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John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): My right hon. Friend rightly points out that this Bill relates to England and Wales, and as a Scottish Member I have some concerns. Can he allay my fears and confirm that this will not end up in regional pay bargaining and agreementsthat it will be a national agreement that cannot be split up?
The Deputy Prime Minister: On the agreement, if I were given the powers by this House and forced into using this legislation, it would apply only to England and Wales; it would not apply to Scotland, because it has a devolved Parliament. As to whether, as Bain recommended, the same privilege should be given to Wales, I ask my hon. Friend to await the White Paper, in which I shall give a judgment on that issue.
On regional wage bargaining, at present there is a national wage structure. If it is agreed to, I will be imposing not a regional wage structure but a national one to apply in Wales and in England. I am hopeful that there is still room to find an agreement while the House discusses this possibility.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): The Deputy Prime Minister says that this is not an attack on firefighters' second jobs, and he has previously given a commitmentor the employers have, at leastthat there will be no compulsory redundancies. Is he in a position to extend that commitment by saying that no existing firefighter will have a compulsory change in shift patterns imposed on him?
Matthew Green (Ludlow): The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that throughout the country different brigades have achieved different levels of modernisation. The Shropshire and Wrekin Fire Authority is probably the most modernised of any fire service. The only step that it has yet to take is the establishment of a joint operations centre, which it is planning to do in conjunction with the ambulance authority. That proposal has the support of the FBU in Shropshireeven though it contradicts national policyand of Unison; all that is holding things up is, I am afraid, an apparent lack of help from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Will he examine this issue to see whether matters can be progressed?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am coming to the issue of joint operations, but I believe that the situation is not exactly as the hon. Gentleman describes. He has in fact written to us about it, and we have made it clear time and again that we want joint control rooms. There are two or three places in which joint control rooms are used. There has been a great deal of controversy about whether the joint control room for Wiltshire should be divided by a brick wall or a glass wall, or whether the services should come together. However, in the past few days the FBU has agreed that it should be established, so there is movement.
My complaint is this: people may want national standards for wages, but why are there no national standards involving the best of the safety provisions, such as joint control rooms? That is the issue that I am trying to address. The standards were changed through the Fire Services Act 1959, and authorities were given the power to take decisions; before then, there was a national system under the terms of the 1947 Act. I have inherited a situation that, in my view, is not satisfactory.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the White Paper that was produced a couple of years ago, and was universally welcomed, was at least a step in the right direction? What happened to it, and why has it been so difficult to make progress on the ideas contained in it?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I, too, was interested in that point. It was the general secretary of the FBU who told me that a White Paper had been published and the Labour Government would not deliver on it. Apparently, it contained a proposal whereby certain powers would be given to fire service chiefs. The FBU did not like that, and preferred that the White Paper not be delivered. As I understand it, because we could not reach an agreement, nothing happened.
However, I have made it clear that there will be a White Paper, and I made it clear to the FBU that it is absolutely right that we modernise. It is not just a question of wages and conditions; a whole range of changes needs to be made, and that fact will be
The Deputy Prime Minister: I shall now try to make some progress. I hope that the House appreciates that I have tried to give way as much as I can, but it is taking up time. However, this is an important matter, and there are great concerns in the House that I must try to satisfy.
At present, the FBU bans all pre-arranged overtime in order to maximise the total labour force employed in the industry. It has been quite honest about this. It says that by maintaining the current overtime ban, it is able to keep 4,000 more firefighters in employment, which is a legitimate point for a trade union to make, but I am bound to say that I must ask what constitutes the better balance in the use of the labour force to provide the services that I want. Everyone wants to keep their labour force as large as possible, but I am not sure that many trade unions have been able to do that. This is where the argument concerning non-compulsory redundancies comes inan issue that most unions would recognise in their negotiations.
Overtime is an essential issue. The ban on overtime denies the opportunity for ordinary firefighters to increase their pay by working overtime as a firefighter, and creates the current absurd situation in which it is acceptable for a trained firefighter to work overtime as a minicab driver, but not to work overtime using his skills and training as a fireman. Yet the hourly rate of pay is far greater than that for driving cabs, cleaning windows or gardeningjobs that some of these guys get involved in. I cannot accept that the skills of highly professional firefighters should not be used in overtime if they wishif it is their choiceand should be used instead in driving a cab, digging a garden or cleaning windows. This rather absurd situation is in need of change.
Currently there is also a "one size fits all" shift pattern. It is known as the 2-2-4 pattern, whereby firefighters work two days followed by two nights, and then have four days off. I have no argument with that principle. Changing that system would allow for better ways of working, but it would not mean firefighters being forced to work unreasonable and unpredictable shifts. They have fears about that, and we have to satisfy them. Throughout the past 12 months I have constantly encountered misconceptions, uncertainty and a lack of proper dialogue between the two parties in these negotiations.
Ordinary firefighters are understandably concerned about both redundancy and shift pattern changes. My officials and the employers have done a great deal of work to assess the impact of modernisation on the overall manning level for the fire service, and on shift patterns. Between now and 2005-06, the fire service will lose 1,500 firefighters through compulsory retirement at age 55. There is the potential for a further 2,500 optional retirements under the scheme after 25 years of service, and in the normal course of events, there would be about 1,000 retirements on ill health grounds. In comparison
Reductions on the scale that I mentionedI repeat that natural retirements are a key componentwould be similar to the annual reduction in the labour force over the past 10 years. It has not remained constant, but has reduced under normal proceduresthrough non-recruitment or whateverover the past 10 years. The labour force has not remained static, so the proposed changes to work patterns are not a radical departure from what has happened in the past.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): The Deputy Prime Minister is extremely eloquent about the fearsin his view, misguidedof the average firefighter. Having spent considerable time talking to the menand the few womenwho work in the Newark, Retford and Southwell fire stations, I agree with him. What he says makes sense and is honourably intentioned, but many firefighters have indeed either been misled or are subject to the fears that he mentioned. I respectfully suggest that, if those fears are to be allayed and some form of rational argument is to be produced on both sides, the Government should employ a better communications strategy.