Halt on first fire strikes for talks

FIRE union officials have cancelled their first planned strikes so that fresh pay talks can be held in the hope of solving the dispute.The executive of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) decided that two 48-hour strikes planned for October 29-31 and November 2-4 will not go ahead.

FIRE union officials have cancelled their first planned strikes so that fresh pay talks can be held in the hope of solving the dispute.

The executive of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) decided that two 48-hour strikes planned for October 29-31 and November 2-4 will not go ahead.

The union, which is seeking a 40 per cent pay increase, will now meet local authority employers on Wednesday and Thursday.

But it warned that if no progress was made other strikes planned from November 6 onwards would go ahead.

The surprise announcement followed a meeting of the union's executive at a secret location in central London.

The union had been under increasing pressure not to go ahead with next week's strikes following five hours of talks over the past two days between FBU officials and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

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Employers and the Government will breathe a huge sigh of relief that next week's industrial action has been suspended.

There were growing fears that emergency fire cover provided by ageing military Green Goddesses would be inadequate.

But there is still a lot of hard work ahead of the two sets of negotiators before the dispute can be totally resolved.

Mr Prescott said yesterday: "This is very good news for the whole country. I am delighted that the FBU has agreed to sit down with the employers for talks on pay and modernisation.

"I hope that this can now lead to a final settlement of the dispute."

He added that he had agreed with Sir George Bain, preparing a report on firefighters' pay and conditions, to "bring forward various pay and modernisation elements of his review as part of the process.''

Leaders of the firefighters' local authority employers said the union's decision renewed hopes of settling the dispute.

Spokesman John Ransford said: "We are obviously very pleased that they have called off next week's strikes which we always said were unnecessary.

"Our position remains the same - further progress on pay and modernisation must go hand in hand.''

The union last night issued a brief statement saying it had agreed to meet employers, adding: "The union has always agreed that this is the correct and proper machinery for dealing with pay.''

The 19-member executive agreed that next week's strikes should not go ahead to give the fresh talks the best chance of achieving a breakthrough to the dispute.

But the union made it clear that if there is no progress made during the talks, an eight-day strike planned to start on November 6, the day after bonfire night, will go ahead.

It has rejected a 4pc pay offer and is still refusing to take part in an independent review into the fire service which is not due to report until mid-December.

The employers will meet on Monday ahead of the resumed talks later in the week.

The decision to call off next week's strike was unanimous and came after a five-hour meeting of the union's executive.

General secretary Andy Gilchrist phoned Mr Prescott personally to tell him the news but made no public comment about the decision.

The executive made its decision much quicker than had been expected, suggesting they were keen to reopen pay talks which stopped in early September.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said: "The news of the postponement of strike action by firefighters is very welcome, as is the Government's intention of asking Sir George Bain to bring forward his report into fire workers' pay and conditions.

"This common sense approach by both sides can lead hopefully to a speedy resolution.''

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