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26 Nov 2002 : Column 178—continued

The Deputy Prime Minister: There was no cost given. Costs were bandied about—[Interruption.] Let me make this clear. I asked how much the deal would cost because it contained a section that said, XWe do not believe that this will finance itself so we will have to go to the Government", or words to that effect. I was told, XWe're signing the deal. We'll do the figure crunching later." I cannot sign deals on that basis.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): Is not it the case that modernisation, as it is called, will mean fewer firefighters, as my right hon. Friend seems to imply? Is he aware that in all three commands in Greater London, firefighter jobs have been lost over a period of 20 years? In the last round of cuts three years ago, five more pumps were lost with a proportionate loss of jobs. How many firefighter jobs does he envisage will be lost as a result of the current process of so-called modernisation?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It appears from what my hon. Friend says that redundancies were already taking place under the existing system, although I do not have that information. All we are saying is let us have a modernised service by discussing the practices in the industry with the union. That is fair enough. Setting our face against discussion does not mean that we will prevent redundancies. As he says, they are already occurring. Let us have a properly manned service that is fair to the firefighters.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup): The Deputy Prime Minister's tribute to the armed forces working in the dispute had a hollow ring to it because they still do not have the equipment that the Government said at the beginning of the dispute would be available. Of the 400 modern engines—perhaps he can respond to this when he has finished muttering to his hon. Friends—that were available at the beginning of the dispute, only 15 were deployed, and he has the nerve to tell us today that still only a quarter have been deployed. What exactly is the problem, other than the Deputy Prime Minister?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is quite wrong to say that 400 engines are available. The hon. Gentleman can get the information on that. There could be 400 vehicles, but some would be without engines or wheels. I do not know what he means. The Prime Minister and the Government have made it clear that 100 are available to be distributed at the request of the armed forces. They will be provided if requested. Indeed, they are being provided, as he can regularly see on the television.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Yesterday the Prime Minister said that firefighters should end their ban on overtime in the name of modernisation. Tonight ambulance staff in west Yorkshire go on a 24-hour work-to-rule, mainly because they are stressed out by

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having to work routine overtime to provide cover. May I tell the Deputy Prime Minister that excessive hours are a 19th century practice, something that the Labour party was born to end? We should not be promoting excessive hours in our emergency services.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not know how many hours my hon. Friend works. It is certainly more than eight, but that is by choice, which is an important part of a democratic society. If someone wants to work overtime and get extra income, that is a choice for the individual worker. It is a common practice throughout industry. I know that it is sometimes said that we should work towards getting rid of overtime, but I do not think that she would include that in her manifesto at this stage. Let us get modern working practices in place. We need to work out the solution and provide a modern fire service that is flexible enough to meet all the demands placed on it.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): Yesterday I met a taxi driver for whom being a regular fireman was a second job. Does the Deputy Prime Minister know of anyone else in similar circumstances?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I note the point. Many firefighters would say that they take a second job. Sometimes that is because they do not get enough basic salary, and perhaps we should consider that problem. In some cases, however, it is to get a second income. If they do not want overtime in the fire service, why take extra work in the form of a second job?

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): Some of us who have experienced a national dispute in which the Government stand firm against a trade union have been here before. I am not comfortable with seeing a union in conflict with my Government. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that I hold him in high regard and he is right to say that it is better to talk than walk. However, there is something farcical about a situation in which the Government have a veto on negotiations between employers and the trade union. Is it not time that we considered face-to-face negotiations between the Government and the Fire Brigades Union to settle the dispute? It is not just a case of people talking to each another; they have to listen as well.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am not against face-to-face talks; indeed, I first met Andy Gilchrist and local authority representatives to try to find a way forward in August. I hope it is not proposed that the Government should negotiate with every public sector worker. In some cases, that is called an incomes policy, which always used to cause problems.

My hon. Friend refers to his own information about disputes with the Government. I found myself in conflict with the Government in 1966, following a dispute between seamen and ship owners, and our movement suffered another glorious defeat. I hope that Andy Gilchrist will not mind my giving him advice: he should be very careful not to get into a conflict with the Government about public pay. All Governments face those issues. My hon. Friend proposes that the Government should take over negotiations, but that

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would not be a good move, although they are responsible for taxpayers' money and entitled to ask whether any deal fits certain requirements.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): The appointment of the Minister for Pensions, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), shows that the Prime Minister has lost all confidence in the Deputy Prime Minister's handling of the issue. Will he now, for the third time of asking, tell the House how the Bain report can convert into increased pay for firefighters without immediate corresponding job losses, especially as it says nothing about overall manning levels?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, it does not; the report made it clear that firefighters should first go through the gate of modernisation. Bain said that in the first four weeks of that process he could take a number of measures that would not affect jobs; however, they would affect the atmosphere within which the discussions would take place.

Bain went on to set out a four-year framework. We have heard the argument for a 16 per cent. pay increase in two years. Bain was not in favour of that; he proposed a rise of 11 per cent. in two years. He based that judgment on the changes that could be made, which the hon. Gentleman will see in the appendices to the report. Bain's fuller report would spell out the detail of those proposals.

Bain went on to say that many more savings could be made in the third and fourth years. Looking over the longer term, the programme would not only meet the needs of pay through modernisation, but change the fire service. I agree with the union that it has been a Cinderella service that we have never properly funded. Legislative changes are needed, and there must be an overall approach to modernisation. We are prepared to do what Bain set out, and it is possible to go through the first stages of his framework without having to find extra money.

Phil Sawford (Kettering): I spoke to firemen in Kettering on Friday night and visited the fire station again on Monday morning. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the firefighters do not want to be out on strike, that they want a decent living wage and recognition for the professional work that they do and that they are willing to modernise? Before positions get further entrenched, creating a legacy of bitterness and mistrust, will my right hon. Friend do everything that he can to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible in the best interests of the public and the firefighters?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have always had the public in mind. Every one of us has to bear it in mind that the dispute poses a threat to life, and I am sure that that is as true of the firefighters as it is of the Government.

I visited my fire station in Bransholme and had a chat with the firefighters, and I have no doubt that they do not want to be on strike. However, they are firmly convinced that they want changes to the industry and to their pay. They posed the question, XWhat is the worth of the firefighter?" We must address ourselves to precisely that question, but it has to be measured against all the other factors. This is not just about the firefighter.

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We are recognising special conditions and we are saying that we will pay above the existing rate but firefighters have to modernise in return. We all know from visiting fire stations in our constituencies that firefighters are genuine guys who want to sort out the dispute and get on with their job. They like their job but they think that they need to be better rewarded and they want a modernised fire service. That should be uppermost in everybody's mind; I certainly intend to do all that I can to achieve it and I have set out the framework within which we all have to work.

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