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Friday, 15 November, 2002, 08:46 GMT
Minister raises stakes in fire strike
Soldiers from the Duke of Wellington's regiment
"We will do what we have to do", says Prescott
Ministers have indicated they are ready to send troops across picket lines to use modern red fire engines if striking firefighters persist with strike action.

Home office minister Lord Falconer said: "If public safety ultimately requires that the army cross picket lines to get the red fire engines then that is what will have to be done."

We have been calling for this for weeks

David Davies
He was speaking hours before a mother and three children were killed in a house fire in Wiltshire on Thursday, the second night of the firefighters' strike.

Lord Falconer told BBC's Question Time: "Ultimately public safety comes before picket lines."

If there were further eight day stoppages in addition to the one planned for next week, "it may well be necessary to think about which picket lines need to be crossed," he added.

'War of attrition'

But John Monks, the TUC general secretary, warned that this course of action could have a harmful effect on relations between the government and the Fire Brigades' Union.

"At the end of the day, the government has got a duty to the public for their safety," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"But that [crossing picket lines] would be a signal to the FBU that this would be a long war of attrition and that will have a deleterious effect on what is happening.

"It will put even more strain on the kind of co-operation that has been shown by the FBU over night in the tragedies that have taken place and which we are all desperate about."

Earlier, Downing Street confirmed the army has already begun training on modern appliances in preparation for the strike.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said 15 red engines from the National Fire Training College had been distributed around the country but training on them was not yet complete.

The move was welcomed by the Conservatives, who have made repeated calls for Tony Blair to put public safety ahead of the "sanctity of the picket line".

'A start'

Shadow Deputy Prime Minister David Davis said: "We have been calling for this for weeks.

"This will make a marvellous difference to the level of safety provided by military personnel.

"It is now clear that the practical problems the government claimed are simply not there."

Fifteen machines were "a start", Mr Davies said.

But he claimed there was a further 400 vehicles in reserve - 300 more than the government has claimed - which should be mobilised immediately.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith called on Tony Blair to cancel a planned trip to Poland on Friday to concentrate on the dispute.

'Inflaming the situation'

Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott indicated that if the current 48-hour strike stretched into the threatened eight-day stoppage, he would consider training up the 18,500 troops to use modern equipment.

He argued the case against using modern fire engines during the current two-day dispute, stressing the armed forces preferred to use the "familiar" 50-year-old Green Goddesses because they did not have the training for the modern equipment.

John Prescott
Prescott: "Talk. don't walk"
Mr Prescott said that despite continued talks, Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the Fire Brigades' Union, had been "unable" to sign up to an agreement setting out how his members would respond to a major incident.

Mr Prescott also said it was "quite unacceptable" that some London Underground lines had been closed in reaction to the firefighters strike when health and safety officials had said it was safe to operate.


Edward Davey, for the Liberal Democrats, said the firefighters' action was "wrong and unreasonable".

"The FBU should end the strike action and return to the negotiation table," he said.

The industrial action was sparked by government refusal to meet demands for a 40% pay rise.

Mr Gilchrist has accused the Bain review - commissioned by the government - of scuppering the talks with local authority employers.

He said the firefighters' pay claims were neither "unrealistic" nor "unreasonable" and they were not prepared to risk their lives for "6 an hour".

Fire dispute at a glance
PayBain Review Working Practices
Fire Brigades UnionFirefighters are calling for a 40% rise FBU leader: "He has effectively wrecked the pay talks."FBU leader: "Modernising the service should not be an excuse to undermine the union."
EmployersThe employers have offered them an interim 4% riseThey have warmly welcomed the Bain report endorsing its "vision" of the future"Any increase above 4% would have to be linked to modernisation and supported financially by the government."
Bain Review Recommends a 4% rise in 2002 followed by 7% in 2003"I think in the longer term it provides the only basis on which any kind of rational and equitable deal can be done."Calls for reform and end to overtime ban and for more flexible working practices in return for a raise
Fire Service Minister"We made it clear that if they [the employers] went beyond 4% they would have to fund that." "I believe most fair-minded people would regard it as a good basis for the future terms of the fire service."
"Investment in public services must go hand in hand with improvement and modernisation."
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones
"The Green Goddess crews have seen plenty of action"
Geoff Hoon MP, Defence Secretary
"We can only provide basic emergency cover"
Richard Aitken & Brent Cross, Sheffield Firefighters
"This is the first time we've not been paid for being cold and wet"

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14 Nov 02 | UK
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