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The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree absolutely. I have been at the centre of negotiations, trying to push each party to agreement, and I must say that the communications abilities of the employers leave much to be desired. Sometimes when the communication is good, it is misinterpreted. That lies at the heart of the difficulties. I want to tell firefighters that they do the most important job in the country and they do it well. I am not saying that they do not do a good job, but it can be done differently and better. We recognise that they deserve better remuneration than they currently have, but increases have to be balanced with reform of the public services—the heart of the matter. Even if I had the most ideal communications systems—hon. Members know that I sometimes have problems with language, so I can hardly criticise others—it would not be everything, but it would make a difference.

My officials are working with employers on examples of how changes to the duty system would work in practice. The genuine fear is that if new powers are given to the bosses, they will do what the hell they like with them. We must allay those fears, however irrational we think they are. That is why I have asked the employers to develop concrete working examples of the impact of new shift patterns consistent with the new guidelines on the new integrated risk management in five brigades, covering about 50 per cent. of the fire service's whole-time work force. Initial work by the fire service inspectorate shows that the fundamental nature of the existing duty shift system would not need to change, and that about 80 per cent. of firefighters could remain on exactly the same shift system in force today.

Firefighters are guaranteed a choice of family-friendly duty systems. Discussion must take place between the Fire Brigades Union and the owners—a

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hangover from my shipping days, I mean the employers. The matter can be settled only through discussion. I cannot settle it. I do not want to arbitrate, but it is common sense that the two parties should come to agreement. I have to weigh the public interest in the balance and justify the Government's approach to Parliament.

Hon. Members will know that I have become familiar with the chat lines—perhaps I should be more discreet about that—of the firefighters, who say what they think about the dispute. I have certainly picked up the signals as to what they think about me—and about Andy Gilchrist, but I leave that aside—and I am aware of their concern about long-term service payments, which are made after 15 years of service and obviously affect wages and final salary pensions. People near to retirement age are particularly concerned about whether, under the changes to long-service payments under the new system, they will still receive the same money after their 15 years' service. It is another genuine concern and I have asked the employers to deal with it. I believe that it would be comparatively simple to guarantee long-service payments to existing firefighters, but the FBU needs to discuss that with the employers. I am sure that many other concerns are worthy of discussion between the FBU and the employers, and I beg them to get talking while we are debating the Bill.

David Davis: The Deputy Prime Minister was set off on an eloquent exposition by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who asked him about the effectiveness of communications systems. What does he think about that in the light of how the FBU chose to present its case at the last stage of the ballot? There was a referral back to committee and decisions were taken at the fire stations. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that that assists communication for the FBU?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. All trade unions consult with their members in different ways, and the FBU sometimes does it through the brigade headquarters. During this dispute, the FBU has adopted two methods: it held a secret ballot to determine what action to take on the first 4 per cent. increase, but has also used a consultative conference. I am not going to criticise the process, but it is important to receive proper information, and the principles of communication are critical. That is why I am sure that Mr. Barry Legg will have no further involvement in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to say that.

It is not often that Ministers come before the House to seek support for a Bill that they hope they will not need to use. I still believe that it is possible to reach a negotiated settlement, and the weeks that it will take for the Bill to become law provide a further opportunity to reach a settlement, but both parties need to sit down and talk in order to understand the full details of the employers' offer. The dispute is as much about misconception, misinformation and misunderstanding as it is about the realities of what is proposed. I hope that what I have said today will provide some of the reassurance that ordinary firefighters require.

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I repeat that the Bill is not about getting rid of second jobs; it is not about forcing firefighters to work unreasonable or unpredictable shifts; it is not about compulsory redundancies—none will arise from the changes in the Bill; but make no mistake: whether through a negotiated settlement or through arbitration as set out in the Bill, the fire service, like all public services, will reform and modernise. As I said in my statement on 20 March, firefighters should be aware that if I am forced to arbitrate a settlement—I hope that I will not be—I will not be bound to stick to the current 16 per cent. offer. The choice is there for all firefighters. A final offer is on the table. The employers have recommended it; the FBU executive has recommended it; and the Government have agreed to finance it. I appeal to ordinary firefighters, especially to members of the FBU, to make their feelings known. An offer of 16 per cent. over two and a half years is generous in anyone's book. There is still plenty of time while the House considers the Bill for the employers and the FBU to reach agreement.

Change is coming. Ordinary firefighters may require more information about the employers' final offer, but if the FBU does not accept it, I will use the arbitration powers in the Bill to bring about a settlement. That is necessary, given the history of this dispute and my obligation to maintain the highest levels of public safety and protection. I firmly believe that the measures in the Bill are in the best interests of our firefighters, the fire service and the safety of the general public, which is paramount to me and to the House. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.19 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): The Deputy Prime Minister began what I thought was one of his better speeches, if I may say so, with an expression of reluctance about bringing the Bill to the House. I am not surprised: this Bill should have been entirely unnecessary.

One year into the fire brigades dispute, the public will find it hard to know who to blame more—the Fire Brigades Union for its intransigence, or the Government for their incompetence.

The catalogue of incompetence is extensive. It starts with the Deputy Prime Minister's ill-fated intervention at the Local Government Association conference nearly a year ago, when he trailed the Government's intention to set up an independent inquiry, thereby stalling the ongoing negotiations. It continued with the slow-motion establishment of that inquiry, which was delayed by the lobbying and undue influence on the Labour party of its union paymasters. It further continued with the lethargic pace of the Bain inquiry, which took more than three months where other inquiries, such as that which produced the Wilberforce report, took less than two weeks. It was further exacerbated by the Government's schizophrenia—of which we heard more today—about who is in charge.

Who runs the negotiations? Is it the local employers, who are in the front line, or is it the Government, the paymasters who call the shots and exercise the veto? That uncertainty was ignominiously highlighted by the farcical overnight negotiation on 22 November, when the Government seemed willing to allow a strike to proceed rather than disturb the Deputy Prime Minister's slumbers.

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Although the Government have asserted in public that the management of the dispute is a matter for the employers and the unions, the truth is that they have intervened repeatedly to emphasise the Government's effective veto over any settlement. We heard that again at the end of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech, when he said that the 16 per cent. offer was by no means the final outcome.

Despite the rhetoric of devolution and local management, throughout the dispute central Government have treated local government as a very junior partner—indeed, almost as a branch office. Confusion over the respective roles of central and local government has dogged the dispute from day one. The lack of a clear Government response in the early stages encouraged the union executive to believe that it could get away with a massive increase with no strings attached. If the Government's determination to link any increase above inflation to changes in working practice had been set out clearly and forcefully at the outset, the dispute might have taken a very different course.

However, the incompetence has not been confined to the Government's handling of the negotiations. They have failed on many other fronts. For example, they failed—the Deputy Prime Minister again referred to the fact—to use the law to protect the public. The relevant laws were put in place by a previous Conservative Government, precisely to deal with that sort of situation.

The Government failed to provide the best equipment for our troops to use, wasting months before realising—under repeated pressure from the Opposition—that many modern fire engines were available if the Government just organised themselves properly. They failed again and again to protect the public because they could not decide whether they were macho, anti-union new Labour, or the unions'-friend, beer-and-sandwiches old Labour. That was evident in the comments from numerous different Ministers, especially through November of last year.

This bumbling tale of incompetence might seem funny were it not for the enormous risks facing the public. Throughout the year of this dispute and its attendant strikes, the nation has faced the double hazard of a war and a serious and continuing terrorist threat. That threat is not over yet. To have the firefighters, our first line of defence in any terrorist attack, on strike at this time is not just incompetent; it is irresponsible and entirely unacceptable.

It is fortunate that the public were protected—and the Government were to some extent rescued—by the sheer professionalism of our armed forces. It is only by their sterling efforts that we have got this far without major loss of life. Our armed forces acted at considerable cost, when they were suffering massive overstretch. They delivered for us at the cost of lost leave, lost training time, and extended tours in Northern Ireland.

I should also like to take this opportunity to put on record the Opposition's admiration for the retained firefighters, who have also provided invaluable support for our communities during the dispute—sadly, often in the face of intimidation.

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