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26 Nov 2002 : Column 168—continued

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. I agree that it is time for the firefighters to return to work and for all parties to return to the negotiating table. Let me also associate myself and the Opposition with the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks about the excellent work being done by the military personnel and, indeed, by the retained firefighters. Their hard work has ensured that this week's strike has not resulted in many more casualties. But it is not with their hard work that we have a problem; the problem is that they are needed at all. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday, this strike should not have happened in the first place. That it happened is due in part to the chaos and confusion that we have witnessed at the heart of Government over the past two weeks.

The Deputy Prime Minister spoke at length about reorganisation. Some of that may be beneficial, but it will not work if it is not clear who is in charge. Yesterday the Prime Minister stepped in to try and introduce some clarity, but many questions remain unanswered. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister can bring more clarity to some of those issues today.

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First, there is the issue of costs. On Friday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman described the draft agreement between the employers and the FBU as Xuncosted" and Xhalf-baked". The Deputy Prime Minister himself said, Xnobody knows the costs". Can he confirm that a member of his Department, a senior civil servant, costed the deal in the early hours of Friday morning at some £240 million? If so, why did the Prime Minister say yesterday that the cost was nearer £500 million? Can the Deputy Prime Minister clear up that confusion and tell us which figure he believes: £240 million or £500 million?

This morning, the Prime Minister's official spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of job losses in the fire service. Given that employment-related costs make up more than 80 per cent. of the fire service's expenditure, it seems that they are extremely likely. Can the Deputy Prime Minister say whether he anticipates job losses? If the Prime Minister's figure of £500 million is correct, that will equate to no fewer than 15,000 job losses. Does the Deputy Prime Minister see those coming from a simple reduction in manpower or from the closure of fire stations? Most important, can he guarantee that there will be no worsening of cover or response times as a result of cost savings?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said particularly clearly that there would be no central Government funding for anything over 4 per cent. However, the employers appear to be anticipating some form of transitional funding from the Government, and the Bain inquiry implied transitional funding of some £41 million. Can the Deputy Prime Minister finally put that issue to rest and tell us what the true position is? Do the Prime Minister's comments mean that there will be no transitional funding and does that represent a change of policy from the Deputy Prime Minister's original position?

The strike seems, sadly, set to go on for weeks or even months. Accordingly, the threat to public safety is even greater than we feared. What is the position on the safer red fire engines now? Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that they are available to the military if they ask for them. However, do the Government have control of all the 100-plus engines that they talked of last week, and are they being deployed?

Is the experience of the military in Northumberland typical? I have here a copy of an article from Newcastle's The Journal today, which says that they were given modern appliances on Saturday, the decision was reversed on Sunday and reversed again on Monday night. Is the indecision and chaos that have plagued the dispute from the beginning still endangering the lives of the public?

There is growing evidence that the threat of strike action is beginning to spread through the public sector. Even today, teachers and council workers in London are on strike. On Thursday, the RMT will send out ballot papers calling for strike action on the London underground, using the pretence of safety concerns. The Prime Minister sought to avoid that question yesterday, but should not the Government make clear before union members cast their votes what the legal consequences are? Will the Deputy Prime Minister make it clear that

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secondary action or the threat of secondary action is unlawful and that the Government will give their full support to anyone who takes legal action against any trade union engaging in it?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the FBU has refused to sign up to TUC safety guidelines, which are, after all, designed to protect the public from unnecessary risk in the event of a strike? Is that not exactly the sort of circumstance that section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Consolidation Act 1992 sought to deal with—a threat to the safety of the public? May I ask him again the question that he and the Prime Minister have avoided: will he go back to the Attorney-General and ask him to consider using that legislation to stop the strike action going on until Christmas?

I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister can provide clear and concise answers to those important questions and clear up some of the chaos that we have witnessed in the past few days and weeks. The strike has already gone on too long. It is time for all parties to return to the negotiating table and to find a settlement. The strike should never have been allowed to happen, and many in this country will find it sad that, as the strike goes on and with public safety increasingly at risk, the only person who appears to be sleeping easily in his bed is the Deputy Prime Minister himself.

The Deputy Prime Minister: That was a typical cheap contribution from the right hon. Gentleman. The Opposition should reflect on the fact that every day of this dispute causes a threat to our citizens and everything should be done to try—[Interruption.] I will reply, but it is important to create an atmosphere in which we can have a settlement and not inflame the dispute, which is what the Conservative Administration always did. It is a bit cheap for the Conservatives to talk about how many days have been lost in the dispute, when we recall the millions of days lost in disputes under their leadership, quite apart from the millions of days lost through unemployment.

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that I have to direct the Attorney-General? [Interruption.] I thought that he said that the Government should tell the Attorney-General that we do not want the strike. He should ask his own legal affairs spokesman. I am asked by the Attorney-General whether any action is taking place and what the state of the negotiations is, and I properly tell him that it is for him to make a judgment on the public interest and the safety of the community. I leave that judgment to him and it is not our job to direct him on such matters. If—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Deputy Prime Minister answer.

The Deputy Prime Minister: On the question about whether the TUC has an agreement on the 1978 agreement, that is a matter for the TUC. It was a matter for me to seek to find an agreement, which I failed to do on the first occasion, on exceptional situations such as a train crash or an explosion on our transport system. We have an agreement, signed up to by the union and the authorities involved, to make the men and machines available when such problems arise, dealing with what is known as the gold command, with the fire people

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controlling the fire equipment and the police controlling theirs. That is the normal structure under such circumstances, and I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that we have an agreement to that effect, willingly entered into by the Fire Brigades Union, rather than shaking his head at it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about the emergency services, and I know that the whole House will agree.

When the estimates were made of the cost of £400 million or £500 million, that was a judgment on the total cost of the deal over three years. The Chancellor was talking about the public expenditure over the whole three-year period. Before considering how much could be paid for through modernisation and whether there would be any transitional payments, we would first have to agree to some modernisation proposals. Without such an agreement, we cannot make a proper judgment of what costs would be involved.

The George Bain judgment is that 11 per cent. could be paid in two years if the firefighters are prepared to modernise in the way that I have suggested here and the way that he set out in his report. He did not say 16 per cent., he said 11 per cent. The union and the employers were discussing 16 per cent., but we did not endorse any of their three agreements and made it clear that any deal had to be financed by modernisation. It was not a matter of how much modernisation—the union made it clear that it was not prepared to engage with any modernisation. In those circumstances, all three deals that were being discussed were unacceptable. The first deal had the details of how much modernisation there should be, but that was taken out of the next two documents. We did not endorse any of them. Bain recommended, and the employers originally agreed, that there should be staged payments along with staged implementation. That is where the judgments have to be made.

As the Prime Minister said, 100 red fire engines are available to the command centres if they want them, along with the 27 or 30 that are currently being used. The right hon. Gentleman referred to a problem in Newcastle, of which I am partly aware. The dispute was not about whether red goddesses should be used, but about where they should be sited. That was apparently what was under discussion by the authorities in the area—not doubts about the Prime Minister's statement. He said that if the machines were requested, we would be prepared to provide them. That commitment was met.

As regards the RMT and its decision, I recommend that the right hon. Gentleman talk to his party's legal spokesman. Perhaps I should let him into this secret: secondary picketing and action are unlawful. There is no doubt about that. I need say no more than that.

The Prime Minister made it clear that, during the first strike, 100 RMT members were involved in what some people called secondary action, although the RMT members said that it was due to safety fears. The company dealt with that and the number fell to one. I can tell the House that the number is now zero—there has been a 100 per cent. improvement.

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We all have to recognise that the matter has to be settled around a table, and we should do everything that we can—

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