HC Deb 26 November 2002 vol 395 cc165-85 3.31 pm
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the fire service dispute. As you know, I was available to give a statement to the House yesterday in line with my undertaking to keep the House informed. [Laughter.] I would hope that the House always feels that Front Benchers should make themselves accountable. In the event—[Interruption.] I bowed to the wishes of Mr. Speaker, as we all must. In the event, the Prime Minister made a statement in response to an urgent question from the Leader of the Opposition, so I will not repeat what he said.

The Government have always made it clear that we want a modern, efficient and effective fire service. We want a fair deal for the firefighters, a fair deal for other public service employees and a fair deal for the public they serve. I am sure that the House will want to join me in thanking the armed forces, the police and other emergency services for the thoroughly professional job that they have done so far. Anyone looking at the pictures in some of our papers today of Wren Amy Stubbs rescuing a young child can see the professionalism and care that they are applying to their role, and I am sure the House would want me to thank them for it.

Since Friday morning, the armed forces have attended more than 5,000 incidents. Their remit is to give priority to category A life-threatening incidents. In fact, they are all coping well and the calls that they have attended have been from the less dangerous category C. There has been no reported instance of property being left to burn.

I also want to take the opportunity to thank the retained firefighters for their continuing work and to acknowledge that striking firefighters have left their own picket lines to deal with some emergency incidents, as they did in the case of the rescue by Amy Stubbs. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking the public for their extra vigilance. However, although hoax calls have fallen from 11 per cent. on the first day of the first strike to 7 per cent. yesterday, that 7 per cent. is still too high.

Following the breakdown of negotiations on Friday morning, I held a discussion with Jeremy Beecham on the way forward. Sir Jeremy is the chairman of the Local Government Association, but he is not a member of the negotiating team. He agreed with me, and has made it public, that the document negotiated between the employers and the employees on Thursday night and Friday morning abandoned the essential link between pay and modernisation that has been the touchstone of the Government's approach to the dispute.

I met Sir Jeremy again last night. He was working to put together a new group on the employers' side, which will oversee the process of modernisation of the fire service, drawing on the work of the Bain review. [Interruption.] That involves members of each political party. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will meet the employers tomorrow to discuss that further.

Officials from my Department met the employers yesterday and they are meeting officials again today to work on the costs and benefits of the modernization proposals. We will continue to work with the employers to help them to come to a clear view about the process of modernisation and the costs of any pay deal for the firefighters.

There has been a great deal of speculation about how this fire strike could be brought to an end. It is very important to bear certain absolutely clear principles in mind. First, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, this Government cannot be asked to find additional money outside the agreed Government spending limits. To do so would risk fundamental and lasting damage to the economy. An inflationary pay rise for the firefighters would lead to inflationary pay rises elsewhere in the public sector, and that in turn would lead to job losses, inflation and mortgage rises. That, I think, is common ground—or it was until yesterday—between the Government and Opposition Members.

Secondly, any pay rise in addition to the 4 per cent. already on the table must be paid for by modernisation. That is the clear message that I have given in every meeting I have held with the employers and the FBU since the early summer. It is the same message that has been repeated by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and members of the Government ever since this dispute started. It is the reason why the Government set up the independent Bain review immediately after negotiations with the FBU and employers broke down in early September. It is also the reason why we asked Sir George Bain to bring forward his position paper on pay, which was published on 11 November.

Following the Prime Minister's press conference and Commons statement yesterday, a real debate has begun in the papers about the issues involved. The FBU found itself having to justify its opposition to the type of changes that other public services have faced up to and which, indeed, have been carried out by some individual fire brigades. The FBU even claimed that it was willing to discuss modernisation all along, so why did it boycott the independent Bain review in the first place?

The debate on modernisation is properly under way, and to help that debate I have today placed in the Library of the House a copy of a principles paper submitted by the Government to the Bain review. The Government's evidence sets out a clear vision for the future of the fire service and the principles that we believe should form the foundations for modernisation. The fire service is a front-line service whose effective functioning is essential to the quality of life in this country. The Government's evidence states that the fire service is well regarded by the public and is effective in many aspects of its performance, but is in need of change and reform. It is a service that could make much better use of its existing resources; that has to consider new ways of working; that needs to forge better partnerships; and that needs to attract a more diverse work force that better reflects the community it serves.

The Government's principles paper sets out our general approach to public sector pay. It states our determination to maintain economic stability and meet our 2.5 per cent. inflation target. It emphasises the need to avoid unnecessarily high pay increases that divert money intended to improve public services, and it stresses the need to link pay to performance and reform, rather than to tenure and time served. The Government's evidence also sets out the five main drivers for change in the fire service, which are: first, a better understanding of the management of risk and the importance of prevention; secondly, the need to reduce the number of fires that occur and the deaths, injuries, and economic and social costs that they cause; thirdly, the fire services' contribution to community safety and action on social exclusion; fourthly, the importance of partnership in the delivery of best value; and lastly, the broadening range of the fire service's work in response to emergencies other than fire, including the new threats posed by terrorism.

The position paper published by the Bain review on 11 November set out the considerations on pay and conditions that were needed to deliver this vision of a modernised fire service. His final, fuller report will be published in three weeks' time. The position paper set out a vision for a single, more broadly based and modernised service with multiple roles offering a wider range of services and expertise. It proposed a reward structure in which individuals would be valued for the contribution they made. It encouraged a more diverse work force with a wider range of career paths, responsibilities and skills, and made it clear that pay and modernisation had to go hand in hand and be consistent with the Government's public sector pay policy. The position paper recommended an increase in the pay bill of up to 11 per cent. over two years, subject to necessary and long-overdue modernisation.

As I told the House on 14 November, the Government remain convinced that the Bain review is the key to resolving this dispute and providing the basis for a modern fire service equipped to deal with modern demands. Let me be clear: that remains the Government's position, as I have said in every statement to the House and in every discussion with the employers and the FBU. We should also be clear that Sir George Bain is proposing a menu of modernisation that is familiar to public sector workers in every other walk of life. What he means by modernisation with regard specifically to working conditions is that full-time and part-time firefighters should man the same engine together; that there should be shift patterns better to match the daily ebb and flow in the number of fires that occur; that overtime should be worked when it is sensible and necessary; that firefighters should be trained to carry out some essential life-saving paramedic functions that could save hundreds of lives; and that there should be joint control rooms, where the fire service and other emergency services can work together. The House should bear in mind the fact that some of those practices are already being carried out in a number of brigade areas up and down the country.

Bain also set out a route map for achieving that vision. He proposed a four-strand approach to negotiations, under which discussions would begin on the whole package of reforms at the same time but would be completed according to different time scales. The first strand would be completed in four to eight weeks, the second in about six months and the third in about a year. That model involved a direct connection between staged payments and the implementation of modernisation. Sir George recommended that, in exchange, the firefighters should receive a 4 per cent. pay rise immediately and a 7 per cent. rise next November. Each rise would be linked to the implementation of modernisation. The fourth strand would depend on action to be taken in partnership with local authorities and central Government, and would take longer to complete.

Sir George said that the question of a longer-term uprating mechanism should depend on the implementation of the reform package, and that he would return to that in his final report—which, as I have said, will be produced in about three weeks.

As with any industrial dispute, there are lots of variables that can be combined in different ways to bring about a final agreement. Bain talks of 11 per cent.; the general secretary of the FBU confirmed today, at a press conference in the House of Commons, that the union's claim is for 40 per cent., and the same is being stated on picket lines up and down the country.

The way forward is for the employers and the union to sit down and discuss how quickly the service can be modernised, how much can be saved, and when the firefighters will get their extra pay. What is absolutely clear, however, is that this fire service strike will have no influence on that process. The Government are not willing to abandon the clear principles that I have set out in the face of industrial action.

I believe that the dispute will be settled only if people sit down at the table and try to reach an agreement. We must lift our eyes above the bile and recriminations of the current dispute, and focus on the long-term future of the fire service. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to introduce a radical change in order to provide a modern fire service for the 21st century. It is the interests of everyone—the public, the employers, the Government and the firefighters themselves—to achieve that vision.

The Bain review has proposed a way forward. That is the basis for discussion. The issue of modernisation must be addressed, and we will therefore go on trying to bring employers and union together to have a proper discussion of pay and modernisation. The two must go hand in hand. The sooner the FBU faces that, the sooner the two sides can begin meaningful negotiation that can bring the dispute to an end. Once again, I urge the firefighters to get back to talking and stop walking.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. I agree that it is time for the firefighters to return to work and for all parties to return to the negotiating table. Let me also associate myself and the Opposition with the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks about the excellent work being done by the military personnel and, indeed, by the retained firefighters. Their hard work has ensured that this week's strike has not resulted in many more casualties. But it is not with their hard work that we have a problem; the problem is that they are needed at all. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday, this strike should not have happened in the first place. That it happened is due in part to the chaos and confusion that we have witnessed at the heart of Government over the past two weeks.

The Deputy Prime Minister spoke at length about reorganisation. Some of that may be beneficial, but it will not work if it is not clear who is in charge. Yesterday the Prime Minister stepped in to try and introduce some clarity, but many questions remain unanswered. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister can bring more clarity to some of those issues today.

First, there is the issue of costs. On Friday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman described the draft agreement between the employers and the FBU as "uncosted" and "half-baked". The Deputy Prime Minister himself said, "nobody knows the costs". Can he confirm that a member of his Department, a senior civil servant, costed the deal in the early hours of Friday morning at some £240 million? If so, why did the Prime Minister say yesterday that the cost was nearer £500 million? Can the Deputy Prime Minister clear up that confusion and tell us which figure he believes: £240 million or £500 million?

This morning, the Prime Minister's official spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of job losses in the fire service. Given that employment-related costs make up more than 80 per cent. of the fire service's expenditure, it seems that they are extremely likely. Can the Deputy Prime Minister say whether he anticipates job losses? If the Prime Minister's figure of £500 million is correct, that will equate to no fewer than 15,000 job losses. Does the Deputy Prime Minister see those coming from a simple reduction in manpower or from the closure of fire stations? Most important, can he guarantee that there will be no worsening of cover or response times as a result of cost savings?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said particularly clearly that there would be no central Government funding for anything over 4 per cent. However, the employers appear to be anticipating some form of transitional funding from the Government, and the Bain inquiry implied transitional funding of some £41 million. Can the Deputy Prime Minister finally put that issue to rest and tell us what the true position is? Do the Prime Minister's comments mean that there will be no transitional funding and does that represent a change of policy from the Deputy Prime Minister's original position?

The strike seems, sadly, set to go on for weeks or even months. Accordingly, the threat to public safety is even greater than we feared. What is the position on the safer red fire engines now? Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that they are available to the military if they ask for them. However, do the Government have control of all the 100-plus engines that they talked of last week, and are they being deployed?

Is the experience of the military in Northumberland typical? I have here a copy of an article from Newcastle's The Journal today, which says that they were given modern appliances on Saturday, the decision was reversed on Sunday and reversed again on Monday night. Is the indecision and chaos that have plagued the dispute from the beginning still endangering the lives of the public?

There is growing evidence that the threat of strike action is beginning to spread through the public sector. Even today, teachers and council workers in London are on strike. On Thursday, the RMT will send out ballot papers calling for strike action on the London underground, using the pretence of safety concerns. The Prime Minister sought to avoid that question yesterday, but should not the Government make clear before union members cast their votes what the legal consequences are? Will the Deputy Prime Minister make it clear that secondary action or the threat of secondary action is unlawful and that the Government will give their full support to anyone who takes legal action against any trade union engaging in it?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the FBU has refused to sign up to TUC safety guidelines, which are, after all, designed to protect the public from unnecessary risk in the event of a strike? Is that not exactly the sort of circumstance that section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Consolidation Act 1992 sought to deal with—a threat to the safety of the public? May I ask him again the question that he and the Prime Minister have avoided: will he go back to the Attorney-General and ask him to consider using that legislation to stop the strike action going on until Christmas?

I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister can provide clear and concise answers to those important questions and clear up some of the chaos that we have witnessed in the past few days and weeks. The strike has already gone on too long. It is time for all parties to return to the negotiating table and to find a settlement. The strike should never have been allowed to happen, and many in this country will find it sad that, as the strike goes on and with public safety increasingly at risk, the only person who appears to be sleeping easily in his bed is the Deputy Prime Minister himself.

The Deputy Prime Minister

That was a typical cheap contribution from the right hon. Gentleman. The Opposition should reflect on the fact that every day of this dispute causes a threat to our citizens and everything should be done to try—[Interruption.] I will reply, but it is important to create an atmosphere in which we can have a settlement and not inflame the dispute, which is what the Conservative Administration always did. It is a bit cheap for the Conservatives to talk about how many days have been lost in the dispute, when we recall the millions of days lost in disputes under their leadership, quite apart from the millions of days lost through unemployment.

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that I have to direct the Attorney-General? [Interruption.] I thought that he said that the Government should tell the Attorney-General that we do not want the strike. He should ask his own legal affairs spokesman. I am asked by the Attorney-General whether any action is taking place and what the state of the negotiations is, and I properly tell him that it is for him to make a judgment on the public interest and the safety of the community. I leave that judgment to him and it is not our job to direct him on such matters. If—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Deputy Prime Minister answer.

The Deputy Prime Minister

On the question about whether the TUC has an agreement on the 1978 agreement, that is a matter for the TUC. It was a matter for me to seek to find an agreement, which I failed to do on the first occasion, on exceptional situations such as a train crash or an explosion on our transport system. We have an agreement, signed up to by the union and the authorities involved, to make the men and machines available when such problems arise, dealing with what is known as the gold command, with the fire people controlling the fire equipment and the police controlling theirs. That is the normal structure under such circumstances, and I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that we have an agreement to that effect, willingly entered into by the Fire Brigades Union, rather than shaking his head at it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about the emergency services, and I know that the whole House will agree.

When the estimates were made of the cost of £400 million or £500 million, that was a judgment on the total cost of the deal over three years. The Chancellor was talking about the public expenditure over the whole three-year period. Before considering how much could be paid for through modernisation and whether there would be any transitional payments, we would first have to agree to some modernisation proposals. Without such an agreement, we cannot make a proper judgment of what costs would be involved.

The George Bain judgment is that 11 per cent. could be paid in two years if the firefighters are prepared to modernise in the way that I have suggested here and the way that he set out in his report. He did not say 16 per cent., he said 11 per cent. The union and the employers were discussing 16 per cent., but we did not endorse any of their three agreements and made it clear that any deal had to be financed by modernisation. It was not a matter of how much modernisation—the union made it clear that it was not prepared to engage with any modernisation. In those circumstances, all three deals that were being discussed were unacceptable. The first deal had the details of how much modernisation there should be, but that was taken out of the next two documents. We did not endorse any of them. Bain recommended, and the employers originally agreed, that there should be staged payments along with staged implementation. That is where the judgments have to be made.

As the Prime Minister said, 100 red fire engines are available to the command centres if they want them, along with the 27 or 30 that are currently being used. The right hon. Gentleman referred to a problem in Newcastle, of which I am partly aware. The dispute was not about whether red goddesses should be used, but about where they should be sited. That was apparently what was under discussion by the authorities in the area—not doubts about the Prime Minister's statement. He said that if the machines were requested, we would be prepared to provide them. That commitment was met.

As regards the RMT and its decision, I recommend that the right hon. Gentleman talk to his party's legal spokesman. Perhaps I should let him into this secret: secondary picketing and action are unlawful. There is no doubt about that. I need say no more than that.

The Prime Minister made it clear that, during the first strike, 100 RMT members were involved in what some people called secondary action, although the RMT members said that it was due to safety fears. The company dealt with that and the number fell to one. I can tell the House that the number is now zero—there has been a 100 per cent. improvement.

We all have to recognise that the matter has to be settled around a table, and we should do everything that we can—

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

What about job losses?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I shall deal with that—it is an important point. The FBU is proud of its record in keeping people employed in the industry. However, as 20 per cent. of the industry's work force will be taking early retirement over the next few years—for some of them it will be extremely early, because 70 per cent. of such retirements are for medical reasons—there would seem to be ample opportunity to discuss a more efficient utilisation of labour without redundancies or sackings.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and for continuing to keep the House informed. I join him in thanking our armed forces, our police and other emergency services for their work during the strike. He is right to point out that our thanks must go to the retained firefighters for their work. Not only do the Liberal Democrats wholly oppose the strike, but we also believe that the right hon. Gentleman was right on Friday morning to reject the request made by the employers and the FBU. That request was, in effect, for a blank cheque and for a deal that completely failed to guarantee real modernisation.

I join the Conservative spokesman, however, in pointing out that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been giving mixed messages, especially on funding, and that has not helped negotiations. Even now, it is still not clear whether there could be transitional funding to bridge any time gap until savings from reform come through. Yesterday, the Prime Minister distinctly failed to answer a question on that point from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). And the Deputy Prime, Minister failed to answer that question when it was put by the Conservative spokesman today.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister try to answer the question once and for all? Could transitional funding be found within, as he said in his statement, "agreed Government spending limits"? Have not the right hon. Gentleman and his ministerial colleagues hinted on many occasions during the past few weeks that transitional funding could be available? Could such funding not break the deadlock?

The Deputy Prime Minister has expressed frustration that he has not seen estimates of the savings that could be generated from reform. Will he explain why it is taking so long to obtain those figures? Why has his Department not produced them by now? Will he confirm that, a week ago, Ministers received a costings paper from the national joint council detailing estimated savings of £71 million from reform? If he can confirm that, will he tell the House whether Ministers accept that figure? Does he agree that the failure to draw up full and proper estimates of savings from modernisation is a major obstacle to finalising negotiations?

When exactly did the Government submit their principles paper to the Bain review? As that independent review is even more important than ever if we are to achieve sensible reform, is there any possibility that publication of the final report will be brought forward?

On an operational note, the Government say that they are putting public safety above all other considerations, so does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concern that in West Mercia it appears that the police and the Royal Air Force have been instructed to stop helping firefighters to put out fires? An e-mail from a senior fire office to his colleagues, headed "Police advice on striking firefighters attending incidents", states: Our police colleagues are understandably reluctant to release the advice they have received from their own headquarters, but the RAF have confirmed that they received similar advice a few days ago. The basis of the advice is that: The fire fighters are travelling in unmarked cars and may cause a risk to other road users as they chase incidents. They are not insured when working whilst on strike, raising questions over legal liability if they did something that resulted in death or injury. Such 'humanitarian' responses are being used in their propaganda war and undermine the military position, suggesting they"— the military— are unable to cope to cope without their expertise. The senior firefighter's e-mail continues: You will appreciate that this has potentially very significant implications in several respects. The last bullet point is particular disturbing, suggesting that the advice could be politically rather than operationally motivated. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether he is aware of any such military or police advice? Will he guarantee to the House that Ministers and officials have had nothing to do with any such advice? Will he undertake to investigate that issue and make it clear now that the Government would not support any action by the police or RAF to stop firefighters from helping to save lives?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments and come immediately to the more serious points that he makes. May I make it clear that I am not aware of any such incident, which the House would deplore? If he is prepared to give me the information, I will look into it immediately and ensure that it is corrected. Although I do riot know of such an incident, I assure him that my Department would not be involved in it. However, I shall look into it and report back to him as soon as I can.

With regard to the mixed messages, we have been very clear that anything over and above 4 per cent. will have to be paid for by modernisation. Everyone has said that time and again, and that message is very clear. We were not involved in the negotiations, and hon. Members on both sides of the House will know that employers and employees always negotiate their own agreements. Everyone in government has recognised that, and we have not disputed it. All we have said is that there can be a settlement for three years and that there will be a certain amount of money for public pay. If the settlement is over and above that, it will have to be financed by modernisation. That is a clear position, and it is probably one that the Opposition might have pursued in government, but that will not be tested for an awfully long time.

We are making all those matters clear, and whether people can change, whether anything can be done about the savings and what will be the total costs are all issues that concern us. Let me deal with just one question that I inquired about. When I looked at one of the proposals to bring retained fireworkers' pay up to that of full-time fireworkers—especially with regard to part-timers as well—I asked why is there a difference in pay? One of the union's demands is to bring pay up to the same level. I asked whether we could have the figures—I thought that calculating the money involved seemed simple enough—but then discovered that people have to renegotiate all the allowances that are included. It is not easy to go away and find out the figures immediately.

I agree that it is risking a terrible situation when negotiations go on without that basic information. I understand that the same employers involved in negotiations with local authorities receive regular information, but if such negotiations have not gone on with the fire service for 25 years, people get into habits and do not look at the cost savings that are involved. I agree that that should have been done, and that is why we have set up a team to make sure that we have accurate information, instead of ideas just being put down on paper and people asking me to sign a blank cheque. That is totally unacceptable, and it is why the team has been put together to find out accurate information.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our paper on principles. We sent the paper to the Bain inquiry on 18 October, but we thought that it would be useful to publish it today—it had not been published by the Bain inquiry—to show what the Government's attitude to modernisation and pay was on 18 October. The principles are clearly set out in that paper.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister understand that all the firefighters in the three fire stations in my constituency are prepared to talk sensibly about some of the ways of working, but they are not prepared—nor am I—to see modernisation used as a form of cutback? In particular, will he assure the House that the fire service in London will not have fewer firemen and women on duty at night, given that Londoners—certainly the people in my constituency—think that that is the most dangerous time, when we need more firemen and women, not fewer?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is clear that one needs to have a proper risk assessment of where the danger is; it varies from station to station and, indeed, as the general secretary of the FBU has said, from time to time. He said that he was in a very busy station, but some stations receive fewer calls, so risk assessment is quite important. Judgments can be made about whether there should be full teams for the three eight-hour watches, but there have been fewer police on duty at night than during the day for a long time. I understand the arguments about that, but my point is why not sit down and negotiate?

How can my hon. Friend possibly know whether the number of firefighters will be reduced—the charge that she makes—without the required analysis and the discussions? It is easy to pick up a leaflet and repeat what might be said outside, but I have to do something much more informed than that, and the Bain inquiry was about telling us facts, rather than taking things off a leaflet.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that it is the number of closed underground stations rather than the number of drivers at work that is the issue? Is he aware that the channel tunnel, when faced with closure, installed its own safety equipment to a standard that was acceptable to the Health and Safety Executive in Kent? As a result, the channel tunnel is open. Why cannot the same be done on the London underground to free the streets of London of the chaos that is becoming a daily occurrence?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We must accept that the London underground is working very well—[Interruption.] It has not closed down. Despite the statements made at the time—[Interruption.] Yes, it is working well. Let us look at how many trains are running and how many drivers are turning up for work. As I have already said, 100 drivers did not turn up during the previous strike, but that number went down to one yesterday, and it is now none. That should be welcomed. As for the closed stations, I understand the difficulties behind the Health and Safety Executive's judgment, which we must accept. Perhaps those factors can be taken into account in the modernisation of the underground.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

It is well known that the firemen have support around the country, and that people would like the dispute settled as lives are in danger, and that is what the Fire Brigades Union is all about—trying to save lives. Would not it be wise of my right hon. Friend to get a room in his office or somewhere else, put the negotiating team in there, and only feed them beer and sandwiches until he gets a result?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is more a case of wine and canapés at the moment. Anyway, I do not think that that is necessary. On the occasions when I have met the general secretary of the FBU, he wants neither a sandwich nor a beer nor tea. We have had meetings and discussions, however, and safety considerations are as important to him as to the ordinary fire workers on picket lines, who, when they see an incident, come off their picket lines and go to save lives. Every one of us must therefore make every kind of effort to get back round the negotiating table to get a good fire service working for us and for the safety of the community.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Given the Deputy Prime Minister's assurance that any settlement will be fully financed by modernisation, will he provide a further categorical assurance that no part of any settlement above 4 per cent. will fall to council tax payers to fund?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I have made it precisely clear that anything over and above 4 per cent. will have to be paid for by modernisation. The only reference to council tax came not from the Government but from the leader of the Fire Brigades Union, who suggested putting 20p on council tax. What I found hard was that it seemed that the council tax payer could be asked to pay to overcome this difficulty, and the taxpayer could be asked to pay for it, but the Fire Brigades Union would make no changes. It should make changes.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

Firefighters in my constituency still believe that they are worth £30,000 a year, and they believe that the Fire Brigades Union has evidence to justify that. They do not believe the Bain inquiry because of the fatal flaw in that the FBU did not submit any evidence to it. If the FBU asks the Deputy Prime Minister to set up an inquiry again, in which the FBU would participate, to make a judgment on the extent to which, since 1978, changes in the labour market and the fire service would justify a pay increase, would he be prepared to set up such an inquiry? At the moment, the firefighters still believe—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps this is an opportunity to say that questions must be brief.

The Deputy Prime Minister

Let me make it clear that there is no need for another inquiry. I have said very clearly to the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union that if he has evidence to give, even at this stage, he should give it. I cannot accept criticism in relation to the worth of a firefighter if evidence is not given to the inquiry that is set up. That is the situation. I do not know all the facts, and it is clear that the employers do not know all of them either, so it is traditional in such circumstances, under all Governments in this country, to set up an independent inquiry as a fair way of obtaining the facts.

As for the judgment on whether a firefighter is worth £30,000. I refer to the one difference about firefighters with which everyone agrees. They walk into danger when most of us walk away from it. That is a special consideration. However, on the point about whether they are worth £30,000, I ask the House to consider what would happen if nurses walked out and deaths in wards resulted from their lack of attendance. We would be asking exactly the same question. We must try to find fairness within the balance that we have set out. I have done that today and the Bain inquiry has done that. Let us sit down and talk and produce whatever evidence one would like to give. However, we must make a decision at the end of the day that is fair to the firefighters, fair to other public sector workers and fair to the economy in its consequences.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

I am reminded more and more that the Deputy Prime Minister is like Nero, only faffing rather than fiddling. Bearing in mind that soldiers are paid half what the FBU is asking for, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman did the walking instead of the talking and resigned?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Clearly, that was not a serious question.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I very much admire the work that my right hon. Friend has undertaken in this dispute. I sincerely hope that the other parties involved do not regret the action that they have taken in removing him from the negotiations.

Will my right hon. Friend clarify to the House and to the country at large some of the misinformation that is currently being bandied about? A perfect example is the 40 per cent. pay increase that each and every Member of the House is alleged to have had. Furthermore, can he tell us the salary increase that the firefighters have received over the past five years and say whether any modernisation has been tied to that? Has that modernisation been delivered?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Firefighters' wages have been determined by a formula produced in 1978 and they have been connected to the average rise in earnings. The formula has not required them to have any negotiations or tied pay to modernisation. That system operated for 25 years and everyone can welcome the fact that there had not been a strike in the industry for 25 years. The FBU now feels that the formula is not adequate and it wants to change it. That is the point of negotiation.

The 40 per cent. increase that has been mentioned was given only to the Prime Minister. Members received varying degrees of percentage increase, but I must make the point that the increase was determined by an independent inquiry and not by the House. I recommend such an approach to the FBU.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

In the statement, the Deputy Prime Minister asked us to lift our eyes above the bile and recrimination of the current dispute. May I therefore invite him to repudiate the bile spouted by Richard Simpson, Labour's Deputy Justice Minister in Scotland, who not only accused the firefighters of being fascists but then went on to question their parenthood? Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that someone using such inflammatory language in this dispute is fit to be a Minister?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am advised that Richard Simpson did not make such a comment. As the question came from such an obvious source, I will treat it with the contempt that it probably deserves.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement that the local government side of the negotiations will be freshened up. However, does he share my concern about the FBU's reluctance to engage in modernisation? I have spoken to firefighters on the picket lines and they are already engaged in modernisation. What they need is a clear package outlining what is asked of them and what they will receive in return. That will enable them to come to an informed judgment and that may or may not bring the dispute to an end.

The Deputy Prime Minister

On the proposals for modernisation, let us consider those for joint control rooms. They are working in certain brigades and, when I ask the FBU about that, it tells me that they operate because of a decision taken by the firemen in that area. That may be their decision but, because the FBU is negotiating national wages and national agreements, it is fair to ask it, at least, to start talking about them. At the moment, it has set its face against that, but that is just for the moment. We will have to return to the negotiating table, and we will insist on the need to discuss such proposals.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us whether or not one of his officials costed the deal on Thursday night at £240 million? Yes or no.

The Deputy Prime Minister

There was no cost given. Costs were bandied about—[Interruption.] Let me make this clear. I asked how much the deal would cost because it contained a section that said, "We do not believe that this will finance itself so we will have to go to the Government", or words to that effect. I was told, "We're signing the deal. We'll do the figure crunching later." I cannot sign deals on that basis.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Is not it the case that modernisation, as it is called, will mean fewer firefighters, as my right hon. Friend seems to imply? Is he aware that in all three commands in Greater London, firefighter jobs have been lost over a period of 20 years? In the last round of cuts three years ago, five more pumps were lost with a proportionate loss of jobs. How many firefighter jobs does he envisage will be lost as a result of the current process of so-called modernisation?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It appears from what my hon. Friend says that redundancies were already taking place under the existing system, although I do not have that information. All we are saying is let us have a modernised service by discussing the practices in the industry with the union. That is fair enough. Setting our face against discussion does not mean that we will prevent redundancies. As he says, they are already occurring. Let us have a properly manned service that is fair to the firefighters.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

The Deputy Prime Minister's tribute to the armed forces working in the dispute had a hollow ring to it because they still do not have the equipment that the Government said at the beginning of the dispute would be available. Of the 400 modern engines—perhaps he can respond to this when he has finished muttering to his hon. Friends—that were available at the beginning of the dispute, only 15 were deployed, and he has the nerve to tell us today that still only a quarter have been deployed. What exactly is the problem, other than the Deputy Prime Minister?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is quite wrong to say that 400 engines are available. The hon. Gentleman can get the information on that. There could be 400 vehicles, but some would be without engines or wheels. I do not know what he means. The Prime Minister and the Government have made it clear that 100 are available to be distributed at the request of the armed forces. They will be provided if requested. Indeed, they are being provided, as he can regularly see on the television.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Yesterday the Prime Minister said that firefighters should end their ban on overtime in the name of modernisation. Tonight ambulance staff in west Yorkshire go on a 24-hour work-to-rule, mainly because they are stressed out by having to work routine overtime to provide cover. May I tell the Deputy Prime Minister that excessive hours are a 19th century practice, something that the Labour party was born to end? We should not be promoting excessive hours in our emergency services.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not know how many hours my hon. Friend works. It is certainly more than eight, but that is by choice, which is an important part of a democratic society. If someone wants to work overtime and get extra income, that is a choice for the individual worker. It is a common practice throughout industry. I know that it is sometimes said that we should work towards getting rid of overtime, but I do not think that she would include that in her manifesto at this stage. Let us get modern working practices in place. We need to work out the solution and provide a modern fire service that is flexible enough to meet all the demands placed on it.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Yesterday I met a taxi driver for whom being a regular fireman was a second job. Does the Deputy Prime Minister know of anyone else in similar circumstances?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I note the point. Many firefighters would say that they take a second job. Sometimes that is because they do not get enough basic salary, and perhaps we should consider that problem. In some cases, however, it is to get a second income. If they do not want overtime in the fire service, why take extra work in the form of a second job?

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

Some of us who have experienced a national dispute in which the Government stand firm against a trade union have been here before. I am not comfortable with seeing a union in conflict with my Government. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that I hold him in high regard and he is right to say that it is better to talk than walk. However, there is something farcical about a situation in which the Government have a veto on negotiations between employers and the trade union. Is it not time that we considered face-to-face negotiations between the Government and the Fire Brigades Union to settle the dispute? It is not just a case of people talking to each another; they have to listen as well.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am not against face-to-face talks; indeed, I first met Andy Gilchrist and local authority representatives to try to find a way forward in August. I hope it is not proposed that the Government should negotiate with every public sector worker. In some cases, that is called an incomes policy, which always used to cause problems.

My hon. Friend refers to his own information about disputes with the Government. I found myself in conflict with the Government in 1966, following a dispute between seamen and ship owners, and our movement suffered another glorious defeat. I hope that Andy Gilchrist will not mind my giving him advice: he should be very careful not to get into a conflict with the Government about public pay. All Governments face those issues. My hon. Friend proposes that the Government should take over negotiations, but that would not be a good move, although they are responsible for taxpayers' money and entitled to ask whether any deal fits certain requirements.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

The appointment of the Minister for Pensions, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), shows that the Prime Minister has lost all confidence in the Deputy Prime Minister's handling of the issue. Will he now, for the third time of asking, tell the House how the Bain report can convert into increased pay for firefighters without immediate corresponding job losses, especially as it says nothing about overall manning levels?

The Deputy Prime Minister

No, it does not; the report made it clear that firefighters should first go through the gate of modernisation. Bain said that in the first four weeks of that process he could take a number of measures that would not affect jobs; however, they would affect the atmosphere within which the discussions would take place.

Bain went on to set out a four-year framework. We have heard the argument for a 16 per cent. pay increase in two years. Bain was not in favour of that; he proposed a rise of 11 per cent. in two years. He based that judgment on the changes that could he made, which the hon. Gentleman will see in the appendices to the report. Bain's fuller report would spell out the detail of those proposals.

Bain went on to say that many more savings could be made in the third and fourth years. Looking over the longer term, the programme would not only meet the needs of pay through modernisation, but change the fire service. I agree with the union that it has been a Cinderella service that we have never properly funded. Legislative changes are needed, and there must be an overall approach to modernisation. We are prepared to do what Bain set out, and it is possible to go through the first stages of his framework without having to find extra money.

Phil Sawford (Kettering)

I spoke to firemen in Kettering on Friday night and visited the fire station again on Monday morning. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the firefighters do not want to be out on strike, that they want a decent living wage and recognition for the professional work that they do and that they are willing to modernise? Before positions get further entrenched, creating a legacy of bitterness and mistrust, will my right hon. Friend do everything that he can to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible in the best interests of the public and the firefighters?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I have always had the public in mind. Every one of us has to bear it in mind that the dispute poses a threat to life, and I am sure that that is as true of the firefighters as it is of the Government.

I visited my fire station in Bransholme and had a chat with the firefighters, and I have no doubt that they do not want to be on strike. However, they are firmly convinced that they want changes to the industry and to their pay. They posed the question, "What is the worth of the firefighter?" We must address ourselves to precisely that question, but it has to be measured against all the other factors. This is not just about the firefighter.

We are recognising special conditions and we are saying that we will pay above the existing rate but firefighters have to modernise in return. We all know from visiting fire stations in our constituencies that firefighters are genuine guys who want to sort out the dispute and get on with their job. They like their job but they think that they need to be better rewarded and they want a modernised fire service. That should be uppermost in everybody's mind; I certainly intend to do all that I can to achieve it and I have set out the framework within which we all have to work.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the Army is providing emergency cover in Northern Ireland during the firefighters' dispute. Is he aware also that the additional manpower back-up for the fire service is reducing troop numbers in Northern Ireland to a dangerously low level? That is due first, to the need for back-up for the low manpower in the Police Service of Northern Ireland and secondly, to low morale in the prison service caused by the release of personal security information to Sinn Fein-IRA through the spy ring in Stormont. Has the Deputy Prime Minister had any discussion with Northern Ireland Office Ministers about increasing troop levels?

The Deputy Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are in touch with our Northern Ireland colleagues about those matters. He has raised some important matters—I shall raise them with my colleagues and write him a letter to that effect. I am careful not to get involved in the politics of Northern Ireland, which make the situation very different from that in other parts of the United Kingdom, but I shall take up the hon. Gentleman's point and write to him.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I really want to stand up for professional firefighters in Staffordshire. We are at a crossroads and have reached an impasse. My right hon. Friend and the Fire Brigades Union have to find a way through.

In Staffordshire, we have embraced modernisation, and part-time and full-time firefighters work alongside one another. The bids with the best savings submitted by Staffordshire to the Government have been turned down. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how, if we go down the modernisation route, extra money can be found within the agenda of joined-up government to make sure that we can fund the changes that everyone wants and that the public trust?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I think that I said in my statement that there are areas where we should begin discussions, and where it is likely that discussions can take place. I mentioned joint control rooms, but there are other areas. My hon. Friend said that full-time and part-time workers work together in firefighting. That is true when they arrive at a fire, but my understanding is that they cannot go in the same vehicle to that fire. It seems a bit odd that they cannot go in the same vehicle to a fire—that is the sort of thing that we want to talk about with the Fire Brigades Union and ask whether we can make an adjustment. If it can convince us that that is not right, we shall have to take that into account. If it convinces us that it could create safety problems, we would not want to countenance that. However, everyone must get into discussions. The FBU representatives cannot stay out of them and say, "We won't do it" or stay out for 40 per cent., no strings attached. That is unacceptable—start talking, not walking.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

May I draw the Deputy Prime Minister back to an earlier question about the likely impact of any settlement, even with efficiency savings, on council tax? His Department must have done some calculations, and he will accept that potentially there will be a major impact, certainly in the short term, on many county councils that are awaiting with trepidation the announcement of the local government finance formula in the next fortnight?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman has raised a serious matter. That has never been part of any negotiations that I have seen—it was a comment by, I think, the general secretary of the FBU, who said that 20p would be put on council tax. Quotes and estimates have been given, but they have not been part of our negotiations. We have said that all pay claims above 4 per cent. must be covered by modernisation. Seeking the easy way out, passing the increase on to council tax, is no more acceptable than passing it on to the national taxpayer. As the hon. Gentleman knows, local authorities have the right to make judgments about what they buy with their council tax.

Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife)

My right hon. Friend made reference to the signed agreements reached with the FBU on the underground. Would he join me in welcoming the voluntary efforts of many FBU members throughout the country who, as is the case in my constituency, have turned up and supported other efforts to deal with emergency situations where lives were threatened? Does he agree that the current position is that every effort has been made but that further efforts must be made to resolve the issue, otherwise there will be no victors at the end of the day, only losers?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I very much agree. At the end of the day, however, we have to come to some agreement. I pay tribute to those firefighters—when faced with a decision where there is a threat to human life most of them will leave the picket line and go and help. There is a lot of evidence of that—it is the firefighters' nature. That is what they do—they do not have a conflict of conscience, and I think that the whole House would want to congratulate them on that. That kind of spirit, at the end of the day, will solve this. We have to sit down and find agreement between parties who respect one another and accept each other's negotiating position. It is called compromise, it is called negotiations, it is called talking. That is how we will settle this in the end.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

If the Attorney-General is proposing to apply to the court, it is inconceivable that he will not tell the Deputy Prime Minister, so will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us if he knows whether the Attorney-General is proposing to apply to the court to invoke section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to declare that the strike is endangering public safety?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a legal background—I suspect, from his bearing, that he probably does. He will know as well as I know that the Attorney-General does not have to tell me about any action that he could take. What he must do, and he has been to see me about it, is o make a judgment about the dispute—whether this dispute may end, as in the case of the 48-hour strike, and whether his intervention would inflame the situation and make the strike go on longer, with all the implications of that for public safety. He has to make that judgment, but he does not have to tell me or ask my position—properly so—about whether he takes an action.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he did not adequately answer the question from one of those Tory Back-Benchers, who asked him whether he knew any other group of people that had second jobs? The answer is loads of Tory MPs, including a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is making £100,000 a year selling fags to the third world. Will my right hon. Friend answer a question about a statutory incomes policy? Will he tell those people who are calling for public and Government intervention to be careful of their language? We all have the scars to prove what happened last time there was a statutory incomes policy. If he cannot get the money from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he look into his Department to find the pump-priming money to get the modernisation proposals on their way?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend says on these matters. We have campaigned long and hard for Members of Parliament to have only one job in the House, and that is what I have done for the past 30 years since I have been a Member. As my hon. Friend reminds us, all the way through the operation of an incomes policy, all those Members who had second jobs were always exempt from the strictures of an incomes policy. Those strictures only ever applied to the ordinary worker, who received the normal payments. As to whether we will find extra resources, until the firefighters sit down and talk about where the resources will come from and how much of the total cost will be covered by modernisation, I cannot answer my hon. Friend's question. Let me be clear: no extra above 4 per cent. will be paid unless we are on course for modernisation and implementing it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

When I spoke to—

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thought that statements were supposed to be for one hour.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Deputy Prime Minister has come to the House. I will decide who I call and who I do not call.

Mr. McLoughlin

When I spoke to firemen in Matlock, it was made clear to me that the last thing that they wanted to do was to go on strike. How can the Deputy Prime Minister, with all his vast experience in industrial relations, come to the House today and say, "This has got nothing to do with me"? He was the man who set up Bain. He is the man who is calling the tune. At the end of the day, whether the Deputy Prime Minister likes it or not, he and the Prime Minister are responsible.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I apologise for any insult or offence that I may have caused, Mr. Speaker, but you know that on the last occasion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I am entitled to make a point, even in a modernised House. You know, Mr. Speaker, that there was a requirement that statements would be one hour, and you said to the House that we went longer than that on the last occasion. [Interruption.] I am only repeating what the Speaker said. There was a statement yesterday. As you know, I recognise your judgment in the matter. You said on the last occasion that we had gone over the time allowed after modernisation, and since there was a statement yesterday, I was expressing the thought that we were going well over the hour now. I do exactly as you tell me. I do not challenge you in any way, but I think it fair to point out that I have a grievance about it, and I am entitled—

Mr. Speaker

Order. As a former trade union officer, perhaps I can address the right hon. Gentleman's grievance. I agree that that was a recommendation of the Modernisation Committee, but of course I have discretion in the matter. There were a great many Members standing, and that is why I tested the right hon. Gentleman's patience. There may be other occasions when I have to go beyond the recommendations of the Committee. If the Deputy Prime Minister is patient, perhaps I will let him and the House know that the last hon. Gentleman whom I intended to call was the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin).

The Deputy Prime Minister

Mr. Speaker, you clearly reflect your trade union experience, to which I immediately bow and which I fully accept.

The hon. Gentleman's reference to the trade union experience seems appropriate at this time. Of course the Government have a responsibility in these matters. When they negotiate their provisions for local authorities and public services, there should be an element relating to public pay. What we have said on this occasion about paying above that amount we have also said to the local authority workers, who settled only a few months ago. We told them that there could be no more and they observed that decision. In some cases, trade union officials are now advocating the view that more can be paid. In those circumstances, and where such payments are made, we have made it clear that we will want to look at any such agreement.

That automatically brings me to what Andy Gilchrist told me in August, when I first met him. He asked whether we were interfering as a Government and I made it clear that we were not doing so, but I also said "If you want a 40 per cent. increase and it has to come from the taxpayer, I am bound to ask how you are financing it." That is my obligation in this job, whether I am a trade union representative or not, although in these circumstances, I happen to be an employer instead.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker