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21 Nov 2002 : Column 892—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman must put a succinct question rather than engaging in a peroration.

John McDonnell: Let me finish the question, then. If the unions and the employers have moved, why cannot the Government move?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for what he had to say. He was the man who called for

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me to apologise for misleading the House. What he said was totally untrue, as he would have found if he had checked the facts with the trade union or anyone else. We did not interfere with the deal earlier, as I told the House. I note that my hon. Friend did not apologise for what he said, but I want to put it on record.

As for whether the union has moved, it has not withdrawn its 40 per cent. claim. There is a lot of talk in the papers that it might accept 16 per cent. or 20 per cent. That is a good basis for negotiation, but, whatever is in the papers, I do not know what the union will finally settle for. I shall wait and see. I hear what the union says to me about modernisation, however. It says that it does not want to deal with change in the rigid shift system, that it does not want a block on full-time firefighters' working with their retained colleagues, that it is against using defibrillators and that it is against a ban on joint control rooms. What I find odd is that some brigades in some areas are already doing those things. Why is this such a matter of principle for the unions nationally? Why can they not accept practices that already taking place in some parts of the country? In fact, I do not ask them to accept those practices, but will they please start negotiating? That is all I ask. Negotiating is far better than walking away and increasing the risk to our citizens. Modernisation is the key, and the basis on which I will make a judgment.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Deputy Prime Minister said a few moments ago that the police had had no problems crossing the picket line during the miners' strike. That is wholly inaccurate, and I hope he will withdraw the slur on the police. The police ensured that those who wanted to cross a picket line in order to go about their lawful business could do so. The slur that the Deputy Prime Minister has cast is unworthy of his office.

How has the Deputy Prime Minister enabled the situation to reach this stage, given that most firemen do not know what is being offered to them at this moment?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am sorry that I cannot tell the House exactly what has been agreed and what is on offer, although statements have been made by various people on television. I told the House at the outset that I did not know the facts, but I thought it wanted to be reassured about what we are doing to deal with the strike that may occur tomorrow. I always promised the House that I would keep it informed, and that is what I am trying to do.

I cannot provide all the information that I would like to provide, and I am sorry about that, but let me make one thing clear. The question relating to the police was whether they had authority to enforce the law. I referred to the miners because in that instance they were trying to enforce the law, although it might have been controversial. I suppose that if anyone had to go into fire stations and remove vehicles, the police would follow the same principles despite the difficult circumstances. What they would probably not want to do is drive the vehicles out themselves, which they would not normally be expected to do. I am sure that those who did so in such circumstances—although to my mind it would be completely unnecessary—would have the protection of the law.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): My right hon. Friend has rightly said some very strong things about

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hoax callers who anger the public, and who can only add to the enormous dangers. Is he satisfied with the sentencing powers available to the courts, and will he try to ensure that the message goes out loudly to sentencers that some exemplary sentences would be a very good thing, and very popular with the public?

The Deputy Prime Minister: There are difficulties with this issue, and we have referred to them on other occasions. We wholly condemn hoax callers, and hopefully the number of such calls might fall off in the next few days—if there is a strike.

On enforcement, the courts have plenty of powers to deal with such incidents. In one incident that was referred to—it may have been in Scotland—the person responsible was found immediately, but he was released on bail for three or four weeks while reports were compiled. Perhaps all of us felt that such an opportunity should have been denied by opposing bail, thereby showing that the offence was considered serious. The powers exist, and magistrates and court authorities should take note that we believe this to be a serious matter even under normal circumstances, but that, under these extraordinary circumstances, they should be tougher.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): The Deputy Prime Minister referred frequently to soldiers and the Army during his statement. Occasionally, he corrected himself by referring to the armed services, but will he remind the House that the Navy, in particular, is making a significant contribution during this dispute? Increased pressures, cancellation of leave, uncertainty, the compromising of operational objectives—such as those of the south Atlantic patrol ship, which is moored in Portsmouth, rather than protecting the Falkland Islands—and the protection of the public demand that the Government do more than is being done, to judge by the answer given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), to ensure that the armed services have access to proper firefighting equipment.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly do not want to give the impression that I am unaware of the situation. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I did stray into referring to the Army, and that the armed services in general are involved. I properly record this House's appreciation of the work that they have done. [Hon. Members: XHear, hear."] Although less than 10 per cent. of the forces are involved, that is still quite important. We have heard the comments of defence spokesmen, and we will seek to strike a proper balance to meet the requirements of our armed forces. We are extremely grateful for their help during the circumstances of a firefighters' strike. There is no doubt that they are under stress and strain, but on meeting them they come across as remarkably cheerful and committed to helping communities. That is what we have always come to expect from our armed services, along with giving effective military assistance when called on to do so. They enjoy the confidence of this House, and we are grateful for their actions.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Does my right hon. Friend agree that most strikes are finally settled around

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a negotiating table? There have been a few exceptions, but generally speaking that is what matters. Does he also agree that, while Bain has put forward some important modernisation proposals, the union could well come forward with modernisation proposals of its own? In fact, it already has done so, and although those proposals have not been costed yet, they could be. Is he aware, for instance, that in Derbyshire a pilot scheme already exists, through which the ambulance station and the fire station operate together? Let us assume that that could be rolled out nationally. Would that be advantageous, and could it be costed? If the union's own modernisation schemes—I hope that he will answer this point—which have already been tried in certain parts of Britain, were rolled out, could that be a part-solution to the problem?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes some very sensible points. I encouraged the union to bring its modernisation proposals to the table, and it did so. However, I should point out that the proposals involve expanding the service, using more modern engines, and going out into the community to explain how to reduce fire risk. Those are the things that a modern service should properly be doing, but that does little to address the question of conditions of work and the delivery of service. Both issues have to be addressed, and the various proposals on modernisation—including the FBU's alternative proposals—need to come together. The issue is not just about wages and conditions; it is about having a modern emergency service that meets the requirements of communities. Both aspects should be very much to the fore.

I note with interest that a pilot scheme in my hon. Friend's area puts together the fire service, the ambulance service and the police in a common control room. The FBU is totally opposed to that because it does not consider it modern practice. Curiously enough, during such strikes we do have a common control room, which works very well. If the FBU cannot accept that proposal, the least that it could do is to negotiate on it.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): The Deputy Prime Minister spoke earlier about sophisticated news management. Coming from a new Labour Minister, that was a bit rich. There is now utter confusion about figures. In the course of the statement, the House has heard mention of 4 per cent., 7.5 per cent. and 16 per cent. The Deputy Prime Minister told the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) that he was not sure what was on the table. Will he confirm what is being offered? Are the employers willing to offer 16 per cent? What would the Government contribute to settle the strike?

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