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22 Oct 2002 : Column 131—continued

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I, too, thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement.

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that in all his subsequent actions, the safety of the public will be of paramount importance? Does he acknowledge that, as much of the legislation relating to the fire service dates back to 1947, the Government could have taken action earlier to modernise the service?

We share the right hon. Gentleman's admiration for the work of our firefighters, but does he acknowledge that, even without changes in their terms and conditions of employment, they deserve a better deal? Does he acknowledge that the employers have already made an offer that is more than the rate of inflation and have agreed that they will backdate the recommendations of the Bain inquiry, subject to additional funds being made available by the Government? Will the Government give an assurance today that they will provide whatever funds are recommended by the Bain inquiry? If those assurances were given, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the strike would be unnecessary, counter-productive and life-threatening?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that the strike would be counter-productive and there is no doubt that it would be life-threatening. That is why we appeal to the trade union to take part in the inquiry. I recall disputes in which trade unions were actually fighting for an inquiry. In this case, an inquiry was guaranteed right from the beginning.

The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that there has been considerable modernisation in the fire service. If we compare the money given during the first five years of the Labour Government with the money given during the last five years of the previous Administration, we see that there is a considerable difference in the resources not only for local authorities but also for fire brigades.

The hon. Gentleman points out that firefighters need and want a better deal. Everyone has acknowledged that the present formula is not acceptable and says, XLet's discuss another formula." There has not been a strike in the fire service for 25 years and the House should welcome that as the contribution of a professional force that wants fair pay for its work in helping to keep the country safe. We all accept that.

The hon. Gentleman asks for Government assurances that we will accept the Bain report. The inquiry is independent, and it has to judge whether there should be

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extra pay over and above the 4 per cent. that has been offered, which is twice the rate of inflation. However, if there is to be more than that amount, there would have to be modernisation and changes in working practices. That is why local government wanted the inquiry. If the inquiry comes up with a balanced picture—as is often the way in this country—it will, no doubt, along with whatever pay increases it recommends, make recommendations about modernisation and changes.

Now, do I have a guarantee that the FBU will say, XOkay; if that's the package, we'll take that package and we'll accept the modernisation"? As a Government, we cannot write a blank cheque to everything, but if a deal is dependent on both parties' accepting it, it is very difficult to say yes or no in those circumstances. We must wait. But we have given our evidence; the FBU should give its.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): My right hon. Friend has said twice that Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the FBU, was consulted about the terms of reference of the review. Can he explain to the House, if he knows, why Andy Gilchrist has not participated in the review, and say whether he gave any reasons as to why he would not respond on the terms of reference?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Having spoken personally to Andy Gilchrist in August, and read his statement since—I have no doubt that it is an honest statement—I know that he does not want pay of this form and his 40 per cent. claim to be connected in any way to any change in the organisation of the fire service. It is a straight position. We disagree with it as a Government, and so does local government in those circumstances.

We did ask Andy Gilchrist whether he would take part in the inquiry. He said no, so we thought that he might be interested in the terms of reference. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions rang him and made it absolutely clear, as he also did in a letter dated 3 September, that we invited him to make a contribution to the terms of reference of the inquiry. I believe that Andy Gilchrist has since told people, including some Members of Parliament, that that was never so, but that letter and telephone call are on record; he just refused to play a part in it. It is all right for him to take that position if he wants to, but I regret it. I would still encourage him to play a part, because to find a settlement—a just settlement—requires both parties to the dispute to give evidence.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The evacuation of hospitals, hospices, residential and nursing homes is patently going to be very difficult. We hear that in the case of emergencies of a certain scale, the firemen will come in and operate the usual vehicles. Would such establishments fall within the category of those that the firemen would attend if a fire were reported?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is precisely the question that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions was discussing with the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. The hon. Lady will recall that he had asked me, in the press, to pick up the telephone and put down the megaphone.

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Most of the statements that we have had have been in the press. We did pick up the phone on Monday and dial four numbers in the office of the Fire Brigades Union. There was no one to answer them, but we eventually made contact.

When that offer was made, it was to discuss the very issues that the hon. Lady raised. We wanted to ask, on serious fire issues, whether the firefighters would play a part, make the vehicles available and attend. We have had the first meeting with Andy Gilchrist and asked him whether he would consider that. There is some consideration regarding the TUC formula on these matters and the agreements and the code of conduct that would operate in the essential public services. He has offered to put the matter to his executive and he will report back to us on Thursday.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): My right hon. Friend, like me, has been involved in a number of industrial skirmishes over the past 30 years. Some we have won and some we have lost, and his presence here today is partly due to what happened way back in 1966. All that I would say—I hope that my right hon. Friend will comment—is that in all those disputes there were statutory incomes policies; in this one there is not. Notwithstanding that, the Government may win a skirmish but they might lose in the long term. I suggest to him that although the union is refusing to do this, that and the other, somebody has to take command. In view of that, I think that it would be useful if the Bain inquiry were brought forward, because I was around when the Wilberforce inquiry settled a dispute in just over a week—it was a great victory. In these circumstances, it is important that the Government retain the high moral ground. Governments in the past have been stubborn and won in the beginning, but they can lose in the long term. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear these thoughts in mind.

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is important, and I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend says; we can recall the firemen's strike because we lived very close to one of the fire stations at that time.

At the end of the day, this is about social justice and whether we can arrive at a solution that all parties can live with, not necessarily totally agree with, but when there is such a different approach, we have to find an agreement, which is what inquiries are for. Of course how long the inquiries take depends on how people co-operate with them. I have been involved with a number of inquiries. In the seamen's strike, it took three months to come to a conclusion, but there was an interim report.

What is happening in this case is that the inquiry is being conducted, but it is taking evidence from only one source. I can only appeal to my hon. Friend to appeal to those in the Fire Brigades Union and ask them why they do not give evidence. The miners did so with regard to the Wilberforce inquiry. What is wrong with that? Someone's case either stands up, or it does not. What is different now is that the lives of our citizens are involved in this situation; it encompasses every one of us, and we must do whatever we can to get people to the negotiating table and to get a fair settlement that is accepted by all parties.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The right hon. Gentleman will understand that most of

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us think that this impending strike is dangerous and wrong and should be stoutly resisted. Given that, will he say whether he is planning to allow the armed services to train on and use modern fire fighting equipment, which is the property of the nation, not of the Fire Brigades Union? Will he also tell the House whether he might be minded to introduce legislation to prohibit the withdrawal of emergency cover, thus giving statutory reflection to the TUC guidelines?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman always has a legal solution to everything, but that does not always satisfy industrial situations. With regard to access to the vehicles, we must readily accept that it takes three months to train people to use them. I ask him to consider what judgments Governments have to make.

Should we have started three-months training in the middle of the negotiations and told the firemen, XWell, we are going to get ready because you are going on strike"; or should we encourage people to reach an agreement? There are difficult judgments to be made. Should we go to fire stations, saying, XGive us six of your machines. We want to practise on them in the next three months to get ready for you guys when you come out"? I ask hon. Members to make practical judgments about that. [Interruption.] I admit that these are not lawyers' points, but they are about the reality of industrial relations. In the circumstances, we should say, XRight, we need to get an agreement with you." That is what we are doing, and we have to make a balanced judgment.

Let us bear in mind that the current industrial relations situation is that the Fire Brigades Union has proposed to strike for two days, then two days and then eight days. Let us hope that will not happen, but there is a period when they will be using those machines at work. So would it not be better for them to have their machines to operate for the community, so that they are not damaged by unskilled workers who may not be sufficiently trained to deal with them, and nothing else happens that might inflame the situation?

Governments have to make a judgment, and we are accountable to the House. At the moment, what we have done is the best way to find a solution, and that is where we are focused. Let me make it clear that no one should doubt the Government's commitment to secure the safety of our citizens, and we will do everything to ensure that that is achieved.

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