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Fire Dispute

4.9 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to a Private Notice Question in another place earlier today on the firefighters' dispute. The Statement is as follows:

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    the firefighters—teachers and police officers would also be seeking similar claims; and all that we have done to produce the lowest inflation, mortgage rates and unemployment in Britain for decades would be put at risk. It is not a course we can take.

    "Meanwhile, the military does a superb job in providing replacement fire cover. I want to pay full tribute to our Armed Forces—Army, Navy and Air Force. They have done brilliantly, as ever, and we can be proud of them—and I thank the public, who have responded in an intelligent and mature way to the strains put on the service. Up to this point, after six days of strike action, they have coped admirably, saving numerous lives in the process. But obviously the risk to the public is there, which is why even now I urge the union to call off the dispute, which cannot succeed, and to return to the negotiating table to discuss how modernisation can fund pay improvements over and above the 4 per cent.

    "The Deputy Prime Minister set out the Government's position last Thursday. He had offered to make a further Statement to the House today, precisely to keep the House informed. That is now superseded by this Answer to the right honourable gentleman's Question, and with the permission of the Speaker my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be making a Statement to the House tomorrow".

My Lords, That concludes the Statement.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. However, is it not extraordinary that it took a Private Notice Question from my right honourable friend Mr Iain Duncan Smith in another place to force the Prime Minister to come to Parliament to make a Statement on this grave situation? This morning, the Prime Minister summoned a press conference to set out his views on the dispute. He was in any case coming to Parliament this afternoon. Should not his first thought have been to inform Parliament before grandstanding to the media? I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will take a very firm message back to the Prime Minister from this House that it is now far beyond high time that Ministers should make major statements to Parliament first and leave the spin until later.

Turning to the dispute itself, I should like to make it clear that we on this side agree that the pay claim put forward by the FBU is wholly unreasonable. We condemn strike action that puts the public at risk, and we totally condemn threats by other unions, masquerading under health and safety, to indulge in secondary action. The public already have enough to contend with without growing disruption to Tube and train journeys and the wrecking of holiday travel this Christmas.

Can the noble and learned Lord explain the legal position to this House? Will the Government seek an injunction under Section 240 of the 1992 trade union

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legislation to ban this strike? Can he assure the House that any attempt to launch secondary action will be immediately confronted in the courts?

Will the noble and learned Lord confirm the Government's position on the crossing of picket lines to secure use of the most up-to-date equipment? Was the Prime Minister right when he said that crossing picket lines would simply inflame the dispute? Or was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, right when he said that public safety has to come before picket lines? Has not the Government's handling of the matter been an utter, complete and total shambles? Just who is in charge here? Is it the Deputy Prime Minister, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer—or is it now the Prime Minister?

The dispute is no surprise. Just how is it that the Government seem so unprepared? When it started, they did not know what their policy was on reserve appliances, they did not know what their policy was on training troops to use fire equipment, and they did not seem to know whether they were a party to the dispute at all. All through the summer and autumn, the Government have been inactive and complacent over a growing threat to the safety of the public, and we now have a bitter and highly dangerous situation on our hands. This is undoubtedly partly because of the disastrous stream of mixed messages coming out of the Government.

Is the deal on offer from the employers "half-baked", as the Deputy Prime Minister said last Friday, or is it "still worth talking about", as he said yesterday? Is the offer simply unaffordable, as the Chancellor said, or are the Government,

    "quite prepared to make an exceptional case",

as the Deputy Prime Minister said? The fire-fighters do not know where Ministers stand; the employers do not know where the Government stand; and at times it seems that half the Government do not know where the other half of the Government stand.

What exactly is meant by this word "modernisation"? Is this what we used to call "productivity"? In the view of the Government, will it mean an overall reduction in the number of fire-fighters employed; and, if so, how large? The Prime Minister's intervention this morning made good television, but it had not one single new proposal to solve the crisis, and many will feel that it has simply interjected new bitterness into the dispute.

What do Ministers think would be a reasonable settlement for the FBU? If Ministers were clear enough on that to pull the rug on the offer made last Friday, they must have some idea of the answer. If they propose to intervene as they did, should not a more competent senior Minister be on hand to give an answer at any time of day or night?

In conclusion, all Members of this House will want to express their thanks and admiration to the young soldiers in service on our streets and roads today. Many of them would welcome the pay and terms of service that some firemen currently receive. But our troops never neglect their duty. Some of those very young soldiers may be called on to put themselves in

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the way of a very different kind of danger in the event of war in Iraq. Will the noble and learned Lord therefore give an assurance that their battle-effectiveness and training will not be put at risk by the demands placed on them by the Government in an industrial relations fiasco of the Government's own making?

This whole episode has been shambolic. I hope that the Government will learn lessons from this shameful period, which has not only put the Government in the very worst possible light but has brought back shades of trade union activism that we thought had been relegated to history.

4.21 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for replying to the Private Notice Question in another place. We regard the situation as seriously as he does.

First, I should like to express our deep appreciation of the work of the soldiers and nurses who have manned the green goddesses and echo what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has said on that matter. They have put themselves at risk; in many cases they do not have full training for what they do; and they risk their own lives in our protection and defence. The public owes them a great debt of gratitude.

I also add a word of sympathy for the firemen. It is to their credit that on several occasions a number of them have broken their own picket lines because of lives being at risk. We should place on record that that is a more responsible attitude than some strikers have shown in other disputes and is perhaps one reason that they have managed to retain a degree of public support.

I should make it absolutely clear that we on these Benches believe that the Government were right to reject the extremely vague blank cheque that the employers proposed to achieve a settlement. There was no indication of how that settlement could be financed beyond the 4 per cent which from the beginning had been made plain was available under previous government arrangements to fund that sum of money, not only for the firemen but for other aspects of public services; no clear costing of how the rest of the claim was to be met; no clear indication of what the savings from modernisation would be; and, most importantly, no clear commitment to a programme of modernisation. We on these Benches therefore believe that the Government were right to reject that particular proposal made on Friday evening. We also have some sympathy with the Deputy Prime Minister's statement to the effect that there were no figures on which he could rely to indicate whether or not the Government could indeed support such a settlement.

However, I must add a note of criticism of the Government. I believe that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is right to say that a good deal of vagueness and confusion has surrounded this matter. It has not been exactly clear from the beginning that the Government would not fund more than 4 per cent

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except on the basis of costed modernisation proposals. That was dangerous because the employers seemed to continue to negotiate without any clear awareness of that fact—although they should have known it from the outset—all the way through to the moment of crisis occasioned by the second strike. They went through the first strike without that issue being made clear to the public or, evidently, to the employers or the strikers. The Government should examine very closely the way in which they conducted that part of the negotiations. If it was clear that they would not finance more than 4 per cent in any situation, it is not altogether clear why they joined the negotiations at all.

My second point concerns modernisation. Our understanding is that the National Joint Council costed the modernisation proposals and indicated that they would yield a saving of about 71 million. It is not clear to us whether that costing of modernisation also allowed for what may be described as a costing of improvements in quality. We all know that one of the great difficulties with the relationship of the fire fighters to their employers has been the extraordinarily anachronistic structure of rules, shift proposals, guarantees and commitments that have been made over many years. For example, we all know that there are fixed shift patterns that do not alter according to the demands of the day, the time of the day or the seasons of the year. We know that there are fixed arrangements under which overtime is limited, even though there may be moments when no overtime is needed and other moments when it is. It is a hopelessly anachronistic, inflexible and rigid structure, and it may be that large savings could be made from its modernisation.

There is no clear distinction between modernisation involving changes in those existing rigid rules and modernisation in the sense of improving the quality of the service by, for example, firemen being trained—extraordinarily, they are not—in the use of defibrillators, in first aid and in becoming a multi-purpose force, rather than one with a very limited set of requirements and obligations linked to out-of-date technology. Therefore my first question about modernisation is: what does the 71 million cover? Does it cover any estimated improvements in quality, which, as far as we on these Benches can tell, has not so far been costed?

If the employers and the FBU were able to reach an agreement about the costing of part of their claim from savings on modernisation and if there was a clear commitment to staged modernisation to finance an increase of more than 4 per cent, would the Government in those circumstances be willing to finance the necessary additional transitional funding involved in a payment of salary necessarily somewhat preceding the actual specific savings from modernisation? They are two different matters. Savings from modernisation cannot be immediate.

In conclusion, I should like to raise the much wider issue of public sector workers. We on these Benches have indicated our sympathy for the Government's approach to the fire strike and the ways in which we hope they can bring about the satisfactory settlement

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desired by both sides. However, with regard to the much wider repercussion for public sector workers, we take seriously the Government's real concerns about the possibility of undermining their very good record on inflation and public finances. However, have the Government given due consideration to the profound sense of injustice that reigns among public sector workers who see huge increases being offered to senior managers and directors, some with absolutely no record of success whatever, which has created deep bitterness among badly paid public sector workers?

In addition, will the Government consider how over a medium-term period they will attract teachers and nurses to the public sector at a time when property prices, especially in the south-east, are going through the roof and it is literally impossible for ordinary teachers or nurses to fund even minimal decent accommodation for themselves and their families? Will the Government give more sympathetic consideration to those problems than they have done so far?

4.28 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and to the noble Baroness for their contributions.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked whether the Government had learnt any lessons. The answer is an unambiguous "yes". They are not lessons that we needed to learn from the present dispute, but lessons that we needed to learn from recent political domestic history. The Prime Minister and the Government are also adamant that we in this country do not want to return to interest rates of 15 per cent. That was the stewardship of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. We do not want to go back to a situation in which hundreds of thousands of people may lose their homes because they are unable to continue to pay their mortgages; nor do we want to return to a situation of high unemployment. Under the Chancellor's stewardship, we presently have inflation of 2 per cent—an historic low. Unemployment has declined since 1997. Mortgage rates are very low as a component of most families' domestic expenditure.

We have learnt the lesson and no one in this House should be under any illusion: we cannot, we shall not, we must not give in to claims of 40 per cent when inflation is 2 per cent and mortgage rates are what we know them to be. So we have learnt the lesson but we did not need this present dispute to bring it to the centre of our mind. It has been at the heart and forefront of every pronouncement that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have made since 1997.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the pay claim is wholly unreasonable: 40 per cent when 2 per cent is the inflation rate and the general going rate has been of the order of 4 per cent. As regards the penultimate point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, many public service settlements have been at a higher rate than those in private industry. I exclude

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the grotesque, aberrant awards that are given to chief executive officers; namely, on the basis that they have been able to demonstrate continued failure over a period of years.

What is the legal position? It is that there is the possibility of legal action being taken under the 1992 legislation if certain legal parameters are met and that is a matter for judgment. It is part of the legislation, as the noble Lord identified. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, asked a particular question about it when he was in his place a few days ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked about two apparent divergences. They are not two divergences at all. The citations he gave—I am sure that they were in no way selective—were, first, that the Prime Minister said that to cross picket lines inflames tempers (of course); and, secondly, that my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said that public safety must be above picket lines (of course). However, the point of being in government is to make judgments of that kind. They are never easy. They ought to be informed—they ought to be truly informed—and sometimes they are difficult.

The Government are not a party to the negotiations in the historic sense. The criticism of the present Government has always been that they are too centralistic; that they will not let go the levers of power; and that they constantly interfere with everything. So on this occasion the employers negotiated with the Fire Brigades' Union, but they were under no misapprehension—I beg your Lordships' pardon, they could not reasonably have been under any reasonable misapprehension—that the budgetary settlement was exactly that. It was a budget and it was settled.

Some people suggest that the Deputy Prime Minister in the early hours of the morning should have said yes or no—"Put your tick in the box, Mr Prescott"—on proposals which were not costed, were not detailed and did not condescend to any sensible defined proposals for rationalisation of working practices. I use that word in place of "modernisation". But he would have been grotesquely irresponsible to have said yes. The criticism of him for not saying yes and for saying that he needed further detailed material, access to legitimate costings and proper advice is wholly unreasonable and based on no understanding of the true economic situation in this country. The Government have had a consistent position throughout. There is no more money except within existing funding levels unless it is capable of being demonstrated to be savings by way of modernisation—or, as I say, rationalisation.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked what we speak of when we speak about modernisation. I repeat the examples. Full-time fire fighters should lift the ban on working alongside part-time ones. If any of your Lordships can demonstrate to me even the beginnings of an argument against that proposition, I shall be pleased and grateful to hear it—although I think I shall be waiting rather a long time. Overtime, where needed, should be worked. This House is well accustomed to unpaid overtime and we do it. Why?

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Because we know that it is a necessary consequence of the work that we do. Management can change where necessary the rigid shift system of two days on, two nights on and then four days off. We have just voted by a two to one majority to change our rigid shift system, even in September.

Finally, let us examine this, which is deeply important. Fire fighters should be allowed to do basic training as paramedics and carry resuscitation equipment such as defibrillators. I point to what our own colleagues in this House did when it was necessary to provide defibrillators. Did they say that it was not their work? Did they refuse to assist? There is a moral there.

The past history of 25 years stuck in aspic with practices that cannot be justified on any basis is intolerable. Being intolerable, it is not to be tolerated and therefore it will not be. The one easy way out is the gross irresponsibility of not recognising that this claim does not stand alone—although it is not sustainable on its own. Everyone in this Chamber knows, and I believe that the majority of the public know, that this will not be the last such claim; that it is not proportionate; that it is not reasonable; and that it is not sustainable.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord two questions. First, if everything above 4 per cent is to be paid for out of productivity gains so that the overall cost of the Fire Service does not increase, what scale of redundancies will be required? Improvements in quality will not reduce the overall cost of the 16 per cent package.

Secondly, does the noble and learned Lord agree with those lawyers who believe that a combination of measures under the social chapter and of human rights legislation have in effect granted a right to strike? If that is so, is it any longer possible either to seek an injunction against strikers for doing what is their legal right or to seek an action in tort against a trade union for the same action?

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