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Council Tax (Lancashire)

3. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): What steps his Department has taken to respond to representations from Lancashire county council on the expected level of council tax in Lancashire in 2003–04. [93768]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The level of council tax in Lancashire is a matter for the local authorities concerned.

Mr. Jack : That was a complacent answer, to say the least. The Minister for Local Government and the Regions said a moment ago that the Government had been generous, but Labour-controlled Lancashire county council says that it does not have enough money and is trying to live within its means. Will the Minister provide my constituents with a cogent explanation of why they face a council tax increase that is three times the rate of inflation? [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the Minister responds, I must tell the House that there is far too much conversation going on, and that that is making it very difficult for these exchanges to be heard clearly.

Mr. Leslie: I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman should wait until the county council sets its council tax.

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Lancashire county council is expecting to get a 4.8 per cent. increase in grant. Fylde district council in the right hon. Gentleman's area is pencilled in for an increase of 8.8 per cent., and Wyre district council for 12.8 per cent. As far as the Government are concerned, the grant support is there. There can be very few excuses for excessive council tax rises.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend accept that Lancashire county council is clearly saying that 4.8 per cent. is not sufficient, and that it has had a raw deal in comparison with other shire county councils? It will have either to cut services or to make an unacceptably high council tax increase.

Mr. Leslie: In the context of the history of local government settlements, 4.8 per cent. for Lancashire is very generous indeed—well above the rate of inflation. I have never known a council say, "Thank you for the wonderful grant increases," but I think that that is a reasonable settlement.

Fire Service

4. Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): What estimate he has made of changes in the number of firefighters in urban areas up to December 2006. [93769]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): The independent review of the fire service, led by Sir George Bain, set a framework for the future of the fire service. Bain said that changes in the number and deployment of firefighters should be for the fire authorities and the chief fire officers to negotiate and consult on locally. The Government's actuarial report has stated that more than 20 per cent. of the existing force could retire in the next six years, and Bain has made it clear that there should therefore be no need for compulsory redundancies. Indeed, over the last 10 years the number of firefighters in England and Wales has been reduced by 5 per cent. without compulsory redundancies, under the normal negotiating procedures.

Mr. Francois : I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply. He will know that many retained firefighters and retained stations are based in urban areas but are also responsible for providing critical cover in rural areas further afield. Will he join me in congratulating all the retained firefighters who have continued to provide emergency cover when the regulars have been on strike? Moreover, now that the review is under way, can he provide some assurance that retained firefighters and stations will not suffer under the review because of the actions of the regulars?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman attended my statement yesterday, I think that he will remember that I made it clear that we were expressing our appreciation of the armed forces, the police and the retained fire workers who made the choice to continue the service. Some of the retained fire workers are members of the Fire Brigades Union as well; they belong to two different organisations. Questions have been raised about their future role in negotiations. Bain refers to that, and we will cover all these matters in the coming White Paper.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): May I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider any threat to

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impose a settlement on the present dispute? We all want it resolved through ACAS, but we all still feel that firefighters are undervalued and underpaid.

The Deputy Prime Minister: If my hon. Friend feels that firefighters are justified in asking for a 40 per cent. increase—[Interruption.] Their demand at the moment is for 40 per cent., and I have to say time and time again that, for the reasons that I have given, I do not think that we can afford 40 per cent. The House must make its judgments about these matters—[Interruption.] That is totally untrue; Members did not get 40 per cent. It is a lie that is put on the banner outside a number of fire stations, and I am surprised if my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) wants to repeat it.

Leaving that aside, however, the question posed to me is whether the actions that I proposed yesterday will have the effect of imposing conditions on firefighters. All that I seek to impose is negotiations. My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) said that ACAS should be involved in the negotiations, and ACAS has laid down that nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out. Both parties should go to those negotiations, but the Fire Brigades Union has said, "No, we're laying down conditions about jobs and fire stations"—assumptions that it has made before negotiations begin. I am saying—and I think that this is the view of the House—that negotiations should start through ACAS, but also that the House may have to take powers to make it clear that the negotiations should continue, but are not unlimited in time, because it has already been 10 months, and longer than that is not required to get a successful conclusion to the negotiations.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Like the Deputy Prime Minister, we believe that fire service modernisation means better fire prevention, not simply job cuts. Given that there are likely to be job losses in some areas, why does he now make a proposal that would remove any legitimate role for a trade union in negotiating the solution, and also remove the independence of fire authorities? Would it not be better for him to call on all sides to commit themselves not just to negotiation at ACAS but to binding arbitration at ACAS, linked to Bain's financial and modernisation framework?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I assume from the hon. Gentleman's last remarks that binding negotiation means that we compel the firefighters to accept those conditions. My proposal does not do that at all. In fact, it would be necessary to take legislation through the House, which, presumably, would be seen as anti-strike legislation. If that is the policy of the Liberals, let them get on with it; it is not our policy.

Yes, of course we would like the unions and the employers to come to an agreement. I am making it clear that they should do in negotiations at ACAS. The difficulty comes if both parties refuse to negotiate. What I am facing is deadlock; I have to find some kind of solution that gets them back to the negotiating table. I believe that those negotiations should take place at ACAS. ACAS has made it clear that no one has to

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comply with any conditions whatever, and they can go into negotiation. Start negotiations: that is the best way to settle industrial disputes.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that any changes in the placement and priorities of fire service staff will be the subject of local consultation before being approved?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): The Deputy Prime Minister did not answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) about retained firefighters. The retained firefighters are the lowest-cost part of the fire service so there is the least scope for savings there. This is not just about economics; it is about natural justice. The Deputy Prime Minister has quite properly praised those people who have protected the safety of the country throughout the strikes: the armed forces, the police and the retained firefighters. Will he guarantee today that their public service will not be punished by their losing their jobs at the end of this negotiation?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes.

David Davis: I am pleased to hear a straight answer from the right hon. Gentleman. It is a novelty. Yesterday, he announced his intention to take powers in order to carry through the changes in job conditions and pay and, of course, the reduction in numbers of personnel in the fire service. In the event that he takes those powers and exercises them and the Fire Brigades Union stays on strike, what will he then do?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not accept for a moment that I would come to some decision as to what will be imposed upon them. I do not have the authority of the past to be able to do that, and I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that that is the solution, as he did in the earlier part of his question. The question is where we get the parties back to negotiations. I reaffirm today what I told the House yesterday: that if negotiations fail and the deadlock continues, I would come to the House and ask for powers for compulsory arbitration. The Liberal spokesman often says, "Let us have compulsory arbitration," as if somehow one could force them to accept a deal. I think that there are real difficulties about that, but I want the negotiations to start through ACAS, and I am giving notice that if they do not I will come to the House to ask for the powers to impose a solution.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), the Deputy Prime Minister said that the existing consultation arrangements for the alteration of fire cover and personnel would be retained. Can we assume from that that no legislative proposals will be brought to the House that will alter the existing statutory arrangements, which do provide for such consultation? Yes or no?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If my hon. Friend had heard the earlier replies he would not be asking yes or

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no, because I have made it very clear to the House that I am going to repeal section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, as Bain recommended, and I intend to do so. That would not take powers away from the local area; I am reinforcing the powers of the local area, taking away my right, as central Government, to have the final decision. I do have other powers in the Bill to use if I want to and it is a serious matter in those areas, but I am decentralising that power down to local areas. I thought that that was what my hon. Friend wanted, and that is what I intend to do.

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