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14 Nov 2002 : Column 142—continued

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that statement and for prior sight of it. I am sure that the whole House will want to join him in expressing sorrow at the deaths of four people in fires overnight and at the death of firefighter Bob Miller, and in his outrage at the action of hoax callers who put the lives of other people at risk. I also

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associate the Opposition with the Deputy Prime Minister's expression of gratitude for the actions of the armed services in protecting the safety of the public.

There was much in what the Deputy Prime Minister said about the actions of the FBU and its unwillingness to negotiate with which I agree. Today, however, I want to focus on the most important thing: the consequences of the strike for public safety and the steps that are being taken to minimise the risk to life.

The Deputy Prime Minister told us that yesterday and this morning he spoke to the head of the FBU about the willingness of firefighters to assist in the event of a major emergency. I need hardly remind the House that with Britain under heightened threat of terrorist attack, it is imperative that all possible measures are in place to protect the public.

It is clear that individual firefighters do not want to see unnecessary deaths. However, in a major emergency speed is essential, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out. Minutes matter. Seconds saved can preserve lives, so organisation, command and control are vital to get firefighters to the scene of the emergency rapidly and to co-ordinate them with other emergency services. It is simply not good enough merely to consider assistance in the event of catastrophe—I think that was what the Deputy Prime Minister said. He has already referred to this, but what exact proposals for such command and control did he put to the FBU and precisely what was the response?

Before the strike began, we called on the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that troops had access to modern fire engines and to the latest firefighting and rescue equipment.

Unfortunately, the Government proved unhelpful. In fact, they came up with a series of spurious reasons why it would not be possible to give troops the best equipment, which would safeguard them and the public against the inevitable dangers of the strike. They said, for example, that it would take three months to train soldiers to use the equipment. That is wrong. The Retained Firefighters Union said that it would take two weeks to train troops to drive a modern fire engine, learn the basics of using specialist cutting equipment and master the use of breathing apparatus.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister now confirm to the House that Ministers were mistaken in their answers? Will he also confirm that there is no practical reason why troops should not be using today's firefighting technology rather than the antiquated kit of 50 years ago?

The Government have also claimed that the only modern fire engines are effectively sidelined because they are locked away behind FBU picket lines. What the right hon. Gentleman has not said is that throughout the country there are many reserve and training fire engines that could be released for use by troops. I can disclose to the House that the House of Commons Library has told me that there are about 400 reserve and training fire appliances at the national training centre and in fire brigades up and down the country. Why does he not bring those into the service of the military and use them to supplement the 800 green goddesses that are now in the front line?

The Opposition want the Government to take all available measures to protect the public. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm—I think that he has

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said this—that that is also the Government's policy? Or is there some ambiguity in the Government's stance, as appears to be the case? The Prime Minister said that allowing troops access to modern firefighting equipment would Xinflame the dispute". Now, the firemen are on strike. Fire stations throughout the country are closed and longer strikes are planned until Christmas. Tube stations are closed. In London, there is a risk of wider knock-on disruption from the strike. The Government have given us several reasons for not giving the military the most modern equipment. Can the Deputy Prime Minister reassure the House that the real reason for keeping life-saving equipment under union lock and key is not a misplaced sympathy for the sanctity of the picket line?

The right hon. Gentleman said today that his principal responsibility is to protect the lives of the public. One chief fire officer has already asked the Attorney-General whether the strike action contravenes section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. That law states that strike action that Xwilfully or maliciously" endangers human life is illegal. The Attorney-General replied on 25 October that that matter required Xconstant review" and that he had not formed a concluded view in the context of the ongoing negotiations. He did not consider it in the public interest to act at that time because

Now that industrial action has started and given that there have been fatalities, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Attorney-General to revisit that issue? If there is the possibility that the strike can be stopped under current legislation, will the Government use their powers to seek an injunction?

Strike action may take other forms. The Health and Safety Executive has said that rail services can still run despite the strikes, and yet Bob Crow of the RMT has threatened to advise his union members not to work. Today, we learn that there has been serious disruption on at least three underground lines in London, causing misery for commuters. What action will the Deputy Prime Minister take if trade unions in vital services disregard the advice of the HSE?

The right hon. Gentleman has given us an account of the run of this negotiation. Now is not the time to rehearse his role in the failed negotiations that led up to the strike. I simply give him notice that we will return to the Government's handling of those negotiations at the earliest opportunity.

The lives of innocent members of the public are at risk today. At the peak of the last national strike, three people died every day. The elderly, children and the disabled—the vulnerable in society—are the most exposed to these risks, so all possible steps must now be taken by the public and by the Government to protect the public.

I recognise that there are also wider issues at stake. A new climate of industrial militancy has returned to haunt the country. Trade union bosses, emboldened by the employment legislation passed by this Government, are set on inflation-busting pay increases, not just in the fire service.

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Labour Ministers boast about modernising Britain. Today, we are seeing the true face of Labour—the strike-torn landscape of the past, not the future.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The statement of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) may have satisfied his Back Benchers, but it is not the sanctity of picket lines that governs me, but the sanctity of life. For every day—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There will be no shouting across the Chamber.

The Deputy Prime Minister: We have just heard the terrible facts—four people have died during the dispute. I thought that that might have impressed upon the right hon. Gentleman the challenge that we face in trying to avoid a dispute. Every day that we prevent a strike from happening, lives are saved. I have to make a balanced judgment, in all the difficult negotiations, about the sanctity of life, which, as I say to the trade unions and the right hon. Gentleman alike, has always governed my approach to this matter.

When the 12-day strike was proposed, in the form of two 48-hour strikes and one of eight days, my strategy was to avoid that happening. We achieved that for 10 of the strike days proposed, but failed in respect of the last two. That was not entirely my fault, but I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that avoiding the strike for those 10 days saved unnecessary loss of life. The sanctity of life governs my approach, not the sanctity of the picket line; that suggestion has more to do with the right hon. Gentleman's politics than the national interest.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's support at the beginning of his remarks. We are agreed on those points and have had discussions. It is right for him to point out where he disagrees with me and not to criticise me about the delay. However, as I pointed out, the negotiations did not break down until 1 September, and within three days I had set up an inquiry despite the view of the trade union. Therefore, I think that I acted within an appropriate time scale.

Let me deal with some of the essential questions that the right hon. Gentleman raised. He reminded us of the heightened tension that exists because of the possibility of emergencies. I am of course concerned to reach an agreement with the union. The command and control is known as gold command; it applies to emergency situations with floods or on the railways, and the agreement between the police and the firefighters is still in place. We have a communications structure. I asked the Fire Brigades Union to have people with the appropriate skills using the proper vehicles going out if incidents occur. It was not prepared to give me such an agreement. I could accept nothing less than an agreement that its people would be available. The union argued that its pickets are following the 24-hour watch system and that the same people who would be on watch are on pickets and could get straight on to the vehicles. I cannot and will not accept that we have to leave it to a debate at the fire station about who turns out for a particular incident. The House would never have accepted that proposal had I come here with it. That is why I rejected it, with great regret.

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I have to take into account what the commanders in the armed forces told my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about equipment. They made it clear that under these circumstances they would prefer to use the green goddesses because the technique is familiar and the same for all of them. The armed forces do not have the training to use the many different types of fire engine vehicle that are available. [Interruption.] I have to take the advice of the commanders, whose obligation is to see that their soldiers work in safe conditions. They do not want their men to work with unfamiliar vehicles. [Interruption.] That is the advice given to me. Two weeks' training is not adequate, whatever is said.

I informed the House that it took 12 weeks to be adequately trained on this equipment. There was some controversy about that, so I followed it up to see exactly what it was, and I was shown the sequence of events. That does not mean to say that it is impossible to train a person to do one particular operation, like driving the vehicle, in less time, and that is under way. Before the right hon. Gentleman asked his questions, I had already asked whether vehicles were available at the stations or various centres. The estimate was that there were over 100. There are various estimates. Some vehicles are operating, some are not. [Interruption.] I am not disputing what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Library; I am just saying that there are a number of different estimates depending on whether the vehicles are operating, their condition and so on. It is a matter of judgment. There are certainly more than 100. We have made a number of them, and training, available to the emergency command. Days ago they were distributed.

I have had responsibility for the fire service for less than 12 months and I am astounded—[Interruption.] Wait for the point. I am astounded that we have not been replacing the green goddesses with modern machines. For 20 years, the Opposition were in power—[Interruption.]—and if they had replaced the vehicles at a rate of 200 to 300 a year we would have had the modern fleet that we are talking about. That is the reality. We would have had the equipment and the training. [Interruption.] Each can make their point on that. The vehicles should have been replaced. I have no doubt about that. We will accept our responsibility for the few years when we did not replace them. Will the Opposition accept their responsibility for the 20 years when they were in charge? No, of course they will not.

I was asked what legal actions could be taken in these matters. Yes, the Attorney-General was asked to review this by one of the fire brigade authorities and he was reviewing whether an action could be taken. When he was first asked we were in negotiations with the unions, which decided to call off the strike. So on the first occasion the Attorney-General was actively involved. I know that he has been having discussions or an exchange of correspondence with the Opposition about this particular point. An action could be taken now. He has been considering how it would apply. Even an application under this injunction in these circumstances would probably be being processed by the court when the strike was over.

I want to bring home this point, which is a consideration of mine and hon. Members can reject it if they like. If the strike is 48 hours, I want those fire engines working from minute one after the strike. If the

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legal actions that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about are taken under these circumstances, or had been taken under the previous circumstances, we would face the difficult question of whether such vehicles were available or whether we had inflamed the strike. These are difficult decisions. The right hon. Gentleman can be indifferent to them. Do not forget, whatever the solution is, lives are saved if firemen can be prevented from going out on a long strike. That may be a matter of complete indifference to him, but it is not to me. I am constantly making that judgment.

The right hon. Gentleman raised some points about the RMT. What is happening is quite unacceptable when the Health and Safety Executive has made it clear that it is safe. The accusation is that it is possible that 20-odd stations may create certain difficulties. The transport authority has taken action to close them. What is unacceptable are the actions taken on the Piccadilly line and others, causing disruption when the Health and Safety Executive, an independent body set up by this House, has said that operation is safe. That cannot be condoned. It is unacceptable.

In conclusion, I have to make a balanced judgment about the 48-hour strike. All the options to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and which have been discussed between us are under continual review. What may be acceptable for a 48-hour stoppage, in the balance of judgment, may not remain acceptable in the balance of judgment for an eight-day dispute. It is all under review. Whatever I have to do, I will do it. Be clear about that.

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