HC Deb 25 November 2002 vol 395 cc23-34 3.30 pm
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith(Urgent Question) (Chingford and Woodford Green)

To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the progress of the firefighters' dispute.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

The Government deeply regret the continuing firefighters' dispute and believe that it cannot be justified. The firefighters are currently paid under a formula agreed at the conclusion of the last firefighters' strike 25 years ago. Under that formula, their pay has kept pace with pay rises in the economy as a whole.

Following the election of the new general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union earlier this year, the union declared that it wanted to change the formula and tabled a 40 per cent. pay claim. The employers agreed to discuss a new formula, and agreed in the meantime to pay 4 per cent—an above-inflation pay increase roughly in line with the existing formula—and pay awards to comparable groups of workers. The union refused that offer.

In an effort to help, in September the Government appointed Sir George Bain, the highly respected chairman of the Low Pay Commission, to inquire into firefighters' pay and a possible new formula. We did so following consultation with the Trades Union Congress, and also appointed Tony Young, the former TUC president, to assist Sir George.

Meanwhile, in August we began preparations with the military for strike cover. The employers co-operated with Bain. The unions again refused even to allow their members to talk to him. When the time for the strike approached, as well as continuing preparations with the armed forces, we tried to facilitate negotiation. We brought forward Sir George Bain's report. He recommended that above-inflation pay increases could be paid, but only if accompanied by modernisation.

Among Sir George's findings were that full-time firefighters should lift the ban on working alongside part-time ones; that overtime, where it needed to be worked, could be worked; that management could change, where necessary, the rigid shift system of two days on, two nights on, then four days off to provide a better service; that firefighters could be allowed to do basic training as paramedics and carry resuscitation equipment such as defibrillators; that the fire service could share control rooms with other emergency services to provide efficiency of response; and that action be taken to improve the management of sickness in the service to reduce the extremely high numbers who retire early through sickness and ill health.

The employers welcomed the report; the FBU rejected it out of hand. Those changes to working practices, I believe, are plainly reasonable. They would produce substantial savings that could fund a better pay award. The potential deal that may have been reached last Friday morning between the union and the local government employers was unacceptable for the simple reason that it was not funded through modernisation. In addition, the agreement to modernise was only to talk about it, not a firm commitment to do it. The costings of the deal were not calculated or given, although they were plainly significant. In effect, the Government were being asked for a blank cheque, which we could not sign.

The Government's position is that, over and above the 4 per cent. already offered to the firefighters, there can be no further money without that claim being paid for by modernisation. If the existing firefighters' pay formula, on which their union insisted for 25 years, is to be changed, it has to be changed by agreement. The Bain report offers increased pay above 4 per cent., paid for by changes in working practices. It is, as I say, a fair and reasonable report.

The Government cannot be asked to find additional money outside agreed Government spending limits; to do so would risk fundamental and lasting damage to the economy. If the Government were to yield to this claim for pay increases way above inflation and not linked to productivity, the consequences across the whole public sector would be huge. Nurses and soldiers—after all, many of them are manning the appliances at the moment on pay far below that of the firefighters—as well as teachers and police officers would also seek similar claims, and all that we have done to produce the lowest inflation, the lowest unemployment and the lowest mortgage rates in Britain for decades would be put in jeopardy. That is a course we cannot take.

Meanwhile, the military do a superb job in providing replacement fire cover. I pay full tribute to our armed forces, Army, Navy and Air Force, They have done brilliantly, as ever, and we can be proud of them. I also thank the public, who have responded in an intelligent arid mature way to the strains put on services. Up to this point, after six days of strike action, they have coped admirably, saving numerous lives in the process. Obviously, however, the risk to the public is there. That is why, even now, I urge the unions to call off the dispute—which cannot succeed—and return to the negotiating table to discuss how modernisation can fund pay improvements over and above the 4 per cent.

The Deputy Prime Minister set out the Government's position on Thursday. He had offered to make a further statement to the House today, precisely to keep the House informed. It has obviously been superseded by my answer to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), but I know that my right hon. Friend wishes—with your permission, Mr. Speaker—to make a further statement tomorrow.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our armed forces, who, as ever, are going about their duties with the utmost efficiency and professionalism. We owe them a real debt.

We have, however, now entered the fourth day of the firefighters' strike, and the threat to public safety grows with each passing day. It is unquestionably time for the firefighters to return to work, and for all parties to return to the negotiating table. Governments of any hue should not give in to inflationary pay demands: but Governments should also speak with consistency and clarity. That has not been the case with the present Government. On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister described the draft agreement between the employers and the fire union as "half-baked". The Prime Minister seemed to reiterate that today, but yesterday he said it was "still worth talking about". Which is it? This morning, the Chancellor dismissed the fire union's pay demand as "simply unaffordable", yet the Deputy Prime Minister said that the Government were quite prepared to make an exceptional case for the firefighters. Which is it?

This morning, the Prime Minister said—and he has said it again here—that to give in would be a defeat for the country, but yesterday one of his own Cabinet Ministers said that the firefighters' claims had been "ignored for too long". Which is it?

Sadly, rather than speaking with consistency and clarity, the half-dozen Cabinet Ministers who have speaking for the Government over the weekend have said different things each time they have opened their mouths. Public safety is at risk, so the Prime Minister must answer some very serious questions. Now that he says he has taken charge, he must tell us what he will do to protect the public throughout this strike.

Four weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister to ensure that troops would be trained to use the most modern firefighting and life-saving equipment. Halfway through the present walk-out, why has he not done that yet? What is the Government's line? The Minister with responsibility for fire services said that no troops would cross the picket lines. Lord Falconer said that they would. The Chief of Defence Staff said that they should not. The Secretary of State for Defence said that the police would do it instead, but the police said that they would not. What precisely is the Government's position?

How will it be possible to gain access to a significant number of red fire engines, and when? Other public services, such as the London underground, have been severely disrupted by wildcat secondary action masquerading as concerns about health and safety. Now that the Health and Safety Executive has said that this action is unjustified, will the Prime Minister take legal action to ensure that the public do not suffer yet more misery?

Will the Prime Minister also use all the emergency powers and trade union legislation available to him? Every time the Deputy Prime Minister has been asked that question, he has sidestepped it by saying that we should ask the Attorney-General. Will the Prime Minister tell us what the Government's position is?

Throughout the dispute, the Government have been woefully ill prepared. No two Ministers have agreed on the same line. There have been insufficient preparation and planning over the weeks and months during which there has been notice of the strike. The Prime Minister has been hard on rhetoric, but there has been no action from the rest of his Ministers, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has played his part in the escalation of the crisis. At the beginning of the 21st century, men and women are without the fire and safety cover to which they are entitled. This should never have happened. The country deserves better from its Government. It is time for action, not words.

The Prime Minister

The truth of the matter is that the Conservative party, as its shadow Deputy Prime Minister—or whatever the position is that he holds nowadays—said earlier today, basically agrees with the Government's position. However, because it is so concerned to make political capital out of anything it possibly can, it has to try to pretend that, at the same time as it agrees with the Government's position, there is something that it would have done differently. Indeed, it says on its website today that the Government have caused the strike. Given that its position is the same as ours—that any pay award has to be funded by modernization—I do not see how it can say that we have caused the strike.

The Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday that any extra money had to be financed out of changing work practices and the modernisation in the Fire Service". That is precisely what I have said today and what the Chancellor said yesterday.

We have made it clear throughout that if the military want additional resources—red fire engines or anything else—they will have them. However, the military have not asked for more red fire appliances than we are giving them. If more are needed, they will have them.

The position as of today is that only one of London Underground's drivers has refused to work, so it would be somewhat excessive to take legal action on that basis.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Deputy Prime Minister said that emergency legislation is a matter for the Attorney-General. That is actually the law: it is a matter for the Attorney-General.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the Government have refused to make any preparations for this strike—[Interruption.] He says that we have made none whatsoever. I suppose that the military just suddenly happened along a couple of weeks ago. The fact is that since August the Government have been making preparations for the dispute. The logistics are rightly in the hands of our armed forces, who are doing a superb job. May I give the right hon. Gentleman a piece of advice? If he is going to employ opportunism as a tactic, make it less transparent.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does the Prime Minister agree that the Conservative proposal to use the law to make the strikers in contempt, which would result in the mass imprisonment of firefighters, would be unlikely to douse any fires either literally or metaphorically?

The Prime Minister

We know what the game of the Conservative party has been from the moment the dispute began: to exploit it for all it is worth—[Interruption.] Let me repeat that: from the very beginning, rather than attempt to help in the dispute, it has done everything it can to inflame it. That is, frankly, what we would expect, but it is worse than my hon. Friend says. The decision to use the law could be taken only by the Attorney-General, and that is not the position that he has taken.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Robathan, our constituents will not understand us shouting across the Chamber at one an other at a very serious time. Hon. Members should be allowed to ask questions and the Prime Minister should be able to answer.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

Obviously, we all deplore the continuing strike action and the House of Commons is entirely correct to keep requesting and reminding the leadership of the FBU that it should not be conducting a national strike, that firefighters should be back at work, that the citizens of this country are entitled to receive the level of fire and emergency cover for which they pay through their taxation and that the FBU should be in negotiations based on the original Bain report. I pay tribute to the military services for doing a first-class job in this very unfortunate situation.

Will the Prime Minister concede that, over the past few days in particular, mixed messages have been emerging from the top of his Government? On the specific point that I raised with him a couple of weeks ago, will he confirm that Bain makes it clear that savings can accrue in due course from the process of modernisation, which we want to see encouraged, but that there may be additional costs sooner before the savings begin to come through? What is the Government's position? If there are transitional costs, will the Government meet them if the FBU signs up to modernisation?

The Prime Minister

The short answer is that Bain makes it clear that any changes have to be paid for through modernisation. It was always anticipated that the report would come in two stages—we brought forward the first stage. Essentially, it says that the 7.5 per cent. in the second year of modernisation, in addition to the 4 per cent., could be funded by changes in working practices. It then says that there could be further changes in working practices, yielding further benefits. It is within those parameters that people must negotiate. I entirely understand, because of the two stages and the different figures being bandied about, why people ask whether it will be this percentage or that percentage, but, with the greatest respect, the basic point is that they must negotiate on the basis of Bain. Why? Because if they want more than the 4 per cent., it must be paid for by modernisation. The rest should be left to the negotiators to negotiate, but they need to do so within those parameters.

David Hamilton (Midlothian)

Will the Prime Minister stop referring to 40 per cent., because I understand that 16 per cent. was agreed by both sides on Thursday? We were already a good way towards a negotiated settlement. Does he understand the anger and frustration of many people in my area who are offended by many of the remarks made here about firefighters? Lothian and Borders fire brigade is already committed to producing 50 per cent. of what Bain has projected. The fire service is different things to different people in different parts of the country, and—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister

It may well be true that the firefighters have come off the original 40 per cent. claim, but that was the basis on which they first took strike action. We cannot have negotiations between the employers and the trade union through the night that materially change what is on offer, and then simply hand the bill to the Government and say, "Pay it—and if you don't pay it, what's more, within the next hour or two we're going on strike."

I am sorry, but if we are to get to a negotiated settlement, some reason has to be employed. The reason, surely, is that there is an existing pay formula. Many people across the public sector have a formula, including the firefighters. Two years ago, I think, the Fire Brigades Union leadership said that the firefighters' formula had to be maintained, because it was the basis of fairness for them. If they now want to change it, fair enough, we are all agreed, let us change it, but it has to be changed as part of a deliberative process whereby we work out a new formula reasonably, and not on the basis of eight-day strike action.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

At his pre-parliamentary scrutiny conference this morning, the Prime Minister said—he repeated it this afternoon—that full-time firemen were not prepared to work with retained firemen. They are in my constituency. Who gave him that information? He also said that the Chief of Defence Staff was satisfied that our commitments, including a war, could be met irrespective of the number of troops being used to fight fires. Would he care to place that on the record in the House of Commons and confirm that that is what the Chief of Defence Staff thinks?

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, I think that I did that last week at Prime Minister's questions, in an answer to the leader of the Liberal Democrats. What the Chief of Defence Staff said was perfectly obvious. Obviously, soldiers would prefer not to be doing firefighting duties, and if 19,000 people are employed on those duties they are clearly not available for other duties. That is a statement of the obvious. However, he went on to say that we would have full operational cover for any requirement that might be placed on us, and that is the case.

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the point is simply that at present there is a general ban on full-time firefighters working alongside the part-timers. If the FBU wants to agree the changes in the Bain report, let it do so—and frankly, I would hope that he would agree with us on that.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Will the Prime Minister explain how we can afford to fund a war against Iraq but cannot find the necessary money to meet the just demand of the firefighters for a living wage?

The Prime Minister

Because it is important that we play our full part in meeting our responsibilities in the fight against terrorism and against weapons of mass destruction—it would do enormous damage to this country if those evils were not confronted and defeated—but it is also important that we take a proper view of public money and how it is used. I heard some of the comments from union leaders at lunchtime about firefighters being a special case. With the greatest respect, everybody always argues that they are a special case in such circumstances. However, I have not yet had an answer to how I could agree such a pay claim for the firefighters but tell a nurse, soldier or teacher that they were not entitled to the same. Until that answer can he given in a way consistent with running the economy and with low inflation, mortgate rates and unemployment. I am afraid that the Government's position will have to remain as it is.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

How exactly, apart from laying off people, would the modernisation proposals contained in the Bain report lead immediately to the hard cash needed to fund any increase in firefighters' pay?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman goes through the Bain report, he will see that Sir George Bain describes how those savings could be achieved. For example, if firefighters are able to manage the shift system more effectively, changes and savings could of course be made. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I will give him a couple of examples showing how the military are already running the cover in the dispute. First, they have taken account of the fact that it is better to have joint control rooms with the other emergency services, which is producing greater efficiency. Secondly, they have already worked out that 75 per cent. of calls are made during the day and that there is therefore not the same requirement for people to be on duty during the night. All these factors can save money.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Consequent upon the question put by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that Government financial support for an unrealistic, irresponsibly negotiated pay deal would spell catastrophe for every trade unionist in this country as well as for the country as a whole?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. If we yield to this pay claim, it will have consequences right across the economy. It would result in the huge benefits that we have seen over the past few years—the lowest inflation and unemployment for decades and the lowest mortgage rates for almost 40 years—being put at risk. That is why the Government cannot responsibly agree to this claim.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

We accept that firefighters have the right to withdraw their labour and that they are entitled to have picket lines, but will the Prime Minister clarify the legal position—for example, insurance matters and safety at work—if striking firefighters continue to occupy fire stations and use all their facilities?

The Prime Minister

Firefighters are, of course. entitled to mount their picket lines. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is an odd situation when fire stations are used to put across the case in this dispute. The way in which fire services are managed must be considered during the course of the dispute.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Does the Prime Minister accept that most people consider that dual controls, modernisation proposals such as carrying defibrillators and paramedic training are simply commonsense measures that they want to be implemented to improve the service that they receive? However, they do not understand why an Opposition party that basically agrees with that position is being so opportunistic as to attack the Government.

The Prime Minister

The Opposition position was described on Sky News just a short time ago by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who said something like, "We basically agree with the Government's position." However, that does not stop them making the remarks that they have made today. If I may give them some advice, I do not think that it is very wise opposition.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that although he was clearly right to reject a 16 per cent. pay settlement, none the less the Government are much to be blamed for their failure to speak with one voice and to ensure that the local employers' negotiating body fully understood the limitations on its negotiating position?

The Prime Minister

Obviously, I reject both points. As the Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday, any additional pay must be funded out of modernisation. That has been the case from the beginning; it has been repeated every time the Government have been asked and it is repeated again now.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's second point, the local government employers have always known, because we have said so from the outset, that additional pay must be paid for by modernisation.

Mr. Duncan Smith


The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman may find it a boring thing to say, but that suggests that we have been repeating it a lot. With any luck, the penny will finally drop, even for the Conservatives.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)

As the Prime Minister may know, there was a huge fire in a factory in my constituency on Friday. Will he join me in paying tribute to the armed forces who worked so magnificently to put out that fire and in recognising that FBU members attended to ascertain whether there was danger to life? Above all, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is no repeat of the situation that arose on Friday morning and that the employers are under no illusion that they can come to a settlement and pass the bill to the Government?

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, my hon. Friend is right: it is clearly understood that there can be no question of doing that.

On the first point, I pay tribute to the armed forces and to the way in which they fought the fire in my hon. Friend's constituency. I also pay tribute to those firefighters who have come off their strike action to try to provide protection for people's lives. It is fair to say that they have made an agreement about emergency cover in a gold command situation. That is sensible and right, and I hope that the sense that prevails in that aspect will prevail across the whole of the dispute.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

What proportion of any pay offer will be funded directly by the Government, and what proportion by local authorities and hence council tax payers?

The Prime Minister

I shall explain again. The 4 per cent. is already agreed and local authorities can pay that from their existing settlement. Over and above that, the money has to come from modernization—from changes in working practice: precisely how much is a matter for negotiation between the two sides. I can do no more than repeat that the basic parameter is that if the amount is above 4 per cent. it has to be paid for by changes in working practices.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

This morning, firefighters on the picket line in my constituency told me that they want talks. They want to talk about modernisation. The ideas and suggestions that they put to me were highly positive and flexible. What would my right hon. Friend say in response to them?

The Prime Minister

There must be firefighters who are concerned about the action that has been taken and also about how to get themselves out of the dispute. There will be firefighters who have many reasonable points to make, and the way to do so is to sit down at the negotiating table, not to call a series of eight-day strikes that cannot really help the situation. I come back to the Bain report. It has been disparaged by parts of the FBU, but Sir George Bain has been known to the trade union movement for a long period. He did a magnificent job over the minimum wage. His two wing men were the person from the Local Government Association, who was also a former employer, and Tony Young, the president of the TUC last year. Those people can hardly be described as a biased committee. I hope that if firefighters look at the changes proposed in the report, they will see that they can get above-inflation pay increases, but paid for and funded in the way that I have described.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Given that the Army was warned at the end of July that it would need to prepare for such a strike; given that a considerable number of red fire engines are held in reserve and not behind picket lines; and given that Conservative Members estimate that it would take two weeks to train people to use those fire engines, whereas Labour Members estimate that it would take 12 weeks, why has not the Army been undergoing training since the end of July to use those available fire engines without having to cross picket lines?

The Prime Minister

Preparations to provide cover began in August. The military will be provided with whatever they need but, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we prefer to take their advice rather than his.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

Has my right hon. Friend any plans to meet the leaders of the FBU, bearing in mind the fact that, as most people know, if these disputes go on for any length of time they usually end up in bitterness and recrimination? Today, I noticed that, through the media, the leaders of the FBU offered to meet him. Can he give an answer about that?

The Prime Minister

There have been many meetings with the Fire Brigades Union. The Deputy Prime Minister has constantly met the union and explained the position to it. It is only right to say that, at every stage of the dispute, he has attempted to resolve it and to prevent it from happening. The plain fact is that the meetings can go on for ever, but they must be based on certain clear understandings, and the beginning of understanding how all this has come about is the existing pay formula. Only when that pay formula is changed by agreement can we get a proper negotiation. Of course Ministers will continue to meet the FBU, or anybody else, but this will be resolved only if people realise that it must be resolved on the basis of reason.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to repudiate his official spokesman, who said last Friday that firefighters were not living in the real world? Does he accept that their world is a damn sight more real than that of most politicians? Will he tell the House what the extra costs to date have been in police overtime, local authority extra expenditure and Army expenditure? Will he try to address this question once again: is pump-priming available for a long-term settlement based on modernisation, or not?

The Prime Minister

Whatever the costs of fighting the dispute, they are less in our judgment than the costs of yielding to a claim that would trigger other claims right across the public sector, which there is no way the Government could afford. After all, as a result partly of the way that the economy has been managed, we are making the largest public spending investment in our public services that this country has seen since the second world war. We cannot go outside and breach those limits. Frankly, it is all a question of realising that, in the end, there is a reasonable way to approach this. We have tried to be reasonable, and if people do not want the reasonable way, we have, I am afraid, to stand firm and say that the interests of the country as a whole come first.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

The Prime Minister has said that any settlement has to be fully costed and linked to modernisation. Is he aware that the leader of the employers' side negotiators said at the weekend that the deal last Thursday was costed and that the information was available—[Interruption.] I am sorry; I am quoting directly from Mr. Ransford. The agreement said that any additional payment above 4 per cent. would be linked to modernisation and verified by a panel including the Audit Commission. May I appeal to the Prime Minister to go back to No. 10 and invite the union and the employers to meet him?

The Prime Minister

The difficulty is this: I have obviously studied the agreement—I have read it—that was entered into or may have been reached early on Friday morning, and if my hon. Friend looks at paragraph 6 of that document, he will see that it makes it quite clear that there are, I think it says, significant costs over and above those that can be paid for by modernisation. What is more, there were no costings attached to that at all. Even more than that, we were then told, in effect, that we had to agree to that document and that the strike action would go ahead in any event.

I urge my hon. Friend, if he has any influence with the FBU, to go back to it and simply say that if it produces an agreement with costs attached, it is not really reasonable to say to the Government, "You have to sign the cheque for it, but we can't actually tell you what the costs will be and, what's more, if you do not do it in the next couple of hours, we are all on strike for eight days." The Government cannot operate like that, so if my hon. Friend is saying to me on behalf of those in the FBU that they are prepared to talk about modernisation reasonably and to work out the costing involved in that, he should get them to sit back down with the employers and work it out, arid we will help in any way we can, but we cannot fund it outside of the modernisation.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There will be another statement tomorrow.