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Breakfast with Frost
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott MP
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST
INTERVIEW:
JOHN PRESCOTT, MP,
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER
NOVEMBER 17TH, 2002


Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST:
As we've been saying, the firefighters strike could get serious but the man at the centre of all this is undoubtedly the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who joins me now. I'm delighted to welcome you, John, as ever.

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Good morning David.

DAVID FROST:
What about this latest quote, or quotes, yesterday and the day before, from Mr Gilchrist where he said, changed his tune a bit about forty pounds an hour and he said maybe 16 an hour would be a place where we could start and there might be some modernising as well. Is that a breakthrough, or not?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
I don't know. I don't think it's helpful doing this kind of megaphone industrial negotiations. But it is welcome. Let's say the 48 hour strike has taken place, thank goodness we avoided ten of those 12 day threats of strike and we only had two. Can I just say, right at the beginning though, I'd like to thank those armed forces who did a wonderful job in those two days, the police that supported them, yes, and those firefighters who broke away from their picket lines to give assistance and help - and indeed the public, because something like reduced the call outs by about a third. So that's quite good. Now I hear, in those discussions, that the general secretary has said he's coming off his 40 per cent, well after seven months that's very welcome and I understand it. Secondly, he's said that of course that he'd like to look at the, he's got FBU modernisation plans. Well, as we've always made clear, we're quite prepared to make an exceptional case, provided that it's a connection between that and the modernisation of the service. And we're reminded of that by the New York pay - I see in the paper, in the details, that the actual basic pay of the fire union in New York is less than here and they've accepted ten per cent. But the difference is they earn more because they changed their work processes and the way they do things - exactly as George Bain has suggested. Now if they don't like George Bain's proposals - and they are an important way forward and the government's position is on that - then bring forward some others and we'll talk to them about that. The local authority employers, who I meet tomorrow and indeed will be meeting, I think, the general secretary of the Fire Brigade's Union, I urge them to get down and talk, not walk. And also the public have made clear, they don't want this eight day strike, they want us to continue to talk it.

DAVID FROST:
And in terms of the talking, if it was 16 per cent rather than 40 per cent and so on, that they wanted to talk about, is that a reasonable starting point for a discussion on Monday?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Well not if he's coming along, I don't want to get into these negotiations, it's between him and the employers, but if I read depending one price that he's said, and I haven't actually talked to him, saying well 16 per cent is a starting rate - don't negotiate with me, or indeed the public - they want to sit down at a table and start the proper negotiations. And I think we have to say also can you take the gun away from my head that there's going to be a strike on Friday, because that's not the way to negotiate. Now I don't want to continue these negotiations here. I mean I hope Andy Gilchrist, the general secretary, has shown an indication to want to talk further - right - get in those talks, start looking what happens, and indeed clear up some of the confusion - I hear him saying in the last 48 hours that, you know the four per cent given by the local authorities was actually not available to each fireworker. Well there's a confusion there. It is available to each one.

DAVID FROST:
And that's, what the four per cent plus the seven per cent? Equals the 11 per cent from Bain.

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Well the four per cent was the one offered by the local authority and another couple of things that they had, then in addition to that George Bain came along and said right I'll give another seven per cent but you've got to talk about some modernisation changes. You know, I've got some of them here - I mean they're not extraordinary things but they might know about it. He suggested end the FBU ban on prearranged overtime - they ban overtime. End the ban on working together with retained fireworkers. I mean, I don't know, to me they don't seem such substantial. Every local authority worker in the last couple of years has had to modernise their work practices in order to get a better deal and they settled a few months ago for four per cent. So you know, what's at stake here, as Eddie George was reminding us, if you get wage inflation and you say right I'm going to go for one, for 16, 40 per cent or whatever it is, other workers come along, like the nurses and the teachers, and they say that and every time we lift up this wage level we're back to the old practice. Instead of having 200,000 extra workers in the public service, we'll make them unemployed. Your mortgage will go up because the interest rates and the borrowing goes up. We've had enough of that. We've got a stable economy, we're putting more services into the public services. So the fire people - yes they want a fair deal, but it's a fair deal for the rest of the public sector workers as well, and a fair deal for the ordinary people in this country who want the public services, want low mortgages and they want the high levels of employment that we've got better than any other country.

DAVID FROST:
So you wouldn't, however, you would not rule out discussing the figure of 16 per cent?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
That's not for me at all, it's for - our rules are quite clear about this - you've got a certain amount of money that we've given you to the local authorities, you can negotiate within that and they've done that. If that's not sufficient and you want more resources, like every other workforce, you've got to face some change in working practices. What George Bain did was to show some of them, and now I know it made the people angry - I went in to see my fire station, knocked on the door yesterday and said can I come and see you, have you got something to say to me - and we had a good exchange. They don't want the eight day strike, but they do support their union, they want a fair deal. You only do that by discussing it at the table, not via the papers. So whatever figures you've got in, get in and talk but bear in mind there is a connection between modernising work practices and the payments that can be made. Otherwise you pay, you push that cost, not onto the reorganisation, you push it in to the rest of the community, which goes to higher unemployment, higher mortgage payments, and that is unacceptable.

DAVID FROST:
Are there any circumstances, John, in which in order to achieve peace that there was a settlement but the settlement was more than the 11 per cent over two years and so the employers couldn't afford it, is there any government money available to tide them over a difficult year or two?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Well I have to say to you that George Bain's made clear, there's quite a lot of money in the modernisation process, and you have to go into discussing that. Now what has been said to the Fire Brigade's Union is go in and discuss these proposals - some of them which you agree with. But they don't want to talk about Bain, they've rejected Bain and not even consider - I understand some of the anger, I heard some of it yesterday - but all I'm saying to them, go in and negotiate. They might like some, they might not like others, they can walk out if they don't. But isn't that a better way of doing it. Now if they come along and say look this is going to cost, let's take the 47 per cent one, which is going to cost five hundred million pounds - we don't have that kind of money, we will not pay that kind of money - but please sit down and negotiate.

DAVID FROST:
And what about the situation, you said there please don't point a gun at my head, which is a clear request, but if in fact the next eight day strike -

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Not my head, it's the community's head we're talking about and it's the local authorities who are negotiating. If you've got complex agreements on modernisation - say the Fire Brigade's Union bring their proposals forward, you can't just discuss them in one or two days and knowing there's a strike on Thursday or Friday. And to be honest, they did accept that before, the Fire Brigade - do you remember when they wanted those two 48 hours, they cancelled it. Then the eight days went down to two, so they have showed goodwill to do that and what we've got to encourage them, listen I've stepped back, let's all act responsible and talk, because the public in this country don't want another day's strike. The firemen don't want another day's strike, but they want a fair deal, fair to all.

DAVID FROST:
If people want that, would there be any government money available to help the settlement take place - additional government money to what the employers have now?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
You know, David, in negotiations there are all sorts of factors that change and it's not government money. You may change all sorts of things around - the timetable of something: they've already proposed one timetable, George Bain proposed another, there are a number of factors involved in it. You can still meet it and meet the government's requirement that it will have to be funded, not by extra money from the taxpayer, but it will have to be funded by a modernisation proposal. And Bain has shown there is quite a lot of resources there and therefore I can see the New York firemen did that years ago and that's why they're earning more, even though their basic is less.

DAVID FROST:
What about the situation, we've read a lot over this weekend about in the next strike, if there is one, will you organise a way in which the red engines can be protecting the lives of the people, by either the police going through the picket lines or the army going through the picket lines or the police going through the picket lines and handing them over to the army. Will you, given that that would be a pistol to your head, will you do that?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
That's the fertile imagination of some of the press. In all civil situations you use police not military, don't you? I mean the miners' strike is reminded, all the difficulties that came for that - they didn't bring troops in, they brought - secondly, all the fire engines, or extra fire engines that are needed, we've already got access to quite a considerable amount of them. We were looking at that weeks ago, right. The constraint is not how many vehicles, the constraint is the trained kind of manpower necessary to man them. Now we will have, if this strike comes next time, enough of them spread around the regions - because they have certain advantages even if you just move them there without the specialised people to drive them there. You've got a ladder that can go up to two floors instead of one, and the fire people don't, the Fire Brigade's Union don't object to that. You've got extra water. So we are looking how they'll be placed at the region so the military command itself can make a decision how they may be used in certain circumstances.

DAVID FROST:
So they will be used in certain circumstances.

JOHN PRESCOTT:
They're already distributed. I'm calling them red goddesses because they'll have a green line on them to separate them. But you don't need, therefore, to make some assault in a dramatic way that the press talk about, to take them out of the fire stations because just do remember, if it's a 48 strike, those firemen were out within one minute as soon as the 48 hours was up. I want them out to give us the fullest service, and you have to get a balance between those situations and what is the kind of the imagination of the press that what should happen and that is not necessarily the way you'd go. But I've made it clear in the House, so has the Prime Minister, we will always do what's necessary for public safety.

DAVID FROST:
But what about, in fact, what Reagan did with the air traffic controllers, if this strike went on, you could sack the lot and get another 50,000 people in to do the job - because there's a huge queue of people wanting the job?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Yes, well I don't think that's the way to settle industrial relation matters. You know I was pressed in the House of Commons why don't you take legislation right away - it's a matter of balance here. You hope you can negotiate your way out - take the first 12 days, we were able to get a negotiated situation, I was able to persuade them down to two days rather than 12. If you look at the amount of deaths, tragically as they are, and multiply by ten or 12, each day you save is worth doing. If you get an intractable situation where you go in with the law and don't solve anything, all that does is enflame a situation. It's a difficult balance but when it's a fire strike, you're talking about lives, not inconvenience, and I will always be motivated by the sanctity of life.

DAVID FROST:
Do you think there's going to be a case, though, to make certain organisations like the firefighters ineligible to strike?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Well I hear those arguments - you've got to remember the firemen haven't been on strike for 25 years, and they got a settled agreement back, funny enough, in 1977, and I'm sure we're going to have to settle this by negotiation. They don't want to strike - you've only got to talk to the fire people, I was talking to them in my fire station yesterday. You know, they're as concerned about life as you and I are, it's a real dilemma for them - we saw that when they got off the picket lines. Now we're talking about decent people who want a fair deal under fair circumstances, and I've got to say it's got to be fair for all.

DAVID FROST:
And as a postscript here, how did you react to the danger, allegedly, in the paper, of the three people who've been arrested over the cyanide gas?

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Well it's, it's excited the press. I mean the facts are, clearly your people doing the papers said three people have been arrested and there's no evidence, whatsoever, of bombs or gases in that circumstance. It's been elaborated on by the press - I leave them to sell their newspapers - but as the Prime Minister reminded us, we get an awful lot of intelligence that we have to make judgements about. In this case it doesn't appear to be that there is any evidence, whatsoever, there's going to be a gas attack or indeed use of bombs, regarding the three people who've been arrested.

DAVID FROST:
Right, at that point we'll get an update on the news headlines.

[NEWS]

DAVID FROST:
Thank you very much indeed Moira. A headline today, in the papers here, from Mr Gilchrist "You will not win", you will not win - what's your reaction.

JOHN PRESCOTT:
Well I think he was referring to government, you will not win. I think if you get into that kind of language you're getting into real difficulties about challenging government. These, this is really an issue about a settlement of pay in a fair way - that's the language, we're talk, not walk. That is the kind of language that needs to walk.

DAVID FROST:
Not you will not win. Well we'll follow it very closely in the course of the following week and we thank you very much for being with us, as ever.

INTERVIEW ENDS
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