Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Hammond: I am sure that the Minister will tell the hon. Gentleman that local communities will be consulted, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is that the integrated risk management plan is supposed to be based on an objective assessment of risk, whereas the Deputy Prime Minister has said that any settlement must be financed out of the savings from modernisation, thus defining the result of the supposedly objective process before it has even begun?

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We shall have to look at the individual risk assessments in due course. The Conservative Member of the Greater London Authority for my area has written about the issue in the local newspapers. He advocates that we should change the fire service arrangements in London and that we need fewer firefighters on duty at night. That is all in accordance with the grand plan that he advocates.

I answer that very simply. I was one of the lawyers who represented the fire service victims of the King's Cross fire—the family of the firefighter who was killed and others who were injured. The fire started at the beginning of the changeover to the night shift. The night shift was called to deal with the fire. We then had more fire engines than we have now, but on that night every fire engine in the London fire brigade was called to the fire itself or used to provide relief during the night or to provide cover for those appliances that had been called to the fire. Do we want to take the risk of reducing fire cover at night and not being able to respond to such an incident? To put that question in the context of terrorism, can the Government guarantee that if a suicide bomber decides to have a go at a club in the west end he will do it only when there is no one there during the day? Is he not more likely to do it at night, in which case we may face a similar huge demand on the fire service at night—when the Conservative GLA Member in my area thinks that the risk is far less?

The dispute is not just about pay; it is about modernisation. This point echoes the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall made. Modernisation is a gradual process, taking perhaps two or three years. One can fix pay as of a given date, but the modernisation process has to expand and be introduced over a period. As has been mentioned, modernisation is already under way. Many local brigades have modernised. In my own patch, a lot of work has been done on community fire safety. The firefighters have gone out busily fixing smoke alarms to virtually anyone's house who wanted them. I am afraid that all that work has stopped. A lot of it was done as good will, often in firefighters' own time.

The fire service relies on good will. One thing that has happened in London—it was not formally organised by the trade union—is that firefighters have ceased to take up temporary promotions. They say, "Why should I bother to be promoted to temporary sub-officer to allow a fire engine to stand ready?" Firefighters' good will has been rejected, and that has caused a reduction in fire cover in London.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. You can lead a firefighter to water, but you can't necessarily make him squirt it in exactly the way and at

8 May 2003 : Column 891

the time that you want him to. How can we achieve modernisation by diktat? It will not work. It has been tried and has failed in the past. We ask firefighters to do a dangerous job. There are often good reasons for some of the union's policies—to avoid accidents and to maintain health and safety. In my time representing firefighters injured on duty, I have seen far too many accidents caused by managers, senior officers or often junior officers cutting corners and trying to fight a fire in unsafe ways with inadequate resources, thinking that they could do the job better than by following the correct procedures. There are good reasons for many of those policies, and I should hate firefighters to be injured as a result of changing working practices.

To achieve modernisation, we have to have the union's full co-operation, and it has to believe in what is trying to be achieved. If it takes a little longer to achieve it, so be it. The union has shown that it is willing to negotiate and modernise, as we know from the alternative proposals that have been made throughout the period. The solution to the dispute is not to impose a pay formula but to continue to negotiate until we can find a fair and honourable agreement for all the parties.

3.50 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): At first glance, the Bill seems innocuous because it is so brief. However, its brief provisions are far-reaching, including as they do, in clause 1(1)(a), the changing of conditions of service of firefighters and, in clause 1(1)(b), the use or disposal by fire authorities of property or facilities. That means that fire stations and appliances could be sold and that conditions of service, interpreted in clause 2(2) as

a fairly comprehensive list—could be changed in an unspecified way. It is unsurprising that the membership of the Fire Brigades Union is opposed to it.

The difficulty with clause 1(1)(a) is that the changes are unspecified. Firefighters do not know what they are being asked to agree to, which is generating feelings of uncertainty. For shift workers, the logistics of family life are complex, especially when both parents work. Delicately-balanced arrangements have to be made around child care, school runs and shifts, and they rely heavily on established routines. If shift patterns or work locations were to be varied at short notice, it would make life unmanageable for fire service families. Firefighters are very worried about the way in which clause 1(1)(a) might be interpreted. I was pleased to hear the Deputy Prime Minister's reassurances on that point, but there is a lot more work to be done in conveying the message to firefighters.

Firefighters to whom I have spoken recently are even more worried about disruptive changes to their working patterns than they are about pay, important though that is. Nobody joins the fire service because they want to earn a lot of money: they join because they want to provide a worthwhile public service. If they wanted to earn a lot of money, they would choose an entirely different career. In London, where they have specific problems, London weighting is only £3,000 a year, which compares unfavourably with other essential services such as teaching and the police. Housing costs

8 May 2003 : Column 892

are high compared with other parts of the country, and firefighters in London have difficulty in maintaining a decent standard of living. There is a case, therefore, for the upgrading of London weighting to form part of future pay negotiations.

Mr. Edward Davey: Is the hon. Lady aware that as part of the settlement on the table the Fire Brigades Union in London is being offered an increase in the London allowance of more than 20 per cent.?

Angela Watkinson: My informal discussions with firefighters suggest that they are looking for significantly more than 20 per cent., but it should indeed be included in their pay negotiations.

I want to move on to the risk review, which is not mentioned specifically in the Bill, but is inextricably linked because of its timing. Fire authorities have been asked to undertake risk reviews of their areas to be completed by September this year. They will focus on the protection of people, rather than property, as has been the case in the past. That is eminently sensible. However, the movement of large numbers of people—commuters, for example—could result in different levels of fire cover being set during the day and during the night in the same area, with a consequent effect on firefighters' working patterns. If they are asked to attend different fire stations, for example, on day and night shifts, that will cause operational as well as domestic complications. Would their clothing and equipment have to be transferred from one station to another? Would that be done during their shift or as overtime? What of the very close-knit watches who work together and rely on one another in life-endangering situations? Leading firefighters know the specific strengths and skills of every member of their watch and deploy each one accordingly. When working with a random group, thrown together in an emergency, a leading hand would not have the benefit of familiarity with firefighters under his command, and that could adversely affect the efficient and safe working of the watch.

Although the risk reviews have not yet been completed, clause 1(1)(a) leaves the door open to whatever proposals arise from them. An impression is given of responding to local circumstances, but the budget remains centrally controlled. It would be disingenuous to suppose that the outcome or even the aim of the risk reviews is not to make savings, given the budgetary pressures on fire authorities. The London fire brigade in particular has had to prepare for terrorist incidents such as major building collapse and chemical or biological attacks. The Greater London Authority budget had to allocate £11 million to fund that. In the absence of a Treasury decision, the money had to come from the fire service precept.

Fire authorities must make difficult decisions on finding savings in the risk reviews. Closing fire stations on valuable sites would raise large sums of money but would be deeply unpopular with the general public and firefighters. Grave anxieties would be expressed about response times, especially if closures meant longer journeys or reduced cover at night. Any firefighter will say that although there are fewer fires at night, the proportion of fatalities is higher than in the daytime. People do not walk around at night and fires are not noticed so quickly. In residential properties, where

8 May 2003 : Column 893

families are asleep, the vital life-saving period is between the moment the householder makes an alarm call and the arrival of the fire service. If it was, for example, 20 minutes, as the Deputy Prime Minister admitted in his opening remarks, anyone who was still in a smoke-filled bedroom would be dead.

The Deputy Prime Minister's powers to close fire stations, impose pay settlements and change conditions are draconian and centralising, yet fall short of the most necessary provision of a strike ban for a specified, post-war period. Of course, the need to draw on armed services personnel to undertake firefighting duties during strikes had more serious implications than usual when the country was at war. In the post-war period, our overstretched armed services need time to recoup and recover. It is as important now as it was during the war that they are not called on for firefighting duties.

The fire service enjoys huge public support. We have had five campaigns to save our second fire appliance at our local fire station in Hornchurch. On the fifth occasion, the battle was lost, but public support was as strong on the fifth as on the first occasion. There is a deep well of good will, which is far from exhausted, among fire service personnel. They believe in the importance of their work. I never doubted that, but my awareness of what they do increased when I set fire to my greenhouse in the Easter recess because I had an out-of-control, large bonfire. I did not call the fire service—I put it out myself—but the heat from my small fire and the time it took me to extinguish it gave me a new perspective on what firefighters have to face in their ordinary, everyday duties.

Firefighters' fears about station closures and job losses need to be communicated clearly and tackled frankly. As I said to the Deputy Prime Minister on a previous occasion, 1974 was a year of high recruitment. Firefighters who joined then are now close to retirement, and there are genuine concerns that that will be perceived as an opportunity for major natural wastage. I believe that changes to enhance the service would be welcomed, but the firefighters are being asked to accept an open-ended agreement. The Bill is too vague; they are being asked to sign a blank cheque. In that respect, the measure is too short. It is deficient in that it does not include a no-strike provision, with an appropriate sunset clause, for the period of respite and training programmes for the Army. A permanent no-strike agreement, in line with those in place for the police and the Army, would be a desirable aim in this essential life-saving service, and should be worked towards as part of a negotiated package on pay and conditions.

The Bill is seriously defective. Its sweeping provisions will do nothing to improve relations with the FBU and will need a great deal of improvement in Committee—including the introduction of provisions for a secret postal ballot to enable the views of ordinary firefighters to be made known—before it can become acceptable.

Next Section

IndexHome Page