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14 Nov 2002 : Column 153—continued

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I am sorry that the FBU has decided to go ahead with the strike. I believe that there will be a negotiated settlement and that the only way in which to negotiate it is to get round the table. Not many days ago, Andy Gilchrist told my right hon. Friend to put down the megaphone and pick up the telephone. It is now Andy Gilchrist's turn to put down the megaphone and get back round the table.

It is disgraceful that FBU leaders will not reach an agreement with my right hon. Friend about cover for major incidents. I cannot believe that ordinary firefighters in my constituency and throughout the country will sit back and do nothing in a major emergency. If the FBU leaders will not sit round the table and reach an agreement, will my right hon. Friend make a direct appeal to ordinary firefighters?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive remarks. I read in the papers that Andy Gilchrist had suggested that I picked up the telephone and put down the megaphone. That sounds a little strange from Mr. Gilchrist, but I shall not go into

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that. The purpose of one call was to discuss his suggestion that there was not enough safety cover to deal with serious incidents. He was worried that all his members would come running and that there would be no control system. We met the FBU on 21 October and said that we would set up the control organisation. We have done that, and we now have to ask, XWhere are your members?"

As we now know, Andy Gilchrist cannot give an undertaking that members will be available. He confirmed that in a conversation this morning. I stress that the organisation is there. As Andy Gilchrist continues to remind us, his members are humanitarians. If, therefore, they come to help—and I am sure that they will—the organisation is in place. That is not satisfactory for planning emergency provisions, but we have to operate within those limited circumstances. I have appealed to other fire workers, and I have clearly stated, XTalk, not walk". I hope that they will hold more debates about the matter after the 48-hour strike and before they commit themselves to a dispute of a further eight days.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I listened with interest to the Deputy Prime Minister. The armed forces are working not only with green goddesses but with advanced equipment such as breathing apparatus and rescue tenders. However, does he agree that the armed forces knew at the end of July that this situation would occur? Is it not therefore a disgrace that advance training did not start then so as better to preserve the sanctity of life?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The military people advised me that training did begin then. It was a tremendous operation to give 18,000 people some sort of training. We take advice and tell the armed forces when a dispute is likely to occur. We acted on the assumption that there would be a dispute, while doing everything possible to try to avoid it. The armed forces were aware of the proposed dispute and they undertook the training.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman commented on what I perhaps failed to mention. People refer to 850 green goddesses, but there are as many as 400 other specialist vehicles with specialist teams. They act as back-ups to the green goddesses and have special cutting equipment and breathing apparatus.

I stress that we took the advice of the military on training, and I believe that we were right to do that.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): I recognise that a 40 per cent. claim was never realistic, but does my right hon. Friend accept that the firefighters have very strong feelings and that they have not taken action lightly? They believe that they are underpaid and undervalued, and we should bear that in mind. Leaving aside the Tories' anti-union rhetoric, which one would expect and which almost resembles a Daily Mail editorial, to what extent does my right hon. Friend believe that there is a possibility of reaching a realistic pay settlement that is higher than that offered by the employers but far short of 40 per cent.?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I do not doubt the firefighters'

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strength of feeling. It can be seen on television and when one meets them. They feel wronged, but if they feel that they have been paid so poorly why did they agree to the pay formula in 1978? Their general secretary said about that formula:

If it was so bad over all those years, why did the general secretary say that in July 2000? I am not saying that he may not have a case, but it cannot be said that they have been subjected to decades of poor pay, as he seems to suggest, otherwise they would have sought to change it.

We cannot always assume that the firefighters' income is their basic pay, and that may be an influencing factor. The shift system means that they have days off when they can pursue further employment. I do not condemn that in any way, but when considering a fire worker's pay I might have to ask about his total pay. I do not have the necessary evidence, so I asked George Bain to look at the circumstances. He compared firefighters' wages with those of other public sector workers, and he took into account the fact that they have the best pension in the public sector, with retirement at the age of 53 or 55 on two thirds of pay—it sounds like MPs' pensions, but I leave that aside—and payments for medical prescriptions and eye and dental treatment. Presumably, those are all considerations when assessing the rewards of the job. If they did not have an overtime ban they could have been using some of that payment to supplement their pay. They chose not to do so, but they cannot now blame us and say that the formula that they agreed and the payments that they have been receiving have been so wrong for so long.

I accepted that the firefighters had an argument, so I set up the Bain inquiry, which will be reporting in mid-December and will give us more information. However, the one thing that I have found in this strike is the lack of any adequate information about pay and conditions and the efficiency and effectiveness of working practices. That is what George Bain will provide, and it is right that he should so. It is called modernisation. If the firefighters wish, they can get a lot more money for that, but they must negotiate.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): Will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House an assurance that if military commanders request the use of specialist equipment that happens to be stored inside fire stations, the Government will not stand in their way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is important that military personnel should have access to specialist equipment. They are doing the job and facing the risk. That is why we have an extra 400 vehicles providing specialist equipment. In addition, some of the equipment on the red fire engines will be made available if they so wish. For example, red fire engines have ladders that extend to two floors, whereas those on the green goddesses extend to only one. Those facilities are available, and they can make a judgment about them. We will try to give them the best possible equipment, but the constraint is not so much the vehicles as manning them with specialists, as we have been discussing.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): My right hon. Friend will know that there have been rumours that the

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Government intervened earlier in the dispute to stop a 16 per cent. increase. Will he take this opportunity categorically to inform the House whether that happened? Does he agree that last year, after 11 September, the firefighters were universally regarded by the public, certainly in Britain, as among the greatest workers, and that they still are regarded as great heroes by the public—but that they think they are lions led by donkeys?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, I certainly would not agree with the last comment. I believe in negotiation, and perhaps that is better done by lions. I have no doubt that people regard fire workers with great awe and admiration. Sometimes I read that train drivers or building industry workers are at more risk, and it is true that more of them have died, but the difference between them and the fire workers is that fire workers walk into danger and do not run away from it. That is the special nature of their contribution and that is why we admire them. They act for the community—I need push that point no further. The public have a growing concern about the strike, but none should doubt our admiration for the fire workers.

With regard to what has been said about the 16 per cent. offer, I should make it absolutely clear that that is a load of rubbish put out by the FBU. It knows it and I have talked to it and we have agreed on that, but there is an element of propaganda in these situations.

Let me put it on the record that I did ask the local authorities about this matter when I first read of it. Indeed, on 8 August, when I first met the FBU general secretary, he asked me whether I had intervened to stop an agreement on 16 per cent. I told him, XAbsolutely not." Of course, I then went to the employers and said, XDid you make any offer in any way of 16 per cent. to the fire people?" They said, XNo, but in the earlier discussions we had looked at getting 16 per cent." That is all about hey diddle diddle in the middle—#25,000 instead of #30,000—so we can see how they probably arrived at that figure in the current state of negotiations in Britain. They said that it would cost so much; the full claim would cost #450 million. Even if that were halved, there is not the money for such funding in the local authority settlement.

I made it clear to Andy Gilchrist on 8 August, XIf you're asking for 40 per cent., if you're asking me if the Government are involved, and if you continue asking for 40 per cent., by definition the Government are involved because local authorities have to ask me whether they can have the extra money." For that reason, we have made it clear that we will not provide that extra money, which offends against the policy and agreements in the local authority settlements. However, there are no strings to negotiating within that framework, which has produced the figure of 4 per cent.

The fire people were never, ever offered 16 per cent. Some employers suggested round the side, XLook, we were going to try to give you 16 per cent., but the Government stopped us." There must be a definition: there was no intervention whatever from me, but it may be that people felt it was easier to say that the

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Government would not provide the money. It was never offered, though. I never intervened and I was never actively involved in such an offer.

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