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Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 14:48 GMT
Q&A: Fire strike takeover threat
John Prescott has threatened to impose a pay settlement on firefighters and take control of the service in a bid to break the strike deadlock. The BBC's Branwen Jeffreys takes a closer look at his proposals.

Why is John Prescott intervening in the fire dispute?

Attempts at negotiating a settlement have so far failed. The employers met the Fire Brigade Union at ACAS last week, and were expecting to be back in talks but the union executive decided to go ahead with two 48-hour strikes, and more may be announced.

In response the employers say they will not enter into any negotiations while strikes are planned. The result is total deadlock.

So what exactly is the government planning to do?

In the next few weeks legal changes will be made which will give the government the power to force a pay settlement on firefighters.

The change will be partly made under section 17 of the 1947 Fire Services Act. That would allow the government to set pay and working hours.

Changes to working practices are at the heart of the controversial modernisation plans set out in the report by Sir George Bain. It could allow them, for example, to reduce the number of firefighters on duty overnight when there are fewer fires.

In addition the government plans to take powers to direct facilities and assets. That could allow them to push through other parts of the modernisation plans by moving fire engines from station to station for example.

Will the government go ahead with this plan?

This is an ultimatum but John Prescott was careful to explain that it would take several weeks to put in place the legal changes. That allows the union leaders a way back into talks, but only if they're prepared to make a massive U-turn.

They would effectively have to call off further strike action and agree to negotiate within the framework of the Bain recommendations. Neither seems likely.

If the government goes ahead it would put them in direct confrontation with a public sector union, which could have wider implications for the relationship between the labour party and the trade union movement.

So what has the FBU said?

Andy Gilchrist has accused the government of trying to bully firefighters. He says the union will not back down. The FBU believes the changes to the fire service being proposed by the employers would mean a reduction of several thousand in the number of firefighters.

The union is already seeking a judicial review of another change being made by the government which allows fire stations to be closed. As yet it is not clear if they could legally challenge this latest move.

Where does this leave the employers who have been negotiating so far?

The employers accept the dispute is deadlocked. If the government takes over responsibility for the fire service as a temporary measure they will probably accept it.

In the long term it might raise questions about local democracy. At the moment there is a strong element of local accountability through fire authorities. This latest move could be a stepping stone to a new body - an idea already suggested by the Bain report. That might include local authorities and the government negotiating with the union in the future.

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