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21 Nov 2002 : Column 895continued
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been reading much about the situation. We all agree that the FBU, in Scotland as well as England, is asking for 16 per cent. That has not changed. Bain proposed that 11 per cent. could be paid, with modernisation. The employers have come up with various proposals. The one currently on the table is for 16 per cent., under certain circumstances. That is why the figures differ.
I try to give the House as much information as possible. I arrived at a figure of 7.5 per cent. in the following way: the 4 per cent. will be for one year, 2002; another 3.5 per cent. has been agreed as the annual payment, with the remainder to be paid for by modernisation. In those circumstances, that takes us up to 16 per cent. We must therefore ensure that whatever agreement is arrived at is agreed by both parties.
I have just been given a note, the latest report from the front. It says that the offer is still 4 per cent., according to the FBU general secretary, that the strike is almost certainly on, but that the general secretary's telephone will be on all night. In any case, I hope that both sides keep talking and find agreement. If they do not, I have made clear my view about how to deal with the matter.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that strikes never solve any problems? Should not a simple message be sent to the firefighters to the effect that, regardless of the varying degrees of sympathy and support that have been expressed in the House, they should call off the strike? They should negotiate, and settle the dispute at around 16 per cent., with modernisation. Is not that the way forward? Should not that be the united message from the House to all firefighters?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although I hesitate about saying that strikes do not have a role or that they cannot influence some situations. The sad fact is that strikes will not always be won on the day that they commence. There is nothing wonderful about striking and losing after a period of time. It is far better to have an inquiry and an intelligent discussion, with both sides trying to come together in agreement.
I repeat that the employers are offering 16 per cent., which I believe should be paid for through modernisation. If a strike is called, it will be about modernisation, not pay.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): The news is clearly desperately disappointing. I hope that, even now, the FBU will retreat from the brink and consult its rank and file membership, as other hon. Members have suggested. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that, if the strike goes ahead, it will cover a weekend for which many public events will have been organised. Will the right hon. Gentleman's Department, or any other, give advice to the organisers of public events, and to those who might wish to attend them?
The Deputy Prime Minister: We first gave advice about public events in relation to Guy Fawke's night, 5 November, and the weekend either side. We are concerned about that matter. We have a public information campaign and are giving advice to all bodies involved in events. We will continue to do so, even under the circumstances that I have described.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): We will never reach a settlement if we follow the proposals of the Opposition. That will lead only to the destruction of all contending parties in the dispute. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best hope is to hold negotiations that involve him and the FBU directly? Should he not
The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand what my hon. Friend says, but neither the FBU general secretary nor I have been slow in picking up the phone and talking. Many exchanges have gone on. The difficulty is no longer one of communication, but of accepting that modernisation should be part of any agreement. The union has made it clear that it should not, and it has rejectedsavagely and, in my view, wronglythe results of the independent inquiry held by Bain. The way to settle the dispute is to have the will to do so and to sit around the table. I was pleased that the Fire Brigades Union came back to the negotiating table because ultimately it has to be settled by talking, not walking.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In this evolving situation, I imagine that the Deputy Prime Minister needs to be back in his office to keep in touch. I propose to call two more hon. Members from either side.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you clarify the status of this sitting to the House, since we are now past the time when the House was scheduled to sit without passing a resolution to that effect? Could you confirm, therefore, that there is no necessary limit to the time during which the House can sit at this stage? Could you also confirm that it would be possible for you to suspend the sitting yet further to allow the Deputy Prime Minister to come back at, say, 10 o'clock, as he indicated he would like to do, to bring the House up to date on further developments? Could you confirm that all those things are perfectly possible, Mr. Deputy Speaker?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Deputy Prime Minister sought my permission in this particular caseI think that Mr. Speaker may have heard it first but it was confirmed by methat a statement should be made to bring the House up to date at what nevertheless was an awkward time. It is always possible for other requests to be received, but it may be for the convenience of the House and the better conduct of negotiations of national interest if the Deputy Prime Minister is performing his official duties other than simply those of this House. He has come to the House to report on the dispute but he may have other responsibilities in connection with it that he has to pursue. Therefore, I think it appropriate that at some reasonable point, the proceedings on this statement are terminated.
David Davis : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A significant point arose during the course of the Deputy Prime Minister's responses. He made the clear point earlier that the Attorney-General did not want to intervene for as long as the negotiation was going on. He has now indicated to the House that those negotiations have come to an end, whatever Mr. Gilchrist has said about his telephone still being on. Is it possible for the Solicitor-General to come to the House and give us her view on a material matter in this dispute?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Which Ministers come to the House is a matter for them and not for the Chair.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): In agreeing with most of what the right hon. Gentleman said, may I ask him to clarify the position regarding the Bain report? He quoted from it a number of times with approval, and one agrees with that, but then said that it will not be available for three weeks. What, precisely, will not be available for three weeks and what, precisely, is available now?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am sorry if I misled the House on that. The Bain inquiry will, I hope, give its full report in mid-December. On 5 November I asked whether, in view of the circumstances, it could produce another report to take the threatened strike into account. Sir George Bain produced a position paper on where modernisation could be introduced, saving resources and paying towards the modernisation of the fire service. The final report will be available in mid-December.
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby): Does my right hon. Friend realise that the public will be mystified that the Government cannot make at least some financial contribution towards the settlement of the dispute, particularly when they believe that the Government are preparing to spend God knows how many billions of pounds on a war in Iraq?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Perhaps I can let my hon. Friend into a secretthey are using public money. It is called the local financial settlement, and is used in the 4 per cent. deal. As for whether any more resources should be available, I have made it absolutely clear that that has to be linked to modernisation. I do not think that the public are in any doubt about thatnurses, teachers and doctors have all gone along with various modernisation proposals to get their wages. They do not believe that it would be right just to give the money to the Fire Brigades Union without any conditions.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): What steps has the right hon. Gentleman taken to ensure that modern appliances, with trained crews and modern rescue equipment, are available in all our major urban centres and adjacent to all our main transport facilities and transport routes?