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Monday, 21 October, 2002, 21:10 GMT 22:10 UK
Blair condemns fire strike
Firefighters protest
The first strike is due to begin next week
The threat of strike action by the Fire Brigades Union has been condemned by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

He warned that giving in to the 40% pay demand would be dangerous and would create "havoc" across the public sector.

Let me make one thing very clear - we don't want a confrontation

Tony Blair

The condemnation followed a preliminary meeting at Downing Street of the Civil Contingencies Committee, known as Cobra, to discuss the response to the possible suspension of emergency fire services.

Mr Blair said there was "no way" any government could accept such a pay demand because it would force up mortgage interest rates.

"We have got an independent review that is carrying out its work, but they can't come to us and say: We want a new formula, we're not going to co-operate with your review and in the meantime you have got to give us a 40% pay rise," he said.

Less cover

"No government could yield to that without putting up people's interest rates and their mortgage rates and causing havoc across the public sector, because other people in the public sector would say: If they are getting 40%, I want 40%."

Mr Blair admitted that the army Green Goddesses, on standby to provide emergency cover during strikes, would not be able to provide the same level of protection as that offered by fire brigades.

Soldier walks past a Green Goddess vehicle
Green Goddesses' efficacy has been questioned
"We will do everything we possibly can to make sure that the public is properly protected," he said.

Mr Blair added that the public would understand that the government could not give in to such demands.

But 25 MPs Labour MPs have come out in support of the firefighters, backing their campaign demanding a "decent wage".

'Wholly inadequate'

A meeting was held on Monday between Fire Services Minister Nick Raynsford and FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist to discuss what cover could be provided in the event of a large scale crisis.

After the meeting, Mr Gilchrist said the government's representatives should be using the "valuable few days" left before the threatened strike to talk about pay.

Strike dates
29- 31 October
2-4 November
6 November -14 November
22-30 November
4-12 December
16-24 December
All start and end at 0900 GMT

"If we talk and resolve the issue of pay then there need be no issue about safety or indeed people being put at risk," he told the BBC.

Full-time firefighters are planning to begin a series of walkouts on 29 October as part of their campaign for a 40% pay rise.

Mr Gilchrist has said it is highly questionable whether certain sectors, including the nuclear industry and the railways, could operate safely during a strike.

He said Monday's meeting had showed the government's alternative arrangements were "wholly inadequate".

Britain's biggest rail union, the RMT, has warned that its members may be balloted for strike action if staff feel at risk from lack of fire cover.

Major emergency

One of the most troublesome sticking points between the government and the FBU has been what to do in the event of a major emergency, such as terrorist attack.

The government has said it hoped the firefighters would follow the TUC code of practice under which striking union members are supposed to return to work in such an eventuality.

But Mr Gilchrist has insisted there are "no guarantees" his members would help out in the event of a major disaster while they were on strike.

In the event of industrial action, the army - backed by the Royal Navy and RAF - is on standby to provide cover with 827 Green Goddess fire engines.

Strikes will last for up to eight days at a time, and are planned to take place over 36 days.

The BBC's Andrew Marr
"This is still a battle for public opinion"
Chief and Ass't Chiefs Fire Officers Assoc. Jeff Ord
"I have every confidence that the review will give the firefighters a significant reward"
RMT union leader Bob Crow
"The Green Goddess are not safe in the event of an emergency"

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18 Oct 02 | UK
21 Oct 02 | Politics
21 Oct 02 | Politics
21 Oct 02 | UK
21 Oct 02 | Politics
18 Oct 02 | Business
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