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Retained Firefighters

11th February 2009

Jonathan Djanogly condemns the European Parliament vote to abolish the opt-out provisions of the working time directive which could restrict retained firefighters to a 48 hour week with no concession for inactive on-call time.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, and I agree with much of what he said about the retained firefighter system. The debate has benefited hugely from the input and expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), but I do not agree with the core contention of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that the issue is not the working time directive-it is the core of the debate. This is a key time in the destructive history of the directive, so it is a timely debate.

The working time directive requires employers to take reasonable steps to ensure that workers do not work more than 48 hours a week, averaged over four months. Despite that, workers may currently opt out of the 48-hour limit on the working week. For workers who opt to derogate from the 48-hour limit, the common position adopted by the Council of Ministers in 2008 lays down a maximum of 60 hours' work a week, averaged over three months. That may be increased to an average of 65 hours over three months when there is no collective bargaining agreement and when an inactive period of on-call time is regarded as working time. Inactive on-call time is a period in which a worker is on call but is not required by his employer to work, as opposed to active on-call time, which is a period in which the worker must be available at the workplace to work when required to do so by the employer.

There is not enough time to discuss the wider issue of the working time directive. I would have liked to address the points made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), but I shall simply say that for us the evil is not allowing people to work when they want to do so. The opt-out provision, which enables key workers to be available for longer hours as and when necessary, is flexible, and for workers who undertake potentially life-saving work, such as firefighters, that is extremely important. However, in December last year, the European Parliament voted to abolish the opt-out provisions, which have been widely used in the UK. The new category of "inactive" on-call time, approved by the Council and the Commission, was disapproved by the European Parliament. Consequently, there is a possibility that the ability to opt out will be abolished, contrary to the common-sense approach currently in place and developed by the common position. If implemented in the UK, there will be an across-the-board limit of 48 hours with no concession for inactive on-call time. That appalling position was strongly supported by the unions and, unbelievably, voted for by Labour MEPs over whom the Labour leadership seem to have lost control. The impact on the retained duty system is significant.

The background is important. Retained-duty firefighters respond to calls on a needs-only basis. They are often fully employed in other occupations, and their commitment as firefighters is typically part-time. They are indeed a valuable part of society, and a national asset, as many hon. Members have said. They are a crucial supplement to the full-time force. They are qualified to deal with the full range of everyday emergencies, and statistically the system covers 30 per cent. of all firefighters. Indeed, only 96 stations are wholly staffed by full-time firefighters, which gives a great deal of support to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead that the debate is not a city-rural debate.

Retained firefighters play a crucial role in communities throughout the United Kingdom, and their flexibility is a particular strength. The rules reflect that importance, and allow a more flexible interpretation of the regulations, but as a result of the vote by the European Parliament on 17 December, we risk damaging that vital lifeline. In the current political climate, which is overshadowed by terrorism, it seems perverse that we are putting vital security and safety services under threat. Unfortunately, it is not only in the specific case of firefighters that the proposals will have an impact. Even without the implementation of these proposals, the directive has placed a great burden on businesses and service providers throughout the UK. Preventing people from exercising their ability to opt out of the 48-hour week would make things far worse for thousands of hard-working firefighters and many other employees in valuable employment. Unemployment is expected to reach a 12-year high without this extra legislation. For firefighters particularly, any justification for ending the opt-out rings hollow. The issue is not one of heath and safety-some Labour Members suggested that it was-as the Retained Firefighters Union confirmed:

"Appropriate management within the Fire Service has ensured that our members do not work excessive hours with any negative impact on their Health, Safety and Welfare. There are arrangements in place to relieve crews at protracted incidents".

That being the case, the legislation serves no valid purpose, and is in fact counter-productive, denying retained firefighters and others vital work. The Minister with responsibility for fire and rescue, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) confirmed those fears and, to be fair, only last month said:

"Application of the working time directive, by setting a 48-hour maximum to the working week, would be likely to greatly reduce the hours which firefighters working the retained duty system could be available for duty, especially the substantial numbers who work full-time for their primary employer. The UK Government, therefore, places great importance on retaining its opt-out from the directive, a position that was acknowledged by the European Union Council of Ministers in June when it agreed in the Common Position that it should be retained, and will continue to defend it."-[Official Report, 19 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 1076W.]

Will the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs tell us whether that is still the position? He, too, has said in my presence, that the Government place great importance on retaining the opt-out, but that is what the Government said for six years about the temporary and agency workers directive until they folded under the great weight of the unions. Will he give us the comfort that this time they really intend to hold their ground, and can he persuade us that the nonsense emanating from his MEP colleagues and the unions is all smoke and no fire?

10.45 am



Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I am slightly confused by the hon. Gentleman's message. Is he arguing that we should retain the opt-out, or is he agreeing with what has been happening in Europe and saying that we should get rid of the opt-out, but exclude retained firefighters from it? I am not exactly clear where he is coming from.

Mr. Carmichael: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier remarks, he would have heard me say that I want to limit the scope of the debate quite strictly to the issue of the retained fire service.

Mr. Djanogly: Why?

Mr. Carmichael: Does the hon. Gentleman not think it is an important issue? If I had wanted to have a debate on the general question of the opt-out from the European working time directive, I would have called for such a debate.

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