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The Fire Service: Threatened Strike

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 9 November 1977

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3.40 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"In September the Fire Brigades Union submitted a claim to the National Joint Council for local authorities' fire brigades. The claim is that the qualified fireman should be paid an annual salary equivalent to a total of the average weekly earnings of adult male workers, plus 10 per cent. to take account of the skills and dangers inherent in their duties. This would mean an increase of about 30 per cent. Similar increases would be sought for other members of the Service up to and including sub-officer.

"On 3rd November the employers' side of the National Joint Council made a three part offer. This was:
  • (a) to increase earnings by 10 per cent. from 7th November 1977;
  • (b) to continue discussions on the appropriate future position of firemen in the national pay structure; and
  • (c) to continue discussions on a reduction in the working week from the present 48 hours.
  • "At a recalled delegate conference of the union held at Eastbourne on 7th November the executive council of the union recommended that conference should approve negotiations continuing within this framework and that the outcome should be reported back to a further recalled conference within a few weeks. This recommendation was rejected by conference and a resolution was carried calling for strike action to begin on Monday 14th November in the event of failure to settle the union's claim before that date.

    "The Secretary of State for Scotland and I met representatives of the employers' side and of the union yesterday. We reaffirmed that there could be no question of any settlement with effect from 7th November which was not within the limits of the Government's guidelines on pay. We made it clear again that the Government recognised the need to establish a formula for determining Fire Service pay. We welcomed the fact that the National Joint Council was seeking through established negotiating procedures to achieve this. We said again that the Government would closely follow discussion on this subject in the National Joint Council, though the phasing of any further pay increase would have to be considered in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time. We also repeated that the Government recognised that there was a long standing claim for a reduction in the 48 hour working week of the firemen and would now be prepared for a reduction in working hours to be negotiated. It would not be possible to implement any reduction before the autumn of 1978 although preparation, including the recruitment of additional firemen for training, could begin before then.

    "We urged yesterday that discussions on both of these issues should continue without delay. The two sides assured us that they would.

    "The Secretary of State for Scotland and I told those who came to see us yesterday that we stood ready to meet representatives of the National Joint Council at any time.

    "It is the Government's duty to do all that it can to protect life and property in the situation which faces us. We have made preparations to this end. Plans have been prepared by central Government and by fire authorities, with the Services, and will be ready to put into operation on 14th November. Emergency fire appliances are being made available to fire authorities and Servicemen are being specially trained to man them. With this assistance fire authorities will provide the best possible fire cover.

    "We are issuing guidance through Government Departments and local authorities on the precautions to be taken in factories, schools, hospitals, old people's homes and so on, and we shall issue advice to the public about precautions to take in their homes. I understand from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that similar arrangements would be made in Northern Ireland should that he necessary.

    "With the best that all of us can do by way of these precautions I am under no illusions that they can match the fire cover provided by the regular Fire Service. There remains risk of serious loss of life and damage to property. The serious consequences that must follow any national strike in the Fire Service are incalculable.

    "In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I recognise how much we all depend on the Fire Service, and on the willingness of its members to turn out at the call of duty and face the difficulties and dangers their work involves. I share the wish of the Fire Brigades Union and its members to see their pay based on a formula which recognises their value to the community. I want to see discussions of that and of a reduction in the working week pressed forward. I can understand that firemen feel that they have waited a long time. None the less, I ask them, even at this late date, to think again.

    "An immediate increase of 10 per cent. in earnings is on the table. Firemen will share in the benefits that will come to all of us from the maintenance of the guidelines on pay. The discussions on a pay formula and on reduction of the working week hold out, for the first time, great and long looked for promise for the future. I ask the members of the union to weigh the benefits to them of what is on offer, and the disasters and tragedies which may be the consequence of a strike."

    3.46 p.m.

    My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for repeating this very serious Statement, which none of us can have listened to without considerable feelings of anxiety. The matters raised are threefold. One is the merits of the dispute; the second is the action proposed to be taken as a result of the dispute; and the third is the proposals of the Government to deal with the situation set up by that action.

    It is no part of my philosophy, nor that of the Party to which I belong, to comment upon the merits of disputes which are under negotiation between the Government and the two sides, and I do not propose to do so. However, I think one comment can be made without offence. The notice given was, as I understand it from the Statement, seven days; that is to say, seven days from the rejection by the conference of the recommendation of their executive to the date at which strike action should begin. My comment, which I invite the noble Lord to deal with, if he thinks it proper, is that that amount of notice is far too short for action of this kind. If it is contemplated to have a national strike in one of the vital services, seven days' notice is not enough. Time is of enormous value in the settling of industrial differences, and seven days is not much time for that purpose. That is the only comment I want to make upon the merits of the dispute.

    Secondly, I should like to assure the noble Lord and, indeed, Her Majesty's Government, that the Party to which I belong will give entire support to any measures which Her Majesty's Government may think it necessary to take for the protection of life and property, which must be both their first anxiety and their prime responsibility. Therefore we can assure the Government of our support.

    Thirdly, and here I speak entirely for myself, one cannot help recognising that the Government have very candidly admitted that there is a danger to life and property. In this situation, I think the Government ought to be considering the question of compensation. In the days of the war, when air raids fell upon us, we regarded the loss as one which ought to be borne nationally. I know that there are financial implications and it may be that I am speaking out of turn. However, it seems to me that if people lose life, limb or property as a result of a situation of this kind, the Government ought at least to consider the question of compensation.

    The last point I want to raise on the Statement is that one has read in the Press—and one would have thought of it even without being alerted to it by the Press—that it is possible that subversive organisations, or the IRA in particular, might seek to take advantage of the situation set up by this unhappy business, if it should come to pass. I hope that the Government are taking very careful steps to ensure that the purely policing side of the situation is being taken care of. That is a matter particularly for the Home Secretary. I am not suggesting any kind of attempt to put the blame on any particular set of people but it is a danger against which special precautions must be taken. I hope that the Government will not stop short on anything which may be necessary to provide extra bodies to the police: there are the special constables, and there might even be the auxiliary services for that purpose. I hope the noble Lord will bear that suggestion in mind.

    3.51 p.m.

    My Lords, we also are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for repeating the Statement. I should like to make three observations. First, we on these Benches express very firmly the view that the Government ought not to consider exceeding the existing pay guidelines in any negotiations with the firemen. It is easy to say that this is a special case, just as practically every other case is a special one, and before long the whole counter-inflation policy will be in ruins.

    Secondly, may I indicate to the Government what I am sure they are aware of, namely that on issues of this nature public opinion is now very much on their side. I think it was Chesterton who wrote:
    "we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet".
    My Lords, the people are beginning to speak and I believe that they are beginning to say that, however justified grievances may be—and most members of the community have grievances these days—they do not warrant industrial action of this nature.

    My third observation is simply that those of us on these Benches who believe very firmly in the right of individuals who withhold their labour are bound to find it much more difficult to go on supporting that right if those in the public services whose action can imperil life and property proceed to act in this way. I should like to ask the noble Lord one question: is it correct that there are a substantial number of private fire fighting organisations, particularly in industry? Has he any information as to the extent of those organisations and will it be possible to incorporate them and their personnel in any emergency schemes in the immediate future?

    3.53 p.m.

    My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, has said and for what the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, has said. The noble and learned Lord said that I had made a serious Statement and indeed that is so. There is a significant risk to both life and property and it is right at this time to recognise that fact and the gravity of the situation. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that a period of seven days is a very limited period indeed in which to make the necessary preparations. However, it is only right to say that the union executive recommended that negotiations should continue and that that advice was rejected by the conference, which then passed this particular resolution.

    I am grateful for what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, said about the position of his colleagues and himself in supporting all the appropriate measures which the Government might have to take and I shall gladly look into the point which he raised on compensation. Also I will take note of the point about the role of subversive organisations in situations of this sort. It is a point of which we are well aware and we shall certainly take appropriate action.

    I very much agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, in what he said about special cases. Certainly, we are most anxious to reach a settlement with the firemen and we have done the best we can within the guidelines on pay policy. But, of course, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The special case argument could totally destroy any chance of maintaining a proper degree of control over pay in this country and we would not contemplate an outcome of that sort. At a time like this, as the noble Lord said in his second point, it is crucially important that the public should support the Government in their policy with regard to the guidelines. Only by doing that shall we bring inflation in this country under control.

    Lastly, the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, raised the question of private fire fighting organisations. They do indeed have a role, but in fact it will be for the Armed Services to take over some of the responsibilities of the regular Fire Service. What one could describe as the industrial fire fighting organisations would of course have their normal job of looking after the situation in factories and plants.

    My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend whether the Government are endeavouring to put this dispute in the wider context of the problem of public services' pay in the present situation. Is he aware that the difficulty about the public services today is that they feel they are in the grip of the economic policy of the Government, who are not approaching the question of pay from the point of view of an employer? This is exactly the situation which the Priestley Commission tried to break years ago, and we are back where we began. I ask my noble friend whether the Government are concerned not only about this dispute but about others which are now brewing and which may break out in other parts of the public sector. It is simply a problem of the relationship between State employees and the Government as their employer and the Government in charge of the economic policy of the country. How are they going to separate those two?

    My Lords, as my noble friend is aware this has been a long-standing anxiety and I am well aware that many unions and many employees in the public sector have felt in the past, as doubtless some of them do at the moment, that they have been singled out for specially severe treatment. All I can say is to repeat a point that I made in answer to a question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. In this country we have got to take a firm position on pay settlements in both the public and the private sectors. If we do not do so there is no chance whatever of bringing down the rate of inflation, and it is essential for us to remember that in this country we still have an inflation rate higher than that in many other parts of the industrialised world. The only way out of the situation that I have described is to take a firm position in public and private sector pay settlements. The Government are determined to take an equally vigorous position in both the public and the private sectors.

    My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the civil airports possess substantial and efficient fire fighting equipment. Is it the intention, as sometimes they have done even before the present situation, that they should come to the aid of local fire brigades and is it intended to make full use of them?

    My Lords, I will certainly take that point into account. Obviously I want to choose my words rather carefully, but I will have that particular matter looked into.

    My Lords, I should like to press the noble Lord on the question of the use of private fire brigades. In his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, he seemed to imply that their job in industry was to look after their own premises and nothing else, but they might well have some reserve capacity. Would there he any need for special powers, emergency powers for example, to enable them to assist the fire fighting authorities and to protect them from any responsibilities which might arise out of their actions? I trust that the Government will look into that. Finally, I wish to say how strongly I agreed with the noble Lord when he referred to the need to support the policy in both the public and private sectors. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will not mind if a say to him that it was just as necessary in 1973 and 1974.

    My Lords, so far as industrial fire fighting organisations are concerned I will gladly have that point looked at. As I understand it, the constitutional situation is that the Armed Services will respond to a request from the individual fire authorities next week. I will look into the question of these organisations. They could conceivably have a role, but I should like to have the point examined with some care. I will certainly go into the wider implications of the noble Lord's question.

    My Lords, we on these Benches usually keep out of anything of a purely industrial or even economic nature, but this is in part a moral issue and I should like to venture to say, with great diffidence, that if the firemen should find some grounds on which even now they could divert themselves from the course that they have espoused they would be performing an act for the benefit of this country at least comparable to any of the brave and self-sacrificing acts that they count in their noble history.

    Yes, my Lords; as I indicated, or at least as my right honourable friend indicated in the Statement he made in another place and which I repeated this afternoon, it is a matter of particular regret to us that we have come to a situation where there is to be this dispute with the firemen. Over a number of years, they have done an admirable job on behalf of the general public. It is particularly unfortunte that we have arrived at this very unhappy situation. Certainly I join with the right reverend Prelate in the point that he made. I very much hope that even at this stage they will draw back from this strike, which could have most grievous consequences to many people in this country.

    My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that there are about 20,000 retained firemen in this country who are fully trained and who receive a yearly retaining fee and a daily call-out fee when they go out to work with their brigades? Can he tell us what is the attitude of these retained men? Are they intending to remain loyal to their local authority fire brigades or are they going to side with the full-time firemen?

    My Lords, I very much hope that they will be available for work in the normal way. My noble friend is quite right; the retained men are a very important element of the entire Fire Service in this country, and certainly their role in the next few weeks could be of decisive importance.