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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1103—continued

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for making his statement today and for prior sight of it, albeit only by 20 minutes.

I add the Opposition's support to the Deputy Prime Minister's calls for the FBU to hold a secret ballot of its members and for it not to instigate more strike action, particularly at a time when it puts British citizens at grave risk. Today, with the coalition forces involved in military action against Iraq, that danger is starker than at any time in this dispute. Currently, up to 45,000 service personnel, including a quarter of the Army, are deployed in the Gulf. There could not be a worse time to commit 19,000 troops to stay at home on firefighting duties.

The last time that I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about that, he said that he took the advice of the military. We have had clear advice from the military: the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Michael Boyce, said that he was "extremely concerned" that keeping 19,000 troops on standby to cover for the firemen was affecting training and operational readiness. Now, we understand that troops deployed in Northern Ireland have had their tours extended, and troops now in the Gulf have had their training times and leave—often the last opportunity to see their loved ones before military action—cut. Does the Deputy Prime Minister deny that all of that is a direct result of the need to provide cover for firefighters? Clearly, he does not.

Since December, with war looming, I have been calling on the Deputy Prime Minister to seek an injunction to ban these dangerous strikes. Will he now publish the Attorney-General's advice, as the Government did in the case of the advice on the need for a second UN resolution? I am saddened that he decided not to take that course, as I fear that that will have been detrimental to our preparations for war. Firefighters are our first line of defence in the event of a terrorist attack at home. There have been press reports that the FBU, in 19 out of the 58 regions, have refused to take part in training on equipment designed specifically to protect the public from terrorist chemical attack. Can he confirm or deny that? Are there any other examples of obstruction to preparations for a terrorist attack? What are the Government doing to put that right, and will that be dealt with in the Bill that he has proposed today?

Opposition Members have been calling on the Government to give greater attention to the ongoing need for a higher level of preparedness for a terrorist attack and to consider appointing a senior political figure to have overall charge of preparing for a terrorist attack. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was the Minister with direct responsibility for civil defence and the threat of terrorism at home, but it is two days since his resignation and there is no sign of a replacement so we do not even have a junior Minister in charge of homeland security. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what the Government propose to do about that, and when?

When we last heard a statement on the fire strikes from the right hon. Gentleman he told us that he would impose a deal on firefighters if he felt that negotiations

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could not move forward, and he has told us that he intends to take that course of action. Conservative Members will support commencing legislation subject to seeing the details. However, we do not take lightly curbing citizens' rights without proper scrutiny, and we will insist that such legislation is time limited so that the House can examine the matter again after hostilities have ceased.

The Deputy Prime Minister first talked about this legislation two months ago but, as it is, the timetable leading to war has been more predictable than most. Surely it would have been possible to introduce a draft Bill in that time to allow the House to examine its detail properly. It is not clear whether the two-clause Bill will give him the right to ban a strike. If it will not, what will he do if the FBU continues to strike, despite his imposition, and to put the public at risk and undermine the effectiveness of our armed forces? The answer to that will determine whether the hasty Bill that he proposes will work. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House precisely what he meant by saying that the Bill will give him powers to

I, like many hon. Members, was surprised by union activists' decision to overturn a recommendation from their leaders to accept a final pay offer. All the firefighters I have met in recent months have struck me as patriotic individuals and I cannot believe that a majority of them will reject the deal and take strike action while our troops are needed elsewhere. If they do take such action, they will put their fellow citizens at risk. The firefighters should ideally resolve the dispute now but, failing that, they should make a public declaration that they are deferring their needless action until hostilities in the Gulf and the risk of terrorism at home is over. If they refuse to do that and if there is no strike ban in the proposed Bill, the Attorney-General should secure an injunction as a matter of urgency to stop further strikes until at least the end of the war given that hostilities have begun, that our troops are incredibly overstretched in a war in the Gulf, that there is a war on terror on our doorsteps and that relevant legislation exists in the form of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. I repeat Conservative Members' consistent calls for the Government urgently to ban future strikes while the country is at war.

We shall give the Bill favourable treatment, despite the Government's failure on the issue, provided that it will apply for only a limited time, either until the cessation of hostilities or certainly within one year of it being passed. The international crisis requires all parties in the House to put aside their differences until the cessation of military action. Conservative Members will do that, but after the crisis is over, the House of Commons will want a proper debate so that the inevitable errors in such hasty legislation are not imposed on the country for all time.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for highlighting the difficulties that arise from the situation. I agree with several of his points, and perhaps I may address them in order.

We have asked for the advice of the military and the right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the number of armed forces personnel available during the

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dispute—19,000—is the exact number that was available before. He raised the proper concern, as did I, that that is the same as it was before we found ourselves in this hostile situation, and I agree that the situation is difficult. The advice that we received was the same as before: we have sufficient armed personnel to deal with the fire dispute and the situation will not constitute a threat to public safety.

The judgment about what represents a threat to public safety will put great emphasis on the thoughts of the Attorney-General. I note that the shadow Attorney-General is present so I can reiterate the argument that I put to him before—I am sure that he will confirm it. The Attorney-General will judge whether there is a threat to public safety and he will decide whether to act on that. It is proper for me to approach the Attorney-General. I saw him yesterday and gave him the latest update. He will consider that and take it into account when he decides whether to take any action. Every Minister who has spoken about these matters from the Dispatch Box has said that the Attorney-General must make his judgment.

One or two brigades have not co-operated on occasions. One of the problems with the negotiations is that the brigades are given a great deal of authority and they can act individually. Indeed, that relates to the right hon. Gentleman's question about whether the power exists to direct facilities. The Government's powers are limited at the moment because they are delegated to the fire authorities. That is one reason why I propose that the Bill should take back the power to direct should fire brigades refuse to carry out instructions. That is the proper thing to do and we can discuss that matter when we consider the Bill.

It is true that one or two people—although not representatives of the FBU groups—have said unofficially that they will not co-operate with new dimension training. We made it clear to the union that that is unacceptable because the training relates to measures on terrorism. Such incidents are isolated, but they are unacceptable.

The right hon. Gentleman asked which Minister is currently in charge of safety matters. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary chairs the relevant Cabinet Committee, which is the civil contingencies committee. I think that we would all agree that my right hon. Friend is a pretty senior politician. He has taken steps to replace the Minister who resigned, and no doubt he will make an appropriate statement on that. My right hon. Friend has direct responsibility for safety matters and nothing has suffered due to the resignation.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would want to use the proposed Bill to impose a deal. The Bill is modelled, to an extent, on the Fire Services Act 1947, although he will see when we consider it that it is not exactly the same. The Government at that time decided to introduce legislation to allow them to impose a deal. In these circumstances, I will take powers to fix or modify the fire brigades' conditions of service after making a judgment about whether to impose a deal, and I have outlined how that would be done and the factors that I would take into account. I give notice, however, that I cannot do that until the House agrees to those

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powers, and I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support on that. Time and accountability will be discussed by the relevant people.

We shall consider the Bill in due course, although I do not agree that it should contain anti-strike legislation. [Interruption.] Well, I am only giving my judgment. The right hon. Gentleman can disagree, but he will see what is in the Bill after I produce it and we can discuss it then. After all, I need the co-operation of Opposition parties in order to take such a Bill through the House. I cannot just announce it because the Bill must go through the proper democratic procedures, and I assure him that that will happen. The Bill will be published tomorrow and it will help matters.

Members of the FBU have the opportunity to demand a secret ballot so that we know what firefighters truly think about the 16 per cent. deal. However, I warn them that if they do not accept the deal, I shall secure powers that would allow me to decide whether to impose such an agreement.

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