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16 Dec 2002 : Column 549continued
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): The Prime Minister would have been justified in making more of the progress made on the European security and defence policy and the way in which the EU and NATO can work together. When it comes to further negotiations on Turkey, may I have his reassurance that we will have objective assessment criteria, such as the Copenhagen criteria, not ones based on the desire of some people in Europe to maintain a European Union of Christian countries?
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Does the Prime Minister agree that the first presidency of the enlarged European Union in 2004 will be a very important job? Will he therefore be allowing his name to go forward?
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): My right hon. Friend was surely right to describe the agreement as redefining the European Union. The EU will be much larger but it will also be very different. Does he agree that the young democracies coming in from the east should be joining state-of-the-art democratic institutions, not ones that are in many cases 40 years old and prone to democratic deficit? Will he use enlargement to help to speed up the process of reform?
The Prime Minister: Yes, it is extremely important that we do so because there is no way Europe can function effectively as a Union of 25 or, as some have pointed out, perhaps 30 countries with the existing rules. The only point that I would make is that people often see this as a battle between the Council, the intergovernmental approach, and the Commission, the Community approach. In fact, we need to strengthen both. We need a strong, independent Commission to drive through processes such as economic reform, but we also need a strong Council, able to handle the management of the affairs of 25 or more nations, to give the EU a strong external voice and to set the agenda for Europe.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Did the French President express appreciation both of the Prime Minister's sycophantic eulogy to him in Paris Match and of the fact that the British Prime Minister should take refugees from Sangatte? Why did the Prime Minister not include in his statement any comment about the immigration implications of enlargement? Why have the British Government decided to waive a transition period on immigration from countries coming into the European Union?
The Prime Minister: First, the President did express appreciation of that eulogy in Paris Match, and I received it gratefully. Secondly, of course we take seriously immigration issues to do with enlargement. However, we took the right decision in being forwardafter all, we have been forward on the whole enlargement process. My advice is that that does not pose a great problem for us, and it is far more important to make sure that the enlargement process goes through
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Just a word of caution after the cheering has ended. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when those visionaries way back in the early 1970s took part in that historic vote to take us into the Common Market, we were promised economies of scale and that we would be able to compete with the rest? If we joined the six, we were told, it would be wonderful. We had the same thing with the Single European Act and Maastricht. When the Union was enlarged to 15, we were told we would be able to trade more effectively. In all that time, they have never bought a cobble of coal from Britain, even though it is the cheapest deep-mined coal in Europe.
What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give me that 450 million people in the enlarged Europe will change their ways and buy British goods? Our manufacturing industries have been going to the wall throughout that period. A fortnight ago, the balance of trade deficit was the largest ever. At some point, that must end. All I say to my right hon. Friend is that the summit can be historic in many ways, but it ain't been all that good for people here who are working at the sharp end.
If we were outside the European Union, that would not help our industry. In fact, tariffs would be imposed on our goods going into Europe. My hon. Friend is right that we need to knock down a lot of barriers that still existthat is extremely important. However, we are better placed to do so if we are inside rather than outside.
The Prime Minister: Yes, of course NATO has played a part, but the European Union has too[Interruption.] Now I am told that Europe has done nothing in the past 50 years. I know that the alternative leadership has left the Chamber, but I simply tell the Conservative party that until it adopts a sensible attitude on Europe, it will find itself a long way from office.
This morning Sir George Bain published his final report, XReducing Risk, Saving Lives". I am sure that the House will want to join me in thanking Sir George and his teamSir Michael Lyons and Sir Tony Youngfor an excellent piece of work and for delivering it on time, as promised. The House will recall that the review's terms of reference were to make recommendations on the future organisation and management of the fire service, and in that context, to look at pay and conditions.
The report recalls that there have been seven or eight major reviews of the fire service going back more than 20 years. As Sir George acknowledges, many of the recommendations contained in those reviews are repeated in the Bain report. However, the report concludes that
The report's first and most fundamental recommendation is to move to a system of targeted fire cover that is based on a careful, professional assessment of the real risk of incidents in each local area. At present, fire cover is based on rigid targets for a set number of appliances to attend an incident within a set time. Those targets are defined by property characteristics, rather than the risk to life. The targets apply day and night, during the week and at weekends, irrespective of the predictable daily changes to the level of incidents actually taking place. In the most extreme example, the targets lead to the situation in the City of London where there are the same number of firefighters on duty at night, when there are just 5,000 overnight residents, as during the day, when there are 500,000 people working in the area. That is not the most effective deployment of resources. But above all, as the Bain report concludes:
Thirdly, the report makes recommendations on working practices, where the fire service has fallen well behind other public services. This includes dealing with the fact that only 1.5 per cent. of firefighters are drawn from the ethnic minorities, only 1.7 per cent. of firefighters are women, and only 2 per cent. of firefighters are graduates. The report concludes that urgent action is required to tackle these problems.
In addition to these important recommendations for the fire authorities and the fire service, there is a raft of equally important recommendations for the Government. The Bain report recommends the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. Section 19 means that any reduction in the number of fire appliances or firefighting posts, or closure of any fire station, requires the Secretary of State's consent. That situation places detailed control of the fire service in Whitehall and makes modernisation on the ground far more difficult.
The report recommends primary and secondary legislation to modernise the fire service institutions; to deal with the difficulties arising from the discipline regulations, and the appointment and promotion regulations; and to bring fire authorities' statutory duties in line with a modernised fire service. The report also makes recommendations to improve the inspection and delivery of services, and to establish a new central organisation to drive forward the process of modernisation.
Many of the report's recommendations to the Government will require detailed consideration, but we have been looking at these issues for some time and we have given further detailed consideration since the publication of the interim Bain position paper on 11 November. Today, with the publication of the final Bain report, I can set out the steps that the Government will take to put into effect the Bain recommendations.
First, the Government accept the recommendation to repeal section 19 of the 1947 Act and we will do so at the earliest opportunity, as requested. Secondly, we accept in principle the report's recommendations for legislation to modernise the fire service, to improve inspection and delivery of services and to set up a new central body to drive forward modernisation. Thirdly, I am committing the Government to produce a White Paper on the fire service in the spring in order to fulfil our part of the programme of modernisation. The White Paper will set out in detail the legislative and other changes required.
That is a clear programme of reform that will be taken forward immediately and will sustain the drive to modernise the framework in which the fire service operates. My guiding principle will be to transform the fire service into a modern emergency fire and rescue service focused on the safety of people and communities. That is what modernisation is about. Some of it will save money, but some of it will cost money, including, for example, training in basic life support skills and providing life-saving equipment for firefighters.
The modernisation of the fire service forms part of the Government's broader agenda to reform, modernise and invest in Britain's public services. We must not lose sight of the fact that the fire service is a local authority service that is paid for out of local authority budgets. Schools, refuse collection and other local authority services are subject to review and audit through the new system of comprehensive performance assessments. The Bain report recommends further discussion on the introduction of a similar system for fire authorities that would ensure a comprehensive approach to audit for the milestones that it sets out.
With permission, I shall now turn to Sir George Bain's recommendations on pay and conditions. In May, the Fire Brigades Union tabled a claim for a 40 per cent. increase in firefighters' pay and a 50 per cent. increase in pay for control room staff. That remains its position today. That has to be seen against the background of the recent local authority pay award of 7.8 per cent. over two years and the 8 per cent. over two years accepted by the Transport and General Workers Union leadership for airport firefighters.
The Bain report commissioned two studies to compare pay for fire service roles with pay for jobs of similar weight elsewhere in the economy. The report concludes in paragraph 8.19 that there is no case for significant increases in pay based on the existing pay system. However, it calls for a new reward structure that is fit for a modernised fire service, following on from reforms. The Government's response to the FBU's claim has been guided by two clear principles: first, our hard-won economic stability should not be put at risk; and secondly, any pay award must be affordable within existing public expenditure provision. The Bain report's recommendations comply with those two principles and give a fair deal to the firefighters and the public who pay for them.
In line with the Bain review's interim position paper, the final report proposes an 11.3 per cent. pay increase over two years, subject to the implementation of the common-sense reforms that it sets out. The report does not rule out further pay increases in future, but as with the 11.3 per cent. increase, any increases would be subject to the implementation of the modernisation programme set out in the report.
The package proposed by Sir George could mean that an ordinary firefighter could earn around #23,900 a year by November 2003; that a leading firefighter could earn up to #26,700 a year; and that a leading firefighter in London could earn up to #29,300 a year by the same time. The Bain report makes it clear that a two-year pay deal of that order would not be self-financing over two years, but that if modernisation is fully implemented, it could be self-financing over a three-year period.
The local government employers have made it plain to me that they will find it difficult to fund any up-front investment to pay for future modernisation. In keeping with the proposals set out in the Bain report, the Government accept that it may be necessary to provide a small amount of transitional funding over the next two years in order to make it possible for a three-year self-financing deal to be agreed. That funding would be
The new pay and career structure proposed in the Bain report will open up new opportunities for firefighters at all levels to develop their skills and increase their income. The report's modernisation agenda will provide a better, safer service to the public. Some brigades, such as the Devon and Mid and West Wales brigades, already carry defibrillators. Why should not others do so? In Warwickshire, ambulance and fire control room staff already share the same building. Why should not other brigades do the same? In some areas, local arrangements are in place for part-time and full-time firefighters to work together. Why should that not be more widespread? It does not mean compulsory redundancies. It does not mean tearing up the shift system. But it does mean a more efficient use of resources, more flexible terms and conditions for firefighters, and tackling the current inadequacies of management. It also means enabling better collaboration to take place between individual fire brigades and the Fire Service and other public services. Exactly how that will be achieved is a matter for negotiation between the employers and the FBU.
The FBU and the local government employers are now engaged in exploratory talks with ACAS. I am pleased that, in the light of those ongoing talks, the FBU has called off the eight-day strike that was scheduled to start today, but I regret the FBU's decision to call further strikes for the new year, which can only cause disruption and put people's lives at risk. The Government believe that the ACAS discussions should take the recommendations and proposals in the Bain report fully into account, as well as the principles set out in my letter to Sir Jeremy Beecham on 28 November. That will mean some tough talking; but further strikes will achieve nothing.
Throughout this dispute, I have urged the FBU to talk, not walk. I recognise that the union has set its face against the Bain changes, but change is on its way, and the FBU cannot set its face against that. It is now time for it to start talking seriously.