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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 17:22 GMT
Anger over 'half-baked' pay deal
Green Goddess fire engines and crews
The military are providing fire cover again
Downing Street has accused the firefighters' union of trying to hold the UK to ransom with "uncosted, half-baked proposals" put out in the middle of the night.

Firefighters have begun their eight-day strike, saying ministers have wrecked chances of avoiding the stoppage.

FBU version of talks timings
0415 GMT: Union and employers strike deal
0530: Union agrees to suspend strike and meet for talks next week
0630: John Prescott's office says it cannot look at deal until 0900
Union says wants answer by 0730
0725: FBU says strike is on
But Tony Blair's official spokesman said a deal struck between employers and the union to stave off the strike would have cost taxpayers "hundreds of millions of pounds".

Government fury was also directed at the local employers, who had "written a post-dated cheque they must have known would bounce".

Number 10 said the proposals removed any plans "worth talking about" to modernise a service whose practices had been "set in formaldehyde" for the last 25 years.

"How the employers thought they could agree to this [the latest proposals] is completely beyond us", said the spokesman.

The government says modernisation proposals on the table on Thursday evening had been "filleted" in the early hours.

John Prescott
Prescott urges firefighters to "talk not walk"
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said the firefighters "should have stayed talking instead of walking".

On Friday afternoon, Mr Prescott joined his deputy, Nick Raynsford and Chancellor Gordon Brown for talks with Tony Blair in Downing Street.

A deal was reached between the two sides during the night which the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said would have delivered a 16% pay rise over the next year.

But those proposals hit the rocks when the government repeated its insistence the package should be self-financing, with pay rises balanced by modern ways of working.

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

FBU chief, Andy Gilchrist, laid the blame for the strike with the government.

"The pattern of government intervention has continued for the third time, and again, when a chance of peace was at least possible, the government has intervened to block that offer."

Later, Mr Gilchrist labelled government criticism of the deal "baffling and irresponsible".

"This is not negotiation, this is almost the politics of dictatorship," Mr Gilchrist told BBC Radio 4's World At One.

Local employer negotiators say a lack of funding caused the plan to fall through.

'Lives at risk'

But Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the Local Government Association, seemed to agree with ministers that the proposals had weakened vital links between pay and modernisation.

Sir Jeremy said he did not criticise local council negotiators trying to stave off a dangerous strike.

"If the union, instead of rubbishing and misrepresenting the offer put yesterday afternoon had agreed to that document, the whole issue would have settled there and then," he said.

Meanwhile, Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said there was "no reason" for firefighters to strike.

It was wrong to put lives a risk in a pay dispute, Mr Duncan Smith told Today.

"The government has got to make a decision about what it can afford and then it's got to stick to that."

'Mixed messages'

The Tory leader was critical, however, of "confusion" in the government's handling of the dispute.

Ministers had sent mixed messages when a 16% rise was first mooted in the summer, he argued.

Mr Duncan Smith said more work should have been done earlier in training troops to use modern "red" fire engines.

He demanded to know whether the government was considering taking legal action to try to block the strike.

Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford said the attorney-general would decide that.

He added that a number of "red" fire engines were now being used by troops who had been trained last week.

Nick Raynsford, Fire Services Minister
"No responsible government could possibly sign a blank cheque of that sort"
Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith
"There is no justification for putting lives at risk"

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22 Nov 02 | Politics
20 Nov 02 | UK

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