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14 Nov 2002 : Column 147—continued

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that statement, and for providing a copy in advance. I join him in sending condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones in the tragedies of the past 18 hours. I also pay tribute to firefighter Robert Miller, and pass on my party's sympathies to his family and close colleagues as they come to terms with their loss.

The Deputy Prime Minister said that the strike was wrong, unnecessary and unreasonable, and that the FBU should end its action and return to the negotiating table. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches fully agree with that. Does he agree that the dispute is about modernisation as much as pay? Does he share my deep regret not only that the FBU leadership has blocked reform in recent months, but that it has been a major obstacle to modernisation for more than two decades? Will he reassure the House that the Government will urge the employers to stand firm in negotiations, and to insist that any pay settlement is inextricably linked to radical reform of working practices, as Bain set out?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister also reassure the House that, if the FBU were to call off the strike and agree to negotiate about real modernisation, the Government would find ways to fund conditional increases, over and above the offer proposed by Bain? Does he agree that, although new working practices can improve the quality and standard of protection for the public, the financial savings will be limited, especially in the first year or two? Would not it be sensible, therefore, for the Government to front-end funding to win a pay deal so that we can secure back-end savings and long-term reform?

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Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my view that it is unacceptable for London tube drivers to take unofficial secondary action, and will he condemn that? Will he confirm to the House once again, especially for the benefit of those on the Conservative Front Bench, that our armed forces are not seizing control of fire appliances at fire stations because military commanders have asked specifically not to have to do that? Is it not disgraceful that party political points are being made over this issue? However, will he keep the matter under review with those senior military personnel? If circumstances change, does he recognise that their judgment may need to be reviewed?

Finally, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what action he intends to take to support the police in tracking down hoax callers? Given the fabulous efforts of our armed forces and police, and the risk to public safety, is not it right that anyone caught making hoax calls should be punished severely?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is how a serious Opposition make a contribution to the debate. Anyone who reads Hansard will be able to contrast the two approaches that have been adopted. People will make their judgment accordingly. That is why the Conservatives are going down and the Liberals are going up.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his supportive remarks, and for his call to the FBU to return to negotiations. The general secretary of the FBU has said that the union has proposals for modernisation and that they have been put forward, but they were not put forward to Bain. If those proposals are available, and if the general secretary agrees with some of the Bain report's implications, why does he not put them on the table? Even if he decides to go for an eight-day strike—and we must be clear that no one wants that—there would still be seven or eight days in which he could sit down and talk, talk, talk. He should put as much energy into talking as into the walking that is happening at the moment. He should come down to London from Edinburgh and begin meetings with employers to talk about the FBU's modernisation proposals. I do not see anything wrong with that, and it is what the public would expect. We could then see the true nature of the FBU's proposals, and compare them with Bain's. I hope that that is what the general secretary will do, and indeed I appeal yet again to the union to take that approach.

I certainly make it clear that modernisation will have to happen. The general secretary of the FBU has told me that the union has its own modernisation proposals, and that the union is not scared of modernising. To that, I say, XFine, then pay can be related to modernisation." We have to negotiate that.

As to whether extra money should be made available, I set up the Bain inquiry because there were so many disputes about what could be saved through modernisation, and about what efficiency meant. The Bain report makes it clear that all its recommendations have been agreed within the industry, but that they have failed to be implemented. That is a serious matter, but Bain makes it clear that it is possible to negotiate on these matters and that pay rises can be paid for through modernisation. There is an issue about the forward and back funding of the rises. I understand the point that the

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hon. Gentleman makes, but the firefighters should go in and negotiate. If they do not agree with Bain, they can walk out again, if they want, but they should at least talk to him about their proposals and his proposals. That is why we always have inquiries in this country—to arrive at an objective judgment. Governments are bound to take account of that objective judgment. That is our position.

As for whether 11 per cent. is adequate, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it is a very generous offer because the firefighters are a special case. We have connected it with the modernisation proposals. I ask him to take into account the consequential effect on public pay. It is all right to say, XWhat is a fireman worth?" but why should a nurse not say, XWhat is a nurse worth?"? If nurses walked out of the wards, there would be more deaths and accidents than when firefighters walk out. There is a special obligation. That is why we treat certain groups in a special way. I cannot ignore the consequences for public pay by simply offering 11 per cent. We have already seen that some of the firefighters at airports are now saying, XIf they can get a rise, why shouldn't we have it?" The effects are complicated, and the Government have to justify what they are doing. The issue is not solely about firefighters, although the offer is generous, but about public pay.

What the hon. Gentleman said about the military is right. We have to take the military into account. The hoax calls are deplorable; I hope that we catch more hoax callers. However, hoax calls do not happen only during disputes. Many firefighters face the problem all the time. They have to rush out with machinery and risk their lives because someone has made a hoax call. Something like 8 per cent. of all call-outs are hoaxes. That is unacceptable.

I have made clear my view about the underground.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I thank my right hon. Friend for making it so clear that his approach to this regrettable dispute is firmly based on the sanctity of life, in marked contrast to that of Conservative Members who, despite their newly found concerns for the frail, the vulnerable and the elderly, were perfectly prepared to let them die from hypothermia winter after winter when they were in government. What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with London Underground to ensure that there is a better than adequate contingency plan to provide services to Londoners should the regrettable secondary action continue among some drivers?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks; I agree with them. Discussions have taken place between London Underground and my right hon. Friends the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and the Minister for Transport. I have had some exchanges with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and across the Government about the matter. The action by London Underground staff is unacceptable and unjustified.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the excellent work done by the retained firemen in my

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constituency in Terrington St. Clement, Massingham and Sandringham? They do a superb job. Does he agree that there is an argument that they should have access to some of the modern equipment in the main stations in the vicinity? Will he consider that point?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not know the exact circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The retained firefighters are mainly in rural areas such as he represents. I give credit to the people who assist the fire brigades. They have agreed not to go out on strike, and they want to meet the need for fire services. Something like 60 per cent. of areas have some retained firefighters. The retained firefighters are divided; some are members of the FBU, some are not. They have made a conscious decision through their organisation to keep on talking rather than go on strike. That is certainly helping in the area that I represent, and I offer my thanks to them.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): The people who should be condemned today are the hoax callers, not the firefighters, who feel that they have no alternative but to take this strike action. I spoke to firefighters in my constituency and urged them to wait for Bain. I was surprised at the support that I received, but now they feel deeply angered because Bain has dismissed without explanation their fundamental case that there should be recognition of the increased sophistication and complexity of their role since their pay formula was agreed 25 years ago. Does my right hon. Friend understand that there can be no basis for negotiations unless that omission is recognised? I agree that there is need for reform, but we must understand that the impressive nature of our fire service is due to the interdependence and camaraderie of our firefighters. That must be defended at all costs.

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