(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the ambulance service in Scotland following the strike by ambulance officers.
Ambulance service control officers in some areas of Scotland decided yesterday not to handle requests for ambulances. In some situations this extends to calls for ambulances to transport emergency cases.The latest position reported to me is that in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, except Dumfries, no services are being provided by the controllers although it appears that genuine emergency calls are still being acted upon. In Edinburgh, Lothians and Borders emergency services only are operating. In other areas normal services are operating. It is too early to assess the effect of this action on the services to patients. I regret that the staff have thought it necessary to take this action, especially since the grading and salary structure for the control officers is to be discussed at the next meeting of the Whitley Council, which is organised on a Great Britain basis, on 17th January.
Although we in Scotland have suffered from an unprecedented wave of strikes in the public services, this dispute, which involves only about 90 men, is the most serious because it poses a direct and immediate threat to human life. Will the Minister take all possible steps, if need be by having direct contact with those involved, to appeal for a return to work, and will he make it clear to them that a settlement may be forthcoming fairly speedily? In view of the desperate seriousness of the situation which could arise if a settlement is not reached, will the Minister give an assurance that if there is a breakdown in the emergency service he will give immediate consideration to the provision of some form of alternative service for emergency cases?
I agree that we are facing a serious situation, although my understanding is that steps are being taken to cover the danger to human life. I have been in contact with the Transport and General Workers' Union and I am to meet Mr. Alex Kitson and two other official representatives of the union tomorrow afternoon to discuss the situation. Depending on how the discussions go, one would hope that there would be a speedy settlement. The Government will keep a close watch on the situation.
How much warning did the Government have of the controllers' action?
We were given very short notice because the settlement which provoked this dispute was agreed only on 5th December, and so far there has been no formal claim by the controlling officers. We have taken the initiative to have the matter discussed in the Whitley Council. In my view we did not get proper notice of the dispute.
I join in the expressions of regret that the dispute is taking place, but is the Minister aware that some of these men are paid less than the men they organise? How is it that this disagreement about wage levels has gone on for over a year?
The hon. Member is wrong. The situation over wage levels which provoked the current dispute has not been in operation for more than a year. The ambulance crews settled their pay claim on 5th December to operate from 7th November 1974. There can be no question of delays in this matter. In the normal course of events the controllers would be having a pay settlement on 1st April 1975 and the current disparity in salaries would have been taken care of then. But, as I have said, the health departments took the initiative in raising the matter in the Whitley Council. The Whitley Council's next meeting is on Friday. That is speedy action by the Government. There is no question of the matter being delayed a moment longer than necessary.