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FIRE DISPUTE: DON'T RUSH TO SETTLE WITH FBU, RAYNSFORD TELLS EMPLOYERS

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Britain's 55,000 firefighters will be banned from striking under reforms to the fire service being drawn up by gove...
Britain's 55,000 firefighters will be banned from striking under reforms to the fire service being drawn up by government, according to The Sunday Telegraph, which carries an interview with local government minister Nick Raynsford (p1, p6).

Prime minister Tony Blair is understood to favour outlawing industrial action in the fire services as part of sweeping changes to be set out in a white paper early next year. Mr Raynsford indicated the government was ready to resist the strikers for as long as it takes to win the dispute. As the first eight-day strike ended, Mr Raynsford said that he had told the employers' negotiating team to prepare for a long strike, lasting weeks and possibly months.

'I told them, 'Don't rush to get a settlement. It's important to get it right',' said Mr Raynsford.

A senior Downing Street official said: 'The government will not be held to ransom again. A strike ban is on the radar in a way it wasn't before'.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott has been reluctant to impose a no-strike restriction on the Fire Brigades Union because it had not held a strike for 25 years - but the government's mood is hardening. An official close to Mr Prescott said:'We are not proposing legislation to ban strikes at the moment, but we will consider all the options for the white paper'.

Mr Raynsford called on FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist to suspend the next eight-day strike scheduled for Wednesday and to return to negotiations. Mr Gilchrist remained defiant, telling a rally of the Socialist Campaign Group that it was 'shameful' that chancellor Gordon Brown had allocated£1bn for a war on Iraq in his pre-Budget report last week but could not find the money to settle the dispute.

The FBU executive will review their strike action today after the breakdown of talks. Mr Raynsford said he hoped the employers could produce a new pay offer on Tuesday. He was adamant that it would have to be financed by modernisation.

George Bain, who headed the government's independent review, recommended that firefighters should be paid an extra 11% over two years, including 7% funded by modernisation of employment practices - reforms resisted by the FBU. Sir George will propose a further increase, possibly lifting the overall figure to 16%, in his final report in 10 days. This, however, would be spread over three years and linked to modernisation. The final Bain report will recommend sweeping changes with more stations located in the suburbs and closer to motorways.

The government will announce this week that all councils are to be given an above-inflation increase in grants for next year. A Treasury official said: 'It is conceivable that town halls may find they have extra money for an eventual settlement, but Gordon [Brown] will allow no increases not explicitly linked to reform'.

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