HL Deb 14 November 2002 vol 641 cc65-75
The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, with permission, I shall repeat a Statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the present national Fire Service strike. The Government believe this strike to be wrong, unnecessary and unreasonable.

"I last made a statement to the House on Tuesday, 22nd October, when I set out the history of the dispute and undertook to keep the House informed. The House will recall that the Fire Brigades Union's claim, which was made on 28th May and remains in place, is for a 40 per cent, 'no-strings-attached' pay increase for fire-fighters, a 50 per cent pay increase for control room staff, parity of pay for retained fire-fighters, and a review of the 1978 pay formula that has governed their wages for the past 25 years.

"At the national joint council meeting on 2nd September, the employers finalised their offer of a 4 per cent pay increase and requested a joint appeal with the FBU for an independent review of Fire Service pay and conditions. The FBU rejected the offer and the review.

"The employers therefore made their request direct to the Government and, three days later on 5th September, the Government set up an independent review under Sir George Bain. The Fire Brigades Union refused to participate in the review or to discuss its terms of reference and, indeed, attempted to discredit it. On 18th October, it announced a programme of 36 days of national strikes due to start on 29th October.

"My right honourable friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I held a series of meetings with the FBU on 24th and 25th October. Those discussions resulted in the cancellation of the first two 48-hour strikes and subsequently the first eight-day action was converted into the present 48-hour stoppage.

"Negotiations between the local government employers and the FBU resumed on 30th October. And, because the Fire Brigades Union was not prepared to wait until mid-December, Sir George Bain agreed to bring forward a 'position paper' on 11th November. Sir George's final report will be available in a few weeks' time. I am extremely grateful to Sir George and his team for their efforts and look forward to the final report.

"Sir George's position paper was made available to the Fire Brigades Union, the employers and the Government on Monday morning. The paper is comprehensive, practical and forward-looking. I urge all Members to read it carefully. It sets out a vision for a single, more broadly based and modernised service with multiple roles offering a wider range of services and expertise. It proposes a reward structure in which individuals are valued for the contribution they make. It encourages a more diverse workforce with a wider range of career paths, responsibilities and skills and makes clear that pay and modernisation must go hand in hand and be consistent with the Government's public sector pay policy. The paper recommends an increase in the pay bill of up to 11 per cent over two years, subject to necessary and long-overdue modernisation.

"The employers and the Fire Brigades Union met for further discussions on Tuesday morning and the employers tabled a revised offer. That offer proposed an immediate increase of 4 per cent backdated to 7th November and, subject to the modernisation proposals set out in the Bain report, a further 7 per cent increase in 12 months' time in November 2003.

"At present, a qualified fire-fighter earns £21,500 a year. Under this offer, a qualified fire-fighter could earn £23,960 a year and a leading fire-fighter could earn £25,656 a year. In London, where London weighting allowances apply, a qualified fire-fighter could earn £28,268 a year and a leading fire-lighter could earn £29,964 a year—just a few pounds short of the £30,000 a year demanded by the FBU. That compares very well with nurses, teachers and other public servants.

"Sir George always made it clear that his position paper was not designed to end the strike but to provide the negotiators with a menu of options for negotiation which would put in place substantial reform in exchange for substantial pay increases. The Government remain convinced that the Bain review is the key to resolving this dispute and to providing the basis for a modern fire service equipped to deal with modern demands.

"Unfortunately, when the employers tabled their pay offer on Tuesday morning, the Fire Brigades Union walked out and at six o'clock last night started a 48-hour strike. Under any reasonable circumstances, the FBU would be sitting down with the employers to discuss the Bain proposals. Instead, 18,000 members of the Armed Forces, supported by the police, are on the streets today taking the place of the fire-fighters. They are using the stand-by fleet of 'Green Goddesses' and sophisticated rescue apparatus and cutting equipment. I am sure the whole House will want to express its appreciation for the services of the Armed Forces, the police and all the others are actively engaged in providing cover during this strike.

"But this is an emergency, not a replacement, fire service. No matter how professional our Armed Forces and no matter how much they train, it is clear that they could not provide the same level of service that we normally expect, particularly where major incidents, such as a terrorist attack or a rail crash, are concerned.

"I spoke to the General Secretary of the FBU about that again this morning. He was unable to sign up to an agreement setting out how his members would respond in the event of a major incident. He has assured me that his members would consider responding to a 'catastrophic' incident if called upon to do so. I have no doubt that individual fire-fighters would want to help, as some did last night.

"But we cannot run a system on the basis that assistance might be available after precious minutes have been lost and with ambiguity about what kind of incident fire-fighters would respond to. So it is with huge regret that I inform the House that we have no agreement on major incidents. And the Fire Brigades Union has not given an undertaking to abide even by the spirit of the 1979 TUC Code on the Provision of Emergency or Essential Services. I believe that that adds to the wrong and irresponsible decisions that the FBU has taken. The Government and, I am sure, the House and the general public regret that decision to strike without any further discussion of the Bain proposals.

"It is with great sadness that I have to inform the House that overnight there have been four terrible fire-related deaths. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with the families of those who died. Those deaths and the death of Leicester fire-fighter, Rob Miller, on 31st October tragically serve to remind us of the daily danger posed by fire and of the vital work that the fire-fighters do. On average, more than 11 members of the public die each week in fire-related incidents.

"I have to report to the House that we have received reports of a large number of hoax calls, which means that our already limited service is stretched even further, putting even more lives at risk. It is hard to understand the mentality of people who do that at any time, let alone during a fire strike at a time of heightened sensitivity. But let there be no doubt: the Crown Prosecution Service will take action against anyone caught making hoax calls, and I think that the public will hope to see hoax callers dealt with severely.

"Against that background, talking, negotiating and discussions are better than the withdrawal of labour. I continue to believe that the Bain report is the right way forward. In the past 24 hours we have heard that the Fire Brigades Union's General Secretary has an alternative vision for modernisation. It would have been better if that vision had been put to the Bain review to form part of the debate. Even now, there is an opportunity to make an input. Sir George's position paper is not a final report. It has been put forward at this stage to help negotiation.

"The employers have made clear that they stand ready to continue discussions at any time. Would it not be better to negotiate? Would it not be better to sit down again? An eight-day strike can lead to only more deaths, more injuries and more distress. Our joint obligation—that of the Government, the employers and the fire-fighters—is to provide the highest level of safety. That is our job. We all have an obligation to work towards it—all of us: the Government, the employers and the unions.

"And if, once this 48-hour strike is over, we then face an eight-day strike, the Government may have to review many of the issues which, until now, we have kept off the table. We have bent over backwards to be fair and reasonable. We have been met with action that is wrong, unjustified and puts lives at risk. Faced with that, the Government will do what we have to do to protect the public. I say: 'talk, don't walk'."

My Lords, that concludes the Deputy Prime Minister's Statement.

3.9 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for keeping the House up-to-date with this dreadful situation. I thank him too for the courtesy afforded me of being able to see the Statement in advance.

This is a grave day. The Government have set up an inquiry which to all intents and purposes has been kicked in the teeth by the Fire Brigades Union. As the Minister indicated, the interim report was provided as a basis for negotiation, but the terms of a high percentage reward of some 11 per cent for revised working arrangements have already been rejected by the union. The union may feel that it has a good case, but there are men now out on the streets, our soldiers, doing the job its members should be doing, and receiving less reward than they were receiving for keeping our people safe.

To add to the current miseries, there are already stirrings among other die-hard unions. Many Underground stations are closed today and three London Underground lines are closed. We learn that Mr Bob Crow of the RMT has threatened to tell his members not to work, although the Health and Safety Executive has advised that those services can safely run. Fire-fighters at London Heathrow are also threatening action. It is clear that we live in dangerous times. There are threats from terrorists and people's lives are at stake from that as well as from the current action; indeed, perhaps from both.

I have one or two questions for the Minister. First, I repeat the question I asked on the occasion of the previous Statement. Why have our soldiers not been trained to use the modern fire equipment? It is clear that the Green Goddesses are a far from satisfactory alternative, as witnessed by the difficulties experienced yesterday when one crew of soldiers could not get the fire engines to go at all and others could not access water to put out a fire. Why was so much cold water poured on the question of the soldiers being trained to use proper vehicles? It has been suggested that the equipment was so sophisticated it would take up to at least three months for intelligent resourceful soldiers to master the technology. Is the Minister aware that the Retained Firefighters Union said that it would take less than two weeks to make soldiers proficient in driving and operating those engines?

Why have the reserve engines plus those that are used for training, which are available all over the country, not been released to the troops to at least supplement the Green Goddesses? Can the Minister also tell the House, having particular regard to the Prime Minister's speech about the threat from Al'Qaeda, whether the Government are considering the use of the Emergency Powers Act 1920, and if not, why not?

Have the Government given consideration to implementing the powers contained in Section 2 of the Emergency Powers Act 1964, as did their predecessor Labour government in the firemen's strike in 1977–78? If not, why not? Have the Government sought the advice of the Attorney-General about taking action to seek injunctions under Section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and Section 1 of the Criminal Law Act to restrain any strikers or their leaders from committing criminal offences? If there is any possibility that the strikes can be stopped within current legislation, will the Government take it? The Minister said as an addition to the Statement of the Deputy Prime Minister that that is being considered, so perhaps he would update the House on that matter.

I endorse the remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister about the appreciation we would wish to express to the 18,000 members of the Armed Forces and the police who are doing the job of the firemen. As the Minister said, they have been plagued by false alarms, adding to the burden of genuine emergencies and the knowledge that there have already been fire-related deaths.

The Bain inquiry, set up late in the day, provided a framework for negotiation. The Fire Brigades Union will not get 40 per cent. Its leaders would be better off sitting down with the employers trying to thrash out an agreement rather than ignoring the Bain inquiry, which they have done so far, and now literally playing with fire.

The Government have a major responsibility to protect the public and to ensure that those who are dealing with this current crisis are given the tools to do the job. As I said on the previous occasion, fire engines do not belong to the Fire Brigades Union; they belong to the people of this country. A way must be found to release those fire engines to the people doing the job of the firemen while the firemen dither on the side.

3.16 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, we, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I could not help but note the tone of the Government, which is perhaps deliberately tough or perhaps reflects exasperation and weariness. We regard the strike as wrong and unreasonable. However, I wonder whether the Government are deliberately seeking to ratchet up the ante, which would be most unfortunate at this point.

Can the Minister confirm whether the union and the employers met on Tuesday or yesterday? It appears from the Statement that they did not, but there are different stories about that. There seems little surprise that the strike went ahead last night. Both sides seem to have got themselves into a position from which it is difficult to move. There is no doubt that the work clone by fire-fighters is held in high regard by the public and that individual fire-fighters are extremely unhappy about taking action. We recognise the attitude of those who attended fires last night when lives were at risk. We appreciate, too, the attitude of the retained firefighters.

Has the Minister anything to say about the anecdotes concerning older tire-fighters being less supportive because they remember 1977, and about the unhappy tales of intimidation; for instance websites which publish the names of "scabs"? If that is so, we must all condemn it. We condemn, too, the hoax calls made and the deliberately started fires which, although small, had the potential to become substantial. We extend our sympathy to the family and friends of those who have died in fires since the start of the strike.

Every death is a tragedy, not just those in major incidents. We regret that no undertaking has been forthcoming even to abide by the code to which the Minister referred. We would not want to put the FBU's assessment of public attitudes to the test of something less than a catastrophe.

A modernised country, which the Government seek to achieve, expects a Fire Service modernised in every way: on the one hand with terms and conditions which put working practices on a par with those in other parts of the public sector, including such things as flexibility, an end to a ban on pre-arranged overtime and so forth—the list is long—and on the other legislation which recognises the reality of the service which is today undertaken by the fire brigade and an extension of the statutory duties which recognises the work it does, which is not just putting out fires today people in different parts of the country will be experiencing the severe effects of flooding which could have been ameliorated had the strike not taken effect. That would mean a knock-on effect on investment in equipment, capital grants and so on. The Government need to play their part in that, which includes a major shift towards work on fire prevention. That is not just an add-on.

All additional costs are borne by the taxpayer, but we believe that the Government should bear the cost above the 4 per cent originally offered, giving the employers the tools to do their part of the job.

Perhaps the Minister can tell the House what the costs of using Green Goddesses are—the costs of maintaining them and training the military to use them? I put that in the context of what the noble Baroness has just said about access to equipment, that there must be a balance here. I do not think that we have seen the accounts—the debit and credit side—on this. What are the costs, too, of the police escorts and the effects on their diversion from normal policing, and the costs and effects of what one might loosely call "associated action"? In particular, I refer to the London Underground. It is quite unacceptable that whole sections of the Tube should be out of service because of driver action. Any driver who has real safety concerns because of the lack of fire-fighter cover should be talking to the management. The management will be advised by the Railway Inspectorate. It is there to judge what is and what is not safe for the travelling public. One cannot help but suspect that this is unofficial secondary action.

We hope that the FBU will go back to the table and submit its alternative vision, to which the Minister has referred—an alternative vision which, I may say, has been due for a couple of decades—and that central government will state publicly that they will finance the I hope to be agreed reform and pay package.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am grateful for the tenor of the comments and for the points raised by the two noble Baronesses. I shall not repeat them but shall do my best to answer their specific questions.

The subject of vehicles being removed from the stations was raised before, and was certainly raised in the other place. We have made it abundantly clear that we are working on military advice in that respect. We did not want the strike to take place. Noble Lords must remember that so far negotiations have saved 10 days of strikes. We would have had 12 days by now. So we have saved 10 days, and indeed lives as a consequence. So the matter is not straightforward. We are reviewing the matter on a constant basis now that we have a 48-hour dispute.

I do not have all the details, but I turn to the argument that we could do fire training in two weeks, and, specifically, who could drive the vehicles. I have no doubt that one could train to drive the vehicles in two weeks, but training to use the vehicles, which are mobile starship enterprises, I think will take a little longer than two weeks. Anyone who has been on a modern appliance will know that we are not talking about a Green Goddess plus. It may be that one could be trained to drive it in two weeks. All the evidence is that it takes much longer to make good use of the appliance and of the equipment.

We are looking at the issue of reserve engines. This morning the Deputy Prime Minister said that there are about 100 that would be of use. The 18 at the Fire Service College were put at the disposal of the Armed Forces earlier today.

The Emergency Powers Act 1964, the Trade Union Act 1992, all the other Acts of Parliament and issues in respect of the Attorney-General—and this is not a glib answer—are being reviewed. The strike has started and all previous advice is being revisited now that we are in the position of a 48-hour dispute. As I said at the end of the Statement in quoting the Deputy Prime Minister, if once the 48-hour strike is over, we face an eight-day strike the Government may have to review many of the issues which until now we have kept off the table.

The noble Baroness was quite right, the fire-fighters will not get 40 per cent. That has been made abundantly clear. At the end of the day there will have to be a negotiated settlement of the dispute. But it will not be on a 40 per cent provision with no strings attached. That is absolutely certain.

I do not accept the point that the Bain report was late in the day. From the chronology of what was said, Bain was set up when there was a complete breakdown. It would probably have been fruitless to set up Bain while negotiations were taking place.

As to the question about whether there was a meeting this Tuesday, my information is that the National Joint Council met on 12th November. The Fire Brigades Union rejected the offer. It is reasonable for an ordinary person to assume that they were in the same room. I shall not say that; all I shall say is that my brief says that the National Joint Council met on 12th November and the Fire Brigades Union rejected the offer. That is the best information I can give in answer to the question.

I do not know anything about the point about the websites and the older fire-fighters. It would be quite disreputable for people to be attacked on websites for doing what they would argue is a humanitarian job. Fire-fighters are humanitarian people.

The number of hoax calls is quite horrendous. I have seen the figures on the news since the Deputy Prime Minister made his Statement. We get many hoax calls every day. It is par for the course, disreputable though it is. People who make them, rightly, will be severely treated.

I shall not go into the issue of terms and conditions. This is not the place to try to negotiate a settlement.

I do not have details of the costs of the Green Goddesses or their storage. There is certainly no asset value in anyone's books—that is for sure.

I turn to the effect on the police. The strike is a little over 21-hours old. It will last for another 27 hours. I hope it will not be repeated. One cannot put a cost on the Armed Forces because the service personnel are there to start with. As to the London Underground, 19 out of 275 stations are closed. Seven per cent of those stations are closed on safety grounds. Other than that, there is no excuse, according to all the relevant statutory authorities, for any disruption to the London Transport infrastructure. If indeed there is disruption, then, yes, it would look like secondary action.

3.26 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, can my noble friend say something more about hoax calls? They are regrettable at all times, but now that is particularly so. Under what Act is the Director of Public Prosecutions, or whichever the authority concerned is, taking steps to ensure that hoax calls can be abated as best they can? What are the sanctions currently available?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the point about hoax callers is that one has to catch them. I understand—I repeat from the news and not from anything I know from the background—that one person was arrested in the northern part of the country early this morning. I do not know under which Act of Parliament, but hoax calls to fire brigades are definitely illegal actions. Whatever Act of Parliament it is, if people are caught we hope that the Crown Prosecution Service will arrange for their quick apprehension and prosecution, and that the courts will deal with the matter severely.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I hope that this is not a naive question. At the beginning of the Statement the Minister referred to the pay of the fire brigade being equivalent to that of teachers and nurses. But the difference surely is that teachers and nurses do not have to put their lives in danger as part of their work. Can the Minister say whether part of a fire-fighter's salary is a danger allowance and whether any allowance has been made in the offers made for a danger allowance to be paid as part of future pay?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not know the exact details. I gave the figures that would apply if the current offer was accepted—that is, 11 per cent over two years. In other words, this time next year the 7 per cent would have been paid. Those are the figures I read out. I then said that those figures compare very well with nurses, teachers and other public servants. The implication is that they are well ahead of nurses. They are well ahead of the Armed Forces, who are out on the streets at the moment, I might add. I cannot say. and I suspect that no one can, what element of the present Fire Service pay is related to—as the noble Baroness puts it—danger. I just made the point that those offer figures compare extremely well with those for other public sector workers.

Lord king of Bridgwater

My Lords, is it not important to recognise that, although the whole language in which we are conducting the debate concerns fire-fighters, the Bain inquiry makes clear that less than 10 per cent of their time is spent firefighting? Helping with traffic accidents and flooding forms an important part of their work. The impression has been given that it is now impossible to pump out anyone's house because the fire brigade is on strike. If ever there were an elementary piece of equipment that could be made available, it is a pump.

No one can pretend that we could not see the strike coming. On the radio this morning, the Secretary of State for Defence seemed to be unaware that a substantial number of reserve fire engines could have been used for training. The Minister, who was, I am sure, faithfully following his brief, did not seem to have been advised of the training requirements or whether what the retained fire-fighters say is right. It worries me that that does not appear to have been properly examined to see whether people can be properly and quickly trained—and now—in those alternative vehicles, although we hope that we will not have the further eight-day strike.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the short answer is that the period cited to train—two weeks—is incorrect. That is the advice that I have received; there is no argument about my brief. The figure is incorrect. It is one of those urban myths that get around that it takes only two weeks to train a fire-fighter. Fire-fighters will make it abundantly clear that it does not. I fully accept that it might take two weeks to train someone to drive a fire appliance. That is not the same as being trained to use it when a fire is reached.

Like everyone else, I regret that pumps are unavailable for flooded homes at present. Because of the inclement weather, that is a problem. We regret that. That is a further reason why there should not have been a strike in the first place. The noble Lord is right: the success of fire-fighters is measured by the smaller amount of time that they spend lighting fires than they used to. Their success lies in all the work that they do on prevention during most of their shifts. People see them around and about, checking equipment, entering buildings, checking factories and offices. That is the measure of their success: prevention. Fighting fires is important, but a major part of the job is prevention.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, are there sufficient beds in the burns units of the National Health Service hospitals if more people are to be at risk from burns? Does the Minister agree that burns units throughout the country will need more resources and emergency help?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I cannot answer that question. If we have lots of extra fires, I suspect that the answer to the first question will be no. On the other hand, when there are emergencies, such as a major motorway accident, the NHS clears the decks. Systems are in place to make facilities available and to reorganise the health service. We will not have the nurses walking out, either.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, we all have confidence in the ability of the Armed Forces to operate the Green Goddesses, but would it not be possible to provide them on a permanent basis with vehicles and equipment that are less than 50 years out of date? Could not vehicles that have fallen out of use by professional firemen be acquired for that purpose, so that the Armed Forces could be trained on them for a proper period?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I assure noble Lords that all such sensible suggestions are being actively considered at present.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister tell us the attitude of other major unions to the strike?

Lord Rooker

No, my Lords, because I have not been involved in negotiations; they have been conducted by my right honourable friends Nick Raynsford and the Deputy Prime Minister. I am not sure to which unions the noble Lord refers: whether the other fire unions or other unions in the Trades Union Congress. Most people are working normally; there is no excuse to do otherwise.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, further to the previous question, does my noble friend agree that it is not the policy of the trade union movement to stand by and watch the dispute escalate? The TUC must be given scope to use its good offices to facilitate a settlement, because there is great difficulty revisiting a formula that has been used unchanged for the whole of the Fire Service since 1978.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with reference to the formula, the present FBU general secretary is on record as saying two years ago that the formula's use since 1978 had provided fire-fighters with a very good deal on wages. The idea that the issue has been festering away for a couple of decades is arrant nonsense, based on what he said. The formula has never been raised as a major issue. If it needs to be renegotiated, the Fire Brigades Union knows as well as I do that the offer to renegotiate the formula formed part of the offer made before it went on strike—in fact, before the Bain inquiry was set up.

Lord Hayhoe

My Lords, recruitment and retention tend to be the basic determinants when dealing with pay claims. On recruitment, is the statistic correct that I have heard on the radio and read in the press that there are 40 applicants for every job? On retention, what is the wastage—to use a rather emotive term—of people in the Fire Service who are moving out to get better pay elsewhere?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, unlike the position for nurses in the NHS, recruitment and retention is not a problem in the Fire Service.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, has the Minister or his colleagues sought advice from the Law Officers on whether 1980s trade union legislation is still effective? That offered the possibility of taking action in tort against those who engaged in sympathetic action.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that is a detailed question. The Law Officers, in their role as such rather than as straightforward members of the Government, were reviewing the legislation and state of play prior to the dispute. They are naturally revisiting the situation now that we have a strike on our hands—albeit a 48-hour strike, but with the threat of an eight day strike in a few days' time. That changes the situation.