The retained duty system, which covers 30 per cent. of all firefighters, enables Fire and Rescue Authorities to provide a community based service including fire prevention, protection and emergency response in areas away from main urban centres. I welcome the progress which fire and rescue authorities have made in addressing issues of recruitment and retention, with vacancies falling from over 20 per cent. in 2003-04 to 13 per cent. in 2007-08. The Department will continue to support the Fire and Rescue Service to strengthen the retained duty system.
Implementation of the working time directive, by setting a 48-hour maximum to the working week, would greatly reduce the hours which firefighters working the retained duty system could be available for duty, especially the substantial numbers who work full-time for their primary employer. The UK Government therefore place great importance on retaining its opt-out from the directive, a position that was acknowledged by the European Union Council of Ministers in June when it agreed in the Common Position that it should be retained, and will continue to defend it.
The amendments to the Common Position voted by the European Parliament on 17 December are the latest step in a complex negotiation, the next phase being for the Council of Ministers to consider the amendments, followed by a process of conciliation between both parties, the presidency and the Commission. Officials from my Department will be consulting a range of fire and rescue service stakeholders to ensure that the potential impact is assessed fully; and working with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has the UK lead on the working time directive, to inform the ongoing debate and ensure MEPs and EU member states are briefed appropriately.