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11 Feb 2009 : Column 422WH—continued

Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) says from a sedentary position that the figure is rounded up over a period. Indeed, there is much more flexibility than people would have us believe. People recognise that I am no fan of the European Union, nor is my hon. Friend, but they must
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also recognise that retained firefighters are put in an exploitatable position because of the number of hours they have to work.

I want to turn the debate on its head.

Mike Penning: rose—

Mr. Drew: I give way briefly, because other people want to speak.

Mike Penning: I am very conscious of that. The way in which the retained call-out system works means that it is entirely up to the firefighter whether they respond to the call. If they have been on night duty and are tired, it is entirely up to them. There are more than four to a station—they need four to a pump to ride—and it is entirely up to them, so it is not true to say that even if they have been up all night they will have to respond.

Mr. Drew: I wish that was so.

Mike Penning: It is.

Mr. Drew: I know very well that call-out is voluntary, but, at the end of the day, people do the job not only because they love being firefighters, but because it is an important consideration in terms of income. As a father-in-law, I must say that it is not unimportant. When retained firefighters do not get the shouts, their income goes down, and that is of not inconsiderable importance.

In my constituency, there are four stations with retained firefighters—Stroud, Nailsworth, Painswick and Dursley— and I have nothing but praise for the people who work as retained firefighters. At the Stroud station, they work alongside the full-time firefighters, a situation to which the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) referred, and it is a very amicable arrangement, although there are some problems. Until recently, it was difficult to recruit people, but the fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire has done well to up its recruiting standards, and the good thing is that full-time firefighters and retained personnel are treated exactly the same in terms of equipment and training. The latter have less time to train, but they are given every opportunity.

There are two problems, however. The first problem, about which I bear some angst, is that the relationship between retained and full-time firefighters is not helped by some of the recruitment policies that fire services operate. I know that, these days, it is important that we reflect the balance of ethnicity, gender and so on, but it is also important that retained firefighters are given opportunities to enter the full-time service. Many people become special constables because it provides access to the police, and, similarly, access is one reason why people join the retained fire service. Many people—not just my son-in-law, who would love to join the full-time service—tell me that there are problems doing so, however, and that people can be strung along: they are told that they have a good chance of entering the full-time service, but it never seems to happen. That causes disillusionment, and disillusioned retained firefighters are not a good entity within the wider fire service.

The second and more important problem is how we get employers to release people so that they can serve in the retained fire service. That is the crux of recruitment. Such service used to be a point of honour, and firms would willingly make people available. In Dursley, the whole station was staffed with retained firefighters when 6,000 Lister-Petter employees worked next door. Now,
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the firm employs about 350 people at best and, from memory, I do not think that any retained staff come from there anymore—for all sorts of reasons. It is nice that the opt-out—the working time directive—is at the root of the issue, but the fundamental question is: how do we give people security, so that if they take on such an important role their employer will support them and, to some extent, be compensated for their time?

The difficulty with the job, as the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead knows, is that training does not happen every Thursday, and every call-out does not come on a Friday night; firefighters may be on call for the entire weekend because there is a major fire in Stroud, as there was recently, but then they may not be called out for another two or three weeks. That is fine if they have a sympathetic employer, but, too often, employers look at the bottom line, as we know in relation to the Territorial Army. We must find a way to protect people, so that we do not put them at risk. Instead, we must assure them that if they do this very valued job, we will give them the opportunity to enter the full-time service or to secure their employment in other ways. That is the key issue, and I do not want to get too hung up on the working time directive.

10.18 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate. The working time directive should prevent employers from exploiting workers by forcing them to work long hours, but it should not prevent workers, such as retained firefighters, from carrying out the vital, life-saving work of answering emergency calls, if that is what they want to do.

Retained and volunteer firefighters are one group whose work will be threatened if Britain loses its opt-out. In remote communities, emergency service work, such as firefighting, is carried out by local volunteers, and in those communities there is always a tremendous willingness to work together for the good of the community. There is never a lack of volunteers for emergency service work, such as firefighting, crewing the lifeboat, mountain rescue and so on.

It is right that retained firefighters should be rewarded—remuneration is part of the job—but in my experience that is not the main reason why people in remote communities volunteer for the retained fire service. They do not get high remuneration—serving the community is their main motivation. In my constituency, there are only two whole-time fire stations—in Oban and Helensburgh—and even they have retained crews as well as whole-time crews.

In addition to those two stations, there are 13 retained and 27 volunteer units. Given the size of my constituency and others in the highlands and islands, it would obviously take far too long for a fire brigade to get from fire stations such as those in Oban or Helensburgh to many outlying areas in the event of an emergency. In the case of the islands, it clearly would be totally impractical to send a unit from the mainland.

Mr. Carmichael: Does my hon. Friend agree that for island communities—he represents many—there is an added imperative because the presence of retained
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firefighters contributes to the ability to maintain lifeline air services to and from the island, particularly where the provision is very small planes?

Mr. Reid: My hon. Friend is right. Argyll and Bute council recently started air services to the small islands of Coll and Colonsay, but they would be completely impractical without volunteer firefighters.

As an example of the time it takes to get to a fire, a retained firefighter from Cove, which is in my constituency but is by no means in the remotest part, told me:

Sending a whole-time fire crew from the stations in the towns is completely impractical. Equally, it would be completely impractical to staff the 42 fire stations in my constituency with round-the-clock, full-time crews. Some of the hon. Members who have spoken in favour of Britain losing the opt-out have not come up with an alternative to the present system of using retained firefighters in the provision of a fire service for the highlands and islands.

As was explained earlier, retained firefighters do normal jobs as well as the job of a retained firefighter. On top of their ordinary job, they can be on call for up to 120 hours on what is termed inactive on-call. I accept that the proposals in the directive do not include inactive on-call in the number of hours that would be capped at 48, but all sorts of complicated formulas have been proposed by the European Parliament and none of them would allow retained firefighters to be on call for anything like the 120 hours that many are at present. Any of the formulas put forward by the European Parliament would simply make the whole retention system impractical.

As my hon. Friend said, in rural communities at present, the retained firefighter’s main employer is more than willing to allow time off for training and for fighting fires. However, in these difficult times, if restrictions were to be placed on the number of hours that the retained firefighter could work in their main job, many employers may reluctantly have to refuse them permission to carry on doing their firefighting job.

Many of the fire stations in my constituency are crewed by volunteer firefighters rather than retained ones. My understanding of the difference between a volunteer and a retained firefighter is that the volunteer does not get paid a retainer for inactive on-call, but they are still paid for the time that they spend training and responding to incidents. They, too, would be affected by the directive. The volunteer stations are on small islands or remote communities on the mainland. Again, it would be totally impractical to service them with whole-time crews.

In many rural communities, people volunteering for extra work over and above their main job is the only way that any of the emergency services can function. That is particularly true of the smaller islands, where most people do several jobs. It is the only way that a small island can function. The EU cannot be allowed to destroy years of traditional ways of working and saving
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lives throughout rural Britain. As other hon. Members have said, the present system works, so it should not be broken up.

The Government have my full support in their efforts to keep Britain’s opt-out, and I urge them to do all that they can to ensure that whatever comes out at the end of the negotiations means that our retained and volunteer firefighting services can continue working successfully, as they have for many years.

10.25 am

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I shall make only a brief contribution. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, which has shown that the issue is not straightforward. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) outlined the complexities of the working time directive and its impacts.

Unlike other hon. Members, I have not been contacted by any of the councillors from the local administration in Dumfries and Galloway council, but perhaps that says more about my relationship with the Conservative-Scottish National party Administration than anything else. However, I have been asked why the working time directive is an issue. In the view of some people, there is no difference between a retained firefighter who works in a daily job and is called out on fire and rescue duties, and a whole-time firefighter who does a second job. I have tried to explain to people that the issue is just not that simple. We have to deal with the complexity of the working time directive.

I merely want to put on record the fact that the significance of retained firefighters to the Dumfries and Galloway region—not just my constituency—is there for all to see. There are 17 fire stations: one whole-time, 15 retained, and one auxiliary firefighting crew in the village of Drummore. More than 200 uniformed staff are based at the retained stations. As someone who was the chairman of the Dumfries and Galloway regional council public protection committee between 1990 and 1994, I very much value the job that those people do in our constituencies. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about those who employ retained firefighters, because the system would collapse if they were unable to release staff.

Mr. Carmichael: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that if a rigid limit were imposed on the number of hours for which an employee is available to a primary employer, several employers, especially those in small and medium-sized enterprises, would be more likely to refuse permission to somebody who wishes to undertake service in the retained service?

Mr. Brown: I would not disagree with that, but, in agreeing with it, I would say that we need to deal with some of the complexities. It is good that we have two or three years’ breathing space, but we should not let this issue run for that period and achieve a solution at the 11th hour. We need to work with our colleagues in the European Parliament to determine how we might be able to secure an opt-out. I know that there is a commitment to retain as best we can—in some areas, at least—an opt-out that delivers the right working conditions and hours, and the family-friendly policies that we all want for workers in the UK. I know that work is continuing
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in respect of this matter, and I hope that the Minister and our colleagues and counterparts in the European Union can reach a conclusion well in advance of the 2012 deadline.

10.29 am

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, whose importance is shown by the number of hon. Members who have attended the Chamber to speak, intervene or just listen. The matter was brought to our attention by the Retained Firefighters Union. I did a bit of homework and spoke to a number of people, as I am sure my hon. Friend did, and discovered that this was a real, live issue that was causing grave concern. That is why I tabled early-day motion 552, which sets out the concerns that have been expressed to me.

I have been accused this morning of scaremongering for tabling EDM 552, but I refute that suggestion, because I did so to reflect both the views of many of my constituents who are concerned about the fire service that they will have and the views of many retained fireman whom I know personally: they are friends of mine. I know exactly what those retained firemen do and the amount of training that they put in. I know how much they enjoy what they do and how much they like to be part of that service. The EDM was tabled to reflect their concern and that of the community. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having got off the mark far faster than me in securing this debate.

My hon. Friend stressed the importance of the work of retained firefighters overall and, naturally, as I do, stressed their importance in remote and rural areas. I confirm the comments that he made to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning): this is not about how the fire service is dealt with in rural areas as opposed to urban areas. The fact that we choose to stress the importance of the service in our remote and rural constituencies does nothing to gainsay the exceptional job that is done by retained firefighters in urban areas, where, as he has explained, they fulfil a vital role.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would permit me to emphasise that, in my constituency, for example, there is not one fire station that is wholly manned by whole-time firemen. The typical arrangement is for a full-time fireman to be in charge of the station, possibly with an assistant, with the rest of the teams—the crews—made up entirely of retained firemen who form the backbone. I believe that there are some 391 fire stations in Scotland, of which some 321 are manned by retained firemen. A statistic I always appreciate is that 91 per cent. of the landmass of the UK is covered wholly by retained firemen.

Mike Penning: I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying the point on the urban and rural situation. Just to clarify things further, I have a very urban seat in Hemel Hempstead and a very rural constituency surrounding it. I only have one whole-time station: the rest are manned by retained firefighters. That shows exactly what can happen in and around London.

John Thurso: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s clarification.

Over the years I have visited many fire stations, which provide a vital emergency service and do a great job. I
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do not think that a single hon. Member from any party in the Chamber would say anything other than that our fire services do a splendid job. I was most impressed, as I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, by the training facility of the highlands fire brigade at Invergordon. I visited that facility and observed the professionalism with which the training was given to everybody who passed through, including some of the volunteer firemen from community response units; that was of great interest to me and underlined how well all those firemen operate.

Hon. Members have asked whether there is a problem. All the sources to whom I have spoken indicated that a real problem is brewing. However, there is some confusion about the extent of the problem, which is why my hon. Friend called for this debate. There are three years to go until the impact of what is being discussed at the European Union will come into force and it is much better to discuss the matter now and seek a proper solution than, as my hon. Friend said, wait for three years to see how it pans out and deal with a problem when it arrives, rather than today. That is why I am looking to the Minister to give—I hope—some reassurance about how the Government are going to take this matter forward.

A number of Government Members sought to argue that this is all a matter of health and safety and that those of us involved in tabling the EDM or who brought forward the debate are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said that we should simply look at it the other way round. He then told us that in emergency situations, retained firefighters are exempt anyway, which struck me as rather curious, because if ever there was a moment when people needed health and safety I would have thought it would be in the middle of an emergency. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, in fact, he is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

I have never met a fireman who was not concerned about health and safety. Indeed, I have always been impressed by the way in which health and safety has been both inculcated in the fire service, how it has trained for it and the way in which it practises it. That is not the issue. The issue is that people want to volunteer to do something for their community, and they can do so in various ways. Some volunteer for charitable work. In a number of areas of charitable work individuals, not least the sea cadets and others, spend a considerable number of hours undertaking dangerous work on the sea, for example, and nobody says that they should not do it because they have already worked 40 or 44 hours in their main job—we would not think of doing so. We have to understand that people choose to volunteer for certain exercises, and limiting that where there is a good system for health and safety in place—with the consequences that that might deliver—is looking at this matter from the wrong direction.

I should like to read a letter from a retained fireman, which goes to the point about volunteering:

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