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21 Nov 2002 : Column 889—continued

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): The Deputy Prime Minister will know that modernisation in the Palace of Westminster was not linked to the payment of Members of Parliament. Why cannot the fire dispute be settled by looking at pay first and, afterwards, discussing in a

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longer-term way the changes to practice that may be necessary, as they are in all sorts of jobs? The changes here were not linked to our pay.

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has overlooked one simple fact. We had an independent inquiry to decide the issues here, which is precisely what I wanted for the fire workers. We set up such an inquiry, despite their not wanting it. That is an essential point. The inquiry made a judgment and that is what we are trying to operate on at the moment. If my hon. Friend is saying that we should be in the situation in which the firemen say, XWhat is the worth of a fireman? We believe it is #30,000", who makes the judgment about the worth of a nurse? Does he or she walk out of the wards and use that pressure to get a pay increase? No, that is neither acceptable nor fair. Our judgment is that we have to be fair. Where there is disagreement, we appoint an inquiry. That is what we did for the MPs, and that is precisely what we have done for the firemen.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): We are grateful for the statement from the Deputy Prime Minister, particularly at this grave hour, and for his giving us advance notice of it, given the changing situation. While he rightly holds out a hope that, even at this late stage, the FBU will agree to some sort of deal, does he not agree that the British public will simply not understand it if the union goes ahead with the strike, given the very generous 16 per cent. pay deal that is now on the table? Does it not increasingly appear that the FBU is setting its face against real reform, and that the strikes are no longer about pay but about modernisation?

On funding, will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that, if the FBU had accepted the pay and reform deal offered by the employers, the Government would have been prepared to provide the necessary transitional funding both to secure the vital modernisation and to avoid these dangerous and damaging strikes? Finally, now that the police have joined the armed forces in arguing that officers should not be forced to cross picket lines, will the Deputy Prime Minister assure the House that the emergency arrangements for an eight-day strike are in place and are genuinely robust enough? Will he assure the House that the advice of the police and the military commanders will be kept under review, in case there are life-threatening situations that demand the use of equipment that is held at the fire stations?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is true that the offer that has been made by the employers—we shall wait to see what comes out of the final negotiations—was, indeed, 16 per cent. That is their judgment, but I think they feel that they cannot finance all that 16 per cent. The Bain inquiry showed that the remaining part—over and above what the employers were offering—could be financed by modernisation. The union is making it clear that it does not want the modernisation on any terms. Given those circumstances, there is no argument about whether we are financing 16 per cent. or not. The union must start the process of negotiation.

The other factor I have had to consider is that it is difficult to get accurate information from the local authority employers as to exactly what we are saving or what the costs are. That is one problem that I have had

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and why I asked the Bain inquiry to give me its advice. At the moment, if the FBU sets its face against the concept of modernisation and does not accept it, even though nurses, teachers and all sorts of workers have accepted it, we have to say clearly, XYou are not going to get that lump sum of money on the table without any negotiations on modernisation." As to whether the Government give anything, we have to make a judgment as to what the authorities would say. Bain tells us, XYou can save the money." I shall wait to see what comes out of their negotiations.

We have taken all the necessary action to ensure that all the necessary measures are in place to deal with the circumstances of an eight-day strike. I shall not kid the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey): an eight-day strike is more difficult to deal with than one of 48 hours, but I was pleased with how the armed services reacted to the last strike. They did an excellent job and that gives me encouragement, but we have no doubt about the fact that it would be far better to have a full fire service rather than a green goddess service. That is an important point.

As to whether the police and the Army should be crossing picket lines, they have not been asked to do that in those circumstances. I note what is in the ACPO statement tonight—the police will not be involved. I do not know how that comes about, because they were pretty well involved in the miners' strike. They did not have any arguments about that.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): May I first congratulate my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions on the time and effort that they are putting into trying to resolve the dispute?

About this time last week, there were hints from the FBU that 16 per cent. would do it, and I went out to meet the local firefighters on the picket line in my constituency last Friday and they hinted that 16 per cent. would do it. They have now been offered that 16 per cent., which is about seven or eight times more than inflation. It is a fantastic offer. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is time for the FBU leadership to put that offer to the membership and call off the strike?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I must be absolutely clear about the matter of the 16 per cent. Even on the deal being discussed at the moment, the local authorities say that they cannot fund it. During the negotiations earlier in the year, those authorities made it clear that they had no money and would not advance beyond their initial offer. In this deal, they have made a 16 per cent. offer, but they are making it clear that they cannot afford it. We have made it clear that any extra moneys that have to be found over and above the resources available to the authorities must be found through modernisation.

We have not adopted any position on the agreement—we will have to wait and see what comes out—but it should be clear that anything over and above what the local authorities have the resources to fund must be financed out of modernisation. All the fire people should consider the truth of that, because there is an awful lot of news manipulation going on. One

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reason why I am giving this advice to the House is that people who were watching the television would think that 4 per cent. was all that had been offered, although the negotiations were still going on. That seems to be a sophisticated manipulation of news.

I hope that the people in the fire union take into account all that is being offered before they arrive at their judgment.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Even if there is some modernisation, there is no way that that will immediately convert into the hard cash necessary to pay for higher salaries, and the Deputy Prime Minister should stop hiding behind that myth and pretending that the Bain report says that modernisation will deliver the money. The Chancellor has said that he is not prepared to pay either, so what calculation has the Deputy Prime Minister made of the average council tax increase needed to pay for each additional 1 per cent. in firefighters' pay?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not have to make that calculation, because I will accept what George Bain has said. He has done a thorough report, and his final report comes out in three weeks. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has read the report. He will see in the appendices that Bain highlights the changes that are necessary to make. There is an important distinction to be made here. His offer was over two years—whatever period is offered is an important negotiating factor—but basically he has shown clearly that that amount of money can be saved to pay for this kind of deal. He said, XDo all this modernisation, pay 4 per cent. to begin with and then pay 7 per cent." That is how he advocated the 11 per cent. agreement. I do not have to look in the crystal ball; I look at the inquiry. That is why we set it up and we have its recommendation.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for keeping the House informed. I apologise for missing his previous statements; I know he was anxious about that, being fastidious about my concern.

During the week the FBU has moved dramatically on both pay and modernisation. Only this evening, it has clearly stated its willingness to negotiate on shift patterns. The employers have also moved. I think we breathed a sigh of relief today in the hope that the 16 per cent. offer would materialise and resolve the dispute, but the employers said this morning that even their modernisation proposals would not produce the money to fund that offer. There is a budget gap, and, as the employers' leader said this morning, another partner is needed in the negotiations—the Government.

The union has moved. The employers have moved. The employers have said that even the Bain proposals will not cover the costs of the dispute. They—

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