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16 Dec 2002 : Column 559—continued

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): What time frame is attached to the Fire Brigades Union's demand for 40 per cent? We heard the Opposition talking about five-year targets. It strikes me that it would be possible to engage in a long-term deal that moved the figure, perhaps not to 40 per cent., but to one that would satisfy the FBU, especially if the discussions took place around Bain, because a lot of complex matters have been put before us.

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is quite right to say that there are many complex issues here, but I must say that the factual answer to his question is that the FBU wanted the 40 per cent. to be paid in one year, and no strings. That was totally unacceptable, although as I understand it that remains the claim before us. If there is an alternative, I hope that the FBU will take account of Bain. It can improve its wage scales, but that will happen through the negotiations with the local authorities.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and join him in thanking Professor Sir George Bain and his colleagues for the excellent work in the report.

The Deputy Prime Minister is right to regret the fact that the FBU leadership appears to have set its face against change and appears to be planning to go ahead with strikes in the new year, but does he agree that the FBU's dismissive response to the publication of Bain today is as depressing as it is predictable? Does he also recognise that Bain's review is as challenging to the Government and fire authorities as it is to the FBU?

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Specifically on funding the pay proposals, the Deputy Prime Minister says that he will provide a small amount of transitional funding. Will he say more about what figure he has in mind? Is it the #29 million that Bain identifies on page 119 in table 12.1 as the gap between costs and savings over the first three years or does the Deputy Prime Minister have another figure in mind? If he is prepared to provide about #29 million, will he tell the House exactly how and in what form he intends to supply that money? In particular, will he ensure that fire authorities that have already reaped cost savings are not penalised just because they have completed modernisation? Does he not agree that it would be wrong to burden modernising fire authorities and their taxpayers with all the extra costs when they have fewer opportunities to reap efficiencies? Will he therefore ensure that extra central Government cash is carefully distributed and targeted to reward the leaders of modernisation?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that Bain is good news for retained firefighters, just as it should be? Does he agree that one of the most welcome proposals in Bain is to give proper advocacy and representation to the Retained Firefighters Union, which, up to now, has been pushed out by the FBU? Does he agree that, if there is a weakness in the Bain review, it is the failure to recommend an even better pay deal for retained firefighters, as there is a serious 20 per cent. plus vacancy rate for retained positions?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister make it clear to those whose job it is to complete the negotiations that they should ensure that the retained firefighters are not betrayed simply because they have not been represented at the table and have been prepared to work and modernise?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether he disagrees with any of Bain's recommendations? Does he support, like us, the proposals to regionalise fire authorities and to back local pay top-ups? On Bain's observations on central Government's emergency planning role, does he accept Bain's statement that

and when can we expect an announcement on that?

Finally, what assurance can the Deputy Prime Minister give the House that this latest fire service review will be implemented?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If I may, I will take the hon. Gentleman's last question first. I thank him for his support, but let me make it clear that I do not want anybody to be under any misapprehension whatever—I intend to see the report implemented. It is a report to take into account in the negotiations.

The Bain report is not specific about every part of this deal; it says that its function is not to settle a dispute, but to give some guidance, an up-to-date position and recommendations on how modernisation and pay can be brought together. We fully accept that principle. I am sad that the FBU has said that the Bain report is irrelevant. I do not think it is; it is very relevant to the discussion.

As the FBU has made its position clear and as it is now in discussions at ACAS, it would be useful if it took into account, as the employers will surely point out to it, how modernisation is connected to pay. That, again,

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depends very much on how much money the Government are prepared to give. The hon. Gentleman referred to the table in the report, which shows that the deal can pay for itself, but in three years. Money can be gained in the third year. Therefore, a judgment would have to be made as to the transitional funds, but let me be absolutely clear: there will be no funds available at all if nobody undertakes any modernisation.

This is not a deal where people go ahead, as has happened every time in the past, even under the previous Administration, without doing anything about the recommendations. The FBU has to recognise that, in these circumstances, modernisation is connected to extra payments. That connection is relevant to the Government and relevant to everyone else. I hope that the fire brigade takes that on board. It is an important part of the deal, if the fire brigade is prepared to negotiate on those terms.

The Bain report makes it clear that a lot more should be done to give part-time or retained workers proper parity of pay and also, perhaps, that there should be a recognition of that when considering the pension fund. Bain makes special recommendations on that, which we will have to take on board, and we will give our responses in the White Paper.

Of course, that would mean having mixed crews, which was another recommendation, but the FBU has always set its face against it. I am told that it is against the idea because it offends against its overtime ban. The ban creates real problems in itself. It is there to prevent people from taking extra resources or gaining extra payment, whereas firefighters elsewhere in the world can earn overtime. The FBU is against second jobs, although a lot of its members have them. I find it odd that it denies firemen the opportunity to do a second job as a part-time fire worker. After all, that is what they are trained for. It is odd that a firefighter can have a second job as a taxi driver but cannot help to provide a decent fire service by working overtime. It is precisely such absurdities that we have to deal with.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the personal denigration of George Bain by the FBU? He is a committed public servant with whom I have worked, and a man of the utmost integrity. Will my right hon. Friend develop initiatives to engage the ordinary, decent firemen on the ground, so that the much-needed change to the fire service can be implemented, and we can help to find the #7 billion that it costs to save lives today—and save lives in the process, which we have not been too good at to date?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree strongly about the denigration of George Bain by the FBU, which has been quite powerful. It is totally unacceptable. He is a public servant who carried out the inquiry with great commitment. The denigration is not new—it has gone on constantly, and been directed not only at Sir George but at other members of his committee. I think that most of us in the House would agree that that is unacceptable.

My hon. Friend talks about persuading the decent firemen. I do not differentiate between decent and non-decent firemen—and I am sure that he does not either.

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All the firefighters are trying to do a job, and the union is trying, in many cases, to reflect its members views, but I hope that firefighters who are following our discussions and reading about what is going on will get involved, read the Bain report and come to a judgment on whether we need a better balance in the fire service, concentrating more on prevention rather than intervention. Sir George has done an excellent job in giving us the properly recorded argument on which to base the debate. Calling that irrelevant is not the way to get agreement, and I hope that the rest of the firemen will take that into account and start negotiations.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): The Bain report contains some sensible recommendations, and I hope that they will be implemented. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree, however, that it fails to tackle the principle archaism that cries out for reform: the quaint idea that there is a single model of providing a fire service that is equally applicable in every part of the country, and the equally outdated notion that a single rate of pay is appropriate everywhere? If he really wants to be radical and to achieve modernisation, why does not he look for a way of seriously decentralising, so that local fire authorities can negotiate pay directly with their local employees, and get rid of the wholly outdated notion of a national pay structure?

The Deputy Prime Minister: When the right hon. Gentleman reads the Bain report in closer detail, he will see that it does talk of the need to have a decentralised service. Indeed, it goes further and says that in the fourth strand of change consideration should be given to the concept of regionalism. On different rates of pay, or different services in rural or urban areas, clearly one framework does not suit all. Indeed, Bain says that there could be differences in those different circumstances. I think that he is advocating not different wages in different places, but differences in allowances and agreements to reflect the differing demands. He certainly takes into account the high number of applications for jobs in the fire service.

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