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22 Oct 2002 : Column 123—continued


45. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): To ask the President of the Council what proposals he plans to put

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to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on improving the system of Select Committees. [73621]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The House debated the report of the Modernisation Committee on Select Committees in May, when it agreed to a large number of its recommendations, including increased specialist staff, better administrative support and a clear focus on core tasks. It is rather early to revisit the topic so soon, but I am always willing to listen to proposals for improvement.

Andrew Mackinlay : After 10 years of serving on Select Committees, may I point out to the President of the Council that—too frequently, unfortunately—some witnesses approach the process with insufficient candour, and that there is often much ambiguity? That is true across the spectrum of witnesses. Is it not time that we introduced automatic use of the oath, so that a person tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Even if I cannot persuade my right hon. Friend on this issue, could the attention of every witness at least be drawn to the Sessional Orders that we pass—to the sound, wrongly, of much laughter—at the beginning of each Parliament? They state that anybody giving false evidence before a Committee will be dealt with with the utmost severity. It is time that we made people focus on this issue rather like a hanging, so that they concentrate on what they must do: show frankness and candour before Parliament.

Mr. Cook: I cannot say that I come to the Dispatch Box as a supporter of capital punishment, but I congratulate my hon. Friend on his many years of service on Select Committees, some of which—in fact, rather too many—overlapped with my period as the relevant Minister. Of course, it is important that witnesses tell the truth and the whole truth, and there may be merit in routinely making the Sessional Order available to witnesses so that they are aware of the gravity of the occasion in which they are participating. However, I would hesitate to involve lawyers any more than we have to and would deprecate a situation in which any witness came with a solicitor just in case they ended up committing a criminal offence.

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Firefighters' Dispute

3.30 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the fire service pay dispute.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides would agree that firefighters do a magnificent job. We greatly appreciate the contribution that they and staff in the other emergency services make to public protection. They are rightly held in high regard for their professionalism and dedication. As a previous Transport Secretary, I have visited some terrible scenes of disaster and one cannot but admire what the firefighters do.

Fire service pay is the responsibility of their employers, the local fire authorities, and the Fire Brigades Union. The negotiating process started earlier this year and the FBU lodged its claim on 28 May. It demanded a 40 per cent., no-strings-attached pay increase for firefighters, a 50 per cent. increase for control room staff and a review of the 1978 formula that governed their wages.

That formula has done a good job over the years. Since 1997, firefighters' pay has increased by 20 per cent. Over the same period, pay for police and teachers has increased by 19 per cent. I assume that is why only two years ago the general secretary of the FBU, Andy Gilchrist, said:

The old formula solved the last pay dispute and has kept industrial peace for 25 years. I am sure that the House welcomes that.

The employers responded to the FBU's claim by indicating that any significant pay increase had to be matched by modernisation. But little progress was made in negotiations over the summer because the FBU refused to consider the employers' modernisation proposals. I want to be particularly clear on one point about the negotiations over the summer: at no point did the Government intervene in the negotiating process. Sir Jeremy Beecham, the leader of the Local Government Association, has made that clear on numerous occasions. I made it absolutely clear that we had played no part in the negotiations when I met Andy Gilchrist on 8 August. He accepted the Government's position, but made it clear that the FBU wanted a 40 per cent. increase and no inquiry.

On 2 September, the employers offered the FBU a 4 per cent. increase, plus an agreement to establish a new formula that would link increases in firefighters' pay to increases in the economy in general. The employers also invited the FBU to join them in asking for an independent review to be established. They also gave an undertaking that any increase in pay agreed by the review would be backdated to the 7 November pay settlement date. By any standards that was a reasonable offer. Nonetheless, the FBU rejected it.

It became clear that there was no prospect of a solution being found through the normal negotiating process. The employers made it clear that the negotiations had broken down, and requested a Government review. In those circumstances, the House

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will recognise that the Government could not stand aside. Fire disputes are different from most disputes. People's lives are put at risk and the Government have a responsibility to secure people's safety. So we acted quickly and decisively.

On 5 September, just three days after negotiations broke down—and after consultations—we set up an independent review. All sides, including the Fire Brigades Union, were asked for their input on the terms of reference. We secured the services of Professor Sir George Bain to conduct the review. Sir George is widely respected and has enormous experience of industrial relations. He is a former principal of the London business school and a member of the ACAS panel of arbitrators. He was also the chair of the Low Pay Commission. The TUC and the employers nominated one member each to support him. The TUC nominated Sir Tony Young and the employers nominated Sir Michael Lyons. That is an exceptional team to conduct an inquiry, and it is certainly independent. It is a team with the right expertise and the right background to provide a fair and balanced assessment of the way ahead.

Every relevant body, with the exception of the FBU, has submitted evidence to the review. The review is making excellent progress and will produce a report by mid-December, yet still the FBU refuses to take part in the review, and it has announced a programme of strikes covering 36 days before Christmas.

The FBU will not even suspend its industrial action until the review has reported. That is despite an offer from the employers to extend the mandate period in which the FBU strike ballot result is valid for another four weeks. If the FBU accepted that offer, it could take action without another ballot if, having seen the Bain report, it still felt that that was necessary. So industrial action is completely unnecessary and unjustified. The FBU's position is simply indefensible.

I turn now to the plans that the Government have put in place to secure public safety in the event of industrial action by the FBU. Following the FBU's claim and the initial response by the employers, the Government undertook prudent planning on the basis of the FBU's threat to initiate a national strike.

The fire service is a large and complex operation. It involves some 47,000 firefighters in England and Wales, and more than 3,000 appliances operating from 1,600 fire stations. Our focus has been on taking what steps we can to safeguard life and, as far as possible, to protect property where the normal fire cover is not available.

Detailed planning began in August and training started on 28 August, before the pay negotiations had broken down. The plans are based on support from the armed services, and the acceptance by the police of additional responsibilities during industrial action.

There are three main elements to the plans. First, on the assumption that the fire control centres will not be operating during the strike, arrangements are being made for fire service 999 calls to be redirected. Every call will be answered.

Secondly, emergency cover will be provided by a range of appliances staffed by crews from the Army, RAF and Navy. Nationwide, there will be 827 Green Goddesses, which will be able to provide a basic

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firefighting capability. There will also be 331 specialist breathing apparatus rescue teams and 59 rescue equipment support teams that will offer specialist skills.

Thirdly, on Friday, immediately after the FBU's announcement of its programme of strikes, the Government made available basic safety guidance and information to the public and to business. That is being supplemented by a range of other measures such as a public information campaign on radio and television, a mail drop to some 4 million households and a letter to the 15,000 largest businesses giving specific advice on fire safety and general health and safety issues.

I can assure the House that the contingency arrangements are now in place. If the FBU goes ahead with its strike on Tuesday 29 October, the military and police, assisted by those firefighters and fire officers who choose to continue to work, will be in a position to provide a basic emergency service. Members of the public should continue to call 999 in case of emergency, and each call will receive a response. However, the military will not be able to respond to emergency calls as quickly as the normal fire service.

The emergency crews will have fewer specialised capabilities than the normal fire service, and they are likely to be unfamiliar with the incident site and the local geography. In this situation, I have messages for the public, business and the FBU.

I urge the public to take sensible precautions in their homes to prevent a fire occurring in the first place. To managers, safety representatives and others in industry and commerce, my message is to work on the basis that normal activities will continue during the strike. However, the single most important step is to check that all existing fire safety provisions are in place and fully effective. My message to the FBU is, XThink again."

Despite the wide range of measures that we have put in place, there is no doubt that the risk of loss of life and property will be higher when FBU members are refusing to work. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions therefore met Andy Gilchrist yesterday to urge him to clarify the extent to which the union would continue to provide a response to life-threatening incidents, whether house fires, major transport incidents or terrorist attacks. Mr. Gilchrist agreed to consider this with his executive tomorrow and to let the Government have a quick response. I hope that that response will be constructive.

We face a very serious situation. The House can be assured that I will, at every opportunity, keep it fully informed.

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