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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 19:18 GMT
Fire strike tests armed forces
Striking firefighters
Firefighters say they were prepared to agree a deal
A bitter political row has erupted on the first day of an eight-day firefighters' strike over who was to blame for the collapse of pay talks.

The firefighters' union accused ministers of having "wrecked" any chances of a deal being struck after all-night talks to resolve the dispute ended without resolution.

Plastics factory fire, west Midlands
There are no reported injuries at factory blaze
But the government hit back, accusing union officials of trying to hold the country to ransom with "uncosted, half-baked proposals".

Within hours of the start of industrial action at 0900 GMT, the armed forces across the UK faced tough challenges, tackling major fires and fatal road accidents.

In a separate incident, a firefighter was shot with an air rifle on a picket line in Manchester. He suffered bruising but did not need hospital treatment.

Strike 'could have been avoided'

After the overnight talks broke down, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Andy Gilchrist, claimed a deal had been struck with employers but was blocked by the government.

"This strike action could have been avoided but the government has ensured there will be a strike," he said.

But Downing Street suggested the "drama" of the talks had been set up so firefighters could blame the government for the walk-out.

Open in new window : On the picket
Images of the walk-out in East London

Tony Blair's spokesman said the latest deal would have cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds.

"How the employers thought they could agree to the latest proposals is completely beyond us," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott insisted on Friday that he could not have signed up to proposals before seeing the sums involved.

New pay offer
Immediate: 4%
April 2003: 3.5%
November 2003: 3.5%
Total: 16%
Old wage: 21,000
New wage: 25,000
"I am entitled on behalf of the public to ask about that," he said.

He was called in the early hours of the morning as negotiations continued, but said he only saw the terms of the deal after they were sent through to his office at 0715 GMT.

On Friday afternoon he went to Downing Street, and then told BBC News he wanted to see how all sides could get back to the negotiating table.

"We have to get back to common sense and get a fair deal for firefighters and a fair deal for everyone.

"At the end of the day we all have to sit down and talk."

But he said he would not sanction inflationary wage payments and said no deal could be agreed without modernisation.

The chairman of the employers side, councillor Ted George, admitted that despite being close to reaching a deal, both union officials and employers had been unable to identify funding sources to pay for it.

Within hours of the strike beginning a large fire broke out at a plastics factory in the West Midlands.

About 100 soldiers took more than two hours to bring the fire under control at the disused factory in Phoenix Street, in West Bromwich.

Firefighters in East Lothian left their picket line to help cut a man free from the wreckage of his car, after a nine-car accident.

Thirteen people were involved in the crash at the junction of the A1 and the A720 Edinburgh city bypass, near Old Craighall.

And in King's Lynn, in Norfolk, Green Goddesses joined retained firefighters to tackle a blaze which damaged three houses and spread smoke through six homes.

No-one was injured in either fire.

Military personnel also turned out at two separate fatal road crashes, one in Worcestershire, in which a 60-year-old man died, and the other near Netherton Village, Northumberland, which claimed the life of a woman.

The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones
"The firefighters' resolve seems to have been hardened"
Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn
"The FBU has shown itself very willing to come to a settlement"
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
"I can't judge an agreement until I've seen it"

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22 Nov 02 | UK
22 Nov 02 | England
22 Nov 02 | England
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