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25 Nov 2002 : Column 20—continued

Child Care

25. Ian Lucas (Wrexham): If he will bring forward proposals to extend child care provision for those in work. [81294]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): The Government's vision is for every parent to be able to access affordable, good-quality childcare, where they wish to have it.

Ian Lucas : One of the most difficult aspects of child care is the preferential provision that is given to in-place nurseries, rather than to people who work for smaller businesses, who want child care to improve their work capabilities. Is any action to be taken to assist those smaller businesses with financial support for the provision of child care?

Maria Eagle: The Government already have a good record of creating new child care places, having done so

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for an extra 1.6 million children. Along with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills, we are currently examining the best way of ensuring that both public and private sector provision is improved still further, to ensure that parents have the opportunity to get their children into nursery and pre-school places.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What discussions has the hon. Lady had with her colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the

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Regions about one of the principal impediments to the better supply of decent child care, namely the rigidity and inflexibility of our current planning procedures?

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is well aware that that Department is now two Departments. I cannot tell whether he wants me to talk to the Department for Transport or ask about local government. We are working across government to ensure that improvements are made in the availability of child care for all our children.

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Fire Dispute

3.30 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the progress of the firefighters' dispute.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): The Government deeply regret the continuing firefighters' dispute and believe that it cannot be justified. The firefighters are currently paid under a formula agreed at the conclusion of the last firefighters' strike 25 years ago. Under that formula, their pay has kept pace with pay rises in the economy as a whole.

Following the election of the new general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union earlier this year, the union declared that it wanted to change the formula and tabled a 40 per cent. pay claim. The employers agreed to discuss a new formula, and agreed in the meantime to pay 4 per cent.—an above-inflation pay increase roughly in line with the existing formula—and pay awards to comparable groups of workers. The union refused that offer.

In an effort to help, in September the Government appointed Sir George Bain, the highly respected chairman of the Low Pay Commission, to inquire into firefighters' pay and a possible new formula. We did so following consultation with the Trades Union Congress, and also appointed Tony Young, the former TUC president, to assist Sir George.

Meanwhile, in August we began preparations with the military for strike cover. The employers co-operated with Bain. The unions again refused even to allow their members to talk to him. When the time for the strike approached, as well as continuing preparations with the armed forces, we tried to facilitate negotiation. We brought forward Sir George Bain's report. He recommended that above-inflation pay increases could be paid, but only if accompanied by modernisation.

Among Sir George's findings were that full-time firefighters should lift the ban on working alongside part-time ones; that overtime, where it needed to be worked, could be worked; that management could change, where necessary, the rigid shift system of two days on, two nights on, then four days off to provide a better service; that firefighters could be allowed to do basic training as paramedics and carry resuscitation equipment such as defibrillators; that the fire service could share control rooms with other emergency services to provide efficiency of response; and that action be taken to improve the management of sickness in the service to reduce the extremely high numbers who retire early through sickness and ill health.

The employers welcomed the report; the FBU rejected it out of hand. Those changes to working practices, I believe, are plainly reasonable. They would produce substantial savings that could fund a better pay award. The potential deal that may have been reached last Friday morning between the union and the local government employers was unacceptable for the simple reason that it was not funded through modernisation. In addition, the agreement to modernise was only to talk about it, not a firm commitment to do it. The costings of

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the deal were not calculated or given, although they were plainly significant. In effect, the Government were being asked for a blank cheque, which we could not sign.

The Government's position is that, over and above the 4 per cent. already offered to the firefighters, there can be no further money without that claim being paid for by modernisation. If the existing firefighters' pay formula, on which their union insisted for 25 years, is to be changed, it has to be changed by agreement. The Bain report offers increased pay above 4 per cent., paid for by changes in working practices. It is, as I say, a fair and reasonable report.

The Government cannot be asked to find additional money outside agreed Government spending limits; to do so would risk fundamental and lasting damage to the economy. If the Government were to yield to this claim for pay increases way above inflation and not linked to productivity, the consequences across the whole public sector would be huge. Nurses and soldiers—after all, many of them are manning the appliances at the moment on pay far below that of the firefighters—as well as teachers and police officers would also seek similar claims, and all that we have done to produce the lowest inflation, the lowest unemployment and the lowest mortgage rates in Britain for decades would be put in jeopardy. That is a course we cannot take.

Meanwhile, the military do a superb job in providing replacement fire cover. I pay full tribute to our armed forces, Army, Navy and Air Force. They have done brilliantly, as ever, and we can be proud of them. I also thank the public, who have responded in an intelligent and mature way to the strains put on services. Up to this point, after six days of strike action, they have coped admirably, saving numerous lives in the process. Obviously, however, the risk to the public is there. That is why, even now, I urge the unions to call off the dispute—which cannot succeed—and return to the negotiating table to discuss how modernisation can fund pay improvements over and above the 4 per cent.

The Deputy Prime Minister set out the Government's position on Thursday. He had offered to make a further statement to the House today, precisely to keep the House informed. It has obviously been superseded by my answer to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), but I know that my right hon. Friend wishes—with your permission, Mr. Speaker—to make a further statement tomorrow.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our armed forces, who, as ever, are going about their duties with the utmost efficiency and professionalism. We owe them a real debt.

We have, however, now entered the fourth day of the firefighters' strike, and the threat to public safety grows with each passing day. It is unquestionably time for the firefighters to return to work, and for all parties to return to the negotiating table. Governments of any hue should not give in to inflationary pay demands: but Governments should also speak with consistency and clarity. That has not been the case with the present Government. On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister described the draft agreement between the employers and the fire union as Xhalf-baked". The Prime Minister seemed to reiterate that today, but yesterday he said it was Xstill worth talking about". Which is it? This

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morning, the Chancellor dismissed the fire union's pay demand as Xsimply unaffordable", yet the Deputy Prime Minister said that the Government were

for the firefighters. Which is it?

This morning, the Prime Minister said—and he has said it again here—that to give in would be a defeat for the country, but yesterday one of his own Cabinet Ministers said that the firefighters' claims had been Xignored for too long". Which is it?

Sadly, rather than speaking with consistency and clarity, the half-dozen Cabinet Ministers who have speaking for the Government over the weekend have said different things each time they have opened their mouths. Public safety is at risk, so the Prime Minister must answer some very serious questions. Now that he says he has taken charge, he must tell us what he will do to protect the public throughout this strike.

Four weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister to ensure that troops would be trained to use the most modern firefighting and life-saving equipment. Halfway through the present walk-out, why has he not done that yet? What is the Government's line? The Minister with responsibility for fire services said that no troops would cross the picket lines. Lord Falconer said that they would. The Chief of Defence Staff said that they should not. The Secretary of State for Defence said that the police would do it instead, but the police said that they would not. What precisely is the Government's position?

How will it be possible to gain access to a significant number of red fire engines, and when? Other public services, such as the London underground, have been severely disrupted by wildcat secondary action masquerading as concerns about health and safety. Now that the Health and Safety Executive has said that this action is unjustified, will the Prime Minister take legal action to ensure that the public do not suffer yet more misery?

Will the Prime Minister also use all the emergency powers and trade union legislation available to him? Every time the Deputy Prime Minister has been asked that question, he has sidestepped it by saying that we should ask the Attorney-General. Will the Prime Minister tell us what the Government's position is?

Throughout the dispute, the Government have been woefully ill prepared. No two Ministers have agreed on the same line. There have been insufficient preparation and planning over the weeks and months during which there has been notice of the strike. The Prime Minister has been hard on rhetoric, but there has been no action from the rest of his Ministers, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has played his part in the escalation of the crisis. At the beginning of the 21st century, men and women are without the fire and safety cover to which they are entitled. This should never have happened. The country deserves better from its Government. It is time for action, not words.

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