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Firefighters (Industrial Action)

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 26 October 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) if he will make a statement on what the Government are doing to halt the dangerous situation in prospect in London of industrial action by firefighters over the bonfire period.

As the hon. Gentleman knows from his own long experience of the fire service, the management of industrial disputes in the fire and rescue service is a matter for the fire and rescue authority concerned. The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority holds the statutory duty to have plans in place to deal with such disruption. London has met this requirement by putting in place a contingency arrangement through a contract with a company, AssetCo.

I am retaining a close interest in the situation and I am in regular contact with the interested parties. I have emphasised that this dispute should be settled through negotiation. I understand that discussions are continuing, and I urge all concerned to find a solution to this disruptive action.

It is not the role of Government to intervene in the details of these negotiations. However, I would like to put on record my alarm and distress at the intimidation and bullying on the picket lines against AssetCo staff. At any time, abuse and violence against any front-line public servant, be they ambulance staff, firefighters or police officers, is never justified. I am shocked that it would appear that some trade union militants are now attempting to intimidate those providing an emergency service.

I have also made it clear that I find the threat of industrial action over the bonfire night period disgraceful. It is made worse by the fact that in this most diverse of cities, it will also be Diwali. When Londoners will be trying to enjoy those events, I am sorry that it seems that the Fire Brigades Union will be working actively to maximise the risk to them. Not only is the safety of families being put at risk, but the union is crudely attempting to put pressure on community groups to cancel their firework celebrations. I really am sorry to have to say that such behaviour is reckless and cynical and does no credit to the fire service. The service has great traditions, and I am sorry that they have been let down in this manner. The public will not think it a responsible way of conducting industrial action in the 21st century. They will see it for what it is: old-fashioned militant muscle-flexing.

I thank the Minister for his response to my question and for the answer to my letter of 15 October, which arrived two hours ago by e-mail.

I agree that no one wants to see the strikes, but the House should remember that when such strikes take place, the firefighters’ loved ones are in as much danger as the rest of their community. No one takes these decisions lightly, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, I know, because I have been there.

What is Mayor Johnson doing to try to resolve the dispute? Can the Minister confirm that new shift patterns have been agreed in other parts of the country after negotiation by the Fire Brigades Union with chief fire officers and local councils, and can he tell us why he thinks London is different? Does he think that the use of dismissal notices is an appropriate way to conduct negotiations? And, will he seek to ensure that Mayor Johnson and ACAS get involved to defuse the situation?

The threat of strike action on 5 November, Guy Fawkes night and Diwali has caught everyone’s attention and been criticised by all, but the next strike is planned for Monday 1 November, in six days’ time. Can the Minister assure us that his senior advisers and officials will do all that they can to get the key players first into the same building, then into the same room, and will keep them there until an agreement is hammered out? The public want to see the situation sorted. They want to see a real effort by the Government, the Mayor, the fire authority and the union. They want a resolution, and they want to see fire crews on duty, protecting us as they always do, not on picket lines.

As I said in my first response, the statutory duty to provide fire and rescue services and proper contingency arrangements lies with the fire and rescue authority, in this case the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which is of course appointed by and answerable to the Mayor of London. The Mayor has issued a statement today in which he expresses his confidence that appropriate contingency arrangements are in place, and I trust him and the fire authority to deal with that.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that any dispute that reaches this stage is very regrettable. However, it is worth bearing in mind, first, that there have been changes to shift patterns elsewhere in the country; secondly, that there have been protracted negotiations over many years in relation to the London situation; thirdly, that although dismissal notices have been used, the fire authority intends to offer to re-employ all its staff on fresh contracts, so nobody need lose jobs or pay; and finally, and perhaps significantly, the fire authority chairman has pointed out how the employers’ side offered and suggested a meeting of the national negotiators on that very day, 5 November. Instead of accepting that offer, the union, I very much regret to say, chose to call a strike for that day.

I thank the Minister for updating the House on the situation.

Any strike by the fire service is obviously a very serious matter and one that the public will understandably and justifiably be concerned about. We understand that concern, and our position is absolutely clear. Bonfire night is one of the busiest periods in the year for the fire service and will in all likelihood be even busier this year, as Diwali falls on the same date. Whatever the issues surrounding the proposed new shift patterns and contracts, a strike by the fire service on bonfire night would potentially put Londoners at risk. It is not supported by the public, and it does not have our support either. The public will rightly expect both sides in this dispute to do everything that they can to avoid an unnecessary strike. We urge both sides to sit down and talk to each other to reach an agreement as soon as possible.

Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), may I tell the Minister that he has our support in seeking a resolution to this dispute as soon as possible? What discussions has he had with the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the Fire Brigades Union and the Mayor of London to encourage all parties to come together to reach an agreement?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support and for those observations and I am sure that everyone will welcome the condemnation implicit in his statements of some of the behaviour that we saw. He is right to say that there is scope to decide when a strike takes place and choosing 5 November was especially inappropriate in the circumstances. I hope that his condemnation of that decision will extend to a condemnation of the intimidation of those people who sought to provide cover in London on Saturday.

I have made it clear from the beginning that I hope that this will be settled by negotiation because it is best dealt with at a local level. I do not believe that Ministers intervening in the detail of that negotiation would be appropriate, but we have made it clear that our officials are in contact with the parties. The chief fire and rescue adviser has kept me apprised of all the developments throughout the recent deterioration in the circumstances and will continue to do so. Of course, he continues to receive information from all the interested parties.

Things need not happen this way, and I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s words that the Opposition do not wish things to happen this way. I hope that we can say that both sides of the House conclude that this is not a mature way to deal with a dispute that involves a critical service. I hope that we can achieve a resolution and, above all, I hope that we will not see Londoners put at risk on an especially high-risk day. That would be a regrettable bit of brinkmanship, and that is why I have used the strong language that I have—it reflects the views of the public on the way in which they have been used in this matter.

Voters in my constituency are looking forward to celebrating Diwali and Guy Fawkes night on 5 November. Does my hon. Friend agree that five years is long enough to negotiate shift roster patterns? Is it not time that we considered reviewing whether no-strike arrangements should be introduced for the fire service nationally?

Having said to the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) that I do not think that it is appropriate for the Government to be involved in the detailed negotiations, which are best dealt with between the employers and employees, I shall not respond any differently to my hon. Friend. However, I understand the point that he makes, and it is worth reminding people that this is not something that has happened out of the blue. There has been a long build-up to this and there is a sense of frustration. I do not think that the Government have any plans to change the overall framework of industrial relations, but I want to ensure that we encourage the parties concerned to reach a resolution. My priority is to ensure that appropriate contingency arrangements are in place to keep Londoners safe in the event of this happening—and I am sure that that is the case. We must also ensure that we review those contingency arrangements and keep them up to date across the country as a whole.

Does the Minister agree—he is a fairly reasonable man—that it was reckless of the London fire commissioner to serve the notices to make people redundant? Does the Minister realise that this is not now about shift patterns? Most of the firemen and women whom I met on the picket lines when I went to talk to them in my constituency at the weekend are happy to discuss that issue, but they want the threat of redundancy—which has been brought in, but not for a very long time—to be withdrawn. Can the Minister intervene with the commission and the chairman of the LFEPA to get those threats withdrawn, to get round the table and to get this settled before next Monday?

Two points arise from the hon. Lady’s question. First, it is scarcely appropriate, if we believe in trusting locally elected representatives, for Ministers to seek to micro-manage the negotiations. The people involved, at the London level, on both sides of the dispute are mature and experienced people, and I hope that they will be best placed to resolve it. Secondly, the issue of the dismissal notices sometimes arises in industrial relations disputes. It has not happened in the context of the fire brigade before, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) observed, this situation did not arise suddenly, but at the end of a protracted five-year negotiation. I am not saying what tactics the parties should use, but the lengthy context has to be borne in mind.

As somebody who has in their constituency the London fire brigade headquarters, three fire stations and a fire training centre, and who has met both management and the unions in the past fortnight, may I ask that the message be passed on, first, that most fire officers are really keen that there be a resolution, because they do not want to go on strike, and secondly that on the shift patterns, there is not much objective distance between the management and the unions? It should be capable of resolution. I want to add my voice to those who say that there is a way forward by negotiation rather than this clearly unwanted industrial action, which would affect the whole city.

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is perhaps significant that the management side adjusted its offer and was prepared to change, to some degree, the extent of the alteration of the hours to reflect earlier discussions. I hope that that will be the spirit in which the negotiations are taken forward.

Over the weekend, there was a fire in Enfield in which a house burned to the ground, and there are serious suggestions that the stand-in fire officers who turned up pointed their hose in the wrong direction. Will the Minister say more about the contingency arrangements, and will he also say what his assessment is of fire services in London, given the 13% cut in the spending review?

I have been acquainted with the reports on the Enfield incident. The chief fire and rescue adviser liaised with the commissioner on that matter. Sadly, I have also been acquainted with reports—in some cases, documented on camera—of the harassment that the crews endeavouring to provide cover had to suffer. They had to do a job under extremely difficult—frankly, unacceptably difficult—circumstances. We want to ensure the best possible standards of cover, and we condemn anyone who seeks to undermine the cover that people attempt to provide. I am satisfied that the London fire brigade—I know it well, as does the right hon. Gentleman—operates to the highest professional standards and will do its level best, despite the difficulties, to make arrangements available. Those arrangements are made via the contract with AssetCo, which is a company with considerable experience in the fire service field, and involve the provision of services using up-to-date fire brigade equipment and persons trained to use that equipment.

I know that the Minister shares my concern about reports from the BBC and elsewhere about engines being stopped by picket lines during last Saturday’s strike. Will he reassure us again that the Government will do all they can to support emergency crews who do want to work, and to stop any intimidation and harassment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It cannot be acceptable, whatever the situation or dispute, for fire engines attending to a call to be forced to pull over to the side of the road by people who have pursued them on motorbikes, in cars and sometimes in black taxi cabs, for their water tanks to be emptied to render them useless, and for equipment to be removed, and nor is it acceptable for threatening text messages to be sent to people trying to work. That is utterly unacceptable behaviour, and I am sure that every Member finds it revolting. Of course, the Government will do all they can. I know that the fire commissioner is liaising with the police commissioner. The police endeavour to give appropriate support, but of course, given the nature of things, their resources are stretched as well. I am confident, however, that the Metropolitan police will give all appropriate support to those who are working to carry out a statutory duty.

Does the Minister not understand the anger of firefighters—who have kept this city safe for so long, and whom we all rely on and applaud when they put fires out and make places safe—when they are sent dismissal notices and are told that they have to accept a new contract without any negotiation, and when we have a Mayor who refuses to meet them and a Minister who is apparently not even prepared to meet the Mayor to discuss a resolution? Can the Minister not use this opportunity today to send a message to the Mayor and the chair of the fire authority to meet the union now, and come to an agreement that does not involve the wholesale dismissal of loyal public sector workers who have kept this city safe for so long?

The context of my response has already been set out. It is quite clear that the dismissal notices, which are not issued lightly, came only at the end of negotiations that have gone on for something like five years. I am not going to start lecturing the Mayor of London on how to conduct matters, particularly when the management side on the fire authority has suggested that there should be negotiations through the recognised national negotiating body on 5 November. I would have hoped that the union would take up that offer, but instead it chose to call a strike. Perhaps the best people to advise, therefore, are those in the union, who should be asked why they are not taking up the offer and getting round the table on 5 November, rather than walking out.

I do not think that there is any evidence to suggest that the contingency resources will fail. The important thing is to ensure that no impediment is put in the way of those operating the contingency resources, to ensure that they do just that. Under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, the legal duty to ensure that those resources are in place rests with the fire authority, to which we offer advice and assistance in carrying out that duty. The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority has chosen to meet those statutory requirements through the contract that it has. It has operated satisfactorily, despite the difficultly on Saturday, and I am sure that the authority is refining its operation in the event that it should be necessary on a future occasion.

Only a few months ago, I came to this House with the families of FBU members who had given their lives to save members of the public. The FBU does not take industrial action lightly, and it is taking it only because unacceptable statements have been made, such as statements about five years of negotiations. Negotiations started two months ago, and then unprecedentedly, as the Minister said, all FBU members in London were threatened with the sack if they did not sign up to new contracts. The situation now is that the Mayor refuses to intervene, while the leader of the authority—whom the Audit Commission has described as confrontational, and his colleagues describe as, at times, hysterical in his approach to the issues—is aggravating the situation. Therefore, I believe that it now behoves the Minister to intervene to save us from the dispute and to bring both sides together to ensure a negotiated settlement; otherwise lives will be put at risk not by the FBU, but by this Government and their representatives on the fire authority.

Ultimately, I am afraid, the risk to life is caused by those who chose to strike on that particular date. I am afraid that I just cannot accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition that what has happened comes outside that context. I do not believe that such decisions are taken lightly, but I have to say—and I say it again—that I regret that the FBU has made such a serious misjudgment on the timing and calling of the strike. I repeat: discussions have been going on for upwards of five years to try to resolve the matter—they have been on-off—and I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed to say that what has happened has been suddenly plucked out of the air, in isolation.

I do not intend to lecture the statutorily responsible bodies, which are democratically elected and accountable, on how they carry out their job, particularly when they have made an offer to negotiate that has apparently been rejected on the very day that they could have been sitting round the table. The best thing that the hon. Gentleman could do is use his good offices and contacts in the union to persuade them to get back round the table on 5 November, and if not hopefully before that.

The Minister will know that I have championed the cause of firefighters in my constituency. As a member of the all-party fire safety and rescue group, I want to ask him about the cynical decision to hold a strike on bonfire night, when the number of incidents is sometimes double or triple what it usually is. Will he work with the Opposition to bring forward emergency legislation to stop the strike on bonfire night?

With every respect to my hon. Friend, whose interest in the matter I acknowledge, I do not think that the introduction of emergency legislation will help to resolve a difficult scenario. We need to ensure that we make some serious progress. However, I want to take this opportunity to say that I stand second to none in my respect and admiration for the fire service and for the men and women who work it up. I have been involved with it, in the various forms of my public life, for the best part of 25 years, which is why I am so saddened that the leadership of the union has so badly misjudged the timing of this dispute and let down the brave men and women among its membership.

Is it not clear that the lamentable settlement that the Minister achieved in the spending review will result in cutbacks not just in London but across the rest of the country, and that that will lead to disagreements and disputes fanning out everywhere? For instance, is he happy about reports that the number of fire engine appliances in Nottinghamshire is to go down from36 to 30?

The attempt by the hon. Gentleman to distract us from the immediate situation in London by making reference to the spending review does him little credit and is frankly unworthy of the seriousness of the situation. This dispute was in existence long before the spending review took place, and I hope that he will concentrate on resolving it. We can have debates about the spending review in more appropriate circumstances.

I speak as a former member of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority and as only the second graduate of the parliamentary firefighters scheme. I congratulate the Minister on his robust line, which better represents the public than the hard-left leadership of the Fire Brigades Union. Is it not a fact that the previous Labour Administration allowed the Fireguard resilience planning programme to fail? Will my hon. Friend give the House an undertaking that he will work with the Chief Fire Officers Association and other key stakeholders to ensure that resilience planning is in place, particularly in the run-up to the Olympics, so that we can be prepared for any further industrial action and other eventualities?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest and expertise in these matters. He is right to say that Fireguard did not succeed; that leaves a limited number of options available to us. It is also fair to say that, since becoming a Minister, I have made it my business to keep in contact with all the principal players, including the Chief Fire Officers Association and the union, whose general secretary and assistant secretary I have met on a number of occasions. I want to put it on record that my door remains open to them as much as to anyone else.

The Audit Commission recently reported on resilience, and it is important that we should never be complacent about it. That applies right across the country. The chief fire and rescue adviser, together with officials in the Department, continue to keep in touch with the fire authorities to ensure that we review and maximise the resilience arrangements that are available to the fire and rescue authorities.