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22 Oct 2002 : Column 127—continued

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that statement and for prior sight of it. I agree with him that we cannot but admire the work that firefighters do. However, I am also glad that he joins me in condemning, without reservation, the strikes planned by the Fire Brigades Union in pursuit of its unsustainable 40 per cent. claim. I hope that he will also agree with me that after more than 20 years of modernisation of the British economy and British industrial relations, now is not the time to plunge back into the dark days of the 1970s, when trade union bosses held the country to ransom and the picket line called the shots.

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Britain is living in the 21st century, yet we stand today on the verge of the first national firefighters' strike since 1977. The threatened Fire Brigades Union strike is a matter of serious national importance that puts lives at risk. Against the background of a significant terrorist threat, the start of the strikes coincides with one of the busiest times of the year for the fire and ambulance services, when bonfire night and Diwali take place. The extreme gravity of the situation transcends normal political debate. Nevertheless, its very seriousness demands that the answers to a number of specific questions are put on the record.

Last night, a leader of the Fire Brigades Union made it clear on XNewsnight" that it would be Xjust not possible" to maintain current levels of public safety as a result of strike action, irrespective of any arrangements they come to. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister effectively confirmed that point. What are the emergency plans in the event of a major incident, and is the Deputy Prime Minister satisfied with the safety levels associated with them?

We have known for some months that the strike has been likely. Given that, why is it not possible to enable military personnel to have access to the best equipment for preserving public safety without having to cross picket lines on a daily basis? Is this an issue about crossing picket lines, as the Minister for Local Government and the Regions claimed yesterday, or is it merely one of practicalities, as Downing street claimed this morning? Is the Deputy Prime Minister making any arrangements to ensure proper training and access to modern equipment in the event that the strike unfortunately lasts longer than expected?

It has been reported in the press that a number of other unions will refuse to operate transport and other facilities—for example, the London underground—on the basis of safety. Clearly, nobody wants any unnecessary risks taken, but neither should this be used as an excuse for what would otherwise be illegal secondary action. This could cripple a series of vital industries from the railways to power stations, from chemical plants to oil refineries. That is unacceptable. Who will take the final decisions on safety? Will it be the Health and Safety Executive, senior fire officers or the Deputy Prime Minister? If it is the right hon. Gentleman , on whose advice will he act?

Has the Deputy Prime Minister discussed with the fire authorities where the liability lies for fatalities and destruction arising from failure to provide full cover? What is the situation regarding household and other insurance fire cover? Is there a danger that people's household policies will be invalidated and, if so, what will he do about it? The Minister for Local Government and the Regions knows that I gave advance notice of that question.

The Bain inquiry is not expected to report until nearly Christmas. Throughout its deliberations, the public will be at risk, and there are likely to be fatalities. That is unacceptable. In 1972, the Wilberforce inquiry, meeting night and day, came to a conclusion in eight days flat and allowed the rapid resolution of a bitter national dispute. Will the Deputy Prime Minister make the resources available to ensure that Professor Bain's inquiry comes to an equally rapid conclusion, to allow early resolution of this very serious dispute?

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Finally, given the Deputy Prime Minister's assertion that the Government did not intervene, the other outstanding question is how we got into this dangerous situation and the Government's role in it. I should like the Deputy Prime Minister to confirm or deny whether the account that I have been given is correct. We have been told that the employers' organisation was committed to making an offer on or before 9 July this year. However, on 3 July, at a meeting ahead of the LGA conference in Bournemouth, the Deputy Prime Minister told a number of Labour LGA members and officials that he intended to set up an independent inquiry in the immediate future, and that any settlement above the rate of inflation would not be funded by central Government.

As a result of that intervention, the employers failed to meet their commitment to make an offer by 9 July. The Fire Brigades Union discovered the proposal for an independent inquiry and lobbied Ministers and Labour Members of Parliament throughout July, culminating in a meeting, without officials, between the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr. Gilchrist in early August.

As a result, the inquiry was not called until 5 September. Had it been called in early July, the result would be available now and we would not face an impending threat to public safety. Can the Deputy Prime Minister corroborate that version of events? If so, does he accept his personal responsibility for the crisis that the country is facing today? All summer, that problem has been brewing, and all summer the Government have sat on their hands. A few frantic days of activity do not make up for a summer of neglect.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman's last statement about the circumstances of events is totally untrue. As he was not in the country at the time, and facing his own difficulties, he will not know.

As for the wage settlement, most public authority wage negotiation settlements have been at least twice the level of inflation—that is a gain that those workers have made under this Government, not under the previous Administration—so it would be most unusual for me to oppose that in regard to the FBU, if I were actively involved. It would go against common sense and recorded history.

On whether I attempted to raise the matter on the day to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—I think that the meeting with the Local Government Association was in Bournemouth—I was there to make a speech. I did not interfere in any way with the firefighters' negotiations. It is true that we have been asked from time to time whether we would fund more than the 4 per cent. that was being offered. We put the ball back with the employers, telling them that it was for them to make a judgment on the wage negotiations. I gave the same advice in the local authority negotiations, which were taking place at the same time and had also reached a difficult situation—I think that they settled for something like 7.9 per cent. over two years. In neither case did I actively interfere with the negotiations; they were settled between the employers and the employees.

The FBU general secretary raised the matter with me on only one occasion. I had a discussion with him in my office, one to one, in August—[Hon. Members: XAh!"]

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It is a matter of record. I have said so before. He asked me whether I had interfered in the negotiations, the point being that he had heard the rumour. I made it very clear that I had not and, to be fair to him, he accepted that and has since gone on record to make that precise point. I know that he is making a different point at the present time, but he has made conflicting statements on the formula. Two years ago, he thought that it was a very good formula. That does not seem to be his view at the moment. However, one can have different views and the right hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on the points that he made about that.

On whether the timetable for the inquiry could have been more rapid, when the general secretary saw me in mid-August he was complaining that the employers had not made any offer and that there was to be a meeting in September. It seemed ridiculous that the employers had not made any offer. We made it clear that they should make an offer to find out whether the firemen would accept it. That was done on 1 or 2 September, as I recall. The firefighters made it clear that they did not want an inquiry.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions asked the FBU general secretary whether he wanted to contribute to the terms of reference of the inquiry, even though he did not want to participate—this is another contradiction, but we have the letter here. He made it clear that he did not. We made that offer in writing—the letter is available if anyone wants to see it—and in telephone conversation. He chose not to reply. I understood his view, but in those circumstances I could set up an inquiry, about which there was a division, only after the negotiations had broken down, and they broke down only on 2 September, when the FBU rejected the local authorities' offer. In three days, I had established an independent inquiry and it had started its work.

As to when the inquiry will report, the timetable would be quicker if the FBU was actually co-operating. It believes that a new formula is required, so I presume that means that we should debate it rather than just accepting it. An inquiry is needed so that we can make a judgment. The employers have pointed out that if they are to pay more, they want some modernisation, so there is a dispute about whether modernisation should be tied to pay increases. We believe that the two are connected and that an independent study should consider them. The inquiry is due to report in the middle of December.

If the FBU now wants to give evidence to the inquiry, we could ask the chair to consider that and we might be able to hurry up the process. It is difficult for an independent chair, who is being attacked by the Fire Brigades Union for not knowing about the circumstances, to give them due and proper consideration in the inquiry, but that is what we have been doing.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) asked what we had been doing about insurance liability. We have had some discussions with the people involved and they are continuing. The situation is not yet fully satisfactory and I shall report to him when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has concluded those discussions.

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In respect to safety, we cannot offer a service as good as that provided by the firefighting service. There is no doubt about that; we have never hidden that fact. Green Goddesses of that age cannot begin to provide the sophisticated service offered by modern fire machines. We accept that, but we will do all that we can to assist, as is right.

Some trade unions have pointed out that the situation is unsafe and cite health and safety legislation. That is fine, but that legislation, passed by the House, gave independence to the Health and Safety Executive to make objective judgments about safety. I take advice from the HSE, as the legislation requires, and the unions, too, should stand by its objective judgment and not make it an excuse to extend the strike.

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