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14 Nov 2002 : Column 157—continued

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): May I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the effect of section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992? It says:


believing


is committing a criminal offence. May I also remind him that the Attorney-General has a right to seek an injunction? May I ask what the right hon. Gentleman is doing to enforce the criminal law, and thus give substance to his assurance that he is trying to save lives?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Lawyers always seem to talk in a very pompous way when they get on to the law—and the right hon. and learned Gentleman is well known for it in the House. I will take the advice of the Attorney-General on these matters, as he has been looking at them. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to point out exactly what the law is—often, lawyers parrot the law and assume that it will solve everything if I go outside and say, XThe law says this and everything is okay." Parliament is here because we know the difficulties; people do not necessarily accept those propositions. I prefer the negotiated way.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the sanctity of life. If I avoid disputes instead of—[Interruption.] Just keep your ears open and listen instead of shouting out.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): How about an answer?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am giving the answer. The Opposition are entitled to ask the question and I am entitled to give the answer.

I have made the choice to try, through negotiations, to prevent disputes rather than inflame them, but I do not ignore the fact that the Law Officers—in this case the Attorney-General, as I said in my statement—are considering all those options. He was first asked to do so when I was trying to get the union to cancel the strike. That is a classic case. Which would the right hon. and learned Gentleman have preferred—using the law or cancelling the strike?

Mr. Swayne: So what is the answer to the question?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Swayne, you must be quiet. You must restrain yourself.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): As the vast majority of industrial disputes are settled around a table by negotiation, sometimes after many painful weeks for both sides, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will

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keep open the option for the FBU to participate in the Bain inquiry, if it chooses to do so, to represent the wishes of rank and file firefighters?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand my right hon. Friend's point, particularly considering his background and experience in these matters, which involve the conflict of the law, industrial rights and all the rights that we are talking about. I would like to avoid such conflict and I will do everything I can to do so, but I will not ask the FBU to do that.

I made it clear that the FBU should give evidence to Bain, but the union has demonised the inquiry, as it does not think that Bain can do the job. I do not ask the FBU to join the inquiry now—take the proposals to the employers and negotiate with them. They are the ones who implement firefighters' conditions and they are the ones who are responsible for finding agreement.

The FBU should negotiate with the employers. I appeal yet again to the union and say, XIf you don't want to go through Bain, show us your alternative by going to the employers with your modernisation proposals." Andy Gilchrist has been saying such things constantly on television. Start talking; less of the walking.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the alarming gaps in fire cover in some parts of the country? I do not expect him to know the details of the geography of my constituency, but the town of Frome and the villages around it are being served by a green goddess based in Yeovil, which is an hour's drive away, if a vehicle is available. I am told that nearer green goddesses stationed in Bath or Trowbridge cannot attend fires in Somerset because they cannot cross brigade borders. Is that correct? If so, can he do something about it?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman raises the inadequacies of a system that does not provide a full fire service, and the whole House is aware of that. We constantly review that system as incidents develop and we will keep in mind the point that he has made.

The hon. Gentleman makes a point about retained fire workers—

Mr. Heath: Green goddesses.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am sorry. On green goddesses crossing lines, we will take the hon. Gentleman's point into account. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to see exactly what the position is. I take the point that he makes and shall see whether I can get him better information.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are still hon. Members wishing to question the Deputy Prime Minister. I am mindful of the Modernisation Committee's recommendation that one hour should be allocated for a statement, but in view of the serious nature of this statement I intend to allow questions to continue. However, I need the co-operation of hon. Members. They must put one question to the Deputy Prime

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Minister. They must not enter into a speech. Even so, hon. Members may be disappointed as I may not be able to call everyone.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): At the close of my right hon. Friend's statement, he said to the Fire Brigades Union, XTalk, don't walk". In his statement on 22 October, he said that negotiations should take place with the employers. Today, he has said that they should take place with Bain and the employers. However, the most successful negotiations were those on 24 and 25 October, in which he was involved. Is that option still open?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I take your point, Mr. Speaker, about modernisation. I cannot be critical; I voted against a number of the proposals.

On negotiations, I am saying that the union can go to the employer. I was not actively involved in the negotiations in the sense of deciding what should be offered or rejected. I simply pressed both parties to go back to the table. The one contribution I made was because of the difficulty of making an assessment about efficiencies. I needed an independent body because both sides were giving conflicting evidence. Hence I set up the Bain inquiry. It was not due to report until December, but I got it to agree to be ready by 11 November. I was not involved in those negotiations in any way.

Negotiations did take place. There was an improvement in some of the conditions that were offered, but the employers said when the report came out that they would have to recognise the Bain proposals. That is their right. They just said, XLet us negotiate on that." Now, if they have the fire brigades' modernisation proposals, perhaps they can get back to the table and do as I said. There should be talk, not walk.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): As firefighting is both an emergency and an essential service, once this dispute is over will the Deputy Prime Minister consider, either through legislation or by voluntary but binding agreements, putting firefighters on a par with the police, the armed forces and other key workers and seek an end to strikes in that sector?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is true that, particularly in those sectors, people do not want strikes. They are different. They threaten life; there is no doubt about it. That is why those sectors arrive at those conditions. However, the agreement on pay has meant that we have had 25 years without a strike and that should not be ignored.

Mr. Burns: Local strikes.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, there have been a few local ones, but in the main if one can use negotiation instead of the law, that is useful. However, as I have said, we will review all—I mean all—circumstances arising out of the dispute.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I agree with my right hon. Friend and share his hope that there will be a sane and negotiated settlement. A great

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many of my constituents hear all these pay claims and would love to have a contract that allowed them to be paid for the hours that they sleep while they are at work. Should we not address that?

The Deputy Prime Minister: When many of our constituents read about what is being offered, they find it difficult to understand why it is being rejected. Indeed, most of the television representation is from London fire stations and London firefighters, who now get #28,000, #29,000 and almost #30,000, so it is difficult to understand why they are rejecting the offer. All we can do is to make the case that we think that it is a fair offer, that they should seriously consider negotiating, and that they should take into account the pay increases that we are agreeing to give to the nurses, which has to be a comparison. After all, they treat the firefighters when they are injured in their dangerous occupation.


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