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11 Feb 2009 : Column 416WH—continued

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I chair the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, and before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was the FBU’s
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solicitor for 17 years, so I have a little knowledge of these issues. The FBU represents 11,000 of the 14,000 firefighters who work on retained duty, so it represents the vast majority of them.

The debate has so far been focused on Scotland, but of course it goes beyond Scotland, as its title includes the country as a whole. We recognise that there is an issue to address, but I think that the hon. Gentleman has come to the wrong conclusion. We can get a little lost in double and treble negatives about what the directive is all about and ending the opt-out, but essentially it is about restricting the maximum number of working hours to 48. Why is that being done? It is not because of some European desire to screw up the British fire service; it is a health, safety and welfare issue that aims to improve the lives of individuals. Jobs such as those in the fire service have many inherent risks and are dangerous enough already. We do not want to increase those risks either for the firefighters concerned or for the people whom they might be called upon to rescue.

Let me deal with some of the myths that surround working time directive requirements. The fire service has peaks and troughs in demand, like many businesses and services, and the working time directive recognises those problems by requiring an average 48-hour week over a 26-week period, so it can provide the operational flexibility that the fire service needs. Moreover, the directive does not apply in emergencies when property, life or limb are at risk, so no firefighter will be stopped from doing their job. Services can waive the 48-hour week requirement in a wide range of emergencies, such as when they have temporary staff shortages, or in periods when they might be called on because of severe weather conditions, as they have been in the past few days.

Mike Penning: I thought that the hon. Gentleman would mention that there are no retained firefighters in London—in fact, London refuses to allow retained firefighters to come on to its patch. Should not that have been an important part of his opening remarks, as a London MP?

Mr. Dismore: Of course, I am a London MP, and it is correct that London operates on a whole-time fire service basis, but that is not to say that I do not have some knowledge of this subject, because my constituency is the last one before the countryside of Hertfordshire.

Mike Penning: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore: No, because the hon. Gentleman may make his point later. I do not see—

Mike Penning: You have misinterpreted what I said.

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order.

Mr. Dismore: I do not think that I did misinterpret the hon. Gentleman. He may make his point later, but it does not make a great deal of difference to the points that I am making.

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As I was saying, emergencies are not caught by the 48-hour rule, so protracted incidents can be dealt with. Obviously, managers have to roster staff to try to avoid overwork, but when there are major crises such as the Buncefield oil fire, relief crews will inevitably be brought in from other brigades, as happened then.

Some firefighters might have to change their working patterns, but that could be managed through relatively minor adjustments in the years between now and when the rule changes occur. Full-time firefighters work a variety of shifts, but typically work 48-hour shifts in four-day patterns, which provides for a 42-hour working week. Only 4,000 retained firefighters work more than 50 hours, with 2,500 working more than 60 hours. It should therefore be possible, over time, to manage arrangements to reduce requirements on them.

There is a UK-wide shortage of retained firefighters—between 3,000 and 5,000 across the country—and the way to deal with that problem is to improve recruitment and retention to ease the pressure on retained firefighters and to comply with the directive. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned that the labour market is tight, but it should be easier to recruit retained firefighters at such a time because that is a secure form of employment. Given that many people are losing their job or being put on short-time working—a trend that has been adopted in many parts of the world to deal with the financial pressures being faced—this is a good time to recruit firefighters. That has to be considered.

Under the retained system, firefighters have other jobs and make themselves available on call. On-call periods are up to 120 hours a week, rostered over five days. However, those on-call hours do not count towards the 48-hour requirement. The only time that does count toward it is time spent on duty when attending incidents or training. It is not beyond the wit of any fire service gradually to reduce the limits to bite-sized chunks to achieve the objectives required by the working time directive. It is important to recognise that the average retained firefighter works 47.7 hours per week, when all their jobs are put together, which is within the time limit set by the directive. A very small number of retained firefighters who currently work very long hours might, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, choose to reduce the amount of overtime that they do in their main job. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said in his intervention, one in five retained firefighters are exempt anyway because they are self-employed.

The hon. Gentleman is approaching this from the wrong direction. He thinks that the reduction in working hours to a maximum of 48, which would be phased in over time, is the evil, but it is not. The evil is the fact that we in this country expect people to work ever-longer hours, which is not in their best interests from a health and safety or a welfare point of view. We should be considering alternatives to enable people to work shorter hours, so that they can have a family life and they are not subjected to such pressures.

Mr. Djanogly: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore: In a moment. I have nearly finished and the hon. Gentleman will make his own speech later.

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It is important to recognise that this is being done for the benefit of workers, not to wind them up or frustrate them. There are other options. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has overstated the problem. There is plenty of time to adjust to the new requirements—for example, we could consider increasing recruitment—so let us not overstate the problem initially.

David Taylor rose—

Mike Penning rose—

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. I call David Taylor.

David Taylor: Does my hon. Friend agree that although those who tabled and supported early-day motion 552 were, no doubt, well intentioned, they were really taking part in the usual Liberal tactic of scaremongering? They stand in front of schools, post offices and retained fire stations that they say are going to close and when they do not close—and they never were going to—they claim the credit for it. That is what this is really about, is it not?

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes a party political point, but I have tried to rise above the party politics in the debate. However, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred to a £100 million price tag in relation to the change, which I think is a bizarre figure that is simply not credible.

Mr. Carmichael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore: No. The hon. Gentleman has made his points and many others want to speak. I have now concluded my remarks.

10.1 am

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I thought I had been called to speak a few moments ago, and having listened to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), perhaps it would have been better if I had. This is a serious debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on obtaining it.

We have just heard the hon. Member for Hendon demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of what retained firefighters are about. I will quickly touch on the point that I made in my intervention on him. I did not say that he had retained firefighters in his constituency. I am sure that his constituents would like Hertfordshire firefighters to come over the border to help them in their hour of need, as happened at Buncefield when the London fire service came to us. The London fire service categorically will not allow retained firefighters across its borders to come on stand by in London; it will not allow that to happen. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) saying from a sedentary position that it is a safety issue?

David Taylor: The reason why retained firefighters are so successful and necessary in deeply rural areas is the relative sparsity of the population. In London, there must be thousands of people within five minutes—or whatever the time is—of a retained fire station. In rural areas, that is less often the case. That is the reason—it is a city.

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Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman simply does not understand what retained firefighters do. I slightly disagree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland: this is not a rural-urban issue. I was a firefighter in urban Essex and every day of the week that I was on duty, I worked with retained firefighters.

Mr. Carmichael: If I gave the impression to the hon. Gentleman that I regard this as a rural-urban issue, I apologise. That was certainly not my intention. If he recalls the response that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey—and God knows where else—(Danny Alexander), he will recall that I emphasised the ability of retained and full-time firefighters to work together in his area and the importance of that.

Mike Penning: I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. It is crucial that people reading and listening to this debate understand that retained and whole-time firefighters work together daily in rural and urban areas. The point I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Hendon is that the London fire service does not understand that; it never has and never will. I have stood by at stations whose personnel have been pulled into London and, on the way in, driven past retained stations whose personnel could have gone into London to help stand by. Regularly in my constituency, when the two pumps at the Hemel station are called out and detained at an incident, it is the retained firefighters who come out and stand by to protect my largest town and community. Retained firefighters are a crucial part of community spirit, and that is proved every day.

I pay tribute to the Retained Firefighters Union and the Fire Brigades Union, and I declare an interest because I was a member of the FBU for many years. The fire service was a closed shop in those days. I had no choice but to join, but I made sure that I stopped the donation to the Labour party that came from my dues to the FBU as soon as possible. However, it is crucial that the two unions work together on this and do not bury their heads in the sand. I hope that that will happen. For many years, the FBU was anti-retained firefighters to the extent that when I served in Essex, they locked firefighters out of the station when they arrived for stand by. I have seen it and I know that it happens—in certain parts of the country, it still takes place today. The unions need to work together as one national fire service.

In certain parts of the country, the system has worked well. We have four types of firefighters in this country: whole time—the type that we have in London—whole-time retained, day manning, and retained. The system is different from that in any other part of the world. We pay retained firefighters for their dedication—we give them a pension, and payment for the time that they commit to their community—and that is why they fall inside the ludicrous rule on the 48-hour week. The rest of Europe is not affected in the same way. Local community firefighters in the rest of Europe are just as dedicated as ours: they want to serve their community and they regularly go out to protect their community. However, they are classed as volunteers and only get expenses. They are therefore not classed as employed and are exempt from the
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directive. Our firefighters are not. Will the Minister explain why we do not have an exemption because of the special circumstances we have in relation to the different types of firefighters?

Those of us who have lived on the continent will have seen that ours is a better system. People should not be asked to put their lives on the line and not be paid for it. We should not have an “us and them” situation where whole-time firemen are paid and retained firemen working next to them on jobs are not paid. That is wrong and is something that should be dealt with. I would have thought that that was something the Labour party would understand and fight the cause for.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the vital points about the retained system is the level of first-class training that is given to the retained firefighters, which I have seen in my constituency at Invergordon? It is appropriate that retained firefighters are properly paid, so that they are properly committed to that training and deliver the excellence and professionalism he describes.

Mike Penning: I could not agree more. When I first served, in the early 1980s, it was horrible because the retained did not train with the regulars and no whole-time fireman was allowed to be a retained firefighter. That seemed ludicrous to me. When I left the Army and joined the fire service, I was a skilled professional and a huge amount of taxpayers’ money was being dedicated to my training, but I was not allowed to go and serve my community on my day off, as retained firemen were allowed to do. Fortunately, that has changed and we have developed whole-time manning stations—there is an excellent day manning station in Woodham Ferrers in Essex, where I used to stand by when I served. In my county, we are carefully considering day manning stations because they provide a better way for the fire service to serve the community.

I pay tribute to the fire services around the country that came to my constituency on 11 December 2005, when the largest explosion in this country since the second world war, and subsequently the largest fire, took place at the Buncefield oil depot. I was there with the firefighters for four days, and I never knew who was a retained fireman or who was a whole-time retained or a regular full-time fireman. Actually, that is not true. I did know because the London fire service wear silly pink uniforms these days, and I knew that they were whole time. I do not know why on earth they wear pink, but that was how we knew that they were London firemen. However, in terms of the job that they did on the ground, we did not know whether the firefighters were whole time, regulars or what. They came from all over the country. At the time, my mayor paid tribute to every single fire service, and they were invited back to a dedication ceremony.

That tells us about the situation of retained firefighters. During the debate, we have heard about the cost and what would happen if the retained service is undermined by the directive. I do not agree about the cost. We know what would happen: the communities would do it—they would do it like they do it in Europe.
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I am not an expert on Scotland but, in my part of the world, we recently lost retained fire stations when the Government reconfigured the response times. Scotland could not have whole-time firefighters. The position would be as it was all those years ago, when the fire service started, when people rose up and established fire stations to protect their community. They did it because of their love for and belief in their fellow residents, but it would not be right to have to do that now.

If something is not broken, we should not destroy it. The current system works fantastically well. I simply do not understand why we must kowtow to comments such as, “No one should be forced to do more than a 48-hour week.” No retained firefighter is forced to do it; they do it for the love of their community and to protect their community, and such comments undermine their dedication to their community. I never, ever met a retained firefighter who came on shift and said, “I hate being here; I don’t want to be here.” They love it, because they are serving their community. If we allow that to be undermined by the ludicrous idea of people being told that they cannot work for their community because they happen to have done another job during the course of the day, it will be a sad day for this country.

10.10 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am aware that a number of hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall be brief. I declare an interest: my son-in-law is a retained firefighter, and he knows rather well what this debate is all about. With the deepest respect, I must say that the major points about the threats to the retained service have been missed in this debate.

I am happy to engage with the issue, but I did not sign early-day motion 552, even though I have some sympathy with it and recognise that we must consider the opt-out. I am a member of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, and it must be stated that the most important issue is that the opt-out became such a political issue in terms of working hours because of health and safety. If firefighters do not abide by health and safety regulations and do not have them at the forefront of their minds, who will? It is absolutely wrong to put in harm’s way people who may have done too many hours. I worry about my son-in-law in that regard, although I recognise that there needs to be some flexibility.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) would not take my intervention, so may I stress that I am not peddling my own scaremongering? As I made clear at the end of my remarks, significant, objective voices recognise the problem, too, so will the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) not accept that there is a real problem with the argument that firefighters must have an absolute cut-off point? Why is it healthy and safe to work for 47.5 hours but not for 48.5 hours? [Interruption.]

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