HC Deb 30 November 1976 vol 921 cc675-7
10. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he will make a statement about the breakdown of ambulance services in the Essex area.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Eric Deakins)

Following a dispute over the payment of meal allowances, about half of the ambulance men in Essex are taking mainly unofficial industrial action; the remainder are working normally. Emergency services are being maintained, together with more than half the routine ambulance services. Talks have continued between management and unions and the assistance of the conciliation officers of ACAS has been sought by the unions with the full agreement of the authority. I hope that this will secure an early return to full, normal working.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Echoing that, may I ask the Minister whether we can expect an overhaul of the unsatisfactory Whitley procedure? May I also ask him whether he will consider the injustice, which I have discussed with the union, of the denial of weighting allowance to a handful of ambulance men in Waltham Abbey?

Mr. Deakins

It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the original cause of the dispute when conciliation is going on. In reply to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, we must now await the report. which will be out very shortly, of Lord McCarthy on the whole Whitley machinery.

Mr. Newens

Will my hon. Friend investigate why what amounts to a lockout notice was served on ambulance men who have an unparalleled record of good labour relations and public service in this area, thus converting what was a small dispute into one which is far more widespread? Would it not cost more, in terms of the supplementary benefit which will have to be paid to the families of men who have stopped, than it would cost to solve this dispute, even if the men's demands were met in full?

Mr. Deakins

In an industrial dispute such as this, it does not help to make judgments, particularly in the House, about the actions of either party. We must all hope that the action by ACAS will help to resolve the dispute and lead to an early return to full normal working. I think that is what we all want.

Mr. McCrindle

In the event of a major emergency in the Essex area, have any arrangements been made to import ambulance services from surrounding areas?

Mr. Deakins

Yes, indeed. If a major emergency arises, as distinct from a normal emergency—if I may use that expression—there are appropriate liaison arrangements with neighbouring authorities.

Mr. Moonman

How many ambulances are out of service? Will the Minister also say what lessons he can draw from this dispute and what rôle he sees himself performing? I ask this because there has been some delay. When there is an obdurate health authority, I should have thought that the Minister had some function to perform.

Mr. Deakins

I cannot give the exact number of ambulances out of service. About half the men—about 240—are still engaged in this unofficial action. On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, this is a local dispute and I do not think that it is one in which I can usefully intervene. There is regional and national negotiating machinery. My officials and I have kept in very close touch with the situation, day by day and hour by hour, over the past eight or nine days. I can assure my hon. Friend and hon. Members from those parts of Essex which are affected that I hope that the measures which have now been taken by agreement between the unions and management will lead to an early resumption of normal working.