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Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 00:38 GMT
Ministers attacked over fire strike
Soldiers practise a fire drill in Belfast
The army faces seven more days in the front line
The government is coming under increasing pressure from Britain's biggest trades unions to bring a swift end to the fire dispute.

The public services union, Unison, joined the Transport and General Workers Union and TUC general secretary John Monks on Saturday in condemning the approach adopted by ministers.

Strike workload
866 call-outs
523 fires
245 false alarms
98 other incidents

*From 0900 GMT to midnight

They blame the government for intervening in talks between the Fire Brigades Union and employers to block a deal which the FBU say would have delivered a 16% pay rise over the next year.

As the eight-day strike enters its second night, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott appeared to be adopting a more conciliatory approach than when he refused to sign the draft agreement.

He told a Sunday newspaper that a deal funded out of modernisation savings was "still worth talking about".

In the row over who was to blame for talks breaking down, the government argued the agreement reached by employers and firefighters had dropped vital modernisation proposals.

As informal negotiations continued over the weekend, the armed forces carried on their efforts to maintain emergency cover, with five fatalities in separate fires.

'Suspicious death'

On the second day of the fire strikes, one person died in a caravan fire near Blackpool.

Scene where man died in Kent house fire-
A man died at this house fire in Kent
An elderly woman died in a house fire in Merseyside, attended by two Green Goddesses.

Elsewhere a 70-year-old man died in a house fire in north Oxfordshire, dealt with by non-striking part-time firefighters.

Earlier a 38-year-old man was found dead in what police said were suspicious circumstances after a house fire in Coventry, attended by army firefighters.

And a man from Maidstone in Kent was pulled from his home by military crews but died in hospital.

Officials are satisfied military fire crews did "an excellent job in difficult circumstances".

'Affordable' proposals

Meanwhile informal contact continued on Saturday with all sides said to be anxious to resume formal negotiations.

Writing in the News of the World, Mr Prescott said: "The FBU and the employers were very close to finding a solution on Thursday evening, with proper links between pay and modernisation and a proper auditing procedure to ensure that pay and reform go hand in hand.

"That is still worth talking about."

But he ordered local authority employers to come up with "coherent, realistic, affordable" proposals which included the key changes the government still demands.

In Saturday's Times newspaper he hinted more cash could be available for immediate pay rises.

Meanwhile the employers seemed prepared to use proposals tabled last week as a starting point for any settlement, said BBC correspondent Stephen Cape.

On Saturday TUC leader John Monks led union condemnations of the "clumsy, shoot from the hip" approach of the government saying he was "astonished and hurt" by its rejection of the draft pay deal.

It is believed he later to spoke to Mr Prescott who urged him to continue his behind-the-scenes work to bring the sides together.

It's almost as if someone doesn't want this agreement to succeed

Bill Morris
Bob Crowe, the leader of the RMT rail union, welcomed Mr Monks' comments and called for the trade union movement to support the firefighters.

Unison leader Dave Prentis went a step further in his condemnation of the government at the TUC conference in London where he described its intervention as "cack-handed and stupid".


TGWU general secretary Bill Morris also criticised the government for intervening when a deal seemed so close.

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

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme a "mysterious hand" had stepped in and "scuppered" the agreement.

But Fire Service Minister Nick Raynsford said the deal had required the government to sign a "blank cheque", with no guarantees of the fire service modernising.

Hoax calls hampered the stand-ins' work but at several serious incidents - including a fatal road accident on the M4 in Wales in which two people died - fire crews left picket lines to help.

Meanwhile, police are investigating a suspected arson attack on the home of a firefighter in Kenilworth while he was on a picket line in Leamington Spa.

Lit paper was pushed through his front door early on Saturday, but smoke alarms alerted his family and they extinguished the blaze with a garden hose.

And a firefighter in County Down is undergoing treatment after suffering serious burns when trying to relight a picket line brazier.

Thirty-six military personnel were also involved in tackling a factory fire in Oldham overnight on Saturday.

Police threw a cordon around the JBS Testing Centre in Barry Street after it emerged a number of flammable chemical canisters were on site.

The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"The government is still looking for a way out of this dispute"
Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon
"The TUC should be trying to bring the firefighters back to negotiation"
John Monks, TUC general secretary
"I thought the draft agreement was a good one"

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