Fire chief gave warning to Major of budget crisis

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Ministers had advance warning that government policy was causing the financial crisis which led yesterday to a fifth one-day strike by Merseyside firefighters.

Andrew Best, Merseyside's chief fire officer, said yesterday that he took the "unprecedented step" of predicting to John Major and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, that the fire service's statutory duties could not be performed on its 1995-96 budget.

Ministers refused to increase the budget, and Mr Best cut costs by announcing that 20 firefighters' jobs would be lost through natural wastage and three rest days lost in reorganised shift patterns.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) have staged the nine-hour strikes in protest against the job losses, claiming that Merseyside is only the first of many fire services considering cuts which will jeopardise public safety.

More than 400 troops from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are providing fire cover on Merseyside, using 24 "Green Goddess" fire tenders. Ten RAF rescue units are also on call during strikes, and Mr Best said the public received an "adequate" service superior to the service during the national firefighters' strike in 1977.

Six people were slightly hurt yesterday in 19 fires dealt with by the Army at commercial or residential premises. Of a total of 55 calls, 11 were to grass fires, and the remainder false alarms, or fires in cars or rubbish.

The FBU said the strike had full support of members who voted yesterday to escalate the dispute. The next stoppage, on either 8 or 12 September, is expected to be for 18 hours - or two shifts.

Ken Cameron, the union's general secretary, said: "We are calling for the fire authority to come to the table with a clean sheet, and we will look at how we can find the pounds 700,000 that they require without it meaning firefighters' jobs."

Peter Dowd, chairman of the fire authority, said all five Merseyside local authorities had supported the fire service in its "conciliatory" approach to a problem caused by the Government. Mr Dowd said the union had failed to participate fully and realistically in bipartisan efforts to solve the crisis.

The union leadership in Merseyside has been characterised as left-wing, but sources claim hard-left influence does not predominate.

"There has been a clash between Mr Best, who's a bit of a Scots bruiser, and the union. Some of the FBU leaders dislike him," an observer close to conciliation talks said. "He's an old-fashioned, macho chief officer, one of the lads who has risen through the ranks and can be a bit insensitive."

George Howarth, the MP for Knowsley North and Labour's fire spokesman, said ministers should take the lead in negotiating a settlement, adding that fire authorities in England and Wales were pounds 87m short of their budgetary needs to provide adequate services.