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25 Nov 2002 : Column 26—continued

The Prime Minister: The truth of the matter is that the Conservative party, as its shadow Deputy Prime Minister—or whatever the position is that he holds nowadays—said earlier today, basically agrees with the Government's position. However, because it is so concerned to make political capital out of anything it possibly can, it has to try to pretend that, at the same time as it agrees with the Government's position, there is something that it would have done differently. Indeed, it says on its website today that the Government have caused the strike. Given that its position is the same as ours—that any pay award has to be funded by modernisation—I do not see how it can say that we have caused the strike.

The Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday that any extra money

That is precisely what I have said today and what the Chancellor said yesterday.

We have made it clear throughout that if the military want additional resources—red fire engines or anything else—they will have them. However, the military have not asked for more red fire appliances than we are giving them. If more are needed, they will have them.

The position as of today is that only one of London Underground's drivers has refused to work, so it would be somewhat excessive to take legal action on that basis.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Deputy Prime Minister said that emergency legislation is a matter for the Attorney-General. That is actually the law: it is a matter for the Attorney-General.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the Government have refused to make any preparations for this strike—[Interruption.] He says that we have made none whatsoever. I suppose that the military just suddenly happened along a couple of weeks ago. The fact is that since August the Government have been making preparations for the dispute. The logistics are rightly in the hands of our armed forces, who are doing a superb job. May I give the right hon. Gentleman a piece of advice? If he is going to employ opportunism as a tactic, make it less transparent.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Does the Prime Minister agree that the Conservative proposal to use the law to make the strikers in contempt, which would result in the mass imprisonment of firefighters, would be unlikely to douse any fires either literally or metaphorically?

The Prime Minister: We know what the game of the Conservative party has been from the moment the dispute began: to exploit it for all it is worth—[Interruption.] Let me repeat that: from the very beginning, rather than attempt to help in the dispute, it has done everything it can to inflame it. That is, frankly, what we would expect, but it is worse than my hon. Friend says. The decision to use the law could be taken only by the Attorney-General, and that is not the position that he has taken.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Robathan, our constituents will not understand us shouting across the Chamber at

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one another at a very serious time. Hon. Members should be allowed to ask questions and the Prime Minister should be able to answer.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Obviously, we all deplore the continuing strike action and the House of Commons is entirely correct to keep requesting and reminding the leadership of the FBU that it should not be conducting a national strike, that firefighters should be back at work, that the citizens of this country are entitled to receive the level of fire and emergency cover for which they pay through their taxation and that the FBU should be in negotiations based on the original Bain report. I pay tribute to the military services for doing a first-class job in this very unfortunate situation.

Will the Prime Minister concede that, over the past few days in particular, mixed messages have been emerging from the top of his Government? On the specific point that I raised with him a couple of weeks ago, will he confirm that Bain makes it clear that savings can accrue in due course from the process of modernisation, which we want to see encouraged, but that there may be additional costs sooner before the savings begin to come through? What is the Government's position? If there are transitional costs, will the Government meet them if the FBU signs up to modernisation?

The Prime Minister: The short answer is that Bain makes it clear that any changes have to be paid for through modernisation. It was always anticipated that the report would come in two stages—we brought forward the first stage. Essentially, it says that the 7.5 per cent. in the second year of modernisation, in addition to the 4 per cent., could be funded by changes in working practices. It then says that there could be further changes in working practices, yielding further benefits. It is within those parameters that people must negotiate. I entirely understand, because of the two stages and the different figures being bandied about, why people ask whether it will be this percentage or that percentage, but, with the greatest respect, the basic point is that they must negotiate on the basis of Bain. Why? Because if they want more than the 4 per cent., it must be paid for by modernisation. The rest should be left to the negotiators to negotiate, but they need to do so within those parameters.

David Hamilton (Midlothian): Will the Prime Minister stop referring to 40 per cent., because I understand that 16 per cent. was agreed by both sides on Thursday? We were already a good way towards a negotiated settlement. Does he understand the anger and frustration of many people in my area who are offended by many of the remarks made here about firefighters? Lothian and Borders fire brigade is already committed to producing 50 per cent. of what Bain has projected. The fire service is different things to different people in different parts of the country, and—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: It may well be true that the firefighters have come off the original 40 per cent. claim,

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but that was the basis on which they first took strike action. We cannot have negotiations between the employers and the trade union through the night that materially change what is on offer, and then simply hand the bill to the Government and say, XPay it—and if you don't pay it, what's more, within the next hour or two we're going on strike."

I am sorry, but if we are to get to a negotiated settlement, some reason has to be employed. The reason, surely, is that there is an existing pay formula. Many people across the public sector have a formula, including the firefighters. Two years ago, I think, the Fire Brigades Union leadership said that the firefighters' formula had to be maintained, because it was the basis of fairness for them. If they now want to change it, fair enough, we are all agreed, let us change it, but it has to be changed as part of a deliberative process whereby we work out a new formula reasonably, and not on the basis of eight-day strike action.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): At his pre-parliamentary scrutiny conference this morning, the Prime Minister said—he repeated it this afternoon—that full-time firemen were not prepared to work with retained firemen. They are in my constituency. Who gave him that information? He also said that the Chief of Defence Staff was satisfied that our commitments, including a war, could be met irrespective of the number of troops being used to fight fires. Would he care to place that on the record in the House of Commons and confirm that that is what the Chief of Defence Staff thinks?

The Prime Minister: On the latter point, I think that I did that last week at Prime Minister's questions, in an answer to the leader of the Liberal Democrats. What the Chief of Defence Staff said was perfectly obvious. Obviously, soldiers would prefer not to be doing firefighting duties, and if 19,000 people are employed on those duties they are clearly not available for other duties. That is a statement of the obvious. However, he went on to say that we would have full operational cover for any requirement that might be placed on us, and that is the case.

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the point is simply that at present there is a general ban on full-time firefighters working alongside the part-timers. If the FBU wants to agree the changes in the Bain report, let it do so—and frankly, I would hope that he would agree with us on that.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Will the Prime Minister explain how we can afford to fund a war against Iraq but cannot find the necessary money to meet the just demand of the firefighters for a living wage?

The Prime Minister: Because it is important that we play our full part in meeting our responsibilities in the fight against terrorism and against weapons of mass destruction—it would do enormous damage to this country if those evils were not confronted and defeated—but it is also important that we take a proper view of public money and how it is used. I heard some of the comments from union leaders at lunchtime about firefighters being a special case. With the greatest respect, everybody always argues that they are a special

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case in such circumstances. However, I have not yet had an answer to how I could agree such a pay claim for the firefighters but tell a nurse, soldier or teacher that they were not entitled to the same. Until that answer can be given in a way consistent with running the economy and with low inflation, mortgate rates and unemployment, I am afraid that the Government's position will have to remain as it is.

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