With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the fire service pay dispute.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides would agree that firefighters do a magnificent job. We greatly appreciate the contribution that they and staff in the other emergency services make to public protection. They are rightly held in high regard for their professionalism and dedication. As a previous Transport Secretary, I have visited some terrible scenes of disaster and one cannot but admire what the firefighters do.
Fire service pay is the responsibility of their employers, the local fire authorities, and the Fire Brigades Union. The negotiating process started earlier this year and the FBU lodged its claim on
That formula has done a good job over the years. Since 1997, firefighters' pay has increased by 20 per cent. Over the same period, pay for police and teachers has increased by 19 per cent. I assume that is why only two years ago the general secretary of the FBU, Andy Gilchrist, said:
XOur wages remain ahead of other essential public sector workers precisely because we have maintained the formula".
The old formula solved the last pay dispute and has kept industrial peace for 25 years. I am sure that the House welcomes that.
The employers responded to the FBU's claim by indicating that any significant pay increase had to be matched by modernisation. But little progress was made in negotiations over the summer because the FBU refused to consider the employers' modernisation proposals. I want to be particularly clear on one point about the negotiations over the summer: at no point did the Government intervene in the negotiating process. Sir Jeremy Beecham, the leader of the Local Government Association, has made that clear on numerous occasions. I made it absolutely clear that we had played no part in the negotiations when I met Andy Gilchrist on
It became clear that there was no prospect of a solution being found through the normal negotiating process. The employers made it clear that the negotiations had broken down, and requested a Government review. In those circumstances, the House will recognise that the Government could not stand aside. Fire disputes are different from most disputes. People's lives are put at risk and the Government have a responsibility to secure people's safety. So we acted quickly and decisively.
Every relevant body, with the exception of the FBU, has submitted evidence to the review. The review is making excellent progress and will produce a report by mid-December, yet still the FBU refuses to take part in the review, and it has announced a programme of strikes covering 36 days before Christmas.
The FBU will not even suspend its industrial action until the review has reported. That is despite an offer from the employers to extend the mandate period in which the FBU strike ballot result is valid for another four weeks. If the FBU accepted that offer, it could take action without another ballot if, having seen the Bain report, it still felt that that was necessary. So industrial action is completely unnecessary and unjustified. The FBU's position is simply indefensible.
I turn now to the plans that the Government have put in place to secure public safety in the event of industrial action by the FBU. Following the FBU's claim and the initial response by the employers, the Government undertook prudent planning on the basis of the FBU's threat to initiate a national strike.
The fire service is a large and complex operation. It involves some 47,000 firefighters in England and Wales, and more than 3,000 appliances operating from 1,600 fire stations. Our focus has been on taking what steps we can to safeguard life and, as far as possible, to protect property where the normal fire cover is not available.
Detailed planning began in August and training started on
There are three main elements to the plans. First, on the assumption that the fire control centres will not be operating during the strike, arrangements are being made for fire service 999 calls to be redirected. Every call will be answered.
Secondly, emergency cover will be provided by a range of appliances staffed by crews from the Army, RAF and Navy. Nationwide, there will be 827 Green Goddesses, which will be able to provide a basic firefighting capability. There will also be 331 specialist breathing apparatus rescue teams and 59 rescue equipment support teams that will offer specialist skills.
Thirdly, on Friday, immediately after the FBU's announcement of its programme of strikes, the Government made available basic safety guidance and information to the public and to business. That is being supplemented by a range of other measures such as a public information campaign on radio and television, a mail drop to some 4 million households and a letter to the 15,000 largest businesses giving specific advice on fire safety and general health and safety issues.
I can assure the House that the contingency arrangements are now in place. If the FBU goes ahead with its strike on
The emergency crews will have fewer specialised capabilities than the normal fire service, and they are likely to be unfamiliar with the incident site and the local geography. In this situation, I have messages for the public, business and the FBU.
I urge the public to take sensible precautions in their homes to prevent a fire occurring in the first place. To managers, safety representatives and others in industry and commerce, my message is to work on the basis that normal activities will continue during the strike. However, the single most important step is to check that all existing fire safety provisions are in place and fully effective. My message to the FBU is, XThink again."
Despite the wide range of measures that we have put in place, there is no doubt that the risk of loss of life and property will be higher when FBU members are refusing to work. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions therefore met Andy Gilchrist yesterday to urge him to clarify the extent to which the union would continue to provide a response to life-threatening incidents, whether house fires, major transport incidents or terrorist attacks. Mr. Gilchrist agreed to consider this with his executive tomorrow and to let the Government have a quick response. I hope that that response will be constructive.
We face a very serious situation. The House can be assured that I will, at every opportunity, keep it fully informed.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that statement and for prior sight of it. I agree with him that we cannot but admire the work that firefighters do. However, I am also glad that he joins me in condemning, without reservation, the strikes planned by the Fire Brigades Union in pursuit of its unsustainable 40 per cent. claim. I hope that he will also agree with me that after more than 20 years of modernisation of the British economy and British industrial relations, now is not the time to plunge back into the dark days of the 1970s, when trade union bosses held the country to ransom and the picket line called the shots.
Britain is living in the 21st century, yet we stand today on the verge of the first national firefighters' strike since 1977. The threatened Fire Brigades Union strike is a matter of serious national importance that puts lives at risk. Against the background of a significant terrorist threat, the start of the strikes coincides with one of the busiest times of the year for the fire and ambulance services, when bonfire night and Diwali take place. The extreme gravity of the situation transcends normal political debate. Nevertheless, its very seriousness demands that the answers to a number of specific questions are put on the record.
Last night, a leader of the Fire Brigades Union made it clear on XNewsnight" that it would be Xjust not possible" to maintain current levels of public safety as a result of strike action, irrespective of any arrangements they come to. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister effectively confirmed that point. What are the emergency plans in the event of a major incident, and is the Deputy Prime Minister satisfied with the safety levels associated with them?
We have known for some months that the strike has been likely. Given that, why is it not possible to enable military personnel to have access to the best equipment for preserving public safety without having to cross picket lines on a daily basis? Is this an issue about crossing picket lines, as the Minister for Local Government and the Regions claimed yesterday, or is it merely one of practicalities, as Downing street claimed this morning? Is the Deputy Prime Minister making any arrangements to ensure proper training and access to modern equipment in the event that the strike unfortunately lasts longer than expected?
It has been reported in the press that a number of other unions will refuse to operate transport and other facilities—for example, the London underground—on the basis of safety. Clearly, nobody wants any unnecessary risks taken, but neither should this be used as an excuse for what would otherwise be illegal secondary action. This could cripple a series of vital industries from the railways to power stations, from chemical plants to oil refineries. That is unacceptable. Who will take the final decisions on safety? Will it be the Health and Safety Executive, senior fire officers or the Deputy Prime Minister? If it is the right hon. Gentleman , on whose advice will he act?
Has the Deputy Prime Minister discussed with the fire authorities where the liability lies for fatalities and destruction arising from failure to provide full cover? What is the situation regarding household and other insurance fire cover? Is there a danger that people's household policies will be invalidated and, if so, what will he do about it? The Minister for Local Government and the Regions knows that I gave advance notice of that question.
The Bain inquiry is not expected to report until nearly Christmas. Throughout its deliberations, the public will be at risk, and there are likely to be fatalities. That is unacceptable. In 1972, the Wilberforce inquiry, meeting night and day, came to a conclusion in eight days flat and allowed the rapid resolution of a bitter national dispute. Will the Deputy Prime Minister make the resources available to ensure that Professor Bain's inquiry comes to an equally rapid conclusion, to allow early resolution of this very serious dispute?
Finally, given the Deputy Prime Minister's assertion that the Government did not intervene, the other outstanding question is how we got into this dangerous situation and the Government's role in it. I should like the Deputy Prime Minister to confirm or deny whether the account that I have been given is correct. We have been told that the employers' organisation was committed to making an offer on or before
As a result of that intervention, the employers failed to meet their commitment to make an offer by
As a result, the inquiry was not called until
The right hon. Gentleman's last statement about the circumstances of events is totally untrue. As he was not in the country at the time, and facing his own difficulties, he will not know.
As for the wage settlement, most public authority wage negotiation settlements have been at least twice the level of inflation—that is a gain that those workers have made under this Government, not under the previous Administration—so it would be most unusual for me to oppose that in regard to the FBU, if I were actively involved. It would go against common sense and recorded history.
On whether I attempted to raise the matter on the day to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—I think that the meeting with the Local Government Association was in Bournemouth—I was there to make a speech. I did not interfere in any way with the firefighters' negotiations. It is true that we have been asked from time to time whether we would fund more than the 4 per cent. that was being offered. We put the ball back with the employers, telling them that it was for them to make a judgment on the wage negotiations. I gave the same advice in the local authority negotiations, which were taking place at the same time and had also reached a difficult situation—I think that they settled for something like 7.9 per cent. over two years. In neither case did I actively interfere with the negotiations; they were settled between the employers and the employees.
The FBU general secretary raised the matter with me on only one occasion. I had a discussion with him in my office, one to one, in August—[Hon. Members: XAh!"] It is a matter of record. I have said so before. He asked me whether I had interfered in the negotiations, the point being that he had heard the rumour. I made it very clear that I had not and, to be fair to him, he accepted that and has since gone on record to make that precise point. I know that he is making a different point at the present time, but he has made conflicting statements on the formula. Two years ago, he thought that it was a very good formula. That does not seem to be his view at the moment. However, one can have different views and the right hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on the points that he made about that.
On whether the timetable for the inquiry could have been more rapid, when the general secretary saw me in mid-August he was complaining that the employers had not made any offer and that there was to be a meeting in September. It seemed ridiculous that the employers had not made any offer. We made it clear that they should make an offer to find out whether the firemen would accept it. That was done on 1 or
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions asked the FBU general secretary whether he wanted to contribute to the terms of reference of the inquiry, even though he did not want to participate—this is another contradiction, but we have the letter here. He made it clear that he did not. We made that offer in writing—the letter is available if anyone wants to see it—and in telephone conversation. He chose not to reply. I understood his view, but in those circumstances I could set up an inquiry, about which there was a division, only after the negotiations had broken down, and they broke down only on
As to when the inquiry will report, the timetable would be quicker if the FBU was actually co-operating. It believes that a new formula is required, so I presume that means that we should debate it rather than just accepting it. An inquiry is needed so that we can make a judgment. The employers have pointed out that if they are to pay more, they want some modernisation, so there is a dispute about whether modernisation should be tied to pay increases. We believe that the two are connected and that an independent study should consider them. The inquiry is due to report in the middle of December.
If the FBU now wants to give evidence to the inquiry, we could ask the chair to consider that and we might be able to hurry up the process. It is difficult for an independent chair, who is being attacked by the Fire Brigades Union for not knowing about the circumstances, to give them due and proper consideration in the inquiry, but that is what we have been doing.
David Davis asked what we had been doing about insurance liability. We have had some discussions with the people involved and they are continuing. The situation is not yet fully satisfactory and I shall report to him when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has concluded those discussions.
In respect to safety, we cannot offer a service as good as that provided by the firefighting service. There is no doubt about that; we have never hidden that fact. Green Goddesses of that age cannot begin to provide the sophisticated service offered by modern fire machines. We accept that, but we will do all that we can to assist, as is right.
Some trade unions have pointed out that the situation is unsafe and cite health and safety legislation. That is fine, but that legislation, passed by the House, gave independence to the Health and Safety Executive to make objective judgments about safety. I take advice from the HSE, as the legislation requires, and the unions, too, should stand by its objective judgment and not make it an excuse to extend the strike.
I, too, thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement.
Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that in all his subsequent actions, the safety of the public will be of paramount importance? Does he acknowledge that, as much of the legislation relating to the fire service dates back to 1947, the Government could have taken action earlier to modernise the service?
We share the right hon. Gentleman's admiration for the work of our firefighters, but does he acknowledge that, even without changes in their terms and conditions of employment, they deserve a better deal? Does he acknowledge that the employers have already made an offer that is more than the rate of inflation and have agreed that they will backdate the recommendations of the Bain inquiry, subject to additional funds being made available by the Government? Will the Government give an assurance today that they will provide whatever funds are recommended by the Bain inquiry? If those assurances were given, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the strike would be unnecessary, counter-productive and life-threatening?
I think that the strike would be counter-productive and there is no doubt that it would be life-threatening. That is why we appeal to the trade union to take part in the inquiry. I recall disputes in which trade unions were actually fighting for an inquiry. In this case, an inquiry was guaranteed right from the beginning.
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that there has been considerable modernisation in the fire service. If we compare the money given during the first five years of the Labour Government with the money given during the last five years of the previous Administration, we see that there is a considerable difference in the resources not only for local authorities but also for fire brigades.
The hon. Gentleman points out that firefighters need and want a better deal. Everyone has acknowledged that the present formula is not acceptable and says, XLet's discuss another formula." There has not been a strike in the fire service for 25 years and the House should welcome that as the contribution of a professional force that wants fair pay for its work in helping to keep the country safe. We all accept that.
The hon. Gentleman asks for Government assurances that we will accept the Bain report. The inquiry is independent, and it has to judge whether there should be extra pay over and above the 4 per cent. that has been offered, which is twice the rate of inflation. However, if there is to be more than that amount, there would have to be modernisation and changes in working practices. That is why local government wanted the inquiry. If the inquiry comes up with a balanced picture—as is often the way in this country—it will, no doubt, along with whatever pay increases it recommends, make recommendations about modernisation and changes.
Now, do I have a guarantee that the FBU will say, XOkay; if that's the package, we'll take that package and we'll accept the modernisation"? As a Government, we cannot write a blank cheque to everything, but if a deal is dependent on both parties' accepting it, it is very difficult to say yes or no in those circumstances. We must wait. But we have given our evidence; the FBU should give its.
My right hon. Friend has said twice that Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the FBU, was consulted about the terms of reference of the review. Can he explain to the House, if he knows, why Andy Gilchrist has not participated in the review, and say whether he gave any reasons as to why he would not respond on the terms of reference?
Having spoken personally to Andy Gilchrist in August, and read his statement since—I have no doubt that it is an honest statement—I know that he does not want pay of this form and his 40 per cent. claim to be connected in any way to any change in the organisation of the fire service. It is a straight position. We disagree with it as a Government, and so does local government in those circumstances.
We did ask Andy Gilchrist whether he would take part in the inquiry. He said no, so we thought that he might be interested in the terms of reference. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions rang him and made it absolutely clear, as he also did in a letter dated
The evacuation of hospitals, hospices, residential and nursing homes is patently going to be very difficult. We hear that in the case of emergencies of a certain scale, the firemen will come in and operate the usual vehicles. Would such establishments fall within the category of those that the firemen would attend if a fire were reported?
That is precisely the question that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions was discussing with the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. The hon. Lady will recall that he had asked me, in the press, to pick up the telephone and put down the megaphone. Most of the statements that we have had have been in the press. We did pick up the phone on Monday and dial four numbers in the office of the Fire Brigades Union. There was no one to answer them, but we eventually made contact.
When that offer was made, it was to discuss the very issues that the hon. Lady raised. We wanted to ask, on serious fire issues, whether the firefighters would play a part, make the vehicles available and attend. We have had the first meeting with Andy Gilchrist and asked him whether he would consider that. There is some consideration regarding the TUC formula on these matters and the agreements and the code of conduct that would operate in the essential public services. He has offered to put the matter to his executive and he will report back to us on Thursday.
My right hon. Friend, like me, has been involved in a number of industrial skirmishes over the past 30 years. Some we have won and some we have lost, and his presence here today is partly due to what happened way back in 1966. All that I would say—I hope that my right hon. Friend will comment—is that in all those disputes there were statutory incomes policies; in this one there is not. Notwithstanding that, the Government may win a skirmish but they might lose in the long term. I suggest to him that although the union is refusing to do this, that and the other, somebody has to take command. In view of that, I think that it would be useful if the Bain inquiry were brought forward, because I was around when the Wilberforce inquiry settled a dispute in just over a week—it was a great victory. In these circumstances, it is important that the Government retain the high moral ground. Governments in the past have been stubborn and won in the beginning, but they can lose in the long term. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear these thoughts in mind.
That is important, and I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend says; we can recall the firemen's strike because we lived very close to one of the fire stations at that time.
At the end of the day, this is about social justice and whether we can arrive at a solution that all parties can live with, not necessarily totally agree with, but when there is such a different approach, we have to find an agreement, which is what inquiries are for. Of course how long the inquiries take depends on how people co-operate with them. I have been involved with a number of inquiries. In the seamen's strike, it took three months to come to a conclusion, but there was an interim report.
What is happening in this case is that the inquiry is being conducted, but it is taking evidence from only one source. I can only appeal to my hon. Friend to appeal to those in the Fire Brigades Union and ask them why they do not give evidence. The miners did so with regard to the Wilberforce inquiry. What is wrong with that? Someone's case either stands up, or it does not. What is different now is that the lives of our citizens are involved in this situation; it encompasses every one of us, and we must do whatever we can to get people to the negotiating table and to get a fair settlement that is accepted by all parties.
The right hon. Gentleman will understand that most of us think that this impending strike is dangerous and wrong and should be stoutly resisted. Given that, will he say whether he is planning to allow the armed services to train on and use modern fire fighting equipment, which is the property of the nation, not of the Fire Brigades Union? Will he also tell the House whether he might be minded to introduce legislation to prohibit the withdrawal of emergency cover, thus giving statutory reflection to the TUC guidelines?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman always has a legal solution to everything, but that does not always satisfy industrial situations. With regard to access to the vehicles, we must readily accept that it takes three months to train people to use them. I ask him to consider what judgments Governments have to make.
Should we have started three-months training in the middle of the negotiations and told the firemen, XWell, we are going to get ready because you are going on strike"; or should we encourage people to reach an agreement? There are difficult judgments to be made. Should we go to fire stations, saying, XGive us six of your machines. We want to practise on them in the next three months to get ready for you guys when you come out"? I ask hon. Members to make practical judgments about that. [Interruption.] I admit that these are not lawyers' points, but they are about the reality of industrial relations. In the circumstances, we should say, XRight, we need to get an agreement with you." That is what we are doing, and we have to make a balanced judgment.
Let us bear in mind that the current industrial relations situation is that the Fire Brigades Union has proposed to strike for two days, then two days and then eight days. Let us hope that will not happen, but there is a period when they will be using those machines at work. So would it not be better for them to have their machines to operate for the community, so that they are not damaged by unskilled workers who may not be sufficiently trained to deal with them, and nothing else happens that might inflame the situation?
Governments have to make a judgment, and we are accountable to the House. At the moment, what we have done is the best way to find a solution, and that is where we are focused. Let me make it clear that no one should doubt the Government's commitment to secure the safety of our citizens, and we will do everything to ensure that that is achieved.
May I remind my right hon. Friend that, a couple of months ago in west Yorkshire, a fire tender was called to assist a man who had suffered from a heart attack? That is just one example of the new burdens that are placed on the fire service, showing why it has to be multi-skilled. For that reason, I would support a genuinely independent review, but would it be better if both sides of the dispute did not make statements about what they expected to come out of the review? One side is saying that it must have a certain percentage figure and the other side is saying that there must not be a certain percentage figure. It seems that the independent review will be bound, and it will not have the respect of the general public if both sides to the dispute try to tie its hands in advance.
There is a lot of sense in that, but it is an inevitable part of disputes that people will arrive at figures, one of which will be at one end of the dispute and one at the other, and an independent review is the way to deal with those circumstances.
My hon. Friend is perhaps referring to whether the Government should say whether a 40 per cent. increase is affordable, but I have to tell him that #450 million is quite a hefty bill, which Governments cannot ignore. Since I have been in this job, local authorities have settled for something like 7.9 per cent. over two years. If #450 million were to come out of the local authority budget, the money would basically be coming from other people's wages and conditions. I must take that into account. I have not made the judgment; I have allowed a committee to make an independent assessment.
My hon. Friend made a good point when he referred to the fire service attending a heart case. The service now is more of an emergency service than a fire service. It does a great deal of tremendous work and it needs proper equipment. Under our rules there is the absurdity that certain equipment that is needed for the work that the service undertakes is denied to it even though in some instances it does not act as a fire service. There is a need for modernisation. The service needs change. We should provide the necessary resources. We are asking that these considerations should be recognised all together. That is fair and that is right.
As public safety is rightly the right hon. Gentleman's prime concern, will he do two things? First, will he give clear guidance to those in my constituency and elsewhere who are planning bonfire night parties? Will he urge them to be as cautious as possible? If necessary, will he tell them to delay these parties? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman rethink his answer to my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg and give members of our highly trained armed forces whose own lives will be put at risk when using Green Goddesses, some of which are 50 years old, some access to modern equipment?
The House will be sympathetic to concerns about injuries, and sometimes deaths, that occur on
At the risk of repeating what others have said, I say to my right hon. Friend that public services turn to public harm when a set of public servants, such as firefighters, take such actions. Is it not time they took cognisance of the TUC guidelines to which they signed up, and provided the cover that we would like to see provided? Should not we in turn ensure that the review completes its work early so that we can all be sure that there will be an end to the dispute?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The TUC code of conduct, to which she referred, came about immediately after the dispute in 1977. It was designed to deal with public services and essential services. It was agreed to by the Fire Brigades Union and the TUC. I know that the executive is meeting tomorrow, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions discussed this with Andy Gilchrist when he met him yesterday. Consideration is being given to these points.
The Deputy Prime Minister says that the Government have not interfered in this matter, but it is clear that they have. I shall ask two brief questions. First, when he met Andy Gilchrist on
I understand the misunderstanding about dates and local authority negotiations. When I met Andy Gilchrist, I was surprised when he made the point strongly to me. I thought that the negotiations had broken down on
As for whether I asked Andy Gilchrist whether he would co-operate with an inquiry, the local authorities had already made it clear in negotiations that they would go further than 4 per cent. and alter the formula if the firefighters were prepared to co-operate with an inquiry into the modernisation of the fire service. Their view was that there had been many reviews of the fire service, the money had been taken, but little had been done about modernisation; they felt that there should be an independent assessment. I thought that there was a lot of sense in that and encouraged the union to accept an inquiry, but the general secretary made it absolutely clear that he did not want an inquiry—he believed that the union had co-operated in modernisation before and that that was not the issue. He said, XGive me the 40 per cent. or the 50 per cent." and suggested nothing else. I did not push him on that, because I was not involved in negotiations. All I wanted to know was whether he would play a part in an inquiry, to which he answered, XNo."
We readily acknowledge that, although a comparatively small part of the service, retained firefighters provide an excellent service in the areas in which they operate. They have taken the view that they are perfectly prepared to go to an inquiry and give evidence and that they do not want to take part in the industrial dispute. It is their right to do that and they have told the FBU that. They will have the same facilities as they have at the moment and, presumably, they will provide service even during the periods of industrial dispute. That is their decision.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the fire safety problem would be far more serious if British industry and commerce managed their fire safety arrangements with the same incompetence as the House of Commons? Is he aware that after 25 months Portcullis House still does not have a fire certificate, and that this morning the fire alarm was activated and the fire doors closed, but owing to a fault the evacuation signal was not given, so no one was evacuated? Will he tell everyone involved in British industry and commerce—and the House of Commons—that the best thing they can do to prepare is to review their fire safety arrangements and make sure they work more effectively than the House of Commons' current arrangements?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I appealed to industry and all parties who might be affected by the dispute to do precisely that. As for conditions in the House of Commons, I am glad to say that that is nothing to do with me. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take the hon. Gentleman's comments into account.
Xa tightly knit group of politically motivated men", when all he was doing was negotiating properly on behalf of his members. In current circumstances, it is difficult to know with whom the FBU should negotiate. Given that negotiations have broken down, is there not a case for intervention by the Prime Minister to accelerate the Bain report and to summon both employers and trade unions to continuous negotiations, so that we can prevent lives and public services being put at risk in an entirely avoidable dispute?
I have some sympathy with that point, but my hon. Friend must remember that the two parties disagree fundamentally on what might conclude the dispute. I have taken the opportunity to provide for an independent inquiry. As for his historical reference to me, at that time I was fighting for an inquiry; the firefighters have got one right away.
The deputy chief fire officer in Buckinghamshire has rightly been concerned for some time about large warehouses used by the retail industry because they pose such problems for firefighters that, even in normal times, operational pre-planning is required. Has the Deputy Prime Minister made specific arrangements to ensure that the armed forces are fully trained to deal with that extremely hazardous type of warehouse fire? If not, and if no lives are threatened, will warehouses be left to burn?
The hon. Lady will understand that if there are two incidents, one in which lives are threatened and the other in which a building is simply burning down, the choice is clear. If two machines are not available to tackle both incidents, one goes where the greatest threat to human life is present. That is the rule that will apply, but the forces will be trained to deal with every type of eventuality that they may be called upon to tackle.
The Deputy Prime Minister may know that I represent the town of Grangemouth, which has the largest integrated chemical and petrochemical plant in the UK. Will any advice be given to the emergency planning teams as to whether such companies should consider rescheduling their production so that the threat, which has already caused two fires and a major explosion on that site in the past three or four years, may be avoided by management?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I have a similar chemical complex in my own area. He will know that in negotiations with chemical companies, there are special rules and regulations about intensive cover inside the plant, but inevitably the plant is also dependent on outside help from the fire services. In that respect, I am sure that the emergency services will do what they can, but I say to the employers, and I hope that my hon. Friend will say the same to the employers in his chemical plant, that they should make sure that all their safety arrangements are up to scratch, and that they should do their utmost in these difficult circumstances.
The FBU has made it clear that it feels that the inquiry is not independent. It must make a proper assessment of controversial matters. That is what dictates the time. If we have a reply by December, I have said and I repeat that if only the FBU would co-operate, perhaps we could consider how the hon. Gentleman's suggestion could be achieved. The co-operation of both parties in giving evidence makes it much easier for an inquiry to make its judgment. Unfortunately, it has been denied the co-operation of the FBU, so every assistance should be given to persuade the FBU to come and give evidence.
Anyone who knows Sir George Bain knows that he is a man who makes recommendations and deals with inquiries without courting favour from Government. His recommendations on poverty pay and minimum pay are a good example of that. I trust him; his record is good. I also trust the people advising him.
Has the Deputy Prime Minister any estimate of the proportion of retained firemen who will be expected to work if there is a strike? Also, have the Government any estimate of what proportion of incidents retained firemen will deal with, and what proportion the armed forces might deal with?
I will keep the matter under review. When I get any information, I will inform the House. It is a difficult issue. There is some dispute about the proportion of retained firefighters. The union says that it is organising for a particular number, and the other body says that it is organising for a different number. We do not know whether the retained firemen will heed the call to strike. It is difficult to make that judgment. As soon as I have any information about that, I will let the House and the hon. Gentleman know.
There can be no doubt that our firefighters do a fabulous job on our behalf and deserve the highest of incomes that can be afforded by the Government. However, I fear that what they are asking for—a 40 per cent. increase in one go—is too much for any Government to contemplate, and they need to get realistic. During 1984, I was a member of the National Union of Mineworkers Yorkshire area executive committee, and we made provisions and gave dispensation to miners to make sure that safety work could be carried out underground and coal could be delivered to hospitals, old people's homes and so on, where it was needed. I cannot for the life of me see the ordinary firefighter sitting back when a disaster occurs in this country and not going to assist. We cannot say often enough that the Deputy Prime Minister must do all he can to ensure that if there is a disaster, firefighters go out there and do what they are best at.
In this House there is no doubt in anyone's mind that firemen feel strongly for their jobs and for safety. They are in that job because they like to do the job, and they are among the few groups of people who risk their lives to carry out their job. I am sure that it is a difficult decision for them to withdraw their labour, and they know that. The possibility of an inquiry was immediately granted so that they did not have to face that choice. I do not deny, as I said earlier, that they may have to make the choice, but not before the settlement date,
I cannot ignore the fact that, on the 40 per cent. figure, in my meeting with the general secretary, I said, XYour demand is obviously #400 million" and he said, XNo, it is #450 million." I asked him how the Government should pay for such an increase—a legitimate question for the Government to ask in such circumstances. He said that we had all had a consultants' report and that X amount could be saved in respect of damage by fire. He estimated the figure to be about #600 million and said that we could pay the settlement with that money. Unless the insurance companies have discovered a way of transferring dividends to the Government in order to meet a wage requirement, however, that does not seem a sensible way of dealing with the problem.
We have not made a decision about the matter and have left the independent inquiry to produce a balanced judgment about the pay to be awarded—we agree to having a different formula—and the modernisation that should accompany it.
Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have said that our constituents cannot expect from the Army the same sort of service as is offered by the fire service. Our constituents have paid money to the fire service for a service that they will not get. What message does the Deputy Prime Minister have for the insurance companies and what discussions have been conducted with them to make it clear that, even though our constituents are not getting the service that they should receive, they are expected to stand by their obligations?
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He can be sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are constantly in discussions with parties that will be directly affected by the dispute. On the essential question about insurance payments, which is a general one, I am well aware of what happened in respect of floods, let alone an industrial situation. In those circumstances, the companies did not face up to their obligations. This is a constant problem, but it is not really associated with industrial disputes.
I think that the general secretary is clear about that. First, he wants the money to be given now and he wants a new formula. We are agreed that he should have that formula, but presumably, we must discuss why the old one is no longer acceptable, even though until two years ago he thought that it was very good. Clearly, he does not hold the same view now. Secondly, he says he does not want any settlement above 4 per cent. to be connected to modernisation. He makes it clear that he does not want any reorganisation or modernisation. He may be rethinking that position—who knows? I hope that he does so and that he will give the reasons why he does not want modernisation. He may be fully justified in holding such a view, but in that case, he should put the evidence to the inquiry, so we can all make a judgment.
Given that lives will almost certainly be lost if the strikes go ahead, do not the Government have a responsibility to ensure that any eventual settlement incorporates a no-strike deal so that we do not face the same situation again?
The House will recognise that, even with a full fire service, lives are lost. That is tragic and many fewer lives are lost because of the firemen who risk their lives daily. The fact that they came to a voluntary agreement on a formula that gave us 25 years of industrial peace seems good sense. If we can get such agreement again, I will take it.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that, in a dispute of any kind, there are no winners or losers. Everyone is a loser in such circumstances. Does he also accept that the firefighters have expressed the view that the 1977 agreement is outdated and that, on that basis, the review would make a difference if it were implemented as soon as possible? Does he agree that, as a way of eliminating the bitterness that has tended to arise in the dispute, which will create an impossible situation in terms of reaching a settlement, we should be asking the general secretary of the FBU about an acceptable interim arrangement to ensure that no strike takes place in the next few days?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions is meeting the general secretary, and also met him yesterday. He is talking to the executive about some of these matters and will report properly back to us so we can have some discussions. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the formula is no longer acceptable to the FBU. That has been accepted by the local authorities and by us, but if somebody wants a change in the formula, they have to come forward with some ideas that can be discussed in a proper review. It is difficult to comprehend the argument that the formula has produced poor pay for the fire brigade over the past 25 years.
One can argue that the pay is not good enough or that it should be more when compared with that of others, but two years ago, when the same Andy Gilchrist was general secretary, he said:
XOur wages remain ahead of other essential public sector workers precisely because we have maintained the formula".
He is entitled to change his mind, but he cannot claim that the formula failed for all those years.
By all means, let us discuss the formula, but we also discussed reorganisation for a modernised fire service that meets all the emergency needs, which require the courage, dedication and specialised skills of our fire people. We accepted that in principle, and Andy Gilchrist should sit down and negotiate the matter, as any trade union leader should.
I understand that if the retained fire service in Market Harborough decides or has to stop working, the nearest Green Goddess cover will come from Corby, which is some miles away. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that in such circumstances, a Green Goddess is stationed in Market Harborough to cover that large rural area?
When the fire authorities get rid of their modern fire machines after several years, may I suggest that they are taken into Government ownership to replace Green Goddesses? It is ludicrous that we continue to rely on such elderly machines.
The hon. and learned Gentleman makes a fair point and raises a proper concern. We do not know whether retained firemen are likely to operate during an industrial dispute. Many said that they would, and there would not therefore be a problem. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman properly said that matters are more difficult if Green Goddesses have to provide cover. We shall review the position from time to time and consider his interesting suggestion about old appliances.
We are all losers in the current circumstances, and it is vital that we resolve the impasse. Will my right hon. Friend consider trying to find an informal channel of communication so that the review that we support can take place before we have to deal with members of the public whose loved ones are lost because of the strike? Will he search for an informal way of getting people back around the table?
I promised earlier that we would do whatever we could to help prevent the dispute. We have offered an inquiry, but there are many other methods, through connections and formal and informal discussions. The Government have not set their face against that. We have made our position clear. We are properly worried about safety and we have taken appropriate measures to deal with it. However, if there is good will on all sides in such a dispute, agreement can be reached.
I am sure that firemen in many stations throughout the country have made it clear that they support the dispute. They are dissatisfied. I say to them that that has registered with us, but we ask them to acknowledge that it is right for us to negotiate on such matters and reach a fair settlement. If they cannot trust us as a Government, they should rely on the Bain inquiry as an independent method of solving matters. That has been the British way for a long time. It served us well in the past and it will do so in future.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is great support and sympathy for firefighters? That has always been the case in this country. They are perceived as decent, providing an essential service and doing a good job. After
Do we not need a more fundamental review of what constitutes an essential service in the wider industrial relations framework? There is a price to pay for such services. If we pay a high enough price, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we should consider the possibility of an industrial relations framework that removed the right to strike?
I am not sure, especially in Northern Ireland, whether one can proceed if all parties do not agree. The democratic method of dealing with such a problem is trying to get all parties to agree. I am not sure that making strikes illegal is a satisfactory way to achieve consensus in the community. There is much evidence for that. The recent programme about Orgreave reminded us of the possible consequences of such action. In a democratic system, we try to achieve a balance and find agreement between all the parties.
The available evidence shows that we manage to get our industrial relations right in this country. Few days are lost through strikes when compared with other countries. That is a credit to those who are actively involved. I prefer democratic accountability and consensus to simply imposing something on a community. The latter is not the democratic way.
In recent letters from a couple of firemen, the inquiry has been described as a sham. My hon. Friend Mr. Skinner rightly drew parallels with the Wilberforce review, which worked at the time for the people he represented. Will my right hon. Friend use this opportunity to make it absolutely clear to the firefighters and to all the people out there in the country that there is no sham here, and that there is an open, honest offer from the Government to have an inquiry undertaken that has, as it were, parallels with the Wilberforce situation? This is an honest offer from the Government and it is important that the firefighters receive that message loud and clear today.
I hope that the House will believe that I would not appoint an inquiry if it was made up of people who were not independent of mind. I ask Members to judge the record and background of the people involved. To be fair, there have been very few inquiries in this country, under any Administration, that people have not found to be fair, in their judgment. That does not mean that we agree with their conclusions—whether it be Wilberforce or the inquiry relating to the seafarers' strike—but if they produce an honest judgment arrived at by trying to find consensus for an agreement, that is what is important.
In this case, however, the Fire Brigades Union has not given a fair chance for the inquiry to be independent in that sense. It has given no evidence to it. The incident in which the general secretary of the union went to a private reception and talked to one of the inquiry members as someone within the trade union movement, then released details of that personal conversation to the press saying that the inquiry was fixed, does not make it look as though he wants to co-operate with the inquiry. He has a political position; he does not want to do that. I think that he is wrong. I hope that we can appeal to him to co-operate, but the judgment at the end of the day—this will be as true of this inquiry as of any other—will depend on whether it was a fair inquiry into all the circumstances. Whether it will be a proper one, producing an independent judgment, will be conditional on all parties putting their case. If one party does not do so, there is a great danger that a proper judgment cannot be made.
That is the view of the Fire Brigades Union, and I say to the firefighters and the people in the fire stations, XLook, what have you got to lose? Wait and see, and then you can make your judgment. Why subject us to a strike prior to the inquiry's findings coming out?" The date of the payment is
Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that during the last dispute, emergency cover in Eastbourne was provided by the Royal Navy and the Parachute Regiment? Will he urgently reconsider his decision to deny modern equipment to our service men and women? After all, their lives will be put at risk every bit as much as those of the professional firefighters are now.
I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he would not want to put any of those service men and women into dangerous situations and expect them to use sophisticated equipment when they have not been properly trained to do so. That is the reality that we are faced with; that training takes three months. I have explained to the House why we made the judgments that we have. I think that they are the right judgments, and they are the ones for which we will be held accountable.