World Video | Defence | Foreign Affairs | Natural Events | Trade | NZ in World News | NZ National News Video | NZ Regional News | Search

 


UK Prime Minister's Press Conference - 25 Nov.


Prime Minister's Press Conference

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, brought forward his monthly press conference to allow journalists to ask questions on a range of issues, most notably the fire strike.

When questioned on firefighter's pay and modernisation of the fire service, Mr Blair said:

"Any pay above the 4% has to be paid for by modernisation. Now the modernisation is set out in the Bain Report. The Bain Report also sets out certain figures. Anything that the employers and the unions negotiate has got to be paid for by those changes in working practices.

"That has been the position of the government right from the very outset of the dispute. It remains the position now. Now, whatever percentage comes out of that has got to be related back to the modernisation."

Read a transcript of the Press Conference below:


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning everyone. I thought in view of the fire strike and the seriousness of the issue at stake that I would bring forward the monthly press conference. I am obviously going to talk in my opening remarks about the fire strike, but feel free as ever to ask me any questions you want about any issue.

I want to explain to you really why we are in the situation we are in, why the Government has to stand firm in the face of this action in order that we protect our economy, jobs and living standards and also say to you where we go from here.

It is worth just pointing out the roots of this dispute. Earlier this year, following the election of Mr Gilchrist as the FBU General Secretary, the Union declared its intention to set aside the long-standing indexed-linked pay formula and instead table a pay claim for rises of around 40%. They also demanded a new formula, but on the basis of the 40% claim being already agreed. Understandably the employers said that if the existing agreed formula were to be changed, then a new formula had first of course to be agreed, and then form the basis of any claim. This was refused by the Union. In August we began preparations for the strike with the Armed Forces. But in addition in September in an effort to help we said we would establish an independent review to look at pay and modernisation in the Fire Service. The employers agreed. The Union refused. Nonetheless, after consultation with the TUC, we appointed Sir George Bain, together with the former President of the TUC and an employers' representative to examine the case. The employers co-operated. The Union refused.

We then urged both sides to carry on talking. We made it crystal-clear, however, that the basis of the talks had to be the report from Sir George Bain. We brought the conclusions of that report forward to facilitate discussion. The employers offered 4%, but anything more had to be paid for by modernisation. Sir George Bain in his report then set out how that could lead to above inflation pay increases on the basis of savings made possible by changes in working practices. The Union rejected those changes, and that is still the essentially the position we are in today.

I would like to thank, and pay tribute, to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and women who are providing fire cover for the country at this time. They didn't join the Armed Forces to fight fires, but as ever they have faced up to what is demanded of them with typical straightforward professionalism, and I commend them for it. I'd like to thank the public too for the way they have responded to this strike. Hoax calls are down, so are call-outs to incidents which suggests that people are heeding the need for greater attention to basic fire safety.

It is said, and has been said throughout this, as you know, by the FBU leadership, that the government somehow wanted this dispute and somehow engineered the strike. Let me again say that this idea, particularly at a time of heightened security and terrorist concerns, is palpably absurd.

I also perhaps should deal briefly with the events of last Thursday night and Friday morning. Again, in an effort to resolve this dispute without a strike, we urged the two sides to negotiate. They did so and eventually approached a deal - though it was never formally put - but this deal consisted only of an agreement to talk about modernisation, plus in effect 4 pay rises over the next 12 months amounting to 16% in all. The employers' side frankly admitted that it would not be paid for by modernisation but only by government i.e. tax payers' money. We made it clear, as we have throughout, that we could not sign such a cheque, especially a blank one with no costing.

I think it is also helpful from the point of view of the public to explain what we mean by modernisation and changes in working practices. Now there are a whole set of things outlined in the Bain report, but just let me give you some examples of what we mean. It means, for example, full-time fire-fighters working in the same crew as part-time fire-fighters. At present this is banned. It means management being able to change, where necessary, a shift system of two days on, two nights on, four days off, if that produces a better service. It means for example allowing overtime where it is needed. It means agreeing to basic training in paramedical work. It means sharing control rooms with other emergency services so that the service to the public is improved and money is saved. And all these changes, which I think when people hear them listed in that way will think are pretty basic changes to working practices, all of those would of course save money and produce efficiency gains. And frankly I defy anyone to say that they are unreasonable, but at present the Union has not agreed to any of them at all.

If we were to concede this pay claim, the economic consequences would be dire, and this is really what I want to stress to you today. This Government has worked very hard in our first term to lay the platform for economic stability, for full employment, for rising living standards, and it has required some difficult decisions. But it was only as a result of the hard-won stability and our success in getting down unemployment, and the costs of economic and social failure that we were able to begin properly then the programme of investment in our public services. We have in this country low inflation historically, we have the lowest unemployment for decades, we have got the lowest mortgage rate for decades. As a result of that economic stability we have been able to invest in our public services, but it is only on the basis that we keep managing the economy in a sensible and prudent way. We cannot therefore allow the good work to be undone now with pay settlements that risk driving up inflation, interest rates and unemployment, and we are not going to allow the record investment in public services to be swallowed up simply in extra pay. The Chancellor will make this clear on Wednesday when he presents the pre-Budget report the world economic situation is of course poor and no country is immune from the effects of that. Though Britain is better placed than most, but we are only better placed than most because we have taken the tough decisions that have allowed us to have low inflation, low mortgage rates, low unemployment.

The fire-fighters do, of course, a very important job. We have never disputed that throughout. But I hope that they understand - that you understand - that they are not the only public sector workers who do important jobs. Nurses do a great job, so do teachers, so do the police, so, as we are seeing once again, do the Armed Forces and many of these are paid far less than fire-fighters.

We have now had some opportunity to look at the so-called deal last Friday morning in some detail. The Treasury has said that it would add some £500 million to the costs of an unreformed Fire Service. The 16% pay deal which the employers claimed they were able to offer, if applied across the whole of the Local Authority sector would cost an extra £4 billion. If it was applied across the public sector as a whole it would cost an extra £16 billion. Now, just to put that in context for you, it would mean for the basic rate income tax payer something like a 30% increase in their income tax bill. Now of course people will say well the fire-fighters are a special case. But I think you and I know that most public sector workers will argue that they are special case, and in a way they are all special cases - the nurses, the teachers, the Armed Forces, the police.

The question then is where do we go from here? Of course during these eight days of this second part of the strike we will continue to ensure an adequate fire service through the Armed Forces and our other emergency services. We are continuing to co-ordinate and monitor the situation through proper, cross-government management structure that is working well. The military have made clear to us that they are coping well with what they have, and we have made it clear that if they need more by way of support and equipment then of course they will get it. To take forward the negotiations the Deputy Prime Minister has already asked Sir Jeremy Beecham, the Head of the Local Government Association, to consult with his local government colleagues on putting together a small cross-party group to give greater focus to the negotiations. The purpose of that would be to establish the financial parameters by drawing on the advice of the independent Bain Commission on how savings could be made and the service improved for the benefit of the communities.

Now, the only serious negotiation, however, is one which agrees modernisation in return for enhanced pay that makes the modernisation possible. If that cannot be agreed, then the existing formula has to stay until it is changed by agreement. And I say to the fire-fighters and their families, we did not and we do not want confrontation with you. Rightly you are valued members of your communities. We do not wish for you to go without pay from fire-fighting any longer than you have to. But I ask them to understand the broader economic reasons why the government cannot give in to this kind of claim, to this kind of action being pursued in this kind of way. If we were to yield to this claim, made in this way, at this time, we would do fundamental and lasting economic damage to the economic stability - the low inflation, low unemployment, low mortgage rate - we have fought so long and hard to achieve as a country. That is the simple and blunt truth that we in government have to take on board. If we were to provide the necessary for the type of deal the fire-fighters are claiming, their pay rise today would simply become their rising mortgage bill, rising prices, the country's unemployment tomorrow. So, the two-day strike was wrong and dangerous, and it follows that an eight-day strike is more so. We did not want it. We will continue to seek to resolve the issues involved, but both sides must be clear in the end they have to resolve this within the limits that the real world puts down. There are limits to the money that can be made available, there are limits to the extent that outdated working practice can be allowed to go on, so pay linked to modernisation is the only way that this can be resolved. Both sides know it means getting back round the negotiating table sooner or later. I hope it is sooner. Thank you very much.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you talk about limits to the money available. From many people's perspective there has been great confusion about what the government's actual bottom line offer is. All sorts of figures bandied around. Can you clear up now, if you got modernisation from the Fire Brigades Union, what you regarded as real modernisation, what is the maximum sort of percentage that they could expect in return?

PRIME MINISTER:

Any pay above the 4% has to be paid for by modernisation. Now the modernisation is set out in the Bain Report. The Bain Report also sets out certain figures. Anything that the employers and the unions negotiate has got to be paid for by those changes in working practices. That has been the position of the government right from the very outset of the dispute. It remains the position now. Now, whatever percentage comes out of that has got to be related back to the modernisation.

QUESTION:

Some of your Ministers have changed from using the formula that it had to be funded by modernisation, to simply saying that it had to be linked to modernisation.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that's just splitting hairs, to be honest. From the very beginning, I think I said this in one of my first comments on this, and this has been said by John Prescott, it has been said by Gordon Brown, it has been said by everybody. You have your 4% pay increase at the moment - or 4% pay on the table at the moment - and that is frankly what they would expect under the existing formula. And I may say that is more than many other public sector workers are getting. Anything above that has got to be based on a new formula, and the new formula is modernisation of the working practices. So whatever percentage comes out of this, it has to be funded by the modernisation. And with the greatest respect to those who say there has been some uncertainty about, that has been clear right from the outset. From the very beginning we've said, if you want a new pay claim, not under the existing formula, it has got to be paid for by modernisation. The reason we set up the Bain Report is to provide the basis of that modernisation.

QUESTION:

Just on the question of the negotiations, I think many people in the country will feel that if this is so important as you have said it is this morning, that rather than having unknown figures, or figures which have been heavily criticised by the government from local authorities negotiating, that now the government ought to take charge of negotiating on this directly, why don't you do so? And secondly, in view of the confused signals that emerged from Ministers over the weekend, are you convinced that you have got the right Ministerial team intervening from a distance as they have been?

PRIME MINISTER:

I totally understand when you get into a dispute like this and where there are two separate aspects: there is the percentage of the pay and then there is the modernisation and how you put all that together. I totally understand why people, unless they are following it in very close detail, say does this statement match up with that statement. The answer is that all the statements stress throughout that modernisation has to pay for the additional pay over the 4%. Now I think that you will find if you go back and look at the statements, they were all entirely consistent with that. The reason why we have asked the Local Government Association to try and streamline the negotiating procedure for the local government employers is not that we think we should go and negotiate this. In the end we are not the employers. But I think if they had a far more streamlined and frankly rather more effective negotiating structure, you wouldn't get into the difficulties that were got into last Thursday and Friday night. You just have to understand that the problem that the government had in that situation is that in effect by the time that Friday morning came, we were being presented with something that could have perhaps formed the basis of a deal between the employers and the unions, but essentially said we had to end up footing the bill. Now we can't have that. We have made that clear throughout.

QUESTION:

Just going to the point about the actual negotiations. Are you prepared to fund at least a transitional amount? John Prescott seemed to suggest yesterday that if it was a relatively small amount you might be prepared to let the local authorities have a little extra to help them fund the cost of modernisation as it was being introduced.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it is sensible for me to get into the absolute intricacies of the negotiation. But what they have got to do is to keep the top line in their mind, and the top line in their mind is, if it is more than 4% it is paid for by modernisation, and modernisation equals Bain. Now, the FBU are perfectly able to put different types of modernisation on the table, and they have done that, but they have got to agree to the basic changes in Bain, because they are the things that yield the benefit. Let me just give you a couple of examples from the way that this dispute has been operating at the moment, because effectively you have had the Fire Service taken over by the Army who are doing it with about one-third of the manpower. Now, what they have already discovered is (1) joint control rooms make sense for them, and the Army are actually operating these joint control rooms; and (2) what they have found is that the vast bulk of the calls on the Fire Service's time come during the day, and so what the military are doing is saying that during the day we need more, and during the night we need less. It is not rocket science. But all these things are possible and therefore if you were to change the working practices, you would save money. Now, we could have said, well that money all goes back to the government. But we haven't. We've said OK, we accept the fire-fighters do a good job, if you can save the money on efficiency then get it back to the fire-fighters and I think most people think that is a reasonable position.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, if I understood you rightly you said that in return for 16% the FBU had only agreed to talk about modernisation, but isn't it in fact the case that under even the second formula the money would only have been given to the fire-fighters in return for modernisation? In other words, at each stage they would have had to agree to it, that the employers would have been free to introduce all the Bain proposals, and any disagreements would have been referred to a binding arbitration body on which the Audit Commission were going to sit. That's not quite the same, is it?

PRIME MINISTER:


This is the important thing about getting this cleared up right at the outset. You can't have a situation where you are going to agree to talk about modernisation . You say well they may have come to agreements over the course of the year. They may, they may not. But the fact of the matter is you have got to be clear about modernisation right from the outset. And if you go - correct me if I'm wrong - I think if you go to paragraph 6 of the document that was presented on Friday morning, what it said was that this can't be paid for by modernisation. They were quite explicit about that. When people say why did the government say we couldn't agree to this document on Friday morning, well the answer is perfectly simple. In paragraph 6 of the document it said this cannot be paid for by modernisation. There will be a substantial funding gap and we look to government to fill it, and yet we didn't even have any costings.

QUESTION:


.... self-financing within 6 years or something.

PRIME MINISTER

I'm not sure about that at all. I think if you go back and look at the document they were saying - I'm speaking from memory here, but you will have to go back and have a look at it - that there will be significant, or substantial costs over and above what could be paid for.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, do you accept the appearance that the government has lost control of this? That it should have seen the writing on the wall much earlier in the year as militant trade union leaders were being elected? That there was quite clearly going to be a battle over pay and that you had no strategy for it and it was completely wrong to put John Prescott in charge of the whole negotiation process?

PRIME MINISTER:

You say that and, again, I've read a lot about this. It was in August that we began the preparations. And I simply point out to you that we have got the 6th day of this strike haven't we now, and the military have coped perfectly well. I'm not saying there won't be great strains on them as they try and cope, but the idea that the first time we started to prepare for this was when the strike got under way. We prepared for it back in August and the military have coped extremely well. They have done absolutely brilliantly. I totally understand the frustration that people have. Why can't you solve this dispute? Well, the answer is because we have been met I am afraid by a claim that is unreasonable, and if we yield to that claim then the consequences to the rest of the economy are absolutely dire. And let me just remind you of something again, because I think it is important the public understands the background to this. The last Fire Service dispute was all about winning the new formula. That was what the dispute was about. And we gave them the new formula, and that effectively index-linked their pay. If you look at the graph of fire-fighters' pay, and average pay in the economy, they have risen together. Now, a couple of years ago even, the fire-fighters union was saying that the pay formula was sacrosanct because it was something they had fought for. They came along earlier this year saying that they don't want that formula anymore. They want a different formula. So what did we do? We said OK well let's sit down and discuss a different formula with you, but they then said no, we want a 40% wage claim, then we want the new formula on the basis of the 40% wage claim. So, I share everyone's frustration that we can't resolve this. But I think most people, when they get into the detail of this, realise that if we were to yield to this claim, what could I say to the nurses, what could I say to the soldiers who after all are doing the fire cover at the moment and are paid substantially less than fire-fighters? We have got difficulty frankly in recruiting nurses, teachers or soldiers, but we have about 40 applicants for every fire-fighter's job. When people say to us, couldn't you just go and settle the thing - just get the thing settled - it would be wonderful if life were like that but you have got to have people being prepared to be reasonable. At the present time we have been faced with a claim that is not reasonable, and I simply ask you again if you go through the changes I have been listing. For example shouldn't full-time fire-fighters work alongside part-time fire-fighters? Now you tell me another walk of life where full-time people and part time people can't work together? In all your offices you will find that happening. So why is it that it cannot happen here? Or, for example, when you have got a shift pattern that is effectively 4 days off in the week, surely it should be free to management to try and alter that in order to provide a better service? To be honest about this, to say look you have your 4% come what may, but if you want more on top of that it has got to be linked to changes in working practices, that yield a benefit, I think that is not an unreasonable position.

QUESTION:

You say that the deal on Thursday and Friday was not acceptable. Why though did John Prescott on Friday just rather grumpily get out of bed and rip it all up? And notwithstanding the fact that no-one can make the Treasury's £500 million figure add up, why can't the deal which we nearly got on Friday, be used as a basis for further talks instead of all this macho posturing and a stand-off and three days into the second strike?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the Treasury can make their figures add up. They have got quite a lot of practice of doing that. There is nothing macho about this. Let's be serious about this. The idea that there was a fantastic deal on offer but nobody could be bothered to get out of bed in order to address it. Come on. There were negotiations going through the night. Effectively what happened was you got an agreement on the Friday morning that incidentally was significantly different to what was being talked about on the Thursday night. Then we were told: here it is, what's more there's a paragraph at the end that says there are big costs over and above the modernisation, and we want the money.

QUESTION:

Why didn't you use it as the basis for the talks?

PRIME MINISTER:

The basis of the talks is the basis I have set out. They can use whatever they want to talk about but in the end it has got to be done on the basis we have described, because otherwise the taxpayer is going to have to fund additional sums of money for the fire-fighters in circumstances where we then breach the government's spending limits, with all the damage to the economy. And I am still waiting for this question to be answered. If the fire-fighters were to get this type of pay claim, without it being paid for by efficiency or modernisation, tell me what I say to the nurses, or indeed to local government workers who settled for less than 4% and who are being paid far less than fire-fighters? In the end, we are all familiar with this. Everybody who makes a pay claim will always say mine's a special case. You could tell me it wouldn't have on knock-on consequences for the rest. But it would. It plainly would and I think most people, as I say as they get into this, understand that.

QUESTION:


Prime Minister, you said today that you are standing firm. But only week ago Ministers said that 11% maximum was on offer and that would be a real struggle because the unions would resist the changes. This weekend, John Prescott says that 16% is worth talking about. Isn't it the case that far from standing firm that you are actually drifting on this? And if I could put a supplementary to you: you've praised the Army for coping with a third of the workforce perfectly well, are you saying that the Army are actually proving that we could have a far cheaper, far better, more efficient Fire Service than the one that we have got?

PRIME MINISTER:

To deal with the first point first, that's why I understand why people, if they are not following the absolute minute detail of all this say where there are all these different figures being bandied about - there's 11%, there's a 15% or 16%. The point is this, what George Bain was saying was that you could have your 4%, plus another I think another 7.5%, paid for by modernisation in 2 years. Now there will then be continuing modernisation over the years to come. So obviously if you extend the number of years, you will extend the overall settlement, but it has all got to be paid for by modernisation. And George Bain specified modernisation in Year 1, but then said you could have modernisation carrying on for Year 2 or 3.

QUESTION:

Just to be absolutely clear about that, any idea therefore that 16% in a year, which was the basis after all of the first deal, before John Prescott got into his bed, any idea that that is affordable is out, there's no way?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely there is no way. With the greatest respect, John Prescott has never said anything different from that. What he did say was that the original discussions that were taking place on the Thursday night, where the original employers' document - and again if you want I think you can go and refer back to this - specifically mentioned Bain, and the importance of Bain, I think you will find that the Friday morning document by the time that was issued had taken out all references to Bain altogether. So that was obviously a different type of discussion that was on offer. Your second point about the Fire Service. I'm not saying that, but I am saying it is interesting. I have given you two examples of where the Army is already changing effectively the working practices and to what ill effect I ask. Now, of course the Army can't provide the full Fire Service cover, that is why this is a strike that is dangerous for the public, and the best people to provide this service are the trained fire-fighters. There's no doubt about that. But I am simply saying that at some point we should sit down and have a proper debate about the changes in working practices because I think you can already see from the way the dispute is being conducted that it is perfectly possible for some of those working practices to be changed without any great problems.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, do you see this primarily as a dispute between a particular set of employers and employees, or are you now saying it in a broader context of a particular challenge between the unions and New Labour with a direct challenge to your political authority?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think this is essentially an industrial dispute. Let me choose my words carefully. I think it would be extremely unfortunate if it was seen by any part of the Union movement in a broader context because they have got to realise that in the year 2002 - it's not 1978/79, it's not 1984 - it's different. Life has changed and this is not the way to resolve these things nowadays. It's important again - and this is the point I think people haven't quite got the measure of - the whole basis of the strike in the 1970's by the fire-fighters was to get a formula which meant that they never had to strike because they would have a formula. Now the only point that I make, which is a perfectly simple point, is that if you want to change the formula you do that by agreement. You don't come along and say, we don't want that formula, here's our 40% wage claim and we'll see how we go after that.

QUESTION:

But isn't it fundamentally a political test because ultimately the buck stops at the Treasury who says to local government employers, you can't afford that and we're not going to pick up the tab?

PRIME MINISTER:

In that sense everything is political I guess. But I thought you meant it in a slightly different way actually. The Treasury position is a position you would expect them to take. Again, let's be clear about this we are putting the largest sum of money into our public services this country has every seen. Massive rises in health and education spending. Now we can afford that expenditure, even in a difficult set of economic circumstances, but we can't take risks with it. The local government settlement is extremely generous.

QUESTION:

Is the Scargillite word ...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, all I say about that is that I hope people realise that the days of unreasonable strike action as the way to pursue your claim, those days are over.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister you talk about the military having all the equipment that they would need. Does that mean that it is still an option for the Army or the police to cross picket lines to go and get those red fire engines?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is not a question of them crossing picket lines. They will have whatever red fire engines they need.

QUESTION:

But they have got to cross the picket lines to get them.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't think they will have to but the fact is that we actually have the red fire engines that they want. Now if they come back to us and say that they need more we can give them more.

QUESTION:

By crossing the picket lines?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it's not the only way, actually. Because you have got some of those that are already outside the fire stations and they are the ones that are being used at the moment. And insofar as they need any more red fire engines, they will have them. But the way this works, so that you will understand it, is that the military are in charge of the logistics of this. What they ask for we give them. What they don't ask for we don't run around trying to do. Now what the military are saying at the moment is look we have the resources and equipment that we need. Let us get on with it. We're coping perfectly well. If they make a request for anything more then we will give it to them, and we will do that as I have said constantly without any regard to picket lines or anything else.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister you've talked a lot about affordability, but just to change the pace slightly, I come back from being away a few days and read that you are still in favour of top-up fees for University students whereas the Chancellor isn't. I wondered how you could reconcile that apparent difference and also reconcile top-up fees of up to £30,000 with a government target of - what is it -50% of young people going to University?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, first of all I'd wait for the outcome of the review and then you will see I think that the government's position is ...

QUESTION:

Your position?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, my position would be the government's too, wouldn't it, but

QUESTION:

Are you sure about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think so Michael, yes. Secondly, I wouldn't believe a lot of the stories that you are reading. Wait for the outcome of the review, but I've got absolutely no intention of doing anything that is going to put off people going to University. But the problem when you have got a review is that everyone speculates like mad and then if you deny this, and deny that, then you end announcing the review before it's done.

QUESTION:

You have been critical of the employers side of the negotiations. You say they have got to be more effective, they have got to be streamlined. But isn't the real inefficiency the fact that there isn't a government minister directly involved, the fact that they have to go back the whole time to somebody standing over their shoulder slows down the negotiations?

PRIME MINISTER:

The point is this, we aren't the employers and we have got to be careful of setting a precedent whereby we come into every negotiation and effectively negotiate direct. The employers in the end have got to cut the deal. We remain there, available to be talked at and consulted and, as I say, we couldn't have made our position clearer. We set up the Bain review with the specific consent of the employers in order to say to them, look if you want to pay more than 4% that's the way to do it. But if we start conducting every single piece of negotiation ourselves, this is not the only negotiation that can lead to difficulty. What I think is important, I understand it's a difficult situation where you have got I think a Joint Negotiating Council of the employers that has over 40 people on it. Now I think it is intelligent and sensible that they streamline that and get a bit of rigour into the proceedings. Then we will avoid a situation where they approach deals through the night and then hand the bill over to the government, which is not really a proper way of proceeding.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister as a result of your answers, and could you correct me if I am wrong, it seems that you have thrown out completely the Friday morning offer of 16% effectively paid over one year? And from your answers you seem to say it is 4% now that is on the table, and then 7.5% paid for by modernisation over Bain over the next 2 years so we are back to 11.5% over 2 years. Is that right? Otherwise it seems that figures just swill around without any clear ...

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand that. But first of all I don't think that anybody has ever said that the Friday morning deal was acceptable. I don't think there has been any doubt about that from the very beginning for the reason I gave you that at the end of the deal it says we can't meet this through modernisation, here's the bill for you - government. Now all I am saying, and I am not going to get into percentages in the sense of the final settlement, but what I am simply pointing out to you is that Bain, if you want it over 2 years, said you could pay for 7.5% through modernisation. He then said without specifying figures that there would be further modernisation that could be done that could yield more money in the longer term. That is precisely what they can sit down and negotiate on. But they have got to negotiate within the parameters that have been set because otherwise, as I say, they simply come back to us and say here's the bill, we want the money.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, do you think it is now time to ban fire-fighters from striking?

PRIME MINISTER:

I've never taken the view, I have to say ... as John Prescott said the other day we keep all the legal positions that the government could take under review, but I've never thought the right way to deal with these strikes is to try and ban them. You I think you probably get into more problems than you solve. But I do hope the fire-fighters realise that this is a strike that they simply cannot succeed in because the consequences of succeeding is - it's not the defeat of the government, that's not the point - it would be a defeat for the country because the country would end up, after winning this economic stability, after doing so well as an economy. Heaven's above we are probably better placed as an economy than any major industrialised country in the world at the moment in terms of unemployment and issues like that. We would be saying, after doing all that, we are just going to throw it all away. I think someone said to me earlier this is a sort of machismo. I've never taken that view of it. That's not the way I operate. I try to operate in a consensual and reasonable way, but if somebody makes an entirely unreasonable demand, I'm afraid you have simply got to stand firm on it. It's as simple as that.

QUESTION:

I don't know if you are aware that in the West Country this morning, in Plymstock, a group of fire-fighters did actually cross the picket line, they were full-time as we understand non-FBU fire-fighters. Presumably you welcome this, but is the first time do you think of a weakening in resolve?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't know, to be honest and of course I hope that people do work normally and go back to work. That's what we would want. But I think the fire-fighters are in the position at the moment that they are being told by their leadership that all you have to do is carry on striking, the government will give into this claim, and I just urge them to understand that we can't. We won't and we can't. Not because we are not reasonable people or because we've got something against the fire-fighters but for the reasons that I have already given. I don't know enough about the particular situation that you are talking of, but obviously I hope that more and more people realise that this is a strike that simply cannot succeed.

QUESTION:

I wasn't quite clear that you were admitting that you did use the word Scargillite about the fire-fighters leaders, and were you flattered or worried when one newspaper said that you were doing a Maggie.

PRIME MINISTER:

In the end, I have said all I have to say on the first point. In the end I think I will do it my own way, thank you very much. But my own way is to be perfectly reasonable with people, but also firm and whether that's a Maggie or not, I'll leave to speculate on rather than me.

QUESTION:

Is this a political strike?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, again I think I answered this earlier. I hope very much that people do not think they can pursue political ends by industrial means. I was saying this to somebody the other day that the big change that has come about for the Labour Party as the governing party is this. We went through the 1970's. We went through 18 years of Opposition with people saying we could use industrial action to gain political ends. I'm not accusing the fire-fighters of that. I'm not actually. But you have got to realise that the Labour Party has been through all that. We are in government. This is a different Labour Government from any previous Labour Government and as I say not for reasons of machismo, but for reasons of common sense and moderation. We are never going back to those days, and I will simply not tolerate a return to them.

QUESTION:

The possibility of a war is at the front our minds at the moment in January/February and of course that war would cost a lot of money. Does that consideration limit your freedom?

PRIME MINISTER:

It doesn't alter our policy on the fire dispute if that is what you mean. And let us hope we can avoid conflict but we can only voice it on the basis of Saddam Hussein disarming Iraq of all chemical and biological potentially nuclear weapons programmes and that remains the position.

QUESTION:

For the sake of clarity when talking about the unions have you ever uttered the word Scargillite?

PRIME MINISTER:

What I have said - and I am not going into details of conversations - but what I have said is this, industrial militancy to pursue political ends which I guess what people would think of as Scargillism is not on. Now I hope and believe that the fire-fighters are not trying to do that, but we have got to be very, very clear about that indeed. Those days are over in the country. Not under any government and certainly not under this one.

QUESTION:

Are you concerned as the strike goes on that the costs of dealing with it in terms of police overtime and so forth could end up actually exceeding the costs of settling the dispute?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they won't because the costs of settling the dispute, if we settled them on the wrong terms, are "ginormous", they go right across the whole of the public sector. So I don't think we are ever in that situation.

QUESTION:

But in terms of settling the dispute with the fire-fighters you could end up with spiralling costs if this dispute continues which you could actually offset by settling?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but it is not like that, is it? First of all I don't either know or want to speculate on what the precise costs of any police overtime and so on is, and of course the fire-fighters for all the days they are on strike are not being paid. But you can't look at the dispute in isolation, that is the point that I am making. If I could get any point across to the fire-fighters today it is to say to them no government could ever be in a situation where they say we are going to settle this public sector dispute without any reference to the consequences and knock-on effects of other public sector pay. We have got a negotiation that is on its way at the moment with the nurses, now the nurses are paid less than fire-fighters, significantly less than fire-fighters, nurses do a great job, they work extremely hard, they save people's lives, they are under a lot of pressure. Now how do I say to the fire-fighters you can have this pay settlement, and then say to the nurses, am I going to stand up and say the nurses aren't a special case, there is nothing special about nurses? What am I going to say the Army? The guys who are out there actually doing the work at the moment, the people who, heaven forbid it won't come to conflict, but supposing there is a conflict are going to go out and actually risk their lives fighting for this country and are paid less. It would be a lovely world if we could all pay whatever we wanted, but we can't, and in the end we are the government. Sometimes I hear people talk about why doesn't the government put the money forward. It is not government money, it doesn't come out of my pocket, it is you, it is the taxpayers' pocket, and any money that is not funded through changes in working practice has to come either through additional borrowing or higher taxes, it can't come in any other way.

QUESTION:

Are you seriously concerned, like the Chief of Staff, about the effect on morale of the Armed Forces caused by the fire dispute, and if the strike continues is it not likely to have an impact on preparations for the war against Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the Chief of Defence Staff, I know what he was reported as saying, but frankly I think he was only making a statement of the obvious. Soldiers would prefer to be doing work as soldiers, not fire-fighters, that is pretty obvious; and secondly, if you have got 19,000 people tied up in the fire dispute those are 19,000 people at least that you can't use for something else. But he also went on to say that he thought that we would have the ability to meet fully any operational requirement we might have in respect of Iraq, and that is the position, and that is precisely what he said.

QUESTION:

You said earlier nurses, teachers, police officers, Armed Forces are paid less than fire-fighters. Do you believe they are paid a decent wage, a moral wage?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what is a moral wage? As I said a moment or two ago, it would be nice to pay everybody more, but you have got to try and manage these things on the basis of the money that you have. And let's be clear again, public sector pay, I think I am right in saying, not just for this last year but for the last two years, has for the first time outstripped private sector pay, for the first time in a long time. Now of course you can always go on. You know if you are a hard pressed nurse working on an emergency ward through the night on a difficult shift, how do you say what a moral or decent wage is for that person? I am afraid just in practical terms it has got to come back to the negotiating machinery and you have got to say to people look in the end this is the most that we can afford given the government's budget, given the effect on other public sector workers. And I do point out to you that the 5% is there for the firemen in any event. Now 4% is roughly what the other public services have settled for, so you would have to say well why is this different.

QUESTION:

It is not simply the firemen obviously at the moment, we have got London teachers, we have got airport workers, we have got many, many other groups. Do you feel that you are facing a wave of industrial militancy at the moment and do you think that this is particularly worrying given the state of the international economy?

PRIME MINISTER:

What I feel is that you can't look at this claim in isolation, and I think people are sensible enough to know there is no return to the old days, but I think people, if we were to give into this claim, might start thinking well we should go and do the same and we will get the way above inflation pay increases not linked to productivity and so on. That is why I say there are risks, if we give into this type of claim mounted in this way, there are risks right across the public sector and that is really what we are all trying to stress. We are not saying to the fire-fighters look we don't understand you. We are simply saying that if you go back to these types of claims being pursued in this way and it starts to spread right across the public or private sector. Well you will end up with an economic disaster frankly and we can't afford that as a country and we are not going to do that. We as a country can take enormous pride in the fact that our inflation, our mortgage rates, our unemployment is the lowest, all of them, the lowest they have been for decades and decades. This country is the country with the lowest unemployment at the moment of any major industrialised country anywhere in the world, better than America, better than Japan, better than Germany, better than France. We don't give that up lightly, not if you are sensible.

QUESTION:

The people that are being most inconvenienced are the public and particularly the travelling public, not the government, not the fire-fighters. Are you saying to them today that these strikes may carry on indefinitely but you are not going to be able, if you can't beat the fire-fighters, if you can't bring them to the table?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I totally understand the inconvenience to people, and it is not just inconvenience incidentally, there is a risk, there is a threat to people's lives if this strike goes on, but you can't resolve it unless people are prepared to be reasonable. If you just go back to Thursday night, Friday morning, here is a situation where negotiations continue through the night and then the government is literally then just handed a document, I don't even think we were handed the full document, and told well you have got to agree this, there are no costings, you don't know how much money you might be asked to fund, and what's more we are going on strike within the hour unless it is all agreed. Now I agree there is a lot of inconvenience and there is danger to people, but there would be a lot more inconvenience and a lot more danger if we were to yield to those types of tactics. We simply can't do it.

QUESTION:

Do you believe that the Fire Brigades Union is sensible enough not to go back to the '70s, but by the nature of every reply you seem to be suggesting you think there are elements within the FBU who do precisely want to do that and are politically motivated?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you could speculate on that or not. All I am saying is what I have said today, I have just laid out the case for you. And I have tried to say to the fire-fighters and to the public, look understand this because what happens when these things are reported, for perfectly understandable reasons, is that you get the headlines about fury here, and this there and all the rest of it. I am not, I hope, being anything other than completely straight and reasonable with people. I understand the claim but you cannot have a claim such as this based on a completely different formula unless you agree the formula and that formula has got to be about changes in working practices.

QUESTION:

If the FBU come back to the negotiating table, is the most that they can hope for what was offered under Bain, ie 11.5% over two years, in which case how do you square that with what John Prescott said yesterday suggesting that if they went back to the table the deal that was on offer on the Thursday night, not the Friday morning, was offered the possibility for negotiation?

PRIME MINISTER:

The answer to this is to realise that the Bain Report set out figures for year one and year two, but they then said there might be over and above that 11.5%, further money available for further modernisation. Now that is where the differences in these figures come in and that is precisely what they should sit down and talk about, but the point is they should talk about it on the basis of the modernisation. And that is why, I hope that Jeremy Beecham can get his local government colleagues to do this, but if they come and sit down and we can do some agreed costings on what the modernisation is, then that should allow them to make a slightly more structured progress on this. But the basic position has not altered from day one, which is you can have your 4% but anything above that has got to be paid for by modernisation, whether it is over two, three years or so on.

QUESTION:

I think why people are coming back to this again and again is because some people say there is a pattern here, that it is like the fuel strike, the government gets in a mess, you take charge, you talk tough and then the government gives in. Are you sure you are not going to do that again?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am sorry, just forgive me on the fuel strike, we gave in?

QUESTION:

You did partially, yes, ... tax on petrol.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think not, I think we ended the fuel strike without anything being done whatever. We took into account the concerns people had at a later time, but I think you will find the fuel strike ended without any concession on the government's part at all.

QUESTION:

And this will be a model?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that it is a different situation altogether, but I couldn't have been firmer than I am being with you this morning, that above 4% has got to be paid for by modernisation.

QUESTION:

Just to clarify your clarification that could theoretically be a 16% increase provided that it was all paid for by modernisation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but the important point to realise is that it is not just the percentage, it is the years over which it could be paid that is important, so you have got to take both of those things into account. But I am not going to stand here and negotiate it for you. What the negotiation has to proceed on is the basis that anything above the 4% is paid for by modernisation. Now what they then sit down and talk about, fine, they can sit down and talk about it, but that is the basis on which they talk about it.

QUESTION:

Are you saying that all pay in the public sector from now on will be on this principle where there is the going rate, which in this case is 4%, but anything over that would always have to be paid for by their own productivity, their own savings in their particular sector, because if so that takes no account of the fact that some people may be in genuinely much greater hardship than say the fireman or the consultant, there are people right at the bottom who have fallen back really badly over the last 20 years and who desperately need and deserve more money? Are you saying that will never be taken into account, everybody is where they are now and all extra money is only in productivity?

PRIME MINISTER:

No emphatically I am not saying that. But again I think this arises from the central misunderstanding about how this dispute began. Many of these other public sector workers have Pay Review Boards that go and recommend pay, and those Pay Review Boards will take all sorts of things into account. That is the formula under which many of those people, like the teachers, or the doctors, or whoever, operate under, the Armed Forces have got their own Pay Review Board, it is a formula that the Pay Review Board then determines on. Right. There is a formula existing for the fire-fighters, it is the one they went on strike for 25 years ago. Now all I am saying is that if you change that you have got to have a new formula. What is that new formula? That is why we set up Bain to look at what would be reasonable as a new formula for pay. I do commend people to read his report because it is the work, as you would expect from him, of a completely reasonable person who has been long associated with the Trade Union Movement and who had the presence of the TUC as one of his two wing members. What he came back and said was - yes you could actually justify above inflation increases, but here is this long list of working practices, which for 25 years have never been changed, which are plainly out of date in the modern world, and if you change those you will generate savings that could be given in more pay. So I am not saying that means that you scrap all the Pay Review Boards for everybody else or the negotiating machinery.

QUESTION:

... on the minimum wage who don't have Pay Review Bodies at all, would you see a case why they might perhaps catch up much faster than other groups higher up the scale - impossible?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course some of those people have caught up very significantly as a result of the Working Families Tax Credit for example, in different situations, but their actual disposable income has gone up. No I am not saying, I don't disturb any of the other negotiating machinery there is for people, I am not going to chop and change that, the point that I am making to you is that in each area of the public sector there is a negotiating framework, a mechanism. Now if you want to change that mechanism, supposing the teachers came along to us and said we want to scrap the Teachers' Pay Review Board and we want a different type of Pay Review Board. Now you might think the reasonable way of proceeding was to sit down and agree the new formula, the mechanism. But what the fire-fighters did was when the employers said OK if you don't want the existing formula let's agree a new one, they said no, we want the 40% first and then we will agree a new formula on top of it. So I simply say to you how on earth could you agree to that? And to be fair to the employers, they didn't agree to it.

QUESTION:

There is a launch in Manchester today urging companies to relocate from the overheated south east to the north west. As a Northern MP do you believe that in many respects it is becoming grim down south?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that goes in the category of late on in the press conference questions that you should answer with care. Obviously I hope that you get excellent inward investment and location in the north west, and indeed in the north east where my constituency is. I think a lot of people will look at the north-east and north west and say you have got a fantastic workforce there, you have got a high quality of life, it is well worth working and living there, but I am actually very pleased that the southern economy is going extremely well. Sorry, that is the diplomatic answer for you but I think it is the right one to give.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, your government is about to publish amendments to the Northern Ireland policing legislation, how confident are you that the new arrangements will be enough to get all the political parties, particularly Sinn Fein, to support the policing structures in Northern Ireland?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have to wait and see. I hope that these amendments, which are really to fill the original Patten mandate, will command broad support. But it is also the case that we have to be very clear that policing can only be done on the basis that everyone is committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful means and that the policing takes place on that basis. Now there are discussions going on to try and take the Northern Ireland peace process forward, I think there is room for taking them forward, but I set out in my speech some time ago the basis of that, and obviously policing is one important aspect. I think the great thing about the new Chief Constable and the police service in Northern Ireland at the moment is they are making it clear that those people engaged in so-called political violence are simply going to be characterised as ordinary criminals. The police are operating on that basis and I think that is right.

QUESTION:

But in the problem of policing, is the problem of policing made more difficult by the fact that the suspension is in place at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it is less to do with that than to do with the fact that you want to get to the stage where everyone accepts the new police service of Northern Ireland, where any disincentive for people to join up to that police service is being diminished, resolved, and that in the end therefore it is commanding the confidence right across the community. Now I think you can see, one of the things that has often been said by some of the paramilitaries on the Republican side for example is well you can't rely on the police service to police our areas properly, that they somehow make an accommodation with Loyalist terrorism. You are not finding that in the police service in Northern Ireland today, they have been lifting literally scores of these so-called Loyalists and they will find the full weight of the law being brought down to bear on them. And it really is time, because I think this is what upsets the Unionist population as much as the Nationalist population, to see these people connected with so-called paramilitary organisations swaggering about in their local community, engaged in organised crime and drug dealing and the law powerless to do anything about it. Now that is precisely what the new Chief Constable is changing and I am 100% behind him on it.

QUESTION:

In your talks with President Bush in Prague last week, did you make any further progress in terms of pushing ahead the Middle East peace process and can you tell us anything else about your conversation with him about which we have heard quite little?

PRIME MINISTER:

Once again I have expressed to him, and I believe that he agrees from the comments that he made as you know in the short press conference that we did, that progress on the Middle East is vital. I continue to think that it is the single most important thing, making progress, that we can do in terms of our relationship with the Arab and Muslim world and that should be, as President Bush himself said on the two state solution. The great possibility we have is now everybody talks of the two state solution: Israel has got to be confident on security; a viable Palestinian state. Now I hope we can make progress as soon as possible, we are working very hard behind the scenes to achieve that and when we have something to say on it I will say it.

QUESTION:

On Iraq, if Saddam Hussein by the 8 December deadline states that he doesn't have any weapons of mass destruction, would Britain understand him to be in material breach of the UN Resolution, as President Bush appears to believe?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have no doubt that he does have weapons of mass destruction, so let's wait and see what he actually says. But I have made it clear throughout, this has got to be a situation in which there is an honest declaration by Saddam and should it be found that that declaration was dishonest, then that most certainly would be a material breach. And again I have emphasised, and the way I have put it is to say it is not a game of hide and seek, it is not a game of where the inspectors go in and see if they can find the stuff and he sees if he can conceal it. If he makes a false declaration, that is a breach and that is very clear.

QUESTION:

... or would you immediately take it as a false declaration?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you have the inspectors in there and the inspectors are the people who will declare what the position is and the order to what they have found.

QUESTION:

You met with Hans Blix a couple of days ago and had him brief you on how he was planning to proceed with weapons inspections mandated by the United Nations. Can you tell me if he had any particular plans to go in any site that used to be off limit to UN inspectors, like the Presidential Palace?

PRIME MINISTER:

How he conducts the inspections is up to Dr Blix and I was fully confident after my meeting with him that he will conduct them in an extremely rigorous manner and there will be no off-limits places. So if Saddam is refusing access to sites that the inspectors want access to, then that is plainly a breach, there is no doubt about that at all.

QUESTION:

You said earlier that you believed the army was coping well with the fire-fighters' strike. In the West Midlands we have had several devastating fires since the strike began, including one where a gentleman who lived just 2 minutes away from a regular fire station died because it took 20 minutes, well I am not sure if it was because of that, but it took 20 minutes for the Green Goddesses to get there. What would you say to the people of the West Midlands who might disagree with your assessment that they are coping well?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is not my assessment, I think that is the military assessment, that so far the deaths that there have been during the fire strike - and I stress that it is so far, as I said in my statement earlier - have not been attributable to the strike. But there is no doubt at all that it is not the same service as the service normally provided. But I think you will find in each of these cases when you look into the detail of it, that what the military are saying about this is correct.

QUESTION:

May I ask your view on North Korea and when are you sending your Ambassador to Pyongyang?

PRIME MINISTER:

My view on North Korea very simply is this, that I think that there are real dangers with the way they are conducting their nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, they made a very clear set of promises to the United States some time ago, they have to fulfil those promises, they have subsequently admitted that they are not fulfilling them, and I think the threat from North Korea of proliferation is very real indeed and that is what is making it extremely difficult for countries to have normal diplomatic relations with them.

QUESTION:

You explained in great detail today why breaching the spending limits on public sector pay would be so damaging for the economy. Is it not equally damaging that the Chancellor is going to have to raise borrowing on Wednesday?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I would wait for his pre-budget report, if you don't mind I won't pre-announce that for him. But I think you will find that given the difficult world economic situation as it is, as you know, Britain has fared a great deal better than most. And the reason we have done so, and I believe will continue to do so, is precisely because of the tough decisions that were taken and because of the way that the Chancellor has managed the economy. That is why we would be very foolish to put this at risk. That is why I said to you today that it is important to realise the broader context in which disputes like this take place because as a government we can't look simply at the narrow confines of one dispute with one group of workers, we have got to look at the whole thing in the round, which is what we have done.


© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
World Headlines

 

Preliminary Results: MH17 Investigation Report

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) is convinced of having obtained irrefutable evidence to establish that on 17 July 2014, flight MH-17 was shot down by a BUK missile from the 9M38-series. According to the JIT there is also evidence identifying the launch location that involves an agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi which, at the time, was controlled by pro-Russian fighters. More>>

ALSO:

At The UN: Paris Climate Agreement Moves Closer To Entry Into Force

The Paris Agreement on climate change moved closer toward entering into force in 2016 as 31 more countries joined the agreement today at a special event hosted by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. More>>

ALSO:

ALSO:

Gordon Campbell: On The End Game In Spain (And Other World News)

The coverage of international news seems almost entirely dependent on a random selection of whatever some overseas news agency happens to be carrying overnight... Here are a few interesting international stories that have largely flown beneath the radar this past week. More>>

Amnesty/Human Rights Watch: Appalling Abuse, Neglect Of Refugees On Nauru

Refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru, most of whom have been held there for three years, routinely face neglect by health workers and other service providers who have been hired by the Australian government, as well as frequent unpunished assaults by local Nauruans. More>>

ALSO:

Other Australian Detention

Gordon Campbell: On The Censorship Havoc In South Africa’s State Broadcaster

Demands have included an order to staff that there should be no further negative news about the country’s President Jacob Zuma, and SABC camera operators responsible for choosing camera angles that have allegedly made the President ‘look shorter’ were to be retrained... More>>

ALSO:

Gordon Campbell: On A Bad Week For Malcolm Turnbull, And The Queen

Malcolm Turnbull’s immediate goal – mere survival – is still within his grasp... In every other respect though, this election has been a total disaster for the Liberals. More>>

ALSO:

Get More From Scoop

 
 
 
 
 
World
Search Scoop  
 
 
Powered by Vodafone
NZ independent news