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David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I begin by thanking the Deputy Prime Minister for making a statement today and for giving me prior sight of italbeit one read something of a trailer in The Times and The Sun, and even in the Daily Mail and heard one on the BBC this morning. I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman had nothing to do with that; none the less, it bore all the hallmarks of a co-ordinated briefing exercise and I would like him to look into it.
Inside the front cover of the White Paper it says that the price is £12.25. In truth, of course, the cost of the White Paper has been immeasurable. To get to this point, we have faced an unnecessary year-long dispute; great risk to the public at time of national hazard; excessive stress on the armed forces, who were made to fight fires as well as wars; and financial costs to the taxpayer of £100 million or more. By any measure, the cost of the White Paper has been immense, and if it is to justify that cost it must deliver dramatic improvements in our fire service.
I am sure that there is much in the White Paper that we will support and commend, but I tell the Deputy Prime Minister that in other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria, rates of death from fire are much lower than they are in the United Kingdom. If we lowered our rate to match that of the Swiss or the Dutch, we would save about 300 lives a year. New Zealand, which four years ago had the same level of fatalities as us, has halved its death rate as a result of reforms; in this country, that would be equivalent to about 300 lives a year. My first question to the Deputy Prime Minister is, therefore, will he estimate how many lives the reforms flowing from the White Paper will save every year?
The reform will entail a major overhaul of the fire service's structure. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that overhaul and the financing of pay increases that he has approved will be achieved by cuts to the number of firefighters and stations? Some fire services are more efficient than others: how will he ensure that today's efficient brigades will not be penalised because they have less scope to save money to pay for the increases? Will the grant formula in respect of such authorities, many of them Tory, explicitly recognise that? Will the reforms result in disproportionate manpower cuts in metropolitan brigades?
Throughout the past year's long dispute, the retained firefighters of this country have performed heroically, standing by their posts and by the public when others went on strike. Given that, will the right hon. Gentleman today repeat the guarantee that he has given me before that not one of our much-valued retained firefighters will lose his job as a result of the reform process?
The Deputy Prime Minister has announced today that he will move control of fire services from local authorities to his proposed regional assemblies. Can he explain how it will help, say, Kent's fire service to be amalgamated with that of Oxfordshire, orperhaps more appropriateCheshire's with that of Cumbria? This will not reassure those who are concerned for the future of their local fire services. Yet again, power is moved upwards, away from real local control.
Some of this morning's newspapers were headlined, "Prescott takes revenge on the firefighters". As a result, and unsurprisingly, other newspapers were headlined, "New Fire Strike Threat". The Government have clearly not lost the delicacy of touch that we have got used to over the past year.
We understood from the Deputy Prime Minister, when he announced the settlement of the dispute, that the Fire Brigades Union had signed up to reform. If it is now threatening to strike over job losses, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House exactly the terms of the deal that he struck with the FBU behind closed doors?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the 21st century the fire service needs to operate within a no-strike culture, but that the quid pro quo for that is a modern and civilised pay review and arbitration process to ensure justice for the individual firefighter as well as a modern, effective and low-risk service for the public? There is no mention of such an arbitration mechanism in the right hon. Gentleman's statements. I shall be interested to hear what he has to say about that. After all, the right to strike is an important right, but that right is not more important than the public's right to life.
When will we see legislation arising from the White Paper? In particular, what will happen to the Fire Services Bill that is now before another place? Obviously it has direct implications in this context.
I have asked the Deputy Prime Minister a series of important questions, which I hope he will be able to address. We have made clear throughout the dispute that the Opposition will give the right hon. Gentleman support so long as his reforms are genuinely geared to saving lives. This must not be about revenge against the Fire Brigades Union and a display of synthetic machismo. It must not simply be an exercise in crude cost cutting to pay for the settlement. Instead, it must be about protecting the lives of the British public. In that endeavour, the right hon. Gentleman will always have our full support.
The Deputy Prime Minister: It is unusual for a Minister to offer thanks for an advance copy of an Opposition Member's briefthe right hon. Gentleman read it beautifully, and I have studied the questions. Indeed, he read his brief to a T and dotted the i's and crossed the t's.
When the right hon. Gentleman printed his briefI received it a couple of hours agohe asked questions about the press, and asked me to ring him. I tried to do so, but he is a business mana busy manand I could not get through to him. Eventually, we spoke a few minutes before we entered the Chamber. I could explain
Surely the purpose of briefing newspapers is to get a favourable response. Given that one of the headlines is, "Prescott takes revenge on the firefighters", I miserably failed, if it was the case that I had briefed newspapers. However, I believe that the reporter involved has already apologised as that was not the intention of her story. I do not know whether it was. I do not talk to the press, as the House probably knows, except for the motoring correspondents in The Sun, but I leave that aside.
I move on to the more serious questions that the right hon. Gentleman has asked. I welcome his recognition of the need for co-ordination and his welcome for the proposals that are set out in the White Paper. I think that that has been his position all along. The right hon. Gentleman asked about lower safety levels in Europe.
The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, higher safety standards in the sense that they have fewer deaths and accidents in Europe. That was properly pointed out by the Bain review in which a great deal more emphasis was placed on prevention rather than intervention. That has always been behind what the Bain review recommended, and that is at the heart of the White Paper. I cannot give a guarantee, but I think that changing the procedures and roles will have the same effect in the United Kingdom as in Europe.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I cannot give an estimate of deaths and accidents. I would be silly to do so in the circumstances. However, we are changing things to make the system more effective, along the lines that have been adopted in Europe.
I welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) is recommending that we should take a European approach to these matters, as a better way of dealing with them. It is not usually something that he has in mind, but I accept the proposition in this instance. As to the important question of whether sufficient resources would be available, a common complaint by the FBU and others is that we impose a lot of duties on them without finding sufficient resources. That is why the Government made extra resources available to settle the dispute. However, we will have to enter negotiations to make sure that the fire services are properly financed and have sufficient powers to guarantee a proper level of safety in both rural and urban areas. The risk assessment is based on that requirement, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that will happen.
Let me make it clear that there is no deal with the FBU. I would not have thought, after the last year, anyone could say that I had a cosy relationship with the FBU, and there is certainly no deal on this matter. I talked to everyone in the industry this morning about the nature of our intentions and the need for us all to begin to make changes. That is not a dealthe Government have set out their position, we will hear what is said by all the stakeholders in the industry, and we will introduce legislation in the House. I hope that that legislation will be introduced, depending on the business managers and the Queen's Speech, next year, and there could be a Bill in January, but that is not entirely in my hands.