HC Deb 10 November 1980 vol 992 cc27-32
Mr. Merlyn Rees

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the industrial action being taken by the Fire Brigades Union.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr William Whitelaw)

I understand that on Friday negotiations in the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades were adjourned at the request of the employees, side to enable them to consider a pay offer which had been made to them on behalf of fire authorities. The executive council of the Fire Brigades Union is meeting this afternoon. Meanwhile, firemen in most brigades have indicated that they will answer only emergency calls, and some say that they are "working to rule". Since responses continue to be made to emergency calls, there appears at this stage to be no significant additional risk to the public from the present action, but the situation will be kept closely under review.

Mr. Rees

Will the Home Secretary say what is meant by a "significant" risk to the public? Does the Home Office know how many men in the brigades are involved?

Will the Home Secretary confirm that at the beginning of last week the local authorities agreed to the 18.7 per cent. pay increase, based on the formula agreed during and after the last strike? Did the right hon. Gentleman ask the local authorities not to honour the agreement made? Did the Government interfere in any way in the course of last week?

Does the Home Secretary recall that during the last dispute in 1977 I informed the House that the then Government accepted that a formula for the proper remueration of the Fire Service should be established … the Government for its part would be prepared to see a defined relationship between the pay of the qualified fireman and that of other workers"? Does he recall that I also said that it would give the firemen an agreed and assured basis for their pay in the longer term"?—[Official Report, 8 December 1977; Vol. 940 c. 1651–2.] Will he confirm that he agreed with it and that certainly the firemen believed that they had had a commitment from the Government, particularly when, at the beginning of the strike, the then Prime Minister said: We must recognise that the fireman is in a different position to other people. We rely on them and I am prepared to pay them a bit more. Why do not the Government honour that agreement so that we can end this strike, which is quite different in kind from the one three years ago?

Mr. Whitelaw

When I refer to a "significant" rise in the risk to the public I mean exactly what I say. I believe that most brigades in the country are taking some form of action.

Did I intervene? No, Sir. Did the Government intervene? No, Sir.

I equally think that we are all entitled to say that at the present time, when the private sector is losing jobs and holding down wage increases very severely—in some cases giving no increases at all—it is essential that there should be a firm restraint on any increases in the public sector. I believe that the House recognises that. That is the position.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Does the Home Secretary believe that the firemen will lose a great deal of public sympathy if the work to rule is employed in such a way that the arrival of appliances at fires is delayed and life is put at risk? What does he intend to do if the work to rule is applied in such a way that life is endangered?

Will the Home Secretary also give us some indication of what recent annual awards have been made to firemen?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. Friend's first point is a matter for the members of the Fire Brigades Union. No doubt it is something that the union will be considering this afternoon at its meeting.

The Government will keep the situation under review and take whatever action should be necessary, as all Governments have in the past.

I have not the exact figures, but the firemen, in line with the formula, have had significant rises in the last two years.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Is the Home Secretary aware that those of us who supported the 10 per cent. position during the last strike did so on the basis that it was applying equally to the public and private sectors? Does he agree that the way to deal with this matter fairly is to see some return of the national prices and incomes board?

Mr. Whitelaw

Bearing in mind the position in the private sector, and its wage increases at the present time, I should have thought that there was a widespread feeling in this House that it is essential to have a very firm grip on wage increases in the public sector as well.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Does the Home Secretary accept that, whatever the Government's intentions towards the public sector, the firemen desisted from strike action last time in the belief that there was a firm promise that they would get a substantial rise, and that that promise has been betrayed? Does he not appreciate the difficult situation that that is producing both for the firemen and for the Government?

Mr. Whitelaw

As the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) knows very well, this was an agreement made between the local authority employers and the Fire Brigades Union. The discussions are still going on. The talks have been adjourned, and it would be quite improper for me, when I have no part in the negotiations, to comment any further.

Sir William Clark

In view of the fact that, as my right hon. Friend said, the private sector is slimming down, is he satisfied that there is no overmanning in the fire service? Does he realise that if the fire service were to be cut by 10 per cent. the wages could be increased by that 10 per cent., and that, together with the 6 per cent. on offer, that would make 16 per cent.?

Mr. Whitelaw

These are matters for the local authorities, which are the employers of the fire brigades. I have the responsibility in regard to the inspector of fire services and the safety of the public. That I have to honour.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a private notice question. I propose to call two hon. Members from each side before I call the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Does not the Home Secretary realise that by leaning on the local authorities to betray an agreement that was solemnly reached he is doing tremendous damage to industrial relations in this country?

e Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his statement today lays the blame for any loss of life, or damage done to property as the result of the dispute, fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Government?

Mr. Whitelaw

Governments are always responsible in these matters, and, of course, one accepts the responsibility. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would realise that.

Let me make perfectly clear that this was an agreement—and it is important for the House to recognise that it is still the subject of discussion—between the local authorities as employers and the Fire Brigades Union.

The hon. Gentleman talks about my leaning on the employers. No. What the Government did was perfectly plain and clear. The Government set out the cash limits for the local authorities in regard to pay. How the local authorities operate within those cash limits is a matter for them.

Mr. Stanbrook

Will my right hon. Friend consider the point that if the firemen were to give up the right to strike—as in the case of the police—it might be possible to arrive at a special status for them with regard to pay and conditions?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. Friend has raised another question, which is not before us, because the firemen have not given up that right.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is often said that there is honour among thieves? When shall we have some honour among members of the Government?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman can be rude if he wants to, but I really do not mind.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

At the next meeting of the NJC, if it agrees again to the 18.7 per cent. payment on the basis of a formula put to this House, which would prevent any strike action in the future, would the Government allow it to be paid?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is a matter for the employers. As the right hon. Gentleman knows—he negotiated the agreement—the Home Secretary has no part in it. If the local employers come to that agreement, of course, they will be entitled to carry it out.

Mr. Ioan Evans

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have just heard from the Home Secretary about the firemen's pay dispute. Is it in order for a major issue relating to pay policy for 4 million workers to be dealt with in a written answer to a question which was not on the Order Paper? It was added to a question tabled by the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Brown) relating to the recommendations of the commission on pay comparability. In addition to the written answer that we had on Thursday, although no hon. Member had any inkling that there was to be any statement by the Treasury, on Friday we had a further answer by the Prime Minister to another question relating to the question which was answered on Thursday.

If we are to have an immediate U-turn by the Government on pay policy, as both the Prime Minister and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury were answering questions on Thursday should they not have taken that opportunity to inform Parliament at that time. It is shocking.

Mr. Speaker

I allowed the hon. Gentleman full time to make his statement, but he will realise that it is not a point of order on which I can rule, because Ministers are responsible for their own answers.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It was not a point of order, because I cannot rule on it.

Mr. Atkinson

On a further point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Home Secretary said that what happens in the fireman's wage bargaining has nothing to do with him so long as the bargainers keep within the cash limits. Will you, Mr. Speaker, or some other person from the House, send that message to the bargainers so that they clearly understand the position? The bargainers have had no notice that the Home Secretary is saying that they can bargain for whatever figure they like as long as it is within the cash limits.

Mr. Speaker

I was equally generous in allowing the hon. Gentleman to put that point of view.