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Fire Dispute

Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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1.19 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the fire dispute.

As the House has just heard, military action is now under way and we are in a grave and serious situation. Our armed forces are now actively engaged in the Gulf. The continuing fire dispute means that 19,000 members of the armed forces are engaged in providing emergency fire cover at home. Therefore, although the Fire Brigades Union has called off its latest strike, which was due to start at 6 o'clock this evening, the threat of a further strike means that we must still hold those troops in reserve rather than release them for other military duties.

As the House will be aware, I have always tried to keep it fully informed of developments in the fire dispute as soon as they take place. I regret to say that, last night, the FBU recalled conference rejected the latest offer from the employers. I will be calling in the local authority employers and the FBU to meet me this afternoon. I am sure that many Members will be astonished that the conference has rejected an offer of 16 per cent. by July 2004 linked to common-sense changes in working practices. It would mean that every qualified firefighter would earn at least £25,000 a year compared with the present level of £21,500. That is a far more generous deal than most other workers in both the public and private sectors have settled for. It is double what their old pay formula would have given them, more than double what other local government employees have settled for, and compares with public sector pay settlements running at about 3 per cent. a year.

As I have said before, the employers' revised pay offer is partly financed by transitional funding from the Government. I want to make it absolutely clear that no more transitional funding will be forthcoming from the Government. Firefighters should be in no doubt that what the employers are offering is both generous and at the absolute limit of what they can afford. With that in mind, the executive council of the FBU concluded that this deal should be accepted by its members and that the strikes should be brought to an end. That was its recommendation to the conference. Clearly, in the view of the FBU negotiators, that was an acceptable offer. The employers agreed to that, as did the Government. Yesterday, however, the recalled conference decided to ignore the recommendation of the union's executive. Instead, it rejected the deal and reverted to the original claim of 40 per cent. for firefighters and 50 per cent. for control room staff.

The recalled conference went on to decide that it would take further soundings in the brigades with a recommendation to reject. It will meet again in two or three weeks' time. The FBU will therefore put the same deal to the same delegates at the same conference as yesterday, no doubt with the same outcome. Individual firefighters, however, have not spoken directly on this dispute since they rejected a 4 per cent. offer in a secret ballot last September. Since then, there have been months of negotiations leading to this final offer. It is a material and significantly better offer and individual firefighters should now have the right to express their individual views on it in a secret ballot.

For now, however, we are left in a position in which, although no new strike dates have been set, we have no guarantee that further strikes will not be called, the union has repeatedly made it clear that it can call fresh strikes at any time with just seven days' notice, and unofficial action could put the public at risk during a period of heightened terrorist threat.

The House will recall that on 28 January I announced that if it proved impossible to reach a satisfactory negotiated agreement I would introduce legislation to impose a pay settlement. Now that the FBU conference has overturned its executive, I have concluded that the time has come for legislation, particularly given the conflict in the Gulf and the heightened threat of terrorism. I am therefore giving notice today that I will introduce and publish a new two-clause Fire Services Bill tomorrow. The Bill will give me the power to impose terms and conditions within the fire service and direct the use of fire service assets and facilities. I will start immediate discussions through the usual channels about how quickly we can make progress on this Bill. In setting the level for a settlement, I would take into account the pay rise that would have been forthcoming under the FBU's existing formula, the pay review bodies' recommendations for other key public sector workers and the Government's overall approach to Public sector pay.

New terms and conditions, however, are only part of what is required for a modernised fire service. As the House is aware, we are repealing section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 and we are consulting on the related guidance to get the right people in the right place at the right time in order to reduce the risk of fire. I am also pressing ahead with a White Paper on a modernised fire service and legislation to achieve that objective. That will ensure that we have the legal framework in place to provide a modern, safe, efficient and effective fire service for the public and the firefighters. The choice for firefighters is simple: accepting a generous deal that has been approved by the FBU executive, or continuing a dispute that has been running for 12 months, is going nowhere and will require me to act. I believe that the common sense of individual firefighters will prevail in the end. Individual firefighters, however, must be given the chance to vote in a secret ballot, as they did on the original 4 per cent. offer in September last year.

In the interest of public safety, 19,000 members of the armed forces are tied down to cover the possibility that the union may strike again. That is unacceptable in the difficult situation that we face today. People will rightly find it hard to believe that the firefighters would go on strike while the country is engaged in military action. I do not believe for one moment that individual firefighters would want 19,000 members of the armed forces to be held in reserve for firefighting duties at a time when their comrades are risking their lives in the Gulf. I will be making that point strongly when I meet the union and the employers this afternoon.

It is now time for the voice of individual firefighters to be heard. I put my faith in the common sense and decency of firefighters to bring this dispute to an end. We have been reasonable; the FBU has not. Whatever people's views on the war, the country will find it extraordinary and unacceptable that at a time when our troops are being called into action, the FBU continues to act in this irresponsible way. I hope that the House will support us in these proposals.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for making his statement today and for prior sight of it, albeit only by 20 minutes.

I add the Opposition's support to the Deputy Prime Minister's calls for the FBU to hold a secret ballot of its members and for it not to instigate more strike action, particularly at a time when it puts British citizens at grave risk. Today, with the coalition forces involved in military action against Iraq, that danger is starker than at any time in this dispute. Currently, up to 45,000 service personnel, including a quarter of the Army, are deployed in the Gulf. There could not be a worse time to commit 19,000 troops to stay at home on firefighting duties.

The last time that I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about that, he said that he took the advice of the military. We have had clear advice from the military: the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Michael Boyce, said that he was "extremely concerned" that keeping 19,000 troops on standby to cover for the firemen was affecting training and operational readiness. Now, we understand that troops deployed in Northern Ireland have had their tours extended, and troops now in the Gulf have had their training times and leave—often the last opportunity to see their loved ones before military action—cut. Does the Deputy Prime Minister deny that all of that is a direct result of the need to provide cover for firefighters? Clearly, he does not.

Since December, with war looming, I have been calling on the Deputy Prime Minister to seek an injunction to ban these dangerous strikes. Will he now publish the Attorney-General's advice, as the Government did in the case of the advice on the need for a second UN resolution? I am saddened that he decided not to take that course, as I fear that that will have been detrimental to our preparations for war. Firefighters are our first line of defence in the event of a terrorist attack at home. There have been press reports that the FBU, in 19 out of the 58 regions, have refused to take part in training on equipment designed specifically to protect the public from terrorist chemical attack. Can he confirm or deny that? Are there any other examples of obstruction to preparations for a terrorist attack? What are the Government doing to put that right, and will that be dealt with in the Bill that he has proposed today?

Opposition Members have been calling on the Government to give greater attention to the ongoing need for a higher level of preparedness for a terrorist attack and to consider appointing a senior political figure to have overall charge of preparing for a terrorist attack. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was the Minister with direct responsibility for civil defence an the threat of terrorism at home, but it is two days since his resignation and there is no sign of a replacement so we do not even have a junior Minister in charge of homeland security. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what the Government propose to do about that, and when?

When we last heard a statement on the fire strikes from the right hon. Gentleman he told us that he would impose a deal on firefighters if he felt that negotiations could not move forward, and he has told us that he intends to take that course of action. Conservative Members will support commencing legislation subject: to seeing the details. However, we do not take lightly curbing citizens' rights without proper scrutiny, and we will insist that such legislation is time limited so that the House can examine the matter again after hostilities have ceased.

The Deputy Prime Minister first talked about this legislation two months ago but, as it is, the timetable leading to war has been more predictable than most. Surely it would have been possible to introduce a draft Bill in that time to allow the House to examine its detail properly. It is not clear whether the two-clause Bill will give him the right to ban a strike. If it will not, what will he do if the FBU continues to strike, despite his imposition, and to put the public at risk and undermine the effectiveness of our armed forces? The answer to that will determine whether the hasty Bill that he proposes will work. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House precisely what he meant by saying that the Bill will give him powers to
"direct the use of fire service assets and facilities"?
I, like many hon. Members, was surprised by union activists' decision to overturn a recommendation from their leaders to accept a final pay offer. All the firefighters I have met in recent months have struck me as patriotic individuals and I cannot believe that a majority of them will reject the deal and take strike action while our troops are needed elsewhere. If they do take such action, they will put their fellow citizens at risk. The firefighters should ideally resolve the dispute now but, failing that, they should make a public declaration that they are deferring their needless action until hostilities in the Gulf and the risk of terrorism at home is over. If they refuse to do that and if there is no strike ban in the proposed Bill, the Attorney-General should secure an injunction as a matter of urgency to stop further strikes until at least the end of the war given that hostilities have begun, that our troops are incredibly overstretched in a war in the Gulf, that there is a war on terror on our door steps and that relevant legislation exists in the form of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. I repeat Conservative Members' consistent calls for the Government urgently to ban future strikes while the country is at war.

We shall give the Bill favourable treatment, despite the Government's failure on the issue, provided that it will apply for only a limited time, either until the cessation of hostilities or certainly within one year of it being passed. The international crisis requires all parties in the House to put aside their differences until the cessation of military action. Conservative Members will do that, but after the crisis is over, the House of Commons will want a proper debate so that the inevitable errors in such hasty legislation are not imposed on the country for all time.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for highlighting the difficulties that arise from the situation. I agree with several of his points, and perhaps I may address them in order.

We have asked for the advice of the military and the right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the number of armed forces personnel available during the dispute—19,000—is the exact number that was available before. He raised the proper concern, as did I, that that is the same as it was before we found ourselves in this hostile situation, and I agree I hat the situation is difficult. The advice that we received was the same as before: we have sufficient armed personnel to deal with the fire dispute and the situation will not constitute a threat to public safety.

The judgment about what represents a threat to public safety will put great emphasis on the thoughts of the Attorney-General. I note that the shadow Attorney-General is present so I can reiterate the argument that I put to him before—I am sure that he will confirm it. The Attorney-General will judge whether there is a threat to public safety and he will decide whether to act on that. It is proper for me to approach the Attorney-General. I saw him yesterday and gave him the latest update. He will consider that and take it into account when he decides whether to take any action. Every Minister who has spoken about these matters from the Dispatch Box has said that the Attorney-General must make his judgment.

One or two brigades have not co-operated on occasions. One of the problems with the negotiations is that the brigades are given a great deal of authority and they can act individually. Indeed, that relates to the right hon. Gentleman's question about whether the power exists to direct facilities. The Government's powers are limited at the moment because they are delegated to the fire authorities. That is one reason why I propose that the Bill should take back the power to direct should fire brigades refuse to carry out instructions. That is the proper thing to do and we can discuss that matter when we consider the Bill.

It is true that one or two people—although not representatives of the FBU groups—have said unofficially that they will not co-operate with new dimension training. We made it clear to the union that that is unacceptable because the training relates to measures on terrorism. Such incidents are isolated, but they are unacceptable.

The right hon. Gentleman asked which Minister is currently in charge of safety matters. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary chairs the relevant Cabinet Committee, which is the civil contingencies committee. I think that we would all agree that my right hon. Friend is a pretty senior politician. He has taken steps to replace the Minister who resigned, and no doubt he will make an appropriate statement on that. My right hon. Friend has direct responsibility for safety matters and nothing has suffered due to the resignation.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would want to use the proposed Bill to impose a deal. The Bill is modelled, to an extent, on the Fire Services Act 1947, although he will see when we consider it that it is not exactly the same. The Government at that time decided to introduce legislation to allow them to impose a deal. In these circumstances, I will take powers to fix or modify the fire brigades' conditions of service after making a judgment about whether to impose a deal, and I have outlined how that would be done and the factors that I would take into account. I give notice, however, that I cannot do that until the House agrees to those powers, and I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support on that. Time and accountability will be discussed by the relevant people.

We shall consider the Bill in due course, although I do not agree that it should contain anti-strike legislation. [Interruption.] Well, I am only giving my judgment. The right hon. Gentleman can disagree, but he will see what is in the Bill after I produce it and we can discuss it then. After all, I need the co-operation of Opposition parties in order to take such a Bill through the House. I cannot just announce it because the Bill must go through the proper democratic procedures, and I assure him that that will happen. The Bill will be published tomorrow and it will help matters.

Members of the FBU have the opportunity to demand a secret ballot so that we know what firefighters truly think about the 16 per cent. deal. However, I warn them that if they do not accept the deal, I shall secure powers that would allow me to decide whether to impose such an agreement.

May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that statement and for keeping the House informed? I agree that it is astonishing and regrettable that yesterday's FBU conference rejected the offer. Indeed, it was surprising that the Deputy Prime Minister did not make a stronger statement that a fire strike in a time of war and heightened tension would be an appalling threat to public safety, which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made clear. Surely such industrial action at a time of military action would be dangerous and irresponsible, even though our professional armed forces would rise to the challenge. So why have the Government not made it clear that they would ban the fire strikes while our armed forces are engaged? No one in the House would seek to ban strikes except in the most exceptional circumstances, but does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that regrettably such circumstances are now upon us? Frankly, it would be bizarre if the Attorney-General did not think so. As for the eventual resolution of the dispute, surely the Government should now seek, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, to go beyond the FBU activists and back to the ordinary firefighters?

Does not the Deputy Prime Minister agree that a silent majority of firefighters would reluctantly accept the current offer, so is it not time to insist that the FBU consult its members on the current offer by a secret postal ballot? Surely, it would be far better for the long-term health of our fire services if the Government pushed for a democratic end to the dispute rather than going down the route of imposing a settlement? Does not the Deputy Prime Minister realise that his strategy of imposing a settlement could end up prolonging the dispute and making matters worse? If emergency legislation is needed, should it not back ordinary firefighters' right to vote and stop the damage to the fire service and public safety by extremists among the FBU activists?

First, I appreciate some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but if there is a threat to public safety, as I have already explained, there is a person who is responsible for making that judgment and taking court action where necessary. As for whether I am going to impose a deal or, indeed, go for anti-strike legislation, banning strikes would be extremely controversial, so any legislation would take a long time to go through the House. I do not think that legislation that I might get in September or October would be helpful in this situation.

As a ballot is under way, I do not want to aggravate the situation. I appeal directly to the firefighters not to leave this matter to the brigades' hands-up decisions in the mess room. We should not learn merely that an offer was opposed by 58 brigades without any information about the proportion of those who wanted to accept the deal and those who did not. A precedent has already been set, as the FBU had a ballot on 4 September. All I am saying is that it is proper, in view of the serious nature of the problem, for firemen to have the right to say whether they accept or reject an offer. That will be done in the next two or three weeks, and we can then see exactly what their judgment is.

I have made it clear that this is not about whether we are going to provide any more money. Let me make it absolutely clear—there will not be another penny in the deal, as 16 per cent. is a generous offer. The firefighters need to be clear about that when they have their vote. It would be difficult to introduce legislation to enforce a ballot or indeed anti-strike legislation because of the time that it would take to get through the Houseߞif, indeed, it got through the House—and that would not be helpful in the present situation. I have chosen to pursue this course of action, and I have used my judgment to determine the best way of balancing public safety against getting an agreement in those areas.

Why is my right hon. Friend being so intransigent on matters of legislation? A measure dealing with section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 has already gone through the House, and it is now proposed to introduce a new two-clause Bill on fire services. Would it not be more sensible if those matters were the subject of negotiations, as there could be some trade-off so that we could begin to reach a settlement? At the meetings that my right hon. Friend will hold with the FBU and the employers, it will not be possible to have any type of negotiation at all in the circumstances. It will merely be a matter of pontification from a certain position rather than an attempt at persuasion and discussion to reach a settlement that should be there to be grabbed by both sides.

Let me make it clear—I do not think that I am being intransigent at all in those negotiations, which have gone on for the best part of 12 months. Sometimes the truth is told, sometimes less than the truth.ߞfor example, the reason why Members of Parliament got a 40 per cent. increase. No doubt my hon. Friend has contested with the firemen the kind of propaganda that was going around at the time. I hope that the two parties will come together. In the past 12 months, I have worked tremendously hard to get them to come together and talk. I have made it clear that it is for them to make the decision.

It is only a day or so since the executive recommended that decision. There was a full recommendation to the conference to accept the deal, but it overturned itߞI did not do so, it was the members themselves. However, if the decision is to be fair, why do they not subject it to a secret ballot as they did in September, so at least we get a full picture of who wants to accept the deal and who wants to move to further strike action, particularly against this background?

I do not think for a moment that I am being intransigent. As for discussions, I made a statement in January. I am sure that the Opposition will ask why I did not introduce legislation then. I thought that it would inflame the situation, and wanted to work for an agreementߞand we got it, and we got the executive to make a recommendation. I therefore think that my judgment was right, but now I am faced with the fact that the conference has rejected the offer and is going back to its members. I have said that a secret ballot is the best way of dealing with the matter.

I have discussed with the trade union our White Paper and proposals on section 19, but it disagrees with me. Basically, I am implementing a recommendation made some time ago to give up my powers and allow decisions to be made at local level. That is basically a form of decentralisationߞI have been considering it for a long time and I believe that it is right. I have had discussions on all those matters, but when one group says "no" and another "yes", one has to make a decision—I have made mine.

Order. May I just tell the Deputy Prime Minister that it is more helpful if he addresses the Chair? May I also appeal on the basis of that start, for shorter questions and answers.

I do not believe that the Deputy Prime Minister would have taken this particular action without a great deal of thought, and it probably hurts him greatly to do it. How does the deal that is now on the table, which he is saying is generous and was recommended by the executive., differ from the that that he vetoed after all-night conversations some weeks ago?

At that time, the FBU: was proposing 16 per cent. over two years. Because it was not tied to modernisation, I had to make it clear that that would commit me to a payment of hundreds of millions of pounds. When the FBU made that decision, I had not even seen the agreement. The new deal is substantially differentߞit gives 16 per cent. over three years, but that has now been changed to two and a half years. The settlement is not as good as the FBU originally wanted, but I judge that the amount of taxpayers' money required to finance the deal for three years is acceptable. The deal is different from the earlier one, but it is fair to all parties and is generous, however it is measured.

Like my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I have found in discussions with local firefighters that they would find a £25,000-a-year offer very reasonable. I have found them extremely sensible. However, will he reassure me that if the Bill is enacted, negotiations will continue and, if successful, he will riot use the powers at all?

I certainly hopeߞand I believe that the whole House does—that the firefighters will accept the agreement, perhaps by ballot, which would get us out of all the difficulties. Let me make it clear to everybody that I will still continue with modernisation. I am committed to the modernisation of the fire service, along with a generous pay settlement. That is our commitment, I have set it out in letters, and it remains the case. I shall resort to proposals in the White Paper and future legislation to deal with the problem. Under different circumstances, we would not need a separate piece of legislation and we could get on with modernising the service while the firefighters are back at work, and have a settlement based on that generous offer.

My constituents in Wiltshire will be grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for taking this practical step forward. However, firefighters in Wiltshire face a double whammy. Not only do they face the prospect of a national ballot but they are currently engaged in another ballot forced on them by the FBU leadership on the question of joint control rooms. This time last week, I visited the £7 million joint control room, which the taxpayer has funded in Wiltshire. Would the Deputy Prime Minister's legislation affect that strike action if the ballot went that way?

The ballots under way at the moment are about pay negotiations and changes in the conditions associated with them. It is true that one of the proposals not tied to the agreement is about what we do about control rooms. I think that the case put in Wiltshire is right—I cannot see any reason why there should not be joint control rooms, which are part of the modernisation agenda that we have to face up to. The ballot is taking place by the normal method, there is a dispute at the local level—or in this case, the regional levelߞbut normal circumstances apply.

Does my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister understand that his intervention today, like his intervention in November, will be seen as an act of provocation, preventing a settlement of the dispute? Can he give me a clear answer to the following question? If he imposes legislation and the FBU and the firefighters reject any offer and go on strike, will we return to the time when we jailed trade unionists for strike action?

That certainly is not involved; perhaps we should wait until the Bill is published. As for acts of provocation, my hon. Friend is constantly at it, day in, day out, on all sorts of issues. Where the Government do one thing, he wants to do the other. I must consider public safety. but that does not seem to concern him too much. I have to make balanced judgments about proper public safety, and consider fire threats, and, indeed, terrorist incidents. Those judgments are not easy, but Governments have to make them. The job would be a lot easier if my hon. Friend faced up to some of his responsibilities.

The Government have known since at least September that a conflict in the Gulf was possible, if not probable, on the scale now demonstrated by the commitment of British forces to the region. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that, on reflection, he should have protected the interests of the armed forces rather more energetically since September?

The best that I can do now for the armed forces is to get a settlement to this dispute. That is my obligation, and since September we have spent a considerable time trying to achieve that. There have been fewer disputes than were predicted at the time, which was useful; I think that the House found that acceptable. Forty-eight hours ago, the executive recommended this deal. That was a step in the right direction, and I would like to see the armed forces doing the job that they are supposed to do. I am extremely grateful for the job that they have done. They have shown that public safety can be protected, and I know that I can trust them to do that. However, I will work tirelessly to bring this agreement to its conclusion. That is why I have come here today, and why I am proposing this legislation.

My right hon. Friend says that he would prefer a secret ballot, and I understand that and agree with him. He also says that the FBU has suggested having a recall conference in two to three weeks' time. In practical terms, if the leadership continues to exercise leadership and conducts a secret ballot, is it realistic to expect a result within that time? Also, how long will it take to get the legislation through its various parliamentary stages?

My hon. Friend makes several serious points. A ballot that is conducted by a "hands up" of the brigade is obviously a lot quicker than an individual ballot; however, the circumstances are such that it would probably be necessary at least to enter into that practice. To be fair, the union did have a ballot last time. The turn out was 83 per cent., which, as people will recognise, was quite a high figure. Some 87 per cent. of those who voted voted to take strike action in rejecting the earlier deal. So there has been a ballot before, and I hope that the union will consider that point.

The time that it takes for legislation to go through the House is a matter for negotiation between the various parties. I shall publish the Bill tomorrow, and we will probably have a discussion on how fast we can proceed with it. However, I doubt whether such legislation could be introduced before the three-week period. Consultation is probably taking place on the ballot, and hopefully, we can get some agreement.

The Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed that it would be possible for industrial action to continue after a settlement has been imposed. Would it not be absurd for this House to put through emergency legislation when our troops are in a war situation, and still to have 19,000 of our armed forces tied up because of possible future fire disputes?

That is a fair point, but we have to make a judgment on how people will react in these circumstances. In my experience of strikes and legal actionsߞI have experienced a few in my timeߞthreatening people with the courts does not guarantee their going back to work; if anything, it makes matters much more difficult. One is forced to fine the union concerned and to get into sequestration; however, that does not get people back to work. For example, it did not work with the seamen's union. I can only give my judgment, but at least it is based on experience. I have to find a balance, and I have set it out today.

My right hon. Friend knows that many Labour Members will be opposed to the imposition of the settlement to this dispute. However, I welcome the fact that he is meeting the FBU and local authority employers this afternoon. If the FBU agrees to a ballot of its membership, will he, too, reconsider his position?

I understand and appreciate what my hon. Friend says. I shall make it clear to the union and to the employers that I believe that a secret ballot should take place, so that we can get a proper judgment. Of course, I readily accept that the timetable for that is likely to be a lot shorter than that for legislation going through this House. I recognise that we need to subject that legislation to proper scrutiny, and I doubt whether that can be achieved in just a week or a fortnight. So there will be a ballot beforehand, but my hon. Friend poses the problem: what if the union rejects the negotiations through the secret ballot? If that happens, I, and this House, will be faced with a difficult situation. I prefer to rely on the good judgment of the firefighters in accepting this generous offer.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that a Bill introduced in this House will not apply to Scotland, and that to apply such legislation to Scotland would require a Sewel motion or a separate Act of the Scottish Parliament? There is absolutely no chance of either getting through the Scottish Parliament.

The answer is yes, and thank goodness for that. [Interruption.]

I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that the FBU is not responsible for the current situation: it is this Government and their friend George Bush who have declared war on Iraq. Does the Deputy Prime Minister appreciate the irony of the fact that the Government can find £1.75 billion to go to war, but cannot find the money to meet the settlement that was agreed between the employers and the trade union some months ago?

My hon. Friend must know that people throughout the country, be it pensioners or anyone else, claim a right to the money that may be used in the conflict. According to my calculation, some five or six times the amount of money that is expected to be spent on such action has already been committed in all areas. This is a question of fairness and judgment. Some local authority workers have settled for 4 per cent. from the same employers who will have to find this money. There are many such workers in my hon. Friend's constituency, and he should ask himselfߞas I am asked—whether it is fair to pay 16 per cent. to one set of workers and 4 per cent. to another. That is a difficult judgment, but I have given the best that I can and I think that it is right. I would welcome a little support from my hon. Friend.

The Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that he has sought another opinion from the Attorney-General on the use of existing legislation to make a further strike illegal, particularly in the current circumstances. The shadow Attorney-General established on a point of order last week that although "Erskine May" accepts the principle that advice to Ministers should be confidential, in "exceptional circumstances" the Minister asking for such advice can then make it available to the House, and thus to the public. The Prime Minister did this with the legal advice that he received from the Attorney-General about UN resolution 1441, so there is a clear precedent. The Prime Minister made that advice available to the House of Commons; now that we are at war, should not the Deputy Prime Minister follow that precedent?

We should first recognise that there is no strike at the moment, because it was withdrawn. That is the threat to public safety that the Attorney-General must take into account. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point about the advice given, and there has been some discussion in the House as to whether advice given by the Attorney-General to me--or, indeed, to anyone else—should be published. I keep the Attorney-General informed of the circumstances, and that is the role that he has explained to me. I do not ask for his advice on these matters; he makes a judgment. That remains the position, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman pursue the matter through the shadow Attorney-General. If the Attorney-General wants to publish the letters that he has written to me on this matterߞ[Interruption.] I am not asking for advice, because I am satisfied that the man with responsibility for this matter will act if there is a threat to public safety.

May I say that I support the course of action taken by the Deputy Prime Minister? However, I am concerned about the way in which the ballot should be conducted, although I certainly support a ballot. Will it be conducted on the basis of the offer made by the FBU executive, will it be secret, and will the information contained within it be clear and unambiguous to avoid the potential for misrepresentation?

That would be the ideal situation, but I should tell my hon. Friend that there will not be a secret ballot as we understand it. A discussion takes place in the headquarters of the various brigades, and at the place of work, and there is a vote. A delegate then takes that vote, as mandated, to the conference. It is not mandated for 80 per cent. or 20 per cent. of the vote, with some form of proportional calculation being made; it is absolutely the vote of the brigade. On the last deal, which was very similar to this one, 100 per cent. of the 50 or so brigades voted against. That is why conducting this ballot in the same way seems a very difficult way of going about things. That is why I am appealing to the firefighters and saying, "You had a ballot before. This is substantially different from the 4 per cent. that you rejected. You should be entitled to have an individual, secret ballot. You did it before, and I suggest that it should be done again I hope that they will accept that recommendation.

There has been a significant shift in the concern of firefighters away from pay and towards terms and conditions of employment. It is a great pity that the pay review, the Bain report and the risk review all seem to have been lumped into one. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that, in 1974, there was a very large intake into the fire service and those firefighters are coming up for retirement. There is great concern that the present situation will be used as an opportunity for significant natural wastage. They are also concerned about the risk review lowering required response times and lowering the risk assessment of particular areas. Firefighters are, by their nature, deeply concerned—

Order. The hon. Lady is making a speech. If she has a question, she should put it immediately.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister take the opportunity to reassure firefighters about those flatters and harness the good will that exists among them to bring the dispute to a speedy resolution?

The hon. Lady asks an informed question about the present difficulties. It is true that the issue is not so much the money as the conditions and modernisation that go with it. We have insisted that modernisation goes with those wages. An awful lot of propaganda is being put out about what the deal means. Already pamphlets are being rushed out claiming that thousands of people will be made redundant and hundreds of fire stations closed. That is just not true. The new risk-based are system would prevent that. It would mean not that there would not be fewer jobs than before—there are 2,500 fewer firefighters than there were 10 years ago. That is a matter of adjustment and change. There are fewer fire stations. Only a few months ago, two in York shire closed down and were replaced by one modern lire station. Those things go on through proper negotiations. All I say to the firefighters is, "Sit down and negotiate—we have provided the frameworkߞand introduce an intelligent change to work practices, to move to a risk-based system, and at the same time improve your conditions." We believe that improved public safety will also come from these proposals.

I met firefighters from Nottinghamshire last week in Parliament. One thing that they were worried about was the possibility that local management would impose changes upon them. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that, in the new deal that was offered and which the executive accepted, there were further safeguards in terms of local consultation so that local firefighters could be involved in the process of change?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking the question, as I share that concern. My experience of working on ships as a seaman is that captains can make a difference. A good one can have good relationships; a lousy one can have lousy relationships with the same crew. The same is true of the chief constable or the chief at the fire station. There is a genuine fear among fire people that the chief will be given absolute power and impose a settlement, like a Captain Bligh in our stations. They are using that as a justification, as though some fire masters were not responsible in these matters. We have tried to find the words to deal with that perception and fear of such action. The agreement that the executive recommended allowed that. There can be a proper balance that allows firefighters to say, "This new deal will give me a fair say about my working conditions." That is what it is designed to do, and they should be able to accept it.

The whole House will understand the frustration of my right hon. Friend. There is a meeting this afternoon. If the Fire Brigades Union agrees that there will be no strike action and that it will put the offer to a ballot of its members, does he accept that that would be the best way forward? If not, poisoning the well by imposing a settlement could create enormous problems for all parties in the dispute.

I have no doubt that that is the danger that faces us if we get the balance of judgment wrong. That balance of judgment is at the heart of our efforts. As I said, I will meet the Fire Brigades Union this afternoon. Over the period of negotiations, the union has co-operated in withdrawing the threat of strikes before, which I welcome. That is how we have tried to go forward to a successful conclusion, but so far failed. If the union says nowߞthere are some signs that it will, but the trouble is that it is all in statements to the press, which we cannot rely onߞthat it will not have a strike during the ballot, that will be helpful and will allow me to tell the Army that the troops can be stood down. That is a fair balance. I hope that the union will come to that decision and give it to me this afternoon.