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14 Nov 2002 : Column 136—continued

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): My right hon. Friend must be aware by now that many hon. Members have been receiving unsolicited and highly offensive pornography via the parliamentary network. The worst comes via a method called HTML—or hypertext markup language—which means that if that e-mail is accidentally opened, page after page of highly offensive material is displayed on the screen without any mechanism for switching it off. For more than six months now, many hon. Members have tried to stop this through the usual channels, but have failed. Can my right hon. Friend lend a hand and ask the network to purchase the necessary filters that will stop this?

Mr. Cook: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the offensiveness of the material. We should remember that this is not simply a matter for Members of the House who may be exposed to the material. It is also a matter for those who work for us, such as secretaries and assistants who may encounter it more frequently, many of whom find it to be highly offensive. I am pleased to say that this matter was discussed at this week's meeting of the Speaker's Panel and I understand that the decision has been taken to acquire the necessary filter mechanism to make sure that hon. Members are protected and that our constituents are protected from the misuse of channels of communication that are there to enable Members to respond to their correspondence and to serve their constituents promptly.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I thank the Leader of the House for his gracious letter welcoming me back to the performances of the business statement repertory company, which are certainly a parliamentary highlight of the week. Further to the Leader of the House's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), may I reiterate the request for an early debate on Lords reform as the prelude to the

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publication of a Bill for a democratically elected second Chamber, such Bill to be published within the next 12 months and on the understanding that a second Chamber that enjoyed political authority and democratic legitimacy alike could offer the prospect of restraining the insatiable legislative appetite of this House?

Mr. Cook: I welcome back the hon. Gentleman and say that his Front Bench's loss is the business statement's gain. Listening to some of his colleagues who are sitting beside him, I am not sure that he has found the most plausible way of getting back to the Front Bench. I detect a degree of dissent to his proposition.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Not at all.

Mr. Cook: I am delighted to see that there is division on both sides of the argument among the Opposition on the matter. I can assure the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that there will be debates on the issue and that when we receive the Joint Committee's interim report, the matter will have to be debated extensively and voted on in this House. Whatever reform we propose for the second Chamber, it must provide that Chamber with the legitimacy to work as our partner in a modern and effective Parliament.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The Leader of the House is in the process of devising a statutory instrument to provide for pension sharing in the statutory public sector pension scheme concerning Members of this House. He may remember that, in proposing that measure, I was at pains to point out that there were other statutory public sector pension schemes with much less well paid people who were desperate for the change. Will he accept that when he publishes that statutory instrument, there should be a rider, bringing it into force only after the same provisions have been made for pension sharing for unmarried partners for the less well paid members of those public sector pension schemes?

Mr. Cook: We have had exchanges along these lines before. The hon. Gentleman, with passion, tabled his amendment during our debate on the report on pay and pensions of the Senior Salaries Review Body in the summer of 2001. The House was persuaded by his amendment that we should amend our pension scheme accordingly, and voted accordingly. However, the House was voting on our scheme. The hon. Gentleman does not make it any easier for us to implement his amendment by constantly saying that it should be implemented only if it is applied across the whole of the public sector.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Government will shortly announce their conclusions on local government finance, an incredibly important matter to all of our constituents. So far the House has had only four hours to discuss these proposals and each Member was limited to eight minutes. Will the Leader

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ensure that when the Government finally make their decision on the matter, the House will have a full day's debate so that we can talk about the way in which this affects services in our constituencies?

Mr. Cook: I am conscious of the interests of the House in the matter, which is precisely why we provided not only one day for debate—which, unfortunately, for reasons beyond our control, was then narrowed by the statements that were necessary on that day—but another opportunity for the debate to continue. The fact that Members were confined to eight minutes was a reflection of the substantial interest in the issue and the very large number of hon. Members who wished to take part. We seriously tried to provide the opportunity for the House to express its view before final decisions were taken.

Of course I shall reflect upon what the hon. Gentleman said on the question of what time there might be to debate the matter in the future, but I remind the House that there is strong competition for debating time in the months immediately in front of us. As a result of the bold and ambitious legislative programme that the House heard yesterday, there will be a large number of Second Reading debates over the next few weeks and it is important that we give them priority.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the law on human organs and tissues, so that Ministers can explain why there was no commitment in the Gracious Speech to legislation on the subject? He will recall that, on 30 January 2001, the chief medical officer said in response to the Alder Hey and related reports that the Human Tissues Act 1961 should be amended as a matter of urgency. The issue is extremely important to my constituents in Addenbrooke's hospital organ retention support group, and it is disappointing that Ministers have not seen fit to act in this Session.

Mr. Cook: Without giving a specific commitment on the legislation to which the hon. Gentleman refers, let me remind the House of the clear convention relating to the Queen's Speech, that we will certainly implement all the measures set out in it within the current Session, but that that does not mean that all the measures that we will introduce were heralded in it. He may want to reflect on the sentence,

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): When can we expect a ministerial statement on the United Nations panel of experts' report on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The report talks of a multi-billion dollar corporate theft of the country's resources and names 12 British-based companies and individuals for violating Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines on ethical matters. Some of the companies feel strongly that they have been named without evidence, but in respect of others—I mention John Bredenkamp in particular—there appears to be pretty damning evidence. The Government have said that they have asked for further information from the UN and that a substantive response is expected. When can we expect to see that?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman refers to what is one of the great tragedies of international relations: the fact

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that the Congo has immense wealth but that its mineral resources are being used to keep the country in a state of conflict, which impoverishes it, rather than to develop it in the interests of its own people. We have tried to work hard to get momentum behind the peace process, and there has recently been an encouraging withdrawal from the Congo of troops from neighbouring countries. It is important that the commercial sector, as well as neighbouring countries, plays its part in ensuring that the wealth of the Congo is used for its people and not exploited to deprive them.

I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development and ensure that we communicate with him as soon as we have that further information from the United Nations.

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Fire Dispute

12.12 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the present national fire service strike. The Government believe the strike to be wrong, unnecessary and unreasonable. I last made a statement to the House on Tuesday 22 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, made on 28 May, which remains in place, is for a 40 per cent. no strings attached pay increase for firefighters, a 50 per cent. pay increase for control room staff, parity of pay for retained firefighters, and a review of the 1978 pay formula that has governed firefighters' wages for the past 25 years, since their last strike.

At the national joint council meeting on 2 September, the employers finalised their offer of a 4 per cent. increase and requested a joint appeal with the FBU for an independent review of fire service pay and conditions. The union rejected the offer and the review, so the employers made their request direct to Government, and three days later, on 5 September, the Government set up an independent review under Sir George Bain. The union refused to participate in the review or even discuss its terms of reference, and indeed attempted to discredit it—and continues to do so. On 18 October, it announced a programme of 36 days of national strikes due to start on 29 October.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I held a series of meetings with the Fire Brigades Union on 24 and 25 October. Those discussions resulted in the cancellation of the first two 48-hour strikes, and the first eight-day action was converted into the present 48-hour stoppage. Negotiations between the local government employers and the FBU resumed on 30 October. Because the FBU was not prepared to wait until mid-December for Sir George Bain's report, we agreed to bring forward a position paper on 11 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 I look forward to their final report.

Sir George's position paper was made available to the FBU, the employers and the Government on Monday morning. The paper is comprehensive, practical and forward-looking. It is already deposited in the Library, and I urge all Members of the House 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 that they make. It encourages a more diverse work force, with a wider range of career paths, responsibilities and skills, and makes it 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 FBU met for further discussions on Tuesday morning, and the employers tabled a revised offer. That

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offer proposed an immediate increase of 4 per cent., backdated to 7 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 the moment, a qualified firefighter earns #21,500 a year. Under this offer, a qualified firefighter would earn #23,960 a year, and a leading firefighter would earn #25,656. However, in London, where London weighting allowances apply, a qualified firefighter would earn #28,268 a year, and a leading firefighter would earn #29,964 a year—just a few pounds short of the #30,000 a year demanded by the FBU. This compares very well with nurses, teachers and other public servants.

Sir George has 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 negotiations, 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 that is equipped to deal with modern demands. Unfortunately, when the employers tabled their pay offer on Tuesday morning, the FBU walked out, and at 6 o'clock last night it started a 48-hour strike. Under any reasonable circumstances, the FBU would be sitting down with the employers and discussing 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 firefighters. They are using the standby fleet of green goddesses, and sophisticated rescue apparatus and cutting equipment.

I am sure that the whole House will want to express its appreciation for the services of the armed forces—[Hon. Members: XHear, hear."]—the police and others who are actively engaged in providing cover during this strike. However, this is an emergency service, not a replacement service. No matter how professional our armed forces are, 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 have spoken to the general secretary of the FBU again this morning. He is 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 catastrophic incidents if called to do so. I have no doubt that individual firefighters would want to help; indeed, we saw some of that last night. However, 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 firefighters would respond to.

So it is with huge regret that I inform the House that we have no agreement with the FBU on the availability of its manpower in respect of major incidents. The FBU has not given an undertaking to abide even by the spirit of the 1979 Trades Union Congress code on the provision of emergency or essential services, which it signed up to in 1978. I believe that this adds to the wrong and irresponsible decisions that the FBU has taken. The

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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 firefighter Bob Miller on 31 October tragically serve to remind us of the daily danger posed by fire, and of the vital work that firefighters 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. That is wholly unacceptable. 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.

Let there be no doubt, however: the Crown Prosecution Service will take action against anyone caught making hoax calls. Yesterday, it was estimated that in the Strathclyde area as many as 300 hoax calls were made, and I think that the public hope that hoax callers will be dealt with very severely indeed.

Against that background, talking, negotiation and discussion are better than the withdrawal of labour. I continue to believe that Bain is the right way forward. During the past 24 hours, we have heard in the media that the general secretary of the FBU 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 its debate. Even now the union has 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 the negotiations.

The employers have made it clear that they stand ready to continue discussions at any time. Would not it be better to negotiate? Would not it be better to sit down again? An 8-day strike can lead only to more deaths, more injuries and more distress.

It is clear that our joint obligation—the Government, the employers and the firefighters—is to provide the highest level of safety. That is our job. We have an obligation to work towards it: all of us—the Government, the employers and the unions. If, once this 48-hour strike is over, we then face an 8-day strike—yet to be confirmed—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 and unjustified, and puts lives at risk. Faced with that, the Government will do what we have to do to protect the public. I say, XTalk, don't walk."

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