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EDITIONS
Sunday, 1 December, 2002, 16:42 GMT
Ministers 'dishonest' about fire strike
Firefighters waiting to protest against Tony Blair in Cardiff
Two more eight-day strikes are planned
The Conservatives have accused the government of "dishonesty" in its handling of the firefighters' strike.

The government is said to be considering introducing laws to ban future walk-outs by firefighters.

But the Shadow Chancellor, Michael Howard, said the government already had the legal power to ban the stoppages, if it wanted to and was being "dishonest".

The Trade Union and Labour Relations Act already makes it an offence for employees to endanger human life by breaking a contract of service, said Mr Howard.

He urged the government to act immediately, instead of pursuing its plan to possibly introduce anti-strike legislation for firefighters at a later date.

It may well be, in the 21st century, it's the wrong way to resolve this sort of dispute, to have a strike that holds the public hostage

David Davis
Shadow deputy prime minister
The comments come as both the unions and the government appeared to be digging in for a prolonged dispute, with Fire Services Minister Nick Raynsford warning it could last for months.

Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leader Andy Gilchrist is expected to sanction the next eight-day strike from Wednesday followed by a further eight-day walkout from 16 December to Christmas Eve.

On Monday, union leaders will also decide whether to call fresh strikes by firefighters further into the New Year.

Mr Raynsford told the Sunday Telegraph that he had warned the employers' negotiating team to settle in for a long dispute.

"I told them, 'Don't rush to get a settlement. It's important to get it right'," he told the paper.

Industrial relations laws

The government has indicated it may consider anti-strike legislation to ban firefighters from walk-outs in a similar way to the police and armed forces, once it has digested the results of the recent Bain review.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said: "The full Bain report will be out in December. We will make a decision then how best to take it forward.

"However, a White Paper is an option and is not out of the question.

"Ministers have said that they are not looking at anti-strike legislation at the moment. However we will obviously review everything if developing any White Paper."

The militancy of the FBU is something that is worrying a lot of people

Colin Ive, Retained Firefighters Union
But Mr Howard believes the government can use existing legal powers to outlaw the firefighters' industrial action.

He cites the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, which makes it an offence to break a contract of service if that could endanger human life and the Tories say this could clearly be used in the present dispute.

However shadow deputy prime minister David Davis took a more cautious approach to the idea of a strike ban.

He told BBC One's Breakfast with Frost programme: "I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea. We are actually looking at the whole question of how you resolve these disputes ourselves.

"It may well be, in the 21st century, it's the wrong way to resolve this sort of dispute, to have a strike that holds the public hostage.
Andy Gilchrist
Gilchrist is determined to fight on

"But it's not something that one would make a snap judgment on right in the middle of the strike."

Separate talks will be held by the union and the firefighters' local authority employers on Monday.

The government has offered a 4% pay increase, with any more funded by changes to working practices, but the FBU wants a substantially higher figure.

Dispute 'prolonged'

Transport and General Workers Union leader Bill Morris has attacked the government's handling of the strike as "irresponsible" and "dangerous".

He pledged that other trade unions would lend both moral and financial support to the firefighters' struggle.

However, Colin Ive, president of the Retained Firefighters Union, which has not been striking but supports the FBU's pay claim, told Sky News he thought Mr Gilchrist had gone too far.

"It would appear that comments yesterday made by Mr Gilchrist have changed the position of this strike from one which we could support, of a significant pay rise for our full-time colleagues, to all of a sudden he's manipulating it into 'Let's topple the government'.

"The militancy of the FBU is something that is worrying a lot of people," he said.

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The BBC's Shaun Ley
"Ministers say they are prepared for a long dispute"

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30 Nov 02 | Politics
01 Dec 02 | Politics

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