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14 Nov 2002 : Column 150—continued

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not disagree with what my hon. Friend says about solidarity among firefighters at the fire station. I think we are all aware of it. I am a great admirer of firefighters: I think they are exceptional, and last night, notwithstanding the dispute, some wanted to go out and help. However, I am facing a dispute between employers and employees, and little information is available to allow a judgment on the competing claims.

I set up the Bain inquiry. It would have been helpful if the fire workers had given the inquiry their evidence on all these complex issues. Instead, they attacked the inquiry and members of it, and said that they would not accept what it said. It was not merely a case of their not presenting the complex arguments. Then, when the inquiry's report was delivered, they refused to discuss it. I cannot accept that there is no forum for them to make their case. Other fire workers said, XLet us wait for the Bain report," but it was not discussed because their colleagues were not prepared to accept it.

These fire workers wanted a 40 per cent. increase in their basic pay. As I have made clear time and again, that is not possible. The fire workers have not deviated: they have said that it must be 40 per cent. or nothing. When I said that in the event of a dispute lives would be endangered, they said, XIt is not our responsibility. The Government and local authorities are responsible for safety." That is a very dangerous argument, and the fire workers should think carefully before going too far along that road.

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The fire workers have been given one opportunity, and we are now giving them another. If they have modernisation proposals that they could not give to Bain and did not want to discuss, let them put those proposals to the employers, and start talking. We know that if they talk rather than walk, more people will live.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Deputy Prime Minister's remarks about the sanctity of life will be received with some interest by members of my old regiment, the Light Dragoons, who are now deployed in Cleveland. They have been training for months in preparation for the strike, and we now discover that between 100 and 400 vehicles are available for them and the rest of the Army to train on—at a time when they might have done better to train in preparation for enforcing the United Nations Security Council resolution.

It is contemptible of the Deputy Prime Minister, and particularly contemptible of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), to hide behind loyal comments from senior members of the armed services, and for the Deputy Prime Minister to use them as justification for not being prepared to cross a picket line and make those vehicles available to members of the armed forces. It is disgraceful that he should argue that the Army should have spent millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to produce 800 new fire engines on an MOD estate just because he and his Ministers were not prepared to cross a picket line. He should not seek to hide behind the armed forces in this outrageous way.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I would have expected the hon. Gentleman, given his military experience, to understand what I said. I said that I would take the advice of the military commanders, who say that our responsibility is maximum safety for the soldiers in this difficult situation. They have concluded that it is better for training to take place on the green goddesses than for extra fire engines to be used.

Incidentally, 400 vehicles are not available. Some are being taken apart—[Interruption.] As I have said, we have agreed with the military that they will train some of their people to use these vehicles. Some have already been distributed, while others are available to those in emergency command to distribute as they see fit. We are reviewing the situation constantly and want to improve on it, but when a military commander tells me that he is concerned about his members I think very carefully before ignoring such advice. I suspect that when the hon. Gentleman was in the Army he would not have ignored it either.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I have enormous respect for the specialist work that firefighters do throughout the country.

It is clear that at some stage a negotiated settlement will be necessary, and I thank my right hon. Friend for the work he has done so far. I also thank John Monks of the TUC for his attempts to bring people together in the dispute. Now that we face such a serious situation, nothing is more important than getting people back

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around the table. Let us look at what can be achieved. Let us concentrate on where Bain gives grounds for agreement, rather than on the disagreements. I understand that that there is agreement in respect of community fire safety, the fire cover review and personal development plans. Will my right hon. Friend take account of this appeal to the FBU and to him to bring all the parties together to prevent further strike action?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. The essential point is that the issue will be determined by continuing negotiations. I think that we are all aware of that. I have always felt that we have tried to keep open all avenues for negotiation, as that is the way forward. Indeed, getting a cancellation of 10 of the first 12 strike days was a contribution in that regard that a lot of people, including the FBU, worked to achieve. I am grateful to them. She was right to point out that the FBU agrees with a number of aspects of modernisation, even though it has not put that to the Bain committee. I can only reiterate what I have said: immediately after the dispute—I agree that it is unlikely to call it off now—the union should go straight into negotiation. I shall make it clear to the employers and the general secretary of the FBU, as I have been doing from time to time, that the way in which people reach a settlement is by talking.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): May I thank both my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and the Deputy Prime Minister for the sentiments that they expressed about Mr. Bob Miller, my constituent who died a little while ago in a fire in the city of Leicester? Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the strike, which I happen to think is misguided, I have in my constituency another family without a father and a wife without a husband. We should all bear that in mind when we get overexcited about some of the issues under discussion.

I should like to make a practical suggestion to the Deputy Prime Minister. Will he discuss with the Lord Chancellor whether it would be appropriate for the Lord Chief Justice to issue sentencing guidance on cases involving hoax callers so that those who are caught making a hoax call, and those who contemplate making one, realise that they will be given an exemplary custodial sentence, irrespective of whether the defendant is under or over 18?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The whole House will recall the loss suffered by the family of Bob Miller and tributes have been paid by the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister. That loss emphasises the dangers of the situation and reaffirms my dedication to avoiding any dispute if that is at all possible. That is a matter of balanced judgment and I have given mine to the House today.

With regard to the Lord Chancellor and discussions about the matters to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred, there is no doubt that we want to ensure that exemplary sentencing takes place. We have already had some discussions with the Attorney-General. The Lord Chancellor is actively aware of that, and those at this morning's Cobra meeting talked about re-emphasising that aspect and using exemplary

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sentencing against people caught in that situation. I shall take on board what the hon. and learned Gentleman said.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the problem with the Bain inquiry appears to be that the union has had no confidence in it from an early stage, due to statements allegedly made by members of the commission? Does he accept that, if the FBU has proposals for modernisation, it makes sense even at this late stage to see whether a commission can be re-formed in which all parties have some confidence? That may be the way forward in this dispute.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have to refute the suggestion that members of the Bain committee made comments that were anti in any way. In fact, the opposite was the case. It was recorded in the press that members of the FBU, including the general secretary, approached one of the independent members appointed by the TUC and made some remarks, had some exchanges and then publicly launched an attack on the committee. That was a deplorable action and I have made that clear to the FBU.

I do not think that there are any other examples of comments made by the committee members against any of the parties to the dispute. Indeed, they have done a wonderful job in a very short time to give us advice on how we can make a judgment about modernisation in relation to efficiency and pay. I congratulate them on that work. The employers accept it and the Government accept the framework for negotiations and discussions set out by Bain, but the suggestion that another body should be set up because one party opposes it—it has done so bitterly throughout the process—would be a vote of no confidence in George Bain, which he does not warrant. We have the menu and he has produced what he thinks we can consider in relation to improving efficiency. If the FBU has a suggestion that it could not give to the committee, it should come and give it to the employers and start discussing it.

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