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Friday, 25 October, 2002, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Positive note on fire strike talks
Hopes of progress towards resolving the firefighters' pay dispute were buoyed as talks between ministers and the Fire Brigades' Union were called "constructive".
Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the FBU, called his meeting with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott constructive and said the "difficult discussions" would continue on Friday.
The strike action is due to start next Tuesday but Mr Gilchrist said both sides had left the talks on Thursday evening to consider a "range of issues".
The meeting was only scheduled to last half an hour but the talks ran on for more than two hours, prompting speculation a deal could be thrashed out.
Leaving the meeting at the Cabinet Office in London, Mr Gilchrist said: "I have had a very constructive dialogue with John Prescott and we are looking at a range of issues which are all related to the pay dispute inside the fire service.
"We will be going away to consider those on both respective sides."
The union leader, who has called for a 40% pay rise, replied: "It's been a very good opportunity for both sides.
"There are an awful lot of difficult discussions to go on tomorrow."
Mr Prescott is not making any comments about the discussions but a spokeswoman said the next meeting with the union was being planned for Friday morning.
The FBU's executive met on Thursday morning at its head office in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey.
The government's Cobra committee, which deals with emergencies, was also meeting on Thursday.
There is speculation that the government hopes to prevent industrial action in return for the early delivery of an independent report into fire service pay.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said public safety needs meant the armed services should be allowed to cross picket lines to operate conventional fire engines.
The prime minister, who said the issue was being reviewed, insisted the row could be settled if the firefighters co-operated with an independent review of their pay and conditions.
Mr Blair was commenting as members of the public were reassured that the 999 emergency telephone service would operate as normal during the industrial action.
The message was underlined with the launch of a £1.8m safety campaign less than a week before the walkouts begin, one of which takes place the weekend before bonfire night.
As politicians debated the dispute at Westminster, the Fire Brigades Union held a lengthy meeting of its executive council to talk about strategy on Wednesday.
One of the issues that did feature was whether striking firefighters would be prepared to return to work in the event of an emergency.
Mr Gilchrist said then that no decision had been made on the matter.
The government has been asking the FBU to clarify its position on providing essential services during the strikes.
A voluntary code drawn up in 1979 by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) says public safety should not be compromised during industrial action.
In the Commons, Mr Blair told MPs: "No-one wants a dispute. We'll do all that we can to avoid that dispute which would be very damaging for obvious reasons."
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said the independent review being conducted by Sir George Bain should be speeded up.
But Mr Blair said the firefighters were refusing to cooperate, give evidence or talk to Sir George.
The industrial action is part of a campaign by the FBU to secure a 40% pay rise for its members.
Full-time firefighters are planning to begin the series of walkouts on 29 October. Strikes will last for up to eight days at a time, and are planned to take place over 36 days.
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.
They will be joined by 4,000 part-time firefighters with the Retained Firefighters Union (RFU), who have condemned the FBU's action.
But union officials claimed that workers from other sectors are considering staying at home on strike days after Mr Prescott said the military could only provide basic back-up cover.
Do you have any recollections of the last firefighters' strike in 1977?
Yes, I will strike and if asked would strike all next year to secure a decent level of pay for firefighters who do risk their lives. I have been hospitalised five times in my career how many politicians can say that?
To go on strike will be one of the hardest decissions I will have had to make in my working life and 25 years a Firefighter. It will be by far, more difficult to strike than not. I do not have the luxury of another job and depend entirely on my Firefighting income. I sincerly hope the talks today resolve and put off the forthcoming strike dates.
I was only six years old when the green goddesses were put into action. I remember wondering what all the fuss was about it didn't seem like a big deal to me. Now I know differently as I have a child of my own to worry about and obviously I want the best people in place to protect my family.
The best people are the firefighters and they are getting taken for granted just now, £30,000 is a fair wage for what they do.
Steve Priest, England
I was 11 years old when my father was on strike the last time the firefighters were out and I remember the worrying time my parents went through. I am now experiencing the same worries myself as my husband is a serving firefighter in South Tyneside. My children have not had a holiday this year as we knew the strike was pending - as has the Government for several months. Why have they left it until the 11th hour to talk to the FBU and to organize their review? I am very anxious about the impending strike but fully support the firefighters' decision to take action
I was a serving firefighter during the last strike and I'll be striking again. I well remember the blackmail that went on then and the same is happening again. If it's allowed to progress, there will be a strike. We will not risk our necks for the privilege of claiming government benefits, like then. Just like everyone else, firefighters wed and have children. Not every firefighter has the skills or time to take a second job. I'm not the only one. Please take care, everybody. Try to get your government to stop this silliness, please.
Chris Kincaid, Singapore
I was ten when the firemen went on strike in 1977. My big brother had just joined the Guards and after only 3 months military training he was sent to Chelsea barracks to cover the strike. I felt really scared and worried that he might get hurt. I hated those firemen for doing that to him. But now I find myself having to do exactly the same thing as those firemen, having been a firefighter for thirteen years. I still have the same hate but this time for the government, for giving me no other choice but to do the same thing to some other little boy.
Having lived in UK through the last firemen's strike in the seventies I remember the harm it caused to the people and to the country at large. The damage to come will last a long long time.
To the firemen I say: if you are prepared to risk innocent lives, then you do not deserve to be a fireman. If you are so unsatisfied with your pay or cannot wait for the pay review, then I suggest that you change your job, but at no point do you have the right to place innocent people at risk when your argument is with the government of the day and not with the people.
The strike in 1977 caused me no end of grief. As a farmer, it was unlucky that one of my barns was burned down but what turned out to be more damaging was the attempt of the army to put it out. They destroyed my rapeseed crop.
Z. Walker, UK
My recollection of the last fire strike was that it precipitated the downfall of a Labour government. Good going comrades! Glad to see self-interest is still a good solid left wing ideal.
I was serving in the army based at Chelsea Barracks during the last strike. Although arson was rife, people gave us support and it was still a good time.
Anne Bennett, Canada
I remember when I was a child standing in my bedroom, looking across the road at a bale of hay on fire and a Green Goddess putting it out.
As Christmas 1977 approached I was returning home from evening classes when a convoy appeared. Led by a police motorcyclist came two Green Goddesses (or should that be Goddi?). These were obviously crewed by the Royal Navy since in the finest traditions of the service the roof of the lead vehicle carried a mast flying the white ensign and the second an illuminated Christmas tree at the mast head, like all good ships of the line.
Steve Hill Britain
I was only 13 years old during the last firefighters' strike, but even at that tender age I knew right from wrong. I saved up my pocket money and bought a Christmas tree to cheer up the firefighters manning the freezing picket line near my school.
I was only five years old, yet I still remember the 1977 strike destroying the "hero" status of the firemen. The armed forces instead took their place - both literally and also in my childhood affections.
My dad was a fireman during the first strike of 1977 and in his first year of marriage to my mum. It was a hard time for them as none of the firefighters ever expected the strike to last as long as it did.
My parents were luckier than many others as they did not have any children at the time. Even so they had to survive with help from family, neighbours and friendly members of the public who gave them food and money.
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