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The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand my hon. Friend's concern. The same thoughts are in my mind. I have to make a judgment one way or the other, however, and come to the House to justify it. I still hope that an agreement will be reached through collective negotiation.
As for the length of time for which the Bill will be available to this or any other Government, all that is happening now is my presentation of it as one way of dealing with the situation. Certain safeguards, or protections, are provided: for instance, I must consult all parties involved. Then, however, I must make a decision.
The proposed powers are based on those in the Fire Services Act 1947, which provided for arbitration largely because everyone recognised the importance of fire and other emergency services. Employment in those services is not like any other employment: public safety must be given greater priority. Given the circumstances of the dispute and the delay to which I have referred, I think I am right to present this legislation.
My right hon. Friend must bear in mind, though, that there are real concerns about the Bill. It poses enormous problems, and it may not offer a solution. I will reluctantly support my right hon. Friend tonight, despite my doubts, but ultimately a negotiated framework will be needed to settle the dispute. That is the right way forward for the Government, for the employerswho have not enjoyed much credibility during this processand for the FBU.
The FBU sets great store by the Burchill proposals. I am not competent to tell my right hon. Friend whether the proposals have merit, but I should like to know whether he thinks either Burchill or, as it were, son or daughter of Burchill could offer a framework in which meaningful negotiation on both pay and modernisation could begin.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind remarks. The proposal presented by Professor Burchill, who is independent chair of the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades, has a number of cost implications. The existing costs are quite heavy, and I consider the 16 per cent. offer adequate; but Burchill's is just one proposalalthough all the evidence suggests that FBU members are about to reject the executive's recommendation and accept Burchill's. I believe they are to decide on 15 May. There is, in fact, sufficient information to suggest that even that proposal may be
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): May I make a point relating to Professor Frank Burchill? The figure of £100 million has been mentioned. Many of us are at a loss to know how it was arrived at, as there is no evidence that fire authorities have done any costing.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. The £100 million to which I referred did not, in fact, relate to the Burchill proposals; it related to the stand-by costmore than £2 million a dayof having forces ready and available.
Burchill accepts a negotiated wage framework, but has presented proposals which we and the employers consider effectively prevent any modernisation. There must be a balance between modernisation and the payment to which we are committed to make some advance contribution. If modernisation proposals are not accepted, there will be an extra cost. We are talking about the difference between the £30 million involved in the mark 1 dealthe 16 per cent. offerand that extra cost.
All these matters can be discussed, but modernisation and reform must accompany a wage agreement. That was not at the heart of what Burchill proposed; in fact, he virtually vetoed any such possibility.
As for the time scale for the Bill and the possibility of a sunset clause, no judgment has yet been made, and I do not want to go into that now. I just want the Bill to be approved. It may prove unnecessary: I still believe that collective bargaining could finally settle the dispute.
Mr. McLoughlin: Given that the Deputy Prime Minister is not the employer, I do not know why it is not possible for the Local Government Association or the fire authority employers to impose a pay deal. Why is the Bill necessary?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Of course the LGA, as employer, could impose a deal, although I think there would be quite a reaction from FBU members, but the point is that it is not prepared to take such action.
Having explored every avenue, I have brought the Bill to the House because neither party is prepared to move any further. There is deadlock, although I am still working constantly to secure an agreement.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): The Deputy Prime Minister has described in some detail the considerable dislocation experienced by our armed forces, who have had to stand in for the firefighters while being paid substantially less than what the firefighters currently receive. Even if the Deputy Prime Minister reduces the number on stand-by from 16,000 to 9,000, an intolerable burden will be imposed on the forces, and our capacity to train those men and women for emergency operations that might become necessary in future will be seriously damaged.
The Deputy Prime Minister: We take the advice of the Ministry of Defence on troop management. I am told that in certain circumstances, at certain levels of troop deployment, if a strike did not last longer than a certain period it could still be managed. The point is, though, that we must try to secure an agreement.
To be fair to the FBU, when the Iraq situation began it made it clear that it would not strike while we were involved. I now appeal to the union not to strike in the current circumstances, but it will decide on 15 May. Let us take this one bit at a time. Meanwhile, I must give the House a justification for the action that I wish to take. The least I can do is tell the House what the consequences would be if troops were not available, and I have tried to do that.
On a number of occasions the Opposition have called for the Attorney-General to take out an injunction with the aim of protecting public safety. I have kept the Attorney-General fully informed of the situation as it has developed, and I have frequently told the House that it is up to him to decide whether legal action is in the public interest. The Bill provides a way forward in these difficult circumstances: it allows me to secure an arbitrated settlement concerning pay and conditions, and gives me a statutory duty to consult before placing an order before the House. I propose to consult both the national joint council and the statutory advisers to the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which includes a number of organisations and trade unions not represented in the national joint council.
The principles that will guide those consultations will be the same as those that have guided the negotiations. Any pay rise above inflation must be paid for by modernisation. The Government continue to stand ready to provide £30 million of transitional funding, in addition to the £100 million cost of the dispute so farbut we will not provide one penny more.
I am also very conscious that ordinary firefighters have received no increase in their basic pay since November 2001. That is particularly unjust for those who have not been party to this disputemainly the retained firefighters, including members of the Retained
The powers in this Bill will also enable me, as well as making a decision about pay and proper consultation, to improve public safety and support the process of modernisation more widely, bearing in mind the primary concern for public safety as set out in our new guidelines on integrated risk management.
Hon. Members will be aware that one of the cornerstones of the current terms and conditions of service is that there must be a constant level of crewing at fire stations around the clock, regardless of daily fluctuations in the number of fires that actually occur. That is neither right nor sensible, and it is certainly not right to assume that fire cover cannot be provided in another way. No other emergency service operates on this basis. Through the powers provided in the Bill, I will be able to change existing constant crewing requirements and allow fire authorities to match staffing to the real risks posed by fire. The Houseand indeed firefightersshould not misunderstand what I am saying: this is not about compulsory redundancies; it is not about attacking firefighters' second jobs; it is not about taking away rights and benefits that firefighters currently enjoy; it is about creating better ways of working for both managers and firefighters, and better provision for the public.