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22 Oct 2002 : Column 134—continued

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): May I remind my right hon. Friend that, a couple of months ago in west Yorkshire, a fire tender was called to assist a man who had suffered from a heart attack? That is just one example of the new burdens that are placed on the fire service, showing why it has to be multi-skilled. For that reason, I would support a genuinely independent review, but would it be better if both sides of the dispute did not make statements about what they expected to come out of the review? One side is saying that it must have a certain percentage figure and the other side is saying that there must not be a certain percentage figure. It seems that the independent review will be bound, and it will not have the respect of the general public if both sides to the dispute try to tie its hands in advance.

The Deputy Prime Minister: There is a lot of sense in that, but it is an inevitable part of disputes that people

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will arrive at figures, one of which will be at one end of the dispute and one at the other, and an independent review is the way to deal with those circumstances.

My hon. Friend is perhaps referring to whether the Government should say whether a 40 per cent. increase is affordable, but I have to tell him that #450 million is quite a hefty bill, which Governments cannot ignore. Since I have been in this job, local authorities have settled for something like 7.9 per cent. over two years. If #450 million were to come out of the local authority budget, the money would basically be coming from other people's wages and conditions. I must take that into account. I have not made the judgment; I have allowed a committee to make an independent assessment.

My hon. Friend made a good point when he referred to the fire service attending a heart case. The service now is more of an emergency service than a fire service. It does a great deal of tremendous work and it needs proper equipment. Under our rules there is the absurdity that certain equipment that is needed for the work that the service undertakes is denied to it even though in some instances it does not act as a fire service. There is a need for modernisation. The service needs change. We should provide the necessary resources. We are asking that these considerations should be recognised all together. That is fair and that is right.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): As public safety is rightly the right hon. Gentleman's prime concern, will he do two things? First, will he give clear guidance to those in my constituency and elsewhere who are planning bonfire night parties? Will he urge them to be as cautious as possible? If necessary, will he tell them to delay these parties? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman rethink his answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and give members of our highly trained armed forces whose own lives will be put at risk when using Green Goddesses, some of which are 50 years old, some access to modern equipment?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House will be sympathetic to concerns about injuries, and sometimes deaths, that occur on 5 November, in or out of an industrial dispute. The timing of the dispute is to have one weekend on strike and the other weekend on strike, it being felt that 5 November is bonfire night. Anyone with any experience knows that there are bonfires during the weekend before bonfire night, the weekend after it and possibly during the weekends leading up to it. I have already talked to local authorities. In some instances they organise municipal bonfires, and I have asked that they make an appeal that perhaps fewer bonfires take place during the weekends to which I have referred, and that municipal bonfires should be attended in the circumstances. We should not get into a controversy about fireworks, because there are strong feelings in the House about that issue. It is a difficult and sensitive time and we will again be appealing to those involved not to take the actions that are being talked about, and to take the chance of co-operating with the inquiry.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): At the risk of repeating what others have said, I say to my right hon.

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Friend that public services turn to public harm when a set of public servants, such as firefighters, take such actions. Is it not time they took cognisance of the TUC guidelines to which they signed up, and provided the cover that we would like to see provided? Should not we in turn ensure that the review completes its work early so that we can all be sure that there will be an end to the dispute?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The TUC code of conduct, to which she referred, came about immediately after the dispute in 1977. It was designed to deal with public services and essential services. It was agreed to by the Fire Brigades Union and the TUC. I know that the executive is meeting tomorrow, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions discussed this with Andy Gilchrist when he met him yesterday. Consideration is being given to these points.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The Deputy Prime Minister says that the Government have not interfered in this matter, but it is clear that they have. I shall ask two brief questions. First, when he met Andy Gilchrist on 8 August, did he mention the question of an independent review? Secondly, given that there was interference at that stage, why did it take so long, from 8 August to 1 September, for the Government to ask employers to make an offer, which subsequently was made two days later?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand the misunderstanding about dates and local authority negotiations. When I met Andy Gilchrist, I was surprised when he made the point strongly to me. I thought that the negotiations had broken down on 8 August. He said, XNo, we have not been made an offer." That seemed rather silly. When I talked to the local authority negotiators, I asked them, XIs it true that you have not made a final offer? The FBU says that negotiations have not broken down because it has not even been given an offer." The local authority negotiators said, XRight. On 2 September we'll put on the table what we are offering and the union can say yes or no", which it did. I think that that was right in the circumstances. It was a bit unusual that no one asked that an offer should be put on the table, with both parties going around saying that negotiations had broken down. I thought that the part I played was common sense.

As for whether I asked Andy Gilchrist whether he would co-operate with an inquiry, the local authorities had already made it clear in negotiations that they would go further than 4 per cent. and alter the formula if the firefighters were prepared to co-operate with an inquiry into the modernisation of the fire service. Their view was that there had been many reviews of the fire service, the money had been taken, but little had been done about modernisation; they felt that there should be an independent assessment. I thought that there was a lot of sense in that and encouraged the union to accept an inquiry, but the general secretary made it absolutely clear that he did not want an inquiry—he believed that the union had co-operated in modernisation before and that that was not the issue. He said, XGive me the 40 per cent. or the 50 per cent." and

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suggested nothing else. I did not push him on that, because I was not involved in negotiations. All I wanted to know was whether he would play a part in an inquiry, to which he answered, XNo."

Claire Ward (Watford): What discussions have been held with the Retained Firefighters Union, what assessment has been made of the number of retained firefighters who have expressed a wish to work during the strikes, and what modern appliances might they be able to crew?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We readily acknowledge that, although a comparatively small part of the service, retained firefighters provide an excellent service in the areas in which they operate. They have taken the view that they are perfectly prepared to go to an inquiry and give evidence and that they do not want to take part in the industrial dispute. It is their right to do that and they have told the FBU that. They will have the same facilities as they have at the moment and, presumably, they will provide service even during the periods of industrial dispute. That is their decision.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the fire safety problem would be far more serious if British industry and commerce managed their fire safety arrangements with the same incompetence as the House of Commons? Is he aware that after 25 months Portcullis House still does not have a fire certificate, and that this morning the fire alarm was activated and the fire doors closed, but owing to a fault the evacuation signal was not given, so no one was evacuated? Will he tell everyone involved in British industry and commerce—and the House of Commons—that the best thing they can do to prepare is to review their fire safety arrangements and make sure they work more effectively than the House of Commons' current arrangements?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I appealed to industry and all parties who might be affected by the dispute to do precisely that. As for conditions in the House of Commons, I am glad to say that that is nothing to do with me. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take the hon. Gentleman's comments into account.

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