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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1109—continued

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): My constituents in Wiltshire will be grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for taking this practical step forward. However, firefighters in Wiltshire face a double whammy. Not only do they face the prospect of a national ballot but they are currently engaged in another ballot forced on them by the FBU leadership on the question of joint control rooms. This time last week, I visited the £7 million joint control room, which the taxpayer has funded in Wiltshire. Would the Deputy Prime Minister's legislation affect that strike action if the ballot went that way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The ballots under way at the moment are about pay negotiations and changes in the conditions associated with them. It is true that one of the proposals not tied to the agreement is about what we do about control rooms. I think that the case put in Wiltshire is right—I cannot see any reason why there should not be joint control rooms, which are part of the modernisation agenda that we have to face up to. The ballot is taking place by the normal method, there is a dispute at the local level—or in this case, the regional level—but normal circumstances apply.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): Does my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister understand that his intervention today, like his intervention in November, will be seen as an act of provocation, preventing a settlement of the dispute? Can he give me a clear answer to the following question? If he imposes legislation and the FBU and the firefighters reject any offer and go on strike, will we return to the time when we jailed trade unionists for strike action?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That certainly is not involved; perhaps we should wait until the Bill is published. As for acts of provocation, my hon. Friend is constantly at it, day in, day out, on all sorts of issues. Where the Government do one thing, he wants to do the other. I must consider public safety, but that does not seem to concern him too much. I have to make balanced judgments about proper public safety, and consider fire threats, and, indeed, terrorist incidents. Those judgments are not easy, but Governments have to make them. The job would be a lot easier if my hon. Friend faced up to some of his responsibilities.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Government have known since at least September that a conflict in the

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Gulf was possible, if not probable, on the scale now demonstrated by the commitment of British forces to the region. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that, on reflection, he should have protected the interests of the armed forces rather more energetically since September?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The best that I can do now for the armed forces is to get a settlement to this dispute. That is my obligation, and since September we have spent a considerable time trying to achieve that. There have been fewer disputes than were predicted at the time, which was useful; I think that the House found that acceptable. Forty-eight hours ago, the executive recommended this deal. That was a step in the right direction, and I would like to see the armed forces doing the job that they are supposed to do. I am extremely grateful for the job that they have done. They have shown that public safety can be protected, and I know that I can trust them to do that. However, I will work tirelessly to bring this agreement to its conclusion. That is why I have come here today, and why I am proposing this legislation.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My right hon. Friend says that he would prefer a secret ballot, and I understand that and agree with him. He also says that the FBU has suggested having a recall conference in two to three weeks' time. In practical terms, if the leadership continues to exercise leadership and conducts a secret ballot, is it realistic to expect a result within that time? Also, how long will it take to get the legislation through its various parliamentary stages?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes several serious points. A ballot that is conducted by a "hands up" of the brigade is obviously a lot quicker than an individual ballot; however, the circumstances are such that it would probably be necessary at least to enter into that practice. To be fair, the union did have a ballot last time. The turn out was 83 per cent., which, as people will recognise, was quite a high figure. Some 87 per cent. of those who voted voted to take strike action in rejecting the earlier deal. So there has been a ballot before, and I hope that the union will consider that point.

The time that it takes for legislation to go through the House is a matter for negotiation between the various parties. I shall publish the Bill tomorrow, and we will probably have a discussion on how fast we can proceed with it. However, I doubt whether such legislation could be introduced before the three-week period. Consultation is probably taking place on the ballot, and hopefully, we can get some agreement.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed that it would be possible for industrial action to continue after a settlement has been imposed. Would it not be absurd for this House to put through emergency legislation when our troops are in a war situation, and still to have 19,000 of our armed forces tied up because of possible future fire disputes?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a fair point, but we have to make a judgment on how people will react in

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these circumstances. In my experience of strikes and legal actions—I have experienced a few in my time—threatening people with the courts does not guarantee their going back to work; if anything, it makes matters much more difficult. One is forced to fine the union concerned and to get into sequestration; however, that does not get people back to work. For example, it did not work with the seamen's union. I can only give my judgment, but at least it is based on experience. I have to find a balance, and I have set it out today.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): My right hon. Friend knows that many Labour Members will be opposed to the imposition of the settlement to this dispute. However, I welcome the fact that he is meeting the FBU and local authority employers this afternoon. If the FBU agrees to a ballot of its membership, will he, too, reconsider his position?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand and appreciate what my hon. Friend says. I shall make it clear to the union and to the employers that I believe that a secret ballot should take place, so that we can get a proper judgment. Of course, I readily accept that the timetable for that is likely to be a lot shorter than that for legislation going through this House. I recognise that we need to subject that legislation to proper scrutiny, and I doubt whether that can be achieved in just a week or a fortnight. So there will be a ballot beforehand, but my hon. Friend poses the problem: what if the union rejects the negotiations through the secret ballot? If that happens, I, and this House, will be faced with a difficult situation. I prefer to rely on the good judgment of the firefighters in accepting this generous offer.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that a Bill introduced in this House will not apply to Scotland, and that to apply such legislation to Scotland would require a Sewel motion or a separate Act of the Scottish Parliament? There is absolutely no chance of either getting through the Scottish Parliament.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The answer is yes, and thank goodness for that. [Interruption.]

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) rose—

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is for the proper attention of the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): That is much better.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I thought that I had moved on. I call Mr. Llew Smith.

Llew Smith: I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that the FBU is not responsible for the current situation: it is this Government and their friend George Bush who have declared war on Iraq. Does the Deputy Prime Minister appreciate the irony of the fact that the Government can find £1.75 billion to go to war, but cannot find the money to meet the settlement that was agreed between the employers and the trade union some months ago?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend must know that people throughout the country, be it

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pensioners or anyone else, claim a right to the money that may be used in the conflict. According to my calculation, some five or six times the amount of money that is expected to be spent on such action has already been committed in all areas. This is a question of fairness and judgment. Some local authority workers have settled for 4 per cent. from the same employers who will have to find this money. There are many such workers in my hon. Friend's constituency, and he should ask himself—as I am asked—whether it is fair to pay 16 per cent. to one set of workers and 4 per cent. to another. That is a difficult judgment, but I have given the best that I can and I think that it is right. I would welcome a little support from my hon. Friend.

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