HL Deb 08 February 1978 vol 388 cc1114-47

6.34 p.m.

Lord CLIFFORD of CHUDLEIGH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what lessons they have learned from the firemen's strike. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in asking the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper, I should first like to explain why it was put down. I was having a meeting with one or two Members of your Lordships' House just after we returned from the Recess, and the view was expressed that the Government would heave a sigh of relief, chuck the file into the corner and forget all about the strike. Therefore, I thought that it might be a good idea just to try to remind the House of some of the points that seem to have come out of the recent firemen's strike, and see what encouragement we can get from the Government about preventing such a dangerous situation from occurring again.

I begin by saying that I am one of those who think that, in the public service and especially where people's lives and property are at stake, the right to strike should perhaps be forgone, in return for some guarantee that the standard of living of those concerned will always be regulated so that their rate is a little above the normal, in order to make things worthwhile. Apart from that, going back to my days in the Territorial Army in the South-West, where half of our exercises were with the Civil Defence and where most Civil Defence exercises included a very large proportion of firemen, both regular and part-time volunteers, I was not at all surprised when I saw that the South-West area voted against going on strike. I was also not surprised that quite a few refused to strike; and that we had no trouble in the rural areas, where the volunteers went on as usual. And, of course, in our part of the world the Service mainly concerned was the Navy who themselves have plenty of experience in fire-fighting.

While speaking on that subject, the very first point that needs to be brought out is how much we in the country owe to the loyalty of the fire officers who did not strike, and I hope that the Government will make it clear to the country, and to the individuals concerned, how much we owe to them and how much we appreciate them. That brings me to a point which will, I am sure, arise again and again this evening. It must be seen that there is no "anti" feeling by the unions against those who carried on working, now that people have gone back to work. Another point in regard to firemen in my part of the world is that it has again and again been pointed out how important is the volunteer element in our national life.

An important lesson which should be learned is that there is now public awareness of the fire danger, which the Government very rightly stressed through the media at the outset. The Government should not now let everyone get back into the old laisser-faire way of carrying on, as they did before. I am sure that in the South-West they do not want to strike again, but, if the right to strike is not forgone, may I suggest to the Government that, in whatever arrangements are made for the future, there should be provision for a ballot before a strike takes place.

I feel that the Government must now work overtime in order to restore the morale that has been so damaged by the strike. In the last five years, there have been progressive disputes leading to the "emergency calls only" type of go-slow, or whatever one likes to call it, and these were building up towards the all-out strike that we have just had. If I may quote the words of a very senior fire officer who is a friend of mine, he said in referring to what happened, It is the worst example of creeping industrial disease causing loss of morale and discipline". To my way of thinking, morale and discipline amount to the same thing. We must not allow this kind of thing to happen again, and I am hoping that the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government will give us some encouragement in regard to what they, together with the National Joint Council for local authorities' fire brigades, will do to see that this does not happen again.

Next I should like to deal with the intervention by Servicemen. The Services —overstrained by Ulster, Belize, Bermuda and now this, so much so that they cannot cope with our NATO commitments—did, as has been generally recognised, a very good job. They would do a very good job, of course. In my discussions with various Servicemen about their experiences, the first point that was made by them all was that the Fire Services in this country are grossly overmanned. For example, in London only 100 green goddesses coped with the same number of fires in an area that is normally covered by 600 modern appliances. In the Wood Green area of Glasgow, four green goddesses and one military fire station coped with an area covered by five normal fire stations, each of which had two or more modern appliances.

The next point that was made by every Serviceman who was engaged in firefighting related to pay. I am not saying that the firemen should not get any increase in pay. I opened the debate by pointing out my position so far as pay is concerned. However, I believe that it was wrong to expect Servicemen, on their pay, to do so much when their pay has to be compared with that of firemen even before the strike, quite apart from what has been awarded to them since.

We have all read in the Press about the pay of the private soldier. I will tell your Lordships about an officer friend of mine. Having been on leave for three days after returning from the worst part of Northern Ireland, he was called back for fire duty. He was on fire duty during the whole of the Christmas period. He told me that on Christmas Day the fire officer who was on duty at the same station received £100, including holiday pay, overtime and all the rest, whereas my friend got £12 a day as an army captain. One of my informants told me that in Glasgow the night rate is time plus one half and that when the night shift goes on duty, the men do a couple of hours' work at the most, cleaning up and training, and then go to bed, unless called out by a fire. However, there was no alteration in pay for the unfortunate Serviceman when he was on night duty.

It is this kind of thing which makes Servicemen say time and time again they are being used as slave labour. That is a lesson which I hope the Government will take to heart, and I hope they will correct the position fairly soon. In one part of the country they were complaining of petty nuisances—of sabotage, dustbin fires and so on—which did not make life any easier for them. At the Grosvenor Hotel fire, the striking firemen turned out to heckle the Servicemen who were trying to do their jobs.

I do not believe that the media were all that helpful. Noble Lords will probably remember the case of a disastrous fire at which a senior NCO broke down under the strain, having been asked about what had happened. The television chap then interviewed the striking firemen who said, "Of course, if we had done it, we should have saved those lives". However, the television people did not bother to ask them why they had not done it. This was all designed to put Servicemen in a bad light.

One interesting point is that a certain NCO had left the Services and joined the Fire Service. Then he found that he was so bored with not having enough to do that he rejoined the Services, was promoted and found himself back in the same area where he had been a fireman. His information was very revealing.

It is also a scandal that the Government would not allow the Servicemen to use modern equipment. I have spoken to several officers who said that they could have trained their men in a matter of three of four days at the most to operate these complicated modern machines, though they are complicated only when compared with green goddesses. My son-in-law, who is a submariner, tells me that all submariners are trained in the use of far more sophisticated breathing apparatus than firemen ever have to use.

I spoke to another officer at the military fire fighting headquarters in London and asked him what was the truth about the official signal from the Home Office to the military fire service that strikers—he could not remember where—had loosened the bolts on green goddesses. I should like to know whether what they all say is true; namely, that the firemen were paid bonuses for all of these hoax calls. I should also like to know whether it is true, as they said, that the firemen made arrangements for their wives or others to put through those hoax calls.

I feel that the Government must show that they stand by the officers in particular and by the others who did not strike. Before the strike ended, I know that some of my friends in the Services were told by the strikers that they were not going to go back unless those who did not strike got the sack. Noble Lords probably saw the leader in yesterday's Telegraph on that very subject. In the Press over the weekend there was a report of poison having been put into the coffee of one of the non-strikers.

I should like now to turn to another important lesson to be learned from the subversive elements that were evident not only in this strike but in others. I am sure that all noble Lords realise that the Trotskyist and Marxist groups carried in all their publications the headline: "Smash the Government and the 10 per cent.". The main operator is the Socialist Workers' Party, which used to be called the International Socialists, and its subsidiary, wholly controlled the rank and file movement. They produced the Daily Strike News for the rank and file firemen, and I am sure that the Government know how inflammatory were those organs. Strathclyde, Liverpool, South Yorkshire and parts of London were the areas which were most affected.

The Socialist Workers' Party—Yigal Gluckstein, Paul Foot and others—referred to the troops in all their issues as "scabs". Another group, the International Marxist Group—Tariq Ali and his boys—had a picture in the Socialist Challenge of the noble Lord's right honourable friend, and underneath the caption "Rees wanted for arson and murder". People like Jim Fitzpatrick, of the Fire Brigades Union, from Battersea, and Paul Macdonald from Strathclyde were both very prominent at the rank and file meeting on 26th November. We are used to "rentamobs" nowadays, demonstrations. We see pictures of the same ones at Grunwick and outside TUC headquarters, and, of course, at Bridlington where Terry Parry was knocked to the ground. I came across this little jingle about that in a fortnightly rag: They acted just like animals, cried Parry; Come off it Terry, for a moment Terry. Tell me what animals would yell and spit, and punch and kick, Just for the hell of it. The savagery that you're referring to Is done by members of the human zoo. It is a matter of regret that this Government have not taken more action against these subversive groups, who, after all, only want to turn us into an East European State. They might have paid attention to my noble friend Lord Chalfont's debate on the subject a couple of years ago.

To my mind, the main lesson from a national point of view is that the Civil Defence organisation should never have been abolished. It was abolished by the present Prime Minister when he was Home Secretary. From that day they destroyed or got rid of some equipment. Other equipment they put into mothballs, like the green godesses. What has happened to the green godesses now? Have they gone back into mothballs? What is going to happen if and when you have another firemen's strike? Are you still going to depend on those vehicles? If you had not abolished the Civil Defence organisation, those vehicles would have been kept up to date, as would have been a sufficient number of the Auxiliary Fire Services, ready for any emergency. They abolished at the same time the Civil Defence Staff College. I happen to be a graduate of that. They have now turned it into a college for civil servants, a sure growth industry under the present Government.

In those days the Territorial Army was an integral part of Civil Defence. As I said earlier, half our exercises were with the Civil Defence organisation. They abolished that, and what happened?—I will give your Lordships one example. We had a territorial unit of sappers in the county I come from, and every year they built a Bailey bridge over the railway for the county show. That was abolished, and of course the Bailey bridge went elsewhere. When two years later floods destroyed the bridge on the main London to South-West road, the A.303, to get a Bailey bridge they had to send to the nearest regular depot, which was up in Essex. That is one example of how those Civil Defence operations have been ruined by the stupidity of abolishing Civil Defence. We saw in the Highland blizzard the other day one TAVR officer—that is all that is left of the truncated TA—prodding in the snow. If you had kept the TA and the Civil Defence organisation, half your troubles would have been over.

Perhaps some noble Lords can remember a debate we had in this House when the Government were abolishing Civil Defence. The Opposition was led by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Long, made his maiden speech on that occasion. I know that my contribution on that occasion was duplicated by the head of the Civil Defence in the county and sent round to the Civil Defence workers to try to boost their morale. I make no comment on whether or not it did, but their morale was pretty low because they were abolished anyway.

If we had not done that, we would have had plenty of people trained to deal with radioactive sputniks if they landed in London or Birmingham instead of the Arctic wastes. But, No, everything of that kind is tied up. I think we ought to reintroduce that, or make some arrangements; otherwise we are going to be in a very poor state if any real calamity affects this country. After all, in Norway every male between the ages of 16 and 50 does something towards the defence or civil defence of his country. I do not see why we should not do at least as much as a small country like that. That is the biggest lesson that I hope the Government will learn, though I hope they will also learn some of the lessons from the actual mechanics of the strike and the way the Servicemen were treated during it.

6.57 p.m.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, first, I am sure all of your Lordships who are taking part in this debate would like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, for raising it. Important as is it, there must be many lessons of our internal security that can and must come to light this evening. I should like to say to the Government, through the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that I hope this debate will have some "whys" and "know-hows" that will help the Home Office and the Government, and Governments in the future, when such emergencies arise. Never have any one of us, within your Lordships' House or among the public, had any reason to criticise the Fire Service. Their bravery is phenomenal. Their training and experience throughout has always been an inspiration to any of us who have ever experienced the horror of a fire.

I think at this moment it is important to name the jobs that this man has to do. No longer is he just a fireman; he is a man of many trades in the world of rescue and safety. He is a man now having to live with the new chemicals which are coming on the market, which have to be learned about overnight, and are vicious and very dangerous. He has to do such jobs as rescuing cattle from rivers, dealing with very serious car or lorry crashes, with the latter sometimes involving dangerous chemicals. Today, he has to be a very experienced man. Equally, his equipment is sometimes only a few hours out of date because of the new chemicals and the gases that they release; even his oxygen apparatus may not be of help. Let us be quite clear in our minds that these are men who have to deal with serious problems that occur every day throughout this country.

My Lords, at this moment I should like to thank those experts outside the House who have been able to give me a new look into the fire brigade system as a whole and of their problems. I am most grateful to those who have contributed towards helping me this evening. We in this House, together with the public, have witnessed a very tragic moment, one of our senior public services coming out on strike, something that we never imagined would happen. I will speak for a moment, if I may, personally. I believe—and it may well be that many of your Lordships think the same—that as it was a question of money, or pay, the Government got their priorities wrong. It was when at the introduction of the pay freeze that all men who were earning wages had them frozen at whatever sum the Government wanted at that moment. However, the priority that I believe was wrong was that of comparing a fireman, a policeman, or a Serviceman with the industrial working man.

We are living in a very sophisticated society. That society demands to be protected by the police through law and order. It demands that Her Majesty's Armed Servicemen protect our shores—Northern Ireland is one such case. It demands of the Fire Service help, immediately, if any emergency should arise. I cannot for a moment understand how the advice was given to the Government—or the Government were weak enough at that moment to accept it—to cut across the whole spectrum of pay and people and allow the top priorities to be governed like the whole body of industry, especially as the Government demand of these services 100 per cent. at all times.

Therefore, when the wage freeze was brought into being it brought the important services into difficulties. We saw it happen in one case after the other. At present we are looking at the Army which, because of pay, is losing numbers so quickly. A few months or a year ago we looked at the police who were finding it difficult to recruit because of pay. We are looking at the young people who come into the Fire Service; they too now are suspicious that they will not get the money that others are getting. Therefore we are living in a society that must surely demand the best pay in order to protect itself at all times.

During the strike the firemen went through a traumatic experience quite unknown to the English race as a whole and quite unknown to themselves. They experienced bitterness, squabbles within the union and between friend against friend. We have witnessed all of that, and it was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. When firemen go out to an emergency they are all part of a team, whether it be three, four or six, each having to trust the other when faced with an ugly situation. They are the men we expect to rescue us. They are the men paid by the Government, through the local authorities, to protect society and to help it in one way or another.

Now we are looking at a situation that could well be as ugly as anything we have seen. They are the fringe benefits of a society which believes in destruction. There is wheeling and dealing into important protective parts of our society, breaking them up, breaking their morale and breaking their pride and their sense of duty. We have witnessed that situation for the first time. How horrifying it would be if it were to happen to more than one group of people. I am sure that all of us recognising the firemen's job, hope and pray in every way that the wounds and scars created by the strike will heal very quickly, so that man working with man within the Fire Service can again be friends, otherwise the one becomes a danger to all in his Service.

I turn briefly to what the general emergency was about, how it was looked at and whether there are any lessons to be learned. The Fire Service, quite apart from a fire-fighting role, has in recent years tended naturally to assume the function of a general rescue and relief from distress unit, mainly arising from the general development of pressures in the form of heavy traffic, motorways, rapid means of transport by rail, sea and air, together with the change in style of buildings, such as the high-rise buildings or the high-rise flats, commercial premises, with the consequent problem of people being trapped in buildings, vehicles, lifts, et cetera. Probably 25 per cent. of the firemen's activities involve that type of work at the present day. On face value, it would appear that the provision of military assistance during the strike period covered reasonably adequately the responsibilities and activities of the Service.

However, when examined in depth, it is now becoming clear that the success of the fire and emergency cover arrangements during the strike were due primarily to two factors. I have named the first one: the tremendous response by local authorities, public bodies, industry and commerce, in providing at very heavy expense, extra fire patrols, inspection and security arrangements during the strike period, coupled with the exceptional zeal and service provided by the police force in arranging for instant response to every emergency call, including incidents other than fire, by either the local mobile police units or arrangements with private organisations.

The second point that I should like to make is that the military provision of heavy mobile fire fighting units, while being most desirable and necessary from the point of view of preventing complete conflagration and relieving public anxiety, proved non-effective in coping with larger fires, notwithstanding the availability, as advisers, of almost the normal complement of senior fire officers. Most of the major incidents in the London area in which a fire had any sort of hold ended in the buildings being destroyed by the time a call was received. On that aspect even the regular battalions of a fire brigade would probably have had to leave very heavy fires when they got out of control. I am not an expert fireman but I should think that they would have found the situation equally difficult.

There is one clear point that I should like to make. The first lesson to be learned from the strike is the value, from a pure fire-fighting and rescue point of view, of the professionalism of a regular fire brigade. Therefore, we have learned the lesson that we really cannot do without our regular services and, as I have already said, they must be paid properly.

The other point that I should like to raise is about communications. It was here that the dual arrangements between the police and the military, together with the joint use of communications, proved how necessary it is that the emergency services should develop communications on a joint basis, in the form of a land-line, radio and other sophisticated material in this field, so that, in times of national or even local emergency, there is compatibility. Without doubt, such an arrangement would lead to some sort of economy in the purchasing and development arrangements for the future.

That leads me to the future. It looks very much as though those great men in the Services who manned the green goddesses proved that they could do the job as economically as the regular Fire Service. Surely a lesson can be learnt from the use of the heavy, sophisticated and expensive equipment which is operated today. Can we not produce or design a smaller vehicle which would go out first? I understand that the arrangement is that two fire engines have to go out on every call. Therefore, could we not look at the possibility of developing a smaller vehicle such as the green goddess which could be sent out first? If the fire was bad, the crew could radio back to the fire station for heavy equipment? I believe that we should now be thinking of less expensive equipment to send out first. Of course, there is the matter of hoaxes. In those circumstances, two fire engines go out, arrive at the scene and find nothing happening.

I turn briefly to the standards of manning and fire cover. Using the experience of the combined police, military and local authority arrangements during the strike, it is possible to reconsider the arrangements for the manning and deployment of fire appliances in respect of all purposes in order to assess whether there is scope for altering the manpower requirement, and whether or not any part of the service provided by the Fire Service can be better dealt with by other arrangements.

I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, who reminded me of my maiden speech. I would remind the noble Lord that I was not a member of the Civil Defence Corps; I was called in as a volunteer at that moment to make up the numbers. I well remember him saying that the Civil Defence Corps should come back into being. At this moment I am not sure whether that would be the right answer, or whether the Government are considering training members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces to deal with this in the future. In the firemen's strike the Servicemen were not trained; they came straight to the job without knowing how to fight fires.

At first sight, it appears that other arrangements are unlikely because of traffic conditions and the development of traffic-free precincts, together with large industrial, commercial and shopping complexes, which to a great degree inhibit access from a single point and tend to militate against reducing the number of appliances available for response to various areas and risks. It appears that, without very careful analysis of risk and of further developments and trends, it would be very unwise to make quick and possibly dangerous judgments regarding Fire Service cost-effectiveness purely on the basis of the peculiar circumstances of an all-round strike of the professional Fire Brigade.

I believe that we should proceed slowly from this debate and from what we have learned, rather than making up our minds quickly what to do for the future. This has been a useful debate. A catastrophe such as a strike always brings out the best in people: they start talking and getting interesting points together. I welcome the debate and hope that I have been able to contribute to it somewhat. This is a complicated and expensive matter, but the slower we go over it, the better the result is likely to be.

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, the one matter upon which we shall all agree is that we cannot speak too highly of the manner in which the soldiers took over the onerous task which faced them. Looking at the situation again, one wonders how they would have fared had they not had the advice and assistance of the fire officers who worked with them.

One of the first lessons that we should learn from the firemen's strike is that we have now reached a position where those workers who have no real economic or industrial power and, indeed, no record of strike activity—including the fact that they do not even have a strike fund—are now prepared to attempt to emulate the activities of those who do possess such industrial power. Indeed, we have seen similar developments among very many of the professions and among people with very differing degrees of economic power.

Therefore, I think it is true to say that the public bodies, which, in the main, are the employers of such workpeople, are not attuned to the possibility that the negotiations in which they engage could well end in strike action. It is a completely new atmosphere for them. The sooner they learn that the days of a paternal approach to these matters are over and adapt themselves to the new conditions, the better. It may well be that we shall have to look closely at the efficiency of the very organisation which they have used for so many years for discussing wages, salaries and matters of that kind.

No matter how well-intentioned either side or both sides of a negotiation maybe, unless the machinery is right, the negotiation could very well stumble because of a deficiency there. For instance, at one period I thought that for people who quite obviously were used to industrial negotiating they had both reached a dead end, yet the strike went on week after week. There did not seem to be a part of the machinery—for example, compulsory arbitration—which could have brought out the point that they were at a dead end, that there does not seem to be any body or vehicle that can step in and assist in the matter. So there may well be a machinery problem in this kind of dispute.

I believe it was the noble Viscount, Lord Long, who said that the Government should not have applied the criteria to this Service that they apply to industry. The noble Viscount suggested that the firemen should receive higher pay for their services. I do not believe that the firemen were in any way the victims of Government policy. We cannot very well differentiate when we impose a freeze or a norm; we cannot begin to differentiate other than on the time factor and on the norm that we impose. The fact which must be looked at squarely in the face is that all low paid workers—and the firemen are by no means at the bottom of the ladder—are the victims of a system of collective bargaining which relies utterly and entirely upon the amount of industrial muscle you possess. If you do not possess industrial muscle but try to pretend that you do, you are going to get hurt. Mr. Tom Jackson found that out two or three years ago.

It may well be that the Government must look again at their norm and the way they implement it. I found out in the days when I ran an incomes policy that, no matter what norm you state, the negotiators then say, "That is in the bag. We now start to negotiate over and above the norm". The only norm which is safe is a "nil" norm, if you use that kind of an incomes policy.

I hope that we can get to a more refined incomes policy from now on. I am one of the people who, for 30 years, have advocated incomes policies, and I do not intend to change now. There is a way in which we can begin to differentiate on a number of grounds. Instead of a flat increase of 10 per cent., which simply widens the gap between highly-paid workers and lower paid workers, we have to begin to introduce such ingredients as skill, danger, responsibility, dirt. To me these are essential ingredients in an incomes policy which is going to get rid of the injustices which a collective bargaining system have left behind it

When the noble Viscount, Lord Long, was speaking, I thought that he was going to suggest that there should be a time lag in which you could try to get rid of those injustices. I would agree about that kind of thing. If you judge merely by the stupid old business of how much industrial muscle you have got, you will never iron out the injustices which we all know obtain in certain types of employment. I would therefore suggest to the Government that, in looking at their Phase Four, they begin to try to apply that kind of refinement. I am afraid that, although I admire the firmness and the decision with which the Government have handled their incomes policy, including what they have done about contracts with firms, and so on, a lot of people are treating that as though it is something entirely new. Some of us who were in Parliaments long gone by, remember the fair wages clause which stipulated that employers must be paying a given trade union negotiated rate, otherwise they would not get a contract. What is the difference between that and what the Government are now doing?

If you are not really serious in wanting to eliminate the inflation—and if a number of people who are talking loudly on this are not serious then they are hypocrites—which has been a curse for so many years, then you make excuses as to why Governments should not do this, that or the other. I was appalled at what I read from the CBI. They say, on the one hand, "We thoroughly agree with the Government's 10 per cent., but if they try to implement it, my God! we will oppose them tooth and nail". Where, in Heaven's name, does one get with that kind of thing.

The noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, gave a few instances where firemen were sneering at soldiers about their work. I read some of that, but I also read of far more instances where the firemen's pickets left the picket line to go and assist the soldiers in putting fires out. He mentioned the activities of Trotskyites, and so on. I would ask him to consider that that was not peculiar to the firemen's strike. I know he wants to analyse the firemen's strike, and so do I. I want to find out what are the lessons. With great respect, I suggest to him that one should not confuse what was a specific issue which concerns us all with every single strike one can think of in the last three years. I care not whether it was the miners, or who it was; there have been professional demonstrators of every type trying to latch on to any particular strike.

I remember going to a meeting when the miners' problem was on. I was going to say a few words to them. While I was sitting waiting for my turn to talk, I listened to three or four young men sitting there. First of all, I thought that from their accents they did not sound like miners. I live among miners. I said to them, "Which pit do you come from"? They said, "Pit? We have never seen a pit in our lives, and we don't intend to". But they were the loudest at the meeting. This is not peculiar to the firemen. It is a canker which has grown into all our industrial disputes, and frankly I do not know how you handle it. But do not let us put that down as anything peculiar to the firemen's strike itself.

It was said that there are too many firemen. I do not pretend to be expert in that kind of thing, but I should have thought that whether or not there are too many firemen depends on whether or not there are too many fires. One cannot simply say that, given an average of whatever it is, three fires a night, all you need is 30 people, because averages have nasty habits of going haywire. If you have half-a-dozen fires where life is at stake and property may burn, you cannot have too many firemen. We must allow a substantially higher margin so that we can ensure that, if on a specific occasion there is a far greater than average number of fires, we can deal with the matter without, as it were, having to form a queue, and so on.

I shall not detain your Lordships any longer. I hope that it is recognised that Governments who are trying their hardest to eliminate a great curse, such as inflation, cannot perfect their policies in a short period of time. I think that the time is now ripe for the Government to go ahead in the way I have tried to suggest. But also, arising from this dispute, we must begin to look at whether in the areas of the professions, or industries which have no strike record, the machinery is sufficiently versed in the new atmosphere in which they have to work. I have a feeling that it is not. In heavy industry, from which I come, it took us many years to find out just which kind of negotiating machinery suited our purposes best. I hope that an effective and efficient incomes policy will minimise the number of strikes, but in the meantime we should look very closely at the efficiency of machinery which was produced at a time when strikes were the last thing to be contemplated.

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, for getting this debate off the ground. I am sure that it will be most useful. Everybody has nothing but praise for the way the soldiers and the police collectively got together and ran the fire service during the strike. It was noticeable how quickly they learned the job, dealt with all the 999 calls and operated an extremely efficient service. I should also like to say that I have nothing but praise for the maintenance staff, presumably from the Home Office—I do not think they have yet been mentioned—who have been maintaining the green goddesses for the last 30 years. It was interesting that, had they been military vehicles, it would have been expected when they were taken out of their depots that, on average, out of every hundred that drove off, 10 would break down. In fact, only three broke down, which was an extremely good average. I hope this will be passed on to the maintenance staff. I should also like to add a word of praise to the designer of those green goddesses. They were designed 35 years ago and have been in mothballs ever since, and they are still not only efficient but highly efficient, and were found to be extremely good. There was very little criticism of them. The person who was able to design something which lasted efficiently for so long did a remarkably good job.

It has been mentioned that public reaction during the strike was good. There was a marked reduction in the number of calls; even hoax calls went down by about 30 per cent.—they constitute about 10 per cent. of the total of calls. Altogether, I think there were 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. less calls. In my part of the world, which is one of the highest fire risk areas in Europe, the green goddesses proved surprisingly adequate to deal with most of the fires. They were particularly adequate in view of the lower level of expertise of the soldiers; they were fairly easy to work and, when used in conjunction with the Royal Air Force fire tenders with their foam, it was possible for the Army and the Air Force to deal with all hazardous fires, even—which the RAF were able to do—life-saving in smoke filled premises. It was estimated that, by the end of the strike, the expertise gained by the Army had reached something like 75 per cent. of the level of expertise of regular firemen. The exception for the Army was the lack of skill in searching in smoke-filled areas. Of course this required training with apparatus which was not available to the Army, although the RAF were trained for this.

The main point I should like to make concerns the control rooms where the calls were logged and from which the engines were controlled. In one county the control room, which is normally manned in eight-hour shifts by 25 civilian firemen, was manned in eight-hour shifts by only nine police and soldiers. Even taking into account the fact that there were fewer calls, it was quite evident that nine men could run that control centre perfectly well—perhaps needing one or two more if the calls increased vastly. Certainly, 25 were not necessary, and one must ask why so many civilians are needed when the centres could be operated by fewer servicemen with less training. One cannot deny that the regular firemen have periods of great activity and often face considerable danger, and, when there are fires—I am thinking particularly of 1976, when there were so many dry weather fires, of which I had some experience—they work very long hours and have very little rest. As the noble Viscount, Lord Long, mentioned they also have to deal with different kinds of chemicals, with accidents and so on and nobody can pretend that they do not have hazardous work to do.

Those who have had the misfortune to need the firemen have never been other than full of praise for the efforts they have made. However, having said that, I believe it is true—one has heard this over and over again—that they have equally long periods of inactivity and boredom and it is claimed that very many regular firemen do day jobs because, if they are on night shift, they can usually reckon that they will be unlucky if they are called out. Maybe they do the day jobs because they need the extra pay, or perhaps because they estimate that they are going to be inactive overnight. Perhaps this is not true. It would be interesting to find out in order to put it into proportion.

This leads one to wonder whether the Fire Service is not overmanned, and whether it could not be better and more economically manned with less regular firemen and more part-timers who would be able to come in at peak periods. In particular, it highlights the overmanning of the control rooms where soldiers proved that it was possible to manage with many fewer people. I hope that the Government will be able to look into these points and perhaps recommend to local authorities that reductions might be made in control rooms, and even in the Service itself, perhaps going into the question whether the numbers of regular firemen could be reduced and those of part-timers increased to cope with peak periods.

7.36 p.m.


My Lords, when I said that I should like to intervene briefly in this debate I had not realised that shortly my noble friend Lord McCarthy would be speaking to a broader reference on the fixing of public service pay. It is that theme which concerns me most. I suppose the main lesson to be learned from any strike is how to avoid another. One of the features of this strike which we must always bear in mind is that this was a soldier's battle, not a general's battle. This strike was the result of a revolt of the conference of the Fire Brigades Union against the moderate leadership, which they were not prepared to accept. That is an unusual situation. We usually attribute strikes to the manoeuvrings of power policies of leaders, of trade union bosses who call people out, who stop newspapers and so on, who say, "They shall not go back until we say". The authoritarian approach is often attributed to the system of government in trade unions; but here we had an example of the expression of the democratic will, and the fact that the strike was responded to as it was is an indication that it had the wholehearted support, at least to begin with, of those whom it concerned most.

I think the main lesson to be learned from the firemen's strike is that if Government intervention in the complex pattern of pay and conditions of employment is prolonged the political and economic consequences may become serious. This is especially so in the public services where the Government, quite naturally, resolved to set an inflexible example to all other employers. At one time, in the Civil Service at any rate, there was an attempt to break or curb the authority of Government, to decide in their own judgment what conditions of service should be imposed upon sections of their employees. That was why the Priestley Commission many years ago interposed into the whole system of fixing public service pay the principle of fair comparability, and the machinery for applying it, and of fair warning to the Government to observe the principles which they accepted, and not to interfere with the fair operation of the principle of fair comparability, even in conditions of economic difficulty.

That broke down under the stress of the battle against inflation. The principle of fair comparability, so long established, means that if adjustments are deferred, then the subsequent effort to catch up and make the necessary adjustments will be extremely tiresome; I have had experience of that. If it is left too long it is almost too frightening, economically and politically, to face the consequences of what has been done.

When I was chairman of the Teachers' Pay Review Committee I made one of the last awards in the catching up process in the public sector before curbs and restraints were accepted, if not imposed, on the whole level of remuneration. I shudder when I look back on that because that involved a 30 per cent. increase. Hundreds of millions of pounds were added to the educational budget of this country in one go, flowing probably and mainly from the miners' settlement earlier in the same year; I am talking about four years ago.

That rod is in pickle again in the public sector. The grievance grows stronger with the passage of time and then, when the doors are opened, as I said, there is this great difficulty in meeting the consequences of the prolonged deferment of adjustments. Tensions are mounting again. They came out in the case of the police and serious trouble there was narrowly averted. It was almost a miracle; I do not know how it happened, but it did. There is a committee looking at police pay at the present time. Hope has been deferred in the Police Service and the Government do not have to face the music just yet. But the band will play in due course, and I am afraid that that is a deferred situation.

It is not only a matter of being held back in relative terms. The curbs and restraints, the guiding lights, the guidelines and the plateaux—all the euphemisms for telling the troops that they cannot have the money—defer the reappraisal of the value of services rendered to the community in particular sectors of the public service. You cannot do anything for the police no matter how strong the case, because if you do it for the police you will have to do it for others. You cannot do anything for the firemen because if you do it for them the sluice gates will be opened and the flood will run right down the public sector. The result is that they are all huddled together with one firm Government hand on the lot. Something is bound to happen if that situation continues for too long.

This is a personal opinion, but I believe that the present pay policy is costing the country an enormous amount in economic lethargy and a dispirited workforce. Whether that cost is greater than the benefit in the battle against inflation I would not venture to say, because it is very difficult to strike that balance. Nevertheless, I remember—it is within the recollection of us all—that both political and trade union opinion united in declaring that high wages were not the cause of inflation. What has happened to that economic doctrine today? Probably they are a contributory factor, but who knows really and truly the full extent?


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that they all looked into the abyss in 1974 and 1975 and changed their minds?


My noble friend and I have together been off beam more than once on this issue in another place, my Lords. One cannot be off beam in your Lordships' House because so many of us are off beam one way or another. I have made a serious point, and I conclude by saying this arising out of the firemen's strike and related to the position of the police and to the claims that are now gathering strength all over the public sector. The Civil Service unions are all putting their claims in now; they are, all of them, over the so-called guidelines. The teachers want to recover their lost ground. I view the developing situation with considerable apprehension.

I hope the Government will have the courage, as well as the wisdom, shortly to try to reassess the pay situation in Britain in relation to the general economic strategy. Have we got into a rut of conventional belief that pay must be held down as a vital factor in the battle against inflation, so vital indeed that all the consequences of depression have to be faced rather than allow greater flexibility? My noble friend Lord Lee of Newton referred to norms. It is said that nothing must exceed 10 per cent.; but everybody then says that 10 per cent. is the starting point. There are rows over what is claimed or granted over 10 per cent., and all efforts to stop the avoidance of the general principle are viewed with dismay and annoyance by the Government. You cannot even remunerate people for long and sustained overtime throughout a whole year, for example to deal with unprecedented tax changes in 1977; you cannot even reward people for the productivity you want out of them because it is alleged that to do so would infringe the guidelines. That is the sort of absurd situation we get into. I think that is enough as a curtain raiser to the speech I hope to make on a subsequent occasion.

7.49 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, was not thinking of me when he used the phrase "off beam". I agree that in daring to offer a few thoughts on the subject of the firemen's strike I am talking on slightly different matters from those I normally address myself to in your Lordships' House, but sooner or later, after one has been in this august Chamber for some time, one must broaden one's field, so to speak, and I hope I shall be excused this opportunity of doing so.

Most, in fact all, of the general points I had intended to make tonight have already been made, as I suspected, but there are two particular points which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will take up, though I am convinced he will not be able to answer them tonight. Just about every noble Lord who has spoken so far has, quite rightly, praised the efficiency and the good will of all the troops who took part, at the Government's behest, in lieu of the firemen who were on strike. My first point is to question whether they were given all the aid which in fact they could have been given; whether they were given sufficient training, sufficient instruction, to carry out the jobs, which could perhaps have been done just that little bit better. In looking at the lessons of the strike, this is something which we should certainly consider.

The next point I should like to mention was raised almost weekly here while the House was sitting—that is, both before and after the Christmas Recess—and also by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, when he opened this debate this evening. I refer to the subject of issuing breathing equipment to servicemen and training them to use it—an old chestnut, your Lordships may say. The last occasion on which we discussed this matter was only a fortnight ago, on the 25th January, when my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing asked a Starred Question. In answer to his supplementary, the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom—and I am sorry he is not here this evening—said this in column 337 of the Official Report: …consultations did take place and the decision was that the timescale did not permit training in fire fighting apparatus for the ordinary soldier who was not already a specialist.". My Lords, previous Questions on other days—as I have already said, there was a whole series of them—had already elicited the information that, while it took only a matter of hours to train a Serviceman to use the breathing apparatus, it took several weeks for the operators to have sufficient training not to run out of oxygen by, for example, breathing too fast in a smoke-filled atmosphere. That is fair enough. But the firemen's strike lasted for seven weeks, and might well have continued longer. My question to the noble Lord therefore is: At what stage were the consultations held? Also, what was the attitude at those consultations?—as the background against which they were held, if you like. Was it thought that the strike could not possibly go on any longer; or was it thought, perhaps, that if this unfortunate circumstance should occur and it should go on any longer, what could be done about it?

No matter what causes a strike, I venture to suggest that the history of this particular one and of the miners' strike has shown that where a matter of principle is at stake that strike will be prolonged. Decisions have to be made immediately; and if there is even the faintest suggestion of a strike in the public sector, is this not the time when we should be thinking of how to deal with it should the occasion arise? In other words, could not the training have started before the firemen actually went on strike? After all, there is no great difficulty, I would think, as a military exercise, in filling a building with smoke with the use of smokebombs or whatever, and to have, as the object of that military exercise, not only the using of the breathing equipment but also, say, the firing of the smokebomb or whatever. This would have given the training which was quite obviously necessary.

My final theme is rather different. From time to time we debate the Post Office in this Chamber. It is not my object particularly to "knock" the Post Office this evening, but on the 4th December 1977 the Sunday Express had on its front page a couple of paragraphs stating that postmen were being paid up to double their normal overtime for firewatching out of their normal working hours. Perhaps the noble Lord has heard of this and can say whether in fact it is true. I am, in general, a very strong supporter of the Post Office, coping, as it always has to, with enormous problems of labour and capital requirements. But what were the postmen supposed to be doing? It was not anything, surely, that the firemen would have been doing had they been working normally and not on strike. In a very small way I am an employer of labour, and I would regard it, as I am sure would many other employers, as a normal part of one's working agreement that one keeps a general watch-out for the possibility of fires. Is this not also the case in the Post Office? What was so special about the circumstances at the time which made it necessary to spend all this extra money? Was it a new departure? Is it happening in other nationalised industries? What did the postmen hope to achieve? Most important of all, perhaps, is it still continuing? If so—this is a rather flippant point, but I hope it sums up the situation—is this sort of extra expenditure going to put a yet heavier burden on the rate for the postage stamp?

7.56 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise for not having put my name down earlier, but I was not sure that I should be able to attend this debate. Most strikes are regrettable, but the firemen's strike was more so because it affected our national safety. It resulted in the use of valuable members of our Armed Forces, who were taken from their vital rôle of protecting our country. At this point I should like to say how indebted we are to Her Majesty's Forces for the wonderful way in which they carried out their dangerous and hazardous duties. One can also remember when, some years ago, during the dustmen's strike in Glasgow, they were called upon, and by their actions prevented what might have been a serious outbreak of any one of a number of refuse-borne diseases. The problems the soldiers had to contend with in the recent strike were increased by the fact that the equipment used was inferior by present-day standards. The men were not as experienced in civilian firefighting as are the firemen. I think credit must also be given to the numerous fire officers who gave valuable advice and assistance, which was badly needed.

My Lords, many Questions were asked in this House about training the Army in the use of breathing and other appliances, and the answer given by the Government was that it takes six weeks' training. As has already been pointed out this evening, the strike lasted much longer than that. I should like to suggest to the Government that if a similar occasion arises again—and we all hope it does not—then a standby force, experienced and trained, is ready to step into the shoes of the firemen immediately, thereby minimising the loss of life and damage to buildings. In conclusion, I should like to say that it is extremely regrettable that there still remains a feeling of bitterness between the strikers and their officers. For the sake of the efficiency of the Fire Service, which up until now has been beyond reproach, one can only hope that this state of affairs does not continue.

7.58 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, I think all those who have participated in this debate, and indeed all those who have listened to it, would agree that it has been an interesting occasion. Not least, of course, we have had the benefit of some very interesting thoughts on incomes policy, and a developing incomes policy, from my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby and my noble friend Lord Lee of Newton. My noble friend Lord Lee said during his speech that he has always been a firm supporter of incomes policy, and that is indeed true. He was a firm supporter of incomes policy when it sometimes was not a very fashionable thing to be, if I may say so. It required some fairly substantial political courage to take the line he did, and it is right to say that on an occasion such as this.

I always hesitate to cross swords with my noble friend Lord Houghton, all the more so on an occasion such as this, when he has indicated that this is something of an aperitif to a speech which he is going to deliver to us, no doubt within the next few weeks, in which he will develop his thoughts on incomes policy. I would say one thing to him and to one or two others who have spoken in this debate. My noble friend said that there was a danger of too much Government intervention in public sector pay settlements, and that there was a risk—a substantial one—involved. He said that there was a danger of creating a "dispirited workforce"—I think that was his phrase. He said that there were undoubtedly other compensating advantages. I would say to him—and he will hardly be surprised to hear it—that I do not myself believe that there is a real alternative to the policy which the Government are pursuing at the moment. I think there are undoubtedly risks involved. Certainly, anybody who has been involved, as I have been, in the police pay negotiations will be aware of the substantial problems which arise from standing firmly by one's position on a particular figure, as we did.

But I believe that there is overwhelming public support for the posture of the Government. I have absolutely no doubt about that—and that includes some of the members of the dispirited workforce; because the dispirited workforce are also consumers and their wives are also going to be affected by rising prices. The trouble in the past has been—and my I noble friend pointed this out in his speech—that it is very easy—only too easy—to find reasons why one particular group should get preferential treatment over the others and it is much more difficult to take a firm line consistently on all pay settlements in the way that the Government have taken it over the last few months.

I would say one thing before I turn to the subject of this debate. The noble Viscount, Lord Long, spoke, as always, agreeably and with moderation; but I fear that I detected—no doubt because he was speaking from the Bench opposite—some slight implication of criticism. No doubt I was wholly mistaken; but, just in case I was right in that assumption, I am quite sure that he would join with me in welcoming the statement made on 15th July, 1977, by Sir Geoffrey Howe, a gentleman with whom he no doubt has more than a nodding acquaintance, who asked: Does the Chancellor understand that if he and his colleagues stick as firmly as he has said to their duty of exercising their authority and influence to secure pay settlements in the public sector, if they are in line with the target that the Chancellor has outlined, he will receive our full support?—[Official Report, Commons, col. 995; 15/7/77.] I welcome that. It is always a delight to find some degree of bi-partisanship. Once or twice in recent weeks, I have had slight doubts as to whether the Opposition were wholly with us in dealing with the more sensitive pay negotiations. On one or two occasions, they appeared to be straying from the path of rectitude. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that, apparently, there is such a high degree of agreement on this matter.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I have a nodding agreement with the noble Lord over my right honourable friend; but I added that these were personal views and not from the Front Bench in the other place.


My Lords, I note that and I am sure that the noble Viscount—like a person speaking from this Bench—sometimes finds it difficult to separate personal views from those of Party. Nevertheless, as he spoke from that Bench, I did not think it inappropriate to draw his attention to what the Shadow Chancellor had said on this extremely important matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, who opened this debate said that, with the return of the firemen to normal working, which took place on 16th January and which brought an end to the emergency fire situation, it was right to take stock of the situation. That is, generally, what we have done today. There are certainly a number of lessons to be learned from this. Obviously, the principal concern of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the fire authorities in the aftermath of the dispute has been to get the Fire Service back to normal working.

During the strike, some bitter things were said and done. That is true. But, against this background, I think it is reassuring that the return to work has gone as well as it has. As the House will know, Service assistance was withdrawn, from each brigade as quickly as possible—that is as soon as the firemen had reported back for duty and the regular fire appliances and equipment had been checked. Understandably, there have been some local difficulties. I would not seek to deny that. But, in general, these are being resolved.

I think that it would be right to begin my speech with an analysis of the situation which confronted us and then to deal with a number of points that have been raised in this debate. When, in November, it became clear to the Government that strike action would take place, we made a number of preparations to carry out our duty to do all we could to protect life and property in the situation which confronted the country. Plans were prepared by central Government and by the lire authorities and, in the event, these plans involved the activation of 1,060 green goddesses and the deployment of a total of some 20,000 Servicemen drawn from the Armed Services. In addition, 40 teams of trained firefighters equipped with breathing apparatus were also available. The police, in addition, played an important part, not least in verifying that, in fact, emergency calls were emergency calls. I know from a number of chief constables with whom I discussed this, that this was another burden on their already over-taxed resources. I think that it is only right on an occasion like this to pay tribute to the work which the police did so splendidly. So, too, I may say, did the fire officers, as the noble Lord who initiated the debate has said.

I take this opportunity to join with my noble friend, Lord Gisborough, in paying tribute to one group of people who have not really been recognised. They are the Home Office maintenance men who were responsible for keeping the green goddesses in such a state that they could be brought out at very short notice, and used in an operational situation. I am glad to confirm what he has said about them and I shall certainly make sure that what he has said is passed on to them.

The green goddesses were deployed in urban areas approximately on the basis of one for every two regular pumping appliances. In the main, the needs of rural areas were met by part-time firemen who played a crucial rôle during this dispute. In addition, guidance was issued through Government Departments and the fire authorities on the precautions to be taken in factories, schools, hospitals, old people's homes and so on, and advice was given to the public about precautions that they should take in the home through advertising campaigns in the Press and so on.

The response of all concerned was outstanding. I want to pay tribute to their dedication, determination and courage in a situation which imposed considerable demands on them all. For those members of the Armed Services engaged on emergency fire-fighting duties, this was a difficult and unfamiliar rôle; but they rightly earned the admiration and thanks of the entire country. During these difficult days for the fire-fighting force it became clear that the standards of serviceability of the green goddesses were much better than might have been expected. These appliances had proved their worth during the drought situation in the summer of 1976 and were to do so again during this dispute. These, and some other items of emergency fire equipment, will be retained.

During the nine weeks of the dispute, about 40,500 fires were reported. These gave rise to some 203 reported fatalities among members of the public and about 850 non-fatal casualties. From an analysis of data for previous years, the number of fires, fatalities and non-fatalities during the strike was about the same as might have been expected had the strike not taken place at all. The number of reported fatalities was, in fact, some 30 or so fewer than in the corresponding period in 1976–77. But, without far more detailed analysis than has yet been possible, the reduction, though gratifying, is small enough to have occurred by chance. It cannot, with certainty, be attributed to the additional publicity on precautionary measures or greater public vigilance during the strike, though I hope very much that these played a part.

As regards financial losses from fire, details are not collated by the Home Office or any other Government Department. The British Insurance Association publishes monthly estimates of direct fire losses. The figures published by the Association show that the estimated cost of fire damage in Great Britain in November was £42.7 million, and in December was £33.8 million. This compared with a monthly average for the whole year of £18.5 million and for 1976 of £19.3 million. Although the November and December losses were therefore undoubtedly and not of course unexpectedly, higher, the increases are impossible to quantify accurately because even in normal circumstances, fire losses vary unpredictably from month to month.

As I told the House in my Statement on 9th November, with the best that could be done by way of the emergency planning, the Government were under no illusion that the precautions which we took could match the fire cover provided by the regular fire service. I said this at the time in the knowledge of the sophisticated equipment which exists within the fire service to provide adequate fire cover throughout the country, the intensive training which firemen have to undergo in order to use the equipment safely, and the additional tasks, including fire precautions and other station duties, which are performed by firemen on a continuing basis.

Perhaps I may say a few words about breathing apparatus. As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said, this has become something of an old chestnut, but old though it may be, I think it appropriate to deal with it—I hope finally. The matter has certainly been raised on a number of occasions. I remember exchanging words on this particular matter with the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing—whom I am saddened to see is not with us—who rather mysteriously raised the question of the Suez Canal pilots in relation to this matter just before Christmas. It was raised also by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, and by question at that time by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh; and, indeed, by him again tonight.

The unanimous—I repeat, unanimous—advice of the Fire Service was that this apparatus could not be used by troops. This was because it was not just a question of teaching a person how to wear a particular set of breathing apparatus. Obviously, that can be done. The real problem arose from the need to ensure the protection of the soldier concerned, bearing in mind the long, special training required in the Fire Service in firefighting techniques and safety procedures when using this equipment.

The advice that this equipment should not be distributed to the Armed Services was that of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of the Fire Service. It was also a view which was endorsed by the National Association of Fire Officers when they met my right honourable friend the Prime Minister at the beginning of this dispute. This is a group of people to whom, quite rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, paid particular tribute for their spectacular services during the dispute.

On the basis of advice of this kind, it seems to me, with great respect, to be a very extreme proposition indeed to suggest that one would push this advice on one side and ignore it. I do not think that would be right. What we did was to make a number of specialised Naval and Air Force units available who had experience in this particular area. They were added to the number of Servicemen who were available. It is important to deal with this question because understandably there has been public discussion of it. It is right that this matter should be disposed of once and for all.

Having dealt with this question of specialist equipment, it is all the more necessary to exercise caution in attempting to make comparisons between what happened before and during the strike in terms of the numbers of personnel and equipment used. Quite understandably, this question has been raised today and, indeed, by others outside this Chamber.

It must be remembered that the majority of regular fire officers were available to direct and assist the Servicemen during the strike. And that, in those parts of the country in which fire cover is provided by part-time retained firemen, some 70 per cent. of those part-time firemen continued to provide fire cover without any assistance whatever from the Armed Services. The police, as I have indicated, played an important role in assisting the Servicemen and dealing with many small fires themselves. Moreover, during the strike fire authorities did not have the resources of the brigades to carry out and enforce their fire prevention responsibilities under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 which is a very important part of the duties of the regular Fire Service. We had a debate on this issue only a few weeks ago.

Any attempt, therefore, to draw precise comparisons must be treated with some caution because the wide variety of factors involved require detailed and careful consideration. The Government intend to examine these closely and we will do this in the light of the fullest information we can obtain about what happened during the strike.

The noble Viscount, Lord Long, raised the question of existing standards of fire cover. These are based on the recommendations of a Joint Committee of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Councils for England and Wales and for Scotland. Any proposal to change these standards would be a matter for my right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland acting on the advice of the Advisory Councils.

These are matters which fire authorities themselves will want to consider. Indeed, they are likely to be raised during the forthcoming negotiations in the National Joint Council between the fire authorities and the Fire Service staff organisations about the reduction in the firemen's working week from 48 to 42 hours. This is an important step forward in improving the conditions of firemen and must be seen against the trend in industry generally. But the implications for the fire service will undoubtedly be considerable. Both sides of the NJC, having registered in principle as part of the settlement, agreement to introduce a 42 hour working week without loss of pay from November 1978, subject to satisfactory completion of negotiations, fully recognise the many problems associated with the introduction of that shorter working week.

The House will be aware that the fire service has been the subject of a number of inquiries, both of general and particular natures, over recent years. The most wide-ranging one was conducted by the Departmental Committee on the Fire Service under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald Holroyd. This Committee reported in 1970, and many of the aspects of the Fire Service which they looked into have been developed on the lines of the recommendations which they made. The work of that Committee had been preceded by the inquiry carried out in 1967 by the National Board for Prices and Incomes into the structure and levels of remuneration in the Fire Service. And it was followed by the Cunningham Inquiry which reported in 1971 on the work of the fire service and on an appropriate evaluation of that work. The Cunningham Inquiry made a number of specific recommendations about the pay of firemen, and these were implemented in the pay agreement of 1971.

The Cunningham Inquiry also recommended that a further evaluation of the work of the Fire Service should be carried out within two years. For a number of reasons, it was not possible for the NJC to make rapid progress on this matter. Last year, however, both sides of the NJC agreed on a job description of the fully-qualified fireman, which formed the basis of the work of the Inquiry which they subsequently set up under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord McCarthy, to examine the firemen's job in relation to other occupations and their remuneration. My noble friend reported last September and recommended that against a broad benchmark of comparison with the generality of jobs in the community, discussions should continue in the NJC on the remuneration of the qualified fireman. The outcome of this has now borne fruit in the agreement for a new formula for fixing firemen's pay whereby the average earnings for firemen are to be equated with those of the upper quartile of adult male workers. This agreement is to be introduced in two approximately equal stages in November 1978 and November 1979.

I should like to say this in conclusion: the Home Departments conducted an Inquiry into the feasibility of a 40-hour week in the Fire Service which reported in September 1977. The Inquiry's conclusions have been remitted to the NJC and will be considered in the context of their negotiations on a reduction in the firemen's working week.

During recent years, as I have indicated, the Fire Service has been the subject of a substantial number of Inquiries. These have proved valuable in promoting the skills of the fireman and consequently the service which he gives to the community and in improving his pay and conditions. We should hesitate long before responding to suggestions that any further wide-ranging Inquiry should be imposed in the Fire Service at the present time. I sometimes think that we all have a habit of setting up rather too many Inquiries, which are in themselves a factor which, on occasions, can cause some disturbance and which can be extremely costly. What the Fire Service most needs at the moment is a period of stability during which fire authorities and members of their brigades can work together to restore the damage which has undoubtedly been done by the strike, and to build a better Service for the future.