Prescott angers FBU with threat of lower pay deal

John Prescott stepped up the pressure on firefighters yesterday with a threat to impose a lower pay deal than the 16 per cent offer accepted by national leaders but rejected by local activists.

The Deputy Prime Minister willpublish a Bill today giving him the power to set wages and conditions in the fire service, although it will not prevent the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) taking further action.

In a Commons statement, he accused delegates who attended an emergency national conference on Wednesday of being unreasonable by throwing out a revised offer of 16 per cent over three years, which would take minimum salaries to more than £25,000 a year.

Amid protests from FBU regional officials that he was making the dispute more difficult to resolve, Mr Prescott stressed that the Government could find no more money. He said: "Firefighters should be in no doubt that what the employers are offering is both generous and at the absolute limit of what they can afford."

His proposed legislation could become law within two weeks. Mr Prescott refused to be drawn on what figure he could impose on strikers. Aides later confirmed that it could be lower than the 16 per cent on the table. Mr Prescott called for rank-and-file members to have a new ballot on the offer. He said: "I believe the common sense of individual firefighters will prevail."

He said the time had come for legislation in a dispute which was "going nowhere", particularly because of the Iraq conflict and the heightened threat of terrorism. He said that having 19,000 soldiers "tied down", providing cover for strikers after military action had begun, was unacceptable. Mr Prescott, who rejected demands for a legal ban on strikes by firefighters, said he had issued a warning two months ago that he could intervene in this way. "Now that the FBU conference has overturned its executive, I have concluded the time has come for legislation," he said.

Officials at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said the Bill would not remove the right to strike from the FBU, but it would render such industrial action pointless.

Senior FBU officials in London, which proposed the motion at Wednesday's conference rejecting the latest offer, indicated that industrial action could still take place even if a settlement were imposed.

Mick Shergold, secretary of the London region of the union, said that whether members continued to stage walkouts would be "a matter for them". He said: "Prescott's actions are ridiculous. It's going to make firefighters even more angry and determined to strike."

Mr Shergold said the 16 per cent offer over three years and the strings attached to it were "completely unacceptable".

He said there was no need for a secret ballot because FBU members would express their views in a consultation process taking place until 15 April, when another emergency national conference would convene.

He had no doubt that members all over the country would reject the proposals and that dates would be set for industrial action unless there was a settlement. The previous offer had been rejected and the new document simply "tweaked" the wording.

"Bearing in mind that we have to give seven days' notice of any industrial action, we've got a window of nearly five weeks. Let's hope that ministers are overtaken by common sense, but I have my doubts," Mr Shergold said.

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