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Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman has raised his point on several occasions. All I can say is that the electorate are not stupid, and that communities that are worried about the future of their retained firefighters
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will know how MEPs voted. I am sure other parties will draw attention to the Liberal Democrats’ record, as well as to how Labour MEPs voted in the European Parliament; they voted to wreck the situation in respect of retained firefighting.

Let us consider the types of firefighters we currently have. We have whole-time stations in London—I understand that it is the only fire authority in the country that does not allow part-timers on to its ground—and we also have whole-time retained and day-manning stations, where whole-time firefighters go home in the evenings but are on call. There are some stations that operate only from Monday to Friday. We also have retained firefighters and voluntary firefighters.

There was something I could not understand when I first looked at the problems facing us: why were we in this country being affected so badly compared with other EU countries? The reason is simple. We pay our firefighters well, whether they are whole-time or retained. It is not a huge amount of money, but they are paid and they get a pension. As a result, our firefighters are completely different from those in the rest of the European Union. Most other firefighters in the European Union who are not full-time are volunteers and they only get expenses—surprise, surprise, Europe looks at them in a different way when it comes to this legislation from how it sees UK firefighters. That is the simple situation. I have heard all the banter going back across the Chamber tonight as to what the reason is, but the facts are there—we trained them, we give them a pension and we look after them in the way that they deserve to be looked after.

There are areas of this country, particularly in Scotland, that have voluntary firefighters, where the community has come together to pay for the firefighters and the equipment to be there and the firefighters get expenses only when they are out on call. They will be exempt from this measure. What I cannot understand is the Fire Brigades Union’s complete lack of understanding as to why it needs to join this campaign that the excellent Retained Firefighters Union has started. The measure will have an effect on the FBU’s whole-time firefighters. I am talking not only about the ones who will be part-time firefighters in the evening or at weekends, or who will be on call on their pagers, but those firefighters who have more than one job.

I have to declare an interest, because when I was a full-time firefighter I had more than one job. At the time, it was illegal, within a whole-time firefighter’s contract, to have more than one job, but we all did it—it was called fiddling. Most of the window cleaners in our communities are firefighters, as are most of the bricklayers, plumbers and so on. The contracts all got changed when a wonderful chap who came out of the Royal Marines became the world boxing champion. He was called Terry Marsh, and the contracts all got thrown out of the window because people quite liked a firefighter being the world boxing champion. In the end, the fact that firefighters should have the right to do more than one job was accepted.

This legislation will have a major effect when it comes in, and the FBU needs to understand the effects on its members as well as on some retained firefighters; the two unions should come together, bury any differences that they have had over the years in different disputes and stand up for the communities that all of these
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firefighters are looking after and representing. If they do not do so, the whole situation will be one of division. What I am sure every Member in this House wants is to have a firefighting capability in their community that is right and proper for that community, and which is safe and well trained. They also want the firefighters to be remunerated correctly for the services that they give to their community.

What would happen if this legislation were to go through? Why would it decimate so many of the retained firefighters in this country, particularly in the rural areas, but in the urban areas too? My constituency has only one whole-time fire station and two retained fire stations. When my whole-time pump appliances are detained at an incident, the retained firefighters are called out and they stand by at the whole-time station. We see the same thing happening all around the country; it is one of the reasons why even if a major fire is going on in someone’s constituency, there will always be a red fire engine sitting inside their regular whole-time station. That happens because the retained firefighters come in to cover the community, and that is a crucial element to what they do.

What could happen if this legislation were to go through? I know that the FBU feels that we have to have more whole-time firefighters, but we do not have the money for that. No community in the country, especially those in the rural areas, could have regular, full-time firemen covering every single situation. Perhaps the Government will change the legislation again on response times. Recently, some fire stations in my constituency closed because the Government changed the modelling on response times from 10 to 12 minutes. The Bovingdon fire station, which is next to my constituency and was responsible for the second appliance that got to the Buncefield fire in my constituency, was one station that was closed. I am sure all hon. Members recall that fire, which was the largest that this country has seen since the second world war. The vast majority of the firefighters at that fire, dealing with the explosion at that depot, were retained firefighters—90 per cent. of the coverage in this country is carried out by retained, part-time firefighters. I am very worried about what would happen in rural communities and in my community, which is not so rural in parts, in respect of who would provide the cover. I think that the Government believe that the communities will rise up, as they did in past centuries, and put together the fire cover. Perhaps they think that the parishes or the town councils will rise up, as they did historically, or that local companies will provide the cover. Dickinson’s, in my constituency, supplied the fire cover not just for the paper mill but for our local community in Apsley for many years, but those times have gone.

We cannot just rely on volunteers saying that they will do it for nothing if they do not get the training and the skills to work together with the whole-time firefighters. We need cohesion in the fire service in this country and the Government must get their act together and go back to the European Union to say, “Our firefighters are different. You have an excellent system in the rest of Europe that works for you, but our system is different. We pay them and give them a pension, which is right and proper, and because of that this legislation will destroy our firefighting capability in this country. That is wrong.” I stress to the Minister, in a non-party
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political way, that he should understand how devastating the directive will be for our communities and the fire services in this country.

I call again for the FBU to join the RFU and bury the hatchet. Let us forget about the problems in the past and come together to fight this ludicrous legislation that will destroy our firefighting capabilities in this country.

9.10 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): First, I want to declare an interest in the Register of Members’ Interests as an employer.

Whenever we debate the working time directive people think, “Well, with a bit of common sense, we can make the 48-hour working week work.” However, along comes the dear old European Court, delivering judgments on such issues as waiting times that immediately colour a lot of the detail and cause problems for the national health service and many other areas.

I agree with much of what has been said in the debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) I particularly want to focus on the retained fire service, Britain gets very good value for money from its fire and rescue services, particularly in rural areas. Some of the most sparsely populated areas of our country are covered by the retained fire service, which is made up of members of the local community who are compensated and who provide valuable fire cover. Some 90 per cent. of all fire cover comes from the retained fire service.

I think that this judgment will be a problem. The chief officer of Dorset fire and rescue service is very concerned about its implications, not least because most of those in the retained service have day jobs and usually train one night a week. By the time they have finished their training, they have hit the 48-hour limit without fighting any fires. The implications are that the training of our retained fire service might come under pressure if we are to recruit people to fight fires. That is a real problem for management. If one asks most chief fire officers what their key priority is for the retained firemen, they reply that it is to get them sufficiently trained, to keep them up to speed and to ensure that they turn up and cover the required number of hours to ensure that they are qualified to fight fires, which is becoming much more technical.

The retained fire service is therefore vital to our national interest. In a county such as Dorset, the bulk of the service is retained. The Government get very good value for money and the council tax payers of Dorset get very good value for money from the service. Unless we get a derogation from the directive, there is no way in which we shall be able to provide fire cover, save people’s lives and give people security without employing substantially more firefighters at a substantially greater cost.

I and other Dorset Members have made representations about this year’s grant to Dorset fire and rescue service. The increase this year was, I think, 0.5 per cent., which puts the service under severe pressure. We might well have to have fewer full-time engines. We will be required to rely far more on the retained fire service, and the
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additional consequences of the 48-hour week make the task almost impossible for our excellent chief fire officer. I hope that the Government can sort this out.

A clear message on the national health service has come from most of the royal colleges. We would not necessarily all agree with it, but there are real concerns about how we will manage the change. We have known about the problem for a long time, but I do not believe that there has been sufficient work force planning. I have had meetings with doctors and people who run hospitals, and the truth is that some hospitals are well up on the game and could work a 48-hour week, but a lot could not. The point made earlier in the debate about some of the smaller hospitals in rural areas is very important.

The Secretary of State was very robust in his response today but, given their scale, I am a little disappointed that he did not address the concerns expressed by responsible organisations. Rather than going back to first principles, I hope that he will set a pathway that will allow us to have a robust debate about how we get through this very difficult decision.

Ideally, we would want junior doctors to work shorter hours, but they must train and gain experience. That problem has come up time and again. As we have heard, the 48-hour week poses a real problem for shifts and the handover of patients, so I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will be able to reassure us that the Government are looking into protecting our derogation when the great conciliation meeting takes place. However, August is approaching very rapidly and we need to make progress.

I have always believed in a fairly flexible labour market. As a responsible individual, of course I believe that we must have decent health and safety provisions but, as we have heard, this is a pretty safe country in which people can work and go about their ordinary business. At a time of economic strain and stress, when a lot of resources have gone into the NHS, it is a pity that we are facing problems that may impact on the service and on patients. They may also impact on people who want to provide a service and be properly trained to do the job in future years.

9.16 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): I am delighted to speak in this debate, and first I want to express my amazement at what seems to be quite a lot of agreement between the parties. Everyone agrees that excess hours are impossible. When I worked as a houseman at the old Westminster hospital, I crashed my car on the way home after being on duty all one night and for several nights before that. Excess hours, as we all agree, are completely unacceptable now.

We are also all against the exploitation of junior doctors. I am delighted to follow the hon. Members for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) and for Poole (Mr. Syms), because retained firefighters are crucial in my area. I have one full-time station and two retained stations, and we have absolutely got to keep them.

There is also widespread agreement—certainly on the Front Benches—that the individual opt-out must be free and without any coercion. I at last understand the difference between sectoral and individual opt-outs, so that is one thing that I have gained from the debate. There is also a certain amount of agreement about
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applying for some derogation. The Government are limiting it to some specialties and isolated communities, but that is something that we need to work for.

There is no agreement about hours, although everyone seems to think that 65 to 70 hours a week are too many. The Royal College of Physicians has suggested 52 hours a week as a short-term compromise, and I think that that sounds very reasonable.

I wish to underline the importance of securing the free individual opt-out and the temporary derogation. Most people seem to think that doctors merely want to protect their own interests and avoid working too hard, but I genuinely believe that most approach the matter from the patient’s point of view.

Quality is the watchword. When people complain to me about quality, they talk about the lack of continuity and communication, both of which have been mentioned in the debate. Continuity is crucial, but shift systems are inevitable: unfortunately, continuity will be lost unless there is really good handover when shifts change. Handover implies and needs communication. I invite hon. Members to put themselves in the position of a junior hospital doctor struggling to get through the caring work. He knows he has to leave when 5 o’clock comes, and as a result the handover is squeezed out. That is a crucial factor. I mean not only communication between doctors, but communication between the doctor and the nurse and—this is the way to prevent complaints—between the doctor and the patient and relatives.

Quite a lot has been said about training. It is worth remembering that although one can get a certain amount of training from books, lectures and seminars, certain things can be learned only by experience. From the medical point of view, specialists have to see that their diagnosis and their treatment are right. They have to be able to follow up. If they cannot see a patient for any length of time, they will miss out on that.

Surgeons put the surgical point of view very bluntly: unless one does enough cutting, one does not become a good surgeon. It is experience of operations that counts. In my day, when I worked as a house surgeon—we all had to do that, even though we were to be physicians—I did my appendicectomies in the middle of the night with a very good senior house officer holding my hand. People must have that sort of apprenticeship experience in their training.

The British Medical Association has been quoted as saying that it is fully in favour of the 48 hours, but it is right that it should attach some conditions. One condition is consultant expansion. Somebody will have to do the work if there are not enough junior doctors around, and that means that there will have to be more consultants. I am tremendously glad that I am retired, because that means that consultants will have to work at night much more than they did in my day.

I was disappointed that the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), the Chair of the Health Committee, tended not to accept the statements from the royal colleges. I will read what the statement from the Royal College of Physicians said. I take the point that its statement is not a scientific survey, but it gives a real impression of what is happening. It says:

I will finish my remarks by hoping that the Government will get the derogation, and the free individual opt-out; indeed, I push them to do so. In the meantime, we must have a compromise until we have adequate consultant numbers, have worked out how to provide junior doctor training adequately, and can ensure adequate continuity of care. We must also ensure adequate time for communication, not only between doctors, and between doctors and nurses, but between doctors and patients and their relatives.

9.23 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): May I first say that what has happened in the European Parliament, and the way in which MEPs from the Government party voted in the European Parliament, has caused great concern to those who will be affected by the European directive? My party believes that what happens on working time should be determined nationally, and not Europe wide. That point was illustrated very well by the contribution from the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who pointed out that there are particular circumstances affecting the United Kingdom, namely those pertaining to retained firefighters. That situation is unique in Europe, so a European directive is not suitable. There are many other examples of cases in which we need national flexibility. I welcome the assurance given by Government Front Benchers that despite what happened with the MEPs from the Government’s own party, Ministers will at least fight to retain the opt-out.

I will cut my remarks short, because there is another Member who wishes to speak, but let me just put something on record first. In Northern Ireland in particular, the working time directive would cause a great problem for many of the emergency services. Of the 68 fire stations in Northern Ireland, 46 rely totally on retained firefighters. If the working time directive applied to them, large parts of Northern Ireland would be left without a local fire station. As has been pointed out, it is not an option to say, “Well, let’s have full-time firefighters in all those stations.” One thousand firefighters in Northern Ireland are retained firefighters and would be affected by the measure.

In my constituency the life boat would be affected, as would the coastguards. Ironically, although the directive is supposed to be applied for health and safety reasons, health and safety would be impaired by it. It is therefore important that the Government push on their commitment that the opt-out will be retained.

At a time of recession, when Northern Ireland is particularly dependent on small businesses, flexible hours will enable many businesses to remain viable and will probably enable many workers to stay in employment.

For all those reasons, I welcome the commitment that has been given from the Front Bench today, though there still appears to be some unwillingness to consider the sectoral opt-out. The Retained Firefighters Union in Northern Ireland has asked for the opt-out to apply collectively to the fire service. I do not believe that a collective or a sectoral application is impossible. That does not seem to be a problem for other European countries, so why should it not be possible for the United Kingdom?

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Flexibility and the right of countries to determine their own working practices, to which individuals can sign up, are important. Rather than the super-state of Europe dictating to us, the issue should be determined by this Parliament and its Members, who are elected to reflect the needs of their constituents and their own country.

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