HC Deb 21 November 2002 vol 394 cc885-900

On resuming—

6.50 pm
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make another statement on the fire service pay dispute. I apologise to the House for making this statement when matters are still unresolved, but the House does not sit tomorrow and I undertook to keep Members informed. The strike is still planned to take place tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock. It has not been called off, and I thought it appropriate to make a statement to the House as it is not sitting tomorrow.

My previous statement on 14 November informed the House of the events leading up to the two—day firefighters, strike from 13 to 15 November. Since then my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I have had numerous meetings with the Fire Brigades Union, the employers and Sir George Bain in order to bring them back to the negotiating table. The negotiations are a matter for the employers and the unions, but our latest information is that the negotiations are still continuing, as the Fire Brigades Union has just returned to them.

The employers have released some details of their pay offer. It amounts to a pay increase of 16 per cent. over two years linked to modernisation. This would give a qualified firefighter a basic salary in the region of £25,000 a year by November 2003. It is not true to say, as many people are saying on television, that the offer is limited to 4 per cent. There have been a number of questions about funding. I have repeatedly made it clear to the House that any pay in addition to the original 4 per cent. offer has to be linked to modernisation. The independent review headed by Sir George Bain has given us the route map in its position paper published on 11 November. The full report will be available in about three weeks' time.

I call on the Fire Brigades Union to engage constructively on the modernisation agenda. The FBU has made it clear that it wants a substantial pay increase. Sir George Bain has shown that a substantial pay increase can be funded by substantial modernisation. We want a fair deal for the firefighters, but we also want a fair deal for the public whom they serve. The House is well aware of the original 40 per cent. pay claim made by the FBU—that a claim I remind the House is still on the table. No Government could fund a pay increase on that scale. It would put at risk the economic stability that we have worked so hard to achieve.

The knock-on effect of a settlement on the scale demanded by the FBU would be less money to invest in public services and public sector workers; it would be unfair on other groups who also do vital jobs and have accepted smaller wage increases linked to modernisation; and it would lead to higher interest rates and mortgages. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me when I say that nobody wants this strike.

Of course, if the strike does go ahead tomorrow morning, we will do everything we can to protect public safety, based on the best operational advice from the military, police and senior fire officers. None the less, as we have always made clear, the military will be providing an emergency, not a replacement, service. We all need to be vigilant during the strike, but it is also imperative that our cover is not stretched by hoax calls. Such calls put lives at risk. Anyone found to have made a hoax call will be dealt with as quickly and severely as possible.

In these circumstances it is the Government's responsibility to do all he can to protect public safety. Our plans will be kept under constant review. When it comes to saving lives, no option can be ruled out. Any strike by the union would be damaging and dangerous. It would put lives at risk. The two-day strike was wrong and dangerous, as I made clear at the time. An eight-day strike would be even more so.

The 40 per cent. claim for which the FBU is fighting is unjustified. If the union is serious about resolving the matter, it should continue the talks about pay in exchange for changing outdated work practices, but it must understand that it will not get one without the other. The country must understand that the Government will not give into claims that are unreasonable and which would have had a detrimental impact on the economy. We govern for the whole country and we will exercise our responsibilities for the whole country. Our responsibilities are to the economy and to people's jobs, mortgages and living standards. Our responsibilities are to ensure the safety of the public and to prevent the unnecessary loss of life. It is that thought that has motivated me and my right hon. Friend in the past few days in our efforts to keep people talking, not walking. Lives are saved every day a strike is cancelled. Even at this late stage, I want to call on the Fire Brigades Union to continue negotiating and call off the eight-day strike due to start at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning. In the wider management of the economy, we must be fair to the factory workers, shop workers and office workers and be absolutely clear that we want an agreement between the firefighters and employers.

We have to be fair to all—to nurses, teachers, ambulance workers and the police. We cannot and will not accept rises for firefighters that are unfair to others, so I say to the Fire Brigades Union: call off the strike, stay at the negotiating table and work out a deal that is fair to the firefighters and fair to all.

I promise to keep the House informed. My message again to the Fire Brigades Union is talk, do not walk.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and for his prior notification of it. I understand the circumstances that required it to be made quite late. May I also associate the Opposition with his call on the Fire Brigades Union to reach a settlement at this late stage?

While we all hope that there is a last-minute settlement, it now seems extremely likely that tomorrow's strike will go ahead. It is quite simply unacceptable that people's lives should be put at risk in that way. I wish to state in the clearest possible terms that such action by the Fire Brigades Union is unnecessary, unacceptable and wrong. It is the action of the 1970s and not the 21st century. It is saddening that after months of negotiations there still remain more questions than answers with regard to this sorry dispute. However, at this late hour, our concern must focus on ensuring the safety of the public over the week ahead.

For the next eight days, it is likely that fire cover in this country will be provided by military personnel. Last week, the Home Office Minister Lord Falconer said: If public safety ultimately requires that the Army crosses picket lines to get the red fire engines, then that is what will have to be done". Yesterday, the Chief of the Defence Staff said: The armed forces should not cross picket lines". Will the Deputy Prime Minister now clarify this issue? What is the Government's position? If there is an opportunity for Army personnel to use modern firefighting equipment, should they cross the picket line to get it or not? I also understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers has said that policemen should not cross picket lines. What is the Government's response to that?

From the start, we have called on the Government to give the military access to modern fire engines. Last time we debated the subject, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister to make use of 400 modern reserve fire engines available around the country to train military personnel with modern equipment. We now understand that some 15 fire engines have been made available for training. That is too little, too late. What actions have been taken dramatically to increase the availability of red fire engines to military personnel? Is it true that one authority has refused to supply any reserve fire engines for use by the military, and what action is he taking to deal with that?

The Deputy Prime Minister tells us that he is seeking an agreement with the Fire Brigades Union to ensure that it will provide assistance in the event of a major incident. We strongly support him in that and urge the Fire Brigades Union to sign that agreement tonight. Has he established any command and control responsibility to make any necessary response both rapid and effective?

I asked him when he made his last statement about the fact that on 25 October the Attorney-General's Department wrote that it was still considering whether to use section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to seek an injunction to stop the strike on the grounds that it put the public at risk of death or injury. Now that the risk is dramatically increased, with the likelihood of the start of an eight-day strike, is the Attorney-General going to seek an injunction tonight in the courts?

During last week's 48-hour strike, commuters throughout London suffered disruption as a result not only of the closure of tube stations, but of unofficial stoppages by a reported 350 tube drivers. Union leaders such as Mr. Bob Crow have suggested that they may stop work again for the duration of a strike, citing health and safety issues. What action is the Deputy Prime Minister taking to ensure that that does not happen, and what he would do if it happened?

What is the Government's position on pay? Is it, as the Prime Minister's official spokesman said, that the envelope is sealed and it's not going to be opened"? Is it, as the Chancellor said, that we would not tolerate inflationary pay settlements that undermine economic discipline"? Or is it, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, that the Government are quite prepared to make an exceptional case for the firefighters?

The process has been prolonged and made worse by confused and contradictory messages. The country needs clear guidance and firm government on such a critical issue.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words of support at the beginning of his contribution. I agree, and made it clear in my statement, that any strike will mean the threat of loss of life. We are all worried about that, and we all have a responsibility, especially the Government, to ensure that that does not happen. However, we must remember that we are not yet in a strike situation. Matters are sufficiently serious for me to come to the House to say that a strike is a possibility tomorrow, but every one of us hopes that it will not happen, and that negotiations will continue and lead to an agreement. [Interruption.] Yes, there are only a few hours left, but I am trying to keep hon. Members as well informed as I can. If the House were sitting until 10 pm, perhaps we would not have to make a judgment about whether to make a statement now. However, I shall not tempt the Deputy Speaker, who has been generous in giving me an opportunity to make the statement.

Let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's specific points. The 400 appliances to which he referred are the total number. Some have no engines, some have no wheels and others need repairing. However, 27 are immediately available, and more than 100 extra will be available to the command structure. In some cases, there may be a better way of dealing with specific incidents.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the military is worried about its soldiers and believes that the best method of training is with the simple technology on the green goddess. I am sure that he agrees that I must leave it to the judgment of the armed services. It is not therefore necessary for some invading force to go to fire stations. Several FBU members in different areas have said that the armed services can have the engines; they do not want a dispute about that.

The amount of training that is required before the engines can be used is another constraint. It is not currently a problem, but the Prime Minister has said that we shall take whatever actions are necessary to ensure public safety. The armed services did an excellent job with just over 1,000 vehicles, compared with approximately 3,000 under normal circumstances. They dealt with all the calls. The public co-operated through reducing calls by a third, but we are generally maintaining adequate cover.

We have already established that normal command control will apply in the emergency circumstances to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The fire service, the military and the police will be involved in such incidents, as happens under normal circumstances.

Hon. Members will recall that I previously failed to reach agreement with the FBU. I was therefore not prepared to make an announcement because I simply did not have an agreement. Both sides have subsequently thrashed out an agreement. The employers, the Government and the FBU support it, and it has been passed by FBU lawyers. It is waiting to be signed and, like the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that the FBU will sign it tonight.

The right hon. Gentleman was right about the Attorney-General. I have held several meetings with him. Of course, we have discussed public interest and public safety. His responsibility is making the legal judgment, mine is to advise him about whether his actions would make it more difficult to intervene, and whether everything is being done to enable him to justify any actions to a court before which he might appear. He has the power to apply for an injunction. It is up to him to make that independent judgment. It is up to me to advise him about whether such action would inflame the dispute and make matters more difficult. At the end of the day, if such actions prolonged the strike, the threat to public safety would be even greater. It is his judgment, however, and I give him advice. It is far better to keep people talking than to seek action in the courts, because that would inflame the situation. That is not a judgment for me, however, but for the Attorney-General.

On the union leaders, my mate Bob Crow—I am bound to say that I do not have a friendly attitude every time I hear his name—has constantly complained that everything that we do is about safety, but that is a proper concern to have. Some of the drivers' actions in relation to the fire dispute, however, were unjustified. London Underground has made that clear and there have been discussions between the Department of Transport and us on that. Let us wait and see what happens on the next occasion. The employers have made it clear that the action of certain staff was unacceptable. The people who should make judgments about safety are the members of the independent body that the House set up: the Health and Safety Commission. It is not an employer or a trade union. It makes the judgments, and it has made it clear that the services in question are safe to operate, so I hope that the union members in that industry will take that into account.

On the right hon. Gentleman's final point about inflation and pay, what can be afforded out of the available resources is the pay offer: 4 per cent. That is what has been offered. In the agreement that I have seen—we shall have to wait to see whether it will be agreed to—that figure relates to November just gone. Next November, the firefighters would get another 3.5 per cent., so 7.5 per cent. would be funded by the authorities themselves. The dispute appears to be about something like 7 per cent. We have made it absolutely clear that any increased payment has to be connected to modernisation. The Bain report has shown that it is possible to modernise the fire service. That is our position. We do not support claims that will be inflationary, nor claims that appear to be based on the idea that people can challenge the Government and, if they are pretty tough, get away with it.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

The Deputy Prime Minister will know that modernisation in the Palace of Westminster was not linked to the payment of Members of Parliament. Why cannot the fire dispute be settled by looking at pay first and, afterwards, discussing in a longer-term way the changes to practice that may be necessary, as they are in all sorts of jobs? The changes here were not linked to our pay.

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has overlooked one simple fact. We had an independent inquiry to decide the issues here, which is precisely what I wanted for the fire workers. We set up such an inquiry, despite their not wanting it. That is an essential point. The inquiry made a judgment and that is what we are trying to operate on at the moment. If my hon. Friend is saying that we should be in the situation in which the firemen say, "What is the worth of a fireman? We believe it is £30,000", who makes the judgment about the worth of a nurse? Does he or she walk out of the wards and use that pressure to get a pay increase? No, that is neither acceptable nor fair. Our judgment is that we have to be fair. Where there is disagreement, we appoint an inquiry. That is what we did for the MPs, and that is precisely what we have done for the firemen.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

We are grateful for the statement from the Deputy Prime Minister, particularly at this grave hour, and for his giving us advance notice of it, given the changing situation. While he rightly holds out a hope that, even at this late stage, the FBU will agree to some sort of deal, does he not agree that the British public will simply not understand it if the union goes ahead with the strike, given the very generous 16 per cent. pay deal that is now on the table? Does it not increasingly appear that the FBU is setting its face against real reform, and that the strikes are no longer about pay but about modernisation?

On funding, will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that, if the FBU had accepted the pay and reform deal offered by the employers, the Government would have been prepared to provide the necessary transitional funding both to secure the vital modernisation and to avoid these dangerous and damaging strikes? Finally, now that the police have joined the armed forces in arguing that officers should not be forced to cross picket lines, will the Deputy Prime Minister assure the House that the emergency arrangements for an eight-day strike are in place and are genuinely robust enough? Will he assure the House that the advice of the police and the military commanders will be kept under review, in case there are life-threatening situations that demand the use of equipment that is held at the fire stations?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is true that the offer that has been made by the employers—we shall wait to see what comes out of the final negotiations—was, indeed, 16 per cent. That is their judgment, but I think they feel that they cannot finance all that 16 per cent. The Bain inquiry showed that the remaining part—over and above what the employers were offering—could be financed by modernisation. The union is making it clear that it does not want the modernisation on any terms. Given those circumstances, there is no argument about whether we are financing 16 per cent. or not. The union must start the process of negotiation.

The other factor I have had to consider is that it is difficult to get accurate information from the local authority employers as to exactly what we are saving or what the costs are. That is one problem that I have had and why I asked the Bain inquiry to give me its advice. At the moment, if the FBU sets its face against the concept of modernisation and does not accept it, even though nurses, teachers and all sorts of workers have accepted it, we have to say clearly, "You are not going to get that lump sum of money on the table without any negotiations on modernisation." As to whether the Government give anything, we have to make a judgment as to what the authorities would say. Bain tells us, "You can save the money." I shall wait to see what comes out of their negotiations.

We have taken all the necessary action to ensure that all the necessary measures are in place to deal with the circumstances of an eight-day strike. I shall not kid the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey): an eight-day strike is more difficult to deal with than one of 48 hours, but I was pleased with how the armed services reacted to the last strike. They did an excellent job and that gives me encouragement, but we have no doubt about the fact that it would be far better to have a full fire service rather than a green goddess service. That is an important point.

As to whether the police and the Army should be crossing picket lines, they have not been asked to do that in those circumstances. I note what is in the ACPO statement tonight—the police will not be involved. I do not know how that comes about, because they were pretty well involved in the miners' strike. They did not have any arguments about that.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

May I first congratulate my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions on the time and effort that they are putting into trying to resolve the dispute?

About this time last week, there were hints from the FBU that 16 per cent. would do it, and I went out to meet the local firefighters on the picket line in my constituency last Friday and they hinted that 16 per cent. would do it. They have now been offered that 16 per cent., which is about seven or eight times more than inflation. It is a fantastic offer. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is time for the FBU leadership to put that offer to the membership and call off the strike?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I must be absolutely clear about the matter of the 16 per cent. Even on the deal being discussed at the moment, the local authorities say that they cannot fund it. During the negotiations earlier in the year, those authorities made it clear that they had no money and would not advance beyond their initial offer. In this deal, they have made a 16 per cent. offer, but they are making it clear that they cannot afford it. We have made it clear that any extra moneys that have to be found over and above the resources available to the authorities must be found through modernisation.

We have not adopted any position on the agreement-we will have to wait and see what comes out—but it should be clear that anything over and above what the local authorities have the resources to fund must be financed out of modernisation. All the fire people should consider the truth of that, because there is an awful lot of news manipulation going on. One reason why I am giving this advice to the House is that people who were watching the television would think that 4 per cent. was all that had been offered, although the negotiations were still going on. That seems to be a sophisticated manipulation of news.

I hope that the people in the fire union take into account all that is being offered before they arrive at their judgment.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Even if there is some modernisation, there is no way that that will immediately convert into the hard cash necessary to pay for higher salaries, and the Deputy Prime Minister should stop hiding behind that myth and pretending that the Bain report says that modernisation will deliver the money. The Chancellor has said that he is not prepared to pay either, so what calculation has the Deputy Prime Minister made of the average council tax increase needed to pay for each additional 1 per cent. in firefighters' pay?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not have to make that calculation, because I will accept what George Bain has said. He has done a thorough report, and his final report comes out in three weeks. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has read the report. He will see in the appendices that Bain highlights the changes that are necessary to make. There is an important distinction to be made here. His offer was over two years—whatever period is offered is an important negotiating factor—but basically he has shown clearly that that amount of money can be saved to pay for this kind of deal. He said, "Do all this modernisation, pay 4 per cent. to begin with and then pay 7 per cent." That is how he advocated the 11 per cent. agreement. I do not have to look in the crystal ball; I look at the inquiry. That is why we set it up and we have its recommendation.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for keeping the House informed. I apologise for missing his previous statements; I know he was anxious about that, being fastidious about my concern.

During the week the FBU has moved dramatically on both pay and modernisation. Only this evening, it has clearly stated its willingness to negotiate on shift patterns. The employers have also moved. I think we breathed a sigh of relief today in the hope that the 16 per cent. offer would materialise and resolve the dispute, but the employers said this morning that even their modernisation proposals would not produce the money to fund that offer. There is a budget gap, and, as the employers' leader said this morning, another partner is needed in the negotiations—the Government.

The union has moved. The employers have moved. The employers have said that even the Bain proposals will not cover the costs of the dispute. They—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must put a succinct question rather than engaging in a peroration.

John McDonnell

Let me finish the question, then. If the unions and the employers have moved, why cannot the Government move?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for what he had to say. He was the man who called for me to apologise for misleading the House. What he said was totally untrue, as he would have found if he had checked the facts with the trade union or anyone else. We did not interfere with the deal earlier, as I told the House. I note that my hon. Friend did not apologise for what he said, but I want to put it on record.

As for whether the union has moved, it has not withdrawn its 40 per cent. claim. There is a lot of talk in the papers that it might accept 16 per cent. or 20 per cent. That is a good basis for negotiation, but, whatever is in the papers, I do not know what the union will finally settle for. I shall wait and see. I hear what the union says to me about modernisation, however. It says that it does not want to deal with change in the rigid shift system, that it does not want a block on full-time firefighters' working with their retained colleagues, that it is against using defibrillators and that it is against a ban on joint control rooms. What I find odd is that some brigades in some areas are already doing those things. Why is this such a matter of principle for the unions nationally? Why can they not accept practices that already taking place in some parts of the country? In fact, I do not ask them to accept those practices, but will they please start negotiating? That is all I ask. Negotiating is far better than walking away and increasing the risk to our citizens. Modernisation is the key, and the basis on which I will make a judgment.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Deputy Prime Minister said a few moments ago that the police had had no problems crossing the picket line during the miners' strike. That is wholly inaccurate, and I hope he will withdraw the slur on the police. The police ensured that those who wanted to cross a picket line in order to go about their lawful business could do so. The slur that the Deputy Prime Minister has cast is unworthy of his office.

How has the Deputy Prime Minister enabled the situation to reach this stage, given that most firemen do not know what is being offered to them at this moment?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sorry that I cannot tell the House exactly what has been agreed and what is on offer, although statements have been made by various people on television. I told the House at the outset that I did not know the facts, but I thought it wanted to be reassured about what we are doing to deal with the strike that may occur tomorrow. I always promised the House that I would keep it informed, and that is what I am trying to do.

I cannot provide all the information that I would like to provide, and I am sorry about that, but let me make one thing clear. The question relating to the police was whether they had authority to enforce the law. I referred to the miners because in that instance they were trying to enforce the law, although it might have been controversial. I suppose that if anyone had to go into fire stations and remove vehicles, the police would follow the same principles despite the difficult circumstances. What they would probably not want to do is drive the vehicles out themselves, which they would not normally be expected to do. I am sure that those who did so in such circumstances—although to my mind it would be completely unnecessary—would have the protection of the law.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

My right hon. Friend has rightly said some very strong things about hoax callers who anger the public, and who can only add to the enormous dangers. Is he satisfied with the sentencing powers available to the courts, and will he try to ensure that the message goes out loudly to sentencers that some exemplary sentences would be a very good thing, and very popular with the public?

The Deputy Prime Minister

There are difficulties with this issue, and we have referred to them on other occasions. We wholly condemn hoax callers, and hopefully the number of such calls might fall off in the next few days—if there is a strike.

On enforcement, the courts have plenty of powers to deal with such incidents. In one incident that was referred to—it may have been in Scotland—the person responsible was found immediately, but he was released on bail for three or four weeks while reports were compiled. Perhaps all of us felt that such an opportunity should have been denied by opposing bail, thereby showing that the offence was considered serious. The powers exist, and magistrates and court authorities should take note that we believe this to be a serious matter even under normal circumstances, but that, under these extraordinary circumstances, they should be tougher.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

The Deputy Prime Minister referred frequently to soldiers and the Army during his statement. Occasionally, he corrected himself by referring to the armed services, but will he remind the House that the Navy, in particular, is making a significant contribution during this dispute? Increased pressures, cancellation of leave, uncertainty, the compromising of operational objectives—such as those of the south Atlantic patrol ship, which is moored in Portsmouth, rather than protecting the Falkland Islands—and the protection of the public demand that the Government do more than is being done, to judge by the answer given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), to ensure that the armed services have access to proper firefighting equipment.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I certainly do not want to give the impression that I am unaware of the situation. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I did stray into referring to the Army, and that the armed services in general are involved. I properly record this House's appreciation of the work that they have done. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Although less than 10 per cent. of the forces are involved, that is still quite important. We have heard the comments of defence spokesmen, and we will seek to strike a proper balance to meet the requirements of our armed forces. We are extremely grateful for their help during the circumstances of a firefighters' strike. There is no doubt that they are under stress and strain, but on meeting them they come across as remarkably cheerful and committed to helping communities. That is what we have always come to expect from our armed services, along with giving effective military assistance when called on to do so. They enjoy the confidence of this House, and we are grateful for their actions.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that most strikes are finally settled around a negotiating table? There have been a few exceptions, but generally speaking that is what matters. Does he also agree that, while Bain has put forward some important modernisation proposals, the union could well come forward with modernisation proposals of its own? In fact, it already has done so, and although those proposals have not been costed yet, they could be. Is he aware, for instance, that in Derbyshire a pilot scheme already exists, through which the ambulance station and the fire station operate together? Let us assume that that could be rolled out nationally. Would that be advantageous, and could it be costed? If the union's own modernisation schemes—I hope that he will answer this point-which have already been tried in certain parts of Britain, were rolled out, could that be a part—solution to the problem?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes some very sensible points. I encouraged the union to bring its modernisation proposals to the table, and it did so. However, I should point out that the proposals involve expanding the service, using more modern engines, and going out into the community to explain how to reduce fire risk. Those are the things that a modern service should properly be doing, but that does little to address the question of conditions of work and the delivery of service. Both issues have to be addressed, and the various proposals on modernisation—including the FBU's alternative proposals—need to come together. The issue is not just about wages and conditions; it is about having a modern emergency service that meets the requirements of communities. Both aspects should be very much to the fore.

I note with interest that a pilot scheme in my hon. Friend's area puts together the fire service, the ambulance service and the police in a common control room. The FBU is totally opposed to that because it does not consider it modern practice. Curiously enough, during such strikes we do have a common control room, which works very well. If the FBU cannot accept that proposal, the least that it could do is to negotiate on it.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

The Deputy Prime Minister spoke earlier about sophisticated news management. Coming from a new Labour Minister, that was a bit rich. There is now utter confusion about figures. In the course of the statement, the House has heard mention of 4 per cent., 7.5 per cent. and 16 per cent. The Deputy Prime Minister told the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) that he was not sure what was on the table. Will he confirm what is being offered? Are the employers willing to offer 16 per cent? What would the Government contribute to settle the strike?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been reading much about the situation. We all agree that the FBU, in Scotland as well as England, is asking for 16 per cent. That has not changed. Bain proposed that 11 per cent. could be paid, with modernisation. The employers have come up with various proposals. The one currently on the table is for 16 per cent., under certain circumstances. That is why the figures differ. I try to give the House as much information as possible. I arrived at a figure of 7.5 per cent. in the following way: the 4 per cent. will be for one year, 2002; another 3.5 per cent. has been agreed as the annual payment, with the remainder to be paid for by modernisation. In those circumstances, that takes us up to 16 per cent. We must therefore ensure that whatever agreement is arrived at is agreed by both parties.

I have just been given a note, the latest report from the front. It says that the offer is still 4 per cent., according to the FBU general secretary, that the strike is almost certainly on, but that the general secretary's telephone will be on all night. In any case, I hope that both sides keep talking and find agreement. If they do not, I have made clear my view about how to deal with the matter.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that strikes never solve any problems? Should not a simple message be sent to the firefighters to the effect that, regardless of the varying degrees of sympathy and support that have been expressed in the House, they should call off the strike? They should negotiate, and settle the dispute at around 16 per cent., with modernisation. Is not that the way forward? Should not that be the united message from the House to all firefighters?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although I hesitate about saying that strikes do not have a role or that they cannot influence some situations. The sad fact is that strikes will not always be won on the day that they commence. There is nothing wonderful about striking and losing after a period of time. It is far better to have an inquiry and an intelligent discussion, with both sides trying to come together in agreement.

I repeat that the employers are offering 16 per cent., which I believe should be paid for through modernisation. If a strike is called, it will be about modernisation, not pay.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

The news is clearly desperately disappointing. I hope that, even now, the FBU will retreat from the brink and consult its rank and file membership, as other hon. Members have suggested. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that, if the strike goes ahead, it will cover a weekend for which many public events will have been organised. Will the right hon. Gentleman's Department, or any other, give advice to the organisers of public events, and to those who might wish to attend them?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We first gave advice about public events in relation to Guy Fawke's night, 5 November, and the weekend either side. We are concerned about that matter. We have a public information campaign and are giving advice to all bodies involved in events. We will continue to do so, even under the circumstances that I have described.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

We will never reach a settlement if we follow the proposals of the Opposition. That will lead only to the destruction of all contending parties in the dispute. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best hope is to hold negotiations that involve him and the FBU directly? Should he not pick up the telephone tonight, and have a discussion about modernisation as well as pay? As well as the Bain proposals, the FBU has its own proposals that could be developed, extended and worked out.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I understand what my hon. Friend says, but neither the FBU general secretary nor I have been slow in picking up the phone and talking. Many exchanges have gone on. The difficulty is no longer one of communication, but of accepting that modernisation should be part of any agreement. The union has made it clear that it should not, and it has rejected—savagely and, in my view, wrongly—the results of the independent inquiry held by Bain. The way to settle the dispute is to have the will to do so and to sit around the table. I was pleased that the Fire Brigades Union came back to the negotiating table because ultimately it has to be settled by talking, not walking.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. In this evolving situation, I imagine that the Deputy Prime Minister needs to be back in his office to keep in touch. I propose to call two more hon. Members from either side.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you clarify the status of this sitting to the House, since we are now past the time when the House was scheduled to sit without passing a resolution to that effect? Could you confirm, therefore, that there is no necessary limit to the time during which the House can sit at this stage? Could you also confirm that it would be possible for you to suspend the sitting yet further to allow the Deputy Prime Minister to come back at, say, 10 o'clock, as he indicated he would like to do, to bring the House up to date on further developments? Could you confirm that all those things are perfectly possible, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Deputy Prime Minister sought my permission in this particular case—I think that Mr. Speaker may have heard it first but it was confirmed by me—that a statement should be made to bring the House up to date at what nevertheless was an awkward time. It is always possible for other requests to be received, but it may be for the convenience of the House and the better conduct of negotiations of national interest if the Deputy Prime Minister is performing his official duties other than simply those of this House. He has come to the House to report on the dispute but he may have other responsibilities in connection with it that he has to pursue. Therefore, I think it appropriate that at some reasonable point, the proceedings on this statement are terminated.

David Davis

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A significant point arose during the course of the Deputy Prime Minister's responses. He made the clear point earlier that the Attorney-General did not want to intervene for as long as the negotiation was going on. He has now indicated to the House that those negotiations have come to an end, whatever Mr. Gilchrist has said about his telephone still being on. Is it possible for the Solicitor-General to come to the House and give us her view on a material matter in this dispute?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Which Ministers come to the House is a matter for them and not for the Chair.

I do not believe that it would be for the convenience of the House or the people who serve us for the sitting to be suspended to an indefinite time. I cannot believe that that is right. The Deputy Prime Minister has come to the House at the last possible moment before we suspend for the weekend, and I think that that is a reasonable balance. I now propose to take two hon. Members from either side before we move on to the next business.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In agreeing with most of what the right hon. Gentleman said, may I ask him to clarify the position regarding the Bain report? He quoted from it a number of times with approval, and one agrees with that, but then said that it will not be available for three weeks. What, precisely, will not be available for three weeks and what, precisely, is available now?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sorry if I misled the House on that. The Bain inquiry will, I hope, give its full report in mid-December. On 5 November I asked whether, in view of the circumstances, it could produce another report to take the threatened strike into account. Sir George Bain produced a position paper on where modernisation could be introduced, saving resources and paying towards the modernisation of the fire service. The final report will be available in mid-December.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the public will be mystified that the Government cannot make at least some financial contribution towards the settlement of the dispute, particularly when they believe that the Government are preparing to spend God knows how many billions of pounds on a war in Iraq?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Perhaps I can let my hon. Friend into a secret—they are using public money. It is called the local financial settlement, and is used in the 4 per cent. deal. As for whether any more resources should be available, I have made it absolutely clear that that has to be linked to modernisation. I do not think that the public are in any doubt about that—nurses, teachers and doctors have all gone along with various modernisation proposals to get their wages. They do not believe that it would be right just to give the money to the Fire Brigades Union without any conditions.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

What steps has the right hon. Gentleman taken to ensure that modern appliances, with trained crews and modern rescue equipment, are available in all our major urban centres and adjacent to all our main transport facilities and transport routes?

he Deputy Prime Minister

s I said, even with the extra facilities of about 120 appliances, we shall not have the 3,000 vehicles that are available for normal service. We are ensuring that every region has a number of those vehicles; it will then be up to the emergency control centres to decide where and how they are sent, so I leave that to their good judgment.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

When MPs' salaries were reviewed, a thorough analysis was undertaken of the way in which our jobs had changed by contrast with comparative professions. I have read the Bain interim report and it is clear that no such analysis has been undertaken of the fundamental element of the firefighters' claim. We all want the strike to be called off, even at this late hour. The firefighters have moved. Is it not time that the employers were allowed to move from the 4 per cent. now, take it or leave it position?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Let me make it clear: the employers' resources have to cover all local authority workers—I know that my hon. Friend will be extremely concerned about all such workers in her constituency—who have just settled for a two-year deal of less than 4 per cent. a year. Would they not feel angry if 40 per cent. was given to the firefighters without an agreement? The nurses' agreement will soon take place. There will be all sorts of agreements and my hon. Friend will fight for each of them, but she is not paying for them. We have to find a solution.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on the vexed question of written ministerial statements, yet again. Today, the Order Paper included notice of a ministerial statement from the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, who is in the Chamber this evening. The statement is brief. It states: My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has today announced that he has placed copies of the Codes of Practice under sections 45 and 46 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in the Libraries of both Houses.

That is not true The Library knows nothing of those codes of practice. That is not a satisfactory procedure for the Department and it is hardly in line with freedom of information. Is there anything that you can do to assist, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed the ruling given by Mr. Speaker yesterday. Mr. Speaker pointed out that the statements have only to be printed in Hansard. That is the rule."—[Official Report, 20 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 646.] The basis of the hon. Gentleman's question appears to be incorrect.

Mr. Heath

Further to that point of order, I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My argument is not that the statement was made incorrectly—it was available in the Library and will indeed be printed in Hansard; it is that it is an incorrect statement because it says that something has been placed in the Library but it has not. Given that the matter relates to freedom of information, that seems most unfortunate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If the statement has been printed in Hansard, it should be available in the Library. If it is not available, that should be examined. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's point has been heard. We are in the early days of these written statements and I hope that some of these little difficulties can be overcome quickly.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. In the course of the statement that we have just heard, the shadow Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made points of order. Will you advise the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether it is proper to make a point of order during a statement?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I accepted the point of order because it was obviously connected with the statement that was taking place at the time.