HC Deb 20 January 2003 vol 398 cc21-33 3.30 pm
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

On 16 December, I announced to the House the publication of Sir George Bain's independent report on the future of the fire service. In my statement, I set out the Government's commitment to taking forward the review's recommendations. I also undertook to keep the House informed of further developments.

The House will recall that at the beginning of December, at the Fire Brigades Union's request, both sides in the dispute agreed to return to the negotiating table and enter into a programme of talks at ACAS. On 2 December, the FBU general secretary said: we welcome the intervention of ACAS at this stage of the dispute and hope that all parties involved will grasp this opportunity to find a settlement agreeable to all parties concerned". He also said that the union would enter into the process constructively and positively. Despite that, and despite the fact that the FBU had asked for the talks at ACAS and those talks had hardly got under way, on 10 January the union announced an additional 24-hour strike, which will start tomorrow at 9 am. That will be followed by two 48-hour strikes starting on 28 January and 1 February, so the story so far this year is one day of talks and a threat of five days of strikes.

Based on the recommendations on pay and modernisation in the Bain report, the fire service employers have offered an 11.3 per cent. pay increase over two years, linked to modernisation. That is a good offer by any standards. The 4 per cent. offered for this year is more than the firefighters would have got under the old formula, and that formula was defended as recently as July 2000, when the FBU general secretary told his members: Our wages remain ahead of other essential public sector workers precisely because we have maintained the formula". The 4 per cent. on offer is also almost twice the rate of inflation, and is well above the average level of public sector pay settlements.

Given that background, and in the light of the Bain review, I must repeat to the FBU and its members that further strike action will achieve nothing. It will only make it more difficult to settle this dispute. It is damaging and it poses a danger to public safety.

As my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I have said again and again, pay and modernisation must go hand in hand. The two sides in this dispute must negotiate on that basis. Bain provides the framework for a deal. It is that simple. That will remain the Government's position regardless of further strike action.

I urge the FBU and its members to join us in building the modernised fire service that the people of this country need and deserve. Firefighters themselves have called for change to improve the service. I say to them, "Let us now get on with the job."

The Government are already implementing the modernisation agenda set out in the Bain review. Since Bain reported, we have made good progress in moving ahead with his recommendations for a better, safer fire service. For example, with the agreement of the House, the Government will repeal section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 via the Local Government Bill. That will allow local decisions to be made on the level of fire cover required to ensure the safety of local communities. Later this month, we will issue for consultation revised guidance on a new approach to fire cover, drawn up by Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services. That will ensure that fire brigades have the right people in the right place at the right time to deal with the real risks posed by fire and other emergencies in today's world.

Next, the fire service inspectorate is being modernised and restructured to fulfil its new responsibilities, as recommended by the Bain report. Its key roles from now on will be to support delivery and to help develop the new generation of fire service professional managers who will run the modernised fire and rescue service.

Finally, Bain recommended a new forum of fire and other emergency service leaders to help us to drive forward the modernisation agenda. As a first step, a meeting with all the UK's chief fire officers will be held later this week.

I will give the House further information in the White Paper, which we will publish later this year. I will also include our detailed response to the recommendations in Bain.

Given the concerns raised by Members about the importance of local consultation when fire service modernisation is being dealt with, let me assure them that nothing proposed in Bain will undermine consultation arrangements with local communities. The Government and employers are getting on with implementing Bain; unfortunately, by contrast, the FBU has continued to oppose Bain's recommendations. It has made exaggerated and misleading statements about the number of job cuts and fire station closures implied by Bain, without engaging seriously in negotiation with the employers.

I met the general secretary of the FBU on 9 January and again this morning. On 9 January, we discussed the Government's plans for modernisation of the fire service. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has now written to the general secretary setting out a range of issues that will be covered in the forthcoming White Paper. I hope that the FBU will take advantage of this opportunity to contribute to the modernisation agenda. Whether it contributes or not, however, let me say again to the FBU and its members that, if they persist in their programme of industrial action, the Government will fully discharge their own responsibilities.

Our primary responsibility, especially at a time of heightened public concern about terrorism, is to do everything possible to provide the public with the highest level of protection. We have robust and tested contingency plans to provide that emergency cover. We have built on what we have learnt from previous strikes. We now have 177 red appliances to add to the capacity of the green goddesses and the specialist rescue teams, over 90 more than during the last strike.

This morning, the civil contingencies committee met and ran through the military, police and other arrangements for maintaining fire and rescue cover during tomorrow's strike. As I told the House before, however, the military can provide only an emergency service, not a replacement service. During the strike, it is vital for people to take all necessary precautions to protect themselves and their families. To underline that, we are launching a further advertising campaign today to remind people of the increased dangers posed by fires during the strike.

The House will recall that before the last strike the FBU leadership signed a UK-wide gold command agreement in which it undertook to ensure that its members were available during the strike to deal with large-scale incidents such as terrorist attacks. To be fully effective, those arrangements had to be confirmed by local agreements at brigade level. During the last strike, local agreements were confirmed by the FBU in only 33 of the 58 fire brigades. Since then the situation has improved—agreements are in place in 53 brigades, and I hope that by tomorrow morning we will have 56 agreements—but even one area without an agreement is one too many.

I raised that again with the FBU general secretary when I met him this morning. He assured me that he was still working to ensure that the arrangements were in place in every fire brigade. Dealing with the consequences of strikes is one thing, but, as I said to the general secretary this morning, there is no need for these strikes at all. The FBU should be at ACAS, in talks with the local authority employers: that is the right way ahead.

I urge the FBU to take the only realistic and responsible approach, and call off the strike. These strikes cannot and will not achieve anything. Get back to the talks at ACAS. Do not put the public at unnecessary risk.

I will keep the House informed of developments.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for making his statement, and for giving me prior sight of it. I add our support to his calls for the Fire Brigades Union to call off its irresponsible strike action. I also welcome much of what he had to say about the modernisation of the fire service. I shall return to that in a moment.

Subject to proper scrutiny, we will support the right hon. Gentleman's repeal of section 19 of the 1947 Act. It is also good news that the Government have at last mobilised 177 red fire engines, as we have asked them to on many occasions. That can only be for the greater safety of the public and, of course, that of the armed forces when they are fulfilling their firefighting task. Better late than never.

Nevertheless, given today's reports that the unions are preparing for a dispute that will last at least until the summer, the British people could be excused for feeling that an added sense of urgency is still needed from the Government to ensure that their safety is protected.

Our military are now under extreme pressure, with advance deployments to the Gulf region under way, and a war on terror on our doorsteps. As a result, there are worries about the level of firefighting cover that the military can provide. For example, last week we heard that 16 Air Assault Brigade, including units covering Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Dumfries and Galloway, were removed from firefighting cover to be redeployed to the Gulf. When my hon. Friend the shadow defence spokesman asked the Ministry of Defence who was going to take over their firefighting role, it was clear that adequate replacements had not been found, and 16 Air Assault was promptly returned to firefighting duties. Today, we hear from the news media that it will after all be deployed abroad. Therefore, in less than two weeks, 16 Air Assault appears to have been on fire duty, off fire duty, on duty again, and off again, if the news is to be believed. It would have put the grand old Duke of York to shame. Let us have a straight answer from the Deputy Prime Minister. Who will cover for 16 Air Assault at home? Does he have a grip on that critical aspect of protecting public safety?

In November, the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces told the House that it would take five weeks to train crews to the standard of retained firefighters and 12 weeks to that of full-time firefighters"—[Official Report, 21 November 2002, Vol. 394, c. 220W.] Yet, on 11 January, an MOD spokesman said that most troops only needed "about ten hours' training". Who is right and what training regime is the military cover now on—12 weeks, five weeks or 10 hours? Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that there will be enough fully trained troops on call to cover for striking firefighters?

With the strike starting tomorrow at 9 am, there is a real concern that Government are trying to do too much with too little. At present, with our troops needed overseas, various expert personnel—the Deputy Prime Minister referred to them—from the Navy and Air Force trained in the use of rescue equipment and breathing apparatus will be needed both at home and abroad. Will he confirm whether that is the case? Will our armed forces operating abroad be expected to risk their lives without those important rescue teams because they are committed to defending the public at home?

It is also clear now that there is an unprecedented level of terrorist threat at home, while it is extremely likely that our military will be deployed to fight a war abroad. Surely, given those very particular circumstances, it is in the public interest for the Government to seek the necessary legal action to ensure that the public are protected against further fire strikes. Under section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992—introduced by a Conservative Government, in case the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has forgotten—the Deputy Prime Minister has the power to ask the Attorney-General to seek an injunction to stop any action that "wilfully and maliciously" endangers lives. Clearly, lives are now being put at risk. When asked about this before, both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister have ducked the question, claiming that it is a matter for the courts. That, of course, is the last stage of the process. The first step is for them to ask the Attorney-General to seek an injunction to stop the strikes, thus ensuring that the decision is put in the hands of a judge. The public interest now requires the Government to act.

In the present circumstances, I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister understands why the public are concerned about their safety in the event of extended strike action, but beyond that action and the added pressure on our military, there are still questions about how a modernised fire service will look. As I said earlier, we support the reforms proposed by Bain to the fire service but that support is not a blank cheque and one would expect some performance for it. Will the Deputy Prime Minister now tell the House whether he expects the reforms to deliver a halving in death rates, as modernisation brought in New Zealand from similar death rates, or, closer to home, after improvements by Conservative-controlled Kent county council? That is another question that he failed to answer last time when I put it to him.

The Deputy Prime Minister's actions over the coming days will set out his true approach to government. These strikes have already gone on for too long. The FBU should never be allowed to take such action when British citizens face threats, both at home and abroad. The Deputy Prime Minister has a choice: he can either put the people of this country first and seek an injunction to stop this utterly irresponsible strike action, or he can yet again duck the issue and allow this irresponsible union leadership to continue with its dangerous action.

It is now time for the Deputy Prime Minister to get a grip and seek an injunction. It is now time to put the public first and politics last.

The Deputy Prime Minister

If there were ever an example of putting politics first, it is the statement just made by the right hon. Gentleman, which has more to do with the leadership of the Conservative party than with the safety of the public. Anyway, let me officially thank him for his few words of support at the beginning. In the light of all the points that he made, I should point out that the concern of the Government—and, hopefully, of the Opposition—is to maximise the protection of public safety, and to avoid as many days of dispute as possible. Although the armed services have done an excellent job, in general, the House has accepted that its alternative service is not as good as that provided by the regular fire service.

When this dispute began last year, there was the threat of 36 days of dispute, but patient negotiation has reduced that to 10 days. In other words, 26 days have been taken off the strike threat, and I think that the public are grateful for that. It is such judgments about the best way to proceed that we in government have to make.

It is interesting to note that the shadow Attorney-General is not here. He would undoubtedly have assured the right hon. Gentleman that it is not the judgment of Governments as to whether an action is sought in the courts; it is the Attorney-General's judgment. The Attorney-General has the independence to make that judgment, and Governments cannot interfere with that decision. He is required to talk in person to me, in this case, and to make some assessment of the threat to public safety, and of the course that the dispute is taking. That has happened regularly—even in the past few days. At the end of the day, it is the Attorney-General's judgment as to whether he should take an action. That has always been the case: it was true when the Conservatives were in government, and it is true for us. The right hon. Gentleman should consult the shadow Attorney-General, who would give him that assurance, but to be honest, I think that he is already aware of that point. However, it sounds good to be thumping away at the Dispatch Box, saying that legal action is the best way to deal with this issue. A matter of judgment is involved here, and I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman.

On the availability of the armed forces to provide the excellent service that they have already provided, I should point out that most of the quotes that the right hon. Gentleman gave came from the press. I am not as confident as he is about press reports on these matters, but I am quite prepared to take the advice of the armed services, which tell me that the same number of people will be available— experienced and qualified people—to provide this alternative fire service. I accept their judgment and it is proper for me to do so, rather than relying on the evidence of a number of reports in the Daily Mail. To that extent, that is absolutely the right thing to do, and it would be irresponsible of me to do otherwise.

I have made it clear in public statements and in statements in this House that there undoubtedly must be a connection between modernisation and pay. There also has to be a review of the fire service's current risk assessment. We have suggested all manner of changes and Bain has made recommendations, some of which we are dealing with. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Kent county council, to which I pay proper tribute. I also pay tribute to the council's Tory leader, who first brought it to my attention that the training and other actions taken by it—which have more to do with intervention, rather than prevention—have provided a better means of reducing the number of incidents. Bain is all about putting greater emphasis on intervention, rather than prevention, and the Government's modernisation proposals are geared towards achieving that.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and I agree that the latest strikes are unnecessary. The FBU leadership should be back talking with the employers at ACAS, rather than striking. However, can he clear up one confusion as to his own position? He talks about the publication of a White Paper for the fire services—in which Ministers will set out their detailed reactions to Bain—some time before Easter, yet Ministers are asking employers and the FBU leadership to make up their minds on the details of Bain even before the White Paper's publication. Is there not some inconsistency in this regard? Can he tell the House exactly when the Government's detailed position on Bain will be known? Surely that would be helpful for the talks at ACAS.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister say more about the fire cover arrangements for the strikes, particularly, as the Conservative spokesman said, in the context of the latest deployment of armed forces to the Gulf? Will he confirm that some of the troops covering the strike, including the 3rd Parachute Regiment, are currently on training before deployment, and that they must break that training to cover the strikes and will then be sent out to Kuwait immediately after the strike on 28 January? Is that a sensible way either to train our forces before deployment or to cover the fire strikes? Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that some of the specialists trained for the breathing apparatus rescue teams and rescue equipment support teams are among those being deployed? Is that gap to be filled by other specialists?

As regards future talks, will the Deputy Prime Minister make it clear again that the Government are willing to provide sufficient transitional funding to assist any settlement that is agreed? Will he ensure that those fire authorities that have already modernised, and therefore cannot make the savings available to others, will not be penalised by the way in which that funding is provided? Will he further reassure fire authorities that they will not be left by themselves to negotiate every aspect of Bain modernisation with their local FBU branch? If and when the FBU decides to return to the negotiating table, will the Deputy Prime Minister support the new local employer negotiating team in providing clear guidelines for fire authorities about agreements reached on Bain modernisation?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledge that the firefighters to whom I have talked accept the need for modernisation and understand that better fire prevention is the surest way to save lives, particularly at night'? Will he urgently look into Bain's proposals for greater use of local and even regional pay settlements? Does he agree that those may be one way out of the present cul-de-sac?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of support. I assure him that the Government accept the broad thrust of the Bain report, as I have stated in the House. We will provide more details about the White Paper, and we will enter into discussions with many of those who will be directly affected by the Bain report. I told the general secretary of the FBU and the employers about the broad framework, and the Government will discuss the Bain proposals with all those who have an active interest in them. It is clear that the broad thrust of that report is accepted. I accept that there are difficulties concerning the implications for different areas, and we will take those into account. We do not want to see areas penalised because of their geography.

Whatever agreement is arrived at, the package has to be self-financing. We have made that clear, and Bain made it clear. The period for the introduction of the pay proposals will be longer than the two years that have been discussed; Bain suggests that three years will be necessary. We recognise that we may have to find more resources in the early stages of the agreement, and I have agreed to that, but the terms and conditions will have to fit into the overall policy that the package is self-financing, albeit over three years.

On the provision of troops, as I said earlier, there may be some change in the deployment, and specialist units may be removed because of the situation regarding Iraq. There is to be a statement about that later, and detailed matters can be pursued then, but I am assured that we have the same number of people with the same amount of specialist training to carry out the fire service obligations.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I thank my right hon. Friend for reassuring me that Dumfries and Galloway will be covered during tomorrow's strike. Like him, I do not necessarily always respond to what the national press says. I urge him not to listen to the main Opposition party: the solution to the dispute lies not in the courts but at ACAS, with negotiations involving all sides.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Bain inquiry and the recommendation for a salary increase of 11.3 per cent. over time. I recently met an FBU officer from my local branch who told me that a 4 per cent. increase will be funded, but there is no guarantee of a 7.3 per cent. rise beyond that because of difficulties concerning the amount that would have to be paid to retained firefighters. Is my right hon. Friend in a position to clarify that point?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his support.

As regards solutions, I agree with my hon. Friend that, when negotiations are going on, it is best not to inflame the situation by advocating all sorts of legal action. However, we all understand the position of the Opposition: they are not interested in a solution, but only in making political capital out of it. The general feeling of the House is that people should be talking and reaching agreement through ACAS. That is the overwhelming view of the House.

The employers offered a 4 per cent. wage increase for the first year, which was referred to in the Bain inquiry. The figure of 11.3 per cent. was made up of the 7.3 per cent. to which my hon. Friend referred and that 4 per cent. increase, and is part of the modernisation proposals on which the firefighters have to enter negotiations. As he pointed out, the 7.3 per cent. is part of the overall pay bill. As he knows, there was considerable discussion in the earlier negotiations about the full-time workers, the retained workers and the whole range of workers who are involved in the fire service. Those matters are for negotiation between the employers and the employees. The funding of the package has now been decided. It was recommended by Bain and accepted by the Government, and the firefighters should now sit down and negotiate.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Has the Deputy Prime Minister formed a view on whether it would be advisable to lock striking firemen out of their fire stations, for example, to enable the Army to use the red engines?

The Deputy Prime Minister

That is another helpful and constructive view from the Opposition. I have already given the House the Government's point of view.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that during the past two or three weeks, I have detected in meetings with some FBU people that the argument has shifted just a little towards jobs and is no longer so much on the pay front? Some of my colleagues have been present at meetings where such matters were discussed.

In view of the fact that, over the years, both my right hon. Friend and I have fought to save jobs in our respective industries, does he agree that people should be prepared to discuss and deal with some aspects of Bain, but that we should be very careful over the question of job losses? One of the Government's proudest claims is that we have managed to get more than 1 million people back into work, so it sits uneasily to tell a union, "You'll have to lose some jobs." I hope that we can have a modernisation that is not dissimilar to the one in the House of Commons, where we have modernised everything, there is no night shift and nobody has lost their job.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I have a great deal of sympathy with the points made by my hon. Friend, especially that the Government have a tremendous record in increasing the level of employment.

An awful lot has been said about job cuts, but I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that, overall, we have to take the safety of the public into account when providing the service. That is our first requirement. However, the process does not require job cuts. The controversy about job cuts was addressed by Bain, who said that there was no need for enforced redundancies in the industry. He pointed out that changes to the pension scheme would bring about a considerable amount of retirement by choice as people reached 50 to 53 years of age. That means that change could be brought about without enforced redundancies.

My hon. Friend will know that often in negotiations, the position on redundancy is strict—"You're out"—and that is what people have to accept. In this case, there would be no enforced redundancy, simply negotiations and readjustment. That is unlike the position in my hon. Friend's industry, which faced the threat that thousands would be out of work; indeed, 100,000 workers lost their jobs and 100 pits were closed. There was no choice—they were out. That is not the situation that faces the fire workers.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to Alex Kent, a 25-year-old firefighter in Crowborough in my constituency, who lost his life a week ago trying to save the life of his younger brother? None of us can understand the grief of his parents who lost everything—their children and their home—in a few devastating hours.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one unfortunate aspect of this dispute is that, by forcing people to take entrenched positions, we have lost sight of the fact that firefighters daily put their lives on the line to save the lives of others?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The whole House joins the hon. Gentleman in extending sympathy in the tragic circumstances in which that fire worker died and in acknowledging the risks that firemen face every day. Members of the armed forces face similar risks in such situations. We must not only offer our sympathy but reduce the risk of such tragedies happening in what we all agree is a dangerous profession. The best way of achieving that is to get to a new service, deal with the changes necessary for a modernised service and return to providing one—rather than being in dispute.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Is there is not a fundamental problem with getting ACAS to work when a precondition appears to be signing up to the Bain report—which includes terms that the Deputy Prime Minister would never have accepted as a trade union negotiator? It would appear that the employers and the FBU agree on the need for change to the risk-based assessments upon which shifts, hours and staffing depend, but the shift from property-based to life-based risk has yet to be made. Would it not make more sense for that to be done first, before asking firefighters to sign up to the consequences? The second matter, which is connected, is that before the dispute—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That sounds like more than one question to me.

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend asks me to consider whether I would have accepted preconditions in respect of ACAS discussions. Anyone who is familiar with ACAS procedures knows that the employer states his position and the employees state their position. They do not agree. They go into two different rooms and ACAS shuffles between them. They are at ACAS because they do not agree. Lots of conditions are often laid down by both parties. The FBU's wish not to talk about Bain or reorganisation is a condition. ACAS gets the two parties in different rooms in the hope of finding some way forward and I am sure that the House agrees with that objective.

My hon. Friend is right about risk assessment. In the present circumstances, more importance is placed on property than human life. That approach existed under the old system but we are proposing change. That is called modernisation and I hope that everybody will accept it.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Will the right hon. Gentleman help me to understand the Prime Minister's comment in Prime Minister's questions last week that the decision whether to seek an injunction is taken by the Attorney-General, on the basis of whether such an injunction would succeed or not. It is a decision for him, and not one that I can or should take."—[Official Report. 15 January 2003; Vol. 397, c. 680.] Does that mean that the decision whether or not to seek an injunction will be based on public safety or the likelihood of success? At a time when the Prime Minister is sending our armed forces abroad, possibly to fight a war, are we to believe that the Prime Minister will play no part in deciding whether to seek an injunction to halt the firefighters' strike?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The Prime Minister has made a number of comments and does not solely rest his case on the Attorney-General and whether or not an injunction might succeed. However, the right hon. Gentleman may agree that the Attorney-General might take that matter into account. He must take into account the threat to public safety and order—which he does by making an assessment of the situation, talking to the Ministers involved, then making a judgment. The Prime Minister made it clear that that matter is for the Attorney-General's judgment—not for him or Ministers.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), when firefighters retire, will they be replaced by new recruits or not? On the back of the loss of hundreds of firefighters' jobs and scores of pumps; station closures over the past 20 years; the Audit Commission's report; and the White Paper published three or four years ago, which recommended expanding the service and moving to risk-based assessment, will my right hon. Friend look at expanding the fire service, not cutting it?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Under the present system, retired firefighters have not necessarily been replaced. The FBU makes that precise point to us from time to time. The union is not saying that should not happen but that there should be effective deployment of people in the fire services—and the FBU has been prepared to consider that as part of modernisation. Bain has said that is proper—and that there should be proper risk assessment before arriving at judgments locally on what changes should be made. It is not up to me to make such judgments in local areas but for local authorities to decide the provision of public services. We have endorsed and adopted the Bain proposals and hope that the FBU will now starting talking about them.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

The Deputy Prime Minister has made very clear this afternoon the Government's commitment to Bain, but is he aware that it is being reported that local authority leaders have written to the FBU and are said to have withdrawn a demand that the union commit itself to the Bain review's recommendations? Can he tell us whether that is indeed the case and, if so, will he allow the employers and unions to negotiate outwith the constraints of Bain, or will he step in to scupper such negotiations?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The local authorities have made it clear, since the Bain inquiry reported, that they expect the negotiations to take place on the basis of the Bain proposals. That is precisely the Government's position; it is the local authorities' position, and it is now being discussed in ACAS.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

I share my right hon. Friend's concern that any further strike by firefighters will be extremely damaging, but may I remind him that there was a period of good will during the festive period when disputes were suspended? That suggests that a feeling of good will and maturity is creeping into the dispute, but does he agree that any progress will be undermined by the terrible attacks by some in the national press of the firefighters' leaders and, equally, by the personal attacks by local firefighters on politicians at all levels, but particularly those at local level who have little or no influence in this dispute?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I certainly agree that good will is important—an awful lot of it exists—but it is sometimes undermined by some outrageous statements made by all parties in the dispute, which are often exploited by the press. At the end of the day, though, people should focus their attention on the real issue: providing a good and safe fire service—a modernised fire service—involving all the members of the FBU, who need to sit down and discuss the proposals. The inquiry has produced what I think is a very good solution; we now need to work out exactly how we will implement it.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister understand that the Government have now got themselves into the absurd position of calling up striking firemen as reservists for service in the Gulf, while regular servicemen remain on stand-by here to cover for striking firemen? Has he explained to the Attorney-General that that does not appear to be in the public interest? If he has not done so, will he do so?

The Deputy Prime Minister

To be honest, that could only come from a military mind. That is an anomaly, as the hon. Gentleman properly points out. If it is true—[Interruption.] Well, it is a concern, but it is not a matter of great consideration. There may be one or two individuals in the fire brigade who presumably offer to stand by to play a part in such emergencies, and I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman condones that and believes that it is proper for them to do so. Where there are anomalies like that, I am sure that those firefighters' places will be covered by other available people. That arrangement creates a certain anomaly, but it is certainly not on any scale that would require a major policy to deal with it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

When the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement on this subject back in November does he remember saying, quite rightly, that hoax calls were utterly unacceptable, that they would be dealt with very severely and that there would be exemplary sentences? Is he aware that the Solicitor-General revealed in a written answer to me published on Tuesday 17 December in column 661W of Hansard that the number of individuals who were actually charged during the first firemen's strike was just two? What happened?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am advised that there have been more than that and that the sentences have been severe. There have been some exemplary sentences—they have been referred to in debates—but I am prepared to look at that matter again, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

The Deputy Prime Minister has been rightly critical of the FBU. Will he today publicly encourage firefighers who are members of that union but share his dissatisfaction with it to resign from the union?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Those are matters for individuals to make decisions about. I have made it clear to the FBU and its members that it is not worth pursuing any further strike, and they must make their judgment on whether they remain in the FBU. It is their right to do that. I am sure that there are different voices and opinions in the FBU itself about the course of action, but it is for the union to make its own decision. That is called a human rights consideration, which I support.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

It is not just working practices, but Government fire regulations that are seriously antiquated. Beyond the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, do the Government have any plan to accelerate their leisurely timetable to introduce a new fire services Act?

Mr. Prescott

These matters will be addressed in the White Paper, but we have made it clear that we are prepared to act quickly on them. I have tried to indicate to the House the sort of things that we have been doing since the Bain report, which was made less than four weeks ago, and there has been a holiday period, too. The White Paper will make it clear that we intend to act quickly, which is necessary. As I made clear in my statement, whether the FBU agrees to the modernisation or not, it is our job to get on with implementing modernisation, for which the Government have some responsibility, and I encourage the FBU to do the same.