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EDITIONS
 Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 10:08 GMT
Fire pay deal 'will cost 180m'
Firefighter
Negotiations continue to break the strike deadlock
Crucial talks aimed at resolving funding problems in the firefighters' pay dispute will continue for a second day between employers and officials working for the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.

Meeting a 16% rise for firefighters would cost an estimated 180m, bringing the annual bill for firefighters' pay to 1.2bn.

But negotiators have been struggling to identify the savings that would be made from the modernisation that the government says must be linked with a pay deal.

The Fire Brigades Union has also been angered by the government's suggestion that job losses are a likely part of any deal to solve the fire strike.

Mr Prescott said that with 20% of firefighters due to retire within three years, this was an opportunity to create "a 21st Century service".

But employers will also continue to press the government over the need for short-term financial help.

Meanwhile, a woman died in a house fire in Northern Ireland overnight despite firefighters coming off picket lines to deal with the blaze at Bangor, Co Down.

Assumption

She is the seventh person to die in house fires since the start of the eight-day strike on Friday.

The Fire Brigades Union insists that many of the government's proposals for modernisation are flawed.

Green Goddess
Downing Street wants a report on how the Army have handled the strike
Assumptions have to be made about how much money can be saved by flexible working and other changes.

But Downing Street says the way military personnel are operating as firefighters proves the government's case for modernising the fire service.

During the strike, police, soldiers and fire service managers have been handling emergency calls from joint control rooms - one of the items on the government's "menu for modernisation".

A Downing Street spokeswoman said there were signs the scheme was working well and could save lives by being more efficient with resources.

The prime minister believed the approach was a "common sense" element of modernising the fire service that could improve the service to the public and potentially save lives, she said.

"He is asking for a report on the operation of joint control rooms and how military resources have been deployed during the strike," she said.

But the Fire Brigades' Union said the idea would not work, adding that control rooms had already been slimmed down through a Home Office review.

On Tuesday, Mr Prescott told MPs a modernised fire service would mean fewer firefighters but through retirement rather than redundancies.

He said that 20% of firefighters were due to retire within three years.

Job cuts

And his deputy Nick Raynsford told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday that job cuts would be needed as part of the creation of a leaner, smaller service, but that they hoped to avoid compulsory redundancies.

He said the alterations proposed by the Bain review involved changes in working practice which would be taken for granted in most other sectors of the economy.

"It is only the FBU who are resisting by holding on to their restrictive practices long after they have disappeared elsewhere," he said.

Fire Brigades' Union (FBU) leader Andy Gilchrist says Mr Prescott's comments mean the "cat is out of the bag" that the government's aim is fewer firefighters.

The FBU - which voted for strike action after its demands for a 40% pay rise were dismissed - has always expressed concerns that the government wanted to cut jobs.

Ministers say they will not give extra money for pay rises above 4%.

Union officials fear that with almost three-quarters of the 16% pay offer currently offered not being funded by government, extensive job losses will be needed.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's John Sudworth
"The mood is increasingly bitter but the government says it still wants to talk"
  Nick Raynsford, Fire Service Minister
"The proposed new arrangements will involve more efficient working"

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26 Nov 02 | Politics
21 Oct 02 | Politics
27 Nov 02 | England

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