Prescott tells firefighters: no talks until strike ends

By Andy McSmith
Sunday 24 November 2002 01:00

Relations between Labour and the trade unions have hit their lowest point for 24 years, as the Government let it be known yesterday that it will not even begin to talk to striking firefighters until their eight-day strike ends on Friday.

It also hopes to field a smaller, tougher negotiating team when the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) returns to the negotiating table.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has said there must be no repeat of the offer made to the firefighters in the early hours of Friday morning, only to be withdrawn after Mr Prescott learnt of its contents.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, has calculated that the deal put forward by the employers, but renounced by the Government, would have cost the Treasury an extra £450m a year just to pay the firefighters.

He also claims that it could have inspired copycat demands from other public sector unions which would have cost £16bn a year, including £4bn on the local government payroll.

Yesterday, Mr Prescott spoke to the leader of the employers' side in the dispute, Sir Jeremy Beecham, demanding that he send a smaller and more effective team to negotiate next time.

While the Government, the employers and the FBU blamed one another for the strike, five people died yesterday within the first 36 hours of the firefighters walking out.

In Kent, firefighters left their picket line to help pull a man from a burning house – but the victim, 27-year-old Matthew Thatcher, was pronounced dead in hospital.

One man died in a caravan fire in Blackpool and another died in a burning house in Earlsdon, Coventry. In Woodstock, near Oxford, non-striking retained firefighters dealt with a fire in which one man died. An elderly woman died in a house fire in Liverpool.

In Northern Ireland, a young part-time fireman was seriously burned as he lit a brazier on a picket line. Police are investigating a suspected arson attack on the home of a striking firefighter in Kenilworth, Warwickshire.

The military were called out to numerous road accidents, including one on the M4 in south Wales, in which two died. Police say that a woman made 20 hoax calls on the first day of the firefighters' first strike.

Leaders of the main unions spoke out yesterday in a show of solidarity with the FBU, although John Monks, the TUC general secretary, stressed that union members are not being encouraged to break the law by starting sympathy strikes.

Mr Monks, a loyal supporter of the Labour government, told a conference at TUC headquarters yesterday: "We all know about family rows. They are the worst kind if they are allowed to fester.

"This dispute feels like a family row to me. My message to our many very good friends in the Government is, take another look at this draft agreement. Don't rubbish it. Use it."

Many union leaders fear that Mr Blair and his advisers privately wanted the strike to go ahead to give him a chance to crush a militant trade union and invite comparisons with Margaret Thatcher.

John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general union, said: "Since the election, Downing Street has completely lost control of the industrial agenda. Tony Blair has got to decide whether he wants to see a settlement in the fire dispute or whether he wants a victory, because he can't have both."

The Conservatives are keeping up pressure on the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith to serve an injunction on the FBU if theyare putting public safety at risk. Government sources said that he is weighing up whether court action would protect the public or add to the risk by provoking an increasingly bitter confrontation between the FBU and the Government.

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