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26 Nov 2002 : Column 172—continued

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): What about job losses?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I shall deal with that—it is an important point. The FBU is proud of its record in keeping people employed in the industry. However, as 20 per cent. of the industry's work force will be taking early retirement over the next few years—for some of them it will be extremely early, because 70 per cent. of such retirements are for medical reasons—there would seem to be ample opportunity to discuss a more efficient utilisation of labour without redundancies or sackings.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and for continuing to keep the House informed. I join him in thanking our armed forces, our police and other emergency services for their work during the strike. He is right to point out that our thanks must go to the retained firefighters for their work. Not only do the Liberal Democrats wholly oppose the strike, but we also believe that the right hon. Gentleman was right on Friday morning to reject the request made by the employers and the FBU. That request was, in effect, for a blank cheque and for a deal that completely failed to guarantee real modernisation.

I join the Conservative spokesman, however, in pointing out that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been giving mixed messages, especially on funding, and that has not helped negotiations. Even now, it is still not clear whether there could be transitional funding to bridge any time gap until savings from reform come through. Yesterday, the Prime Minister distinctly failed to answer a question on that point from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). And the Deputy Prime Minister failed to answer that question when it was put by the Conservative spokesman today.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister try to answer the question once and for all? Could transitional funding be found within, as he said in his statement, Xagreed Government spending limits"? Have not the right hon. Gentleman and his ministerial colleagues hinted on many occasions during the past few weeks that transitional funding could be available? Could such funding not break the deadlock?

The Deputy Prime Minister has expressed frustration that he has not seen estimates of the savings that could be generated from reform. Will he explain why it is taking so long to obtain those figures? Why has his Department not produced them by now? Will he confirm that, a week ago, Ministers received a costings paper from the national joint council detailing estimated savings of £71 million from reform? If he can confirm that, will he tell the House whether Ministers accept that figure? Does he agree that the failure to draw up full and proper estimates of savings from modernisation is a major obstacle to finalising negotiations?

When exactly did the Government submit their principles paper to the Bain review? As that independent

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review is even more important than ever if we are to achieve sensible reform, is there any possibility that publication of the final report will be brought forward?

On an operational note, the Government say that they are putting public safety above all other considerations, so does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concern that in West Mercia it appears that the police and the Royal Air Force have been instructed to stop helping firefighters to put out fires? An e-mail from a senior fire office to his colleagues, headed XPolice advice on striking firefighters attending incidents", states:

the military—

The senior firefighter's e-mail continues:

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether he is aware of any such military or police advice? Will he guarantee to the House that Ministers and officials have had nothing to do with any such advice? Will he undertake to investigate that issue and make it clear now that the Government would not support any action by the police or RAF to stop firefighters from helping to save lives?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments and come immediately to the more serious points that he makes. May I make it clear that I am not aware of any such incident, which the House would deplore? If he is prepared to give me the information, I will look into it immediately and ensure that it is corrected. Although I do not know of such an incident, I assure him that my Department would not be involved in it. However, I shall look into it and report back to him as soon as I can.

With regard to the mixed messages, we have been very clear that anything over and above 4 per cent. will have to be paid for by modernisation. Everyone has said that time and again, and that message is very clear. We were not involved in the negotiations, and hon. Members on both sides of the House will know that employers and employees always negotiate their own agreements. Everyone in government has recognised that, and we have not disputed it. All we have said is that there can be a settlement for three years and that there will be a certain amount of money for public pay. If the settlement is over and above that, it will have to be financed by modernisation. That is a clear position, and it is probably one that the Opposition might have pursued in government, but that will not be tested for an awfully long time.

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We are making all those matters clear, and whether people can change, whether anything can be done about the savings and what will be the total costs are all issues that concern us. Let me deal with just one question that I inquired about. When I looked at one of the proposals to bring retained fireworkers' pay up to that of full-time fireworkers—especially with regard to part-timers as well—I asked why is there a difference in pay? One of the union's demands is to bring pay up to the same level. I asked whether we could have the figures—I thought that calculating the money involved seemed simple enough—but then discovered that people have to renegotiate all the allowances that are included. It is not easy to go away and find out the figures immediately.

I agree that it is risking a terrible situation when negotiations go on without that basic information. I understand that the same employers involved in negotiations with local authorities receive regular information, but if such negotiations have not gone on with the fire service for 25 years, people get into habits and do not look at the cost savings that are involved. I agree that that should have been done, and that is why we have set up a team to make sure that we have accurate information, instead of ideas just being put down on paper and people asking me to sign a blank cheque. That is totally unacceptable, and it is why the team has been put together to find out accurate information.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our paper on principles. We sent the paper to the Bain inquiry on 18 October, but we thought that it would be useful to publish it today—it had not been published by the Bain inquiry—to show what the Government's attitude to modernisation and pay was on 18 October. The principles are clearly set out in that paper.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): Does the Deputy Prime Minister understand that all the firefighters in the three fire stations in my constituency are prepared to talk sensibly about some of the ways of working, but they are not prepared—nor am I—to see modernisation used as a form of cutback? In particular, will he assure the House that the fire service in London will not have fewer firemen and women on duty at night, given that Londoners—certainly the people in my constituency—think that that is the most dangerous time, when we need more firemen and women, not fewer?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is clear that one needs to have a proper risk assessment of where the danger is; it varies from station to station and, indeed, as the general secretary of the FBU has said, from time to time. He said that he was in a very busy station, but some stations receive fewer calls, so risk assessment is quite important. Judgments can be made about whether there should be full teams for the three eight-hour watches, but there have been fewer police on duty at night than during the day for a long time. I understand the arguments about that, but my point is why not sit down and negotiate?

How can my hon. Friend possibly know whether the number of firefighters will be reduced—the charge that she makes—without the required analysis and the discussions? It is easy to pick up a leaflet and repeat what might be said outside, but I have to do something much

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more informed than that, and the Bain inquiry was about telling us facts, rather than taking things off a leaflet.

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