Cash plea to avert fire strike rejected

Hopes of averting an eight-day national fire strike receded last night after ministers rejected a management plea that the Government should inject separate funds for an improved pay offer.

Fire authorities issued a warning that there would be no speedy conclusion to the crisis unless the Government underwrote a new peace package, with money separate from local authority budgets.

But in the Commons the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said there would be no extra cash to improve an 11 per cent wage offer over two years and urged the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to call off the strike, scheduled to start at 9am on Friday. A government spokesman said: "There's no extra funding. Any more money must be tied to modernisation."

Employers said they were concerned about paying for a settlement and were unconvinced that an offer of more than the 4 per cent tabled for this year could be found through cost savings. A statement by fire authorities pointed out that in opinion polls 91 per cent thought money for an improved deal should come from central government.

As senior negotiators met, the prospect of peace was further undermined by FBU officials rejecting any suggestion a 16 per cent deal over three years could lead to suspension of the eight-day stoppage. It is thought that management suggested the three-year deal during informal discussions.

John McGhee, of the FBU, said that while an emergency meeting of the union's executive today could suspend the strike, "it would have to be a substantial offer for them to do that because a lot of people are fed up with being messed about''.

Andy Gilchrist, the general secretary of the FBU, met Mr Prescott last night and will be reporting on the talks at today's union executive. A full meeting between the two sides could be held later today.

Dave Patton, FBU health and safety officer, told a meeting in Westminster last night: ?If we lose, there will be a long time before any public service workers ever get the nerve to fight this Government again.?

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