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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1112—continued

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that he has sought another opinion from the Attorney-General on the use of existing legislation to make a further strike illegal, particularly in the current circumstances. The shadow Attorney-General established on a point of order last week that although "Erskine May" accepts the principle that advice to Ministers should be confidential, in "exceptional circumstances" the Minister asking for such advice can then make it available to the House, and thus to the public. The Prime Minister did this with the legal advice that he received from the Attorney-General about UN resolution 1441, so there is a clear precedent. The Prime Minister made that advice available to the House of Commons; now that we are at war, should not the Deputy Prime Minister follow that precedent?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We should first recognise that there is no strike at the moment, because it was withdrawn. That is the threat to public safety that the Attorney-General must take into account. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point about the advice given, and there has been some discussion in the House as to whether advice given by the Attorney-General to me—or, indeed, to anyone else—should be published. I keep the Attorney-General informed of the circumstances, and that is the role that he has explained to me. I do not ask for his advice on these matters; he makes a judgment. That remains the position, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman pursue the matter through the shadow Attorney-General. If the Attorney-General wants to publish the letters that he has written to me on this matter—[Interruption.] I am not asking for advice, because I am satisfied that the man with responsibility for this matter will act if there is a threat to public safety.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): May I say that I support the course of action taken by the Deputy Prime Minister? However, I am concerned about the way in which the ballot should be conducted, although I certainly support a ballot. Will it be conducted on the basis of the offer made by the FBU executive, will it be secret, and will the information contained within it be clear and unambiguous to avoid the potential for misrepresentation?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That would be the ideal situation, but I should tell my hon. Friend that there will not be a secret ballot as we understand it. A discussion takes place in the headquarters of the various brigades, and at the place of work, and there is a vote. A delegate

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then takes that vote, as mandated, to the conference. It is not mandated for 80 per cent. or 20 per cent. of the vote, with some form of proportional calculation being made; it is absolutely the vote of the brigade. On the last deal, which was very similar to this one, 100 per cent. of the 50 or so brigades voted against. That is why conducting this ballot in the same way seems a very difficult way of going about things. That is why I am appealing to the firefighters and saying, "You had a ballot before. This is substantially different from the 4 per cent. that you rejected. You should be entitled to have an individual, secret ballot. You did it before, and I suggest that it should be done again." I hope that they will accept that recommendation.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): There has been a significant shift in the concern of firefighters away from pay and towards terms and conditions of employment. It is a great pity that the pay review, the Bain report and the risk review all seem to have been lumped into one. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that, in 1974, there was a very large intake into the fire service and those firefighters are coming up for retirement. There is great concern that the present situation will be used as an opportunity for significant natural wastage. They are also concerned about the risk review lowering required response times and lowering the risk assessment of particular areas. Firefighters are, by their nature, deeply concerned—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is making a speech. If she has a question, she should put it immediately.

Angela Watkinson: Will the Deputy Prime Minister take the opportunity to reassure firefighters about those matters and harness the good will that exists among them to bring the dispute to a speedy resolution?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Lady asks an informed question about the present difficulties. It is true that the issue is not so much the money as the conditions and modernisation that go with it. We have insisted that modernisation goes with those wages. An awful lot of propaganda is being put out about what the deal means. Already pamphlets are being rushed out claiming that thousands of people will be made redundant and hundreds of fire stations closed. That is just not true. The new risk-based fire system would prevent that. It would mean not that there would not be fewer jobs than before—there are 2,500 fewer firefighters than there were 10 years ago. That is a matter of adjustment and change. There are fewer fire stations. Only a few months ago, two in Yorkshire closed down and were replaced by one modern fire station. Those things go on through proper negotiations. All I say to the firefighters is, "Sit down and negotiate—we have

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provided the framework—and introduce an intelligent change to work practices, to move to a risk-based system, and at the same time improve your conditions." We believe that improved public safety will also come from these proposals.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I met firefighters from Nottinghamshire last week in Parliament. One thing that they were worried about was the possibility that local management would impose changes upon them. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that, in the new deal that was offered and which the executive accepted, there were further safeguards in terms of local consultation so that local firefighters could be involved in the process of change?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for asking the question, as I share that concern. My experience of working on ships as a seaman is that captains can make a difference. A good one can have good relationships; a lousy one can have lousy relationships with the same crew. The same is true of the chief constable or the chief at the fire station. There is a genuine fear among fire people that the chief will be given absolute power and impose a settlement, like a Captain Bligh in our stations. They are using that as a justification, as though some fire masters were not responsible in these matters. We have tried to find the words to deal with that perception and fear of such action. The agreement that the executive recommended allowed that. There can be a proper balance that allows firefighters to say, "This new deal will give me a fair say about my working conditions." That is what it is designed to do, and they should be able to accept it.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): The whole House will understand the frustration of my right hon. Friend. There is a meeting this afternoon. If the Fire Brigades Union agrees that there will be no strike action and that it will put the offer to a ballot of its members, does he accept that that would be the best way forward? If not, poisoning the well by imposing a settlement could create enormous problems for all parties in the dispute.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have no doubt that that is the danger that faces us if we get the balance of judgment wrong. That balance of judgment is at the heart of our efforts. As I said, I will meet the Fire Brigades Union this afternoon. Over the period of negotiations, the union has co-operated in withdrawing the threat of strikes before, which I welcome. That is how we have tried to go forward to a successful conclusion, but so far failed. If the union says now—there are some signs that it will, but the trouble is that it is all in statements to the press, which we cannot rely on—that it will not have a strike during the ballot, that will be helpful and will allow me to tell the Army that the troops can be stood down. That is a fair balance. I hope that the union will come to that decision and give it to me this afternoon.

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Business of the House

2.5 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 24 March—Second Reading of the Licensing Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 25 March—Remaining stages of the Extradition Bill.

Wednesday 26 March—Progress on remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 27 March—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

Friday 28 March—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 31 March—Second Reading of Crime (International Co-operation) Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 1 April—Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Title to be confirmed.

Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to a Bill.

Wednesday 2 April—Progress on remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 1).

Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to a Bill.

Thursday 3 April—Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to a Bill.

Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

Friday 4 April—Private Members' Bills.

May I repeat the tribute that I made during Monday's brief business statement to my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) for his outstanding contribution as Leader of the House? He enjoyed the respect and affection of hon. Members in all parts of the House, and his weekly jousts with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) were, for many of us, the highlight of the parliamentary week. They will be sorely missed.

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