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16 Dec 2002 : Column 562—continued

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): If Bain is implemented, what will be the estimated total number of firefighter posts in 2005–06, and what is the estimated cost of introducing the recommended reforms to the financial arrangements for the pension fund?

The Deputy Prime Minister: In all these cases, everything depends on the state of negotiations between the employers and the employees. On jobs, as Bain has constantly and rightly pointed out, there is no need for compulsory redundancies. Many mischievous statements have been made in this House, but it is quite wrong to suggest that the result will be a great deal of unemployment.

On costs, again, the issue is the negotiations between the employers and the employees. As the table to which we have been referring shows, what matters is just how much modernisation the Fire Brigades Union is prepared to undertake. I simply say to the FBU that it should get involved in those negotiations. Perhaps my hon. Friend has received a copy of the recent paper from the FBU, which puts forward some of its views on these matters. It deals with very serious issues, and I hope that

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Members will read it. It is a pity that it did not give that evidence to the Bain inquiry, because it contains some very good arguments. I hope that it will give that information to ACAS, so that we can take it into account. However, at the end of the day the FBU must recognise that a connection will be made between modernisation and pay.

On the likely cost of pensions, again, that depends on exactly what happens and how many people take early retirement. As Bain points out, the cost of the pension system is leading to difficulties. If that system is to be extended to part-time fireworkers—that is one recommendation—a serious study needs to be undertaken. In 1995, the Audit Commission recommended that the true costs of the pension fund should be reassessed. We cannot make that estimate at the moment, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that such a survey will have to be undertaken. Work is under way in that regard.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I wish the right hon. Gentleman success in implementing these reforms, but does he agree that any truly modern fire service should be unable to hold the nation to ransom, and would have a no-strike, binding arbitration agreement as part of such a settlement?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that this House would want industrial peace in all areas, and for matters to be settled by negotiation to the satisfaction of all parties. That is something that we would all strive to achieve. We have received some criticism for perhaps not being as tough as the Opposition would like, but I should point out that, of the 36 days of strikes that were planned, only 12 have taken place. We must wait and see what happens, but if we had rushed in by using legislation and taking the sort of action that is being talked about, we would have inflamed the situation, difficulties would have arisen and I doubt whether we would have reached the position that we have reached today. We have to make a balanced judgment about the use of legislation and getting the best out of negotiations; we have given our best judgment, and so far that has proved reasonably successful.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Bain recommendations before the House today are not news to firefighters. From day one, they have regarded Bain as delivering nothing more than a long-standing firemaster's wish agenda. How optimistic, confident or otherwise is he that he will get the FBU to sit down and look at these proposals?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Bain's proposals constitute his independent judgment, having looked at the evidence over a number of years, of what he thinks is the best way to provide a modernised fire service. They are to the advantage of everyone—to the fireworkers, to the firefighters and, indeed, to the country at large—and they equate to the principles that we laid down. The proposals constitute a very important step towards trying to achieve change, but as my hon. Friend rightly points out, they are not new. Bain scoured the many directly relevant reports—there are some eight or 10—and pointed out that, although they rightly praise the FBU for the provision of a good service, they make the

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common claim that modernisation is still necessary because certain restrictions prevent the provision of a better service. That is the judgment that we use, and Bain makes an important contribution to it.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that specific issues arise in rural areas—particularly in Scotland and in Wales—and that there is little scope to renegotiate pay and conditions in those areas? Does he also accept that, as a result of the report, we still face strikes in the new year, at a time when there is real concern about the coverage provided by the green goddesses in those areas?

The Deputy Prime Minister: There is a distinct difference, which has already been recognised in the provision of fire services in rural and urban areas, and the targets reflect that. However, we recognise that in the main, particularly in the rural areas, cover is mainly carried out by part-time, not full-time workers, who believe it unjust that they do not get paid the same rate as full-time firefighters. The Bain report has said that that needs to be changed and that changes will also need to be made to the pension funds to reflect that. The Government will consider those recommendations and give their response in the White Paper to be published in the spring.

The union has made it clear that there will be another dispute. I am glad that it is a number of weeks away because it allows the armed forces to have a break, particularly during the festive season. The legal advice given to me is that it is not necessary to maintain the strike envelope; presumably it is there to add to the pressure. We are constantly under pressure, and those that apply it should bear it in mind that it is our intention to carry out modernisation; we will not avoid it as has happened in the past. We are committed to making the change.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): May I welcome the statement and my right hon. Friend's comments about transitional funding? Does he agree that there are varying practices up and down the country and that many brigades have implemented changes such as community fire safety? The Kent brigade has been in the vanguard of reducing the number of deaths and house fires. To assist with the negotiations, can I ask for clarification, because some of the language used has been misunderstood by FBU members? [Interruption.] This is a question. On paramedical training, for example, some people have asked me whether the Government believe that fire brigades should undertake ambulance training for four years or is my right hon. Friend talking more about defibrillators? I think that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think that that will do.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am aware of the great improvements to the Kent fire brigade from talking to the leader of Kent's Tory authority, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. He gave me some examples of co-operation between members and fire officers that has reduced the number of deaths and accidents quite considerably in the past three years. I would not want to give the House the impression that improvements are not being made to

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the system—clearly there are, with the co-operation of all parties. It shows how much can be achieved if people are prepared to do that, although it is a pity that it usually happens within the local brigade area, not nationally. Our point is that we need to raise national standards.

On the provision of defibrillators, that is a very important point. It takes five or six years to train people to become paramedics and it is an insult not to recognise their true skills. However, it is silly that we can have defibrillators in some areas but not in others. As I understand it, they are supposed to be there only to assist the firefighters themselves. It is nonsense that such a facility is not available to all areas of the community at all times. I know that the fire service finds this controversial, but I saw a study that said that if defibrillators were available and approved for the general public, the response time of the fire service could be increased so that it was better than that of the ambulance service, which is under pressure. If we had the same rate of response at the fire brigade level, it could save many thousands of lives. That is the sort of modernising proposal that will cost us money, but it is for the benefit of the community and I think that we should do it.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Will the right hon. Gentleman seek to change the Fire Services Act 1947 by bringing forward amendments to the Local Government Bill which begins its passage in the House on 7 January?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The legislation will be available to us; we will be looking at what we can do in regard to that and I shall be responding shortly.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Does my right hon. Friend agree that ordinary firemen should not adopt a kneejerk response to statements about the Bain report but study it in the watches and at the stations, identify how they can make it work for them and their families and then instruct the negotiators to get them the best deal possible? In that context, will he continue to promote a calm and decent atmosphere that is conducive to sensible negotiations?

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