I beg to move
Members of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety had differing views on the motion: some were for and against it; some were for and against the Regulations. My Colleague, Iris Robinson, Committee members from the Ulster Unionist Party and I have made our concerns clear. The Fire Services (Appointments and Promotion) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002 were brought before the Committee in July, just before recess, and several members raised concerns at its motive, particularly at this time.
Concerns were raised about the equivalent experience and qualifications required, article 39 of the European Community Treaty, and the need to maintain the morale of firefighters. Concerns were raised by the Fire Brigades Union about the poor consultation on the Regulations put before the Committee. Some Committee members, including myself, asked if this was a political move by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
The Regulations provide for equivalent "experience" and "qualifications". Members are aware of the many tragic incidents that have taken place in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years and more. One thing that has held Northern Ireland together is the experience and dedication of our firefighters across the board — regardless of religion. We had, and still have, conscientious, eager and professional firefighters.
There are questions about the definition of equivalent "experience" and "qualifications": there is no clear definition in the Regulations. The legal teams of the world will tell us that it is not important to include a clear definition. However, the Fire Brigades Union, my Colleagues and I believe that this is important.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is throwing the responsibility for determining equivalent experience and qualifications to the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland selection panel. The Fire Authority has expressed several concerns about that — and I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will have noticed those in the press recently. The responsibility should not be left to the Fire Authority: there should be a clear definition of the equivalent experience and qualifications required in the Regulations.
Members may ask what the equivalent experience and qualifications are. We were told that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate would be able to provide guidance, but that will not be the case. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate will not be able to provide guidance to the panel as stated by the Department in its letter to the members of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Fire Authority for Northern Ireland has been advised of this, and I would like that clarified today.
No other profession in the country would permit outside entry at its highest level. It is like asking a road engineer to become head of brain surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital: it is complete nonsense. Northern Ireland must have someone who is able for the job. In Northern Ireland there are men and women from each side of the community who would be capable of doing the job.
Article 39 of the European Community Treaty brings in the issue of the Good Friday Agreement. The post of Chief Fire Officer was previously designated as a public service post, so why is that not the case now? It is a public service post in other brigades in the United Kingdom, including London. Departmental officials told the Committee that the situation in Northern Ireland had changed since the Good Friday Agreement, and that therefore this exception was no longer justified. That is a joke, because we have seen how the Belfast Agreement has delivered anarchy, not just over the past couple of days in the Building but throughout the community. Article 39 must remain for security reasons.
Over the six years since the signing of the agreement, the level of violence has increased dramatically. There are more bomb attacks than ever, blast bombs have been fired at firefighters, there are daily attacks on firefighters, there is regular terrorist targeting and training, there was the incident in Colombia with FARC, and there are many other issues.
The Chief Fire Officer must remain in close contact with the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding in talks on many sensitive security matters. It is a delicate post. It is a crime to throw away the article and open the gate to anyone outside the UK. A person from Northern Ireland would be best for the post, given the security problems and the trouble on the streets.
It is ironic that the Regulation has not been introduced anywhere else in the UK. Departmental officials told the Committee that other Departments in the UK are examining this, but that is all they are doing. This is a political move by the Sinn Féin/IRA Minister.
Firefighters’ morale is low as a result of attacks on them across the country. Career development and progression is greatly promoted in the Fire Service in Northern Ireland. Many male and female firefighters have worked through the ranks to senior positions, hoping that some day they will gain further promotion, but, if the Regulation is enacted, it will send out a message from the Department that no firefighters in Northern Ireland are capable of doing the job.
People have said that it does not stop anyone in Northern Ireland from applying for the position, but the fact that the Minister is trying to move the Regulation to open up the position of Chief Fire Officer to anyone outside the UK is a clear political sign. It is also a sign that she thinks no one in Northern Ireland is capable of filling the position.
Does the Member appreciate that it is important to employ someone who is capable of interacting directly with the Chief Constable in this role? The Member has already identified that, but the Minister does not interact with the Chief Constable except for guldering at his officers on the steps of Stormont. It would be useful to have someone who could interact appropriately with the Chief Fire Officer, especially in the event of a strike. Vehicles have been set aside for the police to do the job if that happens. It is, therefore, essential to have the right people interacting with the police at the right time.
I wholeheartedly agree. The way the Minister shouted at members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on Friday was a disgrace. The Health Minister’s attitude was despicable, and she showed her true colours in the way she acted against the forces of the law.
I agree wholeheartedly that the Chief Fire Officer of Northern Ireland must be able to deal directly with the Chief Constable. It is clear that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety does not take the opportunity to do that. Given the current possibility of a strike, we need someone who can interact closely with the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding. Therefore, I fully understand Mr Paisley Jnr’s remarks.
Concern was raised by the Fire Brigades Union. When the issue came to the Committee’s attention, I spoke to representatives of the union, and I was astonished to learn that they knew nothing about the Regulation. Members might ask why the union needed to know about the Regulation. The bottom line is that the Fire Brigades Union, which represents 95% of all firefighters in Northern Ireland, has the right to know about any changes. The decent thing to do would be to let them know that the senior post of Chief Fire Officer was open for appointment.
When the Regulation and the Department’s two amendments appeared, I asked the officials whether the Fire Brigades Union had been consulted; it had not. It was consulted after the Regulation was drafted in the middle of July. However, its representatives first found out about the Regulation when I approached them. I find it grossly insulting that the Minister and her Department did not consult the union sooner rather than later.
We must ask whether the Regulation is a political move. I have no doubt that the smokescreen of the Minister, her Department and others will be to say that they have received legal advice, and that retaining the existing qualifications required for Chief Fire Officer could have legal implications. The Committee received weak legal advice. The advice, which was consistent with that given to the Department, was that
"the retention of the existing qualification requirements for the Chief fire officer probably cannot be justified, particularly in light of a relaxation of nationality requirements for public service posts".
This does not make it clear that retaining the existing qualifications would be illegal. The word "probably" cannot be justified. As far as I am concerned, the legal argument is flawed; it is a smokescreen raised by the Department and the Minister. The Minister’s ultimate goal is political. This is a political move against the UK Fire Service, but she is going through the back door. Other members of the Committee and I do not buy it.
The Department keeps telling us that it is examining it, and that other Departments are examining it. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom has this taken place; only in Northern Ireland. We must zoom in to see the real problem, which is that we have a Sinn Féin/IRA Minister in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety who is prepared to promote such issues for purely political reasons. She is prepared to forget about the morale of the firefighters and everything else in order to push this Regulation through for political reasons.
There are people in Northern Ireland and in the Northern Ireland Fire Service who are capable of filling that senior position, no matter what religion they are. We have had people capable of this position in the past, and if it were opened up again, we would have capable candidates today.
I am concerned that disciplinary action was taken against the two acting Chief Fire Officers.
Is it a move to discredit the two gentlemen already in post? I should like the Department to clarify that today, for it stinks right through the whole system. There could be political moves on the part of the Minister to push this through.
I trust that the whole House will back us, and our motion, today. I also hope that it has listened clearly to the Fire Brigades Union, which represents 95% of firefighters in Northern Ireland. If we say that we are ignoring their views and do not agree with them, their morale will be very much affected.
Many men and women have enjoyed career development and progression through the Northern Ireland Fire Service. Are they to be told that they might not have the opportunity because the Minister intends to open the floodgates and let anyone across the world apply for the position? In the Northern Ireland Fire Service we have men and women capable of taking on that position.
Today the Department must throw away the Regulations and forget about the flaws and the legalities of the whole thing; that is a smokescreen. The Minister and her Department must look to the Northern Ireland Fire Service for the position of Chief Fire Officer. We have the men and women who are capable of it.
Like Mr Berry, I have nothing but the most profound respect for all the firefighters in Northern Ireland. Having been on the front line in West Belfast all down the years, I have seen their courage and their actions.
I should like to take this opportunity to explain the Committee’s support for this Statutory Rule. As Mr Berry explained, the Committee’s decision was not unanimous; it was carried by a majority of six to two. Nonetheless, I am confident that the decision was well-informed, balanced and took full account of the issues raised.
The Committee’s duty was to scrutinise the Statutory Rule and establish whether it was sound regarding its intent. The Committee has delegated responsibility for its technical scrutiny to the Examiner of Statutory Rules, whose report I shall return to later. The aim of this Statutory Rule is to widen the pool of qualified potential applicants for the post of Chief Fire Officer for Northern Ireland beyond the United Kingdom in order to attract the strongest possible field of candidates. That is based — in my view, quite rightly — on the promotion of equality and is consistent with the freedom of movement of workers across the European Community. As the substantive post of Chief Fire Officer has been vacant for some time, it is important that this legislation be progressed as soon as possible.
In the light of concerns raised by the Fire Brigades Union, the Health Committee spent a considerable time considering the proposed legislation. It took evidence from departmental officials and representatives from the Fire Brigades Union. The union representatives voiced concern that the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland had not consulted it on the proposal.
Although the Department says that consultation took place, it appears that that was only when the proposal for the Statutory Rule had reached an advanced stage. That is regrettable and is not consistent with open and transparent government. I trust that lessons will be learnt. Had the Fire Brigades Union been consulted from the outset, the Department might have had more success in convincing its leadership of the merits of the proposed change and allayed fears about any possible dilution of qualification standards in respect of the post of Chief Fire Officer.
Turning to the Statutory Rule, I wish to deal first with the legal implications of retaining the existing qualification requirements for Chief Fire Officer. The Health Committee sought the advice of the Assembly’s legal services regarding the Regulation’s aims. The advice, which was consistent with that given to the Department, was that
"the retention of the existing qualification requirements for Chief Fire Officer probably cannot be justified, particularly in light of a relaxation of nationality requirements for public service posts."
The current Regulations could be seen as discriminating against those who are not UK nationals by unnecessarily reserving posts to that group.
The Treaty on European Union 1997 provides for the free movement of workers without discrimination on the grounds of nationality. While Governments may classify certain public services as exempt from the freedom of movement legislation due to their "state sensitive" nature, I understand that the Department does not consider such an exclusion to be justified with respect to the post of Chief Fire Officer. That took account of the fact that few of the equivalent posts in Great Britain have such an exemption. It also took account of the situation in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement. I am not aware of any counter legal arguments having been made in support of the existing arrangements. The Minister may wish to confirm that I have interpreted the Department’s views correctly on both of those matters.
In its evidence to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Fire Brigades Union underlined the importance of ensuring that the Chief Fire Officer has the ability and necessary training to do the job properly and effectively. Clearly, the Chief Fire Officer must command the respect of the entire firefighting force if there is not to be a serious loss of morale among members. To that end, I want to address the concerns raised by the Fire Brigades Union with regard to the proposed legislative changes.
The union voiced concern that the proposals would, in effect, introduce a two-tier system and undermine the existing arrangements whereby senior officers aspiring to the highest positions of command must have completed the highly respected brigade command course. As a consequence of those concerns, the Committee wrote to the Department to seek clarification on what was meant by extending eligibility for the post to potential candidates who "possess equivalent qualifications" to a person who had completed the brigade command course. The Department took account of the concerns raised, and it amended the draft Statutory Rule to include the requirement for non-UK nationals to have "experience" and "qualifications" that are equivalent to those that are already in place in the Northern Ireland Fire Service. The Department has advised that judgements on the equivalence of qualifications and experience would rest with the Fire Authority on the advice of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire Services.
Committee members had concerns that the word "equivalent", for the purposes of experience and qualifications, was not defined. I understand that the Department’s legal services have confirmed that it would not be advisable to prescribe in law the equivalence of qualifications and experience in respect of the requirements for the post, as that would result in the need for future sporadic amendments to the legislation. The Committee has no reason to doubt the integrity of the Fire Authority, relying on the professionalism and expertise of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire Services, to rigorously apply the new arrangements fairly. I believe that that will ensure that there is no dilution of the high standards that are currently required for the post of Chief Fire Officer.
I disagree with the argument made by some that the proposed legislation is, in some way, a slight on the capabilities of local senior fire officers. The high calibre of Northern Ireland’s fire officers is beyond dispute. Their selfless bravery and professionalism, which I referred to earlier, particularly in protecting lives and property during the 30 years of the troubles, is unquestionable. While the legislation serves to widen the pool of potential quality candidates, it does not in any way preclude any candidates from Northern Ireland or Great Britain from applying for, or being successful in, the competition. Of course, any unsuccessful candidate would have the facility to appeal to the Equality Commission if they felt that they had been unfairly treated. I am confident of the ability of local senior officers to demonstrate their qualification for the job in any such competition.
In his technical scrutiny of the Regulations, the Examiner of Statutory Rules made three comments. First, there was a breach of the 21-day rule, and the Department was remiss in not following established practice in laying Regulations. Secondly, it would have been more logical to insert regulation 4(1)(a) after regulation 4(2), and, thirdly, it would have been better to have expressly stated in the Regulations that it was for the Fire Authority to decide what experience and qualifications were equivalent to those set out in regulation 4(1)(a).
The Committee will consider the Examiner of Statutory Rules’ report at its next meeting. However, the examiner has confirmed that his comments are relatively minor points that do not invalidate the Regulations. He has brought his comments to the Department’s attention and has suggested that it may wish to bring forward an amendment in due course to tidy up the Regulations. The Committee will make its views known to the Minister on how this Statutory Rule has been handled. Although there are lessons to be learned for the future, they do not invalidate the rationale of the Regulations.
On behalf of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, I urge Members to support this progressive piece of legislation. It is consistent with the principle of freedom of movement for workers within the European Community and aims to ensure that the Northern Ireland Fire Service has the best possible pool of potential quality applicants for the post of Chief Fire Officer.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In proposing the motion, Assembly Member Berry talked about politicisation and mentioned the Minister and Sinn Féin/IRA, yet the entire thrust of his address was to politicise the Fire Service in this part of Ireland. The motion is not about the competence of the Fire Service. As other Members have said, no one has in any way attempted to criticise, diminish or belittle the Fire Service; neither is the amendment an attempt to prevent internal promotions within the North of Ireland Fire Service.
The amendment does not propose that no one from within the North of Ireland Fire Service can become Chief Fire Officer. It is about equality of opportunity. As Joe Hendron said, it is about casting the net wider so that those from America, Germany, France, Italy or the other part of Ireland can apply for that job. All the amendment does is extend that notion of equality. It does not in any way disbar, disallow or prevent promotion from within the North of Ireland Fire Service.
Earlier today we were discussing leaked information, yet Mr Berry has been leaking information from the Health Service to the Fire Brigade unbeknownst to any member of the Health Committee. Consistently — [Interruption].
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I said that I had raised this issue with the Fire Brigades Union in July — not in September or October, but in July. It was legitimate of me to raise the issue. It was during consultation. As a Health Committee member, I asked members of the Fire Brigades Union whether they were aware of the Regulations, which they were not. Where is the crime in that? Does the Member not want the Fire Brigades Union to be consulted?
Clarification will wait for another day. We can only go on what we hear and what we are told.
We have spoken to firemen about what they are about. We have explained to the Fire Brigades Union the content, impact and import of the amendment. The entire objective of the motion seems to be to prohibit and confine; to create a closed shop in the North of Ireland Fire Service where no one outside the North of Ireland Fire Service ought to be promoted to Chief Fire Officer. That cannot be right — there is no openness, transparency or accountability in any sense of the word.
In opposing the motion, the Department is clear in its use of words. The amendment allows a person to apply if he or she
"has acquired experience and qualification equivalent" to the original requirements. That fits in with what the Fire Service has said. There may be merit in ensuring that the Regulations to ensure such equivalence are comprehensive and robust. However, there is nothing in the wording of the amendment that could be objected to by anyone concerned with equality of opportunity and ensuring that the best person for the job gets the job, irrespective of where he comes from. I oppose the motion.
I support Mr Berry’s prayer of annulment. I agree with him, even if only in this matter. Can Members listen to what I have to say before they comment? We have recently spoken in the House about attacks on firemen and women by mindless thugs on our streets. Most of us have supported the firefighters’ battle to achieve a new wage structure to replace the existing 25-year-old one. The firefighters regard the proposed appointment and promotion Regulations as yet another attack on them. Those Regulations are not being considered for the other 57 of the 58 fire brigades in the United Kingdom. The existing Regulations are currently protected by the Treaty of Rome. However, it is argued that they must be altered here to achieve equality in accordance with the so-called needs of Northern Ireland. Such a change is not necessary at this stage and would also be extremely dangerous because it would open up senior positions to people in the European community who might not necessarily have the practical experience and who may have some communication shortcomings. In the heat of an emergency, a split-second delay could prove fatal. I hope that people understand my practical concerns.
In one area of the Republic, under Regulations similar to those proposed, a chief fire officer who had absolutely no background in or experience of actual firefighting was recently appointed. Add possible communication problems to that and there could be trouble.
Does the Member agree that the appointment of a chief fire officer in the other part of Ireland was conducted in conformity with the Regulations that apply there and that the Regulations that apply here would prohibit someone who did not have the equivalent qualification — in other words, the training that is required in the Fire Brigade in Britain or elsewhere?
I am not exactly sure what the Member means. I am sure that the person who was recruited in the South was recruited under the South’s Regulations. This is a matter of United Kingdom Regulations and the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade, which is still part of the United Kingdom, whether we like it or not. Firefighters in Northern Ireland regard the proposal as an insult because they think they are being treated differently from other firefighters in the UK. They fear that it would de-professionalise their service and open it up to non-experienced personnel, thus placing them at even greater risk than they already are.
As I said, I am making practical comments at this stage. No one in this Chamber can be in any doubt that I and my party have always supported the equality legislation.
Our support is not selective. We support equality legislation. However, because something is, in general, desirable and right, it does not mean that every application of it has been desirable or right. We have complained about the process of the equality legislation — there have been many delays. All of a sudden, however, this idea turns up. It should be considered, but only on a UK-wide basis. At this stage no change should be made that would be to the detriment of any firefighter.
I support the prayer of annulment motion brought by my Colleague on the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Mr Berry. The position of Chief Fire Officer in Northern Ireland is a crucial post and, as some Members intimated earlier, the person in post must interact with the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding.
Morale among our firefighters is very low, following their high-profile campaign for better pay and a greater recognition of their role in society. Meanwhile, frequent mindless attacks on them continue across the Province. Firefighters take their lead from their superiors, so it is important that those who represent them, the face of firefighters, have their utmost respect and support. As the Fire Brigades Union representatives informed the Committee, firefighters may live or die on vital command and control decisions taken by senior officers.
I oppose discrimination, wherever it is found and from whatever source it emanates. The person most suitable — the best-trained, the most qualified and the one most likely to do the job best — should always get the job. That is why I so deplore the discrimination that exists in policing. Young men and women can fail to become police officers, even though they know that they were better candidates than others who were chosen. That often means rejection from a career that the unsuccessful applicant has always had an ambition to pursue, perhaps even following in the footsteps of other family members.
I do not want to see discrimination in the Fire Service. I want the Chief Fire Officer to be the best person for the job. For that to be the case, he or she will require an intimate knowledge of Northern Ireland. As a result of our tragic history, heading an organisation such as the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade requires a familiarity with the Province’s geography and the cultural issues whose significance remains throughout our society. It is not as if we have a limited pool of potential candidates from whom to choose. Under current legislation, our Chief Fire Officer could be appointed from officers throughout the 59 UK fire brigades who have completed the brigade command course at Fire Service college. Does it not seem peculiar that the Sinn Féin Minister now wishes to change the legislation to allow for applications from outside the United Kingdom? It has been claimed that to maintain the current legislation would be unlawful. However, other legal advice rubbishes that supposition.
Why are the other 58 fire brigades in Great Britain not seeking amendments to their legislation? Is it any wonder that firefighters’ leaders fear that it is not about ability or equality of opportunity, but purely a political decision by a Minister pursuing an all-Ireland agenda.
The Fire Brigades Union also fears that political factors were behind the recent controversies surrounding the Fire Authority. Is it just coincidence that the only two Northern Ireland Fire Brigade officers who are in a position to apply for the Chief Fire Officer post have recently been made subject to disciplinary investigations?
In the Irish Republic, a two-tier entry system means that senior officers can possess little experience in command and control issues for large-scale incidents such as bomb scenes. For example, the chief fire officer in Wexford graduated in civil engineering in 1998 and worked as a building control officer for a consultancy firm until she was appointed assistant chief fire officer for Mayo.
Firefighters in Northern Ireland support the integrated personal development system promoted in the UK Fire Service, and, especially now, when pay and conditions are under discussion, it would be ridiculous for firefighters to do anything that might weaken their links with colleagues in Great Britain. As such, the appointment of a chief officer from outside the UK would run counter to the integrated personal development system. Firefighters wish to pursue that pathway of career progression and development, not to introduce a two-tier system. I support the motion.
I am quite sure that the prayer of annulment was not inspired in heaven; it is more likely that it was enunciated in less hallowed places, among people who have a vested interest in ensuring the retention of restrictive work practices. Why else would anyone want to limit the potential pool of applicants for the post of Chief Fire Officer? I cannot think of another reason.
I am sure that Mr Berry will reassure the House that his intervention has not been influenced by anyone in the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade who may be a potential applicant to the vacant post. I raise that issue, not as an allegation of impropriety, but to enable Mr Berry to go on the record with a crystal clear assurance that he has had no contact with anyone who may benefit from the annulment of the Regulations, which enable — [Interruption].
I raised the issue to give Mr Berry the opportunity to go on record and state that he has not been influenced in any way and because I know that, in the past, he has tabled leading questions relating to the Fire Service, which I felt at the time were inspired by personal contact. However, I have no proof.
There are serious issues relating to the future development and reform of the Fire Service, and, although there has been a tendency to put all the blame on the beleaguered Fire Authority, there are real concerns about the ability of some people in the Fire Brigade’s management team. I say that because many of the recommendations made by the Public Accounts Committee have not been implemented and, in some cases, have been obstructed.
In such circumstances, I suggest that a new broom is needed to clean out everything that is wrong in the Fire Service. However, in saying that, I do not take away from the sterling work of firefighters in the past 30 years. I do not want anyone to confuse the two issues.
To reimpose restrictive practices would not be in the interest of genuine reform, but would be construed as either politically motivated to prevent applications from the Republic or a clumsy attempt to enhance the prospects of existing personnel. Of course, such practice is contrary to the ethos of the EU, of which we are a member.
I shall conclude, because I know that you are anxious, Madam Deputy Speaker, that speeches be short. Do we potentially tell a firefighter or a fire chief who served in New York on 11 September and who wanted to apply for a job in the North that they are unqualified? I should think not. Mr Berry, in his single transferable speech, told the House that his little prayer was not inspired by the angels but by other factors. However, those factors have nothing to do with improving the Fire Service and more to do with retaining the closed shop.
I support the motion that my Colleague Mr Berry moved and that was ably spoken to by another Colleague, Mrs Robinson.
I must put on record my concern about the Minister’s decision to consider this matter. In common with many others, I have no doubt that that decision is purely politically motivated. Members have said that they wish to ensure that there is equal opportunity of employment. That is true; however, if we follow the procedures and changes that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has proposed, that equality will not follow. For example, an officer in the Irish Army who transfers into the Irish Fire Service, and who may be insufficiently qualified to hold that position, can then apply for a position in the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade. That is wrong; in order to obtain a post in Northern Ireland people here must be qualified, have abilities, have passed exams and have done all that is necessary. For someone down there to get in through the back door is unfair and must be opposed.
The issue has been discussed in many councils, and my own, Ards Borough Council, has put on record its opposition to the proposed changes. Many other councils have done likewise, and, as a result, the momentum against the proposals has grown across the Province.
The Minister’s proposals discriminate directly against those in Northern Ireland who wish to become Chief Fire Officer. As long as that continues, she and her Department stand condemned over fair play and fair employment. It is only fair that the same rules apply to everyone who must go through our selection procedure.
The changes also attack the firefighters’ morale. My Colleagues have mentioned that attack on their morale. It is clear that many firefighters feel let down and undermined and that the proposed change in legislation tramples on their motivation and role.
If this were happening in any other sphere of employment, cries about fair play, fair employment and discrimination would be heard from unions and elected representatives. Yet that is what we face in this instance. It is ridiculous that the Minister will be allowed to make changes and manipulate employment guidelines to suit a political agenda. Let us look at the issue and give the job to the best candidate. Let us ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to apply for that job, and let us not allow the Minister and her Department to ride roughshod over the feelings of Members, those in the Fire Brigades Union and all those who wish to apply for the job but who are unable to do so.
I support my Colleague’s motion, and I ask Members to support him. We cannot allow manipulation to occur for political motivations in the Chamber. It is political engineering, which is unacceptable and cannot be supported.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Uasal Berry as an rún seo a thabhairt os comhair an Tionóil. Tá sé tábhachtach go dtabharfaí faoi na ceisteanna a ardaíonn an rún seo agus go dtuigeann Comhaltaí an fáth ar leagadh síos an Rialachán leasaithe agus na himpleachtaí a ghabhann leis ó thaobh comhionannais agus dlí de.
I dtús báire, bhí an leasú seo riachtanach lena chinntiú go mbeidh gach ceapachán feasta cothrom agus cóir faoi reachtaíocht an Aontais Eorpaigh. Cinnteoidh an leasú fosta go mbeimid in ann na hiarratasóirí is fearr a fháil do phost an Phríomhoifigh Dóiteáin tríd an phost a oscailt don réimse is leithne iarratasóirí san Eoraip agus níos faide ó bhaile. Tríd sin a dhéanamh, cinntíonn an leasú fosta go gcoimeádfar an t-ardchaighdeán taithí agus cáilíochtaí atá riachtanach don phost.
D’fhéach an dréachtleasú a chuir mé faoi chomhairliúchán i mí Iúil leis sin a bhaint amach trí éileamh ar iarratasóirí cáilíochtaí a bheith acu atá inchurtha leo sin atá riachtanach don phost faoi láthair. Mar fhreagra ar na hábhair imní a léirigh Ceardchumann na mBriogáidí Dóiteáin, áfach, éilíonn an leasú go mbeadh taithí fosta ag iarratasóirí ar dhóiteáin a smachtú sular féidir glacadh leo i gcomhair agallaimh.
I thank Mr Berry for bringing the motion to the Assembly. It is important that the issues raised be addressed and that Members understand why the amending Regulations were laid, along with its implications for equality and legality. Regardless of the fact that I hold a different opinion, it is important to have the opportunity to debate the matter.
First, the Regulations is necessary to ensure that any appointment made is fair and equitable under EU legislation. The Regulations will also ensure that we can attract the best possible candidates for the position of Chief Fire Officer by opening up the post to a wide range of applicants in Europe and further afield. The Regulations will also ensure that the high standard of experience and qualifications required for the post are maintained. The draft Regulations, which I circulated for consultation in July, sought to achieve that by calling for candidates to have qualifications equivalent to those currently required.
In response to concerns expressed by the Fire Brigades Union, however, the Regulations now before the Assembly also requires candidates to have equivalent firefighting experience before they can be accepted for interview. Therefore the Regulations include a new clause that allows candidates from anywhere in the world, with equivalent qualifications and experience, to apply.
It is important to note the nature of equivalence. The word "equivalent" means equal in value; having the same meaning or result; tantamount to or corresponding. Any applicant who does not have the necessary experience and qualifications will not be called to interview. Critics of the clause continue to claim that it will, somehow, dilute the stringent standards that exist. How can that be the case, if candidates are expected to have the same qualifications and fire service experience? To suggest that an engineer or a building inspector without these qualifications and senior level firefighting experience could be appointed as a result of the legislation is simply nonsense. They would not even be interviewed.
The example of the appointment of a female Chief Fire Officer in Wexford is quoted again and again and was mentioned in the House today. It is used so often to argue against the Regulations that it must call into question the critics’ other arguments against the Regulations. Is it concern over standards that motivates them, or is it fear that a woman could apply, and be accepted for, such a post?
It is important for Members to understand that the Regulations does not affect, in any way, applications from serving members in brigades in GB or here, provided they have the appropriate qualifications and experience. All it does is extend the field to other suitable candidates in exactly the same way as the field is extended for all the other important jobs Members may see advertised in newspapers.
Apart from the sensible and practical reasons for endorsing the Regulations, there are also compelling reasons to do with equality. Under European legislation, Governments are required to facilitate the free movement of workers in the European Union. That means that the existing legislation discriminates against qualified candidates from the rest of Europe and elsewhere. Such indirect discrimination leaves the appointment process open to legal challenge. I have been advised that any such challenges would be successful. It has been mistakenly reported that the post of Chief Fire Officer is automatically exempted from the requirement to be open to other EU citizens. This is not the case. Such an exemption cannot be justified here. It is worth noting that it does not apply to the post of Chief Constable of the PSNI. The Chief Fire Officer’s post, under article 39(4) of the EEC Treaty, was previously designated as a public service post, which meant that non-UK nationals were prevented from applying for it. On the basis of legal advice, the Department no longer considers that the post justifies a public service exemption.
Few fire brigades in GB attract this exemption, and the situation here, following the Good Friday Agreement, does not justify the exemption. Unless it was held that there were good reasons for not allowing European nationals from outside GB and here to apply for public posts, this public service exemption, which blocks such nationals from applying, could be judged by the courts to amount to discrimination.
In answer to Paul Berry’s argument that the person holding this post will need to interact with the Chief Constable of the PSNI, I must point out that the exemption does not apply to the Chief Constable.
The views of members of the Fire Brigades Union were sought and received during consultation, and the original proposed Regulations were amended to specify that equivalent qualifications and experience would be required, consistent with some of the concerns that they raised. During the consultation, the Committee found out about certain matters before the Fire Brigades Union, because it consistently sought and received early sight of departmental proposals.
With regard to the proposed Regulations, the Department wrote to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety on 1 July. That was followed by formal consultation on 5 July, with a range of organisations including the Fire Brigades Union, the Retained Firefighters Union, the Fire Authority and district councils. The Fire Brigades Union responded to the consultation letter of 5 July on 20 August. Following receipt of the response, the proposals were amended in line with some of the concerns that it expressed.
Questions have been raised about the morale of firefighters here, and the suggestion has been made that that could be affected by the proposed Regulations. It is a nonsense to suggest that someone from elsewhere, without relevant firefighting experience, would be eligible for the post. To suggest that the Regulations allows amateurs to apply is, by definition, an insult to existing firefighters. Equivalent qualifications and experience are required. Morale could be damaged to a far greater extent by the suggestion that people here would be able to compete only if no one else were allowed onto the field.
The Regulations in no way reflect on the suitability of potential candidates for this post — here or elsewhere. There have been made because of practical, legal and equality issues. Under these Regulations, qualified officers in the Fire Brigade remain eligible to apply, as can suitably qualified officers from fire brigades in Great Britain.
We decided not to wait until such changes had been made elsewhere, because we all recognise the importance of this post being filled substantively, as a matter of urgency. The post is about to be advertised, and therefore we cannot wait for changes to be made elsewhere before we act. Were we to do so, our legal advice is that we would be open to legal challenge.
I have listened with intent to several Members who spoke during the debate. I listened to the Chairperson of the Health Committee, Joe Hendron, who said that it is important that we widen the pool. As far as I am concerned, our pool is wide enough at present. We have capable men and women in Northern Ireland. Dr Hendron’s Colleague John Dallat can shake his head at me, but I believe that we have the men and women in Northern Ireland who are able to carry out the position of Chief Fire Officer, even if Dr Hendron disagrees.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Chairperson of the Health Committee that the post must be filled. I call on the Department to get its finger out, get rid of these Regulations and appoint a Chief Fire Officer to Northern Ireland, given the circumstances that we have.
The Democratic Unionist Party is fit enough to deal with those people.
We have heard much about the legal implications. Let us consider the wording. The legal advisers returned to the Department and said that the word "probably" cannot be justified. If that is the legal advice, that person should get the sack. That is not clear guidance for us as a Committee.
We have also heard people say that this annulment will discriminate against people across the world, in places such as Germany. Anyone who says that we are going to discriminate is a hypocrite. These Regulations are discriminating against the Northern Ireland firefighters who have gone through the ranks — people who have developed their career and progressed through the Fire Service for 30 years. If the Regulations were to go ahead, those people would be clearly discriminated against. The Minister’s attempt to have those enacted is once again a political move.
We then had the words of John Kelly — what a courageous man. He said that he would question the motives behind the motion. He said that the motion’s object was political. Who is political today? The Minister of Health and Mr red-faced John Kelly. He went on to talk about leaked documents. Sinn Féin/IRA’s spokespersons are the last people who should be talking about leaked documents in the Assembly today, given the circumstances of Friday past.
We move on to the issue of equivalency, qualifications and the firefighters’ morale. That is being basically laughed off. Forget about the morale of the firefighters, even though the Fire Brigades Union has consulted with us all and made it known that it is against these Regulations because they basically say to the men and women of the Northern Ireland Fire Service, no matter what their religion, that there is no one capable within its ranks.
I thank Eileen Bell and Iris Robinson. Iris Robinson said that the Chief Fire Officer must be aware of the geography and culture of Northern Ireland. We are aware that the Minister of Health will not be in close consultation with the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding (GOC) for her own political reasons. Over the past 30 years, we have been aware of Sinn Féin/IRA’s view of the police. It has been in close contact with the police, because it has pointed the gun at them and has murdered many police officers across the streets of Northern Ireland. It is clear that it is not going to consult closely with them.
But we need a Chief Fire Officer who is prepared, capable and aware of the geography of Northern Ireland. While the Minister will not consult with the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, especially after all her screaming in the corridors of this Building on Friday, we need a man or woman capable of taking on this position.
I am sure that Mr Berry would agree with me that those people from all over the world who are interested in serving the community of Northern Ireland are welcome to come along and join the Northern Ireland Fire Service and work their way up to a position where they can apply for the post.
I agree wholeheartedly with my Colleague Mr Hussey.
The only part of the Minister’s comments worth listening to was her disgraceful comment that we are trying to discriminate against women. While the Minister for Health, who is a woman, has done a bad job in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, that does not mean that any other woman who applies to be the Chief Fire Officer would fail. It is clear that the Minister of Health has failed in her Department, and I trust that she will also fail today. I trust that the annulment will be accepted.
The consultation in relation to this has been disgraceful, as shown by the concerns of the Fire Brigades Union. It will affect the morale of the Northern Ireland firefighters. This is a clear political move by the Minister, Sinn Féin/ IRA and her Colleagues to get this through. [Interruption].
The Assembly divided:
Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Sam Foster, Oliver Gibson, Tom Hamilton, William Hay, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, David McClarty, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, George Savage, Jim Shannon, David Trimble, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.
Alex Attwood, Michael Coyle, John Dallat, Bairbre de Brún, Sean Farren, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Gerry Kelly, John Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Gerry McHugh, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Mick Murphy, Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Brid Rodgers.
Question accordingly agreed to.