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14 Nov 2002 : Column 160—continued

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Has the Deputy Prime Minister assessed whether firefighters are vulnerable to action under human rights legislation in the event of loss of life or damage to property? In the event of an eight-day strike, is he considering calling a state of emergency?

The Deputy Prime Minister: All these matters of liability, involving not only people who may have suffered damage, but those who are playing a part in the dispute, are constantly under review. When it comes to human rights in one form or another, there must be a balance. It is claimed that the right to go on strike is also a human right that should not be denied. I am doing my best to find the proper balance.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, for the first time in more than 20 years, public sector pay is increasing faster than private sector pay? In those circumstances, if all public sector workers were to address their problems in the same way as the FBU has done, the only losers would be the public sector, although the Conservatives would continue to smile about it.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am sure that that is a serious threat. On public sector pay, we can claim that there are now 200,000 more workers in the public sector and that their pay is increasing faster than those in the private sector, although to be fair about that, it may have occurred over a longer period, rather than in the past year or two. However, I do not think that any previous Government could have claimed that since they came to power, public sector workers had had wage increases far in excess of inflation in order to help them catch up with the private sector. I am bound to say that that does not seem to register in any of the pay claims. There comes a time when the Government have to do what they consider fair, and that is where we are at the moment.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): Given that the Army will be overstretched, early detection of fire will be even more critical. Will the Deputy Prime Minister discuss with Government Departments the possibility of committing extra resources to social services in order to

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ensure that smoke detectors are installed in the homes of the elderly and vulnerable, particularly those who live alone?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Government have been following that policy for some time, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, I shall revisit it and see whether we can do more. Tragically, one of the deaths recorded last night was that of someone in those circumstances who informed us of the threat to his life by telling the authorities that there was a fire. We have to recognise that the fact that the vehicle took quite a long time to get there undoubtedly contributed to his death. That is all the more reason why the firefighters should be talking not walking.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Can I tell my right hon. Friend how disgusted and ashamed I am as a Strathclyde Member of yesterday's 300 hoax callers? As people are saying in Glasgow, they are nothing but scum and should be treated as such. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Army firefighters crossing picket lines will only intensify the situation and we will fall into the trap of some trade unionists and Conservatives who wish to make the dispute worse?

The Deputy Prime Minister: What my hon. Friend said about the 300 hoaxers expresses how we all feel, although I could not possibly say that. To be fair, only Strathclyde has made a judgment about that; I am sure that every part of the country is afflicted by hoax callers. We have made it clear that we condemn them and we need to stiffen up the approach of the courts in dealing with these people when they are caught.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Not a single green goddess is stationed in my constituency today, putting the lives of my constituents at risk. The Deputy Prime Minister said today that if the Government faced an eight-day strike, they might have to review many of the issues that, until now, have been kept off the table. Does that include giving the Army access to the modern firefighting equipment that lies idle in my constituency today?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening to what I said. I have made it clear that the constraint on the use of the vehicles is not simply a question of access. It is the judgment of the armed services that we could not train enough people to man all 3,000 vehicles, even if we could acquire them. We have tried to get a proper balance, and the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that any system of fire cover does not prevent lives from being lost. Some 10 or 11 lives are lost on average a week. In those circumstances, we must do our best to try to avoid any further deaths. However, the Army officers and command structure have given us their advice and we are doing our best to provide them with the best equipment. They agree with the balance that we have at the moment.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I spent two hours with a dozen south Derbyshire firefighters on

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Monday evening. Is there not one message that we can give to them as trade unionists—that no sensible trade union enters a dispute without a clear exit strategy, something that appears to be sadly lacking in the FBU at the moment?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I must admit that, as an ex-trade union official and negotiator, I know that one tries to keep a back door open. I thought perhaps that the FBU had one, but as we went on, we heard that the claim was 40 per cent. or nothing, do or die. It is clear that we cannot and will not pay that and that the money will not be available. It is a matter of judgment as to what can be arrived at in negotiations. The union has been made an offer, but it has kept on demanding 40 per cent. I hear from the television that the union might come down further. It may be referring to the preferred option that I supposedly intervened to give, but I never intervened. If the union is in the mood to negotiate on modernisation—the union has said that in the last 24 hours, and we have not heard that before—it must get back to the table with the employers and discuss it. Don't walk, talk; that is still our position.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The last time the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement on the fire dispute, he said clearly that the reason why military personnel could not have access to fire appliances was an operational one because they were needed for day-to-day use. Today, he has explained on several occasions that the Government are not seeking that access on military advice. When was that military advice given—months ago, when the dispute was flagged up, or since he last made a statement to the House?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We made clear the position on appliances months ago and also on what advice the armed services gave us. There are two connected points in the hon. Lady's question. The first is the availability of the vehicles and whether there is any further constraint, and the other is whether we barge in and take over the vehicles. That seems to lie behind some of the questions—a sense of, XLet's go in and grab them." However, even if we did, we would not have the people to man them. We have to make a balanced judgment. If the union had called off its strike, our people would not have been threatened. I agree that there is now a dispute and I am asking the union to come back to the table. At the end of the day, our policy has saved lives. The sanctity of life is the issue, not the sanctity of the picket line, although that seems to be behind most of the inquiries.

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): I agree entirely that the FBU's claim is unreasonable, and that view is now shared by the majority of my constituents, although there is widespread admiration for the work of firefighters. Should not the FBU return to the negotiating table at the earliest opportunity, in the interests of public safety and common sense, to resolve this matter with more modest and realistic expectations of what it can achieve?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree, and, I hope that that has been the core of my message today—that the union should get back to the negotiating table. That is

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what has pushed me through the last few weeks. I see hopeful signs during the dispute, as some have talked about a claim of less than 40 per cent. and about fire brigade modernisation. That provides us with an opportunity to go back to the table. The employers and the union should each find out exactly what the other is saying. They should not talk about confusion and make accusations about each other. They must go in, clear it up, negotiate and talk, not walk.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the high concentration of oil refineries, power stations, chemical plants and other dangerous installations in my constituency. I hope that he will appreciate the concerns of residents living in their shadow. What more can be done to persuade Humberside fire brigade to react if there is an incident at one of them?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a fair point about an area with which we are both familiar, because our constituencies adjoin the Humber, where many of the chemical and petrol complexes are sited. I have no doubt whatever that if a major incident occurred, many fire workers would turn out. The Flixborough incident many years ago is a good example. I have no doubt that many of them would say, XLet's get out there and do it." They did it last night. I cannot accept, however, that I should have to ring up some local committee to find out whether they are going to turn out. I could not come to the House with such a proposal. I say again to the Fire Brigades Union that it has an obligation to allow those who want to attend an incident to do so. There should be an agreement about that. I understand that an agreement was reached in Northern Ireland about how stations might be manned in certain circumstances, but the national body's intervention put an end to that 24 hours later. That is not acceptable.

Our responsibility—that of not only the Government but the whole House—is to maximise safety. We have the responsibility to defend our citizens, and I want to make it clear to the Fire Brigades Union, the House and everyone else that whatever we have to do to meet that requirement, I will do it and I will be accountable to the House for it.

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