Fire chiefs say strike should be declared illegal

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Government law officers have been asked to determine whether the threatened firefighters' strike could be declared illegal and strikers sent to jail for putting lives at risk.

Government law officers have been asked to determine whether the threatened firefighters' strike could be declared illegal and strikers sent to jail for putting lives at risk.

The hardline tactic was revealed ahead of a meeting in London today between fire authority employers and the FBU in an attempt to find a settlement. Both sides are being guarded about the chances of a breakthrough in the two-day negotiations on pay and the proposed Bain review of firefighters' conditions.

The Independent has learnt that one fire authority has asked the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, if a strike can be declared illegal under Tory employment laws. The issue is understood to have been discussed at last week's meeting of the Government's national emergencies committee, Cobra.

The 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act has a section which deems strikers who put public safety at risk to have committed a criminal act punishable by up to three months in prison. Section 240 (1) makes clear that an individual will break the law if he "wilfully or maliciously" breaks his contract while "knowing or having reasonable cause to believe" his action will "endanger human life or cause serious bodily injury".

Although the FBU has balloted its members and called a legal strike, that would offer no defence from the criminal charge. Last night, a government source said the Attorney General's judgment was that attempting to declare a strike illegal was "a non-starter".

Hopes of a settlement rose at the weekend when the union agreed to suspend its first two 48-hour stoppages, the first due yesterday, after the intervention of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. But some employers are determined not to give ground to the FBU's pay claim of 40 per cent.

Mr Prescott indicated to Andy Gilchrist, the FBU leader,that the employers could offer "something extra" to their 4 per cent pay offer if productivity could be improved. Local authority employers will today repeat their insistence that any deal would have to be linked to modernisation of practices, be consistent with the Bain review and be government funded.

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