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22 Oct 2002 : Column 137—continued

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): The Deputy Prime Minister certainly does not need to take any lectures on trade union rights from Opposition Members. He will remember the days when he was accused of leading

when all he was doing was negotiating properly on behalf of his members. In current circumstances, it is difficult to know with whom the FBU should negotiate. Given that negotiations have broken down, is there not a case for intervention by the Prime Minister to accelerate the Bain report and to summon both employers and trade unions to continuous negotiations, so that we can prevent lives and public services being put at risk in an entirely avoidable dispute?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have some sympathy with that point, but my hon. Friend must remember that

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the two parties disagree fundamentally on what might conclude the dispute. I have taken the opportunity to provide for an independent inquiry. As for his historical reference to me, at that time I was fighting for an inquiry; the firefighters have got one right away.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): The deputy chief fire officer in Buckinghamshire has rightly been concerned for some time about large warehouses used by the retail industry because they pose such problems for firefighters that, even in normal times, operational pre-planning is required. Has the Deputy Prime Minister made specific arrangements to ensure that the armed forces are fully trained to deal with that extremely hazardous type of warehouse fire? If not, and if no lives are threatened, will warehouses be left to burn?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Lady will understand that if there are two incidents, one in which lives are threatened and the other in which a building is simply burning down, the choice is clear. If two machines are not available to tackle both incidents, one goes where the greatest threat to human life is present. That is the rule that will apply, but the forces will be trained to deal with every type of eventuality that they may be called upon to tackle.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): The Deputy Prime Minister may know that I represent the town of Grangemouth, which has the largest integrated chemical and petrochemical plant in the UK. Will any advice be given to the emergency planning teams as to whether such companies should consider rescheduling their production so that the threat, which has already caused two fires and a major explosion on that site in the past three or four years, may be avoided by management?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I have a similar chemical complex in my own area. He will know that in negotiations with chemical companies, there are special rules and regulations about intensive cover inside the plant, but inevitably the plant is also dependent on outside help from the fire services. In that respect, I am sure that the emergency services will do what they can, but I say to the employers, and I hope that my hon. Friend will say the same to the employers in his chemical plant, that they should make sure that all their safety arrangements are up to scratch, and that they should do their utmost in these difficult circumstances.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): If the FBU calls off this dangerous strike, which it clearly should do, will the Deputy Prime Minister consider asking the independent review group to bring forward its recommendations?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The FBU has made it clear that it feels that the inquiry is not independent. It must make a proper assessment of controversial matters. That is what dictates the time. If we have a reply by December, I have said and I repeat that if only the FBU would co-operate, perhaps we could consider how the hon. Gentleman's suggestion could be achieved. The co-operation of both parties in giving evidence makes it

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much easier for an inquiry to make its judgment. Unfortunately, it has been denied the co-operation of the FBU, so every assistance should be given to persuade the FBU to come and give evidence.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Could my right hon. Friend reassure the House of the complete independence of the Bain inquiry?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Anyone who knows Sir George Bain knows that he is a man who makes recommendations and deals with inquiries without courting favour from Government. His recommendations on poverty pay and minimum pay are a good example of that. I trust him; his record is good. I also trust the people advising him.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Has the Deputy Prime Minister any estimate of the proportion of retained firemen who will be expected to work if there is a strike? Also, have the Government any estimate of what proportion of incidents retained firemen will deal with, and what proportion the armed forces might deal with?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I will keep the matter under review. When I get any information, I will inform the House. It is a difficult issue. There is some dispute about the proportion of retained firefighters. The union says that it is organising for a particular number, and the other body says that it is organising for a different number. We do not know whether the retained firemen will heed the call to strike. It is difficult to make that judgment. As soon as I have any information about that, I will let the House and the hon. Gentleman know.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): There can be no doubt that our firefighters do a fabulous job on our behalf and deserve the highest of incomes that can be afforded by the Government. However, I fear that what they are asking for—a 40 per cent. increase in one go—is too much for any Government to contemplate, and they need to get realistic. During 1984, I was a member of the National Union of Mineworkers Yorkshire area executive committee, and we made provisions and gave dispensation to miners to make sure that safety work could be carried out underground and coal could be delivered to hospitals, old people's homes and so on, where it was needed. I cannot for the life of me see the ordinary firefighter sitting back when a disaster occurs in this country and not going to assist. We cannot say often enough that the Deputy Prime Minister must do all he can to ensure that if there is a disaster, firefighters go out there and do what they are best at.

The Deputy Prime Minister: In this House there is no doubt in anyone's mind that firemen feel strongly for their jobs and for safety. They are in that job because they like to do the job, and they are among the few groups of people who risk their lives to carry out their job. I am sure that it is a difficult decision for them to withdraw their labour, and they know that. The possibility of an inquiry was immediately granted so that they did not have to face that choice. I do not deny,

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as I said earlier, that they may have to make the choice, but not before the settlement date, 7 November. Why can they not co-operate with the inquiry up to that date or until the report comes out? I appreciate that it is a dilemma.

I cannot ignore the fact that, on the 40 per cent. figure, in my meeting with the general secretary, I said, XYour demand is obviously #400 million" and he said, XNo, it is #450 million." I asked him how the Government should pay for such an increase—a legitimate question for the Government to ask in such circumstances. He said that we had all had a consultants' report and that X amount could be saved in respect of damage by fire. He estimated the figure to be about #600 million and said that we could pay the settlement with that money. Unless the insurance companies have discovered a way of transferring dividends to the Government in order to meet a wage requirement, however, that does not seem a sensible way of dealing with the problem.

We have not made a decision about the matter and have left the independent inquiry to produce a balanced judgment about the pay to be awarded—we agree to having a different formula—and the modernisation that should accompany it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have said that our constituents cannot expect from the Army the same sort of service as is offered by the fire service. Our constituents have paid money to the fire service for a service that they will not get. What message does the Deputy Prime Minister have for the insurance companies and what discussions have been conducted with them to make it clear that, even though our constituents are not getting the service that they should receive, they are expected to stand by their obligations?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He can be sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are constantly in discussions with parties that will be directly affected by the dispute. On the essential question about insurance payments, which is a general one, I am well aware of what happened in respect of floods, let alone an industrial situation. In those circumstances, the companies did not face up to their obligations. This is a constant problem, but it is not really associated with industrial disputes.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Is not the offer of an immediate 4 per cent. pay rise plus any enhancement that may be recommended by the Bain review a pretty good one? Has the Deputy Prime Minister received any explanation of why the FBU is not prepared to accept it?

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