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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1106—continued

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that statement and for keeping the House informed? I agree that it is astonishing and regrettable that yesterday's FBU conference rejected the offer. Indeed, it was surprising that the Deputy Prime Minister did not make a stronger statement that a fire strike in a time of war and heightened tension would be an appalling threat to public safety, which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made clear. Surely such industrial action at a time of military action would be dangerous and irresponsible, even though our professional armed forces would rise to the challenge. So why have the Government not made it clear that they would ban the fire strikes while our armed forces are engaged? No one in the House would seek to ban strikes except in the most exceptional circumstances, but does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that regrettably such circumstances are now upon us? Frankly, it would be bizarre if the Attorney-General did not think so. As for the eventual resolution of the dispute, surely the Government should now seek, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, to go beyond the FBU activists and back to the ordinary firefighters?

Does not the Deputy Prime Minister agree that a silent majority of firefighters would reluctantly accept the current offer, so is it not time to insist that the FBU consult its members on the current offer by a secret postal ballot? Surely, it would be far better for the long-term health of our fire services if the Government pushed for a democratic end to the dispute rather than going down the route of imposing a settlement? Does not the Deputy Prime Minister realise that his strategy of imposing a settlement could end up prolonging the dispute and making matters worse? If emergency legislation is needed, should it not back ordinary firefighters' right to vote and stop the damage to the fire service and public safety by extremists among the FBU activists?

The Deputy Prime Minister: First, I appreciate some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but if there is a threat to public safety, as I have already explained, there is a person who is responsible for making that judgment and taking court action where necessary. As

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for whether I am going to impose a deal or, indeed, go for anti-strike legislation, banning strikes would be extremely controversial, so any legislation would take a long time to go through the House. I do not think that legislation that I might get in September or October would be helpful in this situation.

As a ballot is under way, I do not want to aggravate the situation. I appeal directly to the firefighters not to leave this matter to the brigades' hands-up decisions in the mess room. We should not learn merely that an offer was opposed by 58 brigades without any information about the proportion of those who wanted to accept the deal and those who did not. A precedent has already been set, as the FBU had a ballot on 4 September. All I am saying is that it is proper, in view of the serious nature of the problem, for firemen to have the right to say whether they accept or reject an offer. That will be done in the next two or three weeks, and we can then see exactly what their judgment is.

I have made it clear that this is not about whether we are going to provide any more money. Let me make it absolutely clear—there will not be another penny in the deal, as 16 per cent. is a generous offer. The firefighters need to be clear about that when they have their vote. It would be difficult to introduce legislation to enforce a ballot or indeed anti-strike legislation because of the time that it would take to get through the House—if, indeed, it got through the House—and that would not be helpful in the present situation. I have chosen to pursue this course of action, and I have used my judgment to determine the best way of balancing public safety against getting an agreement in those areas.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Why is my right hon. Friend being so intransigent on matters of legislation? A measure dealing with section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 has already gone through the House, and it is now proposed to introduce a new two-clause Bill on fire services. Would it not be more sensible if those matters were the subject of negotiations, as there could be some trade-off so that we could begin to reach a settlement? At the meetings that my right hon. Friend will hold with the FBU and the employers, it will not be possible to have any type of negotiation at all in the circumstances. It will merely be a matter of pontification from a certain position rather than an attempt at persuasion and discussion to reach a settlement that should be there to be grabbed by both sides.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Let me make it clear—I do not think that I am being intransigent at all in those negotiations, which have gone on for the best part of 12 months. Sometimes the truth is told, sometimes less than the truth.—for example, the reason why Members of Parliament got a 40 per cent. increase. No doubt my hon. Friend has contested with the firemen the kind of propaganda that was going around at the time. I hope that the two parties will come together. In the past 12 months, I have worked tremendously hard to get them to come together and talk. I have made it clear that it is for them to make the decision.

It is only a day or so since the executive recommended that decision. There was a full recommendation to the conference to accept the deal, but it overturned it—I did not do so, it was the members themselves. However, if the decision is to be fair, why do they not subject it to a

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secret ballot as they did in September, so at least we get a full picture of who wants to accept the deal and who wants to move to further strike action, particularly against this background?

I do not think for a moment that I am being intransigent. As for discussions, I made a statement in January. I am sure that the Opposition will ask why I did not introduce legislation then. I thought that it would inflame the situation, and wanted to work for an agreement—and we got it, and we got the executive to make a recommendation. I therefore think that my judgment was right, but now I am faced with the fact that the conference has rejected the offer and is going back to its members. I have said that a secret ballot is the best way of dealing with the matter.

I have discussed with the trade union our White Paper and proposals on section 19, but it disagrees with me. Basically, I am implementing a recommendation made some time ago to give up my powers and allow decisions to be made at local level. That is basically a form of decentralisation—I have been considering it for a long time and I believe that it is right. I have had discussions on all those matters, but when one group says "no" and another "yes", one has to make a decision—I have made mine.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I just tell the Deputy Prime Minister that it is more helpful if he addresses the Chair? May I also appeal on the basis of that start, for shorter questions and answers.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I do not believe that the Deputy Prime Minister would have taken this particular action without a great deal of thought, and it probably hurts him greatly to do it. How does the deal that is now on the table, which he is saying is generous and was recommended by the executive, differ from the deal that he vetoed after all-night conversations some weeks ago?

The Deputy Prime Minister: At that time, the FBU was proposing 16 per cent. over two years. Because it was not tied to modernisation, I had to make it clear that that would commit me to a payment of hundreds of millions of pounds. When the FBU made that decision, I had not even seen the agreement. The new deal is substantially different—it gives 16 per cent. over three years, but that has now been changed to two and a half years. The settlement is not as good as the FBU originally wanted, but I judge that the amount of taxpayers' money required to finance the deal for three years is acceptable. The deal is different from the earlier one, but it is fair to all parties and is generous, however it is measured.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): Like my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I have found in discussions with local firefighters that they would find a £25,000-a-year offer very reasonable. I have found them extremely sensible. However, will he reassure me that if the Bill is enacted, negotiations will continue and, if successful, he will not use the powers at all?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly hope—and I believe that the whole House does—that the firefighters will accept the agreement, perhaps by ballot, which

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would get us out of all the difficulties. Let me make it clear to everybody that I will still continue with modernisation. I am committed to the modernisation of the fire service, along with a generous pay settlement. That is our commitment, I have set it out in letters, and it remains the case. I shall resort to proposals in the White Paper and future legislation to deal with the problem. Under different circumstances, we would not need a separate piece of legislation and we could get on with modernising the service while the firefighters are back at work, and have a settlement based on that generous offer.

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