Previous SectionIndexHome Page

21 Nov 2002 : Column 882—continued

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman is trying to be positive and helpful, but I am a bit worried about the phrase Xthe natural flow of business". It strikes me that it implies that, whereas the Government will try to manoeuvre something here or there and perhaps make a little concession, they will make no positive effort seriously to consider the issue to find a more permanent solution. I hope that he is saying that he will go beyond the natural flow of business and try to do something proactive.

Mr. Bradshaw: With all respect, as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove has said, the Government had a good go at this—at least my right hon. Friend did—back in May, and we failed, not least because some Members, such as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), voted against the proposals. However, we intend to take the issue seriously. During the flow of business, positions arise on Committees and new Select Committees even come into existence, so there will be plenty of opportunities not for me—it is not my role—but for the Chairman of the Committee of Selection to take such things into consideration.

Mr. Stunell: Do I take it that the implication of the Minister's last remarks is that the Government intend to bring those proposals back to the House? That would be very much welcomed by me, and, I would have thought, by Members from the minority nationalist parties and Northern Ireland.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but it is not realistic to imagine that the Government would bring those proposals back so soon after they were defeated in such a way. I am sure that that is a great disappointment, not just to him but to many other Members who voted for those sensible proposals.

More recently, on 17 October, in reply to a question from the hon. Member for North Tayside, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House repeated again that he was

He pointed out that there had been a lot of correspondence on the matter on several occasions, and that he would continue to look into a solution, adding:

That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is doing this evening, as he made clear in his speech—it was not primarily about his unrealistic aim to get a place on the Committee of Selection, let alone the chairmanship of it, but to make the point that the minority or smaller parties were under-represented generally on Committees.

If I may, I would like to disabuse the House of the idea that the smaller parties are suffering some terrible injustice. If one looks at the figures, one sees that the breakdown in relation to Members from small parties on

21 Nov 2002 : Column 883

public business Standing Order Committees, plus modernisation and House of Lords reform Committees, is as follows: Liberal Democrats, 33, official Unionists, five, Plaid Cymru, three, Scottish national party, two, Social Democratic and Labour party, one, Democratic Unionist party, one, and Independent, one. That is a total of 46. If that number were broken down with strict proportionality, the total would be 45. The number of Liberal Democrats would be 31, so one could argue that the Liberal Democrats are currently over-represented by two. There would be three official Unionists, so they are also currently over-represented by two. The Democratic Unionist party would have three members, so it is currently under-represented by two. The Scottish national party would have three, so, under strict proportionality, it is under-represented by one. Plaid Cymru would have two, so it is over-represented by one. The Social Democratic and Labour party would have two, so it is under-represented by one, and Independents would have one, which is supposed to be strictly proportional, although there is only one Independent Member, so, strictly speaking, the Independents would be eligible for only half a place.

Mr. Salmond: The Minister should understand that those figures take into account the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, on which, clearly, all the Northern Irish parties must be represented. He should not therefore use that argument to distort figures elsewhere. Is he also aware that those figures include the Catering Committee, which was not our first choice in terms of Committee places?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has that view of the Catering Committee—

Andrew Bennett: That illustrates that not all the Committees are exciting to sit on. Can the Minister give us not only the numbers on each of the Committees, but figures on the attendance on each of them?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am afraid that I do not have the numbers on each of the Committees to hand. If my hon.

21 Nov 2002 : Column 884

Friend will allow me, I am happy to write to him with a breakdown of all the figures. I shall try my best to obtain figures for attendance, too, which I am sure many Members would find extremely interesting. He is absolutely right to suggest that if parties want positions on important or sexy Committees, they should also be willing to do the work on the duller, less glamorous Committees, many of which are just as important to the workings of the House and in terms of the scrutiny that they provide for Government.

Before the intervention from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, I was trying to make the point that, under strict proportionality, the smaller parties are not hard done by. If anything, they are slightly over-represented on the breadth of Committees that sit in the House. That does not mean to say, as I made clear, that the Government are not sensitive to the points that have been made repeatedly this evening, which I am sure have been heard by my hon. Friend who chairs the Committee of Selection.

Having said that, I hope that the hon. Member for North Tayside will not press his amendment to a vote, which he has indicated that he does not intend to do. I commend the motion to the House. If the amendment is pressed to a vote, I hope that the House will reject it.

Pete Wishart: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


6.35 pm

Sitting suspended.

21 Nov 2002 : Column 883

21 Nov 2002 : Column 885

Fire Dispute

On resuming—

6.50 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make another statement on the fire service pay dispute. I apologise to the House for making this statement when matters are still unresolved, but the House does not sit tomorrow and I undertook to keep Members informed. The strike is still planned to take place tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock. It has not been called off, and I thought it appropriate to make a statement to the House as it is not sitting tomorrow.

My previous statement on 14 November informed the House of the events leading up to the two-day firefighters, strike from 13 to 15 November. Since then my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I have had numerous meetings with the Fire Brigades Union, the employers and Sir George Bain in order to bring them back to the negotiating table. The negotiations are a matter for the employers and the unions, but our latest information is that the negotiations are still continuing, as the Fire Brigades Union has just returned to them.

The employers have released some details of their pay offer. It amounts to a pay increase of 16 per cent. over two years linked to modernisation. This would give a qualified firefighter a basic salary in the region of #25,000 a year by November 2003. It is not true to say, as many people are saying on television, that the offer is limited to 4 per cent. There have been a number of questions about funding. I have repeatedly made it clear to the House that any pay in addition to the original 4 per cent. offer has to be linked to modernisation. The independent review headed by Sir George Bain has given us the route map in its position paper published on 11 November. The full report will be available in about three weeks' time.

I call on the Fire Brigades Union to engage constructively on the modernisation agenda. The FBU has made it clear that it wants a substantial pay increase. Sir George Bain has shown that a substantial pay increase can be funded by substantial modernisation. We want a fair deal for the firefighters, but we also want a fair deal for the public whom they serve. The House is well aware of the original 40 per cent. pay claim made by the FBU—that a claim I remind the House is still on the table. No Government could fund a pay increase on that scale. It would put at risk the economic stability that we have worked so hard to achieve.

The knock-on effect of a settlement on the scale demanded by the FBU would be less money to invest in public services and public sector workers; it would be unfair on other groups who also do vital jobs and have accepted smaller wage increases linked to modernisation; and it would lead to higher interest rates and mortgages. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me when I say that nobody wants this strike.

Of course, if the strike does go ahead tomorrow morning, we will do everything we can to protect public safety, based on the best operational advice from the military, police and senior fire officers. None the less, as we have always made clear, the military will be

21 Nov 2002 : Column 886

providing an emergency, not a replacement, service. We all need to be vigilant during the strike, but it is also imperative that our cover is not stretched by hoax calls. Such calls put lives at risk. Anyone found to have made a hoax call will be dealt with as quickly and severely as possible.

In these circumstances it is the Government's responsibility to do all he can to protect public safety. Our plans will be kept under constant review. When it comes to saving lives, no option can be ruled out. Any strike by the union would be damaging and dangerous. It would put lives at risk. The two-day strike was wrong and dangerous, as I made clear at the time. An eight-day strike would be even more so.

The 40 per cent. claim for which the FBU is fighting is unjustified. If the union is serious about resolving the matter, it should continue the talks about pay in exchange for changing outdated work practices, but it must understand that it will not get one without the other. The country must understand that the Government will not give into claims that are unreasonable and which would have had a detrimental impact on the economy. We govern for the whole country and we will exercise our responsibilities for the whole country. Our responsibilities are to the economy and to people's jobs, mortgages and living standards. Our responsibilities are to ensure the safety of the public and to prevent the unnecessary loss of life. It is that thought that has motivated me and my right hon. Friend in the past few days in our efforts to keep people talking, not walking. Lives are saved every day a strike is cancelled. Even at this late stage, I want to call on the Fire Brigades Union to continue negotiating and call off the eight-day strike due to start at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning. In the wider management of the economy, we must be fair to the factory workers, shop workers and office workers and be absolutely clear that we want an agreement between the firefighters and employers.

We have to be fair to all—to nurses, teachers, ambulance workers and the police. We cannot and will not accept rises for firefighters that are unfair to others, so I say to the Fire Brigades Union: call off the strike, stay at the negotiating table and work out a deal that is fair to the firefighters and fair to all.

I promise to keep the House informed. My message again to the Fire Brigades Union is talk, do not walk.

Next Section

IndexHome Page