HL Deb 22 October 2002 vol 639 cc1240-54

4.20 p.m.

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 another place. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the Fire Service pay dispute.

"I am sure that Members from all sides would agree that firefighters do a magnificent job. We greatly appreciate the contribution that they and staff in the other emergency services make to public protection. They are rightly held in high regard for their professionalism and dedication. As a previous Secretary of State for Transport, I have visited some terrible scenes of disaster and you cannot but admire what the firefighters do.

"Fire Service pay is the responsibility of their employers, the local fire authorities, and the Fire Brigades Union. The negotiating process started earlier this year and the FBU lodged its claim on 28th May. The Fire Brigades Union demanded a 40 per cent no strings attached pay increase for firefighters, a 50 per cent increase for control room staff and a review of the 1978 formula that governed their wages. That formula has done a good job over the years. Since 1997 firefighters' pay has increased by 20 per cent. Over the same period pay for police and teachers has increased by 19 per cent.

"Only two years ago Andy Gilchrist, the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union said: Our wages remain ahead of other essential public sector workers precisely because we have maintained the formula". The old formula solved the last pay dispute and has kept the peace for 25 years. The employers responded to the FBU's claim by indicating that any significant pay increase had to be matched by modernisation. But little progress was made in negotiations over the summer because the FBU refused to consider the employers' modernisation proposals.

"I want to be particularly clear on one point about the negotiations over the summer. At no point did the Government intervene in the negotiating process. Sir Jeremy Beecham, the leader of the Local Government Association, has made that clear on numerous occasions. And I made it absolutely clear that we had played no part in the negotiations when I met Andy Gilchrist on 8th August. Andy Gilchrist accepted that position, but made it clear that the FBU wanted a 40 per cent increase and no inquiry.

"On 2nd September the employers offered the FBU a 4 per cent increase, plus an agreement to establish a new formula that would link increases in firefighter pay to increases in the economy in general. The employers also invited the FBU to join with them in asking for an independent review to be established. And they gave an undertaking that any increase in pay agreed by the review would be backdated to the 7th November pay settlement date. By any standards that was a reasonable offer. None the less, the FBU rejected the offer.

"It was then clear that there was no prospect of a solution being found through the normal negotiating process. The employers made it clear that the negotiations had broken down, and made a request for a Government review. In those circumstances the House will recognise that the Government could not stand to one side.

"Fire disputes are different from most disputes. People's lives are put at risk. Government have a responsibility to secure people's safety. So we acted quickly and decisively. On 5th September, just three days after negotiations broke down, we set up an independent review. All sides, including the Fire Brigades Union, were asked for their input on the terms of reference. We secured the services of Professor Sir George Bain to conduct the review. Sir George is widely respected and has enormous experience of industrial relations. He is a former principal of the London Business School and a member of the ACAS panel of arbitrators. He was chair of the Low Pay Commission. The TUC and the employers nominated one member each to support him. The TUC nominated Sir Tony Young and the employers nominated Sir Michael Lyons.

"This is an exceptional team. It is a team with the right expertise and the right background to provide a fair and balanced assessment of the way ahead. Every relevant body, with the exception of the FBU, has submitted evidence to the review. The review is making excellent progress and will produce a report by mid-December. Yet still the FBU refuses to take part in the review. Still it has announced a programme of strikes covering 36 days before Christmas. It will not even suspend its industrial action until the review has reported. This is despite an offer from the employers to extend the mandate period in which the FBU strike ballot result is valid for another four weeks. If the FBU accepted that offer they could take industrial action without another ballot if, having seen the Bain report, they still felt it necessary. So industrial action is completely unnecessary and completely unjustified. The FBU's position is simply indefensible.

"I turn now to the plans that the Government have put in place to secure public safety in the event of industrial action by the Fire Brigades Union. Following the FBU claim and the initial response by the employers, the Government undertook prudent planning on the basis of the FBU's threat to initiate a national strike. The Fire Service is a large and complex operation. It involves some 47,000 firefighters in England and Wales and over 3,000 appliances operating from 1,600 fire stations. Our focus has been on taking what steps we can to safeguard life, and so far as possible protect property, when the normal fire cover is not available. Detailed planning began in August, and training started on the 28th of that month—before the pay negotiations had broken down.

"The plans are based on support from the Armed Services, and the acceptance by the police of additional responsibilities during industrial action. There are three main elements to the plans. First, on the assumption that fire control centres will not be operating during the strike, arrangements have been made for Fire Service 999 calls to be redirected. Every call will be answered. Secondly, emergency cover will be provided by a range of appliances staffed by Army, RAF and Naval crews. Nationwide, there will be 827 Green Goddesses, which will be able to provide only a basic firefighting capability. There will also be 331 specialist breathing apparatus rescue teams and 59 rescue equipment support teams which will offer specialist skills. Thirdly, on Friday, immediately after the FBU's announcement of their programme of strikes, the Government made available basic safety guidance and information to the public and to business. This is being supplemented by a range of other measures including a public information campaign on radio and television; a mail drop to some 4 million households; and a letter to the 15,000 largest businesses giving specific advice on fire safety and general health and safety issues. I can assure the House that the contingency arrangements are now in place.

"If the Fire Brigades Union goes ahead with its strike on Tuesday, 29th October, the military and police, assisted by those firefighters and fire officers who choose to continue to work, will be in a position to provide a basic emergency service. Members of the public should continue to call 999 in case of emergency and each call will receive a response. However, the military will not be able to respond to emergency calls as quickly as the normal Fire Service. The emergency crews will have fewer specialised capabilities than the normal Fire Service. And they are likely to be unfamiliar with the incident site and the local geography.

"In this situation, I have messages for the public, business, and the Fire Brigades Union. To the public, I urge you to take sensible precautions in your homes to prevent a fire occurring in the first place. To managers, safety representatives and others in industry and commerce, my message is to work on the basis that your normal activities continue during the strikes. However, the single most important step that you should take is to check that all existing fire safety provisions are in place and fully effective. My message to the FBU is—think again.

"Despite the wide range of measures that we have put in place, there is no doubt that the risk of loss of life and property will be higher when Fire Brigades Union members are refusing to work.

"My right honourable friend the Member for Greenwich therefore met Andy Gilchrist yesterday to urge him to clarify the extent to which the union would continue to provide a response to life-threatening incidents, whether house fires, major transport incidents or terrorist attacks. Mr Gilchrist agreed to consider this with his executive tomorrow and to let the Government have a quick response. I hope that that response will be constructive.

"Mr Speaker, we face a very serious situation. The House can be assured that I will keep the House fully informed at every opportunity".

My Lords, that completes the Statement.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Deputy Prime Minister's Statement. Everyone in this country depends on firemen, who give a highly efficient and professional service, for which we pay them tribute. As a resident of Kensington, I know the skill with which they dealt with the terrible Paddington rail disaster, and the fact that their skills in releasing trapped passengers were greatly needed. However, the current threat cannot be justified, and we do not condone the action that is being taken in support of an unrealistic wage claim.

The seriousness of the situation cannot be underestimated. The country faces having no professional fire service on 36 days between now and Christmas, when the 5th November will be celebrated—for the whole of that month—when there is renewed concern about terrorist activity, and during the darkest time of the year, when fires and accidents are bound to occur.

Of course the Army and other armed forces have been called in to provide backup using the Green Goddess fire engines, which are a far cry from the specialist vehicles used by the Fire Service. My first question to the Minister is: why has the Army not been trained to use proper fire engines, and why does there not appear to be a contingency plan to enable it to do so? If firemen are intent on withdrawing their service, they should not be able to make fire engines unavailable for emergencies, as they do not own them. I appreciate that arrangements would have to be made to stop the need to cross a picket line daily, but I would be grateful for the Minister's views on the matter. That provision would equip the Army and put them in a much better position to deal with the situation. Our soldiers are intelligent enough given training to operate these machines. What action has been taken to free these publicly owned vehicles for emergency services, or what thoughts have there been on the matter? One life lost as a result of these engines sitting idly in their sheds would be one life too many wasted.

I make no comment on the demands of fire-fighters. Although I heard what the Deputy Prime Minister said about the Government not intervening in negotiations, I understand that the employers organisation was going to make an offer in early July. Will the Minister confirm whether that offer—I appreciate that it had been achieved at that stage—was delayed by the prospect of the setting up of an independent inquiry by the Deputy Prime Minister? If that is correct, why was it delayed until early September?

Is it also correct that the Fire Brigades Union is not giving evidence to the inquiry? Even though the inquiry was only recently implemented, it will not report for a further six weeks. Can it not be hurried up, particularly since the report has now been pre-empted by the proposed action? If it could report sooner, it would be in everyone's interest, including that of the fire-fighters, who at some stage will have to reach a settlement with their employers, who are not the Government but the local authorities. In reality they will have to reach a settlement that will not match their highest demands, but it should be reached as soon as possible and it should be informed by the inquiry.

I agree with the Minister that the tribunal that has been set up consists of people who are appropriate to deal with the complexities of this pay demand. In the interests of hastening the result, will the Government make available any resources necessary to speed the conclusion of the deliberations to bring some prospect of an early resolution to this calamitous dispute? In his Statement, the Deputy Prime Minister properly drew attention to the need for everyone to be extra vigilant to prevent fire and accidents and to have fire prevention and fire-fighting equipment to hand. However, we already have the threat of the withdrawal of tube trains on the deep lines, as a result of action proposed by Mr Crow. What other major services could be subject to such proposed action? Who will decide whether they are in danger—union leaders, Ministers, employers? There must be considerable concern about health and safety, including that of the workforce, but follow-on action could make the situation even worse. I note that this matter is not referred to in the Minister's Statement.

There is one further matter to which I should like a reply. That is the question relating to insurance liability. To whom can victims of strike action turn in the case of a fire, serious action or major disaster that the Fire Service would normally have dealt with? Are their insurance policies invalidated by the strike action? If so, who will help them out of their dilemma? The public should be given an answer to that.

This is a terrible day. I hope that good sense will yet prevail, that the inquiry can be speeded up and that the union will wait for the outcome before taking action. If not, we must rely, as in the past, on our valiant forces, and they deserve our support.

4.38 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is considerable sympathy and support for a fair and just pay settlement for fire-fighters? Does he also accept that over recent years the whole trade union movement has done much to modernise and adapt to the 21st-century needs of its members, and that this dispute therefore takes place against considerable public good will? Yet, that good will becomes fractured by a tendency on the part of certain trade unions to target the vulnerable and the public as leverage in disputes, which cannot be tolerated. Does the Minister recall his noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, on the subject of public service disputes, telling this House on 18th April 2002: It is not a question of ending the right to strike but a matter of ending the need to strike".—[Official Report, 22/5/02; col. 1162.] Is it not true that the Government have been somewhat complacent about the public service while the storm clouds have gathered? On the 22nd May, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, told this House: I must ask the question: what is the problem being identified of industrial disputes in the public sector? Clearly, there are threats of disputes. There are new leaders of public sector trade unions who have been elected on the basis of threatening greater militancy. But the facts do not bear out the claim that there is a new problem of industrial disputes in the public sector".—[Official Report, 22/5/02; cols. 871–72.] I doubt that the noble Lord would repeat that statement today, yet the Government were warned of gathering disputes and different attitudes. Have the Government done too little too late to address grievances building up in the public sectors, including problems related to housing costs and others? Those problems have created what my old friend Joe Gormley used to call, "platforms for malcontents to stand on".

In such circumstances, will the Minister not agree that it would be better if No. 10 desisted from over-macho press briefings? Those around No. 10 may feel that a good industrial dispute should be added to the Prime Minister's battle honours, but that would be a mistake. What examination are the Government making of the broader problems of public sector pay? Do we face a series of guerrilla disputes in the public sector, with each settlement feeding off the previous one? In that case, will not the Government simply see their much-vaunted increase in public expenditure seep away in inflationary wage demands?

In the light of this dispute and others pending, does the Minister see a need to review the Employment Relations Act 1999? What has happened to the review of that Act, which was supposedly under way?

On the specifics of the dispute, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has already asked what access the military will have to firefighting equipment other than the Green Goddesses. Will they have no access or limited access? How is the issue being handled? I also echo the noble Baroness's request for the Bain inquiry to be brought forward.

What discussions have taken place with Mr John Monks of the TUC on its code of conduct about disputes? Is the TUC being asked to produce guidance on intimidatory picketing of those who are continuing to work?

The Minister mentioned the 1978 formula. Is it dead? What offer would have been on the table under that formula? Are the Government prepared to fund a Bain settlement?

Finally, safety is very important. The Deputy Prime Minister called on everyone to examine the safety issue. If that issue is now going to be used as a guise for secondary picketing, the range of the dispute will be extended.

I hope that recent weeks have blown away the last complacency from the Government. For probably the first time in the 30 years that I have known him, I am on the same side as the Deputy Prime Minister in calling for the FBU to think again.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am grateful for the response from the two Front Benches. I shall do my best to answer the points raised. The Army is not trained to use the equipment. I do not know how many noble Lords have been on a modern appliance. They are like the Starship Enterprise. They are way beyond the appliances that existed in 1977. The advance in technology has been enormous. It takes the best part of three months to do the training. With the best will in the world, it would not have been prudent or justified on political, economic or industrial relations grounds to say just after the claim was lodged in May or during the negotiations in June or July, before they broke down, "By the way, boys in the fire brigade, can we just send the Army into the odd fire station one day a week to train on your equipment for when you go on dispute?". Just posing the question shows how unrealistic that would be.

The strikes are not going to be like in 1977, but will come in several-day periods. In those circumstances, it would be impractical and counter-productive to ask that the equipment be used for training purposes on the days when the FBU members are not on strike, because they will be on standby to deal with emergency services. Taking equipment out of a station and using it somewhere else could cause it to malfunction or it could be sent back in the wrong working mode. That would be asking for real trouble and it is not a runner. Everyone will appreciate that that is a serious practical consideration.

There is no evidence of government interference in the negotiations. I know that rumours and allegations have circulated about who said what at various meetings and who gave nods and winks, but we have at no time interfered with the stance of the employers on what they were going to offer or when they were going to offer it, in either private or public meetings.

The Fire Brigades Union would help to speed up the inquiry if it were to make its case. As has been said elsewhere, during disputes in the 1970s, the National Union of Mineworkers never failed to turn up at the Wilberforce inquiry and others to make what it regarded as a powerful case and to have it listened to in the inquiry that was to come up with a solution as well as in the court of public opinion.

At the end of the day, there will have to be a solution, just as in 1977. The issue was hotly contended, but everybody knew that there would have to be a settlement. The formula was the solution to the 1977 dispute. That formula has stood the test of time, but the employers accepted that it would have to be reviewed. Looking at another formula was part of the employers' offer. The top quartile of the median manual industrial earnings does not have the same rank as in 1977. That was on offer to be discussed, but the offer was not accepted. As I said in the Statement that I repeated, the FBU could suspend the strike for four weeks, remain fully legal with the strike, wait for the result of the Bain inquiry, regardless of whether it gave evidence, and then decide what to do. That seems a wholly reasonable course of action for the union.

I have no evidence that the tribunal is short of resources. I am grateful for the contributions about the make-up of the tribunal. Sir George Bain, Sir Michael Lyons and Sir Tony Young are all people of experience and balance who can be trusted to come up with an independent assessment of the situation. However, their job would be a lot easier if the FBU gave evidence. I cannot for the life of me understand why the FBU is not prepared to put its case.

The decision on whether the activity of another employer is safe is the legal responsibility of that employer, acting on the advice of the health and safety authorities. It is not for trade union leaders—or for Ministers—to say whether an activity is safe for the public. The relevant employer must make that decision, acting on the advice of the health and safety authorities, which also operate under statutory independence when giving their advice.

The question about insurance is not an unimportant matter. I cannot give a detailed answer, but discussions are ongoing with leaders in the insurance industry. We shall make a statement at the appropriate time, as soon as possible.

A point was raised about the dispute taking place against a background of public good will. We accept that the trade unions have modernised over recent years. There is no going back. There is a different framework of industrial legislation relating to disputes compared with 25 or 30 years ago. The FBU's claim was lodged only on 28th May. The Government cannot be accused—well, we can be accused of anything, but I do not think we are guilty—of complacency. The breakdown occurred on 2nd September. By 5th September we had set up the inquiry. The FBU was told about this and was asked by telephone conversation and by letter on 3rd September whether it wished to be involved in writing the terms of reference for the inquiry and to have an input and representation at the inquiry. We have never received a response to the telephone conversations or the letter. That is most unfortunate for everybody concerned.

I know nothing, as a humble Minister of State, about briefings from No. 10. The Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for the department that deals with the fire service and I have repeated his Statement. That remains the Government's stated position. There is no issue of being gung-ho or otherwise. We want a settlement. We do not want the dispute. We do not think that the Fire Brigades Union wants the dispute. There ought to be a much better way of solving the problem that has generally arisen without having to go on strike. Inquiries are one way of doing that. Sometimes we have had strikes and disputes over whether we should have an inquiry. People have gone on strike in the past to demand an inquiry. In this case the inquiry is up and running, so there is no justification for a dispute. The TUC's guidance, issued after the 1978 difficulties, stands. We hope that everyone concerned will abide by it.

I was asked whether a new formula was on offer. The prospect of a new formula was on offer, but what that formula would be was a matter for discussion. However, the dispute was called and the FBU said that it wanted 40 per cent now with no inquiry on modernisation or anything else and no discussions. I cannot say what the formula would have been, other than what I have said in the Statement.

Finally, I was asked whether the Government would accept what comes out of Professor Bain's inquiry. No government can be committed to responding to the results of an inquiry that has been set up independently and to which a key party to the dispute has not given evidence. Sir George Bain may come up with a package. He may well suggest a sum of money and a formula, but also suggest some changes in working practices to pay for some of it. How can we say yes at this point? We may be talking about a package; one cannot say. The one way to encourage the delivery of a decent package as a result of this inquiry is for the FBU to agree to give evidence to it.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, notwithstanding the refusal of the FBU to participate in the Bain inquiry, and bearing in mind that it may persist in that unhelpful attitude, can my noble friend the Minister say whether there is any possibility of the Government accepting a suggestion that I believe has been put forward in both Houses; namely, that the conclusion of the Bain inquiry should be significantly advanced from, say, 9th December of this year to a date in November? I recognise that the Government have no locus in this process because it is a matter for the Bain inquiry. However, will my noble friend pass on that suggestion to Sir George Bain at once?

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords; that is naturally the case. I do not know what the response from the Bain inquiry would be. However, it would be much easier to produce a quicker report if all the evidence could be put before the inquiry; for example, evidence from the FBU. There is nothing to suggest that there is a shortage of resources, but we are talking about an independent inquiry consisting of people of good will who are taking evidence from all parties that they can possibly reach. As a result of these statements and other discussions, I simply hope that the FBU will see that it is in its interests to outline its case not to the megaphones of the media and to the tabloid newspapers but to Sir George Bain and his inquiry. The union should also suspend any idea of action until he has reported. That can be done quite legally. Indeed, the employers have said that they would be prepared to increase the mandate of the strike ballot.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the changes made to employment law immediately after 1979 was the outlawing—the removal—of legal immunity for secondary action taken by groups of workers who are not involved in a dispute to bring pressure to bear on the employer who is involved? Is it not correct that the Government have done nothing to reverse that reform, and yet there are already threats by railmen and other workers to the effect that they may withdraw their labour ostensibly on safety grounds? Can the Minister give the House an assurance that the Government will support all those who combat secondary action of that kind, if necessary by invoking the law?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we shall support all lawful processes. The noble Lord is quite right to say that we have not changed the issue about legal immunity. Trade union leaders do not own the safety of employees; safety representatives are crucial in that respect. The record of the trade union movement in improving industrial safety in this country is second to none. It is something for which it fought for years. Part of the reason for the start of the trade union movement was to secure better and safer working conditions for its members. However, the latter should not be used as a proxy in another dispute.

All this has come as a result of Royal Commissions, on which trade unions have been represented—for example, the Robbins Commission—and the work of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The independent health and safety authorities are the relevant, lawful people who decide whether or not activities have to be suspended because of lack of safety cover. It is not a matter for trade union leaders to decide. If they do so without the advice of the health and safety authorities, quite clearly they may leave themselves liable.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I hope that the Government will not become involved in a debate in this House about the merits of the dispute. I do not like the idea of arguments across the Chamber about the merits of a particular case. As the person who actually invented the formula, I am especially concerned about this issue. It has been stated in newspaper reports that the Government consider that 40 per cent is too much. Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House where the Government got that conclusion from? That is partly what is queering the pitch. The Government have announced that 40 per cent is too much. It was not too much a few months ago when MPs were awarded a 40 per cent increase, but it is too much now. Why? This must mean that the Government now have some kind of norm in their mind. In the old days this was called having an incomes policy. Can my noble friend the Minister say what is a reasonable figure when you know in advance of an investigation and subsequent report that 40 per cent is too much?

Further, if I understand my noble friend correctly, he said that as a result of representations from the employers in this case the Government agreed to set up an independent inquiry. Is that also a movement in policy? Both this Government and the previous government have generally said over the past 20 years that they did not like inquiries, conciliation, or arbitration. And they got rid of the comparability commission. Moreover, we do not allow the Civil Service to go to the Civil Service Arbitration Tribunal. But now local government employers come along and, as a result, the Government establish the Bain inquiry, while repeating that 40 per cent is too much.

Does this mean that another employer, faced with an equally serious dispute, could demand such an inquiry? Indeed, the Government would find themselves in a very difficult position if, after Bain, they did not accede to such a request. And what the Government give to the employers they must surely give to the unions. Let us suppose that another union demands an independent inquiry chaired by Sir George Bain. What would the Government say in response? Are they changing their policy, or not changing their policy? I am not against them changing their policy, but they had better take this matter away and think about what they are doing: are they going for incomes policy, or for arbitration? I do not expect to receive an answer this afternoon. But they should reconsider these matters and make up their minds.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with great respect to my noble friend, I should point out that he asked me not to get involved in the merits of the dispute. Therefore, I shall certainly not argue the case about which percentage is the right one. I recognise the analogy made with Members of the other place, but let us just think about it. The Top Salaries Review Body is an independent body to which MPs gave evidence on their case, but they did not, as it were, fix the results of the inquiry. The FBU should follow the line taken by MPs and give evidence to the independent body, make their case, and then await the outcome. That is the analogy that I draw between the two groups. We should not play off one against the other.

I should add that MPs actually deferred their pay increases for many years in the hope that others would follow their example. However, it did not work out quite as they expected.

Lord Prior

My Lords, the Minister may be glad to know that I shall not ask him as belligerent a question as was posed a short while ago from the other side of the House. Such disputes are extremely difficult and delicate. One has to be very careful what one says. But when otherwise reasonable and responsible people vote 9:1 in favour of strike action, one is bound to ask what is the underlying cause that leads people to adopt such a position.

Can the Minister outline the Government's view on what has caused reasonable people to vote in this manner? If they have not, as yet, found out anything in that respect, can the Minister confirm that the Government are making every effort to discover what lies behind the dispute? It must be much more than just a simple pay issue.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, in a way, I accept the thrust of the noble Lord's question when people vote 9:1 in favour of such action. I do not know the exact figures, but I believe I said that the total number of fire service personnel today is 47,000. The vast majority of those members will have joined the service since 1977 in the knowledge that there was a stable tried-and-tested formula for wage increases based on the outcome of the previous dispute. In fact, it was a formula that most trade unions would have given their hind teeth for in the past, even though it stymied free collective bargaining because it was actually a formula that gave the pay increase each year.

When, two years ago, the person who is now the general secretary of the FBU said that the formula had done a good job, that did not ring any warning bells to the effect that there was something wrong with the formula. In just two years out of 25, I do know what has caused Mr Gilchrist to move from saying that the formula had done a good job and given good salaries to saying now that it is an absolute travesty and needs burying. Clearly there is a problem here. But, given the fact that the general secretary made that comment just two years ago, it is not one that has festered over the years as some people might think.

Baroness Michie of Gallanach

My Lords, I do not think that the Minister has said anything yet about retained fire fighters. As he knows, they are part-time but very efficient and professional fire fighters who provide a tremendous service to the rural areas of this country, particularly in the highlands of Scotland. Retained fire fighters do not strike, but have they been invited to give evidence to the review body?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not have specific details about that. However, the employers accepted that retained fire fighters' pay should be improved; in fact, one of the accepted claims was that their pay should be improved. As far as I know, Professor Bain and his colleagues are taking evidence from all the relevant parties who wish to provide it. I am sure that retained fire fighters will be invited to give evidence. I pay tribute to the service that they provide. They provide, almost by definition, an incredibly localised community service in our rural areas. We would not be able to fight fires in those areas without them.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I declare an interest. I was Home Secretary at the time of the previous dispute and—with Mr Terry Parry, of the Fire Brigades Union—played a part in settling it. I also played a small part in the TUC's development of a code of practice for dealing with safety matters. These two issues are still relevant. What has changed is that, whereas the previous dispute occurred in days of high inflation, we now have low inflation, which has a bearing on pay awards. Does my noble friend believe, as I still do, that the way forward is through the TUC code of practice?

The pay inquiry will not report until December. Meanwhile, inaccuracies about the dispute are reported daily, particularly in relation to the role of the Green Goddesses, written by people who have never seen a Green Goddess or thought about how they can be used. The Green Goddesses are kept at a storage base in the East Midlands. They are looked after carefully and have had limited use. There is not a snowball's chance in hell of their replacing the vehicles of the modern fire service. People who argue that, prove that they know nothing about the matter. We require a period of calm and quiet to settle this dispute, and I hope that we shall have that.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I remember the role that he played in the acrimonious 1977 dispute, when I was just a humble Back Bencher in the other place. The fact is that the formula solved that dispute; it was the key. At the time, people always ask why a formula could not have been dreamt up seven or eight weeks earlier. We accept that the formula needs to be re-examined. The way to do that, however, is to sit down round the table. There is plenty of time to do that before going on strike.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, over the weekend, the Minister's colleague in another place, Mr Nick Raynsford, said that he thought that train operating companies would operate normally. However, surely that is a matter for the companies and for the Health and Safety Executive. Or will the Government be offering advice to the train operating companies? If the Health and Safety Executive tells the train operating companies that it is safe to run their services, but the companies are unable to obtain insurance cover because of the national strike, will the Government stand behind them in relation to cover, as they did for the airlines after September 11th last year?

Lord Rooker

As I said, my Lords, discussions on insurance are in progress. As I also said, however, it is up to employers, on the advice of the health and safety authorities, to decide whether it is safe to run the service they are providing. If they receive advice from the health and safety authorities that they can run their service, I cannot see why insurance cover should be an issue.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the saving of life should be the paramount consideration in emergencies? Will the Government therefore consider making cutting equipment available to servicemen? The use of such equipment in car crashes, and even in coach and train crashes, can be a critical factor in saving lives.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, reverting to the original Statement, Mr Gilchrist was asked yesterday about the FBU's views in relation to life-threatening circumstances. He was also reminded of the TUC code—an aspect of the club to which all the trade unions have signed up. He said that he would discuss the matter with his executive and come back to the Government; I believe that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister said that the FBU would come back tomorrow. I accept the noble Lord's point that the saving of life is the paramount consideration.

Lord Christopher

My Lords, this is not a dispute that will be solved through textbooks. The noble Lord, Lord Prior, asked a fundamental question: why did more than 90 per cent of firemen vote to go on strike? I ask my noble friend the Minister to reflect on the fact that the 1977 formula—I shall, if I may, add a little to the history given by my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees—was not accepted by firemen; it was imposed on their leadership by the then TUC general council. I know that because I was there. We sent Terry Parry out to tell his massed ranks, who filled Great Russell Street, that the dispute had to be settled on the basis of that formula. I was not entirely surprised by that because, at the time, no one could see the value of the formula. Every general secretary has had a similar situation in his own union at some time.

In a few days, the dispute will have started, and the most difficult thing will be to persuade people to stop. Although I completely accept what my noble friend the Minister said about the Government not interfering, there are reports, which I believe are accurate, that firemen do not believe that. Reports of offers of 15 or 16 per cent have been bandied about, and they are either true or untrue. There are also stories about comments by a member of the Bain committee, and they are either true or untrue. I believe that the first task should be to endeavour to remove that misunderstanding. As the Minister said, it is a misunderstanding.

I believe that it would be a great mistake for the Bain committee to hurry its report. The problems with the fire service go much deeper than the matter of pay. There are also problems with, for example, the fire service pay structure. The fire brigades compare their pay structures with those for the police. The formula broke down because of advances made by those without a formula. Bain needs to have enough time to address all of those issues.

If I am correct about that, and if we are to reach a settlement, will the Minister just consider a way of reaching an interim offer and giving some assurances about the intent of the Bain committee? If we return to some of the thinking I have heard expressed today, we shall be returning almost to 1926. References to the law will not help one jot. This is the most heavily supported dispute for a very long time and it needs to be dealt with in a manner likely to produce a settlement. I believe that that will be possible only with an interim settlement which entails waiting for Bain.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I accept my noble friend's warning about the law. However, I think that I have answered the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, to the best of my ability. I do not think that it was a provocative question. The Government have not sought to change the law in respect of immunity for secondary action. I think that that is a straightforward position. As for the other points, however, surely the way of getting answers about what might have been offered on a given day or in various meetings is for the parties to give evidence to the inquiry. Let the independent inquiry decide who said what and the root issues in fire service pay. People have accepted that the formula needs changing but the fact of the matter is that the formula—

Lord Christopher

My Lords, the firefighters do not believe it is independent.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I was about to say to my noble friend that I believe that the formula is based on the higher quartile of top manual industrial earnings. It is not a question of people who are not a party to the formula getting ahead; the industrial structure of this country today is not even remotely like that of 1977. One can therefore appreciate that the formula needs to be reviewed; that point has been conceded. The best body to decide that is the inquiry.