22/11/2002

Government 'scuppered' deal as FBU begin strike

The firefighters strike went ahead this morning with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) claiming the government had "scuppered" a deal which could have ended industrial action.

The FBU have said that a 16% pay rise was agreed with national employers after gruelling negotiations at around 4.15am this morning. According to the FBU, news was sent to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at 5.30am but they were told that the Deputy Prime Minister would not be in a position to comment on the deal until 9am – when the strike was planned to start.

The FBU then gave the government a deadline of 7.30am to give its imprimatur to the deal but when that was not forthcoming it became clear that the strike would go ahead.

An FBU statement released today read: "We had a draft agreement drawn up. We were on the point of suspending action. The government torpedoed this. It is their responsibility that the strike has gone ahead."

This report, if accurate, conflicts with the government's position as set out by Mr Prescott in the Commons yesterday, when he called on the FBU to broker a deal. And why the government found it impossible to respond to the draft document before 9am this morning has yet to be explained satisfactorily by ministers.

However, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesperson is reported as saying that the deal was not workable.

"If people think the government and the country can be held to ransom through strike action, can be bounced with half-baked, uncosted proposals in the middle of the night... then they are not living in the real world," he said.

NIO Minister Des Browne voiced his regret at the second period of "potentially dangerous and damaging industrial action by the Fire Brigades Union". He advised the public to observe sensible and practical fire precautions – most important of all is that residents should fit and maintain smoke alarms in their homes.

There are 32 Yellow and Green Goddesses deployed across Northern Ireland along with 19 crews of Breathing Apparatus Response Teams and a heavy cutting team. However, there are no plans for the military/PSNI to use the modern red appliances in Northern Ireland. As the Retained Firefighters Union have not joined the strike, 17 stations across Northern Ireland will be responding to emergency calls with a further 29 state-of-the-art engines.

On Wednesday, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Rear Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, raised his "extreme concerns" over the prospect of a strike. He said that having 19,000 military personnel on standby would have detrimental effect on morale and the armed forces ability to both defend the UK and prepare for any possible action in Iraq.

The eight-day strike by fire fighters began at 9am today and will continue until 9am on Saturday November 29.

(GMcG)

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