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Contingency Arrangements (Fire Service)

Volume 498: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009

1. What role his Department plays in making contingency arrangements in the event of industrial action by the fire service. (295520)

The making of contingency arrangements for emergencies, including industrial action, is the statutory duty of individual fire and rescue authorities.

As a member of a fire service family, I know that nobody joins the fire service to earn a lot of money; they do it because they believe that it is a very important public service. In an answer to a previous question, the then Minister indicated that his Department did not keep copies of existing contingency plans, which must vary widely from one authority to another. Will the Minister therefore take a view on whether firefighters should be obliged to cross the picket lines of another fire and rescue authority?

I do not follow the connection between the main part of the hon. Lady’s question and the second part. Fire plans are the responsibility of the fire and rescue authorities. The Audit Commission reviews those plans, as it reviews other things covered by the comprehensive performance assessment—of course, we are always in close contact with the Chief Fire Officers Association on those issues.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, in protecting the lives of our constituents, firefighters provide a service that is second to none in this country, and we congratulate them—the number of them who have died in recent years is a tribute to the sacrifice that is made. The Secretary of State will be aware also of the recent dispute in South Yorkshire, which arose as a result of management seeking to impose new work schedules and conditions on firefighters, so will he join me in urging management to seek a negotiated settlement rather than provoking industrial action?

I join my hon. Friend and, indeed, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who asked the first question, in paying tribute to firefighters and the role that they play. Under all such circumstances, including the one to which my hon. Friend has referred, negotiated ways forward are preferable, and mechanisms exist through which arbitration, mediation and conciliation should and could be explored.

I begin by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) to her new Front-Bench role. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the event of fire service strikes, there are no contingency vehicles, because the green goddesses have been sold off to places such as Albania and Peru, and that there are no contingency contracts outside London, because of the collapse of Project Fireguard? The Secretary of State seems unaware that his predecessor told me that no contingency plan was held at the centre, which surely cannot be an adequate state of affairs.

The hon. Lady is well aware that the responsibility for contingency plans lies with the fire and rescue authorities, and a moment ago I explained the relationship between central Government and that responsibility. It is perfectly true that the world has moved on since the era of the green goddesses, when the armed forces were expected to step in and provide nationally organised contingency cover. I always regret any local disputes that arise, but in those circumstances we have seen the use of locally made contingency arrangements, and, as far as I have been able to tell, they have operated satisfactorily.

Nothing seems to exist, therefore, at the centre. As the threat of fire service strikes continues, our country faces a winter of discontent, with rubbish piling up in the streets and Christmas post gathering dust in sorting offices. With no leadership and no authority, this Government have become a sitting target for their union paymasters, so will the Secretary of State now accept that in the event of further fire service strikes, contingency staff must be allowed to cross the picket lines?

The hon. Lady would obviously like there to be such a winter, because she would love to see anything that might damage this country. However, a decision was taken quite deliberately a number of years ago to make it clear that responsibility for contingency cover lay locally with the fire and rescue authorities, and that is the strategy that has been pursued. Based on that strategy, the Audit Commission reviews the quality of the arrangements that are in place, and we have a close relationship with the chief fire officers. I must say that, in so far as I can see, the strategy of local responsibility for contingency arrangements is the correct one.

Reference has been made to the dispute in South Yorkshire, where we have had one day’s strike and more are threatened. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that, however good the contingency arrangements, they cannot give the public the same protection as a fully functioning fire service. Will he therefore publicly encourage both sides to take a step backwards, the management to withdraw their highly controversial dismissal notices, the unions to withdraw their threat of strike action and both to go together to the joint secretaries, with the possible help of ACAS, to try to get a considered, negotiated settlement?

My hon. Friend makes a good point in a measured way. As I said earlier, there are various routes—he mentioned two, and there may even be others—that would lead to arbitration, mediation and conciliation, with the opportunity for both sides to find a way forward that avoids the need for industrial action.