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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 March, 2003, 17:05 GMT
Prescott to impose firefighter deal
Army Green Goddess crew
The Army is covering fire strikes
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is preparing to introduce new legislation allowing him to impose a pay deal on striking firefighters.

Announcing the move, he said it was "extraordinary and unacceptable" that 19,000 British troops were on standby to cover industrial action while a war was being fought.

After Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members defied their executive to reject a revised deal worth 16% over three years, Mr Prescott accused them of "irresponsible" behaviour.

He has summoned union leaders and local authority employers to talks on Thursday afternoon.

The FBU said it was still working towards a negotiated settlement.

The Conservatives have gave a cautious welcome to Mr Prescott's "hasty legislation", but said he should have also sought an injunction banning all further strikes during the military campaign.

Whatever action is taken it will not immediately affect Scottish firefighters, as new legislation there will have to be introduced following elections on 1 May.

'Heightened threat'

Mr Prescott said he would publish a Fire Services Bill on Friday, giving him powers to impose a pay and conditions deal.

It would also allow him to direct the operations of the fire service.

Mr Prescott first warned in January that he would legislate to impose a pay settlement if it proved impossible to negotiate one.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
The time has come for legislation - particularly given the conflict in the Gulf and the heightened threat of terrorism
John Prescott

"Now that the FBU conference has overturned its executive, I have concluded that the time has come for legislation - particularly given the conflict in the Gulf and the heightened threat of terrorism," he said.

Mr Prescott reiterated there would be no more money from the government to help fund the employers' deal.

A secret ballot of union members on the employers' deal must be held, the deputy prime minister argued.

"Individual firefighters should now have the right to express their individual views," he said.

Mr Prescott complained that strikes could still be called with just seven days' notice and claimed unofficial action was putting the public at risk during a period of heightened terrorist threat.

"In setting the level for a settlement, I would take into account the pay rise that would have been forthcoming under the FBU's existing formula, the pay review bodies' recommendations for other key public sector workers and the government's overall approach to public sector pay," he added.

Same deal

The FBU said there would be no strikes until members had discussed the employers' pay offer in a recalled national conference on 15 April, removing the threat of further industrial action until 22 April.

John McGhee, an FBU national officer, said everyone was tired of the dispute but an agreement could not be imposed.

Instead he described a negotiated settlement as the "only way forward".

"We have talked more than we have walked. And we are willing to talk some more in the weeks ahead", he said.

But Mr Prescott warned delegates who voted against the deal on Wednesday would simply be offered the same conditions at a recalled conference.

The FBU's executive had recommended the deal be accepted and had called off a strike planned for Thursday, amid concern over strikes while military action was under way in Iraq.

The leader of the FBU, Andy Gilchrist, had said he thought the offer the best available given the political situation.

The nation's 55,000 firefighters have held five strikes since the pay dispute began last year.

Strike ban

David Davis, the shadow deputy prime minister, said the danger of strike action was "starker" than at any other time in the dispute.

He asked Mr Prescott to make clear whether the legislation would actually allow him to ban industrial action which could be held after an imposed settlement.

Mr Davis said: "What will you do in the event that the FBU continue to strike - despite your imposition - continue to put the public at risk and continue to undermine the effectiveness of our armed forces?"

He added: "I cannot believe that a majority of firefighters will reject this deal and wish to take strike action while our troops are committed elsewhere."

The BBC's Stephen Cape
"It's sent a ripple through the union movement"

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