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26 Nov 2002 : Column 175—continued

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that it is the number of closed underground stations rather than the number of drivers at work that is the issue? Is he aware that the channel tunnel, when faced with closure, installed its own safety equipment to a standard that was acceptable to the Health and Safety Executive in Kent? As a result, the channel tunnel is open. Why cannot the same be done on the London underground to free the streets of London of the chaos that is becoming a daily occurrence?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We must accept that the London underground is working very well—[Interruption.] It has not closed down. Despite the statements made at the time—[Interruption.] Yes, it is working well. Let us look at how many trains are running and how many drivers are turning up for work. As I have already said, 100 drivers did not turn up during the previous strike, but that number went down to one yesterday, and it is now none. That should be welcomed. As for the closed stations, I understand the difficulties behind the Health and Safety Executive's judgment, which we must accept. Perhaps those factors can be taken into account in the modernisation of the underground.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): It is well known that the firemen have support around the country, and that people would like the dispute settled as lives are in danger, and that is what the Fire Brigades Union is all about—trying to save lives. Would not it be wise of my right hon. Friend to get a room in his office or somewhere else, put the negotiating team in there, and only feed them beer and sandwiches until he gets a result?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is more a case of wine and canapés at the moment. Anyway, I do not think that that is necessary. On the occasions when I have met the general secretary of the FBU, he wants neither a sandwich nor a beer nor tea. We have had meetings and discussions, however, and safety considerations are as important to him as to the ordinary fire workers on picket lines, who, when they see an incident, come off their picket lines and go to save lives. Every one of us must therefore make every kind of effort to get back round the negotiating table to get a good fire service working for us and for the safety of the community.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): Given the Deputy Prime Minister's assurance that any settlement will be fully financed by modernisation, will he provide a further categorical assurance that no part of any settlement above 4 per cent. will fall to council tax payers to fund?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have made it precisely clear that anything over and above 4 per cent. will have to be paid for by modernisation. The only reference to council tax came not from the Government but from the leader of the Fire Brigades Union, who suggested putting 20p on council tax. What I found hard was that

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it seemed that the council tax payer could be asked to pay to overcome this difficulty, and the taxpayer could be asked to pay for it, but the Fire Brigades Union would make no changes. It should make changes.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Firefighters in my constituency still believe that they are worth £30,000 a year, and they believe that the Fire Brigades Union has evidence to justify that. They do not believe the Bain inquiry because of the fatal flaw in that the FBU did not submit any evidence to it. If the FBU asks the Deputy Prime Minister to set up an inquiry again, in which the FBU would participate, to make a judgment on the extent to which, since 1978, changes in the labour market and the fire service would justify a pay increase, would he be prepared to set up such an inquiry? At the moment, the firefighters still believe—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps this is an opportunity to say that questions must be brief.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Let me make it clear that there is no need for another inquiry. I have said very clearly to the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union that if he has evidence to give, even at this stage, he should give it. I cannot accept criticism in relation to the worth of a firefighter if evidence is not given to the inquiry that is set up. That is the situation. I do not know all the facts, and it is clear that the employers do not know all of them either, so it is traditional in such circumstances, under all Governments in this country, to set up an independent inquiry as a fair way of obtaining the facts.

As for the judgment on whether a firefighter is worth £30,000, I refer to the one difference about firefighters with which everyone agrees. They walk into danger when most of us walk away from it. That is a special consideration. However, on the point about whether they are worth £30,000, I ask the House to consider what would happen if nurses walked out and deaths in wards resulted from their lack of attendance. We would be asking exactly the same question. We must try to find fairness within the balance that we have set out. I have done that today and the Bain inquiry has done that. Let us sit down and talk and produce whatever evidence one would like to give. However, we must make a decision at the end of the day that is fair to the firefighters, fair to other public sector workers and fair to the economy in its consequences.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am reminded more and more that the Deputy Prime Minister is like Nero, only faffing rather than fiddling. Bearing in mind that soldiers are paid half what the FBU is asking for, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman did the walking instead of the talking and resigned?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Clearly, that was not a serious question.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I very much admire the work that my right hon. Friend has undertaken in this dispute. I sincerely hope that the other parties involved do not regret the action that they have taken in removing him from the negotiations.

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Will my right hon. Friend clarify to the House and to the country at large some of the misinformation that is currently being bandied about? A perfect example is the 40 per cent. pay increase that each and every Member of the House is alleged to have had. Furthermore, can he tell us the salary increase that the firefighters have received over the past five years and say whether any modernisation has been tied to that? Has that modernisation been delivered?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Firefighters' wages have been determined by a formula produced in 1978 and they have been connected to the average rise in earnings. The formula has not required them to have any negotiations or tied pay to modernisation. That system operated for 25 years and everyone can welcome the fact that there had not been a strike in the industry for 25 years. The FBU now feels that the formula is not adequate and it wants to change it. That is the point of negotiation.

The 40 per cent. increase that has been mentioned was given only to the Prime Minister. Members received varying degrees of percentage increase, but I must make the point that the increase was determined by an independent inquiry and not by the House. I recommend such an approach to the FBU.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): In the statement, the Deputy Prime Minister asked us to lift our eyes above the bile and recrimination of the current dispute. May I therefore invite him to repudiate the bile spouted by Richard Simpson, Labour's Deputy Justice Minister in Scotland, who not only accused the firefighters of being fascists but then went on to question their parenthood? Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that someone using such inflammatory language in this dispute is fit to be a Minister?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am advised that Richard Simpson did not make such a comment. As the question came from such an obvious source, I will treat it with the contempt that it probably deserves.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement that the local government side of the negotiations will be freshened up. However, does he share my concern about the FBU's reluctance to engage in modernisation? I have spoken to firefighters on the picket lines and they are already engaged in modernisation. What they need is a clear package outlining what is asked of them and what they will receive in return. That will enable them to come to an informed judgment and that may or may not bring the dispute to an end.

The Deputy Prime Minister: On the proposals for modernisation, let us consider those for joint control rooms. They are working in certain brigades and, when I ask the FBU about that, it tells me that they operate because of a decision taken by the firemen in that area. That may be their decision but, because the FBU is negotiating national wages and national agreements, it is fair to ask it, at least, to start talking about them. At the moment, it has set its face against that, but that is

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just for the moment. We will have to return to the negotiating table, and we will insist on the need to discuss such proposals.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us whether or not one of his officials costed the deal on Thursday night at £240 million? Yes or no.

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