HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc719-36 12.31 pm
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, I shall make a statement on the fire dispute and the Government's proposals in the light of the breakdown of negotiations at ACAS.

The House will be aware that all sides welcomed the resumption of talks after last Tuesday's 24-hour strike. The chair of ACAS agreed terms of reference for those talks with both the Fire Brigades Union and the employers. The terms of reference are very wide and say that both sides should bring their respective agenda to the table and neither side would seek to rule any issue in or out". Despite that, the FBU executive decided yesterday to go ahead with further strikes, and at 9 o'clock this morning the FBU walked out for the fourth time. It will be on strike for 48 hours and at present it is scheduled to walk out again for a further 48 hours on Saturday morning.

While we sit here, the armed forces and other emergency services, including the police and the many retained firefighters who have continued to work during the strikes, are providing cover for the striking firefighters. I am sure that the House will want to join me yet again in expressing our thanks for their courage and hard work and for the way they have conducted themselves throughout this dispute. I have made it clear that the armed forces will have the resources that they need. As I said when I made my last statement to the House on 20 January, we have now provided 177 red engines to augment the green goddess fleet. For the first time during these strikes, we now have a number of aerial water towers to provide cover in extreme situations. The armed forces also have 30 new thermal imaging cameras.

The history of this dispute has been one of last-minute ultimatums and walkouts by the FBU. Let no one in this House be in any doubt: the switch from a series of eight-day strikes before Christmas to a programme of one-day and two-day strikes after Christmas does not represent a change of heart on behalf of the FBU; far from it. All it represents is a change of tactics. Its aim is minimum pain for FBU members and maximum disruption for everyone else.

It is the Government's duty to maintain public safety, and we will continue to do so. The House should be aware, however, that so far this dispute has cost the taxpayer more than £70 million, and costs will continue to rise at £1 million a day for as long as the dispute continues, whether or not the FBU is on strike. That money has not come from the reserve; it has come from programmes in my Office, many of which are designed to help the most needy in our communities.

The FBU is now trying to shift its ground by claiming that this dispute is about job cuts and protecting the fire service rather than pay and modernisation as set out by Sir George Bain's independent review of the fire service. The FBU is not interested in the modernisation agenda. It has put out false and misleading information about thousands of job losses and hundreds of fire station closures. That is a gross distortion of the proposals set out by Sir George Bain. Sir George made it clear that there is absolutely no need for compulsory redundancies. Modernisation will not lead to hundreds of fire station closures. Instead, it will lead to a better fire service, greater safety for the public and more rewarding careers for fire service employees. The FBU is now seeking a judicial review of the proposed repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, which is now before the House and is recommended by the Bain inquiry. That is a sign of how completely it is opposed to modernisation.

The repeal of section 19 will do no more than put the management of the fire service in local hands. All it removes is a bureaucratic obstacle, but it is one that the FBU has used to good effect to protect its outdated working practices. Contrary to what the FBU claims, local communities will still be consulted on fire service priorities and plans. That has not changed. Let no one be in any doubt: the FBU's claim remains, as it has for the past nine months, a 40 per cent. pay rise for firefighters and a 50 per cent. pay rise for control room staff without any commitment to modernisation whatsoever—no change, no compromise, no modernisation.

Talks at ACAS started on 4 December. There have been days and days of talks about talks, yet the FBU has walked away from any substantive negotiations. I have had numerous discussions with the general secretary of the FBU, and the Government have given him the benefit of the doubt, but this latest strike, coming so soon after the terms of reference for the negotiations were agreed, leads me to conclude that the FBU executive is not serious about a negotiated settlement.

The latest round of strikes confirms that the FBU is playing cat and mouse with the employers, the Government, public safety and public money. The Government and local authority employers want a fully modernised fire service providing the best service to the public. The FBU refuses even to negotiate about that. The employers are now rightly insisting that in light of the past two months of strike action, talks cannot take place while strikes are in progress or threatened. As yesterday's decision by the FBU shows, the union is determined to press ahead with further strikes. As a result, negotiations have broken down and we are in deadlock.

The fire service is not like any other industry. The public cannot be put at risk on a weekly or monthly basis. It is essential to resolve the dispute. We all want a resumption of talks. The employers have rightly put forward a fully costed proposal on pay and modernisation based on Sir George Bain's agenda. That is the only basis for negotiation. But the Government have to be prepared if the FBU continues to refuse to discuss modernisation. Against that background, I have concluded that the time has come to take a further step to help break the deadlock.

As a matter of priority, I will introduce legislation in the public interest to take new powers of direction over the fire service. Those powers will, I hope, bring a new and much-needed sense of reality into future negotiations. I will discuss, through the usual channels, including the devolved Administrations, the best way to introduce the legislation. I will draw on the provisions in the Fire Services Act 1947 that were repealed in 1959. Those provisions allowed a Secretary of State to specify the pay, terms and conditions of the fire service. In addition, we will propose powers to direct the fire service on its objectives and the use of facilities and assets. Legislation itself will not end the dispute, but it is prudent to take those powers to use, if necessary, to help to reach an agreement.

The current strike is due to end on Thursday morning. I hope that the FBU will sit down again and negotiate with the fire service employers, but, for the avoidance of doubt, the Government's position will not change. We will continue to implement the Government's part of the Bain agenda; we will continue to resist the strikes; and we will continue to do all that we can to protect public safety, especially at a time when there is a heightened level of terrorist threat and our armed forces are under increasing pressure from competing demands.

It will take some weeks to put in place the legislation and the discussions and consultations that I have proposed. Meanwhile, the House will agree that the best possible outcome is for the employers and the FBU to reach a negotiated agreement. I urge the FBU to call off further strikes and get back to the negotiating table in the remaining weeks available.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

May I begin by thanking the Deputy Prime Minister for making his statement and for prior warning of it? I should like to add our support to his calls for the FBU to call off its irresponsible strike action. May I also take this opportunity, as he did, of offering the thanks of the House to the armed forces, the other emergency services and, most particularly, the retained firefighters, without whose service the safety of the public could not be guaranteed?

Sadly, we are becoming all too familiar with hearing a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister on fire strikes. Today we will continue to look for answers to the questions that are still unanswered. By taking this opportunity to raise a number of practical matters with him before dealing with the substantive new announcement, I hope that I will give the House time to digest the full import of his proposal.

Throughout this action, we have tried to extract from the Government commitments in several areas, including transitional funding and the effects that modernisation will have on the fire service. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister told a Select Committee that this 48-hour strike would cost the taxpayer £6 million; that is on top of the £70 million cost of the strikes to date. Will he confirm those figures to the House, and, given that this is such a large sum of money, precisely how he will meet the transitional funding required? Also, exactly which of the public services that he referred to will be reduced, or eliminated from his departmental budget, as a result of the union's needless strike action? Will he also confirm that those fire authorities that have already modernised will not be hit financially as a result of any budget shortfall?

As the Deputy Prime Minister said, throughout this action the Fire Brigades Union has repeatedly claimed that modernisation will mean job losses and the closure of fire stations. The best way to dispel lies is with the truth. Will he tell the House what job losses and station closures he expects as a result of modernisation? Since it is in everybody's interests to ensure that members of the union return to work as soon as possible, can he refute union claims that his plans for the fire service will result in 4,500 job losses and the closure of 150 stations? If he cannot refute those claims, can he tell the House how he will maintain high service levels throughout the country and especially in rural areas, and—as I have asked him before—halve the level of deaths, as has been done in other countries?

Given the FBU's irresponsible action, members of our military are yet again on the streets of the United Kingdom, protecting the public from fires. The cover they have provided throughout the action has been excellent, and we thank them for that. Everybody wants this series of strikes to come to a rapid end, and that means persuading the firefighters that Bain is a good deal, and that they should persuade the FBU to accept the deal.

The dominant and immediate issue, however, is that of public safety, particularly given the combination of possible terrorism at home and war in Iraq. Last week, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister specifically about the cover provided by 16 Air Assault Brigade, and how it was going to be replaced when that unit was committed elsewhere. I am afraid that he tried to bluster his way out of the question. As column 26 of Hansard shows, he said: 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".—[Official Report, 20 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 26.] I suspect that his civil servants gave him a talking to after that, because a day or two later he had to write to me. The key sentence in his letter was: For strike action on 28 January"— today— 16th Air Assault will be replaced in full. In the past two weeks, the Ministry of Defence has failed to give an answer on this, and last week the Deputy Prime Minister refused to give an answer. Can the House of Commons now have a straight account of exactly how the Government are going to protect the public, with troops being deployed to Iraq?

Of course, the Opposition have faced this lack of response from the Government before on raising public safety issues. First, the Government deny the significance of the issue, then they rubbish the feasibility of the proposal, and finally they try to claim credit for doing what we called for in the first place. We saw this with the red fire engines, and I suspect that we will do so again with the use of the law in this dispute. As we agreed last week, the risks of strike action increase every week with the combined threats of terrorism and war in Iraq. This week, the prospect of resolution of the strike looks as far away as ever. So the House can understand the Deputy Prime Minister's frustration, and his probable belief that these negotiations will get nowhere in the foreseeable future; indeed, that is pretty much what he said today.

As I understand the Deputy Prime Minister's proposal, he will take to himself the right to impose a conclusion of the negotiation process, and to decide the firefighters' terms and conditions. What is absolutely unclear is what he will do if they continue to strike, against his decision. We will look at this proposal carefully, and if we are persuaded that it will work we will facilitate its progress through the House; however, we do not know that it will stop the strike. It may well end the negotiations, but it will not stop the strike, and doing so is the key issue.

Throughout the strikes, the Deputy Prime Minister has rubbished our calls for an injunction, calling them inflammatory. Does not the action that he has proposed today inflame the situation without necessarily providing any prospect of a resolution? This morning, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions rightly said that the strikes are completely pointless, would not achieve anything … and put the public at risk. He was right, but if that is not a public interest argument for an injunction stopping the strike, I do not know what is.

I ask the Deputy Prime Minister once more whether he will request the Attorney-General to seek an injunction against the strike on public interest grounds. We all know that the final decision will be made by the courts, but that will not happen without initial action by the Deputy Prime Minister. We will look carefully at his changes to the 1947 Act, but action to stop these dangerous strikes is what the public want.

The Deputy Prime Minister

At the beginning, I should express appreciation for the right hon. Gentleman's appreciation and support for the emergency services, which everyone on both sides of the House fully endorses.

On the cost of the dispute, I told the Select Committee that I thought that it was about £5 million, although there are other estimates. However, it is probably something like £1 million a day, but we have to pay more if we are using troops during the dispute, so it may well be £2 million a day. There are negotiations between different Departments, and various costs are involved, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that I cannot be precise. However, I have said that the net cost to the Department is £70 million; if other Departments are included, it is about £100 million, which is a considerable sum. I pointed out to the Select Committee that I therefore face some difficult choices, as that cost will not be funded from reserves but from my Department's budget. Sometimes, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, Departments underspend and sometimes they overspend, and I have to make a judgment about where that money will come from, but it will come from the Department. The more money that is used for the dispute, the more difficulties are created—do I cut back programmes or, indeed, do I find transference money necessary for the two or three-year deal proposed by Bain?

I shall have to deal with those difficulties as they arise, but we cannot be certain that they have been resolved until negotiations have been concluded. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman and I agree that we would like the dispute to finish. I would like the negotiations to result in a settlement with as little bitterness as possible. The longer disputes go on, the greater the difficulties. It is far better to have an agreement, which is why I fundamentally believe that it is far better to provide opportunities for an agreeable negotiated position than to impose a solution. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether legislation will in fact secure what he wants—the ceasing of a strike if he made it illegal or the Attorney-General took action. The situation is difficult, but the evidence does not necessarily lead one to accept that by introducing such legislation the dispute will be ended. I do not believe that that is the case, and my own experience shows why. One has to make a judgment, and I have sought to do so.

If I can just deal with the role of the Attorney-General, I emphasise to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not the Government's job to make a judgment about the Attorney-General. I notice that every time a statement is made in the House, the shadow Attorney-General is never here to give his view.

David Davis

I will bring him next time.

The Deputy Prime Minister

Well, do that so I can ask him directly for his advice. It will be the same as the advice I get from the Attorney-General—he has to make a judgment. He consults, takes various matters into account and makes judgments about public safety, but it is he who makes the judgment—the Government cannot direct him to do so. The right hon. Gentleman can be assured that the Attorney-General keeps himself fully informed of the situation. We are therefore at odds about the best way to use legislation. I have proposed intervention and the possibility of an imposed solution, which allows an awful lot more time while discussions are under way in the House and consultations are conducted for negotiations to continue. I would like a negotiated settlement—let us be clear about that. I want the employers and the employees to work to find a settlement themselves.

My proposal almost suggests an end-date for the negotiations that have been going on for nearly 12 months since the first announcement of strikes. In any reasonable assessment one would assume that a negotiated settlement could be achieved within a 12-month period. I hope that that will be done in a shorter time but, quite apart from the extra costs involved, we are in special circumstances and are reaching a stage where public safety is a concern. Everyone in the House praises the emergency services currently in operation but we all accept that they are not as good as having full-time firefighters. I am therefore obliged to bring the situation to a conclusion, hence the reason for my judgment today.

As for jobs lost, the Bain inquiry makes it clear that there is no need for compulsory redundancies, even through the modernisation proposals, and refers to the number of early retirements through the pension scheme. The situation faced by those in the union is quite different from that which was faced by the miners, who were told, "We're closing 100 pits and 100,000 workers will be redundant from tonight." That is not the position that is facing the fire workers, and it is wrong for them to suggest that it is.

The closure of fire stations is unjustified. Again, I refer to the Bain inquiry. At the end of the day, we have to strike a balance between intervention and prevention; that is what the new risk assessment is about. Risk assessment is not new to the fire service—it has constantly undertaken it in relation to the siting of fire stations. That should continue, and it is not proposed that it should change, but the balance between intervention and prevention that Bain talked about is an important part of it.

As regards public safety concerns and the use of armed forces, whenever there is a deployment of whatever divisions of whatever parts of the Army, the armed forces have told us clearly that there will be no reduction in the numbers of people deployed and that full cover will be provided. All that I have to do is to accept the word. of armed forces representatives that they have the same amount of people, that the trained personnel are in place and that they can maintain the same level of service. I have no reason to doubt that, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman was doubting it. He played around with which regiments are here and which are there. That is fair enough—he might find it interesting—but for me the reality is whether the same amount of troops are deployed in the same way and whether they possess the same skills. We are giving them extra equipment. That is good enough for me, and if it is good enough for the armed services, I accept their word on that.

In all such matters, Secretaries of State are accountable for making a balance of judgment, and I have given the House my best consideration of that. Apparently, the Opposition would rush into making legislation to ban strikes or to give directions to the Attorney-General. That would not help the situation. I have struck a balance that means that there is an end to the time in which negotiations can take place. I shall take powers, with the consent of the House, to implement such an agreement. If it is not implemented, I can implement it through the power that I am seeking today. The important point is that there is time to continue the negotiations. That is what we want—for both parties to get back to the negotiating table.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and join him, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, in expressing our thanks to the armed forces, to the other emergency services and to the many retained firefighters who are working to help the public during strikes.

As he will know, Liberal Democrat Members have agreed with him on many of the actions that he is taking during the dispute, including the need for a fair pay settlement linked to real modernisation along the lines of the Bain review. However, we cannot agree with the statement. Does he not realise that rushing the proposed emergency legislation through the House will be seen as a measure that is designed to inflame the dispute, not to solve it? Throughout the dispute, the Deputy Prime Minister has worked hard to win over the hearts and minds of firefighters. Why, then, is he now seeking to alienate them with this panic measure? Will he acknowledge that rushed emergency legislation has a very chequered history in this House? Does he recognise that if rushed legislation on dangerous dogs was flawed, rushed legislation on fire services could be fatal?

The Deputy Prime Minister claims that yesterday's decision by the FBU executive was the trigger for today's statement. We share his regret and anger that the FBU has pressed ahead with strikes and appears to have decided to turn its back on ACAS, and we share his view that the Government could not leave that decision unanswered, and did indeed have to act. However, surely now is the time for compulsory and binding arbitration. Why have the Government not announced that they will require the FBU and the employers to attend talks at ACAS, forcing both sides to the negotiating table? The Deputy Prime Minister says that he wants the involvement of the independent arbitrator, and that is the most sensible way forward.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister not realise what a dangerous precedent he is setting? Who will be next on the Government's hit list for imposed pay settlements without negotiation or independent arbitration? This is a huge centralisation of power. Will the Government's next target be health workers or teachers, or will Ministers reserve such treatment for the emergency services, including the ambulance service? The Deputy Prime Minister rightly tells us that his top priority is public safety. Does he not realise that if Ministers were to intervene in two-hour stoppages, however frustrating, the practical effect could be to reduce public safety, as firefighters would be likely to withdraw their labour completely?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain why he is reported to have said that transitional funding for modernisation could be cut if strikes go ahead? Does he realise that far from punishing the firefighters, that would punish the British public and local communities? Will he also explain his astonishing revelation that the cost of the strike is coming not from the reserve, but from his own Department's budget? How he can justify that decision, which he himself admits will hit those most in need?

Throughout the dispute, Liberal Democrat Members have given the Government the benefit of the doubt. We completely agreed that the FBU's 40 per cent. pay claim was outrageous and that any fair pay settlement must be linked to real modernisation. Yet we also believe that today's statement is a major mistake by the Government. The Deputy Prime Minister is in great danger of losing the support of the public and of the House.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for offering the typical support that Liberal Democrats provide in such difficult situations.

As I understand his case, he believes that there should be fair negotiations connected to modernisation, and that both parties should be involved. We can all put our hands up in favour of that—for nine months, we have been trying to get the two parties to do precisely that. His solution appears to be to force both sides to go to arbitration. Presumably, that would require some legislation to direct them, but he is telling me that I should not use legislation in that way. At the moment the firefighters are refusing to go to ACAS, and I do not think that they will change their minds simply because the Liberals get up and say that they should do so or that I should not introduce legislation. Does he accept that I would require legislation to direct them to go in as a negotiating team? Does he think that that is an easy process? It certainly is not. He is not jumping up to correct me, so I assume that he accepts that we need legislation. Curiously, the Liberals have supported similar legislation—the Fire Services Act 1947. Admittedly, there were not so many of them then, but nevertheless they supported the essential principles of that Act. In various disputes, the Secretary of State has to make decisions in areas where public safety could be threatened, and that is presumably why such provisions were included in the 1947 Act.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that I am rushing the legislation, but that is not so. I have to consult everybody, including the Liberals—I have started that process, and perhaps they will rethink their position—and I must then make a proposal to the House, which will debate the primary legislation. I suspect that there may even be a statutory requirement to lay an order, so that the House would have to debate the matter again. That is not a quick process. It will take several weeks for the House to discuss the proposals, which means that there are many weeks in which the negotiations can continue without any enforced situation. It is a matter of judgment, and I have decided to take this course of action, which allows for negotiations, but says to both parties, "You cannot continue to have deadlock in this situation without facing possible intervention with the agreement of this House."

Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife)

Would my right hon. Friend join me in expressing his condolences, and those of the House, to the family and friends of Sidney Lennon, who was affectionately known as John Lennon, his wife Linda and his son Paul, who tragically died through fire at their home in my constituency, in Hill Road, Kennoway in Fife, at 3 am on Sunday morning? Sadly, in those tragic circumstances, the issue of the Bain report cropped up in the media. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that there are no proposals by the Government that would weaken public safety during the early hours of the morning, which are known by fire brigade staff as the dead hours?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I can tell my hon. Friend that I read of a tragic case—I think that it was in the Daily Mirror—in which people died during the evening in terrible circumstances in a fire that occurred at their home. I am sure that all hon. Members would want to express their support and deepest sympathy, through my hon. Friend, for the family that is facing such tragedy.

1 can give my hon. Friend an assurance that public safety will be maintained at the highest level. He mentioned the Bain report—the point of that was to increase fire coverage. It is not always a matter of intervention. The tragedy of many deaths that occur as a result of fires at night is that although the firefighters are quick to get there, a fire that might have been prevented by fire prevention techniques of some kind is often already well advanced. I do not know whether that was so in the case my hon. Friend mentioned. There is a great deal of evidence to show that we should emphasise prevention rather than intervention and achieve a better balance between them. That is precisely what the Bain inquiry proposed, and I want to discuss with the FBU how we can achieve that.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

As the last Secretary of State who had to face prolonged public sector strikes, may I commend the right hon. Gentleman for the fact that he continues to take a firm stance on the firefighters' strike? Will he tell the House when, according to the latest Government estimate, the continued need to use the armed forces in the dispute will start to impact negatively on national security in the context of Iraq?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words of support. As regards the armed services, we would take their advice. They tell us that the use of troops in the present dispute does not impinge in any way on the contribution of the armed forces to the situation in Iraq or to fighting the fire dispute. I am sure that they will make it clear if it does impinge on their capability. Obviously, these matters are assessed from time to time. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it would be better if we brought the dispute to an end, preferably by negotiation. What I have done today is to set an end date to the negotiations.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

I have a lot of sympathy with my right hon. Friend's suggestion in his statement that there is a need to reform the employers' side of the negotiating structure in the fire service. I understand the need for change in that respect, but may I prod him about his intentions in a situation where the Secretary of State imposes a settlement? Will there be an implied no-strike clause included in the legislation whereby in the event of a union not accepting the Secretary of State's position and taking industrial action, an injunction would be sought to bring the union and its members back into procedures?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend is aware of the sensitivities involved in such matters. He is right to point out the responsibilities of the employers in these circumstances. That was pointed out by Bain, who proposed radical changes for the employers as well as the trade unions. We have already set in hand a number of changes on the management side, which require Government action. I have indicated to the House that we intend to do that.

With regard to the Secretary of State taking action in the way that I described today, it is not an imposition on the unions; it is an imposition on the fire authorities, which have the responsibility for the payment. That is how it was envisaged in the 1947 Act, and that is how we envisage it. If the employees refuse to accept the payment through their banks, I assume that they can send the money back. The more serious point is whether they decide to continue to strike. That is a judgment to which the FBU will have to address itself. It should make that judgment soon, rather than maintaining for a number of months the threat to public safety and the expense. The matter needs to be drawn to a conclusion. Any idea of guerrilla tactics going on for 12 months or so, which some have advocated—holding odd strikes from time to time—is unacceptable and does nothing to help public safety. I have made it clear that that will not be tolerated.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

At the Kineton army base in my constituency, with the British Army's ammunition dump, the defence fire services have two modern, fully equipped fire engines. In the normal course of events, one of those fire engines is made available to assist in local emergencies, but they have received an unequivocal order, which I have seen, that in the present fire dispute, neither of those fire engines should in any circumstances be made available to help with emergencies. Apparently that order comes from the Ministry of Defence and therefore, presumably, there are similar orders to defence fire services across the country. The Deputy Prime Minister is not exactly famous for fighting his battles with his hands tied behind his back. Why is he doing so in this case?

Mr. Prescott

I do not know the details of the matter, but I will look into it. It is right for the Ministry of Defence to make decisions about the use of its own equipment in these circumstances. I do not want to prejudge the issue; I will investigate it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

I met the chief fire officer of Dorset on Friday last week to discuss the dispute. He told me that some of the modernisations that are mentioned in the Bain review have already been implemented in Dorset and other authorities in the south-west, and savings have been made accordingly. Will the employers, and will my right hon. Friend, when he takes new powers of direction over the fire service, assume that modernisation savings can be made evenly across the country?

Mr. Prescott

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am well aware that in a number of brigade areas some changes have taken place—some with FBU agreement nationally and sometimes with disagreement. One of the difficulties that I have experienced is that when one negotiates with the FBU one cannot assume that what it proposes will be carried out at brigade level. I have found that to be a problem in Gold command, for example. I will certainly want to look at all the modernisation measures, which should apply to all areas. The brigades that have gone ahead and implemented some of the measures should not be disadvantaged in the settlement simply because they have carried out those proposals. We will take that into account.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

Since the last time that the fire service was effectively nationalised was during the second world war under Herbert Morrison, the Deputy Prime Minister will appreciate that he is proposing a fairly draconian measure. Does he accept that it seems to fly in the face of the Bain report, which explicitly stated that the fire service cannot be run as a central command function? If the devolved Administrations indicate that they do not want to go down the centralising route, will he allow them to retain the existing arrangements? Finally, further to the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), can the Secretary of State explain what possible advantage there is for the FBU in entering into negotiations, when it is repeatedly told that there is no room for negotiation and that the Government will veto any deal and impose their own will?

Mr. Prescott

That does not seem to fit with the events, which I have watched closely. Before the FBU goes into discussions, it wants to lay down all sorts of conditions. The union stated in December that it wanted to go to ACAS and that nothing would be ruled in or ruled out, but it still will not walk in and talk. It has had days and days of talking, and a few minutes of face-to-face negotiations. That is not a good way to deal with matters. I always understood that each party went in and put its case to ACAS without ruling out any other party going in. The parties sat in different rooms and ACAS officials shuttled between them to try and find some agreement. It is not unusual for demands to be made of other parties. The role of ACAS is to try and find a way forward. The FBU has announced that if there is no prior agreement, it will not go to ACAS to discuss the matter. That is stupid. It is not acceptable and casts doubt on the union's real intentions.

With regard to the decentralisation of powers, curiously one of the problems that I have is that I am trying to decentralise by taking powers away from me as Secretary of State under section 19, and the union is against that. We need to achieve a proper balance. I have said, and Bain said, that the Fire Services Act 1947 should be reviewed. I have informed the House that my judgment about many of the recommendations and the balance between them will be in the White Paper that I will shortly publish.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

We understand my right hon. Friend's predicament. He may well bring in legislation to compel arbitration, but he cannot compel agreement. That is the nub of the problem. Does he intend to impose Bain through arbitration or through legislation? Again, if he cannot get agreement, he will stack up major problems and create a great deal of bitterness. I say that with a great deal of sympathy for my right hon. Friend. I appeal to him to think carefully before he brings any legislation before the House.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend speaks a great deal of common sense. I have wrestled with the thought for a considerable time. I have been pressed from some parts of the House to introduce legislation immediately. I have never felt from my own experience, and neither does history teach, that legislation can force free people to do what they do not want to do. It is a human right to withdraw one's labour, and we have reinforced that in legislation in the House and under European conventions. We have to find a balance between all those considerations, particularly with regard to emergency services such as the fire service. Even there, if we try to force a deal on the fire service and it will not accept it, we will have another problem. I recognise that, but in my judgment people will come to the view that it is better to settle the dispute by negotiation.

All I am asking is for the union to sit down and talk. I am not asking it to accept any details, nor are the employers. We just want to sit down and talk. All reasonable people would expect that. I am trying to provide the conditions for it to take place. There will be a number of weeks before we begin to discuss possible legislation, which gives the continuing possibility, after nine months of dispute, that some kind of agreement can be found. What I am doing is indicating that we cannot continue to tolerate the continuation of the dispute with tactics that are deliberately designed to drag it out, cost a great deal more and cause the greatest of inconvenience generally with the least inconvenience to the fire workers. In those circumstances, I have to say on the Government's behalf that that is not acceptable practice.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

The Deputy Prime Minister rightly referred to the fact that retained firefighters have continued to work. Indeed, as he well knows, in my part of Cambridgeshire and many parts of the country, the retained service normally provides all cover, regardless of strikes. The Retained Firefighters Union does not have negotiating rights, so negotiations are carried out on behalf of retained firefighters by the FBU. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that, during the autumn, a provisional agreement was made on retained pay that would have resulted in a considerable reduction in income for a large proportion of retained firefighters? Given the sterling work that the retained service has continued to do in providing cover, does he agree that it would be astonishing if it were made the sacrificial lamb in the outcome of the talks?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The Government's view is that there should be a fair deal for everyone. Many of the retained firefighters are members of the FBU, which would claim the right to negotiate for them, but I am aware of the difficulties faced by those who are not members of the FBU and are not represented at the negotiating table. That was pointed out by Bain, who makes a number of recommendations about changing the structure of negotiation and discussions in the industry. We are considering those issues and I shall make a statement in the White Paper when we have reached our conclusions.

If people decide to go on strike, it is their right to do so. People who decide not to do so—in this case, they belong to another organisation—have the right to work at their workplace, and we should express our appreciation. That is a judgment for individuals, but I am aware of the difficulties and we will address the issue in the White Paper.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I recently received a letter from a firefighter at Edlington fire station in my constituency in which he rightly pointed out that there has been modernisation in South Yorkshire, including the use of defibrillators and work with the community. He wanted reassurance that the Government acknowledge that there has been modernisation in certain parts of our fire service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, to that firefighter, to the public and to everybody in the House, that prompts the question why, if it can happen in South Yorkshire, it cannot happen throughout the rest of the country?

The Deputy Prime Minister

One of the difficulties that we face is that different judgments can be made in different areas, whether on the central emergency control centres or defibrillators. That raises an important issue. Such matters should be subject to national decisions. The use of such equipment should be agreed in the industry between the unions and employers and implemented. As the general secretary has pointed out, sometimes a recommendation is made, but brigades do not implement it because they have a certain amount of authority. We will have to address that question. If we get a national agreement but a brigade says that it will not implement it—one of the problems that the process involves—we will have to do something about that. We will consider those difficulties in the White Paper. We want to reassure and thank those who have adopted modern methods that we think should be advanced in all areas and brigades. We should have a system in which that applies automatically, rather than in which single brigades make a decision about those important issues.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

Those of us from Northern Ireland will welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's statement and give the legislation sympathy and scrutiny. Will he please give a commitment that the matter will be kept on a national level, not a decentralised one? It is important that it is debated, discussed and solved nationally. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that a firefighters' strike in coming weeks and months could seriously endanger life in this country? If we are going to war, one of the immediate reactions may be an increase in terrorism against the United Kingdom. The impact and threat of such an increase while firefighters are involved in a dispute will be to endanger life nationally. Will he try to solve the matter as soon as possible?

The Deputy Prime Minister might like to know that I met the FBU on Friday. Its members on the ground are reasonable men whose own worst enemy is their leadership. The matter needs to be settled as quickly as possible and that needs to be done at a national level, as we are moving into very dangerous territory in terms of the possibility of war and the threat of terrorism.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I have made it clear to the House that I should like the dispute to end as soon as possible on agreeable terms. I am making an appeal that serious negotiations should take place and lead to conclusions. I have proposed that other actions be taken if that does not happen over time.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about the national issue, I referred to the Fire Services Act 1947, which was a United Kingdom measure. Indeed, at that time, the devolved Administrations did not exist and powers were not given to devolved authorities in different areas. The 1947 Act introduced a national requirement and I have to talk to devolved Administrations as much as other bodies to see how they feel about these matters. I have given them very quick notice—it is natural that I should do so—but I have reassured them that I will be having discussions. How we deal with the matter is a national issue, but if devolved Administrations feel that they want to deal with it differently, I must seek discussions with them.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

The Deputy Prime Minister failed to answer explicitly the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), so may I be more explicit in asking it? If he takes the power to impose a settlement and the FBU continues to strike, is he now considering taking the power to withdraw the right of firefighters to strike? If so, many will see this as an attempt to provoke an all-out strike and an attack on trade union rights in this country.

The Deputy Prime Minister

That is quite the opposite of what I intend, but the hon. Member is known for exploiting different statements made in the House to bad effect. Let me make it clear to him: I have said time and again in this House that I do not think that the dispute can be resolved with legislation. I have resisted many of the claims that have been made by those who say, "Why don't you use anti-strike legislation or instruct the Attorney-General?" The hon. Gentleman is not always here, but if he reads the record, he will see that I have been saying that from time to time, and I believe it. All that I am doing today is saying that there must be an end to the negotiations. The dispute has now run for nine months, and I hope that it ends quickly, but if it continues, that will not be acceptable. In such circumstances, I will have a responsibility to say, "If you cannot come to an agreement and there is a deadlock, we cannot sit here and whine." I have a responsibility for public safety and to see that a deal is implemented. I hope that those circumstances do not come about and that we will not need the legislation that I am talking about. The matter might be settled tomorrow and I might not have to talk about it again. That would be good.

If the hon. Member is asking, "What would happen if?", I point out that that is always the big question in politics. I hope that reasonable people will take into account the fact that we are trying to find a negotiated settlement and are providing more room for that to happen, but those involved will have to see that there is a timetable. If they choose not to do so, I will have to consider the circumstances. I know from my own experience that free people cannot be forced to work if they do not want to do so, but this is a matter of balance. I heard the same argument about prison officers, police and so on. [Interruption.] It did not lead to the circumstances to which he refers, although, presumably, that is what he predicted, as he does from time to time. In those circumstances, a judgment has to be made at the appropriate time. I am still ever hopeful that he will make a reasonable statement to reasonable men, rather than inflaming the situation, as he does from time to time. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. McDonnell should be quiet.

Several hon.

Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I can call every hon. Member who stands, but they must be brief and ask only one question.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

Having sat in a green goddess for the first time on Friday in Plymouth—I admired it in a classic car kind of way, but saw that it was prehistoric, unsafe and completely unsuitable for firefighting work—may I press the Deputy Prime Minister to try to ensure that many more red engines are made available? After all, they are owned by the people of this country and not the striking firefighters, and he has repeatedly said that public safety is one of his primary concerns.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I had a similar experience when I rode on a green goddess in Leconfield in east Yorkshire. One admires the skills that are deployed in manoeuvring such old vehicles. We must give our armed forces the best facilities that we can for the job that we have asked them to undertake. Approximately 177 red engines are being used. There must be a balance between their deployment and that of the green goddesses. That is achieved in the way the armed services consider best and sufficient. We shall always try to fulfil their demands, but we currently have the balance that they requested.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

As a trade unionist, I am bitterly disappointed that we have reached the point of my right hon. Friend considering legislation. I ask him again not to listen to Conservative Front-Bench Members. They clearly want to do nothing but take the dispute to court to break it. It is interesting that they use phrases such as "stopping the strike." That can happen only through a negotiated settlement.

I implore my right hon. Friend to look beyond the dispute at the Fire Services Act 1947. Does he agree that it bears no resemblance to the operation of the modern fire service?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend. I take no pleasure in coming here to discuss such a move; indeed, I do so reluctantly. Agreement about work and conditions should be between the two parties.

At the time, people perceived the 1947 Act not as anti-trade union legislation but as a means of arbitration when two parties could not agree in the special circumstances that applied. It was fully supported by Labour and Conservative Members. However, that was more than 50 years ago, and people may feel differently now.

Our recognition of the right to strike lies at the heart of the matter. I would think very carefully before taking it away from people. However, it is important that people who get into a dispute reach an agreement in negotiations. We have had nine months of negotiations, if they can be described as such, yet the claim is still 40 per cent. That is unacceptable and people must sit down and negotiate seriously.

I am here today because there appears to have been a change of tactics—rather than a change of mind—and an attempt to drag matters out. In that case, I have to make a judgment and come to the House to present it. It is not a happy judgment for me, but I am doing what I believe to be right. I always told hon. Members that I would do that.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

I spent Friday with two watches at Newark fire station. As soon as the evening watch came on, there was a shout and the fire crew were out in an amazing and admirable 45 seconds. They got on to the A46 very efficiently. However, the town and the firefighters believe that there will be job losses and that Newark will become a day station with no night cover except for retained firemen. As far as I can ascertain, there is no basis for that in fact. I therefore beg the Deputy Prime Minister to dispel those rumours in as clear English as he possibly can, and to try to clarify matters without exacerbating the problem.

The Deputy Prime Minister

Another ex-Army type—they have always brought to the House some arrogance, which we enjoy from time to time.

Local committees will decide matters that affect fire stations. Repealing section 19 of the Act gives responsibility for such decisions to local committees. The people in the area will therefore have maximum influence on them.

Fire risk cover must be taken into account, and a proper balance must be struck between intervention and prevention. Again, the committee will make that judgment. I believe that that is right and that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will welcome it.

Mr. lain Luke (Dundee, East)

No one benefits from a prolonged firefighters' dispute, but does my right hon. Friend accept that many elements of the trade union movement will view his announcement with concern and, indeed, outrage? However, I hope that it will give time for thought. If the FBU returns to the negotiating table and embraces discussions on modernisation, will the Government find extra money in view of the contention that, in the past, firefighters were offered 16 per cent. over two years? Given the profound nature of the proposals in the Bain report, will the Government make a commitment to find extra money if the employers want to go down that road?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Let me make it clear that the 16 per cent. over two years was not agreed between the relevant parties, although I believe that it was discussed. We said that, as Bain pointed out, a settlement of 11 per cent. for two years and a possible agreement to extend that to three years would require a transfer of funds. It is therefore possible that the negotiations could have led to more than 11 per cent., but we never got to that point. I simply ask the FBU to sit down and discuss that. It claims that there will be redundancies and that fire stations will close. Why does it not sit down, negotiate and find out? If it finds that its judgment is correct, I assume that the members will walk out. That is called negotiating. I hope that they will not walk out, but that happens in negotiations.

I understand my hon. Friend's point about outrage, but only a few months previously the rest of the local authority workers, who are paid from the same fund, got less than 4 per cent. a year for a two-year programme, yet the FBU asks for 40 per cent. Local authority workers feel outraged that 40 per cent. from the same fund could be regarded as justified. They believe that they are entitled to more, and they have a point. I have to strike a balance, and 4 per cent. and 40 per cent. do not balance properly.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister provide some clarity about the time scale to which he is working for introducing the legislation? When does he propose to publish a draft measure? Is he working on the basis that it will end the dispute or is it intended to deal with future disputes? I am not clear from his answers whether he intends to ban strikes as part of the agreement. Would he consider the alternative of moving towards an agreed no-strike arrangement? That might be an attractive way forward because there must be better ways in which to resolve disputes in emergency services than the debacle so far.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I have some sympathy with the idea of a better way; I call it negotiations. It is a pity that we have not concluded them. However, we must bear it in mind that negotiations have taken place with the firemen for nearly 20 years when there have been no disputes. An agreement was reached 20 years ago. That is what people would like, but we are in the process of replacing the agreement with another. Although I have often made it clear that the Government consider all options—we must do that—rushing into strike legislation will solve nothing. If I impose a settlement that the FBU refuses to accept, further difficulties will ensue. However, I should prefer to face that. I am putting my faith in negotiations.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the difference when dealing with emergency services. The White Paper will deal with that point, which the Bain inquiry raised. My judgment is to ask the FBU to continue negotiations.

The hon. Gentleman asked how long legislation would take. That depends on the consultation, but I am talking about weeks, not months. However, weeks remain available for negotiations. I cannot therefore answer the hon. Gentleman. If I introduce legislation, hon. Members will want to debate it and any recommendations that flow from it. I cannot give an exact time, but we are looking at weeks, not months. The negotiations cannot go on and on in deadlock. I have a responsibility to act and I have given my best judgment today.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Given the Deputy Prime Minister's comments about the unreasonable actions of the FBU leadership, does he consider them, to quote Harold Wilson, "a small group of politically motivated men"?

The Deputy Prime Minister

They are a group of people who feel strongly about their negotiations and want to conclude an agreement. The leadership currently suggest that they want to follow the route of more industrial disputes; that is their right. However, I intend to introduce legislation in a specific period if the deadlock continues.