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21 Nov 2002 : Column 886—continued

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and for his prior notification of it. I understand the circumstances that required it to be made quite late. May I also associate the Opposition with his call on the Fire Brigades Union to reach a settlement at this late stage?

While we all hope that there is a last-minute settlement, it now seems extremely likely that tomorrow's strike will go ahead. It is quite simply unacceptable that people's lives should be put at risk in that way. I wish to state in the clearest possible terms that such action by the Fire Brigades Union is unnecessary, unacceptable and wrong. It is the action of the 1970s and not the 21st century. It is saddening that after months of negotiations there still remain more questions than answers with regard to this sorry dispute. However, at this late hour, our concern must focus on ensuring the safety of the public over the week ahead.

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For the next eight days, it is likely that fire cover in this country will be provided by military personnel. Last week, the Home Office Minister Lord Falconer said:

Yesterday, the Chief of the Defence Staff said:

Will the Deputy Prime Minister now clarify this issue? What is the Government's position? If there is an opportunity for Army personnel to use modern firefighting equipment, should they cross the picket line to get it or not? I also understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers has said that policemen should not cross picket lines. What is the Government's response to that?

From the start, we have called on the Government to give the military access to modern fire engines. Last time we debated the subject, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister to make use of 400 modern reserve fire engines available around the country to train military personnel with modern equipment. We now understand that some 15 fire engines have been made available for training. That is too little, too late. What actions have been taken dramatically to increase the availability of red fire engines to military personnel? Is it true that one authority has refused to supply any reserve fire engines for use by the military, and what action is he taking to deal with that?

The Deputy Prime Minister tells us that he is seeking an agreement with the Fire Brigades Union to ensure that it will provide assistance in the event of a major incident. We strongly support him in that and urge the Fire Brigades Union to sign that agreement tonight. Has he established any command and control responsibility to make any necessary response both rapid and effective?

I asked him when he made his last statement about the fact that on 25 October the Attorney-General's Department wrote that it was still considering whether to use section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to seek an injunction to stop the strike on the grounds that it put the public at risk of death or injury. Now that the risk is dramatically increased, with the likelihood of the start of an eight-day strike, is the Attorney-General going to seek an injunction tonight in the courts?

During last week's 48-hour strike, commuters throughout London suffered disruption as a result not only of the closure of tube stations, but of unofficial stoppages by a reported 350 tube drivers. Union leaders such as Mr. Bob Crow have suggested that they may stop work again for the duration of a strike, citing health and safety issues. What action is the Deputy Prime Minister taking to ensure that that does not happen, and what he would do if it happened?

What is the Government's position on pay? Is it, as the Prime Minister's official spokesman said, that

Is it, as the Chancellor said, that

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Or is it, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, that the Government are

for the firefighters?

The process has been prolonged and made worse by confused and contradictory messages. The country needs clear guidance and firm government on such a critical issue.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words of support at the beginning of his contribution. I agree, and made it clear in my statement, that any strike will mean the threat of loss of life. We are all worried about that, and we all have a responsibility, especially the Government, to ensure that that does not happen. However, we must remember that we are not yet in a strike situation. Matters are sufficiently serious for me to come to the House to say that a strike is a possibility tomorrow, but every one of us hopes that it will not happen, and that negotiations will continue and lead to an agreement. [Interruption.] Yes, there are only a few hours left, but I am trying to keep hon. Members as well informed as I can. If the House were sitting until 10 pm, perhaps we would not have to make a judgment about whether to make a statement now. However, I shall not tempt the Deputy Speaker, who has been generous in giving me an opportunity to make the statement.

Let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's specific points. The 400 appliances to which he referred are the total number. Some have no engines, some have no wheels and others need repairing. However, 27 are immediately available, and more than 100 extra will be available to the command structure. In some cases, there may be a better way of dealing with specific incidents.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the military is worried about its soldiers and believes that the best method of training is with the simple technology on the green goddess. I am sure that he agrees that I must leave it to the judgment of the armed services. It is not therefore necessary for some invading force to go to fire stations. Several FBU members in different areas have said that the armed services can have the engines; they do not want a dispute about that.

The amount of training that is required before the engines can be used is another constraint. It is not currently a problem, but the Prime Minister has said that we shall take whatever actions are necessary to ensure public safety. The armed services did an excellent job with just over 1,000 vehicles, compared with approximately 3,000 under normal circumstances. They dealt with all the calls. The public co-operated through reducing calls by a third, but we are generally maintaining adequate cover.

We have already established that normal command control will apply in the emergency circumstances to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The fire service, the military and the police will be involved in such incidents, as happens under normal circumstances.

Hon. Members will recall that I previously failed to reach agreement with the FBU. I was therefore not prepared to make an announcement because I simply did not have an agreement. Both sides have subsequently thrashed out an agreement. The employers, the Government and the FBU support it, and it has been

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passed by FBU lawyers. It is waiting to be signed and, like the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that the FBU will sign it tonight.

The right hon. Gentleman was right about the Attorney-General. I have held several meetings with him. Of course, we have discussed public interest and public safety. His responsibility is making the legal judgment, mine is to advise him about whether his actions would make it more difficult to intervene, and whether everything is being done to enable him to justify any actions to a court before which he might appear. He has the power to apply for an injunction. It is up to him to make that independent judgment. It is up to me to advise him about whether such action would inflame the dispute and make matters more difficult. At the end of the day, if such actions prolonged the strike, the threat to public safety would be even greater. It is his judgment, however, and I give him advice. It is far better to keep people talking than to seek action in the courts, because that would inflame the situation. That is not a judgment for me, however, but for the Attorney-General.

On the union leaders, my mate Bob Crow—I am bound to say that I do not have a friendly attitude every time I hear his name—has constantly complained that everything that we do is about safety, but that is a proper concern to have. Some of the drivers' actions in relation to the fire dispute, however, were unjustified. London Underground has made that clear and there have been discussions between the Department of Transport and us on that. Let us wait and see what happens on the next occasion. The employers have made it clear that the action of certain staff was unacceptable. The people who should make judgments about safety are the members of the independent body that the House set up: the Health and Safety Commission. It is not an employer or a trade union. It makes the judgments, and it has made it clear that the services in question are safe to operate, so I hope that the union members in that industry will take that into account.

On the right hon. Gentleman's final point about inflation and pay, what can be afforded out of the available resources is the pay offer: 4 per cent. That is what has been offered. In the agreement that I have seen—we shall have to wait to see whether it will be agreed to—that figure relates to November just gone. Next November, the firefighters would get another 3.5 per cent., so 7.5 per cent. would be funded by the authorities themselves. The dispute appears to be about something like 7 per cent. We have made it absolutely clear that any increased payment has to be connected to modernisation. The Bain report has shown that it is possible to modernise the fire service. That is our position. We do not support claims that will be inflationary, nor claims that appear to be based on the idea that people can challenge the Government and, if they are pretty tough, get away with it.

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