It appears that there are far too many Right-wing Tory reactionaries from Tory-controlled local authorities who are not keen on introducing the 42-hour week as soon as possible.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

Will the Under-Secretary of State put the record straight and confirm that the employers are acting with complete propriety, as they have throughout the whole matter, in accordance with the advice of the Department? Such charges should not be left unanswered. Will the hon. Lady make her position clear?

Dr. Summerskill

The debate has been useful because it has served for hon. Members to give their opinions on this matter. They are entitled to do so. The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) will be read carefully by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and by members of the Fire Brigades Union, some of whom are in attendance. I am sure that the employers will be reading the comments that have been made.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

My hon. Friend said that the employers were behaving properly. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said, there was not only the letter but the spirit of the agreement. Now that the debate has taken place, I think that those outside the House will feel that that spirit has not been honoured by the local authorities. The spirit has not been adhered to, whatever word-splitting or word-shaving has taken place. There is great disappointment among my hon. Friends.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. James Sillars (South Ayrshire)

When the agreement that ended the dispute was finalised a clause was inserted, at the insistence of the employers, that there be no recrimination in terms of members of the Fire Brigades Union. From what we have heard this evening it is clear that there is recrimination on the part of the employers towards the men involved in the dispute. The conditions that they are now trying to impose in respect of the 42-hour week would not have been acceptable to the specially reconvened conference of the Fire Brigades Union. It is incumbent upon the Government to lean as heavily as possible on the employers to ensure that there is even-handedness on the issue of no recrimination.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

Further to that point—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.