I have received a number of written representations about the potential impact on firefighters working a retained duty system of the abolition of the working time directive opt-out, including from hon. Members, Members of the Scottish Parliament, and the Retained Firefighters Union. I also had a meeting with the president and national general secretary of the RFU earlier this month at which the loss of the opt-out was discussed. I have also received representations from members of the Local Government Association fire services forum and others.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. In my constituency of Forest of Dean our fire service is provided solely by retained firefighters. I have had the opportunity to go on a training exercise with those based in Cinderford to see their excellent work. Given the importance of that opt-out, without which the Chief Fire Officers Association has said the retained service could not function, why have Labour MEPs been voting against retaining it, thereby letting down the people of my constituency and our country?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that retained firefighters do an invaluable job. He referred to his rural constituency, but there are 17 fire and rescue authorities where retained firefighters comprise more than 50 per cent. of the operational work force. The Government take the possibility of the opt-out very seriously. We are in conciliation talks with the European Commission, representatives of the European Parliament and the presidency, which represents the Council of Ministers, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the next round of conciliation talks is set for 23 April and we are keen to ensure we have the proper resilience arrangements in place by keeping the opt-out.
I am pleased to hear that the Government are at least trying to keep the opt-out, because it is vital in constituencies such as mine—fire stations in places such as Shepshed rely totally on a retained fire service crew, and they do a fantastic job. Can the Minister assure us that he will battle for that service? Can he also indicate to the House the likelihood of his being successful on 23 April? If he is unsuccessful, what further steps will we be able to take to ensure that our retained firefighters continue to do an excellent job right across the country?
Let me put my hon. Friend’s comments into context. He will be aware that, geographically speaking, 90 per cent. of the country is served by retained firefighters. We understand their importance and the role that they play, which is why we have been robust in the conciliation talks. He will be pleased to hear that, as I have said, the next round of talks will take place on 23 April, and that an agreement must be reached by the first week of May or the dossier and the amendments voted in December will fall.
The Minister is clearly trying to deal with this matter in a very sensitive and realistic way, but does not this whole issue of retained firemen—there are a number in my constituency and they play a vital and valuable role in the fire and rescue service—show that it is inappropriate for such matters to be dealt with on a Europe-wide basis, given that the culture and practices in this country can be very different from those in other countries of the European Union? Will he give a guarantee today that we will continue to exercise the opt-out?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the UK Government will not accept any amendment that phases out the opt-out or implies that it will be phased out. This is a crucial priority not only for the UK Government, but for many other member states that use the opt-out and have been very important allies to the UK Government.
The Minister conveniently body-swerved the very direct substantive question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). The House will know that on December 13 Labour MEPs voted to abandon the UK’s opt-out from the working time directive—the Chief Fire Officers Association has said that such a policy would mean that the fire service could not function effectively. Does the Minister accept that as his party is completely divided on this issue and its MEPs are voting against our national interest, the UK’s negotiating position is weaker as a consequence of that split?
The UK Government are committed to defending the opt-out and other flexibilities in the common position agreed by the Council of Ministers last June. We would like an agreement to be reached—as I said, the next round of talks is on 23 April—but not at any price. I have indicated our views on the opt-out, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware from an earlier conversation between us of the respect that I have for retained firefighters. They do an invaluable job, and the fire and rescue authorities around the country would not be able to do their fantastic job without them.