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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 February 2009

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Retained Firefighters

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts.)

9.30 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Williams. I am delighted to have secured the debate. It is the first debate of this sort that I have been able to secure in Westminster Hall for some time. For my constituents and many people living in rural and more remote communities, the issue is of great importance.

The debate is timely, as is reflected by the significant number of briefings and comments that it has generated. In particular, I place on record my appreciation of a briefing that hon. Members received from the Retained Firefighters Union. In highlighting the issue at this stage in the proceedings, the union has served not only its members but the communities they serve exceptionally well. It has been a model of engagement in that regard.

It is important to be clear about the parameters of what we are debating. This is not about the working time directive generally—we have debated that ad nauseam and beyond on occasions—but about its impact on retained firefighters in particular. That is distinct from any issues that the end of the opt-out from the directive might create for full-time firefighters.

Retained firefighters, who are employed under a retained duty scheme, are generally already in full-time employment with a primary employer. They supplement that employment by giving service to their communities and being available for anything up to 120 hours of “inactive on-call” time a week. They are available at the drop of a hat or the press of a pager button. They respond to road accidents, fires and the whole range of situations in which any firefighter might be called on to serve.

In some ways, the existence of the retained duty system is an historical accident; it is just how the service evolved. Often, such historical accidents provide a service that does not quite fit the needs of the community, and change can be challenging. That is not the case with the retained duty system. If we were to set out today with a blank sheet of paper to design a service to provide fire and rescue services for less densely populated areas of the country and more remote communities, I suspect that we would end up with something that looked pretty much like the retained duty system.

That is why I take any threat or challenge to that system seriously, as we all should. It is one of the most important services that any community can call on. Its importance is that, looked at in the abstract, the service is designed to meet the needs of the communities that it serves and not necessarily those of the people who provide the service.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. Of course, as we are not starting
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from here, there may be slightly different arrangements, but does he agree that the vast bulk of retained firefighters, 70 per cent., work no more than 50 hours a week, including their basic job? That is slightly in excess of the 48-hour limit, but many fire authorities operate with a built-in shortage of full-time and retained firefighters, which exacerbates the situation. If they could be encouraged to staff their fire stations to the appropriate establishment, many problems, particularly south of the border—I cannot speak for Scotland—would not be as acute as the hon. Gentleman may be about to describe.

Mr. Carmichael: I support anything that will improve the service. If more slack can be built into the system that way, it is devoutly to be encouraged. However, for reasons that I will explain in greater detail later, the question is not just about strict interpretation of the working time directive. There are issues about how attractive it would be to allow staff—particularly those employed by small or medium-sized enterprises, which describes a lot of businesses in rural areas—to undertake duties in the retained service in the face of that pressure on working time. The law of unintended consequences can easily come into play. We must be careful to ensure that we maintain not only the structural integrity of the retained service but an environment where the service is attractive to those who would serve in it as well as to their primary employers.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and join him in his tribute to the retained fire service as well as to full-time fire and rescue servicemen and women. They are essential to all our communities.

In hundreds of square miles in south-east Scotland, only two stations have full-time crews, each of which is backed up by a retained service. The number of call-outs for the vastly different smaller stations can range from 40 to 200 in a single year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that hints that we need as much flexibility as possible, and that we need to get out from under the strictures that the directive would enforce?

Mr. Carmichael: I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of the retained service in working alongside the full-time service, which it does very effectively in the bulk of the areas of which we have experience. He also used the word “flexibility”. That is key. The retained duty system offers all of us, in communities urban and rural, an extra degree of flexibility. If we lose that, we will lose a lot.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Further to the previous intervention, the mainland highlands of Scotland have one full-time station. All the others—scores of stations across a huge rural area—are staffed by retained personnel. In my constituency, the A9, one of the most dangerous roads in Scotland, is covered between Inverness and Perth by a series of retained stations. They provide important cover. Flexibility, particularly in dealing with road traffic accidents, is highly important. Does he agree that that could be threatened if the regulations are implemented as proposed by the European Parliament?

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Mr. Carmichael: If we did not think that there was a threat, we would not be here, to put it bluntly. The situation that my hon. Friend describes—one full-time unit for the highlands and islands in Inverness that must work alongside the retained units, which it does very effectively—is a model of joint working that we would like to see followed across the whole country.

My hon. Friend leads me nicely to my next point, which involves considering what the alternative would be to the present mix of full-time and retained duty provision. Inevitably, it would involve, in effect, a move to a full-time fire service across the whole United Kingdom. With the best will in the world, there will never be a full-time station everywhere there is currently a retained service, and anyone living farther away from full-time stations—although I grant that there would be more of them—would have longer response times. I hear that concern time and time again when I speak to people served predominantly by stations with retained duty workers.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I am slightly confused by the hon. Gentleman’s message. Is he arguing that we should retain the opt-out, or is he agreeing with what has been happening in Europe and saying that we should get rid of the opt-out, but exclude retained firefighters from it? I am not exactly clear where he is coming from.

Mr. Carmichael: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier remarks, he would have heard me say that I want to limit the scope of the debate quite strictly to the issue of the retained fire service.

Mr. Djanogly: Why?

Mr. Carmichael: Does the hon. Gentleman not think it is an important issue? If I had wanted to have a debate on the general question of the opt-out from the European working time directive, I would have called for such a debate.

Frankly, I am pretty agnostic about whether there will be retention of the opt-out, or some provision that will allow continuation of the opt-out for retained firefighters. Regarding the question of retained firefighters, what is important is the service that we are left with at the end of the process, not the mechanism by which we get there. If it is possible, as it were, to have our cake and eat it—I am sceptical, but we will hear what the Minister has to say—I would certainly be interested to hear it.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): That is a very Liberal Democrat way of doing it.

Mr. Carmichael: I am sorry. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene?

Mike Penning: Yes, I do, and I will repeat what I said. That sounds like a very Liberal Democrat way of doing it. On the one hand, the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants the 48-hour week restriction and on the other hand he is saying that he wants retained firemen to be excluded from that. You cannot have your cake and eat it. I am an ex-fireman and I have worked with retained firemen; no one has more admiration for them than me.
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Frankly, if the restriction went ahead, they would probably work for nothing, because they care about their community. The issue is about Europe deciding that we cannot have retained firemen paid in the UK.

Mr. Carmichael: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to what I am saying. I am not saying that we should have ended the opt-out; indeed, he will find that the vast majority of Liberal Democrat MEPs voted against the ending of the UK opt-out in the European Parliament when it came up for decision. I am saying that even if the opt-out is to end, we must have some mechanism that recognises the importance of the retained firefighters. I do not want to see the end of the opt-out, but if it happens we must have some provision that recognises the importance of the retained firefighting service, implemented in such a way that it will have the flexibility to ensure that we can maintain that service. That is why it is important that we engage in debate now, rather than waiting until we have a crisis in 2012.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the fact that we in the United Kingdom have developed a system that serves our communities well and we are trying to find the best mechanism to ensure that it can continue, with or without the opt-out, although, like him, I would prefer to retain the opt-out—if we can retain it, we should do so.

I want to pick up on the point that my hon. Friend was making. Immediately after the vote on the opt-out was taken in the European Parliament, Councillor Mike Raeburn, who chairs the fire service in the Grampian region, contacted me, as well as other MPs and MSPs, to say that if the proposed change goes ahead, it is likely to cost the Grampian fire and rescue service between £35 million and £100 million to implement. He also said that response times would be increased. There would thus be a massive increase in cost for a reduced service and that is not an acceptable solution.

I commend my hon. Friend for trying to ensure that, working with the Government, we get something that will ensure that we can continue to provide the service that people enjoy today.

Mr. Carmichael: Indeed. My right hon. Friend is aware that I know Councillor Raeburn very well, having worked with him previously, and the councillor’s views should be taken seriously.

We know what the situation would be if we were to lose the flexibility that is offered by the retained firefighting service, because we have seen something similar before. It is not many years since we did exactly the same thing in Scotland with the ambulance service. The consequence of the change to the ambulance service is that although we have full-time ambulance cover across the whole of Scotland, there are longer response times and the service is patchier, notwithstanding the significant amount of money that the Government have put into the ambulance service in Scotland. Ultimately, the quality of the ambulance service has been diminished. Rather than bringing dogma to the issue, we should focus on the quality of service that we have at the end of the day.

The scale of the retained firefighting service, and its importance to people, should not be underestimated. In 2007, the UK statistical information service recorded that there were 67,951 personnel in the fire and rescue
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services across the UK, of whom 37,596 were in full-time units and 18,827 were in the retained duty system. In fact, 91 per cent. of the UK’s total land mass is covered by crews who operate as part of the retained duty system. Scotland has 391 fire stations, of which 321 are staffed by retained duty firefighters. That is a total of 3,429 retained duty firefighters in Scotland.

How would the ending of the opt-out affect the retained duty system? At its simplest, let us consider the firefighter who, in his primary employment, has a full-time job that engages him or her for 37 to 40 hours a week. They have a standing commitment of between two and three hours a week for training for the retained duty service, leaving them, at most, five to eight hours a week to provide the service as part of the retained duty system.

At present, individual workers enter into an agreement with their employer that they can work for more than 48 hours a week. It is called an opt-out agreement, which is a voluntary arrangement signed by both the employer and the employee. Generally, it will include an agreed period of notice to end the opt-out agreement. Obviously, employers cannot force their employees to sign it.

The agreement is flexible, fit for purpose and it works very well. It is particularly important for businesses that would be classified as SMEs. If we are talking about the provision of a fire service in rural communities in particular, hon. and right hon. Members will be aware that the vast bulk of the economic base in less populated areas tends to be SMEs. Certainly the economic base of my constituency is almost entirely built on SMEs. It is a sector where one of the unintended consequences of the ending of the opt-out may come into play, which is the point made earlier by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). It is quite foreseeable that if we end the opt-out, the primary employer—if I can use that term—of a retained firefighter will say to his or her employee, “I need you to be available for 40, 43, 44, or 45 hours a week”. That may particularly be the case in the current economic climate, when everybody is trying to keep their cost base down and their margins tight. That pressure on SMEs will make it less attractive to employers to release employees to provide the type of fire service that they provide at present.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman describes the situation very well, outlining the economic trends in his part of the world. Nevertheless, has there not been a countervailing trend towards self-employment? That means that about a quarter of retained firefighters in Scotland could be self-employed—I would guess that is the proportion. Of course, the regulations do not apply to self-employed people, so is that not a factor that needs to be brought into the equation?

Mr. Carmichael: It is certainly a factor that must be brought into the equation. I keep coming back to the point about flexibility and, in fact, the importance of people being able to make these decisions for themselves. It would be nonsense to say that although this week I am employed in a particular capacity doing a certain job, next week I will be self-employed, so suddenly I shall be able to perform a service that otherwise I would not be able to undertake.

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I have gone on for rather longer than I had intended, and I know that others want to participate, so I shall finish by addressing recent comment on whether this is a live issue. Some people, who unfortunately have not seen fit to attend the debate, have suggested that we are engaged in some sort of scaremongering. The Scottish nationalists in particular seem to prefer engaging in debate in the columns of The Press and Journal and The Scotsman, rather than coming to put their case in the Chamber.

Our briefings for today’s debate come from pretty impeccable sources. The Local Government Association, which covers England and Wales, said in its briefing:

In its response to the consultation on the working time directive, the Chief Fire Officers Association said:

Those comments make it clear that this is a live issue, which is of concern to those who are charged with providing fire services. Indeed, David Dalziel, the chief fire officer of Grampian fire and rescue service, was reported as saying, in The Scotsman of 24 January, that unless a

Mr. Dalziel, who is also secretary to the Chief Fire Officers Association, said:

Those people do not have a political axe to grind; they are at the sharp end of providing fire and rescue services, and their views must be taken seriously.

We know what will happen if we do not engage in debate now, because we have seen the same thing before. I remind the Minister what happened with the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations 2005, which also implemented a European directive—directive 2002/15/EC. Those regulations caused enormous problems for the retained fire service and the Territorial Army before we eventually found a rather messy compromise to get us out of the situation. As a consequence, I am told, although I have not been able to check, that the road haulage company Eddie Stobart no longer allows its employees to work as part of the retained duty service. The service will face that sort of threat if we do not take these matters seriously and engage in debate now.

9.53 am

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