We move on to clause 32, which deals with the guidance that the Secretary of State may issue. We are quite used to perversion of the language being an inevitable by-product of some parliamentary drafting, but the clause does not deal with guidance in the sense that most people would understand the meaning of the word. The Secretary of State is able to issue guidance to which the negotiating body must have regard. That is not a gentle steer, it is a clear requirement to do or not to do something.
Amendment No. 113 would remove subsection (2). Subsection (2) states that the negotiating bodies must have regard to any guidance issued under the clause. By removing the subsection, the guidance becomes guidance: an indication of what the Secretary of State feels is appropriate. It would be a steer rather than something that has to be had regard to when the negotiation process is under way. It is consistent with the approach that I have taken throughout the Bill that we have to defend the independence of the fire and rescue authorities as separate employers. They are not a branch of central Government. The extent of the arrangements gives the Secretary of State effective control of the negotiating procedure without being directly a part of it.
Amendment No. 114 would introduce a more objective test of whether a negotiating body is such a body under the terms of the Bill. At the moment, the definition of a negotiating body in subsection (3)(b) places great weight on whether the arrangements under which that body is constituted
''appear to the Secretary of State to be appropriate arrangements for the negotiation of the conditions of service of employees''.
The amendment would seek to reduce that to a requirement that the body is constituted for the purpose of negotiation of the conditions of employment of those employees. In other words, it would be a recognition of the de facto situation. If a body is, de facto, a body representing employees in the negotiating process, it should be recognised as a negotiating body under the provisions.
I think that that is all I want to say at the moment, other than to note that the Secretary of State determining that the constitution of a body is appropriate is not the same as a test that requires a body to be constituted in the customary way for such a body. The requirement seems to be highly arbitrary and I hope that the Minister will say something about the purpose of this curiously phrased subsection.
I am afraid that the Opposition have again wholly distorted the purpose of the clause. The preposterous claim that they are somehow defending the independence of the fire and rescue authorities against an over-mighty Government does not accord with reality in any way. If Opposition Members had any experience of the pay negotiating arrangements for comparative public sector bodies, they would realise that the role of the Secretary of State that we envisage in the Bill is far less than in the police negotiations, in which the Home Secretary plays a full part in the negotiating machinery, in the teachers' negotiations, in which the Secretary of State for Education and Skills decides the final outcome for teachers, and in many others. It is preposterous of the Conservative party to claim that this is a centralising measure. It responds to the sensible conclusions of the Bain report to which the Conservative party signed up when they were published 15 or 16 months ago. Conservative Members were full of praise for Bain then, but now, conveniently, they have forgotten.
I shall remind Conservative Members of what Professor Sir George Bain and his team concluded. They were pretty trenchant in their views and stated:
''The current strike seems to demonstrate that the negotiating machinery is ineffective. And during the course of this Review, the evidence we have seen and the discussions we have had have confirmed this view.
Its ineffectiveness can be attributed to a number of factors, including its unwieldy size and its lack of any clear relationship with central government and the policy-making process.
We recommend that the NJC should be replaced by a smaller body, with executive authority to negotiate and the experience and skills to do so. It should include working parties to pursue individual issues, reporting back to the main body, or even standing sub-committees. There should be clear links with Ministers and the policy-making process so that pay and conditions of service fit into context of wider modernisation.''
When they suggested how the negotiating process should proceed in paragraph 10.28, their very first point was:
''Government lays down the policy framework for the Fire Service. This could include annual evidence on pay policy (just like evidence to the Pay Review Bodies).''
Let the hon. Gentleman listen for a little longer and I will then give way.
That was the Bain recommendation. In our White Paper we set out precisely how we intended to implement those recommendation. Paragraph 7.14 states,
''we intend to take powers to give guidance to any negotiating body which it would have to take into account in its work. The government has a legitimate interest in the outcome of pay negotiations and the impact on public sector pay policy, as well as the impact on the operation of the service, but we should not and do not want to step into the shoes of the fire and rescue authorities as employers. Rather than be drawn into detailed consideration of options as negotiations develop, we will set out our requirements openly before negotiations start. It will then be for the two sides to reach agreement within those limits.''
That is the framework we are putting in place and that is a sensible and responsible way forward. The Opposition's position is, frankly, not credible.
The Minister, as so often, quote the parts of the Bain report that suit him. He told the Committee not half an hour ago that Bain had recommended that the Government should be a full party to the negotiations. He does not want that. He does not want to take the rap for what goes on in the negotiating machinery. He does not want to be responsible. He wants to stand in the wings with powers to issue guidance, which the negotiating body must follow, but be able to stand back, as he did on that fateful Friday morning back in November 2002, and say ''It's nothing to do with me guv, it's about employers and employees negotiating together.'' I would say to the Minister that he should not quote the bits of Bain that suit him without acknowledging that Bain recommended that the Government should take a full, responsible part in the pay negotiations and not merely stand in the wings.
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he could not describe anyone more clearly than himself and his party when he talks about standing in the wings and behaving irresponsibly. This Government will take no lessons from the party opposite in handling the firefighters dispute during 2002 and 2003. If the Government had not adopted the stance they did, the hon. Gentleman would now be complaining about the impact of inflationary pay settlements on council tax. We would be hearing a great deal about that from the party opposite. This Government stepped in, in difficult circumstances—as I have already highlighted, there was no proper framework for the Government to be involved, as Bain rightly identified in his report—and we insisted that there must be a clear framework for affordability of any settlement. That is the action of a responsible Government, and it is why we are now putting in place arrangements to ensure that before negotiations begin, the Government spell out the framework in guidance to the negotiating body.
The hon. Gentleman wants to have it both ways. He claims that this is a centralising Government, stepping in and telling the negotiators what to do. He talked about acting to defend the independence of fire and rescue authorities, yet in the next breath he said that we should have been a party to the negotiations. How can he reconcile those two statements? Of course, he cannot. This is an opportunistic Opposition who say one thing at one moment, and another at the next, simply in order to criticise, and not to behave as a responsible Opposition do, which is to try and ensure that there is an appropriate framework in place, allowing improved procedures in future.
I must say that the suggestion that the Secretary of State should be free to issue guidance, but that the body concerned would not have to have regard to it, which is the effect of one of the hon. Gentleman's amendments, is a classic illustration of the irresponsibility and lack of realism of the party opposite. They clearly do not expect to be in government for a very long time. No party that did would be putting forward such ridiculous amendments. These amendments do not deserve any further serious consideration. I hope that if the hon. Gentleman presses them, they will be decisively
rejected, but I actually hope that, in the interests of common sense, he will recognise that they are entirely inappropriate and should be withdrawn.
There comes a time in every Bill—and it is usually about this stage—when the Minister starts to try to raise the temperature again, because otherwise things flag a little. I normally measure that point in the Bill by how many times per sitting he uses the term ''preposterous''. It is one of his key expressions when stating his views on Opposition positions. I do not see anything preposterous about what I have said today. I thought I was being the opposite of preposterous. What is preposterous is for the Minister now, in the peacetime of 2004, to start abusing the Opposition for the support that we gave the Government during the dispute. The Minister may smile, but he recognises that the Opposition did not take the many chances available during the dispute to be opportunistic, and expressed considerable support for what the Government were doing over that period of time.
On the point of guidance I am alarmed at the Minister's suggestion that Governments and parties that seek to be in Government would always support centralising legislation. I can tell him that my party expects to be in government and looks forward to governing over a more decentralised form of management of our public sector institutions, whether they be hospitals, police forces or fire services. Therefore, I am slightly alarmed by some of the things that the Minister has said.
As I read it, the Bain report said that the Government must either be in or be out. Bain clearly had a preference for the Government being in, believing that they should be a full part of the negotiating machinery. I believe that what happened last time was unsatisfactory. The Minister may concur with that. The Government cannot hover in the wings—I cannot think of another way to describe it—either in the negotiating room or apart from the negotiations, exercising a veto but not being responsible for the outcome.
The role of the word ''guidance'' in this context is somewhat ironic. I am thinking now of hot guidance, if I may call it that. The Minister has painted a picture of guidance purely as a framework drawn up in advance of a negotiation, setting parameters. He sought to deflect attention from the possibility that I see in the clause that during the progress of a negotiation, indeed in the middle of the night, the Secretary of State could issue guidance to the negotiating body.
In his own mind the Minister may have a different view about how this will work, because he is privy to the machinations of his own mind. We are not; we can only look at what is in the Bill. I see nothing in the clause that would prevent the Deputy Prime Minister from ringing up the negotiating body when it is ensconced in a hotel in Holborn, or wherever, at
4 o'clock in the morning and issuing it with guidance. That is the kind of guidance that concerns me. It is clearly different from the type that the Minister depicts as wholly benign, a measured mapping out in advance by the Secretary of State of the parameters and financeability of a potential, negotiated solution. I have seen no indication that the Minister wants to rule out the possibility of the Secretary of State issuing on-the-hoof guidance during a negotiation, as occurred during the last negotiation, with ministerial guidance—informal guidance, because it had no statutory backing—being conveyed by civil servants to the negotiating body while it was in progress.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will recall the context of that meeting. In a framework in which the Government had no role in the negotiating procedure, in the middle of the night the parties appeared to be on the point of reaching an agreement that would have allowed a 16 per cent. pay increase, with no link to modernisation and no way of ensuring that savings would be made to help to meet the costs. No responsible Government could face that prospect, which was at considerable variance with what had previously been envisaged, without offering guidance about the affordability of such a package and the fact that the Government could not be expected to stump up the cash to pay for that deal. That was why the Government had to respond. It is precisely to avoid such an eventuality that, in accordance with the clear principles set out in the Bain report, which envisaged the Government starting the process by laying down the policy framework, we are now legislating to allow for an orderly offer of guidance to inform the negotiating process.
I wanted to intervene on the Minister, but then I realised that he was intervening on me. Now that I have resumed the Floor, I can ask him whether he rules out the use of guidance under the clause during a negotiation. Does he limit the guidance to be given under the clause to advance, broad-framework guidance?
Of course not, because in circumstances such as those that occurred in November 2002 guidance is clearly necessary. As I have already stressed, our objective is to set the framework for negotiations with guidance from the Secretary of State on the broad parameters that the parties will need to consider in negotiations over public sector pay policy and affordability. That is much more orderly, and that is what we are providing for.
I thought that I heard the Minister say earlier that if he could set out guidance in advance there would be no need for the middle-of-the-night guidance that he was forced to provide before. We are making little headway and we will once again have to trust the goodwill or judgment of whoever occupies the office of Deputy Prime Minister when the next negotiations or problems arise. I hoped for something more concrete, but I will not delay the Committee any further as we have progress to make.
I want to probe the Minister on one issue, for which there may be an explanation. The scope of subsection (3) extends to not only a negotiating body established under clause 31, but any other body appearing to the Secretary of State to have been established in accordance with appropriate arrangements. If we are dealing with a third-party body, which is not established by the Secretary of State and therefore not constrained by clause 31, how are we to enforce the requirement on that body to have regard to guidance given by the Secretary of State?
That is simply the consequence of the chosen way of proceeding that I have already explained to the Committee. The Government want to encourage a voluntary agreement, in which case, as long as we were satisfied that the arrangements meet the conditions of subsection (3), the body would be treated in the same way as a body constituted by the Secretary of State. We will use the provisions of clause 31 to constitute separate arrangements only where those arrangements do not arise. Guidance has to allow for either circumstance, which is the reason for the wording in subsection (3).
If a body constituted by the Secretary of State that has to have regard to guidance failed to do so, he could deal with it because he constituted it. If a body that he has not constituted failed in his view to have regard to his guidance, what would he do? Would he have to use the powers in clause 31 to derecognise it and create a new body?
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, the Secretary of State can pull certain levers, including financial support to the fire and rescue service that is provided overwhelmingly by the Government. They would be applied if there were a serious disregard for guidance, leading, for example, to a highly inflationary pay settlement. However there is no explicit provision for taking action if a negotiating party or body does not have regard to the Secretary of State's advice.
I am grateful to the Minister. I believe that he is confirming that there is not a sense in which action could be taken against the body for breach of its obligation, but there is an obligation placed on the body, which
''must have regard to any guidance''.
If I were a negotiating body established not by any statutory process but by a discussion that I had had informally with other parties, and the Secretary of State chose to recognise me as being an acceptable negotiating body—that is something that he would do unilaterally—I would object to the requirement that I had to have regard to guidance from the Secretary of
State merely because he had unilaterally decided that he wished to recognise me.
If the Minister is telling the Committee that the Secretary of State will use his considerable financial leverage, one is bound to ask why we need the clause at all. He has such leverage and, as we saw, used it in the course of the last dispute.
The hon. Gentleman recognises that that is the current framework, but it is very messy. The whole purpose of these arrangements is to put in place a more orderly system to ensure that the kind of difficulties that occurred during the dispute of 2002–03 are not repeated. I would have thought that he would have welcomed that.
Of course, I would welcome avoiding the kind of unnecessary and messy dispute that took place. [Interruption.] The Minister says, ''Mmm.'' Perhaps he should have thought of that in the spring and early summer of 2002. We have an answer to the question of how guidance would be enforced against a body other than one constituted under clause 31: there is no formal process, and it would be done by informal means. That perfectly adequate answer tells me what I wanted to know. I am grateful to the Minister for making that clear.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I wonder whether in consideration of the next set of amendments you might allow a stand part debate on the clause. Given the time, there will be no debate on some of the broader issues, and they will be lost.