HC Deb 08 December 1977 vol 940 cc1651-60
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Fire Service pay dispute.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister held a meeting with the Executive Council of the Fire Brigades Union on 29th November. At that meeting he explained the reasons for the Government's pay policy which made it impossible to meet the union's claim for a very large pay increase in the current year. He indicated that the Government would be ready to encourage the employers and the union to work out together a formula for determining Fire Service pay in the future. He said that if agreement could be reached the Government would consider how they might underwrite the settlement.

The establishment of a formula is a matter for negotiation by the two sides in the National Joint Council for Local Authorities Fire Brigades; but the Government have been considering what guidance might be offered on the framework within which an agreement might be reached which could be underwritten by the Government. I have today given guidance to the National Joint Council in the following terms: The Government accepts that a formula for the proper remuneration of the Fire Service should be established to determine for the future appropriate rates of pay. The establishment of such a formula is a matter for negotiation in the NJC; but the Government for its part would be prepared to see a defined relationship between the pay of the qualified fireman and that of other workers. Because of the need to reduce inflation the Government cannot agree to an increase in the year beginning 7th November 1977 beyond the 10 per cent. already offered; but it would be prepared to agree to the full implementation of the formula agreed by two approximately equal stages in November 1978 and November 1979. The Government would be prepared to contribute through the rate support grant its share of the cost of a settlement on this basis and would, exceptionally, guarantee that the phasing-in would not be thwarted by some unforeseen adverse change in economic circumstances. The Government hopes that negotiations will also continue in the NJC on the reduction of the 48-hour week. If a shorter working week is to be introduced without loss of pay, this would have to be on the basis of more productive working routines which permitted a more cost effective use of the time not spent on fire fighting. Agreement withn this framework, underwritten by the Government, will provide a sound means of settling the proper remuneration of the Fire Service for many years to come. It will not give the firemen all they want immediately, but the overriding need is to reduce inflation and it is not possible in the present round to go beyond the 10 per cent. increase which the employers have already offered. On the other hand, it will give the firemen an agreed and assured basis for their pay in the longer term.

It is the view of the Government that the 10 per cent. increase already on offer, coupled with agreement on a future pay formula guaranteed by the Government, and the prospect of a shorter working week to be introduced without loss of pay, provide an honourable basis for settling the present damaging dispute.

I have emphasised to both sides of the NJC the importance which the Government attach to pressing ahead with negotiations with the utmost urgency, and discussions are already in progress.

Mr. Whitelaw

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that there will be widespread agreement with the objective of settling in a more orderly way the pay for groups which have a key role in the protection of our society? Would he not agree that any such very exceptional and special long-term treatment as is proposed should be accompanied by a no-strike undertaking, as in the case of the police and the Armed Services? Who is to define the relationship between the pay of firemen and that of other workers, and to decide who are the other workers?

Mr. Rees

The latter point is a matter for the NJC. It has been discussing this matter for some time. I understand that an agreement could be found very quickly. I believe it is right that it should be a matter for the NJC so that it can remain in the negotiating arena with the people who are involved in the customs and practice of the Fire Service.

The question of the longer term raises wider issues. It is not my view that the question of the right to strike of firemen is appropriate for discussion at this moment.

Mr. English

The rate support grant has a complex formula, no element of which, as I recollect, relates to the pay of firemen. I take it that the Secretary of State's statement implies that the formula will be altered in the eventualities he outlined, so that the Government would, under the rate support grant, bear their share of any increase in the pay of firemen, as distinct from merely increasing the rate support grant and thereby lowering the amount contributed to other services.

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is right. Moneys for the Fire Service come not from a specific grant but from the rate support grant. There will be no problem in dealing with this matter in the appropriate way.

Mr. Hooson

Is not the Government's guarantee that the negotiated formula and its follow-up will not be thwarted by economic circumstances a major concession which has no rival, so far as I am aware, in negotiations? It is to be hoped that the firemen will accept this proposal, and that, as a matter of urgency, their present discussions will turn to negotiations.

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's last remark. This is a matter of urgency. It is a matter of judgment as to when it is appropriate for the proposal to be developed further, but there is urgency, and I think that the local authorities, the NJC and the firemen are aware of it. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is also right in saying that, given the firemen's problem over the past seven years, during which they have been caught out on a number of occasions by pay policy, this is a major concession.

Mr. Atkinson

Will the Home Secretary confirm that he is not ruling out all retrospective elements when an agreement is ultimately reached in November 1978? Will he also confirm that he is not now creating a special exemption case for when the Chancellor of the Exchequer perhaps gets his way and introduces phase 4 of the permanent incomes policy?

Mr. Rees

The agreement on the formula, I understand, can be achieved very quickly. Its implementation is in a year's time and there will be no retrospection. What we have said, with the guarantee that we have given, is that, whatever the situation is in a year's time, we believe that the firemen's bench-mark—or formula—can be phased in by the way that I have outlined.

Mr. David Price

Is the Home Secretary aware of Early-Day Motion No. 96, in my name and that of 24 of my colleagues? Will he bear in mind that his statement today has been an important move towards the ideas in that motion? Will he recognise that, in order to relate firemen to the police and to the Armed Forces, there must be a common body looking at them all, and that, although the NJC may be appropriate for the immediate step, in the long run we must have some permanent commission that will relate the people in these important security services whose jobs put them at risk and who come under a rather special discipline?

Mr. Rees

That is another matter. But I must say to the hon. Gentleman, who is interested in these matters, that I have been most concerned, during my discussions with the firemen and with local authorities, to keep the negotiations within the NJC. That is what both sides want, and to talk of other ways of dealing with the matter would, at present, do more harm than good.

Mr. Heffer

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that, whilst most hon. Members on this side of the House will recognise that there has been some movement by the Government towards the firemen, what is required is an immediate increase beyond the 10 per cent? Does he not realise that the sympathy of the country is still with the firemen and will remain with them, and that it is time that the Government went a stage further and put more money on the table immediately? If that is done, we may get a quick settlement before Christmas.

Mr. Rees

I must tell my hon. Friend that 10 per cent. has been put on the table. This is a matter for negotiation. I am aware of my hon. Friend's great knowledge of these matters, but I have spoken with both sides this morning and I think that wage negotiation is proper for the negotiating table.

Mr. Atkinson

But the Government are intervening and laying down the terms.

Mr. Rees

I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), who also has great knowledge of the matter, should also leave it to the firemen's negotiators and not discuss it across the Floor of the House.

Mr. Tehbit

Does the Home Secretary accept that he has guaranteed, regardless of events to come of which none of us has any knowledge, that an award will be made to the firemen, the size of which he does not yet know? Will he accept that this is to leave ticking a time bomb of the kind that perhaps we did not notice when we set off the one called inflation-proofed pensions for one particular group in society?

Mr. Rees

I think that, if the hon. Gentleman considers the discussions that have taken place on the formula, he will see that I do not regard it as a time bomb or as being in the same context as that in which he has put it. From the days of the Cunningham Report at the beginning of the century, the firemen have had many inquiries. They have been in a different position from others, and that is what worries them, along with the original offer, which in my view, for the long term, was a good one. It is not a time bomb. It is a generous way of dealing with their concern.

Mr. Henderson

Has the Home Secretary's attention been drawn to a proposal put forward by the SNP group on Strathclyde Regional Council for the settlement of this dispute? If a local authority decided to supplement the Government's national offer by a local productivity deal, or a rent allowance, or some similar measure, what action would he take?

Mr. Rees

We are tending again towards negotiations across the Floor of the House. The firemen want to stick to a national agreement, because, while there might be a generous local authority, there are also local authorities that are not so generous. The SNP, in making this proposal, is not helping the firemen in their very real quest for a formula that is acceptable to the Government.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the point he has just made is very valid—that there are different attitudes by different local authorities. His statement seems to indicate that there might be some elements of a special case for the firemen, but there are other people who consider that they have a special case, too. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to consider involving the TUC in any future discussions with regard to having some guidelines for what might be called "special cases"?

Mr. Rees

I am deeply concerned about the firemen's dispute—I have thought of little else recently. I do not want to get it involved in other directions, and I would rather leave the matter there.

Sir P. Bryan

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this concession is not only exceptional but unique, and one certainly not enjoyed by the police or our Armed Services, who forgo the right to strike? Is it, therefore, not unreasonable to request from the Fire Service the forgoing of the right to strike in return for this quite exceptional concession?

Mr. Rees

This is the first time that the firemen have been on strike. The image that unions are on strike all the time is wrong. If the hon. Gentleman wants to prevent the discussions which have started from getting anywhere, his proposal is one way of ensuring that.

Mr. Newens

As many workers in the private sector have already made productivity deals which have resulted in pay increases above 10 per cent., will my right hon. Friend assure the House that if the firemen can make a genuine productivity deal which provides for more than 10 per cent. forthwith, he will take no action that will preclude the achievement of a settlement on such a basis?

Mr. Rees

In recent weeks I have said repeatedly that if there are productivity schemes available within the 10 per cent. and the guidelines, I should be prepared to look at them. The fact that they have not come forward will perhaps make my hon. Friend realise that this is not an area in which productivity deals in the normal sense are appropriate. I think that the matter is best left there.

Mr. David Howell

Can the Home Secretary tell us about the position of the chief fire officers and their pay? Is it correct that, although the NJC has agreed a deal for the chief fire officers, and although that is within the 10 per cent. overall increase in payroll, it has been vetoed by the Home Office?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about the deal being within the 10 per cent., but I think that it would be better to leave this alone for the moment and to concentrate on the firemen.

Mr. Kinnock

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, because of his personal characteristics and the association between the FBU and the Labour movement, there will be a readiness among the union leadership and many of the rank and file to accept, on trust, an arrangement based on the McCarthy recommendations, but that there are unforeseeable circumstances, including the unlikely but conceivable possibility of a Conservative Government before the implementation of the operative date, and therefore on the basis clearly the offer is speculative? Also, such is the nature of the struggle, and such is the nature of the feeling in the fire stations as it has developed over the past three weeks, that there must be some conceivable concession of an interim award above 10 per cent. before the firemen can, in any natural assessment of the situation, be expected to go back to work.

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is not negotiating for the FBU, and it should be left to the union to express its views. Fear of a return of a Conservative Government is the least of my worries.

Sir J. Eden

In view of the substantial guarantee that the right hon. Gentleman is offering the firemen, why did he not seek any guarantee from them? Why did he not at least ask that, for the period during which their own new pay structure would be phased in, they would guarantee not to repeat a damaging strike?

Mr. Rees

If the right hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the last paragraph of my guidance, which I am sure he has done, he will see an element there, in which the local authorities will be interested, about rosters and things of that kind. The statement considers all aspects of the firemen's problem.

Mr. John Mendelson

There will be general support in the country for the fact that the negotiations which my right hon. Friend says have now started must, of course, primarily be in the hands of those involved. I am sure that there will also be a recognition that he has made a genuine attempt to realise the particular attitudes that are adopted at present. But will my right hon. Friend accept that the House should also have an assurance from him that he himself will be prepared to adopt an attitude of negotiation that might lead him somewhere beyond that which he has announced this afternoon?

Mr. Rees

The negotiations are now a matter for the negotiation table. I think that they are best left there. I should like to get these words absolutely correct. Discussions have started this morning. To get the negotiations under way will take slightly longer. That is not in my hands, but I have made clear my view of the urgency of the matter.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

If questions are brief I shall call three more hon. Members from each side of the House.

Mr. Mayhew

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his rejection of my right hon. Friend's suggestion about the right to strike? Have not the events of the past five weeks generally demonstrated that Aneurin Bevan was right when he referred to the right to strike as an anachronism? Surely it has been exercised by the firemen with the greatest pain and reluctance. Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider this great opportunity to tie the reform that my right hon. Friend suggests to the unique settlement that he is offering?

Mr. Rees

Again I say that I do not believe that this is appropriate at present. I believe that it is not the way to go forward. But, in any case, it would have to arise from within the negotiating machinery itself, which is the best way for these matters to be discussed.

Mr. Frank Allaun

As one who wants to see a satisfactory settlement, and as a former fireman myself, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to tell the House a little more clearly what he means by the key section of the proposal? I refer to the equal instalment this year and next year. If the firemen are offered 10 per cent. this year and, presumably, only 10 per cent. next year, does he think that that will be acceptable to the Fire Brigades Union?

Mr. Rees

I hope that my hon. Friend, who was once a fireman and therefore will understand the ways of the Fire Service and its customs and practice, will forgive me for saying that he has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. If there is a formula which is to be applied next year and the year after, the circumstances for comparison will have changed by then. It is not possible to put the matter in percentage terms. All I will tell my hon. Friend is that the Fire Brigades Union understands it. That is what matters.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Can the Home Secretary explain to us what his unique experiment means? Is it not a fact that the Armed Services surrendered their normal negotiating machinery for a military salary which his colleagues have repudiated on two successive occasions? How is it possible for the Fire Service now to be given a guarantee that it can accept, when the Armed Services see that they have been ditched twice?

Mr. Rees

These are different circumstances. If the hon. Gentleman is trying to get the strike ended he is going a very funny way about it.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Will my right hon. Friend accept that while we have a statutory pay policy in the public sector there are bound to be negotiations across the Floor of the House? Secondly, as he is aware of the difficulties that the Fire Brigades Union faces in taking the initiative, may I urge him once again to take the initiative on the basis of a deal which includes a shorter working week, pay for the unsocial hours that firemen work, changing time and the increased responsibilities of firemen?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend talks about unsocial hours. They were brought into the pay negotiations some years ago and rent allowances were consolidated about 20 years ago. Clearly, the overall aspects of the Fire Service pay problem need to be discussed in the House. But my hon. Friend has revealed that he does not know the nuances, customs and practices, which are best discussed round the negotiating table.

Mr. Neubert

What confidence can the firemen have that they will be safeguarded against adverse economic circumstances in the future? Will they not recall that this Government have shown themselves capable, through the Remuneration, Charges and Grants Act, of indemnifying employers in law against the consequences of breach of legal contract in pay settlements already reached?

Mr. Rees

If the hon. Gentleman will look at the attempt to achieve a formula over the past seven years he will see that the firemen have been caught by pay policies under both Governments. We are saying that we are giving them a unique guarantee, and we stick by that. It will be interesting to hear what the Opposition say on this matter.

Mr. Rooker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the guarantee is made effective after negotiations it should be under-pinned by a resolution of the House in the same way as the House of Commons Fair Wages Resolution?

Mr. Rees

In these matters we shall see what the negotiating body comes up with. That is the best way to proceed on this and other matters.