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Retained Firefighters

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts.)

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Williams. I am delighted to have secured the debate. It is the first debate of this sort that I have been able to secure in Westminster Hall for some time. For my constituents and many people living in rural and more remote communities, the issue is of great importance.

The debate is timely, as is reflected by the significant number of briefings and comments that it has generated. In particular, I place on record my appreciation of a briefing that hon. Members received from the Retained Firefighters Union. In highlighting the issue at this stage in the proceedings, the union has served not only its members but the communities they serve exceptionally well. It has been a model of engagement in that regard.

It is important to be clear about the parameters of what we are debating. This is not about the working time directive generally—we have debated that ad nauseam and beyond on occasions—but about its impact on retained firefighters in particular. That is distinct from any issues that the end of the opt-out from the directive might create for full-time firefighters.

Retained firefighters, who are employed under a retained duty scheme, are generally already in full-time employment with a primary employer. They supplement that employment by giving service to their communities and being available for anything up to 120 hours of “inactive on-call” time a week. They are available at the drop of a hat or the press of a pager button. They respond to road accidents, fires and the whole range of situations in which any firefighter might be called on to serve.

In some ways, the existence of the retained duty system is an historical accident; it is just how the service evolved. Often, such historical accidents provide a service that does not quite fit the needs of the community, and change can be challenging. That is not the case with the retained duty system. If we were to set out today with a blank sheet of paper to design a service to provide fire and rescue services for less densely populated areas of the country and more remote communities, I suspect that we would end up with something that looked pretty much like the retained duty system.

That is why I take any threat or challenge to that system seriously, as we all should. It is one of the most important services that any community can call on. Its importance is that, looked at in the abstract, the service is designed to meet the needs of the communities that it serves and not necessarily those of the people who provide the service.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. Of course, as we are not starting from here, there may be slightly different arrangements, but does he agree that the vast bulk of retained firefighters, 70 per cent., work no more than 50 hours a week, including their basic job? That is slightly in excess of the 48-hour limit, but many fire authorities operate with a built-in shortage of full-time and retained firefighters, which exacerbates the situation. If they could be encouraged to staff their fire stations to the appropriate establishment, many problems, particularly south of the border—I cannot speak for Scotland—would not be as acute as the hon. Gentleman may be about to describe.

I support anything that will improve the service. If more slack can be built into the system that way, it is devoutly to be encouraged. However, for reasons that I will explain in greater detail later, the question is not just about strict interpretation of the working time directive. There are issues about how attractive it would be to allow staff—particularly those employed by small or medium-sized enterprises, which describes a lot of businesses in rural areas—to undertake duties in the retained service in the face of that pressure on working time. The law of unintended consequences can easily come into play. We must be careful to ensure that we maintain not only the structural integrity of the retained service but an environment where the service is attractive to those who would serve in it as well as to their primary employers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and join him in his tribute to the retained fire service as well as to full-time fire and rescue servicemen and women. They are essential to all our communities.

In hundreds of square miles in south-east Scotland, only two stations have full-time crews, each of which is backed up by a retained service. The number of call-outs for the vastly different smaller stations can range from 40 to 200 in a single year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that hints that we need as much flexibility as possible, and that we need to get out from under the strictures that the directive would enforce?

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of the retained service in working alongside the full-time service, which it does very effectively in the bulk of the areas of which we have experience. He also used the word “flexibility”. That is key. The retained duty system offers all of us, in communities urban and rural, an extra degree of flexibility. If we lose that, we will lose a lot.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Further to the previous intervention, the mainland highlands of Scotland have one full-time station. All the others—scores of stations across a huge rural area—are staffed by retained personnel. In my constituency, the A9, one of the most dangerous roads in Scotland, is covered between Inverness and Perth by a series of retained stations. They provide important cover. Flexibility, particularly in dealing with road traffic accidents, is highly important. Does he agree that that could be threatened if the regulations are implemented as proposed by the European Parliament?

If we did not think that there was a threat, we would not be here, to put it bluntly. The situation that my hon. Friend describes—one full-time unit for the highlands and islands in Inverness that must work alongside the retained units, which it does very effectively—is a model of joint working that we would like to see followed across the whole country.

My hon. Friend leads me nicely to my next point, which involves considering what the alternative would be to the present mix of full-time and retained duty provision. Inevitably, it would involve, in effect, a move to a full-time fire service across the whole United Kingdom. With the best will in the world, there will never be a full-time station everywhere there is currently a retained service, and anyone living farther away from full-time stations—although I grant that there would be more of them—would have longer response times. I hear that concern time and time again when I speak to people served predominantly by stations with retained duty workers.

I am slightly confused by the hon. Gentleman’s message. Is he arguing that we should retain the opt-out, or is he agreeing with what has been happening in Europe and saying that we should get rid of the opt-out, but exclude retained firefighters from it? I am not exactly clear where he is coming from.

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier remarks, he would have heard me say that I want to limit the scope of the debate quite strictly to the issue of the retained fire service.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think it is an important issue? If I had wanted to have a debate on the general question of the opt-out from the European working time directive, I would have called for such a debate.

Frankly, I am pretty agnostic about whether there will be retention of the opt-out, or some provision that will allow continuation of the opt-out for retained firefighters. Regarding the question of retained firefighters, what is important is the service that we are left with at the end of the process, not the mechanism by which we get there. If it is possible, as it were, to have our cake and eat it—I am sceptical, but we will hear what the Minister has to say—I would certainly be interested to hear it.

Yes, I do, and I will repeat what I said. That sounds like a very Liberal Democrat way of doing it. On the one hand, the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants the 48-hour week restriction and on the other hand he is saying that he wants retained firemen to be excluded from that. You cannot have your cake and eat it. I am an ex-fireman and I have worked with retained firemen; no one has more admiration for them than me. Frankly, if the restriction went ahead, they would probably work for nothing, because they care about their community. The issue is about Europe deciding that we cannot have retained firemen paid in the UK.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to what I am saying. I am not saying that we should have ended the opt-out; indeed, he will find that the vast majority of Liberal Democrat MEPs voted against the ending of the UK opt-out in the European Parliament when it came up for decision. I am saying that even if the opt-out is to end, we must have some mechanism that recognises the importance of the retained firefighters. I do not want to see the end of the opt-out, but if it happens we must have some provision that recognises the importance of the retained firefighting service, implemented in such a way that it will have the flexibility to ensure that we can maintain that service. That is why it is important that we engage in debate now, rather than waiting until we have a crisis in 2012.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the fact that we in the United Kingdom have developed a system that serves our communities well and we are trying to find the best mechanism to ensure that it can continue, with or without the opt-out, although, like him, I would prefer to retain the opt-out—if we can retain it, we should do so.

I want to pick up on the point that my hon. Friend was making. Immediately after the vote on the opt-out was taken in the European Parliament, Councillor Mike Raeburn, who chairs the fire service in the Grampian region, contacted me, as well as other MPs and MSPs, to say that if the proposed change goes ahead, it is likely to cost the Grampian fire and rescue service between £35 million and £100 million to implement. He also said that response times would be increased. There would thus be a massive increase in cost for a reduced service and that is not an acceptable solution.

I commend my hon. Friend for trying to ensure that, working with the Government, we get something that will ensure that we can continue to provide the service that people enjoy today.

Indeed. My right hon. Friend is aware that I know Councillor Raeburn very well, having worked with him previously, and the councillor’s views should be taken seriously.

We know what the situation would be if we were to lose the flexibility that is offered by the retained firefighting service, because we have seen something similar before. It is not many years since we did exactly the same thing in Scotland with the ambulance service. The consequence of the change to the ambulance service is that although we have full-time ambulance cover across the whole of Scotland, there are longer response times and the service is patchier, notwithstanding the significant amount of money that the Government have put into the ambulance service in Scotland. Ultimately, the quality of the ambulance service has been diminished. Rather than bringing dogma to the issue, we should focus on the quality of service that we have at the end of the day.

The scale of the retained firefighting service, and its importance to people, should not be underestimated. In 2007, the UK statistical information service recorded that there were 67,951 personnel in the fire and rescue services across the UK, of whom 37,596 were in full-time units and 18,827 were in the retained duty system. In fact, 91 per cent. of the UK’s total land mass is covered by crews who operate as part of the retained duty system. Scotland has 391 fire stations, of which 321 are staffed by retained duty firefighters. That is a total of 3,429 retained duty firefighters in Scotland.

How would the ending of the opt-out affect the retained duty system? At its simplest, let us consider the firefighter who, in his primary employment, has a full-time job that engages him or her for 37 to 40 hours a week. They have a standing commitment of between two and three hours a week for training for the retained duty service, leaving them, at most, five to eight hours a week to provide the service as part of the retained duty system.

At present, individual workers enter into an agreement with their employer that they can work for more than 48 hours a week. It is called an opt-out agreement, which is a voluntary arrangement signed by both the employer and the employee. Generally, it will include an agreed period of notice to end the opt-out agreement. Obviously, employers cannot force their employees to sign it.

The agreement is flexible, fit for purpose and it works very well. It is particularly important for businesses that would be classified as SMEs. If we are talking about the provision of a fire service in rural communities in particular, hon. and right hon. Members will be aware that the vast bulk of the economic base in less populated areas tends to be SMEs. Certainly the economic base of my constituency is almost entirely built on SMEs. It is a sector where one of the unintended consequences of the ending of the opt-out may come into play, which is the point made earlier by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). It is quite foreseeable that if we end the opt-out, the primary employer—if I can use that term—of a retained firefighter will say to his or her employee, “I need you to be available for 40, 43, 44, or 45 hours a week”. That may particularly be the case in the current economic climate, when everybody is trying to keep their cost base down and their margins tight. That pressure on SMEs will make it less attractive to employers to release employees to provide the type of fire service that they provide at present.

The hon. Gentleman describes the situation very well, outlining the economic trends in his part of the world. Nevertheless, has there not been a countervailing trend towards self-employment? That means that about a quarter of retained firefighters in Scotland could be self-employed—I would guess that is the proportion. Of course, the regulations do not apply to self-employed people, so is that not a factor that needs to be brought into the equation?

It is certainly a factor that must be brought into the equation. I keep coming back to the point about flexibility and, in fact, the importance of people being able to make these decisions for themselves. It would be nonsense to say that although this week I am employed in a particular capacity doing a certain job, next week I will be self-employed, so suddenly I shall be able to perform a service that otherwise I would not be able to undertake.

I have gone on for rather longer than I had intended, and I know that others want to participate, so I shall finish by addressing recent comment on whether this is a live issue. Some people, who unfortunately have not seen fit to attend the debate, have suggested that we are engaged in some sort of scaremongering. The Scottish nationalists in particular seem to prefer engaging in debate in the columns of The Press and Journal and The Scotsman, rather than coming to put their case in the Chamber.

Our briefings for today’s debate come from pretty impeccable sources. The Local Government Association, which covers England and Wales, said in its briefing:

“The LGA believes that the loss of the opt-out provision that currently exists would result in a reduction in the number of retained firefighters and would also see the need to increase the number of wholetime firefighters employed by FRAs to cover shifts. This would of course have a financial implication. The Chief Fire Officers Association is undertaking research to identify precise figures. The opt-out is an important tool in maintaining flexible labour markets, and if it were removed it would be a major blow to both employers and employees.”

In its response to the consultation on the working time directive, the Chief Fire Officers Association said:

“The Fire & Rescue Service could not function effectively without RDS employees, and when there are larger scale operational incidents, RDS employees will respond from their normal location to support full-time employees.”

Those comments make it clear that this is a live issue, which is of concern to those who are charged with providing fire services. Indeed, David Dalziel, the chief fire officer of Grampian fire and rescue service, was reported as saying, in The Scotsman of 24 January, that unless a

“compromise could be reached, the new rules would signal an end to the part-time service in Scotland.”

Mr. Dalziel, who is also secretary to the Chief Fire Officers Association, said:

“It represents a significant threat to the wellbeing of people across Scotland. Retained firefighters, already working 40 hours at their own work, could be restricted to only eight hours a week or even less.”

Those people do not have a political axe to grind; they are at the sharp end of providing fire and rescue services, and their views must be taken seriously.

We know what will happen if we do not engage in debate now, because we have seen the same thing before. I remind the Minister what happened with the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations 2005, which also implemented a European directive—directive 2002/15/EC. Those regulations caused enormous problems for the retained fire service and the Territorial Army before we eventually found a rather messy compromise to get us out of the situation. As a consequence, I am told, although I have not been able to check, that the road haulage company Eddie Stobart no longer allows its employees to work as part of the retained duty service. The service will face that sort of threat if we do not take these matters seriously and engage in debate now.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I chair the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, and before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was the FBU’s solicitor for 17 years, so I have a little knowledge of these issues. The FBU represents 11,000 of the 14,000 firefighters who work on retained duty, so it represents the vast majority of them.

The debate has so far been focused on Scotland, but of course it goes beyond Scotland, as its title includes the country as a whole. We recognise that there is an issue to address, but I think that the hon. Gentleman has come to the wrong conclusion. We can get a little lost in double and treble negatives about what the directive is all about and ending the opt-out, but essentially it is about restricting the maximum number of working hours to 48. Why is that being done? It is not because of some European desire to screw up the British fire service; it is a health, safety and welfare issue that aims to improve the lives of individuals. Jobs such as those in the fire service have many inherent risks and are dangerous enough already. We do not want to increase those risks either for the firefighters concerned or for the people whom they might be called upon to rescue.

Let me deal with some of the myths that surround working time directive requirements. The fire service has peaks and troughs in demand, like many businesses and services, and the working time directive recognises those problems by requiring an average 48-hour week over a 26-week period, so it can provide the operational flexibility that the fire service needs. Moreover, the directive does not apply in emergencies when property, life or limb are at risk, so no firefighter will be stopped from doing their job. Services can waive the 48-hour week requirement in a wide range of emergencies, such as when they have temporary staff shortages, or in periods when they might be called on because of severe weather conditions, as they have been in the past few days.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman would mention that there are no retained firefighters in London—in fact, London refuses to allow retained firefighters to come on to its patch. Should not that have been an important part of his opening remarks, as a London MP?

Of course, I am a London MP, and it is correct that London operates on a whole-time fire service basis, but that is not to say that I do not have some knowledge of this subject, because my constituency is the last one before the countryside of Hertfordshire.

I do not think that I did misinterpret the hon. Gentleman. He may make his point later, but it does not make a great deal of difference to the points that I am making.

As I was saying, emergencies are not caught by the 48-hour rule, so protracted incidents can be dealt with. Obviously, managers have to roster staff to try to avoid overwork, but when there are major crises such as the Buncefield oil fire, relief crews will inevitably be brought in from other brigades, as happened then.

Some firefighters might have to change their working patterns, but that could be managed through relatively minor adjustments in the years between now and when the rule changes occur. Full-time firefighters work a variety of shifts, but typically work 48-hour shifts in four-day patterns, which provides for a 42-hour working week. Only 4,000 retained firefighters work more than 50 hours, with 2,500 working more than 60 hours. It should therefore be possible, over time, to manage arrangements to reduce requirements on them.

There is a UK-wide shortage of retained firefighters—between 3,000 and 5,000 across the country—and the way to deal with that problem is to improve recruitment and retention to ease the pressure on retained firefighters and to comply with the directive. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned that the labour market is tight, but it should be easier to recruit retained firefighters at such a time because that is a secure form of employment. Given that many people are losing their job or being put on short-time working—a trend that has been adopted in many parts of the world to deal with the financial pressures being faced—this is a good time to recruit firefighters. That has to be considered.

Under the retained system, firefighters have other jobs and make themselves available on call. On-call periods are up to 120 hours a week, rostered over five days. However, those on-call hours do not count towards the 48-hour requirement. The only time that does count toward it is time spent on duty when attending incidents or training. It is not beyond the wit of any fire service gradually to reduce the limits to bite-sized chunks to achieve the objectives required by the working time directive. It is important to recognise that the average retained firefighter works 47.7 hours per week, when all their jobs are put together, which is within the time limit set by the directive. A very small number of retained firefighters who currently work very long hours might, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, choose to reduce the amount of overtime that they do in their main job. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said in his intervention, one in five retained firefighters are exempt anyway because they are self-employed.

The hon. Gentleman is approaching this from the wrong direction. He thinks that the reduction in working hours to a maximum of 48, which would be phased in over time, is the evil, but it is not. The evil is the fact that we in this country expect people to work ever-longer hours, which is not in their best interests from a health and safety or a welfare point of view. We should be considering alternatives to enable people to work shorter hours, so that they can have a family life and they are not subjected to such pressures.

In a moment. I have nearly finished and the hon. Gentleman will make his own speech later.

It is important to recognise that this is being done for the benefit of workers, not to wind them up or frustrate them. There are other options. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has overstated the problem. There is plenty of time to adjust to the new requirements—for example, we could consider increasing recruitment—so let us not overstate the problem initially.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although those who tabled and supported early-day motion 552 were, no doubt, well intentioned, they were really taking part in the usual Liberal tactic of scaremongering? They stand in front of schools, post offices and retained fire stations that they say are going to close and when they do not close—and they never were going to—they claim the credit for it. That is what this is really about, is it not?

My hon. Friend makes a party political point, but I have tried to rise above the party politics in the debate. However, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred to a £100 million price tag in relation to the change, which I think is a bizarre figure that is simply not credible.

No. The hon. Gentleman has made his points and many others want to speak. I have now concluded my remarks.

I thought I had been called to speak a few moments ago, and having listened to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), perhaps it would have been better if I had. This is a serious debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on obtaining it.

We have just heard the hon. Member for Hendon demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of what retained firefighters are about. I will quickly touch on the point that I made in my intervention on him. I did not say that he had retained firefighters in his constituency. I am sure that his constituents would like Hertfordshire firefighters to come over the border to help them in their hour of need, as happened at Buncefield when the London fire service came to us. The London fire service categorically will not allow retained firefighters across its borders to come on stand by in London; it will not allow that to happen. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) saying from a sedentary position that it is a safety issue?

The reason why retained firefighters are so successful and necessary in deeply rural areas is the relative sparsity of the population. In London, there must be thousands of people within five minutes—or whatever the time is—of a retained fire station. In rural areas, that is less often the case. That is the reason—it is a city.

The hon. Gentleman simply does not understand what retained firefighters do. I slightly disagree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland: this is not a rural-urban issue. I was a firefighter in urban Essex and every day of the week that I was on duty, I worked with retained firefighters.

If I gave the impression to the hon. Gentleman that I regard this as a rural-urban issue, I apologise. That was certainly not my intention. If he recalls the response that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey—and God knows where else—(Danny Alexander), he will recall that I emphasised the ability of retained and full-time firefighters to work together in his area and the importance of that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. It is crucial that people reading and listening to this debate understand that retained and whole-time firefighters work together daily in rural and urban areas. The point I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Hendon is that the London fire service does not understand that; it never has and never will. I have stood by at stations whose personnel have been pulled into London and, on the way in, driven past retained stations whose personnel could have gone into London to help stand by. Regularly in my constituency, when the two pumps at the Hemel station are called out and detained at an incident, it is the retained firefighters who come out and stand by to protect my largest town and community. Retained firefighters are a crucial part of community spirit, and that is proved every day.

I pay tribute to the Retained Firefighters Union and the Fire Brigades Union, and I declare an interest because I was a member of the FBU for many years. The fire service was a closed shop in those days. I had no choice but to join, but I made sure that I stopped the donation to the Labour party that came from my dues to the FBU as soon as possible. However, it is crucial that the two unions work together on this and do not bury their heads in the sand. I hope that that will happen. For many years, the FBU was anti-retained firefighters to the extent that when I served in Essex, they locked firefighters out of the station when they arrived for stand by. I have seen it and I know that it happens—in certain parts of the country, it still takes place today. The unions need to work together as one national fire service.

In certain parts of the country, the system has worked well. We have four types of firefighters in this country: whole time—the type that we have in London—whole-time retained, day manning, and retained. The system is different from that in any other part of the world. We pay retained firefighters for their dedication—we give them a pension, and payment for the time that they commit to their community—and that is why they fall inside the ludicrous rule on the 48-hour week. The rest of Europe is not affected in the same way. Local community firefighters in the rest of Europe are just as dedicated as ours: they want to serve their community and they regularly go out to protect their community. However, they are classed as volunteers and only get expenses. They are therefore not classed as employed and are exempt from the directive. Our firefighters are not. Will the Minister explain why we do not have an exemption because of the special circumstances we have in relation to the different types of firefighters?

Those of us who have lived on the continent will have seen that ours is a better system. People should not be asked to put their lives on the line and not be paid for it. We should not have an “us and them” situation where whole-time firemen are paid and retained firemen working next to them on jobs are not paid. That is wrong and is something that should be dealt with. I would have thought that that was something the Labour party would understand and fight the cause for.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the vital points about the retained system is the level of first-class training that is given to the retained firefighters, which I have seen in my constituency at Invergordon? It is appropriate that retained firefighters are properly paid, so that they are properly committed to that training and deliver the excellence and professionalism he describes.

I could not agree more. When I first served, in the early 1980s, it was horrible because the retained did not train with the regulars and no whole-time fireman was allowed to be a retained firefighter. That seemed ludicrous to me. When I left the Army and joined the fire service, I was a skilled professional and a huge amount of taxpayers’ money was being dedicated to my training, but I was not allowed to go and serve my community on my day off, as retained firemen were allowed to do. Fortunately, that has changed and we have developed whole-time manning stations—there is an excellent day manning station in Woodham Ferrers in Essex, where I used to stand by when I served. In my county, we are carefully considering day manning stations because they provide a better way for the fire service to serve the community.

I pay tribute to the fire services around the country that came to my constituency on 11 December 2005, when the largest explosion in this country since the second world war, and subsequently the largest fire, took place at the Buncefield oil depot. I was there with the firefighters for four days, and I never knew who was a retained fireman or who was a whole-time retained or a regular full-time fireman. Actually, that is not true. I did know because the London fire service wear silly pink uniforms these days, and I knew that they were whole time. I do not know why on earth they wear pink, but that was how we knew that they were London firemen. However, in terms of the job that they did on the ground, we did not know whether the firefighters were whole time, regulars or what. They came from all over the country. At the time, my mayor paid tribute to every single fire service, and they were invited back to a dedication ceremony.

That tells us about the situation of retained firefighters. During the debate, we have heard about the cost and what would happen if the retained service is undermined by the directive. I do not agree about the cost. We know what would happen: the communities would do it—they would do it like they do it in Europe. I am not an expert on Scotland but, in my part of the world, we recently lost retained fire stations when the Government reconfigured the response times. Scotland could not have whole-time firefighters. The position would be as it was all those years ago, when the fire service started, when people rose up and established fire stations to protect their community. They did it because of their love for and belief in their fellow residents, but it would not be right to have to do that now.

If something is not broken, we should not destroy it. The current system works fantastically well. I simply do not understand why we must kowtow to comments such as, “No one should be forced to do more than a 48-hour week.” No retained firefighter is forced to do it; they do it for the love of their community and to protect their community, and such comments undermine their dedication to their community. I never, ever met a retained firefighter who came on shift and said, “I hate being here; I don’t want to be here.” They love it, because they are serving their community. If we allow that to be undermined by the ludicrous idea of people being told that they cannot work for their community because they happen to have done another job during the course of the day, it will be a sad day for this country.

I am aware that a number of hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall be brief. I declare an interest: my son-in-law is a retained firefighter, and he knows rather well what this debate is all about. With the deepest respect, I must say that the major points about the threats to the retained service have been missed in this debate.

I am happy to engage with the issue, but I did not sign early-day motion 552, even though I have some sympathy with it and recognise that we must consider the opt-out. I am a member of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, and it must be stated that the most important issue is that the opt-out became such a political issue in terms of working hours because of health and safety. If firefighters do not abide by health and safety regulations and do not have them at the forefront of their minds, who will? It is absolutely wrong to put in harm’s way people who may have done too many hours. I worry about my son-in-law in that regard, although I recognise that there needs to be some flexibility.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) would not take my intervention, so may I stress that I am not peddling my own scaremongering? As I made clear at the end of my remarks, significant, objective voices recognise the problem, too, so will the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) not accept that there is a real problem with the argument that firefighters must have an absolute cut-off point? Why is it healthy and safe to work for 47.5 hours but not for 48.5 hours? [Interruption.]

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) says from a sedentary position that the figure is rounded up over a period. Indeed, there is much more flexibility than people would have us believe. People recognise that I am no fan of the European Union, nor is my hon. Friend, but they must also recognise that retained firefighters are put in an exploitatable position because of the number of hours they have to work.

I want to turn the debate on its head.

I am very conscious of that. The way in which the retained call-out system works means that it is entirely up to the firefighter whether they respond to the call. If they have been on night duty and are tired, it is entirely up to them. There are more than four to a station—they need four to a pump to ride—and it is entirely up to them, so it is not true to say that even if they have been up all night they will have to respond.

I know very well that call-out is voluntary, but, at the end of the day, people do the job not only because they love being firefighters, but because it is an important consideration in terms of income. As a father-in-law, I must say that it is not unimportant. When retained firefighters do not get the shouts, their income goes down, and that is of not inconsiderable importance.

In my constituency, there are four stations with retained firefighters—Stroud, Nailsworth, Painswick and Dursley— and I have nothing but praise for the people who work as retained firefighters. At the Stroud station, they work alongside the full-time firefighters, a situation to which the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) referred, and it is a very amicable arrangement, although there are some problems. Until recently, it was difficult to recruit people, but the fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire has done well to up its recruiting standards, and the good thing is that full-time firefighters and retained personnel are treated exactly the same in terms of equipment and training. The latter have less time to train, but they are given every opportunity.

There are two problems, however. The first problem, about which I bear some angst, is that the relationship between retained and full-time firefighters is not helped by some of the recruitment policies that fire services operate. I know that, these days, it is important that we reflect the balance of ethnicity, gender and so on, but it is also important that retained firefighters are given opportunities to enter the full-time service. Many people become special constables because it provides access to the police, and, similarly, access is one reason why people join the retained fire service. Many people—not just my son-in-law, who would love to join the full-time service—tell me that there are problems doing so, however, and that people can be strung along: they are told that they have a good chance of entering the full-time service, but it never seems to happen. That causes disillusionment, and disillusioned retained firefighters are not a good entity within the wider fire service.

The second and more important problem is how we get employers to release people so that they can serve in the retained fire service. That is the crux of recruitment. Such service used to be a point of honour, and firms would willingly make people available. In Dursley, the whole station was staffed with retained firefighters when 6,000 Lister-Petter employees worked next door. Now, the firm employs about 350 people at best and, from memory, I do not think that any retained staff come from there anymore—for all sorts of reasons. It is nice that the opt-out—the working time directive—is at the root of the issue, but the fundamental question is: how do we give people security, so that if they take on such an important role their employer will support them and, to some extent, be compensated for their time?

The difficulty with the job, as the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead knows, is that training does not happen every Thursday, and every call-out does not come on a Friday night; firefighters may be on call for the entire weekend because there is a major fire in Stroud, as there was recently, but then they may not be called out for another two or three weeks. That is fine if they have a sympathetic employer, but, too often, employers look at the bottom line, as we know in relation to the Territorial Army. We must find a way to protect people, so that we do not put them at risk. Instead, we must assure them that if they do this very valued job, we will give them the opportunity to enter the full-time service or to secure their employment in other ways. That is the key issue, and I do not want to get too hung up on the working time directive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate. The working time directive should prevent employers from exploiting workers by forcing them to work long hours, but it should not prevent workers, such as retained firefighters, from carrying out the vital, life-saving work of answering emergency calls, if that is what they want to do.

Retained and volunteer firefighters are one group whose work will be threatened if Britain loses its opt-out. In remote communities, emergency service work, such as firefighting, is carried out by local volunteers, and in those communities there is always a tremendous willingness to work together for the good of the community. There is never a lack of volunteers for emergency service work, such as firefighting, crewing the lifeboat, mountain rescue and so on.

It is right that retained firefighters should be rewarded—remuneration is part of the job—but in my experience that is not the main reason why people in remote communities volunteer for the retained fire service. They do not get high remuneration—serving the community is their main motivation. In my constituency, there are only two whole-time fire stations—in Oban and Helensburgh—and even they have retained crews as well as whole-time crews.

In addition to those two stations, there are 13 retained and 27 volunteer units. Given the size of my constituency and others in the highlands and islands, it would obviously take far too long for a fire brigade to get from fire stations such as those in Oban or Helensburgh to many outlying areas in the event of an emergency. In the case of the islands, it clearly would be totally impractical to send a unit from the mainland.

Does my hon. Friend agree that for island communities—he represents many—there is an added imperative because the presence of retained firefighters contributes to the ability to maintain lifeline air services to and from the island, particularly where the provision is very small planes?

My hon. Friend is right. Argyll and Bute council recently started air services to the small islands of Coll and Colonsay, but they would be completely impractical without volunteer firefighters.

As an example of the time it takes to get to a fire, a retained firefighter from Cove, which is in my constituency but is by no means in the remotest part, told me:

“Response time from Helensburgh to Cove is in the region of 40 minutes, whereas our retained crew has an average of a 4 minute response and will normally be mobile within 5 minutes.”

Sending a whole-time fire crew from the stations in the towns is completely impractical. Equally, it would be completely impractical to staff the 42 fire stations in my constituency with round-the-clock, full-time crews. Some of the hon. Members who have spoken in favour of Britain losing the opt-out have not come up with an alternative to the present system of using retained firefighters in the provision of a fire service for the highlands and islands.

As was explained earlier, retained firefighters do normal jobs as well as the job of a retained firefighter. On top of their ordinary job, they can be on call for up to 120 hours on what is termed inactive on-call. I accept that the proposals in the directive do not include inactive on-call in the number of hours that would be capped at 48, but all sorts of complicated formulas have been proposed by the European Parliament and none of them would allow retained firefighters to be on call for anything like the 120 hours that many are at present. Any of the formulas put forward by the European Parliament would simply make the whole retention system impractical.

As my hon. Friend said, in rural communities at present, the retained firefighter’s main employer is more than willing to allow time off for training and for fighting fires. However, in these difficult times, if restrictions were to be placed on the number of hours that the retained firefighter could work in their main job, many employers may reluctantly have to refuse them permission to carry on doing their firefighting job.

Many of the fire stations in my constituency are crewed by volunteer firefighters rather than retained ones. My understanding of the difference between a volunteer and a retained firefighter is that the volunteer does not get paid a retainer for inactive on-call, but they are still paid for the time that they spend training and responding to incidents. They, too, would be affected by the directive. The volunteer stations are on small islands or remote communities on the mainland. Again, it would be totally impractical to service them with whole-time crews.

In many rural communities, people volunteering for extra work over and above their main job is the only way that any of the emergency services can function. That is particularly true of the smaller islands, where most people do several jobs. It is the only way that a small island can function. The EU cannot be allowed to destroy years of traditional ways of working and saving lives throughout rural Britain. As other hon. Members have said, the present system works, so it should not be broken up.

The Government have my full support in their efforts to keep Britain’s opt-out, and I urge them to do all that they can to ensure that whatever comes out at the end of the negotiations means that our retained and volunteer firefighting services can continue working successfully, as they have for many years.

I shall make only a brief contribution. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, which has shown that the issue is not straightforward. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) outlined the complexities of the working time directive and its impacts.

Unlike other hon. Members, I have not been contacted by any of the councillors from the local administration in Dumfries and Galloway council, but perhaps that says more about my relationship with the Conservative-Scottish National party Administration than anything else. However, I have been asked why the working time directive is an issue. In the view of some people, there is no difference between a retained firefighter who works in a daily job and is called out on fire and rescue duties, and a whole-time firefighter who does a second job. I have tried to explain to people that the issue is just not that simple. We have to deal with the complexity of the working time directive.

I merely want to put on record the fact that the significance of retained firefighters to the Dumfries and Galloway region—not just my constituency—is there for all to see. There are 17 fire stations: one whole-time, 15 retained, and one auxiliary firefighting crew in the village of Drummore. More than 200 uniformed staff are based at the retained stations. As someone who was the chairman of the Dumfries and Galloway regional council public protection committee between 1990 and 1994, I very much value the job that those people do in our constituencies. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about those who employ retained firefighters, because the system would collapse if they were unable to release staff.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that if a rigid limit were imposed on the number of hours for which an employee is available to a primary employer, several employers, especially those in small and medium-sized enterprises, would be more likely to refuse permission to somebody who wishes to undertake service in the retained service?

I would not disagree with that, but, in agreeing with it, I would say that we need to deal with some of the complexities. It is good that we have two or three years’ breathing space, but we should not let this issue run for that period and achieve a solution at the 11th hour. We need to work with our colleagues in the European Parliament to determine how we might be able to secure an opt-out. I know that there is a commitment to retain as best we can—in some areas, at least—an opt-out that delivers the right working conditions and hours, and the family-friendly policies that we all want for workers in the UK. I know that work is continuing in respect of this matter, and I hope that the Minister and our colleagues and counterparts in the European Union can reach a conclusion well in advance of the 2012 deadline.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, whose importance is shown by the number of hon. Members who have attended the Chamber to speak, intervene or just listen. The matter was brought to our attention by the Retained Firefighters Union. I did a bit of homework and spoke to a number of people, as I am sure my hon. Friend did, and discovered that this was a real, live issue that was causing grave concern. That is why I tabled early-day motion 552, which sets out the concerns that have been expressed to me.

I have been accused this morning of scaremongering for tabling EDM 552, but I refute that suggestion, because I did so to reflect both the views of many of my constituents who are concerned about the fire service that they will have and the views of many retained fireman whom I know personally: they are friends of mine. I know exactly what those retained firemen do and the amount of training that they put in. I know how much they enjoy what they do and how much they like to be part of that service. The EDM was tabled to reflect their concern and that of the community. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having got off the mark far faster than me in securing this debate.

My hon. Friend stressed the importance of the work of retained firefighters overall and, naturally, as I do, stressed their importance in remote and rural areas. I confirm the comments that he made to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning): this is not about how the fire service is dealt with in rural areas as opposed to urban areas. The fact that we choose to stress the importance of the service in our remote and rural constituencies does nothing to gainsay the exceptional job that is done by retained firefighters in urban areas, where, as he has explained, they fulfil a vital role.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would permit me to emphasise that, in my constituency, for example, there is not one fire station that is wholly manned by whole-time firemen. The typical arrangement is for a full-time fireman to be in charge of the station, possibly with an assistant, with the rest of the teams—the crews—made up entirely of retained firemen who form the backbone. I believe that there are some 391 fire stations in Scotland, of which some 321 are manned by retained firemen. A statistic I always appreciate is that 91 per cent. of the landmass of the UK is covered wholly by retained firemen.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying the point on the urban and rural situation. Just to clarify things further, I have a very urban seat in Hemel Hempstead and a very rural constituency surrounding it. I only have one whole-time station: the rest are manned by retained firefighters. That shows exactly what can happen in and around London.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s clarification.

Over the years I have visited many fire stations, which provide a vital emergency service and do a great job. I do not think that a single hon. Member from any party in the Chamber would say anything other than that our fire services do a splendid job. I was most impressed, as I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, by the training facility of the highlands fire brigade at Invergordon. I visited that facility and observed the professionalism with which the training was given to everybody who passed through, including some of the volunteer firemen from community response units; that was of great interest to me and underlined how well all those firemen operate.

Hon. Members have asked whether there is a problem. All the sources to whom I have spoken indicated that a real problem is brewing. However, there is some confusion about the extent of the problem, which is why my hon. Friend called for this debate. There are three years to go until the impact of what is being discussed at the European Union will come into force and it is much better to discuss the matter now and seek a proper solution than, as my hon. Friend said, wait for three years to see how it pans out and deal with a problem when it arrives, rather than today. That is why I am looking to the Minister to give—I hope—some reassurance about how the Government are going to take this matter forward.

A number of Government Members sought to argue that this is all a matter of health and safety and that those of us involved in tabling the EDM or who brought forward the debate are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said that we should simply look at it the other way round. He then told us that in emergency situations, retained firefighters are exempt anyway, which struck me as rather curious, because if ever there was a moment when people needed health and safety I would have thought it would be in the middle of an emergency. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, in fact, he is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

I have never met a fireman who was not concerned about health and safety. Indeed, I have always been impressed by the way in which health and safety has been both inculcated in the fire service, how it has trained for it and the way in which it practises it. That is not the issue. The issue is that people want to volunteer to do something for their community, and they can do so in various ways. Some volunteer for charitable work. In a number of areas of charitable work individuals, not least the sea cadets and others, spend a considerable number of hours undertaking dangerous work on the sea, for example, and nobody says that they should not do it because they have already worked 40 or 44 hours in their main job—we would not think of doing so. We have to understand that people choose to volunteer for certain exercises, and limiting that where there is a good system for health and safety in place—with the consequences that that might deliver—is looking at this matter from the wrong direction.

I should like to read a letter from a retained fireman, which goes to the point about volunteering:

“Although fully paid-up by the Fire & Rescue Service, it can be argued that we volunteer to do this work. The primary motivation for the vast majority of RDS personnel is a love of the job coupled with a genuine desire to help make our communities as safe as possible within our remit. No one asks us to do this difficult and demanding job, and the pay is relatively modest for what we commit to do.”

That sums up the attitude of the people who are there and working as retained firemen.

The silly thing is that if a retained fireman who was an agricultural employee and worked for the fire service, as often happens in my constituency, was called out to a major muirburn fire—if he were to heed the call, don his kit and safety gear at the station and work under the auspices of the trained leadership that he enjoyed—he would be subject to a limit on the number of hours he could work. However, if he went straight to the fire without obeying a call to go to the station, remained in civilian clothes and did not use any of the fire service’s equipment, but was one of the many civilian volunteers who always turn out, he could work as long as he liked. That is completely back to front; it is the wrong way to do it.

I urge hon. Members to take into account the voluntary nature of the work, the excellent training in health and safety that is given and the fact that the full-time officers understand and take care of the men under their command. I suggest that this is one of those unintended consequences that are the result of so much legislation, particularly from Europe. I say to the Minister that this is an unintended consequence that we need to deal with, so will the Government do so?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, and I agree with much of what he said about the retained firefighter system. The debate has benefited hugely from the input and expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), but I do not agree with the hon Gentleman’ core contention that the issue is not the working time directive—it is the core of the debate. This is a key time in the destructive history of the directive, so it is a timely debate.

The working time directive requires employers to take reasonable steps to ensure that workers do not work more than 48 hours a week, averaged over four months. Despite that, workers may currently opt out of the 48-hour limit on the working week. For workers who opt to derogate from the 48-hour limit, the common position adopted by the Council of Ministers in 2008 lays down a maximum of 60 hours’ work a week, averaged over three months. That may be increased to an average of 65 hours over three months when there is no collective bargaining agreement and when an inactive period of on-call time is regarded as working time. Inactive on-call time is a period in which a worker is on call but is not required by his employer to work, as opposed to active on-call time, which is a period in which the worker must be available at the workplace to work when required to do so by the employer.

There is not enough time to discuss the wider issue of the working time directive. I would have liked to address the points made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), but I shall simply say that for us the evil is not allowing people to work when they want to do so. The opt-out provision, which enables key workers to be available for longer hours as and when necessary, is flexible, and for workers who undertake potentially life-saving work, such as firefighters, that is extremely important. However, in December last year, the European Parliament voted to abolish the opt-out provisions, which have been widely used in the UK. The new category of “inactive” on-call time, approved by the Council and the Commission, was disapproved by the European Parliament. Consequently, there is a possibility that the ability to opt out will be abolished, contrary to the common-sense approach currently in place and developed by the common position. If implemented in the UK, there will be an across-the-board limit of 48 hours with no concession for inactive on-call time. That appalling position was strongly supported by the unions and, unbelievably, voted for by Labour MEPs over whom the Labour leadership seem to have lost control. The impact on the retained duty system is significant.

The background is important. Retained-duty firefighters respond to calls on a needs-only basis. They are often fully employed in other occupations, and their commitment as firefighters is typically part-time. They are indeed a valuable part of society, and a national asset, as many hon. Members have said. They are a crucial supplement to the full-time force. They are qualified to deal with the full range of everyday emergencies, and statistically the system covers 30 per cent. of all firefighters. Indeed, only 96 stations are wholly staffed by full-time firefighters, which gives a great deal of support to the point made by my hon. Friend that the debate is not a city-rural debate.

Retained firefighters play a crucial role in communities throughout the United Kingdom, and their flexibility is a particular strength. The rules reflect that importance, and allow a more flexible interpretation of the regulations, but as a result of the vote by the European Parliament on 17 December, we risk damaging that vital lifeline. In the current political climate, which is overshadowed by terrorism, it seems perverse that we are putting vital security and safety services under threat. Unfortunately, it is not only in the specific case of firefighters that the proposals will have an impact. Even without the implementation of these proposals, the directive has placed a great burden on businesses and service providers throughout the UK. Preventing people from exercising their ability to opt out of the 48-hour week would make things far worse for thousands of hard-working firefighters and many other employees in valuable employment. Unemployment is expected to reach a 12-year high without this extra legislation. For firefighters particularly, any justification for ending the opt-out rings hollow. The issue is not one of heath and safety—some Labour Members suggested that it was—as the Retained Firefighters Union confirmed:

“Appropriate management within the Fire Service has ensured that our members do not work excessive hours with any negative impact on their Health, Safety and Welfare. There are arrangements in place to relieve crews at protracted incidents”.

That being the case, the legislation serves no valid purpose, and is in fact counter-productive, denying retained firefighters and others vital work. The Minister with responsibility for fire and rescue, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) confirmed those fears and, to be fair, only last month said:

“Application of the working time directive, by setting a 48-hour maximum to the working week, would be likely to 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, places 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.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 1076W.]

Will the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs tell us whether that is still the position? He, too, has said in my presence, that the Government place great importance on retaining the opt-out, but that is what the Government said for six years about the temporary and agency workers directive until they folded under the great weight of the unions. Will he give us the comfort that this time they really intend to hold their ground, and can he persuade us that the nonsense emanating from his MEP colleagues and the unions is all smoke and no fire?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. The issue is important, and in the time available I want to deal with two aspects of it: the importance of the retained firefighting service, and updating the House generally on the working time directive and the individual opt-out, which is at the heart of the difficulties that he and other hon. Members have raised this morning.

We have heard about the importance of the retained firefighting service as part of the overall fire and rescue service in the United Kingdom, and I endorse the comments of support, gratitude and appreciation for the role that the retained fire service plays. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), with his first-hand experience as a firefighter, told us how the full-time and retained services operate together. On the working hours of retained firefighters, my information is that about 10 per cent. of firefighters who work in the retained duty system already work 49 hours or more for their primary employer, and a further 25 per cent. work between 41 and 48 hours. It is clear what effect the opt-out could have on that group of workers.

One benefit of the debate is that although we have concentrated on a particular service and a particular sector, it shows the sort of impact—it has not been brought out properly in other debates—of simply adopting the European Parliament’s amendments to get rid of the opt-out and of not dealing properly with European Court judgments on inactive, on-call time, and the effect of that on our labour market. I shall explain the Government’s position. First, the opt-out from the 48-hour week is sometimes referred to as a UK opt-out. That is not so. The European Commission estimates that 14 or 15 member states use the opt-out. It is not a British issue, but extends throughout the European Union, as I know from my regular discussions with other employment and social affairs Ministers.

In June last year, we reached agreement in the Council of Ministers on a common position, which would have retained the opt-out and would have also dealt with the issue of on-call time, which has caused difficulty in a number of services, particularly health and social care, where residential on-call—that is at the heart of those judgments—has caused problems in shift patterns and so on. We were able to reach that agreement, precisely because it was not just a UK issue. We had the support of the majority in the Council of Ministers. The European Parliament amendments, to which the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) referred, were then introduced, and there is a process called conciliation between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament to try to reach a solution.

The UK Government’s position has not changed. It is our aim, in the process of conciliation, to secure the future of the opt-out. Throughout the discussions, one thing that we have stressed is that it is a matter of choice for the individual and for member states. It is important, in European legislation on these issues, that we respect the different labour markets that operate in the 27 member states and that there is a choice. We have stressed that throughout the negotiations. That does not mean that we were not prepared to support change in the way in which the opt-out worked. For example, we were happy to support a position whereby the opt-out would not be signed at the same time as an employment contract, so that people could be assured that it was a genuine choice, because choice is important. We were happy for workers to renew their agreement to the opt-out periodically, making it clear that it is a matter of choice. However, with those changes, we have made it clear that we want to retain the opt-out. I was asked whether that was still the Government’s position, and it is.

Let me deal with the issue of health and safety. The working time directive has been in operation in the UK for a number of years, with the opt-out as part of it. Some 3 million workers in the UK regularly work more than 48 hours a week, and we do not have a worse health and safety record than other countries. In fact, the UK has the lowest rate of work-related fatal injuries and the third-lowest rate of non-fatal injuries, according to recent surveys of EU member states. Compared with many other countries, we have a low proportion of those in employment reporting that work affects their health or causes them to suffer stress. In fact, since the working time directive was introduced, the proportion of UK full-time employees working longer hours has fallen by about one fifth, so it is not the case that there is a longer and longer working hours culture in the UK. The proportion of people working long hours has fallen, but we want to retain that important flexibility for workers.

This is not just about retained firefighters; it is also a matter of choice for workers in other areas. Let us say that during the downturn, one partner in a married couple loses their job. I want the other partner in that relationship to retain the choice to increase their hours, if possible, increase their earning power and help to keep mortgage, home and family together. It is important that people have the right to choose their working hours. That is why the Government intend to do what they can to retain the opt-out.

We are in the conciliation process. We are arguing for the retention of the opt-out and we will maintain that position during the current negotiations. The Government’s position has been consistent throughout, not only because of the retained firefighter service, which has been stressed in the debate today, but because of wider reasons relating to the economy. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead asked about sectoral opt-outs and specific changes. The view that we have advanced is that the opt-out is widely used across the economy and a sector-by-sector approach would not give us the same flexibility. We believe that we should retain a wider choice in relation to the opt-out.

The Minister has made a very powerful argument and I think that he has reassured us about the Government’s commitment. Given that the current Commission reaches the end of its life in a few months, and given the impasse between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, does he have any indication of whether there will be an agreement or whether we might have to negotiate the whole process again?

We would like to reach an agreement that preserves the opt-out. There are scheduled time scales built into the conciliation process of six weeks for this process and eight weeks for that process, so it should be possible to reach agreement before the present Commission and European Parliament reach the end of their life in a few months, but of course there is a danger that if we cannot reach agreement, the directive will fall. That is not the Government’s intention. We would like to reach agreement. This issue has been hanging over Europe for six years, but we want to reach the right agreement for the UK.

To pick up on what the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, when it came to agency workers, the reason why we were able to sign the directive in the end was that we negotiated an agreement that gave us the flexibility that earlier drafts of the agreement did not. We did not simply sign the draft that had been put in front of us in the past; we negotiated an agreement that suited the UK. We want to retain the opt-out. It is important to stress that, while the negotiations are going on, a sudden change will not occur in UK workers’ hours. If there is an impression that that is about to happen, it is mistaken. Nothing will happen in the short term. In the immediate future, our priority is to negotiate a deal in Europe that continues to offer choice for individual workers and choice for member states about how they implement the provisions on working hours. We have argued for that throughout and we will keep arguing for it in the negotiations.

Sitting suspended.