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22 Oct 2002 : Column 140—continued

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that the general secretary is clear about that. First, he wants the money to be given now and he wants a new formula. We are agreed that he should have that formula, but presumably, we must discuss why the old one is no longer acceptable, even though until two years ago he thought that it was very good. Clearly, he does not hold the same view now. Secondly, he says he does not want any settlement above 4 per cent. to be connected to modernisation. He makes it clear that he does not want any reorganisation or modernisation. He may be

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rethinking that position—who knows? I hope that he does so and that he will give the reasons why he does not want modernisation. He may be fully justified in holding such a view, but in that case, he should put the evidence to the inquiry, so we can all make a judgment.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Given that lives will almost certainly be lost if the strikes go ahead, do not the Government have a responsibility to ensure that any eventual settlement incorporates a no-strike deal so that we do not face the same situation again?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House will recognise that, even with a full fire service, lives are lost. That is tragic and many fewer lives are lost because of the firemen who risk their lives daily. The fact that they came to a voluntary agreement on a formula that gave us 25 years of industrial peace seems good sense. If we can get such agreement again, I will take it.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that, in a dispute of any kind, there are no winners or losers. Everyone is a loser in such circumstances. Does he also accept that the firefighters have expressed the view that the 1977 agreement is outdated and that, on that basis, the review would make a difference if it were implemented as soon as possible? Does he agree that, as a way of eliminating the bitterness that has tended to arise in the dispute, which will create an impossible situation in terms of reaching a settlement, we should be asking the general secretary of the FBU about an acceptable interim arrangement to ensure that no strike takes place in the next few days?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions is meeting the general secretary, and also met him yesterday. He is talking to the executive about some of these matters and will report properly back to us so we can have some discussions. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the formula is no longer acceptable to the FBU. That has been accepted by the local authorities and by us, but if somebody wants a change in the formula, they have to come forward with some ideas that can be discussed in a proper review. It is difficult to comprehend the argument that the formula has produced poor pay for the fire brigade over the past 25 years.

One can argue that the pay is not good enough or that it should be more when compared with that of others, but two years ago, when the same Andy Gilchrist was general secretary, he said:

He is entitled to change his mind, but he cannot claim that the formula failed for all those years.

By all means, let us discuss the formula, but we also discussed reorganisation for a modernised fire service that meets all the emergency needs, which require the courage, dedication and specialised skills of our fire people. We accepted that in principle, and Andy Gilchrist should sit down and negotiate the matter, as any trade union leader should.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I understand that if the retained fire service in Market Harborough

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decides or has to stop working, the nearest Green Goddess cover will come from Corby, which is some miles away. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that in such circumstances, a Green Goddess is stationed in Market Harborough to cover that large rural area?

When the fire authorities get rid of their modern fire machines after several years, may I suggest that they are taken into Government ownership to replace Green Goddesses? It is ludicrous that we continue to rely on such elderly machines.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. and learned Gentleman makes a fair point and raises a proper concern. We do not know whether retained firemen are likely to operate during an industrial dispute. Many said that they would, and there would not therefore be a problem. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman properly said that matters are more difficult if Green Goddesses have to provide cover. We shall review the position from time to time and consider his interesting suggestion about old appliances.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): First, I want to put on record my appreciation of the work of the Staffordshire fire service and the Staffordshire FBU in my constituency.

We are all losers in the current circumstances, and it is vital that we resolve the impasse. Will my right hon. Friend consider trying to find an informal channel of communication so that the review that we support can take place before we have to deal with members of the public whose loved ones are lost because of the strike? Will he search for an informal way of getting people back around the table?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I promised earlier that we would do whatever we could to help prevent the dispute. We have offered an inquiry, but there are many other methods, through connections and formal and informal discussions. The Government have not set their face against that. We have made our position clear. We are properly worried about safety and we have taken appropriate measures to deal with it. However, if there is good will on all sides in such a dispute, agreement can be reached.

I am sure that firemen in many stations throughout the country have made it clear that they support the dispute. They are dissatisfied. I say to them that that has registered with us, but we ask them to acknowledge that it is right for us to negotiate on such matters and reach a fair settlement. If they cannot trust us as a Government, they should rely on the Bain inquiry as an independent method of solving matters. That has been the British way for a long time. It served us well in the past and it will do so in future.

David Burnside (South Antrim): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is great support and sympathy for firefighters? That has always been the case in this country. They are perceived as decent, providing an essential service and doing a good job. After 11 September and the performance of the firefighters in New York, the service has become one of the most admired in the world.

Do we not need a more fundamental review of what constitutes an essential service in the wider industrial relations framework? There is a price to pay for such

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services. If we pay a high enough price, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we should consider the possibility of an industrial relations framework that removed the right to strike?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am not sure, especially in Northern Ireland, whether one can proceed if all parties do not agree. The democratic method of dealing with such a problem is trying to get all parties to agree. I am not sure that making strikes illegal is a satisfactory way to achieve consensus in the community. There is much evidence for that. The recent programme about Orgreave reminded us of the possible consequences of such action. In a democratic system, we try to achieve a balance and find agreement between all the parties.

The available evidence shows that we manage to get our industrial relations right in this country. Few days are lost through strikes when compared with other countries. That is a credit to those who are actively involved. I prefer democratic accountability and consensus to simply imposing something on a community. The latter is not the democratic way.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): In recent letters from a couple of firemen, the inquiry has been described as a sham. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) rightly drew parallels with the Wilberforce review, which worked at the time for the people he represented. Will my right hon. Friend use this opportunity to make it absolutely clear to the firefighters and to all the people out there in the country that there is no sham here, and that there is an open, honest offer from the Government to have an inquiry undertaken that has, as it were, parallels with the Wilberforce situation? This is an honest offer from the Government and it is important that the firefighters receive that message loud and clear today.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I hope that the House will believe that I would not appoint an inquiry if it was made up of people who were not independent of mind. I ask Members to judge the record and background of the people involved. To be fair, there have been very few inquiries in this country, under any Administration, that people have not found to be fair, in their judgment. That does not mean that we agree with their conclusions—whether it be Wilberforce or the inquiry relating to the seafarers' strike—but if they produce an honest judgment arrived at by trying to find consensus for an agreement, that is what is important.

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In this case, however, the Fire Brigades Union has not given a fair chance for the inquiry to be independent in that sense. It has given no evidence to it. The incident in which the general secretary of the union went to a private reception and talked to one of the inquiry members as someone within the trade union movement, then released details of that personal conversation to the press saying that the inquiry was fixed, does not make it look as though he wants to co-operate with the inquiry. He has a political position; he does not want to do that. I think that he is wrong. I hope that we can appeal to him to co-operate, but the judgment at the end of the day—this will be as true of this inquiry as of any other—will depend on whether it was a fair inquiry into all the circumstances. Whether it will be a proper one, producing an independent judgment, will be conditional on all parties putting their case. If one party does not do so, there is a great danger that a proper judgment cannot be made.

That is the view of the Fire Brigades Union, and I say to the firefighters and the people in the fire stations, XLook, what have you got to lose? Wait and see, and then you can make your judgment. Why subject us to a strike prior to the inquiry's findings coming out?" The date of the payment is 7 November. We are having a strike before that date, on which the old formula would have produced 4 per cent., which the firefighters are being given, with other factors involved. That is unreasonable, and the attitude of the union to the inquiry has to be seen against that background. I say to Andy Gilchrist: XThink again, Andy. Let your executives think again. Let us work it out. All the parties want consensus in this country, the inquiry will give us the forum, so think again and come into the inquiry."

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