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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I was interested in what my right hon. Friend had to say about risk assessment. What are the implications, if any, for high-risk areas such as nuclear power stations or airports that have dedicated fire crews attached to them?
The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those fire crews are separate from the fire and rescue services but have the same obligation. They will be subject to the same fire risk assessment because that affects their area. Those crews may be dealt with under a different service, but they will have the same obligation.
The Deputy Prime Minister: Being Welsh, I can say that both Wales and Scotland are always open to the opportunity of trying to get a lot more money from this House. We are transferring responsibility and the assets and, in that sense, it is not a great transfer of cost at all. There has been a demand from the Welsh Assembly that the cost should come back to the Assembly. I agree; send it back, all of it.
Mr. Skinner: You are putting pressure on me. We have gone through a long and intermittent strike. Notwithstanding the fact that strikes are unpleasant, they do occur from time to time and the right to strike should be enshrined by any responsible Labour Government. My right hon. Friend has been asked by the Tories to get rid of the right to strike, and by the sloppy Liberal Democrats to diminish it in certain circumstances. Will he take it from me, and many others on this sideand certainly in the broad Labour and trade union movementthat we want to put in our two penn'orth and tell him, before the ink is dry: retain the right to strike?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Welcome back, Dennis. It is going to be a lot warmer. My hon. Friend makes a serious point, though, and one of which we both have direct experience. In one strike, the administrator took over the union as a consequence of the strike legislation. It did not solve the strike; it just made it more bitter. My personal judgment is that such legislation does not work in the way that people hope it will work. I said to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden that we would give the Government's response, and our reasons are set out in the White Paper. We all accept that there is a right to strikethat is guaranteed in our legislationbut there are circumstances in which certain unions or work forces give exemptions, in the form of no-strike deals. There are even no-strike deals that have been arrived at privately by trade unions in contracts, never mind in legislation.
The question is whether no-strike legislation would have helped over the past 12 months. In my judgment, it would not. Under existing law, we could have acted if the Attorney-General had judged that the strike constituted a threat to the safety of the individual, but he decided at that stage that it did not, so we did not use that legal weapon. If we are to take away the right to withdraw labour, we must carefully balance what the advantages are. I see no advantage. Nobody has made the case that it solves the strike or drives workers back
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Many people will be relieved to hear the Deputy Prime Minister's assurance that there will be no compulsory redundancies. Has his Department made any assessment of the levels of personnel that will be needed in the new service?
The Deputy Prime Minister: These are all matters for the fire authorities to negotiate. I said in my statement that the fire authorities conducted their negotiations and the local authorities have agreed that there is no need for redundancies. It is not difficult to look at how many fire stations we have currently and assess how many crews will be needed and under what circumstances. For example, the FBU has said that, because of its overtime ban, 4,000 more workers are employed than would normally be. It is legitimate to ask whether that is the best and most effective way of using labour. The Government are entitled to that view. In the current discussions, and in particular those arising from the settlement, that will be one of the issues.
We leave it to the relevant parties to make the judgment, but there is a statutory responsibility to ensure a high level of safety. If we can achieve a proper balance between intervention and prevention, we will have a higher level of safety without the need for compulsory redundancies. That is the employers' judgment, and I accept it.
Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East): I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's reference to the importance of fire services being local, so I must express my worries about West Yorkshire fire service being abolished and becoming part of a regional service. We in Leeds often worry about our fire service having that local touch, and we can only fear for the worst if it disappears and is replaced by a regional service. Is this matter one for debate, and is it not a step too far in terms of local awareness?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand my hon. Friend's point about West Yorkshire. I face a difficult situation, in that there is a fire authority covering just the Isle of Wight, which makes it a very small authority, compared with the London authority, which is responsible for millions of people. West Yorkshire may reside somewhere between the two. On effective representation in the regions, I believe that certain things have to be delivered at a regional level because that is more effective, but certain authorities cannot do that. As my hon. Friend knows, some authorities are smaller than West Yorkshire's, and I have to make a judgment in this regard. However, the Government take the view that we would like to see regional government. It makes a lot of sense to strike a balance between giving regional functions to an elected regional body, and delivering service locally where it is decided, in determining risk and the allocation of resources, that it is best to do so. I am discussing with the local authorities exactly how we can achieve that.
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman's point is a powerful one, whether in respect of the houses and dwellings to which he refers, or of industrial buildings. We are tightening up proposals on the provision of sprinkler systems in industrial buildings, and we have begun discussions on how they might be used in households. It should be easy to provide them in new buildings, but it is much more difficult to do so in older buildings. However, we are considering all possibilities in an effort to improve the situation.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): May I, too, welcome the White Paper and particularly its emphasis on prevention, which firefighters themselves mention repeatedly? Part of the Government's modernisation programme was to put the new guidelines for the emergency services out for consultation. As Halifax's MP, may I have my right hon. Friend's assurance that, under these proposals, which are presumably incorporated in the White Paper, there will be no reduction in the response to 999 calls in Halifax? We want no cuts in the emergency services.
The Deputy Prime Minister: There can be no question whatsoever about that. Otherwise, we would have failed in what we are setting out to achieve: the proper involvement of local people, to ensure that they get an immediate response to a concern about a safety or rescue issue. I give my assurance that that will not happen.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): In the light of the warning given by the chief of the Security Service about the inevitability of terrorist chemical and biological strikes on this country, I welcome the formal addition of anti-terrorist measures in respect of the reformed fire and rescue service. Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure us that sensible levels of equipment will be issued and that training will start without further delay?