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Mrs. Currie : I am conscious of the 10-minute rule on speeches. It is almost 10 years to the day that the then Secretary of State said :

"I must make it clear to the House that this Government cannot and will not abdicate their responsibility and let wages rip. That is the road to disaster. The only results would be a return to mounting inflation, cuts in public services, high taxes and more on the dole. Those who will suffer most from all this will be the low paid and those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners. This is the law of the pay jungle."--[ Official Report, 22 January 1979 ; Vol. 961, c. 28-9.]

I rest my case. I support the Government.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : I remind the House of Mr. Speaker's announcement at the beginning of the debate that there is a 10 minute limit on speeches.

7.9 pm

Mr Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) : For 18 weeks there has been one of the most serious national industrial disputes that this country has ever witnessed. Despite 18 weeks of lies, abuse and attacks, the resolve of the ambulance workers--those brave and heroic men and women--has not been broken by the Government. Their attempts to force those workers to take a pay cut, both as a direct attack on their own living standards and, as has been made clear tonight, as a preface to the attack on other public workers, should be resisted by all working people.

The only point of contact between myself and Conservative Members--notably Department of Health Ministers--is our mutual recognition that a victory for the ambulance workers would lift the hopes, aspirations and spirits of millions of workers in this country. It would show that the Government are not invincible. In their own terms and in the wider context, the ambulance workers

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deserve our support. In 1986 they were supposed to get parity with the fire fighters, but there is a £60 gap between their pay. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) could not give the figures, so I shall give them for her. An ambulance worker starts on £147 a week and after 10 years, when fully qualified, gets £202. A fire fighter gets £210 to £262 and a police constable, £194 to £302. I do not have time to give all the examples, but ambulance workers are equally deserving as emergency service workers. They are not the third among equals, but deserve parity in treatment with fire fighters and police.

No two disputes are the same. One factor which marks out this dispute is the willingness of ambulance workers to take everything that is thrown at them and not, until today, take strike action. It was only today in West Sussex that their frustration finally boiled over and the first strike action of the ambulance service took place. In the rest of the country there is not a strike--that is a lie which we must nail--but a lockout.

The substitution of insufficiently trained police and Army officers with inadequately equipped police vans and Army jeeps for ambulance workers and ambulances has cost lives. We raised that issue in previous debates on the ambulance service. I did not ask the Minister to take my word for it then and I do not do so now. He should listen to David Williams from St. Thomas's hospital across the water, who stated in The Independent on 5 January that there had been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of deaths in St. Thomas's hospital alone since the substitution of the police and Army for the professional ambulance crews. Over a period of eight weeks, 36 people--eight more than in the same period last year--died in his casualty department. The Government are costing lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) raised a number of points which he and I have tried to raise in previous debates. Time prevents me from stressing them this evening. However, one or two need a quick mention. The Secretary of State repeated tonight that, if more money is to be given to the ambulance workers, it must come out of patient services, training and equipment. What a despicable trade off it is to say to the working people in this country, "Lengthen your hospital waiting lists, wait a few minutes more for a life-saving ambulance so that we can pay a decent wage to ambulance workers".

It did not worry the Secretary of State, Ministers and Tory Members when, in July 1987, I forced a Division on the pay-linking system for Members of Parliament pay. The Secretary of State went through the Aye Lobby and voted for an £80-a-week increase for 1988, a £30-a-week increase for 1989 and a £50-a-week increase from the end of this month for himself and other Members. A £160-a-week increase in 24 months is more than the gross pay of someone who works for a week in the ambulance service. That is hypocrisy--the same sort of hypocrisy that sees the Prime Minister chasing ambulances to Clapham and King's Cross, praising all the emergency services, then singling out the ambulance workers for attack as the Government have done this past 18 weeks.

If time permitted, I could state what is happening in these non- professional services. I have here a police ambulance report form completed just before Christmas. Under "injuries suffered", it states : "high temperature".

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For the treatment given it gives the van's call sign. What good is that to a hospital? Compare that to the detailed and proper report forms that professionally trained crews take to hospitals, then understand why people are dying in casualty departments : it is because they are not receiving the treatment they so richly deserve. We have witnessed the contemptible moral blackmail of insurance cover being withdrawn, first, unsuccessfully, in London, then and tragically successfully--in the west midlands. That forced the crews to decide between going out and saving lives with no insurance cover or following the diktat of regional health officials. That is industrial sabotage. Such escalation of the dispute is entirely at the behest of the Secretary of State, no matter how he tries to wriggle out of it tonight.

It is not often that I can come to the Chamber and claim without fear of contradiction to be speaking on behalf of 90 per cent. of the British people, but I can do so tonight because 90 per cent. of the population want the dispute solved, with the ambulance workers getting a decent rate of pay and a living wage. Therefore, there is no need for me to spend my last three or four minutes stressing that. Instead, I shall state how the dispute should be won.

During the past 18 weeks, I have spent much time at rallies and individual and group meetings, discussing the dispute with ambulance workers. Time and time again I have told them that I, as a Socialist--and I suspect all Labour Members--would never ask ambulance workers to go out on indefinite strike. We, as ordinary working people, rely on the emergency service and the essential service that they provide. It is not their job alone to defend their wages and conditions or the services which they provide, but the job of all working people. After 18 weeks, it is about time to move towards that.

On Saturday, there will be a rally in Trafalgar square, London, of tens of thousands of people. On 30 January, there will be a national day of action. I appeal to working people throughout the country to support that, because it is to be welcomed. At noon on 30 January, there is to be a 15-minute action of national solidarity. Millions of people will take the opportunity to poke two fingers up at the Government's treatment of ambulance workers and the NHS in general. If we are to have successful collective rallies, demonstrations and meetings, we shall need more than 15 minutes : we shall need a whole day. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston brought the largest petition--4.5 million signatures--to the House that we have seen this century. Staggering amounts of money have been collected on the streets--thousands of pounds a day are collected in Coventry to keep families going. Opinion polls and the public generally support the ambulance workers. However, despite those facts, I cannot imagine that, if we all come on to the pavements for 15 minutes on 30 January and think about the three essential services, particularly the ambulance service, we shall, through mass telepathy, get a message through to the Prime Minister. She just does not listen ; she disregards people's opinions.

A few days ago an article in The Independent suggested that the main failing of the dispute was that the ambulance workers had no economic power. On 30 January, those with economic power must use it. The Confederation of British Industry, the chambers of commerce and the Institute of Directors should be forced to phone up No. 10 to say that their profits and stocks and shares are being hit by the dispute, and that therefore the Government must

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settle and sort out the Secretary of State. That is all that Tory Members understand. When the dispute affects their money, their stocks and shares, we shall see real pressure placed on the Government.

But even if I were wrong and, for only 15 minutes on Tuesday 30 January, every bus and train in the country stopped, every shop closed, every school, pit, factory and office stood still and every dock was idle, that would demonstrate that, without the ordinary people of this country, society in Britain does not tick. Would that not give the same feeling, albeit encapsulated in a short space of time, as that expressed in Leipzig, Prague, Bucharest and Budapest--that, when working people are organised, they have the power to shift Governments? If Governments can be shifted over there, one or two people might get the idea that we can shift them over here, and that would not be such a bad thing.

I ask all workers to make official at least that demonstration of 15 mintues on 30 January. As the council workers of NALGO did yesterday in Coventry, I also ask other workers to extend the action they have planned for half a day. Those who support the Secretary of State do not include the whole Cabinet, his right hon. and hon. Friends or all the press. The Government's isolation on this issue is almost total. If we can tip that support over the edge on 30 January, the ambulance workers' justifiable claim can be met. The Secretary of State is finally reaching the stage when his position is "unassailable" ; perhaps, after 30 January we can help him on his way.

7.18 pm

Mr. Timothy Kirkhope (Leeds, North-East) : The British people would be well advised to take careful note of the words of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) and the manner in which he delivered his remarks this evening.

Mr. Cryer : First rate.

Mr. Kirkhope : The hon. Gentleman's remarks are also being described as first rate and excellent by other Opposition Members. Pity help the people of this country if the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues ever again have power over them.

I speak in this debate because I have, and always have had, a genuine interest in ambulances. I was a member of the Northumbria ambulance service committee for several years during the important time when it was being restructured under the able leadership of the chief officer, Laurie Caple, to whom my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State referred. I do not apologise for referring to that service. It has shown the way to other services and shows how sterile and out of date are the remarks of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). It also shows how out of touch with reality are the views and attitudes of the Opposition on the ambulance services and their development.

We have heard about training. When I was on the committee to which I referred, one of the things that I most enjoyed was attending the occasions when members of staff received certificates for higher qualifications which they had achieved through hard work and effort. They were deeply proud of their achievements and those of us who were involved in the service were equally proud. They received pieces of paper bearing their accreditations. However, they could not and still cannot receive the other

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form of paper--financial reward for their work and the qualifications that they achieved. We all know the reason for that. It is the inflexibility and intransigence of the trade unions who claim to serve some of the staff. I deeply regret that.

Several hon. Members referred to the Whitley council. It is a form of straitjacket, as we all know. However, both management and employees willingly entered into that straitjacket. The terms and conditions were clear for all to see. When the council brought benefits to the unions, the unions were happy to accept them. It is no wonder that when the unions turned down the settlement negotiated by their leaders through the Whitley council and tried to obtain a better reward outside it, they were referred to the terms and conditions and told that it was not possible to go outside the council. Why should they be allowed to take the good and leave the bad? Their leaders found the offer and the proposals acceptable, They were good, not bad. The offer was in line with other National Health Service settlements for people who also work with and give emergency assistance to those who are ill. They include the nurses, who accepted a 6.8 per cent. pay rise.

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West) : I intervene only because of what the hon. Gentleman said about Northumbria. Will he explain to the House whether the intransigence of members of the ambulance service in Northumbria has brought about the problems there? If so why is the position so different in Durham, Cleveland and Cumbria, where a 999 service continues to be provided? I can tell him the difference. We have a manager in Northumbria who is irresponsible and does not care about the future of the service. He has brought the service to a halt.

Mr. Kirkhope : It is sad that the hon. Lady is completely out of touch with reality and does not appreciate that many other services look to the example set by Northumbria in its plans to produce a better service for patients, better control and better morale among staff. Does she not realise that when the present chief officer to whom she was so unkind came to Northumbria, £3,500 per annum was being spent on staff training? Now, after a few years, £120,000 has been spent on training within that service and many other services come to Northumbria to find out how that has been done. That proves that good leadership in an ambulance service produces results for the patients and for everyone. That is something that we should consider. I hope that in my own area of west Yorkshire we can achieve something similar. Whether Opposition Members like it or not, that is the direction in which services are moving.

Several hon. Members have spoken about what ambulance workers do. Everyone knows that there has always been an emergency and a non-emergency ambulance service. In rural areas, a non-emergency service has often been provided, using motor cars or minibuses, not ambulances. What is so wrong with that?

The hon. Member for Livingston said that 25 per cent. of calls, or one in four, in London were emergency calls. The official figures for Northumbria show that 7 per cent. of the workload is emergency calls. The figures for the rest of the country are between 5 and 15 per cent. It is clear that what the Secretary of State has said is true. It is backed up by the statistics and it is no good arguing otherwise to help the ambulance workers' case.

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I hope that the dispute will be settled before long. Any settlement must be based on a realistic assessment of the future of the service. The dispute cannot be settled simply by beating the management or, as some union leaders seem to want, by beating the Government. That is not what the future of the ambulance service is about. We want what is good for the service, for patients, for good health care and for the expansion and financial strength of the ambulance service. We want pay differentials for different skills. The unions must concede that. If they continue to insist on flat rate increases across the board, what will be the reward for excellence and hard work? No one runs a business that pays everyone exactly the same basic wage.

Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kirkhope : No. I have about one minute to go and I wish to finish what I have to say. The hon. Gentleman may then have a chance to take his turn.

The ambulance workers do a job which the public view with sympathy. That works two ways. First, it makes it difficult for management to argue about a wage claim. It also places an immense responsibility on ambulance workers not to use or abuse their position in order to obtain an award that is not justified. If they argue and settle their case in other ways and on the basis of their skills, I shall fully support whatever settlement is arrived at. The claim must be settled in such a way that there is a positive return to the Health Service and to those who enjoy the services that it provides.

The ambulance service is regarded in an especially good light by the public and by patients. Even this dispute has not changed that. So far, those who claim to lead the ambulance staff have not persuaded their members of the merits of the award that they have negotiated. They have their work cut out to show that they really can lead the ambulance staff. They have failed to do so and to show where the return will come from.

7.28 pm

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : The failure to settle this dispute is appalling. It is a disgrace and a scandal to allow the disruption of an emergency service to continue into its fifth month. This afternoon we have seen that the Secretary of State's attitude is a triumph of pigheadedness over reason and common sense. He has no support in the country among the public. A majority of Conservative voters are opposed to his policy. We know that there is no full-hearted support for him in the House because we have heard the disagreement and opposition of Conservative Back-Bench Members this evening.

There is also disquiet in the Cabinet, if only because of the political damage that the dispute is doing. At one time it seemed that the Secretary of State had a promising political career. I suspect that that is no longer the case. His bluff and cheery manner is suitable for some matters, but his behaviour and attitude since he has been Secretary of State for Health have alienated almost everyone in the National Health Service. He has not endeared himself to the country and his cavalier attitude has made him heartily disliked throughout Britain. He has completely misjudged the position.

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As we saw this afternoon, the Secretary of State's approach is to tough it out, to seek to humiliate the ambulance crews and to drive them into the dust. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman has misjudged the depth of the ambulance crews' grievance and the feelings of the British public. The public want him to give some ground to settle the dispute. In doing so, he might lose face, but that is better than losing lives as the dispute continues. This tragedy should not be dealt with by banter across the Chamber. The dispute has already claimed lives. It is killing people. In an emergency the police and the Army can step in for a couple of days, but they cannot provide an emergency service month after month. They are inadequately trained and they have inadequately equipped vehicles which have already been involved in accidents. The police are unhappy doing the job that they have been called upon to do and the chairman of the Police Federation has confirmed that.

Many of our constituents are placed at risk every day. We hear of police and Army ambulances turning up late and of crews without the skills to do the job. That is no criticism of the police or the Army. They have not been trained to do the work. The dispute is costing lives and hon. Members should have a sense of responsibility. The Secretary of State has also misjudged the British people's basic sense of fairness. At the time of the King's Cross and Clapham emergencies and the Brighton bombing statements made in the House praised the emergency services. The Prime Minister usually takes advantage of such occasions for a photo opportunity. But when it comes to pay, it is a different matter. The pay of ambulance crews has slipped behind comparable groups. Fire fighters are paid £60 a week more and the police are paid £110 a week more. In those circumstances, a pay offer that is less than the rate of inflation, in effect asking them to take a pay cut, is not realistic. Ambulance men are not being stirred up by agitators. The union negotiators were willing to settle at a lower figure, but the matter went to a vote and the crews turned down their recommendation. We have heard the Government's rhetoric about the need for ballots, but when a ballot goes against them, no one takes any notice of what the members say, despite all the talk of handing the unions back to the members.

The ambulance crews have a deep grievance and the Secretary of State must now regret his remark about their being just professional drivers. It would help if he apologised for such an insulting remark.

Mr. Corbyn : He is not even here.

Mr. Leighton : No, he is not. It would not be so bad if ambulance men were paid the going rate for drivers, but they are not. We know that things are not well in the ambulance service. We know that London is several hundred ambulance men short and that there is a high staff turnover. The ambulance service is underfunded and underequipped and staff morale has been undermined. The Government want a two-tier ambulance service. They want to privatise most of the ambulance service and that has undermined morale. But now the ambulance men are fighting back, and with great dignity. They have not gone on strike ; they have been locked out. They are anxious to deal with emergency calls, but often those calls are diverted

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and they are prevented from doing so. They have been told that their vehicles are uninsured and that they will be prosecuted if they take their vehicles out.

The Government and the Secretary of State have misjudged the British public's support for the ambulance men. Are the Government not interested in what the public think? The petition has been signed by nearly 5 million people, and in every opinion poll 80 per cent. demonstrate their continued support after almost five months of the dispute. They want the Government to stop the intimidation and their hostility to the ambulance crews.

At some stage the dispute will have to be ended by negotiation, but this afternoon the Secretary of State said that he will talk only if the union announces its surrender beforehand. Before it reaches the negotiating table, it must write letters explaining what it will give way on. Unless it does that, he is not willing to talk, nor is he willing to accept arbitration or any independent view.

Even if the Secretary of State could not look behind and see the looks on the faces of Conservative Back Benchers as he was making his speech, it must be obvious that the Government have got this wrong and have misjudged the situation. Before more lives are lost and more damage is done to the ambulance service, the British public want the Government to give some ground and sit down to negotiate an end to the dispute.

7.36 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) : We have heard a number of views about the Government's approach to the ambulance dispute, and the Government have been chastised for not spending what was claimed to be a budget surplus of about £14 billion. But it is the very use of that budget surplus to repay past debt and so reduce the Government's liability to interest payments that has enabled more money to be spent on the NHS.

I and my hon. Friends who represent the north-west of England have fought a bitter campaign which, I am glad to say, has been ably rewarded by the Department of Health giving the North Western regional health authority extra money, over and above planning assumptions that were put before the public last August. I am sure that I and my hon. Friends do not wish our efforts in campaigning for the good health of the north-west to be hijacked as a result of the industrial dispute.

The last major group of Health Service workers in the north-west and elsewhere are using their industrial muscle to try to secure a pay award above those agreed to by other groups in the Health Service. Is it right that they should win that extra money, to the detriment not only of other Health Service workers who did not push their cause but of patients who would inevitably suffer as budgets would have to be adjusted? I and my hon. Friends have received many representations from our constituents on the subject of Health Service finance and I shall not let them down tonight by removing those patient services from our hospitals.

The Independent has been quoted a number of times and I, too, have sought solace in its pages. Peter Jenkins comes to the nub of what the dispute is about when he says :

"The point is that the Government cannot allow 22,000 ambulancemen to set an inflationary pay norm for more than a million NHS employees. That is what the dispute is about."

In the present circumstances, I have great sympathy with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and Duncan Nichol, the chief executive of the NHS. Like

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them, I was once responsible for negotiating wage claims before I entered Parliament. Duncan Nichol has a proud record in the Health Service. He was the general manager of the Mersey regional health authority and I had the pleasure of serving with him on that authority. By good management, he made it one of the most rapidly developing health authorities in the country. He understands the human dimensions of the dispute and the difficulty of reaching a pay agreement in which a line has to be drawn. He acknowledges, too, his overriding responsibility to all the patients of the National Health Service for whom resources must be made available.

The most difficult decision to take in any dispute is to draw the line. In the case of the Ford dispute, one final offer is replaced by another final offer. How can anyone involved know the true situation and how much the management can, and cannot, afford? At least the ambulance management had the courage of their convictions and said in the last pay round, "No more. So far, and no further."

I sought first-hand information about the dispute from those directly involved, by talking to a number of the staff on duty at my local ambulance station. I place on record my praise for ambulance workers in west Lancashire who, despite differences of opinion with their managements, are working as well as they can to provide good accident and emergency service. I praise, too, the management, who worked closely with the unions in a difficult situation to provide a high level of cover.

I was struck by the ambulance workers' sincerity and listened carefully to their views. The Government's offer might have greater credibility if the issue of the resources available for skills training were properly addressed. Ambulance workers have far greater commitment to, and a pride in, the service and quality of care that they provide than is generally realised. They state categorically that they never dream of going on strike. When I spoke to them about the provision of defibrillation equipment, for example, I found myself sympathising with their point of view. Perhaps there is a case for re-examining the way in which the Health Service pays for special skills in the ambulance service. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State fully appreciates the importance of skills training, but it is important also to be sensitive to the way in which that aspect is presented to ambulance staff. They may say to their health authorities, "We have been offered extra money, but can we really obtain the training and equipment that will be required? Do you have the resources to provide them?"

Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health will look again at the resourcing of skills training. If there are adequate opportunities to achieve higher qualifications, response from ambulance workers may be much more positive and light could be glimpsed at the end of the tunnel in respect of the negotiations. The ambulance men have embarked upon a bitter dispute, and, understandably, they are supported by the general public--many of whom, like myself, have received excellent service from that sector of the Health Service. But perhaps the ambulance staff and their union should reconsider their action in the light of the information that in London in the new year the service received 60 per cent. fewer calls as a consequence of announcements about the lack of availability of ambulances.

That calls into question what should be the precise nature of the service. I suspect that many members of the

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public pick up a telephone and call for an ambulance even when they do not really need one. When the dispute is over, the service will be subject to close scrutiny, and it will never be the same again. I wonder whether the union appreciates what sort of Pandora's box it has opened by taking the stand that it has.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) raised the issue of privatisation. Whenever an effort is made to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of a part of the Health Service, privatisation is mentioned. There is probably a good case for examining the provision of non-emergency ambulance services and for putting that element out to tendering, perhaps within the ambulance service itself. Such a development would require the unions to re-establish their relationship with management if they are to win those in-house tenders. In any event, the union may come to regret its action in having pushed the dispute to the brink.

One should pay attention to calls for comparability with the police. Ambulance staff tell me that police officers involved in a particularly traumatic accident are allowed to stand down for a couple of hours to regain their composure, but ambulance crews are not. I wonder how many other aspects of ambulance crews' terms and conditions of service could be improved in a package that would add to the credibility of the cash offers that my right hon. and hon. Friends support.

My message to ambulance staff is, "Thank you for continuing to provide an accident and emergency service, but look again closely at the advice that you have been given. It may not lead where you hope that it will."

7.46 pm

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : I speak not only on behalf of Plaid Cymru but for the Scottish National party, which is very concerned that this totally unnecessary dispute is being prolonged by a Government who seem to have lost all sense of justice.

The public in my constituency and elsewhere cannot understand why the Secretary of State for Health has allowed himself and his colleagues to become embroiled in a dispute that they cannot win. The ambulance service has the overwhelming support of the public, who will not allow the Government to treat their personnel in a callous and insensitive way.

I have experience of the high regard in which ambulance men and women are held by my constituents. The caring, dedicated, efficient and unsparing way in which crews undertake their duties is rewarded by a level of support that is rarely matched by any other profession.

Ambulance personnel from Holyhead in my consti-tuency wrote to me saying :

"The ambulance services throughout Great Britain have striven," this is the most important part of the letter--

"through increasing Tory party degradation, to maintain a decent level of accident and emergency cover, in many cases by suspended non-paid ambulance crews, which, judging by the overwhelming public support, is well appreciated. There were over 4.5 million signatories showing support for the ambulance staff, and we therefore think it is high time that the Government listened to the electorate and resolved the 4-month dispute."

My constituents do not like members of the Government suggesting that ambulance crews are nothing

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more than professional drivers or taxi drivers in uniforms. Such phraseology is hurtful to ambulance staff, and I deplore it. When the Minister for Health responds, I urge her to confirm that the Government withdraw those statements.

Some years ago, Gwynedd health authority proposed drastic cuts, which at worst would have meant the closure of two ambulance stations in my constituency and a third ceasing to provide 24-hour cover. That led to a campaign against the cuts. I was aware then of the general public's support for ambulance personnel and the work of ambulance stations. Petitions attracted thousands of signatures and public meetings were extremely well attended. The size of the public response forced Gwynedd health authority to withdraw the proposals and I believe that public support will eventually lead to the Government increasing their offer to ambulance personnel to achieve an honourable settlement.

I also know the difficult circumstances under which ambulance personnel work. In my area I know of ambulance crews operating old vehicles, which have run up extremely high mileages and should have been replaced long ago.

Having listened to the debate and to ambulance personnel, I ask myself why the public are behind the ambulance men's claim. Essentially, they do not accept that ambulance personnel should be paid less than others working in the emergency services. They believe that they should be paid the same because they are committed to providing an emergency service. That is an extremely powerful argument and the Government are wrong to deny its force.

The wage claim should be seen in its proper context. The current basic pay of an ambulance man or woman is £7,340 on entry. That is 30 per cent. less than that of an equivalent police constable and 40 per cent. less than that of an equivalent fireman. The average weekly wage of an ambulance man or woman is £141. One cannot stay in London's Dorchester hotel for even one night at £141. The perversity of that comparison illustrates my point perfectly. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) said that £150 was a decent wage for ambulance men. I wonder what she would make of that comparison. The present rates of pay of ambulance men are substantially below those of their colleagues in other emergency services, and they would fall even further behind those colleagues if they accepted the 6.25 per cent. that is currently on offer. In September 1989, the police received a 9.25 per cent. increase and firefighters settled for 8.6 per cent. Where, in the name of humanity, is the justice in that? How can the current offer be considered fair when average earnings increased by 8.75 per cent. in the year to August 1989?

It seems to me that in this, as in so many other areas of policy, the Government are now completely out of touch not only with current pay settlements but with public opinion. The Secretary of State seems to be more beleaguered by the hour as he vainly struggles, even today, to advocate a weak--indeed a lost--cause.

The Secretary of State should also accept the need for an independent formula similar to the formula under which the pay of hon. Members is fixed. That would end the need for industrial disputes. It would also restore some dignity to the whole affair, and we should not have this unseemly public wrangling, which becomes more acrimonious by the day.

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It is highly significant that both the Police Federation and the Fire Brigades Union are seeking to persuade the Secretary of State to institute parity and a pay mechanism for ambulance crews. They know--they should because they are also part of the emergency services--that the present disparity is inherently unfair and that they want their colleagues to be treated fairly. They believe that the Government are being intransigent and stubborn.

Ambulance men and women have chosen their career so that they can be of service to the community. That is why they are not out on full-time strike as a result of the dispute. They have shown their devotion to duty time after time, disaster after disaster. They have been hailed as heroes by the Prime Minister and others. They have been championed for their courage. I have seen their human responses to tragedy and death and watched them carry out their task with dignity. The Government should now match that dignity by paying them a decent wage and setting up machinery to ensure that this kind of dispute never has to happen again.

7.55 pm

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow) : I very much regret that we are having this debate at all. It does nothing to add to the sum total of human knowledge and, as a very distinguished Labour Employment Minister said, debates in the House of Commons on industrial disputes only tend to lengthen those disputes.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath) : That is not what you said in 1979 ; the Opposition were asking for a debate every day.

Mr. Hayes : The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) intervenes from a sedentary position. As he is a Privy Councillor and bound to be called in a moment, perhaps he will do me the courtesy of keeping quiet, even if he will not listen. He is not helping matters at all.

I regret that we are having this debate, because it gives people the opportunity to enter into petty party-political arguments. That is precisely what we have had tonight. It does not help ordinary men and women who are desperately frightened to dial 999 for fear of what will happen to them, and it will not help the unions. At the unions' invitation, I have had almost daily contact with their

representatives over the past seven weeks or so, and I know that they want an honourable settlement. This debate will not help them to make up their mind about the next step forward.

One of the great hurdles in the way of a speedy settlement of the dispute is that the wrong signals have been given out by both sides. It has become a political, rather than an industrial, dispute and that is most regrettable. We have had megaphone diplomacy and trial by television, in which Ministers and trade union leaders have been put on the spot and have made off-the-cuff remarks. That has precluded sensible negotiation.

Over the past few weeks, some of us have been trying--perhaps not terribly successfully--to feel our way through the morass of mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides. Trust has to be restored ; otherwise, we shall not achieve a speedy end to the dispute. [Interruption.] I hope that Opposition Members are listening. In my contact with the unions, I have discovered that they fully appreciate the political realities of the dispute.

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They realise that the Government and management want a speedy and honourable end to the dispute, but not at the risk of a public sector wage explosion or of encouraging other trade unionists to pursue wage claims by industrial action. That is absolutely clear. The unions accept that in good faith.

As I said, one of the great tragedies of the dispute has been that the wrong signals have gone out. Look at what happened as a result of one sloppy piece of reporting in a Sunday newspaper last week. The unions were led to believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State was giving a nod and a wink not to new money but to old money in the National Health Service budget. That is nonsense, and we know it. So, where do we go from here?

I believe that a window of opportunity has opened. The next few days are crucial, and it is vital that my right hon. and hon. Friends, in particular the ministerial team, and the management and union negotiators put themselves into a state of purdah. They should not try to conduct negotiations over the airways, because that has failed so miserably in the past. Sometimes talks which were close to settlement have failed as a result.

The window will only be open, I suspect, for a matter of days. There is a basis for negotiation, and there is common ground, if only both sides could see it. There have been concessions from the management side--or effectively from the Government--of an extra £6 million-- [Interruption.] It makes no difference ; at the end of the day, that is where the money comes from--the Government. The Secretary of State has put an extra £6 million on the table. I believe that the first part of the dispute can be settled by reshuffling that £6 million.

The unions have made two significant concessions publicly in the past two days. It is worth paying some attention to those concessions, because the press have not. Roger Poole made it quite clear that he would not be pressing for the full 11.5 per cent. We seem to be negotiating downwards-- perhaps down to the rate of inflation for this year, but I do not know. I do not speak for him, or for the Government, but it is worth negotiating about.

During a BBC programme the other day, Roger Poole said that he would not be pressing for linkage with the emergency services. We are not talking about linkage, arbitration or pay review bodies. We are talking about an honourable settlement. We are talking about a mechanism that will protect the value of that settlement, so that we never have this sort of dispute again. A dispute that involves ordinary people, which is what the ambulance men and women are, will be taken out of the political arena.

I understand that the Government and the Health Service management may have some reservations about an across-the-board pay mechanism, but there is no reason why there cannot be parity if it is a parity weighted in favour of those people who work on emergencies. Public sympathy, quite rightly, lies with those people who scrape bodies off the road, and help heart attack victims. We should encourage people who deal with emergencies, and we should pay them well. We want a highly trained, highly motivated and well paid emergency service.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West) : Will my hon. Friend give way?

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