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26 Nov 2002 : Column 181—continued

David Burnside (South Antrim): The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the Army is providing emergency cover in Northern Ireland during the firefighters' dispute. Is he aware also that the additional manpower back-up for the fire service is reducing troop numbers in Northern Ireland to a dangerously low level? That is due first, to the need for back-up for the low manpower in the Police Service of Northern Ireland and secondly, to low morale in the prison service caused by the release of personal security information to Sinn Fein-IRA through the spy ring in Stormont. Has the Deputy Prime Minister had any discussion with Northern Ireland Office Ministers about increasing troop levels?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are in touch with our Northern Ireland colleagues about those matters. He has raised some important matters—I shall raise them with my colleagues and write him a letter to that effect. I am careful not to get involved in the politics of Northern Ireland, which make the situation very different from that in other parts of the United Kingdom, but I shall take up the hon. Gentleman's point and write to him.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I really want to stand up for professional firefighters in Staffordshire. We are at a crossroads and have reached an impasse. My right hon. Friend and the Fire Brigades Union have to find a way through.

In Staffordshire, we have embraced modernisation, and part-time and full-time firefighters work alongside one another. The bids with the best savings submitted by Staffordshire to the Government have been turned down. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how, if we go down the modernisation route, extra money can be found within the agenda of joined-up government to make sure that we can fund the changes that everyone wants and that the public trust?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that I said in my statement that there are areas where we should begin discussions, and where it is likely that discussions can take place. I mentioned joint control rooms, but there are other areas. My hon. Friend said that full-time and part-time workers work together in firefighting. That is true when they arrive at a fire, but my understanding is that they cannot go in the same vehicle to that fire. It seems a bit odd that they cannot go in the same vehicle to a fire—that is the sort of thing that we want to talk about with the Fire Brigades Union and ask whether we can make an adjustment. If it can convince us that that

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is not right, we shall have to take that into account. If it convinces us that it could create safety problems, we would not want to countenance that. However, everyone must get into discussions. The FBU representatives cannot stay out of them and say, XWe won't do it" or stay out for 40 per cent., no strings attached. That is unacceptable—start talking, not walking.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): May I draw the Deputy Prime Minister back to an earlier question about the likely impact of any settlement, even with efficiency savings, on council tax? His Department must have done some calculations, and he will accept that potentially there will be a major impact, certainly in the short term, on many county councils that are awaiting with trepidation the announcement of the local government finance formula in the next fortnight?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has raised a serious matter. That has never been part of any negotiations that I have seen—it was a comment by, I think, the general secretary of the FBU, who said that 20p would be put on council tax. Quotes and estimates have been given, but they have not been part of our negotiations. We have said that all pay claims above 4 per cent. must be covered by modernisation. Seeking the easy way out, passing the increase on to council tax, is no more acceptable than passing it on to the national taxpayer. As the hon. Gentleman knows, local authorities have the right to make judgments about what they buy with their council tax.

Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife): My right hon. Friend made reference to the signed agreements reached with the FBU on the underground. Would he join me in welcoming the voluntary efforts of many FBU members throughout the country who, as is the case in my constituency, have turned up and supported other efforts to deal with emergency situations where lives were threatened? Does he agree that the current position is that every effort has been made but that further efforts must be made to resolve the issue, otherwise there will be no victors at the end of the day, only losers?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I very much agree. At the end of the day, however, we have to come to some agreement. I pay tribute to those firefighters—when faced with a decision where there is a threat to human life most of them will leave the picket line and go and help. There is a lot of evidence of that—it is the firefighters' nature. That is what they do—they do not have a conflict of conscience, and I think that the whole House would want to congratulate them on that. That kind of spirit, at the end of the day, will solve this. We have to sit down and find agreement between parties who respect one another and accept each other's negotiating position. It is called compromise, it is called negotiations, it is called talking. That is how we will settle this in the end.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): If the Attorney-General is proposing to apply to the court, it is inconceivable that he will not tell the Deputy Prime Minister, so will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us if he knows whether the Attorney-General is proposing to

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apply to the court to invoke section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to declare that the strike is endangering public safety?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a legal background—I suspect, from his bearing, that he probably does. He will know as well as I know that the Attorney-General does not have to tell me about any action that he could take. What he must do, and he has been to see me about it, is to make a judgment about the dispute—whether this dispute may end, as in the case of the 48-hour strike, and whether his intervention would inflame the situation and make the strike go on longer, with all the implications of that for public safety. He has to make that judgment, but he does not have to tell me or ask my position—properly so—about whether he takes an action.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that he did not adequately answer the question from one of those Tory Back-Benchers, who asked him whether he knew any other group of people that had second jobs? The answer is loads of Tory MPs, including a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is making £100,000 a year selling fags to the third world. Will my right hon. Friend answer a question about a statutory incomes policy? Will he tell those people who are calling for public and Government intervention to be careful of their language? We all have the scars to prove what happened last time there was a statutory incomes policy. If he cannot get the money from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he look into his Department to find the pump-priming money to get the modernisation proposals on their way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend says on these matters. We have campaigned long and hard for Members of Parliament to have only one job in the House, and that is what I have done for the past 30 years since I have been a Member. As my hon. Friend reminds us, all the way through the operation of an incomes policy, all those Members who had second jobs were always exempt from the strictures of an incomes policy. Those strictures only ever applied to the ordinary worker, who received the normal payments. As to whether we will find extra resources, until the firefighters sit down and talk about where the resources will come from and how much of the total cost will be covered by modernisation, I cannot answer my hon. Friend's question. Let me be clear: no extra above 4 per cent. will be paid unless we are on course for modernisation and implementing it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): When I spoke to—

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thought that statements were supposed to be for one hour.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Deputy Prime Minister has come to the House. I will decide who I call and who I do not call.

Mr. McLoughlin: When I spoke to firemen in Matlock, it was made clear to me that the last thing that

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they wanted to do was to go on strike. How can the Deputy Prime Minister, with all his vast experience in industrial relations, come to the House today and say, XThis has got nothing to do with me"? He was the man who set up Bain. He is the man who is calling the tune. At the end of the day, whether the Deputy Prime Minister likes it or not, he and the Prime Minister are responsible.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I apologise for any insult or offence that I may have caused, Mr. Speaker, but you know that on the last occasion—[Hon. Members: XOh!"] I am entitled to make a point, even in a modernised House. You know, Mr. Speaker, that there was a requirement that statements would be one hour, and you said to the House that we went longer than that on the last occasion. [Interruption.] I am only repeating what the Speaker said. There was a statement yesterday. As you know, I recognise your judgment in the matter. You said on the last occasion that we had gone over the time allowed after modernisation, and since there was a statement yesterday, I was expressing the thought that we were going well over the hour now. I do exactly as you tell me. I do not challenge you in any way, but I think it fair to point out that I have a grievance about it, and I am entitled—

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