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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1098—continued

Mr. Hoon: I assure my hon. Friend that the Government recognise their responsibility in assisting the people of Iraq in any necessary rebuilding that might follow military operations. We are working closely with the United Nations, our coalition partners and others. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is in New York having discussions with Kofi Annan and other members of the United Nations in order to put that process in place.

I make this point to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that if he thinks about it for a moment he will acknowledge it. The moment that the military operations end, it will be British soldiers, American soldiers and other members of the armed forces who will be in position, with the ability to help to resolve those problems. If they do not help to resolve those problems, there will not be time for the international organisations to move in sufficiently quickly to provide food, water, clothing and other necessary assistance. That is why the Government have allocated significant funds for members of the military to engage in the initial humanitarian help that will be required the moment that conflict ceases.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Many hon. Members and members of the public will have read an account of the exemplary address by Colonel Collins to his battle group. I commend every single word of it, especially what he said about appropriate respect for and treatment of Iraq and Iraqis. He gave an instruction to his battle group not to fly the Union flag from their vehicles when they are on Iraqi territory in order to show that this is a war of liberation, not of occupation. Symbols are important. If that is not yet policy for all British forces engaged in this operation, will the Secretary of State consider making it so? In particular, if he considers it to be appropriate for United Kingdom forces, will he suggest to our United States allies that it may also be appropriate for them?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for the careful and measured way in which the hon. Gentleman made that point, and I shall certainly look into it.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the so-called live broadcast by Saddam Hussein this morning was in fact a recording? Will he also tell us exactly what is the situation as far as Turkey is concerned, given that Turkey has so far shown considerable reluctance to give assistance in the war that is now in progress?

Mr. Hoon: I know that the nature of that broadcast has attracted some interest and that analysis is being conducted as to its origins and authenticity, but I am not in a position at this stage to comment further.

Turkey is offering assistance. Clearly, we hope that Turkey will offer more help in coalition operations, and that is something that we continue to discuss with Turkey.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East

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Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), has the Secretary of State given any guidance, or does he plan to give any guidance, to British news organisations that plan to maintain correspondents in Baghdad even after a state of war exists between our two countries?

Mr. Hoon: Guidance is given by the Government and general advice is given to news media about the safety and security of their correspondents in Baghdad. Above all else, what we will be looking for is the necessary objectivity from those organisations, particularly as they are operating under very considerable restrictions. Some correspondents do make the point that they are not allowed to see all that they would want to see or to go where they would choose to go in order to report objectively what is taking place. Provided that correspondents make that qualification, their safety and security is ultimately a matter for their employers.

David Hamilton (Midlothian): As one who was in a minority on Tuesday, I believe that it was the first time that this House collectively made such a decision—not the Prime Minister, but this House. It is therefore binding on all Members to accept that that was the decision that was taken, as much as I disagree with it. My question is a simple one. I do not believe that we should be seeing everything that happens through the media. Ministers are right to say that they will come to the House to make statements. On two days a week, we finish at 7 o'clock and we do not sit on a Friday. Will the House adjust its hours to accommodate that, because members of the public expect their MPs to be here?

Mr. Hoon: I am relieved to say, given my other responsibilities at the moment, that that is not a matter for me. [Hon. Members: "Who is responsible?"] I will come to that question in a second, when I have thought of the answer.

On providing an opportunity for the House properly to debate these important events, I remind my hon. Friend that the Government made available three further hours in Tuesday's debate to allow more right hon. and hon. Members to address the issues. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who will shortly take business questions, will be able to give a much fuller and more detailed answer to that question.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Now that this avoidable war has started, will my right hon. Friend confirm that coalition war costs will not be paid from Iraqi oil revenues?

Mr. Hoon: We have made it absolutely clear that the benefit of Iraq's oil will be used for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): Will my right hon. Friend clarify what principles the UK military will use for their targeting and whether those principles will be shared by the United States and other allies?

Mr. Hoon: It is absolutely the case that we operate in a coalition with the same principles of international law governing the targeting. I have already set out some of

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those principles to the House. It is important to avoid where we can civilian casualties, while recognising the risk that there will obviously be civilian harm, but working through the details of the targeting programme to minimise those risks wherever possible.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): As depleted uranium weapons leave a poisonous cancerous residue for generations to come, and as cluster bombs are specifically anti-personnel devices designed to kill large numbers of people and to leave bomblets that will explode for ever more, killing many individuals, as is presently happening in Afghanistan, why are they being used now against the people of Iraq?

Mr. Hoon: I have already answered that question twice today. I just say this about my hon. Friend's premise in relation to depleted uranium. Notwithstanding what he says about the poisonous residue, there is not the slightest scientific evidence to support his contention. Depleted uranium is one of the complaints that is used against the Ministry of Defence in allegations of so-called Gulf war syndrome. In fact, the forces who deployed to the Gulf suffered fewer incidences of death from cancer that those who did not deploy there. That is a very important medical fact that my hon. Friend should study a little more carefully.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): No doubt the Americans will also give daily briefings. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could think back to the Gulf war, when on one occasion the Americans gave details of a covert British operation. Will the Secretary of State say what discussions he will have with our coalition allies to ensure that such disclosures do not endanger British forces?

Mr. Hoon: A great deal of effort has already been made to co-ordinate the information campaign and information operations, and I assure him that that will continue.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): I am sure that the House and the British people will welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that the forces will do all that they can to minimise civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. Does he accept, however, that a certain proportion of even the most modern guided missiles are bound to miss their targets, and that there has to be a danger that some very extensive civilian damage will be done? In those circumstances, while I accept that getting a speedy response sometimes conflicts with having all the information, it would nevertheless be much better if the British people could get the information from the British Government as soon as possible, rather than having to rely on other sources.

Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend is right. As I said, there is inevitably a risk to civilians in times of conflict, but equally I point out again that we seek wherever we can to minimise those risks and to ensure that our statements are wholly accurate.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I inform the House that there will be further statements, as the Secretary of State said, and I will keep a list of those who have not been called.

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Fire Dispute

1.19 pm

The First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the fire dispute.

As the House has just heard, military action is now under way and we are in a grave and serious situation. Our armed forces are now actively engaged in the Gulf. The continuing fire dispute means that 19,000 members of the armed forces are engaged in providing emergency fire cover at home. Therefore, although the Fire Brigades Union has called off its latest strike, which was due to start at 6 o'clock this evening, the threat of a further strike means that we must still hold those troops in reserve rather than release them for other military duties.

As the House will be aware, I have always tried to keep it fully informed of developments in the fire dispute as soon as they take place. I regret to say that, last night, the FBU recalled conference rejected the latest offer from the employers. I will be calling in the local authority employers and the FBU to meet me this afternoon. I am sure that many Members will be astonished that the conference has rejected an offer of 16 per cent. by July 2004 linked to common-sense changes in working practices. It would mean that every qualified firefighter would earn at least £25,000 a year compared with the present level of £21,500. That is a far more generous deal than most other workers in both the public and private sectors have settled for. It is double what their old pay formula would have given them, more than double what other local government employees have settled for, and compares with public sector pay settlements running at about 3 per cent. a year.

As I have said before, the employers' revised pay offer is partly financed by transitional funding from the Government. I want to make it absolutely clear that no more transitional funding will be forthcoming from the Government. Firefighters should be in no doubt that what the employers are offering is both generous and at the absolute limit of what they can afford. With that in mind, the executive council of the FBU concluded that this deal should be accepted by its members and that the strikes should be brought to an end. That was its recommendation to the conference. Clearly, in the view of the FBU negotiators, that was an acceptable offer. The employers agreed to that, as did the Government. Yesterday, however, the recalled conference decided to ignore the recommendation of the union's executive. Instead, it rejected the deal and reverted to the original claim of 40 per cent. for firefighters and 50 per cent. for control room staff.

The recalled conference went on to decide that it would take further soundings in the brigades with a recommendation to reject. It will meet again in two or three weeks' time. The FBU will therefore put the same deal to the same delegates at the same conference as yesterday, no doubt with the same outcome. Individual firefighters, however, have not spoken directly on this dispute since they rejected a 4 per cent. offer in a secret ballot last September. Since then, there have been months of negotiations leading to this final offer. It is a material and significantly better offer and individual firefighters should now have the right to express their individual views on it in a secret ballot.

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For now, however, we are left in a position in which, although no new strike dates have been set, we have no guarantee that further strikes will not be called, the union has repeatedly made it clear that it can call fresh strikes at any time with just seven days' notice, and unofficial action could put the public at risk during a period of heightened terrorist threat.

The House will recall that on 28 January I announced that if it proved impossible to reach a satisfactory negotiated agreement I would introduce legislation to impose a pay settlement. Now that the FBU conference has overturned its executive, I have concluded that the time has come for legislation, particularly given the conflict in the Gulf and the heightened threat of terrorism. I am therefore giving notice today that I will introduce and publish a new two-clause Fire Services Bill tomorrow. The Bill will give me the power to impose terms and conditions within the fire service and direct the use of fire service assets and facilities. I will start immediate discussions through the usual channels about how quickly we can make progress on this Bill. In setting the level for a settlement, I would take into account the pay rise that would have been forthcoming under the FBU's existing formula, the pay review bodies' recommendations for other key public sector workers and the Government's overall approach to public sector pay.

New terms and conditions, however, are only part of what is required for a modernised fire service. As the House is aware, we are repealing section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 and we are consulting on the related guidance to get the right people in the right place at the right time in order to reduce the risk of fire. I am also pressing ahead with a White Paper on a modernised fire service and legislation to achieve that objective. That will ensure that we have the legal framework in place to provide a modern, safe, efficient and effective fire service for the public and the firefighters. The choice for firefighters is simple: accepting a generous deal that has been approved by the FBU executive, or continuing a dispute that has been running for 12 months, is going nowhere and will require me to act. I believe that the common sense of individual firefighters will prevail in the end. Individual firefighters, however, must be given the chance to vote in a secret ballot, as they did on the original 4 per cent. offer in September last year.

In the interest of public safety, 19,000 members of the armed forces are tied down to cover the possibility that the union may strike again. That is unacceptable in the difficult situation that we face today. People will rightly find it hard to believe that the firefighters would go on strike while the country is engaged in military action. I do not believe for one moment that individual firefighters would want 19,000 members of the armed forces to be held in reserve for firefighting duties at a time when their comrades are risking their lives in the Gulf. I will be making that point strongly when I meet the union and the employers this afternoon.

It is now time for the voice of individual firefighters to be heard. I put my faith in the common sense and decency of firefighters to bring this dispute to an end. We have been reasonable; the FBU has not. Whatever people's views on the war, the country will find it extraordinary and unacceptable that at a time when our

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troops are being called into action, the FBU continues to act in this irresponsible way. I hope that the House will support us in these proposals.

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