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25 Nov 2002 : Column 29—continued

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): How exactly, apart from laying off people, would the modernisation proposals contained in the Bain report lead immediately to the hard cash needed to fund any increase in firefighters' pay?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman goes through the Bain report, he will see that Sir George Bain describes how those savings could be achieved. For example, if firefighters are able to manage the shift system more effectively, changes and savings could of course be made. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I will give him a couple of examples showing how the military are already running the cover in the dispute. First, they have taken account of the fact that it is better to have joint control rooms with the other emergency services, which is producing greater efficiency. Secondly, they have already worked out that 75 per cent. of calls are made during the day and that there is therefore not the same requirement for people to be on duty during the night. All these factors can save money.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Consequent upon the question put by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that Government financial support for an unrealistic, irresponsibly negotiated pay deal would spell catastrophe for every trade unionist in this country as well as for the country as a whole?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. If we yield to this pay claim, it will have consequences right across the economy. It would result in the huge benefits that we have seen over the past few years—the lowest inflation and unemployment for decades and the lowest mortgage rates for almost 40 years—being put at risk. That is why the Government cannot responsibly agree to this claim.

Bob Russell (Colchester): We accept that firefighters have the right to withdraw their labour and that they are entitled to have picket lines, but will the Prime Minister clarify the legal position—for example, insurance matters and safety at work—if striking firefighters continue to occupy fire stations and use all their facilities?

The Prime Minister: Firefighters are, of course, entitled to mount their picket lines. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is an odd situation when fire stations are used to put across the case in this dispute. The way in which fire services are managed must be considered during the course of the dispute.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): Does the Prime Minister accept that most people consider that dual controls, modernisation proposals such as carrying

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defibrillators and paramedic training are simply commonsense measures that they want to be implemented to improve the service that they receive? However, they do not understand why an Opposition party that basically agrees with that position is being so opportunistic as to attack the Government.

The Prime Minister: The Opposition position was described on Sky News just a short time ago by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who said something like, XWe basically agree with the Government's position." However, that does not stop them making the remarks that they have made today. If I may give them some advice, I do not think that it is very wise opposition.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that although he was clearly right to reject a 16 per cent. pay settlement, none the less the Government are much to be blamed for their failure to speak with one voice and to ensure that the local employers' negotiating body fully understood the limitations on its negotiating position?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I reject both points. As the Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday, any additional pay must be funded out of modernisation. That has been the case from the beginning; it has been repeated every time the Government have been asked and it is repeated again now.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's second point, the local government employers have always known, because we have said so from the outset, that additional pay must be paid for by modernisation.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Oh!

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman may find it a boring thing to say, but that suggests that we have been repeating it a lot. With any luck, the penny will finally drop, even for the Conservatives.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): As the Prime Minister may know, there was a huge fire in a factory in my constituency on Friday. Will he join me in paying tribute to the armed forces who worked so magnificently to put out that fire and in recognising that FBU members attended to ascertain whether there was danger to life? Above all, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is no repeat of the situation that arose on Friday morning and that the employers are under no illusion that they can come to a settlement and pass the bill to the Government?

The Prime Minister: On the latter point, my hon. Friend is right: it is clearly understood that there can be no question of doing that.

On the first point, I pay tribute to the armed forces and to the way in which they fought the fire in my hon. Friend's constituency. I also pay tribute to those firefighters who have come off their strike action to try to provide protection for people's lives. It is fair to say that they have made an agreement about emergency

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cover in a gold command situation. That is sensible and right, and I hope that the sense that prevails in that aspect will prevail across the whole of the dispute.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): What proportion of any pay offer will be funded directly by the Government, and what proportion by local authorities and hence council tax payers?

The Prime Minister: I shall explain again. The 4 per cent. is already agreed and local authorities can pay that from their existing settlement. Over and above that, the money has to come from modernisation—from changes in working practice: precisely how much is a matter for negotiation between the two sides. I can do no more than repeat that the basic parameter is that if the amount is above 4 per cent. it has to be paid for by changes in working practices.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): This morning, firefighters on the picket line in my constituency told me that they want talks. They want to talk about modernisation. The ideas and suggestions that they put to me were highly positive and flexible. What would my right hon. Friend say in response to them?

The Prime Minister: There must be firefighters who are concerned about the action that has been taken and also about how to get themselves out of the dispute. There will be firefighters who have many reasonable points to make, and the way to do so is to sit down at the negotiating table, not to call a series of eight-day strikes that cannot really help the situation. I come back to the Bain report. It has been disparaged by parts of the FBU, but Sir George Bain has been known to the trade union movement for a long period. He did a magnificent job over the minimum wage. His two wing men were the person from the Local Government Association, who was also a former employer, and Tony Young, the president of the TUC last year. Those people can hardly be described as a biased committee. I hope that if firefighters look at the changes proposed in the report, they will see that they can get above-inflation pay increases, but paid for and funded in the way that I have described.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Given that the Army was warned at the end of July that it would need to prepare for such a strike; given that a considerable number of red fire engines are held in reserve and not behind picket lines; and given that Conservative Members estimate that it would take two weeks to train people to use those fire engines, whereas Labour Members estimate that it would take 12 weeks, why has not the Army been undergoing training since the end of July to use those available fire engines without having to cross picket lines?

The Prime Minister: Preparations to provide cover began in August. The military will be provided with whatever they need but, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we prefer to take their advice rather than his.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): Has my right hon. Friend any plans to meet the leaders of the

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FBU, bearing in mind the fact that, as most people know, if these disputes go on for any length of time they usually end up in bitterness and recrimination? Today, I noticed that, through the media, the leaders of the FBU offered to meet him. Can he give an answer about that?

The Prime Minister: There have been many meetings with the Fire Brigades Union. The Deputy Prime Minister has constantly met the union and explained the position to it. It is only right to say that, at every stage of the dispute, he has attempted to resolve it and to prevent it from happening. The plain fact is that the meetings can go on for ever, but they must be based on certain clear understandings, and the beginning of understanding how all this has come about is the existing pay formula. Only when that pay formula is changed by agreement can we get a proper negotiation. Of course Ministers will continue to meet the FBU, or anybody else, but this will be resolved only if people realise that it must be resolved on the basis of reason.

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