Previous SectionIndexHome Page

26 Nov 2002 : Column 165—continued

Fire Dispute

3.31 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the fire service dispute. As you know, I was available to give a statement to the House yesterday in line with my undertaking to keep the House informed. [Laughter.] I would hope that the House always feels that Front Benchers should make themselves accountable. In the event—[Interruption.] I bowed to the wishes of Mr. Speaker, as we all must. In the event, the Prime Minister made a statement in response to an urgent question from the Leader of the Opposition, so I will not repeat what he said.

The Government have always made it clear that we want a modern, efficient and effective fire service. We want a fair deal for the firefighters, a fair deal for other public service employees and a fair deal for the public they serve. I am sure that the House will want to join me in thanking the armed forces, the police and other emergency services for the thoroughly professional job that they have done so far. Anyone looking at the pictures in some of our papers today of Wren Amy Stubbs rescuing a young child can see the professionalism and care that they are applying to their role, and I am sure the House would want me to thank them for it.

Since Friday morning, the armed forces have attended more than 5,000 incidents. Their remit is to give priority to category A life-threatening incidents. In fact, they are all coping well and the calls that they have attended have been from the less dangerous category C. There has been no reported instance of property being left to burn.

I also want to take the opportunity to thank the retained firefighters for their continuing work and to acknowledge that striking firefighters have left their own picket lines to deal with some emergency incidents, as they did in the case of the rescue by Amy Stubbs. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking the public for their extra vigilance. However, although hoax calls have fallen from 11 per cent. on the first day of the first strike to 7 per cent. yesterday, that 7 per cent. is still too high.

Following the breakdown of negotiations on Friday morning, I held a discussion with Jeremy Beecham on the way forward. Sir Jeremy is the chairman of the Local Government Association, but he is not a member of the negotiating team. He agreed with me, and has made it public, that the document negotiated between the employers and the employees on Thursday night and Friday morning abandoned the essential link between pay and modernisation that has been the touchstone of the Government's approach to the dispute.

I met Sir Jeremy again last night. He was working to put together a new group on the employers' side, which will oversee the process of modernisation of the fire service, drawing on the work of the Bain review. [Interruption.] That involves members of each political party. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will meet the employers tomorrow to discuss that further.

Officials from my Department met the employers yesterday and they are meeting officials again today to work on the costs and benefits of the modernisation

26 Nov 2002 : Column 166

proposals. We will continue to work with the employers to help them to come to a clear view about the process of modernisation and the costs of any pay deal for the firefighters.

There has been a great deal of speculation about how this fire strike could be brought to an end. It is very important to bear certain absolutely clear principles in mind. First, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, this Government cannot be asked to find additional money outside the agreed Government spending limits. To do so would risk fundamental and lasting damage to the economy. An inflationary pay rise for the firefighters would lead to inflationary pay rises elsewhere in the public sector, and that in turn would lead to job losses, inflation and mortgage rises. That, I think, is common ground—or it was until yesterday—between the Government and Opposition Members.

Secondly, any pay rise in addition to the 4 per cent. already on the table must be paid for by modernisation. That is the clear message that I have given in every meeting I have held with the employers and the FBU since the early summer. It is the same message that has been repeated by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and members of the Government ever since this dispute started. It is the reason why the Government set up the independent Bain review immediately after negotiations with the FBU and employers broke down in early September. It is also the reason why we asked Sir George Bain to bring forward his position paper on pay, which was published on 11 November.

Following the Prime Minister's press conference and Commons statement yesterday, a real debate has begun in the papers about the issues involved. The FBU found itself having to justify its opposition to the type of changes that other public services have faced up to and which, indeed, have been carried out by some individual fire brigades. The FBU even claimed that it was willing to discuss modernisation all along, so why did it boycott the independent Bain review in the first place?

The debate on modernisation is properly under way, and to help that debate I have today placed in the Library of the House a copy of a principles paper submitted by the Government to the Bain review. The Government's evidence sets out a clear vision for the future of the fire service and the principles that we believe should form the foundations for modernisation. The fire service is a front-line service whose effective functioning is essential to the quality of life in this country. The Government's evidence states that the fire service is well regarded by the public and is effective in many aspects of its performance, but is in need of change and reform. It is a service that could make much better use of its existing resources; that has to consider new ways of working; that needs to forge better partnerships; and that needs to attract a more diverse work force that better reflects the community it serves.

The Government's principles paper sets out our general approach to public sector pay. It states our determination to maintain economic stability and meet our 2.5 per cent. inflation target. It emphasises the need to avoid unnecessarily high pay increases that divert money intended to improve public services, and it stresses the need to link pay to performance and reform, rather than to tenure and time served. The Government's evidence also sets out the five main drivers for change in the fire service, which are: first, a

26 Nov 2002 : Column 167

better understanding of the management of risk and the importance of prevention; secondly, the need to reduce the number of fires that occur and the deaths, injuries, and economic and social costs that they cause; thirdly, the fire services' contribution to community safety and action on social exclusion; fourthly, the importance of partnership in the delivery of best value; and lastly, the broadening range of the fire service's work in response to emergencies other than fire, including the new threats posed by terrorism.

The position paper published by the Bain review on 11 November set out the considerations on pay and conditions that were needed to deliver this vision of a modernised fire service. His final, fuller report will be published in three weeks' time. The position paper set out a vision for a single, more broadly based and modernised service with multiple roles offering a wider range of services and expertise. It proposed a reward structure in which individuals would be valued for the contribution they made. It encouraged a more diverse work force with a wider range of career paths, responsibilities and skills, and made it clear that pay and modernisation had to go hand in hand and be consistent with the Government's public sector pay policy. The position paper recommended an increase in the pay bill of up to 11 per cent. over two years, subject to necessary and long-overdue modernisation.

As I told the House on 14 November, the Government remain convinced that the Bain review is the key to resolving this dispute and providing the basis for a modern fire service equipped to deal with modern demands. Let me be clear: that remains the Government's position, as I have said in every statement to the House and in every discussion with the employers and the FBU. We should also be clear that Sir George Bain is proposing a menu of modernisation that is familiar to public sector workers in every other walk of life. What he means by modernisation with regard specifically to working conditions is that full-time and part-time firefighters should man the same engine together; that there should be shift patterns better to match the daily ebb and flow in the number of fires that occur; that overtime should be worked when it is sensible and necessary; that firefighters should be trained to carry out some essential life-saving paramedic functions that could save hundreds of lives; and that there should be joint control rooms, where the fire service and other emergency services can work together. The House should bear in mind the fact that some of those practices are already being carried out in a number of brigade areas up and down the country.

Bain also set out a route map for achieving that vision. He proposed a four-strand approach to negotiations, under which discussions would begin on the whole package of reforms at the same time but would be completed according to different time scales. The first strand would be completed in four to eight weeks, the second in about six months and the third in about a year. That model involved a direct connection between staged payments and the implementation of modernisation. Sir George recommended that, in exchange, the firefighters should receive a 4 per cent. pay rise immediately and a 7 per cent. rise next November. Each rise would be linked to the implementation of modernisation. The fourth strand would depend on

26 Nov 2002 : Column 168

action to be taken in partnership with local authorities and central Government, and would take longer to complete.

Sir George said that the question of a longer-term uprating mechanism should depend on the implementation of the reform package, and that he would return to that in his final report—which, as I have said, will be produced in about three weeks.

As with any industrial dispute, there are lots of variables that can be combined in different ways to bring about a final agreement. Bain talks of 11 per cent.; the general secretary of the FBU confirmed today, at a press conference in the House of Commons, that the union's claim is for 40 per cent., and the same is being stated on picket lines up and down the country.

The way forward is for the employers and the union to sit down and discuss how quickly the service can be modernised, how much can be saved, and when the firefighters will get their extra pay. What is absolutely clear, however, is that this fire service strike will have no influence on that process. The Government are not willing to abandon the clear principles that I have set out in the face of industrial action.

I believe that the dispute will be settled only if people sit down at the table and try to reach an agreement. We must lift our eyes above the bile and recriminations of the current dispute, and focus on the long-term future of the fire service. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to introduce a radical change in order to provide a modern fire service for the 21st century. It is the interests of everyone—the public, the employers, the Government and the firefighters themselves—to achieve that vision.

The Bain review has proposed a way forward. That is the basis for discussion. The issue of modernisation must be addressed, and we will therefore go on trying to bring employers and union together to have a proper discussion of pay and modernisation. The two must go hand in hand. The sooner the FBU faces that, the sooner the two sides can begin meaningful negotiation that can bring the dispute to an end. Once again, I urge the firefighters to get back to talking and stop walking.

Next Section

IndexHome Page