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20 Nov 2002 : Column 634—continued

Fire Dispute

11. Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): What discussions he had with local authorities in England and Wales prior to the firefighters' strike as regards local emergency contingency plans. [81548]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Local Government Association has been closely involved in detailed contingency planning. Guidance has been issued to local authorities in England and Wales regarding the firefighters' strike.

Adam Price : I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he confirm whether the Government have an emergency contingency plan to meet any pay agreement? Will he

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comment on reports that any pay deal will be self-financing, which will, of course, involve a cut in level and quality of service to meet any pay demand?

Mr. Leslie: The whole House will accept the fact that we all want the talks that might be under way between the Fire Brigades Union and the employers to succeed. We hope that those talks will be constructive and will lead to the strikes being called off.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [80903] Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 20 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today, and I will be travelling to Prague this afternoon to attend the NATO summit.

Helen Jackson: Now that the weapons inspectors are back in Iraq with a new United Nations Security Council resolution, when my right hon. Friend goes to Prague this afternoon will he ensure that NATO not only discusses its readiness for a negative report back from Mr. Blix, but holds out the possibility of a positive resolution of this frightful crisis that could lead to a peaceful outcome for the whole middle east region?

The Prime Minister: I would certainly agree with my hon. Friend. If at all possible, we should have a peaceful resolution of this issue, but the way to get that is for Saddam Hussein to co-operate fully with the inspectors, who are back in Iraq under UN mandate. That co-operation has not just got to be about access to sites and presidential palaces; it has also got to mean a full and honest declaration on his part of the weapons of mass destruction that he has. If he co-operates fully with the inspection team, mandated by the UN, there will be a peaceful resolution of this dispute, but, in the end, that decision is for him. I hope that he chooses peace rather than conflict.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The whole House will agree that our country must be fully prepared for the awful possibility of a terrorist attack, but while the National Audit Office has found some improvement in the readiness of the national health service to respond to such an event, does the Prime Minister share my concern and that of others that more than a third of ambulance trusts are now not well prepared for chemical, biological or radioactive incidents?

The Prime Minister: We should make it very clear that what Sir John Bourn from the NAO actually said was that there had been immense improvements in the planning and procedures since 11 September to make sure that our emergency services can cope. Of course we

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carry on working on all the issues that were raised in his report, although I stress to the House—I hope that the House and the country understand this—that there will always be a limit to how far we are able to prepare against a terrorist attack, but in so far as we possibly can, we are prepared.

Mr. Duncan Smith: But Sir John also reported that there are quite significant areas of responsibility where things have got worse. The NAO found that between February and October of this year, the readiness of ambulance trusts had worsened, as had the readiness of major hospitals to deal with radioactive incidents. Why does the Prime Minister think that that has happened?

The Prime Minister: What Sir John actually said—I quote him specifically—was:


It is true that he goes on to say that there are areas where it has got to do more. Those are precisely the areas that we are working on, but it is irresponsible and wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that the NHS has not made every effort to do what it can.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The report said, quite categorically, that readiness in certain areas had actually got worse since the NAO first reported on them, but when it comes to terrorism, surely it is not just the NHS that needs proper co-ordination. In the past week, a press release on terrorism has been issued by the Home Office and then retracted; we have heard reports from security sources of planned attacks on the tube that have since had to be denied. Given the need to avoid confusion, on which we all agree, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the proposal of the Select Committee on Defence, supported by ourselves, for a dedicated Cabinet Minister with responsibility for those matters?

The Prime Minister: First, the reports about the potential for an attack on the underground were not from the security services; they were reports in newspapers. I hope that, throughout the subsequent period, we keep in mind that distinction. Secondly, I do not believe that we need a dedicated Cabinet Minister in charge of such matters. A perfectly good operation exists: the Home Secretary chairs the relevant Cabinet Committees, and a system is in place headed by Sir David Omand, who is in charge of security and intelligence co-ordination. That works extremely well, and our security services and our police do a superb job of protecting this country. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that, in these days, when virtually every major country around the world is receiving intelligence about potential threats, it is extremely important not only to make every preparation but to make sure that we do not unnecessarily alarm people.

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Mr. Duncan Smith: This is an issue of co-ordination, and the Defence Committee said about the Home Secretary:

The Committee Chairman also said that he felt that there was a Xlack of grip" overall. The Prime Minister should be aware that that lack of grip is particularly worrying as we head towards the possibility of an eight-day fire strike. Will he therefore confirm that, as matters stand, during the strike, it will be left to individual firefighters to decide who should respond to any terrorist emergency? Does he agree that that is utterly unacceptable in the current circumstances?

The Prime Minister: I reject entirely the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there is not a proper grip on security and intelligence co-ordination. As I said a moment or two ago, our security services do an excellent job on behalf of this country. Incidentally, this country, as we all know, has long experience of dealing with terrorism. I do not believe that our system offers a useful analogy with the system in the United States, which he suggests that we adopt. That is a completely different, federal system, with far-flung states that have their own bureaucracies and administrations. That is a completely different situation from our own. I believe that our security services and the Home Secretary have done absolutely everything that they can. In respect of the firefighters' strike, of course, it must be for us to determine whether there is a major emergency.

Mr. Duncan Smith: If the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Oh yes. If the Prime Minister, as he has said, leaves that to the Government to determine, and there is no agreement with the firefighters, will he make it absolutely clear today that he will use the emergency powers at his disposal to ensure public safety in the event of a terrorist attack occurring during the strike?

The Prime Minister: As we have said on many occasions, we will use whatever powers we need. We have to make sure that the public are properly protected. We have had a 48-hour strike already, however, and during that strike, as a result of the preparations that were made, the military did a superb job of protecting the people of this country. In the event of a major emergency, of course, there is a procedure in place, which will be maintained whether or not there is a firefighters' strike.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister has not answered the question. People want to know why the Government will now leave it to the firefighters to decide whether there is an emergency. The public want to know whether their safety will be put first. The problem is that, throughout this period, we have had different answers from different Ministers on whether more money is available for the strikers, and on the number of fire engines available for training. Only last week, Lord Falconer said that troops would cross the picket lines. Today, that was completely denied by the Chief of the

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Defence Staff, who said that they will not cross picket lines. Does not the Prime Minister understand that public safety must be guaranteed—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is no point in shouting at the Leader of the Opposition. I ask hon. Members to show courtesy to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Government must end the confusion and make sure that, if they say that they will stick to a course, they stick to it and not argue about it in public.

The Prime Minister: I think there is rather more confusion in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman than anywhere else. First, let me again make it clear, as the Government have said throughout, that, outside the existing formula, there can be greater pay for firefighters only if it is paid for by the modernisation proposals that are set out in the Bain review. That is very clear. Secondly, we take all the preparations necessary under the advice of the military and, incidentally, they do not involve just the green goddesses, but the 400 specialist teams, the rescue equipment, breathing apparatus, fire-cutting equipment and so on. They will remain in place.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will carry on doing absolutely everything that is necessary to make sure that the public are protected while the dispute, which we believe to be unreasonable and wrong, continues. There is nothing that will get in the way of that to do with politics, ideology or anything else. However, I have to say to him that I do not believe that it helps anybody in these circumstances if the Opposition, rather than trying to help the situation, aggravate it by an opportunism that is as pathetic as it is transparent.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): A couple of weeks ago, I was able to deliver a couple of hundred letters to No. 10 Downing street about the proposal to build an airport twice the size of Heathrow on marshland at Cliffe next to my constituency. I have here another 800 letters for my right hon. Friend and they express the concern and anxiety of people in that area about the impact on their quality of life and about the affect that the proposal would have on national prosperity and through the impact on—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister can answer the hon. Gentleman's point.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise on behalf of his constituents an issue that I know will cause a lot of concern to them. He will know that we have in place a procedure whereby we have to put out all the various options for consultation. We will then take into account all the responses to that, including not just the 200 letters that he delivered to us but what I can see are the more than 200 that he has with him. Obviously, these are extremely difficult issues. He and his constituents will understand that it is right that we put forward all the options, but it is at a later time that we decide which option we prefer.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Earlier today the Defence Secretary confirmed that the United States Administration had now made a

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formal request to the Government for the deployment of British forces if military action against Iraq became inevitable. At the same time at the same press briefing, the Chief of the Defence Staff expressed his considerable concerns about what he described in this context as the present military effectiveness of British armed forces in this respect. How much will the Prime Minister weigh that judgment in mind?

The Prime Minister: The Chief of the Defence Staff did not say that. What he pointed out perfectly obviously is that, if one has 19,000 troops engaged in activities to do with the fire dispute, they cannot be engaged in other activities. However, he said that we would have the full operational capability for any requirement that might be made of us. It is true that we have received a request from the United States—I believe that it has made the same request to 60 different countries—but it has always been the position of the UK Government that, if there were to be a breach of the United Nations resolution and we were to enter into military conflict in circumstances that we thought were justified, we would be part of any coalition to make sure that the will of the UN was upheld. The position has not changed on that.

Mr. Kennedy: On that point, and given that one assumes that the Chief of the Defence Staff chooses his words with care, is the Prime Minister entirely satisfied that, if he has to take that decision about the deployment of British troops, they are up to an adequate level of military preparedness?

The Prime Minister: Yes. Since the right hon. Gentleman said that the Chief of the Defence Staff chose his words carefully, I should perhaps quote those words. He said:

That is what he said. It seems to be very plain, and I agree with it.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): May I thank the Prime Minister for not responding to the taunts of the Leader of the Opposition, who seems more interested in causing a fire than in putting one out?

Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the modernisation proposals put forward today by the Fire Brigades Union? They are based on the same proposals that we intended to include in a White Paper on modernisation and are designed to guarantee #3 billion of internal savings in the running of the fire service. Will he also join me in urging the employers to consider those proposals? They should realise that the FBU has thrown them a lifeline that will allow them to produce a sensible pay settlement and avoid an entirely unwelcome strike, which they may otherwise take us into. Will he urge them to accept those proposals?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that I can go along with 100 per cent. of my hon. Friend's comments. However, we consider carefully any proposals made by the Fire Brigades Union, but they have to be seen in the context of the Bain report. Although much has been written about the report, I recommend that people read it because they will see that he recommends various

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modernisation proposals. For example, he suggests ending the ban on mixed crewing, which prevents part-time and full-time firefighters crewing the same appliances; ensuring that we use joint control rooms with other emergency services; implementing measures to tackle sickness and ill health in the fire service—70 per cent. of its members retire early on ill health grounds—and ensuring that firefighters are allowed to train as paramedics and carry resuscitation equipment.

If people study the report, they will see that those are not wildly unreasonable suggestions. Of course we will consider whatever the Fire Brigades Union does, but I hope that it, too, looks properly at the Bain proposals. It should realise that teachers, police, doctors, nurses and others also do a valuable job of work in our community and that we cannot countenance a pay claim of the size that the union suggests.

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