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16 Dec 2002 : Column 565—continued

The Deputy Prime Minister : I think that the House will agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. The reaction of people in the fire service who listen to the debate or who watch it on television, where we have received so much publicity of late, is most important. We are not making a major attack and completely scrapping the shift system, as has been said. Of course, such reports cause great concern to fire brigades. What we are saying is that some changes are common sense and should be considered. Every fire brigade should have a 24-hour-a-day watch system and we want to keep such a system, but changes can be made. Some of them have been highlighted today and I hope that there can be a decent discussion of them among members of fire brigades.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): This afternoon, the Deputy Prime Minister made several references to

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the fact that many of the modernisation proposals in the Bain report have already been accepted—indeed, embraced—by fire brigades in different parts of the country, not least in Cornwall and Devon. Does he accept that it would be widely resented among firefighters in those more forward-thinking brigades if the new money is used as a bribe for the backward brigades rather than to recognise and reward those that have already taken steps to accept modernisation?

The Deputy Prime Minister : We are concerned to ensure that the savings are of benefit everywhere. As I pointed out, advances have already been made in some aspects—for example, combined control rooms. We want those advances to take place throughout the system. Where modernisation proposals have been implemented, it will not be necessary to make changes, but we want to raise standards in the fire service nationally so that they are acceptable to everyone, in line with Bain, and so that they justify the payments. Areas where changes have already been made will receive the increased payments.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the most interesting and important part of his statement was the new provision that referred to transitional funding, up-front, to resolve the modernisation question? Some of us raised that matter during a previous statement from my right hon. Friend; that is important in itself. I shall not ask—as the Tories did—how much money my right hon. Friend has in his budget although I hope that it is not a small amount. I hope the sum is big enough.

Whatever my right hon. Friend does, I ask him not to accept the proposal made earlier by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) that we should introduce regional pay scales, which, by the way, was a Liberal proposition. If we accepted that proposal, the present dispute would look like a vicarage tea party.

The Deputy Prime Minister : I recognise the force of my hon. Friend's argument about regional pay scales, but there should be some discussion of it. There is a national wage for fire brigades, but allowances vary in different areas; for example, London weighting can add about #2,000 to the wage. We should have some discussion of that. The FBU should not say that such things are irrelevant; it should discuss matters that affect its members' wages.

On previous occasions, I could not be specific about transitional funding or the amounts involved because they depended on the costs and savings that could be made. Bain has now given some indication of those amounts. People accused me of sabotaging the agreement at 5 o'clock in the morning, even though I had made it clear at 3 o'clock to both the general secretary of the TUC and the employers' negotiators that I could not sign a blank cheque. However, one of the difficulties was that they did not know what savings could be made; in 25 years, the possible savings had never been worked out. Some joint work has now been carried out between Bain, ourselves and the local authority employers and I can now say how much we would save if the proposals were implemented.

An awful lot of work was needed but the principle is clear. Transitional payments will need to be agreed for a three-year period, but I cannot enter into any agreement

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unless there is a modernisation agreement that will take us to year three. I am not prepared to make the same mistakes that were made time and again whereby there was agreement on pay first and then talk about modernisation. This time, the two must happen together.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I welcome the particular recommendation in Bain that enhanced terms and conditions should be made available for our retained firefighters. We all want a successfully negotiated end to the dispute, but will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to pay a special tribute to our retained firefighters? They provide critically important cover in our rural areas and many of them continued to provide emergency cover during periods when the regulars were on strike.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I want to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in maintaining our services—whether the part-time firefighters, the Army or the police, all of whom have provided quite an effective service in the most difficult circumstances. Many part-timers are involved in the dispute and support the FBU case, but all the firefighters—part-time or full-time—need to get together and say, XChange is coming, and now is the time to take part in it." They should start talking, not walking, and let us get an agreement to this dispute.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that if there are flaws in the Bain report, they are largely caused by the FBU's decision not to participate in that report? Will he ensure that, as the negotiations progress, the real recruitment and retention difficulties faced by brigades on the borders of London, which do not benefit from the London allowance, are considered? That situation is practically unique in this country. If he is considering primary legislation, will he also consider whether it should extend to improving fire safety in new buildings, as well as modernising the fire service?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend refers to improving the fire regulations, and we certainly want to do that—indeed, legislation on improving building regulations in that way is already before the House—but we need to take a much more comprehensive approach. That is behind the concept of wanting more prevention rather than intervention. A point was made about Kent fire brigade being actively involved in fire prevention—something that the FBU has always supported, and we need to see more of it. That is the balance and change that we are trying to achieve.

As for whether there are flaws in the report, I shall listen to those views, but I think that it is a pretty comprehensive and good report. It is based on the many reports over the past 20 years that have not been acted upon, and it was wrong for the union not to participate and, indeed, to set its face against the report. The point now is whether the union representatives are sitting down, discussing with the employers and negotiating how to reach a settlement. That is still the case at the moment, and we should encourage that.

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Points of Order

5.17 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you have had any indication today of whether the Secretary of State for Transport is willing to make a statement to the House on the shocking press reports on Friday and Sunday that he proposes to abandon the targets on reducing road congestion and increasing passenger numbers introduced by the Deputy Prime Minister and, furthermore, that he proposes to cut public subsidy in a way that will ensure fewer trains and higher fares. Is not such a statement important to put right the indication from the Downing street press office this morning that tomorrow's statement will be only a written statement, as I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would expect such an important matter to discussed on the Floor of the House and dealt with properly?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I have no indication that a statement of the kind that the hon. Gentleman suggests is about to be made at the moment.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask you whether the Speaker would consider issuing a fatwa to Ministers who fail to answer their correspondence in a timely manner—a matter that I have raised with the occupant of the Chair on several occasions? This morning, I received a reply to a letter that I had addressed to the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety on 6 September. The letter has been chased up on any number of occasions, and I finally received a reply not from the Minister himself, but from a private secretary, four months late. That is not only impertinent to my constituents, but rude to Parliament. Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, raise this matter with the Speaker and find out whether he will issue more general instructions to Ministers about the generally lamentable way in which they answer correspondence?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Mr. Speaker has made his views on that matter clear on a number of occasions. He agrees very much with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and, no doubt, Ministers will have heard him put it on the record again.

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