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Fire Services Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected neither of the reasoned amendments.

1.37 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is with some reluctance that I find myself here today. This is a Bill that I would have preferred not to introduce, but after 12 months of negotiations and three separate pay offers, the fire dispute has reached deadlock. Legislation is therefore necessary in the public interest and to protect public safety. Reform of the public services is one of this Government's key priorities. In recent months, we have pressed ahead with the modernisation of the fire service, the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, the introduction of a new system of fire cover based on actual risk, and a new White Paper that will be published shortly.

The Bill now before the House draws on the arbitration powers originally set out in the Fire Services Act 1947 but repealed in 1959. It will enable me—in England and Wales, but not Scotland—to make an order to do two things: first, under clause 1(1)(a), and subject to the negative resolution procedure, to set or modify the pay and conditions of service of fire brigade members; and secondly, under clause 1(1)(b), to give specific or general directions to the fire authorities about the use or disposal of property or facilities. Those combined powers will enable me to secure a pay and modernisation deal for the fire service if no agreement is reached through the normal process of industrial negotiations, and only after full consultation with the parties. That is the situation that we find ourselves in today.

This dispute dates back to May last year. Since then, the Fire Brigades Union has rejected three successive pay offers. The first was for 4 per cent., the second for 11 per cent., and the most recent was the employers' final 16 per cent. offer. Hon. Members will also recall that we have attempted to resolve the dispute through Sir George Bain's independent review of the fire service, and that we brought the parties together at ACAS where, after two months of discussion, they still failed to reach agreement.

The dispute is made even more difficult because, in recent months, the FBU executive has failed to carry its members with it. The executive has twice made recommendations to the members, including a recommendation to accept the employers' final offer, and has twice been overturned. We are therefore back to where we were last May, 12 months ago. The claim remains 40 per cent. for the firefighters and 50 per cent. for the control room staff, without any commitment to reform or modernisation of any kind. Under those circumstances, we have tried to break the deadlock and I am therefore bringing the Bill to the House.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): The Secretary of State is effectively saying that because we

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have reached an impasse he has to present the legislation to the House. What estimate has he made of the likelihood of us not having reached that impasse had he involved himself directly in the negotiations earlier?

The Deputy Prime Minister: This is a matter of judgment, and I give the best of my judgment to the House. I have reported regularly to it on the negotiations and, after 12 months, I have made the judgment to move to a form of arbitration in legislation, after saying that I would be prepared to consider it. That is what I am presenting to the House.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Always.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I am very interested in the points that he is making. What consideration has he given to his imposition of a settlement to bring the dispute to an end being met with rejection by the union and by members, who could then take industrial action? What would he do at that point?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is the difficult question that we have to answer in this matter, and I give the best of my judgment. If the House gives me those powers, there will still be a period before I can act—over two months. I hope that my hon. Friend will see from my speech that I am still encouraging negotiations and that there is still a lot of room for manoeuvre and agreement, but at the end of the day this is a free country where people make free decisions on whether they want to give their labour—that is why I am against the anti-strike legislation. But we all must make judgments, which is why I am giving the House my best judgment of how we can find agreement. The dispute affects this country's public safety, in respect of which all of us in the House have responsibilities.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): The FBU and its members may refuse to accept the imposition of a settlement by the Secretary of State. What preparations is he making to ensure that the public have the fire cover that they would then need?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman would do better to wait until he has heard my speech. Clearly, I have to address those circumstances.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister, but he made an aside in his response to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) that he is against anti-strike legislation. I understand that he has given the House an undertaking that the White Paper will consider whether there should be anti-strike legislation or an anti-strike agreement. I hope that he is not prejudging that White Paper.

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman says, that I have promised the House that in the White Paper we will address ourselves to that essential principle. I shall still give my judgment,

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however, and I am entitled to it. A White Paper represents a Government's view on matters, and he must wait for that White Paper.

My main point about anti-strike legislation, whether people agree with that or not, is that it would take many months for it to go through the House and be achieved. I assume that that would do nothing more to solve the dispute. My judgment is that this can be done quickly, and it is an alternative beyond just sitting back and doing nothing. That is what I am addressing myself to today.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) rose—

The Deputy Prime Minister: May I make a little headway? I will take an intervention later.

There has been a failure to reach agreement on the pay and modernisation deal. In addition, we are working against a background of wide-ranging national and local non-co-operation by the FBU and the continuing threat of strike action. In some parts of the country, old, badly located fire stations have been closed and replaced by new modern fire stations in areas of higher risk. That has taken place with the agreement of the local brigade. Even while the dispute has been on, those changes have been taking place in some areas while being resisted in others.

In some parts of the country, local brigades have opposed new fire stations. In two fire brigades, we have projects on stream for new control rooms shared with other emergency services. In other areas, joint control rooms have been blocked by the union. In some areas, there is flexible crewing or alternative shift patterns are in operation. In still others, firefighters are already using defibrillators and participating in co-responder schemes with the ambulance services, but elsewhere they are not. In too many areas, there are none of those things. Effectively, we have a postcode lottery for fire and rescue services, which is not acceptable.

Over the past year, the FBU has constantly called for the provision of new equipment to tackle the increased threat of terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear devices following the events of 11 September. I am pleased to tell the House that new equipment is available and ready for use thanks to the Government's £56 million investment. That equipment is designed to deal with members of the public, or indeed the firefighters themselves, who have been exposed to chemical or other weapons in a terrorist incident. However, now that the equipment is available, Members will be concerned to learn that at national level the FBU is refusing to use it, and it is a lottery locally as to whether ordinary firefighters agree to undertake the training.

The equipment essentially consists of mobile decontamination facilities where members of the public can be washed down, and it is absolutely necessary for them to be made available as soon as possible. It is unacceptable to the Government and to the people of this country for that equipment not to be available to them in the event of a terrorist incident. If the FBU will not co-operate, the Government will take action to provide that protection against terrorist attack by whatever means necessary.

In addition to the non-co-operation, the FBU continues to play cat and mouse with the Government through its extended threat of strike action. That has

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forced 19,000 members of the armed services to be kept on almost constant stand-by since last September. We have had only 15 days of strikes, but the cost to the public purse stands at over £100 million, largely due to the stand-by costs involved. On 15 April, the FBU gave an undertaking that there would be no strikes during the hostilities in Iraq. As a result, the Secretary of State for Defence was able to release 3,000 personnel for other duties. Even so, the impact of firefighting duties on the armed forces has been serious. Troops have been diverted from their training and preparation for core military tasks, and they have had to stay longer on tours of duty than would normally be the case. Military capacity has deteriorated, and members of the armed forces have often gone without leave. That cannot be allowed to continue.

The firefighting duties are having a progressively detrimental effect on our troops in Iraq and our capacity to fulfil a wide range of military duties and obligations. I have therefore agreed with the Secretary of State for Defence that the priority must be to relieve the armed forces in Iraq, and also to release those involved in firefighting for training and other important operational tasks. I have further agreed a release of 5,000 personnel from stand-by for firefighting duties with immediate effect. We will now have only 11,000 members of the armed forces available for firefighting duties, and by the end of the month we will be down to about 9,000 troops.

I want to spell out to the House exactly what those significant and continuing reductions to the number of armed forces personnel deployed on firefighting duties will mean in terms of public safety. In the event of a strike, they will result in significantly reduced fire and emergency cover. On a normal day, the number of fire appliances in the UK is about 3,000. The original deployment of green goddesses was about 829, crewed and supported by 19,000 military personnel. A reduction in the number of military personnel to 9,000 means the deployment of about 250 goddesses and 300 specialist vehicles.

The Defence Fire Service and the fire service inspectorate judge that such a reduction would significantly increase the risk to the public and members of the armed forces. If the FBU calls for further strikes, lives will be endangered and property put at risk. Under normal circumstances, 80 per cent. of the population of England and Wales receive a response within 10 minutes. During the last strike in February, that fell to 47 per cent., and with 9,000 troops involved it would fall to about 36 per cent. Under normal circumstances, 600,000 people would have to wait more than 20 minutes for a response. With 9,000 troops involved, that figure would rise to 10 million people waiting more than 20 minutes. I therefore call on the FBU to make it absolutely clear that there will be no further strike action while our armed forces continue to be engaged in Iraq.

The armed forces are still engaged in military action—providing security and carrying out vital humanitarian and reconstruction work. They are still at risk. They are still in danger. The conflict may be over, but the military still has numerous commitments and responsibilities.

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